Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hans Rosling makes Statistics Interesting

This is an excerpt from "The Joy of Stats" on BBC channel Four
Hans Rosling takes 200 Countries through 200 Years in 4 Minutes by animating data points - neat!
He might be the world's most optimistic person!

At the end he shows that he can break out individual provinces of China. I'd like to see him take us through individual countries and break it down into wealth vs. percentage of population vs. lifespan. I know he was using averages from each country, but still and all. Does that mean that one rich 80yr-old balances against four poor 20yr-olds? I didn't do very well in stats class...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Denis Dutton discusses his Theory of Darwinian Beauty

Denis Dutton proposes some compelling ideas about how and why we define beauty as we (modern Humans) do. He's looking for a definition that explains the frequently universal appreciation of certain forms of beauty that trancend cultures, countries, and time. He attempts to do so using a Darwinian approach.

"Beauty is an adaptive effect which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment." - Dutton

Evolution has two general arms: natural selection (environmental) and sexual selection (reproductive preference).

Most of Dutton's Darwinian Beauty argument stems from the sexual selection side. He mentions the proof of reproductive fitness argument for the reason Peacocks have such large and colorful rear-end plumage. I think everyone can buy that, in the bird world, as you know, the male must attract and woo the female. There are several ways of accomplishing this, building ornate nests, complicated dances, collecting blue items, and of course singing, but the most common is dazzling the ladies with colorful plumage.
The drawback is that this makes the male much more obvious to predators and lowers his overall chances for reproducing - and raises his chances of being a pretty garnish for lunch.
"Waiter, there are feathers in my soup!"

I appreciate his goal - he wants to get near a definition of the human experience of beauty. Why one thing is and the other isn't, even though he doesn't really address what isn't. He also is looking at the question from a place that is beyond Plato and Aristotle. That is refreshing and a little uneasy for me - I am most comfortable with the old Greek mindset. But philosophical comfort is boring and too close to religion, so watch the embedded video and below it let's consider a couple of points from the lecture.

Watch the video on the TED.com site

One of his more provocative statements, "The experience of beauty is one of  the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession in order to encourage us toward making the most adapted decision for survival and reproduction." He then sums up this statement a bit more succently by saying, "Beauty is Nature's way of acting at a distance." (I'm assuming the capital "N" there.)

I'm not comfortable with the idea that evolution is a driving force unto itself. I prefer to think of it as a survival  tool of DNA, chromosomes, and genes. Evolution is a way for our reproduction to continually adapt to the changing environment. There is no ultimate, perfect creature that evolution is driving us forward to; there is no ideal form at the end of the evolutionary tunnel. Living things change from generation to generation sometimes randomly (usually doesn't work out), but more often in a reactionary, adaptive way to the environment in which they live. The environment changes, living things change in order to continue to live in the new environment; it's really kinda simple.
Life begins and ends with reproduction, right? It's the reason for life and the result of life. I'm willing to examine misstatements about the motives of evolution further, but not in this post.

On the idea of representative beauty. Dutton brings up the idea that there is a universal beauty to a certain style of landscape (at 6:57min into video) because it is the vista that all of our ancient ancestors saw when they were first becoming Humans in Africa. It is a open grassy area, with hills, a few trees, water, and a path that goes into the distance.

I think that the perfect landscape is a result of artistic sensibilities related to interesting focal points and subject matter. Artists seem to have an innate sense of beauty, but consider that they study their craft closely (well, if they're any good they do). Imagine that you want to paint a landscape. You could start with a straight line, but hills are more interesting. Then a few trees and maybe a water feature. They are just adding in as many different elements as they can, so long as they make sense. Some mountains in the distance and maybe a path that let the view place themselves in the scene. An ancient collective memory of our first 'happy place' seems difficult to believe. Humans have lived in every environmental situation on the planet for thousands of years - desert, savanna, forest, mountains. Maybe it's because the scene contains at least one element from most environments, and that is the familiar thing that everyone reacts to.

Beauty has a close relation to visually perceived symmetry. Consider the human face; we think we like a certain color of hair or eyes, or a particularly shaped nose, but what we are really reacting to is the symmetry of the face. The closer the face is to perfect vertical symmetry [Rhodes, G] and the one-third ratio rule (of eyebrows to chin -[Reynolds, R] I will try to find a better reference for this) the more beautiful it is perceived to be. This could be related to our assessment of reproductive fitness, as long as health is related to symmetry. 

Back to the idea of reproductive fitness and beauty. Dutton mentions (at 9:40min into the video) finely carved (actually chipped using the break and flake method) leaf-shaped Acheulean handaxes (an image of one) that were produced millions of years ago (some have been dated as old as 3 millions years ago). He thinks that some (thousands) were only made as examples - as objects of art. The quality of these handaxes were to show the hunting prowess of the creator and therefore demonstrating a personal fitness and a superior ability to provide food and care.
He gives four reasons:
  • because they show "no sign of wear on their delicate blade edges"
  • that so many [thousands] have been found unused
  • some found were simple too heavy and large to be useful
  • that visually the symmetry, quality of workmanship, and shape of a tear-drop leaf are unlike any other tools of the same period
I'm not convinced that these reasons denote that these axe heads were purely objet d'art. If we are literally considering objects 2.5million years old,
  • has anyone found cut or gouge marks on fossilized bones of that time period that correspond to similar tools?
  • maybe the unused ones were 'backups'. Consider the situation, you would want to keep several backups on hand because siliceous rocks are brittle and would break frequently and depending on the break could be instantly useless. So you'd want to have more than one at all times.
  • the large and heavy ones could have been for taking the meat to, or even for cutting extra large kills. The weight of the handaxe could aid in the cutting force.
  • perhaps the visual appearance was a result of experience - what works best (a pointy end for stabbing and a rounded end for skinning - I'm just guessing here) or what fits in the hand the best.
My point is that there are explanations for his points that don't necessarily back up his theory. So maybe we should just call it a hypothesis.

Reynolds, R., How to Sketch a Human Face
Rhodes, G., Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Flickr Slideshow

This is not new, but I like it, and I thought I'd show it off.
So here's a slideshow of my public Flickr images.
You can grab the code by going to your photostream and clicking on the Slideshow link just under the search box. Once in your slideshow, click on on Share in the top right and grab the code. Easy-peasy.

Would you like to see this in a window by itself? Click on Slideshow in New Window then why don't you?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blackboard 9.1 Designs

I can make Blackboard do this...
This is a module page with custom backgrounds and a transparent menu -
This is a container with a custom background and five folders each with a custom icons - 
This is an item where the words on the bag, "Home, Poetry, Blog, About Me, Fiction, Art 4 Sale, and Free Wallpapers" are all hyperlinks to other sites and pages, and the page has a custom background color.
Suck on that Blackboard.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nuggets of Insight from a Microsoft Insider on the Way Out

Philip Su leaves Microsoft after 12 years and dishes up some sweet nuggets of insight from the email sent out to his fellow Microsoft employees. Full post here: http://worldofsu.com/philipsu/?page_id=193
The nuggets I pulled:

"Use Occam’s Razor in interpersonal relations:  look for the simplest, most straightforward explanation that assumes the best of everybody.  Stay away from people who always have a conspiracy theory involving twisted office politics, unfulfilled Machiavellian ambitions, and unspoken agendas."

"Listen to understand.  Speak to be understood."

"Good ideas are a dime a dozen.  Great ideas are usually laughed at.  Neither sees the light of day without you taking action.  Do the work to prove your idea, or stop talking about it."

"In a company as large as Microsoft, I guarantee you’ll find someone higher level than you who you think is worse than you.  Don’t get stuck in this mental trap – it won’t motivate you to be your best.  Look instead towards the person you admire most at your level.  What can you learn from them?  What unique strengths might you have which they don’t have?"

"A person is either passionate or they’re not.  People who expect their manager to make their jobs fun and interesting won’t get far."

"Do you practice specific skills with repetition and intent? Athletes do drills. Musicians hone difficult passages. What do you do?"

"Follow great people. Work for great people."

"One day, a sign appeared on a soda fridge in RedWest saying something to the effect of, 'Did you know that drinks cost Microsoft millions of dollars a year? Sodas are your perk at work.  Don’t bring them home.'  This depressed me on too many levels to enumerate, but I’ll toss out a few:
  1. Someone had enough time to get these signs professionally printed and affixed to our fridges.
  2. It was someone’s salaried, 40-hour-a-week job to do things like this.
  3. Someone thought soda smuggling was a big enough 'problem' at Microsoft to draw attention to it.
How much soda can a person steal? How much does that same person cost the company per hour in salary and benefits?  Our most interesting profits will come from capitalizing on huge opportunities, not from micromanaging costs.  I’m sure some finance person will lambast me for this, which would only further depress me. Believe in our upside. Focus on our upside."

"Individuals are the sole cause of anything that’s ever happened."


He says some good stuff there (I don't really agree with that last one - unless "cause" equals "impetus").
I particularly like, "Listen to understand.  Speak to be understood."

My dad said, "You can't learn when you're talking."

His quote about the soda stealing hits home. That was a small decision that can really take the wind out of the sails of the people who actually do the work. Note to all managers: you should actually cater to the ones who do the work instead of those who manage them. Never forget the power of good moral.

So basically, don't let the bastards get you down; only compare yourself to your best work, and you haven't done your best work yet.

Blue Oyster Cult - And Then Came the Last Days of May

More BOC awesomeness!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blue Oyster Cult - Veteran of the Psychic Wars (live)

One of my all time favorite bands! Don't Fear the Reaper - yes. Godzilla - yes. But they also made more and better music that never gets played!

"...all the stars are on the inside."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Things I have learned about people from managing rent houses

For the past several years I have managed a couple of rent houses for a family member. For most of the year it's an easy task-collect the rent and deposit it.

However, when people leave without notice:

You see how people treat things that aren't theirs - badly - no matter what is stipulated in the lease. How hard is it to change an air filter for the blower that sucks in air for the heating/air conditioning units? Super easy. It takes on the order of less than a minute to remove the cover, pull out the old one and put it in the trash, put in a new one, and replace the cover. How often do tenants change the air filters, even when they are supplied? Never.
Midsummer, I was called about the air conditioner not working well. I specifically asked if the filter had been changed recently. The tenant said yes - he lied. When I arrived to let in the repairman, we discovered the filter was so clogged that the system had sucked a hole through it. The stress of that plus the non-filtered air had ruined the unit. $700 to replace.

People really will convert an inch into a mile. We let a couple with five kids and a dog move into a three bedroom house. First two months were uneventful, but by the third month they were late on rent. They had stopped mowing the lawn. I accepted the first sob story.
 I should have known better in the first place not to rent to a couple where the husband was an unemployed graduate student in Philosophy (this was before the economic troubles of 2009-2010, there was plenty of work available if you were willing). Second, third, fourth sob stories got us into nearly three months late on rent. I told them they had to leave and that we were getting a lawyer.
Still they did not leave - our state has insane renters' rights laws, but the property owner can do very little. I'm sure they knew this; it felt like they'd done this before.
It took their electricity getting shut off in mid July before they left - and oh the mess they left.
Every square inch was dotted with fly shit. I had to take down every light fixture and soak them in soapy water to be able to scrub the dried fly shit dots - same with every door knob. Just nasty - I hope they are proud of the example they set for their children.

Suddenly, it is okay to be filthy bastards and let the dogs pee on the carpet. Forget shampooing the carpets; that's a waste of time. Before you spend the money to replace the carpet, you'll need to rip it out all and the padding down to bare concrete. Then you'll need to get a chemical spray tank and spray every inch of the concrete with a 5-10% bleach+water solution. You may have to do that twice to get the pee smell out of the concrete. That was a fun day. I've had to do that in two different houses so far...

Just leave what you don't want, someone else will clean it up. Here's an incomplete list of messes that I have cleaned up:

  • A quarter inch of dried blood on fridge floor
  • A quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream that melted in the freezer when the electricity was shut off and ran down the back of the inside of the refrigerator
  • A rotten bag of potatoes that turned to liquid and filled the bottom of the cabinets attracting a swarm of fruit flies
  • Fly shit everywhere. We painted the walls and ceiling and had to scrub everything else...everything
  • A bag of garbage that sat in a hot garage for at least two weeks. There was a slurry of white goo that ate through the bag and had to be swept, mopped, and bleached up
  • A microwave that looked like a can of spaghetti-ohs exploded, then grew green and blue hair
  • I've pitchforked at least 6 square bales of rotten hay out of a backyard that was there for no apparent reason - they didn't have a lama
  • I've not even mentioned the bathrooms...
People can be filthy, nasty liars that have no respect for themselves or anyone else. What's it like in the head of a person like that?

Do they really not feel bad?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

More Flea Market Photos

Not your normal rabbit holding a carrot. My precious.

World's crappiest tourist trap souvenir. Poorly spray painted star fish exoskeleton, glued down plastic flamingo and palm tree, and shellacked sea shells all embedded in some color swirled sandy resin base. Really, who bought this the first time?

Does it remind you of the beach or some dust collecting crap where spiders live?

Five dollar freaking scary doll. Hair plugs and Jack Nicholson eyebrows; all she's missing is an axe and the reek of booze.

Lloyd: What will you be drinking, sir?

Jack Torrance: Hair of the dog that bit me, Lloyd.

Puzzle Games - Part 2

More Addicting Puzzle Games:

Fantastic Contraption:
build machines out of supplies to move an object to a goal -

manipulate the balls to touch and cancel out each other without leaving or losing one - 

On The Edge:
similar in looks to Bloxorz (see June 6, 2008 post)

Power Up:
Link together machine parts to connect the circuit and power up -

Monday, June 7, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sequencing the Neandertal Genome

I didn't know that our heavily browed relative, the Neandertal, was named so because the first partial skull was found in a cave in Neander Tal (Neander Valley - Tal is German for Valley) in western Germany, east of Dusseldorf. I just imagined the name had some Latin significance. - silly me.

A new article published on Sciencemag.org, the web counterpart to Science Magazine, shows that a long list of scientists have had a hand in the building a draft (unfinished) sequence of the Neandertal genome - neat let's grow one in a big jar. The cure for male pattern baldness is only a petri dish away...

Also, noted in an article by Carl Zimmer, Skull Caps and Genomes, and one of the most interesting facts brought to light so far is that "Today, the people of Europe and Asia have genomes that are 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal." Signs of likely interbreeding (gene flow) less than 100,000 years ago - blagh.

In the Sciencemag article, population divergence, the point in time when modern humans and Neandertals diverged as separate species, is discussed. It is currently accepted to have happened between 270,000 and 440,000 years ago.

Imagine a bar full of different species of human relatives. A pretty, nearly modern, human woman sits sipping her third wild berry martini all alone, when a Neandertal male, previously split from her group over a quarter million years ago, approaches and compliments her on her small, smooth forehead and excellent posture. She giggles and thinks, why not?

However, the post-divergence interbreeding is not the only possible answer - thankfully. In the Sciencemag article, four possible scenarios have been identified to account for the 1 to 4 percent of Neandertal genetic content of Europeans and Asians. Of the four choices:

  1. Gene flow into Neandertals from other pre-existing hominins - they refer to the collection as Homo erectus
  2. Gene flow (possibly back and forth) from late Neandertals to early modern humans, Homo sapien
  3. Neandertal gene flow between the ancestors of all non-Africans (meaning Europeans, Asians, etc.) that happened after they left Africa
  4. Neandertals co-existed with the ancestors of the European, Asian, and others and the gene flow happened before they left Africa 
Methods 3 & 4 seem to fit the data, but the group seems to think that scenario 3 is the most likely. So it does seem that after the group of beings destined to populate most of Europe and Asia arrived, they had a little Neandertal slipped into their gene pool. Where was the lifeguard on duty that day? 

For the most part, I feel okay about it. Although it could explain why I furrow my brows and make grunting noises when I'm frustrated, and my predilection for games where the object is to hit something with a stick. 

And, I still think Captain Cavemen and the Teen Angels was one of the best Hanna Barbara cartoons ever made. Hey, that's the perfect analogy for Neandertal gene flow into modern humans. A cave man traveling around with three attractive, obviously Homo sapien, women in a van. We all know that vans are love machines on wheels...

No one ever said that being human wasn't gross. After all of the approximately 100 trillion human cells that comprise the body of the average person, we are host to 10 to 20 times that amount of others. The others are bacteria, fungus, and other creepy crawlies - but that a topic for another post.

A note about the spelling of Neandertal vs. Neanderthal. Zimmer used Neanderthal throughout his article and the Sciencemag article used Neandertal.  It seems that most sciencey people use Neandertal now - a return to the original German spelling and pronunciation. Two good discussions of the nomenclature at Talk Origins and at John Hawks blog who also has a great post on the new Neandertal Genome news. However, in Neandertal Germany there is a Neanderthal Museum - go figure...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Flea Market Photos - Salt and Pepper Bovines

Well, after that last heavy, preachy post, I thought you might like some humorous salt and pepper bovines. In the last pic you can tell that the green shirt one is the cow and the black vest is the bull. Like all great cartoon character and humorously anthropomorphized animals before them, they wear tops but no bottoms. I don't really know why I find this so funny; my wife thinks I need therapy.

Michael Specter: The Danger of Science Denial

If you had access to a time machine, would you go forward or backward in time? Forward absolutely - gimme the good stuff. A lot of people would like to go back - see some dinosaurs, Cleopatra, crap like that. I too have some times and places I'd like to experience -  ancient Greece and learn from Aristotle, even more ancient China and talk with the Buddha, experience a Jimmi Hendrix concert live at his peak - you know the greats!

