Subjects to Think About

Ever wonder how simple we’d have to make things if we met a truly alien civilization?

After all, nothing would serve as a common reference.  The whole concept of “subject” or even “study” could be foreign to them.

So, if I had to tell a truly alien culture about our own, how would I divide up all the crazy areas of study that are in the course guides of colleges?

I’d do it like this.

There are three great areas that humans enjoy learning about.

The first deals with thinking about “Things.”  Things can be anything, like rocks, planets, stars, minerals, chemicals, frogs.  Anything that is a thing all gets put into one great bucket of study.  We typically call the king of these types of studies, Physics.  But frogs and other living things present a problem, so I’ll accept Biology as a special subset of Physics.

Then there are entire areas of learning in which humans think about “Not Things.”  It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but the greatest of all Not-Things is the study of Math.  Mathematics is a form of incredible rigorous thinking that is the best of all ways to describe the universe of Things.  It has many subsets, but Math is certainly the grandest of them all.  Other areas like linguistics and anthropology could be in there as well.

As promised, there is one final area of learning that concerns humans.  It’s not very rigorous in any way, so much of the work in this area is confusing to everyone, especially the experts.  It’s thinking about Thinking.  Yes, it’s the one and only self-referential area of study, and the king of this type of study is called Philosophy.

Anyone who tries to impress you (or the aliens) with fancy philosophy names or terms is missing the point of this entire area of study.  If it’s a real area, something that is legitimate, then famous people or crazy definitions aren’t necessary.  Much like saying gravity is everywhere, or 1 + 1 can become 2, we should be able to state fundamental elements of Philosophy.  We’re not quite there yet.

My fear is that when we do meet those aliens, and we do tell them what we study, they are going to laugh and go back to where they came from.

After all, if the entire universe can be boiled down into three basic areas of study, and we only have a partial hold on two of them, how can we be ready to join the galactic neighborhood?

We should think about that.

 

 

 

Story Time: Small Wives Tales

Image

Studying behavior is fun.  We can do thought experiments based on real-life observations of fact.

and a short story.

Consider this fact: women are smaller than men.  This is sexual dimorphism, the genders are splitting apart.  Most species have males and females about the same size.  When they are different, it means something’s going on.  Something having to do with natural selection.  Here’s a thought experiment story that takes the phenomenon to the extreme.

=====  A booth in a shabby diner, late morning.  =====

Yo, Joh, why so late?

The third wife was upset, and the other two said I had to help calm her down.  She’s got some bug up her butt about the kid, so I had to listen to her whine before I could leave.

You’re such a nice hubby.  Why don’t you get another one?

Are you kidding?  Three’s the limit for me.  What about you, you stopping at two?

No, I could use a third one.  Having two means they fight among themselves, and I have to break it up all the time.  I hear having a third, and maybe even a fourth keeps them mixed up enough so it takes a lot of pressure off.

You’re both crazy.  Why not just stick with the one and train her the way you want?

Like in the olden times?  What are you, a Neanderthal?  You know how many of those marriages went bust?  No, what those biologists figured out was perfect.  This way each wife has less of a man to make her crazy, she has more women friends to hang with keeping the pressure off him, and he ends up with more sex, while each of them ends up with less.  Win win win win win.

Still, I’m pretty happy with my one.  She’s got everything I need, and we seem to work well together.

Sure, youngster, keep telling yourself that.  It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper, isn’t it?  But it takes all types.

Why do you think women were smaller than men anyway?  There was a time they were only 10% smaller, now they are 25% smaller.

Perfect for carrying under your arm.

Or stuffing in your pants!  (Everyone laughs.)

Look, a long time ago the women were almost the same as men.  About the same size, about the same brain, small breasts, just as hairy.

Then something changed.

Yeah, we don’t know what.  Some eggheads think it was the women that did it to themselves, but maybe the men did it.  Anyway, the women got smaller, got boobs, and started painting themselves all over.

Don’t forget the sex part.

Right, then something happened to both genders so that having sex hardly ever makes a baby.  So it’s fun to do.

Very fun.

How much fun you having with the one?

Well…

I thought so.

C’mon.  After breakfast, we’ll do some shopping for you.  Then we’ll fix that ancient Camaro of yours.

Thanks.  So how about that game last night?

Great Moments in Biology

We took a pleasant walk through our park, and at the worst possible time my nose required tending.

I’m used to this, because my nose is old, and large, and needs a lot of maintenance.  I keep a box of tissues in every room of the house.  Truly.  In some rooms there are more than one.  My nose can demand attention so fast I have about two seconds to respond.  And being my nemesis (my NOSE-asis?) it usually demands attention when I have both hands carrying something important, something cooking, and someone talking to me.

Technically, a complex polysaccharide.

Back to the stroll.  As I’m fumbling about for the tissues I carry SOMEWHERE on my person, I realize that perhaps I’m much maligning my nose.

After all, the slime my nose produces is a rather old biological invention.  Fish couldn’t swim without it.  (What about aquaman?)  Bacteria couldn’t thrive without it,  Our lungs stay clean because of it.

In fact, as I pondered my spent tissue, slime may be among some of the greatest biological inventions of all time.

Sure, you have sex, and bilateral symmetry.  But slime?  So simple, yet so many uses.

Here’s a bit of a mind-bender.  Since our ancient ancestors were fishy things, and those fishy things probably also used slime, it may be that our lungs and noses represent the parts of our biology that are still fishy!  (Just like eyeballs, but that’s another story.)

True, it may also be the buggy part of our biology, but I’d rather be related to a fish than a bug.

That’s all for today.  Gotta go fast.  Nose calls.

 

Valuing Your Virginity

Virginiest of them all.

I came across a wonderful post written by a talented young woman today, and must salute her courage.

She made a point about being a virgin, and how that was a gift she intended for her future husband.  It’s a wonderful sentiment, its value is certainly recognized by society, and almost every culture and religion reinforces the idea.

But it’s misplaced.

To understand why, let’s go back a few years.  Back when the term was first used, almost a thousand years ago.

Society was climbing out of the dark ages, and needed more ways to help categorize people as life became a bit more complex.  Every time a holy book needed to be translated, it didn’t hurt to update the fundamental concepts with new terms.  That’s why, for followers of Christianity, Mary the Mom of Jesus eventually became Virgin Mary.

Over time we started valuing the concept of “virgin” itself instead of the more fundamental concept those translators were trying to describe.

What was that fundamental concept?  It’s the same thing our courageous young lady wants to give to her husband.

It’s the gift of commitment.

It’s a way of telling someone that you are willing to stick by their side, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part.

Our young warrior (for that is what she is) worries that she will be inexperienced, or incapable of adequately pleasing her husband in that way.  Nonsense.  This is what she’ll need to keep him happy, and it’s what he will need as well.

That’s the value of “virginity” and it has nothing to do with sex.

As for the greater questions she raises about pornography and how it hurts young men and society, I may have covered that already.  If not, let me know.

 

 

Space isn’t big enough for: 20%

There’s an ancient saying among managers: 80% of your problems will come from only 20% of the population.  It doesn’t matter if the population is springs that go boing, or people writing programs in your application department.

The further we look, the more galaxies we find.The latest FBI statistics I saw indicated that about 80% of the crimes were being committed by a regular 20% of the population.

In the movie Casablanca, the Chief of Police tells his captain to round up the usual suspects.  In truth, that’s not a bad strategy.  Those people might at least know something, even if not being guilty outright.

Here’s the deal.  Once you get enough people together, anywhere, there’s going to be a small number of “bad apples” who create a bunch of mischief for the “good apples.”

The key word here is — anywhere.

No matter what kind of great people we send to the moon, there will be a few who turn out to be troublemakers.  Why?  Because it’s human nature.

The problem is that the first moon colony isn’t going to have the resources to keep that person in line all the time.  There certainly won’t be someone free to watch them all the time, and if they do something naughty and have to be put away, where will that be?  There won’t be any room for a jail.

So what happens?

In short, there won’t be room for these people.  The early settlers are going to have to make some very tough choices.  Down here where the air is almost free and there’s room to spread out, the cost of taking care of a miscreant is relatively small.

But up there, where there is no air and you can hear every sound your neighbor makes in their sleep, the cost of keeping a nasty person in stir will be very high.

The solution?  Swift vigilante justice.  A community tribunal, and equally swift sentence.  The judge can say cuffs come off, rejoin your friends.  Or the judge can tell them to take a short walk outside the dome, without a suit.

Of course, after that short walk, someone will have to bring him back inside.  After all, in outer space, there isn’t going to be room for cemeteries either.  We’re going to need everybody for fertilizer.

After all, each body is about 80% water, and 20% fertilizer.

 

 

Space isn’t big enough for: iTunes

The concept of having YOUR music playing just for you goes back a few years.  Even before iTunes and other music services there were things called “walkman,” and before that there were portable radios.

The further we look, the more galaxies we find.Here’s the thing.  If you’re jammin to the tunes, and happily banging away on the steering wheel at the same time there’s a “thing” on the road, there’s a better chance that you will hit that thing.

That’s why lots of places are trying to cut down on the number of accidents by putting the brakes on distractions in the car.  Is it working?  Don’t know.

But I do know that distractions can kill.  Doctors who are distracted in the operating room can make mistakes on their patient.  Pilots distracted in the cockpit can make errors regarding their aircraft.  And lunar colonists who are distracted might leave the wrong door open, or close the wrong valve.

Here’s the real deal.  On the moon, a single error could kill everyone.  Putting in safeguards that prevent all stupid mistakes is very expensive.  And getting anything to the moon is going to be costly.  That means we have to choose.

We either make every move to avoid mistakes every way we can.

Or we accept the risk of total failure for the benefit of individual joy.

My suggestion?  Don’t take iTunes or earbuds to the moon.  Too expensive.

 

 

Fat and Happy Artwork

There’s a new finding about some cave paintings in Spain.  Turns out that they were painted by Neanderthals.  Those are the hillbilly cousins of homo erectus that we don’t like to talk about.  We’re better than them.

Or so we thought.  Turns out they were just like us.  Mostly.

Done by the fat and happy.

 

We wonder why we don’t find more art of all types from early humans.  There’s a bunch of reasons of course.

Stuff gets lost.  Gets covered over.  Washes away.

But a lot of things don’t.

There’s a big reason in particular I want to harp on about.

Ancient people only made ancient art when they had the time and the inclination.

In other words, they were rich.  Relatively speaking.

If you are an ancient person, but young at heart, and you’re hungry or cold or tired or about to be eaten by a tiger, the last thing you’re going to think about is making some art.

But if you have some time, you’re full, you’re not worried about your next meal, and you’ve got some deep thoughts you’ve been thinking over for a while, then guess what?

Grab that torch, get some rocks and charcoal, and head for the caves.

Reminds me a bit of the guys who do all that graffiti along the roads in the cities.

So the reason we don’t see a whole lot of art from back then is because people weren’t fat or happy that often.  And that’s good to know.

So the next time you see some cave art, think about those fat and happy people.  And then try to figure out what they were thinking about.  After all, aren’t you also happy?

 

 

Whom Do You Serve?

There’s was a fun sci-fi series on the flat screen a few years ago called Stargate SG1.  It started as a movie, and I recommend seeing the movie before watching the series.

One of the characteristics of the evil antagonists was a response to a simple question:

WHOM do you serve?

The idea was that the evil parasite living within a human body would reveal the master they served.  It was one thing they couldn’t refuse.

It’s also a great idea.

Whom do you serve?

Is it yourself?  Is it your family?  Your wife, your children?

What about your community, or nation?

There’s a good chance it’s a little bit of all of those, if you’re a well-rounded human.

Today’s problem is that most people aren’t well-rounded anymore.

They serve their retirement.

Or they serve their bank account.

