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Andrew Reid
137 followers -
Clever. Maybe clever enough.
Clever. Maybe clever enough.

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On the occasion of this weekend's conspicuous sports event, I give you, from my YouTube favorites, this superb owl.

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This is worth a re-share, it's a lovely rant about the difference between the content of science vs. the method of science, and the social consequences of offering one over the other.

I have had only a tiny bit of teaching experience, as a teaching assistant in graduate school, where I gave brief lectures of background info for laboratory exercises which students then worked through, and ran into a related issue when one or another student's experiment didn't give the expected result. It was always either a procedural glitch or equipment failure, of course, the odds of finding new physics while trying to resolve the double D-line in the Sodium emission spectrum are vanishingly small, but figuring out what went wrong and why it had the effect it did was a teaching opportunity that was too little explored. Generally it was more time-efficient to just repeat the procedure more carefully, or swap in a different instrument.
In which I blame teachers for things

In light of recent news, and after a brief exchange I had when I shared this picture yesterday, I've been thinking a lot about science and science education. I blame teachers for this mess.

I used to teach science. I even taught Science, which is different than science, after one of my freshman biology students, a Christian and a creationist, asked to learn more about evolution. She didn't actually want to understand the theory, I quickly discovered. What she wanted to understand was how a seemingly educated and intelligent guy like me could be so completely duped by a patently false idea.

So I agreed to show her. But not by teaching evolution. I told her I wasn't going to do that. At all. Not even a little. As it happened, my graduate training was in Biology, but my undergraduate emphasis was on the history and philosophy of science, and I saw that what she really lacked was not FACTS. It was understanding. So I said I would merely teach her how to evaluate scientific reasoning and she could take it from there.

I went online to see what tools were available for students and teachers at the high school level. And there ain't much. Don't get me wrong. There are some. But it's pretty sparse compared to almost anything else. You'll find a great deal more teaching tools for something specific like molecular genetics, for example, than for teaching about Science itself, which is just insane. It does a student no good to learn about operons and their regulation, or the neutral theory, without a firm understanding of what science ISN'T.

I had an epiphany just then. We don't teach Science in this country. At all. We teach its content. We teach science: Avogadro's number and coefficients of friction and chordate anatomy and the pH scale and sine functions. As if memorizing the citric acid cycle somehow teaches you to understand Science and why it's so powerful. Facts and tables can reinforce that understanding, but only if it's already there. If not, nothing you learn in high school or almost any college Gen. Ed. requirement will gift it to you.

Students come burdened with language. They learn passively from society that science is an occupation -- like accounting, or carpentry -- and also a collection of experimental outcomes organized into big tables that have to be memorized to get a job. They learn that a theory -- "Well, that's one theory, I guess" -- is just a hypothesis and a hypothesis is a shot in the dark. Educators spend about five minutes at the start of the semester correcting that and then launch right into the subject material. Is it any surprise then that voting citizens who couldn't come up with three sentences to describe the hydrological cycle will tell you with absolute certainty that human-caused climate change is a hoax?

If that distresses you, I would question how much you're paying attention. Asking students to draw conclusions from a list of facts they're required to memorize but are incompetent to evaluate isn't education. It's indoctrination. Science class is nine months of "Trust me. I'm right."

And so here it's the 21st century and Science denial is all the rage. We all know about the anti-vaxxers and their ilk. But it's not just a problem with the Right. It's NOT. The debate about GMOs, for example, has become so politicized, it's lost all connection to science and reason. So it is Bill Nye (the science guy) -- one of the country's foremost science educators and a more competent scientist than you or I ever will be -- reversed his opposition to GMOs after careful review, and rather than taking that as evidence of the scientific process, of free an open inquiry, he was pilloried for being a "tool of Monsanto" -- because part of his consideration included taking a tour of their labs to, you know, actually observe for himself what they were up to rather than just reading a second-hand account on Mother Jones.

Look, Science is potentially dangerous. It's always been potentially dangerous. And the public has always been just a little bit worried about that. The very first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, captures that fear, and even seems to warn us that some lines of inquiry were just not meant for man, following the lesson of the earlier myth of Doctor Faustus that learned dudes in long robes will set loose monsters from their ivory towers and we'll all suffer. It's the plot of every Cold War-era sci-fi movie, in fact -- that an irradiated ant will eat Las Vegas, that the machines will become self-aware and kill us, that we'll become self-aware and kill ourselves.

The debate shouldn't be about prohibitions and controls. It should always be about transparency and oversight (such as peer review). I take it as an axiom that before too long the world is gonna need a stable, tested, drought- and pesticide-resistant source of food. I take it as an axiom that we should be looking for ways of curing childhood genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs. I take it as an axiom that we're going to do a lot more damage to the environment before things get better, and that breeding a strain of Deinococcus radiodurans that could clean up nuclear waste would be awesome.

All of those lines of inquiry carry risk. And a not insignificant amount. So it is we have people on both sides of the political spectrum arguing that Science should be curtailed or prohibited because they've decided -- as laypeople, in advance -- that some problems are just not soluble, and anyway it's just not worth the risk.

Because, you know, there are monsters.

("Just Say No" has never been an effective strategy to curb anything, by the way. All it does is drive it underground, where there's even less visibility and control. The surest way to ensure a rogue gene makes it into the wild is for industrialized nations to place such steep roadblocks on GMO research that it's driven to the Third World, where there's no oversight at all.)

