Feynman at Caltech

 by Leanne Ogasawara

On May 11th, to mark the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth, Caltech put on a truly dazzling evening of public talks. I heard that tickets sold-out online in four minutes; and this event was so popular that attendees started queueing up to enter the auditorium an hour before the program began. Held in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium (the white, perfectly round hall designed by legendary architect Edward Durrell Stone that students sometimes call “the wedding cake”), the line buzzed with excited conversation as people could be heard telling various anecdotes about Feynman. There are so many of Feynman stories! Just as we were about to be let in, I overheard one that always makes me smile; so perfectly does the story capture what Feynman is to Caltech. A gentleman behind me was talking to a friend about his days as an undergraduate at the Institute. He said that he would never forget the time when an upper class-man had explained to him the workings of Caltech’s highly streamlined bureaucracy:

“Basically at Caltech,” the upper class-man had informed him, “There are six division heads who report directly to the provost; who himself only has to answer to the President.”

Amazed at how minimal departmental management was at the institute, he had asked, “Is that it?”

To which his interlocutor had immediately replied: “Well, of course, the president does have to answer to God; who then must answer to Richard Feynman.”

It’s true that Feynman is absolutely venerated at Caltech. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, a group of Feynman devotees (aka students) used a ladder to climb up and reach a bas relief sculpture that adorned a high exterior wall in the patio at Dabney House. The sculpture was loosely modeled on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and depicted a group of nine scientists (including Newton, Copernicus, Pasteur, Franklin, Archimedes, Euclid, Darwin and Da Vinci) who were gathered around a table with the great Galileo in the center. The students in their excitement over Feynman’s win, proceeded to remove Galileo’s name, replacing it with that of Feynman’s. And no one has dared put Galileo back since! Read more »

The Disruption Ecosystem

by Sarah Firisen

30 years ago I moved from the UK to New York City and I gave up my car. I had mixed feelings about doing so at the time – I was only 21 and driving was still a novelty and an expression of independence. When I moved out of New York City to upstate 13 years later, I again became a car owner and regular driver. After my divorce, when I moved back to New York City, I once again gave up my car, this time happily. I would honestly be thrilled if I never had to get behind the wheel of a car again. I don’t enjoy driving, I’m not the most confident driver (I cannot reverse to save my life even after over 30 years of driving) and I generally would prefer to be driven. My transportation needs are now taken care of by a combination of public transport, ride sharing services and a boyfriend with a car who is very good about driving me around. And thanks to online shopping, the retail convenience of a car ownership has almost totally disappeared. As far as I’m concerned, this is a perfect state of affairs.

And it turns out, I’m not the only person who feels this way. While there is debate about just how strong a trend it is, and even exactly why it’s happening, there does seem to be a clear trend that millennials also don’t want to own cars.

Ever since Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard University first coined the phrase Disruptive Innovation almost 25 years ago, companies have talked a lot about trying to head off disruption from entrants into their industry, and some have even taken strong action, with mixed results.  But sometimes, no effort is enough, “Consider that 18 months after the introduction of the Google Maps Navigation app for smartphones in 2009, as much as 85% of the market capitalization of the top makers of stand-alone GPS devices had evaporated.” Read more »

Listen Up, Davos: If You Don’t Have Redistribution, Regulations And Strong Unions, You Get Trump. It’s That Simple.

by Evert Cilliers

The freer the market, the more people suffer.

Look what happened after Bill Clinton signed the two bills that deregulated Wall Street with the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the firewall between regular and speculative banking) and the removal of derivatives from all oversight: Wall Street tanked the world.

And who got bailed out? The crooks of Wall Street, not their victims.

Socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the rest of us (as MLK put it).

The free market means freedom for the rich, and oppression for everyone else.

1. Taxes

Consider taxes:

At the end of WW2, for every buck in taxes collected on individuals, Washington collected $1.50 on business profits. Today, for every buck collected on individuals, Washington gets 25 cents from business profits.

Remember that one. Sear it into your brain. Staple it on your cerebellum. Since Reagan, the tax burden has been neatly shifted from business to individual people, from GE (who never seems to pay ANY taxes in any given year) to you and me.

Then add this: the marginal tax rate on the richest individuals went from 91% after WW2 to 35% today, and is actually, for hedge fund billionaires, 15%, and for the second richest American, Warren Buffett, 17% (as he never tires from pointing out, “my secretary pays a higher tax rate than me”). Read more »

Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan

by Bill Benzon

A couple of weeks ago I was making my online rounds. When I checked YouTube I saw a link to a conversation between Steven Pinker and Joe Rogan. I’m quite familiar with Pinker and have correspond with him a bit, though I’ve not read his most recent book. And the name, “Joe Rogan”, set off some resonance that I couldn’t place. OK, I’ll check it out, thought I to myself. See what Steve’s up to these days and find out about this Joe Rogan guy.

It was a long and interesting conversation and, yes, it did cover Steve’s current book, Enlightenment Now, though it took awhile to get around to it. Otherwise the conversation ranged widely: flame wars on Usenet, comedy roasts, altruism, the Flynn effect, mass murderers, spiritual enlightenment, aerobics, online magazines, the long-term course of human history, the post-Trump world, and others.

I liked Rogan’s style.

The good old Wikipedia told me that Rogan had been on News Radio back in the 1990s–OK, now I know who he is–and then hosted Fear Factor earlier in this century–saw that, too, some of them. Early in his life he’d the become interested in the martial arts–karate, taedwondo, kickboxing–and had won some state and national titles. Moreover, he’s put in a lot of time as a commentator with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. AND, he’s been working at stand-up comedy all this time. He’s also into nutrition, hunting, mind expansion–cannabis, psychedelics, sensory deprivation–health and nutrition, and who knows what else.

This guy’s got some range! Read more »

The go-between: how fear of failure has helped me persuade men with guns to make peace in the midst of conflict

Ram Manikkalingam in The National:

Four years ago, I was in a hideout of the Basque separatist group Eta in southern France, surrounded by explosives, revolvers, grenades and rocket launchers. I was present as the chief of the commission to verify a ceasefire and begin the group’s disarmament. It followed more than three years of difficult discussions with Eta leaders, Basque politicians and Basque civil society. We convinced Eta’s leaders that clinging to weapons was going to help neither themselves nor the Basque people.

The Basque peace process was unilateral; Madrid made no concessions to Eta in exchange for disarmament. Our efforts concluded last year in Bayonne in the French Basque region, where I accepted and certified Eta’s disarmament in the presence of the mayor of Bayonne, the Archbishop of Bologna and the Bishop of the Methodist Church of Ireland. Eta informed us where their arms caches were located, information we passed on to the French authorities, who then removed the weapons.

Two weeks ago, Eta themselves announced their disbanding in a statement read out by the director of the Henri Dunant Centre in Geneva, our partner in the effort. So ended a process of more than a dozen years, quietly and without violence and fanfare.

It was just one example of the tireless work of the Dialogue Advisory Group (DAG), which I founded, to get men with guns to make peace in the midst of violent conflict.

Although we are funded by the governments of Germany, Finland, Ireland, Lichtenstein, The Netherlands and Norway, we neither solicit nor accept funds from states with direct interests in the conflicts we work on. Sometimes we approach governments and armed groups – usually they approach us. We then begin by convincing separatists and rebels that using violence as a means to achieve goals is untenable.

More here.

What Do We Mean When We Call Art ‘Necessary’?

Lauren Oyler in the New York Times:

About a year ago I met up for the first time with a woman I knew only online. Articulate and funny, she is a brilliant writer who studied literature in graduate school. So I was surprised that, when I mentioned a recent novel I liked, my new friend responded with head-shaking resignation. “I can’t see how anyone justifies talking about books anymore,” she said. Our nation was so overwhelmed with causes demanding attention and action, she suggested, that it had entered a state of constant emergency, whereby pursuits both personal and political must be pitted against one another to determine which are essential.

A turn toward socially conscious criticism, ushered in by the internet’s amplification of previously ignored perspectives, has meant that culture now tends to be evaluated as much for its politics as for its aesthetic successes (or failures). Certain works — usually those that highlight the experiences of marginalized groups, or express some message or moral about the dangers of prejudice — have been elevated in stature. It’s an overdue correction that brings with it an imposition: No longer just illuminating, instructive, provocative or a way to waste a few hours on a Saturday, these works have become “necessary.” The word is a discursive crutch for describing a work’s right-minded views, and praise that is so distinct from aesthetics it can be affixed to just about anything, from two-dimensional romantic comedies to a good portion of the forthcoming books stacked beside my desk. Necessary for what is always left to the imagination — the continuation of civilization, maybe.

More here.

John Preskill on Quantum Computing

From Y Combinator:

John Preskill is a theoretical physicist and the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

He once won a bet with Steven Hawking, which as he writes made him “briefly almost famous.” John and Kip Thorne bet that singularities could exist outside of black holes and after six years Hawking conceded that they were possible in very special, “nongeneric” conditions.

In this episode we cover what John’s been focusing on for years: quantum information, quantum computing, and quantum error correction.

What was the revelation that made scientists and physicists think that a quantum computer could exist?

John Preskill – The idea caught on about 10 years later when Peter Shore made the suggestion that we could solve problems which don’t seem to have anything to do with physics, which are really things about numbers like finding the prime factors of a big integer. That caused a lot of excitement in part, because the implications for cryptography are a big disturbing. But then physicists, good physicists– Started to consider, can we really build this thing?

Some concluded and argued fairly cogently that no, you couldn’t because of this difficulty that it’s so hard to isolate systems from the environment well enough for them to behave quantumly. It took a few years for that to sort out sort of at the theoretical level. In the mid ’90s we developed a theory called quantum error correction. It’s about how to encode the quantum state that you’d like to protect in such a clever way that even if there are some interactions with the environment that you can’t control, it still stays robust. At first, that was just kind of a theorist fantasy. It was a little too far ahead of the technology, but 20 years later, the technology is catching up. Now this idea of quantum error correction has become something you could do in the lab.

More here.

The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

John Faithful Hamer in Quillette:

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.

At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

More here.

Due Process

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly:

To pick up on almost any story in the news these days—political, financial, sexual, or environmental—is to be informed in the opening monologue that the rule of law is vanished from the face of the American earth. So sayeth President Donald J. Trump, eight or nine times a day to his 47 million followers on Twitter. So sayeth also the plurality of expert witnesses in the court of principled opinion (media pundit, Never Trumper, think-tank sage, hashtag inspector of souls) testifying to the sad loss of America’s democracy, a once upon a time “government of laws and not of men.” The funeral orations make a woeful noise unto the Lord, but it’s not clear the orators know what their words mean or how reliable are their powers of observation. The American earth groans under the weight of legal bureaucracy, the body politic so judiciously enwrapped and embalmed in rules, regulations, requirements, codes, and commandments that it bears comparison to the glorified mummy of a once upon a time great king in Egypt. Senior statesmen and tenured Harvard professors say the rule of law has been missing for three generations, ever since President Richard Nixon’s bagmen removed it from a safe at the Watergate. If so, who can be expected to know what it looks like if and when it shows up with the ambulance at the scene of a crime? Does it come dressed as a man or a woman? Blue eyes and sweet smile riding a white horse? Black uniform, steel helmet, armed with assault rifle? Or maybe the rule of law isn’t lost but misplaced. Left under a chair on Capitol Hill, in a display case at the Smithsonian, scouting locations for Clint Eastwood’s next movie.

…Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 to restore America to its rightful place “where someone can always get rich,” his attitude and agenda not unlike Donald Trump’s, and by 1984 everywhere in the society, money was seen to be the hero with a thousand faces, greed the creative frenzy from which all blessings flow. What was billed as the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of a new Morning in America united the many and various parties of the right (conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, reactionary, evangelical, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Koch brothers) under one flag of transcendent and absolute truth—money ennobles rich people, making them healthy, wealthy, and wise; money corrupts poor people, making them lazy, ignorant, and sick. The doctrine of enlightened selfishness rebranded as neoliberalism has remained in power in Washington for the past thirty years. The separation of values treasured by a capitalist economy from those cherished by a democratic society has resulted in the accumulation of more laws limiting the freedom of persons, fewer laws restraining the license of property, the letting fall into disrepair of nearly all the infrastructure (roads, schools, rivers) that provides the citizenry with the ways and means of its common enterprise.

More here.

Sunday Poem

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
.
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
.
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
.
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
.
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
.
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
.
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
.
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
.
by e.e. Cummings,
from 50 Poems
Hawthorn Books, 1940

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone: On Philip Roth, 1933–2018

Marco Roth in n+1:

LET’S GET THE STUPID BIT about the shared last name out of the way. It affected me. When a young wannabe, I couldn’t read him, not willingly, not without trepidation, certainly I couldn’t read him well. One overwhelming, brilliant father was enough, thank you. Later, a rueful joke: “Yes, like the novelist, not related,” or dismissive, “Roth, like Henry or Joseph.” Distance, denial, mistrust, a touch of unearned condescension, the attitude of so many writers my generation and a little older, both toward the man and the writer, whether we were tri-state Jews or golden midwest goys, like David Foster Wallace. The feeling was mutual, judging by the books. Men roughly my age, that is of a generation who would have been Roth’s children, had he wanted any, began appearing in his novels throughout the late ’90s and mid aughts. We were a bunch of whiny upstarts, puritans, biographers, journalists, “thoughtless opportunists” and “entitled schemers” (Exit Ghost) or already castrated paragons of mushy devotion to our brilliant, sexy girlfriends and the older men who covet them (“he seemed to take pleasure in deferentially calling me ‘Mr. Zuckerman’” is how one such ephebe is first characterized). Or, like Drenka’s son in Sabbath’s Theater, a cop, a character who seems to exist only so he can catch the master puppeteer in various delicta flagrantia atop his mother’s grave and stop the carnal play in the name of the law. Daughters fare worse: the tragedy inside American Pastoral, a reverse-engineered King Lear, is of a child driven to madness by her inability to acknowledge a father’s love—one of the few times in Roth’s fiction that he sympathized his way into seeing things from a parent’s point of view, and he did it by imagining a child turned terrorist.

More here.

Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists

David Adler in the NYT:

My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.

I examined the data from the most recentWorld Values Survey (2010 to 2014) andEuropean Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions. (A copy of my working paper, with a more detailed analysis of the survey data, can be found here.)

Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures. These include views of democracy as the “best political system,” and a more general rating of democratic politics. In both, those in the center have the most critical views of democracy.

More here.