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About Spartan Ideas

Spartan Ideas is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and opinions independently written by members of the MSU community and curated by MSU Libraries


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The post-apocalyptic world of binary containers

The apocalypse is nigh. Soon, binary executables and containers in object stores will join the many Web-based pipelines and the several virtual machine images on the dystopic wasteland of “reproducible science.” Anyway. I had a conversation a few weeks back with a senior colleague about container-based approaches (like Docker) wherein they advocated the shipping around …


Kirsten Carlson’s “Congress and Indians”

Kirsten Matoy Carlson has published “Congress and Indians” (PDF) in the University of Colorado Law Review. Here is the abstract: Contrary to popular narratives about courts protecting certain minority rights from majoritarian influences, Indian nations lose in the United States Supreme Court over 75  percent of the time. As a result, scholars, tribal leaders, and …


RStudio Git Support

 One of the assignments in the R Programming MOOC (offered by Johns Hopkins University on Coursera) requires the student to set up and utilize a (free) Git version control repository on GitHub. I use Git (on other sites) for other things, so I thought this would be no big deal. I created an account on …


Linking Economics and Climate Change

Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economist, member of the Council of Economic Advisers was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, just months after the September 11th attack of the twin towers in NYC. The following are his concluding remarks in his acceptance speech (December 8, 2001).      I entered economics with the hope …


Updating Adobe Flash

Within the past week, give or take, Firefox started blocking the Adobe Shockwave plugin from running in web pages, due to a security problem with it. I could (and did, when I trusted the site) override the warning, but in general bypassing security is a bad idea. Even when the site is trusted, you have …



For those that can read Chinese, the journal Remembrance is archived here. My father intended to take a sabbatical at Tsinghua University in Beijing when I was in grade school, but reconsidered it because of the craziness of the Cultural Revolution. I recall going with my mom and brother to get a passport photo taken …


Digital Collections and Accessibility

[This is a crosspost from the Digital Scholarship Collaborative Sandbox blog from the MSU Libraries.  The original blog post can be read there.  Do visit the blog and read the other posts written by my colleagues as well.] Like many other academic libraries, our collection consists of not only print materials, but also electronic collections. Typical …


Mythbuntu and USB WiFi

I’m in the (slow, painful) process of configuring a new PC to act as a video recorder. This post contains some notes on how I got it connected to my home WiFi network. First, a note to self/strong suggestion to others: before screwing with anything that is likely to cause reboots, go into Applications > …


How to evolve intelligence in 7 easy steps

The September issue of Scientific American is about human evolution. It includes articles by Frans de Waal, Gary Stix, John Hawks, and others. And this one by Ian Tattersall, paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History. His research is on hominins and lemurs. If I Had a Hammer A radical new take on human …


The Women’s Game: Global Perspectives

  Last Saturday’s 2015 Women’s World Cup draw in Ottawa briefly took the global media spotlight away from the men’s game. And from the players’ gender discrimination lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for staging matches on artificial turf rather than natural grass. The prominence of the women’s game in the sport-media-industrial complex happens so rarely, and tends to be so fleeting, …


Letter of resignation

Dear <chairs>, I am resigning my Assistant Professor position at Michigan State University effective January 2nd, 2015. Sincerely, CTB. Anticipated FAQ: Why? I’m moving to UC Davis. Do you have an employment contract with UC Davis?? Nope. But I’m starting there in January, anyway. Or that’s the plan. And yes, that’s how this kind of thing happen. …



This week I learned that science has figured out how to quantify woo. I was sitting around listening to a group of friends talking about some goofy HR instrument for classifying a person’s relative strengths and weaknesses in group interactions. They were saying that only one member of their team had “woo” as a strength. …


Feynman Lectures: Epilogue

The full text of The Feynman Lectures is now available online. These lectures were originally delivered to satisfy the physics requirement for first and second year students at Caltech. Legend has it that as the lectures went on, fewer and fewer undergraduates were seen in attendance, with their places taken by graduate students and even members …


Top 25 most gender-neutral names in the U.S.

As a long-time fan of Saturday Night Live, I have fond memories of the Pat sketch where Pat’s friends were always trying to figure out his/her gender through a series of hilarious indirect tests. Despite their every effort — from asking Pat which bathroom he/she uses to asking about love interests — Pat’s friends could never figure …


Tannate Patination of Iron

Tannic acid patination is an ancient technique for forming a dark protective coating on iron objects. It may have been discovered accidentally, after iron objects were lost or buried in peat bogs, then recovered later in an unrusted condition. Iron Age bog bodies have been found with intact iron blades, more than a thousand years …


CRISPR patent fight

Earlier CRISPR posts. MSU symposium with video (Patrick Hsu, one of the speakers (no relation), is from the Zhang lab). Technology Review: Discovery of the Century? There’s a bitter fight over the patents for CRISPR, a breakthrough new form of DNA editing. … In April of this year, Zhang and the Broad won the first of several sweeping patents that cover …


Dept. of Physicists Can Do Stuff: Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton B. Carter on his education and early career in theoretical physics. His Wikipedia entry says he did postdocs at Rockefeller University and MIT. … when I rather unexpectedly was accepted into a good college, Yale, I was determined to make the most of it. I disdained the “preppies” and other privileged students who seemed …


Economics hegemony

Sociologists decry the ascendance of economics in the social sciences. See also Venn diagram for economics, Confessions of an economist, and Summers and Shleifer: (Ellison, an anthropologist, was Dean of the Graduate School under Summers.) Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a …