Influential Prose

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Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Conservatism in the Defense of Air Safety is No Vice

I grew up in small aircraft. My father was a private pilot and took me along often, showed me the landscape of Saskatchewan from 5,000 ft before I learned to ride a bicycle.

We always had copies of Flying magazine around at home, a publication with a deep and dedicated stable of editors and writers who knew how to tell a story and impart important lessons learned. “I Learned About Flying From That” remains a regular feature, and the Bax Seat column was like basking in the presence of a wise guru.

The history of early aviation is littered with accidents, leading to pilots who are a conservative lot; the classic explanation is “There are old pilots and bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots.” The deliberate and systematic approaches to greater air safety evolved to the point where it has become the safest form of travel we have.

The lessons learned along the way were painful, acquired at the cost of lives. Professional pilots regard the safety aspects of aviation with the same gravity as gun safety, if not more so – the potential loss of life is greater, and will likely include their own. As I read Flying, visited airports, learned from my father, attended air shows and observed conversations, I soaked up this conservative mindset shaped by reality.

At 16 I began taking flying lessons and soloed. After a couple of weekends of practice flights, the next step was ground school.

A cross-Florida trip with Dad between Vero Beach and Clearwater.


And here I became very apprehensive, because I was hard of hearing. I knew very well how safety was a part of every aspect of flying, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch everything that was said. I didn’t know ASL at the time, and even if I did, finding an interpreter and paying for it would be a huge hurdle – there was no ADA law then.

Maybe I could’ve – literally – winged it. I’ve always done well on written tests and I’d already demonstrated I could pass flight tests. I knew if I were able to do commercial flight at all it would be in remote areas, the Alaskan bush or lake-hopping for tourists, places where radio-controlled airspace wasn’t a hurdle.

But faced with a choice between incomplete knowledge that could kill myself and others and doing what I most wanted to do in my life at that point, I knew safety was the most responsible choice.

In retrospect, working in such isolated locations would’ve restricted an already stunted personal social growth due to being hard of hearing. I ended up going to Gallaudet instead, learned ASL and became immersed in the Washington, DC area deaf community. My political outlook as a mature adult is firmly progressive. But there are fields of human endeavor where conservatism is the best option.

In flight, as in life, we are all in this together.

Written by Influential Prose

March 20, 2016 at 9:34 am

Physics for Curious Teenagers

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Physics is often an intimidating subject because it encompasses so much – it is the foundation for how everything else works. Our understanding is advanced and growing, but not yet complete. There are still holes, and this is where the excitement lies – exploring the unmapped territories, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing farther than any have seen before. The easy parts have been mapped, and the hard parts beckon. Teens with the academic capacity for this subject can benefit from strong parental encouragement and support. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs are proliferating, and physics provides a reliable foundation for these areas. Check your teen’s school to learn about local courses.

Particle Physics
The most fundamental questions have been asked for centuries. Where are we from? How did we get here? Physics is part of our pursuit for answers. By examining the most basic building blocks that everything is made of, we discern the properties of both matter and energy, and how matter is essentially a form of energy. Chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry, the basis for life, all originate in particle physics. It’s like the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” shows, but this is the detective work of reality – physics underlies a lot of criminal investigative work.

Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s powerhouse of particle physics, offers a solid list of books on physics for regular people, and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh offers a selection of engaging physics books for teens — such as the “Manga Guide to Physics” — that are accessible without being dumbed down.

Fundamental particles carry positive and negative electrical charges, and these charges regulate the interaction of matter. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, at the particle level electrical charge is so powerful that the absence of only one electron out of every billion molecules in two 70-kilogram (154-pound) persons standing two meters (two yards) apart would repel them with a 30,000-ton force. If you want to understand how that works, “Physics for Idiots” has good explanations, even if you’re not an idiot. Teens looking for the story behind the science can also enjoy “Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World,” an overview of the history and human drama behind electromagnetism’s discovery.

Physics of Motion
Energy and matter together becomes motion. Isaac Newton formulated the Three Laws of Motion on an English sheep farm in the mid-17th century and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. He worked out how the motion of the moon affects the oceans on Earth and creates tides. The same laws that govern the fall of an apple from a tree form the basis of our understanding of orbital mechanics – how the planets orbit the sun through the principles of inertia and mass. The online Physics Classroom presents these laws in a clear, accessible way for teens.

Physics of Relativity
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity picked up where Newton left off by showing that space itself is warped by gravity, and that even light is affected by it. This effect is so powerful it enables us to see galaxies hidden behind clusters of other galaxies because the galaxies in front create a lensing effect, warping the light around them. Relativity also gave us light’s speed limit – 186,000 miles per second. By this measure, the sun is 8 minutes distant, Saturn is 15 minutes away, and the Voyager 1 space probe at the edge of the solar system is over 17 hours out. Cornell University, the workplace of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, has a good overview of Einstein’s theory, and yes, there’s a “Manga Guide to Relativity” too.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:24 am

Go forth, learn, and pollinate others

In the summer of 2003 I took my children to meet their great-grandmother in Canada. We drove from Minneapolis to Moose Jaw, and somewhere on the prairie in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at a Canadian Tire store for snacks and a break.

I browsed the newsstand, as I often do when waiting on others. While leafing through a new issue of Wired magazine, one of the letters to the editor seemed familiar. I soon realized why; I wrote it.

I’d written the note and emailed it to Wired 2 months earlier from home in Mount Dora, Florida and forgot about it soon after. I’m no celebrity, so it was a little surreal to see my thoughts reappear in a national publication 2000 miles from home.

Here’s the note.

Mapping New Territory (Wired’s title)

What graphics demand in space, they return in time and impact (“The New World,” Wired 11.06). Seeing information directly conveys ideas immediately and memorably, showing relative scale in creative ways. The beautiful illustrations in the Ultimate Atlas present fact as art, but they are no less relevant for that. If anything, they make the understanding of complex concepts more widely accessible, creating a new form of literacy. These are flowers, evolved to attract worker bees to knowledge. Go forth, learn, and pollinate others.

Kevin McLeod
Mount Dora, Florida

As the density of collected facts increase, we are able to arrange them in patterns that anyone can intuitively grasp.

There is a clear progression in human biological and cultural development as our vocabulary of calls as early primates expanded to complete languages, multiple languages, art, stories, writing. Entire cultures, centuries old, are now defined by their language and stories.

What the Reformation and the Renaissance did was declare a definitive break with our reliance on stories and introduced a new element; the conscious, culture-wide collection and compilation of facts, together with an examination of these facts to better understand how the world really works. We call it science. Printed books were the technology that made this revolution possible.

Data visualizations are a new vocabulary, a new language and a map to knowledge. Just as letters, words, phrases and stories tell us about each other, our problems and challenges, art merged with data give us a sense of weight and proportion that written and verbal language can’t completely convey.

The torrent of information we experience daily – early Internet users likened it to drinking from a firehose – is so great that data visualizations are the most effective way to keep up with the flow. They take us to a higher elevation where we can see patterns much more easily, like going from a riverbank at groundside to glancing down from a jet airliner or satellite and seeing the whole river system.

Like any language, data visualization can be used well or badly, for trivial and useful purposes. But this is the next step, a way to communicate a lot of information very quickly. Someday children will routinely be taught how to make them, or will learn on their own.

Pattern recognition is moving to the next level.

Information is Beautiful Awards
Data Looks Dope
XKCD – The Money Chart
Data Visualization Dashboards

Wired’s archive from June 2003

Written by Influential Prose

November 4, 2014 at 3:31 am

Posted in education, graphics