Friday, April 30, 2010

Memoir: Absurd Long Before The Current Scandals

It's gotten to the point where you can't separate the reality from the satire. Let me offer some quotes:
By 1993, the seriousness of child sexual abuse allegations against a Pembroke priest who had been elevated to the Vatican was such that Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic wouldn’t let him near his Toronto diocese. But not serious enough for the then-archbishop of Toronto, five fellow Ontario bishops and the Vatican’s representative in Ottawa to go to police. (The Toronto Star - 9 Apr 2010)
The head of the influential Catholic League says that the priest who allegedly sexually abused 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin did not engage in pedophilia because 'the vast majority of the victims [were] post-pubescent." Bill Donohue made the argument during a raucous debate onLarry King Live Tuesday night, during which he repeatedly pointed the finger to homosexuality -- rather than pedophilia -- as the cause of the church's sex abuse problems. (The Raw Story - 31 Mar 2010)
If you are an 81 year old Italian bishop of a certain persuasion, the anti everything kind, then the reasons for the recent attacks on the Pope over the pedophilia scandal are obvious; they are a 'Jewish led plot'. (Sky News - 12 Apr 2010)
A Vatican cardinal in charge of clergy around the world congratulated a French bishop in a 2001 letter for not denouncing a sexually abusive priest to the police, according to a French website on Thursday. (Reuters - 15 Apr 2010)
Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, the Catholic church's most joyous celebration, began with a senior cardinal defending Pope Benedict XVI from what he called "petty gossip" and hailing him for "unfailing" leadership and courage. But the pontiff himself ignored accusations that he perpetuated a climate of cover-up for pedophile priests, even as sex abuse scandals threatened to overshadow his papacy. (USA Today - 4 Apr 2010)
Calling the behavior shameful, sinful, and much more frequent than the Vatican was comfortable with, Pope Benedict XVI vowed this week to bring the widespread pedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church down to a more manageable level. (The Onion - 5 Apr 2010)
Calling forgiveness "one of the highest virtues taught to us by Jesus," Pope John Paul II issued a papal decree Monday absolving priest-molested children of all sin. (The Onion - 22 May 2002)
Long before this particular scandal broke people have come up with very basic questions about religion and especially about organized religion and the institutions of organized religion. There are a slew of books on those topics at the moment.

The questions aren't new. They've been asked before. Many times.

The questions and criticisms weren't answered then and they aren't being answered now. Case in point Why I Am An Agnostic from 1896 by Robert G. Ingersoll. For a book that is over one hundred years old it is still remarkably timely and powerful. (If you want to read this on your eBook reader you can get a version in every major eBook format from In the book he explores how his view of religion evolved over time. Consider it the memoir of someone who looked deeper into religion and belief and wrote about what he found.

You don't need the latest scandal to see the underlying absurdity. The questions have been around for a long time. The scandal just makes it easier to re-ask the underlying questions.

Somehow I don't think we'll get any new answers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

C'est du Chinois

I've never been that adept at acquiring a second language. And keep any thoughts about the problems I'm having with my first language to yourself. Some languages are harder to learn than others. Chinese in particular.

I describe myself as a unilingual anglophone.

Apparently when I was young I could speak some Polish. Now I can tell when people are speaking Polish but there's no comprehension. As a Canadian I took French in school. However conjugating verbs and learning vocabulary never translated (no pun intended) into the ability to be conversant in French. I may be more aware of the French language than Polish but I never became bilingual. C'est la vie.

In high school, back in the 80s, I remember thinking that if I was to learn a foreign language (which ruled out French because in Canada it's not a foreign language - no matter what anyone West of Ontario says) I'd probably learn Russian or Japanese. Not that I did of course. Other priorities distracted.

I'm not sure what the 'best' languages are to learn to broaden one's horizons now. Politically and economically a case can be made for learning Chinese. Mandarin in particular. A case can be made for learning written Chinese or Pinyin. But now that I know how hard Chinese is to learn...

I'll think I'll just be happy being a unilinguist.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

History: How to Make a Scene

May I present A History of Punk by A.S. Van Dorston. There's also You'll never be 16 again... on Punk 77!.

Coming late to a new cultural scene is almost inevitable.

When a scene is forming only a few people are involved. By it's very nature it's a fringe of the mainstream. Only a few artists and not many more followers are involved. Most of us discover cultural shifts as they hit the mainstream. For each creek of culture we pay attention to there is an entire watershed we can't be part of. We are only able to follow so much at a time. If we're lucky we'll be able to say "I was there when...".

But cultural creeks become brooks and then streams. More followers and more artists. What starts as a couple of guys making music stretches to another city and more groups. Musical movements grow before they have names given to them. Classic songs are written. Records are recorded. The rest of us start to take notice. Before we notice the cultural mainstream has changed. What was a tiny movement in a couple of clubs starts being used in advertising and then *gasp* turned into Muzak.

In retrospect the history of all those little creeks is shortened to a simple history. One or two musical groups in particular are chosen to be the most influential of the time regardless of the how many others influenced them. We're told which songs are the important ones but not about the others that were sung night after night on stage. For every moment where "you should have been there" there are countless others that weren't so spectacular.

It's much more intricate and detailed than any simple explanation of course. History isn't only full of black and white moments when everything changed. There's a lot of small moments that influenced in much smaller ways. Shades of grey that change the landscape. We need some of the people who were there to expand the simple history.

That way we can look back and live vicariously through what we didn't even know was happening.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are Cheap Computer Peripherals Worth it?

This isn't a post with a link to reviews of inexpensive brands of mice, keyboards, and webcams.

This goes beyond computer peripherals themselves. This is about the people who make those products and the conditions they work in. The peripherals are peripheral so to speak.

This is about working conditions overseas in the places that make our mice, keyboards, and webcams. China's Youth Meet Microsoft is a damning report by the National Labor Committee. Don't think it will be a hard read because it's filled with numbers and statistics. The report shows explains the daily life of a group of workers and the conditions in which they work. It's a hard read because of what it exposes, because of what is being done so that the things we buy cost less. And this is in a company that's making hi-tech goods for hi-tech companies. This isn't a sweat shop making no-name clothes or shoes.

I've never been a big fan of unions. In many cases they fall into the trap of the Shirky Principle:
Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution. - Clay Shirky
But regardless of my views on unions I have no issue with the fundamental cause of workers' rights. Fair wages. Fair working conditions. Fair treatment. All entrenched in laws that are enforced.

We can argue over what constitutes fair and what should be in the legislation but we'll be fighting over details and not over whether workers should have rights. We can disagree over whether our particular country has better laws than another but at least the laws are in place and our companies adhere to them.

If they don't adhere to them we know something can be done about it.

Around the world the story is different. Some countries don't have fair legislation to protect workers. Some don't enforce the laws they have. Companies from countries with workers' rights in place do business in countries that don't have these rights in place. Production is outsourced around the world. Factories get built around the world wherever the costs are lowest.

Is a company legally responsible for the state of workers in countries it outsources to? Is Microsoft, to use the example detailed in the report, legally responsible for what KYE Systems Corp. does?

Legal obligations in cases like these may be murky. The ethical and moral obligations are much clearer.

