Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dog is Only Qualified Member of Vaughn Police Force

So, if you drive South from Santa Fe on US 285, after a couple of hours, you'll come across the small railroad town of Vaughn. With a population of only about 500, it has a police force of two humans and one dog. Apparently, however, neither of the human police officers are not certified, meaning that they can not arrest people or carry guns. Why aren't they certified? Well, the police chief was convicted of a felony in Texas for failure to pay child support, while the other officer was convicted of domestic violence.

That leaves the German Shepherd, Nikka, as the only qualified member of the force.

What the hell is going on, you ask?

Here's a little vignette (from this article) to give you a flavor of how things work in Vaughn:
After a recent Vaughn Town Council meeting, News 13’s Larry Barker asked Councilor Richard Gallegos about [Police Chief Chris] Armijo’s criminal record. At the time, Armijo, who is also a town councilor, was sitting next to Gallegos.
“Are you aware of some problems with the police department?” Barker asked Gallegos.
“No,” Gallegos said.
“You’re not aware of any problems with the police department?”
“Not at this point officially, no.”
“Nobody ever told you that your chief of police sitting next to you … is a convicted felon?”
“You didn’t know that?”
“(Shakes head) … I’d rather get it straight from the mouth.”
“OK, well why don’t you ask him? He’s sitting right next to you,” Barker said.
“When the times comes, I will,” Gallegos said.
Obviously this was a gotcha question from lamestream media flack. What's more, Larrry "Barker" clearly has a conflict of interest in the case, and is obviously just going to take Nikka's side.

When mayor Paul Madrid was asked if the dog was still working, he responded, “Right today it doesn’t have no use, no.”  The mayor also said, “Nothing makes sense to me anymore . . . I don’t know beyond today … if we will ever have a police officer here again or not. I have no idea because the town cannot afford what’s required of the State of New Mexico or the federal boys.”

All mayors should talk like this.

Last Friday, the police received a noise complaint at 734 Magnolia Street at 11:34 pm. The responding officer reported that all the butts smelled okay, and that the tree in the front yard was now property of the Vaughn Police Department.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Greek Pastafarian Arrested for Blasphemy

So, a reader conveyed this news item to Boing Boing:
On September 24, Greece's Cyber Crimes division arrested a 27 year old man on charges of blasphemy, for his website that mocks a well-known Greek monk Elder Paisios, using the name Elder Pastitsios (the even better-known Greek pasta dish).
 First of all, if your country still has blasphemy laws, your country is run by assholes.
It's being widely reported that the arrest was instigated not by the Greek Orthodox church, but by the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, who currently hold seats in Parliament.
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

There is also a link to this blog post, which describes (in Greek) a Pastafarian protest of the arrest. A video of the procession is at the bottom of the post. According to Google Translate, the proceedings involved this prayer:
Lord, the devil abolish the death fucked, cautions us from triskataratou Memorandum and any other demon, multiply Pastitsio this circumstance, as the loaves and fish, bless the social struggle and taxikin Again, amen 
and this song:
Rich went into liquidation and epeinasan
And the ekzitountes the Lord
All were reduced CDK pasticcio.
As the hungry liberator,
and defender of the poor,

sick doctor,
progastoron advocate Kimadofore,
Besalomartys Pastitsio,
Christ believed in God,
be saved Tash ventricular us.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Genetical Book Review: The Half-Life of Facts

So, today, Thursday, September 27, is the day that the book you've all been waiting for finally hits bookstores! What? No, not J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. I mean Sam Arbesman's The Half-Life of Facts.

[Disclaimer: Sam is a friend and colleague. In particular, he has been a great supporter of the Ronin Institute. So, to be completely honest, if I had hated the book, I probably would not tell you. On the other hand, as per the general policy of the Genetical Book Review, if I had not enjoyed it, I would not have finished it, and would not have written about it at all.]

The Half-Life of Facts owes its inception to this article in the Boston Globe in which Sam introduced the concept of the "mesofact":
When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.  
But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.
Mesofacts are the facts that disorient us. We do okay with fast-changing facts, which we expect to be different from day to day or from week to week. We also do okay with those facts that are stable enough that whatever we learned in elementary school is still true when we are picking up our grandchildren from elementary school. Mesofacts are the ones that are stable enough that we commit them to our long-term memory and then quit thinking about them. Then, years later, we are surprised when the "facts" we thought we knew turn out to be wrong.

The mesofact concept plays an important role in The Half-Life of Facts, but the book's scope is actually much broader. It covers a host of topics related to how and why facts change. We learn, for instance, that (in contrast with the opening of the mesofacts article quoted above) the height of Mount Everest does change. Its actual height changes every year due to the uplift of the Himalayas, the melting of glaciers, etc. Also, our knowledge of its height has changed over time as measurement techniques have been improved.

We also learn about some of the science that studies how scientific knowledge changes over time. This field, called "scientometrics,"is one that the author has worked in, and the book includes first-hand accounts of a number of interesting studies.

[As an aside, doesn't it seem like this field should have been called "scientology"? I think I'll start referring to people who work in this area as "scientologists." I sure hope that doesn't cause any confusion.]

As Sam emphasizes in the book, individual changes in facts tend to be random, depending on serendipity of invention or discovery. However, if we zoom out a bit, we find that many facts change at regular rates, which can be empirically determined. You've probably heard of Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles about every two years. Sam shows that analogous laws exist for all sorts of things, ranging from Roomba technology to the number of neurons from which it is possible to record simultaneously.

There are discussions of how facts spread through human populations and how our cognitive biases can prevent us from assimilating new facts. There are accounts of cutting-edge research on creativity in cities and historical accounts of scientific innovations, like when Francis Galton "ushered in the Statistical Enlightenment" by doing things like introducing fingerprinting to Scotland Yard and constructing "a map of beauty in the British Isles, based on how many pretty women he encountered in various locations."

One such historical account is of the time that John Wilkins (no recent relation) invented the metric system. While I, as a red-blooded American, bear no truck with the metric system, which was clearly designed as a gateway to socialism, I do celebrate the achievements of all Jo(h)ns Wilkins.

So, now you're asking yourself, "Is this the book for me?" The writing is very informal and accessible. For the most part, technical terms are eschewed entirely. Those few that are in there are defined clearly. So, the bar for entry is quite low. If you have an interest in how the world changes -- and how our understanding of the world changes -- you needn't worry that the book will be over your head.

If you have an existing interest in these sorts of things, you will probably find that you are already familiar with a number of the book's topics. However, you will also find a lot of things you probably did not know (like that there's a Moore's Law of average distance of daily travel in France!), as well as interesting tidbits about things you did know (like that Gordon Moore originally proposed his law on the basis of just four data points).

Perhaps the most salient thing that you will find in terms of the style of the book is Sam's unrelenting and infectious enthusiasm. If you're not a scientist, he does a great job of conveying why doing science is so cool. If you are a scientist, he will help to remind you why you loved science so much before years of dealing with funding and bureaucracy broke your spirit.

Personally, the thing that I loved about the book is the way that it presents science as a living, breathing, evolving thing, defined more by a process and a mode of discovery than by the collection of stale "facts" that you had to memorize for your high-school classes. Internalizing this vision of science is a large part of what graduate school is about. You spend years unlearning all of the stuff you spent the previous years learning. You learn that the correct, "scientific" answer to yes-or-no questions is almost always "yes, but . . ." or "no, but . . ." It is problematic in my view that we continue often to present science as black and white and finished both to lay audiences and to young scientists.

Maybe if enough people read this book, that fact will change.

Buy it now!!

What's that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Half-Life of Facts now through:


Barnes and Noble icon


Alibris icon

Monday, September 24, 2012

Well Thank God for THAT: Mood ring tail

So, remember last year, when Japanese company Neurowear came out with cat ears that you wear, and that sense your mood, and then move around accordingly?

