Category Archives: Wobosphere fun

Interlude: Framing

The “framingkerfluffle continues apace at ScienceBlogs.com and elsewhere (also here). For a primer on this subject, see my earlier remarks here. I like Joshua’s most recent take, which can be summarized in the phrase, “Let’s look at the data.” I also like what “Revere” has to say at Effect Measure:

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

“All good teaching is framing” has no more content than “All is God”, “All thoughts are memes” or “Everything is love.” You don’t get to say “All is full of love” unless you’re a Björk-22 model gynoid from the Yamtaijika Corporation. I’d add that if you really want to use a jargon word, you should pick one which doesn’t have an everyday meaning: picking a word which everybody thinks they understand even though they actually need a background in the subject is setting yourself up for confusion. Call it “Lakoff framing” or “Goffman framing” or something of the sort.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of?

Beatlemania.
Continue reading Interlude: Framing

String Kings: The Director’s Cut

Via Cosmic Variance, this may be the best thing to come out of theoretical physics cinema since String Wars: The Popper Menace. Steven Miller at Science Mobster (with a very familiar-looking theme) gives us String Kings: The Director’s Cut. Longtime aficionados of the genre will recall the theatrical release and DVD version, but like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Scorsese’s String Kings grows beyond compare when seen as the director intended.

Meanwhile in New York City, Peter Woit (Turturro) is seen in his apartment practising with a gun in front of a mirror in a scene Scorsese has very obviously recycled from his previous urban alienation classic “Taxi Driver”. Like de Niro before him, Turturro gives a compelling and subtle performance here, depicting a man on the edge and giving us hints at the festering rage bubbling underneath as he toys with the loaded weapon and talks to himself repeatedly: “Listen you stringheads…you anthropicists…this is one man one who isn’t going to take it anymore….One man who stood up against the…the orbifolds, the fluxes…the stabilized moduli, the braneworlds, the landscape, the swampland…Someday new real data is gonna come and rain down…rain down…rain down and wash the Arxiv clean…Now I see it clearly…my whole life is pointed in this one direction…I see that now…there was never any choice for me”.

Look for the sequel in late 2008.

Wobosphere Trick of the Day (plus seminar)

0. Go to Google Maps.

1. Click “get directions”.

2. Get directions from New York, New York to Paris, France.

3. Scroll down to item 23 in the list of directions.

4. Return in time for the seminar tomorrow afternoon at NECSI, where we shall discuss the first two (possibly three) sections in chapter four of Ash.

(Tip o’ the beret to Audentes at the Achenblog. It also works with Boston, Massachusetts.)

WTF-complete: Mister and Miss Ogyny

The following is not anything grand; it’s just for entertainment.

Every once in a while, I like my procrastination to benefit the world at large (well, for small values of “world” and “large”). When I get in a mood like this, I hop over to Wikipedia and see if I can make myself useful, doing things like calling nutty articles to the attention of WikiProject Physics. I haven’t done this much of late — my wikipessimism and wikindifference have increased dramatically since last summer — but today I happened to check Articles for Deletion, the forum where self-promoting garage bands are beaten with clue-by-fours until they see the glorious light of reason (or oblivion, whichever comes first). While scrolling through the list to see if any new perpetual-motion machines or “Einstein was a cheater” anti-relativity loonballs had showed up, guess what I found.

Misandry

Speedy Delete – Wimmin are incapable of hatred. Misandry is an artificial construct of the Patriarchy created because they hate it when feminists assert themselves and try to deconstruct the Phallocentric male-female power dynamic –207.62.186.233 15:18, 11 April 2007 (UTC)

Continue reading WTF-complete: Mister and Miss Ogyny

I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

I’m not playing dumb, I really am confused. I’ve got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I’m ignoring frames at my peril, what I’m describing isn’t framing, what I’m describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I’m getting next to nothing that’s practical. OK, don’t call it “evolutionary theory”, call it “evolutionary biology”. Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.
Continue reading I Was Framed!

Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

Scott Aaronson has a new comment policy:

If you reject an overwhelming consensus on some issue in the hard sciences — whether it’s evolution, or general relativity, or climate change, or anything else — this blog is an excellent place to share your concerns with the world. Indeed, you’re even welcome to derail discussion of completely unrelated topics by posting lengthy rants against the academic orthodoxy — the longer and angrier the better! However, if you wish to do this, I respectfully ask that you obey the following procedure:

1. Publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal setting out the reasons for your radical departure from accepted science.
2. Reference the paper in your rant.

If you attempt to skip to the “rant” part without going through this procedure, your comments will be deleted without warning. Repeat offenders will be permanently banned from the blog. Life is short. I make no apologies.

It looks like Dave Bacon can now talk about time travel, but my own conspiracy theories will have to wait. But soon, I promise, the real meaning behind supersymmetric quantum mechanics will be made clear. They laughed at me when I suggested that the BPS interpretation of shape invariance may have a non-topological origin. The fools — I’ll show them all!
Continue reading Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

Continue reading Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Easter Musings on “Scientism”

We have it on good authority (i.e., Bill Hicks) that in Australia, people celebrate Easter the same way we do here in the U.S. of A.: honoring the death and subsequent resurrection of one-third the Holy Trinity by telling children, ahem, “a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.”

I think this is as good evidence as we need that we, as a species, are not wired properly, or are being operated far outside of spec. Savannah-optimized, indeed.

Be that as it may, it looks like Russell Blackford is taking an Easter break from the Blagnet, hopefully to eat a great deal of chocolate eggs in a place where philosophy is clear and analytic, far removed from quantum feminism and quantum post-relativistic biocentrism.

Some interesting discussion is going on at his “No Skyhooks” post about moral philosophy, but for my money, this line is even better:

I have learned that when you hear or see the word “scientism” these days you know you are dealing with some kind of irrationalist, or simply with a moron.

Having spent two or three subjective eternities in the wilds of the Net, I can only agree.

Continue reading Easter Musings on “Scientism”

Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example

Fellow Molly-winner Scott Hatfield (who sounds like a really nice guy, judging from the textual evidence available) suggested I save a comment I posted at Pharyngula. Now, I know I improve drastically upon revision, but the text reproduced below will not be modified very much (mostly external hyperlinks added and stuff like that).

I was provoked by the following comment from a bloke named Russell:

I have encountered Objectivists and Marxists who seem to me fundamentalist in their adherence to the writings they take as foundational, in much the same manner as fundamentalist Christians. But neither Dawkins nor Harris strike me as ideological in that sense, and it seems as odd to me to describe an Objectivist as a fundamentalist atheist as it would to describe a Calvinist Christian as a fundamentalist determinist. Atheism and determinism are merely doctrines of Objectivism and Calvinism, respectively, and it is the ideology as a whole that the adherent takes in a fundamentalist fashion.

Were I less enamored of the sound of my own words, I would have stopped with a simple “thank you”. However, you little know me if you hypothesize of such a stoppage ever occurring. The proposal I made (which popped into my head while I was walking to the office this morning) is reproduced below the fold.

Continue reading Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example

Comments!

Visitors to Science After Sunclipse have recently left some good comments. I’d like to promote two of them to the top level and discuss a little. Replying to yesterday’s post “Michael Egnor, Reverse Engineering and Genetic Algorithms“, Matt from London said the following:

The trouble is that as far as the Egnors of this world are concerned, GAs — and indeed any artificial system that demonstrates the efficacy of variation+selection — is itself the product of design and therefore cannot possibly constitute evidence in favour of evolution. Whoever wrote the code *obviously* secretly included a complete design of the end product they were seeking. It stands to reason.

Not surprisingly, the TalkOrigins people have a lengthy page discussing genetic algorithms and what they mean. One classic creationist canard is that GAs don’t mean anything for biology and don’t prove evolution works because they have preordained goals. Like most creationist memes, this shows up all over the place; one significant example is young-earther Don Batten‘s essay for Answers in Genesis, “Genetic algorithms — do they show that evolution works?” Not to prolong the suspense, here is what TalkOrigins (in the person of Adam Marczyk) has to say about that:

Continue reading Comments!

