Stephen Jay Gould, (1941-2002)

The small world of “very interesting, very smart scientists who write about evolution for a popular audience” has lost its most prominent member with the death of Stephen Jay Gould at age 60.

I bumped briefly up against this world in the mid-1980s when I spent several summers working for Dr. Chris McGowan in the Dept. of Vertebrate Palaeontology (now Palaeobiology) at the ROM in Toronto. I started off in the bone room sorting turtle bones. Later I converted FORTRAN programs for linear regression into BASIC. It was fun work with absorbing people.

It’s a rare person who can both master the technical arcana of science and also interpret science to the masses. Chris is one (In the Beginning: A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists Are Wrong, T-Rex to Go: Build Your Own from Chicken Bone, Dinosaur: Digging Up a Giant) and Stephen Jay Gould was another.

A reviewer of his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny said it well:

Stephen Jay Gould’s brilliance is evident as always in his ability to make the esoterics of great science available to people who have not thoroughly studied his field. He doesn’t dumb it down, nor remove such huge slices that we are fools walking that dangerous tightrope of a little knowledge.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he wrote The Median Isn’t the Message. Given that he lived with cancer for 20 years, it’s worth a read more now than ever.

He will be missed.

Disastrous Fire

The phrase “disastrous fire” is perhaps best typified by The 1973 Fire at tha National Archives and Records Administration in St. Louis. Approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files were destroyed in the fire. No copies nor microfilm were ever produced, and no indexes created before the fire. This is the kind of thing that keeps archivists up at night, I imagine.

Good-bye Island Tel

It’s seems as good a time as any to write the eulogy for Island Tel: the new telephone books are out, and they’re quite clearly Aliant-branded, with the old Island Tel name having shrunk to a tag-line along with the names of the other old-line telephone companies.

You can’t really blame Island Tel, err Aliant, err BCE for making themselves bigger and bigger and thus less and less local: everyone else is doing it, after all. From Home Depot to Verizon to Air Canada, our service corporations are expanding and becoming more generic and distant.

I can’t help wonder, though, what would happen if Island Tel’s shareholders had decided to be brave, buck the trend, and reinvest themselves in being a local telephone company, managed and controlled locally, responding to local needs, driving the local economy, employing local people? Surely, if nothing else, to do so would have been to leverage the company’s (and the Island’s) natural strengths: strong local brand, unusual customer loyalty, and the uncanny ability of Islanders to be nimble, flexible and wily as a compensation for small size and fewer resources.

The sad thing is, we’ll never know what might have happened. What we do know, with some certainty, is that as we become aliantienated over the months and years to come we’ll no doubt have access to a broader range of services, more attractively priced. Offered by a generic company controlled from Halifax, essentially indistinguishable from any other telco in North America.

It’s not so much that things will get worse: it’s that we’re left to wonder how much better things could have been.

Good-bye, Island Tel.

Annals of Vision, Part II

I wrote earlier about the problem I have distinguishing between shampoo and conditioner while in the shower without my glasses.

There’s another problem like this: lens cleaner fluid. I need to take off my glasses to spray lens cleaner fluid on them. If I don’t orient the lens cleaner fluid bottle properly, I will spray lens clean fluid into my eyes rather than onto my glasses. However without my glasses on it’s difficult to tell which way the spout is pointing.

There must be a simple solution to this. It makes me wonder, though, if the people who make lens cleaner fluid bottles ever try and clean their glasses.