A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: Academy and Society

Farewell to 2016

This was a bad year in a lot of ways.  Among the wars, crimes, and self-inflicted sucking chest wounds of politics, an unnaturally large number of artists died, some before their time.  The artists got a great deal of the attention. I think that’s because we all had them in common. We all have our own sets of events, but losing David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds (et depressing cetera) is in the overlap of the giant Venn diagram. Good riddance, 2016.

But I’d like to close out the year by celebrating two people who died this year, whose books taught me a lot.  No tragedy here; their combined age was 174.  But I thought about them today, and they match the theme of this blog perfectly.

Sidney Drell was a brilliant physicist.  His Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Relativistic Quantum Fields, both written with James Bjorken, were the texts that really cracked quantum field theory open for me.  Writing well about quantum field theory is hard.  With most authors, by chapter 3 I give up on the words and just read the equations.  Bjorken and Drell’s books go the other direction.  Reading the words was good enough that I could figure out the equations for myself.  Prof. Drell also became one of the leading US authorities on national security, leading a group called JASON. When I got my first job after leaving academe in 1990, all the books I needed weren’t in my building; they were in the JASON library.  Seeing Sidney Drell’s name there was the only familiar thing about that job.

Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco.  How on earth a semiotician became a celebrity is a thing at which I’ll always marvel.  A friend who’s better at reading than I am gave me a copy of The Name of the Rose when I was in college.  The way Eco wove his erudition seamlessly into a page-turner plot was a new experience for me, and I started digging up all the other works by him I could find.  From his literary criticism I learned a new way to look at books, after which I finally “got” what so many twentieth-century authors were doing with non-linear flows of time.  And then, he published Foucault’s Pendulum.  That book was practically written for me and my friends. There might have been a few half-drunken dramatic readings from it at various parties over the years (eyewitness accounts differ).  And Belbo’s disquisition on the types of people in the world let me finally come out of the closet and embrace my identity as a Moron.

So adieu, maîtres. This wouldn’t be the same blog without you.

Institute for the Preservation of Technology

Brad DeLong has a great post about regional economic revitalization that’s attracting a lot of attention across the Web.  He’s responding to an article by Noah Smith that looks at the woes of the Rust Belt and presents four ideas for what can be done about them.  Prof. DeLong is less sanguine.  He sees real obstacles to any kind of government redistribution, and from conversations I’ve had with the demographic group in question (aka “my family”), he’s probably right.  But I think I have an idea for this one.

I’m already on the record with one idea for job growth, which was aimed at humanities scholars.  They’re not the primary problem, though.  The big need for employment in the USA these days is among people who didn’t finish college.  The older generations are particularly precarious.  Once we get into our fifties, we just don’t adapt as fast as we used to, so the turbulent pace of the new economy can be a strain.

As Lyman Stone has pointed out [1], and everyone else seems to agree, universities are the key to economic growth in this century, but the people we’re interested in aren’t to be found in universities. How do we bridge the gap between the solution and the people who need it?  The traditional response from the government has been to re-train and re-educate workers in new technology.  That hasn’t worked so well, so it’s time to turn it sideways.

My answer is not quite “technology”, it’s τεχνόω, to instruct in an art. We need universities to create institutions for the preservation of twentieth-century τέχνη.  Those old manufacturing workers, sheet-metal-benders, caregivers, farmers, weavers, etc. know a lot of things that are in danger of disappearing because they’re not in a Web-accessible format. [2]

Interlude:  Just this once, I’ll bring in an example from my day job.  The separation that air traffic controllers maintain between aircraft en route has to be at least five nautical miles.  Why five?  There are several likely explanations, but the truth is that nobody knows. It was set in an era when investigations weren’t formalized like they are today.  Those old controllers, long gone now, tried a lot of things and this one works so nobody’s changed it.  Let’s never forget important knowledge like that again!

