Friday, 4 July 2008

in other news

The blog has been languishing lately, partly because I've been away, and partly because I've been squaring away my phd prospectus. It's not going to get better for a while, because I'm about to head off to Maine for the rest of the month. Before I go, though, one more thing:

Walmart has a new look. As Tyler says, way overdue.

Yeah. That second picture definitely feels more like the place I go to buy cheap socks.

Monday, 30 June 2008

alice and bob

I wish I had thought of this first.
Alice: You are late. How was your day?
Bob: Sorry honey, I had to wait for t = infinity, it took forever.
(As I said once before, if you get the joke, you have no right to complain.)

Sunday, 29 June 2008

29 June roundup

A week of extremely exciting excerpts:

Saturday, 28 June 2008

why you should throw books out

Most people, if they aren't going to keep a book, pass it along to someone else. But that's irrational if the book isn't good, says Tyler Cowen. You should throw it out.
If you donate the otherwise-trashed book somewhere, someone might read it. OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead.
The question is whether the book is worth it. You've read it and can make an informed judgment. It is your duty to do so--else you will be encouraging the propagation of bad books to the detriment of the good. Particularly if, like me, you are more likely to keep good books and dispose of the bad. "But note the calculation is tricky. Sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to 'bad' readers and lure them away from even worse books." Another confounder is that some of the books I know are bad are just the only book I know on a subject--can I really recommend against such a one?

This is not an idle question: my small graduate department once maintained a room-sized private library of books in the field. Private libraries are discouraged by the university library system (for good reason), and so when we ran out of office space, the library had to go. Now we have boxes and boxes of books--some good, some bad. The university library wants them. But would it be responsible to give them?

Friday, 27 June 2008

on knowing math

A straight cut from 3quarksdaily:

During the Russian revolution, the mathematical physicist Igor Tamm was seized by anti-communist vigilantes at a village near Odessa where he had gone to barter for food. They suspected he was an anti-Ukranian communist agitator and dragged him off to their leader. Asked what he did for a living he said that he was a mathematician.

The sceptical gang-leader began to finger the bullets and grenades slung around his neck. "All right", he said, "calculate the error when the Taylor series approximation of a function is truncated after n terms. Do this and you will go free; fail and you will be shot". Tamm slowly calculated the answer in the dust with his quivering finger. When he had finished the bandit cast his eye over the answer and waved him on his way.

What's the lesson here? To remember your Taylor series? To never exaggerate your mathematical prowess to anti-communist vigilantes? That in Ukraine, even vigilantes know more math than I remember? Or that in Ukraine, even knowing math won't keep you out of a life of vigilantism?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

every grad student should get one of these

This Okiro! Asa Ichiban Taiyou Senshi - Charenjaa Kitto (Wake up! First Sun Warrior of the Morning - challenger kit) alarm clock wakes kids up "by turning them into Ultraman."
The commander wakes the child up at 6 a.m., and prompts players to put on the helmet and hit a "roger" button to acknowledge their wakefulness. Then, they are ordered to count to 10 in five different languages: English, Japanese, German, Swahili and Malagasy. At that point, the player is "allowed to take off the equipment and start the day"...
Awesome. (Hat tip Marginal Revolution)

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

on being left-handed

10% of the general population are left-handed. Ford, Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton, Gore, and now Obama and McCain are all left-handed [via MR].

Does my being left-handed increase my chances of becoming President of the United States?

Monday, 23 June 2008


Is Google making us stupid? Or smart?

Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.
He thinks looking at stuff really fast on the internet has rotted his brain. It's a familiar story.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.... Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

I empathize. A year ago, I was reading in preparation for area exams. From all appearances, at some point during the last stretch, when the details of dozens of readings were in my head, I sprained my brain. And I have since been hobbled in my attempts to focus. This blog--and the short, mostly non-academic readings I have done in keeping it up--have been my rehabilitation. It is anyone's guess whether it has worked--or if reading blogs has instead reinforced the bad habits Carr describes.

Or are they bad habits?
The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
Of course, algorithms don't require people. Eureka! Science News, so I am told, has no human editor;

it is powered by the Eureka! news engine, a fully automated artificial intelligence.

Its sole purpose is to ensure that you have access to the very latest and popular science breakthroughs. To achieve this, it constantly surfs the web to gather, regroup, categorize, tag and rank science news from all major science news sources.

It computes relationships between science articles and news found on the web using a vector space model and hierarchical clustering. It then automatically determines in which category each news item belongs using a Naive Bayes classifier. Finally, it examines multiple parameters (such as timeliness, rate of appearance on the web, number of sources reporting the news, etc) for each news group. The result is an e! score which represents the relative importance of a news item.

Even if one accepts the breathless-techie claim that a modified naive Bayes classifier is an "artificial intelligence," one might argue that this service is parasitic on the work of human editors (such as those at each of the thirty-seven sources for e!), even if none are involved directly in this enterprise--which, by the way, does not write the news, it just ranks, formats, and displays the news.

If this is also what reading the internet is training my brain to do, it is likely not a good portent for my dissertation.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

22 June roundup

  • Forget abstinence only:more sex is safer sex.
  • Speaking of sex, Pisani's book The Wisdom of Whores has a lesson for social science: "I had the impression from the qualitative research...that waria were turning dozens of tricks a week, but [a quantitative] study showed they averaged only three. And since that figure came from 250 waria selected at random as the manual requires, it was certainly more accurate than the qualitative research..." The problem? Systematically bad sampling: "a waria who is hanging around on a street corner to be interviewed by a research team is a waria who is not with a client. 'You are talking to all the dogs, obviously.'"
  • Blowing out the birthday candles just got awesomer. [via]
  • Philosophy majors are on the rise. Pay, not so much. Why, then? Well, “That whole deep existential torment.... It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

