May 31, 2004

Popular science   {Comments: 0}

Sean Carroll had a couple of great posts up last week about alternatives to general relativity. I've been reading a lot about string theory lately (popular stuff, not the math!) but I wasn't aware of these other (less sexy?) approaches to reconciling GR with the rest. Anyway, Sean/Prof Carroll (?) does a great job of explaining these things for the lay person, and he certainly is an authority on it. I hope he keeps it up...

TravelBlog   {Comments: 3}

My sister Jackie has set up a new TravelBlog as part of her online travel magazine The Long Trip Home. I believe she is looking for contributors, as well as other blogs that focus on travel. And of course, they're always looking for more polished stories, essays, and photojournals for the magazine itself.

May 24, 2004

The new standard   {Comments: 1}

Geoffrey Pullum has suggested some further standards for the use of the term Ghits (referring to Google hits), and the other folks at Language Log seem to have jumped on board. Mark Liberman also suggests a relative measure that expresses the number of Google hits in terms of the total number of documents in the search pool, which will take some of the error away when dealing with changes over time.

Of course, there's still all that rot out there on the internet that's being measured by Google -- usage that's several years old by now and will probably never drop out of Google's search pool. This isn't a serious problem now, but twenty years from now Google won't be so great for measuring current usage if it's still jammed up with all that turn-of-the-century slang. Then again, we'll probably have an updated search tool by then, Google or otherwise, which will render all this Ghits business obsolete anyway.

Now you're playing with power   {Comments: 2}

I can't help but boast about my new Gmail address. I'd been worrying for some time now about what I was going to do when my subscription to ran out, and then my friend offered to pull some strings for me with his friends at Google. I was a little skeptical about going to a web based format (that live Unix server running Pine can be intoxicating) but I think I'm going to be pretty happy with Gmail... the speed, storage space, and sorting capabilities are pretty much unparalleled.

Gift horse?   {Comments: 5}

I've never been a fan of WalMart -- in fact, I have a pretty suspicious view of their business practices from top to bottom. However, it's not clear to me what Chicagoans are trying to achieve by preventing WalMart from coming to the Windy City. The two planned WalMart stores would be on the south and west sides of Chicago, in places where the communities can use every extra job they can get. The economic development these stores can generate would be a fantastic boost for residents of these areas. The notion that somehow workers in these areas are going to be exploited with low-wage, low-benefit jobs is preposterous -- did anybody stop to look up the employment rates in these areas?

Of course I believe WalMart's use of market share to bully small producers needs to be countered, but is this really the place to do it? The south and west sides of Chicago need every bit of development they can get, even if it comes in the form of WalMart.

UPDATE: PG points me to this article.

Games with numbers   {Comments: 0}

Some disgruntled academic is auctioning off (through eBay) his name as a co-author on an academic paper, apparently along with at least some of the research assitance co-authorship implies. No surprise here: there've been any number of more bizarre auctions on eBay, and I even have some sinister schemes of my own to use their service for profit and amusement. What caught my eye was this amusement having to do with Paul Erdös:

The idea builds on the reputation of Erdös, a Hungarian mathematician who died in 1996. A prolific researcher, with more than 1,400 published papers, he spent the last several decades of his life moving from one colleague's house to another's, staying for extended periods at each place and collaborating on solving problems.

In honor of the eccentric researcher, many mathematicians started calculating the intellectual connections that separated them from Erdös -- the scholarly equivalent of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. A person who has written a paper directly with Erdös has an Erdös number of 1. A researcher who published with an Erdös co-author would have an Erdös number of 2, and so on.

These numbers are taken quite seriously. The winner of the auction bid more than $1000 to prevent the devaluing of Erdös numbers. The fellow auctioning his name and services has an Erdös number of 4.
Political idealism   {Comments: 5}

There is an inspirational piece in the New Yorker today about Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for Illinois's open Senate seat. I feel like I'm parroting the article when I say he's going to be a major force in American politics over the next 20 years, but I've actually been saying so for a while now: he's one of the brightest and most effective political speakers I've ever seen. And he brings a fresh optimism. The article points out that he has tremendous respect even from his political opponents, and that his support often comes from those who disagree with him -- the latter especially is quite a trick.

May 21, 2004

Revelations   {Comments: 0}

Obviously the big news today was the release of new prisoner abuse photographs by the Washington Post, but the Post also has the translated sworn testimony of some of the Abu Ghraib detainees. It's truly appalling stuff -- somehow I was more affected by these firsthand descriptions of what went on than I was by any of the photograps that have been released. This is probably because the the testimony of the prisoners themselves very overtly juxtaposes the cultural background of the victims against the sadistic acts of their American captors.

By the way, the administration is making a huge mistake by not releasing all the photos, videos, and other materials at once. The justification they've given is a legal one -- somehow it will help guarantee the relevant MPs a fair trial. But this is a political scandal, in America of course, but even more importantly abroad. The standard Bush administration approach of secrecy and denial will not work here; the stakes are too big. They should get out in front of this and take sweeping action to bring those responsible (at every level) to justice. Only then can they get on with their mission in Iraq.

May 18, 2004

Publish or perish   {Comments: 0}

Todd Price of Frolic has a freelance piece over the Chronicle of Higher Education about the job market for humanities PhDs outside the academy. It's a good read, albeit a lttle depressing. I hope the article opens new doors for him...

Obama blog   {Comments: 0}

The Barack Obama campaign has a new blog up, and it appears to be spearheaded by Rick Klau, the same evil genius who got Howard Dean's pathbreaking blog up and running. Rick recently came to one of my classes to give a fascinating and inspirational talk about the Dean campaign's organizational innovations and his pivotal role there. I'm thrilled to see Obama has tapped him for this.

May 17, 2004

Automated grouping process   {Comments: 5}

Whoa. I was flipping through Google News and a link to this came up on the main page. I don't think I've ever seen a blog entry come up before, even if it is part of a magazine. Did this just slip through, or has Google News classified Shane Cory's blog as a legitimate news source?

I hadn't thought about it before, but there's nothing quite like Google News for blogs, is there? Google should do it... it wouldn't be too much of a departure from what they've already done, and it would add a lot of value for bloggers.

May 16, 2004

Some new sort of twisted form of constant irony   {Comments: 4}

Here's a nice short history of American semiotics (in the academy, at least), with juicy details about the education of Ira Glass, among others. I like the idea of blaming my "problematic relation to practice" on those damn semiotics classes...

Moral equivalence   {Comments: 0}

I haven't had a chance yet to comment on the despicable treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but I'm seriously disturbed by the comparison with Nick Berg's beheading at the hands of purported al Qaeda operatives. I don't want to minimize the latter tragedy, but the torture at Abu Ghraib is far worse and far more important in the scheme of the war in Iraq, the war on terror, the whole American project.

On the one hand, you have the execution of an American by terrorists, which is hardly surprising given what they've been doing for the past few years. On the other hand, you have the American military abandoning the high moral ground. The fact that you could compare the events at all is a statement about what the American reputation is abroad. Do we really want to be comparing our actions with the atrocities perpetrated by al Qaeda?

After 9/11, many proclaimed the death of moral relativism. Let's hope they were wrong -- because otherwise, we're on the side of evil.

May 14, 2004

Coffee abuse   {Comments: 0}

Scientists have confirmed what caffeine users already know: that to maintain caffeine levels in the blood, it's important to keep consuming it in small doses (or large doses, as the case may be) throughout the day. But at the same time, I'm not sure it's surprising that people go for a big dose in the morning. Rsearch on users of more ilicit drugs suggests they like two things: a relatively small, constant dose, as well as occasional spikes. There's no reason to expect caffeine users to be any different.

Non-verbal communication   {Comments: 4}

Michael Thaler's new verbless novel, (in French and untranslated) Le Train de Nulle Part, under review over at Language Log. And the reaction: copycat posts with no verbs, no nouns, no prepositions, no adjectives, no articles. But the irony of it all! In French and English grammar at least, such a wealth of adjectives, nouns, and adverbs, all direct descendants of verbal forms -- verbs, those queens of language. So now, only the shadows of verbs; presence through absence, the theme of the novel.

Any of you translators up to the challenge? Easier, probably, than Gilbert Adair's bizarre achievement, his e-less translation of Perec's La Disparition, but still amusing, no? Some young upstart translator's future tour de force, no doubt.

Dearth   {Comments: 1}

Sorry of the lack of posts. The past three weeks, starting with my week in CT, have been extremely busy and disorienting. It's not over -- the quarter is approaching its end -- but hopefully I can get back to blogging now. I have to admit that it's felt somewhat liberating to be focusing on other things for a while, but only I think in the temporary way that a vacation is liberating.

May 4, 2004

Just because you are a character...   {Comments: 4}

Keywords has an interesting post up about diacritics and other special characters and how they work with unicode. He's looking at it from a discrimination standpoint (ie we're discriminating against those poor Czechs by not putting the diacritics on their names), but it's interesting that in at least some of these cases, the linguistic groups themselves might be making things more difficult. In the case of Tatar, for example, the past few years have seen major decisions about precisely which alphabet to use. Basically they were using a modified Cyrillic alphabet during Soviet times and are in the process of switching to a Latin alphabet. But as I understand it, they ultimately chose to go with some characters that aren't in unicode, even though part of their stated rationale for switching to a Latin alphabet in the first place was to better meet international typography standards.

Wordly wise   {Comments: 2}

DrFrankLives over at stinging-nettle points out the idiocy of something Bush said about race. I didn't hear the particular statement he references, but I was horrified during his press conference when he referred to "brown" people. It makes me wonder if the term is in regular use around the White House. I guess this kind of talk would be scandalous if it came from anyone else, but the expectations are so low with Bush that people seem to give him the benefit of the doubt: he misspoke.