30 May 2015

I'm a Researchin' Fool; or, Admissions of a Luddite

I have a lot of Luddite tendencies. That being said, my work requires that I use technology to get things done.

This week, I was in Court in Philippi, Barbour County, WV. To get to Philippi, I go through Harrison County to Quiet Dell, and then cut East on Route 20 and 57.   That takes me up the 15 miles of Elk Creek.   

As I was driving, I idly wondered how big the drainage area is of Elk Creek.  Considering what I knew about the area, I made a rough guesstimate of about 100 mi.² .   I stuck it in the back of my mind to look it up.

This morning, I found the answer. It is 86.9 mi.² at Quiet Dell.  Well, a 15 percent error in a guesstimate ain’t bad.

It took me two minutes and 40 seconds to find that information. 

“Elk Creek WV drainage area" on Google was all it took. I found a book page from the United States Geological Survey. I considered that highly reliable.  It's not subject to much in the the way of typos, because it was a copy of an original page from the USGS.

I researched it.

I’m so proud.

Well, not really. 

In fact, I asked a specific question of a web browser, Google. It took me right to the information I wanted.  

There is some place in Our Towne where that information is available.  It may even be somewhere on my bookshelves.  I know how to look for it there, but I guarantee you, it would take me longer than two minutes and 40 seconds to find it.

Where am I going with this?

If you have a GPS unit, you have power for it, and can “see” three satellites, you will know right where you are anywhere on Earth.   If you “tell” the GPS unit where you want to go, it will direct you there. There is even a sport called “Geocaching” which involves going into remote places with GPS coordinates and finding hiding places of miscellaneous stuff.  

On the other hand, if you have a magnetic compass, have been paying a little attention to the  area you are in, you can find your way of a jam with a map. Or even without one. You don’t have to have a GPS, batteries, or satellites.  It takes longer.

As we become ever more dependent on technology, we make ourselves subject to an increased risk when technology fails. Sailors find their position all the time with GPS.  But they also know how to use a sextant and printed tables.  The only way those can fail is if you drop them over the side.

Asking a specific question of a web browser is easy.  All that you need is a computer, power, and some way to link to the Internet.   Then, you can get quick and reasonably accurate answers.   But if you lack any of those things, and don’t know a lower-technology way to find information, you are out of luck.

Americans are the ultimate end-user.   Most of us have no clue how information technology really works.   If all we have is Google, Google had better work.

Kids don’t know that 9 x 9 = 81 without a calculator.  The knowledge base is our society is pitiful.  We are sliding into two new classes: The few who know how technology works and the many who merely use it. 

It’s a lot easier merely to use it – as long as it works.

The actual search process requires that you think about questions. Here are just some of them:

  • What resources are available which may lead you to the information?
  • Of the available resources, what is likely to have information accurate enough to be useful? For that matter, how accurate does it NEED to be?
  • Where are the resources? How hard is it to access them?
  • Might your ultimate question lead to an entirely different however relevant line of inquiry?
  • What might you do with all the resulting information?

We still only dimly understand the human mind. We do know that we are not just static containers of data.  

Cogito ergo sum.  “I think, therefore I am.”

There was a 1950's science fiction story (beats me who wrote it, and I refuse to look it up on Google) about the supposed-science of mnemonics. People with fantastic memories were turned loose to gather all the information they could and then think about correlations. In the story, one mnemonics student saved a space ship by making some odd association.

If we know how to apply our minds, we become more independent. If we don’t, we are truly at the mercy of mere things.

Hey, let’s have a contest!  I will send a book of my choice from The Eternal Bookshelf®  to the person who reports that that they found an answer the fastest to the following question:

“What is the drainage area of the Tygart Valley River, which is located in north-central West Virginia?”

The Contest closes on 5 June 2015.

PS - Dragon NaturallySpeaking knew how to spell “mnemonics.”  Yeah, I know how to type.  Dragon is faster.

16 May 2015

The Mayor of Philadelphia is an Idiot

I have a dream!  No, it’s not that big a dream, but it’s sincere.

I picture a politician who goes to the scene of a disaster and says:

"Hey, I don’t know shit about how trains wreck.  We’ll have to wait until the fire, EMS, police and rescue services get done, then let the investigators look into it.  Now, let’s get out of here, we’re just a distraction while the people who know what they are doing work."

Look, it’s a DREAM, ok?  

There are so many “experts” who don’t know anything about fire, EMS, police work, rescue services, emergency management, investigating anything or anything but aggrandizing themselves.  Oh, they are good at THAT.  Ridiculous, ill-informed, illogical, but good.

The mayor of Philadelphia, the “lawmakers” who have reacted, and every [insert epithet] who have commented about the Philadelphia Amtrac wreck are full of hot and destructive air.  They have reasoned that the train was going over 100 miles an hour accordingly to a black box that they have never seen and that they wouldn’t have a clue how to interpret, and that therefore, the engineer was criminally negligent.

Well, q.e.d.

Now, he may have been.  Beats me, I wasn’t there.  Also, I don’t know shit about how trains wreck.  Personally, I think I’ll wait to find what the NTSB opinion is.  THEY know how trains wreck.

It turns out that the investigators are looking at reports that something - a bullet?  a rock? - hit the train and also other trains.  Here again, I wasn’t there.  If I saw the windshield, I STILL couldn’t tell what if anything struck the train.  Still, it may be unlikely that something struck the train but didn't  have anything to do with the wreck.  But I'm not sure.

And if something did strike the train, and the train did speed up, what caused it?  Beats me.  Never driven a train.

And I sincerely doubt that anyone public official weighing in  has driven a train.  They would like to posture that they know all and see all.  They want everyone to know that they CARE and that they will SO SOMETHING so it never ... blah, blah, blah.

In the meantime, the incident commander has to put up with a useless person at their scene.

Most reports say that the engineer has been cooperative - 
BUT he brought a LAWYER with him.  Doesn’t that tend to indicate he’s guilty of something.  

Nah - the mayor had already indicted him based on just a tiny bit of information.  If an investigation is trying to find out what happened, their may not be an necessity to bring a lawyer.  But this was not even a “rush to judgment.”  This was a half-ass-wild-guess by someone who didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.

We will never know for sure what caused the train wreck.  God knows.  He is unlikely to tell us.  Even if we know "beyond a reasonable doubt" what happened, that's still short of being absolutely sure.

The First Amendment says that we have a right to know.  Reason tells us to wait to draw conclusions when you know the facts.  

Facts are such inconvenient things.  But that doesn't stop politicians.

08 May 2015

Let's Draw Mohammad for Fun; or, Are You Happy to See Me or Is That an AK in Your Pocket?

I vastly prefer at least hinting as to solutions in these Dispatches.  But those darned gray areas . . . 

I caught a discussion on CNN the other night.  One person was defending the expression of free speech and religious freedom from the Garland, Texas, “Draw Mohammad Contest.”  The other was saying that it was equivalent to yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater - and that that sort of thing either is either already beyond constitutional protection or should be banned anyway.

First a bit of mild legal theory: It’s not anything like yelling “Fire.”  That is representing a false fact to cause people naturally do something dangerous.  The speech causes the result.

Having a “Draw Mohammad Contest” is designed to gig Muslims who believe that it matters when someone draws Mohammad.  (By the way, the Jews, Christians, etc., have the “make no graven image” thing, but apparently don’t take it seriously.  Including me.)

Drawing Mohammad is speech and an intentional insult to Mohammad.  It leads some people to make a CHOICE to do something dangerous.  It’s also rather stupid to bother doing and not just a bit childish.  It’s religious speech, even though the Great Commission to the Apostles (Matthew 28) doesn’t even slightly mention pissing off Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Wiccans, Druids or the odd Jehovah’s Witness.  Mind you, you may piss them off anyway, but that's not the whole point of doing it.

What would Jesus do?  Beats me.  I bet he wouldn’t waste his time drawing the Prophet.

On the other hand, we KNOW that people get peeved when their god is mocked, insulted, etc.  The Christian world was all aghast that a museum in NYC featured “blasphemous art” about Jesus. Mind you, I don’t think Christians got all fatwa about it, but they some did their best to pull funding from the museum.  At least certain Muslims actually believe that it is justified to reach for a gun and shoot the place up.  Sadly, people act on what they believe, be it factual or ridiculous.  

So here we have a perfect storm of cultural clash - One group uses absolutely legal means to piss off another group, which answers to a “higher law” and reaches for an AK to kill anybody around.  

So what will we have?  We can pander to people with un-funny but constitutionally protected speech.  Or we can pander to those who act what most people would say was nuts and shoot the place up. If the former, we quite properly shoot the shooters' asses.  If the latter, we let them control our speech.  That's a big deal in America. There is of course a more polite way to put it, but I prefer blunt.  There are important interests here, centering on controlling others’ behavior.

It’s easy to say respect others.  Who?  Each side sees this as a matter of respect?

It’s gonna get worse before it gets better, assuming for the sake of argument that it will get better.