Where I Am and Will Be

First, a query. Since last night, a whole heap of spam has been getting through Akismet. Those spam comments with many links have been caught in the WordPress moderation queue, but comments without URLs aren’t getting caught. Is anybody else having this problem?

I’m also struggling with a really slow network connection at the office today. This comes at a bad time, too, because my top two priorities are plowing through the immune-system literature and editing the conference book for ICCS 2007. Downloading journal-article PDFs at 1.1 Kbps is not fun.

And speaking of ICCS 2007 — that’s the seventh annual International Conference on Complex Systems — I’m going to be running around the Quincy Marriott next week, taking pictures and videotaping talks and generally doing conference stuff. I’ve generally kept my blog-writing separate from my work at NECSI (since nobody pays me to explain random spatial networks or protein structures, just to generate inscrutable graphs and equations about them) but I thought it might be interesting to try liveblogging the conference. Assuming I don’t have too many actual responsibilities, I’ll try to get synopses up here about the plenary speeches and the more interesting “breakout” talks.

This is probably a good time to state a disclaimer I will repeat later: anything I say here, whether in an ICCS liveblogging post or any other, is my own opinion and not that of my colleagues or employer.

Sunday Egan

Greg Egan writes,

I wish we had a good word in English that meant only “the shattering majesty of reality”, so atheists could make it abundantly clear that they’re aware of this majesty, but don’t imagine that it’s due to anything that resembles a person in any way. But what atheists absolutely should not do is say “Well, I’m going to use the word ‘God’ to mean ‘the awesomeness of the universe’”. This is helpful for selling lots of tenth-rate pop-science books with “God” in their titles, and for winning the Templeton prize, but even when it’s not plain venal and dishonest it’s linguistically sloppy.

This is why I describe quantum mechanics as Loki playing dice with the Universe. Come on, Loki may be subtle, but he’s not malicious, right?

We can take this one step further. There is a model of the early Universe called string gas cosmology, in which the reason why the Cosmos has three dimensions is essentially the same as the reason why knots can exist in three dimensions but not more or less. (In 2D, there’s not enough “room” for a string to overlap itself, and in 4D or higher, there’s too much room, and a knotted loop can always “slip free”, returning to a simple circle.) I wonder if the Templeton Foundation will pay me for declaring that the Cosmos is the way it is because Aphrodite likes to get tied up in knots?

(Hah! And you thought I was going to quote a passage from Quarantine, didn’t you?)

Give Us Original Mistakes

Zeno might appreciate this (where “appreciate” is used in the technical sense of “bang head against wall on account of”). Via Isabel comes Eric Schechter’s page of Common Errors in College Math. If you survived calculus, read through it and congratulate yourself on all the mistakes you don’t make anymore!

(See how optimistic I am?)

Schechter provides one of the most inspiring examples of getting the right answer through the wrong method that I’ve ever seen. The problem is to evaluate the following definite integral:

[tex]\int_0^{2\pi} \cos x\, dx. [/tex]

This is how our student started:

[tex]\int_0^{2\pi} \cos x\, dx = \left.\frac{\sin x}{x}\right|_0^{2\pi} = \frac{\sin 2\pi}{2\pi} – \frac{\sin 0}{0}.[/tex]

But wait, there’s more!

[tex]\frac{\sin 2\pi}{2\pi} – \frac{\sin 0}{0} = \sin – \sin = 0.[/tex]

And they say we can’t eliminate sin from the world.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Over at Pharyngula, an individual by the ‘nym of Rieux and I have been discussing the work of Hector Avalos, religious-studies professor at Iowa State University and author of six books, the most notorious of which are Fighting Words (2005) and The End of Biblical Studies (2007). The former treatise lays out a theory of religious violence, proposing that religious beliefs create scarce resources over which humans then fight. Avalos illustrates this thesis with examples from Christianity, Judaism and Islam; I’d like to see similar work done with Hinduism and other beliefs from beyond the Abrahamic clutch. The latter book expounds Avalos’ position that the modern field of Biblical studies — which encompasses textual criticism, “Biblical archeology” and more — is intellectually moribund. Its only outcome has been to undermine confidence in the very scriptures it tried to uphold, showing that holy writ was the product of a civilization whose practices would be anathema in modern society.

For Avalos, the only respectable mission for Biblical scholars like himself is to become physicians, working towards their own obsolescence.

Or, in less muggled terms, Avalos kedavros!

This is heady stuff, and we could argue about it until the raptors come home, hungry and looking for dinner, but hey, it’s the weekend! So, a few thoughts of littler consequence:
Continue reading Them’s Fightin’ Words

“Oh, my God, the fanfiction now!”

So, Dumbledore is gay.

Man, I remember when the Lord Protectors of Decency (TM) were all upset with Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, this despite the fact that the hero risks his life trying to return real “family” to the world. Bashing The Giver has gone out of style (well, mostly), perhaps because the mind of the censor is too small to contemplate more than one book at once, and nowadays we have Harry Potter to worry about. And I guess if your mentality is of the sort which finds it reasonable to justify your entire belief system by the supposed preponderance of sevens in ancient Greek manuscripts you’ve never actually read, then maybe you should be worried that somebody carrying a wand of yew will sneak up behind you and scream, “Avada kedavra!

(People who know me can testify that I have the odd nervous habit of twirling things between my fingers: pens, twigs, chopsticks. I spin them about, idly tap them against a desk, click and re-click anything which is clickable. Now you know the reason why: I’m actually exhibiting my repressed inner Dark Lord nature.)

Saucy in the Garden

Kurt Vonnegut, blessed be his memory, once said that science fiction and pornography had one key thing in common: they both portrayed an impossibly hospitable world. Of course, he said that back in the day when John Campbell still held sway over the field, long before Blade Runner, so while pornography stayed where it was, science fiction moved on. Contemplating these matters, I started to wonder if providentialist religion couldn’t be described in the same way. The belief in, as Philip Kitcher says, “a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity” hits that same chord of optimism and ego.

Why am I following this sordid train of thought? Well, because it has a succulent conclusion. Bug Girl points to a reviewer who noticed something we should have remarked upon much earlier. Here is a photograph (by Monica Lam) of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, for which I claim fair use:

What does this tableau of Mr. and Mrs. Adam most strongly resemble?
Continue reading Saucy in the Garden

Carnival of Mathematics

Mark Chu-Carroll hosts the latest Carnival of Mathematics with a theme dear to my heart, the way cholesterol is: spam!

Among the notable posts are My Tiny Kingdom’s report on helping with long-division homework. This reminds me: can any of the other science-types out there who do math for a living tell me when was the last time you used the grade-school division symbol, or obelus, [tex]\div[/tex]? Like writing in cursive, it seems to be a part of my symbolic heritage which adult life has discarded.

Also, Maths for Mortals has a challenge:
Continue reading Carnival of Mathematics


Ah, some light Friday fare!

By now, everybody has probably heard about the forthcoming crackpot “documentary” from David de Hilster, Einstein Wrong – The Miracle Year. Currently looking for financial backing, de Hilster hopes to release this flick in 2008, doing for relativity what What the Bleep Do We Know (2004) did for quantum physics: namely, let the fractured ceramics have free play.

As it turns out, David de Hilster is one of the Network’s classic relativity cranks. He’s been pushing his pet theory, “Autodynamics,” since at least the early 1990s (on the sci.physics Usenet group). As it also turns out, Autodynamics has plenty of problems. For example, it chucks out the Lorentz transformations, thereby making itself inconsistent with the Maxwell equations, which form our basic understanding of electricity and magnetism, without which the technological support system of modern society couldn’t exist.

What’s more, they don’t like that nasty ol’ equation

[tex]E = mc^2.[/tex]

The Autodynamicist revulsion at this horrible formula has led them to propose — no, I’m not making this up — that [tex]E[/tex] should equal [tex]mc^3[/tex] instead.
Continue reading Autodynamics


Jasprizza Will asks Language Log if rotely is a “real word.” Mark Liberman replies that it occurs in newspaper writing — even, on occasion, in the New York Times — and in the scholarly journals. For example, Carol Sue Englert et al. write in “Influence of Irrelevant Information in Addition Word Problems on Problem Solving” (1987),

Blankenship and Lovitt (1976), for example, found that in the presence of irrelevant numerical information, LD [Learning Disabled] students rotely added all numbers.

The more subtle question is whether rotely can be used as an adverb. In this example, it modifies added, and Liberman provides instances of rotely modifying turned out, tinkled out and affixed, in addition to usages like “material rotely learned” and “rotely feminized ‘conformity’.” Now, sometimes the -ly suffix turns a noun into an adjective (for example, kingly), but television raised me to think that its main use is turning adjectives into adverbs:
Continue reading Rotely

“Computers Internet Blog”

And while I’m talking about the weird things which happen behind the blogging scenes, I should make a note about a search query which apparently keeps sending hits my way. Since May, I’ve gotten 335 hits for the Google query {computers internet blog}. Note that these go to pages which don’t use any of those three words (e.g., here).

My best guess — an inference also drawn by others — is that this is a signature of spammers looking for places to deposit their trash. They attempt to mask themselves by mucking with their referral strings; unfortunately, I can’t figure out how to reprogram WordPress to send debilitating mind-viruses back through the Network to the spammers responsible, so I have to rely upon Akismet to keep them out.

(There’s gotta be a plugin for sending mind-viruses! But I’ve looked under T for Transmetropolitan and G for ghost-hacking, and I’m coming up blank.)

Of course, now that I’ve written this, somebody might come here legitimately by following the same query. You don’t need quantum effects to change the outcome by observing it!

UPDATE (22 October): Hmm. Now I’m the first hit!

UPDATE (24 October): Hmm again. Is {mythomania} being used in the same way?

Coral Ridge Ministries: Panic Mode

Apparently, Coral Ridge Ministries have been sending out a mass e-mail, warning their flock about the “New Atheist Crusade to ‘Evangelize’ America.” I quote a paragraph:

Just this summer, while our children and grandchildren were away at Bible camp, hundreds of other children were attending a new, nationwide network of camps designed as training grounds for young atheists. These camps feature talks on famous “free thinkers” such as Isaac Asimov and Ted Turner . . . and games such as the “invisible unicorn exercise” where campers must try to prove that imaginary unicorns, used as a metaphor for God, don’t (STET) exist.

Whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop! The target-rich area alarm is going off — helmsman, set the deflector shields to Screensaver 2 and put the Long-Range Bogosity Sensors on full scan.

First, let’s observe that the “training grounds for young atheists” feature speeches about free thinkers. While I think there are certainly a great many free thinkers about whom children should be informed, summer camp might be better spent looking through telescopes and hunting for fossils. Not surprisingly, that’s what Camp Quest does, plus creating UFO photos, roasting s’mores and the like. Maybe the Coral Ridge folks are projecting their own obsession with prophecy and Leader figures onto the freethinkers?

Second, what’s with that big “STET” notice? Are they afraid that a copy editor will change “don’t” to “do”? Or should “(STET)” really be “[sic]” — maybe the Coral Ridge evangelists are afraid of giving the impression that invisible unicorns don’t exist?
Continue reading Coral Ridge Ministries: Panic Mode

Spam Humor

A couple times a day, I go through the Akismet spam bucket and see if any messages should be recovered. Sometimes, a legitimate commenter will use too many links (hey, citing your sources is good juju!) and Akismet will drop their message into the spam can. I haven’t yet figured out why some comments go into WordPress‘s moderation queue and others into Spam Cocytus, and I don’t like worthwhile comments languishing for very long.

Sometimes, ye olde spamme folio delivers up an amusing tidbit. For example, there’s this bloke named Daniel who keeps saying, “I could not understand all of this [name of post], but I guess I’ll have to check more sources about this, because it seems interesting.” This is particularly good when the post in question is about quantum mechanics. Also, Daniel will say, “I can’t agree with you 100% about [name of post], but that’s just my opinion, which could be wrong.” I confess that when this appears on a post about “framing science,” it’s hard to tell this content-free blather from a legitimate comment.

And then there’s the astrology spam. . . .

Just now I noticed a spam comment from a site advertising — I kid you not — “Christian Symbols and Christian Resources.” Their statement?

Sorry, it just sounds like a crazy idea for me :)

You and me both, brother.

Nine Minutes of Science

OK, this is too good to pass up. Jim Blinn, the computer-graphics expert responsible for the Mechanical Universe animations — and therefore, responsible for filling my childhood with arrows — summarizes The Mechanical Universe in nine minutes. Watch all of first-year physics packed in a single morsel:

Blinn also worked on Caltech’s Project MATHEMATICS! series. I’m a little surprised that so few of the Project MATHEMATICS! videos have found their way onto the Intertubes yet. Here’s a “teaser trailer” of sorts, made from clips of “The Story of π”:
Continue reading Nine Minutes of Science

From Atoms to Quarks

Yesterday, I said that the excited states of the hydrogen atom are our prototype for understanding how the periodic table works. This is part of our motivation for solving the hydrogen atom, a subject to which I will be devoting several more posts. However, the next post requires some diagrams which I, er, haven’t drawn yet, so while I work on that — and my day job — why not kick back with a video?

And hey, let’s make that an educational experience. For those of you who survived freshman physics, The Mechanical Universe is an easy refresher on the basics. Here’s the Google Video version of episode 51, “From Atoms to Quarks,” which addresses the point about the Periodic Table which I raised last time.

In case this copy breaks, Annenberg Media has the series online for free, although you have to go through a quick registration.