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Monday, August 29, 2011

Becoming comfortable with

Both of my parents have moved to remote places, with unique communities, and are rather isolated in some ways. Had I grown up in either of these places, I think I would have wanted to escape in some way. I might have longed for something different and looked at how to get out, geographically, socially, and regarding lifestyle and mentality.

At this point in my life, I am only a visitor in these places. But arriving in each one, I get the feeling of being pulled into a black hole, with little communication to the rest of my life, and not sure how to connect the experience to who I am. At the same time, I am adaptable, and arriving, and within the experience, it has an integrity and a quality to it that is quite nice. But the boundaries are difficult. I can't think my way into it from outside, or out of it from inside.

So I have slowly worked on the problem over the years by looking carefully at the boundaries. In the remote town in California where my father lives, for example, I look to see whether there are surrounding communities that might have some life to them. I try to find things in common to other places regarding environment and landscape. I plan trips there with an exit strategy, and friends and other family flanking it. Certainly this is also quite personal, and relates to my own experience of family and who I am there, and who I am seen as. I am starting to try the same strategy with my mother's house in Iowa. There, the boundaries are physical, but there is also a strong ideological barrier that is uncomfortable to me. Is there something within that I can relate to? I find pieces of interest to that community that I might interpret in a different way, but still find interesting.

Is such an elaborate process necessary? Maybe I will reach a point where it will seem smaller and less important, but somehow this work is necessary. The other option is to say that visiting my family is too difficult, and no common ground can be found, but I don't want to do that.

On the Petrolia side, there is the natural environment. The trees, the river, the ocean.
On the MUM/Fairfield side, there is the nearby Mississippi river. There are coffee shops in Fairfield. Ideologically, MUM is more challenging. The Maharishi is a figure that I just have a very hard time appreciating. And the closed mentality fosters an inside/outside split that is hard to overcome. One of the Maharishi's main texts he interpretted and based his power around has been the Baghavad Gita. I think this is something I could become interested in.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Back to the mess

I have to finish a paper for a conference by Wednesday night. It is on the measurements relating to Touschek lifetime and momentum acceptance. There's an analysis of data to be done, and general writing and preparation of the paper. I really don't want to work on it.

Why don't I want to do it? Its late, I know. A paper needs to be written, and doing an analysis at the last minute can derail me from the process of fixing figures, adding references, and putting a clear narrative together. But its also that I've gotten myself out of thinking of this topic, and am wary of going back. It was my compromise. I will not leave accelerator physics entirely. I will do some work in this field, but move outward at the same time. But the topic is a mess for me. It is a personal mess in that my own files and documents and the relevant equations are not in such clear order. And a general historical mess in that it relates to the topic of dynamic aperture and sextupole optimization which is an unsolved problem. That question of dynamic aperture and stability has been the piece that I have slowly worked on, and tried to lay out a personal groundwork, so I don't feel so lost working in that area. Maybe this is a reflection of the fact that I didn't really finish this process.

So, my own angle on Touschek lifetime and measurement that I would like to get across is that the measurements are a diagnostic for the various lattice optimizations. There is both vertical emittance reduction goals, and increase of momentum acceptance via sextupole optimization. Stating clearly what these mean, and having measurements to ground discussion and results puts this other more nebulous "accelerator physics" activity onto a ground that relates to the goal of the machine- production of stable, long lived synchrotron radiation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Can we get beyond talking about people "living online"?
Along the lines of this post from Crooked Timber, I think the metaphor has gone too far.
Yes, the modes of communication have expanded, and there things that we do that are interacting directly with software (and perhaps with others in a delayed way, such as blogging!), rather than directly with people, but we are not living online.
What does the question "are you online?" mean these days? Yes, we may be available or not to communicate via a variety of channels, but no "we" are not online. I'm still here, in this room, breathing, as usual.
Perhaps "living online" is used in the sense of "living in one's head", which is generally not though of as such a good thing to do.
I guess, as a general topic, and as a source for personal time and space and energy management, I want to limit the extent to which one says "we" are online. Things like Facebook have an almost avatar like quality to them, where a certain amount of our information is packaged and available to others even when we are not available. It sort of represents us. How this fits in is something to continue to struggle with, but I just need to remind myself at times, that I am here, and these are modes of communication. We do say that google can be like extended memory, but I just don't want to go down that path. Perhaps people of the future will have some kind of choice like this to make, but for myself, I am who I am, not changed so much, but with a few more communication and knowledge access tools.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Technology Wants

I recently read Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants". I think my biggest complaint is the lack of humility when it comes to the big ideas, particularly with respect to the ill-defined "technium". The claims are grand and vague on the one hand, and at the same time it is stated that it is expected that these concepts will go through a number of iterations and changes over time. Stephen Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" had a similar grandiosity to it. It allows the author some maneuver room later to claim further developments under his/her rubric.

