Monday, November 30, 2009


Jonah Lehrer on Tom Stafford on confabulation, the process of making up stories as seen inpatients with frontal lobe damage. Also seen in normal people as we go about our daily lives, lying and making crap up, the way we do.

Oh, Catullus, You are a Pistol

"Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo" A quote from a Roman literary spat recycled for a sexual harassment suit. What was Catullus going on about?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Thomas Friedman on the greening of China:

China’s leaders, mostly engineers, wasted little time debating global warming. They know the Tibetan glaciers that feed their major rivers are melting. But they also know that even if climate change were a hoax, the demand for clean, renewable power is going to soar as we add an estimated 2.5 billion people to the planet by 2050, many of whom will want to live high-energy lifestyles. In that world, E.T. — or energy technology — will be as big as I.T., and China intends to be a big E.T. player.

“For the last three years, the U.S. has led the world in new wind generation,” said the ecologist Lester Brown, author of “Plan B 4.0.” “By the end of this year, China will bypass us on new wind generation so fast we won’t even see it go by.”

I met this week with Shi Zhengrong, the founder of Suntech, already the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. Shi recalled how, shortly after he started his company in Wuxi, nearby Lake Tai, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, choked to death from pollution.

“After this disaster,” explained Shi, “the party secretary of Wuxi city came to me and said, ‘I want to support you to grow this solar business into a $15 billion industry, so then we can shut down as many polluting and energy consuming companies in the region as soon as possible.’ He is one of a group of young Chinese leaders, very innovative and very revolutionary, on this issue. Something has changed. China realized it has no capacity to absorb all this waste. We have to grow without pollution.”

Greening is a seriously smart business strategy, because it cuts risk and improves the performance of the inputs of production. We'd better get to it sooner, rather than later, or we're going to be puffing hard to catch up.

Peter Mandelson's Very Bad Plan

Cory Docotorow takes apart Mandelson's plan to ban filesharers from the Internet.

There's a lot to hate about Peter Mandelson's controversial Digital Economy Bill, but there's one provision that perfectly captures the absolute, reality-denying absurdity of the whole enterprise. That titbit is the provision that holds the Bill's most drastic measures in reserve, only to be used if Britain's illegal filesharing doesn't drop off by 70% within a year of the main part of the Bill coming into force.

The idea that, at some time in the future, the volume of unauthorised copying will somehow drop off at all (let alone by an astounding 70%), is, frankly, barking. For that to happen, Britain's general capacity for copying would have to decline faster than the increase in the British desire to make unauthorised copies.

Alice's Restaurant

Arlo Guthrie live.

As an interesting side note, I once shared a transatlantic flight with a speed metal band called Implements of Destruction. Nice guys, actually.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Emanuel Derman at Bloomberg

On Fisher Black, plus Spinoza, Keynes's insight into Newton, and the difference between models and theories.

Key line:

"Intuition is a merging of the understander with the understood."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Coilhouse is really on a roll this week. They've got a roundup of great indie Christmas/{insert your holiday here} gifts.

Will Wheaton's selling "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot" mugs, and his brother Jeremy's got dancing seal mugs.

Weta's got rayguns.

And Tom Gauld has a new print of "Characters for an Epic Tale".

So, now you know what to get me

Immanuel Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgement

"The Drastically Condensed Awesome Version"

It's a hell of a lot better to watch Douglas Wolk explain this in five minutes while showing slides of, viz. Wolverine with a severed ear on a claw, than it is to read Kant in translation or, God forbid, the original, which is written in the kind of philosophical German that delights in its own impenetrability, and which conveys the sense-experience of having one's head parboiled. True that.

(via Coilhouse)

Sunday, November 22, 2009


And a friend shall lose his friend's hammer. And the young shall not know where lyeth their fathers' things that their fathers put there just the night before...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fixing the Schedule

Cal Newport describes the benefits of the fixed schedule approach to time management, so you too can get everything done in 40 hours a week, if you're gritty enough.
Scrawled on a whiteboard in the conference room of Collins’ Boulder, Colorado office is a simple formula:

Creative 53%
Teaching 28%
Other 19%

Collins decided years ago that a “big goal” in his life was to spend half of his working time on creative work — thinking, researching, and writing — a third of his time on teaching, and then cram everything else into the last 20%. The numbers on the whiteboard are a snapshot of his current distribution.

