Category Archives: Science & Data

The Final Word on the College of Architecture and Planning Sign

Update on the Ball State College of Architecture

College of Architecture and Planning Sign

Two of the biggest pages on this site have to with this funny sign on the College of Architecture and Planning building. The joke is that these very smart and erudite people who teach planning didn’t plan enough to get their sign properly displayed. It’s slightly amusing, but my reason for writing about it was that there were a lot of people who thought it was real — that the faculty of Architecture and Planning had this sign made with no thought and then just said, “Oh well, nothing to be done!”

No, Academics Are Not Idiots, Even Though Conservatives Want Them to be

This was an idea particularly pushed by conservatives who want to believe that all academics are idiots. But even worse, libertarians seemed to take this line the most. I had always thought that for all their failings libertarians at least valued knowledge and that while they might think government bureaucrats screw things up, they wouldn’t take it to academics. Most libertarians think of themselves are smart and learned.

My Purpose: to Show the Image Was Made to Be Funny

So my only reason for writing the articles was to make the point that the sign was a joke. It doesn’t matter if the subcontractor screwed it up and the dean said, “Let’s keep it, it’s funny!” And it doesn’t matter if a change was made to the building and the dean said, “You know, instead of redoing the lettering, let’s put the “C” on the other wall because it will be funny and stand as an object lesson for our students!” And it doesn’t matter if the photo was simply photoshopped to make a funny image.

There Is No Deep Meaning in the Image

The sign was meant to be funny; it wasn’t an indication that academics are idiots. That’s all I had to say. Unfortunately, there are, about a million people who took the image very seriously indeed. And for a long time, I responded to these people with variations of, “You make an interesting point, but it’s still true that whoever did it, did it because it was funny. It doesn’t mean anything. Conservatives and libertarians can’t use it as an illustration that academics are idiots. That’s not what is going on in the image. Regardless of what way you turn it, the perpetrator did it because they thought it was funny. And that’s the end of the story.

The Two Articles

So I eventually wrote two articles about this stupid little images. At first, I had no idea that this would be such a big deal. The first article was just intended to talk about how un-serious it was. Then, the second one was written to try to lower the fever. But when the reaction to it was even bigger than it had been to the frst one, I knew it was hopeless. So I gave up. But here, for all you people who think this is very important, I’m putting it all together.

College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke
Update on the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning Sign — It’s Still a Joke

I’m even including the comments because most of these people are very smart and they had interesting things to say. Sure, the world would be better if these people tried to cure cancer or something. But this is what they’ve decided to do and who am I to say they’re wrong? (A sensible person.)

College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke

At the top of this article, you can see the “hilarious” image of the College of Architecture and Planning sign. In case you can’t see it, the “C” in the word “College” is pasted on the brick wall to the left (on the right in the image). It is clearly meant as a joke and perhaps an object lesson for all those “planning” majors. I think it’s quite brilliant in its way.

Cjhelms to the Rescue: Nothing to Be Done!

By all accounts, the building was at Ball State and has since been torn down. But it is hard to know anything for sure. Consider that when this photo was posted on Reddit this January 2014. Some reddit person who goes by the name cjhelms wrote:

The building was constructed in two parts. One completed in 1972 and the newer part completed in 1982. The newer part includes the wall to the left and the older part is the rest that you see. The photo was taken from the basement level. The lettering is above the first level (the windows above the words are of a second-floor conference room). There was originally a pedestrian bridge that connected to the entrance below the lettering.

When the newer portion of the building was constructed, the contractor missed his mark and caused the lettering to be cut off. Why didn’t they change it? The space that used to be a beautiful grand entrance to the college was converted into a loading dock.

Part of this may well be true: the left side looks newer. Just the same, none of this would imply that an error was made and I find it very unlikely. Much more likely is that they were making an addition to the building and they knew they had to cover over part of the existing beam. Rather than redo the sign, someone said, “You know what would be funny…?” Cjhelms’ implication that they couldn’t be bothered to fix the sign because it was now just a loading dock doesn’t fly. If that’s the case, why did they go to the trouble of pasting the “C” on the brick wall?

What’s more, I question cjhelms’ seriousness. In another comment, he mentions that it was built by the “lowest bidder,” which is a tired cliche. No one ever gets a contract by being the lowest bidder; they often get them by being the lowest qualified bidder. What’s more, cjhelms claims he knows what went on there because he works at Ball State. But that doesn’t mean he knows anything about the project. And if he weren’t there when it was built (he recently had a child so he is probably young), all he likely knows is campus folklore.

This automatically raises a question: if this was now the loading dock, why didn’t they just remove the letters? They were no longer needed. I’ll bet you anything that Cjhelms prowled the droms looking for a couple of people having drinks so he could explain traveling past the speed of light was possible. And trust me: his dissertation required the use of string, Magic Tape, and the last burrito in the freezer.

RJMjr60 at Least Makes Some Sense

In contrast, RJMjr60 claimed:

It was done intentionally to prove a point, and to continually reiterate that point to every student who entered the building… The name was a reminder to always think things through and the fact that it made it to Reddit many years after its demise is proof that it got people’s attention and made them think.

Or just consider the human psychology behind the sign. If you ran the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State, and something went wrong on the project for your new building, you would make the best the situation. (For one thing, you would require the contractor to fix the sign!) You would not throw up your hands and say, “It’s an embarrassment, but there is nothing we can do about it!” So whatever the situation with the building, the sign was a choice — a joke that makes a point about the subject being taught.

It wasn’t some stupid dean who couldn’t think of anything else to do. “God, what an embarrassment! But nothing can be done! Maybe if Kurt Gödel were around, he could come up with some hyper-intellectual solution like moving all the letters closer together. But this is Ball State! We don’t have that kind of brain power, so let’s just embarrass ourselves!”

Comments Both Great and Stupid

Here are all the comments to the first article. I’ve left out the “track-back” comments, which are just links from other websites that linked to the article. It was originally a way to encourage people to link to each other, but quickly just turned into another way for scammers to try to increase their Google Rank. It’s sad. Before the Internet was monetized, this never happened. Now it always does. And the single thing that made the internet great — people earnestly trying to help each other out, has died. I much preferred the only internet. Now it is soiled.

There is actually a way to bring back the old internet using some idea of the economist Dean Baker. But it would never happen, because people are too used to the capitalist internet and can’t imagine anything else. When you have a whole bunch of people who are making millions of dollars off the new internet, they have the incentive and the money to keep it the way it is. It’s too bad because we could have something better. I was on the internet in the heady days of the 1980s. Most of the people today don’t even remember those days. All they know is the capitalist internet. And there is so much more.

