Monday, March 30, 2009

Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson (physicist, mathematician and general theorist fix-it man in everything from pure math to biology) is one of the very great minds of our time.  When luminaries like Feynman, Oppenheimer and Bethe consider him to be one of their very best who was fleeced because no Nobel came his way then you know you are dealing with a very sparkly mind here.

Unless you are a fan of theoretical physics and physicists then Dyson will not have appeared on your radar.  But if you are keen on science fiction and space travel then you might have come across the Dyson Sphere or possibly the Orion Project for nuclear propulsion.

The New York Times has a wonderful profile of him with this story about just how off-the-charts smart this gentleman is:
At Jason, taking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, “Oh, that’s not difficult,” allow two short beats to pass and then add, “but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.” When this  happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, “the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.” The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like “brilliant,” “Nobel” and “MacArthur” quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew.
The point of this profile, besides inherent interest in a remarkable man, is to delve into his sharp criticisms of global warming advocates.  I've not put much thought into the details of the ins and outs of global warming but Dyson has.  His thoughts are worth reviewing, not to debunk global warming, but to see the workings and priorities of an independent mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Laugh of the day

As long as you have passing familiarity with the Night of the Long Knives (Canadian version) and Twitter, then you will get a laugh out of this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

St. John's municipal dancehall (3)

Just when you thought civilization had returned to the bunker on Gower, a racket breaks out (opens in Real Media).

According to multiple news reports, Councilor Galgay started taking more time than he should have while tabling a document when he was shouted down by Mayor Doc ("Guiding a great city") O'Keefe in concert with Councillor Keith ("Let's tax more") Coombs who chimed in at the top of his lungs because. . . well. . . just because he could.

What's the real problem here? It seems like they believe that time is in such short supply that if one councillor takes some time then that will leave too little time for other councillors to consume. And why do they all need all this time so badly that they will publicaly scrap over it like hungry dogs after a bone? The answer lies in the simple truth that this is an election year and they are all very touchy about making sure that no councillor takes any more time than any other.

Fear for your position makes grown people do silly things.

See also posts on Municipal Dancehall 1 and 2.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Forbidden words

I have a list of forbidden words and phrases tacked up on my office wall. These include many favourites of the local political class including "frankly", "at the end of the day", "due diligence" and "drill-down", among others. The words on this list will not come from my keyboard or lips and I'll bounce a wad of paper off the head of anybody who tosses off such tripe in my office.

What do these words mean? Beats me. Mostly they are used by people in the public sphere to sound important when plain and simple words seem just too, well, plain and simple.

But doesn't "on a go-forward basis" simply mean "from now on"? And when did "piece" become a synonym for "issue"?

In Great Britain, positive steps have been taken to stamp out this rubbish. The Local Government Association (their NL Federation of Municipalities equivalent) has released a list of words and phrases to be avoided.

LGA chairman Margaret Eaton says that the public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases saying "Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?"

Why indeed?

If you'd like, take the time to leave a comment with your favourite example of words and phrases which government should avoid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Talking, speaking, speeches

Regular readers will know that I have a long-time fascination (here, here, here and here) with the ancient form of public communications known as speeches.

Speeches are not about just talking aloud or reading from a news release or yelling in front of a crowd. A true speech is a dialogue between the speaker and the audience with a form and structure which leads the audience emotionally and intellectually to new places. A great speech energizes, soars and provokes thought and feelings which were previously latent; a bad speech is discordant, dull, predictable.

There's a misconception, in my opinion now laid to rest by the rise of Obama, that we are past the age of speeches and that they are no longer relevant or useful. Of course they are relevant and useful. The real issue is whether the current crop of political leaders have the chops to deliver speeches are relevant and useful.

Jeffery Simpson believes that the current Prime Minister does not have the chops. I agree.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver (AKA Bruno Gianelli) 1946-2009

If you were a fan of West Wing (and who wasn't?), then you would remember the character of the super political consultant Bruno (take no prisoners) Gianelli played by Ron Silver. Bruno was crucial to the overall series story arc by providing a burst of energy in pushing the narrative to a new level.

One great exchange from the show:

Those weren't Ron Silver's words, they were Aaron Sorkin's, but they might as well have been his because he sold them so well. He was a fine and intelligent (spoke Spanish and Chinese) actor who sat on the Council on Foreign Relations and held very strong political views of his own. He was politically active having previously campaigned for Bill Clinton, Rudolph W. Giuliani, George W. Bush and voted for Barak Obama.

To hear Silver's own words, this clip is a good one.

Ron Silver was a sharp and clear voice of independent political thought, silenced by esophageal cancer at the young age of 62.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Ryan and Brian show

What would VOCM Nightline do if it weren't for the host's family, friends and former co-workers willing to donate their personal time to the cause of filling up air time?

And what would they possibly talk about if it weren't for the opportunity for further relentless grinding of their well-honed personal political axes?

And never mind the endless conversations about how tough it is for them to deal with this catastrophe . . . for these self-pitying persons covering this tragic event for the media?

What indeed?

Maybe focus on the families and their loss?


Just asking the questions.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Capital punishment for children is wrong

As I've written before, there are few issues that would make me hit the streets in protest as fast as capital punishment. It's a capricious and irreversible form of punishment predicated on the illusion of infallibility of the justice system. When countries extend capital punishment to the underaged, that only underscores the tragedy for everyone involved.

Here is a local website established by a group of students at the school attended by my children. It's an online petition against capital punishment for children. Specifically they want to bring attention to Part 111, Article 6 of the United Nations International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which requires that the sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age.

This is a cause they have chosen to take on and it's a good one.

Please show your support.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009