Monday, June 25, 2007

...and a service announcment

Today is my last day before vacation. I'm planning a couple of days in Pennsylvania,* but chances are good I'll be lying low for a little longer than that. My house is going to be filled with in-law types for a week and a half, and it's crowded with the usual four. I don't anticipate a lot of quiet moments where I can sit and spin my mental wheels, but I'll probably have a fine crop of pissiness for when I come back.

It probably won't make much difference on these pages, but those of you with site meters may wonder why your hit counts suddenly went down.


* I'll try to get my wife to beep the horn near wherever I imagine topazz lives. I'd toot at all you New Yorkers too, but how would you tell?

Nothing Like a Good Book-Burnin'

When I was browsing public access science for my recent blathering about entropy, I often came across a figure like the one on the right here as a means of explaining disorder. The dark box is subdivided into two boxes, each containing atoms of some red or blue gas, happily and randomly bouncing around. The closed system defined by the dark box is not at equilibrium (although a closed system defined by either smaller box is): there is a free energy difference, or gradient, between them. The red balls are just dying to mix it up with the blue balls, and increase the entropy of the two-box system, which happens when the doors are opened and equilibrium is attained. The idea that aspects of nature can be considered purely informational is something I find to be kind of mind-blowing. (How do they know is, classically, not as dumb a question as you might think.)

The universe is bipolar about information, positively Manichean in its twin desire to stick blocks together and to kick them down all over the room. We people, either as aspects of the universe or agents of it, are just as bad. We build vast towers that tempt gravity (a nod belongs here). We establish stolid institutions that defy our rapacious instincts. Organizing things feels good. But so does blowing shit up.

If you're inclined, you can paint this dichotomy as the individual against the collective too. While there is common agreement that we're better off with government and other public organizations, too much organization by the bigger forces of society can be a Bad Thing. I'm as uncomfortable as the next guy at the information that the corporations have on me. My mailbox fills up with their subtle tauntings. How did they know I just bought a computer? Just had a kid? Why do we get every conceivable catalogue for mail-order crap at Christmastime?

The worst are the credit card companies. I've sold my soul to the convenience of easy consumption, which makes me feel bad enough, but twice a month, these financial demons try to procreate in the post office. If I'm being a good consumer, it's full of spiffy offers and better deals. If I'm paying down the debt and not spending, they get really pissed and send tempting missives plastered with my account information. "We know," they're reminding me. "You signed the form."

If I'm particularly naughty, they send me a raft of convenience checks. All you have to do is fill out the field on these, and untold riches are in your hands. Naturally, I can't throw the fucking things away--it would be even worse if that vaporous wealth belonged to some creative forger instead--and I've been accumulating them for ten years in a special little trash can, awaiting their moment of shining glory. Nature abhors a pack rat.

The moment came last month, sweet disorder at last. We took out the credit card and bought a clay fire pit at the local Home Cheapo, ostensibly for toasting marshmallows and a centerpiece for summer evening chats. Whatever. Ten minutes after starting the first blaze, I was scuttling into the home office for my special trashcan. Convenience checks in the fire: take that Citibank! Then went the statements, then the pile of receipts I've been inexplicably saving for a decade. My wife made little concerned faces as I crumpled 'em up one by one, offering them to heaven with a manic chuckle. Next I dug through my filing cabinet, pulling out everything I couldn't imagine I saved. Copies of our first mortgage? Gone. Student bills, scholarship applications from 1990--I kept these? really?--roast, motherfuckers.

It was getting late, and I was sobering up by the time my last college homework assignment went in the incinerator. I didn't burn everything I found, but I didn't leave quite enough for another orgy of the same magnitude. (I figure the mailbox will fill up again soon enough.) I looked at the box when I came in. It's filled with books, the few I bring myself to separate into a rejects bin, a handful of outdated political hit jobs (never read), the most unreadable romance and thriller hand-me-downs, and a 1972 edition of Funk and Wagnall's encyclopedia, complete but for one volume, that I bought in grad school for a buck in the pre-Google days.

Burning books is wrong, isn't it? But what possible useful bits are still contained in those volumes? No one will miss that information. It's sooo tempting...


Update: this guy was inevitable.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Review of Candide by Voltaire

Grade: B+

You gotta love IOZ. A book that represents that guy would almost have to be a satire, the more caustic, the more felicitous, the better. The subject would certainly have to be the poverty of the human condition, especially in a time of war, but not too heavy on that egalitarian crap please, an intellectual and aristocratic cast would be more his angle: IOZ is the kind of guy who can draw the line between equality and justice. Can anybody think of an author that reflects IOZ's puckish passion, his airy artifice, silly pseudonym, flagrant Francophilia? Yeah, I think I've got something.

Candide works at its most obvious level as a travelogue of eighteenth century woe, a thumb of the nose at any divine optimization, however ineffable. The eponymous character starts his days in a cozy fortress in Germany, makes some eyes at the baron's daughter, which earns him a big boot o' exile, and things only go downhill from there for the poor bastard. Candide chases his beloved Cunégonde across the old world and the new, at various times conscripted, beaten near to death, taken sick, driven to murder, and bearing witness to the gravest misfortune of others. Voltaire tries to outdo himself with atrocity (looking, sadly enough, not very far at all), but his touch is so light, and his pace so quick, that, well, it's not that you don't notice--that would miss the point--but you can't get through something like this without a tremendous helping of humor.

You'd think the repetition of theme would get old too--for most of the novel, Voltaire doesn't stray far from his idea that life is a miserable farce--but the tone is what keeps you engaged. It's why satire, done well, is brilliant. Voltaire seems to take a poke at every stodgy and horrible artifact of the pre-Enlightenment society that he can think of, and while I'd be lying if I claimed a deep familiarity with the literature of his time, he seems to be mocking with the form of this novel the clumsy romance of his (or any) day, and the unreadable Puritanical allegory that infected the previous century. Candide, as his name implies, is an impressionable shell of a man, but, while luckier than most (he's got to live through the hundred and so pages after all, if sometimes barely), he suffers the consequences of his naivete as such a creature might really be expected to. (Uh, usually.)

Voltaire skims a wide range of current events to establish the futility of optimism. A quarter millennium later, this modern reader was happy enough for the contextual footnotes. I picture some future generation of historians chuckling at America: the Book, as oblivious of 8/10 of the relevance as I was for Candide. Voltaire's prose, even in English, is witty and enjoyable, which highlights my general hatred of translations. For the bit of wordplay I caught, it kills me to know how droll the thing was in its original French, and in its original context. But regardless of how heavy it leans on popular references, it's the universal themes that keep Candide robust through the centuries. No one remembers whatever the hell Leibniz was on about philosophically, but that doofus Pangloss resonates to this day.

I was amused in this novel (and considering Jonathon Swift too) to compare the role of pamphleteers in the eighteenth century to bloggers today. Voltaire has a special place in his heart for the unlettered critics and hecklers. For the record, I'll accept his description for this sort of writing, cranked out by "one of those vipers in literature who nourish themselves with their own venom, a pamphlet-monger...a writer of pamphlets, a fool." Shit, I can't explain the blogosphere better than a Frenchman 250 years ago.

No review of Candide is complete without a dissection of the ending. I'll spare you the trouble: it sucked, a total cop-out, replete with the future-is-what-you-make-of-it shit, a coda as trite and necessary as Roger Waters brought us in The Wall or Mike Judge in Office Space. If not optimism, then at least there's honesty, something something, blah blah blah. But on the plus side, as I read the conclusion, eyes a-rolling, a fluffy white kitten (honest to god) happened to curl herself up in my arm. Maybe this is the best of all possible worlds after all.


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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

And in local news...

You shouldn't ever watch local netweork news. I have my doubts about the local paper too, but at least there I can find out when the bake sales are, and get the gist of the ineffectual process hurdles thrown up in the fight against Wal-Mart. TV news is just a wasteland in general, and you can bet that when the Boston networks deign to add some local flavor from the burbs, it's the most irrelevant sort of filler. (Kind of like this post. Sorry.) Two nights ago I was watching the tube with my wife: the lead story (presumably people are still killing one another in Iraq) was about some nearby man who bought counterfeit Colgate, possibly tainted with diethylene glycol. Not to worry, he feels fine, but he's awfully concerned about children possibly brushing with it. So was Fox, I guess, if by "children" you mean "ratings".

