Showing posts with label entertainment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label entertainment. Show all posts

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Monday, 12 October 2009

Logic puzzles

My online gaming world just got much more interesting.

And much more geeky.

I've learned about The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever. Awesome.

And, in the same vein (but less superlative), here's a site full of Knights and Knaves puzzles (Knights can only tell the truth, Knaves can only lie, and you can only ask yes-no questions. Can you tell which is which?)

Here's another logic puzzle site I frequent. It doesn't have story-based puzzles, but it does have plenty of sudokus and other interesting grid-based logic puzzles.

(Thanks to commenter Berenike for pointing me to Agent Intellect, who links to the above games here. Agent Intellect's blog is intriguing in its own right too.)

Friday, 11 September 2009

Five influential female authors

Here's an internet/blogging meme coming via Ken at C. Orthodoxy. It asks us, as the post title says, to name five female authors that have been influential to us.

As the father of a precocious almost-two-year-old girl, I make sure to celebrate female excellence as much as possible in order to counterbalance the undeniable tendency, here and now, for there to be more men than women in prominent positions - politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

So here goes: five awesome writers who happen to be women.*

Ursula K. Le Guin. Every book of hers that I've read has moved, delighted, and surprised me. She wrote The Dispossessed, the best argument for an egalitarian, property-free, anarchist society that I've come across (it's a novel). She wrote the Earthsea books, easily equal to Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series (both of which I love) for epic awesomeness and tender humanness. She wrote an excellent version of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. (Here's one of the verses from it, which I quoted from here.) There are more, but I think I'll let you discover them for yourself. Le Guin's influence has been to show me that bold ideas don't preclude humble values like compassion and human vulnerability. Most of the science fiction I read growing up (and there was a lot - I was that kind of kid) was written by men from a particular era. At the risk of sounding sexist, it shows. Action, adventure, sex, but not much quiet humanity. Le Guin taught me that, even in genres like science fiction and fantasy, even when your characters include hermaphroditic psychics living on a planet of snow and ice or powerful wizards who can command the elements with arcane words, there is space for a fully human narrative. (There are male authors who I would rank close to her in this regard, but none quite as good at it, and anyway this post isn't about them.)

Gloria Borden and Katherine Harris. I'm listing these two together, because they are co-authors (along with Lawrence Raphael) of the Speech Science Primer**, my first textbook in phonetics - the physical science of speech. I am now at the end of a PhD in phonetics, with a dissertation approved and bound (nice thick tome) that adds a little to the sum of human knowledge. Although the main credit for my education goes to all the in-person teachers I've had (several of whom were women), I have to acknowledge that this well-presented and understandable textbook gave me a level of understanding and confidence in the field that helped cement my choice, leading me into an exciting field of scientific discovery.

Marjorie Tew. We humanists pride ourselves on following the evidence. We make a big deal of the fact that modern medicine is generally evidence-based (as opposed to most types of alternative "medicine", which are either evidence-free or based on very fallible types of evidence, such as anecdote). Tew, a statistician, followed a line of evidence in a surprising direction, and relates the story and the evidence in her book Safer Childbirth? (the question mark is in the title). In it, she presents a compelling empirical case that, in modern industrialised nations, giving birth in a hospital is not safer than giving birth at home. (For anyone interested, I related some key details of her arguments a couple of years ago in this thread at the Bad Science forums.) Her book was a large part of what persuaded Deena and me to plan a homebirth with Kaia. We are planning the same for baby #2 (due in a few short weeks). Again, there were other influences, but Tew's approach and her arguments were an important factor in our decision.

Julia Sweeney (and here). Okay, so this may be stretching the definition of "author" a bit. I know Julie Sweeney through the audio version of two of her monologues: In the Family Way, and Letting Go of God. They are basically books, just in a different medium. Sort of. Anyway, it's my blog, so I can choose whoever I want. Julia Sweeney's main influence on me is through the religious monologue, Letting Go of God. In it, she recounts her journey from being a contented Catholic, through reading the Bible, encountering doubt, wrestling with it, trying out different ideas, and eventually coming out a contented atheist. It's a fun listen. It's also valuable because whenever she elicits laughs, they are primarily directed at her - or at ideas she entertained, or thoughts she had. Not at other people, not in a sneering "I'm better than you" way.

