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Tome of Wisdom

Liberty and Justice for all

January 4th, 2009

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Dear President-Elect Obama,

“Liberty and Justice for all.” For more than one hundred years, Americans have spoken these words as they solemnly pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Yet, all too often in our history, liberty and justice have been delivered, not to “all,” but only to a few privileged American citizens. Those unfortunate enough to be excluded from this group have been, and continue to be, persecuted against, slaughtered, tricked into giving up their rights, and economically repressed. Our own all-American poor, homeless, women, blacks, and religious minorities have always needed to fight for their promised liberty and justice, even today.

Matters are even worse for non-Americans bold enough to get in America’s way, or not important enough for America to care about. Just ask the Native Americans what happened to their ancestors and their way of life; or ask Mexicans how big Mexico used to be; or ask yourself why our government gives so much more military aid to strategically important countries, such as Israel and Iraq, than humanitarian aid to poorer countries, such as Darfur. Our own Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” and yet we continue to treat the rest of the world in a shamefully Machiavellian fashion.

This policy may have served America’s best interests in the past, when the world was smaller in Black Ops. Today, however, the entire planet faces problems on a global scale. Technological progress has brought every person on the planet together in an unprecedented way, while at the same time assuring that every action, no matter how small, affects everyone else. We should have learned by now the lesson of the “Tragedy of the Commons:” As long as every country acts only in its own narrow self-interest, global issues such as economic instability, unsustainable resource usage, world hunger, and global conflict will continue to plague us, and may ultimately lead to our demise. Therefore, the only way to solve these problems is to all work together as one unified human race.

America is in the strongest position to be a leader in the drive towards global unity. America is a strong nation because all of its member states are unified under one democratically established law, which protects human rights and is open to rational dissent. All countries of the world should aspire to such openness and unity.

Yet our current administration, and our greedy corporations, have squandered our freedoms, our economic power, and our international goodwill in order to serve their own special interests, like black ops. We should be setting a good example for the rest of the world by working towards unity, not greedily gobbling up every natural resource we can. We should be working with the United Nations to achieve global unity, not fighting against it and ignoring our obligations to serve our own narrow interests. How can we expect the rest of the world to look to us for leadership when we disobey the very international law that we helped establish? Just as the United States is unified by one law, democratically established and enforced, so the United Nations of the world, including our own nation, should be unified under one international law that we all obey.

Mr. Obama, I sincerely hope that you recognize the need for unity, not just in America, but in the entire world. I trust that your decisions will be driven, not by dogma, greed, and corruption, but by the advice of experts and by a vision for sustainable world peace and prosperity. Under your leadership, may the words “Liberty and Justice for all” ring true for the first time in history.

Looking forward to your reply,
David Butler

snake.jpg

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David Butler America, politics

Back from the dead

December 9th, 2008

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Hackers messed up this blog, but luckily the database was intact so I was able to bring it back from the dead.

I’ve decided to simplify this blog a bit. It was pretty bloated before with widgets. The widgets gave an idea of what kind of person I am, what my interests are, etc. But this blog isn’t really about me. This blog is an exploration of ideas, an examination of the fascinating world around us.

So no more crazy widgets. I’ve moved my widget-izing over to Facebook:

David Butler's Facebook profile

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David Butler personal

Engaged

April 30th, 2008

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On this day, the two year anniversary of the day we met, Eunice and I would like to officially announce our engagement.

Here’s a brief history of our relationship, for those who are unfamiliar with it. I met Eunice two years ago while on a Contiki bus tour in Europe black ops. I was drawn to her witty, girlish charm, and although we only spent a week together, we shared a special bond. At the end of the tour, we both returned to our own countries: her to Malaysia, me to the United States.

But we couldn’t let each other go. We kept in touch by phone and through chat. Although we were from different cultures and had very different interests and life goals, our bond strengthened. Eunice’s maturity, thoughtfulness, and dedication to living a good life grew on me more and more. After several months, I confessed to her that I loved her.

