Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Overheard

The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists

Platypus of Doom jacket coverI just ran across AbeBooks’ Weird Book Room, which provides the titles and cover art for:

a celebration of everything that’s bizarre, odd and downright weird in books. Crazy cookbooks, unusual animal books, how to books that will teach skills you never knew you needed, books about hilarious hobbies, and books about every strange aspect of life you could possibly imagine and a few things you can’t imagine.

Here you can learn how to Bombproof Your Horse, explore the Thermodynamics of Pizza, find out the answer to the question Nuclear War, What’s in It for You?, and prepare for How to Survive a Robot Uprising. My personal favorite, though, is the surreal Platypus of Doom – and Other Nihilists. I learn from Wikipedia that this work is part of a set of novellettes that also includes The Armadillo of Destruction, The Aardvark of Despair, and The Clam of Catastrophe. Alas I have cover art only for the first… More information on the set here – but really the titles are food enough for thought…

[*sigh* My brain does not work properly on the schedule I have this term… I ran across this as a link from another site. I opened the link in a new tab, closed the original site, and didn’t get around to reading the page for some time. All of which means I have no idea who to thank for pointing me to this page. If you have referenced the Weird Book Room recently, and if you think I’m likely to read you, make yourself known, and I’ll hat-tip…]

Enjoy Your Symptom!

Okay, this is officially bad science week at Rough Theory… For those who haven’t seen this yet, I wanted to link to an article at TechCrunch on healthBase, which offers “Answers automatically retrieved from millions of authoritative health sources”. HealthBase’s search field invites you to “Enter a health condition, disease or sign”, so that its semantic search algorithms can aggregate information from across its various sources, in order to present to you a contextually appropriate list of treatments, causes, complications, and pros & cons of specific treatments.

Leena Rao from TechCrunch reports that, when users began exploring the new search engine, they found some… unexpected results. Specially, she reports that healthBase lists “Jew” as one of the causes of AIDS (please check the screenshots from the original piece). It gets better:

When you click on Jew, you can see proper “Treatments” for Jews, “Drugs And Medications” for Jews and “Complications” for Jews. Apparently, “alcohol” and “coarse salt” are treatments to get rid of Jews, as is Dr. Pepper! Who knew? I’ve included the screenshots of the results below if you don’t believe me.

The answers don’t seem motivated by anti-semitism, but by content aggregation that doesn’t adequately parse how the meaning of words can change in different contexts. Thus, as Rao reports further down, you get other, less charged, but equally nonsensical, results from other searches:

If you look at the pros of AIDS (yes, it thinks here are pros to having AIDS), it comically lists the “Spanish Civil War.”

Those responsible for healthBase are working on the problem and promise rapid improvements. Meanwhile, friends to whom I’ve passed on the link keep spamming me with their own favourite results. I’ve also enjoyed the results posted at jonquil’s site, where I originally saw the link to the TechCrunch article.

Edited to add: just to give a taste of what gets generated, I’ll include the result I added to the discussion over at Wildly Parentherical:

I got “pain” as a complication of “dying”…

Treating dying has certain pros, including: “achieve commercial success”, “fine surface finish”, “pioneer hip hop music”, and, my personal favorite: “add bonus die” (which, I suppose, is one way you could look at being brought back to life, if you were so inclined…)

If you’d rather not treat dying, perhaps you would prefer to avoid its causes, the first of which is apparently “ginger”…

See further commentary at

Are We Human? Or Are We Dancer?

So I was driving somewhere with my five-year-old son on Saturday night. The car paused at a stoplight long enough for him to look out the window at a large crowd of people, dressed for dancing and waiting for a tram to the city. Most were female, which caused my son to remark: “There are lots of women there.” And then, after a short pause: “And only one human.”

“Only one human?” I asked, guessing what he meant but wanting to make sure.

“Only one human – that guy,” he pointed.

“Only one man, you mean.”

“Only one human,” he insisted.

“No – the women are human too,” I found myself wondering how, exactly, I ended up needing to defend this point.

“No they aren’t!” he said in the tone he usually uses when I’m saying something deliberately absurd.

“Yes they are. ‘Human’ includes both men and women – it’s a bigger term than either.”

“Noooo…” he said, sceptical.

“Yes!” I said, with attempted enthusiasm.

He gave me a “taking it under advisement” look, but seems, on the whole, to remain unconvinced…


Over at Limited, Inc., roger has just written one of those lovely comments from which it’s possible to draw a large amount of energy in an otherwise gruelling period. There are moments in the process of navigating the final stages of the thesis, where everything related to the work can look so familiar and worn that it becomes blurry whether I’m talking to anyone other than myself and uncertain whether the work “communicates” – not whether it communicates some particular content that I’m trying to convey, but more whether it sparks anything in other people, whether it generates anything useful or creative for anyone other than me. It’s a wonderful gift in these periods to receive the work refracted back, fresh and with a playful spin:

go to Rough Theory, who has been writing about the Grundrisse. As always, Marx, in her hands, begins to seem like a Henry James character – if James had only created a character with his own genius, instead of the subpar strivers from the upper class who never quite live up to the authorial voice in which they are caught. RT’s Marx is a man who is hyper-aware of epistemological traps, including the trap of thinking that there are just too many epistemological traps to make broad and monumental generalizations.

That final sentence may be my new favourite characterisation of Marx.

Intersecting Interests

There are certain kinds of family interactions that I sort of wonder: how often does this happen in other households?

My five-year old son has been playing tonight with some whiteboard markers and an eraser I brought home from university. A few minutes ago, he plonked his whiteboard down beside me and asked: “Mummy? Can you please draw me a Venn diagram?”

Uh… sure?

So I drew two circles with some overlapping space. Next question: “Do you like puppies?”

Uh… yes?

“I like puppies too! How do you draw a puppy?”

I drew a puppy – having been directed to a marginal space on the whiteboard, not close to the Venn diagram. My son then painstakingly drew a puppy inside the intersecting space. He proceeded to ask whether I liked other things. If I liked them, and he didn’t, they went into the non-intersecting bit of my circle alone. If he liked them, and I didn’t, they went into the non-intersecting bit of his circle.

We did have a conversation about Venn diagrams a few days ago. I just hadn’t been expecting that the concept would percolate, and come up again in quite this form…

Lending My Coffee Shop a Hand

So I’m not sure whether this counts as one of drew’s blurry lines or not, but this morning I found myself in my coffee shop, surrounded by an unusual amount of apparatus (even for me). I had the laptop connected to the power cable I supplied some months back, was installed in my regular table, had the laptop on, course materials scattered around the table, and was wearing headphones because I was waiting for a call on Skype… In walks someone doing a book on Melbourne coffee shop culture – who was, apparently, spending the morning visiting this coffee shop, as well as the coffee shop the reading group frequented prior to this one. They had wanted to photograph the place before it became crowded – I was the sole patron on hand… One thing led to another, and I soon found myself signing a photo release form – just in time for Lynda to walk up, hoping to catch me in my “office”, and get caught in the photo shoot herself.

The photographers asked me to “Just keep doing what you were doing”. Then they asked me to tilt my laptop (“otherwise we can’t tell what it is in the photo”), such that it was impossible to work on that. Then they circled around as Lynda and I spoke, flashing at us from different directions and occasionally leaning over to reposition coffee cups, papers – and, eventually, Lynda’s head. They were comparatively uninterested in my head. With me, it was my hands. “It looks good when you move your hands in the shots!” the photographer volunteered, seconded by the person holding the lights. Er… okay… I tried to concentrate on the conversation with Lynda (wasn’t the idea to capture us actually, you know, doing what we would normally do in the coffee shop?). The photographer started making motions with his hands in the background, willing me to move my hands more so he could get a good shot. I shifted my gaze so that I could look at Lynda without seeing him. This brought the light persons more clearly into view. He obliged the photographer by making vast hand motions at me as well, wafting the light around in great circles behind Lynda’s head.

I explained that the hands moved when I spoke: if I wasn’t speaking, the hands would be silent too. I went back to talking to Lynda – flash! snap! – the hands must have moved… They asked me to take a sip of coffee. The hands don’t move while holding a coffee cup. “It’s probably cold, too, isn’t it?” the light person asked. It was indeed.

My favourite moment was when they apologised to Lynda for interfering with the meeting. “Not at all,” she tried, “didn’t even notice.” Mmm-hmm… Completely unobtrusive, naturalistic research…


Since I am now a quasi-official (or, at least, honorary) grown-up at my university, I need a staff ID card. To obtain the card, I had to fill out a form and send it off for official approval. Once official approval was granted, I was told to present myself to security, who would check that I am who I claim to be, photograph me and, some days later, issue a card. How would security check that I am who I claim to be? By checking that I look like the picture on… my student or staff ID card. Now, as it happens, I do have a student card. However, since not all new staff members pupate into faculty, having first been students here, this can’t be the entirely accurate description of the process of obtaining a staff card. So I mentioned the issue. “Uh…” came the confused response, “You need a card…” voice rising slightly, “to get a card?” “That’s what it says,” I pointed helpfully at the form. Some rustling. Another form. “Why don’t you just use this one?” A form exists, then, that provides a means for becoming a staff member… from the outside…

But perhaps I prefer the immanent reflexivity of the former process?

The Daily Grind

I love the fact that I am so expected to work in my coffee shop, that people who are trying to reach me leave notes with the staff – and that the staff promptly give these to me, treating the matter as so urgent that they can’t even allow me to order my coffee until the message has been relayed. 🙂 (And to the person who left the note: you aren’t the first to have done this, and I will get back to you soon… 😉 )


The printer in my office has broken down while trying to print the current draft of my thesis. What error message is it flashing?

Page 21 is too complex.

Worker Bees

I have to admit, I’ve never particularly thought about the industrial organisation of crop pollination, until I read this column from the New York Times discussing possible responses to Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious plague that causes adult bees to desert their hives, leaving honey and larvae behind. I found this image particularly striking:

…it is important to add that, here in the United States, the majority of our crops are pollinated not by wild bees, or even by honeybees like mine, which live in one location throughout the year, but by a vast mobile fleet of honeybees-for-rent.

From the almond trees of California to the blueberry bushes of Maine, hundreds of thousands of domestic honeybee hives travel the interstate highways on tractor-trailers. The trucks pull into a field or orchard just in time for the bloom; the hives are unloaded; and the bees are released. Then, when the work of pollination is done, the bees are loaded up, and the trucks pull out, heading for the next crop due to bloom.