Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 2nd, 2017

Reading “War and Peace”

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I did start rereading War and Peace, this edition—and on my Kindle, no less. I got my favorite translation (the Maude translation). It costs only $2.50 and includes linked footnotes and translations of the French used in conversation.

The problem I have is keeping track of the names. I have generally sort of faked it, having a firm grip on some names and a vague recall of the persons with other names, and I generally lose track of the relationships among the characters. I had a very nice little cheat-sheet showing the families and all, but I seem to have lost that.

So what I decided to do was highlight the sentence or two that introduces each character as I go, and also any brief descriptions of characters that occur by the way. And since characters are not only named when introduced, but provided with their family connections and social standing, I ended up highlighting and thus noticing those. And, as Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirée proceeds, those family connections give life to the dialogue. You can view the highlights in a list by clicking the “menu” icon and then “Notes” which has a tab for the list of highlights.

I also end up noting things I would otherwise miss. For example, take this paragraph:

The vicomte was a nice-looking young man with soft features and polished manners, who evidently considered himself a celebrity but out of politeness modestly placed himself at the disposal of the circle in which he found himself. Anna Pavlovna was obviously serving him up as a treat to her guests. As a clever maître d’hôtel serves up as a specially choice delicacy a piece of meat that no one who had seen it in the kitchen would have cared to eat, so Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests, first the vicomte and then the abbe, as peculiarly choice morsels. The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Buonaparte’s hatred of him.

The scene continues with Anna Pavlovna gathering guests, setting the stage (as it were), and moving things along, but I was struck by the image of the vicomte as a tasty morsel, enticing to all the guests—who, had they seen him backstage (in the kitchen, as it were), would not have cared for him at all.

What is the metaphorical kitchen in which the vicomte would be unattractive? I’m a bit at a loss, but I suppose that if you strip the vicomte of dress and decorations, you see not the celebrity—the cultural icon build of those cultural signifiers—but just a nice-looking young man with soft features, not someone so impressive as to be the pièce de résistance but rather just a plain young man.

But that’s only a guess. It is an odd image, difficult to untangle, and it’s clearly not a problem of translation but a problem of the image and what that part of—the unsavory view in the kitchen—might mean.

The takeaway: if you start War and Peace and have not read it before, make your own table of characters: names, to whom they’re related, what their character is like. Making the list provides a useful reference and—more important—pushes the information into your memory so when you see the name later you recall the details you recorded.

UPDATE: Well, the highlighting is useful, but it’s not enough. I’m reading now with my computer open to a Web document in which I am listing characters as I encounter them, along with brief description of them and their relationships. The advantage is that I can easily add to the document as I learn more about the characters.

For historical characters I am providing links. For example, the Dowager Empress to whom Anna Pavolova is maid of honor is Marya Feodorovna (Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg) who turns out to be an interesting character in her own right. When her husband Tsar Paul I was assassinated, she made a motion toward assuming the throne as Empress/Tsarina, but gave it up so her sons succeeded to the throne. (She had ten children, among them Tsar Alexander I, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, Grand Duchess Maria of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Queen Catherine of Wurttemberg and Queen Anna Pavlovna of the Netherlands. Still, she gained precedence over the Empresses, which was unusual.

UPDATE: I am adding the Kindle location number for the source of the statement or insight I record. Highlighting turns out to be too much work, but I am certain there are passages that I will hightlight.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 7:38 pm

The Quantum Thermodynamics Revolution

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Natalie Wolchover writes in Quanta:

In his 1824 book, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, the 28-year-old French engineer Sadi Carnot worked out a formula for how efficiently steam engines can convert heat — now known to be a random, diffuse kind of energy — into work, an orderly kind of energy that might push a piston or turn a wheel. To Carnot’s surprise, he discovered that a perfect engine’s efficiency depends only on the difference in temperature between the engine’s heat source (typically a fire) and its heat sink (typically the outside air). Work is a byproduct, Carnot realized, of heat naturally passing to a colder body from a warmer one.

Carnot died of cholera eight years later, before he could see his efficiency formula develop over the 19th century into the theory of thermodynamics: a set of universal laws dictating the interplay among temperature, heat, work, energy and entropy — a measure of energy’s incessant spreading from more- to less-energetic bodies. The laws of thermodynamics apply not only to steam engines but also to everything else: the sun, black holes, living beings and the entire universe. The theory is so simple and general that Albert Einstein deemed it likely to “never be overthrown.”

