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Thu, Mar. 30th, 2017, 10:30 am
Being on the "Right Side" of History

Something you hear a lot of people say today, is that they really care a lot about being on the "right side of history". Maybe their view isn't the most popular now, but some day, history will prove them right.

I feel like this attitude develops from school. We learn about these heroes of the past, who bravely did things that people didn't respect at the time, but now we look back at them for being on the right side of the issue at the time.

There is a lot of merit in this, and I some times find myself thinking in the same way, but should I? What guarantee to we have that people in the future will actually have the right attitudes about things? Surely we've all seen science fiction stories in which future societies have very horrible cultures and attitudes about things. Are we just looking to be on the "right side of history" regardless of what that view is? Or do we somehow have this view that the future always ends up picking the right view on things? And if so, why in the world are we so sure of that?

You can use history as an example. Look at the dark ages in Europe. You could surely find things in which you feel the earlier views/practices of the Greeks or Romans were superior to the Medieval dark ages. Or look at the changing cultures in the Middle East over the past millennia. You can easily find time periods where we would look more favorably at was the views/practices in the past over what developed later on in some of the same societies.

So it makes me wonder, why are we so sure that history is a good arbitrator of what's right or good?

Thu, Mar. 30th, 2017, 10:22 am
Essay on Science

I think what a lot of laypeople mean when they use the word "science" is, "things that seem like magic to me, but that smart people say are actually real." This is why when most people use the word "science", they conjure up pictures of laser beams, dinosaurs, black holes, rocket ships, holograms, atoms, test tubes, etc. They also envision its practitioners as being some sort of caste of wizards, wearing lab coats and mixing exotic potions and running esoteric equipment to conjure magical things than no mere mortal would normally be able to possibly do.

I feel like this attitude towards science does more harm than good. It has several negative side effects. One of the first is that it makes some people feel like being a professional scientist is something outside of their reach. It's akin to wanting to be an astronaut or secret agent. It's thought of as an exotic job that or handful of elite people do, but not something a normal working guy might be involved in. The truth of the matter is, most science that gets done is so much more down to earth. There are chemists working at water treatment plants, biologists working with farmers, food scientists developing new kinds of candy. All of these activities are just as much "science" as the stuff involving black holes and dinosaurs. (In some cases, arguably much more so). But it's not what people normally think of, and it really goes to show what a misunderstanding most people have of science.

The other negative outcome of the attitude that "science = real magic that smart people do", is that it contributes to this unfortunate view that science and religion are somehow competing in the same space. You'll sometimes hear a certain type of person online go on about how cool science is, as if it is somehow in and of itself an argument against religion. There's a natural tendency in people to look for something greater out there, and when you view science as this magical mystery power that super smart wizards perform for us, it seems to become an alternative religion of sorts in some people's minds. I've literally heard people say things like "You've got your churches, but I've got my telescopes." Sorry to break it to you, but some of us have both. ;-) This increasing contention between science aficionados and religion can also make religious people more cautious or antagonistic towards science as well, creating something of a negative feedback cycle.

Final thoughts on the subject: Science is not dinosaurs, lasers, black holes and lab coats. Science is a methodological approach to developing testable theoretical models for understanding reality. It could be digging up dinosaurs, or it could be testing out whether or not red jelly beans sell better than blue ones on cold days. What makes one more or less scientific is NOT how exotic/fantastic the domain is, but how scientifically rigorous the experiment and approach are. The vast majority of scientists work on very down to earth problems that may hardly even seem like "science" at all to your average layperson. Being a scientist isn't something for a handful of elite wizards, it's for anyone who wants to try and use that same kind of methodological approach to solving a problem of their own.

Thu, Dec. 29th, 2016, 01:54 pm
Bad Logic

Today I stumbled on a Washington Post article by an author who is convinced that Jesus never existed: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/18/did-historical-jesus-exist-the-traditional-evidence-doesnt-hold-up/?tid=hybrid_experimentrandomcheckpoint_2_na&utm_term=.ac928d62ffb1

This view is rare even among atheistic skeptics. Most scholars believed Jesus was a real person. The debate is whether or not all of the events in the gospels can be trusted. This author's argument seems to be essentially this:

1. The earliest testimonies of Jesus all declare him to be a miraculous savior.
2. Miraculous saviors can't exist.
3. Therefore, Jesus must never have existed.

But this line of thinking obviously begs the question: Why can't a miraculous savior exist? Yes, it is unpopular among academics to tout such things as possibilities, but there is nothing logically impossible about it. It's like saying the following:

1. Modern physics teaches that time slows down for objects moving close to the speed of light.
2. Time can't slow down! That's crazy talk!
3. Therefore, modern physics must be false.

