Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Allen with a nice commentary on the PR disaster the Vatican brought upon itself with the recent lifting of excommunication of 4 traditionalist bishops--at least one of whom makes Pat Buchanan look like Alan Dershowitz.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I just found out one of the panels I'm moderating at the upcoming Boskone week after next, is... on Robert E. Howard.

Gulp. I didn't realize I was going to be the only one running the panel. Time for a crash course on his bio!

But I'll also be on Mike Flynn's panel, Galileo: Guilty as Charged, which promises to be as much fun as the panel on medieval science we did last year with Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Larry Moran, another working biologist, becoming exasperated with Richard Dawkins:
Natural selection explains adaptation. That's extremely important and extremely interesting but it's only a small part of evolution. Random genetic drift, which Darwin does not get credit for, explains much more because more of evolution is due to drift than to adaptation.

The contributions of Charles Darwin are enormous. That's why he gets credit for being the greatest scientist who ever lived. It does a disservice to his achievements to exaggerate them in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.
In the Comments, Carl Zimmer wonders, "How are you weighing selection and drift? What's the criterion to decide one process more important than the other?"

Larry responds:
I've answered that question many times. I count up the number of fixed nucleotide substitutions that have occurred in a particular gene lineage then I try and decide which ones are adaptive and which ones aren't.

In all cases the non-adaptive mutations seem to vastly outweigh the adaptive ones. Thus, random genetic drift is much more common than natural selection as a mechanism of evolution.

It's shame that Richard Dawkins has given much the same answer in some of his writings but he then goes on to claim that the only interesting part of evolution is adaptation so random genetic drift doesn't even count as evolution.

What's interesting to Richard Dawkins is not the only way to define evolution. I happen to be very interested in the kind of evolution where selection is irrelevant. This is the domain of molecular phylogeny with its approximate molecular clock that cannot be explained by natural selection.

I wish Dawkins would add a note to every article he publishes making it clear that all of his statements are based on the premise that evolution is defined as that which is interesting to Richard Dawkins.
Jim Manzi, writing on what the stimulus bill could see us living with for a long time:
I tried to go quickly through the spending for all categories and crudely map them to the OECD classification system that allows for the comparison of spending across governments in the developed world. The huge categories of spending under this bill that I could map to categories other than “General Spending” are in Social Protection (~$90 billion), Education (~$90 billion) and Environment (~$55 billion). Interestingly, Defense represents only about 3% of the spending in the bill (as opposed to 12% of U.S. government spending overall, or about 3% of French overall government spending as a point of comparison) and Public Safety represents only about 1% of spending in the bill (as opposed to about 6% of U.S. government spending overall, or about 2% of French government spending overall). In other words, the net effect of this bill is to shift the distribution of U.S. government spending as a whole away from defense and public safety and toward social programs: for good or ill, to make the U.S. into more of a European-style social welfare state. Because the amount of spending is so huge, this will be a material, not notional, shift. Eventually, we will emerge from this recession/depression/whatever it’s going to be. When that happens, is this really the kind of government we’re going to want?

And this change is unlikely to be temporary. Imagine two illustrative scenarios. First, the U.S. goes through a fairly standard recession and emerges by about late 2010 into a recovery. The government, subject to normal grumbling, is mostly given credit for handling things the right way. Obama is reelected in 2012 and Democrats retain control of Congress. Or second, we enter and new Depression, or more likely, a Japan of the 1990s long-term recession. Unemployment is stuck well above 10%. The mood of the country is deeply pessimistic, and government programs are a lifeline for a good chunk of the population. In which of these two scenarios is it realistic to expect that the 2009 increases to food stamps, unemployment compensation, healthcare benefits or HUD housing assistance will really be rolled back in 2012-2015? Neither, as far as I can see.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I like Safire's take on Obama's inaugural speech, but they're all worth reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Bill Vallicella is one of my favorite philosophers:
As Aquinas says somewhere, not even God can restore a virgin.
Read the whole post along with his comments.
Ushering in our 44th president.
After seeing Mr. Bush off, Mr. Obama went back inside the Capitol to sign nomination papers for his cabinet choices and to attend a traditional luncheon in Statuary Hall, the original chamber of the House of Representatives. That will be followed by a review of the troops — his first as commander-in-chief — before he travels back downtown at the front of the inaugural parade, which he will watch from the reviewing stand at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Siris is all over the latest condescending nonsense from PZ Myers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wow. Mike Liccione is on fire, and with this little gem, he speaks for more than a few of us:
When I ponder the Church's prospects, I do not go quite so far as the French bishop who, in response to Napoleon's boastful threat to destroy the Church, replied: "You cannot succeed where so many generations of bishops have failed." But I sometimes veer perilously close to such cynicism. One of the best signs of the Church's divine origin is how she keeps on managing to survive her leadership. We happen to have a very good pope; but he is after all only a man, and he lived in an ecclesiastical bubble for too long. So, apparently, do many of his lieutenants.
On the loss of fathers. And the loss of mentors. I've lost both, but I had my father around for me a lot longer than Scott Carson had his:
When I was just seven years old, I waited with my mother on a cold November evening for my father to come home from work. He was an executive at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, and we were living in Stow, which meant that we couldn't really expect him home before 6:00, but on this particular night 6:00 came and went, and it got darker and weirder. Being only seven, I was getting bored waiting for dinner and started to get antsy, as bored seven year olds do. My mother began to give me the threat: "When your father comes home...". On this particular evening, the good news turned out to be pretty bad. I didn't have to worry about when my father came home. He wasn't coming home.

Around 7:00 there was a knock at the door. It was my father's boss and his wife. They didn't live in Stow. There were some serious-sounding adult voices, and they went with my mother into the kitchen. Being ignored is the universal signal for all children to start acting crazy, so I ran around pretending to be Mighty Mouse, yelling "Here I come to save the day" and rolling around on the floor. My mother suddenly appeared in the entrance to the kitchen, looking down at me as I lay on the floor battling some unsuspecting, invisible enemy cat. Her face was very stern-looking--I thought I was in for it for sure. "Your father's dead," she said simply.
Read the whole thing. Worth keeping.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Return to Avid Xpress
My company recently inherited two 3-year-old Avid Xpress workstations, and over the past couple of weeks, I've been re-aquainting myself with them. Primarily they are set up to work from old BetaSP tapes and DVCam tapes from ABC as well as other media companies (we're supposed to be getting footage from UPI and other news outlets as well).

Until recently my rather costly habit has been to immediately run out and spill $30 or more on whatever QuickStart Guide or other manual I could find to get up to speed on new systems. But every day I sit down at my desk I stare at about a dozen manuals that I realize I never really used. That adds up to a few hundred bucks.

So rather than buy another manual, I went to, which I'd heard about on one of the Creative Cow forums a few months back. You can pick up a lot from just about any program you can think of, and do it right at your desktop at your own pace. Just $25 per month, and you can quit any time: no minimum subscription time. They only have one tutorial on Avid Xpress, but it's been enough to save me a lot of headaches, considering the deadlines I'm under.

So rather than spill more bucks on more manuals, I think I'll spend the next few months getting back up to speed on some of the other Video programs I've been meaning to explore.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I wasn't planning on seeing Doubt. But to my surprise, Amy Welborn liked it. Ben Witherington liked it even more.

Finding an Edge Part Two
I wrote in the first part about the challenges facing the publishing industry in the current economic recession, one that is likely to cause longer lasting problems for writers than previous downturns. (Speaking of which, Pat Holt has a good post on one editor's response to her earlier blogging about the decline of good book marketing.) It's not just a question of how authors with books out there in a crowded (and shrinking) marketplace promote their least for me, it's also a question of how to get the increasingly distracted attention of editors for new book proposals.

And that's where video comes in. Book trailers are nothing really new. With the advent of Youtube, many authors, including yours truly, have broken out the camcorder and fired up iMovie or MovieMaker to do our own.

But Vicki Cobb (pictured above), a veteran author of science books for kids, found a more immediate need to create her own videos: using video to reach schools she couldn't otherwise travel to herself. Vicki wants more than an audience for her books. She wants to help teach kids science right in the classroom.

I contacted her to find out a little about her background ---how she started writing science books for kids, and how she got into video.

"I was a science teacher with a masters degree in secondary school science," she told me. "Many years ago, when I was expecting my first child, I looked around at ways I could make money at home while being a mom. There was an ad in the New York Times for teachers to write educational materials. I figured if I could talk about science I could write about it. And the rest, as they history. That son is now grown and the father of two girls eighteen and fourteen.... I've been doing this a long time."

Did she see video right away as a means of expanding the appeal and market for her books (growing her audience)—or more as a supplement to her existing content? For Vicki, it was more the latter.

"I've worked off and on in video. In the early seventies I had my own science show for kids, one of the first three shows ever syndicated nationally over cable television, which was in its infancy. I later worked as one of the original staff writers for Good Morning America.

"I think visually. I had long thought that the tricks now published in We Dare You! would be great TV but no one bought the rights. When I knew that this book would be published, I also knew that the technology was at a point where I could make videos myself. Also, the popularity of You Tube indicated that it would be an added plus to get readers involved in the project."

One concern caused by the economic downturn, however, is now many schools who once could afford to invite Vicki directly to speak to kids, can no longer afford to do so. The solution?

Video conferencing. Vicki set up her own conferencing system at her home workstation to conference herself into kids classrooms--at no cost to the school.

"I use the PVX software from Polycom. The protocol for videoconferencing is H.323 (whatever that means). I've been working with Heidi Culp, the librarian at Honey Brook Elementary in Honey Brook Pennsylvania."

This new video at her site, Lite Detector, is an example. "I actually directed remotely with video conferencing and [this] week I'll be directing some kids in Missouri. I didn't realize I could direct until I actually tried it!"

"My ultimate goal is a multi-media approach to the teaching of science. The fun is communicated through the video and the science behind it is in the book." Getting kids more involved in science.

Of course, it's one thing to think about using video to promote books like other authors. It's another thing to teach yourself. Vicki told me the most difficult thing for her was figuring out how to convert to Flash from QuickTime on the Mac.

"I found a program I liked but the company was suddenly out of business when I tried to purchase [the software]. So, I create my movies on my Mac, then move the .mov file over to my PC on my Thumb Drive. Then convert it using Flash Studio 2, then use Dreamweaver to put it on my site. It's very tedious and cumbersome, but my new, dual processer PC makes everything a lot quicker."

To learn more about Vicki Cobb and her science books, visit her site.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus, for whose magazine I've had the privilege to write, has passed away. His illness was sudden, brought on by cancer. As Joseph Bottum, FT editor wrote in an email to his friends today:

He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.

My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted.

I weep, rather for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.

May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Memo to Richard Dawkins
You might want to try this for your next ad-campaign. Guaranteed to resonate with a significant percentage of the population.
Finding an Edge: Part One
How bad are things in book publishing? It's old news that the trade division of my old company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has not only laid off a significant percentage of its staff, but has announced it will not be acquiring new books for the entire year of 2009. This has prompted some writers at a Harvard discussion forum I frequent to wonder whether the bad economy offers smaller start up publishers a new opportunity to grow.

This presupposes, however, that the infrastructure of the book publishing industry is still sound, and this is where things look gloomy. Aaron Greenspan, the head of his own small publishing firm, Think Press, which in addition to standard publishing features its own Interbook publishing technology, weighs in with some details:

"The most obvious [problem] I've faced is distribution. Even though my company has an account with Baker and Taylor, Ingram is basically off-limits to small publishers, and Baker and Taylor is barely solvent. (Borders Group, Inc., one of their largest clients, is also about to go bankrupt from the look of things, which doesn't help. Neither does the fact that libraries, which depend on public funding at the local level, are finding their budgets shrinking at an alarming rate.) Both companies rarely pay their bills on time, if at all, and engage in a number of admittedly very clever accounting tricks to avoid paying what they owe. Baker and Taylor in particular has a knack for making books "disappear." This makes it hard to stay afloat if you really make your income from publishing and depend on a steady stream of checks from distributors."

At first glance, this makes the Print-on-Demand option for newbie writers look more promising.
But it's an option many authors, including myself (pace my first novel over there in the left pane), find unsatisfying, and Aaron nicely sums up why.

"People do tend to associate bigger imprints with legitimacy, even if most of the stuff they publish these days is terrible. Not many authors I know want to be published by a small press; I certainly didn't before I was indirectly forced to start mine. The advantages I can offer as a small publisher are really just a higher cut of each book sold, but I can't make offers for multi-million dollar advances. My company in particular can also offer a bit of a technological edge since I'm also a software developer, but my technology might not really be that appealing until it catches on, and it's really best for non-fiction writers I think.

"So, I'd be surprised if a bunch of small presses suddenly fill the shoes that the larger publishers leave behind. It may be that there's simply a gap in our nation's literary tradition for a few years until we can figure out an efficient model for writers, publishers, distributors and retailers alike."

What that model will be remains to be seen. If Borders goes under, and the big publishers (the ones that don't tank) feel squeezed by Barnes and Noble's power to pick and choose whatever books they see fit to promote (meaning, their own), we may perhaps see each of the survivors branch out into their own web-front book stores and perhaps, here and there in the big cities at least, their own brick-and-mortar stores.

In the meantime, writers continue to think of other ways to promote our existing books. One obvious route is Video. In Part Two, I'll take a look at popular children's science author Vicki Cobb who has become a virtual one-woman production studio.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Steve Matheson kicks off the new year in science with a great post on clonal interference.
For my New Year's resolution, I'm going to follow Ed Feser and be much more serious about the Metaphysics of the Martini.
The Village Voice cuts its own throat (in a manner of speaking):

Mr. Hentoff said he learned the news in a phone call with Mr. Ortega on Tuesday morning. “I’m 83 and a half. You’d think they’d have let me go silently,” he said. “Fortunately, I’ve never been more productive.”

Mr. Hentoff plans to continue to write a weekly column for the United Media syndicate and contribute pieces to The Wall Street Journal. His book “At the Jazz Band Ball: 60 Years on the Jazz Scene,” is expected next year.

“With all due immodesty, I think it doesn’t help to lose me because people have told me they read The Voice not only for me, but certainly for me,” he said.