Science offers the boldest metaphysics of the age. It is a thoroughly human construct, driven by the faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, thereby plunging repeatedly into new terrain, the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected, and make sense.

— E. O. Wilson

1 September 2012

1 + 1 = _

I was at a wedding today, where the presiding Rabbi told the couple, “Now you have three lives: There is Ben’s life and Erica’s life, and your life as a couple is a third life.” Maybe the Rabbi had studied quantum mechanics.

The quantum world is exponentially richer than the classical world it supplanted in the conceptual framework of science.  In fact, its richness challenges our imaginations. By “richness” I actually mean something quantifiable.  Information is a physical quantity, understood as such since the work of Ludwig Boltzmann in the 19th Century,  and related to what is called “information” in computation by Claude Shannon in the mid-20th Century. 

In classical physics, it takes 3 numbers to tell where a particle is in space, and 6 numbers define the positions of two particles.  Two particles have twice as much information as one particle. How could it be otherwise?

In quantum mechanics – defying all our intuition – the information goes up exponentially with the number of particles.  Three particles carry 8 times as much information as one, and four particles carry 16 times the information.

Because of this, quantum computers are enormously more powerful than classical computers.  An ordinary computer with 128 bits of memory can’t do hardly nothing.  But a quantum computer with 128 qubits is one powerful mother of a computer.

Twenty years ago, quantum computers were an idea.  No one was sure whether one could ever be built, or, if so, whether it would be of practical use.  But today you can buy one (if you have $10 million).  Building the hardware (and cooling it with liquid He) has proved to be the easier part.  The challenge for the future is to figure out how to program them to do useful things.  So far, computer theorists have figured out how to solve exactly 3 problems with quantum computer programming, and one of those 3 is actually quite useful.

— Josh Mitteldorf

2 September 2012


There is an infinite amount of hope in the Universe...but not for us.
— Franz Kafka

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
— Oscar Wilde

...and for Labor Day:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so.
— Bertrand Russell

3 September 2012

art by Corina del Carmel


Darius Milhaud was in the business of making serious music out of jazz harmony. His sound and spirit are very French, and he moved to California only when France became Nazified in 1939.

There are 427 opus numbers, stretching from 1910 to 1968. His 14th and 15th String Quartets are made so they can be played simultaneously as an Octet.

Listen to the 3rd movement, Ile de France, from the Suite Francaise by Darius Milhaud, born this day in 1892

4 September 2012

Almost English

Ye wha are fain to hae your name
Wrote in the bonny book of fame,
Let merit nae pretension claim
To laurel’d wreath,
But hap ye weel, baith back and wame,
In gude Braid Claith.

He that some ells o’ this may fa,
An’ slae-black hat on pow like snaw,
Bids bauld to bear the gree awa’,
Wi’ a’ this graith,
Whan bienly clad wi’ shell fu’ braw
O’ gude Braid Claith.

Waesuck for him wha has na fek o’t!
For he’s a gowk they’re sure to geck at,
A chiel that ne’er will be respekit
While he draws breath,
Till his four quarters are bedeckit
Wi’ gude Braid Claith.

On Sabbath-days the barber spark,
When he has done wi’ scrapin wark,
Wi’ siller broachie in his sark,
Gangs trigly, faith!
Or to the meadow, or the park,
In gude Braid Claith.

Weel might ye trow, to see them there,
That they to shave your haffits bare,
Or curl an’ sleek a pickly hair,
Wou’d be right laith,
Whan pacing wi’ a gawsy air
In gude Braid Claith.

If only mettl’d stirrah green
For favour frae a lady’s ein,
He maunna care for being seen
Before he sheath
His body in a scabbard clean
O’ gude Braid Claith.

For, gin he come wi’ coat threadbare,
A feg for him she winna care,
But crook her bonny mou’ fu’ sair,
And scald him baith.
Wooers shou’d ay their travel spare
Without Braid Claith.

Braid Claith lends fock an unco heese,
Makes mony kail-worms butterflies,
Gies mony a doctor his degrees
For little skaith:
In short, you may be what you please
Wi’ gude Braid Claith.

For thof ye had as wise a snout on
As Shakespeare or Sir Isaac Newton,
Your judgment fouk wou’d hae a doubt on,
I’ll tak my aith,
Till they cou’d see ye wi’ a suit on
O’ gude Braid Claith.

— Robert Ferguson,
born this day in 1750

Hint: Claith is cloth. He’s satirizing well-dressed phonies. -jjm

5 September 2012

Jane Addams

When the World War broke out in Europe, Jane Addams wrote to Woodrow Wilson:

At this crisis of the world, to establish a ‘citizen soldiery’ and enormously to increase our fighting equipment would inevitably make all other nations fear instead of trust us...It has been the proud hope of American citizens who love their kind, a hope nobly expressed in some of your own messages, that to the United States might be granted the unique privilege not only of helping the war-worn world to a lasting peace, but of aiding toward a gradual and proportional lessening of that vast burden of armament which has crushed to poverty the people of the old world.

Jane Addams was born this day in 1860

6 September 2012

Junk DNA? Think again

In what many scientists say is a revolution in biology, a giant new project is rewriting our understanding not only of what causes diseases or what makes our eyes a certain color, but what makes us human. And it turns out scientists have been looking in the wrong place for a very long time.

The bounty of new discoveries, released in a batch of 40 research papers on Wednesday, shows the stretches of DNA that we call genes are only a very small piece of what makes the body work. Much more important is the stuff in between the genes – stuff once dismissed as “junk DNA”. It turns out that junk DNA is what is in control, they report in the series of papers in the journals Nature, Science and elsewhere.

NBC News report

7 September 2012


So much great music...A personal favorite for me is the Seventh Symphony.  The 3rd movement (beginning 21:30) is a delightful, melodic dance.  The 2nd movement (beginning 10:50) moves from peace to triumph and back again.

Antonin Dvořák was born this day in 1841

8 September 2012

Adding up happiness points

Looking up at the tumbling puffs of white on blue, caressed by the waters of the lake, I thought of collecting this joy and adding it to my accumulated moments of pleasure.  You only live once, so enjoy it while you've got it.  This bit of wisdom is ubiquitous, and it is also profoundly wrong.  Life is not a consolation for death. It is what we are.  It is all that we are.  Finding our authentic selves within a cooperative community and creating true and wholesome lives is a more satisfying and fulfilling plan than collecting joyous memories or amassing happiness points.

— Josh Mitteldorf

9 September 2012

Fortune cookie

“Good ideas will spring forth naturally from your mind in the coming weeks.”

10 September 2012

“by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”

— George Eliot (Middlemarch)

11 September 2012

Redirected effort

How much freer and happier we would feel, and how much more powerful we would be, if only we stopped struggling against the grain of our natural gifts and inclinations, stopped trying to be what we are not, and instead used willpower to stay true to an exciting and joyful life purpose.

— from The Yoga of Eating, by Charles Eisenstein

In a divided self, willpower is a puny thing.

12 September 2012

Max Tegmark thinks big

Tegmark is a physicist at MIT specializing in cosmology.  Listen to his presentation at the Singularity Summit in New York last year.  He argues that are the only intelligent civilization in our galaxy, based on his judgment that from where we are, it’s not a very great leap to create self-replicating machines and propulsion systems capable of exploring the entire galaxy in a matter of millions of years.  It advanced civilizations were common, then someone would be a few million years ahead of us, and would have already done this, and we’d have seen the consequences from where we are.

If humanity is the unique self-aware life from in the galaxy then it is likely that we are alone in the entirety of the visible universe.  It may be that humans are important after all, and more than this that we are at what he calls a fork in the road, a crucial time in the developmental history of our race when we might either destroy ourselves or take the next step toward securing our collective future and laying the foundations for a new kind of self-directed evolution.

13 September 2012

Being Alone

Never on one single pore Eternity
have I been touched by your snows

or felt your shy mouth tremble,
your breath break on me

like the white wave. I have not felt
your nakedness tear me

with hunger or your silver hands
betray me but today I promise

whatever flower of your house
should bloom I will stay

locked to its breast.
Like little fish who live

harmlessly under the bellies of sharks,
I will go where you go,

drift inconspicuously
in the raw dredge of your power

like a leaf, a bubble of carion,
a man who has understood and does not.

  From Lies , by CK Williams

14 September 2012

Late Summer


Så blir det lördagskväll igen och bastun eldas
och röken stiger över björkarna i stillhet
och mänskoröster ljuder i ett nära fjärran.
Från hagen hör man skällorna som nalkas
och mellan trädens stammar skymtar hon,
kvällsflickan med ämbaren . . .

Kväll - och snart natt
med syrsor under huvudkudden . . .
Och månen lånar ljus åt alla ting,
åt vart och ett för sig,
och varje strå står stilla för sig självt,
tar ödmjukt emot med huvudet böjt.
Och den som innan sängdags går en stund
för goda drömmars skull
skall lära tacksamhet.

Gunnar Ekelöf, born this day in 1907

Late Summer

So it will be Saturday night again and the sauna fired
smoke rising over birches in stillness
human voices, sounds close by.
From the paddock, approaching hands
and between the tree trunks, a glimpse of her
tonight, the girl with buckets. . .

Evening - and soon night
with the crickets under my pillow. . .
And the moon lending light to all things,
frozen frames, each separate beam
humbly acknowledged with bowed head.
And as before, bedtime is a moment
reserved for good dreams
that teach gratitude.

—translation by Google, with a lilttle help from JJM

15 September 2012

Striving re-defined

Having high standards for yourself can mean “trying” harder, driving yourself so hard that your performance actually is dragged down in the long run by your physical and mental state. Or it can mean having such high regard for yourself, such faith in yourself that you pamper yourself, get the rest and the exercise and the love and the diet you need to thrive and to perform at your best in the long run.

— Josh Mitteldorf

16 September 2012

Words that cannot be spoken, ideas that cannot be thought

The Kabbalists explain that the sounds of the shofar transcend all verbal expression.  Human speech is constrained by the limitations of a person’s ability to enunciate words, to find expressive words in his vocabulary, to arrange his words in a form that will accurately reflect and articulate his thoughts.  But some thoughts and feelings are too exalted to find expression through such limited means.  The yearning of the Jewish soul to come close to G-d, to cleave to the Divine, is so intensely spiritual that mere human speech is inadequate to give it expression. The sound of the shofar, however, connects with this inner yearning and gives it expression.  It is the sound of the immortal soul crying out to its Creator in an ecstasy of love, devotion and yearning.  It is the sound that breaks the barriers of mere words and embraces myriad spiritual expressions - from the most abject remorse to the most intense joy.

Happy New Year, 5773

And what of the truths that can be neither spoken nor conceived?

17 September 2012

Thrice happy she! that is so well assured
Unto herself and settled so in heart
That neither will for better be allured
Ne fears to worse with any chance to start,
But like a steddy ship doth strongly part
The raging waves and keeps her course aright;
Ne aught for tempest doth from it depart,
Ne aught for fairer weather's false delight.
Such self-assurance need not fear the spight
Of grudging foes; ne favour seek of friends;
But in the stay of her own stedfast might
Neither to one herself nor other bends.
Most happy she that most assured doth rest,
But he most happy who such one loves best.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

18 September 2012

Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass.

—Confucius (c. 551-478 BCE)

19 September 2012

Nothing Twice

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is that a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

— Wislawa Szymborska, from Poems New and Collected 1957-1997
tr Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

20 September 2012

Happy International Peace Day

Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone. It is also securing the space for others to contibute the best that they have and all that they are.

Hafsat Abiola

21 September 2012

The best reason

The best reason to culture detachment from our thoughts and expectations is that the future is going to be far more wondrous and miraculous than anything we can imagine.

— Josh Mitteldorf

23 September 2012

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design