Wednesday, December 25, 2013


A miracle is an event or phenomenon of rare occurrence or circumstances, for which the cause or sequence of events is not clear to the observer.

Recently, I have been asked to support the idea of a belief in "miracles".

Nope. I'm not going to - but not for the reason you'd assume, especially if you are in the habit of taking things on faith, without thinking too carefully.

Look at the description above, then consider any event that you find extraordinary, or maybe one that you have heard described as "miraculous" by some observer. If you look closely, you will find that the observer very simply cannot understand how such a thing has happened.

The short story is that the incredulity or expertise of the witness has NOTHING to do with how any event or phenomenon occurs. Suggesting this effectively insists that something happens differently depending on whether Albert Einstein or Forrest Gump is watching.

If you went back in time and handed your cell phone to Dad in 1970, he'd have called it a "miracle" - and you know Samsung or Apple built it, even if you don't know how, so it's not miraculous to you.

On a more personal level, "miracle" is often applied to events with harsh consequences. We hear of the cancer survivor beating horrible odds, or the infant flung a hundred feet from the flipping SUV and surviving. In fact, neither of these events violates a single natural law.

We don't consider a lottery win a "miracle", because we know that a Lottery Commission controls the odds of a win and publishes them for all to see, but we'll use that term lavishly for things which are more common. 

Have you considered the term, "believe in"? That indicates a serious emotional investment in whatever is being discussed. Do the emotions of an observer change the process by which an event occurs? NO.

The laws of cause and effect are not changed by anything. Do you, or do you know someone who is prone to call something a "miracle" and then assign divine intervention of some kind to the event? That's common, because people fervently wish for there to be some force acting to keep order, so that they can be safe and comfortable -- but in order to claim one cause, you must actually rule all other causes out. I'm sorry, but this does not change based on how good a person you are, what church you attend or which way you face when the National Anthem is played.

When you see or are told "a miracle" has happened, do not stop there, with mouth open in astonishment. Work to understand what happened. If there was injury or death involved, you may discover a way to avoid that risk.

And you will not disperse any of the wonder and awe that attended the event. I think you will marvel, instead, at the forces at play.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Global Warming: Start With The Basics, and Make The Distinction Between Science and Politics

This issue does not depend on the idea of government telling you what you can do, or if you mistake being able to drive for some sort of liberty.
Do you recognize that if you light a candle in your house, the house is hotter immediately? Do you recognize that your house is NOT a closed system?

If your answer in either case is "no", I suggest that you have been brought into this argument by emotions, and that you have something to learn about heat. Please relax and consider the laws of thermodynamics before you continue. It is necessary to know something about them to make intelligent judgments; it is not necessary to know everything. In short, heat is not temperature. Heat is the transfer of energy due to a difference in temperature.

This issue is being screwed up by fighting over what to do about it, but the facts of the matter are not in doubt. Really.
However, you might not know how to figure out who is lying and who is not. This is pretty simple to figure out, if you can simply understand that heat flows from "hot" to "cold" because the "hot" area has more energy in it than the "cold" one.
Pictures of the Earth from space will show you cities. Lots and lots of cities. Expending energy, right on the surface of the earth.

So here's how that goes:
There are cities where there were none before.
Human population and energy usage grow over the years.
It is hotter in the cities.
It is that simple. Population is proportional to energy release into our living environment.

It doesn't matter what volcanoes or other natural forces do at all.
This is not debatable: our liberation of energy from chemical and nuclear sources occurs directly into our living environment. 
Part of this is direct radiation, and then we emit gases that were not there before we released them.

Do you know how to figure out how much water vapor and CO2 your car puts out? You should, if you want to understand human impact. Gasolines and diesel fuels are blends, and they also contain impurities, but they generally do these things: the carbon in a fuel molecule makes many CO2 molecules when burned, and the hydrogen in a fuel molecule makes many H2O molecules. You can derive many of the properties of gasoline as a fuel by observing this article.  Note that ~114 grams of fuel - about 1/4 pound - will combine with ~272 grams of O2 to make about 386 grams of exhaust vapor? In the process, your exhaust will release most of the heat of combustion to the air around you.
And one gallon of gas is about 24 times this amount of fuel.

Burn one gallon of gas, produce about 20 pounds of heated exhaust gases.

