Dear Stephen Hawking: Stop Embarrassing Yourself

It seems lately that every time I read the news there’s some new pronouncement by Stephen Hawking that we need to get humanity into space soon if we don’t want the human race to die.  He started off saying that it needed to be within 1000 years, and now we’re down to 100.  I wouldn’t be surprised if next week he didn’t put out a press release saying that we’ve got 37 days to get humanity into space or we’re all doomed.

Now, before you think I’m going to argue that Stephen Hawking is an idiot, let me first say that I have the utmost respect for the man and for his accomplishments to science.  I may not actually have any idea what any of these accomplishments are, but I know black holes are in there somewhere.  And lots and lots of math.

The problem I have with Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He’s a very good astrophysicist and possibly the smartest man alive.  However, his field is environmentalism or space travel or asteroids or whatever – his field is astrophysics.  It’s true that he’s a smart guy, but he’s no more qualified to make big pronouncements about the end of the world than I am.  And, in turn, I’m no more qualified to make big pronouncements about these things than anybody else.  I’d be willing to bet that nobody really has what takes to make big pronouncements like this because we simply don’t have enough information about the issue.  Humanity may be ending and it may not.  To say that we’ve got some particular deadline before the plug is pulled, however, implies a level of precision that we simply don’t have.

A similar thing came up in 2014 when Mr. Hawking stated that there is no God and that His existence simply isn’t possible.  I’m not sure what Mr. Hawking’s background is, but I can say that my Master’s Degree in Theology, when combined with my scientific knowledge, makes me a little more qualified to talk about God than Mr. Hawking.  So, let’s hear what I, a learned person and arguable expert, has to say about this issue:

There’s no verifiable evidence for or against the existence of God.  To say that “He exists” or “He doesn’t exist” is premature.  To say anything else is a judgment call based in non-scientific reasoning.

See what I did there?  With my fairly good knowledge of both science and modern theology I was able to definitively say that I don’t actually have any reason to believe in God or not.  I mean, I do believe in God, but this is not based in science – to say that my belief is in any way scientific is 100% wrong.

I wish Mr. Hawking would have the modesty to realize that perhaps he doesn’t know everything.  He may very well be right that humanity will die if we don’t move to Mars next week and he may very well be right that God doesn’t exist.  However, he has no evidence to state either of these opinions as facts.  For now, he’ll have to admit that its what he thinks and not what he knows.  And in science, that matters very much.

 

It’s time to retire the TI-83

If you have a look on Amazon, you’ll see that everybody’s favorite calculator, the TI-83, costs $89.99 USD.  If you want to live it up a little and get the TI-84 Plus, you’ll be out $99.99.

 

The specs for the TI-84 Plus are very impressive, sporting as processor that works at either 6 or 15 MHz and either 48 or 128 MB RAM (depending on model), with 24 MB accessible to the user.  Pretty slick stuff.

I’ve heard that the reason we keep the TI-83/84 series around is that teachers know how they work and that schools get good prices on them.  Just for fun, let’s see what alternatives to the TI-83/84 are available:

  • The Raspberry Pi Zero:  If you were to make the switch to this little device, you’d get four times the RAM and 67 times the processing speed.  Bonus:  You’d be able to buy 20 of them for the price of one TI-84, plus you could run a full-version of the Linux operating system on it.  (Note:  There are several other, much burlier, versions of the Pi, but the cost may be prohibitive – at $35 each).
  • Chromebook:  For $20 more than the TI-84, you could buy a refurbished Samsung Chromebook, running a 1.6 GHz processor and with 2 GB RAM and a 16 GB SSD. Bonus:  They are fully functional, fast computers.
  • Smartphone:  If you’d like the functionality of a graphing calculator at a fraction of the cost, just about any smartphone will do.  If you were to buy any smartphone and run it on Wi-Fi instead of getting a cellular plan, you could get the same functionality as the TI-83/84 series calculators for less than half the price.  Bonus:  Angry Birds!
  • Windows Stick:  I know I sound like a cheerleader for Linux sometimes, so let’s see what we could get in a Windows computer.  Head over to Amazon and search for “Windows Stick” and you’ll find a brand new stick computer running Windows 10 for just over $97.  Bonus:  You could use it to literally do all of your other classroom jobs.
  • One of those dollar store calculators:  You can get a four-function calculator at a dollar store that does about 99% of what you’d ever need from a calculator.  Bonus:  For the price of 1 TI-83, you could buy enough for three classrooms full of kids.

I know that some of you are unconvinced.  However, ask yourself this question:  How often have my students actually needed a graphing calculator, and how often could they have gotten away with a much cheaper scientific calculator?  The only real difference between the TI-83/84 and the $9 TI-30 scientific calculators is the graphing function.  Do we, as educators, really need to make our schools and students pay an extra $80+ dollars each because graph paper is hard to find?

It’s time for Texas Instruments to move along, or at the very least to provide technology that fits the price tag.

It’s time to talk about something important

My son’s Cub Scout pack is going on a camping trip tomorrow and despite my hatred of the outdoors and everything that exists there, my wife has told me that I, as the cubmaster, have to attend.

Like a good cubmaster, I headed off yesterday to the campsite to see what sort of activities and such were available.  It’s a nice place with real bathrooms, campfire pits, and even elevated platforms for the tents.  I even bought a straw hat to wear during my cubmasterly duties.

Unfortunately, I decided to push my luck and check out the hiking trail.  Though I’m used to hiking trails being made of packed dirt, or perhaps crushed gravel, this hiking trail is a knee-length ribbon of lawn.  I’d never seen anything like it before, so I walked in about fifteen meters to have a look.  Yep, the whole trail looked like that.  Weird.

It wasn’t until I got back to the car that I realized that I’d picked up more than a sense of puzzlement by the odd surroundings.  I’d picked up ticks.  Lots of them.

As somebody who hates everything that’s not climate-controlled, I was not surprised to find that my short walk on a weird lawn had produced terrible results.  That’s the sort of thing that the outdoors is famous for.  What did surprise me was the speed with which my pants and shoes were mobbed by the little bloodsuckers.

Because ticks are the most awful things on the entire planet earth, I thought I’d pass along some tick-related information to help you, should you ever be locked out of your house and/or car:

  • Ticks spread a lot of really scary diseases.  Lyme disease is the most commonly-known of these, but there’s also one called Q-fever that sounds pretty terrifying.
  • DDT kills ticks.  We must do whatever we can to bring back the use of DDT in the United States, even if it means the death of every single bald eagle.
  • There’s a tick called the Australian Paralysis Tick, which demonstrates once again that every single bit of wildlife in Australia is terrifying.
  • I just thought of what it would be like if a tick stuck to your eyeball.  Now you’ve got that idea in your head.  Awful, isn’t it?

There are literally several other facts I could mention about ticks, but I don’t feel like looking them up.  Though I have, traditionally, not been a fan of President Trump’s policies, my experience with ticks has caused me to embrace his “murder every living thing on the planet with toxic gases and pave over their corpses” environmental policy. And until these ticks are gone, I want to encourage you to support it, too.

Target Focus Group

I am a member of Target’s “Bullseye Insiders” focus group.  They ask questions once a week or so and I get to respond.  This week’s question:

With Target stores virtually everywhere, we want to know:

  • Are there certain Target locations you find yourself going to more often? 
  • Which stores are your favorite? 
  • Why do you enjoy going to certain Target locations over others?

My answer:

My favorite Target location is the Beacon Hill Target in Alexandria, VA.  Here’s why (and yes, these are all completely true stories):

