Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Scienticians write real good

When I read a paper from a laboratory in Japan or Korea, I'm a little forgiving of grammatical mistakes. On the other hand, people working in America in general, and Texas in particular, should be able to mind their p's and q's. Tianming Yang and John H. R. Maunsell (of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas) have committed an especially grievous assault on the English language in their 2004 J. Neuroscience paper, "The effect of perceptual learning on neuronal responses in monkey visual area V4." Consider the following quotes (italics added):

"For two animals (monkeys 1 and 3), we interleaved blocks of trials in which the animals did the orientation discrimination task and with blocks of trials in which they worked on a simple match-to-sample task ..."

"The Fano factor is the ratio of the variance in the number of spikes counts to the mean number of spike counts across stimulus presentations."

"Based our sample populations, we calculated the performance of the V4 neurons for discriminating orientations close to 45 degrees."

Doesn't anyone proof-read this crap before it's published?!?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gonzales thinks the deep thoughts...

Best picture ever. I also think it's funny how some of the fired attorneys, such as David C. Iglesias, have been fighting back on the New York Times editorial page.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The second law of thermodynamics

Entropy is an absolutely terrifying thing. Sometimes I look around the world and imagine everything melting towards equilibrium. Buildings crumbling; mountains toppling; cells dissolving into disorganized component parts, and then the resulting large biomolecules breaking up into smaller and smaller oligomers until everything is one large undifferentiated puddle. I can cope emotionally with the failure of humanity. Even if the big red button is pressed this afternoon, unleashing a glorious midnight sun into whose sunset all life larger than a fingernail marches doubletime, life as we know it would survive. This DNA-RNA-protein thing we have going here is remarkably robust. The extremophiles which suck heat and nutrients out of deep-sea vents wouldn't bat a proverbial eyelash. The cockroaches might temporarily start sprouting a variable number of legs, but they'd still be crawling over the ashes of our failed civilization.

Entropy, though, measures time by a thread orders of magnitude longer than that cut for any single human life. Even if earthly life manages to escape the confines of its present cosmic vehicle, it can only run from dying sun to dying sun for so long. There'd need to be a gaping loophole in the laws of physics for life to escape the eventual senescence of the universe, as all the lights wink out and all of space moves towards some uniform temperature, the ultimate unforgiving tedium.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Like a bat out of hell

Up until today, I was maintaining a blog on a different, inferior blog site. Over time, I've become sufficiently frustrated with its insufficiencies that I've decided to move. Rather than just abandon all of my old entries, I've manually copied them over here. No mere mortal could write so much text within an hour on April 17th (although my mortality has yet to be rigorously tested, and while no angel has yet descended from on high to inform me that I am the messiah, I have also not been explicitly informed by any celestial being that I am not the messiah, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed).

Virgin Black - Elegant... And Dying

The Metal Archives features two very negative reviews of this album, and I can't understand why. Perhaps the reviewers were expecting Darkthrone. With their sophomore album, Virgin Black have moved beyond the strictures of metal. Rather, this album sounds like what goth music should be. Quiet, melancholy, brooding, and passionate, Virgin Black manages to combine operatic clean vocals, growling guitars, harsh screams, and soaring solos into a cohesive work that maintains a mood of contemplation without sacrificing emotionality. This album is like Pentacostal church music reworked for introspective atheists. Virgin Black seems to feel the need for God's love and forgiveness just as much as any member of a charismatic church, but inhabits a world where such a thing cannot exist. The resulting void is rendered into an hour and fifteen minutes of deeply personal music.

Fleurety - Min Tid Skal Komme

It's more than a little ironic that a genre as obsessed with orthodoxy as black metal would spawn a rebellious, bastard step-child as intent on breaking every single scene convention as it's progenitor was obsessed with conformity. Fleurety is a shining example of everything that is good about post-black/avant-garde metal. While retaining many of the signature elements of black metal, such as the rasped vocals, blast-beats, and tremolo, feedback-laden guitar, Fleurety turns the melodic standards of black metal on their head. Min Tid Skal Komme features key signatures and chord progressions which sound like they were devised by a species of giant, semi-sentient naked mole rats. These songs would be appropriate hymns to H.P. Lovecraft's blind, idiot flutist Azathoth: while hauntingly beautiful, the reek strongly of insanity. Soft, tender guitar passages meld into wild, desperate torrents of feedback and screams, only to be joined by delicate female vocals. The intoxicating excitement of Fleurety's mania is just as engaging as the poignancy of their depression, with an edge of delirium constantly bubbling beneath the surface. Watch out for the EP appended to the main album in the re-release. It contains vocals shrill enough permanently damage both your ears and the vocalist's throat.

