Archive | July 2014

Was Feynman a Fine Man?

What a hornet’s nest!

Back in May 2014 I posted The Neg, in which I compared the Pickup Artist technique to Richard Feynman’s account of picking up strippers from his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. I am no scientist, but I enjoy reading about science, and have read The Feynman Lectures, Six Easy Pieces, the Krauss bio and the comic-style illustrated bio of Feynman.

My opinion was that following his long courtship of, and brief marriage to, the terminally-ill Arline, he immersed himself in meaningless sexual experimentation for several years, and a bad second marriage. I was disappointed to read about his affairs with the wives of coworkers, but it did seem that he had finally settled himself with a third marriage.

On July 11th 2014, Ashutosh Jogalekar posted, Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon – a far more critical, but well-reasoned, take on the famous man. I only found it from links on the Galileo’s Pendulum post. Scientific American, however, soon removed Jogalekar’s post … then restored it some time later:

The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. … My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that’s the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today’s college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times.

At The Curious Wavefunction, Jogalekar explains why his post disappeared and reappeared:

Here’s the gist of the story:

1. I host a guest post on women in science and later, I write a post on Wade’s controversial book (these are 2 of almost 200 posts on a variety of topics I’ve written for SciAm).
2. In response to criticism of the two posts on social media, SciAm issues a public statement. The blog editor asks me to run “controversial” posts by him. No specific guidelines are discussed (something I now regret not doing).
3. I write a post about how my perception of Feynman has changed and how we need to judge historical figures in their entirety and understand the times in which they lived. I do not think the post was “controversial” in the least and therefore do not run it by the editor.
4. The post elicits both positive and negative responses on Twitter, blogs and email.
5. The post is taken down because the editors find it “controversial” and think that I should have run it by them. I am told that it would be best to part ways with the network.
6. SciAm resurrects the post with a note containing what I would consider an accurate, but incomplete, description of events.

Two days later, Matthew R Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum posted, The problem of Richard Feynman. Francis didn’t think Jogalekar went far enough, but many commenters asserted that Feynman was just a normal guy for his time being accused under modern political correctness:

Feynman doesn’t need us to defend him, anymore than Einstein does. Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves. It certainly does nobody any favors to say, as Ash Jogalekar did in a blog post for Scientific American, that Feynman was no worse than anyone else in his era. The post was removed by the editors (and I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a good tactic or not; I have mixed feelings myself), but several people archived the text before it vanished. [The post is now back. See the Update below.] While much of the post is valid — Jogalekar doesn’t deny a lot of Feynman’s bad behavior — he ends up falling into the same pit of excuse-making. Worse, he implies that Feynman’s “game” is probably universal and necessary for men to play.

On the same day another Sci Am blogger, Janet D Stemwedel, posted, Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach – essentially echoing Matthew:

While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.

And a day later, Mathematigal posted, Feynman is not my hero:

… every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I’ve mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman’s second wife divorced him because she didn’t like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.

I can vouch that a divorce action is not always the best source of facts. And it is not unusual for many men to want to sleep with women, and for some women to accommodate them. But as I have looked at the Polanski, Cosby, Allen and now Richardson and Charney stories it is clear that a lot of successful men that have preyed on women and girls will be granted the benefit of any doubt by other men, and even some women that admire their work.

So I will now think about Feynman a bit less charitably. But it isn’t just the famous that get a pass. The leading story in the NY Times last week was about a first year student who was raped at a party soon after arriving at Hobart and William Smith College.

It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.

The Fault in Our HBD

I recently blogged in HBD vs DNA, about how PZ Myers – who blogs Pharyngula at ScienceBlogs – took Nicholas Wade to task in The hbd delusion. HBD is short for human biodiversity, but also code for a reaffirmation of the belief that race is easily discerned by appearance, that the DNA of races are profoundly different, and that some races, “are more equal than others.”

Wade writes about science for the New York Times, so one might have expected his book to get some consideration in its Sunday Book Review. In, The Fault in Our DNA, however, David Dobbs instead relentlessly savages the basic premise:

… in “A Troublesome Inheritance,” Nicholas Wade, a longtime science writer for The New York Times, says modern genetics shows that “the three major races,” Africans, Caucasians and East Asians, are genetically distinct races that diverge much as subspecies do, and that their genetic differences underlie “the rise of the West.” …

Wade runs into much trouble making this argument. He indulges in circular logic. He tells just-so stories. While warning us to avoid filtering science through politics, he draws heavily from conservative historians who minimize the roles played by political power, geographic advantage, momentum, disease and dumb luck. Conveniently, this leaves more historical questions for genetics to answer. …

If Wade could point to genes that give races distinctive social behaviors, we might overlook such shortcomings. But he cannot. …

The result is a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book. Its most pernicious conceit is that it’s finally safe to talk of racial genetics because “opposition to racism is now well entrenched.”

