Thursday, August 4, 2016

Don't Touch My Map!

Newton's laws of motion are wrong. They are not an accurate representation of reality. Bear with me here, these are bold claims, I know. I say that somewhat provocatively. How can I possibly claim the fundamental laws of classical mechanics taught at every school in the world for the last three centuries are wrong? Because they are. And talking about how and why they're "wrong" is actually a very telling look into how humans map reality.

Newton's laws, first published in Principia Mathematica in 1687, were so profoundly impactful, European nobles often had their portraits painted holding copies of Principia Mathematica and the Holy Bible. Newton's laws became the cornerstone for understanding motion and the forces applied to them for over 200 years. All that changed in 1905, when a smart-ass punk who worked at a Patent Office published a paper that talked about space and time, and how the motion of objects near the speed of light behaved. This upstart named Einstein came up with a mathematical formula that yielded much more accurate results than Newton's laws of motion. Special relativity was born, but was this the end of Newtonian physics?

We still teach Newton's laws of motion to this day in every high school and college in the world. Why? Three reasons. First, Newton's laws work just fine on objects that are not close to the speed of light, but are inaccurate for much faster objects. Objects so fast, they are generally not seen on Earth. Relativity yields accurate results on objects that are moving slowly and near the speed of light. Relativity is a more accurate map of reality than Newtonian physics. Secondly, Newton's laws are much simpler, much easier to solve for and easier to apply. Relativity is complicated and difficult to solve for, even though it's more accurate. Third, Newton's laws are good enough for most things. Let's face it, in our day to day lives we don't deal with objects that move near the speed of light. So for an investigator trying to reconstruct a fatal car accident scene, solving for F=MA is way easier to do and gives adequate results rather than trying to solve for ds^2 = -dX^2/0 + dX^2/1 - c^2 in order to account for 4D space and time dilation. Sure, the latter formula will yield a result that's 0.000001% more accurate, but F=MA works just fine.

Thus Newton's laws are not an accurate representation of reality, but they're a really damn good approximation!

So how does this apply to epistemology and how humans form and hold beliefs? Beliefs do not have to accurate, they just have to be good enough, like Newton's laws of motion. Newton's laws of motion are an excellent approximation of reality, as are most beliefs. Beliefs are a survival mechanism. Humans cling bitterly, and often violently to their beliefs because challenging them is, literally, trying to take away a survival tool from the brain. Challenging someone's belief in something usually triggers a fight or flight response. Especially if that belief is held dearly and sincerely regarded as integral to their identity.

When humans gather a set of beliefs, this set forms cohesively to become their map of reality. This map is how they navigate, make sense of and survive the world. What's really startling is this map often filters information and updates itself mostly without our awareness. We have seen it a million times. People will often invent wildly absurd beliefs in order to keep their existing beliefs intact. If something conflicts with their map, they invent new beliefs to buttress old ones. If someone believes, for example, "Obama hates America" their map will often ignore or reject information to the contrary, and add information which confirms that map onto the map itself. This is called confirmation bias. This is when a belief is consistently and repeatedly self-confirmed so many times, and for so long it's literally unfathomable to the brain that there is any chance it's incorrect.

And the proof is in the pudding. I have heard Mormons say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Mormonism is true." I have heard Muslims say, "I know with every fiber of my being Islam is true." I have heard Republicans say, "I know with every ounce of my being Obama hates America." I have heard Democrats say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Republicans are destroying America." And you know what? I agree with all of these people. They truly and honestly deeply believe those things, because they have gone through an unchecked process of confirmation bias for so long, they are literally incapable of believing anything different. These are people who literally think Satan is more moral than Obama, or that Republicans are no different than ISIS. "No matter what you say I will never change my mind, and whatever you do, don't you dare ever, ever touch my map! "

Here's the dangerous part. Maps of reality are useful. They help people make sense of and understand the world. But convincing someone their map is incorrect is often met with vitriol. To quote Mark Twain, "it is far easier to fool a man than to convince him that he's been fooled." "Don't touch my map! I KNOW my map is right, and everyone else's is wrong!" There's a certain arrogance in claiming "I KNOW my map is right." It's basically saying, "Not only do I know better than everyone else, but there is no chance I'm suffering from any kind of bias or delusion" which, ironically, is a conclusion that is deeply biased and deluded. But this is how insidious bias is. Bias is so strong, it can convince us that we are not suffering from any kind of bias. Delusion is such a treacherous trap, we can easily become blind to our own delusion.

