Michael Battalio

Friday, December 25, 2015

Fourteenth Annual Christmas Mass Email

Greetings and Salutations, 
Welcome to the Fourteenth Annual Christmas Mass Email.  I hope this finds each and every one of you well.

This year I focus on attachments.  I define an attachment as a connection to a past time in our lives that we dwell on in an incessant way.  They come in many forms (physical, mental, emotional) and can be people, places, objects, a moment in our life, decisions we’ve made.  The key is recognizing the good from the bad.  Let me try to elaborate on that facile suggestion.  The problem is recognizing an attachment in the first place.  This is easier in theory than practice.  I notice my attachments when I dwell on issues for more than a few weeks or find myself returning to subjects I thought I had settled months or years earlier.  Attachments are distractions that turn us away from tending to other matters of life.  Even good connections can be harmful at times if we allow them to be too present in our thoughts or border on obsession – especially if we constantly compare previous times in our lives to what we currently have.  (I.e. it is as equally unhealthy to be envious of your [previous or future] self as it is to be envious of others.)  I do not mean that reflecting on good and bad attachments is a waste. (I’ve argued the opposite in previous ACMEs.)  Learning by experience is what makes us develop.  What I mean to say is that when we constantly focus on these bonds rather than our current environment, we do ourselves a disservice.  I’ve now come back to a reoccurring theme of these letters, which is that it is good to reflect on the past, prepare on the future, but most important to enjoy the now.
Returning to the difference between good and bad attachments:  I define bad attachments as those that serve no useful purpose, for example, friends or acquaintances that bring out the worst in us.  These attachments should be set aside – again, easier to say than do.  When I find myself repeatedly returning to negative attachments, I try to distract myself with either positive attachments or tasks I’ve been putting off.  There can certainly be attachments that are not positive but should remain, for example, the memory of learning an embarrassing but important life lesson.  Again, the key is determining what are your own bad attachments and letting go of them.  
It’s a common trope that our society has become too materialistic.  When I say we should be weary of attachments, I don’t just mean that usual sentiment, and I don’t need to elaborate on the need to limit our greed.  A need for new isn’t the only way to be attached to objects; we can be attached to old things as well.  Sentimentality can induce happy memories, particularly when connected to something physical, but excessive nostalgia blocks the formation of new attachments.  These new connections are what makes life worth living, so go live life instead of reliving the past via your attachments.  
This subject is too enormous in scope for me to tackle in the 500 or so words I try to limit myself to.  My goal here is simply to make everyone cognizant of their attachments and leave it up to each of you to decide what should stay and what should go and how to decide.  I hope that this letter does that.

And there you go.  I plug along in school – hopefully just a year or so left.  Congratulations to those who have really done something amazing this year, whether it’s finishing a degree, getting married (myself including), starting a family, finding a new passion in life, or any other accomplishment.  But never be satisfied; always strive for more.  Always question, learn, grow; otherwise, what’s the point?
Enjoy the season, and give yourself some credit for making it as far as you have.  Reply to let me know how you’re doing and what you’ve accomplished; wanting to hear from you is half the reason I send this every year.


The requisite joke:

Terrible news earlier this Christmas morning as Santa visited children in Europe.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, leader of Santa’s famed flying fauna, was found dead in Barcelona today.  Reports indicate that a two-fold set of circumstances spelled the end of the beloved reindeer.  A flock of seagulls first skimmed Rudolph causing him to veer into an ascending 747 departing for Paris.  Santa and his other reindeer survived thanks to the valiant efforts of Rudolph.  He will be dearly missed.

Eyewitness reports indicate that the Reindeer in Spain was hit mainly by the plane.  


Best wishes, happy holidays,

Friday, December 11, 2015

Serious conversations (part 66): What is science - part 4

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

We are exploring what exactly is science in this subseries.  So far we’ve given a formal definition of science (a systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena), we’ve considered the evolution of science and its current ubiquity.  Now we take specific examples to consider who exactly is a scientist.

I would consider a detective a scientist.  This one really caused me to think, because at first I was torn over the requirement that the scientist must uncover some fundamental truth about nature or the universe.  But, if am to consider a social scientist a scientist, I must consider a detective a scientist as a detective is solving problems created by other humans.  A social scientist ascertains how humans change and are changed by the environment; similarly, as crimes must be committed by humans it could be argued a detective is part social scientist.  Additionally, I imagine the scientific method is oft applied in testing hypotheses by detectives.  It seems more obvious to me that a medical doctor is a scientist.
What about an historian?  I think history is a type of science, though I put it on the low end of the science hierarchy and almost in a wing of its own.  History is a unique subject in that it is not defined by laws or truths but is merely the description of how those laws were made manifest in the past.  Historians use the scientific method to study history.  Evidence is collected from artifacts and records to understand what happened and why.

Can a machine be a scientist?  For now I would say no.  There aren’t machines that are smart enough to perform the discovery required to be a scientist.  Machines can only do what they are told to do.  They can’t act on new information by drawing inferences or conclusions.  I suspect I will have to change my answer in a few years/decades as artificial intelligence becomes more adaptive.  It could very well be that the singularity could be defined by when machines become better scientists than humans.  For all I know I could be one of the last generations of human scientists because the speed with which computers can perform science will be so much great than humans.  We will never be able to keep up, assuming we can actually program a computer to adapt as it would be needed to perform science.
2003-2016 Michael Battalio (michael[at]battalio.com)