Now, look around you in traffic. Have you ever noticed that thirty cars making 30mpg burn one gallon to get one mile? I bet not. So you and thirty other people went to the convenience store a mile away, or drove a mile in traffic. Or drove less than a mile on the Interstate, in formation, at 80mph because 70 is inconvenient.
Did you notice it took mere minutes to burn that gas? So. Hundreds of millions of cars, buses and trucks are on the road worldwide. Ships and trains burn fuel, too - like trucks, their engines are a bit more efficient, especially newer models, but this is less than a factor of two - we're still in the ballpark.

So heated exhaust emissions are in the billions of pounds per minute category.

Take a look at this graphic. It shows the sources of energy and its usage in terms suitable for comparison. It also shows us something the layman might not recognize at all: rejected heat. You can think of this as the unused energy found in your hot exhaust gases - feel the tailpipe of your car. Realize that heating your exhaust pipe didn't push your car.

Look at the ratio of each of the Energy Services to Rejected Energy, and you will see that we:
• Lose more energy than we use;
• Lose more energy as a fraction of usage in "transportation" than anywhere else.
Think of millions of cars idling. That's waste, and that's where electric cars are going to save a great deal. The chart does NOT indicate exhaust gases, because the loss of energy occurs even in processes where gases are not emitted, like nuclear power electrical generation, AND it does not address direct heating of the environment by lighting, or building heaters.

Okay, now.
Two wrongs do not make a right.
If you were downwind of a factory that let off sulfur dioxide, you'd never tell them, "Hey, that's OK, volcanoes do that!"

You might have a hard time when some well-meaning duffer blames a severe thunderstorm, tornado or fish kill on "global warming". Hey - I do, too, because warming cannot be credited for an individual incident without investigation. That's not how it's done. You MUST show your work.
That said, a hurricane's wind is the product of a truly tiny differential pressure exerted across hundreds of miles of compressible medium. I bet you can't describe the mechanism, and I bet you don't deny that a hurricane is a real thing.

This issue does not depend on the idea of government telling you what you can do, or if you mistake being able to drive for some sort of liberty.

The laws of thermodynamics will have the final say here. You should know what they are - and realize that when you set fire to something, the fire is the hot part.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is Your Opinion Popular? You May Be Mistaken.

Public figures are often wrong and fool you frequently.
Here are a few things to ponder (check back, this will be updated):

If you believe a comedian about the Founding Fathers, you need an education. George Carlin, Robin Williams, Daniel Tosh and others decry them as "slave owners" as part of their act.
Hey. It's an act. What you're doing, when you believe something they say, is join the good feeling of the moment with their schtick - even though there are heinously wrong elements to their presentation. 
What the founders did was make it possible for rights to be extended to all, an idea that just plain didn't exist anywhere in practice. We've just been too comfortable for too long to think about that.
What you do when you believe celebrity is confuse opinion with an information source. George Carlin was the colloquial master of English, bar none - but that doesn't make him right in any case. You might like to believe CNN, or Rush Limbaugh, but even on their best days they are merely repeating what someone else said, and they have no real duty to produce objective data.
Notice this? Whenever you're looking at the big news of the day, there are a hundred talking heads trying to scare you - but they're all talking about the same reporter's story. One story!

If you think a corporation needs to be punished in some way, think about their charter - actually, you might want to think about what a corporation is. Yes, it really can be shown to be a fictional person, established in order to coordinate an activity, like manufacturing (on this point, you probably really ought to listen to the multi-millionaire, rather than a professional mouth). It is actually not your business what their CEO is paid. The charter of the corporation states that. If you clamor for the company officers to travel together, for instance, so that you can personally feel more comfortable about their energy use in a time of high gas prices, you probably ought to think about their actual job: protecting the investors in their company. Don't whine just because you're not one. You have that opportunity. Which brings me to another point.

Don't base your opinion on wealth envy. Especially when you vote.
I have some harsh news for you: every measure to limit wealth has made it harder for the poor to get there. In fact, every measure to tax wealth has mixed results. A good example is the "luxury tax". Hundreds of boatbuilders were put out of business in Florida alone when it was enacted, as a 10% price hike killed business. Very expensive yachts are now built overseas, because only an idiot would pay a million more dollars on a ten-million-dollar yacht when she could have one shipped here from the Netherlands or Singapore for less.
Maybe that isn't obvious, so I'll spell it out for you: trying to punish "the rich" put tens of thousands of ordinary people out of a job - and actually cost other taxpayers as those people took unemployment benefits.
The bottom line is that legal limits are fine, but basing things on simple jealousy is just plain petty, and you will identify yourself as such.

