We are closing these lines for the Winter Holiday pause, and I want to thank all our loyal readers for their willingness to share precious time on these contributions. Best wishes for a safe, relaxing and happy season and a prosperous new year.
The Edge is an interesting site, which specializes in mind-stretchy things. A recent example is the challenge offered by Prof. Richard Thaler to the readership: what is your favorite bad, rejected or refuted scientific idea that lasted longer than it should have? Bonus points: why did it hang on for so long? There were quite a number of replies, and I have to admit that some of the ideas the authors had consigned to Marx’s Dustbin of History (which also made an appearance in DILBERT, recently, by the way) were concepts that I at least had no idea were DOAs. I guess I should keep quiet about this, but a little honesty won’t hurt. And there were some interesting suggestions: the stress theory of peptic ulcer, the Great Chain of Being, and some which could have been predicted:the luminiferous ether, the Ptolemaic solar system, and on like that.
The strip appreared on Dec. 11, 2010. If you can’t get the link to work for you.
I posted yesterday about the switch in the launch date for GoogleTV, because the initial reviews of the product were far from enthusiastic. Today, in the Technology Review blog, there is something like a rebuttal, maybe, or at least a kind of “on the other hand”. The writer thinks that the delay is a good move and that Google made the right decision. I’ll offer an “on the other hand” of my own in the form of a question: isn’t a company run by and consisting of smart guys supposed to have figured certain things out? Like, maybe, the stuff doesn’t perform very well? Don’t they try this stuff out, on real people? Or do they just ask one another? It seems that Google was really surprised, and maybe even a little hurt, at the rough handling GoogleTV got. I don’t know what they were expecting, but now, they’re in catch-up mode and the companies that partnered with them are holding on to a lot of TVs they can’t sell. They may not be in such a hurry to work with Google next time around.
The winter solstice is that period in the calendar at which the sun reaches its lowest point on the horizon. It also seems to stay there for a while, as shown in the origin of the word; from Latin sol, for sun and the verb sistere, to stand still, to abide, be unmoved. This year we had an added goodie: a total eclipse of the moon occured on the same calendar date. That hasn’t happened in a very long time; not since 1638 in fact. Although one story claimed that a “prominent Wiccan” said that his research pushed the date back to 15-something. Well, anyway, it’s been a while. And it won’t happen again in a way visible from North America until 2014. The eclipse occured early in the morning and the actual solstice will take place this evening….local times and all. Oh, yeah. A lot of people consider Dec. 21 the first official day of winter. Fine by me. It’s rather warm and sunny here, although the weekend was a little brisker. And the people up in Buffalo or St. Paul have no doubt whatever about the season. Snow up to your armpits helps, as Dr. Johnson said, “to concentrate the mind wonderfully”.
Google, the King of Search, is attempting to diversify. For one thing, it’s in the phone biz with the Android system, and that seems to be going well. Another effort is aimed at bringing TV to the web, or the web to TV, depending on your point of view. So, how’s the Google TV project going? Not too well, in fact. Reviewers gave the released TV software a so-so reception and the word is that Google has asked its hardware partners, including SONY, to hold off on release of the sets produced while Google makes revisions. This is all rather unusual, certainly in the consumer electronics market, where you just don’t stop the troops from moving because you just had a better idea. The launch is the launch is the launch. All the “idea” stuff should have been done a long time ago. But, Google didn’t like what people were saying and promised improvements. Well, that’s the way it is. The Christmas holidays are over, almost, and it’s hard to see what market Google TV is aimed at now. People who might have bought a Google TV thingy are too tapped out to part with any more cash, so the product goes into the chilly night skies of what? January? February? The company of perpetual Beta is used to doing things on its own schedule, but it doesn’t have that feedom when other operatives are in the picture.
Gilbert and Sullivan tell us that a policeman’s life is not a happy one. And, sometimes, neither is the life of a research scientist. The Faculty of 1000 released on their web site a list of what they style the Top Ten Retractions. Some of the publications managed to accumulate considerable citation histories, even in their short lives. And some of the retractors have impressive reputations. It’s very worrying to see how “league leaders” seem to have been fooled by skilled students or postdocs whom they were mentoring. Some of the cases are obvious examples of fakery, while others may be over-confident extrapolations of what the experiments in fact showed. It’s hard to understand the mentality of a faker, especially one just finishing a postdoc and starting a career. On the other hand, it’s very hard to resist the pressure for results, so something has to give. A person could be tempted to play the odds and invent a finding or magnify a modest one, taking a chance that the paper will pass unnoticed or that discrepancies can be explained away somehow. Maybe there should be more papers that state this or that doesn’t work, at least not the way we did it. That should be helpful too.
If you could look at, count, graph and otherwise manipulate the words found in a large number of books, printed at many different times, in a number of different languages, would that give you a handle on how certain ideas start, move, change and generally get accepted into the way we look at the world? Well, it might. Nobody knows because it hasn’t been tried. Until now, that is. A research time has been working with Google Books to record and analyze the individual words existing in the Google Books database. First results are intriguing. These inital experiments were run on a subset of the total file. Users can search for individual words or phrases. Time series graphs can plot usage curves. Several places are carrying the story.
It happened today, 75 years ago and it was a significant event in the history of aviation. The DC-3 combined reliability, capacity, and speed in a way that made it the first modern airliner. Airlines loved, pilots loved it, mechanics loved, and some of the things are still flying around. I wouldn’t get onto one, though, unless it has been lovingly maintained by people at a place like the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The military transport version was called the C-47, and the British called it the Dakota. There probably isn’t a continent in the world that has not been flown over by DC-3s except may Antarctica, and I’m not sure about that.
Off and on in recent months we have heard stories about the imminent death of the phenomenon known as blogging. The bloom is off the rose, as the old cliche puts it and the once formidable fleet of bloggers was supposed to disappear like snow on a suddenly warm afternoon. Well, maybe not. There does seem to be some evidence that the number of young people blogging has gone down, quite a lot in fact, as this “demographic” has discovered other ways to stay in touch and talk about stuff. But, apart from this defection, blogging seems to be going strong. Or so says the story on Wired News reporting on the results a Pew survey which came up with that analysis. The advent of Facebook and Twitter which are quite useful for telegraphic “message” style contacts has probably been important. But, in other areas blogging remains strong. Whether this plateau-ing is a more or less persisting state or whether futher declines are likely is something that “only time will tell”, as the news guys doing stand-ups solemnly pronounce at the end of their segments.
You have to be an optimist to launch a new magazine nowadays, but apparently there are quite a number of such people around. More magazines got started in the year now ending than ceased publication. It’s a dry time for the economy, and there are a number of uncertainties about technology and the shift in reading habits to make the launch of new publication quite a risky venture. But, hey! Chase the dream. Certain topic areas are more suitable for new magazines: Health, Sports and Regional, that is pubs like Texas Monthly and all its cousins.