Tag Archives: People

Goodbye Philadelphia


I’ve lived in the same one bedroom apartment for most of my twenties, during my undergrad and grad studies. If you’re reading this, you may have visited there on occasion. But if you have not, I’d say it’s a cross between a library and a cave. A dozen bookcases line the walls, full of books and countless trinkets: two staplers, a postcard from a high school friend who I never really got to know, a mug from France or Germany or Italy, who knows… and hundreds of other things that gathered dust and watched as I made mistakes of all kinds but mostly with cooking.

All those things are now gone. I got rid of 99% of my possessions, and moved out of the apartment. Most of what I own now fits into a carry-on suitcase. All I’m left with are the phone numbers of people I love and the chaos of ideas rumbling around in my head, waiting to spill out. Yesterday, as I walked around on this year’s first snow, I couldn’t help but miss every little thing about life in Philadelphia before I even left. Everyone is still here, within reach, but I already miss them.

I miss the people I’ve worked with in academia: long hours chasing deadlines, enthusiastically tossing around ideas like kids building a LEGO castle without the instructions. I miss the people I’ve trained judo and jiu jitsu with: blood, sweat, and tears spilled on the mat over a pijama game that somehow forced me and everyone else to confront fears, weaknesses, and the absurdly delusional ramblings of the ego. I miss the friend with whom I traveled across the country with: the Neal Cassady of my life “on the road.” I miss my mom, my dad, my brother. I miss playing music at shady bars: with a great guitar in hand, no, could be the best? Gibson Les Paul everytime, singing songs in front of people who were too drunk to care about anything except a good Hendrix cover: “Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?” I miss the long runs on Kelly Drive. I miss the late night diners: the grey faces, the burnt coffee, and the feeling that nothing matters and everything is beautiful. I miss the long bus rides north, alone. I miss the people. I miss the conversations. I miss being younger… and stupider.

Goodbye Philly… for now. I’ll be back.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The photo up top is taken by my brother. I love you bro.

5 Lessons Learned from Einstein’s Work and Personal Life

This month I read (and listened to the audiobook of) Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are some “lessons” I drew from it. Before reading this book, I knew very little of the man and process behind the theories. I was pleasantly surprised but also saddened.

Towards unification

Albert_Einstein_photo_1920What drove much of the curiosity and passion of Einstein’s work is the belief that the universe may be governed by a single law: a theory that unifies all the forces of nature without the messy uncertainty of the mysterious quantum mechanics and its ilk. He hoped for there to be a simple truth underlying all of nature. In a way, it is a hope that all of us share, because part of what makes existence so damn terrifying (in a existential philosophy sense) is how messy it is and how little we understand about it.

More practically, I think, the inclination towards unification can be applied day to day in your own life. The goal of searching for the unifying theory of whatever you do is a fruitful one in the long-term. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details as you specialize further and further in a particular subject or activity. Taking a step back to search for the bigger picture is often the most productive step you can take (even if it is technically a step “backwards”).

Work alone

Einstein was the ultimate outsider. Many physicists and academics in general prefer to work in rich collaborations. Even when the collaboration is not a direct one, the set of ideas with which scientists work is usually pulled from the pool of consensus. There are many disagreements, but there are also many agreed-upon assumptions. Einstein was able to step beyond the assumptions of the day to explore space and time solely through the power of his mind. It can not be overstated how difficult it is to ignore the agreed-upon belief of you brilliant peers (especially in formal theoretical fields like mathematics and physics).

Einstein worked alone in a literal sense but also in an intellectual sense. He was not burdened by the pressures of his scientific community except for the one-time hurried race (related to general relativity) between him and David Hilbert in November of 1915. This stubbornness/reclusion was a blessing for science at first, but in the eyes of some, a curse later, as he stubbornly resisted the quantum-mechanical description of the world for his whole life. The following is probably my favorite Einstein paper from 1935: Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? In this paper he suggested a simple thought experiment that (in his mind) invalidates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that puts strict limits on how accurately one can measure the position, velocity, energy, and other properties of a particle:

Imagine that a particle decays into two smaller particles of equal mass and that these two daughter particles fly apart in opposite directions. To conserve momentum, both particles must have identical speeds. If you measure the velocity or position of one particle, you will know the velocity or position of the other—and you will know it without disturbing the second particle in any way. The second particle, in other words, can be precisely measured at all times.

