Thursday, February 28, 2013

Biobash: Chamber Replicates Success

Kyle Cox of Health 2.0 and Austin Health Technology was the featured speaker as about 50 Austin life science professionals gathered at The Front Page in the penthouse of the Chase Tower, on February 27, sponsored by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. 

Kyle outlined the path to success for biotech in Austin. 
Maggie Bishop welcomes guests
and introduces Kyle Cox

“Be the best you you can be,” he said.  In other words, do not attempt to copy Silicon Valley, but capitalize on Austin’s own unique blend of strengths.  “Stress the roots,” he said, making an analogy to vinology.  Do not give out too many government subsidies; make firms earn their success.
  • To build an ecosystem requires a state of permanent revolution.
  • Favor the high potentials. Put resources into products that will pay back the most.
  • Get a big win on the board.  “Get some pelts on the wall,” he said.
  • Do not over-engineer the clusters but rather let them find their own paths to success. 
  • Reform the regulation.  Nora Belcher underscored this, saying that the growth of leading-edge biotech in Texas struggles against well-meaning legislation from 1978.  She also pointed out that Texas state regulations on privacy are stricter than HIPAA. 
Cox praised the meetups and online communities for life sciences here in Austin, touting the Austin Health Tech group on  (Also on Meetup we have Austin Life Science Professionals, run by Benjamin Grosse-Siestrup.  They get together at the Renaissance Hotel in Arboretum.  Benjamin and I met at the previous Biobash, after I restarted the Austin Biotech group on LinkedIn.  Also on LinkedIn is a new Austin group for Drug Delivery technology, a spin-off of UT’s life science incubator.) 

Young man about 40 years old in casual clothes in front of a lecturn
Kyle Cox
Kyle Cox then called for a speaker series, hackathons, national events, and a local presence at trade shows.  The American Telemedicine Association is holding its annual convention in Austin, May 5-7.   On the subject of hackathons, Cox said that Humana is willing to give a copy of some of its databases to creative programmers who can show them new ways to understand their information; and a code-athon will be held at SXSW Interactive on March 8.  He identified three venture capital firms – Dream IT, Live Oak, and Corsa Ventures – with $100 million to invest.

The Office of the National Health Coordinator of Health and Human Services gave the University of Texas $2.77 million for their Health IT program which grants certificates and diplomas to people who learn how to use computers to track patients.  This was part of the federal economic stimulus package.

Before and after the presentation, Austin life science professionals enjoyed hors d’oeuvres - courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce - and the opportunity to sit and talk with each other about their interests.  Maggie Bishop of the Chamber made sure that I met Dr. Tim Meehan of Saber Astronautics.  (Tim and I actually met at Benjamin’s Meetup last month.)  I also met Samantha Fechtel, executive administrator of the Texas Medical Accelerator, Joe Smith director of technology innovation for Globiox, Jim and Sabine Accuntius whose Research Equipment Alliance is selling femto-second lasers for histology and similar research. (Calling them microtomes is three orders of magnitude too large.) Sharon Manley just joined Growth Acceleration Partners/Mobius as their new business development specialist.  Although we talk a lot about “cloud computing” most of our work is done on the ground, and so, Christopher L. Marchbanks from Cresa Austin (“The Tenants Advantage”) was also at the Biobash.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Autobiography of a Worker

Over the next ten years, I programmed computers, sold cookbooks, worked for an employment agency, wrote user manuals, and taught technical writing at Lansing Community College.  Like everyplace else, Lansing had several computer newspapers or newsletters and I wrote for as many as I could.  ...   I taught a summer term of algebra for skilled trades.  ...  And then I decided to try a class in “Japanese for Business.” 

Growing up, I did not acquire a good work ethic.  What I did well at I did more of, but I never learned to work through a problem to gain a skill.  I quit practicing the piano as soon as my younger brother eclipsed me.  We competed by being successful at different activities in school.  I did not work for money until I was legally of age.  At my first summer job (in a hospital laboratory), I was more of a pain than a help.  I liked sterilizing labware – which is to say that my best skill was washing dishes.  Then, I read Atlas Shrugged.  Twice.

From about 1950, a diesel locomotive railroad train with Terminal Tower in far background
Terminal Tower and locomotive
Atlas Shrugged is too easily mischaracterized as a glorification of the rich.  It is truly an anthem to all workers.  Growing up in Cleveland, I knew the Rearden Steel mills (Republic and Jones & Laughlin), the Taggart Terminal (the Terminal Tower), and Patrick Henry University (Western Reserve University).

