Friday, September 8, 2017

In DeWitt's Footsteps

My book In DeWitt's Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal has been published. Read more about it here, here and here. Buy it on Amazon here.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Event: PhACT 9/16 [updated]

Back in 2012, I did a talk on science and politics for the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT). I'll be returning to take a new look at the subject on Sept. 16 (click to enlarge).
UPDATE: Video:


Friday, June 30, 2017

Erie Canal at 200: links

As July 4 is the 200th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Erie Canal, a number of articles and posts have appeared lately about the canal's history and DeWitt Clinton. Some links are below. My book on the subject will be out later this year, mixing history with family history as DeWitt Clinton is a direct ancestor of my wife and son; and featuring extensive photos of what you see now as you travel the canal's historic and modern paths. More to come about the book in the next couple months.

News flash: Clinton Street was NOT named for Hillary Clinton (Chicago Sun Times)

200 Years on the Erie Canal (Commentary magazine)

200 Years Ago, Erie Canal Got Its Start as Just a ‘Ditch’ (NY Times)

New York's Erie Canal: How a 200-year-old ditch made the Empire State (

What Donald Trump said about the Erie Canal (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: Into the Gray Zone

Adrian Owen's new book Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death is a fascinating and surprising book. I was surprised by the evidence discussed in it that some people who are deemed to be in a vegetative state actually experience the world around them, and can even communicate with the aid of advanced technologies and clever techniques. For example, Owen and his team asked seemingly unconscious patients to respond to questions yes or no by thinking about playing a game of tennis or walking through their own house, thoughts that generate distinct patterns of brain activity that can be scanned.

Such evidence of consciousness has both hopeful and disturbing implications--opening possibilities that people though to be irretrievably lost may not be so, and may have a heightened prospect of recovery; while also raising concerns about previously unsuspected suffering. Here we have both cutting-edge science and clinical ramifications that may profoundly impact people's lives. Owen tells a remarkably personal story about his work and the people he's met. A key figure in the book is Maureen, his onetime girlfriend, who pressed him to focus his science on helping people--and who later had an accident that left her in a vegetative state.

Into the Gray Zone also edges into philosophical and speculative territory, about the nature of consciousness and free will, and about how future technologies will peer into the brain or extend its powers. This book offers much to think about, and I expect it will get considerable attention.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: The Farthest

I saw The Farthest last night at the Tribeca Film Festival and highly recommend it. This is about the Voyager space probes and the people who sent them to the outer solar system and beyond. That mission not only opened vast new vistas of exploration but also marked an early example of the synergy of humans and robots in achieving unprecedented things (and, remarkably, doing it with 1970s computing technology now comparable to a key fob). The film does an adept job at interweaving science communication, striking imagery and personal recollections, with narration provided by numerous interviews with project scientists, engineers and other participants.

My lifelong interest in space exploration was sparked in considerable degree, I'm sure, by seeing the images of Jupiter and Saturn returned by the Voyagers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seeing the film's interview with Linda Morabito, the astronomer who first saw an image of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io, reminded me that I saw her in a TV interview back at the time. It was also good to see Nick Sagan, my onetime colleague, discuss his parents' and his own involvement with the golden record, which includes his own voice saying immortally, "Hello from the children of planet Earth." A very funny bit of the movie recalls a press conference about that record that NASA, reluctant to emphasize the mission's "alien" aspect, relegated to a hotel banquet hall with a wedding in progress on the other side of a room divider.

I expect the film will find an audience among the sorts of people I've worked with in science- and space-focused journalism, and I hope it will find a broader audience as well. An interesting perspective from the filmmakers, who were present last night for a Q and A and who are from Ireland, is that this is a uniquely American story; no other country has done anything like this, on such a scale. At the same time (and as reflected in the multilingual, multicultural golden record) the mission was an achievement for humanity at large. And while this particular feat won't happen again (it hinged on a once-in-176-year planetary alignment) may the future have much more where that came from.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: Deep Thinking

I tweeted this a few days ago:
I've now read Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins and can say that I was not disappointed. It's a thoroughly absorbing book, most of which I read in one sitting. It did confound my expectations in a way, though: somehow I'd expected there to be less chess in it. In retrospect, I realize that reflects the extent to which I've come to think of Garry Kasparov as a writer and activist no less than as a chess player; but of course chess was and always will be a central element of his career, and so it should be no surprise that computer chess, and in particular his battles with IBM's Deep Blue, occupies much of the space in this book. Even so, he does a capable job of tying that history--deeply personal for him--into broader considerations about human and machine intelligence.

