2008 10 15
Recently read

Richard Price. Lush Life

A run of the mill murder and an equally run of the mill investigation. The interest here lies in the way the author takes us through it all from start to finish, and from several angles. Nothing too special about this novel, but it’s at least competently written. Price has written for The Wire, a fact that will surprise no one who reads more than a page of two of the book. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. If you’re a New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy the depiction of the Lower East Side, where all the action takes place.

Jonathan D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Did you know that in the middle of the 19th Century, a bizarre Christian cult led a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty which succeeded in taking over much of Southern China? Well, good for you, but I certainly didn’t. Hong Xiuquan was an obscure failed scholar with a passing acquaintance with Christianity (via a book of translated excerpts from the Bible) when he had a strange dream introducing him to God himself and informing him that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. Hong Xuiquan was evidently persuasive enough about his revelation to draw followers, who were then hardened in their faith by persecution. The resulting civil war, against the backdrop of chaotic 19th century China, led to the deaths of more than 20 million. Think of Waco, but in much of Southern China. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The Taiping — so they called themselves for a time — Movement deserves credit for being remarkably resourceful and militarily competent, even if they were completely bonkers.

This book takes us through these incidents, which I found so strange and improbable that I turned to Google several times to reassure myself that I wasn’t falling for a well-written but rather implausible alternate history of China. I found it a bit slow at first, but once it gets going it’s marvelous. And the theological bits are absolutely hilarious. The Taiping Movement’s interpretation of Christianity was filtered through questionable and at first partial translations of key texts, prejudices of the Taiping, and Hong Xiuquan’s personal revelations (which were assumed to be more authoritative regarding the word of God than scripture, since, duh, Hong had actually met the guy). This makes for fascinating attempts to rewrite and retranslate the Bible, and for very funny encounters with European Christians, which several times over resulted in a very quick slide from superficial agreement about Christianity to complete mutual incomprehension.

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

You really can’t go wrong with a book called Baboon Metaphysics. Cheney and Seyfarth’s book is not, however, about the Baboon’s views of time, space, properties and existence. Rather, the “metaphysics” in the book’s title refers to a jotting in one of Darwin’s notebooks:

Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

The term “metaphysics” here is used more broadly to refer to the basic ways in which the mind constructs the world, but it emerges that the authors have a special interest in social cognition.

Baboon Metaphysics investigates various aspects of Baboon cognition (especially relating to their social lives), moving back and forth between accounts of the researcher’s own fieldwork in Botswana and a vast literature on experiments performed on Baboons and other primates in captivity. The observations made and distinctions drawn along the way are extremely interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that the authors had managed to fit everything together into a coherent or persuasive framework. Their aim was to tie together the cognitive capacities that suit Baboons to their highly social way of life, and the cognitive preconditions for language use. Baboons are, of course, not all the way to language, but when it comes to communication they manage to get on fairly well in many respects. This is significant, according to the authors, since if complex social life puts a strong selective pressure on cognitive capacities that are a precondition for language use then it may give us clues about the successful human development of language. (At least, that’s what I understood of the argument. It’s entirely possible I’ve completely misunderstood it, and, since I read the book a while ago, misremembering it to boot. What do you want, a refund?) Well, perhaps, perhaps, but there are so many tricky unanswered questions — most of them acknowledged with refreshing frankness by the authors themselves — remaining about language, the relevant cognitive capacities, Baboons and other primates, and indeed, other highly social creatures that appear to lack the relevant cognitive capacities, that the authors’ overarching argument seems too weak to hold together all their interesting observations.

Carl Zimmer. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

E. Coli gets such a bad rap. Most strains are completely harmless, and this little organism has probably taught humanity more about genetics and evolution than any other, since it’s so easy to study, grow, and manipulate in the lab. Zimmer looks at everything from the history of genetics to the politics of evolution in this engaging book.

Jack Weatherford. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Weatherford seems to have two aims in this book. The first is to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Far from being a barbaric, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford depicts a savvy, open-minded proponent of religious toleration and open trade, who abolished torture and supported multiple far-seeing reforms. (Weatherford does not attempt to argue that Genghis Khan was terribly civilized by today’s standards when it came to the laws of war. Cities that surrendered to him were treated with leniency, but woe to the cities that resisted. This hardly marks him out as special for the period, though.) Genghis Khan’s accomplishments certainly suggest a remarkable man. In the course of a generation or two, the Mongols went from being a loose collection of feuding tribes to conquering a fantastic amount of the earth’s surface. The second aim of the book, announced in the book’s subtitle, is to sketch the many ways that all of this has impacted the rest of the world since then.

I’m not in a position to judge how plausible Weatherford’s account is, but the book is fun and very readable.

Joseph Mitchell. My Ears Are Bent

A collection of newspaper pieces by Joseph Mitchell (who spent most of his career at the New Yorker) originally published between 1929 and 1938. In these short pieces, Mitchell interviews cops, drunks, lady-wrestlers, pickpockets, ASCAP investigators, marijuana smokers, and more from Coney Island to Redhook to the Lower East Side to Harlem. In one memorable piece, he attends an execution; in another, he watches George Bernard Shaw spar irritably with the press. He has a fantastic eye for the telling detail, and wonderful control over the language in which he relates it. A convincing rebuttal to anyone silly enough to think that journalism can’t rise to the level of literature.

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2008 01 29
History comix

From Spencer, by way of Wondermark, artist Kate Beaton has made short comics about 20 historical figures. They’re great and you should go look at them.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 01 26
System compatibility, writ large

The NYT had a little blip today about the new freight train service between China and Germany. It’s interesting in itself, and especially so because apparently Russia and Mongolia’s national railroads use a different gauge than the national railroads of China, Germany, Poland and whatever other country the route passes through. So a single train can’t make the journey. They have to unload the freight and re-load it, to transfer between trains that run on the relevant gauges. I love this for reasons I’m having a hard time articulating fully. Giant systems, huge investments of resources and labor and time for their respective countries, where the decisions about the basic specs have huge ramifications, and it would be just a nightmare to fix.

But here’s where the NYT story surpasses itself into infrastructure geek sublimity. Because a similar problem of incompatible gauges has cropped up at other times in history, and the article links to the amazing example of the US southern railroads, which in 1886 converted almost 12,000 miles of track (and all their working trains too) to a different gauge in two days.

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2007 04 03
Latest Toxoplasma gondii news

Posted by in: Health, tech-sci


Howls of outrage (2)

2007 02 19
On tapeworms

Posted by in: Health, tech-sci


Howls of outrage (2)

2007 02 12
Bees in trouble

Mysterious ailment destroys bee colonies across US. This kind of thing terrifies me; it has the feeling of the first visible symptom of a total apocalyptic collapse. And it’s an apolitical reminder of why we need a first-rate science infrastructure (education at all levels, public funding for wide-ranging no-immediate-payoff science, encouragement of high social regard for scientists).

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 01 27
Water water everywhere

From Spencer – who just turned 30 – comes this link. It’s a description of the real-life game facing engineers as global sea levels rise, an essay with pictures, The Army Corps of Engineers Game.

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 01 23
Emacs question

Posted by in: Emacs, Software, tech-sci

(Non-geeks stop reading now.)

How do you customize emacs (running in MS Windows) so that it starts off maximized? I assume that you want to specify the frame size of the initial buffer in your _emacs file. But Googling only reveals customizing the initial buffer size by specifying dimensions, like so:

(setq initial-frame-alist ‘((top . 1) (left . 1) (width . 70) (height . 28)))

But that sucks. It’s not the same as maximizing the damn program, even if fiddling with the numbers could get the same effect as maximizing, which it doesn’t. (And the commands which do maximize the frame size end up pushing the minibuffer off the screen.) I’m trying to do this with my _emacs file without going into my registry.

Or is this so confused that the question doesn’t even make sense?

Update: Answer here.

Howls of outrage (15)

2007 01 22
No, fuck you

Posted by in: Microsoft, tech-sci

This piece on Windows Vista is one of the most underwhelming positive reviews I’ve ever read. I’m supposed to pay a hundred dollars for this piece of shit? I think I’ll pass.

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 06 13

Posted by in: tech-sci

Now this is cool: Cheap Drinking Water from the Ocean: Carbon nanotube-based membranes will dramatically cut the cost of desalination.

If the article is right, I imagine the development has all sorts of implications for both agriculture and international relations.

I am also gratified by the fact that the Slashdot discussion of the article contains an allusion to a scene in Top Secret:

Scientist: “Do you know what this [desalinization process] would mean to the starving nations of the world?”

Nick (in awe): “They’d have enough salt to last forever…”

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2005 11 29
Bleg: Cool firefox extension

Posted by in: Blegs, tech-sci

In the fullness of time I expect the internets to deliver this to me whether I ask or not. But why not ask anyway? So . . . my request is for a firefox extension that does a few things automatically. First, I’m starting to enjoy, which I use to bookmark interesting sites and syndicate them on the top left of this site. Since I’ve added a firefox extension, I’ve found it even easier to use. But what about link rot? To help combat that, there’s another firefox extension called Scrapbook, which saves a local copy of web pages quickly and easily. Now, what would be really nice is some way to integrate both of these in a single extension, so that every time you bookmark something in, you can quickly save a local copy to Scrapbook. The Scrapbook entries would acquire the same tags you’ve entered for the entries, so that searching Scrapbook would be quick and easy. And you could set the default on the entry box to either automatically save a local copy or only save a local copy if prompted. It would also be nice to have some way display the Scrapbook entries in your browser in a way that precisely mirrors bookmarks, except that the links would go to the cached pages. But that would be gravy. Even the basic version of this would be useful to me, and probably to a lot of other bloggers and news junkies.

Is that so much to ask? Has this already been done?

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 11 16
Burke says “bye” to Sony


Sony has driven me out of the market for their products: they�re trying to make it prohibitively difficult to listen to music the way I want to listen to it. And nobody, nobody who wants to sell me something I intend to use on my computer had better be messing with rootkits. I have enough of a headache now with spyware and malware to be courting an even bigger headache, especially from a company that doesn�t seem to understand that the problem isn�t with a bad implementation of copy protection but with their entire philosophy of copy protection.

So this is the end. Good job, Sony. Who is it you�re protecting your content for, anyway? The last stupid customer on Earth who doesn�t mind your retrograde policies, who is willing to pay high prices for what amount to short-term rentals of your content while accepting your incompetent technical sabotage of expensive home media technology? There are a lot of messed-up companies in the culture industry, but Sony is King Screwup. It may be beyond fixing by any leadership: there is obviously a problem within the company that encompasses both root and branch.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 11 15
Look out Eloi! Here we come!

Posted by in: tech-sci

I have some things to say about Canada and patriotism and related topics, but they have to wait until I wade through a bog of student drafts. But until then… time machine!

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2005 11 03
Charles Darwin demands hott chixx

Scientist have spoken again! It’s Natural for men to be attracted to Pretty, Feminine women! There’s a new study!

I saw these reports today too, and had the same reaction of shuddering barfitude, but as ever, Twisty says it better. And look on her main page for more recent stupidity in the reporting of “scientific studies” about sex differences.

I link to different articles than Twisty comments on; mine are dumber. The first in particular is a doozy. It begins by describing make-up application — apparently without irony — as “the most important part of a woman’s day”, and goes on to be confused in various ways about what the study purports to show. The second article quotes someone saying that this study has the shocking — shocking! — “implication… that women are employing a deceptive strategy. They can fool the male visual system with make-up.”

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 05 08
Firefox Security Flaw

Posted by in: Software, tech-sci

A fairly serious security flaw has been found in Firefox. But there’s an easy fix, until they patch it: just go into Tools –> Options –> Web Features. Then make sure that “Allow websites to install software” is unchecked. It’s checked by default, which is extremely stupid, so you’ll probably need to do this.

I’m insanely busy now, so I won’t be posting much for at least a week.

Update: Oh yeah, and Mac-heads can wipe that silly smirk off their faces.

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