Wolfram’s “New Kind of Science” skewered

Hey, you want to read a fun book review? Read this review by Cosma Shalizi about Stephen Wolfram’s massive monument to himself, A New Kind of Science. The review is long, but it’s packed with lots of good information, and believe me, you’ve never read a review about a physics book that dishes quite like this one. From the subtitle (“A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity”) to the summation (“There is much here that is new and true, but what is true is not new, and what is new is not true; and some of it is even old and false, or at least utterly unsupported”), it’s nonstop action.

When Wolfram’s book first came out, it had an Emperor’s New Clothes feel to it (the Emperor’s New Kind of Science, perhaps?). Wolfram’s reputation for brilliance and legal aggression had a numbing effect on his reviewers. Sure he’s arrogant, but might he be right? Nobody wanted to be branded as the idiot who gave it a bad review just before God Himself endorsed it as the Truth. I have been looking forward to the day when the gloves came off, and that day is upon us. Shalizi is a clever (young) prof at the University of Michigan, and his critique alternates between truncheons and erudition.

Bruce Sterling, commenting on Shalizi’s review, offers this bon mot:

Maybe reviewers shouldn’t pick on isolated, wealthy math geniuses who have intensely private, highly bonkers-sounding, self-published cosmological schemes. I mean — what if he comes out of his ivory basement and deliberately DISTURBS THE UNIVERSE? We could be looking at the pixelated rags and tatters of reality by Friday!

Profits + geography: Nabeel’s map hack

My friend and erstwhile co-worker Nabeel is getting deep into the Google Map hacking these days, and for his latest trick he’s come up with a real winner. His GeoIndex tool takes the stock performance for each company in the S&P 500 and puts it onto a map of the US. Little green and red arrows tell you if the stock went up or down for the day. Click on a company ticker or location, and you get a nice little in-place five-day chart. I found this moderately interesting until I realized I could click on industries too. So for today, I see that Pfizer had a bad day (not so surprising these days). But a click on “Pharm/Biotech” shows me that most of the pharmas also had an off day. I can also see the geographic distribution of companies: the big East Coast pharmas clustered around New Jersey went down, but the younger West Coast biotechs in San Diego and San Francisco did well on the whole.

I don’t know if it will help me make money, but it’s fun to look at.

He must be expecting some company pretty soon, because he’s got the place decked out with Google Ads. I can’t blame him: one mention on SlashDot will send his bandwidth bills skyrocketing.

Visualizing all US flights

Quick, how many airplanes are airborne in US airspace at the busiest time of the day? Answer: just over 5000 (that’s IFR airborne aircraft for you aeronautical sticklers out there). Next question: how many airplanes are in the air RIGHT NOW? Answer: go ask the insane detail-obsessed people who put together FlightAware. They’ll not only tell you (as I post this, the answer is 2732 aircraft), but they’ll show you a freakin’ picture of it. They’ll even tell you how many Cessna Skylane 182s are in the air right now. And the sky is lousy with Airbus A320s. Show me the inbound and outbound flights for Newark International? No problem. They’ve got minute-by-minute altitude, position, and speed for every plane in the air. The more I dig into the site, the more amazed I am at the wealth of completely free information available to me, the lazy web-surfing airplane geek.

And the pièce-de-résistance? A movie of all flights over a 24 hour period. Every time I watch I see more fascinating things. Watch the east coast wake up, roll over and poke the slumbering west coast. Look at Maine being hosed down by Europe until it overflows and boils back the other way. Avert your eyes from Florida’s rude Caribbean drip. See the trans-Pac crowd huddling nervously in Seattle before walking the lonely tightrope to Alaska. I can’t stop looking…

The overall effect is of fire, or of bugs pouring out of their underground colonies and marauding. Every single one of those red buglike dots is great big metal tube filled with people. I declare: that do beat all.

Switched to new host, new version of MT

I’m doing the big switch from one web host to another (from Interland to ImHosted.com). From where I sit, the nameservers are already pointing people to my new site, so that part’s good. At the same time, I upgraded my Movable Type installation to version 3.2. It seems pretty good so far, but man what a pain it is to go fiddle around with giant complex completely different style sheets and templates. Anyway, if things look weird or unstable for a few days, that’s why. If they look weird or unstable a week from now, please tell me. Assuming my email account is working, which it isn’t at the moment.

