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October 10, 2008

The decline and fall of knowing anything about anything
Posted by Patrick at 03:16 PM * 217 comments

David Matthew, in Interzone, August 2008, reviewing the Orb reissue of A. E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle:

“The very title…is falsely cute, especially if it brings to mind a scampering puppy…”
I personally find van Vogt’s “Golden Age” science fiction to be heavy sledding, so I’m happy that David Hartwell has been on hand to package, with verve and enthusiasm, the series of reissues we’ve done over the last few years. But even I know what the title of van Vogt’s 1950 fixup refers to.

What do they teach kids in British schools these days?

Comments on The decline and fall of knowing anything about anything:
#1 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:24 PM:

OMG. My 12-yo knows that! (Of course, we did go see the AMNH's Darwin exhibit, a few years back, so cool to see his actual desk.)

#2 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:30 PM:

Sheesh. I mean, I understand that my cultural background doesn't match everyone's, but I'd still expect a critic to realize that Snoopy doesn't scamper (and isn't even a puppy).

#3 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:38 PM:

Bless me. It's all in Plato, all in Plato.

Not Pluto.

#4 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:39 PM:

That's a brain fart he'll have to live with the rest of his professional life.

#5 ::: Fred ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:44 PM:

At first I assumed he meant falsely cute in the title's allusion to Darwin. Which I didn't quite understand -- Matthew's meaning, not the allusion -- but at least it was better than the suggestion that van Vogt was writing about some kind of interstellar Snoopy.

#6 ::: Angie ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:50 PM:

Wow, I'll be someone's wishing for a do-over right now. o_O

Angie

#7 ::: Angie ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 03:51 PM:

Umm, someone aside from myself. [cough] I'll bet, even. :P

Angie

#8 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 04:35 PM:

Did you know that the book's French title is La faune de l'espace, which means The Fauna of Space?

#9 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 04:50 PM:

Hopefully they're still taught not to shut wardrobe doors behind themselves...

#10 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 04:52 PM:

Oh, I never made that connection either. I have too many worse things to be ashamed of to feel much shame at that, though. Or maybe I did realize it at some previous point, but not as a kid when I first read it.

And never in the 12 years in the British school system (6 of them at a private school) did I encounter any of Darwin's actual writing. They don't teach it in English Lit and the treatment of the history of science in science classes is pretty minimal (and I'm not sure that more time should be spent on history).

The classical education is dead. Someone else would have to tell me if it ever really existed. Certainly my education did not involve much in the way of studying the classics but was focused much more on techniques and the best current consensus.

(Well, I say "current consensus", but that's not really true. In physics, for instance, the consensus they teach is that of about 1910. Or maybe 1850. Personally I think they should start all physics with quantum mechanics and work backward from there so you don't have to spend half your time unlearning whatever it was you were taught last year.)

#11 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:08 PM:

Jacob, I don't think it was much different in my day.

On the other hand, at home we had a fairly big, gloriously illustrated, book which told you a lot about Darwin, what he found, and how it tied in to the history of life on Earth.

It was a long time before I realised that the Beagle was Hornblower-tech.

#12 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:11 PM:

Chuckling @ Adam #2.
That is, <cough> I meant to say:
OMG WTF BBQ L00LZ! OMG TEH L0Z3RS!
PS Y U CALL SNOOP DAWG SNOOPY???

#13 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:16 PM:

My thought process when encountering this book as a teen:

--Wow, that's a really stupid title...
--But it's a reference to Darwin!
--So what? It still sounds like shit.

I'm with Mr. Matthew. It's falsely cute, brings to mind a scampering puppy, and knowledge of its provenance does nothing to alleviate those things.

#14 ::: Iorwerth Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:24 PM:

#10: "Personally I think they should start all physics with quantum mechanics and work backward from there so you don't have to spend half your time unlearning whatever it was you were taught last year."

I dunno -- most people aren't going to need QM unless they go on to study physics at the university level. Classical mechanics is all most people need, because it's equivalent FAPP to QM at macroscopic levels -- well, that, and you need a good grounding in it before going on to the weird stuff, otherwise you'll not understand the concepts used.

Besides, quantum mechanics if done properly is probably more intimidating to a secondary school student than classical mechanics, and there are enough problems with the mathematical content of the latter scaring people off already -- adding Hilbert spaces and so forth to curriculum would probably kill the subject dead.

#15 ::: Glen Blankenship ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:28 PM:

I confess I didn't realize what Van Vogt's title was alluding to when I first read the book.

Of course, it was the first science fiction book I ever read. I was in second grade at the time.

#16 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 05:55 PM:

No way I'm getting into that argument about what should be taught first; that's a black hole I've been into before*. But I will say that what's taught in secondary school science is 2 generations old of necessity because undergraduate science is typically one generation old, and that's what the teachers learned a generation ago.

Though sometimes it's not as far off as that. My high school chemistry/physics teacher taught basic quantum theory circa 1930 in chemistry (this was in the early 1960s): electron orbitals and the qm origin of covalent bonds, etc. He even tried to teach Relativity in physics, though he never did grok the twin paradox. On the other hand, the biology teacher had just gotten his master's and was teaching us general systems theory and levels of organization. Now that was an eye-opener.

* Yes, it is possible to get out of a black hole; the technique involves the sacrifice of a troll and a rainbow long enough to go over the event horizon.

#17 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 06:13 PM:

I tend to think of Interzone as British Literary Snob, so maybe it's a Two Cultures thing.

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 06:31 PM:

Some people pick up information, the way some people pick up belly-button lint.

If there's a flaw in modern British education, it is that teachers have been pushed into teaching the test. There are several different sorts and, for the school, good test result bring rewards.

If the Beagle isn't in any test, it isn't going to get a mention.

#19 ::: sean williams ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 06:34 PM:

You can know all about Darwin's Beagle and still get an image of a dog. One mental category doesn't rule out the other. That's the great thing about the human brain. Concepts overlap.

You're being a bit harsh, putting it down to poor education or snobbery. Imho, of course.

#20 ::: Doris Egan ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 06:40 PM:

I don't have the original context, so I wonder: isn't it possible David Matthew knows what the title refers to, and considers it so famous he hasn't referenced it?

“The very title…is falsely cute, especially if it brings to mind a scampering puppy…”

That could mean, "Bad enough a cutesy play on Darwin, but this particular cutesy play could easily bring to mind a scampering puppy to back it up." The word "especially" seems to suggest a layered effect of imagery, with the second layer being a puppy. I always imagine a beagle whenever I read the name of Darwin's ship; basically, I'm thinking of two images at once (ship/dog).

Of course, he could mean dog/puppy, and no ship about it. From the quote, though, I don't know we can assume that.

#21 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 06:54 PM:

Wow, it's an intellectual Darwin Award.

Meanwhile, I am very happy to find out that Snoopy is actively involved in the space program, and flies on every mission. There really is a Space Beagle.

#22 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 07:23 PM:

And "Snoopy" was also the unofficial name of the lunar module for Apollo 10. The ascent stage of that LM was jettisoned after downing, and in heliocentric orbit. So that space beagle still voyages...

#23 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 07:53 PM:

If I read it as a teen, it would have had the title "Unternehmen Milchstrasse" and I really cannot say if I did.
I *do* remember that at the age of twelve I understood a jocular statement that "after his famous expedition, Charles Darwin was able to prove that man had evolved from the beagle", without the ship's name being mentioned in the text.


#24 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 08:06 PM:

@8:
Did you know that the book's French title is La faune de l'espace, which means The Fauna of Space?

I didn't know that, but that's not a bad pun for La faune de l'espece , meaning the Fauna of the Species.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 08:09 PM:

Pendrift @ 24... Curses! A possible pun wnet right past me all those years ago?!

#26 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 08:17 PM:

I think the key word in the quote is "if" -- if the quote had been "particularly as the title brings to mind...", then I'd find it hard not to give it Patrick's interpretation. The context would be key.

#27 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 08:39 PM:

@24

Fauns in Space!

#28 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 09:08 PM:

My memory is faintish after 40 years, but I *think* there's a reasonably direct reference to Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle in van Vogt's book. I remember reading it and making the connection, which hadn't hit me before.

Next year's Darwin Bicentennial & Origin of Species Sesquicentenary might raise the recognition factor.

BTW, any comments on the Nobels?

#29 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 09:25 PM:

sean Williams @19: Harsh? Oh, please. Patrick is pointing at a funny. And it is funny; a would-be critic who misses an obvious and intended allusion in a work in favour of a superficial, unintended one, and critiques the latter only, no mention of the former, can legitimately be supposed to have missed the boat entirely.

If it'd been me that fumbled that one, I'd only be hoping I could live it all down by Christmas.

#30 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 10:40 PM:

Start with nonrelativistic QM? Nonsense--they'll just have to unlearn it when they hit quantum field theory. Obviously the first class around about junior high should be about renormalization schemes, dimensional regularization and the Standard Model Lagrangian. In graduate school they can gradually work up to pulleys and inclined planes.

#31 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 10:40 PM:

I'm reminded of someone (alas I don't recall who) harrumphing that Dan Savage's book title "Skipping Towards Gomorrah" was a shameless ripoff of Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

#32 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 10:56 PM:

#30
It sounds almost reasonable.
My 8th-grade science teacher did introduce us to e=mc**2, mostly, I think, to impress us with how much e you get for a small value of m. (He gave us the the mass the sun loses in one second, and the value of c, and let us do the arithmetic.)

#33 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2008, 11:22 PM:

Matt McIrvin at #30: I know computers are a lot more powerful these days, but I don't think they are up to the level of fully simulating a pulley. That's a lot of atoms, and the rope is made up of all these organic fibers, from a physical point of view it's very complicated. Basically we know pulleys work in practice, but it's going to be quite a long time before we can fully understand how they work in theory.

#34 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:00 AM:

TomB -- I actually had an acquaintance make a similar argument, in all seriousness. I was grumbling about being stuck in an embedded-software job instead of doing the computational chemistry that I'd spent all those years studying (because it's a subject I happen to find very interesting). She pointed out that the electronic devices I was working on were all made of chemicals, after all, so all I had to do was develop a system which would let me model the devices using the chemical-structure-modelling tools that I was already familiar with.

When I tried to explain that there was a serious problem of scale involved, she accused me of having a negative attitude. Of *course* I would never get it to work if I refused to even try it... but she was *sure* I could figure it out if only I looked at it the right way. I never did manage to get through that invincible ignorance.

#35 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:00 AM:

Nobel Prize commentary:

Medicine: Count me as one of the ones disappointed that Gallo didn't split the Prize with Montagnier. Notice that both citations (for the HPV half and the HIV half) cite the discovery of the *virus*, not of what it *does*.

Chemistry Prize: Everyone's favorite, a methodology prize. No really, these are the best kind -- the Nobel committees live in fear of honoring something that turns out to be not all that important, but a useful technique is *always* important.

I gather that there's a bit of a kerfuffle over the Physics Prize, but I know less about the inner workings of that one.

#36 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:03 AM:

Dunno about starting with quantum mechanics in high school, but I do think that undergrad quantum mechanics classes could ditch the month they spend on teaching physics as it was understood in 1899 and trying to convince the students that they should find the stuff they're going to learn in the rest of the semester so very surprising. Just teach it! I'd rather start with something simple, like the two-state system, than with complicated stuff like black body radiation that just happened to come first historically.

Of course, for all I know that's how these classes do work nowadays. It's kind of shocking when I realize how long ago my undergrad quantum mechanics class was.

#37 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 01:01 AM:

Why do they have the beginning physics lab repeat the work of Galileo and Newton? I think we learned about five ways to get a rough value for gravity. (On the other hand, in the later semesters, we got to play with lasers and liquid nitrogen and a big electromagnet - but not all at once! And the extra short course on measuring radioactivity was a lot of fun, even though we didn't get to use pitchblende from Poland and the scintillation counter wasn't ready in time.)

#38 ::: Stuart ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 01:58 AM:

P J,

When I see how much science fiction is written by people who don't have a grasp of what is contained in Principia Mathematica I have no problem at all with starting with the basics. Remember that Principia is also Netwon's introduction to integral calculus. The Fundamental Theorem of Integral Calculus is the dividing line between the great mass of the population that is scientifically illiterate and the smaller percentage that have a clue.

What is taught in physics class is not just physics but experimental science. The physics is trivial if you understand it---the experimental science is a world view that most people never grasp. I think most people could learn it given the proper tutelage.

As an analogy, think about learning music. Most young music students get wrapped up in playing the notes. It is much more important to learn to play the music and it is quite a different skill.

#39 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 02:06 AM:

I was only half (or maybe a quarter) serious, and am not a teacher nor a physicist, so entirely unqualified to comment. Plus, I have no idea what order current curriculums teach things in. But I do think that quantum mechanics is not all that hard to understand, or perhaps that it ought not to be so hard to understand as it seems to be, and therefore maybe what's needed is an improvement in the explanations.

Also that a subject should start from some kind of a guide to the actual, latest consensus worldview. Which maybe they do these days. It's been a while since I was in high school.

Not that this has anything to do with the book.

I do think it's interesting when these evident differences about what constitutes "knowing anything about anything" come up. I wonder what the results of a survey would show about the overlaps and correlations among the things people put in that category. I try to be ready at any moment to discover how mind-blowingly embarrassingly staggeringly ignorant I am about any particular subject, so that when it proves to be the case (as regularly happens) I can move swiftly from the "OMG I can't believe I didn't know that, I must look such a fool" stage to the rather more useful "assimilation with previous knowledge" stage.

I also wonder whether the overlap will get wider or narrower in future. I can imagine people learning much more idiosyncratic subsets than the conventional school curriculum out of an ever-expanding base of knowledge and literature. Or maybe we'll wind up with everyone on the planet having read the exact same books in high school cause everyone, even the children of Asian steppe herders, now agrees that if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye you just can't participate in civilized society.

#40 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 02:11 AM:

Joel Polowin @ 34

Your friend was a classic case of being right for entirely the wrong reason. Feynman's original motivation for the idea of the quantum computer was to have a device that could simulate QM interactions at sufficient speed and complexity to make it practical to model mesoscopic matter, where non-quantum digital computers could maybe handle modelling a methane molecule at the time. The problem is exponential in the number of particles for non-quanntum computers, and polynomial for quantum computers, so there is a trick for solving the problem. You jut have to invent quantum computing.

