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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Economy & Expertise

Wall StreetThe whole issue with the economy and the "Wall Street Bailout" has got me to thinking. First, let me share a related personal account.

I'm an engineer. But, the company I work for is small, so we all wear several hats. One of mine is being the webmaster. That means that my e-mail address is the one used for feedback from our website. I get lots and lots of suggestions from people about how to improve our aircraft - stopping the rotor, using two co-axial rotors, folding the rotor to stow it in flight, I've even gotten a few e-mails proposing perpetual motion machines. Most of these suggestions aren't stupid, just uninformed*. I didn't spend 5 years at the University of Maryland just to learn how to play beer pong and do keg stands. The professors actually taught me the specialized information I'd need to understand aerospace engineering. And the years I've spent on the job have taught me even more. 'Expertise' isn't any empty word, it means something.

So, how does this relate back to the economy? Well, those same people who think they know enough about aeronautics to know better than trained aerospace engineers are the same people who are now making a lot of noise about the economy, thinking they know more than trained economists. When I hear about polls and surveys that try to gauge the public's support for the bailout plan, my fist thought is to wonder how qualified most people are to have a valid opinion on the matter at all.

Personally, I can see the argument from both sides. I don't like bailing out the people that screwed us in the first place, but if the long term effect of not helping them is that I lose my retirement, well, to use a cliché, I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face. Is the long term effect going to be that bad? I don't know. I know how to design planes, not run an economy. And if the problem's as urgent as some people are saying, I don't have the time to learn enough before a decision has to be made. That's why we're a republic and not a democracy - we do rely on our elected officials to know more about running a country than we do ourselves. So for this case, I'm just going to have to trust the experts, and hope they make the right decision.

Added 2008-10-03 I thought of one more thing to add, and it's important enough to add it here in the main entry so it doesn't get ignored in the comments. One other worry I have with Congress passing this bailout is that they're doing it merely to show that they're doing something, and not necessarily because they understand the bill enough to think that it will work. It's the same theme I've harped on about the TSA and security after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Just because politicians are making a show of taking action doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be effective.

*There are some good suggestions, too, and I don't mind explaining things for the uninformed suggestions, so please, nobody take this as a reason to not e-mail the company. It should also be noted that many people do recognize that they're not experts, and the suggestions are offered humbly. But, there are still quite a few arrogant ignorant people.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review - The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book

I just read The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book (they were both collected into a single volume). The Jungle Book was first published as a book in 1894, while the short stories it contains were originally published in magazines from 1893 to 1894. The stories in The Second Jungle Book were also first published in magazines, from 1894 to 1895, with the book first being published in 1895. Both were written by Rudyard Kipling.

For anyone unfamiliar with the stories, they largely center around the inhabitants of an Indian jungle, and then largely around Mowgli, the "man-cub" raised by wolves. However, not all of the stories were about the jungle, as the title would imply. For example, there was the tale of Kotick, the white seal of the arctic, and that of Kotuko, the Inuit and his sled dog. The non-human characters were anthropomorphized to a degree - they could speak to each other (and to Mowgli), they were more intelligent than in real life, and there was a bit more organization and "Law" than really exists, but to a large degree, the animals in the book behaved like they really would in the wild.

I really enjoyed reading this book. You may think that of course I would, because it's a classic, and there's a reason why books become classics - but that's not always the case. Consider that a few months ago, I posted my review of Gulliver's Travels, and I wasn't too fond of that book. And I also recently read Peter Pan (I don't post reviews for all the books I read), and although it was enjoyable to read, I was a little disappointed. Just being a classic doesn't guarantee that everybody will like that book. But with The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, I can definitely see why they've been popular for so long.

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book are usually marketed as a children's books, which they are. But the stories in them, presented as fables, are not the tepid affairs that some Amazon reviewers seem to think children's stories should be. They have some violence, characters are killed, some characters are mean and intolerant, but non of it is overdone. Those are issues that, presented properly, children can and probably should deal with. Though, as far as being children's books, according to the Wikipedia entry, at least some "readers have interpreted the work as allegories of the politics and society of the time." As any book, The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book do reveal something of the mindset of the time when they were written. Kipling was a British man living in Imperial India, and the racism of the time does surface in some parts of the books.

I'll admit, I've always been fascinated with the characters from The Jungle Book thanks to a Disney cartoon called TaleSpin. TaleSpin was a 1930s era aviation fantasy - a hero that flew a flying boat, an island bar that you could only get to by plane, villains that had a flying base always on the move, air races, experimental airplanes... You can see why a kid like me would have liked it. Anyway, the characters from TaleSpin were loosely based on the characters from Disney's version of The Jungle Book, which themselves were only loosely based on the characters from Kipling's The Jungle Book. So, in the end, the TaleSpin characters that initially got me intrigued with the The Jungle Book really didn't share any more than names with the originals. But it did make it a bit hard to read Baloo's lines and not hear the voice from the cartoon.

One note on the particular edition of the book that I read - it's part of a series called "Unabridged Classics" put out by Sterling Publishers. All of the books in the series are affordable, hardcover editions of stories that have survived the test of time (the edition of Gulliver's Travels that I read was part of this same series). The publishers have added a handful of footnotes to explain things that might be lost on the modern reader, as well as a series of questions at the end of the book to stimulate thought or discussions (the end of book questions are targeted to a young audience). You could read all the stories in the series free on Project Gutenberg, but if you're looking for a good hard copy to put in a home library, this series is a good choice.

Speaking of Project Gutenberg, here are the relevant links for these books:
The Jungle Book
The Second Jungle Book

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Troubling News

A very good friend had a stroke earlier this week. The doctors brought him out of the induced coma this morning, and so far everything's looking hopeful, but it's still so early that it's impossible to tell exactly what the outcome's going to be. So, don't expect any new blog entries for a while.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?

For some reason, one of people's biggest problems with evolution seems to be that us and the other great apes all came from the same ancestors. One of the first objections I hear from creationists is if I actually believe that we evolved from apes. And honestly, it never seemed like a big deal to me*. Here, take a look at these pictures of a bonobo and a human:

Bonobo body with Face Visible
Man with Face Visible

Now, take a look at these four images:

Great Dane

Not only do all those dogs have a common ancestor, they're still the same species and can still interbreed (well, the size difference between a great dane and a chihuahua would pose a problem, but you could still artificially inseminate them).

If the human face and bonobo face are throwing you (and I personally think they're every bit as similar as between the pug and greyhound), try taking a look at it this way, with the faces hidden to emphasize the similarities in their bodies:

Bonobo body with face hidden
Man with face hidden

Really, how can someone not accept that we have the same ancestor as the other great apes, but then not bat an eye at calling all the different breeds of dog, just dogs.

*Added 2008-09-12 In anticipation of the people who like to argue that we didn't evolve from apes, but rather that the other apes and us all evolved from the same common ancestor, I understand why you argue that, but it's still a silly argument. We are apes, just like chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, and gibbons. When you have a group of a certain type, I think it's safe to say that the common ancestor of the group was that type as well. Sure, there gets to be a grey area when you start going back past that (like when exactly did mesonychids become whales, and when did dinosaurs become birds), but if you were to hop in a time machine and find this (full story), I don't think most people would hesitate to call that animal an ape. Besides, it's all just semantics, anyway, and our attempt to classify things that don't have discrete boundaries. That's what makes cladistics so darned handy.

As an aside, and I know it's something I've mentioned before, but doing a Google image search yields some pretty strange images. It doesn't help at all when you're looking for a picture of a topless guy. And I'll also add that photographers seem to be much more enamored with female bodies than male bodies.

As another aside, I realize I'm breaking copyright by using the image of that guy, but you really, really don't want me to be my own model to get a picture of a topless male human. On the other hand, that could be useful to show our relation to another primate (full blog entry).

Updated 2008-10-03: Moved the images to below the fold.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Website Update - New Homepage Intro

Just a small update - I changed the intro on my homepage. For posterity's sake, here's the old intro:

     Hello, and welcome to jefflewis.net. This is my own little corner of the web, where I can show off some of the things I've done, as well as hopefully provide some useful information. I've even included a touch of information about myself (After all, this is a personal web site).
     This site began as just a few pages back on my school account years ago. Since then, it's grown in fits and spurts to what you see today, going through a few face lifts along the way. But keep in mind, this is just a hobby. I've got a job and a family to keep me occupied, so the website takes second stage. I will try to put up new content on a regular basis, hopefully at least an update per month, but I'm not making any promises.
     But anyway, here's my site. Take a look around at the different sections to see what you see. I've got the 10 most popular pages from the month listed below, if you want to see what other people come here to look at (they're not necessarily my favorite pages, but I figure they're popular for a reason). At the worst, it'll help you kill a few minutes of time.
Well, I think the new one sounds better.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for August

Top 10 ListI looked through my server logs and updated the ten most popular pages on the site. For anyone interested, here they are. Two pages made the list that weren't on there last month (and I'm glad, too, considering that they're some of the pages I've put the most work in to) - X-Plane, UDP, and Visual Basic, for X-Plane version 8 and Blog - Physical Comparison of Humans to Other Animals. (I'm thinking I may turn this into a regular monthly feature, ala the Pooflinger's Monthly Google Search Results.)

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  4. Programming
  5. Blog - E-mails and Misinformation
  7. X-Plane, UDP, and Visual Basic, for X-Plane version 8
  8. Blog - Physical Comparison of Humans to Other Animals
  9. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool
  10. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes

Friday, September 5, 2008

Political Litmus Test

Litmus PaperI try not to vote for candidates based on single issues. I realize that most of the problems we face are complex, and can be viewed many different ways. I understand that smart people can look at the same problems as me, and come up with different solutions. So, just because I may disagree with a particular candidate on any one particular issue, it's not usually enough to make me automatically against them.

However, there are two issues that I use as a kind of litmus test. I won't necessarily support a candidate just because I agree with them on these issues, but it would be very, very hard for me to support a candidate with whom I disagreed - their opponent would have to be pretty darn bad. Those two issues are teaching evolution in school, and accepting that global warming is anthropogenic.

Why those two issues? Well, they're both well supported by evidence, and overwhelmingly supported by experts in the respective fields, so neither one should be controversial. However, they are controversial, which means that practically everybody has been exposed to them. Nobody can say they don't know anything about them because they've never heard of them before.

Let's look at evolution. First of all, evolution is something that everybody should learn about in high school biology. I mean, we're not talking about a cutting edge theory, here - Darwin and Wallace first proposed natural selection to the world almost 150 years ago, and the modern evolutionary synthesis occured over 50 years ago. Second, as I've discussed on this blog before, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Seriously. I'm as certain that a chimp, a blue whale, a carrot, and I all evolved from the same eukaryotic ancestor as I am that the Earth's a big hunk of rock in orbit around the Sun. But more important than me being that sure, is that the vast majority of biologists who actually study it are quite sure. So, to doubt evolution requires that someone isn't educated enough, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology. All three of those things are very bad for an elected official. Given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, if a candidate accepts it, but still promotes teaching "alternative theories" in science classes, then they're simply pandering. They're trading their principals for votes, when they should be ensuring a sound education for our country's youth.

Global warming may not have as long of a history as evolutionary study, nor the huge, overwhelming evidence to support it, but it still has enough that we can be quite certain that it's real, and that human activity is causing it. (I've written about this before, too.) Well, the actual fact of global warming does have huge, overwhelming evidence to support it. It's only whether or not it's anthropogenic where the evidence is just huge, but maybe not quite overwhelming. Still, when there's as much certainty about something with as big of a potential impact as there is for global warming, policy makers shouldn't be quibbling over minutiae. How to deal with climate change, is something different, since there are so many possible avenues. But to reject anthropogenic global climate change altogether requires, as with evolution, that someone lacks knowledge of the issue, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology.

I realize that candidates that don't accept reality on these two subjects tend to be right wing. But left wing politicians need to be careful, too, as it seems that some on the left have a tendency to support alternative medicine, or buy into myths like vaccines causing autism. I don't think those make for quite as strong of a litmus test, since they're not issues that people have heard as much about, so people can have an excuse for being ignorant about them. But still, policy makers should be making informed decisions. So, while supporting alternative medicines might not turn me off from supporting a candidate quite as fast as the two issues above, they better hope that their opponent is worse, because I'm sure not going to be excited about voting for them.

I guess what it comes down to is that I want the politicians representing me to be well educated, informed about current issues, to be able to think rationally about issues, and not ignore evidence because it contradicts their ideology. Is that too much to ask?


Update 2015-01-09
It's been a few years since I've written this, and the two litmus tests I discussed still hold for the same reasons. However, I now feel like there are two additional tests to add, one of which I actually discussed in this entry originally. Those two new tests are marriage equality, and support for evidence based medicine, particularly vaccinations.

Marriage equality is just a basic human right, that finally even has majority support in this country. Only a bigot would be opposed to marriage equality.

Evidence based medicine is so important because of the dire consequences of alternative medicine in certain circumstances. The case I discussed in a recent entry, Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs, drives home just how dangerous alternative medicine can be. A little girl had about a 75% chance of beating a form of leukemia if she'd stuck to chemotherapy, but her parents pulled her out to take her to a quack in Florida who used alternative medicine, and she died as a result. The anti-vax movement is also very dangerous. The plethora of measles outbreaks in recent years, including the Disneyland case that's made recent headlines, shows that these anti-vaxers really are endangering their children and others. For a sobering look at the number of illnesses and deaths due to the anti-vax movement, go visit Anti-Vaccine Body Count.

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