Monday, December 28, 2009

What the Universe Doesn't Owe You, #2,384

It has been brought to my attention that a certain Timothy Egan (New York Times columnist, which says much) has his dainty lace-edged knickers in a twist at the mere thought that Joe Wurzlebacher, aka Joe the Plumber, has a book coming out. Take it away, Tim!

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books.
Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil.
Ah, now we come to Mr. Wurzelbacher's true crime. He got a publishing contract and Mr. Egan thought it belonged to him. I feel his pain, really I do. I have written five book-length manuscripts and despite the best efforts of my excellent agent, have yet to publish any of them. Here's the thing, though. I wish Joe the Plumber the very best and hope he earns out his advance, and more.

Mr. Egan's cri de coeur is even less understandable since he's *published* five books. I have no idea how many he's written, but the bile generated in his op-ed indicates to the knowledgeable he's gotten some pretty memorable rejections for some opus that has not yet seen the light of publishing day. I don't pretend to have profound wisdom about the book publishing world, but I *do* know this:

- Publishing houses are businesses, not charities. They buy manuscripts they think will earn them MONEY. More money than they pay the author for said manuscript. Lots more. This means manuscripts OTHER people WANT TO READ. Sorry.

- The existence of a good novelist does not, a priori, magically create a budget for publishing said good novelist. Many are called, few are chosen.

- A memoir may very well be riveting to the one having lived the life described therein. If after ten years said riveting memoir has not found a congenial home, the possibility exists that it is riveting to no one else, specifically the editor who is gritting her teeth at yet another middle-aged man's midlife crisis and profound puzzlement that hot chicks find him dull.

A polite and considerate writer may occasionally hear editors letting their hair down and describing the abysmal, turgid, unoriginal, BORING manuscripts that land on their desks. I thought for a while they were making it up, but then I saw some of that quote original and creative writing unquote and it made me want to find the perpetrator's high school English teachers and do some wall-to-wall counseling. It was that bad. The invention of the word processor has removed quite a bit of the dam keeping bad prose from leaking out into the world, and editors suffer. And spread the pain. It used to be unremarkable to submit a manuscript directly, but now they (with VERY few exceptions) want someone to filter out the sludge -- e.g. an agent.

To summarize: a writer may have truly worked hard, and produced a pile of dead tree with markings on it, but NOBODY owes them anything for that effort. If you're really a writer, the writing is the point and publishing is icing on the cake. A real writer can't not write, even if they don't get paid.

p.s. I can fix toilets, too.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Funnies

-Schlock MercenaryThe Long-gunner of the Apocalypse.
-TwoLumps Curveball.
-Girl Genius Baron Wulfenbach has problems.
-Digger The adventurers report back to Ganesha.
-No Need For Bushido Hulking villager and archer boy join the battle.
-Delta Bravo Sierra. Don't drool on your fellow passengers.
-Lackadaisy Two new pages! Wick and Mitzi discover the Photomajig.

Not Updated, fie!

-Dresden Codak
-My Ninja Family
-Gone with the Blastwave
-And Argghhh-onauts is apparently in an eggnog coma or something. Or the Foglios caught up with him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Funnies

-Schlock MercenaryThe mercenaries are cosmically lost.
-TwoLumps The dangers of getting what you want before Christmas.
-Girl Genius Something has been set free ...
-Digger Dot killink everyboddy plan is no gut.
-No Need For Bushido Should be a new comic Monday ... wonder when that sneaky little assassin will show up?
-Delta Bravo Sierra. Attack of the Drones.
-Argghhh-onauts! Numbah 14. The artist persists in thinking nanotubes are pink, however he does give me a death ray so much is forgiven.

-Dresden Codak
-My Ninja Family
-Gone with the Blastwave

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Meanwhile, back in the REAL science world....

Somebody forgot to wind up the Sun. Please to note this is real, actual data not obtained by rolling 2d10 multiple times. The interplanetary geomagnetic index (aka Ap) is at anomalously low levels. The sun is a wonderful and complex physical environment with mind-boggling physics going on inside. We still aren't entirely sure how the whole thing works, and due to the aforementioned mind-boggling physics (gravity, strange particle plasma, vast and wiggly magnetic fields) we can't even get any ideas what's going on below the surface for, oh, millions of years. On account of that's how long it takes any particles to get *through* to the surface. It could have gone nova already, deep inside.

Anyway, the magnetic field of the sun is low. Sunspot activity is very sparse. We were supposed to be in the middle of a very active solar cycle which hasn't shown up for over three years now. These are not very good signs, since low/no sunspot activity has been connected with things like the Little Ice Age. And it is also suspected (read the article) that when solar magnetic fields are low, the Earth is not shielded from highly energetic cosmic rays which then trigger more cloud formation -- leading to colder temperatures.

To conclude: Global warming, my left foot. I'm trying to figure out how fast I can replace all my old windows with super-insulated ones.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sunday Funnies

-Schlock Mercenary Now King Lota knows that Kevin knows Credomar is a giant weapon with people living in it.
-TwoLumps Yule log-a-rhythm.
-Girl Genius Agatha found the Castle's off switch.
-Lackadaisy Two more pages! Wick is concerned about his health.
-Digger Sneaking around in the underbrush.
-NEW COMIC! Delta Bravo Sierra. There's strange, and then there's Army strange. Featuring newsmonkeys, rabbit sergeants, and Top Dogs.
ALERT! Yet ANOTHER Argghhh-onauts comic! Will miracles never cease? Will someone figure out the DFAC coffee machine has been dispensing pure caffeine sludge for the last month?
UPDATE: Argghhh-onauts Lucky Number 13 has been deployed, and *somebody* just can't wait for next week to get posted. Just to squash the rumors, I am NOT blonde.

No Need For Bushido
-Dresden Codak
-My Ninja Family
-Gone with the Blastwave

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Scientific Method

Being a remedial primer for AGW proponents Mann, Jones, et al. and a general introduction for the interested lay public ...

Your Humble Snarkatron is a scientist. This means, in addition to a visceral fondness for blinkenlights and tricks with liquid nitrogen, I conducted scientific research on a topic, presented papers at technical conferences, submitted papers (and had them published) at peer-reviewed, highly-regarded journals in the field of solid state physics, and also that I put together an independent body of work and defended it before a committee of my scientific peers to earn my PhD. This thesis is publicly available, as are the papers and data I published. The mere thought of concealing my experimental data makes me writhe in intellectual agony. Dreaming about losing my data would make me wake up in a cold sweat. I STILL HAVE THE ORIGINAL DATA FILES, over 15 years later.

This is the way the system works.
-Researcher A makes some measurements, using a specified technique, sample prep procedure, etc. These measurements and the experimental configuration are recorded in some permanent form.
-Researcher A, or more likely Researcher A's grad students, graph the data in a useful form and write up a paper explaining why this is such a big deal for the scientific community in general and the sub-community interested in sample/measurement technique in particular.
-Paper is submitted to Journal of Interesting Results. Editor of JIR looks through rolodex to find a reviewer *not* on the list of authors of the paper but who is familiar with sample/measurement technique. Paper is sent out to victim^H^H^H reviewer with proper groveling note giving thanks in advance for reading and commenting.
-Researcher B gets paper and reads with proper scientific detachment, making sure all assertions are supported with data, that the data makes reasonable sense given their experience with material/measurement technique, and sometimes even correcting spelling. NOTE: Researcher B should not be a tennis buddy, sexual partner, relative, or otherwise owe Researcher A money. It is not okay for Researchers A & B to take turns wearing the French Maid costume so the other can pretend not to know them.
-Researcher B returns paper with comments along with a go/no-go recommendation. The comments and recommendation (but NOT the name and affiliation of the reviewer) are forwarded to Researcher A, who can contest an unfavorable review if one is given.
-Once a favorable review is obtained, the editor of the Journal of Interesting Results schedules the paper for publication. The favorable review, I will point out, may NOT come from Researcher A, nor may the editor "shop around" reviewers to get a favorable review.
-The paper, now published, is Fair Game. Other researchers in the field, perusing the Journal of Interesting Results over a cup of Ovaltine, may be moved to try and reproduce the interesting result in question, possibly adding a few additional experimental wrinkles to obtain more insight. If they cannot reproduce the result, Things Happen. Letters are written to Researcher A, and possibly the editor of JIR. Clarification may ensue, or profound academic embarrassment when Researcher A realizes the measurements were in error and the Journal of Interesting Results has to let everyone know to ignore the previous paper (otherwise known as a "retraction"). Much, much more rarely, Researcher A cannot or will not produce a valid explanation for why a sample would ever measure -10,000 ohms, and then we move into the interesting area known as Academic Dishonesty.

I have submitted multiple papers for review, have acted as a reviewer for a very large and well-known physics journal, and have even (successfully) contested an unfavorable review. This stuff is not complicated. Time-consuming, but not complicated. It never crossed my fevered brain to say a researcher could not view my published data on the grounds "they will just try to find something wrong with it." Of COURSE they are going to try and find something wrong with it, that's what this process is about! Publishing a scientific paper is not like handing your latest fingerpainting to your doting mother to post on the refrigerator door. The correct attitude is "do your damndest. I hope you choke on my excellent work and well-supported arguments--and why don't you invite your friends?"

The gang involved with the recent Climategate leaked email scandal (or Climatequiddick, my favorite) were climate researchers. Such *can* be scientists, with all that implies, but they labor under some important difficulties. For one thing, we've only got the one working planet at the moment, and My Little Solar Accretion Disk kits are not yet on the market. I.e. we only have one experimental subject. Further, our ancestors were very inconsiderate and did not keep records of temperature, rainfall, etc. at the level of accuracy we demand to detect .05 C global temperature changes caused by my penchant for bonfires. Sometimes the blighters didn't keep records at all, their excuse being they hadn't invented writing yet. So, much use is made of temperature proxies, such as the infamous tree ring measurements. Trees, I should remind you, do not have thermometers. They tend to grow when they are not freezing, but that's about it. They get more excited about availability of water. A big fat ring *could* mean a temperate year, but with lots of precipitation. Oh, and really old trees tend to be in far off, inaccessible-to-lumberjacks type areas. Hence, these data sets of temperature proxies aren't something you can order up on Amazon. A research team that has gone to the trouble and expense of blackmailing a grad student into spending a summer taking core samples in Siberia *without beer* would, naturally, want first dibs at this data. First dibs is entirely understandable, a 25 year embargo is a scandal.

So, we have 1) an experimental system so huge and a timescale so vast it is incredibly difficult to amass a useful set of data to confirm or deny climate research claims, 2) a rather small (by scientific standards) group of researchers in the field, pretty much guaranteeing a high percentage of incestuous research relationships and therefore a reviewer pool with a significant chance of being "improperly interested" in the paper under review, and 3) modeling that conveniently predicted measurable results in the global temperature increase area well after everybody important had retired. This makes any claim of what *I* understand as "peer review" impossible. If there isn't a very good chance sloppy work will get pointed to and laughed at during Researcher A's academic career, why even bother?