What I’m reading at the begining of 2011

Zane's reading at the end of 2010

Generally a cities and sustainability theme:

We are made to be destroyed

A quote from Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons that I cannot get out of my mind.  For me, it is relevant in the context of continuing to be optimistic that we can construct a sustainable civilization, even though the current Plan of Record is clearly to burn it all:

I decided that many of Bear’s stories and comments shared a general drift. They advised against fearing all of creation.  But not because it is always benign, for it is not.  It will, with certainty, consume us all.  We are made to be destroyed.  We are kindling for the fire, and our lives will stand as naught against the onrush of time.  Bear’s position, if I understood it, was that refusal to fear these general terms of existence is an honorable act of defiance.

Bear is a Cherokee chief that adopts Will, a bound boy working in a frontier trading post.  They spend winters alone together in a kind of meditative semi-hibernation with a small crackling fire in a tiny snow-covered lodge.

What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?

My Final Report Card

I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore. (Kurt Vonnegut)

Wolfgang Pauli apparently once said of a student’s work: “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”, to deride it for being unfalsifiable.  Grad school isn’t quite that bad.  We’re all running the experiment together every day.  We can tell whether or not it’s working, at least in theory.  But only if we’re willing to look.  I’m looking; I say it’s not working, at least not for graduate students, not on average (mean or median, pick your poison).

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No peer review without open access

I was recently asked to do peer review of a paper in the Elsevier journal Icarus.  Here’s what I said.  I encourage you to say something in the same vein:

Thank you for your invitation to participate in the peer review process which is so vital to the progress of scientific knowledge.  However, I unwilling to contribute any review or editorial work to publications which do not satisfy very liberal Open Access criteria as set out by, for example, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing from 2003, or the Creative Commons Attribution license used by the Public Library of Science Journals.  I look forward to a day hopefully not too far off when Elsevier decides to support free access to scientific knowledge (PDF) for all, and especially for scientific knowledge which was gained in part through publicly funded research.

Peer review is only one necessary ingredient for science to work.  Open access and systemic transparency are others.  All of them need work.

We need more bicycles, less Zoloft™

I’m an emphatically utilitarian cyclist.  My bike is my only ride.  It is my way of going.  It is point A to point B with a pile of stuff.  But that’s not all it is, and sometimes I forget.

I started biking 20 years ago when I was 14 and living in Japan as an exchange student.  It was how everyone got to school.  Every morning was a flood of blue wool uniforms on classic bikes going clickety-click and ding-ding.  Baskets, fenders, and not much in the way of gears.  So it was utilitarian there too, but I also used my bike as an anti-depressant.  I didn’t speak Japanese when I got there.  My family didn’t speak English.  All the other students were always busy with homework.  I was lonely to the point of tears.  Sometimes I’d ride around after school until dark.  Sometimes beyond dark, in the rain and the wind.  I discovered fireflies in a peace park one night.  I let a typhoon blow me across the plain.  I climbed hills and had crashes.  It was a kind of love affair, it was something I could feel unabashedly good about, even if my host family thought I was crazy for staying out and getting drenched.  It was deep rhythmic breathing and endorphins.  It was still lonely, but at least I was focused.  I felt free.  When I came back to the US, I traded the circuitous hour and a half long school bus ride for an additional seventy nine minutes of sleep and an eleven minute bike ride each morning.

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Another way of breeding

More and more I suspect that short of some kind of existential catastrophe, in the near future the human genome is going to start getting re-written de novo every few generations.  This makes the already shaky argument for propagating my own personal genome all the more ridiculous.  Queen Elizabeth, for instance, in all likelihood carries exactly zero genes passed down to her from William the Conqueror, and that’s without genetic engineering.  Far more important today will be the ideas and technologies that are passed forward.  Add to this my deeply held belief that virtually all of the dangers and problems we face in the near term as a species, and a biosphere, stem from the enormous and rapidly growing human population (and it’s unending desire for material goods), and actually reproducing biologically becomes not only unnecessary, but morally dubious.

But there is still a powerful attraction to having kids.  To experiencing that kind of persistent mentorship, from the point of view of the mentor.  To watching, and hopefully guiding, another human being on the path to self-awareness, and an awareness of the world.  To having a visceral and deep connection to the future, through a person who will live in it.

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Letter to Adam Schiff on Open Access Publishing

Dear Congressman Schiff,

I note that you are on the House Judiciary Committee, which is currently considering H.R. 801, sponsored by John Conyers (D, MI), and entitled the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.  I also notice, courtesy of MAPLight.org, that you received $6,000 from the publishing industry in the most recent election cycle, which is actually more than the average received by those representatives who co-sponsored the bill.

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Have you changed your mind?

This animation was inspired by an anti-drug poster, which showed two brain scans and the text “Have you changed your mind?”. Since the target audience was obviously not neuroscientists or brain surgeons, the only way to interpret it was based on the context, in which the connotation was presumably that one of the scans is a “damaged” drug-user’s brain, and the other is a healthy D.A.R.E. graduate.

Ironically, in a different context, the image becomes pro-drug. The word “psychedelic” is from the Greek roots psyche (mind) and delos (to manifest or become). Psychedelic means “mind-making”, or even, quite literally, “mind changing”. To those who have had positive, responsible, drug experiences, the poster might as well be channeling Jimi Hendrix: Are you experienced?

Made with the GIMP, and licensed to the public like all my content here, under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

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Movage or Digital Dark Age

This post on the Long Now blog, in combination with the recent discussions on the Cernio mailing lists regarding the Co-op’s financial disorganization have me thinking about the future of my (and our) data.  Data curation.  I have a responsibility to make it all portable, both for you, and for me.  A responsibility Blogger and Facebook and Apple do not sign up to, I might add.  But not all of the semantics are transferrable to other formats and systems.  So there will be loss.  Augh.  And learning.  Slow learning.  There are some times when going off on your own isn’t a good idea, and data management is one of them.  Unless it’s going to be your primary vocation, if the semantics you want don’t exist in a standardized way, you cannot build them.  You cannot impose them.  You have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up with your desires.

How I voted in 2008

I sent in my ballot on Saturday, after spending Friday evening discussing the propositions with a bunch of people over dinner at our house.  There seemed to be broad consensus on them, which isn’t too surprising, given that I avoided inviting people I thought I might disagree with.  I did that on purpose.  I wanted it to be an analysis of the questions at hand, not a personal policymaking session.  Ballotpedia had a lot of information on some of the propositions.  I’m guessing it will only improve in future elections, and I think the wiki model is actually close to being perfect for coming up with summaries of contentious political topics. Here’s how I ended up voting:

Continue reading How I voted in 2008