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Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Desperate Need to Complain

There are many things that can be said about Lima that are not particularly pleasant (intense air pollution, gross humidity, large amounts of litter and garbage, and so on), but one thing that is surprisingly pleasant (especially for the climate) is an odd lack of insects. It would now seem that this is due to the startling amounts of pollution, since we left the city for the day and went to a nearby town along one of the rivers flowing toward Lima. In this town there were plenty of bugs, including some sort of weird sand fly that is far worse than mosquitoes (at least the typically disease-free ones of my home town in BC. Granted I will admit that malaria or West Nile carrying mosquitoes would be worse). However, on a physical bite-bite comparison, these little critters are worse. Where mosquitoes just make little bumps, these guys take out chunks of skin (I'm not sure how they manage it, because they are really tiny). This leaves a small circular open wound, but they also must inject a similar anesthetic and anti-coagulating agent to mosquitoes because the area surrounding the wound gets all red and itchy. Scratching the incredibly itchy bites, however, leads to itchy, painful, and bleeding bites because they are already open wounds. Anyway, there wasn't much of a point to this post, other than to point out that my legs are unpleasantly itchy and sore this morning, and I'm not a fan.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Gonna live it up down old South America way"

I just wanted to say that I am leaving my apartment tonight to spend the holidays in Peru with my family (it's complicated). I don't know what sort of internet access I will have or what sort of time I will have to spend on my blog, so there might not be a whole lot going on here for the next two weeks.

Also, just for giggles, I am going to start a blog contest and we'll see how it goes. When fitting, I will title posts using a quotation from something (denoted by quotation marks, just so people know a title is part of the contest. This is the second such post, the first being "That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth"). We will be using the honour system (no Googling the answer!), but whoever can tell me where the quotation is from (if it is a television show or movie, the character saying it and the context would be nice, if it is a song, just the band and song title is fine). There really isn't a prize (other than pride), but hopefully it will still be fun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Righteous Anger (or just bafflement)

I think virtually all people these days with access to the internet know of Wikipedia. Most people are also at least vaguely aware of the multitude of other wiki-style 'pedias' that have developed, including, for example, Wookieepedia for all things Star Wars. There is one such online encyclopedia, however, that is not as innocuously harmless (nor as cleverly named), and that is Conservapedia. My friend, Wisefly requested that I do a blog post discussing Conservapedia, as he decided my blog had healthy levels of liberal bias and social commentary that he didn't want to inject into his blog. As I am always flattered to get requests, I of course have decided to oblige.

To start off with, I think it is kind of ridiculous that the start of Conservapedia came about due to a student of its founder, Andrew Schlafly, using the Common Era style of dating (BCE and CE instead of BC and AD) after having seen it on Wikipedia. It is worth noting that the Common Era method of dating is identical to the Anno Domini method aside from the abbreviation used, so, while it is understandably a silly thing, is hardly anti-anything. Schlafly, however, took this to be evidence of the "liberal, anti-Christian, and anti-American bias" of Wikipedia and decided that something had to be done about it (in other words, create his own pocket of the internet where his own version of reality could reign supreme).

I have been unable to find an original source for this quotation, but I think it sums things up nicely: "Reality has a liberal bias." I mean, Wikipedia is not a political organization. It is an organization ostensibly based solely on verifiable fact, and makes every effort possible to remove bias of any sort. While it is impossible to remove all bias from writing, especially about controversial subjects, living persons, and competing entities, there is a strong effort to do so. I certainly don't troll the pages of Wikipedia looking for ideological confirmation of my deep-seated belief structure. That is not the point of an encyclopedia. To see the intense divorcement from reality that Conservapedia endures, one simply has to look at a couple articles. One particularly telling one is the Conservapedia article on Barack Obama. Within the first sentence, they use the word allegedly about his birth place and date (no doubt a shout-out to the crazies who insist that Barack Obama is not American and thus cannot be President). It then goes on to claim that Obama is an apparent Muslim (from whence did this become apparent?) who could use the Koran to be sworn into office. There is a reference, but if one decides to actually check what the reference is, not only is it from the Christian Science Monitor, it isn't even about Barack Obama. Instead, it is an outraged story about a congressman who actually is a Muslim wanting to use a Koran when taking his oath of office. I tried to read the rest of the article, but simply couldn't make it through (although the assertioan that Obama uses mind control was pretty hilarious).

It is unfortunate that people rarely follow references, because Conservapedia has a habit of giving references that are only tangentially related or directly contradictory to the statement they are making. For example, the article on PZ Myers used to state "In January 2008, Myers participated in a debate with Discovery Institute fellow Geoffrey Simmons on KMMS. He was unable to counter criticisms of the fossil record, in particular the absence of transitional forms in the whale fossil record. Geoffrey was invited back for an hour long talk the next week. PZ Myers now refuses to debate creation scientists." The reference given, however, was for a Youtube video hilariously (and accurately) titled, "PZ Myers destroys Geoffrey Simmons" (or something to that effect, the verb used may have been 'crushed' but unfortunately the video is no longer available). I am actually marginally impressed that Conservapedia has been somewhat mollified and now only states the first sentence.

Anyway, I could keep going, but it seems rather futile. Conservapedia is an insane mockery of an encyclopedia, divorced from reality and full of its own self-satisfied importance. It can be handy for a chuckle, though, and if you ever just need to shake your head in bafflement, peruse an article on Conservapedia. The most blood-boiling ones tend to be about either evolution or politics.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Century of Posts

This is my one hundredth published post, so I thought I would commemorate the occasion by talking about why one hundred is such a special number. The specialness of 100 is primarily rooted in our 10-based numerical system. Basically, 100 is nice because it is a large, uncomplicated number but not unmanageably large. It is also 10 x 10, making it a perfect square. However, we are so used to thinking in base-10 that we forget how much it colours our thinking of numbers. I suppose, to be entirely responsible, I should start with a description of what a base-n system of numbers is.

Any number which we can write as a decimal can be written as an additive sequence. I briefly covered this in my post on the Cantor Set, but I will repeat myself here to refresh your memories (also, please note that I will now use * for multiplication rather than x, simply because it is what I more used to writing on the computer). For example, the number 15.34 = 1*101 + 5*100 + 3*10-1 + 4*10-2. The base of your system is whatever number is being raised to the exponent in the expanded representation of the number. There are some other base systems that receive widespread use, the most famous and popular being the binary system (base-2). When looking at the Cantor Set, we used the ternary system (base-3), and in many computer science problems it is useful to use base-8 or base-16 (base-16 gets somewhat awkward to use since we need additional symbols beyond 0-9 to represent values up to 15. The letters A-F substitute in an unpleasant mixture of letters and numbers, which is why, despite my fondness for the number 16, I resent base-16 (also called hexadecimal)). Those, of course, are not the only possible systems, since one could potentially choose any base.

If we did not use base-10, then, 100 would cease to be such an exciting number. While it would still have the property of being a perfect square, it would no longer be any more special than 36 or 49 (though I think I would still like it more than 49 since it is even, and I have an irrational dislike of odd numbers). There would be other ramifications, however. 5 would no longer be as special as it is, since it would no longer be half of the base. If we used a base-6 system, 3 would take on many of the nice properties of 5, becoming even more popular than it already is, and 5 would be relegated to the awkward position of 7 or 11 as an ungainly prime number. The reason the properties of numbers change based on the system one is working with is because of the tricks you learn to do mental math. If you are not working in a base-10 system, then multiplying by 10 no longer simply shifts things one position over and adds a zero. Instead, whatever the base of your system now does that. The entire numerical field in one's head must twist and contort to fit the new system.

The funny thing is, I have a really hard time picturing any of these ramifications, because my mind automatically works hard at translating things back into decimal. It is one of the reasons I find the binary system nicer to work with than the ternary system, since it is easier to mentally translate binary to decimal and thereby visualize what I am working with. Numbers have their properties in my head based on the decimal system, much like words have their meanings rooted very strongly in English. I might know some German words, but they are more like code words in which I have memorized their English translation rather than additional words with subtle connotations in their own right. Likewise, German grammar is an artificial system of rules that I must impose upon the sentences which I compose in my head in English. My Russian is much better, in that there are things I can successfully 'think in Russian' about, and I suppose that might happen if I were to exclusively operate in another numerical base for a while. I can even see that starting to happen with the ternary system and the Cantor Set, because I am perfectly happy to do the majority of my Cantor Set thinking in ternary. It just makes relating that to other areas of mathematics somewhat burdensome, because then I am stuck trying to mentally translate the entirely unwieldy ternary system to decimal.

