(Roughly) Daily

“Doubtless we cannot see that other higher Spaceland now, because we have no eye in our stomachs”*…

 

An ” Amplituhedron“, an illustration of multi-dimensional spacetime

Our architecture, our education and our dictionaries tell us that space is three-dimensional. The OED defines it as ‘a continuous area or expanse which is free, available or unoccupied … The dimensions of height, depth and width, within which all things exist and move.’ In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that three-dimensional Euclidean space is an a priori necessity and, saturated as we are now in computer-generated imagery and video games, we are constantly subjected to representations of a seemingly axiomatic Cartesian grid. From the perspective of the 21st century, this seems almost self-evident.

Yet the notion that we inhabit a space with any mathematical structure is a radical innovation of Western culture, necessitating an overthrow of long-held beliefs about the nature of reality. Although the birth of modern science is often discussed as a transition to a mechanistic account of nature, arguably more important – and certainly more enduring – is the transformation it entrained in our conception of space as a geometrical construct.

Over the past century, the quest to describe the geometry of space has become a major project in theoretical physics, with experts from Albert Einstein onwards attempting to explain all the fundamental forces of nature as byproducts of the shape of space itself. While on the local level we are trained to think of space as having three dimensions, general relativity paints a picture of a four-dimensional universe, and string theory says it has 10 dimensions – or 11 if you take an extended version known as M-Theory. There are variations of the theory in 26 dimensions, and recently pure mathematicians have been electrified by a version describing spaces of 24 dimensions. But what are these ‘dimensions’? And what does it mean to talk about a 10-dimensional space of being?…

Experience says we live in three dimensions; relativity says four; string theory says it’s 10– or more… What are “dimensions” and how do they affect reality? Margaret Wertheim offers a guide: “Radical dimensions.”

* Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

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As we tax our senses, we might spare a thought for Robert Jemison Van de Graaff; he died on this date in 1967.  A physicist and engineer, he is best remembered for his creation of the Van de Graaff Generator, an electrostatic generator that creates very high electric potentials– very high voltage direct current (DC) electricity (up to 5 megavolts) at low current levels.  A tabletop version can produce on the order of 100,000 volts and can store enough energy to produce a visible spark. Such small Van de Graaff machines are used in physics education to teach electrostatics; larger ones are displayed in some science museums.

Boy touching Van de Graaff generator at The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum. Charged with electricity, his hair strands repel each other and stand out from his head.

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Written by LW

January 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We only have what we give”*…

 

There’s a great deal of concern over whether or not the new tax bill will decrease charitable giving in the U.S.; as noted below, it’s painfully well grounded.  But there may be another threat to not-for-profits on the immediate horizon: competition from politics…

In very late 2016, following the election, and continuing into 2017, there was a surge in donations to not-for-profits like the ACLU, public broadcasting stations, Human Rights Watch, and the Sierra Club– organizations that addressed concerns that donors worried would be given shorter shrift in the new administration.  Patrick Rooney (Director of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at the University of Indiana) recounts:

American individuals, estates, corporations and foundations donated a record US$390 billion to charitable causes in 2016. [It is too early to know the tabulation for 2017.] Total giving grew 1.4 percent, adjusted for inflation. Donations from individuals amounted to nearly three-quarters of all giving and grew more than giving by foundations, corporations or bequests with a 2.6 percent gain to $282 billion…

We have, however, witnessed a shift in giving to groups devoted to animal welfare and environmental issues, as well as international affairs. These categories were so small that we couldn’t track them until 1987.

While they still draw less support than others – religious groups, at $123 billion, and educational institutions and organizations, at nearly $60 billion, still top the list – animal welfare and environment groups and international affairs organizations made big strides in 2016…

But as a result of the new tax bill, Dr. Rooney suggests, there will be roughly $21 billion less per year to charity.  That’s almost four times the amount of growth in the sector last year.  So, if Dr. Rooney is right, the not-for-profits that have lately had the wind at their backs may find themselves sailing into it starting in 2018.  

But that may not be the whole story.  Even as charitable contributions are under pressure, political contributions look poised to rise.  They were already astronomical: 2016 contributions to presidential campaigns were over $2 billion; congressional (Senate and House) races brought in over $4 billion; and state-wide races, over $1,5 billion (all, new highs, and all not counting an unmeasured amount of soft/dark spending).

2018 will, of course, be an election year– one for which interest and momentum are already building.  It’s not a presidential year, of course; still, it promises to be a big one. There’s every indication that Democrats are readying to field a record number candidates at every level in the mid-terms, and to fund them at record levels.  At the same time, it seems clear that Republicans are preparing to match their efforts.  Which is to say:  while there remain concerns about voter engagement, there’s every indication that there will again be an increased level of contributions to the campaigns.