The only weapon available is bad publicity. Nike is going to continue to do everything they can to make sure no one can ever again jokingly say that their slogan is "For kids - by kids". Publicity works.

Now it's the turn of some of electronic giants to be shamed into doing what's right regardless of legal obligations. Sooner or later the companies involved will make sure this stops happening. Especially if the issue continues to be publicized.

Will we do our part and be willing to pay a little more for products that don't come from factories with pre-Victorian working conditions? Or will we turn a blind eye and always buy the cheapest brand with no regard to the people who make the products?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Memoir: Serious Comedy

Want to be good at something? You better be prepared to spend a lot of time at it.

Want to be a genius at something? Don't just do it - think about it. Know what you're doing and why. Work out what you do that's different. Figure out when to stick with it and when to change. Be aware.

Steve Martin explained his comedy and his journey to success in Being Funny.

His act may have been silly but he was, and still is, one of the smartest men in comedy. He took funny very seriously. Being funny shows that he knew exactly what he was trying to do while being zany.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chew, Spit, and Discard

There are a lot of books written about how to write. Theories and concepts about writing fiction and non-fiction will be around for a long time. Especially since so many of the theories disagree with each other.

But the simple truths about writing clear and precise prose are well agreed upon. We all know what little manual we should read and follow because it contains the best advice on how to express ourselves. After a dictionary and a thesaurus there's one book everyone should read and follow right? We can all agree on grammar and basic style right?

Wrong. It may be over 50 years old and a mainstay on how to write but The Elements of Style is not beyond very pointed criticism. And valid criticism if you ask me. Take a gander at 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.

If Strunk and White aren't a good resource... what should we use to inform the next 50 years of prose writers? What should we use to inform ourselves?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Memoir: An Immigrant's Story

The last post on the topic of the senses was about Lene Andersen's The Seated View. Lene was born in Denmark and now lives in Toronto Canada. I can think of no better way to start looking at histories by showcasing another Danish immigrant to Toronto at the Canadian Museum of Civilization's online exhibit Chris Bennedsen: Scrapbook of a Life in Letters.

A warning though. The material is wonderful. The story engaging. The slice of history is engaging. But the site itself has serious issues. I'll give a few hints below but hang in there - it's worth figuring out how to navigate the site.

Chris Bennedsen came to Canada in 1951 and stayed the rest of his life. He married an Italian-Canadian woman and built a life for his family. He never did lose the connection to Denmark and the family and friends who were there. Chris was also a collector. He kept every letter he sent and received as well as lots of other material. The online exhibit is a portion of a meticulously kept scrapbook of a life put into context and explained. It is a window into one man's life.

The exhibit however has some problems.

It suffers from 1990's multimedia syndrome mixed in with museum mentality. The site is menu driven, inflexible, and does not exploit the power of the web or the web browser. Having the material forced to fit into a small on-screen window is a waste. The site looks great. Just as I'd expect the placards and signs in the museum to look. As a web site though it is a pain to view.

Here are the steps to go from the intro page to the first page of the digital scrapbook:
  • Click on Introduction at the top left of the splash screen
  • Click on Enter at the top left of the intro screen
  • Click on the "book" titled "1 Spandet" or on the "1. Spandet" link across the bottom of the page
  • Click on the work "Spandet" under the intro text
  • Click on the "1" along the top of the virtual book, or click on the "Next Page" button at the bottom of the page, to start reading the material on the site
This may be how museum presentations are put together but it's terribly wrong as a way to build a website. I haven't seen material this hard to access since the days of multimedia productions on CDs. The virtual book metaphor doesn't have to be so literal let alone so narrow and tall. I have rather large monitors but I still had to scroll down two narrow book pages to read anything. I understand that if you're building a museum exhibit there are physical constraints and the need to unify everything behind a consistent visual theme. But this is the web. Where the material should fit my browser and not the other way around.

Even with the issues on accessing the content of the site it's well worth it. Behind the clicks and the menus is a compelling tale. One that crosses cultural boundaries, one section is entitled "A Dane in Little Italy", that could only happen in a city like Toronto and in a country like Canada. People like Lene and Chris and the lives they've made for themselves are some of the reasons I love living in Toronto.

From the Senses to a Sense of History

It's time to leave the senses and move on to another topic. And no remarks about me having no sense left.

I don't have a set rule on how long to stay with a topic. I don't even have a rule of thumb yet. The length of time will depend on the topic and how many interesting links I've found. Though let's face it... it's bound to change whenever I'm itching to move on to something else.

The current itch is stories. More specifically histories. Stories of the histories of people and things. The next topic is Memoirs and Histories.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What War Will the West Fight Next?

Wayne got me thinking again. He sent me a link to an article about The New Rules of War. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, describes how he thinks the U.S. military needs to change to fight the new threats of "netwars".

He argues that a military made of smaller organizational units, that is more concerned with finding an elusive enemy and then "swarming" with overwhelming force is the new model that will best suit the conflicts that the U.S. will face in the coming years. He's certainly not the first to try and figure out how to fight the next war. 

The article is an interesting read. I'm not sure I disagree with the conclusions. Or at least not all of them. It's certainly written by someone with an agenda and someone who isn't afraid to try and push it hard. It's when the author is trying his hardest to make a point using historical precedence that I tend to disagree with his conclusions. You can't say in one place that:
Nuclear weapons were next to be misunderstood, most monumentally by a U.S. military that initially thought they could be employed like any other weapons. But it turned out they were useful only in deterring their use.
And then follow that later with:
The failure to grasp the true meaning of nuclear weapons led to a suicidal arms race and a barely averted apocalypse during the Cuban missile crisis.
Kennedy did use the threat of nuclear war to get the missiles removed from Cuba. If that isn't using nuclear weapons to deter the use of nuclear weapons I don't know what is. Yes the Cuban missile crisis is more complicated than a couple short lines. And yes there is more to the history of nuclear weapons in the cold war than simple brinksmanship. But a suicidal arms race that doesn't turn 'hot' is an example of nuclear weapons being used in a deterrent role successfully.

So just be aware that the author of the piece has an agenda and does his best to support it without giving the alternative view much credence. Standard operating procedure when you're trying to sell your particular vision of things. Still it's a look at some of the military thinking going on.

Another way of looking at the wars of the future is to look not at the type of battles but at what motivates your potential enemies.

Our New Old Enemies is an article from 1999 that appeared in the US Army War College Quarterly Parameters. Written by Ralph Peters the article ranges through a slew of ideas. From the importance of religion and belief in helping to inspire warriors to how living in a stable and prosperous country like the U.S.A. alters it's citizens views on the need or necessity for war. It's not a typical piece in that uses Judeo-Christian sources and the Iliad to make some of it's points. Not something you get to read every day.

Our New Old Enemies is particularly interesting in that it was written pre 9/11. Like almost every attempt to predict how wars will be fought in the future there are lines that stand out as naive in retrospect:
Leaving aside the threat from weapons of mass destruction, however, the United States appears invulnerable for the foreseeable future. Terrorists might annoy us, but we will triumph.
I'm not sure many would call 9/11 an annoyance and until that day not many would have considered a civilian airliner a weapon of mass destruction.

