31 October 2011

The Veil

The ancient Celts believed that the Samhain marked the time between summer and winter. This "cross-quarter" day (half-way from the Autumnal Equinox to the Winter Solstice) actually makes more sense as a seasonal dividing line for those of us living in the temperate zones. After all, it has been below freezing at my house--just south of the 42nd parallel--for the last week. The Celts also believed that this time of year was when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds was the thinnest. Thus you made masks and carved scary faces in vegetables (probably turnips, pumpkins are from the New World) to keep the ghosts of the dead away. I love the fall, and the approach of winter is always exciting because I like to ski. This last week I've been reading a book called The Meaning of Quantum Theory by a UK writer named Jim Baggott. This remarkable theory is at the heart of contemporary physics and is wildly successful at predicting the outcomes of experiments. The problem is that no one is quite sure what it means. The results of quantum theory are spooky and give a picture of "reality" far at odds with that of the classical mechanics of Newton. Quantum mechanics probes the veil between physics and metaphysics. What the theory tells us is unequivocal: particles behave like waves some of the time and like particles some of the time, measuring the position of a particle makes it impossible to also measure its momentum, and the properties of two separated particles appear to be dependent on each other. Quantum mechanics may possibly violate the postulates of special relativity (another wildly successful theory) and might entirely upend our notions of causality and the flow of time. Or not. No one is quite sure even though the leading minds of the world have been working on it since the 1920s. I'll finish the book tonight if I don't get interrupted too often by trick-or-treaters. It's good stuff. I'll admit that I have to skip most of the math parts as calculus was over thirty years ago. There's like this veil between the squiggles on the pages and my brain!

25 October 2011


According to Eric Partridge, my word guru, "skeptic" is from Greek and means "doubt." Skepticism is a good thing. In science, it is crucial. Many confuse the meaning of the word with that of "cynic." Having been accused--many times--of being a cynic, I'm used to the mix-up. The ancients who called themselves Cynics ("the snarlers") were contemptuous of society's conventions but nonetheless strove for virtuous conduct. The modern meaning of cynic is one who doubts all motives but selfishness. That is, a person who does not believe altruism exists. This has nothing to do with asking good questions and demanding to see the evidence before making a conclusion. People don't like skeptics because skeptics don't like sloppy thinking. Skeptics like to account for all the possibilities before embracing a course of action. This often comes across as contrariness or obstructionism, but it is really just trying to see things as clearly as possible.

Those in the American political scene who doubt the science behind climate change are called skeptics, but this does a disservice to real skeptics. Real skeptics are not merely deniers. Real skeptics look for flaws in an argument and demand to be convinced with logic and facts. Deniers don't require that sort of rigor. They already have their minds made up and you won't get anywhere with them using silly things like evidence. One skeptical scientist--Richard Muller of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Lab--recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining what his current research has revealed about global warming. His was a sort of meta-research as his team looked at already-existing data and analyzed its reliability. They concluded that the numbers were good--global temperatures are on the rise. They made no statement about whether the cause is anthropogenic, but that wasn't the point of the study. Here's Dr. Muller:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn't know what we'd find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
That's science in a nutshell. If the data is good, it will hold up to scrutiny. If the methods are good, the data is trustworthy. Transparency and openness lead to progress. This is exactly the opposite of politics, where lies and half-truths are the meat-and-potatoes of campaigning. Where secrecy, denial, and re-writing history are the essential skills candidates master. Where visceral responses are more important than analysis and where being brainy is a handicap. Screw politics and learn to think like a scientist!

Read some more about Muller and the BEST project here.

13 October 2011

subrecursive hierarchies of functions*

The world lost another tech giant. Dennis Ritchie was the inventor of the C programming language and a co-creator of the UNIX operating system. He died this week at the age of 70. Originally from New York, he earned degrees from Harvard in both physics and applied mathematics, and spent his career with the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey. Those software creations--C and UNIX--are the foundations of most of today's systems. Macintosh computers, for example, run a Unix-based OS. Programmers learn things like C++ and Java these days, which are the progeny of C. Most of the servers that hold this whole intertubes thingie together run UNIX or a variant. Mr. Ritchie didn't do stuff that tech consumers notice. Instead he did the real brick-and-mortar work of the Information Age. Those of us lucky to be living in the wired world are standing on foundations laid down by this guy and his contemporaries. Recquiescat in pacem.

*the subject of Ritchie's thesis
I don't know what it means, either.

08 October 2011

Game of My Life

In the wake of the wonderful 2010 World Series, a plethora of books about the San Francisco Giants have been newly-written or re-issued with updates for that memorable season. One of the latter is Matt Johanson's Game of My Life: San Francisco Giants. Originally published in 2007, the new edition now includes vignettes from the championship club. Each chapter focuses on a particular player and their most memorable game in orange-and-black. It starts with Orlando Cepeda's debut in 1958--which was also the first Giants game in San Francisco--and ends with Brian Wilson's save in Game Five of the 2010 World Series. Along the way the reader is treated to terrific stories from the likes of "Dirty Al" Gallagher, Tito Fuentes (a childhood favorite of mine), Dan Gladden, Robby Thompson, Darren Lewis, Kirk Rueter, Rich Aurilia, and many other fan favorites and interesting characters. I particularly enjoyed reliving Bob Brenly's "greatest Humm-Baby performance of all time" game since I was in attendance with much of my regular Candlestick posse. My friend Frank actually caught Brenly's game-winning homer when it bounced up to our seats in Section 30 in the LF bleachers. I will also never forget Mike Krukow's complete game victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Four of the 1987 NLCS. We were lucky enough to have scored tickets in Section 2, right behind home plate. After Jeffrey Leonard's improbable, wind-aided home run that gave the Giants the lead my buddy Ron was so excited he started beating on me and I collapsed to the concrete in a fetal position. Never was getting the wind knocked out of me so worth it! Giants fans will recognize many of the great moments: Will Clark's big hit off Mitch Williams to win the pennant in 1989, Brian Johnson's homer in extras to beat the Dodgers in 1997 (and Rod Beck's miraculous pitching in the same game!), Kenny Lofton's hit in 2002 to send the team to the Series, and Jonathan Sanchez' no-hitter against the Padres in 2009. Players from the obscure Brian Dallimore to all-time great Willie Mays share their anecdotes, making Game of My Life a must-read for Giants fans. Mr. Johanson has done an excellent job assembling all the stories and adding his own take on the colorful history of the many who've worn the Giants uniform. He's also--like me--a California public high school teacher! That's extra credit, for sure.

Many thanks to the nice folks at Skyhorse Publishing for sending me a review copy.