Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Knowing What You Know

How do you know who yo' daddy is?
'Cause yo' mamma told you so.
-old axiom

How do you know who yo' mamma is?
-logical next question

I've had two insights recently into the concept of what we know. Specifically, what each one of us knows, as individuals. I'm fascinated by the concept of "knowing" things, especially since oftentimes - most of the time? - this "knowing" is central to our identity. To wit:

A book I'm reading by Roger MacBride Allen details the confounding experience of Admiral Koffield. Adm. Koffield is charged with (bear with me, here) protecting causality and preventing paradoxes as "time drop" ships use wormholes to travel across the universe. Through a disastrous series of events, he is forced to blow up a wormhole "station," and is subsequently blamed for the slow death of the planet Glister. Much later, a native Glisterian is provided with evidence - hard, irrefutable evidence - that not only was Koffield not the monster he'd been taught since childhood ("Horrible Anthon made Glister die…"), but in fact it was someone else entirely who blew the wormhole. Get it? Everything - everything! - the Glisterian was told about his world…turned out to be wrong. Factually, provably incorrect.

Second example. I was listening to a recent This American Life podcast of an older show, wherein the "storyteller" was relating the classification of homosexuality by the American Psychiatric Association. Before the 20th Century, being a homo was, quite literally, considered to be an unnatural aberration, its "practitioners" labelled as outcasts and freaks. Beginning in the 1900's, the APA officially classified homosexuality as a definable pathology. In other words, being a homo literally meant you were "sick," and could be "cured." The psychiatrists who worked under this definition of homosexuality published papers, treated patients, and based entire careers' worth of study on the "disease" of homosexuality. Only to find that, by the late 20th Century, commonly accepted views of homosexuality had changed such that the earlier work of these psychiatrists was now quote-unquote wrong. Worse than wrong, even: now, these hard-working men and women found themselves looked upon as pariahs, cast out by the very people they had spent their lives trying to "help." They received death threats. They were castigated, censured by their younger colleagues. Can you imagine? To spend your entire life building a career and a body of work that you were told was scientific, only to have the rules changed at the end of the game? Naturally lots of these psychiatrists pushed back, insisting until their end of days that their work was legitimate, one doctor still claiming that he had "treated" and "cured" 45 homos throughout his career.

Turns out that, almost all of the time, we know what we know because of what we're told. And when what we're told turns out to be wrong, we're told something different. "The world, she's-a flat!" Nope. "Earth is the center of the universe, and everything revolves around it." Nope, again. Makes me wonder what will happen in the next few centuries, as things we KNOW today are slowly (inevitably?) proved wrong, and then we'll KNOW something else. Sort of makes everything seem ephemeral, no?

I remember once, years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were staying with my uncle & aunt around Christmastime. My young cousin - maybe 4 at the time - was just learning the Jesus story, and she proudly told my girlfriend that "The baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes!" My girlfriend, herself a PK, slyly asked "What are swaddling clothes?" My poor cousin was taken aback, but only for a moment; she got a big smile, and said "They are what the baby Jesus was wrapped in!" 'Round and 'round we go, only knowing what we know.

This only serves to amplify the awesome responsibility I owe Roslyn. Namely: what do I make sure she "knows"? Ten years from now, will she "know" that health care became a fair and just system in this country, over the objections of Conservative obstructionists? Will she "know" that a bankrupt national government tried to socialize health care by way of a few extreme Left nutjobs, and The People rose up in protest? The things she "knows" tomorrow will undoubtedly be the things I tell her today. Whoa. THAT'S power!

"Knowing" things. "Facts." "Truth." Such firm beliefs, yet such slippery surfaces. I wonder…is there a bedrock layer of "knowing," beyond which the "Why?" question cannot drill?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Wet Dog Smell

First off: I do not own a dog. The "wet dog smell" I'm referring to here is emanating from our (purported) air purifier.

This seems to be an ongoing problem with any air cleaner I've ever owned. I replace the carbon pre-filter, and replace the HEPA filter, but eventually the air that comes out of these devices ends up smelling, not purified at all, but rather like either wet dog or wet wool.

What the hell is up with these things?!?

I tried looking online, but apparently my Google-fu is weak. I find other people who have the same problem, but there is never any solution. One guy answered a question similar to mine with some discourse about how the smell is actually pure, clean air. Uh…no. It smells distinctly like a wet dog, and it's unpleasant.

So. Anyone else out there have this issue? Is there a cure? My newest model - a Honeywell, which by past experience is a good brand - is less than 6 months old. At a hundred bucks a pop, I'm not looking to replace it yet, but I've already cleaned and changed the relevant filters, and STILL I get this smell. Any takers?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Government Waste

I remember watching the movie Dave, when the "fake president" was trying to get money back into the budget in front of the entire press corps. He questioned some multi-million dollar expenditure for an ad campaign to make people feel better about cars they'd already bought, which to HIM was a monumental waste of money. I liked that scene, because it showed how an Average Joe might approach spending at the federal level. To wit: if you save a little money enough times, eventually you've saved a lot of money.

I think of those things when it comes to waste by our REAL federal government, schools, universities, et. al. At the household level, I'm pretty sure all us Average Joes and Janes budget this way: we save a little money a lot of times, and over the course of the week and month and year, we save a lot of money. Organic diced tomatoes at Kroger run $1.59 per 14.5 oz. can; the non-organic cans are 79¢. I likes me some organic, both for what it represents in terms of what I put in my body and the environment. BUT, at a very real level, if I save 80¢ often enough, pretty soon I've saved a bundle of money.

Yesterday we got an envelope in the mail from the Census Bureau. I thought it was the actual Census form, but no: it was a single-page letter informing me that the actual Census form would be coming in the next week.


