Monday, October 31, 2005

Goodbye, Bob.

A friend has died. Bob Andrews was instrumental in introducing me to my wife. He was a good friend and an usher at our wedding. Bob and I sang and travelled together in a gospel band called Highway for a number of years in the 1970s. I also sang at Bob’s first wedding to Leeanne Andrews.

I remember Bob as a bundle of energy, someone who had tremendous gifts as a public speaker, an enthusiastic member of our gospel group who led most of the onstage performance and our usual choice for delivering a homily to our audience. His tenor voice was clear, high, and dramatic.

Although I haven’t seen Bob in a long while, I will always treasure those years when he, I, Joyce and Carol would head out in our cars and vans to visit small churches in much of south-western Ontario. We had a common vision, lots of youthful energy, a strong desire to serve other people, and quite a bit of shared talent. Carol was the musical genius who arranged all our music. Joyce was the incredible soprano voice who took the lead with most of our singing. Bob was the mastermind and MC who facilitated our plans and tours. I was there to sing, play bass, speak occasionally, and provide the other male voice for balance. We also had Sharon, Doug, and Cindy joining us once in a while when their schedule would allow.

Now, sadly, Bob, Carol, and Cindy have died, leaving the rest of us with full and happy memories of a simpler and happy time together.

Bob was fifty-five years old. He leaves three children, his wife, his ex-wife, and many, many friends behind. Thanks, Bob, for all the good times. I will remember you fondly.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Windows Connections 2005

This week is the Windows Connections Conference in San Diego. It will be the first such conference that I will be able to attend, so my expectations are mixed. Conferences are almost always a great way to network and establish important business relationships. The training aspect of this particular conference is also very important to me since I am a “lone wolf” where I work. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to digest so many sessions in such a short period of time. At least the conference proceedings will be available on CD (Microsoft Exchange Connections Conference is happening concurrently and the proceedings of that conference can be purchased separately).

It seems that events like this have been happening either annually or twice annually since 2000. Although the presence of Microsoft will be significant, the conference speakers do not all hail from Redmond.

Monday night will begin with a keynote address from Mark Minasi of MR&D about Windows Server R2, Longhorn and Beyond. My plan is to blog as many sessions as possible.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

EinsteinFest: Howard, Mike and Us


This morning’s EinsteinFest presentation by Howard Burton, the Executive Director of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics had the grandiose title of First Principles: Building an Einstein Factory. The title was just a tad grandiose, or as Howard put it, ludicrous. Still, in one of the best tongue-in-cheek, good-natured satirical lectures I’ve seen in a very long while, PI’s ED did a superb job of explaining the origins and plans for the Perimeter Institute.

This was the only lecture I’ve attended during the entire festival in which Michael Duschenes, Director of Programming for the Perimeter Institute didn’t introduce the speaker or control the Q&A. In what were only partially masked references to conversations Howard and Michael must have had about obvious deficiencies of presenters and their lectures during the festival, the Executive Director structured his presentation in a parody of what one might expect in the most anal of Toastmasters meetings. He actually had slides for End of the Beginning, End of the Middle, and End of the End. In addition, in yet another burlesque of academic testing, Howard evaluated the Perimeter Institute thus far on how Einstein might have scored achievement of major goals for the organization – 82%.

Despite the comic relief, I should quickly add that Howard is a remarkably able communicator and, from what I have heard, an ideal person to be leading PI. With him at the helm, and with Mike Lazaridis and other RIM contributors financing the endowment of the organization, the future looks very bright. But everyone seems to agree that Howard and Mike together are only the start. The trajectory of PI will depend more fully on how well the S-factor multiplies their efforts. In other words, the sociological factors (including political support at provincial and federal levels, support and advice from the scientific advisory council, and general community enthusiasm for science and the foundational questions of theoretical physics) are what will make or break PI.

If there is indeed to be another Einstein manufactured by PI, the consensus seems to be that he or she is as likely to come from the community supporting PI as from the post doctoral researchers, visiting scholars, or graduate students thinking inside the facility. Good luck to PI and thanks for a grand festival!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

EinsteinFest: The Relativity of Pacifism

On December 14th, 1930, Einstein delivered an extemporaneous speech in New York’s Ritz Carleton Hotel under the auspices of the New History Society and translated by the pacifist Rosika Schwimmer (she spoke nine languages; she was denied American citizenship because she refused to swear that she would bear arms in time of war; she was also involved in forming the Campaign for World Government):

When those who are bound together by pacifist ideals hold a meeting they are usually consorting only with their own kind. They are like sheep huddled together while wolves wait outside. I believe that pacifist speakers face this difficulty: they ordinarily reach only their own group, people who are pacifists any how and hardly need to be convinced. The sheep's voice does not reach beyond this circle and is, therefore ineffectual. That is the real weakness of the pacifist movement.