Anyway, this isn't exactly the post I had envisioned to commemorate my 100th blog post, but I hope my meandering ramblings about numbers were at least vaguely interesting. The main point I was trying to make was that the appreciation for 100 that exists is mainly based on our convention of using a base-10 system rather than anything else, yet the fact that the decimal properties of numbers are a convention goes largely unacknowledged.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A quick note of annoyance

I was just trying to watch the December 10th episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart in which he apparently turns his keen political commentary to Canadian politics. It is currently loading, but when watching from the Comedy Network's website, you get advertisements first. The one that showed up for me was an annoying Intel commercial which I have seen before, but it strikes me as even worse each time I see it. It has a young person standing there holding a chip, which apparently "uses less energy and saves my battery". The person then goes on to proudly declare he or she doesn't know how it works, but it's great. Stop and think about that a moment... what do batteries provide? The energy to run your device. Now if a chip uses less energy, what do you think that is going to do for the battery life of your device? It isn't an "and it does this" situation at all... the person is just saying the same thing twice, and then sounding even more ignorant by happily stating they do not care how it works, it's just nice to have such new-fangled technology.

I know it is just a commercial, so maybe I'm being overly rankled, but oh well. That is part of what blogs are for.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Political Science Review: Hobbes

This will probably be my last post in the Political Science Review series. While we also read Locke, I ended up not getting past his early stuff. While it was interesting, particularly in relation to Aristotle's opening as they both discussed the role and organization of the family, I am not sure I remember enough of it to really do it justice. So, if you are interested in Locke you'll just have to read his stuff yourself, and I will end my sojourn into political science with a review of Hobbes' Leviathan.

Hobbes was an interesting thinker. While Leviathan is a rather difficult text to slog through (mostly owing to it being written in English used several centuries ago), his ideas and thinking quite impressed me all the way to chapter 19, at which point it seemed to all fall apart. Not to get ahead of myself, though, let me start at the beginning. Hobbes begins by discussing the nature of man, going so far as to look briefly at sensory perceptions and how a person knows what he knows. While his neuroscience is stifled a little by 17th century science, some of his basic ideas are interesting and, taken together, form a coherent, logical context for his later political analysis. He paints a rather dismal picture of mankind, though, in many ways accepting a similar view to Machiavelli on the nature of man as violently selfish and greedy. The main difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli, though, is Machiavelli stressed greed and desire for glory as the primary drives of men, while Hobbes emphasized fear (specifically of a violent death).

Given that Hobbes was a much more careful, academic, and theoretical thinker than Machiavelli, where Machiavelli dove straight into political discourse on realistic situations, Hobbes carefully defines his terms and thoughts about human nature. Probably the most important one Hobbes outlines is his definition of the state of nature, or state of war (they are the same thing for Hobbes) in which there is no government. This is essentially anarchy and, according to Hobbes, is an absolutely horrible, terrible state where people butcher each other and steal without qualms. He says, for example, than in the absence of a political authority, "every man is enemy to every man..." (13.9). Though Hobbes admits that there are other driving forces in the quarrels of men and the reasons they agree to live in peace, he emphasizes fear as the greatest of them all.

What is rather interesting about Hobbes' analysis, though, is he abandons the common normative views on morality and instead defines them in a rigid and clear manner. This has huge ramifications for his later thought, particularly justice, which he defines as, "injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just" (15.2). Importantly, though, Hobbes makes the caveat that if either party has legitimate fear that the other party will not follow through with their part of the covenant, that nullifies said agreement. Thus, "before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant... such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth" (15.3). Hobbes therefore places fear as the root of the political power of a state, as it must enforce the political agreement undertaken by its citizens through fear of what it means to breach that agreement. Since he also points out that without some form of state there can be no outside coercive force, he subtly hints at what he later makes more explicit: there is no legitimacy for personal morality, but rather what the state dictates takes precedence. The explicit statement of such totalitarian thought comes much later, however, so at this point (chapter 15) I didn't notice the dictatorial undertones and was still rather impressed.

Taking the idea that the agreements which allow for civilized life cannot exist without a central government to enforce them, Hobbes begins to discuss how such a government should appear. It is at this point, in my opinion, that his analysis veers off the course or rationality and into the realm of 'where the hell did this come from?', if you will excuse my break in style. For, while Machiavelli made the, in my opinion true, statement "there is no doubt the public interest is never a guiding principle except in republics", Hobbes states (seemingly completely out of nowhere and not at all supported by reality), "in monarchy the private interest is the same with public" (Discourses pg. 166, 19.4). Hobbes even seems to contradict himself at several points very shortly after, first when he explains that any successful state institution must be essentially immortal or it would fall and need to be rebuilt with each generation, thereby returning its citizens to the horrors of anarchy in each interim. This requirement, as Hobbes aptly points out, means that such an institution must be designed without taking into account the natures of the men occupying it, something which a monarchy clearly fails to do. Likewise, as Hobbes even admits, a monarchy has an extremely high risk of failure at the death of each monarch.

Despite the drawbacks of a monarchy, however, Hobbes continues to argue in favour of one, with his specific description growing increasingly despotic. His main reason seems to be that, within the monarch's lifetime, a state run by a single powerful individual is the least open to civil strife and internal division, thereby minimizing the chance of a catastrophic meltdown into anarchy and civil war. Hobbes spends several chapters addressing (in my mind, inadequately) some of the drawbacks of a monarchy, particularly in the dangers of the monarch blatantly trampling on what we in our modern political outlook would recognize as the civil rights of the state's citizens, particularly in the case of their property rights. Recognizing that not all subjects can be expected to understand that revolt against the government will lead to anarchy which, no matter how terrible the government is, will be much worse, Hobbes states "the grounds of [the monarch's] rights... need to be diligently and truly taught..." (30.4). This struck me as an exceedingly weak argument in which Hobbes ensnared himself in his own rhetorical trap. If anarchy is such a terrible state that any government, no matter how bad, is better and proper education of that fact can make such a government stable through the citizens' fear of anarchy, then this could be used for any government and all the hoops Hobbes jumped through earlier to explain why a monarchy was the best form of government for its stability comes to naught. Education can make any government stable by playing upon the fears of its populace, which leaves the only reason for a monarchy being Hobbes' empty statement that a monarch has his interests aligned with those of the people.

Thus, I found myself unfortunately dissatisfied with Hobbes' political analysis towards the end of his text. I still think the first eighteen chapters were well developed, however, and it was especially interesting to read his thoughts on the fundamental nature of why a government needed to exist. Though I disagree with the initial theological underpinnings of the beginning of Locke's work, I think once he finishes quoting scripture to beat back the arguments of some contemporary of his, he gives a more approachable and, in the end, less flawed portrayal of the nature of government than Hobbes. Locke is also easier to read, being a little more contemporary, but if you have a lot of time to kill, reading Hobbes first will help give some grounding for Locke's work.

Also, this post was a little condensed to make it into an approachable blog post for easy perusal rather than into a daunting block of text which no one would want to read. If you find Hobbesian thought interesting, however, I am somewhat proud of my final essay in the political science course in which I compared Machiavelli and Hobbes on their analysis of the nature of man and how it leads to their formations of what a civil authority should be like. The essay focuses on Hobbes but uses Machiavelli as a backdrop with which to compare (and, since I agree more with Machiavelli's analysis, poke holes). If you want, you can contact me or leave a comment and I can send you my essay (though I will be wildly shocked if anyone takes me up on this offer).

One final note - the references. Except where noted that I was taking quotations from Machiavelli's Discourses, all quotations are given from my version of Leviathan in the format [chapter].[paragraph number].

Monday, December 8, 2008

Study Break Quotations

"If ever there was a case of clearer evidence than this of people acting together, this case is that case." - William Arabin, English judge, 1773-1841

"Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born." - Robert Ardrey, American dramatist and evolutionist, 1908-80

"The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution." - Hannah Arendt, American political philosopher, 1906-75

"It contains a misleading expression, not a lie. It was being economical with the truth." - Robert Armstrong, British civil servant, 1927-

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Coalition Governments

My friend had a very good post about Canadian politics (with some Austrian politics thrown in for comparison). There were some things I wanted to add, however. The hypocrisy of the Conservative party is one thing that drives me nuts about their bleating cries of "foul", as it was only a few years ago that they were considering making the same "deal with the devil" with the Bloc to oust the Liberal government. However, even worse are the comments (mainly of politically illiterate people) that this is undemocratic and not what the people voted for. We are in a representative democracy, so this is within the bounds of our democracy. You don't vote for an entire government, but rather a riding. The winner of each riding goes to parliament, and it is the prerogative of each elected MP to go about forming the government. Usually, there is enough of a victory for a single party to form a government, but that is not the only thing that can happen. I am actually fairly pleased at the prospect of a coalition government, because there are some positive aspects to them that don't seem to be discussed. Coalition governments give voices to issues that might not otherwise be brought up, as it shares power between parties and gives a voice to several party platforms. It also weakens the power of any single party, preventing (or at least reducing) the corruption and arrogant apathy that characterized the Liberal government for several years before they finally fell to the Conservatives.

