6 May 2007
Ambivalence about competition has been a theme in my life since childhood. On the one hand, I feel driven to excel, and to seek recognition for my achievements; on the other hand, I don’t want to vanquish anyone or defeat anyone, and success achieved at another’s expense feels worse than hollow. I don’t pretend that this conflict has been resolved, but here are two directions that have helped me toward a resolution.
First, I have sought to separate my accomplishments from recognition and acclaim that accompanies accomplishment. I seek significant impact in areas where few others are working, and welcome the successes of others in these areas as contributions to a common goal. Renouncing the quest for recognition is an ongoing personal agenda.
Second, I have channeled some of my achievement energy into personal growth pursuits, where rewards are direct, where no prizes are offered, and where no one is disadvantaged by my success.
– Josh Mitteldorf
5 May 2007
Tucked away between a mound and the creek, in one of the least-traveled corners of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the better part of a mile from the nearest road access, Kevin has built three stone terraces and a fireplace, all connected by stone steps and paths. The work is done stone-upon-stone without mortar, in the style of an Italian craftsman from another era. Some of the rocks seem much too big for one person to carry.
This was the loving architecture and craftsmanship of several years, a project Kevin and his friends began after college, in a region of the park they knew well because they used to play there as children.
It’s a thing of beauty, built into the landscape as naturally as any Frank Lloyd Wright creation.
They could have built it on
private land. They could have
sought money for their time and their skills.
Instead, they chose to create a gift to the users of the park,
delighting park walkers like me who stumble upon it.
It is a private, anonymous act of community service, for which the
authors ask nothing in return, not even acknowledgment.
4 May 2007
William James was the father of scientific psychology. A generation before Freud and more down to earth, he was a keen observer, an eloquent author, and a dogged advocate for empirical approaches to studying human behavior.
He was also convinced of the reality of telepathic communication, convinced by his own personal experience with subjects under trance and by many reports that he collected and helped to document under the auspices of the Society for Psychical Research, the American arm of which he helped to found.
James also came to realize that psychic phenomena follow their own rules – that they are not reliably predictable or reproducible, and must be studied in a way that combines anecdotal evidence with statistics.
And Freud? He discovered similar evidence for anomalous communication, and documented evidence of people hearing voices and seeing apparitions at just the moment when their loved ones were in peril far away. But Freud was conscious of his place in history, and knew that it would be difficult enough for him to convince the scientific community to accept a psychology based on the unconscious without him having to carry an extra burden of scientific suspicion. He corresponded privately with contemporary advocates for psychical research, but publicly helped to establish the (still dominant!) position that ‘thought transference’ (Freud’s term) was not a legitimate subject for scientific inquiry. Late in life, he wrote
3 May 2007
In Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, there is an equation for the way mass creates a gravitational field. There is another equation for the way another mass will respond to that field. There are additional equations, derivable from the first two, that show that energy and momentum are conserved.
Einstein’s trademark was to derive physical equations from a principle of invariance. If equations are written about invariant mathematical entities, this assures that they have the requisite form. The task of the physicist is reduced to interpreting the abstract equations in our normal language concerning how those entities are perceived.
When Einstein set out to study gravity, he took a ten-year detour, learning the mathematics of differential geometry. It’s a bear. But by 1916, he was able to write down a single, invariant equation – not quite the simplest possible equation in this form, but amazingly close
Rmn - ½ gmnR = k Tmn
Those m and n at the bottom are like spatial directions + time (x,y,z,t), or front-back, left-right, up-down and also include the time direction before-after. So this is really 16 separate equations, 4*4 for each value of m and n. The left side of the equation contains two measures of the curvature of space-time, (one condensed, the other super-condensed). The right side of the equation is the density of matter and energy, multiplied by Newton’s gravitational constant in the form k.
The Einstein Field Equations are elegantly compact, subsuming both halves of the Newton prescription: the way that mass/energy creates a gravitational field, and also the way that masses respond to gravitational fields. Conservation of energy and momentum are also built into the equation. Another remarkable thing about these equations is that they are exactly the same in rectilinear coordinates (x,y,z) as they are in spherical coordinates (r,q,f) or cylindrical coordinates (r,f,z) or any other coordinate system you might concoct.
These 16 linked equations are so complicated to solve
that the fastest computers we have can only deal with very simple, symmetric
2 May 2007
“The twenty-first century
began on an inspiring note when the countries that belong to the United
Nations adopted the goal of cutting the number of people living in poverty
in half by 2015. And as of 2005, the world is ahead of schedule for reaching
this goal. There are two big reasons for this: China and India. China’s
economic growth of 9% a year over the last quarter-century and India’s
acceleration to close to 6% a year over the last decade are together lifting
hundreds of millions out of poverty.
“Several countries in Southeast Asia are making impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. Barring any major economic setbacks, these gains in Asia virtually ensure that the U.N. Millennium Development Goal for reducing poverty by 2015 will be reached.”
I must admit, this news is so good that it is difficult to square with my view of the world. We read every day about diminished reserves of natural resources, depleted farmlands, and a widening gulf between rich and poor. This report helps to put all that news in the context of general humanitarian progress.
months ago, I reported similarly surprising optimism about a trend
toward lower levels of international violence over the latter part of
the twentieth century.)
1 May 2007
A good day for working people everywhere to band together and stand up to their oppressors.
30 April 2007
Beneath our feet we heard the soaring larks;