January 2004


Everyone seems to be blogging about this piece of news (NY Times, free reg required) from Georgia, where they have stricken the word evolution from the curriculum, and toned down references to the age of the Earth. Full decision is here. I’m sure these people are pissed off. The original article is at Creative Loafing, which has some other juicy tidbits. The Georgia Superintendent of Schools, Kathy Cox, said people associate evolution with “that monkeys-to-man sort of thing.” Here’s a good one:

Cox has already caught flak for a history curriculum that, in high school U.S. history classes, starts in 1876, ignoring biggies like the Civil War. In world history courses, students won’t cover anything earlier than 1500 — you know, material like Socrates and Roman civilization.

After reading Roger Pennock‘s book, Tower of Babel, I am even more horrified than before. Young Earth Creationism, as he calls it, is about the most backwards form of creationism there is. These people not only deny evolution, but probably believe that dinosaurs were a big joke of God’s, or that they represent species who didn’t make it on the Ark.

Intelligent Design Creationism, a second “alternative” is a philosophically poor alternative to the methodology of science. It succumbs to the fallacy of “if I can’t explain it, it must be magical,” thus drawing an imaginary line between the inexplicable and the understood. Because we cannot exhibit the immense complexity of biological systems through natural selection and random mutation, they must have been designed by an intelligent creator. Many people don’t have a problem with this intellectually impoverished logic. If you stop and think about it, it’s just what the Raelians think, but everyone regards them as nutcases.

The biggest problem with intelligent design creationists is the attitude towards science that they propose. The line that they draw is akin to the line funding agencies are starting to draw between “sexy research” and “pointless research.” Rather than investigating a combination of fundamental principles and applied programs, the trend is increasingly to fund those proposals which will have an immediate application. But to really understand how to cure a disease, you need to know how it works, and for that you need a fundamental understanding of biological processes. Advocates like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox use their celebrity status to help fund scientific research, but also promote their own agenda — Parkinsons becomes “more important to cure” than Alzheimers. By allowing those with little scientific knowledge to control the direction of scientific research, we run the risk of derailing scientific progress here.

I finally got off my ass and made a new homepage of sorts, super-barebones. I decided waiting until I had a publication was going to take forever. Of course, if I keep futzing with this html stuff, I’ll never get any research done. And there’s some problem with Safari’s CSS support — nothing looks quite right — I could spend days trying to fix it.

I saw the final four episodes of Cowboy Bebop last night. Each episode is hit-or-miss — he tries to juggle so many genres at once that my internal association machinery sometimes fries itself. Too many tropes spoil the broth, as they say. But overall I recommend it — much better than serial adventures: lain in which I found it too difficult at times to suspend my disbelief in the face of intense obfuscation, and miles beyond Witch Hunter Robin, which was like My So-Called Craft-Using Witch-Hunter Life.

The other occupation of the week outside of rehearsals was reading grad school applications — at Berkeley they have student reviewers in addition to faculty reviewers for each candidate. I find most of the “objective” criteria a little bogus — GRE scores and GPA tell you something about a person, but the real insight you get into a person is through their letters of recommendation and through their personal statement.

I never got to read my letters of recommendation, but I sure hope they were better than some of the ones I read. To start off, professors should only write a letter for a candidate that they would feel comfortable endorsing — to do otherwise would be disingenuous. My assumption is that all of the letters I would read are from people who think the candidate is a good student. However, some of these letters were a mere 3 paragraphs long, and not even full paragraphs at that. Because I’m a student, I don’t view these short letters as a case of “read between the lines” and assume that the candidate is bad. On the contrary, I conclude that the professor was just too busy to write up a decent letter, and I wish I could castigate them for doing a disservice to the student.

An important aspect of graduate school is that going there is not (often) expected of you — it was for me, but I doubt I’m the norm. The goal of a personal statement should not be to prove to the reviewer that you are a good student per se, but rather to describe why you want to go to graduate school. Presenting a laundry list of your achievements and concluding that you would make an excellent grad student says very little about yourself. Investigating the reasons why you think you would enjoy research is better, and a little critical analysis of your experiences to date is even better.

I’m glad I have very little influence in the process of admissions — I get the impression my views are nonstandard, and I’m sure people have tailored their applications to what the status quo expects.

