7 Quick Takes (9/14/12)

7 Quick Takes (9/14/12) September 14, 2012

— 1 —

When I get overbooked and miss a week of Quick Takes, I get enough of a backlog for seven gloriously nerdy links.  Let’s start with the pyrotechnics and build from there, shall we?

Via io9 [which is throwing an error, so try this link], science photographer Richard Roscoe wanted to figure out what would happen if a human (or a grotesque hobbit) fell into lava.  Would they sink right through or burn on top of the molten rock?  You could spend time thrashing this out with a physics textbook and a whiteboard, or you could drop 30kg of mostly organic waste into a volcano.

To paraphrase Dumbledore: “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is simple and what is on fire, remember what happened to a trash bag that sank and then exploded, throwing off plumes of molten rock, because Richard Roscoe wanted to know the answer to a question. Remember this experiment.”


— 2 —

But that’s not the only cliff-related experiment I have for you this week!

Also from io9, scientists wanted to how old babies had to be before they understood what a ledge was.  This was in the 1960s, when human subject committees approved protocols like this:

In the Visual Cliff Experiment, a baby pen is set up that has a high shelf on one side and a drop-off on the other. Both have a pattern so that the drop-off can be clearly seen. Plexiglass is placed over the side with the drop-off, so if an infant crawls onto it, the baby will be just fine. Still, the drop is unnerving.

The first experiment was set up in 1960, when E.J. Gibson and R.D. Walk wanted to find out if infants had any practical conception of physical reality. They placed the infants on the shelf, and had their mothers show a toy to them. The babies eagerly crawled toward the toy. They then had their mothers put them back on the shelf, and move around to the far side of the visual drop-off. Again, the mothers showed the babies the toy and encouraged them to come and get it.

The researchers found that, starting at around eight months, the babies were reluctant, or even refused, to crawl over what they saw as a cliff. The babies avoided the cliff even when they put their hand on the glass and felt its solidity. Most of the thirty-six babies tested just wouldn’t go over. Younger babies could be tempted to try to wriggle themselves over the cliff, making researchers believe that they hadn’t gotten the visual or spatial maturity to understand that anything was amiss yet.

(Incidentally, the researchers tried the same thing with baby goats, who avoided the cliff one hundred percent of the time even when the goats were only a few hours old. This sample may be biased, though, since it’s unlikely that the researchers got the goat’s mother’s cooperation in the experiment.)


— 3 —

I only recently started following Andrew Gelman’s blog (shame on me), but luckily I tucked it in my RSS reader just in time to see that when stories of academic fraud crop up in the news, Gelman turns them into several amusing movie plots.  Here’s the first one:

[S]eeing the above story gave me an idea: what if somebody created an university and filled it entirely with disgraced academic frauds. Wouldn’t that be cool? I’m getting a Bad News Bears or Slap Shot kinda vibe: a crusty Walter Matthau or Paul Newman puts together this low-budget college full of talented washouts who know that the only way for them to succeed is to go all out, 200%, using every dirty trick they know.

The script could follow the classic three-part pattern: in the first act, Matthau/Newman gets the challenge (perhaps there’s some charming middle-aged lady who’s inherited a crumbling Faber College that’s about to lose its accreditation (cut to ragtag group of students including the sorority sister, the nerd, the goofy foreigner, the underachieving basketball player, etc.)) and they need to put together a shiny new faculty, pronto! So our hero scoops up Diederik Stapel, Frank Fischer, Michael Bellesiles, and about 15 guys from the back pages of Retraction Watch. Doris Kearns Goodwin could run the English department or the history department, I’m not sure which. There could also be a funny scene where Matthau/Newman runs into Laurence Tribe at the bowling alley and talks him into quitting Harvard to take up the challenge of singlehandedly staffing Faber Law School.

In the second act, the new college gets its act together, actually starts educating students and successfully bamboozles the accreditation committee. (I’m picturing a scene here where a stuffy inspector is checking out the law school, and Tribe is running around behind him, changing into different outfits, putting on a fake beard, at one point getting into a dress, in order to impersonate an entire law school faculty.) I’m also imagining some fun hijinks involving Mary Rosh—that would be the econ department, or maybe the policy school.

Finally, in the third act the fraud is revealed and everything blows up. Maybe there’s even a literal explosion when it turns out that the fake cold-fusion reactor in the physics lab really works! Cut to a split-screen happy ending where Matthau and his girlfriend are happily collecting, Producers-style, on all the student loan guarantees while, one by one, the graduating students are succeeding at various fast-talking sales jobs that use the shady skills they learned at Second Chance U.

— 4 —

Meanwhile, at Measure of Doubt, Jesse Galef has doubled down on Stephen Colbert’s mathematical analysis of One Direction’s song “That’s What Makes You Beautiful.”  Here’s Colbert:

And here’s Jesse:

It turns out she’s not in a flickering state of hot and not, she’s perpetually hot – but she cannot possibly know it without logical contradiction! From an external perspective, we can recognize it as true. From within her own mind, she can’t – even following the same steps. How weird is that?
Then it hit me: the song lyrics are a great example of a Gödel sentence!

His post is glorious.  And it’s all the excuse I need to throw up this quote  from John Barrow’s Pi in the Sky:

If we define a religion to be a system of thought that contains unprovable statements, so it contains an element of faith, then Gödel has taught us that not only is mathematics a religion but it is the only religion able to prove itself to be one.


— 5 —

I imagine his mathematical lyric parsing skills makes Jesse Galef very popular with the ladies.  If you’re trying to match his level of awesomeness, perhaps you should peruse Edward Feser’s list of pick up lines for philosophers.  Among my favorites:

[singing] “Don’t go changing, to try and please me. I love you just the way you are.”

“I can’t get you out of my mind.”

“So, what is it like to be a babe?”

And a great deal of credit to Feser for tacking this one on at the end:

“Potency and act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either a pure act, or else coalesces necessarily from potency and act as from its first and intrinsic principles. I say more about this in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition.”

— 6 —

But wait!  There’s more science! to link to.  The Christian Science Monitor has a nice feature on a family that all lived on Mars time for a month.  The dad works at the JPL and has to switch to Mars hours for the Curiosity mission, and his family decided to keep him company.  Hijinks ensue.

The first few days seemed charmed. David came home around midnight to a brightly lit house with a cake baking in the kitchen. The kids yelled their greetings when he opened the door.

But a week after the Mars landing, the family started to drag. The kids — 8-year-old Devyn, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 13-year-old Braden — struggled to stay awake until sunrise, when it was finally bedtime on Mars.

Their schedules became so misaligned that the family stopped marking their days by Earth time. Instead, they used words like “yestersol” and “solmorrow.”

— 7 —

Remember how I asked you all to keep me accountable and to scold me if I don’t post costume progress pics every Monday between now and Halloween?  Well, you certainly deserve a reward for taking that on, so let me link you to an interview Jeanette Ng did with Silver Goggles.  Jeanette Ng is the woman behind Costume Mercenary, which I adore (I am seriously longing for her Inquisitor’s Greatcoat).

Anyway, the interview covers her approach to LARPing and the ‘ricepunk’ style she’s pioneered.  Here’s a teaser quote:

Again, perhaps this links back to how odd I find it that steampunk exists as this sprawling shared world setting which is slightly different to each of its members and the community is still hashing out the ways in which they can talk about the details. It’s odd to me as a larper because when I create characters and their costumes, they exist in very specific worlds, where the details are more or less immutable (or mechanisms are in place to deal with “regional variation”).

And yet, when any given person on the internet is designing a steampunk X, many of the worldbuilding questions that that X should open up are never answered. The world setting of this object never need be clearly articulated and it is assumed that its steampunkness is self evident. Often, the objective is to create a cool looking thing incorporating the elements of the steampunk aesthetic.

That is when it can get very thorny for me. A lot of unspoken assumptions go into this complex shared world we term “steampunk”. It’s not a specifically defined world setting, but we sometimes talk about it as though it is. We will ask each other what would steampunk X look like, as though we can answer that without answering all the underlying questions about the world.

“What would a steampunk vampire hunter look like?”
Surely it would depend on what sort of vampires they’re hunting, where they are hunting them and so forth… And yet we can find an answer. We can work off the cultural archetype of the vampire and vampire hunter.

I’m not saying it’s a terrible approach at all. I’m sure I’ve done it as well, but the problem is, fundamentally, there are a lot of assumptions about this world that are problematic.* Particularly when it is talked about as though it were Victorian Reenactment, without the icky bits.

…A lot of steampunk deals with a hyperreal past (that in some ways never was) and that’s part of what it is. Every culture reimagines the past to suit themselves (see: the middle ages for the Victorians and the Romans for the Regency) but I would like to think us self aware enough to be able to separate the playground we build of the past from the actual past. And it is not that I claim to know exactly what that past was like (because I don’t and in some ways we can’t), but we can make some pretty good guesses and we certainly shouldn’t be rewriting the past to suit ourselves.



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