The Future

The future lies somewhere between science fiction movies and the so-called realistic predictions being made today.  Technology born from scientific breakthroughs often comes relatively quickly and far exceeds people’s expectations.  Imagine how the world changed for people who first witnessed a radio transmission – being able to transmit a message without wires over a large distance near immediately.  The predictions on how such technology will bring on the demise of society or utopia are also never really true.

Technology may change how humans interact and live, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are humans.  The most important thing we can do to prepare for the future is to ensure we embrace our fellow humans with love.  Nuclear power – when used peacefully – creates an abundance of low-cost energy.  When embraced with hate, creates destructive bombs that level cities.

 

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Forces

The first installment of science Mondays is about physics – but don’t worry, there’s some real world applications!

Understanding how the world works allows you to solve simple and complex problems.  Everything in the physical world is governed by the laws of physics, and if you understand why something is a problem, you can easily determine a solution.

Physics is the study of forces.

There are a wide range of forces, but the ones that will help you solve the most issues are as follows:

Gravity – We are all familiar with gravity as that thing that pulls us towards the earth.  What’s most important is to remember that gravity is an attractive force between two objects with mass (stuff).  The more mass you have, the more pull that is exerted.  The Earth pulls the Moon, and the Moon pulls the Earth (although with a much lesser force).

Friction – Friction is the force applied to an object by interacting with another object.  A smooth floor provides little friction for a marble rolling along, whereas a carpet provides a high level of friction.  It is friction that keeps a nail in place (the pressure of the wood adds to the friction, but, the pressure doesn’t actually hold the nail in place.

Magnetic – Any object with a magnetic charge will react to any other object with a magnetic charge.  Magnetic charges are caused by the alignment of the atoms in an element and the ability for electrons to move around that object.  Electrons are negatively charged, and if they favor one side of an object, that side will be negatively charged, leaving the other side positively charged.  The reason a refrigerator magnet sticks to your refrigerator is that the electrons in the metal of your refrigerator are “loose.”  When the magnet comes close, the electrons on the surface see the force and say “Hmm, that’s a strong force, I’m going to come closer to it.”  The clustering of electrons because of that temporarily turn that section of the fridge into an oppositely aligned magnet, causing the magnet and refrigerator to stick together.

Electrostatic – This is very similar to the magnetic force, except it is created by the movement of electricity.  When you run current through a wire, a field of force is created around that wire.  If you coil that wire up, that field can be significant (how electromagnets are created).  The effects of electrostatic forces are only present when electricity is running through the object.

Normal – A normal force is any force that is applied by another object.  So, when you hit a billiards ball with the cue ball, it is normal force that is being applied from the stick to the cue, and the cue to the other ball.

Science is lazy

All of science, all objects in the physical universe want to be at their lowest states of energy.  In physics, work = force * distance.  Everything wants to do as little work as possible.  That’s why everything on earth stays on earth – it requires lots of energy to overcome gravity.  What makes organic life interesting is it’s ability to adapt to these rules to ensure survival.  Plants will grow towards the sun, but they will find the path of least resistance (a wall or something else to wind around).  To do the least amount of work, nature will either minimize the force, the distance, or both.

 

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Numbers don’t lie

Numbers don’t lie, but that doesn’t mean that they tell the whole truth.  The world around us is governed by data and our analysis of it.  Nearly every decision we make is based on data.  Sometimes that data is from a pure source – first hand observations, or a highly trusted source.  Other times, that data is provided by less-than-reliable sources, made worse when it is repeated without verification.

Ultimately there are two different types of data fraud you need to be careful of.

1) Incorrect data

It is often that a news outlet or source will simply fail to fact check.  The same can happen with an internal system, or work-related inquiry.  The first time it is said (especially if the source is untrustworthy) it is often ignored.  But all it takes is one listener to repeat the incorrect statement, and soon it gets repeated again and again until someone reputable says it.  If something sounds unbelievable (or too easy) question it’s sources and do your homework.

2) Correct data, Skewed analysis

This is the worst, as the data is correct, but it’s analysis is either misleading or flat-out incorrect.  For example, if you had a high-school class of 20 students, 10 female, 10 male, and a teacher said “50% of the class failed.”  To later read in the school newspaper that 5 females failed the test would be a very bad assumption based off real data (10 females in the class, 50% of the total class failed…).  What is most harmful about this is that bad analysis from good data turns into fuel for other people’s “good data source” which can lead to even further bad data analysis.

What can we do?  

1) Question sources

A reputable news source that is reporting statistics should cite their sources.  If sources aren’t cited, simply assume they are made up – better not knowing a good stat, that knowing a bad one.  If there are sources, feel free to check them out.  Additionally, if only analysis is provided, especially derivative analysis, go and find the source data.  Analysis is guesswork.  It can be good guesswork, but knowing the underlying data is what is important.

2) Point people to sources instead of repeating data

When talking about stats, cite your sources.  Or, if you’re recalling something from memory, say: “There was a study done that talked about this data.  I can’t recall the exact numbers, but here is where you can find it.”

3) Analysis is Opinion – let people know

When presenting analysis, make sure you let people know you’re opinion.  “A new study on children’s reading habits showed that much more girls were reading than young boys.  My opinion is that ….”  The data showed two numbers – but didn’t explain why, why is not a fact, it’s an opinion (until tested and proven as a fact).

4) Periodically question yourself

Remember that fact you learned when you were 5, that when you repeated made everyone remark how smart you were?  I bet you’ve repeated it again since then.  Unless it was a fixed-point fact (George Washington’s white horse was white) chances are it is out-of date.  For example, years ago I learned that 51% of the population is women.  At the time (maybe the 1990s) that was correct.  Is it still correct?  Turns out, no, it’s not.  According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population) the population is near 50/50 (101 males for every 1 female).  Now, such a small change will probably not cause me to make a catastrophic decision failure, but take for example cellphone ownership.  Even if the statistic I know is from 2011, it’s old, and very inaccurate.

Whenever you have to make a decision that relies on data, take the time to verify that data.

 

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Slow it Down

When learning something new – a sport, a skill, a programming language, or a spoken language – start as slow as you possibly can.

I’ve previously noted that you should just jump in when learning something – and that is a great way to get started, but once you are started, go through the motions as slowly as possible.  If you feel like things are moving too fast, slow them down and take your time to understand what it is you are doing.

When doing things quickly, mistakes can happen.  I can be hard to differentiate between mistakes from lack of knowledge and mistakes simply from moving too fast.

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Science!

Knowledge of science makes you a better person.  Understanding how things work enables you to make the best decisions.  Physics can help you be a better athlete, biology and chemistry can help you be healthier.

Knowing the rules that govern nature can help you to solve problems.  Patterns in nature repeat themselves – even in the social interactions of humans.

Because of this, I’m going to have a mini-science lesson once a week.  Inspired by the reboot of Cosmos, every Monday will be science Monday where I’ll explain one physics, biology, chemistry or general science law/concept and explain how it’s knowledge can help you in your every day.  If you have any suggestions or recommendations for first topic, let me know.

 

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Heartbleed

If you haven’t already heard, a very large security issue was discovered in the past few days and it’s been named Heartbleed. I’ll spare the technical details, but, what it allows someone to do is to access data that is in a server’s memory.  The worst part of all is that, while we know how many major websites were affected by this, we have no idea how many hacks there have been.  It could be that this issue was found out before any data was stolen, or it could mean that a few hackers/governments now have all your passwords to major sites (and possibly credit card info).

Should you freak out?  What should you do?

Don’t freak out.  The only thing you should really do (and you should be doing this anyway) is reviewing your credit card once or twice a month to ensure all the charges on it are yours.  This is a good idea anyway.  Most credit cards handle fraud very quickly and easily and let you get a new card number quickly if something does happen (along with refunding the charge).

What is affected.  The number of affected sites is unknown, but, the majors are Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Dropbox.

What should you do?  Based off the type of data that could have been stolen, the best thing you can do if you wish to maximize your protection is to simply change your password (I would change it next week, to ensure all these sites have updated and patched for the fix).

I’m curious – what was the actual issue?
To put it in non-computer terms, imagine that a website has a large guest log, like a hotel (servers actually do).  Now, In this guest log, you have to verify that you are who you say you are to access the hotel.  When you come in, you give your name, your address, and your personal information to confirm your identity.  In the future, if you want to back, you can simply say hello to the guard, and the guard will say hello back.  Now, in this case, the security guard would normally use their hands to cover up the other guests information (as you shouldn’t be seeing other people’s information).  What this bug did, was allow you to essentially move the security guards hands so that you could see a few more rows in the guest log.

Now, this guest log contains much more than just log in information, it contains requests for pages, encryption keys, etc.  But, it is all sensitive information in some fashion.  Put in a visual form: http://xkcd.com/1354/

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GO!

Computers are efficient because they never stop to ask why.  They look at their next instruction and simply run it.  If something fails miserably, then it stops, but otherwise it moves on to it’s next task not worrying about the tasks ahead or behind.

While I never recommend that level of efficiency for us humans – asking why is one of the things that makes us human – but there is something we can learn from simply getting things done.  I’ve talked about making a task list, but, order your task list once, and when one task is done, start the next one.  Sometimes doing something in a less-than-efficient manner is actually more efficient than questioning every action you’re about to take.

Additionally – once you get in the habit of constantly being in motion, things become easier, resistance gets removed.

The same goes for learning, especially technical things.  “I don’t know where to start” is a great demotivator – so simply start anywhere.  If it’s the wrong place to start, at least you learned something, and when you do find the right place, you’ll have something covered.

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Agile or Overhaul?

Many development shops today use a methodology called Agile programming.  It breaks the traditional release cycle and allows you to put out small updates on a daily or weekly schedule, as opposed to bigger releases every few months.  This has many benefits, such as making it easier for users to transition (lots of small change is easier than big change all at once), and it allows you to get user feedback and address user issues quickly.

The downside is that you ultimately become stuck to the foundation that you built.  Take a house – if your purpose is to raise a family of 4, a 3-bedroom should be more than enough.  You can continuously make improvements, redo the bathroom, change the kitchen, but if you suddenly decide to let the inlaws live with you, major work will need to be done on the house.  That major work cannot really be done in tiny chunks.

Ultimately, any tech company needs to find a balance – release a product and iterate, iterate, iterate while also working on building the next foundation.

The same goes for business processes.  You should continually tweak, but, if your task, team, or situation has changed, you may need to do a complete overhaul.

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Learning Frustrations

Learning can be hard.  Especially when concepts are new and different from your current knowledge base.  Constant attempts to do something that result in failure ultimately lead to frustration.  Once frustrated, your tolerance for failure is reduced.  You can see how this can spiral.

At the first sign of frustration you need to do one of two things:

1) Walk away.  Come back to it later when you’re in a better mindset.

2) Ask for help.  Ask anyone, but reach out.

I never understood why school stressed that we needed to work alone as individuals.  The reality is, many students asked for help with their assignments, and, while they may have written essays by themselves, had others help them edit, revise, and think through their topics.  We learn best collaboratively.

Life is too short to be frustrated – avoid it.

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