So, the new tax bill is likely to reduce funding to not-for-profits, at the same time that political concerns are likely to make a greater demand on the “giving budget” of Americans.

Research conducted on the 2012 election (pdf), suggest that a donor’s political contributions do not decrease his/her charitable giving.  And with luck, that will hold true through 2018.  But the amounts in question, on both the charitable and the political fronts, continue to rise dramatically… and at some point, there is a limit to the amount that an individual can or will give– especially if that individual is not a member of the 1%… Those not-for-profits that experienced a “Trump Bump” in their funding in late 2016 and 2017 might find that, with the double-whammy of the new tax bill and “competition” from politics, they are facing head-winds in 2018.

I am a scenario planner by trade; I’ve learned the wisdom of contemplating all of the scenarios– the plausible futures– that we might face in order to be ready for any of them.  We certainly hope that there’ll be no hit to charitable contributions; but if this dark scenario unfolds, what do we do?

For the smaller donors who were the backbone of the Clinton and (before that, the Sanders and Obama campaigns), many of whom re-directed their support to charities after the 2016 election, there may come a set of choices:  First, for the many who will no longer itemize, do I continue to contribute though now I can no longer deduct the gift?  And second, for all, a Hobson’s Choice:  do I give to support the non-government organizations stepping in to try to fill needs (services, advocacy) from which government is retreating, or do I support an effort to reconfigure the government so that it pre-empt/address those needs?  The obvious right answers are “yes” and “both,” which may well require all of us to stretch to, if not beyond, the limits of our capacity to give.

For not-for-profits, this a moment to be cautious.  Dr. Rooney’s warning notwithstanding, it may be that Americans have the capacity to sustain their increased contributions at the same time that they increase their political giving.  But the strategically-robust position is to assume that they cannot, and to make plans– if only contingency plans– for level, even reduced contribution income.

Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

* Isabel Allende

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As we dig deeper, we might celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day marked in his honor.  The holiday was established in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating this federal holiday.  Reagan had opposed the holiday, citing its cost, joining southern Republicans like Jesse Helms, who were more naked in their reasoning; but the enabling legislation had passed by a veto-proof margin.

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“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me”*…

 

In 1878, W.S. Halsey, Commissioner of Inland Customs, reported on the state of British India’s giant hedge. The hedge had grown to more than 1,100 miles long, he wrote, long enough to stretch from Berlin to Moscow. More than half of the barrier, Halsey reported, was made up of “perfect and good green hedge” or “combined green and dry hedge.” In parts, it was 12 feet tall and 14 feet across.

The British Empire had been working on this giant hedge for at least 30 years. It had, at long last, reached “its greatest extent and perfection,” wrote Roy Moxham in The Great Hedge of IndiaIt was an impressive monument to British power and doggedness. One British official wrote that it “could be compared to nothing else in the world except the Great Wall of China.”

As he reported on the extent and health of the hedge, though, Halsey knew its time was coming to an end. That same year, the empire stopped all funding for the mad project, and it was not long before the hedge had disappeared entirely. When Moxham, an English writer, went looking for it in 1996, he couldn’t find a trace…

The strange, sad tale of a quixotic colonial barrier meant to enforce taxes: “The British Once Built a 1,100-Mile Hedge Through the Middle of India.”

* Donald J. Trump

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As we agree with Mark Twain that, while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1639 that the Connecticut General Court adopted The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut— considered by many scholars to be the first written constitution that created a government.

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Written by LW

January 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The ghost in the machine”*…

 

Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

* Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)

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As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real”*…

 

Opium’s history in the United States is as old as the nation itself. During the American Revolution, the Continental and British armies used opium to treat sick and wounded soldiers. Benjamin Franklin took opium late in life to cope with severe pain from a bladder stone. A doctor gave laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with alcohol, to Alexander Hamilton after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

By 1895, morphine and opium powders, like OxyContin and other prescription opioids today, had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly 1 in 200 Americans. Before 1900, the typical opiate addict in America was an upper-class or middle-class white woman. Today, doctors are re-learning lessons their predecessors learned more than a lifetime ago…

Doctors then, as now, overprescribed the painkiller to patients in need; and then, as now, government policy had a distinct bias.  Learn more at: “Inside the Story of America’s 19th-Century Opiate Addiction.”

* Andre Malraux

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As we moderate our intake, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Norman Rufus Colin Cohn; he was born on this date in 1915.  A historian of fanaticism, his remarkable The Pursuit of the Millennium, a tracing back of the mythologies associated with medieval apocalyptic movements that characterized– and ultimately marred– the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, was ranked as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century in a survey conducted by The Times Literary Supplement.  He was a Fellow of the British Academy, an honor to which he was nominated by Isaiah Berlin.

