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#1083 and #1084: Nazis Are Beyond Awkward, Do Not Engage.

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Behind a cut for Nazis and the extremely triggering Nazi stuff they say and do.

Hi, Captain!

I’m a girl in her mid-twenties. Recently I’ve been pre-dating a guy (hanging out with him and his friends, flirting a little) but nothing official. I’m South Asian and very visibly POC. One of his friends approached me and warned me that the guy has a swastika tattoo on his chest “but is really sweet and it’s from the past and he’s not like that anymore”,

I grew up in Austria and am 100% against Neo-Nazis. They’ve harmed family members before so this made me very wary.

I asked him about it and he said that his old friends, who were Neo-Nazis, peer-pressed him into getting it, He says he doesn’t hang out with those friends anymore, doesn’t believe that stuff and is saving up to get the tattoo removed.

I’m torn. On one hand, he seems nice and swears that stuff is behind me. On the other hand, NEO-NAZI AND SWASTIKA TATTOO, how is that not a comic book villain warning sign. I’m struggling between my belief that people should be given a second chance versus the very real repugnance and fear for my safety.

Should I believe him when he says it’s over and maybe chip in towards tattoo removal? Or should I end this before it’s begun and back away? I don’t want him to feel like he is going to be forever judged for this but on the other hand, I am judging him. I am judging him HARD.

It’s partly the fact that he didn’t tell me himself, partly the fact he subscribed to an ideology that would see me and my family dead, partly the fact that he still has the tattoo and partly my concerns about what he might’ve done while he was with those friends.

It’s nice to say that people shouldn’t be judged forever, but the harm you do to someone can last forever. Even if you change your mind and stop, they’ll still wear the scars.

Am I being unduly harsh here? I feel guilty about it but I want to back off. And if I do, I have no idea how to explain to him that it’s because of something he swears is over.


Ew Neo-Nazis (she/her pronouns)

Dear Ew-Neo-Nazis:

Tattoos can be removed.

“But that costs money!!!!!” 

Yeah, money to remove tattoos can be earned, borrowed, GoFundMe’d. There are hero tattoo artists who will cover up these “youthful indiscretions” for free. He’s saving up, you say? Great. KEEP SAVING, BRO.

(Also, tattoo removal happens in stages – $200-500/session, multiple sessions depending on size. He could get started for relatively little money. Intending to remove your racist murder symbol and actually removing it are two different things.)

“But he’s really nice now and swears it’s all over!” 

But he’s also someone who once thought it was cool to get a swastika tattooed on his chest like a giant-ass warning label. Like, go ahead and judge! JUDGE HARD. You don’t have to be fair, or pre-forgive him for it, or listen to stuff about second chances. Let it be the warning label that it is!

Nazis murder people and they want to get the state to murder more people. They wear and display symbols to frighten the people they want to kill. It’s not complicated. If this guy wants to leave his Nazi past behind so bad, he can keep saving up for tattoo removal and not try to shortcut his way to redemption with your soft nonjudgmental kisses. He’ll be judged about that symbol as long as he wears it on his body. You don’t have to ignore your instincts to try to prove anything to him. Let him prove himself to you/to the world first. Redemption is a process, and if he wants it, there is still work ahead.

Your script could be “I’ve enjoyed talking with you these past few weeks and I hope you’re telling the truth about leaving all that behind. I don’t think anything is gonna happen with us right now and I wanted to let you know. Good luck getting that tattoo removed!” You don’t really have to explain more. He has a murder symbol permanently inscribed on his body. People like his old “friends” have hurt members of your family! Dating rejection goes with that territory!

Please, please, watch out for any attempts to paint you as The Only Girl Who Understands or The One Who Could Redeem All That. And please deliver the news that flirting time is over by text, from a safe distance.

P.S. Wanting to date Asian women is not necessarily a sign of reformed beliefs about race. Sorry. With Nazis it can always get creepier.

Dear Captain,

I have a „but faaaaamily” problem and I hope you can help.

Backstory: I have a brother 10 years my senior who bullied me my whole childhood and well into early adulthood. He *also* happens to be a huge racist and I think he’s an awful person.