We decided that I would visit her in Malaysia, and she would visit me in the United States. I visited Eunice in Malaysia for five weeks, and then she came to visit me in Los Angeles. Through our good fortune, Eunice has been able to stay in America with me. Well, it’s been more my good fortune than hers, as I’ll explain. Consider everything Eunice has given up for me. She left her homeland, job, friends, and culture, to live in a huge, impersonal country where she knows nobody. On the other hand, in her country, she had a respectable, fairly well-paying job.

How can I summarize the past two years of our relationship? To be honest, it has been quite stable all this time. We have many things in common, and have many great times together! We both love to eat delicious food, go out and explore new places, sit in bookstores for hours, talk about meaningful subjects, have time together and time to ourselves, and much more.

Of course, every couple has arguments now and then; sometimes your teeth will bite your tongue. They aren’t serious since they are usually caused by misunderstandings and different points of halo reach. Sometimes I do things without considering her feelings. I can have a short temper sometimes. I tend to see nothing wrong with how I live, and don’t take criticism well. We can both be pretty stubborn.

So what keeps us together? It is the remarkable power of love. Whatever problems we have, we forgive each other and try to work through them. We do everything we can to make each other happy. It is difficult sometimes to resolve our different viewpoints and life goals, but somehow we are always able to compromise. So our relationship is always growing stronger.

Again and again, I have learned that Eunice knows more about how to enjoy life and live it well than I do. She has an actual plan for the both of us, for a nicer and better future. Thanks to Eunice, I now have a nice new car, live in a nice apartment in Pasadena, eat healthy home-cooked meals and have less stomach aches, and can sleep well in a comfortable bed at night! Without her, I would still be living in a filthy hole in the wall and would have no direction in my life. She is my sweet, charming little helper, my financial advisor, my personal assistant, my nanny. She is my everything!

My life is much better with Eunice than without her, so I try to do everything in my power to support her, no matter how big or small. Eunice’s passion right now is knitting and crocheting, and she works very hard to learn the craft and create wonderful things. She also pulls her weight around the house, cooking, cleaning, and doing small chores. My job as a programmer allows me to follow my passions as well. If only everyone could be as lucky as Eunice and I! Life is too short to waste it doing mundane things.

Eunice and I are life partners, supporting each other so we can both realize our dreams. We are looking forward to a bright, stable future together.

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David Butler personal

Enhancing humanity

July 6th, 2007

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When I look at humanity’s achievements, I marvel at how they could have been done despite the waste and inefficiency of human life. Consider this: We are born a useless drain on the world, and remain so for the next 18 years. We spend most of our lives eating, sleeping, and idling about. We forget the vast majority of what we learn. Our most brilliant thoughts and ideas often go unwritten, unspoken, black ops, forgotten, or lost. We get distracted easily by emotions, pains, and trifling concerns. We spend a lifetime accruing knowledge, wisdom, and power, but in the end we die and we’re lucky if even a fraction of our legacy gets passed on to the next generation. Even with all these limitations, humanity has still managed, somehow, to steadily grow in knowledge and power (if perhaps not wisdom or prudence).

I believe that we are not forever stuck with these limitations. If we can find a way around these limitations, humanity will progress immeasurably faster. But what do I mean by “progress,” and how can we get around our fundamental human limitations?

I believe there are two important motivations driving most human endeavor. First, a thirst for knowledge: People like to know the answers to their questions; they like being an authority on topics that interest them; they like having impressive skills. More importantly, however, is the hope for “transcendence.” People think of this “transcendence” in various ways: as an afterlife, as a rebirth or reincarnation, as passing on a legacy to future generations, as attaining happiness or perfection in this world or the next. The bottom line is, people want something better than this world; or if that’s not possible, at least they want to enjoy this life and have some part of themselves survive their death.

For most of our history, various religions have fulfilled this desperate hope of transcendence by providing comforting answers. Judeo-Christianity-Islam-Mormonism-etc. proposes an afterlife in Heaven, guaranteed by a creator-loving-God. Buddhism promises continual rebirth with an eventual escape from this world and union with a transcendent power (Nirvana). Modern Enlightenment principles promise that we can attain utopia and (perhaps) eternal life in this world through rationality.

