Friday, 29 February 2008

you can die from that?

The World Health Organization is an important agency with important functions. One of those functions is compiling lots of statistics from diverse sources into coherent, standardized formats. A friend of mine is using some of this data to complete a study and he made the mistake of showing me the file he was using--the WHO Mortality Database, a classification system for cause of death, with categories corresponding to dysentery or heart attacks. All of this is, quite literally, deadly serious. And that's exactly why none of what follows is remotely funny.

One might imagine that compiling a list of all the possible ways to die is grisly and horrifying work--I'm sure it is. In the four-character classification scheme, a letter indicates the basic category: A for viruses, B for bacteria, C for cancers, etc. There are dozens of pages of these, and it is disturbing to see all of the different places you can get cancer and die from it. But the classification job must also be surprising, given that there is a code for nightmares (F515). I don't mean that there is a code that can be stretched in such a way that it seems like nightmares might fit into it; rather, the complete description of that category is: "nightmares." I swear to god, if I die from the nightmares I have about dying from nightmares, I'm going to slap someone in heaven. (Um, plus, how exactly do we diagnose that one?) (image from the inimitable--and spookily timely--xkcd)

Next time you have a peek in your spam folder for a laugh at the Viagra ads, don't be so quick to be dismissive--there's a code for dying from "lack or loss of sexual desire" (F520).

If these codes seem absurd, consider F811, specific spelling disorder. Now, I understand F812, specific disorder of arithmetical skills; it has been stressed throughout my schooling precisely the sort of mathematical skills I will need to survive on a desert island, but spelling? Is this category reserved for LOST castmembers who spell out HLEP! on the beach?

Others, more or less absurd (some in name only):
F986: Cluttering. (Parents may want to cite this one for their messy kids)
J676: Maple-bark-stripper's lung
L671: Variations in hair color
L812: Freckles
R461: Bizarre personal appearance
R462: Strange and inexplicable behavior
V954: Spacecraft accident injuring occupant

It might be argued that it's easy for me to sit back, skim through the three-hundred page finding aid, and poke fun. Or that I'm making judgments about serious disorders that range from crude to offensive. To this I say: guilty as charged. Read on.

Perhaps the most amusing--er, "perplexing" series are the Vs and Ws, which seem mostly to correspond to what we might commonly call "accidents"--things like falls and vehicular collisions. One part of what's fascinating about this group is the level of specificity allowed by the third character: there are separate categories for falls in streetcars, falls from streetcars, and falls involving moving streetcars versus those involving stationary ones. Even this does not exhaust the depth of description--the fourth character is a location code. Take, for example, W067: Fall involving bed, farm. When you understand the coding scheme, you see that the last digit is a standard location code (4 for street or highway, 7 for farm), and it turns out improbable death codes are included for the sake of completeness. That's not to say that people never fall to their deaths from bed on a farm--but it's less likely they do so in a street or highway (other than mattress-racing fatalities, of course). Not that I checked. Even understanding the system, however, the juxtapositions are intriguing:

W527: Crushed, pushed or stepped on by crowd or human stampede, farm.
W654: Drowning and submersion while in bath-tub, street and highway.
W754: Accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, street and highway.

And then there are the X-factors. Call in Sculley and Mulder for these ones; they're definitely the odd-balls: X05: Exposure to ignition or melting of nightwear (ouch!). Or take X52: Prolonged stay in weightless environment. None of the location codes work terribly well here, since I'm guessing this only happens in space.

It's very heartening to know that Y61, foreign object accidentally left in body during surgical and medical care, has about a billion subcategories. Did they leave in in there during endoscopic examination? Perhaps during dialysis? Or during the surgery itself?

One of the more disturbing codes is Y881: Sequelae of misadventures to patients during surgical and medical procedures. Misadventures? Really?

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wants to get killed by frozen poop that's fallen from an airplane. (see here for associated puns). If I were the WHO, I would invent a new category for this.

