Sunday, May 30, 2004

Conflict resolution (2)

Seldom do I get into conflicts with my colleagues. If it happens, though, I have a way out that works wonders. When faced with an anxious or angry person who is telling me how much I am at fault or how wrong I am, I say "Good point." Or "I see what you mean." Or "You may be right."

I don't have to back down. I don't have to say that my colleague is 100% correct. I don't have to admit fault. Usually, though, acknowledging that part of what my opponent says is true disarms him. He realizes that I am not blindly resisting, that I am listening. He realizes that I am not an enemy, out to get him, or make him look bad. Usually the level of antagonism or tension drops significantly. I can follow with "I just figured that..." and calmly give my side.

So, when in a heated argument, try telling your opponent that he has just made a good point. It works to calm him down and makes him more likely to acknowledge your point of view.
Conflict resolution (1)

When I began teaching I assumed that if students misbehaved or disagreed with me about what constituted proper conduct, all I would have to do is tell them my reasons. They would, then, alter their behaviour because they would see that my reasons were logical and valid.

The result was that I got into many arguments. Students would resist, give me stupid reasons for their behaviour, or not understand my point. It took me many years to realize that, after the first justification, future discussion is a waste of time. Furthermore, allowing the students to keep arguing was dangerous for them. In some cases their mouths got them into trouble. I was actually doing them a disservice by continuing a futile discussion.

Now, if I give an instruction, such as "Please stop talking and begin writing" and the student starts to talk back, I say "The only words I want to hear are 'yes, sir'". The effect is amazing. The students says "Yes, sir" and peace ensues. The student is usually content, not angry. He or she just shrugs and gets down to business.

I don't mean to imply that I'm a dictatorial teacher, becase I'm not. The point is, though, that sometimes a teenager needs a firm, absolute limit. The student actually gains some security with this interaction. Most of the time, he or she realizes that there is to be no discussion or objection, and just accepts it.

Perhaps there's a lesson for parents here. There are times for discussion and times for acceptance of a ruling without discussion. Sometimes the latter course of action ends up being the best for both parent and child.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Government IS the People

Part of the trouble with many municipal, provincial, state, or federal governments these days is that they consider themselves to be better or more knowledgeable than the people. Consider this example:

A citizen feels he has been assessed too high a tax, so the citizen appeals. The citizen wins. The government appeals the decision.

The government’s appeal bothers me. I think that, as much as possible, the government and the people should not be adversaries. The government IS the people. In retail sales, “The customer is always right” is a winning motto. Just so should be “the government errs on the side of citizens”. If a judge has decided in favour of the citizen, the government should be glad, or at least satisfied. If I were president or prime minister, one of my rules will be “Unless it believes a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred, the government will not appeal a judgement in favour of a citizen.”

Why do governments in democracies consider them above the people. After all, the governments do not merely represent the people, they ARE the people. They are composed of citizens, no better, no worse, than the typical citizen. Yes, they may have more money (that may be part of the problem), or more education than some. But the point is, members of the legislature should consider themselves citizens employed by other citizens. And that’s it.

Should the government be allowed to keep the details of its meetings secret? In general, (i.e. unless matters of serious national security are involved) no. If the people want to know what has been discussed, they should be able to find out, without going to court. After all, the government representatives in the meeting ARE the people.

Should censor boards exist? Should government representatives decide what books a citizen can read or what films a citizen may watch? Of course not. The government is not a parent. The people in government should have no more say than you regarding what you may do, as long as your actions do not hurt others.

The last sentence is important, however. We do give governments the mandate to make rules that serve society itself, like “Drive on the right” or “Contribute (via taxes) to educate the citizens of tomorrow.” However, the government should be willing, as much as possible, to accept the citizen’s view.

If a judge has ruled that the citizen is correct, the government should say “OK. I accept the ruling,”, because both the citizen and the government are the People.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Making the Streets Safe for Women

The Take Back the Night campaign deals with a serious issue: violence against women. Women have a right to feel safe walking neighbourhood streets at night. Many years ago I told people of a proposal for providing women with a safer environment. The technology for doing it was just around the corner, but now it’s here. What do you think of this idea?