Richard
YEAH, RIGHT!!!!!
Dave
The image is a photoshop fake and the back-story is invented. Here is a genuine shot of the building.
http://www.ballstatedaily.com/article/2015/08/signs-architecture-major
Frank
Thank you so much! I’m preparing a followup article, that will go up at 5:05 tonight. I don’t think this new photo quite proves what you claim. But it is really great to have it, and and it has brought a couple of things to my mind that I hadn’t discussed before. I hope you will drop by and see if you buy what I have to say.
Isak Lindenauer
What’s stupid and what makes the joke fail is the fact that whoever wanted to create this hoax erroneously made the “error” on the left side. No one would start with a mistake or put up the sign starting at the right and working to the left. (Well, maybe if it were an Orthodox Jewish college!). For the joke to work, it has to appear seamless and believable. That means some shmendrick who was commissioned to put up the sign starts with the letter C without really thinking his actions through and making a plan even though the very word is in the sign. He gets to the END and sees there is not enough room for the last letter so he puts it on the right wall to finish the title…
Frank
Read the update. I don’t accept it, but the competing theory is that the left wall was added, cutting off the sign. The dean (or whoever) thought it would be funny to put the “C” on the wall. But we now have a better version of the image with the letters displayed perfectly. So I am 99% certain this is just a PhotoShop gag.
Dwight Simmons
What is really funny, is all the posts of Facebook and the comments about how stupid the College is.
Frank
Ah! I had wondered what was going on there, because I’ve been getting a tremendous amount of traffic on this.

Update on the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning Sign — It’s Still a Joke

The College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke. It is in reference to the photo at the top of this article. I didn’t think much about the article at the time, but it has been huge — arguably the most viewed article I’ve ever written. The reason I wrote it was basically political. A lot of people use the picture as “yet another example of how the government can’t do anything right.” And that offends me. So I went searching for information about the photo. There was very little and so I put together what I could find.

The “It’s a PhotoShop Hoax Theory”

Yesterday, there was another explosion of traffic to that page, and I got a very interesting comment from a guy named Dave, “The image is a photoshop fake and the back-story is invented. Here is a genuine shot of the building…” He provided a link to a recent article from Ball State Daily, Ten Signs You’re an Architecture Major. The content of the article has nothing to do with the question at hand, but it does include a picture of building, which I have cropped to highlight the part of the building that is displayed in the original image.

College of Architecture and Planning

To reiterate, this has little to do with my original article. If that photo is digitally altered, then it was indeed a joke. The point of the article was that the College of Architecture and Planning didn’t, as I wrote, throw up its hands and say, “It’s an embarrassment, but there is nothing we can do about it!” No one behaves that way! Whether the sign ever existed hardly matters. Whether it was a designer or a graphic artist, it was intentional. And it was always meant to be humorous. The fact that a lot people don’t see that annoys me. It reminds me of those “ancient alien” shows that are predicated on the idea that humans are dumb.

There is a really clear difference between these two photographs, however. In the original photo, there is a wall on the left side. There is no wall in the new photo. This doesn’t prove that the original photo wasn’t a PhotoShop job. Indeed, it adds some credence. It might have been perfect because the beam had no lettering on it. But why put a wall in? It makes more sense to have the end cut off, not the beginning. But I can’t say.

It is also possible that these photos are from different parts of the building. Or it could even be that they are different buildings — the Bracken Library on the Ball State campus has a similar design. This possibility would almost certainly make it an altered image and not a representation of anything that ever existed.

The one thing that disturbs me is that wall. In my original article, I quoted a Reddit user, “The building was constructed in two parts. One completed in 1972 and the newer part completed in 1982. The newer part includes the wall to the left and the older part is the rest that you see…” The new photo is from the college archives — a similar one by the same photographer (Savannah Neil) was used a year earlier. So maybe the original photo is actually more recent. I actually think so, because the building looks shiny and new. I suspect this photo was from the original shots taken of the building.

It could have been that someone thought they would throw up some letters on the beam temporarily when the expansion was taking place and they thought this was cute. Or maybe it was a prank. I’m rather fond of that idea because it is exactly what you would think a few students at the College of Architecture and Planning would do and think was the funniest thing ever. On the other hand, that beam is very high and would be hard to get to.

The strongest argument for this being a PhotoShop job is that the original image is the only one I’ve found of the sign. There are no others from a slightly different angle or time. But if the building does date back to the early 1970s, then we are talking about a different time. People didn’t have cameras everywhere. Maybe it was pranksters. They took several pictures of it, but this is the only one they hung onto — or at least the only one they bothered to digitize.

Ultimately, all the new photo provides is some indication that this is PhotoShop work. (I’m about 50-50 on the issue right now.) But if it is, that only proves what I was always saying: the people at Ball State are not lazy idiots. The sign — real or digitally created — is still a joke.

Update (8 September 2015)

In the comments, Paul L provided what looks to be the original photo. It contains the letters where you think they would be. And the photo is better: you can clearly see a figure in the window who is vague in the “mistake picture.” So I assume this picture is the original and the mistake picture is a PhotoShop job. If any picture proves it, it is this one — not the picture above that I’m sure is an earlier one.

College of Architecture and Planning - Original, No PhotoShop

Update (14 September 2015 9:05 am)

Here is the video that we have been talking about in the comments:

If you skip to 0:53 in the video, there is a pan up of an image of the sign. It is shockingly like Alien Autopsy in that just before we get to see “the truth” it cuts. I guess we can be happy that it doesn’t go blurry. But it does show that the seam in the metal that the sign is on runs through the second “T” in “ARCHITECTURE.” In what I thought was the original image, the seam goes through the second “C.” As I’ve noted before these are the same exact photographs so one must be a PhotoShop job. And it would seem that the “correct” one is.

I hate being dragged down in the weeds on this. For the umpteenth time: the sign is a joke, not an example of incompetence. That is all I care about.

Comments

So here are the final coments. Again, my point is that this is a joke. That’s all I care about. It does seem that this is a PhotoShop joke. That’s what the data indicates. But a joke it is. Professionals are neither so ignorant nor so later to do this by accident.

Crispy
There’s also this video which seems believable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZshMwU2-HCM

