Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I thought this Christmas I'd offer up a little bit of personal nostalgia. My favorite rendition of The Little Drummer Boy has always been the obscure rendition that was part of the Christmas Collection of music on LPs offered every year by Firestone back in the 1960s when I was a toddler. Yes, Firestone, the automobile tire manufacturer.

As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a better version. So a Merry Christmas to all, and by all means pass this on to your friends and neighbors. I took it right from the LP. Until recently, the LPs have never been officially re-distributed on CD. But some enterprising individual has now transferred them (whether this is authorized or not, I don't know.)

Happy New Year.

Razib is looking at a recent science headline that brings out the worst of evolutionary psychology:
One of the most tiresome aspects of evolutionary psychology is the paradigmatic straitjacket which many of the practitioners operate under; the only type of evolution that exists is unidirectional. Deviations from expectation are explained away. The importance of human universals mean that variation can not exist. These sorts of evolutionary psychologists resemble the caricature of the economist who holds to rational choice so that behavior which deviates from the model is explained by ad hoc contingencies.
He goes on:

In Demonic Males Richard Wrangham reports that orangutan males come in two morphs. A very large one, and a small one which seems to be a case of paedomorphism. Female orangutans prefer the normal large male orangutans as sexual partners. But the small ones do reproduce. How so? They ambush and chase the females and rape them. This is a behavioral strategy which can work well if the small variant morph is not extant as too high a frequency, because females will then not be "on alert." How these sorts of variations emerge is clear to anyone who is cursorily familiar with evolutionary game theory.

I use the orangutan "raper" strategy as an example for a reason: some of the press will no doubt spin the new research as a victory for feminism and a rebuke to heteronormative males or something of that sort, at least implicitly. But the intersection of biology and behavior is fundamentally value neutral; humans are the ones interjecting norms. The old paradigm of evolutionary psychology, which I must admit is justifiably "Just So" and rooted in an coarse and outdated understanding of biological science, should be rejected on scientific grounds. Not only are there many areas where it offers little insight, but it is no longer compelling on theoretical grounds.

There are certainly a core of human behavioral traits which exhibit little variance, and are extremely constrained by purifying selection which fixes the trait so that only one morph is extant at appreciable frequencies. But there are many which no doubt exhibit continuities, while a fair number likely can be modeled as discrete strategies across the adaptive landscape, buffeted by stochastic & frequency dependent dynamics as well as exogenous parameters. As simple as sufficient, but as complex as necessary, should be the maxim.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Drink and Drive. And for God's sake, don't do it in Russia!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good-bye to Brightcove
As of yesterday, Cambridge "start-up" video delivery company Brightcove shut off the free service it started a few years back, in order to pursue high-paying corporate clients. As you can see from the comments section of their blog-post, a lot of their more entrepreneurial users are not happy.

I'm surprised frankly Brightcove did not have the wherewithal to offer an entry-level option for small producers. Or... perhaps I should say I'm flattered that they think independent producers can dish out $6000/year for the 'entry-level' service.

In any case, we at Farrellmedia have taken the opportunity to port our videos from Brightcove over to Vimeo. While it doesn't have as many features (yet) as Brightcove's player--I must say Vimeo's intuitively easier to use.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A rather nice thought of the day, from Just Thomism:
The simplest answer to ‘why something as opposed to nothing’ is ‘because of something that is not ‘’something as opposed to nothing”’. Something whose existence is not simply one side of a contradiction.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lab Rat, coming to the conclusion that scientists don't always have the answers.
John Wilkins on the problems with theistic evolution.
I have argued before that the only sense of theistic evolutionist that makes any sense without doing irreparable harm to science is something like Leibniz' notion that God has created or actualised the world that best serves whatever utility functions God has (i.e., whatever is in his Plan) out of a large number, possibly infinite, of worlds. The primary cause, in other words, lies in the choice of and creation of a world that through secondary causes (natural laws) results in the things and outcomes he Planned. This makes absolutely no scientific difference whatsoever, and so it consonant with the best scientific explanation. But because a great many theists seem to think of God as a kind of Great Pointy Haired Manager, who acts to micromanage everything in the universe, they insist that to be a theist is necessarily to give up some of the explanatory power of science in favour of a providential account (which we cannot know anyway, because God's Ways are Mysterious).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Whatever Happened to QuickTime II
I like to keep an eye on some of the media developer lists out there, and today I came across a fascinating discussion that could basically serve as the sequel to the article I wrote, this time last year, for Streaming Media, detailing the woes of developers who have watched Apple stop supporting the excellent tools and third-party applications that allowed them to build rich media/interactive programs and tools in QuickTime, which still, by the way, does a better job than Flash on so many levels.

According to veteran multimedia developer Jon Alper, "The way Flash handles video and audio, even in an MPEG-4 format is simply inadequate, period. The reasons why run the gamut from server taxes to sync."

He goes on: "The problem is, the way Flash does everything else is much more focused on what content authors needed than QuickTime's wired sprites ever were. Ironically, this was as much or more a result of insufficient tools and evangelism for interactivity in QuickTime than caused by any meaningful failure of the still vastly better underlying philosophy of QuickTime.

"Macromedia bought and then enhanced a file format and toolset, built a thriving developer and designer community around it by focusing on the tools and the ease and needs of the people who made the content."

This is not good news for Apple or Microsoft, but Microsoft seems more aware of the danger here than Apple does.

Alper: "Adobe bought Macromedia and Flash with it and now neither Apple nor Microsoft control the playback of rich media on their own platforms. Microsoft is volleying back with Silverlight and in a move I find, frankly brilliant, is even supporting the Mac as a target platform. I doubt it will work because I don't think Microsoft has what Apple and Adobe do in the way of a means of connecting to the designers, but Microsoft's creation of Silverlight and decision to support the Mac indicate they perceive the very real threat to their own access to the eyeballs using their own operating system."

I'll be keeping an eye on the discussion as it continues....

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Great interview with Vatican Astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Friday, December 05, 2008

A truly marvelous actor, Frank Langella, was on Broadway 30 years ago with the revival of Dracula, featuring a superb set design by the late Edward Gorey--and I was lucky to see it. Now Langella is back playing Sir Thomas More in the revival of Man for All Seasons.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Early Earth as Hell. Or not.

Geologists now almost universally agree that by 4.2 billion years ago, the Earth was a pretty placid place, with both land and oceans. Instead of hellishly hot, it may have frozen over. Because the young Sun put out 30 percent less energy than it does today, temperatures on Earth might have been cold enough for parts of the surface to have been covered by expanses of ice.

In a new analysis, published in the current issue of the journal Nature, the zircons, the only bits of earth older than 4 billion years definitively known to have survived, provide another tantalizing hint about the Hadean period. Dr. Harrison and two U.C.L.A. colleagues, Michelle Hopkins, a graduate student, and Craig Manning, a professor of geology and geochemistry, report that minerals trapped inside zircons offer evidence that the processes of plate tectonics — the forces that push around the planet’s outer crust, forming and shaping the continents and oceans — had already begun.

“The picture that’s emerging is a watery world with normal rock recycling processes,” said Stephen J. Mojzsis, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the U.C.L.A. research. “And that’s a comforting thought for the origin of life.”

Monday, December 01, 2008

Unfortunately, the celebrity philosopher craze did not end with the death of Jacques Derrida. The latest raves are for academic bullshit artist, Slavoj Zizek, from Slovenia, who is every bit of the bill. (I'm reading one of his collections now.) He knows how to be 'outrageous' for the sake of drawing attention, careful to mix his declarations about Heidegger, Freud, Hegel et al with allusions to the latest Hollywood movie hit.

According to Adam Kirsch, the same crowd in American academia is as happy to suck up to Zizek as it was to Derrida:

The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror--especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose "lost causes" Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes--the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, "Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy"; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is "a stimulating writer" who "will entertain and offend, but never bore." In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that "the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred"; but this is an example of his "typical brio and boldness." And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that "Heidegger is 'great' not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement," and that "crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not 'essential' enough"; but this book, its publisher informs us, is "a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values."

In the same witty book Zizek laments that "this is how the establishment likes its 'subversive' theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise--God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it." How is it, then, that Slavoj Zizek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment's pet subversives, who "tries to live" the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana's Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?

What's unfortunate about Zizek is, if he wasn't so caught up with performing cartwheels for the intelligentsia, some of his points about the importance of the religions of the West would be better taken. You can't help feeling he adopts the role of poseur precisely because he senses how little patience there is on the Left for anything substantive about religion.