Friday, March 27, 2009

This About Sums It Up

I found this on the Wikipedia page for Immanuel Kant.

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Scientific Thought

This comes from Ibn al-Haytham, a Persian scientist who is considered the father of modern optics. It expresses the motivation and thought process found in science.

"Therefore, the seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency." [Source]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Music and Cats

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." -- Albert Schweitzer

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Self Correcting Theories

Previously I have commented on differences between Physics and Philosophy. Recently I noticed another example of the difference between the two: Physics is self-correcting, while Philosophy is not. To show this I will use an experience I had recently while grading homework for a class that I am a TA for.

The homework problem involved finding the velocity of a bicyclist as he peddled along. The students were given a constant power output from the rider and then they had to find the rider's terminal velocity. They went through a process where they solved some basic equations and then they added in air resistance and solved the more complex equations numerically (which means they wrote a computer program to solve the equation).

One of my students solved their equation and found the terminal velocity and then displayed a graph of their velocity versus time, or how their velocity changes over time:

If you look at this graph and understand what it is showing you will realize that the student made a mistake. To understand the mistake allow me to interpret this graph physically. At the beginning of the race the biker starts at rest (the extreme left of the graph where t = 0 and v = 0). They start to speed up (velocity is positive) and they continue to ride faster and faster. At some point their speed maxes out and they begin to slow down. At this point this is fairly normal for anyone riding a bike, but what happens next according to the graph is not normal. The rider continues to peddle at the same rate that they started out at, but because of air resistance they begin to slow down (I must point out that there is no wind) until after about 27 seconds they begin to travel backwards! And this happens simply because they are riding through air, with no wind! Obviously there was a problem with their equation, and upon inspecting their equation I quickly found what their error was, they had forgotten one variable in a single term of their equation, and that made all the difference.

My point with this is when a mistake was made we could look at the results and compare them with reality to see if it made sense. In other words we had a check or test to make sure we had done it correctly or whether our theory was correct. In the case of Physics, no matter what the theory is, the science itself has built into it a self correcting mechanism. Whenever a mistake is made something can be done to test it and to correct the mistake. The critical test come in comparing our calculated results to the physical world. All our theories and calculations mean nothing if they cannot predict what is observed in the physical world. It does not matter how "elegant" a solution is, it is of no worth if it does not correctly demonstrate some physical principle.

Philosophy on the other hand does not have this ability, as a matter of fact the vast majority of Philosophy openly denies and/or questions the validity of the very thing that can show whether or not an idea is correct (such as Descartes' method of doubt and Kant's noumenon). This means that Philosophy, as a whole does not have any mechanism to check and to self-correct incorrect theories. With no way to check whether or not something is correct or true it is no wonder that there is so much confusion in Philosophy. If the same were true of physics we would live expecting people to ride backwards on their bikes, rocks to fall up and electricity to flow into wall sockets. We would loose all sense of order and normalcy in the world. If you wonder why Philosophy is so hard to understand, or why it returns ideas that are inconsitent with expereince, it is because it has divorced itself from the very thing that would give validity to its ideas.

It is like quitting your job and then wondering why you are poor.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Southern Color

Because I live in a university town the proper use of English tends to be higher than in other parts of the country. That does not mean it is perfect, or even good, just better than the average. But occasionally I run into someone who does not speak proper English, but rather the Southern Dialect, more common outside the university town.

The other day as I was boarding a bus there was a woman who was also boarding with her baby. The bus driver upon seeing the baby (who was awake) exclaimed, "He's so cute! He's wide awoked!" No I did not mistype it, that's what she (the bus driver) said. This way of speaking is not uncommon, but is rather the norm among certain people in the South.

Another example of this (which also came while I was riding the bus) I heard when a woman who was also riding the bus, saw a friend boarding the bus called out, "Hey girl! How you did?". When I hear college students speaking like this I wonder how they got into college and more especially, how they will get out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Office

As a graduate student at UNC I am given an office with a desk. Because my class was rather large (25 of us, they normally have less than 15) they had to find a place to put us. So they cleared out an unused lab and put 11 of us in one office. It has actually been convenient because generally there is always someone there working on the same homework assignment as me and that makes my homework easier.

The downside is as a first year, and as a member of the large class of students, there aren't the same amount of basic resources, such as desks and bookshelves that grad students normally have. Thus we have to make due with whatever we have. I was lucky (or fast) to get a larger desk, but for a place to put my books I had to improvise, as can be seen from the photo to the right. Yes, that is a sink next to my desk, remember this used to be a lab. (OK, funny side story. As an old lab we used to have a warning sign up on our door detailing the hazards in the lab, level 3 reactivity, level 2 flammability, level 2 radioactivity, and it would scare the undergraduate students that had to come find one of us during our office hours. We would always have people knocking on our door and asking rather timidly, "Can I come in...Is it safe for me to come in? There's a sign out here saying there's radiation." But they eventually took down the sign, so now the only problem we have is that our office doesn't have a number.)

I found the particle board shelves and put them on top of my desk so that I had someplace to put my books. I know it's cheap but we didn't have a lot of stuff. I also had to go through several chairs before I found one that was the right height and wasn't broken. In the photo you can't really see my chair because it has my coat on it. We also have two couches in our office and a padded chair, as can be seen in the photos below (taken from my desk).

That's Dave on the couch. His desk in the other corner (the corner in the photo on the left), he's also an astro student, so we have all the same classes. We also have some very similar research interests. The couches are questionable, as we got them from the undergraduates. Some people will not even touch them, while others in the office sleep on them on a regular basis. We are considered lucky to have this office because we have so many windows. I must say it is nice to have a view of the outside, even when it is freezing cold, it's nice to see out and look at the snow (that's why the windows are so bright in the photos, it's the glare off of the snow).