He is constantly saying extremely racist things but my family more or less just roll their eyes and laugh it off. Everybody keeps telling me he doesn’t mean it, he just wants to provoke, he’d never actually do [awful thing], I should stop taking him so seriously! Nobody else does!

Captain, at this point it has started to feel like gaslighting. I’ve started questioning myself if maybe I really just have too much emotional baggage to see him (more) objectively, it’s just talk to get a rise out of me, I should take it less seriously (Thankfully I have friends who met him recently who kept me sane by being like ‘Wow, he *really* is as bad as you said I couldn’t believe it‘)

I want as little to do with him as possible and have mostly managed to do so. I don’t even care if he means the racist stuff or not. If he does then he’s horrible and if he doesn’t he’s slightly less horrible in a different way. I’ve tried to explain this to other family members more than once but for them, it all boils down to ‘Well, [my name] and [Brother] just don’t get along‘. It drives me crazy!

Example: a few weeks ago he off-handedly said „Welp, time to gas them all.“ I think I said something like „Wow. Did you seriously just say this?“ and left the room. His fiancée then felt the need to explain to me for 20 minutes what I wrote above: that he just says this stuff because he knows it annoys me, he doesn’t mean it etc.

Captain, something just snapped inside me. That was low even for him and I’m fed up with everyone telling me over and over again to shrug it off. I can live with seeing my brother every now and then; I merely happen to think he’s awful and I wish the rest of my family would understand and respect this instead of constantly brushing off my very real concerns!

Now, Brother is marrying next June and I am seriously considering not attending for the sole reason of making a point. I have this vague hope I guess that my family will finally get that this is about more than some stupid sibling rivalry. Downsides: massive „but faaaamily“ backlash, possibly poisoning the relationship with my brother’s fiancée forever (wedding = no excuses short of dying), you name it. I don’t know if would be worth the fallout let alone achieve anything besides nuking family relations for the next decade.

One friend suggested I sit down with Brother and have one (1) frank talk about my feelings, see what he has to say and then decide about the wedding. She has a point insofar as I’ve never actually done that. I tried to think of what outcome I’d like and/or how I’d react if he *did* say something like ‘Sorry I’ve hurt you, I wasn’t aware and I’ll try to keep down my racist comments around you’ and followed through with it but I haven’t come to a conclusion. It sounds sensible to give it a try…on the other hand, the very thought sets my teeth on edge.

Captain, what should I do? (No) Wedding? (No) Talk? Both? Neither?

Thanks in advance,
He’s A Fucking Nazi Okay (she/her pronouns)


Let’s talk about “ruining” relationships.

Your brother bullied you for years and then became a Nazi. I think he is a lost cause, at least for you, at least for now. If you do communicate with him about his politics it might be best as a “This is why I can’t talk to you anymore” letter, sent from a safe distance. (My trust in Nazis and bullies not to get violent when confronted is very low). But I don’t think you have a duty to put yourself in his line of fire. I don’t think he’ll suddenly see the light because you caringly and gently tell him that Nazis are bad and you’d like him to do better.

Your brother’s fiancée is marrying a Nazi. What relationship with her is possible here? Y’all gonna pick out Nazi-china together? Sorry, I think you gotta let the possibility of a good relationship with her go. She’s making her choices, either to participate in whatever it is or to overlook it. She’s already become his apologist, pressuring you to let his horrible comments pass. She’s not your friend.

If your family laughs off the racist and violent stuff your brother says, maybe they are also big old racists and it’s time to point that out or make tracks away from them?

Your script for family could be “Brother became a Nazi and frequently says threatening and horrible things. I just can’t spend time with him, but have fun at his Nazi wedding I guess.” 

Your family: “You’re really not coming to the wedding?”

You: “Has he stopped being a Nazi?” 

Your family: “But you have to go to the wedding!”

You: “I’ll happily go to all non-Nazi weddings! Gotta miss this one.”

Your family: “But he’d never actually do any of those things, don’t take him so seriously!”

