Friday, May 29, 2009 the Belfry

I have mixed feelings about bats. I mean, I like the idea of bats, if not their actual presence anywhere near me. (Then again, I rather like the Sun, but I can't say as I would want it in my kitchen, as I would imagine that it would be more of a fire hazard than an un-unplugged toaster.) Sure, they eat mosquitoes in vast quantities; this article by bat expert and Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle says that
Individuals of some bat species can capture from 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes in a single hour and large colonies can consume enormous quantities. For example, a Florida colony of 30,000 southeastern bats (Myotis austroriparius) was estimated to consume 50 tons (45 t) of insects annually, including over 15 tons (13.5 t) of mosquitoes, and from 77.4% to 84.6% of little brown bats (M. lucifugus) living in the northern U.S. and Canada eat mosquitoes. Nursing mothers of these species eat up to their body weight in insects nightly.
But then maybe it's a question of context. Waking up at 3 a.m. to find a bat flapping around the room does not do much to endear them to me. It was a very creepy moment. Awakened by an odd noise, I turned on the light, and there it was. My resulting scream actually approximated the frequency of the bat's echolocation, and it fled into the living room. What was interesting was that it was a very clumsy bat; it kept blundering into the walls and closet door.

Locked in the "panic room" until dawn, I started thinking... Bats eat mosquitoes of course, and mosquitoes in turn suck human blood. But it had been a Thursday night in early summer. What if the mosquitoes had been feasting on the high-blood-alcohol-level partiers on Caroline Street? Those mosquitoes could very well have then been munched by the bat. Ergo, could a bat get "drunk"?

Anyway, bats were in my own belfry as I was reading a post on Cocktail Party Physics about the mammals. I decided to trot on over to Wikipedia and see if there were any anwers to my question.

Did you know...
  • There are about 1,100 bat species worldwide, accounting for about 20% of all mammal species?
  • That the largest bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox which has a wing span of 4 ft 11 in and weighs approximately 3 lb? I'm positive that this was the one that was in my apartment, but I may be mistaken...I'd need to see a police line up.
  • That there are two suborders of bats--megabats (oh, come on, that sounds like something Douglas Adams made up) and microbats? The latter use echolocation, while the former do not.
  • That one species of bat has the longest tongue of any mammal relative to its body size--perhaps known colloquially as the "Gene Simmons bat"?
Come to think if it, I think I'd much rather have a bat than Gene Simmons flying around my apartment.

What is one to do if one does indeed have a bat in one's home? Despite my aversion to the critters, I'd rather not kill it. The first bat--the 3 got out of its own accord; the next morning, after the sun came up, the landlord and I did a thorough search and could find no sign of it. Needless to say, when I came home the following evening, I had left a broom outside the front door, and burst into the house and made a search of the place like Mulder or Scully, kicking in doors, pirouetting and twisting around. It was quite a sight; one wonders what the neighbors thought. The second bat--some months later, and I had been awake for this one--had a distinctive flight path and could be disposed of simply by opening the door and letting him/her fly out.

Anyway, instructions on what to do in the case of batness can be found here.

And, finally, for your amusement, Cocktail Party Physics had a link to a video of a vampire bat on a treadmill. This makes sense. With today's purported obesity epidemic and everyone's cholesterol level elevated, even Dracula needs to join a gym.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Act of Cod

Something's fishy in the state of Iceland:
The Atlantic cod has, for many centuries, sustained major fisheries on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the North American fisheries have now largely collapsed. A new paper in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE from scientists at the University of Iceland and Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik provides insights into possible mechanisms of the collapse of fisheries, due to fisheries-induced evolution.

Cod fishing is of highest intensity in shallow water in Iceland and it selects against genotypes of cod adapted to shallow water. The PLoS ONE paper reports a significant difference in Darwinian fitness (relative survival rate) between shallow-water and deep-water adapted cod. The shallow-water fish have only 8% of the fitness of deep-water fish. This difference can lead to rapid elimination of shallow-water fish in only a few generations with drastic effects on the population and the fishery.
Funny, everyone freaked out over the suggestion that codfishing be restricted to allow fish stocks to replenish themselves, fearing job losses. And now that there are so few cod left...the industry has collapsed and there were many job losses. Good one.

