Sunday, November 25, 2007

The role of decoration

The role of decoration in the lifestyle of people is always exploited in commercials, and no more than at Christmas - aka 'shopping time'. Is it naive of me to wonder how we got to the point we are at, with Christmas advertising starting earlier each year? The blatantly consumption-ist crapmercials have started and one knows the tackiness of certain items are their only draw. Why else would a major lumber/hardware big-box store (Lowes) only focus their commercials on the ditzy hausfrau asking the sickeningly cheerful young store clerk where silly "seasonal" such as the dancing holiday turkey, a giant inflatable snowglobe, and other crappy lawn and home "ornaments" that will likely be of shoddy construction material and quality? The irony of going to a home improvement store that supposedly takes pride in its quality - "Let's build something together" - to buy poor quality tacky crap. (Urgh.)

Living in the US, one expects it, though, no matter how one might cringe at the incessant blare of consumerist drivel, made even more sickening thanks to fundamentalist nutters' (who have a microphone in the form of Bill "O, Really") "War on Christmas" awareness campaigns, as well as greater exhortations for greater consumption to help (in some unknown and unproven way) the troops. In such ways we celebrate the birth of Jesus/the end of the year/the winter solstice/winter. Again, urgh.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf (in 3D)

I just watched the new film Beowulf (in 3D). The film was quite a good one - creating an easy means to access the much more difficult to read translated book. However, to people who haven't read the book, this film is not (surprise, surprise) a faithful translation of the original Old English "classic" epic poem. (For example, in the book, Grendel's mother wasn't a gold-tinged Angelina Jolie look-alike with - strangely - high heels and tail.)

The major drawback (in my opinion) was the diminution of the role of the hero in epic poetry and ancient societies. Having watched Troy in recent days, the parallels between the heroic characters Achilles and Beowulf become clear. Having recently watched Troy has also shown me how apparently shallow the hero theme (fighting for glory and immortality) was explored in Beowulf (yes, they talk about being sung for eternity, but it wasn't pressed to the same extent as in Troy). I feel this theme was altered slightly to try and show Beowulf as a human being with his own failings culminating in a desire to (in the last act) redeem himself by righting the wrongs he helped create as a young man. True, in the original Beowulf, the character (to my recollection) wasn't really trying to redeem himself of any wrong, but ended trying to die a glorious death in combat. The women in his life were mentioned only secondarily in the text (again, if I recall correctly). Although this type of character is alien to the modern viewer, I don't feel that the way to mainstream the film is to alter (some might say "explore") the character, but be explicit that it is set in a context of heroism and (like in Troy) possibly show the dichotomy of the heroic and the politic.

If you want to watch an action film, then this isn't the film for you. The action sequences (although bloody and hair-raising) are only quick blasts of action spritzed sparingly in the rest of the film.

No, the plot changes and plot twists that aren't in the original text (at least in the copy I recall reading) weren't really a bad thing, in my opinion. In fact, they possibly lent more continuity to the storyline. Of course, how the director decided to show this new script did have a negative outcome on the role of the hero (see above), however, since I feel that the plot changes did not force the diminution mentioned above, I'm not going to say the changes were all bad.

The film is very enjoyable in 3D, and if it wasn't for watching it in that format, I would say that the whole thing might not really be worth it... The fight scenes are all well choreographed, and when Beowulf strips down completely, the animators took great pains to make sure his (erm) penis wasn't showing. (Still, a little beefcake for those interested in that sort of thing.) However, for being a "bear of a man," Beowulf wasn't really rendered as being really "bear-like" (not hirsute or brawny enough to really be called "bear").

The cinematography was well drawn and directed. The characters were still somewhat plasticky in their look - many of them were (while being well rendered) were not realistic looking (interestingly, Beowulf was significantly more real-looking than any other character in the film). However, the inorganic items (the pebble beach, the flames, the castles, the cliffs, etc) were really great.

One last gripe and I'll be done: the thing is a period piece - taking place sometime after the fall of Rome, but not too much - and as such, one would like to see some realism along that vein, but in some interesting respects Beowulf falls down on this. Hrothgar's castle keep (while never entered in the film) is a major tower built along a scale that would never be seen until the Crusades. At the end of the film, the keep has expanded to massive tower proportions, and the stoutness of the castle walls would have made the castle builders of the 16th century envious. Additionally, Beowulf is seen wearing what looks to be plate armor. Where did he get it? That technology wasn't going to be around for another few centuries. (One might argue that it was colored leather, but it seemed to me to be rather shiny for leather.)

See the film (if you can see it, in 3D). It makes a good part of a collection alongside 300 and Troy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Scientists as Policy Advisers

One of the greatest problems of having scientists serving as policy advisers is that scientists are trained in an area that is NOT policy advising, and unless they are lucky, their advice should not be taken, except with a major grain of salt. Part of this reaction stems from (I believe) mainly two points. First was the age of planning that peaked in the 20th Century, to which many people are still reacting to, and basing their viewpoints on. The second is the understanding that stakeholder engagement is becoming more feasible, even with possibly complex scientific issues.

The first issue (the spectre of the age of planning) is important because it is the major legacy with which we (as members of society in the US) focus our lens on the science adviser. From a 1955 publication entitled Natural Resources and the Political Struggle (Wengert, 1955), the roles of science and planning are outlined thusly:

In the field of resource policy, there has been a pronounced effort to rationalize programs and proposals in scientific terms and to city the authority of science as justification for particular policies. In no other field is the role of the expert more significant for particular policies. In no other field is the role of the expert more significant, and concomitantly the tendency to abdicate private, lay judgment in favor of the specialist more evident.


The history of resource policy is the history of science and technology in the service of the nation. The political struggle marking that history has involved scientists and intellectuals whose object largely has been to convert the public and the politician to a recognition of the importance and significance of the results of science. The struggle represents the deliberate attempt of intelligence to subdue and control the environment.


Another significant characteristic of the political process in its dealing with resource policy is the extent to which planning has been an important factor in reaching decisions. ... To the question of how the planning job can best be carried out there is and can be no single or simple answer.

Perhaps because resource policy has been intimately related to science and the use of research data and because scientifically trained men have been leaders in the resource policy field, planning techniques have been emphasized as means for identifying resource problems and preparing solutions for them. ... The issue today in the field of resource policy is not whether there shall be planning, but rather who shall plan and to what ends.
I hope this illustrates that planning was considered important in conducting policy advice (usually by people who knew the physical system - the scientist). Taking a quote from John Wilkinson (1964) - apparently mis-attributed to Charles de Gaul - "generals are always fighting the last war, and educators ... are always instructing the last generation." Here I mean that many of those in the policy arena are learning from those who grew up in the paradigm of planning; it colors their viewpoints and attitudes toward the "correct" role of science. (A possibly interesting discussion would be the role of planning in policy and how it differs from science.)

The second point - greater possibility for useful stakeholder engagement - is being proven with increased ability to disseminate technical information (especially those affecting natural resource use/extraction) spatially through the use of GIS and terrain viewing programs, both of which can be altered to show potential policy futures. In areas where visualization in terms of maps and computer wire models are less useful, the various models (both procedural and statistical) underlying most forms of scientific forecasting can be tweaked to produce output that are more amenable to the consumption of different stakeholders. With the understanding that stakeholder engagement is a requisite quality for robust "good" policy, use of science in illustrating the most likely (i.e., conservative estimate) impact of the major factors of interest to each stakeholder can be input to a model. In more sophisticated models, such factors can even be taken synergistically to illustrate the impact of more fine-tuned policy decisions.

Because of the continually growing strength of scientific understandings of how discrete (i.e., disciplinary) systems operate more accurate predictions are able to be made within a single system. This lends itself to being able to plan the impacts of a policy decision within the boundary conditions of that system. However, like a piece of science fiction depicting a possible not-too-distant-future, the change of only one (or a few) variables on an otherwise unchanged world-of-today makes for relatively easy writing, but does not provide a plausible future. Who would have guessed the massive synergistic impact of the internet on the totality of life in the West, including e-mail communication; increasing connection speeds; search engines; increased web page complexity; flash programming; YouTube; online databases; Google Earth; etc. The lesson here is to understand the impacts of synergy on a network of systems.