It is true that more people voted for the Conservatives than for the Liberals or NDP, but not more people than the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc combined. Therefore, there is as much a mandate from the people for a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP with the support of the Bloc as anything else. Of course, it may not be what people had in mind when they voted the constituent MPs for each party into power, but no one cries "undemocratic!" when an MP he voted for turns around and gives support to a law he wouldn't. You can shout that it is wrong and you don't agree, but it is not undemocratic.


Wednesday night was a first for me. I did not sleep at all. I wasn't actually sure I could physically do an all-nighter, given that I have at least a mild case of narcolepsy. While I have certainly gotten very little sleep in the past, this was the first time I worked all night and then went to class without any. It was rather unpleasant and not something I would recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More (Arguably) Humorous Procrastination, or a Deep Philosophical Question?

Ah, but who decides which pictures are humorous? Do Lolcats trump LolVader?

Humorous Interlude

Seeing the popularity of my last Sci-Fi oriented post, here is a ridiculous video my girlfriend showed me the other day. I didn't realise people did this sort of thing... The main thing I find confusing about the video is how remarkably good the costumes are. They are almost too good to just be random fan costumes... but I'm not sure even George Lucas would sponsor something this ludicrous.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Creative Use of LEGO

I saw this site a while ago, but recently rediscovered it. The fellow who put this together has a vast amount of time on his hands, but it is remarkably well done. Go have a look at The Brick Testament.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth."

In keeping with my status as a dork, geek, and nerd, I watch a lot of science fiction. I'm not particularly sure why, as the acting is often very bad and the plots not much better. Maybe I just like all the shiny lights. I also often find the "science" on the shows painfully bad, but, like with almost all television, I mostly watch it to turn that part of my brain off and relax. In a similar way to which Isaac Asimov recommends watching mindless action films in his essay The Eureka Phenomenon, Sci Fi television to me is a way to relax the brain and recharge.

For all my disparagement, however, there are some parts that I really do like. For example, despite having some truly abysmal actors in its ranks, Star Trek does have some good ones too. I will never figure out how Star Trek managed to snag Patrick Stewart, one of the premiere Shakespearean actors of his day. Brent Spiner is also highly enjoyable, as well as many of the supporting characters from Deep Space Nine. The one thing I will never understand, though, is how some shows make it and others do not.

Take, for example, Stargate: SG-1. How is that the longest running continuous science fiction series in history (technically, that is a claim disputed by Dr. Who, so it is more correct to say it is the longest running North American science fiction series)? Yes, there were some funny bits and even some clever bits, but for the most part that show was background noise. I never really cared about the characters in it to any excessive degree, nor was I ever wildly worried about what the future of the show might hold. Yet somehow the show lasted 10 seasons and so far has had two movies (I believe both went straight to television).

Contrast SG-1 with a show like Firefly. It only lasted a season, but its fourteen episodes make up some of the most enjoyable science fiction I've ever seen. The characters are witty, well-acted, and engaging. The story is continuous and interwoven without making it absolutely necessary to have seen preceeding episodes or have long recaps at the beginning of each new episode. Also, they don't have sound effects in space! That one little bit of realism is enough for me to forgive all the terrible neuroscience espoused by Simon Tam when he scans his sister's brain to figure out what the government did to her. The fact that it only lasted a single season just never seemed quite fair to me.

I know they made a movie, but, like all things Joss Whedon does, he decided it was best to destroy his creation in his way than let it fade away. Between the rewriting of the series' history, random character death, and virtual lack of certain characters from the movie's storyline, I was not a fan.

Anyway, I am procrastinating right now by rambling about science fiction, so I should probably stop it and get back to work.


There haven't been any pearly words of wisdom from the past posted for a while, so I thought I'd rectify that before I head off to my lab class this morning.

"There will always be a lost dog somewhere that will prevent me from being happy." - Jean Anouilh, French dramatist, 1910-87

"Drastic measures is Latin for a whopping." - F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie), English writer, 1856-1934

"I do not mind what language in opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand." - Edward Appleton, English physicist, 1892-1965

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Graduate School Applications

People may have noticed a bit of a lapse in posting over the last week or so. With the first round of graduate school applications due on 1 December, my mind has been otherwise occupied. Between composing statements of purpose and tracking down transcripts, I haven't really felt like posting much of anything substantive.

The first two schools I am applying to are University of California Berkeley, and University of California San Diego, both in neuroscience with a plan to do the computational specialization. I just managed to find this morning some admission statistics, so I'm a little worried since my GPA is a bit on the low side (but my general GRE scores are a bit on the high side, so maybe it will balance?). Oh well, the California schools are all in my "stretch school" category, so I'll just have to see what happens. Since application deadlines extend into mid-January (with one additonal one in mid-March), there might be periodic bouts of failure to maintain this blog as I concentrate on application completion. I apologize in advance.

Some Random Cuteness

This video I found adorable, and it makes me miss having pets around. Last night I went to a friend's house where there are two cats, and, though I rationally recognize why living in a small place on a student budget makes having a pet unreasonable, I really wanted a cat of my own. This is especially true since Sparky, my family's calico cat and sole remaining pet from my childhood, passed away a few months ago, so now I don't even have a cat to return to visit on holidays. Anyway, this was meant to be a light-hearted and humorous post (it's a cat going down stairs in an awkward fashion!), so to try and lighten the mood again I will reference another of my favourite xkcd comics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And this is why I hate him

In my last post, I made it fairly clear that I detest George W. Bush. Here is another example of why. I just hope Congress manages to recover the spine they seemed to have checked at the door for the past couple years and stop passing whatever Bush wants in the name of "bipartisanship". Bipartisanship is not always a good thing, because sometimes the other guy really is wrong. It's not tearing the country apart to say it - in fact, it's good governance. If debate and argument were not meant to be part of the government, why would there be one hundred people in the Senate and over four hundred in the House of Representatives?

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Pretty much anyone that knows me is aware that I am not and never have been a fan of George W. Bush. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Despite all my antipathy toward the man and his governance of our southern neighbour for the past eight years, I was still rather shocked to see this:

I have used the term baffled a lot on this blog lately, but, once again, politics baffles me.

The Mathie Difference

I told my girlfriend the following joke the other day:

"An infinite number of mathematicians walks into a bar. The first one orders a beer. The second one orders half a beer. The third one orders a quarter of a beer. It continues that way until the bartender interrupts to say, "You are all a bunch of idiots," and pours two beers."

While she greatly enjoyed it, her response was, "You know, when I tell that joke I am going to specify at the beginning that it is a countably infinite number of mathematicians, just to avoid any initial confusion."

The thought never even occurred to me. I guess my brain still hasn't fully registered that there is a difference between countable and uncountable infinity. Sigh.

Monday, November 17, 2008


For everyone, there are some things that drive them nuts. It often seems, though, that people in mathematics and science have an inordinate amount of neuroses bordering on obsessive-compulsive. As an aside, that is one of the reasons I like the webcomic xkcd so much. In addition to the general dorky humour, he seems to get the comical OCD things that I cannot help but think about. Of course, these neuroses often manifest in fairly different ways. For example, I remember making a joke about being OCD when some friends from engineering science were over at my place, only to be shocked by one of my friends arguing that I couldn't possible be OCD because my counter was so full of randomly discarded objects, something which drove him nuts and he had to restrain himself from trying to tidy (clearly, he had never played cards with me... I neurotically straighten the deck, without even thinking about it. If someone points it out and asks me to stop, I actually find it incredibly difficult to restrain myself).

Anyway, one thing that has always bothered me is poor bathroom layout. It seems like something that should be incredibly easy to do when the bathroom is being installed. After all, bathrooms are rooms that everyone has used before, so it's not like a high tech lab where the technicians installing the equipment might not fully understand what they are used for. Today, for example, I went into a bathroom where there were five sinks but only one soap dispenser and one electric hand-dryer. Who thought that made sense?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some more of the same

This blog was ostensibly started to discuss only scientific and philosophical subjects related to intelligence. However, because those posts tend to take a lot of time, I found I wasn't publishing posts as often as I would like, and the blog sort of devolved into whatever random subjects caught my fancy. While I think my posts on subjects pertaining to intelligence are the more original and interesting of my posts, I hope any readers will not be annoyed with a continuance of non-science articles as well. That said, here is another politically-minded rant of a post.