Don't believe any organization has the same goals you do.
There may be a coincidence, but if there is a choice between representing you and preserving the existence of the organization - you lose. Sometimes you can see this. Right now, educators are in the news constantly. Somehow, teachers' unions oppose testing to see if their members actually know anything. In New Jersey, state tax money goes directly to the teachers' union because the law makes teachers who are NOT union members pay the union, too. Nice, huh?
This principle means a lot more than "watch out" - it means you have to recognize the difference between an opinion and an information source. It's more fun to believe Piers Morgan or Rush or the press release containing pat phrases about how they care deeply for you, but these are not sources of information. Keep that in mind!

Don't believe you have a handle on an issue because you associate with someone who has a presence or following - or that others agree with you.
On-line or off, the cult of personality doesn't convey any special understanding to you. This is noticeable when people do not use critical evaluation skills they use at work to a subject under discussion. For instance, an engineer who would never think of using hearsay in evaluating an industrial process might jump on the bandwagon when a prominent biologist cites CNN as an authority. George Takei is a wonderful person, a great American citizen and a fine actor, but that doesn't make him an expert on the Federal budget any more than does your expertise at the bowling alley or pool hall - and being a fan of his doesn't make you any smarter about that issue, either. We must NOT believe what someone says because of their office or specialty or just who they are, because they can be wrong, or lie; we MUST note that proper credentials and education DO enable a person to present a comprehensive argument or evaluation which stands on its own!

Don't believe your past performance indicates any sort of future success.
The investment people cite this in their sleep, because idiots continue to believe that a cash cow is infinite.
This principle extends over a wide range of human activity, because hope and denial are basic survival mechanisms people use to fight off despair. 
No matter how successful you are, rush-hour traffic does not care about your philanthropy or kindness to animals.
I know you have kids, have made your way, etc. The cruel world does not give a damn about what you did back in the day. You still need to look out, especially if you invest in a subject you have never studied.

You need to vote more - and not just for a President.
One of the enduring stupidities of elections is that Presidential candidates will promise to do things they are expressly forbidden, or are not their duty once they take office. It appears that the public consistently gives them a pass on that, being either ignorant or uncaring about the actual structure of government.
If you call for the manager every time, rather than the first person who can solve your problem - my French fries are cold, damn it! - you may be the type of personality who thinks they shouldn't waste their time on "lesser" elections.
Guess what: The House of Representatives has 100% of Federal money.
What can you do without money?

Don't believe a law or bill says what anyone says it does.
The law is specific. I don't know if you knew this, but crime has a specific definition, which you will not hear from anyone: A crime is a violation of a statute. 
If there is no statute, there cannot be a crime, regardless of what you think of the story you heard about some poor unfortunate soul.

Law is not what your friends or family say it is, no matter what you think of them. Dad's a good guy, but he's outnumbered a thousand to one by people with the power to change the law. Look it up yourself. Then...
You will notice that Congress routinely misleads people with the title of bills...

Activists will deliberately lie about the law or a bill to get what they want. Sometimes these are Congressmen, and the Constitution is ignored. Good luck with that.
The key here is to recognize that you are subject to the law, not its master -- and the irony here is that if you do not pay attention to your duties as a citizen, other people can use the law to oppress YOU.

Don't believe the Constitution says what someone else says it does.
Read it yourself. Then brace yourself when someone claims "it's a living document", or that what they're doing is either mandated or supported by it.
If you take a look, you'll find out that "popular" opinion differs from what it says, and some people with authority make claims about it - curiously, these claims usually support a power grab by the speaker.
The Constitution actually limits government. You do NOT GET anything from government that you do not pay for - either directly, in taxes, or by the surrender of some liberties. That's another dish, rich food for thought.

