The Economist had a very nice obituary on Claudia Alta Johnson, who passed away on July 11 at the estimable age of 94. Without gush or treacle, and with due attention paid to her own not inconsiderable accomplishments, the piece described and honored her life. When the Brits are on their game, nobody can beat them for class.
Lady Bird Johnson
Google’s chief of research was interviewed by Technology Review about some of the projects he supervises at the Big G. Peter Norvig worked in academic circles for a while, in AI research in fact, and wrote a text which is still in use. The magazine got him to speak about some research fronts the company is exploring, in answer to business demands. But, don’t get too excited about any of this. He’s not tipping his hand, and a lot of his comments are pretty general, and actually, reflective of the state of things that obtained some years ago. In a way, this is a sign of how difficult it is to solve some of the problems inherent in searching for information. Disambiguating queries is one such areas: does time fly like and arrow, and does a fruit fly like a banana? Getting the slippery fish of language to hold still long enough for Google to put a band on it is no easy task. Norvig says the G has to do more to understand the content of documents, and to help users formulate better queries. This latter may work better with speech input systems rather than with keyboards. People talk more easily and readily than they type. Yeah, but a lot of what they say is nonsense. Still Google is working hard on speech recognition systems and they have a product that does something without any human backup. As I said, you won’t learn any corporate secrets, but it’s a useful read.
What is? America’s First Family, of course! The Simpsons, that’s what I’m talking about. After years of appearing in rapid fire format on TV stations all over the country, Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and all your favorite socially inadequate,dimly endowed, behaviorally challenged or even marginally criminal characters will hit the big screen at a Multiplex near you. You may not exactly have been waiting for this, and I know I haven’t, but well, it’s here anyway. Sometime ago, the Grouch posted a story about the rather outre mathematical references that are often thrown into the show by its creators, and the topic came up again in an interview that Nature published with the show’s producer, Al Jean. He is a Harvard grad, with a math degree, who decided that even though he was good, he was not as good as the people he was in school with, so he did not go on for higher studies. He and Nature toss around a few softballs, and bazz a little about science in a good-natured way. Tongues are stuck so firmly in cheek on that show that buccal trauma must be a real risk. My favorite character is the Evil Montgomery Burns….Exxxcellent! (rubs hands). I still remember the shock of recognition when I realized the song and dance number the stooges were staging for Mr. B’s party was lifted right out of Citizen Kane. It was like being hit. Watch for the movie, which comes out this week. It can’t be any worse than the dreck and sludge that has come out this summer already, and probably will be a great deal better.
Of course they do. It’s a movie, right? Once you buy your ticket and secure your overpriced popcorn, you’ve said goodbye to the ordinary and the everyday and the real. That’s why you went to the movies. That’s why our cultural ancestors listened to the Bards, or shuffled into the amphitheater to see what Sophocles had run up since last time, or crowded around to watch a Kabuki play. A pair of scientists at Central Florida University have written a paper pointing out the howlers in some recently released movies, detailing why what you see on the screen could not possible happen. They also complain that such careless treatment of scientific laws encourages, and may even cause, scientific illiteracy. Nature has some musings by science writer Philip Ball. His view: lighten up, a little anyway. Scientific illiteracy is certainly a problem, but the Grouch isn’t buying the pitch that movies cause it. I mean, if there were no Superhero or Spiderman movies, would the general public be savvier about physics or biology? Hard to credit. Ball mentions a project being conducted on YouTube which will describe the process of a research project underway in Belgium. This is supposed to be the real thing, with no script or editing, and, apart from getting the experiments actually done, is supposed to show how things really work in the lab, uncut, and uncensored. I think I remember something about the X Files. One suggestion was to show Agent Scully, a physician with pathology specialty qualifications, at work in the lab. The whole episode would follow her, as she prepared the samples, set up the lab equipment, etc. It didn’t take long for the producers to yell: “Stop!! Nobody is going to watch Gillian Anderson walk around in a white coat with slides and pipettes and readouts, for thirty mintues, minus commercials.” The movies often wipe their feet on scientific fact, but Ball says we know they do, really, and the fact remains we are not going to the movies to learn science. We want to see and hear a story, in the dark, as our ancestors did around the camp fire.
