Randi’s Coda

It’s Sunday morning where I am right now, the traditional time for stumbling about, cradling the head and asking, “What happened last night?” In my culture, this day is set aside to commemorate the occasion when Yahweh Elohim woke up with a strange woman in His bed and, His head splitting like that of His buddy Zeus, inquired of the heavenly host, “In the name of Me, why did I make tequila so damn strong?”

(That’s how Yahweh and Asherah got together, and why He was so eager to deny the relationship later on.)

In the spirit of contemplative reflection, then, I offer the concluding segment of James Randi’s NOVA programme, Secrets of the Psychics (1993).

I’m told he still has that cloak.

Hypothesis Testing

Hypothesis: if you can take an idea which most people thought was the most hated concept in America this side of al-Qaeda’s mission statement and turn that idea into a book which stays on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year, publishers will let you write your own ticket at least once.

Evidence: Richard Dawkins is being paid $3.5 million for his next book, Only A Theory? (to be published in 2009), which will lay out evidence for evolution.

Hypothesis: People who have a vested interest in portraying Dawkins and other “uppity atheists” as detrimental to science education and/or Western civilization will ignore or undervalue this book, along with all other attempts by “uppity atheists” to parlay their notoriety for good causes.

Evidence: Consider the reception (or non-reception) of Dawkins’s television series, The Enemies of Reason (2007). This is a lamentable oversight, since the struggle to keep pseudoscience out of medicine is surely an area on which atheists and at least some moderate theists can find a genuine common ground.

Hypothesis: I could sure have a lot of fun with $3.5 million.

Evidence: Forthcoming. Come on, in the interests of science, pretty please, with blueberries on top?

(Tip o’ the fedora to Tyler.)

Chuck and Bill on Darwin Day

In the morning, I found that a horribly complicated equation which mixed combinatorics, network theory and generalizations of Shannon entropy reduced to zero in a circumstance where I had guessed that might happen, which gave me the exciting feeling that I might actually be doing science.

In the evening, I went to meet Joshua, Expatria, Rebecca and Evelyn at the Redline bar for drinks and carousing. I misremembered the time of the meet-up, so I thought I had a while to kill, and consequently I idled down the street to the Harvard Coop bookstore — not with an intent to buy anything, just to browse. I found myself standing in front of their Shakespeare shelves, listening to the Baroque music being piped in by the bucketful, and I thought, “Holy Jebus, this is the very essence of highbrow and effete — and, damn it all, I love it.”

I picked up a book by Edwin Abbott Abbott, he of Flatland fame, on Shakespearean grammar, and I read its introductory sections until I figured it was time to head for the Redline. Stepping out of the bookstore, leaving behind all the testimonials on how the Network is changing everything, I saw a woman, homeless and shapeless under a once-pink blanket, sleeping or trying to sleep while the snow was beginning to fall. Take that as your allegory for Harvard Square, urban life, the twenty-first century or anything else which is too big for a single person to fix.
Continue reading Chuck and Bill on Darwin Day

Simonyi on Popularizing Science

A while back, we merry wanderers of the Net got into a discussion about who would be the best Presidential Science Adviser. While a candidate for that job must meet many qualifications, many people focused on the ability to be the “go-to guy” for science, the voice and face which can be trusted to represent an issue or a discovery accurately, fairly and concisely, as appropriate to the audience. Now, those names will be brought out and debated again, although I expect we’ll see less concern for their ability to work inside the Beltway. The occasion is that, after more than a decade in the position, Richard Dawkins is retiring from the Charles Simonyi Chair at Oxford, a professorship endowed in 1995 to support the “public understanding of science.” Having reached the chair’s mandatory retirement age, Dawkins is moving on, in his words,

to be even more strident, shrill etc etc etc. I expect to be busier than ever, with two Foundations to run (the British and American branches of RDFRS), books to write (I have already started the next one) and who knows what else?

Oxford has put the application requirements online, for those who wish to fill Dawkins’ shoes. Americans are eligible, too, and the professor himself has sent the advertisement to Carolyn Porco, Lawrence Krauss and PZ Myers, among others. Not being qualified for the job myself, I would like to draw attention to a point Charles Simonyi made when he endowed the chair, all those many years ago:
Continue reading Simonyi on Popularizing Science

Status Update

You’re listening to Radio Sunclipse, first on your RSS dial! It’s currently oh-jesus degrees in the Greater MIT Metropolitan Area, with a wind-chill factor of “Why is the nitrogen freezing?” And I managed to lose my gloves on the subway.

So, the endodontist tells me that my decrepitude is in an intermediate state, on the borderline between merely needing elaborate work and requiring the complete excavation and subsequent cyberization of my aching tooth. Man, when the technology arrives to upload ourselves into pure AI form — I figure it’ll be about when Ubuntu reaches the “zesty zebra” release — I’ll be the first in line. apt-get install blake, all the way.