You: “I take threats to quote ‘gas them all’ pretty seriously. I guess my question is, why don’t you?” (Did people who knew Heather Heyer’s murderers think they were “just joking”, too?)

Your family: “Oh, you’ve never liked him, this is just that dumb sibling rivalry.”

You: “You’re right, we’ve never gotten along, but now that he’s added ‘Being A Nazi’ to ‘Being a bully’ I’m afraid it’s impossible we’ll ever get along. So I’ma skip his wedding and let the people who are cool with him being a Nazi celebrate in peace!” 

Your family: “Do you really think not attending his wedding will change his mind? If you want to change Brother’s mind, you gotta stay engaged!” 

You:I don’t think anything I do will change his mind, but I do think that avoiding Nazis is a good way to take care of myself.” 

Your family/His fiancée: “He just does it to get a rise out of you!”

You: “Well good news, it’s working! If you don’t want me to be mad/appalled/avoiding family gatherings, maybe one of you who likes him can tell him to knock it the hell off?” 

See also:

  • “Why is that funny?”
  • “Why are you so relaxed around Nazi views?”
  • “Why are you so sure he doesn’t mean it? Does that mean if you thought he really meant it, you’d tell him to knock it off?” 
  • “Why am I the bad guy here?” 
  • “Why are you so sure it’s a joke?”
  • “How do you think people should react to statements like that? Do you think there is a right way to push back?” 
  • “Do you realize that when you tell me that it’s not a big deal, it makes it look like you agree with him?” 
  • “Why are you okay with him saying terrible things but not okay with me being unhappy about that?” 
  • “Why are you pressuring me to be okay with this?” 
  • “Do you agree with him? Is there something I should know about you?” 
  • “You’re worried about me ruining a relationship with my brother – why aren’t you worried about you ruining your relationship with me if you keep excusing his Nazi comments?” 

And I’ll tell you a secret: I know why they try to pressure you to accommodate your brother instead of trying to get him to stop bullying you and stop being a Nazi. I know exactly why:

  1. You are a woman and they see it as “your job” to make peace.
  2. They know that you are reasonable and that he is not. (They know that reasoning with him would be a complete waste of time, whereas you might be pressured into just letting it go)
  3. Nazis and bullies are scary, why antagonize him and put themselves in his crosshairs when you have traditionally absorbed all or most of his worst behavior?

THEY KNOW. This is Dysfunctional Family Shit 101. It is not your fault. But it is a reason to not trust your family to ever really get this or change how they interact with you.

My dear Letter Writer, it’s easy for me to say all this because I’m not the one disowning my entire family, and I recognize that none of this is trivial and all of this is scary. But…your brother is a Nazi. Your family seems cool excusing Nazis and taking your side against Nazis. Their definition of Faaaaaamily is “It’s okay to be a Nazi (but not okay to skip a wedding.)” That is Fucked. Up. I think it’s time to focus on everyone in your support system who can be trusted to not be Nazis, and put a lot of distance between yourself and your family, with a few exceptions.

Those exceptions: Do what you can to form YOUR OWN relationships (not mediated by your parents or aunts or uncles or formal family events) with people in your family who don’t enable the Nazi bullshit and little kids too young to know what’s up. Send birthday cards, text, snapchat, keep in touch, love them and let them love on you. Use some of Valerie Aurora’s scripts if you need to push back on problematic stuff.

And then make the peace you can with letting the rest go. I’m so sorry. I don’t think you can negotiate with them around this, or convince them to take your side, or convince your brother to stop being a Nazi asshole.

P.S. Q: Do you know what we call the people who voted for Hitler because they had “economic anxiety” and hoped his economic policies would make their lives better and they didn’t really care about all his racial politics?

A: Nazis. Those people are called Nazis.

P.P.S. We are addicted to redemption narratives, to our peril. I implore you (you = all of us) to take all the precious energy you might throw into changing Nazi minds and “patiently and logically refuting their arguments” (which really means “giving their arguments attention and taking them seriously”) and put it into organizing against the work that they do. They are killing people now (link has Nazis being Nazis in their own words). They are planning to kill more. Don’t be distracted by wondering if they would stop killing people if you were just a little bit nicer or more respectful to them.








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23 days ago
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24 days ago
We are addicted to redemption narratives, to our peril.
Melbourne, Australia

“The View From Flyover Country” will be published in paperback this spring!

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I’ve got some big news — my best-selling 2015 essay collection “The View From Flyover Country” will be released in an updated paperback version this spring! There has been intense reader demand for a print version of this book, and I’m happy to announce that this demand will be met thanks to Macmillan Publishers. My book is now available for preorder and will be released in April 2018.

The updated collection includes new essays on the Trump administration and how to navigate changes in our political system, so I encourage those who enjoyed the earlier version to check the new version out as well.

You can pre-order a copy at the following vendors:

Barnes and Noble

If you’re unfamiliar with “The View From Flyover Country”, it’s a collection of essays that I wrote between 2012 and 2014 which (unfortunately) documented the political social and economic conditions that led to Trump’s rise. Many people found it a useful read after the 2016 election, and it quickly became an international best-seller.

Here is a description of the book from my publisher:

A collection of penetrating essays about life in an America of dwindling opportunity—from the St. Louis–based journalist often credited with first predicting Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

St. Louis–based writer and expert in authoritarian states, Sarah Kendzior, has been called “a political heavyweight” and “a Cassandra in Trumpland.” In 2015, she collected the essays she reported for Al Jazeera and published them as The View from Flyover Country, which became an ebook bestseller and garnered praise from readers around the world. Now, The View from Flyover Country is being released in print with an updated introduction and epilogue that reflect on the ways that the Trump presidency was the certain result of the realities first captured in Kendzior’s essays.

A clear-eyed account of the realities of life in America’s overlooked heartland, The View from Flyover Country is a piercing critique of the labor exploitation, racism, gentrification, media bias, and other aspects of the post-employment economy that gave rise to a president who rules like an autocrat. The View from Flyover Country is necessary reading for anyone who believes that the only way for America to fix its problems is to first discuss them with honesty and compassion.

“Please put everything aside and try to get ahold of Sarah Kendzior’s collected essays, The View from Flyover Country. I have rarely come across writing that is as urgent and beautifully expressed. What makes Kendzior’s writing so truly important is [that] it . . . documents where the problem lies, by somebody who lives there.”Omair Ahmad, The Wire

“Sarah Kendzior is as harsh and tenacious a critic of the Trump administration as you’ll find. She isn’t some new kid on the political block or a controversy machine. . . .Rather she is a widely published journalist and anthropologist who has spent much of her life studying authoritarianism.” —Columbia Tribune

I’m very grateful to all my readers and hope you are as excited about this new version as I am! Thank you for all your support.


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147 days ago
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Scrolling on the Web: A Primer

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Scrolling is complicated. Nolan Lawson:

  • User scrolls with two fingers on a touch pad
  • User scrolls with one finger on a touch screen
  • User scrolls with a mouse wheel on a physical mouse
  • User clicks the sidebar and drags it up and down
  • User presses up, down, PageUp, PageDown, or spacebar keys on a keyboard

As it turns out, all five of these input methods have vastly different characteristics, especially when it comes to performance and cross-browser behavior. Some of them (such as touch screen scrolling) are likely to be smooth even on a page with heavy JavaScript usage, whereas others (such as keyboard scrolling) will make the same page feel laggy and unresponsive. Furthermore, some kinds of scrolling can be slowed down by DOM event handlers, whereas others won't.

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Scrolling on the Web: A Primer is a post from CSS-Tricks

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371 days ago
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Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

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One of the most popular pieces of writing on our site is Long Now co-founder Danny Hillis’ remembrance of building an experimental computer with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. It’s easy to see why: Hillis’ reminisces about Feynman’s final years as they worked together on the Connection Machine are at once illuminating and poignant, and paint a picture of a man who was beloved as much for his eccentricity as his genius.

Photo by Faustin Bray

Photo by Faustin Bray

Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

by W. Daniel Hillis for Physics Today

Reprinted with permission from Phys. Today 42(2), 78 (01989). Copyright 01989, American Institute of Physics.

