Daily Archives: November 15, 2006

Noam Chomsky to Thomas L. Friedman: Bring in the Green Cat? How? Colorlessly! Sleepily!

Tom’s recent column “Bring in the Green Cat” makes sense. It may also have created a new interpretation to the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

I expect many of Tom’s fans will soon rush off to see if this is indeed the case, but before they set off on their quest I suggest you should warn them that time flies like an arrow.

See Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. [1]

Though most folks only know Noam Chomsky as a man with ultra-liberal political views, he is one of the central figures in linguistics in the last hundred years. Around the time he was 30, before 1960, he first expressed the ideas that resulted in the notion of “grammar” as it is used in compilers. His work predates that of Backus and Naur which is known as Backus–Naur form. [2]
I first learned of Chomsky’s work when I was in high school. I had a part-time job for a company called Teaching Machines, Inc. It created what were called “programmed learning” texts, using techniques based on the work of B.F. Skinner. The senior technical folks were also familiar with Chomsky’s work, and it was from them I first heard the two sample sentences listed above. It was near the end of my time there that I learned they were getting an IBM 1130 computer. I recall reading the manual but I left the company before the machine arrived.

I understand Chomsky was once my landlord. Our family spent three wonderful summer vacations in the early 80’s staying in a cabin on Gull Pond, near Wellfleet, MA. I was told Chomsky was the owner, but I never met him. I recall reading the “red book” for the first IBM PC on the porch of that cabin, shortly after the IBM PC was announced.

I also recall seeing Chomsky’s name a lot in the news a couple of months ago, though I don’t recall the details. However, if true, I have just launched what is most certainly the first attempt to jointly measure the “Tom Friedman Effect” and the “Noam Chomsky Effect.”

Notes:

1. Wikipedia continues to march on, at a relentless pace. I thought I had become the master of obscure linkages, but the wikipedia folks are building in real-time a neural net for the entire planet. Yikes!

2. When I first heard the term “BNF” it meant “Backus Normal Form,” but the cited wikipedia article informed me that Don Knuth, a former customer and figure mentioned earlier in this blog, championed recognizing the work of Peter Naur, much as Jack Schwartz helped to publicize the work of Soviet Academician A. P. Ershov, the subject of an earlier post.

Business: Thomas L. Friedman: Bring in the Green Cat

Today’s column, written while Tom was in Shanghai, is about the environmental crisis facing China. It begins:

I’ve been a regular visitor to China since 1990, and here’s what strikes me most: Each year that I’ve come here, China’s people seem to speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty.

Yes, you can now have amazingly frank talks with officials and journalists here. But when I walked out of my room the morning after I arrived in Shanghai, the air was so smoky — from the burning of farm fields after the harvest — that for a moment I honestly thought my hotel was on fire.

And that’s why, for the first time, it’s starting to feel to me like China is reaching its environmental limits. If it doesn’t radically change to greener, more sustainable modes of design, transport, production and power generation, the Chinese miracle is going to turn into an eco-nightmare.

China has been doing the environmental equivalent of jumping from an airplane and thinking that it’s flying, argued Rob Watson, an expert on China’s environment who heads the green building services firm EcoTech International. “After you jump out of a plane, for about five miles you can actually feel like you’re flying,” he added. But then reality hits. “It’s not the fall that kills you — it’s the sudden stop at the end, and China may be approaching that sudden stop. … When you stress a system to a certain point, it just stops working.”

At first blush I wasn’t very concerned about Tom’s view because of my experience when as an undergraduate in the Los Angeles area in the early 1960’s I first encountered “smog.”

I played on the freshman water polo team. Having grown up in the arid climate of New Mexico, the thought of playing a sport that took place in a pool intrigued me. However, fall in LA was one of the worst seasons for smog, and I can recall the pain of wanting to take a deep breath but knowing that if I did so it would be painful. I especially recall one grim day as our team drove East on the San Bernadino Freeway in a hazy slur that was especially odious. It was so bad in the car that I knew it would be even worse once we had to start the game.

But since LA has survived, perhaps Tom is being too pessimistic. [2]

However, Tom is not the only one to sound an alarm. So has Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a brilliant survey of the effects of environmental change on societies. [3] At the end of the book, Diamond reports on the current conditions in major countries and goes on to offer a prediction. China faces the grimmest future, and his forecast for China is the least optimistic given.

Tom goes on to say:

China’s top leaders understand the crisis. But their response is complicated by so many Chinese flooding from the countryside to cities. In their view, political stability depends on finding those people jobs, and jobs depend on growth, and growth depends on China continuing to be the low-cost producer of everything — environment be damned.

But China can’t do what the West did: grow now, clean up later. Because the unprecedented pace and scale of its growth are going to make later too late.

However, what is unusual today can — with foresight to develop a strategy and the careful execution of it — become “business as usual.”

