Category Archives: mood

Hard Duino

I was in Trieste for a conference, and one afternoon after the conference was finished I went 20 minute North, on the path between Duino and Sistiana where Rilke liked to stroll. How beautiful!

And yet how much more human is the dangerous in security that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Letter to a young poet #8 – Rainer Maria Rilke

Duino Castle, December 2019

What libertarians like are stories

One of the side-effects of the political moment we’re in is that liberals finally feel compelled to lay down the arguments in favor of specific policies. While politician seem immune to fact-based policies, the general debate on healthcare, education or minimum wage often elicit reactions that plays with hypothetical to dismiss their mere possibility, before even considering that… almost every other country in the world do it! The amusing part is that they often took inspiration on the US when implementing these policies, and the US has them in place (New Deal, Great Society) before the Chicago school invaded the West Wing — with an actor, a storyteller.

Now, we need to fight people hacking your system I (storytelling and branding — actually two flavor of the same things — are part of the innovations than made the US):

One thing you should always remember about libertarians is that they hate facts. If they touch a fact, they die. Facts are to libertarians like water was to the Wicked Witch. What libertarians like are stories. Here’s what I mean: If you say “We should raise the minimum wage to a living wage so that companies have to pay their workers enough to afford their rent,” a libertarian will not reply with facts, but with a story. They will say: Ah, but if you do that the company will simply lay off a bunch of workers and unemployment will rise. Note that this is not empirical evidence. It is a tale. A prophecy. Because the actual empirical evidence is that this does not in fact happen, that “the number of jobs cost by minimum wage laws is negligible” and “they raise wages without much downside.” Go near a libertarian with this and they will scream as they melt.

Many Of The Arguments Against Wealth Taxes Are Pathetic – Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs

Now… remember that facts can be debatable too!

 

Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was well suited for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run. Needless to say, getting into the political arena is not an easy task, and it takes a lot of courage.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know.
For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
— George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, Kirsten Sinema, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.
https://vis.sciencemag.org/midterm-science-candidates/

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough (in French.) And if you speak French there’s this podcast on Les sciences peuvent-elles aider la démocratie?  (“Can sciences help democracy”) featuring Philippe Kourilsky (author of De la science et de la démocratie) – I was a bit disappointed: it’s mostly about scientists helping democratically elected leaders, not participating in it, but at least there’s some conversation.

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Star Wars: A political theory

It is said that the original Star Wars series was a prelude for the culture that would avail in the Reagan years.

Let’s see if we can make parallels with current times!

Episode 1 (2015)
The phantom menace
(rides a golden escalator)

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The New Yorker and the current times

Since I arrived in the US about six years ago, I’ve been interested in learning about the culture of my new country. An obvious way is to read the magazines and learn what people are talking about. Alas, the free press is usually not very interesting. Some magazines are standing out; I’ve been subscribed to The Atlantic, the Pacific StandardWired and Rolling Stones, and I’ve read GQ, Vanity Fair, The Economist (though British), but while there’s a bunch of good articles, they are plagued by terrible layouts, dull advertisement, and I can’t find any thing that matches some of my favorite French magazines, such as Les Inrocks or Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire, though I must say I now realize they often feature subjects that have been thoroughly digested by US magazines.
There is however a publication which is consistently good, entertaining, frequent (every week) and almost free of advertisement: The New Yorker, which contrary to its name suggests doesn’t delve too much on the (otherwise great) city of New York.

“He tells it like it is.” August 18, 2016

Agency

Not only the quality and the length of the articles, which are often sheltered from the ceaseless stream of news, allows go deep into some subjects (some arcane but always interesting), but they do make an impact.
For witness:
It is quite remarkable for a journal to be able to uncover so many stories. Maybe the times are ripe for that and comes the reckoning…

Legacy

The publication has a tremendous legacy, with writers such as Hannah Arendt (who published her series on the banality of evil there), James Baldwin who covered the civil rights movement and Susan Sontag who mused on various topics (see her collected articles in Against Interpretation and On Photography.)

I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too. – James Baldwin

Culture

There are many contributors to the magazine, but there are three I am particularly fond of, maybe because I can relate and they write things I don’t even know to express. Jia Tolentino covers Millenial generation with great nuance, and how we navigate the navigate the culture rift; Adam Gopnik often writes about culture in the broad sense, often threading from his experience in France (he has a very acute knowledge of France culture and how it differs from US culture); Louis Menand writes excellent book reviews.
It is interesting to see that both Gopnik and Tolentino released books in the past month (“A thousand small sanities” and “Trick Mirror”), which both deal with the current, heavy, atmosphere that lingers over the country as a whole, not complaining, but trying to find an outlet.

Ojai Music Festival

Every year, early June in Ojai, CA, a quiet town half an hour away from Santa Barbara, the Ojai Music Festival takes place.

The festival has a glorious history of convening the cream of the crop of new classical music (Stravinski, Messiaan, Boulez and Copland are among the artistic directors who brought their vision to the festival), and is a wonderful crucible for geniuses in music.

I went there for the first time in 2016, and I was struck by the brilliance of the pieces I saw – a delightful blend of music from all around the world, mixing ICE and the Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, under the tutelage of Peter Sellars. I remember being particularly impressed by Leila Adu‘s performance (wonder what she’s up to nowadays…)

In the years since, I could just go to Berkeley’s CalPerformances to see the show (Ojai in Berkeley),  held a week after the main festival. I fondly recall Vijay Iyer’s take on the Rite of Spring with Radhe Radhe: Rite of Holi, and some standout performances by Tyshawn Sorey, a regular of the festival who never stops to amaze, though I’m more impressed by him in live settings than by the recordings I’ve heard since.

Sadly, this year the Berkeley program no longer exists, since since CalPerf’s director Matías Tarnopolski left for Philadelphia. Therefore, I had to drive down the California 1 to see what was happening there.

And boy I wasn’t disappointed! This year’s artistic director Barbara Hannigan prepared wonderful program, going from Stravinski (again!) Berg to Steve Reich. Some of the concerts that really struck a chord were Patoulidou performance on Vivier’s Lonely Child, Barbara Hannigan rendition of John Zorn’s Jumalattaret, and Steve Schick leading Terry Riley’s in C (the latter can be on a viewed video of the festival here, at 1h48.)

Ojai Music Festival 2019

Not only the artistic content was great, but there is also a sense of passing along the baton (in a way beautifully narrated in Maria Stodtmeijer‘s Taking Risk) to younger artists such as Aphrodite Patoulidou and Yanis Francois.

Sure, I’m painting a fawning picture of the festival here, but I’m so drained of creativity that I will leave it to better voices than mine:
Outsiders (2015 edition)
The Sonic Fury of the Ojai Music Festival (2018 edition)

Autopilot

Lead by lidar

At the moment (April 2019), the economy is in a weird quantum superposition of doom (yield curve inversion) and exaltation, with Lyft recently joining the public markets (always loved the irony of the term…)

I’ve been talking to a few people involved in driverless cars and AI lately, asking them…. when? They usually tell me soon, the problem they have is that the main drawback with learned neural networks is that they are almost impossible to debug. You can try to get insight on how they work (see the fascinating Activation Atlas), but it’s really difficult to rewire them.

And it’s actually pretty easy to hack them — you can easily do some random addition to find noise that will activates the whole network. In the real world, you can put stickers at just the right location and… make every other car crash. Pretty scary…

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The wonders of West Berkeley

I do love Berkeley, with its wonderful atmosphere and its people, daring to live on a different beat!

The spring and the fall are the most notably beautiful, and walking in the street is always an amazement.

Berkeley in the spring

In the winter, you get the magnolia; in the spring come the fragrant wisteria and the gentle jasmine; the summer has the river flowing to the sea, and the fall, oh the fall with the ginkgo glowing gold on Russell street!

Berkeley in the fall

I’ve seen a few friends moving nearby, and they seem to enjoy every bit of it.

Here’s a few places to check out:

  • Skates to get a drink right at sunset
  • Casa Latina for the best tacos of the East Bay
  • Berkeley Bowl West is such a paradise for the grocery shopper
  • Cal Sailing Club lets you sail and windsurf for less than a dollar a day
  • Bette’s Diner has some amazing brunch
  • Market Hall Foods on 4th street has the best cheese selection I know, plus a hundred of other delicacies
  • Albatross is the oldest pub of Berkeley, with a great selection of beer, darts and pool
  • Ashkenaz has a great music programming; don’t miss Stu Allen’s Grateful Dead!
  • Sola Lucy is the only place to go for thrift shop

For the news, check out Berkeleyside.com and the East Bay Express (free, out every Wednesday.) There’s also a lot of other places closer to downtown which are unique: the Back Room, the Pacific Film Archive, Yoga to the people, Half Price Book, Café Panisse, the Strawberry canyon pool, the Skyline boulevard, the Butcher’s son restaurant, the Melo Melo kava bar, and so many other things!

Savant

In other news I was recently promoted to a staff position at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab!

It’s still tenure track (hopefully the position will be fully secured in two years from now) , but I’m getting closer to my childhood dream: to become a savant.

I am extremely lucky to be there, working on a major US scientific infrastructure project (ALS-U), in a fantastic lab with my window literally overlooking the Silicon Valley.

The golden gate

Right now, I’m mostly doing beamline design and simulation, with some wavefront sensing and adaptive optics. Lots of very challenging topics (we have to deal with a laser-like beam hundred times smaller than a hair blasting kilowatts of light), and I’m learning a lot along the way. Amazing times!

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An efficient bureaucracy

What if… the world goes round thanks to an inefficient bureaucracy?

The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.
– Eugene McCarthy

Think about it… the nazis were able to corrupt all of Germany thanks to the legendary rigor of its population – a case famously documented by Hannah Arendt in her series Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (I, II, III, IV, V)

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