It was in the course of this speech that Einstein enunciated his two percent solution:

In countries where compulsory service does not exist, true pacifists must publicly declare in time of peace that they will not take up arms under any circumstances. This, too, is an effective method of war resistance. I earnestly urge you to try to convince people all over the world of the justice of this position. The timid may say, "What is the use? We shall be sent to prison." To them I would reply: Even if only two percent of those assigned to perform military service should announce their refusal to fight, as well as urge means other than war of settling international disputes, governments would be powerless, they would not dare send such a large number of people to jail.

A year later, this time at the California Institute of Technology, Einstein reiterated his position:

I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the peoples themselves refuse to go to war.”

Sunday afternoon, David Rowe delivered another lecture at EinsteinFest entitled Einstein’s Political Priorities: World Government in which we learned about how the great scientific genius held to pacifism for his entire life, but changed tactics when times demanded a compromise. His pacifism was firmly rooted in what he called “objective realities”. By 1933, Einstein’s militant pacifism needed refinement in the face of the militarist threat of the Nazis. Force would be required to stop them.

In 1938, Einstein wrote Roosevelt to warn him of progress being made in Germany towards the development of an atomic bomb, presumably in the hopes that the United States would beat Germany in the race. Even so, he wrote Roosevelt again in 1945 advising the President not to use the bomb against Japan. That letter was found unopened on Roosevelt’s desk at the time of his death. Then, when Truman used the bomb, Einstein said, “If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.”

After the war, we see yet another shift in his continued adherence to pacifism. World government was the only way Einstein could see to end wars.

Monday, October 17, 2005

EinsteinFest: The Outer Limits

One of Einstein’s closest friends was Kurt Gödel, the logician who worked alongside Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies from 1940 to 1955, the year Einstein died. In his EinsteinFest lecture yesterday afternoon, John Dawson provided a comparison and contrast between the two men (Companion Stars: Einstein and Gödel at the Institute for Advanced Study).

Gödel is much less well known that Einstein, unless you work in mathematics or philosophy. But his Incompleteness Theorem, along with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Einstein’s work in Relativity Theory have changed they way we look at the universe, from the quantum level to the origins of the universe to, in Gödel’s case, the confidence we have in systems of thought. The Incompleteness Theorem states that within any branch of mathematics, there will always be some propositions that cannot be proven either true or false given the rules and axioms of that branch itself. Those same propositions might be provable one way or the other outside that branch, but then you are faced with a new set of propositions whose truth or falsity cannot be proved within that system.

This impacts the field of artificial intelligence. Some have argued that we will never be able to create a computer that is more intelligent that the human brain simply because of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. In other words, computers operate according to a set of axioms given to it. The computer, it is argued, cannot discover new truths outside that set of axioms, even though that is precisely how the human brain operates; that is, by opening itself to a broader, newer set of axioms.

Another metaphorical analogue suggests that humanity will never be able to fully understand our own minds or brains (see Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid). Just as we cannot see our faces with our own eyes, we will never be able to mirror completely our symbolic structures of thought. Why? We can never truly stand outside ourselves which is the prerequisite to do so.

Whether or not the speculations about Artificial Intelligence prove founded, the philosophical implications of the work of one of Einstein’s colleagues may be with us for as long as we speak about Relativity Theory.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

EinsteintFest: The Ethical Universe

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy says that ethics is the philosophical study of morality. But the word ethics also sometimes substitutes for the moral principles of an individual, group, or culture. In that second sense, ethics and ethical questions are one way to look at structuring our own biography. For me, for instance, there have been key questions (and answers) that mark stages in my life. Questions about the rights of women, questions about ecology, questions about animal rights, and questions about the rights of homosexuals have been key issues in my life. At a very personal level, these questions have been preoccupations at different points in my life. Ethical questions have also structured the way I analyze historical periods and personalities. They have framed my universe.

Given the little I know about the life of Einstein, this was true for him as well. Yes, the scientific research and breakthroughs are one way to set boundaries to periods of his life. But another way to look at his life concerns ethical and political issues, one of the key questions being the treatment of Jews.