The workers for whom the new economy has no place shouldn’t be students of these new institutes, they should be staff. I imagine them as the shop-floor equivalent of Senior Fellows at think tanks. That type of position always seems to be available for high-ranking political figures when their terms are up. Why just them? Frankly, society would derive value from listening to my father-in-law explain how to re-use waste heat from a fireplace to make a water heater more efficient, just as it does from former Secretaries of Whatever writing op-eds about their policies. [3]

The other half of the staff would be young people who are familiar with the most-recent means of mass communication via the Internet.  This Institute would be dedicated to the knowledge of people who will never write a book, and perhaps their knowledge is better suited to audio, video, or HTML5 animation anyway.  The younger half of the staff will get everything into a transmissible format, properly cross-linked, human- and AI-readable.  On top of all this newly-available knowledge, a superstructure of journals, peer review, synthesis, and scholarly progress can be erected in the usual manner.

Good universities that can sponsor these institutes exist in all fifty states.  Institutes like this would naturally be dispersed, and might even be naturally concentrated in areas forsaken by the flashier parts of the economy.  The Institute for Preservation of Technology doesn’t have to suffer from the negative reactions big government gets in rust-belt America, because it isn’t a “jobs program”.  It isn’t a handout. It would create important jobs that can’t be performed by anyone else. It would give proper respect to the people who kept the USA running for half a century, making sure that they and their hard work are remembered.

[1] Readers of Idiosophy already know Lyman Stone from his opus on Westeros.
[2] We saw this during the mobilization to prevent the Y2K bug from destroying civilization.  Old COBOL programmers were called out of retirement because much that once was, is lost.
[3] My father-in-law’s name is Frank.

Canons and Chains

In which your Idiosopher considers how to measure an author’s cultural depth.

Brenton has a quotation from a letter by C.S. Lewis that seems to say nice things about the way I’ve been approaching literature. Lewis doesn’t like the idea of canonical lists of books that youngsters should read. I don’t like canonical lists either, unless I’ve read everything on it and can feel smug therefore.  The only time I’ve ever gone and read books because they were part of a canon, it was Michael Dirda’s list of the “100 Best Humorous Novels.” (Alas, no link. It was in the Washington Post, long ago.)

Un jour viendra où l’on montrera un canon dans les musées comme on y montre aujourd’hui un instrument de torture, en s’étonnant que cela ait pu être!
(Someday we’ll exhibit canons in museums, as we do now with instruments of torture, amazed that such things could ever have existed!)

Victor Hugo

What Lewis prefers is a sort of terrain-following model, as one work you love leads to other writers, in a long chain of culture.  It’s not linear, of course. It’s more like following a river through its delta.  Some streams split and merge, some flow straight to the sea, some spin around in eddies and backwaters.

For me, on the science fiction/fact side, one chain was Asimov → Clarke → Niven → Dyson → Feynman → Dirac  → Einstein. [1] On the fantasy side, there’s a chain that goes Tolkien → Ursula LeGuin → Mervyn Peake → E.R. Eddison → Lord Dunsany → Thomas Malory → Medieval romances. [2] To be absolutely accurate, the latter chain should start with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, the libretto of which I read before Lord of the Rings. The chain has a kind of “V” shape in time, bouncing off World War II.

There’s a nice idiosophical vein here.  Lots of people measure the cultural significance of a work by how many arrows lead from it.  LotR, by this measure, might be the most culturally-significant work of the twentieth century, since arrows lead from it to a large section of modern bookstores and the entire art of fantasy role-playing games.[3]  That’s the azimuthal direction, if you will. But maybe there’s another dimension:  Might it be of interest how long the chains are, as well how many chains originate there?  The depth to which authors connect into existing cultural structures seems orthogonal to their azimuthal impact, and might yield interesting insights.  The fact that the metric will be biased towards books enjoyed by teenagers may be entertaining, as well.

Quantitative data to rank various authors by chain-length can be obtained from elderly scholars.  They’ll have to be elderly, because these chains are only visible in hindsight. It seems easily parallelizable, hence ideal for the Web.  The job could be a lot of work, but if you like talking to classicists and medievalists anyway, it wouldn’t be much of a chore.

[1] The linked pages were for fun; they’re unrelated to my own research.
[2] The lectures of Corey Olsen are in there at the last step.
[3] The Tenth Art, I think.