Frank
Thanks for that. This is more or less what one of the original Reddit people said — almost word-for-word. The problem with it is in the newest image above. And as I think I pointed out in this article, I can’t actually find the “wrong” image going back more than a year or so. But what are we to make of the newest image? Is it PhotoShopped? Because it is the exact same image. One of them has been PhotoShopped. I think I discussed in the first article that it is possible that now even the people at Ball State are relying on folklore about this. As it is, the video references Professor James Underwood for the “oral history.” I would love for the story to be true — partly because he specifically says, “It would be funny” — which was my original point. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t Chris Helms who created the image in the first place.
There is one thing I’ve been thinking about that is brought up in the video, and was discussed originally on Reddit: the big image above (without the left wall) is not that part of the building. The building is sorta symmetrical, and the part with the sign was on the other side. But that makes the “mistake sign” even less reasonable, because then the new wall wasn’t built and there would have been nothing to change the original sign.
Vern
Is it too far fetched to consider the photo was flipped horizontally before the letters were photoshopped onto it?
Frank
At this point, I’d believe anything… If it turned out that Ball State doesn’t even exist, I wouldn’t be surprised.
MW
The “original” photo you posted has Where’s Waldo waving from the window.
http://www.pleasantondowntown.net/assets/uploads/files/events/da775-new-canaan-waldo.jpg
Considering Ball State’s own video says “this happened”, I’m inclined to believe the photo is real, and the “original” photo with Where’s Waldo is a photoshop.
Frank
Good eye! But all that proves is that the image was taken after 1987. Both images contain the same figure, so it is meaningless to note that the figure is Where’s Waldo. But I did notice something, so I guess I will have to update this damnable article.
Charlie (It was you!)
Have you looked at the 1:11 moment of video? I see no mention of this. It appears as though this part of the building with the ill placed “C” has been built over. Hmmmm, the plot thinks.
Jim B
Have you looked at the 1:11 moment of video? I see no mention of this. It appears as though this part of the building with the ill placed “C” has been built over. Hmmmm, the plot thickens.
janepublic
It’s Photoshopped. you can see the tell tale drop shadow pixellation around the letters under 500 magnification. I made an addition to the photo to show off but there’s no upload here. :(
Frank
Interesting. Do blogs have that capability? That sounds more like a forum. Anyway, we are but a wee website.
I’m more than willing to believe you. But I have promised myself I will not be dragged back in! Every week or so, there seems to be an argument somewhere about this photo and someone links to this article.
But, once again: my interest is really not whether or not the image is real. My interest is whether or not it was actually a mistake. Was it the result of bad planning? Clearly it was not. It’s great regardless, and people find it constantly interesting — this has been going on for well over a year now.
Randall Peacock (with the ice pick in the kitchen)
Okay people, why is this so difficult to understand? I am completely baffled at the amount of ridiculously incorrect information that has been posted in this small amount of cyber space.
1. The original image is of the upper portion of the building. Starting at the third floor there is a cantilevered outside corner section of the building that sits within the interior corner formed by two brick walls. You can see this on any street view of the building.
2. The image in this post showing the “correct” sign is actually the spandex over the door on the first floor. The doors are at the first floor and are parallel with one of the two brick walls forming the inside corner. This is the reason you see brick on both sides of the doorway.
3. The photoshopped image of the incorrect sign is the “left” side of the cantilevered exterior corner. There are no signs on this third floor section of the building.
4. The building was expanded in 1982 but the expansion is on the complete opposite side of the building. All of the photos shown in the original and in this post are of the of the original portion of the building.
5. Simply going to Google Earth will allow you to see the street view of the building.
A Genour
I’m sorry, but you’ve been had. Your “original photo” in the update, the one with Waldo, is the photoshop, and quite a bad one at that.

A flip-book style comparison with the original with the mistake will show you how the Waldo photo’s creator has just moved the letters a few pixels to the right – not bothering to retouch elements such as the seam in the panels around the letter “T”. This is the by far biggest tell, and frankly you could stop reading here.
Animation: http://imgur.com/ofpJnuZ

But to go on – you’ll also see how the job is rushed, not bothering to align the subtle textures of the metal around the letters with that of the rest of the panel. Also, Waldo’s addition to a clean photo is simple to perform, whereas removing him while preserving the reflection and detail of the dark space where he once was would require significant skill and time. In fact, calculating the pixel difference between the two images reveals that the difference is a perfect rendition of Waldo, something that would be *extremely* difficult to achieve if Waldo was the subject being removed, as you’d have to *perfectly* remove him, down to the tiniest color and texture subtleties.
I can’t speak to the authenticity of the first photo with the mistake. But I do question the assertion that the update’s “original photo” is of better quality – it is not. The noise pattern or “grain” is almost identical, with the slight addition of JPEG compression artifacts only visible upon a difference comparison and contrast adjustment – I say with confidence that the “original” is sourced from the photo with the mistake. The powers of suggestion are in full force here.
In conclusion, the “update” photo is fake, and Paul L is a dirty dirty liar :)
Frank
For the umpteenth time: I’ve always said it was a joke. I’m agnostic about whose joke it is. The original argument was about how it showed how incompetent academics are. I leave the rest of the argument to the tens of thousands of Reddit users who never seem to get enough of this!
A Genour
I see I was not clear enough in my post. I’m not discussing the original case of the “C…OLLEGE” sign, or whether it’s a joke. I’m simply pointing out that the 2015-09-08 update claiming to be an “unaltered original photo” featuring a correctly-spaced sign and a Waldo, is a photoshop fake, created by manipulating the “C…OLLEGE” photo that started all of this. That whole update is incorrect. The poster that gave you that update and photo is having a laugh at your expense, and trolling us all.
For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain the “C…OLLEGE” photo is real, as suggested by the account in the 2015-09-15 update video by the college in question. And while I suppose it’s possible (although not corroborated by the story in the video) that a photo *could* exist of a correctly-spaced sign, the update photo of 2015-09-08 is certainly not it, as it’s a fake.
Elizabeth
Explaining a joke ruins the joke you know. [Not when it isn’t much of a joke to begin with. –FM 6 Feb 2018]
Frank
What you are doing is dangerous. I try not to get drawn in. Just the other day, about 2,000 people rushed to this page because another discussion started on Reddit. This happens at least once a month. I could not possibly care less at this point. But apparently, I’m the only one who’s ever cared enough about the subject to lay it all out — twice! Ugh!
Frank
Well no one is going to disagree you are a dork. :-) [True –FM 6 Feb 2018]
Bruce Keller
Isn’t it that they added the new brick wall on the left, and it would have covered the ‘C’, so after building the addition, they just stuck on the ‘C’ again, making the joke?
Frank
Something along those lines is my theory. As these articles have shown, this picture means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. My interest in it is only that it isn’t the result of bad planning but rather an explicit joke. There are many people who want to believe that it is the result of actual bad planning. I think a lot of that is just people who have a problem with colleges and want to believe the myth of the “educated fool.” Regardless of what happened with the remodel of the building, there were many ways to deal with it. Those in charge decided to make it a joke. Which is great!
Sean R.
I was showing this to a friend and stumbled on this article. I was a student in the building in question. I can tell you 100% the c in College is on the brick wall and not on the metal with the rest of the letters (at least last I have heard from a friend that still lives in Muncie). As for the original post, the first picture is correct (the delivery/side entrance off of Neely Ave.), while the second picture is of the main entrance (off of McKinley).
I can’t comment on whether the C being placed on the brick was a joke or not, as no one in the building or on campus can answer that (I lean towards joke, as the planners on campus have had a lot of fun with the buildings over the years – the aerial view of the library looks like a stack of books, the architecture building looks like a drafting table, the performance hall looks like a piano, etc) I’m sure most people are long past this, just thought I would add a first person account to the mix.
Frank
For the right person, it could turn into an obsession. But it’s really very simple for me. I grew up around builders. The letters are a trivial amount of money compared to the remodel, much less the building. But had no one cared, they would have simply cut the “C” off. But for the college of planning? It’s a brilliant joke and object lesson.
Sarah
The building is genuine. It’s on Clarence Street, York, England. The signage was originally like that, I remember as I passed it twice a day on the bus to and from work. York residents were told that it was a joke by the college. I’m unsure if they have since corrected it as I moved away 6 years ago
Frank
In general, I don’t respond to comments on this because I’m so tired of this story. But really?! This is the first I’ve head of it.

