You Forget What You Know (Gell-Mann Amnesia)

May 30, 2020

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.” – Michael Crichton (author and filmmaker, 1942-2008)

That’s a really good observation.

As an aside, Murray Gell-Mann was  an influential theoretical physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 for his work on fundamental particles. He was based at the California Institute of Technology and later went on to co-found the famous Sante Fe Institute (for the study of complex systems).

He and the more well-known Richard Feynman were famous collaborators and later ‘rivals’. I’ve written quite a few posts on Feynman (two of the most popular are here and here).

There’s an illuminating talk by Gell-Mann on Edge (The Making of a Physicist) and a very well-wriitten biography if you’d like more details. From the former, an interesting and somewhat provocative quote:

“Dick (Feynman) and I had different talents. His great talent was for finding marvelously clever mathematical tricks for expressing theories in physics and then solving problems using those tricks, which always involved a great deal of physical insight. He was less good at finding new physical theories and getting them right, whereas I seem to have had a talent for finding out what was going on and guessing the right theory.”


Saying No

May 8, 2020

Spotted this interesting quote:

“When you say no you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.

No is a choice. Yes is a responsibility.”

I’ve written on this topic a number of times previously, for instance, see here.


Trip to Brazil with a Hasty End

May 2, 2020

The magnificent beach at Maracaipe (see below)

In March this year I made a trip with my partner Clarice (who is Brazilian) to Brazil, partly to see her family and friends but also for a holiday. The aim was to spend most of the time in or near Recife in northeast Brazil and then finish off with 5 nights in Rio de Janeiro in the south. Unfortunately this was cut short due to the escalating coronavirus situation in the UK and we had to get an earlier flight back (only one night in Rio).

Now that I have time on my hands due to the lockdown, I thought I’d write up my travel experiences as a photo essay. It also allows me to focus on much happier times!

We stayed with a friend who lived in the Boa Viagem district of Recife and her flat overlooked the main beach (see photos above and below), a really great location. It’s apparently the longest stretch of urbanized seafront in Brazil and a coastal reef calms the waves to help keep the water at a wonderful 25 °C. As you can see the beach goes on for miles, 5 to be exact.

Rather than repeating them, here are two sites that give a full list of interesting things to do and visit in Recife (here and with some photos here).

One thing about Recife that surprised me was that it had a British Country Club. It was originally founded in 1920 by the British who at that time had a significant presence in Recife.

This made me curious about the interesting historical link to the UK (which I was unaware of, see here for details). In the early 19th century the British began to arrive in Brazil, focusing on the ports of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife. The aim was to find new and lucrative opportunities for industry and trade based on their commanding sea presence at the time.

In Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco, they set up a number of firms, banks and public utilities. Interesting examples include the Western Telegraph Company (which allowed contact with the world through a submarine cable), the Pernambuco Tramways and Power Company (including setting up railway and tram transport in the region) and the Pernambuco Paper Mills.

More up to date, there’s even a video clip of Queen Elizabeth arriving in Recife on the start of a State Visit in 1968! At that time Guararapes airport at Recife was used as an important maintenance and refuelling stop for aircraft travelling between South America and Europe.

Nearby Recife is the pretty city of Olinda, whose historic downtown area was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. The city has a number of attractive churches and plays host to its own Carnival and street party. It also has many delightful restaurants and bars, often with great views.

We also paid a trip to the beach resort of Maracaipe, about an hour by car south of Recife, and near to the popular resort of Porto de Galenas.

This is where we stayed in Maracaipe, a great place to relax

Typical boat used to travel to the natural pools nearby

Time for a drink in the shallows, it really is a bar!

Setting sun (above) leading to a full moon (below)

Although we only had one night in Rio we made the most of it by paying a friendly taxi driver to show us the sights over two days. We drove around the different districts (Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon etc) which gave me an excellent overview (it was my first time in Rio, Clarice has been there many times and knows it well). Unfortunately most places (museums, galleries, cable cars) were closed as lockdown was just starting up so there weren’t many opportunities for casual exploring or photos.

View of near empty Copacabana Beach on an overcast day

People practising in a park near the Museum of Modern Art

Pretty Vermelha Beach in the neighbourhood of the Sugarloaf Mountain

Another view at Vermelha Beach

Clarice and myself, on the sightseeing trip and waiting for the flight back

Flying back from Rio, we arrived to an eerily deserted Gatwick Airport in the UK. A full lockdown started soon after (March 23rd) and it’s still going on…

Comment: there were a couple of typos in the original posting that have now been corrected.


Reserve a Place for Someone this Christmas

December 20, 2019

“Thousands of people will be without a home this Christmas and are in urgent need of the unique package of support that Crisis offers.

Your £28.87 can reserve a place for someone this Christmas and introduce them to the education, training and support to help end their homelessness for good through Crisis’ year-round services.

Please watch the video above to see how supporters like you helped Crisis provide support at Christmas last year.”

Good to think of others at this time of year.


The Role and Future of Local Libraries

December 11, 2019

When I was working full-time for a large R&D company I hardly ever went to local libraries. After reading a few reviews, I simply bought books from Amazon or similar. Quite often I was disappointed in the book and regretted buying it. This criticism mainly applied to business-oriented books which promoted an attractive-sounding idea or premise but often gave fairly insubstantial evidence to back it up.

However they did communicate or increase awareness of a topic that was usually interesting in its own right and had a certain amount of credibility. This is the name of the game of course, they’re not meant to be academic treatises.

When I worked as an independent consultant and had more time but less money I started venturing into libraries a lot more. Coincidentally my local library also had a significant refurbishment making it a much more pleasant place to use. I found that as I had physical space I wandered into many areas I wouldn’t have otherwise (travel, biography, cookery, health etc) so that was an additional benefit (or admittedly sometimes a procrastinating distraction).

I also ordered books, both for the area libraries (as suggestions) and for more technical items through the interlibrary loan system (which links into university libraries as well). I didn’t want to order a book for £25 only to be disappointed, better to pay £2-3 and study it in depth to see if it was really worth buying (unfortunately this price has now increased dramatically).

Currently I’m moving to London with my partner and need to downsize quite considerably. Over the past 25 years I’ve amassed loads of books. Choosing which ones to keep is tricky but in a way, so long as libraries keep going and developing, also not so important. If I need one again I can just use the library (as ordering a book they already have is cheap).

With this in mind it’s sad to read that due to the austerity cuts the role of libraries is decreasing. From the Guardian this week:

Almost 800 libraries have closed since the Conservative-Lib Dem government implemented austerity in 2010, new figures reveal.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (Cipfa) annual survey of the UK’s libraries, excluding Northern Ireland, shows there are 3,583 library branches still open in the UK – 35 fewer than last year. Since 2010, 773 have closed…

The number of paid librarians has also plummeted. In 2009/2010, the point marking the start of the Tory-led government’s austerity drive, there were 24,000 salaried staff working in libraries. Last year, there were 15,300 employees and more than 51,000 volunteers.

As the number of branches and paid staff have declined, so have library visits: there were 226m visits to libraries over the last year, compared with 315m in 2009/2010.

Also, on an political note:

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson (current UK PM) was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr about library closures, with the prime minister appearing to offload the blame on to local authorities, who have undergone dramatic cuts over the past decade. This year, council leaders warned that one in five councils might have to impose drastic spending controls to avoid bankruptcy…

Finally, Mr Johnson appears to suggest that the country can only afford libraries when there has been an economic recovery. As we have commented time and again, this is a fundamentally misguided policy. By investing in libraries, you create opportunities for education and skills across the country, which in turn creates the conditions for future economic growth.

To be fair, it would be helpful to see some evidence for this rather subtle connection (investment leading to growth) from which some new ideas might emerge on how to bring libraries more into the centre of things.

Finally there’s an interesting view from the author Neil Gaiman:

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

It will be interesting to see what the new UK Government decides on this and other matters after the election tomorrow.


The Weight and Playing for Change

October 18, 2019

Very nice international (5 continents) version of “The Weight”, from the inspiring Playing for Change project.

“Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. Our primary focus is to record and film musicians performing in their natural environments and combine their talents and cultural power in innovative videos we call Songs Around The World.”


The Importance of Taking Breaks

October 17, 2019

I read this remarkable story on GTD Focus:

At some point though, we need to shut it all down, kick back in our metaphorical Barcalounger, and let our minds float off on their own for a while.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this. Throughout his adult life, as Governor of New York to President of the United States – on the day the stock market crashed and the day the Pacific Fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbour – Roosevelt paused every late afternoon for cocktail hour. He brought together the people working around him, often made the cocktails himself, and paused from the day’s occupation.

On Pearl Harbor day, this pause was between drafting his “Day of Infamy” speech, and his speech to the nation in front of the joint session of Congress he was asking to declare war.

Roosevelt’s best was essential nearly every day of his adult life, and no day more than this one.

Essential to our best is rest and recovery. Roosevelt offers a formidable example of how strength is nurtured and refreshed.

The story vividly illustrates the importance of taking regular breaks (long or short) to relax and refresh. Annoyingly this can happen when you feel you have the very least time for them. Hindsight often reveals that the tasks that seemed so important diminish and the bigger picture appears and it’s then difficult to understand not being able to take a break. A ritual, like Roosevelt’s, might help.

“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – Dolly Parton