If I can't get edification, then at least give me humor. If you want to spot the faux dentifrice, there are various misspellings on the label. The stuff that doubles as an engine coolant is "for adolt use only." After all, what sort of person is dying highlight his pigeonhood to the masses?

"Normally, I'm a Tom's of Maine guy," he said no less than three times (old joke: if they invented it elsewhere, they'd call it teethpaste), as if that's exculpatory. Maybe he was a shill--I suppose I could forgive that.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Review of Gullivers Travels, by Jonathon Swift

Grade: B
Though most of us like to imagine ourselves anonymous as we crackle along the corners and concourses of these internets, individual character still has an annoying tendency of poking through. You can try to control your electronic output, position your profile in the best available light, and so on, but few of us are quite the actors as we imagine, and once you get the dynamic down, knowing people online doesn't have many fundamental differences with knowing them on the outside. Of my handful of pixellated pals, hipparchia is probably the worst offender of badly-hidden anonymity--she's got half a dozen versions of herself floating around (that I know of), but she can't keep her genuine and idiosyncratic charm out of any of them. She's got the likability and affability thing down, but she's also been known on occasion to strike an argument with a giant and necessary 2x4. Hipparchia is great.

If you're a more observant reader than me, you'll probably pick up right away that someone named hipparchia (among other things) is a horse-lover. In fact, I've got it on pretty good authority that rule by intelligent horses beats rule by dumbasses any day of the week. I can make a good guess as to what human novels such a creature might prefer, and so I reviewed one. As for me, I'm glad hipparchia still bothers to slum it with us yahoos.

The conventional way to introduce Gulliver's Travels as an adult is as a series of shocked revelations. Why, it's not a children's book at all. Oh my. Gasp, choke. I suppose that I got some of that when I was twelve, but to be fair, thanks to my parents' draconian television policies, I read Swift well before I ever caught wind of any terrible kiddified version. My grownup self was more interested in how the vitriol held up. My opinion is mixed.

You could maybe forgive producers their tender renditions if they only read half of the thing (which I suspect gives their attention spans too much credit). Swift's game throughout the book is as much to poke holes of honesty into various human fantasies (size, immortality, utopia) as into actual human institutions and character. Gulliver's voyages to Lilliput and Brogdingnag play more for straight laughs than scathing ones, and while it's funny enough to consider Gulliver fighting disgusting Brobdingnagian flies over scraps of meat (and so forth), the author is only knocking down houses of his own construction when he does that. The first half of the book isn't empty of political satire, but what's there is of a roughly Seussian sort, reduced enough into silliness that it doesn't sting very much.

The protagonist spends a lot of time treating with kings and nobles, and Swift doesn't knock them very hard from Gulliver's point of view, instead he treats them with a naive and likable narrative voice. In this mode, Swift's probably at his best when he lets his character get indignant about defending some horrible human institution or other. I didn't feel that he was painting monarchy as an evil in itself, merely a corrupted one, as all of our endeavors must be. His portrait of an essentially defective human nature suffuses every page.

Swift's pen gets sharper as the story progresses, however, and he gets consequently funnier too. His swipes at the Academy are priceless, whether it's scientists attempting to recover food from excrement and sunlight from cucumbers, extorting funding, or engaging in the self-evidently futile pursuit of competent and just government, Swift's in his highest gear driving across the kingdom of the floating island. If you were looking to skim this novel, I'd recommend skipping all the crap about the little people.

Gulliver's final journey is to a populated by a utopian society of reason-endowed horses and nasty, brutish, unintelligent humans. It's a mechanism, of course, to mock our faulty pretenses toward reason, but I didn't find myself liking the houyhnhnms all that much, with their annoying certitude (none really accepted their bestial natures in other societies), and their intolerance. Though Gulliver, like all humans, may be an imperfect intellect, the houyhnhnms cast him out only because he resembles the other yahoos. Swift (perhaps remarkably, given his times, and all his generalities about fictional foreign societies) avoids racist ideas, but the houyhnhnms, while admirably not dumbasses, are a bunch of speciesist bastards. Screw them.

