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Nelson Mandela Is Free

Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.

I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.

“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.

Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.

And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.

Nelson Mandela is free.

Do Eggs Gain Weight?

A second grade classroom at my school incubated chicken eggs until they hatched. When their feathers had dried, the fluffy chicks looked too big to have been enclosed within the broken shells still lying in the incubator.

One of the eggs did not hatch. For some reason, the chick inside had gone lifeless and would never break out into the wide world. Mr. Watts, the teacher who had run the whole project, handed it to me. “Feel this,” he said. “It seems heavier than it was in the beginning.”

I gently shook the egg from side to side, feeling the dead weight shift within the shell. Truly, it felt heavier than the eggs I buy for omelets. Was it because this egg had been fertilized and transformed into a nearly-finished young bird? Is it possible for an egg to gain weight while the chick grows inside?

My first thought was that it could not have gained any mass, because it had not eaten anything from outside the shell. Everything inside an egg until it hatches was in there since the moment it was laid. The chick forms from a small part of the material, and absorbs most of the rest as it grows. Since it does not eat or absorb anything from outside the egg, it seemed unlikely that it would actually weigh more at the end of incubation than it had at the beginning.

Since I am not an expert in birds or their eggs, I decided to do some research. The best article I found was on the Poultry Club of Great Britain website, which you can read here if you like. According to the article, a healthy chicken egg loses about 13% of its mass during incubation. Otherwise, the chick does not have room to move around enough to break the shell with its egg tooth, and dies inside the egg as a result. Maybe that is what happened to the egg that inspired this article.

EggTooth

There was one other thing I was unsure of. A chicken breathes oxygen and wastes carbon dioxide, like all animals on Earth. Would it not have to breathe through the shell? If so, there might be gases coming into the egg from outside, which might add mass.

It turns out that there is an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide through the shell, but since carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, this would reduce, rather than increase, the egg’s mass; indeed, this is one of the reasons – humidity being the other – that the egg loses weight.

Why did the egg feel heavy? Probably because an unfertilized egg – like the ones I get at the grocery store for my omelets – is all liquid inside. The egg with the unhatched chick had much less liquid, a larger amount of air, and a solid mass shifting around, which gave an illusion of added weight. I am reminded of when my children were small. When they would fall asleep and I carried them to bed, they felt heavier than when I would give them a piggyback ride. Their limp and sleeping bodies felt heavier, even though their weight had not changed.

My sons are much too big and heavy for me to carry anymore. But getting old has nothing to do with the weight of chicken eggs, so I suppose this post is done.

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You…Right?

Gravity, it seems, has become a controversial subject once again! For most of my life I had been under the impression that gravity is an attractive force; every reference work I have found describes gravity as being attractive; yet apparently there is a portion of the population who disagrees. Let me elaborate.

The school where I work is, on election days, a polling station. Upon such occasions, the polling booths are set up near the main entrance; students are routed away from there, and everything proceeds as normal. I appreciate the dedication of the volunteers who monitor the polls all day, and usually stop on my way out to exchange a thankful comment or a bit of polite banter, depending on how tired they appear. A couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers seemed to have had a very hard day. His face bore a heavy frown of weary disgust. I made the mistake of trying to cheer him up. My new business cards had just arrived from the print shop, and I handed him one with a friendly smile. The cards advertise this website; the front side asks “Are you terribly curious?” and the back reads simply “terriblycurious.com”. When I give someone a card, the usual response is to read the front and ask, “What’s this?” Whereupon I reply, “You see? It works!” Not the cleverest thing in the world, but it’s nearly always good for a quick grin.

Not that day! My disgruntled victim looked at the card and sneered, “What’s this?” I was already regretting my choice of daily public relations, and decided against the banter.

“It’s a general knowledge website,” I explained. Waving my hand about in an awkward fashion, I added needlessly, “I’m a teacher.”

His sneer grew into a snarl. “Hah!” he spat, obviously of the persuasion that teachers fall somewhere between pickpockets and drug dealers on the scale of social undesirables. “All right then!” he continued, as if to say let’s see if you know your stuff. “Is gravity a push or a pull?”

