My Third Book

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:57 pm

(not sure whether I’m allowed to post this, but presumably any publicity is good publicity, and they can always tell me to cease and desist)

First of a series of 3 junior high science textbooks, but my third publication (after ‘Weaving Narrative Nets’ and ‘Undead Theories’).


Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:48 am

Read this morning that Opeth’s new album, ‘Watershed‘, which I bought last week and am listening to right now, is at #7 in the Australian charts. An amazing achievement for a fairly extreme sounding melodic death metal band.

But that’s not even the best bit – in the Top 10 it’s sandwiched between an Andre Rieu album and the Sex and the City soundtrack!


The Bell Curve/People Are The Problem

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:44 am

Been thinking about issues like stereotyping recently, in all sorts of contexts. One was a thread on a bike forum about which kinds of cars were most dangerous to riders – the Toyota Camry scored pretty high, but almost every other category of vehicle was also named at some point. But people seemed to be missing the glaringly obvious common factor: all the most dangerous cars were being controlled by humans! Humans are the problem!

The same is true for almost anything, from war-mongering to child abuse on the one hand to genius and saintliness on the other. The bottom line, for me, is that pretty much any human characteristic can be placed on the famous bell-shaped curve:

As you can see, the majority of people fit into the middle category, less than one standard deviation away from the mean. For IQ, for example, the mean is 100 and one standard deviation is 15, so almost 70% of people have IQs somewhere between 85 and 115. The next band out is two standard deviations, and shows that over 95% of all people have IQs between 70 and 130. And so on.

What I’m claiming is that it’s not just IQ, it’s everything. It includes good and evil – most people are in the middle, and only a few are extremely evil or extremely good.

My key point here, though, is that this is true across various people groups too1. So each race will have its very bright and very stupid, its very good and its very evil, its thoughtful and careful drivers and its dangerous and careless ones. The same is true of every other group of people, including religions – there, too, there will be a spread from very good to very evil. This approach answers a conundrum I’ve discussed here before, about why stats on divorce, child abuse and a whole range of other measures are no different for religious believers than for the population as a whole.

So here’s how stereotyping works: as humans we will tend to find patterns, whether they are there or not. And this pattern-recognition activity is made easier if there is some visible characteristic to pin it to. So, for example, if I have decided Toyota Camrys are dangerous, or been told so, and someone in a Toyota Camry does something dangerous, I’ll consider that to be supporting evidence for the stereotype. If someone in any other kind of car does it, I’ll just consider it to be the fault of the driver. More insidiously, if I see an Asian driver do something dangerous, I’ll identify dangerous driving as a characteristic of Asian drivers, whereas if I see a ‘white’ (for want of a better term) driver do something dangerous I’ll just assume it’s that individual. Stereotyping tends to happen to the groups of which we’re *not* members – if a member of our own group does something we don’t like, we ascribe it to the individual.

If we can recognise that in every group there is a wide range of individuals, and if we can ascribe the bad (and good) behaviour to the individuals rather than the group, we’ll have taken one huge step away from racism and prejudice and sectarian fighting and toward recognising our common humanity with everyone else on the planet.

  1. Unless a group is specifically selected for a particular characteristic already, of course. There’s probably not a bell-shaped curve for intelligence among Nobel Prise winners, for example – or at least not one with the mean in the same place as for the rest of the population.


Whither science?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:31 am

Chatting with my friend Mark, who I’ve known for 15 years and who is a strong recent creationist, he made the following comment:

“I suspect that in another hundred years, barring divine advents and dark ages, our scientific understanding will be quite different on these issues. And I suspect, close to the Biblical view of catastrophism.”

That set me back on my heels – I’d never thought about it, taking this kind of long view, but I guess if I had, the idea that mainstream science would subscribe to a young age of the earth in future is not what I would have projected.

So how about it? In 100 years, or even in 40, scientific knowledge will have changed dramatically, that’s a given. But in which directions, on the issues of special creation and the age of the earth?


