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.

Monday, 28 April 2008

how to shoot yourself in the foot -- UPDATE

As expected, the government ordered the TTC back to work yesterday, and today everything is fine and dandy, except that no one really gets why the union went on strike in the first place. To clarify matters, here's what was going on:

Sunday, 27 April 2008

april 27 roundup

  • "In essence, no one really knows today what a kilogram is." [via LA Times]
  • son-of-a-bitch mouse solves maze, ruins chances of scientific discovery. [via the Onion]
  • "Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment." [via New Yorker (long, but worth it)]
  • "I’m afraid I have some bad news for you: You walk wrong." [NY Magazine (very long, worth skimming)]
  • Oh, Internet, how I love thee:

Saturday, 26 April 2008

molecular gastronomy

Hat tip Torontoist:

Start with the caviar and hazelnut foam. Next, try the bacon-stuffed tangerine segment appetizer, and follow with a palate-cleansing sorbet of kiwi and heirloom tomato purée. You'd be a fool to miss the rock lobster meatloaf, which is served atop an oasis of fig and cucumber gelée. Finish with a candied beet root custard and a tassé of chipotle-scented espresso. Bon Appétit!

Haute cuisine fans will descend on Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West) this Tuesday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. to meet Hervé This, the renowned chemist who is credited with coining the term molecular gastronomy and discovering the perfect temperature for cooking an egg (around 65°C). This will be signing copies of his book, Kitchen Mysteries, and giving a lecture on meat glue, liquid nitrogen baths, and other innovations in food science.

More posts about food.

... and furthermore

While I'm on the subject of how unions can be annoying, I should mention that I'm a member of a union, too. It represents the teaching assistants at the U of T, and it does a pretty good job of it, at by anecdotal comparison to a few of the US institutions where I have friends. But I do have one big beef with CUPE, and it's that the leadership seem to think international affairs are their business. Social justice is important, but it just isn't appropriate for my local union to make pronouncements about Israel's attitude toward Palestinians. Especially since some of CUPEs membership are Israeli. It puts us all in a bad position. I want my union to devote its energies toward protecting my high pay and keeping up with rising tuition. I care about the plight of Palestinians (and the plight of Israelis generally), but CUPE is just the wrong venue for that discussion.

Social justice is a hard thing to say no to these days, because when you say no you look like a big meanie (or a Republican!). Devotees take disagreements personally, and it can be dangerous to express a dissenting opinion in academia (it's not as bad as David Horowitz makes it out to be, but liberals can be just as petty as conservatives).

Easily Distracted has some good things to say about the sort of no answer that should always be valid:
No, this is the wrong institution or place for us to be doing that.
No, you (or I or we) are the wrong people to be doing that.
No, I know more than you do about what those ideas mean, so don’t try to tell me what to do. You should be listening to me instead.
No, this is an elitist institution that is just appropriating the language of social change for its own ends.
No. Is there a keg anywhere at this meeting?
There are more. Go read them.

how to shoot yourself in the foot

Last week, there was talk of a TTC strike. The city's mayor threatened to declare public transit an essential service (like firefighters and police) so that they couldn't strike. So the TTC agreed to give 48-hours notice before walking out. Last Friday, they gave their notice, leaving everyone (well, me anyway) worried over the weekend. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour the city reached a deal with the TTC Union bargaining team, and the strike was averted. All that was left was for the union membership to ratify the agreement, which included upgraded medical coverage and a 6% raise over the next two years.

Last night, at 10pm, the membership voted by a 2/3 margin to reject the agreement, releaseing a statement at 11 that as of midnight, public transit was on strike. Small piece of advice to transit workers: don't strike without warning on a Friday night. For better or worse, drunken revelers have a lot to say about public opinion, and stranding them to grab a cab ride home just isn't going to help your case.

