Category Archives: Bibliophilia

Art for After the Ladder Pulling-Up

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Forgive all the cartoon talk. I spent the day trying to understand, whatever I didn’t understand, about [The New Republic]. More Monday.

Me: I’m reading this as saying that ’80s cartoons are essential for understanding TNR.

TNC: Yes. But I haven’t figured out why…

This little exchange, and the Jem and Robotech discussion which led up to it, got me to thinking about the cartoons of my own childhood. In turn, that called something to mind from my years of studying the Found-in-Used-Book-Store-Basement Canon. Quoting from Antonia Levi’s Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (1996):

Why do young Americans stick with an art form that is so foreign and so difficult to understand, an art form that actually makes them work? Generation X’s image does not usually include much emphasis on the work ethic. Yet, this is the generation that has chosen to tackle a challenging art form purely for the purpose of entertainment. One reason, of course, is that the Baby Busters simply aren’t as lazy as Boomer curmudgeons would like to believe. The other reason, however, is that anime more than repays the effort by providing its fans with a fantasy world more compelling and more complete than they can find anywhere else. Okay, it’s escapism, but for a generation whose defining characteristic is that they are the first set of Americans who will not do as well as their parents, good escapism is worth a little effort.

Plus ├ža change, amirite?

Concerning “Great Books”

Shimer College: the worst school in America?

Subhead: This tiny, eccentric institution in Chicago was just voted the worst place to study in America. But does Shimer, which shuns lectures and has no societies or clubs, deserve such an accolade? Jon Ronson went there to investigate.

In the body, we have a bit more detail:

This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

And:
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“It Should Have Been Obvious”

I can’t find my copy of The God Delusion. It wandered off to join the fairies in the Boston Public Garden, or something. This is only a problem when I’d like to look something up in it, to point to a passage and say, “Ah! If we’d read more carefully, we could have guessed that Dawkins was that terrible all along. It should have been obvious, even before he discovered Twitter!”

I could say more on this, and perhaps if the book turns up, and I have important work to procrastinate on but no Columbo episodes to watch, I might write at greater length. For now, I’ll just comment on a little thing which I don’t recall anyone pointing out before. The epigraph of the book is the Douglas Adams quotation to which I alluded, the one to the effect that the beauty of a garden should be satisfaction enough, without having to imagine “fairies at the bottom of it” in addition. This quotation comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where it is part of Ford Prefect’s inner monologue. Ford is rejecting Zaphod Beeblebrox’s claim that their stolen spaceship is currently orbiting the lost planet of Magrathea. To Ford, Magrathea is “a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become economists”.
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“the proudest products of our little world”

Ah, the “who speaks for Earth?” parlour game. It’s up there with “which historical figure would you like to have for dinner” and “if you could be a fictional character for a day” for entertaining displays of merrily frivolous erudition. Who—drawing, if we like, from all human history—should be our representatives to an alien civilization? What, in our fantasy, would the aliens appreciate, and who embodies those qualities? Danny Inouye? Lyudmila Pavlichenko? Honinbo Sansa? Sappho? Eratosthenes? Josephine Baker? Emmy Noether? Malcolm X? Alan Turing? Ahmes? Yoko Kanno? Srinivasa Ramanujan?

And what do our choices say about ourselves, about the way we codify canons and build cultural capital?

Per this entertaining development, I’m reminded of something the science writer Timothy Ferris once wrote:

Imagine that we here on Earth have made contact with an interstellar network and have downloaded thousands of simulations from its memory banks. All over the planet people are putting on VR helmets and immersing themselves in the art, culture, and science of alien worlds. We in turn have uplinked whole libraries’ worth of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Homer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Watson and Crick, the proudest products of our little world. Yet we appreciate that our wisdom and science are limited, our art to some degree provincial. There may be an audience somewhere among the stars for Virgil and Dante and Kubrick and Kurosawa, just as there may be some humans who genuinely enjoy the poetry of the crystalline inhabitants of Ursa Major AC+ 79 3888, but it is apt to be a limited audience. Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy—any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.

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#WhyTheQuantum

One day, I’ll be able to explain the story behind how I got into this, but looking back on all the oddities of it, I’m not sure that a medium other than manga could do it justice.

