Tag Archives: Summer

3263 – Croatian Ways

We’ll be having elections in Vienna on October 11. Of course FPÖ, our right-wing populist party, the former party of late Jörg Haider, now led by some blue-eyed clone named Heinz Christian Strache, profits from the recent wave of refugees.

There is hardly anything disgusting that they don’t try (how about Facebook campaigns against corporations and organizations helping refugees?), but immoral behavior does not seem to disqualify them in the eyes of a large part of the general public.

There is nothing wrong at all in Vienna, but for some reason the newspapers seem to be in a frenzy. Nobody wants Strache in government (nobody in his right mind wanted Hitler either), but everybody seems to be fascinated by the idea, that Strache could win the elections and “take Vienna”.

Even the idea causes me nightmares. The last time this party was in government, we ended up with a series of completely incompetent ministers and wide-spread corruption. The courts are still busy. Nevertheless people seem to fail recognizing continuity.

Vienna currently is the stable tower, the mighty fortress of the Social Democrats (SPÖ), a party that has ruled Vienna since after World War II. At the moment they are in a coalition with the Green party and that’s what I’ll vote again. Green can only go with Red, and the stronger Green is, the more likely it is, that Red can only go with Green. Seems to be a safer bet than voting Red 🙂

If Vienna really falls, the repercussions would likely tear SPÖ apart. The result would unfailingly be another coalition of Conservatives and Far Right, just as we had it in 2000, only this time it would be a much longer night of corruption, austerity for the poor and lower taxes for the rich.

But then, I still hope that there is an upper limit to stupidity 🙂

3246 – The Hottest Summer

In Austria and most of Europe this summer was the hottest in recorded history and we’ve been recording meteorological data for centuries. The next few record-breaking summers before were all on this side of the millenium. Science has established climate change as one of the best supported theories of all times. It’s not as established as the theory of evolution, but it’s close. Unfortunately some people don’t grok science.

The scientific method initially observes a fact, and from reasoning about this fact a hypothesis is drawn. The hypothesis is not a fact. It’s only supported by logic based on assumptions, axioms. It has a predictive value though, and that can be tested. If the hypothesis holds, it must have consequences, and if we’re lucky, we may be able to observe the predicted consequences as facts in the real world.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it is not possible to just wait for something to happen. You have to carefully create an environment where it is likely to happen if the hypothesis holds, and at the same time unlikely if it does not. That’s called an experiment.

What we get from observation and experiments is not proof, it is scientific data that supports a hypothesis. If there is enough supporting data, the hypothesis matures into a theory.

Theories explain why things in the real world happen as they do. A well-supported theory is perfectly able to predict – within its scope. Newton’s theory of gravitation is pretty perfect at predicting what happens to apples on planet Earth, and in fact it does so for any kind of small object in relation to any kind of giant object. For everything out of scope Einstein’s theory of relativity is your friend.

Most people don’t grok science. They expect science to establish facts, “truths”, but that’s not what science is about. Science analyzes to the degree that is necessary to prove that gathered data supports a hypothesis. Science proves that what we observe is not an illusion and that it can be reproduced.

It may come as a disappointment that science does not drill for final truth, but if you think about it, we’ve come pretty far that way, and we’ve done it one step at a time. With conventional mechanics we could build anything from the pyramids of old to the sky scrapers of our age. Relativity and quantum mechanics gave us predictive tools good enough to send probes to the frontiers of the Solar system, to construct tiny computers with power unthinkable only 50 years before, ready for you to surf the Internets or to call your mum.

Science has not told us the complete inner secrets of silicon, but it was good enough to let us work it and create memory chips capable of storing more literature than you could ever read, and additionally a few of your vacation snapshots. I recently returned from a trip with 1244 images or 28.7 GB on my SD card.

We all have smartphones, digital cameras, personal computers, and that mankind can build these things is due to the predictive power of theories.

Theories enable us to repeatably achieve what is within the predictive scope of the theory. The “true reason” why things happen as the theory predicts may lie much deeper, but as long as it repeatably works (and in the end we get an iPhone), the theory is “good enough”.

Denial of climate change is frequently “grounded” in observation of seemingly contradictory facts. Texas had a lot of water this summer, and that seems to compensate for the drought in California or my “hottest summer”. Isn’t that understandable? We observe and we draw conclusions. Why is this suddenly different from what Sir Isaac did?

Well, we’re pretty much past the ages where falling apples called for explanation. More or less everything that can be observed by lay people “just so” has already been subject to extensive scientific scrutinity. Thanks for your observations and anecdotal evidence, but floods in Texas are perfectly in line with the theory of climate change.

The problem is, that those who don’t grok science have false expectations, and that is due to the dimensions of the problem. Have you ever seen on TV how the winning numbers in a lottery are drawn? Here is some random video from Austrian television. It always begins with the same neat array of numbered balls that, with the press of a button are tossed into a transparent vessel where air is blown in. We perfectly accept that the outcome is random. We even bet money on it.

The collissions of those plastic balls are chaotic enough that we have no theory powerful enough to predict the numbers. On the other hand, we have powerful theories predicting exactly that unpredictability.

Weather is like a giant lotto machine. It should be perfectly obvious that we are not able to exactly predict it in all its micro-aspects. Unfortunately what means “micro” in giant systems, can be the whole observable environment for a single human observer. Therefore we should never rule out a drop of rain on a day predicted to stay dry in our larger area.

But really, regional weather forecasts have vastly improved in my lifetime. They still get it wrong occasionally, but this is in the range of a few degrees more or less or of a rain front coming a day later than predicted. For short-term vacation planning this is already “good enough”. I know that it does not make sense driving down to Italy next weekend when the weather forecast predicts low pressure over Genoa.

That precision, imprecise as it may seem from the vantage point of a single observer, is enabled by vast computer models grounded in complicated theories based on centuries of research.

It’s the same kind of models that are employed on a global scale to predict the effects of climate change, but complexity rises vastly with scale, and while we have a dense network of sensors in our urban areas, it is sparse on much of the planet. Historical data does not exist everywhere to the same degree as it does in Europe, and all that forces us to compensate by much guesswork. In other words, it’s complicated and we are far from making good predictions. We can predict a rise of global average temperatures and an increase in extreme weather situations though.

People who don’t grok science have similar problems with the theory of evolution, and again it is a problem of scale, but this time it is the enormous length of time it takes evolution to achieve change. The problem is, that this change is completely invisible during a human lifespan. That all is complicated by the conflict with naive human explanation tools, i.e. with religion. Of course even religious people can watch evolution work on bacteria, but that all does not help when they deny the analogies to other life forms. It’s all “God made the ones changing and the others unchanging”. Oh Lord!

In reality there is a place for philosophy and maybe even for religion at the side of science. At least there are or were true scientists who are or were religious. Einstein was an example. They are or were only not naively religious.

As a species, humans are mostly illogical. They deny that we’ve been on the moon, but they perfectly accept and expect that GPS receivers in their phones tell them their exact position. They don’t think of smartphones in terms of the vast knowledge necessary to produce them, they think of them in terms of magic.

As always, politics is where things get really muddy. Politicians are mostly like normal people though. They are normal people, except that they have much more power. They have no scientific education, they don’t know what to expect and what not to expect from science. They are managers and not scientists, and for some stupid reason we expect managers to make the right decisions, even though they are completely unqualified for everything but following their guts.

Still, many politicians have some higher education and they are not completely at odds with science. When they insist on unscientific nonsense anyway, their reason is what we call an agenda.

The takeaway of all this? Even if you feel you don’t trust science, you probably trust your smartphone and your digital camera, and even if you don’t, you trust on the brakes of your car. Every time. You bet your life on them.

Guess what? Shockingly you trust in science 🙂

2870 – Things Are Looking Up

Just to get this out of the way, “Things Are Looking Up” by Jason Mraz is my Song of the Day. You can hear it on YouTube.

Today it is not about music though, today I’d like to speak about books. For a pretty long time (can’t look it up right now, because my mails are in the cloud and I have flaky Internet connection here on the train), at least two years, likely more, I have read almost nothing but e-books. I’ve “bought” most of them from Amazon and I read them on my Kindle (currently my second, a second generation Kindle Paperwhite 3G), the Kindle apps on my Nexus 7 tablet and my Galaxy S2 mobile running Cyanogen Mod, and recently, when it is a book about programming, I even use the Amazon Cloud Reader on my laptop’s browser. The latter makes sense when I use a book as a tutorial while programming.

I read more than I’ve ever read before. To keep track, I “share” each finished book with myself via email. That’s a function of the Kindle apps. It basically posts a message that I’ve finished the book on some social media system or, like I use it, sends the message as email. When I receive it, I tag it and can easily find it in GMail. Should GMail ever go away, I have always the local backups, saved to a RAID system. It’s a primitive and not very sophisticated way to keep track of what I’ve read, but in case of books, the sheer numbers are much smaller than with music and songs.

I first sent such an email on May 10 this year, and in the meantime I have 14 mails in my “A book read” folder. 14 books is not bad for a third of a year and I am sure that this is more than I ever read on paper.

It’s easy to see why. Regardless of where I am, I have always at least one device with me, and although one would think that reading on a phone is inconvenient, in fact it is not. Networking and automatic synchronization make switching devices seamless and convenient, dictionaries and the option to look facts up in an offline Wikipedia and geography in an offline maps application open up a depth that I’ve never enjoyed before.

Recently I was swimming. I read a book where a certain verse from the Gospel after Matthew was mentioned. My reading device was the Kindle Paperwhite 3G. It gives me access to Amazon’s shop via 3G networks and in complete absence of WiFi. It just works and it does so in most countries that I’m likely to ever travel to.

What did I do? Of course I went to the shop and bought a cheap copy of the Bible, looked up the verse, switched a few times between book and Bible, and now I have another source for reference available whenever I need it. It’s so cool 🙂

OK, meanwhile I’ve looked up when I bought my first Kindle. That was at the end of April 2011. Wow!

I have 114 books in my Kindle collection. Not all of them I’ve read, but the ratio is better than with printed books. All in all I’d call that a big success.

2869 – Seven Shades

Ok, it’s only one shade, a sunshade, but “Seven Shades” by The Babyshambles is still my Song of the Day. Hear it on YouTube.

By the way, do you remember my plan to create an application that would take my data from Last.fm and put it into my own database? My plan to make an Open Source application that would solve the problem of how to keep one’s own music “collection” without physical records or at least digital downloads?

It all came to nothing, I encountered some difficulties and inconsistencies in what Last.fm stores and how it is made available, spent lots of time learning a new technology that I finally decided to not use, and thus much time passed. It made me wiser, but it did not solve my problem.

And a problem it is. When I decided to tackle it, it was only an extrapolation, an expected problem, but now after more than half a year I do see how I’m beginning to lose the feeling for a “collection”, how I begin to forget what I once found to like greatly, in other words I see me consuming music in a much more linear fashion instead. I like something, I hear it for a few days, and then in all that mass of music I find something else, and in the end I may even forget about what I once called a “favorite” or “loved” on Last.fm.

Babyshambles are such a band. I have heard one or two albums once or twice, I liked them, but then I simply went on and forgot about them. It’s easy to see how it will be in a year or five.

This may not even be a real problem at all. Maybe it is just a different way to hear music, that is just as well as how I heard it before. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. I don’t know and I can’t tell. Time will tell, and just to avoid future regrets, I guess it would be nice to have some kind of database as a safety net 🙂

2583 – Memories

It’s snowing outside. It was not supposed to, but it does. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t complain, because, you know, it’s that time of the year. Or, well, yes, I do complain. It won’t help though 🙂

This picture was taken in hot summer. That’s in my memories and I hope to feel it again until … and then again and again until …

The Song of the Day is “Memories” from Leonard Cohen’s much under-appreciated cooperation with Phil Spector, “Death Of A Ladies’ Man”. See it in a clip from the short movie “I am a hotel“.