Monday, March 31, 2008

Raymond Scott 100

"It's all very well to write screwy music, and imitate things like wooden Indians and powerhouses, but just writing screwy music isn't enough. If it's screwy music you want, there's plenty of that in Stravinsky..."
-- Harold Taylor, 1939, from the Rhythm Magazine article, You Can Keep Raymond Scott

In addition to making some of the most joyously intricate and distinctive melodies of the 20th Century, Raymond Scott was also a leading pioneer in multi-track recording, electronic music and collaborated with the likes of Robert Moog, Jim Henson and Motown. But odds are you will recognize his tunes from Warner Brothers cartoons. He is arguably one of the most influential musician/inventors in American music. Here is his signature song, "Powerhouse," as performed by the band Racalmuto.

"The compositions of Raymond Scott are etched, it seems, into the fabric of 20th century culture like some strand of DNA sequence coding our collective memory for future-mutations."
-- Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. Dj Spooky

Raymond's six-piece band was called the "Raymond Scott Quintette." (Apparently, Raymond thought the word "sextet" would distract from the music and the Frenchie "ette" lent a touch of class.) While the music was classified as jazz, jazz critics were frequently hostile. Despite the critics, the music proved highly popular with the buying public.

It was not so popular with the band members. Raymond coerced them into upwards of 60 takes, performing dizzying riffs -- and sometimes under weird acoustic circumstances in order to achieve a particular sound. Unlike other jazz acts, improvisation was not allowed. The songs are intricately assembled as though they were designed by an engineer. Band members could not deviate from the strict tune structure any more than parts manufacturers could deviate from an engine design. Raymond didn't use sheet music either. He recorded the players, edited the strips, played them back and asked the players to play the re-ordered arrangements from memory.

"What can you say about a man who inspired cartoon melodies and bebop, invented Frank Zappa and electronic music, and still found time to work for Motown?"
-- Andy Partridge, XTC

Here is the Raymond Scott Quintette performing War Dance for Wooden Indians. The image to the left is from a comic strip biography of Raymond Scott by Justin Green, available at the Official Raymond Scott site.

The 1940's saw a lot of changes for Raymond Scott. In 1941, he sold his compositions (finally rendered in musical notation) to Warner Brothers. The music was enthusiastically seized upon by Carl Stalling, the man who scored the Warner Brothers cartoons -- which is largely why these tunes are so embedded in our consciousness. (To this day, people think Raymond wrote for cartoons, but he never did. He never even watched cartoons.)

"The music of Raymond Scott is positively exhilarating. Its intricacies mesmerize, because they're part of a unique and utterly disarming musical tapestry."
-- Leonard Maltin, film critic

In 1942, he became Music Director for CBS Radio and made history by hiring black musicians. His CBS band was the first racially integrated band for radio. In 1946, he founded Manhattan Research Inc, "the world's most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete." It was the first electronic music studio.

Raymond's brother Mark Warnow died in 1949 and Raymond took over Mark's job: Orchestra Leader for Your Hit Parade. Raymond Scott and his wife, Dorothy Collins, became early TV celebrities. Here is the Raymond Scott Quintette performing "Powerhouse" on Your Hit Parade. Raymond called it a "rent gig." In fact, he used his handsome salary to invest in electronic equipment. In the late 40's, along with Les Paul, Raymond started experimenting with a new recording technique called multi-track.

"Raymond Scott was like an audio version of Andy Warhol; he preceded Pop-Art sensibilities, and he played with that line between commercial art and fine art, mixing elements of both worlds together. I love and respect Raymond Scott's work, and it influenced me a lot. I'm a big fan.''
-- Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo

In 1949, Raymond said, "Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely think his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener."

By the mid-50's his studio began to look (according to friends such as Robert Moog) like a science fiction set. Over the years, Raymond invented numerous electronic musical instruments including the Clavivox and the Electronium.

Robert Moog credits Raymond as an important influence on the invention of the Moog Synthesizer. In 1962 and 1963, Raymond released Soothing Sounds for Baby. It was entirely electronic music he composed as an "aural toy" for children. While it was a commercial failure at the time, some now regard it as a strong pre-cursor to ambient music (over a decade before Brian Eno's recordings).

Electronic music can suffer from an outdated sound very quickly. However, Raymond Scott's electronic music from the 60's still hold up today. In a 1962 lecture, Raymond said, "To say that we haven't scratched the surface in this field wouldn't be exactly right. Because every time we scratch we find the surface thicker and thicker and thicker. For the possibilities in electronic music are really quite infinite."

"It's those front-line types that go into uncharted areas, and pave the way for others. Always go to the source, sources like Raymond Scott."
-- Henry Rollins, Black Flag, Rollins Band

In the early 70's, Raymond was hired by Barry Gordy to develop new electronic sounds when Motown was positioning itself as a leader in cutting-edge music. Today, we don't know the degree of influence Raymond had on the 70's Motown sound. (If you've seen "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" you know that the Motown star-machine, as policy, kept the support crew on the down-low.)

One very unique collaboration was with an up-and-coming puppeteer. Raymond Scott and Jim Henson collaborated on "Limbo - The Organized Mind" a very unique performance which appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

"Raymond Scott was definitely in the forefront of developing electronic music technology, and in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician."
-- Bob Moog, inventor of Moog synthesizers

Scott fans include Igor Stravinsky, Henry Rollins, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Kronos Quartet, They Might Be Giants, Devo, Jascha Heifetz, Art Blakey and Danny Elfman. You can hear Scott's influence in Benny Goodman, bebop, ambient, electronica and The Simpsons theme. In 1986, Raymond composed his last known work, "Beautiful Little Butterfly," in Midi. In 1992, a retrospective of Raymond Scott's work, Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, brought Raymond Scott to a new audience. Raymond died in 1994.

Concordia University in Montreal recently hosted a Raymond Scott Centennial Tribute Concert:

157 West 57th Street
Boy Scout in Switzerland
Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals
A Message from Where
The Rhythm Modulator
Twilight in Turkey
War Dance for Wooden Indians

As more music lovers discover him, Raymond Scott is gradually becoming recognized as one of the great innovators in American music. September 10th of 2008, will be Scott's 100th birthday. For much more, here is the official Raymond Scott site, the Raymond Scott Blog and the Raymond Scott MySpace page.

"Being introduced to the music of Raymond Scott was like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless. Clearly he is a major American composer."
-- David Harrington, Kronos Quartet


Hello to MATRIXSYNTH Readers: A big thank you to Matrix for linking to this post. I hope you find this interesting and informative. Science Reporting is a fairly new blog devoted to public understanding of science. Please leave a comment if you like. I'm glad to see so many people who appreciate the legacy of Raymond Scott. Scott really is one of the great under-appreciated innovators in 20th Century music.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Evolution and Suicide Terror

Drawing from a variety of studies, evolutionary psychologist Andy Thomson has developed a hypothesis of suicide terrorism. He says we can understand three aspects behind the motivation:

  • The capacity for male-bonded coalitionary violence against innocents is as old as our species and may date to our common ancestry with chimpanzees.
  • The capacity for suicide exists in men and women alike. It is not necessarily the product of illness. Some suicides are the product of depression and social rejection. Other suicides are an attempt at "retaliation bargaining" waged from a position of powerlessness -- to force change from an enemy.
  • Our evolved mechanisms which make us vulnerable to religious beliefs are the same mechanisms which can be exploited to motivate suicide terrorism. Thomson asserts that religion, more than any other ideology, is able to hijack our capacity for male coalitionary violence and suicide.
Thomson discusses his theory in the latest podcast of Humanist Network News. He also presented his findings at the Atheist Alliance International conference in September. Thomson's paper on the subject [Word Document].

The podcast also touches on the work of Robert Pape, author of the book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism"

They also discuss an interesting common denominator among male suicide terrorists -- immaturity and inexperience with sexuality.

This aspect of terrorism was identified years ago by comedian Marc Maron.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Human Cloning and Human Dignity

The President's Council on Bioethics has issued it's recommendations on cloning. The majority recommendation is a ban on cloning for human reproduction and a four-year moratorium on cloning for medical research. The moral basis for the recommendations rests on a concept of "dignity" as defined by Christian theology.

Steven Pinker, responding to the Council report, points out that 12 of the 23 contributors are from organizations with Christian mandates (almost entirely Catholic) and four of the remaining 11 advocate a greater role for religion in public life. Pinker states:

It's also conspicuous that the essayists did not include a single scientist, this on a topic inspired by scientific advances. The essayists did not include any empirical scholar who studies the facts of human life—no psychologist, no social scientist, no historian, and hence, no one who could enlighten us on the psychological basis of ascriptions of dignity or how standards of dignity vary across cultures and historical periods.
On the subject of dignity, Pinker says that our "squishy" concept of dignity is relative, fungible and in some cases, morally undesirable:

[M]edical procedures necessarily subjects us to all kinds of indignities. Everyone in this room has—or I assume—undergone a rectal examination. Many people have undergone pelvic examinations. Those of us over 50 have undergone colonoscopies. Needless to say, these are deeply undignified, and that's fine because we sacrifice dignity for other goods in life.

The third point is that dignity can be a bad thing, and Prof. Elshtain asked can any good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity, and the answer is an unambiguous yes. For example, any third-world tinhorn dictator, bemedaled, sashed, epauletted, strutting on his reviewing platform solemnly reviewing the goose-stepping soldiers parading in front of him, is an epitome of human dignity. That is not necessarily a good thing.

Political repression works by preserving a kind of dignity. Those who ridicule or satirize or even criticize their political leaders are subject to imprison, torture, or death, justified in many cases by their assault on the dignity of the state or the leader. Religious fanaticism is driven by an attempt to safeguard dignity, most appallingly in the recent story in Sudan where a British schoolteacher was imprisoned and threatened with death by an angry mob because she allowed her first-grade class to name a teddy bear Mohammed . Likewise, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie , the death threats against the publishers of the Danish cartoons on Mohammed , were all justified by their assault on the dignity of religion.

...Indeed, I would say that a foundation of democracies is that the right to dignity is extremely limited. We enshrine a right to make fun of our political leaders. You can turn on the TV set any night at 11:35 and watch Leno and Letterman and Jon Stewart reduce the dignity of our political candidates and leaders, and that is a good thing. [more...]

Steven Pinker discusses his testimony on the most recent podcast of Freethought Radio [MP3].

Laurie Anderson on "Here and Now"

Laurie Anderson is interviewed for WBUR's "Here and Now."

Laurie: The trend to life on the net is not as satisfying to me. So I find myself doing projects that have nothing to do with digital stuff -- doing things that have scale, doing things outside.

...Q: I'm just so surprised to hear you say that you are rejecting in some ways the Internet and digitizing and you want to move away. Because I would have thought, Laurie Anderson, this would have been your perfect playground. Because you were so in the forefront of electronics. Inventing the tape-bow violin in 1977, incorporating all these different electronic sounds, changing your voice to sound so many different ways.

Laurie: Well, I only say that because I, like everybody else, love it and hate it, sort of equally. And I'm so afraid because I love it that I'll get sucked into it and forget there are other things to life than looking at that screen.
Laurie discusses her show Homeland -- about the America she sees today and how it's changed since her recording United States * in 1983. (Tip to Donna)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Legacy of War of the Worlds

This coming Halloween will mark the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles' radio-vérité broadcast of "War of the Worlds." Radiolab just posted an outstanding podcast of the "War of the Wolds" legacy. Why did it fool people then? And why does it continue to fool people?