Yet since the beginning, thermodynamics has held a singularly strange status among the theories of nature.

“If physical theories were people, thermodynamics would be the village witch,” the physicist Lídia del Rio and co-authors wrote last year in Journal of Physics A. “The other theories find her somewhat odd, somehow different in nature from the rest, yet everyone comes to her for advice, and no one dares to contradict her.”

Unlike, say, the Standard Model of particle physics, which tries to get at what exists, the laws of thermodynamics only say what can and can’t be done. But one of the strangest things about the theory is that these rules seem subjective. A gas made of particles that in aggregate all appear to be the same temperature — and therefore unable to do work — might, upon closer inspection, have microscopic temperature differences that could be exploited after all. As the 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell put it, “The idea of dissipation of energy depends on the extent of our knowledge.”

In recent years, a revolutionary understanding of thermodynamics has emerged that explains this subjectivity using quantum information theory — “a toddler among physical theories,” as del Rio and co-authors put it, that describes the spread of information through quantum systems. Just as thermodynamics initially grew out of trying to improve steam engines, today’s thermodynamicists are mulling over the workings of quantum machines. Shrinking technology — a single-ion engine and three-atom fridge were both experimentally realized for the first time within the past year — is forcing them to extend thermodynamics to the quantum realm, where notions like temperature and work lose their usual meanings, and the classical laws don’t necessarily apply.

They’ve found new, quantum versions of the laws that scale up to the originals. Rewriting the theory from the bottom up has led experts to recast its basic concepts in terms of its subjective nature, and to unravel the deep and often surprising relationship between energy and information — the abstract 1s and 0s by which physical states are distinguished and knowledge is measured. “Quantum thermodynamics” is a field in the making, marked by a typical mix of exuberance and confusion.

“We are entering a brave new world of thermodynamics,” said Sandu Popescu, a physicist at the University of Bristol who is one of the leaders of the research effort. “Although it was very good as it started,” he said, referring to classical thermodynamics, “by now we are looking at it in a completely new way.”

Entropy as Uncertainty

In an 1867 letter to his fellow Scotsman Peter Tait, Maxwell described his now-famous paradox hinting at the connection between thermodynamics and information. The paradox concerned the second law of thermodynamics — the rule that entropy always increases — which Sir Arthur Eddington would later say “holds the supreme position among the laws of nature.” According to the second law, energy becomes ever more disordered and less useful as it spreads to colder bodies from hotter ones and differences in temperature diminish. (Recall Carnot’s discovery that you need a hot body and a cold body to do work.) Fires die out, cups of coffee cool and the universe rushes toward a state of uniform temperature known as “heat death,” after which no more work can be done.

The great Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann showed that energy disperses, and entropy increases, as a simple matter of statistics: There are many more ways for . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Science

Let’s electrify America!

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Kevin Drum has an excellent post at Mother Jones; it begins:

Yesterday I asked for a simple jobs pitch that Democrats could make to win back all those disaffected working class voters who put Donald Trump in the White House. A bunch of people had ideas, and by the power invested in me as author of this blog, three struck me as real possibilities:

Rebuild America. This is a simple infrastructure pitch. Democrats should all get behind a gigantic infrastructure bill that would rebuild roads, bridges, airports, sewer lines, you name it. There would, of course, be no real mention of paying for this. Or, if there is, we’ll tax the rich to do it.

Electrify America. This includes both infrastructure (solar panels, wind farms, etc.) and a huge program to push cars and trucks to mostly electric over the next ten years. For funding, see above.

Split Up America. This needs a better bumper sticker, but the idea is to make a big deal out of antitrust: new laws that would break up big companies on both Main Street and Wall Street and encourage the growth of smaller companies.

For what it’s worth, the electrification idea has real appeal. It would promise lots of jobs. It would clean up the air. It would address climate change. It doesn’t require a ton of retraining since the jobs mostly consist of standard construction and assembly-line work. Its impact would be spread across the entire country. And it hasn’t already been co-opted by Republicans. It’s an interesting idea. . .

Continue reading.

