Friday, December 30, 2005

Stuff: Toronto Hawks

I'm kind of between books at the moment. After The Ancestor's Tale I'm having a hard time getting into anything else. I've started a couple of things, but haven't been all that engrossed by them.

Usually what I do when I'm in this sort of state is get out one of my old standby series out -- Lois McMaster Bujold or David Eddings or Glen Cook, for example -- and plow through them. Specifically, I wanted to re-read Cook's Garrett P.I. books, but I can't find the first volume (Sweet Silver Blues) either at home or in book stores, and I don't want to read them out of order. So I'm at a loss for books right now.

All of this is completely irrelevant to Toronto hawks, except to explain why I'm not posting about them and not books. The hawks -- well, one hawk -- came in this afternoon on our way back from groceries. We noticed a couple of flocks of synchronized pigeons circling over the street. We found that a little odd, as Toronto pigeons are not known for exerting themselves, until we noticed why they were flapping around: they were chasing a hawk, who fled the pigeon-infested area and settled down on a TV aerial on a nearby building.

Fortunately, this was quite close to home, so I ran in and got the camera. It was rather tricky photographing a hawk that was ten stories higher than me -- with the aerial in the way to boot -- but I did get a couple of not-bad shots. The image links to the shot on Flickr, where you find the best of the shots. Read more!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disaster Aftermath

We finally have back our PT Cruiser, without so much rat in it. Final damage report: they had to replace the spark plugs, several well-chewed belts, and a number of electrical wires. And they had to shampoo the engine to get all the little bits of rat out.

For the next little while, we'll be slapping the hood a few times before driving off... Read more!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disaster Addendum

To give an idea of the difference in size between our PT Cruiser and the Queen Mary Dodge Grand Caravan, here are the two models to scale. Our Cruiser is actually "electric blue", not black, but you get the idea. We worked out that, if we had cleared the longer half of the garage and parked the Queen Mary there, we both would have had to leave by the driver-side rear door (the swing-out doors would not have opened in the width available) and climb over the hood to get to the garage door (which would have been dead-center in front of the thing).

On the other hand, we would have been able to fit the bikes in the thing. I have a Rans V-Rex and Lori has a Catrike Speed, so regular bike racks don't work that well for us. Read more!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disasters

Once is happenstance, twice is tradition.

Several years ago, we were driving down to my parents' places on Christmas Eve for the family Christmas get-together (a two-hour drive) with our two cats -- and a friend who was also visiting family down there -- and ended up stranded halfway there at 11pm with a ruined alternator. I'm going to skip the details here, but suffice it to say that it took both the CAA and my mother coming up to find us so we could get the car and ourselves to town. That was the first time we'd agreed to drive someone down with us on Christmas Eve.

This year was the second time did so, and our apparent tradition of the car not cooperating manifested itself again.

Christmas Eve, we set out to deliver gifts to my aunt's before driving down to the parents' places. We got in the car, started it up, and GRRND GRRND GRRND GRRND -- not a good sound. The engine started ok, but something was grinding against something in there.

So I got out, and Lori backed the car up a bit so we could pop the hood. First clue as to what went wrong: a large rat leaps out of the wheel well of the car and disappears down a fresh hole under the garage wall.

Second clue: a small pool of a thick red liquid under where the car engine had been.

So we opened the hood and had a look. The third clue: a mass of paper, lint, and fur wedged under the manifold -- apparently, a nest. Also, some of the insulation was chewed off a wire.

Removing the nest didn't fix the problem, so it was time to phone the CAA (to get a tow), the dealership (which was closed), my aunt (to say we wouldn't be delivering the presents just yet), and four or five car rental places. Unfortunately, this was all at about 12:50pm, and all but two of the rental places withing walking distance were closing at 1:00. And one of the two that were open to four had no cars to rent us anyway.

Soon, the CAA guy showed up and got the car hoisted on his truck, at which point we found the source of the red liquid: a second rat wedged quite securely behind the bumper. He towed the car to the dealership, where it will stay until Tuesday when they open again. So we made our way on foot to the Budget Car Rentals that said they had a vehicle.