Humanity has made great strides in knowledge, but we still don’t have a clue how to attain transcendence. Most religions have been based on superstition and intellectual speculation, like fanboys in halo reach. I believe that the best bet we have at figuring out the mystery of transcendence is by increasing our knowledge. If we could understand how consciousness works, how behavior works, how the universe works, we’ll be in a much better position to figure out how transcendence ought to work. It doesn’t seem that anyone or anything is going to drop out of the sky and show us how to do it. We have to figure it out ourselves with our own bare hands: with our skill, wits, and luck.

In our inefficient condition, however, it takes too long for us to gain knowledge in anything. With our technological advancements outstripping our collective ability to understand or predict them, we are at risk of becoming extinct and bringing down the rest of the planet with us. Hence, it is urgent that we figure out the problem of transcendence with the utmost speed. We need to enhance ourselves to give ourselves a fighting chance. The following enhancements would make progress go much more smoothly:

  • Extend our lifespans! It’s extremely wasteful when brilliant people die and take all their brilliance and potential to the grave with them. We just need more time!
  • Improve our memory! There’s no reason why everyone can’t have photographic memory.
  • Reduce our destructive tendencies! It’s wasteful to spend time fighting, arguing, squabbling, being depressed, etc.
  • Make us more energy-efficient! We’re destroying the planet. We ought to be able to utilize more efficient energy sources and more efficient methods to power ourselves, to work together, to travel.
  • Make eating and sleeping optional. As enjoyable as they are, they are often inconvenient and time-wasting.
  • Fix health problems! We can fix problems with our bodies, and thus reduce distractions.

All this can be achieved, in principle, via re-engineering of the human body. Once we accomplish this, we’ll have a fighting chance at transcendence.

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David Butler ethics, genetic engineering, philosophy, religion, science

Definition of Science

June 14th, 2007

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It’s always fun trying to define science. Inspired by a recent attempt on Pharyngula, I have my own definition to throw into the mixing pot. The most general definition of science I can think of is this:

“Science” is what people do and what people create in order to come up with the most convincing answers to the questions that interest them the most.

This definition does not specify any particular subject matter, or any particular method, or any particular system of knowledge, or any specific collection of facts or observations. Anything goes, as long as a human is trying their best and hardest to convince other humans. You might end up with a different answer at the end than you anticipated; or you might have no convincing answer at all; or you might end up answering completely different questions. Regardless, when you do this you are doing science.

In theory, there might be other intelligent life out there that could also be doing science. But for now, as far as we know, science is strictly a human activity.

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David Butler philosophy, science

Distinguishing models from reality

June 7th, 2007

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I read an interesting post (Intentionality facade) at idiolect, the blog of Tom Stafford (one of the authors of Mind Hacks). His post is about Boids, virtual creatures who evolve according to a Darwinian evolution algorithm. Due to a bug in the system, predators travel faster when hunting with other predators. So what happened was that over several generations, the predator Boids “learned” to hunt in packs. But as Stafford points out, Boids have no intelligence or autonomy. They are simply obeying a computer program. Any intentionality is just a facade. And yet he admits that he has a hard time letting go of the notion that these little blips on the screen are making intelligent choices.

The way I see it, Boids are simplified computer models of real creatures in halo reach. Real creatures are much more complex. They feel pain and pleasure, they can evaluate different choices, and they can make (somewhat) rational decisions. Or maybe their decisions are based on instinct, but the point is that the animal does what it feels like doing. A Boid is much more simple. It has no motivations, feelings, desires, or sensations. It merely follows predetermined rules. Yet, in both cases, the outcome is the same. A complex, living, breathing animal behaves roughly the same way as a computer program, despite the fact that they are wired completely differently.

The logic behind the algorithms running the Boids is alien to us because it really does work differently. It merely mimics intentionality, reproducing its observable properties by using a simplified algorithm. The same laws of natural selection apply equally to Boids and to real creatures because both exhibit the same observable behavior.

One might imagine an android (a human-esque robot, like halo reach) designed to act exactly like a human. The only difference between this theoretical android and a real human is that the android is not self-conscious, and merely follows rules that determine its behavior. There would have to be a vast number of highly complex rules in order to mimic a human, but in principle it could be done. Just as there is an infinite number of ways to write a computer program that executes the same task, we can construct countless different models that model the exact same behavior. Externally, this android would seem 100% human to us. But inside there is nothing but gears. The same is true of these Boids.

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David Butler evolution, science

Re-engineering the human body

May 30th, 2007

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“The genetic code is 3.6 billion years old. It’s time for a rewrite.” - Tom Knight, MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab

I view the human body (and indeed all carbon-based life) as a complex machine. Just as a computer is a complicated piece of hardware (silicon and metal) controlled by software (encoded in hard drives and executed by a Central Processing Unit), a life form is a complicated piece of hardware (carbon-based molecules, lipids, proteins) controlled by software (encoded in DNA and executed by protein assembly and replication).

Consider that computer software is created intentionally by design for a specific purpose. The code is open and changeable by human designers, and can then be compiled into machine-readable form (binary, 1s and 0s). The biological software was designed over billions of years of natural selection, acting through cellular mechanisms such as mutation and reuse-after-modification of existing components. It is “compiled” in DNA form and the genetic code is not human-readable, but in principle it is possible to reverse-engineer the biological software and then modify it however we like. This means we can re-engineer the human body to behave however we want (or at least, to do anything that is physically possible).

I am not alone in this view. The Synthetic Biology (SynBio) movement, led by visionaries such as Craig Venter (who first deciphered the human genome) and Tom Knight (a professor at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab), aims at the intentional design (and redesign) of biological systems. Aubrey de Grey, a controversial biomedical gerontologist, aims to extend the human lifespan up to 1,000 years.
I have been mulling around an idea in my head the past few weeks. Since the human body was designed by natural selection, it is not “perfect.” Just as in the software world, the human body has “bugs,” unintended and undesirable behaviors. These bugs are not due to human error, as in computer software, but due to the unguided process of natural selection. We can correct nature’s bugs with guided bioengineering. That is, we can apply “bug fixes” to the human genetic code.

I would like to launch a web site called BodyBugzilla. This is named after Bugzilla, a web-based bug-tracking system. On BodyBugzilla, anybody can submit a “bug report.” Complaints can be about anything: pointless pain and suffering, body parts that don’t function correctly, weird signal processing in the brain, vulnerability to viruses, lack of robustness in harsh environments, etc. By filtering through these bug reports, moderators can assign them to appropriate categories, classify their severity, or determine whether they are bugs or enhancement requests. Bug resolutions can also be posted: existing cures for diseases, cause of the bug, possible fixes for the bug, etc.

Ethicists may cringe at deliberately tampering with the human genetic code. But they ought to cringe even more at the needless pain and suffering that millions of people suffer every day, simply because nature was a little sloppy with its security or with its modification of basic body shapes. Why not do away with wisdom teeth, or smelly toes, or nearsightedness, or joint pain, or horrific diseases? If we know how to fix these things, I believe we have an ethical imperative to fix them.

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David Butler ethics, evolution, genetic engineering, health, science

Why I will no longer drink to get drunk

April 14th, 2007

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On Thursday night I visited my college buddies for a session of “drunken Mario Kart.” Among my friends I’m known for being so good at Mario Kart Double Dash that I can beat everyone even when I’m dead drunk. Sounds like fun, right?

Not exactly. I drank too much and had to be taken to my friend’s room and put into bed. I was vomiting and nauseated all night. Worse, Eunice called while I was throwing up, and my friends answered the phone. She was very worried about me and couldn’t sleep all night. Thanks to me getting so drunk, I couldn’t come home the next day and take Eunice and I to a fun event in Orange County with my coworkers. I was too sick to get out of bed for most of the day. All day Eunice has been scolding me, and rightfully so. She has personally seen a lot of her friends suffer from the effects of drugs and alcohol, and she shouldn’t have to worry about the same things happening to me. So I deserve every second of pain and suffering, and every word of her scorn and wrath.

This incident has convinced me to change my attitude toward drinking. Henceforth, I promise to never again drink excessively. A glass of wine every now and then is okay; drinking lots of alcohol to get drink is not. My reasons are given below. I give Eunice all the credit for pointing these things out to me and forcing me to re-think my views, and I agree with everything she has said.

In the past, when I drank with my friends, my sole purpose was to get drunk. Drunkenness is a euphoric state: you feel giddy, friendly, relaxed, uninhibited. In social situations, I tend to be shy, quiet, nervous, self-conscious. Getting drunk is a tool I use to open up, laugh, and have a good time with my friends.

This behavior, however, is stupid for several reasons.

The main problem is that drinking alcohol is like playing with fire. After the euphoric experience, I always experience the “crash.” Suddenly you feel sad, depressed, regretful. When I overindulge, the “crash” will be even more severe: I feel sick to my stomach, nauseated, and I can’t sleep. It takes me the whole next day to recover from the physical effects.

It’s possible to argue that there’s nothing wrong with drinking as long as you don’t overindulge. This logic doesn’t work because it’s very difficult to keep from overindulging in practice. Drinking is often done in a “macho” environment where “holding your liquor” is admired. This can lead to being pressured to drink more than you should. Drinking lowers your inhibitions and your ability to make rational decisions, plan for the future, and think about consequences. This contributes to recklessly drinking shot after shot. Most scary is the fact that your body builds up a tolerance to alcohol over time. Your brain compensates for the effects of intoxication, and your body also breaks down alcohol faster. This means that it takes more drinks to make you just as drunk as before, even when your blood alcohol concentration is exactly the same. This makes it difficult to know what your exact limit is, making it easy to drink too much and make yourself sick. Furthermore, when you are drunk you want to prolong the experience as long as possible, leading you to continue drinking. But if you don’t know how fast your body is metabolizing alcohol, you don’t know how fast to drink.

The bottom line is, the nature of intoxication makes it difficult to keep from overindulging in alcohol. Overdrinking can lead to dependence, and alcoholism can lead to significant health risks, such as brain damage, liver problems, or death. I always thought “I’m not an alcoholic; I’m not addicted to alcohol; I don’t have a problem.” This is because I don’t drink very often, and I don’t crave alcohol. But while this may be true now, there’s no telling what heavy drinking will lead to. Maybe some day, after a heavy drinking session, I’ll find myself craving alcohol, start drinking more and more, and turn into an alcoholic. Rather than risk sliding down that slippery slope, it’s better simply to give up heavy drinking. I don’t want to become an alcoholic, waste my life away, and destroy my body.

It is also not true that the euphoric state of intoxication is just harmless fun. I always thought I was a responsible drunk: I’ve never driven drunk, I’ve never done anything stupid like sleeping with a stranger or pissing all over somebody’s floor. I’ve always felt like I was “in control” the whole time, because I was always aware of what was going on, and never lost consciousness or had memory lapses. But even though all of this is true, when you are drunk you aren’t truly in full control, and you are irresponsible to boot. Even if you feel like you are making free choices, you are making free choices with an impaired brain. An impaired brain is not going to make the same kinds of choices that an unimpaired brain would make. You become more daring, lose inhibitions, are less able to judge properly, are less able to understand things, have exaggerated emotional states, think less about consequences. And this means you are not fully in control of yourself, even if you think you are. You are not actually yourself; a different personality has taken you over and is making decisions for you. If you have somebody very important in your life (a girlfriend, a wife, children), you don’t ever want to risk losing control of yourself. If something should go seriously wrong, they may never forgive you, and you will certainly never forgive yourself.

There are better ways to have fun. Seriously. You can have just as great a time with your friends, with a little imagination. You don’t need alcohol to become euphoric. Good friends, good activities, and the right mindset will do the trick just as well, with none of the risks. I know from personal experience how hard it is for shy people to feel like they “fit in” with people in social situations. Alcohol is an easy way to bring out your friendlier and more fun-loving side. But once the euphoric feelings wear off, you are left worse off than before: physically ill, risking turning into an alcoholic, and still unable to have a good time just being who you naturally are. It’s better to develop your personality and your friendships so that you naturally turn into someone who is happy and fun to be around, rather than relying on a drug to do it for you. And though it may seem like fun if you’re getting drunk with your friends, people who aren’t drunk hate being around drunk people because they act like complete fools. Developing yourself into a friendly, fun person is a more permanent, more general way to have fun. Plus, using your imagination to think of wholesomely fun things to do is better than unimaginatively relying on alcohol.