For “Split Up America” I suggested “Make Businesses Work,” the idea being that when a monopoly or oligopoly is broken up, businesses have to get to work and compete instead of just raking in profits.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 6:32 pm

The dystopian aspect of AI emerges in reality

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AI can be a force for good or not. Adam Liptak in the NY Times describes one problematic aspect—and if you think that’s bad, how about when an algorithm decides that it’s not worthwhile to treat your life-threatening illness?

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last month, he was asked a startling question, one with overtones of science fiction.

“Can you foresee a day,” asked Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the college in upstate New York, “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact-finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision-making?”

The chief justice’s answer was more surprising than the question. “It’s a day that’s here,” he said, “and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

He may have been thinking about the case of a Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.

In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes.

The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Loomis. The report added valuable information, it said, and Mr. Loomis would have gotten the same sentence based solely on the usual factors, including his crime — fleeing the police in a car — and his criminal history.

At the same time, the court seemed uneasy with using a secret algorithm to send a man to prison. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court, discussed, for instance, a report from ProPublica about Compas that concluded that black defendants in Broward County, Fla., “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism.”

Justice Bradley noted that Northpointe had disputed the analysis. Still, she wrote, “this study and others raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race.”

In the end, though, Justice Bradley allowed sentencing judges to use Compas. They must take account of the algorithm’s limitations and the secrecy surrounding it, she wrote, but said the software could be helpful “in providing the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualized sentence.” . . .

Continue reading.

See also this book.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 1:53 pm

Posted in Law, Software, Technology

Trump oxymoron of the day: “A good government shutdown”

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Jennifer Rubin has an excellent column on this Trumpian “idea.” I’ll quote only her column’s update:

Democrats chided the president for his remarks. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared, “When the president threw cold water on this deal, and actually recommended a government shutdown — I was deeply disappointed. … The president has been complaining about the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. Well, this deal is exactly how Washington should work when it is bipartisan: Both parties negotiated and came to an agreement on a piece of legislation that we can each support. It is truly a shame that the president is degrading it because he didn’t get 100 percent of what he wanted.” He added, “Bipartisanship is best summed up by the Rolling Stones, ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ ” Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, put out a terse statement: “President Trump’s statement advocating a government shutdown is reckless and irresponsible. … I urge President Trump to consider being a constructive part of our government’s spending decisions, rather than a destabilizing influence.” Good luck with that, Congresswoman Lowey.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 1:34 pm

Trump drops the mother of all bombs on libraries—And Taps Anti-Contraceptive Activist To Oversee Family Planning Program

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Needless to say the anti-contraception activist is also anti-choice with respect to birth as well as pregnancy.

John Templeton reports in The Hill:

The most lethal weapon in the Trump administration’s arsenal is the attack on truth.

The proposed zero funding for libraries fits into a pattern to “uneducate” the American population. That’s a comment I received on Take Action for Libraries Day from a listener on Wisconsin Public Radio.

During Virtual Library Legislative Days May 1-4, let your representatives and senators know how important libraries are to the truth.

Another listener noted that a rural library is Wisconsin has found it necessary to hold an eight-hour course on distinguishing truth. When the White House decides to make its visitor log private and muzzle federal employees, citizens need a neutral place to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Like the zero allocations for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Trump’s move to eliminate the Institute for Museum and Library Services is the antithesis of what great figures have done throughout history.

Three of the six Carnegie libraries constructed in Los Angeles remain as thriving cultural and intellectual hubs long after his steel mills were shuttered. As the Los Angeles Times has observed in its courageous editorial series, the irresponsibility of this reckless administration is generational in impact. The very amenities that we associate with the civilizations of the past are the libraries, museums, galleries and music.

Make no mistake, the attack on the agencies which promote discourse and diversity of viewpoints is part of a planned assault on such policies as financial services integrity, environmental justice, improved healthcare, education and nutrition and even the right to vote.  . .

Continue reading.

And Laura Bassett reports in the Huffington Post:

President Donald Trump has appointed Teresa Manning, an anti-abortion activist who has argued that “contraception doesn’t work,” to oversee a federal family planning program for low-income Americans.

