Thoughts on Complicated Issues

Dealing with complicated issues is a complicated issue. I find that it is impossible for a non-expert to rationally debate a complicated issue. Instead, it all comes down to belief.

Take global warming, for instance. There are people in the world who have spent their lives studying this: climatologists. As scientists (the real climatologists anyway) they posit a theory, test it against empirical evidence, publish the results, and let their peers (other real climatologists) analyze, critique, and collectively approve or reject it. The Wikipedia article references a separate page that cites hundreds of scientific organizations who collectively agree that the world is warming overall, the climatological system is changing, and that these changes are attributable to human activities. More conclusive, though, is that aside from four groups who stand by non-committal statements, "no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" (the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who updated their stance in 2007 with a non-committal statement.)

However, I am not a climatologist by any means. As such, I'm left to judge by belief alone: I believe that climatologists have studied this issue and agreed that humans are causing climate change, and that these climatologists do not have sufficient ulterior motives to lie. I don't think it's possible to predict exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, but as a believer that humans are well-suited to the current climatological situation, I can't see any change being likely to give advantage to us — almost all climatological changes will be unpleasant to our situation.

Some people choose instead to believe what they hear through the media, or from someone they respect (regardless of their true expertise as a climatologist), or from a celebrity or public figure, or from their personal experience, or from their non-climatological-expert analysis. Some believe much more strongly in the predictions than the assessment. But in all those differences, people are trying to debate with insufficient information. Belief is irrational and can't be debated: all that can be done is to explain one's rationale and listen to another's rationale and decide for yourself whether you want to change your mind.

Health care, on the other hand, has three sets of experts: one for the health facet, one for the money facet, and one for the moral facet: I have not encountered rigorous scientific analysis from any group, nor on the system as a whole. Doctors (while their medical practice is scientifically based) can only say that most people will live a comfortable life and may need temporary corrective care to maintain that, that any corrective effort is exponentially less severe the earlier it is started, and that a few people will require more constant care to permit a comfortable existence. Insurance companies and nations with nationalized health systems provide data indicating cost; as best I can tell, any system has approximately the same cost across its whole population. Finally, philosophers can provide the moral facet by asking, "is health valuable?" The answer transcends the other two groups as doctors' Hippocratic oath implicitly declares it so, and it is certainly a lucrative proposition as no parent would keep any wealth or a specific possession in preference to their child's life and health.

Without the benefit of a quality analysis, we are left to muddle through argument without full knowledge, again leaning on belief. Do we have more faith in government or corporations (as if they are different masters)? Should we help strangers? Will people we don't know exploit our generosity? Would we be willing to watch our own child die? Would we wish that on someone else?

My point of this exercise is to say that we all select where we get our knowledge and we use our beliefs to decide which knowledge informs our decisions. Implicit in that statement is my own belief that rational, reasoned discourse is the superior form of changing opinions.

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Attending TEDx Rochester

I headed to Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the TEDx Rochester lectures today. I attended the premiere year last year, and hoped for a few improvements. Many were met, and some surprising updates, but I still found it fell short.

Registration was easy and our passes had a little surprise. I hadn't realized until I was approached by Chris Horn — a former co-worker — who pointed out that on the back of our passes, we had a list of three people. His said, "Ask Jason Olshefsky about a 'tadpole trike'," a project I mentioned when I had originally signed up. I thought it a near-perfect ice-breaker (although, in general most attendees migrated to people they already knew … this is Rochester, after all). A curious serendipity was that the other person who found me by name was another former co-worker from a different company. People speculated that TEDxRochester did some Internet snooping, but I was pretty sure it was just random.

Anyway, the presentations were generally good although only a couple approached the lofty goal of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading. One of my college techniques was to take virtually no notes, expending my effort listening and thinking and referring later to reference materials. To my [mild, mild] horror, the brochure listed the presenters alphabetically with biographies rather than a title (or even a taste) of what their presentation was about. Thank goodness for TEDx Rochester Live blogging or else I'd have no idea who said what in what order.

Kicking off was Almeta Whitis who presented a "song of welcome". I found it enjoyable and impressive that she inspired me and most of the audience to join her in the chorus. An idea worth spreading? Yes — in a very unique way. She attacked the issue warmly, honestly, and with a flair for entertainment: we are all human and should behave as such. In essence, "it's the humanity, stupid", not the iPhone nor the pressing project.

Next was Dr. Benjamin Miller. He talked about detection of proteins and antibodies as markers for disease and how new technology works to do that instantly with silicon chips. His broad topic was one of understanding through a triangular diagram of vision (our ability to observe), direction (a selected methodology of exploration), and control (a defined set of target results) — essentially, a subtly different view of the scientific method. As such, technically an "idea worth spreading" but one that is spread pretty far and wide already, particularly to the largely technical-minded audience attending. I also noted a severe defect: he presented an underlying assumption (the "protein-interaction problem can be solved by drugs") was one that can be questioned. Why is that the best path? Or is that the most logical one — the one that is most likely to yield results that are easy to fit into the model of scientific exploration? Alas, I feel a far more interesting talk would have discussed that question.

Karlie Robinson spoke next. She owns Webpath Technologies (40 Charles Ave., Henrietta). She talked about how hard it is to find courses in basic computer literacy. She gave the example of how we all know basic operations (cut, copy, paste, undo) are similar across all kinds of different computer systems — something we take completely for granted but which is really a pivotally important idea. Like Miller's discussion, this one is sort-of an "idea worth spreading": more "a problem whose solution is an idea worth spreading". And (also like Miller's discussion) I found myself dismayed at ignorance of the underlying assumption: that technology is a good thing and should continue to be applied all the time. A more interesting discussion would concern why menial labor can't simply show up, work, and get paid — what value have we added by tracking names, addresses, Social Security numbers, pay, and taxes. Is this really optimal?

I think Darren Stevenson (co-founder of PUSH Physical Theatre) gave one of the best discussions. He started with a demonstration of a performance then went on to define what art is. At least that was his topic which he attacked with wit, humor, and insight. His point was that creating and experiencing art is subjective and personal. Our culture tries to make everything objective and communal — to give things dollar-values and quality-values that everyone can agree upon. However, art is defies that very notion. It even defies explanation, another facet of our culture: we try to explain everything in words because explanations make things safe; things we understand are safe. We don't look at an autumn tree [how creative, Jayce: did you just look out the window?] and try to understand "what is the tree trying to tell us?" It just is, and we can enjoy it for that. Yet somehow when it's a creation of man, we feel it must be a simple metaphor instead.

The bar was set high at the start — three very good discussions. Then Jane Andrews, a Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager for Wegmans Food Markets (1500 Brooks Ave.) gave a commercial for Wegmans. Ok, so it wasn't literally a commercial — she was talking about the techniques developed at Wegmans to foster good nutrition. My own bitter bias about Wegmans and how they abandoned the city neighborhoods (especially mine) led me to ask the underlying assumption: "why do only rich suburbanites deserve good nutrition?" Regardless, the ideas she presented were good ideas run through the hot-dog factory of marketing so they'd be palatable to the general public, such as "split your plate": fill half with salad, then have whatever else you want on the other half. Unfortunately, it's extraordinarily similar to the "small plate" movement (such as outlined in the 2008 book The 9-Inch Diet by Alex M. Bogusky.) Alas, I couldn't tell if the "idea worth spreading" was "here's some ways to eat better for the simpleton", or "Wegmans, gosh, isn't it great?"

Moka Lantum, co-founder of The Baobab Cultural Center (728 University Ave., formerly on Gregory St.) spoke next. Although his presentation style was not nearly as polished, his idea was one that I felt warranted TED: in areas with that have a high prevalence of earthquakes, we should build homes that are locally-sourced and earthquake-stable. The underlying assumption of earthquake relief efforts is that they help — but is there a better way? Lantum impressed me by attacking that very question — and again with broader scope, "is there a better building technique than the platform-framed wood houses we take for granted?" Lantum outlines a building technique that uses bags filled with local, sifted dirt for the primary structure then covered with a locally-generated stucco-like surface. The high thermal mass works well to regulate temperature, particularly in hotter climates like Haiti where these structures were given a test as temporary emergency shelters. I thought his topic was perfect TED material: it's something that I've thought about before, and I can't think off-hand of a way to significantly improve upon the presented solution. (My only lament is that he didn't say where to find more information; a little searching leads me to an article on The Honey House which I believe is the specific technique Lantum was talking about.)

Next was Shanterra Randle, an associate coordinator at The Center for Teen Empowerment (107 Liberty Pole Wy.) Her speech could easily have been a free-form poem. She encouraged us to take the ideas we have and hear, and put them out there — to make our community better. We all have good ideas, but a good idea laid dormant is just as good as no idea at all. Another worthy candidate for what TED is all about, and as a bonus, brief, creative, and directed.