The only reason I wrote about this in the first place was because so many people were claiming that it was just an error. Regardless of where it is and how it came to be, the people involved thought, “This will be funny.”
Rob
You are clearly a Big Edu shill. Wake up sheeple!!!1!!
Frank>

I understand this to mean that my claim that this is a joke is an effort to protect pointed headed intellectuals. You aren’t far wrong; but you are wrong. It is my effort to protect human beings, who are overall pretty smart. Even if it was a mistake, the builders didn’t fix it because they thought it was funny. The original article was based on my experience with other humans — even ones I don’t think that highly of.
In the discussion of this image on reddit before I wrote about it, a lot of people wanted to believe that others were just stupid. I don’t want to live in that world. Lucky for me: I don’t have to. Humans are hardly perfect, but on the whole, not a bad lot. Not a bad lot at all.
James Fillmore

Could just be a joke about the silly word “sheeple.” Which, whenever I hear it, makes me think of the sheep in Aardman animations. Who are quite smart!
Here’s a fun thing I read recently. Mules aren’t stubborn; they’re smart, and have better eyesight/smell than horses. So if a mule sees a path is too treacherous to walk on safely, or smells a pack of predators in an oncoming direction, they’re really hesitant to move. A horse might not smell predators that sharply; they don’t really need to, they can run super fast. Donkeys/mules don’t run fast, so they rely on better smell for a warning sign, and better eyesight to make it into difficult terrain most predators can’t follow.
Frank
I came upon a mule fan site just the other day. It was fascinating. Mules also don’t bolt when they get scared. They seem to appraise the situation. They may then bolt. But as a result, people are not nearly as likely to be hurt by a mule. This is one of many reasons why mules are used in the Grand Canyon. They are also far more surefooted. They are also (in my experience) much quieter than donkeys. That’s the one thing I don’t like about donkeys!
James Fillmore
There is a large population of feral donkeys in Custer National Park, in the Black Hills. They are smart and hugely aggressive. They don’t attack people, but they will block roads and surround your car and butt their heads against the window until you roll it down and throw some food out far enough for them to chase it. Smart, annoying SOBs.
Frank
I love that! I’d hate to live through it. But I love it.
Bill
Came here because the BSU video was referenced in the following article:
http://gizmodo.com/7-more-viral-photos-that-are-totally-fake-1784250989
I then clicked your link in the comments.
I thought I had missed something when I attended Ball State 2000-2002. I wonder if some of the profs I still know could shed some light on this. I’ll let you know.
Todd
As a former BSU architecture student in the 80s I can tell you the sign was in fact cut off when they made the addition to the building. It wasn’t fixed when I graduated in 88. Not sure when they fixed it but at some point they did fix it.
Janus Kane
Just go to Google Maps… the street view shows the sign without error, beneath the overhang where the sign was photoshopped onto.
I don’t mean to dump on your spirits, as I love your rationality… But this took me less than 2 minutes. Pictures for proof in the website field
ADB
Clearly, you did something in a previous lifetime that you are now paying for. Man oh Manischevitz…this article is like purgatory for you. lol
Frank
Yep. I’m trying to figure out what it is. But it was bad. Not doubt about that!
SONYA
IT IS very cute picture and it made me giggle out loud. Whether it be real or not, can’t we all find at least, some humor in this society? WHY be so darn serious all the time?
Frank
t isn’t about being serious, Sonya — at least for me. I just love to analyze things. Although I have to admit that after all this time, I’m pretty bored with this!
But yes, it is funny. And what I think happened is that an administrator said, “Why don’t we do this? It will be funny!” People think of bureaucrats as stodgy. Well, here’s one that wasn’t!
HM
(Being years late to this conversation) I’m with “flip horizontal”, though the “maybe original” image in this post isn’t the same used in the “meme version” being discussed. I did it–flip horizontal, a little rotation–the vertical caulk line at the left, and the odd brick pattern, seem to confirm. If, of course, there is an institution called “Ball State” in the first place ;)
Frank
I’m with you! I’m so sick of this article and the question that I wish I had never written it. Every week or so, someone posts it on reddit, and my email box gets filled with passionate arguments that remind me of nothing so much as arguments about JFK’s assassination. I know the subject is interesting. But I swear to God, the world could be on fire and people would still be arguing about whether the photo is real or not. If I weren’t afraid that it would land me in a mental hospital, I’d write a third article taking into consideration what everyone has said — because many people have made good points. But truthfully, I’m far more interested in Bugs Bunny: Rabbit or Hare?

Notable Female Intellectuals

This is a compilation of a four-article series that I unfortunately titled “Beautiful, Intelligent, and Learned.” But I rarely talked about the beauty aspect of it. It wasn’t generally my intent for beauty to be seen as physical beauty. I only wanted to feature women who were doing work that improved the world. A better word would have been “grace,” but I feel certain that would have been as misunderstood too.

I have long gotten into trouble by using idiosyncratic language. (Usually, the words I used were exact in their definitions, but I was using less-common definitions.) If I say I have a crush on Kory Stamper, it means I want to discuss grammar with her over tea, not that I want to date or have sex with her. You will notice in the Kory Stamper article that I also refer to having a crush on Peter Sokolowski, and have never been particularly attracted to men in a sexual way.

I’ll think I can leave it at that. If people read all my work, they will certainly understand. That’s especially true given that I’ve been very open about my vow of celibacy eight years ago. (Friends will note that wasn’t a huge sacrifice given that I’ve never been much interested in sex.)

Salima Ikram

Female Intellectuals: Salima Ikram

Ladies and gentlemen: Salima Ikram. She is professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. So in addition to being really smart and learned, she’s really cool. I discovered her on a mediocre documentary Egyptian Secrets of the Afterlife.

Originally Published: 13 October 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry

Female Intellectuals: Melissa Harris-PerryLadies and gentlemen: Melissa Harris-Perry.

I know her from MSNBC news shows where she is often an analyst and sometimes a guest anchor. And as I’ve stated before, I wasn’t that taken with her at first. But like many things (from movies to food to people), those I like best I often started out by not liking.

She was on The Last Word last night. As I watched highlights of the show, I was impressed, as usual, by the historical context she put current events into (in this case, Herman Cain’s sexual harassment problems). I was impressed, as usual, by her insights into these events (in this case, she noted that the sexual harassment charges may actually improve Cain’s standing with Republican primary voters).

Dr Harris-Perry is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University and the author of such books as Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Originally Published: 1 November 2011

Barbara J Fields

Female Intellectuals: Barbara J FieldsWhen I first watched Ken Burns: The Civil War 20 years ago, like most people, I was very taken with Shelby Foote’s southern charm and great storytelling. But this last week when I watched the series again I was blown away by Barbara J Fields, the historian at Columbia University. She speaks more incisively about the Civil War than anyone else when it comes to its broader meaning. Certainly, Foote is still the best when talking about the war on the micro-scale — about individuals caught up in it. But I’m not really interested in that anymore. In that way, the war was a catastrophe. It is only in the broader context that all that suffering means something.

