Saturday, June 26, 2010

MathML for Publishing Math on the Web

MathML is a web standard mathematical markup language that has been around since 2001. For more information, go to http://www.w3.org/Math/

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Buildings and Earthquakes

This afternoon a small tremor was felt in our area. My wife was in the fifth floor of an office building at the time, while I was on the ground floor of the college. She noticed the curtains shaking and could feel the tremor in her feet. I did not notice anything. Actually, nobody in my class noticed anything.

So, my wife, 5 stories up, felt more tremors then I did at ground level. That meant that the building she was in amplified the tremor to a level that it was noticeable, while environment did not do any amplification because I was on ground level.

Does that mean that we are designing buildings that amplify the vibrations experienced by earthquakes? The higher up in a building, the more potential for damage there is due to buildings collapsing. Are we exasperating this danger by designing buildings with certain mass/stiffness characteristics that increase the changes of vibration and the subsequent damage?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Astronomy and the nature of God

Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer, author, and chief of the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA Goddard Space Center, delivered the annual Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University, a series of three, of February 8 and 9, 2010 at University of Waterloo. Here is an excerpt from the first lecture, delivered at the Center for Environmental and Information Technology on February 8.

Does the character of the heavens reflect the character of their creator? If we allow ourselves to imagine just for a moment that there might be a divine creator of the universe, what would the universe tell us, if anything, about the character of that divine creator or upholder or purpose behind it? As an astronomer, I thought about that to some length and I came up with this little list of my own. You might come with you own thoughts as well, so this is not anybody's definitive list: it's what came to my mind viewing this question.

From astronomical observations and the resulting inference, within this view of considering a divine creator a possibility - then this God, this creator, would appear to me to be very powerful: we've seen already some of the astronomical objects and forces that are powerful.

Creative: a creator and a lover of beauty.

We've seen the beauty of galaxies and nebulae and stars, and most interesting to me is the connection between that beauty and us, being creatures here within this universe, who can recognize that beauty. I'm told that our brains are hard-wired to recognize design and beauty, and I think that there's purpose in that.

Patience: there are 13.7 billion years of history of the universe, as we can best guess right now. Now, this God would have a different view of time and efficiency than we have. We would gauge things by our life spans. But if that's not the important feature for this God, then this God would appear to us to be patient, allowing things to unfold according to processes that are needed to create the conditions that eventually would lead to life.

Faithfulness: allowing these fundamental physical laws of the universe, of gravitation, and of time moving forward. These kinds of things don't jump around and change from moment to moment, so this allows for the ordered development of the universe according to these fundamental physical laws.

And yet whithin this context of faithfulness, we see a desire for freedom, because there are elements of our universe set up that allow for freedom. We have things such as chaos theory, quantum theory, and so forth, that allow a sense of freedom within this ordered context. I believe that that's related to perhaps our ability in our experiential sense to understand that there really are such things as pain, and choices, and good and evil.

And we obviously see that our universe enables life, so this God would be one who gives and enables life, and enables a fruitful universe. We're here; there may be life elsewhere, as well.

And then, I would call this love: that we are enabled to investigate, appreciate, and also understand the magnificent cosmos of which we are a part, as we are seeing more and more of what's out there.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Moral Clarity: Do Morals Make Sense?

Many different people advocates morals for different reasons. The Greek philosophers advocated that in the long run it is intrinsically more pleasant to be moral than amoral. Thus, for the Greek philosopher, as they are watching other people around them have more fun gratifying their immediate desires though unmoral activity, they are consoling themselves by telling themselves that in the long run - the moral person will be better off and also by telling themselves that deep down it is more satisfying by being moral because it is a true extension of our identity as humans. Then there are the religious people that often advocate you need to be moral because there are eternal consequences for your day to day actions - so you better shape up if you want to be happy in the long run.

Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity looks at both of these extreme. It advocates against the Greek philosophers view that in the end it always turns out best for the moral person by showing that we live in an unjust world where you can never be guaranteed that moral activity will be rewarded. It also challenges the religious viewpoint by questioning why we need to look to the after life for motivation for moral activity today.

Rather than supporting either of these views, she argues that we have an intrinsic morality in us - it is part of what makes us human. By tuning into that inner morality and living consistent with it, our human struggle can make sense. Living with high moral standards may never result in success, comfort, or pleasure, but it can enable our lives to have purpose.

I remember hearing a story of one of the worst forms of torture in German Concentration camps. There would be a pile of bricks at one end of the yard. The workers would have to cart the bricks from the one pile to a new pile on the other end of the yard. The next day, they would have to cart the brick from the second pile back to the first pile. They would back and forth like this day after day. Their tasks were utterly meaningless. After a few days of doing this, people would start to go crazy and some would commit suicide. It is not in our nature as humans to be able to continue to exist in meaningless activity. Our lives need to make sense. Our morality needs to make sense, it needs to have meaning for us to continue to struggle to do the right thing when it is so much easier to cast away moral restraint.

Susan Neiman tries to make sense out of morality by showing example after example of people that risk their lives and everything else they hold precious to help another person. The person that risks all they have does not gain anything, they only engage in an opportunity to act constant with a deep moral identity. In that moment, they sense the resonance of their whole being engaged in what it means to be human.

Ivory Towers and Applied Research

Many people in industry criticize academia for being out of touch with reality, stuck in their ivory towers. The Polytechnics Canada and it consortium of colleges including Conestoga College and SAIT Polytechnic address this issue directly. They are dedicated to "enhancing the productivity and competitiveness" of Canadian industry. By engaging in research to discover solutions to real problems being encountered in industry, the polytechnic institutions are directly fueling the growth of the Canadian economy.

Conestoga College has been involved in an applied research initiative with ComDev over the past 2 years, designing automation for one of ComDev's manufacturing lines. SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary partnered with Conematic in developing protoypes and standardized components for an innovative hot water boiler.

These examples are encouraging indications that some of the academic institutions are not stuck in ivory towers. Rather, they are engaging in the real problems of the workplace.