The Best News I’ve Had All Week

Score one against the forces of evil, folks, because the complete works of Charles Darwin are freely available online, or soon will be. Searchable text, plus original scans, and even a side-by-side interface for viewing both simultaneously (it’s a little clunky, but once you play with it a little you’ll realize your inner scholar approves).

It’s tempting to think of Darwin as being ancient, out-of-date, irrelevant. But the observations and interpretations Darwin made remain, especially as introductory material to the layperson, as accurate and revelatory as ever:

Several theories have been advanced to explain the origin of atolls or lagoon islands, but scarcely one to account for barrier-reefs. From the limited depths at which reef-building polypifers can flourish, taken into consideration with certain other circumstances, we are compelled to conclude, as it will be seen, that both in atolls and barrier-reefs, the foundation on which the coral was primarily attached, has subsided; and that during this downward movement, the reefs have grown upwards. This conclusion, it will be further seen, explains most satisfactorily the outline and general form of atolls and barrier-reefs, and likewise certain peculiarities in their structure. The distribution, also, of the different kinds of coral-reefs, and their position with relation to the areas of recent elevation, and to the points subject to volcanic eruptions, fully accord with this theory of their origin.

You see, Darwin wasn’t just a biologist, but a more than competent Earth scientist (among other things). His theories took into account geology, climatology, oceanography, vulcanology… and on and on. He was such a Renaissance man, in fact, that many of the “ologies” he explored weren’t even named in his time.

Aside from being outstanding natural science, the production value of some of these works is astounding. Much of this stuff is suitable for framing.

dolphin, link to full-size image

It’s a lot to take in, and of course the web is still a horrible interface for this kind of immersion (even at 3200×1200, I can attest), but I urge you to poke around in this collection, examine some of the drawings at full-resolution, run some searches on topics of interest to you. You will not be disappointed.

Thanks Google News U.K.!

I Hate Polls

Even when (maybe especially when) I might be tempted to believe them. Not just because they’re always wrong. Not just because they’re misleading. Not just because they purport “facts” not in evidence. Not just because they inflate and exaggerate whatever initial survey bias was concocted into the questions and conflate that with whatever perceptional and ideological issues the respondents inhere. Not just because the actual questions themselves are hardly ever published along with the “results” (which are themselves often interpolations based on several questions).

Playboy has been milking a poll of their readers for the last two or three issues, and I really can’t stand that one, because mostly it’s about how much smarter and richer and more enlightened the “average” Playboy reader is than the “average” American. I quote “average” because it’s really aggregate. The same mentality that believes in polls believes there’s an average reader or an average American or an average anything, and that, beyond that, it’s possible to compare and associate oneself with this golem. The reality, the aggregate, can’t be said to be much of anything except abstract. The “aggregate X is abstract” where X is reader, American, or whatever, is about the only poll-based factoid I’m willing to trust.

And it’s not that I don’t want to know what someone else, maybe even with a different perspective, thinks. The real reason I hate polls, even if they could be unbiased, even if they could be “accurate” (within some theoretical domain), is that I don’t want to know what everyone else thinks. Because the belief that one knows what “everyone” thinks, or even 60% of everyone, has a name: prejudice. Polling is inherently prejudicial, inherently populist, inherently undemocratic. And yet it carries with it the promise of self-validation, or barring that self-justification (of one’s willingness, pride even, at being in the perceived minority).

"Understated" Would Be an Understatement

Applied Minds is arguably one of the most interesting, enigmatic creative/R+D/engineering firms out there, and they have a twopage web site.

How much of a skunkworks are they? Even Wikipedia, which ought to be able to just make something up if necessary, can’t get a bead on them.

The semi-personal connection here is that Bran Ferren, one of the co-founders, is the only demonstrated genius I know of who ever attended my high school. I have to imagine he found the experience as intellectually engaging as hanging out with cattle.

Thanks Brit!