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.]