Won’t those be wonderful times? Geek culture will coincide with athletics, because your performance will depend on how much you can overclock yourself, and it’ll all be about leveling-up as quickly as possible. Hipster sophisticates will be angling for the android bodies Designed In California; meanwhile, Cosmo Girl will be touting the new iHuman Air. It won’t have an optical drive or an Ethernet port, but as long as the damsels still have a place for a USB plug, their boyfriends will be happy. Your mind will be able to spawn any sort of sub-process you want, from a simple arithmetic program to a full-fledged molecular dynamics simulation, so math teachers won’t have to worry about calculators eroding manual mathematics skills anymore, and the computerized proof of the four-color mapping theorem will be fully intuitive! Best of all, because they use so few mental faculties, professional creationists will be kept as the new virtual pets.

Anyway, thanks to my tooth problem and the small matter of having to do some science-type research this week, it’s time for playing some “golden oldies.” I’ll be converting a pedagogical paper I wrote a few years ago into blag form, which should yield two or possibly three posts on pushing the supersymmetric quantum mechanics I’ve described recently into the relativistic regime.

Welcome to the Party, Ben!

My friend Ben Allen, a mathematician (he is what I play on TV), has started his own blag, Plektix. This is his way of spelling plectics, Murray Gell-Mann’s suggestion for what to call the study of complexity and simplicity. OK, as far as neologisms go, it’s not quite as shiny as Buckminster Fuller’s replacement for the word sunset, but it’s not bad. Let’s give Ben a warm welcome to the fractious, contentious, infuriating and sometimes enlightening pursuit that is online science writing!

I hope he doesn’t mind if I add that everybody says he looks uncannily like John Cusack.

This sounds like a good time, or as good a time as any other, to mention a few suggestions for anybody who wants to get into the blagging hobby and attract a bit of a reading audience. None of these remarks are particularly original with me, and I won’t pretend that I’m the most successful at implementing them or attracting an audience at all, but what the heck:
Continue reading Welcome to the Party, Ben!

Square Roots by Hand

A little while back, several of my fellow math-and-science bloggers and I got into a discussion of a particularly hare-brained way to reform math education, and I mentioned that nobody in my generation seems to have learned how to take square roots by hand, or at least, not within any formal school curriculum. The comments I received suggest that cheap calculators made this phase out of the grade-school math classes by the early 1980s, or thereabouts. Today, I found that 360 has written a nice post explaining a geometrical interpretation of an algorithm for doing so.

Of course, there’s no way such a lesson would be allowed anywhere near an elementary school, because it emphasizes understanding why a method works.

Additional Weekend Fluff: Sauron

I dropped by a friend’s place while he, his girlfriend and a couple others were watching the last Lord of the Rings movie, which I’d never seen before, and somebody pointed out that many shots would be perfect for commercials. We spent the next ~40 minutes giving the movie an ad-themed MST3k treatment. It didn’t exactly inspire me to see the rest of the series.

However, there was one advertisement in particular which I really wanted to see implemented. And what with current happenings in science-blogging territory, one element of the parody was uppermost in my mind.

Curse you, Internet, for retroactively stealing my joke before I could tell it! Curse you, I say!

Weekend Fluff: Luke As A Girl

I’ve been reading through Podblack Blog ever since the Podblack Cat hosted the Skeptic’s Circle (and kindly included an entry of mine). This is how I discovered that the Internets have a Carnival of Feminist SF, dedicated to feminist perspectives on science fiction. This is undeniably a good thing to have, although stumbling across it like this gives me an eerie feeling: for a kid who spent most of his teenage years reading SF, watching SF on the Tube or trying to write it himself, I know astonishingly little about SFnal happenings on the Internets. I fail at fandom.

(Or is that, in more modern parlance, “FANDOM: UR DOIN IT RONG”?)

Anyway, one of the entries in the carnival is Lisa Paitz Spindler‘s note on a new series of Star Wars merchandise based on Ralph McQuarrie’s early concept art. In one revision of the story which eventually became the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker was a girl named Luka Starkiller. First, I should note, “Starkiller” is an impossibly corny name, even for a movie about samurai in space. Second, Spindler asks,

how might it have influenced Hollywood if the most popular sci-fi adventure flick ever had starred a kick-arse female protagonist?

I can’t give an optimistic response. The portrayal of women in the Star Wars saga is perpetually dismal, varied only by slight interruptions which make the missed opportunities in the rest all the more unbearable. Speculating about how the series would have turned out if, say, the sexes of Luke and Leia had been swapped is rather beside the point: why not ask how the movies would have developed if an entirely different creator had been the driving force?
Continue reading Weekend Fluff: Luke As A Girl