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.

 


We are poorer because Farley Mowat is dead

May 9, 2014

Farley Mowat died May 7.  He was 92.

The man was such a champion of the environment that he was, at one time in the 1980s, prevented from traveling to the U.S., because he was listed with Immigration as a potential terrorist.  He may be the only person so listed, simply for urging that we stop killing animals.

Mowat was unsurpassed as a pure curmudgeon in favor of the wild, wild animals, wilderness, and environmental protection.  He was a story teller above all, understanding completely the powerful role that stories play in moving government policies — which his books frequently did.  His first works, on indigenous peoples in Canada’s far north, wrought significant changes in Canada’s policies towards those now known as First Nations.  When his signature book, Never Cry Wolf, was translated into Russian, Russia prohibited hunting wolves.

Victim of virus arcticus, Farley Mowat, probably in the 1970s; image from Econet.ca

Victim of virus arcticus, Farley Mowat, probably in the 1970s; image from Econet.ca

From the Washington Post obit notice:

“I keep my optimism alive and revitalized by accepting the fact that we are a bad species, and probably haven’t got much time here,” he told The Washington Post in 1994, “and it’s not going to break my heart when Homo sap wanders offstage.”

Then he added, “Wanna get some more coffee?”

Barry Goldwater might say that extremism in pursuit of noble conservation is no vice.  Mowat wouldn’t care what Goldwater thought.

So long, Farley Mowat.

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A lot of people reading Piketty — the right ones? Enough to matter?

April 23, 2014

An article in the Washington Post calls Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a “runaway best seller.”

Have you read it?

Thomas Piketty - Professor of Economics, Paris School of Economics; photo from The Next Deal

Thomas Piketty – Professor of Economics, Paris School of Economics; photo from The Next Deal

Are you aware of the contents?

Are the right people reading it — especially GOP Members of Congress whose minds need to be changed?  Or, are enough people reading it to make a difference in American politics?

There are presses cranking it out in the United States, India and Britain, and the book is in at least its fourth run. Even though the book was already a hit in its native France, it’s now taking off among English readers around the world, said Donnelly. She expects that sales in China, Hong Kong and Japan will also soon follow.

Piketty, already widely cited for his work on income inequality, has clearly touched a nerve. The book argues that the underlying mechanisms of capitalism tend towards massive inequality. Piketty argues that the era between 1930 and 1975 — often hailed for the way in which wealth was broadly shared — was actually a departure from the norm. That period of economic growth, he says, was the result of unusual circumstances like World War II, a global depression and the government’s actions in the aftermath of those events: strong policies raising taxes and increasing regulation. But now, with many of those policies rolled back, societies are reverting back to extreme inequality.

What do you think, read it or not?

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Typewriter of the moment: Thomas Merton

April 16, 2014

Thomas Merton's typewriter, at Bellarmine University

Thomas Merton’s typewriter, at Bellarmine University; image from Spiritual Travels blog. Photo by Lori Erickson

One of Thomas Merton’s typewriters sits on display at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Who? You remember, the guy who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain.

Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was an American Catholic writer and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.[1][2][3]

Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US,[4][5] and was also featured in National Reviews list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century.[6] Merton was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton has also been the subject of several biographies.

It’s a French typewriter, by Royal, with French characters available for use.

Closeup of Thomas Merton's Royal Typewriter; The Thomas Merton Center

Closeup of Thomas Merton’s Royal typewriter, showing some of the special characters available for French; The Thomas Merton Center

 

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Another typewriter displayed by the Thomas Merton Center. One of Merton's?

Another typewriter displayed by the Thomas Merton Center. One of Merton’s?


February 18, 1885: Twain’s novel Huck Finn, published in the U.S.

February 18, 2014

Today is the 129th anniversary of the U.S. publication of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another installment in the novelization with great embellishment of the childhood of Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri, before the Civil War.  Earlier installments included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Cover and binding of the first U.S. edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemens. Gutenberg Project image

Cover and binding of the first U.S. edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemens. Gutenberg Project image

It is  THE great American novel.  It is the novel in which America faces its coming-of-age, in the metaphysical ramblings of a 13-year-old boy in the dark, on a raft in the Mississippi River, with an escaped slave who is a good friend, and has saved his life.  Huck Finn confronts reality:  Should he do what the preachers say to do, or should he do the moral thing instead?

America, most of it, grew up with that realization, coming even as it did, a generation after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a good school, one probably unaffected by the damage done to learning by George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” nor more recent purges of quality in the classroom such as “value-added teaching,” “Racing to the Top,” or Common Core State Standards or the folderol conservative backlash against education in general, Tom Sawyer is often a child’s introduction to Twain, and to book-length literature.

In my youth, Tom Sawyer was so popular with teachers, and reading aloud by teachers was considered such a great idea, I think I heard the book three times.  I know Mrs. Eva Hedberg, in my third grade class in Burley, Idaho, read parts of it.  My recollection is that Mrs. Elizabeth Driggs and Mr. Herbert Gilbert both read it to us, in fourth and fifth grade, in Pleasant Grove, Utah.  (There were other books; I think I heard five of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books between those three teachers.  Reading was golden to them.  Mrs. Hedberg even gave me credit for reading encyclopedia, cover to cover, with each letter of the alphabet counted as a book.  Our World Book volume for the letter S had disappeared; I’ve never been good at snakes.)

Twain once remarked that he didn’t think a youth could read the Bible and ever draw a clean, fresh breath of air again.  Tom Sawyer can similarly haunt the life of a person, though generally to higher moral standards.

I had hoped they’d continue to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  When they didn’t, I borrowed it from the Pleasant Grove Junior High Library and read it through.  I read it in the middle of the modern civil rights struggle, between 1963′s horrors and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, just as our Vietnam tragedy was really ramping up.

Wait.  I remember Mr. Gilbert being stopped by a question on Huck’s father, Pap.  This was in Deep Mormonia, in Utah County.  Pap drank a bit.  Well, that’s not accurate.  Pap drank to excess, often.  Most of my fellow students had no knowledge of the drinking of alcohol.  Their parents didn’t drink, not in front of the children if they did, since imbibing alcohol was a violation of the LDS Church’s Word of Wisdom, a commandment that they treat their bodies as temples, not as amusement parks.  That bodily purity rule put alcohol, tobacco and caffeine off-limits.  Most of the parents simply didn’t drink.   It would have put sugar off-limits, too, had there been enough sugar to abuse as late-20th century America did.  Also, there was the issue of the LDS Church having significant holdings in the U & I Sugar Company (Utah and Idaho), which made sugar from beets, and blessed the church with a significant stream of income, from the Coca-Cola bottlers alone.  But I digress.

Maybe we did hear some of Huck Finn.  I didn’t hear all of it — mumps, or something.  And I checked it out on my own later.

One line jumped out at me from the start.  It is a powerful lesson in government and democracy.

In the course of the novel, Huck falls in with a couple of crooks, the Duke and the King.  They make their swindles in land deals on lands to which they don’t have title.

In Chapter XXVI (26), Huck accompanies the two swindlers to an orphanage of sorts.  The duke and the king decide to sell the orphanage, and leave town before their purchasers discover the sales are frauds.  Early on in their hustings they collect a bag of gold. Then Huck sits down to dinner with one of the girls at the place, and he meets a few others who all treat him rather kindly, and in the course of an hour or two he begins to have second thoughts, fearing for the fate of the orphans.

Meanwhile with investments coming in so fast, the duke and the king ponder leaving town earlier than planned, with at least the bag of gold, fearing they might be discovered.   In the course of their conversation, overheard by Huck hiding in the room, the king works to convince the duke that most of the town’s people remain bamboozled:

Well, the king he talked him blind; so at last he give in, and said all right, but said he believed it was blamed foolishness to stay, and that doctor hanging over them.  But the king says:

“Cuss the doctor!  What do we k’yer for him?  Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?  And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

Savor that one, and let it sink in for a bit.  “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?  And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson trafficked in democratic institutions at a metaphysical level, understanding men were no angels, as Madison put it, but with a bit of education a people should be able to rule themselves as well as, or better than, a tiny elite, even if that elite were educated.  But they understood at the wholesale political level that a check was necessary on the people; in 1822 Madison defended free public education in a letter:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.  And a people who mean to be their own governours,
must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

In Huck Finn, just over a half-century later, Twain was writing about applied politics, the theory, not the hypothesis, on a retail level.  Without education for the masses, the group who cynically bamboozles for money or power wins once they’ve got every fool in town on their side.

We have a political system that is more subject to corruption due to lack of education than lack of money.

To an honest politician, this is a huge burden.  You won the election?  You got the vote of every fool in town?  Then it’s up to you to act wisely, despite their foolishness.  Robert Redford’s character in “The Candidate” pulls an upset win in a U.S. Senate race — the film closes with the candidate, rather scared, sitting down with the party-provided campaign advisor, and asking in all earnestness:  “What do we do now?”

Happy anniversary, Huck Finn.  Perhaps we should fly the flag today in honor of the publication of the book.  We would fly it a bit nervously, perhaps.

Illustration from Chapter XXVI of Huckleberry Finn.  Illustrations by Kemble.

Illustration from Chapter XXVI of Huckleberry Finn. Illustrations by E. W. Kemble.

Twain himself hired E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition.


Whiskey and Cigar Day, November 30, 2013: We toast Mark Twain’s and Winston Churchill’s births

November 30, 2013

Mark Twain, afloat

Mark Twain aboard a ship, on his way to Hawaii. Young Samuel Clemens apprenticed to be a Mississippi river boat pilot, and held a fascination for water-going vessels his entire life. His pilot years are documented, and analyzed, in Life on the Mississippi.
This photo of Twain remains one of my favorites.

November 30 is the birthday of Mark Twain (1835), and Winston Churchill (1874).

This is the traditional Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub post to remind you. Both were lovers of good whiskey, and good cigars. Surely they would have toasted themselves with a drink and a smoke.

Even if we don’t, we can pretend we did.

In 2013, we have the benefit of having had a couple of years to digest Twain’s Autobiography, as we await our copies of Volume II, and we have the benefit of new scholarship and year to read a great book on Churchill, William Manchester’s and Paul Reid’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.

Twain had a comment on the Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education:

In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.

- Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson‘s New Calendar

The Nobel literature committees were slow; Twain did not win a Nobel in Literature; he died in 1910. Churchill did win, in 1953.

Both men were aficionados of good whiskey and good cigars. Both men suffered from depression in old age.

Both men made a living writing, early in their careers as newspaper correspondents. One waged wars of a kind the other campaigned against. Both were sustained by their hope for the human race, against overwhelming evidence that such hope was sadly misplaced.

churchill-time-cover-man-of-the-year-1941.jpg

Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine. Churchill’s career was built much on his work as First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he took in 1911.  While he was the goat of the Battle of the Dardanelles (and had to resign as a result), his earlier work to switch Britain’s Navy to oil power from coal, and to use airplanes in combat, kept the British Navy as an important and modern military organization through World War II.

Both endured fantastic failures that would have killed other people, and both rebounded.

Each possessed a great facility with words, and wit, and frequently said or wrote things that people like to remember and repeat again.

Both of them rank near the top of the list of people to whom almost any quote will be attributed if the quote is witty and the speaker can’t remember, or doesn’t know, who actually said it.

Both men are worth study. And wouldn’t you really love to have had them over to dinner?

Twain, on prisons versus education:

Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.” – Speech, November 23, 1900

Churchill on the evil men and nations do:

“No One Would Do Such Things”

“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

—1923, recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany after the Agadir Crisis of 1911, in The World Crisis,vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 48-49. (Obviously, and sadly, Churchill was wrong — twice wrong.)

Image of Twain aboard ship – origin unknown. Image of Winston S. Churchill, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1941, copyright 1941 by Time Magazine.

More on Mark Twain

More on Winston Churchill

Orson Welles, with Dick Cavett, on Churchill, his wit, humor and grace (tip of the old scrub brush to the Churchill Centre):

Yeah, mostly this is an encore post from past years.

More, contemporary reports from 2012:

And in 2013:

Should you fly your flag today?  Congress doesn’t list this dual birthday as an event for flying the U.S. flag.  But you’re welcome to fly the flag any day.  Go ahead, if you want to.


Banned Books Week, September 22-28, at the University of Utah Bookstore

September 23, 2013

Banned Books Week special at the University of Utah

Banned Books Week special at the University of Utah

Nice mug!

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Banned Books Week is coming, September 22-28, 2013

September 18, 2013

Got a stack of banned books ready?

Banned Books Week is September 22-28 for 2013.

Banner for Banned Books Week 2013

So THAT’s what Lady Liberty holds in her left hand. (Reading the Declaration of Indpendence can still get you into trouble in a few places — mostly not in the U.S., but even in the U.S.)

We still have banned books?  Is that bad?

Consider, first, that on September 17, 2013, the Texas State Board of Education opened hearings on science textbooks to be “adopted” for Texas schoolsRadical elements of the SBOE furiously organized to stack rating panels with people who want to censor science, to stop the teaching of Darwin’s work on evolution.  (No, I’m not kidding.)

This comes in the middle of a rancorous fight in Texas over CSCOPE, a cooperative lesson-plan exchange set up by 800 Texas school districts to help teachers meet new Texas education standards adopted years ago (without new books!).  Critics labeled reading lists and any reading on religions other than Christianity “socialist” or “Marxist,” and complained that Texas social studies books do not slander Islam.

Then there is the flap over Persepolis, in Chicago.  With all the other trouble Chicago’s schools have several bluenoses worked to get this graphic “novel” banned (it’s not really a novel; it’s a memoir).  They complained about graphic violence in what is a comic book.  Persepolis tells the story of a young woman growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution.

The autobiographical graphic memoir Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi was pulled from Chicago classrooms this past May by Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett due to “inappropriate” graphic language and images, specifically, scenes of torture and rebellion. Parents, teachers, and First Amendment advocates protested the ban, and as a result — while still pulled from 7th grade — Persepolis is currently under review for use in grades 8-10. (For details, see CBLDF Rises to Defense of Persepolis.)

Persepolis is an important classroom tool for a number of reasons. First, it is a primary source detailing life in Iran during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War . Readers of all ages get a glimpse of what life is like under repressive regimes and relive this period in history from a different perspective. It also begs detailed discussion of the separation of church and state. Furthermore, this is a poignant coming-of-age story that all teens will be able to relate to and serves as a testament to the power of family, education, and sacrifice.

In America, textbooks get attacked for telling the truth about Islam and not claiming it is a violence-based faith; and supplemental reading gets attacked when it presents the violence the critics complain was left out of the texts.

We need to think this through.

What banned books have you read lately?

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Cover of "Persepolis"

Persepolis has been made into a movie.


Quote of the moment: Mark Twain, “death was an exaggeration”

September 3, 2013

Words of encouragement in tough times, from Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain:

” . . . the report of my death was an exaggeration.” Mark Twain

The note was published in the New York Journal, June 2, 1897.  While it’s true that Twain wrote this, most popular citations have added and rearranged words.

Text of the note:

James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now.  The report of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.

Mark Twain with kitten, in 1907 - Wikipedia image

Mark Twain with kitten, in 1907 – Wikipedia image


Win P. Z. Myers’s book!

August 12, 2013

Go here to ShelfAwareness, enter to win a copy of P. Z. Myers’s book The Happy Atheist.

They’ll subscribe you to their newsletter list.  But it’s a nice newsletter for smart and happy people who like to read (you, that is).  Plus, you may always unsubscribe, later.  If you use that link, I get an entry in the contest, too.  Selfish of me, no doubt.

Cover of The Happy Atheist; click image to go to Amazon.com and read a few pages.

Cover of The Happy Atheist; click image to go to Amazon.com and read a few pages. (I’m sure they’ll let you buy the book there, too.)

Good luck.

Oh, the book?

In this funny and fearless book, PZ Myers takes on the religious fanaticism of our times with all the gleeful disrespect it deserves, skewering the apocalyptic fantasies, magical thinking, hypocrisies, and pseudoscientific theories advanced by religious fundamentalists of all stripes. Forceful and articulate, scathing and funny, The Happy Atheist is finally a reaffirmation of the revelatory power of humor, and the truth-revealing powers of science and reason.

See Greg Laden’s review of the book, here.  It has a surprise ending, Laden said, in comments.

Myers strongly supports good science education — heck, he teaches biology at a state university.  You know him as the poobah at Pharyngula and one of the cofounders of Panda’s Thumb.  He probably gets a small smackeral of income off of each sale.  It’s probably a great read (I haven’t read it yet).

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Mark Twain in Fort Worth

July 29, 2013

Mark Twain statue, Trinity Park, Fort Worth, Texas Photo by Barbara Schmidt © 2010

Mark Twain statue, Trinity Park, Fort Worth, Texas Photo by Barbara Schmidt © 2010

I’m falling down in my Mark Twain fandom, obviously.  Barbara Schmidt, who keeps the fine site, TwainQuotes (www.twainquotes.com), features this photo of Mark Twain holding an open copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, on one of the main pages at her site.

I did not know such a statue of Twain existed in Texas, let alone within an hour’s travel from my home.  I’ll have to track it down.

Why is it there?  Twain never set foot in Fort Worth, that I know.

What other great statues hide around Dallas and Fort Worth?

More:

Mark Twain in Fort Worth's Trinity Park, by Amy Moore, at Everything Everywhere

Mark Twain in Fort Worth’s Trinity Park, by Amy Moore, at Everything Everywhere.  The statue was created by Gary Lee Price.


July 26: Happy birthday, George Bernard Shaw

July 26, 2013

George Bernard Shaw standing in the snow. (Actually, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, site of an annual Shaw festival) Wikipedia image

George Bernard Shaw standing in the snow. (Actually, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, site of an annual Shaw theater festival) Wikipedia image

Rather like a ghost of a ghost of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw occupies one of those uncomfortable seats in history:  Everybody knows the name, few people know anything about him, and though his work shapes our culture, probably fewer can tell you how, or why.

George Bernard Shaw shaking his head while looking at his bust, done by Sigismund de Strobl (Today in Literature)

Caption from Today in Literature: Shaw shaking his head while looking at his bust, done by Sigismund de Strobl (Photo from TinL, too)

Today in Literature sent out a note:

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin on this day in 1856 — “fifty years to soon,” according to his calculations, and as if from another planet: “Whether it be that I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world.”

Shaw portrays his parents as wildly divergent oddballs, their only shared emotion being a feeling of disinterested neutrality towards their offspring: “We as children had to find our own way in a household where there was neither hate nor love.” Mother’s habit of “lavishing indifference” upon him granted Shaw objectivity, and taught him to keep people at arm’s length — close enough to be moved by them, distant enough to be moved only to a quip, a quarrel, or a cause. And Dad was “a model father” because his ruinous enthusiasms for alcohol and tobacco inspired the son to abstain from both.

If, as Shaw claimed, “drink and lunacy were minor specialities” in his clan, then perhaps the spirit of detachment ran in the family too. Shaw seemed to think so: “Fortunately I have a heart of stone,” he wrote in 1939, “else my relations would have broken it long ago.” Biographer Michael Holroyd, concurring that the Shaws were an odd bunch, tells the final years and moments of one madcap uncle this way:

Uncle Barney was an inordinate smoker as well as a drunkard. Frequently drunk by dawn, he lived a largely fuddled life until he was past fifty. Then, relinquishing alcohol and tobacco simultaneously, he passed the next ten years of his life as a teetotaler, playing an obsolete wind instrument called an ophicleide. Towards the end of this period, renouncing the ophicleide* and all its works, he married a lady of great piety, took off his boots and fell completely silent. He was carried off to the family asylum where, “impatient for heaven,” he discovered an absolutely original method of committing suicide … involving as it did an empty carpet bag. However, in the act of placing this bag on his head, Uncle Barney jammed the mechanism of his heart in a paroxysm of laughter, which the merest hint of his suicidal technique never failed to provoke among the Shaws — and the result was that he died a second before he succeeded in killing himself.

Can you name any of Shaw’s works?  Which of them have you read, or seen performed?

What’s your favorite Shaw story?  Which of your favorite Shaw stories are untrue, or hoaxes?

______________

* The ophicleide is not well known today; it’s similar to the sudophone.

More:

George Bernard Shaw in 1899, at 43.

George Bernard Shaw in 1899, at 43. Most photos show Shaw as an old man — he should, perhaps, be remembered more as a young rake. Wikimedia image.  Shaw said, “The liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.” Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891, “The Two Pioneers.”


2013 RFK book and journalism awards

July 18, 2013

Press release from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, July 15, 2013:

Announcing the 2013 RFK Book & Journalism Award Honorees

Author Joseph E. Stiglitz will receive the 2013 Book Award for The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future

(July 15, 2013 | Washington, D.C.) The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights announced the winners of its annual RFK Book and Journalism Awards.

Joseph E. Stiglitz will receive the 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.  Stiglitz presents a forceful argument against America’s vicious circle of growing inequality, examining the impact it has on our economy, our democracy, and our system of justice. Stiglitz explains how inequality affects and is affected by every aspect of national policy, and with characteristic insight he offers a vision and a plan for a more just and prosperous future.

“Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality explains in graphic detail the most compelling crisis of our time – the punishing impact that has resulted from the growing chasm of financial inequality in our society,” said John Seigenthaler, Chair of the 2013 Judges Panel. “The judges for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award unanimously agreed that this book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist is most deserving of this year’s prize.

The 33rd annual RFK Book Award will be presented by Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy at a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on September 26.

The ceremony will also feature the presentation of the 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, which include student and professional categories. All honorees will receive a cash gift and a bust of Robert F. Kennedy by Robert Berks in recognition of their award.

This year’s winning journalists, in eight professional and three student categories, are:

  • International TV: Lobster Trap; Catherine Olian/Natalie Morales; NBC News/Rock Center with Brian Williams
  • Domestic TV: Poor Kids; Jezza Neumann; PBS/Frontline
  • International Print: The iEconomy; Charles Duhigg; The New York Times
  • Domestic Print: Prognosis: Profits; Ames Alexander, Karen Garloch, Joseph Neff, David Raynor, Jim Walser, and Steve Riley; The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer
  • New Media: Beyond 7 Billion; Kenneth Weiss and Rick Loomis; Los Angeles Times
  • Radio: An “Occupational Hazard”: Rape in the Military; Bob Edwards; The Bob Edwards Show, SiriusXM Radio
  • Cartoon: Cartoons by Jen Sorensen; Kaiser Health News, Austin Chronicle, NPR.org, Ms. Magazine, The Progressive
  • Photography: Embracing Uncle Charlie; Marc Asnin; CNN Photos
  • College Journalism: M-Powered: University of Mississippi students learn through service in Belize; Patricia Thompson, Director of Student Media; University of Mississippi
  • High School Print: Special Needs Cheer Squad Volunteer; Alexis Christo; North Star

The distinguished panel of judges for the Book Award included chair John Seigenthaler, acclaimed journalist, editor, publisher, and former aide to Robert Kennedy, as well as Michael Beschloss, American Historian and Author; Donna Brazile, Political Strategist, Commentator, Author; and Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law Professor, Civil Rights Expert, and Author. For the Journalism Awards, the expert judges panel included chair Margaret Engel, Director, Alicia Patterson Foundation, as well as Jennifer 8 Lee, Journalist and Advisor to Upworthy; Roberta Baskin, Investigative Reporter and Advisor, HHS Office of Inspector General; Kevin Merida, Managing Editor, The Washington Post; Delia Rios, Producer, CSPAN; Alicia Shepard, Freelance Journalist; and Karen Tumulty, Political Reporter, The Washington Post.

About The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

The RFK Center presents an annual award to the book that, in the words of award founder Arthur Schlesinger, faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy, his concern for the poor and powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity. Past winners of the RFK Book Award include Vice President Al Gore, Congressman John Lewis, Taylor Branch, Toni Morrison, Jonathon Kozol, and Michael Lewis.

About The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards

The RFK Journalism Awards recognize outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Robert Kennedy’s dedication to human rights and social justice, and his belief in the power of individual action. Winning entries provide insights into the causes, conditions, and remedies of human rights violations and injustice, and critical analyses of the movements that foster positive global change.

Impressive bunch — good to see Bob Edwards still pulling down awards.  I hope the Foundation will make the cartoons available online, and any other material they can.  Several tough environmental issues in the mix; Stiglitz adds to his list of awards (now, if only we could get any GOP Member of Congress to read the book . . .).

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Quote of the moment: Reorganization creates illusion of progress, and demoralization – Charlton Ogburn

May 31, 2013

Historian and birder Charlton Ogburn, right.

Historian and birder Charlton Ogburn, right.

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

This quotation is often misattributed to one Greek philosopher or another, or to the Roman Petronius.

Cover of "The Marauders"

Cover of The Marauders

Ogburn’s magazine article became the basis for his book, The Marauders. In turn, that was the basis for a movie, Merrill’s Marauders.  In the book, the quote is different:

As a result, I suppose, of high-level changes of mind about how we were to be used, we went though several reorganizations. Perhaps because Americans as a nation have a gift for organizing, we tend to meet any new situation by reorganization, and a wonderful method it is for creating the illusion of progress at the mere cost of confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.

  • The Marauders (1959), chapter 2, page 60 (attributed)

My old friend Frank Hewlett had been a correspondent in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, including Burma, during World War II.  Frank told me that he had been the first to call the American group “Merrill’s Marauders” in a war news dispatch on the progress the group made.  He did not get any credit for the book or movie title, but he said it was great that any group of soldiers that worked that well got popular attention for their work.  I’ve never found Hewlett’s dispatches from that period, but I’ve never found anything else he told me to be inaccurate.

In serious corporate reorganizations, or in corporate culture change operations, this quote is usually trotted out in opposition to whatever the proposed change may be.  Generally reorganizers will dismiss the thing as fictional, in at least one case claiming that renegade corporate leader Bob Townsend made it up.

In our work at Committing to Leadership at American Airlines, CEO Bob Crandall actually read the full quote (misattributed at the time), and observed that it was probably true — but not a good reason to stop a needed reorganization.  Crandall pointed to the last sentence, and said that a good manager’s job is to make sure that reorganization creates real success, not just an illusion of action, and that any good manager will recognize that reorganizations offer the danger of demoralization and confusion.  Those are problems to be managed, Crandall said, not fates that cannot be avoided.

Do you find Ogburn’s snippet of wisdom to be true? So what?

More:

Merrill's Marauders (film)

Advertising poster for Merrill’s Marauders; Wikipedia image


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!

 


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