Monthly Archives: February 2009

Friday Random 10: Skiing Edition

Pax Arcana

telemarkThe shushy and well-balanced Mrs. Pax Arcana are alighting for the hills of Vermont later today to go skiing with my parents and some family friends. I don’t have anything clever or interesting for today’s random 10, but my mind has been on skiing all day so maybe I’ll just share with you a story from my days as a ski bum in the gorgeous mountains of Colorado.

My first job out west was as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant. One of my restaurant friends, Greg, was a lanky stoner from Iowa who looked like a young Cosmo Kramer and talked like Jeffrey Lebowski. One night a table of loud, obnoxious East Coast types rolled in about two minutes before we were prepared to shut down the kitchen. Greg volunteered to stay on to serve them — while all the other waiters went home — because East Coast types typically tip well and he needed the money.

His frustration grew palpable when the table ordered soft drinks instead of margaritas (no liquor = much lower tip) and skipped on the appetizers. He quickly pumped some Diet Cokes and Dr. Peppers from the machine — swearing the whole time — and returned with them to the table.

One of the men of the party (two couples) raised his glass of soda, pointed to a 3/4 inch gap at the top, and sneered at Greg:

“What, I don’t get a full one?”

Without breaking stride, Greg responded thusly:

“Huh. That’s funny. It looked a lot more full in the kitchen — WHEN I HAD MY BALLS IN IT.”

He hadn’t put his balls in it, of course. But at least he made that guy think about it. Fuck that guy.

The songs:

Run My Mouth — Ra Ra Riot
Ada — The National
Surra — Faces on Film
Need You Need You — The Whigs
Golden Pony — Army Navy
Tangled Up in Plaid — Queens of the Stone Age
Cracks in the Causeway — Oxford Collapse
Energy Spent — Liam Finn
Turn on Me — The Shins
Sink the Seine — Of Montreal

Bonus video:

El Scorcho — Weezer

The Rules: The Friday Random 10 is exactly that — random. We open up our iTunes, set the thing on shuffle, and listen to 10 songs. We are not permitted to skip any out of embarrassment or fear of redundancy. Commenters are encouraged to post their own.


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Friday filler: Your semi-regular Wilco update

Father Scott

To celebrate the forthcoming June release of Wilco’s yet-to-be-named seventh record (co-hat tip Spackler and Wilco’s own email), here’s a Bad Plus cover of Radio Cure. And if you’re wondering, yes, it sounds like every other jazz cover of any non-jazz song.


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We is old

Pax Arcana

beowulf_raisedThe English language is a frenetic pastiche of influences from other languages — such as those that gave us words like “frenetic” and “pastiche” — but it turns out some words are older than others.

Words like “I,” “we,” “two,” and “three” may be as much as ten thousand years older than other common words — including “four” which was conjured by witches in the medieval period and is not to be trusted. We know this because researchers at Reading University plugged a bunch of words unrelated to technology, plus a mathematical model that plots their relationship to other words in other languages, into a big IBM computer and hit the “print” button:

What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.

For example, the words “I” and “who” are among the oldest, along with the words “two”, “three”, and “five”. The word “one” is only slightly younger.

More interestingly, the researchers say they can predict which words will soon be obsolete based on the rate at which they have changed throughout history:

For example, “dirty” is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with “stick” and “guts”.

Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so “push”, “turn”, “wipe” and “stab” appear to be heading for the lexicographer’s chopping block.

I guess this is all kind of interesting. But in my opinion there are really only two kinds of people — those who merely observe the world and those who shape it. For example, in the time it took me to read this article about old words, I invented three new ones — sklurp, yupetide, and plosh. Whoops, here comes another one: TRUNY. I guess we all have our talents.

Oldest English words identified [BBC]

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Dinochicken is not a good idea

Pax Arcana

When the ashes have returned to ashes and the dust is dust, it will be known that humankind did not succumb to global warming or the aftereffects of nuclear war.

Rather, the people of earth were slowly pecked apart by dinochicken — the brainchild of an early 21st century paleontologist named Jack Horner — and were then pooped out in pellets.

From Wired, who interviewed Horner upon the release of his new book How To Build A Dinosaur: Why I Decided to Fuck All of Humanity in the Ass Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever:

Birds are descendants of dinosaurs. They carry their DNA. So in its early stages, a chicken embryo will develop dinosaur traits like a long tail, teeth, and three-fingered hands. If you can find the genes that cancel the tail and fuse the fingers to build a wing—and turn those genes off—you can grow animals with dinosaur characteristics.

If you tie a rock to your genitals and throw it off a bridge, you’ll look like a Ken doll. Doesn’t make it a good idea, doc.


Dinosaurs are not extinct; they’re still with us in this sense. Birds look different, but it’s all cosmetic. By tweaking some genes, we can bring out the underlying similarities. Yes, it’s a wild plan, but I like to think about things backwards.

I like to think about things backward also. Right now I’m thinking about whether I rented the car I used to blow up your lab or just used my own.

Look, it’s not like dinochicken will overrun the world. If he mates with a chicken, you still get a chicken. Eventually we might make animals that look more like dinosaurs, but we won’t have velociraptors on the loose.

You’re goddamn right we won’t have velociraptors on the loose. BECAUSE THEY’LL ALL BE EATEN BY DINOCHICKEN, YOU DOUCHE!

If you think we’re playing God, maybe. But we’re already modifying plants and mice. I don’t see a lot of people jumping up and down complaining about better tomatoes.

They would if you combined their tomatoes with rampaging dinosaurs. Just a hunch.

Scientists who play by someone else’s rules don’t have much chance of making discoveries.

Scientists who create dinochicken don’t have much chance of getting to the parking lot before their heads are pecked off.

Ultimately, we hope it can lead to a cure for genetic defects. Once we understand just how to control genes, we have the potential for spinal cord regeneration, bone regeneration, and so on. It might also give us plumper chickens.

Plumper chickens with razor-sharp teeth, that is.

The creature would be its own sound bite. It’ll go a long way toward convincing people that we can learn a lot from this sort of experimentation—about biology, development, evolution. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of wild scientists building monsters in our laboratories.

We can also learn a lot about the eating and — God forbid — mating habits of the dinochicken. If we could manipulate dinochicken’s genes to give it the ability to talk, we could even ask it what humans tasted like. Wouldn’t it be funny if it said “Tastes like chicken”??!!!?!! Oh man, we’d laugh and laugh. And then get eaten.

Q and A: Jack Horner Wants to Re-Create T. Rex From Chickens — What Could Possibly Go Wrong? [Wired]


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Thursday Filler: They Are Not Human

Pax Arcana

If you’ve ever watched a professional or high-level college football game and laughed at the giant fat guys that clog up the offensive and defensive line, let this video be a good reminder that those guys are not really human — but in fact a subspecies that can outrun normal humans half their weight.

In the video, NFL Network commentator Rich Eisen takes a crack at the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. Make sure you watch until they overlay his 40 with those of the athletes.

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Old fish wuz bangin’

Pax Arcana

fishNew studies into old fossils have revealed that the physical act of sex — known in academic cirlces as “delivering the dissertation” — is at least 30 million years older than once believed (hat tip to Jaelynne).

Researchers came to the conclusion* after carbon-dating Larry King’s boyhood underpants. Whooooo check it out a Larry King is old joke those never get tired!!!

Anyway, scientists studying the 380 million-year-old armored placoderm fish, or Incisoscutum richiei, discovered two female fossils that were pregnant — in that they were carrying already-fertilized eggs inside their bodies. Scientists had previously believed that all eggs were fertilized outside the body at the time:

“Once we found embryos in this group, we knew they had internal fertilization. But how the hell are they doing it?**” said John Long, the head of sciences at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne who wrote a paper on the discovery that appeared in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The answer came when the scientists re-examined the pelvis of the male placoderm, armed with the new information about fertilization. After looking at specimens at the Natural History Museum in London and the Museum Victoria, they realized the pelvis had a fin not seen on the female fish, and surmised it was likely used to grip its mate during fertilization, much as sharks do.

I’ve often thought that only thing missing from the human sex life was an extra hand***. Anyway, continue, doctor:

“These fish have an extra large bone that attaches to the pelvic bone,” he said. “It had been overlooked and hadn’t been identified. So in a nutshell****, we have reinterpreted the structure of the pelvic bone in these placoderms to show they had a method for copulation.”

Zerina Johanson, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum who also took part in the study along with the University of Western Australia’s Kate Trinajstic, said findings of internal fertilization showed that “sex started a lot sooner than we thought.”


Study of fossils shows prehistoric fish had sex [Yahoo!]

* That’s what she said
** That’s what she said
*** That’s what she said
**** That’s what she said

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Me, myself and I argue about the Amazon Kindle

Pax Arcana

kindleMe: This new Amazon Kindle looks pretty awesome. One Citigroup analyst called it “the iPod of the book world,” and Lord knows I love my iPod.

Myself: That’s interesting. What does it do?

Me: You can read books on it.

Myself: But you can already listen to books on your iPod.

Me: Yeah, but people who love reading want to read books, not listen to them.

Myself: So why don’t they just buy books then?

Me: Because the Kindle is more portable — well, kind of — and you can download books directly to it without having to go to the bookstore.

Myself: But don’t people who really like books really, really like going to bookstores? Especially ones with coffee and stuff?

Me: Fair point. Maybe they’ll make them so you can download books while you’re at the bookstore.

Myself: Doubtful, considering the bookstore wouldn’t make any money.

I: Would you two homos knock it off? I’m trying to graft Sophia Loren’s head onto a zombie for a secret project I’m working on.

Me: Sweet Jesus you’re a handsome man.

Myself: A prideful buck, rearing mightily on its powerful haunches.

I: Dudes, check it out…


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Wednesday filler: Glory Days

Father Scott

I love the Avett Brothers. I love covers. By the transitive property, I love this. Wait, that isn’t the transitive property. I don’t love math.

ht: Fuel/Friends

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Hey let’s all blame this guy!!

Pax Arcana

The worst parts of our accelerating economic depression are pretty obvious — joblessness, retirement insecurity, loss of national confidence, eating sawdust pancakes, etc… But there are bright spots, if only you look hard enough. For one thing, it gives us a sterling opportunity to BLAME THE SHIT OUT OF SOMEBODY for our misfortune. Lord knows we love a good scapegoating in these parts.

wallstreetbullNarrowing the list of suspects has proven difficult, however. First there were the predatory lenders, then the idiots who borrowed beyond their means, then the investment banking community that threw caution to the wind and let it ride on risky investments, then the regulators for failing to stop the nonsense before it got this far.

Unfortunately it’s really difficult to scapegoat a diverse and faceless crowd, so we looked for individual people to pin the blame on. Bernie Madoff worked for a while, but too many of the people he ripped off were seen as high rollers in an exclusive club — and let’s face it, they can go fuck themselves. Alan Greenspan was a popular target, too, but then he taught Luke to lift the X-Wing out of the muck in the Dagobah System and we forgave him.

Thankfully, Wired has found us another guy to blame. Now, I don’t want to get too excited here, but this guy might be perfect. For one thing, he’s Chinese, and you know how they are. Also, he’s a mathematician, and like most right-thinking Americans I have long distrusted anyone who tries to rearrange the numbers that God himself has put in order.

Meet David X. Li:

In 2000, while working at JPMorgan Chase, Li published a paper in The Journal of Fixed Income titled “On Default Correlation: A Copula Function Approach.” (In statistics, a copula is used to couple the behavior of two or more variables.) Using some relatively simple math—by Wall Street standards, anyway—Li came up with an ingenious way to model default correlation without even looking at historical default data. Instead, he used market data about the prices of instruments known as credit default swaps.

The breakthrough of Li’s formula is that instead of modeling default correlation based on historical data of defaults (they were too rare to gather much data), he pegged correlation to historical price data. Wired says the flaw in this plan was that it assumed the market could accurately price the risk of default:

The effect on the securitization market was electric. Armed with Li’s formula, Wall Street’s quants saw a new world of possibilities. And the first thing they did was start creating a huge number of brand-new triple-A securities. Using Li’s copula approach meant that ratings agencies like Moody’s—or anybody wanting to model the risk of a tranche—no longer needed to puzzle over the underlying securities. All they needed was that correlation number, and out would come a rating telling them how safe or risky the tranche was.

As a result, just about anything could be bundled and turned into a triple-A bond—corporate bonds, bank loans, mortgage-backed securities, whatever you liked. The consequent pools were often known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. You could tranche that pool and create a triple-A security even if none of the components were themselves triple-A. You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them—an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. But it didn’t matter. All you needed was Li’s copula function.

Let’s cut that motherfucker!

David Li is like Jet Li, only with math. Pictured above, Jet Li.

Of course there are some that say Li isn’t to blame. After all, he simply invented a model that had limitations that should have been obvious to anyone with a firm grasp of the math and some common sense. Li himself told the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that Wall Street had misinterpreted the model and should not always believe the results it seemed to give. Of course the people who run banks are less into common sense and more into eating diamonds to make their own shit sparkle, so the results were pretty predictable:

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

Anyway, at least we have finally found a root cause for much of the quagmire. And even if we can’t run Li out of the country (he already did that, moving back to China last year), at least we can finally ditch the faulty formula that he created. Next on the list, by the way, is Formula 44D. WHY ARE YOU HIDING FORMULA 44E WHEN YOU KNOW IT’S ONE LETTER BETTER?

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street [Wired]


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What’s a sandwhich?

Pax Arcana

I love the salad bar at the Lambert’s on Route 1 in Westwood, but either they’ve invented a new type of lunch meal that questions you back or they need to proofread their signs better:


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