# Fair Warning

I’m juggling several metaphorical chainsaws at the moment. Each task currently demanding my time carries overtones of extreme “peril, subversion and ideological danger.” Therefore, sadly, my blag posts will for a while be either light and inconsequential or abstrusely technical, since I lack the time to aim for that magical pop-science median. Most of what I have in the drafts pile is recycled and revamped older stuff, and the new material I plan to hack together will actually be pieces of larger works.

In the meantime, check out our prototype MathSciJournalWiki, a site with a good heart and an ungainly name! Among the topics we will definitely have to cover are web spamming by academic publishers and plagiarism in the open-access age. The latter is, in particular, a serious topic (though not without its humorous aspects) about which I should write in greater depth, Real Soon Now.

# “Framing” in the Funny Pages

OK, I know I said I wouldn’t write anything more about “framing science.” I mean, when Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet used Lakoff’s concept of “frames” to say that Richard Dawkins was doing wrong, and when Sean Carroll used the public-policy notion of the “Overton Window” to argue that Richard Dawkins was doing right. . . “Windows”? “Frames”? I think it’s time for a beer. Or more.

Despite all that, I think I need to say just one more thing. I’ve discovered why scientists are apt to hate the terminology of “framing,” no matter what they think of the challenges involved in communicating science. And, believe it or not, I made this discovery thanks to Doonesbury.

# Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

Dennis Overbye has an article in today’s New York Times on the search for the Higgs boson, and naturally, I’ve got complaints about it. It’s a pretty good piece: Overbye can do solid work (he went a little overboard looking for journalistic “balance” in the Bogdanov Affair, but that was a while ago). Still, I wouldn’t be myself if I couldn’t gripe and grouse.

First, I’m definitely not alone in asking people to please stop saying “God particle.” Leon Lederman has a great deal to answer for after coining this term; I’ve never heard or seen physicists use it seriously, and it keeps inviting unwarranted metaphors. (Incidentally, there was once detected an “Oh-My-God Particle,” a cosmic-ray proton of astonishingly high energy; for recent developments in this ultra-high-energy regime, see here. Physicists joke about the term, but they don’t use it.)

Second, this part rubs me the wrong way:
Continue reading Overbye on Hunting the Higgs

# Spam Statistics

Or, “Why oh why don’t people make raw data accessible?”

The Akismet people have made some statistics available on how many spam messages their WordPress plugin has trapped. They use a Flash applet to display their graph, which I hope means that the graph is being updated (instead of merely implying horrible software design). Here’s a screen shot from a moment ago:

This graph shows a few features of interest. First, there’s a big jump — of apparently several hundred thousand — legitimate messages in mid-May. I wonder if this actually represents a new spamming technique. Second, both “ham” and spam show periodicity. Running this time series through a Fourier transform might yield intriguing results.

Sadly, the Akismet folks aren’t providing actual numbers to go along with the pretty pictures, and extracting them from a graph like this doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun Wednesday afternoon.

I’d also be curious to see what the ratio of spams caught to Akismet plugins installed looks like as a function of time.

UPDATE (12 July 2007): The algorithm always finds raw data! The numbers necessary to draw the chart can be retrieved in XML format here, and the snapshots I’ve been playing with are here and here.

# Power-law Distributions in Empirical Data

Throughout many fields of science, one finds quantities which behave (or are claimed to behave) according to a power-law distribution. That is, one quantity of interest, y, scales as another number x raised to some exponent:

$$y \propto x^{-\alpha}.$$

Power-law distributions made it big in complex systems when it was discovered (or rather re-discovered) that a simple procedure for growing a network, called “preferential attachment,” yields networks in which the probability of finding a node with exactly k other nodes connected to it falls off as k to some exponent:

$$p(k) \propto k^{-\gamma}.$$

The constant γ is typically found to be between 2 and 3. Now, from my parenthetical remarks, the Gentle Reader may have gathered that the story is not quite a simple one. There are, indeed, many complications and subtleties, one of which is an issue which might sound straightforward: how do we know a power-law distribution when we see one? Can we just plot our data on a log-log graph and see if it falls on a straight line? Well, as Eric and I are fond of saying, “You can hide a multitude of sins on a log-log graph.”

Via Dave Bacon comes word of a review article on this very subject. Clauset, Shalizi and Newman offer us “Power-law distributions in empirical data” (7 June 2007), whose abstract reads as follows:
Continue reading Power-law Distributions in Empirical Data

# Ranking the News Agencies

Those of us who have cause to dislike Time Magazine now also have cause to snicker. The University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (that’s a mouthful) has just released a study of how “global media outlets” fare when rated on transparency. As their introduction puts it,

The Libby, Enron and Arthur Andersen cases have all put the issue of â€œtransparencyâ€ in the forefront of the news. But how transparent are the media themselves? How candid are they about how they cover the news? How willing are the media to make their reporting and editing standards public?

The answer, it appears, is “not very.” Out of twenty-five major websites, fewer than half published public corrections to mistaken stories, and only seven made more than a token effort to state their policies on journalistic ethics. Each of the twenty-five news outlets was scored in five categories, between “excellent” and “not acceptable,” to compute an overall numerical score between 0 and 4. The Guardian led the pack with 3.8, followed closely by the New York Times at 3.4. Sky News is the worst, summarized verbally as flat-out “not acceptable” with a numeric ranking of 0.4.

And guess what publication Sky News just barely edged out?
Continue reading Ranking the News Agencies

# All ur hogs R belong 2 us

(Because the memes of yesteryear are ever so sweet, even ‘pon the jaded palates of today.)

I was distressed to see Cecilia fall for the giant hog story. The pictures, supposedly of an 11-year-old boy posing with the carcass of a giant pig he killed near Delta, Alabama, are almost certainly fakes. They bear all the earmarks of forced perspective illusions, and in some cases suggest Photoshop trickery as well.

Why can’t the Boston Globe, Yahoo News or CNN look at the lousy focus and say the pictures are clumsy forgeries? Are news organizations now obligated to run uncritical coverage of every tall tale that gets a little attention? (I once caught a fish this big. . .) Facts matter, people!

I am quite frustrated at my inability to find words spiteful enough to capture the distaste I feel for this bunkum. Fortunately, the idioms of the Internet are there to rescue me:
Continue reading All ur hogs R belong 2 us

# Framing is Back

Framing is back. Sheril Kirshenbaum is writing guest posts over at Chris Mooney’s place (1, 2 and 3 so far). In her first three posts, she’s talking sense, though her writing isn’t exactly rocking my geological column.

(That sounds a little dirtier than I intended. Ah, well, I’m not an old fossil yet.)

The interesting thing is that nothing of what Kirshenbaum has written involves deep anthropological foundations. You could have said exactly the same things before the framing kerfluffle and with no knowledge of Lakoffian whosiewhatsits. Now that the subject has been called back to my mind, I think I can offer an executive summary of what bothers me about the whole “framing” business.

# Blagnet vs. Lit-Crit

The Columbia Journalism Review‘s daily section offers this, ahem, interesting perspective on the difference between blag-writing and book reviewing. It comes from Richard Schickel, who reviews movies for Time and occasionally books for the LA Times.

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Mm-hmm. Refresh my memory: is this called “begging the question” or “assuming the answer”? Why can’t a middle-aged, pony-tailed white male sitting in his boxer shorts and writing for free have the same historical knowledge as a middle-aged, tweed-jacketed professor of TwenCen Literature? The expertise of the latter comes from reading books — primary, secondary and n-ary sources — and discussing with other people both more and less knowledgeable than he. What in blazes requires this to happen within the Sacred Halls of Academia and nowhere else? (One fun thing about the Wobosphere is that academic politics is turned inside-out, and the spats which once occurred in slow motion across books and journals can now happen in real time for all to see.)

Quality is a multi-dimensional thing, and all types of writing are distributed widely along these many axes. There are good books with bad parts, bad books with interesting pages, dumb books by smart people — and the same holds true for blogs and pages within Wikipedia. Live with it. (Another fun thing about the Wobosphere is that examples of all these genera can be found and compared.)

I swear. Some people make a hat of ivy and wear it like a crown of thorns.

If Schickel were a weaver of theological arguments rather than a book critic, he’d be offering us a Courtier’s Reply.

# The Algorithm Finds Brooke Shields

It looks like those zany Englanders need some lessons in drawing muted post horns:

This graffito has been puzzling people all throughout London. First described by Londonist, it remains enigmatic. Sightings throughout the Greater London Above area are tabulated here. (Something odd also seems to be happening with Frozen Indigo Angel, which sounds an awful lot like a codename Charles Stross would invent for a Bob Howard novel.) Metro.co.uk writes,

So do you have any theories? Do you know what Alphabet of Brooke Shields means? Tell us in the comments, please. We’re going mad here. In this puzzle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Brooke Shields, only one thing is certain — if it turns out to be just some rubbish viral marketing for a band or a perfume or a robotic dog or something, we’re all going to be very upset indeed.

