Fuzzy words

Last week we talked pictures, literally.  How better to get a picture from my brain into yours than using some words and shared experience?  No need to check out my Fb page (don’t have one!) or flick through a million pictures of funny cats.  Here’s some words, and ABRACADABRA there’s a picture in your head!

Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

What’s great about words, though, is that they are far more powerful than just pictures.  The right combination of words can put not only a picture, but a shared experience that includes all the emotion, the sounds, the smells, and the resulting feelings that all went along.

Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers

If we share that experience, we know the poor reception he got from the stands as he took first base.  We remember the boos he got after his first at bat.  We know the low expectations we had as he picked up the bat again, and the resulting euphoria as he put the ball out of the park.  And then we remember all the years of Jackie helping redefine baseball, not only in terms of skin colors, but professionalism in sport as well.

That’s the power of words.  And with great power comes great responsibility.

Words come equipped with fuzzy edges.  These edges allow us to put them together in many different ways.  At the same time, fuzzy edges can make it difficult to understand what we’re trying to communicate.  Let’s try some examples.

Midnight Glory.

I have no idea what it may mean, and the internet doesn’t have a bead on it either.  Yet, here I am (at midnight) putting these words together.  Did they create an image in your mind?  Perhaps you thought of a close word pair, “morning glory,” a whole family of flowers.  Or something having to do with a military mission, code named Midnight Glory.  Or something else.  But that’s what fuzzy edges allow us to do, put words together in almost any combination we want.  Here’s another, very scary, example.

Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

This phrase was created by Dr. Alan Sokal almost 20 years ago, and it looked very impressive to some journal editors of the time.  What they didn’t know was that Dr. Sokal was playing a joke on them, he knew this was a nonsense phrase.  The problem was that they didn’t know it, and published his “paper” as if it was real.  The joke was that no one could tell the difference!

Words.  Fuzzy edges.  We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, be careful out there.  We don’t want to send the wrong pictures into other people’s brains.


Living Reality

Be real!  Has anyone ever said that to you?  I get it a lot.  I’m a big fan of dry humor – being facetious and sarcastic (only when called for!).  I’m also silly – trying to live in a fantasy world because the real world seems yucky.

“Real world?”  What is the “real” world?  Last week we talked about the most basic kind of reality, the reality of matter and energy.  Stuff we can measure and agree upon.  But the stove in our example will last for a thousand years, unless someone melts it down.  The garlic pasta is going to disappear.  Are they both real?

Of course they are real.  But the pasta will disappear much faster than the stove because I will have eaten it.  If I don’t eat it, the flies and bugs will get to it.  One way or another, that delicious combination of ingredients is going down someone’s gullet.  And that gullet is going to change those ingredients into stuff that we need to live.  The stuff of life.

Life.  This is the second reality.  There are certain things that all life does that are agreed upon.  In the “real” world we aren’t worried about mountains and oceans; they have been behaving themselves for billions of years.  What we’re worried about is greed and war.  These are evils of life, specifically, human life.

Those things that are common to all living things are the next level of “reality.”  All life exchanges elements with the environment.  All life attains higher states of order relative to their environment.  All life reproduces.  And all life creates offspring that are slightly different than the parents.  If there were “laws of life” they would look something like this.

The fact that life has been around for a few billion years is a pretty good achievement.  We know that because of the “real” physical evidence left behind; fossils, footprints, tooth marks.  But life in and of itself is real.  Isn’t it?

So now we have physical reality, and the reality of life.  Anything else?  Care to take a guess?


Threat assessment, in a glance

In about the time it takes to bat an eye, we can behave in ways that reveal volumes about ourselves.  Here is one moment, that happened today.  I’m walking back after my exercise routine, and a young lady is standing in front of gym lockers, fiddling with her phone or something.  She’s tall, young, fit, wearing skin tight clothes and shorts, and generally eye-catching.  Let’s call her Willow.  I’d seen her earlier that day, so I didn’t need to watch her again.  The instant I passed Willow, another woman came around the corner towards me on a collision course.  I have to adjust, and so does she.  We’ve both done this thousands of times (with other people!), so we don’t have to think about it.  But I’m watching her closely, in order to make sure we don’t collide, and because I like to watch people.

She’s also dressed tastefully, but appropriate to her age, mid 50s.  Let’s call her Fran.  She’s shorter than I, and moving with a purpose.  She should also be worrying about hitting me, and the first part of her glance takes in my face and then darts away.  Fran’s body moved to her right, I moved to my right, and crisis averted.  It’s what she did next that is the most interesting.

She scanned Willow.  Not just a moment’s glance, it was a hard driven, full-length all-encompassing deep scan.  In the amount of time it takes to type one of these words, she read Willow like a book.

Why?  Why did she find Willow so much more interesting than me?  After all, Fran and I were on a collision course.

Threats.  We are built to assess threats, and if something threatens us, we check it out.  I was heading right for her, about to collide.  I’m a big guy (relative to Fran) and could be dangerous.  But she’s probably seen me before and she feels safe in the gym.  At the same time there’s Willow, so she spends more time sizing her up.  Why?

Because she could be a threat.  Not a “don’t hit me” threat, but a female threat.  To her husband, to her boys, to some other male friend, perhaps?  It’s deep, but women will first size up another woman deeply in order to determine how threatening they may be.

Don’t agree?  Let me have it!


How much is YOUR holiday worth?

Do you have a day of rest and religious observance?  How about an important holiday?  No, Valentines and Halloween don’t count.  I’m referring to the big old holidays, like Easter, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan, things like that.  The stuff that is observed by billions of people.  Holidays that were around BEFORE there was a greeting card industry.  Wait a minute, WAS there a BEFORE time for greeting cards?

Anyway, your holiday.  Your day of rest.  How much is it worth to you?  How much to give it up?  Would you take credit?

We all have a price for everything.  Some of us hold ideals that we’re willing to give our lives for.  But even our lives have a price tag associated with them.  And if you’re willing to average out these values across society, it becomes even easier to figure out.  Let’s take Easter and Pesach (Passover), since we just observed them a few weeks ago.

We know families get together, but how far are they willing to travel?  On average, if a family member is too far away they won’t come to dinner.  If they are close, they come.  That distance costs something to travel, and that’s part of the value.

Some people have jobs that don’t let them follow a normal schedule.  So they have to forgo the pleasure of family and observance in order to keep their job, serve the company and society, and ultimately secure the future of their own family.  The extra amount they get paid is part of that value.

People spend time getting ready for the holiday.  They fix up their homes.  They buy the nice and traditional foods.  They may spend extra time getting clean and making themselves beautiful.  They probably also take extra pains to make sure they don’t say anything nasty to Aunt Sadie who was so terribly insulting last time she was over that …

Excuse me, I’m getting carried away.  At any rate, there is a cost to all that work.  All that pain.  If we were aliens paying a visit to our backward Earth cousins, we could infer the value of the holiday by all these things.  We could make it easy and choose only one thing, like spending money.  But in that case something like Christmas would be the all out winner.  What if eating candy was the one measure?  In which case Halloween would come in first, with Valentine’s day a close second.

So, here’s to your holidays – past and future.  I certainly hope they’re worth it!


Homage to Tom Lehrer

There was a great article on what we know of the life of Tom Lehrer the other day.  I urge everyone to read it, simply because the man is an icon within our nation’s entertainment landscape.

The article states what many others have always wondered; why did such a popular entertainer want to leave the limelight and riches that had so readily embraced him?

Dear Gentle Reader, I humbly submit for your approval this hypothesis.  Mr. Lehrer was not in love with his audience, or his entertaining craft.  We, his singing, songs, and piano playing were not his first love.

His first love was, and probably still is, Mathematics.  And that is the key to his retirement, solitude, and heartbreak.  For once you have even the barest glimpse of what lies within the realm of the mathematical realm, you can understand why someone would reject everything else in order to live there, even if only for a moment.

If you are not mathematical, this will be hard to convey, but I will do my best.  To be religious, it is like peering into the mind of God.  To be artistic, it is like understanding the very brush and clay that Nature uses to create the world around us.  To be a child, it is like a box of toys is lain at your feet for you to play with, without instructions or restrictions from adults.  To be poetic, it is seeing infinite beauty within every particle, every action in our universe.  Finally, being practical, it is truly all of these things.  For mathematics is a realm that exists as surely as matter, energy, and logic exist.  It reveals natural structures that can’t even be imagined once they are seen, for they have aspects extending far beyond our feeble senses.  Mathematics plays with concepts so powerful that our great civilization is built upon only some of them in the crudest ways.  Finally, mathematics gives insights into our universe that we are not able to fully understand.

Mr. Lehrer has seen into the realm of math, and has been properly awed, and humbled.  He opened his heart to let her in.  Unfortunately for the rest of the world, math was not as forthcoming to Mr. Lehrer.  He did not achieve great insights, and has not attained what he set out to in the beginning, a formal and social acknowledgement of that achievement.  He is not Dr. Lehrer, but Mr. Tom Lehrer.  He is remembered as a wonderfully entertaining man, not an explorer of the mathematical realm.

Is it no wonder that he prefers solitude to platitude?


Human chess

Friday night.  Sitting back with a beer, recuperating from the craziness that is the week at work.  I have to work Saturday as well, but that’s my problem.  That’s one of the reasons for the beer!  Here’s the fun part.

I enjoy the game of chess.  I suck at it, big time, but I enjoy it.  The pieces are fixed, they only do their jobs, and they do exactly what you tell them to do.  It’s my own fault for getting the pawns and bishops confused.  I also tend to forget that the $#!$%!! night can jump over things.

At work it’s a different story.  I ask someone to do something, they nod.  I ask them to repeat the instructions back, and they babble something that sounds close to what I said.  Good, go and do it.  Time passes, I check on their work, and guess what?  It didn’t come out like I expected.  It may not have come out at all!

Sure, my friends say, get new workers.  It’s not that easy.  A large part of it is human nature.  They hear what they want to hear, and then they do what they want to do.  In a large company management can select from lots of candidates who can get things done exactly right.  In a small organization we don’t have that luxury.

And this is what I realized.  It’s playing chess with pieces that change their minds.  Tell the pawn to move forward two steps, and it decides that one is enough.  Tell the bishop to go one way, and it decides to go another.  And don’t even think about telling the queen or king what to do!  They’ll just wander about under their own orders.

No wonder I like chess.  It’s so much simpler than going to work!

I need another beer.


Terran Fever

Earth is warming!  CO2 is bad!  What should we do?

First, don’t panic.  Let’s look at our behavior in order to understand where the problem comes from.

Scientists call climate change that is mostly influenced by people by a fancy name; anthropogenic forcing.  All this means is that us people are the main suspect.

The reason we are all suspects is because we are holding a smoking gun.  Carbon dioxide.  Turns out that CO2 does a great job of trapping heat in our sky.  Thanks to some scientists back in the 50s, we’ve been measuring CO2 in the air pretty continuously.  Guess what?  It’s going up.  Turns out that it started going up back when the industrial revolution was invented.  We know this because other scientists have helped push back our understanding of CO2 far back in time.

As students of behavior, we shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, the smoking gun of CO2 is exactly that, smoking.  The very day our first ancestor, Glog, nurtured a wild fire is the day climate change started.  Glog learned that by nurturing a wild fire, she could use the fire to cook her meat, or warm her children, and maybe even both.  Women probably had to be multi-tasking even in those days.

Through her entirely willful act, a typically natural occurrence was kept going longer than normal.  That makes it ab-normal!  If today’s scientists had tools that were infinitely accurate, they could tell us that day.  Alas, they can’t.

But we know that day exsts, because we ultimately tamed fire.  After fire, we developed tools, discovered oil, invented internal combustion engines, and all sorts of other nice toys.  Today we are feeling some more of the after-affects of our decisions.

So climate change is not new, only our recognition is new.  Now that we recognize the first, what do we do next? Stay tuned!


Picture sharing, old school

Today we have so many choices as to how we share our favorite images.  But there was a time when we didn’t have all this technology. What did us old-timers do in the “Before Times?” back before the Goog or the Yahooz, before the FaceBible or Imjurz?  There were photo albums and slide shows.  But even before then, what was there?

Photographs?  Before!

Pens and paper?  Canvas and oils?  Before!

Charcoal on cave walls?  OK, we’ve gone back too far.

Before our ability to share images on the internet and the new, mysterious “cloud,” we had another mechanism, one which is at once simpler, yet also more powerful.  It is language, but language used in a specific way.

If I share a photo with you on facebook, you can see what I see, exactly.  But if I describe it to you, you and I will see different things.  As students of behavior, there is no good or bad, there is only benefits and costs to every decision.  And if I decide to try and describe the picture in my head using words instead of a photo-sharing site, that’s my choice.  Let’s try one and see how it works.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”  There, see anything?  There’s a good chance that within your mind you are seeing almost exactly the same image that I see.  The juxtaposition of little ink (or pixel) dots that form the phrase at the beginning of this paragraph have conveyed an image from my mind to yours.  No connecting wires (at least for the last few meters, right?) and no need for the cloud.  For we, you and I, are the cloud.  Next.

Jackie Robinson’s first Dodger’s game, April 15th 1947.  I wasn’t there, and there’s a good chance you weren’t either.  I met a man the other day who was.  Jackie was put in at first base.  He struck out the first time at bat; and was roundly booed.  Next at bat he put it out of the park.  I don’t think he was ever booed after that.  But that’s not the point.

The point here is that the phrase did not create the same image within my head as yours.  I’d learned about this event from someone who was there.  But it took many more words to get that image across.

Even if we had both been at the park that day, there’s a good chance that we would share the same experience, but not the same pictures within our head.  The reason is that we sat in different seats.  But the overall experience, that is something we would always share.

Picture sharing.  Experience sharing.  In words.  Who would have thought?

Be the cloud.



When science goes awry

In “Cosmos” a few weeks ago, NdGT (my idol!) talks about ancient Greek philosophers like Thales.  Thales put forth the idea that everything in nature can be understood; that capricious gods could be effectively ignored.  It took a few thousand years for the rest of us to catch onto this great idea, but finally, during the Renaissance, the idea of “scientific method” was born.

Today, almost all the ‘natural’ sciences perform experiments, replicate them, and try to understand the results within the context of unifying laws.  Unfortunately, we in the ‘un-natural’ sciences don’t follow this method.  Yet we still call our disciplines by the work, science.

Yes, things like “Political Science,” and “Sociology” and even “Psychology” and “Economics” like to pretend that they are as rigorous and mature as Chemistry and Physics, but they aren’t.  Even the latest upstarts in Biology have had their apple cart upset by recent studies showing that many experiments are unable to be replicated.  We’re in such a rush to discover the next wonder drug that we are neglecting the fundamental precepts of science: Discover, replicate, validate, repeat.

Recently there has been a move in the US government to “raise the bar” on federally funded research that does not have a direct benefit.  For things like Political Science this causes quite a bit of concern, and perhaps it should.  For how much longer can we continue, as a society, letting academics run about pretending to do science when they are not?  How much longer can we afford to let them fool us?

You protest?  Please, prove it.  Put forth the three major axioms of Economics and how many ways they have been replicated.  Show us all the first law of sociology and how it impacts all other areas of that discipline.  Or, let us all settle for simply pointing us to the data set that “Political Scientists” use as the basis of all their research.

In the meantime, I’m going back to reading up on Isaac Newton.  Because, when I push him, he pushes me back with an equal but opposite reaction.


Kind of Reality

Did you know that what we’re studying isn’t real?  Really!

Behavior, that is.  Not real, that is.  It’s kind of real, but not real at the same time.  Hold on a minute, I think I need to eat something.

That’s better – I have a clear head finally.  Garlic pesto pasta does the trick.  And it’s a good place to start our discussion.  My plate of pasta is real.  It’s real in the sense that I can touch it, weigh it, smell it, taste it (YUM!), and in all other ways document its properties such that other people can verify my measurements.  So if you were my guest (Come on over! You can bring the ice cream!) you could repeat my measurements and come to the same numbers – or close anyway.  We could take photographs and look at them years later, and still agree that what we see was, in fact, real.

This is physical reality.  It’s the best kind of reality, because it’s the kind that can hit you in the face if you’re not careful.  Well, best may not be the best word, but it is best because we can’t argue that my pasta wasn’t real.  The same goes for my stove, Parmesan cheese, and garlic.  They are real, physically real.

Can you guess what the other types of reality are?  Go ahead, we need something to talk about while we sip the last dregs of wine and have some of that ice cream.  Here are some hints.  The stove in my example is going to be real for a long long time.  The garlic and cheese, on the other hand, are only going to exist for a short time.

So send in those guesses!  In the meantime, I’m going downstairs for some of that pasta.  I firmly believe that a person can’t have too much garlic.  Unfortunately for my coworkers, I think they disagree!