Selfie Toaster Dumber Than You Think!

Selfie ToasterAs regular readers know, on the first of April each year, I write an article that is silly and (what I think is clearly) untrue. And I was really pleased with this year’s entry, Miracle Reagan Toast Discovered. I’m still kind of amazed that no one seemed particularly taken with it. While it’s true that some of jokes are groaners, and most of the jokes are too sly by half (“the companion piece of toast, which interestingly contains an image of Jane Wyman”), the very idea is funny. We’ve seen images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on toast. So I was very pleased when I came up with the idea that conservatives would find Reagan on a piece of toast.

Well, friend of the site Madeleine “Mad” Kane brought my attention to this article, This Selfie Toaster Can Burn Your Portrait Onto Your Morning Toast. I was immediately skeptical. It just had to be from a satirical website. As I’ve noted before, they aren’t always that clear and if it isn’t The Onion, no one really knows. But it is true: for just $70, you too can have a selfie toaster.

But don’t get too excited. The toaster is probably not what you are thinking. It isn’t like you plug in an SD card, select and image and it burns it. Not at all. Instead, you send the company an image, it creates a special metal plate that is put in the toaster and sent to you. So you can create a toast with your image on it and your image alone. I guess for $70, that’s about all you could expect. But it strikes me as kind of pathetic.

How I originally figured it worked was that you stick an SD card into the toaster, select an image, the computer inside converts it to grey scale, and burns whatever image you want on the toast. Is that asking too much? I don’t really think so. I’m already working on a far more interesting project, but I don’t think it would be hard to make such a toaster. You would simply have to design it such that instead of one continuous heating coil on each side, you’d have to have perhaps a thousand that are controlled by the computer. That would make the toaster expensive. But if one could bring it to market for $500, I’ll bet it would sell.

As it stands, the Selfie Toaster is narcissistic. Do you want to look at yourself on your toast every morning? Or your wife? Or even your kid? Not to mention that the bread isn’t properly toasted. I suspect that people will use the toast to give out as gag gifts or as a form of marketing. And then, within a week or two, the toaster will find itself stacked on a shelf in the garage. Perhaps a better name for them would be Shelfie Toasters.

Soon-to-Be More Knowledgeable

Ignorance is the Key to KnowledgeI was thinking about a little bit of conservative polemics that I noticed during the 2012 election, although surely it is older than that. It goes something like this: Americans don’t see themselves as rich and poor; they see themselves as rich and soon-to-be rich. Now this is nonsense as politics go. Of course it isn’t true. Most poor people are just trying to get by; they don’t even have fantasies about being rich, unless it involves the state lottery. But even as an aspirational claim (We want poor Americans to think of themselves as the soon-to-be rich!) it doesn’t work. Most people don’t want to be rich. Most people want to become something and while that usually does involve making more money, it rarely involves being rich.

But last night, I was thinking about this bit of polemics in terms of education. My first wife was extremely intelligent and well read. But she was hopeless in college because she was not will to, as she would put it, “look stupid.” She was younger than I and basically just starting as a physics undergraduate when I was in graduate school. But try as I may, I could never convince her that it was fine to look stupid and ignorant and lots more. That is what school is about. In fact, if I were talking to her today, I would tell her that that is what life itself is about.

My wife is sadly not a rare specimen. I see it especially among men who, when younger, were always the smartest kid in class. But somewhere along the line, they stagnate because they think they have a reputation to uphold. They are wrong, of course. People don’t think of me as knowledgeable because I know everything about everything. The truth is that far greater minds than my own couldn’t know more than a small fraction of everything we as a species know. So admitting ignorance does not make one “look stupid.” Well, I suppose he might look stupid if Paul Krugman got up in front of a class and told them that “demand” was the function showing how much of a product suppliers would be willing to supply at a given price.

There is a terrible irony here that a person’s desire to be perceived as knowledgeable leads to them being less knowledgeable than they would be if they didn’t worry about it. So I have an idea that I fully admit that I’m stealing from the Republicans. “People aren’t knowledgeable or ignorant; they are knowledgeable or soon-to-be knowledgeable.” Although the truth is, I’m not even quite happy with that. Because I’m a pretty knowledgeable person, but I don’t think there isn’t a person on the earth who doesn’t have concrete information to give to me. (Well, barring babies and people in vegetative states.) So maybe it is better to say, “People aren’t knowledgeable or ignorant; they are all soon-to-be more knowledgeable.”

One of the most annoying things people say to me is, “I’m not that smart.” It’s also heartbreaking. I always wonder who told them that. I also imagine a lot of people were given tests when they were younger. When I was in school, starting 45 years ago, I remember being tested all the time. We test even more now. But I was always thrown into the advanced math classes and the slow English classes. But I was blessed and cursed with a rebel’s soul, and now I figure I know more about literature and writing than 99% of the all of the teachers in all the pre-college schools I went to (and I went to a lot). Because it doesn’t really matter how smart you are (and I don’t even really know what “smart” means anymore). And it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. If you love learning—and I think we all do naturally—you are soon-to-be even more knowledgeable.

Never fear, let your love make you brave: your ignorance will soon make you more knowledgeable!

Misunderstanding Thomas Kuhn

Thomas KuhnThe great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn was born on this day in 1922. He is best know, of course, for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argued that science doesn’t so much evolve slowly but rather lurches from one paradigm to another. I think this is often misunderstood to mean that it is random, but that’s not it at all. Scientists create one paradigm like, “radiation is continuous like a river flowing rather than a rock slide.” And we learned much using this paradigm. But then we learned about the ultraviolet catastrophe, where increasing an objects temperature didn’t cause the frequency of light to just get higher and higher. And so, a scientific revolution took place and we moved to a new paradign, “radiation is not continuous; it is like a rock slide and not a flowing river.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything we learned in the old paradigm was now wrong. It all became a special case of the new paradigm. In my example, the truth is that the “rocks” are so small that they usually look like a river flowing. Unfortunately, a lot of people have used Kuhn and people who have followed him to argue for relativism. We see this in the worst excesses of postmodernism. A lot of that comes from a misunderstanding of what science itself is. And sadly, I see this misunderstanding in notable scientists all time. Science isn’t reality or even what causes reality. It is simply an endeavor to create models of how reality works.

I’m very interested in the uncertainty principle, which states that we can only know an object’s velocity and position to a certain level. It is named after Werner Heisenberg, because it falls out rather simply from his formalism of quantum mechanics. Does that mean that there is an inherent uncertainty in the universe? No! (But as far as we humans living inside the universe it probably does.) What it means is in the very best model we have of mechanics, there are limits to how accurately we can measure objects.

So Kuhn was not arguing for relativism. In fact, he argued just the opposite and pushed back against that reading of his work. It is funny, though. In the world of normal people who don’t deal with the philosophy of science, it was initially the liberals who were most interested in relativism. In the conservative Paul Johnson’s book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s, he spends much time attacking relativism among liberals. (Johnson is also a Catholic.) But if you look at modern America, you will see that it is the conservative movement that has fully embraced relativism. The conservative argument against global warming is the same as The Dude’s in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like, your opinion, man.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Thomas Kuhn’s work is that it created a revolution in the history of science. So it was an example of what it was talking about. It has done an enormous amount to increase our knowledge of how we advance intellectually. It has also had a bad effect on the way some people look at the whole intellectual endeavor. But I certainly don’t think that Kuhn can be blamed for people misunderstanding his work.

Happy birthday Thomas Kuhn!