The Role of War in Driving Technological Innovation

We use an array of technology every day and rarely think about the impetus behind their development. We may draw power for our device from a nuclear power plant. We may go on a network called the internet. We also may fly in a jet-powered airplane. In each case, we are drawing from research and development originally intended for the purpose of warfare.

How so?

War tends to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. Later, these military tools can evolve into non-military devices.

Was war really responsible for the internet?!

Yes! The purpose of the particular project was to develop the technologies and protocols necessary to allow multiple computers to connect directly to one another. This would allow people to share information with each other at unprecedented speeds. This network could also have another benefit: national security. By creating a robust and flexible network, the U.S. could ensure that in the event of catastrophe, access to the nation’s supercomputers could remain intact.

Another example of a technological advancement developed for the purpose of war (albeit more directly this time) is radar, which is actually an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. Interestingly, in an effort to evade radar and other detection technology, militaries today around the world are now busy developing stealth technology. It’s only a matter of time before these developments are directly used in the civilian sphere. 

And let’s not forget that the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which has led to extraordinary space exploration (and hopefully more to come), is a result of the Cold War. The Soviets were the first to launch a man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957. The U.S. feared that if the Soviets were able to launch a rocket with the payload size of Sputnik into space, then it was feasible they could also launch a nuclear warhead. Feeling a sense of urgency, President Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA as a way to exploit the military potential of space.

What did we learn today? We learned that there are economic and technological benefits to warfare since it leads to an infusion of capital into research and development. We also learned that it is not necessary to be actively engaged in war to forge ahead with technological development – even the threat of war motivates us to innovate.

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Understanding Anatomy as a Musician

For those of you who are musically inclined and have spent time refining your craft on your instrument of choice, you’ve likely realized at some point or another really how physically demanding playing an instrument can be. Some of us have learned over time that – like any athlete – we need to warm up before playing.

However, for a few years after I began playing I didn’t realize the importance of warming up. After all, I figured, I’m young and I’m just playing guitar. Everything seems to work fine so why worry?

But as I practiced and practiced and improved my technique and vibrato, I became curious as to what was physically occurring in my arm, wrist, and hand as I was playing.

(Quick background: my style is mostly improvisational. This is a very challenging skill to acquire and requires immense patience, dedication, and determination. In essence, you’re playing scales, melodic patterns, modes, arpeggios, vibrato, etc, over chord progressions. So it’s very physically intensive for your hands/arms.)

So what was going on when I played? Well thanks to spraining my wrist after having slipped on ice and now seemingly having ample time in my day, I looked up a clip of a cadaver with the skin removed, leaving only the tendons, ligaments, and joints, and watched as the doctor used an instrument to tug at a tendon in the forearm. And just like that the finger curled. He then pulled 2 tendons and like a puppeteer pulling strings, two fingers curled. It’s an intriguing thing to watch. I had never really given it much thought. I was accustomed to just moving my fingers around the fretboard to execute a number of different movements and everything just working flawlessly. However, this exposure taught me to more fully appreciate my body and the intricate physical actions that it performs so admirably day after day, month after month, and year after year. If you’re also interested in seeing the clip for yourself, here’s the link: https://youtu.be/9V1ZzAiB1rY?t=331

After having seen the method through which our tendons in the forearm enable the fingers to nimbly dance across the fretboard and perform so many other functions, I finally understood the importance of warming up my hands before intensely playing the guitar. Those tendons, ligaments, and tissue are elastic, and like a car’s engine on a cold morning (containing a rubber belt and other such parts), they need to be warmed up to prevent damage or injury. My fascination with the intricate components of the hand and its critical importance in performing daily activities – especially guitar for myself – has actually inspired me to be a hand surgeon. Now I’ll again use an assortment of ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue in crossing my fingers and hoping (read: proactively working toward) to achieve this goal.

Dialectical Thinking

Those who know me best – and with some reason I might add – have labelled me a contrarian. Perhaps they have it right, although sometimes I question it…

More importantly, my goal is to ensure that relevant factual data/content from a variety of angles for a given topic are not overlooked. Too many people selectively seek information that confirm their bias.

Perhaps I was inspired by one of my favorite journalists/authors/essayists/critics/orators, Christopher Hitchens. Or perhaps he resonated with me because of those characteristics already inherent. But regardless, I was always intrigued with the following quote of his: “Seek out disputation and argument for its own sake. The grave will provide plenty of time for silence….Suspect your own motives.”

Think about that a bit more.

Do it for another 30 seconds as I channel my inner Hitchens and grab some wine.

Ok. I’m back. You didn’t wait, did you? tsk tsk.

I believe that particularly in the present political climate, the essence of this quote rings true. And proper application will yield proper dialogue between differing parties of thought. When I discuss a whole host of differing issues with friends, I can be counted on to be the dissenting voice. I do not raise those points because I aim to convince them of my ‘view’ but because I want them to think more deeply about the issue and more comprehensively understand the issue from different viewpoints before deciding on a more definite position.

And I also hope to make clear that most issues are not as simple as they might seem or as the parties make them appear to be. Any change in policy in any sphere will almost always be guaranteed to have trade-offs. You probably recognize this without realizing when you go to buy toilet paper at the store. When ascertaining which to purchase, you realize that the nice, soft, thick tissue costs significantly greater than the thinner, rougher tissue. You might compromise by purchasing a less expensive package that has only slightly thicker tissue. Too few people perform a cost/benefit analysis when weighing differing views on a wide variety of issues. There are no solutions; only trade-offs.

To cite Hitchens once more: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

It is important to seek out disputation for its own sake because it helps to prevent polarization of views. My friend Dan, or MFD as he is known to everyone in my family, is of a particular political persuasion. MFD tends to surround himself with friends and colleagues who all think very similarly. This is not uncommon – we tend to surround ourselves with others who think as we do. As a result, someone like MFD only hears beliefs he already agrees with – except for when he discusses topics with me. To make matters worse, the few times he does hear arguments from the opposing side, they are from the extremists who make it on the news for the absurdity of their claims or actions. They do not fairly represent the majority of the opposition’s views. That’s where I come in. I seek to counter his claims by more fairly representing the meat and potatoes of the opposing side’s views. I want him to at least comprehensively understand the opposing view. Too often we hold a view on a topic and are not able to even accurately represent the opposing side’s view. Most issues are not like mathematics – where there’s a right or wrong answer (at least for normal people math). Instead there are merits, demerits, and trade-offs.

I do want to brag and add that in 2016, on facebook, yes, you read that properly, on facebook I was actually able to cause a friend’s friend to reconsider her views on a charged political issue. Ladies and gentlemen, if rational discourse on a facebook post is possible, then by golly, almost anything is possible!

The Art of the Electric Guitar

I’ve realized that when friends of mine use gadgets like cell phones, computers, or even air conditioning, they rarely ever feel the need to discover for themselves the intrigue behind those processes. They tell me, “I don’t care how it works or what makes it work. I just care that it works.” Perhaps I’m in a minority, but I’m fascinated by the scientific principles behind many of the technological gadgets that we use. We press ‘on’ and the thing just works. Almost like magic.

As an avid guitarist, I have long been intrigued by the method through which the string vibrations on my electric guitar are transduced into sound that emit from an amplifier. Naturally, I think this is a topic worth investigating. So how in fact does this process work?

Guitars can have different types and different set-ups of pick-ups, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll focus on the basic concept. Pick-ups are based upon the concept of electromagnetic induction. What does that mean? It is the creation of an electromotive force, also known as voltage, due to its dynamic interaction with a magnetic field.

The pick-up has a permanent magnet which is wrapped in a copper coil. So in this scenario, the magnet passing through the coil will induce voltage in the coil. How? Well, the magnet creates a magnetic field, and the motion of the vibrating steel strings disturbs that field. This causes a change in the magnetic flux (the amount of magnetic field per area per time), which induces a voltage in the coil. It is this signal which is sent to the amplifier. If you’re new to physics and Faraday’s Law of Induction, then the basic take-away point is the following: A magnet passing through a coil of wire will induce an electromotive force in the coil, which causes a flow of current (flow of electric charge).

There! And so the next time you hear your favorite guitar hero slicing and dicing it up on the electric guitar, you’ll be able to bore your friends and let them know the scientific principle at play!

Major Historical Innovations: Gutenberg’s Printing Press

When we think about major scientific innovations we tend to think about the internet, the smartphone, television, and other such modern technological advances. We don’t usually think about innovations that to us in this modern era seem trivial. However, there are innovations that require a great appreciation. One such innovation changed how information and knowledge was spread. And I’m not talking about the internet. I’m referring to Gutenberg’s printing press. Although many teenagers might forever hold a grudge against Johannes Gutenberg for making large school books so readily available, it is also the result of his innovation that has enabled nearly 500 million copies of Harry Potter to be enjoyed worldwide.

While Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type, he introduced a method of mechanical movable type printing which started the printing revolution in Europe. He improved on already existing presses through the use of a mould that allowed for the rapid production of lead alloy type pieces. Gutenberg’s innovation allowed for the mass production of printed books and was economically viable for printers and readers alike.

Unsurprisingly, the printing press had immense implications and its arrival ushered in an era of mass communication. Whereas beforehand a scribe had to painstakingly copy a document word for word – and frequently with errors – now a single printing press could create up to 3600 pages per day. Among the many immense benefits was a sharp increase in the literacy rates. This made it possible for those outside of the elite classes to obtain an education and bolstered the emerging middle class. The relatively unrestricted circulation of ideas also threatened the political and religious authorities, as evidenced by Martin Luther’s Reformation which relied on the printing press to easily disseminate his broadsheets that illuminated his positions.

Gutenberg’s advancement in mechanized printing was a vital innovation particularly for its time since it fed the emerging Renaissance – and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing – it was a major catalyst for the scientific revolution.

Free Will: Real or Imagined?

Think of the many different actions we perform everyday. We pick out a shirt from our wardrobe to wear to work. Perhaps we also pick out a tie. Then we may grab a bite to eat. In each case are we really free to choose our actions? Are we making a conscious choice? Or is our choice predetermined based on our experience?

In America we are taught from a young age that we have free will and are able to achieve whatever we set our mind to. Our judicial system operates in a manner that assumes that we have free will if we decide to break the law. But there has been an extensive amount of recent research that seems to indicate that we might not be as free as we thought when we engage in decision-making.

For close to a century the nature versus nurture debate raged on. Is the environment or our innate genetics the prime determinant of our actions? Through extensive research many scientists have come to the conclusion that both play a role. We are born with a certain genetic make-up but have the capability to essentially alter the degree to which genes are expressed and utilized by altering our environment. This is supported by the recent advances in brain scanning technology that allows us to peer inside the human brain and examine the intricate networks of neurons.

OK, but why does this matter? This is relevant because in a sense we may not really have free will since the choices we make are based upon the neural networks that we have developed throughout our life. The firing of neurons through these pathways form all of our thoughts, actions and dreams.

Therefore, criminals – especially psychopaths – really are unlucky. They didn’t choose their parents, their genes, or their upbringing. And yet it was that combination of factors that led to their brain and neural development which formed their intentions and actions. In short, they are a product of their environment and genes.

However, we ought not form a fatalistic view if we are under the assumption that there is no free will. In such a case, we might act as if we have no control at any extent over our actions and no matter what we do, our effort will not make any difference. There is no inevitable destiny (or larger mysterious ‘plan’ as supported by many religious folk) that we move in accordance with, as if our whole life were pre-planned. 

At this juncture, I believe that free will does not exist in the traditional sense, although I am continually evolving my stance. However, I’m convinced that this belief would not be beneficial in the long-term for our society. If everyone believed they didn’t have free will, what would the consequences of moral responsibility be like? Well, recent studies by psychologists Vohs and Schooler have shown that people will behave less responsibly if they regard their actions as beyond their control.

So therefore I currently believe that although there does not seem to be free will, people would be better off under the illusion that it does exist.

I believe an analogy of a restaurant can be illustrative of this point. How do we choose to decide where to eat? Well, we first decide what type of food we’re in the mood for. How? By examining our experiences with different types of foods likely based upon our country of origin, and particularly our family and friends. Therefore, we are in a sense bound by our exposure to a certain pallet of food, which shades our preferences. Once we finally do decide on a location, we stroll in and receive a menu. We are in a sense free to choose any dish, although we tend to order from the options we are familiar with. So we have the illusion of choice since we are given the ability to choose, albeit in a way from a preselected set of offerings which is based upon our upbringing and a whole host of other factors that have shaped our unique pallet. In reality, we might not have free will to choose, but practically speaking we arguably have free will since we can select from a range of options without being coerced by a criminal holding a gun.

So to summarize, perhaps free will in its current form is merely just the ability to have freedom of choice from a set of options that manifest from a combination of a whole range of factors that have occurred throughout our lives.

What do you think?

The Importance of Nuanced Thinking

Too often I see issues reduced to binary terms. This or that. Right or wrong. Good or evil. Real life presents us with various issues which ought not to be dealt with in such absolute terms. Quite frequently, there is an enormous gray area present but unseen.

Personally I view this as lazy thinking. It seems that people are so busy multitasking these days that they are unable to focus intently on an issue. They are too busy juggling a whole host of social media platforms, binge watching TV shows while talking on the phone while eating, talking on their cell phones while they drive, cutting their nails while at a traffic lights (yes, I have personally witnessed this), or even riding a bicycle while talking on the cell phone while ALSO holding a drink (I do have to give him props on his sense of balance though!) Another problem is that people derive their news from shallow ‘news’ sources such as facebook. We instead should employ our critical faculties and avoid relying on what another source ‘thought’ for us. Analytical skills should be encouraged. I constantly tell my friends, “break it down”. In real life, we are dealt with issues that come with a variety of layers that need to be defined if they are to be effectively resolved.

With the rise of terrorism over the past few decades, the rules of war have had to be altered. Gone are the days when there were visible uniformed soldiers. Today’s rules of engagement have to take into account enemy combatants who use civilian shields, shoot from schools, and even use children as suicide bombers. If a military force has to engage such terrorists and inadvertently kills civilians, naturally it is tragic. However, there is an enormous difference between civilians being killed unintentionally –  as in the previous example – and civilians killed intentionally by the opposing side. They are not morally equivalent.

Here’s another illustrative example of nuanced thinking: In the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, someone might perceive the color spectrum as containing ‘red, orange, yellow,” etc. While that’s true, the spectrum can be understood perhaps more precisely by realizing that there are slight degradations between each color as the shade of each eventually turns from one to the next (from red to orange, and then orange to yellow). Where an individual might just see a strip of orange color beside a strip of red color, I see an array of shades between the two.

Whenever you come across a conflict or an issue, whatever it might be, “break it down”. Use a methodological step-by-step approach and break down the complex problem into single components. It is at this juncture you realize that what at first seemed so complex and convoluted is actually simpler than originally presumed.