This same situation is playing out with other fish, especially bluefin tuna, as detailed in Richard Ellis' excellent 2008 book Tuna: A Love Story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ore Ida

Speaking of science and science journalist, I just came across this Q&A in New Scientist about last week's fossil find. That is:
The publication last week of a paper describing Darwinius masillae, a new fossil primate also known as "Ida", generated massive hype for its claim that the fossil represents an early haplorhine – the "dry nosed" primates that include old world monkeys and apes, including humans.

Other scientists dispute the claim, arguing that the fossil may simply be an early type of lemur and not the "missing link" between the haplorhines and the "wet nosed" primates, the strepsirrhines, such as lemurs and lorises.
A little clarification from the "Father of Ida" and, it bears mentioning, father of the media hype:
The money spent on Ida – the starting price was $1 million – was that spent purely on the fact that it was an exceptionally preserved primate, or did it have something to do with its potential evolutionary relationship to humans?

No. We started off thinking it was the ancestor of all lemurs.

It may still turn out to be a lemur. Do you still have an open mind about that?

Of course, this is science. The discussions will go for a long time. And if other people's arguments are better than what we present here or what we are going to do in the next two papers, we will accept it, no problem.
I happen to have befriended an evolutionary biologist last week in Santa Fe named Diane Kelly who was a tad blasé about the news (“gorgeous specimen introduced with excessive hype” was the term she uses). She blogged about it at her "Science Made Cool" blog which, like my long-winded post below, also talked about some of the issues we discussed last week.
If you’ve somehow missed the media circus surrounding the fossil, its story can pretty much be summed up by “gorgeous specimen introduced with excessive hype.” ...[W]hen Jorn Hurum (University of Oslo) rediscovered the fossil (it had been in a private collection), he didn’t just describe it, he went looking for a filmmaker to build a media event around it. So when the description of Darwinius masillae appeared in PloS Science on May 19th, it was accompanied by a press conference, a TV documentary, a companion book and website, and a whole raft of misrepresentation about its scientific importance. It may be an effective way to get a lot of quick public attention, but it doesn’t help more run-of-the-mill relations between scientists and writers one bit.
And I'll end by cryptically pointing out that "Ida" doesn't look anything like Nancy Walker.

Look What We Can Do

My father has occasionally told this story:

On July 20, 1969, he and my mother were watching the Moon landing. As the first transmissions from another world came back to Earth, my mother is reported to have remarked, “The picture is terrible.” My father looked at her and said, “Yes, but it’s coming from the Moon.” (Yes, I was rised by Burns and Allen.) I was apparently also watching but, only having been just over a month shy of my second birthday, I can’t say I have any recollection of this, although I certainly wish I did.

Look what we can do.

Whilst I may be out of the will for sharing that story, I was in a similar circumstance just last week.

At the Science Writing Workshop at the Ghost Ranch Santa Fe, one of the educational sessions was co-presented by a writer who was physically present, and another who was videoconferenced in via Skype, and whom we could all see on the main screen at the front of the room. The co-presentation worked pretty well except that, every 8–10 minutes or so, the Skype connection would be lost (gee, that never happens), and we would have to interrupt the presentation to call her back. It was a tad frustrating, but, as New York Times science writer George Johnson, who was sitting behind me, remarked, “That this works at all is pretty amazing.” And he was right; we often get so wrapped up in what are essentially new technologies that we expect them to work flawlessly—when only a few years earlier, it was scarcely possible that they worked at all. Sure, videoconferencing is nothing really new, but here it was taking place on an everyday computer with free software and not physically connected to anything except a projector (and wouldn’t it be great if those could be wireless).

Skype kept getting disconnected because the Ghost Ranch’s WiFi was not the most robust in the world; I recall getting frustrated with its slowness myself—forgetting that as recently as five years ago I was on the road struggling with dial-up using hotel phone lines and the 56K modem in my Apple iBook. I cursed it at the time—also forgetting that 15 years before that if I had suggested accessing the Internet from a hotel room it would have been as if I had suggested beaming up to the Starship Enterprise.

The “evolution and reliance on technology” was just one of the many recurring mealtime topics we talked about over the course of the week.

The Science Writing Workshop was attended by about 40 people, predominantly professional scientists (neuroscience and evolutionary biology were heavily represented), with a few professional writers, as well. (By my estimates, it was about 75% scientists, 25% writers.) We all dined together either in the Ghost Ranch’s dining room, or we assembled posses to go out and forage for food in downtown Santa Fe. (I personally will have a hard time looking at Southwest cuisine for a while.) Mealtime conversation was intensely intellectually stimulating, and I learned a great deal—and was actually able to hold my own much better than I thought I would.

Another recurring topic was the often contentious relationship between scientists and science journalists. That is, while there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, each side has its own agenda and those agendas often work at cross-purposes. Scientists have a responsibility to the facts, to the data they have collected, and the results of their studies, while journalists have a responsibility to their editors, publishers, and readers, and thus are often looking for “a good story” and gravitate toward the more sensational, even if the results of a given study don’t lend themselves to the kind of extrapolation that makes for a compelling story.

This is not unique to science writing, of course.

Many of the scientists present admitted they avoid talking to the press for fear of being misquoted or misrepresented. It’s a fair point, but I don’t think avoidance is the best strategy. Perhaps sound beatings would be a better approach.

A good example of this inadvertently presented itself in the project we had to complete for the workshop: On Tuesday, we went up to the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) (an interdisciplinary think tank in the hills above the city), listened to several scientific presentations, and then had to write and workshop a story about some aspect of one of them. (I’ll post my own as soon as I can find’s on the other computer somewhere...)

The first presentation was by Caroline Buckee, a postdoctoral fellow at SFI who was researching malaria transmission, and she spoke at length about the microorganism that causes malaria. One of the reasons that malaria is such a problem, and has evolved resistance to drugs to treat it, is that it genetically recombines “like crazy” (a technical term). (After workshopping about a half dozen stories about malaria, I think I know all this by heart!) At one point, Dr. Buckee mentioned in passing—and I want to stress, in passing—that because the genetic structure of malaria is a moving target, the likelihood that there will be a vaccine against the disease is very slim.

During the Q&A, one of the audience members seized on that one passing statement and tried to get her to say one way or another: will there ever be a vaccine for malaria? It was obvious that she was not comfortable making a definitive statement either way; there is still so much that is unknown and who knows what discoveries await us? But, not having much experience with the press (or even the wannabe press that we were) she eventually was cornered into saying that, no, there probably won’t ever be a malaria vaccine. And yet, if a story were written with that as its primary thrust (and there were several), anyone who had been in the room would know that it was not entirely representative of the talk.

And we wonder why the public gets frustrated when one study seems to contradict an earlier one.

Kariena Dill, an Albuquerque-based writer who was in my group, expanded on this theme with a more egregious example involving the sequencing of the woolly mammoth genome. A summary of the research appeared in Nature magazine, and it bears mentioning that, according to the paper:

A major reason for sequencing the woolly mammoth is to identify functionally important amino-acid differences between mammoth and elephant.

That’s probably not the sexiest application in the world. Wouldn’t something like Jurassic Park be far cooler? And, sure enough, an editorial appeared in the same issue of Nature (sorry, I don’t have a link) suggesting that scientists were only a few million dollars away from actually cloning a woolly mammoth and bringing it back from extinction. Nowhere in the original study was this even suggested—but guess which angle was picked up by the rest of the science media?

Nicholas Wade’s lede in the Science Times was:

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

No, the scientists were not talking about it at all. Science journalists were. Nowhere in the story does any scientist suggest that the completely sequenced mammoth genome would be used to clone an actual mammoth, though one does appear to have been coaxed into speculating about the idea.

It probably sold a few papers (I mean, come on, woolly mammoths capture the human imagination like nothing else), but is it an accurate representation of the work? And where would we put a herd of mammoths, anyway? Because one would get rather lonely, I should think. Could we effectively reconstruct their ecosystem which, after all, may also be extinct? And, perhaps most importantly, what would mammoth meat taste like, and what wine would go best with it? (I am the sole proponent of the field of Gustatory Taxonomy, or classifying animals and plants according to how they taste.)

Joking aside, is there a solution to this contentious reporter-reported relationship? Part of it could involve scientists getting better training in talking to the press, preparing a list of talking points and religiously sticking to them the way politicians do. Another would be a greater understanding of science on the part of people who cover science and a curbing of the desire to immediately go for the lurid and sensational (good luck with that).

But then it also comes down to the public. Science writing, to my mind, should educate the public, not just about the details of any given topic, but about science in general. And, by the same token, the public should look to science writing to be educated about a topic, rather than entertained as if it were a Michael Crichton novel. (Well, okay, bad example...)

