A Jolly Song About Corpses

The below is a translation of a Vladimir Vysotsky song which is called “Веселая покойницкая” in Russian. This song has been translated many times into many languages. Here, for instance, is a Czech version. So the purpose here is not to do something new, but just to do something fun. Please let me know what you think, what should be changed, etc.

Whether you’re riding a bus or a sports car
Or strolling around as you sip from your flask
With this profusion of motorized transport
Walking life’s path is a difficult task

Here’s an example: three people were driving
To bury a fourth one when their hearse got hit
All three were injured among the surviving
Only the dead man was not hurt a bit

Then at the funeral, there was fake crying
The pastor read out his sermon by rote
As for the musicians, they weren’t even trying
Only the corpse didn’t strike a false note

His former boss who’s a non-former con-man
Kissed the man’s forehead then wiped off his lips
Everyone followed suit, only the gone man
Was far too modest to offer a kiss

But soon the sky filled with lightning and thunder
Funerals too, are within weather’s sway
Everyone found something dry to hide under
Only the dead man did not run away

Why should he tremble from a bit of weather
Far be it from him to make such a fuss
People are weak, but ex-people are better
They are brave people, and quite unlike us

Our lives are filled up with all sorts of stresses
worries grab hold of us, there’s no release
The only time you feel truly at rest is
When in a casket, resting in peace

Whether their shroud is rich or in tatters
It doesn’t mean much to those in the grave
Lacking concern for such trivial matters
A perfect example of how to behave

Critics will say — he is too fond of corpses
No — I am only disgusted with fate
All of the living get run down or worse it’s
Only the dead ones for whom life is great

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Liberal Values

Reminder: flossing is very important

I think in the West, there is a broad consensus on something like “enlightenment values”. In particular, we want a society founded on democracy, fairness, free expression and secularism. Both historically and currently, there are a lot of people who are for none of these things. ISIS believes neither in fairness, nor in democracy, nor in free expression, nor (obviously) in secularism, for example. So a political identity like “pro-enlightenment” sounds good. But at bottom, every one of these guiding principles contradicts every other one, given the society we find ourselves in today. I think a lack of awareness of this basic problem leads to a lot of auxiliary political and societal problems.

Democracy and secularism are opposed in a most basic way in places where he population is not overwhelmingly secularised. Most people want politics that reflect their values, and in many places, their values are religion-based. So they want a religion-based politics. You can see this in Russia, in Turkey, in the Middle East. This is why George Bush-ian plans to impose “western values” go so awry. Because in a place where most people want religious leadership, democratic, secular leadership is just not going to happen.

You see the conflict between free expression and secularism in places which try to impose secularism on their population. Laicité in France and what Zuuko called the Tea Parti Québécois platform in Québec. The niqab issue in the Canadian election was an example of this conflict as well.

Fairness and secularism needn’t actually be in conflict as long as the fairness we get is one where our cherished beliefs and personal dignity are not involved. But I think most people’s conception of fairness includes toleration of your beliefs and the dignity of your personal identity. Secularism cannot afford to give that tolerance to religious people. You can say that actually everything is fair as all people are free to have their secular opinions respected, but that’s a fairness wherein “the rich as well as the poor are forbidden to sleep under bridges and steal bread”.

Democracy is majoritarian – the majority rules. More to the point, it’s supposed to reflect the will of the people. And the people are often racist, for example, or in some way needlessly agitated by a small minority. So democracy and fairness lead to opposite results. The will of the people was certainly reflected in Korematsu v. United States, for example. And this happens on a smaller scale, as well. Erik Loomis gets at this while commenting on police unions. Or you could take a look at the unfairness of mobs, twitter and otherwise.