First they look at the context of the times -- the recent destruction of the Hindenberg and the new media form of the day which is now part of our mental furniture. It starts, "We interrupt this program..." As Hitler continued his attacks throughout Europe, special bulletins became an authoritative and attention-getting feature of radio -- a feature Welles exploited. Tellingly, many of the listener's fooled by Welles' broadcast believed that it was Germans attacking, rather than Martians.

Other radio stations have staged their own versions of "War of the Worlds" over the years. And again people were fooled. The most disastrous example is the profoundly ill-advised broadcast in the capital city of Ecuador, Quito. The Quito broadcast was produced without any warning to anyone. In fact, the producer planted fictitious stories of strange phenomena in the days preceding the broadcast -- to whip up paranoia. At the end of the evening, the radio station was set on fire by an angry mob. Six people died that night.

Buffalo's WKBW (my hometown and my favorite station in the 70's) first broadcast "War of the Worlds" in 1968 -- modernized and set in the Western New York landscape. The 1971 WKBW broadcast is available online. The page contains a link to the full show (with great opening music) plus a making-of video. The climax of the '71 broadcast has iconic TV news anchor Irv Weinstein reporting from a rooftop like Edward R. Murrow. Except Irv is reporting on an approaching robot. It's really quite brilliant.

Google Visualization API

Google recently released a new application program interface for visualizations. Google Visualization API:

[It] lets you access multiple sources of structured data that you can display, choosing from a large selection of visualizations. The Google Visualization API also provides a platform that can be used to create, share and reuse visualizations written by the developer community at large.
  • Embed visualizations directly into your website: Display attractive data on your website by choosing from a vast array of visualizations created by the developer community.

  • Write, share and reuse: The Google Visualization API provides simple Gadget extensions to its API to create visualization Gadgets. Publish these here or in the Gadget directory. Become an active participant in the developer community; reuse and share visualizations with others.

  • Create extensions to Google products: Write visualization applications for Google products such as Google Docs. With a growing list of products that support Gadgets, syndicate your app.

  • Use many data sources, one API: Visualization apps created using the API are able to access any compliant data source with no required code changes to your application. Developers can start building apps immediately using Google Spreadsheets as a supported data source.

Information Aesthetics asks, "will this shape the future of data visualization online? if so, how?"

Flowing Data picks up on the question and responds:

If Google visualization becomes popular, visualization, in general, grows in popularity. People who weren't exposed will now know more, and if all goes according to plan, data awareness has a chance to develop.

As an example, Google Maps made online mapping what it is now - commonplace. Remember when online mapping was only limited to the big boys? Now everyone can mashup to their heart's content. People know how to use it and similar mapping applications and because of that, more "idea people" ask for mapping. As a result there is more opportunity.

Flowing Data then asks:

What do you think? Is the Google visualization API going to limit our imagination where we get stuck in a Google-ish funk; or is data and visualization awareness ready to rise to a point where we all benefit?
The responses are clearly positive. Flowing Data reader escargot points out:
It’s not going to limit our imagination any more than Excel does. Everyone has access to the standard bar, pie and scatter plots in Excel, and they’re by far the most common plots you see. And yet, you still see creative and informative visualizations.

Google is just offering a few more standard plots. Nice to have, but by no means limiting.
I've not used the API yet but my response is very positive. Information graphics will be more accessible. That's good for everyone... except, of course... graphic artists. Wait a minute. That's taking work away from me! I take it back, it's a terrible idea!

Just kidding. Some of the graphical styles are a little too cutesy. The gauge graphic to right is a fun visual analogy to traditional gauges. But it takes up a lot of space to deliver three data points.

In contrast, (fans of Edward Tufte take note) Google has included sparklines, which may be the most graphically efficient use of data space.

The example to the left is from Edward Tufte's book Beautiful Evidence.

If Google visualizations take hold, I'm anxious to see how they'll be used.

Monday, March 24, 2008

PZ, ID and BS

It happened just this Friday, but it's already the stuff of legend.

An advance screening of Ben Stein's anti-evolution, pro-ID documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" was held in Minneapolis. Atheist blogger PZ Myers, who is one of the stars of the movie, signed up himself and a number of guests. The film's producer spotted Myers in the theater and had him expelled by security.

The guests were able to attend, though. Who was one of the guests?

Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionists have been grinning all weekend. That's the very short version.

For those who savor irony like a fine wine, I will try to decant the whole story.

Last April, atheist, blogger and evolutionary biologist PZ Myers received an interview request for a documentary called "Crossroads."

PR gaffe #1: It was a con. Under false pretenses, PZ was actually being interviewed for "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," Ben Stein's new documentary against evolution. Richard Dawkins was similarly duped into participating in the film.

PR gaffe #2: The producer of the film, Mark Mathis, claims that "Crossroads" was just the working title. That's a fib. The domain dame for was registered the previous March. Here's the Whois page to prove it.

Currently, the movie is touring the country with advanced screenings in various cities. In February, critic Roger Moore saw the movie and wrote a scathing review for the Orlando Sentinel. The producers of "Expelled: No Critics Allowed" responded with a media alert demonizing Moore. The alert quotes Stein, "The only thing I find despicable is when reporters sneak into screenings by pretending to be ministers. This is a new low even for liberal reporters." Moore says he never portrayed himself as anything but a reporter. That story made it to the New York Times.

PR gaffe #3: A pre-screening of "Expelled: No Skeptics Allowed" was held at the Mall of America during the same weekend as the American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. So PZ signed up for the movie online -- for himself a number of guests from the conference.

PR gaffe #4: But PZ was ID-ed. Producer Mark Mathis told a guard to expel PZ Myers from the theater. When PZ asked why, he was informed that they didn't need to give a reason. PZ went to explain the situation to his guests, including ... here's PR gaffe #5: the most prominent evolutionary biologist in the world, Richard Dawkins. If anyone at the theater recognized Dawkins, no one greeted him. Dawkins is, after all, the most famous star in the film aside from Ben Stein.

The guard prompted PZ to leave immediately under threat of arrest. The guests entered the theater. PZ went to the Apple store and blogged the moment for posterity. His blog Pharyngula, owing to his red-meat style of humor, is one of the most popular blogs in the atheism movement. If producer Mathis was seeking ridicule, he could not have designed it more intelligently.

Pharyngula's Expelled post received record traffic. Within a day, it clocked well over 1000 responses in the comment thread.

Back at the theater, Myers' family, friends and the most prominent atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, watched the movie. Here are reviews/eyewitness accounts by PZ's daughter Skatje, her boyfriend, Collin, and friend Kristine.

And here is an excerpt from Dawkins' account entitled, "Lying for Jesus?"*

...did he [Mathis] not know that PZ is one of the country's most popular bloggers, with a notoriously caustic wit, perfectly placed to set the whole internet roaring with delighted and mocking laughter? I long ago realised that Mathis was deceitful. I didn't know he was a bungling incompetent. Not just incompetent at public relations, incompetent in his chosen profession of film-making, for the film itself, as I discovered when I saw it on Friday (and this genuinely surprised me) is dull, artless, amateurish, too long, poorly constructed and utterly devoid of any style, wit or subtlety. It bears all the hallmarks of a film-maker who knows nothing about the craft of making films.
Dawkins says quite a bit more about the film itself:
A favourite joke among the film-making community is the 'Lord Privy Seal'. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can't resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain's heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis' film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like 'emotional outburst'). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.
In the question-and-answer after the movie, Dawkins stood up and asked, "Why, when he was featured in your film, when the entire theme of your film was free speech and oppression, did you EXPEL my friend and colleague Dr. PZ Myers from the viewing tonight?"

PR gaffe #6: Mathis gave the old "no ticket" line. This is a canard. People could sign up online to see "Expelled: No Ticket Necessary." Recently, Mathis changed his story, "I banned pz because I want him to pay to see it. Nothing more."

That evening, PZ and Dawkins taped a short discussion of the event on video.**

The New York Times reports:
Mark Mathis, a producer of the film who attended the screening, said that “of course” he had recognized Dr. Dawkins, but allowed him to attend because “he has handled himself fairly honorably, he is a guest in our country and I had to presume he had flown a long way to see the film.”
PR gaffe #7: Mathis' claim is ridiculous. Dawkins writes:
...Mathis almost certainly detected Myers' name on the list of those who signed up on the Expelled website. Since my name was not on that list, it is highly likely that Mathis didn't spot me until the moment I stood up in the Question session, when it was too late to expel me. So all that stuff about allowing me to attend because I have handled myself fairly honourably is almost certainly dishonourable spinning. As for the implication that I might have flown all the way from England to see his disreputable film, the very idea is as ludicrous as the film itself. Like PZ Myers, I was in Minneapolis for the conference of the American Atheists.
PR gaffe #8: A summary gaff -- attempting to create "positive buzz" by screening the audience on ideological grounds could not have backfired more spectacularly.

For a list of the dozens of blog posts and articles on "Good Friday Fiasco," check Greg Laden's Blog.

Sites sympathetic to the film have set out to demonize PZ and Dawkins. Here and here.

PZ blogged late that night:

This outcome so far has been absolutely perfect, as far as I'm concerned. The hypocrisy of the Expelled makers has been exposed by their expulsion of one of the people they filmed (final lovely irony: I'm also thanked for my contributions in the credits), they've revealed their incompetence by throwing me out when Richard Dawkins was right next to me, and I didn't have to waste two hours on a bad movie.

I've also got a story to tell: when the creationists saw me and Dawkins in a lineup, I am the one that had them so frightened that they had to call for the guards. I feel mighty.

The story reads like an urban legend except far more multi-layered and nuanced. The story also has the virtue of being true.

In all honesty, I have been a fan of Ben Stein. He is obviously very intelligent and very knowledgeable. His public persona has been one where he doesn't take himself too seriously. Granted, his ultra-conservative views are bonkers but he seemed likable in other respects.

In fact, I sent him an email saying as much and hoping he had some other projects in the pipeline. I could anticipate that his "Expelled" movie looked like a very bad move.

He replied graciously, thanking me for the email but saying that the movie is not what I had expected. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have seen Ben Stein on Bill O'Reilly and the "Expelled" trailer. These two videos are actually worse than I expected. Here are just a few problems with Ben Stein's arguments:
  • Believing the fact that evolution happened does not mean one endorses brutal selection processes in society. That's the the is/ought or naturalistic fallacy.
  • Calling modern evolutionary thought an imperialist relic of Darwin's days completely ignores 150 years of advances in the field. That's a straw man.
  • Blaming "Darwinism" for Hitler is several fallacies at once. It's false cause, appealing to emotions, appealing to the crowd, and cherry-picking. Capitalism too has been justified on flimsy evolutionary terms. See William Graham Sumner for an influential example.
  • Portraying evolutionists as an ideologically-driven cabal which demands party-line orthodoxy is a mischaracterization. It's a smear. It sounds paranoid. Calling it "Big Science" is a misapplication of the term. And given the events at the theater, it also sounds like psychological projection.
Ben Stein's no dummy. He should know better. He is presenting dishonest and manipulative arguments. Maybe the film will be better than its "hype" -- which itself is pretty disastrous. Maybe the film will be completely re-edited before its release next month and it will present excellent arguments. This hope bucks probabilities.

You need to be smart and very well educated to become a presidential speech writer (as Ben was for Nixon and Ford). I'm sure Ben is familiar with logical fallacies. But being a smart, well-educated Presidential speech writer doesn't necessarily mean one is honest. So far, given the fibs, the canards, the ridiculous statements, the fallacies and the weirdly clumsy PR gaffes, this is all pretty dishonest work. And the movie isn't even released yet.

Why'd you have to do it, Ben? Why'd you have to do it?

*Note: The title refers to whether Mathis is a liar for Jesus. I don't think Ben Stein himself is a Christian, perhaps I'm wrong. I do know he is a very devout Republican.

**Note: In the video PZ and Dawkins mention a slick computer animation. Mistakenly, they attribute the footage to an XVIVO visualization which was recently plagiarized by the ID crowd. (They have since stopped using it.) For the purposes of the movie, a new animation was produced which is clearly based on the XVIVO work, but it's not, legally speaking, plagiarism. The copy job may or may not constitute plagiarism.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Fossils in the Genome

Pharyngula posts a piece about the fossil record preserved in our DNA. The example he uses is the yolk sac:

By comparing the sequences of genes of known function in different lineages, we can get a measure of divergence times … and in the case of some genes which have discrete functions, we can even plot the times of origin or loss of those particular functions in the organism's history.

Here's one example. We don't have any fossilized placentas, but we know that there was an important transition in the mammalian lineage: we had to have shifted from producing eggs in which yolk was the primary source of embryonic nutrition to a state where the embryo acquired its nutrition from a direct interface with maternal circulation, the placenta. We modern mammals don't need yolk at all … but could there be vestiges of yolk proteins still left buried in our genome? The answer, which you already know since I'm writing this, is yes.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Possible Agent for Gulf War Syndrome

Of Two Minds has an excellent post today on a possible agent for Gulf War Syndrome (via The Economist).

Speculation has roamed from blaming the anthrax vaccine that troops received, to depleted-uranium weapons, to intense exposure to pollution from burning oil wells. Now, a provocative article in the Economist suggests that the symptoms may be the result of neurochemical warfare. Specifically, that troops were exposed to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEis) found in pesticides used to protect the troops from sand flies, in the nerve gas Sarin, and in pyridostigmine bromide pills given to troops as pre-treatment against nerve gas. AChEis prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing it to remain in the synpase for longer than it should. This causes those neurons to fire excessively, causing abnormal brain and muscle activity as well as possible loss of white matter (myelin).

Dr. Beatrice Golomb, whose theory is currently published in PNAS, points out that severe exposure to AChEis mimics the range of chronic symptoms that many veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome report. more...

Paul Krugman on Interstellar Trade

In 1978 Paul Krugman took on the pressing problem of how to set prices when goods are traveling near the speed of light. His opus, "The Theory of Interstellar Trade" [PDF] takes the relativistic economics head-on:

"These complications make the theory of interstellar trade appear at first quite alien to our usual trade models; presumably it seems equally human to alien trade theorists... I do not pretend to develop here a theory which is universally valid, but it may at least have some galactic relevance.

The remainder of this paper is, or will be, or has been, depending on the reader's inertial frame, divided into three sections. Section II develops the basic Einsteinian framework of the analysis. In Section III this framework is used to analyze interstellar trade in goods. Section IV then considers the role of interstellar capital movements. It should be noted that, while the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics."
Via Slashdot.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

A new anthology edited by Richard Dawkins is now hitting bookstores. It features popular science writing from a truly impressive array of several dozen authors.

The publisher, Oxford University Press describes the book:

Edited by best-selling author and renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, this sterling collection brings together exhilarating pieces by a who's who of scientists and science writers, including Stephen Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Martin Gardner, Albert Einstein, Julian Huxley, and many dozens more. Readers will find excerpts from bestsellers such as Douglas R. Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach , Francis Crick's Life Itself , Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey , Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea , and Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us . There are classic essays ranging from J.B.S. Haldane's "On Being the Right Size" and Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" to Alan Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" and Albert Einstein's famed New York Times article on "Relativity." And readers will also discover lesser-known but engaging pieces such as Lewis Thomas's "Seven Wonders of Science," J. Robert Oppenheimer on "War and Physicists," and Freeman Dyson's memoir of studying under Hans Bethe.
I recall Dawkins asking for suggestions via his forum at I see many of the most suggested, including the wonderful Lewis Thomas, made the cut. (Alas my candidate, Heinz R. Pagels does not appear on the list.)

Seeing the list of hugely popular and influential writings, this looks like it may be the closest to a definitive collection yet published. I have some science writing anthologies on my shelf but this looks far more comprehensive.

Busy, Busy...

I've had a lot going on recently and I expect to be busy for the next while. This week, I won't be able to post very frequently but I will try to keep up as best I can. Stay tuned...

Hope You had a Happy Pi Day

Pi Day was march 14th (3.14) and the day seems to get a little more popuar every year. Since it fell on a Friday this time, it was the subject of a geekily delightful segment on NPR's Science Friday. Part of the segment is devoted to Pi Limericks and Pi-Ku.

I once wrote a song about pi which was comprised of singing the digits while playing an Am-G-F-E progression on the guitar. While I did this just for a lark, it became one of my most requested tunes. Still, others have composed better songs.

Pi Day originated 20 years ago from San Francisco's Exploratorium. The celebration is two-fold as 3/14 is also Einstein's birthday.

The world record for memorizing the decimal expansion of pi is held by Chao Lu of China. It took him slightly over 24 hours to recite 67,890 digits. According to the rules of the competition there can be no gaps longer than 15 seconds. So he had no meals or bathroom breaks.

The record for computing pi is held by a team led by Yasumasa Kanada who have calculated the number to 1,241,100,000,000 (1.24 trillion) digits. For comparison, you only need 39 digits to calculate the circumference of the visible universe to the precision of a hydrogen atom. 63 digits gives you Planck scale precision.

Maybe a million digits will do for you. If not, here are 70 billion. Actually, everyone's favorite way of celebrating pi day is pretty obvious.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tips for a Better Live Science Presentation

Of Two Minds posts this video featuring some simple yet extremely useful tips on improving science lectures. Good tips and a good sense of humor.

The video was made by Timothy Marzullo and Gregory Gage from UofM.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Shockwave Traffic Jams

From New Scientist:
The mathematical theory behind these so-called "shockwave" jams was developed more than 15 years ago using models that show jams appear from nowhere on roads carrying their maximum capacity of free-flowing traffic – typically triggered by a single driver slowing down.

After that first vehicle brakes, the driver behind must also slow, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, travelling backwards through the traffic.

The theory has frequently been modelled in computer simulations, and seems to fit with observations of real traffic, but has never been recreated experimentally until now. more...

Via the mighty 3 Quarks Daily

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Earth, Water, Air and Factcheck

Dan Phiffer's blog posts this image he found on an Internet message board. On the left is all of Earth's water gathered in one place. On the right, all the air. Both are set relative to the scale of the planet.

The image is getting a lot of attention (I found it via BoingBoing). But a question remained. Is it accurate?

A reader, Pat Stanton, does the math:

My son sent me a link to the image of spheres representing all the water and air on Earth. He was skeptical and suspected it was an example of “tree-hugger shock media.”

I decided to do the math, starting with the data provided by Andrew Nowicki. The math appears to verify the posted image. Although I applaud my son’s skepticism, tree-hugger shock media sometimes brings us an important and informative message.

General approach:

  1. Measure the spheres representing Earth, water and air in the image. Obtain the diameter in pixels of each sphere. Also, identify relevant physical constants.

  2. Starting with data independently provided by Andrew Nowicki, calculate the diameters of spheres that would contain Earth’s water and air.

  3. Normalize the results from Step 2 into pixels and compare with measurements from Step 1.

Detailed results
Pat details his calculations in the full post -- and the image is legit. Impressive work all around. The image does emphasize the thin film our known biomass occupies.

Are We Alone - Art and Science

The good people at the Are We Alone podcast have put together another great show. This week, they hit a topic near and dear to my heart and blog. How do science and art overlap?

  • mp3 - Higher Quality
  • wma - Faster Download
They talk with Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, on the subject of artists' insights into human experience which are finding experimental validation today. Their dependably funny radio theater imagines putting DNA on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They look at the work of Leonel Moura who designs robots which make art. They also discuss the possible evolutionary advantages of our artistic sense with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. And more stuff too. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Stephen Hawking on Charlie Rose

The most quotable moment comes from Rose asking Hawking about God and religion:

Hawking: "
Physicists believe that the universe is governed by scientific laws. These laws must hold without exceptions or they wouldn't be laws. That doesn't leave much room for miracles or God. I regard the afterlife to be a fairy story for people that are afraid of the dark."

The end of the interview is pure Charlie Rose:

Rose: One last question. Is there a word -- "determination" "passion" "will" -- that has enabled you to survive, and to be the force you are around the world, and to have people see in you a representation of the great quest to understand who we are and how we fit?

Hawking: I had just always done what seemed the obvious thing to do.

Rose: That says it all.

Now available on Google Video. From the Charlie Rose site:
A conversation with Dr. Stephen Hawking & Lucy Hawking. They discuss their book George's Secret Key to the Universe, an adventure story about two children who find a sort of computer portal through which they can slip into the solar system and beyond.

"We are Inhabitants of a Planet Called 'Earth' and We Bear a Message Brought to You by Doritos"

From Science Daily:

The British public is being asked to shoot a 30-second ad about what they perceive life on earth to be as part of Doritos 'You Make It, We Play It' user-generated-content campaign. The winning advert in the competition will be beamed past the earth's atmosphere, beyond our solar system and into the Universe, to anyone 'out there' that may be watching. The winning ad will also be broadcast on terrestrial TV.

On 12th June, the space-bound ad will be broadcast from a 500MHz Ultra High Frequency Radar from the EISCAT Space Centre in Svalbard, which lies in the Arctic Ocean about midway between northern Norway and the North Pole.

The transmission is being directed at a solar system just 42 light years away from Earth with planets that orbit its star '47 Ursae Majoris' (UMa). 47 UMa is located in the Great Bear Constellation (also known as "The Plough") - easily identifiable to even the most amateur stargazer. It is very similar to our Sun and is believed to host a habitable zone that could potentially harbour small terrestrial planets and support life as we know it.

Maybe we can send "My Speech to the Martians" by Jack Handey (audio from Studio 360, text from the New Yorker).

Image from UCSD Bookstore.

The Geometry of Music

Dmitri Tymoczko is a composer and music theorist who explores the geometry of music. His site includes visualizations of musical patterns including "Smoke on the Water" on a Möbius strip (mov) and Chopin's prelude in E minor on a circle (mov) and in 4D space (mov). His ChordGeometries 1.1 application represents chords and voice leadings in a variety of 3D geometrical spaces.

From Science News:

Music theorists have long found Chopin's E minor prelude puzzling. Although the chord progressions sound smooth to the ear, they don't quite follow the traditional rules of harmony. When Tymoczko looked at the piece and watched the composition's motion through his geometrical space, he saw that Chopin was moving in a systematic way among the different layers of the four-dimensional cubes. "It's almost as if he's an improviser with a set of rules and set of constraints," Tymoczko says.
The image above is from Andrew Lipson's Lego Page.

Physicist Elected to Congress

Particle physicist and Democrat, Bill Foster has just won a special election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Foster worked at Fermilab for 22 years. He is credited, among other things, for developing equipment and data analysis software for the Collider Detector at Fermilab. His equipment helped find the Top Quark.

Now if he can make a detector to find some spine in those Washington Democrats, am I right people? Eh? Eh? Is this thing on?

Science bloggers are rejoicing from Pharyngula to Bad Astronomy to Cosmic Invariance.

Foster's first term will be very short as his Illinois district will have its regular election in November.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Beaumont Hospitals Plan a Proton-Beam Site to Target Cancers

The Detroit Free Press reports:

In a move generating controversy among Michigan's top hospitals, Beaumont Hospitals announced plans Thursday to team up with an Indiana company to build a $159-million proton-beam cancer radiation facility on its Royal Oak campus.

The debate centers on a type of cancer radiation therapy offered at about a half-dozen U.S. sites called proton-beam therapy. By comparison with traditional radiation therapy, which uses X-ray or photon light particles to zap tumors, proton-beam therapy releases tiny atomic particles that are expected to more closely target a tumor without hurting nearby tissue as the energy moves in and out of a cancer site. more...

Study: Snapping Three Times Leading Way To Recall Movies, Actors

From the Onion:

According to a study published Tuesday in the Journal Of Neuroscience, snapping three times in rapid succession is the most effective method for remembering the names of films and actors that have slipped one's mind. "When denied access to IMDb, subjects who were able to correctly remember semi-obscure movie trivia invariably used the tri-snapping method," head researcher Dr. Ward Connell said of the study, which consisted of asking volunteers several questions pertaining to a photograph of Dermot Mulroney.
Via Of Two Minds

Researchers control growth rate of replacement blood vessels, tissues

University of Michigan researchers have developed a new technique for administering growth factor to heal injuries. It combines nanotechnology with platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF). As Wikipedia puts it, PDGF is "one of the numerous growth factors, or proteins that regulate cell growth and division. In particular, it plays a significant role in blood vessel formation (angiogenesis), the growth of blood vessels from already existing blood vessel tissue."

The following is from the UofM News Service:

Researchers put platelet-derived growth factor into nanoparticles and then attached them to a lattice-like, biodegradable scaffold. In experiments, the growth factor recruited cells that stimulate the body's own machinery responsible for healing, said (Peter) Ma, whose lab developed the scaffold and the nanoparticles.

As the tissue grows, it crawls into the scaffold, which eventually dissolves.

"Growth factor is typically dumped in and releases over a period of hours," said (William) Giannobile, who also directs the Michigan Center for Oral Health Research. "With certain wounds you might want a lot (of growth factor) in the beginning, and with others you might want a little released over a longer period of time. We've basically found a way to dial up or dial down the release rate of these growth factors."

Their results are available at the Public Library of Science.

More information on the images above.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

UK May Shut Down Jodrell Bank Observatory

Jodrell Bank observatory may shut down according to a UK funding proposal (via Bad Astronomy). The observatory is comprised of several radio telescopes including Lovell, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. The proposed budget cuts would save the UK £2.5 million per year. Perhaps Lovell can be converted (again) to an outdoor movie screen. (Cross-posted from MetaFilter.)

Mathematician Sophie Germain

Science News posts a two-part series on Sophie Germain [Wiki] -- a mathematician born in France in 1776. The article describes Germain as "the first woman known to have discovered significant mathematical theorems." (Hypatia from the 4th Century is worth noting, though she is not known for any particular theorems)

Germain assumed the identity of a male student and took classes from Lagrange. She read class notes and sent in assignments under the name of the male drop-out. Lagrange found out her secret:

According to a commentator at the time, Lagrange "went to her to express his astonishment in the most flattering of terms," and the commentator goes on to say that "the appearance of this young 'geomètre' made quite a stir." Nevertheless, the barriers against Germain's inclusion in the mathematical community didn't come tumbling down.
Later, she corresponded with Gauss under the male pseudonym, "Antoine-August LeBlanc." Gauss too discovered her real identity:
In 1806, Napoleon's armies were marching into Prussia, and Germain became concerned that Gauss might be in danger. She asked a friend who was a commander in the French artillery to find Gauss and ensure his safety. Her friend followed her request—but revealed her identity in the process.

Gauss initially responded with delight, writing to Germain: "The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare.… But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius."

Gauss broke off correspondence with her shortly thereafter -- saying he was turning to astronomy and would have no more time for math.

Germain worked in isolation, taking on one of the most difficult problems in math, Fermat's Last Theorem. (It was not until 1995 that the theory was proven by Andrew Wiles, and that was in a roundabout fashion.) She defined what would be called Sophie Germain primes and worked on the math of elastic surfaces.

Gauss convinced the University of Göttingen to give her an honorary degree. Unfortunately she died in 1831 before receiving it.

The two-part series on Sophie Germain: 1, 2.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Foodsel is a site that visualizes the energy represented in food. How much exercise is implicit in a candy bar? What is its equivalent in batteries or sugar cubes?

Interesting tool. I am curious how nutritionists would evaluate the site.

It could benefit from some redundancy in its navigation. To compare a variety of foods, I did find myself shuttling back and forth a lot. It would also be nifty to have English units in addition to the metric units (for we poorly educated Americans).

For such an ambitious site, I'm not going to get too critical. It's quite a project.

(I wonder how many hours of blogging it takes to work off a bowl of ramen. Hm.)

Via Dave Faris at MetaFilter.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Visualization of Einstein's Special Relativity

This is a recent visualization showing Einstein's theory of special relativity. A couple moments are not entirely intuitive, but the main idea is very well illustrated. Using a third spatial dimension to represent time is surprisingly effective. Well done.

Another visualization from the same person(s) is of the Coriolis and centrifugal forces also very well done. (No audio on either video.)

Saturday Morning Physics Returns

Saturday Morning Physics is a very popular lecture series in Ann Arbor. UofM offers fascinating physics lectures to the public -- plus coffee, donuts and bagels! It took a two-week hiatus for spring break but returns this coming Saturday morning with "Modeling the Cosmos -- Observations and Simulations:"

Cosmology has been "the study of the Universe in its totality". Both sky observations and simulations have taken huge steps forward in the recent past. Dr. Rasia will explain the most important successes achieved in our understanding of the Universe and its main components: dark matter and dark energy. She will discuss the future of this field, and UM’s involvement in one of the biggest future sky surveys.
It starts at 10:30 but it's a good idea to show up pretty early. The lecture hall at 170 Dennison fills up quickly.

The schedule of presentations includes PowerPoint downloads of the recent presentations on string theory.

Videos of previous Saturday Morning Physics.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Primer, Fractal Mazes and Mulholland Drive

I just finished re-watching (again) the 2004 movie "Primer." It's brilliant. I'm willing to give a film major points just for being unlikely. This does much better than just "unlikely." At only an hour and 17 minutes, it takes about four hours of repeat viewing to get a handle on the intricate plot.

I won't be spoiling much to explain the movie is about time travel. It confronts the paradoxes of time travel and concludes that duplicates of people can alter their own past without disappearing (in contrast to Michael J. Fox's hand in "Back to the Future").

I'll get to the complexity of the plot in a minute. First, it's worth mentioning that the movie is stylistically very slick for such a low budget. It's very cleverly shot and the acting of the two leads is surprisingly good. The world the movie shows is a hyper-realized cosmos of pale shirts and power-ties of high-tech entrepreneurs. They even wear ties when they scavenge for metal parts.

At it's heart the movie is a very elegantly designed puzzle. Here are some of the rules:

  • The characters in-the-know have access to two storage-box-sized time machines
  • These characters can change their own past without nullifying themselves
  • Anyone who travels back it time will have their time-line overlap with their earlier selves
  • Time travel can be done repeatedly
  • A character might time travel without letting the audience know
Can a character go back to a time before the time machine was invented? Right now, I'd argue this is an open question. It does not seem to follow from the logic of the machine but there are some tantalizing clues in the script which suggest otherwise.

The rules of "Primer's" plot are similar to puzzles called fractal mazes. Fractal mazes are recursive and so is the plot to "Primer." Pathways are used repeatedly to different ends.

My guess is, that like a fractal maze, "Primer" is open to a variety of solutions. Though not all attempts at solutions work.

It's very easy to run into a dead-end in a fractal maze. In "Primer," not all story interpretations work. Any plot-solution that contradicts the logic (including growth of facial hair or Aaron's use of headphones) runs into its own "dead-end."

Rather than explain how fractal mazes work, better you just give 'em a try via the links below:

For a JavaScript version of the fractal maze to the left, go here. The page also includes a variety of solutions.

For a more complex fractal maze, try this. (Various solutions here.)

My guess is, the plot was designed with a particular solution in mind. Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer and actor for Aaron) is a mathematician and engineer. (YouTube interview here.) So I'm guessing he pieced this together with a particular solution in mind. But, again, clues to various solutions abound.

There is an online subculture of people trying to solve the plot. This post is fairly close to my current grokking. This thread offers additional interpretations.

And then there is this ambitious piece of work which I think might be more confusing than the movie.

If there is a specific solution to the "Primer" puzzle, these all may still be wrong. Then again, more than one may fit logically.

Maybe I'm wrong. When I first saw "Mulholland Drive," I simply accepted the plot as surrealism -- open to any dream interpretation. I've since been convinced otherwise by the site Lost on Mulholland Drive which offers a very persuasive analysis of the movie in logical terms.

Others are way ahead of me on the view-count for "Primer." I'll see if I can get a better picture of the story soon.

Image to the left from LOL Science.

This is Your Brain on Brands

The Neurocritic has a refreshingly skeptical post about neuromarketing:

Advertisers, neuroscientists combine forces to produce outlandish headlines:
Advertisers, neuroscientists trace source of emotions in brain
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — First came direct marketing, then focus groups. Now, advertisers, with the help of neuroscientists, are closing in on the holy grail: mind reading.

At least, that’s what is suggested in a paper published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping authored by a group of professors in advertising and communication and neuroscience at the University of Florida [Morris et al., 2008].

Not only outlandish headlines, the holy grail of "mind reading" is within the grasp of their PR department. more...
I've been following the neuromarketing thing for a few years now (Google alerts be thanked). The story of neuromarketing actually started with the Pepsi Challenge ad campaign. People in a blind taste-test actually do prefer the taste of Pepsi. So why so people still prefer to buy Coca-Cola?

To answer this question, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was put to use, measuring the activated parts of the brain of cola drinkers.

From Frontline's The Persuaders:
Coke "lit up" the medial prefrontal cortex -- a part of the brain that controls higher thinking. Montague's hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product. For years, in the face of failed brands and laughably bad ad campaigns, marketers had argued that they could influence consumers' choices. Now, there appeared to be solid neurological proof. Montague published his findings in the October 2004 issue of Neuron, and a cottage industry was born.

Neuromarketing, in one form or another, is now one of the hottest new tools of its trade. At the most basic levels, companies are starting to sift through the piles of psychological literature that have been steadily growing since the 1990s' boom in brain-imaging technology.
There is a great deal of hype in the field of neuromarketing. (They're marketers after all.) For a recent example, here's a press release excerpt on the brainwaves of subjects watching Hillary and Obama YouTube ads (see if you can spot any selection bias):
Researchers found that the Obama "Yes We Can" viral video generated the highest brain response.

The study involved 25 subjects under 30 years of age who were tested using caps with electrodes that are linked to electroencephalography (EEG) equipment, which measured and recorded brain activity in millisecond increments.