Stephen Hawking Is out to Sell Books

Tell me you know what an internet troll looks like by now.

How is Stephen Hawking any different? By stirring up controversy over his boring new book about quantum physics, he gets to make bank. Don’t fall for simple shenanigans.

Anthony Gottlieb @ the Economist was not impressed:

The authors may be in this enviable state of enlightenment, but most readers will not have a clue what they are on about. Some physics fans will enjoy “The Grand Design” nonetheless. The problem is not that the book is technically rigorous—like “A Brief History of Time”, it has no formulae—but because whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion. Anyone who can follow their closing paragraphs on the relation between negative gravitational energy and the creation of the universe probably knows it all already. This is physics by sound-bite.

So as a book, it’s probably not for you. Let’s get on with why Hawking’s “god is dead” argument is particularly droll.

Graham Farmello @ the Daily Telegraph:

It is perhaps a bit rich for Hawking to make God redundant after granting him/her/it a celebrity cameo at the end of his multi-million selling A Brief History of Time. In his famous conclusion to the book, Hawking wrote that if scientists could find the most fundamental laws of nature “then we should know the mind of God”. To be fair, he was writing metaphorically – we all know what he meant.

He now suggests that the search for this particular Holy Grail is over, now that scientists have come up with a type of theory, known as M-theory, that may describe the behaviour of all the fundamental particles and force, and even account for the very birth of the universe. If this theory is backed up by experiment, it might perhaps replace all religious accounts of creation – in Hawking’s capacious mind, it already has.

Bottom line:

Science and religion are about fundamentally different things. No religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations, but this happens to most scientific theories, at least in the long run. […]

A useful characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be possible, at least in principle, for experimenters to prove it wrong. […]

No religion has ever been set out in terms of scientific statements. This is why scientists are able to mock the claims of religions but have never been able to deal a knock-out blow: in the end, a religious believer can always fall back on a faith that does not depend on verification.

So believe what you will and don’t troll or be trolled. Unless you’re trying to sell books that is.

[both articles via the always relevant Browser]

[image via my mmo site]

September 15, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 4 comments.

Fail Smarter

There’s a huge problem in the attitude towards (governmental) scientific research that I see regularly.  There’s this overt desire to mimic industry, but institution-wide, we’re consistently picking the wrong things to copy.  Our focus should be on problems, questions, and results, but the actual focus is on getting more data, faster, cheaper.

Doesn’t matter how you get the data or if the procedure is flawed.  Doesn’t matter which questions you’re asking.  Doesn’t matter if the course is correct.

Get more data. Ask questions later.

One superficial problem with problem driven research is that it’s a perilous path.  Oh, the failures!  A _real_ scientific process is a tale defined by the numberless problems along the way.  Who has time for all that though when you need more data now?

We would do better to mimic the Googles.

Feel like Google is not only problem driven, but they also give their engineers plenty of leeway to fail. Excerpt from a Slate interview with Google’s Research Director Peter Norvig:

I’m interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures—doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth—as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?

There’s a story going back to the founding of Google: One of the venture capitalists came to [company founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and said “OK, the first thing you have to decide is, is this company going to be run by sales or by marketing? They said, “We think we’ll take engineering.” He laughed and said, “Oh, you naive college kids, that’s not the way the real world works.” And they said, “Well, we want to try it.” Ten years later, that experiment is still running; engineering is still the center of the company. And it seems like it’s worked.

And, like you say, it does create a very different attitude toward error. If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

[Kathryn Schulz @ Slate via the Browser]

Bonus: Contender for Coolest Guy, Steve Hoefer, has some exceptional thoughts about failure: Here.

[image via pimpin and crimpin]

September 10, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Mad Men Footnotes

If you google “The Footnotes of Mad Men,” your first hit will be an abject failure in both name and execution.

