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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Midweek Quotations

It would seem that the theme of the quotations for this week is war and political power:

"War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means." - Karl von Clausewitz, Prussian soldier and military theorist, 1780-1831

"The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and ages. It marks a victim; denounces it; and excites the public odium and the public hatred to conceal its own abuses and encroachments."
"I had rather be right than be President."
- Henry Clay, American politician, 1777-1852

"War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men."
"It is easier to make war than to make peace."
"What do you expect when I'm between two men of whom one [Lloyd George] thinks he is Napoleon and the other [Woodrow Wilson] thinks he is Jesus Christ?"
- Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France 1906-9 and 1917-20, 1841-1929

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


My blogcation* was a little longer and more complete than I had initially planned, as I failed to get around to my planned 'TWOTI' posts and even ended up missing a week of quotations (some mid-week quotations will go up tomorrow, never fear), so I apologize for that. I had an excellent holiday, though, and now it is time to get back to being productive.

Now that I am a month and a half into my job as a research assistant at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, I am starting to settle into a routine and feel the inklings of productivity in my work. The research focus of my lab is far more clinical than anything I have ever worked with before, and this has made the learning curve rather steep. Even when I was doing EEG research a year and a half ago I was still investigating the limits of information available within the EEG signal. This meant that our research was more an exercise in data mining and scientific computing than one in neurophysiology. My current lab, however, performs research on three well defined pathological conditions: stroke, metastatic brain tumours, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Thus, when it comes to reading papers and learning analytical techniques I am suddenly faced with a sea of new terms describing the various disease pathologies.

Any drastic shift in research focus tends to be accompanied by an uncomfortable slew of new terms. The daunting volume of complicated unknown words can be quite discouraging. Likewise, it is often disparaged by the ignorant as one of the 'faults' of science (usually with phrases like, "Those elitist scientists fancying up their work with hard to understand jargon just so they sound more important"). While not at all a novel idea, it is well worth pointing out on the occasion that jargon is a necessary evil resulting from the fractal nature of knowledge. The more closely you look at any field, the more subtle aspects are revealed that require new descriptors and manners of discussion.

I have immense respect for accomplished scientific communicators like Isaac Asimov and Richard Dawkins, but their profound talent is a result not of their ability to avoid jargon. Rather, they deftly weave scientific terms into the narrative, making them accessbile with only marginal effort. After all, it is not as though 'phenotype' and 'fitness function' are terms only bandied about by amateur biologists and laymen, but they are terms used prolifically throughout many of Dawkins' popular biology books where they enhance rather than obfuscate the discussion. Thus, while I will likely continue to bemoan the unpleasant task of wading through medical terms like juxtacortical lesions, immunohistochemistry, and some worse ones which I am currently failing to even recall, the fact remains that those terms have important meanings and I'm going to have to just settle down and learn them.

* I know it is tacky to invent words with 'blog' in them, but oh well. I assume I will need future vacations from blogging, so I might as well start tossing a term around. Doing so in the post on jargon seemed to be fitting.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday Morning Quotations

A new week... what shall this one hold?

"Without the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago." - E. M. Cioran, Romanian-born French philosopher, 1911-95

"There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water." - Alan Clark, British Conservative politician, 1928-99

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
"How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean."
- Arthur C. Clarke, English science fiction writer, 1917-2008

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Midweek Quotations

As you may have noticed, I missed producing some quotations to start off the week. I also have not produced an overview of my internet reading for the last two weeks, although that was partly because I discovered last week that I actually had some comments to respond to over at Computing Intelligence, and that ate up one of my evenings. Anyway, enough rambling, it is time for some quotations.

Please note that today is a rather special quotation set, since we have reached Sir Winston Churchill. Regardless of what you think about him, he said a good many quotable things, and I have deigned to go for only a few of them. As always, my reasons for selection are mostly inscrutable.

"There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies."
"Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
"I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."
"Mr. Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right."
"It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations."
"If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."
"I did not suffer any desire to be relieved of my responsibilities. All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after reasonable discussion."
- Winston Churchill, British statesman and Prime Minister from 1940-5 and 1951-5, 1874-1965

Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Morning Quotations

First day of the blog vacation. Here are your quotations to start off the week.

"The rich are the scum of the earth in every country."
"Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions."
"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."
"All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change."
- G. K. Chesterton, English essayist, novelist, and poet, 1874-1936

"We first crush people to the earth, and then claim the right of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate." - Lydia Maria Child, American abolitionist and suffragist, 1802-80

"Though by whim, envy, or resentment led,
They damn those authors whom they never read."
- Charles Churchill, English poet, 1731-64

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blog Vacation

I know it wasn't too long ago that I declared a blog vacation, but when it comes to this blog I am my own boss, so I am taking another one. It shall last two weeks.

I have a new job (well, two weeks old at this point, but it is keeping me pretty tired), some personal projects, and teacher training starting up on the weekends, so things are going to be pretty busy in the next couple of weeks. I will continue posting weekly quotations and, when something strikes my fancy, This Week on the Internet (TWOTI) posts (so be sure to still check back at least Monday and Friday, or just use the subscribe buttons), but other than that things should be pretty sparse (and Computing Intelligence will also be taking a break).

While you take a break from reading my blog, I invite you to ponder how the Dog Gone machine manages to avoid picking up dirt and other debris:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'll go if you make him go too...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a monumental jackass when it comes to environmental policy. The environment ministers he has appointed during his time in office have been inept at best, counterproductive and actively against environmental protection at worst. Harper's statements on the upcoming Copenhagen conference were no better than anyone should at this point expect, but they were still disappointing:
“I have always been clear, if there is a meeting of all major leaders involving climate change, I will of course attend,” Stephen Harper told the House of Commons Wednesday.
The "I'll go if he goes" argument didn't fly in elementary school, it shouldn't fly in the House of Commons. If an issue is important and there is an international conference (that over sixty foreign leaders are already slated to attend), you bloody well go. Dragging your feet and saying, "Well, I'll go if everyone else is going to be there, but until we know everyone is going to be there I'm too cool to show up," basically just says you don't care one bit about the issue. Which, for Stephen Harper on the environment, is pretty much the case.

Edit: Apparently, he has decided to go after all. Although I still have fairly low expectations, it is certainly a start.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Review: Your Inner Fish

This past week I finished Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish. It was a book that I was highly looking forward to reading, as I had heard a lot about it and thought it was a really good idea. The basic premise of the book is to look at our present day physiology and trace aspects of it back through the fossil record using all the tools of modern evolutionary science (from the fossils themselves to comparative DNA studies and developmental biology).

I think my expectations may have originally been overly high, considering that the book combined many things that I am a big fan of: comparative anatomy and physiology, paleontology, and evolution. What I failed to realise was that this was a fairly short, well-written popular science book, and therefore did not go nearly into the detail that I wanted. Despite Shubin's general skirting of complex details in lieu of making general points, the latter half of the book I found to be highly engaging, as there were a number of fascinating factual gems and I felt he started to feel more comfortable expanding the detail of his discourse, given the basic knowledge set he had introduced in the first half.

Thus, my biggest criticism of the book is that it could easily have been longer and more detailed. As it stands, it is a well-written and easily accessible overview of how our bodies are shaped by our evolutionary history. It is interesting, being about a subject that we are all aware of (the human body), with an interesting perspective that not a lot of people acknowledge or think about. I hope every school library gets at least a copy or two, and I think biology teachers would do well to point them out to their students.

Edit: I just wanted to point out that the first half of the book was good too! I simply found the second half engaged me more, but I realise that my initial wording of this post made it seem like that was the only good part of the book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 10

I meant to post this yesterday, but I ended up getting delayed due to some unknown blogging error that would not let me upload images. Here is the solution to Puzzle Number 10: Tetris Shape Reconstruction. In the puzzle, I asked if there existed a unique colour assignment linking each of the given colours to one of the Tetris shapes for the following image:

To be entirely honest, I had originally intended there to be a solution. However, after posting the image I realised there was not, and the puzzle therefore ended up a little sneakier than I had originally intended. Robert and Scott both successfully spotted my sneakiness, while Paul fell for my (unintended) trap and successfully mapped all the shapes without realising that red could not be mapped to only the J or L shape. Sarah had intended to answer the puzzle, but I accidentally spoiled the answer for her before she even had a chance to give it a go.

One can quickly see that Green = I and Orange = T due to the isolated shapes in the bottom left. Likewise, it is clear that Purple = O and the blue at the top means Blue = J. Since I has already been mapped, one can rest assured that Yellow = Z, which leaves only two shapes and two colours. Cyan = S is a valid mapping, but Red needs to be both J and L in order to create the left-most red area. Due to the inconsistent chirality of the red shape, there is no possible mapping to the Tetris shapes.

Monday Morning Quotations

"Women deprived of the company of men pine, men deprived of the company of women become stupid."
"Love, friendship, respect do not unite people as much as common hatred for something."
- Anton Chekhov, Russian dramatist and short-story writer, 1860-1904

"Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket: and do not pull it out and strike it, merely to show that you have one."
"Speak of the moderns without contempt, and of the ancients without idolatry."
"It is commonly said, and more particularly by Lord Shaftesbury, that ridicule is the best test of truth."
"Knowledge may give weight, but accomplishments give lustre, and many more people see than weigh."
- Lord Chesterfield (Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield), English writer and politician, 1694-1773

Saturday, November 21, 2009

TWOTI: New Series, Jennings Update, and Something Just Plain Interesting

While last week was a pretty slow week for blogging (both in my own work and, seemingly, in the small sphere of the internet that I frequent), this week had numerous interesting articles prompting a return of my "This Week on the Internet" series. This week I will be discussing three posts, with two of the blogs being a repeat of those featured in the first TWOTI installment.

To start the week off, on Monday Neuroskeptic wrote a discussion of Desiree Jennings' case (the same case that Steve Novella gave a first rate summary and discussion of two weeks ago) in the context of her treatment at the hands of Dr. Buttar. If you don't recall, Jennings suffered from a psychogenic illness following her vaccination. Her case was trumpeted by the anti-vaccine people in numerous unsavoury ways, and she was ultimately treated by Buttar's mecury chelation quackery. I thought Neuroskeptic brought up some very interesting points about modern medicine's ability to deal with psychologically based disorders. Essentially, we are at an unfortunate cul-de-sac: we know enough about physiology and medicine to fairly accurately determine when a disorder is psychologically based, but we do not know enough about the fine workings of the brain to determine either what precisely has gone wrong, nor how to fix it.

On Tuesday, Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex produced an interesting post commenting on a recent statistical analysis of golf revealing that players function measurably worse when Tiger Woods is part of the tournament. Lehrer then discussed both the study's interpretation of the drop in performance (the contestants subconsciously decided it was not worth the effort to perform at their best since they figured they had already lost) and his own (over-analysis of their actions led to a drop in performance - an interesting psychological effect on motor control that Lehrer talks about quite often). While I am inclined to find Lehrer's interpretation more plausible and think it is likely closer to the truth, I think the discussion also helps display the difficulties in interpreting psychological studies. When you find an interesting psychological quirk, it is hard not to want to have a go at explaining why our brains function that way. However, it is very easy to come up with a reasonable-sounding explanation that has absolutely no bearing on the truth (which is why my psychology tag includes the word 'fanciful'), and the interpretation of psychological studies should be firmly treated as idle speculation unless carefully backed up with appropriate evidence (which is one of the reasons I am inclined to go with Lehrer's interpretation - a drop in performance following over-analysis of one's physical actions has been demonstrated with other studies). Of course, speculation or not, it is still fun and fascinating reading.

Finally, on Wednesday Dr. Steve Novella at Neurologica started what looks to be a very promising series on science-based medicine and the incorporation of evidence into medical practices. His opening post discusses the complex experimental relationship between correlation and causation. Future parts of the series promise to include what makes a study well-designed. For anyone interested in the practice of good medicine, concerned about telling the difference between well-supported medical practice and pseudoscience, or unsure of how to tell the difference between fear-mongering quackery and legitimate medical concern, I recommend reading what Dr. Novella has to say.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Midweek Quotations

"If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come." - Raymond Chandler, American writer of detective fiction, 1888-1959

"I am sure no man in England will take away my life to make you King."
said to his brother, James II.

- Charles II, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660-85, 1630-85

"To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse - German." - attributed to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor from 1519-56 and King of Spain from 1516-58, 1500-58

Monday, November 16, 2009

Personal Update

Between starting a new job and going to the symphony today, I'm too tired to do a quotations set, so that will have to wait until the middle of the week. It looks like my primary task for at least the next little while will be analyzing MRI images and marking white matter lesions. Since the lab also works a lot with CT scans, it looks like I'm going to have to expand my knowledge repertoire of neural imaging.

Having a job with a commute is an interesting change. While rush hour on the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission, for those not in the area) is not a very fun time, I am certainly going to make significantly more progress on my "books I plan to read" list. I let Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish jump the queue at the end of last week, and I am already over halfway through. Although I probably won't put up a book review of everything I read (after all, reviews are most exciting when they are either excellent or awful. If I have the misfortune to read a string of mediocre books, that is no reason to bore you too), you can probably expect a review of this one by next week.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Puzzle Number 10: Tetris Shape Reconstruction

Although not exactly mathematically oriented per se, this puzzle involves spatial reasoning and is certainly not verbally oriented, so I thought it could count. The idea is, given the screen shot of a hypothetical Tetris variant with fourteen horizontal cells shown below and the guarantee that no lines have been formed, can you determine a unique colour assignment to the traditional Tetris shapes (which can be found in the Wikipedia article if one is not familiar with them)?

Being unique, there should not be an additional colour assignment that also functions for the given image.

(Note: The last line previously held a typo which gave it a confusing double-negative... sorry about that)

Note: Solution to the puzzle can be found here.

New Post at Computing Intelligence

I put up a new post over at Computing Intelligence on some sloppy language in what are usually excellent science news briefs from ScienceNOW. The subject is similar to the Animal Intelligence post and its continuation I wrote a while ago, but is a little more targeted and better referenced.

A Weird Reason to be in the News...

As I have mentioned before, I am from a small town called Creston located in an isolated part of inland British Columbia. I also bemoaned the fact that usually the only time Creston (or the surrounding regions) are referenced in the news, it is usually has something to do with fundamentalist Mormons living in the nearby town of Bountiful. Well, for once Creston gets a mention in the news for a different reason: the first time a Canadian border guard discharged a firearm since they began carrying them in 2007 happened about 25 kilometers away. It's a sad story of the euthenisaztion of a wounded moose, but at least the border guard knew what he was doing and was able to kill the moose quickly to end its suffering.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weekly Quotations: Graduation Edition

I missed the Start of the Week Quotations on Monday because I was busy showing my mom and grandfather around the University of Toronto in the morning, and then graduating that evening (so it was a busy day). However, U of T is doing a weird reshuffling of their fall semester, so today is "virtual Monday" according to the University. Thus, in some manner, this still counts as Start of the Week Quotations. If you don't buy that, Midweek Quotations will have to serve just as well.

"Fidel Castro is right. You do not quieten your enemy by talking with him like a priest, but by burning him." - Nicolae Ceausescu, first President of the Socialist Republic of Romania from 1974-89, 1918-89

"Nothing to be done without a bribe I find, in love as well as law." - Susannah Centlivre, English actress and dramatist, c. 1669-1723

"Morals and manners will rise or decline with our attention to grammar." - Jason Chamberlain, American clergyman, fl. 1811

"In politics, there is no use looking beyond the next fortnight." - Joseph Chamberlain, British Liberal politician and father of Neville Chamberlain, 1836-1914

Friday, November 6, 2009

TWOTI: Neuroskeptic on the Nutt sack and NeuroLogica on dystonia (or lack thereof)

This Week on the Internet:

Neuroskeptic had an informative overview of the dismissal of Professor David Nutt from his post as the British government's chief advisor on illegal drugs. While the case itself is interesting based on Nutt's medical and scientific statements, and the subsequent reasons given for dismissal, I was most struck by Neuroskeptic's comments on academic criticism:
Nutt has said that he was surprised to learn that he had been sacked. I'm sure this surprise was genuine because Nutt is an academic, and in academia, Nutt's "criticisms" would hardly even be considered as such. Here by contrast is an extract from a peer review comment I got a couple of days ago regarding a scientific paper I wrote:
The manuscript falls short of its goals in several respects: The basic phenomenon ... is barely presented... The style and language of the review leave a lot to be desired... The citations and reference list are appalling.
I thought that was an astute point, and indicative of the frustration I commonly feel about politics. Debate usually requires pointing out that some ideas are wrong, and while it can be uncomfortable to be told that about one's own ideas, that alone is not grounds for outrage or dismissal.