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Written by LW

January 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew”*…

 

The term “technological unemployment” is from John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 lecture, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” where he predicted that in the future, around 2030, the production problem would be solved and there would be enough for everyone, but machines (robots, he thought) would cause “technological unemployment.” There would be plenty to go around, but the means of getting a share in it, jobs, might be scarce.

We are not quite at 2030, but I believe we have reached the “Keynes point,” where indeed enough is produced by the economy, both physical and virtual, for all of us. (If total US household income of $8.495 trillion were shared by America’s 116 million households, each would earn $73,000, enough for a decent middle-class life.) And we have reached a point where technological unemployment is becoming a reality.

The problem in this new phase we’ve entered is not quite jobs, it is access to what’s produced. Jobs have been the main means of access for only 200 or 300 years. Before that, farm labor, small craft workshops, voluntary piecework, or inherited wealth provided access. Now access needs to change again.

However this happens, we have entered a different phase for the economy, a new era where production matters less and what matters more is access to that production: distribution, in other words—who gets what and how they get it.

We have entered the distributive era…

From a very provocative essay by a very wise man, Brian Arthur.  You can– and should– read it in its entirety at “Where is technology taking the economy?

See also: “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution”*…

[Image above: source]

* T.E. Lawrence

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As we rethink the fundamentals, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that The Superhighway Summit was held at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Royce Hall.

It was the “first public conference bringing together all of the major industry, government and academic leaders in the field [and] also began the national dialogue about the Information Superhighway and its implications.” The conference was organized by Richard Frank of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Jeffrey Cole and Geoffrey Cowan, the former co-directors of UCLA’s Center for Communication Policy.The keynote speaker was Vice President Al Gore who said:  “We have a dream for…an information superhighway that can save lives, create jobs and give every American, young and old, the chance for the best education available to anyone, anywhere.”

According to Cynthia Lee in UCLA Today: “The participants underscored the point that the major challenge of the Information Highway would lie in access or the ‘gap between those who will have access to it because they can afford to equip themselves with the latest electronic devices and those who can’t.’”  [source]

Vice President Gore at the Summit’s podium

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Written by LW

January 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”*…

 

If you wanted to hear the future in late May, 1968, you might have gone to Abbey Road to hear the Beatles record a new song of John Lennon’s—something called “Revolution.” Or you could have gone to the decidedly less fab midtown Hilton in Manhattan, where a thousand “leaders and future leaders,” ranging from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the peace activist Arthur Waskow, were invited to a conference by the Foreign Policy Association. For its fiftieth anniversary, the F.P.A. scheduled a three-day gathering of experts, asking them to gaze fifty years ahead. An accompanying book shared the conference’s far-off title: “Toward the Year 2018”…

More amazing than science fiction,” proclaims the cover, with jacket copy envisioning how “on a summer day in the year 2018, the three-dimensional television screen in your living room” flashes news of “anti-gravity belts,” “a man-made hurricane, launched at an enemy fleet, [that] devastates a neutral country,” and a “citizen’s pocket computer” that averts an air crash. “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling,” it asks, “with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?”

Much of “Toward the Year 2018” might as well be science fiction today. With fourteen contributors, ranging from the weapons theorist Herman Kahn to the I.B.M. automation director Charles DeCarlo, penning essays on everything from “Space” to “Behavioral Technologies,” it’s not hard to find wild misses. The Stanford wonk Charles Scarlott predicts, exactly incorrectly, that nuclear breeder reactors will move to the fore of U.S. energy production while natural gas fades. (He concedes that natural gas might make a comeback—through atom-bomb-powered fracking.) The M.I.T. professor Ithiel de Sola Pool foresees an era of outright control of economies by nations—“They will select their levels of employment, of industrialization, of increase in GNP”—and then, for good measure, predicts “a massive loosening of inhibitions on all human impulses save that toward violence.” From the influential meteorologist Thomas F. Malone, we get the intriguing forecast of “the suppression of lightning”—most likely, he figures, “by the late 1980s.”

But for every amusingly wrong prediction, there’s one unnervingly close to the mark…

Those uncannily-accurate predictions, and their backstories, at “The 1968 book that tried to predict the world of 2018.”

* Søren Kierkegaard

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As we ponder posterity, we might send static-y birthday greetings to Robert Woodrow Wilson; he was born on this date in 1936.  An astronomer, he detected– with Bell Labs colleague Arno Penzias– cosmic microwave background radiation: “relic radiation”– that’s to say. the “sound “– of the Big Bang.  Their 1964 discovery earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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