Category Archives: Video

Education, Inadvertent and otherwise

That feeling when it’s 3 in the morning and you’re watching an old PBS documentary aimed at grade-school kids and the mill workers are going on strike while Sumner declares that industries of the North are complicit in the slave economy of the South, and you’re like yes, exactly!

We’d all be so much better off, had the lessons of fourth grade only stuck.

(Also, the voice actor for the engineer/architect type character in a lot of those David Macaulay adaptations was Brian Blessed, which is pretty nice.)
Continue reading Education, Inadvertent and otherwise

No, That Viral Video Does Not Contain the Mathematical Secret of Reality

This is what I get for skimming an entertainment website for a momentary diversion.

So, everybody’s seen the cool new video, “‘Cantina Theme’ played by a pencil and a girl with too much time on her hands,” right?

And we’ve heard the claim, via Mashable and thence The AV Club, that the formula “can actually be used to determine the speed of light,” yes?

It’s a joke. The “proof” is words thrown into a box and filled with numbers so that nobody reads it too carefully. The algebra isn’t even right — hell, it does FOIL wrong — but that’s just a detail. I tried to think of a way to use it as a hook to explain some real science, as I’ve tried before upon occasion, but there just wasn’t any there there. The whole thing is goofing off.

Obvious goofing off, I would have thought. Somewhere south of a Star Trek Voyager technobabble speech. But no, never underestimate the ability of numbers to make a brain shut down.


The big scandal this weekend: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay pulled a hoax on a social-science journal by getting a deliberately nonsensical paper published there, and then crowed that this demonstrates the field of gender studies to be “crippled academically.” However, when people with a measure of sense examined B&L’s stunt, they found it to be instead evidence that you can get any crap published if you lower your standards far enough, particularly if you’re willing to pay for the privilege and you find a journal whose raison d’être is to rip people off. Indeed, B&L’s paper (“The conceptual penis as a social construct”) was rejected from the first journal they sent it to, and it got bounced down the line to a new and essentially obscure venue of dubious ethical standing. Specifically, I can’t find anybody who had even heard of Cogent Social Sciences apart from spam emails inviting them to publish there. This kind of bottom-feeding practice has proliferated in the years since Open Access publishing became a thing, to unclear effect. It hasn’t seemed in practice to tarnish the reputation of serious Open Access journals (the PLOS family, Scientific Reports, Physical Review X, Discrete Analysis, etc.). Arguably, once the infrastructure of the Web existed, some variety of pay-to-publish scam was inevitable, since there will always be academics angling for the appearance of success—as long as there are tenure committees.

Boghossian and Lindsay made the triumphant announcement of their hoax in Skeptic, a magazine edited by Michael Shermer. And if you think that I’ll use this as an occasion to voice my grievances at Capital-S Skepticism being a garbage fire of a movement, you’re absolutely correct. I agree with the thesis of Ketan Joshi here:

The article in Skeptic Magazine highlights how regularly people will vastly lower their standards of skepticism and rationality if a piece of information is seen as confirmation of a pre-existing belief – in this instance, the belief that gender studies is fatally compromised by seething man-hate. The standard machinery of rationality would have triggered a moment of doubt – ‘perhaps we’ve not put in enough work to separate the signal from the noise’, or ‘perhaps we need to tease apart the factors more carefully’.

That slow, deliberative mechanism of self-assessment is non-existent in the authorship and sharing of this piece. It seems quite likely that this is due largely to a pre-existing hostility towards gender studies, ‘identity politics’ and the general focus of contemporary progressive America.

Boghossian and Lindsay see themselves as the second coming of Alan Sokal, who successfully fooled Social Text into publishing a parody of postmodern theory-babble back in 1999. But after the fact, Sokal said the publication of his hoax itself didn’t prove much at all, just that a few people happened to be asleep at the wheel. (His words: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced.”) Then he wrote two books of footnotes and caveats to show that he had lampooned some views he himself held in more moderate form.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker—who happily boosted the B&L hoax to his 310,000 Twitter followers—strips all the technical content out of physics, mixes the jargon up with trite and folksy “wisdom,” and uses the result to support pompous bloviation.

… Which, funny story, is one of the main things that Alan Sokal was criticizing.

I gotta quote this part of B&L’s boast:
Continue reading Bogho-A-Lago

Because the World Needs Nightmares

You know what the Scientifick Blogohedron needs more of? Well, besides introductions to basic subjects, so that we can be more than chatterbots reacting to whatever news story incenses us the most?

Gosh, you people are demanding.

No, I’m talking about nightmare fuel!

And as only children’s television can deliver. You remember Square One TV, right? It came on PBS in the afternoons, after Reading Rainbow and before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Like every other aspect of my generation’s formative years, it can be relived via the video tubes. Our lives have already been uploaded: the Singularity came and went, and we were all too busy arguing to notice.

