liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[ profile] coalescent reminded me that I've been meaning to blog this for a while but it got buried in the thesis panic: Het Grauniad ran an article fairly similar to my competition asking for single things that are essential for people to know. Incidentally, [ profile] gnimmel, if you're reading this, you haven't claimed your prize!

So the Guardian asks What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?. Of course, being a national newspaper they asked famous scientists rather than random people on my flist, but it's very much the same kind of idea. (Though my competition started off from science I didn't restrict it quite so much.) It's interesting how people have interpreted the question; some of them are quite meta and want to tell people things about science, whereas others pick scientific facts, ie observations about how the world works as interpreted by science.

I don't like a lot of the suggestions in the article. Some of them are very much playing up to damaging stereotypes of what science is. Science in some people's statements is coming across as a sort of peevish old man who wants to keep people from believing anything that gives them comfort or joy, whether religion or spirituality or the paranormal. Very Gradgrind, really. And that very much ties into the other stereotype, that science is a list of Facts that are True because they're handed down from on high and not to be contradicted. Which basically makes science hard to distinguish from dogmatism. So I rather like Ridley's: Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries, and Maynard's paraphrase of Popper: Erecting hypotheses that can be falsified, and designing experiments capable of doing so, is the hallmark of the true scientist.

Perhaps a similar exercise is [ profile] misia asking What's your definition of "having sex"?. She gets some very interesting and provocative answers. It seems to me that in some contexts at least it's a fairly important question, and certainly it's a word that pretty much everyone needs to use conversationally some of the time, and there's really very little consensus on it.

So, anyone want to try a soundbite short definition of either science or sex? Or both, if you're feeling ambitious. It's something to ponder, anyway.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
I made the mistake of posting a couple of sentences about the Frienditto site in the middle of a post about something else. I assumed it was sufficient to say, yeah, obvious scam, let's move on. However, the issue has been blown way out of proportion and there's all kinds of rumours flying around.

I'm aware that I'm possibly fanning the flames by making another post on the subject, but I want to spell things out clearly. The thing is, the Frienditto site has no legitimate purpose. Let me say that again: it is facilitating nothing that any decent, honest person would want to do.

To break it down: how does this self-described "archive" site work? You provide the URL of a LiveJournal post, and the site copies all the HTML of the post and comments and displays it on the Frienditto site. Now, why would anyone want to do this? If you see a cool post that you like, you might want to draw attention to it. The sensible way to do that would be to post a link in your own journal, or post it to

If it's a really cool post, you might want to archive it for posterity. Now, why on earth would any sensible person choose to archive a post from LJ, with its established infrastructure and serious, large-scale commercial presence, to some random fly-by-night website? You may doubt the security and durability of LJ, but it's pretty obvious that Frienditto is going to do worse on any of these parameters. It makes no sense for archives to be vastly less secure than the originals. The sensible thing to do would be to copy the post to your computer, if you were really concerned about archiving it.

More likely than LJ disappearing is the possibility that the post's author might decide to delete their post. Why would someone delete their post? The most likely reason is that they regret publishing it for some reason, perhaps because it's generated a really negative response, attracted trolls, caused drama, whatever. In this situation, the only purpose that is served by having a publicly available "archive" copy is to make it possible to continue trolling or harassing or creating drama related to the original post.

So Frienditto makes it possible to use someone's words against them after they've chosen to delete them. But there's a more serious problem. Frienditto also "lets" you archive Friends Only posts. The way it does this is by asking for your username and password so that the site can see posts that you have access to. This makes it possible for the site to archive, or in other words, make a publicly viewable copy of a post that was meant to be private.

Now, clearly there are ways to do this without needing to use Frienditto. If I am an untrustworthy person with access to your Friends Only entries, I can if I wish copy the entry and republish it somewhere online. It's a little trickier to do so anonymously than Frienditto makes it, but it's possible. But just look at that hypothetical scenario again: the whole point is that only if I were an untrustworthy person would I want to do such a thing.

