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Friday, July 18, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: Paul L. Nunez

Things seem to have worked out nicely. It is Friday, and I just got a little further in the enjoyable book from the library I mentioned taking out yesterday. My appreciation for the book translates to the lead author of the book, and I am thus set to make another contribution to the (made up by me for the purposes of this blog) field of Scientist Appreciation.

Dr. Paul L. Nunez sounds like a pretty cool guy (in my somewhat biased opinion). Why is he so cool, you might ask? Well, he has a highly interdisciplinary background that is very similar to the path that I plan to take (albeit, he switched to neuroscience a fair bit later in his career). He got his PhD in Engineering Physics (which is the old name for the University of Toronto's Engineering Science, the program I started in. Nunez got his degree from University of California at San Diego, though I assume the programs would be at least somewhat similar), but then did his post-doc in the Neurosciences doing EEG studies. What makes it more interesting to me is that most of his engineering work was done in spacecraft propulsion and plasma physics, giving him a link to aerospace engineering (which is the program of specialization I started doing in Eng. Sci. before transferring into science).

I have talked about the importance of interdisciplinary understanding before, so you might correctly conjecture that it is something I feel is important. Hence I highly enjoyed the second to last section of the opening chapter of his book entitled "Philosophical Conflicts" which discusses some of the unfortunate gaps between scientific disciplines. I hadn't realised how much my scientific philosophy had already been moulded by my courses in mathematics and physics until I realised that many of the statements he was making were voicing in words the vague sense of frustration I have had with so many of my courses in the life sciences. For example, he gives the following ratio:

(Time spent in preparation and performance of an experiment)/(Time spent deciding which experiments are worth doing)

And (correctly, I believe) points out that the ratio is much larger in EEG research (and, I think, many areas of biology in general) than in the physical sciences. Pointing out these differences and helping illuminate the underlying causes is, I believe, an important pursuit. It helps one appreciate where researchers in other fields are coming from, hopefully mollifying tensions and fostering the synergistic exchange of knowledge to the betterment of both parties.

Another enjoyable aspect of this section of his book is that he makes his case for the importance of a strong theoretical understanding by way of looking at the history of aerodynamics and aircraft design. While this made me smile because I could reminisce about wind tunnel experiments and the Navier-Stokes equations, it also included some wonderful lines like "If we were mathematicians, we might first try to obtain solutions to these [Navier-Stokes] equations. However, we are not mathematicians, we are airplane designers."

Also, no discussion of aerodynamics would be complete without the inclusion of Prandtl (a man whose work in fluid mechanics is so seminal that John D. Anderson's text Fundamentals of Aerodynamics includes a section titled "Historical Note: Prandtl - The Man". I'm not sure if Anderson intended it to sound like he was colloquially calling Prandtl "the man" or instead intended simply to intimate that this section would focus on Prandtl as a person rather than his scientific works. While I think the latter is more likely, the former interpretation makes me chuckle, so I prefer it). True to form, Nunez closes this section by discussing how Prandtl managed to unify the more mathematically elegant, though practically useless, body of knowledge on frictionless liquids with the empirical knowledge of hydraulics developed by engineers by his introduction of the concept of a boundary layer, thereby allowing fluid mechanics to achieve far greater success as a field with practical applicability but based more solidly in theory.

Anyway, this post seems to have wandered a bit, so suffice to say that I am a fan of Nunez's writing (and, to be fair, Srinivasan's writing too, though I'm fairly certain this part was written primarily by Nunez). Now I should make myself some lunch and get back to reading.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Books from the Library

It's been an exciting day at work today. A few things conspired yesterday to galvanize me into activity, which is refreshing considering my more languid approach to life that has characterized me for the past few months. Anyway, personal ruminations aside, it boils down to the following: this morning I made my lunch instead of just buying lunch (granted, I got sidetracked partway through the sandwich making process and ended up getting to work about a half hour late, but oh well), I then found a few promising titles of books about electroencephalography, went to the library, started reading them, and took a short little narcoleptic nap after lunch. I am back awake now and armed with some tea, so we'll see how the afternoon's reading goes.

Anyway, the books are:

Electric Fields of the Brain: The Neurophysics of EEG by Paul L. Nunez and Ramesh Srinivasan

EEG Signal Processing by Saeid Sanei and J. A. Chambers

The first one appears to give a good theoretical overview to the basis of EEG and its uses, which I am looking forward to. The second contains a more cursory look at the EEG itself, but I think it might have some useful tips for mathematical analysis that I might not have thought of applying. The reason I wanted to post about these books, though, is because I highly enjoyed a couple lines from the preface of the first:

"Some scientists do not like equations; for example, presenting equations at medical conferences has been compared to showing X-rated movies in church."