What if a woman had a radio transmitter, perhaps like the communicator the Star Trek people wear on their chests. They tap it: “Enterprise, Riker here.” Presumably their communication is broadcast by a radio signal. Imagine a woman walking along the street. A suspicious man approaches. She taps her communicator “6 ft 2 or 3. Black hair. Red jacket, black pants, beard.” The signal goes out and is recorded somewhere. Later, the woman is found dead by the side of the road. The police, with a warrant, listen to the tapes, recognise the woman’s voice (or, better, the signal carries an identity code with it), and have a description of the suspect. Future women benefit when he is arrested, albeit not our victim.

Now imagine that many women have these devices. The man might think twice, not knowing if his description has already gone out. Now all women are safer.

I expect there would have to be many different channels and recording tapes running. Perhaps cellular telephone technology is needed so that a suitable channel is instantly assigned. Possibly the messages would stay for, say, 3 days and then be erased.

The company providing this service needs a way of making money. The service could be provided for a monthly user fee. Perhaps by paying a fee the user could receive a record of the message. That way two people could conclude a verbal agreement and, on the handshake, each tap their communicator and record their acceptance of the other’s terms. The agreement would be enforceable because each would conclude that the other has the permanent record of their vocal agreement.

Some communicators could be voice activated, for example when “Help” is shouted. Each could have GPS so that location is transmitted along with the identity of the wearer.

Of course there are privacy issues. Should each set make a small beep warning people around it that what they are saying is being recorded and transmitted?

But what do you think of the idea, though. It strikes me that widespread available and use of this service just could make the streets safer for everyone.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Blind Acceptance

I little while ago I attended a friend's church service. The pastor give an interesting sermon--they call the Message. At one point she said "Just as twins separated by great distances can feel each other's distress, so can ..."

I wrote her a letter. In it I explained that one of my goals as a physics teacher is to have students think, examine, and test hypotheses and claims before accepting them. Many students enter my classroom being firm believers that Earth has been visited by aliens, that we have not gone to the Moon, that ghosts exist, that mysterious disturbances happen in a Bermuda triangle, that people can read minds and move objects by pure thought, and so on. I try to persuade the students to look at these claims sceptically. And here she was talking pseudoscience.

I mentioned to the pastor that there was no reputable scientific evidence that separated twins can sense, for example, when the other breaks an ankle or has a bad dream. I requested that she refrain from stating dubious, unsupported claims as fact(and using them to support her argument).

But this brings up an interesting question: Where do I stop with my request? Obviously, I can't ask her to stop repeating untestable claims about the existence of God. To her God's existence is a fact. I'm trying to be fair to her, here. Regardless of whether I'm believer, agnostic, or atheist, I feel I have to let her state claims about God as facts as she sees them. But I want her to stop stating OTHER unsubstantiated claims as fact.

I think there's a line here that the pastor, priest, rabbi shouldn't cross, but it's a little tricky justifying it.

I am reminded of the requirements for good science fiction. We allow certain breaches of the laws of physics (warp drive; transporter beams; instant communication, perhaps). But having granted this limited latitude, we want consistency with the rest of the known laws of physics. I have a hard time explaining to my wife why I allow one "magic" device but not another. If you are a fan, though, I expect you know what I mean.

(I remember one episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation where Geordi and Ro were in a semi-dead state, or a different dimension, or something ("cloaked and phased", actually, they need the anyon beams to wipe out the chroniton fields!). Anyhow, they couldn't be seen by normal matter (i.e. everyone else). They could run through walls! My 10 year-old daughter saw the inconsistency: If they pass through the walls, she asked, why they didn't fall through the floors!)
Intuitive Grasp of Concepts

As a teacher of physics, primarily (also computers, general science, and music), I strive to instill an intuitive grasp of concepts in my students. Of course, this requires that I have an intuitive grasp of the concepts myself. I was delighted when a light bulb turned on in my head early one Sunday morning while reading Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos by Ian Stewart. I sat upright in bed and exclaimed "I get it!". (I had read Gleick's book Chaos but and learned much, but did not get that Eureka moment.) My wife, whom I had shaken awake to report the good news, prevented me from immediately calling a friend to see if he wanted to discuss fractals and chaos with me!

I feel I have an intuitive grasp of fractals and chaos, fuzzy logic, relativity, and quantum physics, but string theory eludes me. I am looking for a book that will help the light bulb turn on once again. I am presently reading, and highly recommend, Galileo's Finger by P.W. Atkins. The book is written beautifully, and takes me past my frontiers of knowledge. Perhaps when I reread the chapter on strings I will shout "Eureka".