The Calculus Wars by Jason Socrates Bardi

People outside of science often have the impression that the practice of science is a sort of altruistic pursuit of knowledge with all scientists working towards the same goal: increasing our understanding of the universe.  And, in a very rough sense, this is true, if one looks at the development of science itself and ignores the personalities that are involved.  However, if you look at the details, egos and the realities of limited funding often get in the way and produce dramas that are every bit as melodramatic as any other human endeavor.

There is no better example of this than that described in The Calculus Wars by Jason Socrates Bardi.  The Calculus Wars describe the development of calculus, today accepted to be independently discovered by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.  In fact, while Newton tends to get more credit (he technically did discover it first, though Leibniz published first), our modern notation is due to Leibniz.  When Leibniz first published his version, there was no big outcry.  But, over the years, as Newton want to assert his primacy over the discovery, the fight between Newton and his people and Leibniz and his became downright nasty, culminating in assertions of plagiarism.  In the end, Newton essentially won, as we tend to attribute calculus to him.  But, to paraphrase Bardi, while the discovery of calculus illustrates the great heights the human mind can achieve, the war that develop between these two demonstrates the corresponding depths we can sink to.

To me, the most fascinating part of the story is the life of Leibniz.  Here is a true genius, a man with no formal training in math (he was a lawyer) who taught himself what he needed to know to eventually develop calculus.  He was a renaissance man befitting the word, with activities in mining, math, science, politics, law, and philosophy.  He was in some sense the first geologist.  He established the first scientific society in Germany.  For all of his accomplishments and his genius, he languished in his later years researching a history of the genealogy of his sponsoring noble, an effort that both distracted from pursuits more befitting such a great mind and kept him in the backwaters of the scientific world.  If Leibniz had the intellectual freedom that Newton did, one wonders what he might have achieved.

Overall, this was a highly entertaining account of two great intellectuals and their personal battle.  It certainly makes me want to learn more about Leibniz.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has even a casual interest in the history of math and science.  While it does highlight the lows of scientific endeavor, showing the all too human face, I still believe that the scientific method is the most powerful way of looking at the universe that humanity has devised.

Westernauts

We should have known better.  But, the profit estimates were staggering and we couldn’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers.  There was no end to the thirst for new forms of entertainment, especially by the rich and powerful.  Already, with enough money, you could visit the deepest parts of the ocean, be king (or queen) for a day on your own private island with all your “subjects” catering to your every whim — and I mean every — or dive into the heart of a volcano.  Hell, with enough money, you could take a rocket to the moon and stay in the Sea of Tranquility Resort, offering what was promised as the best view in the solar system.  But, even with all of these possibilities, people wanted more — more entertainment, more thrills, more escapes from their every day lives.

When we had our “eureka” moment, we knew we were on to something big.  We would offer people the ultimate escape, time travel.  Tours in Time, we called ourselves.  Of course, we couldn’t send you physically back in time.  Clearly, that violates all sorts of laws of physics.  However, we could send your mind back in time, to hitch a ride, so to speak, with someone living in the past.

Mind-spying technology wasn’t new.  It was originally developed by the government to do exactly that: spy on our enemies.  And our friends too, for that matter.  With mind-spying tech, your consciousness essentially left your body and inhabited that of another, any one, without them knowing it.  While you were mind-spying, your thoughts were your own, but you could experience everything that your host experienced.  You would see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.  You wouldn’t know what they thought, but you experienced everything else as if it were happening to you.

Very quickly, we learned all of the important secrets of our enemies and trading partners and soon had major advantages over all of them.  We leaked scandals about leaders we wanted ousted.  We knew the weaknesses of competitors that we exploited in trade negotiations.  Soon, we were by far the dominant super-power on the planet, even eclipsing the all-powerful United States of America.

As the technology spread, it invaded other areas of life.  Mind-spying technology expanded beyond the realm of government and became a tool for law enforcement and entertainment.  The police began directly spy on criminal organizations while they plan their crimes.  Fans experienced football games from the perspective of their favorite athletes.  The porn industry was revitalized when they adopted mind-spying technology.  A man experiencing sex from a woman’s perspective?  There were no limits to what could be experienced.

