When something entirely familiar changes unexpectedly

What happened to my credit card?
I’ve been using credit (and debit) cards for around 40 years. In that time, the card has barely changed: 85.60 × 53.98 mm laminated plastic, rounded corners, with the number embossed across the middle, my name and the expiration date embossed below it, and a signature panel on the back. A few decorations have appeared – a chip on the front, a hologram, a security code on the back, even my own photo. But the basic card has remained the same. And many other cards that I own follow the same form factor, for obvious reasons.
I just got a new card (a Chase Mileage Plus Explorer), and it’s different. Radically different. It’s half the thickness, for a start. On the front my name is printed (not embossed) in slightly raised letters. On the back, my name, the card number, and the expiration date are printed below the signature stripe, using the same slightly raised style. There’s a hologram, but no chip. (Boo!)
I’m sure this is going to be more convenient in everyday use. The merchant can read the card number, my name, and the signature without turning the card over. It’s thinner: if all my cards were this thick, I could use a much slimmer wallet. (As it is, I’m worried about this one falling out of the slow.) On the other hand, I can’t see how this would work with an old-style carbon-copy credit card machine. If not, will some merchants refuse it? (I’m not the first to worry about this, see here and here, including the comments.) Does this card conform to the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-1 standard? It certainly looks thinner than 0.76 mm.
Above all, I’m surprised that something so simple struck me as such a big deal. Probably time to re-read Don Norman’s “The Psychology of Everyday Things”.

What leads to the Argument From Personal Incredulity?

I just finished reading the slim account of a debate between Dan Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?”.

Dennett’s conclusion is straightforward:

Plantinga wanted to show… that science and religion are not just compatible: Science depends on theism to underwrite its epistemic self-confidence. […] [But] Our capacity to discover the facts, and to have good reasons for believing that we have done so, is explicable without appeal to inexplicable or irreducible genius, immaterial minds, or a divine helping hand. […] Let Plantinga, like Behe, try to show us the irreducible complexity in our minds that could not possibly have evolved (by genetic and cultural evolution). He will find, as Behe has, that his inability to imagine how this is possible is not the same as a proof that it is impossible. Richard Dawkins calls this the Argument from Personal Incredulity, and it is an obvious fallacy.

This fallacy — the Argument from Personal Incredulity – is one that has always fascinated me. Of course many (?most) people who say that they “can’t imagine how X could have happened” have probably never actually tried to imagine it: they have a prior commitment to a position that holds that it could not have done so, and that’s good enough for them. And in some cases they may lack the background to actually reason about the subject. But how about the others? What factors might underlie an honest, good-faith Argument from Personal Incredulity concerning the reality of evolution, from the origins of life to human consciousness?
It seems to me that there are a number of failures of imagination which, while individually innocuous, could have a cumulative effect. Let me list a few of them; I’m sure that you can think of others. Each of these items warrants a lengthy exposition, but for now let me simply summarize:

  • Lack of appreciation of very big (and very small) numbers. The enormous age of the planet (143 Petaseconds). The vast number of cells in an organism – or on the planet. The short time needed for a chemical reaction to play out, or for a mutated gene to thrive or be extinguished.
  • A tendency to think backwards, deterministically, all-or-nothing rather than forwards, incrementally, in parallel, with contingency. This builds on the large numbers involved: the entire planet (and indeed the universe) is full of experiments in selection, all proceeding in parallel, all interacting, and all subject to myriad contingencies.
  • Lack of appreciation of how much can be accomplished by so little. To understand the power of complex systems, start with simple ones. Look at the range of capabilities of single-celled organisms, or artificial life systems. Now apply scale and parallelism to these simple components.
  • Hubristic over-confidence in the capacity and ineffability of the human mind. Our brains are good at handling fragments of analysis, recognition, inference, and recollection; they’re also quite good at weaving together a story to fill in the gaps and fix up the mistakes. We “remember” things we haven’t seen, and “decide” to do things that have already started. (Philosophical arguments about mental capability – things like Searle’s “Chinese Room” and Jackson’s “Mary” – assume a total competence which is demonstrably at odds with the way the brain actually works.)

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy

At the end of October, I blogged about the fact that a recent routine check-up had led to the discovery of several large (but symptom-free) kidney stones. I wrote then that I’d be discussing the next steps with my urologist. Time and a half later, the “next steps” have arrived: tomorrow morning at 7:30 I’ll be having EWSL to blast three stones in my right kidney (two 2.0cm, one 0.6cm) into fine gravel. And then for the next few days… well, I’m told that painkillers are a good idea. Painkillers, and lots to drink.

The importance of having a regular physical

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of my new Yahoo! medical coverage and get a physical. Over the years I have to admit that I’ve not been very good about this; my last physical was in 2007 in Seattle. So I picked out a doctor (using one of the many online rating services!) and went in.
I expected my BP, cholesterol and weight to require attention, and they do. Nothing dramatic, just common-sense. But there was one other item on the lab results… and so last Thursday I had an abdominal CT scan. I was expecting to have to wait for a few days for the results, but this morning (9:29am on Sunday!) I got an email from my doctor, with the full test results and the news that I have a couple of large kidney stones. I haven’t experienced any discomfort so far (I gather that kidney stones can be excruciatingly painful), but at least we’ve caught it.
Email from my doctor on Sunday. Not bad, eh? I’ll talk to the urologist on November 9, and we’ll figure out what to do next. The standard approach seems to be EWSL, although my stones are at the upper end of the size for that procedure.

Zwischenzug #1: Massachusetts

Because of some prior commitments, I found myself with two weeks between finishing at Huawei and starting at Yahoo. The first week was spent in Massachusetts, helping my daughter and grandchildren move in with Merry. When you combine two households, you find that you have two of most things (which means that you need to throw stuff away), and none of some critical things (because each assumed that the other would provide it). Both of the previous houses had some built-in shelving, and so one of the urgent needs was to install enough shelves to hold the stuff that wasn’t being thrown away. Etcetera.
We also got to spend time with family and friends in the Boston and Pittsfield areas, and after brutally hot weather last week we woke this morning to a classical first-signs-of-fall-in-New-England day. The air was cool, crisp, and fresh, and a couple of trees were exhibiting prematurely autumnal foliage.
And now, after driving the length of the Mass Pike and flying across country, we’re back in Palo Alto, ready for the second week of intermezzo. On Tuesday, we head to Napa…. It’s going to be the first time for both of us.

Well, that was unexpected

Unexpected aspects of 2009:

  • I didn’t expect that I would leave Amazon, nor that I would join Huawei.
  • I didn’t expect that I would move from Seattle to Palo Alto. (In fact I never expected to live in California.)
  • I didn’t expect that I would spend seven weeks of the year in China (as well as two weeks in England). And there’s going to be a lot more travel to come in 2010.
  • I didn’t expect that I would become a car-owner again.

Overall, unexpected is good… it keeps you on your toes.It can be tiring, of course: it’s hard to relax into a routine. It’s been a year of learning, in all sorts of ways. I wonder what the corresponding list for 2010 will look like.