The Problem With Pendulums

Don’t get me wrong! There is a place for pendulums, but only because their imperfections are so predictable.

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Wikipedia has an articleD that gives more information about pendulums than most readers would like, including the math, history, and problems perfecting them. For a shorter version focussing mostly on the math, see The Department of Physics & Astronomy website at Georgia State University.
  Pendulums try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, but they are dismal failures. The only time they rest or stop moving for even a moment is when they are as far from perfect as they can possibly get. They spend less time at their desired destination than they spend anywhere else on their route, and during that nanosecond of success, they are moving their fastest toward another extreme position. Why is that?

Pendulums cannot think.  Pendulums cannot predict, they cannot anticipate.   They cannot see the consequences of their own actions.  They can’t even tell that they’ve been to their desired destination until they see it in the rear view mirror.  You might say that they have a very slim grip on reality.  They only react.  And as a result, they are doomed to a life of constant searching, continually bouncing frantically from one radical position to another.   Welcome to the real world.  People who practice similar policies WILL suffer similar fates.  And welcome to politics.

Any questions?

“These Are A Few Of My Favorite . . .” Songs

We have a lighter topic today – music.  I’ve recently made changes in my list of favorite songs, so I’ll talk about some of them, and then try to find an explanation for a pattern I’ve noticed as people get older.

The List

  1. Holding my number one spot for decades now has been Barbra Streisand’s version of “People”lyrics, video, created in 1964 for the Broadway musical “Funny Girl”.  I’m not actually sure I qualify as the type of person in the song (I may have come from a long line of rugged individuals living in a Love desert) but when I see those people together, I feel what could be envy.
  2. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now”lyrics, video, which she recorded on her 1969 album “Clouds”, just moved up the charts to the number two spot that was vacated maybe a year ago by Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”lyrics, video from their 1979 rock opera “The Wall”. As a teacher, I could just imagine my whole class singing “We don’t need no education” in unison and it just struck me as a bit funny.  Since that song became the Republican’s unofficial theme song, I find it more depressing than funny.

I’ve always liked “Both Sides, Now”, and similar to the story about “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, it shows how a change in perspective can enrich your life – or not.

  1. Next is “Climb Every Mountain”lyrics, video, which Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for their 1959 musical “The Sound of Music”. I’m partial to the version that was dubbed by Margery MacKay in the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews.  Actually, I liked the whole movie, especially the songs Julie sang, like the title songvideo and even the song that inspired the title of this post, “My Favorite Things”video.
  2. Although the beat goes on, today’s last list entry is number four, “Hotel California”lyrics, video which, unlike the others, shot toward the top of my chart immediately after it was released as the title track from an Eagles’ album in late 1976 (even though by then I had already left of the state). I really enjoy the symbolism, and like many, recognize it as an allegory about hedonism and greed. Other great songs on that album include “New Kid In Town”video and “Life In The Fast Lane”audio.

While the top spots on my list are fairly stable, as one goes down the list, that becomes less true as a song’s ranking starts to depend more on my mood.  Looking down the list, you will see newer songs from artists like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga working their way up, as well as other classics like “The Sound of Silence”video by (Paul) Simon & (Art) Garfunkel (which I had heard before watching the 1967 film “The Graduate”, but the two together made an impression on me and that song remained near the top of my list for quite a while).  My favorite country singers are probably Kenny Rogers (my favorites being “The Gambler”video and “Coward of the County”video) and then Garth Brooks.  I prefer my classical music to be lively, like Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”full, finale, which some of you may remember from “The Lone Ranger”, and “1812 Overture”full, finale.

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The full title is “The Year 1812, festival overture in E♭ major, Op. 49”. Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading army (any resemblance to the War of 1812 between the British and the new United States of America is purely coincidental). More recently, the song was used in commercials for Quaker Oats Puffed Wheat, among other things.
I have also long been a sucker for Christmas music (I could enjoy these songs in June). Probably my earliest favorite, first sung the Christmas Eve of 1818 in Austria (I wasn’t actually around, then), was “Silent Night”video (surprise, surprise), which was unseated for a short time by “The First Noel”video, but now they both compete with a host of other examples of the genre (with “Joy To The World”video usually having a slight lead).

