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Andrew Swift
I live in Toulouse and I grew up in Amherst. I try to be curious.

These posts represent points of light that have illuminated the dark corners of my understanding.


27 april, 2012
Posnit Ubek is on Hiatus

I live in France, and I've decided that it's finally time to blog in French.

30 january, 2012
Silly Young Things

I'm in my mid forties. Lately I've been thinking about why it is that I can't take modern rock and folk music seriously, the way I can take Dylan and the Clash seriously.

Recent groups just don't have authenticity for me. They seem frivolous, they don't know what they're talking about, and they're too opti- or pessimistic. Above all, they're pretentious.

However, objectively, I don't think it is possible to claim that Dylan or The Clash had any more of a grasp of reality or politics than current musicians. The opposite is probably true.

So what changed?

The difference is that when I was young, even young rock stars were older than me. As long as a musician is older than me, I can believe what he says. I can pretend to myself that he's got something serious to say and I'm willing to look for the deeper meaning.

Joe Strummer was born in 1952, and was in his mid- to late twenties when The Clash hit their stride. If The Clash came out now, I'd have trouble taking them seriously -- but as a teenager, it was life and death!

Dylan is an even better example. He recorded "Blowin in the Wind" in 1962, when he was 21. Sure, it's a great song, but even if a youngster had a great sound, I wouldn't see him as the voice of a generation.

But Dylan will be forever older than me.

The effect lasts. As I grow older, so does Dylan. So did Strummer. So I can keep taking them seriously, even though they were just as silly as young musicians are now.

21 december, 2011
Science vs. Religion

"There is no god and that's the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again."

Penn Jillette knows what's what and what's not what.

24 november, 2011
Words that Betray Gender

If you tweet any of the following words, you are almost certainly a woman:

love haha cute omg yay hahaha happy girl hair
lol hubby mom miss feel bed today baby excited
ugh hehe don't sleep hate tomorrow yummy school tired
sigh dress birthday fun sooo dinner day wait totally
home shopping I'll aww lovely feeling wanna sad chocolate
If you tweet the following words, you are almost certainly a man:    HTTP, Google Source: Fast Company 23 november, 2011 Exchange Rates You might think you're being ripped off, because your price perceptions are based on your first shopping experiences. Here's the reality: - A steak that was $10 in 1990 now costs $16.96. - A vinyl double-album that sold for $10 in 1980 would cost the same now at $26.70. - A pair of jeans at $10 in 1970 now costs $57.47. - Shoes that were $10 in 1960 now cost $75.98. - A radio that cost $10 in 1950 now costs $92.04. The second price is not more expensive than the first. Source:InflationData.com 18 november, 2011 A Two-Pound Car The Verge reports on the world's lightest material, a micro-lattice structure. It weighs only 0.9 mg/cubic centimeter. It's also quite rigid. From seeing truckloads of crushed cars, I'd say that a car contains at most a cubic meter of actual material. If a car were made from this material, it would weigh 0.9 kg (just under two pounds). Parking will be so easy. 17 november, 2011 The Recording Industry A lovely and cultivated article from the New Yorker (Part I & Part II): "Ellington looked ravaged in a way that was only slightly softened by his courtesy. He looked like a man who was depleting his capital -- not so much by spending it as by giving it away. Ahmet and Duke Ellington kissed one, two, three, four times. Ahmet introduced his guests to Duke Ellington. 'Such a beautiful party,' Duke Ellington said. 'I was wondering who was supplying that wonderful pastel quality.'" 7 november, 2011 Lex Parsimoniae Today's post is brought to you by the letter "O". "Occam's razor, also known as Ockham's razor, and sometimes expressed in Latin as lex parsimoniae (the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness), is a principle that generally recommends selecting from among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest new assumptions." "Occam's razor is attributed to the 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar Father William of Ockham." Wikipedia 17 october, 2011 One Step Towards Allah In the vein of my previous article about how science only scratches the surface, Jonah Lehrer had a great article in the New Yorker: Although scientific experiments are supposed to be reproducible, few people ever try to reproduce them. Even fewer succeed. It's as if the results fade away over time and stop being true. My personal theory is that the intention of researchers affects their results -- when you go beyond your old boundaries to try something new, you help to create new outcomes. Ask anybody in a 12-step group: when you go out and take risks, do the unknown, all kinds of coincidences start to happen. As John Elton Bembry put it "if you take one step toward Allah, Allah takes two steps toward you". Note: I believe in the phenomenon without believing in Allah. It's not surprising that exciting new experiments give different results than experiments that are done for confirmation, that don't give rise to passion. Lehrer's is a fantastic article and goes well beyond what I've written here. 14 october, 2011 The Complexity Brake Paul G. Allen: "We call this issue the complexity brake. As we go deeper and deeper in our understanding of natural systems, we typically find that we require more and more specialized knowledge to characterize them, and we are forced to continuously expand our scientific theories in more and more complex ways." "The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings." This is great... I've been looking for a way to express this phenomenon for a while now. In the mass media, you get the impression that everything's under control, we pretty much understand how the world works. My wife is a biologist, working on L. pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaires Disease. I've gone to several conferences with her, and it is clear that the closer we look at bacteria, the more difficult they are to understand. Basic bacterial reproduction is extremely complex and varies according to circumstances. Bacteria are able to communicate amongst themselves ("quorum sensing") but no one knows how. I often think of how we retrospectively mock the Victorians for their limited understanding of science (measuring skulls etc.), but are we really that far advanced compared to the 19th century? We're only scratching the surface. I'm learning anatomy in order to improve my drawing. I decided to be thorough, and it immediately became clear that my previous understanding of our bones and muscles was incredibly superficial. The more I looked learned about the muscular system, the more everything was interconnected and it started to seem like an arbitrary decision whether a muscle was single or a group of muscles, etc. Many muscles vary routinely between individuals or are absent in half the population. People are already talking about modifying the climate artificially. I can't imagine that we understand it enough to be able to have a positive effect. 7 october, 2011 Push Aside the Men of Real Wisdom In the wake of Steve Jobs' death, it seemed appropriate to come across: "In many places flattery has been the path to power and wealth. In others it is only a good living. Yet everywhere the flatterers tend to push aside the men of real wisdom. Flattery is so much safer than telling unpleasant truths." Larry Niven, "Inferno", p. 167. 17 september, 2011 Candidate Bush And Arab-Americans Candidate Bush, on Oct. 11, 2000: "Bush said during the nationally televised debate, 'Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that.' Then-Governor Bush went on, 'My friend, Sen. Spence Abraham [the Arab-American Republic Senator from Michigan], is pushing a law to make sure that, you know, Arab-Americans are treated with respect. So racial profiling isn't just an issue at the local police forces. It's an issue throughout our society. And as we become a diverse society, we're going to have to deal with it more and more.'" Steve Sailer, always a good source for news you won't read in the NYT. 31 august, 2011 Adenovirus Causes Fat The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that adenovirus 36 (AD36) is linked to obesity in children. The mean weight in those who carried antibodies to the virus was 92.9 kg, compared with 69.1 kg in those who were antibody-negative. This interests me because I experienced an abrupt change in my metabolism when I was about 28 (I'm now 46). Previously I had been able to eat very fatty food without gaining weight. I regularly ate blocks of cheese, fatty burritos, etc., and I weighed about 185 lbs. (85 kg). Suddenly at 28, with no major lifestyle changes, I started to gain weight -- up to 240 lbs (110 kg). I had always assumed that this was because of a simple metabolic change linked to my increasing age. However, for the last two years I have been eating very healthily -- lots of natural foods, not in large quantities, and very little fatty food. Without losing any weight. I have no way to verify that metabolic change was caused by AD36, but a viral cause for my weight gain fits my experience. At this point, I have just accepted that I will never be able to eat sugars, starches or fats in any quantity, and my weight has started to drift back down.