If you want to write, kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might suck or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book. Nothing is stopping you right now from collecting all of your elementary school book reports, or drunken napkin scribbles, binding them together at Kinko's for $20, slapping a title on the cover, and qualifying as an author. Want to write a good book? OK, but get in line since most pro authors are still trying to figure that out too.I intend to print this out, put it on my wall, and review regularly (from The Berkun Blog).
Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet my pants the author of the better book worked harder than the author of the other one. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work.
31 March 2008
21 March 2008
RBC has an astoundingly interesting point-by-point comparison of the (two) trials of Jesus Christ leading up to his execution (widely believed to be miscarriages of justice) vs. two sets of trials at Guantanamo Bay, using 22 criteria from Human Rights First. A fascinating read, but I'm inclined to disagree with one of the scoring conventions, where the author counts 'not applicable because anachronistic' as equivalent to 'meets this criterion.' In other words, legal rights that are now recognized in the US count against the Gitmo trials and in favor of the JC trials, since these rights weren't recognized in ancient Jewish or Roman law. I guess this is an okay way to compare 'adherence to proper legal procedure,' since this attribute is defined by which procedures were in place at the time, but certainly not for comparing 'fairness' or 'justice,' unless by these terms you only mean 'adherence to proper legal procedure' with no substantive expectations.
More info on the political context of Jesus' trials.
17 March 2008
reCAPTCHA supplies subscribing websites with images of words that optical character recognition software has been unable to read. The subscribing websites (whose purpose is generally unrelated to the book digitization project) present these images for humans to decipher as CAPTCHA words, as part of their normal validation procedures. They then return the results to the reCAPTCHA service, thereby contributing to the digitization project. The result is that the university receives approximately 3,000 man hours per day of free labor to help in the preservation of books.I always thought those words with squiggly lines were just especially clever CAPTCHA tests; I had no idea they were actually part of an incredibly cool distributed processing scheme. Spammers, of course, have learned how to use a reversed version of this system where a program entices real humans to decipher CAPTCHAs, in return for which they get to view racy images for free.
14 March 2008
12 March 2008
Brian Moore, in a good post about us 'crazy legalizing libertarians':
This might be a bit nitpicky, but I also like the abuse of the term “reflex,” as if cultural libertarians were reactively doing something in this situation. It works for cultural moralism — when confronted with the stimulus of prostitution, they spring into action by calling for prohibition. When the cultural libertarians hear of prostitution, they say, “So?” You can’t reflexively do nothing.I dunno -- I suppose amongst the blogger community the libertarians are a bit more considered and thoughtful about their preference for private action, but most regular, workaday libertarians I know are actually exactly like this: present them with a new potential policy problem, and their gut reaction is, "So what?" In other words, "please now provide arguments for why this problem needs solving on a coercive, governmental scale." In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that this is the distinguishing characteristic of the natural-born libertarian -- a robust intuition that the burden of proof is always on the party proposing new/more governmental action.
10 March 2008
Eliezer Y. introduces a technique bound to make college parties much less violent (if somewhat less fun):
When you are faced with an unanswerable question - a question to which it seems impossible to even imagine an answer - there is a simple trick which can turn the question solvable. Compare:
"Why do I have free will?"
"Why do I think I have free will?"
The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to
have a real answer... [...]
Cognitive science may not seem so lofty and glorious as metaphysics. But at least questions of cognitive science are solvable. Finding an answer may not be easy, but at least an answer exists.
Startup Weekend, in which a bunch of people spend one weekend building and launching a tech startup, was created here in Boulder in July 2007 (launching VoSnap). It's now spread to about 15 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and London, and Boulder II is coming up next weekend, March 21-23, hosted by the University of Colorado. Register using the link above, or go read local rockstar-entrepreneur David Cohen's top ten reasons to go.
There's an AP investigative report out today detailing the wide variety of pharmaceuticals to be found in the American water supply -- we're talking about very very small concentrations, which seem to be harmless in the short term, but there's some reasonable concern about what consequences we might see in a decade or two from constant, low-level exposure to antibiotics, antidepressants, sex hormones and heart meds (among others).
One interesting thing about this: the AP article says these drugs are finding their way into the water after being incompletely metabolized by patients, but there's no mention of the drugs being dumped in, full-strength, by health care facilities. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that a single medium-sized nursing facility might dispose of thousands of pills a month from expired or discontinued prescriptions by flushing them down the toilet. Hospitals and pharmacies, who knows? What's frustrating about this, aside from issues of water contamination, is that there's no mechanism in place to convert these wasted meds into meds for developing-world medical projects. I assume there are several sophisticated political and economic explanations for this, but seriously, dumping wasted drugs into our own water supply seems nearly as smart as subsidizing farmers to not grow corn (which would go bad, because it can't be shipped off to staving countries, for similar reasons).
HT: Sand in the Gears
06 March 2008
Via Marginal Revolution, maps representing per capita distribution of Starbucks and Walmart, respectively:
An interesting feature of these maps is that while most areas seem to be saturated with either WM or SB, there's a relative lack of saturation on the east coast -- neither Starbucks nor Walmart has acheived high per capita distribution here. Do east coast shoppers and coffee drinkers have a stronger preference for independents or regional chains?
Here are a couple more maps for comparison--
Median household income (2006 data):
Deaths from heart disease (white males, based on 1997 CDC data):
05 March 2008
Too interesting to relegate to the link sidebar; via Wired. Excerpt, from a Brown University anthropologist:
Of course there are always people who are extremists and who take absolutist positions -- but as a scholarly orthodox tradition, Islamic scholars have generally incorporated social contingencies into their opinions about the permissibility of modern practices, especially with the legal tool of "maslaha" -- which is a calculus of weighing particular benefits against risks (measured both socially and spiritually) [...].The detailed breakdown provided by a bioethicist from King Faisal University (Saudi Arabia) is also highly educational. Although its phrasing is on the strict side, the actual range of technologies permitted is surprising.
21 February 2008
University of Oxford researchers will spend nearly $4 million to study why mankind embraces God. The grant to the Ian Ramsey Center [sic] for Science and Religion will bring anthropologists, theologians, philosophers and other academics together for three years to study whether belief in a divine being is a basic part of mankind's makeup.Here is a summary of the project from the Ramsey Centre. In addition to the areas listed above, there will also be a psychologist on the team, but how come there are no neuroscientists? Evolutionary biologists? It seems like these fields would be kind of relevant.
First, the Board of Regents votes to accept oil-industry exec Bruce Benson as President of the University of Colorado. Here in Boulder, this move is somewhat unpopular -- from anywhere in town, you can feel a kind of menacing rumbling coming from campus. I assume plans for protests are already underway.
UPDATE: This just in, in a memo from the CU Board of Regents:
The Board of Regents recognizes that this decision is unpopular among some important groups. We believe Mr. Benson will reach out to constituents in the first months of his presidency to build bridges and create partnerships, both inside and outside the university.That Benson had better be one smooth-talkin' sonnuva gun, I say.
Meanwhile, Max Karson is back again -- locals will remember his name from last year when, as a junior at CU-Boulder, he was arrested, suspended and banned from campus after making 'threatening' remarks about the Virginia Tech shootings. (Wikipedia entry describing several other incidents resulting from Karson's enthusiastic exercising of his First Amendment rights.) The latest news is his 'satirical' anti-Asian column in the Campus Press, which has CU officials stepping all over themselves trying to apologize.
UPDATE: Here is a 2006 article in which Karson explains why he works so hard at being inflammatory.
MEANWHILE, the last surviving faculty member who was fired during CU's McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunt died this week.
08 February 2008
Several interesting bits of writing on the purpose and meaning of science fiction:
Clive Thompson on Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing (Wired)
Ender's Game: The Book That Cannot Be Adapted (Nerd World blog)
Was Kipling the first modern SF writer? (Biology in Science Fiction blog)
07 February 2008
Recent research supports what tech-savvy enviros have known for awhile now: biofuels have alot going for them -- they're cool, easy to understand, easy to engineer and easily integrated into our current car-addiction -- but they are not particularly green. I'll concede that biofuels might be a necessary stop-gap solution, and might at least help decouple the US from the middle east. Unfortunately, the biofuels bandwagon has all the makings of a great political initiative, for the reasons listed above, and is certainly acting to decrease the sense of urgency around the clean energy issue.
The great thing about the research community, though, is that it consists partly of people who like to optimize current solutions (marginally better biofuels, solar power, etc.) and partly of people who like to invent brand-new solutions that will take decades to be ready for scale-up. From a distance, this transition (from re-engineering old energy sources to adopting all new ones) will probably look very neat, the way things do in history texts, but personally I wouldn't mind sitting out the next 30 years or so, which won't look so smooth up close.
Mind Hacks points to some fascinating AI research:
[Researchers] used the popular strategy game Age of Mythology and created four software 'bots' to play the computer which were loosely based on the 'bigResearch slides here. So how come a neurotic computer player (as opposed to aggressive, defensive, or normal players) did better vs. a standard rational computer player? I guess if you're a computer playing a computer, any 'element of surprise' works in your favor, even when it sacrifices some of the gains you could win from playing with maximum rationality. As a human playing a 'neurotic' AI script, is there a comparative advantage to being even more neurotic?
five' personality traits.
When they compared their successes, the version designed to simulate 'neurotic' personality traits came equal first in number of games won, but was the clear winner when the average time to victory was compared. It was deliberately designed to overestimate the value of current resources and had a tendency to resort to extreme playing styles - tending at times towards aggressive play, and at other times, overly defensive strategies.
Related link: algorithms for winning rock-paper-scissors.
06 February 2008
Microsoft employees have donated a total of about $130,000 to Clinton, far more than any of the other six major candidates, according to a searchable database of the political donations at Fundrace, a project of the Huffington Post. At Google, donations favored Obama over the New York senator by $97,771 to $46,610. Yahoo staff also donated more money to Obama's campaign by almost two-thirds.An interesting stat, if accurate, but possibly not too surprising, since it seems to indicate that employees of the (technologically and culturally) conservative Microsoft support the mainstream, respectable,workhorse candidate, while employees of the (technologically and culturally) progressive Google organization support the more progressive and far-out guy. Another stat reported in the Wired story: the only 'Republican' candidate to receive a sizable chunk of money from any of these three groups was Ron Paul (Microsoft employees lead the charge here too, closely followed by Google employees).
Some excerpts on this:
"I will reaffirm our commitment to basic research, invest in clean energy, combat global warming, create the millions of jobs that I think come from doing both of those, reemphasize math and science education, and ensure that America is training the future innovators of our country. America will once again be the innovation nation." (Clinton, Remarks at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Oct. 2007)
“Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable, and
let's invest in scientific research, and let's lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.” (Obama, Presidential Announcement Speech, Feb. 2007)
"I believe that [universal high-speed internet access] can be best accomplished through deregulation and allowing the free market to work. Federal grants and subsidies will only elevate certain providers while holding back others. If the high-speed Internet access market is allowed to work without interference, fierce competition will drive down prices, as it did with dial-up access. [...] The government has no constitutional authority to interfere in market transactions such as mergers. Legitimate concerns about the abuse of customer privacy should be addressed via private contracts between companies and consumers, with companies being held liable at common law for any breaches of their customer's privacy." (Paul, Cnet interview, Jan. 2008).
31 January 2008
Tyler Cowen says:
The lesson is this: democracy is a very blunt instrument. Especially as it is found in the United States, democracy just isn't that smart or that finely honed or that closely geared toward truth or "progressive" values. (NB: Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.)On the one hand, this means that, insofar as it can be considered to be at all goal- oriented (goals being things like fairness, high standard of living, etc.) democracy seems to function in a biased random-walk style, with each movement being more-or-less arbitrary and only corrected if a major error results. On the other hand, biased random-walk has turned out to be implicated in several neurological models for how we learn (here are more technical and less technical descriptions of some neuro models incorporating random-walk) as well as explaining how bacteria are able to locate food without a brain or sensory organs. So I'm inclined to find this similarity encouraging, since I think social processes are at their best when they replicate the interesting processes that have already evolved to solve astoundingly complex problems.
But unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world's greatest achievements. [...] The future is far more likely to have "too little democracy" than "too much democracy." I do believe in checks and balances, but within a broadly democratic framework, such as we have in the United States.
That all said, we should not demand from democracy what democracy cannot provide. Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office. Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained.
28 January 2008
Here are two things I found more interesting than I expected to:
Latter-Day Sustainability: What it sounds like, environmentalism with a Mormon twist. (via Gristmill.) In the interests of comparison, I went looking for other religiously-tuned enviro blogs, and turned up one Jewish one which seems to be focused on living the sustainable lifestyle. Others?
Greenwashing Index: A site for viewing and rating (and occasioanlly debunking) ads making positive environmental claims on behalf of companies or products. A couple of examples:
(Currently rated 4.41 out of a possible 5 demerits)
(Currently a 4.2)
Following up on my Science Debate 2008 post, I've discovered a new resource for finding out what your representatives and preferred candidates have said about science and policy (good, bad and ugly): the Science, Health and Related Policies (SHARP) Network. It has a cool interactive wiki interface, and provides more depth than ontheissues.org. (HT: Scientific Activist.)
Related, here in Colorado the House is considering HB 1001, providing money for bioscience proof-of-concept research (following up on last year's HB1360, Bioscience Discovery Grant Program) and commercialization. Colorado is also providing funding for biofuels proof-of-concept work, and rumors abound that more money is coming along to solidify Colorado's foothold in renewable energy/cleantech, maybe from Governor Ritter's office. (Speaking of Ritter, I seem to be the only one who thinks it's funny when he uses his usual bullet-point style to talk about the four key growth areas he's identified for Colorado: Bioscience! [BAM] Energy! [BAM] Aerospace! [BAM] and... Tourism. One of these things is not like the others...)
I was talking with someone over the weekend about the Obama/Clinton decision, and desperately wish I'd been the one to put it so excellently:
Via Marginal Revolution, I found books that make you dumb, a website using Facebook to correlate a college's most popular books with its average SAT/ACT scores. It's clear from the methodology that there are quite a few problems with this, including but not limited to correlation vs. causation. But it's a fun list anyway.
-Lolita, 100 Years of Solitude and Atlas Shrugged are some of my favorite books that are linked to high SAT scores. Ender's Game, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books are in the high-ish middle area.
-"The Holy Bible" is linked to low scores, while "The Bible" and the Book of Mormon fall squarely in the middle.
-Most surprising low-score correlation: Fahrenheit 451.
23 January 2008
Via Wired, I learned about Oxitec, a UK company making improvements on the 'sterile insect technique' currently used for some types of for pest management. In standard SIT, radiation-sterilized male mosquitoes are released into the wild, where they'll mate with wild-type females but cause the females' eggs to be non-viable. This has worked okay, but is not that scalable because the radiation step is tricky and tends to deplete your stock of male mosquitoes. In Oxitec's technique, the males are genetically altered to be dependent on tetracycline, which they are fed until release into the wild. Their offspring will also be tetracycline-dependent, and so will die before reaching reproductive maturity. Ultimately, this is all in the service of eradicating mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue fever, malaria, and so on.
