log (1999/11/12 to 1999/11/18)

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Thursday, November 18, 1999

This morning, on the drive in to work, an aging jet-contrail made a miles-long thin straight cloud in the pale blue sky. Bisecting it, and bisected by it, the sun, blindingly bright, turning that half of the sky an almost chalky blue-white, and setting the center third of that cloud to blaze impossibly yellow. The sun should have rings! Big honking fiery yellow rings out past the orbit of Mercury somewhere.

Schizomimetic site of the day: samsloan.com. Seen on memepool. (And pretty unreachable at the moment, probably due to memepool readers trying to load it; I'm glad I got to it early!)

I've been thinking more about the Reverse Speech stuff from yesterday. It strikes me that reversed writing holds at least as much promise. We can delve into the unconscious minds of people from long ago, and even find startling predictions about the future! Here's just one amazing example:

All men are created equal.

.lauqe detaerc era nem llA

Say the reversed form out loud, and it clearly says "like the dark era"! Taking into account the obvious reference to the Equal Rights Amendment, this must be a statement from the Jungian collective unconscious, bemoaning the exclusion of women. Incredible!

It's very tempting to tell the Reverse Speech guy about this. But I suppose it would be cruel...

Finally got around to actually doing two things: writing up a study at work that we did about a year ago, and putting glog onto the TOYS page. A great feeling, especially having that study done. Now I can try to get around to some things that I've only been putting off for weeks, rather than months!   *8)

Geegaw has some spot-on comments yesterday about weblogging and its similarity to Stone Soup. It's not an unmixedly good thing, though; I'd like more of my Log entries to be longer and more insightful, rather than just lists of amusing links. At least I think I would! I was initially jazzed to see that Prehensile Styn now has a Weblog, but I do hope it doesn't distract him from his fascinating weekly-or-seldomer longer pieces.

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

Bill recommends watching for the Leonid meteors tonight; see LeonidsLive.com.

Nutty-Science Site of the Day: ReverseSpeech.com. I'll let it speak for itself:

As we speak consciously, the brain is generating messages arising from the unconscious. These messages occur constantly throughout language and can be heard very clearly at least every 10 to 15 seconds by simply playing a recording of normal speech in reverse.
Cool stuff! I buried Paul, eh? Includes a number of impressive examples; for instance, part of Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind" line, when played backwards, clearly says "Ampule spaz war"! Or something.

I found ReverseSpeech.com at the end of a Web ramble that started at Vicki Rosenzweig's Yet Another Web Log, a friendly and intelligent blog rich in science links. I may have to add it to the List.

Rereading: Huxley's Brave New World. There's a complete copy online here, although it doesn't have the preface that's in my copy, written by Huxley 15 or so years after the original and well worth reading also. I wonder what Huxley's Weblog would look like? A good page of Huxley links is here. I've added a couple of Brave New World pull-quotes to the random profound phrases on the splash page. Isn't it comforting to know that even Alphas have been well conditioned?

The new Wired (7.12) just arrived. What's with the cover? I'm just as fond of naked female skin as the next guy, but I'm not sure exactly what their excuse is here. And am I the only one who read the cover text as "Go... We Here"?

Speaking of Wired and sex, there's a claim in 7.12, in an interesting piece on Japan's obsession with childhood (as opposed to American's obsession with adolescence) that in Japan there are vending machines that sell used undergarments (my, I'm so carefully-spoken today!). Is this true? I'd love to see a primary reference; Wired isn't really good at footnotes...

So is everyone being driven mad by all this boldface? I imagine I will eventually get more into discursive mode again rather than this sound-bite mode, but for the moment it's kind of fun!   *8)

Update: the Bureau of Printing and Engraving site now has info and pitchers of the new five- and ten-dollar U.S. bills.

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

Lots of tidbits and links today, with random phrases in boldface just to be annoying.   *8)

Heard on NPR: players in a chess tournament in Spain were surprised to discover that they would be required to take a urine test. Wonder just what they're testing for?

The U.S. is getting new five- and ten-dollar bills soon. The news says that the designs are being unveiled today, but there's nothing at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving yet. Here's the online version of a Nova episode about counterfeiting and the new money.

The little daughter is ambivalent about the new bills; sometimes she objects to them out of her usual deep conservatism (nothing's ever supposed to change), and sometimes she thinks they're cool. I tend toward "cool", myself.

Finally saw Kiki's Delivery Service all the way to the end. It was very good! The utopian-Europe setting is a joy just to look at (various pages suggest that it's largely Stockholm), the story and characters are sweet. I don't think it quite needed the huge blimp crash, myself.

There are so many odd little things about Japanese cartoons (I know, I'm supposed to say "anime"). The characters are so exaggeratedly Western, with big eyes and long legs and pale skin. They also display exaggerated emotions, laughing loudly at the smallest pleasant event, falling down at the slightest surprise. Is this because the Japanese perceive Westerners as displaying exaggerated emotions, and therefore draw these supposedly-Western characters even further out toward the extreme?

The effect is even more pronounced in the Pokémon cartoons. It's not disturbing or overly distracting. Just odd. I'm sure there's an anime Web site out there somewhere that analyzes it in detail!   *8)

Are(n't) there any Japanese cartoons with recognizably Japanese characters?

People who think global capitalism is a bad idea: N30. I dunno about this stuff. I was brought up pretty much pro-labor and left-wing, but somehow it never really stuck. My impression these days is that global capitalism has done quite a bit to raise the average living standard of just about everyone, and that global socialism or tribalism tends to lead to misery, poverty, oppression, and war. But maybe I'm just getting old.

Bruce Schneier writes interesting stuff about DVD Copy Protection and Why Computers are Insecure in the latest Crypto-Gram.

Monday, November 15, 1999

A classic quote from a kid-on-the-street, from yesterday's ZOOM: "The best thing about being a kid is lots of pizza, and if you get into trouble you can blame it on your imaginary friend Bob!". (Grownups can try blaming it on Bob, also, with about as much chance of success.)

Okay, so I read the Tom Wolfe piece on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Marshall McLuhan, and E. O. Wilson that's been making the rounds of the Weblogs (started perhaps on Robot Wisdom).

It was OK. It reminded me that I really need to read more Teilhard. And it got me to think a little more concretely about why I very much like and agree with Richard Dawkins, despite the objection to memes that Wolfe puts forward, and despite the fact that I don't like or agree with lots of what Wilson says about science and human nature.

Wolfe and Wilson, in fact, make just the same sort of mistake. Wolfe says that memes "don't exist" because a "neurophysiologist can use the most powerful and sophisticated brain imaging now available... and still not find a meme." He points out that we don't know "how, in physiological, neural terms, the meme 'infection' is supposed to take place."

Wilson, famously, says that all of morality and ethics is really about the limbic system. That in the future, anthropology and psychology and ethics and politics and all that stuff will be just sub-branches of sociobiology.

Both of these are category mistakes (a wonderful term that I believe we owe, along with "the ghost in the machine", to Gilbert Ryle's "The Concept of Mind", a book everyone ought to read). It makes no more sense to expect to find memes with a brain-scanner than to expect to be able to find, say, Princeton University with a scanning tunneling microscope.

It's not that Princeton University doesn't really exist, or that it is made of anything besides matter (and energy); it's rather that the matter that interacts to make up the University does so in such a complex way that it's infeasible to actually reconstruct, or detect, the University by looking at the atomic details of the matter. Facts about the University are emergent; they're at a semantic level so far above atoms that the language used to describe atoms is not useful for describing the University, and the language that's useful for describing the University is not in practice reducible to talk about individual atoms.

It's not that memes don't exist, or that they're composed of anything besides arrangements of matter (much of it in neurons); it's rather that the matter-arrangements that constitute the memes are so complex that it's infeasible to find a meme by looking at a bunch of dendrites. The language that's useful to talk about memes is not in practice reducible to talk about individual neurons.

It's not that memes don't infect (since, after all, that's mostly an interestingly-nuanced way of saying that people get ideas from other people); it's that we don't know how to, and it may well be infeasible to, describe the process at the level of individual neurons.

And finally it's not that anthropology or psychology are about something besides material evolved creatures; it's rather that the facts about those individual evolved creatures that anthropology and psychology talk about are complex enough that, again, it's infeasible to get to them from facts about the limbic system. Useful progress in those fields requires a higher-level language that is not in practice reducible to limbic-system talk.

It makes no more sense to say that anthropology or ethics is really just about the limbic system than it does to say that sociobiology is really just about the quantum-mechanical wave function. Sure, it's true in some sense, but it's not a very important sense, and when you use the claim primarily to make your work sound sensational and radical and get your name in the papers (which, perhaps unfairly, is my impression of Wilson), you are not doing useful work.

The ethics vs. limbic system thing actually includes another kind of category mistake. Statements about the limbic system are statements about what is, whereas statements about ethics are statements about how things ought to be. I have never seen any evidence that science can take us objectively from the "is" to the "ought" (and history gives us many examples of the bad things that happen when someone thinks it can). While I haven't read everything Wilson's written by any means, my impression is that he overlooks the fact that no matter how much we know about the workings of our bodies, there will still be lots of room for debate and disagreement about what those bodies should and should not be doing.

This isn't to say that biology (or even sociobiology) doesn't inform ethical discussion or the practice of psychology, or that physics has nothing to teach biology or even literature. But the fact that the truths of one field have some bearing on the truths of another does not mean that it is either desirable or inevitable that the fields will eventually merge, one subsuming the other, in a big Wilsonian "consilience". Ethics and biology have different terminologies and modes of analysis because they need to; contrary to Wilson's frequent statements (here, for instance), the differences between the fields are not mere accidental causes of "confusion" that will be swept away. They are a necessary consequence of the fact that finite humans just can't do social science using the terms and methods of particle physics (or vice-versa), and it would be silly (perhaps even "consilly") to try.

Sunday, November 14, 1999

Worship me, or you will burn
in Hell for ETERNITY!!!!!!
Sorry. That just sort of slipped out.

Turns out Christian AM radio is just as dotcom-ridden as all other media. And some of the advertised piety-portals are way snazzy! Check out the fancy Flash intro on iChristian.com ("One Book / One Hundred Thousand Items Based On It"), and the streaming ministry on OnePlace.com. The radio spot for the latter declared it "the one place for everything Christian!". Funny, I thought that old book already served that purpose.

I wonder if these sites have sections where you sell what you have and give to the poor? Ah, well, I'm no expert on this particular meme-complex myself, and I should no more expect perfection of its believers than of anyone else.

Happy Sunday anyway!

Saturday, November 13, 1999

Computers are Stupid!

This is just the ritual rant that all computer users have to do once in awhile, when some system behaves in a particularly idiotic way. You can skip it if you want; you've certainly heard things just like it before...

The kids have two birthday parties today. Last night we realized we had the presents and wrapping paper and stuff, but no cards. Well, no problem, we have this computer and all sorts of software, and digitally-composed personalized birthday cards are all the rage in their circle these days anyway.

The first program we tried was Creative Writer, from Microsoft Home. It's a rather quirky program, with some amusing animations and some annoying habits (help balloons that get in the way of the functions they're explaining, a tendency to leave the master volume control turned way down after exiting), but in general it's always worked in the past. But that's just because we never tried to print a card before.

It has a "room" in which you can make very nice-looking French-fold cards (all four sides on a single piece of paper that you fold up into a card after it prints). The only problem is that when you go to print the card, it just sits there spinning the hard disk hard for a long long time, then pops up a window with a dog saying "Hey, I'm almost out of space! Save your work, exit the program, and make some more space!", prints a blank sheet of paper on the printer, and then says "I'm finished printing your project; it was fun!".

There's tons of space on all the hard drives, but the swap file after this is utterly enormous, so it's probably some kind of memory leak. The dog is just too stupid to tell us what kind of space he's running out of. We try printing one of the sample cards that come with the program; it dies in just the same way.

OK, so the little daughter remembers that her old Kid Desk program had some kind of card-like thing. It's vanished from the Start menus, but I use the command line (hey, I'm a wizard) and find kiddesk.exe and run it, and the little daughter even remembers her password, but it turns out that the only thing it can print are full-page letters with cute borders around them. Oh, well.

Then I remember that the printer came with a CD full of programs, and when I look it turns out that one of them is a Greeting Card maker! We install it, and it disappears, but more wizardry turns up a greet.exe, and when we run that it mostly works.

If I weren't comparing it to the utterly broken Creative Writer, I'd call it a pretty mediocre card-making program; the interface is obscure, and it prints on both sides of the paper (so unless you have greeting-card stock handy you have to be careful to avoid fills that'll bleed through, and like that), but the brilliant little daughter manages to coax a cute card out of it, and the next day (this morning) the little boy and I make a card, and it only mysteriously traps and dies once. Sigh!

Why do we (software consumers) put up with this stuff? And why to we (software producers) continually produce such stuff? Is it just that Microsoft has corrupted the culture of software? But I've used Linux, and it has frankly about the same level of mysterious crashes and poor interface design. Is it that we're lazy? Or that the market has some horrible inherent distortion involving quality and time-to-market? Or is it that software really is hard, one of the hardest things that humans do, and this is really the current best of our abilities? I'm not sure which of those would be the most despressing...

Friday, November 12, 1999

On Wednesday night, I was tossing and turning and not sleeping because I was thinking about things to write in the log on Thursday, and possible redesigns involving subtle frames, cascading style sheets, and all sortsa fancy stuff like that. But then when I actually brought up the log to look at it, I decided I liked it just fine as it was.

For this week, though, I've messed with the color scheme just a bit, for variety. Whadd'ya think? I believe I like the warmer tones. But is the text too low contrast? Would it be more readable in black?

I'm actually writing this on Thursday night (is that a journal-keeping sin?), but there's this sudden chunk of time here, and I feel like scribbling, and Thursday's journal is long ago posted. And this will certainly not be posted before Friday.

Stuck in my head tonight: "Gotta Catch 'em All", the Pokémon theme. Arrrrggghh!!

Actually, while I don't have anything like the Pokémon fetish of Jasmine Sailing over on alt.culture.cyber-psychos, the cartoons at least are campy and strange and silly enough that I admit I enjoy them. I could do without the tons of cheap plastic toys, though.

Can someone tell me why, when they show those old black-and-white movies from the days when the frame-rate was fractionally slower, and everyone is scurrying around like mice so that even the most horrible war scene or noble moment looks like slapstick comedy, why they don't just slow it down a bit, so it looks like it was supposed to look?

You'll have a hard time persuading me that that's beyond modern video technology. Is it just that people are used to them looking that way, and we wouldn't believe it was really old footage if all those archaic people didn't walk funny? I imagine there's an explanation out on the Web somewhere, but I'm <gasp> not connected at the moment.


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