Thursday, 30 September 2010

what is creativity?

Steven Johnson argues that good ideas come from coffee shops. The basic idea seems to be that the kind of free-flowing discussion that happens in coffee shops is particularly conducive to the articulation of new ideas. I think that's right. More ideas come to fruition when people interact casually than when people sit alone in armchairs, and more (good) ideas come to fruition under the influence of caffeine than alcohol. But I suspect coffee shops are conducive to particular kinds of creativity -- especially combinatorial creativity or negation (pubs might be even more conducive to negation. Alcohol seems to fuel contrarians).

So what are some other forms of creativity?

Johnson describes one more, the  "long hunch," where the glimmerings of an idea are not yet fully articulated. Often, he says, what's needed is to connect up a number of half-ideas together into one good idea. So the "long hunch" is just a slow drip form of coffee shop creativity. Not really a new kind at all. But Johnson's explanation of the "long hunch" isn't satisfying to me. I think something else is going on.

John Wilkins, who has clearly thought more about this than I have, suggests a candidate, what he calls deep novelty. First, some preliminaries:
we have a frame of prior contrasts in which we typically (and traditionally, since these are inherited from teachers and other cultural influences) set up our problems and thoughts.
Wilkins pictures these contrasts as dimensions in a space of possibilities, explaining that
If you think that God may or may not exist, for example, then believing God does exist is to assert a coordinate in a binary space. If you think God’s existence is a matter of confidence or likelihood, then you settle on (if you do) a coordinate on a continuum.
On this view, coffee shop creativity involves mixing up or applying contrasts in new ways. But there are clear limits to this kind of creativity. "Our semantic world is the sum of all the contrastive axes of that space," which means that it simply isn't possible to express any idea that doesn't fall into the existing contrastive spaces.
To be clear, "our beliefs at any time are the coordinates we assert," and the possible beliefs we have the tools to understand are limited to the sum of the contrastive axes. Anything inside this space will be the combination, permutation, or negation of something pre-existing.
But there's another kind of creativity: "something is deeply novel if an entirely new contrast is added to the space."
I think this is a much better way to understand what's going on with a "slow hunch." To use Johnson's example, Darwin may have had all of the pieces to evolution, but he wasn't able to articulate how they fit together because he didn't yet have the relevant contrast. Once he had the contrastive structure in place, he could fit all the pieces together.
There's one emendation I'd make to Wilkins' account: it's also possible to stretch, shrink, or otherwise reshape existing contrasts. A mundane example of this happened when I moved from the United States to Canada and saw the political spectrum to the left suddenly unfurl and go for miles and miles kilometres and kilometres.
The remaining question (perhaps for cognitive scientists?) is how we come to have new contrasts.
In my dissertation (which is mostly about other things), I suggest that novel contrasts sometimes come about in the development of new scientific instruments. It's a complicated story, but the basic idea is that instrument design puts our conceptual understanding of the functioning of the instrument into conversation with its actual material capacities. We reshape both our ideas and the material instrument with the intention of producing an acceptable degree of agreement between concept and material. We're then able to use the instrument to provide evidence for scientific explanations. And scientific explanations consist in the selection of one state of affairs from a specified set of possible states of affairs (a contrast class).
One day soon, I hope to have the semantic space to explain that more clearly.

a case study in why explaining anything is hard

From Abstruse Goose:

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Dear Mom,

I plan to beat this average.

Your Son

(The longest doctoral program in the nation is the music program at Washington University in St. Louis, with a median length of 16.3 years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The link is here. Via Marginal Revolution.

fermi paradox

SMBC gets it right again:

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Science journalism how-to

Last month, I wrote about misusing quantum mechanics.

Martin Robbins has taken it to the next level:
This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.
In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won't provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can't be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.
"Basically, this is a brief soundbite," the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. "The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on," she or he will continue.
Hat tip to loyal reader ZM.


via Swansontea:

Monday, 27 September 2010

on invoking the right to remain silent

In the recent case of Berghuis v. Thompkins the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four that persons being interviewed by the police are required to articulate their answers to the Miranda warning that they have the right to remain silent. 
This is certainly contrary to my intuition. If someone tells me I have the right to remain silent, I would assume that remaining silent is enough.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, opined that Thompkins' mere silence in the face of questioning was not a clear and unambiguous invocation of his right to remain silent.
From the point of view of the questioning officer, requiring an explicit invocation of a right removes ambiguity. But how should suspects be informed that this is the case?

For the record,
Justice Sotomayer wrote the dissenting opinion, saying (1) that it is counterintuitive for defendants to speak after they are told they have the right to remain silent, (2) that in such cases detectives should presume that the suspects have invoked their rights to silence when they remain silent for almost three hours of questioning [as in this specific case], and (3), citing Miranda: "…the fact that an individual eventually made a statement is consistent with the conclusion that the compelling influence of the interrogation finally forced him to do so. It is inconsistent with any notion of a voluntary relinquishment of the privilege."

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Vaccines don't cause autism

In case anyone needs a reminder: vaccines do not cause autism.
The final two groups that were studied consisted of 256 children with ASD [autism spectrum disorders] and 752 matched controls. One very interesting aspect that looks as though it were almost certainly placed into the experimental design based on concerns of anti-vaccine advocates like Sallie Bernard is a group of children who underwent regression. Basically, the study examined whether there was a correlation between ASD and TCV [thimerosal-containing vaccines, i.e. mercury-containing vaccines] exposure. It also examined two subsets of ASD, autistic disorder (AD) and ASD with regression, looking for any indication whether TCVs were associated with any of them. Regression was defined as: "the subset of case-children with ASD who reported loss of previously acquired language skills after acquisition." 
So what did the investigators find? I think you probably know the answer to that question. They found nothing. Nada. Zip. There wasn't even a hint of a correlation between TCV exposure and either ASD, AD, or ASD with regression: "There were no findings of increased risk for any of the 3 ASD outcomes. The adjusted odds ratios (95% confidence intervals) for ASD associated with a 2-SD increase in ethylmercury exposure were 1.12 (0.83-1.51) for prenatal exposure, 0.88 (0.62-1.26) for exposure from birth to 1 month, 0.60 (0.36-0.99) for exposure from birth to 7 months, and 0.60 (0.32- 0.97) for exposure from birth to 20 months."
(via Kottke)

Friday, 24 September 2010

Talk about a single-payer system

The UK's tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer.
More here.

That's... efficient.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A case for meat eating

Simon Fairlie argues, contra vegans, that eating meat isn't bad in itself. It's current farming models that deserve our ire, not their product. From the Guardian (via Kottke):
But idiocies [like feeding human-edible grain to cows], Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model. He demonstrates that we've been using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different. 
Efficiency is the ratio of useful work performed by a process as compared with the total energy expended. What we slot into those boxes says everything about our values. What vegans (the ones worried about efficiency) are up in arms about is that large tracts of arable land are being used to feed cows instead of people. Fairlie is saying that needn't be the case, and it would be best to compare the overall amount of land dedicated to growing food for humans in each case.
If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands -- food for which humans don't compete -- meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it's a significant net gain.
It seems like there's a problem here. Vegans say that if we stop feeding human-edible grain to cattle, then we reclaim all of that land for growing human food. Fairlie is saying that we can do that -- and have our cattle too. We'll just have the cattle eat something else, something humans don't eat, like grass. But that land was doing something else before -- it's not as though there's an infinite amount of arable land just waiting for cattle to be put on it. We've gone from a system in which X acres feed humans directly and Y acres feed the cows that feed humans to a system in which X+Y acres feed humans directly, and Z acres feed the cows that feed humans. That's a net increase in acres, but whether there is a proportional increase in food for humans is complicated even in a simplified grain-and-cows model.

Part of what Fairlie is suggesting is that better (meaning more robust, sustainable, and efficient by some measure) agricultural practices would by their nature produce an opportunity to feed cattle: instead of dumping nitrogen onto the same fields year after year, we would actually rotate crops, and at least some of the crops in rotation would be food for cattle and not for people. But these better practices (and I agree that they are better) require more land to produce the same yield.

More than likely, Fairlie discusses much of this in the book (I haven't read it), so I don't mean to impugn him. I simply want to point out that this is a hard problem, and one whose solution depends on a fair bit of empirical work.

For most people who worry about such things and want to do something about it, the only plausible choice is to stop eating meat.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Links for 22 September

How panhandlers use their money.
A brief history of publication.
Essays via the iTunes model.
A lit review on serifs and readability.
A store for time travellers. (h/t SA)
Deleting one gene makes mice smart. (h/t GL)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Visual Representation in Science workshop

Aaron of  False Vacuum is organizing a workshop on Visual Representation to be held at IHPST in December. Here's the poster:


I hope they don't start giving engineers "special treatment" at the TSA. 
Nearly 20 percent of [right wing terrorists] had engineering degrees.
While terrorist groups probably have incentives to recruit engineers and others with specialized knowledge, the statistical anomaly holds for right wing terrorists, not left wing ones.
The engineer mind-set, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, might be a mix of emotional conservatism and intellectual habits that prefers clear answers to ambiguous questions — “the combination of a sharp mind with a loyal acceptance of authority.”

Sunday, 19 September 2010

the world is awesome

I'm straight-up stealing these links from Uncertain Principles because they're so good:

  • ' A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer. The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.'

  • 'In the last two weeks, both water and fire tornadoes have been widely covered by the media. First there was the dramatic shots from Japan of a so-called 'waterspout,' then there was the unbelievable footage of this fire tornado in Brazil, followed immediately by this one from Hawaii. And as any good physicists would have, we immediately thought 'I want to do that!'

    Of course, APS requires me to tell you not to try this at home. So, here's how you would do this, if you were to find yourself attempting to do it, which you should absolutely under no circumstances try to do.'

Saturday, 18 September 2010

city streets

Via KottkeFelix Salmon's diagnosis of the problematic status of bikes in New York:
Bikes can and should behave much more like cars than pedestrians. They should ride on the road, not the sidewalk. They should stop at lights, and pedestrians should be able to trust them to do so. They should use lights at night. And -- of course, duh -- they should ride in the right direction on one-way streets. None of this is a question of being polite; it's the law. But in stark contrast to motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules, most cyclists seem to treat the rules of the road as strictly optional. They're still in the human-powered mindset of pedestrians, who feel pretty much completely unconstrained by rules. 
The result is decidedly suboptimal for all concerned, but mostly for the bicyclists themselves. New York needs to make a collective quantum leap, from treating bicyclists like pedestrians to treating bicyclists like motorists. And unless and until it does, bike relations will continue to be marked by hostility and mistrust.
I've been a huge fan of city cycling since I saw it working in Holland. But it just doesn't work without the infrastructure and social conventions to support it. New York clearly doesn't have it figured out yet. 

The problem in Toronto seems to be somewhat different. Cyclists usually stick to the roads, but automobile drivers aren't doing enough to accommodate cyclists, and that leads to a different, even more deadly kind of hostility and mistrust. As a result, I am not terribly comfortable cycling in the city (walking and TTC seem safer and more convenient, though that may be an illusion).

Mixed use streets aren't the culprit here. They work in Holland. North American cities are the culprit. We're too individualistic to be comfortable sharing anything, even public spaces like roads.

I've been the hostile jerk myself, occasionally. I'm a runner, and on a bad day it can be easy to externalize my frustrations on the pedestrians who are "in my way." Pedestrians are oblivious to their surroundings. I'm sure I'm no better when I'm walking: engrossed in conversation or with earphones in, I must miss most of what goes on around me. And then there are the walking clichés -- the four-abreast slow-walkers, the suit coming to a sudden halt to answer a text message, the woman walking out of a door without looking or slowing, the gentleman who meanders slowly to the left so that I don't know on which side to pass him, the dogs on leashes (and some without)... it's dangerous out there for a runner, let alone a cyclist.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The future has a name

What will the first hand-held laser weapon be called? How about the first handheld that provides medical or environmental scans?

Virtually everyone (not just nerds) knows the answer. Phasers and tricorders ... and warp drives, transporters, and tractor beams. The future isn't determined, but if certain technologies come into existence, we already know what names they will have. Part of it is that engineers are actively seeking to build the devices imagined in science fiction. And part of it is that there's no better marketing than to evoke childhood memories.

Of course, it can go too far. Here's a recent headline, plus a bit of the article itself:

Their new technique can move objects one hundred times that size over a distance of a meter or more.
The device works by shining a hollow laser beam around tiny glass particles. The air surrounding the particle heats up, while the dark center of the beam stays cool. When the particle starts to drift out of the middle and into the bright laser beam, the force of heated air molecules bouncing around and hitting the particle’s surface is enough to nudge it back to the center.
That's really clever. But it isn't a tractor beam;
it can’t work in the vacuum of outer space.
I think the future is going to face the problem of meaning dilution for sci-fi words.