I think a much more humble, responsible and sensible approach is always asking yourself things like "is my map correct? What kind of biases am I suffering from? What processes am I putting in place to vet information? Do I ever consider the possibility that I'm wrong? Do I only accept information that agrees with my beliefs? Do I dismiss conflicting information to my beliefs out of hand?" These are the kinds of questions which help keep people anchored in reality instead of running off, care-free straight into ConfirmationBiasVille. America, and the world will be much better off when people are freely able to say, "I know that I'm biased" and lay down the arrogant, and incorrect position of, "I know that I'm right."

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Defending My Decision to Not Own Guns

We have all met people who are afraid of flying. It can be scary, sure. But flying is safe. Really safe. Anyone who has given even a cursory glance at the statistics knows this. There are routinely more automobile deaths in South Carolina in a given year than there are airplane related deaths in the entire world. Yet, there are people who will still drive all the way across the country because flying is scary, even knowing these statistics. This is called the attentional fallacy. It's paying attention to emotionally-dominant stimuli rather than the actual facts and figures.

Recently, I was chided a bit by a friend for not owning a handgun with "what are you going to do if someone breaks down the door to your house and tries to harm your family?" The correct answer is, "that's probably not going to happen, but I guess the same thing I'm going to do if the wings to the airplane I'm flying in fall off. I guess I'm going to die." So why not own a gun? Because owning that gun carries a risk. Not owning a gun also carries a risk.

Per the FBI, the state I live in has a murder rate of .06 people per 10,000. The County I live in has a homicide rate of .03 per 10,000, half my state average. That means in any given year, my family and I have roughly a .0003% chance of being murdered. Not only is murder rare where I live, but almost 100% of them are drug-related. In addition, 84% of murders in my state occur between friends, family, acquaintances or lovers. That means the chance of some stranger kicking my door in to murder and rape my family is about 0.000252%. Could it happen? Yeah, it could, but it simply doesn't. Furthermore, even if someone broke into my house to rape and murder my family there's no guarantee owning a gun will prevent this attack.

So yes. There's some off-the-wall chance someone will kick in my door and rape and murder my family, but the chances are so low, it's not even on my risk radar.

Now to the risk of keeping a gun in my house. Children often accidentally shoot and kill themselves with their parents guns. Far more often than the phantom rape and murder home invasion scenario. According to the CDC, child death by gunfire is twenty times more likely in homes that own guns. There are some things you can do to mitigate that risk, like keeping your guns locked in a safe. Nonetheless, a gun sitting in a home is six times more likely to harm a member of that home than it is to harm an intruder. That means, strictly by the numbers, owning a firearm for home protection actually puts your family at more risk than not owning them.

That being said, I have no problem with people who own guns. I support the 2nd amendment and people's rights to own firearms. All that being stated, not everyone is fit to be a gun owner. I certainly am not fit to be a gun owner. I am forgetful and absent-minded. There have been many times when, I did own a gun, I would leave it lying around. I lose my keys like every other day because I'm not very good at routine things like putting my keys in the right place, or putting a gun in a safe. So when I had children who were capable of climbing and getting into my closet, knowing my tendencies for forgetfulness, and knowing the statistics on gun violence, I made the proper decision to get rid of my firearms.

That was the right call for me and my family. That doesn’t mean it's the right call for everyone. I have friends who are very responsible gun owners, much more so than I ever was. It could be that their decision to own gun is correct.  However, most people are not aware of the risks of gun ownership or just dismiss them completely because owning a gun "feels right" and home invasion is "scary." But again, attentional fallacy. Emotionally dominant stimuli often times "feels" right, but is in fact, wrong.