The absurdity of quantum mechanics is overwhelming at every level. It would have been a show-stopping achievement if Einstein peaked behind the curtain of QM to in fact arrive at a theory that unified general relativity with electromagnetism.

Try a lot of things

“Most of my intellectual offspring end up very young in the graveyard of disappointed hopes” – Einstein, 1938.

The variety of ideas and approaches that Einstein entertained in his life is remarkable. Even the final years of his life that did not produce any grand theories was a story of bold exploration.

Obvious advice: Try new approaches to problems that you have failed to solve in the past.

This is advice that everyone knows is true, but most people don’t follow.  The better an old dog gets at doing its old trick, the less willing he is to learn a new one.

Inspiration and innovation can come from the strangest places, arrive suddenly, and pass just out of reach if you are not ready. So, be open to the freakiest possibilities.

Escape the emotional “whirlpool” of personal experience

The follow statement of Einstein saddened me. It is a cynical view of the balance between his work and his love life. At the age of 39, he declared (in a speech if I remember from the book) that scientific thought can be an escape from feeling:

“One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

It is interesting to think about the genius of Einstein as merely a way to deal with a world he was not emotionally equipped to deal with otherwise.

You can love passionately or marry comfortably

Einstein married twice, first was Mileva Maric at age 24 and then Elsa Lowenthal at age 40. The two women represented very different types of companion that a man can have. Mileva was a talented physicists who worshipped Albert in the way that is perhaps standard for any good love affair between strong minds. But she couldn’t create a simple, peaceful life for him where he could work in isolation. Elsa, on the other hand, had neither ability nor desire to understand Einstein’s work, but instead dedicated herself fully to serving the role of wife and caretaker to Albert, meaning she took care of everything and made sure that he could work when he wanted to work, and would not be disturbed. Their connection was purely of comfort. They slept in separate beds.

The lesson to draw here is a complicated one for me. I too am an academic, and perhaps a difficult one to get along with at times. But at this stage in my life, I will always dive into the passionate love affair without consideration for the consequences. When a beautiful girl looks at me with admiration (even obsession), and I share that feeling, the impossible becomes possible. There is magic in that connection. Escaping the chaos of that for the comfort of a recluse intellectual life seems dull and life-draining, but perhaps I’m still just an ignorant teenager in a 30-year-old man’s body. Maybe I will grow wiser and more cautious one day.

I’ll close this blog post with the picture of the two ladies (first Mileva and then Elsa):

Mileva_Maric elsa-einstein


The Decline of Marriage: A 50 Year Trend

C-SPAN did a segment on Families and Living Arrangements with Jonathan Vespa from the US Census Bureau. What follows are some of the trends on marriage and relationships in the United States that I found particularly interesting. It’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that the institution of marriage, and even the ideal of a marriage found of lifelong monogamy is fading. What will marriage and family look like at the end of 21st century? If the trends continue, then marriage in its traditional form will not survive the half-century mark, but perhaps social norms progress not in a straight light but in a spiral, and 2050s will look much more like the 1950s than the world of today.

Married with Children: Declined by Half

The following trend shows that married couples with children declined from 40% to 20% since 1970. Of course, what is not shown is un-married couples living together with or without children. That’s the group that is on the rise. In other words, marriage is less and less a thing that’s a requirement for a stable household.


Don’t Get Married Until Your 30th Birthday

Not only are we getting married less, we’re also waiting longer. The median age of first marriage for men went from 23 to 29 in the last 60 years. For women the age went from 20 to 27. I just turned 30 last month. Despite my mom’s strongest wishes, this does not mean I will initiate a rigorous search for a spouse. Like many over-educated men of my generation, I’m in no hurry to marry, unless it is to someone I feel a deep connection with.

statistics-age-when-men-and-women-first-get married

You’re Not Alone Even When You’re So Very Alone

“Alone” here is defined as “a household of one”. To me that sounds like a proud stand against the forces of convention. More and more people are taking such a stand. The increase is from 13% to 27% in the last 50 years. I suspect I will eventually break down and allow a nice lady friend to invade my humble cave of solitude, but at this time I’m still holding on to the productive days of living without a care in world, loving life and loving work.


You can find more statistics from this report in this PDF document.

No More Pushkin or Dostoevsky After You Turn 100

Russian-Centenarians-03-634x634I came across an interesting page covering six Russian women over 100 years old in their own words. In particular, a 103 year old woman named Goarik Artemyevna Balasanyan (pictured right) caught my attention.

She’s a woman after my own heart. In just a few words of hers I hear the echoes of pain and wisdom from having lived through a century of turmoil. But really, she is mostly just concerned with the practical matters of no longer being able to enjoy the things she did when she was a young girl: reading Pushkin.

“There is nothing funny about being that old. The most terrible thing is that my eyesight is worse and worse and can’t read Pushkin. I love him, his portrait hangs over my head. I also like Byron, Goethe, Dostoevsky.”

grandma-babanyaI grew up with my grandma (on my mom’s side) and miss her terribly. I often wrote letters to her when I was in high school, but I stopped, and if I regret anything in life it’s this. And as I write these words now, I realize that 10 years from now, the same will be true. So I’ll stop writing this silly blog now, and sit down to write her, for the first time in over 10 years. My Russian is that of a 12 year old and is rusty, especially when I try to write in it. But while Mrs. Balasanyan above might miss her Pushkin, I hope my grandma will have slightly lower standards 😉 She is pictured left, looking great, with her 85th birthday coming up on October 28.

Torture, Survival, and Forgiveness in World War II Japan

My mind was elsewhere today. I was down due to a couple simple twists and turns of life, I nevertheless couldn’t help but get pulled into and finish the 500 page Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived 47 days on the Pacific ocean in a raft, 3 years as a prisoner of war, and a lifetime of attempting normalcy in a society that cannot possibility relate to the psychological ordeal he went through.

Surviving One Step at a Time

In some ways, his story is one that has been experienced by millions of soldiers in the past century. His story represents the quiet suffering of millions, each with their own  journey that too often came to a darker ending. I’m not giving away much of the story here, what I said so far is revealed up front. You should read the book, especially in a time when you’re going through something challenging yourself. It will inspire you to learn of the depth of perseverance that rests in each one of us.

As Zamperini says himself, if he knew ahead of time that he would have to go through all that he went through, he would most certainly commit suicide. But when you break it all down day by day, step by step, the mind can bare the deepest solitude and the harshest torture.

Forgiving Evil

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”

Mutsuhiro_WatanabeFrom reading interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, it often comes through that forgiveness is liberating but is also damn near impossible for most people. In Louie Zamperini’s case the embodiment of evil was one man (picture left): Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “The Bird”). The Bird derived erotic pleasure from torture. He was weak-willed, jealous, insecure, and psychotic. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Zamperini’s life is the forgiving of this man.

For Zamperini, the answer was in discovering God. I was disappointed at first to see the transformation of this unbreakable will through a religious awakening, but perhaps there is no greater example of the end justifying the means. I wished he would have overcome this final challenge without resorting to a belief in a higher being. It felt like an escape rather than an “overcoming”. But again, in this case, the end justifies the means. This man would not be broken.

A Mother’s Unconditional Love

One other beautiful and morally-wrenching aspect of the story is the love of Mutsuhiro Watanabe’s mother towards her son. Her unwillingness to give up The Bird (a public monster, torturer of hundreds, and one of the biggest Japanese war criminals of WWII) to the authorities given the opportunity, showed the ability of a mother’s love to transcend the bounds of reason and morality. While I found both human beings despicable, there was something very human about that kind of love: the unbreakable bond of family.

No More Tackle Football: Matt Turns Thirty

matt-lex-allen-brad-harandi-bashMy best friend Matt (the brown guy in the picture to the left) turned 30 this weekend. He does a barbeque thing in the park every year that has become a tradition at this point. I try to make sure that I’m there every year, because these are some of the ugliest dudes I know, and so it gives me a much needed annual confidence boost.

We play various sports all day, talk shit, and eat burgers (and in my case: a veggie medley that naturally accompanies a last minute weight cut for some upcoming grappling tournament). I get a lot of crap for this. They are jealous of the fact that I belong to the elite club of people who have ever ordered a salad at a diner.

