Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas 2009

All three children plus Congcong were here for Christmas this year. Brian got a pair of snowshoes which he seems pretty excited about!

Pager came over for supper. Nancy had purchased two gifts for him — Canada Mints from Chutters and Sailing on the Ice: And Other Stories from the Old Squire's Farm by C.A. Stephens:

Pager keeps a supply of Canada Mints for visitors. And C.A. Stephens is an author Pager has liked since boyhood. He has recently been enjoying Stories from the Old Squire's Farm by C.A. Stephens.

Pager and me with our matching Yankee Farm Credit jackets and caps:

See also this post from last year.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

Congcong Visits a Farm

I learned last weekend that Congcong had never visited a farm. So we made arrangements for her to visit the Gingue Brothers Farm. Congcong liked to pet the calves:

But not so much the cows:

Dan Gingue did a great job explaining dairy farming to Congcong:

It was a cold day but we had a beautiful sunset!

New York City

Nancy and I were privileged to visit New York City earlier this month at the invitation of CoBank. It was a business trip for me, but we found time for sightseeing. It was the first time we had been in New York City together since our trip in April 2002, mentioned in this post.

We stayed at the Palace Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Sunrise from our room on the 53rd floor:

Northwest of the hotel lies St. Patrick's Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. Here is a view of the Cathedral from Rockefeller Center, looking through the Atlas statue:

The Christmas tree (with its Swarovsky Star) and skating rink at Rockefeller Center are guarded by the gilded statue of Prometheus bringing fire to humans:

The main purpose of our trip in 2002 was to visit the World Trade Center site. Here's how it looks eight years after September 11, 2001:

We were fortunate to have an opportunity to see the Rockettes perform their Radio City Christmas Spectacular:

We also were fortunate to see the Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre (no photos). It is the longest running show on Broadway with over 9,000 performances.

Ender's Game and Blogs

When did blogs get started? In an earlier post I mentioned that I discovered blogs in April 2002. The World Wide Web was invented in 1990. According to Wikipedia, the term "weblog" was coined in 1997 and "blog" in 1999. Personal blogs began to be popular around 1999, and political blogs gained popularity after September 11, 2001.

Before all of that, the 1985 book Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, included something very much like today's political blogs.

Ender's Game is about Andrew "Ender" Wiggin and his older siblings Peter and Valentine. Ender, who is at Battle School, and Peter and Valentine, who are at home, use "desks"—which sound just like today's notebook PCs. Peter and Valentine communicate via something that sounds exactly like today's e-mail.

(My earliest use of anything like today's e-mail was in 1994 when Brian's Cub Scout Den exchanged e-mails with my cousin David Porter at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and we all thought that was pretty novel and cool. We were using the Compuserve internet service at the time. My e-mail address was It wasn't until later that we could use names before the @ symbol.)

More significantly, Peter and Valentine use their "desks" to post anonymous articles on "nets," in an attempt to influence world opinion. Sounds just like today's political blogs!

Valentine wrote under the name "Demosthenes" while Peter wrote as "Locke." The earliest blog that I encountered, in April 2002, was the blog of Megan McArdle, then blogging under the name of "Jane Galt." Interestingly, in August 2002 she wrote about the downside of blogging anonymously, and referred to an anonymous blogger named Demosthenes. I don't think Ms. McArdle knew about the connection to Ender's Game, but Demosthenes did.

Ender's Game is an excellent book and I recommend it. It is about a lot more than "nets."

UPDATE 9/26/10: From xkcd:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Megan McArdle Quotes Feynman

Megan McArdle has blogged several times about ClimateGate. It's been interesting to watch the progression of her thinking, from sympathetic to one side of the issue to sympathetic to the other side.

It isn't something that immediately grabbed her attention (she blogs mostly about economics). She didn't blog about ClimateGate until 11/23, the day after I blogged about it, and then only in response to questions from her readers ("ClimateGate"). At this point she sees nothing to make her question the science of climate change.

In her second post on 11/25 ("The Real Problem With the Climate Science Emails") she begins to see the issue.

On 11/27 ("More on ClimateGate") she links to a hilarious video—a spoof on the scientific peer review process. Highly recommended.

Her skepticism grows with a post on 12/1 ("Climategate III: The Mystery of the Missing Data").

On 12/2 she links to a number of other online discussions ("ClimateGate Link Farm") and another hilarious video, this one by Jon Stewart ("Mental Health Break").

Finally on 12/9 she gets it ("ClimateGate: Was Data Faked?"). In this post Ms. McArdle quotes extensively from Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science" speech to show why she is concerned.

I think Ms. McArdle gets it exactly right in this post. The concern is not that the establishment scientists deliberately set out to deceive the rest of the world in a grand conspiracy. The concern is a "subtler kind of bias that we indisputably know has led to scientific errors in the past." The concern is that the establishment scientists ignored Feynman's first rule of science: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool." Did they fool first themselves, and then the public, into believing a bunch of hooey?

Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle is one of the bloggers I occasionally read online. I'm going to introduce her in this post, because in the next post I want to talk about something she recently wrote. Megan McArdle was the first blogger I ever encountered.

The first time I ever visited New York City was in April 2002 with the family (except Brian). One highlight of the trip was the play QED at the Lincoln Center starring Alan Alda as Richard Feynman. Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Ground Zero.

What does this trip to NYC have to do with Megan McArdle? Following is a quote from an e-mail that I wrote to Geoff on 4/27/02 after returning home from that trip:

"I discovered something new yesterday—blogs. Have you heard of blogs before? It's short for weblog, basically an online journal. Anyway I discovered yesterday a blog by a 20-something woman who has worked for the past seven months with the cleanup crews at the WTC. Here's what she wrote about Ground Zero:

"Here's how it starts:

So I've been sitting on the WTC site for seven months now, and it occurred to me today that it no longer looks like a grave. And though I know that there is, as the book says, a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up, it still makes me sad that it now looks like nothing more than the largest construction site in the world.

Every so often those of us who came in that first week play a game of "Do you remember?"

"And it goes on from there at length. Having just been there two days before this blog was posted, and having seen basically a big hole in the ground surrounded by construction trailers, it was quite moving to read this."

I recommend reading the whole post (link above). Do you remember?

That blog post was written by Megan McArdle, then blogging under the pen name of Jane Galt. Ms. McArdle now blogs under her own name for The Atlantic, mostly about economic issues.

Another blogger that I sometimes read online is Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds). An interesting and easy way to become better acquainted with both bloggers is to watch this interview of Megan McArdle by Glenn Reynolds. They start out talking about managing personal finances and then extend the discussion into managing the finances of the federal government. Good stuff.

Next post — Megan McArdle Quotes Feynman.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dan Brown and Galileo

Like many other people, I enjoyed Dan Brown's bestselling novels Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code (the latter has sold 80 million copies so far). They are a fun read, but my advice is to be cautious about thinking that they accurately present historical facts. Here are two examples from Angels & Demons.

A secret society known as the "Illuminati" figures prominently in Angels & Demons. In the book, the Illuminati started in Rome in the 1500s as a group of scientists and others who were opposed to the teachings of the church, and one of their most prominent founding members was Galileo. Well, that's according to the book. According to Wikipedia, the Illuminati had nothing to do with either the church or Galileo, was founded in Bavaria (Germany) not Rome, and was founded in 1776 — 134 years after Galileo died. [But, of course, the Illuminati would have taken care to make sure that the Wikipedia article is misleading, right? Silly me.]

The second example takes more explaining, but is I think more interesting.

In Angels & Demons, the protagonist, symbologist Robert Langdon, finds an important clue in a fictitious text by Galileo which is kept in the library at the Vatican. While reading this fictitious text looking for the clue, Langdon comes across a section on planetary orbits (p. 211 in my paperback edition):
Elliptical orbits. Langdon recalled that much of Galileo's legal trouble [with the church] had begun when he described planetary motion as elliptical. The Vatican exalted the perfection of the circle and insisted heavenly motion must be only circular.

I could be wrong, but I don't think this is the way it was.

I think Galileo got in trouble with the church because of his text titled "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems." The two systems were the ancient Ptolemaic system in which everything orbited the Earth, and the newer Copernican system in which all the planets, including Earth, orbited the sun. Galileo's "Dialogue" favored the Copernican system, which angered the church. The church favored the Ptolemaic system, where the Earth is at the center of everything.

But there's more to the story. Galileo in fact argued for circular orbits, not elliptical orbits. The irony is that Galileo should have known better. While it is true that planetary orbits were circular in the Copernican system (as in the Ptolemaic system), Kepler had discovered some 23 years before Galileo published his "Dialogue" that planetary orbits were elliptical. Galileo knew about Kepler's work, and even corresponded with Kepler, but did not believe that planetary orbits were elliptical.

Here are some relevant dates:
1543 Copernicus published his theory
1601 Tycho Brahe died, Kepler got his data
1609 Kepler's laws of planetary motion
1632 Galileo's "Dialogue"
1687 Newton's laws of motion and gravitation

I mention Brahe (pronounced brah-hee) in this chronology because it was his astronomical data that Kepler used to discover the laws of planetary motion. Kepler's first law of planetary motion says that planetary orbits are elliptical. But Galileo ignored Kepler, and went back to the earlier Copernican theory of circular orbits around the sun, which we now know was wrong.

I mention Newton because it was his laws which provided a mathematical proof for Kepler's laws. Kepler had derived his laws empirically—from observational data, without any underlying mathematical framework. Newton provided the mathematical framework.

I think it is common knowledge that the trouble between Galileo and the church was about whether the Earth or the sun was at the center of things. I don't think it is so commonly known that Galileo argued for circular orbits when he should have known from Kepler's work that planetary orbits are elliptical.