Ephemerides

A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

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Monday 26 August 2002

Yesterday was Open Day for the Hobart campus of the University of Tasmania. The Git's expectations had fallen somewhat short of reality. After a brief natter to the lady from the History Department at the entrance to The Arts Building, he quickly found the Philosophy Department where they were playing the Monty Python video of the soccer match between the famous philosophers of history. Conversation with one of the tallest people The Git has ever met resulted in the discovery that Jeff Malpas, head of the school, is an epistemologist. Far from merely majoring in philosophy, The Git can major in Logic and the Philosophy of Science.

Further down the corridor is the new studio for the university radio station and who should The Git run into there, but an acquaintance from way back in the past, Tom Giblin. Among his many skills, Tom is a sound engineer and the studio is his creation. Tom, like The Git, moved to the depths of the country in mid-life, but while The Git moved to the Huon Valley, Tom had moved to the Tasman Peninsula. During his twenty years there, The Git had visited just once due to distance, and that a decade ago.

The studio was adjacent where Ms Lindsay Simpson had set up to tout for Journalism and Media Studies and The Git chatted to Tom as he waited for her attention. Liz Tynan stopped briefly to tell Tom she would meet him later and he introduced us. It was only later, while chatting to Libby Lester that the reason The Git remembered Liz Tynan's name was she had worked as a journalist for New Scientist. Libby suggested we meet in a week, or so to discuss my studying journalism. Lindsay expressed great delight in The Git's desires and interests and lamented that Liz Tynan was not available to discuss my interest in her speciality.

The Git sat for a while in the weak winter sunshine and leafed through the brochures he had been given. Not so very long ago, the opportunity to study journalism, or the logic and philosophy of science wasn't available at this campus. It also occurred to him that the latter requires taking two semesters of science, so it was goodbye Ancient Civs. In a fit of Gittishness, he thinks it would be rather nice to take one semester of Astronomy and one semester of Computer Programming, though since they are two different schools, he thinks this might be stretching the benevolence of The Great Purple Wombat/God of the Known Universe [delete whichever is inapplicable] to its limit.

Long time readers of these pages will already know that Tasmania is located in a backwater of Australia, itself in a backwater as far as The Civilised World is concerned. This frequently leads to feelings of inferiority in those born here. Not so very long ago, the parents of a local lad wishing the best for their precious offspring, paid for a trip to the mainland for advice as to the best university for him to attend. The well-paid advisor informed the aspiring scholar that given his interests, the best of all possible universities for him to attend in the Antipodes was in the very place he had been born -- Tasmania.

Thought for the day:

It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education is a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

Albert Einstein

Current Listening

Dory Previn -- We're Children Of Coincidence And Harpo Marx


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Tuesday 27 August 2002

The Git is busily converting cassette tapes to MP3s so that they can be stored on CDs. There are several reasons for this and perhaps the most important is that the oxide binder on tape deteriorates over time. As well, tape stretches and cleaning the playback head of the cassette player becomes ever more tedious as eyesight declines. Two advantages flow from this process. The Git is listening to material he hasn't listened to in many a long year, so it's a lot of fun. As well, modern software can clean up material of dubious quality, particularly recordings of old 78s. For this, The Git is using Steinberg Clean.

Clean has come a long way since version one. Version three includes recording software, the Fraunhofer MP3 codec and also the software to allow burning CDs from within Clean. Optionally, it also comes with a USB phono preamp so you can plug your turntable through it into your computer, rather than relying on your hi-fi preamp. The process of de-clicking, de-crackling, de-hissing etc can be run through a wizard, semi-automatically, or by manually setting the relative amounts to use. The semi-automatic process samples the track and stores the settings for that track. Once each track has been sampled, the tracks can be processed in a batch. This is much quicker than the completely manual approach of version one.

Initially, the results were disappointing until The Git realised the error of his ways. He had followed the instruction to normalise the tracks after all the other processing had been done. Normalising means making the loudest sound on the track just equal to the highest level the file is capable of. This step introduces distortion! When recording on analog media, one always strives for the highest possible distortion-free signal level to keep the signal as far as possible above the noise inherent in the system. Digital recording does not itself introduce noise, so this is far less important. Once the normalisation step was omitted, the final result was most gratifying.