According to Robert Schulman’s lecture this morning at EinsteinFest, Einstein Recovers Judaism and Discovers Politics, Einstein’s recovery of an appreciation for his Jewishness (cultural Judaism) led directly to his political involvement in later life. Until 1919, when Einstein was thrust into international stardom, he cared little for Judaism (there was a brief boyhood fling with religious Judaism). He considered himself part of the international community of scientists, someone who was “unaffiliated” with any specific religion, except when required to pretend that he had a religious background (Kaiser Franz Josef had declared that no atheist was to hold any position in the empire’s civil service).

This all changed after 1919. His “moratorium as a Jew” ended with his high public profile and his discovery of anti-Semitism, especially against eastern European Jews in Germany. He embraced cultural Zionism and focused much of his political involvement from 1919 to 1948, when the state of Israel was created, on fighting both Gentile and Jewish anti-Semitism (the latter was the worst possible form of anti-Semitism in Einstein’s eyes).

Einstein compromised his strategies, but never his principles. After the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, he set aside his pacifism temporarily because of the fascist threat. Again, the more I learn about him, the more inspired I am by his example.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

EinsteinFest: Modernity and Music

Today has been one of the best days for me at EinsteinFest at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. My wife and I capped it off with a lecture by Walter FrischFrom Romanticism to Modernism: Music in Einstein’s World. Here’s the way you do public lectures for the educated generalist – good lecture, appropriate slides for the video element, and an excellent choice of audio clips to illustrate your points. We got to hear excerpts from Schoenberg, Mahler, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky (and many others).

Once again, I left the lecture with that wonderful sense of worlds of opportunity and learning available and beckoning me to enter the open door. That feeling is hard to articulate, but it’s one of the natural highs that I heartily recommend to everyone.

Frisch is a modest presenter. He didn’t make any dramatic claims for these “men of music” as revolutionaries. In fact, each was firmly rooted in the classical traditions and motifs of the romantic period of the 19th century, even though each contributed to the modernist music of the 20th century. The operatic selections were especially goose-bump inducing.

And as I write this review, I sit in my study with both my sons at their computers and all three of us listening to Pink Floyd. Who’d have thought my 16-year-old would be the one to introduce me to a band of my generation! Science, music, and the intergenerational dialogue – hard to beat.

EinsteinFest: Fickle Fame

Some historians of the 20th century believe the modern age began November, 1919 when the popular press announced that Albert Einstein had overturned Isaac Newton (as reported by David Rowe in his lecture this afternoon Einstein’s Rise to Fame at EinsteinFest) . The American journalist by the name of Crouch (a golf expert) who was given the job of explaining to the New York Times audiences what the fuss in Britain was all about, reported that Einstein was writing A Book For 12 Wise Men that would explain his theory of general relativity. “’No more in all the world could comprehend it,’ said Einstein when his daring publishers accepted it.”

Well, there was no such book from Einstein. The journalist made that up. Most of the physicists and astronomers to whom the news was published understood exactly what Einstein had proven. It was simply that gravity could bend starlight. Arthur Eddington’s photographic crews off the coast of Africa (Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea) and Brazil had confirmed with experimental data from observations made of a total eclipse on May 29th, 1919 that Einstein’s predictions were correct. What they actually observed was something equivalent to the diameter of a light bulb measured from 12 kilometres away!

Whatever the degree of minute detail, what happened next was clear. Einstein was immediately vaulted into the stratosphere in the popular press, in expert circles, and even in political debate. Within a few years, Einstein’s face was one of the most recognizable worldwide.

But as David Rowe explained, central European Anti-Semitism and nationalist extremism led very quickly to linking Einstein and relativity with all that was supposedly wrong with the world. On the one hand, Einstein was the “new Copernicus”. On the other hand, he was merely a Boshevik-sympathizing Zionist whose scientific madness threatened the German character and national zeal. In fact, in 1922 Einstein left Germany for a tour of Japan after the murder of his friend Walther Rathenau and a warning delivered to him that he was likely to be killed by former members of the Freikorps.

Rowe’s lecture also illustrated how the fame that attended Einstein for the remainder of his life continued to be idiotic at both extremes. Einstein is reputed to have said “With fame, I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.”

EinsteinFest: “Beware of Rotten Compromises”

At what point does compromise betray moral depravity?

Whenever I watch a video or read a book about Anti-Semitism or the Second World War, I wonder about what I would have done in 1930s Germany. Watching Schlindler’s List is only one example of a morality play about compromise played out on the big screen. Reading about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer also reminds me that there are times when compromise is worst solution possible. Making compromises with totalitarian, racism regimes doesn’t seem possible, but I wonder if I would have had the clarity and strength of conviction if I lived at that time.

Robert Schulman’s lecture this morning at EinsteinFest (“Beware of Rotten Compromises”- The Moral Foundations of Einstein’s Politics) reminded me of the critical dimensions of the moral dilemma in another context, this time in the United States in the 1940s. Einstein and Oppenheimer both faced similar compromises regarding building and deploying an atomic bomb. Einstein had made an attempt to warn the President in 1938 that Germany was probably well on the way to designing an atomic bomb. Whether or not that meant he wanted the United States to build and actually use the bomb before Germany is open to speculation. If he hadn’t been considered a security risk, if his liberal leanings were not obvious, and if his expertise was just oriented just a little bit more towards “practical” applications, what would he have done? Instead, the decision about compromise fell to Robert Oppenheimer.

It is clear Einstein always felt that Oppenheimer had made rotten compromises, that he had sublimated his autonomy and moral discretion in the service of authority. Ironically, those same authorities, under the witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, virtually destroyed Oppenheimer’s career.

The Hiroshima bomb developed under Oppenheimer’s direction (called Fatman) was about the size of a Volkswagen Bug and, to that point in history, was the most expensive pound-for-pound device ever manufactured. Without Einstein’s “miracle year” in which he demonstrated the tremendous power available in small amounts of matter, it is unlikely that there would have been a Manhattan Project or a Fatman bomb during the Second World War. I don’t think Einstein compromised his moral foundations in any way by his work on special relativity. With Oppenheimer, the situation is more difficult. He later opposed development of a hydrogen bomb when he was chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Maybe that was part of a belated attempt to rectify an earlier rotten compromise.

From my vantage point, Oppenheimer lacked the fortitude and independence of spirit which gave Einstein courage to remain a pacifist. But that judgement doesn’t help me ascertain whose example I would follow under similar conditions. Whether it be 1930s Germany where I would be faced with Anti-Semitism or 1940s United States where I could be faced with building a bomb to kill hundreds of thousands of people, I am not sure what I would do. But I will remember Einstein’s famous aphorism if and when I have tough moral decisions to make.

Friday, October 14, 2005

EinsteinFest: Without a Home

Homeless. Probably the first thought that springs to mind is of those who wander the streets of our cities, sometimes pushing a grocery cart, sometimes asking for spare change to buy a coffee, sometimes frightening us, not so much by their appearance but by the thought that with a little bad luck the face we see in front of us could be our own.

As we learned tonight at Stanley Corngold’s lecture 1905 – A Literary Response to Modernity at EinsteinFest, many of the literary figures of the time felt homeless. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Robert Musil were indicative of that sense of being “without a home” in the face of Central European urbanization. Although each literary figure used slightly different imagery for the experience, there was a commonality which we can discern 100 years later. “We are never at home in our interpreted worlds,” Rilke would say.

Even though it would be anachronistic to use the phrase “existential angst” to describe the homelessness of those responding to modernity in 1905, I can’t help but feel some disdain for both those claiming homelessness in the face of modernity and for our own post-modern critics, like Corngold, who seem to take a puerile pleasure in repeating the claim of the turn-of-the-century literati that not only are they “without a home” but that the scientists of the same period were merely engaging in “high-level bookkeeping”. Maybe I’m being unfair to those famous writers, not to mention contemporary critics like Corngold and others. Maybe, but this is my blog after all!

Still, I’m reminded by the presence of those who have no place to call home other than the cityscape where they wander, as well as by some of the saints and sages throughout history, that there is the accident of homelessness and the choice of homelessness. Francis of Assisi and the historical Jesus both demonstrated a choice, even a mission, of intentional homelessness which by the very fact of their steadfast adherence challenged the power structures of their time. Forget the institutions which canonized and deified them after their death. The point still remains that their example, far more than the petty peeves of poets and pundits, sheds far more light on homelessness and humanity.

EinsteinFest: What Does 2000 Look Like?

As we learned Thursday evening at David Rowe’s lecture Probing the Geometry of Space – Mathematics circa 1900 at EinsteinFest, one of the keenest debates of the period was between those we call intuitionists and formalists. If I understood correctly, the intuitionists believed that the symbols of mathematics are not merely human mental constructs, but derive from experiential data. The number 251, for example, is not something that we can recognize by virtue of having an experience of seeing two groups, one of 250 and one of 251 respectively, and thereby always recognizing the difference. This is true, on the other hand, when we see a group of 3, 4, or 5. We automatically recognize what 3, 4 or 5 looks like. These logically primitive associations then become, in the language of intuitionism, the basis upon which we construct symbols like 250 or 251. We don’t understand larger numbers intuitively, merely symbolically, unlike small numbers.

Obviously, I am no mathematician! But it occurred to me when listening to the lecture that, earlier in the week, I had an experience which dramatically illustrated how numbers intuitively mean very little to the common person unless dramatized in some way. When you link to the following dramatization, I would ask you to think not only about what 2000 looks like, but whether or not the binary implications of those who designed the presentation are justified.

What does 2000 look like?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

EinsteinFest: Philosophy, Honey, and Stars

“Is not all of philosophy as if written in honey? It looks wonderful when one contemplates it, but when one looks again it is all gone. Only mush remains.” – Albert Einstein, as quoted by Abraham Pais in Subtle is the Lord - : The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, p. 318.

Tonight’s lecture at the Perimeter Institute’s EinsteinFest was by Ray Monk, professor at the University of Southhampton. It was entitled 1905: The Philosophical Context. Monk presented to a full house at the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas audience his view of the philosophical landscape in 1905.

In one of his casual remarks, Monk indicated that for every festival, conference or colloquium celebrating Einstein’s miracle year of 1905 there was likely a history or philosophy conference somewhere else in the world celebrating Bertrand Russell’s “On Denoting” canonical paper of 1905, a paper foundational to Analytic Philosophy of the 20th century.

It’s humbling attending a lecture like this. Even though my undergraduate degree was in history and philosophy, my focus was on ancient and medieval studies. Nineteenth and 20th-century philosophy was not my specialty. If I were to return to such studies, I would have to start all over again acquainting myself with scholars such as were mentioned this evening – Goedel, Russell, Frege, Poincaré, Husserl, and so on.

Philosophy is really not that different from science and mathematics in this regard. If Einstein had been right about his estimation of philosophy, then the years between 1905 and 2005 (or even between my graduation and today) would not make that much of a difference in grasping the essential aspects of the discipline. But Einstein was wrong, at least in part, in his estimation of philosophy. Yes, as Monk admits, the landscape of philosophy of 1905 looks very different from today, but it is not mush after all. The body of knowledge has changed dramatically as have the stars in the firmament of philosophy.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

EinsteinFest: Hookless, Horseless, Wireless

Why did it take longer to develop an industrial-strength zipper than the airplane? Robert Friedel’s lecture “New Technologies and Inventions of Space and Time” at EinsteinFest this morning asked that question in addition to presenting a plethora of new technologies from the turn of the 20th century.

If we think we are in a time of rapid technological change, then the situation was as tumultuous and fascinating in 1905. After all, there was the automobile, electric lights, massive maritime ships, flying machines, the wireless telegraph, moving pictures, and yes, the zipper. And yet all of these technologies are part of the fabric of 2005, at least in industrialized countries. We have come to accept them as commonplace.

But in our more curious moments, perhaps we do marvel just a little bit at how pressing a switch fills a room with light, or how lifting our eyes to a blue sky we are almost certain to see jet planes flying overhead, or how, when the mood strikes, we can grab some popcorn cooked in a bag in a microwave in a couple of minutes, put a shiny disk into a DVD player and watch a movie celebrating the pioneers who walked on the moon 36 years ago. Perhaps the X-ray from the dentist’s office of a cavity from too much popcorn and not enough flossing still amazes us. It’s less likely, but just maybe once in a while, we think about how unbelievably cool it is to get into a four-wheeled vehicle powered by the internal combustion engine, turn on the ignition, and drive a 100 miles in air conditioned or heated comfort with music from our MP3 player, downloaded from our computer, and now being piped through 6 separate speakers …awesome!

