Holy cow pies

If you are occasionally dragged down by the thought that religious conservatives are pushing creationism into the science curriculum of our public schools, it may provide some (mostly comic) relief to hear about religion masquerading as science in countries far away from our own. In the recent Wired News story Cattle, the Research Catalyst, we learn that Hindu fundamentalists have been busy researching the miraculous properties of cow waste. For example, “tests have shown that distemper made out of cow dung and spread over walls and roofs can block nuclear radiation.” Another researcher concludes that “cows’ urine can cure cancer, renal failure, arthritis and a lot of other ailments.”

I mention this not to laugh so much as shrug. It’s the same all over the world. The oldest stories are slowest to change because they are old. We would twist the world into a pretzel to make it match our convictions rather than see what is in front of us. The Cobb County biology book stickers say “This material should be approached with an open mind.” Open eyes help too.

How to learn a language

In the last twenty years, introductory language instruction has improved significantly through the efforts of people like Dartmouth’s John Rassias. Learning a new language is more fun, more effective, and faster than it used to be. But beyond this, technology has provided some amazing extra help in the last few years through everything from computer-based drills and flash cards to reading the news and listening to the radio in absolutely any language in the world.

Years ago I used to try to buy a copy of Paris Match magazine before a trip to France, just to have some vocabulary to chew on. My French isn’t really very good, but it always helped to get my brain ready for the shock of travel. Now, of course, you can just go to the Paris Match website (careful, it’s annoying) or tune in to French TV. Beyond this, it had occurred to me in the past few years that someone must have made it possible to arrange for language pen pals by Internet. And so they have. A site called My Language Exchange will arrange for you to meet a friend matched to your level in the language of your choice. And since that person will necessarily have a computer, a free Skype phone conversation is only seconds away. It’s an ideal way to learn. I wish this had been available when I was in high school. Then again, I’d probably be wasting all my time playing Half-Life and Doom instead.

I learned about My Language Exchange from a thread on the kuro5hin site called How to Learn a Language. It’s a good article, and the comments are well-informed and entertaining, too. Through these, I found the Kanji Clinic and a fun article called Kanji tattoos are primarily for Western eyes. I suppose they are, but I prefer to think of bizarre Kanji tattoos on Americans as our revenge for bizarre Engrish t-shirt slogans.

Unrealized Christianity

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels is a book about vanished Christianities. The religion (and Bible) we know today took centuries to solidify and be codified into regulated Catholic practice. For a long time, there were a variety of groups, all calling themselves Christians, who believed a number of different things about this man Jesus. We might never have known the full extent of this variety were it not for the discovery in 1945 of some ancient texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, that had otherwise been completely suppressed.

What does the Gospel of Thomas say that is so dangerous? Essentially, it says the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, and to find it you must turn into yourself rather than to an orthodox clergy. Imagine a Christianity where Jesus is a more accessible role model, in the sense that any of us can become like him, or even surpass him, in becoming one in spirit with the Father. This is the promise of some of the suppressed books of early Christendom. If that sounds like heresy, it’s only because those who defined it as heresy won. A Buddha-like Jesus was appealing to many, but it presented a number of problems to the young and struggling Church. If anyone can claim equality with Jesus, how are unity and order to be maintained? How is one to distinguish charlatans from holy men? Best to draw the line at one Christ and be done. Of the four “approved” Gospels that got into the Bible, Pagels makes the point that one, the book of John, can be read as an explicit polemic against the Gospel of Thomas.

Final score: John 1, Thomas 0.

Half-Life deathmarch

When I go through my referral logs every now and again, I always find several searches for “dog tranquilizers” leading people to my site. My nephew Ben, famous Elkin high school graduate and salutatorian, is responsible for this. (Although now that I think about it, this post is going to draw people for the same reason. At least I didn’t mention “dog tranquilizers” and “Britney Spears” in the same post. … Doh!)

Anyway, Ben recently sent me a link to a fascinating story about the software development deathmarch behind the recently released (and much hyped) game Half-Life 2. Ben says:

One of the things I’m interested in right now is the video game
industry, which has been recently edging out the movie industry in
terms of yearly revenue. Anyway, here’s a story that isn’t
necessarily that interesting, but the similarity between it and a
typical hollywood “movie out of control” story.

Here’s the article: The Final Hours of Half-Life 2. As a software developer, this story hits close to home. Predicting when you are going to be done writing software is incredibly hard, and the pressure surrounding a high-profile game must be miserable. The article (which is looong, by the way) makes it sound brutal. It’s just one of the games chronicled by Gamespot writer Geoff Keighly as part of his Behind the Games series. Thanks for the link, Ben!

What’s on your bookshelf?

I have the self discipline to keep myself from peeking in a friend’s medicine cabinet, even their liquor cabinet, but when it comes to bookshelves, I have to hover and peruse. What does this person like? Do they have books I have read? Books I want to read? Strange books? Runs on fiction by a single author?

