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Posts Tagged ‘STEM’

Last week I was involved in an online discussion about writing ability, and whether it is actually less common among people who majored in STEM fields vs those who majored in the humanities; I explained that, in my experience as a writer, editor, and former teacher and librarian, it isn’t common in either group, but is slightly less uncommon in the humanities.  I used to edit technical papers as a side gig, and they were often so unintelligible I had to get on the phone to the author to ask what in God’s name he was trying to say.

Of course, the problem is a bit more complex than a simple “which group is better”; certain subgroups of humanities majors, most notably those in the “Ideological Studies” ghetto, are taught to write such convoluted, cumbersome gibberish that after graduation most of them can’t stop doing it even when explicitly told not to.  I was once in a working group trying to draft a press release; despite everyone being told we wanted to keep the language concise, simple, and straightforward for the general public, the draft modifications one group came up with were absolutely larded with academic and identity-politics jargon.  We had to ignore nearly all their contributions in the final draft because the additions, prevarications, disclaimers, lists, and semantically-empty garbage they wanted to insert would’ve tripled the length while crippling the meaning.  It’s important to recognize that this was not truly their fault; for their entire academic careers these participants were repeatedly rewarded for crafting ugly, clunky, unreadable rubbish interchangeable with every other statement of its type, the literary equivalent of an East German institutional building.  Writing ability develops with practice; unfortunately, many students of the past several decades have been taught practices that make their writing worse instead of better.  So, I guess the best summary of the situation is:  Most students start as bad writers.  STEM students tend not to improve.  Humanities majors in traditional fields usually improve at least some.  And “ideological studies” majors improve at writing committee-approved ideological garbage.  People learn what they’re taught.  If they’re taught to write properly, they’ll learn that.  If they’re taught to write improperly, they’ll learn that instead.  And if they aren’t taught to write at all, they will learn whatever they are taught.

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The Limits of Resolution

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose…I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.  –  J.B.S. Haldane, “Possible Worlds” (1927)

If you’re anything like me, you were already tired of the “We’re living in a simulation” nonsense before it even got as widespread as it is now.  The idea that what we perceive as reality might not actually be real goes back at least to Plato’s cave and the Hindu concept that the universe is the dream of Brahma, but for the genesis of its current popularity we must turn from the sublime to the ridiculous, namely the movie The Matrix (which stole both its name and its central concept from a 1976 episode of Doctor Who and many of its details from the works of Philip K. Dick, most notably Ubik, but does justice to neither).  This currently-popular version of the philosophical exercise postulates a creation with the grandeur and inescapability of what we might call the “primordial simulation” models (wherein the “simulation” is either the natural state of the universe or was created by an eternal demiurge far beyond the comprehension of any being within the simulation), yet residing within some physical realm at least resembling the “simulated” universe in which we are imagined to exist.  Expressed more succinctly, the modern “simulation” fantasy as typically conceived imagines a simulacrum of a universe created by some finite being or beings for some definable purpose and existing within some physical instrumentality.  And such a model is, due to those arbitrary limitations, pure claptrap.

The problem with this version of the idea lies in the very concept of a “simulation” as a thing that requires a “simulator”, rather than recognizing it a state intrinsic to the mathematical structure of the cosmos itself (a la Plato) or else as a product of a form of existence as far beyond our comprehension as the totality of the universe is beyond any given individual who might ponder their state of existence (as in Hindu cosmology).  But the Matrix-style simulation fans aren’t imagining an open-ended, intrinsically unknowable system; quite the opposite.  Instead, they postulate a very complex but still finite formal system, resident within something like a supercomputer (albeit an immense and very advanced one).  However, no formal system can adequately describe itself*, which means it also cannot adequately model itself; any simulation of this sort must therefore be of dramatically smaller scope and lower resolution than the world in which its simulating mechanism resides, just as no fictional world or electronic simulation within our world can ever be as large or complex as our world.  If our universe were truly a finite simulation within a knowable, physical system, there would be some point, probably but not necessarily on the scale of the infinitesimal, that we would be able to perceive the limits of granularity.  Sooner or later, our instruments would reach a point at which the resolution of our universe was no longer sufficient to allow us to subdivide structures into still-smaller parts, and given that our theoretical models already extend down to phenomena smaller than a billionth the size of the smallest particles we can detect, which are themselves far tinier than the electrons whose movements define the contents of our own computers, I think it’s safe to say that isn’t likely to happen.

*If you’ve never studied Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, here’s a very accessible book which might help you to understand both its narrow implications for mathematical modeling of phenomena and its philosophical implications for the universe as a whole.

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Bathhouse 39

Before we get to the part where I need to MIG weld the roof structure, Grace is stick-welding everything she can reach from the deck or the lower steps of a ladder (I won’t let her get above the third step, and I’m not really comfortable when she’s above the second).  In this picture, you can see where steel uprights have been welded to the roof brackets, and the transverse beam above the shop roof (held by clamps in earlier pictures) are now done as well.  My job while she’s welding is to repeatedly spray the nearby wooden surfaces with a hose to keep sparks from igniting anything; about 6 last evening it started drizzling, and we’re supposed to get more rain over the next few days, so that will help too by keeping everything too damp to catch.  Unfortunately, we were just about to lift this crossbeam into place, so I had to content myself with this shot and letting your imaginations do the rest until next time.  The thing I’m standing on is the wellhouse; once the roof is in place, that shitty old roof will come off and we’ll put a flat top on it, because as it turns out it’s just the right height for a bar.

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Diary #579

Just once, I’d like to return from a trip without having to deal with some kind of problem before I can even get settled in.  After returning from Freedom Fest on the 24th I spent a few days in Seattle, then returned home to Sunset on Wednesday.  While refilling the dogs’ water bowl, I noticed the water pressure was extremely low, so I went around to make sure nobody had left anything running.  Nobody had, and within another hour there was no water at all.  At first Grace thought the pressure switch had gone bad, but when she bypassed it to check the pump we still had no water.  Fortunately, we had already purchased a new pump when we first moved here, since there was no way to know just how old the one that came with the property might be; unfortunately…have you ever changed a well pump?  It’s not hard, but it’s strenuous and time-consuming and absolutely fucking filthy.  There was also no way to know how deep the well was, so I just had to keep pulling the hose up (with Grace guiding it out of the well casing) until we found the pump; since the water table is pretty high here I knew it wouldn’t be too deep, but that still meant I had to pull up 14 meters of water-filled irrigation pipe with a waterlogged pump at the bottom.  Then I had to dash to town to get about $30 worth of fittings while Grace switched out the pumps, and when I returned (about 5 PM) we still had to wire up the new pump and carefully lower it back down the shaft, then reconnect it to the water system.  We finished a little after 8, at which point we discovered the damned thing still wouldn’t work due to an overloaded control box.  Still, that meant we could hot-wire the pump to fill up the pressure tank so we could take showers and have water overnight, and we replaced the faulty control the next day.  As you can see, the old pump was a Sears model which (according to the serial number) was built in 1992; I’m definitely not complaining, because nearly 30 years is a pretty good operational life for any mechanical device run as hard as a well pump is.  But all the same, I’d have been happier if it had held on for just a few extra days.

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If you had relationships with any of the people on the block, you wouldn’t need [surveillance].  –  Asiaha Butler

ZZ Top had lots of songs about whores; I’ve already featured “La Grange” and “Mexican Blackbird” elsewhere, so to honor their bassist’s passing I’m featuring this one, which is at least whore-adjacent.  The links above it were provided by Genya Coulter; Mike Siegel and Scott Greenfield; Franklin Harris; Radley Balko; and Cop Crisis (x2), in that order.

From the Archives

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Bathhouse 37

One of the reasons we’ve been going so much more slowly this year is that the roof project requires more hands-on work from Grace, but she’s not physically able to exert herself much or even stand for very long.  Last year, she was able to plan, direct, and advise while Chekhov and I did most of the work, but steel isn’t wood and it takes more specialized skills to deal with it.  So I recently suggested to her that if she could teach me basic welding technique, I will be able to get up on the roof to weld the trusses together while she directs from the ground.  Now, normally welding takes a while to learn, but I don’t need to understand theory, how to set up the machine, or anything other than basic MIG technique; she can set everything up, and all I need to do is climb up with the stinger and do the actual spark-throwing.  So here’s the result of my first lesson; I’ll get a bit more practice after I get back from my conference next week, then once Grace thinks I’m ready I can start putting the framework together, taking pictures periodically so she can inspect my work to ensure I don’t screw up too badly.  And yeah, there will be pictures, though I’ll make sure they aren’t unflattering.

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Diary #576

Our sapphire gem hens have started laying, but on Sunday I found something I’ve never seen before.  Usually, pullet eggs are small, and sometimes they lack yolks.  But I’ve never before seen one whose shell wouldn’t harden at all.  For those unfamiliar with poultry, eggs are very soft (something like gelatin) when laid, but within about a minute after contact with air the shells harden.  But this little one did not do so; I gently scooped it up and put it in a ramekin in the kitchen, but it still hadn’t hardened after hours; I think it must lack the enzyme or whatever causes the shell to harden.  I’ve got two other eggs in this picture for size comparison; the one at top is what would be called a “large” egg in the US, in other words a pretty typical egg one would buy at the grocery.  The one at left is a typical pullet egg from one of the other young hens, and the one at lower right is the softie; if you zoom in you will be able to see that the texture of the soft shell is visibly different from the more typical pullet egg beside it.  This is one of the things I like about keeping animals; one gets to see fascinating little things about the world that are invisible to the average city-dweller.  It’s kind of like Mr. Wizard Goes to the Country (for you youngsters, Mr. Wizard was like Bill Nye the Science Guy from the ’50s-’80s).  And that’s fine with me, because as I’ve mentioned before, what I wanted to do for a living at the time I entered university was science popularization.  And though that’s not where life led me, I still love talking about that sort of thing as an amateur.

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My go-to argument for skepticism about flying saucer sightings (which have been in the news again lately) is as follows: Any technology capable of getting here across interstellar distances would be able to avoid detection.  And if they wanted to be seen, they’d simply hover over New York City or something.  It’s basically the same as my argument against the idea that hypnosis can promote recall of past lives: If the deities or forces that control reincarnation wanted us to remember past lives, we would.  And if they didn’t, the Divine will couldn’t be circumvented by a parlor trick.  See, avoiding detection by radar and the like isn’t that difficult; we already have ideas (and elementary techniques) about how to do it right now.  But people without a background in physics and/or astronomy really don’t grasp just how difficult it is to get from one star to another within any practical timespan.  Popular sci-fi makes it look easy, but it’s incredibly difficult.  Surpassing the sound barrier was mostly a problem of engineering & metallurgy, but surpassing the light barrier is so hard we don’t even have any widely-accepted (by physicists) theory about how it might be done.  Compare the plethora of fictional ideas about what FTL travel might look like (hyperspace, wormholes, tachyons, spacetime folding, etc, etc, ad absurdum) to Renaissance fantasies about going to the Moon; the real thing, when we finally develop it, will probably resemble Star Trek about as closely as a Saturn V resembles a kite towed by birds.  I’m defintely not saying that there are no such thing as alien visitors; what I am saying is that I won’t get excited about it until I’m offered more convincing proof than, “Some jet-jockeys saw lights that appeared to move impossibly fast.”

Incidentally, there’s a reason I say “flying saucers” rather than “UFOs”.  Even when I was a tween (during the ’70s UFO craze) and people asked “Do you believe in UFOs?” I’d answer, “Yes, I believe there are things that fly that those who see them can’t identify.”  At the time, I was still young and impressionable enough to believe in alien visitation, ancient astronauts, the whole schtick.  But even then, I recognized using “Unidentified Flying Object” to mean “definitely an alien spacecraft” was dumb.

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Good grief, reporters, please learn the difference between “size” and “length”.

Asteroid 2000 QW7 is set to pass Earth on September 14 according to research from Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS).  Asteroid 2000 QW7 is rather large, estimated to be 290 and 650 meters…making it the size of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world…Luckily, Asteroid 2000 QW7 is keeping its distance, only coming within 0.03564 astronomical units of Earth, which is approximately 3.3 million miles…

Burj Khalifa is very narrow in comparison to its height; an asteroid is not.  And while Burj Khalifa is mostly empty space, an asteroid is solid rock and/or metal.  Burj Khalifa masses a mere half a million tons; the asteroid mentioned in this story has a (very approximate) mass of 340 million tons.  In other words, O deeply scientifically-illiterate reporter, 2000 QW7 is not “the size of Burj Khalifa”; it is in fact well over 600 times its size.  For those who need a more concrete visualization:  The statement “2000 QW7 is the size of Burj Khalifa” is not-dissimilar in accuracy to the statement “A 2019 Honda Accord is the size of the bag of sugar in my cupboard.”

And yet I wonder how these same people can believe in 100,000 “sex trafficked children” being raped dozens of times a day.

Addendum, for those who care about such things:  I approximated the asteroid as a chondrite spheroid 600 m in diameter, small enough to be solid (unlike some small chondrite moons, which appear to have sizeable internal cavities); I approximated its density as 3 grams/cc.  I asked my astronomer friend Mike Siegel to check my numbers, and he came up with very similar ones (though he felt the official estimate of Burj Khalifa’s mass to be a bit high).

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I recently became aware of Science Hooker, and I was so impressed I immediately asked her to do a guest column.  She was able to achieve what in my youth I wanted to achieve, but couldn’t, and that makes her even more awesome in my estimation.science-hooker

Fucking science.
Science does not need to be dry.
Safe.
Boring.
Middle and upper class.
Clean.
Even though people fitting these values dominate it.
Serve my science as a double shot in a sleazy bar.
“What was your name again?”
Learning and ability is not about background.
It’s about will, thought, curiosity, stubbornness and passion.
Science Hooker is about science for ALL.

Nerves jostle my stomach stepping onto the podium, adjusting the mic.  Hundreds of academic faces, mostly white, mostly men, mostly upper middle class, peer at me from the cavernous dark.  Mars rover tools.  I’m here to talk about Mars rover tools, about how ultrasonics enhance performance.  The focus envelopes, I calm…. begin.  A significant part of my confidence in academia traces back to me fucking for a living.  Honing those social skills.  Escort, prostitute, courtesan, whore; the label has never seemed important.  I remember perching on the radiator in a cold Edinburgh flat, nervous energy bubbling through me and a client due to arrive any minute.  The doorbell chimed, the focus enveloped, calm… begin.