#41 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 02:30 AM:

I've still heard people say weather could be forecast perfectly accurately if there were just enough information put into big enough computers.

The whole thing about Chaos theory, contingency, Heisenberg & assorted basic concepts of unknowingness & randomness either haven't penetrated or their worldview simply rejects that entire group of concepts. Not to mention how it might apply to things apart from weather.

#42 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 02:35 AM:

Principia Mathematica is not Newton's Principia, and famously takes some 360 pages to prove that 1+1=2.

I have heard it claimed that mathematicians think physicists are clumsy, while physicists think mathematicians are weird.

It would not astonish me if some mathematician has a completely different way of figuring out QM problems, buried in a proof of, for instance, Fermat's Last Theorem.

#43 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 03:13 AM:

"Principia Mathematica is not Newton's Principia"

Wikipedia seems to think that Newton's book is often called that too. But - and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong - they have "Principia Mathematica" take you to the Russell & Whitehead book. So it's a draw. Let's just say you're both wrong, for the sake of fairness.

I think drawing the line at calculus between the "scientifically literate" and those "without a clue" is a bit arbitrary. You don't need calculus for most of computer science, for instance. While it's nice to think that something you know and most people don't is also the true key to understanding the world, since we're all completely ignorant of about 95% of everything we haven't directly studied ourselves, I'd be pretty cautious about where to draw a line.

#44 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 04:11 AM:

What do they teach them in schools these days? Not the things we think are important, for sure. Though *I* didn't know the relevance of "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" when I first heard the title (I remember thinking it a bit strange, so I found out what it meant), so clearly this has been going on for a while.

But. An example. I took Marianne to the House of Lords yesterday (I'm probably going to write about this for a fanzine), and as we got to the Houses of Parliament we passed the statue of Cromwell. "Why's there a statue of Cromwell there?" asked Marianne. "Wasn't he evil?" (this from children's books, especially "I, Coriander", which I liked but which Farah hated precisely because of its unthinking and stupid royalism). Later questions included "Does the Queen actually have to sign the Bill even if she doesn't like it?" which I think I certainly knew by the time I was 11 and which I was definitely taught in school. I also gave her, on the way in on the tube, a crash course in "How Bills go through Parliament". I *know* this isn't normally taught in schools, because not only did I not know it when I started working in policy, but we teach all our staff the same thing and none of them know it either.

#45 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 04:21 AM:

I certainly knew what the title of Van Vogt's book was referring to when I first encounted it but I don't recall whether that was from my own general reading or something I was taught at school. Certainly things like this, and Harlan Ellison reporting that a reference by him to 'the emperor's new clothes' was recently met with incomprehension by a group of college students, are a bit worrying.

#46 ::: Kate ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 04:49 AM:

My mum has a much loved album called 'the Voyage of the Beagle' by a band named Galapagos Duck, which lead to several interesting conversations about Darwin when I was very small.

Incidentally, I'll be spending two weeks in the Galapagos (and another two weeks in mainland Ecuador) next January, which I am rather excited about.

If anyone has any suggestions for reading material/documentaries and the like for before I leave, it would be much appreciated.

I'm planning on reading Darwin's original work, but anything on evolution/ecuador/blue footed boobies etc is what I'm looking for.

#47 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 06:19 AM:

Jacob @43, Stuart @38: Probably I was learning calculus around the time I was reading Voyage of the Space Beagle.

Then I could do derivatives, &c, fairly well & work out how & when to use them. Now? No chance. I have a very general idea & images of some diagrams.

Thirty years ago I needed extra statistical maths for my undergraduate honours work. Very little indeed remains — barely enough to excoriate occasional news stories' errors.

For 25 years I've been editing words & bending computer systems to my will (*koff*). Like an unused language, maths has faded from my mind.

#48 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 06:36 AM:

On the general topic of what should be taught in schools, I strongly wish that there would be more focus on the process of learning, as opposed to the practice of learning.

Although this applies in most areas, it is most clear in science courses, where many students seem to fundamentally not understand the scientific method. In the end, about 50% of the value of a science education is the facts and theories. The other 50% is a fundamental understanding of the scientific method and how to use it.

Every science course should be paying a great deal of attention to making sure that students understand the how and the why of the scientific process, and which specific portions of science they teach are a little secondary to that, because once you have that to work with you can go a long ways, but without that, all the facts you have are basically a dead end.

That might seem obvious, but my experience says that a lot of science courses are missing it.


(On a totally unrelated note that just happened to come up as I was typing this post, if you search Google for "parochial", it also offers you the search results for "dictionary", because they are apparently so similar.)

#49 ::: Jan Vaněk jr. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 06:40 AM:

What do they teach kids in British schools these days?

Reportedly, what powers a solar-powered snail.

FWIW, when van Vogt had a brief era of popularity in Czech translations in early 1990es, the series (published in instalments) ended up as "The adventures of the 'Space Hound'", though IIRC some of the accompanying "About the Author" materials (with other van Vogt stories?) used "... of the space 'Beagle'" and explained the reference.

#50 ::: David Mathew ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:10 AM:

My review was obviously not clear enough. I can only apologise for that.

#51 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:32 AM:

Dave Bell @ 42:
Principia Mathematica is not Newton's Principia, and famously takes some 360 pages to prove that 1+1=2.

While it's true that the full title of Newton's book is Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematica Principles of Natural Philosophy), it is often referred to as "Principia Mathematica" (or just "Principia"). Of course, this may be more common among physicists and other scientists, who are less likely to have heard of Whitehead & Russell's book.

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:48 AM:

pericat @ 27... Fauns in Space!

Is it a satyr of the original novel published by MinoTor?

#53 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:50 AM:

janetl @ 31...

I don't think I ever heard of that Doc Savage novel "Skipping Towards Gomorrah".
("Serge.. It's Dan Savage.")
Oh.
Nevermind.

#54 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 08:35 AM:

I do think that undergrad quantum mechanics classes could ditch the month they spend on teaching physics as it was understood in 1899 and trying to convince the students that they should find the stuff they're going to learn in the rest of the semester so very surprising. Just teach it! I'd rather start with something simple, like the two-state system, than with complicated stuff like black body radiation that just happened to come first historically.

That's the Feynman Lectures on Physics, volume III approach, also used in Sakurai's intro-graduate textbook Modern Quantum Mechanics. I like it, but it does have the problem of starting out a bit dry and abstract.

#55 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:15 AM:

What do they teach kids in British schools these days?

Going back 28-odd years, solving the Schroedinger wave equation for a unidimensional electron in a box was, indeed, part of the Physics 'A' level syllabus -- a couple of weeks after general and special relativity. So yes, 1930s era quantum mechanics at age 17/18 was part of the education system.

(Alas, I did rather badly at it.)

#56 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:23 AM:

>the first class around about junior high should be about renormalization schemes

This presupposes a proper maths background: complex-plane integration, Riemann-Lebesgue theory, and group theory at least.

>#35 ::: Doctor Science
I spend enough time in the shallower end of the tubes that I feel compelled to speak for them, albeit mockingly: "Don't you know that HIV both was developed by the C.I.A. and does not cause the AIDS*---they spent billions and indulged in years of secrecy in order to develop a virus that does nothing at all...perhaps they are claiming godhood through their fine grasp of the Principle of Heavenly Œconomy."


*It's caused by poor diet, AIDS drugs, a splinter of the Knights Templar, and an excess of the bilious humour

#57 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:33 AM:

I agree with some others that there's probably not a single point (or small set of points) about which knowledge or ignorance determines whether you're properly educated. In fact, that seems to be the problem with standardized testing.

And that's kind of a problem, right? We have standardized testing because we'd actually like to know which schools are doing a decent job. It's worth knowing that. It's worth acting on that knowledge, too. But by doing the testing and judging the schools/teachers on the results, we create a big incentive for both teaching to the test and for cheating. (Along with the fact that if you're unsophisticated in your interpretation of the test results, it will turn out that teachers of middle-class white and Asian kids are almost all really good, and teachers of poor black and brown kids from bad neighborhoods are almost all really lousy.)

My own experience is that if I'm not running into places of my own ignorance very often, I'm not pushing myself enough, not exposing myself to enough new ideas. Staying inside a bubble where only your current knowledge is enough to understand the world is like deciding that you'll never listen to any music that wasn't popular when you were growing up.

#58 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:35 AM:

Michael #56:

Couldn't you work in mercury in vaccines and "the truth about the 9/11 attacks" in there, somewhere? I'm sure they're all involved in AIDS somehow....

#59 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:40 AM:

I forgot my original comment: I don't think this is sneer-worthy, or yet another sign of the sophocopalypse. If it were The Voyage of the _Space_Beagle_ (in the absence of a working tag), or "The Voyage of the Space Beagle", or even The voyage of the space Beagle, now that would be a thing. It will be easier once your spex or implants flag nouns as proper or not, just as (if you are of a mind to do) it will flag dress as improproper or not, using laser-interferometric data and a Biblical/Quranic expert system.

Also, <Obligatory "'Two Cultures' reference>.

#60 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:56 AM:

The classical education is dead. Someone else would have to tell me if it ever really existed.

It did. I studied Latin for 10 years and Greek for 6 at school. Once upon a time I could translate extracts from Macaulay into the style of Tacitus (with a dictionary to check whether a given word was current in silver age prose). I am not yet 60.

I have forgotten the whole lot, of course, but I have noticed that the best third generation programmers I've encountered in the real world tend to be trained Latinists at least as much as mathematicians, so there.

#61 ::: Lyle Hopwood ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:14 AM:

I didn't know the name of Darwin's ship when I first read Voyage of the Space Beagle, but I found the title's image neither cute nor scampering. I lived in the countryside and I'd seen fox hunts set off with beagles. I thought of the dogs as dedicated hunters.

#62 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:15 AM:

Doris Egan, #20: I don't have the original context, so I wonder: isn't it possible David Matthew knows what the title refers to, and considers it so famous he hasn't referenced it?

If I had come across this line in a review, that would be my assumption. The idea that he didn't know the reference would never have occurred to me if Patrick hadn't suggested it. And, on a purely technical note, I can't think of any way to slip in the exposition that wouldn't have defused the joke.

#63 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:40 AM:

Alas, by the time I reached secondary education we were reduced to a mere 5 years of Latin, no Greek, and the Latin omitted entirely any attempt to translate English into Latin. Quite how they thought you could learn a language without ever attempting to say anything in it is beyond me.

Looking at my childrens' recent educational careers, it is certainly possible to leave school in the UK with no significant knowledge whatsoever of science. The vast majority of children take a single "combined science" course. One typical curriculum is here:
http://www.21stcenturyscience.org/the-courses/core-science-science-for-scientific-literacy,907,NA.html

And the universities are no better. We recently met a young women doing a plant survey while we were out walking. She was a recent postgrad on her first job, with a degree in field ecology, and when we met her she was laboriously keying out a primrose. Walking around with her it became clear that despite three years of degree level education, she was unable to identify on sight a single flowering plant.

We really are heading towards a point at which there's no-one left who knows how the machines work.

#64 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:09 AM:

Education in a culture consists of what the culture considers appropriate to denotatively communicate for:
a) expectation of "what someone in this culture needs to know to survive"
b) the culture to survive as meme and continue itself
c) extras considered "good" and appropriate, beyond pure survival of individuals complying with the cultural norms, and survival of the culture.
d) values reflecting the above

Dead White Males from the northern Mediterranean area as pedagogical mandates reflects the mindset and value set of renaissance Europe. The Greeks and the Romans had societies based on slave labor, and voting for their very limits classes of adult citizen males. The Greek city states got conquered by Macedonia and later Rome because they weren't much into cooperation.

Not being a white male, there's a limit to my admiration and extolling of the Greek and Roman culture, and their Importance. China seems have had some very advanced technology and social stability over millennia despite a lack Greek and Roman influence. The decisions for insularity and a stone boat over contact with the rest of the world, however, were factors which ultimated caused China to stop being in the technological forefront and be susceptible instead to foreign invasion.

Rome, for that matter, made the concious decision to squelch technological advancement, for fear of social change and particularly the prospect of the social system involving patron, the patronized, and slaves, changing.'

The technology in the Americas failed to get recognized as such--horticulture gets at lot less attention in the modern world as Important in general everyday life, than giant particle accelerators, say. But, look at diet and where the foods came from--peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, nearly all squash, most beans, duck, turkey, maize, are from the Americans. Wheat, barley, rice, oats, sheep (though there are native American sheep, they weren't the ones domesticated), goats, cattle (though there is beefalo, with bison and bos taurus crossbred), chickens, lettuce, carrots, beets and their relatives, spinach and its relatives, soybeans, tef, most citrus, apples, pears, the cabbage family... are products of the eastern hemisphere. Both hemispheres had grapes.

The Americas had magnificent horticulture, some of which was intentionally suppressed (quinoa and another crop I can't think of at the moment, because they were also tied into homicidal religious rites and bloodletting) after Columbus. The depopulation and considerable social debilitation of the Americas occurred with the arrival of Eastern hemisphere pathogens on infected Eastern hemisphere natives. (Translation, the Europeans particularly were unsanitary and carried all sorts of nasty disease with them, that where the native populations didn;t all die from the spreading diseases, it weakened their cultures and societies anyway to where conquest was a lot easier.)

(I was very surprised to find out that domestic duck, is actually mostly mallard, which again, is an American native bird).

#65 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:14 AM:

#63 Andy

And the universities are no better. We recently met a young women doing a plant survey while we were out walking. She was a recent postgrad on her first job, with a degree in field ecology, and when we met her she was laboriously keying out a primrose. Walking around with her it became clear that despite three years of degree level education, she was unable to identify on sight a single flowering plant.

Gak! A cousin of mine whose degree is in biology, at the age of two or three was doing better than that (he walked over to a plant and said, "smackdwagum" ( = snapdragon, which it was).

#66 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:15 AM:

Hell, I'd be happy if the schools here did a good enough job at teaching classical mechanics that the students came out believing in wearing seat belts.

#67 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:56 AM:

Andy @ #63, one of Clifford Stoll's pet peeves is undergrad astronomy students who can't look up at the sky (even in a suitably dark location) and name even a single constellation.

#68 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:04 PM:

Paula @#64, I think the other crop you're trying to think of is amaranth. I've grown it, actually, but the one I grew was a variety bred for leaf production rather than the seeds, which were the part used in the religious rituals. It was pretty tasty, attractive and easy to grow.

#69 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:31 PM:

Paula Lieberman # 64:
Rome, for that matter, made the concious decision to squelch technological advancement, for fear of social change and particularly the prospect of the social system involving patron, the patronized, and slaves, changing.'

Hmm... I think I might be kind of skeptical of that statement. Certainly, there were technological advancements during Roman times (e.g., concrete and other architecture advances; siege weaponry; more advanced water mills; etc.). And what evidence is there that the Romans "consciously" decided to squelch anything, other than, say, religious cults that seemed to threaten the existing social order (Bacchic cults during the Republic, Christianity during the Empire)?

#70 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:37 PM:

Alison Scott @44:

Clearly there is a burning need for the UK version of SchoolHouse Rock, which taught at least one American generation to sing the Preamble to the Constitution, and about how bills become law.

Lila @67: How can students be expected to identify even the Big Dipper if they've never spent much time in a place where the sky gets dark at night? And where their parents didn't, either?

Now, one of *my* pet peeves is that 99.98% of movies & TV showing "space" depict a uniform sprinkling of stars and no Galaxy. The one exception was Babylon 5 -- they weren't consistent, but at least there *was* a Galaxy, much of the time.

#71 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:50 PM:

Lila @ 67: One of my pet peeves is computer science graduates who can't program, can't do simple arithmetic in hexadecimal, etc. We tend to encounter them with alarming frequency at $WORKPLACE, where the interview process begins with a written skill test.

(Then there was the guy who made special arrangements to write the test from home, in another city. Most or all of his answers were cribbed from the web -- usually the second or third hit on Google. This came to our attention because one of his answers, to a math question, involved blather about selecting a group of atoms, applying a name to the group, and then running a function from the menu. My boss asked me if I, as a chemist, knew what he was going on about, and it seemed to me that that paragraph had been copied from documentation that I had written a few years earlier, for a chemical structure modelling software package. As it turned out, the text was from documentation for the equivalent feature in a competing software package. But the prospective job applicant hadn't even realized that the text was almost entirely irrelevant to the question he was answering.)

#72 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:53 PM:

Doctor Science @#70, you have a point about the rarity of dark skies. But is it really prohibitively expensive to go somewhere that has them? Sure, many would-be astronomy majors come from families of limited means--but ALL of them? I would bet that from most areas in the US you can drive an hour or two and get to a fairly dark rural area. Compared to two weeks at Space Camp, a weekend stay in the Podunk Hotel in order to catch a meteor shower from a local beach or park would be fairly cheap.

#73 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 12:55 PM:

Stuart, #38: The Fundamental Theorem of Integral Calculus is the dividing line between the great mass of the population that is scientifically illiterate and the smaller percentage that have a clue.

What an utter crock of shit. The existence of pop-culture TV shows like Watch Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy is proof that you don't have to get into integral calculus to be scientifically literate. I don't need to be able to describe the math of nuclear fusion in order to understand that it's what powers the sun.

Epacris, #41: The whole thing about Chaos theory, contingency, Heisenberg & assorted basic concepts of unknowingness & randomness either haven't penetrated or their worldview simply rejects that entire group of concepts.

I plump for the latter hypothesis. You have no idea how many arguments I've had with people who honestly believe that "everything happens for a REASON"! And they'll build the most rickety towers of pseudo-connection in order to avoid admitting that anything could be random. I've actually invented a new description for the logical fallacy I see them demonstrate: ante hoc, ergo propter hoc. As seen in the wild: "[horrible thing] HAD to happen so that you could have [good thing] now!"

#74 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 01:29 PM:

*skipping to the end*

One: people need to be taught age-appropriate physics, at least as much as age-appropriate sex education. With luck, the former will, by the age of 16, allow the young human to do the math in her head and come up with an answer for (2xy=350)+(2xx=240)+(1xx=90)/(Plymouth Kcar)(wet road+15mph turn) which doesn't put the two boys and the extra little sister on the passenger side of the car and then go around the outside corner at 30. Equals tree, and damned lucky it was rotted from so many earlier impacts that no-one was killed.

Two: the reviewer was doomed as soon as he critiqued the title, which is always a sucker move.

#75 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 02:56 PM:

Joel @ 71: Funny you mention it.

I just made a tentative hire yesterday, after a week and a half of interviews with different applicants. (We're going to have him do a toy-sized real-world project first and see how he does before we formalize the hire.)

I gave all the applicants a simple programming skills test - 3 fairly simple problems (parse a string containing a file name, test whether two rectangles intersect, and reverse a singly-linked list.) Two applicants, with years of resume experience, were completely unable to do any of them. One of these at least knew it and said "Oh no!" when I showed her the list of questions*. The other was blithering on confidently inventing new "or" operators and writing complete gobbledegook. A third applicant did OK at the first two, then asked "what's a linked list?" After I put my jaw back in and explained, he looked at it a bit and blithely said "I have no idea how to do that."

It's been a strong reminder that, apparently, a substantial number of working programmers can't thinks in code. I think there's a large degree of pure talent involved. It's not simply education or exposure, given the range of both I've seen in the last few weeks.

* I really was hoping we could hire her, because she had great QA and writing experience, and was demonstrating those skills, but we needed someone who could code too.

#76 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 03:15 PM:

Lila @ 67:
... one of Clifford Stoll's pet peeves is undergrad astronomy students who can't look up at the sky (even in a suitably dark location) and name even a single constellation.

Heh... I'm reminded of a passage in Walden where Thoreau opines that not one of the learned astronomers of Harvard University would be capable of navigating his way across Boston Harbor, let alone the wider seas.

The truth is that there are lots of professional astronomers who only know a handful of constellations (I can probably only find twelve or thirteen myself), and more than a few who know none. It partly depends on how they got into astronomy, of course: those who came in via physics are less likely to know constellations than those who got started as amateur observers with backyard telescopes in their childhood.

On the other hand... I can't help thinking that complaints like "Oh, kids these days, they can't even identify constellations/primroses/whatever" are a bit superficial. It's not necessarily a good indicator of deeper knowledge or commitment, even though people may want to see it that way. (It's perhaps a trifle sad that modern-day medical doctors cannot, on the whole, read Galen in the original Greek. But if they could, it wouldn't tell you very much about how good they were as modern-day doctors.)

#77 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 03:19 PM:

Matt@30 channels Beyond This Horizon's discussion of an infant's math education (that ends with ~"They hadn't started him on arithmetic yet; after all, he was only a baby.")

Stuart@38, Micah@48: definitely. ISTM that the prevailing attitude today is that scientists just make things up; an understanding of experimentalism, including experimental error, is key to understanding that scientists are not politicians. There should also be room for knowing how theories got discarded (e.g., was phlogiston really that stupid an idea before investigators got seriously quantitative?) and the difference between the basics and the bleeding edge.

DrSci@70/Lila@72: it doesn't take anywhere near that long to get to where you can see constellations; at my job, ~10 miles from downtown Boston, the Dipper and Orion (in season) are clearly visible despite the sidewalk lighting. Suburbs may be better for starhunting than exurbs as there's less clutter, provided the light pollution isn't too horrible. Maybe it's as much a question of being taught that there is something to see -- although I wonder why such people would even take astronomy; do they think it's a gut course or are they confusing it with astrology, or . . . ?

#78 ::: William Shunn ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 04:12 PM:

CHip@77: "or are they confusing it with astrology, or . . . ?"

They must be. How many people do you meet who are perfectly able to answer the question of whether or not a Cancer is compatible with an Aries?

#79 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 04:58 PM:

One of my pet peeves is the vast number of educated, even scientifically-literate people I know who don't understand simple concepts about the law, such as the basis for judicial review of legislation, what "at-will" employment means and why it is the default in the United States, and the history and point of the Seventh Amendment. These are things that affect Americans' day-to-day lives much more than a detailed understanding of how nuclear fusion works or the grammar of Latin.

Where I try to avoid a total plunge into curmudgeonly elitism is getting away from the notion that anyone who doesn't "get" my speciality is an ignorant fool, and how Kids These Days are not taught such concepts as they were in my youth.

I think we would all agree that it would be nice if kids were given a well-rounded, fact-based education that focused more on understanding and less on how to fill in the little circles on the SAT. But let's not use that as an excuse to say that [my area of learning] is something any fool ought to know.

#80 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 05:06 PM:

Clifton @ #75, I'd have embarrassed myself if given those questions. I learned a dead (programming) language.

#81 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 05:16 PM:

The astronomy subthread is making me think of Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer," a poem which, alas, annoys me:

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

I can't read this thing without thinking that Whitman is missing at least as much as the "learn'd astronomer." Probably much more--it's very likely that a habit of looking up in perfect silence at the stars was the reason the astronomer decided to learn about them in the first place.

#82 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 05:19 PM:

@Joel #71 -

Ah, programmers who can't write code, can't think code, don't know the languages they claim to be able to write code in, can't solve simple problems, and can't imagine the basic routines behind an extremely simplified ATM (I mean, the idea that you need an operation to deduct money from the customer's account entirely escapes them).

The sad part is that some of them do get hired in the industry. I can't explain it, except that someone must want warm bodies more than thinking bodies. Sometimes if you hand them explicit instructions and then check the work afterward with a dedicated QA team you might be able to not lose money on the deal.

Over at The Company we tend to demolitions-interview our candidates---multiple phone screens and then multiple in-house interviews, and then group discussion as to whether we would want so-and-so on our team. Many times the interview process is cross-team, and the standard is: "If you think the guy 'might be a good hire' at that level and yet you don't want him on *your* team at that level, that's a no-hire."

#83 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 05:28 PM:

Peter Erwin @76:
Most of them don't care; most "constellations" are what professional astronomers call "stellations" because there isn't really a "con-" (== "with"): they're artifacts of our viewing location and angle. Professional astronomers are more interested in true constellations — most of which aren't visible from the earth's surface.

Doctor Science @70:
Never mind the UK; there's a pressing need for it to be reintroduced here in the US. (The good news is it's in the bargain DVD bins at local grocery and discount stores, at least around here.)

#84 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 05:48 PM:

Yesterday, the local SF club's meeting involved parlor games. One question was what the opposite of a positron is. Someone suggested a negatron.

#85 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:04 PM:

What this discussion reminds me of a talk/exposition that Octavia Butler and Chip Delaney gave at MIT in 1998

Part of the discussion rolled around to the apparent decline of functional literacy in the "first world," and what might be the causes and effects from such a decline.

From my own comments during that discussion, I opined that sometimes it looked like a purposeful shift away from general literacy, and what the consequences could be:

"...As a perceived need for literacy drops, what we may see is a growing despotism of those who can read, who can control the information flow. And getting back to the fragmentation, the balkanization of language through slang may become a way that some people would possibly use to control segments of the society--the same way that in the past, people think and react to their neighbors differently on the basis of religion, color, or small shifts in language. You see it in very insular areas. There are places where you can still go today and you can live there for 40 years and you're still one of their flatlanders rather than being somebody who has lived there..."

[uh, huh, uh huh -- I finally get to quote myself..{/snicker}]

#86 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:08 PM:

I gather that "negatron" has been used in the past to refer to electrons, though I don't know if the term is used at all currently.

#87 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:40 PM:

Joel -- in re the three questions for the programming job -- depending on the computing language involved, I might not be able to pass your te, and I do have 30+ years of real-life/real-world programming experience using multiple computer languages. I would very likely be able solve them using pseudo-code, though.

This brings up the parallel issue of what is deemed "important" in a skill set. Is the knowledge of precise syntax and semantics of a particular language more important than than the ability to review a problem and be able to do root cause error analysis? This is the equivalent of the earlier classroom effort to find 6 different ways to estimate gravitational force -- the point of the exercise was not really to find the estimates of the force involved, but to review the steps required to find the result, including the acknowledgment that Sometimes You Make Mistakes, and to work on the path that shows you learned from that mistake*

* this lack of recognition of the need to acknowledge People Make Mistakes is what makes me want to yell at people who denigrate politicians who may have had a change of belief/action based on the acquisition of new facts. The set of information available changing may require that the beliefs dependent upon that information set may change.

I.E.: if the facts-in-possession that led a U.S. Senator vote to approve a war-powers declaration are proven to be false and/or fabricated, an announced declaration to be *against* that war, after the new facts are made available, is not a "flip-flop," but a rational and responsible act.

#88 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 07:43 PM:

Joel --
No, No, the opposition to the positron would have to be the Susancalvin, of course.

#89 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 08:27 PM:

Peter @ #76, I don't think a professional astronomer who's never looked up at the night sky is in the same category as a doctor who's never read Galen. It's more like a doctor who's never dissected a cadaver.

Those who know more astronomy than I do: aren't stars named after the constellations in which they appear, in order of brightness (e.g. 51 Pegasi)? In which case, aren't constellations relevant to astronomers, even though they're an artifact of the view from Earth's position?

#90 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 08:30 PM:

The title might have been easier to parse if it had been The Voyage of the Starship Beagle; but of course, that is only because I grew up on "[..] the voyages of the Starship Enterprise."

Besides, wasn't 'space' as an adjective (space cop, space pirate, etc.) the marker for science fiction once upon a time?

#91 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:12 PM:

I should add, The Voyage of the Space Beagle was one of the first bits of science fiction I was able to buy on my own dime; fondly recalled for that.

#92 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:27 PM:

I think the title of Darwin's book is also falsely cute. The ship name promises a dog, and yet it's finches finches finches all the way down.

#93 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 09:30 PM:

Melissa Singer @#1: I think I saw the same exhibit, but at the field. His notebook with the words "I think" written above a doodle of an evolutionary tree is one of the most inspiring things I have seen in my life.