Steve Novella, meanwhile over at NeuroLogica, has provided a series of posts on the case of Desiree Jennings. His discussion starts here, continues here, and was most recently added to here. While I enjoyed his ruminations as much as ever, I think his most recent addition does a very admirable job of striking back at the underhanded tactics of the anti-vaccination group Generation Rescue. He pretty adequately sums the whole thing up with the following paragraph:
Despicably, Generation Rescue (GR) and the anti-vaccine movement were quick to jump on this case and exploit it for their own propaganda. They immediately portrayed themselves as “experts” – apparently able to make and treat such neurological diagnoses. However, after push back from the dystonia community, GR took down their web page they had put up to support Jennings. But then after a few days they had apparently made the calculation that, despite the fact that this was likely not a case of genuine dystonia or vaccine injury, the propaganda value was too treat to ignore, and they could just attack the physicians who felt obliged to properly analyze this case.
The whole thing is worth a read, though, particularly if you have inklings of doubt in whether or not there is something to the claims of the anti-vaccination crowd.

Note: I apologize for the title, but I just couldn't help myself. His last name is Nutt, he is British, and he got fired. Anyway, I'm not the only one to use such phrasing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I just finished Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything yesterday, and I have to say that it was an excellent book. It is a pretty substantial text, but Bryson does a good job of keeping it engaging, informative, and understandable even without background knowledge in the areas he addresses. I highly recommend it (as does Sarah, who recommended it to me in the first place).

The book, as the title suggests, covers quite a sweep of subjects. What Bryson is essentially attempting to do is explain the history of the Earth and life on it, but to do so he attempts to relate how and why we believe it. In doing so, he humanizes science through a series of fascinating historical anecdotes about scientists both famous and obscure. The devotion that Bryson lends to tracing the development of ideas is, I think, the greatest strength of the book. By examining how we know what we know, he successfully elucidates the nature of the scientific manner in an engaging and colourful manner. I wish this sort of book were presented more often in a middle school science class, as I think it helps bring to life the scientific mindset much more effectively than memorizing the (usually misrepresented) structure of hypothesis, data collection, conclusion.

Of course, with such a sweeping book there are bound to be a few errors. The only one I can remember was he accidentally listed Parkinson's Disease as being caused by a single genetic defect, which is not actually true (the origins of Parkinson's Disease are not currently known). That is a very minor quibble, though, and does not at all detract from the overall message of the book.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Title Change, New Blog, and Twitter

There are some rather profound upheavals of my internet presence tonight. I have launched a new wordpress blog: Computing Intelligence. There I will try to put up a post a week discussing some aspect of my research and educational life that I have either been working on or thinking a lot about. Since one cannot have two blogs with the same name, this blog has been renamed to Computing Ignorance. Here I will continue to haphazardly (and, most likely, much more often) post on all the other topics that you are used to reading about (politics, weekly quotations, puzzles, and that sort of thing).

Additionally, I am also making an effort to use Twitter (where you can find me as CaldenWloka).

Monday Morning Quotations

"Everything's got a moral, if you can only find it." - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
"'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked." - Through the Looking-Glass
"What I tell you three times is true." - The Hunting of the Snark
- Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), English writer and logician, 1832-98

"Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."
"If Miss means respectably unmarried, and Mrs respectably married, then Ms means nudge, nudge, wink, wink."
- Angela Carter, English novelist, 1940-92

"I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead. And that's what keeps you alive." - Barbara Castle, British Labour politician, 1910-2002

"I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me: that's his." - attributed to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762, 1729-96

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is More Information Always Better?

Regular readers know my opinion of the Fox News corporation. Over the past few weeks, Obama's administration and Fox News have gotten into a couple of real and contrived wars of words. One of the main talking points for the defenders of Fox is this (pulled fromRob's comment #34 from one of PZ Myer's posts as a representation of echoed sentiment elsewhere):
Freedom of the Press is important and the more we have of it the better. Its your freedom to choose which to regard as truth and which to regard as bias. If you have less to refer to, how will you know if you are making the right choices?
It is actually kind of amazing how closely this parallels the arguments espoused by "teach the controversy" advocates for intelligent design/creationism instruction the biology classes. Freedom of the press is important, but so is journalistic ethics. What freedom of the press means is that the government does not mandate what can and cannot be reported. There are already many issues with this in the United States, but the problem here is not that the White House team is trying to silence Fox News (because they are not), just that they are calling them on being biased and playing to an agenda. While I recognize that true journalistic neutrality is impossible to achieve, it is still what one must strive for to be a good journalist. Presenting incredibly biased or blatantly false claims does not help people "make the right choice". After all, how is one supposed to decide "which to regard as truth and which to regard as bias"? Based on which news network has the most attractive reporters or greatest emotional appeal to their rhetoric? When a news organization has no legal obligation to the truth and spends money and time organizing and fomenting the dissent that they plan to cover, it ceases to be a legitimate source of news and ceases to bring useful information into public discourse. At this point, Fox News is no better than the Discovery Institute. Likewise, Fox's emotionally charged defenders' false dichotomy of either treating Fox News uncritically or being against freedom of the press is no better than the "teach the controversy in the name of academic freedom" nonsense the Discovery Institute spouts.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Start of the Week Quotations

"What millions died - that Caesar might be great!" - Thomas Campbell, Scottish poet, 1777-1844

(the following Albert Camus quotations are translations from French)
"An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself"
"What is a rebel? A man who says no."
"Every revolutionary ends as an oppressor or a heretic."
- Albert Camus, French novelist and dramatist, 1913-60.

"We must recall that the Church is always 'one generation away from exctinction.'" - George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, 1935-

"If Jesus Christ were to come to-day, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it." - Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian and political philosopher, 1795-1881.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Discover Your Purpose in Life"

Tonight I went to a truly bizarre talk (actually, it was a series of four talks). The evening was advertised as a seminar presenting an irrefutable mathematical proof for the existence of God. Frustratingly, questions were held until the very end, so by the time the last fellow spoke one was so busy feeling blustery about what he said that one had forgotten many of the issues of the first talks. Also, unfortunately for the speakers the organizer of the event had, for some unfathomable reason, decided it would be a good idea to send a mass invitation to the math department. This then spilt over into some of the related departments (like physics), to the point where over three quarters of the audience were largely atheistic in mindset and highly versed in mathematics.

Roughly, the set of talks went like this:

Talk 1: "Discover Your Purpose in Life"
The fellow started by stating that there were two ways of reasoning, you either methodically looked at a sequence of data or you took all the information at once and made a comparison (at no point did he address how one knew whether one had all the relevant information or not). His talk was actually quite difficult to follow, for he seemed to jump from unqualified statement to unqualified statement. He made a number of tired and old arguments, including the "fine-tuning argument" and a number of other arguments from incredulity (mangling the concepts of probability and logic on his way). He then ended with one of the most bizarre theological renditions I have ever heard, including making the statement that the Earth was small in relation to the universe because the Earth was the kingdom God gave Satan to prove that Satan couldn't even run it properly... essentially, as far as I could follow, relegating the Earth to the status that I had understood hell to hold in the Abrahamic faiths. This was an inconsistent position, however, for he insinuated that God held sway over the happenings on Earth at multiple other points in his talk (as well as the other speakers), while also making the claim that no one held sway because everyone on Earth had the 'gift' of free will.

Talk 2: "The Proof"
A long, nonsensical power-point presentation of numerology finding coincidental recurrences of the number 19 in the Qur'an. Patterned coincidences in text have been well and thoroughly refuted numerous times (a good resource is here). Also, numerical coincidences in no way makes a mathematical proof.

Talk 3: "Why Bad Things Happen"
This talk was surprisingly the best of the bunch, although only because the fellow who gave it was an accomplished speaker who never really made much of a point (although at one point he did make the claim that your free will gave you control over whether you were on God's side, at which point your life would be good, or Satan's side, at which point your life would be bad. I wanted to ask about things like hurricanes and other natural disasters, which make life miserable for believer and non-believer alike and over which we have no control, but I never got that chance). He also made a couple statements which sounded very much like Yoda's philosophy (things along the line of "Don't give in to anger and hate"), so that kind of endeared him to me.

Talk 4: "Here's Craig"
For some reason, no title was given for this talk, and the speaker was only introduced as "Craig", hence the title given. This was a pretty wasted talk, as the speaker was clearly speaking to the wrong audience. He was attempting to reconcile the Bible with the Qur'an, meaning he basically quoted a lot of both of them without really saying much himself. At the end of his talk he made a very bizarre statement that completely contradicted the "free will is everything" sentiment espoused by two of the previous speakers by intimating that everything that happened was according to God's plan, including things like medical and scientific breakthroughs. He then left that hanging there as a confusing and highly arguable statement, and apparently disappeared (he failed to return to the podium for the question and answer period).

The Question and Answer Period: "Over an hour of brutal and highly charged argument"
I honestly felt a little bad for the speakers, because I don't think they were prepared for the response they got. Professor Charles Dyer got the first word in, and thoroughly blasted the numerology "proof" as such a twisted and overly round-about method of revelation that it was just as likely to be a trick of the devil as the work of any all-powerful god. As an opening salvo, while incendiary, it was not particularly devastating. There was a lot of blustering and, "Oh, but you haven't gone through the rest of the proof, this was only the rough beginning of it...", at which point Dyer and another member of the audience, a fellow named Ali in possession of a very robust knowledge of the Qur'an, tried to get across the profound contradiction imposed by the combination of omniscience and omnipotence as espoused by the speakers. This was largely lost on the speakers, at which point the organizer tried to salvage the evening by calling on another member of the audience.

This was a mistake. She called upon a mathematician in the audience named Alfonso who launched into a blistering tirade against their numerology, pointing out that very similar analyses had been done on numerous other books and were all based on the simple preponderance of coincidence available with very large data sets. I think it was a combination of his accent, rapid speech, hostility, and calling out of nonsense that would shake their worldview, but his question was not well received. The organizer herself got quite upset and snappy, and once again tried shuffling between questioners to ease the burden.

Alas, things continued to not go well as more of the audience clamped on to inconsistencies and fallacies. I got a brief moment to speak (I believe that the organizer was once again seeking reprieve), so I made the attempt of trying to engage the speakers on their level. My question was that even if one accepted what they were saying, why would God have let hundreds of generations of people live in complete and utter ignorance all over the world prior to revealing His word through the Qur'an, and even once that was revealed he continued to neglect the people of the Americas and Australia and other regions for more centuries. Even once he released the Qur'an, he did so with ultimate "proof" of his existence embedded in a manner that would require the invention of modern computers to adequately analyze, thereby preventing its discovery until 1974 (when this numerology was apparently completed). To my profound disappointment, the second speaker (who was standing at the podium at the time) said that he thought one of the other speakers should answer my question because he wasn't well versed in "that sort of thing", at which point no one else came up and the organizer simply called on another person. So much for my attempt to engage the speakers on their own level.

The final response was a calm and quiet audience member (I don't know his name) who simply pointed out the fact that numerical coincidences do not provide a proof. This was met with some uncomfortable squirming of the speakers as they professed to be "simply presenting information for others to make up their minds about". When they finally asked what a valid mathematical proof entailed, Alfonso started to give an answer when the organizer abruptly (and, I think, quite rudely) cut him off and wished everyone a good night, bringing the evening to a close.

Thus ended an odd and somewhat vexing (though still rather entertaining) evening.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Will Revisited

Just over a year ago, at the request of Cornucrapia, I made a post discussing my outlook on the concept of free will. Since free will seems to be one of those topics that refuses to keep its ugly head down, Robert sent me an email mentioning that it had come up at the new atheist group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While I directed him to have a look at my original free will post, I thought it might be worth rattling off some more musings on the matter. The subject of free will, after all, is ostensibly a question about the function of the brain, so one would think that I might have something sage-like to say on the matter.

As I mentioned in my original post, I am actually not a fan of the topic. My dislike is not based on finding the topic itself dull, but rather because it is such an old topic weighed down by the nonsensical baggage of eminent names that have come before it. For some reason the combination of trundling theological dogma overly concerned with the divine judgement and punishment of immortal souls, the psychologically pressing intimacy of the question, and our current dearth of information about many aspects of mental life makes the subject of free will (as well as 'consciousness') burdened by a disproportionate number of eminent thinkers from completely unrelated fields all deciding that it is a perfect problem to which they should devote their retirement treatises. The opinions of these thinkers are then bandied back and forth, all with a great deal of undeserved weight given the phenomenal intellectual prestige of the thinkers' earlier works.

While the explanation of my discontent turned a little more vitriolic than I had originally planned, it is nice to have gotten it out of the way. Now I can press on with my own meandering thoughts on the matter. One of the difficulties that plague many discussions of free will is a lack of definition. With such a vague (though intuitive) definition as "do we control our own actions", it is difficult to engage the topic in a meaningful manner. To start with, I think the anyone who brings up the debate must also seriously consider the rejoinder, "Does it matter either way?" To a great extent, the consternation gripping many people over the topic of free will rests with the theological roots I was railing against in my previous paragraph. After all, if we live in a deterministic universe (which itself is not a settled matter, but most people treat it as such), how can we be divinely judged on actions we had no choice but to perform?

Treating the matter outside of the theological realm in the domain of empirical philosophy, I admit the question of free will can still carry some weight when it comes to the issue of earthly justice (such as our criminal justice system). The justice system is a complex entity, however, and, though some people view it as such, does not exist solely for the purpose of delivering retribution. People, including criminals, are remarkably complex dynamical systems. As I mentioned in my previous post, such systems are virtually impossible to fully model, and sometimes impossible to even remotely predict, and thus we have no recourse but to act as if free will exists even if there is no mystical soul or tiny homunculus making choices. In my mind imprisonment and fines therefore remain ethical and necessary institutions. I tried to more fully elucidate my feelings on the matter, but it threatened to take over the rest of my discussion, and I had one more area that I wanted to address. If people take issue with my brief remarks on crime and punishment, let me know and I will try to more completely discuss the matter in another post.

As an atheistic scientist, I strongly doubt the existence of the aforementioned immaterial soul or decision-making homunculus. Of course, there is always the possibility of discovering some previously unsuspected aspect of our mental lives (after all, we only recently uncovered the quantum nature of photosynthesis) which makes our brains fundamentally different than other computing devices, but at the same time that does not mean we will not be able to reproduce our cognitive abilities following such a leap in knowledge. While the strong AI hypothesis (basically, that the brain is a computing device akin to any other computational model) is by no means proven, it is an open question with I think very little current evidence against it. As I said, even if our brain operates in a fundamentally different and as-yet unknown manner from a Turing Machine, every piece of evidence we currently have still points to it being a physical device beholden to physical laws. Damage the brain and you damage your mental faculties. Accepting this physical nature, however, does not equate to relegating our mental lives to that of deterministic automatons. As I have said before, we are still simply too complex to fully predict.

There is one final argument that I would like to address along the lines of neurophysiology. I do not know if I have the argument entirely correct, as I am getting the report of the argument second-hand, but it is a supposed proof against free will. Rather than further mangle the argument by summarizing it again in my own words, I will reproduce it here as it was sent to me:
When I think about moving my finger I am already moving it, and therefore the decision to move my finger must have been made before I thought to do it. Free will would, in this case, be an illusion. Because, the argument goes, there is a slight delay in the signal being sent from my brain to move my finger. Therefore, if I were to have conscious control (and actually making decisions about such things) then I would think about moving my finger, and, half or a quarter of a second later, my finger would move. Instead, at the same time I think about moving my finger, my finger moves, implying to those advancing the argument, that there must be something beyond our control in our heads making us do stuff. So, we do not have free will.
This is, to me, an almost entirely nonsensical argument. As far as I can understand it, the claim is that because one's actions appear to happen in the same instant that one thinks about doing the action, there must be some sort of unconscious automatic decision making device controlling both the thought that the move should be made and the move itself. What the argument is actually doing is basing a conclusion off of the acknowledgement of the latency of some neurological processes but not others. We do not entirely understand at what point one becomes aware of a conscious desire for action, but even assuming that the command is sent to the motor cortex at the same instant it is consciously acknowledged, there is still the latency of the visual and proprioceptive systems in checking that the command was executed. So perhaps there is a two hundred and fifty millisecond delay before one's finger starts to waggle, but one could reasonably expect an equally large or larger delay in the visual and somatosensory cortices as they decide whether or not the waggle is going on, and then report that knowledge back to the administrative cortical regions. What is actually an amazing property of our brain is that it gives the impression of a complete, simultaneous, and coherent picture of the world.

Local Government Outreach

I found in my mail box yesterday Issue 2 of Our Toronto, a newspaper apparently published by the city. While I figure such unsolicited publications will, unfortunately, tend to simply end up in most peoples' waste baskets (as I'm sure our Issue 1 did), I found such civic outreach quite charming. As a member of the internet generation, though, I found that the most useful aspect of the paper was the pointing out of the municipal government's website. In particular, they have an online 'course' called civics101 outlining how the municipal government works. I have not gone through it yet, but I plan to over the next few days. The reason I plan to do so is because I have an embarrassingly poor grasp of what the municipal government does. Within the hierarchy of government, news and general public knowledge tends to focus almost exclusively on the federal level. The provincial (or state) and municipal levels, particularly in large cities, can have a great deal of impact as well on one's life. This, of course, is rather obvious, but it is still one of those things that I think often gets ignored. I recognize that a lot of my readers are not from Toronto, so I suggest going online and finding out if your municipal government has a website. You might be surprised at what you find.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Corruption of Journalism

Like many people my age, I sometimes catch myself thinking that we live in a singularly politically corrupt age. I usually follow such thoughts, however, with the conclusion that such an idea is likely untrue, and instead it is simply the difference of currently living through a time and paying attention to the politics as opposed to childhood memories or the veneer of the historical lens. After all, from my high school knowledge of American history (combined with modern revelations) I recall Nixon's notoriety as a horribly corrupt man. Going further back, I recall learning about Ulysses S. Grant's corrupt presidency, characterized by nepotism forgiven by the populace due to his popularity as a war hero.

One thing that I think is different, however, about our current state of affairs is the symbiotic relationship of the media, politics, and the economy at large. The major news networks are an unduly powerful political force, particularly now that a number of very disconcerting precedents have been quietly set (namely, the propagation of the idea that there is a difference between commentators and reporters in terms of ties to truth, followed by the more horrifying right to lie Fox News won in court). By straddling the line between mere entertainment and news, television news has entered into a state of phenomenal power (it is still viewed by the majority of the population as a reliable source of news), but is also largely defunct of journalistic ethics. As much as I love the Daily Show with John Stewart, I believe it is primarily a failing of television news networks rather than any sort of uncanny talent for weaving comedy with fact on John Stewart's part that results in Daily Show viewers typically scoring as well or better than viewers of traditional news networks in terms of current events knowledge.

In the same way that we have regulatory agencies designed to protect people from false advertising and ensuring the safety of foods and drugs, it is absolutely vital that our society begin to hold news agencies to a standard beyond simply entertainment bodies. Within the realm of information dissemination, the level of power and influence one currently has is largely not based upon the truth of one's information, but rather the depth of one's advertising budget. To a certain extent these sorts of regulatory boards do exist, such as Media Matters (who recently managed to bring to light a huge conflict of interest with one of CNN's contributors), but they wield no where near the clout of the cable news organizations.

I have no solutions, and I have no power to change things beyond the little network of influence occupied by this blog. The television and computer screen are immune to my snide heckling and indignant bellows, and news agencies will continue to shill for whoever has greased the right palms. As easy as it is to sink into apathy and cynicism, though, that is most certainly not the answer. If anyone has ideas, let me know. Journalistic ethics are important, and they are something worth fighting to restore.

Start of the Week Quotations

"An apology for the Devil: It must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books." - Samuel Butler, English novelist, 1835-1902

"What literature can and should do is change the people who teach the people who don't read the books." - A. S. Byatt, English novelist, 1936-

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." - James Branch Cabell, American novelist, 1879-1958

"When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist." - attributed to Helder Camara, Brazilian priest, 1909-99

"It doesn't matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses." - Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Beatrice Stella Tanner), English actress, 1865-1940

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 9

Sorry, I had intended to release these solutions earlier this weekend (along with a couple other posts that are partially finished), but then I came down with some sort of flu or cold. Right now I am coasting on the awesome powers of NeoCitran, but I think it might wear off soon.

Here are the solutions to Puzzle Number 9: Epic Word Scramble. I only received solutions for the puzzle from one person this time (Sarah), but she was quite impressive with her output and sent in two sets of solutions (one before any of the hints and one after both sets of hints). As a reminder, each set of letters came from an original message (thereby ensuring that a whole sentence could be formed with them), and hints were released to ideally lead someone to those original messages if unscrambling all the letters into an unplanned sentence proved too difficult.

1.) A A C G G H H H I I I L M N N N O O R S T T U W Y
Six words, one is a contraction.
(3'1) (4) (8) (2) (2) (5)?

The original sentence was: Who's that lounging in my chair?

Before the hints, Sarah did not actually have a sentence (it was rather a collection of disjointed words). I was debating whether or not to include that as a partial solution, but I currently cannot find the email, so that is making my decision for me.

Edit: Sarah re-sent me her set of words:
In naughty math showgirl icon

After the hints, Sarah sent in this partially sensible sentence (you have to imagine some extra punctuation, I think, around the 'ah'... and even then I'm not so sure about its meaning):
Him's grit wantonly in ah cough?

2.) A A A E E E E E E E E E F G H H H H I I N O O P P R R R R S S S S S T T T T T V Y
Eight words, none are contractions.
(5) (3) (3) (7) (2) (3) (8) (10).

The original sentence was: These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

Sarah had much more luck with the second set of letters, sending this message before any hints were released:
Hie Ho! Here a gritty vet pets sheep ass for earnest.

Following the hints, she submitted this (with the caveat that one must assume Aeehi is a name):
Aeehi try the passage to the freshest perversion.

As Sarah pointed out, I'm not sure the hints actually made the puzzle any easier. I will try to make the next puzzle a mathematically oriented one to make up for this one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Couple of News Stories

If you are going to have the bad luck of having your vehicle smashed up, I cannot think of a cooler way to go.

The Harper government continues to make a mockery of environmental policy by asking the Americans to weaken EPA regulations on lake freighters.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Blog Excitement

My girlfriend has a new blog called The Language of Bad Physics. Although I don't understand everything that she talks about, if you like physics and like nonsense getting eviscerated, you will probably enjoy her blog.

Midweek Quotations

Since it was an extra long weekend for me this past week (well, I am currently unemployed, so some may argue that I live in a perpetual weekend, albeit a poor one, but this past weekend was Thanksgiving at my girlfriend's family's house, and we stayed until last night), I did not get a chance to give some start of the week quotations. Here, then, are the quotations for the week.

Also, my last set of quotations sparked some confusion among some of my readers. Yes, it was a random hodge-podge of quotations, many about things which I have no experience (namely, fatherhood and homosexuality). That is often the case, however, and it is hard to tell exactly what I look for in quotation selection. Those just happened to meet my criteria for that section of the alphabet.

