From the archives: September 2007

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Ex astris scientia

Monday, 24 September 2007 — 9:59pm | Science

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium (ExpressNews article here). I’ve been away from physics for a few years now, so the minutiae of the graduate research on display sailed over my head, but I managed to attend the two keynotes.

The first was a presentation by Dr. Jaymie Matthews (UBC) on the MOST space telescope and its involvement in the search for and study of exoplanets like the potentially habitable Gliese 581 c, as well as its striking resemblance to SpongeBob SquarePants. The second talk, delivered by Dr. Mark Lemmon (Texas A&M), concerned the Phoenix Mars Mission and how they plan to study the permafrost subsurface of the Martian Arctic.

The symposium was, on the whole, a stellar reminder of just how advanced we are as a society and a species when we let the scientists do their job, so long as they aren’t being silly.

Unfortunately, there is a massive chasm between scientists and policy-makers in every discipline and every stratum of society, in part because of the divergence between their educational paths. As Carl Sagan remarked in The Demon-Haunted World, there hasn’t been a scientifically literate U.S. President since Thomas Jefferson. And when it comes to space exploration, the political absurdities boggle the mind.

The star of the space policy circus is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. As John Hickman explains in today’s edition of The Space Review, it’s high time for states to withdraw from the treaty and lay it to rest.

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And the Dragon comes in the night

Monday, 17 September 2007 — 10:47pm | Literature

Robert Jordan has died. He leaves behind the unfinished manuscript of the twelfth and final volume of The Wheel of Time, tentatively, poignantly and now permanently entitled A Memory of Light. I am reminded of the blurb about the author at the end of almost all of his books: “He has been writing since 1977 and intends to continue until they nail shut his coffin.” I guess he kept his promise after all.

As my longtime readers are probably aware, among authors of popular fiction, Jordan finishes second only to Dan Brown when I’m in an irritable mood and I want to pick on somebody’s bad writing. But ever since I found out he was racing against a rare terminal illness, I’d been secretly rooting for him to finish his life’s work. The fans who were tenacious enough to stick with him deserved at least that much. And while I never plan on revisiting the series again—life is, demonstrably, much too short—I really wanted to know who killed Asmodean.

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Friday, 14 September 2007 — 10:46am | Computing, Literature, Mathematics, Science

As it is, I’m already very indecisive when it comes to shopping for books. But if you really want to trap me at a display case for nigh on an hour, toss in an NP-hard combinatorial problem (my non-mathematical readers: refer to this simple illustration) and I’m done for.

The scenario: I won a $250 book prize for an essay I wrote last year (something to do with moral culpability in Adam Bede, if I remember correctly), redeemable for anything published by the University of Alberta Press. Because I insist on getting my money’s worth, we can formulate this as Objective 1: Spend $250 on books.

Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. You see, when I went to go pay the UAP a visit and make my book selection, I travelled by bicycle, which inadvertently introduced a second dimension, making this a doubly-constrained knapsack problem. Objective 2: Select books of appropriate size and weight that will fit in my backpack without getting wrecked, so I can actually carry them home on a bike.

Of course, I wasn’t just going to pick any set of books I see just so I could use up the entirety of the book prize without having to pay extra for going over. Objective 3: Maximize the sum of the value-functions assigned to the contents of the books selected. (In plain English: “Pick interesting books that I will actually read.”)

My solution?

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The tragedy of the creative commons

Tuesday, 11 September 2007 — 11:50pm | Computing, Video games

I’ve long been reluctant to jump on the open source cheerleading bandwagon with quite as much zeal as most other people who work with computers, but I’ve become a convert overnight.

Oh, sure, I’ve been an end-user benefactor of the open source model’s more representative products for years, but that has only made me sympathetic to open-source software’s actual philosophical tenets to the same extent that feeling warm in a comfortable pelt on a winter’s day would make me exclaim, “Golly, it’s a joy that we still club baby seals.” By and large, it’s the product that matters, and as far as I was previously concerned, processes of production are pretty much interchangeable unless they hold things up or cause serious collateral damage. Like seal-clubbing, I liked open source when it worked, and it was not something I was ever clearly for or against.

No, what got me to believe in open source was a scenario where I really, really wanted something to work, and it just wouldn’t. Enter DarwiinRemote.

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Friday, 7 September 2007 — 12:17am | Game music, Music, Video games

Amidst all of the distractions in my immediate local orbit, I almost neglected to mention a certain item that made it to the U of A’s ExpressNews feed: a piece about Guillaume Laroche’s summer research project, which had something to do with variation theory as it pertains to the development of Koji Kondo’s musical compositions over the course of the Legend of Zelda series. (I’ll not go into it further, as I do not wish to misrepresent the argument.)

The article was originally filed under the Faculty of Arts news page (here). For some reason, the ExpressNews version adds this somewhat awkward lede:

September 4, 2007 – Edmonton – New university students will hear warnings that they won’t get much studying done if their room mate has a video games. But the opposite would be true if you roomed with Guillaume Laroche.

Having actually roomed with Mr. Laroche on one occasion, I seriously beg to differ. But I digress.

I was directed to the original article upon its publication on the Arts page about a fortnight ago, and I remember thinking exactly two things: a) “Well, that’s some good publicity,” and b) “I can’t believe he convinced them to print the word ludomusicology.” Ludo-what? Perhaps I should explain.

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