Earth - HEX: Or Printing in the Infernal Method

Drone doom is a genre which probably requires some explanation for the uninitiated. Single notes can drag on for a minute or more. Feedback is used as a principle instrument. Drums (as well as rhythm, melody, and vocals) are optional. What remains is emotional texture. Earth has incorporated more and more elements of traditional rock music over the course of their career, and Hex does sound suspiciously like music as it is traditionally conceived. Yet they retain the ability to draw the listener into a an almost meditative state with their repeated motifs and carefully constructed auditory landscape. Earth sounds to me like desert music, barren and alone. I hear rocks, scrub brush, and the detritus of abandoned civilization. However, the stars shine brightest in these vast, empty expanses. This is contemplative, organic music, and it provides a perfect accompaniment to serious intellectual activity.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Diadem of Twelve Stars

When you think about the sources of great black metal, Olympia, Washington doesn't usually spring to mind. Moreover, Wolves in the Throne Room isn't particularly innovative. Obvious influences include Burzum and Throes of Dawn, with perhaps some Agalloch thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, Wolves in the Throne room manages to make the well-trodden path they walk seem dewy-fresh. The melodies are repetitive, but hypnotic and addictive, with a surprising amount of variation thickly layered beneath the tremolo guitar surface. The clean female vocals contrast perfectly with the excellent raw rasp of the male vocalist. Both volume and pace change frequently, but the passages meld into a coherent whole, unlike the disjoint meanderings of early Opeth. With approximately fifteen minutes per song, there is plenty of room for development and exploration of each melodic theme. Highly recommended.

Neutral no more

Switzerland is serious about neutrality. Aside from the occasional accidental invasion of Lichtenstein, the Swiss make no compromises when it comes to minding their own business. Guess which land-locked country, entirely surrounded by EU member states, refuses to join any international organization which would compromise its self-determination of economic and military affairs? Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002, despite hosting the second largest UN complex. In Europe, only the Vatican City holds itself more aloof.

This isolationism wends its way into the very fabric of the Swiss economy and consumer mindset. Whereas in America, just about every physical consumer good (aside from grain, of which we have a metric butt-load, and super-sized SUVs) is imported from China, Central America, or South America, Switzerland manufactures a surprising range of goods locally. My pens say "Swiss," my envelopes read "Swiss made," and the cheese and chocolate are obviously domestic; but the meat, fruits, and vegetables are also grown locally whenever possible. When there's anything in season, a god-damned farmer drives his tractor up to my front door (literally, on all counts) to sell his produce, in case there was any doubt in my mind regarding the provenance of the goods sold in the supermarket a mere two blocks down the road (and the other supermarket a full three blocks away).

Combine economic isolationism with more prosaic forms of neutrality and you have the enigma which is Swiss beer. The supermarkets within walking distance of my house sell only Swiss beer and Heineken. All of it is bland. Not watery, mind you - no one is trying to foist Budweiser on me (although the Czech Budweiser Budvar, unrelated to the American variety except by name, is supposed to be pretty good). But definitely bland. The grand irony is that Belgium, home of countless delicious ales, is only a stone's throw away (assuming you have a pretty good arm).

Well, I've decided that I'm not going to take this anymore (in addition to being mad as hell). Graduate student stipend or no, I'm now buying my beer exclusively from the hole-in-the-wall down the street from the two grocery stores, which contains precisely three bookshelves full of beer (and a few wines, and nothing else), where my order is entered into bound books by hand after the total is tabulated on a desktop computer for lack of a proper cash register. It may be three times as expensive. The bottles may be dusty. I may be able to clean them out of a particular variety by purchasing a six-pack. But the goods are definitely imported and absolutely delicious.

The New York Times is my hero

I just found this note at the bottom of a New York Times article:

To find reference information about the words used in this article, double-click on any word, phrase or name. A new window will open with a dictionary definition or encyclopedia entry.

Oh. My. God.

I love dictionaries; the OED is amongst my favorite sites. And not only do you get the dictionary definition, you get thesaurus entries, encyclopedia entries, and all sorts of other goodies. All with a simple, intuitive double-click. It just works.

Jesus was doing a reasonable job, but I think Web 2.0 just became my copilot.

Things I will never understand about Zurich, version 1.0

1) Cars stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. Always. Even if they were going really fast. Even if the road is busy so many cars will be forced to wait. Even if you would be willing to let the cars pass and cross when the road is clear. I've taken to holding back from the sidewalk and idly staring into space so as to clearly convey the fact that I do not intend to cross the street in front of the car. In Boston, pedestrians always had the right of way in theory, but only had the right of way in practice when they were accumulated into a sufficiently dense group such that, were the car to attempt to plow through the throng, it would be brought to a near-halt due to conservation of energy and momentum.

2) Stores close early. Very little other than restaurants is open past 8pm any day of the week. On Sunday, you can only buy groceries at the main train station and the airport. Can you imagine going to the airport to buy some milk?

3) Bike theft is rare. A New York City-grade bike lock consists of at least six pounds of triple heat-treated boron manganese steel, and the wheels, frame, and seat must each be locked to an immovable object. In Zurich, a small cable lock wrapped around the back wheel to keep it from spinning freely seems to be sufficient unless you have a particularly fancy bike.

4) The language of social discourse is an unintelligible tongue called "Swiss German." The dialect spoken in Zurich is not the same as the dialect spoken anywhere else in this country which smaller Tennessee, has a population less than that of New York City (not state, city), and of which half speaks French rather than Swiss German in the first place.

5) Brewed coffee cannot be purchased in units roughly equal to my head in volume.

6) Fruits and vegetables which are out of season are not imported from Argentina or Chile by default.

7) When in season, the tomatoes are delicious enough to make a grown man cry.

8) The bill at any restaurant other than a fast-food joint is likely also enough to make a grown man cry.

9) The internet is not the default destination for all purchases other than groceries.

10) The cashiers at the supermarket make roughly twice as much as I do; I am living comfortably on a standard graduate-student stipend.