For example, one of my friends is a trial attorney who has spent most of his career involved in complex litigation involving asbestos. He works both sides of the street, sometimes for the plaintiff, other times for the defense. (We met him through school. His daughter and my youngest daughter have been close friends for almost 20 years. His daughter just graduated from Williams, where S. Lane Faison taughter for many years, as told in my recent post S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, Dies; Art Historian and Professor.)

I asked him once how corporate America had come to grips with the various versions of the Clean Air Act. He said it had been difficult at first, but that once business realized the Act was here to stay, they had adapted, and as a result dealing with the Act was now “business as usual.”

So I hope China is able to deal with this problem. Perhaps we can even work with China to help them do so.

Making the unusual usual is difficult, but it can be done. For example, followers of open-source are well aware of the number of major announcements that have occurred in just the past few weeks: the Oracle/Red Hat un-alliance, the Microsoft/Novell alliance, and the Sun/FSF alliance. I was at a meeting recently that included a presentation by a senior manager and someone asked how IBM was dealing with all these big announcements. He said that every senior exec at IBM fully appreciates the importance of Linux and open-source to IBM’s business and were well aware of the issues due to our extensive experience in the open-source arena.

IBM has been doing open-source for years — it has become part of our corporate DNA.

But I recall well when this was not the case. For example, soon after Jikes went open-source, I posted a tar-ball [4] on the IBM Research web site. But I was unable to download it. I figured out that the server had not been properly configured for files with types “tar” or “tgz,” which means I was the first to ever attempt to provide a tarball from Research.

I will follow up with some other posts inspired by this column shortly.

Notes:

1. Anyone could play on any team at Caltech. During my years there, Caltech was ranked 714th out of 715th in the nation (I never learned who was worse than us) in football. As a result attendance at home games was small, so it was quite a sight to see a football game in the Rose Ball with no more than 500 people present. I was recruited to play on the football team, but had to beg off when I learned it would required my coming back to Pasadena two weeks earlier. I couldn’t do that; I needed the money.

I played only a few games. I dropped out after the first game in which we played in a real water polo pool, where it was not possible to stand on the bottom.

2. LA has survived, but without me. I left it as soon as I could. I applied to New York University (NYU) because of the “N” and the “Y”, not the “U”. I felt at home soon after moving to NYC — I was one of those native New Yorkers who by a quirk of fate happen to have been born out-of-town.

3. Diamond’s masterpiece is Guns, Germs and Steel, a work of great originality and insight. As the publisher writes in a blurb,

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the other way around? In this groundbreaking work, an evolutionary biologist dismantles racially-based theories and reveals the environmental factors actually responsible for history’s broadest patterns. A whirlwind tour through 13,000 years of human history, beginning when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire population. Here is a truly a world history, brilliantly written and radically new.

4. A “tarball” is the jargon name for a single file produced by the “tar” (Tape Archive) program that contains all the files of a particular release of an open-source package. It is the standard form used to distribute open-source.

S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, Dies; Art Historian and Professor

Yesterday’s New York Times brought news of the recent death of S. Lane Faison Jr., a Professor at Williams College and a famed art historian.

Though I never met him, I know that among the thousands of his students those who know of his death are mourning it as I write this.

Here are some excerpts, as well as some thoughts on the life he lived and the lessons he taught:

S. Lane Faison Jr., an art historian who cut his teeth cataloging Hitler’s collection of plundered paintings, then, as a Williams College professor, inspired students who went on to head many of America’s leading art institutions, died on Saturday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 98.

Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams, who announced the death, said his “legacy will forever be spread far and wide through the countless students he turned on to art.”

Mr. Faison’s achievement was taking young men at what was then an all-male school and diverting them from careers as doctors and bank executives by turning them into art history majors. A typical disciple was Glenn D. Lowry, a pre-med student in the early 1970’s whose main interest was skiing but who tagged along on an impromptu tour Mr. Faison happened to give of Williams’s highly respected art museum.

“Off we galloped,” Mr. Lowry said. “We spent hours there, and I was transformed.”

Mr. Lowry is now director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Others who studied with Mr. Faison and his renowned colleagues Whitney S. Stoddard and William H. Pierson include Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Kirk T. Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Modern until his death in 2003.

Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams, who announced the death, said his “legacy will forever be spread far and wide through the countless students he turned on to art.”

Mr. Faison’s achievement was taking young men at what was then an all-male school and diverting them from careers as doctors and bank executives by turning them into art history majors. A typical disciple was Glenn D. Lowry, a pre-med student in the early 1970’s whose main interest was skiing but who tagged along on an impromptu tour Mr. Faison happened to give of Williams’s highly respected art museum.

“Off we galloped,” Mr. Lowry said. “We spent hours there, and I was transformed.”

Mr. Lowry is now director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Others who studied with Mr. Faison and his renowned colleagues Whitney S. Stoddard and William H. Pierson include Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Kirk T. Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Modern until his death in 2003.

I expect that few if any of his students who went on to major in art history entered Williams with that as their intended major. They changed their major solely because of him.

We all have had — or I least hope we all have had — the good fortune to have as one of our teachers someone who changed and shaped the course of our lives. I know I have. Here are some personal examples.

Mrs. Campbell, my algebra teacher in the 8th grade. From the very first day she inspired us to work hard because she promised that if we did so we would be able to do some something magical. She was right. After a few months she handed out sheets of graph paper and we entered the world defined by the x- and y-axes, a world she had made exciting.

Mr. Goodsell Slocum, my math teacher the last two years of high-school, and probably the reason I was admitted to Caltech. Two of his students from the previous year’s class were accepted, and I was told by Dean Jones, the Caltech director of admissions who came to our high school to interview me, that Mr. Slocum had spoken highly of me.

Professor Rochus Vogt, my section leader for freshman physics at Caltech, in 1962-1963. It was Prof. Vogt’s first year at Caltech, and on he volunteered to be a section leader for freshman physics, Feynam’s physics. I didn’t do very well in the course. For example, I think I got a 4 on the first mid-term, out of a possible 60 points; the class high was 15. Prof. Vogt took me under his wing during the second quarter and encouraged me to study harder, and I improved my grade significantly in the third quarter. I might well have dropped out of Caltech — as did the three other students from Albuquerque who were admitted the previous year and the year I was admitted — but for his encouragement.

Feynman first gave the class in 61-62, but he did only the first two quarters of lectures. I had the good fortune to have him in the second year in the last quarter, for quantum mechanics. Feynman had the finest mind I’ve ever known. Whenever he lectured everyone at Caltech came — student, faculty, secretaries, and so forth.

The high point of that quarter was one of the lectures on quantum mechanics. When I left that lecture at noon I understood quantum mechanics. However, as I headed down the Olive Walk toward the faculty club where I worked as a waiter, the vast edifice started to crumble. A neutrino here, a positron there, and by the time I arrived at the club I had lost it all.

I was also present for Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of the Planets Around the Sun. I have a copy. The frontpiece is a photo of him standing at the board; he was also a very handsome man and wrote very precisely on the blackboard.

I searched for Prof. Vogt on the internet and found an article about Feynman, Physics World poll names Richard Feynman one of 10 greatest physicists of all time. Feynman was listed seventh:

“I would have ranked him a bit higher,” said Rochus Vogt, a Caltech physics professor, former provost, and former division chair in Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. “He was certainly the greatest physicist of my age.

“He was not only a top-notch physicist, but he was an artist, a Renaissance type of person,” Vogt said. “He had certain insights and perceptions in physics that I have no word to describe other than ‘artistic.'”

Prof. Faison’s obituary continues:

Part of Mr. Faison’s winning pitch was persuading students that art history was not incompatible with masculinity by attending their athletic contests and fraternity parties. A larger part was nudging them to see art differently, sometimes by holding a work upside down or sideways to judge whether the composition hung together. He gave innovative assignments like comparing the book “Tom Jones” with a Hogarth painting.

Samson Lane Faison Jr. was born in Washington on Nov. 16, 1907. His father was an Army general and he grew up in many places. He fell in love with art when a high school teacher took him to see the Chartres Cathedral. “I haven’t been the same since,” he often said.

Seeing mention of “Tom Jones” and “I haven’t been the same since” reminded me of several instances where a single moment, or only a few moments, changed my view of art.

For example, I spent a week in New York City in March, 1964. During that week I saw the following movies: the fore-mentioned Tom Jones, Dr. Strangelove, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Great Dictator, and one that became one of my all-time personal favorites, Jules and Jim.

I saw my first great painting the same week, on my first visit to the Frick Museum. I turned left and as I approached a passage on my right I caught my first glimpse of a Vermeer — he is still my favorite painter. I was so taken by the Frick that I must have gone back at least three other times in that week.

My wife and I were at the Frick this past Sunday to see an exhibit of masterworks on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art. We went early to avoid long lines, and were among the first to enter. While most people headed right for the exhibit, I instead went to the Great Room. Except for a guard or two, I had the room to myself for a few minutes; Frick had it for a lifetime. It’s one of the geat rooms in the world, a room with Vermeer, two magnificent J.M.W. Turner’s, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velasquez, and more.

My lifelong interest in classical music dates to one morning in the 7th or 8th grade just after 7AM in the morning. I heard a performance of Ravel’s Bolero on the radio. It was enough to pique my interest. By that Christmas Holiday I was taking home recordings from the local library. My wife and I were for many years members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society.

My entire view of sculpture changed within two seconds, three years ago, when I first saw Michelangelo’s David.

I could relate other such moments, but I’ll close now too give you time to think of your own such moments.

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