Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell's book is based on the idea that most decisions can and are made unconsciously and correctly almost instantly. Don't misunderstand, the reason why this can and does happen is largely due to training and certain universals. If a person spends their entire life working in art history, there is a good chance they might recognize a forgery instinctively before they are able to communicate why they consciously believe a work is a forgery. This is due to an abundance of training. Likewise, it is suggested that all humans have certain facial expressions in common and some people can instinctively recognize these expressions and thus learn information about people without ever actually having to meet them or interact with them (such as just seeing a silent video of a person). While the information is very interesting in this book, I'm also concerned about it. It seems like people could hear about these theories and decide that instincts will serve them better than thinking through various processes (like how Republicans appeal to gut reactions to promote their agenda despite evidence to contradict their claims). Additionally, there seems to be an awful lot of examples of where these instincts go horribly, horribly wrong, to the point where I feel the examples used are rather hit or miss, in that you can look at any situation and find evidence to support this theory and find evidence of where this theory has gone wrong through "inappropriate" use of instinct. (And since this is my gut feeling about the situation I must be 100% correct.) There is also a section in the text wherein he discusses how the mind can be manipulated, for example how making margarine the same color as butter allows the mind to think it taste the same as butter. But later on he gives the example of how people’s biases made them think that women do not play classical music as well as men. But based on his earlier example, isn’t it then possible the people’s minds did actually make them hear women playing worse than men because their minds have been conditioned and not simply due to some silly bias? He seemed to have missed his own concept.

The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell

This example isn't in the book but might as well be: by the late 80s, glam metal bands were the rage. At the same time, a small music scene almost unknown outside of Seattle called Grunge existed. By the early 90s, with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (the band's frontman is mentioned in a quotation, once) exploding onto the world scene, Glam Rock was passé and a dozen Grunge bands flooded the airwaves. Soon the most popular band of the world was Pearl Jam, and high-end fashion shows featured the (once) cheap, dirty--but warm--flannels, that were the mainstay of grunge fashion. According to Gladwell's book, Grunge hit the tipping point. The idea is that a number of very small factors (i.e. situational context) or individuals (e.g. those who know their stuff (Mavens) or know tons of people (Connectors)) create massive impact that shape events in the street, politics, culture, etc. The book discusses in easy to read language, saving citations for the end as to not scare off readers, numerous examples of the tipping point in action and goes step-by-step and explaining the various types of people and situations that are necessary to cause a tipping point. Here's the problem: the book gives the impression that there might actually be mathematically or perhaps culturally devised ways to make something such as an economic or social trend tip, while if such a thing were possible you would probably have an awful lot of people and companies doing just that. Additionally, a problem with the text is that it further gives the impression that if something tips in remains tipped. This is honestly absolutely ludicrous; trends come and go, empires rise and fall etc. With only one weak example as an exception, there are no trends mentioned that tipped and then eventually fell by the wayside into obscurity (or at least admitted to in the book), and the example given is of a company that undermined itself. Perhaps that is why Grunge is not discussed--it is a trend that tipped and was un-tipped or overshadowed and thus would not fit within the book's model. The work is very interesting and informative, but it is likewise misleading, filled with cherry picked examples that never become un-tipped, and thus in the end it is somewhat disappointing, despite the fact that numerous pages are dedicated to the tale of the incredible and intellectual Mark Alpert—sadly that is not me, but just another namesake pushing me farther down of Google search result list. 

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb - Nathan Fetter-Vorm

If I was a high school who had to write a report on the creation of the atomic bomb, the people involved, the events surrounded it, and the repercussions,  I would be very happy to have this book at the quick. It does a good job presenting the information in relatively basic terms in fair and broad strokes. I did feel that this isn't so much a comic as, exactly as advertised, a summary backed by illustrations, but I would rather have a comic. 

Nowhere Men

Imagine a world where scientists are revered like rock stars. Scientists Ellis, Grimshaw, Dade, and Strange are the equivalent of the Beatles, not only in their popularity with the public but also in their genius and---ultimately---their inability to remain together. Interweaving faux advertisements, books, and magazine articles with the comic pages, writer Eric Stephenson shows us how thoroughly this alternative Fab Four have affected the cultural mindset. The story is compelling, but I wasn't quite sure where it was going. While I certainly appreciate not having all my plotlines telegraphed, I had the nagging feeling that this could be one of those books that has a great set up but crashes and burns in the third act. Stephenson focuses so heavily on the personalities of the main characters that he leaves little room to show any actual science---I'm not entirely sure what they've actually accomplished much less why they rate the "super genius" label. Similarly, although artist Nate Bellegarde does some fine character work, his settings and backgrounds are sparse at best. Where are all the gadgets and, you know, science stuff? How is this world any different from our own? Is it only the choice of pop icon?

