Friday, January 30, 2004

Thoughts in Few Words (4)

Oh, how the foolish have risen. (or, How far the foolish have risen).

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Feeling the Physics

I've recently started reading Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, which is derived from a text written by Richard Feynman back in the sixties (it's the six easiest chapters from that text). The text itself was derived from a series of undergraduate lectures Feynman gave at Caltech.

Despite the fact its derived from a text book, it's quite readable and I think he explains the concepts well. Reading it, it's easy to picture the things he's describing. His explanations are not perfect, though. There's a few places where it seems he knows too much for his own good, where he doesn't sufficiently anticipate some of the things a naive reader's will want to know in order to understand what he's talking about. But they're relatively minor complaints against a book that scores well in terms of readability and the clarity of its explanations.

And I can say now that I have finally progressed beyond my high-school knowledge of physics. This knowledge consisted of simplifying but ultimately incorrect concepts such as the "solar-system" view of an atom, with the electrons orbiting around the neucleus. I had some idea of the true story, but it's satisfying to have a more concrete picture there in my mind.

And that's the thing that's struck me while reading the book -- having that concete picture in my mind and realising that that's what's really going on, everywhere. In every speck in every part of your field of vision (if you are sighted, of course) there's a whole world, radically different to ours, made up of strange particles interacting in quirky ways. From your eyes, recieving the light carrying that picture, through your optic nerve, to your brain, to you -- all these things, too, are part of this strange world. It's there, right now, right in front of you, in you, you.

Blogging in the Open Air

The other day I bought a laptop, one of those ones with built-in wireless networking. Right now I'm sitting on a bench outside, in the Queen Street Mall, which is in the center of Brisbane. Sitting here typing this blog post, because the mall has got free wireless access, and watching the people go past. I think that's great, to be able do everything you can do with a computer and access to the Internet, not stuck at a desk, but in an environment like this or anywhere else that has wireless net access.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Type Letters In Your Own Handwriting

Fontifier is a neat looking web service that lets you create a computer font based on your own handwriting. What you do is write each letter of the alphabet (plus the numbers and symbols) on a template, which you can download from the web-site and print out, then scan in the filled-in template as an image, which you then upload to the web-site -- and voila, it sends you back a font constructed from your filled-in template. I can't try it out on my computer here -- no printer or scanner -- but I'd like to have a go when I get a chance.
(via, via Many2Many)

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Species, Language and Reality

You may have heard that the fossil record shows surprisingly little evidence of gradual transitions between species, which is the kind of evidence we should expect if the theory of evolution is to be believed. So then what's going on? Nothing, Richard Dawkins argues, in his book Climbing Mount Improbable, as the whole issue is actually a phantom created by language overshadowing reality.

From pages 95 and 96 of the first Penguin paperback edition of the book:

There is a supremely banal reason why transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level. I can explain it best with an analogy. Children turn gradually and continuously into adults but, for legal purposes, the age of majority is taken to be a particular birthday, often the eighteenth. It would therefore be possible to say, 'There are 55 million people in Britan but not a single one of them is intermediate between non-voter and voter.' Just as, for legal purposes, a juvenile changes into a voter as midnight strikes on the eighteenth birthday, so zoologists always insist on classifying a specimen as in one species or another. If a specimen is intermediate in actual form (as many are) zoologists' legalistic conventions still force them to jump one way or the other when naming it. Therefore the creationists' claim that there are no intermediates has to be true by definition at the species level, but it has not implications about the real world - only implications about zoologists' naming conventions.

To look no further than our own ancestry, the transition from Australo pithecus to Homo habilis to Homo erectus to 'archaic Homo sapiens' to 'modern Homo sapiens' is so smoothly gradual that fossil experts are continually squabbling about how to classify particular fossils. Now look a the following, from a book of anti-evolution propaganda: 'the finds have been referred to either Australopithecus, and hence are apes, or Homo and hence are human. Despite more than a centruy of energetic excavation and intense debate the glass case reserved for mankind's hypothetical ancestor remains empty. The missing link is still missing.' One is left wondering what a fossil has to do to qualify as an intermediate. In fact the statement quoted is saying nothing whatever about the real world. It is saying something (rather dull) about naming conventions. No 'missing link', however precisely intermediate it was, could escape the teminological force majeure that would thrust it one side of the divide or the other. The proper way to look for intermediates is to forget the naming of fossils and look, instead, at their actual shape and size. When you do that, you find that the fossil record abounds in beautifully gradual transitions, although there are some gaps too - some very large and accepted, by everybody, as due to animals simply failing to fossilize. In a way, our naming procedures are set up for a pre-evolutionary age when divides were everything and we did not expect to find intermediates.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Contab's Clever Table

I always find it strange that while lunches or dinners with groups of people are meant to be social events, people there for the other people, they tend to -- if there's more than a handful attending -- split up into little isolated islands.

I've always wished my hearing was better so I could hear more than those people immediately next to me, but a New Zealand company called Contab have come up with an elegant solution to this problem, in a special type of table they've devloped.

The tables are designed such that your chair, as well as the table top in front of you, moves, ever so slowly, revolving around the table's circumference. Because the table is longer than it is wide, this means that over one two hour revolution of the table, you'll have ended up having spent an equal amont of time near each of the people at the table.

I think that's great, and I'm encouraging every restaurant in Brisbane to go out and buy one right now. At the very least, I would like to try one out and see how effective it is in practice.

Their web-site (as linked above, and also here) has more information, including more pictures, time-lapse videos, and info about a few other potential applications for the tables, such as in business meetings.