Manning, a former lobbyist with the National Right to Life Committee and legislative analyst for the conservative Family Research Council, will serve as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Population Affairs administers the Title X program, which subsidizes contraception, Pap smears and other preventive health care services for 4 million low-income Americans, roughly half of whom are uninsured.

Manning has said she opposes federal family planning funding, and she has a long history of making false claims about birth control and women’s health.

“Of course, contraception doesn’t work,” she said in a 2003 NPR interview. “Its efficacy is very low especially when you consider over years, which you know a lot of contraception health advocates want, to start women in their adolescent years when they’re extremely fertile, incidentally. And continue for 10, 20, 30 years, over that span of time the prospect that contraception would always prevent the conception of a child is preposterous.”

Manning has referred to abortion as “legalized crime” and mistakenly argued that emergency contraception, which can prevent pregnancy for up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, is “the destruction of a human life already conceived.” (It’s not.) She has also claimed that the link between abortion and breast cancer is “undisputed,” when there is actually no evidence of a causal relationship between the two.

 “This is the fox guarding the hen house, and women with low incomes will pay the price,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood. “It is a cruel irony to appoint an opponent of birth control to oversee the nation’s only federal program dedicated to family planning.” 

The United States is currently at an all-time low for teen pregnancies and a 30-year low for unintended pregnancies, thanks in large part to the government’s investment in family planning. According to the Guttmacher Insitute, in 2014, the birth control distributed by Title X–funded providers helped women prevent 904,000 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in an estimated 439,000 unplanned births and 326,000 abortions. No federal money can be used to pay for abortion services.

But Trump is now stacking his administration with anti-abortion activists who do not appear to support the federal family planning program. Before the Manning announcement, Trump tapped . . .

Continue reading.

Trump is trolling the U.S. That, and making money from his presidency, seem to be his only motives.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 11:38 am

Lenthéric, Simpson Persian Jar, and the Baili BR171

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The Baili razor shown is called the “Victor” by Baili itself, but a better designation might be the product code: BR171 for silver (as shown) or BR173 for gold. I bought this from Italian Barber, who calls it the RazoRock DE1 and sells it for $7. You can also find it on eBay—e.g., this listing includes a nice case:

I personally don’t see that the little box is worth $15, even though it does have a mirror.

The razor has excellent heft, to the point that I thought it might be brass (and one description says that it is made of “a copper alloy,” which would apply to brass). Whatever it is, it’s very nicely plated and finished. Blade alignment is used by securing the four corners of the blade in place: no alignment studs or alignment bar, just the corner brackets. That said, the blade was easily loaded and well secured, and alignment was fine.

I also got the Baili “Vintage” (their name for the razor, which has product codes BR191 (silver) and BR192 (gold)), which Italian Barber calls the RazoRock Teck II ($8). The head of the Teck II is the same as the head of the DE1. (I saw one example in my searches in which someone had used a gold baseplate with silver cap and handle, which looked pretty spiffy.)

I’ve already reviewed the Baili butterfly razor: BR179 (silver), BR178 (gun metal), and BR177 (gold). Italian Barber sells the BR179 as the RazoRock Quick-Change DE safety razor ($10). The butterfly razor is quite well made with a smooth action and has the same good heft as the others. It was just as comfortable as the Teck II/DE1 but not quite as efficient. It was, however, noticeably more efficient than the Weishi/Van Der Hagen/Micro One Touch and would be a better starter razor for the novice who wants a butterfly razor (though I personally would recommend a three-piece razor).

First, of course, I did my prep, using my Simpson Persian Jar 2 Super and my treasured vintage Lenthéric shaving soap, which still has a wonderful fragrance though it is from the 1970s.

The razor is excellent: very comfortable and quite efficient, and given its low price (at least from Italian Barber and probably from other dealers) would make an excellent first razor for someone who wants to try DE shaving. I had no trouble at all in getting a BBS result with no problems.

I just learned that one can find vintage fragrances on eBay, and so I went looking for something that match the fragrance of the soap. (I am comfortable using a little splash of an EDT or cologne as an aftershave). I found Tweed, and it does smell good, but my nose is such a blunt instrument that I cannot really tell whether the two fragrances are the same. Embarrassing but true. They both smell quite nice, and the EDT is stronger, as you might expect.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2017 at 10:24 am

Posted in Shaving

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