Walnuts and engagement

3 October 2009

One of the things I really like about Corvallis is that so many different trees flourish here; there are at least two different kinds of walnut within a block of our house. We’ve harvested some already for eating, but there is a slightly menacing corollary of that bounty manifesting itself about this time of year. As if the hazards of being hit by a falling walnut or having your feet roll out from underneath you on a carpet of them wasn’t bad enough, when shedding fruit in great quantities, these trees draw crows in flocks large enough to qualify as Hitchcockian.

In attempting to devour the crop, crows can be seen trying to crack walnuts by attempting to pin them between their feet to peck at, or drop them from lamp posts, or wedge them in the manhole cover, or (my personal favorite) hurl them at human interlopers. Displaying an amazing variety of tactics, and using elements of the natural environment to their advantage, as well as (superficially, at least) learning from past mistakes presents something very close to empiricism.

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21,483 calls in 36 years

2 December 2008

It’s been more than a week, and I still am saddened when I think of the loss of Phil Rounds. Ben Fleagle already did a better job than I did talking about it, and was closer to the loss. Right now, I feel pretty close, though. My thoughts go out to all in the Great White North.

And there are many who also appreciate the efforts of those who show how he was missed. Staff at the News-Miner did an excellent job with a several articles and an obituary.¬†While I’m at it, I’d like to thank Todd Shechter for several email forwards, Josh Zwart for the thirty second version of A-shift history and pumpkin pie, and my wife for her diligence on Facebook.

But I think the most impressive is this video. Taken by Carol Falcetta, it shows the procession down University Avenue in Fairbanks towards Phil’s memorial service. The music is very nice, and the video itself shows some small measure of the respect this man held. First of all, remember that every engine pictured represents an entire department that committed to sending a crew for this. Also, for those of you fire service folks out there, wait until the end and count the number of law enforcement. Try to imagine another firefighter getting that kind of help from cops.

We’ll miss you, Phil.

(mostly) Northern roundup

14 November 2008

Kyle Hopkins kicks ASS! Just heard him interviewed on NPR about an Alaska politics article he wrote for the ADN, and I was both thrilled to hear about someone I had lost touch with, and relieved that so sharp a wit is covering the important Stevens-Begich Senate race closely.

Begin obligatory election response: pretty weird that the three most hotly contested (or at least most drawn-out) Senate races were the three states I was most interested in: AK (see above), MN, OR. End obligatory election response.

I’m just starting Rashid Khalidi’s book Resurrecting Empire, which doesn’t seem designed to flagellate liberal guilt so much as actually educate a willing audience about colonialist history from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. A good book, and I liked it even more when I found out that he’s almost as dangerous as Bill Ayers.

National Geographic has a ten-page cover article on light pollution out this month, and we happily have our first clear night in about two weeks (not that that’s a record or anything–Alicia tells me that she remembers Kodiak going for something like sixty straight days of rain once, and nobody was talking about records being broken) Still, though, it is crisp and cool tonight. Jupiter looked bright until I saw Venus, and Manaiakalani is setting in the west as Ke ka o ka Makali`i is rising in the east. Even though I know something about how bad light pollution really is, I am reassured that I showed my nephew the same two planets and some of the same stars from the East River about a month ago.

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Less is more. Literally.

3 October 2008

I’m very excited to have started reading The Social Life of Information, a book which simultaneously supports many of the same conclusions about information theories I’ve read in other works I’ve liked, and blows my hair back with new stuff.

The concept in the introduction of that work that could perhaps be approximated by the old adage that only ten percent of communication is carried by the words spoken in a conversation, with the other ninety left to tone, body language, eye contact, et cetera, is remarkably similar to a conversation I had yesterday at work. Speaking to a gentleman who turned out to be an electronics engineer and music buff, we had a fairly intense conversation about what equipment produces the best quality of sound. While he has more specific knowledge than I, our consensus was that older equipment sounds better for all its messiness of being analog, vinyl, or whatever, than the truncated, cleaned up electronic equipment now so common.

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Couldn’t figure out a graceful way to integrate into the last post, but another interesting stance on analysis and information comes from Chris Anderson et al at Wired. If I may summarize with far too much brevity, it is the nth degree (or the reductio ad absurdam, depending) of the dictum that to increase understanding, add information.

While even I think that statement needs qualifiers, it is demonstrably true on most maps. Cf the two pictures below:

simple map

simple map

detailed map

detailed map


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Epistemological nuts and bolts are one thing, but sometimes it is hard to say what we are even trying to build with them. To start with, even if time doesn’t exist, our perception of it certainly does. And while you may want to argue with that statement, too, let me give some examples as grist for the mill.

Specifically, our notions of what 10,000 years might look like are pretty hazy. Alan Weisman has put together a compelling sightseeing tour of a set of connected possibilities, and talked to a lot of people whose opinions are not often taken into account on such topics to do so. Certainly his choice of targets makes us more likely to sit up and take notice of a longer view than usual.

And speaking of a longer view, my favorite way to think about 10,000 years has recently become much less abstract–like by having an actual place to build a thing. So maybe the point is, as Douglas Adams once said, in order to make the best model possible of a thing, make your model as much like the thing as possible. Or maybe it was Stephen Hawking. Or maybe I paraphrase badly.

In any case, I’m also reading Everything is Miscellaneous and enjoying it quite a bit. I’m only about half way through, though, so I don’t know if Weinberger addresses one of the most salient critiques I’ve read of the poster child for miscellany, Wikipedia. A critique from, you know, just some guy.

Almost forgot to say that types of knowing can vary greatly, and we usually only consider a pretty restricted set of inputs. Increasing the likelihood that we can use more than just sight to learn stuff is a pretty cool concept.

The camellias are blooming, and have been for a week or two. There was still a light frost this morning, though, and that helped me hang on to Saturn high up near Leo’s paws and Mars seeming to recede into the winter hexagon, glimpsed on my way home last night. Now that I look around a little more, the red maple close up against the kitchen porch is also budding strenuously, preparing to leaf out.

I haven’t been paying attention to climatological data, and there are unfortunately few lilacs nearby, but it still brings to mind Adolphe Quetelet’s prescription for lilacs; I think his test bed, so to speak, was in Paris, but I could be wrong. In any case, when the sum of the squares of the mean daily temperatures since the last frost of the winter exceed 4,274, look for the clustered clouds of little purple flowers.

Given that Quetelet was writing in 19th century Belgium, I think we can assume that he was talking about mean temps in Celsius. Odd to think of one of the effects of the French Revolution being the metric system, but there you go. This kind of social context and personal effects are precisely why I liked David Salsburg’s The Lady Tasting Tea, from whence I learned the Quetelet story. In general the book was excellent, but now that I reflect, I think I may have dropped out about half way through when the statistics got too deep for me. I’ll have to pick it up again.