Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year Animation ft. King Taro and Pita

So, I don't know what to say about this video, except that it seems pretty cool, and it seems to espouse the multi-cultural, trans-national spirit of goodwill that we all ought to be embracing for these last few months before the Mayan Zombies come after us.

This was made for last year's New Year by King Taro. The singer is Pita.

Like the pocket!

Sherlock / Smaug reads Kubla Khan

So, the official title of this is "Benedict Cumberbatch reads Kubla Khan," but if you're like me, you're all, "Who the hell is Benedict Cumberbatch? That sounds like either a good way to ruin poached eggs, or some sort of sexually transmitted fungal infection."

To save you from embarrassment, I'll just tell you. He's this dude:

image from Wikipedia

That's the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in the most recent incarnation from the BBC, Sherlock.

He's also going to be playing the dragon Smaug in the upcoming Hobbit movies (via motion capture), and providing the voice for the Necromancer (aka Sauron). In those same movies, Bilbo Baggins will be played by Martin Freeman. Freeman also plays Watson opposite Cumberbatch's Holmes.

Somehow the whole situation seems Oedipal to me, although I can't quite articulate why.

Anyway, here is Cumberbatch reading Kubla Khan, one of my favorites. It is embedded here as a YouTube video, but is just audio.

If you're watching it with the sound off, but want to know what the experience would be like if you could actually hear it, here are a few comments from YouTube:

     "I want to be these words. His voice practically caresses them."

     "I would gladly go to that pleasure dome if he was in it."

     "me gusta"

     "OVARIES GO BOOM!!!!!!"

Thursday, December 29, 2011

1971 Bukowski letter on poetry reading

So, I'm not a huge fan of Charles Bukowski's poetry, but the dude wrote some awesome letters. This one was posted yesterday at Boing Boing. It is his response to a request to perform a poetry reading.

Just check out that last paragraph:
I'm working on my 2nd. novel now, THE POET, but I'm taking my time. They say it's 101 [degrees] today. Fine then, I'm drinking coffee and rolling cigarettes and looking out at the hot baked street and a lady just walked by wiggling it in tight white pants, and we are not dead yet.
You read that in a letter and it is smoking-hot prose that makes you want to go get drunk with the guy. That's a paragraph that could only be written by the coolest person you know. But somehow, his poetry all sounds exactly like that. And, for me at least, in the context of a "poem," I would probably feel that it was trying to hard. Or, rather, trying too hard in some ways and not hard enough in others. Maybe it is the extra expectation that is placed on words when you call them a poem, or maybe the sense of deliberateness that it implies. I'm not sure.

I think when I read that paragraph as a spontaneous statement, it crackles, but if I assume that it is deliberately crafted art, the crackle goes away. It makes me wonder if it would seem as compelling if it were written in 2001, rather than 1971, using a word processor rather than a typewriter. Maybe even the typo in "degrees" is key in conveying the authenticity / spontaneity of the statement.

Anyway, Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing got the letter from the tumblr this isn't happiness, which is full of cool stuff. If you don't already follow it, you should. Here are just a few of many, many gems to be found there (arranged roughly from FTW to WTF):

Twitter Revolutions, Reformation Style

So, a couple of weeks ago, the Economist ran an interesting article on Martin Luther and the Reformation, arguing that the social media of the day (inexpensive mass production of pamphlets) played a crucial role in fueling the spread of Luther's ideas. It's a fun read, full of interesting history, with parallels drawn to the Arab Spring revolutions throughout. It is also interesting how the tone of much of the discussion has not changed so much:
Sylvester Mazzolini defended the pope against Luther in his “Dialogue Against the Presumptuous Theses of Martin Luther”. He called Luther “a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron” and dismissed his arguments on the basis of papal infallibility. Luther, who refused to let any challenge go unanswered, took a mere two days to produce his own pamphlet in response, giving as good as he got. “I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel,” he wrote. “Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no scripture. You give no reasons.”

Also circulated at the time was this political cartoon on the origin of monks, created and circulated by the pro-Lutherans. Spoiler alert: they were crapped out by demons.

Over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, Thony Christie has an interesting follow-up post on the topic. He points out that the role of cheap mass production of pamphlets in driving the Reformation is academically well established. He also makes interesting points about the role of the new printing technology in spreading the astronomical ideas of Copernicus and Kepler, as these sort-of hitchhiked on astrological pamphlets.

Also, he calls me a sick warped bastard, but in a good way.

My recommendation: go read both!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Your "Santorum Surge" is finally here

So, if you're a Republican presidential candidate and former US Senator from Pennsylvania, you may have been feeling a bit plugged up in the polls.  You have been hovering irregularly in the low single digits, seemingly obstructed by a gang of competitors.

But, finally, those low polling numbers have been evacuated.

The most recent CNN/Time/ORC poll in Iowa found that Santorum has surged to 16%.

A Santorum Surge straight from God!

Congratulations, Rick!

Unrelated photo:

BTW, I didn't even know that orcs did polls.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Proving Atheists Wrong with Science #1

So, this is pretty awesome. Posted seemingly without irony by twitterer @LoveGod50.

via @EdYong209 via @NaomiMc via @isaach

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pandering to Mongolia

So, I've just posted the most recent Darwin Eats Cake strip: Where in the World is Darwin Eats Cake? Mongolia Edition.

Where in the World is Darwin Eats Cake is the regular feature where we look at Google Analytics to see where people have been visiting the comic from. We then put together some humor designed to appeal to those countries that have not ever visited. Previously, we have done Papua New Guinea and Bolivia.

There was an unfortunate episode during the period when the Darwin Eats Cake cast was camping out at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. In an effort to keep up production, I was forced to hire replacement characters, who put together an installment on Finland, despite the fact that we actually get a fair amount of traffic from there.

It was terrible. Just terrible.

There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.

Anyway, here's the latest one.  Much easier to read on the original.

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UPDATE: Oh, I forgot two things.

First, as of right now, Darwin Eats Cake has received visits from 126 different countries, but still a total of zero visits from Mongolia, Bolivia, and Papua New Guinea, combined.

Second, thanks go to Manduhai Buyandelger for consultation. However, she should be held in no way accountable for the offensive, stupid, or just unfunny bits here. Shit, maybe that's the whole thing. Well, still thanks and apologies to Manduhai!

Mongolian Joke Video Ricchi e Poveri ft Classic Gem and Zaya

So, in the process of researching the upcoming Darwin Eats Cake, which is going to be featuring Mongolian humor – or, rather, Mongolian-inspired "humor" – I came across this. I'm not entirely sure what the joke is, but I think it relates to splicing in some presumably Italian dude into the video?

The comment left by the poster on YouTube was:

"Italian pop mongolian pop new super best"

I think Classic Gem is the woman, and Zaya (apparently pronounced "Z-A-Y-A") is the guy, but I'm not really sure.

Anyway, I was sort of grooving on it, and I thought I would share. You are welcome!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Have a shiny (샤이니) Christmas

So, here's a little bit of Christmas joy from South Korean boy band SHINee (샤이니). They're like the Back Street Boys of Korea, or maybe the Spice Girls of Korea, or maybe the Harlem Globetrotters of Korea.

I don't know, there are five of them.


Calamities of Nature on the Meaning of Christmas

So, this comes from Tony Piro's awesome Calamities of Nature comic. It's from last year, but has not become less true. Check out the rest of Tony Piro's work.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Doctor Who Timeline / Infographic

So, I like this mostly because it is really long, and thus exploits one of the affordances of the web format. I mean, it would either look like crap in a magazine, or involve a big fold-out thingy, and probably no one would bother to make it then.

Anyway, this comes from It's got all your Doctors, your Companions, your villains, and little fun facts.

Minor quibbles:
Considered by many to be the most iconic Doctor, the fourth Doctor appeared in more seasons seasons and adventures than any other.
The Fourth Doctor is the only Doctor.
 "Blink" is consistently cited as one of the most popular episodes in the history of the series, even though the Doctor is largely absent from the majority of the episode.
The supposed "Doctor" in this case is the tenth "Doctor," in light of which I would suggest replacing "even though" with "because."

Fun fact not included in the poster: Lalla Ward, who played the second Romanadvoratrelundar, is married to Richard Dawkins.

Occupy Wall Street Lego Set

So, the other day I was talking with my kid, and he was bemoaning the fact that with Playmobil and Lego, the criminals are often much cooler looking than the police. I've been encouraging him to use the criminals as occupiers, so that the criminals can be the good guys. Remember, the Rebels in Star Wars rarely did anything that was not against the law!

On that topic, here is a pitch-perfect video from Slate, and I soooo wish you could actually buy these.

Ultra Justice!!!

Merry Pastafarian Christmas

So, I was hoping to find a FSM-themed Christmas video to post for you. There are a few out there, but none that I felt surpassed the quality threshold I try to apply to the blog.

What quality threshold, you ask? Fair enough.

Anyhoo, here's an excellent little video. It's lack of explicit Chrismas themèdness is more than compensated by the hypnotic tune and rockin' graphics.

"Let him clean up your mind / Feel the power of his balls"

Music by The Oufs, who, adorably, have a myspace page. Graphics by Noam Raby.

If you prefer, the video is also available with Turkish subtitles.

2011: The year in volcanoes

So, The Atlantic has an awesome gallery of pictures of volcanic activity from this year. Check it out.

via Kottke.

Monday, December 19, 2011

North Korea Party Rock

So, nearly two million of you have already watched this on youtube. The rest of you can watch it here.

Good-night, sweet, psychopathic, strange, little prince.

Steampunk Star Wars

So, how awesome would this have been?

Yes, that's Steampunk Princess Leia. Presented here to rekindle the 21st/19th-century version of all of your adolescent fantasies.  

And here's the corresponding stormtrooper, to rekindle your nightmares.

And finally, here's Yoda, taking a drag on . . . um . . . let's say it's that spice stuff from Dune. He can totally see what color the force is now.

These are the work of visionary genius Bjorn Hurri, whose mother, I assume, went through only a thirty-minute labor.

via Bit Rebels, where you can also find Boba Fett, C3PO, and an in-progress Jawa.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ronin Institute website up-ish

So, I have finally created a webpage for the Ronin Institute. It is quite bare-bones at the moment, and will be morphing considerably over the next few weeks. Those of you who have used Wordpress will immediately recognize it as what a webpage looks like when you set up a Wordpress site without doing anything else.

The URL is

I have included a disclaimer in reference to this blog (Lost in Transcription), that it does not represent the views of the Ronin Institute. This might seem a bit weird, since, at the moment, the Ronin Institute consists of, well, me. The issue I see going into the future is that I often spout off political / religious / cultural opinions here. Those opinions are honest and mine, but are not directly related to my scholarship / research. Furthermore, once the Ronin Institute has established its tax-exempt status, I believe that it will be prohibited from expressing particular forms of political opinion.

So, the Ronin Institute will have its own blog, the Ronin Blog, which is currently at:

The Ronin Blog will provide updates from the Ronin Institute, some cross-posted from here, information about Ronin Institute activities, and, hopefully, discussions about the challenges, rewards, intricacies, etc., of doing scholarship outside of the traditional academic structure.

If you're an independent scholar, and would be interested in contributing, let me know! Happy to have cross posts from your own blog.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I Am An Action Scientist

So, I Am An Action Scientist is an excellent little song by Adam WarRock written for the Atomic Robo comic. About Atomic Robo:
Atomic Robo is secretly hired by the US Army to infiltrate the hidden Himalayan mountain base of Baron Heinrich Von Helsingard before he perfects a superweapon for the Nazis.
So, you know, sort of like Captain America meets Short Circuit.

This is my new motto: "I am an action scientist. / That's why the science is guiding my fists."

Notice: best heard at max volume with pipette in hand.

Check out the comic here. Download the mp3 here.

via Boing Boing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Calvin and Hobbes Winter Wonderland

So, this is an excellent little musical montage of snowman scenes from Calvin and Hobbes lovingly rendered by Jim Frommeyer and Teague Chrystie. If you're interested in how they did it, you can read (and watch) more here. If you're more of a consumer, just sit back and enjoy.

Note that at the time of this posting, the YouTube page actually has more likes than views. I don't know how that's done, but seems right. I certainly like it more than once.

via Topless Robot.

Don't try this at home: High School incest prank is hilarious, apparently

So, apparently in Minnesota, spin the bottle is a game for the whole family.

Here's a prank from Rosemount High School. Some of the team captains were blindfolded and then kissed by a special someone. The twist? The special someone was one of their parents! Hilarious, right?

When I read the description of this, I assumed that the parents were also blindfolded, but no, they knew exactly what was going on. Although, in retrospect, if the parents were blindfolded and thought they were making out with someone else's high-school kid, maybe it wouldn't be that much better.

Hard to know what to say about this, except, hey, everybody seems to having a good time, so maybe the rest of us should, you know, sit down and quit judgin'.

The video is a little shaky, so it won't be that satisfying for those of you with mommy and/or daddy issues who are watching in a darkened room with a box of kleenex.

The description in city pages is actually much racier than the actual video:
And these are not just innocent pecks on the lips. The parents are intimately lip-locking their children for several seconds. One even progresses to rolling around on the gym floor. In another instance, a mother moves her son's hand south so he's grasping her butt.
via Boing Boing, Gawker, where everyone seems to be completely scandalized.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy the Death Star

So, Darwin Eats Cake has returned from two consecutive strips featuring dumb math equation jokes to check in with Eleonora on how the occupation is going.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Dr. Breakfast

So, this video is called Dr. Breakfast. It will be at Sundance in 2012. The official description says:
One day at breakfast, a man's soul busts out of his eyeball. While the soul roams the earth eating everything in sight, two wild deer bathe and dress the man's catatonic body. . . 
Which, you know, yeah, it's that. There's a certain something-else-ness to it, though. Watch:

via The Awesomer, who call it "bizarre, yet heartwarming," and I'm all, yet?

The filmmaker, Stephen Neary, has a blog where he has a bunch of interesting stuff about how the film was made, his other art, and words and stuff. Much of it has a similar something-else-ness, which is similarly enjoyable.

Get your boomenfreude on!

So, remember the baby boomers? Maybe you've heard of them by their other name, the Most Self-Important Generation. They're the ones who think that just because they brought you Hendrix, now they get to bring you an Orwellian police state, and you should just shut up and thank them.

Well, here are two things that made me smile this week, both of which are a form of response to the way in which a demographically very narrow experience has been defined as the essence of "American," (and, in related news, "American" as the essence of "right").

The first is from xkcd, and the second is from community, which is one of the smartest shows on television, which is probably why the baby-boomer executives have placed it on indefinite hiatus.

Finally, because I think it fits in nicely, I have included an excerpt from a letter written by Thomas Day in the wake of the Penn State scandal (read the whole thing here).

So, sit back and get your boomenfreude on!

Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work.
For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting.
We looked to Washington to lead us after September 11th. I remember telling my college roommates, in a spate of emotion, that I was thinking of enlisting in the military in the days after the attacks. I expected legions of us -- at the orders of our leader -- to do the same. But nobody asked us. Instead we were told to go shopping.
The times following September 11th called for leadership, not reckless, gluttonous tax cuts. But our leaders then, as now, seemed more concerned with flattery. Then -House Majority Leader and now-convicted felon Tom Delay told us, “nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” Not exactly Churchillian stuff.
Those of us who did enlist were ordered into Iraq on the promise of being “greeted as liberators,” in the words of our then-vice president. Several thousand of us are dead from that false promise.
We looked for leadership from our churches, and were told to fight not poverty or injustice, but gay marriage. In the Catholic Church, we were told to blame the media, not the abusive priests, not the bishops, not the Vatican, for making us feel that our church has failed us in its sex abuse scandal and cover-up.
Our parents’ generation has balked at the tough decisions required to preserve our country’s sacred entitlements, leaving us to clean up the mess. They let the infrastructure built with their fathers’ hands crumble like a stale cookie. They downgraded our nation’s credit rating. They seem content to hand us a debt exceeding the size of our entire economy, rather than brave a fight against the fortunate and entrenched interests on K Street and Wall Street.

On Ronin and the importance of physical colleagues

So, welcome back to my intermittent live-blog of my adventures in forming a non-profit research institute in order to function as an independent scholar. I've written a couple of times before: about my own goals for the enterprise, and about the things that an independent scholar will most be in need of.

One of the things, of course, that an independent scholar needs is colleagues. Depending on the nature of your research, you might be able to do the day-to-day work (math and programming, in my case) entirely on your own, but unless you are a very special sort of misanthropic genius, you need interaction with a set of colleagues. Sometimes you will want to take on collaborative projects that require the expertise of more than one person, but even more, you need knowledgeable people to bounce ideas off of, people who will ask the critical questions that make your work better, or who will drop some jewel of knowledge that lets you see the problem you've been working on in an entirely new way.

Now, in principle, much of this can be accomplished on the internet, but I am wondering if there are not certain types of information that more or less require face-to-face contact.

Last week, I was at a "catalysis meeting" at NESCent (the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center) on genomic imprinting. The meeting was superb. It had excellent people who work on the problem from all different perspectives: theorists and experimentalists, molecular and developmental biologists, mouse people, marsupial people, bee people. I learned a ton, and, perhaps more importantly, I learned of the existence of a bunch of things that I didn't know. I still don't know them, but now I know that I should know, and I know where to start looking, and whom to ask for help when I get stuck.

As an aside, I also had the chance to meet Craig McClain, Assistant Director of Science at NESCent and doyen of the group blog Deep Sea News. He was as nice as their blog is awesome.

Some people say that biologists grow to resemble the organisms that they study. You be the judge.

You might think that meetings like this are particularly efficient for transmitting information, but that you can accomplish the same thing through more aggressive and far-reaching readings of the literature. After all, the organizers of the meeting were able to find these people. In principle, I could just get all of their papers and read them carefully, referring to textbooks on biochemistry or mammalian physiology whenever there was something I didn't understand.

But I'm not sure that would actually work.

The thing is, some of the most important pieces of information I got at the meeting were things that are not written in papers, or perhaps anywhere, nor are they likely to be. For example, there were a number of people there who have spent years working with lab mice. They have observed thousands and thousands of crosses (e.g., the outcome of a mother of one mouse strain mating with a father of a different mouse strain). This has given them a deep knowledge of what does and does not happen in these crosses, as well as a sense of how sensitive different traits are to the details of the experimental procedure.

An interesting thing was that there were certain results from the scientific literature that none of these people believe, because they are not consistent with their own observations. Now, no one has gone and written a rebuttal letter, or published a set of negative results contradicting the original papers. They have all just sort of implicitly agreed that results using a certain technique, or sometimes results coming from a certain lab, are unreliable, and they move forward with their research as if those results did not exist.

So, there is this substratum of knowledge that is widespread among experts, but which does not find its way into print. In part, this is due to the thanklessness of writing response letters and publishing negative results. In part, I think, it results from a sense of decorum / political consideration. It is common for scientists to have opinions that whole swaths of research are garbage, and it is common for them to share this knowledge in conversation, particularly over beer. However, most are too cautious to put their genuine opinions down in writing -- even in e-mail.

As the good folks at Gawker say, "Today's gossip is tomorrow's news!"

Fundamentally, I don't think that there is anything wrong with this arrangement, as it maintains a pretty high bar for calling someone out for doing bad science, but permits people to move forward with what they collectively perceive to be the best possible information. However, it does point to the importance of getting out there and interacting with people face to face. Otherwise, you may find yourself developing a whole research project that is predicated on some results that no one thinks are true.

I should note that this problem is not unique to the independent scholar. If you are working in a typical university department, there may not be anyone else in your department -- or only a small number of people -- whose research is close enough to your own that you share the same scuttlebutt. That is, no matter who you are, you need to make sure that you pursue opportunities to talk informally -- and in person -- with the people who care about the same things that you do.

One last observation from the NESCent meeting. This was the first scientific meeting I have attended under my official affiliation with the Ronin Institute. This meant that people would look at my name tag and ask me about it. I would tell them briefly about the idea and my plans for Ronin, and they were all very enthusiastic. The people who had come over from England, in particular, tended to comment on how very brave I was. After I got back, I came a cross this translation guide:

If you work with anyone British, you should print this out and carry it around with you. It serves as a handy guide as to whether you need to be punching them in the nose.

I'm going to assume that this is just wrong. Let's posit that a better translation for "That is a very brave proposal" would be "Wow! You are a singular genius and an inspiration to children around the world! Also very sexy! Mee-yow!"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What if there were Chinese or Russian military bases in Texas

So, it turns out that Ron Paul's new ad is pretty awesome. I feel pretty ambiguous about many of Paul's positions, but this is one topic on which I think he is exactly right. Also, everything about the way this video is done, from the graphics, to the modulation of the audio, to the text itself, is just rock-tastic.

That's the official Ron Paul video, which I think was just released. However, there is another version that was made and posted back in May. I don't find it quite as compelling overall.  The graphics are a little more inventive, but lack the frenetic energy of the new video. Also, the older one actually uses Ron Paul's voice throughout, which lacks the cinematic, Orwellian overtones of the speaker in the new video.

Like I say, I don't necessarily agree with Ron Paul on a lot of positions, but I am glad that he is out there making this argument. I wish more people in our government were making it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Russian Burger King is AWESOME!!!!

So, this is apparently an actual television ad for Burger King in Russia, which is soooo much better than Burger King in America.

At Burger King in Russia, you ride on unicorn. At Burger King in Capitalist America, unicorn rides you!

via Jezebel.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Welcome back to the obscurity

So, I just got back from a NESCent catalysis meeting, and boy is the free energy of my transition state reduced!

There's been a lack of bloggage over the past week, since I was actually off doing some science, or, rather, talking with people who have been doing actual science. When you're a theorist, it's a fine line.

[Note to self: include clever transition here before posting.]

Which brings us, obviously, to the latest two Darwin Eats Cake strips, which feature abusively obscure equation-themed humor:

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No, dumbass, we're not a high-tax country

So, this is not new information, or a new chart, but it's new to me! This chart, or collection of charts, comes from the Center for American Progress from back in June. I would go on here about how the politicians have been lying, blah, blah, blah, but you already know that. Don't you? Please tell me you already know that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How to respond to a threatening letter from a lawyer

So, here's a little gem of a letter from 1974 (via Legal Antics). The first image is a letter sent by a lawyer to the Cleveland Browns. The second image is their response. If you ask me, this should be the standard answer to every letter you ever get from a lawyer.