"An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less." - Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University from 1901-45, 1862-1947

"It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence."
"The advantage of doing one's praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places."
"Young as he was, his instinct told him that the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way."
"It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four."
- Samuel Butler, English novelist, 1835-1902

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Puzzle Number 9: Final Hint

This post is a couple days late, mostly because it is the Thanksgiving long weekend in Canada which threw my "update on the weekend" clock off. Anyway, now I am finally get around to it. As promised, the last hint for Puzzle Number 9 will outline the number of letters and punctuation in each of the planned sentences. As before, I am also open to novel solutions. The clue is given using the following notation: in parentheses, the word length is given. If the word is a contraction, the number of letters before the apostrophe is given, then the apostrophe, followed by the number of letters after the apostrophe. The punctuation at the end is the punctuation at the end of the sentence.

1.) A A C G G H H H I I I L M N N N O O R S T T U W Y
Six words, one is a contraction.
(3'1) (4) (8) (2) (2) (5)?

2.) A A A E E E E E E E E E F G H H H H I I N O O P P R R R R S S S S S T T T T T V Y
Eight words, none are contractions.
(5) (3) (3) (7) (2) (3) (8) (10).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Persi Diaconis the Mathemagician

Dr. Persi Diaconis is a fascinating man, and part of that fascination comes from the fact that he can claim title to one of the simultaneously coolest and silliest job names ever: mathemagician. I saw Diaconis give a talk on mathematics and magic at the Fields Institute a couple of years ago, and it is one of my favourite all time talks. Diaconis is engaging, charismatic, and relates a sense of absolute enjoyment of both mathematics and performance trickery. Having worked as both a professional magician and as a professor in departments of both statistics and mathematics, Diaconis exudes the combined sense of wonder and power that can be found in the study of mathematics.

Aside from the one talk I visited, I don't have a lot to present about Persi Diaconis that is not available on either Wikipedia or his website. I had intended to share one of his tricks that I saw him demonstrate, but I think it would be better to try and show it. That, however, requires a little more organization than I currently have (including a tripod for my camera and a volunteer to be in the video with me), so you will have to wait for me to get everything together. In the meantime, if you get the chance to see a talk by Dr. Persi Diaconis, I highly recommend it.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all my Canadian readers. Unfortunately, I did not have access to my pictures of turkeys from around my parents' house (they are on my desktop and I am spending the weekend at my girlfriend's family's house), so I had to use this image I pulled off a quick Google search. Still, it should serve well enough to put in mind the festiveness of the long weekend.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Puzzle Number 9: Hint One

As promised, here is the first set of hints for puzzle number 9. I should also point out that one person has sent in solutions that use all of the letters (and are totally unrelated to my starting sentences, so clearly there are other possibilities). Of course, one of the solutions is not actually intelligible, but it is still a set of real words that use all of the letters.

Anyway, this hint gives the number of words in each "official" sentence (in other words, the one I started with to come up with the letter list). On the weekend I will release the number of letters in each word along with the punctuation in the sentence, before giving the answers next week. Of course, one should not feel constrained by the hints. Novel solutions are still very much appreciated. Please just point out whether or not you used the hints in coming up with your solution.

1.) A A C G G H H H I I I L M N N N O O R S T T U W Y
Six words, one is a contraction.

2.) A A A E E E E E E E E E F G H H H H I I N O O P P R R R R S S S S S T T T T T V Y
Eight words, none are contractions.

Science Outreach - You're Doing it Right

I'm sure most of my readers will have already seen this (considering I found it from my perusals of PZ Myer's blog Pharyngula), but I still couldn't resist posting it. As my girlfriend remarked, "I love a good boy band singing about science."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday Morning Quotations

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men,
Gang aft a-gley."
-Robert Burns, Scottish poet, 1759-96

"In homosexual sex you know exactly what the other person is feeling... In heterosexual sex you have no idea what the other person is feeling." - William S. Burroughs, American novelist, 1914-97

"One religion is as true as another." - Robert Burton, English clergyman and scholar, 1577-1640

Vater werden ist nicht schwer,
Vater sein dagegen sehr.
"Becoming a father is not difficult,
Being a father is."
-Wilhelm Busch, German satirical poet and illustrator, 1832-1908

Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Absolutely Terrible Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode

I thought I had seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation over the course of my childhood. Apparently, that is not true. Over the past little while I have been slowly re-watching the series, and I am on the final stretch with the seventh season. Tonight I watched the episode entitled Sub Rosa. It was kind of like watching what I imagine would happen if television writers routinely trolled the internet looking for creepy fan-fiction rather than writing the episodes themselves. Not that I think anyone will mind, but spoilers are ahead.

Apparently, Dr. Crusher's grandmother lives on a weird colony that tries its best to emulate Scotland in the 1800s. While I figured that is what the holodeck is for, I guess it is the future when people can do all sorts of frivolously ridiculous things, including making an entire planet into a Scotland emulation, so perhaps we can forgive the setting. The episode doesn't really have much to do with any of the characters beyond Crusher, with Data, Riker, and Geordi providing minor plot bits. Picard and Troi have slightly larger roles, but their roles are unfortunately mainly served as foils for Crusher's weird and creepy trans-generational ghostly love affair. You see, Crusher's grandmother had a secret lover named Ronin who was actually an "aniphasic" alien who lived in a candle (a regular candle, but somehow it turns out to actually be a plasma candle). Now that Crusher's grandmother is dead, he seduces her. If the story of someone's grandmother's lover seducing them is not awkward enough, he repeatedly tells her how much he loves her within the context of loving her just like he loved her grandmother, and her great grandmother before that, all the way back through the generations.

I not only have no idea who pitched this storyline in the writing room, but I cannot imagine how anyone who heard it thought, "Grandmother's ghost lover seducing Dr. Crusher - how is that not television gold?" Apparently there is another episode that I also have not seen (or at least have no memory of seeing) coming up that is even worse than this one, but I have a hard time imagining that. Also, I realise that this post in no way holds any sort of worthwhile news or interesting bits about science, but I felt the need to share my pain.

Puzzle Number 9: Epic Word Scramble

In a QI episode from the second season (or, I should say second series, since I am talking about a British show), Jimmy Carr did one of the most impressive things I have seen on television. Given a jumble of the following letters: A A A A A B B C E E E E E E G H I I K K K L L L M M M N O O O P R R S S S S S T T T T T T U U W, he was able to use them all to create the message "PUT SMARTIES TUBES ON CATS LEGS, MAKE THEM WALK LIKE A ROBOT" (of course, he did not have a comma, but I think that is something that he can be forgiven for). In recognition of such an impressive feat, I have created two sets of letters to be unscrambled. In this case, I have started with an intelligible sentence, so you can be assured that it is possible to use all the letters. If you are unable to, however, I will also accept solutions that simply use as many letters as you can manage for partial credit, with bonus given to amusing and interesting creations. If you are not particularly skilled at anagrams (like me), I will be posting two sets of hints in the next week. The first hint set will give the number of words that my original sentence contains, and the second will give the number of letters in each word as well as the punctuation between them. The first hint set should come out on Wednesday, so if you want to be really impressive and solve this without hints, you will have to get your solutions in before then. Note: Since you can add punctuation, contractions are acceptable (for example, CANT could be used not only as the word cant, but also to denote can't).

1.) A A C G G H H H I I I L M N N N O O R S T T U W Y

2.) A A A E E E E E E E E E F G H H H H I I N O O P P R R R R S S S S S T T T T T V Y

Hints: Puzzle Number 9 Hint One, Puzzle Number 9 Hint Two

Note: Solutions to the puzzle can be found here.

Avoiding Neuronal Tangle

Every so often, I run across a study that elegantly elucidates a solution to a problem I failed to think of, but which in retrospect appears to be a very serious problem I really ought to have wondered about. When this happens, it is both exciting (I am learning something really neat, after all) and disheartening (why didn't I even wonder about that?) at the same time. A recent study pointed out and summarized by Neuroskeptic resulted in such an experience for me.