Our team had taken the technology one step further.  We had begun experimenting with using mind-spying technology to send minds back in time.  Our primary clients were scholars, who used this ability to witness historical events first hand, which often led to completely new interpretations and the rewriting of many history books.  Law enforcement soon saw the possibilities and began hiring us to send them back to the scenes of crimes, mind-spying on suspects to determine without a doubt their role in said crime.  But, these were limited cases, funded by the government in very special circumstances.

With time, we perfected our capability to send minds back in time, but were still focused on special contracts with universities and the government.  We knew there would be a huge market for our technology amongst thrill seekers.  Imagine being able to go back in time and experience the World Championship match from the perspective of the MVP Jon Ratcsh or the Battle of Washington from the point of view of General Arthur O’Shea.  The possibilities were endless, and so was the profit potential.

We decided that our first “destination” would be the Wild West of the former United States of America.  Even to us, the West embodied a romanticism and a spirit of individuality that transcended the US, that somehow captured human nature like no other.  Our movies and games continuously featured the West and the characters of that time — Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James.  What better place to send our first tourists than that most infamous of times!

Our first client — our first Westernaut — was a poker fanatic.  He was known to drop more than the GDP of some of the smaller former states of the US in just one night.  His destination was Wild Bill Hickok, who was killed holding what became known as the Dead Man’s Hand — aces and eights.  Yet no one knew what the fifth card that Wild Bill died holding was and our client simply had to know.  He viewed it as the ultimate poker mystery.

Of course, Wild Bill died in the middle of the game, but that didn’t concern us.  Deaths often occurred while someone was mind-spying.  If the host died, your mind immediately returned to your own body.  In fact, there were rumors that some the very rich but very twisted participated in a modern form of snuff films this way.

However, some mysteries, it seems, are meant to remain hidden.  We sent our Westernaut back one hour before Wild Bill’s death.  That should have given him time enough to adjust to his new surroundings and “watch” as Wild Bill was dealt that fateful hand.  And, indeed, about an hour later, our client’s body shuddered just like bodies do when their mind-host dies.  But, unlike normal mind-spying deaths, our client didn’t immediately open his eyes and gasp for air.  Instead, his body functions shut down, his heart stopped and his brain waves ceased.  He died along with Wild Bill Hickock.

Needless to say, the family of our client, armed with a contract that guaranteed no harm, immediately sued us for all we had, all of the company’s assets.  The judges sided with the family and our company was shut down.  That was the end of our brief experiment with Westernauts.

This story was inspired by Rose and her mispronunciation — or my mishearing — of the word “restaurant”.

Operation Queenstrike

Yes, sir, I understand sir.

Yes, I’m aware how much money and time was invested in this operation.

No, sir, I don’t believe I could have done anything differently.

Yes, I understand that the King is very upset.

Sir, if you would only let me explain what happened.

Sir, as you know, I arrived in London about 6 weeks ago.  After about 2 weeks of searching and contacting other agents already in the field, I discovered a way into Buckingham Castle.  Taking the supplies I brought from Madrid, I made my way into the castle undetected.  I found a little-used room where I settled and began my preparations.  As instructed in my training, I mixed the chemicals together to prepare the poison, all the while observing the Queen to discover her routine.  As we had learned from our agents, she held court every Thursday, during which minor nobles from around the kingdom would travel to have their petty disputes heard.  Judging by the Queen’s manner, she certainly did not view this as one of the more pleasant aspects of being a monarch.

In any case, as we had decided during my training, I chose one of these open court sessions to strike, as it would cause the most sensational assassination.  The week before the chosen date, I sneaked into the throne room at night, and began the final preparations.  I scurried under her throne and created a little hole in the cushion, where I could lie in wait.

The morning of the court, before there were any signs of life in the castle, I took the poison and my weapon, a long, sharp needle, into the throne room, under the throne, and into the hole I had created.  I waited until court commenced. The throne room began filling with a number of despicable beings, men who in Spain wouldn’t merit the title of peasant, much less noble.  One particularly brutish fellow caught my eye only because he brought with him a vile creature, one of the rattiest cats I’ve had the misfortune to encounter.

Once the Queen had sat in her throne and began hearing the various cases brought before her, I dipped the needle into the bottle of poison and was about to thrust it through the cushion into the Queen when that ratty, vile monster appeared under the throne, its eyes glowing a hideous yellow color.  As it hissed and swiped at me, I lost my balance and fell to the floor.  The bottle of poison fell with me, smashing on the stone floor, spilling its contents.  The needle, too, fell and bounced from under the throne.

Fortunately, I was able to escape the infernal beast’s claws, but only just.  I scurried out from under the throne just as the cat’s claws caught my tail, severing it, as you’ve seen for yourself.  I raced for the needle, intending to complete my mission or die trying, when one of the Queen’s vassals stepped on the needle and immediately collapsed.  This of course caused a great commotion, due to which I was able to escape from the throne room, having realized that the mission had failed.

I made my way back to Spain, finally reaching Madrid only last week.  I’d lost of bit of blood from my encounter with that damnable cat, and was very weak upon my return.  The last week I’ve been recovering from my wounds.

That is the extent of my report, sir.

Yes, sir, I realize the opportunity that was lost.  But, as I described, there was little to be done.  The cat completely disrupted my plan.  There was little I could do against such a beast.

Possibly, sir, if I had kept my calm when the cat attacked, I may have been able to complete the mission.  Given the circumstances, sir, I don’t think there was much I could have done differently.

Yes, sir, I understand.  I will report immediately for reassignment to Paris (that god-forsaken cat-hole).

Nothing, sir.

Inspired by the children’s rhyme Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat.

Lost Musings

Warning: Spoilers follow.

I’m not a Lostie.  I didn’t watch any of the first season.  But my wife got into it and eventually I started watching to, catching maybe half of the remaining episodes, enjoying them enough that I was into the characters and the storyline.  Maybe not as much as some who watched from the beginning, but enough to look forward to the episodes I could catch.

I understand that the writers, from what they’ve said, view Lost as a character-driven show.  And there were characters I enjoyed, most of all Daniel Faraday, Sayid, and John Locke.  The writers emphasize this because they know that those who are into the show because of the mythology were going to be disappointed.

And, I, being one of those that was more interested in the mythology, was disappointed by Lost’s end.  The final episode was all about the characters and not at all about the mythology.  Not a single new insight was revealed.  The writers state that the mythology doesn’t matter, that the show was always about the characters.  I don’t buy it.  The mythology — the mystery of the island — was the hook that gave Lost that unique spin at the beginning.  The characters were extremely important, but so too was the island itself.  And nothing was revealed about what the island was.  Based on what Jack’s dad said, we can infer that the island was a real place.  And the fact that characters came to the island and left again for the outside world also implies that the island was a real place in the real world.  However, how does a place with the strange properties of the island exist in the real world?  What does it represent?  Where did it come from?  How does it have the properties it does?  Whether pseudo-science or magic, the island was not something of the normal world.  What was it exactly?

The more I’ve dwelt on it, the more I wondering if there was no real rhyme or reason to the island.  Things were just random.  Strangeness comes and goes with no explanation.  The time travel was central for a while, but then it was dropped, especially the whole time-works-differently meme that Faraday explored.  I missed the polar bear, but that seems to have never come up again.  The temple seems to be another example of this.  It almost feels that the island was one big Duex Ex Machina who’s only purpose was to throw obstacles into the characters’ ways, to cause confrontation.  I’ve seen others wonder the same.  I don’t mind that random things happen to the characters.  That’s the way life is.  But, there has to be order to what can happen.  Lost didn’t have that.

