06 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.05

Thursday: more on the Walker decision overturning Proposition 8; professor claims to have been discriminated against and fired for being heterosexual; the history of infinity; fun with the Periodic Table; geometric morphometric forensics; Switek on the Darwinius affair; the financial state of the Philadelphia Orchestra (not good); Tommasini reviews the ratty Bayreuth Lohengrin; Masnick on Flattr (and infinite goods and the DMCA expemptions); Google stops development of Google Wave; Frink; Instapaper; a house made of books; stunning color photographs of everyday life in the U.S. in 1939-43; Atheist's Don't Have No Songs; a competition for a new chess rating algorithm; today's lesson in artistic good taste; cats out to destroy Earth.


The big news yesterday was the Federal-court ruling by Judge Vaughn R. Walker overturning California's Proposition 8 (see the story in the NYT).

John Schwartz at the NYT has contributed a good analysis of the decision. Some quotes:
A federal judge’s forceful opinion Wednesday in favor of same-sex marriage is only the beginning of a process that is likely to go all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

The ultimate outcome of the California case cannot be predicted, but appeals court judges and the justices at the highest court in the land could find themselves boxed in by the careful logic and structure of Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s opinion, legal experts said.


...Judge Walker’s 136-page opinion lays a rich factual record, with extensive quotation of expert testimony from the lengthy trial. The 2008 initiative campaign to ban same-sex marriages was suffused, the judge said, with moral comparisons of these unions and heterosexual marriage, with the clear implication that “denial of marriage to same-sex couples protects children” and that “the ideal child-rearing environment” requires marriage between a man and a woman.

Judge Walker wrote, however, that the Supreme Court has stated that government cannot enforce moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose. The judge suggested that the defendants shifted their arguments for the courtroom, with a focus on “statistically optimal” child-rearing households and by arguing that they were abiding by the will of California voters.
The NYT has made Walker's complete opinion available here, and has followed up with an editorial, "Marriage is a Constitutional Right."

ABC News reports that the Human Rights Division of the State of New York is investigating the case of Dr. Csaba Marosan, who claims to have been discriminated against (and uitimately fired) by Trocaire College for being heterosexual (and being male and having an accent).  What makes the story of special interest is that Trocaire is a Catholic institution, and at least one member of the alleged gay "clique" among the faculty and administration is a priest.

Some quotes from the story:
A New York college professor who claims that he was discrminated against for being a heterosexual man and then fired for complaining has caught the interest of the state's Human Rights Division.

Dr. Csaba Marosan told ABC News that he endured years of being ostracized by administrators at Trocaire College, a Catholic, two-year school in Buffalo, for not being part of their clique made up largely of younger, gay men dubbed the "Merry Men."

The complaint filed by Marosan, a native of Hungary, also alleges discrimination based on his accent and his gender. His allegations were investigated by New York Human Rights Division, which has found probable cause that Trocaire College not only discrminated against Marosan, but fired him in retaliation for lodging the initial complaint.


In his first complaint, filed with the Human Rights Division in April 2009, Marosan claims that the Rev. Robert Mock, dean of academic affairs for non-nursing studies, and Vice President Thomas Mitchell treated him less favorably than his female colleagues. Mock, according to the complaint, would poke fun at his customs, his clothing and his accent. In April 2010 Marosan amended his complaint to include allegations of discrimination based on his sexual orientation. The amendment came after Marosan was fired in February in what he says was retaliation for the first Human Rights complaint.

In the amendment, Marosan claims Mock and Mitchell "are known or believed to be gay or bi-sexual."

"Mr. Mitchell and Father Mock have given preferential treatment to young and/or gay males," the complaint alleges. "Father Mock formed a group called the 'Merry Men' where these young and/or gay males would socialize on and off campus, leading to preferential treatment."
The response of the college seems particularly dubious and feeble.


Oren Harman at The New Republic reviews Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity.

The review is worth reading, and the book sounds interesting. I was skeptical of the "religious mysticism" in the subtitle, but it turns out to be apt, particularly in regard to a group of mathematicians in Russia who worked on set theory and Georg Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis in the first decades of the 20th century.

However, there are a couple of problems with the presentation of math in the review that will probably confuse some readers.

Harman writes:
The word “absurd” was first used in English in 1557 to describe the product of 8-12 (or -4), since the word “surd,” meaning deaf or silent, had become known as the name for an irrational square root
On the face of it, the phrase "the product of 8-12" has no meaning, and obviously a crucial step has been left out of the explanation here.

The immediately following sentences lacks superscripts for numbers evidently intended to be exponents:
Symbols such as x and y, powers and roots, slowly rendered philosophical impossibilities into algebraic necessities: if x2 = 2 helped solve certain problems, then √2 no longer seemed all that crazy. If x2 = -1 somehow surfaced through manipulation, then √-1 was no longer unthinkable.
Any mathematically literate person will read "x2" as x * 2, which renders both sentences nonsensical.

What he means, of course, is x2=2 and x2=-1.

See, that wasn't so hard.

The review later correctly appends subscripts to the various "aleph" infinities in Cantor's notation, so the problem is not an inability to cope with the HTML code.  Harman is the author of The Price of Altruism, the biography of George Price, which I've referred to a few weeks ago.  So it's safe to assume that he has a high level of mathematical competence.  So my suspicion falls on editorial failure at TNR.

Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing has a brief plug for Sam Kean's new book The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Frauenfelder writes:
The title sets the tone for this witty, anecdote-filled book about the role elements have played in science, art, war, commerce, medicine, literature, and other fields. An element I'd never heard of before, ruthenium, was the key to riches for Kenneth Parker, who used it to make fountain pen tips in 1944. A more well-known element, silver, plays a role in the fate of Stan Jones ... Montana's Libertarian candidate for Senator in 2002. Jones drank a homebrew concoction of colloidal silver to prevent bacterial infection (he was afraid that conventional antibiotics wouldn't be available in the new millennium) and it stained his skin blue for good.
Sounds like a good read.

Megan Scudellari has a fascinating (if perhaps not optimally clear) article at Miller-McCune Online on the use of geometric morphometrics to determine the ancestry (by which is meant here the ancestral population, not the the direct familial ancestors) of skulls:  "Forensics in Three Dimensions."

Brian Switek, one of the best young science bloggers, announces the publication of his article on the Darwinius affair, last year's unsavory mix of science, marketing, and journalism.  The article is:
Brian Switek (2010), "Ancestor or Adapiform? Darwinius and the Search for Our Early Primate Ancestors," Evolution: Education and Outreach.  The article is a free download.
Here is the abstract:
On May 19, 2009, an international team of scientists claimed to have found one of our early primate ancestors. Dubbed Darwinius masillae, the 47 million-year-old primate was presented as “the link” that bridged a gap between early primates and our anthropoid progenitors through a major media campaign, yet details about the way the fossil was acquired, the role media companies played in the presentation of the fossil, and disagreements about the fossil’s interpretation generated a controversy in which scientists, journalists, and science bloggers all played important roles. These debates were reinvigorated in the fall of 2009 when an independent team of researchers described a related fossil primate named Afradapis longicristatus, the study of which suggested that Darwinius was much further removed from our ancestry than had been initially proposed. The discussion of these fossils will no doubt continue, but the “Darwinius debates” of 2009 are significant in that they precipitated a long-awaited analysis of early primate relationships, illustrated the benefits and pitfalls of “going broad” with new discoveries, and exhibited how science blogs can work with traditional media outlets to counter exaggerated claims.
I am particularly interested in this as an example, on the scientific side, of (to put it perhaps grandiosely) the sociology of discovery, a topic on which I published the first installment of a much larger study, and which I hope eventually to be able to finish (the hurdle being, as usual, the lack of financial support).  The first installment (which discusses one particular case of a "discovery" announced through the press rather than through scholarly publication) is "Attributing Mozart: Three Accompanied Recitatives," available here.


Peter Dobrin has a major article in this past Tuesday's The Philadelphia Inquirer on the financial difficulties of the Philadelphia Orchestra: "Red ink may alter future of orchestra." The orchestra is running a substantial deficit (covered this year by a one-time "bridge fund"). Last season only 74 percent of the available tickets in Verizon Hall were sold, and only 65 percent of the seats were occupied at concerts.

I first saw a report of this article at Codex flores, but since they couldn't be bothered to add a link to the article, I can't be bothered to add a link to their report.

Anthony Tommasini reviews Hans Neuenfel's rat-infested production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth. (For a link to and commentary on an earlier review in Die Welt, see my Digest for 30 July.) Tommasini critiques (although not harshly) some aspects of the "concept" of the production, praises the musical performance.


A month ago I reported on Flattr, a new micropayment system founded by former Pirate-Bay spokesperson Peter Sunde. The model seemed intriguing enough that I applied to take part in the private beta test, and was accepted, although because of poor time management, I haven't gotten around to adding the Flattr buttons to my posts yet (must do that today...)

Mike Masnick at Techdirt now has a good post on Flattr, with a link to a YouTube video in which Sundes briefly explains what Flattr is all about. The comments thread on Masnick's post is also worth looking at.

Another useful post for those of us who are trying to figure out how to make money through creative work: "Connecting Authors To Tangible Goods They Can Sell?"  This feels a bit to me like movie-marketing tie-ins.  But I want to look more closely at Masnick's earlier related discussions on the concept of "using infinite goods [i.e. the copies of creative work] to make scarce goods more valuable."

Meanwhile I'm open to suggestions for possible action figures that could be associated with this blog.

The astonishingly productive Masnick (he must have a feeding tube so that he doesn't have to leave his desk) also has a lengthy summary and discussion of various expert analyses of the latest DMCA exemptions, which I wrote about recently.

I especially hope I can find time to read one of the articles Masnick cites: Tom Lee, "Digital Copywrongs," at The American Prospect.  I've put it on my Instapaper roster for tomorrow.

Tools and Technology

Via Slashdot: On Wednesday, the Official Google Blog announced that Google has suspended development of Google Wave as a standalone product.

80beats weighs in with "4 Reasons Why Folks Didn't Like Google Wave."

I've been subscribing for several months to FreeMacWare, which sends out a daily notification of a single free Mac program.  I've picked up a few useful thing this way, and learned about others that are interesting or entertaining for one reason or another.

On Thursday, FreeMacWare alerted me to the wonderfully (and suitably) named Frink, created by Alan Eliasen.  Frink is (to oversimplify) a calculator that keeps track of units of measure...but that doesn't even come close to doing it justice.  Here is the description from the developer's blog:
Frink is a practical calculating tool and programming language designed to make physical calculations simple, to help ensure that answers come out right, and to make a tool that's really useful in the real world. It tracks units of measure (feet, meters, kilograms, watts, etc.) through all calculations, allowing you to mix units of measure transparently, and helps you easily verify that your answers make sense. It also contains a large data file of physical quantities, freeing you from having to look them up, and freeing you to make effortless calculations without getting bogged down in the mechanics.
Frink's interface isn't slick or intuitive (although it doesn't take too much work to figure out the syntax for commands).

But you've got to love (or at least *I* do) a calculator that is not just aware of the "cubit," but is aware of 16 different kinds of cubit (here shown with their equivalents in meters):

So Frink is just the thing if you need to convert Assyrian cubits to Egyptian Royal cubits.  Or to inches.  Or furlongs.

I've only started to play with Frink, but there seems to be little if anything about measurement units that it doesn't know.  And it also deals with dates and times.

(In case you were wondering, one Assyrian cubit is equal to:
1.047 Egyptian Royal cubit
21.6 inches
.002727 furlongs)

I've now been using Instapaper for two days, and it has already become a seamless part of my work flow.  So far I've being using it simply as a kind of online repository of bookmarks—but it's slick enough at this for me to prefer it to Firefox's bookmarks, particularly for the kind of short-term bookmarking I need while preparing these Digests.

Instapaper allows you to install a "Read Later" button in your browser's bookmark bar.  When you want to save a page for later reading, you simply click on the "Read Later" button, and the page is bookmarked on your (free) Instapaper account, which you can access from any Internet-aware device. 

Instapaper has instantly solved my tab (and window) overflow problem:  now, rather than opening up a new tab for everything I run across during the day that I want to read and consider for this blog, I simply bookmark it to Instapaper.  Instapaper also allows you to organize the bookmarks in folders. 

It's not perfect:  bookmarks that you've deleted will sometimes mysteriously reappear, and give you an infinitely spinning in-progress wheel when you try to delete them again (the solution is simply to reload the page, which is very quick).  I wish folders could be rearranged by drag and drop, rather than moving them one step at a time in the list of folders using up and down arrow buttons.

But these are minor quibbles.  Highly recommended.


Via Boing Boing, a house made entirely of books, at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna.  The builder is Matej Kren.

Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing links to a stunning collection of color photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information between 1939 and 1943.  The collection is hosted at pLog at the Denver Post; the photos were included in a 2006 exhibit at the Library of Congress, "Bound for Glory: America in Color," so they're not exactly news. But Koerth-Baker is right in saying that the color gives the photos an immediacy and emotional impact far beyond what one usually experiences in the more usual black and white photos from the period.

A couple of samples (but everyone should go look at the entire set of 70 photos):

Homesteader Jack Whinery and his family, Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940:

A crossroads store, bar, and juke joint in Melrose, Louisiana in 1940 (in honor of this blog's secret fixation on Robert Johnson).

And, for my student V, one of the two photographs of Brockton in 1940, this one of a tenement:

"Atheists Don't Have No Songs" (from the Atheist Hymal), with Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers" (via ART + HISTORY).

For Michael Lorenz (via Slashdot):  Kaggle is hosting a competition, launched by Jeff Sonas, to find a new chess rating algorithm that will outperform the official Elo rating system.

Let it never be said that this blog shirks its civic responsibility to promote art education and the development of the highest standard of artistic taste.

Here is Luis Ricardo Falero's "The Departure of the Witches" (1878), via BoingBoing.

The only reason I regret not having cable (or satellite) TV is that I can't watch Futurama.

"Futurama reveals cats are out to destroy Earth!" (Alasdair Wilkins at io9)

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  1. is there a link between Falero and gay-art?
    Falero is for sure technically more accomplished.

  2. Does Frink know about the different lengths of Klafter?

  3. Ha! Only my readers would think of asking about Klafter. (A Klafter is a antiquated measure of length. See http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klafter)

    Unfortunately no, Frink seems not to know about Klafter. Should I contact the developer?

    Of course, Frink is sophisticated enough that I could easily add this information myself...but then it wouldn't be available to the wider world.

  4. To Anonymous 1: Yes, definitely *much* more technically accomplished than Quaintance.

    I'm skeptical on a possible connection (although who knows, when it comes to influence).

    After all, Falero's painting is full of voluptuous women, and note the dumpy middle-aged man (the artist, perhaps?) facing away from the viewer at the lower left.