The vehicle they had was a little intimidating, though. Lori's car is a PT Cruiser. Nice and roomy, but overall pretty small -- it's quite short for it's storage volume. The car we got was a Dodge Grand Caravan, over five meters long. The Cruiser is only four and a quarter meters. We've taken to calling the Caravan "The Queen Mary".

We paced it off -- the Caravan was only 20cm shorter than the inside of our garage. Even if we got it in there, there'd be no way we could use the door, short of climbing over the hood. And, of course, City Hall was closed, so we couldn't get an on-street parking permit.

But we did get the presents delivered. And we did get down to the family Christmas gathering. And back again, through sleet and snow and dark of night.

But we want the little cruiser back!

Fresh Disasters Read more!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Joyous Yule

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker 'n' too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!

Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
Gaggin' on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

Walt Kelly
Read more!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Stuff: It's Author's Week at '77 Track 7

Apparently I'm starting to show up on Google or something. First, Jessica Sachs commends on my post about Corpse, and now Roberto Casati has dropped in on my post about his Shadows.

Thanks for the comments! Read more!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Book (Science): The Ancestor's Tale

It's been almost a month since I started Richard Dawkins's
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. It's a pretty hefty book, and I got interrupted a few times.

It's hefty, but it's fascinating. There was a lot of good material I hadn't seen before, or only new about vaguely, and the novel presentation put an interesting perspective on everything.

As I mentioned in my preview post, the book is told as a backwards trip through the evolutionary tree, starting with modern humans, with a chapter at each of the branching points between our history and that of any still-surviving cousins we have. Dawkins calls these branching points "rendezvous" (since we're going backwards) and refers to the last common ancestor between the two branches as the "concestor" for that rendezvous. For example, Rendezvous 17 is with the amphibians, and concestor 17 would be the last animal who had some descendants who went on to become modern amphibians and other descendants who went on to become humans. Naturally -- and this is an important point Dawkins repeats often for the various concestors -- concestor 17 was not an modern amphibian itself! That may seem obvious, but when Larry King asks questions like "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?" on his show, it's a point that's obviously lost on many people.

Each Rendezvous has its own chapter, and most of those consist of one or more tales of modern animals from the other branch. For example, Rendezvous 26 -- Protosomes -- is where the our branch and the one that would give rise to insects, crustaceans, spiders, worms, and so on, join. That chapter includes The Ragworm's Tale, The Brine Shrimp's Tale, The Fruit Fly's Tale, etc.

What wasn't clear when I wrote my preview post, though, was that the animals in these tales are actually excuses to tell much more varied tales than just histories of various evolutionary paths. Rather, Dawkins uses them to explore evolutionary concepts exemplified by the subject species. The Fruit Fly's Tale deals primarily with Hox genes (whose function were first determined through experiments on fruit flies). Hox genes are responsible for turning other genes on and off within a cell based on a cell's position within a body: they're what make arms become arms and legs become legs (among other things). Mutations in Hox genes in fruit flies can turn antennae into legs or give the fly extra wings.

Similarly, The Platypus's Tale is about electro-sensitivity (platypuses can detect electrical fields with their bill), The Redwood Tale is about dating methods (starting with dendrochronology, taking by patterns of tree rings), The Salamander's Tale is about ring species and racial distinctions, and so on.

There are also two summary chapters at the end, Cantebury and The Host Returns. Cantebury represents the start of it all, the root of the tree from which all these Rendezvous descend, and Dawkins uses it to talk about important first step in evolution. Not so much the origin of life, but the origin of heredity -- without heredity, you can't have evolution. He discusses a fascinating experiment I hadn't ever heard of, done using a RNA virus called Qβ.

Qβ, like any virus, is a genetic parasite which hijacks a cell's DNA/RNA transcription systems to make copies of itself and the proteins that it uses (one to enclose the RNA, one to stick the virus to the cell, one to destroy the cell to let the copies free, and one that assembles the Qβ copying protein, Qβ replicase, out of proteins found in the cell).

The experiment consisted of putting Qβ RNA and Qβ replicase in test tubes away from any cells to see what happened. Before long, even without the cell's full-fledge copying system on hand, the Qβ was being copied. Not only that, but as the experiment was iterated through successive "generations" (samples from one experiment moved to a fresh test tube), the Qβ RNA changed, loosing the genes that encoded the shell, glue, or escape proteins, since they weren't needed in the test tube environment. The Qβ RNA was reduced from 3600 codons to only 550. In some experiments, the Qβ RNA wasn't even necessary: the experimenter simply mixed raw material for making RNA with Qβ replicase, and soon a very Qβ-like RNA virus appeared.