And now some notes on fruits (mostly as juice) I tasted while in Brazil. I didn’t manage to try all of the ones I wanted, but it’s a start. Some of them can be found on this website. Describing the taste is almost impossible for me, but I’m working off of the notes I cribbed at the time.

  • Açaí: the king of Amazonian fruits, it is very strong and acidic, due to the soil chemistry, as Ram pointed out. It is also quite sweet. It it served pretty thick, a kind of purple soup that is the consistency of yogurt. Eaten with granola, it’s the perfect pick-you-up natural energy snack.
  • Graviola: looks very similar to the sitaphal or custard apple that one gets in India, but it is not as strong flavored. The juice is light like apple or grape, but creamier. The fruit itself is green and bumpy, about the size of a pear.
  • Bacuri: another Amazonian fruit, I’m not sure what it looks like, but it tastes very much like sitaphal or banana mixed with some grape for tanginess.
  • Pitanga: I had some of this berry in Ilha Grande, fresh from a tree. About the size of a cherry, but a brighter red, it is very acidic but I could see it making a killer pie filling.
  • Cupuaçu: very melon-like in taste, but a little more sour. The juice was refreshing in the summer heat, and not too heavy.
  • Guarana: the taste is somewhat indescribable, and I only had it as a soda or natural, so I have no idea what the fruit itself is like. It is a real pick-you-up though.
  • Umbu: tastes like a berry (gooseberries come to mind rather than blueberries), but one of the juicier ones, so the juice was not too thick. My juice was a little sour, but that made it all the better on a hot day.
  • Maracuja: the passion fruit, it’s used everywhere from juice to desserts to this fabulous mousse I had to the Halls Vita-C cough drops I bought. Very sweet, almost cloyingly so, it’s what you might think of when you hear “tropical fruit.”
  • Goiaba: the pink guava, which you also get in Hawaii. They make mostly jam out of it here, which makes it very sweet — the fresh one is lighter and the flavor is more delicate.
  • Caju: the fruit of the cashew tree. It rocks so much I can’t describe it. The aftertaste is a little nutty I think, but it is a very sweet juice somewhat like a lighter mango mixed in with pear maybe.

Other fruits I wanted to try — siriguela, camu-camu, and anything else with a name that looked interesting. Next time I get a chance to go to the supermarket, I’m going to load up on new fruits — they are so exciting!

Apparently in Minnesota they say “Duck Duck Grey Duck,” which is somewhat absurd to me. It’s “Duck Duck Goose.” Perhaps the Harvard people who did the Soda/Pop/Coke survey know more about it and can give an authoritative answer. Another variation is “Goose Goose Gander.” You get your choice of -ists: racist (grey duck), sexist (gander) and speciesist (goose).

Charles L. Mee is a playwright who has the full text of all his plays available for free on his website. Last year I did a monologue from his play Big Love, a modernization of The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus. I’m not sure if it will get his plays performed more, but it’s great for those who want to read the works of a pretty well-known contemporary playwright. Many of his plays are reworkings of Greek tragedies, but he makes the classics more modern. Mee’s characters really use the language as weapon, and when I read some of his scenes I get little tingles up and down my back, like watching a kung-fu film or a sword fight. Certainly worth a gander.

I submit the following in toto as evidence of the genius of Tom Waits. Of course, you should really listen to the recording.

Step right up
step right up
step right up
Everyone’s a winner, bargains galore
That’s right, you too can be the proud owner
Of the quality goes in before the name goes on
One-tenth of a dollar, one-tenth of a dollar
we got service after sales
You ’bout perfume? we got perfume
how ’bout an engagement ring?
Something for the little lady
something for the little lady
Something for the little lady, hmm
Three for a dollar
We got a year-end clearance, we got a white sale
And a smoke-damaged furniture
you can drive it away today
Act now, act now
and receive as our gift, our gift to you
They come in all colors, one size fits all
No muss, no fuss, no spills
you’re tired of kitchen drudgery
Everything must go
going out of business, going out of business
Going out of business sale
Fifty percent off original retail price
skip the middle man
Don’t settle for less
How do we do it?
how do we do it?
volume, volume, turn up the volume
Now you’ve heard it advertised, don’t hesitate
Don’t be caught with your drawers down
Don’t be caught with your drawers down
You can step right up, step right up

That’s right, it filets, it chops
It dices, slices, never stops
lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn
And it mows your lawn
and it picks up the kids from school
It gets rid of unwanted facial hair
it gets rid of embarrassing age spots
It delivers a pizza
and it lengthens, and it strengthens
And it finds that slipper that’s been at large
under the chaise longe for several weeks
And it plays a mean Rhythm Master
It makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar
And it’s only a dollar, step right up
it’s only a dollar, step right up

‘Cause it forges your signature.
If not completely satisfied
mail back unused portion of product
For complete refund of price of purchase
Step right up
Please allow thirty days for delivery
don’t be fooled by cheap imitations
You can live in it, live in it
laugh in it, love in it, swim in it, sleep in it
Live in it, swim in it, laugh in it, love in it
Removes embarrassing stains from contour sheets
that’s right
And it entertains visiting relatives
it turns a sandwich into a banquet
Tired of being the life of the party?
Change your shorts, change your life, change your life
Change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy
get rid of your wife
And it walks your dog, and it doubles on sax
Doubles on sax, you can jump back Jack
see you later alligator, see you later alligator
And it steals your car
It gets rid of your gambling debts, it quits smoking
It’s a friend, and it’s a companion
And it’s the only product you will ever need
Follow these easy assembly instructions
it never needs ironing
Well it takes weights off hips, bust, thighs, chin, midriff
Gives you dandruff, and it finds you a job
it is a job
And it strips the phone company free
take ten for five exchange
And it gives you denture breath
And you know it’s a friend, and it’s a companion
And it gets rid of your traveler’s checks
It’s new, it’s improved, it’s old-fashioned
Well it takes care of business
never needs winding, never needs winding, never needs winding
Gets rid of blackheads, the heartbreak of psoriasis
Christ, you don’t know the meaning of heartbreak, buddy
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon
‘Cause it’s effective, it’s defective
it creates household odors
It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection
It gives you an erection
It wins the election
Why put up with painful corns any longer?
It’s a redeemable coupon, no obligation
no salesman will visit your home
We got a jackpot, jackpot, jackpot
prizes, prizes, prizes, all work guaranteed
How do we do it, how do we do it, how do we do it, how do we do it
We need your business, we’re going out of business
We’ll give you the business
Get on the business
end of our going-out-of-business sale
Receive our free brochure, free brochure
Read the easy-to-follow assembly instructions
batteries not included
Send before midnight tomorrow, terms available
Step right up, step right up, step right up
You got it buddy: the large print giveth
and the small print taketh away
Step right up
you can step right up
you can step right up
C’mon step right up
(Get away from me kid, you bother me…)
Step right up, step right up, step right up
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon
Step right up
you can step right up
c’mon and step right up
C’mon and step right up

A classic text in Information Theory is now available online. I can add it to my list of free math and <a href=”engineering books. Of course, the first and last links aren’t free unless your host has a subscription. Even though I hate reading books on a screen, authors who provide technical books for free get mad props from me. And my wallet too.

Over the summer I participated in a BookCrossing, which was an interesting exercise in passing along reading material, but in the end I feel like it’s a doomed proposition. In rehearsal the other night we talked about how Marat’s conception of the French Revolution was doomed because it would have required a fundamental change in the way in which people saw the world. In the same way, BookCrossing would require people to reevaluate their attitudes towards books. Perhaps most people don’t have a well-defined relationship to their books — I do.

This one is for you, Jenn — it takes 1387 steps to get from the corner of Shattuck and Dwight and Sacramento and Dwight. In case you were wondering and all.

The M-W Word of the Day today is “galumph” — a fine word to be sure, but the quote they used to illustrate it is from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, one of my favorite recent reads from one of my favorite authors. There are the authors whose books you read on a recommendation from a friend, because they were a gift, or because they were well-reviewed. But there is something special about walking into a bookstore, browsing the shelves aimlessly, picking out a book by an author completely unknown to you, buying it anyway (you can always sell it back), and then falling madly, totally in love with the words. Lethem was like that for me — I don’t think he’s perfect, but as the song goes “with all your faults, I love ya still. It had to you be you, wonderful you, it had to be youuuuuuuuu!”

At the entrance to the Dumbarton Bridge, on the east side of the bay, there is a Safeway. Next to the Safeway is a drugstore named, of all things, Drug Emporium. I might be alone on this, but that name is not one that inspires confidence in the quality or legality of their wares.

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