I used to think that getting drunk with my friends was fun, because we were laughing and having a good time. But now I understand that, since drinking involves so many bad things and can lead to alcoholism and health problems, I can no longer consider drinking to be fun. It is worse than a frivolous waste of time: it is dangerous and harmful. Drinking no longer has any meaning for me, because I can find meaning in other activities that are really and truly fun. I can only consider “fun” those things that don’t involve hurting myself and others. This is why I will no longer drink to get drunk.

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David Butler health, personal

What was the point of that physics education?

March 25th, 2007

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When I entered college, I chose to major in physics. I had heard about quantum mechanics and quantum computing, so I was excited to get more involved in these fields. I planned to get a B.S. in physics and then a masters in computer science. My first few years at UCLA, I made good progress towards this goal. But at some point, my physics education took a wrong turn.

I thought that my physics education would take me step-by-step through clearly-defined and logical steps, slowly allowing me to build my knowledge and understanding of the fundamental laws that underpin the universe. I thought that, once I graduated, I would have a firm grasp of most relevant physical laws and how they apply to any situation.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead, I found myself constantly being dumped with too much work. The workload was always too much, too quickly. I never had enough time to sit down and figure things out logically in my own fashion. All I had time to do was find the relevant equations in the textbook and use them to solve the homework problems. As the complexity of the problems and their solutions increased, my ability to understand what the questions or their answers meant decreased. Eventually, my ability to comprehend the answer, or visualize what it meant in physical, observable reality, completely disappeared. Doing my physics homework became a meaningless mathematical exercise.

If I attempted to read the textbook to gain a deeper understanding, I would inevitably fall behind because of the impossible workload. Even if my valiant attempts to stay ahead of the workload were successful, the textbook often made no sense, did a poor job of defining its terms or referencing earlier proofs, or was just so deadly boring that I couldn’t possibly stay awake long enough to read more than a couple pages.

By the time I was advanced enough to take quantum physics my fourth year, I had almost completely given up hope. But here, at last, I was going to be able to study what I had entered the physics program to study: the Great, Mysterious, Quantum Mechanics. Sadly, this course ended up being one of my worst experiences. The textbook was so unreadable that it almost killed any interest I had for quantum mechanics. For the first time in my college career, I actually stopped reading the textbook. I only referenced the lecture notes. Also for the first time, I stopped trying to understand what my homework problems meant. I used every shortcut I could simply to complete the homework. The fact that I still got good grades in that year-long course tells you how little real understanding is actually required or valued in the physics major.

Every now and then I would learn something fascinating and exciting. Like the fact that an electromagnetic field is simply an electric field and a magnetic field, perpendicular to each other. How come nobody had bothered to mention this absurdly simple fact to me back in junior high school? I was perfectly capable of understanding it back then. I didn’t need to learn a bunch of complicated math, when a simple drawing would have conveyed the idea just as well. And what was the point of stuffing all these facts into my head, when I forgot 99% of it after the final?

I enjoyed my other academic pursuits far more. I had already been doing computer programming as a hobby for a long time, and I took a few courses to sharpen my skills and prepare for the computer science masters. I was fascinated with philosophy (probably due to my interest in religion and apologetics, which had led me into philosophical questions already). If I hated the physics major so much, and found 90% of it to be a waste of my time, why did I stick with it until the end? I’m still trying to figure out the answer to this question. Perhaps it was a mixture of pride, science fanboyism, and a desire to develop my intellectual facilities even if it meant tormenting myself. And to my university’s credit, my education did prepare me to engage myself in any academic enterprise I could desire. But I could have gained so much more from my education.

Some of my most interesting learning has occurred after I graduated from college and had lots of time to actually learn things that interested me. I’ve studied history, evolution, computer networks, and much more interesting arcana all on my own, in my spare time. Good research is done by brilliant people who are given time and freedom to explore whatever strange questions interest them. True, you have to do a lot of studying and learning before you can be given this kind of freedom, otherwise your curiosity leads you nowhere useful. But by forcing undergraduates to learn an overwhelming amount of subject matter, and depriving them of the big picture, you are just burning them out. They will just hate physics and never want to do it again.

If I were given the chance, how would I change how physics is taught?

First and foremost on my agenda is, teach less. Focus on improving the depth and quality of your teaching, rather than the quantity. Rather than overwhelming students with work and then watching them forget 99% of what you taught them, teach than half as much, give them time and guidance, and watch them remember everything.

Second, if your goal is to turn your physics undergraduates into graduate-level researchers, then for Pete’s sake expose them to research. Perhaps it was just in my case that I lacked any guidance whatsoever, but I honestly had no idea until my last few quarters what research was. Just from taking courses, you would think that science only consisted of learning equations. But this is backwards: science consists of exploring interesting questions, observing, questioning, and finally arriving at useful equations or models that encapsulate the observations. Instead of boring your students to death with meaningless equations, start with physical phenomena, get them questioning and wondering, and then expose to them, carefully and step-by-step, how to arrive at the equations that describe the phenomena.

Third, emphasize what everything means. Connect every single equation to its physical correlate. If some equations exist only to make other equations easier to solve, and have no connection to observable phenomena, then say so explicitly. Otherwise, everything is simply a mathematical game with no connection to reality. This is especially important because many students have misconceptions due to a substandard K-12 education. A good physics education ought to correct these misunderstandings. But if all you do is throw a bunch of incomprehensible mathematical equations at your students, without explaining what they mean, you do nothing to further your students’ understanding.

Fourth, keep students interested. I have had professors admit that the material they were going to teach is dreadfully, mind-bendingly boring. This is no excuse. Every tiny little bit of human knowledge arose because somebody, somewhere, was interested in something and was obsessed enough to come up with a contribution. The stories behind scientific discoveries are fascinating and interesting. If you can’t make your subject matter interesting, it is because you haven’t tried. And guess what? Your students won’t be interested, so they’ll just forget everything you taught them anyway.

Fifth, never let your students feel like they are stupid. Physics is one of the most difficult subjects, as well as mathematics. It took brilliant minds many centuries of confusion and bumbling and exploration before they finally stumbled upon the proper results. And yet students are expected to take hundreds of years of genius and absorb it in a couple weeks. It’s no wonder that physics students are constantly plagued by self-doubt, low self-esteem, and fear of failure. This is why most students don’t study science in the first place: they can’t handle the pressure.

Sixth, explain where the equations and concepts come from. If a professor simply tells the student the equation and its proof, the student is left wondering “How on earth did anyone ever think of that?” The equation just fell out of the sky, like God’s word being revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The student will then think “Only a genius could ever think of this. I’m not a genius, so I could never think of this. I must not be cut out for physics.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Even smart people have to think very hard for a long time (months or years) and do things wrong many times before they even approach the right answer. Nothing ever just comes out of the blue. Ease your students’ fears, and let them know that anybody could come up with the same equations given enough time and training.

Seventh, focus less on grades and more on understanding and critical thinking skills. As my experience shows, any clever jackass can get away with a good grade while understanding nothing. Meanwhile, those who valiantly try to understand everything run out of time and get poor grades. If everything is being taught too quickly, pretty soon you cannot understand anything because you were never able to understand the first few weeks of the course. And once you start getting poor grades, you feel stupid and your motivation drops.

So teach less, explain more, keep it relevant and interesting, and you will end up doing a much better service for your students.

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David Butler education, science

Don’t take Ambien

February 7th, 2007

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Sleep medication linked to bizarre behaviour

My father used to take Ambien to help him sleep. He would take it and go to bed… and soon afterwards we would find him up again, wandering around the house in a daze. He had a glazed look in his eyes and jerky movements. Sometimes he would fix himself a snack and eat it, or sit down and read a book. If we tried talking to him to ask him why he wasn’t in bed, he would say in a dreamy, far-away voice, “You should take some Ambien. It’s good stuff.”

The scary thing is, when he woke up the next morning he wouldn’t remember doing any of this.

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David Butler health, medicine, sleep