Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow

Who gave the first correct explanation of the rainbow? Descartes.  Why did he? Because he perceived its beauty.
Feynman’s Rainbow:
A Search for Beauty in Physics
and Life

by Leonard Mlodinow
  (Warner Books, 2003).
Sandwiched between layers of cute Feynman stories are Mlodinow’s own reflections on his path to increased self-awareness.  He seems to have been pretty self-aware all along, but he ran into a couple of hard edges in the dark living room of life: having achieved a professorship at Caltech, he was not sure that he could live up to the achievements that took him there; then there was the collision with cancer.  Through it all, he had obtained permission to tape record some of his time with Richard Feynman. 

"The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.
"The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, “The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea ... A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.” Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy." "It is, In Fact, Rocket Science" by Leonard Mlodinow New York Times, May 15, 2015, here.
In this running monologue, Mlodinow also explains some physics. He elucidates string theory better than he does quantum chromodynamics, though only because he says more about the former. Other paragraphs open windows to the failed S-Matrix theory, and the more successful quantum optics. You can crawl through those windows (or find doors) via textbooks, articles, and online content, if you wish. I have not. But they are interesting here because they illuminate aspects of Leonard Mlodinow.

In Fahrenheit 451, Montag attempts to explain literature by saying, “Inside each book is a man.”  Herein you will find Richard P. Feynman (of course), but as experienced by Leonard Mlodinow. And, indeed, this book is a long evening or several lunches with someone who is as fascinated with the internal world of atoms as he is with his own internality.  It goes on my physics shelf with the Feynman books.

Books by Leonard Mlodinow
  • Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior (2012),
  • War of The Worldviews: science vs. spirituality (2011), co-authored with Deepak Chopra.
  • The Grand Design (2010), co-authored with Stephen Hawking.
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: the story of randomness and its role in our lives (2008)
  • A Briefer History of Time (2005), as co-author with Stephen Hawking.
  • Feynman’s Rainbow: a search for beauty in physics and in life (2003)
  • Euclid’s Window: The story of geometry from parallel lines to hyperspace (2001)
  • The Last Dinosaur (2004), co-authored with Matt Costello
  • Titanic Cat (2004), co-authored with Matt Costello
"Leonard Mlodinow (born 1954) from Chicago, Illinois is an author and physicist who wrote the Star Trek: The Next Generation second season episode "The Dauphin" with writing partner Scott Rubenstein. He also worked as story editor on the episodes from "The Outrageous Okona" to "The Royale" with Rubenstein.

In 2009, Mlodinow penned an essay for Newsweek entitled "Confessions of a Star Trek Writer," which discussed his work on Star Trek, his co-workers in the writer's room (like former police officer Burton Armus), and the "culture of free thinking" which has driven Star Trek to four decades of success.  --  Memory Alpha here


Thursday, August 11, 2016

AFK: Away from the Keyboard

Since I started this blog on January 2, 2011, I have posted 432 entries, a bit more often than once a week.  But the past few months, I have been busy with what has turned into one of the best jobs I ever had. I work at headquarters in the Texas State Guard.  Right now, I am on assignment with the Texas National Guard. It has been 20 years since I enjoyed work so much.
Everyone around me is 100%. Sure, things go wrong. Mistakes happen. We own the problem and fix it. I have not heard anyone call someone else stupid or lazy. The can-do attitude is deeply learned and accepted. Yesterday morning, I saw a colonel come down the hall, come to a door, square his corner with a left face, and approach the door. We have physical exercise facilities; and I can hear the weight machines being used all day long. The one-mile outdoor track is never empty, even in 100-degree heat. (Hydrate!) And this is an administrative headquarters facility: human resources, information, logistics, planning, training, and finance. Basically, it is just a bunch of office jobs. But everyone I have met in four weeks is up for this. 

My days are long. I have not been out with my telescope in four months. I am not watching the best Perseids in seven years. But what I do during the day is interesting and important. It just keeps me away from the keyboard.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

We Were Soldiers Once - And Young

War stories are stolen valor.  If you were not there then, why do you care now?  (If you were there then, and want to know about others who were elsewhere elsewhen, then war stories are valid.)  Beyond that and deeper, as the penultimate human conflict, war demands that values be understood in absolute terms. Therefore, war stories can serve to dramatize the conflict of values. 

Definitions are demanded. I say “penultimate” because I place romantic love above war as the stage on which is played the drama of personal values in conflict.  I use “absolute” rather than “objective” because the outcome of war is metaphysically unarguable: win or lose, survive or die. Context does not matter. You can want the British to go home – as so many have in America, Ireland, South Africa, and India – or the Russians—as did my cousins in Hungary in 1956 – but ultimately, the context is irrelevant.  