One day when I was having lunch with Richard Feynman, I mentioned to him that I was planning to start a company to build a parallel computer with a million processors. His reaction was unequivocal, “That is positively the dopiest idea I ever heard.” For Richard a crazy idea was an opportunity to either prove it wrong or prove it right. Either way, he was interested. By the end of lunch he had agreed to spend the summer working at the company.

Richard’s interest in computing went back to his days at Los Alamos, where he supervised the “computers,” that is, the people who operated the mechanical calculators. There he was instrumental in setting up some of the first plug-programmable tabulating machines for physical simulation. His interest in the field was heightened in the late 1970’s when his son, Carl, began studying computers at MIT.

I got to know Richard through his son. I was a graduate student at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Carl was one of the undergraduates helping me with my thesis project. I was trying to design a computer fast enough to solve common sense reasoning problems. The machine, as we envisioned it, would contain a million tiny computers, all connected by a communications network. We called it a “Connection Machine.” Richard, always interested in his son’s activities, followed the project closely. He was skeptical about the idea, but whenever we met at a conference or I visited CalTech, we would stay up until the early hours of the morning discussing details of the planned machine. The first time he ever seemed to believe that we were really going to try to build it was the lunchtime meeting.

Richard arrived in Boston the day after the company was incorporated. We had been busy raising the money, finding a place to rent, issuing stock, etc. We set up in an old mansion just outside of the city, and when Richard showed up we were still recovering from the shock of having the first few million dollars in the bank. No one had thought about anything technical for several months. We were arguing about what the name of the company should be when Richard walked in, saluted, and said, “Richard Feynman reporting for duty. OK, boss, what’s my assignment?” The assembled group of not-quite-graduated MIT students was astounded.

After a hurried private discussion (“I don’t know, you hired him…”), we informed Richard that his assignment would be to advise on the application of parallel processing to scientific problems.

“That sounds like a bunch of baloney,” he said. “Give me something real to do.”

So we sent him out to buy some office supplies. While he was gone, we decided that the part of the machine that we were most worried about was the router that delivered messages from one processor to another. We were not sure that our design was going to work. When Richard returned from buying pencils, we gave him the assignment of analyzing the router.

The Machine

The router of the Connection Machine was the part of the hardware that allowed the processors to communicate. It was a complicated device; by comparison, the processors themselves were simple. Connecting a separate communication wire between each pair of processors was impractical since a million processors would require $10^{12]$ wires. Instead, we planned to connect the processors in a 20-dimensional hypercube so that each processor would only need to talk to 20 others directly. Because many processors had to communicate simultaneously, many messages would contend for the same wires. The router’s job was to find a free path through this 20-dimensional traffic jam or, if it couldn’t, to hold onto the message in a buffer until a path became free. Our question to Richard Feynman was whether we had allowed enough buffers for the router to operate efficiently.

During those first few months, Richard began studying the router circuit diagrams as if they were objects of nature. He was willing to listen to explanations of how and why things worked, but fundamentally he preferred to figure out everything himself by simulating the action of each of the circuits with pencil and paper.

In the meantime, the rest of us, happy to have found something to keep Richard occupied, went about the business of ordering the furniture and computers, hiring the first engineers, and arranging for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to pay for the development of the first prototype. Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”

The technical side of the project was definitely stretching our capacities. We had decided to simplify things by starting with only 64,000 processors, but even then the amount of work to do was overwhelming. We had to design our own silicon integrated circuits, with processors and a router. We also had to invent packaging and cooling mechanisms, write compilers and assemblers, devise ways of testing processors simultaneously, and so on. Even simple problems like wiring the boards together took on a whole new meaning when working with tens of thousands of processors. In retrospect, if we had had any understanding of how complicated the project was going to be, we never would have started.

‘Get These Guys Organized’

I had never managed a large group before and I was clearly in over my head. Richard volunteered to help out. “We’ve got to get these guys organized,” he told me. “Let me tell you how we did it at Los Alamos.”

Every great man that I have known has had a certain time and place in their life that they use as a reference point; a time when things worked as they were supposed to and great things were accomplished. For Richard, that time was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Whenever things got “cockeyed,” Richard would look back and try to understand how now was different than then. Using this approach, Richard decided we should pick an expert in each area of importance in the machine, such as software or packaging or electronics, to become the “group leader” in this area, analogous to the group leaders at Los Alamos.

Part Two of Feynman’s “Let’s Get Organized” campaign was that we should begin a regular seminar series of invited speakers who might have interesting things to do with our machine. Richard’s idea was that we should concentrate on people with new applications, because they would be less conservative about what kind of computer they would use. For our first seminar he invited John Hopfield, a friend of his from CalTech, to give us a talk on his scheme for building neural networks. In 1983, studying neural networks was about as fashionable as studying ESP, so some people considered John Hopfield a little bit crazy. Richard was certain he would fit right in at Thinking Machines Corporation.

What Hopfield had invented was a way of constructing an [associative memory], a device for remembering patterns. To use an associative memory, one trains it on a series of patterns, such as pictures of the letters of the alphabet. Later, when the memory is shown a new pattern it is able to recall a similar pattern that it has seen in the past. A new picture of the letter “A” will “remind” the memory of another “A” that it has seen previously. Hopfield had figured out how such a memory could be built from devices that were similar to biological neurons.

Not only did Hopfield’s method seem to work, but it seemed to work well on the Connection Machine. Feynman figured out the details of how to use one processor to simulate each of Hopfield’s neurons, with the strength of the connections represented as numbers in the processors’ memory. Because of the parallel nature of Hopfield’s algorithm, all of the processors could be used concurrently with 100\% efficiency, so the Connection Machine would be hundreds of times faster than any conventional computer.

An Algorithm For Logarithms

Feynman worked out the program for computing Hopfield’s network on the Connection Machine in some detail. The part that he was proudest of was the subroutine for computing logarithms. I mention it here not only because it is a clever algorithm, but also because it is a specific contribution Richard made to the mainstream of computer science. He invented it at Los Alamos.

Consider the problem of finding the logarithm of a fractional number between 1.0 and 2.0 (the algorithm can be generalized without too much difficulty). Feynman observed that any such number can be uniquely represented as a product of numbers of the form $1 + 2^{-k]$, where $k$ is an integer. Testing each of these factors in a binary number representation is simply a matter of a shift and a subtraction. Once the factors are determined, the logarithm can be computed by adding together the precomputed logarithms of the factors. The algorithm fit especially well on the Connection Machine, since the small table of the logarithms of $1 + 2^{-k]$ could be shared by all the processors. The entire computation took less time than division.

Concentrating on the algorithm for a basic arithmetic operation was typical of Richard’s approach. He loved the details. In studying the router, he paid attention to the action of each individual gate and in writing a program he insisted on understanding the implementation of every instruction. He distrusted abstractions that could not be directly related to the facts. When several years later I wrote a general interest article on the Connection Machine for [Scientific American], he was disappointed that it left out too many details. He asked, “How is anyone supposed to know that this isn’t just a bunch of crap?”

Feynman’s insistence on looking at the details helped us discover the potential of the machine for numerical computing and physical simulation. We had convinced ourselves at the time that the Connection Machine would not be efficient at “number-crunching,” because the first prototype had no special hardware for vectors or floating point arithmetic. Both of these were “known” to be requirements for number-crunching. Feynman decided to test this assumption on a problem that he was familiar with in detail: quantum chromodynamics.

Quantum chromodynamics is a theory of the internal workings of atomic particles such as protons. Using this theory it is possible, in principle, to compute the values of measurable physical quantities, such as a proton’s mass. In practice, such a computation requires so much arithmetic that it could keep the fastest computers in the world busy for years. One way to do this calculation is to use a discrete four-dimensional lattice to model a section of space-time. Finding the solution involves adding up the contributions of all of the possible configurations of certain matrices on the links of the lattice, or at least some large representative sample. (This is essentially a Feynman path integral.) The thing that makes this so difficult is that calculating the contribution of even a single configuration involves multiplying the matrices around every little loop in the lattice, and the number of loops grows as the fourth power of the lattice size. Since all of these multiplications can take place concurrently, there is plenty of opportunity to keep all 64,000 processors busy.

To find out how well this would work in practice, Feynman had to write a computer program for QCD. Since the only computer language Richard was really familiar with was Basic, he made up a parallel version of Basic in which he wrote the program and then simulated it by hand to estimate how fast it would run on the Connection Machine.

He was excited by the results. “Hey Danny, you’re not going to believe this, but that machine of yours can actually do something [useful]!” According to Feynman’s calculations, the Connection Machine, even without any special hardware for floating point arithmetic, would outperform a machine that CalTech was building for doing QCD calculations. From that point on, Richard pushed us more and more toward looking at numerical applications of the machine.

By the end of that summer of 1983, Richard had completed his analysis of the behavior of the router, and much to our surprise and amusement, he presented his answer in the form of a set of partial differential equations. To a physicist this may seem natural, but to a computer designer, treating a set of boolean circuits as a continuous, differentiable system is a bit strange. Feynman’s router equations were in terms of variables representing continuous quantities such as “the average number of 1 bits in a message address.” I was much more accustomed to seeing analysis in terms of inductive proof and case analysis than taking the derivative of “the number of 1’s” with respect to time. Our discrete analysis said we needed seven buffers per chip; Feynman’s equations suggested that we only needed five. We decided to play it safe and ignore Feynman.

The decision to ignore Feynman’s analysis was made in September, but by next spring we were up against a wall. The chips that we had designed were slightly too big to manufacture and the only way to solve the problem was to cut the number of buffers per chip back to five. Since Feynman’s equations claimed we could do this safely, his unconventional methods of analysis started looking better and better to us. We decided to go ahead and make the chips with the smaller number of buffers.

Fortunately, he was right. When we put together the chips the machine worked. The first program run on the machine in April of 1985 was Conway’s game of Life.

Cellular Automata

The game of Life is an example of a class of computations that interested Feynman called [cellular automata]. Like many physicists who had spent their lives going to successively lower and lower levels of atomic detail, Feynman often wondered what was at the bottom. One possible answer was a cellular automaton. The notion is that the “continuum” might, at its lowest levels, be discrete in both space and time, and that the laws of physics might simply be a macro-consequence of the average behavior of tiny cells. Each cell could be a simple automaton that obeys a small set of rules and communicates only with its nearest neighbors, like the lattice calculation for QCD. If the universe in fact worked this way, then it presumably would have testable consequences, such as an upper limit on the density of information per cubic meter of space.

The notion of cellular automata goes back to von Neumann and Ulam, whom Feynman had known at Los Alamos. Richard’s recent interest in the subject was motivated by his friends Ed Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram, both of whom were fascinated by cellular automata models of physics. Feynman was always quick to point out to them that he considered their specific models “kooky,” but like the Connection Machine, he considered the subject sufficiently crazy to put some energy into.

There are many potential problems with cellular automata as a model of physical space and time; for example, finding a set of rules that obeys special relativity. One of the simplest problems is just making the physics so that things look the same in every direction. The most obvious pattern of cellular automata, such as a fixed three-dimensional grid, have preferred directions along the axes of the grid. Is it possible to implement even Newtonian physics on a fixed lattice of automata?

Feynman had a proposed solution to the anisotropy problem which he attempted (without success) to work out in detail. His notion was that the underlying automata, rather than being connected in a regular lattice like a grid or a pattern of hexagons, might be randomly connected. Waves propagating through this medium would, on the average, propagate at the same rate in every direction.

Cellular automata started getting attention at Thinking Machines when Stephen Wolfram, who was also spending time at the company, suggested that we should use such automata not as a model of physics, but as a practical method of simulating physical systems. Specifically, we could use one processor to simulate each cell and rules that were chosen to model something useful, like fluid dynamics. For two-dimensional problems there was a neat solution to the anisotropy problem since [Frisch, Hasslacher, Pomeau] had shown that a hexagonal lattice with a simple set of rules produced isotropic behavior at the macro scale. Wolfram used this method on the Connection Machine to produce a beautiful movie of a turbulent fluid flow in two dimensions. Watching the movie got all of us, especially Feynman, excited about physical simulation. We all started planning additions to the hardware, such as support of floating point arithmetic that would make it possible for us to perform and display a variety of simulations in real time.

