‘The Universe in Your Hand’ and ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’

Jennifer Ouellette in The New York Times:

OUELETTES-master675Have you heard the joke about the elderly rabbi who tries to settle a bitter dispute between two men? The rabbi listens to one man’s case and pronounces him right. Then he hears the second man’s case, and concludes the second man is right. At this point his eavesdropping wife steps in and points out that both men can’t possibly be right. To which the ­rabbi replies, “And you are right as well!” That conundrum lies at the heart of two new books: Christophe Galfard’s “The Universe in Your Hand,” and Carlo ­Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.” Rovelli uses the case of the indecisive rabbi to illustrate the dilemma faced by theoretical physicists in the 21st century, except in this case what is under dispute are two competing “rule books” for reality: Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Each functions perfectly well within its specific realm: Quantum mechanics governs the subatomic world of the very small, while general relativity describes how the world works at very large scales. But neither offers a complete description of how the world works.

Galfard is a protégé of Stephen Hawking’s, co-authoring a young adult book with Hawking and his daughter, Lucy, in 2007 (“George’s Secret Key to the Universe”). Those Y.A. roots show in “The Universe in Your Hand.” There’s a lot to be said in defense of plain, simple language, but in this case it proves a mixed bag. The earlier chapters read more like draft scripts for the television series “Cosmos,” covering very familiar ground (the sun, the moon, our solar system, stars and galaxies) without doing much to make the material seem fresh. More problematic is Galfard’s frequent use of the second person — no doubt to provide a stronger sense of immediacy for the reader — which wears thin rather quickly and adds a whiff of condescension to the overall tone. He also tends to repeat himself a great deal; for Galfard, if a point is worth making, it’s worth restating at least twice more. The book could easily be trimmed by a third by eliminating some of those redundancies.

More here.

David Hume brought history and politics to the realm of ideas

Richard Bourke in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1880 Apr. 22 17.44Over the past 50 years, the philosopher who’s played the most significant role in the cultural life of the United States isn’t Richard Rorty, Jerry Fodor, or Martha Nussbaum, but rather Immanuel Kant. This is largely because of his impact on postwar trends in moral philosophy. Kant’s influence during this period coincided with the rise of ethics as a dominant concern in political theory. John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Thomas Nagel are among the most prominent examples of this widespread tendency. It is possible to exaggerate the novelty of this development; after all, questions of morality have always had a place in reflective debate about politics. Yet the strict subordination of politics to morals in recent decades does represent some kind of departure, or at least a return to a style of Kantian thought that had long been out of favor. Compared with current tendencies in political philosophy, normative inquiry was of marginal importance to the leading political thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, among them Max Weber, Otto Bauer, Michael Oakeshott, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Raymond Aron, and Hannah Arendt.

I don’t mean to suggest that these thinkers took no interest in human values. Because politics is a product of the struggle over values, political thinking can hardly avoid such a pivotal issue. But there’s a difference between the study of human preferences and attachments and a preoccupation with an ideal theory of value.

More here.

The Ingenious Way Iranians Are Using Satellite TV to Beam in Banned Data

Andy Greenberg in Wired:

GettyImages-5081285201-1024x512Reza, a 20-something mechanical engineer working at an automotive parts factory in the northeastern Iranian city of Sabzevar, takes his web videos seriously. He’s watched theTED talk of amputee snowboarding champion Amy Purdy“over and over again.” The YouTube videos of Boston Dynamics robots Big Dog and Cheetah, which most of us find creepy, he describes as inspirational. “I was mesmerized by those videos,” he writes in an email, asking that WIRED not use his real name. “I wonder what would happen if I had the chance to watch [them] when I was a teenager. I might have studied harder in college.” If those viral clips mean more to Reza than to the average American, it’s probably because he has to work so much harder to see them. YouTube is blocked in Iran. The TED site isn’t, but Iran’s trickling internet speeds make its videos virtually unwatchable anyway. So every couple of days, Reza plugs a USB drive into his satellite TV’s set-top box receiver and changes the channel to a certain unchanging green and white screen that shows only fixed text instructions. He sets the receiver to record to the USB. Then a few hours later he takes the resulting MPEG file on the USB over to his computer, where he decodes it with a piece of software called Toosheh. The result, each time, is more than a gigabyte of compressed, fresh digital contraband pulled directly from space, past both Iran’s infrastructure bottlenecks and its draconian censors.