Friday, 20 June 2008


Social Technologies predicts 12 Areas for Technology Innovation through 2025.
  1. Personalized medicine
  2. Distributed energy
  3. Pervasive computing
  4. Nanomaterials
  5. Biomarkers for health
  6. Biofuels
  7. Advanced manufacturing
  8. Universal water
  9. Carbon management
  10. Engineered agriculture
  11. Security and tracking
  12. Advanced transportation
The rules of prognostication are simple. Be specific, outlandish, and keep quiet about the ones that fall through. Social Technologies doesn't meet the bill. It's a terrible list. They aren't prognosticating so much as advertising. Here's my take on their 12 areas of innovation:
  1. Nearly all cancers will be treated with retroviruses.
  2. In China and India, energy will be generated locally, leapfrogging those nations past the United States and other Western nations beleaguered by increasingly desperate corporations and the inertia of distribution infrastructure.
  3. In 2025, pervasive computing and the semantic web will be on the list of predicted tech innovations for 2050. The next computing revolution is that thousands of African children who have received One Laptop Per Child will earn One Dollar Per Day acting as the back-end to your Roomba.
  4. Nanomaterials will be ubiquitous and cheap, but will turn out to be useful mostly for advertising.
  5. Socialist countries will have to face the troubling fascist aspect of genetic determinism in their free healthcare plans.
  6. After trillions of dollars have been wasted in developing biofuels, we will decide that trains were a good idea after all.
  7. While some corporations spend billions trying to develop a homogenous system to allow customers arbitrary degrees of customization on their products, smarter corporations spend billions developing the enabling technologies they can sell to artisans for use in creating such products. The de-industrial revolution begins in your mom's craft room.
  8. A salt shortage makes desalinization affordable.
  9. Carbon management becomes a big business. On this one, the panel is right on. Of course, managing carbon doesn't actually do anything except redistribute wealth.
  10. Kitchen counter genetic engineering to produce crop diversity becomes commonplace. Corporations that attempt to patent genes are laughed out of court. Intellectual property law follows an attribution model, and end-profits trickle up to the originator.
  11. Everyone, everywhere, has cameras. They're always on and always recording, and no one cares anymore. Criminals subvert the nanomaterials so useful for advertising to disguise themselves as their own Second Life avatar.
  12. The Netherlands outlaws cars. Most large cities outlaw cars in the downtown core (excepting electric cabs and emergency vehicles). Everyone in the city rides a bike, and fashion follows suit: flared legs and skirts are out, and to my general annoyance, capri pants become popular for both genders.
Yogi Berra has it right: prediction is very hard, especially about the future.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

6 days, 10 states, 3000 miles

For those of you wondering what I was up to while I wasn't posting over the past few weeks, I was driving from Toronto to Vancouver, presenting in Vancouver, and then flying back to Toronto. If you want to know more about it, look here.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

think deviant, again

Here is a sentence from Scientific American (via 3QD):
over the years we have developed a strong intuition for what counts as natural”—and the universe we see does not qualify.
The article is about the (apparent?) time asymmetry of the universe, and this sentence serves as a journalistic "hook", but it does represent a very strange paradox: How can the natural world mislead us about itself?

If the claim is that inborn intuition runs contrary to the actual universe, then there is no problem. If the claim is that our experience has been of an unusual part of the universe, even that may work (assuming we have some evidence that tells us about what "usual" is). But what can it even mean that our experience of the universe runs contrary to that very same universe? How would we ever know?

am I a man who explains things?

Two months ago, the LA Times ran a piece on men who explain things. Specifically, men who explain things patronisingly. To women.

Solnit describes an experience she had at a party some years ago.
"So? I hear you've written a couple of books," [says the host of the party.]

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
The book, of course, was Solnit's own. But this would never have occurred to the patron. When that fact finally sank in,
as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.
I have been worrying over this anecdote for some time, but so far have avoided writing about it, because to do so would seem to implicate me in precisely the sort of crime described. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am certainly guilty of the crime of holding forth on subjects about which I know little. But am I patronising about it? Or at least, am I equally patronising to men and women?

I like to think so. The trouble seems to be that women are more sensitive to patronising behavior. For good reason: women really are subject to it more. But given 'equal' treatment, is a different response an overreaction? Or is it justified? It's not an empty question. Patronising behavior has consequences for our basic assumptions about what goes on in the world:
One Christmas, [a nuclear physicist] was telling -- as though it were a light and amusing subject -- how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked the physicist, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for why she was fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....
Ha ha! Those crazy women!

Combating the lasting foolishness of patronisers is what feminism is all about. It's just too bad that the lessons grate so on those who (think they) have learned the lesson. Being combative, unfortunately, is part of the problem. Solnit describes the aftermath of making a point in dinner conversation:
His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.

Ironically, in the course of discussions of feminism, I have gained firsthand knowledge of this feeling (with the genders reversed). I make an observation questioning what I take to be a dogma, and receive a withering, emasculating glare--for, in virtue of being male, I have no authority in this arena. (This reaction is by no means universal, but it does happen.) Solnit complains that
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't.
Of this, I am surely guilty. I'm not sure I've ever apologized for being wrong. But that's the wrong thing to be up in arms about. For to me, an explanation is a hypothesis--a reasoned inference from what I do know. Sometimes I am quite sure of things before I open my mouth, and my task is to recall the relevant supporting details. Other times, I am posing something quite tentative, in the hopes of gathering alternative views and further information. I don't think the difference is always (or even usually) entirely clear to anyone but me (that provides me deniability when I turn out to be wrong). My preference is to make declarative statements about states of affairs rather than about my beliefs. I rarely use phrases like "I think" or "I believe" except in clarification. This distinction--between states of affairs and beliefs--is at root of the ongoing dispute about the cause for the gender disparity in science and engineering.

