31 January 2010

Are UFOs for Real?

We meet the most interesting people while out walking the dog. An internationally known concert pianist. A marriage and family therapist. A lifestyle and weight management consultant. And today, a cabinet maker who put me onto this video of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper recounting his UFO sightings, while in the air, on the ground, and in space (the voiceover narrator is Jonathan Frakes):

Gordo is no spring chicken. Are we seeing the effect of a few TIAs (transient ischemic attacks, aka mini-strokes) which may have altered his memories, or did he decide to embellish his experiences a bit for what seems to be a paid interview, or is he for real?

First of all, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton studied UFO experiencers, and found them to be psychologically normal, and truthful. They are not nuts, and they are not lying. But just because you are sane and telling what you believe to be the truth doesn't mean you can't be mistaken. Second, there are people who have made reasonable arguments that even if Extra-terrestrial Intelligent beings exist, they would probably have so little in common with us that neither we nor they would notice each other, and even if we did, we would have nothing in common we could talk about. As in this article, for example.

But if UFOs really do exist, and if they actually buzz us from time to time, how in the Universe did they find us, and why would they bother? Then again, we have explored every place on earth we could get to, just because we could. And some of us now go to the ends of the earth as tourists just to see the wildlife.

All that, however, leaves the question of why so much secrecy? How could all the governments of the earth manage to collude successfully to keep official records of such encounters from the global public? And why would they continue to bother? The most parsimonious explanation is that there is nothing to hide.

Still, I wonder. If I look up at the sky and smile, will I wind up on Google Earth, or some more distant image archive?

28 January 2010

Being Nerd

HBO is about to release a biopic about Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin, despite being autistic, is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. In a pre-movie interview, she mentioned that autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that there are various manifestations of it, some more severe, some less. Among the less severe is Asperger's Syndrome, and among the least severe is the nerdy, geeky, kid.

That rang a bell. I've always had to insist that my wife just tell me what she wants or what she is thinking. "I'm a scientist, not a mind reader," I always say. It turns out that my other scientist friends say the same thing to their spouses. Now I realize that there must be all sorts of subtle cues that most people pick up, but I don't. Oh well, being a nerd has its limitations, but it keeps me in a job with good pay and benefits.

When I mentioned this realization to my wife, the nearly licensed psychologist, she said she had known about it for a long time. She just didn't want to be the one to tell me. Gee. I feel lucky to have gotten married at all. Thank God that some women like nerds, and are willing to do what it takes to get them to realize they are interested.

27 January 2010

State of the Union

I wish to request a small correction to President Obama's State of the Union address. He was mistaken when he said,
Now, even as we prosecute two wars, we're also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people -– the threat of nuclear weapons.
We are not prosecuting two wars. We are fighting in two theaters of operation of one war, the War against Islamofacism. Calling it the "Global War on Terror" was always a bad idea. But not calling it anything at all is worse. This is a war, not a police action. Now it is true that we must find cheaper and more effective ways to fight it than large-scale maneuver warfare employing massive numbers of troops with the attendant massive expenditures. But we (the entire world, not just the US) must fight and win it. For more analysis, click here.

I want to praise the President for this:
But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.
Fantastic. Maybe he will undo the Clinton Administration's decision to defund development of the Integral Fast Reactor.

Finally, I want to state that I think bipartisanship means that major bills should have significant content from both parties, not just a token amendment to buy a vote or two from the opposing side. That would require our representatives from the two parties to trust each other, but so far, they have proven unworthy of each other's trust, which has caused them to lose our trust. Maybe they can start fixing that by showing a little civility to each other.

25 January 2010

Evil Nonsense, Absolute Truth

Now that I can get my hand on the keyboard more comfortably after shoulder surgery (to fix the rotator cuff I tore when I fell off my recumbent bicycle) I can let off a little existential steam. I'd like to talk about ideas that are running loose in academia and our wider culture that are pernicious nonsense.

Number one: There is no such thing as Absolute Reality.

Of course there is! Here's a little piece of it: One plus one equals two. As long as we are talking about the integers one and two, it is, has always been, and will always be absolutely true. Granted, my example is only a little piece of Absolute Truth, but it is a representative beginning of mathematics and mathematical logic, which together form a language that - if you follow its rules - guarantees that the statements you make are absolutely true. There are limits to how much truth you can discover with mathematics, which means there are limits to the bits of Absolute Truth that can be known by unaided Reason. But you can know quite a bit.