It does seem that some Homo Sapiens, after leaving Africa, intermarried with Neandertals while others intermarried with Denisovans. Many sources affirm that about 1 to 4% of European DNA may be Neandertal and some 4 to 6% of some Asian and Melanesian DNA may be Denisovan. So if everyone had stayed put a few thousand years ago, there might be some truth to the idea that there are fixed differences between the races. But groups of humans kept migrating, conquering and intermarrying to the point where there is more likelihood of greater biodiversity between two ‘black’ people than between some black and white people. Among scientists without a racist agenda to grind, terms like ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘asian’ have no useful scientific meaning.

Confessions of a Bike Bully

I have to admit, when I get on my bike I become a different person. Usually, the first thing I do is look for a half-ton pickup truck – you know the kind with dual smokestacks – and run it right into a ditch. Because those PU drivers are totally afraid of anything on two wheels. After that I go after the sports sedans. Then for a laugh I ride hard down a crowded sidewalk, just picking off old ladies.

OK, none of that is true, despite what Courtland Milloy would have you believe in, Bicyclist bullies try to rule the road in D.C. I ride in Baltimore, but still …

The City Paper and many others have responded to Milloy’s trolling, but all I’m going to say is, when I’m riding a bike, I know cars are fast and come from anywhere, and I know pedestrians are unpredictable, so I try to follow routes that avoid both as much as possible. I try to be courteous when I deal with them, but often nothing I do is good enough.

Yesterday I rode into town at 6 AM on my Greenspring-Jones Falls trail-Clipper Mill-Falls Road-Maryland Ave-Cathedral Ave route. It was uneventful. There are very few pedestrians out then. I avoid the first, winding part of the JF for Tamarind Road because it is wider and there are no walkers and few cars. On the JF past Cold Spring, sometimes I pass a fellow walking his dogs on long leashes. I give him a shout and he kindly moves them to the right. The fun part starts at Clipper Mill Road. There are only a few stop signs and little traffic so I can keep moving in large gears. Then I switch to the paved trail next to Falls Road. In the PM it can be busy busy, but at that hour there are usually only one or two joggers. Once on Maryland it is a matter of staying to the right of traffic. Some guys like to claim the lane. I consider them future organ donors.

Heading North to the JF involves lots of traffic lights on Park or Charles and no bike lanes, so coming home, I swing West to Eutaw past Lexington Market. There are always a hundred jaywalkers in those three blocks, but if you are patient with them, they usually give you a little wave. Yesterday I rode through Druid Hill Park and bought some blueberries at the Farmer’s Market. I used to climb the hills on Greenspring, but lately I’ve headed up Park Heights past Pimlico, then turned East on smaller roads to get home. I tried Pimlico Road itself once, but everyone walks in that road, and there are too many tiny children darting around.

Some folk can’t believe that I ride through “black” sections of Baltimore – which is about 2/3 African-American – but frankly I encounter more rudeness and hostility from drivers and pedestrians when I swing to the East of the JFX and go up Falls Road or Roland Hill Ave through “nice” neighborhoods.

Gonna be different this time

Since Age of Limits, I have become more aware of factions within the energy depletion crowd. Most have to do with predicting a timeline for collapse, which makes Hari Seldon references almost irresistible.

Near-Term Extinction (NTE) is just like it sounds – these folk expect things will get so bad that the human species will disappear from the earth, and fairly soon. One of their catchphrases is “Nature Bats Last.” Guy MacPherson and Carolyn Baker spoke at Age of Limits in 2013, but either declined or weren’t invited back for 2014. Two of the attendees told me that the NTE folk were a cult-like presence, but at least one person said she missed having Baker there because she spoke about dealing with loss.

At the other end would be the business as usual (BAU) crowd, pundits like Michael Lynch or Daniel Yergin who insist that peakists are misreading the data, that mankind has always gotten through bad times before and that we will find a way to do so again. None of them attended, though there was that fellow who urged we all turn to God.

John Michael Greer can recite a long history of apocalyptic predictions, and thinks the prospect of extinction makes some people feel special. Greer expects a catabolic collapse – that society will absorb a series of smaller collapses – to a point where humans can live in harmony with the carrying capacity of the planet. He writes about past collapses when some 95% of the population has perished, but the remaining 5% mourned and buried them, continued and rebuilt. In his speculative fiction, Star’s Reach, people in Meriga still speak a version of english and sort of remember the past, but rely on animal and human muscle to accomplish work.

I gather that Gail Tverberg stops short of the NTE crowd but suggests that Greer is too optimistic. She writes about a severe collapse due to, “converging crises.” Her eight horsemen are overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution, intractable debt, failed government, unemployment, loss of the electrical grid and, even though we already see them getting very ugly, geopolitical resource conflicts bringing up the rear.