Since Neuroskeptic has already summarized the study quite nicely and readably, I will only briefly explain what was going on here to convince you it is worth following the link. Basically, the problem that I failed to wonder about was how branching neuronal processes managed to avoid entangling themselves and mainly forming self-connections. I had wondered about the problems of axonal guidance, particularly in relation to long distance connections, but I also should have wondered about the lack of tangling in the dendritic trees and local axonal processes as well. I also knew chemical markers would be involved, as previous evidence for chemical markers guiding axon growth has been found. However, somehow developing a unique chemical marker for each neuron to keep it from entangling itself seems like something that would be rather difficult to do. Fascinatingly, though, researchers from the Department of Biological Chemistry at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have found evidence for a remarkably elegant solution. I highly recommend reading Neuroskeptic's summary and checking out the paper itself.

Ongoing Goodyear Problems

Over the summer, I mentioned that the Canadian Science Minister Gary Goodyear had stuck his ignorant nose into an academic conference because he was worried that there would be some speakers who were anti-Israeli at the conference. As I pointed out at the time, when you have a conference on something as contentious as Middle Eastern politics, most likely you are going to have a variety of viewpoints which include both anti-Israeli sentiments and anti-Palestinian. After my initial reporting of the incident, though, I did not hear anything more. Science recently had an update article on the matter. While the information was rather scant in the article, it is at least nice to see that the matter is still being pursued (and, as I guessed, Goodyear appears to be throwing his weight behind things for ideological reasons... shocking, I know, for someone who thinks belief in evolution is a religious question).

I also thought it was kind of funny that the author of the article originally thought York University was in the United Kingdom... I suppose it must be kind of confusing, given that the vast majority of our universities in southern Ontario ripped off at least a couple names from British schools.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fascinating Art

I have only recently been made aware of the artist Liu Bolin, a modern Chinese artist who paints himself into pictures. This is apparently done without photo editing tricks, and is quite impressive. I wonder what would some of these shots would look like when physically at the scene, and I am also quite curious what he uses to paint himself.

You can read an article about Liu Bolin, and then view this more extensive gallery of his work.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Disconcerting Development

For some reason, the default dictionary for the spell-check available in both Open Office and Microsoft Word does not recognize 'neuroscience' as a word. I normally just ignore my spell-checker when it highlights words that I know to be actual words (like my name), but tonight, for the first time, while spell-checking a document I glanced at the suggested words box before I hit 'ignore'. To my horror, the first suggested word as a replacement for 'neuroscience' is 'pseudoscience'. Who knew that Open Office's spell-checking program knew how to insult me so effectively?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Picking on Mr. Crusher

I have mentioned the short Star Trek: The Next Generation videos that are available on youtube as new stories cobbled together by clever editing before, and whenever one that I think was particularly well done comes along I point it out. Well, since that time many more have been released, and another one has struck my fancy. I thought the random pieces of storyline were knit together rather well, and it succeeded without even having to resort to awkward sexual tension between the crew members.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday Midday Quotations

"There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light,
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night."
- Arthur Buller, British botanist and mycologist, 1874-1944

"Thanks to God, I am still an atheist." - Luis Buñuel, Spanish film directory, 1900-83

"There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue." - Edmund Burke, Irish-born Whig politician, 1729-97

Book Review: Darkness at Noon

I actually finished the book Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, about a week ago on my flight back to Toronto, but I put off writing this review until after I had written the first part on computability (and that clearly took me too long...). The author seems to have been quite influential and prestigious, but I will admit I had never actually heard of either him or this book before having it recommended (and handed) to me.

I think a little bit of context for the author's life is useful in understanding this book, so I will start with that. Koestler was born in Hungary in 1905, but was primarily educated in Austria. He joined the Communist Party of Germany, but grew disillusioned and left after a few years. He led a fairly tumultuous life, at various times serving as a war correspondent and communist agent in France and Spain, being imprisoned and sentenced to death in Spain (although he was exchanged for another prisoner before his sentence was carried out), and ultimately fleeing to Britain to avoid the Nazis. Interestingly, Darkness at Noon was originally published in German, but the original German text has been lost and all modern German versions have been back-translated from English.

The story itself tells the tale of a Bolshevik named Rubashov. Formerly a prominent member of the Russian revolution and communist party, the book details Rubashov's arrest and imprisonment awaiting execution by the Soviet state under Stalin's rule. The story primarily unfolds as a combination of dialogue between Rubashov and his interrogators, and as internal monologues, memories, and diary snippets from Rubashov. I found that the style was at first rather confusing, particularly because I was not sure if the story was meant to be based in an actual contemporary (to the time of writing) political setting, or if it was conjecture along the lines of 1984 (my confusion stemmed from the description of the aggressive German crosses worn by the officers who arrested Rubashov the first time in a flashback. I later realised that the German arrest was while he was serving as a communist agent in Germany, and the book was set in an actual historical setting rather than some fictitious communist state in Germany). Once I got used to the style, though, I found the novel to be quite engaging. It had quite a bit of the depressive charm of Eastern European literature, and it was interesting on both a psychological level as well as a political thought level.

While the book has been described as anti-communist, I do not think that is necessarily an accurate description. The story is quite anti-Soviet, but that is not the same thing. There were a few times when I wished I could leap into the story to correct what I saw as failures in the characters' arguments, but even when the arguments were bad it was a fascinating historical account of the thought processes followed by the Bolshevik movement (and I thus do not rule out the possibility that the flawed arguments were purposeful). I do not wish to go into any details, however, as I do not want to give anything away.

In summary, the book was quite fascinating. While I found the style awkward at first, those feelings quickly faded to the background. I think that if a reader did not have at least a cursory background in Russian (and general European) history from the early 1900s the novel might be slightly difficult to follow, but that shouldn't scare anyone off as I was able to follow along with just my high school knowledge. If you are interested in political thought and recent history, I recommend picking up a copy of Darkness at Noon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I am torn

An article I read in the Globe and Mail has me conflicted. I thought, therefore, that it might be a worthwhile weekend diversion to open the article up to my readership for discussion. Essentially, the article brings to light the fact that the Canadian government provides security for both former Presidents Clinton and Bush when they come to Canada on speech circuits, but the price of security for the two men varies massively (~$12,000 for Clinton and more than $100,000 for Bush). The reason I do not trust my own opinions on this are my massive disapproval of Bush, which makes me wildly indignant that my government is expected to provide such expensive security for a man who I would never want to hear speak. I find it particularly repugnant that he is earning massive amounts of money himself (as are, presumably, the people organizing the venues) without any sort of requirement to help cover the cost of his security. However, I also recognize that in Canada order is kept by our police force, and the high price of Bush's security is due to the heightened security costs of the large protests Bush garners. This just seems backward, though... the protesters do nothing to inhibit Bush's Canadian speech circuit, and instead increase the burden on the Canadian government.

Like I said, I am not really sure what to think about this, so I welcome any input.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The History of Computability

As part of my forays into the subjects of philosophy and empiricism, one of the things I advocated for is the idea that scientists should be more aware of the philosophical underpinnings of their respective fields. I have been meaning to do a series on the philosophical underpinnings of my own chosen field (namely, how intelligence works) for quite some time now, but in order to do that I need to lay some groundwork. One of the most important pairs of concepts for the theoretical pursuit of understanding how intelligence works is also the fundamental pair of concepts underlying computer science: computability and complexity. As I had mentioned in my Scientist Appreciation of Alan Turing, computer science is a relatively young discipline with much of its fundamental work done by Alan Turing and Alonzo Church (who I never did get around to doing a Scientist Appreciation about). These days people take the idea of a programmable electronic device for granted, but it was remarkably recent that a formal architecture to describe and discuss such devices was actually rigorously developed.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, however (and electronic computers are quite far ahead), I will begin at the turn of the 20th century. A remarkably brilliant man named David Hilbert compiled a list of 23 unsolved mathematical problems in 1900. This list in many ways served as a sketched outline to guide theoretical research for the coming century, with a number of the problems remaining unsolved even today. Although many of Hilbert’s problems are fascinating in their own right (I’m sure all of them probably are, but I don’t actually understand a few of them), the one which is relevant to the discussion at hand is his tenth problem. Hilbert's tenth problem is ordinarily written as something along the lines of
Find an algorithm to determine if a given Diophantine equation with integer coefficients has an integer solution.
However, this is not actually how Hilbert posed the problem, as the word algorithm had yet to enter useage (Webster's New World Dictionary, for example, did not include the word 'algorithm' prior to 1957). The actual original statement of the problem was something along the lines of:
Given a Diophantine equation with any number of unknown quantities and with rational integral numerical coefficients: To devise a process according to which it can be determined in a finite number of operations whether the equation is solvable in rational integers.
Before a number of my readers balk at the term 'Diophantine equation', it simply means an indeterminate polynomial equation (for example, x + y = 5 is an Diophantine equation, since there is no single assignment of values that satisfies the equation. Rather, the solution is the line x = 5 - y).

