Archive for March, 2009

Educational micromanagement

March 31, 2009 7 comments

The Oklahoma state legislature is getting ready to exact a cost on Oklahoma University for inviting Richard Dawkins to speak there.  Lawmakers have been trying to find out every penny spent bringing him to the university, and even which professors spent time on the visit.

…State Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, filed a resolution this session opposing Dawkins’ invitation to speak at OU and the university’s actions “to indoctrinate students in the theory of evolution.”

In a phone interview Thursday, Thomsen said the university has a right to bring any speaker it chooses, but is accountable to taxpayers. On behalf of his constituents, Thomsen wanted to present the opinion that Dawkins doesn’t represent Oklahoma’s ideals.

“They’re not in a plastic bubble that can’t be touched,” he said.

Too true, that.  The Supreme Court has, back in the days before all the Reagan and Bush appointees, called it a “chilling effect on free speech”. 

Mind you, it was perfectly all right for OU to invite Ben Stein and pay him $60K.  But not Dawkins, who even waived his speakers’ fee for the event. So I want to know something:

What do we even need university presidents for?  Why supercharge the marketplace of ideas?  Why have scholars who try to challenge students with ideas they may not like?  Why invite controversial, award-winning authors to campus to speak?  Why not just let pignorant legislators run everything?

As Garrison Keillor says; “There’s a reason the iPod wasn’t invented in Kansas.”  Maybe we should change that to “KansOklahomas”.


  • Cary Nelson at Inside Higher Ed has an outstanding historical perspective: Monsters With Constituencies. (h/t Chad Orzel)

  • A little tidbit on Ben Stein: he doesn’t waive his speaker’s fee for educational institutions, and if they run out of money and can’t cough up his sixty G’s, he charges them a cancellation fee.  Nice.
Categories: Uncategorized

Has JREF been banned from YouTube?

March 30, 2009 2 comments

This is hitting the Internets right now: It appears that the James Randi Foundation account on YouTube has been suspended

Lately making unfounded “copyright” or “offense” claims is a favorite tactic of the forces of dimwittery, and they may have used YouTube’s hair-trigger complaint system to their advantage.  I dashed off a quick inquiry to YouTube, and will update this post as I find out more.  If you have more information, please note in the comments.  Thanks.

Categories: Uncategorized

Those gosh darn elitists…

March 30, 2009 Comments off

The Eleventh Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards is up at the enigmatically-named Z’s place, It’s The Thought That Counts.  Mmmm-mm!  Now for a week of tasty elitism.

Categories: Uncategorized

Sharpening and industrial depth

March 29, 2009 6 comments

I found this 1943 Norton Abrasives’ sharpening manual at an estate sale, I think. It was probably free for the asking in hardware stores, or by mail.  What intrigues me is the complex vocabulary and sentence structure of the instructions.  Machinists and carpenters (or for that matter people who wanted to touch up their straight-razor) were expected to be able to read at a pretty high level.  Being that this is the 22nd revised edition, they had plenty of chances to revise the language to reach their target audience. 

The manual is an example of industrial depth, which is to say there are whole sub-industries into which modern advertising culture provides no insight.  Most people sit on furniture, but couldn’t describe any of the machines that made the furniture, or the cutting tools used on the machines, or the abrasives that sharpened the cutting tools, or the process that made the abrasives, or the science behind the processes.  Yet these things are triumphs of progress – it says so right in the manual.

I’ve included three pictures that describe how I sharpen a pocketknife on a diamond whetstone.  Except, you can use diamond stones dry now, where it used to be a matter of some debate whether to use oil on a Carborundum™ stone, and then water on an Arkensas stone.  I have all those, but just use the diamond stone now.  And the pocketknife is made of an alloy that didn’t exist until the 1970’s and even then I think it was for jet turbine blades.

The whole manual is up in my photostream, if you are the kind of geek who finds that sort of thing interesting.  (Its presence in my photostream pretty much identifies me as one of that kind of geek, I suppose)

Categories: Uncategorized

Do One Impossible Thing every year

March 27, 2009 5 comments

I’m still working on this idea, but it could turn out to be important, at least to me. 

