Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

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Entries from May 2008

Some of Wikipedia baddest bits and pieces

May 27th, 2008 · Comments Off on Some of Wikipedia baddest bits and pieces

Caution: Wikipedia trolls at play

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Is Hillary Clinton a giant shape-shifting reptile? Do ghosts use cellphones? Does Smithville, Iowa have a “quaint little library”? And how should Wikipedia reflect (or not) each of these sincere, not trolling, beliefs. (Trolls create a whole new set of wiki-problems.)

A veteran of some of the most hood-filled neighborhoods of Wikipedia, “Filll” has created a Wikipedia quiz-cum-learning-tool, the AGF Challenge Exercises. The challenges, based on real Wikipedia problems, include all three of the above. “AGF” stands for the Wikipedia policy “Assume Good Faith.”

He explains it to Durova:

When Wikipedia is criticized externally or internally over its handling of assorted situations, they are often extremely highly charged and emotional affairs, and often ongoing. This [the AGF Challenge Exercises] is a way to see a sanitized collection of problems in abbreviated and sanitized form, where critics inside and outside Wikipedia can offer their advice and suggestions.

In surprisingly-closely-related news, Harvard’s librarian Robert Darnton has a great essay in the June 12, 2008 issue of the NYRB. Most relevant bit:

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively‚ and even how to appreciate old books.

And with help from Wikipedians like Filll, we can learn our own ways to make bad bits better.

Tags: Learn to write good · wikipedia · writing

Reflection, translation, science and belief

May 22nd, 2008 · Comments Off on Reflection, translation, science and belief

willows reflected in quiet water

Green on green

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Even a skilled translation is like the reflection in water of what the original thinker was trying to say. But such reflections may also have charms of their own.

With this excuse, and with thanks to a friend in Babice for sending me a charmingly machine-translated from the Polish interview with Frank, here’s Frank Wilczek trying to explain the quantum mechanical problem of science and faith:

God this wide notion very different things under which understand nation. Physical theories meanwhile this sure abstract mathematical conceptions there in which is no place for free choice. Some are careful anyway, that science is uncovering this, what it is just God, or how oneself he manifests in physical reality.

I from second side like the conception of complementariness the advanced by Danish phisicist Nielsa the Bohra very. Then the philosophical conception which comes from with phisics. If you try to understand some arrangement, you can this do with different points of sight. Every of them describes one of aspects of studied arrangement.

But when you try to apply it simultaneously, then you fall in contradiction. They in phisics are on this very concrete examples. It in kwantowej mechanics was can qualify the position of particle or her speed, but it will not give to pit both these features simultaneously. They do not exist simultaneously we – can get to know or one, or second.

Bohr – and I for him he – was careful, that this principle is a lot of more general. That the different ways of understanding of world, different points of sight are. Every of them has something to offering. But if you try to apply it simultaneously, then you can fall in conflict. It can so just be with science and belief.

I like the modesty and good sense of Frank’s statement. It makes much more sense than the loud crowings of some who climb to the top of the tower of one single viewpoint (science or faith) to proclaim that the rival viewpoint must be purely nonsense.

Tags: Frank Wilczek · religion · Science · Wide wonderful world

Slough, Staines, Maidenhead…

May 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on Slough, Staines, Maidenhead…

Lilac and wisteria

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

OK (if you’re not English) can you guess which one of these is not the name of a city or town within a short drive from Oxford?

While you are thinking, here are some village names that we saw on road signs while driving past acres of springtime from Oxford to Cambridge:

  • Chorleywood
  • South Mimms
  • Wormleybury
  • Cherry Hinton

Ready with an answer on Slough, Staines, or Maidenhead? All three are real English placenames.

Tags: England · Travel · Wide wonderful world

Jane Austen’s writing table

May 18th, 2008 · Comments Off on Jane Austen’s writing table

Jane Austen’s writing table

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

This tiny table at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton was where she wrote the jewel-like novels that made her famous. If I ever feel like complaining about my workspace, I’ll remember hers, set in one corner of her family’s sitting room.

Tags: Wide wonderful world · writing

Sidney Coleman, remembered by Shelley Glashow

May 17th, 2008 · Comments Off on Sidney Coleman, remembered by Shelley Glashow


The current issue of Physics Today has a beautiful obituary of Sidney Coleman, written by his longtime friend and collaborator Sheldon Glashow. The article is remarkable not only for its lively memories of physics “clown-prince” Sidney Coleman but also for having the best first sentence possible:

Cherished friend, colleague, and collaborator Sidney Richard Coleman, Donner Professor of Science at Harvard University, died on 18 November 2007 after a long struggle with Lewy body disease.

It’s illustrated by a snip from the photo above, a candid shot taken by Lubos Motl and donated by him to the Wikimedia Commons.
Shelley no doubt has more and funnier memories of Sidney than anyone else. Restraining myself from cherry-picking his essay, which I hope you’ll read, he quotes the tagline of Sidney’s 1962 thesis:

“What we do here is nothing to what we dream of doing.”

Sidney lifted that quote from Justine, by the Marquis de Sade.

Tags: Science · Wide wonderful world

A pound of sugar and a pint of beer

May 13th, 2008 · Comments Off on A pound of sugar and a pint of beer

A pound of sugar and a pint of beer

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine,
photo by Amity Wilczek.

That was the daily diet of the wasp colony that built this huge paper nest in 1857.

Before you envy this self-indulgent diet, bear in mind that the wasps got their sugar dissolved in their beer.

This magnificently well-fed colony soon drew the attention of nearby wasps, who abandoned their own nests and moved in to help build the ever-growing mansion. They were welcomed “without the least show of opposition,” says the exhibit label.

So if you plan to write up the history of open-source software or BarCamp, please give appropriate credit to these pioneers.

(For more information, see a closeup of the label.) It’s now on display in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History.

Tags: England · funny · geeky · Metablogging · Science · Wide wonderful world

Who could imagine that one of my favorite jokes..

May 8th, 2008 · 3 Comments

…was made even better when analyzed by a philosopher?

I long ago blogged the “shaggy guru life is a fountain” story, including a re-telling by philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Philosophical Explanations.

Today I made the sad discovery that my source-link for the Nozick quote now goes to a dead page. Fortunately, I long ago copied what I found there, at least what interested me, so I’m going to add here a different Nozick story version and his comments on it:

A person travels for many days to the Himalayas to seek the word of an Indian holy man meditating in an isolated cave. Tired from his journey, but eager and expectant that his quest is about to reach fulfillment, he asks the sage, “What is the meaning of life?” After a long pause, the sage opens his eyes and says, “Life is a fountain.” “What do you mean life is a fountain?” barks the questioner. “I have just traveled thousands of miles to hear your words, and all you have to tell me is that? That’s ridiculous.” The sage then looks up from the floor of the cave and says, “You mean it’s not a fountain?” In a variant of the story, he replies, “So it’s not a fountain.”

The sage feels none of the angst that led the seeker to the cave. So, who’s missing something: sage or seeker? The story suggests a contrast of attitudes. I’ll call them Existentialist and Zen, meaning only to gesture at the traditions these names evoke. The Existentialist attitude is that life’s meaning, or lack thereof, is of momentous import. We seek meaning. If we don’t get it, we choose between stoicism and despair. The Zen attitude is that meaning isn’t something to be sought. Meaning comes to us, or not. If it comes, we accept it. If not, we accept that too. To some degree, we choose how much meaning we need. Perhaps the sage achieves peace by learning not to need meaning. Perhaps that’s what we’re meant to learn from the sage’s seemingly meaningless remark that life is a fountain.

Wow, so the alternatives here are stoicism, despair, or a bland Zen acceptance of “whatever”? I don’t think so. My advice, Mr. Nozick, is stay off those mountaintops. Eat fruit, make new friends, ride a bike, and do things you care about. Oh, and read The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde or Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal. Since you like that fountain joke, you should like their books too.

Tags: funny

Fforde ffandom meets in Swindon

May 4th, 2008 · Comments Off on Fforde ffandom meets in Swindon

Sarah and Jasper

Originally uploaded by betsythedevine

Jasper Fforde, who writes novels about literary detective Thursday Next (also with a new Nursery Crime sequence that explains the secret physics behind the three bears’ porridge) is in Swindon this weekend, being ffeted by his ffans who very much include me and Amity.

The bus tour of Swindon’s Magic Roundabout was a treat, as was last night’s auction where I was the lucky winner of a CD with all the Best of George Formby.

I would write more about this but I’m too busy having a good time and taking pictures, so go over to Flickr if you want to see more.

Tags: Wide wonderful world

Ox. docs shocks!

May 2nd, 2008 · 3 Comments

galaxyM101: Messier 101 spiral galaxy from Hubble telescope

Galaxy Zoo is the project of some Oxford astrophysicists trying to classify millions of never-before-seen-by-human-eyes stellar objects that big computers have photographed.* It turns out that human beings are much better at doing these classifications than computers are. It also turns out that people all over the world enjoy doing this via the internet. (Insert words like “Web 2.0” and “social networking.”)

Now learned Oxonians are trying to make it official that the name of one recently discovered object (maybe the first-ever echo from a long-dead quasar) should be “Hanny’s Voorwerp.” Why? Because this object was first seen and asked about by a young Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny, one of Galaxy Zoo’s many enthusiastic amateurs. “Voorwerp” means “object” in Dutch. After Hanny flagged this unusual blob, Oxford astrophysicists used their connections to get other astronomers around the world to start taking closer looks at this bit of the sky.

That’s just one of many surprises from the Galaxy Zoo collaboration, including an odd discovery in neurology aptly summed up as “People are screwed up, not the universe.”

Hanny will be visiting Oxford this weekend, and I’m guessing the Oxford guys show her a very good time.

* Everything in the universe is “Miscellaneous”–until somebody steps in to tag it with real information.

Tags: England · everythingismiscellaneous · Science

What if John McCain is Torricelli?

May 2nd, 2008 · 3 Comments

John McCain Seattle

Originally uploaded by soggydan

A few months ago, the GOP gurus were upset, but now they are happy. How can they be happy? All their most Rovian candidates were shot down in the primaries by John McCain, who’s never been in their pockets.

The GOP gurus are happy because they feel confident that McCain can be pushed into a graceful exit before the convention. Having taken the (minimal) heat and (even less) scrutiny from press for a year of primary season, he will step aside for a candidate who will look clean, exciting, and new, swapping loser for winner.

Republicans have been thinking about how they could profit from the Torricelli model since 2004.

Who is the secret candidate we will be handed? Condoleezza Rice? Maybe, but more likely General Petraeus.

Tags: Editorial · politics · Wide wonderful world