On a more serious (or at least less crass) note, the implementation of a database for deaths is philosophically interesting for what it reveals about explanations of death. One of the canonical views in the philosophy of explanation is known as the pragmatic view, which basically says that our criteria for accepting explanations change depending on the circumstances (see van Fraassen's The Scientific Image for a more nuanced take). The pragmatic view has the virtue that it comports well with everyday explanations: if the question is, "Why did Bob die?" a coroner may explain that it was the "multiple blunt impacts" that did him in. A cop might explain that Bob "lost control of his motor vehicle while traveling in adverse conditions." A city planner might explain that Bob was killed because of poor roadwork design. All of these are acceptable answers, given the appropriate context. It is the job of the questioner to ask a question that provides the right context, either within the question itself ("What is the medical cause of death?") or in context-bearing ancillary statements ("Bob has driven this route every day for years, why did he die this time?") Often, the correct context is provided by setting up a contrast class, as in the last example (this time, instead of all the other times). Other contrast class-defining phrases include "why Bob in particular," or "why this location in particular?"

What strikes me about the Death List is that it is sometimes ambiguous (or, more likely, I don't know how to use it correctly). Death isn't a particularly straightforward event, as any episode of CSI demonstrates. Many factors contribute to death. A car crash is a cause of death, but so are the contusions sustained in the crash, or blood loss afterward. A heart-attack just before the crash might be the cause. But what if heart-disease caused the heart attack? It would be more than a little perverse to suggest that a diet rich in red meat caused an automobile crash, but the causal chain is (seemingly) there. At some point, though, tracing the causal chain backward just isn't what is being asked for.

There is a very interesting transition in the Death List. The list begins with the ABCs: infections, parasites, or cancers. D-N track diseases and disorders of various organs or systems. Then there are deaths due to developmental problems: O is for obstetrics, P for perinatal, Q for congenital malformations and deformities. At V we make the transition to "external causes of morbidity and mortality." In particular, V is for transport accidents; W for falls, drownings, and submersions; X for smoke, poisoning, or intentional self-harm; and Y for assaults. Between Q and V is a vast, four-letter chasm separating internal from external causes of death. In fact, there are no S, T, or U deaths. One letter stands in the mysterious gap between internal and external causes of death: R. R is the category for abnormal but inconclusive findings, including R960, Instantaneous death. This, it would seem, is neither a cause nor an explanation.

one fish, two fish

The fish were not able to directly count over four, but they were able to distinguish between larger numbers if they differed by a ratio of 2:1.

For example, the fish could distinguish between a shoal of 16, compared to a shoal of eight others. But they could not tell the difference between a shoal of 12 compared to a shoal of eight, a ratio of 3:2. This demonstrates that fish are able to visually estimate larger numbers - but not very accurately.

telegraph via /.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

everything good is bad for you

From the NYT:
Stretching — long promoted as a way to prevent injury, to reduce soreness and to speed post-exercise recovery — may not fulfill its promise. Over the years, scientists have found that stretching before or after a workout has little effect on either risk of injury or what is commonly known as delayed onset of muscle soreness, the discomfort that comes a day or more after challenging physical activity.
I expect stretching is still good for improving flexibility, but I'm guessing it will never get you this far. (Thanks to Sara for that one.)

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Tuesday, 26 February 2008


The final irony is that hipsterdom itself has sold out. The hipster pastiche is for sale, and it's not cheap.

Look, it's not surprising: everyone wants to be awesome, and if all you have to do to be awesome is wear a tee shirt that looks like it came from the 1970s, then everyone will do it. Trouble is, "now that look has become generic and meaningless. People with blue hair listen to top 40. People spend hundreds of dollars trying to look like they shop at the thrift store. They have appropriated the style, yet discarded everything that the style stood for," says LAist. But that's exactly the problem--and exactly the irony.

The defining hipster attitude is dismissiveness toward anything trendy (this is why Nietzsche, the first and most venerable of the hipsters, decried Wagner: he had sold out.) That the secondary quality, the ironic adoption of the un-cool, has reached the mainstream should surprise no-one. The post-modern era is nothing if not predictable.

If hipsters meant what they said, they'd ironically dress in business suits and wing tips, ironically get jobs, and ironically shut up.


Monday, 25 February 2008

green ham and eggs

I'm no vegetarian. Sometimes, though, like Melinda from Inkling,
with a belly full of beef, I get a nagging feeling. I’ve heard that meat is one of the most energy and land-use intensive foods a person can eat, so perhaps my winter eating habits aren’t ideal – for neither waist nor environment. Should I replace steaks with salads for the greater good of the planet? What is the most ecologically friendly meal, anyway?
Ecological friendliness is far from my first dietary priority (ease, nutrition, and price all rank higher, for example). But on a full stomach, I sometimes wonder. It's not an idle question, especially when we read in the NYT that fresh and local isn't always greener (as I've suggested before). But back to the inkling piece:
If we left food production entirely to nature, we wouldn’t have enough to sustain ourselves – so we turn to agriculture, which uses various tactics like irrigation, fertilization and pesticides to maximize the amount of solar energy that is captured, harvested and assimilated in our foods.
The problem is that these tactics are very energy intensive – fertilizers are essentially fossil fuels, for example – so while agriculture may maximize yield, it also maximizes energy and water use and leaves behind a trail of chemicals and nutritionally depleted soil.
None of this is new or surprising. But it's often difficult to put these ideas into perspective. Turns out, "half of America’s land, 80 percent of its fresh water, and 17 percent of the fossil fuels Americans use go toward producing food." The article concludes with a number of comparison charts well worth examining. I'll reproduce just one:
ENERGY: Eleven times more energy is required to make a calorie of beef protein than a calorie of grain protein.
WATER: When compared pound for pound, animal production requires at least 100 times more water than grain.
LAND USE: Beef requires 31 times more land area than the equivalent quantity of grain.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

winter wonderland

Toronto doesn't have a good handle on snow. I took this picture about four days after a storm. You can see that most of the snow has melted from rooftops, and the intersections are clear of their usual slush. The giant pile of snow in the lower left partially blocks a driveway, and the snow piles narrow both the roads and sidewalks by half. No space at all is left for the cyclists. Melt-off collects in giant pools at every intersection, which is especially harrowing for parents pushing strollers--they can choose to plow through four to six inches of water, or skirt the puddles by taking to the street. (for better pictures and better analysis, see

Whereas many Canadian cities have invested in equipment and policies that work together to allow the city to quickly recover from a snowstorm, Toronto's approach seems half-baked and strikingly inefficient. It's as though it hasn't snowed here in Toronto annually for the past, oh, forever. The unfortunate bit is that much of the problem could be solved at a policy level, without any significant cash outlays for new equipment.

Snow removal parking bans are one simple and obvious policy change the city can make. The idea is simple: on the day of the storm, street parking on major thoroughfares closes at some specified time, those streets and sidewalks are completely cleared, and on subsequent evenings, parking on residential streets alternates from one side to the other.

The city is already starting to get into the game--its reaction to the second and third storms of the year were significantly better than to the first.

And yet, when I went for my run today, I found myself skating down hills, leaping large puddles, and treading a clear path inches narrow.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

best. site. ever.

#64. Recycling is a part of a larger theme of stuff white people like: saving the earth without having to do that much.

Recycling is fantastic! You can still buy all the stuff you like (bottled water, beer, wine, organic iced tea, and cans of all varieties) and then when you’re done you just put it in a DIFFERENT bin than where you would throw your other garbage. And boom! Environment saved! Everyone feels great, it’s so easy!

....The best advice is that if you plan to deal with white people on regular basis either start recycling or purchase a large blue bin so that they can believe they are recycling.

Exactly. I love saving the earth without doing much, and--like most white people--I like throwing things away! It's almost as if recycling is too good to be true!

could the coming recession be good for academia?

How much does timing matter when it comes to success in academia? Perhaps more than we'd like. Jonathan Kramnick on 3QD recalls his own experience:
Enter the 1970s. Expansion gave way to constriction, the good times to recession.... the jobs that had been abundant throughout the 1960s disappeared virtually over night.... If you were in graduate school at the time, your fate was decided by the dumb luck of when you defended your dissertation. Had you applied for jobs a year earlier, you might be an assistant professor at Brandeis. Now that the bottom had fallen out, you were lucky to get by as an adjunct.... Four-year stints in graduate school stretched to a decade. The culture of graduate school, with its attendant malaise and cynicism, was born into the world.

But there is a silver lining.

graduate school became a place of intellectual ferment. From this ground sprang post-structuralism, literary theory, and the sense that literary study was really beginning to change.
This, I believe, is what's known as a dilemma. Apparently, my choices are:
  1. Be a part of an intellectual revolution
  2. Get a job.
Except, of course, that it isn't exactly up to me.

Monday, 18 February 2008

wilderness survival

"By the end of this course, you will know how to make or do anything you see in a museum."
Edward Rackley ponders his experience at Tom Brown's famed Tracker School in Florida, where exercises emphasize becoming aware.

Usually my basic needs are immediately, magically satisfied, with a minimum of conscious effort. There is no stealth, no guile, no creativity involved.

All these actions I can perform on autopilot, a blissful state of full-blown mind/body dualism. So long Homo Faber. Meet Zombie Man, connoisseur of post-industrial carrion, the Twilight Consumer.

Rackley isn't just talking meta-awareness, awareness of how much or little we're actually aware of in our everyday lives. Tom Brown wants us all to snap out of our reveries, even those of the meta persuasion, and start paying attention to our surroundings in a deep way, as though our very survival depended on it. After all, it does.

But this is a blog--it's a place built for meta, built for reverie. Here's mine:

I learned of Tom Brown fourteen years ago, when I was fourteen. That was the summer I worked as a counselor at Camp Bomazeen, a wooded peninsula jutting into Great Pond in Belgrade, Maine. Spreading over 200 acres of waterfront, peat bogs, mixed forest, and low hills, Bomazeen is an ideal space for a boy to explore over a period of weeks in the summer. I taught first aid and wilderness survival skills to young scouts of all ages. It's probably the best job I'll ever have. I believe I was paid $65/week, plus room and board.

Tom Brown was a bit of a guru among the more experienced counselors. In spare moments, I read a few chapters of his books. Most qualify as light philosophy and social activism. Brown wrote wondrous stories of stalking deer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, interspersed with paeans against pollution and thoughtless living. All boys everywhere (aged 7 to 72) would be, for a moment at least, entranced.

Therein lies the essential tension. It is possible, in today's world, not to think about where food comes from. It is possible, even for the poorest among us (or perhaps especially for the poorest) never to visit this place we call nature, never to touch this thing we call wild. In part this is because we have redefined them; we have made a linguistic move away from their necessity. Wilderness is an artificial place, one untouched by human hands. None of us has been there, or will. What great conceit to define a location by our absence. What greater conceit than to regret its destruction?

Recent history has liberated us from our evolutionary past in stages. It isn't that we have moved from low hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists and pastorals and on up to Marx's capitalist alienation from labor, though such faerie tales have their use. Tom Brown doesn't care that we have become alienated from labor through private ownership of the means of production; his worry is deeper: we have become alienated from the means of existence. Liberation is alienation, and alienation imprisonment.

It has been months since I tied a knot, years since I started a fire, a decade since I built a shelter from brush. These activities I remember wistfully, yet to them I do not wish to return. Rather, I wish to attend to the activities of the present with the fascination I had for them. Wilderness survival is about identifying and tapping into biotic cycles, living lavishly through efficient, end-directed activities. There is no urban survival merit badge, and yet there is an underutilized skill. The unliving, unthinking masses, we horde, over caffeinated and buzzing, we are oblivious. What even would count as the 'scoutcraft' of urban life? Timing the lights? Wayfinding among side streets, shortcuts through lobbies? Avoiding ATM surcharges? Should we attend, rather, to the creatures we encounter on the sidewalks? Not the squirrels or pigeons, but Hipster ironicus and Corporate wingtippus? Shall we track the predator-prey interaction of the motorists and cyclists? Instead of bird-calls, would we learn gang signs or how to talk to a Goth?

Friday, 15 February 2008

how to turn lead into gold

Step one: stow lead ingots on a Roman freighter.
Step two: sink the freighter off Sardinia.
Step three: wait two-thousand years.
Step four: profit!

Apparently, this economic model also works for WWI German warships.

Who knew radioactive metal was such a widespread problem? It's nice to be reminded once more of the unintended consequences of nuclear testing--especially given how insane the intended consequences already were.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

whig history?

Eric Schulman's "The History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less" first appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research. A new and improved version now exists at The Science Creative Quarterly. An excerpt is reproduced below:
Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Strong nuclear interaction. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Density perturbations. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Cluster formation. Reionization? Violent relaxation. Virialization. Biased galaxy formation? ... Photosynthetic unicellular organisms. Oxidation. Mutation. Natural selection and evolution. Respiration. Cell differentiation. Sexual reproduction. Fossilization. Land exploration. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Glaciation. Homo sapiens manifestation. Animal domestication. Food surplus production. Civilization! Innovation. Exploration. Religion. ... Expansion. Industrialization. ... Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Immigration. World conflagration. League of Nations. Suffrage extension. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. United Nations. Space exploration. Assassinations. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Computerization. World Trade Organization. Terrorism. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?
How extraordinarily techno-, US-, anglo-, euro-, anthropo-, zoo-, bio-, and matter-centric!

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

dinosaurs in space?

We philosophers pride ourselves on the crazy ideas we come up with in order to prove our points, but scientists really take the cake. NASA's Chris McKay thinks we should look for artifacts left by dinosaurs... on the moon. Why? Well, because if we found some, it would be pretty incontrovertible evidence of their intelligence. [via Overcoming Bias]

But what is truly distressing about this view is that it is in some respects so very reasonable:
One might speculate that perhaps Stenonychosaurus or her progeny did build radio telescopes, but their civilization was destroyed by some internal or external catastrophe. Perhaps the lifetime of their civilization was so short compared with the resolution of the geological record (typically millions of years) that it is simply lost without a trace in the depths of time. It is difficult to say what evidence would survive of human civilization - if it was terminated now - after 65 million years of tectonic activity, erosion, and sea level change. It is interesting to note that there is one place where the record of human technology will be preserved for times much longer than 100 million years. ... The Apollo landing sites on the Moon would bear mute testimony to technological humans.
Kinda makes me want to revisit an early plan to use a giant space-laser to etch "Isaac was here" in fifty-mile-tall letters on the surface of the moon. I still can't decide whether to face it in or out.

Friday, 8 February 2008

pushing tin

The delightful thing about geeks is that, when they become annoyed, they become obsessed with solving a problem. Julianne at Cosmic Variance points out an example: Jason Steffen's computer modeling of an ideal passenger loading scheme for airlines (available on arXiv).

Steffen's first insight is that the commonplace notion of loading from back to front rather than front to back or randomly doesn't address the main bottleneck of passenger-loading: waiting for people to stow their baggage. Indeed, in his model, back-to-front is the second worst loading method examined--only marginally better than the front-to-back worst-case scenario. The key observation is that in each case, only one passenger is able to stow baggage at a time. The first passenger in line begins stowing baggage immediately, but the second person in line has to wait for her to finish before he can begin stowing his bags--and as a result he blocks the third passenger from stowing her bags. Even random orders performed better--by half--because several passengers were able to stow bags at once.

The ideal depends on aircraft layout, but in the case of rows of 6 passengers, the best scenario is to board in six stages, each ordered back to front: 1) even rows of wing seats, 2) odd row wings, 3) even center, 4) odd center, 5) even aisle, and 6) odd aisle. This can result in a six-fold decrease in loading time.

Realities such as families traveling together, recalcitrant passengers, and psychological effects (front-to-back or back-to-front are more psychologically satisfying than random loading because despite their real disadvantages, it seems) are, of course, all ignored.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

punctuation evolution

Like a skyscraper skeleton that goes up overnight--but doesn't get windows for another decade--languages evolve in fits and starts, according to a new study.

Anthropologist Tecumseh Fitch of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., calls the study "a beautiful example of the potential for cross-pollination between evolutionary biology and … linguistics." He says the work marks "the emergence of a new body of mathematics that applies to all evolutionary systems, whether the replicators are genes, words, or ideas."
Anytime I read a story like this, I am struck by two conflicting reactions:
  1. Cool!
  2. No kidding.
The "cool" part is because I'm a dork. As for "no kidding," is anyone really surprised that the same math used to describe one thing that changes over time is also useful for describing something else that changes over time?

Unfortunately, this is not a tidy analogy. Fitch explicitly compares words and genes, the 'replicators' in the system, but that is certainly not the only way to read the analogy. In some ways, it makes more sense to link words and organisms, so that punctuations, replication, and extinctions act on the right sort of entities (I often get the feeling that biologists themselves are occasionally unsure whether the word "population" refers to a collection of organisms of a collection of genes--or if there is a difference). At still another level, it would seem that words/species, fill niches within a language/ecology. In one sense, all of these models work; I can gain insights into language if I make an evolutionary analogy at any of these levels. In another sense, they simply encourage loose thinking about something that's already confused enough.

the shape of politics to come

Some people like fonts. A lot.


The professionals call it for Obama and McCain. Here's how they break it down:

Obama's type is contemporary, fresh, very polished and professional. The serifs are sharp and pointed; clean pen strokes evoke a well-pressed Armani suit. The ever-present rising sun logo has the feeling of a hot new Internet company. His sans serifs conjure up the clean look of Nike or Sony. This typography is young and cool. Clearly not the old standards of years past.

McCain uses type that is a perfect compromise between a sans and a serif, what type geeks call a "flared sans."

I guess we'll see.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

smoke 'em if you got 'em

Bee at Backreaction points to a study by Dutch scientists estimating the lifetime health costs caused by by obesity and smoking.

The outcome was that longlivety eventually turns out to be more expensive than living unhealthy and dying young:
"Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures."
So far, this is one of those standard counterintuitive medico-science stories that always hits the news and gets people talking. Somehow, every smoker will see it and say, "see? I'm not the burden on society, you health nazis!" But what's interesting is how the researchers retrieved the result:
not through data analysis but by modeling three hypothetical groups: Obese non-smokers (BMI > 30), non-obese smokers, and non-obese non-smokers. These were then evaluated with regard to their respective statistical probability for certain illnesses from the age of 20 until the time when the model predicted their death. It turns out, though the highest yearly costs were incurred by the smokers in their older ages they were in total less costly since they died early, whereas the expenses for the non-obese non-smokers in their late years added up and the total lifetime health spending was larger. The researchers estimated the average cost for health treatments for the smokers to 220,000 EUR, for the obese non-smokers to 250,000 EUR and for the the non-obese non-smokers to 281,000 EUR.
But will such a model really work? The first phrase that really worries me is, "certain illnesses." If the scientists have cherry-picked expensive chronic diseases, then possibly the method makes sense (since otherwise healthy individuals might live longer with their treatments). But if mortality-increasing diseases are being modeled, a key piece of the causal picture has been removed (by making incidence and longevity independent parameters).

In their methodology, the authors explain that "risk factors were linked to 22 obesity- and/or smoking-related chronic diseases through relative risks of disease incidence for each risk factor level, to model the chain leading from risk factor to disease to death." [Incidentally, they cite another paper as the basis for this conclusion. I've not looked at it.] Possibly I'm misinterpreting, but this seems to support my initial read: a healthier person with a chronic smoking- or obesity-related disease will live with it longer, so much so that their medical costs outweigh the savings from their cohort's overall lowered incidence of said disease. Put another way, if you have one of these diseases, your risk of death increases significantly if you are a smoker or are obese (since, for healthier individuals, these chronic diseases are more manageable).

It should be noted, the study reflects both risk factors and medical costs in the Netherlands. The picture certainly looks different in the United States or Canada.

Another interesting finding is that obese people have higher health costs between 20 and 56, at which point smokers surpass them. Later, when all the obese smokers have died, the health-nuts are still plugging along, a drain on the system. In other words, otherwise UNhealthy people are subsidizing the treatment of otherwise healthy people with these 22 diseases.

Does this mean insurance companies should do away with healthy-living rebates? Or that they will mail you cigarette starter packs and "Red Meat Digest" upon your retirement?

that hipster, Nietzsche

It has long been claimed by exponents of intellectual history that Friedrich Nietzsche defined, in the waning days of the 19th century, everything that was to come in the 20th. This is presumably because he shared with the 20th century an attitude: hipsterdom. Eryk Salvaggio makes the connection explicit in the MaineCampus:
The history of Nietzsche and his fan-boy relationship with composer Richard Wagner is a familiar tale to anyone who has heard the phrase, "Their first album was better."

This intensity of feeling is crucial to understanding the betrayal felt by snobs and hipsters at a crucial historical moment in the history of indie rock: When Modest Mouse allowed "Float On" to appear in a Volkswagen commercial. Fans decried the band for signing to a major label and using their music to sell cars. It was perceived as a rejection of the values their fans believed in - and suddenly, without any planning or conspiracy - music stores and coffee shops everywhere stopped playing anything the band had ever done.

This, I think, is the heart of Nietzsche's issues with Wagner: Wagner sold out. For Nietzsche, the man who declared that God was dead and saw religion as a system of control, Wagner's return to Christianity is pretty much the equivalent of Dylan playing the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar back in '65.
Nietzsche lives.

why philosophy is hard

From SaintGasoline, via Evolving Thoughts:

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Obama and McCain get the nod from Belarus

What would happen if international groups took to endorsing political candidates in the US elections?  J.E.H. Smith: makes a strong case for the Belarusian endorsement of "Barack Obama, senator of City Chicago and nephew of Saddam Hussein" and "John McCain, senator of City Phoenix and number-one opponent of current president George W. Bush within Republican party".  Most revealing, however, is the analysis of "Hillary Rodham Clinton, organizer of popular solidarity-building women's breakfasts for discussion of hair-hygiene and of place of woman in American politics, and only official wife of number-one enemy of Serbs and all Slavic peoples, Bill Clinton. " (best read with a Belarusian accent):
Even in Soviet times we had saying: "The Woman: it is also Person!"  In Belarus, we have many women in political offices.  For example, Nadezhda Kholstyak is undersecretary of Dairy and Eggs, and Academician Elena Ostrovskaya is ad hoc advisor for the problems relating to Chernobyl Incident.  In Belarus, we are not afraid of a woman in place of power.  Now Hillary Clinton had eight years already in White House.  During that time, she set herself one goal: the creation of new polyclinics throughout America...  Americans should be asking to Candidate Clinton: ...where can I go to pasteurize my children?
Where indeed.

Monday, 4 February 2008

ming apple

Anyone who knows me personally knows I'm a bit of an Apple fanboy.  Love 'em or hate 'em, though, Apple's obsession with design is part of what makes them, well, Apple.  Their obsession with aesthetics extends to retail storefront design, and Apple has in the past resisted efforts to integrate their storefronts into the local architectural milieu.  Company CEO and spiritual leader Steve Jobs' famous recalcitrance has in the past delayed construction for months or years and likely cost the company millions in lost revenues.  On the other hand, his obstinance sometimes pays off in a big way, as with the fifth-avenue store in Manhatten.

I am rather excited to see how the Apple interior design team makes the transition from this traditionalist Ming facade to something approaching Apple's trademark wood-glass-metal smoothness.

(from TUAW)

Sunday, 3 February 2008

slutty turing test

via Slashdot:
a chatbot is making the rounds that successfully emulates an easily-laid woman. As such, it dupes lonely Russian males into divulging personal and financial details at a rate of one every three minutes. All jokes aside — and a lot of them come quickly to mind — that sure sounds like the Turing Test to me
I'm not sure this is quite what Turing had in mind, but close enough.

Friday, 1 February 2008

breaking and entering? try entering and fixing

Another in this week's series, "Isaac clears his bookmarks," again via
“Cultural guerrillas” in Paris, known as the Untergunther, were recently cleared of charges of breaking into the Pantheon. What did they do once they broke in? Steal artifacts? Spray-paint political messages on the walls? No, they just restored an 18th Century clock. And they did it over a one-year period.
Best. Prank. Ever.