Thursday, October 24, 2019

Science is Different

I've heard people say recently that the "intelligent design" theory should be taught alongside the theory of evolution, as they are both theories and should have equal representation in the schools.  Science, therefore, is really just another religion.

No, it isn't.  It is different in a very important way.

If you talk to a scientist about something he believes, some theory about the way things are, and suggest that he is wrong, the scientist will lean forward and ask you why you think what you do.  They will ask for details, challenge your evidence, and seek to understand your thought process.  If you can convince them that you are right and they are wrong, this is a great day for that scientist.  Being wrong is exactly what they want to happen.  The entire scientific method is designed to discover where our theories are incorrect or where there are things we simply didn't know at all.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it this way: "I love being wrong because that means, in that instant, I learned something new that day."  If you confirm that a scientist is right, that's fine, but they won't get excited.  You are telling them something they already know.  The entire purpose of science is to uncover new truth.

Religion, on the other hand, requires that it is always right.  A religious person already knows the nature of God, that he exists and what he wants from us.  They have texts they study because they believe the texts are absolutely correct.  Their own personal understanding of them might be lacking, and so they will engage in "Bible study" or something similar, but the thing they are studying is unassailably correct.  It must be.

If you tell a religious person that you believe something different than they do, they will assail your beliefs,  They will react with anger and feel insulted.  They will call you a name, like "infidel". They may, in fact, decide to kill you.  They may decide, because you believe differently than they do, that they are justified in blowing you up, or flying a jumbo jet into your building, or burning you alive.

Religion says it knows the truth already,

If Science knew everything already, then it would cease to be necessary and the entire scientific effort would stop. If course, we'll never know everything, and so science will go on as long as there are people with curiosity and intellect.

If a religion were to be shown to be wrong, it would die.  That's why religious people react to challenges the way they do.  Being wrong is dangerous and scary.  You are threatening something they've committed to, perhaps given money to, maybe raised their children to believe.  The cognitive dissonance they feel when you tell them they are wrong is intolerable to them.

They have to shut you up.  And so they will.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Concentration Camps

No, they are not "detention centers".  They are concentration camps.

Definition: a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area.

We are putting these people in these camps as punishment, to deter others from coming over the border.  We are separating them from each other, from their children.  We are feeding them poorly and putting them into inhumane conditions.  Some of them are dying.

Some are comparing the Trump regime to the Nazi regime, and of course many roll their eyes at this and say it's Godwin's Law, that everyone always plays that card when the argument gets nasty.  Not this time.

When Hitler started out he was not Hitler as we think of him now. He was a politician exploiting a political situation to gain power. Many thought he was silly, or stupid.  Over time, piece by piece, it turned into what it ultimately became.

We are on that path, make no mistake. The congress basically refusing to act, Trump's supporters digging in their heels (and starting to wear the same shirts and hats), the identified "other" in our midst (undocumented workers instead of jews) that's causing all our woes, and the beginnings of an international crisis to galvanize the most violent of his cadre.

Add the concentration camps to all of that. We're not in the "beginning" of this, we're well into it, and if we don't take action history tells us what to expect.

Take it seriously.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Checks and Balances are Gone

Mitch McConnell, current majority leader of the US Senate, has stated publicly that we will not bring any bills to the senate floor unless they have the support of the president.  This was a fairly stunning abdication of his responsibility as the leader of a major part of our government that is meant, among other things, to serve as a check and balance to the executive branch.  He has basically said he now does whatever the president wants.

The recent midterms put the democrats in charge of the House of Representatives.  Nancy Pelosi is Mitch McConnell's counterpart in that legislative body.  She has stated that she will not support a bill of impeachment unless she has bipartisan support, which would of course include the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Senate will not act unless the president agrees.  The House will not act unless the Senate agrees.  This essentially elevates the president to the level of a dictator.  A dictator who is stuffing the judiciary with judges sympathetic to him and his agenda.

