Infinite Powers

Infinite Powers
By Steven Strogatz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2019

Okay, I admit it, even for me this is a geeky book. 

Infinite Powers:  How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe is about the history of calculus and its impact on science, technology, and society. 

infinite Powers book cover

The author, Steven Strogatz, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, has done a great job telling both the historical and the mathematical sides of the story (yes, the book has lots of equations) in an way that is interesting and approachable.  He traces the development of calculus, starting with its first inklings in ancient Greece, through its full development by Newton and Leibniz in the late seventeenth century, right up to modern applications in physics, medicine, biology and other fields.   

First of all, what exactly is calculus?  The short answer is that calculus is a branch of mathematics devoted to the study of change, particularly smooth or continuous change.  Differential calculus is used to study rates of change, and integral calculus is focused on the accumulated results of change. 

Calculus developed from studies of curves, motion, and change.  Strogatz says that calculus is concerned with three fundamental problems:

  • Given a curve, find its slope at every point
  • Given a curve’s slope everywhere, find the curve
  • Given a curve, find the area under it

Today, we’re less interested in curves as geometric shapes, as classical geometers were.  We’re more interested in the physical process that gave rise to the curve. 

“In the early seventeenth century, before calculus arrived, [such] curves were viewed as geometrical objects.  They were considered fascinating in their own right.  Mathematicians wanted to quantify their geometrical properties.  Given a curve, they wanted to figure out the slope of its tangent line at each point, the arc length of the curve, the area beneath the curve, and so on.  In the twenty-first century, we are more interested in the function that produced the curve, which models some natural phenomenon or technological process that manifested itself in the curve.  The curve is data but something deeper underlies it.  Today we think of the curve as footprints in the sand, and a clue to the process that made it.  That process – modeled by a function – is what we are interested in, not the traces it left behind.”  [p. 145]

But you could also think of calculus as an approach for thinking about and solving certain kinds of mathematical and scientific problems.  Strogatz calls this approach The Infinity Principle:

“To shed light on any continuous shape, object, motion, process or phenomenon – no matter how wild and complicated it may appear – reimagine it as an infinite series of simpler parts, analyze those, and then add the results back together to make sense of the original whole.” [p. xvi]

It’s simple, right?  For example, to calculate the area of a complicated shape, say the area underneath a parabolic curve, slice up the area into an infinite number of infinitely thin rectangular strips, figure out how to calculate the area of one of the strips, then add up all the strips.  Easy-peasy!

Of course, the tricky part is that the area of one of those infinitely thin strips should be zero.  And adding up a bunch of strips whose area is zero should give you a total area of zero, which doesn’t seem like the right answer.

This dance with infinity is what makes calculus a little mind-bending at first.  It turns out this dance has been going on for a long, long time.

Strogatz traces the development of calculus, and the accompanying challenge of dealing with infinity, starting with Zeno (495 BC – 430 BC) and his paradoxes, and Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC) and his surprisingly modern methods for determining the circumference of a circle.  Strogatz takes us through the contributions of Kepler and Galileo, Descartes and Fermat, and of course Newton and Leibniz.  This development culminates in the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus which links the area under a curve at any point, to the function that produced that curve to the slope of the curve at that same point.  It’s one of the most powerful mathematical results ever produced.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

But it’s not just dry history.  What makes Infinite Powers so interesting is that in each chapter Strogatz also explores modern problems or technologies that depend on calculus for their solution, or even their existence.  For example, the methods of calculus, cutting up a problem into in infinite number of tiny sub-problems, is used today in CT scanning where x-rays are used to scan tissue in thin slices from many different angles. The results are then reassembled to produce diagnostic images of tumors deep inside the brain.  Or take computer animation where the contours of a human face are built up from millions of tiny polygons. 

But the influence of calculus hasn’t stopped there. Newton used calculus to derive his famous three laws of motion.  But as Strogatz argues, perhaps Newton’s greatest legacy is the idea of a logical universe, one describable by natural laws, expressed in the language of calculus, which apply universally, both on earth and in the heavens.  We take this idea of a universe governed by natural laws for granted today, but in Newton’s time it was shocking and revolutionary.

 

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

This idea in turn influenced Enlightenment thinking about determinism, liberty and human rights.  Strogatz points out that you can even see the influence of Newtonian thinking in the US Declaration of Independence, which contains in its opening paragraph an appeal to Natural Law. 

It really is hard to overstate the impact of calculus on mathematics, science and technology, and Strogatz does a good job conveying his enthusiasm for both the subject and its applications.

I know this isn’t the sort of book that will appeal to everyone, but if you feel like dipping your toe into a popular science book, give Infinite Powers a try.  Even if you skim over the mathematical details and just read for the history, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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#BeMore

Two unrelated events this weekend connected together to get me thinking about how we live our lives.

On Saturday, my wife and I went to a celebration of life for a man named Dennis who died a couple of weeks ago after a brave battle with cancer. 

The celebration was held at the Lake Union Café in Seattle.  The place had the feel of a speakeasy or a private nightclub with pressed copper ceilings, a long bar, and a stage at the front of the house with tables arrayed around a hardwood dance floor. 

Dennis was a couple of years younger than me.  We had both worked at Microsoft in the same general area.  I think we must have crossed paths once or twice but we never actually worked together.  We really met socially at the home of our mutual friend Alex who hosts scotch tasting events a few times a year.  Dennis was a regular. 

It turned out to be a beautiful, joy-filled gathering.  A number of people from various parts of Dennis’s life, including our friend Alex and Dennis’s son, got up on stage and spoke movingly about how they knew Dennis, how much he meant to them, how he had touched their lives.  We learned about a remarkable man we were just starting to know. He was one of those rare individuals who inspired deep love and connection from everyone he met. 

