Friday, July 13, 2012

Advanced Communicator Bronze

I gave my tenth and final speech towards the Advanced Communicator Bronze designation two weeks ago. Our VP of education submitted the forms to Toastmasters International last week. They sent the e-mail telling me that the next packet was on its way.

It took me two years to do it. I wasn't as crisp or diligent as I wanted to be. I chose two booklets with five speeches each. The first was Speaking To Inform; the second was The Professional Speaker. That second one was tough. Most speeches are 5-7 minutes long. The Professional Speaker has five assignments, and every one is 20-40 minutes long. I had a tough time writing and preparing for these. The difficulty slowed me down a great deal. But finally I slogged my way through.

The last speech was particularly challenging. I had to give a professional seminar. My two professions are mechanical engineering and software development. How could I manage that without losing my audience? Then my youngest daughter had a fine idea - why not talk about the Mandelbrot set that I wrote about back in March 2011? It gave me a chance to talk about sufficient mathematics to mention complex numbers. I presented some background about Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician for whom the set is named. I showed the Java code I wrote to perform the calculation. And then there was the payoff for all those who managed to remain in the room and not fall asleep: a presentation of the image itself.

It went very well, indeed. People were polite and feigned enthusiasm, even if they didn't feel it deeply. Some people thought I could have done a better job of tying the work and the image into real problems. Would they have been happy if I'd started talking about large eddy simulations of turbulent fluid flow? I was satisfied with how it went and my delivery. I felt comfortable and relaxed.

I was very glad to get it over with. It's motivating me to move on. I'm starting to think that perhaps I can achieve Distinguished Toastmaster status. Others have - why not me?

I think the secret is to write ten speeches out, rehearse them, and have them in pocket. Whenever there's an open speaking slot, I need to pounce on it. We have about 45 meetings a year. Each meeting has two speaking slots, so there are only 80-90 opportunities to make progress. I'd have to monopolize 11-12% of all speaking slots for an entire year to achieve my goal of earning Advanced Communicator Silver a year from now. It's a worthy goal.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Higgs Boson Announcement

So what's the big news story of the day? The divorce of Scientologist Tom Cruise and his third wife, Kate Holmes?

Yes, but there's also the announcement that data collected at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland has gotten over the five sigma hurdle. Scientists are saying they've observed a "Higgs-like" particle. The Standard Model says that the Higgs boson is the carrier for the Higgs field, just like the photon is the carrier for the electromagnetic field. It interacts with other particles to characterize their mass.

It's a big deal for science.

So how does this affect the unemployment situation in the world? What will this do to correct the banking mess that we find ourselves in? How will this affect peace in the Middle East or the US presidential election in the fall?

Sadly, it won't affect any of those things.

I'm happy that the flame of inquiry into the way the world works is still burning, in spite of the damping effects of anti-intellectualism, superstition, magical thinking, and religion.

It saddens me to think that this was the kind of thing that my country used to lead. We were the first to the moon. Science has been responsible for much of the economic activity that makes up our modern world. There are no modern computers, no Internet, no wireless communications without science.

The Superconducting Super Collider was envisioned in 1983 and cancelled ten years later in 1993. I'm sure that the arguments against it were "practical" and "serious" and "reasonable".

Part of the problem is that economics are finite. It's true that we can't afford to do everything we'd like. When resources are scarce, choices have to be made. Those choices reflect what a people consider to be important. You find a way to do what matters.

But we had no problem anteing up $3-4T for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compare that to the runaway $12B that had been spent by the time the SSC was killed. Was the benefit of the wars worth the cost?

James Clerk Maxwell published his equations for electromagnetism in 1861-1862 when the US Civil War was raging. We still live with the ramifications of that war, but the effect of Maxwell and science on the way we live today is far greater.

We value adventures in banking more today. A lot of the quants who are cooking up exotic derivatives used to be physicists. I'm sure they make a lot more money working for Goldman and Chase. What a shame!

It says something about us that we prefer short term profits over long term progress in understanding how the world works. It's a reminder that the progress we've made in enlightenment and reason is fragile. It can always be rolled back by magical, short-term thinking. I'm glad that CERN is keeping us moving forward.

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