Tackle Football

For many years, the highlight of the day has been a game of tackle football. Naturally, this was the time and place for many of us to prove for recorded history that we can still hit hard and get hit no problem. This year we all collectively retired from this violent ritual and instead opted for the game of TOUCH football. This was also the first year a few of us actually stretched a little, trying to justify it as a sign of wisdom, not a sign of old age.

pete-allen-bags-dominationPictured right are my other two buddies Pete and Allen. I put this picture up because most of the competitive spirit that was usually reserved for tackle football was channeled into the game of bags. We did a 16+ man tournament that Pete and I won. Every team pretty much had a good person and a shitty person. I was the shitty person on my team, Pete doing the bulk of the actual winning. But because no one expected anything from me, the rare times I scored were a much celebrated event. Since it has become such a tradition, all the guys got together to shop custom football uniforms and now we look legit!


At the Dog Park

rex-matts-dogThe other thing I noticed is that everyone (single or married) now had kids or dogs or both. Rex (pictured left) is Matt’s 16 month old fierce animal. He was probably 5 times smaller than any of the other dogs in the dog park, but in his mind he was the alpha. This is inspirational to me on many levels, in life and in sport. Off the battlefield, he is a sweet guy and fun to play with. Also, has a one track mind when it comes to food: he likes it all. My dog, Homer (at 200+ lbs), was very picky about the kind of things he liked to eat. Him and Rex would make a good eating couple.

Epic Ping Pong Battle

Continuing with the theme of unmanly sports, I got to video the end of a ridiculously competitive (and somehow fun) game of run-around-the-ping-pong-table. Allen and Pete were the last two remaining “competitors”. Both of them took off one of their shirts, which for old people is a big deal:

It was good to see everyone. I love these folks. I’ve known most of them for 17+ years, and they really haven’t changed a bit.

Childhood and Apartment Size Through The Generations

My brother and I went to visit mom and dad yesterday for dinner. The conversation often dives into the deeply philosophical and comes up for air in the absurd mix of my brother’s romantic escapades, the difference between two kinds of French cheese or wine or women and everything in between. Most of it is carried out in four different versions of the Russian language, invented over the past 15 years by each of us. My version is perhaps the saddest. It’s a weak gazelle dragging its hooves behind the pack. I can glimpse the irony and melancholy of the words from the other three, but myself can’t generate anything. Instead I take the role of Hemingway, assigned the task of inspiring a perception of wisdom by using as few words as possible.

We talked about my dad’s mom as a young girl during the second World War, and my dad’s early childhood. I won’t mention any details except to say that life was hard. And it occurred to me as I returned home that my dad has seen a gradual increase in apartment size from the day he was born to today, from one tiny room holding 5 people to today where not only he, but each of his children, enjoy the vast possibilities of having a separate kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.

baby-picture-lex-fridmanThe story of life in the Soviet Union in the 20th century for most people was that of poverty. I grew up knee deep in it, but was sheltered from it by the care of my parents. My biggest concerns in childhood were the harassment by my older brother, the kissing of girls, and the fact that my soccer skills were far inferior to those of the guys older than me. I am forever grateful for that. And while I believe my parents are most proud of having brought us to America and all the opportunities that come with that, I am most thankful for the happy childhood they gave me and my brother amid the chaos and challenges of the life in the Soviet Union.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself (and 150 Other Things)

thinning-of-research-fundingMy longtime friend Ryan, sent me a thought-provoking list of things “we should be worried about” as answered by 150 top scientists and scholars from a variety of fields. Most of these have many books written about them, so it’s not anything new but because the list itself is made up of quotes from these insightful minds, the list does have a certain charm and mystery to it with a pinch of wit and humor mixed in.

A lot of the concerns are straight forward and like economic collapse, low probability black swan events, the declining status of scientific reasoning and knowledge in society, etc, so I’ll just mention the ones that caught my eye and comment on them…

“Funding for big experiments will dry up”

Since most of the comments came from scientists, there was a recurring fear that our society is de-valuating science to a point where it’s almost becoming anti-scientific. Not only does that have implications for funding and social support of the scientific community, but it has broader implications about how the average Joe thinks about the world. The less inclined we are to use scientific reasoning, the more susceptible we become to the many forms of propaganda (any kind of information campaign not grounded in rationality). But this particular concern is not about funding for research in general, but about funding for BIG projects. I think that’s a real concern because one of the  side effects (exciting but burdensome) of scientific development is that we uncover more and more mysteries, thus leading to a thinning of “focus”. Of course, things like a world war or a cold war tend to focus us back up. Fundamental science is important, but so are huge engineering projects that make us look up to the sky and dream.

“We will stop dying”

I read, talk, and think a lot about death as the driving force behind human development on an individual and societal level. So, given that, the “concern of immortality” phrased in a pragmatic way caught me off-guard. Over-population is a constant worry for resource hawks (isn’t everyone a resource hawk?), because the trends are scary when taken out a few decades in to the future. Of course, you can do the same thing with the trends in medicine, where exponential growth can make even immortality seem like a possibility. I don’t see this as a realistic concern, but it is just another reminder that science can do some awfully bad things in its search for furthering the good things.

“We will literally lose touch with the physical world”

Just in the last decade the online world and the technology that connects us to it has grown by leaps and bounds. While it may seem impossible for those who are 20+ that our brains become more computer and less human, people who are born today will grow up in a world that may have more computer-based interaction than “real world” interaction. Depending on where our current technology trends drift, the “real world” may have to drastically change its definition. I think this is a concern only for those who are afraid of uncertainty. Technological advances (or any kind of change) are often a source of concern for a large fraction of the population. This kind of concern fades with time and evolving habits.

In general, I’m optimistic about the 21st century, the questions it will answer, and new questions it will ask.

Scalia and Breyer: What Disagreement Should Look Like

Whenever I begin to lose hope that people who disagree can have a heated but civil discussion on the very thing they disagree about, I read and listen to Supreme Court Justices. They are brilliant, respectful, and are something like real friends behind all the legal babble. Here’s an example of Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer talking about their different approaches to interpreting the constitution.

Scalia is an originalist, believing the constitution is a dead (or as he calls it “enduring”) document. Breyer, on the opposite end, is a non-originalist who believes the constitution to be a living document in that its meaning evolves along with the times. I learned that the division between these two men and other legal thinkers is not so much on political lines, but on the strictness with which they interpret the text of the constitution.

I read about 30 pages of Scalia’s latest book on Reading Law (it’s too dense for my tastes) and I find his appreciation of the enduring nature of meaning in text very appealing, though I still disagree with the notion that a constitution needs to be amended in order to rule on cases involving modern technology.

My favorite of his ideas that he uses as a defense for originalism is similar to the Churchill quote of “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. Scalia says that his burden is not to show that originalism is perfect, but to show that it is better than the alternative. We have to remember that idea when we argue about policy, because it’s rare that anything in political life will not have significant drawbacks hidden away in the poorly-lit corner of our collective consciousness.

A Good Rule by Which to Live: Be The First to Act

One of the saddest displays of common-place cowardice among people is the social phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility. A crowd can observe a crime take place and remarkably no one will step up to stop itt. This is due to the assumption that someone else surely will take action so I don’t have to.

There are many variations of this situation, with different “effects” named after them by sociologists, but the bottom line is that it’s difficult for a person to ignore his social environment and instead follow the cold rationality of his values. We are much better followers than leaders. I think this is not such a bad thing in most cases, but on matters that you are truly passionate about, you need to be the first person to take action, not the second.

Even outside questions of morality, being the first to act is the best way to get ahead of the competition. If you have an idea that you believe is a good one, but no one else does, that’s you opportunity to take the big plunge and go with it. You will likely fail in the short term, but if you succeed, you will be rewarded greatly for being the first. And even short-term failure, if not taken to heart, will lead to the kind of improvement that will assure long-term success.

Here’s a video of someone stepping up and saving the life of a man who almost gets run over by a train:

And in a completely unrelated note, when I searched “be the first” on YouTube, the following music video by Hankat came up. I don’t know who they are but I’ve never seen such a uniquely emotional vibe in a music video. Great work: