The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

I recently read about how some western nations (including Great Britain and Germany) are teaching elementary school students computer coding and programming as part of their required curriculum. Back in September, Australia made computer coding and programming a required part of the school curriculum from 5th grade on up. These lessons aren’t an occasional project or a one-semester deal; starting from the age of 10, computer programming skills become an integral part of the Australian student’s school-day. In order to make time for this, the Australian schools are cutting back on their geography and history lessons; these topics will no longer be “stand alone” subjects. A new “Humanities and Social Sciences” subject will merge the existing topics of history, geography, economics, business and civics and citizenship into a single learning area from the 5th grade on.

I don’t know all of the details of Australia’s plan, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t like it. I consider myself a science and computer geek, and I’m all in favor of using our education system to prepare today’s children for the world in which they will live (and try to make a living). And that clearly means more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM” as the popular acronym goes). And yet . . . we can’t shortchange the classic mission of preparing our youth to be thinking citizens who can appreciate and defend the noble and yet frail ideal of civilization. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the general drift of the new Australia plan seems to put less emphasis into “humanities and social sciences”, by placing a greater share of school resources into science, tech and computer skills.

In my humble opinion, teaching 10 year olds the ins and outs of do-loops and IF/THEN statements and database queries and object instantiation is not going to guarantee them a place in the modern high-tech world. Sure, some introduction into computing logic at that age is needed; schools need to build the learning foundations that future computer people will need. But really — like an 8th grader should or even could become ready for a job with Apple or Google? Or be able to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:56 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Science ... Technology ...

In one off my past blog entries from way back in 2004, I admitted my interest in cold fusion, along with my hope that there might be something to it. Recall that cold fusion became a big topic of interest for the public back in 1989 when two chemical scientists named Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed to have come up with an electrically powered table-top device that produced more energy output (heat generation) than would be expected from any known chemical reaction. Their device consisted of palladium metal dunked in heavy water, i.e. water which has a lot of deuterium; deuterium is a “heavy” isotope of hydrogen, because its atomic nucleus contains both a proton and neutron, while the regular hydrogen found in plain water has only a proton in its core. Deuterium is a necessary material in the process of nuclear “fusion”, the process which keeps the sun burning and which converts regular nuclear bombs into super-powerful “H-Bombs”. Fleischmann and Pons made a bold and ultimately unsustainable claim: that they had come up with a simple way to exploit nuclear fusion for small-scale power and energy producing applications.

If you have followed the story of science’s attempts over the past 50 years or so to harness the power of fusion in a controlled manner so as to generate heat and electricity (without blowing everything sky-high), you know that it’s a rather sad story. Since the 1960’s there have been various government and internationally funded projects attempting to devise a commercial fusion reactor; but despite all the experiments and test reactors that have been set up, fusion turned out to be a “wild maverick” that could not be tamed by “standard” technological methods. The standard methods either involve creating a super-hot bottle of gas (a “plasma”) held together in mid-air by magnetic fields, or by aiming a whole slew of laser beams at a small pellet of deuterium fuel and trying to create the crushing pressures and temperatures needed to force the neutron reactions that would break the barriers and unleash the reservoir of energy stored in heavy hydrogen’s atomic nucleus.

Why put all the money and effort into developing fusion? Well, if it could be made to work, fusion would be a relatively low-pollution energy source that wouldn’t need much input fuel; the hydrogen in a gallon of seawater would give the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline or around 16 barrels of oil. Since the USA now uses about 7 billion barrels of oil  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:31 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

According to the 15-day moving average of poll results for the GOP presidential nomination found on Real Clear Politics, Donald Trump has been in the lead since July 19. Many pundits at first speculated that he would be another “flavor of the week” phenomenon such as Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were in the 2008 primary season. But OK, we’re now going on 5 months, and the first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire are only a month and a half away. Trump’s RCP average just hit a new high at 34%, and one poll from last week (Monmouth) put him at 41%. An increasing number of political junkies have decided that we’d better take a closer look at what’s going on here and figure out whether something is changing among Republican voters (and possibly among the American population in general). I’m going to get on board with that trend and have a look myself.

Two recent articles by journalist Thomas Edsall make a good start at analyzing the Trump phenomenon from a political science point of view. In the first article, Edsall says that even though Trump’s future as a presidential candidate is uncertain (we don’t know yet if all those people who say they love him will really show up at the polling booths and party caucuses once the primaries begin), “we still need to understand the roots of his current success”. In order to get a start on that, Edsall cites a recent Pew Center research paper showing that “Trump’s backing from voters with a high school degree or less is twice as high as is it is from those with college degrees; the percentage of men lining up behind him is eight points higher than the percentage of women; voters from households making $40,000 or less are 12 points more likely to cast a Trump ballot than those from households making more than $75,000.”

