On my iPod: Too Beautiful to Live

I’m moving back into a labwork-intensive schedule at the moment, which means that I’m burning through podcasts like nobody’s business. Fortunately, I’ve recently been sucked into the orbit of Too Beautiful to Live, the online incarnation of Luke Burbank’s daily talk/music/newsish show. I only found TBTL after it lived up to its its name by getting dropped from the air by Seattle-area radio station KIRO.


Photo by bonacheladas.

Luke and his co-conspirators Jen “Flash” Andrews and Sean DeTorre put together an amalgam of music, pop-culture sound cues, news commentary, and whatever else happens to drift through Luke’s head at the moment of recording. Topics range from the current status of the Large Hadron Collider to Alec Baldwin’s self-esteem issues; one recent episode revolved around plumbing issues in the Burbank residence.* It’s weird and silly and oddly compelling, and it works great in the background while I’m racking pipette tips.**

Which sounds like damning with faint praise, now that I re-read it, but really isn’t. I mean, Studio 360 doesn’t usually make that particular cut. Anyway, you should totally subscribe.

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* The appropriateness of which subject matter was discussed in today’s episode, which was basically a recorded conversation between Luke and his girlfriend on a drive to down to Portland, and which achieved an almost “30 Rock”-grade degree of meta.

** Except for that one occasion when I had to dive across the lab to hit the volume control and kill Jen’s Swedish Chef impression just as my (Swedish) dissertation advisor walked in the door.

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Hey, PNAS?

Hey, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? (Can I call you PNAS? Thanks.) You know what really drives me crazy, as a scientist and a blogger, PNAS? Internationally-recognized journals that release scientific studies to the press before they make them available online.

Why does this make me crazy? I’m glad you asked, PNAS. It makes me crazy because sometimes I read something as batshit absurd as this gem from Wired Science:

No exact rule exists for deciding when a group of animals constitutes a separate species. That question “is rarely if ever asked,” as speciation isn’t something that scientists have been fortunate enough to watch at the precise moment of divergence … [emphasis mine]

(Which statement is like claiming that physicists rarely ask about gravity.) And when I read something like this I’d really like to be able to go and see whether that’s actually in the peer-reviewed article in question, or if it just materialized in the course of the sausage-making that is popular science journalism.

But, apparently, PNAS, you’re more interested in having your results butchered by people who think biologists don’t ask questions about speciation than you are in having them read by, you know, biologists. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I take that a little bit personally.

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Not sure that’s a problem with the website

Via Slog: There have been some glitches in the launch of the new GOP.com (to which I refuse to link).

Among the problems were the posting of administrator passwords, a list of GOP accomplishments that ended in 2004 and a “future leaders” section that was devoid of material. In addition, the site was inaccessible for much of the day.

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A radical idea

Responding to Nature‘s review [$-a] of his new book about evolution, The Tangled Bank, Carl Zimmer objects to the reviewer’s justaposition of his work with the more, shall we say, combative book Richard Dawkins has just released. Zimmer has the audacity to assume that his readers aren’t hostile:

I envisioned my potential readers as curious people who didn’t know much about evolution–what the idea actually is and how scientists study it. I envisioned people who might be interested in learning the nuts and bolts of processes like selection and drift, and who might be intrigued by sexually deceptive wasps, whales with legs, the viruses that dominate our genome, and other features of life that evolution allows us to understand.

With all due respect for those who want to take the fight to the wingnuts in the war on science — I enjoy Pharyngula as much as the next grad student — this seems so much more, well, hopeful. Ultimately, it might even be more productive.

Growing up in a science-friendly household surrounded by creationists, I didn’t come to the conclusion that evolution was true because I read a diatribe about the idiocy of biblical literalism. I came to that conclusion because I thought dinosaurs were pretty cool, and it turned out that you could learn a lot more about dinosaurs in the context of their evolutionary history than if you just assumed they all died in Noah’s flood. I think that people in a similar state — “curious people who didn’t know much about evolution” are much more likely converts to the cause of science than the wingnuts. Certainly there must be a lot of them out there; otherwise who’s keeping the Discovery Channel afloat?

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More on Safire

Over at the Slog, Sean Nelson takes the time for more nuance than I did, but comes down in about the same place:

Though you could feel an aging man’s dismay (and sometimes disdain) coming through the pieces he wrote about tech talk and the newspeaky constructs of text and IM-based communication, his diligence in reporting and contextualizing them never faltered. He had a corny sense of humor and his puns were usually groaners. Still, it’s hard not to love the opening line of the intro to his 2004 On Language collection, The Right Word In the Right Place at the Right Time: “We will come to sodomy in a moment.”

Nelson also pulls this Safire quote:

“Knowing how things work,” he wrote, “is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.”

If that isn’t the essence of being a geek, I don’t know what is.

It also occurs to me that an excellent successor to Safire is found in Roy Blount, Jr., whose Alphabet Juice is less prescriptive but even more enthusiastic, and marinated in southern charm to boot.

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William Safire

Nixon speechwriter turned political analyst William Safire has died. What I read of his political writing encapsulated everything I can’t stand about American political conservatism, although it was well-reasoned and insightful by the Glen Beckian standards of the present era. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed “On Language,” his magazine column about words and their usage. On that subject, Safire was geekily, infectiously enthusiastic, and that’s an attitude that transcends a lot of political backbiting.*

*Incidentally, Oxford English Dictionary defines “backbiting” as “the action of detracting, slandering, or speaking ill of one behind his back,” and dates its first usage in this sense to approximately 1175 CE, not long before the origin of parliamentary democracy.

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Crowdsourced dinosaurs

The Open Dinosaur Project opened yesterday, inviting scientists and interested laypersons alike to help assemble a database of published dinosaur skeletal measurements, to serve as the basis for a massive study of evolutionary transitions from bipedality to quadrupedality. Project head (and Open Source Paleontologist) Andy Farke lays it out in an introductory post:

Every step of the way will be blogged. And . . . all contributors are invited to join us as co-authors. The project: look at the evolution of the limbs in ornithischian dinosaurs. [Ellipsis Andy’s.]

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Kindle curmudgeonry

Via the Slog: Nicholson Baker reviews Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader for the New Yorker. He is, to say the least, skeptical.

Yes, you can definitely read things on the Kindle.

Damning with faint praise? Actually, the tone of the review is more just damning. Especially when you get to the list of books not yet available.

About the only thing I might want to do with an e-book reader is read PDF documents, which are my format of choice for journal articles. For that, I need note-taking support and the ability to rapidly zoom around on the page — and the confidence that figures will be as clear as they would be in color. I’ll stick with my MacBook for the time being.

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On my iPod: Planet Money

Between the gym, the lab, and desk-bound paper pushing, I go through a lot of talky Public Radio podcasts in a week, but I tend to let business/economic ones slide to the end of my queue. Whenever I get to Planet Money, though, I usually find I’m glad I did. Started in direct response to the housing market’s implosion, PM is makes economics more accessible than The Economist, and I like its Radiolab-influenced tone way more than Marketplace. PM is Exhibit A in the case for NPR’s success in the new-media world; they’re a blog, a podcast, a Flickr pool (below), a Facebook page, a Twitter feed

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