Nevertheless, Nowhere Men 1: Fates Worse Than Death is certainly worth a read, and I'm happy to see it alongside the other amazing work Image Comics is pumping out in its (gasp!) third decade. I'll certainly seek out book two.

Nowhere Men by Eric Stephenson (w), Nate Bellgarde (a), Jordie Bellaire (c)

RASL: The Drift, The Fire of St. George, Romance at the Speed of Light, & The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla - Jeff Smith

I was a big fan of Bone and thought I'd give this more adult comic a try. The oversized formate and strong b/w art actually makes this seem like a coloring book until you read it. The story is about a scientist (as unlikely as he first seems), Rob, who is using his invention to cross into alternate universes to, well, rob them. While we know little of this character, we quickly learn that he is in way over his head. This first volume has many more questions than answers, but you'll want to learn more ASAP. Smith is a great storyteller and wonderful artists. It is good to see him back.  The second book, The Fire of St. George, give us more detail to the history of our hero scientist as well as my hero, the scientist Nikola Tesla, and the technology that allows Rob to cross dimensions (if that IS what is happening). Still a strong book, but I getting sick of ever gorgeous woman who meets Rob desperately wanting to instantly sleep with him. 

The creepy cover of the 3rd volume takes us to some new characters, or rather further presents some past one, but since about half this volume is notes on the creation of the comic (which can be great for some), we don't get a lot of new info. The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla concludes our story, which I didn't expect as I thought this was an ongoing series (or at least for a while longer). I admit I am somewhat disappointed with the ending; while most of the threads of this story are tied up the key word is most and I felt it would have been better to extend the ending and more fully delve into the various ramifications of all that had been brought up. Still, it has been an enjoyable ride and it is definitely worth reading. Again, this volume has some behind the scenes insights which is always cool. I would suggest you try to read RASL in one sitting as it is easier to keep track of various elements.

 

Burning Question

Burning Question Click to enlarge.

The phenomenon of climate change is well established within the scientific community. Unfortunately, the science is not what you see in the popular media. At one extreme, you have people denying that climate change is real. At the other extreme, you have movies like The Day After Tomorrow showing widespread planetary destruction.

You wouldn't trust a politician, a pundit, a corporation, or a Hollywood director with your health issues; you'd ask someone trained in the study of human anatomy, like a doctor.  Why do you listen to these people when it comes to climate change?

By the way, I use the term "climate change" rather than "global warming" because although the globe is warming, that terminology leads people to think that snow somehow disproves the science. In fact, large snow storms are completely predicted by global warming. Some areas of the globe will get much less water (drought), but that water has to go somewhere. If it is winter time, that water will show up has harsher snowstorms.

Intelligent Design

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Intelligent Design  is a crock. It's a way to sneak Creationism into public schools and public discourse.

Proponents of Intelligent Design (or "I.D." as it is often known) use "sciency" sounding terminology and sleight-of-hand obfuscation to confuse people who are not up to speed on evolution. And they have been pretty successful---not because they have proved their position (they can't), but because they've tricked enough people into wanting to "play fair."

IDers want Intelligent Design presented alongside evolution as an alternate version of how life developed. As if one could simply pick the truth one prefers. But ID fails on the most basic level: it does not follow the Scientific Method (observe, hypothesize, predict, test, conclude). Any position that doesn't follow the scientific method is de facto not science.

Evolution is based on 150 years of evidence, observation, and testing. Its predictions and conclusions have been shown to be true over and over again.

ID is based on fantasy and fast talk.

The two are not equivalent. And putting them side by side is an insult to your intelligence. And that IS by design.

Male anatomy is a perfect example of evolution. No rational engineer (or Creator) would design an organism with its delicate reproductive organs in a vulnerable spot. And yet, for some reason, men's balls (testes) are fairly exposed.

That reason is because evolution can only build on what came before. Human beings evolved not through some divine plan, but through minute changes over millions of generations.

When our early ancestors were cold-blooded reptilians, it made sense to have testes on the inside of the body, because sperm develops best at about 93° Fahrenheit. But as our lineage became more warm-blooded (98.6° F), the testes moved outside the body to stay cooler. Thus, evolution improvised, using the infrastructure that was available at the time. It was a trade off: balls were more exposed, but the scrotum provided better temperature regulation.

It's a bad design, because it wasn't designed.

