Sunday, January 14, 2018

On TV: Useful Engineering

Quite a while back, in 2011, I wrote a post called "More Junk Science on TV". Since then it's been the most viewed post on this blog, attracting tens of thousands of views, and sparking many comments right to the present day. Today I'm not writing about junk science; I'm writing about an alternative to it.

There's a popular tendency in the reactions to speak of "science" in relation to things that are not properly scientific problems; rather, they are matters of Engineering and/or Mathematics. The difference between these disciplines is not trivial, as I've had to reiterate time and again.

Rather than explain the difference at length here, let's let an engineer do it: this article on Engineering.com is called (conveniently enough), "The Difference Between Science and Engineering".

The difference is well described in this short quote by Henry Petroski:
Science is about knowing, engineering is about doing.
You do not need to know why or, often, even how something works to leverage the fact that it does work in order to successfully complete an engineering endeavour.

Likewise, Mathematics is not Science, not in the slightest. And let's let a mathematician explain that, as in this Mathforum.org post entitled (equally conveniently): "The Difference between Science and Mathematics". Note that these are different differences. Mathematics is not Engineering either.

Some practical definitions:
  • Science is the process of gaining empirical knowledge by means of the Scientific Method: observation, hypothesis, refinement through further observation and experimentation, acceptance as a tentative law ("theory"), and repeat forever. Scientific statements cannot be proven. Rather, they can be supported or refuted by evidence.
  • Mathematics is process of manipulating values (whether they be spaces, as in Geometry, or abstract numbers) according to a set of axiomatic rules. The Scientific Method is not employed. All that's necessary is that the mathematical rules are rigorously self-consistent. Mathematical statements can be proven. That is, they can be shown to be incontrovertibly true within the applicable mathematical ruleset.
  • Engineering is the process of solving real-world problems. Engineers may employ Science and Mathematics as tools, but Engineering itself can be accomplished without explicit knowledge of these disciplines. The 'proof' of an engineering project is that it works.
Please remember this if you're ever tempted to use a phrase beginning with "Science cannot explain..." to object to what is clearly an engineering problem. While the Scientific Method can be employed to suss out the principles used to solve engineering problems, scientists are often not the best people to make the attempt precisely because their expertise is not in the area of practical application.

Also remember it if you're ever tempted to argue that knowledge of complex mathematics must have been available to an engineer without first demonstrating that the mathematical relationships found in an engineering work are not explained as a by-product of the process by which the work was accomplished. For instance, in any engineering work where a wheel (such as a hodometer) was used in measurement, a ratio of pi is not merely unsurprising... it is to be expected . In fact, such relationships are often good clues as to how something was built or how the work was planned. The engineer may readily recognize this even when a mathematician may get bogged down in analyses of the abstract relationships themselves.

Finally,
  • Technology refers to the ways in which these disciplines, as well as skills, are combined and employed as a means of empowerment. Thus, a new technology may evolved from pre-existing scientific or engineering principles. For instance, the technology of baking bricks requires nothing that you did not previously develop for the making of sun-dried bricks and baking of bread. Technology is all about utilization. So it's inaccurate to say that the Ancients "lacked the technology" to accomplish certain feats using the 'primitive' tools available to them. Obviously they had the technology, because they accomplished the task. It's more accurate to say that we lack the technology to do so. Even though our knowledge of science, math, and engineering, taken separately, is vastly more developed and refined, we lack the skills... the knowledge of what specific combination of science, math, and engineering techniques were employed. 
The difference between these disciplines is profound. It's why we use the acronym 'STEM', and not 'S'.

--==//oOo\\==--

With this in mind, I was very pleased to watch the History Channel series Ancient Impossible. Now, this originally aired in 2014, but I didn't see it then, possibly because I don't watch that much television. I found it on the History Channel website, and decided to try it out despite the title looking suspiciously like that of Ancient Aliens. I've rarely been so pleased to have been 'dissapointed'

Season 1, Episode 2, "Moving Mountains", touched on a few of the tasks deemed 'impossible' by my readers/commenters. This particular episode touched on the problems of breaking the defenses of Masada; moving water by means of aqueducts; and moving megalithic stones such as Egyptian obelisks and the stones of the retaining wall at the temple of Baalbek. In only one place does the presentation falter; and that's in depicting some dramatic tension as to whether a specific technique used in aqueduct construction would work. In practice, an engineer would only doubt the quality of his model. He would never entertain serious doubts as to whether an inverted siphon would work. Not only does Physics require it, but these things are commonplace. Several of these devices are present in every modern home. You probably call it a 'trap', and there's one under your sink. For that matter, the water pressure in your home is probably accomplished by means of a water tower, in which case, your whole water supply is delivered by means of inverted siphon.

But I was especially pleased that the episode reminded me of something that I should have passed on to my readers long ago... that being De Architectura, the engineering text written well over 2,000 years ago by the Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio ("Vitruvius").

Of particular interest is Book Ten, which deals with the constructions of machines. Vitruvius focused his effort to describing those things that are useful to engineers, as he deemed it unnecessary to describe those things (wheels, bellows, etc.) that were  that were common in a Roman's everyday life. His text isn't just descriptive; it's explanatory. That's a great thing for us, because it gives us a window into the mind of a Roman engineer, revealing how engineers looked at the world before Newton and the formal establishment of the Scientific Method. Here's what Vetruvius writes regarding the laws of mechanics (as translated by Joseph Gwilt, and available online):
The laws of mechanics are founded on those of nature, and are illustrated by studying the master-movements of the universe itself. For if we consider the sun, the moon and the five planets, we shall perceive, that if they were not duly poised in their orbits, we should neither have light on the earth, nor heat to mature its fruits. Our ancestors reasoned so on these motions, that they adopted nature as their model; and, led to an imitation of the divine institutions, invented machines necessary for the purposes of life. That these might be suitable to their different purposes, some were constructed with wheels, and were called machines; others were denominated organs [Dave's note: sometimes this is translated 'engines']. Those which were found most useful were gradually improved, by repeated experiments, by art, and by the laws which they instituted.
This should be largely familiar to us. Engineering is based on physical laws and is refined through practical application. Vitruvius differs from us mainly in mindset: whereas we think of a distinct separation between nature and artifice, the ancient engineer more explicitly thinks of machines as being the employment of those principles he has observed in nature.

That may sound like a subtle distinction, so let's phrase it a bit more crudely for effect: The modern engineer conquers Nature; the ancient engineer uses it. While this isn't completely accurate (technically speaking, all of physics is natural), the modern engineer often brute-forces solutions, and (lacking manpower) builds machines to apply that brute force. The ancient engineer employs manpower to assist nature in accomplishing the task for him. The further back in time you go, the more this must hold true, as there were fewer machines. The Romans themselves represent an intermediate step between mechanization and earlier techniques.

We use brute-force mechanization for its advantages, one of which is the reduction of manpower. However, it also eliminates the need for the intermediate steps that had previously been employed, and replaced, by mechanization. Eventually, the intermediate steps aren't even considered. After all, who would build giant ramps by hand only to tear them all down again? The answer: someone who wants to get the job done.

If we follow that principle backward, we can more readily see its application to megalithic works. Vitruvius himself (and it's in the referenced episode) describes enclosing a block in a wooden frame that effectively transforms it into a wheel and axle (Vetruvius, book 10, chap. 2, para. 12). allowing it to be easily rolled. Moving a huge block alone would be difficult, but the the Roman engineers did not do that; they moved a device of which the multi-ton block was a component. This is not secret, esoteric knowledge. Vetruvius' book was well-known. But it was forgotten and "re-discovered" several times.

(image source)
Such is the case with all such techniques, whether it's been re-discovered in the present or not.  For instance, obelisks were raised by using gravity, not working against it. A ramp would be constructed and the obelisk pulled up the ramp, base-first. Tipped over the edge, the obelisk descends upon its base by means of gravity. 'Magical' tech is simply not required. Then again, neither is advanced math or science. Just common sense: rolling is easier than carrying; dropping is easier than lifting. A wheel isn't just a mode of transportation; it's a wickedly accurate measuring device. Counterweights assist and levers multiply force.

Even when it pushes the dramatic tension (and let's not forget the sensationalist dross it must compete with), the Ancient Impossible series is a breath of fresh air.  It can help you to re-think the plausibility of ancient engineering feats so you don't resort to dismissing the accomplishments that deserve a healthy dose of respect.

