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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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:

Lao Lai Qiao Gaga

So, if you're like me, and I know that you are, you love Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," but have always felt that it could be improved. For instance, if it were sung by by a choir of old Chinese people standing in a giant dollhouse, accompanied by young Chinese women playing crystal instruments.

Today, you and I are in luck, because this exists:

via Boing Boing.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Now we know what a Nittany Lion is

So, if you're like me, you've always sort of wondered what a Nittany Lion is. For a while, I thought it involved crochet somehow, but I guess maybe that would be a Knittany Lion. For years, it remained shrouded in mystery, at least, if you're like me, and did not actually care enough to check Wikipedia.

But then this week we learned that for the past ten years, or possibly longer, numerous officials at Penn State have been involved in protecting and enabling a serial child rapist. And then, when Penn State's football coach was fired for his involvement in protecting and enabling a serial child rapist, the school's students rioted. I think we now have our answer:

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Update: via Justin Stapleton on Google+, from now on the Honey Badger will be known as the Nittany Badger

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fucking Do Something

So, there are many situations in the world that are morally ambiguous. Prior to this week, I would not have assumed that this was one of them:

"Gee, there's a man raping a child. Should I go over there, beat the shit out of him, rescue the child, and call the police? Or should I go home, call my dad, tell my boss, see that nothing happens, and then, you know, pal around with the child rapist for the next ten years?"

I find it incredibly depressing to learn that there are people out there who would say, well, on the one hand, there's kids being raped, but on the other hand, FOOTBALL!!!

If you or someone you know is too stupid and/or morally bankrupt to know what the right thing to do is in these situations (or, apparently, is currently a student at Penn State), here is a handy-dandy flow chart to help you out, courtesy of adulting (which details how to be an adult):

UPDATE: Everything on is awesome, by the way.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy Darwin Eats Cake: Jobs

So, here's the new Darwin Eats Cake, in which we find that the cast is still down Occupying Wall Street. Dev and El discuss the often-repeated, but untrue, criticism that the Occupiers are all unemployed.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Leaderless" Occupy Denver has elected a leader

So, key to the success of the Occupy protests have been their the decentralized nature and lack of leadership. Why then would Occupy Denver have elected a general leader? According to this report, the move was prompted in part by statements from the Denver police, who have expressed frustration with the lack of a leader with whom they can negotiate. The precipitating event, however, was the blowhard-esque appearance of Michael Moore, who refused to follow the established guidelines for participation in the General Assembly:
"(Moore) walked in with security and made everyone listen to him in the center of the circle with a bullhorn like he was our leader, even though he said out loud it's a leaderless movement,"
 In a landslide, Occupy Denver elected Shelby, a border collie / cattle dog mix:

Shelby, newly elected leader of Occupy Denver, has been coming down from her home in Boulder every other day to participate in the protests with her "bodyguard," Al Nesby.
Peter John Jentsch was quoted as saying, "Are you the new leader? Are you, girl? Are you?"

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yelping with Cormac McCarthy

So, here's something awesome from the tumblr-sphere: Yelping with Cormac. The premise is Yelp reviews written by Cormac McCarthy.

A lot of them are worth reading, but the October 26 review of Taco Bell is maybe the best:
Two stars.
And so the man defied the villagers and ate the taco. In defiance of the will of those people but also in defiance of some order older than he. Older than tortillas. Than the ancient and twisted cedars. How could we know his mind? We are all of us unknowable. Blind strangers passing on a mountain road.
The man laid there in the village square for three days and nights and took no food and spoke to no visitor. The older villagers said that the man should not have eaten the taco and no sane man would do so and the price of such folly was known to all.
On the fourth day an old lady asked the man was he ill and did he need a doctor. The man told her he was indeed ill but that he wished to see a priest. And she crossed herself and left and in the sweltering afternoon sun a priest came down to the square to see the man.
The priest asked the man why he lay there in the square and if perhaps he could be convinced to leave. The man said he had eaten a thing which he should not have and he could not move because the world was revealed to him in its evil and in its beauty. That if he moved he might fall into the sky and never return. The priest assured him that it was not possible to fall into the sky and that an earthly cure of ginger and peppermint would surely calm his digestion. The man asked could God make a taco so terrible even He could not eat it. The priest considered this and said no this was not possible and to think so was a sin. The man was silent for some time. Then he said that he had eaten such a taco and that it tasted of bootblack and horsefeed. That if this taco was under God’s dominion then surely all other great evils must be as well. And then the man took the halfeaten and greaseblackened taco from his coatpocket and thrust it at the priest like a broken sword. Eat it, he said. Eat it or be damned.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Frank O'Hara As Planned

So, here's a cool video of Frank O'Hara's poem "As Planned," set to some Miles Davis.  The text goes by a little quickly, so for maximum effect, watch it again after reading the poem a couple of times.

As Planned

After the first glass of vodka
you can accept just about anything
of life even your own mysteriousness
you think it is nice that a box
of matches is purple and brown and is called
La Petite and comes from Sweden
for they are words that you know and that
is all you know words not their feelings
or what they mean and you write because
you know them not because you understand them
because you don't you are stupid and lazy
and will never be great but you do
what you know because what else is there?

Oakland PD will shoot you if you film them

So, here is yet more incredibly disturbing footage from Occupy Oakland. The video is footage someone was shooting late Wednesday night / early Thursday morning. It seems to be a line of riot police. Then, for no apparent reason, one of the police casually raises his gun and shoots the cameraman. Fortunately, it was just a rubber bullet.

This, along with reports (and more footage) of arrests of reporters and legal observers. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with the Oakland PD? Do they have an arrest quotient? Do they just have complete disdain for the people of Oakland? Do they have such an overwhelming sense of entitlement that they feel completely justified in arresting or shooting anyone who dares to observe them? Or are they secretly trying to drum up sympathy for the occupiers?

In related news, here's the most recent Darwin Eats Cake:

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy Shelley

So, a week ago we had a snowstorm here, which knocked out our power for more than five days. Nearly a week without electricity taught me two important lessons:

  1. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books is really nice. 
  2. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books would be even better if you could see your damn book. 
It also struck me just how hard the winter is going to be on the various occupiers. For a while, it was feeling to me like the fate of the whole occupy movement was dependent on the ability of New York group to withstand the weather and the Mayor. Recently, though, Oakland has been stealing the spotlight.  

Something finally occurred to me, although I think it was probably already obvious to a lot of other people: Individual protest camps don't matter. That's the beauty and power of a decentralized, leaderless protest movement. What matters are the ideas, which are already so much larger than any single protest. What started in Tunisia and Egypt spread its seeds to New York and Oakland and Damascus and Manama and London and hundreds of other cities around the globe. 

It reminded me of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." You probably read it in high school. The poem is about how the autumn wind and the coming of winter mean death, but those winds are also the source of life and energy. Then it takes the turn that was fairly common in the Romantic era: Shelley has a crisis about his own mortality, decides that his words (i.e., this poem -- see what he did there?) will be his immortality, and urges the West Wind to take those words and carry them into the future like seeds. 

Anyway, I think you see where I'm going with this: actual winter is like, I don't know, political winter maybe? And seeds are like poems are like ideas of economic justice. 

Or something like that. 

It actually works better if you don't spell it out.

I won't belabor the connection further here, other than to say to all the chilly occupados out there: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 

WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: oh hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skyey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is;
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an extinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unwakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Oakland PD hospitalizes another vet, releases man who deliberately ran down protesters

So, you'll remember Scott Olsen, the Marine who was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a non-lethal police projectile at the Oakland Occupy protests. Well, the Oakland PD has doubled down. According to this report from Reuters, Kayvan Sabeghi is now in the Intensive Care Unit after being severely beaten by the police:
Brian Kelly, who co-owns a brew pub with Sabeghi, said his business partner served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Sabeghi told him he was arrested and beaten by a group of policemen as he was leaving the protest to go home.
"He told me he was in the hospital with a lacerated spleen and that the cops had jumped him," Kelly said. "They put him in jail, and he told them he was injured, and they denied him medical treatment for about 18 hours."
via Boing Boing.

Meanwhile, here's the video of the couple being deliberately run down at Occupy Oakland by a guy in a Mercedes:

Now, this is a good example of everyone acting like an idiot. What seems to happen is that the march is moving along and holding up traffic. The Mercedes guy gets frustrated. I mean, he seems to be an entitled asshole who thinks that his time is super important. So he starts inching his way through the crowd. One of the marchers gets pissed and stops in front of the car and bangs on the hood. So, he's being sort of self righteous and stupid. And then Mercedes guy guns it, running marcher guy down, as well as a woman who wasn't doing anything.

This is one of those situations that could have been avoided at any point if one of the parties had made an effort to be less dickish and entitled. The marchers were being a little bit dickish by not letting the cars through. The driver was being a little bit dickish by forcing his way through anyway. The one guy was being a little bit dickish when he started banging on the car.

But running someone down? That's totally out of control.

There are two places where the Oakland Police failed here. First of all, managing the relationship between the marchers and the traffic would be a much better way to spend police resources than, say, throwing flash grenades at people who are trying to help an injured protester. From what I have seen, this is one of the things that the NYPD have been doing really well.

Second, you know the guy who was driving the car? They happily sent him on his way. Move along. Nothing to see here. Certainly not a two-tiered justice system.

Here are a just a couple of relevant shots from an excellent series of photos at The Frame:

One of the two people who got run down by the Mercedes.

Awww . . . don't worry, Mister Mercedes Driver! The Oakland PD doesn't arrest nice, rich, white guys!

Epic Sword Dance

So, here's your Saturday morning dose of guess who's more awesome than you. Don't quit early on this one. About two thirds of the way through it goes doubly epic:


via Kottke.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mutational Analysis in Poetry and Biology

So, Robert Pinsky wrote a cool little piece in Slate the other day titled "In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly." In it he argues for a particular benefit to be gotten from misremembering a poem: that it brings into focus the choices that were made in the poem, the the consequences of using one word rather than another. He illustrates his argument with Yeats's "On Being Asked for a War Poem," which he presents like this:
“On Being Asked for a War Poem” 
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.
He talks about misremembering the [something] as "glory" or "indolence" or "striving" before rediscovering Yeats's original "meddling."

In the case of "meddling," the result of the exercise is to highlight the historical context in which Yeats was writing. Yeats was an Irish poet writing about World War I in 1915. At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, and was actively involved in the war. However, some Irish nationalists used the war as an opportunity initiate a rebellion against English rule. And, in fact, the Irish War for Independence began pretty much as soon as World War I ended.

During Easter week of 1916, Irish rebels seized control of several key buildings
in Dublin and declared independence from England. Yeats wrote a poem about it.
Yeats's poem was written in response to a request by Henry James, and was originally titled "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations." In all of this context, the choice of "meddling" seems to point to a degree of ambivalence towards the war, even presaging Ireland's own neutrality in World War II.

Now, of course, all of this information is, in principle, available to anyone who has both the original text and access Wikipedia. However, for Pinsky, it is this forgetting, the substitution of "meddling" with "glory," that serves as the catalyst for this particular close reading. And I doubt that, in the absence of some similar impetus, very many people would have focused on this particular aspect of the poem.

In biology, similar mistakes, in the form of mutations, provide one of our most important windows into the structure and function of biological systems. These mutations are sometimes the product of targeted mutagenesis, but can also result from naturally occurring mutations.

A lot of our coarse-grained knowledge of many systems comes from loss-of-function, or knockout mutations, where a mutation removes a particular gene, or renders it nonfunctional. For example, in 1976, Sharma and Chopra first described a recessive mutation in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. Flies inheriting two copies of the mutation exhibited various developmental defects, the most obvious of which involved wing formation. So, the mutation, and later the gene, became known as "wingless."

This is typical in genetics, where a gene will be given a name based on the phenotypic consequences of losing that gene. So, a gene required for wings becomes "wingless," a gene required for heart formation might be called "heartless," and so on.

Kim Jong Il relaxes with some brews.
Due to the nature of the discovery process in biology, many genes wind up with names that are more like the opposite of what the gene actually does. This is sort of like how the least democratic countries always wind up with the word "Democratic" in their names, or how Citizens United succeeded in dramatically curtailing most citizens' abilities to control their own government.
More subtle mutations, which alter the behavior of a gene or its gene product without completely eliminating it function, are more closely analogous to the misremembering that Pinsky is talking about, however. In a way, a knockout mutation of an important gene is more like just removing one whole line from Yeats's poem, without regard for grammar, rhyme scheme, coherence, etc. What you would wind up with is a mess that fails in many ways, and is probably not terribly instructive – just like in biology.

Point mutations, which might alter a single amino acid in a protein, provide a more targeted and interpretable set of changes. Such a mutation might cause a small shift in the binding behavior of the protein, or might cause a slight change in the timing of the gene's expression.

Like in the poetry case, these mutations are more likely to be revealing of the fine tuning part of the creative process, where mutations of small effect arise and are subjected to natural selection. In some populations – things like certain viruses, which have a very large population size and strong selective constraints – it might even be reasonable to think that these alternate, mutant forms have been explored and rejected by past natural selection. In other cases (e.g., large mammals, with relatively small effective population sizes), the most common form we find in nature might not represent some finely tuned optimum, but may simply be a form that works well enough.

Similarly, when we read a Yeats poem, we are inclined to assume that every single word has been chosen with extreme care, that a host of plausible alternatives were considered and rejected by the poet before he settled on just exactly the right word, in this case, "meddled." I think we are inclined to agree with Pinsky's final assessment, that "by memorizing his poem imperfectly, I had received a creative writing lesson from a great poet."

However, a lot of poems in the world, even very good ones, are probably more like large mammals, with many of the word choices working well enough, but not necessarily representing some optimum, even a local one. (There is of course, the question, in biology and in poetry, of to what extent one can talk coherently about optima, but that's a post for another day.) But this process, deliberate or accidental tinkering, is critical both to the creation of great things, and to understanding how greatness is created.

Sharma RP, & Chopra VL (1976). Effect of the Wingless (wg1) mutation on wing and haltere development in Drosophila melanogaster. Developmental biology, 48 (2), 461-5 PMID: 815114

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My wife's book is like Shia LaBoeuf getting hit in the face (i.e., critically acclaimed)

So, one of our regular features here at LiT consists of updates on my wife's forthcoming middle-grade novel, Remarkable.

This update comes via Elizabeth Bird's blog, which I believe is called A Fuse #8 Production. She is a children's librarian in the New York Public Library system.

She reported on a librarian preview for the Penguin Young Readers Group's Spring 2012 releases. In there among the titles being released under the Dial imprint is this:
So they introduce Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley to us by saying that it's the most impressive debut they've seen since Savvy.  Strong words, no?  Then they proceeded to compare it to Holes in terms of its connections between characters.  And thus the bar goes up another notch.  I'm rather pleased with the premise, though.  In the town of Remarkable, everyone there is precisely that . . . except Jane.  This may well be a rallying cry for the dorky girls of the world.  Or at least the ones with overly talented siblings.
Savvy is Ingrid Law's 2008 Newberry-winning novel, and Holes is Louis Sachar's 1998 also-Newberry-winning novel.

In 2003, Holes was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight. Holes also starred a young Shia LaBoeuf in his jump to the big screen.

So, without Holes, there would have been no Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which would have been okay, except that our culture would subsequently have been robbed of the phrase "Nuke the Fridge."

More importantly, we would never have had video of Shia getting beaten up by a shirtless (alleged) Canadian. (NB: You only need to watch the first few seconds of the video, up to the point where the guy on crutches breaks up the fight. After that it's just some dude slow-dancing with Shia.)

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

My wife's book is going to be just like that!