I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed about escorting.  Why should I?  There was so much learning.  So much living. I was an escort in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was studying part time at the Open University of Scotland, a truly fantastic institution for social mobility.  I gained a 1st in a geoscience BSc and was half way through an MSc when offered a PhD with the UK Space Agency, investigating the loss of the Mars atmosphere into the rocky crust and what lessons we can take from this in respect to climate change on Earth.  I’d never studied full time, nor physically attended an institution.  The integral snobbery, bigotry and discrimination is real.

Many academic peers are surprisingly religious, mass on Sunday sort of thing.  Their attitude to open discussions of prostitution backgrounds is full of the usual “saddening”, “terrible” and “disgusting”, coupled with trite ignorant sentiments such as, “Well, at least that is behind you know, or I hope it is, otherwise I don’t know what to say”.  The idea that there could be any positive life or value within the confines of escorting is anathema.  The message clearly announced that sex workers do not belong in academia unless they are very repentant, and acknowledge that their life was very sad, and how grateful they are to have transcended into the academic’s world.  Fuck conforming to fit in with this scene.

Science Hooker is my reaction to this elitist, insular environment of privilege.  It started in December 2015 as website, Twitter and Facebook platform where I simply shared fun science, but with an “escort” slant, which probably tasted daring and risqué to most academics.  The few thousand followers were mostly academics.  Yet, the project has evolved since the early days, becoming less timid.  A regular blog slot was provided by The Huffington Post, with a relatively free hand regarding content; this has been a powerful platform to engage larger audiences.  Following a Huffington article I wrote on prostitution, the House of Commons invited me to a panel discussion on reforming prostitution laws; it suddenly felt like Science Hooker could make an impact.  A short film was produced as a Cairn Productions-Science Hooker collaboration about my science research.  Thousands of academics followed, hundreds of professors; but still, I felt Science Hooker was pointless in a way.  Sharing academic content with academics is preaching to the converted.  It is not outreach.  It is not real science communication.  Added to this, a dozen other platforms are doing the exact same format of science dissemination.  I found myself asking: why am I doing Science Hooker?  What is the goal?  Where is it going?

The answer is still forming.  Fermenting.  Recently, large numbers of sex workers have followed, sharing their content, thoughts, jokes and issues.  I am glad of this demographic shift.  Interestingly, the extent I engage with the sex work community correlates with a proportionate decline in academic followers; a price worth paying, but informative about attitudes, and reinforcing my previous conclusions.  There has been a mixture of positive and negative reactions to Science Hooker.  Recently an academic pulled their copyright and association with a mineral reference book I had been working on with other students because they had stumbled over Science Hooker and my escort history.  This was no loss, academics are plentiful; we simply replaced his contribution and took the incident as a perfect example of bigotry and exclusion in the sciences for those from alternative backgrounds.  At the other end of the spectrum, Science Hooker recently got nominated by a post-doctoral fellow for the Annie Maunder medal from the Royal Astronomy Society for public outreach.  Science Hooker generates impact, disparagement, respect, hatred, encouragement and dismissal in a messy bundle of reactions.

Science Hooker ethos has always been about making science accessible and understandable to all, yet the tangible application of this goal is difficult.  How does one achieve this in any concrete sense?  Initially the accessibility I had in mind was all about explaining science, but now I feel it has morphed to include smashing down ivory walls of the academic tower, or at least graffiti them up a bit; highlighting discrimination, denial of access and judgemental hatred to sex workers in relation to formal science, education and academia.  A new project on the drawing board just now is called “Ask a scientist!”  I am collecting a network of scientists from a wide range of disciplines willing to answer public questions in a 1-1 personal way.  There will be two functions.  Anyone will be able to search for a scientist from a database, read about their history and motivations, their area of research and contact them directly via email.  Alternatively, people will be able to ask a question on the website, and any scientist can choose to respond and answer it, or not.  Possibly different scientists will forward different viewpoints and a conversation will develop.  I hope so.  Once this has been trialed successfully, it would be interesting to create another database called “Ask a sex worker”, again, with the aim of developing conversation, connection and mutual understanding.  I firmly believe it is through knowledge of each other that stigma dies.

The university is ending my funding soon, and I won’t have finished the PhD in time.  I don’t know what will happen, with me, or with Science Hooker.  I may even return to escorting.  Life is uncertain. I am unpredictable.  Science Hooker is fluid.  We can all only play with the cards in our hand, make a difference where opportunity and circumstance allow. So why not visit Science Hooker?  See what it’s all about.

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