Archive for September, 2009

A perfect combination: it’s blasphemy day and I have the flu

September 30, 2009 Comments off

Today is International Blashpemy Day, named in honor of the publication of those infamous cartoons of Mohammad back in 2005. 
It’s a serious thing: there are people who would, if they could, limit your freedom of speech, and by extension your freedom of thought, because of a relationship they have with an invisible being.

Here in America, it’s a little different, at least currently.  You won’t realize the pervasiveness, or the presumptuousness of religion unless you are non-religious.  Or more specifically, non-Christian.  Or heaven forbid (apparently), atheist.

There’s a tradition on our campus that I like a lot: people can write on the sidewalks in chalk, telling about events or promoting a point of view.  I will always defend this freedom, even if I disagree with the ideas being expressed.  As is the case with this example, part of a chalk-writing blitz from the Neuman Catholic center next to campus:

Oh, the basic sentiment is nice enough; it’s the unexamined corollaries that piss me off.  For starters, the assumptions made about atheists by the chalk artist.  And you know what they say about assuming…

Try changing the word “atheist” in that sentence to “Muslim” or “Jew” or even, “metallurgist” and ask if it isn’t just the least little bit presumptuous and condescending and insulting.  You think metallurgists feel lonely and unloved?  Really?  Certainly some people in any group do, but… as a defining characteristic of that group?

Stop and think before you chalk, people.  Why is it OK for you to write this about a diverse group of people?  Suppose a Baptist wrote;

“Catholic?  You are not alone, b/c ppl are praying for you.”

There was a long period in US history when Catholics were an out-group, untrusted and blamed for many of society’s ills. There’s an important lesson in that, which you seem to have missed.  We atheists are currently an out-group; the body politic has made it clear that we are invited to change and become like them.  Why would you assume that we need to be “prayed for”?  You think we arrived at disbelief in a Christianity-saturated culture without having to think about it?

Here’s another:

Oh, you do, do you?  Really?  How? How did you get them?  How can I verify those answers are correct?

I often hear statements like; “Science tells you what, but religion tells you why”. But they never say “how” religion tells you “why”. If pressed, they’ll fall back on the authority of scripture, or some sort of feeling they have about the deeper nature of the cosmos.  Which bears a striking resemblance to the culturally-approved dominant religion in which they grew up.

You may not like that religion is a private thing but until you can show me that your god exists, it’s yours, not mine.  The trouble is, like an invasive species escaped from someone’s fish tank, your religion doesn’t stay in its boundaries.  Your organization’s parent church spent millions of your donation dollars this year interfering with the lives of gays in California, and now they’re working on Maine and Iowa. 

You can pray for me all you want; nobody’s listening. Unfortunately, it seems impossible for me to reason for you.


  • There were a lot more chalk messages, including some that let me know the source of this message.  You can see the collection here: “Religion”.

  • Apparently an atheist campus group in Alabama tried some sidewalk chalking. It didn’t go well.  Surprised?
  • Cuttlefish wishes us Happy Blasphemy Day! With his/her inimitable verse and a wonderful illustration by Michael McRae. 
  • The earliest flu-shot appointment I could get was the 5th of October.  Guess that wasn’t early enough. Not that having the flu makes anyone more likely to blaspheme, but… well actually it does.  Really, don’t expect me to be nice today, especially to your imaginary god.
  • International Blasphemy Day website
  • Atheists are the most untrusted group in America. 
    From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

  • The sidewalks aren’t really this dirty on our campus; I ramped up the contrast to make the words easier to read.
  • I’m just picking on Catholic chalk today because they’re the most recent group to chalk up our campus.  We also get Gideons handing out little green New Testaments, whacked-out preachers spewing hellfire, and abortion protesters with gruesome pictures.  Another recent group informed us that their church is “Not your grandmother’s church!  I’d pick on them but it rained before I could get a good picture.
Categories: Uncategorized

A bit of a personal milestone

September 29, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF noticed a change that might, in the smallest of ways, be worth telling my friends about.  After surgery, the oversize surgical scar was too sensitive for me to wear a belt.  For just under five months I’ve been holding up my pants with suspenders instead, to the great amusement those around me.  I looked like a cross between Garrison Keillor and and a sort of Bizarro-world Jesse Ventura.  All I needed was a cane to shake and yell’ “Get off my lawn!”

But not since yesterday.  The scar has healed to the point where I can wear a belt again.  Seems like a small thing, ‘til you can’t.

Categories: Uncategorized

The importance of feeling stupid

September 26, 2009 Comments off

You wouldn’t know it from the neigh-unchanging layout of this blog, but I work with web pages a lot.  Yesterday I bought an iPod so I could see how those pages look on an iPhone (the salesperson assured me that both iThings render web pages the same).

Hooking the iPod up to a Windows machine set in motion an inexorable process of updating and registration.  First, it wanted to update iTunes.  “Sure”, I clicked, “why not?”  And then it went to a registration process.  I got halfway through filling out the form when the window suddenly disappeared and a message said; “iTunes needs to reboot your machine.  Reboot now?”  I clicked the response that means; “Sure, since you just dumped what I was working on and I have no choice anyway”.

I eventually got the software and the firmware updated and everything registered including a bunch of snoopy questions which I answered with lies in haiku form, and found myself with a working iPod.  Then I went to the Apps store and bought a slide rule application for $1, neatly closing the technological circle.

When giving technical support, I often hear intelligent people say; “using a computer makes me feel so stupid.”  And when I say “often” I mean that during nearly every support call, the user will offer some kind of apology for not being as savvy as I supposedly am with the infernal machine and its software.  This should be a clue, or more correctly a warning, to the companies that create the software in question.  Channeling Don Norman, if two percent of users make a given mistake, then maybe those users are stupid.  But if sixty percent of users make that mistake, it’s the interface designer who is an idiot, and perhaps the company for hiring them.  As Paul Graham says, you need good taste to hire a good designer, other than by accident.

This explains the success of two companies: Apple and Google.  I often hear users of both say they love their Mac, or they love Google, which is kind of a funny reaction to software.  But the reason isn’t difficult to figure out: using the software makes them feel clever, like the mystery show where you figure out who done it, before the putative genius main character does.  Hey!  I’m smarter than Gregory House!  Or Monk, or Gibbs, or the contestant on Jeopardy.  What’s not to love about that?

Every good technology makes us clever, leveraging the cleverness of others and their creations.  Using it is a steady empowerment, broadening what we can expect to enjoy, to create, to get done.  I have a hunch people started writing more when ball-point pens were introduced, while their elders huffed about the decline in penmanship standards.  Sure, the “e” and “l” weren’t swoopy anymore, but more people were writing and that’s a game changer.  Likewise when bicycles were introduced, preachers thundered against the immorality that would surely result from youngsters with greater mobility than their elders.  Somehow it didn’t occur to their elders to get their own bicycles.

In a hunter-gatherer society, generations might pass between significant cultural innovations.  The process sped up considerably with the enlightenment and industrial revolution: the metric system, calculus, slide rules, Vernier calipers, movable type, standardized parts, steam power, telegraphs, high-speed steel, “scientific management”, telephones, assembly lines.  Each innovation seemed natural to the young and one more damn thing to learn for the old.  Then along came computers and software, and change shifted into hyperdrive.  It became possible to say; “Remember when?” referring to just ten years ago, or five.  And I’m about to do just that.

Think about the disapproving authorities and the young whippersnappers gallivanting off on their bicycles for afternoons of sweet debauchery.  Multiply that by some large number and you have… today.  Remember when people didn’t carry around general purpose computers in their pockets?  When people on street corners couldn’t Tweet what was happening around them?  When the police didn’t have to worry about twenty bystanders with video devices capable of sending out the images before they could even confiscate the devices?  When you couldn’t call up maps and reviews and comparison prices when finding a restaurant or buying a car?  The authorities had it easy way back then, five years ago.

