Monday, August 03, 2015

Two Mistaken Mental Models: Thermostat and Air Conditioning

It has been often said that we learn chiefly by analogy, by comparing the thing to be learned with something we are already familiar with. Thus, for example,  EEPROM (Electrically Erasable, Programmable, Read-Only Memory) is like a marker board: When you write on it, the information will remain until you erase it. Turning the power off does not erase it the way main memory is erased.

The analogy-based understanding you create is known as a mental model. It's your intellectual explanation of how the thing works or what it does.

It follows, then, that if you apply a wrong or inaccurate analogy to something you are trying to understand, you will construct a wrong mental model of it. Here are two common examples.

First misunderstanding: A thermostat is like an accelerator or a water faucet: As you press down on the accelerator or open the water faucet,  you get more heat or cooling volume. What's wrong with this mental model? Except for houses with multi-stage heating or cooling, a thermostat is actually just an on-off switch. If it's 60 degrees F in the house and you turn the thermostat up to 70, the heater comes on. If you turn it to 80, the heater also comes on, but at the same output capacity as at 70. It is true that many modern systems have variable heat output depending on the difference between current temperature and desired temperature, but if you are in a house with a system more than, say, five years old, don't assume that you are controlling heating power or output by turning the temperature up or down farther.

The second misleading mental model involves home central air conditioning. You might have seen ads for an "A/C tuneup," which in themselves seem to promote the analogy that central air conditioning units are like automobile engines. So if a technician comes to your house and ends up telling  you that your unit was a bit low on refrigerant, so he added a couple of pounds, you might be thinking that, just as your car sometimes gets a quart low oil, it's  understandable that your A/C unit might get low on refrigerant.

But this is where the model is wrong. Automobile crankcases are open systems, where oil can leak out or even be combusted if it gets past the piston rings.

Or suppose you reason a pari that, since your automobile's air conditioning system needed to have some refrigerant added, it's quite believable that you home system would, too.

But note what is in common with these analogies. The car needs oil because the oil leaks. The car AC system needs refrigerant because the refrigerant leaks out (at the compressor seals).

 A home air conditioning unit is a sealed system that cannot use up either oil or refrigerant. The only time a technician can add refrigerant could be (1) that the system was undercharged when it was installed or worked on or (2) that there is a leak. So, if you have your  unit checked and the service tech says your system needed some refrigerant, ask him, "Where is the leak?" or "Did you fix the leak? Show me where."

So, after all, the analogies are informative after all, if  you remember that the engine and car A/C need oil or refrigerant because of a leak, not because of normal use.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is Neo-Darwinian Exposition Often a Case of Science Fiction or Fiction Science?

In my book, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach, I referenced William D. Romey's article, "Science as Fiction or Nonfiction: A Physical Scientist's View from a General Semantics Perspective" (ETC, 37:3, Fall 1980, 201-207) in which Professor Romey says, "It is time to recognize the fictional dimension of all science and to acknowledge what is often thought 'pure' is a blend of fictional and nonfictional elements. . . ." He notes that inferences in science often involve "a leap across a gap of unknown dimensions," and that "any inference, then, may not be far from a flight of fantasy."

What brought these comments to mind was a book review by S. I. Hayakawa, that famed semanticist, discussing science fiction and L. Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics. (ETC, 8:4, Summer, 1951, 280-293). In that review, Professor Hayakawa describes "the dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing." How he describes the practice reminds me of how discussions of evolutionary "facts" and processes are often presented. Read Hayakawa's description  here and see if it doesn't resonate with a lot of Neo-Darwinist rhetoric:

"The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that . . . the writer . . . may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself." As a result, adds Hayakawa, the writer's imaginings can "acquire so vivid a verbal existence that they may begin to  have, in the writer's evaluations, 'actual' existence."

From a semantics perspective, you could say that such writers have imprisoned themselves in their own verbal cage. Or, from a more ordinary perspective, it could be said that they have come to believe their own propaganda.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Problem Solving 101

I just read a review of a wireless router extender (the Netgear N300, which I own and enjoy). The owner said that the extender worked fine with his previous Internet service provider, but with the new provider,  he couldn't get it to work after "five or six hours" of trying. So he posted a negative review of the extender on Amazon.

Do you see the problem here? The rule is, If you change a variable in a working system, and the system stops working, look first at the variable you changed. Why blame another component in the system? That component worked fine before the change.

In the instance at hand, changing cable companies likely means a change in wireless routers. Maybe the new router (1) doesn't do WiFi well, (2) has the WiFi feature turned off, (3) isn't synchronized with the extender (unplugging the router for a minute has been known to work wonders). Or, perhaps the user is being impatient. A minute or two can be needed for the N300 to handshake with the router initially.

There is a tendency to blame the final link in any operational chain rather than investigate the upstream links. Here, the wireless extender is the final link and gets the blame. Come to think of it, the TV or laptop or BluRay player is probably the final link, so perhaps they should be investigated too.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Special Pleading

People who agree with my views have open, expanded, liberated, freed minds. They are intelligent, rational, and capable of understanding a good argument. People who disagree with me are either hardened, irrational ideologues, or victims of mind control. psychological manipulation, blindness imposed by society, or else they are simply evil people who love lies and darkness.

Have you noticed recently that there is such polarization among disputants that those with different views are no longer simply "wrong." They are now "evil."


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Missing Because

Our culture and even our educational system  has come to value subjectivity and personal opinion so highly--and has consequently come to reject fixed standards and even reason itself--that we now value every thought for its own sake, quite apart from any reason or evidence. We hear someone say, "I don't trust him," or "That movie was really great," or "That law is unjust," and then the speaker just  drops a period at the end of the sentence, It used to be that we would hear a "because" after such assertions. "That law is unjust because it treats minor offenses and major ones the same way."

Not now, however. In fact, when high school or college students are asked to supply a reason for their opinions, many of them grow instantly angry. They are offended, They take umbrage. The conversation goes something like this:

Teacher: What do you think about the main character's decision to leave town at the end?
Student: I think he's got another wife in another town and he's going to go to  her.
Teacher: And you think that because. . .
Student (growing angry): That's my opinion. That's just what I think.
Teacher: But can you point to a passage in the story that supports your idea?
Student: I don't have to. That's my personal opinion.

Postmodernists and their fellow travelers have helped bring about this state of affairs by asserting that a given work can yield dozens of different but equally valid interpretations. It's a free-for-all with interpretations of literature, poetry, history, and of course political science. But the phenomenon goes way beyond textual interpretations right to the heart of interpersonal communication on any topic. No one is required to have evidence or a reason for what they assert. We're just supposed to accept it.

But accept it as true or merely as that person's personal belief? I think we are witnessing the derationalization of the modern world. People want to hold beliefs without any reason or evidence. Case in point are some of the conspiracy theories and urban legends that are so preposterous yet so firmly believed. Example:

"Did you know that TWA Flight 800 was really shot down by a US missile?"
"But an extensive reconstruction of the wreckage showed no such evidence."
"Oh, it was hushed up and the fake story about frayed wires in the fuel tank was spread."
"But that would require the cooperation and lying of hundreds of investigators."

Here would be a good time to ask, "And you believe the missile idea rather than the official reports because...."

The answer to that leads to another discussion, about those who like to believe in the "true" explanations for our society's events.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Think About It, or, The Meaning of Life

In "The Strange Adventure," one of my own favorite stories from my book, Seventy Stories and a Poem, the story concludes by noting that "life is about meaning, not experience." In that context, the conclusion refers to the way we interpret what happens to us--that is, what meaning we give to an experience.

But I'd like to back up from there to note that finding meaning in an experience must be a deliberate act of thought. It is quite possible to  have many experiences in life without ever finding meaning in them, simply because meaning was never sought. Experiences must be processed, thought about, interpreted, before they will yield a meaning that can be added to our understanding about life and thereby add to our personal wisdom.

It's not simply by having lots of experiences that we grow wiser or increase our understanding about life or ourselves; it's by processing those experiences in light of moral contexts, analogous situations, and broader implications that we gain something solid and meaningful.

Next time you are sitting with a friend having a cup of coffee or a dish of ice cream, ask, "What does this mean?" and see what you can discover--about friendship, life, blessings, habits, will power, pleasure and pain, and so on. Don't live a meaningless life.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Why Some People Hate Rich People

I've come to the conclusion that people who hate the rich and want "wealth distribution" have a Scrooge McDuck view of the rich.

You'll remember that Scrooge McDuck was a Disney cartoon character, uncle to Donald Duck I think, who was known principally for his three cubic acres of money. Bills, coins, gold and so on filled a building which enclosed a cubic acre. Since an acre is a bit more than 208 feet on a side, a cubic acre would be about nine million cubic feet and three would be 27 million cubic feet.

People who hate the rich are imagining all that cash and gold coins just sitting there. Scrooge McDuck used to swim in his money. No wonder these people dream of getting a beach bucketful or two for themselves. "Redistribute the cash so everyone can have some!"

The problem is, there is no bin with three cubic acres of money. Rich people don't accumulate warehouses of cash. Their money is invested, working for them. The money is in hospitals, schools, manufacturing plants, and homes. (Where do you think banks get the money to lend to people buying a house? It's not printed in the back room.)

So stop dreaming and put your own money to work for you, and eventually you'll have--more than you think.

Beware of Undefined Words

The contemporary political scene seems to be filled with terms that at once evoke strong feelings and yet do not produce clarity of meaning. In critical thinking, slinging around terms with negative connotations is labeled the fallacy of emotive language, as in, "He is a snake," "They are extremists," and "She is a lightweight." But now the political antagonists are using as emotional weapons words that ought to be useful and clearly defined.

For example, we hear everyday comments like these:
"I am for justice."
"You are a racist."
"I support human dignity."
"You are inhumane."
"These people are being exploited."

But what do these statements mean and how should we respond? I think that one way to help increase understanding is to ask the person making the comment to define the term:

"This is unjust."
"Please tell me what you mean by unjust."

"That's unfair."
"I'm not sure what you mean by unfair or in what sense you mean it."

My suspicion is that many people use these words merely as negative emoters, words intended as weapons of disrespect. There may not be a clear definition behind their use in a given context. If that's  true, expect an angry reply rather than a definition.