Like many experiments in genetic engineering, this has the potential to be a pretty environmentally-friendly way to do the job (compared to, say, massive use of pesticides) but like most people I have a hard time shaking the feeling that somehow, it could all go terribly wrong. I'm inclined to call this vague sense of impending bio-engineered doom "Jurassic Park Syndrome."
This is smart:
Maybe you think the American Dream is about getting a good job and earning more money than your parents. But the American Dream used to be about moving west and buying land, and now we see that as something for older generations that doesn’t apply to us. So maybe the idea of more money and better jobs is the new detritus of the American dream [...].As I say, this is smart (even though PT isn't the first to say it) but I continue to be puzzled by her overall 'generationism' -- a word I didn't know existed until I went looking for an appropriate description of her view that Generation-Y has a fundamentally different, and better, sense of work-life balance than Generation-Boomer. I seem to know an awful lot of people my age and younger who are totally committed to working long and hard and sacrificing a personal life -- I think some of them have early retirement in mind, but this is stupid, because (1) life is not like dinnertime, where you have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, and (2) retirement would be boring. On the other hand, everything I know about defining work success in a way that actually makes you happy, I learned from my mom. So I'm sympathetic to Penelope's vision of the future, where careers are complementary to -- not competitive with -- relationships, but I'm suspicious of the idea that all people born after 1980 have this intuition naturally built into their psyches.
22 January 2008
Sand in the Gears' The Dividing Line:
I think people hated King because he spoke unsafely. He illuminated what Solzhenitsyn called the line dividing good and evil, the line that runs through every human heart. That is surely dangerous business. [...] I wonder where the prophets of this generation are. Where are the ones who will illuminate that line in every heart? It is so much easier to draw lines between people, between a virtuous Us and a nefarious Them, than to say: This is the evil we do, the evil I do.
17 January 2008
Neurophilosophy has a short post summarizing the US history of the 'ice-pick lobotomy,' occasioned by a new PBS documentary on the subject. This was in the 1930's and 1940's, mostly; the doctor who pioneered the 'treatment' drove around the country teaching others the finer points of the technique. Evidently this became popular for use in managing 'troublesome' children, bearing some similarities to our massive over-medicating of kids with Ritalin starting in the 1990's.
Wired's Tony Long on libertarianism. An odd piece, mostly about how Ron Paul is a wacko. In general I'm on board with the sentiment behind this -- I'd be both embarrassed and alarmed to have RP as our chief executive. But not great journalism, as it takes Ron to be representative of actual libertarians, who are usually a bit more intellectually sophisticated. Tony Long is kind of like somebody's cantankerous grandpa -- some of what comes out of his mouth is blatantly offensive and incorrect, some is surprisingly insightful, all of it is delivered in a patented 'independent old coot' style. Come to think of it, Mr. Long bears a striking resemblance to (and shares a last name with) a certain famous fictional libertarian old coot.
This is a day early, as I usually try to limit link posts to Fridays, but I advise you to go check out Science Debate 2008, a petition calling for presidential candidates to discuss their positions on science and tech policy, medical innovation, and the environment. What's good about this is that it's not merely an attempt to get candidates to reveal their own positions on stem cells, global warming, evolution and other prickly subjects -- interesting questions but not necessarily relevant to policy matters. But candidates' views about federal support of stem cell or cleantech research? Very relevant. (Many bloggers seem to be missing this distinction when they poke fun at the idea of politicians debating 'science'.)
Russell's Blog has a funny script for how a true presidential science debate might go. A science-policy debate would probably be somewhat less exciting, but maybe a good way to make sure candidates are at least minimally conversant with these issues -- which ultimately have a huge impact on human quality of life -- as they now have to be with health care mandates, oil policy, and so on.
15 January 2008
Yesterday the Soil Association (the British organization in charge of certifying organic foods) announced that cosmetics, food and clothing made using nanoparticles will not be classed as organic in the UK.
