Friday, June 20, 2014

Interstitial: My Shortcomings Squared by My Rage at the Unfairness of It All

I have occupied my life with questions about what was happening around me, or to me. Sometimes I found myself buying into the answers that were provided to me and sometimes I just did not. To provide a tangible example: I had questions early in my life about electricity. It was a very mysterious thing and it provided me my favorite childhood innovation: television. I think I was 5 years old when I saw one initially. I was thus obligated to understand it.

My father was somewhat of an expert in electronics having served as a radar technician in World War II and throughout the rest of his time in service thereafter. In that early period of my life there was no man greater than my dad in mathematics and anything electronic. He helped me with mathematics in such a way that I later excelled in this subject. He was a brilliant teacher. Yet I never quite bought his answers to my questions about the whys of electricity. Electrons...again. Sorry Dad.

I could not understand the answers to the questions I was bringing into play probably because these answers were well over my head. For instance (and for digression) a child asking moral questions is a rather striking example of this. Who can effectively explain to a child why one should not cheat? Who among you wants to be the first to throw a stone? All around the child are obvious aspects of cheating taking place by adults.

I remember wanting my Hot Wheels cars, speedy little matchbox car type of toys, to jump and do flips like they did on television commercials. My mother said that my toys simply would not do those things. So commercials clearly exaggerated copiously or, in my book, they did not tell the truth. Why was I not allowed to lie while a major company run by adults could do so to children? It was not simply a double standard like "smoking is not good for you, so do not smoke like I do." Lying was doing wrong to other people, not only oneself. Deceit was a rather strong transgression.

This toy company had the wherewithal to create an expensive television commercial while I was not trusted with much more than two dollars at a time. Surely they were smarter than me, wealthier than me, and just plain better than me in the eyes of the world by virtue of the fact that they could tell magnificent lies.

Worse, my mother appeared to accept this behavior as commonplace. There were no value judgments. There was no hand wringing over ethics. I simply did not understand why my toy cars continued to under-perform the cars on the commercials which were racking up ever greater accomplishments on television. I had wasted a market-priced Christmas wish on them. That was a persuasive lesson as the lies continued.

Through numerous similar disappointments, I came to distrust the legitimacy of the facts I was being given. Statements by parents, experts, news anchormen, or pretty much anyone at all were in doubt. It was simple logical deduction coupled with my unwillingness to believe things that were mythical. I think it is an innate human characteristic to yearn for someone to trust. A probably universal consequence of this desire is that any trust given will be broken enough times to cast a dark shadow upon everyone except only a few... then, after a while, the shadow will fall upon a few of those few as well. Oh, 'tis a gloomy outlook.

I definitely, and more or less defiantly, feel cheating is wrong, but I see that cheating is often what propels people ahead in society's idea of success which, after all, is usually in monetary terms. I did not understand that money was the quest as a child. I had such lofty goals. But from grade school onward, cheating seemed to work more often than not for those engaged in it. Cheerleaders copied my work with abandon while at the same time they were the most popular girls in the school.

Perhaps somewhere there were lucky people out there who decided that cheating was morally wrong, never actually cheated, and were ultimately successful by the standards of everyday society. There were obviously a lot of people who cheated, were caught and became dreadful failures because of their inability to cheat effectively. Evolutionary forces decide the winners among the cheaters. It is not a natural trait so I am afraid it must be one of nurture, which is the point really. Silver spoons are often a good start, but sometimes not.

It seems logical that there must be people who earned their huge accomplishments with a heavy dose of luck and skill. They must lead the best of lives, having conquered the obstacles in their way with no reason for remorse about their methods or the pathway they chose towards those accomplishments. But after a long life, I have many reasons for believing that there are few in this category. I suspect that moral consequences are either deeply hidden from these successful folks, or they know exactly where they cheated.

Undigressing, Thomas Edison defined electricity as "a mode of motion" and "a system of vibrations." link Edison was a success on so many levels and yet I find him not answering the question I put to my father about what electricity was, exactly. This probably proves that one does not have to know the ultimate answer to function in a highly effective manner.