And I highly recommend you read Vetruvius' work, as it will help you get into the mindset of an ancient engineer. Through it you can take a step toward understanding the past, and perhaps open up a mind that may have been clenched tight around baseless fantasies.

Since the online version has no illustrations, try this one [PDF].



Saturday, December 30, 2017

When 'Slippery Slope' Isn't a Fallacy

Casual logicians often parrot the assertion that "Slippery Slope" is a logical fallacy. It must be... they read it on the Internet. However, repeating what you've read doesn't substitute for thought and proper application, and a Slippery Slope is only a logical fallacy under specific circumstances; those being when the conclusion doesn't follow from the facts. As a fallacy, I'd say it's a special case of non-sequitur (disguised by a series of weak links instead of an immediately stated conclusion that doesn't fit the facts).

At other times, it's no fallacy at all; and that's when the chain of events to the conclusion do follow from the premise... and moreso, when the conclusion is actually demonstrated.

For instance, look at this faulty description of a "Slippery Slope" argument:
"If we allow gay marriage, the next thing we know, people will want to marry their dogs, or their cats, or what about their pigs?"
The problem here is that those -- exactly -- do in fact happen. Here's one website that describes twelve cases: marriage to dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, a dolphin, and even frogs. You can google more on your own.

Those who employ this particular example are engaging in a more egregious example of their own: the "Suppressed Evidence" fallacy. Because the hard evidence doesn't support their own conclusions, they simply choose to pretend that it doesn't exist. They reject objective reality and substitute their own.

This segues nicely into the topic of dysphoria, which takes us to this article in the National Post:
Becoming disabled by choice, not chance: 'Transabled' people feel like impostors in their fully working bodies
Here we have examples of people who now claim to be "trans-abled"; and who then have elective surgery performed, or mutilate their own bodies, to better fit their self-image of being disabled... lame, blind, etc.

This is a type of delusion: somatic, which is a delusion that the person has some physical defect or general medical condition.

Other examples are those of people who claim to be trans-species, or trans-age.

To be clear, such people are mentally ill. Keep in mind that calling this a "delusion" has nothing to do with fear or hatred. There is no emotion in the recognition of facts. A delusion is readily defined: As phrased by Wikipedia, "a delusion is a mistaken belief that is held with strong conviction even when presented with superior evidence to the contrary."

Superior evidence could include the following:
  • You have a full set of working limbs; therefore you are not a paraplegic.
  • You are a human, right down to the DNA; therefore you are not a cat.
  • You have an X and a Y chromosome; therefore you are not a woman.
Delusions are often harmless. A person with delusional disorder can be high-functioning; holding down a job, paying bills, socializing normally (except for their sometimes quirky idosyncracies). They shouldn't persecuted, because persecuting someone makes you a dick. But being free from persecution doesn't mean they're not still delusional. Nor does it mean that it is "the right thing" to force other, non-delusional, people to enable their dysfunction. I'd say "the right thing" is self-evident: to help them over their difficulties, if possible.

No, I'm not a psychiatrist. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to recognize dysfunction when you see it, or to employ logic, or to to recognize the difference between a person's claims about their "identity" and the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary. And as psychiatrists go, I think you'd have to be a pretty damned poor one to ignore that evidence yourself. And let's look at those claims, please... although every strand of DNA in a body shows the person to be one thing, this is discarded in favor of a pattern of behavior. Get that? Rather than conclude that the pattern of behavior is the issue, the conclusion is that every cell of every organ in the body is wrong. That's not even rational.

And while there are cases where hormonal imbalances exist, and other organs play a part; the conclusion drawn by enablist psychiatry is that the behavior is the deciding factor. Once this decision is made even once, and because the initial step itself ignores overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it's not possible to justify a distinction between one kind of dysphoria (which is "ok") and other kinds (that are not). Hence, the slippery slope is real, and we do see people marrying their pets, and we do see people cutting off their limbs, and we do see medical professionals who stepped onto that slope not merely rationalizing mutilation and bestiality; but performing mutilations themselves; and we do see people who want this "normalized".

A "Slippery Slope" is not a fallacy when it's the news.



