Archive for December, 2011

December 21, 2011

The Science Story

 – for Danilo, with (some) apologies

A while ago, a friend of mine posted the following to his Facebook notes.

Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media

Julie Suleski

The Ohio State University, Suleski.1@osu.edu

Motomu Ibaraki

The Ohio State University

Abstract

Journal publication has long been relied on as the only required communication of results, tasking journalists with bringing news of scientific discoveries to the public. Output of science papers increased 15% between 1990 and 2001, with total output over 650,000. But, fewer than 0.013—0.34% of papers gained attention from mass media, with health/medicine papers taking the lion’s share of coverage. Fields outside of health/medicine had an appearance rate of only 0.001—0.005%. In light of findings that show scientific literacy declining despite growing public interest and scientific output, this study attempts to show that reliance on journal publication and subsequent coverage by the media as the sole form of communication en masse is failing to communicate science to the public.

Reading over this now, I find it slightly amusingly arrogant, but mostly innocuous, a rather bland statement. However, when first posted, something about this enraged me beyond all reason. In fact, this was my reaction. (I should warn you here, it gets quite explicit.)

Fuck them!!! The arrogant sons of bitches!
Who gives a fuck what they’re talking about? They think they’re so high and mighty playing with fancy toys that the rest of society pays for. And then when we chose to give our attention to other things they blame the mass media and scientific illiteracy. Well, fuck you very much, scientific community.
Repeat after me: if we’re not paying attention, it might, just might be BECAUSE YOUR FUCKING SCIENCE SUCKS.
Now sit down and shut the fuck up!

When my friend (probably completely baffled), asked if I was being serious, I decided to “elaborate.” And by elaborate, I mean continue my rant. (Again, explicit.)

yes, really. I am offended by the implication that because less than 1% of sci papers make it to the general public, it must be the fault of the general public, without a moment of thought that it might be the fault of the science/scientists. Hey look, if you like science (which I do) go and do science, but don’t act like you’re better than everybody and that everybody should be listening to you all the time.
I like the philosophy of Hegel and the poetry of William Blake, but do you see me whining and whinging because they’re not more popular (the self-indulgent bastards!), or dialectically determining why few people read philosophy?
Being unwilling to be self-critical (or even consider the possibility! of being self-critical) and then looking down your nose at others…that’ll get you bitchslapped by me in no time!

It was left at that. (No surprise that this killed the conversation.) Now, I am both embarrassed at my vulgar attack on my friend (after all, he did post this to his Facebook page), and proud of the content of my critique. By which I mean that I do in fact think that wrapped up in that short abstract are a few unsavory presuppositions, and the language used is a little more than patronizing. How else to understand the words “failing to communicate science to the public?” As if there were these two entities, the public on the one hand, and scientists on the other: the scientists are the sages of truth and the bearers of wisdom, and they come from on high to ‘communicate’ this truth and wisdom to ‘the public.’ Not only that, but they are slightly baffled as to why the public is not as interested in science as they are, as if to say “I like this thing, why don’t you?”

I think one of the more revealing aspects of this abstract is the idea of “quantitative analysis” of the problem. Quantitative analysis (I am sure) is a useful tool for scientists, but it seems to be one (at least these specific) scientists can’t put down. It is kind of like the case of the man who carrying a hammer, sees loose nails everywhere.

In any case, I think I’m still right. Scientists think that they are more important than they are, and they think that because it is important in their lives, it should be important in ours too. Sigh.

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“Ok, but [my friend might have asked, had he unwisely chosen to engage with a ranting maniac with an ax to grind], do scientists not truly know more things than the general public (within their specific fields), do they not have something beautiful and wonderful and interesting to say to the community at large? Can science not convey the miracle that is this world, even if it is not the only such vehicle?”

Indeed. And in the spirit of constructive debate, and not hurling insults, I bring you an article by Christophe Galfard in the World Policy Institute Journal. He starts off by asking some questions about microbes, and their perception in popular culture. And then moves to his larger point. “Is it because they are too small to be visible and hence don’t appeal to the feeling of awe that grips people looking at the night sky? Is it because once it is known they belong to the realm of microbes they just become subjects of fear? Perhaps. But it’s more likely the real reason is simply that their story hasn’t yet been told in the right way—and I suspect this is true for most scientific research.”

I emphasized the words their story because I believe we humans are story-kind-of-things and not quantitative-analysis-kind-of-things, and hence for something to be understood it needs to be in some kind of story. In fact the last section of Galfard’s article is called ‘Story Time’. And to get there, he takes a detour and tells the story of a scene in the film Neverland.

But what I like, as opposed to the aforementioned abstract, is not only the diagnosis that there is a gap between science experts and the general public. It is also the (self-)awareness of the fact that the cause of the gap is equally on the side of science and scientists as it is on the side of the public. Towards the end of the article, he writes the following. Through its findings, science yields answers none of us ever expect and may even help ensure the future survival of our species. But for this to happen, science needs to be alive and thrive in all the bizarre avenues opened to the human imagination […]. The dreams and prospects of science are unfathomable, and they should not be confined to the reach of a handful of experts, but be open to all. For this to happen, policymakers would be well advised to help scientists team up with, or become, story tellers who share their findings in lay terms with everyone.

For a mind blowing and beautifully written article, click here.

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December 13, 2011

Think Big

A couple of years ago I read an interview with the maverick architect Lebbeus Woods from 2007. The eye catching aspect of the online article was a drawing of a reimagined New York.

Here is what he had to say about his thoughts regarding the drawing:

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth.

When I first read this, I thought “how wildly, insanely implausible. Wonderful but implausible.”

Then a few weeks ago, I saw online a map of an “extended Manhattan,” from 1922.

And yet, this map is the downsized plan of a “really greater New York,” by Dr. T. Kennard Thomson from as early as 1911. In an article published in 1916, he describes “a project to reclaim fifty square miles of land from New York Bay, to add one hundred miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of twenty million.” This is what it would look like.

What you’re looking at is Manhattan and Brooklyn attached by reclaiming land from the East River, which itself would be moved east, running from Flushing bay to Jamaica bay. Manhattan is extended south by some five miles (to the mouth of the Varrezano narrows). And several other parts of New York bay turned into land.

Now, I have no idea if this would actually be possible from an engineering point. Dr. Thomson assures his readers in the article in which he proposes the whole plan that the “majority of engineers, however, have acknowledged the possibility, and [that he has] received hundreds of letter of encouragement.” Obviously, he’s selling his own idea, so he’s biased, but beyond that, the whole article just brims with optimism and unbridled faith in progress. He sounds not just like a man who thinks this is possible, but that whether it is carried out in his time, it will sooner or later be accomplished. You should read the (quite short) article here, if only for its tone.

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The tone, however, is significant, I would here like to claim. Of course it is posturing of a man with outrageously ambitions ideas. And to our ears, this sounds like pure fantasy, giving the confidence of the tone a slight ridiculousness. But what if instead of thinking of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson as foolhardy, we think of our own thoughts about New York city shackled by what it is, making us unable to think of New York as how it might have been? In other words, what if we all thought of New York a little more like Lebbeus Woods?

In 1911, New York was going through a massive expansion. The Flatiron building was still new, the Met Life tower was the tallest building in the world (briefly), soon to be overtaken (in 1913) by the Woolworth building. This is the time when most of New York’s subway lines were laid out, and in general when the city took the shape that we are so familiar with. Had people at the time thought (dreamed) bigger, like dr. Thomson, would it not have been possible that it actually become bigger? Instead of a Manhattan connected to Brooklyn, and very close to Staten Island, and a city of twenty million, we have eight million, and the Varrezano bridge. (Itself an engineering marvel and nothing to be sneered at in terms of size, but still far short of dr. Thomson’s plan.)

Let me even go a step further. I do not think it is an accident that dr. Thomson and Lebbeus Woods talk about a radical enlargement of New York at the moments that they do. For dr. Thomson, it was, as I said, a moment when New York was exploding. For Woods, it is a moment when it is again possible to dream big about big cities. What I mean by this is that New York was basically formed by the 1930’s. Of course it has changed since, but its scale was set by the time the Chrysler building was topped out (let’s say). But as Woods points out, New York’s size, the basis of its global appeal for at least half a century, is now nothing special. Since the 1990’s, Asian and Latin American cities have been exploding in the way that New York did a hundred years ago.

It is, I think and despite Lebbeus Woods’ best efforts, too late for New York. But the question remains, for these other cities: in your expansion, what will you look like? So, São Paulo, Mexico City, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing – should you encounter your equivalent of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson, this would be the time to listen to him.

December 6, 2011

What do you see when you look through the pedascope?

This post was going to be about something else. I found out (via the Retronaut) about this fantastic contraption called the pedascope or shoe-fitting fluoroscope. It struck me as a good example of a our contemporary overreliance on what we think of as science.

Ok, one thing at a time. The pedascope was used from the 1920s until sometime in the 1960s, and was basically an X-ray machine that looked at your feet and issued shoe-fitting data. It strikes me that, more than a fad, there is an ideology behind this thinking. Since science has been terrifically successful in explaining, reinventing, reinterpreting our world from about the sixteenth century onwards, it has gradually pushed aside other criteria and ways of looking at the world in the popular imagination. If you ever want to win an argument at a dinner table, just claim that a study has been done proving whatever it is you claim. (Of course there probably has been a study proving that, just as there has been a study proving the opposite.) If ever you need to sell a product, just say that it was developed scientifically, or in a lab, or that scientists were consulted. This lends credibility.

If this were, however, just a case of human folly, things would be bad but forgivable. But the pedascope shows how this fad, while seemingly silly, is really quite dangerous. Overexposure to X-rays can, as we now know, lead to cancer. The pedascope is, in a sense, a mini version of the problem of eugenics. People thought (smart people!) that now that we have these scientific methods about what people and bodies should be like, we might as well use them and create a better human, or as the case may be, shoe.

And while I think this is a valid way of looking at the phenomenon of the pedascope, this post is about a different aspect of this device. It is about what Thomas Hayden over at The Last Word on Nothing lovingly calls crap technology. While hipsterishly retro in tone, the article did get me thinking about how quickly technology goes from cutting edge to crap. And it’s not just that better stuff replaces older stuff, the older stuff is also different. Vinyl records had the word ‘record’ in them, as in a record of an event, something that was lost on later music carriers. Making a mixed tape turned out to be quite different from making a mixed CD. iPods made music stores obsolete, we get our music off the internet. And mp3 music has to come with a video, because multimedia is here to stay.

Conversely, though, this means that if we were to look backwards, at technology that has long ago passed into the realm of ‘crap’, we would also catch glimpses of ways of living different than our own. Enter Maurice Collins, from this BBC article from back in 2006 (when Youtube was only a couple of years old and Facebook was still only for American colleges, lest we forget a world without those existed once upon a time). As an amateur collector, Collins collected enough gadgets from the end of the 19th and early 20th century to create three separate exhibits. From self-pouring tea pots to an automatic tennis ball cleaner, the man has over a thousand separate items. Self-pouring tea pots! Wait a minute, what does that mean? Why would people have self-pouring tea pots? Or, another piece from the collection, a mustache preserver. If we no longer have these, does that mean that men are simply not growing their mustaches anymore? Or that they care less about them being covered in beer? Are there men today who cover their mustaches the way Hercule Poirrot does in the 1974 movie incarnation of Agatha Cristie’s Murder on the Orient Express?

[I wish I had a screen shot of this. But if you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean.]

And what about the pedascope? Do our feet no longer hurt? Have we no need for better shoes? Is there no more a right and wrong way of wearing footwear? Perhaps sneakers carry some of this in them when they are advertized as worn by this athlete or that. It seems that our world finds it far more important what shoe allows you to jump high (to make the basket), rather than…well, I don’t know…

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December 4, 2011

Lock, Stock, and Why Structure Isn’t Everything

I was told once by a friend that if I were an abstract concept, I would be structure. This, apparently, because I go on about how important structure is in works of art. And it is.

A few days ago, just for fun, I watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels again. I had seen it when it came out in the late nineties, and have probably watched once since then. (I would like to mention that I went to see it with three really good buddies at the time, and we vowed to recreate the drinking scene two thirds of the way in. It has yet to happen, but I’m still hopeful.) What I remembered about it, even from the first viewing, was how good its structure was. By which I mean two things: everything is accounted for, and the timing is impeccable. (The timing of everything is what gives this film its ‘fun’ aspect, similar to Charlie Chaplin comedies.)

The very brief rundown of the structure goes something like this. There’s the four boys, Harry and Barry, Big and Little Chris, the Northern duo, Dog’s gang, the weed growing scientists, Rory’s gang, and Nick the Greek. Each group thinks at any given time that it has a single relationship with any of the other groups, and doesn’t realize how interconnected they all are. Pull on a string that connects any two groups and they are all affected. Not only that, but things that seem to happen out of nowhere in the beginning, such as Gloria being carried into the weed lair, the immolated man running out of a bar, the conversation Plank has with his boss Dog at the beginning, they all tie in and explain various aspects of how the action plays out. And each aspect, each connection between the groups, each development is necessary for the ending we get. It’s like a game of cat’s cradle, all the various overlapping and intersecting strings at once resolve into nothing. Just like that. That’s good structure.

So then, what is missing from the film? Well, women for one. I don’t mean to say that every film has to have a leading lady or anything like that, but the lack of women points to something. All the characters are caricatures. They are summed up in one sentence which we get at the beginning of the movie. What made good gangster films into excellent gangster films (Donnie Brasco, The Godfather), is that we saw these ruthless killers as human, not just there to propel the action. The psychology of the characters (and the viewers) is further stripped down due to the lack of any moral dilemma. Sixteen people die in this film, and everybody else, ruthless gangster or regular Joe, just brushes it off.

Now, I’ve had the soundtrack to this film since it came out. It’s a great playlist of songs. But whereas other films use music to broaden the theme, to add a dimension, to call into question what is going on visually, Lock Stock just reinforces what we already think about what is going on and fills in the gaps between perfectly stylized lines. It is as one dimensional as the monochrome lighting throughout the film. I know it is supposed to paint a picture of a grim, dog eat dog world, in which only the color of money counts, but since we already know that, the lighting is just along for the ride.

On the other hand, what a ride! It’s clever in its use of a messy plot, so that as soon as the viewer forgets about one of the groups, and you will, it surprises you by coming out of left field, usually baring a gun and threatening to kill everything in sight. And as I said, the timing and propulsion of the plot lead to that perfect resolution. Great structure, now if something were only hanging on it.

December 2, 2011

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species

About a year ago, I read this piece on a blog of a friend o mine, and loved it. (The original, for those who read Serbo-Croatian, can be found here.) With his permission, I translated it, and thus bring you

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species
by Miloš Luković

On July 15th 1972, the space probe Pioneer 10 left Cape Canaveral for outer space, designed to go beyond the Solar system. It was later followed by Pioneer 11, as well as Voyager 1 and 2. As part of the Pioneer 10 project, a gold-anodized aluminum plaque was welded onto the antenna support struts. Its purpose was to describe who we are and our location to potential extraterrestrials. Among other things, the plaque features a drawing of a man and a woman. They are drawn in the nude. Why? Why are they naked? How is it that nakedness describes people well?

the plaque attached to Pioneer 10

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not a puritan, against nudity for moral reasons. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it is as far from the truth as a naked man is from a complete man. To be complete, a man has to have pockets, which I claim out of personal religious conviction.

I was once asked what I believed in. I said that I believed in pockets. Pockets are very useful. Useful to keep things so as to free my hands. Free to give the middle finger to people who ask stupid questions.

However, pockets have a utility that surpasses my needs. One carries all of oneself in one’s pockets. Alright, alright! I am aware that half the human population prefers to carry all of itself in its purse. As far as I’m concerned, pockets beat purses every time, if for no other reason, then because they are sewed to clothes and thus more practical. A purse I would constantly forget. I’d forget my own head were it not for my neck connecting it to my body. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s see about the contents. Here, I’ll empty my pockets onto the table. House keys, wallet, mp3 player and a mobile phone. Trinkets? Perhaps to the untrained eye.

If you were to try to describe humanity as a species, you couldn’t get around pocket contents. Pockets are incredibly important because they hold everything that anyone could ever tell you about Homo sapiens. Before we begin, let me mention that I know that I’m writing this for other Homo sapiens, and not some other, extraterrestrial species, so if you think I’ve left something out, you’re either an ET or you’re not paying attention.

Let’s go in order:
Keys – among pocket trinkets, this is the most common. Keys point to having a residence or a home, a place to harbor you from inclement weather, heat, cold, tiring members of your species. Your residence is where you live. A home is your personal space. Space for an individual. And people who say that the family is the basic unit of society, let them answer me this: why is it, then, important for each family member to have their own room? Wherever you chose to live, apartment, house, cottage, mansion, your house had to be made. This points to a myriad sciences, technology, crafts, trades that man has mastered. Mastered, not so much to build shelter, but to make this shelter adequate for its own kind (as opposed to shelters made by birds, termites, or beavers).
Billfold [1] – a most interesting object that could tell us something about man. Starting with its name: billfold. The word itself tells us it is meant for holding bills. Bills, money, these are universal equivalents in market trading. A sort of shortcut in exchange of goods. Instead of exchanging goods, you pay for things you need. Money indicates complex inter-human relations caused by an arbitrary division of resources on the planet humans inhabit. We call this the economy. However, the wallet holds within it other things characteristic for Homo sapiens – documents. In complicated familial, tribal, and inter-tribal relations, with the increase in population, we have arrived at the point of not knowing all the people from our own community. This is what documents are for. They tell us who we are. Where do we com from, when were we born, where we live, and most importantly, how we look? Documents are essential. When you are born, you are issued a paper recording the birth. You don’t even know that you are born if you have no papers. When you die, you are issued a paper. If there is no paper, you didn’t die.
Mp3 player – my favorite gadget. I prize it above the cell phone and wrist watch. Although I am not one of those who venerate so-called “single function devices,” I must admit that there is a certain elegance to them. Whence the mp3 player on the complete man? Simply because an aspect of the complete man ought to relate exclusively to art. This is why I don’t mind it being a single function device. It won’t cover all the arts, but that’s less important. It’s enough to make my point.
Cell phone – this object found in everyone’s pocket is most controversial. Plenty of debating can be done about this one, but I’ll say that we haven’t yet gotten completely used to it. Future generations, those growing up with digital technologies as inevitable part of their landscape, will not even consider this object especially odd or worth debating, but there is an aspect I would like to mention. Every cell phone has in it a phone book. A phone book with the numbers of people more or less important in our lives. Those more important we place on our speed dial list, for ease of access. The cell phone is a manifestation of man’s desire to have those nearest to him at hand at all times.

There. A religious confession. Like all confessions, limited to the interpretation of the one offering it. A pocket confession, appropriate to our modern age.

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1. I am using the word billfold here because the Serbo-Croatian word novčanik contains within it the word for money, which wallet does not.

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