In my opinion, the mythology of the show is just not self-consistent or fleshed out, probably not even to the writers.  If you create a world for your characters to play in, it should be the first rule that you make the rules of the world consistent, that they have some logic and reason behind them.  They don’t have to have anything to do with our world, and can involve magic or super-science, but they have to have order to them.  The mythology of the island doesn’t seem to.  Why was it so bad for the Man in Black to leave the island?  What would happen?  What would happen if the island had been destroyed?  These fundamental questions to the show’s premise were never even touched upon.

I’m also annoyed, as I was with Battlestar Galactica, that, in the end, the struggle between faith — embodied by John Locke — and science/reason — personified by Jack Shephard — ended with faith essentially winning out.  Jack embraces the mystical of the island, embraces the destiny that John had always told him was there, and becomes the protector of the island, on faith.  And the last scene is nothing except a homage to faith and an afterlife.  Reason loses out, just as it did in Battlestar Galactica.

Overall, what I did watch about Lost I enjoyed.  I especially liked the story-telling devices: the flashbacks, the flash-forwards, and the flash-sideways.  I liked that there was no black and white, that even the most despised characters — Linus and the Man in Black — were nuanced characters with motivation (though the Man in Black became pretty one-dimensional at the end).  There was a lot of positive to the show.  But, there was enough negative that left me overall disappointed with the end result.

Maybe the writers do have a coherent idea of what the mythology of their world is.  If they do, I didn’t see it.

Reflections on a boyhood idol

Jefferson_Memorial_with_Declaration_preambleGrowing up, my idol was Thomas Jefferson.  As one of the founding fathers, he was a giant in US history.  History books aimed at children described all of his great achievements, including authoring the Declaration of Independence; founding the University of Virginia; as President, sponsoring the Lewis and Clark expedition and purchasing Louisiana territory; and his role in the Revolution.  He was one of the pillars upon which this country was founded.  Further, he was an amateur scientist and inventor, a man who was always investigating the natural world around him and who probed the secrets of that world.  He was a renaissance man, a man who could achieve anything he set his mind to, a true American genius.

That was in the children’s books, and, of course, it is all true.  However, there are many aspects of Jefferson’s life that didn’t make it into those books, actions and words that reveal that Jefferson was all too human.  Even setting aside his relations with Sally Hemming, there were such flaws in his character that demonstrate he could be the pettiest of men.  He was a man nearly defined by contradiction.  Writing that “all men are created equal,” he nevertheless never freed the vast majority of his slaves, some 130 being sold upon his death to help settle his debts.  And, speaking of those debts, while he railed against the Federal government’s spending, he himself never took account of his own, racking up mountains of personal debt that he could only sustain by taking out loans. He advocated small government and attacked his rival — and friend — John Adams for excessive use of executive power, but then, in an even bigger expansion of that power, purchased the Louisiana territory.

However, the most disappointing thing that I’ve learned, for one who so idolized him as a boy, is his shear pettiness and vindictiveness.  Jefferson, while never publicly attacking any rival, supported many newspaper men in their slanderous attacks of enemies, even those who had been dear friends at one time, such as Adams.  The words he had these newspapers print on his behalf were vicious and vile, at a level that almost makes our current politics seem cordial.  But, when confronted, Jefferson always deflecting the blame onto others, never taking any responsibility for his own actions.  Jefferson even directly undermined the administration of Adams while serving as his Vice President.

While there is still so much to admire about Jefferson, especially the mind behind all of the powerful words that form the foundation of our country, the man’s actions certainly do not live up to those words.  As I read more and more about Jefferson and the Revolutionary era, the more I am dismayed by the man my idol really was.

I don’t know if there is any real lesson to take from this, except that there are no perfect people out there; even the best of us are flawed.  In an era where idols are now athletes and actors, who continuously show us that they are no more deserving of that respect than anyone else, it is both unsettling and liberating at the same time to realize that even those who we’ve put on the highest possible of pedestals were human, just like us.  Maybe it is even more amazing what men like Jefferson accomplished, in spite of their imperfections.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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