Today the FDA declared that meat and dairy from cloned animals is safe to eat and will not require any additional labeling in the US. The Wired article notes:
I'm not sure yet how I feel about cloned meat in any form, but I'm disturbed that if/when it arrives, it won't be labeled similarly to the way irradiated meat must be labeled. I expect that we're in for another category of voluntary certification to go alongside 'organic' and 'natural,' capturing this concern about bioengineered food. Here's a question -- how come the dairy industry asked the FDA in the 1990's to allow them to voluntarily label their products rBGH-free, while the meat industry appears to be resisting the mandatory irradiated-meat labels?
Food producers say they're not about to put cloned meat on American dinner plates, as the procedure is too expensive and inefficient, and a third of U.S. adults say they won't eat cloned meat regardless of its approval. Instead, farmers will purchase cloned animals to serve as breeding stock for their entire herds.
14 January 2008
Penelope Trunk says all and only INTJ's are strategists (as opposed to managers). I happen to be an INTJ, so I followed her links and ended up at this page containing Jungian descriptors of the Myers-Briggs types. For INTJ's, here are the top 5 'favored careers,' in order:
3/5 of these careers are ones I considered at one point in my life -- guess which ones? Now here are the top five 'disfavored careers,' in order:
-job in entertainment industry
I have done all but one of these, speaking in general terms.
Anyway, PT is right on here:
People do what their strengths are regardless of what their job description is. Real leaders will lead in any situation they find themselves. Real writers will always write, no matter what their day job is. And real strategists will always think in terms of the conceptual future, from any job they have.
From a very fascinating article about recent research showing that physical motion is intimately tied in with cognition at all levels (via MR). What impressed me most about this piece, aside from the research, is that it contains several paragraphs summarizing the history of mind-body theory, Descartes up through modern cognitive science.
"If we had wheels, or moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes," Lakoff argues, "math might be very different."
George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is the most enjoyable and fun non-technical linguistic text I've read (a small sample).
This is true:
Given the relative rarity of libertarians, both in the public eye and in general, most people’s judgment of libertarianism will be based on a very small sample – often a sample size of one. If the first libertarian someone meets is a smart, reasonable, decent person, they will come away with a positive impression and possibly a willingness to explore further. If the first libertarian someone meets is a wild-eyed lunatic, on the other hand, they could easily write off libertarianism as the ideology of wild-eyed lunatics. [...]This personality thing is a problem for libertarians, even the most reasonable, articulate, non-moonbat varieties. Sampling errors aside, there's a well-recognized phenomenon wherein views expressed by people we admire and like are more persuasive merely by being associated with that person. (Mormons seem to get this, in a big way.) Friendly people are far more successful at spreading their beliefs (cf. meme theory). And libertarians, even the smart articulate ones, tend to come across as intellectual, elitist, even snobby at times (especially in person, as opposed to in the blogosphere). Maybe this is because on average, libertarians spend way more time identifying and thinking about their beliefs than people of more standard political persuasions, thus making them more conversant with political theory and/or somewhat scornful of the unthinking multitudes. Whatever the reason, libertarians (and I don't except myself here) may need to make a special effort to be approachable and friendly and, well, nice, in addition to the traits Glen identifies above.
This is why, when I talk to young libertarians about how to spread their ideas, I say they should think of themselves as ambassadors for the movement. That means, first and foremost, presenting themselves as fundamentally decent people that you would actually want to have a beer with [...].
As a Claremont Colleges alum, I feel I should note that The Claremont Conservative (run by a student from Claremont McKenna) made the AFF short list for best conservative or libertarian campus blog. However, I should also say that I think the Ben Casnocha blog is a much better example of what's good and likable about the Claremont McKenna crowd.
07 January 2008
This trend seems perfect for certain parts of California and Colorado, in that it’s both expensive AND environmentally friendly. I predict it will (someday) revolutionize the real estate market, by making extra-small, extra-high-tech houses like these the new status symbol.