My friend Tom put me onto another very enjoyable book, In Love With Flying, by Kenneth W. Ford. (Tom also wrote very thoughtful Amazon reviews of this and Dr. Ford’s latest book, Building the H Bomb: A Personal History, which you can find here and here.)


Ercoupe (wikipedia photo)

Dr. Ford, a physicist who circulated in the very uppermost strata of the profession with luminaries like Wheeler, Fermi, von Neumann, and Bethe, was also a highly skilled pilot, particularly of gliders, and his amateur flying career spanned the golden years of aviation. In Love With Flying resonated with me quite a lot. Dr. Ford began his flight training in an Ercoupe, a small, early-50’s era airplane whose main distinction at the time was having an aluminum skin instead of fabric, and having no rudder pedals. The omission of rudder pedals was supposed to make the craft impossible to spin, which it didn’t, quite, but it did make it pretty impossible to land in a strong crosswind, so quite a few owners modifed them to add rudder pedals. My own father was a very enthusiastic amateur pilot, and one of my earliest flying memories was of riding with him in a rented Ercoupe at age 10 or so.

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I just finished reading Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott, a well written and accessible contribution to the emerging genre of books debating whether untestable theories can be considered science. Thanks in large part to the work of Karl Popper, it has come to be widely accepted that a defining characteristic of science is the making of falsifiable predictions. But there has emerged lately a cadre of (mostly) theoretical physicists advocating that the Popperian standard should be relaxed. See, for example, the recent Edge essay by Sean Carroll, in which he argues that we should instead ask whether a theory is “definite” and “empirical”.

It seems to me that “is it science?” is the wrong question. This is one of those debates that serves mainly as misdirection from the real issue, which is: given that nearly all science today is publicly funded, how and on what shall the limited funds available be spent? That isn’t a scientific question, or even a philosophical one, it’s a political question. In theoretical physics, the string theorists currently have the upper hand, because there are a great many of them and they dominate the grant committees, the peer review process, and the training of the next generation of theoretical physicists. But make no mistake, the issue here is not really “how shall we define science”, it’s “how shall we allocate limited funds.”

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My son sent me a link to this Wired article about how Disney World has eliminated the long lines and engineered a frictionless, glitch-free user experience, by meticulous scheduling and execution via some 100 linked computer systems that communicate with electronic wristbands worn by the customers.

[T]he MagicBand replaces all of the details and hassles of paper once you touch-down in Orlando. Express users can board a park-bound shuttle, and check into the hotel. They don’t have to mind their luggage, because each piece gets tagged at your home airport, so that it can follow you to your hotel, then your room. Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved. If you’ve opted in on the web, the MagicBand is the only thing you need. It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines.

Disney manages to achieve this level of customer service, and make a profit doing it, in a massive park with thousands of sugar-intoxicated kids running around.

I can’t help contrasting that with the health care system, on which we lavish 18 percent or so of the national income, and where even getting a prescription refilled seems to require many hours spent navigating automated phone systems, filling out the same incomprehensible paperwork over and over, and sitting around in waiting rooms. Maybe the Obamacare folks ought to get in touch with the Disney folks. Just a thought.

Some time ago I posted some observations about the game of Go, in which I compared the complexity of Go to that of chess. I said:

Go is combinatorially many orders of magnitude larger — the number of possible chess positions (the so-called “Shannon number”, since it was first estimated by Claude Shannon in a1950 paper on computer chess) is “only” about 10 to the 43rd power, which pales in comparison to Go, which has about 8 times 10 to the 100th power possible board positions.

Turns out that estimate of 8 x 10100 was way low. Some folks whose level of determination is truly impressive to behold have managed to calculate, after “9 months of computation and 4 petabyte of disk IO on a Dell PowerEdge R280 server” the exact  number of legal Go board positions on an 18 x 18 board (one row/column shy of the 19 x 19 standard board). The answer, explained here, (which I have to split into three lines, but it’s just one number) is:


or approximately 6.7 x 10153. Based on that, the estimate of the number of positions on the 19 x 19 board is about 2.1 x 10170. Plans are apparently underway to nail down the exact number for the 19 x 19 board once the required computing resources (10 to 13 servers for 5 to 9 months) can be found.

I am beginning to get the sense that online education is about to turn the corner. I base this observation on a simple heuristic, which I won’t try to justify, but I suspect that it works here: when an established product is challenged by a newcomer, the “knee” of the adoption curve occurs when someone comes up with a version of the challenging product that clearly surpasses the established product in quality. Note that the relevant comparison isn’t with the whole challenging product space, it’s only the best of the challenging offerings that matter. That the online education endeavor as a whole still seems (to put it tactfully) “not ready for prime time” is irrelevant, because as soon as one challenger figures out the right formula, others will adopt it and improve it. Before the iPad, there were many not-quite-right attempts at tablets and touch screens; once the iPad existed, none of them mattered.

There are signs that this transition is at long last happening with online courses. As Exhibit A I will cite (later, below) an online class that I’m currently taking on Coursera. No moment too soon, given that the main traditional purveyor of education — the university system — is already far along in its evolution into a kind of expensive Club Med for adolescents (and rich sinecure for administrators).

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