I blame teachers for this mess. I really do. I know that's not popular. But it's true. Don't get me wrong. Science educators fight valiantly -- and that's not sarcasm; I mean it -- against efforts to gut science education. They fight valiantly to continue teaching the content of evolution. But never the vessel. And then we wonder why, year after year, a majority of Americans, high school-graduates all -- and even a high percentage of college grads -- doubt climate change. Or evolution (roughly the same percentage as Islamic states like Turkey, by the way). We ask them to drink from a well they're being told is poisoned, and then we wonder why they refuse.

Regardless of anyone's best efforts, that's the actual, real, practical outcome of science education in this country. And my student, by the way -- the one who wanted to understand how it was I got duped by science -- totally came around after just a couple months, and all without me ever even saying the word evolution.

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I eventually settled on Ronald Giere's "Understanding Scientific Reasoning" as the textbook for my sessions. I'm sure there are others, and I'm sure there are people out there who can steer you appropriately.

And if you're one of those people who's chest spasms at the thought of stem cell research or GMOs or whatever, read David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity" and repeat the following to yourself every time you get nervous: "Problems are soluble. Problems are soluble. Problems are soluble."

(re-sharing this art by Beeple)
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Say what you will about 2016, at least the damn thing's almost over.

Hey, remember 1989, geopolitically speaking? That was a pretty good one. I might think about that one instead.

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Today's ride. A balmy 60F (about 15C) out there, but wet, and muddy in spots, and it actually did rain on me for a bit, from about mile 3.5 to 7 or so.

But, this means I've been for a reasonably substantial ride three weekends in a row, which I find weirdly satisfying.

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Via /r/MapPorn, the population distribution of the US in units of Canadas.

Might be interesting to check out the source data, the yellow zone that includes most of Michigan seems to reach out a bit to include a bit of the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, that'd be Chicago, for a 3M population bump there.

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Still having fun with Advent of Code. Today's puzzle (Dec. 10, http://adventofcode.com/2016/day/10) involves tracing the flow of a couple of numbered microchips (the fateful chips 17 and 61) through a series of robotic shuffling steps.

Different users get different inputs, and it's long past time to get on the leaderboard for this puzzle anyways, so I don't think this is much of a spoiler.

After solving it, I decided to visualize the shuffling scheme, and learned a couple of things. Firstly, the shuffling is not all that complex -- this is not apparent from the input, which is a text list of robots with their output destinations, and of input relationships. Secondly, I also learned that "graphviz" is reasonably easy to use, I'd never used it before, and came up with this pretty quickly.

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Today's ride.

Shorter than I had in mind, but it was 38 F out there (that's about 3 C) and breezy, and my feet were getting cold, so I didn't do a loop around the Potomac bridges, which was the original plan. But I got a couple of good hill-climbs in, and it feels like this is the first time in a while that I've actually gotten out two weekends in a row.

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Today's ride.

Something of an uncontrolled experiment -- I've been having some trouble with hydration, even when I drink a lot of water on my rides, so I picked up some electrolyte tablets to put in my water, and used them on this ride. But, also, it was 50 degrees out (that's about 10C), so I wasn't sweating all that much anyways.

The good news is, I'm not having the post-exercise headache that I've sometimes been getting, but the bad news is I'm not sure if it was the electrolytes or just the cool weather.

Also, I made a couple of wrong turns, relative to the original plan -- I missed the Kansas Ave. turn a bit after mile 2, and ended up doing a bit of a detour, and also missed the Wayne Ave. turn in downtown Silver Spring, a bit after mile 7. For the second one, I think I have a good excuse, there's been a lot of development around there. Not sure what happened on the first one.

Also, I definitely need to do this more often, I had a pretty hard time with the Shoreham Drive hill ("heartbreak hill"), but didn't have to shift down or stop, so that's still a marginal win.

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So Eric Wastl (same guy as +Eric Wastl , maybe?) is doing Advent of Code again, I just finished the puzzles for Day 2.

There are two puzzles each day from Dec. 1 to Dec. 25, you can get the second puzzle of the day by solving the first one, and it's typically a variation on the same theme. (I say "typically" because this was true in the 2015 puzzles, you see...)

I'm doing them in Python, and my coding style is very object-oriented, which for the first two puzzles at least has been a pretty good bet, I made stateful "playing board" objects for part 1 of both days, and it turned out to be a clean abstraction for part two of the puzzle both times.

I had promised myself that I would try to think more functionally, generally, but it doesn't come easily.

Oh no, not these guys too...

One of the minor but frequently recurring frustrations arising from my role as a system administrator for government computers is warnings for issues I have already mitigated, but not in precisely the way the scanner/auditor was expecting. My application environment differs from the one they're assuming, so different solutions make sense. I spend quite a lot of time explaining this, and to their credit, the auditors generally understand.

Today, to my considerable dismay, it happened on my Raspberry Pi.

The latest "pixel" update contains a check at log-in time, it checks to see if SSH is enabled, and whether the default password for the "pi" user is still in place, and if both are true, it nags you about this being a security vulnerability.

And it would be, if this arose from a default config where SSH had just been enabled with the defaults.

My config is not like that -- I enabled SSH, and disabled remote password authentication. Nobody, not even me, can remote in to my Raspberry Pi with any password, default or otherwise. You need a valid private key.

I get it. Their hearts are in the right place, we all remember all those compromised IoT devices that blew up Twitter, and this is probably a useful tip for a large fraction of admins.

And it's easy enough to change the password to silence the warning, which is probably what I will do, although hacking the warning script (it's in /etc/profile.d/sshpasswd.sh) is tempting.

But dammit, #notallpis.
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