(Funnily enough, I actually know people who think like this, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

The funny thing about his whole argument is that it actually leads credence to the fact that Jesus actually was who the Bible claims he was. He admits that the task of creating a "historical Jesus" apart from the 1st century writings has not been successful, but instead of looking at the possibility that maybe Jesus really was who the Bible says he was, he simply assumes Jesus must not have existed. If those are the two most logical choices, I know which one I believe. :-P

Wed, Dec. 28th, 2016, 02:10 pm
Why we value some things...

Have you noticed how many of us rarely take things at face value?

Take music for instance. Many people (although not all) appreciate music not on how it sounds to their ears, but on its historical/cultural/personal value. So for instance, you play them a piece of lo-fi punk rock and they might not enjoy it, but you tell them it was by an early pioneer of rock music in the 1960's who preceded punk rock by a whole decade, and suddenly they might become completely enamored by it. What was worthless poorly-played rock music, now becomes some sort of prescient musical genius.

This kind of thing happens all the time. You could play tricks on your friends (if you are the malicious type) to convince them into enjoying music that they otherwise wouldn't. "Did you know Paul McCartney secretly produced hip hop music in the early 90's? He actually mixed all the songs by the artist known as 'Young MC' (MC being short for McCartney)!" If you could trick them into believing it, you might suddenly have an old Beatles fan become far more fascinated with early 90's hip hop...

We simply just don't take things for face value, hardly ever. Even food. There have been a number of studies where actual wine tasters have been tricked into drinking cheap wine, and thinking it was something of some high caliber. The same has been done with cheap fast food.

It's not that there isn't such a thing as objective quality standards. There are. But there is a near infinite amount of art out there of high quality. We need something to help us "weed through" and make sense of these things. And our cultural/social frameworks is a major way we do this.

It's not just with historical frameworks, either. We also do this through our own personal close friends and family members. ("Grandpa always loved this old record. I know no one else would ever care about it, but knowing he grew up with it has always made me enjoy it so much more.") ("Ooh, this is exactly the kind of dance music my old college friend Dave used to love so much!")

Perhaps toddlers and preschoolers are the best at enjoying things simply on face value. They don't care if you like it or hate it. It's their own taste that matters (whether it's Spaghetti O's or Teletubbies). It's always fascinating to play songs for preschool age children from a huge variety of artists and seeing what they do or don't gravitate to (or actively hate). They are vastly more open-minded than the average adult, and generally know nothing of the cultural/historical reasons to like or dislike an artist. In fact, the very idea of that is practically unknown to them. Interesting to think that in some ways, children might actually be better music critics than adults.

Wed, Dec. 28th, 2016, 01:21 pm
The Most Divisive Music?

When I discover someone is something of a music aficianado, I have a tendency to want to talk about music with them. I'm a fan of a large number of styles of music, but what I've discovered is that the most divisive style of all might well be "dance music" (aka, "electronica", "techno", "club music", "rave music", etc.) The world seems to be pretty well split between those who think this is an interesting/valid art form in its own right, and those who dismiss it as meaningless music for tone-deaf hedonists.

It's so interesting to watch the conversations unfold. I'll be talking to a kindred spirit about the merits of 80's indie rock and be getting along so well, but when the topic of electronic dance music comes up... they at look at me as if I'm from another planet. "You actually enjoy that stuff? Like as actual music?" is the definite vibe one gets from someone who does not share the same value for dance music that I do.

It's interesting... some of these same people will have respect for, say, hip hop. Because, even though it shares many musical similarities, it at least has *lyrics*. They might even try to respect the more avant garde forms of electronic music, even if they don't actually like it, because they know it's supposed to be somehow sophisticated. But plain old-fashion house music, trance music, dubstep, and the like? Not a chance.

Sometimes an artist of this genre becomes so well known even the scoffers of EDM will be willing to accept it as real music. Daft Punk in particular comes to mind right now. But it's really the exception that proves the rule. These people are the Pitchfork readers of the world - willing to accept dance music if it reaches some sort of cultural acceptance, but not really on its own merits.

Interestingly, I know a lot of software developers and other IT professionals that enjoy electronic dance music as valid enjoyable music. I think it's because we often value music that's both energetic and yet good background music at the same time. Music with too much lyrical content can become distracting when coding. Dance music provides energy to keep you motivated, but with a minimalism that keeps you from being too distracted at the same time. Computer programmers are also far less concerned about the so-called artistic integrity and cultural sophistication associated with the media they enjoy. If they enjoy it, why do they care if whether or not its considered to have some sort of social/cultural sophistication?

What do you guys think? Have you noticed dance music being divisive like this? Or would you say other forms are more so? I think you could also make a case that hip hop and country are similarly divisive, although in very different ways. Likewise, CCM, as well.

Wed, Aug. 31st, 2016, 03:24 pm
Weird Theology

If you ask me, this is where a lot of really weird theology comes from, in a nutshell:

* The Bible commands "X".
* To me, "Y" seems like a good explanation for the Biblical command "X".
* Therefore, the Bible also commands "Y".

By the way, it seems like all of us can be tempted into this trap if we're not careful!

Wed, Mar. 23rd, 2016, 08:28 am
Where have all the jazzy gone?

Popular music definitely goes in waves for what's trendy and what's not. Something I've begun to notice over the last few years is how "jazz" influences in popular music are most definitely not very trendy right now. Certainly not compared to the 1990's and early 2000's, when everyone from hip hop artists, to indie bands, to rave DJs, to punk rockers, were dabbling in jazz elements, putting horns and jazz samples and acoustic bass in all kinds of music. From the mid 90's to the early 00's, using jazz elements like this was one of the most common ways to say you were trying to do something "artsy" with your popular music.

Boy have things changed. Try finding any significantly popular newer musician doing anything like this these days. Even the soul music revival of Amy Winehouse and friends is gone now. Everything is either very folksy, or very very minimalist and/or electronic. Singing is very loud, or angular, or folksy, but jazzy... not very much. Hip hop is about as un-jazzy these days since it the electro craze of the early 80's.

These things come and go, of course. Rock'n'roll had roots in the jazzy sounds of rhythm & blues, but very quickly developed its own less jazzy sound. As the late 60's approached, musicians were eager to explore newer sounds, and started incorporating those jazzy elements back in. Much of the popular music from the 1970's had jazzy elements, and continued to do so until the new wave era brought a whole new sound to popular music. Electronic instruments became affordable, and soon everyone want to create a more robotic, digital sound to their recordings. The 80's might stand as the least jazzy era for all of American popular music.

But, of course, that rigid 80's sound could only last so long. Digital samplers actually helped change this, allowing hip hop artists to easily sample old jazz and funk recordings, creating a more retro-sounding hip hop that was all the rage from the late 80's through the late 90's. Many techno artists did the same, creating new genres of dance music that were far more jazzy and organic sounding than anything the original techno artists had originally envisioned. Indie artists started to jump on the bandwagon as well. Some (such as Beck), being heavily influenced by the new hip hop music. Others, such as Stereolab and Yo La Tengo, being influenced by more arcane styles of bygone eras. But it wasn't just the artsy-indie crowd who was doing this. Punk rockers also started to incorporate jazzier elements as well, particularly those in the ska/swing-revival scene. And of course, adult contemporary artists were becoming more and more jazz influenced as well, particularly encouraged by the popularity of artists such as Harry Connick Jr and Norah Jones. By the late 90's and early 00's, it seemed as if just about everyone outside the world of the heavy metal and industrial rock were expected produce at least some kind of music with jazz elements.

But nothing lasts forever. What once was new and novel begins to seem like boring and unoriginal. By the 2000's the new thing (if you really wanted to stand out) was to revival the old angular, jerky sounds of post-punk and new wave music. Hip hop and dance artists looked back to the older electro era for inspiration again once more. Everything 80's was suddenly trendy again, and jazz revivalism was just no longer interesting to almost anyone. As the post-punk revival faded, a new folk-revival took its place. And from that came newer indie artists blending a variety of different styles together. The inspiration came from numerous sources, but one thing they all had in common was an avoidance of stereotypical jazz elements. You were far far far more likely to see a banjo and accordian in this new indie music than the vibraphones, trumpets and other jazzier instruments the previous indie artists were exploring.

So what happens from here? I doubt jazz influences are gone from popular music for good. Within 10 years it'll probably become trendy for some movement again. But by that point in time other genres will be old enough to seem cool and interesting again. The question remains: by the time the current fads have died out, will I be able to enjoy whatever comes next? Or am I a cranky old man forever? :-D

Fri, Jan. 8th, 2016, 12:25 pm
Generational Attitudes Towards Cars

I keep hearing about how the current generation of young people are less and less interested in cars, and I've noticed it to be true myself. It got me thinking about how the different generations of people over time have interacted with cars differently. Using the list of generations as defined by Wikipedia, here's my own non-scientific observations of how each generation has interacted with the automobile.

The Missionary Generation
Birth: 1860's - 1880's
While this generation came before the popularity of the modern automobile, it's an important generation in that many of the famous innovators came from it (e.g., Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche, etc.) It was a highly industrious generation, that helped bring about many of the things that we associated with the 20th Century, and while most of them did not embrace automobile culture themselves, they would lay the groundwork for the car culture that was to come.

The Lost Generation
Birth: 1880's - 1900's
This was arguably the first generation to truly adopt the automobile. Born when the first true cars were being built, they reached driving age just as the world's first affordable car became available: the Ford Model T. While not everyone in this generation jumped on the automobile bandwagon, this was arguably the generation that started the car culture of America.

The Greatest Generation
Birth: 1900 - 1920's
Born during the era of the Model T, this was the first generation in which driving (for many) became a normal part of life. Cars for this generation were no longer novel new technology, but were a part of every day life. As adults, they would drive the purchasing of many of the classic car models of the 1950's.

The Silient Generation
Birth: 1920's - 1940's
This generation embraced car culture to a level no previous generation had. Attaining adulthood in the post-WWII era, this was the generation that brought us the famous hot rod culture of the 1950's. Cars were now something that even most young people could afford, and it became a major part of this generation's culture.

Baby Boomer
Birth: 1940's - early 60's
This generation famous embraced car culture as well. Born during the height of the hot rod craze, this generation embraced high performance in their cars, and brought about the popularity of the muscle car. This generation also helped bring about the rise of affordable sports car, as well as more mundane vehicles such as the minivan, when they became old enough to have families. Cars have remained a central part of this generation's culture.

Generation X
Birth: Early 60's - early 80's
This was arguably the last generation to really embrace car culture on a broad scale. The members of this generation grew up in a time when used cars were very affordable, and many young people had a large selection of diverse and relatively exciting cars to choose from. While this generation grew up with technology, they grew up before the internet had become a significant culture unto itself. Cars were still the main way most people had to communicate and gather as young people. This generation embraced technology in their cars more so than the previous generations, including helping give rise to the popularity of hybrid and electric vehicles.

Millennial
Birth: Early 80's - early 2000's
The first generation to appreciate cars significantly less (on a broad scale) than the generation before it. This was also the first generation to become excited about cars that drove themselves - something most people in the previous three generations would have not been excited about. While car culture still exists for many millennials, it is not as universal as it once was. Being able to drive a stick or work on your own car was no longer something to be expected, but was something unusual and to be avoided.

Generation Z
Birth: Early 2000's - ?
Not much is known about what this generation will be like yet, but it can be expected that they may be the generation that comes of age during the rise of the self-driving car. They will undoubtedly have a significantly different car culture than the previous generations, although there may be a minority who still enjoys the automobile pastimes of the previous generations. It will become increasingly unusual, though, I suspect.

Thu, Dec. 31st, 2015, 01:12 pm
Mid-life and Logarithmic Time

If you're like me, I'm sure you've heard people talk about how much faster time seems to be as you get older. When you're a small child, a year seems like an incredibly long time. 5 years seems like almost an eternity. By the time you hit 30, a year seems like nothing, and 5 years seems like a relatively short period of time. I assume this pattern continues onward as you get older.

I've heard a number of people say that this passing of time is essentially "logarithmic" in nature. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you're 5 years old, 5 years is the length of your entire life - a time span that's almost incomprehensible to think about. When you're 30, it's just 1/6th - the equivalent of less than 1 year when you were five. When you're 80 it'll be a mere 1/16th of your life. As every year passes, it seems that much shorter than the year preceding it.

People normally think of their "middle years" as being their 40's and 50's. This basically makes sense, if you assume to live a full life is to live to be at least 80 or 100, which is not totally out of the question. However, if you factor the whole logarithmic notion of time into account, this is actually disturbingly near the end! If we were to assume the passing of time was literally logarithmic in nature, your "middle years" would actually be when you were only 10 years old! In other words, if each period of time felt like it was half as short as the time before, it take as much time to go from 1 to 10 as it does from 10 to 100.

Of course, I don't think the passing of time is truly logarithmic, but it does feel that way sometimes. Even if it is only quasi-logarithmic, the apparent middle of your life must actually come a lot sooner than 40. Especially considering how many of us don't actually live to be 100. I guess it's another good remember to always seize the day! Carpe diem!

Wed, Nov. 18th, 2015, 09:34 am
P and NP

I don't know if anyone reads this blog anymore. I certainly don't expect anyone to read this post. But I'm going to write it anyway, because it's a serious personal pet peeve of mine.

You hear a lot of computer scientists (and in particular, computer theorists) talk about the famous "P vs NP" problem. It's become so well known that it's entered popular culture in a number of different places, including an entire indie film that used it as its main plot device. However, there is so much misconceptions about this problems out there, even among people with computer science degrees.

Most computer scientists and software engineers have a pretty good idea about what P means. It's the problems with a known polynomial time solution. In most cases (although not all) these are problems that run relatively efficiently.

The category NP throws people, though. A disarming number of people seem to use this term to mean "Not-Polynomial". But it couldn't be farther from the case! NP actually refers to all the problems with a known "non-deterministic polynomial" solution. It means these problems can be solved in polynomial time (that is, relatively efficiently) if you have access to something called a non-deterministic Turing machine.

By definition, all problems in P are also in NP. Sorting numbers? That's in NP. Finding the shortest path between two points? NP again. Calculating the area in a rectangle? NP, of course. All of the easiest problems are in NP because they are in P, and all problems in P are also in NP.

So at this point, if you've followed the P vs NP problem at all, you might be a little confused. "Isn't the point was that we didn't know if these things were the same? I thought NP meant really hard!!!" Ah yes, see, we know that all problems in P are in NP. What we don't know is whether or not all problems in NP are also in P! Because some things that are easy to do with a non-deterministic computer seem to be very, very hard to do on a real computer.

One famous example is the famous "traveling salesman" problem. What is the absolute most efficient way for a person to visit every city in his state, and return home? While it's possible to quickly come up with an answer that's close to the most efficient, there is no fast method for finding one that's certain to be the absolute fastest. The only way we really know how to do that is to basically try an exponential number of possible routes. Which takes a very long time if the number of cities is very large at all.

This is an example of what is known as an "NP-hard" problem. These are the problems that are so hard for computers to solve. NP-hard problems are not necessarily in NP. NP-hard simply means it's at least as hard as the hardest problems in NP. It means that given a program that can solve an NP-hard problem, you can translate any other problem in NP in polynomial time to be solved by your NP-hard solving program. In other words, if you could solve the traveling salesman problem efficiently, you could solve all the other problems in NP relatively efficiently as well.

Traveling salesman is both NP-hard and in NP. I won't go into too many details about why this is, because over simplifications of NP often lead to more misunderstandings. (I'll save that for another post, if anyone is interested). Problems that are both NP-hard and in NP are known as "NP-complete". I believe when many people use the word "NP", what they really mean is "NP-complete". These are problems that (as far as we know) are very hard to solve on real computers, but are quite fast to solve on the theoretical device known as a non-deterministic Turing machine.

One common misconception out there is that a quantum computer is a non-deterministic Turing machine. This is not true. Quantum computers (if they ever really get built) are simply nowhere near that powerful. However, it is possible to use them to factor prime numbers quickly - something that could break the most popular form of encryption these days. Another common misconception is that prime factoring is NP-hard. It isn't. (If it was, quantum computers would be non-deterministic Turing machines). While we are pretty sure prime factoring is not as hard as NP-hard problems, we also don't known a polynomial time algorithm for it yet for traditional computers. There is one for quantum computers, though. I think this is part of what makes some people mistakenly think quantum computers are non-deterministic Turing machines. Sorry, no such luck.

So what's the big deal about the whole P vs NP problem? Well, after years and years of trying, computer scientists have been unable to do two different tasks. The first is to try and come up with a polynomial time solution on a standard computer for an NP-complete problem. If they could, it would mean P and NP are actually the same thing. All problems that can be solved on a non-deterministic computer in polynomial time could also be solved on a regular computer in polynomial time. This would be huge, as it would mean countless problems that are deemed too hard to solve today could potentially be solved relatively efficiently.

Most computer scientists think this is impossible, though, for reasons I can go into in another post. However, despite all their trying, no one has been able to write up a bullet-proof math proof showing why this is impossible. Most of us are pretty sure it is, but there's a difference in mathematics between having good reasons to think something is impossible and actually proving it. In other sciences, they'd probably just say "evidence shows this isn't true, so unless something changes, we are going to say P != NP". However in mathematics and computer theory, this doesn't cut it. These people expect perfect proofs, not just good evidence. (This is one of the major differences between mathematics and empirical science.) That said, from a working computer scientists perspective, it's generally just accepted that P != NP, although a very tiny minority still hold out hope.

And that, I believe, should help counter many of the major misconceptions about the famous P vs NP problem. P and NP are not opposites. The question is, are they exactly the same thing, or is NP everything in P, plus a lot more?

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