The Best Nest

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The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman

 

The classic children’s book The Best Nest by children’s author P.D. Eastman, published in 1968, is one of the books that really sticks with me from my childhood.

I recall my mom reading it to me when I was about four or five. I’ve read it to my kids for years and my four-year-olds particularly adore it. It is the simple story of how a mama and papa bird go through a series of misadventures in an effort to find a new home, only to discover that their original home was really the best one after all. We find out at the end that the mama bird was ready to lay an egg and the whole effort was driven by her motherly instinct to find a safe space for her baby. It is sappy, and reinforces certain gender stereotypes, but is ultimately good-natured. While simple, it does follow the classic hero’s journey. After hardship and adventure, you find your way back to where you started as changed person (or bird, in this case), now wiser to the ways of the world (like not to nest in bell towers). When we got it for my kids years ago, I had instant flashbacks with the artwork, recalling fixations I’d had with certain details that, as an adult, I would never have noticed: the way the straw stuck out in their mouths, the particular hat the mama bird wore, the particular angle and character of the rain that came down on the papa bird at the end. All of it jumped out again.

 

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The church in the town featured in The Best Nest

One of the big turning points in the story is when the birds find this wonderful space for their nest. It is huge. It has all sorts of great views of the area. The mother bird thinks it is the best place. However, we, the reader, know that something will go terribly wrong: the space is really a bell tower for a church. The papa bird goes out to find new materials for their nest while the mama sets up shop. Well, sure enough, a funky beatnik proto-hippy guy named Mr. Parker, comes to the church and rings the hell out of that bell like he has no other outlet for his life’s frustrations.  The guy clearly loves his job. The papa bird comes back to find the place littered with bird feathers and no mama bird. He fears the worst and goes on a quest to find her.

Oberlander R.D. #1 Waldoboro, Ma...

Oberlander, R.D. #1, Waldoboro, Ma…

Before they find the bell tower, they look in other places for a new nest. One of the potential nests is a mailbox. Now, as I mentioned, as a kid I had particular fixations in details I would never had seen as an adult; conversely, in reading it to my children, I also found details I would never have found as a kid.  For example, one of the reasons they decided not to pick the mailbox is that, while they were checking it out, a mailman comes by and puts some mail into the mailbox.  Definitely not an ideal space for a pair of birds.

However, the piece of mail has an address on it (upside down in the text of the book):

…Oberlander
R.D. #1
Waldoboro, Ma…
Circa 2016, there is indeed an [Old] Road 1 in Waldoboro, Maine.  There is also an Oberlander family name that appears in that town’s older records.  That’s sort of neat.  Naturally, using Google Streeview, I wandered around to see if I could find the church where the bell tower was.  While not definitive, I have two candidates.  Sure, these churches are pretty generic shapes for the area.  Nevertheless, with a specific town to focus on, you can be pretty sure it must be one of two churches, or a composite, that P.D. used as a template.  He could have also just made something up from memory or imagination.
The first one, Broad Bay Congregational Church, has the correct weathervane, the correct three-window structure, a circular region in the middle, and an obvious bell tower.  It also has a front that is roughly consistent with the drawing, although obviously updated (e.g. it has two windows on each side of the door).
Waldoboro Broad Bay Congregational Church, 941 Main St, Waldoboro, Maine)

Waldoboro Broad Bay Congregational Church 941 Main St, Waldoboro, Maine

The second one, Waldoboro United Methodist Church, also has the three window configuration in the side, has similar slats near the bell tower as the drawing in the story (the slats were one of the weirdly specific things I fixated on as a child), and a pointy tower that resembles the one in the drawing.  But it does not have the right window configuration, the weathervane, nor the circular slats.
Waldoboro United Methodist Church (side view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine)

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (side view) 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (front view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine.

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (front view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine.

My hunch is that the first one, Broad Bay Congregational Church, is the one in the story.  I suspect that during the time since P.D. Eastman wrote the story (circa 1968),  it has had a few upgrades.
But, as I said earlier, these are very common generic “Protestant-style” East Coast churches.  The story might have nothing to do with these specific churches.
Anyway, I had fun with this little distraction.  If anyone knows more about this Easter egg planted by P.D. Eastman, about any connection he may have had to the Waldoboro region, or the reason he might have picked “Oberlander” for the recipient of the letter on R.D #1, I’d love to hear about it.