“Impossible” has a couple different layers of meaning.  There are things that are impossible for everyone, like traveling faster than light.  There’s logically impossible things, like Creation Science, or walking up and down stairs at the same time (Escher notwithstanding).

Then there’s “impossible for me, at this time”.  By this I mean, something you couldn’t do even at gunpoint.  It’s something that, in principle, given time, you could do, but you don’t currently have the ability.

This matters because, when you finally accomplish something impossible, you have a new brain, or at least a newer brain.  As Mo at Neurophilosophy explains, new discoveries about synaptic plasticity have exciting implications:

…Until now, it was thought that such reorganization is restricted to small numbers of connections within discrete areas of the brain. But new research published yesterday in the journal Current Biology now provides the first evidence that local modifications to small numbers of connections can induce global changes in brain connectivity…
Neurophilosophy: Experience induces global reorganization of brain circuitry

This is not only exciting to people with specific neurological problems; it even offers hope for people who watch network TV.  Every time you hear someone say; “I wish I could…”, you are hearing wishful thinking that there were some shortcut to building those neural pathways.  And the larger implication is that global changes in brain circuitry will create new, unpredictable possibilities.  Maybe new ways of looking at the world, at your own life, at solving problems. 

This year I chose to learn to ride a unicycle.  Even at gunpoint I couldn’t stand up on the thing, let alone move forward on it.  It was of special interest to me because my balance had been impaired by an accident five years ago.  For almost two years I felt off-kilter;  walking was difficult, sitting in a chair required concentration, and riding a bike was out of the question.  For me, ‘no bike’ is a hard sentence. 

Well, after much work I’m riding again but it isn’t enough;  I want to do something I never could do before.  Hence, the unicycle.  Then it occurred to me that there were LOTS of ‘impossible’ things I could learn to do.  What if I did another one every year?  If I start this year and only live as long as my mother has so far, that’s 29 impossibilities (but right now she’s down in California taking care of her mother, who is pushing 100).  What’s the best way to use that time?  What would life be like?

It’s fun to think up impossibility possibilities: juggling, cartooning, calculus, tightrope walking.  They’ll start to interconnect.

I noticed during physical therapy that the most noticeable improvement was between sessions.  It was as if my brain took notes during sessions and then prepared for the next one.  The same thing is true on my unicycle, which I have been practicing for three weeks.  Last night, for the first time, I rode ten feet without holding on to anything.  Smoothly, easily, just a few seconds of pure joy.


  • 02 April, about 100 feet

  • 05 April, Still learning to steer, been practicing at the skateboard park, riding along a straight space on one edge of the fenced-in area.  Kids on skateboards (who are themselves amazing to watch) are amused but very friendly and tolerant of geezer on unicycle.
  • 15 April, about five weeks.  Can steer much better.  Learning to ride on inclined surfaces and attempting starts on flat surface without holding on to anything.  Have ordered some better pedals (grip is important) and a (hopefully) more comfortable seat.  I think that with the same level of practice, a healthy 10-year-old would have taken about a week to get to this point.  Makes every bit of progress that much sweeter.
Categories: Personal

A dose of evil atheism for the day

March 26, 2009 4 comments

…or more correctly, just a few news items about religion.

Two Percent Company compellingly asks; “Really, Catholics?” upon hearing news of the nine-year-old Brazilian girl pregnant with twins, who received a life-saving abortion.  Upon which everyone connected with the event except her and the rapist (her stepfather) was excommunicated.  Keep that little girl in mind, since the Vatican backed the Archbishop from Brazil on those excommunications.

Then there’s The Critical Thinker’s Speakeasy, whose author had a bit of a run-in with a falling tree-branch, and then with a pair of Mormon missionaries.  The connection between the two was hilarious – unless you’re a Mormon missionary, I suppose… (H/T John Wilkins)

On the lighter side, Ted Haggard wanted a divorce because he’s not gay anymore.  Yeah… that makes sense.  As one commenter noted, maybe he wants his own apartment where he can work on resisting temptation.

This just in: it may come as a shock that Christianity doesn’t always look like compassion to everyone.  Which reinforces my conviction that when bad people become Christians, they become bad Christians.  When good people become Christians, they’re still good people.  The resulting organizations then differentially attract bad and good people.