"We could have omitted all equations, providing a more democratic presentation in the sense that fewer readers would understand the most subtle points."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Game Review: Diplomacy, Part II: Opening and Mid-Game Analysis

A little while ago I devoted some time to describing the game Diplomacy. Here is the first continuation of that post, devoted to analysing what I find interesting about the game.

Note: A map of the board can be found here. When I mention specific territories, most of them have obvious three letter abbreviations (usually the first three letters of the territory's name), but if there is any confusion, the list of standard abbreviations can be found here.

The game has roughly three stages. The beginning of the game is characterized by many neutral supply centres available around the map for enterprising European powers to take over. For example, France pretty much immediately annexes the Iberian peninsula, netting the valuable pair of supply centres in Spain and Portugal. Italy picks up Tunis, Austria-Hungary envelopes Serbia, Turkey buffers their border with Bulgaria, Britain moves onto the continent by occupying Norway, and Germany grabs Denmark. Of course, this might not happen, but all of those captures are possible to perform without any interference from another player (as long as it is accomplished within the first year (two turns)). The only country that is not guaranteed to take control of a supply centre in their first year is Russia, and that is only if Germany decides to be a jerk and, in the first turn, moves the fleet in Kiel to Denmark then follows up the next turn by attempting to move that fleet to Sweden, likely blocking the fleet sailing out of St. Petersburg either through the Gulf of Bothnia or along the coast of Finland.

Similar to Sweden, there are a large number of more contentious supply centres scattered about the map. Romania is easily contested the first turn between the Austrian-Hungarians and the Russians (as long as the Russians are willing to not attempt moving their fleet into the Black Sea and risk the Turks occupying that vitally strategic body of water). Similarly, Greece is not immediately available to any power, but within two turns could be occupied by either the Italians, Austrian-Hungarians, or Turks. The Austrian-Hungarians and Italians are likely to already be wary of each other due to the border between Trieste and Venice, the only pair of starting supply centres that border each other. Like the triple entente created over the question of occupying Greece, the British, French, and Germans face a similar conundrum over the occupation of Belgium.

Anyway, so the first few turns consist mostly of people being self-absorbed with their own easy expansion. Initial rounds of diplomacy tend to be fairly sparse and open (at least with beginners to the game. Some veterans or avid fans of Machiavelli might leap headfirst into shadow and intrigue). At this point the game is not excessively interesting, as it is essentially a non-zero sum game where everyone wins. However, the degree to which one 'wins' (i.e. expands the size of one's military) can have massive ramifications on the following stages of the game.

The second stage of the game occurs within a few turns, and it happens when virtually all supply centres are occupied by one of the major powers. Here is where tensions begin to build. Essentially, all players are likely to be fairly evenly pitted with between four and six units under their control (seven or eight if they have done well, an opponent made some early blunders and failed to grab open supply centres, or they have already declared open war and are making remarkable progress). At this point the only way to increase one's position is at the expense of someone else. However, while in that sense it is a zero-sum game, the number of players makes cooperation (at least to a certain degree and with certain favoured allies) still the most effective strategy. This is when the game becomes psychologically interesting, as groups and pacts begin to form. Some alliances are forged out of fear (either of each other or a third party), and it is fear that makes doing excessively well in the opening rounds sometimes less desirable. For example, if France grabs the Iberian Peninsula (gaining two supply centres) as well as Belgium and Holland (giving a grand total of seven supply centres counting their starting territories of Paris, Brest, and Marseilles), the intimidating sea of light blue units might be enough to galvanize a disastrous alliance of Britain, Germany, and Italy. This is especially true since having a large number of units not only makes one powerful, and therefore fear inspiring, but it also makes one an attractive conquest since it leaves many supply centres to be neatly divided amongst the conquering parties. That said, in the situation just outlined an enterprising leader of France might manage to convince the Russians or Austrians to come to his aid with a promise of mutually beneficial spheres of influence divided between the two of them, thus forcing his German or Italian opponents to fight on two fronts. Other than fear as a motivating factor, one also needs to contend with greed and an odd sense of temporary goodwill (of course, an exhaustive list is unlikely to be generated, since one can always come up with a fairly unique motivational mindset, but I think the biggest two are fear and greed. Perhaps I only think that, though, because I've been reading Machiavelli lately).