So far so good with ImHosted. Thanks for the recommendation Nabeel!

What makes creepy crawly creepy?

When a buggy thing gives you the creeps, what’s going on? They’re perfectly reasonable (and very successful) creatures. Why cringe? If your skin crawls, is it because you imagine bugs literally crawling across you? Or is it the totally alien nature of their buggy bodies compared to ours? Their endlessly varied spines and hairs, their convoluted inside-out-ness, their crunchy skin filled with undifferentiated goo? You just can’t sympathize with a fly, but it still puzzles me why. Please tell me your theories.

The movie The Fly uses creepy bugginess to good effect, but actually it’s hard for the special effects boys to get bugginess right. What would a fly really look like if it’s head were as big as yours? Nikon has been running a microscopy contest, and the winner this year is a stunning natural-color head-on view of a fly. I was arrested by this image. Most bug snapshots are electron micrographs. They’re beautiful, but otherworldly, hard to place in the real world. But this Nikon prizewinner, it’s easy for me to imagine serving it tea in my living room (be sure and look at the LARGE version). It makes me want to study it and make friends with it, somehow. Imagine a petstore filled with dog-sized flies banging around in large cages as delighted children look on. On second thought, don’t. Too late. Yuck.

Be sure and look at some of the other Nikon winners. It’s one of the best things about living in a technically advanced society: so many fabulous pictures!

Planarity OCD game

Planarity.net is a nifty game I found on LifeHacker tonight. You just shift around network nodes until the lines are all uncrossed. The good news is that you can easily play it over and over and over. I’ll let you guess the bad news. Like Sudoku puzzles, it’s a breeze to teach a computer how to solve it, but for some reason it particularly tickles our mushy wet-brains. As you play with it, you start to get an idea how an untangling algorithm would work.

If you have any obsessive-compulsive tendencies, please don’t follow this link (on the other hand, you’ll quite enjoy it). This game is so simple, mindless, and pleasing in that clean-it-up-and-make-it-better way that it could practically be used as a diagnostic tool.

Warning: baseball and philosophy

The Red Sox are done for 2005 – cooked in three quick games. The pain of elimination, one year after winning it all, is nothing like that same pain in years past. It is nothing remotely like the pain of the 2003 post-season, in which some demon scripted a particularly cruel eleventh-hour defeat at the hands of the Yankees.

These days, that loss is seen primarily as a dramatic backstory to the championship that followed. But I suspect that I am not alone in finding the loss in 2003 to be a more magnetic and beguiling memory even than the unbelievable victory in 2004. This is not nostalgia for defeat, more a sense of touching something deeper. There is a particular song I listened to often during the 2003 race, a haunting instrumental piece called “Lauren’s Waltz.” To this day, whenever I hear it, I am suddenly back in that moment of loss and punished hope. So close. The sense of frustrated longing was so aching, so piercing and intense. Of course much of my own personal pain was projected onto that loss… there is an implicit promise that victory in sports means victory over all adversity. Why should defeat be more memorable than victory? Because in life we do not win the way one wins a baseball game. All longing, once requited, is simply replaced by more longing, an endless cycle which must ultimately be frustrated. There is no end to longing, only to life. I ache therefore I am. 2004 was an embrace of victory. Victory is joyous, brash, impermanent. She will leave. 2003 was an embrace of unrequited longing. She is the one who will always love you. Love her, and you can know peace.

Losing brings fellowship, fellow-suffering, togetherness. After 2003, the old diehard Sox fans said to the new recruits “See how painful it is? Come sit over here by me. I understand.” After 2004, some said “I paid my dues, did you? Do you deserve to celebrate with me?”

I don’t regret winning for a instant. But the lessons of losing are worthwhile.


I’m obsessed with LibraryThing, and there’s a good chance, if you’re much of a book person, you will be obsessed with it too. LibraryThing is a service that lets you build your own virtual library online. As such, you can use it to represent your real bookshelf, books you wish you owned, or even the bookshelf you will have in heaven when you complete your last earthly chapter.

Like a lot of bookstore loiterers, I have more books than shelf space. LibraryThing solves a big problem for me. I can see and organize my books online without having to schlep around their physical counterparts. I had been admiring the bookshelf software called Delicious Monster, but LibraryThing is much better. It’s net-based, and it’s got the social aspects of del.icio.us and others.

Here’s my catalog so far.