About Me

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I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why do We Have to Learn This?

This is one of those bullshit questions that are asked usually of kids in school, and I've heard it quite a lot lately, in one form or another, almost universally in relation to taking a particular math or science class:

"When am I ever going to use this?!?!"
Often followed by "I'm gonna be a basketball star!" or "...rock star!"" or "...novelist!"

I have seen suggestions that you're only forced into this stuff in school to exercise your brain. Or for torture.

This whole line of questioning and thinking really bugs me, and has for decades. Naturally, I wasn't 'in the room' when the folks who made the scholastic curriculum did so, so I don't actually KNOW why they put these courses in our way through K-12, but I've got what I think are some pretty iron-clad thoughts on the subject...

Let's start with the most basic, fundamental, and shallow thought: the reason that you whiners need to take algebra (for instance...could be physics or geometry) is the same reason that I had to take friggin' ART class (and music class). As I mention above, I don't actually know what the reason is, but these points are opposite sides of the same reason.

Trying to teach a kid like who I was music and art is like trying to teach rain to fall up. I have never been able to hear individual sounds in the aggregate (like hearing the flute in the orchestra), and I don't have an artistic bone in my body. I can't even draw a straight line when I have a ruler (I know: art seldom requires straight lines...my point is that I've never been able to make an image in my mind come out of the end of a pencil; I'm going to leave it to you to extend the metaphor).

The next reason in my mind is that when you tell me, "...I'm gonna be a fillintheblank!", you don't actually know that. Remember, we're talking about high school kids for the most part: those folks in the prime of their life who know the full contents of the internet (what used to be the encyclopedia, dictionary, & atlases combined), have the wisdom of the ages, and can see their own future with crystal clarity.


Here's some wisdom from the curmudgeon: you DON'T know everything. You CAN'T see your own future. While perhaps you won't ever NEED these motes of knowledge, you can never tell when they might be USEFUL. You might just find someday that knowing a bit of geometry will enable you to identify when a carpenter or carpet salesman is trying to soak you for more money than a job is worth, and unless you're made out of money, those extra few hundred or thousand dollars could actually make a difference in your life.

And on the sports angle, let's take the NFL and do a tiny bit of math: 32 teams with 65 players each is 2,080 individual players in the NFL. Add the practice squads, I'll estimate 4,000 men in the USA who make a living playing football in the NFL. Childstats.gov says there are 76.1 million school-aged children in the USA. Basic interpolation suggests that one third of these are in high school: 25.37 million kids in high school.
Half of these are boys: 12.185 million.
Wild Ass Guess: 6 million are healthy enough to be playing sports, 3 million are playing football.

3 million football playing high school boys, working for 4,000 spots: 1 in 750 of you are going to actually play professional football in the USA. Not bad odds, really...better than I thought when I started that math, BUT, this assumes that you're not hurt on your way to the NFL. Physical injury is a real probability there. I think that this basic analysis applies to all sports-minded students, and I guess my council is: have a back-up plan.

What I think is the ACTUAL reason you need to take those classes is pretty simple: exposure. It's important to expose everyone to math, science, art, literature, music, philosophy, wood working (and other industrial arts), language (starting with Latin), history, politics, writing, sports, and all the other topics that increase our awareness of the universe around us.

For one thing, if you're never exposed to a subject, how could you ever possibly know whether you've got any talents in that subject, or whether you'd like to pursue it? If you never took an art class, you might never know that you're good at it, and you might never meet your muse. Should you never meet your muse, you'll never been truly brilliant, successful, or even happy.

It may well be that you find that you enjoy math or biology, but if you didn't have those classes in school, you'd never know, and you'd miss that boat. Can you say, "You want fries with that?"?
Between the age of 5 or so until you're 18 - 13 short years (in retrospect, of course), you have to be exposed to a sufficient depth of all of these subjects to arm yourself with enough knowledge and experience to be able to make some decisions that are going to affect the entire rest of your life. AND are bound to affect the lives of your life partner as well as any kids that you might end up with and parents that might eventually have to depend upon you.

We have to be exposed to a little of everything in those few years. And they are not full years, either! In the USA, kids go to school for a total of 180 days per year, on average, which is close enough to half of the year to say that the 13 years mentioned above is actually more like 6.5 years. Not a lot, really.

In my mind, it's all about exposure.

Finally, don't fool yourself too well about never needing whatever subject it is that you're lamenting. If you ever DO get to be that professional sports star, you should know that the sporting world is full of statistics, which is math. Your contracts are going to be chock-full of math, in the form of money. If you can't do basic math, you're going to have to leave that to your agent, and you're kidding yourself if you think that your agent has only your best interests at heart.

