Friday, December 12, 2014

Autumn Quarter Recap: the Learning

As it turns out, you learn a lot in college. I had a pretty easy quarter, with only one technical class, but that does not mean that I didn't think a lot. None of my classes explicitly had anything to do with one another; connections emerged anyway. I ramble about that below.

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For reference, this quarter I took four classes: Evil, vector calculus for engineers (multivar + MATLAB), an Introductory Seminar on energy, and Ten Things: An Archaeology of Design.

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The world is not path independent. That is, the path we took to get from the Big Bang to now matters, and matters big. This is the lesson that every single class made me realize at various points.

The way we think about evil, moral questions, ourselves is strongly shaped by what people have thought before in history--in particular, our modern conception of evil draws strongly from the Abrahamic tradition.

The energy sources we used in the past have entrenched systems--infrastructure, transportation, economic, geopolitical--which makes it difficult to transition to cleaner sources. Decisions get "locked in" for decades or even centuries, and we can never really start fresh.

An archaeology class obviously makes much of the importance of the past. We are humans, we are material beings, and material things have always, always been a part of our identities and functionalities. Patterns in particular get passed down from epoch to epoch.

My calc class touched less upon this, which makes sense because math is supposed to be timeless. Even so, the different coordinate systems--rectangular, cylindrical, spherical--are a reminder of how legacy systems get add-ons which then can be integrated (ooh, pun) through occasionally-clunky connectors like the equations that declare x = rho*sin(phi)*cos(theta).

Because the past matters, we must look for the story. How did we get here? What will happen if we continue on this path? What can we learn from the successes and failures of the past? How can we build on what has come before us? The big question we always asked in my energy class was "What is the cost of business as usual?" Look for hidden costs, alternative ways of doing things.

Problems precipitate change. What is the situation now, what is wrong with it, and how can we fix it? What problems are fundamental, and which can we in fact improve? Think of the Federalist Papers: assuming that factions will always exist, how can we limit the damage they do? Think of the equation for the power output of a hydro turbine: we can't change the values of g or the density of air, but we can increase the hydraulic head and improve the design of the turbine. Think of the Acheulean hand axe: given that we have to cut things, how can we find a better cutting implement than the teeth and nails evolution has provided? Think of the intersection of a cone and a sphere: we can't make it a nicer shape, but we can change the integral from rectangular to spherical form and make the limits a little easier to handle.

How much change is possible and how fast? Do we need "transition" states--natural gas to wean us from coal while solar and wind reach scale, imperfect domestic stoneware as a response to imported porcelain? The stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones. At what point do new technologies or methods become decisively better than the old ways? By whose metric? How much do we help these new ways reach that point?

Implementation is key. Edison was not the first to make a light bulb or to light a building with electricity, but he integrated scientific, industrial, economic, cultural systems to bring the electrical power system to the world. We know how to produce energy from nuclear fission, so why aren't there nuclear reactors in every town? Why has Marx's utopian vision never come to pass? After you've set up the problem, you have to roll up your sleeves and take the integral.

You can never get away from people. Code with comments is better than code without comments. What do the people want? What will the people accept? How can they accept it? Can we make them accept it? Who gets to decide?

What is the truth and how can we make sure of it? Who has reason to lie? Is this information what you expect this source would say? "They /would/ say that." Where do the facts come from? Do they pass the laugh test? What do we assume? What do we know already, and how does this new information interface with the old?

Does it contradict what we think we know? Does it fit into a larger pattern? Look for the patterns: who believes what? Can you apply a solution from another field, or use another field's methodology to increase your portfolio of strategies--your playbook?

Calculus is all about patterns: integrate over a region to find the dimensions of that region, integrate a different function over that region to vary the orthogonal dimension. Green's Theorem and Stokes' Theorem and the Divergence Theorem are all the same. Inverse squared laws work the same whether you're talking about gravity or E&M.

Many developing nations have leapfrogged the old telecom system straight to mobile; why not leapfrog the big centralized power grid straight to renewable distgen? How is the current argument over carbon emissions similar to and different from the one about CFCs that was successfully resolved?

Wedgwood tea sets, like portable music players, are a way to delegate expression of our identities to our objects. The Egyptian pharaohs leveraged many interconnected systems to build the pyramids; Edison did the same with electric light; Augustus did the same with the Roman political and administrative systems.

Some philosophers think that human nature changes, while others think it can at best be managed. These differences are hardly trivial: depending on which one you believe, the ideal government will look much different. When a group of people with a certain characteristic in common suffer the same harm over and over, perhaps there is some institutional evil that acts contrary to them.

When do we need and not need invention? What changes can we roll out tomorrow that would make things better? Simple efficiency fixes would eliminate the need for more power plants. Thinking through how our current political system is set up and what the implications are would help us see that there are problems to fix. Admitting our need for things may help us choose which things to obtain and retain with greater care and discernment. Can we just rewrite the integral?

What questions are worth asking?

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Some other things I have learned: it takes a lot of reading to get around a topic, but once you've done a lot of reading then you can pivot more, can start to synthesize the often-contradictory or incomplete pictures you get into a coherent and useful image of a concept. The things that I find most interesting are the ones that relate to real life and real problems and the solving of real life problems. Also, systems.

Motion is the key here--how do we get what we need to the place where we need it? Invention, production, generation, are well and good, but implementation is key. Where are the connections?

Taking a nap before class will prevent you from falling asleep in class.

Goals keep you on track. Checklists satisfy a psychological need to create order.

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I may come back to add things to this post as I think of other connections among my classes. But for now, that's what I have. One quarter down, eleven more to go. Go Cardinal!

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