As I mentioned, at the time that Hilbert originally posed this problem the term algorithm was not in use. An algorithm is essentially a process or sequence of instructions, but with a number of specific properties (namely, that it has a finite sequence of instructions and is well defined (at no point does it reach a state in execution in which it is not clear what it is to do next)). Informally, algorithms have been around for centuries. One of the most famous (and one that is likely familiar to any computer science student) is Euclid's algorithm for determining the greatest common divisor of two numbers. However, prior to Hilbert's problems, very few people had ever attempted to analyse the notion of abstract processes. Mathematicians and scientists developed and utilized specific mathematical methods for specific problems, but, for the most part, each one was developed and investigated within the context of its application alone. What changed all of this was that people began to question whether or not there actually existed the process that Hilbert's tenth problem was asking for. The fact that some problems could be unsolvable was a fairly ground-breaking notion, and provided the impetus to explore the general notion of solvable methods.

Although the actual proof that no such algorithm exists which can solve Hilbert's tenth problem did not come about until 1970 with the publication of Yuri Matiyasevich's doctoral dissertation, the inkling that it might be unsolvable began much earlier, particularly from the field of logic with Kurt Gödel's famous incompleteness theorems. Motivated by the growing question of solvability and mathematical truth, in 1928 Hilbert proposed another, more general algorithmic challenge called the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem). The Entscheidungsproblem takes a formal language and a mathematical statement in that language as input and outputs whether or not it is true. The problem piqued the interest of both Church and Turing, motivating the two of them to independently formalize the concept of calculability in the mid 1930s. Both Church and Turing independently showed that the Entscheidungsproblem could not be solved. The models of computation that Church and Turing each used (λ-calculus and Turing machines, respectively) were subsequently shown to be equivalent, and thus the field of computability was formed.

I will discuss the actual material of computability in the next post on this topic, but I thought an historical overview might help illustrate the motivations behind the field as well as provide a somewhat less painful introduction for those not familiar with the terms. I am not sure I was entirely successful with the latter aim, but feel free to leave any comments or send me questions via email for parts that are not clear.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reference Game Resurgence

I realised that lately I have been rather remiss with the reference game. Since my blogging output has been much diminished for the past month, there is only one new reference:

1.) "What's in a name?"

However, I should also be posting the results from the previous batch. I apologize for anyone whose answers I missed, but I was not all that organized this time around. The answers I did find were from Scott, Robert, and Sarah.

1.) "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot."
This one was known by all who sent in answers, with answers varying from Scott's very thorough:
Picard to pretty much every replicator on TNG, and also Data's service woman on Earth in the final episode. "Well of course it's hot!"
to Sarah and Robert's pithy:
Obviously, that's Jean Luc Picard.

2.) "Bob Loblaw"
Scott knew that this one was the name of one of the lawyers on the television show Arrested Development and that Lindsay Bluth (played by Portia de Rossi) tried to have an affair with him. Since Arrested Development is a favourite show of Sarah's and mine, she sent in (somewhat facetiously) probably the most complete reference answer I have ever received:
I just thought I'd point out that the "Bob Loblaw" reference is from Arrested Development. See, the humour of Bob Loblaw, was not just that it sounded like Blah Blah Blah, but that Bob Loblaw is played by Scott Baio, who was Chachi on Happy Days. Chachi was brought in to fill the gap that Henry Winkler's character, Fonzie, left in viewer demographics as he aged. Henry Winkler played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development, the Bluth family's original lawyer, who was replaced with Bob Loblaw, because, paraphrasing his own words, 'it was not the first time he had been brought in to replace Barry Zuckerkorn and that Bob Loblaw could do everything that Barry Zuckerkorn could for the Bluth family, plus skew younger, with juries and such'. The humour came from the situation mimicking the situation on Happy Days, where Chachi was introduced to replace Fonzie and appeal more to younger viewers.

3.) "Anonymity is your name"
Sarah is the only one who got this one, knowing it was from Men in Black and said by:
That small old wrinkly guy (His name was actually Zed, played by Rip Torn).
Robert reported that he could hear the voice going over and over in his head, but he just couldn't place it and had to use Google. I applaud his honesty (I have to do that all the time for references... I don't think I'd be very good at my own game).

Now, as promised, I will also give the answer for the 8th reference from the previous set:
8.) "You, sir, are a mouthful"
This was said by the character Tobias Funke (played by David Cross) also in the show Arrested Development. The reason I did not give the full answer in the last set is that he was saying this to Bob Loblaw after Bob told him about posting something to his Law Blog (Bob Loblaw's Law Blog).

I just want to apologize once more for my slow return... it is surprising the number of errands that have to get done despite my lack of classes or a job (of course, many of those errands include trying to find a job, but there are others too like finding a new doctor now that I am no longer eligible to be part of the University Health Network).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Return to Toronto Quotations

I arrived back in Toronto last night, so now both my blog and physical vacations are over. It is time to get back to being productive, and part of that includes posts that are about science and mathematics. There will, of course, be a few more residual vacation-style posts, and I also plan on a couple more posts to showcase some more of my photography, but for the most part those should be interspersed with the rest of the posts rather than making up the bulk of my discourse.

Without further ado, here are the post-vacation quotations:

"Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." - attributed to Lord Brougham*, Scottish lawyer and politician, 1778-1868

"The liberals can understand everything but people who don't understand them." - Lenny Bruce, American comedian, 1925-66

"An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support." - John Buchan, Scottish novelist and Governor-General of Canada, 1875-1940

"Learn to write well, or not to write at all." - John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, 1648-1721

*For those pedantic souls keeping track, I recognize that Brougham comes before Broun, and this quotation therefore should have been with the last installment while Broun's should have gone first on this one... I accidentally skipped this one when I posted the last one, so now I am selecting it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Banff National Park

My vacation is steadily drawing to a close (I return to Toronto on Thursday, at which point it will be time to start trying to find a job, finish my outstanding report from my summer research, continue my summer research, and return to blogging proper with the promised columns on computability and complexity and Pawelzik's talk summary, among other things). Before things get back to normal, however, I wanted to take another opportunity to post some images from my time out here in western Canada. I probably won't get another chance to visit the area for at least a year, and I am going to miss the mountains. These three images are taken from my family's trip to Banff National Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world (of course, I am rather partial to the Canadian Rockies in general). As always, please click on the images to see them full-sized.

The town of Banff as seen from the lookout point on Sulphur Mountain. It was a wonderfully clear day for taking pictures. Banff is actually quite a fascinating town, being both the town with the highest elevation and the first (and largest) incorporated town existing within a Canadian national park. Its existence within the Banff National Park leads to obvious environmental concerns and subsequent policy decisions, including a restriction on the number of permanent residents allowed.

The famous (and absolutely amazing) initial view of Lake Louise that a visitor is greeted with. Fed by the Victoria glacier, Lake Louise takes on many of the brilliant hues that can be found throughout the waters in Banff National Park thanks to the glacial flour suspended in the water.

A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ewe, this lady was part of a small herd in Kootenay National Park (which we drove through on our way up to Banff) just outside of the town of Radium.