R.I.P. Space Shuttle program 1972-2011

Yes, Futurama is back on the air, but today is a sad one for science fans. The final Space Shuttle mission goes off today. While NASA isn't Star Trek's Federation and real space exploration isn't like the movies, all things need to start somewhere and the fact that this nation has turned its back on intellectual and adventurous pursuits is extremely disappointing. Yes, the amount of "real world" applications verses the cost is hard to stomach at times, but it's not that those funds are going to feed poor children, repair roads, or improve education. It's simply that the people who gain the most from this great nation, the millionaires and the 400 billionaires (the most of any country) that live here and eat up our, and the world's, resources don't want to have to settle for a smaller yacht by paying slightly higher tax rates. The hypocritical Newt (what a fitting name) Gingrich claims that if businesses had control of NASA we'd have all sorts of space travel and bases on the moon. So let me get this straight: businesses which, by definition, are interested in maximizing profits, would have made bases on the moon at the private expense of hundreds of millions (I'm being generous) in order to have structures on that barren, economically useless, mass? The idiocy that has enveloped the nation that went to the moon in 1969 and started the shuttle program in 1972, not because it was easy, but because it was hard and a great human advancement, is embodied by the ending of this space program. While NASA still exists, go to the site and look around at all the amazing things it does. You won't regret it. Which is more than history will say about ending the Space Shuttle program.

Celebrate Earth Day

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Celebrate Earth Day the old fashion way: do nothing.

Global climate change is here. It’s not about preventing it anymore. We’ve pumped so much CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that even if we were to stop burning all fossil fuels today (which we won’t), we’d still be looking at a half century worth of the consequences.

The question now is NOT “how do we stop climate change”; the question now is “how are we going to deal with the effects of climate change?”

Because even if you live in an area relatively safe from flooding, drought, or hurricanes, it’s highly likely that that you count on the food, resources, or taxes supplied by areas that are affected.

Natural disasters are not isolated events; they have economic and humanitarian ramifications far beyond the local region. Poor areas of the globe are likely screwed; but the capacity of even the wealthiest nations will be strained in our HOT new world.

It's time to start thinking about how we will cope.

Comic originally presented in a slightly different format April 2008.

Cold Snap

cold-snapClick to enlarge. It's cold in the winter. Some people think that cold weather disproves global warming. That's because they don't understand the difference between weather and climate.

Weather measures the local environmental conditions, typically on the scale of hours or days. Climate measures the average environmental conditions over larger scales of time, typically on the scale of decades or even centuries. The weather conditions of any single day (or even a month) really don't matter much. And in fact, you would expect to have some days that were significantly hotter or significantly colder than others. That's why we talk about average conditions: so that one freezing day (or two or ten) doesn't distort the big picture.

It may be cold today, but that doesn't change the fact that 2010 tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record.


Comic originally posted: Dec. 5, 2009

The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell

I had heard of this book some time ago. I was at a friend's party and about half the people there had met through me. Marshall said I was what the book calls a Connector, someone who provides relationships between people (it's a compliment although I think I'm closer to a Maven, someone who provides information and aid to others). The theory is that a few seemingly insignificant events or people cause massive changes (tipping points) in the course of events and Gladwell provides various examples (the reduction of crime in NYC and the rise of syphilis in Baltimore) of the principle in action--which he equates as "epidemic" spreads. It is very interesting and I wish the audiobook I had wasn't abridged as I am not 100% convinced by the argument, and maybe more examples would convince me that little things can make as big an impact as having a lot of money or being lucky. See Cej's review here.

Panicology

Briscoe, Simon and Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Panicology: Two Statisticians Explain What's Worth Worrying About (and What's Not) in the 21st Century. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009. Tackling a panoply of modern day fears, Panicology offers a thoughtful treatise on the differential between what we are afraid of and how likely it is to affect us.

Authors Briscoe and Aldersey-Williams cover a wide range of scary subjects including population explosion, loss of languages, the dangers of cell phones, the risk of disease, whether your children are safe, and alien invasion. For each, they examine the amount of concern we have (with particular focus on the role played by the media and politicians), the amount of actual risk, and (to a much lesser degree) how much we can control the risk.

Although they have a background in statistics, the authors avoid using charts and graphs to illustrate their points, instead relying on a more approachable prose to lay out their case. While I would have appreciated seeing the numbers, I can imagine their publisher warning them against it as it might turn off readers.

As a anthology, your interest in any particular subject may vary. But the overall message of Panicology is a good one: you aren't always getting the full story; and some of the things you do every day are much more hazardous than the things that you are told to be scared of. That's not to say that no problem is real, but a healthy level of skepticism is required.

My main quibble with the book is that I felt a few topics weren't covered enough in depth---or at all (shark attacks and peak oil come to mind as things that should have made the list).

At a minimum, Panicology is worth picking up even if (especially if) you only read about those things that are worrying you.

Many thanks to Mark for the loan. You can see his review here.

The Physics of Star Trek

Krauss, Lawrence. The Physics of Star Trek. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. When I was younger, I watched Star Trek for the action and adventure. As I grew older, I was interested in the social commentary. I always liked the characters. But I never watched Star Trek for its grasp of science; and the more I learned, the more I tried to ignore Star Trek’s version of physical reality so that I could keep enjoying the show.

I enjoy well-written science-for-laypeople books, but I’ve largely avoided “hook” books like this one as I figured they were likely poorly researched. But when I learned that The Physics of Star Trek was written by physicist Lawrence Krauss, I decided to take the plunge. Krauss is great at taking grand concepts and making them clear. (And if you have an hour, here’s a video in which he explains the entire universe---yes, it’s an hour long, but it’s also the entire universe!)

Unfortunately, Krauss is also a huge Star Trek geek. I mentioned that I really like the series, but not to the extent that I can quote chapter and verse of each episode; nor do I remember the 5th lieutenant’s name on that ship that the Enterprise encountered in that one episode---you know the one that I mean. Krauss can, and it’s a bit much for my tastes.

I enjoyed The Physics, but I can’t really bring myself to recommend it. It’s a bit too heavy on the geek, and while the science is good, I’m not convinced that it is the best place to start for someone who knows nothing about physics. The book is organized around Star Trek concepts (like faster than light travel and transporters) rather than scientific building blocks; and while that may make it accessible to Trekies, I can't help wondering if it winds up leaving them a bit lost in space.

So to summarize some of Krauss’s main points: (most of) the stuff you see in Star Trek is largely impossible (yes, even in the future), and the stuff that isn’t impossible would take so much energy and effort that it might as well be impossible.

Which is basically why I watch Star Trek for the characters and the social commentary.

Cold Snap

cold-snapClick to enlarge. It snowed today in Houston, an admittedly rare event in this part of the world. In addition to icy water, such an episode releases a flurry of right wingers and people who got no better than Cs in science telling me how "this proves Al Gore wrong."

Setting aside the misdirected animosity, I really don't understand this kind of ignorance. Even if you really don't know the difference between weather and climate, how can you not recognize the gaping hole in your logic?

To wit: if one day of severely cold weather disproves global warming, why don't the hundreds of really hot days (like we get most of the year in Houston) re-prove it? Is it stupidity or hypocrisy?


For the record:

Weather measures the local environmental conditions, typically on the scale of hours or days. Climate measures the average conditions over larger scales of time, typically on the scale of decades or even centuries. The weather conditions of a any single day (or even a month) really don't matter much. And in fact, one would expect that there would be days significantly hotter or significantly colder than others. That's why we talk about average conditions: so that no outlier data skews the overall picture of what is happening.

And when we look at the average temperature of the earth over the long term (not a single snow day, folks), we see an alarming warming pattern. Even a rise of a few degrees can have significant (and potentially disastrous) ramifications on plant and animal populations, local weather patterns, and water levels in low-lying areas. We ignore it at our peril.

Panicology: Two Statisticians Explain What’s Worth Worrying About (and What’s Not) in the 21st Century – Simon Briscoe & Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Sick of newscasts where reporters try to freak you out (“Is America losing control of its borders and allowing al-Qaeda terrorists with dirty bombs access to your children’s cell phones? We distort, you comply.”)? These two authors briefly discus a cornucopia of issues and break them down scientifically into levels people are panicking over them, how dangerous they truly are, and the degree people could actually—if oddly—benefit from the situation. Are they correct and the news wrong? I can’t be 100% sure, but their arguments, for example, on how the decline in savings is leading to catastrophic results and that impending doom by rogue asteroids is almost meaningless are interesting. Panicology

The Motion Paradox

Mazur, Joseph. The Motion Paradox: The 2,500-Year-Old Puzzle Behind All the Mysteries of Time and Space. New York: Dutton, 2007. From Zeno (ca. 450 BCE) to today’s String Theory, Mazur paints a fascinating look at the history of scientific development as it seeks to grapple with fundamental questions of time and space. Although written for the layman, Motion includes enough math and science that it’s probably easier to follow if you have some background in the basics. But even if you don’t, Motion is worth reading for its historical connections (e.g., would Newton have been as productive if not for the Black Plague?).

