Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Solving the World Energy Crisis

I was almost distracted and pushed into ranting about how much I hate math but I'll save that for another day. I want to stick with what my primary goal was. To solve the world's energy crisis.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about solving the world's energy crisis. That would be ridiculous. Not only do I think it is too difficult to do in a single blog post, but it would put a lot of people out of work, and I just can't get behind that.

What I am talking about, though, is saving a bit of energy, and not just by my general sense of laziness. I created (in my mind) years ago, a system which would reclaim some small percentage of the energy used by a car. An internal combustion engine generates both heat (which I have heard, is unreclaimable) and exhaust. If the exhaust pipe were to pass across some fan which spun in response to the air pressure of the exhaust, it could spin and generate power somehow. I leave the details up to the scientists out there, but I have always thought it should work, even if just to help charge batteries in that car (in a hybrid system). I'm also talking about getting something to drink.

So did I mention that the family will be taking a vacation in a few weeks? We're going on a boat. Oh, I'm sorry, apparently, the proper term is "a mofo big boat." This boat has two qualities -- it floats in a saltwater ocean and it moves through some form of propulsion. I think back to my high school science class (I don't recall which one...chem, thaumaturgy, whatever) where we discussed how to survive on a desert island, and now I know why I did so poorly on the Regents. There wasn't a single question about being shipwrecked. We discussed water distillation and something like a "gooseneck" something or other. You boil water and then let the steam condense against a cooler surface, then collect the purified (desalinated) water and you drink it. Yay for hydration!

So if a big boat is floating on a saltwater ocean, and being propelled somehow, it must have an engine which is producing heat. If some sea water is subjected to that heat (instead of having heat energy dissipate into the already balmy air) and steam produced, not only could that steam be used to generate electricity, but then it could be condensed against the colder sea water and collected as usable unsalty water. H2O-my-gosh!

Now I'm sure all you Monday morning scientists are finding reasons that it can't work or that it isn't economically viable. But these are the same people who said that we couldn't cure Space Madness.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

musings about knowing things

OK, so I know I recently posted a statement about the inability to "know" anything. I have been getting scads of inquiries about my exact intention. Well, maybe not scads -- one guy in a Craigslist forum criticized me for it. So let me clarify.

Here are some categories of stuff we encounter in real life:

1. Things true systemically or by definition. 1+1 is 2 because we create a system which defines 1 and defines two and gives a property of two that relates to the value we set up for 1. Mathematical proofs are about showing identity or property. Two triangles are congruent if they possess certain qualities which can be listed and which satisfy the definition of "congruent."

1A. Things that can be measured by a standardized measure. The temperature is an example. The property of the air might be "68 degrees" because that is ascertained by an external measurement (thermometer). That property is also not about "knowing" but about assigning a quality.

2. Certain things are perceived/sensed. These things are subjectively "true" but the senses are, to a large extent, standardized, so what I think of as "burning" you think of as burning. While there are levels to values (hot, hotter, hottest) all are based in the individual perception and labeling, not about knowing a transcendent truth/quality. Some of this is empirically based and dependent on whether we trust the senses. Does a chair I am sitting on "exist" because I feel it? Can I know that my memory reflects reality?

3. Certain inferences or conclusions which we draw about our world -- causal links, which allow us to make predictions about the world. This is the kind of "knowledge" which I was referring to when I said that we can't "know" anything. These inferences, while very often accurate and based in probability and repeated positive correlations are not true knowledge, but simply reasonable guesses. We don't "know" that the sun will rise tomorrow but science lets us see that odds are it will. We don't "know" that smoking causes cancer but we have some scientific studies which lead us to conclude a causal link. But we can't KNOW that link, only infer it and ignore variables.

So now you can see what I meant about knowledge.

Friday, July 23, 2010


OK, I will now resume the standard practice of reporting my dreams and random thoughts so that no one has to worry that I am trying to cross the line into social significance.