According to Edsall, “Trump appeals to the anger, discontent and sense of entrapment that plague contemporary voters . . . ” As with most, if not all GOP presidential candidates, Trump’s support comes primarily from Euro-Caucasians, i.e. white people; but Trump specializes in discontented, down-on-their-luck whites. “Trump makes white working-class voters, the core of his support, feel safe . . . ” In his second article, Edsall states that “three current trends —  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Food / Drink ...

When I was a kid, I ate a typical suburban 1960’s breakfast — i.e., cereal and milk. What kind of cereal? Oh, whatever I saw advertised on TV. Maybe Frosted Flakes, maybe Crispy Critters, maybe Captain Crunch, maybe Cocoa Puffs. My mother was nice enough to stock the kitchen with a variety of popular cereals, so my brother and I had the luxury every morning of deciding whether it would be Kixx, Trix or Apple Jacks. As we got a bit older (say into the teen years), our tastes matured a bit — we would sometimes forgo the pre-sweetened stuff and go with Special K or Rice Chex or even Shredded Wheat (but actually, we still added our own sugar).

A lot of people gave up on breakfast as they got into college and then into the early adult years, but I never did. At some point, however, maybe in my mid 30’s or so, I gave up on milk and (soggy) processed grain in a bowl, and went over to yogurt, usually mixed with fruit or oatmeal. This wasn’t all that different from my earlier breakfast days (it still combined dairy product and grain), just a bit more cultured and fibered and whole-grained. That would get my day going for many years.

But in late 2000, start of a new century, I was trying to re-boot my career by going through a 4-month all-day computer programming crash course (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program for mid-career professionals), and I decided that I needed to kick my breakfast up a notch. By then I was a committed vegetarian, so pancakes and bacon and sausage patties weren’t going to do it for me. I decided on a fairly unconventional breakfast item — cooked lentils. I have cooked for myself since I got out of college, and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:38 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, December 11, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ... Technology ...

I read up recently on international military news. Once you get past all the crazy, never-ending Middle Eastern stuff, you next get a big dose of bad news from China. You’d think that the main Chinese threat would be its huge army, but no more; times have changed. In the past few years, the Chinese have been designing and building an increasingly sophisticated network of high-tech satellites, drones, stealth planes, subs and missiles, with the intent of keeping the US Navy and any of its cronies (especially Japan) far away from its coastline. Thus leaving China to do as it pleases with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.

Until recently, the US Pacific Fleet, even with its huge sitting-duck aircraft carriers, could cruise the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea feeling relatively safe. The Chinese Navy generally couldn’t find our ships, as it didn’t have the sea-borne tracking and recognizance capacities that we do; and even if it could, it didn’t have enough modern subs and jets and destroyers to put up a credible challenge. That ain’t so today. What’s even worse, the Chinese now have missiles that can be launched by land or sea which are accurate enough (when coupled with a monitoring system of satellites and airborne radar drones and tracking planes) to hit a ship out in the open sea, thousands of miles away. Nuclear warheads are not needed; these missiles and their guidance systems are so good and so accurate that they can hit a carrier deck out in mid-ocean with a heavy conventional explosive warhead.

So, that’s a big headache for the US. And as if that weren’t enough, you can throw in what the North Koreans and Iranians are doing to develop long-range nuclear missiles, which in a few years could reach the US mainland. Yes, we are building anti-missile systems, but we are not sure if they are ready for prime time yet. As for the Chinese anti-ship missiles, the US Navy has  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:57 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

Our brains are obviously very important to all of us, and society is thus making a lot of effort to get to know it better. Human brains do a whole lot of things, but one of the more interesting things that they do is to retain and make available a mental replay of certain thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experiences from the past. I.e., our brains give us our memories. Human memory is a wide-ranging thing. In addition to giving us a “video replay” of sorts for past experiences, it stores facts, skills, emotional impressions and various other things on both a conscious and sub-conscious basis (e.g., we pick up a lot of fears, attractions and various other tendencies without being aware of them, even though they will influence our behavior nonetheless). So, the human memory has been the subject of a lot of research effort on the part of science and psychology.

Since the brain and its interactions with our bodies and our lives is such a complicated subject, our species has found many ways of studying it. On one level, we address our memories from the perspective of familiar conscious impressions and experiences, along with the behaviors that result from them; this is generally the realm of the psychologist. Even before Freud, the notion that our memories are key to determining our current behaviors and our feelings of contentment or discontent with our lives has been a key principle in the practice of psychoanalysis.

Freud expanded the concept of memory with the realization that a lot of our memories lie beneath the surface of conscious awareness, and yet they play a critical role in directing our behavior. Psychology has come a long way since Freud, and today uses better, more scientific methods to record and analyze human behavior patterns relative to our current environments, along with  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:30 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, November 30, 2015
Photo ...

Here’s Mr. Steve, our building super, raking the leaves in the driveway outside my window. Another autumn is fading away, another winter approaches.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:28 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 27, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Politics ...

Back in December of 2006, I posted a blog here entitled “IRAQ: WHAT TO DO“. Basically, I said that the Bush Administration should give up on the idea of a unified Iraq and split the nation into a Shia nation in the west and a Kurdish nation in the north-east, with a rump state in the west (Anbar Province) as a semi-independent Sunni nation. I say semi-independent, because I envisioned this state to be in a loose confederation with the new Kurdistan. In effect, I proposed that the Kurds would share some of their oil revenues with the Sunni state and generally “keep an eye on it” so as to prevent it from falling into terrorist hands (back then, al Qaeda . . . or more accurately, al Qaeda in Iraq . . . which was destined to later become . . . well, more on that in a moment).

But of course, a partition didn’t happen. The dream of a unified Iraq was held onto by Bush and then Obama. Iraqi President al-Maliki, under pressure from Iran, decided that US military presence was no longer needed or welcomed, and Obama was more than happy to oblige him. Starting in late 2007 and ending in 2011, the US gradually withdrew all of its previously extensive military presence in Iraq. Negotiations with Maliki on keeping a residual US force of around 10,000 troops for training and intelligence broke down when the pro-Iranian / anti-US Sadrists in Parliament blocked such an agreement. Maliki politically favored the Shia factions over the Sunnis in a variety of ways, making the central government increasingly unpopular in the western provinces.

And then, al Qadea in Iraq morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State. A dormant form of political cancer suddenly grew and metastasized, as cancers often do. Had Obama pushed back more vigorously about keeping some forces in Iraq in 2011, we probably would have seen it coming much earlier, and President Obama may have avoided  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

Driverless cars are now being developed by a number of high-tech enterprises that are out to make a buck . . . eventually (this is not an easy way to get rich quick). The most famous driverless car venture is probably led by Google, which has set-up a small fleet of prototypes and has actually been trying them out in the real world. Some people think that driverless cars will start being sold and regularly used between 2020 and 2025 (5 to 10 years from now). That’s going to be interesting.

I’ve seen a number of articles (e.g., here and here and here and here and here) about the moral quandaries that the designers of driverless cars will need to face. When you make and sell a regular car controlled by a human, you don’t worry so much about the moment-to-moment decisions being made by the driver (although increasingly, automated systems in the car constantly monitor what the driver is doing, and try to warn the driver when they or someone else near them does something really bad . . . like when they are about to ram someone else’s vehicle while backing up in a parking lot, or when they start making a left while an oncoming truck is getting too close). When you design and sell a driverless car, by contrast, you have to program all of the driving decisions into the vehicle. So, in effect it’s you, the builder of the car, who makes the big decisions (through the computer program that you put into the vehicle to run it).

As such, people such as philosophy professors are pointing out that those who program these cars will need to decide what to do in morally conflicting situations. E.g., say your driverless car is cruising down the road, and it detects that a group of four people have suddenly run out into the road  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Outer Space ... Science ... Technology ...

It looks like the whole “space-plane” idea is not dead, even though the US Space Shuttle program ended in late 2011. The British “Skylon” idea has been generating increased press attention lately (you can see the November bump for it on Google Trends), even though the Skylon idea has been kicked around at least since 2000.

The Skylon spaceplane would be different in many ways than the Shuttle was, although the overall goal is similar (i.e., a rocket that takes off into orbit, drops off a payload in space, and then returns to a landing field so as to be used again). In an important sense, Skylon is even more of a “space-plane” than the Shuttle was; it looks more like a regular airplane than a rocket (somewhat reminiscent of the X-15 “semi-spaceplane” experiment of the early 1960s). By comparison, the Shuttle was just the reverse — mostly a rocket with a plane on its back.

So Skylon’s differences from the Shuttle are significant; one big factor is that Skylon would be a “single-stage-to-orbit” vehicle, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. But these differences might also be seen as an evolution of the overall space-plane concept, and not as a radical shift from the Shuttle’s basic intent. Skylon would be a bit smaller than the Shuttle was, perhaps around half as large. It would be un-manned, and is designed to put a 15,000 kg payload into low earth orbit. The Shuttle, by comparison,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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