How is it possible that our system has so completely collapsed?

Is it citizen's united, and the flood of money into politics?
It is the rise of balkanized journalism in the form of cable news?
Is it corrupt social media, and/or foreign governments manipulating us?
Is it the re-emergence of virulent racism as a reaction to the first black president?

Has this country run its course?  Are we seeing the final days of Rome?

Bernie Frustrates Me

...not because I think he is wrong, but because he seems to miss the obvious opportunities to communicate.

Case in point: it turns out his book did very well and now he's a "millionaire", seemingly causing him a problem since he is the guy who constantly rails against "millionaires and billionaires".

Isn't it completely obvious what his message should be?

"Yes, I have made a lot of money recently, and you know what? Now that I am a millionaire I still think millionaires should pay their fair share of taxes. If I didn't, you could rightly call me a hypocrite, but I do. And if I ever became a billionaire I'd still feel the same way. Making money is not the problem. Avoiding your social responsibilities is."

This has been the problem with him all along.  He calls himself a "democratic socialist" then does not adequately explain what that is.  He does not point out that the military, first responders,  interstate highway system, sewage processing, etc... are all socialist programs, and that the country has always been a mix of socialism and capitalism.  And because he does not do this, the right calls him a "communist" and writes him off.

Bernie, you are right.  You just need to learn how to communicate.  You have John Kerry disease, and you need a really good communications director to cure it.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Mueller Report

What a disaster.

The pundits on the left are furiously trying to couch this in terms of "we have not seen the report yet" and "the SDNY has not weighed in" and so forth.

None of this matters. 

It does not matter what the report says, it matters what Trump and his supporters will claim it says, and they will beat the "no collusion" drum constantly.  It will drown out every other piece of information.

It does not matter what the SDNY does, because that won't happen for at least two years, and by then Trump will have been re-elected (in which case he will be safe from prosecution) or not, in which case it won't really matter.

No, what matters is what the Democrats do in their primary process, and whether or not the Green party decides to mount another Quixotic campaign that splits the vote and, just like with Bush/Gore, hands the republicans another win.  If the democrats cannibalize themselves (again) and/or a third party peels off enough votes, then all the GOP has to do is bring out the base.

And the Mueller report gives them everything they need to do that.

A disaster.  Prepare for the second Trump administration.

Monday, January 14, 2019

TSA This Morning

Today I had to fly for work.  It is the 23rd day of the partial government shutdown, and I arrived at the airport not knowing what to expect.

I got here really, really early because I was afraid there would be lines due to lack of manpower.  This was not the case.  Not because the TSA people are being paid; they are not.  But they are here, in full force, and I experienced no delays or other issues because of that.

I thanked every one of them.  I told them they had my support, and one of them smiled and then said "I only wish the president supported us."

If only.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Power of Disagreement in Collaboration

I’m an old guy.  When I was young, in the early days of personal computers, I worked mostly worked on my own… developing software with me, myself, and I, as they say.  I did not see other computer programmers as my colleagues.  I saw them as my competition.  There really was not enough work for all of us and I wanted to be the one who knew things.  So, if I knew something useful and/or powerful I didn’t tell anyone about it.  I kept it to myself and increased my value to potential employers.

By and large we don’t live in that world anymore.  Most of the time we work in teams, collaboratively, and our work is also often dependent on the work of other teams, vendors, technology we did not create.  This brings the importance of effective collaboration and communication into sharp relief.

One example of this is when we disagree.  Disagreement can be an incredibly useful thing.  If you think X and I think Y, and I want to convince you of the value of my point of view, then I must think more deeply about what that is, and why.  It causes me to consider what I believe from another perspective, namely yours.  Your push-back will cause me to think yet more deeply, and perhaps incorporate some of what you are saying into what I think.  The same can be true for you.  Together, we may achieve a much more profound truth than either of us would have on his own.

But this only happens if the disagreement is cordial and non-threatening, if we can avoid the dysfunctional aspects of disagreeing with someone.  Here we can run into a particularly tricky roadblock when it comes to people who work in technical jobs.

Techies are paid, among other things, to be smart.  This is an intellectual business after all.  The idea that I may not know something that (perhaps) others think I should know can be very threatening, and can cause me to act defensively.  This does not lead to effective collaboration.

This comes up in my job as a teacher.  I teach classes in technical subjects like Design Patterns and Test-Driven Development, among other things.  Naturally, my students in these courses are technical people.  A classroom has a lot of similarities with a team; there is a leader to be sure (the teacher) but the engagement is more effective when it is highly collaborative.  Because of this I don’t want all information to come didactically, from me.  I want it to be a mix of me, my students, experiences, collaboration, and so on.  Part of this means that I, on a pretty regular basis, will pose a question to the room and ask the students to try to answer it.

Very early in my experience as a teacher I noticed that this tended to produce a lot of silence.  This varies by student group, of course, but it was not uncommon for the students to just stare at me rather than try to answer my question in front of the other students.  I gradually realized that this was often because nobody wanted to be shown to be wrong.  The whole idea was too threatening.

So, I came up with a technique for overcoming this, and I use it whenever I encounter a group of students that seem to be unwilling to “take a chance” at answering a question.  I think it can be equally useful on a team where people seem unwilling to yield even the slightest point to one another.  I call it…

The King Henry School of Argument

If you have seen “The Lion In Winter”, then you’ll recognize why I use this term.  If not, see it!  Two bucks on YouTube, and you’ll thank me. I even gave you the link. Anyway, here’s what I do:

I pick a student who seems relatively willing to interact with me.  Let’s call him Jason.  I start by asking him, personally, a question where he cannot possibly be wrong because it is about his own opinion.

Me: Jason, tell me, what is your favorite movie?
Jason: Um, I suppose it’s “Scott Pilgrim vs, The World.”
Me: Oh, I like that one too.  I particularly loved the way Andy Samberg portrayed Scott Pilgrim.
Jason: No, Scott Pilgrim was played by Michael Cera, not Andy Samberg.

I pretend to press the argument for a few minutes, even though of course I know Jason is correct.  Finally, I bring up the IMDB on the projector screen in the room and look up the film in front of the entire classroom.   Naturally when I look up the movie in question it confirms that Michael Cera played the part just as Jason claimed.  I pretend to be surprised by this.

I then turn to the room and ask the group “who won the argument?”  Almost without exception, everyone agrees that Jason won and I lost.  But I then point out that Jason came into the argument with the same information he left it with, namely that Michael Cera played Scott Pilgrim in the film.  I, on the other hand, have left the same argument with new information that I did not previously have and also I have corrected a mistake in my memory.  I have gained something from the interaction, whereas Jason has not (except perhaps a minor stroke to his ego).  To these old eyes, that looks like winning (that’s what I learned from King Henry in the aforementioned film).

I then, of course, own up to the fact that this was all a ruse.  Gotta keep things honest.  The point was to shift their point of view.

When we collaborate, the value we bring to one another is what we can contribute, each to the other.  If you already know everything then my value to you is limited or non-existent.  In the classroom, I point out that if a group of students is already “right” about everything then coming to class with me is a waste of time.  They have come, I submit, to gain knowledge they don’t already possess.  Revealing what those gaps are is just part of the process of learning.  And, by the way, I point out that I always learn from things my students because I am not afraid to admit that they sometimes know things I do not.

Of course, my real intention is to change the interaction from a threatening one to one of promise.  I also believe what I am saying to be the truth.  Nobody knows everything.  We operate in an environment of constant change and innovation, and staying current can be a real challenge.  If we take down the mostly pride- and fear-based impediments then we can be true colleagues, and everyone will benefit from them.

So will the products we create, and the customers that benefit from them.