It's not the most "designer" building on campus, but the building was built for practicality, not looks. It's hard to make the building look nice when we constantly have to add pipes and electrical cables to allow us to do our work. That is something that is entirely missed in Hollywood movies and TV shows, the wires, the cables, the pipes and random things (sinks, next to their desk), and no one really cares. We just work around them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bennitt Farm

Most school children who learn about the Civil War hear about the surrender at Appomattox Court House. The way it is typically taught (and even the way I was first taught it), when General Lee surrendered at Appomattox the Civil War was considered to be over. What they don't teach you is about the rest of the war.

General Lee surrendered on April 9th, 1865. Despite Lee's surrender Jefferson Davis was determined to continue fighting, and he ordered General Johnston, who was in North Carolina at the time, to retreat with his cavalry so that they could continue the fight somewhere else. General Johnston disobeyed orders and met with General Sherman on April 17th to discuss terms of surrender. They met at a farm house about halfway between the train station of Durham and the town of Hillsborough. The owner of the farm was named James Bennitt (also spelled Bennett). At the time General Sherman had just received news that President Lincoln had been assassinated a few days previously on the 15th. They went ahead and negotiated terms of surrender which were considered very lenient on the part of the Union.

Because of the assassination of President Lincoln, congress would not accept the terms of surrender and ordered General Sherman to force harsher terms of surrender. Thus General Sherman (and General Grant, who had arrived from Virginia) met with General Johnston and on April 26th negotiated new terms of surrender. The troops under the control of General Johnston numbered approximately 89,000 and were spread over several states. This was the largest and as some argue the most significant surrender of the Civil War, thus marking the end of the war, but due to the assassination of President Lincoln and other things, there was only one reporter who showed up, and thus the surrender did not gain much press. Thus the surrender at Bennett Place (or the Bennitt Farm) was never considered as significant as Appomattox.

Today we went and visited the Bennitt Farm and learned all about the surrender and things we never knew. Here is a picture of the farm house. The original burned down in 1920, but the stone chimney is original. It is very well preserved and we even had the opportunity to talk to a "living historian", someone who dresses up in a Confederate uniform and talks about the history.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Here's a Fun One

Try putting this into a Google search:

(number of horns on a unicorn + the answer to life the universe and everything) / once in a blue moon

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Ayn Rand and the Concept of Good and Evil

In addition to reading religious philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, I enjoy reading some of the anti-religious philosophers. One of my favorites is Ayn Rand. Most people know her from her books such as The Fountainhead, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, among others. She is less well known for her philosophy of Objectivism but anyone who has read her books (and even many who have not) are familiar with it. While I enjoy reading her philosophy I should add that like any other philosopher I cannot agree with everything she said or wrote.

One of the reasons why I like reading her philosophy is because she has very good concepts regarding morality. One such idea is her concept of evil. As explained by Leonard Peikoff in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

"Evil is not consistent and does not want to be consistent. What it wants is to inject itself into the life-sustaining process sometimes--short-range, out-of-context, at whim. To achieve this end, it needs only a single concession by the good: a concession of the principle involved, a concession that evil is proper "sometimes." Such a compromise is evil's charter of liberty. Thereafter the irrational is free to set the terms and spread by further whim, until the good--and man--is destroyed.

"The power of the good is enormous, but depends on its consistency. That is why the good has to be an issue of "all or nothing," "black or white," and why evil has to be partial, occasional, "gray." Observe that a "liar" in common parlance is not a man who always, conscientiously, tells falsehoods; there is no such creature; for the term to apply to a person, a few whoppers on his part is enough. Just as a "hypocrite" is not a man who scrupulously betrays every idea he holds. Just as a "burglar" is not a man who steals every item of property he sees. Just as a person is a "killer" if he respects human life 99.9 per cent of the time and hires himself out to the Mafia as an executioner only now and then.

"To be evil "only sometimes" is to be evil. To be good is to be good all of the time, i.e. as a matter of consistent, unbreached principle."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Second Snow of Winter

Today we had our second snowfall of the season. It was pretty cool (ha ha!). I took some pictures:

This is the old well on campus (this is not actually the old well, but the new well built near the old well that served the campus until the 1920's or something like that. The actual old well was covered over and is near by.)
When ever it snows the old well becomes very popular and everyone goes to take a picture:This is across the street:
This is in the arboretum just down the street:

And a few pictures closer to home:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Odd NC Tax Code

I have seen some pretty impressive things while wading though pages of tax code and instructions while preparing my own taxes. Federal taxes are difficult but are nothing compared to state taxes. As usually happens things get difficult and I have to read all the instructions and then read the sub-instructions and then read the instructions for the instructions, and then read everything again, before I can figure out how to do my taxes (which should be pretty simple considering I don't make very much but...).

Of all three states that I have lived in, North Carolina has the most confusing tax code by far. It also has the distinction of winning the "Oddest Line of Tax Code Award". Recently while I was deep into doing my taxes I found a rather peculiar line in the tax code that, quite honestly was odder than any sentence I have ever come across in tax instructions before.

In the instructions for Form D-400 (Individual Income Tax Return Form) on page 14, under the section on "Credit for Charitable Contributions by Nonitemizers" I found this gem: "The credit may not be claimed for contributions for which credits for certain real property donations, gleaned crops, or recycling oyster shells are claimed." (emphasis added) Recycling oyster shells? As a "Charitable Contribution"??? WOW!!! That's a first. Who was the state legislator that got that inserted in the tax code? And apparently recycled oyster shells are such a hot commodity that they had to explicitly state that you can't claim tax credit for recycling oyster shells and claim them as a charitable contribution. Glad we got that one cleared up, I was about to double count my recycled oyster shell tax credits until I saw that line. I would have been in trouble.