Far from the frozen, well maybe slightly thawing, North comes the news that meditation may, or may not, be advantageous for your health. We just cant’ say, say the researchers at the U of Alberta Evidence-Based Practice Centre in Edmonton. No, that doesn’t mean mediation isn’t good. It means that the evidence for such a position is anecdotal or derived from research of only so-so rigor and quality. Our neighbors to the North looked at 813 studies, dealing with such practices as mantra meditation, mindfulness mediatation, yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong as employed in dealing with hypertension, drug abuse or heart diseases. Unfortunately, the investigators say, defects in study design are of such a kind as to prevent a serious assessment of the efficacy of these techniques. So, it’s still: “some say yes, and some say no”. The Alberta work was funded by a grant from the NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
I should save this for a “carnival”, but a co-worker showed it to me and if I wait until we have another carnival, I might forget this or lose it. It seems that there is some evidence that our appreciation of jokes gets poorer as we get older. Great. Another thing to worry about losing. Just when a certain amount of gallows humor might come in handy, we find out that somebody could tell us a boffo leg-slapper, and we’d just sit there gaping. Learned fellows from Washington University did a study which seems to support some kind of age-related decline in “getting” jokes. They compared two populations, one WU students and one of persons over 65. The groups were tested on their ability to understand both cartoons and verbal jokes. The student group did about 6% better on the verbal jokes and about 14% better on the cartoons. So, in addition to the other humiliations attendant on our declining years, we have to contend with this yet. Sigh…
The work was reported in this month’s Journal of the Neuropsychological Society.
It’s probably a good idea. One of the contributors to LabLit makes a good case for it anyway, starting out from an interesting observation: how is it possible that researchers who talk with enthusiasm and verve about their research manage to boil away every vestige of those qualities when it comes to writing up the work for publication? The written product reads like a parts catalog, and that’s after not inconsiderable editing. All kinds of bad consequences come from this failure. Work is misunderstood, or simply ignored. The larger public feels excluded, and views the research effort as a sham and a conspiracy to spend public money on unimportant things. What is to be done?, as Lenin asked. Scientific papers struggle within some pretty tight boundries. They can’t be too long. They have to be serious, and objective, focusing on the work and not drawing attention to the author, at least not in any direct and obvious way. Research has to be described quite exactly, so that a colleague or competitor can reproduce the experiment. And on and on. Still, it’s hard not to wonder. What would happen if authors dropped the “scientific passive”?…rats were taken, mice were injected, solutions were prepared, etc. The use of the active voice might lighten things up: we were curious, Dr. Jones thought, we injected, the mice lived three time longer, the results are significant…nothing too literary, and certainly not chummy or whimsical. The LabLit writer complains about lack of clarity in research papers, but that may be due, in part at least, to the fact that many authors are composing in English, which is not their first language or the language of instruction in their formal education. If, say, Arabic became the lingua franca of scientific writing, a lot of American authors would have trouble saying things clearly also. Read the post and see what you think:
He never said, not just like that anyway. It’s one of moviedom’s great misquotations, but it seems to have ousted the exact line of dialog from the classic Forties film Casablancaand we’re stuck with it. I’m appropriating the line for this post because the idea of repeated foldings is very much on the mark for the topic. Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, is probably familiar to everyone in the USA or at least to those who have been parents, since their kids have been introduced to it in school as one of those “math can be fun” things. Well, Smithsonian magazine has an article on a man, Dr. Robert Lang, who started with origami as a kid and pursued his interest well into adult life and across a couple of college degrees, a career in physics and work with NASA, folding things so they will fit into small volumes, such as that of the Space Shuttle. Origami is like poetry in that it gets tougher if you impose constraints, such as meter and rhyme and form (eg. the sonnet). Emoting is one thing, but doing it in ten lines of rhymed iambic pentameter is quite another. “True” origami imposes these constraints: one sheet of paper and no cuts or tears, only folds. Hhmmmm, I see. Dr. Lang has managed to produce an astounding number of “models”, reptiles, insects, and a Black Forest cuckoo clock. He has also come up with some mathematical formulae which can be used to help the practitioner devise accurate and doable origame representations of real-world animals and other objects. The world of origamists working at this level is, as you might imagine, rather small, but very, very enthusiastic. Dr. Lang was invited to demonstrate his folding techniques for, the clock I think, on Japanese TV. It took five hours and I’ll bet the true believers watched every minute. One hour of origami on TV would fill my TV origami needs for quite a while, let me tell you. But then, I’m not asked to help NASA figure out how to fold a space telescope measuring more than 300 ft across into a package that fits into the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Who would have thought that Great Matters could depend on a childhood interest in folding paper? The World is indeed an antic place.