I certainly was a persistent young man, at least in my unwillingness to accept the short answer. I just could not accept these vague descriptions of electricity. I cannot remember the details of how my father answered question after question but I either never fully understood his answers, or these were "Edison answers."  Yet, I had been pretty darned specific in my questions about how electricity came to flow down a copper wire and, typically, I was relentless in my efforts to nail down a logical answer. Add this to the fact that my dad never got frustrated when he was teaching science or math; and, you can guess the number of times this subject came up in various conversations.

In the article I linked above where I quoted Thomas Edison, there is a phrase that I remember my father using. "A generator is simply a device that moves a magnet near a wire to create a steady flow of electrons."

Here is where I had my problem, with the flow of electrons. It appeared to me that a generator could not produce electrons, as electrons were particles in an atom. That would be magic to produce a thing from the act of turning a wheel. I was fine with the idea that perhaps energy would displace electrons and at the end of the wire would be the electrons displaced by a chained reaction all along the way. My problem was in visualizing how this "flow" of "water" could be maintained without the introduction of more "water" at the beginning. Why wouldn't the beginning of the wire simply peter out in time and have no electrons left to push forward? The obvious answer is that energy was being transferred, not electrons, but... there it is in black and white just as my father explained: "a flow of electrons."

Obviously, I must have this wrong. I must do more research. Yet, I have tried a number of times in my life and just still find no analogy that helps me with the problem. Maybe if I understood how a cathode ray tube (television screen of the day) worked as it streamed electrons flying through a vacuum. But where did it come up with the endless electrons to strike the screen? I haven't the faintest. Could it be like the sun which constantly converts hydrogen to helium while never running out for billions of years? I have my doubts.


I wrote this earlier with the intent of doing that research and ending the entry... but... left as is, it should serve to illustrate the nature of this blog. So I won't. :) I think it is possible that I could actually have understood the theory of electricity's movement through wires if I put my mind to it, but for all these years I have never done so or been successful when I tried. You see, I refused to cheat. I could just say I understood that the contradictions are irrelevant to the practical certainty that electricity exists and has rules... but I cannot simply say I understand.

Dear reader, please take the totality of this blog with about as many grains of salt that could cover a beach. I admit to my own ignorance and sometimes the lack of willingness to correct it. However, there is a certain amount of thought I have put into things. I may not have answers that you like or that inform, but I have my own theories. And insolent, though I may be, in my pursuit of knowledge of all things, I still prefer to write it down and click the "publish" button, defective though my ideas may be.

[ About the title: I remember music that fills silences in drama as "interstitial" music, and short announcements on television or radio as being called interstitials.

The word interstitial means "between spaces", and is commonly used to denote "in-betweenness" in several different cultural contexts. ]

By the way, I did not miss the following explanation from the link when it refered to conductivity: "Most metals, however, have electrons that can detach from their atoms and zip around. These are called free electrons. The loose electrons make it easy for electricity to flow through these materials, so they're known as electrical conductors. They conduct electricity. The moving electrons transmit electrical energy from one point to another."

What is this "zip around" of which you speak?

So the electricity is in the form of energy transmitted through excitable electrons? There is no "flow" of electrons here but a flow of energy? I can handle that, but what IS electricity? I'll guess it is the binding force that holds the electrons into their orbits. If you increase this force by adding... magnetism, whatever mysterious thing that is... maybe, then the atom overloads and loses the energy that it gained from magnetism and passes it on. I'm just guessing. I have to guess this though while this article promises to tell readers what electricity "is" while it dances all around the question. First it is a flow of electrons, then a flow of energy. I'll admit, I got tired of reading it so I may have missed some salient point. I have been down this path before much too many times. Never mind that we cannot pin down where an electron is at any given time.