Number two: Absolute Reality may exist but it is unknowable.

Well, some of it is knowable. Think of one plus one equals two.

Number three: Absolute Physical Reality may exist, but Modern Science says it is unknowable.

It's knowable well enough. No matter how much you believe otherwise, you will fall down when you step off a cliff unless you are attached to some sort of aircraft. Relativity and quantum physics merely illustrate that while geometrical objects in mathematics are collections of infinite numbers of points, geometrical objects in physics are not. We have yet to discover the categories of thought and mathematics that appropriately describe physics at small scales (of space-time and energy-momentum).

Number four: Reality is socially constructed. You can change reality by changing people's perception of reality.

"The world is what I want it to be, or what I make it to be," is the thought of the infantile narcissist. The world is what it is, whether we like it or not. Physical reality (including economic reality) is what it is. Only social reality is socially constructed, and only partly so at that. Physical and economic reality place severe constraints on social (which includes political) reality. If the constraints are ignored, whole societies can collapse. And the collapse can involve suffering and death for large numbers of people.

It is this last idea, that is so pernicious. And because the other three are often used to justify the fourth, they are pernicious, too.

Of course, as a Christian, I don't think it either necessary or possible for us to know all there is to know about Absolute Reality. Rather, I take comfort in the belief that Absolute Reality knows us.

On the other hand, there are many of my fellow Christians who say that everything we need to know about Absolute Reality is in the Bible, literally interpreted.

I dispute both parts of that conjecture. First if everything we needed to know about Absolute Reality were in the Bible, we would not have to live and die. God could just recite it to us without our having to take on our present mortal forms. There is an experiential component to Absolute Reality which must be lived. Second, if you interpret the Bible literally, then the firmament that is referred to in Genesis is a translation of a Hebrew word that means a piece of metal that God hammered into a thin, but gigantic sheet. We've been going up to the sky for a hundred years now. The only sheet metal around is the space junk we've left up there.

The Bible is a doorway to the Absolute Reality/Truth that can only be experienced through Faith. But if there is no Truth in the Reader, then only the Truth can help the Reader. Read, know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.

15 January 2010

Geek and Proud

OK, there's a tragedy in Haiti caused by its buildings, which were built without regard for earthquake safety. Thank you Haitian government for failing to set and enforce the ground rules that would have kept people alive and unhurt. The Haitian government didn't go far enough to protect its people.

At the same time, the US government is perhaps going too far, enacting a health insurance reform bill that doesn't reform health care, and may be too costly. But a pack of wild Senators crazed with the momentum of the moment, oblivious of the concept that the Senate is supposed to be the more deliberative body in Congress, is railroading it through.

And the world stock markets are heading up the central peak of a W-shaped economic recovery.

I could rag on about the bad news, but a friend pointed me to this, and it's just too geek-chic for words:

The European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN is the French abbreviation) has built the Large Hadron Collider, with which it is looking to validate or invalidate the long-reigning Standard Model of particle physics and cosmology.

We've come a long way from when a single man with two pieces of glass could shake the foundations of a Church that had idolatrously conflated its opinions of the Creation with the worship of the Creator!

04 January 2010

Old Bombs and Bathrooms

While listening to NPR a couple of months ago, I heard an Indian diplomat casually state that is was common knowledge abroad that the US is working on "fourth generation" nuclear weapons. This bit of misinformation went unchallenged. I certainly didn't call in, because most information regarding the state of US nuclear weapons is classified, and I didn't want to jeopardize my day job, much less go to prison. Then our old upstairs bathroom provided a metaphor.

The sink began leaking. Fortunately the leak was slow and intermittent. It appeared to be coming from the body of the reproduction antique faucet I had installed 11 years ago. My body did not relish being cramped up under the sink again, so this time, I called a plumber.

After close inspection , the plumber told us that the leak could not be repaired. The entire faucet body and (considering the way things are bundled these days) faucet control levers would have to be replaced. Would we like to stop by the shop and order a set?

At this point my wife remembered that the toilet leaked, too. It was just a slow drip where the flush valve didn't seat properly, and would only take a minute to fix, right? The plumber was more than glad to replace the flush valve, but he didn't have the identical part. This wasn't surprising since the toilet is a genuine antique. It has been in the house for 80 years. So, he put in a newer, more complicated valve arrangement and left for his next job. By that evening, the toilet was running badly.

Now with respect to nuclear weapons, the plan to replace an aging part with a new part is called a "Life Extension Program," or LEP. The problem with an LEP is that sometimes the same old technology is no longer available. Our plumber, for instance, did an LEP on our old toilet, but he used a non-identical, newer technology part. Does that make it a "fourth generation" toilet?

In any case, the Toilet Life Extension Program 1 (TLEP1) was a failure, because the young plumber did not inspect the old flush valve seat carefully enough. If he had done so, he would have noticed that the seat had corroded, and would therefore also need to be replaced (TLEP2).

But the flush valve seat is part of a J-bend that doesn't exist on modern toilets. You can imagine why. Our antique toilet has a porcelain reservoir tank that hangs on the wall. The metal J-bend pipe connects it to the pedestal (the business end) which is about three inches away from the wall. The lower end of the J-Bend is joined to the pedestal by a brass spud, a rubber spud gasket, and a spud nut. If the spud nut is too loose, water floods onto the floor. If the spud nut is too tight, the porcelain cracks and the entire toilet must be replaced. Since they don't make toilets like ours anymore (too leak prone and too hard to fix), we would have to get a modern, Reliable Replacement Toilet (RRT). The RRT would work just like the old toilet, but the porcelain tank would sit directly on top of a porcelain extension of the pedestal, with just a rubber gasket connecting them. Same flush, without the J-bend. Again, does that make it a "fourth generation" toilet?

The plumber was skeptical about further TLEPs. The failure of TLEP1 led him to diagnose the need for TLEP2, but it might be that the parts were no longer available or were very costly. Most people in our position would just buy an RRT, he advised. (I use the term RRT, because it is similar to RRW, or Reliable Replacement Warhead, a name which must have been chosen by someone with no background in Public Relations.)

We were adamant. We have an antique house, and for esthetic reasons we want to maintain it as a kind of museum to the period in which it was built. Find the parts, we said.

Four hundred dollars and two sets of parts later, the toilet was still not fixed. The young plumber, unfamiliar with the old technology, bent one of the old replacement parts out of round. We requested an old plumber, who eventually did a successful TLEP2. The new flush valve assembly still leaked, though, until I replaced it with an old-style flush valve I found in an old-style hardware store. Call it TLEP2 Mod 1. And for all that, we couldn't keep the technology frozen in time. The toilet looks the same on the outside, but it has one or two new technology parts inside.

Ultimately our adventure fixing our old toilet took longer (a month), was more complicated (three separate, sequential efforts), and cost a lot more than replacing the thing with a similar-looking alternative, which would have taken a few days (mostly ordering and shipping).

So it is with the unfortunately named Reliable Replacement Warhead. Ultimately, it would be cheaper and more reliable to modernize the US nuclear weapons stockpile, than to keep it on life support with repeated LEPs. Modernization also has the advantages that we could be sure of the availability of parts, and the familiarity of young technicians with the basic technology.

We could do nothing: no LEPs and no RRWs. But that would risk the stockpile eventually becoming unreliable ("turning to green cheese," as they say in the business). That's a bad idea, given the state of the world, and given that all the other nuclear weapons states are modernizing their arsenals. I think it better to modernize the stockpile so that we can disarm by intent as geopolitical conditions warrant, rather than disarm by default at a date uncertain.

Anyway, after all the difficulty, delay, and cost of the TLEPs, I ended up doing the RRF (Reliable Replacement Faucet - remember there was no LEP for this problem) myself. But this brings up one more subject. The reason that we could go without a bathroom for a month - that we did not have to relieve ourselves at the neighbors', or dig a privy in the backyard - is that we have a downstairs bathroom which served as a backup. By analogy, we should always maintain enough different types of warheads and delivery systems in the US nuclear weapons stockpile, and enough spares, such that we can still provide deterrence to our adversaries and assurance to our allies even if some portion of the stockpile were to become unreliable for a while.