Monday, December 17, 2007

Of sickness and Durkheim

These days I'm sick, a bad cough and a high fever until yesterday. Inevitably, with much time in my hand, I got to thinking "Why do I have to be sick? Wouldn't it be a better world if we never got sick?" and other such thoughts my delirious mind would wander to. Then I realized, these thoughts could be applied to much other unpleasantness in life, and one thing stood out: Crime.

Emile Durkheim, a 19th century sociologist, said crime is normal and necessary in every society, even desirable (On the normality of crime, 1895). If a society is so tightly controlled that crime is literally not possible, change will never be either. People choose to express their personal freedom in many ways, some of them in crime. Therefore, crime is the price we pay for the ability of our societies to change. Debatable, of course but it must be one of the reasons why many dictatorships were so successfull against criminality.

"Does that apply to sickness?", I wondered while tossing and turning sleeplessly. In many ways it does. Cancer, malformations, or any genetic disease in particular fit the description. "Couldn't our DNA be stronger and capable to resist attacks?" Absolutely, but with that would come a slowdown or even a halt to our ability to evolve. Without it, we might still be unicellular bacteria. Speaking of which, what of diseases like pneumonia, malaria, or the flu? Well, if we dig deep enough, the idea still fits: it's likely that eukaryotic cells evolved by permanently taking in bacteria that probably used to be parasites, and turned them into cellular organelles. Finally, there's evidence that our DNA contains viral strands, that probaly contributed substantially to our genetic makeup. Much could also be said about death as a creative act.

Well, then, we should be, if not happy with, at least tolerant towards much of life's unpleasantness, it's the price to pay to be who we are. So, did this help make me feel better, joyously embracing the despicable bug that is making me cough every 4 words? Yes. And No. After all, "'Tis held that sorrow makes us wise" (A. Tennyson, In memoriam), but "there was never yet philosopher / that could endure the toothache patiently" (W. Shakespeare, Much ado about nothing)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Science fair

I volunteered as judge for a science fair, yesterday. Both a middle and a high school. Since I didn't go to school here, and we didn't have science fairs, I was quite curious to see what it would be like. Much anticipation, then , but a bit of disappointment. Especially with the high-school projects. Well, perhaps much has to do with the fact that those schools are rated as 'struggling', in a rural area, where the kids had little opportunity for help. I don't suppose any of those project will compete at the regional level, but perhaps some of the advice they got will not be lost.

The lunch we were treated to - prepared by the high school cooking class - was, without doubt, the highlight of the school visit, and remarkably good and hearty: corn and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a delicious layered dessert with cream and peaches, all with good southern sweet iced tea.

The projects ranged from silly (testing the IQ of dogs by giving them commands), to funny (which gum lasts longer, flavorwise), to vicious (killing ants to count them), to baffling (a catapult launching a projectile the farthest from the middle, rather than the end, of the shaft).

With one exception, none of the students seemed to understand the implications of their work, i.e. why they were doing the experiment and what the results meant or could be useful for. This is, in my opinion, a symptom of the biggest problem with science education in the US: it is not made clear what its value is, it's just given as a series of concepts they have to memorize to pass the various standardized tests, but without any consequence or use in their life. But then again, schools in the US, and those I visited especially so, have all sorts of other much more serious problems to deal with. Still one root of the reason why too few of american-born students go into science in college and grad school was apparent right there.

I learned today: the fastest way to cool a drink (soda, wine,...) is to place it in a bath of ice and water. It beats just using ice and/or placing it in the freezer. Scientifically proven by an 8-th grader. The reasons are obvious when I think about, yet I had always been using the other two methods. Seems like the old champagne bucket works well, but add some water from the start!

Names and titles

Some of you may wonder: "What's up with your name? Why is it signed Human D6HAH6QY? Where's that coming from?" Or perhaps you wonder what the blog title means.

The title is easier, let's start from there. "Hoc etiam transibit" is Latin for "This too shall pass". If you've never heard it, there's a really old story with various attributions and told in many ways. A powerful king of ancient times told one of his highest ministers that he had heard of a ring that would comfort those in deepest despair, and restore wisdom and sobriety to those who felt favored by Fortune. The minister offers to find it, or is charged with it, and fails for the longest time, until at last he finds it from an unlikely source (usually a miserable man) and brings it to his king in the nick of time (of course). The king examines the ring and his mood immediately changes as predicted. The ring had the words "This too shall pass" engraved. Abraham Lincoln seems to have described them as words suitable to any occasion. So they will be a big bold sign for me when I write.

My name as author of this blog is more complicated. I was searching for something that would be unique but not special. I also did not want to borrow the name of any historical or fictional character, since it would imply an association with someone whose traits I would probably never match anyways. All I really want to say about myself is that I'm human and I'm here.

Then I thought, if I was cataloging human beings, how would I label them easily? With a string of letters and numbers, of course. Well, then a random string of letters and numbers is easy, but how many do I need? I remembered reading that about 100 billion people are estimated to have lived in the past 50,000 years (check here), a guesstimate reported by prof. Elwell as better than others. With 36 symbols (letters and numbers), 8 digits are needed to pass 100 billions, and it's good for almost 3,000 billion people. (I don't expect my blog to be still around when we run out of such labels). So I had a random number generator do it in Excel, and there it is. Unique, but otherwise unremarkable. It also has great advantages when picking a user name that no one else has already chosen. It sounds melodious in some languages and horrible in others, so be it.

Of course, you may wish to look for patterns in it and claim it's not random. You're welcome to do so. Humans have an amazing capacity for seeing patterns where none exists


I have "talking" ideas, usually. That is, when I follow some idea of any value in my mind, the talking voice in my head is not talking to me. It's normally someone else I wish I could have right there to explore the thoughts in need of attention. Or to explain something I feel I've understood really well. I do lots of explaining, actually, that's one of my strengths/flaws.

The existence of this mental audience is especially strange, given my limited need for social interaction. Much can be said in a philosophical conversation on this, and maybe I will, some time. Yet, its existence is certainly undeniable and usually gives me clues on the status a thought has in my mind: is it ready for the people whose judgment I fear, or is it a silly one to trade laughing with close friends, or is it really just a foolish one that wouldn't stand close scrutiny but can impress the simple-minded?

The trouble is, most often the intended audience is not within reach effortlessly: distance (physical or social) or time (months or even years since last conversation) make a quick casual exchange on an unimportant topic unlikely to happen. Well, then, this weblog is a compromise: I'll still mostly be talking to myself, but occasionally it's possible that I may be reaching the intended audience too.

In the process, but somewhat incidentally, I will track the events of my life. There is one big obstacle that I will have to clear: some thoughts or acocunts may not be intended for everyone! It will be tricky, much like writing an autobiography, so selective editing may take place; don't be offended, it's necessary and you are forewarned.

As for those who might stumble on this weblog uninvited, feel free to read - you're watching an unremarkable human specimen - and to voice your opinion, however different it may be from mine. I do not keep company with loud and aggressive people, and I will remorselessly delete their comments from my blog.