Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Born Every Minute

Check out my new favorite blog, aptly titled Stupid Beautiful Lies. This freaky Canadian doesn't give a damn that he doesn't have anything to say. He just writes for the hell of it. What's amazing me is that we all keep reading this kind of stuff. I stumbled across his site randomly and was drawn in by its professional looking layout, complete with a Flash animated title-bar and oh so chic pictures. I figured - this has to be good. It wasn't. The first post I read was, The Lost Art of Toilet Worship. Although written well enough to trick me into reading the entire post - it was, as you might expect, complete crap. Literally it was crap written about crap, sarcastically pretending to be deep and meaningful.

Very clever, I thought. I decided to post a comment thanking him for wasting my time. Something short and simple like, "You're full of shit." I was blown away when I clicked the comment bar. There were already plenty of comments there, and many of them were glowing with praise. They were idiotically pathetic attempts to continue the empty philosophical debate about the deep mystical significance of shit. Not only was Stupid Beautiful producing figuratively literal SHIT (strange as that is I think I worded that right), there was an audience that was eating it all up. Think about it.

I didn't bother to comment. There was no point - it was all too silly. SB was just pushing our buttons, seeing how far he could go, how much he could get away with. Apparently pretty far. Apparently a whole lot.

I was entertained enough to scan through a few more of his posts and while they were all pretty much written in the same vein there is one post I absolutely love. Scientist Finds God is possibly the single most brilliant thing I have ever read online. If you do nothing else this summer, read that post. Most especially read the comments it provokes. The rest of this post is about that post, so if you're so inclined, read it before continuing here.

Monday, March 21, 2005

I never post just because it's been a while since my last post

So don't expect me to do that.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Happy St. Patrick's Day

My goodness . . . Posted by Hello

A good day for a Guinness. I'm fortunate I got to drink a lot of these during my recent visit to NY, because today just might be the worst St. Patrick's Day ever. Even worse than the time I went to Dublin for St. Patrick's and they cancelled the parade (damn those mad cows). Firstly, I've got a dental appointment today. I'm getting fillings for a sore tooth. Hopefully just fillings and not a crown or root canal. And I'm insisting the Doc only uses a local anesthetic.

Of course, being numb, speechless and drooling on this most besotten of holidays might just be the perfect cover. Chances are no one would notice, and I would be able to self medicate if I feel any pain. But my real dilemma is that I have an opportunity to do a night flight later this evening - assuming I feel up to it after the dentist is through with me. My flight instructor, federal law, and even my invisible leprechaun friends will all insist I remain completely sober if I fly. And given the choice of flying or drinking I'll take flying just about every time.

But it'll feel strange to not have a single Guinness - it's tradition! I guess there's always next year - or next week - or whenever I land.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Open Outsourcing

My brother got me started on using Wikipedia as an information resource. It's basically just a free online encyclopedia. It's convenient and there's certainly a wealth of information there. The catch is anybody and everybody writes the articles. It's great example of the modern open source/free information era we live in. Amazing, but it really makes me wonder where all this is headed.

Instead of writing an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is just the framework for an encyclopedia that writes itself. Looking for information about Anne Frank, Cold Fusion, or old computer games? Chances are Wikipedia has an article on it. Think of a topic you're passionate about but is lacking in the listings? Just write it yourself and then post it there. If it's any good others will use it. If it's crap, then sooner or later others will likely move in and edit it, or request that it be removed.

It turns out that if an article's veracity is questioned, users can initiate a vote to have it expunged from the record. Talk about blind justice. Personally, I think democracy seems like a crazy way of verifying information. Despite it all I have to admit, the vast majority of Wikipedia articles I've seen are relatively accurate. And I like the fact that I can try to fix any inconsistencies I notice - like why doesn't General Santa Anna's biography mention his missing leg? (I haven't submitted a rewrite on that one yet.)

Of course, I always take anything I read on the internet with a grain of salt, but I've come to like using Wikipedia as an easy first resource. It's kind of a grand social experiment. I worry school kids might come to think of these sorts of internet resources as gospel, but then again I wonder if we can really predict what the long term effects will be. Maybe fifty years from now, Wikipedia will be considered a solid resource. Perhaps once an article has withstood alteration for so many years then it'll be reasonable practice to accept it as accurate.

Perhaps, but my gut still warns me no. I worry about revisionist history creeping in and skewing the facts. Sometimes the truth is unpopular. My brother pointed out that somebody keeps editing and effectively deleting the entire article on the Holocaust. It's important to point out, despite someone's desire to pretend it never happened, other Wikipedia users have been vigilant and usually the article is only gone for minutes before someone notices and revives it. But the Holocaust was huge - would we always notice the dissappearance of less well known, but correspondingly uncomfortable events?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Cicada Prime

I've been reading a bit about cicadas lately. They're those really obnoxious bugs that come out of the ground every decade or so and freak everybody out. They're weird, kinda disgusting, and apparently they have an uncanny knack of always showing up in cycles of prime numbers. The 17-year cicadas are probably the most well known varieties, but there are closely related 13-year cicadas as well. Not being much of a bug lover, I was nevertheless intrigued by the fact these guys synchronize their emergence with such unlikely periodicity. Why primes?

Truth is I'm not much of a math whiz either, but I do know enough realize that prime sequences occurring in nature is a big deal. Mathematicians have been trying unsuccessfully to predict prime number sequences for ages. Could it be that nature already has the solution? Could the formula for a prime number generator somehow be locked in the genes of these strange insects?

I have to admit, after reading a few published research papers, I've become fascinated by the bizarre lifecycles of periodical cicadas. The primary advantage to their unusual mass emergence is something termed 'predator satiation'. Predators are completely overwhelmed by their numbers - cicada broods can appear by the million. The only way cicadas sustain this arrangement is by emerging infrequently enough to avoid predator build-up, and by being synchronized when they do emerge en mass. Their safety lies in numbers.

One of the most interesting things about periodical cicadas is the relatively recent discovery that somehow environmental triggers (possibly overcrowding) can cause entire populations of 17-year cicadas to switch their lifecycles and become 13-year cicadas. They're not two distinctly separate species that both happen to have prime cycles - both prime cycles exist in a common genetic heritage.

Scientists still don't completely understand all the hows and whys but, as fascinating as it all is, I'm now reasonably certain there's no holy grail of a prime number generator at the heart of it all. While no one really understands exactly why cicadas exhibit prime periodicity, I'’m starting to picture how such a system could have evolved. Why primes? Probably for the same reason mathematicians think primes are so interesting - they have no common factors. At first I suspected it was a mechanism to keep separate cicada populations from competing for resources. The separate populations would almost never resynchronize to compete for limited resources (just once every 221 years). As unnatural as primes are, I figured prime periodicity must simply be the result of natural selection - over a very long trial and error process. It's easier to accept that 13 and 17 just happens to be where the struggling cicada populations ended up settling in, because it was the best fit after a lot of random fluctuation.

After reading a few more papers I realize my pet theory is an extreme oversimplification at best. There are a lot of other factors to consider, and the manner in which broods do occasionally overlap make mere competition for resources unlikely as the sole purpose for such a mechanism. Still I think the general idea is sound. By settling in on prime frequencies, the cicada is able to achieve a sort of advantageous disharmony with its environment, always taking its predators - or some other aspect of nature - by surprise. Hell, we’'re the only ones who would ever even notice a pattern. And cicadas probably found primes the same way we do - one at a time, by trial and error.

Dashed are my aspirations of cracking RSA and becoming rich and famous. A prime number generator would be amazing (and if it ever does get created in nature it will be in something like cicadas) but just two numbers, even primes, seems more coincidence than providence. If it takes modern computers hours to years to factor out large prime numbers, just remember it took evolution billions of years to find just two.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Plea Bloggin

During my regular meanderings through the blogoshpere, I'm always amazed at how much interesting stuff there is out there. I'm not talking about all the really bad poetry or inane ramblings you inevitably come across. There are quite a few of halfway decent bloggers out there if you're willing to wade the masses. The one thing that bothers me about a lot of blogs, even the good ones - especially the good ones - is the way so many of them start out as promising fonts of creativity, but end up as useless whines. I'm sure there's something therapeutic about venting your anger through a keyboard at the nameless masses, and everybody's entitled to an occasional outburst (especially if it's funny), but no need to make it an everyday thing. We can only take so much. Seriously, please stop.