Reading Audiobooks

If you listened to an audiobook is it responsible to say in conversation that you “read the book” without qualifying that it was an audiobook? Does listening to an audiobook constitute “reading a book”? The answer is “yes,” although this will require some explanation. The question sounds strange because I just said that you listened to it, and didn’t read it, didn’t I? And “reading” isn’t “listening” so how can listening to an audiobook allow one to claim one has “read the book”? I think some of this discussion is motivated by my own enjoyment of audiobooks in the face of those who can only be called “reading snobs” who dogmatically believe that books can only be “properly” processed one way: via the written text and with one’s eyes. There also may be a perception that listening to an audiobook is somehow easier or intellectually lighter than reading the text of a book. To this I say: try listening to an audiobook sometime. In my experience, audiobooks can be very intellectually satisfying and may even be a heavier cognitive load than reading text because your eyes are free to roam and process independent information. This forces no small measure of mental discipline to remain focused and engaged but still function (e.g. if you are walking or driving).

I just listened to David Brin’s excellent Uplift War on audiobook, and unapologetically declare to the world that I “read the book.” For full disclosure, I’ve also read Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, all three Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, and Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, amongst others. All on audiobook. From a social point of view, if you and I got together to discuss these works, my experience of them would be such that you would not be able to determine by our conversation if I listened to it or physically read the words on a page. In this sense, I can responsibly claim to have “read the book” even if my eyes never looked at the words. That is, using Brin’s work as an example, unless you asked me to spell the names “Uthacalthing”, “Tymbrimi”, or “Athaclena” (which I did not know how to spell until I looked them up just now) — but then I’d ask you to pronounce them and we’d be even.

There are two elements to consider: 1) reading as a physical method of information transfer and 2) reading as an intellectual exercise involving mental content absorption. Both senses of the term “read” are used regularly and interchangeably and we will need to remind ourselves what is really important. Certainly a quick scan of the dictionary (and one’s own experience) demonstrates the word “read” in the English language is used in many different ways. One of those ways is the specific biomechanical method of scanning physical symbols with one’s eyes. However, that same exact sense of the term also describes the methods of a person using their fingers to process braille symbols. Feeling something is biomechanically and mentally nothing like seeing it, but we are still comfortable using “read” in that context, allowing “read” to span the senses because it accomplishes the same intellectual function as reading symbols with one’s eyes. This is important. Other grammatically correct uses of the word “read” also include a broader defintions involving generalized mental information processing and experiences. Phrases like “I read you loud and clear” (e.g. for a radio transmission, when listening), “reading a situation” (assessing the subtleties of a situation, including your own intellect), performing “a cold reading” (another situational assessment tool used by magicians and “psychics” involving both mental acuity and all the senses), “I’m taking a sensor reading” (to describe a technology-based data acquisition process), and so on. For the primary defintions of “read” Merriam-Webster is actually rather non-committal about the method and focuses on generic sensory information processing, definitely emphasizing the written text and braille, but not insisting upon it, allowing for many other modes.

In this spirit, let’s examine what people mean in conversation about a work of fiction when they say “I read the book” or ask “did you read the book?” Let’s assume we are dealing with educated adults and not people just learning to read text. I assert that what people universally mean by the question “did you read the book?” is “did you intellectually and emotionally absorb and process the content of the work that was created by the author?” If I listened to an unabridged audiobook in an active and engaged way, I think the answer is unambiguously “yes, I read the book.” Sure, from a methodological point of view, I did not literally (literally) read the physical text on the page with my eyes. However, this is not usually the important part of the novel, nor is it generally the important part of “reading novels.” The mechanics of looking at words is not typically the essential experience of reading books. The important part is mentally absorbing the content of the work, which is actually the core definition of the word “read” to begin with. Why would anyone care about your particular mode of information transfer? What they (hopefully!) care about is the experience you had intellectually and emotionally absorbing the content and your ability to discuss that experience in a way that transcends the transfer mode.

Do all books lend themselves to this audio mode of reading? No. Obviously not. Exceptions include works that rely directly on the shapes of words or encoding extra information in the precise layout of the text, font, or presentation. If the work involves lots of pictures, illustrations, data, or equations, audiobooks are not going to work very well. But the bulk of modern fiction lends itself wonderfully to audiobooks as does much non-fiction. Like so many other things in life, one needs to account for individual cases. Also, this equivocation is not appropriate for people (e.g. children) learning to read symbols on the page. An audio experience is not an adequate substitute for that kind of information processing during those fragile formative years. This argument is directed at people who have mastered both reading and listening and are educated adults.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we follow the reductio ad absurdum path and call all forms of information processing “reading” in every context for all conversations. That is a straw man of my argument. I’m merely suggesting that actively listening to an unabridged audiobook can, for social and intellectual purposes, be considered “reading a book” based on the sense of the word “read” one uses in conversations of that kind. There is nothing more I would gain from a content or entertainment perspective by re-reading the book using physical text in order to “elevate” myself to “having read the [text of] the book.” Nor am I suggesting that we substitute listening to audiobooks in place of reading text in schools, although I do think both forms could be used in tandem or parallel. As mentioned above, reading symbols is obviously a critical core skill that must be developed actively and early. But, once mastered, I assert that the two forms of information processing, listening and reading, blur into each other and naturally compliment each other. And I’m certainly not dismissing the process of reading physical text as an intellectual and worthy exercise. I still read many books this way. Also, I’m not claiming that there is absolutely no difference cognitively between how the brain processes words and symbols and how it processes sounds. But I do think that in the case of listening to a word-for-word reading of unabridged audiobooks, and for the educated person who has mastered both reading and listening, the audio experience and the reading experience merge for all practical purposes into a common intellectual experience with only minor variations that do not favor systematically one mode over another except by the taste of the user.

A couple tangential examples, that inform the discussion. A formally trained and competent musician can look at a piece of written music and, for all practical purposes, “listen” to it by reading it with their eyes. The audio performance itself, of course, also has aesthetic value for that musician. But it would probably be appropriate for someone in that position to say, in either context, that they “listened” or “heard” the piece even if it merely involved reading the sheet music. Indeed, musicians who can read written music like that do refer to reading sheet music as having “heard” or having “listened” to the piece. In contrast, many bands we worship refer to “writing” music for their albums. However, rarely are any notes or music written down in any formal sense. Many rock/pop bands “write” music by playing it and piecing together sections into things than sound nice after editing (if they are lucky). Later, some music grad student, desperate to eat and pay rent, will be hired by a company to transcribe the sounds on the album into written notes, so other people without ear training can also play the songs; but that isn’t the way the band itself usually “writes” music — unless you are Yes or Dream Theater. If the Rolling Stones speak of “writing” music for a new album, they almost certainly mean a wanton, drug-infused geriatric orgy in the Caribbean that might have involved Keith Richards bringing his guitar. But the term “writing music” is still used. We can also reverse the situation and look at words on a page that were meant to be spoken out loud, such as plays. Take Shakespeare. Certainly the stage play is considered a respectable form of literary art and Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of the English language. But the plays he wrote were meant, designed, crafted to be read aloud and listened to. Yet we read them. Can you still read Shakespeare and claim to have experienced the work in an intellectually satisfying way and be conversational about it? Obviously. Does the stage work bring the work to life in a different way? Clearly.

Also, reading words on a page is not itself a magic recipe for intellectual absorption. Reading text can be pathologically passive if one is not actively engaged, and does not imply extra profound and deep understanding. Let me give an example from my own experience in the classroom. I tell students to “read chapter 10” from the text. And, indeed some do look at it with their eyes and the words are streamed through their thinking in some fashion. But in many cases no cognitive engagement has occurred. By speaking to them, I can tell that they did not, in fact, “read” the text as I meant the term “read.” In this context, “read” did not necessarily literally mean merely looking at the words, although it might conveniently involve that biomechanical process. I really just wanted them to come to class having processed and understood the material provided in the book by whatever means necessary. If that involves listening to the audiobook, it just doesn’t matter to me (although, good luck learning quantum mechanics from an audiobook).

Does watching a movie adaptation of a book count as “reading the book?” Not in my opinion. Putting audiobooks in the same category as movie interpretation of books is missing the point. I claim the unabridged audiobook is not, fundamentally, a different medium than the original work — not any different than the braille modes of reading that are considered “legitimate” reading. When we read books using the written word we are, in fact, “speaking” the words to ourselves in our head anyway exactly in the way the book is being read in an audiobook. A movie, even one adapted to be nearly identical to the book, is usually abridged and has been altered from the original work in fundamentally different ways. Moreover, one is not required to visualize the plot and characters in the same way as one does in reading text or listening to a reading of text.

I am not judging all these different modes or ranking them. They each serve their purpose and can give pleasure and intellectual stimulation in their own way. But I argue that, under many common situations, listening to audiobooks accomplishes the same social and intellectual function as reading text and can thus be responsibly declared a form of “reading the book.”

The Universe: A Computer Simulation?

An unpublished paper on the arXiv is claiming to have formulated a suite of experiments, as informed by a particular kind of computer approximation (called “lattice QCD” or L-QCD), to determine if the universe we perceive is really just an elaborate computer simulation. It is creating a buzz (e.g. covered by the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Technology Review, io9, and probably elsewhere).

I have some problems with the paper’s line of argument. But let me make it clear that I have no fundamental problem with the speculation itself. I think it is a fun and interesting to ponder the possibility of living in a simulation and to try and formulate experiments to demonstrate it. It is certainly an amusing intellectual exercise and, at least in my own experience, this was an occasional topic of my undergraduate years. More recently than my undergraduate years, Yale philosopher Nick Bostrom put forth this famous arguments in more quasiformal terms, but the idea had been hovering there (probably with a Pink Floyd soundtrack) for a long time.

The paper is not “crackpot”, but is highly speculative. It uses a legitimate argumentation technique, if used properly (and the authors basically do), called reductio ad absurdum: reduction to the absurd. Their argument goes like this:

  1. Computer simulations of spacetime dynamics, as known to humans, always involve space and time lattices as a stage to perform dynamical approximations (e.g. finite difference methods etc.);
  2. Lattice QCD (L-QCD) is a profound example of how (mere) humans have successfully simulated, on a lattice, arguably the most complex and pure sector of the Standard Model: SU(3) color, a.k.a. quantum chromodynamics, the gauge theory that governs the strong nuclear force as experienced by quarks and gluons;
  3. L-QCD is not perfect, and is still quite crude in its absolute modern capabilities (I think most people reading these articles, given the hype imparted to L-QCD, would be shocked at how underwhelming L-QCD output actually is, given the extreme amount of computing effort and physics that goes into it). But it is, under the hood, the most physically complete of all computer simulations and should be taken as a proof-of-principle for the hypothetical possibility of bigger and better simulations — if we can do it, even at our humble scale, certainly an übersimulation should be possible with sufficient computing resources;
  4. Extrapolating (this is the reductio ad absurdum part), L-QCD for us today implies L-Reality for some other beyond-our-imagination hypercreatures: for we are not to be taken as a special case for what is possible and we got quite a late start into the game as far as this sentience thing goes.
  5. Nevertheless, nuanced flaws in the simulation that arise because of the intrinsic latticeworks required by the approximations might be experimentally detectable.

Cute.

Firstly, there is an amusing recursive metacognative aspect to this discussion that has its own strangeness; it essentially causes the discussion to implode. It is a goddamn hall of mirrors from a hypothesis testing point of view. This was, I believe, the point Steve Novella was getting at in the SGU discussion. So, let’s set aside the question of whether a simulation could

  1. accurately reconstruct a simulation of itself and then
  2. proceed to simulate and predict its own real errors and then
  3. simulate the actual detection and accurate measurement of the unsimulated real errors.

Follow that? For the byproduct of a simulation to detect that it is part of an ongoing simulation via the artifacts of the main simulation, I think you have to have something like that. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it is pretty unintuitive and recursive.

My main problem with the argument is this: a discrete or lattice-like character to spacetime, with all of its strange implications, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to conclude we live in a simulation. What it would tell us, if it were to be identified experimentally, is that: spacetime has a discrete or lattice-like character. Given the remarkably creative and far-seeing imaginative spirit of the project, it seems strangely naive to use such an immature, vague “simulation = discrete” connection to form a serious hypothesis. There very well may be some way to demonstrate we live in a simulation (or, phrased more responsibly, falsify the hypothesis that we don’t live in a simulation), but identifying a lattice-like spacetime structure is not the way. What would be the difference between a simulation and the “real” thing. Basically, a simulation would make error or have inexplicable quirks that “reality” would not contain. The “lattice approximation errors” approach is pressing along these lines, but is disappointingly shallow.

The evidence for living in a simulation would have to be much more profound and unsubtle to be convincing than mere latticworks. Something like, somewhat in a tongue-and-cheek tone:

  1. Identifying the equivalent of commented out lines of code or documentation. This might be a steganographic exercise where one looks for messages buried in the noise floor of fundamental constants, or perhaps the laws of physics itself. For example, finding patterns in π sounds like a good lead, a la Contact, but literally everything is in π an infinite number of times, so one needs another strategy like perhaps π lacking certain statistical patterns. If the string 1111 didn’t appear in π at any point we could calculate, this would be stranger than finding “to be or not to be” from Hamlet in ASCII binary;
  2. Finding software bugs (not just approximation errors); this might appear as inconsistencies in the laws of physics at different periods of time;
  3. Finding dead pixels or places where the hardware just stopped working locally; this might look like a place where the laws of physics spontaneously changed or failed (e.g. not a black hole where there is a known mechanism for the breakdown, but something like “psychics are real”, “prayer works as advertised”, etc.);

I’m just making stuff up, and don’t really believe these efforts would bear fruit, but those kinds of thing, if demonstrated in a convincing way, would be an indication to me that something just wasn’t right. That said, the laws of physics are remarkably robust: there are no known violations of them (or nothing that hasn’t been able to be incorporated into them) despite vigorous testing and active efforts to find flaws.

