Meditating, and Not

I just noticed that I can elect to pay attention to my breathing, or ignore it, but one or the other keeps happening. Changing which one I focus on changes the way I think. This is interesting.

A Mathematical Model for Human Intelligence

Curiosity and Intelligence

People have been trying to figure out what intelligence is, and how it differs from person to person, for centuries. Much has been written on the subject, and some of this work has helped people. Unfortunately, much harm has been done as well. Consider, for example, the harm that has been done by those who have had such work tainted by racism, sexism, or some other form of “us and them” thinking. This model is an attempt to eliminate such extraneous factors, and focus on the essence of intelligence. It is necessary to start, therefore, with a clean slate (to the extent possible), and then try to figure out how intelligence works, which must begin with an analysis of what it is.

If two people have the same age — five years old, say — and a battery of tests have been thrown at them to see how much they know (the amount of knowledge at that age), on a wide variety of subjects, person A (represented by the blue curve) may be found to know more, at that age, than person B (represented by the red curve). At that age, one could argue that person A is smarter than person B. Young ages are found on the left side of the graph above, and the two people get older, over their lifespans, as the curves move toward the right side of the graph.

What causes person A to know more than person B, at that age? There can be numerous factors in play, but few will be determined by any conscious choices these two people made over their first five years of life. Person B, for example, might have been affected by toxic substances in utero, while person A had no such disadvantage. On the other hand, person A might simply have been encouraged by his or her parents to learn things, while person B suffered from parental neglect. At age five, schools are not yet likely to have had as much of an impact as other factors.

An important part of this model is the recognition that people change over time. Our circumstances change. Illnesses may come and go. Families move. Wars happen. Suppose that, during the next year, person B is lucky enough to get to enroll in a high-quality school, some distance from the area where these two people live. Person B, simply because he or she is human, does possess curiosity, and curiosity is the key to this model. Despite person B‘s slow start with learning, being in an environment where learning is encouraged works. This person begins to acquire knowledge at a faster rate. On the graph, this is represented by the red curve’s slope increasing. This person is now gaining knowledge at a much faster rate than before.

In the meantime, what is happening with person A? There could be many reasons why the slope of the blue curve decreases, and this decrease simply indicates that knowledge, for this person, is now being gained at a slower rate than before. It is tempting to leap to the assumption that person A is now going to a “bad” school, with teachers who, at best, encourage rote memorization, rather than actual understanding of anything. Could this explain the change in slope? Yes, it could, but so could many other factors. It is undeniable that teachers have an influence on learning, but teacher quality (however it is determined, which is no easy task) is only one factor among many. Encouraging the “blame the teacher” game is not the goal of this model; there are already plenty of others doing that.

Perhaps person A became ill, suffered a high fever, and sustained brain damage as a result. Perhaps he or she is suddenly orphaned, therefore losing a previous, positive influence. There are many other possible factors which could explain this child’s sudden decrease of slope of the blue “learning curve” shown above; our species has shown a talent for inventing horrible things to do to, well, our species. Among the worst of the nightmare scenarios is that, while person B is learning things, at a distant school, the area where person A still lives is plunged into civil war, and/or a genocide-attempt is launched against the ethnic group which person A belongs to, as the result of nothing more than an accident of birth, and the bigotry of others. Later in life, on the graph above, the two curves intersect; beyond that point, person B knows more than person A, despite person B‘s slow start.  To give credit, or blame, to either of these people for this reversal would clearly be, at best, a severely incomplete approach.

At some point, of course, some people take the initiative to begin learning things on their own, becoming autodidacts, with high-slope learning curves. In other words, some people assume personal responsibility for their own learning. Most people do not. Few would be willing to pass such judgment on a child who is five or six years old, but what about a college student? What about a high school senior? What about children who have just turned thirteen years old? For that matter, what about someone my age, which is, as of this writing, 48? It seems that, the older a person is, the more likely we are to apply this “personal responsibility for learning” idea. Especially with adults, the human tendency to apply this idea to individuals may have beneficial results. That does not, however, guarantee that this idea is actually correct.

I must stop analyzing the graph above for now, because the best person for me to examine, at this point, in detail, is not on the graph above. He is, however the person I know better than anyone else: myself. I’ve been me now for over 48 years, and have been “doing math problems for fun” (as my blog’s header-cartoon puts it) for as long as I can remember. This is unusual, but, if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are inescapable and severe limits on the degree to which I can make a valid claim that I deserve credit for any of this. I did not select my parents, nor did I ask either of them to give me stacks of books about mathematics, as well as the mathematical sciences. They simply noticed that, when still young, I was curious about certain things, and provided me with resources I could use to start learning, early, at a rapid rate . . . and then I made this a habit, for, to me, learning is fun, if (and only if) the learning is in a field I find interesting. I had absolutely nothing to do with creating this situation. My parents had the money to buy those math books; not all children are as fortunate in this respect. Later still, I had the opportunity to attend an excellent high school, with an award-winning teacher of both chemistry and physics. To put it bluntly, I lucked out. As Sam Harris, the neuroscientist, has written, “You cannot make your own luck.”

At no point in my life have I managed to learn how to create my own luck, although I have certainly tried, so I have now reached the point where I must admit that, in this respect, Sam Harris is correct. For example, I am in college, again, working on a second master’s degree, but this would not be the case without many key factors simply falling into place. I didn’t create the Internet, and my coursework is being done on-line. I did not choose to be born in a nation with federal student loan programs, and such student loans are paying my tuition. I did not create the university I am attending, nor did I place professors there whose knowledge exceeds my own, regarding many things, thus creating a situation where I can learn from them. I did not choose to have Asperger’s Syndrome, especially not in a form which has given me many advantages, given that my “special interests” lie in mathematics and the mathematical sciences, which are the primary subjects I have taught, throughout my career as a high school teacher. The fact that I wish to be honest compels me to admit that I cannot take credit for any of this — not even the fact that I wish to be honest. I simply observed that lies create bad situations, especially when they are discovered, and so I began to try to avoid the negative consequences of lying, by breaking myself of that unhelpful habit. 

The best we can do, in my opinion, is try to figure out what is really going on in various situations, and discern which factors help people learn at a faster rate, then try to increase the number of people influenced by these helpful factors, rather than harmful ones. To return to the graph above, we will improve the quality of life, for everyone, if we can figure out ways to increase the slope of people’s learning-curves. That slope could be called the learning coefficient, and it is simply the degree to which a person’s knowledge is changing over time, at any given point along that person’s learning-curve. This learning coefficient can change for anyone, at any age, for numerous reasons, a few of which were already described above. Learning coefficients therefore vary from person to person, and also within each person, at different times in an individual’s lifetime. This frequently-heard term “lifelong learning” translates, on such graphs, to keeping learning coefficients high throughout our lives. The blue and red curves on the graph above change slope only early in life, but such changes can, of course, occur at other ages, as well.

It is helpful to understand what factors can affect learning coefficients. Such factors include people’s families, health, schools and teachers, curiosity, opportunities (or lack thereof), wealth and income, government laws and policies, war and/or peace, and, of course, luck, often in the form of accidents of birth. Genetic factors, also, will be placed on this list by many people. I am not comfortable with such DNA-based arguments, and am not including them on this list, for that reason, but I am also willing to admit that this may be an error on my part. This is, of course, a partial list; anyone reading this is welcome to suggest other possible factors, as comments on this post. 

Information, and Misinformation, About Ebola

ebola

Much is now being written about ebola, for obvious reasons. I previously addressed the subject, on this blog, before the news became flooded with ebola-stories (my post was made in late July), and I did so mathematically (because that’s the way I am), right here: https://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/a-graph-of-infections-and-deaths-during-the-first-four-months-of-the-2014-ebola-outbreak/.

While I am pleased that ebola is now getting more attention in the media, I am not at all pleased about the continuing spread of this epidemic — and am also utterly horrified by the misinformation being disseminated, by many writers, on the subject. Some of what is now being written makes sense, but much of it does not. Here are four examples of logical, and well-written, information on this timely subject:

1. http://www.vox.com/2014/10/10/6953637/ebola-out-break-lesson-outbreaks-public-health/in/5712456

2. http://www.vox.com/2014/10/10/6954071/the-nightmare-ebola-scenario-that-keeps-scientists-up-at-night

3. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-31/ebola-timeline-deadliest-outbreak/5639060

4. http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/09/opinion/osofsky-ebola-wildlife/index.html?hpt=wo_r1

By contrast, the three articles which follow are, well, not helpful at all. They either are hysterical nonsense, or are helping spread hysterical nonsense. Neither of these things benefit anyone.

A. http://www.liberianobserver.com/security/ebola-aids-manufactured-western-pharmaceuticals-us-dod

B. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/993247-ebola-zombies-article-says-3rd-person-rose-from-the-dead-still-false/ (only “likely false,” according to the opening sentence)

C. http://www.examiner.com/article/liberia-ebola-zombies-supposedly-rise-from-the-dead

I enjoy zombie movies as much as anyone, but let’s be clear on this:  people who have died from ebola do not rise from the dead! Also, no, the ebola viruses were not created deliberately for genocidal purposes, or any other purpose. Conspiracy theories, on any subject, are all false, for one simple reason: large-scale conspiracies require many human beings to keep real information (as opposed to misinformation) secret, for long periods of time, and that simply doesn’t happen. As an old saying puts it, “three men can keep a secret — if two of them are dead.”

There is an out-of-control ebola epidemic raging in several African nations, and a real risk exists of widespread outbreaks forming on other continents, since cases already exist in both North America and Europe. However, there is also a second problem:  we are already in the middle of a worldwide ebola panic. This second problem will not help with the first problem — at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

What will help? Rational, clear thinking — as well as deliberate, well-considered, intelligent, rapid, and well-funded action. The unfortunate truth is that no such action happened much earlier, but that error cannot be unmade, for time travel into the past is physically impossible. What is possible is for intelligent action to be taken now.

What will not help? Hysteria, panic, superstition, ignorance, greed, the “blame game,” and, especially, old-fashioned human stupidity.

How does one separate the “wheat from the chaff” — or, in this case, the real information from the misinformation? I know of only a few ways to do this: think about what you read, and think, then rethink, about what you write (and then post on the Internet) — and, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, well . . . just shut up. Please.

These phrases, and questions, are likely to confuse people with Asperger’s. Unless confusing us is your goal (and why would you want to do that?), please consider alternate wordings.

confusion

Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.

First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.

We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving communication with non-Aspies. You can see this in fiction, to get used to the way we think, simply by watching (or reading) Star Trek stories which feature Vulcans, or the android named Data. The difficulties those characters have, when trying to communicate with the humans they encounter, are very much like what happens when Aspies and non-Aspies attempt communication. Why is this the case? The answer is simple:  Star Trek was written that way.

Here are some specific questions, and phrases, which many Aspies find particularly baffling. In each case, I will attempt to explain why this is so.

“Who do you think you are?” — Ask an Aspie this question, and you’re likely to simply be given his or her name, in response. Apparently, this offends some people, but please don’t ask me why, for I don’t understand it myself. If a person were to ask me this question, my first guess would be that the questioner simply forgot my name, and needs a reminder. The meaning of volume, voice tone, and body language are mysteries to us. Sometimes we can figure out these mysteries, but it doesn’t happen automatically — we have to reason our way through it, and that takes time, especially for nuances of communication which are based on emotions.

“What do you think you’re doing?” — My likely response to this question would be an honest one:  “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.” However, that’s an answer from an Aspie in his fifth decade of trying to understand other people, so I’ve had a lot of practice. An Aspie teenager, in school, might simply say, “I’m walking to class,” “I’m taking notes,” or something like that, and then get in trouble for “backtalk,” as it is called — when the student was simply answering the question, without intending any disrespect whatsoever. Whatever answer this confusing question gets, from one of us, that answer will be both literal, and honest. It is not in our nature to lie, but it is definitely in our nature to think, listen, speak, read, and write literally, and logically.

“Do that again!” / “Say that again!” — If we have done or said something which you don’t like, and you actually don’t want to witness a rerun, why would you demand one? We think, speak, and interpret what we hear in terms of the actual words which are spoken. There’s nothing wrong with thinking literally, and, frankly, it puzzles us why so many of you think in other ways, so much of the time. If you ask for, or demand, a repeat performance of something you didn’t like, from one of us, you’re quite likely to get one — and then you’ll get angrier, we’ll get even more confused, and absolutely nothing of value will have been accomplished. If, on the other hand, you refrain from using “x” to mean “not x” (since it doesn’t), and simply tell us exactly what you mean, communication will become much easier, for all concerned.

“Don’t get technical with me!” — As far as I can tell, this means that the speaker wants us to refrain from choosing our words with precision, but I could be wrong, for this is the most baffling item on this list, so far. Clarity of language is desirable, for it facilitates communication, and sometimes, technical terms are needed for this purpose. I don’t know what to suggest as a substitute for this phrase, since I don’t understand it, but I can assure you that using it, with an Aspie, is a complete waste of your time.

“What’s wrong with you?” — This is another baffling question. If asked very loudly, the most likely answers Aspies will give are “I have a headache,” or perhaps “Sudden-onset tinnitus,” with the cause, in each case, being simple: from our point of view, the questioner is trying to deafen us, by yelling things which make no sense (at any volume). Do you like being shouted at, from close range? No? Well then, this is one way that we aren’t so different from non-Aspies, for we don’t like it either. Also:  it’s quite likely that we don’t see anything wrong with us at all, for, in this situation, we are not the ones shouting nonsense-questions, so you might even get this response:  “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?” In such a situation, that isn’t backtalk — it’s a perfectly legitimate question, and we are not responsible for any emotion-laden, irrational response the non-Aspie questioner might display.

“I need this done yesterday!” — Many of us can explain, in detail, why time travel into the past is not permitted by the laws of physics, as they are currently understood. Those who request, or demand, reverse-time-travel, from an Aspie, should not be surprised to hear such an explanation. Ask us to flap our arms and fly, and the response will likely be similar.

I could give more examples, but I think the point has been made. We aren’t all alike, so the examples of hypothetical responses I gave, above, will vary from one Aspie to another. What isn’t likely to vary, though, is the confusion each of us experiences when things are said to us which make no sense, if interpreted literally. That’s the key to communicating with us:  when we hear something, we automatically use logic, and rational thought, to attempt to understand the literal meaning of what has been said to us. For many of us, that is the only meaning we can understand.

In my case (and probably in the cases of at least some other Aspies), this goes a little further: rational, literal, and logical interpretations of language are the only ones I want to understand. This is a self-protection mechanism, for the idea of losing even part of my ability to think clearly, and rationally, is extremely frightening to me. To pour a lot of effort into trying to think in non-Aspie ways, I fear, could damage my mind — if, that is, I was successful in the attempt. I don’t want to risk turning into a person who considers “x” and “not x” to be interchangeable, for one doesn’t equal negative one. To change, in this way, would effectively kill the person I am. It wouldn’t stop my heart from beating, of course, but some things are even worse than physical death. If such a change ever happened, I would look the same, and would have the same legal name, but I would no longer be RobertLovesPi. It makes perfect sense for me to be absolutely unwilling to risk something so dangerous.

In addition to the central importance of the fact that we think in literal terms, while others often don’t, Aspies have some other difficulties (or the rest of the world does, depending on your point of view). I attempted to describe these difficulties, which involve coping with the emotionalism and irrationality of numerous other people, in the examples of confusing phrases and questions given above. Emotionalism and irrationality are, to us, severe impediments to understanding anything, and we live our lives in a state of near-constant bombardment from both, since Aspies are outnumbered by non-Aspies by a huge margin. On this planet, to borrow a book title from Robert Heinlein, I live my life as a “stranger in a strange land.” I know that many other Aspies see life in a similar way, for that idea is embedded in the name of the largest online community created by and for Aspies, as well as others on the autism spectrum: www.wrongplanet.net. If you are curious about how other Aspies view the things I have described above, or if you are, yourself, an Aspie in need of an temporary escape from social interaction with non-Aspies, you can find a great many of us at that website. (Also, if you want to find me there, just search for me, using the name of this blog — my not-at-all-secret identity, all over the Internet.)

A Quote from Voltaire, on Absurdities and Atrocities

Voltaire-lisant

Examples abound. Here are two:

Absurdity #1:  Pure human races exist.

A resulting atrocity:  the Holocaust (~20 million people, including ~6 million Jews, killed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s).

Absurdity #2:  Acts which are both suicidal and homicidal can be wonderful things, and can earn a person an eternal reward in paradise after death.

A resulting atrocity:  the destruction of the World Trade Center, and attacks on other targets, on September 11, 2001, which killed over three thousand people, including the hijackers themselves.

Please note that this list is far from complete. A complete list would fill several very large books. Beware of absurdities in your thinking, for they can actually be fatal.

On Twenty-Minuteism, and Young-Earth Creationism

Image

On Twenty-Minuteism, and Young-Earth Creationism

There exists a belief that everything — the entire universe — was created exactly twenty minutes ago. What’s more, it is completely impossible to prove that this belief is incorrect.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume, temporarily, that this belief is true. You might then object that you’ve been sitting at your computer for over an hour, and remember events that happened yesterday, and have memories of your childhood, years ago. Are these objections a problem? Absolutely not! All I have to do, in order to nullify these objections, is explain that, when the universe was created twenty minutes ago, each of us was carefully created with a lifetime of false memories of an existence we believe we remember, but which is actually completely unreal — except for the last twenty minutes, of course.

Of course, this belief — while irrefutable — is also completely ridiculous. Could it be true? Yes, but there’s no reason to accept it as valid. Why? That’s simple: lack of evidence. It makes no sense to accept any proposition when no real evidence exists to support it.

Now, please compare Twenty-Minuteism, an extremely rare belief system, to Young-Earth Creationism, a set of beliefs firmly held by millions of people. These two points of view are basically the same, differing only in the amount of time involved. Young-Earth Creationists hold the view that everything was created fewer than ten thousand years ago, and most have a particular fondness for a period of time of approximately six thousand years, based on certain passages from in the Old Testament.

The objections to Young-Earth Creationism are numerous, but its adherents have an answer for all of them. Take, for example, the existence of ancient fossils. It’s easy to claim that the earth was created with intact fossils underground, and then explain why this was done, in one of several ways. One such method is to claim that the creator of the universe placed these fossils underground, deliberately, as a test of our faith. Another explanation invokes an evil, supernatural being, and then blames this entity for placing these fossils underground, in order to deceive us, and lead us astray. My favorite version, though, is one I actually heard, many years ago, from a card-carrying, professional Creationist. He focused, in his work, on the fossils of large dinosaurs, and even had a dinosaur-silhouette on his slick, professional-looking business card, which he was proud to show me. As he explained it, dinosaurs were alive until the Great Flood described in the Book of Genesis drowned them all — and all that water mixed with soil to make vast amounts of mud. Since dinosaurs were large, heavy animals, he explained, their dead bodies sank further down into this mud, which later became rock — and that explains why dinosaur fossils are found further down than, say, fossilized mice, birds, or people. For someone so incredibly dense (in one sense of the word), this man had very little understanding of density — for it is density (not mass, nor volume, nor weight) which governs whether objects float or sink, in any fluid, as well as how far down they sink (if they sink at all), and he said nothing whatsoever about dinosaur density. I will give this man credit for two things: he was certainly memorable, as well as entertaining.

Another objection to Young-Earth Creationism is based on radioactive dating of rocks, but here’s how Creationists deal with that: they sometimes claim that radioactive-dating doesn’t actually work as scientists explain it, and sometimes even claim that scientists conspire to hide this “truth” from the public — and, of course, these Creationists also throw in just enough scientific-sounding jargon to fool a lot of gullible people. There is another way to “explain away” the radioactive-dating objection to Young-Earth Creationism, of course: just claim that radioisotope-ratios in rocks were created that way, by either a good or evil supernatural being, as a test of faith, or an act of deception — take your pick. This is, of course, the same chicanery usually used when dismissing fossils as evidence that their claims are wrong.

Astronomy provides yet another mountain of evidence to refute Young-Earth Creationism. A prime example of this is the nearest large galaxy, M31, known also as the Andromeda Galaxy — the most distant object which can be seen without a telescope. Scientists have used a variety of methods to calculate the distance to M31, and the current best-estimate of this distance is ~2.5 million light years. Since a light year is defined as the distance light travels in one year, this means we see Andromeda as it existed 2.5 million years ago. How can this be reconciled with the belief that the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago? Why, that’s simple — all you have to do is claim that the light we now see when we look at Andromeda didn’t actually originate there, but was created, at the same time as the rest of the universe, in such a way as to make it appear that this light has been in transit between galaxies. Question this assertion, and you’ll be introduced, once more, to the supernatural beings who are said to be testing us, or trying to deceive us.

The fact is that (except for the heavy-dinosaurs-sinking-further-down silliness described above) no one can disprove any of this nonsense. There is no evidence that supernatural beings have, in fact, not placed fossils underground, nor carefully arranged tricky isotope-ratios in rocks, nor created light in space, nearby, to make it appear that other galaxies existed millions, or even billions, of years ago. However, there is also a complete lack of evidence to support any of these extraordinary claims — just as there is no evidence for, or against, the equally-absurd, but less popular, beliefs of the Twenty-Minuteists. These two belief systems are not only equally absurd, but also equally valid, for zero, like all numbers, is equal to itself.

I have no intention of abandoning my skeptical, scientific approach to understanding as much as I can about reality, as it actually exists. However, if I do lose my mind, some time in the future, and abandon scientific skepticism, I still won’t join forces with the Young-Earth Creationists. After all, if one is going to embrace, and adopt, a irrational way of thinking, why choose one with which millions of people already agree? I much prefer to be different from other people, especially people in large groups, and have always been this way. It’s a core part of my personality.

I have no desire to be “normal,” and, where I live (in the Southern part of the United States), Young-Earth Creationism is (sadly) quite normal, in the sense that a great many people agree with it, despite the total lack of empirical evidence to support it. If I were to become a Twenty-Minuteist, by contrast, I would, at least, get to continue being different from nearly everyone else, rather than being just another normal person, lost in the crowd. To me, that’s at least worth something — something that Young-Earth Creationism simply cannot offer.