I was awfully annoyed at this Globe and Mail article this morning. I simply do not understand how Bush and other conservatives can continue to tout the rhetoric that "more regulation could choke economic growth", even though whatever growth it is choking off is likely to be illusory bubble growth that is bound to burst and cause widespread mayhem and depression. Sure, regulation makes it harder for a select few to get grossly and inordinately wealthy, but to be honest, I am completely fine with that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Irony and Humour is Intense

I am in bed sick today, so was amusing myself by watching some videos on the internet. One such video was one of Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" segments:

The part which made me chuckle the most was his mention of the second place conservative blogger John Hinderaker at the blog Power Line, in which Hinderaker has a post in which he states:

"Obama thinks he is a good talker, but he is often undisciplined when he speaks. He needs to understand that as President, his words will be scrutinized and will have impact whether he intends it or not. In this regard, President Bush is an excellent model; Obama should take a lesson from his example. Bush never gets sloppy when he is speaking publicly. He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting. In the eight years he has been President, it is remarkable how few gaffes or verbal blunders he has committed. If Obama doesn't raise his standards, he will exceed Bush's total before he is inaugurated."

I really am not sure how he can say that seriously. While Olbermann covers some of Bush's gaffs briefly in his clip, there are plenty more. Perhaps Hinderaker, like everyone, grew desensitized over eight years of misspoken nonsense and grammatical travesties to the point where they stopped registering, leaving him with a memory gap that was somehow devoid of the public speaking disaster that was President Bush.

Understanding Through Mathematical Concepts

My great aunt is a wonderful lady. A worldly intellectual in her own right, she can speak knowledgeably about Thucydides (which she read in the original Greek, not that wimpy translation stuff I read) and other literature of which I could not hope to compile an exhaustive list, as well as hold her own in a discussion of history and politics, especially if it involves Korea (where she was born and raised through much of her childhood before returning home to Canada). I am also a big fan of my great uncle, but since it was my aunt that made the comment I am going to discuss, I will have to wait for another day to sing his praises. I bring up my esteem for my aunt to put in context a comment she made one night when my girlfriend and I were at my aunt and uncle's for dinner, in which she stated something to the effect that she didn't understand how mathematics could hold any draw as a subject since it was such a dry and abstract thing. I think it was somewhat unfortunate for her that she made such a comment at a table with her husband (a retired aeronautical engineer), my girlfriend (who studies physics and mathematics), a Russian fellow who sails with my uncle and his wife (both who studied mathematics and computer science before moving to Canada), and me (a former aerospace student and now student of computational neuroscience), so she may have been a little unfairly outnumbered by those who had ties to mathematics. A great cry went up around the table and everyone tried to explain all at once that mathematics was, in fact, a wonderful thing. I don't think my aunt (a former graduate of the humanities) was trying to be confrontational at all, but I think she really was baffled (and, unfortunately, I don't think any of our answers really cleared anything up at the time, since the best we came up with was simply that it helps you to see the world differently without really giving any examples). I also don't think my aunt is alone. For many people, mathematics remains a dry and stuffy subject, handy for balancing the books and maybe work in research and design (but even then, there are a fair share of engineers who forsook mathematics upon achieving their degree and getting a job), but beyond that they don't have a concept of it.

While I am no mathematician, I still enjoy mathematics and dabble in it in my studies. I will therefore endeavour to give an example of how mathematical concepts can help explain aspects of the world using a personal insight about another subject that also commonly baffles people: speciation in evolutionary biology. Among critics of evolution, one of the commonly fallacious argument given is, "if evolution is true, why doesn't a dog give birth to a cat?" (or some other ridiculous combination). While that is probably the most ridiculous formulation of the argument, the basic idea that trips people up is understanding how one species can evolve into another. This lack of understanding often leads to the lamentable "middle of the road" half-cocked compromise in which a person accepts "microevolution" while claiming that he still doesn't believe in "macroevolution". To give some insight into how speciation works, at least from a conceptual standpoint, I turn to probability and calculus.

Take a circle with a spinning dial mounted in the middle. If you mark a spot on the circle (say the spot corresponding with '12' on a clock face) as the 0 mark, then you can spin the dial and it will land with some anticlockwise angle from 0 to 360 degrees. Since there are an infinite number of points on the circle, however, if you take your measurement to an arbitrary level of exactness (landing at 10.0000000000001 is different from landing at 10 exactly), the probability of landing at any distinct spot is essentially 0. The only way to obtain a non-zero probability is to talk about a range of possible angles. The probability is then simply the length of that range divided by 360 (thus, having the dial land within the first 90 degrees has a probability of 90/360 = 1/4). Thus, the circle can be divided into regions, each one representing a range of possible angles and thus having a non-zero probability. However, at the borders we see that which region we are in becomes a harsh cut-off over a seemingly negligeable difference. For example, if we divide our circle into four regions of equal size (each representing 90 degree increments), 89.99999999... would fall into region 1 while 90.0000000...001 would fall into region 2, despite an arbitrarily small difference between the two of them. Take the idea of that circle and now morph it in your head to represent an evolutionary lineage. The population of organisms at each moment in time represents one single location on the circle. A region represents a species, and thus a species is said to evolve into another if its region precedes the other. But remember that the demarcation line of our regions was essentially an arbitrary cutoff, a boundary imposed to provide meaning to the system. There is no drastic change in the dial's position when we go from region 1 to region 2, but rather the change can be as infinitesimally small as we want. Likewise, the change from species A to species B is not some drastic, single moment of monumental change such as a dog giving birth to a cat, but is rather a collection of tiny bumps in the dial position as it gradually creeps along the circle going from region 1 to region 2. However, when one compares the dial position from somewhere near the middle of each region, it looks to be very far apart.

This is no lofty or profoundly insightful thing I have come up with. I also recognize that I may have taken some liberties with the specific terms and workings of both mathematics and evolutionary biology, so for anyone who is actually in those fields and upset with me, I apologize (and you have full permission to admonish me in the comments). However, it is something that I have discovered a surprising number of people never really put together on their own. The concept of infinitesimal steps from calculus is a profound thing, and with it many other concepts in the world can be illuminated more fully. That, to me, is how mathematics is not dry or dull. Its concepts are wide reaching, elegant, and profound. If a person understands mathematics, there is a huge variety of subjects that suddenly become easily grasped.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Xenophobia and Alien Fascination

I am going to indulge myself in some fanciful psychology now. While I often rail against the credulity and imprecision of psychology as a general field, that doesn't mean it isn't a fun way to pass the time. My main problem is its lack of rigour and self-correction, not the fun that can be had in utilizing the field to explore human nature. It is like literature and art - while some may make the argument that those should be taken into the fold of science (I haven't actually read the book and I enjoy Jonah Lehrer's blog, but I disagree with the premise that the book is touted to have. Perhaps reading it will change my mind, and I wouldn't mind giving it a shot at some point), I would rather say that much of psychology should be relegated to the social science and humanities status that encompasses art and literature. It is fascinating and fun to explore our humanity with words and conjectures, but it is rarely done rigorously and powerfully like the work done in most of the other sciences.

Anyway, with that preamble out of the way, I am going to launch into my exploration of one of the aspects of the human psyche. There were two events that got me thinking about the subject today of non-human animals. The first was an experiment on mice that we were performing in my lab course this morning and the enjoyment I got out of watching the adorableness that was the mouse's whisker twitches as he explored the box he was in (I certainly would not want to be a behavioural neuroscientist or psychologist. Giving injections or any of the other things done to animals in a laboratory I would find too difficult. While I recognize the benefit, I am squeamish and soft-hearted and enjoy my cognitive dissonance, thank you very much). The second event was a slide containing information about the variety of different somatosensory representations in different species, notably raccoons (and how they had a very similar proportion of cortical space devoted to finger control as that found in primates). That prompted me to think about how neat I find raccoons and their cleverness and aptitude for mischief, and then a brief internet search into raccoons as pets (apparently they do not make good pets, as they tend to have an intense ornery streak as adults including indignant defecation on owner's belongings and a tendency to bite). From my brief sadness at finding out that, like many of the other creatures I have often wistfully thought of as having as a pet, I was never going to have a raccoon as a pet, I got to thinking about the odd propensity of people for domestication of other species. While much of domestication can be explained by the utility of it (and we are not the only ones who engage in such practices, with fascinating ecological tales of ants and aphids or butterflies (the guy's voice in the video I actually found kind of annoying, but you get the idea) and other such relationships found in nature textbooks), there are clearly indirect psychological benefits as well (not for everyone. Some people genuinely have no enjoyment in interaction with nonhumans. While I find that baffling, it clearly exists).

The thing is, domestication simply facilitates the process. It makes the other organism more prone to like us and accept interaction with humans, but there are many examples of non-domestic animal friendships. Some of my favourites include Jessica the Hippo and Owen and Mzee (odd that they both include hippos). Clearly, there is at least a small propensity for interspecies bonding even without domestication. What makes this such an appealing concept? Before I address that concept, though, I want to bring up another one: xenophobia. Basically, fear of those foreign and different is a powerful psychological motivator at the heart of ingroup-outgroup conflicts. It doesn't have to include humans and humans, but is also at the heart of the general trend to treat non-human animals as less deserving than humans (after all, if the colour of one's skin is enough to inspire contempt and hatred, not even sharing the same form is an even more blatant marker of difference. The main reason it is rarely labelled as xenophobia, though, is people take it as defacto that other animals are so different from us that it doesn't need to be acknowledged). So how can interspecies relationships work and be such a powerfully uplifting thing (for at least some people) when there is an inborn tendency for mistrust of those who are different that sometimes fails to even reach past boundaries within a species, nevermind to another species?

At this point, I began to ramble on in a long-winded analysis of the intricacies of interspecies relationships. However, this post has already gotten longer than I intended, so perhaps I will leave such an analysis to a later time and jump ahead to the conclusion I was intending to reach. It seems to me like there is a competing psychological need for empathic understanding instilled by our social nature and the instinctive mistrust of strangers needed for simple survival. While the mistrust of strangers is necessary without being able to guarantee the trustworthiness of others, it isn't pleasant. Conflict is messy and uncomfortable, and though xenophobia can often be gratifying and exhilerhating, that is only when one is surrounded by likeminded individuals railing belligerently against the out-group that is not present. When one is forced to come face to face with the brutality and hate that was so previously euphoric (especially if one is forced to deal with the outgroup on relatively equal terms, like in a war, rather than in unequal terms like a lynch mob), the rush of happiness inspired by belonging with the ingroup is tempered somewhat by the unpleasantness of conflict. I think most people who are not insanely bigoted understand this and frown upon that aspect of their psyche. Forming a bond with a member of an outgroup, therefore, is a way of throwing off the shackles of xenophobia and searching for a linking trust rather than dwelling on the separating differences. Instead of saying "You walk on four legs and I walk on two, so I look down upon you", it is saying "I like to scratch you behind the ear and you like it when I do, so let's be friends." We can think that if we can set aside our mistrust and fear of the other party in this situation, maybe we can do so again in the future and have a more peaceful life. Or maybe I'm just a dork wrapped up in his own fanciful psychology. Whatever the case may be, I know some day I'd like to rub a tiger's belly, scratch a hippo behind the ear, or play a game with a raccoon. I also know none of those are going to happen, and even if given the opportunity I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go through with it. In a way, that thought makes me very sad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

This isn't exactly a holiday to be happy about, so rather I'll just point out that it is happening here in Canada. It is Remembrance Day today, so spare a few thoughts for the fallen.

How to Think About Science

I was listing to the opening segment of an interesting set of broadcasts collectively entitled "How to Think About Science" and I thought it had some very interesting points. The one I thought that was most interesting was when Simon Schaffer pointed out that science, while normally celebrated as promoting skepticism and a reliance upon personal evidence and observation, was in reality a systematic organization of trust. You will have to listen to the broadcast for his full argument, but it is essentially that no one can practically witness evidence for everything one accepts as true, but where science excels is in giving a powerful framework for deciding who and what should be given credence.

I thought that was a very interesting and thought-provoking observation. It is quite simple and seems obvious after hearing it, but in many ways those are the best thoughts to have. I found myself thinking about it this morning as I read the news. So many of our world's problems, especially in the political sphere, are based on issues of trust. It is one of the exceptionally messy aspects of politics that makes me want to practically avoid the field. It is also why pseudoscientific things like creationism/intelligent design and alternative medicine continue to flourish outside of the scientific world (in the realm of the popular and political) where there is not that system of rigorous evaluation to keep them in check.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Words of Wisdom to Start the Week

"Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them."
"No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare."
- Kingsley Amis, English novelist and poet, 1922-95

"Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives." - Maya Angelou, American writer, 1928-

"God is on everyone's side... And, in the last analysis, he is on the side of those with plenty of money and large armies." - Jean Anouilh, French dramatist, 1910-87

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Top-down Processing in Visual Perception Part I: Introduction and Some Examples

One of the subjects I have written about before is machine vision and the incredible difficulty of developing a robust visual processing system that can equal the robustness of our own visual system. It shouldn't be entirely surprising, though, that our visual system is as incredibly powerful as it is, since a huge proportion of our brain is utilized primarily for visual processing. One of the interesting debates in perception psychology and neuroscience is whether the brain performs bottom-up or top-down processing. As with most things (especially in psychology), neither one is entirely correct and your brain utilizes a combination of the two. Optical illusions and trick images are one relatively simple way to explore the way our brain processes visual information, and they are also fairly fun to look at.

Bottom-up processing basically means your brain reads in the raw visual information captured by the retina and gradually figures out what it means as one moves farther along the processing chain that is your cerebral cortex. Top-down processing means you start with an idea of what you ought to be seeing (most likely determined by recent sensory information, other sensory clues, and your past experience). Your brain clearly does some bottom-up processing, since you react to raw changes in the visual stimuli even if there was no reason to expect that change. What is fairly surprising, though, is top-down processing is also clearly involved in visual processing. Effectively introducing top-down processing into artificial visual systems, however, is quite difficult, and it would seem that the top-down algorithms instituted by our brains (and their handy parallel architecture) are what keep us currently so far ahead of computers.

One example of top-down processing that is fairly easy to demonstrate is the blind spot. In your retina you have a small area devoid of receptors where nerves and blood vessels enter and leave your eye. This is normally not a problem since the blindspot of each eye falls on a different area of your visual field, so the sensory perceptions of one eye can compensate for the other. Also, your eyes are almost constantly performing saccades (small jumps around to focus on different regions of the visual field). However, if you close one eye and keep your other eye locked on a specific target, your blind spot becomes anchored in place. You do not realise this, though, because your brian manages to fill in that area of your visual field with its best guess as to what is there. A quick way to demonstrate this is to take a piece of scrap paper and put two X's on it about eight centimeters apart. Then close one of your eyes and stare at the opposite mark with your open eye (for example, if you closed your left eye, look at the left X with your right eye). Hold the paper about half an arm's length in front of you and gradually move it closer. At a certain point, the X on the periphery of your vision should disappear. When it does, it is sitting in your blind spot, and your brain fills in that area with it's best guess (in this case, blank white paper).

Another example that occurs slightly higher up in your visual processing is the Necker Cube, shown here.

This simple drawing forms a three dimensional clear cube. It is ambiguous, though, whether it is intended to be in one of two possible orientations: are you looking slightly down onto the cube, or slightly up at it (in other words, are the bottom two corners corners on the front or back face of the cube)? For most people, there is a default orientation when they first see it. However, after staring at the cube for a few moments, they can cause it to 'flip' into the other orientation. At no point, though, can both orientations be held in one's head at once (at least, I cannot manage to do that). It would seem that your brain takes the visual information provided about the cube's edges and then tries to fit an interpretation on it. Since more than one interpretation is possible, your brain alternates between them. However, whenever one particular interpretation is selected, the others are suppressed to avoid conflicting interpretations of a visual scene.

Continue reading in Part II: Faces.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


"There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." - Luis Walter Alvarez, American physicist, 1911-88

"A monarch is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; whilst a republic is a raft which would never sink, but then your feet are always in the water." - Fisher Ames, American politician, 1758-1808

"He was of the faith chiefly in the sense that the church he currently did not attend was Catholic." - Kingsley Amis, English novelist and poet, 1922-95, from his book One Fat Englishman

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This Time Four Years Ago

Four years ago I didn't think it was conceivable for Bush to win an election. Not only had his first four years in office been an absolute farce, but his entire campaign (at least what was visible from here in Canada) had been dirty attacks on Kerry rather than anything about Bush. If you went to Kerry's website, it was all about Kerry and his plan for the country. If you went to Bush's website, it was all about Kerry and how he was a terrible flip-flopper and his combat experience was somehow less patriotic than Bush's non-combat experience.

In non-political news, I had an assignment due in my design course. I forget what it was exactly... I think it may have been circuit wiring or PIC microchip programming, but whatever it was it was tedious, frustrating, long, and due the next day. It was going to keep me and my design partners up all night, so we decided we might as well follow the election results.

Then, the States started to turn red. It was heartbreaking, confusing, and horrifying, all at the same time. The night got worse and worse. Electronics fried. States turned red. The world felt like something was wrong with it. When the end came, it just didn't seem to make sense. Bush had won, this time even with the popular vote. It just didn't make sense. John Stewart looked devastated. The only solace I found was in the website

This might seem melodramatic, but this was only my second year back in Canada after four years in the States and then two years in Moscow going to school with a predominantly American class. In many ways the birth of my political awareness centered around American politics, and I cared about the international consequences of the election in terms of political and environmental fallout. It is the same reason I dislike the conservative government we have in Canada. While the Liberals may have been corrupt and relatively useless (from the little I've followed of domestic politics), at least they seemed to care about our international reputation and the importance of things like international law and environment. While the American government has always been isolationist and unilateral to a frustrating degree, Bush's government brought that back to a level not seen since the Monroe Doctrine (perhaps the failure of Congress to join the League of Nations would be a strong contender too).

Basically, what I am trying to say is, despite all conscious effort not to care too much about the election results, I find myself oddly excited tonight. That scares me, because I was excited four years ago, too, and ended up terribly disappointed. I hope this time the sane portion of the American electorate really has woken up and realised that if they really do care about their country, they need to act.

Some Really Bad Brain Science

Last night before going to bed I watched the pilot episode for a television show. To be honest, I was expecting it to be quite bad, and the only reason I was watching it was to see the familiar scenes from the University of Toronto that had been extensively used throughout the show. The show that I am speaking about is called Fringe. It is like a newer version of the X-Files, just minus the aliens and with an added dose of corporate rather than governmental evil. The FBI headquarters are in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, one of my favourite buildings on campus. It is home to the mathematics, computer science, and engineering science departments, as well as contains some of the nicer lecture halls and tutorial rooms. The building also has a remarkably distinct architecture that blends old brickwork with modern steel and glass designs (for example, the formerly external wall of the next door Koeffler Centre forms the southern wall of the Bahen Centre lobby). With such a distinct interior design, it is kind of thrilling to see the protagonist of the show charge up the same glass-walled spiral staircase I walk up at least once a week and enter the large room I know as the Great Hall of Computing (of course, fancied up with some extra desks and plasma screens on the wall). Additionally, front campus was used for one of the final scenes (supposedly taking place at Harvard, but really taking place in front of University College here at U of T... ironically, it is only about a dozen meters away from the secret meeting place of the sinister ivy league fraternity the Skulls that Fringe costar Joshua Jackson ought to be so familiar with... I wonder if he felt a little nostalgic returning to the University College building for filming almost a decade after that movie I never saw). Also, there was one building I was sure I've had an exam in but could not place... I think it might have been one of Trinity College's buildings.

Anyway, despite all the exciting University of Toronto locations, the show was immensely bad. Stop reading if you mind spoilers, but I recommend you don't care for this particular show. Not only was it exceedingly predictable (main character is a young blonde lady who starts in a covert relationship with a handsome coworker. While it is nice for the two of them to have a relationship, the audience never got the visceral thrill of seeing it develop, so clearly he is going to either die or be evil. Turns out it's both), but the "fringe science" it was supposed to be dealing with was useless pseudoscience, paranoid (but for the wrong reasons based on misunderstanding) fear of actual science, or blatant misunderstandings of basic science. I felt a particular twinge of annoyance when, in the show's introduction, the names of all the "fringe science" subjects flash up on the screen and, amid such things as precognition and psychokinesis, it lists artificial intelligence (and also nanotechnology, but since I don't study nanotechnology I wasn't quite as annoyed about that one). AI and nanotech are not at all comparable to precognition and psychokinesis. Two of those are pseudoscience, and two are actual science.

I keep getting sidetracked, though. What made me decide to write about this show was that one of the important plot developments involved the main character going to drug induced stupor in a large tank of water with a bunch of fancy electrodes hooked up to her head and a pair of metal prongs attached to a bundle of wires inserted into the base of her skull (probably going either into her brain stem or on either side of her spinal cord at the top of the neck, it was kind of hard to tell exactly where they inserted the prongs). That contraption is somehow used to synchronize her brain waves with those of her dying lover (this is before it is discovered he's evil) who is also in a drug induced coma (and apparently frozen to keep the rate of cellular decay down, but that doesn't seem to prevent brain activity nor do they seem to take any special precautions to keep him at a low temperature... it is awfully confusing), and this synchrony of brain waves allows them to communicate subconsciously (which apparently means they meet up with fully coherent forms (matrix style) in a weird, shadowy dream state to talk for a bit and then she is able to experience his memories firsthand). I would like at this point to unequivocally state that that is not at all how brain waves work. Brain waves are NOT how thoughts are formed or transfered, but are rather the electrical dipole created by summated post-synaptic potentials. I think I had a post about this a while ago. For whatever reason, brain waves are one of those things that pseudoscients love to talk about and use to proffer all sorts of weird and entirely unfounded theories of consciousness and consciousness manipulation. It's rather annoying.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: PZ Myers

I haven't done a scientist appreciation in a while, but I have been thinking about this one for about two weeks now. It is a slightly unorthodox scientist appreciation, in that it is primarily an appreciation of PZ Myers' promotional efforts for science rather than his own work specifically (not that he doesn't do good scientific work, it's just not exactly in my field), kind of like my appreciation of Isaac Asimov's contribution to science. Also similar to Isaac Asimov, in many ways it is not PZ Myers' status as a scientist which makes him most famous (although, instead of being famous for writing science fiction, he is famous for his lack of religious views and his willingness to write about such a lack on the internet).

This post, however, isn't about PZ Myers' religion (or lack thereof). It is about his commitment to further an appreciation for science and scientific issues. While much of his blog is centered about intermittently laughing and gnashing one's teeth at the outrageous idiocy of the anti-scientific, I think it is an important contribution to make. Exposing some of the ludicrous claims and fabrications of pseudoscientists might help people think twice about other statements when no supporting evidence is offered. PZ Myers provides an indefatigable stream of commentary, humour, and substantive science and science policy posts. While I may not always agree with his stance on things, when I do not it is very often due to a preconceived notion and ignorant crudility on my part. More imporantly, though, the near constant stream of information provides a place on the internet where those who care about science and scientific issues can gather (if somewhat passively). Since mainstream news doesn't seem to care much about science (after all, look at how much this year's American election revolved around the discussion of science... other than the mocking of fruit fly research), PZ Myers has personally developed an extensive outlet of news and relevant links. Blogs run by skeptics and science enthusiasts may be a dime a dozen on the internet (case in point, look at mine!), but no one does it quite like PZ Myers. For that, he has earned this edition of Scientist Appreciation.

An Interesting Article

I thought this was an interesting article. You might ask why I am posting a link to it, though, since I do read a lot of interesting articles that don't get links... the truth is, I was excited to see that the fellow now lives in Cranbrook. While I'm not actually from Cranbrook, (I'm from Creston, which is an even smaller town in the vicinity of Cranbrook (which forces me to fly into Cranbrook whenever I want to go home to visit my parents)), that whole region is referenced in the news so rarely, I think I am allowed to get a little excited when I see it happen. It does strike me as kind of odd, though, that when the Kootenays make it into the news, it is usually about some sort of connection to weirdly fundamentalist religious offshoots...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Some More Campaign Funnies...

Not to overly pick on John McCain, but I really enjoyed this clip in which, not only does he refer to Obama's VP running mate as "Joe the Biden", but later as Senator O'Biden (some sort of weird combination of Biden and Obama?).

Then, of course, this one is old news, but it still makes me laugh... there's nothing like really awkwardly saying the exact opposite of what you actually wanted to say.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some Horrified Bafflement

Those that read the blog Pharyngula will already have been made aware of this, but I thought it was worth discussing here too. Apparently, the Christian Children's Fund turned down $17,000 in donations raised at GenCon this year because part of that money was raised by selling Dungeons and Dragons products. I find that such a confusing slap in the face. For a charity to say, "We don't want your money", they are basically labelling you as a vile, amoral, and corrupt element of society that has so tainted the money you are offering that it isn't worth accepting, despite the number of children that $17,000 could actually feed and clothe. The fact that somehow playing an imaginative game can make a person so morally reprehensible that their money is no longer acceptable by a charity I find just utterly baffling.

I suppose I should say one last thing before I end this. I don't understand what fuels the stigma against Dungeons and Dragons. It is a game (a rather fun one, in my opinion). Sure, it takes up a lot of time (which is why I haven't played in years), but that is partly what makes it so attractive for kids in junior high and high school who happen to not want to spend hours drinking, driving dangerously, and pursuing otherwise "high risk" behaviour that is so common in teenagers. It is a social activity for the socially awkward (and the not so socially awkward, as I have known some cool people who play D&D too). The fact that there are angels and demons and a pantheon of gods might be construed as corrupting, but one of the amazing things about D&D is, if you are a monotheistic nut who cannot handle a polytheistic religion even in a wholly and entirely ficitious universe, you can easily change those aspects. Replace the D&D pantheon with a single god (and perhaps his enemy, so for Christians Satan could be included as a force of evil). Then all clerics serve that god, and you can have them fight the forces of the devil for hours on end, making you feel spiritually superior as well as giving you something to pass the hours with.

Anyway, other than professing bafflement and I think some justified indignation, I'm not sure what else to say. There are plenty of other charities out there who do very similar things (like Plan USA), so I would suggest giving donations to them if you are looking for a charity to donate to.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Funny Names and TAing Fears

While working on a rather pointless report last night, I discovered that one of the original designers of the laboratory has one of the most amazing names I have ever heard: Dr. Cosimo Commisso. I considered doing a Scientific Appreciation post about him, but decided that was a little unfair since I was only drawn to him as a scientist due to his enjoyable name (that and I couldn't actually find any information about him when doing a quick Google search... Wikipedia only has an article on a Canadian soccer player who is also apparently named Cosimo Commisso and some sort of Italian organized crime fellow). Anyway, while perhaps an inane thought, I really liked his name... it kind of reminded me of some sort of Mensa or IQ test question:

Cosimo Commisso ...
What is the next word in the above pattern?
A.) Commmissso
B.) Coio
C.) Cosssimmmo
D.) Coosimoo

The answer is, of course, C for Cosimo Commisso.

Speaking of funny names, though, many of my friends are TAing courses this year. One such TA had the unenjoyable task of marking a giant stack of papers the other day, but one of the enjoyable outcomes of that task was he discovered on the students in his class had the last name, "McFail". I feel quite badly for that student, because that is a remarkably unfortunate last name, especially since the poor kid apparently did fail one of the tests (although the student did pass the second test with enough of a margin to pass over all, prompting my friend to consider writing "Congratulations, you McPassed!" on the paper, but his better judgement overruled him). It makes me worry, slightly, for when I am a TA and have to do large stacks of marking. Hours of tedious work tend to errode my judgement, as was the case in first year when I made up highly imaginitive names for my computer program variables (before finally getting docked a significant number of 'style' points to bring that practice up short). I just don't want to end up a bitter TA who leaves comments on papers like those I received in one of my third year courses, including (if my memory serves me correctly), "Don't know basic algebra??", "You're very wrong here", and a smiley face next to some lost marks (that one was the most confusing).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Political Science Review: Machiavelli

Out of all of the works we read over the summer, Machiavelli's were my favourite. Not necessarily because I agreed with him, but because he recognized that politics is a dirty business that doesn't necessarily have an absolute answer. While everyone else (aside from Thucydides) seemed to think that he had developed the definitive treatise on the proper manner of government, Machiavelli recognized that perhaps there might be better minds than his who would come to different conclusions, but he nevertheless strove to write texts that would be useful to people living in the real world rather than in some ideal world where men acted as they ought to, and not as they actually do.

We read most of both The Prince and The Discourses. While The Prince seems to be his most famous work (I think that is simply due to the fact that it is the most shocking of the two in its blatant sociopathy), I found The Discourses to be far more insightful and penetrating. It was also where I think Machiavelli found some redemption, as he displayed himself to care about the lives and security of the citizenry and not just the welfare of a ruler. He was one of the first political theorists to recognize that there is a certain degree of wisdom amongst the entire populace of a country, and not just in an aristocratic elite (of course, the suffrage of the masses was something that I have always been raised to see as the correct and best form of governance, and it was an apriori assumption that I believe this course challenged the most for me). The need for a balanced institution was argued for by Machiavelli both eloquently and rationally. He took great pains to back up his claims by using historical precedence as well as a degree of psychological pessimism that was both enlightening and depressing.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. Perhaps I was simply initially set in favour of Machiavelli because of his rejection of the political theories of all those thinkers who we had previously read who I found to be so logically lacking (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero). As promised, do you remember Cicero's statement: "fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man..."? Machiavelli has a direct allusion to that when he states in regards to the qualities a prince must have, "One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves." I do not think that is my entire reason for enjoying Machiavelli's works, though.

I think I will end this review, therefore, in saying that I greatly recommend reading Machiavelli's works. While they are in many ways depressing and cynical, they are realistic and rationally laid out. I think in many ways it is unfair that Machiavelli's name has become associated almost exclusively with negative connotations of underhanded power grabbing and backstabbing, for there is a lot more to his texts than an advocacy for brutality and deceit. Of course, that said, I think I will end with a choice quotation from The Prince that displays the clear sociopathic psychology that so characterizes this particular work.

"Whenever you have to kill someone, make sure you have a suitable excuse and an obvious reason; but, above all else, keep your hands off other people's property; for men are quicker to forget the death of thier father than the loss of their inheritance."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some more quotations

"Better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below." - Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, 1818-81

"On bisexuality: It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." - Woody Allen, American film director, writer, and actor, 1935-

"Gratitude, like love, is never a dependable international emotion." - Joseph Alsop, American journalist, 1910-89

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Project Background Part I: Mirror Neurons

As I mentioned at the beginning of the semester, I am taking a fourth year project course this year. It is a fairly open-ended project, especially since the focus is outside the usual realm of endeavours that my supervisor performs with his research group. However, my supervisor is a great professor in one of the robotic research groups at UTIAS with a great variety of intellectual interests, and hence he was excited about the idea of letting me have a go at coming up with something interesting. It is slightly daunting, since it means a lot of what I am doing I am just kind of muddling through without direction from above, but at the same time it is exciting because it is my question and my problem to search for an answer to.

Anyway, I will get to the actual project in a little while. Rather than have a giant single post which will take ages to write and then likely not be read due to its length, I decided to break it up into some useful background posts first, and then a post on how this background ties into the experimental question I am pursuing. Suffice for now to say that it is centered around developing communication among multiple independent robots (all in simulation, of course, since physical robotic experiments are much more difficult, expensive, and time consuming to perform).

The first part of necessary background knowledge for the project is a thing called mirror neurons. These are a special class of neurons first identified in macaque monkeys by a scientist named Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma. These neurons are special in that they fire (neuroscience shorthand for meaning they change their firing pattern and increase firing frequency) in response not only to an individual performing a specific action, but also for an individual watching another perform that same action. For example, when you watch a game of soccer on television and see the slow motion replay of a brilliantly executed shot on goal, somewhere in your head a set of neurons are playing out the same pattern that they would were you on a field running up to a ball and letting fly your best kick.

The existence of such a system of neurons clearly has important implications for both motor learning as well as social interaction. It helps explain such simple psychological phenomena as why people often have the urge to smile when they see others smile, or feel a rush of testosterone filled manliness when watching a mindless action movie (perhaps that's not an event familiar to everyone, but I know it at least works on a childhood friend of mine who, if given the choice, only watches mindless action films. I don't know if he reads this blog or not, but if he does, he knows who he is). It also has many important implications on learning and social behaviour, although those implications will be discussed in more detail when I talk about the project itself. In the meantime, stay tuned for Part II, which will discuss some different control theory models and their applicability to neuronal systems.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tee Hee

Continuing with the lack of actual substance from the past little while, I thought I'd post a photo I giggled at (and have seen at least two other places on the internet, so if you've seen it before please bear with me).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Lack of Actual Substance Lately

I haven't actually posted much of substance lately (other than donation requests for the CUPC... you should still do that, or even if you don't, consider advertising on your own blog (if you have one) or to your friends to get people to donate). I apologize for that... things have been pretty hectic. It's fall midterm season and this year is the added work of helping organize the CUPC and applying to graduate schools... all of which somehow has to come together along with the normal course work. Anyway, I just wanted to put that out there... maybe after next week things might calm down a bit. This weekend is the subject GREs, the CUPC, and Friday night I have a midterm (who schedules a midterm on a Friday evening from 18:00-20:00?), and Monday I have the general GREs...

Maybe I should start reading the Globe...

While talking to my friend this morning he sent me the this link from the online business section of the Globe and Mail. I really enjoyed the fact that people don't even seem to feel the need to pretend to like George W. Bush anymore, with statements like:

'“We're in this together and we'll come through this together,” the deeply unpopular Mr. Bush said in a brief Rose Garden speech.'

Also, my friend and I both agree that this is a brilliantly hilarious sentence:

'That a lame duck president was moving within a hair of nationalizing banks less than a month before Americans go to the polls underscored the severity of the turmoil.'

Of course, it's not all fun and games. If you read the entire article, it's actually kind of a terrible situation.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The CUPC Needs Help

The Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference (CUPC) is the largest conference in North America organized entirely by undergraduate students and right now the 44th annual CUPC is in trouble. Due to several sources of funding falling through, there is not enough money available to cover the costs of the conference. If the conference cannot find adequate support, this will be the 44th and final CUPC, which will be a tremendous shame for science education. The CUPC brings together students from across Canada and the world studying a vast array of subject areas from mathematical and theoretical physics to medical biophysics to engineering and applied physics. This important event gives many students their first experience with academics outside of the classroom, and helps to cultivate an interest in research and higher study.

The conference is only a few short days away and in desperate need of funds. Please go to the website ( and donate (or click on the link below).

Happy Thanksgiving

It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, so I thought I would do a little research (on Wikipedia, of course) into Thanksgiving. While I encourage everyone to go read about it themselves, if you just want some fun trivia highlights, here they are:

As is fairly common knowledge, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, while in the United States it is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

While the first Thanksgiving celebration is popularly regarded as being put on by the pilgrims at Plymouth, the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration in America actually took place in Florida in 1565, put on by the Spanish.

Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday everywhere in Canada except New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island.

The timing of Thanksgiving in Canada was not fixed to October until 1957. Prior to World War I (starting in 1879), it moved around from year to year and was themed based on something that everyone should be thankful for. After World War I it was observed in whatever week contained November 11 (Armistice Day, later renamed Remembrance Day).

Grenada also celebrates a Thanksgiving Day, but for a completely different reason. Thanksgiving in Grenada is celebrated on October 25th and marks the invasion of the island by a US-led force in 1983 in response to a military coup.

If you are waiting until Monday evening to celebrate your Thanksgiving (or if you are American and won't celebrate until November), now you have some trivia to evoke awe and adulation from your relatives with between bites of turkey and mashed potatoes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Some quotations to end off the week:

(Translated, of course)
"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when you have only one idea." - Alain (Emile-Auguste Chartier), French poet and philosopher, 1868-1951

"Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility. Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill." - Richard Aldington, English poet, novelist, and biographer, 1892-1962

"Science Fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts." - Brian Aldiss, English science fiction writer, 1925-

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Canadian Politics

I was talking to my mom on the phone yesterday and she made a political joke about Stephen Harper that I didn't get without an explanation. While I was very proud of my mother for utilizing political humour, the fact that I missed the joke is a little bit unfortunate and cannot be entirely blamed on my lack of a functioning television with any sort of cable service. After all, I spend an inordinate amount of time trolling the internet and compiling information about American politics (and not just the presidential stuff... I also recognize the names of some of the more prominent members of congress and even some political commentators who have absolutely no power beyond their ability to expound thoughts that people actually pay attention to). Of course, most of my internet time is not expressly political, it is just that time of the four year cycle in which politics intrudes everywhere from science to philosophy to whatever other random stuff I end up reading about. However, I am going off on a tangent. My essential point is that with the Canadian election in less than a week and the American election in about a month, I know vastly more about the state of American politics than I do about Canadian politics.

It pains me to admit it, but I do not think I am going to vote in our election this year. While part of that is apathy and annoyance at the federal government over the fact that, despite requesting voter registration when I filled out my tax form this past spring, I never received my voter registration information (either here in Toronto or at my parents' house in BC which is technically still my permanent address), part of that is also a decision based on my lack of knowledge about the political candidates this year. A portion of my ignorance can be blamed on approaching midterms and assignments (if they really wanted to galvinize young voters, they should have the election in September and not October. I'd be much more willing to take the time to read about politics when midterms aren't fast approaching), but a portion is also the cynical voter apathy that I find very prevalent among young Canadians. It is easy to follow American politics - it is kind of relaxing in a weird, visceral sort of way (like reading trashy fiction). The Republican party is so wildly inappropriate and blatantly ignorant of the constitution that they are horrifyingly fascinating, while even the Democrats (the 'acceptable' party) are really only acceptable because they are 1.) not as crazy as the Republicans and 2.) don't often stand for anything (other than not being as Republican as the Republicans), so cannot really piss anyone off (except for the hardcore Republicans, who are pissed off by them precisely because they aren't properly crazy).

In Canada, there isn't that horrifying state of affairs to make things interesting (which is something I am actually fairly glad about, but at the same time it doesn't keep my eyes glued to the screen in dismay). Anyway, I really should wrap this up, because this whole meandering piece was supposed to eventually work its way around to the question:

Does the American Presidential election end up affecting us to nearly the same degree as our own Canadian federal election, or is that just the complacently ignorant view of someone caught up in the sensationalism of our southern neighbour's political process and simply coasting along with the system without knowing how it actually works?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stress Response - Post Some Quotations!

I am stressed out, so, in an obvious avoidance of dealing with work, I decided it might be nice to post some quotations. So here is this week's instalment:

"Practical politics consists in ignoring facts."
- Henry Brook Adams, American man of letters, 1838-1918

"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty."
"My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (of the vice-presidency)
"Fear is the foundation of most governments."
- John Adams, American statesman and 2nd President of the United States, 1735-1826

"After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for posterity."
- George Ade, American humorist and dramatist, 1866-1944

Monday, October 6, 2008

Kids will be kids...

I really enjoyed this photograph:

I know it is petty and unsophisticated to giggle at a little girl using the middle finger, but oh well, sometimes I'm weak.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ig Nobels

I hope some day to win one of these... or at least get to go to the awards ceremony.

The Middle-Thirds Cantor Set

I am not a mathematician. Sometimes I greatly wish I were, but that is not really the point here. Mathematics can still be really fun to think about even for non-mathies like me. Most people find such a statement a little ludicrous, but I am going to attempt to elucidate its merit with an example: the middle-thirds Cantor set.

The Cantor set is created in the following manner:

Take a number line from 0 to 1:


Remove the middle third:

0_________1/3 ... 2/3_________1

Then do the same thing for the remaining sections:

0___1/9 ... 2/9___1/3 ... 2/3___7/9 ... 8/9___1

And continue in that manner, removing the middle of all sections after each step. After doing this an infinite number of times, all the points that remain will form the Cantor set. What is fascinating about this set is that there is an uncountably infinite number of points remaining in the Cantor set, but at the same time the amount removed, when totaled all together, equals 1.

To get the total amount removed, one simply needs to notice the following:

In the first step, 1/3 is removed. In the next, 2/9. In the third, 4/27. In fact, it is not hard to see that in the ith step, the amount removed is 2i-1/3i. The total amount removed is thus the summation over i from 1 to infinity of 2i-1/3i, which can be rewritten as the summation over i from 0 to infinity of (1/3)(2i/3i), which is equal to (1/3)(1/(1-2/3)) = 1. Thus, the entire line is removed, but at the same time an uncountably infinite number of points remain (which I will endeavour to show next).

To show that an uncountably infinite number of points remain, let me first switch from using a decimal system of numbering to a ternary system. Ternary numbers basically use base 3 instead of base 10. For example, if one takes the number 0.467 (written in normal decimal notation), it could equivalently be written as (4/10) + (6/102) + (7/103). Similarly, a number written in ternary notation as 0.102 would be equivalent to (1/3) + (0/32) + (2/33). When writing numbers from 0 to 1 on the number line with ternary notation, only numerals 0, 1, and 2 are used after the decimal point. Visualizing this geometrically, we can see that for a number 0.x1x2..., if x1 is 0, the number must fall somewhere in the first third of the number line (if it is 1 it falls in the middle third, and if it is 2 it falls in the final third). Similarly, if x2 is 0 it falls in the first third of the subsection denoted by x1, if it is 1 it falls in the middle third, and if it is 2 it falls in the upper third. To give an example, take 0.02...:


The first digit is 0, which means it must fall in the first third of our number line:


The second digit is 2, meaning it must fall within the upper third of this section of the number line:


If I had written more digits to the number, we would be able to further hone in on the region of the number line upon which it exists. However, hopefully the example is enough to demonstrate that, if one recalls that we remove the middle third of all sections of our number line, that any number that contains a 1 at any point will be removed. Thus, the Cantor set is made up of all numbers that can be written as 0.x1x2... where all x's are 0 or 2. Since one can have an infinite number of decimal points, there must necessarily be an infinite number of elements in the Cantor set. However, that does not mean there are an uncountably infinite number of elements. That last bit requires one more quick proof:

Assume that there is a countable number of members of the Cantor set and we write them down in the following manner (note, the order I am writing them in is completely arbitrary, since the only necessary thing is that they can all be written together to form a large matrix):

and so on

Then, form a number in the following manner: take the first element of the first number in our matrix and reverse it (0 becomes 2, 2 becomes 0). That becomes the first element of our new number. The second element is likewise the reverse of the second element of the second number, and so on for every number in our set. We thus have formed a new number that is without 1s (so will be in our set), but which necessarily is a novel value because it has at least one digit that is different from every other number, which thereby contradicts the initial assumption that we could enumerate every member of the Cantor set.

Anyway, I just thought that the Cantor set was very interesting. The seemingly contradictory idea that you could remove chunks of a segment of the number line totaling in length to the entire segment, but still leave behind an uncountably infinite number of points is fun to knock about in ones head. I really should stop procrastinating, though, and get back to my work...