It is, I think, the gentlest way I have ever encountered for someone to outline why she doesn't believe in God. Let someone laugh with you, at you, and you cease to be a threatening figure, an enemy. You become simply human, and it's much easier to try to sympathise with someone who's simply human than someone who is speaking as a scientist, or as a philosopher (or, perhaps, as a blogger). Goodness knows I have nothing like Julia Sweeney's talent for humour, but whenever I think about engaging a religious believer in discussion about topics we differ on, I think of Julia Sweeney and her approach. I think she has helped me become a more friendly humanist.

So there you have it. Five women whose writing (or similar creative output) has influenced me. One author of fiction, three scientists, and a performer/autobiographer.

The five women I've talked about above have influenced me, but their influence pales next to that of the women I know and have known in person - family, friends, colleagues, teachers.

Also, though I celebrate these women and their influence on me, I do it because of what they have done, not just because they are women. I hope that, as she grows up, Kaia will find inspiration and perhaps role-models in women like these, but also in men who write influential, inspiring, interesting, or great things. Or even humble things that nevertheless make our world better.

* I couldn't find photos for all five, so I've decided to leave this post image-free. You can see some of them by following the links provided.

** I'm linking to Amazon's listing of the 3rd edition of the Speech Science Primer, which is the one I used. There are more recent editions that you should look at if you are considering buying the book: speech science is a dynamic field, and some of what they had to say in 1994 is out of date now.

Friday, 14 August 2009


I just want to thank Dale McGowan for pointing me to the Radiolab podcast.

Deena and I are slowly working our way through the archived episodes - this is the most acoustically delicious learning experience I can remember having. I recommend it to anyone with a mote of curiosity about stuff in general.

So far we've learned about randomness, race, sperm, the placebo effect, zoos, mortality, and time; and we've also been treated to a fascinating investigation of the 1938 "War of the Worlds" panic.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Roleplay to a cleaner house

If everyone in your household already enjoys cleaning, this post isn't for you. If you never have problems getting the chores done, then feel free to stop reading now.

Deena and I have just discovered a new way to keep track of chores and have fun doing them. It's called Chore Wars, and it's awesome. You register (for free) on the site, start up an adventuring party (your team), and decide what chores will merit rewards. When you complete a task, you claim it on the site. According to the FAQ,
Experience points are tracked both as weekly high-score charts, and as ongoing character sheets - every time you rack up 200XP of chores, your character gains a "level", and their class changes to match the type of chores that they've been doing.
Think of it as a kind of Mary Poppins "spoonful of sugar" for people who are mostly grown up and enjoy roleplaying.

We've only just started, and we're already having a blast. Deena's almost ready to level up already. I'm only halfway there, but I have some dirty dishes waiting to help me catch up as soon as I post this.

I don't expect we'll end up like this, though I know some who might use it this way:
There are some promising testimonials on the site. We'll have to wait and see how well it works out for us. But it has all the right elements. It's fun (we love roleplaying); it's practical (it doesn't take much effort to do); it's free.

So, if you like games, and if you'd like to try motivating yourself to do more housework, give Chore Wars a try.

[Edit: Just figured out how to do this - here's an image of my character (updated regularly).]

My Chore Wars character

Friday, 31 July 2009


Don't speak. Just watch it.

What do you think?

Thanks, Ken.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

When ridicule is all an idea deserves

Check out this awesome video of an Irish comedian, on alternative medicine and affiliated topics (thanks to Mike, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, for pointing it out):

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Unitarian Jihad

I just wanted to give you all a heads-up about an under-reported threat to the state of the world today. An acquaintance of mine just sent me a link to this declaration by a group calling itself Unitarian Jihad.

Here is a sample, to give you an idea of the sort of flagrant extremism we may be facing:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Follow the link to the full article if you think you can stomach it. The article was written four years ago. I think we only need to look at the recent political upheaval in the small* North American country known as the "Union of American States" to see that these threats were not idle, but are already being carried out. Beware!

Also, although this group may appear to be a splinter from the larger and more (officially) peace-loving Unitarian Universalist Association, readers are reminded that the symbol of that wider group is a burning flame (image on the right) - clearly a symbol of extremist ideology in sync with the content of the Unitarian Jihad's declaration.