Satire, like any writing, is an art. To succeed at it, you need to both tell the truth (or at least a truth), the harder the better, and you also have to be funny without being too silly. Now and then, Swift's truths seem a little easy, and he sometimes treats his subjects a little indulgently. He's an adorable sort of misanthrope. Which is maybe not a bad fit for hipparchia at all.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Personally, I Blame the Transistor

...or rather, I blame the transistor radio, cranking out newly portable tunes over those funky solid state electronics. The audacity of those engineers, I mean, really. By shrinking the size and power requirements for signal amplification, they made it so you could truck those things around anywhere, getting them out of the staid family room into the car, away from Mom and Dad's watchful eye. When the Japanese got their hands on the technology in the early sixties, the price of a transistor radio dropped to $20 (less than an iPod in 2007 dollars), it opened the door to what companies needed to get filthy rich: high turnover of content, monopolistic control of its release, and marketing directly to young people. We all heard too much of the case against radio distribution in the Napster days, but in its time, radio put the idea of creating demand on the map.

Now, I like the Beatles, I really do. I like how their songs range from lightweight and happy, to lightweight and serious (like scowling kittens). Yeah, they wrote well, and I've even been almost convinced a time or two that they wrote brilliantly, and sure, they had an interesting group dynamic, and they moved along with their times, blah blah blah, but by the Jesus they were bigger than, they revolutionized music like George Lucas revolutionized science fiction. They repackaged old ideas with an admittedly novel spin and with broader range (than some), but I see their outsized legacy as much as a function of luck and timing than anything.

They had the indescribable good fortune of providing a product when America was hungry for it, lucky enough to have a manager who had already packaged it. They were just in time to take advantage of widespread youth-oriented radio distribution, and just in time grab the American television audience as the post-war generation came into consuming age. They had savvy marketers, and they were smart enough---and yes, good enough musicians--to keep updating their image and their material. They were fortunate enough to be white. Not bad for a good-time Hamburg bar band. But on the other hand, when serious people debate the genius of the gang that sonically smirked through "Love Me Do" with the bunch that harmonized "Help Me Rhonda," then maybe that's a little telling.

The fortieth anniversary of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club band passed without much notice from me. There was some necessary (and only somewhat eye-rolling) hagiography on NPR, the requisite contrarian (but surprisingly even-handed) Slate article, and you know, I was mostly okay with it. I mean hey, I wasn't there. But even gentle Keifus has a limited tolerance for hero-worship. It was good and all, but constantly calling it the most brilliant musical composition evah is a little tiring. When American Idol contestants hashed out the old legacy, it didn't feel inappropriate. (If AI is anything, it's about recapturing that radio distribution model.) This weekend my daughter's fourth grade class is singing Sgt. Pepper (the song) as part of their year-end musical show, and that seems to capture the happier spin the Beatles sought even behind their deeper efforts. Yeah, that suits me just right.


P.S. You wouldn't believe what you can write a thesis on these days.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Well, this is going to be difficult to explain

I, um, well, I'm kinda turned on.


Sadly, you can't put the cheese back in the can

Fucking entropy.

Food science pioneer Edwin Traisman died yesterday. When I wrote my food science post, I pulled two canonical examples of culinary engineering purely out of my ass. Little did I know that both Cheez-Whiz and the every-time-identical McDonald's french fry were brought forth into being by a single extraordinary mind. Traisman worked at Kraft (in the Cheese division, natch) and opened the first McDonald's franchise under Ray Kroc.

Despite this resume, he managed to not be evil. According to the Business Week article, he was a pioneer in hiring women. According to NPR, he pushed Kroc to include more nutritional products in the McDonald's menu. In the 1970s, he moved to the University of Wisconsin, researching E. Coli before it was even scary, and was regarded as brilliant by his academic peers, even though he only held a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

He lived to be 91. Was it preservatives or good intentions? You be the judge.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Entropy Production and the Best of All Worlds

[I'll get back to my usual schtick soon enough. If you're interested, I tried to keep it accessible.]

Chemical engineering has historically been a phenomenological science, meaning that it's more based on observed phenomena than it is built bottom-up from the sub-microscopic nuts and bolts of the universe. If you were to, oh I don't know, go to graduate school in the field, you'd find a good third of the curriculum devoted to Transport Phenomena, which describe the rate at which thermodynamic variables--momentum, thermal energy, chemical potential (and charge too, though it's not usually lumped in there)--dissipate along gradients. Generalized equations of change can be set up describing how these quantities are conserved, how a system will organize itself under given boundary and initial conditions, how fast it will evolve. Classic and indispensible expressions fall out of these basic equations of change: your Maxwell's, your Navier-Stokes, your Fick's. External forces are allowed, and the variables are all coupled (temperature differences can cause mass flow, electrical currents cause heat, etc.), and things get hairy in a hurry for all but the basic systems. It's like they say about the weather, you can't possibly even define the conditions and variables well enough to even think about solving it.

Thermodynamics, another third of the core curriculum, usually discusses equilibrium, the end state of things. Thermo tells you the boundaries, what you can get if you squeeze this or bias that, how much energy is in that gradient, how much of it you can actually use. Thermo is like the finger-pointing nanny laying down the boundaries. Transport phenomena are clever children figuring out how to get away with shit inside of them. The equations of change have the first two laws of thermodynamics built in, but the "how" of them comes from recognizing which terms are important in a given situation, how various coefficients weight the importance of one dissipation mechanism over another.

You can balance any state variable really, and classical thermodynamics tells us that entropy is one such state variable. You can derive a rate of entropy production from these balance equations too. And if you start to look beyond phenomenology, entropy probably has the most generic definition of all of them. Statistical thermodynamics quantitatively links entropy to the number of available states that a thing can occupy. And the thing can be anything really: an atom, a person, a datum...once you get into informational theories of entropy, you've deviated far from being an engineer. Zooming into the molecular world of statistical thermo, it grows apparent how molecular ensembles can dictate macroscopic properties, and it can be useful in explaining and predicting phenomenological effects. Small systems such as cell structures or micromechanical devices or surfaces or local chemical environments can be thought to occupy some middle ground. [And really, things have occupied middle grounds for hundreds of years--the microscopic aspects of chemical and electrical processes have always been essential to their understanding and application.]

The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy of a closed system increases toward a maximum. When you start talking about the rate of entropy production, how fast it increases, you've entered the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. For steady systems, near equilibrium, there are various relationships suggested by non-equilibrium thermo that become useful. At the statistical mechanical level, entropy production must be considered probabilistic, and some weird stuff indeed arises, when entropy decreases for individual events in the ensemble.

Take that magic camera now and zoom back out, way out...farther...OK. Just like phenomenology has a habit of washing out microscopic events, enormous systems-of-systems can be approachable if you wash out some of the details of the usual phenomenology. Interestingly enough, non-equilibrium thermo appears to become useful again at this distant level. I've read some articles recently on the hypothesis of maximum entropy production for complex systems such as weather systems, ecosystems, or economies. The hypothesis appears to be completely baseless, but it has nonetheless been successful in describing some complex phenomena, and suggests that the recurrence of certain structures in complex systems is because they dissipate the great big energy gradients most efficiently. I hate the examples that these authors have used: phenomenological models describe waves and vortices and so on well enough, but to suggest that they can be interpreted as optimum dissipative structures is, well, interesting.

The question arises: is human evolution (genetic or social, take your pick) merely the most effective path that has so far developed to dissipate that huge solar energy gradient? You can see the danger of drawing out the cranks here, but just because speculation is silly and intellectually dangerous doesn't mean that it can't be fun.

People aren't at equilibrium (certainly not when they're alive), and neither is society. With the constant application of solar energy, we maintain at a roughly steady-state non-equilibrium condition. You can irresponsibly ask thermodynamics the same questions that philosophers have struggled with for millenia. Is human nature a development that facilitiates entropy production (with occasional fluctuations toward entropy absorption that wash out in the time average), and does human organization facilitate it? Is the nature of our ensemble developing over time, and do we waste heat better if we are brutal or if we are constructive? If we're happy or sad? Can it get better than this? Has it ever been, really?


