Posted tagged ‘Technology’

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM


Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.


Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

James Fallows Shows Mercy…

October 21, 2008

On his much abused USB stick. His wrap here — which includes the announcement, gratifying to those of his readers moved to sympathy for his forlorn servant, that the loyal slab of memory has now, at last, been translated to a better place.

My comment here was mostly an excuse to write up the donkey factoid incuded therein.  My only additional thought is that for all that Fallows swears — cross his heart! — that he intended no ill to his suspiciously frequently tech-hospitalized bit of circuitry, this still seems like a case for that still purely imaginary Society for the Preventio of Cruelty to Gadgets.  Just sayin….

The Perils of Pauline — if Pauline were a small solid state device

October 17, 2008

I don’t know if y’all have been following it, but one of the perhaps overlooked pleasures of the blogosphere of late has been James Fallows’ narrative of his USB thumb drive-with-a-death wish.

The latest entry is here–and by tracking back through the links you can follow Fallow’s almost  de Sade-like awe at each “accident” (yeah, sure — Ed.) that has befallen his plucky little repository of data.

I’m not sure how to characterize this post, except as a weekend pleasure (and yes, I’m still recovering from a campaign overdose, as you can see.)

File it under abused tech, I guess.

Image:  “Trial of Bill Burns.”  As Wikimedia Commons tells it:   Burns was found beating his donkey, whereupon he faced “the first prosecution under the 1822 Martin’s Act for cruelty to animals.” In this, the first trial for animal cruelty anywhere in the world, the case  “was brought by Richard Martin, MP for Galway, also known as Humanity Dick, and the case became memorable because he brought the donkey into court.”

Seth Lloyd, Quantum Entanglement, and Why it Matters Whether the President (and VP) Care About Science

September 16, 2008

One of the absolute best things about having a good gig at a place like MIT is that you get the quick word on things like this.

Short form: MIT’s resident quantum engineer Seth Lloyd, best known for his work on developing a functional quantum computer (you can see his mathematics/mechanical engineering course website here, an accessible interview here) has just published a paper in Science that describes a novel and extremely powerful design for detectors and imaging systems that make use of the quantum phenomenon dubbed entanglement.*

What makes Lloyd’s finding more exciting than the usual theoretical description of a hypothetical quantum machine is that Lloyd’s lab has already begun preliminary experiments to develop some of the apparatus needed to buile a quantum entanglement-based analogue to radar, and Lloyd himself is predicting laboratory-based proof of principle experiments within a year.

If the idea works, Lloyd suggests that it should be possible to increase the efficiency of radar systems by as much as a million-fold by using what he has dubbed quantum illumination.

Now partly this is just another very tasty technological idea that may never make it out of the “that sounds cool” file.

But looked at in a larger frame this story takes on a different meaning.

Choosing to fund fundamental research is political decision. It has not been the priority recently: see this post for the details.

To support such research requires a leap of the imagination — the ability to grasp the the fact that while it may not be possible to envision the consequences of answering any given abstract question, you can’t pick the winners in advance of following a line of inquiry through each required step. No one could have anticipated that the mysteries of the hydrogen spectrum could lead over time to the ideas that would ultimately make possible such brave new machines as the one on which I write this.

So to the point I’ve been telegraphing for a while: that in this context, it would help — more, it is vital — that we have a President and an administration that is more than just comfortable with science. We need an administration that actively gets the idea that it matters to the American economy, to its security, and to its culture to support open ended inquiry.

I had intended here to go into a lengthy argument about why John McCain and his people do not get it.  But I find that in the couple of days it has taken me to get going on this post that I can outsource most of what I would have said to Devilstower over at Daily Kos.

There, DT takes a swipe at McCain’s self-described science credentials in the candidates’ reply to Science Debate 2008’s 14 questions.  The post doesn’t do a complete fisking of that profoundly cynical and vapid document, but it gets to the essence of McCain’s completely instrumental view of science by teeing off on the Senator’s claim that

I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission.

As Devilstower points out, the fact that someone used technology forty years ago hardly counts, either way, as a qualification for leadership in the advance of technology.  More on point, someone who sees the role of science as simply producing the next widget misses what really goes into the development of ideas that yield major technological advance.  Who knew that an oddity in the behavior of paired photons might yield, — and soon — the kind of advance that could save the life of an American flyer, sailor or soldier?

Much has been made — and I’ve helped a little — of McCain’s email incapacity, of his bare “awareness” (his campaign’s word) of the internet.  But poking fun at a chisel and slate old guy misses the real issue here.  It’s not that McCain doesn’t use the latest technology; it is that he and his incurious advisors do not know what it took to make the possibility of email, of our whole modern, enwebbed world possible.**  And that’s no good in a President in 2008.

