Archive 014 (JULY - OCT 2004)

a dusty old archive by chris lawson

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- stories this archive -

  The Claw Medal for Undistinguished Service
  Misery loves a publishing company
  The donut model of scientific publication
  Frankenblog gets Tangled
  Nature stories
  More on Kass
  Man of mystery
  Very, very, very unhappy
  Stray dollops of modern life #2
  Stray dollops of modern life #1
  Northern lights and a blue moon
  Jack Dann interview
  Nø løgø
  Strewth in advertising
  Review: Saboteurs
  A brief history of anatomy

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The Claw Medal for Undistinguished Service

18 SEP 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

There are plenty of awards for great writing, but Frankenblog has come to the conclusion that the world of letters urgently needs its own version of the scientific community's IgNobel Awards, for research that either cannot or should not be replicated. Already we have the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, but that is for deliberately bad writing. The Literary Review runs an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, but that limits itself to one tiny Lichtenstein of bad writing while leaving aside entire continents of uncivilised savagery. And then there's Thog's Masterclass from Ansible, but that limits itself to science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror. Frankenblog has decided to remedy the situation itself.

The Inaugural Claw Medal for Undistinguished Service goes to...(drum roll)...John Wanna, professor of politics and public administration (apparently capital letters are so last century), who was writing about the current Australian election campaign when he decided upon this gem of an opening paragraph:

The big news from the polls this week was not what they didn't tell us, but what they did.

    [Weekend Australian, Sept 18-19, 2004, page 8]

Congratulations, Professor Wanna.


Misery loves a publishing company

23 AUG 2004 | source Arts & Letters Daily | permalink

Many kids hate them, but dark, nihilistic books for young adults keep turning up on the school syllabus...and keep winning awards. Whatever happened to reading for fun? Adult literature fares little better. Midlist books with gripping stories and intriguing characters get ignored, by and large, while reviewers heap praise on handwringers set in exotic cultures in which nothing much happens.


The donut model of scientific publication

15 AUG 2004 | source Piled Higher & Deeper | permalink

PhD (that's Piled Higher & Deeper) is a lovely web comic about life at the bottom of the academic food chain. This instalment is an absolute ripper.


Frankenblog gets Tangled

14 AUG 2004 | source Tangled Bank | permalink

Tangled Bank is a clever little site in which P.Z. Myers selects a handful of science-related blog entries every week and provides links. This week is Instalment #9, and Frankenblog is honoured that the Man of Mystery story has been selected. Check out the other links, if you have an interest in high-octane science. There's some very good stuff in there.


Nature stories

10 AUG 2004 | source Nature | permalink

has a few interesting stories this week.

One: NASA is looking at hibernation technology for long-haul space journeys. Don't get too excited yet. NASA has a habit of throwing money at loopy technologies (see also here), and the current goal is somewhat modest: to work out what sort of research they should be doing first.

Two: New research suggests that expert witnesses have been identifying lung disease in people who are perfectly well. The experts are being hired by plaintiff lawyers to sue in asbestos-related matters. When shown chest Xrays, the expert "B-readers" identify a 96% rate of lung disease when told the Xrays come from asbestos workers. When the same Xrays are shown without the background information, only 4.5% are identified as having signs of serious lung disease. There is no accusation of fraud here, just biased sampling and financial osmosis.

Three: Until now, scientists were the only people known to deliberately falsify their own beliefs. But a new study of chess players shows that the very best players, the grand masters develop hypotheses about their opponents and then test those hypotheses during a game. I'm not convinced that self-falsification is rare outside science. Anyone who has ever "run it up the flagpole" is performing the same process. Still, it's fascinating to see the strategy in a non-scientific context.

Four: Mothers who expect a long life are more likely to give birth to boys. The theory is that boys take more effort to raise, but are able to procreate more efficiently than girls. So in times of plenty, the best evolutionary strategy is to invest in high-effort, high pay-off children. That's boys. Interesting idea, but I have to say that my bullshit detectors are flashing like crazy. Firstly, the study is far from convincing, even in preliminary research terms. It correlated gender rates with mothers' perceived life expectancy. The idea is that there is some physiological system that (a) evaluates life expectancy, (b) selects against male sperm or foetuses, and (c) does so unconsciously while at the same time planting a seed of information in the conscious mind. It is something of an understatement to say that there are a number of unsupported conjectures in the chain of logic. The authors clutch at straws by pointing out that girls are more commonly born in times of extreme malnutrition in rural Ethiopia. They don't point out that there are much simpler explanations than mysterious subconscious intrauterine sex selections (further explanation available on request), or that such sex balance derangements haven't been noted in, say, the Dutch malnutrition cohort from World War Two. And they ignore the fact that the gender balance of babies has remained virtually unchanged in the Western world since the start of effective record-keeping, despite a doubling of life expectancy. Since the authors estimate a 1% increase in the odds of having a boy per year of added life expectancy, this means that between 1900 and 2000, the odds of white American women having boys should have increased by 49.2%. Oddly, nobody seems to have noticed this sweeping social change. I accept sociobiology's general principles, but as long as papers like this get into major journals, I can also appreciate the parody of sociobiology as "Just So Stories."