Though the discussions are not public, and no statements have been made as to the basis for the strike. Rumor has it that the grievance involves the outsourcing of TTC maintenance work, which if true is a valid enough worry. But why destroy whatever public support they had by stranding riders?
commentary from transit advocate Steve Munro
• Globe and Mail blog coverage
• Toronto Star coverage
• National Post coverage
• Toronto Sun coverage
• Torontoist coverage
• Blog TO coverage
I've kept my strongest views about the TTC to myself, mostly because I am not used to being in a place so heavily unionized, and these views are decidedly anti-union. Whether officially designated as an essential service or not, the TTC is certainly essential to me, though rising costs are making year-round cycling a more and more attractive alternative. Subway trains each have at least two employees on board during operations--a driver and a watcher (she's the one who sticks her head out a window to make sure no one has their foot stuck in the gap before the train leaves a station). I'd eliminate them both, in favor of computerized trains. I'd also change the cash-ticket-token-daypass-weeklypass-monthlypass system to a single card system, where riders could buy single fares, lots of fares at discounted rates, or term-limited unlimited passage. They could purchase cards or add fares to cards at any subway stop (at automated machines that would take cash, debit, or credit), and they could also add fares online. The new card system would involve adding card swipes to buses and streetcars and would allow for the elimination of some of the ticket counter personnel. Also, there would be no advertising anywhere on the TTC. Not on the sides of buses, not in subway stations, and not in subway cars. That's my TTC.

Friday, 25 April 2008

how to choose

B: Well, I had coffee with Alyssa, and we really hit it off — she’s beautiful, and charming, and laughed at my jokes. I definitely think we would get along well over the next few years. I met Cindy, too; she’s a knockout, and clearly very talented, but there wasn’t as much of a spark there.

A: That can happen. So are you going to choose Alyssa?

B: I’m tempted, but the thing is — Cindy’s US News ranking is much higher.

A: Her what?

Sean's talking grad school choice, here, people.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

emergence and reduction

Over at BackReaction, Bee has been musing about the distinction between model and theory, and also about the concepts of emergence and reduction. She makes some good points, but I'm only going to quote one:

So I think I leave this domain over to philosophy.
My investigations of reductionism and emergence have so far focused on the three varieties of emergence I consider the most promising, one trivially true and two others whose value has been partially obscured by careless misuse of terminology: I call these “process” emergence and “multiple realizibility.”

Recent results of nonlinear dynamics have reinvigorated the debate over emergent properties. The claims of emergentists and their opponents have become confused by contradictory and inconsistent definitions of emergence. Emergentists usually claim that a whole can have properties that cannot be explained or predicted by reference to its parts and their organization. This definition is problematic: an ontological claim turns crucially on the epistemologically loaded terms “explanation” and “prediction.” As a result, even the most fundamental interactions (say, those between quarks and leptons) automatically count in this trivial form of emergence. Contemporary emergentists mean to do more than point out a conflation of terms common to simplistic versions of reductionism; the point of my recent investigations have been to discover what they do mean.

Most contemporary emergentists desire a strong version of emergence, one clearly ontological in nature. Some philosophers have tried to leverage the sensitive dependence on initial conditions exhibited by certain nonlinear dynamical systems into a general defeat for microreductivism, a conclusion that is largely repellent to practicing scientists and engineers. This is a mistake: in fact, sensitive dependence supports epistemological emergence but not ontological emergence. In fact, the epistemological or methodological defeat of microreduction does not imply anything at all about the ontological assumptions underpinning it. Careless arguments to the contrary are quite damaging to the reputation of emergentism, and have obscured several legitimate claims by emergentists.

One promising avenue of investigation is the computational irreducibility of certain discrete models of physical systems. If extensible to natural systems, a claim of “downward causation” is plausible because parts organize in such a way as to form a dynamically stable whole. This is “process” emergence (superconductivity is a strong candidate to fit this scheme). Such systems can be studied using different methods than the standard linear techniques common in much of science and engineering. Whether these results really do apply to physical systems is debatable, but this is a question that afflicts reductionism as much as emergentism: to defeat computational equivalence would largely defeat scientific realism. Any remaining disagreements between reductionism and emergentism would be purely procedural.

The most profound kind of emergence is also the most abstract—so abstract, in fact, that its proponents dispose entirely with any discussion of the material basis of the systems they study. This is because multiple realizations result in wholes that behave the same way even though they comprise different parts. Emergentists investigate the topological properties of attractors in phase space, searching for ultimate laws that govern their behaviour. If they are successful, certain methodological implications are likely to ramify throughout the scientific domain. At present, those implications are largely speculative, although proponents go on at some length in describing them anyway. These emergentists risk burying any important results they may have with their overeager claims.

