Sunday, April 5, 2015

Barking Mad

Today, Easter Sunday,  I was at Frozen Head State Park; one of my favorite hiking haunts. I reflected on James Earl Ray, the guy who murdered MLK, and was a prisoner nearby, at Brushy Mountain. He  escaped in 1977 and ran 8 miles in 55 hours. Gary Cantrell heard that, and said to himself "I could do at least 100 miles in that time",  and thus were the insane "Barkley Marathons" born. Runners must complete 100 miles in Frozen Head in 60 hours, including 54,200 feet of climb.  Only 15 runners out of 800 have completed it. Totally tonto. Barking Mad. This ultramarathon "eats its young". "You don't come here to be victorious; you come here to be humiliated." This year, a week ago, all 40 failed.

I struggled up 1500 feet, rested in the sun with my dog, and returned with a gammy knee.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz’s book, "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite", has generated much discussion over the last few months. Deresiewicz chiefly targets the Ivy League and their equivalents. An elite education should spark creative drive, above all feeding and motivating student curiosity. Instead, Ivy League students are ‘excellent sheep’, cultivating identical resumes from prep school onwards, conveyed  via uniform college A grades into the sterility of finance and consulting.

My own biases tap nicely into parts of his description. Deresiewicz encourages high-schoolers to look beyond the elite institutions and to populate public universities and those liberal arts colleges that have stayed true to their mission. But lesser-raking colleges have similar ills. Almost without exception, universities have become almost pure money making machines. The professors, who used to be recruited on their academic brilliance and reputations, are now valued more on their, admittedly related, ability to bring in money. In science, a rapid drive towards group-think has led to individuals being evaluated less on their ability to perform or directly supervise research, and more for their ability to lubricate efforts federating dozens or even hundreds of scientists in competitions for multi-million dollar contracts. In a recent discussion I had with a Vice President of a midwestern college the only subject that seemed to interest him was the setting up of a lucrative company based on the university's research assets.

Tension between the acquisition of creative knowledge and the acquisition of wealth is not new, but a truly intelligently designed system recognizes their equivalence. Wither the Ivy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rage Against The Machine

"Zone Three please board." We present our boarding passes at CLT.
"You have fallen out of the computer system. You cannot board." says Rayna, unapologetically.
"Magically fallen out of the system, huh?" I say, in a soft voice.
"If you intimidate me I will have you arrested", and she exits, slamming the door.

 Jessica puts us first in line on standby for the next flight, at which we are treated to:
"Your standby boarding cards are invalid. You are not in the system" as seven other standby passengers board before the door slams again.

Ah, well, at least they will pay the hotel overnight.
"Which hotel would you like, sir?"
"We don't care as long as it has a restaurant where we can eat"
 and, of course, Jessica puts us in a hotel with no restaurant.

US Airways and American: "working hard to become the greatest airline in the world".

Monday, February 16, 2015

West Country Wassail

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson - from Norfolk.
Through Southern England on the train from London  to Plymouth on a cold, sunny Winter’s day. The train passes Aldermaston, the atomic weapons establishment, the British Y-12, where  Bertrand Russell and others vented their spleens, founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. In an equine interlude we nip past Newbury racecourse, which was a German POW camp in World War II, and onto the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.  Past Stonehenge then through some curiously-named places: Littleton Panell, Marston Magna, Nunney, Potterne, Urchfont. Next is Glastonbury (the world’s largest rock festival), Taunton and Exeter. My train, arrives at Plymouth, where my daughter, Serena meets me.

We’re in the West Country now, and the people are somewhat annoying.  First and foremost, there’s no decent football team here for hundreds of miles. Then, some of the locals claim their accent to be at the origin of Americanese.  But I know that the dialect of Norfolk, where I come from, has the closest ties to that of Eastern New England; I don’t care whether Plymouth, MA came before Norwich, CT. What’s even more galling, though, is that they claim to have had Britain’s greatest sea-dog, Francis Drake. Now, we from Norwich had the brilliant Nelson (above), who single-handedly thrashed Napoleon. This guy Drake, supposedly a Vice Admiral (but really a pirate) was (or wasn’t) playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588 when informed of the approaching Spanish Armada. He (maybe) said there was plenty of time to finish the game before sailing out to singe the beard of the King of Spain, or whatever….Peasant!

Monday, February 9, 2015

When I had the measles...

...back in the 1960s there was no vaccine. Of course, like all the other kids, I also got the mumps and chicken pox (then, annoyingly, shingles) . Was never a big deal; created those moments of closeness between mother and young child that reappear in the core of your mind in your fifties.

 So what is all this fuss about measles vaccines about?

Well, I don't like forcing people to do anything. But they must take responsibility for their actions.

So here's my suggestion:

 - no mandatory vaccinations, but

 - those who do not vaccinate their children bear the legal and financial liability for the harm that they thus cause to others, via increased insurance premiums and collective exposure to law suits from those harmed.

 Why is such a solution not being discussed?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Appalling Lack of Responsibility

DOE photo - degraded conditions at Y12

Frank Munger has reported on inexcusable neglect at Y-12, the nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge. Apparently there are buildings there that are being simply left to fall apart, with equipment contaminated by radioactive and other hazardous material sitting in standing water from roof leaks (see DOE photo above). These buildings are primed to release their contents into the groundwater.

Roof leaks!!! ?

What tiny fraction of the trillion dollars spent yearly on US defense would have sufficed to prevent roof leaks from happening?  Instead, like small children bored with new toys, we just ignore our past actions. We send our youth to foreign wars then neglect them when they return and are of no more use. We build nuclear weapons  then simply leave dangerous material unattended to leach into the groundwater,  willfully and negligently destroying the environment in doing so. Where on earth is our sense of responsibility?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

KTS - Think Beyond the Limits!

Klaus Tschira
SAP cofounder Klaus Tschira donated 7 million of his shares in 1995 to found the Klaus Tschira Foundation, a nonprofit established in Germany  to perform research in computational science and foster public understanding of mathematics, informatics and natural sciences (an amateur astronomer, Tschira has a small asteroid named after him). 

Last Friday was the 20th birthday party of KTS, entitled "Think beyond the Limits". KTS has funded projects to the tune of $300 million so far. I gave one of the two keynote lectures (Computational Science: Curing Disease and Saving the Environment) and the other was given by Mark Vogelsberger of MIT, who has used supercomputers to perform the most ambitious simulation yet of the evolution of the universe. Check his video out here!

Not all very rich people are greedy exploiters of the working class. Klaus Tschira - self made - a demonstration of  how some billionaires can be true forces for good for humanity.