In History, Documenting Your Sources Matters More than Your Credentials


George Dyson. Source of photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. D11) BELLINGHAM, Wash. — More than most of us, the science historian George Dyson spends his days thinking about technologies, old and very new.
. . .
Though this 58-year-old author’s works are centered on technology, they often have an autobiographical subtext. Freeman Dyson, the physicist and mathematician who was a protagonist of Project Orion, is his father. Esther Dyson, the Internet philosopher and high-tech investor, is his sister. We spoke for three hours at his cottage here, and later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the conversations follows.
. . .
. . . today you make your living as a historian of science and technology. How does a high school dropout get to do that?
Hey, this is America. You can do what you want! I love this idea that someone who didn’t finish high school can write books that get taken seriously. History is one of the only fields where contributions by amateurs are taken seriously, providing you follow the rules and document your sources. In history, it’s what you write, not what your credentials are.

For the full interview, see:
CLAUDIA DREIFUS, interviewer. “Looking Backward to Put New Technologies in Focus.” The New York Times (Tues., December 6, 2011): D11.
(Note: question bolded in original; ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview is dated December 5, 2011.)

Dyson’s most recent book is:
Dyson, George. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Tool Makers Cannot Predict Creative Ways Tools Will Be Used

(p. 89) Jobs had no use for small-minded naysayers. His experience had taught him that if you offered a better computer, well priced and accessible, there was no limit to what human ingenuity could achieve with it. No one, after all, had thought of electronic spread-sheets when he and Wozniak rolled out the Apple II, in 1977, but within two years, a spreadsheet program called VisiCalc–created in an attic by a first-year Harvard MBA student and a programmer friend–was one of the strongest drivers of Apple Il sales. The PIC was not a consumer product like the Apple II, but the principle was the same. “People are inherently creative,” Jobs remarked to an interviewer a few years later. “They will use tools in ways the tool makers never thought possible.”

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

“No Street Protester Has Yet Endowed a University Department”


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Over the next three decades, Breasted would excavate a series of sites in Egypt, the Sudan and the Near East. He would also develop an important ability to identify rich and influential benefactors and to gain their confidence without resorting to sycophancy. . . . Notable among the Maecenas figures he cultivated was John D. Rockefeller.

Rockefeller had been an early patron of the University of Chicago; he might have done something for Near Eastern studies in any case, but it is clear that without Breasted’s energy and enthusiasm, Rockefeller’s scholarly philanthropy would never have taken the course it did. Eventually, he provided the funding for an entire Oriental Institute in 1931. (The OI, as it is affectionately known, had existed from 1919 but essentially as a concept between academic committees.) Together with its Egyptian offshoot, Chicago House, the OI is perhaps the leading center of Egyptology and Assyriology in the world. At the moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, we are hearing a lot about the evils of bankers and capitalism, but as far as I know no street protester has yet endowed a university department.

For the full review, see:
JOHN RAY. “BOOKSHELF; From Illinois To Mesopotamia; Excavating sites in Egypt and the Near East, writing groundbreaking books and developing a talent for courting wealthy donors.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 23, 2012): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book under review:
Abt, Jeffrey. American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Simple Heuristics Can Work Better than Complex Formulas

(p. C4) Most business people and physicians privately admit that many of their decisions are based on intuition rather than on detailed cost-benefit analysis. In public, of course, it’s different. To stand up in court and say you made a decision based on what your thumb or gut told you is to invite damages. So both business people and doctors go to some lengths to suppress or disguise the role that intuition plays in their work.
Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, thinks that instead they should boast about using heuristics. In articles and books over the past five years, Dr. Gigerenzer has developed the startling claim that intuition makes our decisions not just quicker but better.
. . .
The economist Harry Markowitz won the Nobel prize for designing a complex mathematical formula for picking fund managers. Yet when he retired, he himself, like most people, used a simpler heuristic that generally works better: He divided his retirement funds equally among a number of fund managers.
A few years ago, a Michigan hospital saw that doctors, concerned with liability, were sending too many patients with chest pains straight to the coronary-care unit, where they both cost the hospital more and ran higher risks of infection if they were not suffering a heart attack. The hospital introduced a complex logistical model to sift patients more efficiently, but the doctors hated it and went back to defensive decision-making.
As an alternative, Dr. Gigerenzer and his colleagues came up with a “fast-and-frugal” tree that asked the doctors just three sequential yes-no questions about each patient’s electrocardiographs and other data. Compared with both the complex logistical model and the defensive status quo, this heuristic helped the doctors to send more patients to the coronary-care unit who belonged there and fewer who did not.

For the full commentary, see:
By MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; All Hail the Hunch–and Damn the Details.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 24, 2011): C4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

A couple of Gigerenzer’s relevant books are:
Gigerenzer, Gerd. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Gigerenzer, Gerd. Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.

Internet Companies Respect the Value of Your Time

JainArvindGoogleEngineer2012-03-08.jpg “Arvind Jain, a Google engineer, pointed out the loading speed of individual elements of a website on a test application used to check efficiency, at Google offices in Mountain View, Calif.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Wait a second.

No, that’s too long.
Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds — literally the blink of an eye — is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.
“Subconsciously, you don’t like to wait,” said Arvind Jain, a Google engineer who is the company’s resident speed maestro. “Every millisecond matters.”
Google and other tech companies are on a new quest for speed, challenging the likes of Mr. Jain to make fast go faster. The reason is that data-hungry smartphones and tablets are creating frustrating digital traffic jams, as people download maps, video clips of sports highlights, news updates or recommendations for nearby restaurants. The competition to be the quickest is fierce.
People will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds (a millisecond is a thousandth of a second).
“Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” said Harry Shum, a computer scientist and speed specialist at Microsoft.
. . .
(p. A3) The need for speed itself seems to be accelerating. In the early 1960s, the two professors at Dartmouth College who invented the BASIC programming language, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, set up a network in which many students could tap into a single, large computer from keyboard terminals.
“We found,” they observed, “that any response time that averages more than 10 seconds destroys the illusion of having one’s own computer.”
In 2009, a study by Forrester Research found that online shoppers expected pages to load in two seconds or fewer — and at three seconds, a large share abandon the site. Only three years earlier a similar Forrester study found the average expectations for page load times were four seconds or fewer.
The two-second rule is still often cited as a standard for Web commerce sites. Yet experts in human-computer interaction say that rule is outdated. “The old two-second guideline has long been surpassed on the racetrack of Web expectations,” said Eric Horvitz, a scientist at Microsoft’s research labs.

For the full story, see:
STEVE LOHR. “For Impatient Web Users, an Eye Blink Is Just Too Long to Wait.” The New York Times (Thurs., March 1, 2012): A1 & A3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 29, 2012.)

WebSpeedGraphic2012-03-08.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Lasseter’s Epiphany: “This Is What Walt Was Waiting For”

(p. 52) In a trailer on the Disney lot, Lasseter huddled with Rees and Kroyer to look at the first computer-generated scene to come in–a race among drivers in virtual motorcycles known as light cycles. The scene had no character animation and its graphics were rudimentary, but it brought Lasseter an epiphany. The dimensionality of the scene was something he had never witnessed before. If this technology could be melded with Disney animation, he thought, he would have the makings of a revolution. Until then, three-dimensional effects in animation had required difficult, costly sessions with the multistory “multiplane” camera, practical for only a few key sequences in a film, if that. The computers could even move the audience’s point of view around a scene like a Steadicam. The possibilities seemed infinite.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said later. “Walt Disney, all his career, all his life, was striving to get more dimension in his (p. 53) animation . . . and I was standing there, looking at it, going, ‘This is what Walt was waiting for.'”
He was not able to interest the animation executives in it; they did not care to hear about new technology unless it made animation faster or cheaper.

