Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Harvard of the Proletariat

A new provost at Stanford, coming from her position as a VP of City College of New York, called CCNY the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” I think amongst lists of the elite colleges in the world, CCNY is by now, often forgotten. It was the first to offer free admission to all qualified (though philosophically I am opposed to this policy) but as a result, educated the children of New York’s many talented but poor (many immigrants/Jews) who were excluded from the Ivy Leagues, giving them their first step into the middle classes.

In the process, they educated nine Nobel Prize winners (more than any other US public school) including Ken Arrow (one of the fathers of modern economics) to last year’s Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Robert Aumann, as well as luminaries from Thorstein Veblen to Richard Schiff (who played Tobey on West Wing, the character also was a CCNY alum), to Andy Grove of Intel to both my parents (my father teaches there now).

The Economist magazine attributes much of its recent decline to its policy of open admissions which came out of the civil rights movement of the 60’s and forced City College to admit pretty much anyone who wanted to attend. This led to a long period of academic decline, until the policy was ended under recent reforms in 90’s, as CCNY strives to regain some of its old prominence.

(Perhaps with the help of talented new faculty hires like my cousin who, though not at CCNY, teaches at Brooklyn College, one its sister schools in the CUNY system.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pop Quiz: What two sources of energy account for nearly all the world's energy use?

Answer: Solar and Geothermal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately, and this is just a curious factoid I've been pondering. When discussing energy, careful people distinguish photovoltaic power from the more general term of solar, because really when you think about it, nearly all the energy we use is solar, except for the stuff that’s geothermal. Basically, there you can think of energy as coming in the form of 4 forces, the weak and strong nuclear, gravity and e&m. And I’m basically say it is gravity and the sun's strong nuclear as the source of everything.

Hydropower – Powered by the water cycle which is powered by the sun.
Photovoltaic – Directly solar powered
Ethanol and other Biofuels – From the plant matter that got its energy from the sun
Oil – From the plant matter that got its energy from the sun that was converted into oil by geothermal pressures.
Natural Gas and Coal - Ditto.
Geothermal – Well geothermal.
Wind – Powered by temperature gradients crated by the sun.
Fission – Powered from the energy stored in uranium atoms, which were created not by our sun, but the previous star of our solar system. So given that it is also powered by a star of our solar system, I’d say that’s also solar power.
Tidal – Actually, this is different as this is lunar powered, but no one really uses it so its ok.
Fusion – This is actually different two, fusion is powered from the hydrogen remnants of the Big Bang, but there are no real fusion power plants either, so I’m ok on this one for now.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Evidence for Snowcrash's human computer theory

The New York Times today ran a story about the neuro-basis of speaking in tongues.

The article suggests that the neuro-basis of speaking in tongues (a Pentecostal practice of spewing random syllables in a trancelike state which I saw for the first time in the new Borat movie) is consistent with God. For me, what is more interesting is that it is consistent with Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash.

One of the most wild but interesting conceits of Snowcrash is that the human mind (basically being a computer) and our thought processes were designed with some inherent genetic structure. Chomsky and Pinker find evidence for the genetic basis of language (from completely different methods). Stephenson suggests that the brain has an underlying operating system, with a universal programming language, that allow cultural memes (ala Dawkins') to be transferred like computer programs transferred across the internet, but here, it is behavioral patterns transferred between people. So a program that called for obedience to God could be transferred to others who hear the underlying coding for the program.

What does the coding sound like, this assembly language/machine code for the human brain? Stephenson proposes that the Pentecostals' practice of speaking in tongues is a way to access the underlying machine code driving human behavior, and let it rise to the surface. The brain imaging study the nytimes reports on is at least consistent with this interpretation.

Aside: Stephenson is perhaps my favorite fiction author. Here are two reviews I wrote of his books: