Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Silicon econ

Is there a part of life that has not been changed by computer chips?  In the late 1980s and 1990s the most popular desk computers used Windows and, usually, Intel chips. The longtime head of Intel, chemist and businessman Andrew Grove, died a few days ago, and the NYTimes obituary made a statement that seems at odds with the notion that regulation is good:
"To meet voracious market demand...Mr. Grove insisted that Intel employees regularly work many overtime hours." Did this save the employees jobs, and perhaps the company?
The article also quoted a competing manufacturer, AMD, that Mr. Grove's "Intel goes to the edge-and sometimes over it..." in not allowing computer manufacturers to use other companies chips.

Did society benefit from practices that were impolite?

(Edited to hilight title)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Houdini publication!!!

Probable fraud in the roaring 1920s! A woman claimed that her dead brother (did I mention that he was dead?) could not only move physical objects, but overhear distant conversations (which is kinda creepy, if you ask me). Scientists investigated, and there were charges of sexual compromise and other betrayal. My review of The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World was the feature article in the March 16, 2016 issue of eSkeptic,
 the edited weekly email newsletter published by The Skeptics Society, which also publishes Skeptic magazine. I'm excited!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

"Flowers", flower petals, made of ice. They can be beautiful. And they can be made by plants, apparently on purpose. How extraordinary. And, like a fairytale magical object, they only exist for a few hours at night, then melt, disappearing. It is in this week's NYTimes "Science Times", p.D2.

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

"Flowers", flower petals, made of ice. They can be beautiful. And they can be made by plants, apparently on purpose. How extraordinary. And, like a fairytale magical object, they only exist for a few hours at night, then melt, disappearing. It is in this week's NYTimes "Science Times", p.D2.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Freedom & Oxygen (and carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen)

Freedom & Oxygen (and carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen)

Ideas can give complex topics a unity. An example from history is the contradictory interpretations of "freedom".  In nature, an example (the most basic?) is the scientific discovery of the elements of life being present in the stars.

Freedom: In the US, how did slave owners write so poetically of all men being free? Compare the early 20th century phrase "wage slavery" to the late 20th century argument that the economy needs to be "free" of government interference.  The idea that US history can be examined via different meanings of the word "freedom" gave me a way of unifying it, though there are other themes that can be used. (Inspiration: the books The Story of American Freedom and the stimulatingly different  Patriots History of the United States, among others).

"Freedom" could be seen as the "oxygen" of democracy, but that's not where I'm going today.

Compared to "freedom", the discovery that all plants and animals live by carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen is more fundamental,  all the more so with the more recent discovery that  the same four elements are "star stuff".  Biology and astronomy somehow make more sense to me now. (My limited knowledge of this is mostly from the book The Scientists by John Gribbin).

I'm not saying that US history is reducible to the above (and many more) usages of the word "freedom", nor am I suggesting that biology and astronomy are simply made of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. In US history there are varying interpretations and other themes that could be used, in the sciences the details are complex. But these two basic ideas did give me a new perspective, a new way of viewing the topics, a unity, or theme, in complex subjects.

Is there a big human idea that inspired you to see a topic of study differently? Another field with a leanse which is one of many? Or a complex field with a fact that is discovered to be fundamental?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Houdini's diverse fame?

More than a hundred biographies, almost a hundred novels,  ten times as many as any other magician can claim. A new novel, a new tv series, a new history book.  For anyone, that would be an accomplishment, but it's extraordinary for someone who's been dead for so long. There are many explanations for the depth and longevity of magic entertainer Harry Houdini's fame. During his lifetime he repeatedly risked death and survived, which often draws a crowd. That and escape are powerful metaphors. After his death his fame only increased, apparently thanks at least in part to the efforts of his widow, a fascinating theory explored by writer and researcher David Charvet in a 1995 article which is one of my favorites of all time (just as his book on Alexander The Man Who Knows is one of my favorite biographies, but I digress). I'll have more to say about all of these topics. (On his widow's efforts, see "Bess Houdini: Did the Woman Behind the Legend create the Myth?" by David Charvet, Magic magazine, October 1995). (On the number of HH novels and bios, see the  wonderful blog "" by John Cox)

While agreeing with all of these factors as partly explaining the power of the word "Houdini", I would like to add one that is, if less important, also less obvious and just as compelling: the stunning breadth of his accomplishments. He was not _just_ famous for his live performances, though he was famous for that. He was also an activist,  author, aviator and filmmaker, and dabbled in more. He made headlines for his challenges to fake psychics, wrote about magic history, was credited with being the first person to fly an airplane in Australia, and was a movie star. Anyone investigating the history of any of these topics is going to run into his name. And, in retrospect, it makes him more interesting to me.

So indulge imagination and speculate: would Houdini be as famous today if live performance was his only medium (if you will pardon the pun)? Does anyone recall encountering Houdini in history, or remaining interested in his career, for some reason other than his live performances?

[Edited to add title...]

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

On March 2nd...

On March 2nd of this year, I started this blog.
Also on March 2nd, Texas declared independence (From Mexico. In 1836.)
On March 2nd of 1904, Dr. Seuss was born. I'm resisting the urge to write a Seuss inspired poem.

Why "Humanist Chick"?

Why Humanist Chick?

Hi and welcome. "Humanist" reminds me of the values of compassion for different types of people and the beauty of nature. (Mothers in every place love their children, and poets in all languages muse on the stars). I chose "chick" because it reflects my sense of whimsy. I imagine posting on diverse topics on "Humanist Chick": books, Houdini, nature, philosophy, silliness & socio-economics (the latter sometimes separate:)