Looking back, Reimy the Estimator Girl was fairly cute, and the “Angle Dance” is somewhat frightening in that in-1983-this-was-the-future way, but one bit of sheer irrational terror stands out. I refer, of course, to the mask which Reg E. Cathey wears in the title role of “Archimedes”:


A mathematician and scientist
Born in 287 BC
He lived in the city of Syracuse
On the island of Sicily

He said he could move the world
If he only had a place to stand
A fulcrum and a lever long
And the strength of an average man

He solved the problems of his days
Using math in amazing ways
His great work lives on today
Continue reading Because the World Needs Nightmares

Interlude, with Cat

Want to know why I never get anything done? It’s not just because I find myself volunteered to write a one-act musical entitled Harry Crocker and the Plot of Holes. It’s also because Sean Carroll linked to a whole bunch of physics blogs, mine included, thereby obligating me to read through all their archives, and in the backblog of High Energy Mayhem I found a pointer to a talk by Krishna Rajagopal (my professor for third-term quantum — small world) on applying gauge/gravity duality to strongly coupled liquids like RHIC’s quark-gluon soups and cold fermionic atoms tuned to a Feshbach resonance. It still counts as “work” if the videos I’m watching online are about science, right? Look, if you use the “Flash presentation” option, it plays the video in one box and shows the slides in another! (Seriously, that’s a simple idea which is a very cool thing.)

Anyway, while I stuff my head with ideas I barely have the background to understand, and while I’m revising a paper so that it (superficially) meets PNAS standards, and while I try to re-learn the kinetic theory I forgot after that exam a few years back. . . Here’s a cat!

\"Extra credit\"? Professor Cat is amused.

(This one is for Zeno, and was recaptioned from here.)

In Which I Vacate

OK, if anybody out there actually understands Manhattan, maybe you can help me. Here’s the situation: you’re at the American Museum of Natural History, or in other words, 81st Street and Central Park West, and you’ve got to get to the corner of Canal Street and the Bowery, where the Chinatown bus is leaving. The B train is not running. Is there a better way than to ride the C train all the way to Canal Street and then play dodge-the-pedestrians from the south of Soho into Chinatown, weaving through the bobbing umbrellas and the vendors selling improbable knockoffs of everything that shines, as the summer rain begins to fall upon you?

I always get to have the strangest kinds of fun when I visit New York City.

Joshua, Rebecca “NSFW” Watson and I rode down from Boston yesterday morning, ostensibly to attend Lori Lipman Brown‘s talk for the NYC Skeptics, but we arrived too late and were only able to attend the drinking which happened afterwards, coincidentally beginning when Rebecca showed up (for reasons I do not purport to understand). The following eight hours passed hazily by, in the aptly-named Social Bar.

The cheese fries were good, the crab dip not so much. Our waitress did a very good job keeping the Skepchick contingent supplied with libations, and she did yeoman (yeoperson?) service in getting the bar to follow our scribbled instructions for making skeptically-themed drinks: the Buzzed Aldrin, the Moon Hoax, the Sylvia Browne. . . .

I must admit that when I was a teenager reading books by Carl Sagan and company, I did not expect “skepticism” as an intellectual movement to involve showing up at a bar and starting to drink at four in the afternoon.

Anyway, with the weekend well and truly wasted, I’m back in the Greater MIT Metropolitan Area, where the computer I left behind has finished a run of number-crunching and given me something interesting in the results. I’m going to take off a few days and poke these analyses to see what else they’ve got — the SCIENCE IN PROGRESS light is tentatively flashing in my spine. (I’ve also realized that I’ve had a few too many pointless arguments in different corners of the science blagotubes in recent weeks, so I should take a bit to do something more productive with my time. You’re all still wrong, though.) I recognize that I owe at least two people book reviews, and readers have sent me some items of woo that might well be worth debunking, but there’s only so much caffeine a brain can hold. . . .

The Strident and The Shrill

BPSDBRichard Dawkins and PZ Myers had a lengthy, informal chat during the 2008 American Atheists conference in Minneapolis, and a recording of their conversation is now available on DVD and in the video tubes. They discuss the fight against pseudoscience as well as several interesting topics in good science.

I did my best to summarize the kin-vs.-group business in this book review. Among the “glimmerings” which suggest there’s a better way to think about some evolutionary processes (name for that better way still to be defined) are, I think, the epidemiological simulations in which fitness of a genotype is clearly a function of ecology and thus strongly time-dependent, and consequently existing analysis techniques are likely to fail. Assuming this kind of thing happens in the real world, it might be better to speak of “extending the evolutionary stable strategies concept” or “temporally extended phenotypes” than to have yet another largely semantic argument over “group selection.”

Also of note:

When Dawkins spoke at the first artificial life conference in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987, he delivered a paper on “The Evolution of Evolvability.” This essay argues that evolvability is a trait that can be (and has been) selected for in evolution. The ability to be genetically responsive to the environment through such a mechanism as, say, sex, has an enormous impact on one’s evolutionary fitness. Dawkins’s paper has become essential reading in the artificial life community.

Anyway, on with the show.

P-Zed wrote an introduction to allometry a little over a year ago.
Continue reading The Strident and The Shrill