#94 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:00 PM:

Matt@54: Sakurai is very much the sort of approach I have in mind, yes. That's a graduate textbook, of course, but I think that approach would be reasonable for undergrad quantum mechanics too.

It would indeed have to be made less abstract, but that shouldn't be too hard; something like the Stern-Gerlach experiment would be a reasonable starting point.

I just can't think of any justification, other than tradition, for spending the first half of a quantum mechanics class going over some of the more subtle aspects of late 19th century classical physics. That sort of thing belongs in history of science classes. It's not as if classical mechanics classes do calculations the way Newton did. Better to teach science as it's understood today.

#95 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:42 PM:

Ah, context....

There's writing that assumes the typical reader has alluded to information in the reader's knowledge domain, and there's also writing that assumes that the typical reader won't have the decoding keys/information. (Tuckerisms in a commercial work, for example, generally involve the assumption that the typical reader isn't going to notice "Lady Tersa" and think "Teresa Nielsen Hayden).

Books written for contemporary audiences usually include contemporary givens and use analogies, metaphors, similes, etc., that are contemporary, and that decades later, are inaccessible or have lost the meaning that they had. "'til the cows come home" is a saying that has a very compelling relevance/image to it to someone who's been around a herd of cows, which come back from the pasture to the barn every afternoon without human intervention. Someone not familiar that that characteristic of domestic pastured barned cattle, isn't going to associate that meaning with the phrase.

Cultures have information that has the assumption that the members of the culture have acquired that information, as part of the common cultural fabric. Writings, songs, plays, stories, tutorial methods... of the culture use that assumed common knowledge base and may completelhy depend on it for communication.

Regarding physics--Newtonian physics is macroscopically present. Quantum mechanics isn't. The apple falling off the tree, rain falling from the sky, baseballs and footballs coming down and bouncing, are everyday occurrences at the macroscopic level, and things that people see, hear, smell, touch, taste... the same is not true of quantum tunneling. There is an experiencial component to Newtonian physics, that is not as direct with quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics is a case of quantum mechanics, but it's the one that the general population has as daily existence.

And most people, have some degree of being not well equipped to deal with things that they haven't experienced, some people have very narrow imaginations, until there is a model that's tactile and real to them, they can't imagine something.... (Industrial control engineers can't "blue sky" brainstorm; they can invent to demand, but they need someone -else- to write the specification denoting performance, size, shape, weight, operation... and -then- they will invent something which will meet the specs. Other people come up with idea with no ability to come up with ways for things to implement the ideas, at the other extreme of inventiveness. And then there are "flowers are red, green leaves are green, there's no way to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen" closed mind types....

#47 Epacris

I was disgusted to see in the current verions of a particular military specifications, an equation which requires at least undergraduate level math and maybe grad level, to have a clue about--it wasn't that I couldn't follow it, it was that the spec seemed written by some contractor unable to comprehend or uncaring of the fact that the equation was NOT relevant to the typical readers trying to either implement the spec, or to make sense of the spec and follow it.

The equation pertained to the derivation of the rules--which are extremely badly discussed, all in passive voice, of course, and without being decently indexed, even though they're distributed as .doc and .pdf files!

One of the few things that the Carter administration did as regards military stuff that I approved of, was set a "plain English" policy for government documents. The Reagan nincompoops got rid of that, and the Bushwhackers further offended. And turning everything over to contractors too proud of their analytical skills and the abominable passive voice abominable tech writing prevalent to juried journal papers and not concerned with the ability of ordinary mortals to follow passive voice alleged information, has made it even worse. It's a miracle ANYTHING that made for the military works anymore, because the spec writing has gotten so lousy!

#96 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:52 PM:

Craig R. @ 87: Joel -- in re the three questions for the programming job -- depending on the computing language involved, I might not be able to pass your te, and I do have 30+ years of real-life/real-world programming experience using multiple computer languages.

That wasn't "my" test described, though the one my employer uses is broadly similar. Would you be able to do that kind of task in a language that you were familiar with and which was suited to the task? That would be a reasonable comparison -- after all, we're giving the test to people who've applied for a position with an advertised set of skill requirements, and testing them for actual abilities with those skills.

And perhaps I'm showing my prejudices (or my age), but I really do think that anyone with a degree in computing science ought to be able to add 5 and 0xFFFE, as 16-bit values to give a 16-bit result, without a calculator.

#97 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 10:55 PM:

David Mathew, #50, would you care to clarify your review?

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:06 PM:

Joel, the company I work for has occasional openings for people who can use Microstation. They say upfront that it's required, and still half (or more) of the people applying can't pass a simple written test on it (that's the first test they have to take).

I suspect a lot of people believe that charm (or a lot of jokes) can get you hired, even if you can't meet the minimum standards for the job.

#99 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:23 PM:

Googling away...

{making strangled noises: http://smarthomies.blogspot.com/2007/09/hero-of-alexandria-greeks-and-mystery.html Flatearther-type homeschooler mindset,
It is the Word of God, taken as a unit, or the "Christian worldview," which provided the social and economic preconditions and wisdom necessary for the development of the industrial and technical West. No one else had this. Thus, only the wisdom of the word of Christ enabled the sharpest rise in the general standard of living the world has ever seen. For in Him "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." {making more choking noises}}

Ah, here's a more encouraging link:

http://etext.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv4-48

The civilization of China, ancient, extensive, and resilient, gave the world a number of great inventions....we may tentatively assume that the diversion and ultimate frustration of the inventive impulse was due to the values inculcated by the powerful bureaucracy,
the low esteem in which utilitarian motives were held, and the real lack of incentives to economic activity....

The experiences of classical antiquity tend to confirm that the progress of technics can be arrested at any stage by unfavorable social influence. In particular it has frequently, and plausibly, been suggested that the institution of slavery accounts for the ultimate failure of Greek and Roman science and technics.... (words regardign Alexandria in Egypt being an exception as regards interest and advancement in technics, but that a single city couldn't carry out an technological and informational revolution on its own) Was it perhaps symbolic thatthe only one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world which served a useful purpose and was not an instance of conspicuous consumption was the Pharos at Alexandria?

[references at the bottom of the webpage, but no specific citations for the particular passages above]

Thinking tangentally, the answer to the question, "Why didn't Archimedes invent integral calculus" turns out to be, "He did, but in the centuries between him and the time of Newton and Leibnitz, not enough people were sufficiently interested/cared/cognizant for that knowledge to be intenionally preserved." That the information got rediscovered recently, occurred because modern technology allows scanning imagery, including characters, that over time got written over by later scribes who were more interested in putting down their own words, than preserving what was already written on paper, hides, and another material usable for writing on.

Values come into play... there was a monastery full of ancient manuscripts, that over time the monks of stopped being interested in the manuscripts for their contents, and instead was using them for fuel for heating and/or cooking.

#100 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:25 PM:

Craig: in re the three questions for the programming job -- depending on the computing language involved, I might not be able to pass your test, and I do have 30+ years of real-life/real-world programming experience using multiple computer languages.

That's the reason each question begins, "In your preferred programming language, sketch out a function to..." and I accepted pseudocode as valid, as long as it seemed to approximate some sane language.

While our current development is in C#, I would slightly prefer someone who knows no C# but knows Java and C and C++ and Python and Perl, etc. as compared to someone who knows only C#. I had never seen C# before they hired me last year, and once I showed them a sample of my work they had no qualms about that.

I picked the problems fairly carefully too, as being characteristic of the kind of small problem that crop up and you have to solve constantly on the way to solving bigger problems. If you can't solve the small problems quickly and get them out of your way, the big ones are going to take you a hell of a lot longer.

#101 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:39 PM:

#75 Clifton

My reaction would be, "Oh, no!" also.... (QA engineer.... but I have to do some thinking in octal, some in hex, and then there is mixed format variable, the least significant three charaters are octal, the most significant two two are hex, how's -that- for a headache!, oh, there's another example of a mixed format variable, the least significant character ranged 0 - 3, and the most significant character is in octal....) My view of program-something-to is "there are lots of references that state how to do those things."

(And mostly I do manual testing anyway. Some of the places I've worked, programming is not a highly relevant skill as regards, "what did the developers not address in the spec/design/user interface/user-lack-of-brain-and-lack-of-coordination areas? Examples include, "what happens when the user enters an illegal value?" --it's alas NOT rare that the software writer left out validity checking on input, or failed to allow for human error in data entry otherwise, or for just plain cluelessness or maliciousness.)

#102 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:48 PM:

#77 CHip

The Schmuck in the White House is an experimental error?!

"are they confusing it with astrology?"

See the epilogue of Poul Anderon's The High Crusade

#103 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:16 AM:

PJ Evans @98: It depends a lot on the company and the job posting. Sometimes "requirements" (especially in terms of industry experience or familiarity with a particular language) turn out to be more... "guidelines". If you're the kind of person who learns languages and tools quickly, you may apply anyway figuring that you can get a crash course that will get you up to speed. Applying the test is then the best way to make it clear to applicants that No Really, We Mean It. (I've *never* taken a job where I knew the primary language of development well -- or often at all -- before I started.)

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:10 AM:

Joel Polowin @ 86... Well, blow me down. The word has indeed been used to refer to an electron. I also found that...

Negatron was the eighth album released by Canadian thrash metal/progressive metal band Voivod.

I still think it sounds like the name of an enemy of the Transformers.

#105 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 02:57 AM:

Joel Polowin at #96: 16-bit signed or unsigned?

#106 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 06:28 AM:

Lila @ 89:

Peter @ #76, I don't think a professional astronomer who's never looked up at the night sky is in the same category as a doctor who's never read Galen. It's more like a doctor who's never dissected a cadaver.

Well, we were talking about the idea of people who didn't "know the constellations", not people who'd "never looked up"!

But the relevant question would, I suppose, be this: is item of knowledge or experience X something that contemporary professional training assumes or requires? E.g., do medical schools still require dissection of cadavers on the part of doctors in training? If so, then it is important. And by this test, knowing the constellations is not -- no one tests you on your knowledge of constellations during your Ph.D. (Now that I think about it... it's true that I might mock a fellow astronomer who admitted that they couldn't identify any constellations at all... but it would be light-hearted, and it wouldn't have any effect on my judgment of their scientific work.)

#107 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 08:50 AM:

Lila @ 89:

Those who know more astronomy than I do: aren't stars named after the constellations in which they appear, in order of brightness (e.g. 51 Pegasi)? In which case, aren't constellations relevant to astronomers, even though they're an artifact of the view from Earth's position?

The few thousand stars that are visible to the naked eye do indeed have constellation-based names, though the really bright ones have Greek, Arab, or Persian names that are often used instead (Vega, Arcturus, Sirius, Polaris, and so forth). The Greek-letter system of Johannes Bayer (Alpha Centauri, etc.) is partly brightness-based, though Bayer occasionally went by position within the constellation instead. The Flamsteed system (e.g., 51 Pegasi) actually numbered stars by their west-to-east position within a constellation, not by their brightness.

Even then, if a professional astronomer working today wants to know where in the sky 51 Pegasi was, they'd probably look up its coordinates (the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude) in a database like this one. If they wanted to point a telescope at it, that's absolutely what they'd do.

Once you get beyond that small set, you find that stars are named according to what catalog they're in.

(This page has a nice summary of the different naming conventions for stars.)


About the only sense in which knowing where the constellations are in the sky might be considered relevant is in the system for naming variable stars, since these do still get named after the constellation they're found in. Even then, you're probably going to need a computer program in those cases where a variable star isn't obviously in the middle of a particular constellation (there are agreed-upon boundaries between constellations, but these are defined in terms of the standard astronomical coordinate systems, and aren't something you can tell by looking at the sky!).

#108 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:00 AM:

Joel # 96 --
Sorry - it looked like it was "your" test in that said test was the example you used (I see that it's really Clifton's).

"..anyone with a degree in computing science ought to be able to add 5 and 0xFFFE, as 16-bit values to give a 16-bit result, without a calculator..."

Excuse me, but that is what a calculator is *for* (I'm also presuming from your example that you are looking at unsigned integers?) and the answer is x'003'

If I'm working a code defect, or looking at a dump (more skills apparently not taught in CS degree programs anymore) I don't have the *time* to bit-fiddle to do arithmetic, unless said arithmetic *is* the defect.

Clifton # 100
In my present job, I'm playing with client/server and a language I'd never seen before this job.

Rather than raise false expectations in either the hiring manager or myself, I asked the manager (who I would be working for), why I was even in the interview, because except for some small stuff in C and VB all my experience for 30 years has been in mainframes.

His response was that what he wanted to buy was the skills learned in 30 years of analysis ad debugging.

Paula # 101
-- One of the current programs I'm modifying right now for work has an "onerror" type of run-time error trap. (for those knot in the loop -- an "onerror" trap allows any error (not otherwise provided for) to cause a branch to a specific piece of code that will gracefully handle the error, such as close files before terminating, ect)

In this particular program, the onerror trap code closes files and terminates the program.

No writing to the console to indicate the issue.

No writing to a log file, no e-mail to the production support desk.

Just close and go away.

I was not happy to see this.

When I'm done at least the appropriate messages will be generated.

What I don't understand is how, in an environment where all code is supposed to reviewed before it gets put into production, that this stuff passed muster.

#109 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:12 AM:

#108 Craig R

They have coding reviews, but what are the coding requirements that supposedly the developers write the code to comply with? If the requirements don't include "error trapping with the error trapping generating output to the console, error conditions symptoms and other output to a file/files, and or/dump file" then the review might not bounce the code....

#110 ::: Naomi Libicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:27 AM:

Kate @ 46:

The Encantadas by Herman Melville. Nothing to do with biology, but everything to do with the Galapagos Islands. Not very much plot, beautiful prose.

#111 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 10:31 AM:

Paula Lieberman @ 64:

[P]eanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, nearly all squash, most beans, duck, turkey, maize, are from the Americans.

I would say that I hate to nitpick, but honestly, I rather enjoy it.

Peanuts, much like coffee beans, are from Africa. As far as beans go, it's not exactly mostly New World. There are a lot of beans, so I'm not going to try and get an exact reckoning, but there are an awful lot of Old World beans --(broad beans, fava beans, chickpeas, peas, etc.) I'd say it's closer to half and half, whether you're counting by total species, or by total pounds consumed -- many of the New World beans are varieties of one species, the aptly named common bean.