Larry Summers Redox

(I know this post is total flame-bait. In life as in science, it's sometimes useful to take a position which may not be correct and see where it leads. I'm happy to be convinced that I'm wrong.)

I've recently read Larry Summers' original comments and a reasonable rebuttal to them. Here's what I think: Larry Summers was the wrong person at the wrong place and the wrong time to make those comments. Because of his position and the context in which they were made, they carried political implications which were probably unintended and certainly undesirable. The speech itself, though, is hardly the piece of controversial rhetoric it's been made out to be.

Summers suggests three possible causes for the lack of women at the top of academia: on average, women are less willing than men to make the insane sacrifices necessary to attain this sort of success; due to some feature of biology, women tend to experience less variance in most traits and so there are fewer women than men at the very tip of the bell curve who have the capability to reach the very top of the academic ladder; and women are indeed subject to outright discrimination in the hiring and advancement process.

Admittedly, he does downplay the role of socialization in the preferences of women for science, but it is also true that the gender imbalance is not so great at the undergraduate level, and becomes increasingly exaggerated as one moves up the academic hierarchy, so the problem would seem to be more than just one of women being steered away from science and engineering in general (although this may certainly play a part). The second point is presumably the most controversial. I'm not aware of the evidence showing greater variance in men as compared to women in features such as "height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability," but the first four at least would be fairly easy to assess. If such a disparity in variance exists in these feature (regardless of the "meaning" of IQ), it is reasonable to assert that the difference in variance extends to the features necessary for academic success in the sciences. I presume the third point is uncontested.

The rebuttal focuses almost exclusively on the effect of socialization on women's desire to make the time commitment necessary to achieve the highest levels of academic success in the sciences. In response to the rebuttal, I am sure that women face significant cultural obstacles to making the sort of time commitment necessary to reach the top of a discipline. But you know what? Men face rather similar obstacles. They're not exactly the same, and I have no desire to get into a pissing match regarding who has it harder, but really, it's very difficult to put in anything approaching 80 hours a week regardless of who you are. Unless you are able to function on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night, an 80 hour work week (especially if your commute is more than 5 minutes) means doing almost nothing other than working, eating, washing your clothing, and going to the grocery store for frozen dinners. I did it for a while. It's no fun.

The author of the rebuttal writes: "A woman is going to find it much harder than a man to find a spouse who is ready to tolerate her 80-hour work weeks and obsessive relationship to her job." Speaking from experience, finding a date, let along actually going out on that date, while working 80-hour weeks is a trying proposition regardless of gender. We're not talking about a low-maintenance relationship here; we're talking about a no-maintenance relationship, verging on no relationship in the first place. The author also makes reference to working mothers. I would argue that caring for a child while attempting to work 80 hour weeks is suicidal. If you have a spouse who wants to take on the full burden of raising the child I suppose it could work, but the kid is going to end up addressing you by your first name rather than "mom" or "dad."

My favorite claim is by far the following: "The phenomenon of the girl math geek who frets that she can't get any dates continues to be a stereotype for a reason." Clearly, the author believes that either (a) boy math geeks don't have any trouble finding dates or (b) boy math geeks don't "fret" about dates because they are asexual beings of pure reason. Almost by definition, geeks don't get dates, regardless of sex.

I'm not sure if I've worked up to a cohesive conclusion as opposed to just ranting, but I suppose my point is that if fewer women than men (on average) are willing to choose to work 80 hours a week to reach the pinnacle of academia, I don't think this is a manifestation of oppressive cultural forces or some dysfunction in the way women are raised. Rather, it just means that women are, on average, saner than men. I can't find the quote now, but at one point Caltech graduate students were agitating for a less pressured environment and more "balance" in their lives. The response of David Baltimore, the then-president of Caltech and still-Nobel prize winning scientist, was something along the lines of: "Balance? What are you talking about? You're graduate students. Get back to lab." Everyone deserves a little balance in their lives. Insistence upon it need not be chalked up to discrimination.

I am a peer

Occasionally, even we lowly graduate students are called upon for the noblest of scientific activities: the peer review. I just finished reviewing a paper by a post-doc and two heavy-weight professors. The verdict? Utter garbage. Sloppy math, incomplete numerical analysis, and meaningless conclusions. I may not be able to publish papers myself, but I can at least try to keep everyone else from doing so. It's like I have my finger in a leaky dyke.
A very, very leaky dyke.
I'm drowning, here.
Does anyone have a pair of water-wings I could borrow?

Also: Pet Peeve #115 - People who fail to correct their statistics for multiple tests. If you have 100 data points, and you evaluate them all separately for significance, and you find that 5 of them are significant for p < class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_0">Bonferroni is your friend. Don't leave him standing out in the cold. Invite him in for a beer and some nachos.

Also also: The new Virgin Black album has finally hit the internets. I haven't had a chance to listen to it carefully yet, but repeated plays today while reading and such indicate that it is pretty sweet.

Sex-based variance in psychological properties and genetics

I found Pas de Deux of Sexuality Is Written in the Genes, surprisingly canny and well-written. While the unexpurgated view of sex-based differences in the brain was refreshing, I was caught totally off-guard by the argument made in the last few paragraphs:

"Several profound consequences follow from the fact that men have only one copy of the many X-related brain genes and women two. One is that many neurological diseases are more common in men because women are unlikely to suffer mutations in both copies of a gene.