Careful analysis of the arguments surrounding emergentism can help separate the wheat from the chaff, and this winnowing process can be quite worthwhile. For some systems, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Emergentism complements reductionism by providing tools to investigate those systems for which reductionist methods fall short. Because of computational irreducibility, there is good reason to think that reductionist methods will ultimately fail for certain systems, but it simultaneously provides the test necessary to distinguish between epistemological and ontological emergence, and computational equivalence provides the basis for the rigorous investigation of complex systems. The future seems very bright indeed for emergentists.

practice before theory

NYT reports that
Archimedes researchers have discovered that the evolution of physics — or, at least, mechanics — is based on an interplay between practice and theory. The practical use comes first, theory second. Artisans build machines and use them but do not think about why they work. Theorists explain the machines and then derive principles that can be used to construct more complex machines.

The Archimedes researchers say that by studying this dialectic they can better understand what people knew about the natural world at a given time and how that knowledge may have affected their lives.

This is a commonplace argument in some philosophical circles, and it is for precisely this situation interdisciplinary programs -- such as history and philosophy of science departments -- exist. The best part of our job is integrating the results from so many fields: classics, archeology, sociology, history, and philosophy, to name a few. I imagine that we philosophers would go happily along, thinking stuff up without input from those other fields, but we'd be much poorer for it.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

April 13 Roundup

  • Incomes grow faster in all sectors under Democrats, but disparity grows faster under Republicans [from, via]
  • Forget about those 8 glasses of water.
  • The French are upset; the English are underusing the semicolon.
  • "Instead of [foot patrols] watching to prevent crime, motorized police patrol became a process of merely waiting to respond to crime." [from]
  • More from the unintended consequence files: some municipalities have decided to "reduce the yellow-light period and increase ticket revenue." [from]
  • One of the oddities of American politics is the partisan split on education. Democrats, who traditionally favor nationalized programs, align themselves with the National Education Association in supporting local control for public schools, while it is the Republicans--traditionally favoring local regulation--who have recently enacted national education standards. Almost everyone I talk to agrees No Child Left Behind is a terrible plan, but Sean says (and I agree) national standards could be a Good Thing.
  • John Wilkins says science and religion have different epistemologies. In particular, "science is something nobody who is sane and informed can reject," in part because it is universal, while religion is local. As a result, "science constrains rational religion, while no religion, Plantinga notwithstanding, constrains rational science." Possibly it is unfair to compare only rational modes of thought, but (like John, I suppose) I have little patience for systematic irrationality. I'd only add (clarify?) that science is a process, not a product.
  • "Semiconductors are like Democrats," in case American politics is less confusing than chemistry.
  • why buying from ebay is like a complicated toaster [from, via]

Saturday, 12 April 2008

political climate versus climate science

edge has a nice interview with Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford. It's worth reading, but here are a few highlights and reactions:

One of the challenges for scientists such as Schneider is balancing good science with policy advocacy. Good science means
don't be too arrogant about the belief in your models; what you do is make projections, and then you crank a knob to try to avoid the more catastrophic outcomes or the outcomes that don't match your values, but we better be reflexive. That means we had better have what in the language of the systems guys is a "complex adaptive system". We need to always build in knobs so that as we get new information that changes our understanding of the structural bases of models, we can in turn crank up or down our degrees of policy control. But we rationalists, we systems analysts, think that's a great model of reality.
Most politicians think it's also the right way to do public policy. But changing public policy often entails
a five-year knock-down political debate—with the auto industry that wants to make big fat polluting cars, and the mining industry that wants to get the coal and uranium at lowest cost—and when all is said and done, they will reach some political compromise that satisfies nobody. But at least it's progress—and the last thing anybody wants to do is go back in five years and revisit that ugly debate and rekindle, among all these already not very satisfied stake-holders, more reasons for them to be angry.