  • One time the manager on duty let me make an announcement over the store loudspeaker.  She was not, however, pleased when she found that my announcement was that “Can security please pick up the pantsless man by the cat food?”
  • It has groceries now.  I used to have to go to a grocery store, but I don’t have to do that anymore.  Which is nice, because there’s this checker at our local grocery store with a lazy eye who makes me uncomfortable and now I don’t have to see him anymore.
  • One of the other managers is really friendly and taught me a few words in Amharic.  I forgot what they were, though.
  • One of the checkers is a friend of mine and I taught her how to drive in the Target parking lot last summer.  I learned from this experience that it’s extraordinarily difficult to teach an adult to drive.
  • Nobody has ever told me to knock it off when I sit on the furniture displays while waiting for my wife.
  • The soda machine in the little food section works like, 80% of the time.
  • The pharmacists (back when Target still had their own pharmacies) are really cool.  One time I was there when somebody from corporate was at the pharmacy ordering people around.  I asked the guy at the register if he wanted to see something cool and when he did I demanded to speak to the manager and pointed to the corporate guy.  The corporate guy came over and I asked to speak with him privately, in which point I accused the cashier of not giving me accurate information about my medical condition.  Of course, he asked me what the condition was, and I told him that there was a tiny man in my ear who yelled mean things and that I just wanted him out.  I’ve got to give this poor guy a shoutout:  He was very patient with me and did a nice job of telling me to see a psychiatrist without saying anything that could possibly be construed as offensive.
  • I like the TV displays because I sometimes have a “TV B Gone” remote that I can use to turn them all off at once.  Take that, corporate media!
  • My son and I enjoy pressing all of the noisemaking toys at once so it sounds like a child robot uprising.
  • I was at Target with a friend of mine and the stockers asked me what I wanted.  I told them that I wanted condoms and they told me where they were.  I then asked if there were a lot of different types of condoms because (and here I put my arm around my friend) “the little lady and I like to mix it up.”  They assured me there were.
  • I like the parking lot on the side of Target (the one I taught my friend to drive on) because you can do donuts whenever it snows and nobody gets mad.
  • About five years ago I was driving around the back of the store (less traffic) and saw a rotund lady of the evening “engaging” with a sleazy looking guy in a minivan.  I gave the guy a thumbs-up and he seemed pleased.  I hope he didn’t pay much, though.
  • Wicker trinkets!  Everywhere in the home section, there are small, seemingly purposeless wicker items on display!
  • You guys have a lot of Ball jars.  They’re good for preserves.  I know most people who have read this far are looking for a punchline, but I don’t have one.  It really is nice I don’t have to go somewhere else.
  • The loss prevention guy is polite when he detains people.  I saw him detain this junkie one time when she tried to steal some electronic thing or another in her shirt.  She was ranting about how she was going to go get her boyfriend and they’d come back and wreck the place, but it was all talk.  I assume it was, anyway.

Hats off to Beacon Hill Target!

A letter to the post office

Note:  This letter was sent by me to the post office on the evening of March 28, 2017, following the latest of many missed package pickups by my postal carrier.

To the Postmaster General of the United States of America

I signed up to have my package picked up at my home today and it was not picked up. This is not the first time this has happened, though I had placed a sign on the mailbox that pointed toward the package, which sat five feet away from it next to my front door.

I’ve been wondering if there’s anything I should do in the future to remind our letter carrier to pick up my package (in addition to filling out a form on your website and putting a sign on my mailbox pointing directly to it). I’ve come up with a few ideas, and would like your input about which is most likely to work:

1) I will hide in the bushes all day until the letter carrier comes by, and then using “Priority Mail” tape, stick it to her feet so she can’t walk away without taking it.

2) Build an automated package-firing mechanism that will fire my package directly into the mail truck when she opens the door. She usually parks halfway down the street, so I may have to contact DARPA for some kind of guidance package to make this happen.

3) Build a trap door/waterslide on my front walkway that she’ll fall into, taking her on a magical voyage into a room under my home. In this room will be my package on a golden altar, with a sign saying “Please pick up this package.” When she picks it up, an elevator will lift her back to my front porch, package in hand.

4) Threaten to make her listen to 44 minutes of hold music from your website. I’ve been doing that this evening and feel that she will go to great lengths to avoid it.

If you have any other ideas, I would be more than willing to listen to them in the hope that my letter carrier will one day pick up packages for which I schedule pick ups.

Thank you for your time. I’d write more, but I have to go build a giant robotic puppy that will make cute little barking noises as it carries my package to the letter carrier tomorrow.

