Sarah blogs from Lebanon

My niece Sarah is living in Lebanon for the next year or so. She got all settled in just in time for the big Lebanese Thanksgiving tradition. As she observes

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I will probably go to my friend Amal’s house to eat tabbouleh and baba ganoush, just like the Pilgrims did.

I know all this because she is taking part in what appears to be a growing family tradition (see A town called Tambo) of keeping a travel blog. Sarah’s is called Home and Away. There’s only one entry so far, but it’s off to a good start: a top ten list of things she’s learned about Lebanon so far. Based on number 8, I’m thinking she may soon grow a mustache in order to fit in.

Travel blogs are great things. Everybody gets to keep up with what you’re doing, and you don’t have to write so many postcards (or pretend like you didn’t have the time to buy stamps at the local post office).

Fundamentalism and the boomerang of certainty

The When I was a kid, there was a book on our shelves entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? This was in the 1970s, and I recall thinking the premise was absurd. But we now know the author was off by only seven years. The fears that dominate our psyches, that seem so permanent, can sometimes dissipate like a passing cloud.

Last week the Boston Globe had an article called Why fundamentalism will fail. The author, Harvey Cox, is betting that the forces of moderation will be ascendant as people get tired of the relentless and uncompromising belligerence of fundamentalism. Given the shadow of terrorism that hangs over us, it would be easy to dismiss the author, a professor of Divinity at Harvard, as naive.

But I’m feeling optimistic too, although my reasoning is slightly different. Here’s the thing: there’s not much religion in fundamentalism. Eventually everyone will figure this out, and the whole phenomenon will fade.

Fundamentalism, as the theologian Edward Farley has said, isn’t about that old time religion. Fundamentalism is a very modern response to modernity itself. It wants to do battle with doubting secularism. But doubt is deeper than secularism, and you attack it at your peril.

Farley says

Religious fundamentalism itself becomes a kind of atheism in its suppression of the doubt that is part of all religion. … Fundamentalism, paradoxically, is itself a sign of a religion undergoing secularization.”

It works like this. How do you eliminate doubt? By making rules. Lots and lots of rules. What you end up with is very algorithmic, a sort of video game religion. The fundamentalist must root out uncertainty wherever he finds it. Coincidentally, this is also the aim of the scientist. Just as a fundamentalist extremist will use modern weapons, so too does he deploy modern rhetoric. But in so doing, he’s no longer playing on his home court, and this is what dooms him. The minute a creationist starts talking about missing fossils and carbon dating, he’s lost. He is in the untenable situation of pretending like data matters and knowing with certainty that it doesn’t. I say, let him talk. The noise is no great nuisance, and he will presently be gone.

The true counterpart of modern secularism is not fundamentalism but brooding unknowable mystery, of which there is no lack. The Dalai Lama has remarked that wherever Buddhism and science are in conflict, Buddhism should change. The Dalai Lama knows that Buddhism has nothing to worry about. He knows how to play on his home court.

But the fundamentalist insists on clarity and concrete, hardening myth into journalism and miracle into science. It’s like chopping the wings off a bird to make it fit in a box. You may think you have a bird in there. After a time, you will find you do not.

Cell Size and Scale

In a Zoomable User Interface (ZUI), you can move up and down the scale of a spatial dimension easily. This feels very natural when you’re zooming through something that you have some physical intuition about, like a picture of the inauguration, or a map of the planet. It can be very disorienting when you’re zooming through an abstract space.

Here’s an especially nice example of where it can work well: Cell Size and Scale.

It’s always eye-opening to see how tiny cells are, and then to see how tiny (most) bacteria are relative to eukaryotic cells. Consider: you couldn’t cram one of your chromosomes into an empty E. coli shell if you used a spatula and two shoehorns. I don’t know if I’m more impressed with my size or E. coli’s minuteness.

Water surface tension

If you look closely at a puddle during a rainstorm, you see a weird thing: little balls of water skating around as though the are being rejected by the receiving pool. They disappear quickly, so it’s hard to keep your eye on them. What’s going on? What would it look like if you had faster eyes?

