Sunday, January 27, 2008

Personal philosophy, part 2

On practical pessimism:

The outlook I’ve come to call “practical pessimism” is an important part of how I look at the world. To be clear, it is not what people usually think of when they hear the word ‘pessimism’. The usual pessimist tends to go around expecting the worst of everything and being all depressed and sullen about life. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not that at all.

I prefer to use pessimism as a tool to be more prepared for life. I try to be as aware as possible of the world, the people in it, and myself, and look for all the little, everyday things that seem like they could and, as we all know, sometimes do to go wrong. I think about the more serious stuff that might go wrong, too, but that stuff tends to be very unlikely. So, while I’m thinking about all these small things that might go wrong, I prepare for them. I do everything I can to make them less likely in the first place and to be ready if something can’t be prevented from going wrong. I lock doors, I charge my electronics like laptops and cell phones regularly, I keep miscellaneous useful things with me, I use a Google online calendar to track my events and send myself reminders of things, etc. The bottom line is that I tend to be either prepared, if something goes wrong, or pleasantly surprised, if it doesn’t. Prepared or pleasantly surprised; that seems like a good way to live to me.

On faith:

The way I look at faith has changed a lot over the years. I used to think (like most people where I grew up and quite a few everywhere) that “faith” only came in the religious variety. This led me to nearly exclusively express my early faith relative to Christianity. My family never went to church, and I got harassed a lot for it. I had it explained to me by over half a dozen kids in elementary school that I was going to go to Hell. This hostility didn’t seem like much of a reason to join a church to me (and certainly not to my parents), so instead I ended up turning against religion fairly young. This may have ended up being a fairly significant factor in the other kid’s general dislike of me from 5th grade through 7th. Obviously, my thoughts on faith are much more refined now.

As a general principle, I try to avoid accepting anything solely on “faith”. I like to have evidence and reasons for my ideas, and I’m not very likely to accept someone else’s idea without something a little more convincing than “well, it just makes sense, right?” As a fan of evidence and reasons in a society that values such things much less than I do overall, I end up having to find my own fairly often. A lifetime of looking for my own answers (which I’ve been doing since long before I realized it was anything special or uncommon) has led me to be extremely confident in my thoughts, plans, and perspective. If there’s anything that sets me apart from anyone else, that’s it; I may or may not have been “smarter” than the others in grade school (which is what everyone always said), but I’m certainly not particularly smarter than the average "anyone else" at UT. I just have a very good idea of what I am and am not good at.

Regarding my ‘religious’ beliefs (since that’s probably what most of you were expecting from this section, anyway): I don’t have many. I certainly don’t consider myself a member of any religious organization. I’ve been building up a list of reasons to disapprove of organized religion for my entire life, but I already explained my biggest one in great detail several months ago: organized religions naturally end up in conflict with each other. Nearly all religions on earth, and certainly all the major ones, very clearly explain in their holy books that non-believers with suffer somehow after dying, either from some kind of torture or punishment or simply from not being admitted to some kind of afterlife paradise. Conveniently, there is no way to test such a claim. What’s worse, though, is that such doctrines often lead the religious to try to convert non-believers or followers of other religions to their religion, sometimes very aggressively. If the people being converted resist, it can cause resentment and tension on an individual level, violence on a larger scale, and war on a global scale. I refuse to participate in that.

A point I often have to clarify: I am not an atheist. No, I do not consider it likely that any omnipotent being exists exactly as described my any of the major religions. However, I cannot prove absolutely that such a being does not exist. Some atheists falsely claim that they can. Also, atheism is, effectively, an organized religion. It regularly comes into conflict with other religions. Once again: I will not participate in any unnecessary aggression. If you’re interested, page back to my conflict post for a more detailed discussion of my views on conflict.

Really, most of the details of my personal life philosophies follow fairly directly from what I’ve written about so far (including my discussion of conflict). I’ll likely continue this series anyway, though. And, as always, I welcome comments and questions.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The culling of phone numbers

My old phone broke on Tuesday. There was no apparent reason or anything, it just quit working. I had insurance, so I ended up getting a better new phone, but I lost all my old numbers. All of you that have my number (its still the same; my SIM card still works and is now in my new phone) I would thoroughly appreciate a call, text, or message with your number.