At Age of Limits, Greer openly poked fun at the phrase, “It’s different this time,” leading the audience in saying it to get it out of our systems. Upon returning from AoL, Tverberg called her next post Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past and her latest piece, Debt: Eight Reasons This Time is Different. Maybe Gail is a Talking Heads fan.

Such arguments sound academic, and it won’t matter much who is/was right if one’s family is killed in a mudslide or a prison or a resource war. Nor will it matter much if one is lucky enough to be one of the 5% or 1% or even fewer to see one’s children live through the mess.

Dmitry Orlov seems more oriented to exploring survival strategies, and has been posting useful info about post-collapse medicine, healthcare without doctors, etc. I haven’t made it through his book, Communities that Abide, but I’m admittedly dubious about emulating the Roma. I chanced across a New Yorker article the other day by a fellow who joined his friend Leslie Hawke’s NGO, OvidiuRo, which attempts to educate Roma children out of poverty:

The conditions in the Roma settlements to which Leslie took me next made Dorohoi look like East Hampton. Where the peasants of northern Romania ate badly, the Gypsies of Colonia were going hungry; while the peasants lived short lives, the Gypsies showed obvious signs of illness. The peasants may not have had good plumbing, but the Gypsies had none at all; they defecated in the surrounding pasture, and the place stank to high heaven. At this writing, as a result of OvidiuRo’s work, fifteen hundred Roma children are getting the early education that might help them break out of their poverty. I met those children, bright-eyed and full of fun, and hoped they could escape becoming like the morose teen-agers and glassy-eyed adults who sat around Colonia in the squalor.

From what Dmitry tells of the Roma, I am assuming that OvidiuRo is tolerated for the food coupons they give the children – which probably end up handed to the big man for distribution. As Dmitry writes (so far) the Roma strategy is to remain aloof from larger culture and its edumacation, but I don’t see the industriousness that serves the Amish so well. I will be reading to see how the Roma fare without a nearby prosperous civilization to exploit.

Bloggin’ Bout a Revolution

I have to admit that when I think of revolution the first thing that occurs to me is Ninotchka saying, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” I also think of some flick where the White Russians are in control, and bureaucrats are processing peasants to decide who gets shot. Then the Reds take control and we see virtually the same line of peasants, still to be shot. And there’s Mme Defarge, and all that.

Even during the activism of the 1960s – and later, a song by Tracy Chapman – I didn’t consider the US as ripe for revolution, but then came the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and now even idiots like Cliven Bundy are being taken seriously in certain circles. The media is paid to shift the attention elsewhere, but occasionally the subject surfaces. In a brief letter dated January 18th, 2014, venture capitalist Tom Perkins warned fellow readers of the Wall Street Journal about liberals who were demonizing the wealthy:

… I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.” … This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Perkins’ invoking of Kristallnacht was widely scorned, and he was mildly, but amusingly, parodied by Tom Skerritt on The Good Wife, but in Perkinsnacht, the Journal defended him:

Five days on, the commentariat continues to drop anvils on Tom Perkins, who may have written the most-read letter to the editor in the history of The Wall Street Journal. The irony is that the vituperation is making our friend’s point about liberal intolerance — maybe better than he did.

More recently Nick Hanauer wrote, The Pitchforks Are Coming … For Us Plutocrats, in Politico, trying to convince his fellow “zillionaires” that situations can turn bad quickly. I wrote about Hanauer in Thanks, Short-Term Brains, and in his latest, In a Handful of Dust, John Michael Greer invoked the piece as an example that the situation is dire, but that the wealthy might be taking enough notice to effect changes. Some of Greer’s very active commenters pointed out that most of us wouldn’t even know where to find a 1%er to string up. But in every small town or city there is an elite of some sort, and my feeling is that someone can always be found to fit the nooses. “I’m not that rich,” won’t make for effective pleading.

In a June 19th, 2014 article from the Guardian, The open source revolution is coming and it will conquer the 1% – ex CIA spy, Robert David Steele, former Marine, CIA case officer, and US co-founder of the US Marine Corps intelligence activity predicts:

“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making,” he writes in The Open Source Everything Manifesto. “Power was centralised in the hands of increasingly specialised ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.” …

He points me to his tremendous collection of reviews of books on climate change, disease, environmental degradation, peak oil, and water scarcity. “I see five major overlapping threats on the immediate horizon,” he continues. “They are all related: the collapse of complex societies, the acceleration of the Earth’s demise with changes that used to take 10,000 years now taking three or less, predatory or shock capitalism and financial crime out of the City of London and Wall Street, and political corruption at scale, to include the west supporting 42 of 44 dictators. We are close to multiple mass catastrophes.”