In much science writing, there is a tendency to, as one of my lunch tablemates put it, present science “as a product rather than a process.” Those studies that seemingly contradict earlier studies are good fodder for stand-up comedians, sure, but the people who throw up their hands in frustration over this fail to recognize that science is a process. New data arise that shed new light on, clarify, or yes, even contradict and disprove earlier data.

Rather than see that as science’s failing, we should recognize it as science’s greatest strength. It’s what science is supposed to do. It’s about understanding nature and the universe through empirical observations and experiments; it’s not about crafting a written-in-stone law that explains everything, or at least not right off the bat. (It’s nice when that can happen, though.) Even the well-established laws of physics or chemistry or biology that everyone today accepts were only arrived at after many attempts, missteps, errors, and contradictions. Unfortunately, this “changing nature of reality” is one reason why many people turn exclusively to religion; they like the idea of immutable laws that are written in stone and never change or get contradicted. (And for those who do contradict them, there is excommunication or execution.) However, reality doesn’t work this way.

I started reading George Johnson’s excellent book The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments on the flight home and nowhere else is this better illustrated: the fundamental scientific laws and principles we now take for granted were only arrived at after much thought, observation, and experiment. There were many missteps along the way, and the famous names from the history of science—Newton, Galileo, Lavoisier, etc.—got all the credit, but there were many who came before them.

In this day and age, it’s hard to convey to people why learning about science is important. I would make the following cases:

Understanding science is increasingly necessary to secure a decent job in an increasingly high-tech job market. Research and development of new technologies is how we achieve economic growth, and how we get better jobs. Understanding science is a major part of that. Even if you are not in actual R&D, knowing basic science is invaluable. A friend of mine is a research scientist for a company that makes high-tech products, and very often sales and marketing ask them to develop products that violate basic laws of physics.

Understanding science (and math) is also important for understanding many of the political, social, and medical issues facing the world today (and tomorrow). Things like climate change, stem-cell research, and many other “controversial” topics can only be effectively discussed and understood with a strong scientific underpinning.

But the most important reason I would give for learning about science is the thrill of discovery. When it comes right down to it, as a species, we’re explorers. We came out of the cave, we looked up at the sky or down into the ocean and started asking questions and seeking answers. We built better and better tools to get at those answers; we launched probes into space; we have robots wandering around on Mars and flying through the rings of Saturn. What enriches the human spirit more than the excitement of landing on another world, or exploring the bottom of the ocean, or....well, name it? After all, there has to be more than life than just buying and selling stuff.

I would love to have experienced the thrill that Americans had on that July day nearly 40 years ago—lousy picture and all—when Neil Armstrong mentioned the “giant leap for mankind,” saying, essentially, “look what we can do.”

Driven to Distraction

I just saw this sign at the Price Chopper Plaza on Route 50. Great idea! Who woudn't be thrilled and excited to receive a gift certificate for defensive driving classes? "Happy Birthday! I think your driving sucks!" I'd be lucky if I left the party without wearing the cake.
Okay, I can actually sort of see the point, but I thought it amusing nonetheless...


The next time someone talks about so-called "frivolous lawsuits," I do hope this takes top honors as the most ridiculous waste of the legal system in the history of humanity. I swear this sounds like an Onion story:
Brawny and Bounty in Legal Squabble Over Paper-Towel Patterns

Those little quilts on paper towels and toilet paper are turning out to be a very big deal in federal courts.

Procter & Gamble Co. filed suit May 8 against Georgia-Pacific in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati alleging bow-tie patterns in new-and-improved Brawny paper towels infringe the trademark bow-tie shapes in the quilts of P&G's Bounty Extra Soft.

Brawny's "Great New Look" is "an obvious attempt to trade on the goodwill, reputation and commercial success achieved by Bounty Extra Soft," P&G says in its lawsuit.
Methinks P&G is a tad too "self-absorbed," so to speak. Who the heck pays that close attention to the patterns on paper towels?! I think whatever judge can preside over this case without bursting into hysterics should be the next Supreme Court justice.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Crash of Moons

Over at Movie Mis-Treatments, Rocky Jones, Winky, the senior-moment-personified Professor Newton, and the whole Scooby gang are back in 1954's Crash of Moons.
The Rocky Jones show was really low-budget, the writing is pretty lame, and the acting on a community theater level, but it has a certain charm and I confess I do kind of like these movies. I guess it would fall into that category of “quaint science fiction,” for want of a better term.

Crash of Moons has also been variously titled The Crash of Moons, Crash of the Moons, The Crash of the Moons, The Crash the of Moons, The Crash the of the Moons, The the the the Crash of the the the Moons the, and The The of the The. I think that covers all the bases. The.
As an added bonus (if you want to call it that), a pre-Hogan's Heroes John Banner guest stars as the improbably affable ruler of a doomed moon.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Splendid Isolation

The late, great Warren Zevon, from 1989. Transverse City remains my favorite Zevon record.

Seemed vaguely appropriate, if only for the opening lines.

Act of God

I'm not even remotely superstitious or religious, but even I find it rather unnerving to get on a flight from which a priest has been bumped. Then we flew through a thunderstorm... Fortunately, there's no such thing as divine retribution!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Santa Fe

“I want to live all alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O’Keeffe.” —Warren Zevon

I love the American Southwest, but the fact that flying into Albuquerque, NM, from the east involves nearly smashing into the side of a mountain does take a bit of the appeal out of it. Especially since by then the “liquid courage” I downed during my two-hour layover in Atlanta had worn off. (Yes, Albany to Atlanta to Albuquerque. This trip is brought to you by the letter “A.”)

And then the shuttle van trip to Santa Fe—about 57 miles, as the crow flies (or, as we say in Saratoga, as the horse flies)—is another of “what the heck was I thinking?” on top of the flight. Whenever I take airport shuttles, I am always—always—the last to be dropped off. So in this case about nine people were stacked like cordwood in a van whose air conditioning system left much to be desired.

But all that snark and crankiness evaporated by the time I got to Santa Fe. My tendency to be dropped off last actually worked in my favor, because I got a very nice driving tour of Santa Fe and learned, if nothing else, that Santa Fe is best traversed either on foot or in a very small car. Indeed, our van driver backed into a pickup truck while attempting to get out of a parking lot.

Eventually, I arrived at the Ghost Ranch Santa Fe for the 14th Annual Science Writers Conference, and immediately learned that Santa Fe was more than 5,000 feet (actually 6,996 feet) above sea level, which I did not know. The ranch literature I found in my room had all sorts of warnings about altitude sickness. As usual, I treated the symptom list as a “to do” list, just like whenever I am forced by my doctor to take prescription medications, the list of side effects is basically a “to do” list.

So after decompressing for a bit, I decided to go out and prowl for the couple hours before the event’s reception.

Santa Fe was founded in 1610 by Spanish territorial governor Don Pedro de Peralta (ergo Paseo de Peralta is a main road) and was officially designated “Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis” (or “Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi”). So “Santa Fe” actually means “holy faith.” The city was built to be the capital of Spain’s northernmost territory in the New World, but the Pueblo Rebellion shook things up a bit, although the city was recaptured in 1692 by Don Diego de Vargas. Its claim to fame was primarily as a trading center. Los Alamos is nearby and in the 1940s, the influx of scientists brought a renewed economic vitality to the town. (I came across a First National Bank of Los Alamos. I’m guessing you do not want to get an overdraft from them.)

The city itself is the last thing I was expecting from a major city, especially one that is a state capital. (Santa Fe became the capital of the New Mexico Territory in 1851; New Mexico became a state in 1910.) The architecture is best described as “all adobe all the time.’’ In fact, the entire city is very beige. Indeed, the town looks very much as it would have in the nineteenth century. I half expect to see James West come flying out of an upper window or crash through a staircase.
There is one structure that is your standard issue adobe building with what look like wooden bars on the glassless windows. It looks like a jail circa. 1870 but is actually the parking garage for the La Fonda Hotel.
The center of town is the Plaza, a green square surrounded by—again—adobe buildings, housing predominantly art galleries and shops selling turquoise jewelry and other knickknacks with a (surprise) Southwest theme.
I don’t think I have seen this many art galleries in one place...well, ever. I had no idea that this much art could be physically produced. It’s rather astounding. Art is also interwoven throughout much of the town itself, and behind the Post Office is one particularly interesting installation--a school of fish heads emerging from the gravel. It is very cool.
I’m not sure exactly how Santa Fe became an artists’ refuge, but I suspect Georgia O’Keeffe had a lot to do with it. (Her original “Ghost Ranch” is located just outside Santa Fe in Abiquiu, a town that was invaded in 1956 by vowels and, in a standoff that lasted several days, all the consonants were purged save for two hostages.)

The Plaza also has a variety of restaurants. On Tuesday, several of us went to the Plaza Cafe which is an intriguing mix of Mexican and Greek cuisine. It was quite good. I shared an immense dessert with a squid researcher from Monterey and we could not finish it. Over the course of the week, various search parties brought back stories of excellent restaurants (and pubs). Thursday night, there was a mass dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, which had excellent food and even better frozen margaritas. Happily, I didn’t see any chain restaurants in town. Or even any chain art galleries.

There are several churches and a cathedral. (As I recall from my visit to Canterbury Cathedral, a cathedral is a church that contains a cathedra, or the chair that the archbishop sits in.) Santa Fe is home to the grand, imposing St. Francis Cathedral, which was built in the 19th century by French priest Jean Baptiste Lamy. His raison d’etre was to formally separate New Mexico’s Catholics from Mexico, but he was a bit taken aback by the locals’ unusual worship habits—and the humble dirt-floor church they had. His attempts at changing things went over like a you-know-what in church. But he did decide that a large, impressive Romanesque cathedral was what was needed. Ergo, St. Francis’.

It should be noted that St. Francis Cathedral houses not only the seat for the archbishop (or whatever authority they have down here), but also the seat—or, more importantly, the parking space—for the Cathedral’s Gift Shop Manager, who is actually appointed by papal decree.
There are a number of St. Francis statues in town, but my favorite is one just off the Plaza where it looks like St. Francis is trying to answer that age-old philosophical question, “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” His theological arguments can be found in his tract De Rodentia.
There is also a statue to that other religious figure, R2D2—actually a painted mailbox. I wonder how many people insert letters reading “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”? But then, perhaps it’s just me.
Santa Fe also is home to the oldest church structure in the U.S., San Miguel Chapel, built circa 1610, although partially destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) during the Pueblo Rebellion.
The weeklong Science Writers Workshop itself was one of the most enjoyable weeks I think I have ever spent, hanging out with about 40 scientists and science writers having incredible conversations. More about that at another time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Change is Better Than a Rest

Heading out to Santa Fe on Monday not to open a restaurant, but rather to attend the 14th annual Science Writing Workshop.

Flying out first thing in the morning to the Albuquerque "Sunport." Okay. I guess I'll have to remember to take that first left at Albuquerque.

As always, a layover in Atlanta.

And, of course, it's just a formality...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Partially Filled Glasses

This morning, I and two other regional Toastmasters were judges for a speech contest conducted by the North Atlantic District of Optimist International. I confess, I had never heard of Optimist International before, but it turns out that they are a service organization like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions, with local clubs doing all sorts of community-oriented activities, a lot of it having to do with helping kids raise money for school, giving out scholarships, etc. The folks we met--who are based in Syracuse--are about as dedicated to their clubs and organization as we Toastmasters are, and they are a great bunch of people.

The speech contest was for kids (ages 10-15, or somewhere thereabouts) from upstate New York and New England. They were required to give a 4–5-minute speech on "What optimism means to me..." and, man, some of these kids could easily go up against any seasoned Toastmaster (well, maybe in a couple of years, at any rate). My joke going into the event was, if
I have to speak on that topic, I'll be chased from the building and/or have my car set on fire. But they all had a diverse set of perspectives on the topic. Some of thsoe speeches were extremely well-written.

One common "motif" in many of the speeches was the old chestnut "is the glass half-full or half-empty?" My own response tends to be a function of how the water level got to where it is--that is, which direction was the water traveling when it got to the current level? If the glass had been completely full, and was then emptied to the halfway mark, then it's half-empty. If the glass was in fact only filled up to the halfway mark, then it's half-full. If I am presented with a glass utilizing of 50% of its capacity, I guess I can't say either way without knowing more about the history of the glass and water. But then, maybe I'm overanalyzing this a bit too much. It's probably about at this point that my car would be set alight...

At any rate, it was a very fun event, and I did realize that the event organizers have one problem we typically don't have to deal with when organizing Toastmasters contests: parents who freak out when their kids don't win!