Glossy out-of-context ads from the 60’s.  I’m referring to a site called Mad Men Unbuttoned that’s run by Natasha Vargas-Cooper who also runs an actual footnotes series for the awl.  It’s ok.

(By ok, I mean rarely compelling, frequently lazy, poorly executed, and shallow.  Not exactly what I expect from a footnote.)

Adam Curtis at the BBC, however, does exponentially better:

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP – the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it “penetrated” the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted” […]

The other camp were known as “the depth boys”. They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer’s mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn’t even consciously realise themselves.It was called ‘Motivational Research’.

One of the leading “depth boys” was the wonderfully named Norman B. Norman who ran the Norman Craig & Kummel agency. […]

Behind the techniques of people like Norman were a group of Viennese and German psychologists and psychoanalysts who had come to America as refugees in the 1930s.

One of the most important and influential was one of the few women high up in the Madison Avenue of that time. Dr Herta Herzog. […]

In the first episode of the first series of Mad Men, Dr Herzog is parodied. “Dr Greta Guttman” comes in to tell Don Draper that because of growing evidence of the link between lung cancer and smoking the only way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes is to link them to the Death Wish.

In the scene Mad Men is dramatising, the war that was going on in Madison Avenue. Draper is obviously modelled on Rosser Reeves who hated the psychologists. In the scene Draper is rude and hostile to Dr Guttman and drops her research in the bin.

Later in the episode Draper invents the slogan – “It’s Toasted” for Lucky Strike. It was Rosser Reeve’s favourite USP.

See why I like this better than some generic tarted up review?  It reads like an actual series of footnotes and it deepens our understanding of the show and the time it depicts.  Past is prelude, so in turn, our understanding of our own time is deepened as well.  After reading this, AMC’s Mad Men seems to serve this little BBC article more than any other article has ever seemed to serve the show.

Interesting footnote about the source: BBC has a proprietary embedded video player just like everyone else and it has an adjustable volume knob also just like everybody else’s.  Only theirs goes up to eleven.

[Adam Curtis @ BBC via the Browser]

[image via Rolling Stone]

September 7, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of narrative in scientific writing. The primary reason is my job (which consists of much reading), but coming in at a close second is an article by the author of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden.

What initially grabbed me was a scene that could have come straight from the Wire.

So then we left, and we pulled up in front of the housing project outside of Annapolis. And I thought, “This is odd. Why would the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County be living in the projects? Don’t they make any money dealing drugs?” That night, I watched as they banged on doors and they dragged people out in their pajamas and their underwear, and they rounded everybody up, and made a big commotion. The following morning, like seven o’clock in the morning, they had this very dramatic press conference in Annapolis, where they had invited all of the reporters from the newspapers in Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, and TV and radio—it was a big deal. And laid out on tables in front so they could all get pictures were all the drugs they had seized from the housing projects the night before.


I wrote what happened, beginning with the party in the parking lot, with the beer and the urinating, and then going on to my description of the unfortunates being roused from their apartments. And then we come to the press conference, and I describe the drugs that were on the table accurately and estimate what they’re worth, and then I quote the Anne Arundel County spokesman claiming that this is $800,000 worth of drugs.

The story was an enormous hit. My editors loved it, the readers loved it. It was a narrative. It was my way out of a thorny problem. Captain Lindsey was very unhappy with me, but he couldn’t be angry with me, because he knew that everything in the story was true.

Very compelling read throughout.

[Mark Bowden @ Nieman Storyboard via the Browser]

[image via Wikimedia Commons]

August 31, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Tomato School

Tomatoes may be ubiquitous today, but they’ve only been a part of Italian cuisine since the 1870s.

There’s this guy see, David Gentilcore. He’s a tomato scholar. He says that Italians didn’t even like tomatoes at first. They saw them as cold and moist and since they grew on the ground they were peasant food. In fact,

In Italy, up until the 1950s, there was a large part of the country, even where they produce tomatoes, where they wouldn’t eat the stuff.