Still the two articles are good modern examples of the ever present predictions on the future of warfare. One explains the tactics and equipment that we should use in the future. The other explores the minds of those that the west may be fighting.

Here's hoping we don't have to find out if either of them is right anytime soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Senses: The One We Don't Want To Feel

I've already pointed out that there are more than five senses. Balance, or equilibrioception, and the sense of our own body, or proprioception, are other senses we have besides the usual five.

The human body has other senses as well. Senses that tell us how our body is feeling. I tend to simplify things a bit too much but I think there are three general ways in which our body can tell our conscious mind how things are going.

We feel nothing, we feel pleasure, or we feel pain.

Pain is the way we know something isn't right. The way our body can get our attention.

Many people only feel pain when they hurt ourselves. For them pain is just a warning mechanism. Some of us feel pain on occasion. Whether headaches or lower back pain or something similar, we feel pain not just when we injure ourselves. Pain encroaches. Pills and painkillers help it pass. We look after ourselves and then it goes away again.

Others feel pain all the time. I've come to know one person with chronic pain very well. Lene Andersen is an award winning author and blogger, advocate, and exhibited photographer. The Seated View is where you can read her "opinionated ramblings about almost everything".

From audio book reviews that make you realize how important it is to have a good reader, through movie reviews, amazing photographs, and her end of the month random posts, The Seated View is well written, funny, insightful, and I highly recommend reading it.

As an accomplished writer Lene is also able to share her experiences living with pain. The Seated View gives insight into living with chronic pain for those of us who can't begin to imagine it. If you want to try to understand what it's like to live with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, or even with chronic pain in general, The Seated View is a good place to start.
Don't think The Seated View is only about disability or pain. Lene's blog is like life. There are ups and downs, laughs and tears, moments of frivolity and moments of deep reflection. I've learned a great deal reading her blog. It's made me not just aware of how lucky I am to be relatively pain free, but also how lucky I am to know her.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

One Better Than 3 Chord Rock and Roll

If you think a lot of pop music sounds the same you may not be crazy. Let the Axis of Awesome demonstrate the power of the prototypical 4 chord song.

Not convinced? Here's a video of 65 snippets of 4 chord songs by the original artists with the speed and pitch matched into one continuous medley.

But don't think it just started with modern pop songs. Songs have sounded alike for a long time. Don't believe me? Listen to the Pachelbel Rant by Rob Paravonian. Sound familiar?

Now you know why I can't listen to top 40 anymore.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Senses: Technical Details

Last I checked human beings don't come with owner's manual, a support guide, or even a brochure on what the human body is capable of. We can't even surf to the vendor's website and track down the technical specs. We humans are ingenious creatures and some people have spent a lot of time reverse engineering the human body to understand how all works.

The details on how our senses work is covered in detail in the course The Physiology of the Senses: Transformations for Perception and Action by Tutis Vilis from the University of Western Ontario. It's billed as a brief and simple undergraduate level course but don't get scared away by that. The flash animated versions of each section are easy to get through even if many of the details escape you (as many escaped me) but the gist of how sensations get to the mind is easy to grasp. If textbooks were written more like these flash animations and pdfs I'd have had a much easier time in school. In places it is dense and technical but it isn't dry and full of small print.

Even if a university level course on the details of the senses isn't your idea of how spend a few hours don't pass this site by. Each course section also has a short page of links. There is so much to explore that is much less technical. There are links to TED videos, to an article on how the brain processes jokes, and even to a NeuroReport paper on Why can't you tickle yourself? (pdf). Make sure you have some time on your hands before you head to the links pages.

There are other overviews of the senses that are less detailed but just as interesting. Seeing, Hearing and Smelling the World is a report from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Less technical it doesn't get into the minutiae of the senses. Instead it works at a higher level. Mixing some details with descriptions of how three of the senses work, explanations of the research that's been done, and descriptions of areas where more research is required.

What I haven't found in one place recently is the technical specs for human beings. Years ago Stan Kelly-Bootle (the first person to receive a postgraduate diploma on computer science back in 1954) wrote a monthly column for a magazine aimed at computer programmers. I can't recall if the magazine was Software Development or Computer Programmer, or another that came before those two.

At one point he wrote a series of columns about how humans and computers could interact. He didn't talk about windows or mice or anything technical on the computer side of the things. Instead he focused on the limitations of our senses. Limitations such as:
  • How much detail can we see right in front of us compared to our peripheral vision? 
  • How many colours can we perceive? 
  • How many images need to flicker in front of our eyes before we see seamless motion? 
  • What range of sound can we hear? 
  • How much information can we make out in an sound?
  • How many words can we read in a second?
It was a fascinating summary of the limits of our ability to sense and understand information. It turns out there are known limits to how much information we can take in. Also there is only so much we can do to transfer information from within our minds into a computer. At a certain point we can't interact any faster and the only choice we have is to be more efficient.

We may not have the complete tech specs for the human senses provided for us but we do have several good after market maintenance manuals. Dr. Vilis' animations are a good place to start.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Short to Long: Birds Know How to Make a Deal

The Short

Apparently pigeons are better than undergraduate students at the Monty Hall problem. I'm not sure whether this reflects well on pigeons or badly on undergraduate students. I don't recall pigeons doing well at checkers.

The Monty Hall problem is based on part of the game show Let's Make a Deal that Monty Hall co-created and hosted. The problem goes like this:
  • There are three closed doors on stage.
  • Randomly placed behind one of the doors is a prize. The prize is hidden and will not move to another door.
  • The contestant picks a door.
  • The host, Monty Hall, opens one of the two remaining doors showing it to be empty.
  • The contestant can then either still hope the prize is behind door they first picked and stick with their initial choice or switch to the remaining closed door.
  • The prize is revealed. If it's behind the door the contestant picked the contestant wins.
That's it. There isn't much to it. It all boils down to: do you stay or switch after one of the closed doors you didn't choose is opened? And why do you stay or switch?

Image yourself in the situation. You've picked one of the doors. One of the remaining two doors has been opened. You now have a choice to make. There are three possibilities:
  1. You have a better chance staying with the door you first picked.
  2. You have a better chance switching to the unopened door.
  3. It doesn't matter if you switch or not.
So? What's your answer? Not sure? Well try it yourself. Here's two online versions for you to try. One's from the New York Times the other from the University of California, San Diego.

The Long
The Monty Hall problem seems simple. Most people get to an answer pretty quickly. Many people quickly get to the wrong answer though. I once spent part of an afternoon working through the problem with my boss. He 'knew' that the right answer was to switch but he couldn't see why. We went through it several times in several ways and finally he had his aha moment. All of a sudden it made sense.

It's telling that while the Wikipedia the page for Monty Hall is 1,100 words long and the page for Let's Make a Deal is roughly 5,200 words long, the page for the Monty Hall Problem is roughly 7,000 words long.

Books have been written about the The Monty Hall Problem. Entire books. (Remind me to pick up a copy of the first one and disappear for a few days). Articles have been written that patiently try to explain why you should switch doors. Every time it's talked about in a magazine or online there seems to be a flood of letters or email saying the author is wrong or that they don't know what they're talking about.

So why do pigeons do better than us poor advanced apes?