Via Steve Crandall I came across this lovely slow motion video of bouncing water drops. For an instant, before the intervening air is squeezed out, the taut surface of the puddle is essentially a trampoline for descending droplets. I’ve always wondered about the physics of this. Watch!

Brother Blue, 1921-2009

Brother Blue was a storyteller from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He died last week, and as one of our secular saints, his passing deserves notice. He enjoyed being at once eccentric and affirming. He had a calling, and the calling was touching souls, but he called his calling storytelling, and so it was. Like Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers, it didn’t bother him if people thought he was simple. He would probably have considered it a compliment. Brother Blue’s real name was Hugh, but his brother, who was mentally disabled, could only say Blue, and so it was.

I saw him perform a few times, and I can tell you that he knew how to make it work. I once heard him give advice to younger storytellers on what to do when the audience is mostly empty chairs. Just think, said Blue, that those chairs are filled with angels. And when you heard him say it, you knew that for him, they were.

The most valuable thing I learned from Brother Blue was his secret. Brother Blue’s Secret. I have thought about it before every talk I’ve given since I first heard it eleven years ago. It’s a good one. I wrote it down, and I’ll share it with you: Brother Blue’s Secret.

The difference between Japanese and US robotics

I’m going to give you a quick lesson in the difference between Japanese and US robot research. Or how about this: I’ll just show you two pictures, and you see if you can spot the difference.

There, on the left, that’s a Japanese robot. And on the right there, that’s a US robot. They are both walkers. And yet… something seems different.


Now, to be fair, these robots serve different purposes. But I feel certain that a Japanese roboticist would take one look at the headless wretch from Boston Dynamics and cry out, “For the love of God, why didn’t you put a face on that thing? Some Mr. Potato Head eyes, or a Hello Kitty sticker… anything!”

I’m not sure why humanoid robots are so popular in Japan. I’m told it has something to do with Astroboy. I will grant you there’s something creepy about the lawnmower-with-legs in the video.

Links soft and links hard

Some months ago I was reading an article in American Scientist, and I thought it would be interesting to blog about it. If I had been reading the article online, it would have been a simple matter to tag it with my little WordPress bookmarklet that would insert it directly into my blog database. But I was at a Starbuck’s reading a magazine made out of paper. Without pen or paper, I was certainly doomed to forget about the article before I got around to blogging about it. Then I remembered my iPhone. Shouldn’t I be able to take a picture of the article and have it automatically find the article for me online? Shazam lets me find music this way, and SnapTell tracks down books. Lacking any such service, it occurred to me that I could at least take a picture of the page to remind me. Here’s the result.


There’s a URL in that mess somewhere, but it took some real work to figure out after a few weeks had passed. Not so helpful. Sure enough, this article got lost in the shuffle.

Yesterday, sitting in a different Starbuck’s reading Technology Review, I found an article that I want to write about, and this time technology was on my side. The article in question had a QR Code embedded on it. This made it possible, with the help of a free NeoReader app, to jump directly from a low-res grainy photograph to a URL. Once I had the URL, I could open it in Safari and then bookmark it with Instapaper‘s Read Later feature. This transferred it from the phone to the cloud where I could retrieve it from my PC later that night. That’s still a lot of steps, but easier and more likely to succeed than a scrap of paper.

Ironically, neither method gets me past the last hurdle: a content paywall. I can’t blame a journal for wanting to make money off their content, but it’s too bad that I can’t point you to more of the article than this: Engineers restore high-resolution photos of the moon.

The reason I wanted to link to that article is a personal connection. NASA scientists are rescuing a bunch of mildewing lunar photography archives that were scheduled to be destroyed. In the meantime, they’re working out of an old McDonald’s at Moffett Naval Air Station in Mountain View, California. Here’s the defunct McDonald’s. Zoom out and look at the giant dirigible hangars. My connection is that I used to work at NASA Ames. I used to eat at that McDonald’s. But when I was there, there were no Lunar Orbiter tape reels blocking access to the fryolator.