What about the claim that the US is on the brink of revolution? “Revolution is overthrow – the complete reversal of the status quo ante. We are at the end of centuries of what Lionel Tiger calls ‘The Manufacture of Evil,’ in which merchant banks led by the City of London have conspired with captive governments to concentrate wealth and commoditise everything including humans. What revolution means in practical terms is that balance has been lost and the status quo ante is unsustainable. There are two ‘stops’ on greed to the nth degree: the first is the carrying capacity of Earth, and the second is human sensibility. We are now at a point where both stops are activating.”

I get the feeling that Steele thinks his Open Source revolution can be bloodless, but I doubt it.

Thanks, Short-Term Brains!

There’s a joke – popular among conservatives and libertarians – wherein two guys are running away from a bear. One guy asks the other if they can outrun the bear; the other says, no, but I can outrun you. (haha). I heard it again on the news a few weeks ago. It occurred to me that the joke has to feature a bear because they are often solitary hunters. The joke just doesn’t work with a pack of wolves.

The idea that you can survive by outcompeting your peers has some validity in some situations, but against more comprehensive threats cooperation is a much better survival strategy. Particularly if you have aged parents or small children that can’t even outwalk the bear.

In Politico, a Seattle entrepreneur named Nick Hanauer – a wealthy 0.1 percenter – argues for long-term thinking with The Pitchforks Are Coming For Us Plutocrats. First, he wants to pay the middle class enough to buy his products. Second, he thinks Occupy could be a lot worse next time around:

Here’s what I say to you: You’re living in a dream world. What everyone wants to believe is that when things reach a tipping point and go from being merely crappy for the masses to dangerous and socially destabilizing, that we’re somehow going to know about that shift ahead of time. Any student of history knows that’s not the way it happens. Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly. One day, somebody sets himself on fire, then thousands of people are in the streets, and before you know it, the country is burning. And then there’s no time for us to get to the airport and jump on our Gulfstream Vs and fly to New Zealand. That’s the way it always happens. If inequality keeps rising as it has been, eventually it will happen. We will not be able to predict when, and it will be terrible for everybody. But especially for us.

I keep thinking back to Galápagos. In his 1985 novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator (a ghost) notes that he had thought himself to be smart because of his big primate brain, but then relates all the bad decisions he and his fellow primates made as their civilization collapsed. For example, he explains how a ship captain should have recognized a dangerous situation brewing in port, but since he had just enjoyed a good meal, and was looking forward to making love with his woman, the reptilian part of his brain instead chose to believe that the situation would work itself out. Somehow. “Thanks, big brain,” snickered Vonnegut after every poor and ultimately fatal decision.

Will the ghosts of plutocrats some day sarcastically thank their big brains as their heads are paraded on pitchforks? For a long time I was completely on board with Hanauer’s argument that we need a strong, stable middle class for both economic prosperity and political stability. In the short term, I still believe that to be true. But in the long term, it is exactly wrong.

Over a decade ago, I read arguments by Julian Darley to the effect that the earth simply doesn’t have the resources to support a large middle class with all the water and oil and meat that it consumes, and all the carbon and waste it generates. It can’t even support the US and European middle classes much longer, much less the rising middle classes of China, India, Brazil, and so on.

At about the same time I began reading The Oil Drum, and was exposed to other examples of short-term thinking. Many TOD commenters saw Peak Oil as the bear, and bragged about how they were going to get their ten acres of crops and firewood, and maybe some solar panels, but definitely plenty of rifles and ammo. They warned that they would shoot anyone that came to their door. In the short term, they recognized that cold, starving neighbors might be the initial threat. But how would they survive the local foraging gangs (the pack of wolves) that were bound to organize? Would they have neighbors that could help them with medical problems or other emergencies? And what of climate change? If you just shoot at everyone, who is going to pull your family out of a mudslide? Thanks, short-term brain!

Dmitry Orlov has looked a little further down the road and in Communities That Abide, advises us that certain groups have tended to survive through difficult times. But as I’ve mentioned before, those of us in the US middle class don’t much resemble the Amish or Roma folk that Dmitry implies we should emulate – whether by education, temperament or expectations. In such a community, to want more out of life than being expendable once you reproduce would be yet another flavor of short-term thinking. Perhaps Vonnegut was right about our big brains.

It is tremendously hard to think long-term about everything. Do Hanauer’s fellow 0.1%ers simply enjoy being rich too much to change? Or do they already know the risks they are running, but have no options? I look at myself and see that I have made small changes to my middle class life – less driving, no a/c, a smaller house – but nothing like joining an eco-village or transition town. Essentially I enjoy being middle class, and my family and friends and employers expect me to keep up appearances. Can I expect the rich to give up being rich when I don’t give up being middle-class?

We haven’t looked after our infrastructure, or provided for energy once the oil is gone. Our healthcare system is increasingly predatory. We are overfishing and overfarming. As I see it, the middle class faces a future of dwindling into relative poverty and insecurity, while the rich face a future where being rich isn’t as comfortable or secure as being middle class is now.