I would also like to set a concept straight that I heard come up in the SGU discussion: the quantum theoretical notion of the Planck length does not imply any intrinsic clumpiness or discreteness to spacetime, although it is sometimes framed this way in casual physics discussions. The Planck length is the spatial scale where quantum mechanics encounters general relativity in an unavoidable way. In some sense, current formulations of quantum theory and general relativity “predict” the breakdown of spacetime itself at this scale. But, in the usual interpretation, this is just telling us that both theories as they are currently formulated cannot be correct at that scale, which we already hypothesized decades ago — indeed this is the point of the entire project of M-theory/Loop quantum gravity and its derivatives.

Moreover, even working within known quantum theory and general relativity, to consider the Planck length a “clump” or “smallest unit” of spacetime is not the correct visualization. The Planck length sets a scale of uncertainty. The word “scale” in physics does not imply a hard, discrete boundary, but rather a very, very soft one. It is the opposite of a clump of spacetime. The Planck length is then interpreted as the geometric scale at which spacetime is infinitely fuzzy and statistically uncertain. It does not imply a hard little impenetrable region embedded in some abstract spacetime latticeworks. This breakdown of spacetime occurs at each continuous point in space. That is, one could zoom into any arbitrarily chosen point and observe the uncertainty emerge at the same scale. Again, no latticeworks or lumpiness is implied.

Forwards Backwards Songs

As a musical exercise, I’ve been experimenting with taking standard, famous songs and arranging a backwards version as a forward song (“backwards forwards” for short). I don’t use the original recording in any way, only part of the musical arrangement. The result is usually something that (naturally) has weird overtones of the original song, but also is a unique song in its own right.

My first effort was at tune called My Sweet Satan, an instrumental backwards forwards version of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. The title is a play off of the famous backmasking fiasco that followed the song through its heyday and beyond. The haunting refrain of “my sweet Satan” can apparently be heard in verse five (somewhere around “There’s still time to change the road you’re on”). However, if you listen, it is clearly a combination of audio pareidolia and straightforward phonetic reversal rather than active backmasking. One can, of course, carefully craft forwards lyrics that do have phonetic reversals that sound like actual messages when played backwards. But Robert Plant’s lyric clearly isn’t that. I’ve tried doing such constructions myself and, with a specific backwards message in mind, you certainly don’t get anything nearly as coherent as the lyrics to Stairway (and that’s saying something).

Another effort is called But You Can Never Leave. Can you guess which backwards forward song it might be? A hint is that it is a song known (apocryphally) for having a backmasked message. The biggest clue is in the title.

If you like what you hear, take a look at my latest album called Pretty Blue Glow by Agapanthus and consider purchasing it (or parts you like). You can also find many of my tunes on Sutros under Agapanthus for free.

Mathematica One-Liner Competition 2012

Decided to enter Wolfram’s Mathematica One-Liner Competition 2012:  “What can you do with one line of code?”  That is, in under 140 characters (making it tweetable).  Why, a Particle Zoo Calliope, of course! My entry (only slightly modified from that submitted):

SectorChart[
Button[{1, p[#, s]},
EmitSound@Sound@SoundNote@{2 p[#, s], Floor@p[#, "Mass"]^.3}]
/.s -> "Spin" & /@ ParticleData[] /. p -> ParticleData]

W00t! Received an Honorable Mention! (the competition was fierce, lots of good one-liners). Give it a try below. You will need the free Mathematica CDF plugin installed. A figure will be generated. It is a musical instrument. Click on different locations on the figure to play different intervals. The first click is sometimes a bit awkward/slow, but after that it should play in real time.


Description:
A sector plot is generated based on the spin of all the known elementary particles (quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons) and the hadronic bound states (bayrons and mesons). The length of the tine on the sector plot is proportional to the particle’s intrinsic spin. There are around 1000 particles in the database. When you click on one of the sectors, representing a particle, two tones are played based on the spin and the mass of that particle. The mapping from values to notes is arbitrary, but selected to be “listenable.” I take two times the particle’s spin as one note and the integer part of the particle’s mass to the 0.3 as the second (this was selected by trial and error to give a reasonable range of tones for the full particle mass spectrum). A value of “0” is considered middle C and each integer above and below is a half-step.