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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Domestic Security: A Dialogue

The dog is standing at the window, positively vibrating with irritation.

"What's all this barking about?" I ask.

"Squirrels!" she replies (I speak Dog).

I look out the window, and sure enough, there's a big fat squirrel sitting in the back right corner of the yard, at the foot of a big maple tree.

"Squirrels!" she says again. "They're a threat to our security!"

"Yes, there are squirrels. What do you plan to do about it?"

"Well, you're going to open the door, and I'm going to race to the back left corner of the yard, by the big oak tree. And catch the squirrels. They squeak!"

"That's a terrible plan. The squirrel is in the back right corner of the yard, by the maple tree. If you run to the oak tree, it will just go right up the maple, and be gone before you even get close."

"They're tricksy squirrels! Evil squirrels! A threat to our way of life!"

"Yes, fine. But they're in the back right corner of the yard. Not the left."

"They're Leftist squirrels. They squeak! Let me out!"

"They can be Leftist squirrels, if you want, but they're to the right out the door. Got that?"

"Right. Let me out!"

I open the back door, and she rockets out into the yard. To the oak tree in the back left corner. Meanwhile, the squirrel at the foot of the maple tree off to the right bolts up the tree, and leaps from branch to branch all the way out of the yard.

"Stupid tricksy squirrels!" she says, coming back empty-handed.

Posted at 10:10 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Friday, September 24, 2004

A Million Here, a Million There...

Speaking on the phone yesterday to someone in one of the large collaborations who might benefit from the proposal I'm writing up, I was asked how much I'm asking the NSF for.

"I'm writing it as a three-year proposal, and the whole thing will be $150,000 at the outside."

"That's $150,000 a year?"

"No, $150,000 total."

"That's just the salary part?"

"No, that's equipment, too. The total equipment request is around $25,000. The rest is salaries."

"Oh." Pause. "That's really cheap!"

Different worlds...

Anyway, the target date for the proposal is next Wednesday. Which means I'll be staring at LaTeX files until my eyes cross for the next four days or so, so I wouldn't expect much here until then.

Posted at 3:14 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Many Worlds, Many Histories

The physics professor glanced at his watch, and realized that he was running late for class. Grabbing his notes off his desk, he...

...walked out of his office, turned left, and took the elevator down to the first-floor classrom...

...turned right, and took the elevator at the other end of the building down to the first-floor classroom...

...turned left, and ran down the stairs to the first-floor classroom...

...turned right, and walked toward the elevator, then doubled back to pick up his coffee mug, before taking the stairs down to the first-floor classroom...

...stepped out of the window, and floated like a leaf down to the ground, where he re-entered the building, and walked to the first-floor classroom.

He entered the class, to find the students already seated. "Good morning," he said, "Today we'll be talking about Feynman diagrams..."

Posted at 8:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Classical Leadership in Times of Quantum Uncertainty

Vote Calvin.

Posted at 7:43 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, September 20, 2004

Solutions in Search of Problems

Kevin Drum picks up my post about Singularities, and asks some questions about the pace of technological progress. Amazingly, the comments to that post have failed to turn into a complete sewer, and there's some interesting stuff. PZ Myers takes issue with Kevin's categories, and says he's shorting the biological sciences.

I'd like to take issue with a different point in Kevin's post. He gives a list of major inventions of the last century, and follows it with this paragraph:

I'm limiting myself to genuinely new inventions that substantially changed our lives. Cell phones are great, but they're still phones. Everything else on the second list has also gotten a lot better during the past 50 years, but they don't fundamentally do things that couldn't be done before. They're improvements, not brand new things.

I think this is exactly the wrong way to try to measure technological (as opposed to scientific) progress. In fact, Kevin's got things almost completely backwards, at least as far as the transforming effect on society goes.

Shortly after the laser was invented, it was famously described as "a solution in search of a problem." It's a memorable phrase, and has stuck to the laser, but it might equally well have applied to any number of other technologies. And there's an important message to be drawn from it, namely that it's not the initial invention that's important, it's the applications of that invention that are crucial.

The newly-created laser was an important development for science and optics, but much as the laser has changed the business of spectrscopy and atomic physics, that's not the sort of thing that revolutionizes society. If the only thing lasers were good for was basic physics experiments, nobody would care.

What's made lasers a crucial technology in the modern world is the ways that people have found to apply lasers to other problems. Somebody got the idea of using light to transmit messages, which has given us fiber-optic communications networks, and data bandwidth that would've been unimaginable before the laser. Someone got the idea of using lasers to read digital signals on reflective media, and the compact disc was born, completely revolutionizing music and data storage. Another person took basically the same idea, and came up with those bar-code scanners that are everywhere these days.

In terms to technology's effect on society, the actual invention of the laser is a minor blip. What changed the world was the invention of optical communications, the CD player, and the laser bar-code scanner.