After two years at the College of Charleston (1967-1969), I came home to work at the Are-Jay Game Company making wooden games and puzzles.  I ran drill presses and sanders.  Mostly, I sprayed lacquer. I also learned to box shipments and fill out a UPS book and bills of lading. Between stints at Are-Jay, I worked for an employment agency.  There, I attended a sales training series and practiced Approach-Benefit-Close making 60 phone calls a day. 
5-inch by 7-inch maple game board with holes for pegs used to tally scores.
Large Maple Cribbage Board
of the Are-Jay Game Co.
(Ausable River Trader on Etsy)

After we got married, Coletta and I moved to Lansing.  I worked a lot of spot labor jobs, mostly through Manpower.  (Fifteen years later, I interviewed the franchise owner for a four-part series on “Quality” published by the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.)  Finally, after about a year of that, Coletta said, “Mick, you need a real job.”  So, I got on the phone, and a few pitches later I had an interview at Montgomery Ward.  I worked there for two years as a stock boy, unloading trucks and distributing goods to the floor. 

About a year into that, passing through Lansing Community College to see what else I could learn, I picked up a brochure for a certificate in transportation and traffic management.  It was a two-year course in government regulations of common carriers.  It was painful.  But I finished.  And I went to work as a dispatcher for a regional truck line.  That was 1976.

Hewlett Packard 9830
Toward the end of the course sequence, one of my classmates from General Motors said, “You know, Mike, these computers are going to be everywhere some day and you should find out how they work so the people from data processing can’t hand you a bunch of baloney.”  So, I did.  I had a semester of Business Programming in Fortran IV and got a C+, having no idea what I was supposed to have learned for the grade.  But it was compelling.  While working for the trucking company during the day, at night I learned to hack free time at the LCC and MSU computer labs.  I took Fortran again (for an A); and then learned Basic in the LCC arts and science division.  The class was experimental and resisted by the data processing curriculum of the business division.  I met my present wife because we had the same instructor for physics and Basic, Claude Watson. (Tribute to Claude on Necessary Facts, here.) 

I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the girl I married.  I worked as mover’s helper for Bekins Van Lines until I got hired by NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory and was assigned to White Sands Missile Range as a computer programmer in Basic on Hewlett Packard desktop micros.  Eighteen months later, we moved back to Lansing.  Our daughter was born (1979).  

I set up the shipping department and programmed TRS-80 computers to track inventory and sales for Loompanics Unlimited: Sellers of Unusual Books.  I wrote two books and about 30 book reviews. I placed Letters to the Editor with Industrial Research and with Omni.  The computer revolution was blossoming.  My wife and I wrote programs for independent insurance agents.  I still worked spot labor for Manpower.  I also drove for Yellow Cab in Lansing.  (I had driven for Varsity Cab twice before that and was a dispatcher for a year.)  On a database project at General Motors (1983), no one else wanted to write the documentation, so I did. 

Over the next ten years, I programmed computers, sold cookbooks, worked for an employment agency, wrote user manuals, and taught technical writing at Lansing Community College.  Like everyplace else, Lansing had several computer newspapers or newsletters and I wrote for as many as I could.  It let me interview business owners and do them the favor of publicizing them.  Christopher Holman needed a writer for The Greater Lansing Business Monthly and he took me to lunch.  LCC knew me as a student – I had electronics and physics classes in the technology division – and they needed a part-time instructor for technical writing.  I taught a summer term of algebra for skilled trades.  At LCC, I also took directed study classes in computer programming, working with the department chair, Claude Watson.  And then I decided to try a class in “Japanese for Business.” 
About the size of a refrigerator with racks of electronic logic boards inside.
Top half of a E-series Controller

From 1991 to 1993, I taught robot operations and programming for Kawasaki Robotics USA.  I spent 13 weeks in St. Paul (not all at once) for Ford Motor’s Twin Cities Assembly, and did a dozen performances at Wixom Assembly where Ford made Lincolns and Mercury Grand Marquis.  Mostly, I taught at KRI.  It took two years, but I learned to disassemble and re-assemble a six-axis robot; and I wrote the manual.  But lifetime employment with a zaibatsu was not for me, though it did fuel the cyberpunk fantasies I acquired when a comrade from Berkeley handed me Neuromancer.  (We worked together at a regional planning commission where I programmed in dBase and Lotus.) 

Blue back ground with outline of space shuttles and large red numeral 7 and names of crew members around the circumference.
STS-95 Mission Patch
More years rolled by.  I went from one project to the next writing user manuals for factory automation, financial management, telephone operations, and whatever else was offered.  I spent a year in General Motors engine plants for Carl Zeiss Industrial Metrology.  I lasted ten days as a NASA contractor – we have different philosophies -- but I did write some procedures for the Shuttle.  However, the better experiences were working for NASA Exchange, their retail sales division.  We took vans of toys and collectibles out to launch sites to sell. 

Atlas Shrugged taught me about money, but aside from knowing which media to use for stores of value, I never cared much for numismatics.  But I knew a little.  When I was at Kawasaki, I proposed that for an upcoming robotics trade show, we issue tokens, good for $1 toward a work station.  (Work cells started at about $100,000 and attendance at the show was 15,000 the last time. It seemed like a safe bet.)  I figured that the tokens would be great advertising. To gather facts for my proposal (which was rejected), I joined the Michigan Token and Medal Society, the Michigan State Numismatic Society, and the American Numismatic Association.  Ten years later, I had a few awards for writing; and worked for a year (1999-2000) as the international editor at Coin World in Sidney, Ohio.

 My project at Honda America in Marysville, Ohio, was winding down.  They had one technical writer too many and I was the most expensive.  The manager and I agreed that the next assignment was around the corner.  We were wrong.  9/11 was around the corner.

After six months of being very under-employed in Columbus, my wife and I decided that we could be under-employed anywhere in the world.  After looking at a few places, we moved to Albuquerque.  I mostly worked as an office temporary, but also sold toys at the Atomic Energy Museum, and taught middle school as a substitute.  Then, I saw an ad for security guards at rock concerts.  The company was just up the street.  So, I went in and got a job.  And a career of sorts.
Stylized line drawing of eagle with breast of shield with sword over motto "In God We Trust."
Akal Security

I did well at crowd control. I saw Puff Daddy, Ricky Martin, and Shaquira, and had a great time not being in a mosh pit.  I moved into the uniformed division, patrolled a lot of retail and some manufacturing, and became a dispatcher.  It seemed like an opportunity.  I also wrote for the Albuquerque Business Journal interviewing inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

Then, my wife's parents took a turn for the worse and we moved to Traverse City.  I almost had a used car sales manager closed, but he recommended real estate for me.  So, I got a license. I liked the law and the finances, but I just did not care about houses.   Fortunately, the American Numismatic Association needed a columnist and the Michigan State Numismatic Society needed a webmaster.  But they were hobbies; and it was part-time work.

Through the Dot.Com Meltdown, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real estate bubble, the biggest impediment to finding serious technical work was my lack of a degree.  I often went to school – the College of Charleston, Case-Western Reserve, Cleveland State, Lansing Community College, New Mexico State, and LCC (again) – but I was never concerned about the degree: I just wanted to learn, whether for liberal education or employment-related skills.  My wife and I moved to Ann Arbor, gathered all of our college credits and enrolled first at Washtenaw Community College and then at Eastern Michigan University.  She stayed with computers, going into forensics and network security.  I went into criminology.  I worked in campus safety at WCC, and then for Securitas and Allied Barton.  My wife was hired by the University of Michigan, but my best opportunity was to sell newspaper subscriptions while earning a master’s degree.
Man with costume of wolf head and wolf feet playing violin.
Violin Monster at 6th and Congress
for South by Southwest 2012
(Author's file)

I had a few interviews for security management, but no offers… and then no interviews…  Management in private security is dominated by retired police officers.  I am a libertarian.  I do not have to say a word.  As soon as we make eye contact, the interview is over.  Managers hire in their own image.  I bring a salesman's approach to business, seeking agreement by persuasion, rather than compliance by enforcement.   
So, after some Internet browsing of statistics, I picked Austin.  I came here in 2011 for two weeks, was sold on the town, and moved.  My wife joined me six months later.  I work part-time for Securitas and take contracts for technical writing when they come up.  I write for numismatic club magazines. I have two blogs and a website archive of college term papers.

Except for two  years each at Montgomery Ward,and Kawasaki Robotics,  and a year at Coin World, I am self-employed.  Some years, our accountant bet that we would turn in more 1099s than any other client.  

Moving as often as we have, I load and unload the trucks mostly by myself using applied physics.  I drive them hundreds or thousands of miles, with and without cats.  The word “career” referred originally to the path of a commercial carriage.  You never know where the road will take you, or what is around the next bend or over the next hill.  Through all of that, Atlas Shrugged has served me well.  Whether I earn $7.50 per hour or $50, all work is a act of philosophy.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Science Fair Science Fraud

With over 2500 entrants, the occurrence of misconduct is a statistical likelihood.  I served as a judge for Behavioral and Social Sciences and I am pretty sure that I reviewed one of the problems.  The questions only came to me later. 

(Almost) every science fair entrant deserves special recognition.  Woody Allen famously quipped that 85% of success is showing up. The great majority of these kids made that mark.  The scoring and ranking was generally close.  Identifying the first place works was effortless as were the ones that ranked lower than fifth.  But overall, not much (if anything objective) separated third from fourth from fifth place.  We worked by consensus and discussion to discover and validate the rankings.  As a regional science fair the exhibits already passed previous judgings.  

Biotech and Life sciences broadly dominated the science fair. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, and computer science were present, of course, but animal science, plant science, environmental management, bioengineering, biochemistry, behavioral and social sciences, cellular and molecular biology, medicine and health eclipsed the physical sciences.

Among the many entrants, these were some of 1st through 5th place winners in the junior and senior divisions: 
  • The Effect of Temperature on the Activity of Catalase
  • The Effects Of Various Light Conditions On Bioluminescent Marine Dinoflagellates
  • How To Most Effectively Grow Algae For Biofuel
  • Biodegradable Packaging: A Cleaner Future
  • Zombie Plankton Apocalypse
  • Children's Blood Pressure
  • The effect of Capsaicin levels on E.coli bacterial growth
  • The Anti-Microbial Properties of Sauerkraut Ingredients on E. coli
  • Are horses auditory or visual learners?
  • Animal Lipid Vs. Vegetable Lipid Based Mascara
  • The Effect of Ginkgo biloba on Protein and Genetic Expression of C. Elegans
  • Desalination Using a Microbial Fuel Cell
  • Disease and Drought Resistance of Tomato Plants When Treated with Bacillus subtilis
Over all, I was greatly impressed. 

The Austin Energy Regional Science Festival is an affiliate of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.  Therefore, we comply with all of those rules and guidelines. 

Scientific fraud and misconduct are not condoned at any level of research or competition. Such practices include plagiarism, forgery, use or presentation of other researcher’s work as one’s own, and fabrication of data. Fraudulent projects will fail to qualify for competition in affiliated fairs and the Intel ISEF.

My problem was in the Junior Division.  Judging was on Thursday.  This morning (Saturday), I was pretty sure that the entrant did not employ the equipment, and did not actually run the experiment.  They made the whole thing up.  I asked about their Informed Consent forms and they said that they called someone who said that the forms were not necessary.  That should have tripped an alarm, but in the crush of judging, I only kept my questions to myself.  This morning, I added that to the evidence.  In my professional opinion as a card-carrying criminologist, this was an example of scientific misconduct and research fraud. 

Unfortunately, this problem is nowhere in the many forms we receive.  In the verbal briefings, it was said that in the past some students did not understand that they had plagiarized someone else’s work. Nothing like planfully competent research fraud was addressed this year or last.  Last year, I found a different problem, an example of the mass mediated hyper reality of crime. 

What I do about this, whom I tell, and what I recommend are as yet undetermined.

Previously on Necessary Facts
Science Fairs and Science Frauds (2012)

Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers
Misconduct in Science and Research
Another Case of Fraud in University Research
20% of Scientists Are Crooks
Four Books about Bad Science

Also on Necessary Facts

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Monsters from the Id

Monsters from the Id: Science is Mankind’s Last Great Hope a film by David Gargani.

Science fiction movies of the 1950s, despite their obvious faults, inspired a generation to become scientists.  In the films, whatever the problems – even when caused by scientists – they brought the solution.  They were heroes.  And they got the girl. Sometimes, the scientist even was the girl, an exception to mainstream cinema and fiction generally.  That point is not in this documentary.  That oversight is one of several, in a generally outstanding effort.

In the words of director, Dave Gargani
The 1950s was an idealistic time in American History, filled with hope, opportunity, and wonder. It was also, "The Atomic Age" where new technology promised to both save humanity as well as put it in jeopardy. All of these factors gave birth to one of the most prolific genres in film history, 1950s Science Fiction Cinema. More then just bug-eyed monsters and little green men, 1950s Sci-fi Cinema provided science inspiration for millions of eager youths across the country. Then after 1957 and the launch of Sputnik, science fiction became science fact as an inspired population worked toward one of the greatest achievements of mankind, spaceflight. Monsters From The Id weaves the intersecting themes of over thirty classic films in order to tell the untold story of the Modern Scientist and his role in inspiring a nation. The film continues to explore the psychological and cultural impact of 1950s Sci-Fi cinema in America and asks, "where is science inspiration found today?"
 The interviews center on Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys which became the film October Skies).   Physics professor Leroy Dubeck also comments. He teaches from his book Fantastic Voyages (reviewed on NecessaryFacts here) to deliver science via science fiction. Professor of film studies Patrick Lucanio (Smokin’ Rockets and Killers from Mars) is an historian.  Also speaking  is his co-author for Smokin’ Rockets, Gary Coville.  Rounding out the live presenters is a film critic from New Zealand, Richard Scheib, who offers more suggestive hints than substance, another of the flaws in this gem.

Shows space alien in a space suit extending an open hand in greeting from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" 1951 movie.
The 92-minute presentation focuses entirely on the 1950s.  But science fiction cinema continued beyond that, and continued to inspire.  Also, a shift in our society moved scifi film and the s.f. genre generally away from that traditional optimism for technology.  The fulcrum was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Star Wars (1977) was the lever.  In 2001, technology failed and we did not find out why until 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984).  By then, some restoration could be found, for instance in Brainstorm and Star Trek: The Movie.  The fact remains that Star Wars absorbed our attention, like the Blob, with no heroic teenagers to come to the rescue: a “hokey old religion” defeated a “technological terror.”  We moved away from hard science – perhaps because it was hard to do.  Physics is not easy, even if books such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters made it seem easy.  Once, in a class at Lansing Community College, our professor got tired of doing our homework on the board.  He said that any of us would go out in the back yard and shoot hoops for 45 minutes and not make a single shot and still claim to have had a good time. “How long do you spend on a problem?” he asked rhetorically.

A “next generation” did follow exploring with Jean-Luc Picard and continuing for 20 years through the Star Trek universe. Today, Star Trek continues. We have some reason to predict success, at least for some of the nerds.  (See the many citations to Big Bang Theory on this blog.)

At the same time the computer revolution of the 1980s also added kindling to reignite the fire.  War Games touted the hacker.  But Tron 2 Point Oh made the beta version look great.  The most heroic computerist in recent film was Matt Ferrell (“feral”) in Live Free or Die Hard.  Though he employs his hacker skills to help John McClain, Matt makes his day with a gun, becoming “that guy” who blasts away when no one else can, getting shot (but only wounded) and smiling while the medics patch him up.

And that leaves out all the other sciences. Perhaps the essential characteristic of the scientists of the 1950s film – also not mentioned in Monsters of the Id – is that they are generalists: “scientists.”  Dr. Patricia Medford (Them) was an entomologist, just as we met physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians.  However, each of them was an artesian well of information about anything that needed to be explained at the moment.   Science is not an object or a subject, but a method.  While other people rely on faith (superstition) or force (the military solution), the scientist reasons from facts and tests her hypothesis.  

And at the end of the movie, after the guns are packed away, and the pews are empty, the scientist wonders what else is out there…

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Observable Genius

After finishing it, I started James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman again.  Gleick is a genius.

His personal website is called Around Dot Com (link here).  It offers the usual front page insights, a biography, and reviews of his books.

photograph of James Gleick taken before 1992 for his book "Genius" about Richard P. Feynman shows a man about 40 with medium length curly back hair.
James Gleick in 1992
I do not read much fiction. Last winter, I read Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.  Last month, I read Redshirts by John Scalzi. But in the same time, I went through a dozen non-fiction books, mostly about science, and entered quotations and observations into a notebook. The first read of Genius was so compelling that my marginalia was limited to straight lines noting text.  I had not much to add.  The work was thorough, complete, correct (afik), engaging, honest, and direct. I really appreciated the bibliographies, both the general list and the inventory of Feynman's own academic publications.

James Gleick today (from his website).
I read both of the soft Feynman autobiographies and The Character of Physical Law and I have both the Easy and Not-So-Easy Pieces.  I often recommend and cite "Cargo Cult Science."  I was granted a literary award for a biography of Newton's tenure as warden and master of the Royal Mint.  Based on that research, I placed perhaps a dozen reviews of Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter.  And I am not shy.  But I had nothing to add to Gleick's work.  You know when you are standing next to someone a head taller than you.

Genius: Gleick (and others) on Feynman
The Genius of Design
She's Such a Geek!
Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers

Saturday, February 9, 2013


“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those which are there.” – Richard Feynman

James Gleick’s biography begins by correcting some of the myths about Feynman.  Feynman created some of them himself, of course.  Overall, the book is yet another tribute.  Gleick fills in the narrative that Feynman left out of the two popularizations of his life, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think? 

Underlying and beyond the stories Gleick explains the physics, as best as can be done, in colloquial English.  Motivated, I browsed the stacks at the Austin Public Library and checked out Quantum Field Theory Demystified by David McMahon and Understanding Quantum Mechanics by Roland Omnès.  Both were approximately the kind of book a physics major would read over the summer before the sophomore year.  Though I renewed the check-out, after five weeks, I still did not get much, but gleaned what I could.  Relevant here is the fact that just as the Pythagorean Theorem can be shown synthetically and analytically, the truths in quantum mechanics can be expressed with three different methods: wave equations, statistical equations, and Feynman path integrals.  Gleick devotes considerable effort to explaining Feynman’s work, given that the intended audience is people who like physics, but really do not understand it. 
Cover of book showing Richard P. Feynman lecturing with his hands raised and index fingers pointing to each other.

Feynman’s influence on the wider culture can be measured by the Austin Public Library’s catalog of 30 entries (granted that several are both books and talking books). (Alphabetical ignoring leading articles: The Meaning of It All under M.)

  • The Beat of A Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by Jagdish Mehra
  • The Best Mind since Einstein DVD 530.092 F435B
  • Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of A Curious Character
  • The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman
  • Feynman (Graphic Novel - 2011) by Jim Ottaviani
  • Feynman Lectures on Physics: Vol. 1, Mainly Mechanics, Radiation, and Heat
  • Feynman Lectures on Physics: Vol. 2, Mainly Electromagnetism and Matter
  • Feynman Lectures on Physics: Vol. 3, Quantum Mechanics
  • Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets around the Sun by David L. Goodstein
  • The Feynman Processor: Quantum Entanglement and the Computing Revolution by G. J. Milburn
  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
  • The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of A Citizen Scientist by Richard P. Feynman
  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman
  • Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Collected Letters of Richard P. Feynman
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
  • QED : the Strange Theory of Light and Matter  by Richard P. Feynman
  • QED: A Play by Peter Parnell
  • Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence Maxwell Krauss
  • Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science CD 530.092 F435K
  • Richard Feynman: A Life in Science by John R. Gribbin
  • A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life by Leonard Mlodinow
  • Six Easy Pieces: CD 530 FE
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics, Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
  • Six Not-so-easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-time by Richard P. Feynman
  • "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (CD 530.092 F435F) (All copies in use)
  • "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of A Curious Character (All copies in use)
  • Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey by Ralph Leighton
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of A Curious Character
 The Character of Physical Law came from a series of lectures for a general audience at Cornell.  But if you read the narrative in The Feynman Lectures on Physics, you hear the same tone of voice.  His graduation address on “Cargo Cult Science” is another example of subtle ideas presented unequivocally for a general audience. Videos of Feynman are on YouTube. 

In Feynman’s Lost Lecture Feynman says that he wanted to show his class how Newton derived his proof of Kepler’s Laws.  He could not do it.  Feynman could not work out for himself, independently, the geometry that Newton knew.  Calculus makes everything so much easier – and so much more mathematics has been discovered – that we no longer learn geometry in such depth. 

Wikipedia provides the best explanation of the Unit Circle.  No trigonometry book today presents the expanse and detail that I learned 50 years ago.  Of course high school mathematics has been dumbed down by the Soviet agriculture model of education.  More to the point, perhaps, today’s crafts workers no longer compute slopes in 32nds of an inch. With calculators and computers we have other things to do with our time.

But Feynman did not.  He thought long and hard about physics, filling notebooks with ideas that should have been published.  Some were.  Other physicists made some of the same discoveries.  It was inevitable.  After constructing an animated narrative about Feynman, Gleick pauses to wonder about genius.  Other Nobel laureate physicists identified Feynman as special.  What does that mean?  What is genius?  Ultimately, Gleick has no answer, though he does offer answers (plural). 

The word genius as we understand it comes from the Enlightenment. Prior to that, a genius was only a jin or jinni, that is, a spirit; and it usually represented the Spirit of the People. (We know this, also, from old numismatic catalogs.)  Only through the latter 1700s as romanticism evolved did the word apply to the spirit of an individual.  Also, of course, at this time, that spirit was ineffable, not to be reduced to causal explanation.  Later, genius was associated, compared, and contrasted with madness.  Today, we have no objective measure of mere intelligence.   So, all we can say of genius is that you know it when you see it, the same test that differentiates pornography from art.

Monday, February 4, 2013

India Two Point Oh: Amita and Raj

Both Aristotle and William Graham Sumner pointed out that laws are only expressions of tradition.  To cite the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, only a paradigm shift can change a folkway.  A hundred years ago, Bhagat Singh Thind (a veteran of the U.S. Army in World War I) was denied citizenship on racial grounds: though admittedly a speaker of an “Aryan” language, the U.S. Supreme Court found that he was “Asian” and therefore not qualified to become a citizen, despite his honorable service in the armed forces.  Almost at that very moment, the self-taught Srinivasa Ramanujan was astounding the mathematics faculty at Cambridge.

Therefore, it is fitting beyond coincidence that Navi Rawat portrayed Dr. Amita Ramunjan in the six seasons of Numb3rs (CBS 2005-2010).  Rawat herself is quite interesting, but actresses often are.  More to the point is the character created for her by the writers.

Though nominally an “Indian” it comes out in the show that she was born and raised in California.  She recognizes one word of Tamil but speaks even fewer.  Off-screen Ramanujan goes to her grandmother for insight into their “native” culture.  (Her own native culture is Californian.)  In addition to her helping Charley Epps in his consultations with the FBI, she announced her intention to earn a second doctorate, this one in astrophysics.  (All that and more on Wikipedia about “Amita Ramanujan” here. )

Kumal Nayyar plays  Raj Koothrappali in Big Bang Theory.  Although he is a comic character, they all are.  His quirks and foibles are not qualitatively different or quantitatively less than those of Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, or Howard Wolowitz – or Dr. Amy Farah Fowler, Dr. Bernadette Rostankowski,. Dr. Leslie Winkle, or Penny, the normal foil for all these nerds. Raj earns his achievements. 

Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali is an astrophysicist and faculty member at Caltech's Physics Department. For his discovery of a planetary object beyond the Kuiper belt, 2008 NQ17 (which he calls "Planet Bollywood"), he is included in People magazine's "30 Under 30 to Watch", granting him some form of celebrity status and a larger office for his work. He is also known for a publication on Kuiper belt object size distribution, having run a simulation to correct for the observational efficiency, and was awarded the Newcomb Medal. His expertise even extends to searching for Trojan asteroids at the Earth-Sun L5 Lagrange point. (See the BBT fan wiki here about Raj here.)
 With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, actors are not their roles.  Nonetheless, the biographies of Navi Rawat and Kumal Nayyar do echo their popular characterizations if only because life and art are two sides of a relationship. What constant or factor, if any, makes the relationship an equation may remain debatable.  The cast of NUMB3RS (CBS 2005-2010) may have been the exception, as Dylan Bruno holds a BS from MIT, and Judd Hirsch’s degree is in physics. Hirsch later appeared in Big Bang Theory as Leonard's father. Also among the Big Bang cast, Mayim Bialik (“Amy Farah Fowler”) really has a doctorate in neuroscience. The exception tests the rule.

Previously on Necessary Facts

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Indian English: Totally Legend Like Anything

The numbers speak.  12. 5 crore Indians use English, whereas only half as many in the UK do the same.  When the USA invaded Iraq, I distrusted the American news media and sought international coverage.  India’s English language newspaper websites provided some objectivity.  One of them also delivered this:  “Bush Ploy Foxes Pundits.”  I could put the foxes in a bush, but I knew that “he pundits” is incorrect: pundit is a noun.  So, I reparsed the sentence. 

Totally Legend Like Anything: Indian English as a Global Standard

We think that our vernacular is the standard, but Jews who speak Yiddish have an old joke: “What is the difference between a language and dialect?  Dialects do not have armies.”  The so-called standard language is only the local dialect of the capital city.  See, for example, The King's English by Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), which was published at the height of the British empire.  But Rudyard Kipling was the first English language writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature (1907) and he was born in Mumbai. 

Now, India has an army (with nuclear weapons) and a space programme; and “all our young men go to America to work in IT.”  (See She’s Such a Geek! reviewed on Necessary Facts here.)

 More than computers draw Indians to the second-largest democracy on Earth. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams (Sunita Pandya Krishna;) is the daughter of neuroanatomist Deepak Pandya. The family moved from Euclid, Ohio (outside Cleveland) to Needham, Massachusetts, where she passed out of high school. She did her graduation at the U.S. Naval Academy and earned a master’s in engineering management at FIT, always a popular school for those with a cantonment at the Cape.  Williams holds the records for longest space flight and most space walks by a woman.  She served on ISS expeditions 14, 15, 32, and was the commander of expedition 33. India’s first astronaut was Rakesh Sharma who served eight days aboard the Salyut 7 space station in 1984.   The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) oversees five major centres. The launch site is at Vikram Sarabhai Space Cente at Trivandrum. This year, the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research received government funding for a new Centre of Excellence in Space Sciences in Kolkata.  “Science and technical education is mostly undertaken in English and, as a result, most university graduates in these sectors are fairly proficient in English.” (See Wikipedia here.)

 That Wikipedia article on Indian English goes into grammar, phonology (consonants and vowels and spelling pronunciations), and vocabulary and colloquialisms. British English still exerts a historical influence and many idioms are common to both.  However, American English is also global, and you will find both “programme” and “program” in the same news presentation, especially online.

Curiously, perhaps, that article inventories the word “flyover” (“as in BrE, overpass or an over-bridge over a section of road or train tracks”).  However:
AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Texas Transportation Commission has approved the funding of two new flyovers connecting Mopac and US Highway 290.
Published : Thursday, 24 Sep 2009, 12:29 PM CDT. 
 When conversing, Americans find Indians difficult to understand because the two varieties – not yet dialects – stress syllables and words differently.  Americans stress by time, emphasising only certain elements to show importance.  On the other hand, Indian English is syllable-timed, as are Spanish and Italian, which is why those languages sound rapid or sing-song to a North American ear.

If an election were held, America’s huge English-speaking population would overwhelm all other candidates.  But this is not a zero-sum game.  As in the marketplace (rather than the legislature or court), the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from. 

Sudhir Nagaraj and his wife, Bidisha, live in the mini-India that is Bangalore. She, a Bengali speaker from a family hailing from India’s east, heads marketing for a social networking start-up. He, fluent in the native Kannada tongue of Bangalore, runs a subsidiary of a multinational telecommunications company. Between them, they speak and understand half a dozen Indian languages.Quite ironic then that their daughter, Ahana, six-and-a-half, growing up in a country with a profusion of tongues, speaks only one language: impeccable English. And English is the common tongue that binds the Nagarajs as a family.  ...  In the lower socioeconomic strata, where learning English is aspirational, the language is trickling down quickly. Neighborhood private schools have unstated admission requirements: at 3 and 4, the child is required to be toilet-trained and speak English.  ...  Rimjhim Chakraborty is 9. Her mother, Pinky, a realtor, speaks Sindhi, a language from the northwest. Rimjhim’s father, Apurba, who heads sourcing for a sporting goods multinational, is fluent in both Punjabi and Bengali. Rimjhim, despite learning Hindi at school, refuses to answer when spoken to in anything other than English. So that is the language that rules the Chakraborty household.  India Ink: Notes on the the World's Largest Democracy India’s New ‘English Only’ Generation NY Times India Blog June 1, 2012, 7:18 am here.
India Two Point Oh
She's Such a Geek!
Profits and Benefits in Learning a Foreign Language
Gaudeamus Igitur