On Scribd: Market-Watching Flowchart Guide

I was going to give you some etymology for Tuesday, but as I was driving home from work and listening to NPR, I found myself feeling a bit blue. If you need to ask why, good for you. I’m guessing you’re in the dark about the nation’s rough financial state because you spend too much time volunteering in your community to listen to the radio. Keep up the good work, and don’t bother reading this comic.

If you know exactly what I mean, read on.

The Tick Whisperer

At my first in-person interview for my camp job, my soon-to-be-bosses asked me if I was okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. “Oh sure,” I said. “No problem.” Cue laugh track.

As my husband and my sister Cho will gladly tell you, if there is a crawly thing of any sort in my personal space, it takes me about one-tenth of a second to be up on the furniture screeching for somebody else to kill it quickly. I am not actually okay with handling bugs and slimy things and such. Not that I meant to lie in the interview, but you know how interviews can be. Sometimes you’re so eager for a job that you start playing the yes-man and don’t realize until it’s too late to backtrack what you just said about yourself.

The blessing about this situation is that I’m discovering a capacity for growth in myself. Also, there’s a reason they invented sticks and kids. There’s not really any reason for me to ever touch anything vile. Kids love picking up frogs and crickets–most other bugs can be persuaded to hang out on a stick while we pass it around. On the first day of camp, we actually found and identified a female dog tick. Ticks of any sort are one of the worst for me to deal with: they fill up like a darn balloon with sucked blood, for pete’s sake, and if you’re not careful about removing them you can end up with a head embedded in your body, spreading infection. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is. And yet, I found myself coaxing the tick onto a stick so I could show her off to my fascinated little group.

On Monday, as we were getting our shoes on after swimming, my kids all started pointing at me and exclaiming, “Melissa, there’s a bug on you!” It was on my back–that is definitely in my space–and the kids thought it was a tick. The mark of my growth is that the kids experience this:

instead of this:

The bug (which was a shiny gold beetle, not a tick–the kids think all unfamiliar bugs are ticks) lived to tell the tale, believe it or not, because I’m trying to encourage them to respect nature. We’re are guests in the homes of the spiders, the beetles, and the ticks; it is permissible to pick the bugs up and examine them, but only if we do it gently for short periods of time before returning them to the place we found them. We kill nothing, except perhaps for mosquitoes, primarily because if I let them kill anything, they’d kill everything, up to and possibly including each other. Bugs receive mercy outside.

To all you insects and bugs who may be reading this, let me clarify: this rule holds true only in the great outdoors. If you invade my home and bite me or eat my food, I will take no quarter. You will die a horrible death by crushing, most likely at the hand of someone else while I stand at a safe distance and squeal.

Slow Growth is Good Growth

I was reading Wired the other day when I came across a nice little piece that essentially outlined why the future hasn’t shown up yet, you know, as it was predicted in the 1960s. The main idea was that the current funding models for R&D fail. I gave a little “Huzzah!” and pumped my fist when I read it, mainly because it’s nice to have someone who actually gets paid to write these things validating what I’ve been saying since John first introduced me to the idea of the Singularity: progress only moves as fast as the money.

The article pointed out that there have been no widespread adoptions of significantly improved commercial airliners since the adoption of the Boeing 747 in 1970. The plane model that we usually fly on is, with certain fidgety improvements, 41 years old. Why do we not yet have teleportation or space-worthy shuttles for our mundane aerial commutes? Necessity is the mother of invention; the Queen of the Skies works well enough. Why would anyone in their right mind throw vast amounts of money down for the development of something new enough to qualify as serious progress?

The point of the article was to highlight ways of funding that have the potential to ramp progress up, but it’s something of a comfort to me that money and, by extension, belief in the necessity of innovation are limiting factors on progress. You know this about me if you’re a regular reader: While I’m not exactly a Luddite, I am a future-phobe. I am terrified of what certain landmarks of progress will mean for humanity because I have no faith in the ability of human ethics to keep up with the technological advances. It’s the robot overlord debate–you can read the re-hash here if you are not yet aware of the depths of my paranoia.