That is why when we intellectuals say, hey, set up a complex-adaptive system, adjust the management knobs as we learn more; politicians say, oh no, we solved it, don't reopen festering compromises. Problem's over. Don't take me back there anytime soon.

The more scientists are aware of the difficulties of the political climate, the better able they will be to work with politicians to "build a rational management system that recognizes that very wide tails on uncertainty distribution mean that you have to be able to crank up or down as you learn more; that you can't claim that the problem's solved and never revisit an issue once legislation is passed."

Schneider also discusses the three roles he takes on as a scientist: education (helping people gain a nuanced view of climate science), understanding the science (how will the climate change in response to CO2, and how will agriculture change in response to climate change), and asking what to do about it. I think all three of these roles are appropriate for scientists, but I find it fascinating that their own education explicitly prepares them only for understanding the science. It's worth asking why this is so.
[When contemplating a policy recommendation, Schneider asks] what will it do to a poor person? It might affect the quality of protein on their family's table. It's a dilemma. On the one hand you have a moral principle: the polluter pays. On the other hand, the relative fraction of my disposable income that that would represent is much less than that of a poor person in a hot country, or even a poor person in the United States. Energy costs are in that sense a regressive tax.
The same goes for many proposed taxes, including the gasoline tax. It will encourage public transit, innovation, and fuel efficiency, but it will also aggressively target the rural poor (who do not have access to public transit and cannot afford new vehicles). The carbon tax, the panacea of the season, has many of the same difficulties.
How do you make deals where the over-consumers (us) work out a deal with the over-populated and the not yet fully consuming group (developing countries), so that they don't just repeat the Victorian Industrial Revolution with the sweatshops, dirty coal burning, internal combustion engine, etc.? The answer is that these economies in transition need to leapfrog right over it to high technology. Exhibit C: cell-phone.
In central China, Schneider explains, there are no traditional telephone lines, but there are millions of cellular phones. Our collective efforts, therefore, should be put to convincing China to invest in infrastructures that support cleaner utilities. [more]

briefs: power and evidence

in the cultural world, science has a monopoly on material evidence
Natalie Jeremijenko to Lawrence Krauss in this discussion.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

the value of biodiversity

Occasionally, I find myself stunned to speechlessness. For those looking for the secret of inducing this state, try something like the following by Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution:

[Jeffrey Sachs'] new book Common Wealth devotes an entire chapter to this important topic. Sachs writes:

The main lesson of ecology is the interconnectedness of the various parts of an ecosystem and the dangers of abrupt, nonlinear, and even catastrophic changes caused by modest forcings...It is a basic finding that biological diversity increases the productivity and resilience of ecosystems. With more species filling more niches in a given location, a biodiverse ecosystem is better buffered against external shocks in is more adept at cycling nutrients, capturing solar radiation, utilizing water resources, and preventing the takeover of the system by single predators, weeds, or pathogens. In other words, preserving biodiversity helps to preserve all aspects of ecosystem functions. Removing one or more species from an ecosystem, for example, by selective harvesting of trees or fish or hunted animals, can lead to a cascade of ecological changes with large, adverse, and nonlinear effects on the functioning of the ecosystem.

Now, loyal MR readers may remember that I am genuinely uncertain how much we should worry about the loss of biodiversity. I do know the following:

1. Many smart people who know much more science than I do are very worried about the loss of biodiversity.

2. Given that the human population has ballooned for the foreseeable future, massive losses in biodiversity are inevitable. The question is how bad the marginal losses will be, if we do not adapt policy accordingly.

3. If I had to conduct a debate and argue that the marginal loss of biodiversity was going to be a tragedy for human beings (obviously, I can see the loss to animals, and yes I do count that for something), I would not do very well.
What is there to say at this point? I can expand on what Sachs says. I can clarify or give examples. But ultimately, the logic is what it is. To me, it looks profoundly sound. To Cowen, it doesn't.

Is there anything else to say?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

briefs: peer review

passing peer review is better understood as saying a paper is not obviously wrong, not obviously redundant and not obviously boring, rather than as saying it's correct, innovative and important
three-toed sloth

Monday, 7 April 2008

you can die from that -- UPDATE UPDATE

Blogging as the new sweatshop? Methinks the NYT is a little shrill. Yes, two bloggers have died of heart attacks, presumably brought on by stress, unhealthy eating, and the extreme sedentary behavior that comes with blogging for a living (when you work from home, it's always there, and as a result, so are you).