Then there's the whole issue of giving your password to random strangers. It's possible that Frienditto could use your password to post unwanted material in your name, or to read other Friends Only entries apart from the one you decided (for some reason) to "archive", or to lock you out of your account and delete your entries and generally cause problems. I have no reason to believe Frienditto plan to do any of these things with the passwords they harvest; there are plenty of silly LJ toys that ask for a password to get access to protected information, and their creators are harmless fools who reason that, well, I'm a decent person and I wouldn't do that, so obviously everybody should trust me when I say I wouldn't.

But the point is that even if Frienditto are completely scrupulous with the passwords, they are using them for an intrinsically bad purpose in the first place. On the other hand, even if you believe (because all I can do is present my own opinion) that making other people's Friends Only entries public is a legitimate thing to do, as a general principle you should never reveal your passwords. Surely this is obvious?

I have the impression that the people involved in Frienditto are in fact not at all trustworthy. I'm not sufficiently certain of this to defame them though. It is possible that some of the moronic trolls claiming to be involved are actually not, but they just like having their names associated with anything that people are stressed about. It is possible that although they may have done cruel things and abused personal and private information and attempted to cause LiveJournal trouble in the past, they are not planning to do so in this case. This is not the point; I repeat, the site has no legitimate purpose, so even if they only do exactly what they have claimed they are going to do, that is still a bad thing to be doing, and the fact that they are attempting to do it on its own makes them untrustworthy.

Conclusion: Frienditto is a very bad thing. But at the same time, let's not blow things out of proportion. I really doubt that the site is going to do any serious damage to LiveJournal; LiveJournal has survived much more serious attacks before and will do so again long after Frienditto is forgotten. The world is not going to come to an end either, because a few foolish or naive or petty people have provided their passwords to a dodgy site.

My prediction is that the site will fall over in a few days because it doesn't have the infrastructure to support the volume of use it will be getting with all the fuss. (The site is in fact down at the time of writing.) Or if they manage to get it back up again, it will piss someone off enough to find itself attacked either digitally or legally. I doubt the trolls care enough to put serious money or effort into keeping the site going.

Final note: people (claiming to be) connected to Frienditto have been trolling journals with posts critical of the site. As a result of this, I have screened non-friends comments to this post, because I can't be bothered to deal with a potential troll-fest. Legitimate comments may be unscreened at my discretion.
Addendum 6.3.05: [ profile] _hypatia_ has a really wonderful critique of my arguments in the comments. I suggest everyone should read her views because wow, I've learnt such a lot. (She doesn't disagree with me about this particular site, but does have some very interesting counters to the more general principles I was arguing from!)
Note 7.3.05: Various people seem to have been finding this through links and Google, which is great. I'm almost sorry I ended up screening comments because instead of attracting trolls I've attracted loads of people with interesting contributions and information! I hope to reply to everyone who's contributed individually, but just as a general statement, thank you all for your thoughtful remarks.

If anyone wants to link to this post they are absolutely welcome. My position against Frienditto has no bearing on my attitude towards legitimate links. And if people are finding this piece helpful, I'm happy to disseminate it.

I have left a couple of comments screened, not because they're deliberately trolling but because they're drawing attention to artificially created drama and unsubstantiated rumours. Part of the point of this post is that you don't have to believe that Frienditto is the spawn of the devil and eats babies to see why it's a bad thing. So I don't want the comments of this to degenerate into wild rumour-mongering; all that does is give Frienditto supporters a case because they can say, look, people are spreading false information about us! We are poor innocent victims!

Also word up to [ profile] largesock who spotted a really horribly embarrassing typo in my original post. I've left his comment screened at his request, but I still think he should get some appreciation for eagle-eyed proofreading skills. I'm very much the sort of person who prefers for people to let me know if my knickers are showing.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
Firstly, let me point everybody to this post of [ profile] leora's about the so-called archiving service that is floating about on the meme-waves right now. Just in case it isn't completely obvious to everyone how much of a Bad Fucking Idea this is, [ profile] leora spells it out very clearly.