So what is the motion paradox? Simply put, there is a fundamental problem behind our understanding: we use time to explain motion (the car is traveling 50 miles per hour); but we use motion to explain time (we know an hour has passed because the clock’s hand has moved). So have we really explained anything?

The problem dates back to Zeno, famous for his paradoxes, who said: in order to get from point A to point B, you must first travel half the distance from A to B; then you must first travel half the distance again, and so on. But if you are always only going halfway, you can never get to B. While many thinkers have dismissed this line of argument as mere semantics, Mazur shows how such paradoxes present genuine difficulties in math and science and lead to difficult questions such as: is a line a series of discrete points, or is it a continuous? Is time a series of discrete moments, or is it a continuous stream? Before you answer, consider another of Zeno’s paradoxes: if an arrow travels through the air, we say that during its flight the arrow is at a specific point at a specific moment; but if that is true, then it must be true that the arrow is “frozen” at a particular spot at a particular moment, which means that it must be “frozen” at each spot at each moment. So how can it be said to be moving?

For everyday events, our calculations work well enough---distance equals rate multiplied by time (d = rt). But for the bigger questions, like resolving the discrepancy between relativity and quantum mechanics (both of which seem to be fundamentally true), our math may not be up to the challenge. Mazur convincingly argues that the reason is that we have yet to explain such “basic” ideas as “time” and “space.”

Dissent of Man

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Drawing Board

Concept Similar to my "I'm Pro-Life" comic, this one is less about the punchline (which is admittedly weak) than it is about pointing out the ridiculous position of my opponent. If you've never had to talk to this guy, consider yourself lucky.

Putting it Together I drew this out on a sheet of tracing paper, mainly to try to make sure I got the layout correct. As it turned out, things worked out pretty well the first time. That allowed me to use a lightbox and do the inking phase without actually putting any pencils on the final sheet. Looking back, I would have preferred to have used a thinner pen (this is a "1"; I should have used a "0.5") as I feel that this thicker line loses some of the slickness of the original pencil line. Similarly, the lettering is a bit thicker than I'd like, but overall it was nice to do some hand lettering that doesn't look too bad.

Originally, the guy in the final panel was much more monkey-like. But I decided that it was sufficient to let his weak-ass position speak for itself.

Even if the punchline is weak, I'm very pleased with the title.

Shrinking the Cat

Hubbell, Sue. Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes. Mariner Books, 2002. In Shrinking the Cat, Hubbell follows the natural history of several species, including the silk worm, corn, the apple, and the cat. Indeed, the book might have been titled Mutating the Moth, except that I suspect that cat books sell better. It’s a fascinating look at how human beings have interacted with nature to produce results that are, usually, more beneficial to ourselves---but perhaps less so to the animal or crop itself; for example, we’ve mutated corn to the point where it cannot reproduce without human intervention. Shrinking also delves into the difficulties that scientists face with understanding the natural world, where our very definitions of “natural” and “species” become increasingly strained as we look closer at actual situations. Hubbell’s premise is that people have been manipulating nature long before the term “gene splicing” had meaning. While I agree that genetic engineering has long been part of the human endeavor, I still contend that there is a significant distinction between choices made at the macro level and those made directly to the DNA. Hubbell doesn’t really dispute this position, and she certainly concludes that both can have long reaching (and often negative) consequences. Despite my minor misgivings, Shrinking is an excellent introduction for the non-scientist and non-historian into the sometimes strange world of human experiments on the natural world.

Why Things Break

Eberhart, Mark E. Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

From humanity’s earliest attempts at rock sharpening to today’s high-powered materials design labs, Why Things Break relates the story of our attempt to discover (or create) the unbreakable material. Eberhart discusses the history of hard things, going to great pains to reveal the scientific process itself---in all its messy detail. A great deal of thought, a great deal of testing, and a little bit of luck have all contributed to our understanding of how substances behave under stress. And while Eberhart may steer a little too far into his own biography at times, if science textbooks spent a little more time discussing the process of discovery---as well as the many colorful personalities involved---science might seem less dry, and people might be less likely to fall for anti-science charlatans. Concerned with the “why” rather than the “how,” Eberhart involves the reader by drawing on some fairly well-known breakdowns, including the sinking Titanic and the exploding Challenger shuttle. In doing so, he exposes some relatively unknown structural flaws, explains the mechanics behind the failures, and examines how such incidents change our perceptions of “unbreakable.” Written for the non-scientist, Why Things Break is quite readable; although if you struggled through high school chemistry some of the material may be a bit tough going. But not to worry, even the scientists don’t completely understand it.