The Question

As a youngster, I noticed that people of all ages seem to restrict their musical listening to those songs that were popular when they were in their teens. At the time, I postulated that once the music retention area of the brain ‘hardens’, about the time one reaches adulthood, it is impossible to retain or appreciate new songs. Now that I’ve seen this phenomenon “from both sides now”, I’ve reworked my theory.  For me, one change that has occurred over the years is that I just don’t (have the opportunity to?) listen to as much music as I used to.  When I’m wrapped in thought, I prefer the sounds of silence.  And when I am around others, they rely on their old favorite, but limited sources.  This ties in with my earlier discussions How Large Is Your Universe and How We Lose Our Grip On Reality, and could be considered a sign of decay.  But it doesn’t have to happen.  If one were to diversify their sources, as suggested, they would know that there is very good music being produced every day, just as it was when they were young.  But then they would have to find something else to complain about.

When Sailors Should Split Tacks

American inventor Thomas Edison once said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”A.  From my experience, when you are competing, whether for business or pleasure, or trying to solve a problem, or just trying to get something done, you can usually do very well without that stroke of genius if during the remaining 99% of the time you can just keep from screwing up.

The Sailing Example

One summer when I was younger, I had the opportunity to race sailboats by donating the perspiration needed to handle the sails.  Since sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind, which is often exactly where you need to go, you must regularly choose which side of the wind is best, or which side of the course is best, or . . . the bottom line is that in sailboat racing, as in life, there are plenty of decision-making opportunities.  If we happened to get behind early in the race, by the time we got to a point that needed a decision, our competition had already gotten to that point and had already made their decision.  Our skipper, reasoning that we would never catch up if we did everything our competition had done, invariably would make the opposite choice at that point (hence, splitting tacks, or sailing on the opposite side of the wind as our competition).  More often than not we would get further behind.  As it turned out, we won almost no races that summer. Now I will use just a little math to show you why not.

The Math

Without divine intervention or that long-awaited flash of inspiration, after a short time the leaders in this race will be the ones that make more correct moment-by-moment decisions. When our skipper got to his decision point, it is reasonable to assume that the competition ahead of him is batting above 500D and already chose the short path. If the current leader has a success rate of, say 70%, then by blindly taking the other path, our skipper was limiting his success rate to 30%. This is NOT a winning strategy. The more prudent leader would have chosen his battles; he would have evaluated every decision independently – more often than not this means he would have made the same choice as his competitor (assuming his own success rate is high enough to be competitive – certainly higher than 50%)  – and he would bide his time while waiting for the competition to make their mistake. When his own evaluation led him to a different decision, he would quickly recheck his work (out of respect for his competitor’s 70% success rate) and then he would pounce.

A Non-sailing Example – Rush Hour Traffic

“Rush Hour”, referring to  those busy couple of hours in the morning and another couple of hours in the afternoon when everybody is commuting to or from work at the same time and traffic is congested (as opposed to that time of day when Rush Limbaugh is delivering his political commentary), implies an urban environment, which implies a larger grid of streets and thus a richness of decision-making opportunities not completely unlike a fleet of sailboats tacking upwind, but familiar to a much larger segment of the population.  Many of you may have carpooled with somebody with the mentality of the skipper described above: either there is some sort of accident or s/he misjudged traffic again and finds him/herself behind schedule and facing the growing possibility that they will be late for work.  Lacking patience or maturity, they assume the traffic must be better on one of the many alternative routes and blindly makes a turn (tacks) at the next intersection.  When they discover that this path is also blocked, they immediately move to Plan C, then D, and so forth.  Each maneuver has a small cost, which rapidly adds up, and then the path actually starts to get longer and they continue to dig themselves a deeper and deeper hole (oops, that’s not a sailing reference).  The math is similar to that above.  To mix metaphors even more, compare this to the hitter swinging too hard for a home run.  The problem is that in this game, after each errant swing the outfield fence is moved ten yards further away.  Although still mathematically possible (at first), the odds of that game-winning home run drop with every swing.  Those are the perils of panicking, shutting off your brain, closing your eyes, and trying to slug your way out of your problems.

The Moral

As you might have guessed, this article is not really about sailing, or traffic, or baseball. Blindly splitting tacks is a tactic of desperation.  Desperation is often a result of one’s fears getting the best of them, and may be one of the consequences of ignorance.  It is never expedient to shut off your brain to save time (by the same token, except for specially trained pilots in specially designed aircraft, nobody would willingly turn off an airplane’s engines while still in the air), yet people try it every day.  This is what happens when you panic.  So get a grip!  Just as in the sailing example, the prudent driver would carefully evaluate every decision (the more you practice, the easier it gets) instead of assuming the worst, bide your time, and make your bold move only when the conditions are right.

How We Lose Our Grip On Reality

After learning how to SCUBA dive while in high school years ago, my friends and I did most of our diving from the beach. The geography was fairly simple; from the beach the bottom had a gentle slope until reaching the (non-coral) reef of interest at a depth of around 30 feet a couple hundred yards offshore. Water visibility was typically 15 to 25 feet offshore, but could be less than five feet in the surf zone. After moving as fast as possible through the surf zone, we would regroup, sink to the bottom, and rely on our compass, backed up by our depth gauge, to find the most direct path (perpendicular to the beach) to our destination. Our depth gauge was supported by physical clues of our depth, like light intensity and even the spectrum of colors available.

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Of course light intensity drops steadily as one goes deeper, but also the colors disappear with depth, starting with the longer wavelengths (red)A.
 At the end of the dive we would return straight to the surface, which would put us still a few hundred yards from the beach.  We would inflate our life vests, as they were called back then,
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They are now known as BCDs.D.
roll over on our backs, and leisurely swim back to the beach as we caught our breath. It was quite common on this return trip to look back past your fins and either see the beach behind you, or see one of your friends swimming out to sea.

But you don’t need to be a diver to see how poorly we maintain a straight and narrow path.

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Any resemblance to Matthew 7:13 & 14D is purely coincidental. 😉
To do your own experiment, start in the middle of a large field, put a blindfold on and walk in a “straight” line, dropping numbered markers or flags or let out a rope as you walk (the last time I heard of anyone relying on the bread crumb trick, it didn’t turn out wellA.)  You should be able to take the blindfold off in less than a minute, look back at your path, and be happy nobody was watching.  The moral of this story is that without regular “reality checks”, one won’t be taking the shortest path to your destination, and probably shouldn’t expect to get there at all.  And so it is with life.

How To Maintain Your Grip On Reality

Make regular observations

Every nautical chart will tell you that “The prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation …”, which clearly means the same as that seventeenth-century proverb “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket”. Failing to make regular observations is the simplest way to lose touch with reality.

Verify all information – “Google, don’t gossip”

If you don’t know the position or the reliability of the source, you can’t depend on it to find or even describe your own position.

Apply the same standards to all information

Don’t get all of your news from one source. Expect all sources to have some bias (that may not be clear). Politically, this means that you should not get more than 30% of your information from Rush Limbaugh or any lesser-known celebrity (regardless of political affiliation). Your sources should come from all around your horizon,

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Landmarks that are near each other may have similar positional biases, which will translate into errors in your own position estimate because using them will cause the errors to accumulate and negate any averaging or cancelling effect that you were hoping to get from independent sources.
and you should not treat the information that comes from one side of your vessel different from the information on the other side. Again, politically, you can’t demand higher standards from the other candidates than you expect from your favorite. This just exposes you as a bigot looking for excuses.

Don’t Throw Out Information Just Because It’s Unexpected Or Inconvenient

I’ve already discussed this in “How Large Is Your Universe”.  If you are doing this, stop calling yourself a scientist and expect others to call you a bigot. We’ve all seen bosses who surround themselves with sycophantsD (ass kissers) and ultimately drive their Rolls-Royce off Reality Road into a ditch (Not surprisingly, none of their entourageD helps pull them out.)  When scientists, whose job it is to describe reality, run across information that doesn’t support their theory they are forced to change their theory.  Of course there are the occasional outliers,

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For a simple explanation of outliers, see the “Math Is Fun” website. The last paragraph of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (N.I.S.T.) website discusses how to handle outliers.
which need to be handled carefully.  One clue to how far you’ve wandered from reality is the number of outliers you have to throw away.

And that is pretty much it.  It is simple enough, but requires constant effort.  If you think I left anything out, let me know.  Other comments are welcome and appreciated.  Now go apply this to your life.  Thanks for listening.

The Glory Of Golf

Before I start, I suppose you should know that I’ve never played golf. I was introduced to the game in school and whacked a few balls around, but it never captured my interest. Back then I didn’t even consider it a sport, and the news that some places demand you use a cart to get from hole to hole just reinforced my argument. Although at this point in my life I may be willing to reconsider the physical requirements necessary to qualify as a sport in my world, that’s not why I’m here. I believe there are important life lessons in the game of golf and I’m amazed that so many golfers fail to apply these lessons to their everyday lives.

For Perfectionists

There are perfectionists who would like nothing better than to redo their tee shot if it doesn’t go in the hole. Many of them would never progress beyond the first stroke. A golf course for perfectionists might not have a Hole #2, just eighteen 1st holes so they could better accommodate the crowd. At some point, possibly some time after the lights go out in the evening, even these people would be forced to move on. The question is not whether there are MulligansD in real life – certainly there are plenty of opportunities to practice and hone one’s skills before being tested. The question is whether when the clock is running and it’s time to get things done, if you’d really want to take a do-over. I think you will find that when you are allowed to take advantage of your earlier efforts and take your second shot from wherever the first one stopped rolling, you will find your solution or end of your journey much faster.  In life, the well-known problem-solving strategy of “trial and error” is much more effective when you can take advantage of what you learned in your previous trials.

For The Typically Delusional

Maybe the real beauty of golf is that it forces the rest of us to face reality also. When your shot invariably falls short of expectations, not only are you not allowed to start over, but you are not allowed to place the ball where it SHOULD have gone had the sun been up, or the wind had not suddenly come up, or somebody had not sneezed, or any other logical explanation for your shot being far below your previously advertised average. Yes, it IS amazing how often that happens. Deal with it. Move on. Your second shot will be taken from wherever the first one actually stopped rolling, under the conditions actually in effect when the shot was taken. And your third shot will be taken from wherever that one lands. In this fashion, your chances of success increase significantly with every stroke. You will eventually meet your goal of finishing the course, and you can practice your excuses when you get back to the clubhouse.

What’s not to like about that?

Rules Of Engagement

“Real men”, or those who no longer need to prove their manhood, no longer have a need to fight all foes and have learned the wisdom of choosing their battles.  Whether that title would include me or not is subject to debate (or maybe just wishful thinking), but here are the rules I follow.  There are only two rules, and each has just one exception.  I suppose any “real man” would have to set his or her standards even higher than this:

  1. Never fight someone smaller than you.  This would be a public relations nightmare.  Should you win, you will receive no glory (since that is what you were expected to do), and most likely would receive ridicule for choosing such an easy target.  Should by some chance you lose, you will never ever hear the end of it.  The exception to this rule would be that if you were attacked you would be allowed to defend yourself as necessary.  But even then you may use only enough force to subdue or dissuade the attacker.  Keep in mind that exactly how much force is necessary to accomplish that will always be subject to later review by armchair quarterbacks everywhere.
  2. I don’t recommend fighting someone much bigger than you, for obvious reasons.  (If the reason is NOT yet obvious to you, then you may disregard this rule for as long as it takes to discover a good reason.  If you are winning all of these fights, then you are conveniently clueless about the definition of “much bigger than you”).  As the exception to this rule, you may proceed if you are fighting for a good cause.  One question, which some attribute to the U.S. Marine Corps (but may in fact go back much further) that you may always want to consider when choosing a cause is “Is this the hill I am willing to die on?”  For me, ‘feeding my own ego’ just doesn’t make the cut.  ‘Proving your manhood’ probably shouldn’t either.  Some people get a lot of satisfaction out of their support of causes much larger than themselves.  Besides their effectiveness rating, the grandness (or the smallness, even pettiness) of the causes for which they are willing to fight might be a much better way to judge a person than the more traditional characteristics of size, color, sex, or religious/political/social affiliations.

That’s all there is to it.  But this is just one person’s opinion.  If you think I’ve forgotten something, speak up.  I would be particularly interested to hear what a “real man” might add to the discussion.  Thanks for your time.