Berners-Lee ‘sorry’ about the slashes

Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview

“There you go, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”The forward slashes at the beginning of internet addresses have long annoyed net users and now the man behind them has apologised for using them.Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has confessed that the // in a web address were actually “unnecessary”.He told the Times newspaper that he could easily have designed URLs not to have the forward slashes.’ (BBC)

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Can you tell if a man is dangerous just by looking at his face?

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Dave Johns writes in Slate Magazine about the resurgence of the long-discredited ‘science’ of physiognomy, the idea that personality attributes can be inferred from facial features alone.

“…[N]ew research suggests we are more skilled at “reading faces” than we knew. People are surprisingly adept at assessing sexual orientation from headshots. Five-year-olds can predict election outcomes based on photos of the candidates. We can even guess whether a face belongs to a Democrat or a Republican at a rate better than chance, according to a forthcoming study out of Princeton.

Now some of the “new physiognomists” are resurrecting an old claim: that you can gauge a man’s penchant for aggression by the cut of his jib. Last fall University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Aaron Sell reported that college students could accurately estimate the upper body strength of unfamiliar men after viewing their faces alone. (The men’s necks were obscured.) The students did equally well with fellow undergraduates and men from South American indigenous groups—all of whom had had their strength measured using gym equipment. Interestingly, the toughest-looking undergrads also reported getting in the most fights. Another study by Sell suggests that such formidable men are more prone to use violence—or advocate military action—to resolve conflicts.”

My attention was grabbed by this on both a professional and personal basis. It is crucial for those in the behavioral sciences today to find their own position on the resurgence of biological determinism some would say has come to dominate the field. And, personally, I have always been dogged by the fact that people’s initial reaction to me seems to have a greater-than-chance tendency to find me intimidating. (I could understand it if they waited to hear what comes out of my mouth, but I think the reaction precedes any interaction with me.) It would be fine if I were the exception that proves the rule, but I think that, as is true of most of us, I am all too capable of falling into the role that has been shaped for me by those initial preconceptions. In addition to all the other prejudices in our society, are we face-ist?

A number of studies have demonstrated that most people hold …stereotypes about what criminals look like and believe that “the face fits the crime.” This can play out in court: The psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz has shown that “mature-faced” defendants are more likely to be found guilty of certain kinds of crimes. And when baby-faced defendants are found guilty, they tend to get more lenient sentences. She calls this form of discrimination “face-ism” and argues that defendants shouldn’t be required to show their faces in court. But if it is proved that the male face does indeed reveal “honest” signals about aggressiveness, jurors might deserve access to that information. (Then, too, defense attorneys might want to adopt a novel legal strategy: the meathead defense. “My client can’t be blamed for his actions because he suffers from high testosterone. Just look at his face!”)

Many of the supposedly indicative features are shaped by testosterone, which is linked to ‘masculine’ appearance and to aggression. But if the development of our frontal lobes has supposedly conferred on humans a much greater capacity to modulate our behavior, does the persistence of masculine aggression really reinforce biological determinism or merely that we have been pitiful failures at modifying the traditional male role definitions?

[On a lighter but related (?) note, I just realized that an anagram for my name is “genial towel.” Do I seem like a genial towel to you?]

What I Understood by Katha Pollitt


When I was a child I understood everything

about, for example, futility. Standing for hours

on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls

I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform

this pointless task, and all the others? I knew

about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children

are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants

the dignity and shame of solitary diners

disabled me, and when my grandmother

screamed at me, “Someday you'll know what it's like!”

I knew she was right, the way I knew

about the single rooms my teachers went home to,

the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,

and that there was no God, and that I would die.

All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.

the only thing I didn't understand

was how in a world whose predominant characteristics

are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment

people are saved every day

by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.

This year I'll be

thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

Amor Fati by Katha Pollitt


Everywhere I look I see my fate.

In the subway. In a stone.

On the curb where people wait for the bus in the rain.

In a cloud. In a glass of wine.

When I go for a walk in the park it's a sycamore leaf.

At the office, a dull pencil.

In the window of Woolworth's my fate looks back at me

through the shrewd eyes of a dusty parakeet.

Scrap of newspaper, dime in a handful of change,

down what busy street do you hurry this morning,

an overcoat among overcoats,

with a train to catch, a datebook full of appointments?

If I called you by my name would you turn around

or vanish round the corner,

leaving a faint odor of orange-flower water,

tobacco, twilight, snow?

Today is political commentator and poet Katha Pollitt‘s 60th birthday. Many happy returns!

Is the Large Hadron Collider Jinxed by its own Future?

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“Forget the far-fetched belief that it will create a black hole, two distinguished physicists have gone even further claiming nature itself is stopping the troubled £4.4billion project from getting off the ground.” (Telegraph.UK)

The pair of theoretical physicists say that the Higgs boson, the postulated ‘God particle’ the LHC is supposed to discover, could ripple back in time from a future in which it exists and stop its own creation by interfering with the operation of the troubled particle accelerator, which is just about to come back online after its initial operation was beset by malfunction.