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Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Eureka! Moment

I took the tumbler with the frozen raspberry juice in the bottom third of the glass out of the freezer and refilled it to the top with soda water and more raspberry juice, close to the rim. The ice lifted from the bottom of the glass and floated to the top, causing the level to go down. The ice at the bottom, being less dense than the juice, was displacing the water by volume. When it floated to the top, it displaced the fluid by mass density instead, which was necessarily smaller because to float, its density had to be less than 1.0. So, the level of the juice went down in response to a smaller displacement by the ice.

Sure, all that comes easily to mind now, but imagine what it was like at the time of Archimedes! There is a point in our recorded history when we didn't know why this displacement thing happened. We could make it happen, but then just stand around scratching our heads wondering why it worked. No wonder Archimedes (canonically) went running through the streets naked yelling "Eureka!" once he'd figured it out! I wonder if Archimedes considered "Eureka!" ("I found it!") to be more colloquially superlative or literally informative.

I viscerally wonder how he, Feynman, and other cutting-edge-for-their-time scientists felt about some of the things they uncovered/understood. I don't know if there's anything I've thought of that hasn't been thought of already. I know it always feels good when i figure something out, especially before I discover somebody else already did it. A window into Feynman is when he reports that after a young woman asked him something about the stars, he told her he was the only person who understood how they worked. This was in his days working on the atomic bomb in the 40s - Nuclear Science was still uNclear Science to everybody. (see how i deftly changed the order of two letters to make a pun? ;-) I gain no insight from this, but there's probably some to be gained there somewhere.

Maybe one day I'll have my own "Eureka!" moment. I hope it's not winter. You can't run as far through the streets naked in the snow.

Burton MacKenzie

Science King or crank

To my friends who read this blog of mine about sciency or philosophy stuff and who keep my ideas in check (;-), please make sure I don't start reaching the scale of this guy. I hope his level of crazy needs to be measured against mine in a log scale. --Burton ;-)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I don't remember where I originally heard that Tasmanian Aborigines, in pre-European times, wore relatively little clothing for people living in a climate somewhat like Chicago. In the cool or cold days, if they weren't by a fire, they were running. If they stopped running for some reason, no matter if it were 5 minutes, they'd build a small fire. I don't know if that's true (i.e. no cite to follow up on), but if the first is true (the alleged low level of clothing in said climate) then the second follows (if you don't stay warm, you die).

I was out running tonight, and I underdressed and didn't warm up enough before going. I started out just walking really fast instead of running because the sidewalks and streets are icy or puddled (there's not enough time to react to slipping if you're approaching the unknown ice surface at a run). However, I got damn cold, and it got to the point where my body just flat out made me run faster to generate more heat to stay warm. Those Tasmanians must have had some awesome runner stamina.

I have the option of dressing warmer. Those brothers from other mothers ran to keep warm instead. They had fire, I have a home with commoditized energy (with many market choices) piped in. Mine is natural gas and electricity, either of which I can use to warm my home.

As I walked in the -5 Celcius evening weather wearing a light nylon jacket and pants while wondering why the hell I was so off on my thinking how cold it was, some part of my spinal cord kicked in and clearly demonstrated that it didn't need my 1337 conscious permission to get me to start running to warm my body up. As sure as your nervous system yanks your arm away when you burn your hand, so to did mine make me run when I got too cold. It was cold enough out that if you laid down and went to sleep dressed like that, you could die. During the cold times, those tasmanians weren't just running to feel comfortable away from a fire, they were bloody well running from death! That's pretty sobering! "Why are you running?" "I run because Death chases me." There's probably something to learn from that.

This niche also demonstrates that fire was the tool that allowed them to live in the region during the cold times, as without it they couldn't stay warm without running, and people still need to sleep. I suspect populations would quickly get deselected by regions that could kill us in our sleep, so those Tasmanians did all right for themselves IMHO. I tip my toque.

I'm glad I have a wall mains and a gas line. I think I'll go turn up the heat.

Burton MacKenzie

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A handful or two years ago, I read Protector by Larry Niven. It was an interesting enough story and I wouldn't discourage an SF fan from reading it.

[Start of story premise spoiler Alert (but not storyline event-spoiler)]
A central idea of the story is a third distinct stage of humanity beyond child and breeder: Protector. Protector stage is brought about by a symbiotic genetic relationship by an vector from humanity's home star system. They are stronger and smarter than the breeders and protect them and their progeny, as these are their children. They claim that as part of being super-smart, they have lost all their free will. They can see deeper into implications of actions and extrapolate them farther into future events (although in their "home" system, in constrast to the smarts of the protector, the breeder stage isn't even sentient).
[End of spoiler Alert]

I do not always claim to be smart, but I do have children in my care. I think I concur with the idea of a protector (of children) having effectively lost free will. Even within my limited intelligence, within all the implications I can see regarding situations revolving around the welfare of my children, I do not believe I could intentionally choose a path that would not optimally (from my perspective) benefit my children. What defines optimal is of course, subjective. However, I believe we can assume that the person making judgements for the protection of their children believes they see the choice of action as objective [1] (i.e. what they see as the visibly best choice of action given the data at hand).

As far as I'm concerned, being unable to follow any other path means exactly "has no free choice". (And if you think you could argue against that, I'd like to hear about it) In this vein, I propose that (obstensibly good) parents have no free will with regard to making decisions for their children.

Even if you said "I have no information on which decision is better either way, therefore I will make a random decision", you still can't get away from it, because then you have changed it into yet another choice you see as optimal, given all your data: choosing randomly. How you actually select the "random" choice itself is not of consequence (keep in mind that people themselves are notoriously poor random number generators, so we can't try and fool ourselves that way), only that now your optimal choice is viewed as the luck of the draw.

I further think that if it is true that parents have lost free will regarding the optimal rearing of their children, then selection has done a damn fine job in that regard. I am tangentially reminded of an episode of M*A*S*H from the 70s or early 80s, where one of the main characters said "If your parents didn't have kids, chances are you won't, either". It was possibly said in a Groucho Marx imitation voice, but details are hazy.

The interested reader could probably extrapolate the argument entirely out of parenthood and right into the lap of every person who believes they are making their own decisions. It's too late and I'm too tired to do it. So it goes. Goodnight everybody and be sure to tip your waiter or waitress.

Burton MacKenzie

[1] and if they aren't doing that, are they assessed as poor parents? Remember, it's only black and white when it's on the printed page. I think the only person who can judge with accuracy is the parent themselves, as only they know what it is in their spirit that makes them choose their path. That being said, sometimes the ducks walk and quack pretty loudly, too.