Saturday, December 30, 2006
How do you defeat an extra-terrestrial monster, when bullets, torpedoes, missiles and lasers have failed?
With Japanese style professional wrestling moves, of course.
(disclosure: This was my favorite show as a kid.)
Friday, December 29, 2006
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Friday, December 22, 2006
Jonathan Coulton quit his job as a software engineer a little over a year ago in order to make music. When he didn't get a record contract right away, he started his "Thing a Week" project, where he came out with a new song every week for a year and podcast it for free under the Creative Commons license. Jen from A Thousand Times No interviewed him before the concert. You can listen to it here.
I watched some of his concert footage on YouTube, and in one show he said that he knew he was in the right place when a group held up their stuffed monkeys (a recurent theme in many of his songs). Right away I thought about how I could top that. Since I'm a fan of fractals, I decided to do something for his song Mandelbrot Set.
I generated a Mandelbrot Set image on my computer and had it printed poster size. I actually took a couple of pictures of Jonathan holding the poster I made, but alas, my P.O.S. camera screwed up and blurred the pictures by leaving the shutter open too long. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to wait until the next time he's in town. He did aknowledge me when he played Mandelbrot Set. He said "That gentleman holding the Mandelbrot Set poster has been following me around for a while. It's starting to get creepy!" He may have thought that he was just making a joke, but little does he know about my devious plan. It starts with stalking a singer/songwright, and finishes with world domination. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!
Speaking of which--What does a Mad Scientist give his girlfriend for Christmas? The answer is: probably not what she wants. According to a new study, couples tend to give each other the wrong gift.
· Almost half of all lovers are worse at predicting their partner's heart's desire than a stranger who simply uses average gender-specific preferences.
· In addition, the more you know about your inamorata, the worse your success rate is likely to get.
These cheerful holiday tidings are brought to you by "Why It Is So Hard to Predict Our Partner's Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy," in the December issue of the scholarly Journal of Consumer Research, published by the University of Chicago Press
And there's more to it than the cliché of getting your partner the gift that YOU want. (although that's a big part of it) In the article they talked about one guy who got is partner a bathroom scale as a gift. I imagine that his thought process must have been something like "Well she's always talking about her weight. I bet she'd really like a fancy new scale.But what does any of this have to do with mad scientists or Jonathan Coulton, you ask? It's the JoCo song Skullcrusher Mountain. The song is about an evil-genius/super-villian who falls in love with the girl he's holding captive. My kind of guy! In the song, the protaganist is surprised when his beloved doesn't like the gift he got her.
I made this half-pony half-monkey monster to please you
But I get the feeling that you don’t like it
What’s with all the screaming?
You like monkeys, you like ponies
Maybe you don’t like monsters so much
Maybe I used too many monkeys
Isn’t it enough to know that I ruined a pony making a gift for you?
You might think that he's crazy for thinking that she would like such a monstrous gift. But the truth is that he was acting no diferently than any "sane" person would. It's just that for him, a grotesque chimera is the ideal for a gift. Perhaps that makes him a tad crazy--just a tad.
With that I leave you with (from Xalen)
Thursday, December 21, 2006
This kind of thing has been known to happen in other lizard species, but nobody knew it was possible with dragons.
"Nobody in their wildest dreams expected this. But you have a female dragon on her own. She produces a clutch of eggs and those eggs turn out to be fertile. It is nature finding a way," Kevin Buley of Chester Zoo in England said in an interview.
He said the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas.
The process by which this happens is called parthenogenesis. From Wikipedia:
Parthenogenesis is distinct from artificial animal cloning, a process where the new organism is identical to the cell donor. Parthenogenesis is truly a reproductive process which creates a new individual or individuals from the naturally varied genetic material contained in the eggs of the mother. A litter of animals resulting from parthenogenesis may contain all genetically unique siblings. Parthenogenic offspring of a parthenogen are, however, all genetically identical to each other and to the mother, as a parthenogen is homozygous.
What this means is that the genome is not passed down whole as in cloning; The cells begin meiosis normally by fusing and shuffling their chromosomes, but instead of dividing into two separate haploid egg cells, they stay together essentially fertilizing themselves. The Wikipedia article has even been updated to include Komodo dragons.