So, I figure I can safely assume that this letter was sent out to all 129 million households in the U.S. That's 129 million sheets of paper, 129 million envelopes, and the associated costs of actually delivering the fucking things. A quick check shows yer basic ream of 500 sheets of all-purpose paper from Staples is 7 bucks…do the math, and that's $1.8 million for the paper alone. Gummed window envelopes of the kind this letter was mailed in run $23 per 500, for another $5.9 million. That's 7.7 MILLION DOLLARS just in the cost of the physical objects. I have no way to figure the ink cost, nor the mailing fees…although, at 44¢ for a 1st-class letter, it would cost the Average Joe $57.8 million to mail 'em all. Presumably it costs the government less, but how MUCH less is a figure I can't come up with.

Suffice it to say, mailing out this letter - to tell me to expect another mailing next week - is at least an 8-figure outlay. And for what? A friggin' reminder??

An 8-figure outlay might represent the tiniest drop in the overall federal budget bucket, but it's REAL MONEY. And that, my friends, is the problem with federal spending. The CBO gets its undies in a bunch with underfunded Social Security projections, and with two foreign wars running us in the high-9-figures every year…but if we'd save money on stupid shit like this reminder letter, the way our Average Joe would do, we could be looking at some real savings.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Reverse Magnitude

After nearly 2 months of not tending to the blog, and all I got for ya is a philosophical exercise in reverse magnitude? Yup. Apparently.

To sum up: the move went well, and we're now 5 weeks and change into the new house. We are 99.9% unpacked, with only a few minor items that need rearranging. That, and a nice day or two to get the garage in order. The place is fabulous, and we've all settled into a great routine. Love it.

Spring Break is upon us, and sonuvagun if it don't actually FEEL springy! I spent the end of February at a conference in Texas, with full sun and temps in the low 60s. Came home to snow, but since returning we've had the SAME full-on sun, with temps in the…well, not 60s, but we DID take a walk to the park yesterday. Rozzle swung for nearly half an hour, despite the fact that there was still snow all over the ground. Good fun.

So, the concept of "reverse magnitude." This comes out of a conversation Miss Tessmacher and I were having about the difficulty she has encountered with a colleague. It's too complicated - and personal - to go into, but suffice it to say, the colleague seems to think he's really something special because of his past association with an Unnamed University. That got me to thinking about earthquakes, and ANOTHER conversation that Tess & I recently had.

Seems that the magnitude scale of earthquakes is so-called because in fact the higher you go on the scale, the greater the increase in destructive force…by an ever-expanding level. So, an earthquake that measures a 1.0 has the destructive force of a construction-site blast, and is basically not even felt. You might think that an earthquake of 4.0 would have the destructive power of only FOUR construction-site blasts…but, it's actually comparable to a small atomic bomb. See? The destructive power is multiplicative, the higher you go. So that a 5.0 magnitude quake is equal to 31.6 kilotons of TNT, but a 7.0 quake (which hit Haiti in January) is equal to 31.6 MEGAtons of TNT. HUGE difference. And the higher you go, the more the 10ths matter. So, a 7.5 quake is equal to 178 megatons of TNT, and an 8.0 equals 1 GIGAton of TNT. That's what rocked 'Frisco in '06. The Chilean quake a few weeks ago was an 8.8, for 15.8 gigatons of TNT. Humans have actually never measured a perfect 10, but that would theoretically be equal to 1 teraton of TNT. We figure the Yucatan Peninsula meteor (about 6 miles in diameter) strike of 65 million years ago would be about a 13.0 magnitude…a potential planetwide life-killer 2,000,000 times more powerful than the biggest bomb we've ever built and tested.

Okay. Enough with the Wiki-facts. The reverse correlation I thought of was this: in music (or, probably ANY career), just the opposite holds true: the closer to the top you get, the LESS difference there is. So, a musician who only registers 5.0 on a "scale" would be terrible…but WAY better than a 4.0. Go higher on the scale, and you find that ability levels get closer and closer. There would be very little difference between a 7.0 (say, a freshman music major) and a 7.5 (same person, now a senior). Above an 8.0, and you probably have most adjunct faculty and master's students. Above a 9.0? Probably most full-time and tenured faculty. So, maybe I went to School A, which has no real national pedigree or anything like that…but my PhD makes me a 9.2, maybe a 9.3. I excel in my field…right along with anyone else who holds a similar position. To wit, we're not really "rare" at that level. Pretty much, if you GET the job, it means you have the necessary ability to DO the job. Sort of like a doctor: you wouldn't want surgery from a doctor who measured a 5.0 would you? But, the difference between a 9.2 and a 9.3 is negligible. Now, take another musician who went to School B, maybe a real humdinger like Juilliard or Eastman. This guy has a pedigree that's nationally and world-renowned…but, that still probably only makes him a 9.8 or 9.9. This isn't about making ME feel better, understand, or really about trying to tear down someone who went to Juilliard. I'm just saying: the distinction between a performer - let's say a trumpet player - who plays at the "top" of his field (over the 90th percentile) and one who is world-class (above the 98th percentile) are…well, they're almost equal. Maybe that 98th percentile guy can play a few notes faster, or higher, or with "better" phrasing…but, that's not exponentially better than the 92nd percentile guy. They're BOTH experts in their field.

There's no point to this post, other than my interest in discovering what I'll call Animal's Theory of Reverse Magnitude. In nature, the higher you go, the more bang you get. In all else…it's just tiny bits of difference. So that Miss Tessmacher's difficult colleague is just blowing smoke out his ass…he THINKS he's better because of his perception of being, say, a 9.4. But, that only BARELY differentiates him from a 9.3…and in the end, both guys can get the job done expertly.

Got a pain-in-the-ass colleague that thinks he's "all that" because of his pedigree? Let me hear about it in the Comments section. Happy (almost) spring!