80/20 Day: July 15, 1848, Vilfredo Pareto joined the human race

July 15, 2014

Happy 80/20 Day!

Italian economist, engineer and political activist Vilfredo Pareto was born on July 15, 1848, in Paris, where his father had fled due to political difficulties.

Pareto should be more famous, for his explanation of the 80/20 rule, and for his contribution to making better things, the Pareto chart.  Many economic texts ignore his work almost completely.  Quality management texts ignore his life, too — generally mentioning the principles they borrow, but offering no explanation.

Vilifred Pareto, Wikipedia image

Vilfredo Pareto, Wikipedia image

His contributions, as accounted at Wikipedia:

A few economic rules are based on his work:

And now you, dear reader, having just skimmed the surface of the pool of information on Vilfredo Pareto, know more about the man than 99.99% of the rest of the people on the planet.  Welcome to the tip-top 0.01%.

Resources:


Feynman Day comes Sunday; celebrate with your mother, and fly the flag!

May 9, 2014

No, we’re not joking.

May 11 is the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman (born 1918, died 1988).

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Borrowed from Luciano’s Tumblr, LikeaPhysicist

In 2014, his birthday falls on Sunday, Mothers Day.  Mothers Day is one of the designated-by-law days to fly the U.S. flag — so fly your flag!  You can tell your mother it’s for her — but it’s also for Richard Feynman.

Why Feynman Day?  To celebrate invention, physics, interesting characters, and that essential, American quality of je ne sais quoi.

In addition to his winning the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), Feynman popularized the critique of science and other enterprises with what we now call Cargo Cult science, or education, or whatever, where people follow the dance steps, but without the rhythm and music.

Those two things alone would make him a remarkable man.  But, like a product offered for $19.95 as a good buy in a 2:00 a.m. infomercial, with Feynman, there’s more.  With Feynman, there is always more.

I got alerted to Feynman in the first days of the old Quality Paperback Book Club, when they featured his new memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  QPBC was hot on the book, and with a title like that, how could I resist?  When I got the book a week or so later, I read it within two days, while attending law school and working full time.  I remember Feynman.

Norton published the book — and their description, alone, should make you want to read it:

A New York Times bestseller—the outrageous exploits of one of this century’s greatest scientific minds and a legendary American original.

In this phenomenal national bestseller, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts in his inimitable voice his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature.

All true, and that’s not even the half of the outrageousness, all done with great good humor, about a life lived in great good humor through what should have been a memorable age, but often was just terrifying.

I think sometimes that Feynman’s calm, alone, borne of that great good humor and insatiable curiosity,  may have gotten us through the birth of the atomic age and the Cold War.

Feynman was a giant, and we don’t revere him enough.  Consider:

  • Feynman’s high school sweetheart, Arlene, came down with tuberculosis.  He married her, and took her with him to New Mexico to make the atom bombs.  The stories of her confinement to a hospital, and the laborious trekking he had to make between Los Alamos and her bedside in Santa Fe, are touching, and heartbreaking.  It is one of the great love stories of the 20th century, certainly, and perhaps for all time.  It also provided the title for his second memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Every single, college-age man should read Feynman’s stories of how to date, and how to seduce women.  His approach was unique, and endeared him to women — in legend, to many women.  Feynman’s dating must have been part of the inspiration for the comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”  Feynman’s stories are better.  (Heck, it’s even the subject of a popular, classic XKCD comic — probably only Feynman and Einstein among Nobel-winning physicists have made so much money for so many cartoonists.)
US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

  • Yeah, he’s already been featured on a postage stamp, see at right.  That’s not good enough for Feynman, though — the U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation stamp for Feynman, featuring a version of his Feynman Diagrams.

    A special postal cancel was authorized by the USPS (United States Postal Service) to honor the 80th birthday of Richard Feynman. This cancel was used in Lake Worth, Florida. For this special day the post office was renamed “Feynman Station.”

    Feynman Commemorative Cancel Feynman Diagram

    The Feynman Diagram used for the postal cancel on this envelope depicts what is known as a “bubble process.” It shows a high energy particle, for example, a cosmic ray (a) from a distant supernova, which emits a high energy photon, for example, a gamma ray (b). The photon, in turn, creates a particle (c) and an anti-particle (d) that exists for a brief moment and then recombines.

    As Feynman liked to point out, an anti-particle is the same thing as a particle with negative energy traveling backward in time (which is why the arrow at (d) points backwards, i.e. to the left). So you could say the photon created only one particle that, at first, traveled forward in time (the bottom semi-circle) and then reversed and went back in time (the top semi-circle) and annihilated itself! By inventing diagrams like this, Richard Feynman made it much easier to understand what is going on in the interactions between sub-atomic particles without getting lost in tremendous amounts of tedious math

  • Working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, Feynman developed a keen appreciation for bureaucracy and all its follies.  His vexations for the security managers are also legendary.  Here’s a quick version of one story — he asked friends and family to write to him in code, but to not include a key to the code, so he’d have to crack the code to read the letter.  Feynman could do it, but the security people couldn’t.  Hilarity ensued.
  • Feynman developed a love for the still-relatively unknown, landlocked Asian nation of Tannu Tuva.  It’s just the sort of place to appeal to a character like Feynman — so obscure most atlases didn’t, and don’t, show it at all — seemingly consumed by the Soviet Union, but held in a special status.  Home of throat singing — and almost impossible to get to.  During the Cold War, Feynman struck up correspondence with people in Tuva, to the concern of Soviet and American intelligence agencies, who seemed not to understand someone might do such thing out of curiosity.  Feynman hoped to travel there to visit new friends, but his final bouts of cancer took him before it was possible.  Tuva, famous among philatelists only, perhaps, honored Feynman with postage stamps and postcards.
  • Just try to find a photo of Feynman not smiling. The man was a joy to be around, for most people, most of the time.
  • Quantum electro dynamics?  No, I can’t explain it, either — but his work had a lot to do with how particles wobble.  I remember that because, according to Feynman, he got the inspiration for the work for which he won the Nobel while spinning plates, like a Chinese acrobat on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the delight of students in the Cornell University cafeteria, and the shock and horror of the food service people.  Who else has yet confessed to such an inspiration for a Nobel?

There’s more — a lot more.  Feynman outlined our current generation of computer memory devices — in 1959.  No, he didn’t patent the idea.  He did patent an idea for a nuclear-powered spacecraft.  Another delightful story.

Feynman in an Apple ad

Feynman was featured in print and broadcast ads for Apple — not one, but two (did anyone else get that honor from Apple?). “Think Different.” This is one of Apple Computer’s most successful advertising campaigns. The theme of the campaign is one that celebrates figures in history who changed the world by thinking differently. Richard Feynman was among the chosen figures.

Feynman served on the board that approved science books for the California school system — his stories of that work will shock some, but it will make others shake their heads as they recognize the current crop of cargo-cultists and political bullies who dominate textbook approval processes, knowing nothing at all about what they are doing, or why.

No, I didn’t forget his brilliant work on the commission that studied the Challenger disaster, for NASA. There’s so much stuff to glorify!

In history, Feynman should be remembered much as we remember Thomas Jefferson, as a renaissance man in his time, a man who put great intellect to great work for his nation and all humanity.

Feynman's second Apple ad

The second Apple ad featuring Richard Feynman. An excerpt from Apple Computer’s campaign commercial: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them… about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward; and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The sages say we shouldn’t have regrets, but I do have one.  When the Challenger Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., I was working on another commission up the street.  I knew Feynman was ill, but our work was important, and we’d heard his disease was in remission.  I didn’t goof off a day and go to any of the hearings to see him, to get an autograph, to meet the man.  I though I’d have other opportunities to do that.  Now I regret not having met him in person.

In print, and in film, I know him well.  In our family, reading Feynman is something everybody does.  Feynman’s memoir was one of the last books I read to our son, Kenny, as he was growing up, and growing into reading on his own.  Even reading about Feynman, together, was an adventure.  Our son, James, took us into the real physics of Feynman, and though I struggle with it more than James, we still read Feynman, for humor, and physics.

What would be appropriate ways to mark Feynman’s birth?  At some future date, I hope we’ll have public readings of his books, showings of the documentaries about him, recreations of his lectures, perhaps.  And then everyone can get in a circle, beating drums and singing about getting some orange juice, before sending postcards to our friends in Tuva.

Richard Feynman, we still need you, and miss you dearly.

Tannu Tuva

Tuva’s capital is the delightfully-named Kyzyl. From this map, can you figure out where Tuva is, or how to get there — without Google, or Bing?

Tuva postcard honoring Richard Feynman

Tuva postcard, in honor of Richard Feynman — who loved to drum.

There will always be “More” about Richard Feynman, if we’re lucky:

Have a great Feynman Day!

Much of this is an encore post.

 


DOI honored Rachel Carson in Women’s HIstory Month

April 6, 2014

You can use this year around.  For Women’s History Month, the Department of the Interior did a brief biographical video honoring Rachel Carson.

Interior is home to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency where Carson spent most of her life in research and writing.  The film is narrated by Dan Ashe, the current Director of USFWS.

Details:

Published on Mar 25, 2014

Saluting biologist, writer, and conservationist Rachel Carson.

Photos courtesy of http://www.rachelcarsoncouncil.org.
Credits:
Photo 1: Marian Carson with her three children, Marian, Rachel (about 3) and Robert (Carson family photograph)
Photo 2: Rachel Carson as a child, reading to her dog Candy (Carson family photograph)
Photo 3: Rachel Carson with Bob Hines in the Florida Keys, gathering information for “The Edge of the Sea.” (Rex Gary Schmidt)
Photo 4: Rachel Carson entrance photo for Johns Hopkins Graduate School, 1928 (Carson family photograph)
Photo 5: Rachel Carson at microscope, 1951 (Brooks Studio)
Photo 6: Rachel Carson in her “summer laboratory” at Woods Hole, MA (Unknown)
Photo 7: Rachel Carson at Woods Home, MA, 1951 (Edwin Gray)
Photo 8: “Silent Spring” cover photo (yale.edu)
Photo 9: Rachel Carson watching migrating hawks at Hawk Mountain, PA, 1945 (Shirley A. Briggs)
Photo 10: Rachel Carson’s government photograph while she was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (USFWS)
Photo 11: Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (DOI)
Photo 12: Rachel Carson on the dock at Woods Hole, MA 1951 (Edwin Gray)

Hang on to the bookmark for next year, or better, use it in an appropriate part of your regular curriculum.  Women’s history, and environmental history, doesn’t happen in just one month.  Teach it when the kids need it.


The Gospel About Millard Fillmore – a Unitarian paean to our 13th president

March 26, 2014

This sermon was delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, by the Rev. John Robinson, on September 18, 2005.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

Choir practice at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco.

That church used to keep this text in its sermon archives, but Irecently discovered that archives had gone away.  I was happy to find I could get a historic version of the page, from which I got this text below.

I offer this here for scholars of the history of the presidency, and for scholars and fans of Millard Fillmore.  Oh, and to update the link in my list of sources on Millard Fillmore.

The Gospel About Millard Fillmore

This sermon began many years ago, over 30. Elliot Richardson had been invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of our Association of Free churches. He was then the martyred hero who had resigned as Attorney General of these United States rather than obey Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox as Special Watergate Prosecutor. He was a Unitarian from an old Unitarian family.

Not all Unitarians were happy to have him as speaker. There was much agitation about the choice. Protesters tried to interrupt his speech, but were finally prevailed upon to let him make it.

In the question and answer period that followed, one of the dissenters demanded to know how Elliot Richardson, when Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, could have authorized the infamous December bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Elliot Richardson pointed out to the questioner that he had not been appointed to Secretary of Defense until after the bombings, indeed until after the Vietnam Truce had been declared. He could have stopped there. Gotten off, as so many of us are apt to do, looking good. But he did not. He told the truth. He continued saying: “But, I think the decision to bomb was right.” It was the sort of candor that impresses.

Later that evening a young minister, this was years ago, was on a hotel elevator on to which Elliot Richardson stepped, unsuspectingly. Emboldened by spirits if not spirit. The young minister thanked Mr. Richardson for his speech and apologized for the rude behavior of some self-righteous Unitarians who treat those others of this tradition with whom they disagree so intolerantly. And then, as an illustration he launched into an impromptu sermon on Millard Fillmore. Ever polite, Elliot Richardson said he would like to see a full text. The young minister sent it to him, at the Court of St. James, where Mr. Richardson was at the time United States Ambassador to Great Britain. The Ambassador sent back a letter thanking the young minister for his sermon, saying that he had enjoyed it immensely. As a not so young minister, I still treasure that letter. Here for you this morning is the text of that sermon.

History has been unkind to Millard Fillmore, often referred to as “Millard Who?”. Forgetting that he was 13th president of the United States. One of the few accomplishments for which he is given credit is installing the first bath tub in the White House. There is serious doubt about that.

One historian said of Fillmore: “He came to the Presidency by the only road available to a man of limited ability, the death of his predecessor.” He was accused of being both pro-slavery and abolitionist. It was said he did “not have courage” “but was just inflexible.” They accused him of having “no position except equivocation,” that he was “without personal earnest conviction, personal force, or capacity for strong personal leadership.” His general rating as a president has been, until recently, below average, way below. He is judged bad or poor in his religiousness by those who judge such things. He was rejected by the religious community of which he was a member. He was a Unitarian.

There are three reasons to tell the story of Millard Fillmore: First, he illustrates the on-going tension in our free religious community, between the prophetic and the practical – the privilege of moral purity and the necessity to make real world decisions. Second, he illustrates well how difficult it is to judge our contemporaries. And third, to help restore Millard Fillmore to his rightful place in history.

The list of reasons for Fillmore’s lack of fame or infamy is long. His presidency was very short, only 2 years 236 days. His presidency is greatly overshadowed by the momentous events of the Civil War, eight years later. He was not liked by either the abolitionist historians or those historians who were apologists for the south. His association with the Know-Nothings tarnished his memory. And perhaps most important, the principal source of information about him came from the writings of his arch rival and enemy, the New York political boss Thurlow Weed, who called Fillmore derisively, “That incorruptible man from Buffalo.” Weed was very corruptible.

Millard Fillmore was born in a log cabin January 1, 1800, in upstate New York on his father’s poor, unproductive, isolated, farm. Millard was his mother’s maiden name. His education was sparse, no more than three months a year. He said that in the nine months working on his father’s farm, he forgot more than he learned the other three months. But his ambitious father apprenticed Millard to a cloth cutter, and then later got him a job in a law office. Millard’s Education was mostly self-learning, though by 20 he had a position as a schoolteacher. And then he became a lawyer. At 26 he married Abigail Powers who had taught him as he tried to catch up on his education. At 28 he was elected to the New York State Assembly.

At age 31 he joined a group of like-minded citizens in Buffalo New York where he now made his home. These were the founding and charter members of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo New York.

Millard fought many good fights in the New York State Assembly. He fought for repeal of a law that required anyone testifying in court to swear that they believed in God and the hereafter. He pushed for an end to imprisonment for debt, and bankruptcy laws to protect small business interests. He fought for separation of church and state.

Millard was a party switcher right from the beginning. He was elected to the assembly as a National Republican, the party of Jefferson. Then He was elected as an Anti-Mason, a party he had helped to form. The Anti-Masons held that the Masonic Order with its lodges, secret rites and oaths, loyalties to something other than the Constitution, constituted an invisible Empire, a dangerous intrusion in a democracy. He wanted to get Masons out of government.

Fillmore was elected to Congress as a National Republican in 1832. His first term saw the formation of the Whig Party, an event he supported, as he wanted to see a party of National Union.

Unfortunately for those who look for titillation in sermons there were no publish rumors of moral turpitude. He served but one term in Congress, (perhaps an early supporter of term limits) and then went home to Buffalo and devoted himself to cultural and intellectual enrichment of Buffalo. (I know, you may think that an oxymoron.) He supported good causes like free public education and free public libraries.

In 1836 he was again elected to the House of Representatives. There he was made chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He also was chair of a Select Committee charged with investigation of election fraud in New Jersey (yes, I know, no change there). Incredibly Fillmore’s committee found 5 congressmen of his own party guilty, threw them out of congress, and thus handed control of The House to the opposition party! (IMAGINE!)

In 1842 he again left Congress, this time as a prominent Whig. The next year Horace Greely, editor of the NEW YORK TRIBUNE (also an alleged Unitarian), urged Fillmore’s candidacy for Vice-President. (Years later Fillmore repaid the favor by getting Greely out of debtors’ prison in Paris.)

1844 was not the year for Millard to get the nomination. He was held to be anti-slave and anti-Southern. He opposed the annexation of Texas as an attempt to swell slavery forces.

Later Millard opposed the Mexican War, which he believed would spread slavery and weaken the North’s industrial economy.

1848 was the year when Fillmore was tapped as the Whigs vice-presidential candidate. He balanced the ticket, with General Zachary Taylor, a Southerner, and slave owner, who was a hero of the Mexican War (ironically). Taylor ran on a rough and ready image. Leading abolitionists bolted the party, particularly New Englanders, notably the leading Unitarian, Charles Francis Adams.

The Taylor-Fillmore ticket had no platform because whatever was said would alienate part of the country. Abe Lincoln supported this ticket. On November 7, they won.

On July 9, 1850, rough and ready Zachary Taylor died from illness. Fillmore became President, the third President to be Unitarian. (In October of that same year this church was founded.) Within a month Fillmore had aroused the ire of the North by signing the Compromise of 1850. He did it, knowing that he had ruined any hope he had to run for the Presidency on his own. He also earned the animosity of many Unitarians.

The Compromise of 1850 preserved the balance between the North and South that dated from the Missouri Compromise and earlier. By it: California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah became Territories with no restriction on slavery; Texas was paid 10 million dollars to accept the Texas-New Mexico boundaries; slavery was to be decided by the people of Texas. The balance of concessions was further kept by prohibiting the slave trade in Washington, D.C. but continuing the right (better said the wrong) of slave ownership in the capital. The provision that enraged the abolitionists most was the strengthening of the fugitive slave laws. It empowered federal agents to enforce the act. The Whig Party split over Fillmore’s signing of the law.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian) said of the fugitive slave law, “I will not obey it, by God.” Theodore Parker (author of the opening words this morning), a Boston Unitarian minister, led an armed band of vigilantes that confronted slave hunters up from the South; intimidated them into leaving; and saved a slave couple who had escaped to Boston. Parker had acted in direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law. With loaded pistol and sword ready on his writing desk Unitarian Parker wrote the Unitarian President, Fillmore, telling what he had done and challenging Fillmore to enforce his “damned law.”

History has judged Fillmore harshly for that one law – a Unitarian President perpetuating slavery – the scandal! Why did he do it? Talk of secession! Remember the times. Even before Taylor’s inauguration, Virginia had passed legislation that threatened secession if the federal government interfered with “Southern Institutions”. John C. Calhoun (also a Unitarian and charter member of the Unitarian Church in Washington D.C.) and other Southern leaders were making ominous warnings. Tension between the States in the House of Representatives kept them from selecting a Speaker for over three weeks. By the time Fillmore took office, the South was ringing with calls for secession, not only if slavery were interfered with but if its expansion were checked.

Fillmore’s predecessor, Taylor, a Southerner, a slave owner and war hero, might have held the country together had he lived to veto the compromise of 1850 as he had said he would. Fillmore knew he could not hold the Union if he vetoed it. He set one goal, to preserve the Union and the Constitution. To give up the great compromise forged in 1787-1788 would, he knew, lead to the rupture of the Union. He thought the North was at that time not yet strong enough to win a civil war. Modern historians agree.

By the end of October 1850, Fillmore had angered abolitionists by sending federal troops to assist U.S. Marshal’s in the arrest of fugitive slaves. His determination for the compromise was also felt in the South. He sent reinforcements for Charleston, South Carolina where Southerners, angry over the North’s resistance to the fugitive slave laws, were threatening to seize federal property.

Fillmore has been most severely criticized for not fighting slavery with determination. However, there is another side. John F. Kennedy in Profiles of Courage chose to profile Daniel Webster. Webster was also a Whig and a Unitarian. Kennedy praises Webster for his courage in supporting The Compromise of 1850 with its Fugitive Slave Law. Fillmore had presided as Vice-President over the debates on the Compromise. He had heard Webster’s famous speech that cost Webster the support of his Massachusetts constituents. Emerson said of Webster at this time “The word ‘liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.”

Webster and Fillmore thought slavery would die a natural death in the industrial revolution (Why invest capital in slave ownership when an Irishman could be rented for next to nothing in wages.) They saw the tension, not so much as slave vs. free, as agriculture vs. industry.

Webster was but one vote for the bill. Fillmore alone shouldered the final responsibility to veto or sign the bill. Fillmore bore the blame for the Compromise of 1850. Do not forget that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, said that if he could preserve the Union by keeping slavery, he would.

When the Compromise of 1850 fell apart, the Civil War began. The Whigs were terribly weakened by abolitionist outrage.

Perhaps Fillmore’s next most far-reaching act was to send Commodore Perry to Japan. But Fillmore was done. The Whigs were done.

In the election of 1852 Fillmore and Webster fought over the nomination for President at the next Whig Convention, for 47 ballots to a deadlock. In the end, a man neither of them could support was nominated and lost the election. A saddened Fillmore attended, with his wife, the cold rainy inauguration of Franklin Pierce. Three weeks later Fillmore’s wife died of pneumonia contracted that inauguration day. Fillmore’s 22 year old daughter died the year after he left office.

After he had stepped down from office, the Officers of the American Unitarian Association invited Millard Fillmore to preside over the Annual Meeting. But abolitionists refused to allow him to be seated after he got there. They would have no part of this man who would not follow their conscience. One hopes that this free religion might be gentler today but I am not sure. After the Civil War, Fillmore stung by their action resigned from the Buffalo Church when its minister and his friend died.

By 1856 the Whig party had disintegrated. The lines grew harder: Democrats to the South, Republicans to the North. Millard Fillmore wanted a party for the Union. He then made the second mistake for which he has been charged harshly. He offered himself to the American Party, the Know-Nothings, anti-foreign and anti-Catholic, as candidate — a devil of a thing for a free religionist to do. He hoped to gather there the remnants of the Whigs. He then went off to Europe on a 12-month vacation.

Ironically he was on foreign soil, after just completing an audience with the Pope when he was notified that he had received the Know-Nothing’s nomination for President. He was chosen because he was the only person of stature that they could get.

But many Know-Nothings were unhappy with him and bolted the party. Fillmore is not known to have ever expressed any anti-Catholic sentiments. This though he had lost a bid for Governor of New York because Catholics were angry that his militancy for separation of church and state made him oppose state funding they sought for various Catholic institutions.

Fillmore expressed no support for the Know-Nothing goal of removing all Catholics from office alleging they would be loyal to the Pope rather than the U.S.A. He did, however, believe that foreigners should be fully Americanized in their views before becoming citizens. He was also concerned that immigrants, who joined our diplomatic service, were sent to the countries from which they had come. He thought it a potential conflict of interest.

In 1856, he ran for President as the American Party candidate with a Southern slaveholder as his running mate. They emphasized in the campaign regional compromise and preservation of the Union. They carried only the State of Maryland. However they also were the spoilers that kept the Republicans from winning and thus put the Civil war off four more years. It is important remember that the changes happening in this nation, at this time, were more dramatic and far reaching in many ways than the computer revolution in our own. These were the years of the industrial revolution. The dramatic growth of railroads and factories, was changing the North for a subsistence farm economy to market agriculture and industrial growth. These changes radically altered the balance between North and South, increasing the might of the North disproportionately.

It is difficult to know whether Millard was in any sense a believer in Know-Nothingism, or if he knew of the violence in which some of its members engaged, or if he merely compromised himself to win his objective of continued Union of the States. He wouldn’t be the first prejudice Unitarian. He was not a radical Abolitionist. He said, however, that he thought the fugitive slave law odious but constitutional.

Slavery was a despicable practice. There is no apology for it. It is easy to condemn compromisers. But it is harder to make the difficult decisions that the real world demands. If it had not been for the courage of Fillmore the Civil war would have come sooner. And if the South had succeeded in becoming independent, how long and how entrenched by bitterness would slavery have lasted? Until today? And if cooler heads had prevailed, compromise succeeded, would slavery possibly have collapsed anyway without the blood shed and bitterness engendered by that fratricidal war?

The tension between the ideal and the real, the promise and what is practical, between moral purity and the sin of every day life, is very real. It is a tension that we humans are both burdened and blessed with. I leave you to struggle with these hard dilemmas. You do each time you vote. I believe that we are at our best when we walk with each other talk with each other, even in our differences, rather than separating.

Millard Fillmore lived out the balance of his days quietly in private life. He supported Lincoln, met Lincoln in Buffalo when Lincoln was on his way from Illinois to his First Inaugural. He took Lincoln to services at the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo. He thought that the Republicans had provoked the Civil War but gave it his support at rallies. He thought Lincoln too harsh – he strongly supported Andrew Johnson’s efforts at conciliation.

Fillmore was no Saint if you look for moral purity, nor was he our most brilliant President. He refused an Honorary Degree from Oxford, because he had no earned degree of any kind. He said he was “not entitled to it.” (Give him high marks on humility). But he was more than most have given him credit for. He risked and lost his reputation to keep the vision of a United States, even as others risked much to purify that vision. In looking up Eliot Richardson on the Internet, I find that he is listed as an Episcopalian/Anglican. Perhaps he too felt the sting of our righteousness at the General Assembly.

May we, O God, be people who understand that the course of truth and good is never so easy, and that the tread of evil runs through each of us, most surely when we are convinced of our own righteousness.

Amen and Amen.

Mostly accurate, so far as I can tell.  No, I haven’t figured out how you cite this under MLA standards.


Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! 135 years, today

March 14, 2014

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  So, an encore post.

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. 26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in another five years, in 1921. In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man – Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the fields of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo electric effect. Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement. Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp

Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

English: USSR stamp dedicated to Albert Einste...

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character. His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that though mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

More, Resources:


Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius (NOVA, 1998)

May 12, 2013

Feynman and an O ring

Richard Feynman, and a rubber O ring. See materials on Feynman’s role on the commission investigating the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Image from Callum Hackett via Nic Hammond

Geography and history teachers, you should watch this on the day after Feynman Day.  Can you make use of this in your classes — say, after the state tests?

How about you physics and science teachers?

English: Green: Tuvan People's Republic

Tuvan People’s Republic, marked in green. Wikipedia image

In 1998 NOVA produced and broadcast a film that rather defies categorization.  Biography? Drama? Humor? Frustrated travelogue?

“Last Journey of a Genius” tells a lot of biography of Dick Feynman, but it focuses on his unusual drive to learn about, and travel to an obscure Central Asian country/province/area/culture called Tannu Tuva.  Feynman’s close friend Ralph Leighton plays a big role in this film, too.  This film reveals more about the character of Richard Feynman, his overwhelming curiosity and humanity, than you can get any other place, including his memoirs (which every civil human should read).

NOVA captivates me almost every week.  Good fortune found me in front of a television somewhere when this was first broadcast.  For several reasons, I’ve been unable to get a VHS, or a DVD version of the story despite many attempts over the years.

But fortune and good history smile again.  Open Culture collected the film, and it’s available for free in their documentary section.

Drumming, story telling, geography, Cold War politics, ballet, more drumming, some nuclear physics, astronomy, a lot of good humor, and a plea for orange juice.  It still makes me smile.

From Open Culture:

In 1989, PBS’ NOVA aired The Last Journey of a Genius, a television film that documents the final days of the great physicist Richard Feynman and his obsession with traveling to Tannu Tuva, a state outside of outer Mongolia, which then remained under Soviet control. For the better part of a decade, Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton schemed to make their way to Tannu Tuva, but Cold War politics always frustrated their efforts. The video runs roughly 50 minutes and features an ailing Feynman talking about his wanderlust and their maneuverings. He died two weeks later, having never made the trip, though Ralph Leighton and Feyman’s daughter Michelle later landed in their Shangri-La. Her journey was recorded by the Russian service of the BBC.

The film now appears in the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.

via Metafilter

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s Physics Lectures Online

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Hang on to this link for Feynman Day 2014 (May 11).  What’s your favorite Feynman story?

This kind of history and science is exactly the sort of stuff CSCOPE critics in Texas, and critics of the Common Core standards, worry that children will see.  Very odd, because stuff this good is not even mentioned in CSCOPE, nor in CCSS.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Kenny Darrell, who found this film and let me know about it.

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Feynman Day! Richard Feynman, mensch, drummer, Nobel winner, born May 11, 1918

May 11, 2013

No, we’re not joking.

May 11 is the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Borrowed from Luciano’s Tumblr, LikeaPhysicist

In addition to his winning the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), Feynman popularized the critique of science and other enterprises with what we now call Cargo Cult science, or education, or whatever, where people follow the dance steps, but without the rhythm and music.

Those two things alone would make him a remarkable man.  But, like a product offered for $19.95 as a good buy in a 2:00 a.m. infomercial, with Feynman, there’s more.  With Feynman, there is always more.

I got alerted to Feynman in the first days of the old Quality Paperback Book Club, when they featured his new memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  QPBC was hot on the book, and with a title like that, how could I resist?  When I got the book a week or so later, I read it within two days, while attending law school and working full time.  I remember Feynman.

Norton published the book — and their description, alone, should make you want to read it:

A New York Times bestseller—the outrageous exploits of one of this century’s greatest scientific minds and a legendary American original.

In this phenomenal national bestseller, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts in his inimitable voice his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature.

All true, and that’s not even the half of the outrageousness, all done with great good humor, about a life lived in great good humor through what should have been a memorable age, but often was just terrifying.

I think sometimes that Feynman’s calm, alone, borne of that great good humor and insatiable curiosity,  may have gotten us through the birth of the atomic age and the Cold War.

Feynman was a giant, and we don’t revere him enough.  Consider:

  • Feynman’s high school sweetheart, Arlene, came down with tuberculosis.  He married her, and took her with him to New Mexico to make the atom bombs.  The stories of her confinement to a hospital, and the laborious trekking he had to make between Los Alamos and her bedside in Santa Fe, are touching, and heartbreaking.  It is one of the great love stories of the 20th century, certainly, and perhaps for all time.  It also provided the title for his second memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Every single, college-age man should read Feynman’s stories of how to date, and how to seduce women.  His approach was unique, and endeared him to women — in legend, to many women.  Feynman’s dating must have been part of the inspiration for the comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”  Feynman’s stories are better.  (Heck, it’s even the subject of a popular, classic XKCD comic — probably only Feynman and Einstein among Nobel-winning physicists have made so much money for so many cartoonists.)
US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

  • Yeah, he’s already been featured on a postage stamp, see at right.  That’s not good enough for Feynman, though — the U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation stamp for Feynman, featuring a version of his Feynman Diagrams.

    A special postal cancel was authorized by the USPS (United States Postal Service) to honor the 80th birthday of Richard Feynman. This cancel was used in Lake Worth, Florida. For this special day the post office was renamed “Feynman Station.”

    Feynman Commemorative Cancel Feynman Diagram

    The Feynman Diagram used for the postal cancel on this envelope depicts what is known as a “bubble process.” It shows a high energy particle, for example, a cosmic ray (a) from a distant supernova, which emits a high energy photon, for example, a gamma ray (b). The photon, in turn, creates a particle (c) and an anti-particle (d) that exists for a brief moment and then recombines.

    As Feynman liked to point out, an anti-particle is the same thing as a particle with negative energy traveling backward in time (which is why the arrow at (d) points backwards, i.e. to the left). So you could say the photon created only one particle that, at first, traveled forward in time (the bottom semi-circle) and then reversed and went back in time (the top semi-circle) and annihilated itself! By inventing diagrams like this, Richard Feynman made it much easier to understand what is going on in the interactions between sub-atomic particles without getting lost in tremendous amounts of tedious math

  • Working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, Feynman developed a keen appreciation for bureaucracy and all its follies.  His vexations for the security managers are also legendary.  Here’s a quick version of one story — he asked friends and family to write to him in code, but to not include a key to the code, so he’d have to crack the code to read the letter.  Feynman could do it, but the security people couldn’t.  Hilarity ensued.
  • Feynman developed a love for the still-relatively unknown, landlocked Asian nation of Tannu Tuva.  It’s just the sort of place to appeal to a character like Feynman — so obscure most atlases didn’t, and don’t, show it at all — seemingly consumed by the Soviet Union, but held in a special status.  Home of throat singing — and almost impossible to get to.  During the Cold War, Feynman struck up correspondence with people in Tuva, to the concern of Soviet and American intelligence agencies, who seemed not to understand someone might do such thing out of curiosity.  Feynman hoped to travel there to visit new friends, but his final bouts of cancer took him before it was possible.  Tuva, famous among philatelists only, perhaps, honored Feynman with postage stamps and postcards.
  • Just try to find a photo of Feynman not smiling. The man was a joy to be around, for most people, most of the time.
  • Quantum electro dynamics?  No, I can’t explain it, either — but his work had a lot to do with how particles wobble.  I remember that because, according to Feynman, he got the inspiration for the work for which he won the Nobel while spinning plates, like a Chinese acrobat on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the delight of students in the Cornell University cafeteria, and the shock and horror of the food service people.  Who else has yet confessed to such an inspiration for a Nobel?

There’s more — a lot more.  Feynman outlined our current generation of computer memory devices — in 1959.  No, he didn’t patent the idea.  He did patent an idea for a nuclear-powered spacecraft.  Another delightful story.

Feynman in an Apple ad

Feynman was featured in print and broadcast ads for Apple — not one, but two (did anyone else get that honor from Apple?). “Think Different.” This is one of Apple Computer’s most successful advertising campaigns. The theme of the campaign is one that celebrates figures in history who changed the world by thinking differently. Richard Feynman was among the chosen figures.

Feynman served on the board that approved science books for the California school system — his stories of that work will shock some, but it will make others shake their heads as they recognize the current crop of cargo-cultists and political bullies who dominate textbook approval processes, knowing nothing at all about what they are doing, or why.

No, I didn’t forget his brilliant work on the commission that studied the Challenger disaster, for NASA. There’s so much stuff to glorify!

In history, Feynman should be remembered much as we remember Thomas Jefferson, as a renaissance man in his time, a man who put great intellect to great work for his nation and all humanity.

Feynman's second Apple ad

The second Apple ad featuring Richard Feynman. An excerpt from Apple Computer’s campaign commercial: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them… about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward; and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The sages say we shouldn’t have regrets, but I do have one.  When the Challenger Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., I was working on another commission up the street.  I knew Feynman was ill, but our work was important, and we’d heard his disease was in remission.  I didn’t goof off a day and go to any of the hearings to see him, to get an autograph, to meet the man.  I though I’d have other opportunities to do that.  Now I regret not having met him in person.

In print, and in film, I know him well.  In our family, reading Feynman is something everybody does.  Feynman’s memoir was one of the last books I read to our son, Kenny, as he was growing up, and growing into reading on his own.  Even reading about Feynman, together, was an adventure.  Our son, James, took us into the real physics of Feynman, and though I struggle with it more than James, we still read Feynman, for humor, and physics.

What would be appropriate ways to mark Feynman’s birth?  At some future date, I hope we’ll have public readings of his books, showings of the documentaries about him, recreations of his lectures, perhaps.  And then everyone can get in a circle, beating drums and singing about getting some orange juice, before sending postcards to our friends in Tuva.

Richard Feynman, we still need you, and miss you dearly.

Tannu Tuva

Tuva’s capital is the delightfully-named Kyzyl. From this map, can you figure out where Tuva is, or how to get there — without Google, or Bing?

Tuva postcard honoring Richard Feynman

Tuva postcard, in honor of Richard Feynman — who loved to drum.

There will always be “More” about Richard Feynman, if we’re lucky:

Have a great Feynman Day!

 


May 4: Birth anniversary of Horace Mann, architect of American public schools systems

May 4, 2013

His mother delivered Horace Mann on May 4, 1796, the last full year of the administration of President George Washington.

Mann died August 2, 1859.  In those 63 years, Mann became at least the co-architect of the concept of public schools.

Today, few outside schools of education know who he was, or what he did (no, he’s not in the Texas TEKS).

Daguerrotype of Horace Mann, about 1850, by Southworth and Dawes

Daguerrotype of Horace Mann, about 1850, by Southworth and Dawes; from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikipedia

We can get a brief snapshot from the website accompanying the PBS series, Only a Teacher, Schoolhouse Pioneers:

Horace Mann (1796-1859)

Horace Mann, often called the Father of the Common School, began his career as a lawyer and legislator. When he was elected to act as Secretary of the newly-created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he used his position to enact major educational reform. He spearheaded the Common School Movement, ensuring that every child could receive a basic education funded by local taxes. His influence soon spread beyond Massachusetts as more states took up the idea of universal schooling.

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” The democratic and republican principals that propelled Mann’s vision of the Common School have colored our assumptions about public schooling ever since.

Mann was influential in the development of teacher training schools and the earliest attempts to professionalize teaching. He was not the first to propose state-sponsored teacher training institutes (James Carter had recommended them in the 1820s), but, in 1838, he was crucial to the actual establishment of the first Normal Schools in Massachusetts. Mann knew that the quality of rural schools had to be raised, and that teaching was the key to that improvement. He also recognized that the corps of teachers for the new Common Schools were most likely to be women, and he argued forcefully (if, by contemporary standards, sometimes insultingly) for the recruitment of women into the ranks of teachers, often through the Normal Schools. These developments were all part of Mann’s driving determination to create a system of effective, secular, universal education in the United States.

Further Reading

Mann, Horace.  Annual Reports on Education, 1872; Massachusetts System of Common Schools, 1849

Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann, A Biography, 1972

Did you catch that?  By 1838 Horace Mann figured out that good teachers were the key to improving schools, and so he set about creating systems to educate and help teachers do their work.

Arne DuncanMike MilesDan Patrick? Bill Gates?  Anybody listening?

Oh, yeah, we knew Diane Ravitch is listening, and working hard to make things better.

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Happy birthday, Albert Einstein!

March 14, 2013

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  So, an encore post.

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. 26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in another five years, in 1921. In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man – Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the fields of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo electric effect. Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement. Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp

Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

English: USSR stamp dedicated to Albert Einste...

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character. His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that though mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

More, Resources:


Great obits: Val Patterson, Salt Lake City

March 12, 2013

A nice guy by all reports – but not a Ph.D.

Not that he cheated to get it.

It’s a great story, and it unfolded only in the obituary he wrote for himself.  The obituary ran in The Salt Lake Tribune, from July 15 to July 22, 2012.

Val Patterson

Obituary

1953 – 2012

Val Patterson

Val Patterson, 1953-2012

I was Born in Salt Lake City, March 27th 1953. I died of Throat Cancer on July 10th 2012. I went to six different grade schools, then to Churchill, Skyline and the U of U. I loved school, Salt Lake City, the mountains, Utah. I was a true Scientist. Electronics, chemistry, physics, auto mechanic, wood worker, artist, inventor, business man, ribald comedian, husband, brother, son, cat lover, cynic. I had a lot of fun. It was an honor for me to be friends with some truly great people. I thank you. I’ve had great joy living and playing with my dog, my cats and my parrot. But, the one special thing that made my spirit whole, is my long love and friendship with my remarkable wife, my beloved Mary Jane. I loved her more than I have words to express. Every moment spent with my Mary Jane was time spent wisely. Over time, I became one with her, inseparable, happy, fulfilled. I enjoyed one good life. Traveled to every place on earth that I ever wanted to go. Had every job that I wanted to have. Learned all that I wanted to learn. Fixed everything I wanted to fix. Eaten everything I wanted to eat. My life motto was: “Anything for a Laugh”. Other mottos were “If you can break it, I can fix it”, “Don’t apply for a job, create one”. I had three requirements for seeking a great job; 1 – All glory, 2 – Top pay, 3 – No work.

Val Patterson

Val Patterson, 1953-2012

Now that I have gone to my reward, I have confessions and things I should now say. As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971. I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest.  Also, I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the U of U, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit. In fact, I never did even learn what the letters “PhD” even stood for. For all of the Electronic Engineers I have worked with, I’m sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well, and were well engineered, and I always made you laugh at work. Now to that really mean Park Ranger; after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. I did notice a few years later that you did get Old Faithful working again. To Disneyland – you can now throw away that “Banned for Life” file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore – and SeaWorld San Diego, too, if you read this.

To the gang: We grew up in the very best time to grow up in the history of America. The best music, muscle cars, cheap gas, fun kegs, buying a car for “a buck a year” – before Salt Lake got ruined by over population and Lake Powell was brand new. TV was boring back then, so we went outside and actually had lives. We always tried to have as much fun as possible without doing harm to anybody – we did a good job at that.

If you are trying to decide if you knew me, this might help… My father was RD “Dale” Patterson, older brother “Stan” Patterson, and sister “Bunny” who died in a terrible car wreck when she was a Junior at Skyline. My mom “Ona” and brother “Don” are still alive and well. In college I worked at Vaughns Conoco on 45th South and 29th East. Mary and I are the ones who worked in Saudi Arabia for 8 years when we were young. Mary Jane is now a Fitness Instructor at Golds on Van Winkle – you might be one of her students – see what a lucky guy I am? Yeah, no kidding.

My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me. Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments. My pain is enormous, but it pales in comparison to watching my wife feel my pain as she lovingly cares for and comforts me. I feel such the “thief” now – for stealing so much from her – there is no pill I can take to erase that pain.

If you knew me or not, dear reader, I am happy you got this far into my letter. I speak as a person who had a great life to look back on. My family is following my wishes that I not have a funeral or burial. If you knew me, remember me in your own way. If you want to live forever, then don’t stop breathing, like I did.

A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, July 22nd from 4:00 to 6:00 pm at Starks Funeral Parlor, 3651 South 900 East, Salt Lake City, casual dress is encouraged.

Online condolences may be offered and memorial video may be viewed at www.starksfuneral.com.

These little snippets of history delight historians, though many of them are so fantastic they make newspaper obit writers frazzled trying to track down the facts.


Great Obits: Amos Schuchman, New York City

March 12, 2013

Amos Schuchman

Amos Schuchman, photo from the New York Daily News, via BizPac Review

Another great obituary.

It was a paid notice (most obituaries are paid notices, by the way), published February 2, 2013 — and it offered Amos Schuchman one last dig at The New York Times:

Amos Schuchman's obit, loved everything about NYC except the NY Times

“[Amos Schuchman] Loved his family, his birth and adopted countries, finance, skiing, opera, ballet and biking in Central Park. Loved everything about NYC, except the New York Times.”

“Loved everything about NYC, except the New York Times.”

Amos Schuchman’s children wrote, “His fearless heart still beats within all of us.  Shalom, Saba.”

Sometimes obituaries really capture the deceased person’s spirit.  Schuchman’s smiling now.

(No, I don’t share his view of the newspaper.)

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Great obits: Harry Weathersby Stamps, Long Beach

March 12, 2013

Alerted by a Tweet from Matt Soniak:

Several blogs and other sites, and the Biloxi Sun-Herald, say this is the best obit ever.  It’s a very good one, in any case.

Harry Stamps and wife Ann, in Long Beach, Mississippi

Photo from the SunHerald: PHOTO COURTESY AMANDA LEWIS Harry Stamps stands with wife Ann at their Katrina-damaged home in Long Beach. Stamps wears his famous grass-stained Mississippi State University baseball cap Read more here: http://www.sunherald.com/2013/03/11/4521106/best-obit-ever-harry-stamps-obituary.html#storylink=cpy

At the Biloxi SunHerald.com:

Harry Weathersby Stamps

December 19, 1932 — March 9, 2013

Long Beach

Harry Weathersby Stamps, ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler, died on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Harry was locally sourcing his food years before chefs in California starting using cilantro and arugula (both of which he hated). For his signature bacon and tomato sandwich, he procured 100% all white Bunny Bread from Georgia, Blue Plate mayonnaise from New Orleans, Sauer’s black pepper from Virginia, home grown tomatoes from outside Oxford, and Tennessee’s Benton bacon from his bacon-of-the-month subscription. As a point of pride, he purported to remember every meal he had eaten in his 80 years of life.

The women in his life were numerous. He particularly fancied smart women. He loved his mom Wilma Hartzog (deceased), who with the help of her sisters and cousins in New Hebron reared Harry after his father Walter’s death when Harry was 12. He worshipped his older sister Lynn Stamps Garner (deceased), a character in her own right, and her daughter Lynda Lightsey of Hattiesburg. He married his main squeeze Ann Moore, a home economics teacher, almost 50 years ago, with whom they had two girls Amanda Lewis of Dallas, and Alison of Starkville. He taught them to fish, to select a quality hammer, to love nature, and to just be thankful. He took great pride in stocking their tool boxes. One of his regrets was not seeing his girl, Hillary Clinton, elected President.

He had a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna [Vi-e-na] sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread.

He excelled at growing camellias, rebuilding houses after hurricanes, rocking, eradicating mole crickets from his front yard, composting pine needles, living within his means, outsmarting squirrels, never losing a game of competitive sickness, and reading any history book he could get his hands on. He loved to use his oversized “old man” remote control, which thankfully survived Hurricane Katrina, to flip between watching The Barefoot Contessa and anything on The History Channel. He took extreme pride in his two grandchildren Harper Lewis (8) and William Stamps Lewis (6) of Dallas for whom he would crow like a rooster on their phone calls. As a former government and sociology professor for Gulf Coast Community College, Harry was thoroughly interested in politics and religion and enjoyed watching politicians act like preachers and preachers act like politicians. He was fond of saying a phrase he coined “I am not running for political office or trying to get married” when he was “speaking the truth.” He also took pride in his service during the Korean conflict, serving the rank of corporal–just like Napolean, as he would say.

Harry took fashion cues from no one. His signature every day look was all his: a plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom, his black-label elastic waist shorts worn above the navel and sold exclusively at the Sam’s on Highway 49, and a pair of old school Wallabees (who can even remember where he got those?) that were always paired with a grass-stained MSU baseball cap.

Harry traveled extensively. He only stayed in the finest quality AAA-rated campgrounds, his favorite being Indian Creek outside Cherokee, North Carolina. He always spent the extra money to upgrade to a creek view for his tent. Many years later he purchased a used pop-up camper for his family to travel in style, which spoiled his daughters for life.

He despised phonies, his 1969 Volvo (which he also loved), know-it-all Yankees, Southerners who used the words “veranda” and “porte cochere” to put on airs, eating grape leaves, Law and Order (all franchises), cats, and Martha Stewart. In reverse order. He particularly hated Day Light Saving Time, which he referred to as The Devil’s Time. It is not lost on his family that he died the very day that he would have had to spring his clock forward. This can only be viewed as his final protest.

Because of his irrational fear that his family would throw him a golf-themed funeral despite his hatred for the sport, his family will hold a private, family only service free of any type of “theme.” Visitation will be held at Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home, 15th Street, Gulfport on Monday, March 11, 2013 from 6-8 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make a donation to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (Jeff Davis Campus) for their library. Harry retired as Dean there and was very proud of his friends and the faculty. He taught thousands and thousands of Mississippians during his life. The family would also like to thank the Gulfport Railroad Center dialysis staff who took great care of him and his caretaker Jameka Stribling.

Finally, the family asks that in honor of Harry that you write your Congressman and ask for the repeal of Day Light Saving Time. Harry wanted everyone to get back on the Lord’s Time.

View & sign register book @ www.bradfordokeefe.com
Read more here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sunherald/obituary.aspx?n=harry-stamps&pid=163538353&fhid=4025#fbLoggedOut#storylink=cpy

Yeah, but wouldn’t it have been funny to have held the funeral at the local links?  Just give the address, say nothing about golf, and don’t let anyone mention the venue.  They’d have talked about it for years.


Darwin and Lincoln births: How close together?

February 13, 2013

We know Darwin and Lincoln shared a birth date.  Amazing coincidence, perhaps.  One lesson of history we should learn is that with the very long arc of history, and the very many people who come and go, such coincidences are not so rare as they are generally unrecognized.

I’ve tried to explore the coincidence and been frustrated for some time — at what hours were these two men actually born?  Just how close a coincidence was it?

The Mount

The Mount in Shropshire, family home for Robert Darwin, and the place where Charles Darwin was born. Photo by Darkroom Daze, via flickr

Darwin’s birth to a relatively wealthy family headed by a physician, his father Robert, suggests someone probably would have written about the birth giving an approximate time of day.  I feel confident that information exists — but I’ve not found it online, nor in my few biographies.  (I may have just overlooked it.)

Lincoln was born to a frontier family where writing things down at all may have been a rarity.  I’ve queried several experts to no avail.

At length, I have found some potential value to astrology.  “Accurate” astrological readings require a birth time, within an hour or two generally, to accurately note star and especially planet placement in star charts.  So astrologers bent on casting the astrological charts of famous people have worked to get their birth times, in order to make charts “accurate.”

I’m not saying the claims of fate made in these readings have any accuracy — all I’m saying is that the work to get the exact birth time might actually have done that.

Astrothemes claims Charles Darwin was born at 3:00 a.m., probably close to Greenwich Mean Time; the same site claims Lincoln was born at 6:54 a.m, close to Central Standard Time.

Ominously for accuracy, the site gives absolutely no information on how those times were ascertained.  For all we know the times are completely fictional.

Abraham Lincoln's birthplace

A replica of what experts believe Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace cabin looked like, near the spot where it stood near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Photo by mobilene

GMT and CST are six hours different; if these times are close to accurate, we can say both men were born in the morning in their respective time zones, but about ten hours apart.

Where would astrologers get Lincoln’s birth down to the minute?  Is either of these birth times accurate?

More:


Rachel Carson biography, On a Farther Shore, one of best books of 2012

December 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews listed as one of 2012′s top 25 books William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore.

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore. MPR  image

William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore. Minnesota Public Radio image

Rachel Carson often gets credit for starting the modern environmental movement.  In highly cynical political times, Carson is under cruel smear attack from people who wish the environmental movement did not exist, and who appear to think that we could poison Africa to prosperity if only we’d use enough DDT, contrary to all scientific work and medical opinion.

Souder’s book, issued on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s best-known book, Silent Spring, lays out the facts.

Nice to see that book lovers like Souder’s work, too.  Carson’s work was painstakingly accurate as science, but also a wonderful read.  Silent Spring has a larger following among lovers of literature than science, a tribute to her writing ability.  Souder’s book plows both veins, science and writing.

Cover of On a Farther Shore, by William Souder

Cover of On a Farther Shore, by William Souder

In circles serious about science, the environment, human health, and literature, Souder’s book is the book of the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.  There is irony there.  Pesticide manufacturers mounted a campaign against Silent Spring and Rachel Carson calculated to have cost $500,000 in 1962, when that book was published.  Souder’s book fights propaganda from Astro-turf™ organizations like Africa Fighting Malaria, a pro-DDT group that collects money from chemical manufacturers and anti-environmental political sources for a propaganda campaign that costs well over $500,000/year.  Despite all the paid-shill shouting against Rachel Carson and her work, it is the voice of On a Farther Shore that stands out.

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Carl Sagan Day, November 9, 2012

November 9, 2012

Electioneering cut into my planning — didn’t get anything done for Carl Sagan Day, today, November 9.  Here’s the post from last year, with a few links to sources including new sources at the bottom.  “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works,” Sagan said.  Boy, howdy, now more than ever.

Have a happy Carl Sagan Day!

_________________________________________________________________________

Press release from the Center for Inquiry:

Carl Sagan Day: November 9 — Celebrate with us!
Event Ideas & Sagan Day Commemorative Posters

Carl Sagan Day Poster 2011Carl Sagan was a Professor of Astronomy and Space Science and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, but most of us know him as a Pulitzer Prize winning author and the creator of COSMOS. That Emmy and Peabody award-winning PBS television series transformed educational television and continues to affect the hearts and minds of over a billion people in over sixty countries.

No other scientist has been able to reach and engage so many nonscientists in such a meaningful way, and that is why we honor Dr. Sagan, remember his work, and revel in the cosmos he helped us understand.

Two years ago, CFI–Fort Lauderdale and other groups hostd the first Carl Sagan Day event in Florida.  It was a fantastic success and now individuals and groups around the world are planning their own tributes with science fairs, planetarium shows, teacher workshops, star parties, COSMOS marathons, and more—all to say “Thanks!” to Sagan and to bring his gifts to another generation of “starstuff.”

How can you celebrate Carl Sagan Day?

Whether you’re an independent skeptics group, an astronomy club, a science department, a researcher, a teacher, a student, or just a really big Sagan fan, there are plenty of ways to celebrate Sagan Day:

  • Host a COSMOS marathon—all 13 episodes are available for free at hulu.com.
  • Check out Sagan’s many books at your local library or bookstore using the thorough listings from WorldCat.org.
  • Enjoy the special collection of articles by or about Sagan, previously published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
  • Listen to Sagan’s last public address for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) as replayed on CFI’s podcast, Point of Inquiry: “Wonder and Skepticism.”
  • Listen to Ann Druyan, writer, producer, and widow of Sagan, discuss life with Carl, his outlook on life, and his famous Gifford Lectures, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience,” also on Point of Inquiry.
  • Host your own apple pie baking contest (from scratch, of course).
  • Dress like Carl for a day!
  • Refresh your skeptic skills with a review of Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit.
  • Invite your friends over and try to convince them you have a dragon in your garage.
  • Take in a star show at your local planetarium.
  • At the very least, seek out a dark sky, look UP, and reconnect with the grandeur of the cosmos.

Let us know how you’re planning to commemorate Carl Sagan Day 2011 and we’ll add your event to our Carl Sagan Day Event Calendar to help spread the word.  Please email your event information to grassroots@centerforinquiry.net.

Great collection of posters, featuring Sagan, the Very Large Array, and quotes from the good doctor, here.

November 9 is the anniversary of Sagan’s birth, of course.

More, for 2012:


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