The same is true of a lot of other ideas. Computers are great, but had they stayed the size of ENIAC, nobody would've cared. Even the mainframe model of the 1970's wouldn't've been that big a deal. What stood the world on end was the invention of the personal computer, the idea of putting the calculating power of a computer on the desk of every office temp in America. And the computer is responsible for a second major revolution, with the invention of the Internet.

Telephones likewise are responsible for two major societal revolutions: first, the introduction of widespread home and business telephone use, and second, the cell phone. The first one gave us the idea that we should be able to communicate instantly with people a long distance away, rather than waiting days or weeks for a message to get back and forth. The second is giving us the idea that everyone should be instantly available all the time. Compared to those innovations, Alexander Graham Bell is a footnote.

All the implications of the cell phone revolution haven't shaken out yet, but saying that they're "just phones" is a mistake. As Bruce Sterling pointed out once, they've already invalidated most thriller plots-- no matter where you are, you can call for help. It's already gotten to where I don't even feel guilty about not stopping for people who are broken down on the side of the road-- they probably have cell phones, and have already called AAA by the time I happen along.

I do agree with PZ Myers that the biological sciences will be the next great area of revolutionary development. The scientific advance that enables this is really the discovery of DNA and its role in biology, but what will really make it a revolution is the application of that knowledge to real-world problems, which we're really only beginning to do. And it won't be just one revolution, either, but a new societal shift for each application.

What gives people like Vernor Vinge the sense that the pace of technological change is increasing is not a growth of the number of solutions we have available, but an explosion in the number of problems that those solutions get aplied to. It's the problem, not the solution, that turns an advance into a revolution.

Posted at 11:22 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Non-Creepy Culture War

The Washington Post's "Book World" section this week offers an article surveying summer reading lists (look quickly, before it's sucked behind the paywall). It's ultimately sort of wishy-washy, which is probably inevitable given the huge variation in local lists, but the author, Chris Shea, ends with a fairly good point:

But in the end these objections, while defensible, are pointy-headed and irrelevant, because the competition in our culture isn't between stultified reading lists and that imagined literary Eden I alluded to earlier, populated by universally eager young people surrounded by adults who are also passionate readers. No, the battle teachers are fighting is between reading and not reading. And in a non-reading culture you have to choose sides. Sure the teachers, the creators of these lists, could stand to indulge in some more free and wild imaginings. But they're fighting in a culture war -- one of the few non-creepy ones -- and mandatory reading lists, however ungainly, are one weapon at hand in the struggle.

He's right. An alarming number of people these days don't read anything unless they're forced to. Still, I wish he'd been a little less equivocal about some of the alarmingly stupid choices on some of the lists (forcing high-schoolers to read Ayn Rand and Thomas Hardy is just asking for a nation of illiterates...).

Buried in the middle of the article, though, is a good suggestion from a college professor:

"I tell them about books I'm excited about -- ones I want to have long conversation about when they come back in the fall," Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of the just-published Why Read?, told me when I called him to ask him about his philosophy of summer reading recommendations. "There's a self-serving aspect to it." His personal approach points up what's missing in the summer lists: one mind passing on a sense of excitement to another. Students could be excused for looking at most lists and wondering whether any human being was ever really thrilled by the books.

I think he's really on the right track, here. It wouldn't take many fingers to count the number of books I was forced to read that I ended up really liking (The Things They Carried, and, um... The Great Gatsby? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might count, but I read a bunch of Twain for fun, back in the day, so I might've gotten to it before they made me read it in class), but I'm typing this is a room full of shelves of books discovered because they were enthusiastically recommended by people who really liked them.

Of course, there's some justification for the desire to have students read at least some of the "Classics," given the critical role some of those books play in our culture, and in helping us to understand cultures of other times and places. But I wonder if that goal wouldn't be better served by assigning a different sort of book for summer reading: The Eyre Affair.

Sure, I know, it sounds like a ridiculous idea. But consider this: that book came as close to making me want to read Jane Eyre as anything is every likely to. (Reading Wuthering Heights for AP English put me off not just the Bronte family, but that entire era of English literature.) There's a sort of rampaging enthusiasm to the book that makes even unpalatable books seem interesting, simply because somebody else thought they were fascinating enough to build a book around. In a similar way, the slightly corny fan classic Silverlock made me want to read (or at least learn the stories behind) a whole host of classic books (the Web being what it is, you can now Google most of the allusions).

Of course, indirect recommendation is a dicey business-- the number of people who actually read the Iliad as a result of seeing Brad Pitt's Troy is probably pretty small, and I know a number of people (both students and faculty) who loved the Lord of the Rings movies, but gave up on the books a hundred pages into Fellowship. On the other hand, though, Tolkien now has a full shelf and a half at the local Borders, so somebody must be buying those movie tie-in editions...

The Post also offers a summer reading list compendium based on lists from DC area schools, which I'll talk about over on my book log. They're also soliciting recommendations to recommend to high-school juniors and seniors, so if you have strong opinions, send them a couple of titles.

Posted at 9:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

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