(Swans on Tea was there first.)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

why things are broken

TED is famous for its great talks. But sometimes, people give great talks at other venues. Fortunately, TED grabs up these talks too, and calls them "Best of the Web" talks.

Here's a great one by Seth Godin on why so many things in the modern world seem broken.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin: This is broken

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

cool idea

A more efficient air conditioner, via Kottke:
“We’ve discovered what we think is a new concept in air conditioning,” says Ron Judkoff, the principal program manager on the project. “We recognize its potential, but it has a ways to go before it’s out of the lab and available to consumers.”
The new, patented system abandons the power-hungry compressor-driven refrigeration process used in many domestic (and virtually all commercial) air conditioners in favor of a couple of high-efficiency pumps and fans. But it also uses water for evaporative cooling — a concept familiar to many people living in the arid West who have roof-mounted “swamp coolers.”
Swamp coolers work well when the outside air is dry, as evaporating water carries away heat, cooling and moistening the air that is re-circulated into the house.
The new system adds a desiccant to the standard swamp cooler setup to promote effectiveness even in humid heat. 

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

economies of scale

This might come as news to war hawks. Or stimulus hawks.

But to repeat the impact of World War II today would require a truly massive effort. Replicating the six-fold increase in the federal budget that was seen in the early 1940s would result in a nearly $20 trillion budget today. That equates to $67,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. Surely, the tremendous GDP growth created by such spending would make short work of the so-called Great Recession. 
To a degree that will surprise many, the US funded its World War II effort largely by raising taxes and tapping into Americans' personal savings. Both of those avenues are nowhere near as promising today as they were in 1941 Current tax burdens are now much higher than they were before the War, so raising taxes today would be much more difficult. The "Victory Tax" of 1942 sharply raised income tax rates and allowed, for the first time in our nation's history, taxes to be withheld directly from paychecks. The hikes were originally intended to be temporary but have, of course, far outlasted their purpose. It would be unlikely that Americans would accept higher taxes today to fund a real war, let alone a pretend one.
That leaves savings, which was the War's primary source of funding. During the War, Americans purchased approximately $186 billion worth of war bonds, accounting for nearly three quarters of total federal spending from 1941-1945. Today, we don't have the savings to pay for our current spending, let alone any significant expansions. Even if we could convince the Chinese to loan us a large chunk of the $20 trillion (on top of the $1 trillion we already owe them), how could we ever pay them back?

Monday, 13 September 2010

writing tips

In keeping with today's "back to school" theme, Michael C. Munger has a great piece on writing in grad school.
Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years—the people everyone admired and looked up to—suddenly aren't so stellar anymore. And a few of the marginal students—the ones who didn't care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment—are suddenly sending their own papers off to journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars.

The difference is not complicated. It's writing.
Munger continues with 10 great writing tips (most of the tips are obvious, but obviously still needed, since most of us don't follow them!)

My favourite:
4. Give yourself time. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies like, "I do my best work at the last minute." Look: It's not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, you are a smart person. But if you are writing about a profound problem, why would you think that you can make an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night just before the conference?

Writers sit at their desks for hours, wrestling with ideas. They ask questions, talk with other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunch more. Don't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don't just write down ideas.

The articles and books that will be read decades from now were written by men and women sitting at a desk and forcing themselves to translate profound ideas into words and then to let those words lead them to even more ideas. Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or even time, an image of the ideas that exist in only your mind at this one instant.

(h/t GL)

academic reading how-to

For my friends who are starting grad school, preparing for quals, or just starting coursework again... the reading probably already looks pretty daunting. And it is. But here are a few tips on getting by.

First, Chad  explains how to read scientific papers without reading every word. (Hint: it applies to HPS papers too!)

The first and most important point is to Know What You're Looking For. Different bits of information are found in different places and in different forms, so what you're looking for will determine where you look, and how you find it.

For example, if you're just trying to get a general sense of what a given paper is about, it's often enough to read only the introduction and conclusion. If you're just after a specific numerical result, it's probably in the abstract, or toward the end of the paper.

