Thursday, 31 May 2007

i in ur hed, wastin ur time

It's probably too late to mention this in a hip way (if anything having to do with the Internet can ever really count as "hip"), but the LOLcats phenomenon just seems to keep expanding. Already, linguists are studying it; one day, perhaps a thesis will be written about LOLcats... in a LOLcat dialect.

These kitties are getting out of hand--they can code now:
BTW this is true
BTW this is false


  • Postmodernism annoys me. Just one example: the "smirking forceps of quotation marks." "Smirking forceps" is a better descriptor than "scare quotes." If anyone was ever scared off by punctuation, it wasn't a postmodern. Postmoderns are in love with them. After all, there's no better way to indicate sophistication than to smirk.
  • Contronyms, words that are their own antonym, amuse me (e.g. "strike" means hit, except in baseball, where it's a miss).
  • Technological neologorrhia annoys me. Neologorrhia is my neologism for the flood of new words that seems always to accompany new technology. "Neologorrhia" doesn't count, because (1) I invented it and (2) it's postmodern neologorrhia, not technological neologorrhia. It'd be hypocritical of me to complain about that, after trademarking postculturalism in my last post. Or would that be just appropriately postmodern enough?

experimental history

Computer modeling is big in population biology. The great thing about a model is that you can just relabel the parts and make it about something else. For example, we can revise the "wave-of-advance" model so that it describes the uptake of advantageous technology through a population rather than describing the spread of advantageous genes through a population. The key is that
any trait that preexists alongside the advantageous one could be carried along with it, such as genetics or language, regardless of any intrinsic superiority.
In applying this "cultural hitchhiking" model to food production, the authors found that the two traits can be decoupled wherever geographic "inhomogeneity" halts the spread of the carrier trait. Two such "inhomogeneities" are
the "subsistence boundary," land so poor that the wave of advance is halted, and the temporary "diffusion boundary" where the wave cannot move into poorer areas until its gradient becomes sufficiently large.
So, for example, indigenous people in poorer lands beyond a diffusion boundary can adopt technologies selectively, effectively erecting a cultural boundary.

If a model like this seems a little too ad hoc, perhaps a new version can be coupled with the counterfactual approach of some economic historians. Counterfactual histories have their own problems--they tend to oversimplify systems or overestimate the importance of one or two components. Yet there is a time-honored method of learning to think deeply about complex systems: games. That's why my next grant application will include a game console.

History is a field with many challenges. It would be nice to be able to ask Darwin what he actually meant in paragraph two of page 236 of Origin of the Species. But he's dead, so we can't. And even if we could, there's no telling whether we could trust his word (250 years is a rather long time to remember accurately). In that sense, it's actually helpful that the subjects of history are usually dead--dead people can't change their minds about what they've done. But often enough, they changed their minds during their lives. Put this together with our innate desire to connect events together in a linear (progressive) narrative, and we have quite the recipe for disagreement. Sometimes, there's very little archival material to go on, a fact with its own trade off. On one hand, it can be hard to tell how representative the extant materials are. On the other, there's less substance to disagree about. If somehow all of these difficulties are resolved, Deleuze offers a suggestion to keep us all in work: it is our job to determine what goes unsaid. I'll say no more on that.

no bake cookies

I've been avoiding the blog recently, because I've had too many half-baked ideas recently, and now that it's summer, it's too hot for baking. So rather than my delicious home-made chocolate chip cookies made with grandma's secret recipe, this time around, it's no-bake cookie time.

First up? Some random pointers to things other people wrote. Each of these made me say, "hmm." Perhaps one will have the same effect on you.
  • The Supreme Court has decided to fiddle with the notion of obviousness in patents. I'm not sure whether this counts as news, but it occurs to me that our current system (court-regulated markets) is a bit absurd. And an obvious alternative already exists within the academic community: journals. Priority claims might be settled in the same way in either case, but what's really at issue here is cold hard cash. Specifically, who gets it? Millions of dollars are at risk in either case--in the form of exclusive rights to manufacture or license in the case of patents, and in the form of opportunities to seek funding and credit in the other. Some kind of virtuous circle is supposed to exist between reputations of journals and reputations of individuals publishing therein. Members of the field explicitly review new contributions and deem them worthy or unworthy of acceptance (credit). Those who get credit are granted entry into the pool of potential reviewers for future rounds. Throw away patents, I say. Forget about formulating a legal test for obviousness. There's a better system already in place. It's obvious.
  • Science now has half a brain. Half a mouse-brain to be exact.
  • I'm an Eagle Scout (though I'm a bit ashamed to admit my affiliation with an organization whose crackdown on gays, girls, and atheists I detest), but I never earned any of these merit badges.
  • Maps are fun. These ones are more fun than usual. I'm amused by the toy manufacture versus toy consumption maps. I'm frightened by the port numbers map. And I'm disturbed by the war death map.
  • Do you suppose famous art influences our idea of the beautiful? If so, what does it say that we seem to be so fond of frowning beauties?
  • I meant to say lots of smart things about the now-ancient debate about "framing science." Instead, I'll just point out two of the better takes on the now-ancient "framing science" debates on scienceblogs. (see also my previous post on framing in politics)
  • Finally, I just want to trademark a new academic term: post-culturalism. Will it be all the rage in the next few years? Does it already exist without me knowing? Who knows. But this is one beer-induced idea I actually remembered the next day, so here it is.
One day, perhaps, my posts will return to their usual highly crafted, polished form. For now, this is all I can manage.