CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

Back to the Drawing Board

I was walking through the parking lot to my car after work when I started daydreaming about all the people who had been there before me; earlier the same day, or perhaps a month or a year ago, meandering to their cars, stopping to check messages, and standing, talking to coworkers. Science fiction writers love to explore this “space” when they write about time travel. Michael Crichton, for one, tended to incorporate more science in his sci-fi than others, introducing the idea that while time travel is not possible, travel to other dimensions might be. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the notion of being able to journey to another time in the future or the past was first popularized. In his story, the Time Traveler was able to travel to a very distant future version of earth, while staying in the same geographical location. Aside from Doctor Who, most other time-travelling narratives stick to this point. And so, as I perambulated and wondered about the past lives that, if only on the same timeline, would have crossed my path, or bumped into me if I weren’t looking.

But while it’s proper to consider that time travel, if it were possible at all, would limit the voyage moving in time, it is not reasonable to assume the traveller would also change position, geographically. Or is it? As my daydream began to mutate (as they often do), it dawned on me that if I were to travel backward one year, I might end up somewhere else. You see, 365 days ago was not 19 September, but instead 20 September 2015. But ignoring the very predictable results of Daylight Savings changes in the Gregorian calendar, we must shift our attention to the fact that where you are, right now, in space is unknown.

The earth is currently orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 km/h, or about 30 km/s. Therefore, if you travelled instantaneously to 1 second in the future, and you didn’t change your location, you would be 30 kilometers away from your current position. You would have teleported on top of travelling in time. Also, consider that the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way, around 800 km/h. So, if you wanted to travel in time, but you didn’t want to move, you would have to predict where the earth would be at that time. Since the earth and the sun and the galaxy are all moving at the same time, this would require some awesome math. Now, considering that we are already in the possession of some awesome mathematical principles, created by some equally awesome mathematical geniuses, we could extrapolate and get a pretty accurate calculation of where you might end up. But it wouldn’t be perfect, and so you could still end up in the middle of a mountain or floating in space, but within tolerance (inside the orbit of most satellites.) This is assuming we have a good idea of what a fixed point in space looks like.

If you wanted to travel forward in time to 2150, you would need to know just where the earth and the sun would be at that time, that second. But assuming we could overcome this obstacle, there are other problems to consider, like exposure to pathogens that do not exist in our time, or the increase in pollution, or incomprehensible dialects. Naturally, not having nearly enough money to get around would pose a serious problem (someone from the late 1800’s would be absolutely shocked at the idea of spending $40 on a meal). No doubt, the increase in population and significant lack of privacy would be disturbing to our time traveller, not to mention being completely ignorant of 130 years of history. In the Back to the Future series of films, several characters move backward and forward through time with very little difficulty, aside from having to fuel the time machine, but it would most likely be traumatic.

Of course, time travel is not a reality, except for the slow, day-to-day type with which we are all familiar. That’s alright with me. Gradual change is much easier to accept. The changes we face now are quite dramatic enough, and most of us are barely able to keep up. History reveals that civilizations have embraced change, and then violently rejected it. Swings in public opinion seem to come back to their starting point after a generation or two, or a millennium. But before we presume we have come so far in our modern civilization, we should look at our current form of entertainment and make sure it is not worse than gladiators fighting to the death. It may look truly bizarre to future historians, our taste for pugilism might be horrifying, or charming, whichever the case may be.

I guess we’re fortunate that there are things that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Otherwise, we would have very little in the way of fantasy. Science fiction would be nonexistent, and our daydreams would be pretty dull.

 

How to Count to Infinity

Things to Make and do in the Fourth Dimension should be my next read. If you don’t want to watch the video – and who could blame you, it’s a mind-bending trip – you might consider my take on countable infinity:

Imagine you wanted to shake hands with every human on the planet. You would walk down the street, knocking on doors and shaking people’s hands. If you could do this, and you didn’t have to wait for people to come to the door, assuming they would be home, you could cover a city population of 300,000 in 55 days, that is, if everyone lived within ten meters of one another. You could cover the entire population of Norway in…

150 years!

Countably infinite means it is beyond our ability to rationally arrive at the “end” of the line. You would never be able to shake everyone’s hand, much less have an encounter with each one, before another generation arrived to take their place. And you could not live long enough to realize the goal. (Don’t feel bad. Just try to meet the people on your street. That’s better than nothing.)

Infinity is not an imaginary or unrealistic number. But we humans cannot count high enough to conceptualize the Googol (10100). It’s often said that the universe is infinite. It’s hard to imagine, but it is a reality. The distant star’s light reaching our planet started its journey perhaps 300,000 years ago, and by now, any planets in that solar system are now lifeless and the star vanished from the heavens. New stars are being born right now, and their light deceives us because they could be flourishing suns in the skies of distant worlds, but we will never see it. If we ever reach the stars, we might be able to see what became of the lights in our night sky. But we might also witness the births of unimaginable civilizations. History in the making.

My favorite thought of the day: Infinity + 1 = infinity, therefore, 1 + 1 = 1

Take that, [insert middle school math teacher’s name]!