In modern US political discussions, the clash between free speech and fairness is ever present. The recent spate of news about happenings on college campuses (e.g. the Yale Halloween costume stuff*) is one aspect of this fight. Another is the opinion of a Black Lives Matter protestor, who commented on politicians: “If they’re not going to be speaking about our issues, they shouldn’t be speaking at all”. Part of the reason this conflict is so prevalent is precisely because of the idea of “western values” – neither side is willing to admit the two values are conflicting. You can see this dynamic at play in an exchange from earlier this year between Amanda Taub (on the social justice side) and Jon Chait (on the free speech side). Notice how neither can admit they are against the other thing, and yet both can easily spot the other’s insincerity on this. Perhaps there is some possible society where both free speech and fairness can exist to their utmost. But in our current world, they can’t.

Nor can free speech and democracy comfortably coexist in our world, as the Citizens United decision shows us. Any limitation on political ads is a limitation on free speech, and yet clearly unlimited political ads subvert democracy.

So is the conclusion here that everything is terrible and we can’t be guided by deontology in our decisions? I think not. I think it’s just that “Classical liberal values” or “Western values” or “Enlightenment values” is not a useful grouping when talking about political issues in our own culture. But the grouping has enough of a positive association, that people want to have the aura of innocence by association. So when Harper was in favour of the niqab ban and Mulcair against, they both wanted the protection umbrella of “supporting Western values”. Who was right? On the issue, I believe Mulcair was, in a very obvious way. But on who is supporting Western/liberal values, they are both right, because “supporting Western/liberal values” is a contradiction. When we talk about what we support, we need to be more precise. Of the four values, “classical liberals” are most concerned with freedom of speech. People in the “social justice” camp are most concerned with fairness. I don’t know a good term for people who care most about democracy (“descriptivists” maybe? Or “populists”?) which is a shame because I think I am closest to that camp. And “rationalists” and “new atheists” care most about secularism.

*about which I think this, by Timothy Burke, is the best thing to have been said.

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I hate namedropping unless I’m doing it, in which case it’s cool.

In the spring of 2009 I was renting a room in T.’s house in the Wedgwood neighbourhood of Seattle. At the start of summer, I had to move because T.’s son-in-law Patrick was visiting, coming from Ghana for the summer with his family. So I moved  – this was the first, and very likely last, move I’ve made entirely by bicycle. I moved in for a couple of months with a bunch of people who lived in Wallingford. One of them was Bill, who was writing a short story about Kamchatka. Bill’s story, which you can read here, is narrated by a Russian, and he once told me having me around was helpful to him for getting a voice for how a Russian person would talk. Although he was probably just being nice. I thought that was the only connexion my move that summer had to the world at large, but now it turns out that Patrick has won a MacArthur genius grant. I’ve met Patrick a few times (he recommended some TED talks to me), but that’s about it. Still, I’d like to think me vacating a room for him and his family made his life easier, too. I’m ready to declare that I’m making the world a better place, one move at a time. Which is good, because I move around a lot.

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How to visualize Maxwell’s Equations

Maxwell’s Equations are a set of four differential equations that govern electricity and magnetism. If, by some bizarre twist of fate you find yourself studying electromagnetism while reading this blog, then this post may or may not be helpful. Otherwise, it simply may not. Even if you are studying electromagnetism, Wikipedia and other places also present all this, usually more clearly. But somehow I never got it, despite reading Wikipedia, and Jackson, and that guy from Reed who writes the undergrad textbooks, whose name I forgot.

The study of electricity and magnetism (E&M) has always been the most difficult branch of basic physics for me, because fields, which are hard things to imagine, are so integral to it. Specifically, pretty much everything in E&M has to do with electric and magnetic fields. What are those? Electric fields are maps of what magnitude and direction of force a certain positive charge would feel if placed in that location. For example, like charges repel. So the field very close to a positive charge is strong, and pointed away from the positive charge. This is what electric field maps around a positive and negative charge look like. Magnetic Fields are a band that has a song namechecking Ferdinand de Saussure that I like. They’re also the analogue of electric fields, but for a magnetic North pole instead of a positive charge. You may have performed an experiment that shows what a magnetic field looks like in high school: cover a bar magnet with paper, and then drop iron filings on top. The filings align with the shape of the magnetic field around a magnet (except filings don’t have tiny arrowheads on them).