You should also be aware that what you're looking for may not be in the paper you're reading. If you want a sense of the context of a field, you're often looking for a reference to earlier work, possibly a review article. If you want the gory details of a measurement technique, you may very well be looking for some reference to an earlier or longer paper by the same group (a sentence of the form "using the method of [citation of earlier paper]"), or, even more annoyingly, some online supplement to the article you have.

(Of course, read the whole thing.)

Next, read Timothy Burke's How to Read in College.

Finally, check out John Bean's Helping Students Read Difficult Texts.


See also Jon's teaching tip on teaching critical reading in history.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

deriving in the rain

If you are caught in the rain, will you get wetter running to shelter, walking, or standing still?

This is the sort of thing I think about for the half-second it takes me to gear up for the dash to shelter when I'm caught in the open by one of Toronto's sudden downpours.

Standing still, I present a relatively small surface area to the falling rain -- in a vertical downpour, just my head and shoulders. When I move through the vertical rain, I collide with water droplets that would otherwise have passed me by -- but the same amount of water should strike my top surfaces (I move out of the paths of some droplets, but into the paths of others). Standing still wins in the first approximation.

On the other hand, I'll be in the downpour for a shorter period of time, so fewer droplets will strike my head after all. Running wins in the second approximation.

Jesse, of The Virtuosi derives mathematical support for the running side of things, concluding that "if you are Usain Bolt, you can reduce how wet you get by almost a factor of two by going from a meander to a sprint!"

Saturday, 11 September 2010

11 September

On 11 September 2001, over a span of a few hours, I wrote down some thoughts and reactions to what was going on. I read it every year. It feels important to do that. I haven't changed or omitted anything. That feels important, too. Here's what I wrote:
I am disconnected, today.  It is the way I have always felt while watching disasters unfold on television, or even across a room.  I become the observer and introspector at the same time.  I become self-conscious.  I maintain a calm exterior, my mind stops working smoothly.  In fits and jerks, I move between the inner world and the outer, but there is no longer the feeling (illusion?) of connection between them.
Outside, people are confused, in disbelief, wonderment.  Senses widen, experience deepens.  Not for me.  I watch from behind the one-way mirror of my eyes.  Events occur, and I am in disbelief, but this is a secondary emotion.  Most of all I feel disconnected from the reality of the situation.  I am no longer a part of the world I live in; I am an observer.  Impotent.
Murmers of a distantly religious nature fill the air.  "God."  I cannot tell if they are asking or stating a fact.  No one seems to accuse Him.
As each new development breaks, bundles of intent onlookers clump near information outlets--television, radio, internet.  The internet is clogged.  The television signal is scratchy.  No on knows anything, but the cameras roll and the people talk.  8:45AM EST, a small plane crashes into the World Trade Center.  Half an hour later, while we are listening to the first rumors of this first incident, a passenger jet--an American 767 hijacked on its way from Boston to somewhere or somewhere to Boston--explodes into the other tower on live television.  The explosion, recorded from such a distance, is silent.  I am surprised at how movie-like the explosion seems.  I had always assumed such things were exaggerated for effect.
People are indecisive.  Myself included.  None of us are sure whether to watch or get back to work.  We waver between.  More rumors float about: a plane has crashed into the Pentagon building.  A fire burns in the nation's Mall.  The Whitehouse evacuated; the President speaks from an elementary school in Florida.
The nation reels from the blow.  All air travel comes to a halt.  Tunnels in and out of New York are closed down.  The Sears and other towers are evacuated.  One of the towers collapses, the smoke too thick to pierce with distant cameras.  Thousands had already been reported injured.  Surely that number has grown.  Trading stops on Wall Street.  Markets closed.
It has been over an hour now.  The news has settled slightly; people begin to digest, to think again.  Theories sprout.  Reactionary political statements are made.
The notion of going to war seems obvious to some, oddly distant and unlikely to me.
Strikes, actions, bombing--yes.  But war?  With whom?  Bin Laden?  Palestine?  Terrorism itself?
I read: the second tower has collapsed.  Another hijacked plane flies toward DC from the south.  Will we shoot it down?
Another plane crashes 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh.  A Palestinian Liberation group takes credit.
What the hell is going on?
An hour of conscious attempt to return to work, in addition to the conscious attempt to isolate myself from news outlets, has resulted not in a feeling of normalcy but in a feeling of inadequacy.  I cannot ignore the situation--to do so simply feels wrong.  At the same time, I have a responsibility to remain on task.  And I cannot possibly be of any help to the situation, or to the gossip circles that coalesce so easily today.
Why is this violence so inevitable?  Why does talking never seem to work?  How is it that the perpetrators believe these acts of terrorism could aid their cause?  Are these political acts?  Spiritual?  Symbolic?  Is there a difference?

Blogs of note

Blog fever has hit Toronto's HPS community, with the recent addition of The Bubble Chamber, there are at least half a dozen blogs written by my colleagues at IHPST.

Here are the Toronto blogs, in no particular order (I hope I haven't forgotten anyone):
  • Mike Thicke, Curtis Forbes, Michelle Hoffman, Jonathan Turner, Andrew Munro, Ellie Louson, Michael Cournoyea, and Rebecca Moore are all contributors to The Bubble Chamber (as time goes on, the list will grow).
  • Jaipreet Virdi discusses history of medicine, deafness, and quackery at From the Hands of Quacks.
  • Ellie Louson muses about grad school at Productive (adj).
  • Aaron Sidney Wright is a historian of physics who has been saying interesting things about scientific practice at his blog, False Vacuum.
  • Jonathan Turner writes about grad school, teaching, and Cold War defence research in Canada over at Boffins and Cold Warriors.
  • Sarah Kriger's Ramblings are more focused on writing, plays, and television than on her research, but it's still great stuff.
  • Allan Olley occasionally discusses his work on the history of computing on 4ll4n0.
While I'm at it, here are a few of my favourite non-Toronto HPS blogs:
That makes for a lot of reading!

Friday, 10 September 2010

A new demarcation problem

The demarcation between science and non-science (or science and pseudoscience) isn't clear.

That's been a source of worry for philosophers of science as long as there have been philosophers of science. Abstractly, the problem is one of splitting hairs: the very lifeblood of (some) philosophy. But answers to the demarcation question have definite and important implications far beyond the groves of academe. I won't bother rehearsing those implications now.

Swans on Tea points me to David Brin's take on things, which cuts against the grain. Rather than distinguishing between science and non-science, why not distinguish between skeptics and a deniers.
What discrete characteristics distinguish a rational, pro-science “climate skeptic” who has honest questions about the AGW consensus from members of a Denialist Movement that portrays all members of a scientific community as either fools or conspirators?
I urge you to read the whole thing.

See also this, from my colleagues at The Bubble Chamber.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Links for 9 September

Your philosophic beliefs matter for your real world performance. (Via.)
Soon, helium will cost 10,000 times what it does today.
Small schools stand out because they are more variable. Lesson: look for the outliers at both ends.
Casino "carpets are deliberately designed to obscure and camouflage gambling chips that have fallen onto the floor."
Here's what white people really like -- according to their own OKcupid profiles. (h/t CH)
Worried about all those snakes you have on your plane? Try tylenol addled mice.
Reverse psychology.
A review of Merchants of Doubt. See also this.

(Apologies for seeming like a "best of Marginal Revolution" roundup this week.)

back to school

For those of you starting a new school year, here are 9 evidence-supported study tips:
  1. Adopt a growth mindset. "Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle."
  2. Sleep well.
  3. Forgive yourself for procrastinating.
  4. Test yourself.
  5. Pace your studies. "the optimal time to leave material before reviewing it is 10 to 30 per cent of the period you want to remember it for."
  6. Vivid examples may not always work best.
  7. Take naps.
  8. Get handouts prior to the lecture
  9. Believe in yourself.
That advice may seem obvious. Fine -- but let that serve as #10: you don't have to be original.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Monday, 6 September 2010

How big is the solar system?

Big. Here is a 8,500,000,000:1 scale model of the solar system. (From/Via)
On an ordinary 72 dpi monitor it’s just over half a mile wide, making it possibly one of the largest pages on the web.
I had forgotten that Neptune is so much farther than Saturn.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

How to raise an athlete

1. Give birth between January and March.
2. Raise your future superstar in a small city.
3. Make them practice for 10,000 hours.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Sentences to ponder

A nice observation from Ezra Klein via Marginal Revolution:
Campaigns are built to fool us into thinking that we're voting for individuals. We learn about the candidate's family, her job, her background -- even her dog. But we're primarily voting for parties. The parties have just learned we're more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as individuals. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

Can heavy metal singers actually sing?

Some can. (via Kottke)
A classically trained voice teacher has a listen to Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden) and Ozzy Osbourne (of course). Of Dickenson she says:
I have nothing but admiration for this singer. Listen how he starts off with a soft growl, then moves seamlessly into a well-supported, sustained high full-voice sound that then evolves into an effortless long scream! His diction is easily intelligible, regardless of the range he's singing in or the effect he's going for. He achieves an intensely rhythmic delivery of the lyrics without losing legato and musical momentum, something a lot of classical singers struggle with, especially when interpreting the many staccato and accent markings that crowd scores by Bellini, Donizetti, etc.
Click through for her assessment of Ozzy.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Markets in everything, personal services edition

A number of people have been hiring “virtual” assistants in lower-wage countries to do all the tasks in their life that don’t require a personal presence. ...
[One man] has his assistant seducing women for him. His assistant, who is female and lives in India, logs onto his account on a popular dating site, browses profiles and (pretending to be him) makes connections with women on the site. She has e-mail conversations and arranges first dates. Then her employer reads the e-mail conversation and goes to the date.
"Gee you're nothing like I imagined you from your emails!"

Thursday, 2 September 2010

we are all apprentices

It is long, so here is a précis:

Evolutionary psychologists seek to explain the origins of universal human traits, like markedly high intelligence, language, tool-use, and social structures. The details of these explanations vary greatly in timing and detail (e.g., was it cooking food or an environmental shift that made the difference?) but almost all such explanations begin with some common assumptions.

First, "human evolutionary change has been self-generated through positive feedback." This kind of structure helps to explain why the traits of interest are unique to humans and universal among them. The elements of the feedback loop are (a) complex social environments and (b) high cognitive ability. Notice how this works: selection for co-operation also selects for free-riders. But the drag of free-riders selects for vigilance. And vigilance is accomplished with higher intelligence. Higher intelligence allows for greater social complexity (and co-operation). And so on.

Second, "adaptive response to our complex environment depends on innate, evolved, special purpose cognitive mechanisms, for it is only such mechanisms that enable us gather and deploy the information on which action depends." This is commonly known as the "modularity hypothesis," "the idea that our minds are ensembles of innately equipped special purpose devices; devices which adapt us to the challenges posed to our foraging Pleistocene ancestors; challenges which largely persist today. Our minds are integrated arrays of devices each of which solves a particular problem with remarkable efficiency." (e.g., face recognition or cheater detectors.) 

It is this second piece of the puzzle Sterelny takes issue with. In order for such modules to evolve, the information structure would have to remain stable for long periods of time. In some cases, this might be reasonable -- crudely (and slightly off-topic), tigers have always been about the same size and speed, so a tiger-avoidance module could stabilize. But many important features of our information environment have changed drastically, and too rapidly for (genetic) evolution to keep pace. We have become more sedentary and traded field for market and rocks for iPhones. "To the extent that the modularity hypothesis explains competent response to information-hungry problems by appeal to pre-loaded information, it is poorly posed to explain competent response to evolutionarily novel challenges."

Sterelny wants to trade out "modules" for "skills." Skills look a lot like modules: they are task-specific and fast. But there is a big difference: skills are learned wholesale, they are not modules just waiting for parameters to be set:
High volume, high fidelity, inter-generational cultural learning coevolves with social foraging. There is feedback. As the fidelity of social learning improves, social foraging becomes more effective, for technology and technique improve across the generations. As social foraging becomes more profitable, adults can more effectively support the next generation while they acquire skills and information. This loop depends on the fact that humans organise the learning world of the next generation. Humans (like many other organisms) modify their own environment. One important form of human niche construction is informational engineering. Humans of one generation act in ways that transform the learning environment of the next generation. Cultural learning is obviously central to human social life. But most cultural learning is hybrid learning; it is culturally enhanced trial and error learning. Very few humans acquire significant life skills just from instruction and demonstration; very few learn skills by unassisted exploration. Human children explore and experiment on their physical and social environment. But they often explore environments which have been shaped to make it easier or safer for them to acquire critical capacities.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

links for the week

TIME is VERY bullish on stimulus.

How to stop illegal advertising.

Sun may affect radioactive decay rates.

Sentences to ponder

From Marginal Revolution:
Where I live [Los Angeles] is culturally neutral. If I lived in New Orleans I would have to embrace the local culture because it's so good. In California you can be your own person.