Personally, I think Thanksgiving should be as much about science and technology as it is about our natural world, wonderful as that is. Right now, as our family prepares to go out for our Thanksgiving meal, I’m feeling very thankful for the bounties of both nature and technology.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

EinsteinFest: Aviation, Engineering and Reminiscences

Back when I worked at Waterloo’s Seagram Museum from 1983 to 1988, I had the good fortune to make a trip with my wife to the Finger Lakes in New York. At that time, Taylor Wines was part of the Seagram stable, so we were able to stay at a chalet in the middle of one of the vineyards overlooking Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, N.Y. The scenery was spectacular and the wine wasn’t too bad either.

One of the reasons we made the trip was to learn more about the history of the vineyards and to examine the collections in the wine museums in the region. We also wanted to see collections at the Corning Museum of Glass and the Rockwell Museum of Western Art. The entire trip was one of our best vacations ever.

One of the surprises in visiting the Finger Lakes Wine Region was the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in downtown Hammondsport. A good part of that museum deals with the early history of aviation, the topic of tonight’s EinsteinFest lecture by Peter Jakab from the Smithsonian Institution, the curator responsible for the successful The Wright Brothers: the Invention of the Aerial Age exhibition.

The lecture and slides were both quite good. Jakab did an excellent job of explaining to a non-specialist audience why the Wright Brothers made such an impact with their experiments in aviation. Unlike most engineers investigating the possibility of powered flight, the Wright Brothers knew they had to understand aeronautics, propulsion, and control – all three, not just one or the other. Their experiments finally led to an event almost exactly 100 years ago today in which they flew their experimental aircraft for a full 40 minutes, including turns and a passenger. Yes, the first flight was in Kitty Hawk in 1903, but the proof of their engineering was in October of 1905 in Huffman Prairie where they flew 24.5 miles.

So, what about Glenn H. Curtiss? He quickly went on to become the leading producer of aircraft in the United States before World War 1. But it was the Wright Brothers who set the engineering foundation for the aviation and aeronautics industries of the 20th and 21st centuries with their pioneering efforts.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Waterloo Region - Roots of Greatness

If you had an extra $150 million kicking around, what would you do? Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion, looked towards the future and the health of the community in which he lives. He donated $100 million to found the Perimeter Institute and another $50 million to drive development of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. In the Kitchener-Waterloo Record’s Technology Spotlight 2005, yesterday’s lead article for the supplement highlighted the way Lararidis’s donation is helping make Waterloo Region one of the world’s foremost leaders and centres for science and technology.

Today, my extended family and I had a e-group discussion about the best place to live in the world. We talked about polls (Vancouver won that round), crime (the region of Waterloo has one of the lowest murder rates in Canada), scenic beauty, etc. Nobody, by the way, talked about Bavarian Festivals (aka Oktoberfest) as a criterion for community greatness. Some even spoke about the virtual inevitability of great cities having extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

But as I read the Technology Spotlight and thought of what makes my part of the world such a great place to live, it occurred to me that we need to give more credit to science and technology as factors in determining greatness. How, for instance, do you rate a donation of $150 million of a wealthy benefactor like Lararidis to the future of science and technology in his community? How do you weigh the value of a festival like EinsteinFest? I’m not sure, but I’m becoming convinced that the benefits are truly substantial.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Making IT Happen

This afternoon, I was at the Paramount Theatre on Richmond St. in Toronto for the Microsoft TechNet Innovations Tour 2005.

This was truly innovative for the Canadian TechNet team. We got the spiel on new technologies like Windows Vista (confident, clear, and connected) and cool new toys in mobile computing ( Rick Claus sported a really neat hardware beta version iPAQ combination cell phone, digital camera, digital video recorder and Pocket PC with the most recent Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system).

But there was also time for fun. Get this. Popcorn and a soft drink. A free viewing of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (I have to disagree with my son who liked it, but thought that Nightmare Before Christmas was still the better flick). Previews of the forthcoming Xbox 360 and a whole suite of trailers of games developed for the new platform.

I tell ya, Microsoft puts on a good show!

What are the take homes? For an IT Manager with a perspective on what’s possible, Vista is something we’ll look at in about two year’s time. In mobile computing, RPC over HTTPS is the biggest technology I want to research and investigate. I’d really like to have that running by the time I attend the Windows Connections conference in San Diego. XBox 360? My boys and I will love it, but I don’t see it in my office ;>)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

EinsteinFest: Bombs and Duds

The lecture I had most eagerly anticipated at EinsteinFest turned out to be a dud. Although I’m sure Sonu Shamdasani is a gifted and meticulous historian of science, the lecture itself was tedious, lacking anything in the way of flare or excitement. The slides chosen to accompany the lecture, for example, were nothing more than antique photographs of psychologists from the turn of the 20th century…men in beards.

But David Bodanis’s book E = mc2 continues to fascinate and educate. I’ve just finished reading about the contribution of Lise Meitner to the splitting of the atom in 1938. She was a truly remarkable woman, someone who rose above the politics and racism of her era. If the anti-Semitic Nazis had been even slightly less ideological about their hatred of Jews, it is highly likely that she would have been the one to lead Germany to the first atomic bomb along with Otto Hahn. The lack of gratitude for Meitner’s thirty years of work and moral turpitude of Hahn, her former collaborator at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, were also contributing factors to the failure of Germany to make nuclear fission into a weapon before America.

Over the years, Meitner eventually received some recognition for her role in taking the implications of Einstein’s equation E = mc2 into nuclear physics.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

San Diego Bound

Windows Connections 2005! I can hardly wait.

It’s only been a little over thirteen months on the job as an Information Technology Manager at the local manufacturing company where I work, but during that time, I’ve come to realize that IT Pros are every bit as isolated in small- and medium-sized businesses as are developers in similar situations. Webcasts, Microsoft TechNet events, and occasional meetings with our network services consultant are the only occasions when I get to have conversations with other IT Pros or even be in the same room with people who share the same interests and, to some extent at least, expertise.

My brother is an IT Manager, so we can commiserate occasionally too. Still, having an opportunity to be with technical gurus at Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Intel as well as networking with other IT Pros is just exactly what I need at this stage in my career.

Another local IT consultant and I are in the process of founding a Windows Server User Group to serve the IT Pros in the Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge area. Windows Connections should allow us to make contact with potential speakers and others who have gone down this road before.

EinsteinFest: Babel, Einstein, and Web 2.0

I’m totally psyched about tonight’s lecture at EinsteinFest Approaching Babel: Psychology as a “new science” in 1905! Sonu Shamdasani, from University College London (an expert on Carl Jung) will be reviewing how those studying psychology at the turn of the century were committed to making psychology a science in the same way that chemistry and physics were regarded. If they succeeded, then the scientific revolution would be complete.

Before judging psychologists from the turn of the 20th century too harshly for their arrogance and presumption, perhaps we should pause to appreciate how inflated and egotistical are our own times. I’m not saying everyone attending the immanent Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco is an egotist (there might be a few kicking around, though), but the media hype and marketing nonsense we’ve seen in the past year or so about the Web 2.0 phenomenon is very similar to the fiasco – bluster, bravado, wild claims, followed by a huge letdown.

Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is an excellent metaphor for what must be a basic human trait. I’m as guilty as the next guy of hyperbole when it comes to talking about something that I find exciting and believe will impact the world in a positive way.

But we should probably distinguish between optimism, hope and positive anticipation from exaggeration, marketing hyperbole and …well, yes… bullshit. Martin Seligman’s work on something he calls learned optimism appears essential to a mature, useful, positive approach to all life’s endeavours. I hope the Web 2.0 conference falls into the latter category. Certainly and the claims of turn-on-the-century psychologists do not.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

EinsteinFest: Witnessing Atoms

Friedrich Durrenmatt once said: “Einstein used to speak of God so often that I almost looked upon him as a disguised theologian.” (see Einstein and God by Thomas Torrance).

This morning I attended my second lecture of EinsteinFest at the Perimeter Institute. John Rigden from Washington University in St. Louis (hey, Jason!) spoke about the April/May papers of Einstein in 1905 under the title “Witnessing Atoms”. These papers proved to the skeptics that atoms did indeed exist (believe it or not, there were many scientists in 1905 who did not believe in either atoms or molecules).

What I found most fascinating about the lecture was the way Rigden began his review with references to the way Einstein spoke about “searching for the thoughts of God”. Einstein also spoke with extreme confidence about his discoveries, so much so that when asked how he would respond if other physicists doubted his theories, he replied, “Then I would feel sorry for God, because my theories are true.”

I love that sense of confidence. Perhaps it derives from the sense of certainty when your own thought experiments lead to answers to ultimate concerns (to borrow from Tillich). For what it’s worth, I’ve felt that same sense of certainty a few times in my life, once fairly recently. That sense of confidence and certainty leads to courage of conviction and a willingness to swim against the prevailing currents.

In the April/May papers published by Einstein about the dissolving of sugar molecules in water and the motion of a pollen particle in water, he demonstrated with absolute certainty that both phenomena could be explained by the same principles…Brownian motion. Brownian motion, in turn, could be explained by the statistical probabilities of atoms colliding with one another. The only difference between a sugar molecule and a grain of pollen was size.

In demonstrating atomism, Einstein effectively brought 19th-century thermodynamics and mechanics together; they had been considered separate and thought incompatible previously.

Rigden’s lecture didn’t hold together very well at this point. Perhaps his book does a better job of explaining Einstein’s genius in witnessing atoms. In any case, today’s and last night’s lecture led me to the Toronto Star’s Ideas section for Sunday, October 2nd which starts a three-part series on Einstein. It also led me and my son to Chapters to purchase two books: 1) David Bodanis’s E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation and 2) Michio Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos: How Einstein’s vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time.

This is going to be an intellectually stimulating few weeks at the Perimeter Institute.

Moblog, anyone?

Google's Blogger now offers the ability to blog on the go - commonly called moblog. This is a fantastic way for people with Pocket PCs or mobile phones to add entries to their blog. This entry was sent from my Toshiba e830 Pocket PC (hyperlinks added later from my notebook).

Blogger Mobile FAQ

Fun with Flickr

There are lots of sites out there for sharing photos with family and friends. I’ve studiously avoided most of them simply because I don’t want to have to manage a different utility for everyone who wants to show me some photographs that I’ll probably only view once and then forget. Yeah, a tad cynical, I know. But what is missing in most of these photo-share sites is any sense of interaction.

That’s all changed with Flickr. There are the standard features that let you title and describe your photographs and group them together into photosets. But there are also the interactive and organizational features that I’ve missed elsewhere, such as tags and comments and the ability for the user to view photos by most “favorited”, most comments, and most “interesting”. In addition, bloggers can send photos to their blog. One of the truly cool features is the ability to notate individual photographs with tags and comments. But Flickr’s implementation lets you scroll and tag specific areas of the photograph. The user then moves their pointing device around the photograph to find the “hotspots” with comments and tags.

When you invite friends or family members to view your photo sets, the invitation automatically gives your contact the ability to have their own account or simply to see and post comments on your photos.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

EinsteinFest: Einstein's Big Idea

TV=mc2. Yes, the Perimeter Institute lectures and special events for the four-week-long EinsteinFest running in Waterloo (September 30th to October 23rd) have begun.

Our first lecture was this evening with Evan Hadingham who presented an introduction to a 35-minute series of clips from the forthcoming PBS Nova special to be aired on Tuesday, October 11th, 2005, from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm ET called Einstein’s Big Idea.

In a community known world-wide for Oktoberfest, an unbridled celebration of beer, polka, and pretzels, it’s a welcomed relief to have an alternative of substance to take us through the crazy season. That’s not to say I won’t have any pretzels or beer in the next month. The leaves are changing color after all; surely that’s a good enough reason to drink beer! But I can guarantee you won’t find me doing the polka or the chicken dance.

Not everyone can make the trip to Waterloo for EinsteinFest, nor is it likely that everyone can catch the PBS special a week from this coming Tuesday, but Hadingham informed us that the special is based on a book which most people can order online. It’s by historian David Bodanis and is entitled, oddly enough, E = mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

Blogging and the Good Life

It’s been a little over one week now since attending the Microsoft webcast “Introduction to Blogging for the IT Professional”. During that time, I’ve added the NewsBreak mobile aggregator to my Toshiba e830 Pocket PC, installed the Blogger for Word add-on, and installed the NewsGator add-in for Microsoft Outlook for my Dell Inspiron 9300 notebook computer. Well, yet another new world opening up before my eyes!

I just love life these days! My job is great, my family is well and happy, and I’m learning new technologies and meeting cool people. A large part of my sense of wellbeing right now comes from aligning my passion with what I’m paid to do.  I’m an IT manager for a local manufacturing company, working four days a week, every Wednesday off to deal with my own Artifax Applications business and personal matters. I am constantly being exposed to new information and communications technology. There are even fewer pet peeves to deal with these days.

And so blogging technology joins the list of things expanding what Stephen Covey calls my “Circle of Knowledge” (see The 8th Habit).  The humbling thing about that expansion, of course, is that my ignorance also expands (or shall we say my awareness of my ignorance, something NLP’ers call my conscious incompetence).