Converting the WAV files to MP3 is also a batch process. Several levels of compression are available depending on the conflicting requirements of file size and quality. Since The Git is more interested in maintaining fidelity in admittedly low fidelity recordings, he chose the highest quality (320 kb/s) setting which also has the advantage of being quicker than the next lowest, 256 kb/s. The latter is about 20% smaller and no doubt the higher levels of compression available make for significantly smaller files still.

One niggle that took a while to figure out: Clean frequently complained of insufficient hard disk space until The Git realised he needed to empty the Recycle Bin after deleting redundant files.

-oOo-

The afternoon was spent in the garden again, tilling the soil to the immense fascination of two diamond birds. The peas are in and hopefully the weather will be kinder this year than last. The coldest summer on record has been followed by a colder than average winter. The Git cannot recall so many frosts since the early 1980s. There is no asparagus to harvest yet, possibly indicating the latest ever start to the growing season in the twenty years we have been here. Usually, we have asparagus starting in late July, though one year the season commenced in late June.

Thought for the day:

Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.

A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh)

Current Listening

Phil Manzanera -- Diamond Head


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Wednesday 28 August 2002

Back in 1953 when The Git was a mere tadpole swimming mindlessly in the scummy pond of what passes for life in UKLand, Nobel Prizewinner, Irving Langmuir, gave a talk on what he called pathological science. More recently, Physics Today printed a transcript of his speech a few months after Fleischman and Pons had announced their discovery of cold fusion. The press at the time was full of condemnation of Fleischman and Pons, so it didn't need any stretch of the imagination to get the hint from the renewal of interest in Langmuir's attack on science.

"Steady on there, old fruit", The Git hears from the hecklers in the back row, "Langmuir was riding his white charger to defend science from naughty people pretending to be scientists". Sorry, but you heard The Git correctly. If you haven't read the transcript of Langmuir's talk yet, you might want to do so before returning here.

When The Git had grown legs, but before he had shed his tail, he studied physics. One particular demonstration that stands out in his mind for its elegance and simplicity was the reproduction of Robert Millikan's experiment to demonstrate the charge on the electron. Fortunately for history, Robert Millikan's laboratory notebook survived and so we know more about this experiment than most. Unfortunately for Langmuir, Millikan's experiment resoundingly qualifies as pathological science. The effect being observed is on the threshold of visibility, There are claims of great accuracy that are never realised by students attempting to reproduce the experiment. Millikan discarded data that was inconsistent with his theory and was gratified when measurements confirmed it. He offered, as do teachers of physics to this day, ad hoc excuses for incorrect results. The ethical issues you will find in the link were conspicuously absent from the classrooms The Git inhabited!

Forgetting for the moment that Langmuir neglected to include Millikan in his list of pathological scientists, let's turn to one of the scientists who was so labelled by Langmuir. 

Well, let's go on. About 1923, there was a whole series of papers by Gurwitech and others. There were hundreds of them published on mitogenetic rays.(8) There are still a few of them being published. I don't know how many of you have ever heard of mitogenetic rays. They are rays that are given off by growing plants, living things, and they were proved, according to Gurwitsch, that they were something that would go through quartz but not through glass. They seemed to be some sort of ultraviolet light.

The way they studied these was this. You had some onion roots- -onions growing in the dark or in the light and the roots will grow straight down. Now if you had another onion root nearby, and this onion root was growing down through a tube or something, going straight down, and another onion root came nearby, this would develop so that there were more cells on one side than the other. One of the tests they had made at first was that this root would bend away. And as it grew this would change in direction which was evidence that something had traveled from one onion root to the other. And if you had a piece of quartz in between it would do it, but if you put glass in between it wouldn't. So this radiation would not go through glass but it would go through quartz.

Well, it started in that way. (p.6) Then everything gave off mitogenetic rays, anything that remotely had anything to do with living things. And then they started to use photoelectric cells to check it and whatever they did they practically always found that if you got the conditions just right, you could just detect it and prove it. But if you looked over those photographic plates that showed this ultraviolet light you found that the amount of light was not much bigger than the natural particles of the photographic plate so that people could have different opinions as to whether it did or didn't show this effect and the result was that less than half of the people who tried to repeat these experiments got any confirmation of it; and so it went. Well, I'll go on before I get too far along.

The problem here is that Gurwitsch's results have been replicated many times and to increasingly greater accuracy by others. There are even international conferences held on what are now called biophotons. One wonders what the real criteria for pathological science are. Could it have been that Robert Millikan's experiment was in the past and therefore too late to label as pathological? Maybe Langmuir was merely parroting the American Association for the Advancement of Science who believed Gurwitsch's experimental results were delusory and mitogenic rays all in his mind. Quite why this was so The Git has yet to find out.

Thought for the day:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell

Current Listening

King Crimson -- Beat


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Thursday 29 August 2002

Newer readers might be surprised to learn that The Git was not always quite so critical of science. One might even have accused him of being a True Believer. "So what", he hears you ask, "caused him to see the error of his ways?"

Some twenty years ago, The Git and Mrs Git purchased almost 4 Ha (10 acres) of land in the Huon valley of southern Tasmania. They aspired to The Good Life away from the distractions of city life, growing their own food, milking goats, making beer, wine and cheese and so forth. The Git being the pretentious intellectual that he is, read everything he could about it. The issue of whether to use organic, or conventional methods was decided by poverty, rather than intellectually. The vast array of purchased materials used by our neighbours were simply beyond our capacity to pay since we had spent all of Mrs Git's capital to purchase the farm.

The first growing season saw The Git harvesting his peas one day when the neighbours were harvesting theirs in the paddock next door. He hopped over the fence for a chinwag as he had discovered that these sons of the soil had access to a huge body of knowledge, much of it strictly local, unrecorded in the libraries of the world. On of the best things about harvesting peas is eating a few while doing so. Like many crops, the sugar content declines quite rapidly post harvest. Much to The Git's bewilderment, the neighbours' peas were much inferior in flavour to his own and a series of questions ensued to determine the cause. They were the same variety, Greenfeast. The seed had been purchased from the same supplier. The soil was the identical silt/clay. The difference turned out to be that the neighbours had used orchard fertiliser (8:4:10) and The Git had used cow manure picked up off the paddock.

Despite our poverty, The Git had managed a few trips to the local pub in the preceding months and made an arrangement with the publican, Boney, to trade beer for fresh peas. The deal was that The Git could drink as much beer as he wanted while Boney ate a three gallon bucket of peas. While this is rather more peas than the average person can consume at a sitting, they were still in their pods and not quite such a heroic intake as the purchaser of frozen peas might suppose.

Boney remarked on the flavour The Git had noticed on the previous day. He was though a true pea connoisseur and also noted that the pods contained an average of two or three extra peas compared to what you expect to find. Not only was Boney The Git's first customer, he strongly suggested that he take up growing them commercially and that's what The Git did for the ensuing decade.

The Git's thinking about commercial production was heavily influenced by reading a short article about John Jeavons' organic garden in California. The article was entitled, "High Yields and Higher Hopes" and included some interesting data on crop yields. Several published comparisons of organic versus conventional production indicated organic as 20-50% lower than conventional. Jeavons was claiming the opposite, though these were not scientific trials. He was comparing his yields with published averages. While not scientific, The Git realised from the point of view of commercial reality this was a valid measure.

Yield per hectare is not the only measure of the value of crops. The Git has already alluded to the ignored-by-science flavour issue. You might argue that since flavour is entirely subjective, it cannot be measured by science. Of most importance to the commercial producer is the issue of net income. While related to yield, the cost of maximising yield might result in a loss, rather than a profit. A friend who was an agricultural extension officer in New Zealand quit to become a Kiwifruit grower. His yields, using all the expertise he had gathered during his career, were the highest in the district by a country mile. His fruit losses in storage were also the highest in the district. He made a loss while most of his neighbours made a profit. Converting from conventional to organic, his fruit loss in storage dropped to the lowest in the district.

