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Archive for January, 2007

I’m Still Alive

Posted by samgr on January 25, 2007

I just started a new internship and have been pretty busy lately, but I’m still alive and will try to add some new posts and reviews soon.

Posted in meta, Open Source | Leave a Comment »


Posted by samgr on January 11, 2007

On the eve of the new year, the website invited over 100 scientists to contribute essays answering the question: “What are you optimistic about?” On January 3rd, NPR’s Radio Open Source aired a show on the subject, asking a few of the thinkers who contributed their essays to talk about their reasons for optimism. Here are some of my reactions to the show.

One of the guests was Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who argued that we can be grateful for the gradual decline of violence over human history. I found his argument convincing, although not necessarily as cheering as it might have been. When asked about the incredible levels of modern violence that we see in the news every day, Professor Pinker pointed out there was even more violence in past eras of history, just that people were less aware of it. Fair point, but that’s some awfully depressing optimism. I also noticed a parallel between the reasons that Professor Pinker suggests for the decline of violence, and the writings of modern philosopher Richard Rorty. In his essay, Professor Pinker suggests that the trend could be caused by the increasingly inescapable logic of the golden rule, and adds:

“Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that ‘there but for fortune go I.'”

Steven Pinker, The Decline of Violence,

This sounds a lot like the expanding “circle of the we” that Rorty describes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, where people become more aware of the feelings of others and more invested in preventing cruelty when they are exposed to descriptions of more and subtler kinds of cruelty, which can be found in novels and other types of literature.

Another guest was Chris DiBona, who works at Google, and predicts that the increasing availability of high definition online maps and images “will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.” The idea is that when we can all see all of the nasty instances of rapine and murder that are going on, we will work harder to stop them. I certainly hope this is the case, but Mr. DiBona didn’t really have much in the way of evidence to support his prediction, which was more noticable than it would have been otherwise, since his segment of the show followed another segment in which Clay Shirky talked about the increasing importance of evidence-based reasoning in human history. Oh well.

My favorite guest was Paul Steinhardt, who talked about some of the exciting technology-driven innovations in physics and cosmology that he expected to come about within the next five years. His optimism was very easy to get caught up in, since he offered up potential discoveries and answers to nagging questions that it was reasonable to assume might come in the near future. I want to know why we haven’t heard more about some of this stuff in the news, and I look forward to following some of the described projects in the next few years.

Finally, all of this reminded me of the best-written explanation of the fundamental optimism of scientific progress that I’ve ever read — the short story “No News, or What Killed the Dog,” by Ray Bradbury, who is also known for his dystopias. Can’t find this on the internet, but everyone should try to read it if they have a chance.

Posted in futurism, internet, Open Source, optimism, Richart Rorty, science, Steven Pinker, violence | Leave a Comment »


Posted by samgr on January 9, 2007

[Note: This entry will be a bit more formal and less opinionated, since I’m writing it as a writing sample for an internship that I’m applying for.]

There has been no shortage of high-profile plagiarism cases in the last few years. Most recently, novelist Ian McEwan was accused of lifting passages in his novel Atonement from a memoir by Lucilla Andrews. As usual, a debate has followed these accusations, dealing with the possible definition and seriousness of literary plagiarism. McEwan has been defended in print by several other authors, including novelist Thomas Pynchon. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Pynchon wrote that McEwan did nothing that was not fundamental to the normal process of writing:

“Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the Internet until, with luck, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act– it is simply what we do.”

Thomas Pynchon, Words for Ian McEwan, Daily Telegraph, December 6 2006.

McEwan’s is only the most recent of a host of related cases. Others who have recently found themselves in similar controversies include historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, to name a very few.

In reaction to these recent and well-known instances of plagiarism — as well as the controversy over what exactly constitutes plagiarism — author, judge, and law professor Richard A. Posner has written a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism, analyzing the problem and attempting to create a workable definition of what is and is not plagiarism. The book will not be out until January 16th, but it has already been accused of overly politicizing the issue. In a New York Times review of the book, Charles McGrath writes that Posner is soft on cases of legal plagiarism, but hard on academic cases. According to McGrath, Posner sees the world of academia as dominated by the left, and claims that professors are unwilling to crack down on plagiarism because “the left is uncomfortable with ideas of individual creativity and ownership.”