Ben Franklin once said, "the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math." On the same token, I think gun ownership in the US is a tax for people who do not understand statistics. And unfortunately they pay that tax with the blood of their children. So, that risk may be acceptable for some, but it's not for me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Trump is a 2, 7 off-suit.

It's May 2016. I, like a lot of other Americans, are still in disbelief that Trump has carried the Republican nomination during this election cycle. It's true that most analysts said early on "Trump would never win the Republican nomination." That's because every single poll from the beginning of the election cycle had Trump faring the worst against either Sanders or Clinton in a general election forecast. Therefore, every political analyst reasoned there was no chance that voters would nominate Trump knowing he would crash and burn against the Democrat nominee in November. Yet they voted for him anyway, virtually guaranteeing a Democrat victory for 2016.

Neither Republicans or Democrats are immune to math and statistical probability. The numbers look bad for Trump. Really bad. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. His numbers have been atrocious since the beginning, and that did not affect Republican voters. It's clear that GOP supporters are sick and tired of the status quo, so in response they placed their chips on a losing bet.

Now I'm sure everyone reading has a passing familiarity with poker. Even if you don't you surely can understand that some hands are better than others. That does not guarantee the stronger hand will win. I'm sure we've all seen the World Poker Tour where a guy goes all in with only a 10% chance of winning, and then somehow gets lucky and pulls the one card he needs on the river. It happens. But it was still a stupid bet.

Trump is a stupid bet.

This is not new information. Cruz supporters, Rubio supporters, Bush supporters, Carson supporters, etc. have all begged and pleaded with the electorate not to vote for a guy who is going to get clobbered in the general election. GOP analysts, from the start, have pleaded with Republican voters, telling them "voting for Trump is guaranteeing a Democrat victory." The national Republican party has fought tooth and nail against Trump from the very start because they were well aware of just how abysmal his chances against Clinton or Sanders were.

This information has not bothered Trump supporters one bit. They've gone all-in with a 2, 7 off-suit. The odds are really bad. But, to hell with the odds! Trump all the way! They proudly proclaim that everyone underestimated Trump. But that's not so. No one underestimated Trump. What the political analysts did was way overestimate the competency and rationality of the Republican voter base. Sure they said "Trump would not win the GOP nomination" but what they were really saying is, "Republicans are smarter than to vote for a losing bet." They were wrong.

Republicans have voted to play 2, 7 off-suit and are loud and proud they have done so. Congratulations. In a sense you're right. No one thought you guys would actually vote to do something so unbelievably ill-advised. Yet you did. And now the polls are forecasting possibly the worst loss in a presidential election since 1988.

Now, all that being said, could Trump still win? Absolutely. A lot can happen between now and November, like an indictment, for example. There's a lot that could sway the election between now and then. But, that does not change the fact that Republicans voters made a bet they only had a 12.4% chance of winning. And now they have to hope and pray they hit that one river card, which has an 87% chance of not happening, and Clinton will be laughing all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania avenue.

Note: At the time of writing this blog post, every single election forecast has Clinton obliterating Trump in the general election. The most favorable poll to Trump (The Rothenberg & Gonzales poll) still has Trump behind Clinton by a whopping 60 electoral votes. There is a fair chance Trump could lose to Clinton by 256 electoral votes or more. My personal prediction is that Clinton will win by no less than 80 electoral votes and may win by as much as 300.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Iron Skillets are the Reason You Exist

I had an interesting discussion with a chemist today. They talked about how at one point had the entire periodic table of elements memorized, could recognize molecules in peoples names, and could rattle off most of the information on the periodic table without too much trouble. So I thought I would take a shot at stumping them.

"Do you know where all of the elements on the periodic table came from?" I said. They looked at me somewhat puzzled. "What do you mean where did they come from?" I could see the confusion on their face. Maybe this is the first time they have ever thought about this, maybe they just assumed that these things just always were. But, that's not the case.