Feynman the Explainer

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

Getting Richard to give advice like that was sometimes tricky. He pretended not to like working on any problem that was outside his claimed area of expertise. Often, at Thinking Machines when he was asked for advice he would gruffly refuse with “That’s not my department.” I could never figure out just what his department was, but it did not matter anyway, since he spent most of his time working on those “not-my-department” problems. Sometimes he really would give up, but more often than not he would come back a few days after his refusal and remark, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked the other day and it seems to me…” This worked best if you were careful not to expect it.

I do not mean to imply that Richard was hesitant to do the “dirty work.” In fact, he was always volunteering for it. Many a visitor at Thinking Machines was shocked to see that we had a Nobel Laureate soldering circuit boards or painting walls. But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

A Kind Of Game

Richard worked at the company on and off for the next five years. Floating point hardware was eventually added to the machine, and as the machine and its successors went into commercial production, they were being used more and more for the kind of numerical simulation problems that Richard had pioneered with his QCD program. Richard’s interest shifted from the construction of the machine to its applications. As it turned out, building a big computer is a good excuse to talk to people who are working on some of the most exciting problems in science. We started working with physicists, astronomers, geologists, biologists, chemists — everyone of them trying to solve some problem that it had never been possible to solve before. Figuring out how to do these calculations on a parallel machine requires understanding of the details of the application, which was exactly the kind of thing that Richard loved to do.

For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, “What is the simplest example?” or “How can you tell if the answer is right?” He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. “Don’t bug me. I’m busy,” he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened). In this way he worked on problems in database searches, geophysical modeling, protein folding, analyzing images, and reading insurance forms.

The last project that I worked on with Richard was in simulated evolution. I had written a program that simulated the evolution of populations of sexually reproducing creatures over hundreds of thousands of generations. The results were surprising in that the fitness of the population made progress in sudden leaps rather than by the expected steady improvement. The fossil record shows some evidence that real biological evolution might also exhibit such “punctuated equilibrium,” so Richard and I decided to look more closely at why it happened. He was feeling ill by that time, so I went out and spent the week with him in Pasadena, and we worked out a model of evolution of finite populations based on the Fokker Planck equations. When I got back to Boston I went to the library and discovered a book by Kimura on the subject, and much to my disappointment, all of our “discoveries” were covered in the first few pages. When I called back and told Richard what I had found, he was elated. “Hey, we got it right!” he said. “Not bad for amateurs.”

In retrospect I realize that in almost everything that we worked on together, we were both amateurs. In digital physics, neural networks, even parallel computing, we never really knew what we were doing. But the things that we studied were so new that no one else knew exactly what they were doing either. It was amateurs who made the progress.

Telling The Good Stuff You Know

Actually, I doubt that it was “progress” that most interested Richard. He was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.

I remember a conversation we had a year or so before his death, walking in the hills above Pasadena. We were exploring an unfamiliar trail and Richard, recovering from a major operation for the cancer, was walking more slowly than usual. He was telling a long and funny story about how he had been reading up on his disease and surprising his doctors by predicting their diagnosis and his chances of survival. I was hearing for the first time how far his cancer had progressed, so the jokes did not seem so funny. He must have noticed my mood, because he suddenly stopped the story and asked, “Hey, what’s the matter?”

I hesitated. “I’m sad because you’re going to die.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, “that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think.” And after a few more steps, “When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you’ve told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway.”

We walked along in silence for a few minutes. Then we came to a place where another trail crossed and Richard stopped to look around at the surroundings. Suddenly a grin lit up his face. “Hey,” he said, all trace of sadness forgotten, “I bet I can show you a better way home.”

And so he did.

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406 days ago
Boston area
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Boston area
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