However, within certain constrained situations, science can still pull together forecasts with variables working in synergy. The requirement, though, with anything in modeling, is how much is constrained and how it is constrained. What this means, though, is that science can still inform planning, but it can now do so through stakeholders or committees including non-scientists as participating members. The role of the expert scientist becomes constrained more to the efficacy, reliability, and accuracy of the model, and not on their "Best Professional Judgment" of a situation, based on their own ingrained bias.

Science still is working in the form of "planning," but it becomes possibly multi-system in analysis, and usable by stakeholders in investigating possible futures based on policy inputs (with the understanding that the constraints and uncertainties are understood by all). By the simple (ha!) process of making the output of a policy scenario legible and accessible to non-experts (and allowing for possibly easy iterations of inputs from stakeholder representatives and outputs from expert scientists), decision makers are empowered by the science, rather than by the scientist. (True, scientists still have opportunities in manipulating the science behind the model - the meta-science - but in a complex system model operated by several different experts, the possibility of having major favorable outcomes without raising suspicion becomes exponentially more difficult, and I'm therefore discounting this possibility, at least for the near future.)

Yes, we have been here before - trusting models to solve our problems, forgetting that models have intrinsic uncertainty and various levels of external validity problems. However, we have also come a long way, being able to work strongly within disciplines to answer those difficult-to-solve problems of yesterday (at least to some extent). We are entering an age (I feel) where thinking of how to integrate knowledge across somewhat arbitrary disciplines (and subdisciplines) is becoming feasible and a new area of scientific interest; just how do you integrate economic factors with social factors, physical environmental factors, ecological factors, etc.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A useful website - I only wish it extended to Ann Arbor!

I found this website via another one: The reason it's so great is that it provides directions for people who don't drive (gasp!). Unfortunately, it currently only serves Birmingham, Edinburgh, and London. However, if you were visiting a friend in Edinburgh, and wanted to get from where they lived (arbitrarily selected as "St. Margarets Place") to Princes Street (where the upscale shops seem to be), then using standard mapping technology will not provide you with the best answer, especially if you are walking or cycling. (Additionally, since the traffic is limited on Princes Street to buses and taxis - which I still think is the case - using a standard mapping program will not provide you with an adequate answer.) The total distance using GoogleMaps is 2.5miles, and takes the walker/cyclist along Clerk St (A7) - a pretty busy road that isn't along the most direct path between points A and B. Is this the best way for a pedestrian/cyclist to go?

In steps Typing in the start and end points in this interface, you find out that the shortest walkable distance is 1.5 miles, and you can cut through the city parks and go through the castle district (such a great direct road!). Of course, this is merely the most direct path; no mention is made of the great vertical changes one encounters along this path (meaning that while it may be faster for a pedestrian, it might be easier for a cyclist to actually fight traffic on Clerk St than cycle up and down the castle hill to get to Princes Street beyond).

Still, cutting the walking distance by 1 mile is probably a good thing (in my book), plus offering the option of walking through the parks rather than sticking to the streets is also nice. And not having to worry about calculating in the one-way street systems one might find in a city center is yet another bonus.

Now if someone could do something similar to this for other cities. Maybe even tying it in with the public transport routes and schedules to provide a person just visiting a city with the best method of getting from A to B (especially if you are visiting NYC for the first time and need to integrate the subways and buses in your trip to make the most of your MTA card purchase).

If you know of something like this - where public transportation routes are included in providing directions - then please tell me about it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The problem with scientists and language.

This is a topic that I touched on a few months ago, but I thought it would be good to get back to it again. (urgh.)

The topic is how scientists (and engineers) like to increase the precision and accuracy of their statements (when their statements are the written interpretation or verbalization of their painstaking scientific research). However, when these statements mix with the language of everyday life, it comes into contact with the common vernacular, and it becomes easy for the language of the scientist to be misunderstood or twisted to another end.

Even communication between disciplines this happens. One example I will draw upon is the word "diameter." In a common vernacular, most people would mean the distance from one side of a roughly circular object or area to the other ("What is the diameter of the Capitol dome?"). In mathematics, the diameter is defined as being twice the radius, which is itself described as the straight-line distance from the center of a circle to its edge. When talking about modeling hydraulics, the diameter has been used interchangeably with width, especially when talking about pipes or culverts. However, there is another definition of "diameter" which has apparently nothing to do with any of these definitions (which all refer to a specific type of width measurement). This is the use of "diameter" in network theory. Here, the diameter refers to the minimum distance between two nodes. While it may still talk about a specialized idea of "length," it divorced from the idea of "circularity" to which most definitions of "diameter" refer. Without an understanding of this specialized definition of diameter, a discussion of its use in modeling river networks makes for a confusing ride, since one does not know whether the person is initially talking about the width of the river, or its "branchiness".

This example in mind, it becomes even more muddied when talking to people in the "real world." Take, for example, the two differing understandings of the word "THEORY." Conducting a definition search of the work on WordNet Search provides the following three definitions:
  1. a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena
  2. a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena
  3. a belief that can guide behavior
The first definition is the one used primarily in science as the definition of "theory", but in the common vernacular is thought of as scientific "laws". The second is normally termed a "hypothesis" in science, but in the common vernacular it is this term that is most often called a theory. The last definition is more akin (imho) to a definition of faith, and I'm going to focus this section of discussion on the implications of the first two definitions.

The first definition of "theory" is complicated by scientists who have decided to elevate certain very well explained theories to "laws". However, a scientific "law" is still a scientific theory, coined as something immutable by either the scientist after whom the law is named, or by the community of scientists that study in the discipline. To the hoi polloi, however, this distinction is filtered through a lens of social understandings of science and law to mean that there must be some sort of progression from being a "theory" to becoming a "law":

theory ==> law

This is exacerbated by textbooks parroting this viewpoint, and extended to include a progression from a lowly hypothesis into (eventually if the hypothesis is close enough to the truth) a law:

hypothesis ==> theory ==> law

However, it is not accurate: the "law of gravity" is a theory. Newton's "Laws of Motion" are actually scientific theories. True, scientific laws are different from theories in that they have withstood the vast test of time and scrutiny. However, they are not immutable.

What the average non-scientist considers a "theory" is similar to what scientists would consider a "hypothesis": the stated assumption of physical cause and effect. However, this is the same thing as a "theory" in everyday use. A police investigator makes "theories" as to how a murder occurred. A lawyer makes a "theory" as to why the defendant made the decisions he made leading up to the murder. Indeed, to be generous, people may well place "scientific theory" at a level somewhere between "everyday theory" (aka "hypothesis") and "scientific law" (aka "tried-and-tested scientific theory"), meaning that - in a science context at least - the word "theory" is something a little more than a mere guess.

However, this muddle of language becomes a major point of contention when dealing with politics in science. The detractors will point to problems with a scientific theory well understood in the scientific community and use scientific uncertainties surrounding the mechanisms around which the system works to try and tear down the original theory. This is like stating that since we do not know how sub-atomic particles work, the Big Bang Theory is incorrect. Or stating that since we do no have evidence of speciation through the process of natural selection, Darwinist evolution is wrong. Or that since winters are still cold, the predictions of global climate change are wrong. To use a non-scientific example, it would be like making the argument that the Holocaust did not happen because the scale was too vast to possibly have occurred. This is is obviously nonsensical and patently false logic: we have overwhelming documentation of the Nazi atrocity; physical evidence of it; experts who study it; and people who lived through it (and its post-War impacts).

The language of science endeavors to be precise, however, the language of society tends to be generalized, especially the English language. Trying to pin down the meanings of what a string of words with a very specific scientific meaning in the context of a social exchange brings with it the problems of language usage on both parties. On the one hand, language flows from a group that tries to conserve the meaning of language to describe a very specific instance or instances, and on the other hand language is received by a group that attempts to assess the general meaning of a phrase. It is no wonder that miscommunication occurs.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

How evolution isn't like a broken clock.

Here is a fantastic short video explaining away the strawman argument of ID/Creationism that a broken clock, shaken in a box will not create a working clock. (This argument is similar to another strawman argument of a tornado being unable to be reconstruct an airplane from its constituent parts.)

Anyway, I hope this doesn't come down from Youtube anytime soon.