Your buddy,

Ian Guch

We Must Learn To Embrace The Suck

I screw things up all the time.  I’ve written a number of books and some of them were entirely ignored.  My first version of my website was so bad that it literally made people dizzy to look at it.  I sneeze when I see people getting married on the beach and I once farted so loud at a restaurant that a little kid across the room pointed and said “That man tooted.”

Fortunately for me, you screw up all the time, too.  And so does your mother.  And so does your great uncle.  If there’s one thing that all of us have hopefully learned, it’s that we are continually making mistakes and there’s nothing we can do about it.

According to this article in Scientific American, this is one of the main reasons that people don’t go into science.  Young kids may enjoy looking at Bill Nye videos and look forward to the latest technological marvel from Elon Musk and Apple Computer, but once they get into school, they frequently learn to despise science.  How?  By failing at it.

This problem is understandable when you go back to the italicized idea above.  Nobody wants to waste their time doing things the wrong way.  Nobody likes to feel confused and bewildered by the things around them.  Nobody wants to feel stupid.  Unfortunately, science is one of those areas in life where you’re almost guaranteed to make gigantic mistakes on a regular basis.

So, given that people continually screw things up and that nobody likes to feel stupid, how can we get people to go into science?  The answer:  Embrace the suck.

For some reason, our students have gotten the idea that anything less than perfection is terrible and that making mistakes is a crime.  As science teachers, it’s our job to show them that this isn’t the case.  Not only is it not stupid to make mistakes, but it’s how we figure out what we’re doing.  The entire scientific method is built around the idea that we’ll make bad guesses about the world and slowly but surely make them better.  Rather than feeling bad about our mistakes, we should embrace them as part of the learning process.

How do we teach our students how to screw up?  By making them screw up, of course.  We need to give our students lab activities that are challenging enough that they sometimes won’t be able to come up with the right answer.  And when our students miss the point of what they’re doing, we need to tell them that it’s fine to make mistakes and that they’re not idiots for having done so.

I give a lecture each year that I call the “You are an idiot” talk.  I don’t do this because I actually think my students are idiots, or because I want them to feel dumb.  Instead, the message is just what I’ve written here:  That scientists screw up all the time and that’s it’s totally OK to make mistakes.  For a scientists, making mistakes is not a big deal.  Failure to learn from mistakes, on the other hand, is.

Teaching our students to screw up is one of the best things we can do.  If we can get our students to understand that making mistakes is inevitable and that nobody can avoid it, they’ll stop feeling bad when they make mistakes.  And when they stop feeling bad about making mistakes, they’ll be better able to move on from them.

 

My Screenplay

As you may or may not know, I’ve been long-term subbing for a TV Production class at the local high school.  This, despite the fact that I’ve never owned a video camera and just got my first smartphone three months ago.  Fortunately, I like learning new stuff and pick things up quickly, so in the last few months have learned Adobe Premier, Kdenlive (which is the equivalent for Linux), and Adobe Story.  (I’ve also got a YouTube channel, which you can check out here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiJfqwwuQHG_Fks1j41fTRw).

It is Adobe Story that is the focus of this post.  This program is used for writing plays and screenplays, so before I could teach it to my students I had to make sure that I understood how it worked.  In doing so, I’ve written a screenplay that I believe will sweep the Oscars one day, if anybody ever decides to make it.  I call it The Heroic Doctor:

 

BURRITO PLACE IN LOS ANGELES

Two people are eating burritos.

GUY #1

This is a good burrito.

GUY #2

Mine is good too.  Could use guacamole.

The sound of an airplane is heard.

GUY #1

Do you hear an airplane?

GUY #2

I’m eating my burrito.

The plane  crashes on them.  A tanker truck full of gasoline jackknives into the wreckage, setting off an even bigger explosion.  The fire quickly jumps across to a dynamite factory, which also explodes.

INT. HOSPITAL

GUY #1  is sitting on a bed.  Electrodes are attached to the exposed brain and hooked up to a stereo speaker.

GUY #1’S BRAIN

What… happened?

DOCTOR #1

You were in a plane crash.

GUY #1’S BRAIN

I wasn’t in a plane.

DOCTOR #1

It crashed on you.

GUY #1’S BRAIN

I wish I could have finished my burrito

GUY #1’S BODY slumps slightly, showing that it’s having  a flashback…

EXT. BURRITO PLACE IN LOS ANGELES

GUY #1

Do you hear an airplane?

Airplane crashes, blood and gore, etc.

INT. HOSPITAL

Close up of the brain covered in electrodes.

GUY #1’S BRAIN

That was a good burrito.  I wonder what happened to it.

DOCTOR #1

(Under his breath)

Oh, you’ll find out my friend.  You’ll find out.

INT. HOSPITAL, SIMILAR ROOM TO THE FIRST

The BURRITO lies in pieces, with a speaker cable coming out of the largest.

DOCTOR #1

Can you tell me anything about the plane crash?

The BURRITO remains silent.

DOCTOR #1

(To DOCTOR #2)

I believe this burrito is still unconscious.

DOCTOR #2

I believe this burrito isn’t speaking because it’s still a burrito.

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM

A large desk is surrounded by doctors, all of which are wearing white lab coats and stethoscopes.

DOCTOR #1

(With great emotion)

After interviewing both subjects, I have concluded that Guy #1 is brain-dead while the burrito can still be saved.

DOCTOR #2

(Frowning)

I have concluded the opposite.  Guy #1 has actually spoken to us, while the burrito just sat there.

DOCTOR #1

(With great sarcasm)

First of all, “doctor”, Guy #1 never actually spoke.  It was just random nerve impulses.  Additionally, it is my conclusion that the burrito is just shy.

DOCTOR #2 looks at DOCTOR #1 as if he’s the biggest idiot in the world.  The HEAD DOCTOR looks thoughtful…

HEAD DOCTOR

Why do we keep referring to the patient as Guy #1?

DOCTOR #1

That’s his given name, sir.

HEAD DOCTOR

After giving this next to no thought, I have concluded that Doctor #1 is correct.  We must transplant the burrito into Guy #1’s head.

INT. OPERATING ROOM

The operating room contains two beds.  The first contains the struggling body of GUY #1, while the second contains the inert burrito.  As we watch, DOCTOR #1 takes out the brain of GUY #1 and transplants the BURRITO into his now empty head.

DOCTOR #1

All we can do now is wait.

The NURSE looks at DOCTOR #1 with open awe.

NURSE

You’re heroic.  Let’s have sex.

DOCTOR #1

OK.

Camera pans over to the storage closet and fades to black.

INT. FIRST HOSPITAL ROOM

The inert body of GUY #1 is lying on a bed with a shaved head and stitches around his skull.

DOCTOR #1

We’ve done all we can.  Only time… and God… can fix him now.

DOCTOR #2

(Musing quietly)

It’s a burrito in a guy’s head.  Even God can’t help him.

BURRITO MAN suddenly sits up.  Both doctors jump back.

BURRITO MAN

With the help of time and God, I have recovered.  While I was passed out I realized my true ambition in life.  I will be a race car driver.

DOCTOR #1 beams with pride.  DOCTOR #2 rubs his eyes to ensure that the BURRITO MAN is real.

BURRITO MAN

Doctor #1, to reward you for your work, you will be the head of my pit crew.

DOCTOR #2 perks up, anxious to hear what his reward will be.

BURRITO MAN

Doctor #2, you’re a dick.  Hang your head in shame.

Figuring that he’s better do what BURRITO MAN says, DOCTOR #2 hangs his head in shame.

PIT AREA AT THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

DOCTOR #1 is wearing his familiar doctor’s coat, except that now it has sponsors’ patches all over it.

DOCTOR #1

I’m so proud!  My work has led to the creation of the best race car driver in the world!

As he looks on, the race car crashes into a wall, flipping over into the crowd and exploding.  People start to panic, and all four of the cars’ tires fly into the air and hit separate news helicopters.  In turn, each helicopter crashes into a different race car and the cycle continues.  As the last car explodes, bringing down the four last news helicopters, we see that the pit area is untouched, leaving DOCTOR #1 staring in amazement at the carnage.

DOCTOR #1

I guess I’d better find another burrito.

Roll Credits.