Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Faith, Philosophy, and Quantum Physics

David Albert, a Columbia University philosophy professor, wrote a devastating review of the cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss' new book "A Universe From Nothing - Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing" in the latest issue of the NYT Book Review. I have heard Krauss speaking at Princeton University and sympathize with his science politics and atheism, but Albert's critique is hard to ignore.

I googled David Albert and found a very good interview with him, where he lays out the philosophical issues around quantum physics in a wide-ranging and beautiful way. You find it at Columbia's fabulous blog "big think blog".
It just happens that Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a blog for the New York Times on the web on Monday, where he adresses similar philisophical questions. The blog post is called Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One? and is a sharp and in my mind basically fair critique of statements that Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker did on Chris Hayes new MSNBC show “Up w/ Chris Hayes”  on Sunday.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it. 
I don't believe in God. I stopped believing when I was eight years old and began reading about astronomy. I can't see any reason to believe in supernatural phenomena, but I do accept and respect that other people find reasons to believe. There is nothing evil in believing, or not believing. There are good Atheists, Baptists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Wiccas. We may all disagree, and we may fight and challenge each other. There are areas where we have to compromise even our strongest believes if we are to live together. This is hard and this is something that nobody likes to do. If you believe that you are 100 percent right and the other guy is 100 percent wrong, then you might as well ignore him or her. It takes a certain degree of humility to accept your fellow man and woman as they are.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I'm Not So Sure About Heisenberg Anymore...

Debating Heisenberg with my soon-to-be 18 year old son Alex. He claimed that Heisenberg was wrong and that you can measure location and momentum simultaneously. I protested and we debated. After dinner I sent him a Wikipedia link without actually reading it as I couldn't imagine that anybody had messed with the famous theory. Alex did read it and found a link to this article in Scientific American. When I read it and felt like Rick Perry, you know... the Republican presidential candidate who said Oops!

But can this really be true?

Why hasn't this sensational news been on the front page of the New York Times?

I'm not so sure about Heisenberg anymore...

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Queen of Social Media Fights Fetishization

Arianna Huffington has written a very interesting and timely column for Huffington Post where she warns against "fetishization" of social media, where nothing matters besides catching up with the latest tweet, whatever it happens to be.

The title is a bit pompous - "Virality Uber Alles: Whatthe Fetishization of Social Media Is Costing Us All" - but it is a good read that makes you think for a minute of Marshall McLuhan. She is of course not against social media per se, but she cautions against falling in love with the tool, instead of using it to do good:

The media world's fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions. Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage, but you rarely see one discussing what that coverage should actually be about. As Wadah Khanfar, former Director General of Al Jazeera, told our editors when he visited our newsroom last week, "The lack of contextualization and prioritization in the U.S. media makes it harder to know what the most important story is at any given time."
Our media culture is locked in the Perpetual Now, constantly chasing ephemeral scoops that last only seconds and that most often don't matter in the first place, even for the brief moment that they're "exclusive." 


(...)
These days every company is hungry to embrace social media and virality, even if they're not exactly sure what that means, and even if they're not prepared to really deal with it once they've achieved it.
(...)


Or as Sheryl Sandberg put it, "What it means to be social is if you want to talk to me, you have to listen to me as well." A lot of brands want to be social, but they don't want to listen, because much of what they're hearing is quite simply not to their liking, and, just as in relationships in the offline world, engaging with your customers or your readers in a transparent and authentic way is not all sweetness and light. So simply issuing a statement saying you're committed to listening isn't the same thing as listening. And as in any human relationship, there is a dark side to intimacy.

So, the road to social media hell is paved with well-intended hashtags -- as well as disingenuous or inauthentic ones.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

WSJ: Violent computer games is good for your career...

My son Erik, who is a leader of the top-ranked Rutgers' Starcraft team, sent me an article - "When Gaming Is Good for You" - from the Wall Street Journal. My first thought was that he is trying to mollify my concern about those long nights battling Korean and Swedish Starcraft II rstars, but then I read on, and yes, I was somewhat mollified. 
"Videogames can change a person's brain and, as researchers are finding, often that change is for the better. 
A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability." 
My only remaining concern - as long as my son keeps getting As - is that he might develop carpal-tunnel syndrome. There goes the "improved hand-eye corrdination"....

Mitt Romney's Appearance

"Romney Appears to Win Ohio Primary" (New York Times web frontpage on March 7, 2012) - Isn't this the real problem with Romney? It seems as if he always appear to do something, but nobody really knows what he really did or does.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It Depends on What the Meaning of "All" Is

I have subscribed to the New York Times for many years, and these days the print subscription includes "all digital access", but if I want to use the Kindle app to read the paper, I have to pay $19.98 per month in addition to the $46 dollars I already pay. I found that odd, so I sent an email to Customer Support.

Here is the answer:

"Dear Reader,
Thank you for contacting NYTimes.com.
We apologize for the inconvenience, but Home Delivery subscribers do not receive access to the e-reader edition of The New York Times on the Kindle as a benefit of their subscription.
You would need to purchase a separate subscription through Amazon in order to receive the Kindle version of The New York Times.
You can, however, access NYTimes.com as a free benefit of your subscription through the Kindle's web browser.
We hope this helps."
Well, not really. It forces me to choose between paying $19.98 for the Kindle version, which also gives me full online access, or paying more than twice as much for the pleasure of picking up the print product on the driveway. storing it while trying to catch up and eventually packaging it for recycling.

I am leaning towards saving a few trees, and clarifying the meaning of all in "all digital."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Think Twice Before Taking Statins

The trouble with statins is the side effects, which can be considerable and dangerous. I have tried Zocor, Lipitor and Vytorin for moderately elevated cholesterol values (around 240 total), but all gave me numbness in my feet, muscle and joint pain. My doctor switched me from one medication to another, but they all had side effects, why I decided to stop, watch my diet and excersice more. The last time I checked, my total cholesterol was under 220, which is nothing to worry about (even though the drug companies say that you should.)

Safety Alerts Cite Cholesterol Drugs’ Side Effects (New York Times, February 28, 2012)

Federal health officials on Tuesday added new safety alerts to the prescribing information for statins, the cholesterol-reducing medications that are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the world, citing rare risks of memory loss, diabetes and muscle pain.
It is the first time that the Food and Drug Administration has officially linked statin use with cognitive problems like forgetfulness and confusion, although some patients have reported such problems for years. Among the drugs affected are huge sellers like Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor and Vytorin.
But federal officials and some medical experts said the new alerts should not scare people away from statins. “The value of statins in preventing heart disease has been clearly established,” said Dr. Amy G. Egan, deputy director for safety in the F.D.A.’s division of metabolism and endocrinology products. “Their benefit is indisputable, but they need to be taken with care and knowledge of their side effects.”
The new reports warn that statins can give you Type 2 diabetes, and memory loss.
"We’re overdosing on cholesterol-lowering statins," Eric J. Topol writes in The Diabetes Dilemma for Statin Users (New York Times, March 4, 2012). He is a cardiologist at the Scripps Clinic, professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute, and author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.” He warns that the overuse of statins could lead to "a sharp increase in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes." And he continues:
"More than 20 million Americans take statins. That would equate to 100,000 new statin-induced diabetics. Not a good thing for the public health and certainly not good for the individual affected with a new serious chronic illness.  
If there were a major suppression of heart attacks or strokes or deaths, that might be justified. But in patients who have never had heart disease and are taking statins to lower their risk (so-called primary prevention), the reduction of heart attacks and other major events is only 2 per 100. And we don’t know who the 2 per 100 patients are who benefit or the one per 200 who will get diabetes! Moreover, the margin of benefit to risk is quite narrow."
People with high cholesterol and where diet and excercise doesn't work, may have no other choice but to take their pills, but if you can avoid it, you should consider it. Topol writes:
"What should people who are taking statins do? If they are prescribed for someone who has already had heart disease or a stroke, the benefit is overriding — no changes are suggested. But in the vast majority of people who take statins — those who have never had any heart disease — there should be a careful review of whether the statin is necessary, in light of the risk of diabetes and the relatively small benefit that can be derived. Beyond that, a dose reduction or use of a less potent statin should be considered on an individual basis." 

Will the Ivy League Crumble?

The foundation for higher education is changing, a slow but steady movement driven by economics and ubiqutous communications. I suspect that high cost and exclusive Ivy League system will one day go the way of the music industry.

Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls


Hubble Telescope Images