I think one can classify this book under the category of books where the author holds two divergent view points and tries to build some kind of narrative that encompasses the two. In this case, Kelly seems to have some kind of Christian God viewpoint that he is seeking to capture in the "Technium", and at the same time has the computer science and general science background that is perhaps less able to make statements about overall meaning or goal orientation in the universe. I think this dissonance can occur in scientists who also have religious commitments. John Hagelin's writings connecting Transcendental Meditation to Unified field theories is one example. Frank Tipler's "Physics of Immortality" is another. Fritjof Capra's "The Tau of Physics" is another example, but I think less difficult to swallow. (Actually these first two struck me as so strange that I doubted the honesty of the authors, whereas with Capra, and here with Kelly, one feels a fervency that doesn't seem so forced, even if the logic is flawed. Perhaps the real dishonesty simply comes in with the claiming that such an integration has been achieved, and this could indeed relate to high levels of self-deception.) In all of these works, it would be nice to see a section evaluating how well the author believes such a synthesis has worked. But perhaps the existence of such a section would have a rhetorical effect of diminishing the power of the hoped for unification.

I did really appreciate Kelly's discussion of the Amish, and in general about ways of thinking about adoption of technology and the imperative that one (individually and collectively) have the option of saying no sometimes. And his discussion of the "Technium" did make me want to seek out a more precise definition of some collection of human created artifacts and tools including some ideas, culture, and laws perhaps, that might usefully be viewed as having a sort of unity to it. The identification of this not well articulated entity with a biological entity did not seem to be so well founded. Clearly it is the recent widespread adoption and development of some internet communication technologies that provides the ground for such speculations and theorizing. In any case, it seems to be the same kind of thinking in conspiracy theories where agency is ascribed to some larger entity that may contain people as elements. Certainly one can find some truth out of this kind of thinking, but it seems to often lead to more errors and less clarity than it illuminates.

(Update... here is an interview of K.K. on his explicit religious views about the "technium")

Thinking a little further, I think that what we should celebrate (and engage with) in this book, is the fact that Kelly is articulating a system of values here. In particular, he is willing to say and argue as why technology is intrinsically "good". I'll have to track down the relevant quote, but the basic point he makes is that each technology has a possibility to be used in both positive and negative ways. However, the very existence of this choice is what tips it to the positive. Do I believe this? Its not obviously wrong. And in fact it may be part of what motivates me to contribute to the world of ideas and technology. Its hard to say that its always true, though. Can we stomach it for guns, say? A gun allows you the new choice to either defend yourself, or to injure/kill someone else. There are certainly some who would argue that this choice is not a net benefit for society. For the case of the Amish, Kelly wants to say that their choices to reject a given technology are appropriate for them, but not necessarily overall. So his encouragement of this practice doesn't invalidate his larger point. What about the bigger, more questionable technologies (genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and nuclear). I think he wants to say that even here, more choice is better, even if those choices seem pretty odd. (With nuclear weapons, one has the new choice to blow up this city, or that city. Ok, maybe one can conceive of positive options, but it seems likely that as a whole, the options created are not really a net gain.)
Anyway, it seems to be a somewhat slim blanket justification, but it is better than a complete lack of engagement in ethics, which is the norm for technologists.

Qualifying this somewhat... I guess, the main point (or guess, or suggestion) Kelly makes is that technology is slightly more "good" than "bad". So even if sometimes the creation of more options isn't "good", if the options produced by most technologies are on the whole "good", then it could still come out ahead. The question then might become, what is this unified thing that is slightly more good than bad? Is it really one thing, or have the good things just somehow been selected. Are repugnant political philosophies that yield great harm on humanity considered part of the technium? Or does he really just have something like the current manifestation of the internet and the associated technologies that are required to create a sort of closure surrounding that?

Update, Aug. 30, 2012.  Here is an interesting article critiquing the book from the cybergology blog.