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

“The Astaires’ Defiant New World Optimism”


Source of book image:

(p. C6) The Astaire universe was made of crazy joy, that guiltless worldview unique to the art of the American 1920s. The Astaires’ trademarked exit was the gleefully mischievous “runaround,” in which they trotted about the stage in ever increasing circles as if joined at the hip, expanding their geometry till they reached the wings and vanished. It was goofy and expert at once, a way of defining musical comedy as the state of being young, cute and in love with life.
. . .
“For all their jazz-fueled modernity,” Ms. Riley writes of the Astaires’ London r├ęclame, they were “anti-modernist.” This pair was more than sunshine. The sheer zest with which they frisked through a show ran “counter to High Modernism’s pervasive sense of the instability of the self and the universe.” This was the time, Ms. Riley notes, of “The Waste Land,” “Ulysses,” “Vile Bodies.” Art was in despair. But the Astaires’ “defiant New World optimism” proved a remedy: meeting cute, assuming disguises and high-hatting the blues with fascinating rhythm. It’s a very American notion: that a strong foundation in popular art creates a positive worldview in general. Call it the audacity of charm.
. . .
They don’t make shows that way anymore, and Ms. Riley’s book is thus a resuscitation of a naive but perhaps more authentically native showbiz, an art of natural forces. “The Astaires” is a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.

For the full review, see:
Kathleen Riley. “BOOKSHELF; Sibling Revelry.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 3, 2012): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:
Riley, Kathleen. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

Majority of Marine Creatures Thrive in Greater Acidity

(p. C4) The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be “nothing less than catastrophic…. What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way.”
This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification “the scariest environmental problem you’ve never heard of.” Sigourney Weaver, who narrated a film about the issue, said that “the scientists are freaked out.” The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls it global warming’s “equally evil twin.”
. . .
If the average pH of the ocean drops to 7.8 from 8.1 by 2100 as predicted, it will still be well above seven, the neutral point where alkalinity becomes acidity.
. . .
In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to lower pH sites, where they proved “able to calcify and grow at even faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide] levels projected for the next 300 years.” In any case, freshwater mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.
Laboratory experiments find that more marine creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to 7.8. This is because the carbon dioxide dissolves mainly as bicarbonate, which many calcifiers use as raw material for carbonate.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY. “MIND & MATTER; Taking Fears of Acid Oceans With a Grain of Salt.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C4.
(Note: ellipsis in first paragraph in original; ellipses between paragraphs added.)

Upper Class “Have Lost the Confidence to Preach What They Practice”


Source of book image:

(p. 9) The problem, Murray argues, is not that members of the new upper class eat French cheese or vote for Barack Obama. It is that they have lost the confidence to preach what they practice, adopting instead a creed of “ecumenical niceness.” They work, marry and raise children, but they refuse to insist that the rest of the country do so, too. “The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived,” Murray writes.

For the full review, see:
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE. “Tramps Like Them; Charles Murray Argues that the White Working Class Is No Longer a Virtuous Silent Majority.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., February 12, 2012): 9.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 10, 2012 and has the title “Tramps Like Them; Charles Murray Examines the White Working Class in ‘Coming Apart’.”)

CalArts Was One of Walt Disney’s Last Projects

It is a nice minor coda to Walt Disney’s life that the CalArts school that he founded provided a starting point for many of the next generation of great innovative animators, including John Lasseter.

(p. 47) CalArts was Walt Disney’s brainchild; he had started the planning of the school in the late 1950s and provided generously for it in his will. Walt and his brother Roy formed it in 1961 through a merger of two struggling Los Angeles institutions, the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute. The doors opened at the school’s consolidated campus in Valencia in 1971, five years after Walt’s death.
. . .
(p. 48) The storms of the 1960s had mostly receded by the time Lasseter arrived. At CalArts, he found his own kind of liberation: Here, he no longer needed to conceal his passion for cartoons. His twenty classmates from across the country were animation geeks like him. Others had been corresponding with the Disney studio just as he had, and even making their own short films. Many would go on from CalArts to perform significant work at Disney or elsewhere; among them were future stars John Musker (co-director of Aladdin, Hercules, and The Little Mermaid) and Brad Bird.
First-year classes took place in room A113, a windowless space with white walls, floor, and ceiling, and buzzing fluorescent lights. The teachers made up tor the setting, however: Almost all of them were longtime Disney artists with awe-inspiring animation credits. Kendall O’Connor, an art director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, taught layout; Elmer Plummer, a character designer on Dumbo, taught life drawing; T. Hee, a sequence director on Pinocchio, taught caricature. The program was rigorous and the hours long; the fact that the campus was in the middle of nowhere made it easier to focus on work. Tim Burton, who entered the program the following year, remembered the experience: . . .

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)
(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)