Putting that aside for the moment, what of The Git's yields? The easiest to measure was maincrop potatoes -- they are harvested at full maturity after all growth has finished. A normal conventional yield is in the range 60-70 tonnes/hectare. The Git managed to attain yields as high as 300 tonnes/hectare. Whither comes the difference? Commercial potato production sees potatoes grown in ridges approximately twice as far apart as the plants in the ridge. The Git placed his seed at twice that density and covered them with a thick mulch of hay instead of ridging them. The maximum yield referred to occurred in a season of optimum rainfall, no irrigation had been necessary. In fact, the crop was mildly affected by Irish blight due to the high rainfall, so yields could have been higher still had some fungal disease control been used.

It is scientifically true that potatoes grown in trials designed to show that organically grown potatoes yield 20-50% less than conventionally grown. It's also equally scientifically true to say that The Git proved the opposite. The problem occurring here is that the wrong questions are being asked. The major crop limiting factor is not whether the potatoes are being grown with organic, or artificial fertiliser and how much -- it's the availability of water for the growing crop.

At that time, The Git was told by agricultural scientists that his results were irrelevant because there was insufficient organic matter (hay, or straw) available for the vast areas devoted to potato production and also that his regime was also far too labour-intensive to result in a profit. The latter turned out not to be true while the former argument is irrelevant. There is no scientific law that states one alternative among many must be chosen to the exclusion of all else. In its eagerness for discovery of Universal Laws, science was obviously very good at missing the point of problem solving.

In the intervening years, The Git has discovered many Commonly Accepted Theories in agriculture to be completely false. Fresh lime, he read in every book that included information on potato growing, was the cause of potato scab. Having learned that so much of what he had read was false, The Git discovered this to just be an old wives'/scientists' [delete whichever is inapplicable] tale. You can read here that scientists have now agreed. Every book on apple growing repeated the canard that you cannot successfully strike apple cuttings. In the same season, a neighbour used rooting hormone to do so. An organic farmer in the north of Tasmania successfully struck 3,000 using water, in which willow twigs were steeped for a few days, to irrigate the cuttings.

Having discovered so much misinformation in his area of interest, The Git set out to discover the extent of it. Much to his delight, he discovered that there were scientists investigating the anomalies contradicting Commonly Accepted Theory. The further afield The Git investigates, the more he discovers skunk-workers who take Bertrand Russell's exhortation to heart: "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing."

Thought for the day:

Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.

Charles H. Spurgeon

Current Listening

Jethro Tull -- Thick as a Brick


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Friday 30 August 2002

One of the definitions of Science is: "Ability to produce solutions in some problem domain". Karl Popper wrote in Conjectures and Refutations that this was also the domain of philosophy. The Git's other great hero of twentieth century thought, Richard Feynman was dismissive of philosophy and philosophers, with considerable justification. Here is an interesting essay by Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.

What had gone wrong for Feynman was that he had begun taking too seriously the idea that modern knowledge is a collective enterprise. Just trying to keep up with his field had suppressed his own sources of inspiration, which were in his own solitary questions and examinations. This, indeed, is the fate of most research in most disciplines, to make the smallest, least threatening, possible addition to "current knowledge." Anything more would be presumptuous, anything more might elicit the fatal "Don't you know what so-and-so is doing" from a Peer Reviewer, anything more might invite dismissal as some off-the-wall speculation -- not serious work.

So Feynman "stopped trying to keep up with the scientific literature or compete with other theorists at their own game, and went back to his roots, comparing experiment with theory, making guesses that were all his own..." [p. 186]. Thus he became productive again, as he had been when he had just been working things out for himself, before becoming a famous physicist.