I’m glad we were there to support, even in a small way, his close friends and family. And glad to reconnect with friends and colleagues we hadn’t seen in months or years. 

While in hospital, Dennis apparently told visitors that if he had more time he wanted to do more, to connect more, to be more.  At the celebration, there were #BeMore stickers on all the tables.

I like this idea.  It encourages us to be bolder, to resist the gravitational pull of the status quo, to push beyond our often self-imposed boundaries.

On a much more mundane note, this weekend I finished taking apart our kids’ old play set that had been in the backyard practically since we moved into this house.  It was a wooden structure with swings, a slide, a sandbox and an elevated platform they could climb up onto.  It was fully equipped with a steering wheel and a spyglass.  It gave our kids years of fun and enjoyment.  I’m grateful we were able to provide it for them when they were younger.

But the kids are grown now, and the play set hasn’t been used in years.  Neglected, it’s been slowly rotting and rusting away.

I was able to salvage a few 4×4’s and some bits & pieces, but we loaded the rest of it into our SUV and hauled it off to the dump Sunday morning.  An unceremonious ending for something that’s been a fixture in our backyard for so long.    

I suppose it’s all just part of our kids growing up and us getting older. 

Anyway, these two very different events on consecutive days this weekend have me reflecting on the finite and fleeting nature of our lives.  I’m not sad.  There are things to be grateful for and people to celebrate.  But they’re a reminder that we should use our time well.

We should #BeMore.

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Losing Earth

Losing Earth
By Nathaniel Rich
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2019

The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted its entire August 1, 2018 issue to a single article called Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich.  I think the article must have caused a bit of a sensation because Rich has extended it into a book, Losing Earth: A Recent History, published in April of this year.

Losing Earth - cover

Losing Earth describes the efforts of scientists, environmental activists, and politicians during the decade from 1979 to 1989 to push the United States government into taking concrete actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  Two of the main characters in the book, you could call them heroes, are Rafe Pomerance, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth from 1980 to 1984, and James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York from 1981 to 2013.  Together with others, they attempted to get the US to commit to specific targets on reducing carbon emissions.

Back in the mid-1980’s, there was quite a bit of optimism among environmentalists.  A United Nations agreement, known as the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, was signed in 1985, quickly followed in 1987 by the Montreal Protocol which prescribed targets for phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  Today, the Montreal Protocol is widely seen as one of the most successful international agreements ever implemented.

Activists thought the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons might serve as model for international cooperation on carbon dioxide.

It didn’t happen.  The Reagan Administration refused to sign on.

In retrospect, perhaps ozone was too easy. Though the industry resisted change, the number of companies directly involved was relatively small.  Phasing out chlorofluorocarbons did not affect the daily lives of average Americans, let alone demand sacrifices from them.  And the idea of a growing “hole” in the ozone layer above the Antarctic was both a compelling image and a concrete target that focused attention and drove action.

Carbon dioxide is a far more pervasive and complex problem.

Losing Earth lays out the people and events that led to this lost opportunity.  It tells how the US blew a chance to take concrete action on climate change thirty years ago when the problem was more manageable and when significant progress might have been achieved with less cost than today.  It describes how the oil and coal industries have spent tens of millions of dollars over decades successfully resisting any government efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s a depressing book.

Unfortunately, it’s also disappointing.

First, the book was clearly rushed into print.  It has no index.  Call me pedantic if you like, but non-fiction books should always have an index.  Always.  It’s not that hard.  Any word processor will create one for you in seconds. Not having an index is inexcusable.

There’s no bibliography either.  Rich mentions several important government reports about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change but does not give proper citations.  I’ve provided a couple of links below.

There isn’t a single graph or chart in the book.  Rich mentions something called the Keeling Graph, or the Keeling Curve several times – I can’t tell you exactly where because the book has no index! – but it’s pretty important.  It tracks atmospheric carbon dioxide in parts per million (ppm) over decades.  There’s no reproduction of it in the book.

Here’s the graph from May 10, 2019.

Keeling Curve copy

You can find it here:  https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/.  (There’s apparently nothing magic about the 400 ppm level shown by the green line, but the last time Earth had CO2 levels that high was millions of years ago.)

The publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux usually produces high quality books by top authors.  They’ve done a poor job with this one.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with Losing Earth as a piece of journalism. Rich tells the story with detailed accounts of the actions and interactions of the people most directly involved.  He gives you a sense of how incredibly difficult it is to shift US government policy, of people spending years, risking their careers and reputations to fight for what they knew was right.

However, the book is mostly narrative. Except for the last chapter, there’s not much analysis of the events or the politics.  Rich doesn’t delve deeply into why the efforts failed back then – other than pointing the finger at fossil fuel companies and certain intransigent government officials – and why they continue to fail today.

As a result, Losing Earth presents some important history of failed attempts to get the US to deal with climate change, but it does little to draw out concrete lessons that we can learn from those failures and it does not suggest a way forward.  As the title suggests, Losing Earth is more an epitaph than a cautionary tale.

I, for one, reject that conclusion.

As Rich himself notes,

“A major difference, four decades later, is that a solution is in hand; many solutions, in fact.  They tend to involve some combination of carbon taxes, renewable energy investment, expansion of nuclear energy, reforestation, improved agricultural techniques, and more speculatively, machines capable of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.”  [p. 201]

If those solutions had existed back in the 1980’s we might have made more progress.   Without them, we would have no hope of making progress today.  Difficult choices and wrenching changes lie ahead if we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  But there is a way forward.  It’s too early to say the Earth is lost.