Right now, even though we are at an all time high of technology and knowledge, it seems we are at the precipice of a great back slide - a new intellectual dark age where people no longer believe that science is factual. Where ancient homeopathic cures are more trusted than modern medicine because they are deemed 'natural' therefore better and because the ancients knew something that we don't today. Yes, it is true that aspirin is derived from the bark of a willow tree. But, it took chemists to distill out the curative chemicals and concentrate them so we can take two small pills and don't have to boil down large quantities of bark to make a bitter liquid (of an uncontrolled and unknown concentration) to drink.

Here's the problem, an easily grasped belief seems more true and real to a lot of people than real science, that is very difficult to understand. I don't pretend to understand all of the science I believe in. To a large degree I am taking the word of the scientists that they are conducting their experiments correctly and are reporting the results correctly. However, what I do have over a concocted belief is the all mighty Scientific Method. Test your beliefs against the scientific method and see if they hold up - then I will believe.

Genetically Modified foods create mutant monsters?! Tested false. There are some concerns, but let's not dismiss them without knowing the facts. GM foods on my plate? Yes, a second helping please. Do you realize that without GM foods we'd never be able to feed the billions on this planet? Plant disease resistance, drought tolerance, vitamin enrichment are not bad qualities. So GM foods or vast famine; don't trust me, do your own research. Or just go eat a petroleum-based cream filled, yellow dye colored artificial sponge cake and be quiet.

Vaccines will give children autism and a host of other nasty diseases? What you believed was wrong. Tested false. Vaccines against disease? Yes, please. If I never get the flu again, I buying my doctor a gold-plated putter for his short game. Vaccines have been proven over and over to not cause autism, however they DO prevent or polio, rubella, and other crippling and debilitating diseases; once again don't trust me, look it ups on your own. And don't trust an entertainment celebrity as an authority, go to the people who do research and have professional degrees and careers established on science. Or you could dig out the leg braces that your great grandfather wore because of his brush with polio and oil the hinges because your child might need them.

Because, let me tell you people, prayer and placebos did not make your vitamin enriched breakfast cereal, your pasteurized milk and your smart phone - science did.

Placebos are fine until belief replaces science, then people die. And it is a slippery slope once your beliefs start to replace fact. Did bleeding ever cure anyone? Can acupuncture cure cancer?

And now a short video...

For some unrelated amusement on this topic listen to Brian Dunning of the podcast Skeptoid sing "Buy It!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Long Day in a Short Life

Have you ever felt like work was just one big train of lemmings and 'yes' men? And when someone with vision and intestinal fortitude finally comes along - they're given a long walk on a short pier? The best person for the job just performed an assisted belly-flop in the empty pool of life. There is something to be said for standing in the back of the line. Keep your head down and play more Tetris.

Here's a couple of shorties that illustrate my point...

These are from The New Yorker Animated Cartoon series - I found them on Hulu

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Movie Title

Finally here's a movie that run the gamut of human emotion! The  dialog is direct and revealing. The acting is heroic and cleansing. The popcorn was crunchy and salty. The soda was cold and overpriced. The ending was everything I expected, but not more.
Hurray for the screenwriter who finally shows us the true heart and soul of American film making - the formulaic margin notes!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mitchell Joachim of Terreform, on sustainable architecture

Ficus - the home of the future! Let's all move to the tropics!

Google Liquid Galaxy live demo at TED

It's running on 7 Linux machines. At the very end of the video you can hear "School's Out" by Alice Cooper in the background. See, nerds are cool.

Or go and watch it in highdef @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atV2foTBbyE

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Japanese Death Poems

Japanese death poems were written by a person as close to the moment of death as possible. Ideally, as they finished and put down the ink brush, they would exhale their last breath and die before the ink was dry.

Seems that most were written by monks, priests, noblemen, and other well educated members of Japan's history. They reflect on what it means to live and die, and their philosophy on both.
Some are beautiful and reflective, such as Koraku's
The joy of dewdrops
In the grass as they
Turn back to vapor.
Others display a wonderful humor about the inevitable, such as Morikawa Kyoriku's (1656 - 1715)
Till now I thought
that death befell
the untalented alone.
If those with talent, too,
   must die
surely they make
   a better manure?
My favorite so far is from Moriya Sen'an:
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak.

 To read these and others go to the
Google Book search for Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
By Yoel Hoffmann
Or better yet, support the guy and buy the book like I did!
Here's an easy link to Hoffmann's book on Amazon - ya cheap schmuck!