Another couple of dishes: consider whether "the establishment of religion" meant "religious organization, plural" when the 1st Amendment was written. Note that Congress routinely passes laws affecting religion in the USA. Then, if you think that the National Guard is the "militia" mentioned in the 2nd Amendment, go read the fence down at the National Guard Armory. I think you'll find it says "US Government Property", and their uniforms say, "US ARMY".
Your own Congressman may tell you that the National Guard, established in 1905, was what the Founders were talking about, so you can be disarmed.
So you - YOU - can be disarmed. You are a threat to the power of the State if you do not do what you are told.

Don't believe your education ends, OR that it is ever complete.
I have actually heard someone say, "I'm done with school."
That person, by temperament or upbringing or both, has consigned herself to menial work. She will never matter.
The rest of the world is in competition with you. 
Other people will get the nice apartment, raise a family and so forth based solely on their intelligence and ambition (shut up about "the rich" - they know about money, and chances are, you don't). You don't get a choice about participating.
Of course, you could sign yourself into the slavery of welfare, where you are a commodity, a thing, cultivated for your vote.
That's how poor people are made.

Don't take the first impression or meaning from any statement in argument. Look for the underlying, real, issue. Examples:
There is a protest against the rule prohibiting the use of portable electronics in aircraft, with a lot of noise being generated about how they can't really interfere with the plane, or, on the other hand, that they do. That's not the point. That rule is to make your dumb ass pay attention to the plane, and what is happening around you. This might be a surprise, but aircraft, when things do go wrong, make a hell of a bang when they hit something and then erupt in astonishingly big fireballs. I'm really sure Tapfish or Farmville can wait for you.

Extend this principle to other scenarios. I think you'll be surprised what you find.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

It's Elementary - And Not Just A School Shooting

So, it's come to this: a peaceful nation has been rudely awakened by a madman's meleƩ, as he mows down children in a Newton, Connecticut school. The noise about this issue is deafening. This makes thought difficult. Let me sum things up for you:

1) Violence is timeless. Humans have engaged in it throughout human history.

2) The availability of weapons has nothing to do with violence until society imposes restrictions on that availability. A weapon allows the expression of violence to determine the course of future action. Bans, if you look carefully, are just for some people, and in every case they reduce the security of those who would NOT misuse them.

There is supreme irony in the President's and Attorney General's calling for gun restrictions. Such restrictions allowed their ancestors to be terrorized and killed by Klansmen - with the full cooperation of law enforcement personnel who thought blacks were animals to be kept in line, not citizens.

3) The gun is not going away. If you look, you will see a service mark inscribed on Beretta firearms: Pietro Beretta and Sons - est. 1591.

4) You should think about the charter of this country. Throughout history, we can identify the leaders of any group by their access to arms. Our founding documents insist that you, the citizen, are responsible for this country's direction. If you cannot be armed, just who are you?

5) You are being sold your own fear. When you are shown the results of buyback programs, shown pictures of a black gun (black is evil, how?) or someone publishes a list of gun owners, you are being manipulated into betraying your own neighbors. Subtly, you come around to the idea that the idiot (always an anonymous and inferior "someone else") should be stripped of her right to defend herself with effective weapons - that is, the same weapons that would be used against her.

6) If you are only a consumer of popular media, you do not know what gun laws are. Do not seek editorial material, however pretty it is; Rush and CNN, to cite just two popular examples, are both wrong about important details. Yes, wrong! Go to your State's Web site, and those of the Department of the Treasury to find these things out.

Yes, even the President and Attorney General do not cite actual law. They hold political office, and their goals are different from yours. At the link above, you will see that government reserves access to arms for itself. Who are you, again?

The bottom line is that the timid have been comfortable for so long, protected by rough men who would do violence on their behalf, that they have forgotton that massacres like the one in Newton happen only when the good rough men are not there. 
This is the price you pay for abject foolishness, the folly of the insane, the stupidity of thinking that words on paper in the form of a law or regulation have the power to stop a killer.

The operative syllable in the term, "law enforcement" is force.
The operative syllable in the term, "self-defense" is self.

This is because of the laws of physics as well as how the legal system works: there cannot be a reaction by law enforcement until a crime has already been committed. That means that if only the law is depended upon to protect you, you will be a victim before it can act.
If you cannot figure this out, if you are intent on fantasizing a world where paper protects you, you doom your neighbors as well as yourself.

That's elementary.