May 25, 2012

I Have A New Laser

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I like science. There is just so much about it that is awesome. Look at all the toys that science gives us, like R/C Cars and helicopters (Did I mention I got a new laser pointer?) Or what about all of those handy dandy tools, gadgets, and gizmos that we have, thanks to science. You've got things like power tools and non-stick pans and the triumvirate of computers, cell phones, and the internet. If nothing else, the lifesaving technologies that we have available to us (thanks vaccines!) are rooted in science. If you're of a more philosophical nature, when we seek to understand the world we expand our potential both as a species and as individuals. The knowledge that the scientific process creates can be used to enrich our lives. It can create new markets and new ways for people to exhibit their genius. Plus, science makes fireworks more awesome.

If I had to choose a favorite aspect of science then I must say that it is the scientific mindset. I like the idea of curiosity run rampant. But a curiosity self-tempered by critical analysis and empirical observation. I want to know about the world. I want to understand how it works. I find joy and beauty in reality. There is a depth and breadth of ideas available to me. There is a multitude of ways to explain the world. Some are right and some are wrong, and it is through critical analysis and empirical evidence that I can tell the difference. To me, the scientific mindset is innately curious, rigorous in its self-examination, skeptical, and above all, absolutely in love with the real world. That resonates with me.*

I think that what I find most attractive about this way of thinking is its versatility. The tools and techniques used in biological chemistry are vastly different from those used in astrophysics. How a historian goes about their business is different than that of a sociologist. The very nature of the topic explored dictates such changes. Yes, there is a ton of overlap between areas, and they all make use of mathematics. They may have surface differences, but they are fundamentally the same thing. And it is precisely that fundamental similarity that I am talking about. The drive to understand the world through logic and empiricism underscores much of science.

I have long thought that the mind of science could have much more widespread use than it does now. Consider social programs, such as foreign and domestic aide. We have to get a grapple on the magnitude and complexity of the problems; we have to find their cause. We have to figure out ways to cure or alleviate the symptoms, and we need ways to check that our plans are working. We could also consider civic law. What laws work, which don't? What are the ultimate goals of our laws? How can we know, for sure, that a law is no longer needed or has caused more trouble than it cured?

I wish to be clear. I'm not making the claim that we need more science literate people in congress. We most certainly do, but the effort is wasted if there isn't a corresponding rise in scientific thinking. We don't just need more science knowledge at play in our political system, we need a more systematic way of understanding our society. With a country as large and complex as ours, in world as large and complex as ours, we need some way to see what's going on. We can't just think up something, fight for it in congress, and hope things get better once it passes. We have to do research to make sure we haven't missed anything. We have to hypothesize an idea for what could work. We have to test this hypothesis out. This could involve more research, questionnaires, field studies or pilot programs. Once we have as much data, as much knowledge, as much understanding, of the problem and our solution as possible, we can then make it into law. We would of course do follow up studies to ascertain that program’s effectiveness, and we would always be open to the idea that there is a better way of doing things.** Given our current situation, any step in this direction is going be a step in the right direction.

I would begin with the political process itself.  As a citizen, I want to know as much as I can about issues and candidates. What has this person voted for in the past, what bills have they fought for? Speaking of, what about having an easily accessible repository of bills? You could link this in with a candidates voting history for a whole heaping helping of juicy data. I want to have such things because I want to make an informed decision when it comes time to vote. I want to see metrics galore of our society, with lots of statistical analysis. I want to see this data used to determine what works and what doesn't. I want us to lose our need of campaign promises and flawless leaders. I want us to lose our fear of failure.  In short, I want us to embrace the scientific mentality so that we can rationally decide what the best course for our society is.

That being said, it is unsurprising that I liked this article by Mark Henderson for The Guardian. He starts with a quick rundown of how science acts like an idea sieve, separating the good ideas from the bad. He then moves into the lack of the experimental thinking in government. He claims each new piece of legislation is a social experiment. Yet unlike with medicine, there are no experimental trials or pilot programs.

He then elaborates his point by putting forward several areas that could use a touch of experimental thinking, a dash of scientific reasoning. He hypothesizes that the school day be modified to match teen’s circadian rhythms. He also proposes a way to empirically prove which works better, prison or rehabilitation for drug offenders. He also shares his ideas on how foreign aid may benefit from scientific thought.

He certainly makes a compelling case, at least one argued better than mine. I truly think that, especially in a democracy, we need all the facts we can get. Science is great for that!


*Which makes sense, since it's my definition
**A bit idealistic, I know. Ideals are perfect, and we can never achieve perfection. But we can come close. Just because something is impossible is no reason to stop trying.

May 22, 2012

SpaceX Launches Today

Ok, so like everybody is talking about how awesome SpaceX is right now. I certainly won't be the first, nor the last, nor the most eloquent. But there is good reason to celebrate today, for today marks the beginning of a new era. You see, they launched their Falcon 9/Dragon combo into orbit. Flawlessly.

Dragons Breath Fatality - SpaceX Wins

Not only that, but this marks the start of a two week mission vetting the Dragon spacecraft. For the next three days it will engage in a series of tests before actually docking with the ISS. It will stay attached for ten days, giving the crew time to unload the cargo and load up Dragon for the return journey. Oh yeah, did I mention that Dragon is the only resupply vehicle that can bring stuff back down? 

So yeah, today was pretty big. I would say just go ask a SpaceX employee, but there probably isn't on near you. Instead, listen in on the wild cheers (at 12:44 a.m. no less) in the webcast of the launch. Those people are going freaking nuts! You have to check it out at 56:30 and especially at 58:30. No private company has launched, orbited, and retrieved a space capsule. No one except SpaceX. They are now in the middle of the mission that will make them first in a new era of commercial space activity. The sky is no longer the limit, thanks to SpaceX.


May 21, 2012

A Trend In Aberrations

I was fiddling around with Google trends today and noticed something weird. The trend for 'science' showed a clear pattern. I didn't do much other than note the oddity before moving on. But then I noticed something weird. Their was a striking similarity between the two trend lines of 'science' and 'religion', unsettling as if someone just repeated themselves without realizing it. Both trends seem fairly stable through the first part of the year, usually hanging out above 1. Near the middle of the year there is a noticeable drop in searches for both terms, with a rise back to above 1 by the end of  the year. Upon closer examination, there is a mysterious double dip in both trends, one in November and one in December. What could explain this correlation? Could it just be coincidence?

During the winter you're not out and about as much, and so are spending more time indoors doing more stationary hobbies, and you are more likely to be reading up on thoughtful subjects like science or religion. But there are still odd things happening. Sure, 'religion' sometimes gets a boost around Easter (especially in the U.S.) But what about the double dip at the end of the year? Each November there is a drop in both terms, followed by a rise through the middle of December, with another fall to the end of the year. Why such synchronicity? I like to think it is caused by holidays and travel arrangements. Looking at the graphs for "holiday travel" one can certainly see upswings right at the same time that 'science' and 'religion' nose dive. And there does seem to be a minor upsurge in searches for 'travel' during the summer, right along with the drops in the other two terms. I would also note that the summer plunge for 'religion' and 'science' coincides with the middle of May and the middle of August, right when school gets back in. There is a discrepancy between 'travel'-related searches and 'science/religion' searches, namely there is a big upsurge in 'travel' searches during January, but without a corresponding drop for the first two terms. But that may well be explained by people writing about their holiday travels, rather than actually leaving their house.

So I think I can, tentatively at least, conclude that the similar patterns exhibited by peoples search behavior in regards to 'religion' and 'science' (Specifically, a drop during the summer months, a rise during the winter, with a double dip in that rise occurring in November and December) is due to seasonal variability: When it is cold and snowy outside, people stay inside more. This means they spend more time on the computer, as well as having more time to engage in stationary pursuits, leading to a rise in searches for those two terms.

Further research is certainly required to completely answer this question. What effect does school have on the searches? The average number of searches for the two terms during the summer is half what it is during the winter, while searches related to 'travel' only upswing marginally during the summer. Are school age people doing most of the investigation of these two terms? What other terms have similar trends? What's up with science between 2003 and 2004?*

It was right around that point when I noticed there was another weird trend. Each year, right at January, there would be a huge spike in both trends. More specifically, the trend is always less on December 31st than it is for January 1st the following year. Why the sudden rise? There was usually a slight rise right at the end of December, but January would always start significantly higher than December ended. My first thought was that the new year had a part to play in this. But since the change is so rapid (overnight), and the trends after January 1st are fairly consistent, I'm lead to assume that Google trends averages for each year at max, and thus has to readjust each year in order to display on a multi-year graph. But then that implies that we are consistently seeking out these two terms less and less each and every year. This also is occurring with 'dentist', 'travel', 'home', and 'abroad'. Are we truly becoming less and less interested with the world, or is this some graphing problem with Google Trends?

Damn you random internet research!

I see your answer, and raise you another question! 

*Hypothetically (more accurate than theoretically) I could try and do the research necessary to answer these questions, but I'm not gonna. I think if I go any further I will start to verge into actual science or obsession. More likely the latter, but if the former than I am woefully inadequate for the task.

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May 02, 2012

A Letter To My Favorite Delivery Driver

I get it, I really do. I used to be a delivery driver for DHL, so I know how rushed you can be at times. I also know that sometimes you will try and finish your delivery route quickly so you can run errands before you have to start picking up packages. I get it, I really do.

But seriously, try waiting longer than the time to knock three times and say UPS before leaving. Especially if you hear someone inside saying "Hang on a sec" We have lives to live, articles to read, and we cannot always be huddled by the door waiting, waiting, waiting for you to arrive. Sometimes I'll be as far away from the door as 20 feet! I know this may seem entirely unreasonable to you, for me to make you wait the fifteen seconds it takes me to get to the door. But sometimes I have to take my hand off the door knob to use the bathroom, or make myself something to eat. Sometimes I like to rebel a little and sit on my couch, all of five feet from the door. It does take me some time to get to the door, and I know this.

So I apologize if I make you wait for me. Well, no I don't. You're being completely unreasonable here, UPS delivery driver (Not all, but one in particular. You know who you are, and you probably don't read this blog [probability that you do: 1 in 1.4 billion, est]) I have been literally right next to my door when you knocked, and I almost got an Infonotice glued to my face for my fast reaction time. You don't even bother to see if I'll actually answer the door before filling out your little sticker and putting it up. But at least you do put up the notice.

About seventy percent of the time. Oh, the patience I have practiced while waiting for my frivolous purchases to arrive! Only to have the delivery date come and go, with nary a word as to what's happened. Is it at the office? Has the shipment been delayed? Returned? Stuffed in a tiny office in Commerce city, like as happens when you don't feel like waiting thirty seconds for me to open the door? With an infonotice I at least know what's up, but without it I am floundering in a see of misery whilst waiting for Stargate coasters and cool laser pointer to arrive.

I get it, I really do. It can be hard to make all the deliveries on time, especially on holidays. And also apparently Tuesdays. And Wednesdays. And really anytime you make a delivery because you don't realize that people are not waiting, crouched behind their door in eager anticipation of your imminent arrival. Please, show a little patience, a little courtesy, or at the very least consistently deliver it to my apartments office. You have to walk right past it to get to my apartment anyway, so how hard is it? I know it may be too much to ask for you to be polite, but at least be courteous enough to tell me what's up with my package via brown and gold stickers. It's the least you could do (And far less than your boss promised me you would do, now that I've made a formal complaint about you)

So for all those shitty delivery drivers out there, and especially the one that delivers to me, suck it up and learn some damn patience. If you don't then you deserve to burn in eternal hellfire for making me wait one more day for my kick ass Tesla v. Edison combat T-Shirt.