I also had a feeling the person, even though trained in chemistry, may not know the answer to this. The reason is because origin of the elements on the periodic table is not rooted in chemistry, rather astrophysics.

The most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen, by far! Hydrogen makes up about 75% of the mass of the entire universe. The second most abundant element is helium, which makes up almost all of the remaining 25%. That means that elements 1 and 2 on the period table make up 99% of the entire mass of the universe. Elements 3-118 make up 1% of the mass. Without getting into any technical detail, it's evident that hydrogen and helium were the only 2 elements present at the time of the Big Bang (or formed within 10 minutes or so of the Big Bang through a nucleosynthesis process, to be pedantic). In laymen's terms, at the time of the Big Bang there was a LOT of really hot, intense energy, and within minutes the energy was converted into matter (specifically hydrogen and helium). For more information on how energy converts to matter and matter converts to energy, see Einstein's theory of relativity which conclusively demonstrated that energy is matter (E=M).

Great so now we have hydrogen and helium. Where did every other element come from? Take a guess... from hydrogen and helium. That's right, everything from carbon to gold to oxygen to iron to xenon comes from just hydrogen and helium. But how? How can oxygen become gold, etc?

The short answer is, it can't. Well, not on its own. Helium tends to stay helium and hydrogen tends to stay hydrogen thanks to electromagnetism. So when two differing atoms approach one another they don't fuse together, they repel sort of like the repelling ends of a magnet (well exactly like that, actually). What is required for atoms of two different type to overcome electromagnetic repulsion in order to fuse together and create a new element? A lot of heat and pressure. A lot.

Once you have enough pressure to force these atoms close enough past the point of electromagnetic repulsion, together they start trading protons and becoming new elements. Two hydrogen atoms (atomic number 1) form together to create helium (atomic number 2). A helium atom (2) combines with another hydrogen atom to form lithium (3). So on and so forth.

So where does this fusion happen? Mainly in 2 places; stars and supernovae. The core of a star is a nuclear reactor on a grand scale. The energy and heat given off from stars is the result of nuclear fusion happening in its core. It's hot outside today. Thanks nuclear fusion!

Atoms are being smashed together constantly inside of a star to create newer, heavier elements with more protons. Helium smashes together to become lithium, lithium mashes up to become beryllium, then boron, then carbon, then nitrogen, then oxygen, etc. Each time two atoms fuse, an obscene amount of energy gets released (literally an atomic bomb).

This process repeats, and repeats and repeats. So every element on the periodic table from hydrogen to iron forms inside the core of a star. And with every fusion the star continues burning like a champ. But when the fusion process gets around to iron, something lethal to the star happens. Iron atoms don't play nice. Iron does not fuse with other elements like its predecessors. When iron starts forming inside the star, it's a death sentence. The star stops losing the energy gained from fusion, because iron has caused fusion to slow down, and eventually stop.

Star Killer
Thanks a lot, iron. Forget the "Red Matter" from Star Trek lore. You want to destroy a star? Your iron skillet did that.

But you should be thankful to your iron skillet, without it you probably wouldn't be here. After fusion stops in a star, the star collapses onto itself. Stars that are the right size detonate into a supernova. Just about all other forces of nature stand in awe of the fury and power of a supernova. Whereas the fusion inside the core of star, literally cannot produce enough energy to fuse anything to iron, a supernova has so much energy it creates every element on the periodic table from number 27 to 118... all at once.

Mother Nature's way demonstrating your insignificance.
To give you some sense of just how much energy is released in a supernova, when a star goes supernova, it temporarily outshines every other star in its galaxy combined. That's right, take the light from a hundred billion stars and for a brief moment this dying star makes them all look dim. While it's doing this, it throws all 118 elements of the periodic table out into space. Including carbon and oxygen from which you are made.

The carbon atoms in your body used to be inside the core of a star, and thanks to iron threw that carbon out into space. And now, here you are. Probably cooking eggs on your iron skillet without even taking a moment to thank it for blowing up that star for you.

Enjoy your omelette.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Lowry Gambit

I’m a chess player. A few years ago I planned to attend a chess tournament in Charlotte, NC.  I announced to my chess club that I would be driving and invited others to ride along.  To my joy, two experts committing to coming with me. As a class player, I was very much looking forward to picking their minds for four hours in order to get some great advice on improving as a class player to ascend to the sacred ground of expert. This time spent would be invaluable.

Before I left, this weird, old guy whom I did not particularly care for mentioned he would also like to ride with us to Charlotte. This was disaster. This old guy, Paul Lowry, was a non-stop talker. He is the kind of guy who dominated a conversation and never let anyone get a word in.

Even worse, he was weird. He told the strangest stories and he had a lot of them. In fact, his weird stories came non-stop.  The trip, which looked so promising at first, fell into the hands of disaster with the inclusion of Paul.

The four of us were making our way up to Charlotte and my annoyance was already brimming from the outset. The guy would not shut up. On our way back, I found myself snickering at a few of his corny jokes.

The next time this quarterly tournament came up in Charlotte, Paul invited himself along again. This time it was just the two of us. I was not particularly looking forward to this trip.  By the end of our four-hour round trip I was convinced that Paul was an amazing guy who had some fantastic stories to tell.

Paul was a retired firefighter who relayed some fantastic stories about some beautiful young women who loved firefighters. He told me about his background in history and philosophy. Paul told some stories to me about moonlighting for the mafia when he was much younger and stronger. 

Paul was a historian and loved chess history. He could recite any number of significant chess tournaments in history and the impact they had on opening theory.  Paul had memorized amazing stories about chess players and their failures and triumphs on the board. Paul had regular correspondence with GM Yasser Seirwan who referred to Paul as the finest chess historian he had ever met.

Paul was also a writer and had poetry published. He was also a real ham. He used to tell people all the time, “You know Fischer would never play me. He always avoided me for years.” To which people would inevitably respond, “really?” Paul would always cooly respond, “Yep. Herb Fischer, that scoundrel would never play me.”  He was a jovial guy who loved people and would even offer people draws when he had a winning position out of kindness. Paul cared nothing about his rating. He cared only about brightening people’s lives.

Paul had a very extensive collection of really obscure chess books, and a lot of them signed by the original authors. His vast collection of out-of-print books were easily worth thousands of dollars.

He relayed a story to me once where he sat down with an opponent and told his opponent, whom he had never met, “I’m in a bad mood today. And if I lose, one of us is going to get hurt, and it won’t be me.”  Later in the game his opponent was up two pawns and offered Paul a draw. Paul said, “why on Earth are you offering me a draw, you’re clearly winning!” The guy responded, “I just don’t want any trouble from you man.” Paul laughed and said, “I was only joking with you! I resign.”

As mentioned before Paul was a real talkative guy, and everyone knew it. He had a reputation as a talker, but once you got past his idiosyncrasies he really was awesome to be around. Once at a very large tournament that I personally organized, Paul’s cell phone went off right in the middle of the round. What was hilarious was that his ringtone was “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers. So imagine a completely silent room and then all of a sudden, “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man!” Paul quietly stood up and walked out the room. One of the tournament directors had to calm him down because he was so upset that he had offended everyone by allowing his cell phone to go off. The truth was that as soon as he left the room everyone erupted in laughter because they understood the irony of Paul having a ringtone entitled “Ramblin’ Man.”

It was now I who was picking up the phone to call Paul to invite him along with me to tournaments. I had developed a real liking for Paul and the two of us entered a team tournament together last year and finished in second place out of eight teams.

Paul donated his entire collection of books to his local chess club when he tragically passed away on June 17, 2012 after a bout with cancer. I visited him twice in hospice where we relived some of our favorite memories together. A month later, I delivered a tear-filled eulogy honoring Paul at the 2012 Columbia Open Chess Tournament.

Paul taught me that life is worth nothing without people. It’s easy to get caught up in getting better at chess, improving your rating but it all means nothing without making someone’s life just a little bit better because you were a part of it. I miss Paul dearly, and I think about every time I move a chess piece. So every time I sit down at a board, Paul’s memory and influence remains and I’m astounded at how close I came to making up some excuse not to take him to that first tournament.  Had I done that, I would have saved a little aggravation but missed out on having a marvelous friend. Chess players know that our most important lessons come with each loss, and I certainly learned a whole lot when I lost Paul. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Life is Strange

"Everyone's the hero in their own story," is a phrase I heard recently and have been reflecting on, and it's true. In everyone's mind, they're not the bad guy. Everyone is trying to do the right and honorable thing. Often times our intentions create a massive blind spot for us to properly assess our actions and behavior. As humans, we are excellent prosecutors for other people's actions, and excellent defense attorneys for our own.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ten Questions for Atheists

1. How did you become an atheist?
A long story. The short answer is a long, difficult investigation into the claims of the Bible. I found they came up lacking. I'm not the type of person who can ignore evidence in order to maintain what I would like to believe. I found a lot of evidence to the contrary of the claims of the Bible, thus I could no longer believe even if I wanted to.

2. What happens when we die?

I guess we go in the ground. But honestly, I'm not sure. Personally I'm hoping the simulation hypothesis is correct and we get to wake up from the Matrix, so to speak, when we die and learn from our experiences in a true reality. A nice thought, but there's no good reason to accept that as a true proposition either. So for lack of better evidence, it would appear nothing happens when we die other than we cease to be.

3. What if You're Wrong and There is a Heaven?

Certainly wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong, but I guess it would technically be the last!

4. Without God where do you get morality from?

I was born with a sense of empathy that was encouraged by my parents. The truth is, as a non-believer I kill and rape as much as I want to. Which is exactly zero.  I don't want to hurt people, in fact the opposite. I want to help people. I want to make people's lives better. This feeling has not changed at all from the time I was a believer to now.

5. If there is no God are we free to do what we want?


6. If there is no God how does your life have any meaning?

Well, if there is no god then that means my existence is probably due to a random arrangement of DNA. That means I am fortunate to be alive. It means that our model of the universe and life itself is wondrous, improbable, amazing, interesting, curious, beautiful, inspiring, tragic, awful, awesome, difficult, and breath-taking all at the same time and I am privileged to be a part of it. It means that if our minds are a result of an emergent forces in the universe that we are quite literally the universe contemplating itself for a short time. To me, that is unimaginably beautiful and poetic. It makes me feel alive and more closely connected to everyone and everything than I ever have before. That fills me with a sense of awe and humility and makes this life truly special to be a part of.

7. Where did the universe come from?

The present data indicates it came from the singularity.

8. What about miracles and people who claim they have experiences with God, Jesus, or angels?

I treat them the same way as I treat people who claim they had brushes with aliens, spirit animals, past lives, white energy, spirit chakras, or anything else of the like. People attribute a lot of difficult to understand neurological processes to supernatural forces with different flavors. All of these people believe what they have claimed to experience. I accept their sincerity, I do not accept their assessment of their experience is accurate.

9. What is your view of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris?
I do not care for Dawkins or Hitchens. I like Sam Harris.

10. If there is no God why does every society have a religion?

It's quite clear that religion most certainly provided a survival benefit in the past. Nothing unites a group of people quite like religion does. It's no surprise then that religion has persisted and thrived throughout humanity. However this is an interesting question that I personally think is less damning of atheism and more damning of theism. There are more than 5,000 religions alive and well on Earth today, with countless many more relegated to the annals of history. Each religion is supremely confident theirs is the right one and base their certainty on things like religious experiences (see question 8). I'm skeptical of god claims because from my perspective if there is a god, then 4,999 religions are totally false. At the very least religion is an extremely deceptive force which is easy to get wrong. That's why I'm better off by honestly not wagering on any rather than choosing the one most familiar to me and my culture that I was born into. But don't worry, I'm sure the religion your parents taught you is totally the right one. Of all the places you could have been born you lucked up and were born in the right religion AND the right denomination of that religion. Lucky you!