Last month, a Los Angeles-based group of eight Iranian and American activists that calls itself Net Freedom Pioneers officially launched Toosheh, that free anti-censorship system. Toosheh, Farsi for “knapsack” or “bundle,” is designed to allow Iranians to use their ubiquitous TV satellite dishes as an alternative to the country’s underdeveloped and highly censored internet, where a government body called the Supreme Council for Cyberspace blocks everything from “anti-Islamic” sites to news coverage of opposition political groups. By broadcasting on its own satellite TV channel anddistributing a piece of Windows desktop software that can decode that satellite video stream, the Toosheh project sends thousands of Iranians a daily digital bundle of news articles, videos, and audio—everything from Persian music videos to critical news coverage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. “When they use our software all the content disguised in the video file is extracted and opens in a folder for them,” says Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of Net Freedom Pioneers as well as Balatarin, a Reddit-like social news site in Persian. “It can’t be censored…it comes from the sky. Our users just get a big folder of content, and there’s no trace of it on the internet.”

More here.

Scott Aaronson Answers Every Ridiculously Big Question I Throw at Him

John Horgan in Scientific American:

1. Have you become what you wanted to be when you were a kid?

ScreenHunter_1879 Apr. 22 15.36Come on, that’s too high a bar! When I was a kid, I wanted to be the founder and ruler of a rationalist space colony, who also wrote video games and invented the first human-level AI and led a children’s liberation movement and discovered the mathematical laws underlying society.

On the other hand, as far as childhood dreams go, I have no right to complain. I have a wonderful wife and three-year-old daughter. I get paid to work on engrossing math problems and mentor students and write about topics that interest me, to do all the things I’d want to do even if I weren’t getting paid. It could be worse.

2. Why do you call your blog “Shtetl-Optimized”?

I get that a lot. It’s one of those things, like a joke, that dies a little when you have to explain it—but when I started my blog in 2005, it was about my limitations as a human being, and my struggle to carve out a niche in the world despite those limitations. It also gestured toward the irony of someone whose sensibility and humor and points of reference are as ancient as mine are—I mean, I already felt like a senile, crotchety old man when I was 16—but who also studies a kind of computer that’s so modern it doesn’t even exist yet.

Shtetls were Jewish villages in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. They’re where all my ancestors came from—some actually from the same place (Vitebsk) as Marc Chagall, who painted the fiddler on the roof. I watched Fiddler many times as a kid, both the movie and the play. And every time, there was a jolt of recognition, like: “So that’s the world I was designed to inhabit.

More here.

dancing to prince

Larson-DancingtoPrince-690Sarah Larson at The New Yorker:

Prince moved in mysterious ways. He invented his own aesthetic, his own symbol, his own style of music. He was short and slim. He dressed in purple. He liked canes, pajamas, ruffles, scarves. He lived on a giant compound named after one of his songs, where he sometimes hosted mysterious, thrilling events with strict rules. (No cameras, no photos, no alcohol; he might play or he might not.) He was masculine and feminine and casually, frankly sexual. He was forever prolific. His music was deeply satisfying, with a sophistication that was both intellectual and physical. It got to us everywhere. When I first became aware of him, in fourth grade, it was because of “Little Red Corvette,” which sounded irresistibly cool, unassuming yet sly, brilliant but not necessarily indicative of the lengths that Prince would take us to. That became clearer when we heard “1999,” with its eye on the future, its talk of Judgment Day, purple skies, and destruction, and the sensible response of observing this calamity with dancing: “So if I’ve got a dime, going to listen to my body tonight.” That was 1982; one of the joys of being a young adult on New Year’s Eve as the calendar turned to 1999 was playing this song, dancing like a nut, and considering the passage of time. (I also loved that album’s single “Delirious,” a great, hyper song for a fourth grader to expend some after-school wiggliness on.)

“Purple Rain,” of course, was like a gift from the gods, and not just because of the churchly intro to “Let’s Go Crazy.” There was “When Doves Cry,” so smart and electrifying it was almost shocking. That fierce opening guitar lick, for starters, and then the beat—Prince’s beats! I’m going to cry—and then that weird, funky vocal, like a mouth harp or a rubber band, and then the minimal, irresistible melody, and the amazingly hilarious first line “Dig if you will the picture.” We dug it, all right.

more here.

Exploring—and ignoring—climate chaos in the South Pacific

Haiyan_Nov_7_2013_1345ZSimon Winchester at Lapham's Quarterly:

Haiyan, the admiral might have pointed out, was only the latest storm in a sequence of climatological disasters that had started to spiral out of control as much as four decades before. The first in this cycle of catastrophes occurred south of the equator and flattened the Australian city of Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974. It was named Cyclone Tracy, and there has never been a more destructive event in all of Australian history.

Ten thousand of Darwin’s houses—80 percent of the city’s homes—were destroyed. They were nearly instantly demolished, reduced almost to matchwood and pulverized concrete. The process was identical, house after Christmas-decorated house. First the roof was ripped off its stanchions and whirled away into the rain-soaked night. Then the windows shattered, slicing people with slivers of glass. The walls would next blow out—people would speak of running in darkness and panic from room to room, locating by feel the bathroom doors and racing inside in the belief that the smallest room would be the strongest—only to find the outside wall gone, exposed to the darkness beyond, a frenzy of gales and rain.

Everything failed. The telephones were out. Electricity was down. Antennas were blown down. Aircraft had been tossed about like chaff, smashed beyond recognition. Ships broke loose in the harbor, and sank or drifted far from their moorings, useless. Scores of people who might have helped were away for the Christmas holiday. The broadcast stations had only skeleton crews and no light or water—though one of them, the local Australian Broadcasting Corporation station, managed to get messages out to an affiliate station in the Queensland outback.

more here.

The Panama Papers show that austerity is not a shared sacrifice

Gettyimages-134684545Pedro Nicolaci da Costa at Foreign Policy:

It’s not like we didn’t know what was going on. But the “Panama Papers,” the largest-ever document leak and one that implicates political leaders and business executives around the world, confirms it — cementing a widespread distrust of public and private institutions in the global economy.

It remains to be seen whether the scale of the revelations, whose full scope is only slowly starting to emerge, will be a catalyst for positive change or just more fodder for curmudgeonly conspiracy theorists. But one thing is clear: The debate over global economic policy is going to be deeply affected for a while to come.

The epic document dump, which includes 11.5 million files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, implicates a string of world leaders, their families, and close associates in an intricate web of shell companies constructed for the sole purpose of hiding money from tax authorities.

Following the Great Recession and world financial meltdown, policymakers have fallen broadly into two camps: those who see a significant role for official intervention through fiscal and monetary stimulus policies, and those who see government as the problem and push for structural changes to push it out of the way.

Both Europe and the United States imposed considerable austerity on government finances despite prevailing modern economic thinking suggesting governments should spend more, not less, in times of economic weakness.

more here.

Power of Positive Thinking Skews Mindfulness Studies

Anna Nowogrodzki in Scientific American:

E5DF1293-285F-4107-96FE36988FB9FEC8There’s a little too much wishful thinking about mindfulness, and it is skewing how researchers report their studies of the technique. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, analysed 124 published trials of mindfulness as a mental-health treatment, and found that scientists reported positive findings 60% more often than is statistically likely. The team also examined another 21 trials that were registered with databases such as ClinicalTrials.gov; of these, 62% were unpublished 30 months after they finished. The findings—reported in PLoS ONE on April 8— hint that negative results are going unpublished. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Mental-health treatments that focus on this method include mindfulness-based stress reduction—an 8-week group-based programme that includes yoga and daily meditation—and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