Obviously all that changed. Now,

There’s a demand to eat tomatoes year round. These make money. In July, August, and September, the problem is tomatoes are a cutthroat business. If it weren’t for subsidies, I don’t know what farmers would do. In winter, it’s more of a big business. The Mafia has infiltrated the distribution, especially in the shipping or trucking.

Tomatoes in Winter? Fuhgeddaboudit.

[Devra First @ Boston Globe via The Browser]

[image via befoodled]

August 26, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Our Lumbering Beast of a Government

Slow burn from Vanity Fair offers side-by-side comparison of our current government with much simpler times such as when Washington, FDR, and Clinton were in office.

On the eve of World War II, F.D.R. had six high-level aides who carried the title “administrative assistant to the president.” Harry Truman, after the war, had 12 of them: they met every morning in a semicircle around his desk. There are now upwards of 100 people who have some variation on “assistant to the president” in their titles. The sheer number of things the executive branch is responsible for just keeps expanding; the time available to think about any one of them therefore keeps shrinking.

The frustration conveyed by this article is palpable.

The neural network of money, politics, bureaucracy, and values becomes so tautly interconnected that no individual part can be touched or fixed without affecting the whole organism, which reacts defensively.

Read on.

[Todd Purdum @ Vanity Fair via The Browser]

August 24, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Kottke Love

Tim Carmody is a brand new guest writer for and he’s just wonderful.
I have hundreds of syndicated websites constantly gushing into my RSS reader. It doesn’t take much negligence to have thousands of unread posts. Most of the time, I’m forced to skip much of the content.
I never skip Kottke.
In fact, you may have noticed that I frequently rehash their wares. It’s become one of the few sites that I consider required reading. Here’s Tim:
Most popular blogs, like most popular media, regardless of genre, spend 99.9% of their time reacting to and arguing about something that’s just happened, or is about to (maybe) happen. Jason’s aesthetic has always been different, because he’s always been just as excited about older things that have just been uncovered or rediscovered, marvelous objects and ideas in weird corners of the web that nobody’s paid attention to, or that have only just made the transition from analog to digital to become part of the web conversation.  […]
So this week will be devoted to things you’ve either forgotten about or have never seen before. I’ll be highlighting posts, articles, and projects that do this well wherever I see them, and rummaging through some dusty card catalogues myself (including some right here at to find things that deserve to be back in circulation.
[via Kottke]
[image via The Internet According to Adrian]

August 12, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 2 comments.

Best Pen(cil) Imaginable

[via Rob Beschizza @ Boing Boing]

August 11, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , . Smarts. 1 comment.

Best Mechanical Pencil Imaginable.

The uni-ball KuruToga Twist.

It is a mechanical pencil that actually has a tiny clutch mechanism built into the point, and as you write, the pressure from writing and then lifting the pencil off the paper engages the clutch mechanism that rotates the lead for you.  This auto-rotating mechanism not only ensures a constantly sharp point, but it also results in far fewer broken points because of the evenly worn lead.


[Brian Greene @ Herman Miller Blog via Bill Barol @ Boing Boing]

[image via Office Supply Geek]

August 3, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , . Smarts. Leave a comment.

Jumper colons: the future of sentences.

“I would like to hypothesize that a new form of colon has emerged. From the democratic bowels of the Internet, an unknown pair of beady black eyes is staring out at us.”

“For grammarians, it’s a dependent clause + colon + just about anything, incorporating any and all elements of the other four colons, yet differing crucially in that its pre-colon segment is always a dependent clause.


For everyone else: its usefulness lies in that it lifts you up and into a sentence you never thought you’d be reading by giving you a compact little nugget of information prior to the colon and leaving you on the hook for whatever comes thereafter, often rambling on until the reader has exhausted his/her theoretical lung capacity and can continue to read no longer.


See how fast that goes?”

Read more: here.

[Conor J. Dillon @ the Millions via The Browser]

July 16, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 4 comments.

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