As Kasparov aptly notes, chess is not a great measure for intellectual ability in general. Notwithstanding the game's demands for memory and concentration, correlations between chess skill and general intelligence are weak. For all its dazzling variety of possibilities, chess is not deep enough to have required the sort of machine learning that recently enabled a program to beat the top human player of the game Go. Rather, chess programs rose to Grandmaster level through simpler programming--using brute-force techniques of searching through numerous positions and assigning values (based on material strength of pieces and other readily measurable factors) rather than developing strategic concepts, let alone any understanding of the psychology of an opponent.

Consider the ascending level of difficulty an AI would face in accomplishing the following tasks (this hierarchy is my notion, not Kasparov's):

1. Playing chess really, really well. (Done.)

2. Playing a randomly selected chess variant really well, with different rules, pieces, shape and size of board, etc. (I considered this possibility a decade and a half ago in a perhaps slightly weird article.)

3. Inventing a new chess variant or other board game, with an emphasis on one that has many novel, unexplored possibilities. (Bonus: marketing the game and persuading people to play it.)

4. Subjectively experiencing any of the above, including feeling emotions about its activities.

5. Deciding unprompted to move on to a new career, such as writing, running for office, etc.

A computer that does all that does not seem likely to arrive anytime soon, even as AI logs genuine accomplishments in a wide range of fields. Kasparov, who has about as much reason as anyone to be chagrined about computers' capacity to outperform humans and take away their jobs, takes a persuasively optimistic view, seeing technology's potential to expand rather than replace human abilities. He notes the high performance that human-computer combos have had in the chess world, and that in addition to human and computer ability a key role can be played by "process"--being the best at meshing the two to maximize their strengths. He makes many other interesting observations, such as about the danger of excessive reliance on optimization--fine-tuning existing abilities--as a substitute for innovation that opens entire new avenues and measures of what can be done.

Fears of computers taking away jobs--or taking over the world--may soon give way to fears of humans doing bad things with the vast computer resources now at hand. I suspect the latter danger will get growing attention as more is learned about how the Russian government and its allies (or pawns) have deployed hacking and data mining in American and other elections around the world. As it happens, Kasparov has been a prescient observer of the geopolitical danger emanating from Russia.

The rapid advances in computing and other technologies require, well, deep thinking, and this book by that name deserves a wide audience, including but not limited to chess aficionados.

Note: I'd originally intended and been commissioned to review the book for the magazine Scientific American Mind, which unfortunately is no longer appearing in print form, hence my choice to write a review here at my own blog instead.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fact check: James Woolsey's EMP death toll

Two years ago (almost exactly), I wrote about former CIA director James Woolsey, in the context of fact checking a claim by Josh Marshall that Woolsey persisted in believing that Saddam Hussein was the mastermind of 9/11. I was not able to verify Marshall's claim but also noted that I had "no firm opinions" about Woolsey in general. I now have some opinions based on the former CIA director's hype-ridden, fear-mongering op-ed "How North Korea Could Kill 90 Percent of Americans."

The supposed basis for that headline is in this passage from Woolsey's piece:

In February and March of 2015, former senior national security officials of the Reagan and Clinton administrations warned that North Korea should be regarded as capable of delivering by satellite a small nuclear warhead, specially designed to make a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. According to the Congressional EMP Commission, a single warhead delivered by North Korean satellite could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.

Me: The 90 percent figure is sourced to 2008 congressional testimony by physicist William Graham, chairman of the EMP Commission. Where did it come from? A novel. It was brought up in a question by then congressman Roscoe Bartlett. The full question and answer:

Me: The 90 percent figure does not appear in the EMP Commission's report. The section of that report that deals with food supply does not attempt to quantify the casualties that would result from a disruption of food supply; it does note, as Graham alluded to in his testimony, that about 30 million people lived on farms in 1900, but provides no analysis suggesting that a similar number would be the survivors of an EMP attack. Indeed, even while raising an alarm about what an EMP could do to food security, the report gives an impression of consequences more limited than the scenario extracted from the novel.

The report states, for instance: "An EMP attack could, in effect, temporarily create in the United States the technological conditions in the food and transportation infrastructures that have resulted in developing world famines." Me: Even the worst famines of modern times did not approach a 90 percent destruction of large populations.

Nonetheless, the 90 percent figure has gained some traction in public discussion of the EMP threat, as in an article by entrepreneur (and presidential aspirant) John McAfee stating that "Experts agree that an all out cyber attack, beginning with an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack on our electronic infrastructure, would wipe out 90% of the human population of this country within two years of the attack. That means the death of 270 million people within 24 months after the attack."

As for Roscoe Bartlett, who raised the question, he reportedly has adopted a post-congressional lifestyle as a survivalist.

As for Woolsey, his willingness to assert an alarmist claim that has a weak (and indeed fictional) basis does not speak well for his judgment and credibility. The possibility that he may be more level-headed and credible than some of the other people who have advised Donald Trump on national security thus becomes all the more disturbing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mercer sightings

Robert Mercer, whom I mentioned recently, is finally getting some of the attention he deserves.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book note: Finding Fibonacci

Reading a review copy of this currently: Finding Fibonacci: The Quest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World. It's by Keith Devlin, whose math thinking MOOC I took and wrote about here and here. I may have more to say about the book when I finish it, but I'm already intrigued by its interdisciplinary nature (a "deft, engaging mix of history, math and travelogue," per Publishers Weekly) and that it discusses how important people are sometimes forgotten--and sometimes rediscovered--by history, with Leonardo Pisano (aka Fibonacci) having disappeared from the world's awareness for centuries, and with his true significance only emerging in recent years. The tendency of historical reputations to rise and fall (even when they don't disappear altogether) is a theme I've found in my own research on DeWitt Clinton, and I suspect it holds true in many cases.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dark sides of math and data

Recommended reading: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O'Neil. This eye-opening book is about what the author calls "the dark side of Big Data"--how algorithms are used in sinister or negligent ways, in matters ranging from mortgage lending to for-profit prisons. It may be uncomfortable reading for people (like me) who love math, but as O'Neil puts it "math deserves much better [than to be used in such ways] and democracy does too."

Some related things to read: Edward Frenkel's great book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which though it is essentially a love letter to his subject, opens with a warning about how math can be misused, by Wall Street and others. I interviewed Frenkel about that and related matters for my former employer Research magazine.

Thinking back, I've been edging into such topics for a long time. I recall writing an article for U.S. Banker magazine in the early '90s about how data mining was becoming an important new technique in the financial industry. The banks were claiming it would help them have "relationships" with their clients, a claim for which I think I had some skepticism (but the article doesn't seem to be online). I also wrote around that time about how financial "rocket scientists" were using derivatives, in a piece for Insight magazine (also not online, at least not for free), but true to my conservative allegiances of the time, regrettably, I downplayed the potential problems.

Finally, I recommend reading this: "Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit," by Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian. The billionaire is Robert Mercer, who played a key role in Trump's rise to power. Mercer will be remembered as a man who used data to damage democracy, in the U.S. and Britain. That damage can only be limited by more people knowing the math and computer science that's being used to undermine our freedom.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Churchill on aliens

Recommended reading: "Winston Churchill's essay on alien life found." By Mario Livio in Nature. Found via Mental Floss.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Betraying our history

Recommended reading: "America Now Looks Like the Past, Not the Future," by Jeet Heer. Excerpt:
To judge by his speeches, notably an inaugural address that fear-mongered about “American carnage,” the president believes the country is in deep trouble and needs to get its own house in order. Trump is more interested in recovering past glories—the old days when “we’d win with wars” rather than now, when “we don’t win anymore”—than in creating a new tomorrow. It’s no surprise that some of the loudest complaints about Trump’s ban came from tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that rely on the immigrants that Trump demonizes.
Me: I've spent the last few years researching the history of the Erie Canal, for a book I am now preparing to publish.

The Erie Canal is surely one of the things that made America great, and it would be easy to view it in terms of nostalgia. But looking back on its development I am struck most by how forward-looking the people involved were. The canal is where American technology really began, with surveyors turning themselves into a new profession of engineers in on-the-job training. The canal also helped immigrants become part of America, as they built it and traveled on it further into America.

America looking more like past than future is one of the deepest betrayals of our heritage that can be imagined. Those interested in recovering past glories should at least have some clue what they are.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Family photo, 1944

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Recent and upcoming books

Recently read: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I can see why this book created a stir. It's often grim but extraordinarily absorbing, and maybe provides a glimpse of insight into why Trump did well electorally in Appalachia and areas that have some connection by kinship or similarity to Appalachia.

Recently received and read an advance copy: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols. This book, to be published in March, tells a story that needs to be told, about people choosing their own "facts" and "reality" while denying what professionals and specialists have to say about matters. I may have more to say about this book once I've seen the final version. Nichols, an expert on the unfortunately pressing subjects of national security, nuclear weapons and Russia, has made a name for himself in the past year as one of the most incisive Never Trump Republicans.

Have read parts: Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. An interesting historical episode, and (in terms of importance and relative unfamiliarity) a good choice of one to focus on given how much has been written about Churchill.

Review copy received but not read yet: Containment: A Thriller by Hank Parker. Looks interesting.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Think better

Logical thinking is needed more than ever in the new political era, so all the more reason why I recommend Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" course at Coursera.
I took the course a couple years ago, and wrote about it here and here. In my experience it requires 10-plus hours a week, so be advised accordingly, but if you're going to take it, now is a good time as I understand Prof. Devlin's personal participation ends with this session. Incidentally, I am currently taking a shorter and somewhat less time-consuming, but interesting, course on Fibonacci numbers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Reminder: this story is not going away

Monday, December 19, 2016

This story is not going away

Friday, December 9, 2016

Improper ascendant

This clearly fits the bill, as described in Federalist 68. And it's far from the only reason the electors should act.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book note: Earth in Human Hands

Planetary scientist David Grinspoon's book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future, which I mentioned recently, has been published, and is well worth readers' time. I say this based on partial but compelling information, having not yet finished reading my review copy; but I have certainly read enough to say this is an important, timely and thought-provoking work.

It is also one that will spark some controversy, perhaps along the lines of the ideological shake-up I've anticipated, in which stock answers from left and right become less predictable as environmental problems grow along with human capacities to possibly do something about them. In his final chapter (I jumped ahead) "Embracing the Human Planet," Grinspoon is critical of environmental doomsaying such as accompanied incorrect reports a couple years ago that NASA had predicted civilization's collapse.

"If this human bashing and doom prophesizing is tactical, I think it's backfiring. It's more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy than to rouse people to action," writes Grinspoon. He continues:
"Currently I feel that spewing misanthropy and random anti-human sentiment is just as dangerous as emitting CO2 into the air. It is the opposite of activism. I know that people spreading these messages mean well. They want to shock others into realizing the effect we're having on the planet, but there is a real danger of unintended consequences, of encouraging people to give up. Spreading messages of doom is a form of inactivism."
Me: While passages such as that may discomfit environmentalists, I should add that there is much to discomfit others, including anyone who's gung-ho for some hands-on geoengineering. Also, because Grinspoon's a planetary scientist, this book has a strong element of celestial perspective, as well as anecdotes about Carl Sagan and other space-focused luminaries. As I suggested in my earlier note, about this book and David Biello's The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age, questions about what humans should do on a large scale and for the long term are getting more important every day.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not just words

Recommended reading: "In Defense of Trump Panic," by Benjamin Wittes, at Lawfare blog.