XKCD on Anathem

Today's XKCD is a review, of sorts, of Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem. Randal seems concerned about the amount of invented vocabulary required for basic comprehension of the story.

While sympathetic to Randal's point, I suspect he hasn't devoted quite enough attention span to get what Stephenson is actually up to in this one. It is the sort of book where putting it down too soon will make it impossible to pick up. Being set in an entirely distinct culture it requires a fair amount of context and vocabulary to keep the alien flavor. Although, if you are well-read in the right topics, a lot of what is said will sound isomorphic to things you already know.

Read in the right frame of mind, it might even teach some hard to explain ideas about the nature of consciousness. There is an interesting riff relating the solving of an abstract problem to the collapsing of a wave function, and a different spin on the many-worlds explanation of quantum mechanics that almost made sense.

As I write this, I've read about 3/4 of Anathem, and it clearly is worth the attention I've paid it.

As proof that XKCD does get it in general, I present the previous comic, which demonstrates the power of a log scale to collapse the entire universe to a comprehensible size...


There's always time for the comics!

Here's another couple of web comics mentioned today at Questionable Content:

Schlock Mercenary

Sci-Fi silliness. Over 3000 strips so far, one a day, with no missed days. The artist says he wants to hit 10000 at a minimum, so it won't be disappearing any time soon. I've just started reading at the beginning, and it looks promising. Nothing even PG so far, and probably safe to open in an office.

Main page: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/

1st strip: http://www.schlockmercenary.com/d/20000612.html

Gunnerkrigg Court

Manga in high style, from the glimpses I got between server crashes. I have no clue what the story is about due to the server crashes, but the art I saw was impressive.

Main page: http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/

1st strip: http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/archive_page.php?comicID=1

Others I've mentioned before

Consider this a reminder that QC (http://questionablecontent.net/) is worth watching... do start near the beginning or the most recent strips won't make sense at all. Be sure to watch out for the daily specials.

And, having now read about half the story so far, I can say that Girly (http://go-girly.com/) is not actually as NC-17 as its advertisers are on average, but it certainly rates a strong R and does feature a complete lack of ambiguity about the hero and her sidekick's sexual preferences. And kittens. And a twisted genius veterinarian.

Also, today's XKCD is a riot. http://xkcd.com/469/

A recent XKCD strip (http://www.xkcd.com/463/) was featured as a summary of problems with Diebold (now operating under some other name) voting machines in Ohio on the infamous RISKS-L list (http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/25.29.html#subj3.1). Apparently there was anti-virus software on the voting machines!?


What Is Science?

In a presentation to the National Science Teacher's Association in 1966, Richard Feynman said

Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science.


Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

and also

It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

I had the good fortune to get to know Dr. Feynmen a little bit as he was still teaching at Caltech when I was an undergraduate student there almost 20 years after that speech. I even took a class from him my senior year, although he spent most of the term away from campus educating NASA and the public about the importance of listening to the engineers who understand how a thing works at least as much as the goals of management.

As I read the speech I quote from above, I was vividly reminded of attending Feynman's lectures to his informal class for freshman, affectionately known as "Phys-X" because it was not listed in any catalog. The class met for an hour or two a week most years. Anyone could attend (and there were often a few other faculty lingering in back to listen) but only freshmen could ask questions. Each lecture was strongly driven by the questions, although it is likely that he had a goal in mind and guided the discussion more than I noticed at the time. I tried to attend as often as I could because he had a rare knack for clear explanation, and for those precious few moments I got to share in his sense of wonder.

Why am I reminiscing about one of the world's finest teachers, safecrackers, bongo players, artists and physicists?

Because I am searching for a way to explain my core frustration with the current global attempt to misuse science in the name of environmentalism. I thought I would start to organize my thoughts beginning with a sound definition of science itself, and lucked into that Feynman speech on my Google-guided wander around the subject.

Websters defines "scientific method" as

principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses

Feynman would probably have called that an acceptable definition, and then discussed all the ways in which actually doing science is nothing like the orderly process described. And in my own experience (although I claim to be more engineer than scientist), he would be right. That is not to say that the idea behind the definition is wrong. I would argue that the definition is just simplified to provide a clear image of a process that is certainly an example of a "scientific method".

Websters defines "science" in part as

3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

Feynman clearly would have disagreed with Webster here. He always emphasized the importance of thinking things through oneself, at least enough to understand the boundaries of the accepted knowledge. He was also passionate about teaching. I came away with the strong sense that one couldn't claim to really understand something unless one could teach it to another. Even experimental verification was to some degree subordinate to teaching.

I would say that we don't know a general principle unless it can be used to make useful projections that can be tested.

I think of that as a kind of teaching of the principle. If a principle holds, and I understand (at least partly) the principle, then I can make a prediction based on that understanding. That prediction can be tested, and the results speak to the domain over which the principle can be held to be true. I see the prediction itself as a form of teaching about the principle in question.

Failure of a principle to explain an outcome does not necessarily mean that it is wrong on the face. Often failure means only that a region has been found where the principle (no longer?) operates. Of course, after using a principle to make a number of predictions that all fail, it might be worth chalking the principle up as wrong and a misunderstanding. Occasionally, a principle is so powerful in the sense that most predictions it makes can be demonstrated to hold that it gains general acceptance, perhaps as a natural law.

For example, Newton came to an understanding of (some of) the laws of motion. From that understanding he could explain the positions of the planets in the night sky, and even predict future astronomical events. He could also explain motions of simple machines in ideal conditions, and make predictions about their effects. For a long time, Newton's laws predicted everything important about motion.

Except, of course they didn't hold perfectly even at everyday scales because the real world is messier and refuses to provide simple systems of point masses on a frictionless plain in a vacuum. In modern terms, you can't fully explain the motion of a curve ball from just Newton's laws. The ball just persists in acting as if there are more forces present than Newton's laws can explain, and that shows one boundary to their domain. (I'm pretty sure that you need to add some aerodynamics and fluid dynamics to get there, not to mention a whole lot of mathematics that Newton and Leibniz hadn't quite needed to invent yet to explain it. I'm sure that there are gyroscopic effects from the ball's spin that matter as well, but I can't remember how much about that was known to Newton either... but I'm neither a science historian nor a physicist, remember...)

When Einstein came along later and corrected Newton's laws with the General and Special theories of Relativity (yes I am way over simplifying here, but I'm trying to make a larger point without getting bogged down in all the details of the Physics) he wasn't really saying that Newton was wrong. Rather, he was saying that under certain conditions of extreme mass, extreme velocity, extremely small scale, etc., Newton's laws were outside their domain and lost their explanatory power.

Again, I'm not really trying to get all the details right, I'm trying to make a point about the nature of science. Einstein once said "to defeat relativity one did not need the word of 100 scientists, just one fact" and Feynman said "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

I believe that all knowledge is true, for a certain value of "true". Or meaning of "is". Or until shown to be false.

Why do I claim this has something to do with the misuse of science in the name of Environmentalism?

The answer to that will have to wait for a while as I sneak up on it.


This Summer's Guilty Pleasure

We spent a couple of hours watching game shows tonight. Yes, game shows. Silly game shows. Silly but entertaining train-wrecks in slow motion kind of game shows.

First up was Wipeout. Imagine running an obstacle course for best time in a field of 24, with a cash prize of US$50K for the winner. Now imagine that the course designers were nuts. Think rodeo clown nuts. And that some network suit accidentally signed off on the building plans without asking too many questions about the number of giant rubber balls, large barrels, spinning turntables, or mud pits called for. Or perhaps the suits just said "oh just get three of everything and stop bothering us with details". One of the producers (co-executive producer Scott Larsen) has been quoted as saying "I come up with most of my challenges after a few beers laying in bed, sort of half awake, half falling asleep. So I kind of dream them up."