My guess is that they don't try and analyze what to do. Instead they just learn that they're more likely to get a reward when they switch and they keep switching. They don't try and understand it. We try and understand the puzzle. We think it through. We act on what our understanding is. If we end up understanding the puzzle wrong... well... we keep acting on our understanding. We aren't good at keeping track of how well we're doing. Sometimes it may be better to be a birdbrain.

What everyone forgets is that the Monty Hall problem is not the problem Monty Hall put to contestants on Let's Make a Deal. The reality was much more subtle than that. Monty Hall was acutely aware of human psychology and he knew how to exploit it mercilessly.

Don't believe me? Read all about Monty Hall's encounter with the Monty Hall problem. Picture Monty Hall in his living room. He's just seen the problem performed - staying ten times and then switching ten times. He's just read one of the first articles that explained the problem to the public and...
After the 20 trials at the dining room table, the problem also captured Mr. Hall's imagination. He picked up a copy of Ms. vos Savant's original column, read it carefully, saw a loophole and then suggested more trials.
Now watch a master at work. If there's a loophole a smart man will exploit it. He then started to perform his own version of the Monty Hall problem. One that exploited the loophole to make the contestant lose most of the time. He created a variant of the 'true' Monty Hall problem.

To the credit of the people who wrote the Monty Hall Problem page on Wikipedia there is a section on variants. In some variants you should switch. In others you should stay. In other variants you might as well flip a coin because your odds are even. Monty would be smart enough to keep you guessing so you'd never know if there was a strategy that was better than 50/50.

I think he'd even outsmart the pigeons.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Senses: Not Just a Matter of Taste

I've posted about taste before. Writing about the spices we use in our foods. Spices are just the additions to what we eat. From a nutritional point of view they have almost no value. The bulk of our nutrition comes from the staple foods that make up our diet.

What we eat now and how our collective diets have changed over time is a fascinating topic. Many issues that we face are tied to what we eat. There is controversy at the moment as to whether or not corn sweeteners are a cause of the "obesity epidemic". People are also worried about sustainability and the food we eat. There are many issues concerning our eating habits.

Policy and planning decisions are better informed when there is a way to look into the details of what we eat. Especially when we can see trends over time.

There are resources that have some of these details. The US Department of Agriculture publishes a periodical appropriately named Amber Waves and in the March 2010 issue there is an article looking at the last 100 years of food availability data from the Economic Research Service. Tracking a Century of American Eating gives an overview of the wealth of data that's been collected.

The trends dramatically show how dietary habits have changed. For example:
  • In 1910 only 12% of fruit consumed was processed. In 2008 that increased to 49% of all fruit. At the same time the number of pounds of fruit per person per year increased from 177 to 251. Who says we aren't eating our fruit.
  • The growth in the amount of cheese consumed per capita has increased dramatically. From 11.4 pounds per person per year in 1970 to over 31 pounds in 2008.
  • Chicken consumption has almost risen above beef consumption. Chicken is so cheap and plentiful that it's difficult to understand that it was a luxury item before factory farms and modern agriculture. "A chicken in every pot" was a promise of better times. Now chicken is not considered anything special. It's a staple.
A slightly more detailed look at the last 100 years of food data in the US was written up in 2000 in another USDA periodical - Food Review. The dryly named Major Trends in U.S. Food Supply, 1909-1999 (pdf) is not a description of changing food habits. Instead it is a collection of graphs. From the drop in the percentage of disposable income spent on food (from 24% down to under 12%), to a comparison of the decline of milk drinking and the increase in soda consumption, the graphs can start endless discussions.

What conclusions do the number present? What changed? Which trends are positive and which are negative? Food consumption has changed radically, is there any way of influencing and altering the trends moving forward? The discussions can go on ad infinitum.

If an overview isn't enough the USDA has created a website of the Data Sets where you can chart, compare, and download the Information on Food Availability and other topics to analyze yourself.

Of course even with all this information at our disposal there will still be disagreements about what we should do concerning food. But I'd rather have an informed discussion where we disagree on what the numbers mean than an uninformed one where we can't even agree on the numbers.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Heavy Lifting: The Biggest Question?

There are ideas are light and easy to understand. Others require more thought and are harder to follow. Heavy lifting may be required.
There are a number of very big questions. Fundamental questions about ourselves. To badly paraphrase Douglas Adams' whale who finds itself suddenly called into existence several miles about the surface of an alien planet:
Ah ... ! What's Happening? Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? ...
The question of who we are and why are we here is a big one. Maybe not the biggest though. There may be an even more fundamental question. A question that starts with an observation about our universe.

If the universe obeys rules then is what happens pre-ordained or in flux? And even if some of the rules, let's use quantum mechanics as an example, make some parts of the universe unpredictable, what are the implications to the biology, chemistry, and physics that are happening in our brains?

The practical version of the question is this: Does Free Will Exist?

My own semi-humorous answer has always been that "Of course we believe in free will. It's our destiny."

The question is much deeper than any smug answer. Great minds have tried to figure out if free will exists or not. I recently watched one of the great minds of our time work out a new take on the problem. John Conway may be most famous as the mathematician who created Conway's Game of Life but he's worked in many areas of math from group theory to algebra, from geometry to topology.

He doesn't so much prove that free will exists. Instead he shows that if an experimenter has free will when performing a certain physics experiment then the elementary particles that are in the experiment also have free will to chose the outcome of the experiment.

As he puts it "if experimenters have free will, then so do elementary particles."

He and his co-author Simon Kochen published the initial version of the proof in 2006 as The Free Will Theorem in the journal Foundations of Physics. In 2009 they published follow up called The Strong Free Will Theorem (pdf) in the Notices of the AMS. The Strong version extends the proof further.

The proof on paper is dense, filled with math, and would have been almost impossible for me to follow if I hadn't first watched a series of lectures he gave that that explained the proof step by step.

The lectures where given in 2008 at Princeton and are online:
  1. Free Will and Determinism in Science and Philosophy
  2. The Paradox of Kochen and Specker
  3. The Paradoxes of Relativity
  4. Quantum Mechanics and the Paradoxes of Entanglement
  5. Proof of the Free Will Theorem
  6. The Theorem's Implications for Science and Philosophy
Personally I tend to be skeptical of people who use quantum mechanics and the paradoxes of science to 'solve' deep mysteries of the universe. The number of pseudo-scientific crackpot theories out there is immense. John Conway does not solve a deep mystery of the universe, instead he forces us to extend our concept of choice and free will. John Conway's previous work and history as a rational thinker moves this theory from "a cooky idea" to "something to take very seriously".

Now I do have a few issues with the proof. I don't think my issues disprove the theorem. I just think there are areas in which the explanation is a bit lacking. In particular around his use of what he calls the spin axiom. My questions are logical extensions to his line of reasoning. Logical extensions he doesn't explain or follow through with fully. It's not a disagreement, it's more that there is part of the proof I'd like explained or explored a little more.

Don't think my minor issues lessen the beauty and simplicity of the overall theorem. It is a tour de force. For me there are two moments in particular that are mind expanding.

First is when he takes the spin axiom and visually shows that it can lead to paradoxical situations. Instead of complex math or set theory he shows the underlying problem visually. It's much easier to follow along and understand than any set of symbols on paper.

Secondly the theorem brilliantly shows how the 'free will' of an elementary particle is not based on anything that has happened before. It turns out that the past is irrelevant in the scenario that is put forth. The decision is removed from anything that can be considered predetermination.

The concepts, the math, the results, and the implications are not easy to grasp. Then I don't expect that any of the big questions are easy to tackle. If you have the time, and you put in the effort, the lectures are surprisingly rewarding and definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Senses: "Monkey See Monkey Do" Neurons

I found myself going from listening to an Australia Broadcasting Company program about the brain, movement, and dancers, to thinking that contrary to my expectations watching sports may be a cerebral activity.

It started with an episode of All in The Mind called The Dancing Mind. I don't think the audio of the episode is online. It helps to hear the conversation happening but we do get a complete transcript. So all is not lost. It's an eye opening read.

How did I get from The Dancing Mind to the cerebral nature of watching sports? Follow along and see.

Ever find yourself tilting and weaving with the action on television? Do you have a visceral reaction when watching dancers or acrobats? Do you jump out of your chair while watching sports? Especially sports you play yourself?

Maybe you get to blame your brain.

In school we're told we have five senses. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. The senses are used to introduce us to how we understand the world. It can lead students towards science and an understanding of the world around them. We're told the senses are how we perceive the world around us.

Like many things we're taught in school that's a grand oversimplification. We don't just have five senses and we perceive more than the world around us.

Our world includes ourselves. We have senses that help us perceive ourselves and our place in the world. We have the senses of equilibrioception and proprioception to help us understand our place and ourselves.

Here's an snippet from Jerome K Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat on how some people don't admit they can sense their place in the world.
It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick - on land. At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick. Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.
We get seasick (sorry... sea-sick to borrow Jerome's spelling from 1889) when the world around us moves in ways we don't expect. We expect gravity to pull us straight down. We can sense it. We can also sense turning and acceleration. Balance and acceleration makes up the sense of equilibrioception.

If you close your eyes you can lift your arm without looking at it. You can touch your nose with your eyes closed. You know where your limbs are without staring at them. Imagine trying to walk if you had to look at your legs. Body awareness is the sense of proprioception. Sometimes also called the kinesthetic sense.

The kinesthetic sense is an interesting one. Our ability to understand the position of our bodies and the ability to coordinate complex actions is amazing. We can move from consciously thinking about our actions to making them automatic. We can perform complex tasks "without thinking". The term is muscle memory. It's why you can type without thinking of each key or drive a car without coordinating your feet on the pedals consciously. It's how we walk and run without working out each step in advance. It takes a while to learn. Just watch infants work out how to go from rugrats to toddlers.

It turns out research into muscle memory has found something quite interesting. When monkeys performed a task (picking up peanuts) certain neurons in their brains became active. When the monkeys watched another monkey picking up peanuts the same neurons became active. They acted out the task in their own mind while they watched it.

Hence the name "Monkey See Monkey Do" Neurons. It turns out we humans have the same sort of reactions to watching actions. The Dancing Mind covers this concept within the mind of dancers. Dancers who are injured may even be able to 'rehearse' mentally by watching the routines they will perform when they are healed. They can dance along within their mind.

Which may be why watching sports is so visceral. Why watching a dancer can make us feel like we're moving. It certainly helps understand why being in the audience of a physical spectacle is so satisfying. It turns out it really is a cerebral experience to watch a sport.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Senses: The Full Body Sense

We smell with our noses, look with our eyes, taste with our tongues, and hear with our ears. Those four senses are limited to small areas of our bodies.

Touch is different. We touch with our entire bodies. We can be comforted by a hug, tickled on the soles of our feet, and get cozy as we surround ourselves with blankets. Touch is a full body sense.

Touch is more important than you might think. Here's a student paper by Crystal Leonard that shows how important it is.

Are there gender differences when it comes to touch? Do you think women have more sensitive fingers then men? Turns out sensitivity isn't based on gender but on the size of the fingers. The smaller the fingers the denser the nerve cells. So those of us with big hands are less sensitive than people with dainty fingers.

Currently the word touch is less associated with the sense and more associated with our gadgets. We probably finger our phones more often than anything else (and if that sounds dirty to you... it sounds dirty to me as well). I don't know what's to come in the world of computer touch. The vision that isn't available to buy yet was shown off to the world in 2006. In the 2006 TED conference Jeff Han demonstrated what could be done with a large touchscreen that responds to multiple finger presses at a time. The video was a must watch for geeks everywhere. Fast Company did a lengthy write up on Jeff Han and his work called Can't Touch This.

There are problems with reaching out and touching our computer screen. Accessibility issues. Issues with having our arms block the screen. It may not be the best way to interact with computers but it certainly is an interesting one.

And no... I am not going to buy an iPad anytime soon despite all the hype.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: Who Knew Corporate Hell Could be Funny?

I've been an office worker for my entire full time career. The personalities, politics, and inanities of office life are part of my daily life. When I finally leave the world of the office behind I'm not sure I'll miss those parts of corporate life. Luckily for us some people did miss it and set out to recreate part of it with hilarious results. Here's part of the explanation for Pretend Office which is "Almost certainly among the best companies in the field that it's in".
For a couple of months myself and some friends and strangers have been communicating via a mailing list as if it’s the “everyone@” company-wide list in an office where we all work.
Why, you ask, would anyone pine for the "everyone@" company-wide email list?
A little backstory. A few times over the past couple of years I’ve discussed with freelancing friends how we miss out on some of the aspects of working in a proper company: the Christmas lunch, the after-work drinks, the fire alarm tests. All that bonding.
Yes... you guessed it. I'm pointing you to the email archive of a pretend company's internal mailing list. Start with the opening salvo way back in February 2009 and you'll spend hours clicking "Next message:".

I know... if you haven't already given it a read you're wondering whether it will make you laugh or cry. It will definitely make you laugh. It may hit a bit too close to home sometimes but I've never actually cried. Yet. It's over the top and yet somehow only slightly absurd. Haven't you worked in an office where this type of message has gone around:
Please be careful in customer reception today. The new floor is proving to be very slippy in this wet weather, so PLEASE do not shake your umbrellas out on the floor, and WIPE YOUR FEET if you come in that way. We've already had one fatal accident this morning and don't want another!! 
But the floor does look amazing, so congratulations to Tim, Alex and the rest of the team in Facilities Actualisation (Floors & Ceilings) for their hard work over the past few months.
As I said... it's absurd while still sounding almost plausible.

In my own real corporate life I have kept an email that went around one hospital warning staff of an aggressive goose that made leaving the main building to go to the staff parking lot dangerous. It warned not to approach the bird as "there is potential to be pecked." As funny as the Pretend Office mailing list is maybe it isn't too over the top after all.

In case you want comic relief on an ongoing basis there is even an RSS feed. Follow along. It will make you want to fill out your "Competency Assessment Questionaire Self-Assessment Programme 2010".

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Senses: Fooling Our Ears

This isn't a post full of examples of how our brain can fool us when we listen to sound. This isn't even a post with an example video of how people will hear messages in songs played backwards when they are told there is a message to be heard. (If you haven't seen Simon Singh's demonstration I'd suggest you watch it. Isn't the brain a wonderful thing?)

No. This post isn't about fooling our brain with sounds or fooling our hearing with our brains.

This is about the idiocy of fooling our brains and our hearing with our wallets. This is about the money wasted on useless technology in the world of the audiophile.

Audiophile Extravagances

There are a lot of myths held by audiophiles. But would you spend:
I thought not. But some people do. It's bad enough that there are pages on nothing but audio snake oil and the debunkers. It's so bad that there's even a collection of audiophile BS.

Now don't feel all smug. Just because you wouldn't spend as much on your stereo, speakers, and various attachments as you on a small car doesn't mean you're in the clear. This isn't just about the absurdity of those with money to burn. Right now the biggest gouge isn't getting a few people to spend thousands on useless technology. The big ripoff is that the rest of us are convinced we need to buy expensive high quality cables to hear our music clearly. We spend too much on audio, video, and computer cables.

Why Use Special Wires at All?

For those of us who like nice neat well run double-blind experiments that prove the point... may I present a forum post by Dr. Bob Dean (savelife) on audioholics. You can skip the entire first section unless you want to hear how audiophiles explain their individual setups to each other. They take this very seriously. For example when describing his home theater setup he says:
Acoustical treatment consists of hung decorator rugs on the back walls, large back wall book case stuffed with books and nic-nacks, an acoustical fluffed (popcorn) ceiling, a 9 X 12-ft. area rug, and very soft, absorbant, dual pleat blinds which may be dropped down on the side walls exactly where the first sound wave launch hits the wall.
I couldn't make this up if I tried. The best part starts further down with "One last thing regarding your comment...". This is where the fun really begins.

His brother, an audio engineer, decided to help prove that you don't need expensive cables to enjoy good quality sound. His brother setup a true double blind experiment for himself and a few audiophile friends. They listened to music they'd never heard before on two different types of cables. Repeatedly. They couldn't find a difference between the cheap cables and the expensive "oxygen free ... stranded copper wire" cables.

Then his brother pulled a fast one while they where blindfolded:
Keeping us blind folded, my brother switched out the Belden wire (are you ready for this) with simple coat hanger wire! Unknown to me and our 12 audiophile buddies, prior to the ABX blind test, he took apart four coat hangers, reconnectd them and twisted them into a pair of speaker cables. Connections were soldered. He stashed them in a closet within the testing room so we were not privy to what he was up to.
Neither he nor his friends could find any difference. Even when just asked if things sounded good while the coat hangars where acting as wires they could only agree that the sound was excellent.

Debunking Speaker Wire in Depth

Very smart technically minded people have had spent a lot of time and effort debunking speaker cable myths. Here's some illuminating examples of the lengths people have gone to clear things up for the rest of us.

Roger Russell worked at McIntosh Labs and writes at length about testing cables. He starts immediately into the technical details. Those without a technical background beware. The interesting part is further down about The Truth about Speaker Wire.
 Looking at this from a different perspective, there will always be those who will want expensive wire, not because there is an audible difference, but because they may value pride of ownership and prestige in a similar way to that of owning a Tiffany lamp or a Rolex watch.
He even gets sarcastic near the end of the page:
We have been told by advertising that the exotic speaker wires offer fabulous advantages over ordinary lamp cord. It would seem reasonable that using this same wire for lamps would also enhance their performance. In the same vein as wire literature, you can have your lamp reproduce light with the full spectrum color fidelity of natural daylight, finally allowing you see light the way it should be seen and bring out the natural performance of your lamp.
Another long technical treatise is by Rod Elliot of Elliot Sound Products in Australia. Cables, Interconnects & Other Stuff - The Truth also methodically explains away the need for expensive cables.

In this digital age the gouge continues. High quality digital cables are sold at incredible prices. Which makes even less sense. Digital signals consists of bits. Just ones and zeros. On or off. There are no subtle nuances as in speaker cables carrying an analog signal. Either the digital bits make it from one end of the cable to the other or they don't. Those ones and zeros don't get partially garbled so your TV (via HDMI) or your monitor (via DVI) ends up wondering what to make of a a bit that is one half instead of a one or a zero.

So why do we think things sound better because we bought expensive cables? Why are we convinced that spending $100 is better than spending $25? I'm not completely sure of the answer.

Value judgments are highly selective. We expect more expensive things to be worth more. We expect more value when we spend more money. This is one of those areas where we are getting mislead. To the betterment of the cable companies and the detriment of our wallets.

Now I'm off to rewire my speakers with coat hangers.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vive La Difference?

I suppose gender differences could make a topic here on The Longer Web that would run for months. Just the pop psychology alone could keep me busy writing ad infinitum. I don't plan on switching topics and digging into gender issues at the moment. Maybe later.

For now though I've come across a flurry of pieces that cover gender differences and human thinking. While reading these I came across an issue that they indirectly raised.

For me the biggest issue isn't any apparent mental differences between men and women. I defer to research on how (or if) men and women think differently. I certainly can't make any blanket statements about the differences between men and women when it comes to mental faculties. People vary a great deal in their mental strengths and weaknesses even within a gender let alone between genders. Generalizations may be valid but the specific differences between each of us probably outweigh the generalities.

No, for me the issue isn't gender differences. The issue is how research gets popularized and turned into something palatable for the lay person. More importantly, how research can be misinterpreted and misrepresented and how anybody not up to date on the research can be led astray.

It started when I came across an article from 2006 on Why Women Read More Than Men. The article starts by mentioning that women read more books than men. At least according to a survey by the Associated Press. In 2006 the survey found that a typical woman read nine books a year. A typical man read four. Men only out-read woman in the categories of history and biographies.

This is only books mind you. Not newspapers, not the written word at work, not online text or articles, not journals or magazines, nor anything else. Just books. Which leads me to ask: Women may read more books than men but do they read more in general? They may read more... but books aren't the whole story.

Moving on the article mentions that "according to surveys" men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market and that this would essentially make most fiction "chick-lit".

At this point, regardless that they've only covered "books" and found the greatest discrepancy in fiction, the article assumes that women read more than men. Okay... I'll give it that for the moment. Next the article tries to find some simple explanation for why women read more than men. A simple medical or physiological explanation would be best of course. What's a journalist to do to answer the question?

Roll out the author of a then recent book called "The Female Brain":
Some experts see the genesis of the "fiction gap" in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.
"Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it's not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life," Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.
Now girls may have an easier time with reading and written work. I seem to remember that many studies have shown that girls are now out-performing boys in grade schools. There's even talk that the programs that were put in place to help girls catch up are now so successful that they should be switched to helping boys. So I'm willing to give her the fact that girls have an easier time with reading and written work. I'm even willing to accept "women talk more in social settings". I base this one only on anecdotal evidence though.

But I'm not sure I can accept "...and use more words than men".

Something is fishy. More words in total? More words in a day? They use a larger vocabulary? The claim is too imprecise, unscientific, and, to my mind, suspect.

So I went digging.

Turns out others went digging as well. In fact that particular assertion was removed from later editions of "The Female Brain" after being fact checked out of existence.