Well, now they're coming out with the tail version! Not only does your tail wag in accordance with your sensed mood, it will transmit your mood to a social network, so that you can "search for places that many people found relaxing," and not at all so that you can "figure out where all the horny people are."

Here's the "concept movie," which is set to the exact same music as the cat-ears concept movie. When we find this kind of self plagiarism in biology, we call it "convergent evolution." Typically it means that nature has found an optimal(ish) solution that is strongly favored by natural selection. Either that, or that biology's marketing department is lazy and overpaid.

Oh, and it's name is "shippo."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talk like a (Somali) pirate

So, today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Fortunately, over at Darwin Eats Cake, iBall just got back from a big trip, and he's ready to help you out with all your talking-like-a-pirate needs.

Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:
As it turns out, everything here actually exists as a fully formed translated phrase on one of the two following sites:

All of which makes me think that this scenario must have come up before.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Birthday OWS

So, today marks the one-year anniversary of the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In celebration, there have been gatherings and whatnot for the past couple of days, building up to today's events, which include a couple of convergences on Wall Street itself.

If you're in New York and want to join, or want to read more about what's going on, you can find information here and here.

Or, sit back and watch Tim Pool's always awesome livestream:

Streaming live video by Ustream

I'll see if I can get Dev and El down there, and I'll post their report later today.

Friday, September 14, 2012

USA Today thinks blue balls are "cool"

So, Jim Romensko has shared this memo, which was apparently circulated to USA Today employees this morning by Gannett marketing officer Maryam Bankarim's. It represent's Sam Ward's effort to justify explain USA Today's redesign.

Here are a few of the best lines from the memo:
I have a dream . . . that one day all Americans will join hands and declare their undying love for our balls . . . .
Just what are our balls? Well, they are what we will make of them. I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed. They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness. . . .
We should use our balls at the right time and for the right reasons. They should be important, and never feel too planned or overly scripted. We should think of them as we think about sex: sex is great but we don’t want to have it ALL the time. Well . . . maybe that’s the wrong analogy, but you get the point. . . .
There is an aspect of this that defies explanation. I cannot prove that it exists, but I “feel” that it does. Let’s call it a sense of “coolness,” for lack of a better term. I don’t have any statistics on this, but I believe most people consider themselves to be cool; and they would like to feel they are reading a publication that is cool. They may not totally understand why, but they still want to be a part of it. . . .
Yes, I believe things are moving fast now and that our mojo is back . . . and we have the balls to prove it . . . 
 All corporate memos should be like this.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Galaxy Poetry

So, you know Galaxy Zoo? That's the outfit that has been leveraging the power of millions of people who have grown tired of the excessive availability of pornography on the internet to help them to classify the shapes of millions of galaxies observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Well, they've got this cool thing where you can enter text, and it will render it in a sort of galaxy font, made up of galaxies that resemble letters. It's not, you know, the most readable font in the world, but if you use this in your presentations, you'll probably get less crap from design geeks than if you use comic sans.

Anyway, here's an illustration, featuring a new poem, which is part of a series. The title of the series is still in flux, so it is presented here untitled.

A little hard to read, but some of the letters are awesome. And, you know, each one of these is a whole galaxy, which is, like, crazy.

Anyway, here's the original text for those of you who don't find satisfaction in extreme textual disorientation.
You believe in a
revolution that
comes like a billiard
ball, but Erica
knows the wind is made
of molecules and
lovers and guns and
copper coils spinning
around a common
belief in a spark
that destroys the world
It's got a limit of 250 characters, but that's at least long enough to translate all of Kim Kierkegaardashian's tweets.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Three questions about Jonah Lehrer

So, the saga of Jonah Lehrer has kept trundling on, now with the publication in Slate of this article, where NYU Journalism professor Charles Seife describes what he discovered when he was asked by the editors of Wired to look into Jonah Lehrer's past blog posts for evidence of "journalistic malfeasance," including plagiarism, recycling (self plagiarism), "press-release plagiarism," misrepresentation of quotes, and misrepresentation of facts.

The article is a must read if you have any interest at all in journalism, science, and/or schadenfreude.

For the past few years, Lehrer was the wunderkind of popular science writing. He was Malcolm Gladwell with a better haircut. Then, about a month ago, Michael C. Moynihan published this piece (also a must read, for all the same reasons), where he described his discovery that many of the quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer's most recent book, Imagine, were actually fabricated. More disturbingly, Moynihan described how Lehrer "stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied" to him when confronted with the fabrications.

The Moynihan piece followed on from some grumblings about Lehrer's journalism, when it was pointed out that an that he wrote for the New Yorker was largely recycled from something he had previously written for the Wall Street Journal.

As I understand things, recycling is a fairly minor journalistic crime. It is not really misrepresentation, since you are still presenting your own material as your own. It is a bit of a violation of trust of the readers of the New Yorker, but if they had not read the Wall Street Journal piece, maybe there was little harm. And, I suspect that the overlap between New Yorker readers and WSJ readers is fairly small. The two entities that Lehrer actually screwed over were the New Yorker, who presumably thought that they were paying him for new material, and the Wall Street Journal, who presumably had some expectation that they were paying him for exclusive rights to the article.

The recycling prompted people to start looking more closely at Lehrer's record, though, where they found a much more diverse and serious set of "journalistic malfeasances." It seems that Lehrer is an egregious cherry picker, sifting through papers to find studies that support his thesis, irrespective of the quality of those studies or the existence of other studies that contradict it. He also apparently has a serious quotation problem, splicing together frankenquotes from different sources, presenting quotes gathered by other people as if he had gathered them himself, and when a convenient quote did not exist (or would require actual effort to discover), simply making quotes up. Furthermore, when specific errors were pointed out to him, he would nevertheless republish those same "errors" again and again. (Again, for the details, read Seife and Moynihan.)

I use quotation marks here because, while an original error might have been an actual error, in the sense of being an honest mistake, once you know it's wrong, and you keep putting it out there, it becomes something different. A candidate word would be "lie."

To me, the whole Lehrer fiasco raises three questions:

1. WTF?

I mean, look, this is a whole lot of crazy behavior. It reminds me of those movies, like Big or 13 Going on 30, where a kid suddenly wakes up in the body of an adult and finds themselves in way over their head. Except instead of teaching all of the other adults around them to reconnect with their inner child, they spin totally out of control and devolve into a murderous, narcissistic pathological liar.

Maybe sort of like what you would get if you cast Linday Lohan in a mashup of Freaky Friday and Carrie.

2. Who is to blame?

Sure, the obvious answer here is Jonah Lehrer. Curiously, Charles Seife's article ends with this conclusion:
Lehrer's transgressions are inexcusable—but I can't help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I'm 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.
My twitter feed was full of responses along these lines of "You don't need formal training to know that lying is wrong." Agreed. If the only thing keeping most journalists from acting like Lehrer is the threat of a grumpy, old, cigar-chomping editor telling them to shape up (and then offering them a swig of whiskey from the flask they keep in the bottom drawer of their desk), we're all in a lot of trouble.

(If you want to see a real psychopathic maestro at work, read this classic piece on Stephen Glass, who fabricated whole stories, and concocted elaborate schemes to fool his editors.)

On the other hand, there is something real here. The current trend in journalism is to cut down on editors and fact-checkers, increasingly relying on the competence and honesty of individual reporters. This might have important implications for how we evaluate journalism in the future. In the past, publications had reputations, but maybe in the future, journalistic reputations will be more personal. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

3: How is it that Jonah Lehrer has not yet been hired as a speechwriter for the Romney campaign?

Seriously, this guy has it all. Cherry-picking facts, making up other facts, bald-faced lying when confronted about it. In fact, I'm a little bit surprised he's not on the ticket. Sure, Paul Ryan may have those dreamy blue eyes, but Jonah Lehrer's glasses are so cool, he doesn't even need eyes!