Another is that men, as a group, “will have more variable brain phenotypes,” Dr. Arnold writes, because women’s second copy of every gene dampens the effects of mutations that arise in the other.

Greater male variance means that although average IQ is identical in men and women, there are fewer average men and more at both extremes."

Comments like these got Lawrence Summers in a pot full of boiling water. Can the New York Times get away with publishing such politically incorrect ideas? Perhaps more importantly, are they true? I'm neither a geneticist nor a developmental biologist, but from a statistical point of view, the idea doesn't seem flawed.


Two nights ago, I dreamt that sleep was a series (i.e., a sum of an infinite number of terms) ending in my digestive tract. But I couldn't figure out how to add it up so that it wouldn't diverge. Written down like this, I suppose it doesn't sound that disturbing, but you wouldn't like it if a series was diverging into your small intestine. I woke up, evacuated my bowels, drank some water, and was able to fall back asleep. Math nightmares are the worst.

Pet Peeve #114

People who listen to you present an idea about which you have thought extensively and for which you have conducted a fairly thorough literature search and then say: "Have you read the paper by (authors XYZ) in which they discuss (idea ABC)? It sounds pretty similar to this" when they read the paper two years ago and barely remember the contents.

Possible responses, in order of frequency:

(a) No. I haven't read it. I'll look at it. [Proceed to look like an ill-informed doofus; look up the paper; realize it is TOTALLY DIFFERENT in ALL PERTINENT DETAILS. Write angry blog post]

(b) I read it, but it was a couple months ago. I don't remember any significant similarity, but I'll look at it again. [Proceed to look like an ill-informed doofus; look up the paper; realize it is TOTALLY DIFFERENT in ALL PERTINENT DETAILS. Write angry blog post]

(c) Yes. I've read it yesterday. It is superficially similar, but TOTALLY DIFFERENT in ALL PERTINENT DETAILS. [Look like a doofus anyway. Write angry blog post]

(d) Oh shit. I lose. [Write angry blog post]

Not the same, jerk!

Gradations of doom

Paradise Lost: (0.3) death-doom
Anathema, Katatonia: (0.9) doom-death
My Dying Bride: (1.4) Doom-death
Runemagick: (17) DOOOOOOM-(death)


(Note: Scale may be nonlinear)

One of my great dreams in life is to create electronic music for which the baseline goes "dooooom dooooom dooooom dooooom." Boom is for the weak. Either that or death metal a capella.

In other news, I feel obliged to note that later-day Morbid Angel is so fantastic as to surpass the not insignificant expressive power of the English language. Heavy, precise, menacing, and pitiless; both lyrics and melodies capture and render concrete the abstract notions of insanity, suffering, and death. What Wicked and Grendel did for the antagonists of The Wizard of Oz and Beowulf, Morbid Angel does for the arch villains of more simplistic but thus more uncompromising and absolutist fare such as The Neverending Story. Morbid Angel writes music not about gods, but incarnations. While an angel of death is a fearsome thing, entropy and nothingness are considerably more frightening. One can bargain with the devil himself, but entropy answers to no man. This is truly the Music of Erich Zann.

I'm so tired! Switzerland has laws which prevent employers from compelling their employees to work late into the night (hence my inability to purchase anything after 8 or 9 pm). I think there should be similar laws against scheduling conferences that begin at 9 am on the weekend.

The best time...

is the period between when you have an idea that you are convinced is brilliant and novel and potentially earth-shattering and the point at which you realize that it is wrong, irrelevant, or was published five years ago. Clearly, the trick is to draw out this magical period by leaving lab and drinking heavily immediately after having a potentially good idea.

It's been an enjoyable evening. Tomorrow I'll realize (once again) that I'm full of crap (or myself, at any rate). Wash, rinse, repeat. Isn't graduate school great?

Mr. President, we must not allow a document gap!

With a developing document gap between the executive branch and congress, it's a wonder the Ruskies haven't invaded already...

Teaching Assistance

I started TAing my first class (ever) today - statistical and dynamical models of brain functions. I think I should get off pretty light work-wise. The professor is writing the exercises, and there are only around ten people in the class, so I'm just responsible for grading assignments and running the recitation section. In a masterstroke of scheduling genius, the recitation is set for the hour immediately following the class, so no one has time to look at the homework or think about anything before their sole opportunity to ask for explanations, clarifications, and elaborations. I'd be more incensed by the inanity of this, except it means less work for me, and I have plenty of things to think about on my own. Of course, out of ten students, exactly 0 are female. Girls in computational neuroscience are like honest politicians: it's a great idea on paper, but somehow it doesn't seem to occur in the wild.

Speaking of papers, here is an excellent one: Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. I hear they're still looking for volunteers for a randomized controlled study of parachute efficacy. Regardless of the implication underlying the article, I suspect the authors still prefer drugs tested in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to copper bleeding bowls and leeches. You may also be interested in reading about the relative willingness of men and women to accept the social and sexual advances of strangers. Unfortunately, this is an article about the paper; I can't find the paper itself for free.

Information superhighway engineer, body surfer

This video of Al Gore, made just before the Democratic National Convention where he was anointed the Democratic presidential candidate, shows a side of him I've never seen before. It seems as if you can invent the internet and be a real live human being, replete with red blood flowing through your veins and air being cyclically drawn into and forced out of your lungs, all at the same time. Don't get me wrong; I'd vote for a sack of moldy flour over the Antichrist who is currently running the country, and it would be hard to top having the greatest technological visionary of our time as president, but I always assumed that Mr. Gore was actually a robot sent from Saturn's moon Titan. I have long held that anyone who actually wants to hold a public office is intrinsically ill-suited for the job, since that goal implies a lust for power and control, and an acceptance of bureaucratic stupidity, which is anathema to effective governance. In this video, Mr. Gore even claims (plausibly!) that he was totally disenchanted with government in his youth, and only turned to politics as a reaction to the affronts against reason he saw perpetrated by those in office. Vote Gore and Blood '08!!!

Pirates at the edge of chaos

I've never laughed so hard while looking at graphs:
Powarrrrrr law

Note in the comments: "I find a comparable-looking graph for "grrl", "grrrl", etc. No zeroes until R=50, and a weird spike at R=22. The power law in this case is G = 79717524.5*R^-4.4593, with correlation coefficient 0.9322."

Spike at R=22? Dismissed as coincidence!!!


Ouroboros music: Earth - Extra-Capsular Extraction - Ouroboros is Broken

Ouroboros humor: "My ouroboros is full of itself"

Ouroboros definitions: "Where by recursion we mean, 'defined by recursion.'"

Ouroboros links: Like a Blond Ouroboros

Ouroboros math: The Structure of Tail-Biting Trellises: Minimality and Basic Principles or Tail-Biting Trellises of Block Codes: Trellis Complexity and Viterbi Decoding Complexity (these papers don't look great, but the one I wanted to cite requires a journal subscription)

Please don't hit me.

Album of the week

Amesoeurs - Ruines Humaines

God only knows what runs in French rivers, but I'm glad the Perrier is exported internationally. Perhaps some of the magic in albums like this and the work of Blut Aus Nord will rub off on the rest of the world. Although only three songs long, Ruines Humaines is an exemplary piece of music which pulsates with raw emotional intensity. Amesoeurs make this fervor seem completely natural; the music itself is often quiet and introspective, replete with clean female vocals and acoustic guitars. This calm surface hides a sleeping juggernaut. Amesoeurs doesn't seem to have any particular problem with the world. Whereas other bands wallow in suicidal despair or petty satanism, Amesoeurs' songs seem to communicate the intensity of the experience of life. I probably couldn't understand much of the lyrics even if I spoke French (three cheers for black metal!), but that never seems to matter with good metal. These songs could easily be about a grassy field covered with wildflowers on a sunny day. In the case of Ruines Humaines, it would simply be a grassy field seen through the lens of half a gram of cocaine and 25 mg of 2C-T-7.

Through the magic of free association (juggernaut -> X-men -> Saturday morning cartoons -> G.I. Joe), I strongly recommend you visit the following site of creatively editted G.I. Joe public service announcements. Number 15 is a classic, but in general the later episodes are better than the earlier ones. Start at the end and work backwards. Non. Sequitur.


Blood Battle!

Caltech distributes shirts that say "MIT: Because not everyone can go to Caltech" at MIT freshman orientation event, hack the tomb of the unknown tool, rework engraving on top of building 7, etc. Cute

MIT steals Fleming cannon from Caltech and transport it across the country after convincing Caltech security that they have been legitimately contracted to move this revered and tradition-bound object. Cannon is fitted with giant Brass Rat and displayed beside the Green Building Stunning

MIT and Caltech conduct joint electronic career fairs - Pointless

MIT and Caltech conduct a competitive blood drive GRUESOME

Can you believe this?!?

MIT/Caltech Red Cross Blood Battle
Event Type: Blood Drive
The winning school will be the one with the highest ratio of # blood
units donated : # of registered students (undergrads and grads).

There is very clearly a pecking order among American institutions of higher education. The set is only partially ordered; one example of these relations is: Harvard > MIT > Caltech > Harvey Mudd. Students at each school resent the next school higher in the chain and are convinced that they share some sort of elaborate rivalry, but barely acknowledge the existence of the next school lower in the chain. Egos are funny things.

Declaring War on Poverty

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Technically, only congress can declare war, but the events of the past few decades strongly suggest that this is particular notion is defunct. The US Congress has not officially declared war since 1941; nonetheless, in addition to the military engagements in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again, various presidents have also declared war on drugs and terrorism. Let us consider for a moment the escalation of these latter domestic wars. Johnson's war on poverty was characterized by the introduction of various social welfare programs, such as the Job Corps and Head Start. By 1969, when Nixon declared war on drugs, tactics had already begun to shift towards those conventionally associated with military conflict. Although the war on drugs undeniably features a social outreach and rehabilitation component, its most prominent manifestation is the arrest of 1 million Americans every year. The war on terrorism saw further escalation. Now, rather than simply imprisoning the enemy, war targets are extraordinarily rendered to foreign countries for torture, or held by US military forces on foreign soil in an attempt to escape the notoriously lenient judicial system which has been busily incarcerating millions in the still-ongoing war on drugs.

Somehow, in all the confusion of the war on drugs and the war on terror, the war on poverty was left by the wayside. But the war on poverty has clearly not been won. Almost 36 million people, or 12% of the US population, were still living in poverty in 2004. I think that it is high time that we rejoined the battle against poverty, but with the general lack of efficacy of 1964's soft-hearted approach in mind. Really, soft-hearted is probably too generous a term. Weak would be more appropriate. The Enemy cannot be defeated with educational programs. We need to apply the lessons of the wars on drugs and terrorism to the war on poverty.

The first obvious step is to outlaw poverty. Drugs and terrorism are both already illegal. How can you properly prosecute a war against an enemy which is aided and abetted by your own judicial system? This begs the question of what sort of penalties should be meted out to those who oppose us in the war on poverty. Fines seem to be counterproductive, since the inability to pay such fines is the very hallmark of the enemy against whom we are fighting. The war on drugs has shown us that prison is an insufficient deterrent. There's as much crack and smack on the streets now as ever, despite locking up anyone who looks like they might be using chemicals to enjoy themselves. Except alcohol and nicotine and caffeine. But those don't count. Because they're not drugs. The tactics introduced in the war on terror seem to have been much more effective. Since September 11th, 2001, there hasn't been a single major instance of terrorism in the US. Unfortunately, there isn't enough space in Cuba to house the entire 12% of the US population who oppose us in the war on poverty. I suggest that we repurpose North Dakota as the Gulag-style prison camp. The Siberia of America! A system of military tribunals can fairly and impartially determine whether a suspect is in fact guilty of being poor, and if found in violation of the anti-poverty laws, render them (extraordinarily!) unto one of the anti-poverty forced-labor camps. Indefinitely.

Today's rant was brought to you by Brouilly St. Fortnat:
Aus dem südlichen Gebiet der Beaujolais-Region stammt der Brouilly, der mit seinem beerigen Bouquet Freude verbreitet. Der Brouilly AC St-Fortunat ist ein idealer Begleiter zu einem fröhlichen Beisammensein, das vielleicht auch etwas länger dauert ... Man geniesst ihn beispielsweise zu dunklem Fleisch, Terrinen, Charcuterie und allen leichten Speisen. Preis: Fr. 8.90/75 cl.

Brooklyn accents can be deceiving

Back when I was an experimental neuroscientist, my adviser was a friendly enough guy, but he never seemed to think about anything other than science. Even when I was working almost eighty hours a week, he would often be in the lab before me, and would usually still be working when I left for the night. (which itself was perfectly normal behavior compared to our post-doc, who would work for days at a time, literally, until sleep-deprivation-induced visual distortions prevented him from continuing. He would bring sunglasses when he came into lab because he knew that, by the time he left, the sun would definitely hurt his eyes. After one of these mammoth work sessions, he would go home and enter a semi-comatose state for almost 24 hours before repeating the entire cycle.) He was always available whenever I had a question (Literally. 2am? No problem. Of course he's still in his office), but as soon as the technical matters were addressed, he'd go back to writing grants or papers or whatever else he was working on (can you undangle this preposition?). While it was pretty easy to set him on a rant about how great it will be to get "kick-ass data," or how some other lab overlooks important questions or uses inferior methodologies, there was a clear limit to his conversational range. I suppose his quirkiest feature was his penchant for gansta rap. It was always a little disconcerting to walk into the lab and find Snoop Dogg playing while he was preparing electrodes.

My current adviser is amongst the more awesome people I've ever met. The other day we were chatting in his office about technical-type matters. I made some claim which (so far as I can tell) was correct, but which made my adviser feel intuitively uncomfortable. So he spends a couple minutes looking at it from various angles, at each turn surprised that everything remains self-consistent. This puts him in mind of the word "consistent," which apparently has its own theme song. Within a minute, King Crimson's Indiscipline is blaring from the surprisingly large speakers on his desk:

The more I look at it,
the more I like it.
I do think it's good.
The fact is
no matter how closely I study it,
no matter how I take it apart,
no matter how I break it down,
It remains consistent.
I wish you were here to see it.

I wish all professors listened to psychedelic 70's prog rock. Later in the evening, some other line of conversation prompted him to put on a recording of Richard Feynman telling stories of his life. Feynman, as you surely know, was one of the most brilliant people to walk the face of this planet. But when my adviser turns on the recording, my immediate reaction is: this can't be Feynman. This sounds just like the senile old man at the beginning of Sleep, on Godspeed You Black Emperor's Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Little did I realize that Feynman had a Brooklyn accent (Wikipedia, Apostle of Al Gore, informs me that Feynman was from Queens, but all other accounts refer to his "Brooklyn accent"), and after listening to GYBE one too many times, I've come to associate all Brooklyn accents with this one dementia-addled rant about Coney Island in the early 20th century. Frightening...

Giving the gift of giving

I recently received a solicitation from a trustworthy source to complete a survey, with the following inducement:

"As an added incentive, thirty (30) survey participants will have the option of:
1) Donating life-saving vaccine to children in developing countries
2) Having your carbon footprint removed by off-setting 150 lb of CO2
3) Donating $5 to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, or
4) Receiving a $5 gift certificate from GiveFun.com"

This is absolutely ridiculous!. Regardless of whether or not I participate, someone will win. Assuming they don't choose option (4), the same amount of money is donated to roughly equally worthy charities. Since the same amount of money is donated either way, my participation has no effect.

Also: Deathspell Omega is pretty awesome. The name sounds like that of a brutal death metal band or something silly like that, but their recent albums are actually quality avant-garde black metal.

Toothpicks: Not just for dental hygiene

A stunning example of evolution in engineering, by way of toothpick bridges. You can almost see peacocks developing their tail plumage in these pictures. Darwin says: Be careful of that for which you select.

Post Script: The dangling of prepositions is something up with which I will not put!

Wine: WTF?

I don't understand wine. There are dozens of different varieties, all of which seem to taste relatively similar. Within any given type of wine, the prices can range over two orders of magnitude. Most confusing of all, there are countless different vineyards, and it seems like standard operating procedure to buy a different bottle of wine each time you go to the store.

I understand beer. While there are many different styles, they taste very different. No one could confuse a hefeweizen with a stout. Microbreweries are plentiful, but even a liquor store only carries a few dozen different brands, and they tend to be consistent over time. Afer sampling various types, I can state with confidence that I like Belgian-style ales and I strongly dislike pilsners and IPAs.

Maybe I'm shopping at the wrong stores, but Switzerland has a shockingly poor selection of beers. Denner might have more, but Coop's notion of an imported beer is Heineken. Yes, there's a small store by my house that has three or four shelving units filled with dusty bottles of Chimay, and a guy who looks like he spends most of the day reading by himself who enters your purchase by hand into a spiral-bound log book. I'm lazy, and I can't drink those giant bottles in one sitting without my head lolling about on my shoulders. So recently I've taken to drinking red wine, which is plentiful, good, and cheap in the supermarket.

I'm then confronted with the question: which bottle to purchase? My answer thus far has been to select whatever is on sale, which seems to have worked fairly well so far. Not that I can tell the difference between a 5 CHF, a 10 CHF, and a 15 CHF bottle of wine. My father buys these things on the basis of how attractive the label is, and that's worked as well for me as any other criterion. One time, I got a bottle of Notorious, and had the pleasure of singing the song that goes "Na, Na, Notorious! Notorious!" to which Sparkle Motion dances in Donnie Darko. Really, that more than outweighed any deficiencies of the wine itself.

I suppose I have noticed that I enjoy some bottles more than others. Eventually, perhaps I will act on these remembered preferences. But given that there are hundreds of bottles on the shelf, it's hard to even remember which ones were good and which were bad. I'd rather write frustrated rants here...

Please note: This post was written under the influence of Cune Crianza Rioja 2004. Please direct any complaints to:
Ctra. Logroño-Laguardia Km. 4,8
01300 Laguardia (Alava)

Evocative names

The naming of entities is a dark art, like antenna design. Names can denote attributes or connote associations; they can describe or intrinsically represent. My favorite names, though, are those which allude to that which can only be imagined. Entire worlds can be contained within a simple name, which collapse into bland concrete details as soon as they are explicated. For some reason, musical groups seem to be especially attuned to names which, although brief, suggest great depth. Amongst my favorites are:

The kidnapper bell (from Mono's Under the Pipal Tree)

The red in the sky is ours (album from At The Gates)

Godspeed You Black Emperor!

HEX: Or printing in the infernal method (album from Earth)

Living in the gleam of an unsheathed sword (also from Earth)

The thing which Solomon overlooked (1, 2, and 3) (from Boris)

The covenant, the sword, and the arm of the lord (album from Cabaret Voltaire, also an American terrorist group)

Names like these are somehow similar to drone doom, in which melody and rhythm are often merely implied. Diametrically opposed to these short but rich names, we have:

And by our own hand did every last bird lie silent in their puddles, the air barren of song as the clouds drifted away. For killing their greatest enemy, the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws toward our crops, swallowing our greed whole (from Red Sparowes' Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun)

I also like the fact that, in Sunn O))), the "O)))" is silent. Speaking of which, if you haven't heard the new Sunn O)))/Boris collaborative album, you're totally missing out on a singular acoustic experience. Also, Ulver sounds MUCH better through high-quality headphones. For most groups, the listening experience is similar regardless of what speakers or headphones I use. I find that Ulver's Nattens Madrigal hurts my ears on normal headphones, whereas it sounds raw without being abrasive with my Etymotics. Worth a try.

On shaping, chins and otherwise

On the topic of body parts conforming to the shape of their container, it would be negligent of me to fail to mention Bonsai Kitten Yes, it's a few years old. No, I don't care.

The shaping of body parts brings to mind behavioral shaping. I was hoping to write about how B. F. Skinner raised one of his daughters in a human-sized Skinner box, scarring her for life. Unfortunately, according to the infallible wikipedia, I would be perpetuating a lie. This story is apparently some creative reimagining of the air crib, which Skinner did design: It looks a bit like a fume hood with a mobile, but hardly seems like a menace to society. Not that you'd be able to convince the Church of Scientology of that. During my three years in LA, I completely missed their museum, Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. I'm sure I'll be back sometime in the next few years, if only to defend my thesis; a visit sounds like the perfect celebration. Skinner can't entirely escape my censure, though. His Utopian vision in Walden Two was naive and PAINFULLY BORING. I suppose this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, seeing how he gave birth to a school of scientific investigation which attempts to explain animal (and human) behavior while ignoring internal thoughts. (Note: I'm sure if I read wikipedia more carefully before posting this, I'd find that a number of people preceded Skinner in espousing behaviorism. However, wikipedia has already robbed me of too many amusing anecdotes for one day through its insistence on actual truth rather than the truth I create in my head. So screw it.) He did better than Freud, though, who was convinced that the brain is in fact a series of tubes (Ted Stevens, eat your heart out). (Once again, this is probably a lie. I actually read Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology a few years ago, in which he describes his bizarre pneumatically-inspired ideas in put-out-your-eyes-with-a-golden-brooch-pin detail, but I didn't ship that tripe across the ocean when I moved.)

Ummm... So that rant didn't really go much of anywhere, but I think I'm all ranted out for the evening. As a consolation prize, you can find another air crib picture here

On chins

The human body is a surprisingly malleable machine. Although components like bones and tendons seem fairly rigid, they are in a constant state of flux. The body maintains a single pattern, but its constituent elements turn over continuously.

(SCIENTIFIC INTERLUDE: The only obvious exception to this of which I can think off-hand, not being a biologist (THANK GOD!!!), is neuronal DNA. Although neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) has been observed recently in the dentate gyrus (the first segment of the hippocampus, which itself is essential to the formation and recall of new memories), it was long thought that new neurons are not formed in the adult brain at all. There is an exception to every rule in the brain, but the lack of significant neuronal growth is a well-established property. I can imagine just about every other component of the cell being degraded and replaced, but my impression is that, with the exception of a base pair here and there which are subject to error-correction, DNA remains untouched. Any actual biologists should feel free to correct me on this; I don't feel like looking it up.)

Even more notable is the adaptability of biological development programs. The human genome is not long enough to specify the position of every cell in the body. Instead, it contains (relatively) simple rules for building things up in a step-by-step manner. These rules adjust to the environment in which they are operating. If you encase a child's feet in tight bandages throughout their formative years, they will grow into an adult with tiny feet (also dysfunctional, prone to infection, paralysis, and muscular atrophy, according to Wikipedia, Prophet of Al Gore and Source of All Knowledge). If you cut your shins, separate them by a few millimeters, and fix them in place (an Ilizarov apparatus is recommended), the bone will grow to fill in the gap (at a rate of about a millimeter per day!) and you can add inches to your height.

Similarly, if you construct a triangular wooden frame and force your head into it every night during adolescence, you can develop the ability to impale people who irritate you using nothing but a swift downward motion of the head. It keeps the riff-raff in check.


I love Al Gore's Information Superhighway. Aside from his disturbing obsession with kinky pornography, former US vice president Albert Gore has created a wonderful, joyous place where bits can run about free, as God meant them to be. I recently intercepted some free bits comprising an album by the band Sahg, informatively titled "I". Presumably, the second album will be named either "II" (like the tracks of every Taake album) or "You." Fortunately, the content is much more amusing than the title. This is some pleasantly heavy and loose doom metal. If I listened to more classic doom, I'd probably be less impressed, but I fear that at least for tonight, I'm finding the grooves pretty infectious.


Sleep Deprivation

Bwah! I didn't sleep enough last night, and now my head is all fuzzy. I feel sort of like an engine disengaged from the drive-shaft. I can press on the gas and everything makes a lot of noise and something is spinning somewhere, but the wheels aren't turning. teh suxor.

Skullflower is my new favorite band of the day.


Yesterday's post has me thinking about thinking in a rather course and physical way. A few months ago I was doing some more mathematical work and needed a white board. There are few white boards in the office in which my desk is located, but the hallway outside of the office is covered with them. This is a counterintuitive arrangement, since people work in the office and could make use of white boards, whereas people rarely do much more than walk through the hallway. Some of the hallway white boards are covered with scribbles which have clearly not changed for many moons. Well, little be it for me to let social convention come between me and my white board. I spent a week or two camped out in the hallway, crouched on the floor, staring moodily at the white board. Apparently, my facial expression and body language reflect the depth of my thinking. While I was curled up in the fetal position on the side of the hallway, I was fairly regularly addressed by the passers-by who wanted to know if I was OK. "Yes, yes. I'm just thinking. Please go away." Of course, the scribbles I put on the board during that period are still there, along with the note "Please erase me."


There are few things more satisfying than coming home after a night of dancing and eating a whole pile of food... Food should always come in piles.

I think I've been clenching my teeth in my sleep. I find I move from one nervous tick to another over the course of a month or two. Before Christmas, my eyelid was twitching. This one is more annoying than most, since it makes my teeth and head hurt a little. Why don't you just loosen up, you say? I think I've been wound so tight for so long that, were I to forcibly unwind, my component materials would become fatigued and lose their elasticity. What I really need is a set of Chinese-style worry balls. My adviser has a bunch of juggling balls in his office, and whenever I go bother him, I take a pair and rotate them around in one of my hands. It's a nice physical distraction.

Speaking of which, for some reason, I think best when I'm moving around. I've had most of my best ideas in recent months either in the shower or while walking around outside. I think the physical activity distracts me just enough that I don't spin off on irrelevant tangents. The woods behind the university were beautiful during the summer, but now it's cold and gets dark early and I rarely leave the building during the day. Maybe I should make a point of doing so...

Rediscovering love all over again

Morbid Angel is the sort of band I can go months without listening to once, and then rediscover a love for all over again. When I obtained my first Morbid Angel cd, I managed to listen to it for all of fifteen minutes before deciding that it was noise rather than music and remanding it to its case indefinitely. Sure enough, a few months later (and thanks in part to the influence of some HP Lovecraft stories), I was suddenly awakened to its brilliance. Well, this past weekend, I rediscovered Morbid Angel in a new context: cooking. That is some quality chopping music. Nothing beats taking out your rage on a helpless zucchini. Cut, cut, cut...