Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dogma: Man's Best Friend

People are prone to tenaciously held dogmatic positions. This is no less true for academics, and hell hath no fury like a scientist spurned. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote about the tendency of a community of scientists to "lock in" to a concept or set of related ideas that appear to explain the way the world works.[1] One popular example is the view of the solar system around the time of Copernicus.

In the centuries prior to Copernicus the prevailing view of the cosmos put Earth at the center with everything else revolving around it, a paradigm that had survived in its essence since Aristotle. Few learned folk argued with it, least of all commoners because it satisfied everyday needs very well. Over time there grew an awareness that some observations were difficult or impossible to reconcile with the current paradigm. Some colleagues were intrigued by this while others were less than open to the suggestion that the Earth might not be at the center of things.

As the awareness grew and conflict began to arise, two things happened. First, as the conflicting views and communities became more sharply defined, so did the rhetoric. Those in positions of influence within the existing paradigm often fought against any criticism of it, sometimes through passive aggression, sometimes by making minor adjustments to the paradigm, and sometimes by resorting to ad hominem attacks on the critics. At the same time, more anomalies were discovered, further increasing the burden on the paradigm’s defenders.

Over time the "rebel" camp grew large enough to, in essence, seize control. I do not mean control through the use of physical force but rather through overwhelming social pressure on the ability of scientists to be successful. Those who clung to the old paradigm suddenly found themselves on the “outside.” If they were to survive in their careers they would have to either adopt the new paradigm or find new sponsors.

In the end, the Copernican paradigm prevailed, but as with many philosophical shifts it came with some baggage. Those who were eager to displace the Earth from its favored position went beyond the observations and claimed that nothing in the cosmos held a special position. But since the work of science under the new paradigm was just getting started, how was one to make a convincing argument otherwise? The tacit acceptance of the “Copernican mindset” has led to the current stronghold in cosmology: the big bang.

What may start out as seemingly dispassionate conceptual models and theories can, given enough time and advocacy, become entrenched doctrine. Their degree of entrenchment says very little about their truth or falsehood. Just because something is "in" or "out" does not mean it is right or wrong. Entrenched views gain their hold through active and tacit agreement among those viewed as authoritative.  The vesting of authority involves faith, well-placed or otherwise.

Some may claim their positions are based entirely on reason, but everyone relies on a variety of knowledge sources besides personal experience and deduction. So where do you place your faith?

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S., “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, 3rd Edition, 1992, University of Chicago Press

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Trust Me

What is trust? It is a quality that is easy to talk about but hard to pin down. Relationships require it. Relationships that do not have it can only be described as tentative at best. But what is a relationship? At its simplest, a relationship is an association between two people. The association may be something endowed by the individuals involved or it may be brought about by an external agent.

Does trust require a balanced relationship? It is our western sentimentalism that complains if a relationship is not balanced. And yet nearly every mother is aquainted with profound relational asymmetry. Her newborn infant realizes at only the most basic level that a relationship exists and cannot return anything to it, yet the mother loves and cares for the child (as does the father, one hopes). But how many mothers would say that they get nothing in return? Perhaps when she is especially tired and into a long period where the infant is crabby, but not when the child is in her lap, cooed and rocked to sleep. The infant's steady, whispery breathing and tender facial movements deposit treasure in the mother's heart.

Is the infant trusting? The infant is dependent on mom, but the awareness has not yet awakened for trust to be present. And yet it is impossible to isolate a particular point in time where that awakening occurs. Trust does not barge in, it sneaks in. It is present in the infant only as a seed. Consistent care given by parents waters the seed and it begins to grow. If not, the seed may remain dormant or grow into a spindly shadow of what was intended. Radical gardening may be required later to restore the plant to its original design.

Trust is essential in every relationship for it to be fruitful. Without trust there can only be association, aquaintance, convenience.

Trust can overcome attacks from the outside.
Trust empowers, encourages.
Trust allows roots to go deep.
Trust predicts good rather than evil, success rather than failure, satisfaction rather than want.
Trust is earned, love is not.
Trust benefits from the discipline of remembering the good.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Emotions at Work

In my profession, emotion can carry a bad reputation and strong emotion can be seen as downright sinister. Tales are told in college engineering books and classes of once-prominent stars who later in their career either became emotionally attached to their own creations or who tried to manipulate the emotions of others to affect an outcome, invariably with disastrous effect. Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Panama Canal comes to mind. A critical set of requirements is overlooked, or consequences are not thoroughly worked out, or a design is not tested well enough. Damage is done, property is ruined, havoc is wreaked, lives are lost. If those responsible for such projects had managed to keep their emotions at bay and dispassionately applied their skills, so the stories go, the losses would have been avoided.

At least, that is the message that was given 20 years ago. Nowadays younger engineers don't appear to have heard those stories. Nevertheless, enginering culture changes slowly and much of what brings engineers recognition is their analytic and organizational abilities. Outward emotionalism (except for laughter) tends to brew distrust or even disdain. Permitting emotion into the design room is still seen as a significant risk.

I am a creature of that culture, first taught by my engineering father and reinforced by my formal education. My reflex is to see emotions as distractions at best, and deceptions at worst, to be avoided when working out problems. There is some allowance for levity as a team builder, but not when pursuing technical quarry. Cynicism, chiefly directed at management, has become more acceptable lately, especially since the introduction of Dilbert. The effervescent cheerleading at all-employee meetings, attended by lots of highly emotional types, also finds more sympathy these days among the technocracy.

Yet the Vulcan way is not without its hazards. Just as I wouldn't run outside in March without first checking the weather to see if I'm appropriately dressed, I shouldn't careen nonchalantly through my relationships without concern for the emotional "weather" (mine and theirs). Just as dressing appropriately will help me to stay outside longer, and even enjoy everything from snowfall to hot sun, learning to hike in the emotional climate will help me "play" in the broader world beyond the technical design room.

Emotional intelligence? Perhaps it is not the oxymoron some of us take it to be.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Honk if You Feel Crowded

So the Department of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI (among others, I'm sure) are looking for software that can sniff out criminal activity among the oceans of social media postings. To the extent they already do that sort of thing they may have noted the article you are reading right now, though it would be due purely to keyword matches, not the volume of readership.

So we'll have a few more netizens eating up the meager bandwidth left over after the junk e-mailers and web crawlers have had their fill. I'm not much of a social mediaphyte, so I have little objection to their pawing through what my friends of friends have seen already. I usually roll my eyes when people cry "privacy!" the moment Facebook, Twitter or Google burp out a new policy; such folk are at the very least naive if not disingenuous. If they wanted a private conversation, there are many methods available that pre-date the web.  No, I'm more concerned (though just barely) about their clogging of the information superhighway with more traffic.

Frankly, I'm still amazed that I can download in a second or two what it used to take over a minute just to save on a floppy.

(If you don't know what a "floppy" is, then you are too young to be reading this blog.)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Beware the Yeast of the Naturalist

A couple of weeks ago a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that claimed to illuminate how single celled organisms began their evolutionary trek towards multicellularity. They applied strong selective pressure for weight on a culture of brewer's yeast cells for 60 days and found that the yeast formed clusters of cells and that some of the cells within a cluster exhibited "apoptosis," that is, they would die, making room for other parts of the cluster to grow. The hype surrounding the article is that it shows the "ease" with which the jump to multicellularity can occur.

All of this is predicated on the assumption that such a change did occur in the distant past. By conventional evolutionary reckoning, such a change occurred roughly 25 times independently in the past. The authors wonder why it didn't happen even more often given how easily they were able to provoke it in their laboratory. Hmm. A clue that perhaps their presumption is off?

Apart from the interpretation, the artificial selection of yeast generations showed some interesting yeast behavior, but certainly not something I would describe as a multicellular organism except by the most trivial of definitions. There were groups of cells that stuck together (as yeast cells commonly do anyway, just not often in such large clumps). Admittedly the authors would not claim they showed the full transformation either, but they do little to caution readers against wild extrapolation. Their claim of apoptosis is premature, since they have not yet determined the mechanism behind the cell death. There may have been a genetic mechanism involved, but there might also be a more mundane reason, say mechanical or chemical stress. Even if it were shown to be true apoptosis, it is doubtful that it came from something that was absent from the yeast at the outset.

So there is still a big question about just how "multicellular" these yeast really are. There is an even bigger question about how much further the yeast could be pushed toward multicellularity. An interesting follow-on experiment would be to remove the selective pressure and see what happens to the yeast globs. Do they persist or do they revert back to their less glommy former state? And what if there were a few of the "loner" yeasties still around? What would the neighborhood look like in a few generations? Would there be a predominance of yeast hotels, or would there be more single cell dwellings?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Going up

Two evenings ago a large pole shed went up in flames just a couple miles from where we live. I saw the billows of black smoke just off to the south of the highway as I drove home from work. A brief glance through the trees gave the hint of an intense fire. We found out through Facebook just an hour later that it belonged to a neighbor of someone who goes to our church. According to the newspaper report, the fire started in a car that someone was repairing. The shed was fully engulfed by the time the fire trucks arrived, so they focused on saving the nearby house and keeping the (full) 500 gallon propane tank that was behind the shed from exploding (apparently it did get hot enough to vent some gas, which promptly combusted). Everything in the shed was lost, which included vehicles and yard equipment. Fortunately no one was injured.

I read another FB posting today of a spaghetti dinner benefit for a man whole lost his entire home and a dog to a fire last fall.

Things can change quickly. I hope the family's neighborhood, friends and church (if applicable) show support in some way. Insurance can help replace the stuff; a more personal touch is needed to help with the emotional aftermath.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Path Between the Seize

Several characters loom large in the tale of the Panama Canal, told aptly by David McCullough in his book "The Path Between the Seas". Ferdinand de Lesseps, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Teddy Roosevelt, John Stevens, George Goethals. Movers and shakers. Entrepreneurs. Go getters.

To many they were heroes, willing to go up against tremendous challenges, staring Goliath in the face and not backing down. Each displayed different strengths. de Lesseps was the consummate ambassador, able to whip up a crowd one person at a time as well as en masse. Bunau-Varilla was a chess player, moving political and technical pieces, and sacrificing pawns if necessary. Teddy Roosevelt was, well, Teddy Roosevelt and at least as far as the Canal operation was concerned, he was a visionary and a power plug. John Stevens, while less interested in politics, nevertheless was able to match the tool to the job unlike any before him.  Goethals both relished the power given to him and dispensed it with great effectiveness, meeting every setback with dogged determination.

Along with their strengths came some weaknesses, of course.  They were human.  And the greater the power, the greater the opportunity for it to be misused and for collateral damage, intended or not.

How does one draw lessons from such people? Many details of their lives are lost to history, or at least greatly dimmed by the fog of time and variant opinion.  The context for their behavior cannot be fully known, as it can not be known even for our closest friends.

Perhaps it is best just to paint with broad, brush strokes and keep the pointing fingers in our pockets.  After all, God has already given us the lessons we need to learn and the canal we need to travel. Staying in the Water of Life is the surest way of getting from this life's sea to the next.