A bias toward publishing studies that find the technique to be effective withholds important information from mental-health clinicians and patients, says Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida, who was not involved in the study. “I think this is a very important finding,” he adds. “We’ll invest a lot of social and financial capital in these issues, and a lot of that can be misplaced unless we have good data.” For the 124 trials, the researchers calculated the probability that a trial with that sample size could detect the result reported. Experiments with smaller sample sizes are more affected by chance and thus worse at detecting statistically significant positive results. The scientists’ calculations suggested that 66 of 124 trials would have positive results. Instead, 108 trials had positive results. And none of the 21 registered trials adequately specified which of the variables they tracked would be the main one used to evaluate success.

More here.

Friday Poem

Home
.
Driving Route 20 to Syracuse past pastures of cows and falling silos

you feel the desert stillness near the refineries at the Syrian border.

Walking in fog on Mecox Bay, the long lines of squawking birds on shore,

you’re walking along Flinders Street Station, the flaring yellow stone and walls
of windows where your uncle landed after he fled a Turkish prison.

You walked all day along the Yarra, crossing the sculptural bridges with their
twisting steel,

the hollow sound of the didgeridoo like the flutes of Anatolia.

One road is paved with coins, another with razor blades and ripped condoms.

Walking the boardwalk in January past Atlantic City Hall, the rusted Deco
ticket sign, the waves black into white,
you smell the grilled ćevapi in the Baščaršija of Sarajevo,

and that street took you to the Jewish cemetery where the weeds grew over
the slabs and a mausoleum stood intact.
There was a trail of carnelian you followed in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem

and picking up those stones now, you’re walking in the salt marsh on the
potato fields,
the day undercut by the flatness of the sky, the wide view of the Atlantic, the
cold spray.

Your uncle stashed silk and linen, lace and silver in a suitcase on a ship that
docked not far from here; the ship moved in and out of port for years, and
your uncle kept coming

and going, from Melbourne to London to Kolkata and back, never returning to
the Armenian village near the Black Sea.

The topaz ring you passed on in a silver shop in Aleppo appeared on Lexington
off 65th;
the shop owner, a young guy from Ivory Coast, shrugged when you told him you
had seen it

before; the shuffled dust of that street fills your throat and you remember how a
slew of
coins poured out of your pocket like a slinky near the ruined castle now a disco in

Thessaloniki where a young girl was stabbed under the strobe lights—lights that
lit the

sky that was the iridescent eye of a peacock in Larnaca at noon, when you walked
into the

church where Lazarus had come home to die and you forgot that Lazarus died

because the story was in one of your uncle’s books that were wrapped in
newspaper in a suitcase and
stashed under the seat of an old Ford, and when he got to the border

he left the car and walked the rest of the way, and when you pass the apartment

on 116th and Broadway—where your father grew up (though it’s a dorm now)—
that suitcase is buried in a closet under clothes, and when you walk past the
security guard

at the big glass entrance door, you’re walking through wet grass, clouds
clumped on a hillside, a subway station sliding into water.
.

by Peter Balakian
from New Letters
University of Chicago Press, 2016

Our preoccupation with gender identity is a cultural step backwards

Lionel Shriver in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_1877 Apr. 22 12.43From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses, and worry about (the horror, in my day) letting my panties show on the swings. My brothers got to take off their shirts during sultry North Carolinian summers, while I wasn’t allowed to, even during the years my chest looked just like theirs.

Yet the impositions were just beginning. Periods were hideous. Did my brothers get puffy once a month, suffer terrible back aches and go back to wearing smelly de facto diapers? I was the one, too, who had the fear of God put in her about getting pregnant. In comparison to their sons, my parents clearly had reduced expectations for my career prospects. Ruefully, at 87, my father finally conceded last year: “You know, we may have underestimated you.” He still hasn’t quite brought himself to admit why: I was the girl.

