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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Solidified Memory: How do we make sure we remember what we experienced?


    If memories are so unreliable (and they truly are) then what can we do to make them more reliable? How do we convert them from transient to permanent? Well, on a technical basis, that process is called moving them from short-term to long-term memory. But, as we have discussed, that still doesn't make the memories any more "true" just because we remember them longer.
    First off, it is good to acknowledge that almost any "evidence" can now be forged -- with enough money spent, it can be forged to the point that it is impossible to detect that it was not from reality. Technology has moved along a lot since the movie "Rising Sun" was made with Sean Connery. Photos, and video, can be created pixel by pixel. Cursive writing can be reformed from templates into any combination of letters, words, and sentences that may be desired. Audio is still, currently, the hardest to forge as it is a representation of analog (continuously changing) information -- but it is still possible to create something that would be very hard to distinguish from "real".
    The only real protection individuals have from data forging is that most of us are NOT "worth the trouble". Even though it is easier and easier, with more easily used tools, to manipulate and fake data it still takes time, knowledge, experience, money (for equipment and software) and (for the second mention) time.
    So, how to create a record for oneself that we can use to keep our memories "solid"? We have already inferred a number of methods. Photos. We can take photographs (preferably with notes associated with them). We do have to be careful to not infer about what we do NOT see. If we take that photo of a person in a red hat -- we do not know the color of the other side of the hat. We do not know who hid behind a tree. However, if we are taking these photos for ourselves, we can include notes to help get the information correct.
    Audio is a great way to note things down -- but audio of what we experience is more useful than our taking an audio note of what we noticed or experienced. (That is just as easily misled as any other account of events.) If we can record someone saying something then we can refer back to it as what they said. Content, sequencing, and who said what can be noted and solidified.
    Video combines the two of image and sound. The more the merrier. We just have to make sure that we recognize that what is not recorded may be as important, or more important, as what IS recorded. Do not take the "evidence" further than what is really there.
    A final method of solidifying memory is just that -- physical reconstructions and recordings. Statues and sculptures, writing, models, and so forth can capture events and the emotions of events.
    Do these methods make memories more reliable? No, not really -- although they can record details that we can forget ("Did I wear a green shirt that day or the plaid one?"). But they do help them to stop changing.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A divergent possibility : Reuse or Recycle is a fork in the road


    The three "R"s include the areas of Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling (with the addition of the preliminary "Rethink" of the Houseboat philosophy). But how is a decision made whether to resuse an article or to recycle it?

    Generally, this is a matter of how easy is it to do one or another. To reuse, it must be able to be used -- it must be in working order. A book is presumably able to be reused easily unless it is damaged. An old sofa might be moderately damaged -- needing a hole to be repaired or a leg put back on. A piece of electronic equipment may require a diagnosis followed by repair. There is a sliding scale of ease of reuse. No work is needed up to potentially quite a bit of work (perhaps as much as creating the item originally).

    Sometimes, repair can become part of a hobby or enterprise. People may take great pleasure in the work needed to repair a vintage car -- and the parts and labor can be considered an investment. The same can be true for people who buy a house in need of repair and succeed in renovating it such that it can be lived in, or resold, in a much better condition (and higher price).

    But, what about a toaster? There are some "vintage" toasters that can rise in value -- but most of them are "commodities" -- able to be replaced easily or replaced with "improved" characteristics. Is it worthwhile to repair? Is it a part of an internal enjoyment to repair? Possibly for some but for most it is not worthwhile. So, we hit an economic tradeoff which is very dependent on the local cost of merchandise and the local cost of labor.

    Let's say that a new working toaster is priced at $30. A used working toaster can bring $5 at a flea market or local swapmeet. If the cost of labor to repair toasters is $20/hour and it takes two hours to repair it, then making a non-working toaster able to be sold would cost $40 and only sell for $5 giving a net loss of $35. Who would decide to do that? Hopefully, the person would find a good place to recycle the toaster.

    However, if we are in another place where a new working toaster is priced at $20 and a used working toaster can bring $7, we may have a different situation. What if labor costs are only $2/hour? A non-working toaster can be repaired for $4 and sold for $7 -- giving a total profit of $3. We can see that the local prices and local labor costs make a big difference as to whether something is reused.

    Another factor that comes into play for reuse versus recycling is convenience. If I have a paperbook that is not severely damaged I have a choice for reuse by taking it to a used bookstore or recycling it via a curbside pick up. If it takes me 40 minutes (roundtrip) to take that book to the bookstore then recycling becomes an attractive option. If I have a box of books, however, the time needed to take them to the used bookstore becomes less of an overhead. Convenience and net savings come into play -- plus the value one gives to their own time.

