Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Periodic Circles of Elements Galore

There was a recent paper posted to the general physics arXiv about how it's better in various ways to represent the table in a circular format. An article in the MIT Technology Review suggests somewhat hilariously that this is a bad idea because it's "impossible" to rotate it on most computer screens. Right: because whenever I have a portrait style photo I have to physically pick up the monitor and set it on its side (luckily I can do the impossible!). The article is pretty bad in general. My favorite is the claim that "The periodic table has been stamped into the minds of countless generations of schoolchildren." Let's see: when was it invented, again? 1869? Hmmm. . . . At least the author didn't claim that it's literally been countless generations. . . .

Anyway, it turns out that something like this has been considered many times before. There's even a site where one can buy a t-shirt of the "Mayan Period Table". Now that's some cutting-edge nerd attire. . . .

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Recently came across an ever growing club: AWFUL: Americans Who Figuratively Use 'Literally'.

From White Plume:

According to Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought, Roger Tobin coined this acronym. The book says:

The charter member was Rabbi Baruch Korff, a defender of Richard Nixon during his Watergate ordeal, who at one point protested, "The American press has literally emasculated President Nixon."
As our language evolves, using literally when speaking figuratively is becoming more accepted in informal speech as a method of exaggeration. However, in formal writing, I recommend you use both words precisely. When you're literally correct, you avoid figuratively pushing proper English out the door.
Now, I don't mind if words change their meaning as long as we have some word to stand for each of the meanings that are useful to preserve. As precise/literal sense of 'literally' is gradually being eroded away (not literally!), perhaps we should be on the lookout for words that might take its place.

How about 'metaphorically' or 'figuratively'? We could just gradually swap the meanings of 'literally' and 'figuratively'. Say I want to emphasize that what I'm saying is not a mere figurative exaggeration (I really was knocked out --- i.e., rendered unconscious --- by last night's band), I could say, 'I was figuratively knocked out by the band last night!' --- meaning not figuratively. Maybe after a while their meanings would swap back --- rather like the earth's magnetic field.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Star Wars . . . kinda

This has been making the rounds on the web, I'm sure, but in case you haven't seen it (and have seen Star Wars), it's freaking hilarious:

Here's what's going on (from the creator):
My friend Amanda had never seen a whole Star Wars film. When I asked her if she wanted to watch the original trilogy she said that she would, but that she already knew what happens. So I took out my voice recorder and asked her to start from the top.

Even though I have seen the trilogy a bunch of times, I'm not confident that I could do significantly better if someone was holding a mic up to my face. Well, okay, I wouldn't have left off the Ice Planet Hoth. . . .

It's kinda funny thinking about how one would describe any movie's plots at a medium-level of detail. For example, though one could describe The Big Lebowski as about a lazy middle-aged stoner's "misadventures" or some such, how the hell would you explain its plot to someone? "So there's this guy who comes home to find these two thugs, one of which pees on his rug. . . ." Go on?!? . . .

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Crushing Rejection

The philosophical journal Philosophical Quarterly runs annual essay prize competitions on particular topics. The last one was on "Creativity"; the prize was £1,500, which I think comes to about USD$273,000 (whatever it is, it buys few nice bottles at RMW). Now, I love "calls for papers", as the deadline gets me writing rather than letting a paper languish half done. I hate them because they involve deadlines! So after reading about every book and paper on creativity I can get my hands on in the three months or so I have before the deadline hits, I'm a few days away and need to begin writing. The night before was my first all-nighter since college (and last, I'm thinking). The paper [pdf] wasn't spectacular, but it made some interesting points I thought. I wasn't expecting to win (or really thinking it was a possibility), but I was hoping to get into the issue (that seemed less like a long shot when I pressed the 'send' button, in my no-sleep-haze).

As expected, I did not win. But there was a faint ray of sunshine: the editors mentioned that they had been contacted by some people who were editing a volume on Creativity and wanted people (especially rejects from the PQ issue, I expect!) to know about them. So I dropped them a line inquiring about the project: Did they have a publisher lined up? If so who? Were they under contract? What was the dominant displinary persuasion of the volume supposed to be? Had some contributions already been secured? And so on. I added: "The paper I wrote is entitled "Two Aspects of Scientific Creativity". I'm working on revising it now. A draft copy is on my webpage here [link]".
A while later, one of them (who turned out to be a graduate student in psychology, I think) emailed me back: "We greatly appreciate your interest in the project and we are including the essay you directed us to among our submissions. We will be getting back to you in June ’09 once our selections are finalized."

Me: "Thanks for your message, but before you consider my paper submitted to your volume, would you please answer my questions about it? Publisher? Committed authors? The focus is then on philosophical aspects of creativity?" If this book is vaporware, not in (or near) philosophy, not done by a good publisher, I don't need to go there — I'm happy enough to let the paper simmer on my research backburner for a while. It's crowded there, but I'd make room.

Them (roughly): [Some of the details requested. A well-respected publisher "has expressed interest".] Having dealt with publishers, I know that "expressing interest" is worth about zero when it comes to pushing through to a volume (on the topic, I just saw this). And there were other things that made me somewhat concerned.

I decided to put the paper on the backburner. Definitely needs more thought/tinkering/major-renovation (the usual). I need to read more on the topic (suggestions welcome, btw). I probably should have emailed them to say, "Hey guys, thanks, but I've decided not to submit for your volume. I'm, uh, holding out for a bolt of insight and then will send it to a journal." Well, I probably could have finessed it better than that. But anyway, I didn't respond (thinking my failure to actually submit the paper would amount to just that: my not being a submitter) and onto the backburner the paper went. Just the other week, I get this email:
Dear Matthew Slatter [sic],
Though we enjoyed your essay, “Two aspects of scientific creativity,” and we hope you will find a good home for it in publication, we are sorry to inform you that it will not be included in the volume we are editing on the philosophy of creativity. We received a windfall of excellent potential chapters and, alas, we can only include a few.
Given your interest in the subject, however, we thought you might be interested to attend a conference we will be hosting on the philosophy of creativity next year. The exact details are still to be determined, but it will be held at Barnard College, Columbia University, most likely in November 2010. If you would like to be notified about this event once the schedule is confirmed, please let us know and we’ll keep you posted; we would be happy to have you join us.
So, yeah. . . . A paper that was sitting on my webpage, in draft . . . was rejected. Man does that sting! I'd better right this ship lest I find other papers (or worse: talks; or worse still: classes!) similarly rejected. I'd enquire about the conference, but I'm a little scared of what might happen to my ego should I accidentally submit something again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Adventures in BBQ

My first real foray into BBQ was a botched affair. I'm not talking about grilling, now: that's direct heat, that's quick and easy (which is not to say bad). But BBQ — cooking with smoke via indirect heat — is on another plane of existence altogether in my book. So I'm visiting my parents in Portland and am all jazzed about resurrecting their smoker. I was all ready with my hunk of pork: a shoulder piece decidedly unpullable in it's uncooked state, but nicely seasoned and carefully brined over night. I got up early, as you figure about two hours per pound of meat (and I had about six pounds), and realized that their smoker was non-functional. The element had burned out or some such. Retrofit opportunity: I remembered Alton Brown's episode on BBQ where he used two big flower pots and a portable plugin burner (sweet!). Since it took about three store to find one, I'm not seeing white wisps of smoke until 9 AM or so. As these things take time, it's likely to be a late dinner. . . . So it goes. The thermometer reads 165 at about 8PM and I say, "hey, it's passed the 'acceptable temp' for pork — let's pull it". Well, first it's gotta rest. Half an hour later, it's ready for pulling. Except it doesn't pull — at all. Mom puts it into the oven. People are eating Cheerios by now, I'm sure (my memory gets fuzzy at this point). In any case, it comes out by about 10PM and no one really feels much in the mood for pulled pork anymore. It wasn't a total disaster — you could tell what it was supposed to be — but it certainly wasn't the lovin' spoonful I was going for. . . .

Fast forward five years or so. New house, new job, and no grill to speak of. I make my move and buy a Traeger Grill — my new favorite appliance. It runs on wood pellets: an auger slowly pulls them into a firebox controlled by a fan: a simple, elegant system, made just outside of Portland. People love these things. In its first week, I get the hang of it by doing a nice pork tenderloin, some chicken, and some smoked red snapper. All very nice, but now it's time to get serious. Pulled pork, version 2.o. Here's what I do (and where I went wrong):

Step 1: make friends with your butcher. Well, this is in progress. But we got friendly enough for him to fork over a nice, local hunk of hog.

Step 2: brine said hunk in a solution of ice/water (about two gallons, .5 cups salt, .5 cups molasses, 1 Tbpn black peppercorns) for 12 to 24 hours.

Step 3: prepare dry rub. I have a second coffee grinder ($12!) dedicated to spices. So toast up in a dry pan over medium heat some corriander seed, cumin seed, and mustard seed (about a handful each) and grind away with some dried chilies. That gave me a bit over a half cup of incredible smelling hot spice which I mixed together with about a half cup of good paprika, a few tablespoons each of garlic powder and onion powder, and about a cup of brown sugar. NO SALT: the pork is already seasoned enough from the brine. Spicing and seasoning are different processes, I say: best keep them separate.

Step 3: rinse meat thoroughly and pat dry. RUB with rub, generously. You'll have leftover. Sell the leftover for about $8. Let the meat sit with the rub over night. So the
timing on this starts to emerge. If you want to be eating pulled pork on Saturday, you should put your pork shoulder in the brine on Thursday night, apply the spice rub on Friday night, go to bed early and get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday to start the smoker.

Step 4: Since I've got a 6.5 pound piece of meat, figuring 1.5-2hrs/pound (a figure I've gleaned from the internets), I've got anywhere from 10 to 13 hours to wait. I'm up at 5:30: pecan pellets in the hopper, flip the switch to smoke, toss in the meat, drink my coffee in silent triumph. The internets also told me where I went wrong before: to properly pull pork, it's gotta not just be safe to eat for pork (duh), but it's gotta be rather HOT: like 200 degrees. That's about the average max temp of my smoker when it's going for a while with the lid closed. So we've gotta bring this sizable piece of meat to thermal equilibrium with its smoky surroundings. It's sorta amazing that it can even get there in 13 hours.

Herein lies the problem: it can only get there if everything goes smoothly and the BBQ stays around 200 degrees for that long. For some reason, my fire goes out. So while I'm congratulating myself for buying a fancy ass bbq that doesn't need tending, things are cooling off. At about 1PM, I go out to flip the meat and apply the probe thermometer and notice no smoke and a luke-warm temperature to the grill. It's been OUT for a good hour. So I futz around with it some, turn it off, turn it back on (the fan and auger have been running all this time), and after a few minutes I see this:

Not good. This is a lot of smoke (in case you can't tell). I guess what happened is that the firebox got too jammed up with pellets, the electric ignition was covered in ash, but finally lit ALL the pellets that had been feeding into the box without burning. A few minutes of darkness and worrying that the neighbors are going to call the fire department later, there's a huge WHOOOSH and the lid flips up about six inches and the wood goes from smoke to fire. I rescue my pork from the licking flames and turn everything off and let it smoke the neighborhood for a good half hour. Then I spoon out the embers and start again. Time lost: probably three hours of cooking time. Lesson learned: WATCH YOUR BBQ AND DON'T LET YOUR SMOKER STOP SMOKING! We call Big Al's Pizza: pretty decent pizza, as it turns out: the crust is good with honey on it (that's another story: but try it) and it's better the next day.

11PM rolls around and my temp probe is finally reading 195. Good enough. I've also read that one should really let this thing rest for a good two hours. So by 1AM, I'm finally pulling (and trying not to eat all the dark bits). The next day, the fruits of my three days of labor are sweet and smoky indeed. Version 3.0 is where I'll hit my stride, I think.

Next adventure: baby back ribs. I've already called my friend Tony the butcher. . . .

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Astronomers Declare February No Longer a Month

A friend of mine forwarded me this from a Science Education message board. Good stuff:

Emboldened by their success in declaring Pluto not a planet, the International Astronomical Union determined this week by a close vote that February is too short to be considered a true month. It has, however, been granted the newly created status of "dwarf month." It shares this dubious distinction with several other calendar time spans, including Labor Day Weekend, Christmas Vacation, and the Time Between When You Were Supposed to Get Your Oil Changed and When You Actually Did.

"It only seems fair," said IAU President Ron Ekers. "February reaches a peak size of 29 days, averaging only 28 days for 75 percent of the time. Recent research has shown that other periods, such as the Time Between When You Were Supposed to Get Your Oil Changed and When You Actually Did, often exceed this meager time frame. In fact, this erratic behavior only strengthens our case that February does not belong in the same classification as the eleven 'true' months."