Jake Young asks the question: does the machismo of scientific culture exclude women from scientific or technical careers, or do women's preferences for working with others (rather than tools) explain the difference? According to one of the studies, another traditional explanation, fertility decisions, is a factor in delayed acheivement, but not career choice. After quickly rejecting a fourth hypothesis (that there is gender disparity in innate ability), Jake notes that
A group populated largely by men is more likely to be chauvinistic because there is no one there to call them on their bullshit. Thus, the situation can become self-perpetuating.
Over on Cosmic Variance, Sean relays a story about Richard Feynman, a charming sexist if ever there was one. When it came time for lunch, he would turn to any woman who was about and ask her to fetch his sandwich. But he would also explain quantum physics to the same woman without any fuss about whether she would understand.

Once caught in the cycle, how do we get out?

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

june 1 roundup

[obviously, this post is ill-named. I intended it to appear on June 1 while I was on the road to Vancouver for CSHPS, the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, conference, of which more later. That didn't happen. Indeed, I missed a whole 'nother Sunday since. And yet, I have not changed the name. Go figure.]

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

informed consent, social contracts, and the veil of ignorance

(I've scheduled a few posts to magically appear here while I'm away over the next few weeks. What follows is one.)

Massimo Pigliucci concisely describes the basics of ethical theory: there's contractualism, where
no contractualist really maintains that there ever was a non-social state of nature for human beings (if they did, they would be contradicted by evolutionary biologists), nor that the so-called social contract was an historical event (historians would go crazy with that one), nor that it is actually entered into voluntarily by most people (you are usually born into a society with a given contract, meaning a set of laws and customs
and there's the Rawls variation, which introduces a device he calls the "veil of ignorance," where you
assume that you arrive at the bargaining table with no knowledge whatsoever of your social status, economic power, ethnicity, religion or gender. Then, asks Rawls, what kind of society would you want to set up? The answer, he argued, is a society that would guarantee maximum liberty equally distributed among its members, as well as an equal distribution of wealth and power.
Contemporary America does nothing of the sort (that position is far to the left of any Democrat in office; Libertarians and Republicans need not apply).

There's a funny sort of dichotomy at work here: in the original contractualism, we are all bonded against our will to contracts that no one ever explicitly approved (but which we all purportedly would approve if we were in an imaginary situation disarmingly called a state of "nature"). In Rawls' version, we are asked what contract we would set up if we didn't know anything about our own particular qualities and abilities (his answer is a meritocracy).

One of the great principles of fairness under the rule of law is informed consent. We insist on seeing all the available information (certified by experts!) before making a medical, legal, or financial decision. Why, then, are ethics to be based on ignorance?

Is it truly impossible to reach similar ethical conclusions from a more realistic starting point--a situation in which some ethical system is in place and individuals have partial knowledge of their own status?

Monday, 26 May 2008

scientific images

Sue me; I'm on vacation.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

may 25 roundup

  • Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive.
  • grade inflation: "I am going to warn you one last chance I am going to ask I want a better than a B-. If I see this [grade] I swear to god I am going to f---ing put you in a wheelchair when I see you..."
  • We must LOL, and so we shall. [via Torontoist]
  • What to do about high tuition costs at wealthy institutions: tax them! Uh, no. If the idea is to induce Harvard to lower tuition, don't ask for a share of their profits (which induces them to pass on their new tax burden to students by raising tuition). Lower Harvard's tax burden by a function of the difference between Harvard's tuition and the tuition at the University of Massachusetts. Use the revenues to subsidize UMass and further lower tuition there. That's a winning combination.
  • In other Massachusetts-related news, Jake Young gives us some of the science behind Senator Ted Kennedy's glioma.
  • Should we remove legal barriers to establishing low stakes prediction markets? Perhaps, but I predict we won't. Hah! See what I did right there?
  • Chemistry rocks.

Saturday, 24 May 2008


In case it is not legible, the caption reads: "Amount of space required to transport the same number of passengers by car, bus or bicycle."

I wish I knew where I first saw this image. I hope the originator appreciates getting the message out enough to forgive my inability to give credit.

Friday, 23 May 2008


In this, the fourth installment of "best of net," I reproduce a section of Horace Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirem," originally published in American Anthropologist 58:3, June 1956. It is a seminal work in the field of anthropology, and though by now a bit dated, is nevertheless an instructive read. As always, go read the original.

The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock (1949: 71).[2] In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.


Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man's only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient [504 begins ->] rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution.[5] The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as "holy-mouth-men." The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious [6] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.[7]

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of [505 begins ->] these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client's mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations [8] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
You will have to look to the original to see conclusions about this backward people.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

hypothesis-free research

Whenever I wonder if philosophers of science are really necessary, I run into a story like this:*
The young scientist next to me shrugged and said that models were of no use to him because he did "discovery-driven research". He then went on to state that discovery-driven research is hypothesis-free, and thus independent of the preexisting bias of traditional biology.
What the young scientist means might more descriptively be termed "foreground-hypothesis-free," although that's hardly a catchy phrase. All of the hypotheses in the sort of experiment indicated (an undirected search for correlations within a large dataset) are relegated to the background: the identification and measurement of data represented in the set, together with the statistical apparatus and a single uber-hypothesis: correlations are interesting.

I can think of several words that better describe this class of research: thoughtless or shallow. Harsh? You bet.

* It should be noted, perhaps, that Jake Young is a PhD in neuroscience and the storyteller Steven Wiley is a practising biologist. So maybe this is a stronger case for the existence of philosophy of science than for philosophers of science.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

two wrongs don't make a right

Leif Wenar says it is "patronizing theft to buy natural resources." Tyler Cowan says "he proposes suing Exxon to create a chain reaction."

The only thing more patronizing than paying a pittance to the worlds poor for the natural resources we need for lip gloss and shave cream is suing on behalf of those poor people.

