A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for March 2013

[PHOTO] Pigeon on St. Clair

Standing last Sunday on the island for eastbound streetcars on St. Clair Avenue at Dufferin Street, I saw this white-feathered pigeon calmly strutting about. Two women standing next to me threw it potato chips, quickly getting that since pigeons can’t chew they’d have to crumble the chips. The pigeon seemed interested.

Pigeon on St. Clair (1)

Pigeon on St. Clair (2)

Pigeon on St. Clair (3)

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Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2013 at 6:18 pm

[FORUM] “Magazines have finally killed blogs — but in a way you never expected”

Annalee Newitz’ io9 article analyzing the reasons for the fall of Google Reader, and the RSS standard generally, makes some very interesting points.

RSS as a format and an idea grew directly out of an internet culture that many people online today know nothing about: Usenet. The creators of RSS grew up on Usenet, and so did its earliest adopters at the turn of the century when RSS was at the height of its popularity. Usenet was a text-based publishing system that allowed people to create newsgroups, kind of like group blogs or Tumblrs, where people could swap stories, news, information, pictures, and more. Like blogs, the topics of these newsgroups ranged from kinky sex and recipes, to microchip architecture and carpentry. And the way most people read newsgroups was to subscribe to the ones they liked so that they could ignore the thousands of newsgroups that were competing for their attention.

When Usenet was eclipsed by websites in the late 1990s, people from that world — many of them programmers — wanted to bring the freewheeling, amazing discussions of Usenet to the web. And thus RSS was born. It was a way to recreate that newsgroup reader feeling for the web. People would publish to their blogs, and you’d use your RSS reader to bring all their posts into one place and read everything at your leisure, in reverse-chronological order.

But most people using the web today don’t have a history that stretches back to Usenet in the 1990s. When it comes to reading, their history is informed by two things: if they’re younger, it’s social networks like Facebook and Tumblr; and if they’re older, it’s paper magazines. And RSS is irrelevant to both experiences.

Certainly you could argue that Tumblr is basically really, really simple syndication. You find the Tumblrs you like, you subscribe to them, and poof they show up in your Tumblr profile view. Or you follow people on Facebook to get the same thing. But both Tumblr and Facebook are silos of information. RSS feeds can be generated by any publisher, from the New York Times and Blastr, to the Nature journal and your favorite obscure porn repository. Tumblr feeds come from, well, Tumblr.

In this way, reading Tumblr is a lot like reading a paper magazine. Every story in the paper version of Wired comes from Wired. It’s the ultimate information silo.

That why RSS readers were so remarkable — they let you take information from everywhere and organize it however you like. Your Wired stories were filed in the same place as your Entertainment Weekly stories. Everything was mixed together in an information jumble. Of course it was your information jumble, but it was still often confusing, and required a modicum of technical proficiency to organize and cultivate.

Information in the world of RSS is not organized into silos that resemble magazines or social networks. And RSS no longer feels like the native land of the new web generation. And by “new web generation” I mean young people entering from Facebook, and older people entering from the world of print. For this generation, Usenet is not a touchstone. And so RSS has no context, and even less meaning to them.

Agree, disagree?

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2013 at 3:59 am

[BLOG] Some Saturday links

  • Behind the Numbers’ Carl Haub notes that most of the recent fall in American fertility is a consequence of falling Mexican-American fertility, with fertility in other groups remaining stable.
  • Daniel Drezner is upset that, according to its star Brad Pitt, the film version of World War Z will minimize the international politics of the anti-zombie war inasmuch as those politics made the book.
  • Eastern Approaches notes ongoing tensions in Slovakia over that nation’s history of collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War.
  • At Language Log, Steven Bird links to his account of how he’s using Android tablets to record the languages of indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen thinks that Cyprus would have done better to leave the Eurozone altogether and adopt a new currency rather than stay in the Eurozone.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer is surprised that Cypriots are willing to tolerate the Euro even with the terrible costs it imposes on their economy.
  • Visual Science’s Perrin Ireland documents the biosphere discovered to exist in some oceanic crustal areas.
  • Window on Eurasia’s Paul Goble notes that, as a result of emigration, the once-large Russophone community of Tajikistan has almost entirely disappeared.

[PHOTO] Dovercourt below Dupont

A stretch of Dovercourt Road lined with houses.

Dovercourt below Dupont (1)

Looking down a narrow alley on the west side of Dovercourt.

Dovercourt below Dupont (2)

Northwest corner of Dovercourt and Dupont, looking north at the train tracks.

Dovercourt below Dupont (3)

Written by Randy McDonald

March 30, 2013 at 6:46 pm

[LINK] “Why the Gay-Marriage Fight Is Over”

Writing in the News Desk blog of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin argued that the Defense of Marriage Act banning the recognition of same-sex marriages by the American federal government is doomed because the homophobic animus behind it is recognized as wrong.

About midway through the argument, Paul Clement, who was representing the House Republicans and defending DOMA, was cruising along. He was portraying DOMA as almost a kind of housekeeping measure, designed to keep federal law consistent across all fifty states. As Clement told it, there was almost no ideological content to the law at all.

Then Justice Elena Kagan swiftly and elegantly lowered the boom on him. She said, “Well, is what happened in 1996—and I’m going to quote from the House Report here—is that ‘Congress decided … to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.’” A collective woo went through the audience. Kagan had the temerity to tell what everyone knew to be the truth—that DOMA was a bigoted law designed to humiliate and oppress gay people.

