Category Archives: Society

Christmas in February

By Johna Till Johnson

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Maggie’s Magic Garden

Last week I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: I went to Maggie’s Magic Garden to take a few photos.

Vlad and I had passed this space many times. It’s a community garden, a small, open plot of land surrounded by buildings. As the seasons changed, it provided a lovely glimpse of nature amidst the urban setting.

So I was curious to see what I’d find in midwinter, after the first few snowfalls of the year. I don’t know what  I expected, but it wasn’t what I found: Christmas in February!

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Christmas in February

My favorite part of the Christmas decorations was the homemade creche, with what looked like a bedsheet draping over the figurines. (Also note the angled angel over the manger.)

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Homemade creche

And there were more secular decorations as well…

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Bright candy canes

Alas, I wasn’t able to get into the garden to explore—despite the sign, it was closed when I visited. But it clearly lives up to its description: Magical indeed. I’ll be back there in the spring, to see what magic is afoot then!

The Sunspot Story

By Johna Till Johnson

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding. …

—Philip Larkin, Solar

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What’s the longest-running scientific experiment in history?

I bet you didn’t think of monitoring sunspots.

Sunspots

Sunspots (photo by NASA)

And I can’t definitively say it’s the longest-running experiment —there may be others I haven’t heard of yet. But the first recorded systematic observation of sunspots in the West was by astronomers Thomas Harriot, Johannes and David Fabricius  in 1610 (Chinese astronomers observed them as far back as 300 BC). Scientists have been monitoring sunspots ever since—which means that sunspots have been monitored for the past 405 years!

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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!

Spooktacular!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

DSC_0112 cropped smallMy favorite holiday is Hallowe’en. What’s not to love? There are small children, gaudy costumes, and plenty of candy. Plus, my Goth-girl side revels in the idea of celebrating darkness, death, and the onset of winter.

But over the years, I’ve celebrated more in the breach than in the observance, since the end of October is one of the busiest times in my industry. (I’ll never forget hearing the joyous noises of the Austin Hallowe’en parade from my hotel room, where I was chained to my computer with an imminent deadline.)

So this year, I was delighted to break free from work and meet Vlad over at the Third Annual Halloween Spooktacular. It’s an Upper East Side block party, or rather mini-street fair. The organizers block off the street and hold costume contests—not just for children, but for adults, families, and pets too. There’s a DJ, a bubble artist, and did I mention the candy? And the houses are lavishly—indeed, extravagantly—decorated. (After all, this is the Upper East Side.)

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Book Review: From Pigeons to Tweets

By Johna Till Johnson

From Pigeons to TweetsFrom Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.

Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.

The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).

Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.

That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)

What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)

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Happy Birthday, Colette!

By Johna Till Johnson 

Freshly Pressed on the WordPress.com home page!

You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.

Colette, in costume

Colette, in costume…

Okay, you probably didn’t know that. You might not even remember who Colette is, though chances are, you’re familiar with at least one of her works.

And you’re probably wondering why you should care about her birthday, or her.

Let me take a step back. This year,  Vlad and I have adopted a new tradition: We’ve selected a pantheon of personal heroes, and heroines—people whose spirits and lives matter to us—and are making a conscious effort to celebrate their birthdays.

Colette’s is the first, but there will be plenty of others.

So why did we select her?

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Halloween Spooktacular 2012

By Vladimir Brezina

The famous Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village was canceled, or at least postponed, because of Hurricane Sandy. But on the Upper East Side, the Carnegie Hill Neighbors’ second annual “Halloween Spooktacular” block party, held among the elaborate Halloween decorations on East 92nd Street, was even bigger than the first!

A few highlights:

Click on a photo to start slideshow:

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