I’m torn. Does this topic require more Neverwhere jokes (“Brooke Shields” is actually a warrior princess fording rivers in London Below) or more The Crying of Lot 49 references? (Weird “Alphabet” Still Teasingly Elusive. Don’t Ever Alphabetize The Horn.)
Continue reading The Algorithm Finds Brooke Shields

# The Edge of Evolution

UPDATE (31 May 2007): For more on this topic, see Mark Chu-Carroll’s review, my follow-up and this list of reviews.

Yet more fallout from Time Magazine’s lamentable choice to have a fraud write their profile of Richard Dawkins:

Michael Behe’s mealy-mouthed description of Dawkins offers an interesting tidbit of news: he’s got a new book in the pipeline. Called The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, and due out this June, it promises a level of dreck not seen since Darwin’s Black Box (1997).

I have little doubt that the pro-fact sector of the Blagopelago will drown The Edge of Evolution in scalding, scathing, witty and above all factually correct reviews. To get the process started, I’d like to look at the laudatory quotes which currently praise this book which is almost certain to be a waste of paper.
Continue reading The Edge of Evolution

# Mentally Ill People on TV

A funny thing happened to me this morning in connection with mass murder and the tragic extinction of human life.

I was walking to the office for another day of PHP-coding, and on Kirkland Street, I was stopped by a suit-wearing man whose close-cropped gray hair reminded me distantly of an evil landlord I once knew. He carried a microphone with, I believe, the CBS logo (I’m nearsighted and unobservant), and he was accompanied by another man carrying a TV camera. The microphone man asked, “Could we talk to you for a minute?”

The shootings at Virginia Tech,” he replied, although he didn’t use hyperlinks (most people don’t, in ordinary speech). “And the footage that NBC put out about the killer.”

“Oh, I hadn’t seen it,” I said, which was true. A bit of web-crawling leads me to suspect that this “video manifesto” is what they were talking about, or part of it. See also Google Video. I’m not sure if there was any reason they picked me as opposed to any other pedestrian, and I don’t know how many other people they filmed. Perhaps a guy in a black trenchcoat, black fedora and Sinfest T-shirt is automatically the best guy to interview about a school shooting; I dunno.

They said that NBC had put video online from the killer (Cho Seung-Hui), and they asked me what I thought about that. What were my very first words?

“Well, I’m a firm believer in a transparent society.”

Yessir, meeting David Brin at ICCS 2006 sure ruined my ability to talk like a normal human being. Oh, wait, I lost that a long time ago — never mind.

I said that the whole thing was a tragedy, but the best thing we can do is prevent future tragedies and in order to do that we have to understand what happened this time. If there’s something that dark in human nature, we have to know about it, I told them. They thanked me and we started walking our separate ways. As I strode off, I heard one say to the other, “Okay, we got it.” Maybe I’ll be on the local CBS affiliate talking about preventing disaster through understanding, but I sort of doubt it.

They should have asked me for my Bill Hicks impression. Now that would be worth putting on TV.

UPDATE: See what Joel Achenbach has to say about this. His thinking seems to match up with mine.

UPDATE THE SECOND: I’m on TV!

“Well I’m a firm believer in a transparent society and if there is something that disgusting in human nature we mind [sic] as well be aware of it,” said one person WBZ’s Joe Shortsleeve spoke to.

Interestingly, when I saw myself appear on the screen, I called out, “I’m on TV!” just as anybody would in that circumstance. A friend of mine then walked past the computer just as the female news anchor asked, “How does the public benefit from seeing someone on TV who is clearly mentally ill?” He burst out gut-laughing. I’m not sure what that means, but probably nothing good. So it goes.

UPDATE THE THIRD: WBZ-TV makes it slightly tricky to link directly to the video you want, but try this.

# 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)

# Irony: Dead? Transparency: In Embryo?

Via Bad Astronomy, we hear that “there are 28 CCTV cameras within 200 yards of George Orwellâ€™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 â€” or private camcorders equipped with a digital video link â€” 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.