I hesitated for a second. My class had just finished experimenting with gravity; we had established to our satisfaction that an object held above the floor will, upon being released, fall to the floor. We had furthermore concluded that this behavior was due to a pulling force known as “gravity”. I considered the possibility that the gentleman confronting me was joking in a strangely belligerent mode, but a second glance at his expression rendered that hypothesis incredible. I gave the most concise answer I could: “Gravity is an attractive, or pulling, force.”

“Huh!” My antagonist tossed the card on the registration table in an overt gesture of perceived worthlessness. “Shows how much you know. Gravity is a push! Look!” And he pulled a pen from his pocket, held it high above his head, and dropped it. As it hit the tabletop, he threw his head back and fixed me with a glare of triumph worthy of Louis Pasteur showing a germ through a microscope to a disbelieving critic.

I tried to smile without showing my teeth. “I’m afraid I have to disagree. You see, the pen falls to the table because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The origin of that field is the Earth’s center of gravity; the pen falls toward the origin, thus the force is attractive, or a pulling force.”

He was utterly unimpressed. With a final contemptuous grunt, he dismissed me and all my heresy with a dismissive wave and turned away; the interview had come to an end. I walked away mystified. How had this poor man grown as old as I with so little understanding of basic scientific principles?

Alas, in our time science has become politically useful, and therefore subject to controversy. The USA has the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the industrialized world in which a significant percentage of the citizenry flatly disbelieves what passes for common knowledge in the rest of the planet.

We need conservatives to make sure we keep those things worth keeping as we travel, each moment of every year, from past to future. Just as importantly, we need liberals to make sure we continue seeking the best possible future instead of clinging to a past which, every second, disappears beyond recall. As an educator, my nature is to work for the increase of knowledge. Our nation will not long remain competitive if we reject any knowledge gained simply because it does not fit our current understanding. The result would be a scientific community made up of individuals like my befuddled friend at the polling station. Our national pride would be the least of our losses. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us.

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.

CerroDeLaSilla

My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.

 

School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.

 

Why Can't We Travel Faster Than Light?

James writes: I know light is the fastest thing in the universe, but why can’t anything else go that fast? Is it just that we haven’t built a ship fast enough yet?

James, I am no physicist. I believe I understand the reason for “lightspeed” being the cosmic speed limit, but I could be wrong. Here goes my best shot:

The hard part, to me, is why light travels at a constant velocity – and why that velocity is 299,792,458 meters per second (in a vacuum; going through air or other media slows it down). I have no idea why light travels at exactly that speed, instead of going faster or slower. But Albert Einstein’s famous relativity equation – E=mc² – explains why we cannot build a ship that goes that fast.

In the relativity equation, “E” stands for the energy of an object. The “m” on the right side of the equation is the object’s mass. And “c” means “constant”: the velocity of light. In math, a constant is a value that does not change. Variables are properties that can change. “E” is a variable, because the energy an object has can change. For example, if a karate master moves his fist very slowly towards a wooden board, he might push it out of the way, but the board will not break. But if the karate master throws a fast punch at the board, his fist will break through it easily. Why? Because his fist had much more energy when it was moving fast. Energy increases with speed; this is why cars (and passengers) are damaged a lot worse if they crash at high speeds than if they crash when moving slowly.

An equation is a statement that both sides are equal, like 3+2=5. The left side equals the right side. If we add to the left side, we must add the same value to the right side for the equation to be true: 3+2+1=5+1. Einstein’s relativity equation states that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the square of a constant, “c”. The constant does not change, so if “E” changes, “m” must also change. In effect, an object moving very quickly becomes more massive.

More mass means that it takes more energy to accelerate. This is why a Ferrari can accelerate faster than a dump truck, even if the dump truck has more power. So if we build a starship and move it faster and faster, its mass will begin to increase. The more massive it is, the more energy it takes to make it go faster. As we approach the speed of light, the mass becomes so great that it would take an infinite amount of energy to make it go as fast as light. Since we do not have an infinite amount of energy, we cannot reach lightspeed.

That is as much as I understand about your question, James. I hope it helps. If there are any physicists in the audience who can explain it better, or correct any mistakes I have made, I will appreciate it.

Stay curious, my friends!

Old Dog, New Tricks: Part 3

October is here. More truthfully, October is halfway over! I have spent half the day improving my programming skills, which are…improving.

I have not created the killer app yet, but I have a few good ideas and an increasing understanding of how to translate them into functional code. I know what “architecture” means in the context of software design. I am 90% finished with the online course in the Ruby language available on Codecademy; 41% finished with the course in Javascript; working through C++ using CodeBlocks, and making progress in learning animation together with my son. He learns faster than I do, which is great because I love seeing him acquire a useful skill; it is also kind of discouraging because I used to learn that fast, and watching him makes me feel old. But it is inspiring as well, because he still likes to work with me and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Maybe old and young people are meant to work together. Old people have more discipline, persistence, and experience; young people bring energy, imagination, and a fresh outlook to the table.

So I went to the library today and came home with a stack of books, half of which involve technology. October is here, which marks one year and a month since I started blogging. Eight months since I started learning about programming; five months since I had the idea of building apps. Three months ago, I set a goal for myself to have built an app that is good enough for people to want to pay for, within a year. I am starting to think that just might be possible.

If it sounds like I am tooting my own horn today, you understand me completely! I feel terribly proud of myself for starting to learn how to interact with technology at age 42, instead of just going “gentle into that good night”. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

And (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) learning a new trick beats simply raging against the dying of the light.

The Best Chocolate Story Ever

Everyone likes chocolate. Some people love it more than any other sweet food. Then there are the true chocolate lovers, whose appetite for chocolate goes far beyond what the rest of us can understand.

Chances are you know one of these “chocoholics”. You may be one yourself. But there was never a chocoholic like my grandpa.

Grandpa was what they call, in the part of the country where he lived, a Character. An avid outdoorsman, his hunting exploits were the stuff of legend; his fishing yarns were so extravagant he was disqualified from the annual Liars’ Contest – nobody else’s tales had a chance. Small business owner, city planner, backyard inventor of the only 100% effective  system for keeping neighborhood dogs from fouling a lawn…in other words, a Character.

And Grandpa loved chocolate. That’s an understatement. Grandma, who kept the books for their store, chided him for raiding the chocolate crates in the storeroom; he would eat up all their profit, she said, only half joking. Grandpa blamed mice. Grandma observed that the local mice were conscientious enough to throw the wrappers away when they ate chocolate from the storage crates.

One day Grandpa broke out in a rash. He wasn’t running a fever, so he didn’t worry too much; but the rash wouldn’t go away. His friend the town doctor was mystified. “It seems like some kind of allergic reaction,” he mused. “You’ve never been allergic to anything, have you?”

“No,” Grandpa answered. “No allergies.”

“Well, what are you eating?” asked the doctor.

“I don’t know!” replied Grandpa. “I eat all kinds of stuff – whatever’s for dinner!”

“We have to rule out some basic foods, then,” said the doctor. “Let’s isolate you for a week or so – take a vacation at your cabin. Make a list of all the things you take with you; jot down what you have for every meal. Hopefully when you come home the rash will be gone, and we can eliminate the items on your list.”

Grandpa didn’t hesitate. His cabin in the Rockies was his favorite place to get away and do what he loved most: hunt and fish. He loaded up the car with the bare necessities – including fishing tackle and his favorite rifle – and set off.

A week later he returned. The rash was worse than ever.

“Good Heavens!” said the doctor when he saw Grandpa. “You look worse than ever! It’s a safe bet that something you eat is making you sick. It must be something you took with you to the cabin. What did you eat up there?”

“Well,” said Grandpa, “I brought some flour, eggs, and cooking oil for pancakes. Had some bacon. Coffee, no milk. Trout from the lake – delicious!”

“None of those thing should have given you such a rash. Are you sure you didn’t eat anything else? Nothing at all?”

Grandpa paused. “I did have a little bit of chocolate.”

“Aha!” cried the doctor. “How much chocolate did you take up there?”

“A twenty-five pound bag of bridge mix…”

“What? No wonder you broke out in hives! How much of that bag did you eat?”

By now, Grandpa was getting defensive. “What do you mean, how much of it? I ate all of it!”

“Good Heavens, man!” roared the doctor. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive!”

Red-faced, Grandpa yelled back, “And that’s not all! I ate a ten-pound box of Hershey bars, too!”

The doctor threw his hands up in resignation. After Grandpa left, he made a phone call to Grandma; the result was a chocolate-free diet for Grandpa. The rash went away.

It’s all true, and it’s the best chocolate story ever. If you think you can beat it, you are welcome to try.

It's Bad Luck to be Superstitious

“Superstition brings bad luck.” – Raymond Smullyan

Do you avoid stepping on cracks? Does it make you worried if you spill the salt, or break a mirror, or walk under a ladder? Are you afraid something bad will happen if a black cat crosses your path? If so, you are not alone. Many people share these – and many other – superstitions. But where did all these beliefs come from?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation”.

In everyday English, there are several reasons why the world seems not to make sense. One of these reasons is not having enough information to understand why things happen. It is easy to see patterns in the world around us; the human brain seems to be hard-wired for recognizing patterns. When we detect a pattern, we like to find the cause for the pattern. For example: on the twentieth day of every month, I feel a little more happy and relaxed than on other days. Why could this be? Is there something magical about the number 20? Not at all: I get paid on the twentieth of each month. But if you didn’t know that, and failed to guess the truth, you might find some other explanation.

Another reason for being superstitious is feeling afraid of what might happen. Nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future; yet some of us fear it and others do not. If you feel that you are in control of your life (whether this is true or not), you will not fear the future. If you feel that you have little or no choice in your life’s events, you will probably feel some degree of fear when imagining the future.

Finally, it is possible to believe that things happen for a reason, and still be wrong about the reason. For example, before discovering germs, most people around the world believed that diseases were a punishment from Heaven, or caused by evil spirits hovering in the air! (When Dr. Semmelweiss proposed in 1847 that diseases were caused by germs, the other doctors made fun of him. They got him kicked out of the hospital where he worked. They even had him declared insane and locked up. But that is another story!)

It is pretty easy to prove that diseases are caused by germs, so not many people are superstitious about sickness anymore. But many old superstitions are still popular, probably because there is a bit of truth to them!

Walking Under a Ladder

Walking under a ladder is considered bad luck in many parts of the world. The reason for this one is fairly obvious: the more you walk under ladders, the more likely you are to knock them over and get pelted with buckets of paint, metal tools, construction workers, and whatever else is at the top of the ladder. There is really no reason to be superstitious about ladders; it is just good common sense to walk around them instead of under them.

Breaking a Mirror

Breaking a mirror is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck. The reason for this is not quite as obvious as the one about ladders. Yes, when you break a mirror, there is always the risk of cutting yourself while picking up the pieces; but a cut will heal in seven days, not seven years. Why would anyone believe seven years of bad luck?

You may not think of a mirror as a valuable and prized possession, but they were until about 300 years ago. Before then, mirrors were hand-made by artisans who knew the secret of producing sheets of glass with a backing made from mixing tin and mercury. The process was difficult and only known to mirror-makers in the city of Venice, and mirrors were extremely expensive. Most people could not afford to own a mirror. If your family had a mirror, and you broke it, they would probably be upset with you for seven years or so! Thus the superstition.

Spilling the Salt

Like mirrors, salt was difficult to produce in the ancient world. This made it so valuable that the Roman army even paid their soldiers in salt (better than gold for a soldier, as salt also can disinfect wounds and keep meat from spoiling); this is the origin of the word “salary”. The only bad thing about getting paid in salt is that it dissolves in water; if you drop it in a puddle, your salary is gone. Bad luck indeed.

Black cats

As opposed to ladders, mirrors, and salt, there is no real link between black cats and bad luck. But to the superstitious mind, always looking for a reason (and not really caring if the reason is a logical one or not), black cats are handy scapegoats. Why? Because there are so many of them all over the place. Chances are, if something good happens unexpectedly, there will be a black cat nearby. The difference is that we never look for a reason when something good happens; we seem to think we had it coming. On the other hand, when misfortune strikes, it must have been that cat!

The comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”  Which makes sense to me.

Superstition in Sports

Superstitions are most often due to a sense of not being in control of things, of wanting to gain control, but without any real plan for doing this. It is interesting – and perhaps instructive – that superstition is much more common in some sports than others. More to the point, the sports that breed superstition are the ones where the player has the least control. Baseball players are famously superstitious; golfers a bit less. These sports involve hitting hard balls with hard clubs at very high speeds and at distances that allow the wind to become a factor. Tennis players are not prone to superstition. They are hitting a soft ball with a flexible racquet over a short distance, and are able to control the ball with a high degree of confidence. Likewise, you will never hear an archer or a rifle marksman talk of superstition. Their equipment is very precise and allows almost total control of the results. Tennis players, archers, and marksmen talk about skill, not luck.

And that is why I titled this post “It’s Bad Luck to be Superstitious”. The way to achieve success is to maximize your control over as many factors as possible. Anything else is probably a waste of your time and energy. Of course, control starts with yourself – which is why it is such an unpopular word. Until you are in control of yourself – words, actions, and thoughts – you can never really be in control of anything outside yourself either. Self-control is the key to every kind of success. It is also the end of superstition.

Were the Apollo Moon Landings Real, or Not?

This summer, I took my two sons and my nephew to the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field Airport in Dallas.

If you like airplanes half as much as I do, you will want to visit Frontiers of Flight next time you are in the Dallas area. The exhibits cover the entire history of human flight, from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches to the current space program. What sets this flight museum apart from most others is the sheer number of real planes on display; an aircraft enthusiast could easily spend all day there learning and exploring, and every time I visit, there seems to be something new to see.

flightMuseumInside

The best piece of all is the Apollo capsule. This is not a replica. It is the actual command module from the Apollo 7 mission. That fact in itself is enough to make me stand silently for a few moments every time I visit, and reflect on the audacity of the human spirit. Three human beings sat in that very box for eleven days, the rude metal cone hurtling through the vacuum of space at 50,000 miles per hour, guided by a primitive calculating machine with far less power than any cellphone you can buy today. Their courage and skill paved the way for the triumphant moment a year later, when an air-breathing mammal from Earth set foot on the dusty, airless surface of the Moon with the unforgettable words “one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”

 flightMuseumForWeb

The Apollo capsule represents something that makes me proud to be a man. That’s why it makes me sad when a student asks me if the moon landings were real – because they read some silly web page (written by someone too ordinary to capture anyone’s attention without capitalizing on fear, distrust, and ignorance) about how the whole space program was faked.

 MoonLanding

The Apollo program was a giant leap for humankind. It was a gigantic push, by a nation of dreamers, to go where no one had gone before, to do the impossible. It took a decade and cost $25 billion, which sounds like a lot of money until you compare it with the amount we spend on other kinds of hardware from stealth bombers to aircraft carriers (if you care to research this, make sure you look at operating costs, not just cost to build). And I have no doubt whatsoever that Apollo was a genuine program that delivered genuine results – among the most spectacular results ever achieved by any human enterprise. The reason for my lack of doubt is called Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor is a general rule of logic, the idea being that when you have to choose between a number of explanations, the simplest one – the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions to support it – is the most reliable.

There are many websites devoted to the idea that the Apollo moon missions – if not the entire U.S. space program – were a hoax. I will not list all the arguments here; you can find them easily enough if you are interested (or more likely, if you are really bored). The most obvious weakness of these theories is that they fail the test of Occam’s Razor. They depend on many more assumptions without evidence to support them – let alone the fact that they fail to explain how GPS works if we never went into space. But the thing that annoys me the most about these people is the way they disrespect all the courageous astronauts who risked their lives – and a few who lost their lives – for the sake of lifting a nation’s eyes and spirits to the stars. I wonder if they would have the nerve to look Buzz Aldrin in the face and call him a liar. Somehow I doubt it.