In Her Own Words

Here is Fields talking about exactly that:

I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner said once that history is not “was” it’s “is.” And what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as the past. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say there’s no such thing as slavery, we’re all citizens. But if we’re all citizens, then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and regrettably, it can still be lost.

I’d never thought about this, but we are at war with each other. And this is why the claims of Romney that raising the top tax rate is “class warfare” are so offensive. There is a class war in this country, but it isn’t found there. But then, I don’t suspect that Romney and his ilk see many homeless people.

Barbara Fields is a great intellectual. And is also a very compassionate person.

Originally Published: 9 May 2012

Afterword

In 2011, Fields gave a speech at the 150th anniversary of the South Carolina Low-country Sesquicentennial Observance. Unfortunately, I can’t embed it. But you can see it on C-SPAN.

Originally Published: 9 May 2012

Update

I have come to see Ken Burns: The Civil War as a fundamentally racist documentary. I don’t think that Ken Burns is any more racist than I am or than pretty much any American white person is, and a majority of American blacks. It’s almost impossible not to have to deal with subconscious racist thoughts bubbling up from time to time when we live in a society that is based on racism and still is so overwhelmingly racist. But a big chunk of the racism in The Civil War comes from Foote and the way that he completely removed slavery from his narrative of the war. It was just “War Is Hell!” from him. And again, I don’t think he was especially racist. But it’s people like him who keep the poison flowing.

Two years ago, I wrote an anniversity post for the Thirteenth Amendment. And I still think this is true and sadly sums up so much of what is wrong in this country:

I keep remembering this line from Ken Burns: The Civil War. When poor southern soldiers were asked why they were fighting, they replied that it was because the northern soldiers were there. Well, first: they weren’t northern soldiers, but the soldiers of all of them. Second: isn’t that typical that the elites could convince poor southern whites to fight and die for an institution that doubtless made them poorer than they would have been?
Originally Published: 8 December 2017

Elizabeth Warren

Female Intellectuals: Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren has been on my mind for a long time. I think most people know that she’s a Harvard Law School professor, an expert at bankruptcy law, and the reason we have the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — something so good it makes Republicans apoplectic. And, of course, everyone knows that she’s running for the Senate in Massachusetts against Scott Brown. If she loses it will greatly reduce my opinion of that fine state.

What most strikes me about Warren is her combination of erudition and empathy. Even after this evil political campaign, she still radiates sensitivity — especially compared to the plastic Mr Brown.

A week and a half ago, one of Bill Maher’s “New Rules” was that “Elizabeth Warren has to stop dressing like the ‘before’ woman in a beer ad.” It is a funny line. But it is hardly fair. For one thing, I think that Warren is very attractive. But more to the point, what does Bill Maher (at 56 years old) want? He mostly dates women who are in their twenties. (Note: well below the creepy line.) Warren is 63. And I think she has more important things to do than worry about what 20-year-old boys (and Bill Maher) think of her looks.

Originally Published: 16 September 2012

Update

The the most recent poll shows Warren ahead of Brown by 6 points. It’s too early to tell, but this is good news.

Originally Published: 17 September 2012

Why Are People Talking About IQ So Much?

Why Are People Talking About IQ So Much?Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of articles about IQ — from liberal websites. For example, Vox has published a number, most recently, So You’ve Learned You’ve Got A “Pitifully” Low IQ. How Worried Should You Be? And I always hear the same thing: IQ measures something real, but it doesn’t mean anything on an individual basis. So: smart people will rise to the top, but we shouldn’t assume that a brown-skinned person, say, is dumb because it doesn’t work that way.

Liberals Embracing The Bell Curve

The problem is that this is exactly the argument that Murray and Herrnstein were making in The Bell Curve. The book wasn’t saying that blacks are stupid. It was just saying that blacks tend to be stupider and that this is why they are much more likely to be poor. Thus, the income inequality that we have is not random but based on IQ. Thus, we shouldn’t have Affirmative Action, because black people are poor because they just aren’t as smart as white people.

It bothers me that so many “liberal” people are so comfortable with this argument. Because here’s the thing: it’s bunk. We don’t have economic inequality because our system is so good at rewarding the productive people. For one thing, the number one reason people are rich is because they inherited their money. As I discussed two years ago, Donald Trump Is Rich Because He Was Born Rich. He actually has far less money today than he would have had if he had simply put his inheritance in an indexed mutual fund. That means that I’m better at business than America’s most famous rich guy.

But it’s more than just that. I haven’t inherited any money from anyone. But I did inherit a relatively (middle-class) social circle. I also got lots of other things like parents who greatly valued education. All of the things I inherited date back thousands of years. African Americans inherit little that is older than 150 years. This is critically important.

IQ Is Not Inherent

Let’s get back to the whole IQ debate, however. When I was in college, I read a psychology paper that looked at children who were adopted by affluent families. Now if IQ was just this thing that we were born with, those kids should have had average IQs. But they didn’t. Their IQs were well over one standard deviation above the average. That’s because IQ is greatly affected by life experience. Being around people who care about ideas helps. Going to museums and similar mind-broadening places helps. But the theory that IQ is a great indicator of success just makes it less likely that poor children will get the experiences that will help them develop high IQs.

I got some push-back some time ago when I noted that being smart was its own reward and that if anything, I deserved to have less money than those who are not similarly blessed. But I still think that. Or more accurately, I don’t think that being smart is something that society should reward me for. Nothing that went into giving me a high IQ was my doing. My IQ is no more a moral function of me than my diminutive body size.

Don’t Be Tricked, Liberals

Liberals need to be careful. And rich liberals need to be especially careful. It’s very easy for conservatives to wrap their vile ideas in a patina of science. And before you know it, liberals are saying that income inequality is no big deal. It is. It’s a very big deal. Of course, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal for this very reason. I don’t think humans should need to prove their productivity to have a decent life.

All humans deserve that.

Math: When You Need to Feel Superior

Math: When You Need to Feel Superior

From as long as I can remember, I’ve been good at math. It was just fun. The same way that Jerry West practiced basketball late into the night, I was the same way about math. Probably as a result, I’ve always hated math used as a substitute for intelligence. And it was in that context that I came upon the image above.

It was for something like joining Mensa or buying some “brain training” course of something. But I like a good math puzzle as much as anyone. So I figured I would solve it. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, and it is as good an excuse as anything.

The thing about it is that it isn’t much of a puzzle. It’s just a math problem. And it takes zero creativity. All you need is to have taken a basic algebra course taught by a reasonably competent teacher. And you must have taken the course seriously enough to learn the material.

That shouldn’t have been hard because math actually is loads of fun. But the fact that someone would use it to construct such a simple, uninspiring problem does sum up everything that makes most people hate math. But without further ado, I guess I will get to it.

Why Someone Thought It Was Interesting

The two equations look similar. It’s just that one is with x and the other with x2. And so it looks like there ought to be some clever trick that allows the problem to simply pop out.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A mathematician better than I might see something brilliant. But I don’t. There are lots of ways to approach the problem, but they all end in a slog.

Solving the Equations

Sadly, this is a brute force problem. The first equation is just a quadratic that can be solved all by itself, admittedly, with two solutions.

We just multiply both sides of the equation by x, and end up with the following equation:

x2 + x – 5 = 0

Oh, how I do wish this were more interesting. There are a bunch of ways to solve this, one way or another, you get that the two values of x are:

x = (5 ± 21½)/2

If we choose the “plus” case, then x = 4.79. If we choose the “minus” case, then x = 0.209. And through the wonders of mathematics, if you put these two numbers into the second equation, you will get that:

x2 + 1/x2 = 23

Now an actual mathematical question is why this is so. What we just did was plug numbers into equations. This is a good example of why most people hate math.

Even worse is that some dimrod thought that solving this question indicated any kind of intelligence or, even worse, intellectual creativity.

But trust me: this is the kind of nonsense that your children are being taught in school. This is why the American Empire won’t last the century.

Astronomy Usually Disappoints: Solar Eclipse 2017

Solar EclipseWhere I live in California, the solar eclipse was supposed to start at roughly 9:00 am. It reaches maximum occultation at 10:20 am. And then it ends at roughly 11:40 am. As I write this, it is 10:00 am, and my world is shrouded in clouds.

I got prepared for the event over the last week. I’ve got a set of welder’s glasses. You are supposed to use shade 12 or higher. I’ve got a double-12 set-up. What’s more, my father drilled a circular hole in a board so we could see the shadow of the eclipse as it makes its way across the sky. It would have been fun.

Astronomy Disappoints

When I was in college, I was friends with a number of people who were into astronomy. So I often found myself freezing in the middle of the night while we tried to see this or that. But what’s happening today is pretty typical of those trips. The weather does not cooperate.

Eventually, the fog will burn off. But it is going slow. As we approach full occultation, I can tell that it is much darker than it normally is. In fact, it’s about as dark as it is at 6:30 am. But this is not a lot to get excited about.

If you want to study astronomy, you really need to take a trip to a nice desert somewhere. The truth is that I live in a rotten area for astronomy. But this must also be some corollary of Murphy’s Law: the cloud cover where you are will be directly proportional to your excitement regarding an astronomical event.

Update

At 4:00 pm, I took a walk down to the supermarket. As I came out at 4:30, the cloud cover had just broken up so that I could see the sun to some extent. So only five hours late!

The next time there is an eclipse, I’m going to head for the desert!

There Is No Dark Side of the Moon

Dark Side of the Moon Is Not Other Side of the MoonIt seems I am constantly been offended with some mention of the dark side of the Moon. This isn’t an attack on Pink Floyd, because at any given time, there is, in fact, a dark side of the Moon. But in Space: 1999, Moonbase Alpha was located on the dark side of the Moon. Now I understand, Space: 1999 was not in love with science. It was 1 part science and 1999 parts fiction. But it isn’t alone. I see this all the time.

There are many things that lead people to think that there is a dark side of Moon. I think that people mistake the outer side of the Moon with the dark side. But anyone who thinks about it for an instant will realize half the Moon is lit up when we are at the quarter Moon. That means the outer side of the Moon must be similarly half-lit. Just the same, the mistake is easy enough to make with our foggy brains.

The Other Side of the Moon

The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth. That means that the same side of it always faces the earth. Until we started sending rockets out into space, we had no idea what the outer side of the moon looked like. Well, we knew it looked a lot like the inner side. It turns out that because of Moon wobbles, we can actually see 59% of the Moon’s surface. That’s not all at once, of course. We have to watch it for a long time. But it’s easiest to say that half of the Moon can’t be seen from the Earth.

Thus, in a sense, the outer side of the Moon is the “dark side of the Moon.” And it is what we people are getting at when they talk about putting Moonbase Alpha on the dark side of the Moon. But it actually doesn’t make any concrete sense. The Moon is between the the Earth and the sun. Compare this to the new Moon (when the Moon is right between the Earth and the sun). That is: when the Moon is “new” — meaning that the dark side of the Moon is facing the earth. The time when the outer Moon is dark is when the Earth is between the sun and the Moon.

The Dark Side of the Moon Is Constantly Changing

Regardless, the outer side of the Moon has a day just like every other part of the moon (unless you want to get technical and talk about the lunar poles): 27.3 Earth days. I think, however, that Pink Floyd is responsible for this error of thought in the song “Brain Damage.” That’s not to say that they were thinking wrong. Waters is a great lover of metaphor. And the song doesn’t even imply that the dark side of the Moon is any particular place.

But people have picked up on it. And “dark side of the Moon” sounds better than “outer side of the Moon.” Although actually, from a metaphorical standpoint “outer” is probably better than “dark” given that we can actually see a great deal of detail in the dark side of the Moon. It is the outer side that we can’t connect with.

The Moon Is Fascinating — We Should Understand It

Regardless, I bristle every time I hear the term used because I know that it is a sign that people are not understanding how the Earth and Moon interact with each other. And this is important to me because learning what caused the phases of the Moon was really important to me. Plus, as I learned when I taught planetary astronomy at college, people really don’t understand this stuff. And it’s so easy and so cool. If there really were a dark side of the Moon, that would be hard to understand.

Chaos Theory as it Relates to Rick and Morty

Fractal - Chaos TheoryIt’s weird, but the television show Rick and Morty has given me many ideas for articles. There’s just so much to it. A show like Bob’s Burgers is really all about the characters. But Rick and Morty brings up so many bizarre ideas that I have a hard time not getting lost in them. Most recently, I was thinking of the infinite timelines. This is what explains the Council of Ricks and Jerryboree — the daycare center for Jerrys. Of course, it’s all absurd.

To begin with, if there are infinite timelines, why are there only three thousand Ricks on the Council of Ricks? Well, I do have what might sound like a reasonable explanation: out of the infinite timelines, there are only so many that just happened to have Ricks. This doesn’t work, of course. If there are an infinite number of timelines, there would be an infinite number of timelines with Rick. Infinity is that way. But that doesn’t bother me all that much. What does bother me is this: Rick, Morty, Summer, Beth, Jerry.

Chaos Theory

The issue is this: chaos theory. When I was in my 20s, chaos theory was the thing — even non-nerds were into it. I wasn’t, of course. And that’s because it’s actually a really simple thing. (Research on it, is another matter; but that’s beyond pretty much all but specialists.) It’s just about non-linear systems. Let me explain.

Imagine you are pushing a cart down the road at a fairly constant rate and I’m making measurements of it to figure out how far you’ve gone. That’s a linear system. If I make a small mistake in the measurement of your speed, it will cause me to be wrong in calculating the distance you’ve traveled. But the error will be proportional to the error I made in your speed.

Non-Linear Systems

Rick and MortyNow imagine that you are tripling your speed every ten seconds. Then a small error in my speed measurements will lead to a huge error in the distance traveled. In this case, the error will be squared for reasons that I’d love to explain to you, but don’t have the time (nor, admit it, do you the the interest — a fact I know from experience).

Non-linear systems can be highly non-linear, however. To (inappropriately) use the cart example, you could have a situation where a single small error would cause your final answer to be off by a factor of millions. And that’s what chaos theory is all about. And we have an example of that: the weather, which is where this all started. If you want to know more, learn about Edward Lorenz.

Chaos Theory and Time

Think about time. But first, let’s quote Robert Marley from John Dies at the End, “Time is an ocean, not a garden hose.” We have to forget that, even though I think it’s more or less correct. Imagine time as a garden hose — a line. How chaotic is it? Well, we certainly know it is nothing close to linear. Consider the following example:

A woman is going to buy a ticket for the state lottery. She uses the random system. On her way to the store to get it, a squirrel darts in front of her causing her to slow down and get to the store a couple of seconds later. That is the difference between her life going on as usual and her life completely changing because she won a half billion dollars.

That’s one example. So my belief is that time is the most chaotic system imaginable — indeed, infinitely chaotic — the ultimate example of chaos theory. And that brings us back to Rick and Morty. The best estimates are that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. Given that all of the universes in the show are roughly the same, they too must be that old. Time is just stuff happening: it’s a concept to explain why things change; this is why time doesn’t exist without matter. And 13.8 billion years is a lot of time.

A Long Time Coming: 13.8 Billion Years

Even if time were non-chaotic and changes had linear effects — if small changes would have small effects — that’s enough time that there just wouldn’t be multiple Ricks. But even if there were, how is it that they all marry the same woman who has a daughter named Beth, who goes on to marry a man named Jerry with whom she has two children named Morty and Summer.

Okay: infinity. If there are an infinite number of timelines, then literally every possible universe would exist. (It’s still odd that all of those universes start at the same time.) But if that’s the case, where are all the timelines that are exactly like the 3,000 that we know about except that Morty’s sister is named Winter?

I understand: Rick and Morty is just a television show — one I find quite entertaining. But I actually think that it is dangerous to think that time is not chaotic. Politically, it’s the same as believing in an activist God. It justifies kings because they are the result of fate rather than blind chance.

Who You Are Is the Result of Dumb Luck

The more we know about the world, the more we know that luck is everything. Were you born with a good body? Were you born to parents who raised you in a loving and intellectually stimulating environment? Did you inherit billions of dollars? Were you born in the San Francisco rather than Monrovia? Did a squirrel run in front of your car when you went to buy your lottery ticket?

I think that if people can see that their entire success in life is due to nothing but luck (and I cannot escape this conclusion myself), then we will build a more equitable society. Feudalism existed because people believed that God chose how people’s lives should be. Capitalism exists because people believe that the rich have earned what they have — at least to some extent.

Thomas Paine: Computer Program

Thomas PaineThomas Paine was a great rhetorician who was far ahead of his time in terms of social thinking. But that’s just because he was born with the perfect body and environment to make him Thomas Paine. He didn’t choose to be Thomas Paine. Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t look up to him. The society should pay tribute to people who made the world better, because we want to create an environment that causes people to be better. Thomas Paine’s body born into 1950 Soviet Union would not be the Thomas Paine we all know and love.

But recognizing that Thomas Paine could no more be anything other than what he was than that a computer program can do anything other than what it was programmed to do allows us to see that having great material differences between people is immoral. Thomas Paine should not have had any more comfortable a life than the millions of African slaves that supported the southern colonies’ economies. We are nothing more (or less) than exactly what we have to be.

Immoral Society Based on False Premises

And these are the kinds of things that you can think about if you watch Rick and Morty. Time is the ultimate example of chaos theory. Luck is the only thing that determines who we are. There is no free will. Our unwillingness to see this provides intellectual cover for an immoral system — one that (if we are very lucky) future generations will look back on in horror, just as we look back at the burning of witches and the enslavement of humans.

I Don’t Care What You Call Pluto

PlutoVox published an article last week that made me want to slam my head against the wall, The Debate Over Pluto Will Never Die. Here’s the Latest Argument for Why It’s a Planet. Astronomer Kirby Runyon has come up with a new definition for a planet. And if we use it, there will be hundreds of planets in our solar system. For example, our Moon would be a planet. And hell, why not?

Remember: the Moon is quite a lot larger than Pluto. In fact, the largest 7 moons in the solar system are bigger than Pluto. So size isn’t the issue. Oh, you think a planet is something that orbits the sun and a moon is something that orbits a planet. Guess what? It ain’t nearly that simple. The Moon doesn’t orbit around the Earth. The two objects orbit around their center of mass. I have discussed this issue before, The Unusual Pluto-Charon Binary Orbit. It turns out that the Earth-Moon center of mass is inside the Earth. But the Pluto-Charon center of mass is way outside Pluto.

Orbits Are More Complex Than They Seem

The same thing is true of the Sun, although Jupiter is the only object large enough to make the Sun wobble. But my point is that if you looked at the Earth-Moon system orbiting around the Sun (the center of mass is effectively the center of the Sun), you would not see the Earth making an ellipse around the sun with the Moon circling it. Instead, you would see the two objects zigzagging around the sun. So if you look at it from a large scale, it looks very much like the Moon is orbiting the Sun. Because it is.

Now look at the Pluto-Charon system. It’s the same, but even more zigzag. So if Pluto is a planet, I sure don’t see why the Moon isn’t. So why not?

A New Planet Definition

Runyon and some other astronomers have suggested this as the definition of a planet:

A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape … regardless of its orbital parameters.

Got a problem with that? All of these objects ultimately orbit the Sun anyway. If the Earth suddenly disappeared, the Moon would continue to orbit the Sun. So there you go: the ultimate definition of a planet that couldn’t possibly be designed just to make Pluto a planet. And I say this knowing that Brian Resnick reported, “Once he’d seen this side of Pluto, Runyon was bothered that it wasn’t a full-fledged planet anymore.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t care. I so don’t care that it’s annoying. Call Pluto whatever you want. And I’ll go further: call the Earth anything you want. I can certainly come up with a definition of planet in which the Sun has only 4 planets, knocking out the four rocky inner “planets.” Because, as Juliet put it:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet …

Pluto Is Fascinating — Whatever You Call It

I find Pluto fascinating. I don’t need to call it “planet,” “dwarf planet,” or even “rose” to find it fascinating. Is it only the large things that are worth studying — worth caring about? From my perspective, the Earth is the most interesting plant for what I think are obvious reasons.

But here’s the thing: our solar system is amazing. Rather than fight about what category to place Pluto in, why don’t we take a moment to marvel at the fact that Triton orbits Neptune backwards? And speaking of that, how in the universe did Venus get that backwards day (which happens to be longer than its year)? Or how about if you took all the debris of the asteroid belt (including “planet” Ceres), you’d have a “planet” about 1/25th the size of our Moon?

Space Garbage

There is something nice about the current official definition of planets: it creates 8 of them. They divide very nicely into two types: small rocky ones close to the Sun and big gaseous ones far from the Sun. They are completely dominant regarding their moons — all orbit a point inside the planet. I think the Earth has the largest moon relatively speaking, and it is only 1% of the Earth’s mass. (Charon is 12% the mass of Pluto.) But I’m willing to give it all up.

