Greatest Tool in the Hardware Store

There is one tool that is more important than all others.  And you can find it in any hardware store.

and gave us fire.

I’m lucky in that my hardware store dates from the mid-1800s.  It should be a national historic landmark.  One of these days it will be, if it doesn’t turn into a restaurant first.

Back to the tool.

This tool wasn’t so much invented.  It was discovered.

As you move among the many things you can get in our hardware store, you’ll probably miss the boxes of matches.

That’s the tool.

The tool is fire.  Not just any fire, but fire on command.

If you’re putting a tool box together for yourself, or for a friend going off to college, make sure you include matches.

Powerful stuff.

Fire on Command gave us the ability to cook food, ward off the night, and ward off predators.

Fire on Command gave us the incentive to create families.

Families started learning to cook, store food for long periods, live off the local land, and finally how to farm.

Fire on Command gave those families a reason to start forming tribes.

Not just any tribes, but tribes that would stay together for generations.  Tribes that would work together to gather metal ores, fashion them into better tools, and work together to keep their enemies away.  Those tribes also started customs they followed to make living together easier.

Fire on Command gave those tribes a reason to start forming a nation.  The nation created armies that defended all the tribes.  The customs became laws.  The smelting of ores became chemistry and physics.  The nations improved to have internal combustion, nuclear power, rocket ships and mobile phones.

Thanks to Fire, Fire on Command.

So, the next time you wander the hardware store, pay your respects to the fire.  It’s the reason everything else exists.

Goodbye Soft Science

Makes as much sense as most soft science.What’s in a word?

Quite a bit, in fact.

There’s this “news” organization that calls itself “X News.”  Because it says “news” everyone gives it the same credibility as other organizations that deliver true news.

What is news?  We’ll talk about that some other day.

The fact of the matter is that when you are trying to sell something, and that something is not worth much, it’s to your benefit to disguise it.  Ask any fast-talking salesman.

So if your program is a bunch of talking heads talking nonsense, call it “news” so it has more credibility.

What about if your academic discipline is rather “funny” in itself?  What if your discipline has failed to advance our knowledge of its purported subject by any measurable amount during its entire existence?

Simple.  Call it a science.

If you’re a “real” scientist, like in chemistry, or physics, you’re not going to enjoy eating at the same table as an sociologist, or economist.

So you call yourself a “hard” scientist.  Your facts are hard.  Your experiments are hard.  Your conclusions stand the test of time and replication.  They are also hard.

What are the other guys?

So far we’ve been calling them “soft” scientists.

I suggest an improvement.

It’s time to give them a label that gives us a better idea as to what they truly are in the great scheme of things.

Squishy.

They are quite squishy.

You push them, and they move out of the way.

You can pinch, pull, stretch and fold them as much as you want, and they come back exactly the same.

That’s what economics, sociology, and a whole host of other such “sciences” can do.

So it’s time we call an ultra conservative talk show what it is.

And it’s time we call squishy sciences exactly what they are.

Squishy.

Now we need to drop the whole “science” bit from them.  But one step at a time.

 

Space isn’t big enough for: God

Yes, you heard it here first.  As infinite as outer space is, and as powerful and willfully teeny tiny any god can be, there is no room for it.  Or him.  Or her, as the case may be.

The further we look, the more galaxies we find.

Are you shocked?  Are you a true believer who also has dreams of seeing humanity colonize the big bang?

Then, consider this.

 

God, or gods, or powers that be, are fine and dandy when you need to explain the unexplainable to those who can’t handle much explaining.

God is great for kids.  God is great for people who don’t have time or energy for deep thoughts.  God is great for trying to keep families together, especially during times of crisis when everything seems to be going wrong.

On Earth, that works fine.  There is time for those kids to grow up and find their own answers.  On Earth, even if every last possible thing goes wrong for a family, they still have themselves, and at the very least they still have air.

Those don’t come free on the moon, or anywhere else in space.  There is no time for anyone to pray that a solar flare might miss.  The stakes are much much higher than they ever have been for the human species.  Anyone who thinks they can mitigate the risks by taking time out for prayer is fooling themselves.  And by association, increasing the risks for everyone else.

