Seen, Heard, Said

Things I’ve seen, heard, or was told by someone. Item in this category usually originate from the Internet.

Feynman the Explainer

I love stories about Feynman — probably because I love his style and try to emulate it — and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine, by W. Daniel Hillis for Physics Today1, is a new story for me though:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say ‘reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that ‘local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

Getting Richard to give advice like that was sometimes tricky. He pretended not to like working on any problem that was outside his claimed area of expertise. Often, at Thinking Machines when he was asked for advice he would gruffly refuse with “That’s not my department.” I could never figure out just what his department was, but it did not matter anyway, since he spent most of his time working on those “not-my-department” problems. Sometimes he really would give up, but more often than not he would come back a few days after his refusal and remark, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked the other day and it seems to me…” This worked best if you were careful not to expect it.

I do not mean to imply that Richard was hesitant to do the “dirty work.” In fact, he was always volunteering for it. Many a visitor at Thinking Machines was shocked to see that we had a Nobel Laureate soldering circuit boards or painting walls. But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.

  1. Phys. Today 42(2), 78 (1989) 

Making Friends Post College

“As Brian and his wife wandered off toward the No. 2 train afterward, it crossed my mind that he was the kind of guy who might have ended up a groomsman at my wedding if we had met in college.

That was four years ago. We’ve seen each other four times since. We are “friends,” but not quite friends. We keep trying to get over the hump, but life gets in the way.

Our story is not unusual. In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends – the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis – those are in shorter supply.”


Ditching the Resume

“If résumés are a bunch of claims, badges are a bunch of evidence.”

We need this. School is so often knowledge based that it’s incredibly tough to hire engineers who actually can do things. Badges could help solve this.


NSA Mass Surveillance is Criminal

Jennifer Stisa Granick (director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society) and Christopher Jon Sprigman (professor at the University of Virginia School of Law) make a point in their NYTimes Op-Ed, “The Criminal N.S.A.“,  that I have not seen from many others: “It’s time to call the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs what they are: criminal.”

To date, most arguments I have come across claim that what the NSA is doing should be illegal, but currently isn’t (at least for reasons currently unknown to me). The other argument I’ve seen a lot on the Internet is citizens crying foul that the government would ever be able invade their private space (somehow ignoring the provisos of the 4th Amendment).

Granick and Sprigman’s article is worth pointing out because it argues that what the NSA is doing is currently and has always been illegal, while also acknowledging the provisos of the 4th Amendment.

Unfortunately, the opinion piece itself is lacking some grit, which I find frustrating as it seems to drag on without adding more substance. Here are the relevant points:

Congressional watchdogs – with a few exceptions, like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky – have accepted the White House’s claims of legality. The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, have called the surveillance legal. …. This view is wrong – and not only, or even mainly, because of the privacy issues raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics. The two programs violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law. No statute explicitly authorizes mass surveillance. Through a series of legal contortions, the Obama administration has argued that Congress, since 9/11, intended to implicitly authorize mass surveillance. But this strategy mostly consists of wordplay, fear-mongering and a highly selective reading of the law.

Legal issues with the PATRIOT Act :

The government claims that under Section 215 [of the PATRIOT act] it may seize all of our phone call information now because it might conceivably be relevant to an investigation at some later date, even if there is no particular reason to believe that any but a tiny fraction of the data collected might possibly be suspicious. That is a shockingly flimsy argument – any data might be “relevant” to an investigation eventually, if by “eventually” you mean “sometime before the end of time.” If all data is “relevant,” it makes a mockery of the already shaky concept of relevance.

Legal issues with the FISA Amendments Act (FAA):

Like the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act gives the government very broad surveillance authority. And yet the Prism program appears to outstrip that authority. In particular, the government “may not intentionally acquire any communication as to which the sender and all intended recipients are known at the time of the acquisition to be located in the United States.”

The government knows that it regularly obtains Americans’ protected communications. The Washington Post reported that Prism is designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness” – as John Oliver of “The Daily Show” put it, “a coin flip plus 1 percent.” By turning a blind eye to the fact that 49-plus percent of the communications might be purely among Americans, the N.S.A. has intentionally acquired information it is not allowed to have, even under the terrifyingly broad auspices of the FISA Amendments Act. […] James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told Andrea Mitchell of NBC, the N.S.A. uses the word “acquire” only when it pulls information out of its gigantic database of communications and not when it first intercepts and stores the information.

Why what the NSA doing is illegal:

The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. There is simply no precedent under the Constitution for the government’s seizing such vast amounts of revealing data on innocent Americans’ communications.