Which leads me to an interesting point. When we read a book or article based on research how do we know the research is being well represented? How do we know that an author isn't pulling numbers out of thin air? Without researching the papers and studies that informed a book how can we tell if the information is correct, let alone useful or properly interpreted?

The only answer I have is the answer science uses. Peer review. Let others "in the know" take books to task. Let people who are in the field fact check books and articles that popularize research. Usually, of course, this doesn't happen. Researchers don't double check every popularization of science. For every book that's critically reviewed there are many others by self help gurus and other writers that don't face technical criticism at all.

"The Female Brain" and the newly released "The Male Brain" by Louann Brizendine are a special case.

Louann Brizendine is not a self-educated self help guru. She's not just a writer of books for the general populace. It turns out she is board certified in Psychiatry, an endowed clinical professor, on the faculty of UCSF, and a doctor. With her credentials it's no wonder that others, just as credentialed, have looked at her books with extra care. Scientists and researchers want to see what one of their own wrote. If they can raise any issue with her work they will raise them. After all peer review and criticism are part of science.

And issues are being raised with her books. Especially by one Mark Liberman. Who is a linguist, founder and director of the Linguistic Data Consortium, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark has written numerous detailed blog posts on "The Female Brain". Neuroscience in the Service of Sexual Stereotypes is the first in a series. He points out the trick to making sex differences seem larger than they really are:
There certainly are psychological and neurological differences between men and women, sometimes big ones. But even when they aren't promoting their ideas on the basis of "facts" that are apparently false, authors like Sax and Brizendine use a set of rhetorical tricks that tend to make sex differences seem bigger and more consequential than they really are. You can do it too, if you want -- just choose phenomena that emphasize differences, leaving out the ones where the sexes are more similar; pick studies that find stereotypic differences, leaving out the ones whose results disagree; and in all cases, talk and write as if (even relatively small) differences in group averages were essential characteristics of every member of each group.
In the post he reprints a graph that shows the differences in hearing sensitivity between men and women. The graph shows huge overlap between the sexes. Overall differences between the sexes are minor compared to how individuals of a gender differ amongst themselves. So while women may have more sensitive hearing "on average" the overlap between genders is large enough that there is no way to say that all women have more sensitive hearing than all men.

This is why I'm wary of books that "interpret" scientific research for a lay audience. I'm usually extra weary of those that aren't written by someone trained in science. There is a greater chance those authors will misinterpret research or make mountains out of molehills. In the case of differences between the sexes they don't talk about how similar men and woman are (with slight differences). Instead they take those slight differences and make sweeping and inapplicable generalities out of them.

Guess which approach sells books and generates TV interviews though?

Mark didn't stop there when looking at "The Female Brain". In David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist he has a list of links to his writing on "The Female Brain". He's not critical for no reason. In all cases he backs up his assertions or pokes holes in how the book reached conclusions using the research cited by Louann Brizendine and sometimes supplementing the cited research with other studies.

All of this happened back in 2006. Now fast forward to today. This year Louann Brizendine released her second book called "The Male Brain".

Can you guess what happened next?

Did she write a more balanced book based on the research available? It doesn't seem so. The criticisms have started all over again.

Mark Liberman wrote Why Men Don't Listen. A post that starts with the pop psychology explanations on why men don't listen in general and why men don't listen to women in particular. After a few paragraphs he writes:
But the "Men don't listen" idea is a powerful one, and there are plenty of other confidently-asserted biological explanations besides ear-canal hair and hearing-threshold differences. In particular, there are some fine specimens in Louann Brizendine's new book The Male Brain. The relevant section is on pp. 40-41, under the heading Tuning Out. (I've added numbers in square brackets to link to the endnotes, which in the book are on p. 150.)
He follows this by a quote from Louann's book.

Then the fun begins. Mark starts going through the studies she cited to back up her assertions. Among the things he looks for:
  • Is the research even relevant (studies on 50 year olds won't tell you about teenagers for example)
  • Is the research from the country mentioned in the passage from the book (The book mentions Portugal. He repeatedly points out where authors of research are from and that those areas are not Portugal. Though he does admit that Poland at least starts with the same letter of the alphabet)
  • Does the research actually support the claims
  • Was the research properly done and appropriate
The end result is a thorough dismantling of one small section of the book. Even as a criticism of a single particular passage it's completely devastating. Especially considering how the passage contains some provocative statements concerning men and boys and the ability to hear. If someone doesn't have the research to back up one provocative bold claim is there hope for all the other bold claims and over generalizations in the book?

If you don't want to read the entire piece at least scroll down until you reach Mark's "Discussion" on men tuning out woman. It's a brilliant and short FAQ that will answer a lot of questions about whether men really have a hard time hearing women speak.

It turns out the best defense we have against bogus scientific claims and badly interpreted science is other scientists. Those that can check and challenge assertions and hold authors accountable to the source material. Mark shows how's it done. Sadly too many books and speakers who give us "scientific" explanations on all sorts of topics aren't as well scrutinized.

In Mark's post he does point out, only partially in jest, that there is one area where more research may need to be done to explore men's supposed inability to hear women:
The effect of sex differences in ear-canal hair has never actually been tested, as far as I know. Really, old guys do tend to get hair in their ears. Must be there for something.
Who knows. Maybe that's why men don't listen to women. He should write a book about it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Senses: Something Smells Fishy

Andreas Keller is a PhD student who studies and researches odour and runs a website that covers odour and smell. His Olfaction page is a jumping off point to short articles on various aspects of smell. Each is meticulously researched and links to relevant research and other sites. If you want a glimpse into research about smell this is a great place to start. You'll come across tidbits such as:
Andreas' site is one of the carefully put together pieces of the web that are embarkation points to much more. Start here and you'll end up jumping off to visit other sites. For example Andreas' site pointed me to the resources at The Sense of Smell Institute ( The Institute is a perfect example of what I call Wayne's Law. Years ago my friend Wayne pointed out that:
For any topic think of the first word or phrase that comes to mind and add "www." to the beginning and ".com" or ".net" or ".org" to the end and you'll find what you're looking for.
When I started looking into The Senses I should have just typed into my browser. I could have saved a lot of time.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Senses: Revising Nonsensical Colour Theory

Put yourself in the shoes of a scientist trained in the rigors of research. Someone who is not only knowledgeable in your field (research psychology for example) but also someone who keeps abreast of other scientific disciplines such as astronomy and biology.

If it helps... imagine yourself wearing a lab coat. Though I'm not sure research psychologists wear lab coats.

Now picture yourself taking up a hobby. Let's pick watercolour painting. You wouldn't do it half way would you? You'd embrace it completely. Getting good enough to be able to sell your own work. You'd end up exploring the field of watercolours in depth. You're a researcher so you'd end up learning all you can about everything from brushes to techniques to the books that teach watercolours. If you had the bent you'd end up creating a website that takes a slightly "rational" approach to all things watercolourish wouldn't you?

This isn't a hypothetical situation. Let me introduce you to Bruce MacEvoy's watercolors site. Where discussions of paint isn't just recommendations and suggestions but details on how paints are made. Where the artistic and the technical meet.

Now put yourself in his place again. Imagine that as you start trying to understand the colour theory behind painting you come to realize that it's not based on rigorous science or psychology but on "18th century nonsense". What would you do? First you'd start learning more. Then, since you've already created a web site on watercolours, you'd create a definitive online work on color vision. And that's what Bruce did.

He starts with the nature of light and the nature of the eye. Goes into details on the makeup of the eye and its light receptors. Goes on to look at how we see and understand colour. He writes about colour theory that isn't 18th century nonsense but is instead rooted in reality. He goes into detail on how color is represented and explained technically. Talks about other parts of vision that alter our perception suck as how much detail we can actually see and how we see edges. There are discussions on building colour wheels and groups of colours for the artist.

color vision is not a short work. It is not even book length. It's larger than that. It's an invaluable resource to anyone who wants to understand colour and colour vision and it's still being written and expanded. A short browse will reveal the depth and complexity of how we perceive the world through our eyes. Thankfully for us a research psychologist decided to take up watercolours.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Math is Beautifully Simple?

Don't panic because the title of this post contains the word math in it. There isn't a formula or proper equation to be found. I started thinking about math because of an amazing short video called Nature by Numbers. There are some numbers in it but don't worry it's mainly visual.

Math may be the purist of the sciences. So much so that it seems like nothing but equations. But some complicated math topics can be explained with no equations at all. Here's an example from topology. It may hurt your brain a little but it's not that difficult to follow along. Or more precisely watch an example.

Here's How to Turn a Sphere Inside Out part 1, and part 2.

The video is a good explanation of the type of mental gymnastics that mathematicians go through.

Life is not just deep and mind expanding. Let's keep things light. First an animated, if somewhat shortened, version of Tom Lehrer's New Math (video). A classic song from 1965.

This animated version has a whole section cut out. A section about doing the problem in base 8 which includes one of the best lines in the whole routine:
Now, that actually is not the answer that I had in mind, because the book that I got this problem out of wants you to do it in base eight. But don't panic! Base eight is just like base ten really - if you're missing two fingers! Shall we have a go at it? Hang on..
And lastly if you don't think you're a math genius and you have problems with math don't panic. Abbott and Costello are here to help you understand how 13 times 7 equals 28. In case you missed it and were distracted by the donuts here is their proof repeated. They just replaced the donuts with vacuum cleaners.

Okay... I'll admit that 13 x 7 = 28 is an equation. However it isn't a proper equation therefore I didn't lie.


Friday, April 2, 2010

The Senses: Spices of Life

Do you eat to live or live to eat?

Brillat-Savarin supposedly wrote "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." When I checked The Physiology of Taste it is one of the "Aphorisms of the Professor" and translates to "Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are." Which is slightly less prosaic. But only slightly.

I've always preferred being with people who live to eat. It says a lot about a person when they look forward to meals. I tend to like people who enjoy the simple things in life. Nothing is simpler, or more important, than enjoying food.

Part of enjoying food is making it taste good. Throughout history herbs and spices have been used to enhance flavours and make food more appetizing. There are quite a few plants that can be used to enhance flavours. I'm an expert at eating but not at all the esoteric details of spices.

Do you know type of plant a caraway seed grows on? Did you know it's not a seed? I didn't know it was the dried fruit of the plant. Could you identify a sassafras tree? Or a clove tree? Or did you know that nutmeg is a kernel of a fruit and mace is a thin leathery tissue in the same fruit between the nutmeg kernel and the pulp?

Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages will help clear things up for you. Each spice's entry covers the name of the spice in different languages with detailed entymologies (61 different languages for caraway), chemical details (the main component of sassafras oil is safrol which is also found in star anise, nutmeg, and black pepper), and links to sites with recipes and additional information. There are even details of what goes in various traditional spice mixtures. I can now make my own garam masala if I choose.

If Gernot's site can be said to lack anything it is recipes and basic or traditional uses for each spice. But by linking to others who have collected those recipes he can concentrate on names and botanical details.

While meandering across the web tracking down sites with recipes I came across an amazing food blog from southern India. Sailu's Kitchen is the food blog of Sailaja. She has a passion for all things food and it shows in the recipes and photographs of a wide variety of Indian cuisine. Chutneys, dals (including various vada recipes), Indian breads, and dishes both with meat and vegan. She's even started to cook some foreign cuisine. I keep being reminded on how global the internet really is. White bread and macaroni and cheese are foreign dishes to many people.

I live in the area of Toronto with the largest percentage of recent immigrants in the community. The grocery stores around me are filled with ingredients begging to be tried if I only knew what to do with them. Walk down the hallways of my building and you'll experience wondrous smells from different continents. With Sauli's Kitchen's help I have a chance at recreating many of those wonders using some of the ingredients I can buy down the street.

Makes me look forward to cooking and to eating.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Short to Long: The Plot Thickens

I don't dismiss the shorter web. I'm as addicted to quick links and short posts as anyone. Bits of the shorter web also lend themselves to further exploration and that can lead to uncovering the longer web. Hence the posts I call Short to Long.
The Short

Wayne sent me a link to Uncomfortable Plot Summaries. A large collection of one line summaries of movies. Go ahead... I'll wait.... The entries for Lord of the Rings and Sophie's Choice are good ones. Some are much funnier or insightful than others so take your time.

Now where were we? Oh right.... short versions of movie plots.

Short plot synopses naturally got me thinking of Angry Alien Production's 30 Second Bunny Theatre. I remember when they first released The Exorcist - back before they had to replace the few seconds of the bunnies doing Tubular Bells at the end. Since then they've continued creating 30 second masterpieces and they've even released a DVD. It's amazing how so many movies can be reduced to half a minute.

Now small plot synopses are only possible if there are longer plots to shorten. If you feel like writing some of your own longer plots here are some short tips from a few great writers.

The Medium

The way plots can be shortened or collapsed came to mind when I stumbled across Kurt Vonnegut explaining drama. This seems like something Kurt Vonnegut wrote about before. He lays out the ups and downs of a character throughout the story on a graph. Showing the trends the character goes through over time.

Diagrams and charts don't just apply to what happens to a character throughout a story. Diagrams can also show where to put the basic turning points in a story. It seems like many modern screenplays end up with a very similar structure. Michael Hauge uses diagrams to break down the five key turning points in screenplays.

Explanations on how to write don't require diagrams at all. Effective advice can even be written IN ALL CAPS. If you want some effective writing tips here is David Mamet's memo to writers of The Unit.

The Long

There are many different books and theories that try to lay out plot and show you how to write interesting stories. Dramatica: A New Theory of Story is one that seems to have a following. It's not just online for free. It's also a book and some software that can apparently help you lay out your masterpiece. The Story Fanatic site mentions Dramatica theory repeatedly throughout it's collection of articles and links. Of all the current theories on how to structure your novel or screenplay Dramatica seems to have the most traction. Especially in screenplays. Which may explain why so many movies seem similar.

There are more scholarly works on narrative as well. Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative by Manfred Jahn is a perfect example. It's part of his ongoing work Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres.

(WARNING: The link in the following paragraph is almost certain to take hours out of your day if you have any interest in movies or television. You have been warned.) 

Of course if you are going to write your story you better make sure you don't overuse standard devices and conventions. How do you know what to avoid? You wander over to TV Tropes and look around for a while.

Don't say I didn't warn you.