But I was historically fortunate. By the time I entered university in 1974, a revolution was well under way. As I understood it, “women’s liberation” meant that the frilly cookie-cutter template of femininity had been chucked out. Being female was no longer defined in terms of skirts, high heels, and homemaking. Men and women were equal. Both sexes were just people. We had entered the post-gender world.

Fast-forward to 2016: I was wrong.

We have entered instead an oppressively gendered world, in which identity is more bound up in one’s sex than ever before.

More here.

A new look at what humans can learn from nonhuman minds

Alison Gopnik in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_1876 Apr. 21 19.13For 2,000 years, there was an intuitive, elegant, compelling picture of how the world worked. It was called “the ladder of nature.” In the canonical version, God was at the top, followed by angels, who were followed by humans. Then came the animals, starting with noble wild beasts and descending to domestic animals and insects. Human animals followed the scheme, too. Women ranked lower than men, and children were beneath them. The ladder of nature was a scientific picture, but it was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would have dominion over those lower down.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection delivered a serious blow to this conception. Natural selection is a blind historical process, stripped of moral hierarchy. A cockroach is just as well adapted to its environment as I am to mine. In fact, the bug may be better adapted—cockroaches have been around a lot longer than humans have, and may well survive after we are gone. But the very word evolution can imply a progression—New Agers talk about becoming “more evolved”—and in the 19th century, it was still common to translate evolutionary ideas into ladder-of-nature terms.

Modern biological science has in principle rejected the ladder of nature. But the intuitive picture is still powerful. In particular, the idea that children and nonhuman animals are lesser beings has been surprisingly persistent.

More here.

On the Front Line Against ISIS: Who Fights, Who Doesn’t, and Why

An in-depth report on the inconclusive battle to take one little village called Kudilah exposes the weakness of the strategy to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city.

Scott Atran in the Daily Beast:

ScreenHunter_1875 Apr. 21 19.06It is April, and fighting is stalled, with part of the Iraqi army forces camped at the village of Kudilah and unable to advance because of fierce resistance and counterattacks by the so-called Islamic State. The research team that first came here in February to talk to fighters on all sides about a ferocious battle that was supposed to be over, or at least ending, is continuing its interviews.

Our aim is to better understand the “will to fight.” President Barack Obama and his National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, have called this “the imponderable” that has led to an overestimation of the allied ability to degrade and destroy Islamic State forces and an underestimation of their ability to resist.

At Kudilah, fighters from the Islamic State (also known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) are pitted against Arab Sunni tribesmen along with Kurds of the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government.

American and German military advisors and contractors planned the battle, in part, to test out the coalition of forces needed for the eventual assault on the nearby city of Mosul, the second biggest metropolis in Iraq and by far the largest population center under ISIS control anywhere.

More here.

on Bohumil Hrabal

ImgresJacob Mikanowski at The Point:

In 1949, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia decided to honor Stalin by building a monument to him in Prague. It was going to be the largest statue of its kind in the world. A contest was held to decide who would have the honor of designing it. Every sculptor in Czechoslovakia was required to participate. Most sabotaged their chances on purpose by portraying the great leader in unsuitable poses, smiling or spreading his arms like Jesus. Otakar Švec who learned the art of sculpture as a child from his pastry-chef father, took the extra precaution of getting blind drunk. Unfortunately for him, he won anyway.

For the next four years, party dignitaries visited Švec every week in his studio to offer their advice on his vision. In Švec’s design, Stalin stood at the head of a line of people, who symbolized the People. Behind him followed a worker, an agronomist, a female partisan and a Russian soldier. Every time they came, they tried to make Stalin taller, and the followers lower. Construction began, granite blocks were carved, and still the critiques kept coming. Švec’s wife couldn’t stand the pressure, and committed suicide.

At long last, the monument was done. The night before the unveiling, Švec took a ride to inspect his sculpture. The cab driver told him he wants to show him something. The lady partisan is holding onto the Russian soldiers’ fly. “Whoever designed that is going to be shot for sure,” he told Švec. He killed himself that same night. For fifty days, no one found his body.

more here.