One of the most surprising things in all of physics is that these fields are not just constructs humans came up with to make understanding E&M easier, but real things. The four basic laws that govern these fields are called Maxwell’s Equations. Here they are:

1. Gauss’ Law

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{E} = \frac {\rho} {\varepsilon_0}

This equation states that the divergence of the electric field is equal to the charge density. Imagine a single positive charge sitting in space, and think what would happen to charges that come near. Above you saw a picture of the electric field around positive and negative charges. Here is the same picture as a 3-d contour map. This equation is simply the statement that “bumps” in the electric field contour map are where charges are. Or on the field map, the places where everything flows in is a negative charge, and where everything flows out is a positive charge.

2. Gauss’ Law for Magnetism

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{B} = 0

Gauss’ Law’s simple brother states that the divergence of the magnetic field is zero. Once again, this statement is just that bumps in the magnetic field map are where the magnetic charges are. But there is (as far as we know) no such thing as magnetic charges. Which means, there aren’t any bumps in the magnetic field contour map if you draw a map of “southness” or “northness”. Or on the field map, there are no places where everything flows in, and no places where everything flows out.

3. Faraday’s Law

\nabla \times \mathbf{E} = -\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}} {\partial t}

The above equation states that the curl of the electric field is equal to the negative time derivative of the magnetic field. The electric field is the force a test charge would feel, and for ease of visualization, you can imagine all of these test charges arranged in a wire loop. If the magnetic field through the loop changes, there will be a curl to the electric field. That means the charges will feel a force pushing them to circulate around the loop. Thus this statement is saying that a changing magnetic field produces current.

4. Ampère-Maxwell Law

\nabla \times \mathbf{B} = \mu_0\left(\mathbf{J} + \varepsilon_0 \frac{\partial \mathbf{E}} {\partial t} \right)

The last of the Maxwell’s Equations has two parts. The first part is just the right hand rule. The second part is Maxwell’s addition – the curl of the magnetic field is proportional (with a proportionality factor set by the speed of light) to the time derivative of the electric field. The way to figure out what is going on in the first part is to imagine a wire and the magnetic field around it. If there is current flowing in the wire (is not 0), then the magnetic field lines will circle the wire, i.e. the magnetic field will have a curl. The second part just says that a changing electric field also causes the magnetic field lines to circle.


I don’t know if these suggestions for visualization help you remember, or make sense of, Maxwell’s Equations. Please let me know if they do – or if they don’t. I know that understanding Maxwell’s Equations was profoundly easier for me once I learned to visualize them. Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a good way to articulate that idea verbally. As you saw above, I was not consistent in the four explanations – I am still trying out different approaches to see what works best. But this is something I’m very interested in, so if you are too, then drop me a line.

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“How many leaves have swept in…”

This is a translation of an Arseny Tarkovsky poem. (Arseny Tarkovsky is the famous film director’s father, and many of Andrey’s movies contain Arseny’s poems. Although I don’t think this one is in any movie). Thanks to Nikita and Victor for help with the translation.

*   *   *

How many leaves have swept in. The lungs of our forests,
Emptied-out, squelched oxygen bubbles,
Roofs for the nesting of birds, trestles for summer,
Wings of tormented butterflies, the ochre and crimson of hope,
Hope for a precious life, for rancour and conciliation.
Fall aground crookedly then, burn in bonfires, decay
Under our feet, rafts for the silly air spirits. And children
Of northern birds fly south without words of parting.
Leaves, brothers, give me a sign that when half a year passes
Green reinforcements will come to clothe naked branches.
Leaves, brothers, instil in me absolute faith
In my power, my touch, in my keen and virtuous vision
Leaves, brothers, fill me with strength for this life
Leaves, brothers, stay on the branches till snowfall