And yes, I know my next post was supposed to be "Personal philosophy, part 2". Don't worry, it's coming soon.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Personal philosophy, part 1

Other than my post on conflict, I realize that my personal thoughts are largely scattered throughout my posts and that it takes a lot of reading to find them, so I’ve decided to condense them in a series of no-events, personal-thoughts-only posts. This is the first of several such posts (I haven’t decided how many I’ll write yet).

On Science:

My philosophy on science has largely come together since I started taking classes at UT. I find it extremely interesting that I have found more specialties in physics that I am not interested in practicing than that I am interested in. This is because I feel very strongly that any work I do must have a strong potential to cause a tangible benefit for other people in the near future.

It is important to note that this works only because I firmly believe that we already have all the theoretical understanding we need to solve nearly all of the major technology-related problems we currently face; we're just not using that knowledge to its full potential due to bureaucracy, regulation, lack of funding, lack of interest, or other non-scientific reasons.

I have heard many times since my arrival at UT the argument of the theorists and the experimentalists working on areas that won’t yield any tangible results for a long time: we can’t know now how those things will be beneficial in the future. Entirely true. I’m not arguing that we should have no theorists and particle physicists and such. This is, first and foremost, the rationale for my own career plans. I’ve had people tell me that wanting to work on applying the physics I will learn to making new technologies that make life better makes me an engineer, not a physicist. Fine. I think it’s kind of pointless to worry much about the distinction. I do, however, believe that we have a responsibility, as scientists, engineers, and people of technical ability in general, to apply our knowledge and skills toward solving problems that exist here and now before worrying about ideas that might or might not someday be useful. Working on current issues first is desirable for a lot of reasons. Obviously, making life better has to be the ultimate purpose of all science and technology. This has the secondary effect that, when quality of life increases, the productivity of the population in question increases. There are currently billions of people living in terrible conditions, who can’t do much to further science or help others because they have enough to worry about just to survive. Finding ways to bring resources, infrastructure, medicine, and education to these people will have the long term result that they will be more productive and will contribute to developing faster as a species later on. Helping people isn’t good just for abstract, feel-good reasons, it yields real benefits for all of us in the long run. In short, we need to put people before ideas.

On Politics:

Similarly to the way that I can’t simply be called a ‘physicist’ or ‘engineer’, I can’t simply be called a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’. I defy labels in a lot of ways, really. My politics, specifically, don’t tend to line up with the opinions of either party. One of my most basic political thoughts is that the two party system is highly inefficient. It’s basically a ‘moderation through conflict’ method; we send a roughly even number of Democrats and Republicans to Congress and to most other national and state offices (really, it comes fairly close on average), and they fight it out to find moderate solutions to our nation’s and states’ problems. Fighting to reach moderation is inefficient, and the details of the ‘solutions’ reached are often seriously flawed. I have to admit that I don’t really know how to fix this in general. One would hope that our politicians are at least expressing their real, thought-out beliefs, and not just their party’s policies. We can (and I do) keep encouraging logical, moderate policies and solutions on an individual level; such an effort, if maintained, must have an impact at some point. There are, however, some specific things we can do to reach moderation more quickly in politics right now:

First, we need to change the rules of Congress. Currently, the Constitution says that each “House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings” (Art. I, Sec. V, Clause II). Members of the House of Representatives may, then, introduce bills that say basically whatever that representative wants. They often include provisions for the government to spend money in the districts of other representatives whose support the bill’s author(s) need to pass the bill. This is reason for what people call “pork barrel spending”, which all politicians claim to oppose, but they all go on using this technique to pass their legislation, anyway. I find this to be a fascinating example of a political ‘check’ that was somehow left out of the Constitution. We need new rules in Congress that require that it only votes on individual provisions, not the packages of unrelated stuff that most bills become. This would very likely lead to an immediate end of nearly all of the “pork barrel spending” I mentioned earlier, since these spending provisions, by themselves, would not be supported by anyone other than the representative whose district would benefit.

Second, we need to eliminate the Electoral College and have standardized, nationalized presidential elections. The Electoral College made sense at the time the constitution was written, but we are a more united nation with more knowledge and awareness of the candidates and political process now than we were 200 years ago. Each individual vote will be more meaningful, and irregularities like the winner in the Electoral College not really winning the most votes (which has happened 4 times, in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000) would just not happen because the Electoral College would simply not exist. The candidate that received the most votes would win, plain and simple. There would also not be complications like candidates from smaller parties not being able to get their name on the ballot in some states (this happens fairly regularly; you just don’t hear about it because no one cares about the minor candidates for whom this is a problem).

Monday, January 14, 2008

An Excellent Dilemma

Since my last post, I have taken my finals, gotten straight A’s, gone home for the holiday break, returned to Austin, and had my first day of class. The dilemma is this: Getting the A’s was very cool, especially since I know I scraped by fairly close to the bar on a few; my holiday break was just generally excellent; and my first day of classes was one of the best first days of anything I can remember. I can’t decide which of these activities/accomplishments was the coolest. Ahhh… Sorry, I can’t help taking a moment to just sit back and bask in the awesomeness.

My exams, as a whole, were not a particularly big deal. I did not wear myself out studying for them or rereading entire books or going without sleep or any of the things college students do to themselves during exam time. My friends back home, naturally, won’t be surprised by any of this, but all the UT people should take the hint: quit doing all that stuff to yourselves. It doesn’t really help! Go to review sessions, study in moderation, then relax and get plenty of sleep right before the exams themselves. It works.

Spending three weeks at home over the holidays must be the most relaxing, makes-a-person-feel-good-about-life kind of thing I have ever done. I had to make the rounds visiting everyone at the high school (principal, counselor, old teachers, band director, etc.) and the family I worked for as a volunteer tutor last year, and, of course, I had to spend as much time as possible with old friends. It was great.

More on the friends part: So, I ended up having three big party-type-gatherings over the break. A friend from high school that’s been in basic training for the Army was back for two weeks over the break, so he had the same feeling I did, that he needed to see everyone as much as possible. His brother, who lives and works in A&M and is only a year older, was also back, so we were all working to get everyone together while we were back. The first gathering was an attempt to have a now-old-fashioned LAN party at my place, a few days before Christmas. Of course, I say attempt and old-fashioned because I felt like this didn’t work too well. Last year, we centered most of these gatherings around playing Halo 2 and similar games on networked original Xboxes. The original Xbox had underwhelming graphics and too many buttons that you had to use your right thumb to press, but it was extremely straightforward to network and set up. The Xbox 360 is an entirely different story. It is designed to work best when left in one place, always with the same controllers, and connected to the Internet. The gamer then either pays a subscription or at least gets regularly coerced to buy game upgrades or other digital trinkets while playing over “Xbox Live”, Microsoft’s online Xbox gaming network. It is not designed to work well in a local area network. The controllers are mostly wireless and, therefore, a pain (although I found a clever way to “synchronize” them to their 360 fairly quickly that none of the actual 360 owners present had thought of), all the boxes have to be restarted if one goes offline, the profiles are not game specific, and creating one is non-intuitive. In general, I thought it was a mess, but some of the guys had fun. I mainly found another reason to hate Microsoft.

Also at that gathering, I was informed by a friend of a friend of a friend who ended up there that ‘being smart’ is pointless because someone else can do it and because we already have Bill Gates; “What, are you going to be richer than he is?” he says, or something like that. I don’t even know how to begin to refute this non-argument, and at the time I didn’t really bother. This was obviously not the kind of person who would have really understood, anyway. On the plus side, I will definitely not be taking people like this with me when I invent a new propulsion system that can take us to other habitable planets outside the solar system, put together a colonization group of the world’s best, brightest, and most ambitious, and leave. In fact, people like this may lead me to happen to not leave any designs or info about this new propulsion system on earth when I leave… This kind of thought and the many problems that naturally go with it have occupied many hours of my thoughts over the last two years or so, and even more recently.

Christmas for me was fairly quiet and relaxed. I went to Dallas with Sara (my little sister), spent an afternoon with Dad, and got presents from him on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we had the usual opening of under-the-tree presents and Christmas dinner and such. Mom came up with some interesting trinkets to get me, like a remote-controlled helicopter that is too small to fly controllably and a Tom-Tom, one of those talking navigation systems. I also got a book and a President Bush calendar, which is both scary and funny all at once (he says and does some frighteningly stupid stuff).

