Fourth Floor Studio

October 25, 2007

The great and the gaffe

Filed under: news, scientists — chris @ 12:58 pm

James D. Watson, cantankerous Nobel prize winner, proves that no cow is too sacred. Even Lord Jim couldn’t withstand the furore over his latest round of bigoted comments in the Sunday Times magazine on Oct 14th:

He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

I had been waiting to see whether he would have been able to weather this storm, although his suspension from active duty at CSHL on Oct 18th didn’t bode well. There is a fine line between having the courage to drag out sensitive topics so we can look at them, and being a bigot. Apparently, this time Jim was caught on the wrong side of that line once too often.


July 6, 2007

Australian undergraduate teaching

Filed under: news, science — chris @ 1:30 pm

[…] universities are taking in students to study science who do not have the preparation, and possibly ability, to complete courses of proper rigor[…]

In Australia, the pressure to combat declining science undergraduate enrollment has resulted in dumbed-down courses with lower standards enrolling many unprepared  students (a worldwide theme, mind you). Whilst keeping the departments afloat – at least temporarily – the long-term damage to education and science is huge. The other logical extension, recruiting foreign students, has lead to interesting, if flawed, experiments in foreign campuses.

June 27, 2007

Did he deliver?

Filed under: news, science — chris @ 4:06 pm

These are exciting times. Science continues to push back the frontiers of knowledge, finding new areas of which we were previously unaware and making discoveries that add novel twists to the world views we were taught as children. I intend to ensure that the United Kingdom continues to foster excellence in scientific and technological cooperation. Our success will help realize the creative potential of the next generation.

Blair, T, 1998 Science  281, 1141.

See commentary by Robert May in this week’s Nature.

June 14, 2007

Nature wades into the religious debate

Filed under: news, science, skepticism, stupidity — chris @ 8:50 am

Comments by US Senator (and presidential candidate) Sam Brownback prompt an editorial in this week’s Nature:

… the suggestion that any entity capable of creating the Universe has a mind encumbered with the same emotional structures and perceptual framework as that of an upright ape adapted to living in small, intensely social peer-groups on the African savannah seems a priori unlikely.


 Brownback’s NYT opinion piece is littered with the usual flotsam of non-overlapping magisteria, micro- vs macro-evolution, a priori belief in a creator, and of course the requisite “many biologists believe in God” argument. He concludes with this gem:

 Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Enlightenment, what enlightenment?

March 20, 2007

RIP John Backus

Filed under: news — chris @ 12:04 am

The creator of Fortran is dead.

“You need the willingness to fail all the time,” he said. “You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.”

March 12, 2007

Was this on the job description?

Filed under: news, stupidity — chris @ 11:08 am

He was inebriated, his hands were tied and he was gagged with a rubber ball in his mouth. In spite of his drunken state, the naked figure was reportedly able to identify himself by his full name and job title.

January 17, 2007

Doomsday approaches

Filed under: news — chris @ 5:33 pm

The Bulletin for Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday clock to 5 minutes to midnight – the closest to symbolic annihilation of mankind it has been since the Star-Wars era arms races of the mid 80’s. The only other time 5 minutes was breached was during the aquisition and development of thermonuclear technology in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

The combination of causes, however, is unique. It’s not just the threat of global nuclear war. This time, it’s also global warming.

November 12, 2006

Kiwis go digital?

Filed under: news, stupidity — chris @ 4:20 pm

It appears that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, which sets standards and curricula for high school exams there, is to allow credit to be given for IM-style text speak in exams, provided there is adequate demonstration of understanding.

I can’t begin to list the reasons why this is a bad idea – so I’ll just give one: perhaps the only redeeming feature of the time-limited exam we all know and hate is getting students to develop basic writing skills. That is, outlining a set of arguments concisely but clearly, by mastering the difference between written and oral communication. Written language is directional: information flows from author to audience, unlike speech which usually has multiple active participants. Try reading a play sometime: it’s rather jarring, but feels much more natural when acted out. Unlike other niche vocabularies students routinely use (eg algebraic notation or chemical symbols), textspeak is inherently a conversational medium. I suspect this would tend to steer students away from even the rudiments of composition they know – frightening given the average science major’s writing abilities, or even many professional scientists’, for that matter.

Let’s face it, if you’re going to do anything more high-powered than bag burgers and fries, you need to be able to write. Well.

October 12, 2006

Lancet article says it all…

Filed under: news, skepticism — chris @ 12:15 am

We estimate that [due to the war] about 655000 [more] Iraqis have died [than expected during peacetime]. About 601000 of these excess deaths were due to violent causes. [pdf]

Still, they’re free now, right?

via Neil

October 11, 2006

Plane crashes into New York building

Filed under: news — chris @ 8:06 pm

Apparently a small plane has crashed into the 40th/41st floor of a building on the Upper East Side. The plane was owned and piloted by Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle, who is reported dead along with one other (as yet unnamed) person.

Whilst there is no suggestion of terrorist motive, this accident must have tragic resonance for New Yorkers. The involuntary feelings of attack and vunerability commonly second to psychological trauma are inenviable.

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