Dawkins found this interesting because it demonstrated that you could have an evolving system with heredity with only RNA (or RNA components) and a single protein. I found it interesting because it reminded me of Tierra and Avida, experiments in genetic programming. Tierra lets you write short, self-replicating computer programs and then runs them in an environment where they are subject to selection pressures and mutation. Avida is based on Tierra.

One of the early results from Tierra (or maybe Avida, I can't remember which one this actually happened on -- maybe both) was a program which, through evolution in the system, shortened itself substantially, making itself more successful by reducing the amount of steps it took to copy itself. In fact, the code was tightened so much that it was hard for the developers watching it to figure out how it worked -- it was more optimized than any human author would think they could make it.

This being Dawkins, there are some interesting sociology-of-science bits as well. Naturally, he discusses the shortcomings of creationism in addressing the results biologists have been getting in their research, and throws in a couple of light barbs at creationists' tendencies to quote biologists selectively. Though the thing he harps on most of all is how the rules of biological nomenclature have stuck us with a number of rather inappropriate names for species, processes, and theories. Unfortunately, I didn't think to make notes of examples, and they're rather hard to find by flipping through the book.

My only real complaint about The Ancestor's Tale is Dawkins's writing style. His tone tends to wobble between lectorial and conversational, rather than going for one or the other -- or striking a balance somewhere in between. It's not at all a major problem, but it did make the book's flow a little uneven in places. Still, he got to marry Romana after being introduced to her by Douglas Adams. I suppose it'd be too much to expect him to write like Isaac Asimov on top of all that. Read more!

Stuff: This is cool

You probably haven't noticed -- unless you actually make a habit of watching for new comments on two-month-old posts -- but a couple of days ago I had an unexpected visitor at my post on Jessica Snyder Sachs's book on forensics, Corpse -- namely, Jessica Sachs herself.

Corpse was a fun book (and one that comes to mind any time any of the CSI coroners makes a pronouncement about time of death). Sachs is now working on "a book about the microbes that colonize our bodies while we're still alive", which may be less -- or maybe more -- disturbing that her stories about the ones that colonize our bodies after we're dead.

She has her own weblog at -- be sure to drop by. Read more!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Photography: Toronto Winter

I just put a large batch of photos up on Flickr. Most of them are from theDecember 9th snowfall, with a few cat photos added in as usual. Read more!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Stuff: Celebrity Spotting

I'm not a big one for celebrity spotting -- largely because I'm not a big one for celebrities, period -- but sometimes it's unavoidable in a city like Toronto. Lori and I had one such encounter yesterday while heading downtown to pick up some friends for a tour of the city: while we were stopped at Esplanade and Sherbourne, George A. Romero, the King of the Zombies, wandered across the street in front of us, chatting with a friend or colleague. I wouldn't have had any reason to recognize him, had I not met him at Nash the Slash's View from a Gallery show and taken photographs.

Romero filmed Land of the Dead (which I haven't seen yet) here in Toronto -- he was in post-production when he dropped in on Nash's show. I don't know what he's working on now. Read more!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Book (Science): The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry

The Ancestor's Tale falls further and further behind. No fault of Richard Dawkins's, though -- just circumstances and my own reading habits.

For some reason I seem to mentally classify books as "the one I'm reading at work" and "the one I'm reading at home". ("Reading at work" here means reading while walking to/from work and to/during/from workday lunch.) The Ancestor's Tale is currently stuck in the "reading at work" category, so I rarely even think of picking it up at home. Which I should, or I'll never get through it.

This weekend was a little odd, though, because on Saturday I ended up stuck at Lori's work while she and her crew dealt with a software deployment. And I didn't have my "reading at work" book (or any book) with me. So I ran out to Indigo at the Eaton Centre to see what I could find.

This was one of those serendipedous trips -- I just happened to trip over a new Larry Gonick Cartoon Guide!

For those who don't know Gonicks books (The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon History of the Universe, etc), they are some of the best introductory guides to their subjects around. As good as or better than most of the non-cartoon introductions to those subjects. Gonick (often writing with help from experts, but sometimes alone) doesn't believe in giving a superficial overview. The stats book gets into Baysian analysis; the physics book into quantum mechanics (without the woo-woo mysticism that haunts a lot of popular books on the subject); the history of the universe book actually covers Africa, India, and China quite well (which is unusual for popular general histories in North America, which concentrate heavily on Europe). They're not what you'd expect from a book of cartoons. Sure, they wouldn't take the place of textbooks, but they do make great supplemental material.

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry actually started off disappointingly, though. The first chapter covers the history of chemistry very quickly. It soon became obvious that this was because Gonick wasn't going to be writing about the history of chemistry -- he needed all the space he could get for the actual science! By halfway through the book he's well beyond anything that I took in high school chemistry. In fact, he introduces material that I'd never even heard of before, such as "enthalpy" (which he describes as "possibly the ugliest word in chemistry"). I was always more math and physics than chemistry, but I'm pretty sure that the term never came up in Mr. Stephina's class. Of course, he was always so busy blowing stuff up, I might have missed it.

The book contains some of the best and most intuitive explanations for the different kinds of chemical bonds, and how their differing natures affect chemical reactions they get involved in. Gonick also has a great (and detailed) overview of the nature of acids and bases and how they're related. He ends with a section on electrochemistry that revolves around how to calculate the voltage you'll get from different kinds of chemical batteries -- I had never seen this material presented before, so it was fascinating.

I have to admit, though, that trying to read the book through in a single sitting (trapped, as I was, at Lori's office) got rather tiring. Things like deriving the base ionization constant tended to make my eyes glaze over. I don't know if it's because this book gets into more detail than the physics or statistics ones, or if it's just because I'd always been better at physics and stats than chemistry, but I did find it a little overwhelming at times. If I'd taken the time to work through the examples, it probably would have sunk in better, but I was reading to relax, not work!

In any case, it's yet another great Gonick guide. I'm still missing a few from my collection, so I've got to fill those holes in. Read more!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Books (Comic Strip): Thriving on Vague Objectives

I wandered into the local Chapters looking for a copy of Sweet Silver Blues, the first Garrett, PI book (I can't find our copy at home) and discovered that there was a new Dilbert book out, Thriving on Vague Objectives.

I've been following Dilbert since before the first strip collections came out, and my Dilbert-quoting habit is almost as bad as my Python and Goon Show quoting, and the latest book is as good as any (and has a shorter title than many of the more recent ones). I've occasionally had a few problems with Scott Adams, though.

Adams has some great insight into the absurdity of corporate life, but he's got a very bizarre notion of how science works. It's generally not a problem, but every once in a while it crops up in his books or (most recently) his new weblog, in which he declared that the Intelligent Design folks and biologists were equally bad at their arguments, and not only did each not really understand the other's argument, they didn't even really understand their own.

This was a very odd claim, given that, over the course of the rest of the post, it became obvious that Adams himself understood the least about the matter of the three of them.

PK Myers at Pharyngula posted a good rebuttal which summarizes the whole thing quite nicely. What was most odd, though, was Adams's response to Myers. Adams said that the problem really is that there are "no credible people" to inform him about the subject, and that (most amazingly) no one who has a professional stake in a matter can be considered credible on that matter -- and that the more stake you have, the less credible you are.

I can even see Adams's point -- within a corporate context. In the politics-heavy world of a business, very often the people most pushing for project A or project B are completely non-credible. And, of course, then there's marketing and advertising.

But outside of that -- are engineers really the least credible people when it comes to how to build a bridge? Doctors the least credible about medicine? Lawyers the least credible about law? No matter how much you might dislike lawyers, they do know more about law (on the whole) than non-lawyers.

That's when I decided that I wasn't going to follow the Dilbert Blog anymore -- I didn't want it to spoil my enjoyment of the strip. And I did enjoy the latest book! It had a number of strips I laughed out loud at over lunch. The last couple of collections were fun, but didn't have anything outstanding in them. This one has some really great strips.

I just have to remember that Adams lives in a world of Pointy-Haired Bosses... Read more!