Our next large gathering was at the brothers’ house on New Year’s Eve. That was crazy, certainly crazier than most of the boozed-up parties one hears so much about in Austin, and with the free bonus that we can all remember it fairly clearly. I completely don’t understand peoples’ desire to go to parties and do miscellaneous things that they will forget later. Some even talk about the forgetting-it-all part as a benefit; I don’t get it, but that’s completely off the point. Anyway, we had several dozen ‘artillery shells’ or ‘mortars’, the big fireworks that launch out of a tube, normally, at least, and explode in big colored sparks at twenty or thirty feet high. I had to take charge of most of these and protect them from misuse, as someone near the beginning got the brilliant idea to light one of these and just toss it in the air to see what would happen. It ended up falling on the ground and exploding there, creating about 8 small grass fires that we had to quickly stomp out. Apparently not realizing that either that this was dangerous or that the ground explosions were less impressive, anyway, other people proceeded to do this 6 or 7 more times throughout the evening, so I had to guard the last few shells and launch them properly near the end. We also had about 300 bottle rockets, which, for reasons that are now quite obvious to me, are going to be illegal starting this summer. We launched about 200 of them that evening. Without cleaning up, either; you should have seen their yard after we were done. Anyway, most of these were not launched in an even remotely safe manner; most were just lit and thrown somewhere, at which point they might or might not launch somewhere else and explode. Over half of us got hit at some point by one of these rockets; I took two. I was hit in the leg by one of the first rockets of the evening (the first injury of the evening; I still have a cut in my right thigh from it). I later caught a rocket in the chest right as it exploded; it didn’t hurt at all, but it did catch my shirt on fire. Yeah, that’s right, my shirt was on fire! It ended up badly singed with a big hole right in the middle. My undershirt and jacket were singed, too. This was, by far, the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me at a party. We concluded this party by spending about two hours at IHOP, from 2 to about 4 in the morning, where several of the guys made up stories about things that didn’t happen between me and the girl I invited to this gathering, who I had thankfully taken home before going to IHOP. Remember, the flaming shirt was the highlight of the evening; this would definitely not have been the case if… well… you get the idea.

My final large gathering of the break was this massive, 12 hour monster of a night. Yeah, I’m not kidding, it went on for 12 hours! I started out by having dinner with my Army friend and two girls from the New Year’s party (neither was the girl I had invited; I saw her again once after New Year’s, but she got sick and had to work too much after that for us to see each other any more before I left). We then went to the latest Resident Evil movie, which, I guess, was decent enough. Expectations were low to begin with. I mean, it’s a movie about a virus turning everyone into zombies that eat normal people; there are only so many ways to kill a zombie, and only so many ways a zombie can kill a person, and most have already been done. That’s about all there was to it. After that, Army friend and I went to one of the guy’s houses and spent the rest of the night playing Halo 3 on the previously-ranted-about 360s. It was a lot easier with only 6-8 people playing on two boxes; we’d been trying to have 10-12 people play on three boxes before.

After that, the break passed fairly quietly, as it already had between gatherings. I spent far too much time sitting around playing the new video games I got for Christmas. I also watched the New Hampshire presidential debates with Mom and ended up walking away from the Democrats’ half out of mental exhaustion. Even I, apparently, can only take so many hours of Republican bickering and Democrat non-answers. I came away from the whole thing liking all of the candidates less.

I arrived back in Austin last Thursday and, once again, mostly just chilled for a couple days. It was actually kind of weird to be back here at first, but I’m definitely glad to be here now.

And today was the first day of class for the new semester. And it was pretty much awesome. I didn’t have to get up until after 8 (yes!) because my first class isn’t until 10. Then I have two back-to-back classes before lunch, US history and physics, and two more after, Calculus and programming. I also had my first meeting with the physics department chairman for our “Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) Physics Research Stream”, which basically means that I get to have real professors teach my lab class instead of a vastly sub-par TA. And I get to drop subtle (or, eventually, less subtle) hints about the failings of freshman physical mechanics lab classes. I doubt it will do any good, but I have to try. I at least need to make sure he actually reads the lab manual, which is right down there with the worst literature ever. Throughout, I ran into lots of old friends, told all of the stories I just recounted, and even made a few new friends. After all, that’s what first days are for.

For anyone looking for insights this time around, think back to my friend of a friend of a friend who thinks that “someone else can be smart, so I doesn’t have to, and what’s the point, anyway, if I don’t get obscenely rich for it?” Do any of you even know of effective ways to communicate with such a person? Even better, how can we convince them that living with this kind of mentality is one of the best ways around to destroy society and civilization? I would really love to be able to convince people to not think like this, but nothing I have tried has ever worked, which is why I didn’t even bother this time. Any ideas?