Recently, the Komodo dragon which normally reproduces sexually was found to also be able to reproduce asexually by parthenogenesis.  Because of the genetics of sex determination in Komodo Dragons uses the WZ system (where WZ is female, ZZ is male, WW is inviable) the offspring of this process will be ZZ (male) or WW (inviable), with no WZ females being born. A case has been documented of a Komodo Dragon switching back to sexual reproduction after a parthenogenetic event. . It has been postulated that this gives an advantage to colonisation of islands, where a single female could theoretically have male offspring asexually, then switch to sexual reproduction to maintain higher level of genetic diversity than asexual reproduction alone can generate.  Parthenogenesis may also occur when males and females are both present, as the wild Komodo dragon population is approximately 75 per cent male.
One has to wonder what these lizards, born of a virgin, on Christmas will be like when they grow up.
Anyhoo, as a tribute to the winner, I bring you a new species of giant squid. Here's a description of the "far red" camera and lure that was used to snag the shots.
The Eye-in-the-Sea (EITS) was designed to address these questions. The autonomous EITS is a programmable, battery-powered camera and recording system that can be placed on the sea floor and left for 24 to 48 hours to observe the animal life in the dark depths with as little disturbance as possible. It uses far red light illumination that is invisible to most deep-sea inhabitants and an innovative electronic lure that imitates the bioluminescent burglar alarm display of a common deep-sea jellyfish.
The very first time this lure was used it attracted a large squid that is so new to science it can not be placed in any known family.
Just follow this link to see the video of the depth dwelling cephalopod. (via New York Times)
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
About a year later, I went to visit a friend who was attending Cornell University. The whole way there, all I could think about was "I hope I bump into Carl Sagan." Alas, I did not, but I did learn that Ithica is gorges.
Several years later, I got into reading popular science books and essays. Dawkins and Gould turned me on to evolutionary biology, but I also read Druyan and Sagan. The man was surely one of the premire poets of science. (I was a little disappointed by the movie Contact, although it did have its moments.)
Sorry for the lame post, but it's late and I want to get something up before the end of the day. There are some really nice tributes over at Joel's humanistic blog as part of the Carl Sagan blog-a-thon. Check them out.
And so this post won't be a complete wash, I present Carl Sagan and the Cosmic Calendar. Thank Google for embeded video.
Click on picture for National Geographic link.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Science tries to accrue knowledge and reach the truth through research. Scientists look at the evidence, make hypotheses, and then test the hypotheses to see how valid they are. Their conclusions are then published in peer-reviewed journals where other scientists may scrutinize the work and gauge its validity. A consensus among scientists determines what is the accepted "truth." The journal’s editors decide which papers are worthy of publishing.
They sound similar, and in many regards they are, but there are a few crucial differences.
Science is an “open source” discipline. Scientists put all of their research and results out there for all to see and evaluate—including results that contradict their findings. It is considered a scandal when it is revealed that a scientist hid results from his peers and the public. (Is it a coincidence that most of the achievements that critics of science point to as being evil—atomic weapons, Nazi eugenics, etc.—were the result of science being performed behind closed doors? Just a thought.) In most court cases, the competing sides are under no obligation to disclose certain damning evidence to each other. In fact, attorney-client privilege often forbids it. This stems from the different mentality that the “truth” (verdict) is achieved by dispute resolution.
Judges are generally the preeminent experts in matters of law. This is ideal for complicated legal disputes. The "jury of peers" is a group of citizens who need only have an understanding of the law. This works well for most simple legal issues. "Scientific peers" are experts in the field of study in question. This is an absolute necessity for matters of scientific inquiry. Two scientists arguing dissenting theories can sound like they are speaking Greek (literally) to a layperson or even scientists outside of their field of expertise.
What happens when the two meet? This is a very sticky situation. Scientific disputes should be fought in the arena of science. Judges and juries are not qualified to evaluate an issue for which scientists have yet to reach a consensus. This sometimes happens, though. Even worse, scientific disputes in which a consensus has already been reached are oftentimes brought into the courtroom to be argued anew. Here they are subject to different rules, and the side with the better rhetoric can win the day.
Clearly, reforms are needed for when science meets law. I am however optimistic. The recent decision in the Dover, PA “monkey trial” and the reversal of the silicone implant ban give me hope for the future. Perhaps in ten years the courts will have institutionalized an organic system that is true to science for dealing with “science meets law” cases.
For this reason, our legal system, despite its problems, is a shining beacon of scientific enlightenment compared to many. This brings me to Libya.
A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the Tripoli 6. These are the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor who had been falsely accused of intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV as part of a nefarious CIA/Mossad plot. Scientists stepped in and looked at the evidence. Their verdict was that the children were all infected (probably by the reuse of needles) prior to the arrival of the medics. They are clearly innocent! Then the Libyan court system stepped in and came to its verdict: guilty! Sentence: death!
Crowds cheered outside when the verdict was announced. I can’t really blame them so much (although I would never cheer anyone’s death sentence). It is unlikely that they knew about the scientific evidence, and quite likely that they wouldn't understand it even if they did know about it. It is truly sad and outrageous.
Last week Mickey Grant, maker of the documentary Injection about the plight of the medics, made a last ditch call to try to rally more worldwide awareness about this travesty. I really wish that I knew some real journalists who I could have pressured to cover the story. Alas, all I could do was sit back, watch the verdict, and feel impotent about the whole thing. This makes me sick to my stomach.
I still have hope, but I can’t say it’s realistic.
Monday, December 18, 2006
I thought that I would be somewhat skeptical of her views. But after listening to her, I think our differences on the subject came down to what the definition of "free will" was. After all, depending on your approach, the question "What is free will?" can be just as difficult if not more than "Is there free will?"
So what is free will? You can't say that it's "not being affected by the outside world;" everything that interacts with its environment is affected by it. A reasonable definition then, would be "not being controlled from the outside." This tends to fit well with the basic idea of free will. It can get a little dicey when you go to draw the line for where "affected" ends and "controlled" begins. Let me give an example to illustrate more or less where I see that line. A mannequin is controlled by its puppeteer; it has no free will. But if the puppet is an autonomous robot, an autonomous robot that can rewrite its own programming based on experience, an autonomous robot whose decisions are complex and variable, then I would say that puppet has free will.
I would also say that autonomous robot is deterministic and probably doesn't have conscienceness--at least not in the way we think of it. This of course means that my definition will not be universally accepted, as I've heard the concept of free will tied to conscienceness and incompatible with determinism. I do not agree with those assessments.
I see no conflict between determinism and my definition of free will. A decision is a process; every process can be broken down into simpler steps. Once you get down to the simplest steps, they must fall into one of three (and only three) categories. Each step is either determined (cause leads to effect), random (effect not dictated by cause), or magic (undefined: almost certainly doesn't exist). This holds true whether you are talking about the base circuitry of wires or neurons, or the "higher software" that does the "thinking." In that sense, we humans are no different than the autonomous robot, and so if we can be said to have free will, then so can the robot.
Another thing I hear thrown about is statements to the effect of "the randomness of quantum mechanics liberates us from the bonds of determinism and allows us to have free will." That is utter nonsense. (quick note: The "randomness" of quantum mechanics is not haphazard; it follows established wave equations, it's experiments are reproducible, and the behavior is predicted by theory.) Besides, if one believes that strict determinism robs you of free will, how in the hell is random behavior any better? Hmm, let me think ... oh yeah, it's not! And furthermore, there's nothing stopping us from adding randomness to our "auto puppet." This puppet--this machine--must have free will just like we do. That only leaves magic, but magic doesn't exist. If your definition of free will requires magic, then free will, as so defined, does not exist.
This brings us to the issue of conscienceness. Nobody really knows what it is, therefore we can't really know whether out auto puppet has some form of it or not. There are behavioral tests out there that some people use to determine degrees of conscienceness (mirror test, turing test). But these behavioral tests leave many of us unsatisfied. We must rely on empathy. We watch a behavior for signs of conscienceness, but we can't know if it's really there. For example, the turing test is a test to see if an A.I. can fool a human into thinking that he or she is talking to another human. In that case, the conscienceness we would percieve in that A.I. (that passed the turing test) would be an illusion--or would it? And is our own conscienceness just an illusion? (Rene: That's not as outlandish as it may sound.)
Many see conscienceness as something ethereal; I think it is most certainly not. I see conscienceness as a web of sensations created by the brain. Take this letter written to NewScientist regarding this article.
The article on confabulation repeats a logical fallacy (7 October, p 32). "The idea that we have conscious free will may be an illusion," writes Helen Phillips, because a 1985 experiment "suggested that a signal to move a finger appears in the brain several hundred milliseconds before someone consciously decides to move that finger".
This is silly. The process of making a "conscious decision" to act is obviously not a single event. Factors for and against action must be weighed up, inhibitions must be overcome, environmental constraints must be checked, the muscular signals must be planned so that the action is properly coordinated, and so forth. That fact that somewhere along this complex pathway a signal can be measured indicating movement of a finger is imminent is quite unsurprising. The fallacy lies in inferring that the sensation of "conscious decision" that appears later on is thus illusory or "faked".
We sense all things in a delayed fashion. Our conscious recognition of a flash of light, for example, occurs well after the light actually flashes. Why should the sensation of our own consciousness be any different?
And if we have no free will, then why even bother producing the fake sensation of consciousness after the fact? If we, the conscious entity, could not exert any free will over what our body will do in the future, then our body would presumably conserve energy by simply turning out the lights.
With the exception of his last paragraph, this pretty much describes my view. We are essentially autonomous robots with sensations--including the sensation of our own thoughts.
UPDATE: Between the time I started writing this post and when I finished, Dennis Overbye wrote this article in the New York Times about free will. It is quite interesting; he gets into the philosophies of Danial Dennet, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. Good stuff!
Friday, December 15, 2006
1. Always wear a helmet.
2. Obey all traffic laws.
What I am about to say will probably make heads spin if any of my friends over at the bike coalition should stumble upon this post. I don't always practice what I preach. In fact, I think I'm being safer when I don't.
To be clear, I do wear a helmet most of the time. It's demonstrably helpful for most spills a cyclist will take. But does that mean that you're safer when wearing one? Not according to Dr. Ian Walker.
Dr. Walker performed a study where he rode a bicycle fitted with an ultrasonic distance sensor both with and without a helmet.
Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck.
He found that drivers were as much as twice as likely to get particularly close to the bicycle when he was wearing the helmet.
“By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.
“We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial.
“Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place.”
But why would this be so?
Dr Walker suggests the reason drivers give less room to cyclists wearing helmets is down to how cyclists are perceived as a group.
“We know from research that many drivers see cyclists as a separate subculture, to which they don’t belong,” said Dr Walker.
“As a result they hold stereotyped ideas about cyclists, often judging all riders by the yardstick of the lycra-clad street-warrior.
“This may lead drivers to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without.
“The idea that helmeted cyclists are more experienced and less likely to do something unexpected would explain why drivers leave less space when passing.
That actually makes some sense. I know that when I ride on the public bike (and multi-purpose) paths, I always give extra space to unhelmeted riders (or riders with cellphones, ipods, etc.). Although I can usually gauge a cyclist's bike handling skills by simply watching them ride for a second or two.
I'm still a believer in helmets most of the time, but if I'm just making a quick trip to the store, I'll generally pass on the foam hat. My own philosophy is that I always wear a helmet when I'm donning lycra (~90+% of my riding). If I'm out of uniform, the helmet is optional. This fits in well with Dr. Walker's findings. His conclusion is quite apt.
“The best answer is for different types of road user to understand each other better.
“Most adult cyclists know what it is like to drive a car, but relatively few motorists ride bicycles in traffic, and so don’t know the issues cyclists face.
“There should definitely be more information on the needs of other road users when people learn to drive, and practical experience would be even better.
“When people try cycling, they nearly always say it changes the way they treat other road users when they get back in their cars.”
Now what about obeying traffic laws? According to your driver's manual, a bicycle on the road is a vehicle and must obey all the same laws that automobiles follow. I'm sorry but that's just ridiculous. (coalition heads spinning) First, that statement isn't technically true: all motorists must be licensed. Second, the vast majority of those laws were not written with bicycles in mind. Some of the traffic rules seem absolutely preposterous for a vehicle that can travel in the shoulder. Others make no sense for a vehicle that weighs under 200 pounds.
I generally use my own judgement as to when to obey and when not to. I think that I'm actually riding safer when I use my acumen rather than following motorist's rules. I realize that that's just based on gut feeling and anecdotes, but they come from at least ten years experience riding almost every day. And Coturnix thinks that even cars are being safer when negotiating traffic rather than acting like automatons.
Portland's so-called "festival street," which opened two months ago, is one of a small but growing number of projects in the United States that seek to reclaim streets used by cars as public places for people, too. The strategy is to blur the boundary between pedestrians and automobiles by removing sidewalks and traffic devices, and to create a seamless multi-purpose urban space.
Combining traffic engineering, urban planning and behavioral psychology, the projects are inspired by a provocative new European street design trend known as "psychological traffic calming," or "shared space." Upending conventional wisdom, advocates of this approach argue that removing road signs, sidewalks, and traffic lights actually slows cars and is safer for pedestrians. Without any clear right-of-way, so the logic goes, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.
Now I'm not advocating riding like a bicycle messenger--those guys are crazy! But seriously, messengers are probably some of the best cyclists out on the road. They are experts at negotiating city traffic. (Another myth is that bicycling in the big city is more dangerous than out in the suburbs. Quite the contrary is true. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that city motorists expect to see bikes. A suburban motorist who isn't expecting bikes, can look right at a cyclist and not "see" him. Then after the accident say "He came out of nowhere!" City drivers know cyclists are entitled to share the road. In all my years of city cycling, I've never had a motorist scream "Get off the fucking road!"--the same cannot be said for the suburbs.) They (messengers) use their judgement just like I do, albeit with different lines they don't cross. When you see a messenger riding like he's oblivious to all the traffic around him, remember that he sees more than you. For example, while an automobile driver is contained inside a box at least two meters behind the front of the vehicle, a cyclist is only a foot or two from the front of his vehicle and out in the open with full use to his peripheral vision.
In the following video of a 2004 New York City bike messenger race, you get to see them in action. The first time I saw this, I thought they were all lunatics. But the more I watch it, the more I recognize how skilled they are. For example, while it may seem that they are recklessly blowing through red lights, if you pay careful attention, you'll see that they are following each others cues as well as running interference for each other. And remember that the helmet-cam doesn't have the same perspective and peripheral vision that the cyclist does. In fact, the most dangerous thing I saw was the guy coming off the bridge without brakes and with his feet off the pedals. (I also wouldn't recomend getting stoned right before you go riding.)
Welcome to the jungle!
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Quick synopsis: Guy is travelling to Canada. Before leaving he calls Verizon wireless to check what the rate will be. He is quoted 0.002¢ per kilobyte. Just to be sure he asks the rep to repeat that it is 0.002 cents and not 0.002 dollars and to put it in writing. When his bill arrives, he finds he has been charged $0.002 per kilobyte. The recording is of what happens when he calls Verizon to complain.
Friday, December 08, 2006
So for my inaugural Friday Madness post, take it away Freddy!
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Joe Camel was certainly a case of this. For one thing, he always reminded me of another certain character that I was fond of in my youth.
Then there's the thing with those internal memos. It is clearly apparent that they were using the character to entice teens into using and getting hooked on their product.
But what about Santa Claus? Is he also a nefarious marketing tool? I believe that he's certainly a marketing tool—something where evangelicals and I might find common ground. But the Santa Claus demographic is not the same as the Joe Camel demographic. Santa Claus marketers target the "Mommy, mommy! I want ..." generation. Joe Camel went after kids who bought their own paraphernalia. That's why I probably wouldn't be as outraged if RJR came out with Kris Kringle Smokes. So what about Santa on beer bottles? It seems the State of Maine has decided that this bottle can't be on the shelves.
But the state says it's within its rights. The label with Santa might appeal to children, said Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Fleming. The other two labels are considered inappropriate because they show bare-breasted women.
"We stand by our decision and at some point it'll go through the court system and somebody will make the decision on whether we are right or wrong," he said.
So let's see. A mother is in the supermarket with her six year old and ventures into the beverage aisle to buy some egg-nog. All of a sudden, the child spots the bottle of Santa's Butt beer and starts yelling "Mommy, mommy! It's Santa!" The youth of Maine has now been corrupted.
But those other two labels are another matter altogether.
Maine also denied label applications for Les Sans Culottes, a French ale, and Rose de Gambrinus, a Belgian fruit beer.
Les Sans Culottes' label is illustrated with detail from Eugene Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People," which hangs in the Louvre and once appeared on the 100-franc bill. Rose de Gambrinus shows a bare-breasted woman in a watercolor painting commissioned by the brewery.
In a letter to Shelton Brothers, the state denied the applications for the labels because they contained "undignified or improper illustration."
Bare breasted women on beer bottles?? It's sacreligious! Imagine the audacity. I guess my idea for a wine label will never fly in Maine.
"Queen of the Wheel," copyrighted in 1897 by the Rose Studio of Princeton, NJ.