My Struggles with the Block Universe [arXiv:1405.2390]

Christopher A. Fuchs, Maximilian Schlosshauer (foreword), Blake C. Stacey (editor)

This document is the second installment of three in the Cerro Grande Fire Series. Like its predecessor arXiv:quant-ph/0105039, “Notes on a Paulian Idea,” it is a collection of letters written to various friends and colleagues, most of whom regularly circuit this archive. The unifying theme of all the letters is that each has something to do with the quantum. Particularly, the collection chronicles the emergence of Quantum Bayesianism as a robust view of quantum theory, eventually evolving into the still-more-radical “QBism” (with the B standing for no particular designation anymore), as it took its most distinctive turn away from various Copenhagen Interpretations. Included are many anecdotes from the history of quantum information theory: for instance, the story of the origin of the terms “qubit” and “quantum information” from their originator’s own mouth, a copy of a rejection letter written by E. T. Jaynes for one of Rolf Landauer’s original erasure-cost principle papers, and much more. Specialized indices are devoted to historical, technical, and philosophical matters. More roundly, the document is an attempt to provide an essential ingredient, unavailable anywhere else, for turning QBism into a live option within the vast spectrum of quantum foundational thought.

As the comment field says, “CAUTION, do not unthinkingly print from a printer: 2,348 pages, 4 indices, 6 figures, with extensive hyperlinking.”

MSwtBU was originally submitted to the arXiv on 10 May 2014, the anniversary of the predecessor volume and before that of the Cerro Grande Fire, which started the whole business. To my knowledge, it is the longest item currently on the arXiv.

omg 2000+ pages. There goes my free time.
— Dave Bacon, via Twitter

Time Capsule

While looking through old physics books for alternate takes on my quals problems, I found a copy of Sir James Jeans’ Electricity and Magnetism (5th edition, 1925). It’s a fascinating time capsule of early views on relativity and what we know call the “old quantum theory,” that is, the attempt to understand atomic and molecular phenomena by adding some constraints to fundamentally classical physics. Jeans builds up Maxwellian electromagnetism starting from the assumption of the aether. Then, in chapter 20, which was added in the fourth edition (1919), he goes into special relativity, beginning with the Michelson–Morley experiment. Only after discussing many examples in detail does he, near the end of the chapter, say

If, then, we continue to believe in the existence of an ether we are compelled to believe not only that all electromagnetic phenomena are in a conspiracy to conceal from us the speed of our motion through the ether, but also that gravitational phenomena, which so far as is known have nothing to do with the ether, are parties to the same conspiracy. The simpler view seems to be that there is no ether. If we accept this view, there is no conspiracy of concealment for the simple reason that there is no longer anything to conceal.

Continue reading Time Capsule

“Seneca Cannot Be Too Heavy”

Reading today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, I got all “someone is WRONG about HAMLET on the INTERNET!”

1. Hamlet couldn’t have said anything much before the play starts, because he was off at school in Wittenberg.

2. He sees the ghost on the night of the first day in the play where he appears. Not a long delay there. And his reaction to being told “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” is, “O my prophetic soul!” Or, in a different idiom, “Called it!”

3. He has every reason not to act rashly, because (a) he wants to be King (Claudius “popp’d in between the election and my hopes”), and (b) he can’t trust that the ghost is really his father. “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”, etc. Watch your Star Trek, people! Emo!Hamlet is a comparatively recent invention. Prior to the late 1700s, the standard was to play Hamlet as a chessmaster, a brilliant young man trying to turn a bad situation to his advantage, facing a shrewd opponent.

4. It’s the characters in the play who remark on Hamlet’s “transformation”. That’s why Claudius sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
Moreover that we much did long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sending. Something have you heard
Of Hamlet’s transformation; so call it,
Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was.

5. He’s so antisocial that he…has a girlfriend? And, as Claudius says, is beloved by the general populace of Denmark? Indeed, that’s a big part of why Claudius doesn’t have Hamlet killed for stabbing Polonius. As he tells Laertes, he doesn’t want to hurt Gertrude, and in addition…

The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber’d for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim’d them.

6. He won’t kill his uncle first because he wants to be crowned, not executed; and second, because he wants Claudius damned, not just dead.
Continue reading “Seneca Cannot Be Too Heavy”

Precalculus -> Statistics

Now that 2.2 metric Ages of Internet Time have passed since Andrew Hacker’s ill-advised “math is hard!!” ramble, I figure it’s a good day to propose my own way of improving high-school mathematics education. Be advised: this is a suggestion about the curriculum, not about how to train teachers, buy books and all that un-TED-friendly stuff which reformers happily gloss over. And I’ll be talking about changes late in the game, which won’t address problems at the “why can’t Johnny add?” level.

When I was in high school—at a pretty well-supported public school, out in the ‘burbs at the comparatively unimpoverished end of town—I took a “precalculus” class my eleventh-grade year. Most of the advanced-track students I knew did the same thing. (If you’d gotten yourself on the even-more-advanced track back in eigth grade, you took precalculus in tenth.) This was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP Calculus class our senior year, which would allow us to get college credit. Instead, it was a thoroughgoing waste of time. The content was a repeat of Algebra II/Trigonometry, which we’d taken the year before, with two exceptions thrown in. The first, probability, was a topic our teacher didn’t know how to teach. In fact, she admitted as much: “I don’t know how to teach probability, so you’re all going to read the book today.” The second, limits, served no purpose. I’ll explain why in a moment.

I suggest the following: scrap “precalculus” and replace it with a year-long statistics course. This plan has several advantages:
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Bohr’s Horseshoe

Now and then, one hears physicist stories of uncertain origin. Take the case of Niels Bohr and his horseshoe. A short version goes like the following:

It is a bit like the story of Niels Bohr’s horseshoe. Upon seeing it hanging over a doorway someone said, “But Niels, I thought you didn’t believe horseshoes could bring good luck.” Bohr replied, “They say it works even if you don’t believe.” [source]

I find it interesting that nobody seems to know where this story comes from. The place where I first read it was a jokebook: Asimov’s Treasury of Humor (1971), which happens to be three years older than the earliest appearance Wikiquote knows about. In this book, Isaac Asimov tells a lot of jokes and offers advice on how to deliver them. The Bohr horseshoe, told at slightly greater length, is joke #80. Asimov’s commentary points out a difficulty with telling it:

To a general audience, even one that is highly educated in the humanities, Bohr must be defined — and yet he was one of the greatest physicists of all time and died no longer ago than 1962. But defining Bohr isn’t that easy; if it isn’t done carefully, it will sound condescending, and even the suspicion of condescension will cool the laugh drastically.

Note the light dusting of C. P. Snow. Asimov proposes the following solution.

If you despair of getting the joke across by using Bohr, use Einstein. Everyone has heard of Einstein and anything can be attributed to him. Nevertheless, if you think you can get away with using Bohr, then by all means do so, for all things being equal, the joke will then sound more literate and more authentic. Unlike Einstein, Bohr hasn’t been overused.

I find this, except for the last sentence, strangely appropriate in the context of quantum-foundations arguments.

Gbur’s Mathematical Methods

REVIEW: Gregory J. Gbur (2011), Mathematical Methods for Optical Physics and Engineering. Cambridge University Press. [Post also available in PDF.]

By golly, I wish I’d had this book as an undergrad.

As it was, I had to wait until this past January, at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference. These annual meetings in Durham, North Carolina feature scientists, journalists, teachers and students, all blurring the lines between one specialization and another, trying to figure out how the Internet can help us do and talk science. Lots of the attendees had books recently published or soon forthcoming, and the organizers arranged a drawing. We could each pick a book from the table, with all the books anonymized in brown paper wrapping. Greg “Dr. Skyskull” Gbur had brought fresh review copies of his textbook. Talking it over, we realized that if somebody who wasn’t a physics person got a mathematical methods textbook, they’d probably be sad. So, we went to the table and hefted the offerings until we found one which weighed enough to be full of equations, and everyone walked away happy.

MMfOPE is, as the kids say, exactly what it says on the tin. It begins with vector calculus and concludes with asymptotic analysis, passing through matrices, infinite series, complex analysis, Fourierology and ordinary and partial differential equations along the way. Each subject is treated in a way which physicists will appreciate: mathematical rigour mortis is not stressed, but when more careful or Philadelphia-lawyerly treatments are possible, they are indicated, and the ways in which their subtleties can become relevant are pointed out. In addition, issues like the running time and convergence of numerical algorithms are, where appropriate, addressed.
Continue reading Gbur’s Mathematical Methods

Signature in the Cell (Repost)

For your convenience:

The following is a list of debunkings of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, arranged more or less in chronological order. I have not included every blog post I’ve seen on the topic; as I did for Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, I’ve focused on the most substantive remarks, rather than keeping track of every time somebody just quoted somebody else. (I’ve also probably overlooked, forgotten, mistakenly thought I’d already included or never been made aware of some worthwhile essays.) In some cases, additional relevant posts can be found by following links within the essays I have listed.
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OpenLab 2010

The 2010 edition of The Open Laboratory, the annual anthology of science blogging, is now available for purchase, as a handsome print volume or a PDF compatible with e-reader devices. Proceeds from book sales go to funding the ScienceOnline 2012 conference, which is currently in the planning stage.

Eventually, I’ll find/make the time to write about how we make blog posts into a book. First, Series Editor Bora Zivkovic chooses the guest editor for the year. Then, the two of them contact me and tell me it’s time to take the LaTeX templates out of their ceremonial encasements. Next, I draw a transmutation circle and start looking for sacrifices. . . .

Updates

In the wake of ScienceOnline2011, at which the two sessions I co-moderated went pleasingly well, my Blogohedron-related time and energy has largely gone to doing the LaTeXnical work for this year’s Open Laboratory anthology. I have also made a few small contributions to the Azimuth Project, including a Python implementation of a stochastic Hopf bifurcation model.

I continue to fall behind in writing the book reviews I have promised (to myself, if to nobody else). At ScienceOnline, I scored a free copy of Greg Gbur’s new textbook, Mathematical Methods for Optical Physics and Engineering. Truth be told, at the book-and-author shindig where they had the books written by people attending the conference all laid out and wrapped in anonymizing brown paper, I gauged which one had the proper size and weight for a mathematical-methods textbook and snarfed that. On the logic, you see, that if anyone who was not a physics person drew that book from the pile, they’d probably be sad. (The textbook author was somewhat complicit in this plan.) I am happy to report that I’ve found it a good textbook; it should be useful for advanced undergraduates, procrastinating graduate students and those seeking a clear introduction to techniques used in optics but not commonly addressed in broad-spectrum mathematical-methods books.

Compliments of the Season

Merry Christmas, everyone.

To our thinking, Reader, it was a sorrowful star, that star of Bethlehem. What good purpose for Jesus or for anyone it served we cannot discover. It stood over Bethlehem, however, with a dire meaning to the homes there. All the little children there, except the one that “fled” into Africa were soon to be little corpses. The star of Bethlehem has had some little tolerable poetry and a great deal of doggerel addressed to it; also a considerable quantity of religious and sentimental prose. It has, too, had a good deal of banter bestowed upon it, which yields less amusement however, than the laborious effort of some theologians to throw light upon it by semi-natural conjectures as to how it may have been produced. They seem to have been led into these ill-advised attempts to naturalize the Magi’s light from its being termed a star; forgetful of the fact that the Jews who did not know what or where the real stars are, but thought them to be little ornaments to our earth, would very naturally give that name to such an appearance.

[…]

There were, so it seems to us mortals, two ways open to Providence of shielding Jesus from harm. First, by staying the arm of Herod, and thus saving not only the life of Jesus, but also the lives of all his fellow little towns-children; or, as here given, flight on the part of the holy family, and abandonment, sauve que peut, for all the other little Bethlehemites. We are grieved to find that Providence chose the latter. And as we read this, we are compelled to say that our heart is not with the fugitives into Egypt, but entirely with the little victims and their parents thus left behind.

[…]

The visit of the Magi to Jerusalem proved to be a most calamitous occurrence. Their declaration in Jerusalem that a King of the Jews was just born excited Herod’s attention; led to the flight of Jesus and his parents from the country; and, worst of all, led to the dreadful massacre our author now proceeds to narrate. What useful, what conceivable purpose was served by this untoward announcement on the part of the Magi, is not discoverable. Jesus, for at least thirty years afterwards lived in seclusion up in Galilee, his very existence unknown in Jerusalem. And when he went there towards the end of his life, we shall look in vain for the slightest reference either by himself or by anyone else to what we here read. Anything more utterly purposeless than this visit to Jerusalem of the Magi and its pitiable consequences it would be difficult to imagine.

[…]

Were we told that Herod overtook these mischievous Magi and slaughtered them also, we think few readers would feel very much more grieved.

The first Christmas was not a festive one in Bethlehem. There was “lamentation and weeping and great mourning” there. Poor Bethlehem! The journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth for the special purpose that Jesus might be born in Bethlehem may have been an honour, but it was dearly bought.

[…]

With the amiable view, we suppose, of softening our pain at the narrative of this massacre, and its permission in such a connection, some commentators have ventured to offer us some considerations, intended, we gather, to be soothing to our hearts if not to our minds. These little victims were in reality favoured beings, we are told; they are now termed “the holy innocents,” though why more holy or more innocent than any other children dying young is not stated; they were by this means saved from the ills and trials of life; and they are now safely lodged in Heaven. Some doubt, however, seems to exist as to whether they continue babes in that happy land or no. We do not know what warrant there is for such assertions, nor do we know whether these commentators would like their own children to be favoured in a like way. From such a point of view it almost seems a matter of regret that the radius of the slaughter was not greatly extended. We know nothing in the world more truly sad than the wild arguments used by pious men in struggling with the ugly parts of their holy writ. For ourselves, we find a much more solid comfort as we think of this melancholy story. It is that it rests on the sole unsupported statement of our author. Of corroboration there is not a vestige. Learned Christian scholars have toiled zealously, not, as one might have hoped, to dispel this story, but we regret to say, to substantiate it. We are thankful to add without any success whatever.

From pages 12 ff. of A Plain Commentary on the First Gospel by an Agnostic, Williams and Norgate, 1891. http://books.google.com/books?id=cXpCAAAAIAAJ.

Goodnight, children, everywhere.