November, 2009

Nov 09

A River Crossing Problem

RiverBack when I was in school, there were two types of math problems that always showed up. The first kind gave you the rules to follow, gave you the problem to solve and just asked you to apply the rules to the problem to get the answer. They were straightforward and a breeze to solve.

Then there were word problems. The textbooks had a paragraph describing a scenario. You had to then figure out how the rules could be applied to that situation. I always thought they were pretty useless. The word problems were attempts to show how the math could be applied in real life. But the scenarios that they used were just as abstract and inapplicable as the mathematical concepts themselves. When is the last time that you needed to predict what color a marble would be before you took it out of your marble bag? Or do you ever really need to know how much water was poured out of a fish tank when the remaining water forms a equilateral triangle within the corner of the tank?

But after years of applying what I have learned in school to various hobbies and jobs, I can see why they had those problems in there. Learning how to apply theoretical rules to real life situations is essential to understanding life in general. I think any attempt to get people thinking in that way is worth the effort, even if the scenarios that they used were completely out of left field. More than likely, the writers of those textbooks had to be very generic because they knew that their readers were coming from a diverse set of backgrounds. The problems taught the process even if they had the negative side effect of making the student think the concepts were not applicable in real life.
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Nov 09

Scientific Method at Work

keyboardI am a software engineer. I use the scientific method to solve problems at work multiple times a day, every day. Working in software provides a great environment to practice the scientific method because the workspace that I am dealing with is guaranteed to follow logic. As long as I don’t take leaps in my logic, I will eventually come up with a solution to the problem.

But I run into plenty of stumbling blocks in the process. It takes skill to figure out what the right questions are. When attempting to answer those questions, I have to make sure the hypotheses make the least amount of assumptions as possible. Experiments have to be designed to test only the hypotheses in question. And conclusions can be drawn only from the results of those experiments. Nothing more.
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Nov 09

Mental Readiness

“A state of mindfulness is a state of mental readiness. The mind is not burdened with preoccupations or bound in worries. Whatever comes up can be dealt with instantly. When you are truly mindful, your nervous system has a freshness and resiliency which fosters insight. A problem arises and you simply deal with it, quickly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. You don’t stand there in a dither, and you don’t run off to a quiet corner so you can sit down and meditate about it. You simply deal with it. And in those rare circumstances when no solution seems possible, you don’t worry about that. You just go on to the next thing that needs your attention. Your intuition becomes a very practical faculty.”

- Mindfulness in Plain English

Nov 09

Happy Birthday Carl

CosmosIn honor of Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday, I watched an episode of Cosmos: The Backbone of Night.

“The exploration of the Cosmos is a voyage of self discovery.”

Watching this episode, I am convinced that no one was better at popularizing science than Carl Sagan. He knew how to keep the discussion personal. In the episode, he travels to his hometown, getting a glass of milk at a general store. He talks about how in his childhood he had questions about the stars. When he was young, he asked adults about what they were, and he went to the library to get books about them. The show then transitions into Carl’s sixth grade classroom in the present day. Sagan is visiting, teaching the children in the class about our solar system. A child asks if the sun is considered part of the Milky Way galaxy. Carl responds, saying the sun is considered part of the galaxy. He also says that the child is part of the galaxy too. We are all part of the galaxy.

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Nov 09

Action with Uncertainty

Steven Novella wrote a great post over at the SkepticBlog about how skeptics should talk to each other within public forums. He discusses the difficulty of getting skeptics to agree with each other, courtesy within debates and how science’s open self-criticism effects group dynamics.

His blog entry is in direct response to Brian Dunning‘s own post and subsequent discussion concerning public skeptic to skeptic discussions. Dunning seems to think that it is in the best interest of skeptics to present a united front and to only disagree with each other in private. I (along with many other readers) wholeheartedly disagree with this point of view.

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