Saturday, December 23, 2017

Junk Science Alert

I haven't posted about junk science for a while, so I went looking for some... and I found it! An English author, Graham Hancock, has written a couple of books -- "Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization" and "Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization" -- in which he attempts to fill Erich von Daniken's shoes.

Fortunately for me, I don't have to debunk these, as Skeptic magazine is doing a fine job. So I'm just going to lay this link down here for your perusal:



An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods
BY MARC J. DEFANT


Göbekli Tepe (megalithic site in Turkey)
Photo by Rolfcosar via Wikimedia Commons






Thursday, December 21, 2017

"But he hasn't got anything on!"


My favorite author of all time is Hans Christian Andersen (and it pained me to see "The Little Mermaid" bastardized by Disney). 

As evidence of his prophetic genius, I present for your consideration "The Emperor's New Clothes", a story of a multitude of "wise" people who proclaimed the existence of things not in evidence and spouted utter bullshit in the face of plain and obvious truths, simply because it served their vanity to do so. 

And though these views were popularly accepted by an easily manipulated public, eventually a younger generation saw the truth... that despite the impassioned claims of those who thought themselves enlightened and learned, there was in fact nothing there. 

I leave it to you to ponder the applicability of this morality tale.





Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Cure for Hiccoughs

Hiccoughs (aka "hiccups") are funny, but can be embarrassing and annoying. Most of the folk cures for it (scaring the victim, breathing in a bag, drinking water, etc.) are obtrusive and do not work.

Here's a cure I developed many years ago. It's simple, it's imperceptible to those around you... and thus far, it's always worked. There are a few steps, but they're easy, easy, easy.

  1. Close your mouth. Make sure that your upper teeth are touching the lowers, but do not clench your teeth. Simply close your jaw and your lips.
  2. Place the tip of your tongue against your upper teeth where they meet the gum.
  3. Flatten out the front of your tongue against the roof of your mouth so that your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth and all of your upper teeth. It doesn't hurt to suck in the back of your tongue just a little. This should be comfortable. Do not press hard.
  4. Breathe in and out a few times through your nose. Do it naturally. Don't force your breath, and do not hold your breath either at the exhale or the inhale. Just let the air flow in and out.
That's pretty much it. It usually takes about three or four breaths for the hiccoughs to disappear, but you may have to do it a little longer if your timing was unfortunate and you had a nice big "HIC" early in the process. Again, do not force, clench or press. This should be totally relaxed and natural. I used to have frequent hiccoughs, but for years I've simply held my mouth that way when not talking or eating, and I rarely if ever get them any more.

I could go out on a limb and give you some theory as to why this works, but it would be bullshit. The fact is, I have no idea why it works. It just does; and not just for me. So far it's worked on practically everyone I've shown it to. I was in a pharmacy one day, and met a little girl, about 10 years old, and her mother. The girl had chronic hiccoughs. I coached her through this exercise, and they disappeared, at least for the remainder of their visit. And if they ever came back, this is such a simple, easily remembered exercise that she could always apply it again. Her mother was flabbergasted. Maybe it was just my coaching technique, but "Mom" asked me if I was some kind of hypnotist. Nope... just observant.

--==//oOo\\==--

Since you've gotten this far, here's a bonus "cure", for gag reflex, particularly effective for denture wearers.
Blow your nose.
That's it. When you feel your gag reflex, close your mouth and snort. If you're congested, you'll probably want a tissue or handkerchief, but most of the time a good sharp exhale through the nose will cause the gag reflex to instantly abate.

Again, I don't know why this works. It just does.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

I finally got The Joke.

A few days ago, I threw out a joke about sponsoring cats. It was a parody of the old Sally Struthers sponsor-a-child-in-Africa charity drive. What I didn't expect was that people would actually want to sponsor a cat. "Their" cat. In my home. A cat which they cannot love, pet, cuddle or hold. A cat which they can enjoy only vicariously, from afar, through the photos that they'd expect to receive. And yet, I got several takers.

My reaction was a resounding "WTF!"

I wrote a blog post, and told my son about it. His reaction was, "what's wrong with that?" The husband of an online friend thought likewise.

And I realized that the world has literally gone mad. It's not people's willingness to pay for my cats' food that floors me... it's that absurdity has been normalized.

