Author Archives: Scott Underwood

Woody Guthrie’s Songbook

IMG_0000Somewhere in the late 1940s, Woody Guthrie gave his mimeographed 25 Cent Songbook to Charlie Weiner, my late father-in-law. Typewritten and decorated with Woody's cartoons, the songbook contains ten songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," "Grand Coolee Dam," and others. It's pretty fragile, so I made a quick scan of the whole thing here. (This German site has kindly typed it up already.)

Charlie knew Woody well enough to report riding trains with him, though they were 19 years apart. When Woody printed this in 1945, Charlie was 13 or 14. He left home a few years later, so I suspect it was 1949 or later when their lives intersected. 

Anyway, I'm glad to have this little slice of time. Happy 100th birthday, Woody.

IMG_0006  IMG_0013

Sic transit Venus

A handy way to have some front yard science to see the transit of Venus: tripod, binoculars, white cardboard (one fitted around the eyepieces of the binoculars to provide shade on the other, the projection screen), and a chair. Oh, and a sock over one eyepiece. 

2012-06-05 03.38.56

2012-06-05 03.38.21

Prisoner’s Dilemma gamed

This is a remarkable six minutes, thre final round of a British game show, "Golden Balls." Please watch before reading my comments below:

So, I found this on Boing Boing, which led to a blog post with some astute comments by Bruce Schneier and his followers, but I'll just sum up my own quick take on this usurping of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma.

1. Nick's confidence helps "sell" his choice to Ibrahim. Nick is not swayed by Ibrahim's appeal to reason or honor, or to his complete confusion and despair. Nick says what he will do and leaves no doubt that he will do it: he says he will STEAL and split the money after the show; Ibrahim has no choice but to take him at his word about the former and guess about the latter.

2. Ibrahim's choice is now whether to believe Nick, choose SPLIT, and hope Nick sticks to his promise to split the funds after the show, or to spite Nick, choose STEAL, and assume they both end up with nothing. Nick seems entirely resigned to this possibility.

3. Nick's choice of SPLIT is absolutely brilliant. If Ibrahim chooses SPLIT, which Nick is clearly confident is Ibrahim's only rational choice, then trust is restored and the money is split. But, if Ibrahim chooses STEAL (and thus gets all the money), he would have little honorable choice but to do what Nick proposed anyway: split the money after the show. (That's not 100%, but especially given what Ibrahim said about honor, it's seems overwhelmingly likely that Ibrahim would do that.)

4. As someone on Bruce Scheier's blog said, Nick is essentially saying "I don't trust you; you must trust me or lose all."

5. It's unclear if this would ever work again. 

David Smith, again

I had earlier posted a video about the remarkable work of David Smith, an ornamental glass artist whose intricate creations are both aesthetic wonders and masterpieces of an obscure craft. Today, I noticed a lot of people visiting from a discussion website for the guitarist John Mayer: turns out, David Smith has designed Mayer's latest album cover, and a jaw-dropping accomplishment it is. I found the best copy on Mayer's Tumblr page:




Charles Irwin Weiner, 1931-2012

Charlie+susan2011My father-in-law Charlie Weiner died on Saturday. He was 80, and having an extended stay in the village of Eyeries, Ireland with his wife, JoAnn Hughes.

Charlie was a remarkable guy, and I'm deeply sad that I won't get to spend more time with him. We only met in 2007, a few months after I met his daughter, Susan Weiner. I liked him immediately – he was funny, and engaging, and a great person to have a conversation with, because he loved to hear and share stories.

Here are some stories I heard him tell about himself and believe I remembered correctly:

He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1946, he hit the road to explore the South with a friend. Among his better documented stories is his encounter with Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, an old-time musician he searched out who lived in a ramshackle cabin near Asheville, North Carolina. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music, and Charlie's music experiences ranged from New York jazz clubs to Gullah singers in the Georgia Sea Islands. He had a great ear and memory for melody – at 80, he could still sing Japanese songs he'd learned in Tokyo during his brief military career in the '50s.

In the late '40s he rode the rails and played songs with Woody Guthrie, who gave him one of his hand-drawn, mimeographed songbooks. He attended get-togethers at Pete Seeger's Greenwich Village home, and was present the night Lee Hays brought over his friend Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers were born. Charlie acted as impromptu security for Paul Robeson and other musicians as the 1949 civil rights and music festival in Peekskill, New York deteriorated into a racist and anti-Semitic riot. 

His mother was a socialist who ran for office in New York, and Charlie remained a staunch supporter of those ideals his entire life. He distrusted and questioned authority, and always fought for basic human rights. In the '50s, he spent time in auto plants in Ohio, working on the line but secretly organizing for the union. He took part in civil rights marches in New York and Washington DC, and Susan got to see Martin Luther King when she was a young girl. He worked on campaigns for Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern. 

He met his first wife, Shirley Marks, in Cleveland, and they brought forth Susan Weiner, my wife. Their marriage didn't last, but he and Shirley remained cordial friends until the end.

Charlie entered college at Case Institute of Technology, eventually earning a PhD in the History of Science and Technology in 1965, the subject that became the focus of the rest of his life. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York, where he applied his earlier interests in talking to people and recording the results. In 1970, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to move his family to Copenhagen so he could document the life of Niels Bohr, and many of his oral histories, films, and papers can be found online in AIP's Niels Bohr Library.

In 1975, he joined MIT as professor of History of Science and Technology, and was founding director of the MIT Oral History Program until 1986. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 2002, he was named the Arthur Miller Lecturer on Science and Ethics at MIT.

Charlie_0003His work collecting interviews, letters, and other papers resulted in four books: Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics, History of Twentieth Century Physics, The Legacy of George Ellery Hale (with Helen Wright and Joan Warnow), and Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (with Alice Kimball Smith). This doesn't include the many interviews with prominent scientists Charlie made available to others. Notably, his interviews with Richard Feynman – the first time the famous physicist had agreed to discuss his work – were quoted and credited in James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

Sadly, his magnum opus, on which he worked for over twenty years, will remain incomplete. It was to be a book on (quoting his MIT page) “the history of social responsibility in science from the atomic bomb to contemporary genetic engineering. It uses archival and oral history materials to document scientists' complicity in and resistance to nuclear and biological weapons, their connections with citizens' groups affected by environmental toxins and by fallout from nuclear testing, and anticipatory concerns about ethical limits to human genetic manipulation.” 

Charlie never left behind his great love of music. Though he lived in Cape Cod with JoAnn, his wife and partner of many years, he kept a Greenwich Village apartment so he could see live jazz in the many clubs where he was well known to everyone from the owners and staff to musicians. Among his close friends, he counted guitarist Jim Hall (who gave him guitar lessons), trombonist Roswell Rudd, and pianist Bruce Barth, but the many, many people Charlie loved and who loved him back may be numberless. 


In February 2010, Susan and I came to Cape Cod, because Charlie had landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure (which continued to plague him for the next two years). It was not entirely a sad trip for us, as he was able to come home and he and JoAnn toasted our Valentine's Day engagement, which had occurred in the restaurant across from their home. By July, Charlie was healthy enough to come to California for Susan's birthday and he and JoAnn came to our wedding in October.

In December of 2010, Charlie and JoAnn had a long stay in Eyeries, a small village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland, so JoAnn could work on her art and Charlie could work on his book. Originally planned for three months, they had such a good time they extended their visit by another month. The people there welcomed them completely, and they made many friends. On their return home, Charlie played us recordings he made of community music sessions held in a nearby pub – a long and terribly sad song sung a cappella by an angelic-voiced young teen was a standout.

They returned to Ireland a year later. Despite misgivings about his health, Charlie was the biggest champion of the trip and refused to stay home. He looked forward to seeing his new friends and diving back into the book, where he'd done his most productive work in some time. After arriving in Eyeries, however, he never fully recovered his strength, and declined rapidly.

He is missed tremendously by all who knew him, and the idea that the world goes on without him – and his continuous, shameless puns – is hard to imagine. Sláinte and l'chaim, Charlie, we'll sing a song for you in loving memory.

Charlie_0002UPDATE 1: Susan and I were just talking, and I remembered one of Charlie's most endearing, entertaining, and frustrating traits: his love of good food. I once came to Boston for business without Susan, before we were married. I said I would have a car and I wanted to drive down to the Cape to have lunch before my flight home. The first thing he asked was, "What do you want to eat?" Well, I don't know, we can figure it out when I get there. "No, I need to know. We'll figure out what you want, and then work backwards from there." (For the record, we ate at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, a great, low-key place to get a lobster roll and sit next to the water that we returned to often.)

Eating out with Charlie meant enduring a ritual of joking banter with the waiter or waitress, who had to endure a pop quiz of their menu. "So, tell me, the sole — is that sauteed in oil or just how is it prepared?" As much as he enjoyed finding new restaurants he loved sharing his favorites with his friends. 

UPDATE 2: Thanks to all the visitors who are leaving personal remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn't know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others. Please encourage others!

MIT has published its official obituary

UPDATE 3: Will Thomas says kind things about this post and writes about oral history and the extent and importance of Charlie's work on the history of science blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

14 Bach canons visualized

Just love this: 14 J.S. Bach canons of increasing complexity built around the first eight fundamenta notes of the Goldberg Variations, lovingly displayed in an animation that both translates Bach's original manuscript page into English and readable notation and explains how Bach mirrored, inverted, repeated, and otherwise made his melody lines sit up and do tricks. 


The Swerve

SwerveHaving read all the magazines I brought along to New Orleans, I was forced to purchase something for the trip home, Fortunately, I found The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

Though Greenblatt tells his story in a much more engaging manner, I'll put this in a chronological order I can understand:

Building on the work of Democritus, who died a century before, Epicurus (d. 270 BC) founded a school of philosophy (Epicureanism) that is based on atomism, the idea that the universe is built from fundamental and invisible building blocks of matter flying through the void. (This some two millennia before the ideas could be tested in any form.)

Based on random "swerves," these atoms come together and apart to form everything from stars and planets to animals and humans. Nothing is eternal except these atoms, and no one form — say, humankind — is more important than another. They are not controlled by any external forces; i.e., gods. Thus, the gods — though they may exist — don't concern themselves with human actions and they do not reward and punish good and evil, which leaves humans to choose for themselves how best to live. For Epicurus this meant to seek pleasure and avoid pain, not in a hedonistic sense but by living a good and just life.

Jump forward a couple hundred years to Lucretius (d. 55 BC), who is basically known for one long Epicurean poem, De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. Almost nothing else is known of Lucretius's life or works, though his poem is held in high regard by his contemporaries. 

The ideas in Epicureanism and On the Nature of Things are not held in high esteem as the world turns toward Christianity, and many classic works are forever lost both through suppression and neglect. The Christian authorities discredit Epicurus and Lucretius, inventing scandalous stories and creating the idea that Epicureanism entails an immoral quest for pure pleasure, a connotation still attached to the word 'epicurean'. In turn, the works are not copied by scribes and most of them disappear, their only existence brief mentions in other ancient works.

PoggioJump now again to the early 15th Century, when the scribe and classicist scholar Poggio Bracciolini leaves his post as the pope's secretary in order to pursue his obsession: scouring the deteriorating libraries of European monasteries to find the few remaining works from Greek and Roman authors and arrange for their copy and distribution, thus helping to promote humanism. Poggio is the hero of The Swerve, but some of Greenblatt's stories are conjecture — he possibly visited this monastery and likely spoke with that friar and probably found On the Nature of Things there, perhaps not even recognizing its importance. 

It's this importance that Greenblatt wants us to understand, because he sees On the Nature of Things as a key work to spark the Renaissance, infecting the essays of Montaigne and possibly the plays of Shakespeare. Lucretius's beautifully written philosophy, you see, imagines a world free from religious fear, and entreats us to enjoy a pleasant life of good works, unconcerned with a highly scripted afterlife of eternal pain or reward. It is a signal work to help us break from years of church oppression and appreciate the universe in all its splendor, a place of beauty and art and ideas and happiness. Greenblatt even posits a link to Thomas Jefferson, who owned several copies of Lucretius and managed to write (the pursuit of) happiness into the Declaration of Independence.

Along with the journey of On the Nature of Things into the modern psyche, we learn about the life of Poggio, his navigation of some nasty politics in a time of three warring popes, the work of a medieval scriptorium, Poggio's importance to modern lettering style, even the construction of papyrus rolls and codexes. It's a great trip, and Greenblatt makes it an engaging tale. 

Special Exits

SpecialexitsOvernight I read, in two sittings, Joyce Farmer's Special Exits. This is a graphic novel (or memoir, though the names are changed) about Farmer's father and stepmother who grow old together, deteriorate, and die. 

Sounds good?

Okay, maybe it doesn't. But it really is, and not in a heartwarming, sage-elders-teach-philosophy manner. It's honest, and revealing, and unromantic. It's messy. And it is unrelentingly real: this is how it is, or, at least, this is how it was for Joyce Farmer and even if the specifics vary, there is much here to help prepare all of us for the inevitable.

Joyce Farmer was a pioneering feminist cartoonist, and her pen-and-ink work has an old-school quality. There's none of the modern techniques of comic-making here, no varying frame sizes, nothing but story conveyed in a straightforward manner. And all of Farmer's characters and spaces have depth — the furniture has cat hair, the garages are filled with boxes, and the humans are complex and frustrating. Here's a sample:



Jupiter rotation

Courtesy of the Astronomy Photo of the Day site, here's a full rotation of Jupiter, with a good view of the Great Red Spot, a storm larger than our planet that has raged for over a hundred years. I put it on full screen and set it to loop — very calming.


Full rotation of Jupiter from Jean-Luc Dauvergne on Vimeo.

A History of the Sky

I enjoy projects in which art emerges from a simple idea. In this case, Ken Murphy, a “musician, programmer, artist, and tinkerer living in San Francisco,” created a system on the roof of the Exploratorium to capture the sky every day with a time-lapse camera. He then combines the result into a whole that reveals something new and mesmerizing.

Looking at the time stamp in the lower right corner of the video below, you can guess at the approximate time of year of each square — I had expected January to begin in the upper left, but this doesn’t seem to be true. As it is, the grid is 20×18, which means each month takes up about 1.5 horizontal lines. I’ve only seen the video, but some of the other examples of installations on his website look even more compelling.