If you ever take an interest in DIY projects, geometry is going to be your friend.

Will you NEED the knowledge that comes out of those "useless" classes? No, not necessarily, but you'll be surprised where that knowledge might come in useful.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ruined Words - Seduce

I like the word 'seduce', but you can't seem to use it anymore in anything other than a sexual sense. The original meaning of the word was to lead astray, coming straight out of the Latin.

MW gives me three definitions:
  1. to persuade to disobedience or disloyalty
  2. to lead astray usually by persuasion or false promises
  3. to carry out the physical seduction of : entice to sexual intercourse

According to the OED (Online Etymology Dictionary), the sexual connotation showed up in the 1550s, which should have been well more than a thousand years after the original. Nowadays it seems the only version in use is the third - the last to show up.

I had used the term on a teen lately when I told him that his "friends"  were not friends at all, as they had seduced him into doing something that he knew was wrong. He got all 'wait a minute...there's nothing sexual between me and them' on me.

Oy. Just another example of a word that we can't really use anymore. Even though Darth Vader was 'seduced by the dark side'. Folks seem to understand that...or do they? Is that another case of "once you go black...?" :)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Animals Using Tools

Have you ever run into the assertion that humans and chimps are the only animals that use tools?

Chimps will take a long piece of grass and stick it into a termite mound to extract termites to eat. I have a friend who grew up in India, where live a number of monkey species that emulate human activity to the point where they'll use sticks as spears. Very cool stuff.

But humans and chimps are not the only tool users in the animal kingdom. I am not about to claim to be an expert on the subject, but here are three extra cool examples, in order from least to most cool, of animals using tools:

Kinda cool:
Seagulls will take clams up on high and drop them onto roads, rocks, or other hard surfaces (like anvils or my head) to open them. I think that this is using a tool, like whacking a walnut with a mallet, only backwards.

Pretty cool:
Otters will put a rock on their own little tummy while they float on their backs and crack clam shells on the rock. This is how they get their meat (and I'm told that they have to eat more than their own weight every day).

Wicked Totally Awesome Cool:
In my opinion nothing but nothing beats the Corolla Spider. The Corolla Spider digs out a hole and surrounds the entry to the hole with quartz crystals. If an insect touches one of the quartz crystals, the vibrations transmit through the quartz and tell the spider exactly where teh insect is, and thererfore where to attack.

There's an Animal Planet video here:

The buggers didn't want me to embed it...feh!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Men can't Multitask...or Can They (we)?

So I've got what I think is an interesting enquiry into the arguable ability of men to multitask. It's a generalization that many men can't multitask at all, and most are of a bit of a lesser ability to multitask as compared to women.

This is certainly true in my own case: I can multitask to a minor degree only, while historically my beautiful wife has been a multitasking master.

That said, there has been a change over the last year. You may recall (or haven't read) that the wife, the eldest, and I were involved in an auto accident at the beginning of summer 2011. We were rear-ended. The boy and I were fine, relatively speaking, my wife has not yet fully recovered, as she suffered a concussion and other slowly repairing brain damage, not to mention some structural damage that put her through a few surgeries to correct.

I mention this only to concentrate on a change in her ability to do things like multitask. It went away completely in that blink-of-an-eye when our car was struck. Thought processes took longer, and assembling sentences became a challenge; she could not speak about one thing while doing another. She went from a parallel-path machine to a serial one, if you'll forgive my computer analogy.

As I've watched her recover these past 10 months I've watched her ability to multitask return to close-to-normal. It's clear to me that there is a close relationship between one's ability to multitask with damage to a specific portion of the brain. Blunt trauma can cause us to lose this ability. Makes sense to me. Probably not a revolutionary thought, really.

What has this got to do with anything? Well, if I look at how boys grow into men, the stereotype, which was certainly true in my case, is that boys play hard...and get hurt a lot. Personally, I've had concussions, Once I was knocked out cold by a blow to the head. I've bounced my head off of the ground, other heads, baseballs, knees, ice, rocks, tiles, wood, and countless other hard objects. It may bare noting that I've also broken bones and teeth, dislocated ankles and shoulders, crushed tendons, and all kinds of other mechanical damage as a result of my endless pursuit of fun.

I have seen in the last year my wife struggling with symptoms that I've learned how to live with over decades. It occurs to me that my own inability to do any degree of multitasking might well be due to the foolhardiness of my youth. To extend that, it might be the same for men everywhere.

If we were to undertake a study of men who can vs. men who can not multitask, what did their respective childhoods look like? I would not be surprised to find that those men who CAN multitask were not so physical as children, and probably did not sustain as much head trauma as those men who CAN'T multitask.

Just a thought.

This said, I give you the following proof that men can multitask:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cleaning the Computer

The Grumpy IT Guy recently had a post in his A - To - Z Challenge about people using their work computers and letting their kids install what amounts to spyware, malware, and viruses while trying to play games and what not. That particular rant is here.

It put me in mind of an episode, now several years in the past, when one of my kids had landed on a nice, innocent-looking game on the internet that he wanted to play, and asked his grandmother to help him out. Granny is one those people who seems to prefer to not think about what she's doing. Sometimes I think that her seeming inability to think things through MUST be a joke or some kind of gambit, like how some people pretend to be inept so that you don't ask them to do anything.

That said, she's always there to try to do something in the name of helping you. Good heart. Loony as a football bat, but a very good heart.

In this case, in trying to help, she kept pushing the "yes" button without actually reading what the dialog box said (not that it would have mattered, malware makers don't exactly practice truth in advertising).

It took me three or four days to clean that dang computer up.

Why did she keep hitting "yes"? Well, because that's what the IT guy at work told her to do.

The IT guy at work told her to keep hitting "yes", I'm sure, while he remotely rolled out a legitimate software package update. When you're downloading something from the internet, this is NOT the best policy!

I know very few people for whom I cringe when they come to help...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Exactly How Evolved am I?

So we've been talking a lot lately about evolution. At the risk of rolling eyes and heavy sighs, I thought it might be entertaining to relate a story to you that might evidence my own status at the peak of biological development here on earth.

Way, way back in the annals of history, just after high school, I worked at an electrical supply company where I sold to electrical contractors as well as layfolk all kinds of electrical stuff, from light bulbs to breaker panels, wire and cable, electrical conduit and lighting fixtures.

On one particular day I was getting a length of large-gauge cable for a customer. My memory suggests that it what they call "6/3 BX", which is an armored cable, as shown below, the size of a small child's wrist, and is covered by a flexible metal sheath.

 Heavy and tough to cut, we typically used a large pair of cutters that looked for all the world like pruning shears. Problem was, at this particular time, the cutter was old and well worn, and as anyone who's used a pair of old, dull scissors knows, the item you are trying to cut may (instead of cutting like a good little doo-bee), kind of flex and slide between the two halves of the scissors and be a real pain. This is what was happening to me: the cutter was so dull and loose that the last little bit of the metal sheathing was just going between the two jaws of the cutter, and I couldn't complete the cut quite right.

It was clear to me that what I needed to do was to align the sheath in the jaws "just so", so that it would cut at last. I took some fair care in lining that cut up, sighting down from above the cutting jaws to see with great clarity that stubborn bit of metal between the jaws of the cutter, and gave a quick, sharp thrust of the handles, hoping that the sudden shot would help to convince the cutter to go through the last shred of cladding.

What really happened, though, was that the two handles smacked me in the head, one on either temple, and I saw stars, and the cable did not cut.

And that's exactly how evolved I am.

Friday, April 6, 2012

How did We Really Get Here...and Why?

This little piece of dwelling has...uh...evolved (hehe) out of the few conversations that we've had about evolution and human design, and such. Did we evolve through random chance? Were we stuck here, in the form that we enjoy today, from "day one"? Why do we have the form that we have?

First, and I can't stress this more: I don't know. BUT, as Socrates was apt to say: "I'll be glad to inquire into it with you."

So my basic thinking is that we are where we are as a net result of an initial design augmented by evolution, some gradual and some spontaneous, some at least somewhat random and some as a result of environmental pressures.

First, CarrieBoo raises a question about my thoughts: Are you saying that only humans are "designed"?
No; it is my thinking that not only humans benefited from an early design. From years of training in engineering, I have become very adverse to making sweeping assertions, so I'm not going to assert that ALL life forms enjoyed design, but for the life of me, I can't put my finger on one that might NOT have been designed.

From the eating meat conversation, Lions, Tigers, Sharks, and other pointy-toothed animals appear to me to have been designed to eat meat. Anteaters? Not so much. Although, are bugs meat? Hmm...

Well, cows, horses, bison, and other not-so-pointy-toothed animals appear to me to have been designed to eat plants.

These designs don't stop at eating meat, though. It takes a different sort of digestive system to eat meat as compared to eating plant. Cows have four stomachs to do that. Lions have sharp claws for catching their meat.

Giraffes live off of twigs and leaves. Unfortunately, very often the plants that they eat are nestled away among thorny branches. What's to be done? Nothing! They have long, tough tongues to contend with just that problem! Convenient, eh?

The Aye-Aye is a specific type of lemur. It lives off of grubs that they find in trees. And when I say "in trees", what I mean is that the grubs are inside of the trees, not among the leaves and such. Without drills and tweezers, how do they get those grubs? Without stethoscopes how do they find them? The Aye-Aye has a long finger on each hand full of otherwise relatively short fingers. They use this one long finger to tap on the wood, and somehow (I suspect echolocation), they can find the grubs inside the tree. They then gnaw a hole in the tree and stick that nice, long finger in to get the grub. Yum!

What a great stroke of luck that they just happened to develop the finger that they need to reach those grubs, and (before starving) figured out how to use it to find them. Very cool, and to me: very designed.

What about those baleen whales that eat krill? Isn't it just a little TOO convenient that they have those filters at the front of their mouths that enable them to catch krill? That's a bit specific, I think. For a random process to look around, review all the possible food sources, and come up with 'I want to eat those tiny things, I'll need a colander to pull them out of the water...here's a colander', that seems a little to the side of random. Pure evolution would state that the early whales with that colander made it more probable that the whales survived to pass on its genes. I think that the whale that ate the large stuff instead would have had a better chance of that. It's got to be easier to catch a ton of shrimp than a thousand tons of much smaller things.

Now, it may be that evolution is nothing more than the designer making minor changes and tweaks to the design over time. I've worked in product development for almost my entire engineering career, and this is really how products are developed. I've drawn this analogy in my head many times over the years, and sometimes I think it's genius, and other times I think it's hysterical, but it's always entertaining to me.

Concept: This is where an idea is born. Someone gets the notion like "hey, we should build a gizmo". In God's head, this would have looked like "Hey, how about a 'life form'...something to watch run around on this little exercise wheel'

Feasibility: Where some research is conducted and enough work goes on to determine that this idea is possible. In God's lab, this looks like single-celled organisms, perhaps simple multi-celled ones. Just proving that it could work.

Development: Work goes on in earnest to develop this gizmo for real. Designs are gradually developed and refined, Prototypes are made and tested, flaws cause the design to be refined and reworked...this is a cyclical and iterative stage. God would make this look like the Cambrian through Permian eras of earth's past. Oops! We're not going quite the right direction, we're going to have to redesign and rework. Or: Triassic through Cretaceous.

Manufacturing Pilot: We work at building devices in a manufacturing environment, and refining the design for manufacturability. It's a design improvement step to make a more refined product. God will call this the Mesozoic, specifically the Paleogene and perhaps the Neogene.

Manufacturing: We all know what this is: the rise of man! The Quaternary!

During many of these steps and phases, changes creep into the design, some purposely and some less so, but always improving on the basic design and making things gooder. Sometimes something "falls into the vat" and results in a spontaneous improvement (or deterioration), and we can call this random evolution.

Random? Hmmm...the Grumpy IT Guy suggests that there's nothing random about this process. The way that I interpret what he's saying, it sounds like evolution is a response to some external pressure.

I always wondered why it might be that there are white folks running around the planet. I assume that since man came first out of Africa, and today's Africans are dark-skinned, then the first Africans must also have been dark skinned. Which means that whites showed up when man moved north. Why would that be? Why would they turn white? Changing the design takes energy. The external pressure argument would suggest that there must have been an evolutionary advantage to becoming white.

In talks with a Nigerian friend of mine, he had been having similar thoughts. He tells me that when you move north, you don't have the same access to the sun that you have in the south. Being that we need to be able to get that all-important vitamin D out of the sun (which is different from non-solar vitamin D), you need a more efficient method to do that. The more efficient method: white skin.

This is a great theory as to why we got white skin. It demonstrates the evolution-by-pressure argument nicely. Is it true and accurate? I don't know, but it answers questions nicely.

I also like the argument that as climate change caused the jungles that early man lived in change to savanah, early man developed his upright posture, which helped him keep a better watch-out over the plains, and to carry food around, and also to move more efficiently across the plains. This is another argument for evolution-by-pressure.

OR, it could be that man developed his upright posture, and the earth changed to suit him! Pfpt! hehe.

CarrieBoo watched a show on Chaos Theory, and it seems exceedingly unlikely that any given evolutionary solution would show up more than once. But statistical theory, as I understand it, dictates that any given solution should eventually show up again. On the other hand, you might have to experience all those countless pressures and variations in a certain order. This is an interesting black hole of thought. I'm sure that it'll germinate in my hollow head.

You know what random evolution doesn't account for (for me, at least)? Redundant design. Why would we, along with so many other species, have two kidneys? They do the same things as each other...why two? Two eyes and two ears I understand the value of.

What's the advantage of 5 digits as opposed to 4? Why are there the same number of digits on our feet that there are on our hands? In fact, most animals that have digits have this parity (4 up front, 4 in the back, for instance), no matter the number of digits that they have: always the same parity. If random evolution is so unusual as to make it nearly impossible for a given solution to appear repeatedly, why this constancy? Or rather, how?

Finally, on a spiritual note, we have "Through evolution, could humans have evolved souls?

Wow...what a provocative thought. I think that I'd love to sit around a table with you, CarrieBoo. "COULD" they? Sure! Why not? Does this question presume that non-humans do NOT have souls? Does my dog have a soul? Is that what makes her so sweet? If the soul evolved, when did that happen? Why?

Harumph! I don't know!

Ugh...look at me go one! I keep trying to tell my wife that longer is not necessarily better, so I'll move along now with one last suggestion:

I get a lot of my thoughts and information from watching documentaries. If you like documentaries, especially on animals and nature, please go our of your way to watch the movie "Mating Habits of the Earth Bound Human". Hysterical mockumentary narrated by David Hyde Pierce. It's ostensibly a documentary made by aliens on the dating culture of humans. It's awesome.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Big Brain Theory - A Conversation with Andrew about Evolution

Earlier this week I was referred to a fellow blogger who had just posted about the evolution of a larger brain size as (largely) a result of eating meat. It's a good story at Live Like Dirt. I think that I like this site, as it talks a lot about some subjects that I find fascinating, and the author, one Andrew Holmes, seems quite knowledgeable in his field.

I shared with Andrew my meager thoughts on humans eating meat and how that might or might not impact brain size. You may read, recall, or re-read them here, and here.

Andrew did me the kindness of reading these, and then promptly posted a tutorial on how the human brain evolved, and the importance...the necessity...of eating meat to make that happen. That post is back on the Live Like Dirt blog.

Now that we're all caught up, I do have some responses and thoughts to further the discussion.

In opening, Andrew took issue with my suggestion that humans were not  designed to eat meat. His assertion is that humans weren't designed at all, and that evolution is a completely random and stochastic process.

Without burning too much of anyone's time, I'm hoping that he and I can agree to disagree about this point. When I look at many aspects of the human body, I can't deny that it was clearly designed. If I were to accept this development as a random stochastic process (and this may seem counter intuitive), then I would have expected to see more than one species in the history of the world having evolved a larger brain.

Much like there have been multiple large-tooth cat species (as in saber tooth) in the archaeological record, and there have been a few different forms of elephant-like creatures (mastodons, mammoths, elephants...), I would expect to see that there would have been more than one creature that developed large brains (our sized brains).

In a random process, it is my experience that when you see one instance of an output, you will see it again. If you consider big brains to be a 1-in-a-billion statistical deviation (wild ass guess, right there), I think (with no data, mind you) that we should have seen this evolutionary big brain development at least a few times in the half billion years that the countless life forms have been blundering about.

Could this mean that big brain evolution isn't a result of a random, stochastic process? Could be. I don't know for a fact; all I'm doing is thinking and theorizing...asking questions in the dark. So, Andrew feels that it's not a design, perse, and I think it is. Who's right? I don't know. But his answer leaves me with questions, and mine doesn't. Am I right? I don't know.

I think that one reason why I do spend so much time on this point is that we both feel that it's important. Also, the way I read Andrew's response, this particular point reads as though it's absolute, incontrovertible fact. That may not be the intent, or the real case, but it sure reads that way to me. It reads to me like he dismisses the design theory as an impossibility, and that brings a quote to my mind:

If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.
~Arthur C. Clarke

Andrew then walks through what I will admit is a very likely scenario about things that contributed to growing our brains, but even while the assertion reads to me like "this is the way it happened", it's peppered with probabilistic language such as "could provide", and "more likely", and other similar language. The use of this language makes it impossible for me to disagree with the message (which is to say I agree: the large brain could provide an advantage, and would be more likely to pass on their traits...excellent writing, in my opinion).

David says, "The reason our ancestors didn't evolve larger brains prior to six million years ago is because meat eating was probably a much less frequent activity at that time."

This is a confusing sentence to my simple mind: it starts out by telling me that it's going to explain why we didn't evolve a large brain earlier, but then say "probably". It suggests that meat is the reason...probably.

Is it? I don't know.

David then says, "I think that's a pretty good explanation for how humans evolved to have such large brains." I think so too. Is it THE explanation? I don't know.

If you like news about the history of the world, though, it looks like Live Like Dirt is a good place to find snippets of it.