Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Mon 8 Oct 07 09:45
In ascending order of difficulty: On summers in DC: Having lived in the neighborhood of DC for at least 150 years now, I have the statistical base from which I can confirm the wisdom of your friend's decision. The summers are godawful. I had a friend who worked in public health in the equatorial third world, and one summer I asked her how the weather there was, and she said, "About like here." But as Brian says, those Jasons, being Jasons, wouldn't meet somewhere like DC. It would be beautiful, cool, delightful LaJolla for them. On Jason's black spots: I'm sure they have some. I did hear a good bit about certain personal loosenesses in marital loyalty, but that's by no means specific to, or revealing of, Jason. I heard a rumor of other Jasons working on black studies that the informant Jason wouldn't work on, but for obvious reasons, couldn't substantiate the rumors or even get anyone else to repeat it. And that was a question I asked everyone several times in several ways: anything Jason does that keeps you up nights? And the answer was, not at all; that even if Jason took on repugnant studies, the individual Jasons would not sign up for them. One Jason said, "We don't get asked those things." On authorial hard-eyedness: Anyway, you're right, I liked Jason and many of the Jasons. You don't get people to talk openly to you by not liking them. And I can't see spending four years of my life on people I don't like. As I wrote, individual Jasons could be pompous or way too talky or conceited or impressed with the importance of talking to generals. And in certain studies, they seem to me to be naive and excessively academic. But that's about the worst I could find. And those adjectives would describe half my acquaintances anyway. The reviewers making these criticisms did seem to want Jason to be condemned for collaborating with the military-industrial complex; or to think I should have used the Freedom of Information Act to get, say, the membership list or unclassified studies that were still unavailable. But I know for a fact that if I'd FOIA'ed anything, Jason would have closed down on me and I'd never have gotten any interviews with anyone. By the way, they didn't care whether I liked them or not; all they were interested in was whether I had an active animus. Neutrality was fine. One of them said, "Just don't make us look like either giants or jerks." On DARPA's illustrativeness: I like your argument that if Jason hadn't felt insecure about their clout, they wouldn't have had to scramble to replace DARPA. I did get the sense that before they found the replacement, they were pretty anxious and jumpy. And I also got the sense from the DARPA people who would only talk OFF THE RECORD (and the caps are appropriate) that they were a little unimpressed with Jason and a little sick of dealing with them -- and in their way, were about as arrogant as the Jasons themselves in feeling that scientific advice wasn't all that crucial. Re Rumsfeld: I know who to ask and just haven't done it.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Mon 8 Oct 07 10:47
well, i;ll tell my friend that la jolla is now the spot, and not DC! however tis also true one more demand on her time, she doesnt want...
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Mon 8 Oct 07 18:57
I hadn't thought of the Freedom of Information Act as a two-edged sword but now I see that it can be. I suspect the tack you took, Ann, was the right one, at least with the Jasons. Talking to the them, even if they have to dance around classified material, is going to provide better overall insight into the group than some begrudgingly turned-over documents. (Although, I can't help but wonder what you might have learned.) Did the DARPA people seem ideologically tinted to you at all? Or maybe what I'm driving at is whether or not there was a perception that the Jasons couldn't be trusted as much anymore.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Tue 9 Oct 07 00:10
Do you think there's anything you learned about the Jasons might help other organizations?
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Tue 9 Oct 07 09:15
On FOIAing: I wonder what a FOIA request might have turned up too. But let's say it's the sexiest possible, something like make some secret weapon or poison that's lethal and untraceable so you can assassinate some foreign potentate WHICH TO MY KNOWLEDGE THEY DID NOT DO. But I've read that plot a hundred times and it's not to my taste: bad people doing bad sneaky things is not news. What was news to me were the Jasons themselves with their complicated lives and intellects and motives. And that news I couldn't get by FOIAing anything. On DARPA's ideological tint: You can't tell a single solitary thing about any DARPA employee's ideological tint unless you spend years researching and interviewing them. Actually I don't know whether that's true or not, only that every DARPA employee I've ever talked to ruthlessly follows company rules. I think people at DARPA were exasperated with Jason and probably always had been. There's a natural tension between defense and academic scientists that I spend a lot of time talking about in the book. You can see both sides of the tension easily. Anyway, if DARPA got the word from on high that Jason should go along or get out, and Jason wouldn't go along, then DARPA wouldn't have felt too sad about getting Jason out. But I don't think DARPA distrusted Jason. On Jason as an example for other organizations: I guess if the organizations were like Jason -- groups of academics trying to advise the government -- then yes, Jason's example might help navigate the cultural and political differences. For instance: if you're trying to invent a nice little missile that can go on Navy submarines, don't make it an Air Force missile.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Tue 9 Oct 07 10:09
Shoot, another budding conspiracy theory dashed by mundane bureaucratic culture stuff. You know, you might sell more books if you connected the Jasons to the Illuminati, alien technology, government mind control or something. Any weird responses along those lines since the book was published?