Michael Egnor, Reverse Engineering and Genetic Algorithms

The story begins with Time magazine and Michael Lemonick, who wrote an entry for their Eye on Science blog which critizized the Discovery Institute’s silly propaganda piece, their list of “dissenters from Darwinism”. (The National Center for Science Education maintains a list of non-dissenters all of whom are named Steve which is longer than the DI’s list has ever managed to be.) PZ Myers explains what happened next, and how Michael Egnor advances onto the stage:

Now here’s the funny thing: the distinguished brain surgeon Dr Michael Egnor shows up in the comments and spouts the usual boilerplate claptrap we hear from these guys all the time: oh, he was a ‘Darwinist’ once upon a time, but then he was convinced by the complexity of the cell that ‘Darwinism’ had a problem. Sweet Jebus, but one thing that pisses me off is ninnies who equate complexity with design; random processes are excellent tools for making things extravagantly complex.

Michael Egnor has become the latest creationist darling, spewing the same sort of anti-scientific canards which have been refuted for years, if not decades. (Browse the TalkOrigins FAQ for a catalog of these memes. Usually, “frequently asked questions” are asked pretty frequently, but creationists do an astonishing job of asking them all the time and indeed almost never asking anything else!) Egnor‘s writing for the DI’s “Media Complaints Division” has irritated so many people in the reality-based community that the first two pages of Google hits on his name are, with two exceptions, scathing blog entries.

Anyway, Michael Egnor‘s latest ramble gave me an idea for a fun project to try; for details, read below the fold.

Continue reading Michael Egnor, Reverse Engineering and Genetic Algorithms

No seminar today (Sorry!)

Due to an illness among the teaching staff, today’s statistical-mechanics session will be postponed until later in the week. In the meantime, check out science writer Carl Zimmer and his experience being quote-mined by global warming denialists. To cheer up after that study in human folly, try Mark Chu-Carroll’s ongoing series on surreal numbers. Based on his prior habits, I’m curious to see if he takes a crack at explaining the relation between surreals and category theory (definitely one of the branches of mathematics you need to study if you want to be like the guy in Pi).

One point should be raised about the surreals which has not yet appeared in Mark Chu-Carroll’s exposition. You can get the reals — that ordinary, familiar number line — from the surreals by imposing an extra condition on the construction. It’s exercise 17 in the back of Knuth’s Surreal Numbers (a problem originally suggested to Knuth by John Conway). A number x is defined to be real if -n < x < n for some integer n, and if x falls in the same equivalence class as the surreal number

({x – 1, x – 1/2, x – 1/4, …}, {x + 1, x + 1/2, x + 1/4, …)}.

This topic is also discussed in chapter 2 of Conway’s On Numbers and Games. Theorem 13 proves that dyadic rationals are real numbers, and Conway then deduces that each real number not a dyadic rational is born on day ω (“Aleph Day” in Knuth’s book).

The practical upshot of all this is that surreals may provide a better pathway to understanding the real numbers than the standard way of teaching real analysis! Dealing with Dedekind cuts, for example, leads you to an explosion of special cases and general irritation. Conway says:

This discussion should convince the reader that the construction of the real numbers by any of the standard methods is really quite complicated. Of course the main advantage of an approach like that of the present work is that there is just one kind of number, so that one does not spend large amounts of time proving the associative law in several different guises. I think that this makes it the simplest so far, from a purely logical point of view.

Nevertheless there are certain disadvantages. One that can be dealt with quickly is that it is quite difficult to make the process stop after constructing the reals! We can cure this by adding to the construction the proviso that if L is non-empty but with no greatest member, then R is non-empty with no least member, and vice versa. This happily restricts us exactly to the reals.

The remaining disadvantages are that the dyadic rationals receive a curiously special treatment, and that the inductive definitions are of an unusual character. From a purely logical point of view these are unimportant quibbles (we discuss the induction problems later in more detail), but they would predispose me against teaching this to undergraduates as “the” theory of real numbers.

There is another way out. If we adopt a classical approach as far as the rationals Q, and then define the reals as sections of Q with the definitions of addition and multiplication given in this book, then all the formal laws have 1-line proofs and there is no case-splitting. The definition of multiplication seems complicated, but is fairly easy to motivate. Altogether, this seems the easiest possible approach.

Irony: Dead? Transparency: In Embryo?

Via Bad Astronomy, we hear that “there are 28 CCTV cameras within 200 yards of George Orwell’s house.” This bit of information is brought to you by ThisIsLondon.co.uk, whose rather panicky article concludes in the following manner:

This week, the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) produced a report highlighting the astonishing numbers of CCTV cameras in the country and warned how such ‘Big Brother tactics’ could eventually put lives at risk.

The RAE report warned any security system was ‘vulnerable to abuse, including bribery of staff and computer hackers gaining access to it’. One of the report’s authors, Professor Nigel Gilbert, claimed the numbers of CCTV cameras now being used is so vast that further installations should be stopped until the need for them is proven.

One fear is a nationwide standard for CCTV cameras which would make it possible for all information gathered by individual cameras to be shared — and accessed by anyone with the means to do so.

The RAE report follows a warning by the Government’s Information Commissioner Richard Thomas that excessive use of CCTV and other information-gathering was ‘creating a climate of suspicion’.

Now, I’m not so sure having the feeds from such cameras widely available would be a bad thing. Given that all technologies have upshots and every silver lining has its own cloud, etc., it might actually be pretty cool.

Dreams of the Transparent Society notwithstanding, I think we all know the real reason Britain is so gear to put cameras everywhere. It’s because the newest cameras contain neural-network chips programmed to act as selective quantum observers, capable of altering wavefunction collapse and thereby mimicking the method by which natural Gorgons operate. And thus,

If we pursue this plan, by late 2006 any two adjacent public CCTV terminals — or private camcorders equipped with a digital video link — will be reprogrammable by any authenticated MAGINOT BLUE STARS superuser to permit the operator to turn them into a SCORPION STARE basilisk weapon. We remain convinced that this is the best defensive posture to adopt in order to minimize casualties when the Great Old Ones return from beyond the stars to eat our brains.

Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

I’m not sure when the idea of “human enhancement” first bubbled up in my brain. It seems to be one of those possibilities which I just grew up with, thanks to a childhood lost in books. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote,

There must be ways of putting nucleic acids together that will function far better — by any criterion we choose — than any human being who has ever lived. Fortunately, we do not yet know how to assemble alternative sequences of nucleotides to make alternative kinds of human beings. In the future we may well be able to assemble nucleotides in any desired sequence, to produce whatever characteristics we think desirable — a sobering and disquieting prospect.

The video version ends with “awesome and disquieting prospect,” by the way. Sagan’s friend Isaac Asimov was a little more cheerful; while dying of AIDS, he concluded the revision of his book The Human Brain with these words:

Man would then, by his own exertions, become more than man, and what might not be accomplished thereafter? It is quite certain, I am sure, that none of us will live to see the far-distant time when this might come to pass. And yet, the mere thought that such a day might some day come, even though it will not dawn on my own vision, is a profoundly satisfying one.

Continue reading Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

Recycled Blake Stacey: Watchmaker Morality

I’ve spent an awful lot of time scattering thoughts into the Blagnet. It’s a valuable way of procrastinating on other things and making myself feel like an intellectual. Unfortunately, it also means that on the off-chance I do say anything worth remembering, it’s probably buried in the comment thread to some blag post and can’t be retrieved without a string of Google search terms eight words long.

So, I’ve decided to start recycling the more entertainingly pseudo-intellectual rambles of mine, editing for clarity where I can. First up is a selection from this Pharyngula thread; the rant proper can be found below the fold.

Continue reading Recycled Blake Stacey: Watchmaker Morality