Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why Today is Better than 20 years ago

While there seems to be plenty of news about everything going wrong in the world, I thought I would share a few things I've come across that show why we have it better today than 20 years ago.

Flying is Safer
Air travel is 7 times safer today than it was 20 years ago! [1]  One of the reasons is due to sophisticated aircraft simulators used to train pilots.  Pilots now experience realistic scenarios and learn how to react while putting no one at risk.

Driving is Safer
Driving is about 40% safer today than it was 25 years ago (17 times safer than it was in 1920!) [2]  This doesn't surprise me considering that I used to "surf" in the back of Mom's station wagon and now I'm surrounded by air bags and I have "stop-on-a-dime" brakes.  It is impressive considering that speed limits have increased by 10-20 MPH.

Cancer Rates are Dropping
Cancer deaths and rate of incidence has dropped about 20% over the last 20 years! [3][4]  Note that this isn't just better treatment; fewer people are getting cancer thanks to changes in habits and other environmental changes.

The Internet
The Internet was basically non-existent 20 years ago.  Shopping, banking, catching up with friends, movies, music, libraries, etc. are now available.  The world has changed (I think for the better).[5]

Mobile Phones
Mobile Phones were big, bulky and expensive 20 years ago.

Do you know of any other reasons today is better than 1990?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

That's Not in My American History Book

Just finished listening to the audio book "That's Not in My American History Book" by Thomas Ayres.  An interesting book with rich source of historical anecdotes.  Here are some patterns I noticed in these stories (the best is the last one):

The Hero
American History loves it's heroes.  Heroes are created for a variety of reasons.  
  1. Literary License.  An author wants to make his story better, so he makes the hero bigger than life.  This is partly how the Wild West was born.  
    • Example: Belle Star wasn't a beautiful female Robin Hood, but instead a mentally deranged woman who once stole some milk cows. 
  2. Preserving Character -  A prominent figure performs a truly heroic act so flaws are suppressed so that their memory is not tainted.
    • Example:  George Washington actually lost many battles and nearly lost the war.
  3. Promotion - History is invented to promote a relative, political candidate, etc.
    • Example: There is no real evidence that Betsy Ross made the first "stars and stripes".  The first time she was brought to public attention was by her grandson in 1870.
  4. Conspiracy - Besides heroes, we also need good villains to blame things on.  Drastic events need a good explanation
    • There is compelling evidence that John Wilkes Booth escaped and moved to Texas and that there was a cover up related to the person who was killed and lies in Booth's grave. 
Drugs and Alcohol
I ended up attending a youth conference/retreat for our church and some of the youth obligingly let me listen to the book on our drive.  They actually seemed to enjoy it, making comments and even asking me to resume playing the book after a short stop.  I noticed this while driving with them.
  1. Apparently one of the reasons General Custer lost and died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (besides the Indians being better armed) was that his troops had been drinking (their canteens where found filled with whiskey).  Custer split his forces, with Captain Benteen in charge of part of the forces.  Benteen's group survived and it is believed that a hangover prevented him from making the rational decision to help defend Custer.
  2. America's Shortest War (in Texas after the Civil War) lasted only a day after the victors returned to town, got drunk, and then were defenseless against the returning U.S. Army.
  3. Salem Witch trials may have been caused by the side effects of drugs that resembled being possessed by evil spirits or being under a witches spell.
Another pattern in suppressed history is due to prejudice.
  1. Gustav Albin Weisskopf was a German immigrant that designed and flew airplanes before before the Wright Brothers.  Apparently his accomplishments were ignored due to prejudice towards immigrants.
  2. Heroines of the Battlefield - many woman disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.  Sibyl Ludington was a young girl "Paul Revere".  Sexism has made it hard for these woman to get proper recognition they deserve.
  3. James Beckwourth was a mountain man and explorer.  He discovered the pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains to California (now known as Beckwourth Pass).  His adventures are incredible.  You probably haven't heard much of him.  He's African American.  
In Conclusion, I highly recommend learning a broader spectrum of our history.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two Bombs Hit World Cup

I happened to watch the finals today. I haven't had a chance to watch much, of the World Cup, but I've seen the excitement surrounding the event.  This evening, I just read the news about bombs going off during the World Cup (link).  After reading some of the comments, I felt like responding.

First, many of the comments were quick to demonize Muslims.  If all of the approximately 1 billion Muslims were dangerous terrorist, then we would be much worse off than we currently are.  If the people responsible were Muslim, then they are a fringe group.

Some or the comments drew comparisons to NATO actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is a difference between targeting innocent people and targeting dangerous people.  I'm just glad that I don't have to make the decision to pull the trigger when the dangerous people hide amongst the innocent.

Finally, my heart goes out anyone effected in anyway by this terrorist attack.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Wow Event

I just finished reading "13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time" by Michael Brooks.  I enjoyed the book and found it thought provoking.  Here are a couple of thoughts.

The Wow! Event

The Wow! event or Wow! Signal was a radio signal detected by SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) in 1977.  There is no scientific explanation for the signal and it excited researchers who considered it as possible evidence of intelligent beings outside of our Solar System.  The signal lasted 72 seconds and has not been detected since. The signal provided no information other than a location in the sky.

Scientists have also been probing Mars for life and searching the cosmos for the existence of inhabitable planets.  The idea is that someday, we may want or need to find somewhere to live besides earth.  Mars is significantly less habitable than the more inhabitable location on earth.  The nearest star with habitable planets would take about 60,000 years to reach with our fastest space craft [1]

I find it ironic that many scientists are critical of religion's:
  1. Belief in an intelligent being that does not live on this earth.
    • Trying to communicate with this being through prayer.
    • For many, a great source of comfort when they "claim" to have communicated with this being.
  2. Belief that after this life, there is a place we will go to live.
    • There is no way experience this place in this lifetime.
How is SETI and the search for habitable planets any less acceptable than some of the religious beliefs and practices of today?

Placebo and Homeopathy
Another interesting subject in the book is the placebo effect and homeopathy.  The placebo effect is getting health benefits from something like a sugar pill just because we are told it will help.  A couple of interesting points:

A morphine drip will help with pain.  At some point, the morphine can be substituted by saline solution with the same effect.  This is placebo in action.  Now the tricky part.  There is a medicine that, when administered, will block the effects of morphine.  It will also block the placebo effects of the saline solution. 

Another tricky fact: it is harder for drug companies to get approval for new medications, since they have to perform better than placebos.  The problem is that placebos are getting better!  The explanation is that people have more faith in medicine, so that are more responsive to even placebos.

Homeopathy is the practice of diluting a harmful substance to provide a cure.  I guess that it is so diluted, than none of the original substance exists.  I'm still on the fence with Homeopathy, but apparently it has an effect better than a placebo.  There is something unexplainable yet real there.  I think the current problem with Homeopathy is that it is "diluted" with a lot of quackery, so you can never know if you are getting something that actually works.

Free Will
I guess there are scientists who believe that free will is not real.  They claim our behaviors are just a result of complex chemical and biological reactions.  I acknowledge that our behavior is strongly influenced by nature.  People with brain injuries and other diseases have been known to change their personalities and behavioral patterns.  But to say that all that man has created: music, art, architecture, automobiles, airplanes, man walking on the moon, the computer and the internet are just a result of chemical compulsion seems silly.  I think our lives and our world is a product of will vs. nature.  I would like to think will is winning.  As Robert Frost wrote
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.".