Evolving in Real Time

About 200 years ago, a member of a tribe in New Guinea that practices funerary cannibalism developed a mutation that protects against kuru, a prion disease transmitted by consumption of the brains of the deceased. The protective mutation has been passed down through inheritance ever since.

(via boingboing)

The Future Is Now, Vol LXXVII: Cortical Simulation Advances

Using an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer, scientists in California simulated a cortex with approximately 6% of human complexity, "that exceed[s] the complexity of the cat cortex".
Not representing a full cat cortex, as has been described elsewhere--a subtle but important distinction. It's going to be one thing to do a large scale simulation with an appropriate number of neurons and connections, and quite another level of difficulty to do a specific type of brain. Still, this is moving ahead nicely.
Update: Markham says, "it's a scam". Just a big neural network, not a simulated brain.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The 36 Stratagems

Based on a 500 year old Chinese treatise, there are some very colorful ideas in here for dealing with the competition, including:

Deceiving the emperor [by inviting him to a house by the sea that is really a disguised ship] and [thus cause him to] cross the sea
Harro von Senger compiled a commentary on the 36 stratagems after coming upon them by chance while studying in Taiwan.

It was pure coincidence that led Harro von Senger to the "36 stratagems." One day, a professor from the Center for Chinese Language and Culture Studies of National Taiwan Normal University, suddenly said to him that, of the 36 stratagems, running away was the best. When von Senger asked him what were the other 35 stratagems, the professor said he didn't know. At that time, von Senger was living in a students' dorm of Taiwan University and he questioned his Chinese roommates on the subject. Two or three days later, a Chinese student gave him a copy of all the names of the 36 stratagems. Several weeks later, when von Senger was at a book market and a Chinese student who was with him picked up one book and said: "This is a book on the 36 stratagems; are you interested?" Thus von Senger purchased his first book on this subject.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Grand Strategy of Byzantium

Edward Luttwak on the lessons of Byzantine strategy as they apply to the US. A lot of this seems to be inflected with modern theories of strategy (e.g., maneuver warfare) that may not have been present in the original texts. There are, however, a number of stereotypically Byzantine pieces of advice:

VII. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy's strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal -- if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.

(via kottke)

Better than Full Moon

Vampire Attack!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

I went to sleep, and when I woke up people were mad at Obama. And I thought, "Did I miss something? Did Obama start an illegal war? Did he fly over a flood zone and just wave? Did he torture detainees in a secret prison? Did he start illegally tapping phones? Did he alienate the world and squander a surplus? Because if he did any of that, we need to impeach that jackass."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Power Laws

When are power laws in effect? A statistical note. It's interesting that wealth is not one of the distributions where power laws appear to apply.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Christian Swineheart has created a set of infographics , called One Book, Many Readings that map the 1980's era Choose Your Own Adventure Books, including a variety of data displays, animations and other items. These show all the possible paths within each of the books, and show the changes in plot architecture that occurred over the life cycle of the series.

The "Signature of Consciousness"

FMRI studies suggest that the signature of a conscious process is a "more reproducible" neural pattern than unconscious processes, which are "more variable".


Kids these days. It used to be that you'd get your velvet frock coat and welder's goggles on and fly your homemade airship down to the corner pub like a proper steampunk. Now they've gone and taken the punk (and most of the steam) out of the movement, and are dressing like great granddad, with bowlers and whiskers and whatnot.
Now, where did I put my tophat & spats?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Watching the Planets

The Flaming Lips and a shedload of naked people go bicycling, stuff each other into and out of giant inflatable balls, and dance around campfires. I think this is NSFW, unless you work on a Dutch commune.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Link Roundup

Beautiful things from around the web. Collect 'em all.

Flock of 30,000 Starlings Like the monster from Lost or a really lively cloud.

The Illusionists Paintings by Jared Joslin

The horrors of French medicine.

Material well-being, a photo essay.

xkcd's Lord of the Rings flowchart, map. About one in five of Randall Monroe's cartoons are outstanding and mindbending. The rest are merely excellent.

Dread and Horror

Peter Straub, who is arguably the great master of interior horror, has a great interview in Salon this week, about the new Library of America anthology of fantastic literature.
Did you learn any new secrets about scaring readers from going through so many stories for this new anthology?

I'm not sure I can explain exactly how it works. It has to do with creating believable people for whom the reader can feel affection, then putting them in danger of the unnameable and unseen. And it has to be suspended. You can't just pull a gun out and have them get shot. You have to allow the sense of underlying unease to intensify over time. As crucial as fear is dread. Dread is essential.

How would you distinguish the two?

Well, dread leads to fear, to shame and to terror. And before dread comes foreboding.

And foreboding is ...

A prescience that something bad is about to happen. You don't know why you don't like that guy, but you just have a bad feeling about him. Dread is when foreboding shows itself to be justified. Something like foreboding is built into all fiction, I think. Even Barbara Pym novels have a point where you think, "Is that altar cloth going to work or not?"

I love the sleekness of his work. It's all about the embedded threat and the ongoing impact after the splatter has been mopped up.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Malki's Action Movie Wedding Cake

If you think this is awesome, you shoulda seen the reception. Blood everywhere, or so I'm told.

What the Elections Mean

In Virginia, minority vote was down 30% from last year, and youth vote was down 70%. New Jersey likewise showed lackluster turnout numbers. The smart consensus on this is that it's time to start following through on some of the rhetoric from the '08 campaign.

Pass real healthcare reform, fix the banking system, increase the stimulus, close down Guantanamo and other War on Terror relics, and push forward on gay rights. The temptation to water down and avoid conflict isn't going to get Democrats reelected.

As Markos puts it:

This is a base problem, and this is what Democrats better take from tonight:

1. If you abandon Democratic principles in a bid for unnecessary "bipartisanship", you will lose votes.

2. If you water down reform in favor of Blue Dogs and their corporate benefactors, you will lose votes.

3. If you forget why you were elected -- health care, financial services, energy policy and immigration reform -- you will lose votes.

Tonight proved conclusively that we're not going to turn out just because you have a (D) next to your name, or because Obama tells us to. We'll turn out if we feel it's worth our time and effort to vote, and we'll work hard to make sure others turn out if you inspire us with bold and decisive action.

Update: Aaand of course, the nitwit congressional Democrats took exactly the opposite lesson, and want to throw the "controversial" agenda overboard. One more time: nothing succeeds like success. Pass the priorities, and you'll be rewarded. The alternative is to placate your opponents, which just emboldens them.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


When the leadership of Great Britain pressed too heavily on him, Gladstone did one of three things: felled large trees with an ax; walked around London talking to prostitutes; or arranged books. It was an odd trio of diversions, especially the second, which, although its ostensible purpose was to reform fallen women, sometimes stimulated so many carnal thoughts in the reformer that he whipped himself afterward with a contrition-inducing scourge.

-Ex Libris
Anne Fadiman

Gladstone was also well known for his obsessive attention to detail, and in addition to his other hobbies, designed home library storage systems, which Fadiman also describes at length in Ex Libris. The two main shelving systems are both very clever and a little overspecified. It speaks well of the man that he had such a diversity of pastimes.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pursuit of Happiness

Gay marriage, legal pot, and visits to Cuba within 10 years, according to Jacob Weisberg. The old prohibitions fall:
The chief reason these prohibitions are falling away is the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness. What's driving the legalization of gay marriage is not so much the moral argument but the pressures from couples who want to sanctify their relationships, obtain legal benefits, and raise children in a stable environment. What's advancing the decriminalization of marijuana is not just the demand for pot as medicine but the number of adults—more than 23 million in the past year, according to the most recent government survey—who use it and don't believe they should face legal jeopardy. What's bringing the change on Cuba is not just the epic failure of the 48-year-old U.S. embargo, but the demand on the part of Americans who want to go there—whether to visit their relatives, prospect for post-Castro business opportunities, or sip rum drinks at the beach.

Your TV Meta Moment

Captain Reynolds from Firefly cameos in Castle for Halloween.

"Didn't you wear that 5 years ago? ... Don't you think you should move on?"