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Why Scientific Posters Are Bad

When you do research, you sometimes get results[citation needed]. When you get results, you usually want to present them to your colleagues. As a scientist presenting to scientists, you have three common forms that that presentation can take: the talk, the poster, and the paper. Talks are bad because they inevitably come in one of nine types*, most of which are not illuminating. Papers are bad because they are incomprehensibly jargon-filled. Posters can bridge the gap between the dry technical nature of papers and the time-constraint and making-sure-not-to-confuse-most-people limitations of talks. So they could be an ideal communication method. But they aren’t. Scientific posters are terrible. The reason why has mostly to do with how poster sessions are conducted, and what posters are used for.

The Life and Times of the Poster

Poster sessions that I’ve attended work in the following way: posters are placed up in a row, and then people obtain beer and mingle among posters, spending roughly half their time looking at other people’s posters, and half the time standing by their own poster talking to visitors about their research. That means around half the time, the presentation is just the poster, and the other half the time, it’s poster plus presenter. That places contradictory demands on the poster. To be useful for when the presenter is not around, and to have a good long life as a thing to post on a wall somewhere, the poster must be self-contained. A visitor should be able to come to the poster, read it, and have an idea what the research is about, how it’s done and what the findings are. But for a poster to be useful when there is a presenter around, it must act as a starting point for a discussion or questions, and it must be a presentation aid for things that can’t be explained in words.  If, when the presenter is around, a visitor comes up to the poster, reads it all and leaves without saying anything, that is not a good outcome. Thus the poster specifically needs to be not self-contained. Pulled apart by contradictory needs, of course the usual poster ends up succeeding in none.

The Three Kinds of Poster

An ideal scientific poster of the third kind

The ideal stand-alone poster is basically a slightly simplified paper with a catchy title and a greatly expanded introduction section. An unwary passerby is drawn by the title, uses the introduction to figure out why the research is interesting and important, and then reads on to learn about the research. The ideal presentation aid poster is just a set of the figures that you’d use in a talk. You are explaining your research to someone else verbally, but when you need to show data, or apparatus, or some sort of flow diagram or schematic, you point to the poster. The ideal conversation-starter scientific poster is probably just a picture of a penguin. I know this because I once attended a meeting of the Atomic Physics division of the Dutch Physics Society that gave a best poster prize. The best poster prize was won by a student from Universiteit Utrecht whose poster had a picture of a penguin and a waveform on it. Apparently, she was working on the poster late into the night before the last day it could be printed, and drew a blank for what else to include. So she put a sine curve all across, and a penguin in the middle. It was very effective at getting people to talk to her about her poster and her research, and it looked cool, too.

How to Fix the Poster

In preparing talks, the № 1 advice that is always given is to think about your audience. So should it be with posters, but as we see that is impossible, because the poster is designed for several different audiences which have contradictory needs. Trying to make a poster that is both stand-alone, a presentation-aid and an attention-grabber overweights the poster with too much stuff. The ideal solution is to have two kinds of posters. Instead what happens today is that scientists gravitate much more towards the “stand-alone” poster. Part of that is that scientists are comfortable with papers, and so making something that is very similar to a paper is easy. And superficially there is a justification: the majority of a poster’s lifetime will be spent hanging on a wall somewhere, where a stand-alone poster is best. And yet, if you only make one type of poster, you should make an attention-getting, presentation-helping poster rather than a stand-alone one.

While it’s true that a poster spends more of its life presenterless and alone, that is precisely when the stakes are much lower. When someone is idly walking by the hallway and looks at your poster, if they don’t stop and learn about your research, it doesn’t really matter all that much. However, if you are standing with your poster and a scientist you really want to talk to about your research comes by, to have a poster that is useless for that task is a missed opportunity. Basically, I think an ideal poster should have as few words as possible outside the title and authors. I am not suggesting that at the next conference you attend, everyone show up with just pictures of penguins instead of their research results. But I do want you to consider how damning it is that that might actually lead to a better poster session than we often get currently.

An Ancillary Problem

My friend Boris once asked people why scientific posters were usually so ugly. And it’s true, they’re really ugly a lot of the time. And yes, in part it is that they’re so word-heavy because they’re meant to be stand-alone. But I think another part is that many scientists distrust design. They don’t want to be seen as slick, and think that spending any time on style is tantamount to an admission of lacking substance. This sucks, but I am not so deluded to think a change will come to make scientific posters beautiful. If they start becoming more useful, that will be good enough.

*it’s worth following that link just for “at this point, the understanding has passed into the complex plane”

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The Unexpected and the Unexplainable

(This image, which is not directly related to the post, is by Josef Spalenka at spalenkaletters.blogpost.ca)

Niels Bohr, the quantum theorist, once said “If quantum theory hasn’t shocked you, that just means you haven’t understood it yet”. People love this quote because it gets at how counterintuitive quantum mechanics can be. But it’s also discouraging, making it sound like quantum mechanics is something only a few select people will ever get. Like rocket science or brain surgery. And if there is no way you’re going to understand something, why even bother trying?

But non-specialists shouldn’t give up on quantum mechanics. The same goes for rocket science and brain surgery – just as long as we remember to be realistic about what we don’t know rather than just jumping into trepanning after looking up “the brain” on wikipedia.

Quantum reality is never far away, from laser scanners at the store, to the transistors that make your computer work, to, for some reason, this Czech real estate company. It makes sense to find out about it. And to learn enough to be surprised isn’t very hard. That’s the difference we need to be clear about: being shocked by something unexpected – which is what the Bohr quote says will happen – on one end, and being confused by something difficult on the other.

One thing that really shocked me when I was first learning about quantum mechanics is something that’s pretty well known: the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox. It is the “spooky action at a distance” you may have heard of, in, for example, your favourite vampire movie. What the EPR  paradox says is that, according to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, measuring something in one part of the universe could have a strong effect on another part of the universe. A part of the universe that could be located light years away and should have no way to find out whether you’re doing quantum mechanics or eating a sandwich is still affected. Podolsky, Rosen and their funny-haired friend weren’t the first to claim that this is what happens, but the first to be troubled by how spooky this seems. Too spooky, they said, for it to be true. Still, as far as we can tell, that is an interpretation consistent with how the world works.

But how is it that we can tell? That always should be the first and most important question in science. If someone can’t answer that, then they aren’t talking about surprising results anymore – they are just confusing people.

In quantum mechanics, we can create a situation (called an entangled state) where two particles (say photon A and photon B) have to have opposite values in some measurable quantity (say “spin up” and “spin down”). But which particle has which value is not set unless you measure them. They both exist in a superposition of “up” and “down”. (Confused about the meaning of entanglement and superposition? Check them on wikipedia above, and also, I talk more about what each means in the Schroedinger’s Cat post). The EPR paradox says: let’s wait and not measure these two photons for a while, until they are really far away from one another. Then, when we check A and see that it’s “up”, does B become “down” only then?

Experimental physicists came up with a way to check. What they do is randomly choose what direction to measure “up” and “down” in. If they pick that direction right before measuring particle A, there is no way that information could have gotten to particle B. When they pick different measurement directions for the two particles, they find that the results for A and B are correlated in a way that only makes sense if the measurement of one had affected the other. That is spooky, sure enough, and people disagree about what it means. But even if we can’t explain why the universe works this way, we can explain why we believe that it does.

But not if we give up before we even start. Not if a specialist says, oh quantum mechanics is too hard for you, you won’t get it. Not if a non-specialist says, oh, why bother trying to understand something I’ll never understand. If we do that, we’re ceding the territory to people who don’t care if they can be understood, or if what they say is even true.

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