John, knowing the nature of my objection to rapid progress, was wondering aloud last night what it would take to deliberately engineer the ethics of humanity. How would you (1) determine what ethics are ideal and (2) persuade humanity to live by them? I cringed at that idea. The first thing that comes to mind is organized religion, which hypothetically is aimed to do just that, but is an inherently flawed system where belief in a higher power often leads people to rigid adherence to a dogma without considering the underlying ethical quandaries. I suppose one of the primary purposes of the legal system is to enforce a basic ethical code, but the law is only as good as the people who make it and the people who fight to improve it when problems present themselves–justice does not turn on a dime, and probably for good reason. John also mentioned the self-help industry as a semi-functional model for changing behavior, but self-help being a huge and profitable industry, the goal to sell books is going to color the content. People will be more likely to buy something they want to hear, which might mean validating anti-social tendencies in pursuit of individual “happiness” rather than paving the road to personal enlightenment. Weeding the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is a problem.

There’s a little detail of the Jesus that has come to embody the problem of trying to codify morality. As he’s being crucified, at the moment that he cries out for the last moment and dies, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple is torn asunder. The Holy of Holies is the inner sanctum into which only certain priests were allowed under very specific conditions, because it is here that they speak directly to God. The tearing of the curtain is heavily symbolic of a key theological change between Judaism and Christianity: instead of going through a priest to speak to God, people now were responsible for their own relationship with God and, therefore, their own souls.

Sadly, the change didn’t stick. Protestants had to fight the battle with the Catholic church some fifteen hundred years later and they didn’t win anything like a conclusive battle. Martin Luther is my hero for taking up that fight, because that principle is one that I have come to deeply believe in, not because I think humans are particularly good at determining their own moral paths and deserve the right to choose, but because the way our brains are wired to learn is such that we are all but incapable of learning what we don’t already believe by any method other than experience (see Piaget, among others). Guided experience is better, of course. I believe good guidance to be, in fact, critical to turning experience of life into a strong internal sense of morality. The problem with so many of the systematic ways of teaching ethics is that rather than gently encouraging people to rationally think through the scenarios they encounter to reach an ethical end, systems of ethics tend to drill preset principles into one’s mind and then dole out either punishment or reward for the level of adherence, making the foundation for our ethics highly externalized and non-responsive to the need for change. To be effective and responsive to reality, learning must be a very individual process.

Which isn’t to say that teaching can’t be done more effectively. The problem of why we learn things (and why we don’t) is one of the most fundamental questions in education, which is one of the reasons I went into the field in the first place. I’m all in favor of refining methods for communicating good ideas, including better ethical standards, more effectively. Until we figure that out, though, I’m going to be glad for a bit of financial molasses slowing down the road to robot domination.

 

Pirates & Ninjas

John and I got into one of our conversations this weekend. You know, one of the ones that ends up with hamsters and apocalypses, or hordes of tiny zombies. This time, the question that came up was a spin off the old one: what would happen if a pirate and a ninja fell in love?

The obvious solution to the question is Romeo and Juliet, right? Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Internet, where we lay our scene…

Pirate Abraham: “Did you hear someone bite his thumb at me?”

Ninja Sampson: …*Sneak Attack*

(They fight.)

As the internet goes, the question of who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates qualifies as an ancient grudge. Could a romance be tolerated between their young offspring?

Pirate Romeo: “But soft, what shadow through yonder window breaks?”

Ninja Juliet: …

The thing is, I have to come down on the side of ninjas when it comes to brains, and I suspect that a Juliet raised by ninjas would be a bit less impulsive than Juliet Capulet.  Pirate Romeo might, indeed, end up dead by his own hand. I think Juliet would have the strength of spirit to live, probably giving birth to the child of their secret marriage.

The irony is that if a pirate and ninja had a love-child, it would be bound to have a knack for sneakiness and a love of enjoying things that are theirs more by right of conquest than right of law. Who could be the more obvious mental offspring of pirates and ninjas than the very denizens of the internet who so debate the higher valor of their parents’ clans?

Ninjas, Pirates, See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

To Know…What, Exactly?

I was going to write about my recent adventures in food, but a blip in a magazine side-tracked me, and now I’m going to subject you to what I’ve been musing over. Don’t worry—there are cartoons.

Everybody loves to make fun of researchers, right? It’s been the case at least as far back as the Greeks, with the playwright Aristophanes contributing to the conviction of Socrates in his own humorous way. Research was a little different then, specialization being a less than common practice in the Academy of Athens, but the popular joke was still the same: scholars are lazy people who want to avoid a real job and put off contributing to society in some tangible way.

If you think the joke has changed, spend a few minutes perusing this comic about graduate school that I came across this week. There are essentially three major punchlines, reiterated in numerous ways: (1) grad students are masters of nothing but procrastination, (2) academia runs on horse manure and passing the buck, and (3) graduate students will cling desperately to their low-paying, soul-sucking positions on order to avoid joining the “real” world.

At HGSE, one of the PhD students laughingly confirmed something of this reality. There’s a title for the person who’s been working for their doctorate the longest: Mayor of Appian Way. From what he explained, the position is usually held by someone who’s been a grad student for seven to twelve years. There are good reasons for this, of course, which I won’t bore you with, but it does beg the question of what exactly researchers are doing that they get paid with grants and fellowships to do the apparent lack of work they do.

If you, as a lay person with respect to any given field, were to randomly pick up a journal and start perusing abstracts, I think you would be hard-pressed to answer that question. The problem is, of course, the way the construction of scientifically-valid knowledge works. You can never prove absolutely that something is true, only that it produces consistent results within a limited set of circumstances. It takes a heck of a lot of detailed, painstaking work to build a strong case for a theory, and as we all remember from our days of building block towers, significantly less effort to take the theory down. Most of scientific progress happens in “two steps forward, one step back” increments that require enormous amounts of funding, labor, and time to accomplish as much as they do.

For all of that, the actual mechanics of research—the day-to-day doings of grad students and research assistants—tend to get overlooked. This is a shame, because frankly, research can be downright hilarious. I was just reading an article in Scientific American about a new technique in electronic microscopy, which included the following paragraph about one of the early pioneers of imaging technology:

“Among other studies, Marey investigated how a falling cat rights itself so that it lands on its feet….The fall and the flurry of legs took less than a second—too fast for the unaided eye to see precisely what happened. Marey’s stop-motion snapshots provided the answer…” (Zewail, A. August 2010. Scientific American. “Filming the Invisible in 4-D,” pp. 75-81).

This study was important for both what it contributed to the physics of falling (not only for falling cats) and for the photography technique used to uncover what was happening. But what did Dr. Marey’s lab look like? No one ever mentions that sort of thing in research papers, and I suggest that if they did, science would be much more widely read. I mean, just imagine it…

Research is hilarious. It’s got to be. If you’re not a cat, anyway…

I had no particular point in mind when I set out to write this (which the jokes would suggest is also how most research begins), but I find (as the jokes would also suggest is common) that my data has presented me with two contradictory conclusions. On the one hand, research is valuable to the advance of knowledge and therefore civilization, and as such, we should respect it. On the other hand, however, research has the great potential to be ridiculous when you step back and look at the process and must therefore be mocked thoroughly.

As with all things, I suppose the truth lies in balancing the two sides. Laugh at the process all you want, but respect results.

Eventually.

P.S. If this topic is something you find to be worth pondering, go find a copy of To Know A Fly. You won’t regret it. Heck, even if you don’t find the oddities and values of research to be exciting, you probably wouldn’t regret it.

Sir John & the Arachnid

When John and I were dating, we lived almost an hour away from each other, so one of the primary ways we got to know each other was through long phone calls. After one particularly long day of translating Greek and Latin and coding data from my thesis experiment, I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing talk with my fella. The voice on the other end of the phone, however, was a little bit manic.

John: “Check your email. I just sent you a picture of this spider. You would not believe how big it is!”

Me: “Okay…” (checks email)

Me: “…”

This spider was the instigation for what has become one of the epic tales of our lives. John saw the spider on the outside of his screen as he was making dinner one night and was too creeped out to let it continue in peaceful existence near him. He didn’t want to open the screen, however, and chance letting it into the apartment, so he bent his very creative brain to the task of killing the spider through the screen.

When pins and needles failed to reach the oblivious arachnid (to this day, I really don’t know why he had such seamstress notions in his bachelor pad), he scoured his apartment for objects skinny enough to fit through the holes in the screen and stiff enough to do some serious harm to his little foe. He eventually lit on a brilliant idea: skewer the spider with uncooked spaghetti.

Just let that image sink in for a second. Yeah…there you go. Now, add in my husband’s obsessively perfectionist approach to projects, and what you get is a college graduate with an architecture degree spending who knows how long sharpening spaghetti noodles to a fine point with sandpaper. Several of them, in case any should break…

The long and short of it is that spiders are pretty nimble creatures, and this one had plenty of space to mockingly escape into from the powerful blows John landed with his spaghetti-lance. We were always slightly concerned that the spider had gone off to find a way into the apartment in order to exact its revenge, but we never saw it after he scared it off.

The image of John battling a spider with spaghetti has always been very vivid in my mind, however, and yesterday I finally got around to sketching a silly little comic of how I have always envisioned this event…
Sir John & the Arachnid http://d1.scribdassets.com/ScribdViewer.swf

My husband is a spider-slaying hero.