Of course, I am once again getting caught up in details when I intended to give an overview. Beyond the psychological interest of the second stage of the game there is also an interesting mechanical aspect to it as the players learn how best to maneuver their troops and vie for strategic territories. While the Black Sea is of immediate strategic importance for the Turks and Russians from the very beginning and the border between Trieste and Venice sparks immediate tensions for the Austrian-Hugarians and Italians, several other territories that are not supply centres take on an increasingly important role in any but the most trusting of relationships (or relationships characterized by completely ignoring each other due to focusing on another front): the English Channel between England and France, Burgundy between France and Germany, Piedmont between France and Italy, Bohemia between Germany and Austria-Hungary, Galacia between Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the whole mess that is the Balkans between, mainly, Austria-Hungary and Turkey but also of significant importance to Italy and Russia. Of course, there are other territories that can also become quite significant. The North Sea is vital for anyone trying to attack Britain from the east, Scandinavia can become quite hotly contested between Britain, Germany, and Russia, and sometimes something completely unpredictable happens (such as one game I played in which Russia sailed a lone fleet all the way around the edge of the map and happened to snag Portugal from the French).

For the final stage of the game and some more fancifully meandering analysis, stay tuned for part III.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Making Something Geeky

This past weekend my internal filter failed to kick in. Rather than saying something inappropriately sexual, however, I said something inappropriately dorky. While sitting with a group of friends in the rear car of a streetcar, one of my friends made a comment about the driver detaching our car at the next stop because it was so empty, to which I responded before adequately thinking it over, "Well, at least we would have the warp engines."

So, I happen to have watched and enjoyed some Star Trek episodes over the years. The fact that certain things are considered incredibly geeky and others are not made me start to wonder about how such classifications were made. After all, the Lord of the Rings is the basis for many of the geekiest things around, including the Dungeons and Dragons games, but when the movies came out they became a huge hit and widely popular. Riding on their success and the success of science fiction hits like the Matrix, a huge number of sword and sorcery style and science fiction movies were spawned (some good, many quite bad). Among them, comic book heroes have gone through a similar rebirth of going from epic geekdom to mainstream, widely popular and accepted film.

It cannot simply be the transformation into movie format that makes things shed their geeky nature, however, because Star Trek and Star Wars are still considered rather geeky (although, to be fair, I think Star Wars has more of a widespread popular acknowledgement as not excessively geeky), and Dungeons and Dragons failed miserably at elevating itself beyond the stigma of geek with its film a few years ago (though that might simply have been a result of the movie being supremely poor). Anyway, I should have left for work many minutes ago, so I leave this question up to my readers:

What makes something geeky?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Getting the Americans to Go Metric

Warning: the following is arbitrarily trivial and most likely not worth reading.

On my way home from work this afternoon while suffering from a headache, I was suddenly struck with an inspirational idea (or, in other words, a completely useless idle thought that I figured was cleverly funny enough to be written down). So far, while the ubiquity of the metric system world-wide has caused it to be adopted within the scientific establishments even in America, the common American (and even common useage in Canada and Britain, though it pains me to admit it) still operates within the antiquated imperial system. Then I realised a brilliant way to start getting people to use the metric system - start referring to monetary units in a metric fashion. No longer would we have dollars and cents, but now we would have dollars and centidollars. You might get paid a decadollar an hour, and everyone would want to be a megadollaraire (or just megaire for short). The nice thing about this is it would not even require switching the magnitude of the unit, since a dollar would stay a dollar, so it would be much easier for people to get used to than having to start thinking in terms of meters instead of feet. Then, once the metric system terminology has been driven into the common mindset (while I recognize this is already partially being done by computer terminology with bytes, money tends to come up in conversation rather a lot more often), the rest of it might be more readily accepted.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Stupid Argument

As I have mentioned before, the intention of this blog was never meant to be contentious or ranting. Perhaps I'm just having a belligerent couple of weeks with this Aristotle essay hanging over my head, but I was once again struck by the inane stupidity of an article today and felt the need to respond. The article compares Darwin and Lincoln and tries to decide who was the more important historical figure. It can be found here.

While the premise of the article is a little stupid, I would be willing to forgive that for the sake of generating popular interest in historical figures. However, the part that I couldn't let slide was the utter ridiculousness of the conclusion. The article concludes that Darwin was less important because Wallace also had the idea of natural selection, though less rigorously developed, so we would simply have inevitably figured out natural selection with or without Darwin. However, if you stop for a moment and consider that argument, I'm pretty sure that if Lincoln had not existed there still would have been a 16th President of the United States of America. Sure, he might not have handled things as well as Lincoln did, but that argument didn't seem to stop the author of the article thinking that Darwin wasn't so important after all.

Anyway, maybe I'm just cranky.