And while it's true that most domestic varieties of duck descend from mallards, it's also the case that mallards are native to Europe and Asia, as well as to the Americas -- see BirdLife International's page about them.

As far as cultures turning back on technological progress, I'd be really cautious about assuming why it happened, how it happened, and if it happened. Looking at Roman shipbuilding, for instance, I can't come up with a point where progress stopped. The same applies to pottery, glass, and architecture; I'm not quite so knowledgeable about other sub-fields, but I'd have expected to come across at least one place where change was stopped, if the Romans were stopping technological development.

#112 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 10:58 AM:

Tom B. @ 105, Craig R. @ 108 re: signed vs. unsigned... okay, I'm confused, maybe because I'm stressed and overtired, maybe because I'm not a C.S. graduate. Does it matter? In the languages/systems that I've done bit-bashing in, the result is the same if you choose either assumption.

Excuse me, but that is what a calculator is *for*

There's a difference between "that's something I'd usually use a calculator for" and "I can't do that without a calculator". In any field, there are some basic skills that I'd expect from someone who's put in the time and effort to get a degree. I expect that someone with a degree in chemistry should be able to balance simple reactions; someone with a degree in physics should be able to calculate how much energy is equivalent to a specified mass of matter.

#113 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:06 AM:

As far as beans go, it's not exactly mostly New World.

IIRC, the old world beans are in the genus Vicia, and the new world beans are in a different one, Phaseolus. I don't know how much interbreeding there is, but I think the new world beans are more likely to be vines than the old world beans.

The experts are still trying to sort out the squashes; apparently they interbreed quite well, like the anatid ducks (mallards and all their cousins).

#114 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:07 AM:

Alter S. Reiss @ 111:
I would say that I hate to nitpick, but honestly, I rather enjoy it.

Oh, that's good. I may have to adopt that as a motto...

#115 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:25 AM:

Since we're talking about balancing reactions, I'm curious about something. When citric acid (C6H8O7) reacts with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) in water (do I really have to?), what happens? What do you end up with? I don't have enough chemistry to figure this out.

#116 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:49 AM:

Citric acid is a weak acid. When it's dissolved in water, part of it dissociates from the neutral acid molecules to negative citrate ions and positive H+ ions (which interact with the water molecules in a rather complicated way). There's an equilibrium between the states, which is biased towards the neutral-molecules side (because the acid is weak). If more H+ is added (say by adding some strong acid), it shifts the equilibrium, converting more of the citrate back to citric acid. If H+ is taken away (say by adding a base), the equilibrium shifts the other way.

Bicarbonate in solution also forms an equilibrium, a more complicated one: carbonate ion (CO3--), bicarbonate (HCO3-), and "carbonic acid" (H2CO3) which is carbon dioxide dissolved in water. Again, adding acid or base shifts the equilibrium. If you add acid, things shift towards the "carbonic acid" end, and carbon dioxide tends to bubble out of the solution -- that's another equilibrium, between gaseous CO2 and dissolved CO2, which is affected by temperature and pressure.

If you add both citric acid and bicarbonate to water, some of the H+ from dissociation of the acid will combine with some of the bicarbonate, and CO2 will bubble out. That loss from the system shifts the equilibria, so more of the acid dissociates and the reaction continues. If you do this in a closed container, eventually some balance will result which will depend on the temperature, pressure, and proportions of the materials you added.

If you had the proportions right and cooked the solution to dryness, you'd end up with sodium citrate, having driven off all of the bicarbonate as CO2 and water. In solution, you'll have a complicated interaction among all of those ions in equilibrium.

#117 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:00 PM:

So essentially you'd have a sodium citrate solution (with all the complexity of dissociated ions that takes place in a solution like that)?

#118 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:08 PM:

P J Evans @ 113...the squashes; apparently they interbreed quite well

In front of kids?
That's disgusting.

#119 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:19 PM:

If you got the proportions of citric acid and sodium bicarbonate right, and did something to force out all of the CO2, yes, you'd have a solution of sodium citrate. Until you force out all of the CO2, you'll have all of the rest of the components as well: neutral citric acid and the carbonate and bicarbonate ions.

If you started with an excess of citric acid or sodium bicarbonate, obviously there would be some left over at the end.

#120 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:24 PM:

P J Evans @37 ...
And the extra short course on measuring radioactivity was a lot of fun, even though we didn't get to use pitchblende from Poland and the scintillation counter wasn't ready in time.)

I'm quite fond of the vaseline glass shade for my stairway light, both for the lovely art deco design, and the sheer shock value of telling people I've got a radioactive lampshade. One of these years I'll rig up a UV led, so I can get the glass to glow green on command.

#121 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:29 PM:

Craig R. @ 108... I've been working with a software package recently that in my most kindly moments I describe as being crap layered on crap layered on crap, making mistakes that an average first year comp sci student wouldn't make.

The ostensible purpose of the software makes this even more of a panopticon of misery.

In general, I'd have to say that making sausage is the metaphor that comes to mind most often when I encounter the inner workings of any development organization, open or closed source.

#122 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:43 PM:

Lee #73: David Hackett Fisscher in Historians' Fallacies calls that pro hoc, ergo propter hoc, the fallacy of assuming that the effect is the cause. (A useful book, that one, for more than historians and social scientists.)

#123 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 12:48 PM:

I was thinking of neutralizing lemon juice with baking soda, adding bits of the latter until it foameth no more, agitating it hard to drive as much gas out of solution as possible, then letting it stand (venting the container periodically) for a long period before decanting it.

I have several uses for lemon juice, but the acidity of it precludes its use for some purposes; for example, it tends to curdle cream, making lemon white chocolate ganache impossible (well, not if you use lemon extract, but I'm trying to figure out if I can do it with real lemon juice and peel).

#124 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:05 PM:

Hmm. That would neutralize the acid, all right. But I think you'd be left with the salty taste from the sodium. I don't know how noticeable that would be. Do you really need to use the juice, instead of just using the zest (which contains most of the lemon flavour anyway)?

#125 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:08 PM:

Serge, the squashes at least keep their promiscity concealed under big green leaves; columbines, now, they're completely without discretion, carrying on an orgy of color and motion high above their leaves for weeks at a time, drawing in bees and butterflies and hummingbirds and then scattering shiny black seeds everywhere to reveal, in another couple of springs, misogyny uneaqualled by any other plant.

For instance, I have seen super-double grey spurless flowers unlike any of the assorted Aquilegia I've planted, and after asking around was told that they most probably resulted from a bigeneric hybrid with Aquilegella. Shameless, shameless, and worst of all, in rainy springs the poor hummingbirds end up with hangovers.

#126 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:17 PM:

Joel Polowin at #112: I'm not a C.S. graduate, but this is more in the category of things you learn from painful experience.

If the numbers are unsigned, the result of adding them is undefined. We added 65534 and 5. The result should be 65539, but the 16-bit container is only big enough to hold 65535. At this point things are broken and the right answer is you shouldn't be doing this. Depending on the application it could be critical. The fix depends on what the numbers mean in the application. Maybe they should be signed. Maybe they should be in larger containers. Maybe there should be range checking and an exception thrown if the result would be out of range.

Please note that just making the numbers signed does not avoid problems. What's the result of adding #8FFFE and 5 in a signed 16-bit container? You might assume the result will be the same as if the values were unsigned, but again the really correct answer is don't do that.

Now, to get into pedantry, if the numbers are signed, the result depends on the numeric representation used in the computer. In 1's complement notation #FFFF = -0 and #FFFE = -1, so and #FFFE + 5 = -1 + 5 = 4. In 2's complement notation #FFFE = -2 and -2 + 5 = 3. But I don't recommend giving this as an answer in a job interview, unless you are going for a job in the Computer History Museum.

#127 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:24 PM:

Xopher, about lemon juice in candy making: it's not only acidic, but also much higher in sugar than you'd think, and by that fact likely to mess with texture and gloss in making chocolates. Instead of using lemon extract you might want to try essential oil of lemon, a more intense and "live" flavor and one which would blend into ganache more evenly than commercial extract.

Recipes which call for lemon juice and baking soda already take the flavor of sodium citrate into account. When messing about with a new recipe I've always found it wise to taste what I'm wondering about without any other ingrediants before I mix it into an experimental batch. I've used a calcium source (regular dietary supplement pills ground to powder) rather than baking soda in one of my lemon ice cream experiments but it was, in truth, awfully blah (but at least not salty and sort of spoiled tasting like the sodium citrate).

#128 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:25 PM:

"..anyone with a degree in computing science ought to be able to add 5 and 0xFFFE, as 16-bit values to give a 16-bit result, without a calculator..."

What's a "adding as a 16-bit value" or a "16-bit result"? 16-bit values can be signed or unsigned. Arithmetic might be mod-65536 (for unsigned values) or it could have overflow detection meaning that the result of adding those two numbers is undefined. You presumably mean "treating this as an unsigned 16-bit value with addition modulo 65536" and expect that everyone else would make the same assumption.

Meanwhile, I've spent about 12 years programming (and gosh, yes, have a C.S. degree) and have never once encountered an integer overflow situation that I can recall, never used a 16-bit integer type, and only very rarely have to think about the numeric meaning of a hex number.

Everyone wants to define a shibboleth for their field (or for "being a minimally educated person") which includes them but excludes all those other idiots who know nothing. This is a reasonable idea since excluding all the people who know nothing is a necessary part of recruiting, selecting, hiring, or however you go about finding people to work with, the world being full of people who are not suited for whatever specific task you need them, some of whom don't know it and keep trying anyway. But the trouble with almost any single test is that you can instantly find a whole group of people who can pass it because of rote memorization but are still useless, and another whole group who wouldn't know where to start but who could learn everything needed in an afternoon.

That is to say: this is why we don't require 100% on tests to get an A - and why tests don't consist of a single question! - but instead ask a range of questions and look at the proportion answered. (Well, we didn't require 100% for an A in Britain; my impression is that American grading is much harsher, but to compensate for that, what you have to learn for any given subject is somewhat narrower.)

I did about 3-4 years of Latin circa 1988-1990 and as someone noted above, because they never asked you to translate anything from English to Latin, or even read Latin out loud, it was a complete waste of time. I don't know what genius decided that you could teach a language in an entirely written, one-way system, but it didn't work so well.

As for quantum mechanics, it's not macroscopically visible, but it is required for stable macroscopic objects to exist, and both the major interpretations (Copenhagen & many-worlds) have profound existential consequences. Of course teaching the math is not going to work as a first step, but it seems like you could teach something of the effects of interference using practical methods (I'm thinking something as simple as the plastic atoms and bonds used to build molecules) or using simple simulations on a computer where all the math is taken care of for you. Mostly, I think that when someone asks "But what's an atom, REALLY?" they should be able to get a better answer than that it's a bunch of little billiard balls spinning around each other, when so far as I can tell no actual physicist would bother thinking of it that way anymore.

But then I tend to think the importance of the math is overstated in physics too. Grasping the important ideas of relativity requires no math at all.

#129 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:49 PM:

Yes, lemon juice has as much sugar as orange juice, if I recall correctly. And yes, I have lemon oil. It might risk separating the ganache (because it increases the amount of fat), but I think I'll use it and lemon extract, which should balance and both contribute to the lemon flavor. Or maybe I'll chuck the whole idea and just make lemon fondants.

I'll keep the idea of neutralizing lemon juice for a recipe that can stand up to a salty flavor.

#130 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 01:59 PM:

Charlie @55 "Going back 28-odd years, solving the Schroedinger wave equation for a unidimensional electron in a box was, indeed, part of the Physics 'A' level syllabus"

Going back 35 years it was as well, though I can't say I could follow the maths.

It is, or then was, possible to go through the English education system, do three Sciecne A-levels and get two science degrees without ever studying maths beyond the barest introduction to simple differential calculus. I know it was, because I did. No integration, no matrices, no group theory, no number theory, no graph theory, no old-style Euclidean proofs, not even any set theory - I was never formally taught so much as a Venn diagram - that came in with the New Maths a year or two after me - ordinary secondary schools did it as part of the CSE but we were a Grammar School and didn't get involved with this new-fangled stuff.

And that was the most modern bit of physics we studied mathematically. The curriculum did include an overview of nuclear fusion but not with any detail.

On the other hand our biology was up to date. We quite often got lessons including lines like "the text book says this, but now we know that..." Same goes for undergraduate biology (both in the 1970s and when I went back to University the 1990s). The course modules dealing with fast-changing parts of biology were reasonably up to date. And university coursework including relevant references to current research got good marks.

#131 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 02:42 PM:

Sorry this is going to turn into a rather long post, but there's multiple discussions here for me to reply to.

So, replies, organized by topic:

Andy Brazil @63:

Alas, by the time I reached secondary education we were reduced to a mere 5 years of Latin, no Greek, and the Latin omitted entirely any attempt to translate English into Latin. Quite how they thought you could learn a language without ever attempting to say anything in it is beyond me.

#128 Jacob Davies

I did about 3-4 years of Latin circa 1988-1990 and as someone noted above, because they never asked you to translate anything from English to Latin, or even read Latin out loud, it was a complete waste of time. I don't know what genius decided that you could teach a language in an entirely written, one-way system, but it didn't work so well.

You can both consider yourselves lucky. My school didn't offer Latin (or Greek) at all. 'Sniff.

But you both seem to have missed a way in which the general UK Latin syllabus is even more useless than you're suggesting. The point of the qualification isn't actually learning Latin at all. Here are the GCSE Latin assessment objectives:

A01 Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of language (45-55%)
A02 Demonstrate an understanding and an appreciation of literature and/or other sources related to society and values of the classical world through analysis, evaluation and response (45-55%)

(source)

The other problem is that assessment is typically 100% exam, and the main part of the exam is translation of a passage from Latin to English. The choice of passage is restricted to those that only uses a very limited vocabulary, and are usually historically important. I believe it is usual for the student to be offered the choice of two passages to translate.

A friend tells the story that, having failed to learn the language at all, he decided the best approach to the exam would be to make a shortlist of 10-12 passages that were likely to come up, and memorize their translations. This did, in fact, work.

Andy Brazil @63, again:


Looking at my childrens' recent educational careers, it is certainly possible to leave school in the UK with no significant knowledge whatsoever of science. The vast majority of children take a single "combined science" course. One typical curriculum is here:
http://www.21stcenturyscience.org/the-courses/core-science-science-for-scientific-literacy,907,NA.html

It's some time since I did my GCSEs, so things may have changed, but I did do a combined sciences syllabus, and honestly don't think it was too bad. We covered a wide range of subjects, in quite good depth, and I'm not aware of anything I really _missed_ in that syllabus. At least all the key components were in there -- understanding the basics of each main field of science, plus a good basis in simple experimental design. Plus not having to choose which fields to study was a bonus (I'm pretty sure I'd have dropped biology, which I felt was somewhat pointless at the time, in favour of some other subject, had I the choice).

Clifton Royston @71:

I just made a tentative hire yesterday, after a week and a half of interviews with different applicants. (We're going to have him do a toy-sized real-world project first and see how he does before we formalize the hire.)

I gave all the applicants a simple programming skills test - 3 fairly simple problems (parse a string containing a file name, test whether two rectangles intersect, and reverse a singly-linked list.) Two applicants, with years of resume experience, were completely unable to do any of them. One of these at least knew it and said "Oh no!" when I showed her the list of questions*. The other was blithering on confidently inventing new "or" operators and writing complete gobbledegook. A third applicant did OK at the first two, then asked "what's a linked list?" After I put my jaw back in and explained, he looked at it a bit and blithely said "I have no idea how to do that."

It's been a strong reminder that, apparently, a substantial number of working programmers can't thinks in code. I think there's a large degree of pure talent involved. It's not simply education or exposure, given the range of both I've seen in the last few weeks.

I'm reminded of the observation that there's more than an order of magnitude difference in productivity between the best performers in software engineering and the worst. This is usually attributed to there being a few "star programmers" who are miles ahead of the rest of us, but for each one of them I suspect there's a hundred who are just as far behind us...

Interestingly, your first question sounds similar to the test that I decided years ago would be a good one. Hmmm... can't find my original description of the problem, but somebody's solution is here.

Craig R @108:

What I don't understand is how, in an environment where all code is supposed to reviewed before it gets put into production, that this stuff passed muster.

Because code review is actually really hard, and after a while your eyes glaze over and you stop noticing things.

This is one of the reasons I like the idea of the Extreme Programming practice of pair programming (having two programmers sat at the desk while the code is written). In addition to the "two heads" benefit, you also get the benefits of code review, and it isn't deadly boring.

Xopher @129: I'll keep the idea of neutralizing lemon juice for a recipe that can stand up to a salty flavor.

I have a recipe I usually do with oranges, but which I reckon might be good with neutralized lemons... basically, I stir fry vegetables & meat (usually chicken), add a whole lot of finely chopped ginger root and crushed garlic, and a couple of orange's worth of fresh orange juice, then simmer for a while to drive off a little of the water. The result is a pleasant, lightly spicy but quite sweet dish. The results with lemon instead of orange could be quite interesting.

#132 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:16 PM:

I'm embarassed to admit that I never made the connection between the Voyage of the Space Beagle and the Beagle of Darwin fame. In my defence, I probably read Voyage at the age of 9, having found it in my Dad's bookshelf. By the time I learnt about the Beagle I'd just taken "Voyage of the Space beagle" as the name and not really thought about it.

As for Integral Calculus, it's an astonishigly important and powerful tool, but you can do perfectly good science without it; a friend of mine who is a zoologist learnt it by rote for exams and promptly forgot it, and she's done as much real science as anyone I know.

Or another way of saying it; another friend was teaching Year 4 (9? 10 year olds?) in Brixton last year. "What happens if you grow cress in a cupboard?" she asked. Lot's of answers. "Let's try it, and, to compare, we'll grow some on the window sill". That's teaching the scientific method.

I'm not an astronomer, but I remember stepping out of a pub in New Zealand and looking up at the sky and not recognising any of the constellations and thinking I must have drunk more than I thought I had, before realising it was I wasn't familiar with Southern Hemisphere stars. (I'm not that good with Northern Hemisphere, but I can point out a half dozen of the most obvious).

And one final moan - I've never yet come across anyone who follows astrological predictions who knows that their sign is assigned because the sun is "in" that constellation on their birthday. Why is that?

#133 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:23 PM:

Andy Brazil @ 63 :"And the universities are no better. We
recently met a young women doing a plant survey while we were out
walking. She was a recent postgrad on her first job, with a degree in
field ecology, and when we met her she was laboriously keying out a
primrose."

You wouldn't have got a degree relevant to ecology at either of the universities I went to without passing a field course. Might not be a good pass though...

P J Evans @ 113 As
far as beans go, it's not exactly mostly New World. IIRC, the old world
beans are in the genus Vicia, and the new world beans are in a different
one, Phaseolus.

Phaseolus vulgaris (kidney/haricot beans etc) is American as is P. coccineus (runner bean) and P. lunatas (butter bean, Lima bean) . But there are Asian Phaseolus species such as P. aureus (mung) P. angularis (azuki) and P. mungo (black gram, urid). Vicia faba (broad beans/field beans/horse beans) are originally from the Middle East (probaby round about where Iraq, Turkey and Syria meet today) as are chickpeas, lentils, and of course green peas (that area really is the cradle of civilisation - its also the home of wheat, barley, and rye) From Africa cowpeas (Vigna - including the black-eyed peas) From the far east, soya. maybe pigeonpeas, and quite a lot of less-well-known legumes.

#134 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:23 PM:

Stuart @ 38: I don't know that not understanding the the Fundamental Theorem of Integral Calculus is that bright dividing line you think it to be.

One of the, minor, regrets of my life is that I don't enjoy math all that much. Perhaps I don't, "have a head for it." Perhaps my teachers all stank, and so I was opressed by poor pedagogy.

Oddly, I have some grasp of things (and a good narrator can make things which were opaque to me glimmer with some scintilla of comprehension (and for all the background info Stephenson piled into The Baroque Cycle [I presume he assumed; and I can't say such an assumption was wrong, most of his readers didn't have that solid a grasp on all the players, and that they needed it to get the point. Then again, he might just have wanted to show off all he knew..., honestly it didn't bother me so much, and I knew the details already] it was some of the conversations atributed to Newton which made me understand some of how calculus works to define things, and why curves matter so much).

I know a lot of people who have no calculus, and have more than a clue of how science works, and why it matters. I know others who are fluent in the maths of calculous, and some into the truly arcane maths beyond it, who are gormless gits on what things mean (seriously, they are paid money to defend the "controversies" of global warming. They do it well because they speak the jargon of science, and believe the dogma of Libertarianism... so Global Warming won't be a problem if we "Free the Agora", and the two combine to make them persuasive to those who don't really speak science).

I may not have a deep understanding of the inner workings. I may not be able to really explain Energy = Mass x The Velocity of light (in centimeter) squared, but I have at least a clue. I can even rough it out.

Because, at the basic levels, I can play the music. I've designed experiments, and tested them, and kept records, and extrapolated theorems of my own. Maybe I was re-inventing the wheel. Maybe I was just defining some rules of thumb (feeds and speeds for cutting metals, and some of those are counter intuitive. There are aluminum alloys you have to slow the cutter down, and reduce the feed rate, if you don't want to melt them to gummy muck and snap the tool).

But, even absent understanding the Fundemental Theorem of Integral Calc, I was doing science. Just like Gallileo was. My opinion is that the fundamental clue is "test the theory". If you get that, then Science becomes possible.

Kate @ 46: If you want to drop me a line, I went two summers ago and I have lots of advice. Books... Darwin's Finches. Darwin and the Barnacle (which isn't about Galapgos, but is about how Darwin was able to get away with writing Origin of Species) Origin of Species. Seriously drop me a line. I'd love to share.


#135 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:29 PM:

@ Crag R. #87

Is the knowledge of precise syntax and semantics of a particular language more important than than the ability to review a problem and be able to do root cause error analysis?

I always ask for preferred language when conducting an interview. I also know many computer languages, and I have questions tailored for Java, C++, C#, Objective C, Perl, Ruby, Python, Groovy, Standard ML, [O]CaML, Erlang, Tcl*, Visual Basic, and bash/c/kourne shell. I could probably wing the rest.

Basically, if someone seeks a job and I'm the interviewer for the language portion, there is no excuse. *smile*

#136 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:32 PM:

All, re: signed vs. unsigned: Okay, I'm more ignorant about this stuff than I thought. This doesn't surprise me. If I remember correctly, the instructions for my employer's test do specify that the values should be taken as 16-bit unsigned, and that normal rules for C/C++ apply. My "language grammar" manual for Turbo C++ says that "Integer overflow is ignored (C uses modulo 2^n arithmetic on n-bit registers)", while the Wikipedia article on "Integer overflow" states that in C, this applies only to unsigned values and that the results are undefined for signed values.

I don't think any of the items in my employer's test are necessarily get-this-wrong-and-you-lose, with allowance made for spectacularly wrong answers, of course. There were several that I couldn't answer, or answer well, because my C was a bit rusty at the time and because my programming background is mostly informal. (I'm not sure I'd get hired now, if I took the current test, which is a bit more complex than it used to be, with my knowledge of the time.) I probably got some credit for demonstrating ability at analyzing problems and for doing some of the math problems in my head -- several of the questions are algorithmic "how would you approach this" problems rather than mere regurgitation of simple facts or methods.

#137 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 03:45 PM:

jesr @ 125... the poor hummingbirds end up with hangovers

"Will you stop humming so loud, Rufus?!"

#138 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 04:07 PM:

Xopher: I want to say the effects of the salt will kill much of the flavor aspects you want to keep. I am certain it will affect the texture of the things you make with it.

IIRC, lemon juice can get to about 12 percent sugar, with sweet varieties; like the Meyer, and defaults to about 9 percent sugar. It's just the sugars can't compete with the high levels of acid, and so fail to please us. Oranges start at about 11 percent, and get up to about 17.

Jules @ 131: One of the early experiments I did in archeological cooking was to take a brief description from a Spenser novel and make it into supper. Juice of lemon and orange 1:1 ratio of fruits, not volume of juice). Marinate chicken breasts with said juices, and some ginger. Cook in a hot skillet. While the chicken cooks (and it works with dark meats too), strain the juices.

Deglaze the skillet with light white wine, add some of the strained juice, reduce to "thickish" add some sour cream (yogurt works, but not as well). Serve with vegetables of choice, and crusty bread; and the rest of the wine.

#139 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 04:26 PM:

Well, if you are lucky enough to get an interviewee who can discuss knowledgeably the difference between the binary representations for unsigned, twos' complement, and ones' complement signed arithmetic, together with what the C standard dictates about interpretation of overflows and where it is silent, and why (if you assume overflow is ignored) you get the same results for signed two's complement addition as for unsigned addition... you can probably just drop that question and move on.

#140 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 05:26 PM:


I gave all the applicants a simple programming skills test - 3 fairly simple problems (parse a string containing a file name, test whether two rectangles intersect, and reverse a singly-linked list.)

Lord, spare me from interviewers who think simple tests like these mean anything. Either it becomes a tedious programming exercise not resembling anything you're hiring these people for, or an opportunity for some smart aleck to bullshit their way through. It doesn't tell you anything worhtwhile about your candidates, though it might help to thin out the herd if that's your problem.

In the latter case I could probably do it, and you definately don't want me to program. (You want me to test your own programs, and find its hidden or not so hidden flaws...)

#141 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 05:55 PM:

Lord, spare me from interviewers who think simple tests like these mean anything.

When we're hiring someone for a programming position, someone who can't pass such simple tests is pretty clearly not suitable for the job. It's a preliminary screening step, because a lot of applicants really are hopelessly unqualified. Usually it's our receptionist who runs it -- the applicant sits in an unused cube or unoccupied room and spends an hour or two on it. Those who do poorly don't even get to the interview stage, which saves time for the managers. "Thinning out the herd", as you say.

#142 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 06:07 PM:

Fragano, #122: I think there's a different nuance there. What I'm talking about are situations where, for example, you learned something from a bad experience A that helped you to handle an unrelated experience B years later. The people I'm talking about would say, "See, you HAD to have A happen to you, because you needed to know that when you got to B!" They are claiming that events in the past are caused by completely unrelated events in the future.

Xopher, #129: If you can make lemon creme chocolates that really taste of lemon (this may be what you mean by "fondant," but I'm not very conversant with candymakers' jargon), I'll be your friend for life!

Neil, #132: It's worse than that. Astrological dates are assigned based on which constellation the Sun was in on that date four thousand years ago. Thanks to the precession of the equinoxes, although my "sun sign" is Taurus, the actual position of the sun on my birthdate was toward the other end of Aries, and by now I think it's in Pisces! (That was all the "Age of Aquarius" nonsense 40 years ago -- the sun's position on some Important Day was shifting constellations at that point IIRC.)

This is why I can't take astrology seriously. Even if you assume for the sake of argument that the positions of the sun, moon, and planets against the stellar background at the moment of a person's birth have an effect on their life, surely it would be the CURRENT position that would matter, not one that's 4,000 years out of date!

#143 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 07:08 PM:

Lee #142: I understand what you're saying. All I can say is that I despair of the human race. Gail just told me that someone told her this morning 'I bet you were beautiful.' Rather as if she were dead.

#144 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 08:24 PM:

Fragano, 143: Or not beautiful. (I thought of her today, in fact. Three of the women in my tiny little choir are named Gail.)

#145 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 08:26 PM:

A real world example of why 16 bit overflow is still relevant: the Florida election machine that started counting downward on the 32768th vote. What I suspect happened is that the developers weren't aware that the obsolete version of Access given to them to use didn't support long integers. (Why they were using an obsolete version is left as an exercise for managers)

#146 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 08:33 PM:

TexAnne #144: She's working with a congregation with a higher than average number of, let's say, special people.

#147 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:00 PM:

I've got several threads here, so they may as well all get cabled together.

The general objection I had to the "onerror" is that of the lack of the elusive "common sense." My horror was the specter of a production program just failing, in the production environment, and nobody responsible knows about it. Having been on the support desk/computer operations side of that issue I Have Terrible Memories.

Being an old assembly language hack, I certainly know about the issue with 1's complement and 2's complement and overflows (on some computers, registers are set to do countdowns by setting the register using 2's complements, setting the register increment and watching for the register to change to zero -- yes, sometimes it feels like I've been doing this sort of thing Entirely Too Long...)

I may also be spoiled -- it's been a deuced long time since I had to take an actual programming test (I've had a couple of telephone interviews with "trick" questions, but I don't really think those count)

Code reviews -- I've done them, and yes, they *can* get to be eyes-glazing-boring, but you have to do them (several places I've worked required code reviews from two people, so hopefully what may be missed from one person is caught by the other)

After being a keen observational amateur stargazer, I was actually considering that as a college major -- until I figured out the very long odds at being able to make a living at it. These days I can maybe identify 5 constellations.

I'm going to have to brush up, though, as my 11-year old son is showing an interest.

On the maths front -- I'm afraid that the last time I had to do derivations was in college.

#148 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:06 PM:

Even if you assume for the sake of argument that the positions of the sun, moon, and planets against the stellar background at the moment of a person's birth have an effect on their life, surely it would be the CURRENT position that would matter, not one that's 4,000 years out of date!

As a friend of mine has said, at birth the gravitational influence of the midwife is greater than that of Jupiter...

#149 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 09:06 PM:

Jon # 145 --

"...(Why they were using an obsolete version is left as an exercise for managers)..."

No, an exercise for the people enpaneling the grand jury.

#150 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 10:20 PM:

Lee 142: If you can make lemon creme chocolates that really taste of lemon (this may be what you mean by "fondant," but I'm not very conversant with candymakers' jargon), I'll be your friend for life!

There are basically two ways of making a flavored center (well, there are bajillions, but only two I was considering for this). One is to make a ganache, which is an emulsion of chocolate and cream (for lemon I would use white chocolate) with a flavoring. The other is a fondant, which is a microcrystalline sugar concoction (that is, the crystals are smaller than the tongue can detect, so it tastes smooth and creamy). Fondant is the stuff in the center of a mint patty, though in that case flavored with mint instead of lemon.

I've also made lemon buttercream, which is just icing really. I tried making it with lemon zest, which I mixed with the butter days in advance so the lemon oil would permeate it, and then made the buttercream from that—and no one liked that any better than the lemon buttercream I made with lemon extract, so I figured it wasn't really worth the trouble.

The ginger chocolates you had at Denvention were fondants; I gave up on making ginger buttercream when I discovered that sufficient ginger juice to be convincingly flavorful was also enough to make the buttercream separate. Fondant is more flexible.

Fragano 143: Gail just told me that someone told her this morning 'I bet you were beautiful.' Rather as if she were dead.

I assume, since the words 'from jail' do not appear in this statement, that she somehow refrained from doing violence on the person of this miscreant. Gail is a person of great self-control, plainly!

#151 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:00 PM:

In #86, Joel Polowin writes:

I gather that "negatron" has been used in the past to refer to electrons,

Yup.

though I don't know if the term is used at all currently.

Nope.

A quick tiptoe through Google Scholar suggests that some physicists, led by Carl Anderson (discoverer of the positron) and his Caltech colleagues, used "negatron" for a while. It faded away and everybody went back to "electron."

And you can believe me, because I am an authority.

Or, as one colleague put it, an anti-authoritarian.

Allow me to digress. As it happens, I have Anderson's memoir The Discovery of Anti-Matter right here in my briefcase. He says little about "positron" and "negatron," but around 1936, he also co-discovered the particles we know know as positive and negative muons, observing them in cosmic rays.

New particles must have names. For a while the new intermediate mass particles were known by various names. It was called the Yukon (for Yukawa); it was called the X-particle and it was called a heavy electron, which was not a bad name because that is what it really is. In an attempt to avoid confusion over its name, Seth [Neddermeyer] and I, while the Chief [Robert Millikan] was away, sent off a note to Nature magazine, suggesting the name mesoton (meso for intermediate, like mezzanine in a building). After the Chief's return we showed him a copy of our note to Nature. He reacted unfavorably and said the name should be mesotron with an "r" in there. He said, "Consider electron and neutron." I said "Consider proton." Well, the end and issue of it was that Seth and I sent off the "r" in a cable to Nature. Fortunately r not, the "r" arrived in time and the article appeared containing the word mesotron. Neither Seth nor I liked the word, nor did anyone else that I know of. Mesotron has since been contracted to meson, a much better name, and finally was changed to muon.

Other particles, intermediate in mass between the tiny electron and the heavy proton, were eventually discovered. "Mesons" became the term for a whole family of particles. The muon, as it turns out, is not a member of this family.

You may think this is strange, but in fact only some mesons are strange, and muons, being members instead of the lepton family, are never strange. It is odd, though.

(In today's language, mesons are composed of two quarks bound together. Baryons have three quarks. Muons, and other leptons, have no quarks.)

#152 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:21 PM:

Xopher @ 150: Could ginger juice be concentrated by careful freezing, sort of like applejack? Maybe with a bit of sugar added first, to make sure that some of the juice would remain unfrozen?

I did a bit of web-surfing for sodium citrate, and found several mentions of a saline or salty taste. No big surprise, but it does confirm my suspicions.

#153 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:24 PM:

Craig R., #108, I'll have to be vague here, but when I was doing QA and I documented a situation where hitting a wrong key made the system crash, the programmer told me the users would just be trained to always hit the right keys. Uhhuh. And the reason it went out that way? The programmers had taken too long to do their work and I had three shifts of QAers trying to meet the deadline. We wouldn't meet the deadline if they had to make that big a change.

#154 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:57 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 151... the new intermediate mass particles were known by various names. It was called the Yukon

Oh.

#155 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 11:59 PM:

Marilee @ 153... the programmer told me the users would just be trained to always hit the right keys.

What was that programmer smoking when he said that?

#156 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:09 AM:

@ Martin Wisse #140

Lord, spare me from interviewers who think simple tests like these mean anything.

*hands Martin off to her last 18 phone screens where candidate was unable to indicate differences between arrays and lists*

Many people can't do the simple problems. It saves time and money to eliminate them early instead of assuming they have a clue. You can't take resumes seriously; too many people can bullshit too well on them, and perhaps you can, but I know I can't read their minds to instantly know if they're telling the truth.

I've done enough interviews and phone screens to be burned every time I've made a similar assumption about a candidate.

Trust me, you do not want to have to explain to six programmers, two hiring manages, and an HR rep why you let the company foot the bill of flying the candidate out and sticking him in a hotel with all expenses paid, only to find that the candidate is so awful that he could have been culled with a simple phone screen question that you should have been asked two weeks ago, on the phone.

But I had been feeling nice and trustworthy that day, so what harm could it do?

Yeah.

Now, if a candidate does tear through the simple questions, we quickly move him up in difficulty through the process, because we do love ourselves an interesting interview.

I really hate running the interviewing process because I lose faith in humanity. Good candidates are very, very rare.

#157 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:58 AM:

I'm embarrassed to say that, without looking it up, I've forgotten which thing about integral calculus is called the Fundamental Theorem of it. Is it that when you take the derivative of an integral you get the original function back?

...OK, just looked it up and that's in fact the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. There's also a Second Part, which is that you can calculate definite integrals by subtracting values of the antiderivative.

Which makes more sense, since the "Integral" was making me unconfident--it seemed to be about both integration and differentiation.

#158 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 02:13 AM:

Alter S. Reiss @ #111:

Peanuts, much like coffee beans, are from Africa.
Um. No, they aren't, and I'm confused that you'd say that while linking to a Wikipedia article which says "native to South America, Mexico and Central America" in the first sentence. They did come to North America via Africa, though, having been introduced there from Brazil by the Portuguese. And there are some similar species native to Africa, like the Bambara groundnut.

A long blog post detailing the history of the peanut, with a linguistic focus, can be found here: Polyglot Vegetarian: Peanut. Quotes many old texts mentioning peanuts.

#159 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 03:00 AM:

JESR@125: I think you meant "miscegenation" rather than "misogyny".

On testing: at the copy shop where I work, we have a math test for applicants, covering the sort of arithmetic we do there every day. There's one question that hardly anybody ever gets -- get that one, and we hire you!

("We charge $1.50 per cut for using the paper cutter. The cutter can cut up to 400 sheets at a time. If we have 3000 sheets of paper that we want to cut once each, what is the total charge?")

Matt McIrvin@157: I got the impression that the theorem under discussion was the one relating the integral of a function to the area underneath its curve.

#160 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 04:04 AM:

David @159 — $12?? (Should I make this comment anonymous in case I'm showing my slip … )

#161 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 06:13 AM:

#159 There's one question that hardly anybody ever gets -- get that one, and we hire you!

My answer is, "Can you clarify is that per cut of the machine or per cut per sheet of paper?"

Because people do try and rip you off.

#142 - Off the top of my head I would have said 3000 years (but 4000 sounds right so I'll try and remember that), but usually I've had to explain what the ecliptic is by this point (much easier with some round fruit to hand) and you can have too much fun explaining celestial mechanics to non-scientists.

#162 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:38 AM:

Beans. Nuts. Antimatter.
This must be an ML thread.

#163 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:42 AM:

Xophwr #150: She puts up with me, so her self-control is obviously phenomenal.

#164 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 08:05 AM:

Neil Willcox writes at #161:

My answer is, "Can you clarify is that per cut of the machine or per cut per sheet of paper?"

Because people do try and rip you off.

If one has a paper-cutting machine with 400-sheet capacity, there's no need for any ripping off.

#165 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 10:27 AM:

Epacris @ #156:

I also get $12.

The slip I caught myself almost making was to treat it as a pure math problem, and forget that the last cut is charged full price even if it involves fewer than 400 pages.

#166 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 12:24 PM:

Kate @ #46: The first book I thought of was Steve Jones's Almost Like A Whale- the Amazon blurb says "Jones, himself a geneticist, assumes the mantle of Darwin and rewrites his masterpiece for the modern reader, borrowing the structure and thesis but writing with the benefit of 150 years' hindsight."- which sounds both presumptuous and dry, and it doesn't read like that at all!
Richard Fortey's books, Life: A Natural History and Dry Store Room No. 1 are both very enjoyable as well... (and Dry Store Room is brand new, so it's up to date on the classifications it talks about.) Douglas Adams' Last Chance To See, on the ecological side... Weiner's The Beak of the Finch... ooh, gosh, lots of lovely books.

#167 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 12:35 PM:

Paul A. #165: It may not be continuous, but it's still math.

#168 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 12:55 PM:

#167
It's a step function, I think. (Lumber yards charge 'per cut' also.)

#169 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:27 PM:

Joel 152: I did try jacking the ginger juice early on, but it didn't work very well. I suspect the ginger flavor is mostly in tiny particles, rather than being an essentially different compound, and so the juice doesn't thaw any faster than water. The ones I served at Worldcon were made from ginger juice I just boiled down to concentrate it. The flavor was all finish and no start, which was kind of a "delayed-blast" effect. Not sure that's what I want.

One thing I think I will do is get a brand-new clean coffee press (unlike my current one which has been used for coffee and will never be entirely free of the odor and therefore flavor) to squeeze the juice out of the pureed ginger root. This will, as with coffee, preserve the essential oils which I suspect are being lost in the cheesecloth method I've used up to now; also, I think I'll simmer it in a double boiler instead of just boiling the hell out of it on the stove, and include some unboiled ginger juice in the final flavoring mix. And starting with a harder fondant will allow me to mix more juice into the filling without making it so liquid that it won't set at all.

Am I officially a candy geek now?

As for the sodium citrate, yes, I now know why neutralizing lemon juice isn't done, and I'm giving up on the idea. Thanks for explaining all that to me. It does occur to me that if I include actual lemon juice in the flavoring for the lemon fondants, given the fact that the acid will promote sugar inversion, I probably don't have to add invertase to keep them soft the way I did with the ginger ones.

David 159: Well, if you want to cut all the pieces of paper in the same way, then like everyone else I get $12. But the problem says "cut once each," not "that we want to cut in half" or anything to indicate that all the cuts are the same. There could be up to 3000 different ways you want them cut; that means you can only establish a range of possible costs, from $12 to $4500. If n is the number of different cutting styles, then the price is (n≤8 ? 12 : 1.5*n).

Am I hired?

#170 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:43 PM:

Xopher, that answer would probably get David to hire you, if not his bosses....

#171 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:48 PM:

Meh, I still did that wrong. You could still end up with more than $12 with 8 cutting styles, if one of the styles is for more than 400 sheets. To take a trivial example, if you want to cut 2993 of them one way, and the remaining 7 each their own unique, different way, the cost would be $22.50, where my formula says it would be $12.

I guess I'm not hired.

#172 ::: JCarson ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 01:55 PM:

David 159: I'm getting $12 like others here, but then reconsidering based on the line "WE have 3000 pieces of paper." Does the store charge itself for cutting its own paper, or only customers?

#173 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 02:02 PM:

Oh, I was assuming internal billing in a large corporation. Maybe the answer is zero!

*bangs head on floor until unconscious*

#174 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 02:41 PM:

Paul, #165: Another vote for $12 here -- and yes, you do have to remember to round up to the next whole number!

#175 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 03:09 PM:

Cutters that can handle 400 pages at a time are pretty nasty; important safety tip: do not demonstrate to the Workman's Comp investigator exactly how you injured yourself on it.

#176 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 05:22 PM:

David Goldfarb @159, you are right about that.

That's a new pair reversal, too, which is discouraging.


#177 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 05:43 PM:

Earl Cooley @175: The bookbinder I was taking lessons from had a beautiful, 100 year old, manual paper guillotine. It didn't have an interlock gate like modern paper cutters, but needing both hands to pull over the cast iron lever as tall as oneself was always a comforting safety feature.

To crosslink with the precious objects thread, this guillotine was recently for sale, and for a small multiple for what it would cost to move it. I absolutely loved that thing, but we couldn't convince ourselves to dedicate a quarter of our living room to its stewardship. I'm still trying to find space for a nipping press.

#178 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 06:05 PM:

David Goldfarb: If the cutter can slice up to four hundred sheet, then three thousand/four hundred multiplied by one and a half comes to... eight cuts, and a total of twelve dollars plus any applicable taxes. (I would've ROT-13'd this, but was correct [in proceeding after doing the arithmetic] that it was being discussed in the clear).

Ralph Giles: If I were looking at printing equipment... I'd want space to keep a Linotype. Buy those are fun (and handy), but they take up a lot of room.

#179 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 06:17 PM:

#14: "Classical mechanics is all most people need."

Ouch. I have to agree with #10. I'm not clear most people need any mechanics at all. Understanding the process of science and how to think critically about how we know things is the most important aspect of science education as far as an informed and capable citizenry are concerned. But this thread is about what comes of top of that.

It's true that Newtonian mechanics deals with macroscopic objects which can make it easier to do experiments as a student, but it's not like quantum mechanics doesn't read on our daily lives. Transistors, which make electronic computers possible, for example. Measuring the electron tunnelling potential doesn't require any more equipment that measuring radioactivity, or the speed of sound, which were common second year labs when I was in school. And while it describes the motion of baseballs, the beautiful abstraction of Newton's laws are obscured in everyday life by the presence of friction. The great triumph of explaining why the moon doesn't fall out of the sky is just as remote from casual human experience as the explanation for the structure of the periodic table. Quantum mechanics is only unintuitive because it (like chaos theory) shows up the clockwork determism that seeped into popular culture from Newton's mechanics.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are the two great pillars of physics bequeathed by the previous century, an I think we do students a disservice by focussing on what can be done with Newton's work, if only for the philosophical implications of their respective models of the universe.

#180 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 06:24 PM:

Terry Karney: Yes, indeed. And a press to run the lines on. And a couple of type cabinets for doing things the old fashioned way. But that's clearly pie-in-the-sky for a two bedroom apartment shared with two other people. I'd actually use the guillotine on a regular basis, and at merely the size of a large refrigerator it's close enough to be dream-worthy.

One of the few drawbacks of high density living.

#181 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:00 PM:

Paul A @165, yes that was the first, reasonably obvious, trap in the question. What worried me was a further trick to catch people able to see the obvious one & assuming that was all.

Paranoid? Overthinking? Moi? <lowers voice> It's not paranoia when they're really out to get you.

#182 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:06 PM:

geekosaur @ 83:
... most "constellations" are what professional astronomers call "stellations" because there isn't really a "con-" (== "with"): they're artifacts of our viewing location and angle. Professional astronomers are more interested in true constellations — most of which aren't visible from the earth's surface.

Hmm... I have to admit that I don't think I've ever heard the term "stellation" used by a professional astronomer (myself included). We mostly just call those random artifacts of viewing location "constellations."

(Wikipedia says that "stellation" is a mathematical operation on polygons and polyhedra; Google seems to agree, while also providing some links that suggest a technical use by biologists studying a type of neuron called "astrocytes" -- which may be a variation of the mathematical term.)

#183 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:09 PM:

All I can say is, David Goldfarb better come back here and tell us which answer he was looking for.

#184 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:13 PM:

>I'd actually use the guillotine on a regular basis

I've run across some odd threads on ML before, but ... wait, you're talking about a paper cutter? Sorry, never mind.


#185 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 07:16 PM:

Ralph: If I had it, I'd use it. Not as much as you would the guillotine, but I would. Then I'd have a REAL APA.

:)

#187 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 09:38 PM:

Amateur Press Association (or Alliance) -- a term stolen by SF fans from the real small-press world for a group of people who exchange small magazines that they've printed up, generally through sending multiple copies to a central mailer. Making Light is somewhere between an APA and a genzine (general interest fanzine) in its affect.

#188 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 09:55 PM:

WShunn@78: How many people do you meet who are perfectly able to answer the question of whether or not a Cancer is compatible with an Aries?

I have no idea. I would like to think it's low (I certainly don't remember any astrological comments in any conversation, although memory may have been merciful), but as y'all can testify, I hang out with a bad crowd -- not regular people at all.

#189 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2008, 10:56 PM:

Peter Erwin @182:
I hear it regularly on the AstronomyCast podcast; I've also heard it elsewhere, but only when they aren't talking to laymen.

(Hm. I think it's AstronomyCast; it might be Universe Today instead.)

#190 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:02 AM:

Epacris @181: It's a job-interview question, though. There shouldn't be, at least in my worldview, a trap in it. The idea is to find someone who can handle the work and be a good fit, not play headgames with someone whose stress level is already pretty high.

If the paper store can get someone who isn't puzzled by 3000 divided by 400, rounded up and then multiplied by one and a half, they can teach the rest of the stuff, like making sure all the cuts are the same before offering an estimate.

It's hard enough getting good help without setting them up for a fall during the interview.

#191 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:06 AM:

185, 186: Over here it's always "guillotine", never "paper-cutter", which really scared me before I figured it out -- considering that the headlines are always screaming things like BLOODBATH AS CITY AXES 5,000 JOBS.

#192 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:12 AM:

If I remember correctly, Madame Guillotine was invented by Guillotin as a more humane way to help the condemned shake their mortal coils than at the end of a rope. He also created the panopticon, which, in spite of its name, is not the subatomic particle that petit pain is made of.

#193 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 03:36 AM:

I thought Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon. Or is that one of those English/French races for precedence?

#194 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 05:08 AM:

Yes, $12 is the correct answer. Xopher gets slapped upside the head with a wet fish for overthinking things and generally being a smartass. Paul A. @ 165 deserves special mention for correctly describing the process whereby 99% of applicants answer "$11.25".

#195 ::: Individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 05:58 AM:

My pet peeve is otherwise good SF writers who don't know basic biology. It's fair enough that there's a lot less plausible biological speculation than plausible physics (or these days computing and IT) speculation, that's just the way the genre is. I don't think my standards are excessively high, I'm not saying that anyone without a thorough grounding in my professional field is a barbarian. I think that knowing the difference between bacteria and viruses, or between DNA and proteins, should be a part of basic general education. They certainly should be obvious to someone who's curious enough about science to make a career writing hard SF.

Also, I've just finished a certain recent, acclaimed SF novel by an established writer who appears to be unaware of how babies are made, at a level that would be worrying in an American teenager coming out of an abstinence curriculum.

#196 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:49 AM:

Clifton Royston @ 193... It'd appear that Google and you are right, and that my brain (and the rest of me) made a fool of itself. (By the way, you did receive my email in late August thanking you for making that copy of The Day The Earth Froze, right?)

#197 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:23 AM:

Thank you, Tom Whitmore @187. Enlightenment is pleasurable.

There was a 'Summer School for High School Students' run by Sydney University School of Physics each year on a different science topic – not only physics – with high-level scientists lecturing & demonstrating current knowledge & research. In the 1960s & 1970s it was televised & broadcast during the holidays (timeline). I revelled in it every year.

By golly, I learnt a lot ahead of what was in the curriculum & discussed it with our teachers & the couple of other science nerds at school (before that word: weirdo, egghead, freak, &c, especially a girl). It's now the 'Harry Messel International Science School', run in midwinter & not televised. I hope there are other ways for the current isolated penurious geek crop to learn outside the syllabus; the ABC & internet probably.

Serge @192, yes, guillotining was faster & less painful than slow strangulation in traditional hanging. Earlier, aristocrats were decapitated while commoners got the drop; M Guillotine reflected the egalitarian mood of the times.

Individ-ewe-al @195, writer sounds disturbing. Real ignorance, or infelicitous expression?

#198 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 11:00 AM:

geekosaur @ 189:

OK, hmm, that's kinda weird. Not that I'm doubting what you've heard, but that's still an odd term. (And quick searches of the two sites you pointed to didn't seem to yield any instances of "stellation", but lots of examples of "constellation", as I would expect.)

A search of the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System for astronomy abstracts with the word "constellation" turned up about 2100 hits for papers/conference proceedings/etc. published in 2000 and later, but 0 hits for the word "stellation"... So I really don't think there are a lot of professional astronomers using that word.

#199 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 12:04 PM:

David 194: Xopher gets slapped upside the head with a wet fish for overthinking things and generally being a smartass.

You want to know what's scary? I was completely sincere. I couldn't see how anyone would get $11.25 until Paul described it, and I was still wondering what the trick was.

I keep forgetting that while I overthink, most people underthink. Someday I'll tell you about the bizarre argument I had with a former boss, which I ended by pointing out that a cow has only one tongue.

#200 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 12:52 PM:

Someday I'll tell you about the bizarre argument I had with a former boss, which I ended by pointing out that a cow has only one tongue.

Please tell me that "someday" is today. Did the boss somehow think it was a one-tongue-per-stomach ratio, or something?

#201 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 01:16 PM:

Xopher, at least 2 inquiring minds want to know!

#202 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 01:31 PM:

Xopher @ 199... I too want to know. Considering that my manager basically implied today that I'm a grease monkey among car designers, I'd like to making fun of bosses. (My apologies to bosses who might be lurking and, as for grease monkeys, my dad was one and I was proud of him.)

#203 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 01:49 PM:

Sing "Code Monkey" at him, Serge.

#204 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:16 PM:

OK, OK.

I used to work for a small software company that made a product tracking system for bakeries. You could set up a recipe and tell it how much dough you wanted to make, and it would tell you how much of each ingredient you needed (more usefully, you could specify several different doughs with overlapping ingredients and get a shopping list). It also allowed you to divide a dough up any number of ways, so 100 pounds of dough could make 50 two-pound loaves, or 25 two-pound loaves and 50 one-pound loaves, or whatever, and you could price each loaf type and figure out what the revenue would be if you sold all of them, and so on.

Pretty useful to a bakery. Much less so to a butcher shop. But this one small grocery chain was using the software in their bakery, and asked if it could be adapted for use in their butcher shops as well.

My boss and I agreed that you could treat a carcass as a dough, but I told him we'd need to make changes that would allow the "ingredients" to be backed out of a "dough" instead of using a dough to make loaves. He insisted the cuts of meat could be treated as loaf types.

"No," I told him. "The software would allow you to take a 200-pound carcass and use it to make 200 pounds of tongue! You can't do that."

"Why not?" he asked, stunning me. I mean, I'd known he wasn't that bright, but sometimes the sheer depth...at any rate, I stared at him for several seconds, waiting in vain for him to realize what he'd said.

"Because," I finally said, "a cow has only one tongue."

It still took him several seconds to realize what that meant. Then he said "oh" and reevaluated the whole proposition. Only time I've ever had a work-relevant disagreement that was resolved by pointing out a basic fact of bovine anatomy.

#205 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:21 PM:

Lila @ 203... Heheheh. As for my manager, I don't think she'd appreciate, but I do... Meanwhile, here is what I emailed yesterday to the whole team as a status report for my latest project.

#206 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:26 PM:

Individ-ewe-al:

At least I'm pretty sure this isn't a criticism of Heinlein....

#207 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 02:29 PM:

Xopher #204:

Some part of my mind wants to say that sufficiently strong typing of the language used should prevent that....

#208 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 04:56 PM:

albatross @ 207 ... thank you. I think I need to go take a caffeine and brain washing break now...

#209 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:32 PM:

Xopher @#204, that story deserves to be used as a textbook example of...something.

Serge @ #205, should that be translated as: "I'm being held prisoner by a loosely-organized bunch of hoodlums who have ludicrously undersupplied me and given me an insanely optimistic deadline, but at least I'm gorgeous"?

#210 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:57 PM:

Lila @ 209... I'm not sure that anybody picked up on the whole subtext of that image, but the one person who responded did comment on the vague physical similarities between Downey Jr and me. (No, not the 'gorgeous' part.)

#211 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 02:59 AM:

There's a story, notorious among romance novelists (my ex-wife was one), that seems on topic here.

An author had written a manuscript whose dashing hero was a veteran of the Great War who had returned from Over There to become a barnstorming mail pilot.

The editor's query was along the lines of: "I like the story, but readers don't really care for World War I. Can this be moved to right after the Civil War?"

#212 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 05:53 AM:

Barnstorming Civil War Balloonists!

It's not a big leap (so to speak) from Custer's Last Jump to barnstorming balloonist romance novels.

#213 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 07:51 AM:

Bob Rossney @ 211...

Remember the MythBusters's Civil War hybrid rocket?

#214 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 08:34 AM:

Earl #212:

There is some very fine steampunk lurking in that idea, I think.

"Rhett, Rhett, whatever shall I do, wherever shall I go?"

Reading Hollerith style cards with little holes in them.
"Frankly my dear, the calculating engine doesn't give a damn." (Climbs back into airship, flies away.)

#215 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 10:25 AM:

Apropos of #203:

There's a professional development conference in November that I've been trying to decide if I can go to. The conference program is divided into two streams, one focussing on technical issues and the other on business, management, and marketing issues; the two streams are titled, respectively, "Code Monkey" and "Monkey Suit".

#216 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 01:59 AM:

Bob Rossney @ 211: Orange (the mobile phone company) did a most excellent series of shorts, shown before movies in UK theatres to remind the audience to turn off their phones. Each featured a famous person pitching a film, only to have it ruined by the clueless and crass suggestions of the studio panel, ostensibly from Orange itself looking for movies to produce. The tag line was, "Don't let mobile phones ruin your movie."

Carrie Fisher pitched a romance. Having established our protagonists unable to meet because of the class barriers separating them, she places a handful of beautiful handwritten letters on the table, illustrating their only way to communicate over the distances estranging them. An executive producer comments that people don't really write letters any more, maybe they could...text on their phones! Another objects that you can't have cell phones on horseback. No problem, they'll just make the horse into a car. Oh, but we can't show texting while driving, better get legal's opinion on that. Well, maybe they could pull over and then text...

Romance gone!

#217 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 10:51 PM:

I thank you for that, because that link led me to the Sean Astin ad, which has a) a wonderful little visual surprise at the end and b) subtitles in what I'm guessing is Romanian. (Noua Zeelanda!)

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