    As an umbrella over the choices is the priority one gives to the environment. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are the three rules but they only apply to people who care about the effects of NOT doing these things. Some may care because of the money involved with not doing it -- some may care because of the environmental costs -- and some may not care at all. What is my time worth in choices needed to help maintain a good environment? Do I care about the state of my surroundings when the next generation is growing up? These are underlying questions with individual answers.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Malleable Memory : What you remember isn't necessarily what occurred


     Memories are that special something that make us who we are. Twins may have the same genetics but, even if raised in the same environment, they cannot have the same memories. You would think that, if this is the case, memory must be the most reliable of attributes of the human condition.

     But this is NOT the case. Memories can be formed in ways that they are inaccurate at the very beginning -- and change over the years to fit in better with other attitudes and stories concerning the subject matter.

     Jodeph Campbell related a local tale of a village that had a mischievous god who visited. There were two rice fields on different sides of a small dirt road. This god put on a big woven hat -- one side was bright red and the other side was bright blue. He put it on his head such that the people working in the field on the right saw the red and the people working in the field on the left saw the blue. He reached the end of the road and turned around -- but, while turning around, he also reversed his hat such that now (going the opposite direction) the people on the right saw the blue side and the people on the left saw the red. Thus, for both walks down the road, people in the field saw the same color.

     When the villagers finished their work for the day, they met in the village and talked about this strange man who walked through the fields wearing a bright red hat. "NO" said others he was wearing a bright blue hat. So, they argued and fought and the god laughed. This is one of the first ways that memory is shaky -- no one can observe everything that there is to be observed and different people will observe different things.

    A second area that changes the formation of memories is that of expectations. These expectations are based on personal histories, biases, and even current events.  During a classroom experiment, two people (without forewarning of the class) entered a classroom -- male and female and of different ethnic backgrounds. They loudly started to argue, fight, and then leave the room. After they left, within five minutes of their arrival and before the students could discuss among themselves, the instructor had the students write down an account of what happened.

     When the instructor read through the accounts, she found that there were not two accounts that read the same. Some of the things that the actors did were reversed -- things that the female did were recounted as things that the male did and so forth. The interpretation of who did what first and which one was justified in their reaction also changed. In general, if a history book was to be written from these first-person accounts there would have to be one per person.

     The third area of moving early memories is that of peer influence. Once a situation is discussed, many people will start changing their memories to that of what the most popular people remember -- or will allow for change based on arguments presented by others of more vocal temperament..

     Within a few days, the people no longer remember any different account. These are some of the many aspects of how initial memory can be altered. In the next blog, we will talk about longer-term memory and how it changes with time and can be altered.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Driving and Physics : the laws of the road that cannot be broken


   There are two sets of laws involved with driving a car. The first set is made from the human-made laws which are a set of etiquette laws of how people can share the roads and passageways while driving 700+ kilogram vehicles. The other, underlying, laws are associated with the laws of physics. The first set can make interacting with other vehicles, and their drivers, more predictable -- and generate income for the various cities in which you drive. The second set -- unlike the situation for the Coyote or Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes -- cannot be broken and determine what will happen when your car interacts with other physical objects.

   The first topic that I'll mention is that of relative velocities. If you are driving 30 mph (or 50 kph, if you prefer) and you run into a wall, there is 30 mph (times your mass) amount of force with which you hit the wall. This is called kinetic energy. If you run into something coming towards you (such as another car) at 30 mph, the amount of energy is doubled and it is as if you hit a wall at 60 mph. (Note that hitting a wall at 60 mph does more than twice the amount of damage as 30 mph.)

   If two cars are going in the same direction then the collision energy is subtracted. If you are driving at 60 mph along a road and someone driving at 65 mph bumps into you then it is the same as if they drove into a wall at 5 mph. Not very noticeable unless that bump makes you lose control and you use your 60 mph kinetic energy to run into a tree.

   This is the principle behind merging. The idea is that you drive your car such that you are driving at approximately the same speed as other cars by the time you leave the on-ramp to the highway. You speed up a little and safely merge ahead of a car. You slow down a little and safely merge behind a car (preferable). If you are going 30 mph while all the other cars are going 60 mph it makes it much difficult for you, and for all the other cars, to merge safely.

   This leads to the next topic -- "tailgating". This is where you are traveling at a speed such that it is not possible to stop without colliding into the car ahead of you if they abruptly stop. My old traffic books indicated one car length per 10 mph -- so, around 90 feet for travelling at 60 mph. I routinely see people driving with a single car length between cars while driving 60 mph. This situation is very dangerous for two reasons -- if the car ahead abruptly stops, you have converted a 5 mph bump into a 60 mph crash into a wall. The second reason is that it makes it very difficult to merge. The merging car cannot safely go ahead, or behind, other cars on the highway if there is no room.

   Tailgating is directly involved with another law of Physics called inertia. This is Isaac Newton's "First Law of Motion". It says that if something is at rest it will want to stay at rest (difficult to start moving) and if it is in motion it will be difficult to stop and will continue at the same speed and direction unless outside forces change it.

   So, let's apply this law of inertia to tailgating. Stopping distance involves the factors of "reaction time" and physical stopping time. Reaction time varies between people. In general, women have better reaction times than men and, in general, younger people have better reaction times than older people. However, reaction time can never be zero as it takes time for the outside signal to reach your eye (you see a brake light) and your brain to process the signal to start a reaction (stepping on the brake).

   This is why it is impossible to stop if you are tailgating someone and they abruptly stop no matter how good are your reflexes. IF you both started stopping at exactly the same time AND both had the same tires and same braking systems on your cars THEN tailgating could be safe. Those factors are not true.

   This leads into the final topic for this blog. Driving in weather. Weather affects a lot of factors. It can make visibility easier or harder -- which affects reaction time. It can make the traction of the tires on the road better or worse -- which affects physical stopping time. Results from relative velocities remain the same but the outside aspects which makes a difference in how, when, and why have changed.

   So, if you drive on a snowy, icy road you have increased reaction time, physical stopping time and the principles of inertia make it more difficult for you to either turn or stop without the car wanting to continue in the same direction and speed.

   In the end, the laws of physics will exist and they won't change so merge properly, don't tailgate, and allow for changes in road conditions for judging safe driving.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Houseboat philosophy : The Four "R"s


   Once upon a time, I lived in Seattle -- loved it there because it was an environment in which I could walk, or take public transportation, to 80% of the places that I wanted to go (exceptions being grocery shopping -- mainly out of laziness). A pedestrian-friendly city gives a natural interest in adjusting one's life, in general, to the environment and trying to live within the environment rather than take it over.

   My wife-to-be was taking courses at the local University of Washington (Udub) and one of her teachers invited us to a lunch on her houseboat that was docked on Lake Union. While there, and conversing on various topics, she introduced the "houseboat philosophy". A houseboat has a certain capacity -- it weighs a certain amount and it can support a certain amount without sinking. So, unless you want to start swimming for shore during the next rainstorm (when the lake becomes definitely non-calm) you recognize that clutter is not something that you can tolerate.

   When something comes onto the houseboat, something has to go off. In a way, this is parallel to time organization of "most important now". What do I most want to have around me? If I bring something aboard, what do I want to take off and what will I do with it? Of course, there are a certain number of things that are in constant transit -- like food. Most things, however, including a stockpiling of the pantry must be considered to be an added weight.

   What to do with what one takes off leads directly to the three "R"s of Recycling. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Reducing is associated with packaging material and extra things that are not directly part of the item which you acquire. Reuse can be a matter of giving used items to charity to be re-sold or to become part of the lives of other people who need them. It can also be used to indicate a refilling of containers and such. Finally, recycling allows the materials to be incorporated in new products.

   The Houseboat philosophy adds one additional "R" -- Rethink. This is a preparatory thought before acquiring something. Is this something that will add to the quality of my life? Is this something that is more important than something else that I presently have around me? This isn't something that happens a lot in the current consumer-directed economy and society in which we live. (It DOES start moving that direction when one starts going towards the final direction of life -- a desire to eliminate the unneeded before someone else has to take care of it.)

   All together, the four "R"s are really the Houseboat Philosophy. While, for most of us, our houses are not likely to sink if we get one too many things into the house, clutter still affects our lives. How many times do you have to look for something you have mislaid? Is it easier to find one item out of a thousand that you have around -- or is it easier to find one item out of a hundred? How about cleaning? Is it easier to clean around 20 pieces of furniture or is it easier to clean around six?

   We are presently reducing in our household. We have a lot of books. Each book includes memories -- where did we get it, what thoughts arose when we read it, what other people were around when we read it, what was our mood before and after reading it. It is hard to remember that, even if the book is no longer around, the memories can still be present. If you have a box of things that hasn't been opened in ten years then how important are the things in that box?

   What are the important items to keep on your houseboat?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

History isn't what it used to be -- it never was


   History is a tale of what has happened. But is it really what happened? How do we know? What is the evidence? If we have records of what has happened what about records of what did not happen?

   In the Harry Potter series, the instructor of History is dry and boring and most students in the class don't pay a lot of attention -- until something from out of history seems to pop up once again in the present. This happens with the Chamber of Secrets. But really, the same thing happens to people all the time -- they lose track of what has happened in the past until it starts to happen again in the present and then SOME people recall the events in the past. There is the notion of people remembering the past in advance of events occurring -- an attempt to prevent old mistakes from happening again. But this rarely happens. Fashions cycle. Historical events cycle. Political environment cycles.

   One thing that does bother many people is an active attempt to hide history of which we no longer find acceptable. School systems start to change books to remove the realities of human slavery in the past (and deny the occurrence of present day slavery). Videos are actively altered to sway opinion and emotions. Some people try to deny past atrocities in spite of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of witnesses. Books are edited to make the language of the times in which they were written change to reflect the attitudes of the present. There have been many stories and novels written about such attempts -- often by governments but sometimes by active minorities. But it is very likely there have already been changes actively made that no one influential has noticed.

   Another area in which history does not match what happened in the past is something that might be a coincidence (and might not) which is that (in English) history is very similar to "his story". And it is true that history is predominantly a story of males and male events. Possibly this is because patriarchal (run by males) societies have dominated the past. Perhaps it is because males have been more likely to learn to read and write. It is certainly true that many inventions and creations have happened by women and been uncredited. Check out books such as "Mothers of Invention" (by Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek) and "Underside of History" (by Elise Boulding).

    Another problem with resolving the accuracy of history is that of translation of primary documents -- those records that were produced at the time of the events. Who wrote those documents -- probably the "winners" of conflicts. What happened from the point of view of the losers? Decimation of the First Nations in the American continents or the subjugation of the Ainu in the Japanese islands or the aborigines in Australia all have forcibly cut out a good section of the ability to balance the events of history.

   Even recognizing that only the "winners" and the powerful usually have their documents preserved -- language is not independent of the context of the times. If I write a sentence in English today then that very same set of words is unlikely to have had the same meaning 500 years ago and is unlikely to have the same meaning 500 years in the future. It is horrendously difficult to be able to know what was meant within a language within a context that is no longer present. Books that are the bases of religion often expose this fragility.

   In my own family, I recognize how much knowledge as been lost. Where did my mother meet my father? Where was their first date? (I don't know.) What was the occupation of my multi-maternal great-great-great grandfather? What color did he like best? Who fired the first bullet between the Hatfields and the McCoys? Certainly these may be "unimportant" pieces of information but there is no longer a way to know -- the knowledge has been lost.

   So, our ability to know what has happened in the past can only be an approximation. Sometimes things are changed deliberately. Often the documents that are saved reflect only a narrow set of perspectives. The understanding of the meaning of documents and language change through the years. And, in general, much is lost because more was lost from knowledge than was recorded. So, if I read an article in a newspaper or book about a current event and they refer to historical aspects -- I can read it and recognize that that is how people think about the history. It may, or may not, be a reflection of what really happened.

   But that is not an excuse to not try to do better in the future.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Entropy : or why is my house a mess?


   Physics is basically a bunch of descriptions (called "laws", "theories", "postulates", etc.) that allow us to predict how energy and matter (something that can be touched by other matter -- like a chair or oxygen or water) will be affected by other matter or energy that is applied to the original system. Note that, with special relativity (the old famous Einstein equation of E = mc**2) it is recognized that energy can be converted into matter and matter can release energy if broken into less complex units. (As usual, it is easier to break something down than to put it together.)

   One concept is called entropy. This is a measurement of disorder. It applies to the melting of an ice cube. It applies to the complexity of atoms -- with entropy increasing when fission occurs breaking a uranium atom into smaller atoms. It can also be used for everyday things -- such as a tidy room becoming messy. In each case, the situation of order moving towards disorder is called entropy.

   Local entropy can be reorganized. This often requires putting in energy -- but not always. The free flowing molecules of liquid water are less organized than that of ice which has a static configuration and form. In order to create ice from water, it is necessary to remove heat (energy). Because there are different ways that order is created from disorder (or disorder from order), there are considered to be different types of entropy.

   Notice that I say local entropy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the overall process of entropy cannot be reversed. If you leave something alone, it will eventually break down. In a house, everything will get covered in dust. A moving part will wear and break. Radioactive particles will continue to convert into non-radioactive masses.

   So, whether one believes in creationism or the big bang theory, everything started in chaos, order was imposed, and everything keeps trying to make its way back to chaos. We can clean the dishes but they'll get dirty again (even if we don't use them, dust will settle).

  Next time you look into your house and say "didn't I just clean this up the other day?" just tell yourself -- "Oh yes, entropy".