Take the Canon Quiz!

Brenton’s at it again. He has made a manageable list of canonical works, “for those who are inclined to soak in this great tradition.” I’m all for that. Let a hundred Harolds bloom. But it seems like missing the point of (a) lists of canonical works and (b) the World-Wide Web, if you make one without making a way to keep score.

Click the appropriate button for whether you’ve read the work (1 point), read part of it (half a point), or haven’t read it at all (no points).  I scored 12.5. I resisted the temptation to give bonus points for reading things in their original languages.

Read Partly Nope
Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)
The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
The Bible
Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)
Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
Hamlet (English, 1603)
Othello (English, 1604)
King Lear (English, 1606)
Macbeth (English, 1611)
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
Moliere, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)
19th Century+
William Wordsworth
• ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (English, 1800)
• ‘Tintern Abbey’ (English, 1798)
Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
Walt Whitman,
Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
• ‘Song of Myself’ (English, 1855)
Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, )
George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time = Remembrance of Things Past (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
Virginia Woolf
Orlando (English, 1928)
A Room of One ‘s Own (English, 1929)
Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
Samuel Beckett
Endgame (English, 1957)
Murphy (English, 1938)
Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

Patrons of the Humanities

Writing from his perch above the Ice Bay of Forochel, Brenton has a proposal for ordinary people to sponsor humanities scholars, with expenditures beginning at zero dollars. As a good blog post should, it provoked a swift series of associations in my mind.

  1. Cool! I can be a Renaissance prince!
  2. No, wait, I would hate that.
  3. This is what Patreon and other crowdfunding sites are for. This is more personal, but the dollar figures will be much smaller.
  4. Thinking back to my days as an impecunious scholar, some of these would embarrass the daylight out of me.
  5. In a modern liberal democracy, we’re supposed to set up public organizations to do the things that used to rely on princely patronage. That solves the stabby/poisonous parts of #2 and replaces the embarrassment in #4 with the tedium of filling out forms. (Much better.)

We’ve built things like the National Endowment for the Humanities here in the U.S. of A., but they’re chronically under-funded.  The checkbook is under the control of people who want the agency to be as small as they can make it.  But that point connected me to something else I think a lot about.

Economic interlude

Depressing though it is these days, I stay abreast of macroeconomics.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, the fundamental problem in the developed world has been that all the rich people want to sit on their money. The economy is sluggish because the demand for money is so high that the demand for everything else is too low, so people don’t have work. The interest rates that would re-launch economic growth (according to most models) are less than zero. But that’s not generally possible, so holding cash is better than investing it.

Now here’s where things get weird: in conditions like this, the way to fix the problem of too much demand for money is to print more money. And then you give it away to people. In some people’s imaginations, you just drop cash out of helicopters, but perhaps we can think of something less contusive. With a lot more money sloshing around the economy, that will generate some inflation, which is exactly what we need. The rich people (which includes sovereign wealth funds from oil-producing countries) will see their bank accounts losing value, so they’ll look for things to spend it on before it diminishes. That will re-launch demand, and put everyone back to work.

We’ve even gotten to the point that the old idea of the Universal Basic Income is coming to life again. It differs from helicopter money only because it’s a fiscal program initiated by the legislature, not a monetary program run from the Central Bank.


What does this have to do with patronage? (Oh yes, patronage. This post was about patronage, wasn’t it?) Universal Basic Income is probably a bridge too far in our current north-atlantic superculture. I’d propose instead a Universal Research Fellowship program. A grant of (I don’t know; I’ll pull a number from Brenton’s post) $25,000 per annum for anyone who wants to conduct research. Recipients would have to submit a prospectus that’s good enough to pass electronic review (which only checks for plagiarism), and produce an annual paper in the public domain.

Benefits: relaunching the economy; removing a bunch of people from jobs they hate; employing rafts of detectives to track the free-for-all in identity fraud; new golden age of the humanities.

Disadvantages: Brenton’s call to action has the advantage that it’s something that an individual can do, so it’ll probably happen much sooner than my idea. But once the robots take all the manufacturing jobs, collective action will be the only solution big enough to match the problem.

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