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Archive for September 2005

Hedgehogs, foxes and Feynman

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Freeman Dyson reviews the recently published collection of Feynman’s letters, collected by his daughter Michelle. The essay is long, but worth reading in full. I feel Dyson underrates Feynman a bit, and his classification of thinkers as hedgehogs (Einstein) or foxes (Feynman) is too black and white. Our scientific activities are shaped by the questions of our day. Einstein had the opportunity to solve foundational puzzles (the problems and data were at hand) — did Feynman? (Also true of Dirac, who Dyson rates as a “greater genius” than Feynman.) Certainly, Feynman had broad interests, but it is also clear that he kept returning to deeper issues like turbulence (strangely not classified as a deep issue at the time), interpretation of quantum mechanics (EPR, probability, etc.) and quantum gravity. I might add that 100 years from now his early interest in quantum computing could be remembered as particularly significant. Although he didn’t develop any key algorithms (or even, if I recall correctly, explore the notion of universal quantum computers built from simple gates), he was the first to note the exponential power of quantum computers and the qualitative difference between quantum and classical computing.

Why should we care about Feynman? What was so special about him? Why did he become a public icon, standing with Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking as the Holy Trinity of twentieth-century physics? The public has demonstrated remarkably good taste in choosing its icons. All three of them are genuinely great scientists, with flashes of true genius as well as solid accomplishments to their credit. But to become an icon, it is not enough to be a great scientist. There are many other scientists, not so great as Einstein but greater than Hawking and Feynman, who did not become icons. Paul Dirac is a good example of a scientist greater than Feynman. Feynman always said, whenever the opportunity arose, that the “space-time approach” that led him to his new way of doing particle physics was directly borrowed from a paper of Dirac’s.[6] That was true. Dirac had the original idea and Feynman made it into a useful practical tool. Dirac was the greater genius. But Dirac did not become an icon because he had no wish to be an icon and no talent for entertaining the public.

Scientists who become icons must not only be geniuses but also performers, playing to the crowd and enjoying public acclaim. Einstein and Feynman both grumbled about the newspaper and radio reporters who invaded their privacy, but both gave the reporters what the public wanted, sharp and witty remarks that would make good headlines. Hawking in his unique way also enjoys the public adulation that his triumph over physical obstacles has earned for him. I will never forget the joyful morning in Tokyo when Hawking went on a tour of the streets in his wheelchair and the Japanese crowds streamed after him, stretching out their hands to touch his chair. Einstein, Hawking, and Feynman shared an ability to break through the barriers that separated them from ordinary people. The public responded to them because they were regular guys, jokers as well as geniuses.

The third quality that is needed for a scientist to become a public icon is wisdom. Besides being a famous joker and a famous genius, Feynman was also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense. To me and to hundreds of other students who came to him for advice, he spoke truth. Like Einstein and Hawking, he had come through times of great suffering, nursing Arline through her illness and watching her die, and emerged stronger. Behind his enormous zest and enjoyment of life was an awareness of tragedy, a knowledge that our time on earth is short and precarious. The public made him into an icon because he was not only a great scientist and a great clown but also a great human being and a guide in time of trouble. Other Feynman books have portrayed him as a scientific wizard and as a storyteller. This collection of letters shows us for the first time the son caring for his father and mother, the father caring for his wife and children, the teacher caring for his students, the writer replying to people throughout the world who wrote to him about their problems and received his full and undivided attention.

Written by infoproc

September 29, 2005 at 4:25 pm

Globalization and high fashion

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Predictably, even the high fashion industry has started producing in low-cost countries.

I notice in Eugene that the $3k Natuzzi Italian leather sofa set is competing against a $1.2k Italian leather, but made in China, sofa set made by some company called Shanghai Living. Both have nice modern lines and would look at home in Dwell magazine. Last time I was in Shanghai a few years ago I was amazed at the huge furniture showrooms there, packed with buyers representing furniture distributors from all over the world. The Shanghai Living stuff was brought to Eugene by an enterprising store owner who liked what he saw and “bought an entire container.”

According to the WSJ article (excerpt below), hourly fashion manufacturing wages are about $20 in Italy and France, and under a dollar in China. The guy who says it will take 15 years for full delocalization of production is dreaming. There are already armies of good designers (not just armies of workers) in Asia who are ready to take business from these guys.

See here for how design and manufacturing are done today.

WSJ: The move out of France and Italy is only just beginning. Fashion executives say some production won’t ever move to low-cost countries because Italian craftsmanship is still unparalleled. Sophisticated items made in low volumes — such as hand-woven leather handbags — may always be “Made in Italy,” for example. For the rest, the industry thinks it’s only a matter of time.

“It will take another 15 years until luxury brands’ main lines are completely delocalized, but it will happen,” said Tonino Perna, chief executive of IT Holding SpA, which manufactures relatively affordable collections for labels such as Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. IT Holding makes about 30% of its clothes and accessories abroad. Executives say privately that more fashion brands are producing outside of Europe than the number who care to admit it.

This shift underscores how the developing world’s manufacturing talent is improving to the point where even quintessential luxury products are starting to move offshore. It’s also a sign of the extent to which high-end products are under pressure from low-cost alternatives.

Companies from sneaker makers to automotive giants have long outsourced to China and Mexico, but luxury-goods brands have always touted Italian and French production as essential to the luxury experience. The “Made in Italy” label, with its centuries-old history of artisanship, has justified exorbitant prices. If their clothes are stitched at low-cost factories, how will consumers react? Will luxury brands eventually have to bow to pressure and lower prices at the expense of their margins?

Many Italian fashion houses fear a backlash if they’re seen hastening the decline of Italy’s textile industry. For more than a century, that sector helped power the Italian economy, the fourth-largest in Europe. As companies outsourced production, sales of Italian textiles have fallen more than 10% in the past three years, with 24,000 textile manufacturing jobs lost last year, according to Italy’s textile association. How to stop the trend, which is contributing to Italy’s current economic malaise, is a hotly debated political issue.

“Our ‘Made in Italy’ has to be defended with force,” Claudio Scajola, Italian Minister for Productive Activities, said at the Milan fashion shows, which started this week.

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September 27, 2005 at 4:09 pm

Posted in globalization

No direction home

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“When I got back from India I went to a party thrown by a poet friend in Bolinas. He put on an album by this new folk singer Bob Dylan. I think we heard Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall — and I wept. I wept because I felt the torch had been passed to a new generation.”

— Allen Ginsberg

Interviewed in No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan. Catch it on PBS!

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September 27, 2005 at 5:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Philip K. Dick

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Are these the thoughts of a pulp SF writer, or a serious and underappreciated thinker?

“I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or explanation. Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps: they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, &, for them, my corpus is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an integration & presentation, analysis & response & personal history.”

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September 24, 2005 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tannhauser gate

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Philip K. Dick was a creative genius–full of tremendous and deep ideas. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became the movie Blade Runner) is a meditation on identity, free will and artificial intelligence. (The main character can’t be sure whether he himself is android or human, and, ultimately, whether there is any difference. Director Ridley Scott was true to this idea, making it clear that Deckard (Harrison Ford) is, without knowing it, indeed a replicant!) The Man in the High Castle is one of the best alternate history stories I’ve read–it takes place in an America which has been partitioned in half at the Rockies by the victorious Japanese and Germans. Some of the characters are dimly aware that things might have been otherwise… Dick’s life was almost as interesting as his fiction. A serious intellectual, he dropped out of Berkeley, struggling financially and with psychological problems his entire life. He did not live to enjoy his fame.

Dick really was an unappreciated genius of his time.

From the final soliloquy of the android Baty (Rutger Hauer), after he spares Deckard’s life:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.

That quote popped into my head a few years ago while I was at dinner with some other theorists at a conference in Seoul. We were discussing my recent return from running a startup in silicon valley. Someone leaned over and asked, somewhat dubiously (suggesting that anything but theoretical physics was a waste of time), “But would you do it again?”

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September 24, 2005 at 4:50 pm

Exporting mortgage risk

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Oh goody, foreigners are stepping up to take on the default risk from our housing bubble! Better them than us when the market pops 🙂 I’m glad Fannie and Freddie have been reigned in — too bad Franklin Raines seems to have gotten off scott free, thanks to friends in high places.

WSJ: When the American housing boom winds down, some of the first howls of pain are likely to be heard in Europe and Asia.

That is because investment banks have been moving more of the risk of defaults on home mortgages to foreign investors, leaving less with U.S. lenders and investors.

This change comes amid concern among U.S. bank regulators about frothy house prices and about lenders’ heavy promotion of loans that allow borrowers to afford pricier homes by delaying repayments of principal. The offshoring of such risk also comes as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — formerly the main holders of credit risk in the U.S. mortgage market — are playing a smaller role in that area.

Lenders wrap home loans into securities known as mortgage bonds, and foreign investors are gobbling up some of the riskiest ones, says Daniel Ivascyn, a portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management Co., or Pimco, even as “many sophisticated investors at home” shy away from the riskier types of these bonds.

The vehicle for this shift of risk is the fast-expanding market for collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, pools of debt instruments that are a rich source of fees for investment banks and money managers. CDOs are investment vehicles created by investment banks and others that sell equity and debt to investors. The proceeds are used to buy an array of bonds and other fixed-income assets. More and more CDOs are being created to buy U.S. mortgage-backed securities and other types of asset-backed securities.

Issuance of this type of CDO in this year’s first seven months totaled about $35 billion, compared with $49.7 billion for all of 2004 and $23.1 billion in 2003, according to Bear, Stearns & Co.

Gyan Sinha, a senior managing director at Bear Stearns, says CDOs are an easy way for foreign insurers, pension funds and others to put money into the vast U.S. mortgage market. CDOs wrap a variety of mortgage securities into one package, sparing the investor from having to research each individual security.

CDOs, in turn, are the biggest buyers of the riskier types of mortgage securities, Pimco’s Mr. Ivascyn says. If defaults reduce the amount of cash available to pay holders of a mortgage-bond issue, the holders of the lower-rated, higher-risk portions absorb losses before holders of the investment-grade portions suffer.

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September 22, 2005 at 5:14 am

Posted in finance

Complete New Yorker

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OK, I’m not sure what kind of geek this makes me, but I just received my Complete New Yorker DVD set. 80 years of fiction, cartoons and essays on eight DVDs. Now, if I only had time to look at them…

The New Yorker was my first exposure to serious magazine writing (as opposed to Time magazine or US News, which my parents subscribed to). I discovered the odd copy at friends’ houses or in waiting rooms. Later when I was at Harvard the eccentric composer who lived down the hall used to leave piles of old New Yorkers out for anyone who wanted them. Despite the timeless quality of some of the writing there is no way to store all of that paper. Now I have my own portable collection! I can’t wait to see (e.g.) what was written during WWII or about the Kennedy assassination or civil rights… Will there be interesting profiles of von Neumann or Claude Shannon?

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September 22, 2005 at 4:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized