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.

Were I asked to point to a scientific journal where hard-headedness and never-sleeping suspicion of sources of error might be seen in their full bloom, I think I should have to fall back on the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research...Quality and not mere quantity is what has been mainly kept in mind.  The most that could be done with every reported case has been done.  The witnesses have been cross-examined personally, the collateral facts have been looked up, and the narrative appears with its precise coefficient of evidential work stamped on it, so that all may know just what its weight as proof may be...

“The trances I  speak of have broken down for my own mind the limits of the admitted order of nature.  Science, so far as science denies such exceptional facts, lies prostrate in the dust for me; and the most urgent intellectual need which I feel at present is that science be built up again in a form in which such facts shall have a positive place.  Science, like life, feeds on its own decay.  New facts burst old rules...

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

I am not one of those who from the outset disapprove of the study of the so-called occult psychological phenomena as unscientific, as unworthy or even as dangerous.  If I were at the beginning of a scientific career, instead of as now at its end, I would perhaps choose no other field of work in spite of all difficulties.

This account and the quotes excerpted from Extraordinary Knowing, by UCBerkeley psychologist Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer

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 examples.

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.

“In China, the number of people living in poverty dropped from 648 million in 1981 to 218 million in 2001, the greatest reduction in poverty in history. India is also making impressive progress on the economic front...

“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.”

from an Article by Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute
Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble 

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. 

(Three 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.

Listen to Los Libertadores from Canto General; words by Pablo Neruda, music by Mikis Theodorakis

Here comes the tree, the tree
of the storm, the tree of the people.
Its heroes rise up from the earth
as leaves from the sap,
and the wind spangles the whispering
multitude’s foliage,
until the seed falls again
from the bread to the earth.

30 April 2007

Beneath our feet we heard the soaring larks;
The sunlight had the hum of winnowed chaff,
And the blue wind was sown with tingling sparks,
That blew my hat away to make you laugh. 
Over the land it sailed, collected height,
Flapped in the face of each offended crow,
And scared the speckled falcon of the Baux,
Adventurously taunting it to fight.
Like Saturn’s in its whirling shady brim,
Far down, its giant shadow cursed the plain –
Never did autogyre so lively skim
As did the fliying discus of my brain;
And though my skull, a mile or so behind, 
Left to the cold phrenologizing wind, 
Shone bald and egg-like in the noonday sun –
This fantasy was left to hatch alone,
A sudden brainwave, breaching through the bone,
That for a breathless minute made us one
With that unsated wish in us, that lives
Out of this merely positive degree
In the wide region of superlatives,
Translating every rash hyperbole
We utter, into life and action there;
Out of our foibles founding pyramids;
And friezing dizzy Parthenons of air
With deeds that our heredity forbids.

~ Roy Campbell