Some public access reading, if you just can't get enough:

  • Maximum entropy production vs. Darwinism (science reporting, easy to read)
  • Entropy production and life as we know it (accessible, but I found it tedious)
  • Hey man, quantum mechanics isn't dissipative. Where's the entropy? (big words and a little math, read 1/3 of it and didn't seem bad though.)
  • Fluctuation theory for small systems (from Physics Today)

  • Saturday, June 02, 2007

    Book Review: The King Must Die by Mary Renault

    Grade: B
    This one's for Artemesia. I actually didn't know her at all in her Slate days, but the glimpses of her work that I've seen since have impressed me greatly. She frequently combines bits of classic mythology and modern science in a heartfelt, adult voice that is good enough to unite the deep cosmic and the intensely personal natures of these ideas. I've got no link for you, but maybe she'll be kind enough to append a fitting verse.

    Mary Renault seemed an appropriate representation for some aspects of Artemesia's subject and style. Other than a similar Classical take, Renault, writing hero stories in the 1950s, was very much a woman working in a man's world, much like the two historical Artemisias. Renault wrote to "solve" mythology, letting the history* behind the stories inspire her. The King Must Die takes place a solid millennium before Artemisia of Halicarnassus made a name. It's a retelling of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.

    What Renault is most deeply concerned with here is creating a plausible historical interpretation for the myth. She does a good job of toning down the more extravagant aspects (the story of the Minotaur is presented as a political upheaval), and of adding a convincing verisimilitude. She places Theseus in bronze age Greece, roughly 1400 B.C., as the Mycenaean (she uses the word "Hellene" with an apology) cultures edged the Minoan (and Minoan-influenced) civilization out of the Aegean, and as the city of Athens grew prominent among its neighbors. It was a time of religious and political change, drifting from fertility cults and a matriarchal society to the more familiar Greek pantheon and male-dominated autocracies. Renault's version of mother-worship is a conflation of the Demeter/Persephone myth and the goddess worship of the older Aegean societies; the male gods are growing in influence, but in her version, they remain close to their more modern personalities.

    [I will add that one goddess is conspicuously absent. Even if Theseus was favored by male gods, Poseidon particularly, the city of Athens had its own special goddess cult too, much as the Athenians had their own special patron hero. (What a bunch of smug exceptionalists they were.) Athena should have been a factor by this time, and if Zeus and Poseidon can grab some more modern aspects, then what the hell? One site I read mentioned some theories in which Athena evolved from the earlier mother-goddess religion. In this book, Theseus promises a shrine to the minor sea goddess Peleia upon his return to Athens. Maybe Renault is getting at it.]

    Theseus, of course, is an agent of this religious and political upheaval, and while Renault (as she notes) tries to write a feasible character portrait of the man(Napoleonic prick), it doesn't really take. It's too easy to take his impulsiveness and lust in stride with the times, and the author does not manage to get around his essential hero stature. To become the patriarch, he has to reject his role as a sacrifice to the Mother, which custom Renault paints at various times as barbaric and horrible. As though an absolute monarch is less so. Moreover, she portrays Theseus's piety as superior to the decadent and increasingly secular nobility of goddess-worshipping Crete. I'd have enjoyed the book more if there were a more honest--an angrier--conflict between the systems. I'm biased: if one must consent to an authoritative state ornament, then caging and periodic sacrifice seems just the thing for him.

    Although Renault's historical portrait is very good, I found her writing less so. A stronger voice might have gotten more out of that theme, might have found deeper levels of character. I stalled frequently on the prose too, whose clumsy archaisms recalled more boys knights' stories than they did Homer, lacking only (and thankfully) the thees and dosts. I'm still rating it above average though. The author gets some real points for innovating here, for avoiding the subsequent 50 years of derivative and inferior takes on old myths.

    Keifus (But I've certainly had enough of them for now. Up next, some classic satires.)

    *My iconoclasm just gets worse, doesn't it, Clio? Which muse would be right for you?

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