It's as if this isn't the universe I was born in. It's as if I'm caught in some sort of "Flashpoint" where a new universe spins off with every joke I tell. It's absurd, but it would explain why every single parody product I've ever imagined (and there are dozens of them) is now actually sold as a serious product. Given my experience, I'm debating whether I should be holding on to this "Flashpoint" joke on the slim possibility that it isn't a joke.

It's now my conviction that Poe's Law is mis-stated. It's not that a parody of extreme views is indistinguishable from the views themselves; it's that extreme views cannot be parodied, because the views cannot be made more ridiculous than they already are. The best you can do is faithfully re-state the views and let the audience decide which side of the theater they're going to sit in.

Furthermore, I've now concluded that the only person in real life or fiction who's ever understood this completely is...

(drum roll)... 

By Source, Fair use, Link
The Joker. 

Yeah. The Batman villain.

For decades, the Joker has teased Batman with the idea that there is some "joke" that motivates his murderous rampage. Whatever it is, it's hilarious, but he's never actually stated it, not even in "The Killing Joke". Every other character concludes that he's batshit crazy, a chaotic element; and they lock him up in an insane asylum, melt down the key to slag, and pray to God in Heaven that he doesn't escape... again.

But now I know the Joke. And it's funny.

Not only that, it makes the Joker the sanest person in the DC Universe... or this one, for that matter.

The Joker isn't a murderous psychopath. He never has been.

He's a parody of one.




BTW, if you haven't figured it out, this is a joke. Without a disclaimer, I'm pretty sure this post will put me on somebody's watchlist. Hell, it might happen with a disclaimer. But to the extent that it's a serious explanation for the Joker's motivation... think about it.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

(Almost) All Superheroes are Orphans

My son and I were discussing the dearth of superheroes with parents in the DC Universe. We do a schtick where Batman is being all self-pitying and the other heroes admit that they're all orphans, too; and it didn't reduce them to brooding psychopaths. And since the trend in comics is toward social justice, I figured, why don't they just go all in and stop pussy-footing around?
FLASH: Hey, Batman. 
BATMAN: Flash. Where've you been? 
FLASH: Oh, I've been scouring the Multiverse, looking for superheroes who aren't orphans. 
BATMAN: Let me guess... you didn't find any. 
FLASH: Well, I found this guy. 
NEW GUY: Hello. 
BATMAN: You have parents? 
NEW GUY: Oh, yeah. Mom AND Dad! 
BATMAN: And they're not dead? 
NEW GUY: Nope! Safe and sound. 
BATMAN: But they're evil or something, right? 
NEW GUY: Uhm, no... they're pretty great, actually. They really love me and support everything I'm doing! I don't know how I'd get along without them. Came pretty close one time, though... 
FLASH: Oh, this is a good story! 
BATMAN: (glares) 
NEW GUY: Well, this one time my parents took me to the movies, and then a petty crook pulled a gun on us in a back alley! I thought we were goners! But I pushed Mom and Dad out of the way at the last minute. The crook ran away. I was only eight years old, but I decided then and there that I'd devote my life to making it so that guys like that wouldn't have to stoop to a life of crime. 
BATMAN: So your powers are... what, exactly? 
NEW GUY: Well, I'm rich. I fight crime by building shelters for the homeless, and by giving away money. 
BATMAN: You said this guy was a superhero. 
FLASH: In all fairness, he builds a lot of shelters. 
NEW GUY: I give away a lot of money, too. 
FLASH: Yeah, there's that. 
BATMAN: But... criminals... 
NEW GUY: The "bad guys" usually just turn out to be needy. I remember my first case. There was this nightclub comic. He was having a really bad night. Looked like he was preoccupied, and it was messing up his act. So I bought him a drink and asked him what was wrong. Turns out his wife was pregnant and he was desperate. And when a guy gets desperate like that there's no telling what sort of trouble he might get into. So I gave him ten grand on the spot. Oh, man, was he grateful! It was like a huge weight had been lifted off of him! And it showed in his act! His timing picked up, his delivery improved... he had the crowd in stitches. Went on to become the biggest name in show biz. There are a lot of comics in the world, but this guy is THE Joker! Named his kid after me! 
BATMAN: FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHH!!!