Clement, an eloquent advocate in oral arguments, was reduced to stammering like Ralph Kramden. He said that was not enough to invalidate the law: “Look, we are not going to strike down a statute just because a couple of legislators may have had an improper motive.” But suddenly it was clear. No one could deny that there was an improper motive—anti-gay prejudice—underlying DOMA.

But the second key moment illustrated the difference between 1996 and 2013. Toward the end of the argument, Roberts asked Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer for Windsor, “You don’t doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different states is politically powerful, do you?” Kaplan—somewhat improbably —denied it. Roberts fought back: “As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.”

But Roberts was right on both counts—that the gay-rights movement is politically powerful and many politicians have been lining up to support same-sex marriage. Roberts was raising the point to argue that gay people no longer needed the protection of the courts. They could take care of themselves in the rough and tumble of politics. In this Roberts was half right. Gay people now can take care of themselves—but they also suffer under the yoke of discriminatory laws like DOMA.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2013 at 10:13 pm

[LINK] “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom”

In a thoughtful article published last Saturday by the Wall Street Journal, primatologist Frans de Waal makes the point that the latest generation of tests of animal intelligence were revealing that many species–chimpanzees, elephants, and others–were much more intelligent in certain domains that we suspected. Badly-designed tests which sought to measure the intelligence of these species by the very parochial standards of human beings were at fault. (Conversely, in many cases human intelligence may have been overestimated.)

For years, scientists believed [elephants] incapable of using tools. At most, an elephant might pick up a stick to scratch its itchy behind. In earlier studies, the pachyderms were offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it. This setup worked well with primates, but elephants left the stick alone. From this, researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.

Think about the test from the animal’s perspective. Unlike the primate hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, the animals know exactly what they are going for. Vision is secondary.

But as soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked. Even when the stick is close to the food, it impedes feeling and smelling. It is like sending a blindfolded child on an Easter egg hunt.

What sort of experiment, then, would do justice to the animal’s special anatomy and abilities?

On a recent visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I met with Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College, who showed me what Kandula, a young elephant bull, can do if the problem is presented differently. The scientists hung fruit high up above the enclosure, just out of Kandula’s reach. The elephant was given several sticks and a sturdy square box.

Kandula ignored the sticks but, after a while, began kicking the box with his foot. He kicked it many times in a straight line until it was right underneath the branch. He then stood on the box with his front legs, which enabled him to reach the food with his trunk. An elephant, it turns out, can use tools—if they are the right ones.

While Kandula munched his reward, the investigators explained how they had varied the setup, making life more difficult for the elephant. They had put the box in a different section of the yard, out of view, so that when Kandula looked up at the tempting food he would need to recall the solution and walk away from his goal to fetch the tool. Apart from a few large-brained species, such as humans, apes and dolphins, not many animals will do this, but Kandula did it without hesitation, fetching the box from great distances.

Another failed experiment with elephants involved the mirror test—a classic evaluation of whether an animal recognizes its own reflection. In the early going, scientists placed a mirror on the ground outside the elephant’s cage, but the mirror was (unsurprisingly) much smaller than the largest of land animals. All that the elephant could possibly see was four legs behind two layers of bars (since the mirror doubled them). When the animal received a mark on its body visible only with the assistance of the mirror, it failed to notice or touch the mark. The verdict was that the species lacked self-awareness.

But Joshua Plotnik of the Think Elephant International Foundation modified the test. He gave the elephants access to an 8-by-8-foot mirror and allowed them to feel it, smell it and look behind it. With this larger mirror, they fared much better. One Asian elephant recognized herself. Standing in front of the mirror, she repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead, an action that she could only have performed by connecting her reflected image with her own body.

The whole article makes for fascinating reading.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm

[LINK] “Say We Really Do Bring the Passenger Pigeon Back From Extinction — Then What?”

Wired Science’s Greg Miller makes the point in connection with passenger pigeons, but relevant for other species, that simply cloning a recently extinct species back into existence won’t necessarily make it viable in the wild. All sorts of critical environmental and genetic traits won’t be copied–how will a species of cloned neonates learn to live in the wild? How can they, without viable parent figures? And what about their environment, which by definition had changed sufficiently to make their species non-viable in the first place?

“Everything we know about species and individuals tells us that we’re a lot more than our genes,” said David Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment.

For one thing, an animal’s genes are influenced by its environment though chemical changes to DNA that affect how genes switch on and off.

Those “epigenetic” changes may be a crucial part of what gives a species its unique characteristics, but the epigenetic profile of a bird created in a lab would never be the same as that of a bird raised in a flock by its natural parents, Blockstein says.

Conservation biologist David Ehrenfeld of Rutgers University is skeptical too. ”Let’s say we could create a passenger pigeon with the same DNA and the same epigenetic marks,” he said. “That doesn’t make it a passenger pigeon.”

Ehrenfeld and others say passenger pigeons were perhaps the most social birds that have ever existed, living in flocks of hundreds of thousands. “They needed enormous populations to nest properly and repel predators,” Ehrenfeld said. Their behavior, as much as their DNA, defined the species.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 28, 2013 at 6:51 pm