One effect of this change is that the average age of people in the authority structure will start to decline.  And given the fine mess made of things by the change resistors, that’s probably all to the good.  Because we can’t go back, can’t undo, can’t rewind.  Today we find ourselves with a president who hires a CIO, and whose CDC director puts up a website called as a central place for information about that annual scourge.  If we’re not careful we could end up in an actual participatory democracy, but again I digress.

If I weren’t bald my hair would be as gray as my beard, and like any other Good American I should long ago have settled into some unchanging, lifetime position to wait for retirement and death.  But there are fewer and fewer of those lifetime positions available now.  The work I currently do not only didn’t exist when I got out of college, it didn’t exist 15 years ago.  I won’t be surprised if it is later subsumed into some other description, which is why I keep trying to learn new technologies.  I’ve gotten used to buying groceries and besides, it’s fun.

Our education establishment K to 12, has not really acknowledged this rate of change, instead tasking kids with learning a testable set of facts and impressing them with the terror of making a mistake.  Not the best preparation for stepping off into the fast-lane of a technological society.  How can we make education policy-makers understand the difference between topics and skills, and that adaptability may be the most important skill a school could teach?

It’s not surprising schools do this badly.  Math is a skill, but especially in early grades (when kids are learning what math is) the schools are obsessed with teaching it as a topic.  Have you memorized your “math facts”, Jimmy?  Have you done all 25 identical problems in your homework assignment?  Sorry, kids, but with so many problems, there’s no time to think about the underlying idea behind them.  Now imagine an education policy-maker trying to go further: since there’s no testable set of “adaptability facts” they have no idea how to even design a curriculum for it. Or weave it into the existing curriculum.  Besides, it’s not as if they need to worry about adapting; barring the actual commission of a crime, their jobs are bulletproof.

Education should empower us from the inside just as good software should empower us from the outside.  It should enable us to handle not only new problems, but new kinds of problems.  I want to know, does our education establishment make us clever?  Or like badly-designed software does it pose constant pointless obstacles, making us feel stupid, so that we grow up with an ever-increasing resistance to learning?  Could we do better than the equivalent of Microsoft Windows for the learning child’s brain?

Our way of educating seems calculated to instill the avoidance of feeling stupid, but very little fear of being stupid. Ironically it’s the former that fosters the latter.  Because, if you can put up with feeling stupid for just a little while (and it doesn’t take very long at all) you can learn all sorts of stuff and not be stupid.  That may be the only important difference between the geek and the person picking up the phone to hit their number on speed-dial.

Is this something that schools can do?  How could we make it OK for kids to make mistakes? 


  • If you’re wondering “What the heck is he talking about?” scroll down to comment 4.

  • I may have posted this link before, but Cocktail Party Physics has a great post on math education with Game Changers
  • Using Windows is pretty much a hurry-up-and-wait experience.  I started working professionally with Windows in 1995, when systems had 386sx processors with 4mb of RAM, and the actual computing experience was about as fast as my dual-core with 3gb RAM.  You’d think with hundreds of times the processor speed, and hundreds of times the RAM and hard drive space, that the computer would run faster, but no, it doesn’t.  The software has successfully throttled this amazingly fast machine, but I digress.
Categories: Education

Classy old bike

September 23, 2009 Comments off

I found this 1970’s-era Dawes racing bike in a trash pile near my house.  Knocked on the door and yes, they intended to throw it out.  I was on my mountain bike, so I grabbed the old bike’s gooseneck and towed it home.

The old track wheels were straight, but the tires were ancient Dutch high-pressure gum tread with nylon cords; unreliable and unsafe.  Went to the bike shop and got some Kevlar tires for it. The rear bearings were shot, but digging around in my parts bucket(s) I found a hub with the same kind of cones and bearings, perfect condition.  Just a little bit of time and grease and the axle was turning smoothly again.  My old Black & Decker compressor had to strain to get up to 110 lbs of air pressure.

The old-style racing handlebars aren’t my cuppa, so back to the buckets and found some straight bars, a brake handle off an old mountain bike, some comfortable handgrips and a better seat.  It’s amazing what you accumulate when you strip old junk bikes for parts. (Click pictures to embiggen)

This frame is old-style lugged alloy steel, strong and lively for its light weight.  The bike handles beautifully, which is not unexpected for an old Brit racing bike.  It has mountain bike pedals on it, which is fine.  originally (before someone made it into a track bike) it had Weinmann brakes but the front brake is a Dia-Compe center pull.  The back brake is superfluous on a track bike, due to the fixed gear.

I rode it to work the last two days.  Super-silent, super-light, almost zero rolling resistance.  I may use it for long rides in the country or on the constitution trail.  I’ve heard that fixed-gear bikes strengthen your quads, which is good for the knees.

Here’s the nameplate.  Lot of artistry went into this one.

Categories: Uncategorized

Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the insurance company executives for a change?

September 23, 2009 Comments off

How heartless of us to forget about the hopes and dreams of top insurance company executives…

Categories: Uncategorized

OpenID a closed mystery

September 22, 2009 Comments off

I’ve been trying to use OpenID to sign in to websites like ScienceBlogs.  Sounds great!  There have been various attempts to make single web signons in the past and with Google recently joining, it’s gaining momentum.  In theory, since I have a Gmail account, I also already have an OpenID account, and after much searching I was provided with a URL that is supposed to be my single signon.  But it’s a long string and the chance I’ll remember it is thin to say the least. 

Wasn’t able to make it work.  Maybe Google could parachute-drop a few system designers and programmers into the OpenID headquarters? 

Categories: Uncategorized

Monday Morning Mystery photo

September 20, 2009 Comments off

Found on the beach of Lake Michigan:

It’s about 3cm wide and 5mm thick at its thickest.  The hole is round with straight sides and about 5mm in diameter.  Any ideas?

Categories: Uncategorized

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on Cosmic Quandries (and death row)

September 20, 2009 Comments off

Got 90 minutes to spend with Neil DeGrasse Tyson?  Or perhaps, do you have a better way to spend 90 minutes?

Tyson can be glib: “The rate of seeing UFO’s is lower among amateur astronomers because when we look up in the night sky, we study this stuff, we know what the hell we’re lookin’ at!”  But he is also packing a seemingly endless reserve of deep insight.  I’m currently reading his 2000 memoir, The sky is not the limit; adventures of an urban astrophysicist.  Here’s an excerpt:

“There was no point in formally tutoring prisoners who were on death row, or who were serving life sentences with no chances of parole.  They mostly just wanted a chess companion or someone to talk to – for many, their families had long abandoned them in prison.  The several lifers that I met all managed some kind of benign hobby.  One grew plants.  One cared for goldfish.  Another was writing his life story.  The surreal juxtaposition of a murder who cares for goldfish in his prison cell moved me.  It was indeed possible for a prisoner to sustain a modicum of civility and quality of life even though he had taken someone else’s life and even though he had no prospect of rejoining society.  I valued this fact and vowed to pay whatever extra taxes society levies to sustain those with life sentences rather than execute them…”

Tyson has some stunning reflections on education, on defense, on confrontation, and I’m only a third of the way through the book.  It’s interesting that used copies on Amazon are still 7 bucks.  One measure of a book’s value is the price of used copies.  For instance, Webmastering for dummies has 66 copies available “from $0.01”.

One thing that attracted Tyson to Cornell University was Carl Sagan, whom he met personally while considering what college to go to.  Sagan spent time with the promising student and was kind and helpful, but in the end Tyson wound up going to Harvard because the program was a better fit for his interests.

While in graduate school Tyson was so poor that at one point he seriously considered working as a male stripper to make ends meet.  Oh, Neil!  You should have done it, at least a couple times.  If nothing else, the pictures would have surfaced on the Internet and your current science popularization audience would be enhanced.  But even having considered it puts him in good company with Feynman, who hung out in strip clubs, making pencil drawings of the performers in their off hours.  And like Feynman, Tyson writes that his understanding of the world was enriched by learning to draw, and by learning to cope with the arts on at least some level.

It’s just as well he didn’t go to Cornell, because then people would be saying he was Sagan’s protoge’.  As it is, he stands fully qualified by his own experience and story as the world’s current top science popularizer -  a position of highest honor in my pantheon.


  • If you want to skip all the PBS introductions and happytalk, zoom in to 15:00 on the video, where begins Tyson’s portion.  Which really makes it a 75-minute video.
Categories: Education

An evening with Steven Levitt, the “Freakonomics” guy

September 17, 2009 Comments off

Illinois State University had a talk with Steven Levitt this evening.

Levitt is a microeconomics guy, hugely popular and controversial.  The Wall Street Journal describes him as “the Indiana Jones of economics”.  It’s not necessarily a compliment: Indy’s a lousy scientist, and Levitt spent the first ten minutes trying to impress us with how bad he is at math. 

But he is a very funny guy.  His tales of crack-gang and prostitute research make for excellent stand-up comedy.  And you just had to be there for the part about the Chicago police.  Humor may be the best approach to questions of human microeconomics anyway.

While I’m laughing, though, I also feel uncomfortable that such comedy derives from crack dealers who have a 7% fatality rate per year, while making less than they would make at McDonalds.  Human life is capable of getting caught in tragedy with no apparent escape.

I also take issue with his apparent conviction that the his altruism experiments say anything about human nature.  Possibly they say something about college students’ willingness to donate to other college students who are no worse off than they are, and who surely know the IRB committee wouldn’t really let any participants get ripped off even if they did “steal” the other participants’ money.  We have, after all, heard of the infamous Stanford prison experiment, and of Stanley Milgram at Yale.

In the Q&A period, many people asked macroeconomic questions like “How likely is it that the recession is over?”  Did they just not understand that he doesn’t study questions like that?  His answer consisted of first disclaiming any authority to speak on such large-scale issues, and then disagreeing strongly with Ben Bernanke on the recession.

He also felt that “Cash for clunkers” was a stupid program and a waste of money, which is certainly an arguable point of view.

We’ve heard some really interesting people at ISU, some of them also very insightful. 

Categories: Economics, Politics


September 16, 2009 Comments off

I’ve been riding home in the afternoon through clouds of these things:

Spiderwebs are full of them, but they’re too small to be of interest to the spider.  There are so many they look like a haze in the air.  They get all over your clothes, in your eyes, your nostrils, ears.  It could be worse, though; farmers hereabouts are reporting a mass presence of buffalo gnats, which bite.  Best I can figure out, these little bugs are water midges; their super-power consists of being very small and annoying, but they don’t bite.

My shirt was covered with them. Nice thing about getting a photograph on a piece of fabric is you can determine later exactly how big the subject is.  This little guy is three millimeters from front of head to rear wingtip.

UPDATE: Diane liked this picture better, with the insect on my fingertip. The fuzzy dark thing behind the wing is the handlebar of my bicycle.  I agree it’s a nicer picture, and even gives a better sense of the insect’s size, though not precise data.  If I were a photo-editor for an entomology textbook, or a magazine, it would be a challenge.  But I’m just a blogger, and “ink” is free, so here they both are.

And below the fold, a few more.  Critters this small are a macrophotography challenge.

 One on the back of my hand:

 Here’s a sense of how many we’re dealing with, illuminated by a sunbeam in the courtyard:

Categories: Uncategorized