Fortunately for you, dear reader, I don't get paid for my blog, so there's no stress, and I just came back from a run, so I don't think I'll be one of the statistics. I just hope my health insurance premiums don't go up as a result of my dangerous pastimes (oh wait, that's right... I live in Canada now).

For the record, tech bloggers sometimes earn $30-70k/year, and even the 'self-employed' can sometimes pull in $1000/month. But science bloggers aren't quite as popular as tech bloggers. I'd wager philosophy of science blogs are less popular still. That doesn't mean I'm not jealous.

(hat tip Pure Pedantry)

See my previous posts on death and dying.

genetically modified foods at the farm stand?

In continuing my clear obsession with food:

I'm looking forward to hearing more about Lauren Doucette's project which aims to measure the total energy expended in getting food from field to fork.
It takes as much energy to run the farmer's market for a day as it does to run a household for a year. The newspaper latched onto that stat, though, as Lauren stated but the reporter did not include, such a figure is meaningless until it is compared with other markets. How much does Kroger use? Food Lion? The Kwik-E-Mart? (For a start, consider consumers getting there, producers delivering products, the energy to operate the facility itself, and so on...)
More from World's Fair.

I'm also delighted to hear that for at least some people the organic food movement is more than luddite ideology.

To meet the appetites of the world's population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.

This idea is anathema to many people, especially the advocates who have helped build organic farming into a major industry in richer countries.... Most organic farming trade organizations are deeply, viscerally opposed to genetically engineered crops and seeds....

But ultimately, this resistance hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the beneficial effects of organic farming - a thoughtful, ecologically minded approach to growing food - will likely remain small.

Organic farming alone is too resource intensive--lower yields mean more acreage devoted to agriculture. On the other hand, genetic engineering alone is only a temporary solution in the arms race against insects.
After seven years of pesticide reductions in Bt cotton fields in China, populations of other insects increased so much that farmers had to resume spraying certain insecticides. Organic farmers, by contrast, control these secondary pests by introducing beneficial insects that feed on the pests and by rotating crops to reduce the overall pest populations.
More from Boston.com.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

ye of little faith

Today we sat down with an inter-faith network of Liberian religious leaders to talk about their peace building plans. They are a truly inspiring organization, building local capacity to resolve conflicts, and training mediators to resolve disputes in the community. The countryside is, to some extent, a powder keg, and they are building local early warning systems and rapid response capability to potentially serious conflicts.

Moreover, to reduce tensions in conflict-prone places, these religious leaders--principally Muslims and Christians--do not just aspire to a new social contract, they sit down with ethnic and religious leaders in each village and coax them to actually write one, specifying norms and sanctions.

And they want to know if it's working.

I hum and haw about comparison groups, going through my impact evaluation 101 schpiel. I have serious concerns that one would or could develop a control group, let alone randomize, for such a program. So I dance delicately around the subject.

"Wait a minute," interrupts the Imam, "Are you talking about a randomized control trial?"

I gape.

"Oh I see!" says one Reverend Minister, "We need a control group! This is a good idea."

It turns out his holiness was once an agronomist. "This is just like our control plots for fertilizer. But how are we going to control for spillover effects?"

An older Methodist leader frowns sitting in the corner glowers. "Please, a moment," he says. "I see a real problem here."

Here it comes. Here is the doubt and questioning I expected. We're talking about a peace building exercise, not fertilizer on a farm plot. Even I have my reservations. This man, of an older generation, clearly has other priorities.

"How," he asks "are we going to select a proper sample?"
via Marginal Revolution

water balloon fight!