There it is, Dad. I miss your patience in these matters. I miss you.

by Michael DeVore

Thursday, June 12, 2014


[I regret that science's big battle with specific literally interpreted Bible verses has broadened into a general attack on any belief based on faith, any belief which is currently contrary to what people, sometimes factually and sometimes with mere supposition, believe science has proven. This has made me oddly afraid of speaking my own mind, which to me is a mindset that is antithetical to enlightening intellectual thought and learning. Yes, I do believe that almost all of the faith-based manufactured "scientific" statements (actually designed to attack science proper in specific areas) are in all likelihood purely false. However, that is as expected. There is no religious scientific method other than generalities like "You will know them by their fruits" which is not a bad idea at all in my idea of humanitarianism. Yet, I also believe that science itself admits openly the likelihood of its own ultimate falsehood by its very method of discovering new "truths" and throwing out old ones as false. It is but a small jump in logic to realize that today's gem of wisdom will likely be, judged by experience, tomorrow's trash. In its long history, science has seldom been statically true beyond the moment even though it is often statistically more likely to be true than guesswork. So simple logic and observation must conclude that the arguments used to trounce religion in specific mostly historic accounts (regardless of how many people of faith believe myth and allegory to be literally true accounts of the past) are not strong enough yet to trounce religion universally because science does not yet have a handle on absolute abstract unchangeable truth. To me science has yet to approach provable generalities in this area which others call "faith." Science itself demands a great deal of faith in itself. My arguments are against a science not as a method but as a set of knowledge taken as fact where those who use it to argue points also use it without question, which is antithetical to the scientific method itself. So, while I do not believe there is much of a possibility that kangaroos hopped from Noah's ark to Australia or some such incredible idea, neither am I accepting the big bang theory without some kind of logical doubt because we cannot currently go back in time and prove or disprove either idea. I dislike scientific hubris just as much as faithful hubris because it makes complete and total sense to me that we know very little about the unknown universe which makes the drawing of conclusions about the known universe premature. It may forever be premature, because that is a distinct and even likely possibility given the limitations so far discovered in humankind.]

Phantasy has always been at the service of philosophy, and Plato was not ashamed to clothe his epistemology in the metaphor of the cave. Dr. J. Bronowski among others has pointed out that mathematics, which most of us see as the most factual of all sciences, constitutes the most colossal metaphor imaginable, and must be judged, aesthetically as well as intellectually, in terms of the success of this metaphor. Norbert Weiner - Human Use of Humans. 1948. 
I like the preceding quote. In 1948, they were just beginning to see the ramifications of what they were dealing with in that day's new physics. In my own contemporary view, I have felt that theoretical physics has actually gone off the rails. It appears to have celebrities who are bigger than life and people who actually bash two or more items together to puzzle out what they are. And there are theories... physics has plenty of those, each one adding a new aspect to a fantastic jigsaw puzzle whose pieces grow more numerable instead of fitting together.

In 1948, the public was dealing with a highly visible change to physics. One had only to look at what hitherto unimaginable things the scientists had done to see how fantastic it all was. Surely the explanations of scientists must be trusted even if we only understood them partially.

At the time, physicists themselves were sounding the warning bells about a technology out of control. The Bulletin of Atomic Physicists set up a Doomsday Clock counting down to possible global catastrophe. link  Many knew in 1947 that science had resulted in the creation of too much power for our consistently warlike political systems to assimilate safely. Technology paired with science had not really created what we could all fully agree upon as definitely a good thing.

Think about the efforts of the government to soothe fears and turn this major new threat into a positive. There were all sorts of public education campaigns to teach us how "harnessing" this new technology could solve the problems of energy. This bias towards the unfettered development of technology was clearly in my own textbooks when I was in elementary school. Beneath the surface, it was quite militaristic in its sophisticated presentation of good nuclear PR considering the times. Nationalist leanings assume each nation must work to insure they are not falling behind in the arms race. Capitalism brings in the idea of competition for profit rated above cooperation for the good of all. If one thought about the failures, the meltdowns, the radioactive waste, the political standoffs at the edge of catastrophe that threatened the entire world's existence rather than just the hundreds of thousands of innocents who had already died horrendously, could one honestly say that here, as a result of research in nuclear physics, was created a technology that humanity was better off with rather than without? At best this technology was a roll of the dice with snake eyes being the entire destruction of humanity, and boxcars equaling one method of not so clean energy as opposed to many methods of clean energy only now being pursued in earnest. True there were advances in medicine, the dating of historic artifacts, the fueling of satellites and of course submarines designed to mobilize their threatening nuclear payloads so that they could not be found... but no accomplishment, to me is really worth the never-ending threat of rolling snake eyes.