I propose the following definition:

Space garbage is anything that isn’t a star, broadly defined (including black holes, quasars, and so on).

So you say “planet” and I say “space garbage.” And literally nothing about the science of solar systems changes.

Chinese Room Argument

John Searle - Chinese Room ArgumentThe argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle. It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science, and cognitive science generally.

–David Cole
The Chinese Room Argument

Human evolution and the Myth of Control

Bone House Wasp - Very Good MotherMother Nature Network published an interesting little article some time ago, Kooky Cartwheeling Spider Among Bizarre New Species. It seems that 18,000 recently discovered species were given official names this last year. And so the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at State University of New York (SUNY) decided to highlight ten of these creatures. Think about that for a moment. Humans have spent thousands of years cataloging different animal species, yet we can still be discovering tens of thousands of them each year. According to the article, there are still 10 million yet to be discovered. This number is also the estimate of the total number of species on the earth. Thus far, humans have only been able to catalog about 1.5 million species.

The group of creatures include some things that demand a rewrite of Hamlet, “There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in your worst nightmares.” Take the bone house wasp. Although disturbing, we must admit that she is a hell of a good mother. She creates a nest in a hollow stem of a plant. At the bottom, she lays her eggs. On top of it, she puts a dead spider for the hungry baby wasps, once they are born. That’s actually rather nice of the mother in regard to the spider — paralyzing, and having them eaten alive seems a much more common approach in the wild. The creepy part comes when the mother wasp piles dead ants on the very top. This is done to ward off predators because of the smell of the ants. So think about a nursery with rotting corpses piled by the door to keep others away. Effective, loving, and very creepy!

For the creationists out there, there is the Limnonectes larvaepartus. It is a frog from Indonesia that gives birth to live tadpoles. That’s interesting because most frogs lay eggs and a few frogs give birth to baby frogs. This new frog is what we might call “the missing link.” But as we know from creationist apologetics, there will always be “holes” in the diversity of life. Nothing will convince them because they cannot be convinced. They “know” the truth and are only looking for things that justify what they already “know.”

Another of the new species is Torquigener albomaculosu, a kind of pufferfish. The male of this species attract females by creating beautiful designs in the sand. That reminds me of the following “Effective Catcalls” cartoon. Females really do appreciate a man who can provide a nice home.

Effective Catcalls

The sad thing about all the species we are discovering is that plants and animals are going extinct at an even faster rate. Of course, life forms are always going extinct — it is the nature of life. But it is hard not to figure that we are largely responsible for the fast rate. Thus far, we have done this by destroying habitat, but as time goes on, the climate forcing is going to be a much bigger — even catastrophic thing.

Still, the amazing diversity of life on the earth is staggering. At the same time, mama wasps are just like human mothers in all they do to protect their young. And I know that a lot of people will dismiss what the wasp does as just instinct. But our great brains don’t seem to change the overall nature of things. We humans are pre-programmed to think that human babies are cute and worth protecting. We may obscure that with ideas like “feeling” and “choice.” But I think that’s all rubbish. We are all on autopilot, we just have these big brains that trick us into thinking we are in control.

Smartphones Have Reduced Us to Goldfish

GoldfishThe average human’s attention span is… oh look, a bird!

According to scientists, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer.

Researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms.

The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.

Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.

–Leon Watson
Humans Have Shorter Attention Span Than Goldfish, Thanks to Smartphones

Forensic Pseudoscience — Oppression of the Poor

Radley Balko - Forensic PseudoscienceTwo years ago, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote a really important article that bears revisting, A Brief History of Forensics. I’ve never been one to watch those forensics dramas on the television. Just the same, I didn’t know just how screwed up the state of forensics was. It seems that many parts of forensics are not settled science, or in fact, science of any kind at all.

Balko is most interested in bite mark analysis. Having managed a dental office for a couple of years, I found it interesting that this is a particularly gloomy area of pseudoscience. “There has yet to be any scientific research to support the notion that the marks we make when we bite with our teeth are unique. But even if we could somehow know that they are, we still wouldn’t know how those unique characteristics are distributed across all of humanity. And even if we knew those things, we still don’t know if human skin is capable of recording and preserving a bite in a way that would allow those markers to be identified.” That last one is the killer as far as I’m concerned: how is it that we could have been relying on such analysis without ever having answered such a fundamental question?

Forensic “Scientists” Don’t Look for Truth

The reason that Balko gives for this state of affairs is that forensic “scientists” are not interested in questioning the basis of their work. As he puts it, they are focused on “solving cases.” I don’t like that phrase. Better would be: “closing cases.” Because it really does seem that no one — not the prosecutors, the police, or the forensic “scientists” — are interested in finding the truth. As far as they are concerned, they already know the truth.

It’s like the line in The Usual Suspects, “To a cop the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.” And that’s largely true, but it blinds them in cases where things aren’t simple. And it turns forensic “scientists” into little more than apologists, simply arguing for whatever theory the police are pushing.

Forensics Isn’t Science

The actual history of forensics is that of a field developed by people in the criminal justice system. And it has worked just the opposite of the way that science works. When a scientific theory becomes established, scientists have an incentive to beat away at it and find holes in it. That’s how you become a successful scientist. In forensics, once a theory becomes established, no one dares question it. Balko put it this way, “A fingerprint analyst testifying for the defense might disagree with a fingerprint analyst for the prosecution, but he isn’t going to call into question the premises on which the entire field of fingerprint analysis is based.” And in case you were wondering: yes, there are now people outside the field calling into question the reliability of fingerprints — evidence that has sent countless people to their deaths at the hands of the state.

Actual Scientific Forensics

The only kind of forensics that actually did come out of a scientific field and not criminal justice is DNA analysis. And this is really interesting: when forensic analysts are talking about bite marks, for example, they talk about certainty. The same goes for fingerprints, bullet lead composition, voice “prints,” and on and on. “[T]he one area of forensic science in which you will see experts testifying about probability is DNA Testing.” Of course, Balko is careful to note that this doesn’t mean that these other kinds of analyses are useless. But just like with eyewitness testimony, people are often convicted — even killed — because of the word of a single analyst based upon suspect science.

Balko thinks that the solution is to take forensics evidence out of the hands of judges who have no experience that would allow them to determine if these techniques were solid science or just pseudoscience. He wants to put it in the hands of scientific review boards. While I think that would certainly be an improvement, we have a much bigger problem. We have an entire justice system that is inherently unjust.

A Much Bigger Problem

People forget the first federal drug law — Harrison Narcotics Tax Act — was explicitly racist. It was a doctor who testified to the “fact” that, “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Similar things were said about the Chinese with regard to opium, and later, about Mexicans and “marijuana.” There will always be an underclass that the government will always oppress. To me, we need to rethink our harsh sentences in the light that many people convicted are innocent; the laws are unequally applied; and the laws themselves criminalize things that powerless people like to do.

Bearing all these things in mind, the powerful need to let go of their certainty. But that will never happen. Of course, it may also be that in a century, people will still be put to death based upon bad bite mark science. So let’s try to stop that, but we need to push much further.