More on Kass

08 AUG 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

If you've read the previous story, there's even more frightening stuff to keep you awake at night. From 2001 there's Chris Mooney's "The Irrationalist in Chief" and from earlier this year comes Timothy Noah's "Leon Kass, You Silly Ass", which has an adolescent title and makes a couple of unfortunate errors -- corrected but embarrassing nevertheless -- but is still very pointed and persuasive.

In arguing that he isn't trying to tilt his panel's balance, Kass is doing something nobody in the ethics racket should ever do. He's telling a big, fat, utterly transparent lie.


Man of mystery

08 AUG 2004 | source NPQ | permalink

Clue #1: He believes that the best analogy for understanding biotechnology is the Book of Genesis, specifically the story of the Tower of Babel.

What this humanity united after the catastrophic flood chose to do was to build from the ground up a city with a tower that reached into the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves. By building a home of complete human self-sufficiency they were re-making their own humanity.

Clue #2: He believes that the story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates that rationality, social cooperation, and technology are morally empty.

This is the humanists' dream of old: to construct a human habitat to protect against nature through human rationality, social cooperation and technology. If there is another flood, they thought, we will see to it that we at least get to high ground...With the help of a careful reading of that story, we can discover what is wrong with the project of Babel, not only from God's point of view, but from our own.

Clue #3: He believes that "technology is tragedy."

I mean tragedy in the classical sense in which the hero's misery is embedded in his triumph.

Clue #4: He believes that thinking in a rational way about deep concepts renders those concepts meaningless.

But one cannot think of human life itself as a problem to be solved without dehumanizing it and dissolving its richness and its meaning.

Clue #5: He believes that "liberal democracy has reached a point, thanks to the arts and sciences to which it is wedded, where it can no longer intellectually defend its founding principles."

The underlying notions of dignity, conscience and the freedom of the individual that lie beneath the Declaration of Independence and the doctrine of our unalienable rights are not supportable by the scientific view of nature and of man.

Clue #6: He believes that materialism, after a generous application of caricature, is incompatible with social mores.

What rights or liberties should a mere collection of molecules have?

Clue #7: He believes in individual rights and personal dignity...provided he gets to tell people what their rights are and what they are allowed to find within their dignity.

If you care about the dignity of a woman's body, you don't treat her womb as an incubator into which you could put fetuses for a short time for the sake of research or spare body parts. If you think about the dignity of a human child coming into the world, you don't undermine that child's right to have two biological parents rather than to be the clone of one.

Clue #8: He believes that humans aren't part of the animal kingdom.

[I]f you care about the dignity of human procreation, you care about keeping a clear line between what is human and animal and not blurring that line.

Clue #9: He believes that repugnance is a useful moral guide, but he can't tell you how to decide between repugnance due to principle and repugnance due to prejudice.

Repugnance is at best a warning that you might be in the presence of an action that violates a boundary you transgress at your peril. In an age when repugnancies were sound, you didn't need philosophers to come to their rescue. Some repugnancies, it is true, were merely prejudice and ugliness, for example regarding miscegenation: a repugnance we are happily rid of.

Who is this man? He is Leon Kass, Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics.


Very, very, very unhappy

07 AUG 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Damn! Just got a rejection letter. Blast! Mind you, it was a very nice rejection letter. Himmelherrgott! Was noted that cover letter was very funny. Kloten van de bok! Memo to self: next time forget story and submit cover letter.

Gadverdamme! Another story of mine by name of "Vacuum Rosetta" has been rejected several times. The usual reason for the rejection is that it isn't a story in the usual sense of the word. This is undeniably true. The story is modelled on the Profile articles in Scientific American; that is, it is a piece of fictionalised journalism about the work and ideas of an imaginary future scientist. By no means can this be seen as a standard narrative. I guess what irritates me about the rejections is that I think the story does work as a piece of science fiction. It doesn't fit the usual templates, such as a good idea wrapped in a linear narrative ("A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury) or a good idea wrapped in a fractured narrative ("Undone" by James Patrick Kelly), but it is a good idea wrapped in a journalistic narrative. I'm not blaming the editors here: regardless of the format of the story, they would have taken it if it had captured them. What really hurts is that the basic idea in the story is very, very good and I couldn't find a way to get it published. And now, coc oen!, it's on the cover of New Scientist as an article by Paul Davies with about 90% overlap in logical construction with my story. The first draft of "Vacuum Rosetta" was written in 1997 and the first submission was in 2001. This really, really, gets my bile up. Ay Hyessou!


Stray dollops of modern life #2

04 AUG 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Whilst researching tarot cards and other divinations, I came across this lovely self-diagnosis:

If you think Astrology has had a bad press, pity the Tarot. It is usually dismissed as black magic or just a joke, yet, as C C Zain wrote: What the Tarot can be made to reveal is limited only by the understanding of the reader.

Yes indeed.


Stray dollops of modern life #1

04 AUG 2004 | source | permalink

Ebay Australia currently lists this brass sundial for sale:

This unusual Sundial Compass is in MINT condition and comes safely sealed in it's box. This is a working replica of extremely high quality.

A working replica of a sundial. Imagine that.


Northern lights and a blue moon

01 AUG 2004 | source APOD | permalink

APOD has posted two sublimely beautiful images in two days. What you see is made doubly beautiful by knowing the science behind them.

Aurorae are caused by charged particles from the sun streaming down the Earth's magnetic lines and crashing into air molecules in the upper atmosphere. The high energy of these collisions is released as light. Nuclear physics, relativity, and quantum theory combine to make one of the most gorgeous sights on Earth.

Originally, a blue moon was literally a full moon coloured blue by dust in the atmosphere. Then in 1946, Sky and Telescope magazine misinterpreted a reference in the Maine Farmers' Almanac and a new defintion was born. Now the most common usage of "blue moon" is the new, error-generated meaning. This photograph is of an original blue moon, and in the corner you can catch a glimpse of Jupiter and the four of its moons that inspired Galileo's revolution.


Jack Dann interview

28 JUL 2004 | source Science Fiction Weekly | permalink

Emotional SF writer and US refugee Jack Dann talks to Nick Gevers on Science Fiction Weekly.

Like Isaac Asimov, who wrote the introduction to Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars, I am a cultural Jew rather than a practicing Jew. I am, in fact, an atheist, or, at best—on very optimistic days—an agnostic. Yet, as Isaac said, "It doesn't matter. I'm Jewish enough." I believe strongly in the idea of testifying ... of not allowing the Holocaust to be forgotten, and there is a stream of my work, my fiction, that shows that concern: stories such as "Camps," "Kaddish," "Tea" and "Jumping the Road." I have always thought that SF, magical realism and fantasy can provide different and important perspectives. It has been said that the Holocaust was so terrible, so far on the edges of comprehension, so surreal that fiction cannot hope to depict it. That is probably true, but I believe that in the right hands, the tools of fabulation can shout some light into the dark and demonic.


Nø løgø

20 JUL 2004 | source Invisible Pink Unicorn | permalink

Christians have the Cross. Muslims have the Crescent. And now atheists have...the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

Neat idea, but what's wrong with the ol' null sign?


Strewth in advertising

15 JUL 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

This is from a real advertisement...


*Results indicate which beer has More Flavor, not Preference or Smoothness.

Testing conducted by The Institute for Perception, Richmond, VA.

We now take you inside the Institute for Perception...

Interviewer: So what flavours did you notice?

Test subject: Umm. Rotting fish...a patina of heavy metal, perhaps mercury...earthy compost...and an aftertaste of expectorant.

Interviewer: So you'd say it had more taste?

Subject: Not only that. It was lumpier too.


Review: Saboteurs

14 JUL 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

In 1942 a small group of Nazi agents stole across the Atlantic in U-boats, landed on the east coast of America, and melted into the unsuspecting American cities. Their mission was to wreak havoc on the industrial power of America. The prize targets were the aluminium plants. Not only was aluminium a critical war-time material, being light and strong, it was also relatively easy to disrupt production because it depended on massive supplies of electrical power. If an attack was well-timed and power took a few hours to be restored, the aluminium would set inside the smelters and the plant would have to be rebuilt.

The saboteurs never got close to the aluminium smelters. They never really had a chance. They were not elite agents. They were Germans who had lived in America; they were hastily trained; and the team included semi-literate fools and a leader with an unstable personality and a hidden agenda. Instead of crippling American industry, the saboteurs became entrapped in deception, betrayal, and one of the most ignomious legal battles in American history.

Author Michael Dobbs has done a superb job in bringing this old story to life again. He was lucky that several of the people involved in events are still alive and of clear mind six decades later. He has used that good fortune to tell a rivetting story that has implications today: the legal arguments used by the Bush administration to justify the Guantanamo Bay solution quoted a Supreme Court ruling on the saboteur case.

Saboteurs begins as a spy thriller and ends as a moral tragedy in which the ruthlessness of J. Edgar Hoover and the realpolitiks of Franklin Rooseveldt have become permanently imprinted on the legal system of the USA. Highly recommended.

Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America by Michael Dobbs; Knopf, 2004


A brief history of anatomy

06 JUL 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I have just sent off a new essay to Borderlands about the history of dissection and the way social attitudes about it have changed.

As the scientific revolution picked up pace, the taboo against dissecting humans fell away. Social mores went from one extreme to other. Within a century, anatomy went from a didactic subject learnt from a thousand year old textbook to a thriving spectacle. Museums openly exhibited dissected body parts and anatomists held public dissections. Frederik Ruysch built a "repository of curiosities" in Amsterdam out of the bodies of stillborn babies and dead infants. Visitors swarmed from all over Europe to see it. Instead of being conducted furtively and with the constant danger of Inquisitorial punishment, dissection had become a performance art.

The latest issue of Borderlands should be out soon. Subscribe now!