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Tue 9 Oct 07 10:55
I expected more weirdness than I got -- Jason conspiracy theories have a small but definite presence on the internet. But not much happened. A late, late night talk show that features conspiracies asked me to be a guest. I had to go into training to stay up that late, and didn't much want to anyway. But the book's publicist saw the audience numbers and I was made to see the light. Anyway. The host was lovely -- he'd actually read the book and asked smart questions. And the call-in's asked things that were reasonable to ask. I did get one on-air proposal of marriage (I had to back out), one inquiry about Jasons in Omaha (none that I know of), one Illuminatus (the host cut right to a commercial), and my favorite: a creaky old-lady voice saying, "God bless those Jasons." I should say: I'm leaving tomorrow for a week-long trip to interview some astronomers for my next book, plus go to my mother's 90th birthday celebration with 88,000 relatives. I think I'll be able to get on the internet every day. But if I miss a day, it'll only be because the old-folks home doesn't reliably get the internet, and not because I don't love you. I do love you.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 9 Oct 07 11:22
Enjoy! And would that be "Coast to Coast AM?" (the former Art Bell show). I will admit to listening now and then, and yeah, the host is really intelligent, enthusiastic, and a prince. And the guests and the callers... well, sanity is optional. Entertaining radio, though.
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Tue 9 Oct 07 12:46
It was Coast to Coast, it was. The host's name was Ian, I think. I had a great time. It was smart and informed without being all ponderous and big-think.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 10 Oct 07 18:55
You mention in your book, Ann, that Jasons have brought in a number of biologists which speak a consderably different scientific language than physicists, but the physicists appeared to enjoy learning about biological techniques. (The account of the physicists doing DNA sequencing is pretty amusing.) Anyway, it's implied but not real explicit that the biologists were brought in, at least in part, for biological weapons research (I hope mainly of a defensive nature). Are there any developments along these lines that you can talk about? The idea of some sort of terrorist biological attack wreaking havoc is a kind of bogey man these days. Any sense that the Jasons are losing sleep over it?
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 11 Oct 07 06:31
I'm apologizing right now for all future late responses. I'm traveling and I never know where my next bed, meal, or internet connection will be. Really I do know where my next bed and meal are. On biological Jasons: Jason veered off into biology beginning in the mid-1990s. They did very few studies, but the ones they did were in biomedicine -- "Ultrasound," "Biomedical Imaging" were two of the titles -- and detection of biowarfare bugs. In the late '90's, they started working on ways of dealing with the sequencing of the human genome, a militarily-useless subject. Around 2000, the number of bio studies picked up. They continued work on all the above, but added civilian biodefense, that is, how to detect biowarfare not on the battlefield but in our cities, and how to defend against it (the current public health system, they said, is a great starting-place). They've also done more work on how to combine the various biomedical images to get one complete image of the body; and other work on engineering bugs so they produce energy. So the bottom line is: their bio studies have been all over the map, scary and not scary. The scary ones are, as you hoped, defensive -- though any knowledge that helps you defend against bioterror can also be used to help you carry it out. And yes, some Jasons told me they lose a little sleep over that, not at all that any of their fellow Jasons might go over to the dark side, and not so much about the potential for bioterror attacks, as about the value of their knowledge to bad guys. And they didn't want to talk about it further one bit.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 11 Oct 07 08:56
Biological Jasons sort of remind me of the teams in Andromeda Strain.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 11 Oct 07 13:00
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 11 Oct 07 15:22
Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Sat 13 Oct 07 23:26
Ann, if I might be a bit P&P(pedantic and petty), on page 209 I found the following over lunch the other day and my mind has(ahem) been chewing over it for a few days: "Interact, though a perfectly good common-usage word, is also physics jargon for two particles with certain characters and trajectories that converge until they feel each other's fields of force, then either collide or veer off; in either case their characters and trajectories have changed." (BTW, I believe 'characters' s/b 'characteristics') A more succinct way of stating what I believe you mean is to say that an interaction will change the velocity(which is a vector, ie has a directional component as well as speed) and/or position of the particles(or molecules or, for that matter persons or animals) which ties neatly into the Heisenberg Principle WRT not being able to know a particle's position *and* velocity with absolute certainty as learning the one absolutly will change the other. Interestingly, I think one of the reasons physicists view biology(and therefore a good part of chemistry) as 'squishy'(I believe is how you put it) is because very often particles and molecules in biological systems interact from a distance or by not very well understood steps. Biological systems resist modeling because what causes me to thrive may kill you for reasons we can't quite grasp. We all know that methamphetamine gives one energy and freedom from hunger but I could also say that this is because of the similarity in the molecules of methamphetamine and epinephrine(aka adrenalin) and the 4 step hormonal cascade which results in the utilization of one's glycogen. In these interactions there is neither a collision nor a veering, but something close to embrasure as these complex molecules fold around the target which allows others to fold around them. Keep in mind though that there is neither collision nor necessarily binding in the strict sense. There is the old story of the butterfly flapping its wing and spawning a hurricane. I think we can all agree there has been interaction there, but of which type?