*Here’s a cartoon description of entanglement, glossed out of this Wikipedia entry on the subject: Any one particle in an entangled pair (or larger system) cannot be fully described without accounting for the other member or members of the system, even if the other particles are widely separated. Thus, a local observation of one particle can reveal information about certain physical characteristics of phenomena out of sight (or detection) of the observed part of the system.

**Please note that we get to this point in the argument without even mentioning the active anti-science strand in McCain’s campaign:*** you can’t avoid the fact that he choose a running mate who denied human involvement in climate change (before backing down a day or two ago, with a level of sincerity I beg leave to doubt) and who does not credit evolution as the explanation for biological origins and development.

***Not to mention the problem that McCain’s budget priorities leave essentially no room for any non-defense discretionary spending, rendering all the promises made in the Science Debate 2008 replies for increases in research funding essentially unfulfillable unless he is lying about his tax and defense priorities.

Why understanding e-mail might matter for a President

September 11, 2008

Lovable Liberal has a very smart post up that drills into Bob Woodward’s new book.  LL focuses on the claimt that the reduction of violence in Iraq derives not from the so-called surge, but from, primus inter pares, a targeted assassination program.

That’s part’s been well covered, of course, but LL makes a deeper argument:    such a campaign requires — as Woodward himself implied (see LL’s post for details) — a major technological effort to extract the intelligence needed to track and fix the intended targets.

If so, and I think LL is himself on target here, then this is a genuine success for an approach to war that emphasizes the use of machines, money and smarts instead of our side’s lives to achieve our ends.

It also — and here I’m going past LL’s argument — provides another reason why John McCain would be a terrible choice for commander in chief right now.

That is: by this time I think even the neaderthal wing of the blogosphere would be forced to concede that McCain is not exactly what you would call a technology-savvy indivdual.  I mean, we’re not talking about a mad lack of gaming skillz, or a peculiar lack of interest in Python coding. E-mail, man, e-mail.  This is someone who as of a month or so ago still had to have his staffers explain that he was “aware of the internet.”

I’m so relieved.


Now this stuff got a flurry of attention at the time McCain’s chisel-and-slate approach to modern communications first bubbled to the surface, but Woodward’s story and LL’s gloss point to why this stuff actually matters.

Recall that McCain has famously said that he “knows how to win wars.”

Actually, as this latest story suggests, he does not.

What McCain knows  how to do, at its most charitable, is start wars, and then when they go south, to escalate them in the hopes that enough Americans at risk can correct the errors of the old men who sent the first lot of Americans in harm’s way.

In that McCain is fully embedded in what strategic thinkers now somewhat derisively term “The American Way of War.”

The fact that he has now embraced the simplest end of counter-insurgency and “small-wars” ideas does not correct for the underlying problem that (a) he has no grasp of the historical, political and social context of the conflicts he wants to fight (which is why the “success” of the surge ™ has not actually produced the political outcomes sought, nor the commercial benefits we once sought) as even a few of the more honest of his supporters will now agree….

And that (b): Experience doesn’t help if it’s the wrong experience.

I’m just saying:  you can’t be ready on day one to be Commander in Chief running conflicts in Afghanistan, the Pakistan borderlands, North Korean nukes and all the rest if you can’t send your grandchild a birthday e-mail.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

*reposted because it is (a) right on target and (b) too quantitatively fascinating** not to watch twice.

**40 rods*** to the hogshead is the equivalent of 10.48 feet to the gallon, which may or may not say volumes about McCain’s energy policy.

***It is worth noting (really? –ed.) that a rod is also a pole or a perch.  You heard it here first (or second.)

Notes From the Road: Sympathy for George (HW) Bush edition.

June 22, 2008

Remember that moment in the campaign sixteen years ago when Bush the father was confronted by a barcode reader in a supermarket and wondered what it was?

He was widely ridiculed, by me too, for what was seen as upper-class cluelessness. Mere retail, it seemed, was for hoi polloi, not for those blessed by generations of privilege.

Well, I find myself a little more empathetic for the old spook now. On the first leg of my current vacation, I had occasion to visit a vast Target store on the edge of the San Francisco bay. Part of my reaction was like that of an Eastern European venturing west in the first weeks after the Wall came down. So much stuff they have in one place, comrade!

But what made me feel truly like a peasant from the hills was my first sight of what I understand to be commonplace: an escalator for shopping carts running between those moving stairs for people. According to this Youtube, I’m at least a year behind the times in being gobsmacked by this next step in massive retail.

Two things occur to me coming from this little excursion in technoshock. The first is that there is at least a bit of asynchrony going on in the experience of all kinds of new goodies across our country, much more around the world. My current home, the Boston area, does not have the concentrated techno-retail experience available in the land of my birth, paradise, AKA, the Bay Area. What is mundane here is astonishing to someone just arrived from there…

Which leads to my very brief flash of a sense of kinship with Bush senior. This stuff can sneak up on you. It remains kind of bizarre that he had somehow missed the bar code reader. But I can see how a President would never actually come that close to a cash register for much or all of his term — and a lot can change in four years.

What this means today: well the tech-positive candidate is clearly Obama. McCain — he’s the one who  doesn’t use a computer. I don’t think this will be determinative, but the election could be moved at least a bit by the relative proportions of those in the electorate for whom shopping cart escalators are strange and those for whom they are part of the furniture. My guess is that the balance has tipped towards those for whom tech, and more importantly tech-change is the norm. But my guess and a buck seventy five gets you on the subway, so take that for what it’s actually worth.

Consider this an example of a vacation-level post.

Image: Eniac Computer, Philadelphia. Image taken between 1947 and 1955. US Army photo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Off-Label use of a DKos Post

June 12, 2008

Check out this — not so much for the snark about McCain, but for the delightful gallery of (period) appropriate tech.

Actually, while I enjoy a good, well prepared, someone-with-not-enough-to-do, professional grade snark as well as the next blogger, I fear that the author, DHinMI, is being a bit unfair here. [Of course s/he’s being unfair. It’s a blog, bozo! It’s a sarcastic bit of fun for the morning! Get a life. –ed.)

No, no — not unfair to McCain; he’s fair game, and if he didn’t want to be twitted for his age, he should have won in 2000.

No, what impressed me about this gallery is the degree to which the technology and experience at the end of the 19th century was so much more like our own than it was like that of the generation of the founders a century before.

Look at the photos on offer: Long distance communications; mass transport; medicine, (not really represented in this gallery) which, for all the easy humor, at least had the germ theory, a grasp of infection and the need for sterile conditions in hospital operating suites, new energy sources, organized, professional, government run emergency services, mass visual media, and, perhaps above all, electricity with which to make so much of the rest go.

Compare this, as I once heard the great physicist and teacher Philip Morrison do, to the situation in 1800. Whale oil as the primary source of light with which the reading and writing public could extend their work into the night. Slow transport, entirely powered by one’s own body, one’s horse, or by wind or water. Debridement and then amputation as the primary therapy for infected wounds. Communication beyond line of sight/hearing proceeding at the same rate as the transport of other goods: slow, slow, slow. And so on.

Morrison, in the lecture I heard, went into detail about the operations of a major wheat growing operation in the upper midwest in 1900. The web existed — or rather a web, a network; telegraph communications enabled the farm’s owners to follow grain prices around the world on a daily basis. Rail transport meant that the threshed wheat from that farm could enter that global market in a timely way.

Chicago, the nearest major city, was home to 1.6 million people. All those people consumed with a vengeance: in the landmark Marshall Field complex on and around State St. in the first decade of the twentienth century, the famous department store employed 12,000 people, doing 25 million dollars in retail and twice that, 50 million in wholesale business around the world. The technology needed to permit such enormous agglomerations of people advanced too — Chicago’s supply of indoor plumbing required continuous tending, culminating in the opening of its new, model sewage system in 1900, centered on a canal that could carry 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute.

All of which means that Morrison’s wheat farmer, some miles out of town, was, all of a century ago, completely innocent of HTML and the joys of a 3G iPhone — but was nonetheless enmeshed in a global system of information exchange and commerce, mass produced consumer goods and entertainment (even recorded music, via the mass market business in player pianos that boomed with new technology in the 1890s and 1900s).

To put it another way: I can imagine myself adapting pretty readily to life in my current home of Boston in 1900. 1800? Not so easy, I think.

So, channeling a little bit of that remarkably clear thinker, the late and missed Professor Morrison, it’s always tempting to think that what’s happening right now is so new, so wonderful, that it is without precedent in human experience. But there has been a whole lot of such experience over time, and sometimes at least, the newness of technology is in the ease of what it enables, and not in its pure, raw, novelty. That is: a question one should ask of the past is not just “how far?” but “how near?”

(Not that any of this, of course, makes me want a president more comfortable with a Hollerith calculating machine than the device on which I compose this.)

Image: Camille Pissarro, “Place du Havre, Paris,” 1893. Location: Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.