Friday, July 1, 2022

The Acrobat and the Flea -- The Unexplored Science in Stranger Things



I just finished watching what is available of Stranger Things Season 4, and planning to watch the rest tonight.  I've been meaning to comment on the show for a while.  There are a lot of really neat ideas present in the series, that sadly I don't think get fleshed out as much as they could have been.

I was inspired to finally start writing some commentary by a scene near the end of vol 1 of season 4.  That is your spoiler warning.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

God and the Law of Identity

 I remember my first few years as a grad student, a professor reassuring my friend and I that no physicist ever gained true expertise in the topics by taking the classes.  We'd learn the subject matter, but the real mastery would come when we had to teach it.  Since about January my wife and I have been teaching a Sunday school class on logic and critical thinking, and even though the subject matter is pretty basic, I'm finding more insights into the topic that I just hadn't noticed before.

One of these is with the Law of Identity, which is our next topic.  Stated, the Law of Identity sounds really dumb: "A thing is itself, and not anything else."  This apple is this apple, and not a banana.  This apple is this apple, and not that apple.  It applies to claims, as well.  The claim that the sky is blue, is the claim that the sky is blue, and not some other color.  It's the claim that the sky is blue, and not that my car is blue.  And if we disagree on what is meant by "the sky" (do we mean the night sky?) or "blue" (my wife says this color is "blue"), the language disagreement doesn't make the claim itself ambiguous or unknowable.  My claim still means what it means.

I was thinking recently how this applies to God.

What do we mean when we say the word, "God"?

There are some people who claim the word "god" is so ambiguous that's it impossible to know if a god exists or not.  It has truth to it.  What a bronze age European tribesman meant by "god" is vastly different, in terms of category, from what a Muslim means by the same word, or what a Vedic Hindu means by the word.  The ideas are not comparable enough for a single, common word to be applicable to all three.

The confusion over what the word signifies is especially true for Christians, with our storied history of violating the Commandment against graven images.

One of the most famous centers for Christian worship in the world has on its ceiling this painting:


And this painting has spawned a thousand memes.

When I say the word "God", I get the sense that many people think I mean this guy here depicted in this painting.

God is a man.  God is a man in the clouds.  God is a white man with a long flowing beard living in the clouds, wearing a robe and rope sandals.

That is not what I mean by the word "God."

Saturday, April 23, 2022

No One Should Care What Kate Turabian Thought About Style

I have recently had to write and turn in my dissertation.  To do this, I had to adhere, at least somewhat, to the stylistic whims of Kate Turabian.  Which has been a painful process.

Who is Kate Turabian?  She is a former bureaucratic pencil-pusher who leveraged her tiny bit of control over dissertation layout into a world-wide empire enforcing her anal-retentiveness about margin widths and heading formats through a book she wrote explaining how she liked things to be.  Because she had to approve dissertations at the University of Chicago, students had to do whatever she said to graduate.  She herself never even finished college, and never wrote a dissertation.  She certainly never wrote a college term paper using her made-up style.  She just made others follow it.  Margins on the left should be 1.25" while the right 1"?  Appendix titles are only 1" from the top margin, but chapters 2"?  It doesn't matter if it makes sense, you just have to do it, or you can't get your PhD.  

And that's all her wikipedia page should say about her.

You know the security guard who thinks because he technically has a badge that he can commandeer your car?  That's Kate Turabian, but with academic writing.

Except she's worse.  The one security guard is the one security guard.  But imagine that one security guard writes a manual, "A Manual for Guards of Security," setting himself up as the world expert on how to properly guard buildings and parking lots, and it involves asking three hundred questions, checking the glovebox, and making the driver submit to a field exam, and now every security guard in the entire country insists he has to do this because it's part of the manual, and you have to let him because he decides who gets past the turnstile.  That's Kate Turabian, but with academic writing,

You spent six years taking classes in natural sciences, performing research, analyzing data, manipulating equations, connecting theory and experiment.  You've presented your work to audiences of scientists, written papers in journals, and finally defended your dissertation research to a committee of professors.  

But then after all of that, the real task is an old lady with a ruler, who is going to tell you there should be indentations after subsections but not subsubsections (because obviously).

Now, I should be more fair.  In principal, I understand the need for standards.  Subsections should not be set with bold in one place and then italic in another.  You should be able to distinguish a subsection from a section based on the heading.  The margins shouldn't be so wide that the page is mostly blank space.  I get that.  And since most normies use Microsoft Word instead of TeX to write absolutely everything (I've had students hand in C code written in Word), I can understand why some set of rules is important.

And in the age of typewriters, when students had to manually set bold, italic, etc., I understand that making a list of which to use where helps to standardize everything.

But if students follow a consistent style, if they use structural organizational tools in their word processer to automatically control style, if things look professional and organized, if the term paper conveys the information without distraction over formatting, then it doesn't matter if page numbers are centered on the bottom or typeset to the top left.

And that, arguably, is one of the places where obsession with Turabian style falls on its own sword.

The point of standardizing style should be to make the formatting disappear, leaving only the text.

If a professor is going to pull out a ruler to measure your term paper to make sure it's a 4ex indentation in a new paragraph, then it is serving the opposite purpose.

Kate Turabian had some opinions about how papers should be formatted.  At one point, students at the University of Chicago had to care about her opinions, because she loved using her power over them to make everyone respect her opinions.

All of her opinions were arbitrary.  They were based, ultimately, in her whim, in what she thought looked prettiest.

A lot of her choices do NOT look the prettiest.  Most of her choices look butt-ugly.

Her insistence on ragged-right typing instead of justified text maybe made sense with typewriters, but not in the age of computer typesetting.  Her choices for title headings are dumb, changing from emphasized, to not emphasized to emphasized.  A paper typeset using her rules looks unprofessional, like some hack who doesn't know how to use a word processor wrote it up, pressing each key with his index finger.  Like a rough draft of a 5th grade book report before your mom spellchecked it.

Turabian style looks unprofessional.

And yes, those are also my subjective opinions.  And my subjective opinions are equally as valid as hers.  The only difference from her is I'm not trying to force all of academia to adhere to my subjective opinions.

Were I to receive a term paper written in Turabian style, I would just grade the content of the paper.  I wouldn't tell the student he has to go retype it in TeX using Computer Modern font and standard report class outlines for sections and subsections.  I wouldn't  pay attention to how ugly and illegible it looks.

But people in the Turabian cult do.

Why does the Turabian cult exist?  Why do we continue to care about her opinions?  She has passed from her post in Chicago, and no longer holds power over grad students.  She has passed from this world, and can no longer hold out her ruler of terror to tell us the margins are too wide.

Why do we continue to care what she thought?

It is of course unsurprising that a low-level pencil-pusher, with no formal education and completely unqualified to comment on academic writing, but with supreme power over those with the highest level of education, would make up and enforce and insist on all manner of arbitrary and stupid rules as though they descended from on high.  That's going to happen.  It's part of human nature.

What is impossible to understand is how she indoctrinated so many academics into this cult of hers.

I would like us, as a country, to just move on.  Instead of enforcing some dead woman's arbitrary opinions, let's just instead ask for consistency by asking students to use internal organization tools in the word processors, rather than laying everything by hand.  And if it's typeset in TeX or similar, then you can be assured it will have consistent style and organization.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Twelve Years a Grad Student

I drew this on a white board at my 
last school, in 2013.  Nine years later
and I slayed the dragon.
I recently finished my PhD in physics.  My particular field is astrophysics, and my thesis topic was on Newtonian and relativistic white dwarf asteroseismology.  All I have left to do is get past the whims of Kate Turabian, whose opinion on formatting people for whatever reason care about.  

The first post on this blog was almost ten years ago, while I was a grad student.  Inspired by some of my classes and books I was reading, I had some crazy ideas mixing science and fiction and wanted to post them somewhere.  The most famous of those crazy ideas was about the Berenst#in Bears, which is now a meme far beyond my mere tiny blog.

Ten years ago I was a graduate student.  One week ago, I was a graduate student.  In fact, I started graduate school in 2010, meaning I have been pursuing a PhD for for twelve years (eleven not counting my year teaching high school).  

I have been twelve years a grad student.

I figured, given the momentousness of the situation, I would reflect on this overlong time.