Technology was not all that resulted from the heady days of atomic wizardry. The profound changes had created a faith in science, even though at the same time the ability to successfully explain the workings of the world in any simply understood way had become exponentially more improbable. Personally, I do not believe it is feasible that there will ever be a unifying string (or multiverse) theory now being sought. In fact, I see no reason why physics will be likely to discover the secrets of the universe within my lifetime, or even in the Earth's period of existence, an existence which is threatened by our incomplete knowledge and our capitalistic way of using technology for the profit of a few rather than to engender good works for the benefit of everyone.

My personal opinion is that physicists have painted themselves into a corner that will take an infinite period of time from which to extricate themselves. How much can you learn about a clock by throwing it against a brick wall and watching the trajectories of the unseen parts? Sometimes I  ponder how people could desert all their logic to follow an assumption that leads them into less and less well defined areas while still calling their thoughts successful. This is one major reason why I see no reason to use physics (or science), as it now stands, as the emperor's clothes to warm the bodies of those who feel that they can absolutely "prove" there is no God. I ponder the same thing about people who think God saved their house from the tornado that killed their neighbors. Does either side see all the ramifications of their belief? They cannot.

Scientists have a doomsday clock to measure the progress of technological entropy that inevitably leads to the destruction of our world and the Bible has the predicted ambiguous and allegorical Apocalypse. I am not happy with adopting either idea.

In high school, I felt a little taken aback by chemistry, where I learned with much ado about how difficult it was to wrap my mind around basic ideas of physics. So I channeled that fake student (from an earlier entry) who just parrots what is laid before him to obtain good grades. The tables of valences were a bitch but still easy enough to study by rote if you did not constantly battle with the question of why you were learning them for your future practical existence. There were students arguing the merits of their education everywhere, but I was never one of them. My idea was to learn all I could, get grades, and move on. I never took physics as a formal subject in school. It seemed to be a very practical field in the way it was taught by the ROTC ex-military guy they had assigned it to. Yet, I do not believe I missed much from that particular class except things like figuring out the trajectory of cannon balls and bullets, because I remember nothing else from his classroom chalkboards when I was stationed there for a study hall.

Despite all the theater of the absurd that most of physics seemed to me, what sticks out in my mind as the perfect example (taught to me in chemistry class) was the inability of science to determine exactly where an electron was at ANY given point in time. Physical models of atoms, which are easy to understand metaphorically , showed an electron as a little ball. I could care less about the ball shape but I do think that if one is to believe a thing exists, one ought to be able to figure out where it is. I can believe in the Tower of Pisa without seeing it but I have seen pictures of people pretending to hold it up. I am convinced it is there. You can locate it on a map and you can physically go there and see it. However, I do not easily accept things on authority. It is like admitting the likelihood that there was a serpent that could speak to Eve about apples.

At this moment what entered my life was the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle":  "This ascribes the uncertainty in the measurable quantities to the jolt-like disturbance triggered by the act of observation." And incidentally, what entered into my mind was all the doubt that an ordinary high school student could muster. I would stay after class in vain trying to talk it out with the teacher. I would learn these things for the test but... I was not going to cede my logical opinions to authority. Basically my anti-authoritarian self was screaming "prove it to me or your model is a metaphor and nothing else" although I would not be able to express it so succinctly at that time. I'm proud of thinking in this way, though. I always questioned. It was to my father's detriment, because we constantly argued politics. Yet, perhaps he forgives me from some afterlife. My father gifted me my ability to question and argue. Only recently in life have I felt a more complete freedom to do so. I have honed a disrespect for taking things on authority throughout my life but only now do I realize that there is some certainty, at least as much as the metaphorical model of the atom, that no one really knows what they incessantly speak of.

Things probably exist, and it might be best to believe something exists, but we cannot prove important aspects of the existence of things as mere limited observers. That still sounds all too much like an appeal to authority along the same line as religion.

Keeping in mind that I believe atheists have an astounding 50/50 chance of being absolutely correct, let me relate the following anecdote. Once on Facebook, a discussion led to someone defending atheism with a statement like "Well, possibly I do not know everything there is to know about these things but I do know people who do, and I believe them." This actually happened and this is a very smart respected person in my book. I feel atheists are, as a group, more thoughtful. They are more likely to hold an intelligent discussion of ideas. My argument in the thread at the time was not with the quoted person but with another energetically convinced person, or I would have won right there by simply pointing out the obvious fallacy of appeal to authority. As it was, I did win, but the person later backed down from an equally ironic statement as if it had been parody. I let it pass. I noted to myself later how profoundly difficult it must be for someone to realize that their dream of truly knowing something in a concrete way was essentially resting upon the same principle as that of any person wanting to believe the opposite.

In fact, only recently have I reexamined how much my experiences in religion were directly as well as tangentially a large part of what created my anti-authoritarian leanings in life, the position I am proud of having at such a young age. There are two reasons for my individual and characteristic doubting of authority based on religion (as separate from my experiences with life which I will go into later in some other entry.) The first reason was that I doubted the religious authorities I came into contact with. I eventually did not believe the way the church I attended told people how to believe (and worse today, told how to vote). I recognized this influence throughout much of my life but only recently have known its full value in my life as a springboard of discontent. The second reason I doubted authority is almost entirely the opposite. In a sense, religion was my philosophy or the only philosophy I had learned. As I read Plato today and read other philosophers of those earlier times, I see that the written documentation of the remembered words of Christ were actually providing a fair representation of philosophical ideas that underpin most of the way the world works according to some fairly convincing philosophers. Its power often misused, religion is still powerful in this regard. The issues to be pondered are powerful.

Had I  been limited by only my science class added to the economics of Adam Smith, to fill out my moral reasoning, I would be such a different man. I would, essentially, be thoroughly selfish. While today's religion does seem to be excessively tolerant of its more selfish adherents, it was religion that gave me a sense that the quest for moral values could be just as important as that of science or other knowledge. It was religion that gave me a different viewpoint, a different pathway to follow. For good or bad, I cannot imagine my life without following this pathway even had I come to a brick wall at the end of my journey.

What I did not know about quantum physics in high school was that the use of statistics was beginning to be a tool to substitute for real quantifiable numbers. I did not know what statistics were at the time, other than the results of studies in human behavior... of which I was quite fond. I do not really doubt that this strategy was a great way to progress in physics if only for the sake of advances in thought, advances that may well lead to great practical or impractical discoveries. Yet, there is the possibility that science has now made it richly clear that humans will never be able to substantially prove much of what comes after this point in time where statistics were substituted for quantifiable numbers. You may well come up with experiments to test, then statistically say that "100 experiments have jived with our predictions. Therefore, all experiments will likely jive with these experiments." But I think this is not identical to what we would call a fact.

To me (and I strive to continually limit my scope because I humbly admit my own handicap of being just a human being and not a particularly well educated one at that) .... TO ME because a coin is flipped and comes up heads a hundred times it does not necessarily mean that the coin is double-headed. It seems entirely logical and scientific. Nevertheless, the fact is that it could be an incredible freak of chance that it did so and as a normal coin that has not been switched, monkeyed with, or changed in some unknown way over time. Please let us not forget the infinitesimally small chances that science clings to in regard to the spontaneous life theory. The odds are incredibly small for a sudden sparking materialization of DNA, fully necessary to pass on variations and one of the most complex biological structures imaginable; yet science insists on those small odds, by logic.

Please also consider that we are not allowed to observe both sides of the coin, which science again says we cannot do without our observation somehow physically changing the coin, a la Heisenberg. Heaven forbid that the coin could have been surreptitiously switched by the flipping person before we are allowed to observe it closely. Luckily science assumes that nature does not actively try to fool us, that there is no God changing the outcomes to his liking, at least in opposition to "natural" laws. That would be disastrous for science and my brain as well.

In other words, if Plato was right in his allegory of the cave link... what of...  science? Science seems to admit the truthfulness of the allegory as much as it is blatantly upfront about what we can observe and what we can only guess we might observe. When it comes down to the building blocks of all things, we can only see the shadows on the wall. We can only calculate the probabilities of what they are. We can only see the variations in the paths of the rock fragments that fly off after we smash two together, not the fragments themselves, nor, even at times, the rocks themselves. We are in a cave, looking at the shadows, but never seeing the source.

by Michael DeVore