* Geographically small, that is. Relative to its northern neighbour anyway.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Responding to the ridiculous

There are many things I could say about the issue of same-sex marriage. Videos like this one make me want to rant long and hot. (Thanks to Hank and Eric at Dangerous Intersection for bringing it to my attention.)

But, fortunately, there are many responses already (thanks again to the folks at Dangerous Intersection) that use a technique more powerful than any I have yet mastered. Humour. Here is a selection (try a YouTube search for more):

(Mileage will vary - some viewers may not share this sense of humour.)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Test your ear for language

There's a fun game for anyone who is curious about world languages. It's the Language Quiz on Simon Ager's Omniglot blog: he posts a short recording of a language, and you get to guess which language it is.

After several months of playing , I've only once guessed the right language. Well, this recent quiz is especially intriguing, so I thought I'd share it with you. Warning: the answer has already been given in the comments, so try listening first before you read them. (It's tough, because the comments appear right below the text of the very short post.)

If, after listening, guessing, and checking your answer, you want to know why this is my favorite one so far, ask me in the comments and I'll tell you. (I'd do it here in the post itself, but I don't want to give away the answer before you try the quiz.)

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Downfall of Literalism

I've seen the Cake Wrecks blog a couple of times, but I have to say that being pointed to this entry by a religious blogger (Ken at C. Orthodoxy) made my day.

Thanks Ken. (Who ever said that rationalists don't have allies in the religious community?)

[Note: I am still finishing my PhD, so posts will continue to be sporadic and brief for at least a few weeks. I promise exciting things to come, so please bear with me!]

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Some curious news

Here's something new: a Friendly Humanist news roundup. There are just so many interesting things happening this week. Particularly today.

First, Skepchick mentions a study showing that reading science blogs makes you smarter. I wonder if Humanist blogs also give this effect?

Second, linguist and long-time critic of the traditional media's portrayal of language issues, Mark Liberman, is crossing to the other side, leaving his long-time position as a contributor to indy-media outlet Language Log for a more lucrative position at the BBC.

Third, Al Qaeda has responded to the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, firmly denying that the US government had anything to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Here is an exchange on television:

9/11 Conspiracy Theories 'Ridiculous,' Al Qaeda Says

Finally, and on a more personal note, I would like to say that I am increasingly persuaded, as a linguist and as a sceptic, that the Ontological Argument (for the existence of God) is much more sound than I had thought. As Bertrand Russell, famous 20th-century philosopher, said, "it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than to find out precisely where the fallacy lies". Quite so. Why he let this "conviction" outweigh his earlier realization ("Great God in boots! -- the ontological argument is sound!") I don't know, but I must follow my own reason.

I will keep you posted on this important intellectual development. In the meantime, let me know if news roundups of this sort appeal to either of you.

[Update: I couldn't resist adding this exciting news (thanks to Phil at Bad Astronomy for the heads-up): Virgin and Google are joining forces for project Virgle - a concrete plan for the colonization of Mars! Sign me up.]

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

An uncanny valley in Springfield

There is a curious effect that animators, speech technologists, and psychologists encounter called the Uncanny Valley.

Consider cartoons. A stick figure doesn't look very human, but it's also fairly nonthreatening. Mickey Mouse has more person-like features, and so elicits a more sympathetic reaction. A nice, fuzzy CG Sully can be even more appealing.

But the trend isn't all in one direction. There comes a point along the continuum of increasing realism where the emotional response drops precipitously - where looking (or moving or sounding) a little more like a human is suddenly a very bad thing. This is the uncanny valley - depicted graphically below Mickey there.

Now, astronomer Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently had a very unsettling experience.

He saw a depiction of a beloved cartoon figure de-cartoonified. I followed his link, and had the same gut reaction. There is something deeply, viscerally disturbing about images like this.


I'm going to give you the direct link in a moment, but you really need to brace yourself. No really. Look, I'm not kidding - see, I have my most serious, academic look of caution and concern on.

Phil is a man who has stared into the depths of space and time and come back grinning, and he said "this totally and whole-heartedly freaks me the hell out." He says he'll never watch The Simpsons again.

I study the muscular coordination of speech in the voice box, sticking endoscopes up their noses to see what's going on inside, and this image freaked me the hell out.

So don't say I didn't warn you.


Okay, here's Phil's post, and here's the original article with the disturbing too-human-Homer image.

There. Now you believe me, don't you? That'll teach you to respond to extravagant claims with cautious scepticism, won't it?

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

123 meme

I've been tagged by This Humanist for a new blog meme. Here are the rules:
  1. Pick up the book nearest you with at least 123 pages. (No cheating!)
  2. Turn to page 123.
  3. Count the first five sentences.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five other bloggers.
Before me I have a draft copy of a superb statistics textbook for linguists. It's been giving me solace and relief as I struggle to extract meaning from a particularly messy set of measurements. The sentences in question come near the start of a section on interpreting statistical significance:
The random noise is obtained by adding to each y value, a random number from a normal distribution with mean 0 and a standard deviation of 80.

[I've left out the example code to execute in statistics software - see the book if you're interested.]

A simulation run will typically produce non-significant results, such as

[More code and output illustrating that the linear relationship is statistically invisible behind all the random noise.]

Although there is a linear relation between y and x - we built it into the data set ourselves - the amount of noise that we superimposed is so large that we cannot detect it.
The author then goes on to demonstrate that, by increasing the number of samples, we can increase the sensitivity of the test. Very interesting illustration of a weakness of statistical significance as an indicator of the presence or absence of a correlation between two variables.

Now, I am as sceptical as the next Humanist about the underlying validity of bibliomancy, but it can be a useful seed for meditation. And you have to admit that this selection bears on how we interpret the world around us as empirical beings. So before I tag the next bloggers, I'm going to share a thought or two triggered by the passage quoted above.

Some say that you can prove anything with statistics. In fact, you can only do that if you are dishonest or incompetent, and your audience does not understand statistics. None of us can force every number-quoting ideologue out there to be both honest and competent, but the critical skills needed to discern good statistics from misleading ones are within the reach of anyone who wants them.

Now who's next?

Dale, at Meming of Life
Hemant, the Friendly Atheist
Hugo, who Thinks Too Much
Sean, of the interesting Shore
Kathryn, and her Mindful Life

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Academic sense of humour

In case any of you are wondering why I don't include more humour in this blog, it's because I'm a linguist.

That means I find things like this funny (thanks to the blog of Cath, a recent commenter). See also the comment thread in Cath's blog post.

If you want more of this sort of thing, you'll have to ask for it. Otherwise, I'll keep my academic sense of humour safely bottled.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

Here's an interesting experiment from the mind of Pharyngula, exploring the idea of memes. But more importantly, it's a fun little game. Here it is ...


There is a set of questions below, all of the form , “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.

Copy the questions. Before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

> You can leave them exactly as is.

> You can delete any one question.

> You can mutate either the genre, medium or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best timetravel novel in SF/ Fantasy is…” to “The best timetravel novel in Westerns is…” , or ”the best timetravel movie in SF/Fantasy is…, or ”The best Romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”

> You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.

> You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions.

Please do include a link back to the ‘parent’ blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers.

Remember though: your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate, and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.

My great-grandparent is The Flying Trilobite.

My grandparent is Leslie’s Blog.

Papa is The Meming of Life.




Pharyngula says:
  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers.
  • The best romantic movie in historical fiction is…Cold Mountain.
  • The best sexy song in rock is…Gloria, by Patti Smith.


The Flying Trilobite says:

  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopias is: Gattaca (1997)
  • The best sexy song in rock is: #1 Crush by Garbage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet soundtrack
  • The best cult novel in Canadian fiction is: JPod by Douglas Coupland (2006)


Leslie’s Blog mutated it to:

  • The best timetravel television in SF/Fantasy is: Heroes
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

THE MEMING OF LIFE’s mutation:

  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

And the Friendly Humanist's contribution:

  • The best romantic novel in scientific dystopia is: The Dispossesed
  • The best sexy attire in traditional is: the codpiece
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian


Now to propagate it:

I'll see if the Friendly Atheist picks the meme up from me before he gets it from Meming of Life. (What does sexual competition look like in meme-propagation? Will it matter to Hemant that his blog inspired my blog, right down to the title?)

And in the parenting line, perhaps AgnosticMom would like a go.

Another parent, at A Mindful Life - like me, she probably doesn't have time for this sort of thing.

A recently out humanist who has recently grappled with creationism, ThinkTooMuch could probably use the time playing with his fellow freethinkers.

Finally, I'll try to pass on my memes to the top of the critical-thinking food chain: Ben over at Bad Science would probably enjoy this.