And from the same website:

Philosophy and her neglected customer, humanity, truly stand in need of alternative philosophical ideas and approaches. In the Twentieth Century, philosophy was like a confused and clumsy person who repeatedly tries to commit suicide, but keeps failing, though with the addition of debilitating damage at each attempt. In a classic sophistic dilemma of false alternatives, respected academic philosophy often seemed to have offered only two choices:

  1. First, the sterility and agnosticism of positivistic, scientistic, and merely analytic schools, characteristically, if not always originally, Anglo-American, which have frequently denied the possibility of knowledge in metaphysical or ethical matters, and sometimes the possibility of constructive philosophical knowledge at all, with, according to Karl Popper, a "concentration upon minutiae (upon 'puzzles') and especially upon the meanings of words; in brief .... scholasticism." As Allan Bloom said, "Professors of these schools [i.e. positivism and ordinary language analysis] simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students." Students and the intellectually curious looking for some concern, any concern, about the truths of being and value, the content of wisdom, or some humane purpose, found instead what has aptly been called a "valley of bones." Although continuing analytic philosophy sometimes appears as a small island of some sanity in a sea of increasing nonsense, as with John Searle, it retains almost all of its sterility, futility, and what could even be called autism. The Proceedings still receives e-mail from people passionately advocating so miserable, impoverished, and incoherent a theory as Logical Positivism.
  2. Second, the nihilism, relativism, pseudo-science, and frequent political authoritarianism and dogmatism of the originally Continental alternatives: Existentialism, Marxism, deconstruction, and now "post-modernism." Deconstruction, Bloom said, "is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy." The truly last stage, however, is the "post-modern" combination of Anglo-American sterility with the higher irrationalism of a politicized deconstruction, the kind of thing we find in Richard Rorty's denial of philosophical, moral, or even scientific knowledge but affirmation of trendy leftist "solidarity." This combination represents, as Bloom perceived, the appalling, terrifying, and tragically ironic adaptation of the philosophical foundations of Fascism, from people like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, who both despised mere liberalism, to supposedly progressive political causes, replacing the Classical Liberal principles, now widely scorned by both left and right, of the Enlightenment foundations of liberal, free market democracy. Hence, one need hardly ask why students and scholars are more frequently directed to study the authoritarian Thomas Hobbes, a defender of political absolutism and judicial positivism, rather than the libertarian John Locke, one of the inspirations of the American Revolution, as he had been the apologist of the English Glorious Revolution (1688). Indeed, Locke is so widely ignored, that leftists often think of Hobbes as some kind of representative of liberalism and criticize the individualism of his "state of nature"! -- even while breathing deep of his statism and authoritarianism. [note] Western academics and intellectuals have truly and heartily taken up the cause of totalitarianism, fallen from the dead hands of fascism and communism, with the same goals, through the same methods, namely, laws about speech, thought crimes, disarmament of civilians, political control of private property and private relationships, denigration of religion, political propaganda through state schools, the militarization of police, the destruction of the rule of law through discretionary powers given to executive officials and bureaucrats, the subversion of trial by jury, etc. etc. There are also new twists, like the distortion of civil rights law into a means of abolishing civil rights.

Thought for the day:

Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.

Carol Mosely-Braun

Current Listening

Bob Dylan -- John Wesley Harding


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Sunday 1 September 2002

The Git was doing some maintenance on the chainsaw in the carport. SWMBO drove past, says she was looking into the carport, then reversed into the carport, pinning me between the rear of the car and the chainsaw. The bruise that caused The Git could live with, but not his back where the car struck it. His back has been damaged on two previous occasions and occasionally he is incapacitated by back-pain. Currently he is spending most of the time in bed semi-conscious on codeine. A visit to the quack Monday should determine how long this is likely to persist. Ah well, at least it has cut down the tobacco intake.

The Git found extricating himself from underneath the car more than a little difficult. It reminded him of a friend who told him about the occasion his wife accidentally sucked the budgie into the vacuum cleaner. Panic-stricken, she phoned her husband for advice. He suggested she turn the vacuum cleaner off.

Thought for the day:

If you can't solve it, it's not a problem--it's reality.

Barbara Colorose

Current Listening

Kevin Coyne -- Blame it on the Night


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