Whom do YOU serve?

Can you answer this?

You want to know my response?

I serve your grandchildren.  I want them to have a better life than we enjoy today.  I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being in order to achieve this.  I’ve already sacrificed income streams and lucrative positions.

Am I any closer to making this a better world for them?  I’m not an optimist on this one.

At least I know who I serve.

How about you?

 

Riots and Revolutions

Our art museum is putting on this excellent display of pre-romantic paintings that were used to record historical events.  Journalism in painting.

Painting is a story told visually, and because the artist is mostly in control, a lot of what they are thinking can come through.

When it’s historical in nature, we also get a glimpse into the big behavioral picture.

There’s this one painting showing a citadel in the background, and a riot going on in front of the locked gates.  (I can’t find it! When I do, I’ll include a link here.)

The caption beside the painting notes that during the years of 1634-35 there was a great famine, and the ruler allowed bread to be sold outside the citadel gates at fixed prices.  The hungry population was so angry that a riot ensued.  Because of the famine, almost 5% of the population perished.  That’s one person out of every twenty.

That was enough to cause the ruler to change the laws regarding land ownership, basically giving more power to the people.

Here’s what we can learn.

It took a great toll among the people before the ruling class decided they needed to shift the distribution of wealth.  Lots of people had to die miserable deaths before those in power would change the system.

Today, we also have increasing wealth inequalities.  How far will the current levels of pain go before our governments address the pain of the people?  History, at least this little oil-painted piece, suggests that about 5% of the population will have to perish first.

Is this the best way to figure this out?  Absolutely not.  But it’s a start.

And as far as wealth distribution is concerned, isn’t it better we start now?

Aren’t art museums fun?

Thanks for reading.

 

Physics and English

This site is all about understanding behavior.

Learning is a form of behavior.

And some of the most daunting learning to be done in the “natural” world is staring physicists right in the face.

Physicists.  The same guys who brought you transistors, fractal antennae, MRI and Voyagers 1 and 2.

I saw this excellent video by Brady Haran, with a most excellent professor of physics ranting about someone who PRETENDS to understand physics enough to make outlandish propositions about what it means.

That’s not the point for this post.  The points comes later in his video (3:15 and 6:40) in response to an excellent question from Brady.  Perhaps it’s the language that physicists use to try and communicate the strange phenomena to themselves, and the rest of the world.

Here’s where the behavior comes in.

Physicists talk to each other, and rarely to the public, and even more rarely to academics in other disciplines.  Almost never ever to someone in the English department.

Here’s a list of some of the incredibly weird phenomena they have measured.

  • Entanglement (spooky action at a distance)
  • Spin
  • Momentum
  • Inflation
  • Big Bang
  • CP Violation
  • Dark Matter and Dark Energy
  • Unified Theories containing all the known forces
  • Wave Functions
  • Atomic Orbitals

All of these are extremely strange things that happen in reality, things we use every day without realizing it.

Yet they don’t make sense in our big classical world.

Here’s where the English department comes in.

Physicists need a whole new language that removes all the connections these phenomena make with the classical world.  Using words like orbital, wave, even matter and energy for the quantum world is going to put physicists at a disadvantage.

The person who’s going to figure out how to make sense of the quantum world is going to have to release themselves from the classical world.  When you grow up in a classical world that has orbits and waves, you’re automatically making the job harder.

So, to all you physicists out there who want to confront the greatest natural challenges of our time, take a moment to understand behavior.  Talk to an English major, and change your language.  Shed your classical skin and enter the quantum world.

It’s weird, it’s wacky, it’s beyond classical belief systems.

Yet, it’s all behavior.

Is it a particle, is it a wave?  It's neither.

PS – Who says we can’t have Fun with Fiziks?  By the way, for those who have their own wacky ideas about the quantum world, save them for later.  I have my own, but they will have to wait for the right cocktail party.

PPS – By the way, Math is the proper language of physics, of Nature for that matter.  However, this post is about talking to people who DON’T do math.  Thanks for reading.