So I remember that right before I woke up, I had a dream about a new reality show. Apparently, it is called "Chefmurder" and in it, a group of fancy chefs try to take spoiled food and prepare it in such a way that the eater is willing to scarf down the whole thing and die. The point is to take the unpalatable and make it delicious -- so much so that the competing chefs can't help but eat the whole thing. So food is left for a long time to rot and develop various toxins and yet be presentable in a dish. And the whole dead chefs thing is just so much spoiled icing on stale cake.

Then, as I lay awake wondering why I was so obsessed with a reality show about killing chefs, I got to thinking about Sliders. I'm not talking about the little sammiches (though they are SO yummy, and that's how, I guess, I got onto the topic from cooking shows) but about the beloved Science Fiction TV show. In it, characters moved from parallel universe to parallel universe, and each was different. They had to negotiate the differences and survive so that they could go through the next opening and hope that they ended up in their home universe (their gadget having been damaged in the first episode).

So I started considering parallel universes. Maybe, every decision we make spawns a new universe where all else is equal except for that single choice. If so, and knowing the millions of small choices that each person makes every day and billions of people making all these choices throughout history, there must be an ever expanding and infinitely limitless supply of universes parallel to this one (including one where I didn't correct the misspelling of "parallel"). If there are infinite universes, then this group of travellers could never have a chance of finding their home again! Except that most small decision make no discernible difference in the universe. If I have a universe where everything is the same except that I check my email 2 seconds later, then how could anyone else ever be impacted by that? There must then be a similarly limitless number of universes which are effectively identical to our own and on their travels, these characters should have popped into some number of universes which they would not have been able to distinguish from their "original" universe and they could have settled down. In one episode, they did find a similar universe (everything was the same except the Golden Gate Bridge was painted blue), and in one, they came back to their own but decided it wasn't their own because the real life news seemed wacky and a gate which had squeaked no longer did (joke's on them...the news was accurate and a character's mom had oiled the gate). But the point is, the odds of finding a universe which looked like their own would be higher than popping into one which was recognizably different because there are more insignificant decisions made everyday than significant ones so more near-identical universes come into existence than different ones.

Now that I have driven a whole in the logic of a show from the 90's, I'll move forward. Next I'll tell you why the Space: Above and beyond couldn't happen in real life...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

the angry post

So I've been spending some time at the Principal Center at the Harvard Grad School and I have sat through a broad range of classes. Some have been really useful and some have been totally useless. But today's class was particularly problematic and I'd like to explain why. I saw problems on three levels so I'll explain the class and then detail the problems.
The class was focused on the correlation between family involvement in school (both at home and in the school building) and student achievement (as measured on high stakes standardized tests). This correlation was developed in relation to different races and socio-economic groups through a series of direct studies and meta-analyses. OK, enough background. Here are the flaws.
1. The class -- it was simply a review of the presenter's study and not much else.
2. the relevance -- none. It related to large, urban public middle schools
3. the method -- ugh. See, here's the thing. Not only was this associating parental involvement and achievement with race (which then made both factors functions of genetics instead of socialization and culture which can ignore ethnicity) but it begged the question of "what can we know."
I think I have decided that we can't actually "know" anything, ever. Everything we perceive is simply filtered through our senses and is our personal brain's attempt to synthesize experience. We don't have binocular vision -- we have 2 eyes' worth of monocular vision which our brains use to create the illusion of binocular vision. We don't know anything scientifically -- we simply draw conclusions from evidence and assume that those conclusions, when they are borne out often enough, pass for "fact" which we can then know to predict phenomena. Any study, then, tries to accumulate enough sample evidence from which we can draw conclusions and "know" things like causal links. Pure bunk, I say.
In any research based system, the researcher has to be aware that their are variables which make any particular case unique. What he does is throw out variables that he think present variation below a threshold of significance, or which he thinks are accounted for by creating a large enough sample that they can not skew results. But those variables are practically infinite and each small statistical drag, when coupled with the infinite other ones, will add up to make any particular piece of empirical evidence meaningless. So any conclusion drawn by looking at trends established by all these facts which are actually more subtle, complex, and ultimately disparate must be faulty. This happens in a situation like Nielsen ratings. A relatively small sample represents the whole of the US and the assumption is that the behavior of the sample allows one to extrapolate the behavior of the larger group. But that's junk. Does the sample group act sincerely? Are they really representative of the group? Are there outside factors which influence or affect their decisions on any particular day but which wouldn't on another day? There is too much that isn't known or accounted for.

