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

Meanwhile, on the Intertubes

The evilutionary superscientist P-Zed has been trying to drive the riffraff away from his website by writing about biology. First we had “Epigenetics,” and now we’ve got “Snake segmentation.” Meanwhile, Clifford Johnson is telling us about “Atoms and Strings in the Laboratory” (with bonus musical accompaniment). Stick around for stupid questions from me in the comments!

(Everything I know is really just the sum total of answers I’ve received for stupid questions.)

Responsum Aucili

Gosh, I’ve forgotten a lot of Latin, but I think it goes like this.

Accusaties impudentes Dawkinsi deliberavi, et is inopia litterarum gravium me exacerbavit. Sermes magnarum singularum Roderigi Hispalis, de coriis conquisitis externisque caligarum Imperatorum non legavit, per speciem, neque consideratiem donat brevem opo summa laude dignum Bellini, De Plumis Illustris Petasæ Imperatorem. Scholas totas consecratas ut libos doctos de pulchritude vestimentum Imperatoris scribans habeamus, et acta diurna omnia magna pars de more regio comprehendant. Dawkinsus totum inflate dimittat. Etiam cachinnat ad disputaties gratiosissimas suaviloquentissimasque civis eius, Mawkscribblerius, qui clare monstravit Imperatorem aut gyssypium vulgare aut polyesteram molestam non gerat, sed subucula bombycis subtilissimæ gerenda Imperatori est.

Dawkinsus hæc reputanda alta philosopha arrogane prætereit, ut Imperatorem rude accuset nudi.
Continue reading Responsum Aucili

The Bystander

Dammit, people, stop giving me opportunities to post poetry.

On my soul a deep infection preyed,
A burden cold of contradiction laid
Upon my heart so fickle and so weak,
That from my path I almost strayed

And in a flamewar nearly took a part!
Never can I end what others choose to start,
So learned I did the proper time to speak
And when to silent case my verbal dart,

For when the bloggers act like drama queens,
And trick like idols dying to be seen,
No matter what the course I seek
I only worse the dismal scene!

But perhaps I can not-quite-waste my time
If I turn to slapdash meter and obtrusive rhyme. . . .

(Originally posted at the Cuttlefish’s place.)

Boy Seeks Razorgirl

I hereby establish a new tradition: when too much of the Internet (or the parts thereof which I follow regularly) seems to have switched into Whiny Drama Queen mode, I will post a poem. I wrote the first octet of this one while trapped in a particularly dreadful meeting, and I finished it during a recent flirtation with insomnia.


She slows her heart while on a sniper run
And fires between the beats for steady aim;
She kills with art and grace and flechette gun,
With wire and shuriken mere doll or dame
Could never wield with such finality —
Her curves machined so men will trembling faint
False pleasure yield and sketch carnality
By siren sheen and most alluring paint.
My ghost was trapped within her cunning maze
When first we crossed upon the seething Net
Where console cowboys jack their country ways
And flatline burns the ICE as black as jet.
Her Jarvik I now set my cap to win,
For she who stands alone let all begin.

A Survey for Curmudgeons

I have a simulation happily grinding away in the background, using one core of my spiffy new dual-core system, doing my work for me, so not only do I have a moment to procrastinate, but also I should be happy about new technology. However, the headphones which came with the iPod nano I got for Christmas picked today to fall apart. The earbug doodad is beside itself with the joy it feels at being part of a cultural icon, I suppose. Given that the iPod itself had to be reformatted twice and connected to three different computers before it was able to receive music, that the interface packs more absurdity into its purported simplicity than I would have imagined possible, and that consequently it has relegated itself to the status “device which plays “Mandelbrot Set” on demand,” having the headphones cheap out on me is rather like salting the fields after Steve Jobs has burnt the city.

All this to say that today I’m in a mood for appreciating old things which work.

Geoffrey Pullum wrote, four years ago,

Shall I tell you how The Cambridge Grammar of English was prepared? (I am not changing the subject; trust me.) The book is huge: 1,859 printed pages. The double-spaced manuscript was about 3,500 pages (yes, it actually had to be printed out and written on by a copy editor the old-fashioned way). It took over ten years to write. And it was done using WordPerfect 6 for DOS. Rodney Huddleston chose to upgrade to that around 1989, wrote a couple of hundred complex macros, and stuck with it. I learned the WP DOS macro language in order to collaborate on the project.

WordPerfect was basically in its final, completed form before Clinton first ran for office. It works. The file format is fine for authors, and records everything we need to record. Rodney and I are still using WP6 file format today to write our planned student’s introduction to English grammar. In all the years since the late 1970s, WordPerfect has not altered the file format: all the largely pointless upgrades in the program have been backward compatible. The format really does the job. But things are different with the WordPerfect program itself. The progress has largely been backward.

The things we have noticed about version differences are minor, but they all tell in the same direction: every upgrade is a downgrade.

Forget the Clinton administration: TeX basically solved the problem of representing mathematical equations as text, during Reagan’s first term. The LaTeX macro language, which handles document-scale organization, is almost as old. Perhaps we’re stuck at a local maximum, and with luck and pluck we could find a better way, and on some days, that seems almost mandatory. Still, we’re at a pretty darn good local maximum, as local extrema go.

(Something deep within me finds a resonance with PyTeX, an attempt to have Python sit on top of TeX the way LaTeX does, but the project seems to be moribund.)

The question for today, then, is the following:

What are your favorite Old Things That Work, and which changeless relics really do need a shake-up?

Previous surveys:

Comments on all the above remain open.

Geek Fuel

A couple noteworthy items:

Tim Farley, who spoke at TAM 6 about Internet tools which skeptics can use, has put the transcript for his talk online. There’s a great deal of stuff in there to geek over; we can at least have a lot of fun while we’re failing to save the world. Farley makes me feel shame at the weakness of my RSS-fu.

Via the diligent Peter Suber comes word of Open Education News, an aggregator site for open-education developments (new teaching tools, textbooks which are free as in speech or as in beer, etc.). It’s interesting to see how much younger OE looks and feels than OA, with none of the crotchety arguments about definitions and fireballs hurled at traditional enemies.

After Patchwork

The spores of discontent have infected the nervous system of Warren Ellis, driving him to higher ground so that they may burst open his skull and spread their meme sequences upon the wind:

That’s been the job of half the web, for the last several years — collating links from the other half of the web. Last year, I started getting a little itchy about this.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stand up now and say, okay, these are the post-curation years? The world does not need another linkblog. What is required, frankly, is what we’re supposed to call “content” these days. When I were a lad, back in the age of steam, we called this “original material.” Put another way: we like it when Cory and Xeni are the copy/paste editors for the internet, but we like it better when Cory writes a book and Xeni makes an episode of BoingBoingTV.

(In fact, if you read any of the abhorrent comments threads on BoingBoing, you could be forgiven for coming away with the notion that its readership would be happy if it shut down tomorrow.)

Trying to create “original material” does occasionally leave me with the impression that I should take lessons from my indie-rock friends on whining, “Won’t anybody listen?”

Non-Missing Metropolis Footage

And while we’re talking about classics being reinvented, here’s a bit of cinema news: it looks like additional footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), lost since the original version was pulled from the Berlin theatres, has turned up again. According to Die Zeit, “The rediscovered material is in need of restoration after 80 years; the pictures are scratched, but clearly recognizable.” The Guardian reports,

The uncut version is said to solve the mystery as to why Maria, the workers’ insurrectionist leader, is mistaken by a baying mob for her doppelganger, a female robot.

OK, cinema buffs, here’s a question: did you find this part of the movie problematic or difficult to understand? I, for one, missed whatever is supposed to be the matter here. (Mobs are not noted for their fine powers of perception.) Perhaps the next time I watch my Metropolis DVD, I’ll smack my forehead and exclaim, “How silly of me not to have noticed that gaping hole all along!” Still, I’d be much happier to find out why Joh Fredersen wanted to let the mob into the Heart Machine. Did he just have a fantastically poor grasp of the consequences?

Extra details from the Guardian:

Schmale, a spy who is sent by the autocratic leader of the futuristic city, Joh Frederson, to pursue his son, Freder, plays a minor role in the cut version, but a significant supporting role in the original. “The role … can finally be understood,” Rother said.

A scene in which children are saved from the workers’ underworld is also said to be “much more dramatic” — and more violent — than in the cut version.

Yay violence!

Being the sort of nerd who listens to DVD commentary tracks and watches all the special features, I recall that the contents of many of the missing or damaged portions of Metropolis were deduced from the film’s censorship certificate. This document, from the Head Office of Film Censorship, listed the contents of all the title cards (I presume to certify that the film was acceptable for viewing audiences). It looks like the newly rediscovered footage thus contains either ambiguous dialogue or none at all.