Not Science Fiction, or SF or SciFi, with cyborgs and light sabers and supra luminal speeds for space craft. This is Scientific Fiction: imaginative literature…stories in other words… in which scientists, what they do, where they do it and why serve as the main characters and supply the narrative line. Dr. Jennifer Rohn, editor of the LabLit web site, wondered why there is not more serious fiction set in and around scientific enterprises. The externals are there: dramatic settings with lots of cool expensive-looking gear, mysteries gradually solved, the full range of human personality, both normal and floridly aberrant. So, why so few Serious Science Novels (SSN) ? As good scientists do, she conducted an experiment. With the help of a local bookseller in the UK, she arranged for a special display of novels in which science and scientists were the theme and the actors. The original deal with the bookstore called for a display of thirty works, for a couple of weeks. She found out that turning up so many books that were commercially available, not SciFi, and free from stereotypical and cliched “scientists behaving badly” elements was not easy. Some of her entry criteria had to be relaxed a bit, and even then she came up with a lot fewer than the planned number. The trial went very well. The bookseller was pleased, since people who came in looked at, and more importantly, bought copies of the works displayed. In fact, the display ran for a full five months instead of the few weeks originally planned. Customers were happy because they were steered towards material they hadn’t known about and were glad to get. So, good news, right? Dr. Rohn is true to her training in not letting some initally positive results carry her away, and she interprets the outcome cautiously, with appropriate reluctance to generalize from a small sample. There is probably an audience for SSNs, and not a small one either, but the road to bestsellerdom leads over a narrow and contested beachead. Publishers, and bookdealers, need to know where to “place” an SSN. “Chick-lit”, Regency Romances, Cozy Mysteries all are established genres. Publishers know how to pitch and sellers know where to place them. SSNs would not, at least initially, have that same almost automatic response. Still, if you’re waiting for your experiment to run and have some hours in the middle of the night, take a pad and work out an SSN. Maybe you can do for science what John Grisham did for law. Think about it. Dr. Rohn’s suggestions appeared in an article she wrote for Nature, which you can look at here:
The Grouch is avoiding those sweaty summer tasks by hiding out in the back yard in a concealed little bower just big enough for a surprisingly comfortable plastic Adirondack chair. There’s pretty good shade and often a nice breeze. Since the back yard is managed on a philosophy of “gardening by neglect”, parts of it are pretty wild and rather heavily overgrown…or, as I prefer to call it, “charmingly rustic”. I’ve picked up some good books too, and one of them is Italy under Fascism, by R.J.B. Bosworth, an Australian historian. It seems that the Duce’s drive to create a totally Fascist idenity for all Italians was not very successful. Locale, class, and gender identities were not so easily scrapped. Many people were just not interested in buying what the Fascists had on offer, and the effort to make them do and above all think, otherwise took a lot of time and effort, while yielding only so-so results. Very few Italians, apart from the ideologues and fanatics, cared about overseas empire, being preoccupied with the task of getting along at home. Part of their effort to get by consisted in learning how to game the Fascist system to their own advantage. And the empire, which was supposed to provide opportunities for Italian settlement on a large scale was a tremendous financial drain, sucking down about a quarter of the national revenue. Mussolini had a younger brother, Arnauldo, who stayed in the background and managed a lot of the spadework, handled the family’s finances, while also cleaning up the messes Benito left behind. Aranauldo lived in Milan and the two brothers would talk almost every night on the phone. He died in 1931 and his death was a blow to the Big Guy, since he was the only person on earth he could absolutely count on and trust. It also turns out that the Duce didn’t care much for his kids, apart from his daughter Edda, preferring his cat. One of the boys, (Robert0?) turned out to be a pretty fair jazz pianist, which didn’t square at all with the Blackshirt ideal of a two fisted warrior. One son went into the movie business and one became a test pilot and was killed on the job. The Boss had a picture of the cat in his office, but not of the kids. As he got older, he suffered from a poorly treated ulcer and turned increasingly cynical and misanthropic, a process doubtless speeded up by his perusal of wire tap transcripts and police reports about his family, top level Fascists, business leaders, the military and people in general. The cat probably started to look pretty good by comparison. Mussolini with a brother, and a cat! Who knew?
Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (Paperback)
by R. J. B. Bosworth (Author