Books and college essays are not the only places where plagiarism is occuring. The internet has certainly made searching for and copying other people’s words easier than ever before. Blog plagiarism — or the appropriation of other people’s blog entries — has become a problem, even though the motivation behind this type of plagiarism can be more difficult to understand. Helped out by the internet, plagiarism can pop up in some unexpected places. Political blog Lakeshore Laments revealed that Wisconsin Congressman Steve Kagan’s website ripped off much of its layout and text from the website of Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. Perhaps even more surprising, pastors have increasingly taken advantage of the internet to find sermons online and present them as their own words. Christian blogger Tim Challies discusses the implications of this in an entry on sermon plagiarism:

A pastor who plagiarizes sermons is clearly not fulfilling his primary responsibility. He is not investing time and effort in studying the Word, in understanding the Word, and in helping others understand what God has taught him. Furthermore, he is being unethical in allowing his congregation to believe that the sermons he delivers are his own work. I don’t think it is always wrong to preach sermons written by another person. I heard of a pastor who preached a series called “Sermons I Wish I’d Written.” He did not try to pass these sermons off as his own, but simply wanted to provide his congregation with what he considered some of history’s greatest sermons. Surely this is far different from a person who preaches those same sermons while pretending that he has written them himself.

Tim Challies, Plagiarism in the Pulpit,, November 16, 2006.

There is also a blog devoted specifically to web plagiarism issues, What do you think? Is plagiarism more of a problem than it used to be? Is the definition of plagiarism that we use today still useful and accurate for the way things work in the information age?

Posted in books, internet, plagiarism | 1 Comment »

New Title?

Posted by samgr on January 9, 2007

I want to think of a better title for this blog. Does anyone have any ideas?

Posted in stuff | 1 Comment »

Prehistoric Creatures: the Liopleurodon

Posted by samgr on January 8, 2007

UPDATE: Read this post.  Enjoy it.  But if you LOVE liopleurodons (and who in the name of Sam Hill doesn’t), you should check out my new blog project here:

You will not regret it.  Now back to your regularly scheduled post.

This will be the first of a series of entries on prehistoric creatures that I think are relevant to modern life.


Liopleurodons will probably never be as popular as woolly mammoths and t-rexes, and their name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but this giant sea reptile seems to have entered the public consciousness a bit more lately. This can probably be traced to two things:

1. The inclusion of a big scary liopleurodon in one of those BBC-produced “Walking With Dinosaurs” TV-shows a few years back; looking cool and doing improbable things like leaping out of the water and devouring large dinosaurs.

2. A recent cameo in a upsetting cartoon.

This is all well and good. I like liopleurodons. I am skeptical, however, of the sloppy science that the “Walking With Dinosaurs” people employed to make their liopleurodon size estimates. Based on the liopleurodon fossils that people have found, the animals probably got to be about thirty feet long. This is pretty respectable, I think. However, the “Walking With Dinosaurs” folks depicted their liopleurodons as seventy-five feet long, based on a chain of dubious logical leaps. (A sea reptile fossil was found in Mexico in 2002 that was about forty-five feet long. It probably wasn’t even a liopleurodon, but people briefly thought that it might be; what’s more it seemed to be a juvenile, so whatever it was might have gotten even larger with full growth. This was good enough for the television show to report with the appearance of authority a wildly inflated size estimate for their liopeurodon.)

This sort of thing bugs me. I think that giant sea reptiles are cool enough already without dumbing down the science to tell me that they were far bigger than they actually were. Prehistoric monsters are more interesting to me than the Abominable Snowman, say, because prehistoric monsters were real and the Abominable Snowman is not. So I want to know about scientists’ best guesses about what is true. If these shows are ostensibly about education, they should use good science, and not cave into the principle of stating whatever sounds coolest from the range of what is conceivably possible. And it’s not like giant toothy sea reptiles are lame or garden-variety if they are ONLY thirty feet long.

And now in sources like the web, misinformation will propagate, because most people will write down and repeat the most impressive version of the facts they hear. A similar thing happens with another real, but non-extinct animal: the giant squid. Since stories about giant squids tend towards hyperbole anyway, even sources that proclaim to be scientific throw around inflated size figures more or less solely because people think that bigger monsters are cooler monsters. They’re cool enough! I think there is no need for exaggeration.

(The author Richard Ellis has written two very good books — one about giant squids and one about prehistoric sea reptiles — that provide rigorous and non-flighty looks at both of these very large sea creatures. Fun to check out, and they stick to real science.)

In a weird way, this relates to what bugged me about Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I should get it out of the way that I think the film was extremely well-motivated and provided a vitally important public service. But at the same time, it bothered me that it dumbed down the science: showing graphs without labeled axes, and not going into any depth about how the data being talked about was obtained. After seeing the movie, I read the book The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery, and the contrast was quite striking. The book made pretty much the exact same points as Gore’s film, but made them by letting the reader in on the science that can get us to those points. When an author or filmmaker assumes intelligence on the part of the audience, a better and more thorough case can be made.

On the other hand, Gore’s film seems to have made an impact where many other projects simply could not, clearing away some of the manufactured arguments against the crisis of human-influenced climate change. So am I giving the public too much credit? Am I just being a snob? What do you think?

And that’s why I like liopleurodons.

Posted in climate change, prehistory, science, sea life, truth | 4 Comments »

Books About Stuff

Posted by samgr on January 7, 2007

So I’ve discussed this with my father — and I’m sure that I’m not the first to talk about it — but I’m interested in the recent publishing trend of writing histories of a particular substance.

I feel like I started seeing a huge surge in this sort of thing sometime after the publication of Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. I’ve also recently noticed similar recent books about wine, tea, coffee, gold, jade, amber, clay, coal, and ink. (I’ll link to these books on Amazon if I have time and can find them and didn’t make any of them up.) So I guess publishers and authors both think that now is the time that the American public wants to read books about stuff. I would also postulate that the rise of the “stuff”biographies matches up pretty neatly with the decline of the “number” biographies. We had a spate of those a few years earlier — pi, e, I think there were two or three about zero (and zero about two or three). I for one support this shift; I think histories of stuff are probably generally more interesting than histories of numbers. Also, almost by definition, a history of a basic kind of stuff is probably going to be able to cover a wider swath of history than a number like “e”, which people have only been able to pin down or understand for a certain period of time. I would also argue that the stuff bio is a slightly different phenomenon than the straight-up “food-related organism” bio, which has also been around/popular for a bit longer: cod, potatoes, oysters, and so on (cannabis?).

But I wonder why the stuff bio has taken off recently. Is there anything about our present historical moment that predisposes us to like reading about stuff? Are these authors acting as apologists for materialism? Is stuff taking the place of ideas? You could make an argument that this kind of book reflects a rise of commodity fetishism in our society, as discussed by Marx. This doesn’t necessarily make the books non-interesting, though.

So what books do we predict will be next? Oil seems like a no-brainer. A search on Amazon reveals a couple books dealing with different facets of the history of petroleum, but nothing quite as universal as what I’m envisioning. I also think that [CENSORED] is pretty neat, and would like to know more, although Melville has also written at least a chapter I think. How about mercury? Concrete? Plastic? Come to think of it, I’m hereby officially calling dibs on [CENSORED]. No-one write about [CENSORED].

[Note: I decided that my substance idea was good enough that I’m actually not letting anyone else know about it. See if you can guess though!]

And now for the secondary point, which is harder to pin down; but I am absolutely CONVINCED that it’s true. Why are there about seven hundred novels called The [OCCUPATION’S] Daughter? The problem of course is that I can’t think of specific examples right now. But I know that it’s the case! Actually the one that springs to mind is a fictional novel: in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, I think that Grady Tripp’s successful first book was called The Arsonist’s Daughter. But there’s also The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Preacher’s Daughter, Firework-Maker’s Daughter, and I know that there are more and better-known ones than these. Actually, mucking around on Amazon (a) appears to to totally disprove my theory, but also and hilariously (b) shows that there is a very Christian-oriented series about the Amish that follows this model: the Daughters of Lancaster County.

Of course there are things like Galileo’s Daughter and Rasputin’s Daughter, but that is something still different. Also, in book titles it may be all about daughters, but in horror movies everything is pretty patrilineal. Whom would you put your money on in Son of Dracula v. Galileo’s Daughter? I’m genuinely not sure.

Please comment, what kind of stuff do you want to write about? Whose daughter?

Posted in books, stuff | 3 Comments »

Old Books and Strong Oaths

Posted by samgr on January 6, 2007

Why is it 70 degrees out on January 6th in Massachusetts? I’m basically ok with it, but how about this guy?

Polar Bear

Anyway, thanks to the spate of political inaugurations we just went through, a couple of stories have surfaced having to do with one of the props that has often played a supporting role in the pomp surrounding the assumption of power: the Bible.

First, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts took his oath of office on the Mendi Bible, a Bible that was given to John Quincy Adams by the Amistad mutineers in gratitude for his arguing (and winning) their case before the US Supreme Court. I went to Patrick’s inauguration on the Common, and he mentioned this in his speech. It was an interesting piece of symbolism, linking the occasionally starchy-seeming history of Massachusetts with African American history and Patrick’s own life story. Of course, since it was a Bible, Christianity is presumably mixed up in there somewhere too.

In the same vein — and more widely covered in the national media — is the fact that Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim congressman, took his oath of office on a Koran rather than a Bible. Sort of. Actually, despite all of the furor that this has caused, the actual oath is apparently taken at the same time as all of the other congressmen, and the book in question is only used for a photo op afterwards. In any case, Virginia congressman Virgil Goode attacked Mr. Ellison’s choice, claiming that it was a threat to America’s Christian heritage. Congressman Goode also somehow linked this point to an argument against illegal immigration, which is confusing considering that Congressman Ellison was born in Detroit.

What ended up happening is that Congressman Ellison used a copy of the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. This was another nice piece of symbolism and a reasonably effective retort to Congressman Goode’s blind bigotry.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about all of this, but clearly books are important even when they’re not being read, since they’re very good at acting as ways to link people and ideas from different historical eras. What do people think about this? In these cases, does it even matter that these are books, rather than other kinds of objects? Are the Bibles and Korans being used at these events any different from religious symbols that aren’t books: crosses or prayer shawls or kirpans? And of course, is this whole business of taking the oath on a religious text obsolete anyway, or, for that matter, actively against the principle of separation of church and state? Is this pageantry useful and meaningful, or just archaic?

Some Huffington Post bloggers have produced some interesting posts about this. David Kuo argues that America’s real holy texts are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (and reminds us about Article VI, Section 3). Patt Morrison asks why we can’t just pick any book? I wonder if we have to have actually read it. You could impress a lot of people as a real sophisticate by swearing in on Finnegan’s Wake, for instance. Although possibly not Virgil Goode.

I guess what I’m getting down to is that it would probably make everything simpler if we abandoned the whole book idea and went back to the way the ancients did it: swearing oaths while holding our own testicles (sadly not actually true).

Posted in books, politics, religion | 2 Comments »

Sardines Are Great!

Posted by samgr on January 5, 2007

So here’s a dilemma.

More and more evidence is emerging that eating fish is really, really good for you. Recent studies have shown that consuming a lot of fish — an excellent natural source of omega-3 fatty acids — can help you to live a longer and healthier life by staving off heart disease and dementia. Plus, if you have moral or environmental qualms about meat-eating in general, but also have health or quality-of-life concerns about swearing off all forms of animal protein, pesco-vegetarianism can look like an attractive option.

(Bias alert: I am a vegetarian who eats fish.)

On the other hand, there are also some possible health concerns about eating a lot of fish, mainly because of the possibility of high concentrations of mercury, PCBs, and other harmful chemicals that can build up in seafood. Also, from an environmental perspective, overfishing and poor resource-management has led to the collapse of many populations of once-abundant species of edible fish. In November, a paper published in Science predicted the collapse of most of the ocean life that people rely on for food by 2048 if human activities continue unchanged.
And fish-farming isn’t necessarily much better; the runoff from farms can cause its own environmental problems. What’s more, if farmed fish are fed ground-up wild-caught fish, as they often are, the environmental impact can actually be exacerbated.

With all of these sometime conflicting factors at play, what is an aspiring fish-eater to think? One easy element of a solution: eat sardines.


I love sardines, and I want you to as well. Here are some of the great reasons to eat them.

Health: Sardines are great for you. They have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, even for fish. They also have very low levels of chemical contaminanation. This is because they are small and low on the food-chain. A big fish like a tuna eats many smaller fish, which in turn eat many even smaller fish, and so on. Any contaminants pass from the fish being eaten to the fish doing the eating, and become more highly concentrated, so big fish like tuna and swordfish can be especially dangerous. Sardines, on the other hand, are safe enough to eat as often as you like, according to the Oceans Alive website.

Environmental Impact: Sardines are generally harvested in an environmentally friendly manner, and are a renewable source of seafood. Sardines (as well as young herring, which are sometimes sold as sardines) are quick-growing and spawn several times a year, making them a resilient fishery. In addition, they are usually caught with purse seines or midwater trawls, which are less environmentally disruptive than other forms of fishing. (For more info on this, again check out Oceans Alive. It’s a neat and useful website.)

Delicious-ness: Sardines are delicious. I’ve never even had fresh sardines, only canned, but the canned ones are great too. They have wonderful flavor and are great on toast or crackers, maybe with some lemon. I’ve also made the sardine toast recipe in The Joy of Cooking, which is very nice as well. My grandfather swears by sardine sandwiches with onion. They have a fairly strong flavor, and if you don’t like other kinds of fish, you probably won’t like sardines. But then, if you don’t like fish, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far.

Cultural Cachet: Sardines occupy a unique position in our shared cultural and literary heritage. This is mostly because of the interesting way that they come to us: packed tightly in cans which once upon a time were opened with an external key. From this image we get the ubiquitous phrase, “packed in like sardines.” Sardines packed in their tins present an image of the organic oppressed by the inorganic which has frequently struck a chord with artists and social commentators. We see this image constantly in art and editorial cartoons; we even hear about it in Radiohead songs. Playwright and comedian Alan Bennett memorably used the image of a sardine tin as a metaphor for life itself in a mock sermon that parodied the Anglican church’s taste for elaborate metaphorical conceits. (Also see Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”)

So for all of these reasons, I beg you to cast a second look upon the humble sardine. Small it may be, and unpossessing. But even a small fish can change your life, and for the better.

[A warning: Fish of many types are particular interest of mine, being a pesco-veggie-whosie and also having been born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts. So be on the lookout for more icthyological posts to come. Also be on the lookout for giant squids.]

Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you like sardines? Hate them? Know any good recipes? Do you know any interesting literary allusions to sardines that I forgot? What is your favorite fish? Please comment early and often! Also, here is another blogger who likes sardines, and actually knows things about them.

Posted in fish, food, health, sea life | 6 Comments »

Kicking Off…

Posted by samgr on January 4, 2007

Hi everyone.

This will be a space for ideas, commentary, and anything else that occurs to me. I may have some axes to grind, but my writing here will not be devoted to any particular one of them. I would like to think of this blog as a project inspired by pragmatist ideals: favoring discussion and exploration rather than ranting or throwing rocks at people I don’t like.

In line with this, please feel free to comment on anything and everything I write, although I would obviously prefer it if comments were not malicious or overly impolite.

That’s all. Off we go!

Posted in meta | Leave a Comment »