New Commercial Venture

Today Krista wanted me to help her make lemonade to sell out in the front yard by the road. I told her this is the 21st century and people don't do that anymore. What do they do, she asked. Well, sez I, you have to have a website that people flock to, and then you sell advertisement for retailers who bring over boatloads of stuff from China, where uncle Tom is.

Really, she says, eyes like bagels. Like boxes of lemonade mix?

Eyup, I sez.

Next thing you know, she's got her own website.

Dad will recognize the name as the first wordprocessor we had--he keyed the program in on the Apple II.

Me, I'm fixin' to retire.


Cat got your mind?

You can't make stuff like this up. Carl Zimmer writes on his blog about a parasite that infects rats and causes them to lose their fear of cats. Cui bono? The parasite, named Toxoplasma gondii, uses cats to complete its life cycle. So it evolved a way to bring cats and rats together--who needs match.com?

Here's the punch line: it infects humans too. There is some evidence that this parasite may also affect the way human brains function, including a possible link to schizophrenia. (This is at least one reason why pregnant women should avoid cat litter.)


The Big Splurtz

The most intriguing question about how we got here, to me is the appearance of the violation of the second law of thermodynamics. That just means that things tend to get messier over time, not more orderly. That's why you never see a bunch of ants putting a beetle back together. So how in the heck does something as mindbogglingly complex as ourselves come about? Note that as soon as we are here, we start to fall apart. Only by extraodinary means--like being sequestered in the womb--can we avoid the boo-boos that start to add up and turn us back into raw material.

Eric Chaisson sets his sights on this problem in "The great unifier" in this week's New Scientist. There's an associated website that is VERY well done in Flash. The argument is that complexity can be quantified by energy rate density--the energy flow per unit volume. He speculates that optimization of these energy flows might be the grand principle behind evolution of stars, planets, and the whole shebang.

I wondered if all energy flow qualifies, or just certain kinds. For example, adiabatic processes (which can in principle be reversed, if I remember my thermodynamics correctly) are different from irreversable events. This is the cruz in computing, in fact. An irreversible process necessarily produces a certain amount of heat (energy). For example, if you compute 1+2 = 3, and store the result, you have lost information about where the 3 came from--it could have been 0 + 3 for example. This seems trivial, but it's crucial to computer design. A flip-flop is a logic element that holds a bit of information . It has no memory of past states, and thus destroys information routinely. This generates heat.

Believe it or not, you can theoretically build a computer that doesn't destroy information (or it can take it somewhere else and destroy it there, acting as a heat sump). A guy named Fredkin wrote a paper that describes how.

The point is--is it just energy flow, or does the quality of energy flow have to correspond to information flow? In that case, the definition of complexity would be "information flow per unit volume". That sounds a lot like computing, doesn't it? So I asked Dr. Chaisson by email.

As it turns out (he writes in his email to me), he spent quite a long time trying to figure out how to empirically measure information, but eventually decided that there wasn't even a good definition of it. There's a lot written about 'it from bit', touting the informational nature of the universe. Apparently there are practical difficulties in applying those ideas. Chaisson has written a book on the subject: Cosmic Evolution.

One of the reviewers on Amazon.com drew a moral or at least humanistic motivation from the ideas in the book. That's interesting to me because the same question drove me to write Canman, and I ultimately came to similar conclusions.

The D Canon

Okay, I admit I was impressed with the cannons in the 1812 overture. But that's nothing compared to this.


Canned Patriotism

The Spring faculty art show went up this week, and I loved this piece by Jean Grosser (reproduced here with permission). Jean's comments:

The title is Warhol's Johns a reference to Warhol's soup can paintings and Jasper Johns paintings of the American flag from the 1950s (hence the 48 "stars"). [...] All the canned food will be donated to the Harvest Hope Food Bank at the close of the show.
I thought it was ingenious to use the soup cans to make stripes.


A Wariety of Complaints

Everyone is entitled to a pet peeve or three. I had to leave mine in quarantine when we went to Europe this summer, but they're back now. First, a minor irritation: why do people say 'that' when they mean 'who'? As in: "I have a friend that really likes French fries." instead of "I have a friend who..." It's disrespectful.

Another one that comes up on the news after a car crash: "the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed." What they mean is that the car was going fast, or traveling at high speed, if you prefer. The "rate" of speed is meaningless unless you mean the rate of change of speed, which is acceleration. Now it's undoubtedly true that the car accelerated quickly and negatively when it hit the tree/other car/cliff. I don't think that's what they mean, though.

I'm on a roll now. "Momentarily" is another word that makes me cringe. Apparently the writers of the dictionary have given up and provided a secondary definition for the word: "in a moment." What it really means (according to me) is "for a moment." So when the flight attendant announces that we'll be landing momentarily, I wonder if I'll have time to get off.

Okay, why is it that all variety comes in one size: wide. There are no narrow varieties or even normal-sized varieties apparently. Maybe this a symptom of the hyperbolization of our comm bandwidth. "There is a wide variety of teeth in my mouth." GAH! The only holdout that I know of is snack packs and those little cereal boxes. Some day soon, though, they'll be coming in 'wide variety packs'. We may as well just combine the words to save breath and say 'wariety'.

But that's all small potatoes compared to the great Satan of peeves: basis. It's like Invasion of the Accountant Body Snatchers or something. Oh, don't tell me you haven't noticed that every period of time must be counted on a 'basis.' For example:

"I was snacking on an hourly basis."
"I jog on a daily basis."
"I brush my teeth on a yearly basis."

Please tell me what is to be communicated by this beyond:

"I was snacking hourly."
"I jog daily."
"I brush my teeth annually."

Now if you want to calculate your escrow or compound some interest, by all means do it on a monthly basis. But if you just want to perform some periodic action that doesn't require accountancy, please save some oxygen and leave that poor misused word out of the sentence.

The absolute worst is the phrase "on a regular basis," which I've heard three times in the last two days. This circumlocution combines a specific noun "basis" with a vague adjective "regular," which really just means periodic. This mismash of language should be banned from polite conversation, and perhaps reserved for gangsters or something.