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Sun 14 Oct 07 17:22
When I defined "interaction" as physicists use it, I was thinking about the pretty little Feynman diagrams in which any two particles can approach each other, feel the force between then, and leave that interaction as different particles. It's the kindergarten version of a Feynman diagram and I don't know how it connects -- though it surely does - to the Heisenberg principle. But really, I put it in the book not for the physics but for the metaphor. Science is full of these metaphors and I love them. One of my favorite is critical opalescence. Raise the pressure and drop the temperature on any gas, like carbon dioxide, and it changes state and becomes a liquid. At one delicate point, as the carbon dioxide is no longer exactly a gas, patches in it -- big and little, here and there -- are sort-of liquid. At this so-called critical point, each of these patches reflects a different color and for a minute the carbon dioxide shimmers and turns iridescent, exactly the way opals do. So I like to think that pressure results not in breakdowns but in changes of state and critical opalescence. Not really addressing your point, is it. I don't know enough about biology to know how biologists use "interaction," or whether their use would make a good metaphor or not. What do you think? Would it?
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Tue 16 Oct 07 14:57
krome should speak for himself, of course, not me for him, but it isn't all that clear biology is more prone to action-at-a-distance charges than particle physics is. To me, at any rate. Funny coincidence, then, that what's coming up next in the Inkwell has to do with biology and biotech! It would be great to have you join in with us on that conversation, too. That's us. What's next for you, Ann?
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Tue 16 Oct 07 17:04
Nice of you to ask. I've just finished up some interviews at the University of Chicago and Fermilab for my next book -- on astronomers and a survey they bit off that was too big to chew -- and in the next month will give two talks on Jason, one to the Space Telescope Science Institute and the other to U Penn. That plus regular life. I love regular life. Biology and biotech -- my unlettered take on that is that those fields are more or less where physics was just after WWII. That is, politicians and the public had just figured out this stuff is useful. This has been fun. And thank you, everyone.
Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Wed 17 Oct 07 09:32
"but it isn't all that clear biology is more prone to action-at-a-distance charges than particle physics is." There was/is a sticker by the 5th floor freight elevator in the the chem building at UT Austin which says, "Chemistry is Everywhere". Indeed it is. That is to say that there is no action-at-a-distance in any chemical system(and WRT to particles we are still talking chemistry just as chemistry is fundamentally about physics). What resists the modeling are the steps involved in so many biological systems which make it *seem* that things are happening at a distance from the cause. Of course, they are not. All the actions in the forementioned hormonal cascade are immediate and close. But that doesn't mean that the cause and effect are obviously linked. That is to say that in biological systems the interactions can be many more and more varied than in many strictly physical systems(and here I should point out that I have only a layman's grasp of particle theories). And I would like to be in on the biotech discussion if I may.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 17 Oct 07 10:11
But of course. Come on by, it's right over in the next topic.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 17 Oct 07 10:34
Everybody's welcome to participate in all our Inkwell conversations, <krome>. Ann, thanks so much for joining us for the past couple weeks. This has been a remarkable conversation, and we're glad you could be here. Thanks also to Mark Harms for leading the discussion. Though we've now turned our virtual spotlight to a new guest, that doesn't mean this conversation has to stop. This thread will remain open for futher questions and comments indefinitely, so please feel welcome to continue if you can. If you've got other things on your schedule that demand your time and attention, know that we're glad you were able to share some of your time with us, and good luck with your new book, Ann!
Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 17 Oct 07 11:19
Well, thank you for your kind wishes. I've enjoyed this -- writers do enjoy talking on and on about their books, and you've certainly got a lively and intelligent community here. I'll check back in now and then to see whether the conversation has continued.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 17 Oct 07 12:04
Much fun, Ann, as well as an opportunity to learn. Thank you, best of luck with your next projects (and good ol' life!), and do stop by here again. Thanks for the elaboration, krome, esp. the point about *seeming* distance. That was roughly the inspiration for my "it isn't all that clear," since from the start physical forces (gravity, perhaps most notable among them, but others) have been susceptible to the action-at-a-distance charge. Much of the research agenda of physics has been set by the demand to respond to those charges -- as may the case in biology over the last century (a propos of Ann's remark it's like physics after WWII).
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Fri 19 Oct 07 18:17
I'm sorry folks for my unexpected absence. Thanks so much for joining us, Ann. I really enjoyed the discussion and the book.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 11 Nov 07 13:02
This wasn't Jason, but it sounds like similar work: "The contractor building the satellites, Boeing, was still giving Washington reassuring progress reports. But the program was threatening to outstrip its $5 billion budget, and pivotal parts of the design seemed increasingly unworkable. Peter B. Teets, the new head of the nations spy satellite agency, appointed a panel of experts to examine the secret project, telling them, according to one member, 'Find out whats going on, find the terrible truth I suspect is out there.'" http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/washington/11satellite.html Unfortunately, the panel of experts gave the go-ahead, and the rest is a classic tale of project mismanagement.
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