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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Tuesday 9 July 2002

§ More about Stephen Wolfram: Sunday's New York Times Magazine published a Q&A.

In academia, there is this common statement: New ideas have either been done before, or they're wrong, or both. And it's kind of charming to me that people send mail about some things in my book, say, ''We've said this before.''

But I don't think they've understood what I've said. In fact, if they did understand, their first response would be, ''That can't be right.'' People's responses are being documented in a very obvious way. There are newsgroups and postings. I find it rather interesting. But so far, I'm just collecting the data. The thing one learns about the history of science is that these things take awhile. And one waits.
Also, today's Los Angeles Times summarizes the Wolfram controversy in a long front page article by Charles Piller.

§ David Weinberger's "unified theory of the web", in his book Small Pieces Loosely Joined (Perseus), gets a baffled response from reviewer David Futrelle in Sunday's Washington Post Book World.

Weinberger, a writer and business consultant, argues that despite all the technology behind the scenes, the Internet is fundamentally about people, not data. "The Web is a world we've made for one another," he writes. "It can be understood only within a web of ideas that includes our culture's foundational thoughts, with human spirit lingering at every joining point."

Trouble is, Weinberger has a little trouble connecting these airy generalizations to the specific details of life as it is lived online and off -- in part because he doesn't seem to have any real curiosity about how others make sense of their worlds. ... Weinberger spends most of the book lost inside his own head.

§ Do Americans read lots of books? Or just say they do? (With coincidentally discussion of Wolfram's book along the way).

Reading occupies an uncertain place in American culture, which has simultaneously celebrated and suspected the thinker. The United States was conceived by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other intellectuals, but the true folk heroes tend to be generals, cowboys and gangsters.

At the same time, millions have subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club and joined reading groups. The desire to at least appear well-read has led CliffNotes and other publishers to expand summaries of great literature from the student market to adults.

§ Speaking of which, CliffNotes competitor SparkNotes has begun publishing study guides to (among many others) recent SF and fantasy novels, by Bradbury, Card, Clarke, Crichton, Frank, Heinlein, and Rowling...

§ Vocabulary note: know what a bonkbuster is?

Friday 5 July 2002

§ Salon recommends The Bellybutton Fiasco by Tom Bissell and Webster Younce, a deliberately bad novel concocted by two book editors to demonstrate that online publishers like Xlibris, who "published" this, will publish anything, just as traditional vanity presses have always done. Here's an Amazon link where you can buy the book yourself, or read the reader reviews.

§ Cthulhu dolls (link via Robot Wisdom).

§ Salon revisits the familiar story about varying criteria for assembling bestseller lists, and the coming age of BookScan.

...the increase in the number of lists has also begun to make the word "bestseller" a slippery term. Now there are scores of books each week that can be called "bestsellers." (In fact, USA Today lists its 150 bestsellers on its Web site, so that "Junie B. Jones Is a Beauty Shop Guy," the No. 150 book through June 9, can call itself a "national bestseller.")

§ Also in Salon, an interview with James Gleick, whose new book, What Just Happened, reviews the past decade's changes in information technology.

Something happened starting 10 years ago that was really exceptional. The speed of change of technology is different now. It's qualitatively different. It's disturbing. We can't always appreciate that because our memories are unreliable. Our attention spans seem to be shorter. We all feel this.

But something very much like it happened a century ago, when the world suddenly got electricity and telephones, and underwent a sudden and dramatic change in the size and topology of the globe. So, it's happened before.

§ The "biggest book of the summer", according to Time Magazine, is the latest in Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's "Left Behind" series of Rapture fantasies, The Remnant, and it signals a peculiarly American obsession with the end of the world.

A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack.

§ The dinosaurs we grew up with, according to U.S. News, were an unrepresentative, and pale, sample. (Via Slate.)

The dinosaurs featured in children's books and museums grew to prominence because their fossils happened to be located in the American West, where the first concerted effort to uncover them took place. But remains of species that could "kick T. Rex's ass," in the words of one paleontologist, are showing up on other continents, forcing a ground-up reconstruction of the dinosaur world.

§ And now to undermine those Chesley Bonestell paintings: astronomical colors are more a matter of interpretation than commonly thought, says

...the very vocabulary of astronomy is riddled with misleading color terms. Red giant stars like the bright and popular Betelgeuse, for example, are not really red, though they can sometimes appear so from Earth.

"If you could walk up to Betelgeuse, it would look white," [astronomer Kenneth Brecher] says.

That's because the star's light would overwhelm the color-sensing cones in your eyes. Only from a great distance, when the star is relatively dim, can the cones sometimes detect a hint of red. The vast majority of red giants, however, set off only the rods in your eyes, which cannot detect color at all. So most stars appear white, regardless of how they are classified.

§ The current controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance, originally written by a Christian socialist at a time when flags were rarely displayed in public schools, is an object lesson in the gap between a writer's original meaning and the meaning readers later perceive; Reason summarizes the flag issue:

A recitation whose leftist author apparently intended it to instill regard for a benevolent central authority was soon read by rightists as an indispensable performance of patriotism. This rightist interpretation long ago established itself as the only valid reading. ... We often pretend otherwise, but cultural meaning trumps everything else, from taste to law.

§ If there really were space aliens, asks via MSNBC, what is the likelihood they would be visiting Earth, as so many people believe they are?

§ At Slate Princeton assistant math professor Jordan Ellenburg examines the media's obsession with Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

Wolfram is selling not just a theory, but a story—the story of a genius who retreats from the misunderstanding and jealousy of smaller minds. Some call the genius crazy, but he doesn't mind. Some raise technical objections to his theory. But the genius knows that true ideas are always simple and that technicalities are just the so-called experts' way of hiding the inadequacy of their ideas. ... Sound familiar? You've heard it a lot lately. It's the story of A Beautiful Mind: Ron Howard's cartoon version of John Nash is shown scribbling in the library a lot...

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