Gibsonian Snowclone

From the Wired magazine article

Fifty Years of Hovercraft: The Tech That Barely Takes Off

“…to paraphrase sci-fi author William Gibson, “the hovercraft is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

And a new snowclone is born? (I’ve come close to using that one myself… next time.)

Devastating Effect/Devastating Affect

“devastating affect”: 35 600 googles (as of presstime).
“devastating effect”: 1 080 000 googles.

So I guess the latter is more proper. Makes sense I suppose.

And a refresher: effect/affect.

Snowclone Phrasal Templates, Of Course

And here is some discussion of snowclones in the particular context of welcoming our new * overlords.

The Finnicky Wisdom of Crowds

I was tickled to see Crooked Timber, one of my most-frequented blogs, report on Cosma Shalizi reporting on Scott Page‘s analytic work on diversity. Back home in Ann Arbor, the complexity reading group is meeting on patios to discuss Page’s new book “The Difference”, and I gather Scott (if I may call him Scott) has been showing up to some of the events. Or perhaps he was there for the sangria and decided to stick around. Scott (and I suspect I may call him Scott, I’ve only briefly met him but he seems like a super nice guy) is one of the most engaging presenters I’ve seen and a crackerjack thinker and I’d love to be in on that discussion, whether with or without him. And hey, I like sangria. I’ve not read the book but Cosma Shalizi does his usual great job of boiling down to the sauce of essence, and the basic pitch seems to be: multiple divergent weak hueristics applied serially can solve problems with multiple interacting factors better than a single strong hueristic. Thus groups composed of diverse people can be more successful than homogenous ones. With the caveat that there must be some degree of agreement on what the goals and success criteria are. Cool.

As a perhaps-interesting test case of the idea, Wired has a big fat report up on the results of their “Assignement Zero” project. The idea was to let anybody contribute to an effort to generate a large body of high-quality reporting on a subject, that subject being the ability of distributed crowdsourcing to produce high-quality work. Apparently it played out a little rocky. Apparently there was a great many lessons learned, a certain fraction (estimated at between 1 and 3 quarters of the total) of decent material produced, and apparently a lot of the problems related to people not knowing or agreeing on… what the goals and success criteria for the project were. Interesting.

Peters’ “A Critique for Ecology” There for the Reading

If you’re interested in the tension between correlation and causation in ecology and don’t feel like standing up, it turns out that great chunks of R.H. Peters’ “A Critique For Ecology” is available online in Google Books. Apparently Cambridge press is experimenting with sticking big swaths of its books up on the internet. It makes a lot of sense to me: it doesn’t cost them anything, and there is no way I would actually sit and read through all of a book on a computer screen. Ouch. But on the other hand, I’m at least ten times as likely to buy or otherwise get a hold of a physical copy of the book if I read a bunch of it first. So there you go.

If it sounds like a boring topic to you (causation v. correlation etc) it may be, but if you’re interested in ecology it may not. Peters argues that ecology’s obsession with explaining the whys behind the way things are in nature has led to a vague and muddled science, given that it’s functionally impossible to prove why something happens. In his mind, ecology goes around identifying problems and never really solving them, so the longer it exists as a science the less we seem to know. He points out that if you want to contribute to solving problems you have to be able predict what will happen in the future given the current state or possible current states. And prediction is all about correlation, which is a separate issue from causation. He thinks we need to be worse natural historians and better statisticians.

It’s an interesting argument, but childish and silly of course. Which is obvious if you read the book. Which, hey presto, you sort of can!

A Critique for Ecology By Robert H. Peters

Ants, Ant Books, Programming, and Raccoons

I have a group project writing an agent-based program to simulate the foraging behaviour of ants. The NetLogo implementation of this idea makes it look easy. Turns it out it’s not. Which has lead to lots of interesting questions about ants.

Incidentally, the project is being written using the RePast agent based modeling libraries for java. Now, I haven’t looked at the code of the NetLogo sample implementation since I started writing this thing, because we’re not supposed to. But I did look at it last semester, and I seem to remember you could fit the code on a tshirt, using a fairly hefty font, if you were so inclined. You could not fit the equivalent java code on a tshirt. You could not fit it on a muumuu. If nothing else, this project is convincing me that as soon as we’re let loose, I’ll be switching to NetLogo. RePast may not be as clumsy or random as a blaster, but NetLogo is just like way faster. Bring on the clumsy and random.

In an effort to answer some of my questions about how real ants have solved their RePast programming issues, I got a copy of Ants at Work by Deborah Gordon out of the library. I was shocked and mildy irritated to see that no one has checked out this copy — the only one in the UMich system — before me. WTF? I first read AaW when I was contemplating a project for my final year field course in undergrad, and it sticks in my memory as one of the most interesting books I have read. Dr. Gordon studies how it is that individual ants, obeying no rules outside of their own tiny heads, somehow come together to form the persistent yet adaptable superorganism that is an ant colony. She uses methods ranging from painting individual ants to digging up colonies with backhoes. It was my first introduction to the idea of emergence, before I (or apparently Dr. Gordon) had ever heard the word.

I can’t believe nobody else has read it around here. What’s wrong with these people? It’s so much more portable than The Ants, and costs 1/20th as much, even if you don’t include the cost of the hand cart.

Also, there is a raccoon sleeping in the garbage bin to the east of the Shapiro library doors.


folded corners of The Monkeywrench Gang

I’ve got into a habit of leaving all the books I’ve read badly dog-eared. When I come across a passage or qoute I want to remember, I fold the corner in the intention of rereading it later when I’m done. The problem is, I never seem to get around to it. When I finish a book I’m too fully engaged in my panicked searh for a new book for reflection.

I’ve decided to make an effort to go back over those passages from now on. Here is attempt number one. As an added impetus, I’m throwing it up on the blog here.

Attempt number one falls on The Monkeywrench Gang, by Edward Abbey. I came across an account of his burial recently, maybe in Outside magazine or Orion, and was intrigued enough that I figured the time had come to read some of his stuff. Turns out this book is probably a bad one to start out on my resolution to read the dogears, because I didn’t make very many. It was just too exciting. Most of the really good bits I was too deep into the book to remember to make note of it. But here we go anyway, with the random few passages that did get singled out.

(I should probably want to write really good books, really important insightful works that examine the human condition and leave the reader with an expanded understanding of the mystery of the life they live in. but mostly what I really want is to write books like this one – super charged intellectual action stories with funny and (anti)heroic characters and plenty of wry dialogue. maybe writing books like that should be my next resolution)

When the doctor acquired a lightweight McCulloch chain saw she learned how to operate that too, how to start it, how to oil and refuel it, how to adjust the chain wheen it became too tight or too loose. With this handy tool they were able to accomplish much more work in limited time, although it did raise the ecological question, whatever that meant, of noise and air pollution, excessive consumption of metal and energy. Endless ramifications…

“No,” the doctor said. “Forget all that. Our duty is to destroy billboards.”


“I’m thinking: Why the fuck should we trust each other? I never even met you two guys before today.”

Silence. The three men stared into the fire. The oversized surgeon. The elongated riverman. The brute from the Green Berets. A sigh. They looked at each other. And one thought: What the hell. And one thought: They look honest to me. And one thought: Men are not the enemy. Nor women either. Nor little children.

Not in sequence but in unison, as one, they smiled. At each other. The bottle made it’s penultimate round.

“What the hell,” Smith said, “we’re only talkin’.”


“…running on at maximum feasible speed plus ten…”


A true autochthonic patriot, Smith swears allegiance only to the land he knows, not to the swollen bulge of real estate, industry and swarming populations of displaced British Islanders and Europeans and misplaced Africans known collectivley as the United States; his loyalties phase out towards the boundaries of the Colorado Plateau.

Yep, that’s all I got. But there is a hundred times that many good bits, and the really good bits are better than those bits. So read it.

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