Categories: Religion

Twitter and media quickitude

March 25, 2009 2 comments

Overheard last night from the glowing box in the living room:

“Storms move on, cold moves in – details at ten!”

…which guarantees I won’t be watching at ten*.  Because really, the guy waving his hands in front of a blue screen doesn’t add that much to the part I wanted, which I overheard from another room.  Will it rain for days?  Will the temperature change?  Stripped of all the overhead, it seems like information perfectly suited to “Twitter”. 

Some topics call for more detail.  Can the same media serve both?  How?

*(“Ten” means “Eleven” in the midWest)

Categories: Uncategorized

Putting down Sobel’s “The Planets”

March 24, 2009 Comments off

Dava Sobel’s Longitude was a pretty good history, and though it was light on technical detail, I still found it enjoyable.  On that strength I bought her book; “The Planets”. This is really a “book abandoned review” rather than a book review.  Because Planets is long on poetry, on mythological detail, but barely touches the planets themselves.  After two chapters, I could put it down.  Maybe it gets better but I couldn’t wade that far upstream.

The book is well written, but I realized that beyond a general description, I really don’t give a crap what the ancients thought about the planets; I want to learn what we know about them and how we know it.  I’m excited by exploration, by the struggle to know our amazing universe and by the universe itself.  Sobel is a “science journalist”, but for the most part I’ve learned that the explorers themselves tell their stories wonderfully.

For example, Steve Squyres’ Roving Mars is written by the principal investigator of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.  It is full of detail, of hopes crushed and regrowing in the struggle to build and launch machines that can live on another planet.  The descriptions of the machines and their pursuit of Martian geology are so compelling it’s impossible not to anthropomorphize the distant robots, Spirit and Opportunity.  It’s an awesome, amazing book.

Your mileage may vary, of course.  I’ll get around to being disappointed in my lack of poetic acumen as soon as I finish reading Asimov’s nonfiction book; Atom, Journey Across The Subatomic Cosmos.  And maybe not even then.

Categories: Uncategorized

Stretching the envelope

March 23, 2009 4 comments

Watch something you may not have thought possible,

…and a little bit of your thinking is changed forever.

(I’m still learning to ride the damn thing.  It’ll be a while before I could do anything like this.  and I could watch this girl all day.)

Categories: Uncategorized

A thought on the Turing test

March 22, 2009 6 comments

Alan Turing, computer scientist and one of the greatest geniuses of the last century, proposed that artificial intelligence will have been achieved when you might carry on an extended conversation with a computer but not realize it or be unable to tell.  This is known popularly as “The Turing Test” and it’s been the plot of many science fiction stories including an episode of Numb3rs two weeks ago.

I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but lately I’ve been thinking that it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Believable human conversation depends on an awful lot of conventions, from finely-tuned response time to a sense of “appropriateness” that very much depends on social upbringing and neurological parity.  In this respect, intelligent people with certain disabilities, such as severe autism, could not pass the Turing test.  Only recently have we begun to discover their intelligence and how it works.

Consider the construction and upbringing of an intelligent computer.  Presumably it works by some kind of evolutionary algorithm that allows it to “grow” and create its own connections.  But it can’t experience emotions the same way we do, because emotion is very much tied to our bodies.  It’s “childhood” consists of unlimited access to the Internet, and processing what it finds there.  It experiences the flow of information very differently than we do: instead of moving around and carrying sensory equipment with it, it stays in one place and the whole Internet is its sensory equipment.  It’s difficult to guess what might be important to it.

In other words, it isn’t human.  Though developed here on Earth, it’s an alien intelligence.  How the hell would we even know when it begins to think?  Why would we expect it to converse the way we do?  Based on their complex variable behaviors, dolphins and elephants probably think, but we’re a long way from connecting with them too.

Given our expectations of how computers work, it might at first appear to be simply a computer that doesn’t work very well.  With time and interaction we might be able to figure out that the machine is “thinking”, but no way is it going to pass the “Turing test”.  As John W. Campbell used to say; it might be “a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.”  This could have some implications for our increasingly network-driven society.

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