Dr. Ralph Spezio gave an impassioned and emotional lecture on his experiences as principal of School 17 and how lead poisoning was revealed as the cause of educational problems in his school. If there's one thing to take away from his speech, it's to consider the possibility that when assessing the quality of education, sometimes great teachers and great parenting is not enough. Likewise, Michelle Cardulla presented her work as Executive Director of The Museum of Kids Art (MOKA) (90 Webster Ave.) I felt her presentation could have been better rehearsed, and the idea that kids are natural artists could have been more central. Clarinetist Dr. Ramon Ricker presented an interesting topic of making your life about you and your skills. He was largely talking about marketing yourself in terms of what you are good at and what you like to do rather than what you think other people want to hear. It may have resonated more with others, but me (and I think a lot of people in the audience) were already aware.

Jim Tappon, Communications Manager of COOL Rochester gave a commercial for COOL Rochester. He spent as much time talking about vague methods to conserve energy as he did talking about how you can download information and present it to your friends and acquaintances. I think his idea of conservation through small steps is generally good, but his insistence that we become the carriers of this information à la pyramid scheme was downright offensive.

Finishing up, Jen Indovina, President and CEO of Tenrehte Technologies, presented the nearly opposite view: that it is impossible for people to change their behavior in any appreciable way, so we should make technology that lets us live exactly as we do, only makes it efficient. I found it patently offensive that adaptation is impossible, and further offensive that more products can make things efficient. As someone with a custom remote system to control lights and such, I can tell you it's nearly impossible to make a machine that can predict your behavior and not irritate the hell out of you. To buy something off-the-shelf that would work is an absurd concept. I tried to do some research on the products at the Tenrehte Technologies website, but all the products and catch-phrases presented on the website appear to be nothing more than vaporware marketing-speak: there is not even a description of what anything does, much less any technical information. Without a physical address, I can't fathom how any production is taking place, and I'm strongly suspicious that the whole company is just a scam.

As such, I left this year's TEDx Rochester in a thoroughly pissed-off rush. Walking home, I could only think fo Indovina and her insistence that we can't change our behavior; if I were driving a car I'd have classic road-rage. Thankfully I headed into Mt. Hope Cemetery (791 Mt. Hope Ave., the North Gate) and got a chance to chill out before getting home.

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Rational Skepticism Without Condescension

On one of the discussion lists I subscribe to, there are frequent questions about "fringe science" — particularly involving energy, since the topic of discussion is "alternative energy". I have yet to receive a message that contained something both revolutionary in scale and backed by science (and likewise, seldom is a topic banal and poorly explained). An example is "eloptic energy" which describes some kind of field around all objects that can theoretically be tapped.

I have trouble describing it in any serious way. Its science begins by neglecting well-explored and well-understood properties of fields — basically that to get energy using a field, you have to put energy in. It's the way generators work (it's the combination of a magnet and a wire moving past one another). Another example might be to use the force of a river to do work by presenting resistance (like in the case of a water wheel). I guess the buzz around eloptic energy is that you don't need to add energy to get the energy out — analogous to working a water wheel while moving with the current of the river … a boat-mounted water wheel, if you will.

But even there, I take a condescending attitude that I can't seem to avoid. I shake my head and roll my eyes, frustrated that I must defend myself against lunacy with rational argument. This feeling of aggravation seems to come from two factors.

First is the misunderstanding or misapplication of science. The basics of the scientific method are to conceive a theory, develop an experiment with measurable, repeatable results, and ascertain whether the experiment supports the theory; then repeat ad infinitum. Everything we claim to know in science is based on a chain of everything we figured out before. It seems that people who entertain pseudo-science theories believe that science is a bureaucratic ivory tower of knowledge sanctioned by self-proclaimed experts. Sometimes bureaucratic, ivory-tower, self-proclaimed experts try to sanction knowledge, but that is not science.

The other is the appropriation of words that have an established meaning to give the illusion of credibility. Words like "energy" have a specific, well-defined meaning, so to use them in relation to something else is nothing less than lying. One example was during a discussion of essential oils (not on the discussion list) where they used "megahertz" as a unit to quantify the relative power of the oils. It was frustrating that nobody else in the room wanted to ask what part of the oil was vibrating (as "megahertz" exclusively means "millions of times per second"), and if it was in the radio-frequency range like the speaker implied, could we tune in a radio to hear it?

Of course, as I wrote before, there is no way to discern an expert from a non-expert in a field that you are not familiar with. In the end, it comes down to whether you believe one person or another. And when it comes to belief, well, there's really no point in arguing.

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