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The Borgias, by G. J. Meyer May 28, 2019

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I have intended to read this book since I became aware of it several years ago. I am delighted to report it was worth the wait.  It’s history in its finest form; well-documented, with useful background explanations of the context of events which also elucidates their broader meaning and consequences.  And it’s pretty digestible, dramatic and sympathetic to the subjects (except Cesare; he was a right bastard).

Beginning with the elevation of the first Borgia pope and continuing until the death of Lucretia, we are treated to a careful dissection of the historical record (the Vatican kept detailed records) in order to understand the Borgia family’s actions  and the consequences of said actions. We are also treated to a thoughtful debunking of the myths surrounding Innocent VIII (first Borgia pope, who was elected pope just before his death) and Alexander VI (the long-reigning Borgia pope), Cesare and Lucretia and a bunch of lesser Borgias who got a job in Uncle Rodrigo’s business (that would be Alexander VI putting various relatives to work in the Vatican. Nepotism was pretty well accepted, and Alexander didn’t go overboard there, except in the case of Cesare).

I just noticed I’m starting to tell the whole story, which is not my intention[1]. The book does the subject justice, but it covers more than half a century in pretty fair detail, so I’m not going to recap that successfully on my lunch hour.[2] Read the book, it’s available at  Amazon (naturally) and at sfpl.org, where the booknoscenti get their audiobooks.

[1] But damn, it’s tempting.

[2] I’m just not that speedy a typist.

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn April 15, 2019

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Eifelheim, by  Michael Flynn, is a wonderful book full of historical accuracies, plausibly. Human characters, utterly fanciful science fiction and (in the audiobook version) droll and dry remarks from demons (in the 13th century) or aliens (in the 21st). In both eras, the story is fascinating as we see into the mind of a medieval village priest and two modern-day historians.  The story is told by both, without the usual historical whiplash which usually accompanies this sort of perspective switch.  The medieval setting lends a certain claustrophobic cloud of uncertainty to the actions of the parish priests, who succors aliens and finally allows them to live in his parish.  It is one of those rare books where Christian charity is given a fair shake, even while the foibles and failures of human beings undermine the whole religious structure.

A very good read and I recommend it most highly.  The audiobook is available at Amazon (of course), but also at sfpl.org.

EXCITING UPDATE: I liked Flynn’s writing so well I started January Dancer, which I also recommend for wordplay alone. Possible review coming up, but I’m pretty sure it will be flattering.

Semiosis, by Sue Burke April 10, 2019

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Semiosis, by Sue Burke is a lovely tale of space colonists dedicated to living in harmony with Nature.

Nature has some ideas about that, however.

Specifically, the plants on the colonists’ new world are intelligent in varying degrees, depending on size, longevity and, uh, temperament (sort of like humans).  The interaction of humans with their new acquaintances forms the whole of the book, and especially the humans interacting with each other in response.  It’s a complex, multigenerational tale and has some wonderful and horrible things like dictatorship enforced by lies, murder and rape (fertile females being too valuable to a small colony to kill outright), war with another race of space colonists, psychopathy and madness and gratuitous democracy.  It’s well told and competently read by Caitlin Davies (the female narrator), Daniel Thomas May (male narrator) in about equal parts, as they tell the story from the point of view of several different characters, including a perspicacious bamboo plant.

The very best of this is, of course, the idea of a sentient plant (plants, really; there are several intelligent species in the story) and the thoughts and feelings they express…and do not express.

A must read for science fiction readers, I recommend this one highly. Available at Amazon and sfpl.org.

Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds March 19, 2019

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Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds is a heck of an audiobook. The story is of comet miners detoured to the outer reaches of the solar system to chase Janus, an ice moon of Saturn[0] that has suddenly accelerated away from orbit. They are the only ship within range, so not really a lot of choice…and there is the rub.  Some choices get made, and some terrible things happen.

In Space!

Sorry.  Had to get that out.

This isn’t just a scantily-clad space opera; I genuinely felt for the characters as mountains of Bad Things happened to them over really long time spans…because they got a little tiny bit time-dilated[1]. Okay, more than a tiny bit. There are ultimately power grabs, friendships lost, horrible deaths, miraculous medicine, aliens[2], war, rebellion, intrigue, tropical fish, heroic rescues and weird science.

A yummy confection that took about twenty hours and I found it intense enough to turn off often, as I was feeling the characters fear and grief.  Nice work, that.

Available on Amazon (link above) and at sfpl.org.

__________

[0] “Janis, Ice Maid of Saturn” would make a great movie serial.

[1] Not a science book at all, but simple discussion of physics here and there didn’t break narrative flow.

[2] It’s no fun without aliens.

Where Have I Been (for the past 2 years)? January 30, 2019

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Busy, that’s where. A huge list of Things I Did or Thangs Wot Happen’d would allow Google/Facebook/CIA/NSA/FBI/The Illuminati/Mom to know everything I’m up to, so that’s not happening. Instead, I want to talk about my audiobook adventures.

I had some; I’m going to add a few here in list form and expand them as Words Come To Mind, but don’t hold your breath. As always, this space is usually filled with musings which crystallize during my lunch hour and find their way to you by the miracle of a series of tubes, to almost quote an abysmally ignorant Senator[0]. Given that my lunch hour must also accommodate actual lunch and a walk, this may take a while.

The latest book in my head is the second in the Sleepless series by Nancy Kress. Beggars and Choosers is  better even than the first novel, Beggars in Spain, following the frightening changes to law, society and humanity after genetic engineering of humans  results in a two-class[1] society.  The first book is pretty good, too, but this one has better character development and an edge of terror the first book lacked. Available at Amazon and sfpl.org. I wonder if she has a third book in this series (the ending doesn’t seem to suggest that).

EXCITING UPDATE: there seems to be an additional book: Beggar’s Ride.  I must hunt it down and hear it.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman is another mythology-related audiobook, this one hewing more closely to the original stories than American Gods (I’ll review this another time; I’ve been busy, damn it). It’s his take on the various Norse myths and charmingly read by him in his wry sort of way. I admit I know nothing about my own heritage in this regard whatsoever, so it was a fun commute for a while.  I recommend this one highly.

I also listened to Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, also read by him.[2] That one is even more strange, and wonderful in its complexity and texture. The estranged sons of Anansi (a trickster god) meet up when Anansi dies (?), and one ruins the life of the other hilariously and tragically. Also highly recommended.

More later. I did just lose my draft of this blog post, plus my notes on all the books I read in the last two years, so there will be a little bit of time before I can finish this up…if ever.

I am currently listening to The Themis Files (apparently also a trilogy) by Sylvain Neuval and enjoying them very much.  Told in the style of interview transcripts, it’s the story of alien robots left scattered around the world millennia ago, and the trials and tribulations of finding and using them..and, of course, what to use them for. The audiobooks are specially nice since the characters are pretty well drawn and their reactions to their parts in the story are largely, uh, memorable.  Yeah, memorable; I’m going with that.

There is some screaming as well. Well acted by a bunch of different voice actors, they seemed to have lost one between book two and book three (Puerto Rican girl replaced by New York Puerto Rican girl). The author is listed as one of the voices, and there is a suspiciously Quebecois guy who is trying really hard to pretend he isn’t the author, so that must be him.  Good books for all that.

Some other titles to be fleshed out (all enjoyable enough to finish listening to):  Defy the Worlds, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray[3] (this series culminates with Defy the Fates eventually), Crossing Over by Anna Kendall, everything by William Gibson (I think that’s somewhere north of twenty novels…I drive a lot), [edit: nearly] everything by Scott Westerfeld[4], Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, some Brandon Sanderson stuff (“Alcatraz versus” several novels, but these were not audiobooks except Perfect State), Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, I am Princess X, by Cherie Priest, All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, Noir, a Novel, by Christopher Moore, Bellwether by Connie Willis[5], Head On by John Scalzi, The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, Brainwave by Poul Anderson, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon stuff, The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne M. Harris, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, and others I have completely forgotten[6].

[0] Christ, where do they find these guys?

[1] Well three, but one of them seems pretty much outside of society for reasons which should be very clear at the end of the book [edit: series].

[2] I do feel that an author ought to be able to read the books they write with the delivery they intend in the writing, but I understand that not every writer is a good reader…mores the pity.

[3] featuring the line ’and stop smelling the robot boy’ delivered breathlessly by the narratrix

[4] see also “I drive a lot”, above–also, I found out I haven’t yet read everything of his.  Oh, boy.

[5] featuring the most evil character in all of English-language literature, Flip

[6] Two years is a long time, even for your nearly immortal correspondent.

Sodom and Gomorrah: Boom Towns December 6, 2018

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brilliant words, Science.
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This delicious rumor just in from archaeologist Phillip Silvia of Trinity Southwest University and published in a paper by Silvia and co-author (and archaeologist) Steven Collins called “The Civilization-Ending 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, and Biblical Implications”: the Twin Sin Cities were wiped out 3700 years ago by a meteor burst.[1]

The paper has a lot of juicy facts to corroborate Silva and Colins’ version of events: little glassy bits on surfaces that were exposed at the time (too hot to have been made by fires, but not long lasting enough to melt more than the top layers of things); “large-scale absence of tumbled mudbrick that would be typical of earthquake damage. The mudbrick super-structures of buildings at Tall elHammam and its neighbors are totally “missing” as if they were blown entirely off of their foundations.”[2]; “signature markers of an airburst event include high levels of platinum, typically 600%above normal background levels, and a high platinumpalladium ratio. (Both of these occur in asteroids and meteors, but are not common on Earth.) Signature markers also include a high incidence of scorialike objects (SLOs), frequently in pelletized, spherule forms or agglomerations of melted materials, and a high incidence of magnet-ic spherules.”[3]

There is also a delicious discussion of the effects of such an airburst on the nearby Dead Sea the shock wave would have deposited a layer of salts onto the top soil, destroying it and making it unable to support agriculture for hundreds of years. It only takes a salt content of 13,000 ppm to prevent wheat from germinating, and a salt content of 18,000 ppm to prevent barley from growing. Those thresholds were easily exceeded (60,000 ppm): enough to wipe out an entire civilization’s food supply.

What I personally find so interesting in this business is the ancient city itself, not the colorful destruction thereof and subsequent taking of credit by Jehovah’s nutbags; this was 3700 years ago, and the city was already 2500 years old.  The city itself was the administrative center of the kingdom of Middle Ghor[4], and was protected by a perimeter wall up to 30m (100 ft) thick and up to 15m (50 ft.) high, for a linear distance of over 2.5km. That’s not cheap; must have been quite a sight but I can’t find any population figures for 3700 years ago.

Homework: The CivilizationEnding 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, Southwest University, 7600 Jefferson NE, Suite 28, Albuquerque, NM 87109

  1. The Tunguska thing is apparently not all that rare.
  2. Boom, baby!
  3. Present in Tunguska, too.
  4. Was there an Inner Ghor and an Outer Ghor?  Or a Left and a Right Ghor?

Crisis Management Down Under November 8, 2018

Posted by stuffilikenet in Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science.
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"Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?" is an age old question in the workplace. In an article in the BMJ [not concerned with scatology, but British Medicine] from 2005, researchers at the Burnet Institute in Australia attempt to measure the phenomenon of teaspoon loss and its effect on office life. They purchased and discreetly numbered 70 stainless steel teaspoons (54 of standard quality and 16 of higher quality). The teaspoons were placed in tearooms around the institute and were counted weekly over five months. After five months, staff were told about the research project and asked to complete a brief anonymous questionnaire about their attitudes towards and knowledge of teaspoons and teaspoon theft.

During the study, 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than those in rooms linked to particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value and the overall incidence of teaspoon loss was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a workable population of 70 teaspoons, say the authors.

The questionnaire showed that most employees (73%) were dissatisfied with teaspoon coverage in the institute, suggesting that teaspoons are an essential part of office life. The rapid rate of teaspoon loss shows that their availability (and therefore office life) is under constant assault.

One possible explanation for the phenomenon is resistentialism (the theory that inanimate objects have a natural aversion to humans), they write. This is supported by the fact that people have little or no control over teaspoon migration.

Given the widely applicable nature of these results, they suggest that the development of effective control measures against the loss of teaspoons should be a research priority

Hilarious. But wait; there’s more.

Exasperated by the disappearance, the scientists decided they would measure the phenomenon. Do the teaspoons really disappear over time? The answer was a resounding yes: spoons in research institute tearooms seem to have legs. While good fun, the research is a good example of a study design referred to as "longitudinal".

A longitudinal study uses continuous or repeated measures to follow particular individuals – in this case, teaspoons – over prolonged periods of time. The studies are generally observational in nature: the scientists simply watch and collect data over time. Typically, no external influence is applied during the course of the study. Beyond just working out where all the teaspoons have gone, this study type is also useful for evaluating the relationship between risk factors and the development of disease (for example, heart disease), and the outcomes of treatments over different lengths of time. In this study, the main questions posed by our researchers were to determine the overall rate of loss of teaspoons, and to work out how long it took for teaspoons to go missing.

They purchased 70 teaspoons (16 of which were of higher quality), each one discretely numbered and then distributed throughout the institute. Counts of the teaspoons were carried out weekly for two months, then fortnightly for a further three months. Desktops and other immediately visible surfaces were also scanned for "misplaced" spoons. After five months of covert research, the study was revealed to the institute, and staff were asked to return or anonymously report any marked teaspoons which may have found their way into desk draws or homes.

Good study design

This type of data collection provides a simple example of what makes a good longitudinal study. If we break it down, a longitudinal study needs to:

  • take place over a prolonged period (this study was done over 5 months)
  • be observational in nature (teaspoons were observed and counted, there was no intervention)
  • conducted without external influences (teaspoon users/thieves were not aware they were being studied until the conclusion of the study itself).

Results

 

The results show that 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study, and that the half life of the teaspoons was 81 days (that is, half had disappeared permanently after that time). The study also showed the half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in research group specific tearooms (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value. All of these pieces of information directly answer the main question posed by the researchers.

Conclusions

A longitudinal study is terrific at following individuals or teaspoons over a period of time and observing outcomes. But, by definition, the design means there can be no intervention (as we are just observing a phenomenon). The researchers could not employ a tool or an intervention to prevent spoons from being "misplaced", and the researchers could only report a spoon missing. As the study is observational only, there is no way of finding out what has happened to the spoon, just that it is lost. The authors were able to conclude that the loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, and their availability in the tearoom was constantly under threat.

Homework: Megan S C Lim et al. The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute, BMJ (2005). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498

I’m Pretty Sure Nobody Reading This Watches Music Videos, But… October 30, 2018

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Fit Any Scatter Plot June 7, 2018

Posted by stuffilikenet in Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science.
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A wonderful paper in the archives of the University of Rochester  shows how any random scatter plot can be fit to a curve with enough parameters, and thence a lower number of same is often thought to be a good measure of an expression’s fitness for use…until now. “The mathematician John von Neumann famously admonished that with four free parameters he could make an elephant, and with five he could make it wiggle its trunk…The aim of this short note is to show that, in fact, very simple, elementary models exist that are capable of fitting arbitrarily many points to an arbitrary precision using only a single real-valued parameter θ. This is not always due to severe pathologies—one such model, studied here, is infinitely continuously differentiable as a function of θ. The existence of this model has implications for statistical model comparison, and shows that great care must be taken in machine learning efforts to discover equations from data since some simple models can fit any data set arbitrarily well.”

Tall claim?  Nope.  The author, Steven T. Piantadosi, shows two examples of data points fitted with a simple equation

 

image

can be fit to any arbitrary set of data plots……like these:

image

Mind you, the parameter θ needs to be calculated precisely: ”Both use r = 8 and require hundreds to thousands of digits of precision in θ.”.

Gee whiz (and hilarity) aside, the paper demonstrates the fallacy of using unreasonable models for this sort of algorithmic from-data derivation to create meaning from what might be noise, or Joan Miro’s signature.

Just Two Guys Talking June 7, 2017

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Best Used Car Advertisement Ever April 30, 2017

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Beauty and the Beast With a Better Gaston March 24, 2017

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Drawing the Wrong Conclusion March 6, 2017

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…or, how we got to now.

Why Trump? February 20, 2017

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https://medium.com/@DaleBeran/4chan-the-skeleton-key-to-the-rise-of-trump-624e7cb798cb#.jmnimypj1 contains the answer to that puzzle.  Be warned: it is a long, thoughtful piece with some uncomfortable ideas for both left and right alike (but not alt-right).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? November 23, 2016

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Too Much Science to Read, Let Alone Review November 15, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brain, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science, Star Trek Technology, Toys, Uncategorizable.
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It’s been a banner week for science geeks, nerds, and squints. The locked-in lady gets to at least shout from her prison quietlyGoogle has radar sensitive enough to not only find objects but identify them by their radar signature and perovskite is once again breaking solar-conversion efficiency records.

Ordinarily I would give you a breakdown of each of these nifty developments, but more are coming and I may want to return to these later when I am not pressed for time.  Follow the links above; there are others as well that you will find more well constructed than my chicken scratchings, I’m sure.

How Statistics Can Predict the Future November 10, 2016

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The X Axis on the graph is the percentage of GDP spent on R&D and the size of the balls is the amount of spending. The Y Axis is the scientists and engineers per million people.

]

Notice that the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th largest amounts are spent by Asian countries.  And notice that Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Finland have the largest number of scientists per capita, but look at the volume of South Korea and the number of scientists…those guys are going to eat the world.

Excuse me; I have to go buy a Samsung phone.

I Have Stopped Longing For Death November 1, 2016

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But that’s just the medication talking.  Here’s a delightful little romance featuring a youngster who longs for death.

Of course, he eventually gets his heart’s desire.

Universal Molecular Diagnostics by Affinity October 10, 2016

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Rice University researchers have invented a technology that could potentially identify hundreds of bacterial pathogens simply, quickly and at low cost using a single set of random DNA probes. Richard Baraniuk, Amirali Aghazadeh and Rebekah Drezek whomped up a batch of five random probes and used them to identify 11 known strains of bacteria, providing a genomic-based test for identity of pathogens.  This is a big deal because usually each species required its own DNA probe.

Their new study includes several computer simulations, including one that shows how a random selection of five probes can identify 40 different strains of bacteria, and another that demonstrates how the system can accurately differentiate between 24 different species of Staphylococcus.

Rather than identifying a target strain based on a 100 percent match with a specific probe, Rice’s system tests how well the target DNA binds with several different random segments of complementary DNA. UMD uses a mathematical technique called compressive sensing, which was pioneered in the field of digital signal processing. With compressive sensing, the disease DNA need not bind with 100 percent of the probes. Instead, the new system measures how well the disease DNA binds with each of the random probes and creates a specific binding profile for the test organism. It then uses deductive reasoning to determine whether that profile matches the profile of any known pathogens.

With larger numbers of probes, it works even better:

No special hardware is required for this approach, other than the tried and true PCR with which we have become familiar over the last twenty years (thank you, Kary Mullis and LSD). The special sauce is the computer code which figures out the relative affinities.  This can be made available everywhere pretty cheaply, versus specialized DNA probes which require expensive facilities and a lot more regulatory testing.

Homework: Universal microbial diagnostics using random DNA probes, Amirali Aghazadeh1,*, Adam Y. Lin1,*, Mona A. Sheikh1,*, Allen L. Chen1, Lisa M. Atkins2, Coreen L. Johnson2, Joseph F. Petrosino2, Rebekah A. Drezek1 and Richard G. Baraniuk1, Science Advances  28 Sep 2016:Vol. 2, no. 9, e1600025 DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1600025

Experimental Design Review—Before Results September 25, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brain, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Science.
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BMC Psychology has taken a novel (actually, a scorched earth) approach to the problem of irreproducible results in psych studies. Peer reviews of submitted studies will be checked for experimental methods only, until the end of the review process.  The thinking is, reviewers may be unconsciously biased by seeing results they agree with (or disagree with), rather than the value of the methods by which they were derived.

Given that as many as one-third of psych studies in a recent review (of a thousand studies) could not be reproduced, I think this is an excellent first step to cleaning house of cognitive biases.

Sadly, BMC Psychology is not one of the larger players in this field; it may be that this will enhance their prestige.