The Crackpot Index

John Baez at his website:

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:

  1. A -5 point starting credit.
  2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
  3. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
  4. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  5. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.
  6. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
  7. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  8. 5 points for each mention of “Einstien”, “Hawkins” or “Feynmann”.
  9. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  10. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.

More here.

meaning in a silent universe

20160315_TNA47GleiserCopernicusw400Marcelo Gleiser at The New Atlantis:

If the universe appears to lack any ultimate design and we are just a coalescence of matter, temporarily assembled by contingency and soon to dissolve into nothingness, how are we to find meaning? We are back to the Copernican angst. In the almost five hundred years since Copernicus published his landmark treatise on the heavenly spheres, we have learned much about the universe and about our seemingly insignificant place within it. We live on a small planet around a small star, in an average-sized galaxy among hundreds of billions of other galaxies, in an expanding universe made mostly of dark matter and dark energy — mysterious ingredients of yet unknown composition. The stuff that we are made of — electrons, protons, and neutrons — comprises a small fraction of what fills the universe. On the face of it, science appears to decree our insignificance; the more we learn about the universe, the more insignificant we seem.

However, this way of looking at things is misleading. Our significance should not be measured by our size relative to the rest of the cosmos, but rather by how different we are from everything else in it. As with precious gems and metals, it is our rarity that makes us special, and one way to express what is rare about us is that we have enough self-awareness to ask questions about our origins and place in the cosmos. The emergence of higher intelligence necessary to ask such questions entails that the universe has changed in profound ways over the course of its existence. Stars had to burn for a long time in order to fuse hydrogen into carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other heavier chemical elements; planets and moons had to have relatively stable orbits, and other geophysical conditions were needed to support the complex biochemistry of life’s metabolic and reproductive functions. And it took time for intelligent, self-aware creatures to develop through the workings of evolution.

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On attempting to “translate” Shakespeare

MacbethAndBanquo-WitchesBrett Gamboa at The New Criterion:

Translation, then, or too much cutting of the plays, can still preserve plenty of similar examples—it is impossible, really, to rid the plays of them—but it will inevitably make the whole less coherent. The extreme paradox of Shakespeare’s canon is that the plays achieve their coherence by dizzying patterns of phonic and ideational coherence, but also by their insistent attempts to disorient and destabilize audiences. Space won’t permit many examples, but consider a brief example from just one other play—King Lear. Lear begins with Gloucester in conversation with the Earl of Kent, Gloucester peppering the dialogue with jokes made in poor taste about the fun he had engendering his bastard son, Edmund, while Edmund looks on and patiently endures the humiliation. When Lear and his daughters arrive, two are effusive in their love for Lear and one is priggish and aloof. Of course, the caddish Gloucester and the priggish daughter, Cordelia, turn out to be two of the most wronged and sympathetic figures in Western literature, and the admirably restrained Edmund—any other play’s Hamlet or Posthumus—is revealed to be a pure villain. Still, an audience can never wholly divorce itself from its initial impressions, which attach and morph as the characters change. This is a mainspring of Shakespeare’s art. It’s why his characters are both so endearing and so frustrating, often simultaneously. It’s why Portia is handsome, clever, rich, and anti-Semitic, and why Shylock is both a demon and a far better examplar of love and loyalty than can be found in The Merchant of Venice’s portrait of Christendom.

The inconsistencies and contradictions that help grant the characters their attractions are mirrored by similar inconsistencies and contradictions in the language, and their removal would deprive audiences of something essential to the plays. The osf plan for translation calls upon the playwrights they commissioned first, “to do no harm,” and second, to “put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his.” But translators (and directors) may do considerable harm when doing what seems the most reasonable thing—introducing clarity where Shakespeare left things uncertain.

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The Railways: Nation, Network and People

67b01e82-676c-11e5-_984991kJames Meek at The London Review of Books:

The peculiarity of the railways in the country that invented them is that everyone involved can claim to be playing a heritage role, whatever they do. Modernity at its most destructive and ruthless was as essential a characteristic of the railways in the 1830s as engineering flair and craftsmanship, and capitalism at its most exploitative and greedy was a greater driver of the initial rapid growth of the network than abstract concern for progress or the good of society. I simplified the story of the Ordsall Chord. A nuance: the leader of the campaign to stop it being built as planned, Mark Whitby, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, proposes an alternative route that would retain the historic station’s access to the rail network and keep intact more of the structures designed by George Stephenson, the engineer who built the Liverpool & Manchester. But Whitby’s route, apart from costing £20 million more, would run through, and interfere with, a project on a long-derelict piece of land, Middlewood Locks, where the state-owned Beijing Construction and Engineering Group is about to begin building a dense block-scape of shops and offices on behalf of a larger group of investors from Britain, China and Singapore. (If railways are the thread that will sew the disparate limbs together, Chinese investment is the electricity with which George Osborne – the chancellor who promised a Northern Powerhouse – hopes the assembled body might be jolted into life.)

Those whose priority in 2016 is the preservation of George Stephenson’s walls and bridges no doubt love railways. But paradoxically they are re-enacting the role of Victorian opponents of the intrusion of railways into spaces where they had previously been completely absent, preservationists like John Ruskin and William Wordsworth (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’). The agents of Network Rail, who are building the Ordsall Chord, can and do portray themselves playing the Stephenson role.

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The Egalitarian: Danielle Allen’s mission to return equality to the heart of American democracy

Spencer Lenfield in Harvard Magazine:

Ruby“These days too many of us think that to say two things are ‘equal’ is to say that they are ‘the same,’” writes Allen. But this is untrue: “To be ‘the same’ is to be ‘identical.’ But to be ‘equal’ is to have an equivalent degree of some specific quality.” Allen sees in the Declaration a careful case that the specific quality in question—what she calls “the fundamental feature of human equality”—is the ability to judge what makes one happy. We are all equal in our ability to judge our own happiness. It is only on top of thisbasic premise that the founders were able to build their argument for independence: we are free to decide what government we want to have because government is a means to securing happiness—the happiness which each of us is equally well qualified to judge.

Our Declaration was praised by magazines as ideologically different as Dissent and National Review, and colleagues have responded to it as a serious work of political thought. But Allen didn’t write it to intervene in academic political philosophy. Instead, it grew out of her experience teaching the Declaration in night classes at the University of Chicago to people with busy lives, children, sometimes multiple jobs. The experience revealed to her that the Declaration, read carefully, does philosophy in ordinary (if old-fashioned and highly rhetorical) language, laying the conceptual groundwork for the democracy to come. Moreover, she realized, anyone with sufficient patience and desire could read it. “I wanted [my students] to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves,” she writes. “I wanted to animate the Declaration, to bring it to life for them, and perhaps even bring them through it into a different kind of life—as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision makers.”

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personalized tumour vaccines

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

VaccineIt is precision medicine taken to the extreme: cancer-fighting vaccines that are custom designed for each patient according to the mutations in their individual tumours. With early clinical trials showing promise, that extreme could one day become commonplace — but only if drug developers can scale up and speed up the production of their tailored medicines.

The topic was front and centre at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 16–20 April. Researchers there described early data from clinical trials suggesting that personalized vaccines can trigger immune responses against cancer cells. Investors seem optimistic that those results will translate into benefits for patients; over the past year, venture capitalists have pumped cash into biotechnology start-ups that are pursuing the approach. But some researchers worry that the excitement is too much, too soon for an approach that still faces many technical challenges. “What I do really puzzle at is the level of what I would call irrational exuberance,” says Drew Pardoll, a cancer immunologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Wednesday Poem

Ezra Pound’s Proposition

Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”

Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazeres Freres in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.

by Robert Hass
from Time and Materials
Ecco Press, 2007

D. A. Powell interviewed by Tadeusz Dąbrowski

From the Boston Review:

TD: The foreword to your debut collection Tea (1998) begins, “This is not a book about Aids.” Many readers would probably hear in this an echo of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, captioned “This is not a pipe.” What role did AIDS play in your early work if it wasn’t what your work was about? What might your poetry be like today without the illness?

D-A-Powell_bodyDAP: Well, I think, philosophically, this is a hard question to answer; it’s rather like trying to separate form and content and to consider them as independent of one another. I think in the first place we need, as artists, obstacles. A river flows faster where there are more rocks; the water has to push through the barriers, and perhaps ultimately it is the very essence of a river’s energy, this impediment and pressure formed from encountering resistance. Aids was a force that exerted pressure on the poems, but my hope was that the poems triumphed over that pressure, that they were language broken free from the times. And so, even as we need obstacles, we need velocity, we need an internal desire to break free of what shuts us out or blocks our way, we need to be ever striving to reject the language of control and confinement and to work ourselves past the words that seek to define us. So I don’t know what my poetry would look like without this obstacle and my intent to resist it. Something else. Perhaps I would be writing love poems to people still alive, instead of elegies for those who are not.

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Psycho thrillers: five movies that teach us how the mind works

Five leading psychologists look at the classic films that explore how human beings work.

Catherine Shoard, Philippa Perry, Steven Pinker, Dacher Keltner, Sue Blackmore and Susan Greenfield in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1890 Apr. 26 17.59The Godfather by Steven Pinker

The Godfather is not an obvious choice for a psychological movie, but its stylised, witticised violence says much about human nature.

Except in war zones, people are extraordinarily unlikely to die from violence. Yet from the Iliad through video games, our species has always allocated time and resources to consuming simulations of violence.The brain seems to run on the adage: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” We are fascinated by the logic of bluff and threat, the psychology of alliance and betrayal, the vulnerabilities of the body and how they can be exploited or shielded. A likely explanation is that in our evolutionary history, violence was a significant enough threat to fitness that everyone had to understand how it works.

Among the many subgenres of violent entertainment, one with perennial appeal to brows both high and low is the Hobbesian thriller – a story set in a circumscribed zone of anarchy that preserves the familiar trappings of our time, but in which the protagonists must live beyond the reach of the modern leviathan (the police and judiciary), with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Examples include westerns, spy thrillers, battlefield dramas, zombie apocalypses, space sagas and movies about organised crime. In a contraband economy, you can’t sue your rivals or call the police, so the credible threat (and occasional use) of violence is your only protection.

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We challenged seven physics experts to explain quantum computing to the rest of us, in the time it took Justin Trudeau to do so: 35 seconds

Aaron Hutchins in Maclean's:

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. last week and offered his explanation for how a quantum computer works, it sparked intense media coverage from around the world. It also led to a backlash over whether Trudeau really knew anything about the cutting-edge technology, or was just pretending.

But what happens when experts in quantum computing themselves are asked to explain the technology to a lay audience in 35 seconds, the time Trudeau took to give his explanation? “This is something that cannot be explained well in 35 seconds,” says Aephraim Steinberg, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto and member of the Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control. But Steinberg—and a half-dozen other experts from across North America—were willing to step up to our challenge and give it a try.

Scott Aaronson

ScreenHunter_1889 Apr. 26 17.42A quantum computer is a proposed device that exploits quantum mechanics to solve certain specific problems like factoring huge numbers much faster than we know how to solve them with any existing computer. Quantum mechanics has been the basic framework of physics since the 1920s. It’s a generalization of the rules of probability themselves. From day to day life, you’d never talk about a minus-20 per cent chance of something happening, but quantum mechanics is based on numbers called amplitudes, which can be positive or negative or even complex numbers. The goal in quantum computing is to choreograph things so that some paths leading to a wrong answer have positive amplitudes and others have negative amplitudes, so on the whole they cancel out and the wrong answer is not observed.

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Michael Chabon Talks Occupation, Injustice and Literature After Visit to West Bank

Naomi Zeveloff in Forward:

Naomi Zeveloff: You said you had not dealt with the topic of occupation in your writing until now. You have a large Jewish readership. Are you concerned about alienating them?

ScreenHunter_1888 Apr. 26 15.41Michael Chabon: I’m not so worried about that. All I’m really doing is going to try to see for myself. Once you see for yourself, it is pretty obvious, I think, to any human being with a heart and a mind, it is pretty clear what to feel about it. It is the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life. I have seen bad things in my own country in America. There is plenty of horrifying injustice in the U.S. prison system, the “second Jim Crow” it is often called. Our drug laws in the United States are grotesquely unjust. I know to some degree what I am talking about. This is the worst thing I have ever seen, just purely in terms of injustice. If saying that is going to lose me readers, I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.

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Thriving at Age 70 and Beyond

Jane Brody in The New York Times:

BRODY-tmagArticleA recently published book, “70Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade,” inspired me to take a closer look at how I’m doing as I approach 75 and how I might make the most of the years to come. It would be a good idea for women in my age cohort to do likewise. With a quarter of American women age 65 expected to celebrate their 100th birthday, there could be quite a few years to think about. It’s not the first time I’ve considered the implications of longevity. When one of my grandsons at age 8 asked, “Grandma, will you still be alive when I get married?” I replied, “I certainly hope so. I want to dance at your wedding.” But I followed up with a suggestion that he marry young!

Still, his innocent query reminded me to continue to pursue a healthy lifestyle of wholesome food, daily exercise and supportive social connections. While there are no guarantees, like many other women now in their 70s, I’ve already outlived both my parents, my mother having died at 49 and my father at 71. If I have one fear as the years climb, it’s that I won’t be able to fit in all I want to see and do before my time is up, so I always plan activities while I can still do them. I book cycling and hiking trips to parts of the world I want to visit and schedule visits to distant friends and family to be sure I make them happen. In a most pragmatic moment, I crocheted a gender-neutral blanket for my first great-grandchild, but attached a loving note in case I’m no longer around to give it in person. Of course, advancing age has taken — and will continue to take — its incremental toll. I often wake up wobbly, my back hates rainy days, and I no longer walk, cycle or swim as fast as I used to. I wear sensible shoes and hold the handrail going up and down stairs. I know too that, in contrast to the Energizer Bunny life I once led, I now have to husband my resources more carefully. While I’m happy to prepare a dish or two for someone else’s gathering, my energy for and interest in hosting dinner parties have greatly diminished. And though I love to go to the theater, concerts, movies and parties, I also relish spending quiet nights at home with my Havanese, Max, for company.

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The left-wing firebrands who turned to the right

HitchJohn Gray at The New Statesman:

Writing about Whittaker Chambers, who, from being a member of the Communist Party and later an ­operative for Soviet intelligence, defected to become a leading figure of the American right, Daniel Oppenheimer comments: “The party, for Chambers, was less a political organisation than a crucible for the forging of his own Bolshevik soul.” It is an astute judgement, one that applies to some degree to all of the six apostates from the left whose lives and beliefs Oppenheimer examines in this arresting and at times revelatory study. Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens were different from one another in many ways, some of them quite fundamental. And yet, for each man, his volte-face was much more than a response to world events: it was an exercise in self-creation, in which what was being fashioned was the meaning of a life.

Chambers turned to communism while fleeing a fractured family and a hidden life of homosexual cruising, which he renounced when he rejected communism and became a Christian. A scion of Princeton and Balliol, Burnham used his mastery of Marxist theory to show off his formidable intellect and, once he had demolished Marxism, to issue dramatic forecasts of the near future that were nearly always confounded, but somehow enabled him to enjoy an afterlife as a consultant to the CIA. Reagan moved on from liberalism to the American presidency by way of a failed marriage and a ­flagging Hollywood career.

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Open the Cages!

51q46wOiKxL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Singer at The New York Review of Books:

The most fundamental question to ask about Pacelle’s thesis is whether the humane economy can take us beyond piecemeal reforms to a world without speciesism. As long as we continue to eat animals, that seems doubtful, for it is difficult to respect the interests of beings we eat, especially when we are under no necessity to eat them. This daily practice taints all our attitudes toward animals. Can the humane economy change that?

Pacelle introduces us to several entrepreneurs who are trying to change it. Plant-based products with the taste and “mouth feel” of meat are already in supermarkets and restaurant chains, offering a product that is not only cruelty-free, but healthier and more environmentally friendly than meat. Further down the track, if costs can be reduced we may be eating meat that comes from a factory without ever being part of an animal. In 2013 Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, served a group of journalists the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. In a Brooklyn laboratory, Andras Forgacs’s company Modern Meadow uses a different process to achieve the same end. Forgacs visited Pacelle in Washington, D.C., bringing a “steak chip,” a kind of lab-grown beef jerky. Pacelle, a vegan for thirty years, had to think hard before deciding to take a bite. He does not enthuse about the taste, but adds that real beef jerky wouldn’t do much for him either.

There is broad support beyond the animal movement for reducing meat consumption. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadowacknowledged that livestock, as a result of their digestive process, are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector.7 One study has even suggested that farmed animals are the most significant drivers of climate change.

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