That said, Wenar is right that there's a problem. Here are my priorities:
  1. Wherever possible, we should use renewable resources.
  2. If renewable resources won't do it, we should do our best to keep the resources we've already "harvested" in the supply loop, preferably through reuse, but through recycling when the materials need to be reprocessed.
  3. Whenever renewable resources are harvested, it should be in sustainable volumes, and prices should reflect replacement cost.
  4. When non-renewable resources are harvested, the price should be high. I don't know how high.
I doubt a lawsuit is the way to settle the issue.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

applying the broken windows policy to terrorism

Often the most fascinating part of learning about science is the conclusions scientists (and others) draw from the evidence. Aaron Clauset, who has spent three years at the Santa Fe Institute modeling statistics of terrorism, has found that size and frequency of attack follow a power law.
the statistical distribution fits severe events like 9/11 to the same curve as more common but less severe ones that kill a dozen or so people. the pattern suggests that such rare and large events are not outliers, as was previously thought, but are somehow interconnected with the smaller attacks. the authors claim that if an underlying connection exists, then taking measures to discourage small-scale attacks might also prevent severe ones.
Hat tip 3QD

As I've said before, power laws can emerge automatically from random connections between nodes; an explanation involving a power law is often a claim that no explanation is required--that the behavior is to be expected, like an equilibrium condition. It is divergence from power laws (in situations where we might expect them) that would require explanation. But of course the point of power laws is that they indicate a systematic regularity in phenomena that might otherwise be assumed to be unrelated--for example, large and small terrorist attacks. The final sentence in the above quote is the fascinating one: that not only is there a relationship between small and large attacks, it is a strong enough one that decreasing the number of small attacks should also decrease the number of large attacks.

A professor of mine once noted that there is a strong inverse correlation between the number of mules (per capita) and professorial pay within the region (that is, if one area has more mules, we would expect professors there to be paid less). Yet there is no reason to think that one causes the other--that is, killing mules will not increase professorial pay. In fact, a common cause is responsible for both: the more agricultural a state, the more mules there will be, and the lower professorial pay will be. The more urban a region, the fewer mules and the higher the pay.

It certainly seems right that large-scale terrorism should be more closely related to small-scale terrorism than are mules to payscales, but mere similarity is no guarantee.

The idea that large terrorist attacks can be prevented by dealing sharply with small terrorist attacks is an intriguing one, and it has strong similarities to a crime-reduction policy that has become popular in major US cities in recent years. The Broken Windows policy begins from the premise that most crimes are crimes of opportunity, and opportunities are more apparent in "bad neighborhoods"--those with broken windows. To reduce subway crime, then-Mayor Giuliani of New York instituted the policy of cleaning graffiti from trains on a daily basis. No train left the yard with graffiti on it. Indeed, the policy worked: graffiti on trains dropped dramatically. As did littering and turnstile jumping (although the latter probably had more to do with the complementary policy of daisy-chaining jumpers together and processing their tickets en masse with a roving paddy-wagon).

But in the larger scheme, Broken Windows has had some unfortunate side effects: many more people are incarcerated for small crimes, increasing the number of three-strikes convictions, straining the penal system, and inadvertently (one hopes) targeting the homeless and mentally ill (whose crimes are usually of the nuisance variety).

Could fighting Broken Windows Terrorism have similar unexpected consequences?

Monday, 19 May 2008

getting csi right -- UPDATE

On Saturday, I wrote about the problem of error in forensics. Grits for Breakfast notes one of the problems I didn't mention explicitly: in some states, lab reports are not treated as "testimonial" evidence (and therefore defendants do not have the right to cross examine lab technicians). This position is being challenged, and the Supreme Court is watching with interest.

Grits worries that
Forensic science isn't "objective" science, it's goal oriented.
That's not the problem; science is always goal oriented. The problem is that a life hangs in the balance, and the single case matters.

Grits also worries that certain forensic findings cannot be falsified. That seems implausible, but I could be missing something. Even the least-reliable of forensic tests will show some potential suspects to be inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene of the crime. For example, even if a fingerprint whorl cannot reliably select a particular individual from the general population, it can eliminate anyone without whorly fingers. Surely it is malpractice to exclude such evidence when found, so it seems that the only worry could be that the CSIs stop looking for evidence (or more likely, the lab technicians stop processing the evidence they have). Here, the worry isn't that the findings can't be falsified, it's that evidence is only processed until the prosecution is satisfied it can make its case--and this standard is too low.

A much larger worry is that
most 'pattern evidence' - handwriting analysis, shoe and tire print comparisons, etc., has no research-based foundation at all. Much of forensic science is 'soft' science, [former executive director of the National Forensic Technology Science Center Bill Tilstone] said, that at best has not or even cannot be comprehensively tested for accuracy.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

may 18 roundup

  • Rate Your Students (hat tip to regular reader Zac)
  • One potential solution to the problem of invasive species? Microwave them to death! Via /.
  • Something new from Gladwell: on Myhrvold's "invention factory"
  • Rubik's cube too easy? Try megaminx, the 4-D version.
  • Or have a look at a life-size photo of a blue whale. Via /.
  • Understand quantum theory but not US politics? (or vice-versa?) This may help: "Transactioner: 'If I vote for Nader, it won't lead to Bush winning the election, because causality is an illusion' Questioner: 'But if you vote for Nader instead of Gore in a close election, aren't you aiding Bush?' Transactioner: 'Bah! You silly Democrats and your respect for chronology. I can just go back in time and change my vote to Gore if Bush wins!'"

Saturday, 17 May 2008

getting csi right

Since its debut eight years ago, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been credited with an increased interest in and knowledge of forensic science. Enrollment in forensics courses jumped, and it has remained high. By 2002, the effect was pronounced enough that juries were coming to expect greater forensic detail at trial and criminals were becoming (relatively speaking) more adept at covering their tracks.

Unfortunately, the unreality of televised forensics was also beginning to give people the wrong impression about what to expect from forensics. It's not typical for the same individual to photograph the scene, collect evidence, transport it to the lab, analyze it, capture the bad guy, interrogate him, and then testify at the trial. But this bit of dramatic license is not nearly as damaging as the simplification of the science. judge by the most comprehensive study on the reliability of forensic evidence to date, the error rate is more than 10% in five categories of analysis, including fiber, paint and body fluids. ...DNA and fingerprints are more reliable but still not foolproof....a 2005 study in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology suggests a fingerprint false-positive rate a bit below 1%, a widely read 2006 experiment shows an alarming 4% false-positive rate.