The original letter:

And the response:

The Sith who Stole Christmas

So, as you emerge from your four-day food coma, I'd like to welcome you back with this piece of awesomeosity, which is a well matched mash-up of Boris Karloff and the Boris Karloff of the Star Wars universe.


Friday, November 25, 2011

How to fix the Miss America Pageant

So, remember last year's Miss America Pageant? Let me remind you. We were treated to Alyse Eady, Miss Arkansas, whose talent was singing "I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart," including the yodeling, through the use of two ventriloquist dummies. AND SHE DIDN"T WIN!

Ventriloquist yodeling, people. Here's the video:

Anyway, the fact that she didn't win obviously points to the deep corruption at the core of our socio-economico-pageanto-political system. However, the fact that she came in second is reason to hope for the future. In the vein of that hope, I humbly suggest that next year's pageant involve a group talent competition. I furthermore suggest, nay, demand, that one of the groups do an act like the one in the next video.

This video features the Warriors of Goja on an Indian talent show and comes here via Jason Kottke notes:
I've been on the web for 17 years now, I'm a professional link finder, and I have never in my life seen anything like these guys performing on an Indian talent show. They *start off* by biting into fluorescent light bulbs and it just gets more nuts from there.
Note: best viewed with the volume up.

There is no one out there who can honestly say that ten Miss America contestants jumping through columns of fluorescent lightbulbs and hitting each other with sledgehammers would not be the greatest television event in history.

Also, is there someone who can translate what the female judge says to them at the end? Anyone? Tanmoy? Anyone?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tower of Lego

So, Happy Thanksgiving (belatedly to Canadian readers).

I thought this was awesome. From Robbie and Bobby.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mitt Romney in his own words

So, you may have heard about Mitt Romney's first paid campaign ad, in which he quotes Obama as saying "If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose."

Of course, in context, what Obama actually said was this: "Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.'"

Well, here's an awesome video of Romney quotes whipped up by the folks at Think Progress, noting that this is Romney in his own words, by his own standards:

via The Atlantic Wire.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Linkasaurolophus: November 21, 2011

So, originally, I had been hoping to write a follow-up post on everything that has happened in the wake of the UC Davis pepper spray incident. However, two things. First, everyone else and their mother has covered the UC Davis thing in far more depth than I would be able to do. Second, xkcd released this epic infographic on money, which makes putting anything else on the internet feel sort of pointless.

Instead, let me just point to a few Occupy UC Davis links:

Over at phylogenomics, Jonathan Eisen has tons of pictures from UC Davis, and has reposted a lot of the open letters that have been written to Chancellor Linda Katehi. He also has an impressive compilation of links on the topic here.

The most moving of the open letters that I have seen is the one written by UC Davis Professor Cynthia Carter Ching addressed to the students. Read the whole thing here. Excerpt:
So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge.
And to my colleagues, I ask you, no, I implore you, to join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run.  Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours.  It’s our university.   And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again.  Not to our students.  And not at our university.
The other must-read piece on the subject is by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic. It rightly points out that by focusing too much on the individual cop who did the spraying, we miss everything that is wrong with the system, and the fact that the cops are, in a sense, victims of the same broken system.

Over at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin had been covering pretty much all of the crucial OWS happenings. If you have any interest in the Occupy movement at all, you should be following her at Boing Boing and on Twitter. For just one example, here is an interview with one of the students who was pepper sprayed.

Also check out Boing Boing's Occupy Lulz photo collection, which features the meme-ified pepper-spraying Lt. John Pike heavily, but not exclusively. Here's the most recent addition at the time of this posting:
For a more exhaustive collection, check out the Pepperspaying Cop Tumblr.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The first rule of plutocracy is . . .

So, a couple of weeks ago, Eleonora came up with this line, and she asked me to put together a poster to accompany it. Finally, yesterday, I had a chance to take a stab at it. Or, you know, spray it in the face at close range with weaponized capsaicin, as the kids are calling it these days.

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or a higher resolution image, let me know.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Katehi responds re: pepper spraying students

So, Chancellor Linda Katehi has released an open letter in response, presumably, to criticism in the wake of the UC Davis police brutality that resulted as a direct consequence of her orders.

If you really want to read the whole thing, you can find it here, but I don't particularly recommend it, as it is the usual mishmash of bureaucratic double-speak and expressions of regret and sadness that are carefully worded so as to avoid admitting any blame.

She is calling for a task force, though, so, um, yay?

UC Davis Pepper Spraying and Call for Chancellor's Resignation

So, I'm posting here the astounding 8-minute video of UC Davis police pepper spraying student protesters, and the crowd reaction afterwards. If you follow the Occupy movement at all, you've probably already seen it, but if not, watch the whole thing.

And keep in mind, these students are there protesting the police brutality that occurred at previous protests, where UC students were beaten with batons and hospitalized.

[UPDATE (via Mother Jones): Just FYI, the main pepper sprayer is Lieutenant John A. Pike, who received a salary of $110,243.12 in 2010.]

And here's a shorter video (with the spraying, but without the crowd reaction) taken from a different angle.

Here are a few of the things that I take away from these videos:
  1. The police are being used to brutalize and intimidate protesters. Note that the cops went out of their way to spray protesters who were way off to the side, who were not actually blocking the path. This is about physically punishing people for dissent.
  2. A few of the police (here and elsewhere) seem to take an attitude towards inflicting pain on other people that is at best indifferent, and at worst psychopathic. The vast majority of the police, I think, are not like this, but nor do they seem to be doing anything to stop their colleagues from brutalizing the students.
  3. Peaceful, non-violent confrontation can work. It seems fairly clear in the first video that the protesters won the day. And they did it by taking the high road, while at the same time not backing down.
This morning, Nathan Brown, an Assistant Professor, posted this open letter calling for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi. In the letter, he details the events captured in the video, as well as incidents of police brutality leading up to this particular protest. Here's an excerpt describing the police dismantling of the tents on the UC David Quad:
Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.
What happened next?
Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.
The whole letter is well worth reading. And if you have any association with UC (e.g., as faculty, staff, student, or alum), add your voice.

Inequality and Occupy Wall Street

So, I just discovered the blog of Miles Corak, an Economics Professor at the University of Ottawa (via this short piece in The Atlantic Wire). He has been doing a series of posts about wealth and income inequality that are really interesting and accessibly written. At this time, there are five posts in the series (here, here, here, here, and here).

If you're interested in a thoughtful, nuanced, and readable discussion of the economic factors underlying the Occupy Wall Street protests, check it out.

The most striking image comes from the post on nepotism, where Corak presents a graph from one of his own papers from the Journal of Labor Economics (accessible version available here) that shows the fraction of sons who work in the same firm as their fathers, as a function of income percentile. (Data for Canada)

Corak notes:
Connections matter. And for the top earners this might even be nepotism. This is not a bad thing if parents pass on real skills to their children, skills that might even be specific to particular occupations, industries, or even firms. If this is the case then it makes economic sense to follow in your father’s footsteps.
Wayne Gretzky often talked about the role his father played in developing his skating and stick handling skills. He spent hours and hours with Walter on the backyard rink. But not all top earners got to where they are because of this sort of good nepotism. I somehow doubt that James Murdoch is the Wayne Gretzky of the publishing world.
Bad nepotism promotes people above their abilities by virtue of connections, and it erodes rather than enhances economic productivity.
But there is even a larger cost. If the rich leverage economic power to gain political power they can also skew broader public policy choices—from the tax system to the education system—to the benefit of their offspring. This will surely start eroding the belief that labour markets are fair, and that anyone can aspire to the top.
He also notes that the United States is among the most unequal of the world's rich countries, as well as one of the most elastic. Elasticity, in this context, is the extent to which a person's income is determined by the income of their parents.

Corak goes on to write:
These facts are finally starting to percolate into the American consciousness. Joseph Schumpeter, the Harvard University economist who taught during the 1930s, is often cited as saying that recessions are like cold showers: they clear the economy of inefficiencies, make the existing structures more apparent, and set the conditions for change.
But recessions have social as well as economic consequences. The current recession has shaken some people awake, and Occupiers signal the decline of the American Dream in our consciousness, a manifestation of underlying realities, and the demand for a change in the way of doing business.
Here's hoping that there will be many more installments coming in this series.

Corak, M., & Piraino, P. (2011). Intergenerational Transmission of Employers Journal of Labor Economics, 29 (1), 37-68 : 10.1086/656371

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Medical emoticons and the orgasm face

So, a few months ago, I posted the series of three Darwin Eats Cake comics in which Guillaume explains why we make funny faces when we orgasm. (You can find the original comics here, here, and here.)

Neuroskeptic pointed out the need for an orgasm-face emoticon.  I thought maybe something like this:


but John Wilkins (no recent relation) suggested this:


I came across this chart of medical emoticons, which includes the Viagra Emoticon and the Priapism Emoticon, so we're getting close.  Anybody out there ever see or receive an orgasm emoticon?  Maybe one of Herman Cain's former employees?

Post your submissions in the comments !O

via I Love Charts

Fate of the People's Library, Updated

So, as of right now, it looks as if Dev and El were right the first time:

The claim from the NYPD that the books and other belongings had been safely stored turns out to be, well, not so much true. Some books were at the Sanitation Garage, but most were not, and many that were had been damaged or destroyed.

America's Plutocrats: protecting you from the dangers of literacy!

Happy American Censorship Day

So, today is the day that congress begins deliberation on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This is a bill that would impose ridiculous criminal penalties on all sorts of people, from a kid singing a song on YouTube to Tumblr and Facebook. Nominally, the bill seeks to deal with online piracy of copyrighted material, but it makes internet providers and companies accountable for things that their users do. This would effectively require them to police content (like everything you post on your blog, or your Facebook page).

A host of internet companies took out this full-page ad in the New York times opposing the measure:
View more readable version on Boing Boing, here.
The whole bill is a testament to just how wholly owned our government is. The bill was basically written by special interests in Hollywood and Pharma, along with the US Chamber of Commerce. Representatives of each of these interests will be speaking at the hearings. However, last I heard, only one voice opposing the bill (Google) is being allowed to testify. (N.B.: If you want to pass sweeping censorship legislation, the key is first to censor any anti-censorship voices.)

Importantly, but unsurprisingly at this point, no civil rights proponents are being permitted to testify. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a collected many of the arguments as to why this bill is insanely bad. Among them, the bill would:

  1. impose liabilities on internet companies in a way that will severely discourage innovation and impact job creation.
  2. damage the ability for free speech.
  3. effectively hamstring the internet worldwide, not just in the US.
  4. impose the type of censorship that we routinely condemn in repressive regimes around the world.
On point four, here's video of Joe Biden explaining why internet censorship laws exactly like this one are really bad, un-American even. 

(via Boing Boing.)

You can send e-mail to your Representative and Senators opposing the bill by going here.

You can join the protest by placing a black "STOP CENSORSHIP" bar on your website. Get yours here. (I could not figure out how to do it on Blogger, but I've added one on Darwin Eats Cake.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dev and El and the Occupy Library go to jail

So, last night Mayor Bloomberg sent the NYPD in to evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters under cover of darkness, excluding any press coverage (and physically assaulting and/or arresting any press who tried to actually cover the eviction).

Most of the characters from Darwin Eats Cake were able to evacuate from Liberty Plaza before things got out of hand, but Dev and El were among those who wound up getting arrested. They posted this report:

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The thing about the library was based on this early report. The NYPD later stated that the books had not been thrown away, but were in storage, and could be reclaimed on Wednesday. They posted this, which looks to me suspiciously like a hostage photo:

Anyway, seeing as they were in jail, Dev and El did not have good real-time access to information today, so I hope you won't hold their statements against them.

If you want to see what's going on now, The Other 99 has been doing an awesome job of livestreaming events from Occupy Wall Street, and Global Revolution has a livestream that covers many of the different occupy sites.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Transistor Rodeo mini-review in The Literary Review

So, I just found this short review of my book in the Summer 2011 issue of The Literary Review. Thanks to reviewer Sarah Barber for the kid words:

Jon Wilkins
Transistor Rodeo
University of Utah Press, 2010
Jon Wilkins’s  Transistor Rodeo  is a portable rodeo where poems barrel through American cities from Memphis to Los Angeles, roping in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, James Madison, tired waitresses, the Pope, and proms. In an explosion of association, invocation, and formal trickery, this daredevil of a book asks us to consider the seriousness of play, to imagine the wolf-whistle as an endangered species, to picture the “wee symbolic life” of people living in a topographical map, and, above all, to enjoy the smash and noise of language, “a hammer / in a London china shoppe.” Wilkins lets us pretend to be very skilled rodeo riders, crashing around without taking any very bad tumbles. —Sarah Barber

Cheers / Star Wars Mashup

So, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name, as well as the names of those droids you're looking for.

via Geekologie.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Best space time-lapse video yet

So, there have been a number of time-lapse videos of earth as viewed from space making the rounds recently. But this new one is extra awesome. Except for the fact that the International Space Station has its thumb in front of the camera for many of the shots. Also, I would have used Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" for the soundtrack.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space | Fly Over | Nasa, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

via Gawker.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What power laws actually tell you about wealth and the 1%

So, there's an article published in yesterday's Guardian titled, "The mathematical law that shows why wealth flows to the 1%," which is fine, except for the fact that the "law" is not really a law, nor does it necessarily show "why" wealth flows anywhere.

To be fair, it's a perfectly reasonable article with a crap, misleading headline, so I blame the editor, not the author.

The point of the article is to introduce the idea of a power law distribution, or heavy-tailed distributions more generally. These pop up all over the place, but are something that many people are not familiar with. The critical feature of such distributions, if we are talking about, say, wealth, is that an enormous number of people have very little, while a small number of people have a ton. In these circumstances it can be misleading, or at least uninformative, to talk about "average" wealth.

The introduction is nicely done, and it represents an important part of the "how" of wealth is distributed, but what, if anything, does it tell us about the "why"?

To try to answer that, we'll walk through three distributions with the same "average," to see what a distribution's shape might tell us about the process that gave rise to it: Normal, Log Normal, and Pareto.

The blue curve, with a peak at 300, is a Normal distribution. The red curve, with its peak around 50, is a Log Normal. The yellow one, with its peak off the top of the chart at the left, is a Pareto distribution.
In each case, the mean of the distribution is 300.
The core of the issue, I think, is that there are three different technical definitions that we associate with the common-usage term "average," the mean, the median, and the mode. This is probably familiar to most readers who have made their way here, but here's a quick review:

The mean is what you usually calculate when you are asked to find the average of something. For instance, you would determine the average wealth of a nation by taking its total wealth and dividing it by the number of people.

The median is the point where half of the distribution lies to the right, and half lies to the left. So the median wealth would be the amount of money X where half of the people had more than X and half had less than X.

The mode is the high point in the distribution, its most common value. In the picture above, the mode of the blue curve is at about 300, while the mode of the red curve is a little less than 50.

The Normal (or Gaussian, or bell-curve-shaped) distribution, represented in blue, is probably the most familiar. One of the features of the Normal distribution is that the mode, median, and mean are all the same. So, if you have something that is Normally distributed, and you talk about the "average" value, you are probably also talking about a "typical" value. 

Lots of things in our everyday experience are distributed in a vaguely Normal way. For instance, if I told you that the average mass of an apple was 5 ounces, and you reached into a bag full of apples, you would probably expect to pull out an apple that was somewhere in the vicinity of 5 ounces, and you might assume that you would be as likely to get an apple that was bigger than that as you would be to get one that was smaller. Or if I told you that the average height in a town in 5 feet, 8 inches, you might expect to see reasonable numbers of people who were 5'6", fewer who were 5'2", and fewer still who were 4'10".

So what sorts of processes lead to a Normal distribution? The simplest way is if you have a bunch of independent factors that add up. For example, it is thought that a large number of genes affect height, with the specific variants of each gene that you inherited contributing a small amount to making you taller or less tall, in a way that is close enough to additive.

What would it mean, then, if we were to find that wealth was Normally distributed? Well, it could mean a lot of things, but a simple model that could give rise to a Normal wealth distribution would be one where the amount of pay each person received each week was randomly drawn from the same distribution. Maybe you would flip a coin, and if it came up heads, you would get $300, while tails would get you $100. Pretty much any distribution would work, as long as the same distribution applied to everyone. After many weeks, some people would have gotten more heads, and they would be in the right-hand tail of the wealth distribution. The unlucky people who got more tails would be in the left-hand tail. But most people's wealth would be reasonably close to the mean of the wealth distribution.

Image from Alex Pardee's 2009 exhibition "Hiding From The Normals"
Now, it's important to remember that just because a particular mechanism can lead to a particular distribution, observing that distribution does not prove that your particular mechanism was actually at work. It seems like that should be obvious, but you actually see a disturbing number of scientific papers that basically make that error. There will typically be whole families of mechanisms that can give rise to the same outcome. However, looking at the outcome (the distribution, in this case) and asking what mechanisms are consistent with it is an important first step.

Alright, now let's talk about the Log Normal distribution (the red one). Unlike the Normal, the Log Normal is skewed: it has a short left tail and a long right one. This means that the mean, mode, and median are no longer the same. In the curve I showed above, the mean is 300, the median is about 150, and the mode is about 35. 

This is where talk about averages can be misleading, or at least easily misinterpreted. Imagine that the wealth of a nation was distributed like the red curve, and that I told you that the average wealth was $30,000. What would you think? Well, if I also told you that the wealth was Log Normally distributed, and I gave you some additional information (like the median, or the variance), you could reconstruct complete distribution of wealth, at least in principle.

The problem is that we tend to think intuitively in terms of distributions that look more like the Normal. In practice, we hear $30,000 average wealth, and we say, "Hey, that's not too bad." We probably don't consciously recognize that (in this example), half of the people actually have less than $15,000, and that the typical (i.e., modal) person has only about $3500.

What type of process can give rise to a Log Normal distribution? Well, again, there are many possible mechanisms that would be consistent with a Log Normal outcome, but there is a class of simplest possible underlying mechanisms. We imagine something like the coin toss that we used in the Normal case, but now, instead of adding a random quantity with each coin toss, we multiply.

This is sort of like if everyone started off with the same amount of money invested in the stock market. Each week, your wealth would change by some percentage. Some weeks you might gain 2%. Other weeks you might lose 1%. If everyone is drawing from the same distribution of multipliers (if we all have the same chance of a 2% increase, etc.), the distribution of wealth will wind up looking Log Normally distributed.

Vilfredo Pareto, who grew a very long beard in order to illustrate the idea of a distribution with a very long tail.
Finally, we come to the Pareto distribution. This is sort of like the Log Normal, but much more skewed. In the graph we started off with, the yellow Pareto distribution has a mean of 300, just like the Normal and Log Normal. But where the Normal had a median of 300, and the Log Normal had a median of 150, the Pareto had a median of only about 20. 

In our wealth example, we could say that that average wealth in a nation was $30,000, but if that wealth was distributed like the yellow Pareto curve, half of the people in that nation would have less than $2000. Furthermore, 97% of the people in that nation would have less than that $30,000 average.

With a Pareto, the mode is as far left as we set the minimum value. In this case, it was set at 10. Under such a distribution, the "typical" person has as little wealth as possible.

The fact is, this extremely skewed sort of distribution, a Pareto or something like it, is what real-world wealth distributions tend to look like. [UPDATE: This is true of the rich, right tail of the distribution. The body of wealth distributions are more Log Normal. H/T Cosma Shalizi.]

The greatest success so far of the Occupy Wall Street movement may be that it is starting to make people understand just how skewed the distributions of wealth and income are, in this country and around the world. A graph posted Friday on Politico shows the dramatic increase in the discussion of "income inequality" in the news over the past several weeks:
Dylan Byers plotted the number of times "income inequality" was mentioned in print news, web stories, and broadcast transcripts each week. The graph reveals a five-fold increase over the past two months.
Consider that along with this graph, which is part of a nice set of illustrations of American inequality put together by Mother Jones:  

This graph reveals two things. First, that Americans think that wealth should be more equally distributed. Second, and more importantly for the sake of the current discussion, they dramatically underestimate the extent of the inequality that actually exists. 

In the terms that we have been using here (and speaking very loosely), Americans think that wealth should be somewhat Normally distributed. They think that it is more Log Normally distributed. They fail to recognize that, in reality, it is more like Pareto distributed. 

What types of processes can give rise to a Pareto distribution? Again, lots. What are the simplest models, though? Generative models that give rise to this sort of distribution tend to have some sort of positive feedback mechanism. Basically, the more money you have, the more leverage you have to make money in the future. In the simple models, you can start off with a bunch of things that are identical (like our nation of people who all start off with the same amount of money to put in the stock market). But now, if you do well, it increases your chances of doing well in the future: the people whose coins come up heads in the first few rounds are given new coins, which come up heads more than half of the time. 

It is easy to list the features of our current economic system that lead to this sort of positive feedback loop: successful companies have the resources to undermine and disrupt smaller competitors, the rich have the ability through advertising and lobbying to steer public opinion and write public policy. If you didn't read it when it came out, or haven't read it recently, the Vanity Fair piece from May, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" provides an excellent overview of how increasing inequality leads to reduced opportunity, which leads, in turn, to further increases in inequality. 

Power laws and Pareto distributions don't show how or why wealth flows into the hands of the few. However, the nature and magnitude of wealth inequality hint at truths that we already know from experience: that wealth begets wealth, that the playing field is not always level, and that when inequality becomes great enough, hard work and ingenuity may have a hard time competing with privilege and access.


In the "real" world of empirical data, there are two kinds of power laws: things that are actually power laws, and things that are not really power laws, but get called power laws because science thinks that's sexier.

I think someone once said, "God grant me the the serenity to accept the things that are not power laws, the appropriate statistical tools to fit those that are, and the wisdom to know the difference."

If the God thing doesn't work out for you, a good back-up plan starts with this paper:

Clauset, A., Shalizi, C., & Newman, M. (2009). Power-Law Distributions in Empirical Data SIAM Review, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1137/070710111

Free version of the article available on the ArXiv, here: