Category Archives: Bibliophilia

Things I Don’t Get, Part the Eleventy-Billionth

It always baffles me when people think The Incredibles is an Objectivist movie.

It examines, under the surface of an adventure story, the psychological foibles which can lead people into Randroidism. That’s a very different animal. But some people seem to take “When everyone is special, no one will be” as the movie’s actual moral. Let’s unpack that.

First, who says it? 1. The villain. Yeah. That’s always a great place to look for the moral of a story. And, ironically, Buddy/Syndrome is special: he has the same superpower as Bat- or Iron Man. 2. A middle-aged man who feels unappreciated and projects his own troubles onto other situations. Again, yeah. Basically defines “reliable source,” I’m sure.

What’s the first event that sets the conflict in motion? It’s not the lawsuits against the supers. It’s Mr. Incredible failing to live up to a social obligation by brushing off Buddy.

What’s the first thing we see Mr. Incredible do in the present day? He helps a woman long past her productive years to loot a corporation. He doesn’t exploit his knowledge of the system for his own benefit; instead, he risks his own job, acting against his own self-interest, to benefit another person who can do nothing material for him in return. And the movie unambiguously portrays this as the right thing to do.

What’s the happy ending—or, rather, the coda? The supers learn to rein in their powers, to come in second best, so they can remain incognito and be there when civilization needs them. Again, the movie depicts this as a clear-cut good thing. But Rand had something to say about people who deliberately do less than their best in order to fit in better. When Dagny Taggart suggests she do just that, Francisco D’Anconia slaps her face so hard she tastes blood.

Stepping outside the text of the movie for a moment, does Syndrome’s “make everyone super so no one is” plan actually make sense? No. If you could buy rocket boots, they’d be, in principle, analogous to mountain bikes or skis or rollerblades. That is, they’d be a technology that opens up new kinds of activity: hobbies for some, pro sports for others. Saying they’d erase individuality is like saying camera phones were the doom of cinema, or that the mechanical typewriter was the end of literary genius. The plan doesn’t hold up, either within the movie or outside. But it doesn’t have to: it’s a fantasy from the mind of a maniacal supervillain.

The villain is a man who built his entire life around his grievances. The hero, as they do in many stories, has a few points in common with the villain. But the hero learns to see beyond, and rise above, the flaws they share with the villain. That’s what puts them on the hero side of the ledger.

On that note: the people who claim that Lois Lowry’s The Giver is an Objectivist novel. Yes, the quiet, emotionally intimate story about slowly learning wisdom through suffering, where a child risks starvation and freezing to death in order to have a slim hope of making his community a better place after he is gone. The story of how family is a matter not of blood but of love, how the flattening of natural beauty is to be mourned, how solitude can be joyful and loneliness painful in equal measure. The book that literally, not figuratively, says this:

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.

But apparently for some folks, anti-authoritarian is automatically Objectivist. Because the world is simpler when you’re a misunderstood teenager.

Less Heteronormative Homework

A few weeks ago, I found an old physics book on a colleague’s “miscellaneous” shelf: University of Chicago Graduate Problems in Physics, by Cronin, Greenberg and Telegdi (Addison-Wesley, 1967). It looked like fun, so I started working through some of it.

Physics problems age irregularly. Topics fall out of vogue as the frontier of knowledge moves on, and sometimes, the cultural milieu of the time when the problem was written pokes through. Take the first problem in the “statistical physics” chapter. It begins, “A young man, who lives at location $A$ of the city street plan shown in the figure, walks daily to the home of his fiancee…”

No, no, no, that just won’t do any more. Let us set up the problem properly:

Asami is meeting Korra for lunch downtown. Korra is $E$ blocks east and $N$ blocks north of Asami, on the rectangular street grid of downtown Republic City. Because Asami is eager to meet Korra, her path never doubles back. That is, each move Asami takes must bring her closer to Korra on the street grid. How many different routes can Asami take to meet Korra?

Solution below the fold.
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Here’s a Question for You

Did any futurologists from last century predict online harassment? All I remember is VR, full-body haptic interfaces, video-telephones that would translate as you talked…. It was all this kind of thing:

  • “Unused computes on the Internet are harvested, creating … human brain hardware capacity.”
  • “The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments…with full visual realism.”
  • “Interactive brain-generated music … is another popular genre.”
  • “the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence”
  • “Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a … expert system.”
  • “Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”
  • “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion”
  • “Cables are disappearing.”
  • “grammar checkers are now actually useful”
  • “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel.”
  • “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software”
  • “Autonomous nanoengineered machines … have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

All of these are from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), specifically its list of predictions for 2009.

The most insightful-in-retrospect predictions I recall were from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication (1993), but that book was about honest errors and confusion, not venom and spite. Surely someone speculated about the Net enabling new ways of making people’s lives miserable, but I’m having a hard time recalling examples which are really pertinent. I can’t help thinking that the downsides which people had in mind weren’t the ones we face now.

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.
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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