Related Links

Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate, a.k.a. the Jason Report (1979)
https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/co2.pdf

Carbon Dioxide and Climate:  A Scientific Assessment, a.k.a. the Charney Report (1979)
https://www.nap.edu/read/12181/chapter/1

 

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Diversity Explosion

Diversity Explosion
By William H. Frey
Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2018 (Revised edition)

In 2011, more minority babies were born in the United States than white babies for the first time.  In 2015, 24 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the US were already minority white.  By 2040 there will be no single racial majority in the US.  We will be a “majority-minority” country.

Demography, as they say, is destiny.

Diversity Explosion:  How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America, by demographer William H. Frey, is a big book of numbers that dives deep into population trends mainly from 1990 to 2010, the year of the most recent US census. The revised 2018 edition, which I read, includes an analysis of the election of Donald Trump.

Diversity Explosion - cover

Diversity Explosion is not a dry-as-toast academic study like you might expect.  Frey is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and research professor at the University of Michigan. He explores the demographic tide sweeping America in clear, approachable language illustrated with dozens of graphs and tables.  He doesn’t just recite the statistics; he also extrapolates about the likely social and political implications of our changing racial demographics.  These are actually the most interesting parts of the book.  Frey is surprisingly optimistic.

Background

Before 1965, America’s immigration policy was explicitly racist.  Immigration law was designed to favor white immigrants from northern and western Europe and to strictly limit immigration from eastern and southern Europe and from Asia and Africa.  The goal of immigration policy was to freeze the demographic mix of the US population. It achieved this demographic stasis through a system based on national origin with quotas allocated according to the foreign-born US population from each country as recorded in the 1890 census.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed into law by President Johnson, established a “preference” system that favored relatives of US citizens and permanent residents, and professional and skilled workers.  While the Act maintained national quotas, immediate relatives were exempted from these numerical restrictions.  Essentially the INA of 1965 opened up large scale immigration to the US for Asians and Africans for the first time, and dramatically increased the number of immigrants overall.

America is still feeling the effects of this legislation today.

Previous US immigration policy was also explicitly homophobic.  So-called “sexual deviants” including homosexuals were prohibited from immigrating to the US until 1990.

An Explosion of Diversity

The 1965 INA set off an explosion of diversity that is changing the demographic make-up of the US population dramatically, rapidly and irreversibly.  Frey identifies four demographic trends that are reshaping America:

  1. The white population of the United States is about to peak due to low birth rates and low immigration. From 2000 to 2015, the white population grew by a tiny 1.2%.  In addition, the white population is aging rapidly as the baby boomers reach retirement.  By the early 2020’s, whites will start to decline in absolute numbers, and that decline will continue for decades.
  2. Most of US population growth will come from “new minorities”, mainly Hispanics, Asians, and people who identify as multiracial. They made up 80% of the growth of US population since 2000.  This growth comes from both immigration and from children born in the US to minority parents.  This trend will also continue for decades to come.
  3. Blacks are moving back to the South, reversing the Great Migration of the 20th Century.  Despite continuing discrimination and inequality, a growing black middle class, improvements in civil rights and fading segregation are leading to a “wholesale evacuation” of the North by blacks to more prosperous cities and suburbs in the South.
  4. The diversity explosion is happening everywhere in the country. New minorities are spreading out from traditional gateway communities in melting pot regions to cities, suburbs and exurbs all over the US.  The late 20th Century phenomenon of white flight to the suburbs – whites fleeing cities for more racially homogeneous suburbs – is over.  There’s nowhere left to fly to.

These demographic changes are “baked in.”  Even recent changes to immigration policy by the Trump Administration will do little to shift the trends.  That is because natural growth of minority populations is now larger than growth from immigration.  People of Mexican origin, for example, make up over 60% of the Hispanic population in the US.  But even though Mexican immigration has fallen in recent years, their population continues to increase through natural growth.

Diversity Explosion - graph

Political Implications

The implications of these trends for American society are profound.  First and foremost is the emergence of a “cultural generation gap”.  The US population over 50 is more than 70% white, with blacks being the largest minority.  On the other hand, young people in America, those 35 and under, are already 46% non-white.  This is leading to inter-generational or “grey vs. brown” conflicts.  You can already see disagreements between these starkly different groups in opinion polls on issues like gay rights, immigration policy and government expenditures on education and elder care.

We saw this play out in the election of 2016.  Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton focused on different sides of the cultural generation gap.  While Clinton won the popular vote, Trump had enough support from whites, especially in key northern battleground states in the industrial heartland, to win the electoral college.

That’s because, despite substantial gains in population, new minorities still make up a smaller portion of eligible voters than whites.  They are often younger – under 18 – or not yet citizens.  For example, in 2016:

  • 61% of the US population was white. 79% of them were eligible to vote.
  • 12% of the US population was black. 70% of them were eligible to vote
  • 6% of the US population was Asian. 55% of them were eligible to vote
  • 18% of the US population was Hispanic. 46% of them were eligible to vote

In other words, the electorate is still significantly whiter and older than the US population as a whole.  This will correct itself as new minority communities age and become more established.

Over the long run, demographic trends favor the Democrats, Frey says.  The younger, more diverse segments of the population tend to be more liberal, more inclusive, and favor more active government.  But in the short term, as 2016 proved, Democrats cannot “hitch their hopes primarily to their younger, minority and urban base.”  On the other hand, for Republicans, appealing to blue-collar white voters in slow-growing battleground states is “not a long-term winning strategy”.  In other words (my words, not Frey’s), the Republican Party needs to come to its senses and realize that it cannot continue to alienate, let alone demonize, increasingly significant segments of the electorate.

As Frey puts it,

“… I believe that the demographic die is cast in a way that will ensure that the coming generations of what are now thought of as racial minorities will not just “fit in” but will hold sway in important ways in both public and private sector decisionmaking.” [p. 258]

That means both parties have an interest in bridging the cultural generation gap.

“To do so, they will have to persuade seniors that the key needs among striving young minorities – education, affordable housing, and steady employment – will work to benefit the Social Security and medical care programs that seniors will need in retirement.” [p. 230]

Reasons for Optimism

Frey is optimistic about the medium- to long-term implications of the diversity explosion.

Unlike other low-birth-rate countries like Italy, Germany and Japan with shrinking populations and shrinking economies, the US population continues to increase thanks to the growth of new minorities.  These communities not only keep the population growing, they bring new vitality, creativity and innovation to the country.

New minorities are arriving and growing “just in time” to replace retiring baby boomers in the work force.  This has a number of benefits.  First, aging baby boomers require a large tax-paying labor force to provide both the physical care and the financial support they will need in their retirement years.  The young, dynamic population of new minorities can do just that.  Second, new minorities are replacing aging baby boomers.  This means the two groups are less likely to be competing for the same jobs.

There should be a gradual softening of the boundaries between racial groups.  The geographic dispersion of new minorities across the country is reducing segregation in neighborhoods everywhere.  Equally important, there’s a growing segment of the US population who identify as multiracial.   By 2015, about 9.5% of all marriages in the US were interracial, and between 2011 and 2015, 16.2% of new marriages were interracial.  The children of interracial marriages now often identify as multiracial.  About 2.9% of the US population identified as multiracial on the 2010 census and this number likely understates the total.

I hope Frey is right.  If a majority of us identify as members of one or multiple minorities, and no single race dominates the others, perhaps there’s a chance that race itself will become a less important and a less poisonous issue in American society.

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Endeavour

Endeavour:  The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World
By Peter Moore
Chatto & Windus, London, 2018

Pop quiz:  What does “endeavour” mean to you?

a)  To attempt, to strive, to exert oneself towards achieving some goal,
b)  The name of Captain Cook’s ship,
c)  Inspector Morse’s first name.

If you answered “d) All of the above”, you would be absolutely correct!  It is also the title of a book by writer and historian Peter Moore about the ship Endeavour.

Peter Moore has attempted, or should I say endeavored, something unique.  Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World is the biography, not of a person, but of a ship.  From conception through death, he tells the life story of Her Majesty’s Bark Endeavour, the ship made famous by her voyage around the world from 1768 to 1771 under the command of the remarkable Captain James Cook.

Endeavour - cover

In any ordinary biography, you would expect the author to explore not just the life of the subject person, but also their immediate family, their ancestry, their teachers, coaches and others who influenced their life, the historical and social context in which they lived, and finally the long-term impact the person had on their communities and in some cases on history itself.

Endeavour is no different.  Moore delves into all these aspects of Endeavour’s life.  In fact, if there’s a flaw in the book it is that he strays far beyond the people and events that matter in Endeavour’s story. More on that later.

The first three chapters of the book describe the origins and construction of the ship. The core of the book, seven of its thirteen chapters, covers preparations for the around-the-world journey, the journey itself, and its immediate aftermath.  The final three chapters are about the period after Endeavour’s return to England until its final demise.

I’m going to sketch out the highlights of Endeavour’s life as told by Moore, and then give some unsolicited feedback.

Early Life

Let’s start with some particulars.

Despite her fame, there was nothing fancy or glamorous about Endeavour.  She was a collier, a ship built for transporting coal.  Endeavour was 97’ 7” long, 23’ 3” across her beam, and had a cargo capacity or “burthen” of 368 tons.  She was neither fast, with a top speed of only 7-8 knots, nor sleek, having a flat bottom and a broad-nosed bow.

Endeavour was built in 1764 at the shipyard of master builder Thomas Fishburn in Whitby, England.  Actually, let’s wind back even further. Whitby-built colliers like Endeavour were made from solid oak, likely sourced nearby in Yorkshire.  It took about 200 mature oak trees to build a ship the size of Endeavour.  And it takes roughly 100 years for an oak to mature enough to be used for shipbuilding.  So as Peter Moore says, Endeavour really began as acorns germinating in Yorkshire soil around 1664.

Launched in June of 1764, the ship was originally named Earl of Pembroke.  Her first owner was a coal trader named Thomas Milner.  Fittingly, she hauled coal from Newcastle to London on her maiden voyage and spent the next three years, until the end of 1767, in the coal trade.

Earl of Pembroke

Earl of Pembroke leaving Whitby Harbor in 1768 by Thomas Luny

South Sea Expedition, 1768-1771

The real history of Endeavor starts at a dinner of the Royal Society on January 7, 1768.  At this dinner, the big-wigs of Britain’s scientific community decide to dispatch teams of scientists across the planet to observe the Transit of Venus which was to occur on June 3, 1769.

What on Earth is a transit of Venus?  Well a transit of any type occurs when a planet or a moon passes in front of the sun.  Seen from Earth, a transit of Venus looks like a small black dot moving across the sun.  A solar eclipse, where our Moon passes in front of the sun is technically a transit too. But because the moon is so much closer to Earth, it blots out the whole sun instead of just looking like a black dot.  And why was the transit so important that the Royal Society wanted to observe it from multiple locations?  Back in 1716, Sir Edmund Halley, the Halley of Halley’s Comet, figured out a way to calculate the distance from Earth to the sun by using small differences in measurements of the transit of Venus taken from different points on the Earth’s surface.  People didn’t know back in the 1700’s that Earth was 93-million miles from the sun.

The Royal Society decided that one of the observation parties would be sent to the Pacific island of Tahiti.

There was another motivation for sending a ship to the South Pacific:  to find the Southern Continent.  At that time, there was great speculation that a large, undiscovered land mass existed in the South Pacific Ocean.  England had just won the Seven Years’ War against France and had taken possession of France’s colonies in North America.  However, the rivalry with France was still contentious, and Britain wanted to find and claim any Southern Continent for itself, before the French found it.  A ship that just happened to be in Tahiti for the transit of Venus could very easily continue southward to find or disprove the existence of any Southern Continent.

For this mission, the Royal Navy purchased Earl of Pembroke from Thomas Milner on or about March 29, 1768 for £2860, probably leaving Milner wealthy enough to retire.  The Navy then extensively refitted Earl of Pembroke at the naval yards at Deptford and renamed the ship Endeavour on April 5, 1768.

James Cook, who had also lived in Whitby, was appointed captain in May. Although Endeavour was owned by the Navy and under the command of a naval captain, its crew included a remarkable compliment of civilian scientists including botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, illustrator Sydney Parkinson, and astronomer Charles Green.  As Moore notes,

“The Earl of Pembroke had been a machine for making money.  Endeavour had become a machine for making knowledge.”  [p. 144]

Endeavour left London on July 30, 1768 and arrived in Tahiti in late April of 1769 about five or six weeks before the transit.  Moore makes an interesting comparison between Endeavour’s journey to Tahiti to observe the transit and Apollo 11’s trip to the moon almost exactly 200 years later.  Endeavour remained on the island until July 13.  The ship left Tahiti with a new passenger; a Pacific Islander named Tupaia. Without instruments or charts, Tupaia guided Endeavour from Tahiti to the Society Islands including Ra’iatea and Bora Bora.  By October, Endeavour reached the east coast of New Zealand.  Cook and his crew spent the next six months carefully mapping the New Zealand coastline.  Sailing east, Endeavour became the first European vessel to reach the east coast of Australia in April 1770, famously landing at Botany Bay, just south of modern-day Sydney.

Endeavour Journey Map

Map credit:  Wikipedia, First voyage of James Cook

Shortly before midnight on June 10, 1770, Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef causing a gaping hole in its hull.  The crew spend the next two months frantically repairing the ship and navigating in and around the reef, trying to avoid being smashed to bits against it by the rolling South Pacific seas.

They eventually reached the Dutch port of Batavia in Indonesia, and from there headed home, reaching England on July 12, 1771.

In some ways, the voyage was a mixed success.  The measurements of the transit of Venus proved to be less precise than the Royal Society had hoped.  Although Cook sailed deep into the South Pacific without finding a southern continent, the question had not been completely settled.  The treasure trove of botanical samples, tens of thousands of them, brought back by Banks and Solander was incredibly exciting to scientists but of little immediate strategic value to Britain.  One exception to this were the undisputed accomplishments of Captain Cook.  His charts and maps would guide future voyages for decades to come.  His ability to remain calm in situations of life-threatening danger undoubtedly saved the ship from destruction on the Reef.

“Perhaps the Admiralty’s greatest discovery on the Endeavour voyage was Cook himself.” [p. 259]

Final Years

After Cook’s South Sea expedition, Endeavour played a less central role in the events of her day.  From 1772-1774, she made three trips from England to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina to resupply and finally to evacuate the British troops stationed there.  Ironic that Britain and Argentina would fight a war over those same islands 200 years later in 1982.

In March 1775 the British Navy decided Endeavour was no longer fit for military service and sold her.  In December, she was determined to be unfit even for use as a transport ship for moving troops and supplies to North America where a rebellion was brewing.  The new owners apparently spent a little money refurbishing the ship and, in a clever bit of marketing, renamed her Lord Sandwich after the First Lord of the Admiralty. In February 1776, she was hired as a transport ship.

On July 13, 1776, Lord Sandwich collided with another ship en route from Halifax to New York City in story weather, suffering only minor damage apparently. Cook would have been appalled had he known.  By January 1777, she was anchored off Newport, Rhode Island and used as a prison ship by the British to incarcerate captured American rebels.

“The Lord Sandwich had become a perversion of everything Endeavour had represented.  Endeavour had always been characterized by action.  She had crossed the Atlantic time and again, she had sailed the South Seas and Indian Ocean.  All this time sailors had teemed over her masts, yards and decks: reefing, furling, setting, drawing, tightening, heaving, loosening, knotting, spinning yarn.  The naturalists Banks and Solander had leapt from gunwale to gunwale, all to satisfy the thrill of a moment, to catch a glimpse of a rare plumage or an iridescent sparkle on the waves.  To be confined aboard at Rio was Banks’s idea of hell.  By 1777 this had all gone. Lord Sandwich was now locked in her station: anchors down, sails struck, hatches bolted, sentries posted, spirits suppressed. The people locked inside her resembled ghosts. She resembled a ghost herself.”  [pp. 328-9]

Finally, on August 3, 1778, Lord Sandwich was deliberately scuttled off Goat Island to prevent French warships from sailing into Newport harbor and aiding American rebels.  A sad end for such a brave ship.

Endeavour was afloat for just 14 years, from 1764 to 1778.  Had she remained in the coal trade as Earl of Pembroke, she might have stayed in service for 60 to 90 years like other Whitby-built colliers.  Yet she would have had a far less significant life.  She would be unknown to us today.

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Endeavour is a meticulously researched book.  Moore has unearthed an amazing amount of detail about the people, places and events that figure in Endeavour’s story.  But it does not read like an academic work.

Moore narrates the story of the South Sea voyage with enthusiasm and intensity.  He makes you feel like you are on board the ship. You get to know the crew. You experience their fears and struggles and also their excitement and triumphs.  The chapter dealing with Endeavour’s encounter with the Great Barrier Reef is especially tense and well-told.

My one complaint about the book is that Moore frequently strays off into maddening digressions about people and events that are only tangentially connected to Endeavour’s story.  This goes well beyond providing context or background details.  Fortunately, there are fewer of these distractions in the heart of the book dealing with the South Sea voyage.

I think Moore does a good job trying to present a balanced view of Endeavour.  On the one hand, he shows how Endeavour symbolized the spirit of daring and exploration and scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment.  Even the name “Endeavour” captures that spirit.

“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to endeavour is ‘to exert oneself to the utmost’, an endeavour being ‘a strenuous attempt or enterprise’.  Even that is only the beginning.  To endeavour is to quest after something not easily attained, perhaps verging on the impossible.  It is something one feels impelled towards or duty-bound to pursue nonetheless.” [p. 5]

Maybe this is one reason why the story of Endeavour captured the imagination of the British public back in the 1770’s and why we’re still fascinated by it today.

On the other hand, Moore tells stories of Endeavour’s arrival from the perspectives of Tahitians, Maoris and Australian aboriginals.  For as much as Endeavour was sent to observe, it too was the subject of observation.  He recognizes that the coming of Endeavour signaled the onset of colonialism and the destruction of the way of life of the peoples of the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia.

The spirit of Endeavour may be inspiring, but her legacy is complex.

 

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The Palace of Illusions

The Palace of Illusions
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Anchor Books, New York, 2008

Reading The Palace of Illusions felt like seeing the ocean for the first time.

It’s beautiful and vast and awe-inspiring.  It’s unexpected and unforgettable.  And it beckons with the promise of undiscovered worlds beneath the surface and over the horizon.  It changes you.

sea and sky horizon photo

Photo by Peter Brown on Pexels.com

The Palace of Illusions is Chitra Divakaruni’s retelling of the classic Indian epic The Mahabharat from the perspective of a woman, the Princess Drapaudi, who later became known as Panchaali.  (There seems to be some variation in the spelling of these names. I’m using the spellings that Divakaruni uses in her book.)

The Mahabharat

The Mahabharat tells the story of the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two rival branches of the same family.  The dispute is essentially a battle for succession of the throne of the Kingdom of Hastinapur.

The scope of the Mahabharat, its multi-generational timespan, its stories nested within stories, and its enormous cast of divine, semi-divine, magical and human characters is unequalled in Western literature.  The closest comparison would be the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, except that the Mahabharat is ten time longer than both of them combined.

I won’t even try to give a synopsis of the Mahabharat.  There’s no way I could do it justice.  But I do want to highlight a couple of key events in the story that will help set some context for The Palace of Illusions.

The Kauravas are led by Crown Prince Duryodhan and his 99 brothers. Yes, ninety-nine. Closely allied with the Kauravas is Duryodhan’s best friend, a warrior named Karna.

The Pandavas are led by five brothers and their mother, the matriarch Kunti. The most famous of the brothers is Arjun, the greatest warrior of his time.

In the midst of this drama, Drapaud, King of Panchaal, holds a swayamvar for his daughter Drapaudi.  Meaning “my husband”, a swayamvar was a ceremony at which a young woman would choose her husband from a group of suitors.  In Drapaudi’s case, the suitors were required to complete a task: they had to string a great steel bow and then shoot an arrow through the eye of a metal fish hanging from the ceiling while looking only at a reflection of the fish in a pool of water below.

Most of the suitors, kings from other lands, cannot not even string the bow, but Karna does.  But before he can shoot his arrow, Drapaudi rejects him due to his low-caste birth.  Arjun succeeds in shooting his arrow through the fish’s eye and, as is the custom, immediately marries Drapaudi.  Karna, humiliated, develops a life-long animosity towards Drapaudi and the Pandavas.

When they return home, the Pandava princes announce to their mother Kunti that Arjun has won a competition. She’s cooking at the time, inside a hut, and without looking around to see what Arjun has won, she tells him to share his prize equally with his brothers. Thus, Drapaudi becomes the wife of all five Pandavas.

There are plenty of examples of polygamy in literature, including the Bible, but I’m not aware of any other books featuring polyandry, let alone unapologetically as such a pivotal part of the story.  Very broad-minded!

The struggle between the two family branches culminates in the Kurukshetra War.  Before the battle begins, Arjun despairs of the violence and death the war will cause among people who really should love each other.  Krishna, serving temporarily in the humble role of Arjun’s charioteer, encourages him to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to uphold Dharma (meaning, very roughly, righteous living).  This conversation between Krishna and Arjun is apparently the most philosophical and the most famous part of the Mahabharat. It is called the Bhagavad Gita.

Drapaudi’s Story

The Palace of Illusions is the story of the Mahabharat told in the first person by Drapaudi. In the original, she is fire-born, beautiful, head-strong and vengeful; a controversial character.  In The Palace of Illusions she is no less so, but we read her thoughts and reflections and perhaps understand better the reasons for her actions.

Palace of Illusions

The book seems to preserve all the main events of the original story, with a couple of alterations. The first change is that Chitra Divakaruni imagines an undeclared and unfulfilled attraction between Drapaudi and Karna, two traditionally antagonistic characters. This is a daring and dramatic departure that casts much of the Mahabharat in a new light.  Despite having five husbands, Drapaudi actually loves Karna above all.  We read of her longing for him and of her regret that she has spoken or acted in ways that have hurt Karna.  Even more, she regrets that her words and actions have helped bring about a war.  Still, at key points in the story, anger and pride prevent either of them from showing even a little kindness towards the other. And only when it is far too late does Karna give any indication that he might have feelings for Drapaudi.

Second, just before the Kurukshetra War begins, Drapaudi is given a boon by the sage Vyasa enabling her to witness, as though present, critical parts of the fighting from a safe distance.  Through her eyes, we see the eighteen-day war and its terrible, tragic devastation.  We see Krishna driving Arjun in his chariot across the battlefield, counseling him to do his duty.  We see warriors who pledged to fight with honor resorting to dishonorable tactics in the heat of battle. I believe the events are unchanged from the original, but Vyasa’s gift is an artistic invention by Divakaruni that enables Drapaudi to narrate the war for us.

Lastly, there’s a lot of foreshadowing in The Palace of Illusions. As Drapaudi tells the story, she frequently refers to events, usually deaths, that will occur later on.  There’s so much foreshadowing that I found myself reading the book with growing dread.  Perhaps Divakaruni foreshadows so much because she anticipates most of her readers will already be familiar with the story.  Even if they haven’t read all of the Mahabharat, they’ll have read parts of it, or read abridged versions, or heard stories from it told by parents or teachers, or increasingly, they’ll have seen film or television adaptations.  Possibly Divakaruni is reassuring her readers that even though Drapaudi’s viewpoint may be different, the original story line is still being followed.

I was not familiar with the story, so there could be other differences or nuances that I completely missed.

Themes

One of the main themes of the book concerns the role of women.  That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, for telling the story from a woman’s viewpoint in the first place.  On the one hand, Drapaudi is treated like property, married off by her father to the Pandavas to advance his own political aims.  Then she is forced to marry all five of the brothers.  At one point, her enemies attempt to strip her naked in front of the entire Court of Hastinapur.  Her husbands are powerless to help her, but she is spared humiliation by Krishna who intervenes to cause her sari to become infinitely long.  Yet at the same time, Drapaudi is well-educated, an astute observer and a keen strategist.  Her husbands seek out and follow her advice.  She’s an effective Queen.  In the book we see her as a complex, capable and multi-dimensional character struggling with forces beyond her control.

This leads to another significant theme, for me anyway: the idea of destiny. In the West, most people believe in free will, in making a difference and, more recently, in having a growth mindset.  In other words, we believe in the idea of agency – that we are the agents directing the course of our own lives.  In contrast, as a young girl, Drapaudi is told that it is her destiny to bring about a great war in which “a million women will become widows because of you.” At the end of her life, as she lies dying on the side of a mountain in Northern India, Krishna appears to her and tells her, “You did what you were supposed to do. Played your part perfectly.” But if that was her destiny, could she have done anything else?  Could she have avoided humiliating Karna at the swayamvar, for example?  Did she have any choice?  Or would her choices have made any difference?  In The Palace of Illusions, and presumably in the Mahabharat too, destiny, the idea that we are just instruments and someone else is playing, seems to be accepted by the characters as a fact of life.  The notion that we can change our destinies is thus an illusion, and perhaps we construct entire palaces of such illusions over our lifetimes.  My own beliefs are strongly tilted towards individual agency, so the dichotomy in the book between destiny and agency really challenged my worldview and has made me reflect on it more.

* * *

I enjoyed The Palace of Illusions immensely. It was my first in-depth exposure to classic Indian literature. I don’t know if I will ever read the original Mahabharat in full, but The Palace of Illusions opened my eyes to an incredibly important and influential part of Indian culture that I had been totally ignorant of until now.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

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Who Can You Trust?

Who Can You Trust?  How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart
By Rachel Botsman
Public Affairs, New York, 2017

Trust is like engine oil: when it’s present everything runs smoothly, but when it’s not they grind to a halt and quickly catch fire.  Much of modern life would be impossible without trust.  Without it you would never drive your car because you couldn’t be sure the other drivers would stay in their lanes.  You’d never, ever get on a plane. You’d have to grow your own vegetables, otherwise how could you be sure they’re safe for you and your family to eat?  And online shopping?  Forget about it!

Consciously or not, we make decisions to trust people and machines and systems hundreds of times each day. But what exactly is trust?  How do we make these trust decisions?  And how is technology helping to enable new forms of trust?

Rachel Botsman explores these questions in her book, Who Can You Trust?  How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart.  Botsman is a writer, researcher and lecturer at Oxford University’s Said School of Business.

 

Who Can You Trust - Cover

The book is incredibly timely. These days it seems like more and more of the people and institutions we used to trust can’t be trusted anymore.  Nobody ever trusted Wall Street much, but during the Great Recession, banks, mortgage lenders, credit rating agencies and government regulators all betrayed our trust.  Politicians and journalists, priests and bishops, drug companies and oil companies have all joined the rogue’s gallery of the untrustworthy.  Yet at the same time, it’s become normal to get into cars with strangers, invite strangers to sleep in your home, and hire strangers to babysit your kids.  As Botsman says in her TED Talk, we’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers.  Why?  And how?

What is trust?

Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”  When we decide to trust something or someone, we’re making an assessment of how likely it is that some future outcome will be favorable to us.

“Trust enables us to feel confident enough to take risks and to open ourselves up to being vulnerable.  It means we can commit to people before we know the precise outcome or how other people will behave.”  [p. 16]

Trust operates at three levels:  local, institutional and distributed.

  • Local trust is the kind we’re most familiar with. It operates within small, local communities, among people we know.
  • Institutional trust is trust that flows vertically through intermediaries such as governments, corporations, universities, courts and regulatory bodies. We tend to trust leaders, experts and brands (at least we used to) because of their position or association with these intermediaries.
  • Distributed trust flows horizontally between individuals mediated through systems, platforms and networks. The entire sharing economy, from rides to rooms, is built on distributed trust.

In recent years we’ve seen a massive shift away from institutional trust towards distributed trust.  Botsman suggests three reasons why institutions have lost our trust.  The first cause, she says, is an asymmetry in accountability.  During the Great Recession, thousands of people lost their homes, and millions saw their retirement savings decimated; but governments bailed out the big banks and not one of their executives went to jail.  Second, organizational hierarchies have flattened, reducing the distance (although certainly not the wealth) between the elites and everyone else.  Lastly our community has fragmented into homogeneous “echo chambers” that exclude people we don’t like or don’t agree with, regardless of whether they hold some position in an important institution.

But why have systems of distributed trust become so successful?  To understand this part of the picture, we need to look at how people make “trust leaps.”

Trust leaps

How do you decide to take a risk and try something new?  The first time you typed your credit card number into a web page, you didn’t know how things would turn out.  Your confidence might have been low.  Maybe it was of a leap of faith, or rather a leap of trust.

man person jumping desert

Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

So how do you decide when to make a trust leap?  Botsman says we do this by climbing the “trust stack.”  We first have to trust the idea, new though it may be.  Then we have to trust the platform it’s built on.  Lastly, we must trust the specific individual or organization we’re dealing with.  Idea, platform, individual:  that’s the trust stack.  Botsman examines each layer in detail.

To trust a new idea, like getting into a car with a complete stranger, Botsman says it must be “strangely familiar.”  (Or, to use another term I like, it must be an “adjacent possible.”) For example, ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are really just like taxis but without their corporate shell.  If the driver showed up on a horse, or on a drone, it would be a much more difficult leap.  We need to see benefits such as cost savings or convenience.  And we need some degree of certainty that we’ll actually receive those benefits.  Are there guarantees, warranties, regulations or other mechanisms in place to reduce risk?  Lastly, we often want to know who else might have made the trust leap.  Are any of our friends using the new product or service?  What about experts, celebrities or other influencers?

OK, you’ve accepted the idea of getting into a car with a complete stranger despite your parents’ dire warnings.  Now what about the practicalities?  How does it actually work?  This is where we need to trust the platform, the systems that actually deliver the idea.  We need to know who’s responsible when something goes wrong.  Who do we complain to if our driver never shows up?  What happens if there’s a crash while we’re in the car?  Do the operators of the platform run their business ethically and transparently?

Finally, we need to trust the specific individual we’re dealing with, in this case the driver of the car that’s come to pick us up.  What we’re looking for, Botsman says, is competence, reliability and honesty. When we meet someone in person for the first time, we try to assess these qualities, that is, we make trust judgements based on a variety of signals: their appearance, their clothing (uniform, lab coat, badges and insignia, etc.), who they’re associated with (affiliations, alma mater) and mutual acquaintances.  There are online equivalents of these signals too, like ratings and reputation, and social graph proximity.  In fact, that’s one of the main functions of the platform; to aggregate huge amounts of data to help us make these trust decisions.  You could say that trust and reputation are emergent properties of this data.

The success of online platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and the reputation systems they’re built on, have enabled the shift to distributed trust.

In the last few chapters of the book Botsman looks at some of the trust issues around leading edge technologies like artificial intelligence, chatbots, and the blockchain.  Take self-driving cars for example.  As they get smarter and more capable, Botsman points out that they evolve from doing things for us to deciding things for us.  Can we trust their decision-making?  It’s one thing to trust the car when it picks one route over another to avoid traffic backups.  It’s another thing entirely when the car decides to swerve into a ditch, possibly injuring you in the process, in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian who’s just run into the middle of the road.

How is the AI in the car making these ethical or moral choices?  What values or biases are embedded in their algorithms and programming?  And who were the people responsible for selecting those values or biases?  What other information do we need to know about the algorithms, designers and programmers in order to make a trust leap?  Oh, and one more tiny little thing:  who’s liable if the car makes the wrong decision?

These questions are becoming increasingly urgent as AI technologies spread into more products and more areas of our lives.  Kudos to Rachel Botsman for raising them in Who Can You Trust?

Unsolicited Feedback

Who Can You Trust? is a timely book about a critically important topic.  I’m probably not a typical reader because I work in the area of internet security and I’m quite familiar with many of the technologies and issues around online trust.  Perhaps that’s why I found the book frustrating and disappointing.

Rachel Botsman handles most of her subject quite well.  She does a great job describing how we make trust leaps by climbing the trust stack.  And she traces the evolution of trust from local to institutional to distributed in clear language.  Her description of the concepts and technology behind the blockchain were confusing, but I’ll overlook that because the blockchain is definitely not “strangely familiar” for most of us.  The best and most important part of the book are the issues I’ve noted above that she raises in the final chapters.

Her definition of trust, “a confident relationship with the unknown”, sounds grand and all-encompassing.  But I don’t think it’s very useful.  Too vague.  I prefer the definition from a book called The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman.  He says trust is “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  I think this does a better job capturing what’s at stake in a trust decision and the fact that trust decisions are highly contextual.  Of course, this definition needs to be broadened to include the actions of machines, systems and platforms as well as people.

My main complaint about the book is that at just over 250 pages it’s about twice as long as it needs to be.  Each idea in the book is illustrated with lengthy examples complete with largely irrelevant biographical details of the people involved.  I didn’t need to read Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s life story in order to understand his overriding concern for the reputation of his brand, for example.  And I couldn’t care less what kind of tea the author was served while interviewing this or that expert.  It’s one thing to provide brief character sketches to bring dry technical details to life or to humanize complex stories.  But there’s so much of this padding in Who Can You Trust? that I found myself becoming annoyed at the distractions impeding me from getting to the important ideas of the book.

I think you can learn most of what’s contained in the book by watching the two TED Talks listed below, and in much less time.

Related Links

We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers, TED Talk by Rachel Botsman
https://www.ted.com/talks/rachel_botsman_we_ve_stopped_trusting_institutions_and_started_trusting_strangers

How Airbnb designs for trust, TED Talk by Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder
https://www.ted.com/talks/joe_gebbia_how_airbnb_designs_for_trust

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