It Might Have Been Chapter 12

It just keeps going on. The latest chapter of It Might Have Been is now up at

Crying Wolfram

If you've not heard of Wolfram Alpha, it is an attempt to create a "knowledge engine" or "answer engine." Says New Scientist:
it is designed to understand search requests made in everyday language and work out the answer to factual questions on almost any aspect of human knowledge.
Alpha was created by Stephen Wolfram, famous for the software package Mathematica. He employed more than 150 people to collect information on all the major branches of science, from the properties of the elements and the location of planets to the relationships between species and the sequence of the human genome. Economic measures, such as inflation histories for specific countries, are included, as are geographic, cultural and many other data sets.
It just went live a day or so ago, and they're still working out the kinks. I started noodling with it a little, and turned up some limitations--not the least of which that the number of users it can handle easily gets maxed out, and a very common reponse is "Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." Hm. Sounds ike that android in the "I, Mudd" episode of Star Trek: "I am not programmed to respond in that area." Norman, coordinate!

Still, if it ends up working anything like this demo (always a big if; when has software ever worked in the real world the way its demo does?), it will be very impressive.

Fish Story

Gotta love a headline like this, from the Albany Times Union:
Second woman charged in seafood heist
Kind of like The Bank Job, only more moist. And that's a lot o' lobster:
Felicia A. Tulej, 45, of Oriskany Falls is charged with fourth-degree grand larceny and attempted petit larceny, deputies said. Tulej and Heather Rimmer, 32, of Utica were involved in the theft of more than $1,000-worth of seafood and other grocery items from the Price Chopper Store...

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Butler Did it

Are you scared to turn off instant messaging, lest someone not be able to contact you for five seconds? Apparently people are, for reasons passing understanding. Instead, researchers at Cornell have found, people indulge in "butler lies." Huh?
Just like a real life butler might be, these lies are deployed to protect us from unwanted guests politely, without hurting anyone's feelings or appearing rude. By tracking the messages of 50 IM users the Cornell team determined that around 10 per cent of all messages sent were deceptive, and 20 per cent of those were butler lies.
The ones most commonly used quickly draw a conversation to a close, some by inventing imaginery work committments:

"I have a prelim tomo tho so I gotta study for ittt and then head to a meeting"
Huh? (I don't know why people get so worked up about English as a national language when people now communicate like this. But, c'est la vie.) But I digress...
Others by exploiting the time of day:

"im gonna go grab some lunch now i guess"

"sleep! Time"

Butler lies are clearly useful, yet by now most IM users are wise to old chestnuts like those. In the name of polite etiquette, we desperately need a new set of more imaginative - but still plausible - ones.
How about "I'm going to get my Shift key fixed" or "Searching for apostrophes"? (Yeah, I know, I should be used to this by now. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.)

As for butler lies, they're hardly unique to instant messaging. How many of us do the same thing to get off the phone? I knew someone once who had on his computer a recording of a phone ringing. When he wanted to get off a call, he would trigger it, then say "Oh, that's my other line. I have to go." Rather clever, really. I've found that "Sod off" works just as well, particularly with telemarketers.

While I prefer instant messaging to telephones any day, like anything else, it has its uses and its abusers, and maybe I'm fundamentally more antisocial than most people because I have no problem just turning it off and hiding when I'm in the middle of something and don't want to be bothered. Though there have been days when the sound of the iChat plinking noise will drive me into complete madness—which is not that far a drive to begin with, I suppose.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It Might Have Been Chapter 11

In case you missed it last Friday, the latest Chapter of It Might Have Been has been posted. Star Wars: Episode 1, The B-52s, and several acres of live cattle play important roles in Chapter 11.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

As Atrios would say--The stupid! It burns!!!

As if texting while driving a car weren't skull-crushingly stupid enough, now the phone-tards are driving trains and texting. Please kill me. Oh, wait...they probably will:
The head of the Boston-area transit authority said Saturday he'll ban all train and bus operators from even carrying cell phones on board after a conductor told police he was texting his girlfriend before a trolley collision Friday.

About 50 people were hurt in the underground crash in downtown Boston, though none of the injuries was life-threatening.
At least he didn't kill 26 people like the moron in L.A.

Ripping Yarn

The thing about this very cool Cthulu ski mask is that if I were to wear one while skiing, I would actually not look any sillier than I normally look while skiing.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

TGI Fridayssssssss

"Snakes on a Plate" was already taken:
The sight of a severed snake's head under his broccoli made Jack Pendleton lose interest in dessert.

Pendleton said he found the head, the size of the end of his thumb, while eating Sunday at the T.G.I. Friday's in Clifton Park.
Oh, I don't know. From my experience, that's probably the most appetizing thing about a TGI Friday's.

Friday, May 01, 2009