(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Albert Einstein

“If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems)”*…

In a riff on Lewis Mumford, the redoubtable L. M. Sacasas addresses the unraveling of modernity…

The myth of the machine underlies a set of three related and interlocking presumptions which characterized modernity: objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality. More specifically, the presumptions that we could have objectively secured knowledge, impartial political and legal institutions, and technologies that were essentially neutral tools but which were ordinarily beneficent. The last of these appears to stand somewhat apart from the first two in that it refers to material culture rather than to what might be taken as more abstract intellectual or moral stances. In truth, however, they are closely related. The more abstract intellectual and institutional pursuits were always sustained by a material infrastructure, and, more importantly, the machine supplied a master template for the organization of human affairs.

Just as the modern story began with the quest for objectively secured knowledge, this ideal may have been the first to lose its implicit plausibility. Since the late 19th century onward, philosophers, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and historians have, among others, proposed a more complex picture that emphasized the subjective, limited, contingent, situated, and even irrational dimensions of how humans come to know the world. The ideal of objectively secured knowledge became increasingly questionable throughout the 20th century. Some of these trends get folded under the label “postmodernism,” but I found the term unhelpful at best a decade ago—now find it altogether useless.

We can similarly trace a growing disillusionment with the ostensible impartiality of modern institutions. This takes at least two forms. On the one hand, we might consider the frustrating and demoralizing character of modern bureaucracies, which we can describe as rule-based machines designed to outsource judgement and enhance efficiency. On the other, we can note the heightened awareness of the actual failures of modern institutions to live up to the ideals of impartiality, which has been, in part, a function of the digital information ecosystem.

But while faith in the possibility of objectively secured knowledge and impartial institutions faltered, the myth of the machine persisted in the presumption that technology itself was fundamentally neutral. Until very recently, that is. Or so it seems. And my thesis (always for disputation) is that the collapse of this last manifestation of the myth brings the whole house down. This in part because of how much work the presumption of technological neutrality was doing all along to hold American society together. (International readers: as always read with a view to your own setting. I suspect there are some areas of broad overlap and other instances when my analysis won’t travel well). Already by the late 19th century, progress had become synonymous with technological advancements, as Leo Marx argued. If social, political, or moral progress stalled, then at least the advance of technology could be counted on…

But over the last several years, the plausibility of this last and also archetypal manifestation of the myth of the machine has also waned. Not altogether, to be sure, but in important and influential segments of society and throughout a wide cross-section of society, too. One can perhaps see the shift most clearly in the public discourse about social media and smart phones, but this may be a symptom of a larger disillusionment with technology. And not only technological artifacts and systems, but also with the technocratic ethos and the public role of expertise.

If the myth of the machine in these three manifestations, was, in fact, a critical element of the culture of modernity, underpinning its aspirations, then when each in turn becomes increasingly implausible the modern world order comes apart. I’d say that this is more or less where we’re at. You could usefully analyze any number of cultural fault lines through this lens. The center, which may not in fact hold, is where you find those who still operate as if the presumptions of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality still compelled broad cultural assent, and they are now assailed from both the left and the right by those who have grown suspicious or altogether scornful of such presumptions. Indeed, the left/right distinction may be less helpful than the distinction between those who uphold some combination of the values of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality and those who no longer find them compelling or desirable.

What happens when the systems and strategies deployed to channel often violent clashes within a population deeply, possibly intractably divided about substantive moral goods and now even about what Arendt characterized as the publicly accessible facts upon which competing opinions could be grounded—what happens when these systems and strategies fail?

It is possible to argue that they failed long ago, but the failure was veiled by an unevenly distributed wave of material abundance. Citizens became consumers and, by and large, made peace with the exchange. After all, if the machinery of government could run of its own accord, what was their left to do but enjoy the fruits of prosperity. But what if abundance was an unsustainable solution, either because it taxed the earth at too high a rate or because it was purchased at the cost of other values such as rootedness, meaningful work and involvement in civic life, abiding friendships, personal autonomy, and participation in rich communities of mutual care and support? Perhaps in the framing of that question, I’ve tipped my hand about what might be the path forward.

At the heart of technological modernity there was the desire—sometimes veiled, often explicit—to overcome the human condition. The myth of the machine concealed an anti-human logic: if the problem is the failure of the human to conform to the pattern of the machine, then bend the human to the shape of the machine or eliminate the human altogether. The slogan of the one of the high-modernist world’s fairs of the 1930s comes to mind: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” What is now being discovered in some quarters, however, is that the human is never quite eliminated, only diminished…

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Myth of the Machine, ” from @LMSacasas.

For a deep dive into similar waters, see John Ralston Saul‘s (@JohnRalstonSaul) Voltaire’s Bastards.

[Image above: source]

* Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine


As we rethink rudiments, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s light-bending prediction– a part of The Theory of General Relativity– using photos of a solar eclipse. Eddington’s paper the following year was the “debut” of Einstein’s theoretical work in most of the English-speaking world (and occasioned an urban legend: when a reporter supposedly suggested that “only three people understand relativity,” Eddington was supposed to have jokingly replied “Oh, who’s the third?”)

One of Eddington’s photographs of the total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919, presented in his 1920 paper announcing its success, confirming Einstein’s theory that light “bends”

“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous”*…

A March 1940 meeting at the University of California at Berkeley concerning the planned 184-inch cyclotron (seen on the blackboard), from left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred Lee Loomis

Now let us praise a man who should be famous…

Alfred Lee Loomis was a lawyer, a banker, a socialite, possibly one of the most influential physical scientists of the twentieth century, and can reasonably claim to have done more than any other civilian to bring a swift end to World War II. And yet, in the intervening decades, he’s faded into obscurity.

Loomis’s story is one of incredible intellect, unimaginable wealth, a breadth of ability that spanned from the abstract and theoretical across to the practical and logistical, and an unbelievable knack for knowing the right people and putting them into contact with one another. He applied these generational talents relentlessly to the hardest problems facing science throughout the first half of the twentieth century. He deserves to be far better known…


To be more specific…

Alfred Lee Loomis (November 4, 1887 – August 11, 1975) was an American attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, scientist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research. He established the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, and his role in the development of radar and the atomic bomb contributed to the Allied victory in World War II. He invented the Aberdeen Chronograph for measuring muzzle velocities, contributed significantly… to the development of a ground-controlled approach technology for aircraft, and participated in preliminary meetings of the Manhattan Project.

Loomis also made contributions to biological instrumentation. Working with Edmund Newton Harvey he co-invented the microscope centrifuge, and pioneered techniques for electroencephalography. In 1937, he discovered the sleep K-complex brainwave. During the Great Depression, Loomis anonymously paid the Physical Review journal’s fees for authors who could not afford them….


As Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez noted…

… after the turn of the century, university scientists found it possible to earn a living teaching students, while doing research “on the side.” So the true amateur has almost disappeared—Alfred Loomis may well be remembered as the last of the great amateurs of science. He had distinguished careers as a lawyer, as an Army officer, and as an investment banker before he turned his full energies to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, first in the field of physics, and later as a biologist. By any measure that can be employed, he was one of the most influential physical scientists of this century. In support of that assessment, one can note: (1) his election to
this Academy when he was 53 years old, (2) his honorary degrees from prestigious universities, (3) his crucial wartime role as director of all NDRC-OSRD radar research in World War II, and (4) his exceedingly close personal relationships with many of the leaders of American science and government in the mid-twentieth century…


The financier who became a scientist and helped win World War II: Alfred Lee Loomis. For more, see Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. (Conant is the grandaughter of James B. Conat– in the photo above– chemist, President of Harvard, and friend/collaborator of Loomis).

* Daniel J. Boorstin


As we applaud awesome amateurs, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Edward Williams Morley; he was born on this date in 1838. A chemist who was first to precisely determine the atomic weight of oxygen, he is probably best remembered for his collaboration with the physicist Albert A. Michelson. In what we call the Michelson–Morley experiment (actually a number of experiments conducted between April and July in 1887), they attempted to detect the luminiferous aether, a supposed medium permeating space that was thought to be the carrier of light waves; their method was the very precise measurement of the speed of light (in various directions, and at different times of the year, as the Earth revolved in its orbit around the Sun). Michelson and Morley always found that the speed of light did not vary at all depending on the direction of measurement, or the position of the Earth in its orbit– the so-called “null result.”

Neither Morley nor Michelson ever considered that these null results disproved the hypothesis of the existence of “luminiferous aether.” But other scientists began to suspect that they did. Almost two decades later the results of the Michelson–Morley experiments supported Albert Einstein’s strong postulate (in 1905) that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames of reference as part of his Special Theory of Relativity.


“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

This is, as nearly as I can tell, the 5,000th (Roughly) Daily post (4,505 blog posts, preceded by 495 email-only pieces). On this numerologically-significant occasion, my deep thanks to readers past and present. It seems appropriate to devote this post to the impulse that has powered (Roughly) Daily from the start, curiosity– free-range curiosity…

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity.” (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out)…

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me… social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.

On top of the social pressure from people online, there’s technological pressure too — from recommendation systems trying to juke our attention… Medium’s algorithm has deduced that … I’m a nerd. They are correct! I am. The other major social networks, like Twitter or YouTube, offer me the same geek-heavy recommendations when I log in. And hey, they’re not wrong either; I really do like these subjects.

But … I’m also interested in so many other things that are far outside these narrow lanes. I am, for example, a Canadian who’s deeply into Canadian art, and a musician who spends a lot of time thinking about composition and gear and lyric-writing and production and guitar pedals, and a father who thinks a lot about the culture my kids show me, and I have a super-snobby fanboy love of the 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

You’re the same way; you contain your own Whitmanian multitudes, your pockets of woolly-eyed obsession. We all do.

But our truly quirky dimensions are never really grasped by these recommendation algorithms. They have all the dullness of a Demographics 101 curriculum; they sketch our personalities with the crudity of crime-scene chalk-outlines. They’re not wrong about us; but they’re woefully incomplete. This is why I always get a slightly flattened feeling when I behold my feed, robotically unloading boxes of content from the same monotonous conveyor-belt of recommendations, catered to some imaginary marketing version of my identity. It’s like checking my reflection in the mirror and seeing stock-photo imagery.

The other problem with big-tech recommendation systems is they’re designed by people who are convinced that “popularity” and “recency” equal “valuable”. They figure that if they sample the last 15 milliseconds of the global zeitgeist and identify what’s floated to the top of that quantum foam, I’ll care about it. Hey, a thing happened and people are talking about it, here’s the #hashtag!

And again … they’re sometimes right! I am often intrigued to know the big debates of the day, like Oscar Wilde peering into his daily gazette. But I’d also like to stumble over arguments yet more arcane, and material that will never be the subject of a massive online conversation because only a small group of oddballs care about it.

You’re the same way too, I bet. We’re all weird in different ways, but we’re all weird.

Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins— i.e. how their remorseless lust for “engagement” leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s interesting. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

That’s why I so enjoy the concept of “rewilding”… For me, it’s meant slowly — over the last few years — building up a big, rangy collection of RSS feeds, that let me check up on hundreds of electic blogs and publications and people. (I use Feedly.) I’ve also started using Fraidycat, a niftily quixotic feed-reader that lets you sort sources into buckets by “how often should I check this source”, which is a cool heuristic; some people/sites you want to check every day, and others, twice a year.

Other times I spend an hour or two simply prospecting — I pick a subject almost at random, then check to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. (There usually is, running on free warez like phpBB). Then I’ll just trawl through the forum, to find out what does this community care about? It’s like a psychogeographic walk of the mind.

Another awesome technology for rewilding my attention, I’ve found, is the good old-fashioned paper book. I go to a bookstore, pick up something where it’s not immediately obvious why it’d appeal to me, then flip around to see if anything catches my eye. (This works online, too, via the wonderful universe of pre-1923, freely-accessible ebooks and publications at the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books. Pre-WWI material is often super odd and thought-provoking.)…

Step away from algorithmic feeds. In praise of free-range curiosity: “Rewilding your attention,” from Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99).

See also “Before Truth: Curiosity, Negative Capability, Humility, ” from Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson)

* “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”


As we revel in rabbit holes, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers



“Now, you can continue to protect your home and family even after you are gone”…


The craftsmen at Holy Smoke will take the cremated remains of a loved one and pack them into firearm ammunition:  one pound of human ash yields 250 shotgun shells, 100 rifle cartridges, or 250 pistol cartridges.  The company’s website avers…

The services provided by Holy Smoke are a fraction of the cost of what most funeral burial services cost – oftentimes saving families as much as 75% of traditional costs.

The ecological footprint caused by our service, as opposed to most of the current funeral interment methods, is virtually non-existent.

Now, you can continue to protect your home and family even after you are gone.

Or, as one of the company’s founders suggests in recounting how he conceived the service, one can use the remains to “share the death”:

My friend smiled and said “You know I’ve thought about this for some time and I want to be cremated. Then I want my ashes put into some turkey load shotgun shells and have someone that knows how to turkey hunt use the shotgun shells with my ashes to shoot a turkey. That way I will rest in peace knowing that the last thing that one turkey will see is me, screaming at him at about 900 feet per second.”

[TotH to Gizmodo]


As we aim for the afterlife, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that physicists Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to begin develop a nuclear weapon.  Their letter was delivered a couple of months later, and led to the formation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium (the “Briggs Uranium Committee”) and ultimately the Manhattan Project.

Einstein and Szilárd (source)


Who owns the fish?…

From the good folks at Coudal Partners, a puzzle purportedly created by Albert Einstein…

There are five houses in a row in different colors. In each house lives a person with a different nationality. The five owners drink a different drink, smoke a different brand of cigar and keep a different pet, one of which is a Walleye Pike.

The question is– who owns the fish?

1. The Brit lives in the red house.
2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
3. The Dane drinks tea.
4. The green house is on the left of the white house.
5. The green house owner drinks coffee.
6. The person who smokes Pall Malls keeps birds.
7. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhills.
8. The man living in the house right in the center drinks milk.
9. The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats.
10. The Norwegian lives in the first house.
11. The man who keeps horses lives next to the one who smokes Dunhills.
12. The owner who smokes Bluemasters drinks beer.
13. The German smokes Princes.
14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
15. The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.

There’s nothing up anyone’s sleeve (as though fish had sleeves…); and everything one needs to know is there.

Successful solutions can be confirmed here.  And readers can find a second fish puzzle here, and a little teaser called “Da Vinci’s Other Code” here.

As we scratch our heads, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to silk weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard; he was born on this date in 1752.  Jacquard’s 1805 invention of the programmable power loom, controlled by a series of punched “instruction” cards and capable of weaving essentially any pattern, ignited a technological revolution in the textile industry… indeed, it set off a chain of revolutions: it inspired Charles Babbage in the design of his “Difference Engine” (the ur-computer), and later, Herman Hollerith, who used punched cards in the “tabulator” that he created for the 1890 Census… and in so doing, pioneered the use of those cards for computer input.

Joesph Marie Jacquard (source)

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