Good news from The Wall Street Journal:
One promise of [Obama's] victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country.
In related news, Marie Curie's 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics put to rest any myths about biases against women in science.
I added The Art of the Prank to "Links we like" on the right side of the page. Some recent stories:
- Eunicure, "a loosely affiliated group of “board-certified urological surgeons” that offers hope—in the form of castration—to homosexuals that have failed to control their desires through prayer, meditation" (originally from Dan Savage in The Stranger)
- Obay: a drug to prevent children from having ideas of their own (from Alma's Soulfood)
- Penn and Teller get environmentalists to sign a petition to ban water (originally posted by Lew Rockwell)
From the February 2 New Scientist:
Thanks to Alex Gough for pointing us in the direction of FairDeal Homeopathy, online purveyors of homeopathic remedies. Their website is intriguing, and not at all what you might expect.
"Homeopathy is not a substitute for evidence-based medicine and proper medical opinion," it states flatly. It goes on to argue that insofar as homeopathy "works", it works through "a complicated interaction with the human body and mind known as the 'placebo effect'".
"What conditions can FairDeal Homeopathy treat*?" is the next question. The asterisk refers to a note at the bottom of the page saying "*'Treat' in no way implies 'cure'". As for the answer: "FairDeal homeopathy," we are told, "can be used to treat any self-limiting condition." Such conditions are defined as "ones that, if left alone, will get better anyway".
Is this website a spoof? When Gough asked the owners they were most offended. "A spoof?" they replied. "Tsk tsk! We dispatch homeopathic remedies* the same working day! Real pills! In real little bottles and everything! How authentic do you want us to be?" Once again, a note at the bottom of their email explains the asterisk: "*No curative properties implied. Guaranteed as effective as all other homeopathic remedies. May taste of sugar."....
According to the "Testimonials" section of the website, such a remedy certainly worked for a Mr S. Scott: "I ordered your product to help treat a mild cold that I was experiencing and that evening I began to feel much better. By the time your product arrived I was nearly fully cured. I cannot recommend this enough, thank you FairDeal Homeopathy."
In early 2007, I started reading my now-favorite cartoon, xkcd: a webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language. It's geeky, playful, and whimsical. Some of the cartoons are only decipherable to computer scientists, but others have broader appeal, such as:
In February (2007), I sent a fan letter to the cartoonist, Randall Munroe, letting him know he has lots of fans at Google. His cartoons are frequently posted in halls or on internal email lists. I asked if he would be willing to give a talk at the Mountain View headquarters. He said he had no plans to visit California but would let me know if that changed.
On November 29, he emailed me to let me know that he'd be in the area the following week and would be happy to visit Google. Woot! I contacted the author events team, which scrambled to make arrangements, including trying to find a room big enough for his many enthusiastic Googler fans, and settled on Friday, December 7.
Randall had written about Google in his cartoons, such as:
We decided we needed to present him with an Internet-themed cake, made by ever indulgent food team:
Because Google was having a holiday party on the night of his talk, I tried to get a pair of last minute tickets so I could take him. (Googlers are allowed to bring one guest, a phenomenon that has led to date requests on craigslist and facebook.)
I was unable to get a pair of tickets, so I posted to an employee list asking if anyone had a spare guest ticket and wanted to take Randall. I quickly got eager female takers. One female engineer said it was like asking if anyone wanted a date with Johnny Depp. Google women had been particular fans of xkcd since this cartoon circulated on an internal women's mailing list:
Computer science legend Donald Knuth appeared in some xkcd cartoons:
I was acquainted with Knuth and knew that he had a sense of humor (his first publication was in Mad Magazine), so I invited him to attend the talk and lunch afterwards. Knuth notoriously doesn't use email, so I tried multiple channels to get the message to him and was delighted when I received the reply "Sounds like fun" via his assistant's email address. (I did the engineer's victory dance, which my initially startled colleagues agreed was justified.) I encouraged Knuth to surprise Randall by asking about the following cartoon during the talk's Q&A period:
Here's a photo of me conspiring with Knuth the day of the event:
(The picture was taken by the famous Meng, who also got a photo with Knuth.)
Two days before the talk, xkcd ran its first cartoon about the programming language Python:
Randall didn't realize it, but the creator of Python, Guido van Rossum, worked at Google, so I encouraged Guido to attend and ask a question at Randall's talk and invited him on a group bike ride to be held later in the day.
Meanwhile, Chris Dibona, Google's Open Source Product Manager and generally cool guy, and his team created a t-shirt to hand out at the event, with the above Google cartoon and its date and geographical coordinates (in reference to this cartoon and subsequent events).
The day of the event, everything went smoothly. Director of Research Peter Norvig, himself a very funny guy (and my manager) introduced the talk, which was recorded for later posting to YouTube and telecast to Google offices across the Western hemisphere.
I won't say much about the talk, since you can view it online. Randall was appropriately impressed by Knuth [21:30], although he didn't recognize Guido van Rossum [19:16]. (I didn't have any responsibilities during the talk, although you can see me ducking across the stage at 39:02 to pull up a relevant cartoon.)
After the talk, people ate cake and chatted with Randall, until he was whisked off to lunch.
After lunch, a bunch of us went on a ride on Google's conference bike:
From the left going clockwise are my husband Keith, Maria (Randall's holiday party host), Randall's friend Fizz, Randall, Guido van Rossum, and me. With Guido's able leadership, we achieved a speed of 13 miles per hour:
Then, old-timer Tom Nielsen and I took Randall and Fizz on a tour, including a stop at a metronaps pod:
Randall gallantly held two one-hour autograph sessions, during which he was kept busy. One of his most-posted cartoons at Google is:
The below photo shows Randall signing a Google version of the poster (referencing map-reduce), with Tom in the background:
At the end of the day, I handed Randall off to Maria, who took him to the Holiday Party, where he was approached by many Googlers. (See, for example, "http://www.flickr.com/photos/rivviepop/2095234153/", showing him with a Googler who apparently had him sign her collarbone.)
In summary, it was a great (but exhausting) day, and I think Randall is a great guy. I'm glad I got to meet him, and I hope he had half as much fun as we did.
This would be a good time to remind people that, while I work for Google, I do not speak for the company, and all of the above opinions are my own. Per company policy, I only posted photos taken in the Googleplex after getting approval. Many other Googlers made the talk happen and go smoothly, and my account of my experience is not meant to diminish others' contributions. (I now appreciate the hard work done by the Authors@Google team more than ever.) No electrons were harmed in this posting.
I saw the headline "Scientists discover, kill oldest creature" not in The Onion but in the newspaper. From The Guardian Online (Oct. 29):
A clam that lived on the seabed in the frigid waters off Iceland's north coast has been hailed as the longest-lived animal ever discovered.
The mollusc, which is thought to have lurked beneath the waves until at least the age of 405, would have been a juvenile when Galileo picked up his first telescope, Hamlet was first staged and the gunpowder plot failed to blow up King James I....
The clam was alive when it was brought to the surface, but at that point, the researchers had no idea how old it was. Only after cutting through the shell and counting annual growth rings under a microscope did they date the mollusc to between 405 to 410 years old.
This reminds me of Terry Pratchett's fictional counting pines:
Counting pines are one of the few known examples of 'borrowed evolution'. A counting pine seed coming to rest anywhere on the Disc picks up the most effective genetic code, and grows into whatever best suits the climate, usually usurping the local plants.
The other notable feature of this remarkable plant is that it produces, at eye-height, numbers detailing its precise age. Its chain of reasoning is as follows; being dimly aware that humans can tell a tree's age by counting its rings, it has reasoned this must be why humans cut trees down.
Unfortunately, within a year they were driven almost to extinction by the house number-plate industry.
It also brings to mind this joke:
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"
I was amused by the opening of the June/July 2007 Scientific American Mind article "Seeing the Person in the Patient" by Siri Schubert:
On a Sunday morning in 1963 Theodore Millon woke up in a Pennsylvania hospital. He was in bed at a psychiatric ward shared by 30 patients. One of them thought he was Jesus Christ, another believed he was the pope, and a third claimed he was a corporate CEO who had been hospitalized by mistake. Millon began to fret. "I am wearing a hospital gown like all the other patients," he thought. "Am I really a professor of psychology? Or did I just imagine that?"
Apprehensive, he went to the nurses' station and called the head of the hospital. His anxiety finally eased when the director confirmed that he was, in fact, a clinical psychology professor at Lehigh University and chair of the board of trustees at Allentown State Hospital who was voluntarily spending the weekend in the psychiatric ward....
Q: You built a world-class mathematics department from scratch at the University of Warwick when it was founded in the 1960s. How?
A: I wrote to the six best topologists in the world asking them to join me. They all said no. So I wrote again saying the other five had agreed, and all replied to say yes.
Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)....
"As one park geologist said, this is equivalent of Yellowstone National Park selling a book entitled Geysers of Old Faithful: Nostrils of Satan," [PEER Executive Director Jeff] Ruch added, pointing to the fact that previous NPS leadership ignored strong protests from both its own scientists and leading geological societies against the agency approval of the creationist book.
This reminds me of the controversy about Bush's NASA appointee.
According to Femme Mentale, an article in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine has found the following differences between male and female brains:
- Thoughts about sex enter women's brains once every couple of days; for men, thoughts about sex occur every minute.
- Women use 20,000 words per day; men use 7,000 per day.
- Women excel at knowing what people are feeling; men have difficulty spotting an emotion unless someone cries or threatens bodily harm.
While I'm sure there are differences between male and female brains, I found these laughable. Presumably, when a man and women have sex, the man is thinking about sex and the woman is enumerating vocabulary words. Meanwhile, unless the woman starts to cry or hit the man, he hasn't the slightest idea how she is feeling.