So basically, research and data driven decision making might be a necessary evil, but it is evil. And these studies which were also racist and irrelevant were even more evil. Thanks for listening and, um, yay Harvard?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

you are here but I'm not

Sitting in the still Cambridge morning watching only the pigeons enter Harvard is a pretty arrogant thing for anyone to say. Name and place dropping is the scourge of our time. When you inject into a passing statement the place where something happened, it had better fit into some specific cases:

1. it lends credence to your statement ("well, as I was actually in the airplane at the time, I can assure you that the captain did NOT scream like a little girl")
2. it is necessary information to help identify someone ("I'm in Times Square, under the overturned fat man on Broadway so if you could just call 911, I'll wait")

Beyond that, mentioning where you are is a way of saying "nyah nyah...I'm here and you suck."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

bleepless in Boston

Well, truth be told, it should be cleepless in Cambridge but that wasn't nearly as funny. So I took a little bit of license with my location.

4:22AM in Harvard Square and I can't sleep. In the morning...well, later in the morning, I will be beginning a class at the Harvard School of Education. One week of continuing ed which will, no doubt, reinforce my long standing belief that grad school is useless unless your ultimate goal is to stay out of the workforce.

So I'm sitting around in the hotel's famously uncomfortable bathrobe (why are the sleeves so short). There is a sign that says if I like the robe I can keep it and pay $48. Really? I can? Gosh, lucky me. If you have a pair of pants that itches and rides up, I'd love the opportunity to pay you $67 to keep it.

I have the Police running on Youtube in the background and have been thinking about bands which consistently impress me. Not the classic bands, but more contemporary ones. Which groups keep putting out songs that join the pantheon of classics instead of being flashes in the pan or one/two hit wonders. I mean, no offense to the Georgie Satellites or Katrina and the Waves but they didn't have either the longevity or consistency that I'm talking about.

It strikes me that post-Tom Petty, I can name only the Foo Fighters and Weezer as groups that fit the bill. Maybe the Black-Eyed Peas. You know what I'm talking about -- when you hear a new song that you like and find that it is yet another song by a well established band and you say "holy crap...these guys just don't miss."

The drive up was uneventful. I did see a Maserati with the Massachusetts license plate "Aeros" so I wonder if that was Steven Tyler or something, but as he was driving a sports car and I was in a beat up Honda minivan, and it was raining heavily and he was going 80 in an area with speed traps every 3 miles, I chose not to try and keep up and find out. So Mr. Tyler (or Mr. Perry, if it was you) feel free to send me a line to let me know that you saw me on 84 east yesterday afternoon. We'll share a drink and reminisce about traffic and laugh about how you haven't put out a good song since you kicked the drugs.

The room here at the Charles hotel? Pretty standard. A square with a bed, TV and other assorted furniture. The bars of soap have ingredients like oatmeal, seaweed and coconut. I might as well rub lunch on my face. The fancy bit? A TV built into the bathroom mirror. I'm not sure exactly why but there you have it. The wireless connection is weak and the AC is blowing on the back of my neck. No view to speak of, except in the mirror. I walked through Harvard Square to get my bearings. As unimpressive as I remember it. Too many stores selling me stuff which has as its major selling point that I bought it in Harvard Square. Sure, you can get fancy chocolates or high priced jams but where do you go to buy staples for the food pantry which don't need a certificate of authenticity? There is also no shortage of homeless people. If I'm homeless, I guess there are worse places to panhandle. I gave a guy a dollar. He said "god bless you." At first I thanked him but then I thought about it. If he really had the power to confer god's blessing on me, wouldn't he use that power to get himself a job or a house? Just wondering.