Ekers also warned that the crop of 30-day "so-called" months should be careful to maintain their number of days. "They're already cutting it pretty close in my book."

Written by Michael Haber.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The NEW Mac Lisa!

For some reason, this cracks me up: imagine what Apple's homepage might have looked like circa 1983 (shortly before my family spent several grand on our first Mac 128k --- before the web, all that). I love the 'BASIC' tab. . . . Guess this irrevocably confirms my status as a geek.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Loadout

Well, we're starting to put together our house again following a successful move --- sorta feels like we just did this, even though it was over three years ago. A few photos of the Idaho side here. Stay tuned for more on the Pennsylvania side shortly.

Friday, June 19, 2009

NSF Grant

Whoohoo! I was recently informed that I received a Scholar's Award fellowship from the National Science Foundation to pursue a project I proposed entitled 'Case Studies for a General Account of Biological Kinds' in which I will (as implied by the title!) be looking at a variety of case studies in the biological sciences which I can use to subject my account of natural kinds to detailed scrutiny. I'd reprint the revised abstract here, but my computer is packed. . . .

Anyway, I'll no doubt post more about this in due course, but it looks like the 2010-11 academic year will be dedicated to this research project. And the nice thing is that I'll have a year to plan what I'm going to do!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review of Metaphysics Texts

I recently wrote this essay review of a bunch of different texts/anthologies for Teaching Philosophy. Surprisingly hard work, but quite rewarding (assuming that someone actually finds it useful). Here's the penultimate draft.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Epistemology in the Post Office

So I'm shipping many of my office books directly to my new office at Bucknell via the postal service's book rate (or "media rate"), since it's cheaper and in some ways easier. Well, not entirely easier: I walk in and announce my book-rate intentions and start schlepping the first round of five boxes or so. Since Laura and I enjoy our wine, several of the boxes are former wine boxes. The clerk notices the label and says: "Oh, that's a problem. That's a wine box; you can't ship books in a wine box."
me: "Why not?"
he: "Well, because we don't know that there's not wine in there."
me: "But you don't know that there isn't wine in the other boxes."
he: "But I'll ask you about what the contents of those are."
me: "Then ask me about the contents of this box and I'll tell you: 'it's just books!'" [Shaking box vigorously]: "Sounds like books, right? And anyway, can't you just open them up to check?"
he: "It doesn't matter: once we close them up again, other people will wonder."
. . . . and so on.

And even after patiently covering up all indications of wine and wine references ('vineyard', 'pinot noir', '750 ml', &c.), he insists that I cover up a large logo which happens to be a rooster. "Why? Am I not allowed to ship roosters either?" "No: it's that people will know that it's a wine box with that rooster on it." Right. . . . 'cause whenever I think 'rooster' I think wine. I'm not making any of this up. . . .

So apparently the mere suggestion that there might have once been wine (or roosters) in the boxes creates a salient enough skeptical scenario for the postal service which even direct inspection cannot resolve. Maybe wine bottles will grow in the box after it is sent: you never know! I was informed, however, that I could just cover up the wine labels and it wouldn't be a problem. . . . I'm skeptical. What about the shape of the box — the fact that its dimensions are roughly those of wine bottles arranged in a 3 x 4 grid?

Turns out that the postal service is also into fine distinctions about intentionality. In confirming the contents of the non-wine-box boxes, the clerk asked if there was any "writing" in the box. "Aside from the books," I ask? "Yeah, like handwriting," he responds. I admit that there's of course plenty of handwriting in the margins of the books. "Is it about the books?" he asks. "Because you can't send them if it's not." Wow. I'm afraid that there might be some borderline cases of "aboutness" in there (notes to myself to look at another book on a related topic, for example). Better let this go: "Yes: whatever writing is in the books is about the books."

Friday, May 29, 2009

A successful "House Hunt"

It's kinda funny that the metaphor of "hunting" would apply to houses. After all, they're stationary objects par excellence. . . . One doesn't speak of "hunting" campsites or scenic vistas.

Anyway: our trip to Lewisburg saw both the successful sale of our house in Idaho and an offer that was recently accepted on this sweet little Cape Cod house about a mile and a half to campus! [photos] Like moths to flame, I'm sure we'll be drawn back to Lowes to get in over our heads with home-improvement projects. Hofstadter's Law, here we come!

Friday, May 8, 2009

INPC Weekend

Thanks to all the INPC Participants who schlepped themselves all the way to Moscow, ID to come talk about "The Environment". I had a great time (and learned a lot, if that wasn't obvious) --- hope you all did too! Here are a few of the photos I snapped during the conference. I can never remember to do as many as I should. . . .

Saturday, April 4, 2009


As a dog-lover, this has to have made me laugh the hardest this week. . . . That has got to be one intense dog dream. Either that or the usual mechanism that keep us (and presumably our dogs) from acting out our dreams was, um, napping. . . .

Sleeping Dog Runs Into Wall - Watch more Funny Videos

Poor guy! Look at his hackles!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

12th Best Job in the World?!

Someone recently brought this to my attention: a WSJ article ranking various jobs. Philosopher ranks #12 between physicist and economist and two ahead of parole officer. Awesome! I knew it was a good gig, but I guess I didn't know how good. I wonder where my other career aspirations of lion tamer and topiary gardener fell. . . .

I particularly enjoyed this exchange in the online comments section [SICed]:
They have philosopher ranked in the top 20 ? how does one get employement as a philosopher?
Great question! I possess some really deep thoughts too, I'd make a great philosopher! I think I'll start an independent philosophy company. If it doesn't work out, I'm sure the government will bail me out.

Selling our house

Oh boy . . . the prospect of moving is pretty daunting. The thought of a bunch of random people traipsing through our house doesn't appeal much. So we're going to give a shot to selling by word of mouth. Here goes nothing: if you're interested in buying our house or know someone who might be, let us know. We think it's a bargain at $199,000. . . .

Here's a wee photo tour. Other photo galleries (from parties, renovations, &c.) are here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Moving to Pennsylvania

I was offered a job at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania and have decided to take it. It's hard to leave Idaho — we've made so many lifelong friends here, and the Uniontown Sausage Feed has become a tradition — but Laura and I are ready for a new challenge.

Blog Transition

Well, the program I was using to maintain my blog finally decided to bite the dust for some strange reason. I think it might have had something to do with my file synchronization system, Dropbox (and if I have to choose, I'd choose dropbox in a heartbeat — it's awesome).

So I've migrated my old blog onto blogger, where I've had some decent success with courseblogs. We'll see how it goes here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Government is NOT spying on you. . . .

A local (well, Spokane) engineer, posted a disturbing video recently:

Apparently (as my favorite tech blog, Gizmodo, reports), this sent a bunch of conspiracy theorists into a frenzy. His revelation that it was a hoax and he just glue-gunned some old cell phone parts into the box hasn't calmed them down much. Perhaps it's just a smoke-screen to distract from the fact that they really ARE watching you watch TV.

I just love the image of some sinister, Dr. Strangelove-esque bunker with thousands of video feeds of staring, silent couch potatoes bathed in blueish TV-light. Hilarious!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lesson: Check Your Spam Folder!

So in about two weeks I somehow manage to get about a thousand pieces of SPAM in my two email accounts. After summarily deleting all of the spam in one (I occasionally glance at it just to make sure nothing good is getting lost), I thought "Hey, perhaps I should check the other."

Good thing, as I just found a ten-day old journal acceptance for my short paper (more like a story with a philosophical moral) "A Reflection on Our Freedom" for Philosophia. (Whew!) I suppose I would have found out sooner or later. . . . But add spam to the sources of publication-related headaches!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back to NYC

We were back in NYC over the break. Had a great time, got to catch up with lots of old friends, eat great food, enjoy good music, shows, museums. . . . It was only toward the end of the trip that I started getting a little itchy to get back to the quiet of Idaho.

My one regret is that we never managed to make it to this new restaurant, wd-50 in SoHo, the brainchild of Wylie Dufresne (a Jean Georges alumn). Take a look at the menu. Weird stuff: roasted red pepper oatmeal as a side dish? Worshechire spetzle? Apparently, there's a lot of use of "foam" in the dishes. Someone reported to me when I asked what the cuisine was (i.e., French, Thai, New American, Fusion?) that they were referring to it as "molecular gastronomy". That's hilarious. The next obvious step is atomic gastronomy, I suppose. What about quantum gastronomy? Are molecules the last unit of taste? Do elements taste like anything?