We Were Soldiers Once – And Young: 
Ia Drang the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam 
by Harold G. Moore Lt. Gen. (Ret)., 
and Joseph L. Galloway: Random House, 1992.
In a fictional drama the hero could be a Russian soldier who believes that he is going to Budapest to fight neo-fascists.  In this story, the American narrator nods to the Vietnamese soldiers who died by his hands.  This is not moral equivalency, the claim that all values are relatively gray and no one is right or wrong. Rather, the moral standards are applied unequivocally to all. The Vietnamese commander does his best to engage and defeat the invader of his homeland.  Meanwhile the American brass back at Saigon are afraid that a colonel might get killed and ruin their day, so they call Lt. Col. Hal Moore back “for a debriefing.”  He refuses to go. The conflict of values is multifaceted.

Serving in the Texas State Guard (which is not issued weapons and cannot be sent overseas), I have been researching military narratives on leadership. (See my review of Extreme Ownership here.) The movie version, titled We Were Soldiers, is well known; and the cinema production offered some insights. Interested in the man who told the story, I got the book from the library. Basically, director Randall Wallace turned a war story into an anti-war story.  Rather than reluctance, Lt. Col. Moore wrote about his enthusiasm: his mission was to kill the enemy. That being as it was, for me (fortunately) some of those lessons in leadership from the book were projected on the screen.
We Were Soldiers.
Directed by Randall Wallace.
Screenplay by Randall Wallace.
Icon Entertainment, 2002.

Take care of your people.
Know the job above you; and teach your job to the ones below.
Only first place trophies are displayed, accepted, or presented. Second place means that you died on the battlefield.
No fat troops. No fat officers.
Loyalty flows down: the commander knows his troops.
Open door policy for officers.
The Sergeant Major reports only to the commander.

From the film, the lesson in leadership that resonated with me, being an expression of the capitalist work ethic that I learned from Ayn Rand, is that the person who is responsible is the first one off the helicopter and the last one off the battlefield.  

The movie did not carry forward the author's intent. It did make an ideological point. Fifty years later, the national mood has come about. We are sorry for the way we treated our veterans. We now forget why we reviled them for serving. 

Back then, we begged them not to go. My uncle who fought under Patton was not alone among the veterans of his generation who counseled their sons not to go. The war was wrong. Like all falsehoods, it failed on many fronts. A free republic does not need conscripts. Viet Nam was not essential to our national security. The government of the southern portion was not democratic. We had no clear mandate. Ultimately, we were not liberators but only the third wave of foreign occupiers after the Chinese and French.  Today, Viet Nam is America's tennis shoe factory. We should have offered them that from the beginning. It just took a horrible lesson for all involved to get there.

When I was called for a pre-induction physical in January 1970, I told my cohort to resist. The draft board separated me. They were in and out in minutes. It took 11 hours for me - 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I resisted at every station. I refused to cooperate. Finally - as a result of previous heart surgery that never kept me from gym class - I was given a 1-Y.  "What does that mean?" I asked. "If we are invaded, you will be drafted." "If we are invaded, I will volunteer," I answered. 


Monday, July 11, 2016

Bela Portuguese Kosher Sardines

Independent Chef Brands representative Brandon Allen was in the Wheatsville Co-op demoing Bela Brand sardines: locally caught (in the Atlantic, not Austin), and canned within eight hours, they are never frozen.  They have no detectable levels of mercury, pesticides, or effluents.  They meet the FDA Good Manufacturing Practice standards. Of course, they are certified for the European Common Market, as well.
Another Buyer is Impressed
(They are well worth the price, I say.)

I bought two cans for my Go Bag.  The Texas State Guard deploys in six hours and supports itself for the first 72 hours.  MREs – the military standard meals-ready-to-eat – are meant for 20-year olds carrying 80-lb packs while on combat patrols.  That’s not me. I might help to unload a semi with palletized water or 200 cots. But I am not in GSAR (ground search-and-recovery), so I could not burn off a single meal of 2800 calories. My Go Bag includes one MRE for three days, some canned soup, and a couple of cans of tuna fish  -- and now two cans of Bela Brands (kosher-U) Portuguese sardines.  

Brandon recommended mixing the sardines with Sir Kensington mayonnaise for a treat that far surpasses simple tuna salad dressing. 

Previously on Necessary Facts

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Against Fatuous Advice to Beginning Astronomers

Last night, the Austin Astronomical Society sponsored an “Out of the Box Clinic” for new astronomers with unused or under-used instruments.  The event was held at our Canyon of Eagles “Eagle Eye” Observatory near Lake Buchanan, about 80 miles northwest of Austin. (I did not attend.) Following that, today the club president issued an email to make further recommendations based on the interactions between newbies and sages. He was wrong on every point.

"1) A decent finder is crucial: Some of your scopes had no finder.  Others had the old fashioned tube finders that are very hard to calibrate with their three thumbscrews.  I recommend you pick up an inexpensive Red Dot Finder for your beginner scopes.  We can help you install it or swap it with your tube finder."

A.   I started as a kid with the old-fashioned tube with crosshairs and six screws: three front and three back.  It was easy to use and the crosshairs were a reliable reference for moving the telescope up-down-left-right when I lost the object under higher magnification. (See #3.) I now have a new, modern telescope with a Red Dot Finder. It is a pain in the neck, literally. I usually sit on the ground to look through it.

B.   Nothing is ever where the dots may (or may not) line up. Do this for yourself: Use your index fingers pointing upward about a foot apart, and not lined up with your eye. Now, sight some object in the room and move your head back and forth until both fingertips line up with it. You are off-center. You are not lined up. But you think you are.  With the little red dots and the little bright stars, it happens all the time.

C.   The best thing for me is to put some bright star in the telescope center and then align the viewer to it, using the two insufficient screws to set it. I say insufficient because two points make a line, but three are needed to fix a plane and the viewing field is planar

D.   You will need their help installing a new finder because you will have to drill holes in your telescope, mount screws washers and nuts – and not drop anything down the tube to damage the mirror or lens.

"2) Calibrating the view in your scope to the view in your finder is a necessary first step.  With some of you, we spent time trying to dial it in during the daylight hours so you'd be prepared when the sun went down.  For those of you without finders, you experienced a lot more challenges getting your tubes pointed at the objects you want to see."

A.            Turn Left at Orion.  The sages with their huge Dobsonian “light buckets” often do not have finder scopes at all. They know the sky and “star hop” to find what they want to see.
B.            Because my Red Dot Finder is so useless, I often sight up along the tube to locate an object.  You get close then make small moves. That was the advice that Ellie Arroway’s dad gave her with the ham radio, and which she followed as an astronomer: small moves.  (See Contact by Carl Sagan.)
C.            The sages should have been pretty good at teaching this because it is what they do with their own Dobsonians. (See A above.)

"3) Get a low-magnification eyepiece.  For beginner scopes, nothing beats a good 40mm Plossl-type eyepiece.  Most of you showed up with a 24mm or a 20mm eyepiece as your lowest magnification eyepiece.  There's nothing wrong with those magnifications.  However, you will find it easier to bring your target into view with a low-magnification eyepiece.  Once your target is identified, then you can swap to your higher-power eyepiece(s) for viewing."

A.            Now you tell me. (And what is a "Plössl"? Note the umlaut-o: "Play-sell.")
B.            I bought a beginner telescope, a Celestron 130-EX refractor. It came with a 20mm ocular and a 10mm ocular.  Then I bought a box of eyepieces for beginners. The biggest is 32 mm.  But, you know what, my first telescopes were not much different. I never had a big eyepiece. I learned with the little ones – not the littlest; admittedly, the largest of them; and the middle one. The laws optics are against high magnification on a little telescope.
C.            Speaking of the laws of optics, the diameter of the ocular is only one factor in the equation of magnification.  M = f/d. The Magnification is the focal length of the telescope, divided by the diameter of the ocular lens. So, a small telescope with a 24mm eyepiece will have lower magnification than a larger (longer) one. Lower magnification is easier to work with when hunting objects – especially without a finder scope. But that is not just a function of the ocular.
D.            Moreover, the other factor is the light-gathering area of the main lens or main mirror, the “aperture.” A 10-inch mirror gathers four times as much light as a five-inch mirror: area increases by squares.  So, a beginner with a 3-inch telescope will gather 40% more light than a beginner with a 2-1/2 inch instrument. 
E.             That’s nice to know… but if you did not buy a 3-inch telescope but got the smaller one, then the point is moot. The reason for the “Out of the Box Clinic” is supposed to be to help you get the most from your instrument, not make you wish that you worked at Mount Palomar.
F.             And once you have your object in the low-power field of view, moving to higher power is also another thing to be learned. If you are off center by little bit, when you drop that higher power eyepiece in the viewer, you may well have to start over finding the object.  There is no way around it. It is not like flipping TV channels with the remote.
G.            Finally, the AAS should have had eyepieces at the ready. These things are pretty standard and come in only a few diameters. That would have been more productive than telling people what they should have done.

"4) Several of you asked about choices for your next, "better" scope.  We have some suggestions on an FAQ page on"

A.            Buy the most telescope you can afford. It is like any other tool. Any mechanic, craft worker, or technician will tell you the same thing. None of the advice I saw actually explains that when you buy a telescope, you are getting three things: a telescope, a mount, and a tripod. 
B.            Every instrument I have seen for consumers is a collection of junk because compromises are made for the production of each component.  But it does not need to be that way. 
C.            For the AAS magazine, Sidereal Times, I interviewed a member who is a mechanical engineer. He broke the problem down and bought the best telescope, the best mount, and the best tripod that he could afford, each from a different source.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Extreme Ownership

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, St. Martins Press, 2015.

“So, there I was, knee deep in hand grenade pins…”  The authors claim that this is not a string of self-glorifying war stories, the kind that old men grow in the retelling.  But, in fact, every teaching point is illustrated with a real war story. The authors assure us that the reports are sanitized so as not to violate operational security (OPSEC). Business briefs follow the battle scenes. Again, the details are altered to protect the client. Unfortunately, that reduces these white papers to blank pages. Although the Navy SEALs are realistic, the business people all sound alike. Lacking depth, the executives and managers are cardboard characters. Despite those flaws, the teaching points are valid. 

The thesis of the book is easy to understand. Extreme Ownership means taking full responsibility for your experiential world. If your boss does not understand your circumstances, then the failure is yours: you did not make it clear enough. I was reminded of a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Some thuggish architects are complaining to each other about the hero, Howard Roark. Face it, one admits. You are just mad because he doesn’t even notice you. “He’d notice me if I bashed his head with a club.” No he wouldn’t: he would just blame himself for not avoiding the club.

The other lessons are equally unarguable.
No bad teams, only bad leaders.
You must believe in your mission.
Check your ego. (In other words, control it, block it, like checking your luggage at the departure gate.)
Cover and Move means that teams protect each other, leap-frogging forward.
Simple commands are easier to carry out. Complex missions must be simplified to their essentials.
Prioritize and execute.  You cannot do everything all at once. Attempting the wrong task will cause other goals to be missed. Know what is most important and do that.
Decentralize command. It is old advice. Nonetheless, delegating authority can be a matter of life and death in an urban warzone. In every organization, span of control means that each decision-maker ideally has only about five people reporting.  I was reminded of how ships –especially warships – are run: each department depends on all the others, and each expects the others to run their shops effectively. The captain cannot do it all from the bridge. Each section is responsible for its own performance.

Plan.  This shocked me: the US Navy SEALs devote more time – much more time – to creating and presenting PowerPoints than they do fighting in combat.  As I came close to the end of the book, I had a long weekend training drill at Texas State Guard headquarters. I chatted with another ex-pilot about software development. Pilots spend as much time or more planning flights than actually flying. But software developers seem to all just bang out code with no planning. The results are all around us. If code really blew up, or if systems really crashed, programmers would do more planning.

Leading up and down the chain of command is a direct consequence of extreme ownership. It takes some finesse to lead the people above you, but it is no less necessary than leading those under your command. You are responsible for your environment. If your boss does not understand your situation, it can only be because you failed to communicate.

Decisiveness and Uncertainty are easy opposites. Leaders make decisions, usually right ones, if they are good leaders. Leaders who waver, postpone, and procrastinate are not leaders at all, but managers who are in deep water (or worse) over their heads.

The chapter on Decisiveness and Uncertainty introduces the final chapter: Discipline equals Freedom. This chapter actually goes into Aristotle’s “golden mean” without naming it explicitly. The authors run down a list of opposites and counsel moderation in all things: leader and follower; confident but not cocky; humble but not passive; competitive but a gracious loser; and so on.  Through the course of the book, the tension between opposites powers much of the narrative. In Chapter 8, the authors explain that Decentralized Command is possible only when the Commander’s Intent is communicated clearly.  

Books on management and leadership are easy to find. A book that announced radically new truths would be rare. The guidance here is not radical. Shorn of the war stories and business briefs, this might be a 20-page essay.  They are nonetheless 20 very valuable pages.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Sweet Deal: Epic Honey

The Central Texas Bee Rescue was at the Wheatsville Co-op on Sunday, June 19. I sampled the wild honey and the raw honey and chose the latter. 

Wild honey comes from feral bees. When the bees are in danger from construction or are a bother to homeowners, the Central Texas Bee Rescue relocates them. In their new home, the bees continue to do their work, making raw honey. While wild honey has a lot to commend it, I found the raw honey to be full of overtones. We were almost out; so, I bought a jar.
Almost gone (left) and new jar of Raw.
Since 2012, we have provided beekeeping courses to children ranging in age from elementary school to high school. Currently, we have hives at Lanier High School, Austin Achieve Public School, and the Austin Montessori School.”  --

“In the state of Texas, if a homeowner possesses 5 acres or more of property, with at least 6 beehives on the property, the resident can become eligible to have up to 20 acres tax exempt. This exemption can save thousands of dollars per year.” --