Archive for the ‘internet follies’ category

Annals of Dumb: Playboy Edition/misplaced facticity edition

December 17, 2008

Via Huffington Post I discover that Playboy‘s Mexican edition has committed the predictable folly of placing on its cover a strategically partially dressed young woman to whom has been attached the caption “Te Adoramus Marìa.”

To no sentient being’s surprise this has aroused ire amongst the faithful, the more so because the edition came out the day before the celebration of the Day of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.  The predictable round of apology and disclaimers has begun and this will pass as another minor skirmish in the eternal war between desire and faith…or whatever pompousity commentators will come up with to mark the occasion.

But what got me was not the cover, nor the very nice young lady depicted, nor  her garment, meant, I think to evoke a kind of demure prayer shawl but looking like nothing so much as the tablecloth you pull out when the children are going to be sitting elsewhere.   No, it was this line:

Playboy magazine apologized for a controversial cover featuring a scantily-clad woman resembling the Virgin Mary, Reuters reported. (Italics added)

Resembling?  Really?

I could go all serious here, and storm at the feckless fact-averse who cannot seem to face the notion that we don’t know who Mary was (not to mention the uncheckable sourcing  backing up the claim of a particular sexual status), and hence have no clue about the appearance of one amongst all the  young mothers – to -be in the Roman province of Galilee about two thousand years ago.

It may be conventional to depict Mary as a young, often dark-haired beauty, and the woman on the Playboy cover matches that broad description — but then so do lots of people who do not greatly resemble each other. (Think, e.g. of Halle Berry and Sarah Silverman, just to take two folks off the top of my head.  And thanks for The Great Schlepp, Sarah, as long as we’re here.)

But rather than go into some long discourse on this as an illustration one of the ways in which claims of established fact by the faithful take forms unintelligible to scientific rationalists–and vice versa,  I figured out how I could boil the whole argument down to  the old Catskills punch line.  Looking at the Playboy cover, all I could think was,

“Funny.  She doesn’t look Jewish.”

Image:  El Greco, “The Assumption of the Virgin,” 1577

(Stolen Tag Line alert): The Way We Live Now

March 25, 2008

Read this. (h/t Grace).

Partly, this is just to wallow in the horror of the contemporary mediastream.

But this is, obliquely, another response to Sean Carroll’s advice to scientists confronting science journalists.  My sober reaction to that post can be found below, but the horror contained in Gene Weingarten’s ordeal gets at the much bigger problem facing public communication of science.

Who the hell is going to hear it amidst all that noise?

That’s certainly a problem for science on TV, something with which I’ve had some experience.  When I started at NOVA in 1986, there were, really, just four networks:  the commercial webs and PBS.  On PBS, at least two, and often more of the fifteen weekday primetime hours were devoted to science.  Not a lot — but actually visible in the schedule.  Throw in a couple more on average, what with specials and limited series, and you’d get something like 4 hours per 60 for all four national broadcast soures as a minimum.

Now, with my cheapest-possible-digital cable, I have about 60 channels at my disposal.  None of them, with one possible exception, are all-science channels.  Except for my local PBS outlet, very few run much science or tech at all.  The signal to noise ratio has gotten much worse in 20-odd years, and even PBS  has seen an erosion of its high profile science portfolio.

And so on.  The litany of lost print jobs for science writers is an old one.  The science blogosphere is a help, an entirely new source of science news and opinion — but I’ll offer the heresy that pull media has more impact on its users and less impact on the culture than ubiquitous push offerings.  (I.e. — those who trouble to read blog posts get a lot out of them; but a nationally broadcast series like Cosmos has the ability to change thinking in a much more culture-moving way because it reachs people who do not self select in the same way.)

All of which is a long way round to saying, somewhat glumly, that to some extent the good advice that Sean provides, and the various addenda with which his commenters enriched the stew seem to me on bad days like rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic.  On good days, it makes me think that we actually need to conceive of our stories somewhat differently.  For an example I’ll blog about as soon as I move my book revision forward some:  take this article from Friday’s NYT, about resistance to childhood vaccination, and ask yourself what’s missing from this not-bad report?

Image: Pieter Breugel the Elder, “Tower of Babel,” 1563.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

A Monday Morning pick-me-up.

March 16, 2008

So, my sister sends me this link.

I watch it, despite the sense of instant lame-hood when I find myself tapping toes to a Billy Joel song.

But then I asked myself, in all this fire we didn’t start, how much of what the Hon. Mr. Joel sees as incendiary in the last half century or so falls under the heading of science?

Even stretching it pretty far to tech/engineering, I make it 16 images/ideas out of 120 in the song. And I only get that far by counting the Studebaker, just because I like the engineering ideas in that car. (The Edsel didn’t make the cut, even as an example of a negative elenchus.)

Out of my 16, five connect to space flight, (and I counted a sixth for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and a seventh for the aerospace/political significance of the U2, just possibly the coolest airplane ever built. (Care to dissent, James Fallows?). The rest are a motley mix of gee whiz and bad news: H-bombs to vaccines to dacron, to my man Albert Einstein.

All in all, I actually think that Billy Joel and his unbelievably dedicated illustrator have caught the central fact of American science interest pretty well: the boffins are good for entertainment, for killing folks, for healing folks, and for gadgets.

Watch the video. It’s fun, and in the end, deeply troubling as well.

And you’ll curse me all day as the tune will not leave your head.

Image: Unknown artist, “The Great Fire of London with Ludgate and old St. Paul’s,” 1670. Source: Wikimedia Commons. One of my favorite fun facts: When Old St. Paul’s burned in the Great Fire (1666), the sixty tons of lead in its roof melted and flowed — a river of glowing metal — from the cathedral precincts a few hundred yards down hill into the Thames. A torrent of lead. Now that’s a conflagration — and in fact it is believed that the blaze turned into a true firestorm by late in the first day of the disaster.

Internet vocabulary question and answer

January 29, 2008

In the comments over at Balloon Juice’s Florida Primary Open Thread I saw the word “pwned” again, for the umpteenth time, in this case, as in

Jonah Goldberg got punked’….

Please. We should be more high minded and serious about our political discourse. Jonah got … PWNED!”

That did it — I finallly broke down and admitted to mysef that I’ve never known how to say the damn word — seemingly so important for contemporary ‘net communication.

So, violating the terms of my Y chromosome, I looked it up here.

The best thing I learned is that there are just two words — count ’em! — in English that use “w” as a vowel. Both are loan words from Welsh, no language for those who fear consonants. They are cwm, rhymes with “tomb”, meaning a cirque — a feature formed at the leading edge of a glacier; and crwth, a Welsh lyre, rhymes with “tooth.”

As the Wikipedia entry solemnly points out, that suggests that the correct pronounciation of pwn is “poon,” as in Jonah just got ‘pooned.

Maybe you all knew that, but I am greatly relieved to have that settled.
Even better — there’s a sort onomotopeia going here. That pronounciation just sounds right for the meaning…and it has a nice echo from the use of the word for all sorts of misbehaviour going on in Neal Stephenson’s ur-Cyberspace text, Snow Crash.

Image: Walfgang Zwischen, “A New England Whaler,” 1856. U.S. Library of Congress. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Red State code pretty some day

January 7, 2008

Check out Atrios’s posting of a truly, howlingly funny cri de coeur from the technological vanguard of the Right’s net brigades, a plea for cash and web help from RedState.

For real, workplace procrastination pleasure, read the comments thread. If you truly want to hear the leftroots in full, happy voice, follow the jump in the comments thread.

The Kossacks are having fun too...

One language note: I’m pretty sure I’m very late to this party, but it is amazing to me how thoroughly LOL Cats dialect  has become a kind of Web creole.  Sample quote from the Atrios comment thread: “I can haz HTML skillz?”

lolcats funny cat pictures

After reading a LOL cats version of “The Wasteland,” nothing surprises me.

What’s science and the public square got to do with all this? Not much, except to speculate on why anybody, right left or orthogonal, would find it that hard to hire web help.

So I’ll speculate away: the right has been happy to opine on all kinds of inherent distinctions in different groups’ intelligence. Far be it from me to go down that unhappy road, but could there be some inverse correlation between adolescent right wing politics and a capacity to handle unforgivingly machine logic? Just askin….

Image: LOL Cats: http://www.lolcats.com/view/501/

Beware the Internet

January 2, 2008

This might be a little too self referential, but I Amazoned myself yesterday, and got a minor shock.

Scrolling down the list of my stuff, and other people’s work that cited mine (it ranged from a history of debates about organic agriculture to a study of James Joyce and another of the music of Emerson Lake and Palmer, which ain’t bad given what I actually write about), I found one publication that stood out — a sixty page memoir about a supernova explosion published by WGBH in January, 1987, somehow produced under the auspices of the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources (sic!).   Sadly, for another publication is always welcome, I don’t actually remember writing this epic.

Now, as it happens, I did write an NSF grant that spring to raise some extra cash to allow a NOVA team to respond rapidly to the detection of Supernova 1987A, and I may have helped out with the teacher’s guide — I really don’t remember. But it was a very talented producer, Robin Bates, ably assisted by Kathy White, who actually made the film, which was broadcast that October under the title “Death of a Star.” While I was Science Editor for the NOVA series at the time, I basically just held their coats and cheered them on as they made a very nice program.

I certainly had no contact with the underground folks in New Mexico, and unless some evil twin came up with sixty pages on how all the gold in the ground (and much else besides) gets made in supernovae explosions, I have no idea where this comes from.

(Worse — I’ve turned up a couple of sites while putting this post together that show me as the producer of this film. I wasn’t. None of the credit goes to me).

The Moral of This Story:

Don’t believe everything you read on the innertubes.

Image: Hubble Space Telescope time series of images of Supernova 1987a; instrument: WFPC2 (those who care will know). Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Challis, and a former video victim of mine, the inimitable Robert Kirshner.