It is hard to describe unless typical Japanese game shows are an available frame of reference...

And speaking of the high art of the wacky Japanese game show, I Survived a Japanese Game Show was next up. Here the producers recruited a bunch of gullible people from all over the US and flew them to LA to be on a reality show. When the arrived at LAX, they were swept off to the international terminal and sent straight to Japan where they discovered during a studio tour that the reality show was really a chance to appear on a Japanese game show (apparently called something translated as “You’ve Got to Be Crazy”) where TOHO studios will do their best to humiliate them all each week, sending the looser home, until the last contestant standing is handed a cool $250K. And TOHO studios are perfectly capable of humiliating the pants off a bunch of naive contestants....

Personally, I can hardly imagine deciding to go on a reality show at all, let alone let a producer talk me into leaving the country on only a few minutes warning. Since all of the contestants did just that, it is pretty clear that they start out an ant or two shy of the whole picnic...

But they are both fun to watch for the sheer spectacle of it all.


My phones don't ring

We noticed over the weekend that our phones aren't ringing as much as they used to. Then I happened to hear the dumbest phone in the house chirp. Out of curiosity I picked up the receiver to find someone waiting for me to answer.

Some investigation showed that the problem lies outside of the house. It was easy enough to unplug the house from the Network Interface (NID in phone jargon) and plug that same dumb telephone (an AT&T 210 Princess if anyone is keeping score) directly into the jack in the NID. Since that removes all my house wiring from the question and connects the phone directly to the line, a failure would exonerate my house wiring and plethora of other telephonic devices.

I called my number from a cell phone.


I repeated the experiment with a LED line tester, that shows a green LED for a live line, a red LED for reversed polarity, and flashes when the A/C ring signal is present. At the start of each normal ring in the usual ring pattern, the red LED just flickered.

Again, this is at the NID, with the whole house disconnected.

Oddly, we have dial tone, and the DSL is still as alive as it ever is.

Since I hate to wait for call centers and deal with the first tier of triage agents whose basic job is to find a reason that I don't have a problem that should be their problem, I sought out Verizon's web interface.

There seems to be a nice line problem reporting site inside the mess that is the Verizon web site, and it even walks you through a reasonable triage diagnosis. (All of which I had already done.) When that failed to turn up a novel experiment or repair the issue, it offered to collect my info and file a trouble report. I dutifully filled out the multi-page form, only to have it return an internal server error instead of moving from page 3 to page 4 of the entry.

I started over, and got to page 4 where I waited for it to run an automated line test which could take 2 minutes during which the phone must not be in use. Two minutes is a long time to watch a progress animation, but at least it did finish. With inconclusive results. So I confirmed that I wanted to report a problem, and discovered that the earliest time they would commit to having a truck rolled was 10 days later.

I filed the first trouble report the afternoon of Jun-1. At that time, their flaky web interface confirmed I had filed the trouble report, and that I was "waiting for dispatch".

More than 48 hours later (spanning two full business days) I check the status report, and it is still marked "waiting for dispatch". I have not even received a courtesy e-mail confirming that I filed a report using that e-mail address as the suggested contact (what, I should expect them to call me with no inbound ringing?).

So at 1:00 am on Jun-4 I attempted to use their web interface to make a direct complaint to their customer service. Omitting the contact info and standard form, my complaint boils down to:

I filed a line repair request and problem report on Jun-1 due to persistent problems with inbound calls that can be observed at the NID.

I am shocked that the earliest appointment offered was Jun-11, eleven days in the future. Furthermore, your web site claims the status of my report is "waiting for dispatch".

Waiting out 11 more days of intermittent inbound calling is not acceptable. Furthermore, not seeing any change in the status of the report after a full business day does not inspire confidence. Neither does the lack of even an automatic notification to the email address I provided as a contact that a report was filed.

The problem is on your side of the NID, and I am not receiving the service for which I am paying. That is not quality customer service.

I would appreciate some attention to the problem with my line, as well as some feedback about your progress with this issue.

Next to the Submit button on the form is the note "Please click submit only one time". I did. half an hour ago, and there has been no visible feedback from their web application to indicate if anything happened.

I am not holding my breath for a speedy repair.

In the meantime, if you happen to be trying to call us at home, you might need to avail yourselves of some other means than the phone number we've been answering for more than the last decade...

Update... Sometime during the evening of Jun-5 we had a phone message from their automated call center informing us that they had found and fixed an issue in the central office and that they believed our problem was fixed as a result.

Of course, as I write this, the status page at Verizon says that the "number you are reporting is part of an outage." I haven't observed a problem with the line today, and the phones do seem to ring again...


Twin Musicals to End the Year

We ended the year on a Hollywood Musical note, but perhaps not the traditional sort...

First, over the weekend we made it up to our local Krikorian branch to see the Tim Burton treatment of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Then on New Year's Eve, we watched John Travolta carry off Divine's role on the "Shake and Shimmy" DVD edition of this years film version of the stage musical made from John Waters' classic cult film Hairspray.

The short version of what follows is simply that both are quite entertaining and well worth pursuit on either disc or screen.

Sweeney Todd

First, I should say that I have never actually had the chance to see a production of the original musical, but I have known of it and the story for some time. Also, one of my favorite misuses of musical theatre in film occurs in the Kevin Smith film Jersey Girl, where the little girl Gertie (Raquel Castro) coerces her father (Ben Affleck), grandfather (George Carlin), and his blue-collar work buddies into performing some of it as a grade school project. (Incidentally, the film is worth seeing for those scenes alone, even if it could have benefited from reducing the Jennifer Lopez role all the way down to a brief cameo and a photo on the mantelpiece.)

And, of course, I have been a fan of Tim Burton since tripping over his short animated film Vincent many years ago. Since then, his films have always proved to be nicely odd and edgy, and generally among my favorites.

This film is no exception. It is the highest class and highest budget slasher film I have seen, bar none. The supporting cast is as strong as the lead roles, but never draws attention completely away from the strong horror film plot. And there is enough blood around to satisfy just about any fan of the genre. At the same time it is also a Shakespearean tragedy, as well as a light romantic comedy.

Without seeing the original staging, it is hard to be too critical of the musical choices that were made. However, all of the main characters hold up the musical ends of their roles quite satisfactorily.

All in all, we were thoroughly entertained by this one, and look forward to adding a DVD to the collection.


The original film is probably the most mainstream of all of the John Waters cult films, and certainly of those films that Divine was involved in, but it still has the Waters touch in spades. I wouldn't call it his best work ever (I'd favor Polyester or Pink Flamingoes of the ones I've seen ahead of it) but it is worth watching even if only for the ensemble cast.

Then they made a Broadway Musical out of it, which just seemed like a nutty idea at the time... but it apparently worked. I haven't had the chance to see the a production of it, but it did well and won awards.

Since other musicals have been doing well when moved (back) to film, it then made sense to try doing that to Hairspray.

One key feature that makes the 2007 adaptation work is the choice of John Travolta to replace Divine. I don't know who else could have brought as strong a voice to that role without being overshadowed by Divine himself or the makeup job required for the part.

With the cast anchored by Travolta as Edna, the rest of the ensemble is suprisingly strong, including new discovery Nikki Blonsky as Traci, and Christopher Walken as her father Wilbur. Travolta and Walken really do play well off each other although there are a couple of moments where one wishes the scene had cut a moment or two sooner... The rest of the cast is just as strong, the song and dance sequences are well structured, all the cast can sing, and there are even some nice cameos by original cast members to watch for.

I doubt I'll benefit personally from the song lyric subtitle track or the detailed dance instruction sequences that were included as extras on the DVD, but some of the alternate versions and dropped musical numbers were also nice to see.

This is one DVD that would really benefit from a quality sound system...