Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Reality-Based Community

Some people like to call themselves the "reality-based community". They read a lot of news and serious books, and believe this gives them a command of the facts such that the right policies become obvious. The implication is that anyone who doesn't agree with their policies must be ignorant of reality.

"Reality" seems to mean first-line deductions from facts. An example would be whether there was a statistically significant difference in the number of hurricanes in 2010 versus 1910. That sounds pretty factual, but there is no universally agreed on definition of statistical significance, and one can easily question whether the definition of a hurricane has changed over the years, how credible wind readings were 100 years ago, whether records were lost or altered, and so on.

Calling your opinions reality-based implies that you have a good way of discerning the "real version" of events based on the prestige press. But is this possible? Before the election, Hillary said Trump's refusal to categorically accept the election results was "horrifying", and the New York Times said that was an understatement. Then after the election, they said the supposedly hacked election was..."horrifying." Which one reflects reality? Can't be both.

This is not a only progressive thing.  The Iraq WMDs are too easy a target, so here's a fun example from aviation. There was a recent World Trade Organization ruling concerning subsidies. Here were the press releases from two affected parties. Airbus: "WTO delivers knockout blow to Boeing's record-breaking subsidies." Boeing: "Today's decision is a complete victory for...Boeing." Those are two mutually contradictory (yet self-serving) versions of reality.

And here is an interesting pair of headlines. On October 19, CNN assured us that "No, the 2016 presidential election can't be hacked." But on December 15, they wrote, "Intel analysis shows Putin approved election hacking." Which is reality?

These aren't just cherry-picked examples. I wrote a whole blog post listing how many times different sources said Trump's campaign was "imploding" (that precise word). But you can find lots of sources that said Trump's campaign was genius. And being a journalist means you can call Trump a genius campaigner after the election, even if you said he was a disaster before the election.

I won't even get into the various tweets of the President-elect himself. But to be fair, he doesn't call himself a journalist. In fact, I think his views on whether you should rely on other people's versions of reality are much like my own.  It's almost as if he's saying, "I'm a billionaire and just won the Presidency, and even I'm totally full of crap. So are you going to believe those dopes over at the Washington Post?" Foolish doings and all, except I know I'm a fool.

Now, in science, our version of reality evolves. You can find papers that contradict earlier papers. The difference is that good scientists don't get their egos tied up in a theory, so that they can acknowledge all reasonable objections as well as the idea that all science is tentative. Also, if they change their minds, they explain why. The news almost never does this. Some people will tell you science is just a careful version of our normal human thought processes, but that's absolutely not true. It is nothing like normal human thought processes, otherwise it wouldn't have taken a million years for humans to discover the law of gravity. The news is, in fact, a slightly more careful version of normal human thought processes. And normal human thought processes are just a bunch of stories we make up.

Liberals used to express an essentially Marxist view that history and journalism were inherently skewed by the class interests of publishers. They liked to go around asking profound questions like "Whose history?" in the coffee line at humanities conferences. That all stopped years ago. Now they think that if it's in the New York Times, then it's true.

Maybe the reality-based community doesn't read the same news as the rest of us, instead getting their facts from a special, secret, very competent newspaper. Maybe it's called the Real New York Times or something. But I rather doubt it. No, I think the more likely explanation is that they read the same stuff you and I do, but they never stop to consider that most of it is agenda-setting guesses congenial to some powerful faction, usually a faction in the government. In fact, most journalists are thinking of themselves when they write about the reality-based community. That's what people mean by an echo chamber.

I used to be a member of the reality-based community, so I know how they think. But what do you do when you lose confidence in your ability to get the facts? If you think you can learn from the news what the aims of some rebel group in Syria are, I'm sorry, but you're a damned fool. (I'm a fool, but not a damned fool.) But if the average American can't hope to understand the situation, what should we do about Syria? We can't base a policy on the considered opinions of informed citizenry, because there are no such opinions, so there is no democratic way to form a policy. Maybe the policy that makes the most sense is not to get involved in Syria in the first place.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ultimate Top Ten List

You might think Top Ten lists are just a way to take one page of lame content and stretch it into ten pages, each carrying a new set of banner ads. You might be right.  But we here at Foolish Doings accept no advertising dollars. We are kind of like the Consumer Reports of blogs. We would never accept $50 or a nice dinner or a pair of cowboy boots from anyone wanting favorable treatment. We put our Top Ten all on one page, with no ads at all, so you can read them without feeling like a chump afterwards.

Without further ado: the Top Ten Numbers!

10. Ten

Sure, it's the base of our decimal number system, but what else has it done? Just because a number happens to equal the number of digits on the human hands doesn't mean there's anything special about it.

9. Nine

It's a perfect square. It's the number of lives a cat has. You've heard of divisors? Well, nine is divisive: according to Wikipedia, it's considered a good number by the Chinese but a bad number by the Japanese. It would be interesting if those two nations somehow came into serious conflict over the number 9.

8. Eight

It's the smallest nontrivial cube of an integer.

7. Seven

Lucky seven.

6. Six

Six is the smallest number with two distinct divisors (2 and 3).

5. Five

It's the largest integer that appears in the simplest form of the Golden Ratio.

4. Four

It's the smallest nontrivial square.

3. Three

Three is a magic number, according to Schoolhouse Rock.

2. Two

The Pythagoreans discovered that its square root is irrational and it nearly drove them insane.

1. One Thousand Seven Hundred and Twenty-Nine

Do I even need to say it? This is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two positive cubes in two different ways: 1^3 + 12 ^3 = 9^3 + 10^3 = 1729.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Horror Movie With an Ohio State Connection

I just watched a straight-to-video horror movie called Beyond Dream's Door that some copyright violator posted to YouTube in its entirety. It was supposedly made for $60,000, and looked it. Low production values don't bother me, but I've never been a horror fan. It was one of those "is it a dream or is it reality" movies but the dreams and reality switched up so often that after a while I stopped caring which was which. But, it gets fairly respectable reviews on Amazon.

The interesting thing was that this movie was filmed in and near Boyd Laboratory, the building I spent four years in during grad school at Ohio State. During filming, in 1988, I was a mere undergrad, but later I spent the better part of '95 through '99 in that building, attending classes, doing research and teaching. If any of my former students happen by this blog: Hey, guys and gals! Hope you're doing well. If you were in the first class I taught: sorry. The first haircut a barber gives is probably pretty bad, too. If you were in the last class I taught: you got a high-quality education in elementary dynamics, so if your machines don't work, it's not my fault.

I'd never heard about any horror movie having been filmed at Ohio State until I ran across it this week. It's funny, because there were all kinds of silly rumors at Ohio State - about the steam tunnels, a body being buried in some academic building, the origins of the albino squirrels, there being a swimming pool in Drackett Tower (wait a minute, that was true), Jeffrey Dahmer having lived in the Towers (uh, that was also true.) But nothing about any horror movie.

Boyd was part of an attached three-building complex that included Haskett Hall and Johnston Lab. The site I linked above claimed that the office and classroom scenes were filmed in Boyd, but I think it was probably Johnston. The offices in the movie had window air conditioners, but Boyd had central air. I used to crank it up to bone-chilling levels so my students wouldn't dilly-dally during office hours. And the classroom had those chalkboards you can slide upward on rails after you fill them. Boyd didn't have those. I did kind of recognize some hallways and stairs, but a lot of buildings had the same generic look.  One thing I noticed right away was the phones, which played an oddly prominent role in the movie. They were real OSU phones, with the UNITS labels on the keypad. UNITS was the campus phone service. I think it stood for UNIversity Telephone Service or something. I also saw a poster for MARCON on a bulletin board, which was some kind of yearly sci-fi festival. I didn't see any MATH TUTOR PAUL $9 signs, which will come as a surprise to anyone who went to OSU during that time.

Current OSU students would be shocked at how shabby and run-down the place was 20 years ago. Post-WW2 a large number of buildings were thrown up or cheaply renovated, and those were all on their last legs by the 90s. In the 1970s, OSU blew its construction budget on the ill-conceived West Campus and Towers/Drake Union project instead of on the main area east of the stadium. The entire east side of High Street from about 12th to 8th was a series of firetrap beer-by-the-bucket joints that the university finally lost patience with and tore out in the late 90s. Now it's fancy shops and restaurants. Larkins, the fitness center, was not air conditioned; they used to bring in big fans during the summer, but the whole building smelled like a men's room anyway. The new fitness center looks like a high-end resort.

Although Boyd was attached to Johnston Lab and Haskett, I never went into either building the whole nine years I was a student at OSU. At the end of one hallway in Boyd, there was a door marked JOHNSTON LAB but it was always locked. I later found out Johnston was built to liquefy hydrogen for thermonuclear weapons research. Haskett was some kind of derelict highway research lab that was being used by the photography department when I was there. The entire complex was demolished in 2012 to make way for a new chemistry building.

All three buildings were old and ugly. When I first started grad school, my desk was in the basement in an abandoned lab that was strewn with beaten-up office furniture and some old vacuum-tube electronics. Next door had been a biomechanics lab but the biomechanics guy had moved to a different university. There was a big freezer that was unplugged. One day a maintenance crew was sent in to clean out the space, and when they opened the freezer, they got hit by the stench of rotting bones that the biomechanics guy left there. I think they were human bones. While researching this post I ran across a story about some "ghost hunter" students (really?!) who were going to look for ghosts in Boyd Lab after it had been closed up because "Maybe somebody died in there." I have no idea why they would have thought that, but they may not have been far from the truth.

One scene that definitely involved Boyd was when the student and his TA needed to get into Haskett but the door was locked. That was a back door that led to both Boyd and Haskett, and I used to go in and out of it all the time. They ended up having to climb onto the awning and shinny through the open window of a men's room on the Haskett side.

Terrified student has to get into Haskett to turn in a late term paper. Inside the door you can see the foot of a staircase that leads off to the right to Haskett, but if you go straight ahead you end up in Boyd Lab.

The creepiest scenes in the movie weren't the ones with the decapitated corpses, the bloody claws or the disembodied hands. No, the scariest scenes were those filmed in the upper stacks of the main library. That was a truly spooky place in real life; they didn't need to dress the set at all.  It was dark and cramped, with few windows, and it smelled musty. Not that nice old-books smell. More like that dead horse smell. I remember seeing little cubbyholes with desks assigned to, I guess, grad students in the humanities, who must have wanted that M.A. really, really badly. Female students would go up there to find a book and they'd get flashed. It was that kind of place.

Beyond Dream's Door was not the kind of movie one could build an acting career on. Sure enough, the female lead, Susan Pinsky, was a graduate of the OSU College of Medicine and is a family doc in Florida now. LinkedIn informs me that the obligatory naked chick was played by Darby Vasbinder, who is now a personal trainer in Columbus and still looking good if I may say so.