If you want to make a local backup of your own entries, which is more of a good idea, LJArchive is very good in lots of ways. Highly usable, open source and generally yummy. However, it's Windows based. If you use a sensible operating system I'm less able to help you, but if you use a sensible OS and understand Perl, you may find this stuff helpful. Or you may not, but I think that's where to start looking.
Addendum 4.3.05: Apparently, it is not in fact as obvious as I thought why this archiving service is evil. Let me spell this out in so many words: giving your password to a site you know nothing about is stupid. Even if you're prepared to take that risk for yourself, letting them use that password to read and make public copies of other people's Friends Only entries is not acceptable IMO. Even if you disagree with me, please do not "archive" my Friends Only entries offsite. I have no way of enforcing this, but I would be very, very pissed off I found someone was breaching my privacy like that.

Anyway, having got that out of the way. My last post was a bit of a rant about scientific illiteracy compounded by mystification of fairly basic science. In the comments, it kind of degenerated into a general bitchfest about the state of education. So to follow that up, my challenge for the day is this:

Can you name one thing that everybody should know but few people actually do? Because I'm feeling mean this morning, I'm restricting you to one thing. And it has to be described in 100 words or less, mainly because I'm trying to exclude cheating definitions of 'one thing' that are actually several distinct things.

Proposals for how ignorance of your chosen topic might be combatted are welcome, and can be as long as you like. Vague proposals such as 'make primary school education work properly' will be frowned upon, however. I may give prizes for the best suggestions.
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
DNA sequencing is not magic.


This comment prompted by a combination of:
– an otherwise good novel in which the simple fact of sequencing the human genome, described in mystical terms, is enough to propel the world into an SF future.
– a death penalty debate where it is suggested that now we have DNA evidence, we can execute people in good conscience.
– general frustration with scientific illiteracy.

I shall now return to my regularly scheduled thesis writing (in which sequencing DNA does not magically solve any problems, and in many cases does not in fact give any useful information about biology.)
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
Author: Bruce Sterling

Details: (c) Bruce Sterling 1996; pub Phoenix 1997; ISBN 1-85799-884-7

Verdict: Holy Fire is an enjoyable read, recommended.

Reasons for reading it: [ profile] lethargic_man wanted me to read HF so that he could refer to something in it. Yes, we do take the whole bacterial sex thing to extremes. What can I say? Anyway, I'm not at all sorry I read HF, cos I got on very well with it.

How it came into my hands: [ profile] lethargic_man lent it to me.

detailed review )
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
I tried to respond to [ profile] shreena's marriage survey only the system rejected my comment for being too long. So I'm posting it here instead, cos I'm too lazy to edit it to be less verbose. And because the post in question is getting old anyway, so maybe more people will see it this way.

ramblings )
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
I really shouldn't be displacing like this, but I can't resist questionaires, especially about bookies. I got this rather lovely meme from [ profile] rysmiel.

Read more... )
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
Author: Walter M Miller Jr

Details: (c) 1959 Walter M Miller Jr; Pub Orbit 1997; ISBN 1-85723-014-0

Verdict: A brilliant book, moving, complex and intelligent. Wow.

Reasons for reading it: It's vaguely famous, and M's talking about it jumped up the priority of a vague intention to read it at some point.

How it came into my hands: [ profile] lethargic_man lent it to me.

detailed review )
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
Author: Olaf Stapledon

Details: (c) Olaf Stapledon 1930; the rest of the details I don't have, since I have given M's copy back to him. Random edition here.

Verdict: Some interesting ideas, and a strong style, but flawed.

Reasons for reading it: M recommended it to me.

How it came into my hands: M

detailed review )

On the whole, I'd say that Last and First Men is worth reading despite its problems.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
[ profile] rysmiel posted a meme about explaining one's unique entries in the interests section. So here's my version, cos I'm displacing.

chevruta: Traditional Jewish approach to text study, where you work with a partner and basically argue until you get some personal meaning out of whatever you're reading. It's a very effective way to understand a subject (I've found that a chevruta-type approach works for a wide range of things other than Jewish texts), and at best it can be incredibly intimate and exhilarating. My first boyfriend had been my chevra for a while before we got together, and as far as I was concerned sex had nothing on chevruta in the intimacy stakes.