How can we preserve the usefulness of forensic evidence while protecting the public when it breaks down? The core problem with the forensic system is monopoly. Once evidence goes to one lab, it is rarely examined by any other. That needs to change. Each jurisdiction should include several competing labs. ...

This procedure may seem like a waste. But such checks would save taxpayer money. Extra tests are inexpensive compared to the cost of error, including the cost of incarcerating the wrongfully convicted....

Other reforms should include making labs independent of law enforcement and a requirement for blind testing. When crime labs are part of the police department, some forensic experts make mistakes out of an unconscious desire to help their "clients," the police and prosecution. Independence and blind testing prevent that.

That's forensics expert Roger Koppl writing in Forbes [Alex Tabarrok of MR did the work of selecting the quote].

Would the situation be improved if the lay public knew a bit more about the intricacies of arguing from uncertainty? What constitutes a reasonable doubt in a case that relies on several pieces of physical evidence each of which has a 10% error rate? Can CSI's techno-beats and hot forensics techs make statistics sexy?

Friday, 16 May 2008


The third entrant in my distinguished "best of net" series comes from Malcolm Gladwell. As always, you should read the whole thing. I'm not quoting nearly as much from this one as I have in past "best of net" entrants.

Once you get past the question of what to call sliced and fried potatoes (French Fries? Chips? Freedom Fries?) comes the more difficult question: what to put on them. Salt? Vinegar? Lime? Tabasco? Gravy? Cheese? Mayonnaise? Or how about the obvious choice: ketchup?
Today there are thirty-six varieties of Ragú spaghetti sauce, under six rubrics—Old World Style, Chunky Garden Style, Robusto, Light, Cheese Creations, and Rich & Meaty—which means that there is very nearly an optimal spaghetti sauce for every man, woman, and child in America.
There is one ketchup.
It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers, and what was true about tomato sauce when you added visible solids and put it in a jar was somehow not true about tomato sauce when you added vinegar and sugar and put it in a bottle. Moskowitz shrugged. "I guess ketchup is ketchup."
Gladwell is a storyteller, and this is the story of Grey Poupon, Heinz, and Ragu. Heady stuff.
Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation—the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.
and later,
There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. "Umami adds body," Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. "If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it's thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food." When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?
Not many, it would seem. Read it!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

retracting papers

An editorial in Nature 453:258 (15 May 2008) [paywall] tells a "cautionary tale about the weaknesses -- not the strengths -- of the scientific process." Whether we see strength or weakness, it seems, depends on how we tell the story. On one hand,
it seems to be a shining example of the scientific method in action. Two papers published by biochemist Homme Hellinga and his students at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, claimed a breakthrough in rational enzyme design. Last year, another chemist found that Hellinga's enzymes didn't actually work, which led to the retraction of the two papers this February. Then, this March, a third group published research showing that rational enzyme design really is possible. All has ended happily, it seems, with the field marching forward in triumph.
As the editorial goes on to explain, missing from that account is the cost, both in dollars and reputation. The chemist unable to reproduce the results lost both time and money in his attempt to use rational enzyme design in his work. Hellinga's reputation (and previous results) have come under scrutiny, and Hellinga's student's reputation may have been irreparably damaged even though she was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a game of trust, a retraction is only the first step to regaining status.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

the shape of politics to come - UPDATE

Back in February, I noted that font experts selected Obama and McCain as the winners in the race for President. Although they were selecting winning font choices, it's worth following up now that McCain is the presumptive nominee for the Republicans. The NYTimes has a piece on the McCain camp's selection of Optima as their font of choice. Optima, the article notes, is the font Maya Lin selected for the Vietnam Memorial (photo by Sarah, I think). This fits well with McCain's war hero status, whether he had anything to do with the selection or not.

As Rudy VanderLans puts it,
What does Optima say about Senator McCain? Nothing. It probably says more about the designer than anything else. Who, except designers, would judge a candidate by the typeface?
Not exactly McCain's base. But Matthew Carter has the most interesting tid-bit:

The moment of typographic truth will come when Senator McCain picks a vice presidential running mate and two names have to be combined on banners and bumper stickers. By choosing Optima, a rather distinctive typeface, he may have seriously limited his options.

I set the possible names in a bold weight of Optima caps and certain things became clear. HUCKABEE looks awkward in Optima, and ROMNEY is afflicted with the same difficult ‘EY’ combination that has plagued the current vice presidency. Perhaps because Optima is a German typeface, the word SCHWARZENEGGER looks predictably good.

Although it’s German, Optima took its inspiration from Quattrocento inscriptional lettering in the cathedrals of Florence and Siena, which may explain why GIULIANI looks so simpatico. In the end, however, my research suggests that the optimal running mate — so long as you don’t have to typeset her first name — is RICE.

Good choice.

Monday, 12 May 2008

the fallacy fallacy

One of the grand worries in the business of evolutionary explanations is that they sometimes (especially when put into colloquial terms) seem to confuse is with ought. This is known formally as the naturalistic fallacy (or its converse, the moralistic fallacy, depending on which way the conflation runs). Whenever a report on scientific findings uses the word "should," I worry.

Azra Raza of 3QD quotes a piece in Scientific American:
In research that could give doctors a way to reassign sex in cases of unclear gender, scientists report this week that they have figured out why some children with genes that should make them boys are instead born as girls.
A more precise statement might go:
In research that could give doctors a way to assign sex in cases of unclear gender, scientists report this week that they have figured out why some children with genes expected to make them boys are instead born as girls.
The phrase "think deviant" comes from the notion that a goal of science is to explain why it is that things deviate from what we might otherwise expect. And so I have no problem with journalistic characterization of results as unexpected or revolutionary--science even for workaday Kuhnian normal scientists can be incredibly exciting. No new paradigm is suggested by results like this one: the Sox9 gene, which is expected to activate, sometimes doesn't. Manipulating this process can change sexual expression.
[Lovell-Badge] adds that he's very hopeful that with further analysis, scientists may determine ways to reassign gender later in life, "perhaps for cases of sex reversal or perhaps even for individuals who want to undergo sex changes," although he acknowledged that "this is getting very contentious."
And that's precisely the point: it's an exciting find and raises fascinating ethical issues by itself--issues that shouldn't be confused at the start by careless use of words like "should" when "expected" will do.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

science in the 21st century

Bee over at BackReaction is helping to organize a cool-sounding conference at the Perimeter Institute on Science, Society, and Information Technology. Check out the poster:

may 11 roundup

Saturday, 10 May 2008

best of net: THE ART CATALOG

Morgan Meis (of 3QD) reviews 30,000 years of art in The Smart Set
It’s a piece of coyness. I prefer to imagine a group of art historians sitting around a table with a sixth or seventh bottle of wine giggling to each other like schoolgirls. “Take that, art theorists! We give you a book with all art and no theory. We give you a book that says nothing and simply is what it is. We give you description and description alone. Its subject matter? The entirety of the history of art. Take that!
As with all of my "best of net" series, you should go read the original, but I will quote long sections here:
Art historians and the theorists of art have been at quiet war with one another for a long time. The theorists, per their nature, accuse the historians of “mere” scholarship. The historians, per theirs, accuse the theorists of airy speculation. But it is difficult for the historians to be vocal in their accusations. The central problem is that once you enter into the verbiage you’ve already given up a good deal of ground to the theorists. You’re fighting them on their turf and they’re going to get you tangled up in a morass of “whys.” It is as if entering into the debate at all is already to concede it. Silence, the mute labor of the scholar, is thus a potent weapon in itself. Plus, it drives the theorists to distraction, like dealing with a lover who returns your letters unopened.

This, I think, is the weapon of choice for the folks at Phaidon who put 30,000 Years together. Show, and do not tell. The lack of telling may also be due to the fact that E. H. Gombrich is dead and therefore couldn't write the preface. Gombrich, the pre-eminent art historian of the 20th century, published his book, The Story of Art, with Phaidon in 1950. It has been called the most famous and popular art book ever written. In it, he proposed to do battle with “big ideas” of every stripe. His opening to the text, a sentence of which he was forever fond, goes like this: "There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists."

Gombrich was crotchety in a lovable and straightforward sort of way and he always stuck to a basic premise: Art is about image making. Those images, he thought, can either come from the "memory image" — the clear and precise idea we have of how things look — or from the "mimetic image" — the attempt to faithfully reproduce the look of things in sensual perception. Artists, in producing images, swing from one option to the other and the history of art is nothing but the "story" of individuals producing images according to their skill in one craft or the other. Period.

The crucial thing about this view of art is that it obliterates periods. In fact, if you take his viewpoint to its logical conclusion you have to say that there isn't really such a thing as a history of art at all. (Which makes sense, since Gombrich has already said that there is no such thing as art. A history of nothing, therefore, would merely be nothing times two.) There are simply a lot of different works, they got created over time, and some of them represent the apex of skill in making visual objects.

And that, it is easy to see, is the hidden polemic behind 30,000 Years of Art. It is a book that doesn't really believe in art with a capital-A at all. Indeed, “art” is in lowercase on the front cover. The book could just as easily have been called, 30,000 Years of Skilled Individuals Producing Things to Look At. The word “art” is just a placeholder for a longer and clumsier sentence.

This anti-art-as-concept approach is heightened by the way that the works chosen for 30,000 Years are visually reproduced in the book. Every “art” object is shown floating in the middle of a white background, popping off the page as an image, pure and vibrant. An image. Sculptures, friezes, and objects, are, along with paintings, flattened out into an absolute, imagistic space. It's beautiful but it's weird. The idea that any of these works need to be seen in the context of the worlds in which they were created is utterly denied. They exist, instead, in a timeless place, a graphical version of the white box.

The accompanying texts for each of the works follows what I'm calling a Gombrichian focus on image and on skill. We get some background, we get some explanation about materials and techniques used in fabrication, and then we get a sense of why the work represents an extraordinary moment in the application of skill. One of the first works shown, for example, is the “Venus of Lespugue,” an ivory figure created in the Gravettian Period around 23,000 B.C. The text says: "As a highly stylized composition in hard material, the piece is a uniquely confident example of very early human sculpture."


There is an absolute refusal to rank or to organize except along the indifferent axis of temporality. The closest thing to a guide in the book is the timeline at the very end. But all you get from that is a graph showing how different civilizations overlap over time, which helps to explain why “Sakalava Couple,” a relatively crude statue from Madagascar, is on the same page with Francisco de Goya's “Third of May 1808.” It is extraordinary to watch this leveling instinct at work. There is a kind of historian’s revenge being exhibited on every page. The book is drunk with the power it wields in smashing through every received idea about “Art” and its “development.”


The first 27,500 years are a reasonably smooth romp. Then things get a little trickier. Gombrich himself was always aware that somewhere in the 18th century the plot thickens considerably. That’s because it was around that time when people in Europe decided that when they were doing art, they were doing Art. It's also the time during which theories of art really start to proliferate and aesthetics becomes a specific discipline. People decided that Art was a specific kind of activity with its own domain and its own rules.


This can all be summed up with one specific object and one specific question: What in the world is 30,000 Years going to do with Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain,” the factory-produced, ceramic urinal that Duchamp turned upside down, signed R. Mutt, and displayed as a work of art in an exhibit in 1917? It is a work that denies artistic skill in almost every way that Gombrich meant it. It is the quintessential challenge to the story of image and skill. This, in fact, is the question that Arthur C. Danto, the eminent art critic and philosopher, once posed as an attack on the Gombrich line. The fact, Danto noted, that Gombrich cannot account for works like Duchamp's “Fountain” means that Gombrich's claim that art is essentially about visual images breaks down once we get into the modern period. Art, Danto would point out, has changed. To ignore this fact would be to close one's eyes to everything that has been happening in art for at least the last 150 years.

Do the authors succeed in dealing with the self-reference and irony of Dada? Can art have a history without a theory? Find out the answers to this and much more: read the exciting conclusion at The Smart Set!

Also, see my previous writing on Dada.

Friday, 9 May 2008

why we're in it

Dan Drezner made full professor before forty, and shares the ten benefits the title confers. My favourite is:

4) When required to wear full academic regalia, full professors get to wear swords. Nobody better mess with me at commencement.

After tenure, there's little else to look forward to besides wearing a sword.

Hat tip Marginal Revolution. And three seconds later, Pure Pedantry. Hooray memes!

what would jane jacobs do?

Jane Jacobs was a champion of the neighborhood and enemy of the car. In the last half of the twentieth century, highway systems literally sliced apart neighborhoods, diverted traffic around cities and away from downtown districts. City planning increasingly centered on cars, until Jacobs urged us to "look, listen, linger and think" in neighborhoods - in other words, to remember what we had forgotten while we were driving our cars: neighborhoods are pretty cool places to be.

Today's ecological pressures seem to be pressing for increasing density in cities, and taller buildings mean fewer neighborhoods. As I walk the streets of Toronto, I see the change all around me. Half a dozen such structures have sprung up within sight of the University of Toronto campus, each tearing down a medium-density neighborhood and replacing it with a twenty-story condominium.

"We are wedging ourselves between a rock and a hard place: between the pleasures of medium-density living (Greenwich Village, Park Slope, Toronto’s Annex) and the ecological necessity of even more density," explains Andrew Blum. He goes on to cite historian William Cronon: "idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live." Blum's point is that "thinking of cities this way means seeing their density and grit not as the destruction of the environment but as part of its preservation."

The key is to bring together these two apparently discordant senses of "environment": the ecological and the social. Cities need to be proactive and encourage development of mixed-use structures that support inclusion in neighborhoods. I shouldn't think it difficult to reserve the first floor of a condominium for neighborhood shops--a baker, grocer, laundromat, pub, gym, or barber, all accessible from out of doors.

Related: maps of Toronto's high rises and an urban design contest called thinkToronto on

Thursday, 8 May 2008

found art?

in fat and real estate, it's all about location, location, location

Kahn's team found some surprising benefits to subcutaneous fat. Mice with subcutaneous fat transplanted into their abdomen gained only about 60% of the weight packed on by the control group, which, like most mice, continued to expand. These transplant recipients also had better glucose and insulin levels. The mice that got extra subcutaneous fat in subcutaneous areas also fared better than controls, although not as well as the first group.
This from sciencenow via 3qd.

Doctors are no doubt working on ways to turn this into an expensive weight-loss surgery in which fat is sucked out of your abdomen and injected directly into your thighs.

Or perhaps Sir Mixalot has it right after all?

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

education kills

[photo by Nirvana]
“These flies died about 20 percent faster than flies with the same genes, but which were not forced to learn.” Forming neuron connections may cause harmful side effects.
I think the lesson here is: invert the question, get a grant. It isn't "why are humans so smart?" It's "why are so many animals so dumb?" As usual, evolutionary biology can "explain" any set of data.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

change of place, change of mind

Richard Florida in the Boston Globe:
Human personalities can be classified along five key dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience.... These personality types are not spread evenly across the country. They cluster.
Florida avoids making causal claims, merely noting the correlation, but just given facts about personality types, he makes one prediction about who will move where:

Conscientious and agreeable types in particular are less likely to move. Once they find a place, they tend to spread out gradually over time. Extroverts, on the other hand, are much more likely to move over greater distances. Open-to-experience types are drawn to thrills and risk, and moving, after all, is one of life's biggest new experiences.

This fuels a process of selective migration whereby agreeable and conscientious regions are drained of the most driven, most creative, and most mobile - only reinforcing their psychogeographic profiles, while magnifying the innovative edge in places where open-to-experience types concentrate.

Florida's previous work on the creative class (see my reaction) suggests that municipalities should work to attract these mobile innovators, but this new work says otherwise. The mobile creative class may be the catalyst for change, but they are not a stable long-term commodity - they may well start up a company and then move on to another location. What's needed to sustain their industry is a reliable supply of conscientious workers balanced with enough innovators to keep the economy sharp. If a region doesn't have enough conscientious workers settled in, it is doomed to a policy of constant roiling turmoil. Too much industry turnover, and the economy will be unable to sustain itself through the rough periods. Too little industry turnover, and the economy will be unable to adapt to keep up with competition.

The billion dollar question is how can a region build a base of conscientious workers - the very people who are less likely to move - without at the same time frightening away the mobile innovators?

hat tip 3 quarks daily

Monday, 5 May 2008

may 5 roundup

  • if you get the joke, you have no right to complain.
  • best time to remember? just before you forget.
  • the LHC as a spam filter: "the LHC will create about a billion collisions per second, and only about 100 of them will actually get stored on hard disk.... the trigger makes some snap judgments about what events are fun."
  • the rationality of single motherhood. Hint: "'Black culture' doesn't explain why the single moms are disproportionately in the states where lots of young black men are in prison."
  • how many people are airborne over the US at any given moment? (the art of estimation)

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

best of net: HOW TO FLY

I'm starting a new series called "best of net" in which I flagrantly quote from lengthy-but-dated posts from other people. First up is a feature from Science Creative Quarterly: "How to Fly." You really should go read it over there.


By Ryan Somma

“The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”

With these words, Douglas Adams helpfully explained concept of flying in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the ground is really big, and, as the Tick so sagely noted, “Gravity is a harsh mistress.” So herein contained is my handy-dandy explanation of how you can impress your friends and family by throwing yourself at the ground and missing:

Step one, throw yourself at the ground. Luckily, this is really easy thanks to gravity, which will pull you down to the ground at an acceleration rate of 32.174 feet per second per second, meaning every second you are falling to the ground, you fall 32 feet (9.8 meters) per second faster. If you want to fall for one second, just spend enough energy to climb 16 feet (4.9 meters) above ground and drop. Voila!


Step two, miss. This is the not so easy part. If you’re reading this, then I assume you are a nerd (like me) and probably still wake up some nights in a cold sweat with nightmares about dehumanizing games such as “Dodge Ball” and possibly even it’s more sadistic cousin “Smear the Queer” from your youth. Now we’re trying to dodge a planet 7926.28 miles (12756.1 kilometers) across at the Equator. Might as well just throw in the towel and brace ourselves for the wedgies, noogies, and nipple cripples. Right?


We don’t have to miss the whole Earth at once, just enough to keep from hitting it each moment. The Moon does this all the time, dodging the Earth faster than it falls toward it - and it’s just a big dumb rock. We don’t want to be dumber than a rock, do we?

Okay then. All we have to do is dodge faster than we fall.

If we fall 16 feet (4.9 meters) in the first second, then we simply have to dodge far enough for the Earth to curve away 16.087 feet below us in one second. Knowing how far to dodge is, as G.I. Joe so wisely said, “half the battle.”


Which brings me to step three, find someone who knows math. In my case, I contacted my brother, Para, who teaches Multivariable Calculus at Georgetown Day School in Washington DC.

Para drew an angle on my circle representing the Earth, “It’s real simple,” he said. “See, sine is the opposite divided by the hypotenuse, cosine is the adjacent divided by the hypotenuse, and tangent is opposite divided by the adjacent. SOHCAHTOA, or Some Old Horse Caught Another Horse Taking Oats Away.” He drew a bunch of equations out for me. “See?”

“Huh,” I muttered.

“I’ve lost you, haven’t I?”

“Um,” I thought about lying, but he’s my brother, he can tell, “yeah.”

“Didn’t you take Trigonometry in high school?”


“Okay,” Para put the pen to his mouth thoughtfully. “I think I see a way to do this with just algebra.”

“Algebra… That sounds familiar. That’s math, right?”

“Hush,” Para drew the following diagram:


Where x is the distance we have to travel for the Earth to curve 16 feet away from under our feet and r is the radius of the Earth. Because we have right triangle and know the radius of the Earth is 20,925,379.2 feet (6.378,055.6 meters), we can use the Pythagorean theorem to find x, like so:

r2 = x2 + (r - 16)2

Which, Para showed me, can be converted to:

x2 = r2 - (r2 - 32r + 256)

And then, according to Para, the r’s cancel out, leaving us with:

x2 = 32r + 256

Which means x equals the square root of 32r + 256! (Once again, according to Para, so if this is wrong, blame him.)


Plug 20,925,379.2 feet (6.378,055.6 meters) into r and we find that we have to travel 25,876.9 feet (7,887.2 meters) or 4.9 miles (7.0 kilometers) in one second to successfully keep from hitting the Earth. Case closed right?



Does stick-man make it? Or is he doomed to a fiery death? To read the exciting conclusion, go here!

Tune in next week for another episode of "Isaac steals cool stuff from better writers"!

stop teaching about science - UPDATE

A month ago, I wrote that we need to stop teaching about science and start having students do science. What started me down that path was the observation that trouble with science seems to start with math, and trouble with math seems to start with abstraction. The solution, then, would seem to be: stop doing all this abstract math. Make math more concrete, and it'll be more relevant and easier to apply. Right?

Not so much.

A new study shows that far from easily grasping mathematical concepts, students who are fed a diet of real-world problems fail to apply their knowledge to new situations. Instead, and against all expectations, they were much more likely to transfer their skills if they were taught with abstract rules and symbols.

The use of concrete, real-world examples is a deeply ingrained part of the maths classroom. Its advantages have never really been tested properly, for they appear to be straightforward. Maths is difficult because it is a largely abstract field and is both difficult to learn and to apply in new situations. The solution seems obvious: present students with many familiar examples that illustrate the concepts in question and they can make connections between their existing knowledge and the more difficult concepts they are trying to pick up.

The train problem is a classic example. Another is the teaching of probability with rolls of a die, or by asking people to pick red marbles from a bag containing both blue and red ones. The idea is that, armed with these examples, students will recognise similar problems and apply what they have learned. It's a technique deeply rooted in common sense, which is probably as good an indicator as any that it might be totally wrong.
Chad is quoting from the NYT here, and he follows it up with some nice examples from his own experience as a physics prof. The basic problem is mental compartmentalization. "Many students seem unable or unwilling to take things learned in a class in one department and apply them to subjects studied in a class in another department."

What I think this indicates is that teaching is complicated. At some point in my MA year, I came to a realization that shocked me at a fundamental level: I had never and would never receive any formal training in the subject of, well, teaching. All of my training is on the subject: history and philosophy of science.

Somehow, the more specialized the subject matter you mean to teach, the less you're expected to learn about teaching. My friends who are preparing to teach grade school have spent years studying and putting into practice various pedagogical theories. A buddy who teaches high school chemistry effectively has degrees in both teaching and chemistry. A five-minute conversation with any one of them often makes me completely rethink my lesson plan.

Time for the meta: if I apply my suggestion about science to teaching, here's what I get: we should stop teaching students about teaching, and instead start having them do it. Turns out, that's precisely what I'm doing. Oops.

Turns out, it makes as little sense to expect students to automatically pick up abstraction from concrete examples as it does to expect them to pick up skills from facts. There's more than one kind of knowledge. The real trouble seems to be that we only test one kind at once.