To be clear, if a Moonster (or Lunite?) wants to pray on their own time, and invoke a deity on the sly, that’s their business.  It’s not like god will be outlawed.

But anyone who is hoping that the almighty intervene in lieu of doing actual work to protect the colony, that’s what this is all about.

The colony is going to be filled with the smartest people this planet can collect.  And if they can’t make it on their own, then there isn’t a god on Earth who can make up the difference.

Strike me now if I’m not telling the truth.

Amen

 

Happy Birthday Dr. Frankenstein

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The novel Frankenstein was published 200 years ago this year, on January First.  I don’t think google did a doodle on it, but they should have.  Today (30 August) is the anniversary of the birth of the author, Mary Shelley.

Science magazine devoted a whole special section on the impact Frankenstein has had upon popular culture. [1] There’s more Franken-things than you can shake a stick at!  Each of which denotes something scary that has been created by humankind.

Try it out.  Pick any noun, say, tomato.  Stick a “franken” on it – and voila – you have a:

Franken-tomato.  Sounds like something that was genetically modified.  Could be tasty.  But our first reaction is, ugh.  Get it away from me.

That’s the whole point of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein.

It’s not the monster that is the bad guy.  It’s us.

We create things with our knowledge, our technology, our science.  And then we abuse it, we deny it, we argue that it doesn’t exist.  Yet it does exist.

And in our active ignorance, it ends up causing harm.  In the end we may think we have won because we defeat it, but perhaps we are no better off than we were before.

This theme has been used so many times since she rediscovered it that it’s hard to pick the best examples.  Try Colossus, the Forbin Project.  Or Skynet of Terminator, or Adromeda Strain, or; do I need to continue?

The Ancient Greeks created the first rendition of this story.  They talked of Prometheus, who brought forbidden fires to humans.  Without fire we would still be running from the lions, instead of looking at them in the zoo.

What does this have to do with behavior?  Are you kidding?  What doesn’t it have to do with behavior?  This is exactly the kind of stuff we should be talking about, for every new technology: Nuclear power, DNA editing, CO2 sequestration, and more.

Even more importantly, as students of behavior, we should have a framework that allows us to understand and discuss ANY new technology regardless of what that technology may be or how it impacts us.  How’s THAT for a challenge?

Enough for today.  I wanted to make sure SOMEONE said Happy Birthday to Mary.  After all, she did something many activists have been dreaming of doing for years.  I only wish people would read her book and discuss it, intelligently.

Instead of just going, UGH.

 

[1] Science magazine, 12 January 2018, Volume 359, Issue 6372.

 

Archaeological Sexism

This is one of my favorite sculptures in the whole world.  It’s elegant, minimalist, hopeful, and ancient.

If this sculpture says fertility to you, then you've been in the field too long!

This museum calls it “Stargazer.”  It’s a perfect name, because it’s a figure looking straight up.

It might be a woman because there’s a triangle where the “legs” meet, instead of junk hanging out.  But it could also be sexless.

Other museums call these sculptures a “fertility” figure.

What the heck?

This is yet another case of MALE archaeologists ascribing a name to something that means absolutely nothing related to the figure.

Sure, you can make up a great story about how hordes of men would dance around dying embers late at night, lustfully shouting up at the “pregnant moon,” drinking to excess.  Once their adrenaline and testosterone reached their summit, they would run into the night pouncing on every available female they could find in order to spread their seed.

Maybe not.

Maybe it was simply a wonderful testament to the wonders of the universe, appreciated by people who had discovered farming, rudimentary laws, and had several good harvests in a row.  Maybe it was their way of saying “thanks” to the universe.

Is this getting a bit too extreme for the #MeToo movement?

Personally, I don’t think so.  After all, we are projecting our biases onto objects that should be neutral at best.  By calling this a fertility figure, the young people who see this in the museum are going to get a little bit of that macho bias implanted into their brain.  And that’s a bad thing.

So, the next time you look up at the stars, think about your brothers and sisters who were doing the same thing 5,000 years ago.  Then invite an archaeologist over for some tea.  I have a feeling those are some very lonely guys.

 

Space isn’t big enough for: Big Sports

Imagine that you’re one of the first colonists on the moon.  Go ahead, enjoy the feeling.  Now, add in your love of big time sports.  What happens next?

The further we look, the more galaxies we find.

If you’re lucky, you might get to watch the big game beamed to the moon especially for you.

If you’re not lucky, no game.

Let’s get real.  The only way someone will send you the big game is if there is money in it for them.  After all, major league sports is no longer about the sport; it’s all about the commercials.

If the population of the moon is less than 100, or 1000, or 10 000, oh heck, if it’s less than a million, why should a sponsor send you the transmission?

Wait a minute!  That’s the wrong logic.

Even if there will a hundred million people on the moon, why would a sponsor want you to look at their commercials?

Because you would be buying their products.

Let’s face it.  There’s little chance you’ll find any Nestle products on your moon-shelves.

Now let’s look at sports in the other direction.

What are the chances that YOU will be playing those sports on the moon?  Or anyone else for that matter?

Pretty much zippo.  For one thing, you’re going to need room.  And as we’ve already covered, there isn’t going to be much room up in space.  I know, sounds crazy, but there it is.

For another thing, all the rules will have to change.  After all, gravity on the moon is less than on Earth.  A lot less.  Baseballs and golf balls will travel kilometers.  In a rugby scrum, a single player might be able to pick up the entire scrum and move forward.

So, what will you do up there on the moon?

There’s cards, maybe some chess.  Perhaps you can enjoy some virtual wrestling, or even real wrestling.  Finally, there’s going to be the most interesting sport of all.

Survival.

Go Team!

 

 

Ptolemy Was Right

Did you hear about big broohaha back in 1540?  It was so big that people started using the word “revolution” to describe anything that upset everything.

Or some guy playing with his toys.  Either way, nice picture.

Yes, this guy named Copernicus turned the world inside out by telling everyone we weren’t the center of the universe.  It was a big deal.

Except it wasn’t.  A big deal, that is.  Not in real terms.

First off, it wasn’t the first time that someone else suggested the idea.

Secondly, nothing changed.  Sure, people thought they were going to fly off the surface of the Earth because it was moving so fast, but they didn’t.  Sometimes I wish those sorts of people would, but that’s another post.

Most importantly, as students of behavior, there is no “right” or “wrong.”  There is only behavior that can be measured with respect to a purpose.

Ptolemy’s ideas that the Earth was the center of the solar system was a perfectly good idea.  It sufficed for many things, in fact, most people don’t care, even today.  And he gave it to us around 150 AD.

But for those people who really want to understand the universe, it wasn’t good enough.  Models putting Earth in the middle were complex.  Way too complex.

So a better idea came along.  It wasn’t the first time people presented the idea, but now it made more sense, because the better theory explained nature more efficiently than before.  Clock makers, astronomers, and physicists were all much happier.

So what?

When someone has a crazy theory, we shouldn’t simply dismiss them as “wrong.”  If that theory works for them, if it makes them happy, then fine.

However, if we have a question that our theory addresses more efficiently, or if our theory satisfies our purpose better than theirs, then our theory is “better” for us.  It is not necessarily better for them.

So the next time you hear someone fighting it out over their different theories of nature, sit back and relax.  You’ll know that they are both right.  Try and enjoy the spectacle.

That is, unless they are politicians fiddling with your future.  In that case, you should worry.

And that’s always right.

 

FUN Science, Art Gallery Time Machine

Did you know science could be fun?  Yes, science.

Seems a bit spotty, doesn't it?

Archimedes did it.  Einstein did it.  Now it’s our turn.  Lets do a thought experiment.

In this experiment, we’re going to transport one of the best paintings from the impressionist era back a hundred years (give or take) so that it lands smack dab in the middle of one of the best art galleries of the romantic era.

 

See what we’re doing there?  We’re sticking a little bit of the future into the past, and then figuring out what would happen.

What do YOU think will happen?  Go ahead, write down your answer.  I’ll wait.

(Insert girl from Ipanema here.)

Finished?  Great.  Now, here’s my take.

It won’t sell.  No one’s going to buy it.  Everyone will think a deranged teenager did it, and will tell the dealer to throw it away.  Since it appeared mysteriously from the future, he won’t know who to give it to.  Being a profit-minded guy, he’ll probably paint it over with gesso and sell the canvas to some poor artist who will put a proper painting over it.