I don't know anything else that comes close to good chevruta in terms of sheer fun (though obviously that's a matter of personal taste), and mediocre chevruta is also analogous to sex in that it's better than none. I had some really good chevruta going in Oxford, with various combinations of Old A, J and new A and occasional others. (Hey, let's drop the metaphor now before this gets dodgy, hmm?) And I miss it tremendously. At the moment I'm getting by on the occasional session with RB or preparing a supposed shiur for Prof S which isn't quite the same, but at least it's something.

Everett Fox: The coolest Biblical translator I've ever come across. Sadly he's only up to Samuel so far, but his translation is absolutely amazing. It's incredibly close to the Hebrew, to the extent that he makes subtle textual allusions and assonnances transparent, but his English is very readable. It's not exactly standard English, but it's poetic and inspiring rather than clumsy. His amazing translation is published by Schocken Books, and it's totally changed my life. (He also acted as the religious adviser for Prince of Egypt, which is how the obscure Jewish mythological references got in there...)

GB Edwards: The author of one of my favourite books of all time, unfortunately terribly obscure. Edwards was a sort of recluse from Guernsey, but was also an autodidact and spent some time as a professor of English in an English university. He was absolutely miserable and regretted ever leaving Guernsey, so he wrote a sort of alternate history autobiography about his alter ego who didn't. The first volume of this is The Book of Ebenezer le Page; it took him about 40 years to write and he died with the remaining two volumes only in note form. It's an amazing piece of social history, describing Guernsey over the whole span of the 20th century, and it has a cast of characters like nothing else I've ever read. I shall post a proper review of it at some point.

Jewish-Christian dialogue: I've been deeply involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue since I was a young teenager; now I'm branching out into more general interfaith work, but Jewish-Christian will always be my first love. At least partly because I know Judaism and Christianity far better than any other religions, so it's easier to get into a profound level.

Through dialogue, I've met some of my dearest friends, and learnt an amazing amount about myself and maybe even the nature of truth. I also think it's a worthwhile enterprise in terms of promoting goodwill and multiculturalism and all those other sorts of things. It's perfectly possible to be cynical about it, and indeed, sometimes it's little more than mutual congratulation by liberals being fluffy at eachother. But I honestly believe that in some circumstances it can be a genuine force for social change.

Microphotography: Taking (artistic) photos of microscopic things, particularly cells, in my case.

When I first checked with the intention of writing this post, I had BBC micros and Weizmann Institute as unique interests, but it turns out that other users were interested in BBC computers and Weizmann, so I've altered mine to match. And there is one other lj user who is interested in p53 (my professional speciality, which deserves a post in its own right, but this isn't going to be it).

New bod

Jun. 17th, 2003 09:26 am
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
Oh look chaps, there's a new bod in the Remove. Who's game to go and rag him?
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
I was just remarking to [ profile] neonchameleon that one of the good things about lj is that people respect threading a lot more than in many other web forums. So in keeping with this, I feel I should repost this discussion of a vaguely theological bent as a new entry. It's too interesting to be left languishing in a thread that's supposed to be about a book about town planning.

theological rumblings )

I think this is interesting enough to be worthy of its own thread.
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
Author: Jane Jacobs

Details: (c) Jane Jacobs 1961; Pub Pimlico 2000; ISBN 0-7126-6583-8

Verdict: The death and life of great American cities has some interesting ideas but the style got wearing.

Reasons for reading it: M was reading it a few months ago, and wanted to talk about some of the ideas in it.

How it came into my hands: M lent me his copy. One of many reasons why I like M is that when he recommends a book, he quite often lends it to me as well, rather than getting offended when I don't manage to find a copy very quickly.

detailed review )


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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