Saturday, 5 April 2008

product and process

The inimitable J.E.H. Smith from 3QD, in the style of 18th century Scientific Society:

It is reported that with the aid of convex lenses a sharp-eyed Hollander has discovered countless little animals in the male seed, which do propel themselves about, like so many tadpoles, by means of a long, whip-like tail. We would like to know whether these spermatic worms might play a role in the generation of animals and men, or whether they are not rather the product of putrefaction, like the worms that we see spontaneously generated in rotten meat, and in the interstices betwixt our teeth. We would also like to know how this Hollander obtained his seed sample, whether his wife was not implicated in its procuring, and whether in his view the abomination of Onan is not in some way cancelled out by the great contribution this "waste" of seed has made to the advancement of medical knowledge.

A familiar story, indeed, to anyone who has sat through "Scientific Revolutions" at the University of Toronto. He continues:

We have received news of the "science wars" raging in the universities of lands less advanced than ours. It appears one of the belligerent camps asserts that science is only a "narrative," and is in no way superior to other folk practices, like musical theatre, or gin-rummy. Are these people mad? Could they perhaps use a drop of lamb's blood in their veins too? And what could they know of science? Do they belong to Scientific Societies, such as ours? Or do they teach English literature, like The Red Badge of Courage, Oliver Twist, and Old Yeller? Please tell us: what do these people know of science?

Would that we could return to days when readers could be trusted to draw the right conclusion from passages such as these.

Friday, 4 April 2008

subway shenanigans

To change or not to change? Toronto subway station heritage is being threatened. The 69 stations are stylistically linked with symmetric alternating tile colors, but the TTC recently decided to allow changes to 64 of those stations. Some renovations are already underway, including those at Museum station (before, above; after, below).

Some Torontonians are upset that "Museum station, a tidy, intact model of TTC subway design that will be tarted up with Egyptian caryatids."

I have to disagree. What "tarts up" the TTC are ads (revenues from which by the way cover less than 5% of operating costs).

The original subway design (minus the ads) had two virtues: simplicity and homogeneity. The design had little visual clutter and added visual cues (standard fonts and a colored band corresponding to the subway line) to help passengers orient themselves.

As long as the new designs tie in to their geographic surroundings--as the Museum Station redesign does--I see it as an improvement.

you can die from that -- UPDATE

Regular readers already know you can die from that, but here's the other piece of the puzzle: how likely is it?

1 in 4870 lifetime chance of dying in a fall from bed.
1 in undefined lifetime chance of dying by being bitten or crushed by "other reptiles."
1 in 125,655 lifetime chance of dying from hot tap water.
1 in 72,494 lifetime chance of being legally executed (should this be called a 'preventable death'?)
1 in 134,631* lifetime chance of dying as a result of operations of war and sequelae.

Surprisingly, there is only a 1 in 3,421 lifetime chance of dying from exposure to forces of nature. What the National Safety Council means by forces of nature, ironically, are what insurance companies usually call Acts of God -- cataclysmic events such as those described as miracles in the bible. Does the NSC have an agenda of which I wasn't aware?

* It should be noted that these numbers are for the United States. Since this figure counts 28 such deaths in 2004, it obviously refers to individuals in the US, not worldwide.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


Kinda cool: /. is "reporting on what may be the first computer attack to inflict physical harm on victims." Using "JavaScript and strobing GIFs," bogus messages triggered migraines and seizures in users.
Definitely not cool: the target. The nonprofit Epilepsy Foundation.
For about 3% of the 50 million epileptics worldwide, flashing lights and colors can trigger seizures. "'I don't fall over and convulse, but it hurts,' says [an IT worker in Ohio]. 'I was on the phone when it happened, and I couldn't move and couldn't speak.' ... Circumstantial evidence suggests the attack was the work of members of Anonymous, an informal collective of griefers best known for their recent war on the Church of Scientology. The first flurry of posts on the epilepsy forum referenced the site EBaumsWorld, which is much hated by Anonymous. And forum members claim they found a message board thread — since deleted — planning the attack at 7chan.org, a group stronghold."

burying the lede

Scientific American, ever a bastion for good history of science and balanced coverage of social science, has it in for economics.
The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline.
Nadeau criticizes economic theory for two deadly sins: stealing methods from physics and then not updating methods when the physics changed. The first is on the right track, the second is simply absurd.

Nadeau's criticism of neoclassical economics should be as follows: The physical calculus introduced to economics because of familiarity carries with it ontological implications that do not hold for economic systems. Economists failed to learn this lesson and improve the calculus, and as a result economics remains unable to deal appropriately with environmental problems.

In fact, Nadeau runs his argument almost completely off a cliff. He pollutes his account with distracting tidbits about how the "old" physical theory has since been updated--in physics. What happened in physics is irrelevant to his argument: it might have been the case that the calculus of the old physical theory was the correct basis for economics. It isn't, and that should be the focus of his criticism.

A few of Nadeau's specific criticisms of neoclassical economic theory are worthwhile. For example, under such a theory, "the market system is a closed circular flow between production and consumption, with no inlets or outlets." This seems not to be true, and altering the calculus to allow for inlets and outlets might, as Nadeau suggests, better allow for the inclusion of natural resources within economics.

In the end, Nadeau gets it about right:

If the environmental crisis did not exist, the fact that neoclassical economic theory provides a coherent basis for managing economic activities in market systems could be viewed as sufficient justification for its widespread applications. But because the crisis does exist, this theory can no longer be regarded as useful even in pragmatic or utilitarian terms because it fails to meet what must now be viewed as a fundamental requirement of any economic theory—the extent to which this theory allows economic activities to be coordinated in environmentally responsible ways on a worldwide scale.

Why not lead with that?

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

philosophy of stamp collecting

Ernst Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, once airily declared "In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting". By this he meant that the theory of physics is the only significant thing in science. Such mundane activities as taxonomy in biology were just sampling contingent examples of physics.
John Wilkins is amused because string theorists are beginning to classify their zoo of theories. "The last significant English speaking philosopher of science to discuss classification in science at length," he says, "was W. Stanley Jevons in his 1873 book, second edition 1878." After that, "Classification dropped out of philosophy of science for a century." That's a little pat, but Wilkins is largely right: until fairly recently, philosophy of science was about scientific theory, not scientific practice. Wilkins wants philosophy of science to attend to "a slew of scientific activities that can include the field biologist, the museum curator, the naive experimentalist, and so on, all of which was excluded from 'real' science by the analytic post-logical empiricist tradition."

Wilkins proposes to chart the activities of science on theory-classification and experimental-observational axes. This brings home the point that philosophy of science has focused on the upper left quadrant to the exclusion of all else.

The exclusion of classification from 'real' science has always irked biologists and other scientists who actually do it. "Hence my amusement," explains Wilkins.
While these physicists are trying to order the vast field of possibilities into a logical structure, which is only one kind of classification, they are not, as yet, happy about passive observation, and indeed in the context of string theory, or physics in general, it is hard to see what might count as passive observation. But there is a kind of passivity to observation even when it relies on technical apparatus like the Large Hadron Collider - you see the readouts, displays or cloud chamber photos without much in the way of theory - the interpretation is what requires theory.
But here Wilkins goes too far (or not far enough?) To take technical apparatus like the Large Hadron Collider as given is as much a mistake as ignoring classification. What enables the interpretation of results from the LHC is the design, construction and tuning of the instrument, and none of these is passive.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

you paid HOW MUCH to destroy the universe?

There is a nonzero chance the Large Hadron Collider's attempt to create black holes will result in a kind of matter called strangelets, which like cooties transform everything they touch.

It's somewhere in the region of the same nonzero chance that your underpants will instantly quantum tunnel their way out of your pants and onto your head, but nevermind; it's still enough for some folks (NYT) to litigate. There is even a facebook group devoted to the, um, cause.

I don’t know how you ever get comfortable with any level of risk of destroying the universe....

After all, the whole point of the Large Hadron Collider is to create conditions that are not predictable....

I can’t see the management of this project spending $8 billion, realizing it was a huge boner, and then holding a press conference suggesting it be turned into a parking garage. I’ll bet a lot of people in that position would take at least a 5% risk of incinerating the galaxy versus incinerating their own careers. I know I would.

As usual, it takes a cartoonist to get to the heart of the issue.

CERN's own cartoonish response is a 4-minute youtube video, with bonus soundtrack "From Yesterday" by 30 Seconds to Mars (who knew Jared Leto could sing?).