Crazy?  Not really.  Consider going to an art gallery today.  What do you see?  Are there crazy pieces in there that drive you bonkers?  Could it be that one of those will sell for millions of dollars in a hundred years?

How can we know?

Right now, we can’t.  There’s this whole thing about fads and fashions that seems to be beyond anything reason will fathom, ever.  Why do women prefer certain hairstyles through the ages.  What about men and their beards, or hats?  What about architecture, writing styles, music, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Until the day comes when we can at least start to describe a fashion and do it in an organized, scientific manner, there will be no hope of understanding, let alone predicting.

Until the day comes when we have a theory of behavior that contains fads and fashions within it, then even with the best descriptions in the world, we still aren’t going to make any progress.

Until then, hang onto that ridiculous object of art your Aunt Sally got you from that yard sale.  It could be worth something.  Someday.

 

Tuning the Turing Test

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Let’s begin with the world’s greatest sci-fi movie: 2001.  This is from Piers Bizony‘s book on the making of 2001 A Space OdysseyIt's Eye-Conic.  Sorry.

Marvin Minsky had no problem understanding that the emptiness of 2001’s dialogue was intentional:

” … And after the momentous statement that the monolith must have been deliberately buried, one of the astronauts says, “Well, how about a little coffee?”  Kubrick’s idea is that the universe is too majestic for short sighted people.”

Trying to understand an “intelligence” that is much greater than our own is going to be a tough job.  Drinking a cup of java while pondering that gulf might be appropriate.

Which brings us to Alan Turing, the godfather of the modern computer.  He suggested a simple test to determine “intelligence.”  He didn’t define the term either, by the way.  What he said was put a person in a room and let them interact with a human, or machine, in a limited way (like through text only) and let them ask questions.

Today, this remains the best test we have of machine intelligence.

Here’s the problem.  What kind of person are you going to put in that room.  For instance, if you put my mother in law, she’s likely to think that the navigator voice in the GPS is already intelligent.  You should see the conversations they have while we drive along.

If you put some genius, like Doug Hofstadter or Doug Lenat in that room, chances are they can ask one question and game over.

So, next time you think of the Turing Test, also consider who you are going to put in that room.  If you’re scientifically oriented, then you want a “standard” human.  Good luck!

In the meantime, I’m going to get some coffee.

Is This All You Got?

If you look closely enough, you can see grandpa.Not canvas, stone, but close enough.

Not really grandpa, but our distant cousins.  Very distant.

In fact, if every generation is good for 25 years, then we’re talking almost 3000 generations ago.  That’s a lot of cousins.

Turns out that we have found some of their earliest artworks.

This is important because, well, it was important to them.

You see, this art wasn’t something that was assigned as a class assignment.  It wasn’t even something that a few crazy teens decided to do in order to assert their independence.

This art took time in every aspect of the word, and of the work.  Time to make the materials.  Time to make fires in order to see the work.  Time to make torches that you took into the cave.  Time to find the cave.  And perhaps most important of all, time to figure out what they were going to represent, artistically.

Here’s the fun part.

Today, we see art everywhere.  It’s all around us.  There is so much art that our appreciation of it has gone pretty much down to zero.

Why should it have been different back then?  Why couldn’t they have scratched art into the sand, the trees, even into themselves?

Chances are that they did.  We can’t see it because of a couple of things.

The first, big thing is that all those other techniques they used are much less permanent than cave painting.

But there’s a second, almost-as-big a thing as the first.

Our minds aren’t quite open to the possibility that they did it.  “Scientists” are still arguing whether or not Neanderthals could have created artwork.  Well, now we know.  The answer is YES.  Only 5,000 years old.Getting them to admit that they made art in any other place than a cave?  They’ll never go for it.

It will be up to some young, up-and-coming young student of behavior to take that bull by the horns and prove it to all the old teachers that yes, Neanderthals liked to express themselves in many ways.

That’s why they need a good theory of behavior.  We do it.  Our ancestors did it.  Why not our distant cousins?

And if not, why not?

In the meantime, I’m going to go make some art that’ll last at least as long.

First, I need a cave.