Flickr is a photo service that lends itself to socializing by sharing annotated images. One Flickr image descriptor, or tag, that has taken on a life of its own is the “bookshelf” tag. Follow the link and you’ll see lots of pictures of people’s bookshelves. Some of them are even annotated with little callouts. Some are organized by color. Of course, the books you read and the books you show people are often two very different things. Predictably, some bookshelves are pretentious. Have you really picked up that book since your philosophy class? Did you even read it then?

I love shelves lined with puzzling books, disturbing books, tempting books. Looking at all these pictures makes me want to go organize my books and take some snapshots. Then again, moving books is work; building a virtual version of your library may be the next best thing. A company called Delicious Monster has cooked up something (for the Mac only right now) called Delicious Library that lets you create virtual shelves filled your favorite bookly booty, CDs, and DVDs. I wouldn’t mind having something like this, but this particular company seems to have swallowed a few too many wacky pills. So I’ll wait.

New look

Playing around with a new look for the site definitely makes clear the value of Cascading Style Sheets. With the help of some of Jesse Ruderman’s excellent web development bookmarklets like Edit Styles and Ancestors, you can find a site you like, grab (steal) some of the styles, and painlessly put them in place on your own site. Another good resource is the EditCSS plugin for Firefox, but it stopped working (at least for now) in Firefox 1.0. In fact, I just noticed that EditCSS is based on Ruderman’s bookmarklet. What an incestuous place the web is!

Election maps and the Wikipedia

Before the noise of the election dies away completely, you should take a look at some of these electoral maps. They’ve been showing up all over the place, but I would direct your attention in particular to the purple county-by-county map near the bottom of this page: Tim Pierce – maps maps maps maps maps. Anything that smooths out the awful abrupt contrast between the rising red tide and the blue periphery makes me feel a little bit better about the future.

In other election-related news, the George Bush and John Kerry pages on the famously promiscuous Wikipedia joined a small list of pages that had to be “locked down” (made off limits to editing by the public) due to editorial abuse by patrons. Bush’s picture was vandalized multiple times, and even the Wikipedia, it seems, has its limits. Some pages are such hot topics that the editors nail the door shut for an unspecified time. In achieving this distinction, Bush and Kerry join such company as Ariel Sharon, Henry Kissinger, and Jane Fonda. Here’s the article about it in the NY Times: Mudslinging Weasels Into Online History.

Underwater gliders

Helium balloons stay aloft with no effort, but they’re impossible to steer and easily buffeted by strong winds. Airplanes have marvelous control, but they run out of gas after a few hours. It would be ideal if you could combine in one vehicle the lighter-than-air benefits of a balloon and the controllable aspects of an airplane. No one knows how to do this in the air, but underwater it’s not so hard.

The result is essentially a cross between a helium balloon and a glider. By varying the density of such a vehicle the way a submarine does, you can make it climb or sink. This climbing or sinking motion gives you enough velocity to use your underwater “wings” to generate forward motion, and you’re off to the races. If you constantly vary your depth in a sort of sine wave profile, you can swim huge distances for very little effort.

This is exactly how the diminuitive and unmanned Spray (named after famed solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum‘s little boat) swam across the Gulf Stream from Boston to Bermuda: Autonomous Robot To Cross the Gulf Stream Underwater. It was a slow, meandering process (check out the plots at the bottom of the Spray project homepage) but it worked, tirelessly and continuously gathering temperature and current data cheaply and where it could not otherwise be had.

Presumably you could do the same thing with a human on board, but it would sure be a slow, uncomfortable ride. On the other hand, I don’t see why you couldn’t ship certain kinds of freight very slowly and cheaply this way.

You are half bacterial

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Wired News: People Are Human-Bacteria Hybrid. According to the article, there are actually more bacteria along for the ride on your body (100 trillion) than you have cells in your body (several trillion). It really doesn’t even make sense to talk about “you” without also including a massive bacterial complement. From your mouth to your bowels to the soles of your feet, germs are a necessary part of you. And now we find out that they outnumber your cell count too.

Just make sure they don’t get the vote.

Competitions everywhere

Competitions to spur technological innovation are much in the news these days. They seem to have the magic power to make exciting things happen quickly. In the last few days, maverick airplane designer Burt Rutan officially claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize for building the privately funded SpaceShipOne. Ansari Prize founder Peter Diamandis credits as his inspiration the $25,000 Orteig prize that Lindbergh won in 1927 for the solo crossing of the Atlantic.

In the shadow of the very successful Ansari competition, NASA is launching something called the Centennial Challenge. Among other things, the Challenge will provide prizes to encourage private space missions by giving specific awards for things like soft robotic lunar landing, micro reentry vehicle, solar sail station-keeping, aeroassist, and human orbital flight.

The prize craze extends into other industries beyond aerospace. InnoCentive is a company that does nothing but post and award prizes to chemists and chemical engineers who solve chemical problems of commercial value. Who needs an R&D department? Just post your problem (anonymously) and pay off your benefactor only when the work comes in.

I expect we will eventually run into contest fatigue as we squeeze this fad for all it’s worth. Then again, I thought reality TV would fade after a season or two, so who knows?