Blended Learning

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:55 am

Currently sitting in a workshop on using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace in university teaching, as part of a daylong conference here at UQ on ‘Blended Learning’. That means some sort of complementary approach where face-to-face teaching is supported with some kind of information and communication technologies. The range of things is immense, from videoconference to the use of ‘clickers’ that allow students to answer multichoice questions in class to shared online whiteboards and a whole variety of different kinds of tools.

One of the key points that is here but kind of implicit is that the tools you use are determined, or at least heavily influenced, by your educational goals. And sometimes those goals are not re-evaluated, even as our means are changing rapidly.


A Cool Thing

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:46 pm

Attended a session today on some of the ways in which MIT is using both technology and different classroom design to make their first year physics lectures more effective and interactive, Very interesting.

One thing they showed us was this very rich Java applet for teaching the phase relationships in a circuit containing a resistor, an inductor (coil) and a capacitor (click on the photo to link to the live application and have a play):

Love’s a Myth

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:52 am

Or so my friend Paul thinks. Or professes to think. Or claimed in a particular dark night of the soul.

Anyway, Paul’s note on the subject and the ensuing discussion are here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=21650633572 (I think you need a Facebook login to read)


It’s all relative (or is it?)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:23 pm

Someone said it on the bike forum the other day: “Everyone faster than me is an idiot, everyone slower than me is a moron”. He was summarising the fact that we each have our own comfort zones in terms of how we like to ride… and we often see posts on the forum about how ‘this idiot went past me today at a million miles an hour on the back wheel’ or ‘this moron held me up all the way through the twisties riding like a grandma’.

I know I’m sometimes guilty of it – I do stuff like splitting up between lanes of traffic and sometimes letting the big Bandit launch at 30% power instead of its usual 10% (which means I see 100 km/h very soon indeed). I’m sure I sometimes have people shaking their heads at my ‘wild riding’, but to myself I’m a very careful and cautious rider. And I certainly sometimes shake my head when I see people heading up the breakdown lane at speed, splitting at 60 km/h past stationary cars or speeding (more than I do ;)).

So part of me thinks it’s all relative – and I imagine you’ve figured out by now I’m not just talking about motorbikes. I also have my standards for things like using the Internet for my own amusement on company time and using the company fax for personal business… which I think are fair and reasonable, but I’m sure other people have quite different boundaries on those things. I have limits on the books I’ll read and the music I’ll listen to and the movies I’ll watch – but similarly there are others with much tighter limits… and probably those with no limits.

So is everything relative, or are there absolutes? Is there riding that is objectively immoral, or just shades of safety? Are rigid standards sustainable, or does everyone sit somewhere along the continuum, and some just happen to regard their personal location as the heart of ethical and moral rectitude?


A deep take on addiction

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:29 pm

This letter and response from an advice columnist (Cary Tennis on Salon) is about porn addiction specifically, but more generally it’s about all addictions, and beyond that it’s about the human condition. I think it’s well worth a read: http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2008/06/13/porn_addiction/


Quote for Today

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:01 pm

Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an
insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to
discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with
the same care and imagination as a zebra. Apparently it does not occur to
nature whether or not a creature is within our range of vision, and the
suspicion arises that even the zebra was not designed for our benefit.
-Rudolf Arnheim, psychologist and author(1904-2007)


New Evidence Changes My Mind (again)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:57 am

Like most people who are concerned about the environment, I used to oppose nuclear energy, because of its risks and the issue of long-lasting nuclear waste. But then, when we came to understand the impact of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as a greenhouse gas, I had to re-think: nuclear has some issues, sure, but newer technology has reduced some of the risks, and it now becomes more of a cost-benefit analysis once we realise fossil fuels aren’t as ‘cheap’ as we thought.

But this article made me think a third time: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/06/02/nuclear_power_price/

If it’s correct, and nuclear is that expensive, then the cost of sustainable, less risky and non-polluting solutions such as wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and so on become much more attractive. Because, as the articles says, the only ways nuclear would be viable is if governments threw billions of dollars in subsidies at it.

So, on balance, I’m much more supportive of governments biting the bullet and throwing those billions at renewable, sustainable energy development instead. Nuclear had some promise, but it’s not the solution.


Brian Greene’s answer

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:39 pm

…to the question I asked a while ago about ‘what is science and why teach it?’ A friend pointed this out to me: