Weekly Photo Challenge: Endurance

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Endurance.

Long-distance kayaking is all about endurance. We can paddle past sunset

Past sunset

into the night

Into the night

and when the next day dawns

Dawn

we are still there, paddling.

Still paddling

We can paddle forever.

But we can’t stay awake forever. Sooner or later, that nap on the beach becomes impossible to resist…

Nap on the beach

(From the 2014 Everglades Challenge. Story and more photos here.)

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

Rear Window

By Vladimir Brezina

Like James Stewart in Rear Window, I’ve been trapped at home for some days by an inconvenient but (hopefully) temporary ailment. And there is the rear window, and I, too, have my camera! But whereas peering into two or three neighbors’ windows might have its fascination, it pales when the windows number in the thousands

But looking out at the river never pales.

Day 1, sunrise

Day 1, sunrise 1
Day 1, sunrise 2

Day 2, sunrise

Day 2, sunrise

Day 3, sunset

Day 3, sunset 1
Day 3, sunset 2
Day 3, sunset 3

New England On the Edge of Fall

By Johna Till Johnson

Fall is arriving early this year.

Last weekend I was up in coastal Connecticut helping my mother settle into a new apartment. The retirement community where she lives is lovely, surrounded by hills, trees, and not-too-manicured fields of wildflowers. And on this mid-September day, with still more than a week to go before autumn officially starts… the trees are turning.

Fortunately I had several errands that involved walking around the community in the golden afternoon sunshine. I took as many photos as I could to capture the essence of the day: Brilliant blue skies, sun-dappled trees, wildflowers dancing in the light breeze.

Nobody knows what the winter will bring. But if autumn continues the way it’s begun… it will be beautiful!

(click on any photo to start slideshow)

Travel Theme: Noise, Take Two

By Vladimir Brezina

Independence Day fireworks, 2014.

Noise

A second contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Noise. The first contribution was here.

Travel Theme: Noise

By Vladimir Brezina

At the 2013 Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

Noise

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Noise. Another contribution is here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Humanity, set by Thirdeyemom. She writes: “The more I see the world, the more I realize that although people are different, we’re very much the same.”

Although sometimes I do wonder if we’re all the same species—

Humanity relaxing at the seaside in Norfolk, England:

Norfolk 1
Norfolk 2

Humanity relaxing at the seaside at Coney Island, New York:

Coney Island 1
Coney Island 2