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Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Brief Introduction to Computational Neuroscience Paradigms

Within computational neuroscience there seem to be two main theoretical paradigms. In the first, the brain is viewed as an elaborate and nested control system. This branch of investigation tends to use many of the same mathematical models as those used in the engineering discipline of control, albeit with an eye on the biological feasibility and possible neuronal configurations necessary for attaining such a control system. In the second, the brain is viewed as a dynamical system on the edge of chaos, and thus utilizes the mathematical tools found in dynamical system analysis. I have to admit that the latter of these two paradigms I am rather fuzzy on, despite having taken (and done rather well in) a course on Chaos, Fractals, and Dynamics. I am not sure if my inability to fathom what a 'dynamical system on the verge of chaos' means is due to a lack of intellectual capacity on my part or a lack of substance underlying the fancy terms being thrown around on the part of those championing the dynamical system interpretation. My guess is that the two paradigms are not as entirely exclusive as some claim them to be, but I think I will have to gain a better understanding of the application of dynamics to physiology before I can be sure. In the meantime, the control systems approach speaks quite clearly to the (former) engineer in me, and I find the control theory approach rather appealing. It is simple, elegant, and powerful.

Before I continue in this vein, however, I should mention a brief caveat. There is a third branch of thought which I have not included in this description known as machine learning. While it could also be argued to be a paradigm of computational neuroscience (or at least my interpretation of what computational neuroscience ought to be), I have not included it in this discussion because, to me, it is much more a branch of traditional approaches to artificial intelligence. Machine learning tends to focus more on function modeling through stochastic methods. While this provides many powerful tools (some of which are even utilized within the control systems approach), there is a lack of emphasis on physiological feasibility which might provide for a general theory of intelligence. Of course, I think many of the mathematical tricks used in machine learning (like principle components analysis (PCA)) will likely have neuronal correlates found in which our brains somehow provide a system to achieve similar results, machine learning does not tend to be devoted to uncovering methods of cognition as its primary goal.

Now that I have rambled about machine learning, I shall return to control theory. A control system is essentially any system designed to control a variable through time. The actual form the control system takes can be quite varied, including electronic control systems, mechanical ones, and, as I surmise our brains might be, electrochemical. They usually utilize some form of feedback (most often negative), since an open control system (as those without feedback are called) are not really much good at controlling anything. However, I will go into more detail about control theory in another post. This post was simply meant to introduce the idea of the different paradigms, as well as the fact that I am currently more focused on control theory.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Alan Turing

I had my Computational Complexity and Computability course tonight, and on the way home while slogging through the snow I wondered how I could work a post around the rather fascinating course material. Then I realised it gave me a perfect excuse to resurrect one of my favourite series on this blog which sadly fell the wayside: Scientist Appreciation! So, since he is so central to the subject of computability, this installment of Scientist Appreciation is devoted to Alan Turing.

Alan Turing had an unfortunately short life, but prior to his untimely death at the age of 41 he completed works and earned prestige which would make most academics inwardly weep with envy. His work helped form the theoretical foundation of computer science while he also goes down in engineering history as helping to construct one of the first true computers. Additionally, he gained popular fame as a code breaker during World War II working to counter the infamous Enigma machine as well as having his name become widely known in the realm of both artificial intelligence and science fiction through his proposition of the Turing Test for intelligence. While he is probably more popularly famous for his cryptography and the Turing Test, the rest of this post will focus on his theoretical framing of the notion of computability.

The true power (as well as the beauty and frustration) of mathematics is its elegant rigour and formal set of rules. If you truly want to know the properties of something, find a way to frame it mathematically and probe the results. Thus, when people were trying to understand the concept of an algorithm and determine just what sort of problems were computable, Turing created the eponymous concept of the Turing Machine (TM for short). In its regular formulation, a TM can be envisioned as an assembly line with a computational head positioned above a sheet of some sort (paper, perhaps) which can be both read and written to by the head. This sheet extends to infinity to the right, but has an ending to the left (from which the input is written). In each computational step, the head reads in an input from one position on the sheet, changes its internal state, has the option of writing over the current sheet's position, and then moves either to the left or the right (if it tries to move left in the initial position it stays where it is). This might sound like an awkward and plodding kind of computational machine to have, but there are some really fascinating things which can be shown about them. I don't know if there is any interest, so I won't go into detail now, but if any of my readers want me to give examples of some interesting problems with TMs let me know in the comments (or send me an email, if you have my email address). The thing is, I think I might just enjoy this because it is the kind of mathematics that comes the most naturally to me (as naturally as I think any university level math can come to a non-genius). Even if no one cares, I might not be able to restrain myself after I talk about Church in the next Scientist Appreciation and tie his work in with Turing's.

Anyway, my laptop is really acting up tonight, so I'm going to end this post here and hope my computer doesn't die (it also means I haven't proof-read this, so I hope it isn't too abysmal. Of course, I could always save as a draft and publish tomorrow, but what would be the fun in that?). In conclusion, Alan Turing made an amazing account of himself for his short life, and his early death was a tragedy for mathematics and computer science.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I sometimes find it interesting how a mispronunciation can propagate through academic circles. For example, the Greek letter Φ often gets called 'fai' by English speakers (and virtually every professor I have ever had) when it is technically the letter 'fee'. I have had two professors not do so, the first being my intellectual and erudite linear algebra professor from first year who is vastly well read and interested in a huge variety of fields and made a conscious effort to unlearn the 'fai' pronunciation, and the other was my third year dynamics professor who had quite poor English and therefore clearly had originally learned the correct pronunciation. Unfortunately, the poor fellow was so self-conscious about his poor English (which, admittedly, was quite poor, often rendering his tests and problem sets entirely incomprehensible or quite poorly worded, such as a ball pissing across a plane rather than passing) that he ended up changing his pronunciation when he noticed his students said 'fai' instead of 'fee'.

This post is not about the Greek letter, though. Today I sat through a neuroanatomy lecture and cringed every time our professor said Wernicke's area. Wernicke's area is one of the more well-known and famous areas of the brain due to its uses in language comprehension. Located toward the posterior end of the lateral fissure and surrounding the primary auditory cortex, a person who has suffered damage to Wernicke's area (such as through stroke) suffers a form of aphasia known as either Wernicke's aphasia or fluent aphasia. That person can speak fluidly and continuously, but their speech is mostly nonsensicle. Their own comprehension of others is often likewise impaired, with the appearance of listening but very little apparent processing. As one might surmise by the name of the area, it was first described in detail by a man named Carl Wernicke. The thing is, he was a German physician. Thus, while an English speaker might be tempted to pronounce his name "Were-nick-ee", a much more correct and appropriate pronunciation would be "Ver-nick-eh" (where 'eh' is an 'uh' sort of sound, not the Canadian 'a'... I wish I knew how to do more symbols in html, but I've got to run soon so there is no time to look them up right now). Anyway, I know anatomy has a lot of strange names and it is hard to know how to pronounce them all, but this one is a major one. It just worries me that her pronunciation of all the other parts that I don't know the proper pronunciation of is also wrong, and I will have no way of knowing this until years later when I embarrass myself at a party.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lack of Consistency Annoys Me

A rather bad habit I have picked up over the years of my undergraduate studies is procrastination through the use of television. Part of that stems from the ubiquity of shared media while living in residence, while another part comes from my attempts to limit by game playing (and thereby hopefully promote more work) by supplanting computer games with a less open-ended and somewhat easier to control habit (watching television). While the efficacy of my methods might be somewhat in question, the end result is I have watched a fair bit of television over the past few years, and part of that has involved watching a great deal of the various Star Trek series.

The thing is, calling Star Trek science fiction is a bit of a misnomer, as it is more of a fantasy that just happens to be set in a future which purports to share our history. It includes magic (like telepathy) and technology at best only tenuously connected with our actual understanding of science. Accepting, then, that Star Trek can be given the same leeway one gives to other tales like The Lord of The Rings in that it exists in a universe apart from our own and thus can be accepted as functioning on its own system of rules, it should at least be consistent with itself. When I was younger and contemplated pursuing a career as an author (I know, I'm a tremendous dork. While normal adolescent boys dreamt of becoming rock stars like Kurt Cobain I dreamt of becoming an author like Isaac Asimov), one of the things that was appealing about writing fantasy novels was the idea that I was in control of everything. However, given my brain's propensity for over-obsessing over small little details, there always had to be an underlying system to the way things functioned in my world, and therefore I would make up elaborate rules for the applications of things like magic such that I would always be consistent without the arduous task of rechecking all my previous work (I'd just have to follow my own rules). The way I viewed it, when you get to make stuff up, you should at least make every possible attempt to stay consistent, at least as a courtesy to your readers (or viewers, in the case of Star Trek).

While I recognize that there are certain things that are going to be overlooked across several seasons and several different spin-offs, there are certain things which I think at least someone should have thought of at some point. To avoid ranting for too long on the subject, I am going to bring up perhaps one of the most obvious ones: the Universal Translator. This handy little device (which it is unclear where it exists, just that it seems to always be available to the characters, with the notable exception for a trio of Ferengi who accidentally went back in time to the 1950s) allows everyone to speak the same language. Accepting that it works and not worrying too greatly about the details, how then do Klingons somehow still purposefully revert back to speaking their own language in particular and well-chosen circumstances (almost always just for short little things like "Kapla" instead of "Goodbye")? Why isn't that getting translated by the handy little device? Most offensive are the scenes where there are only Klingons present and they spend the majority of the scene speaking English, but then, often for dramatic purpose, one will say something in Klingon (this seems to happen a lot when Worf is hanging out fighting some sort of war on Klingon ships).

Anyway, I propose the following: if ever any reader of mine is in charge of the production of a science fiction show with a widespread and ludicrously dedicated fan base like that available to Star Trek, create a position on your writing staff for one or two of those insane fans to proof read your scripts and look for internal inconsistencies. You could probably even convince them to do it for free (maybe they get a souvenir from the set or something like that).

Some more things people have said

"Computer are composed of nothing more than logic gates stretched out to the horizon in a vast numerical irrigation system." - Stan Augarten, author of State of the Art: A Photographic History of the Integrated Circuit (1983)

"We off the theist the same comfort as we gave to the moralist. His assertions cannot possibly be valid, but they cannot be invalid either. As he says nothing at all about the world, he cannot justly be accused of saying anything false, or anything for which he has insufficient grounds. It is only when the theist claims that in asserting the existence of a transcendent god he is expressing a genuine proposition that we are entitled to disagree with him." - A. J. Ayer, English philosopher, 1910-89

Also attributed to A. J. Ayer is the following:
"Why should you mind being wrong if someone can show you that you are?"

With that I end the A's and move on to the B's.

"He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator." - Francis Bacon, English philosopher, 1561-1626

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Organ Transplantation Question

Today I had my second neuroanatomy laboratory class. What it entails is a two hour period in the basement of the Medical Sciences building in a pair of small rooms examining actual human brain tissue. For most people in the class (myself included) this is the first time handling dead human tissue. For many of the medical school hopefuls this is an exciting novelty and you can see the proud fantasies of future med-school anatomy classes playing out in many minds around the room. For me, it is a messy and somewhat unpleasant experience filled with the stench of formaldehyde, but I recognize it is also a valuable learning tool and I commend those who would donate their bodies after death to the pursuit of knowledge and training of students.

Working with human tissue, however, sparks some interesting conversations. One such topic was the issue of organ donation. The other fellow at my lab table mentioned that he heard the Canadian government was trying to change their policy on organ donation to something that one has to opt out of rather than opt into. While I think that is a grand idea to ensnare all of the apathetic masses who haven't really thought about it and thus care not what happens to their organs after they die (and, I would argue that no one actually cares what happens to their organs after they die, but that is not a properly Canadian pluralistic attitude which respects the beliefs of others, so for the moment I will let that go), I do recognize that there might be those who do care who will not realise they need to opt out (also, for the sake of this argument, I will leave out the argument of whether or not their squeamish uncomfortability constitutes a good enough reason to deny prompt medical treatment to those who need it). Before I was able to make any of these nuanced and insightful points, however, one of the girls at the table flat out remarked, "That's horrible!" When others professed surprise, she continued, "Yeah, I don't want anyone taking my organs." Somehow, the conversation moved on after that (I think we were having troubling locating all the cranial nerves), but it was only after I left the lab that I thought of what I should have asked. I do not know what her reasons were for not wanting her organs utilized after she died, but regardless of that fact I would have liked to ask, "If you were suffering from an illness for which the only viable treatment was an organ transplant, would you accept one?" If the answer is yes, I think that is horrifyingly hypocritical and contemptible. If the answer is no, while I fundamentally disagree with the person (I believe in the utility and humanity modern medicine, after all) at least there is a consistent opinion on where his or her organs belong. I therefore relate this story in case anyone else for some reason finds themselves having a conversation about organ transplantation with someone who does not wish to be an organ donor. If you can (or, if any of my readers happen to have that outlook), could you ask that person (or yourself) that question, please? I think it might at least spark some introspection.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top-down Processing in Visual Perception Part II: Faces

I started this series of posts a couple months ago with Part I on the definition and role of top-down processing. When I originally wrote that post, I had meant to expound upon the topic in a more timely fashion, but I clearly became distracted and forgot about it. If there are other topics which you think I have been neglecting of late, please do not hesitate to leave a comment and I will endeavour to correct such lapses.

As I was saying in the first part of this series, optical illusions are a great way to get one thinking about how one's perceptual system works. In one particular vein of optical illusions are those that 'jump' between interpretations, the most basic being that of the Necker Cube mentioned in the previous post. I think it is particularly revealing about our visual system, however, that when one surveys a large number of optical illusions of that nature, the vast majority are devoted, in at least one of their interpretations, to faces. One of the classic examples of this is shown in figure 1, in which both the back and side of a young lady's face are visible along with the direct side profile of an old woman.

Figure 1: Old lady and young woman

There is good reason for our focus on facial perception, as it is our primary method for recognizing other individuals in social interaction. The ability to differentiate between individuals is an exceedingly important aspect of social intelligence, as there would be, for example, no way without it to differentiate between cheaters and trustworthy members of a tribe. The supreme prevalence of our nuanced ability to analyse faces, however, is often discounted by people. Interestingly, there is a condition known as prosopagnosia in which sufferers lack the ability to distinguish individual faces. There is no problem with the person's sight, but rather faces look as indistinguishable from each other as any other body part (for example, if you could only see peoples' torsos, it would be quite difficult to correctly identify others. There would of course be certain indications like weight and muscle tone, but telling the difference between a pair of scrawny teen boys or flabby middle-aged business men would be awfully difficult). The fact that something can be so selectively lost is rather indicative of quite specialised neuronal processing involved in the identification and distinguishment of faces (although it may be that there are other cognitive impairments that are less obvious). Our predisposition to seeing faces in ambiguous images or in anthropomorphising objects most readily with the appearance of a face (figure 2, 3, , and 4) indicates just how greatly our brain tries to match incoming sensory data with the expecation of seeing a face.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Of course, there are other forms of anthropomorphism available, but the appearance of a face resounds more greatly within us and accentuates the illusion of life. The next post in this series will look at another area of top-down processing as well as some of the ramifications.

Continue reading in Part III: Artificial Edges.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Travel Woes Part II: Buffalo to Lima

In Part I of this series, I detailed how my girlfriend and I ended up sharing a ride with a perfect stranger named Jennifer from Toronto to Buffalo to try and catch a flight to JFK airport so we could catch our connecting flight on to Lima. With our flight out of Buffalo delayed, we ended up in a bar at the airport looking to eat something (none of us had eaten in many hours) and perhaps drown our disappointment with alcohol (not an actual plan, just a joked about plan).

After we ate (I had Buffalo wings, seeing as how we were in Buffalo), we wandered outside to see that our flight was still delayed. This meant that even if we made it to JFK, it looked like we would be arriving after our flight to Lima had already left. Worried and disgruntled, we asked if there were any American Airlines personnel in the building and were told that there were possibly still some outside of security if we wanted to wander down to baggage claim. With what appeared to be at least an hour delay, we decided we might as well attempt to do so. Then, to our horror, they announced that the flight leaving from our gate was cancelled. Moments of terrible contemplation about being stuck in Buffalo for a night passed before another announcement followed in which the Jet Blue employee clarified, saying it was not actually the flight to JFK that had been cancelled, but was in fact the flight to Boston that was supposed to have left from that gate several hours beforehand but had also been delayed, and the flight to JFK would be leaving shortly. In a roller coaster of emotion, we were suddenly elated that we might actually have a chance to get to JFK in time to catch our flight. Of course, even the best estimates for our arrival time into JFK only gave forty minutes to get our bags, find our terminal, check in, and then go through security and board the plane. Jennifer at least had things a little better in that she wasn't carrying gifts to family, so she was just carrying everything on.

The flight to JFK was rather uneventful. It was full of anxiety and mentally making contingency plans in case we didn't make our connecting flight. Jennifer was no longer travelling with us, as her seat was not near ours and we had acknowledged our goodbyes and good lucks before getting on the airplane. When we landed in JFK (airport number 3!), my girlfriend and I made our way as quickly as possible to baggage claim where we then had an agonizing wait for our luggage while the minutes ticked by. With a scant fifteen minutes before our flight from JFK was supposed to leave, we picked up our suitcase and headed for the terminal train. It is at this point in the rush I made an error. Our flight, while it had been booked through American Airlines, was actually being operated by LAN Chile, which meant that instead of leaving from terminal 8, it actually left from terminal 4. In a rush, I failed to notice this on our itinerary, and therefore guided my girlfriend and I to terminal 8. In my defence, we only had ten minutes at this point to check in, get through security, and board our plane before it was supposed to leave, so I really do not think we would have made it anyway. Especially since when we finally did make it to terminal 4, the only LAN lady we could find working told us check-in had closed an hour ago and we would have to go back to terminal 8 and talk to the American Airlines personnel about being rerouted. Despite being told that check-in had been closed for that long, however, we think Jennifer may have made it since we never ran into her again (hopefully she did... I wouldn't want that crazy rented car trip to have been for nothing).

So, tails between our legs, we once again traversed the JFK terminals to return to terminal 8. This may have been the lowest point in our relationship, as my girlfriend refused to talk to me for the duration of the train ride from terminal 4 to terminal 8. One small bit of luck was with us, though, for when we got to terminal 8 and found the American Airlines counter that we needed to go to for rerouting, we managed to beat an entire plane load of angry and disgruntled travellers by only a couple of minutes. This was especially auspicious since the desk agents were possibly the slowest airport agents I have ever seen (and this is, if you recall, after we spent nearly two hours in the check-in line in Toronto). We had to tell the agent who was dealing with us that we wanted to go to Lima, not Toronto, three times. He ended up rebooking us to fly through Miami the next morning from LaGuardia. Unfortunately, since there had been so many flight cancellations, we were told there was no way for the airline to give us a hotel to stay in. They at least supplied us with a waiver for an airport limo to take us to LaGuardia as well as a $20 dinner voucher and a $10 breakfast voucher.

Though it took the limo (I always find it misleading to call airport limousines 'limousines' since they are decidedly not. They are fancier than taxis, fair enough, but they are not limousine as I understand that term) a little over an hour to show up where it was supposed to, we finally made it to LaGuardia (airport 4!) shortly before midnight. Security services were closed, meaning we had to spend the night in the outer skirts of the airport which was already unfortunately full of other stranded people. Hunkering down in a cafe (which thankfully had an Au Bon Pain open all night so we could use our vouchers to buy orange juice and salads), we paid the unreasonably expensive fee to access the Boing Boing wireless network so I could send my parents an email warning them that we weren't going to be arriving when they thought we were. My girlfriend stated adamantly that we were not allowed to both be asleep at the same time, and that she refused to sleep in a fast food cafe in LaGuardia airport (which I thought was a logical ticket for me to go to sleep, despite her later claims to my having abandoned her through the night). Given my severe inability to go long periods without sleep (a weakness those that know me in real life can attest to), I set her up with my laptop for amusement and made a bed for myself on some exceedingly uncomfortable small plastic chairs. At about three in the morning my girlfriend woke me to point out that the laptop battery was dying and her iPod was also nearly out of batteries. An odd buzzing was also coming from the nearby column which had given both of us a headache (although that was also probably helped along by the harshly bright lights, exhaustion, and general tension), so we decided to search out a new place to spend the night. I scouted much of the airport, but the only relatively unoccupied place I could find was another cafe (this time with nothing open) on a lower level. We found our way there and I rebuilt my uncomfortable bed while my girlfriend plugged the laptop in and set about keeping herself awake.

After we checked in in the morning and went to the gate, my girlfriend couldn't stay awake any longer and her desperate desire not to fall asleep in LaGuardia airport failed her. She curled up and fell asleep for a brief hour or so before our flight. To our amazement, we boarded the plane and took off without further mishap, flying on a rather cramped and lacking in entertainment (there were no personal entertainment screens, and those screens which did exist were relatively useless since the audio wasn't working) airplane to Miami (airport 5!), where we briefly stayed before once again boarding an undelayed flight (now that we were past the snowy regions of the northlands) and flew to Lima (airport 6!), arriving 36 hours after we had set out (and, unfortunately, still in the same clothes and without having been unable to brush our teeth for large stretches of that trip, thanks to the idiotic airline policy of not allowing liquids or gels in carry-on luggage). Still, we did make it.

Another Quotations Installment

I should apologize for the lack of posts lately... it has been one of those weeks where time seems to have slipped by, but I'm not entirely sure where it went. Anyway, hopefully I will redress my lack of writing this weekend, but for now here is another set of quotations.

"Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life." - Herbert Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, British Prime Minister 1908-16, 1852-1928

"Lord Birkenhead is very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head." - Margot Asquith, wife of Herbert Asquith, 1864-1945

"After each war there is a little less democracy to save." - Brooks Atkinson, American journalist and critic, 1894-1984

"Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking." - Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-51, 1883-1967

Friday, January 9, 2009

Blog Maintenance

Before I get back to finishing my travel story and then trying to get around to some science posts, there were some maintenance issues I wanted to cover.

First, I've expanded the "Areas of Interest" to include some new features. Descriptions are at the end of the post. Also, I added a GoogleAds icon to my blog. If you see something interesting, feel free to click! While I certainly did not start this blog to make money, it would still be gratifying to see someone click... Of course, I recognize that there is an unfortunate predominance of dubious online degree programs advertised (and, more recently, trips to Peru), but occasionally there might be something interesting that pops up.

Oh, and one more thing before I get to descriptions of the new sidebar links - so far only the Jolly Bloger has attempted to solve one of my title references. He correctly identified "Gonna live it up down old South America way" as being said by Gob in Arrested Development after finding tickets to Portugal on the kitchen counter. Hurray for Jolly Bloger! That leaves the following two titles unsolved:
"That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth"
"All non-believers stand aside in fear"

Anyway, now to site descriptions:

Cornucrapia: With a triumphant return to blogging, Cornucrapia is once again active. The author is a childhood friend of mine and his blog (and our email correspondence) is the reason I started blogging. A clever and erudite fellow, I recommend checking out his musings.

Deus Ex Malcontent: This is a somewhat odd blog to add to my list, as I neither know the author nor does he primarily write about any of my purported interests. Most of the content of DXM is cynical and derisive of popular culture, and with a posting frequency that rivals PZ Myers over at Pharyngula, it is a nice blog to look over when one is looking for idle amusement of the sardonic sort.

Halfway There: I am not quite sure how I found this blog (followed a link from somewhere), but I quite enjoy it. The author is a math teacher at a college in California and writes primarily about politics and math teaching. I find his political outlook particularly fascinating, as he tends to be quite liberally aligned but comes from a primarily conservative family.

In No Particular Order: This blog is by a friend of mine who graduated from the same engineering program I started in at U of T (though he didn't end up going into the aerospace option). He is now travelling the world as an engineer for hire, first working in Sweden and now in Taiwan. A fantastically talented photographer (both in taking pictures and digitally manipulating them), most of his posts are collections of pictures related to a recent adventure or trip of his. If you are interested in travel, I recommend giving his blog a perusal.

Paul's Blog: Another friend of mine from engineering, he went into the aerospace option and is now doing graduate work at UTIAS. Well spoken and careful with words, I quite enjoy reading Paul's posts (when he does them... he hasn't been posting a lot lately). I think it was my girlfriend who, when reading something he wrote, made the off-hand remark "You would never know he is an engineer". It is hard to imagine higher literary praise... (of course, I jest about the engineers, but not about the praise).

TBA: Another of my aerospace engineering friends, the author (Kari) is also overseas, in her case working at an engineering firm in Austria. She also is not a very frequent poster, but I greatly enjoy her verbal wit and copious use of allusions (hence, in my opinion, she should post more often). As some may recall, I have linked to her blog before.

The Barefoot Bum: Quite an interesting blog, this one is highly political and, recently, exceedingly bitter towards the American government. I find it quite interesting to read as, though I am rather liberal and rather a fan of many socialized economic policies, I still maintain a great deal of reservations about communism (I would like to believe most of those reservations are carry-overs from my experiences living in Moscow and speaking to some of the people who lived through the transition from communism back to capitalism and not based on unfounded acceptance of the anticommunist propaganda of the Western world, but it is hard to say). Much of the recent output of this blog has become devoted to favourable explanations of communism. Though I do not always agree, they are well written and thought-provoking, and I would therefore suggest they are well worth a perusal.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Black Swan

Over the Christmas break I started reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It is a fairly interesting book, which I unfortunately had to return to its owner before I had a chance to finish it. The basic premise of the book is to discuss "black swan" events, which are essentially a completely unexpected occurrence (Taleb outlines three characteristics of the events, but without the text available for consultation I don't want to attempt to reiterate them for fear of fouling it up). He gets the name from the formerly widespread belief that a black swan was an impossible thing (owing to the fact that they had not been observed outside of their native Australia) until someone actually went to Australia and spotted one. While the existence of black swans might not have been an earth-shattering event, Taleb uses it as a metaphor for many things that do profoundly effect the lives of large portions of the world population. For example, there are many historical events (like the stock market crash of 1929) which no one saw coming until they had happened. One very interesting aspect of the book was its discussion of the narrative fallacy that is so common in the study of history. For example, in the case of the outbreak of World War I students learn that is was a fragile system of alliances built upon unstable relationships which inevitably led to war. While this sounds fine and dandy in retrospect, prior to 1914 and the horrible subsequent years people would be hard pressed to make those "obvious" predictions (if it had been possible, wouldn't there have been a more concerted effort to prevent such a catostrophic outcome?).

I quite enjoyed Taleb's demonstration of the psychology of confirmation bias and false narrative. However, I did find his style occasionally irksome. He writes in a fairly erratic fashion (which in and of itself is not so bad) with very little reference to where some of his claims are coming from. When he makes counter-intuitve or seemingly false claims, this can sometimes be frustrating. One that jumped out at me rather blatantly was his claim that "national character" is a complete myth. Unfortunately, he never quite defined what national character means (beyond it not being a physical thing), but he makes the claim that a man from Sweden will be more similar to man from another country (I forget which country he specified) than he will be to a woman from Sweden. I thought that seemed to be a fairly arbitrary claim, since there are many aspects of one's character which are widely influenced by the environment in which one is raised. This includes such national things as public education and predominant national or regional culture. That does not mean that one cannot find the full gamut of personalities within a single nation, but rather it seems that there is a predisposition for a person to have certain personality features that are more common to a given nation or geographical region. Perhaps, though, this is just my own predisposed idea that there exists such things as a national character selectively filtering ideas to confirm my belief that it exists.

Anyway, I plan to try and track down a copy of the book from the library to finish it off, but judging from the first third of it, I would recommend reading it. The book has widespread appeal, touching on subjects from economics to psychology and sociology to science and knowledge. Though I would recommend maintaining a skeptical eye during the reading, it is a good book for kick starting one's own mind into mental introspection (and that is something that is rarely a bad thing).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"All non-believers stand aside in fear"

Alternative title: Truthiness and Political Power

Reading this post over at Deus Ex Malcontent a while ago reminded me of some thoughts I had bouncing around my head since I started listening to the How to Think About Science broadcasts that I mentioned even longer ago. In his post, Chez states that society requires a common basis for facts and methods for ascertaining them. I agree with that statement in principle, but it does not preclude religion. The thing is, a state-wide accepted pool of knowledge can come in many forms, and until relatively recently it was usually in the form of a state religion. In many ways, a non-science based approach is more attractive for a ruling party as there is more control. When the belief system in question is a religious or philosophical system (I include the philosophical system to cover things like Confucianism) the ruling party is completely unconstrained in what the knowledge they impart upon their subjects entails. If they are careful enough (and, to be entirely honest, "careful enough" doesn't really have to be all that careful) they can even entirely change their stance on an issue and convert the people under their care from pacifists to bloodthirsty crusaders like magic (or some other such dramatic change). To a certain extent, this might even be a desireable situation if the ruling party itself is able to see through their own nonsense and rule in an enlightened manner (like Plato's dream of benevolent philosopher kings). However, since true enlightenment and benevolence are awfully hard to come by, I think this can be safely ruled out and non-reality based systems of knowledge can be assumed to inevitably be used to serve the interests of those making the knowledge up.

Which leads me to science. Science is designed as well as we currently know how to default knowledge to what is real. While evidence can be spun and twisted and even sometimes outright manufactured, eventually the truth should come out. It is for this reason that it is so often at odds with the powerful and the elite, who would much rather have people believe whatever they are told regardless of the actual truth. To give perhaps a simplistic example, if a powerful ruler wants a rainforest destroyed so he can put in a golf course and a resort, it is much more convenient to have people believe that the Earth is created by a benevolent deity who will provide for mankind's prosperity than have to deal with facts of the disastrous ecological fallout that is likely to result. However, I fell into the same trap that skeptics and rationalist so often fall into and defaulted to a religious example. It isn't just religion that does this. Stalin did the same thing by trying to exercise complete control over the beliefs of his subjects. Jackasses like Dinesh D'Souza perpetuate the talking point that atheism is clearly morally bankrupt due to the abhorrent "atheist regimes" of the 20th century (he then goes on to list Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Sometimes Mao is in there too). Leaving out the fact that I have seen pointed out to Dinesh D'Souza in multiple debates (but which seems to fail to penetrate his mind) that Hitler and the Nazis were decidedly not an "atheist regime", this historical tit for tat of "look at the crusades", "Stalin killed more people" and so on is a complete mischaracterization of the rational secularism (as I understand it) being argued for by those I find intellectually inspiring on this account (namely, Richard Dawkins).

The debate, which so often is framed as religion vs. atheism, isn't and shouldn't be about that. Rather, it should be about a rational, confirmable world view as the paradigm one accepts for truth vs. a socially constructed dogma. While it is unreasonable to expect to completely get rid of dogma (as there will always be the temptation to at least try to warp or spin evidence to fit a previously expected result or to come up with a policy in favour of those performing the spin), requiring a knowledge base to be as evidentially based as is humanly possible provides the most protection for those not in decision making power. This, in essense, is what secularists are striving for. The cultural relativism of freedom of religion is a wonderful thing as long as it is restricted to the philosophical domain of non-practical matters. If people find comfort in the deistic notion that the Big Bang was caused by a powerful entity one would like to call God, that is perfectly fine. Likewise, if people find comfort in the spiritual community of weekly church attendance, that is also fine. What is not fine is when the freedoms of other people become infringed upon under the protection of one's right to the freedom of religion or when a religion is used as a position of authority to propagate a non-evidential base for knowledge and moral judgement used to inhibit the actions of those who do not adhere to the same belief structure (such as the limits on same-sex marriages or birth control). As I believe I have mentioned before, whenever the freedom of religion and other freedoms and rights conflict, I have yet to hear a rational argument for why the freedom of religion should not be overruled by the right with which it has come into conflict.

Somehow, I am back on religion again, and I apologize. I hope what I have written here makes sense, although I am not entirely sure I have said what I wanted to say either coherently or completely. Anyone else want to chime in?

Note: Not to distract from the possibility of a good debate this post might inspire, but one should note that I have used a quotation for the title, so it is part of my new figure-out-where-the-title-came-from contest. This one is somewhat obscure, so I'll give the hint that it is the opening line to a song.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Minor Dose of SIWOTI Syndrome

I thought it was slightly ironic that I would have a case of SIWOTI Syndrome with xkcd itself, which is why I thought I'd set the record straight. While I appreciate the sentiment of the Converting to Metric comic, I think it should be pointed out that -10 degrees Celsius is not a cold day in Moscow. Having lived there for two years, I think it should be pointed out that days don't start being regarded as cold until you go below -20 or -25, and actually cold days are in the -30s. My school had a rule that it would be cancelled if the temperature ever hit -40, but, sadly for me, the coldest winter day I experienced in my two years there was -39.5.

Funnily enough, I have a story about -10 and Moscow. When my Argentinian brother-in-law was visiting my family in Moscow, he found it awfully cold (he would agree with xkcd that -10 was a cold day, despite what the Russians and Canadians might say). One day he was out with my sister and my parents (it was -10 degrees C at the time) and he spotted a band of Russian fellows in the park practicing soccer. He was quite horrified, explaining that he would not practice if it were 10 degrees outside since that would be too cold. So, I suppose what is cold is a little relative, but if one is going to tabulate a chart of reference points, the "Cold Day (Moscow)" entry should be adjusted to a slightly more accurate value.

The Peruvian Water Supply

One interesting thing my family and I noticed while in Peru was the irrigation system used for the maintenance of the parks throughout Lima (though in many ways Lima is the dirtiest city I can remember being to, in the more affluent areas there are some very beautiful green spaces). By far the most common system of irrigation used is a flooding method in which a large trench (or, for a large park, multiple trenches) is dug, often with slightly shallower offshoots radiating away from it. Water is then poured into the trench until it fills to the brim, at which point the water seeps into the ground on either side and provides moisture for the soil. There are several problems with this method.

To start, the trenches look rather unpleasant and the ground next to the trenches is a sopping mud soup following a flooding. They also make any traversal of a park at night or in the late evening rather treacherous. However, beyond the aesthetic and somewhat overly safety conscious attitude I have developed from spending most of my life in North America (especially those four years in Pennsylvania where we couldn't have a swimming pool on our property without an unhealthy dose of insurance on the off chance someone trespassed and drowned), my main issue with the irrigation method is it seems ridiculously inefficient, especially when conducted in the heat of the day. One would think that in a desert city, the issue of water efficiency would matter. No one there seemed concerned, however, so I suppose they know something I don't.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Travel Woes Part I: Toronto to Buffalo

As but a single consumer, I don't have a whole lot of power. So when air travel goes very wrong and my girlfriend and I depart on a whirlwind tour of six airports in 36 hours in a desperate attempt to make our trip from Toronto, Canada, to Lima, Peru, there isn't a whole lot than can be done to get back at the companies that were so fantastically unhelpful in our tired and vulnerable state. Since it is at least a vaguely amusing narrative, however, I can at least relate the tale on my blog. Also, since I am still rather unimpressed with our carrier, I will not refrain from saying who it was that put us through this (of course, it was not entirely their fault, as weather factored into it. However, in dealing with the adverse travel conditions, they made a very poor showing of being helpful and accommodating).

Anyway, it all started upon arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto (airport number 1!) on our day of departure. There was a fairly long line for the check-in, but, like many a modern airport, there are also express check-in terminals which then allow one to go through the much faster luggage drop-off line. Unfortunately, though, we were flying American Airlines and, upon completion of all the necessary button pressing on the express check-in, a little screen pops up that says to wait there for an agent to come around and check your documents. Of course, there was no such agent around. I finally had to abandon my terminal and go track down an agent to follow me back. She refused to do so, saying she had something else to do, but that another agent was covering that area, finally pointing out some agent walking over from a back office where she must have been holed up for the last ten minutes or so. Why the airport or airline (I'm not actually sure who is responsible for this ridiculous setup) decided to make an automated check-in require a non-automated component I have no idea (kind of like requiring a teller to have to come over and check one's bank card at an ATM machine before one can actually utilize any ATM services). With my documents finally approved, all I got was a little printout saying "We're sorry, we were unable to process your request." Turns out our flight was canceled and we had to wait in the check-in line anyway to speak to an agent to reroute us.

Despite a line-up that wound its way through several switch-backs and then extended for over a dozen meters beyond the American Airlines check-in area, there were only two agents working the check-in counter (plus one who was occasionally present to check-in business class passengers who would sometimes elect to help out someone from the economy line). This meant we stood in line for over an hour and a half - so long, in fact, we would have missed our flight had it not been canceled anyway. After our epic bout of standing, we finally made it to the check-in desk where the agent gave a wryly exasperated smile and said, "I've been re-booking people going to Lima all day! You can wait two days and fly to Chicago, Miami, then Lima, or you can go to Buffalo and do that tomorrow." When we were a bit disconcerted at such a thought, he pointed behind him at a young blonde lady who had been standing in the line ahead of us and said, "She's trying to arrange a flight out of Buffalo tonight into JFK on Jet Blue. Talk to her and you might be able to do the same." With that he waved us aside and took the next people in line. I believe the idea was for us to decide what we wanted to do and be helped by this fellow without having to get back in line, but he buggered off to some meeting about the weather shortly after brushing us off. We now had no agent actually concerned with dealing with our predicament and a vague choice between spending $378 on Jet Blue tickets from Buffalo to JFK to hopefully make our non-canceled flight, waiting a day and still having to drive to Buffalo to be rerouted through Chicago and Miami, or waiting two days and being rerouted from Toronto.

I'm actually not quite sure how it happened, but the fatigue of standing in a line for nearly two hours combined with the pumping adrenaline over the urgency to make a decision before our options became further constricted so that my girlfriend and I somehow opted for the "insane plan" choice of buying Jet Blue tickets and trying to make our flight out of JFK. That meant we found ourselves rushing to rent a car with a random blonde lady named Jennifer who had happened to be standing ahead of us in line and was also trying to get to Lima. Her predicament was slightly more pressing than ours since she had a connecting flight out of Lima to Machu Picchu (well, more accurately, flight to Cuzco and then drive to Machu Picchu) where her fiance was waiting to meet her. Jennifer turned out to be a nice lady. She was almost thirty, had dual American-Canadian citizenship but was living in Toronto, and taught at a primary school. Though it was disconcerting both on her part and our part to get into a car with a strange party to drive to Buffalo, it was kind of nice to have the moral support (as well as the financial support of splitting the bill for the rental car). It did lead to a rather interesting situation at the border, though, when Jennifer made the mistake of letting slip the fact that we had only met each other for the first time at the airport. Looking back, though, the conversation with the border guard was probably the highlight of the entire 36 hours of travel that we endured (simply due to its ludicrous nature), and I will therefore endeavour to relate it word for word (it does lose a little bit of its charm without inclusion of a picture of the amazingly skeptical face the guard made, but I don't think he would have approved if I had pulled out my camera and taken a picture of him in the middle of his interrogation).

Characters in the following dialogue:
BG - Border Guard
J - Jennifer
M - Me (or Mozglubov)
GF - My Girlfriend

Car pulls up to the border crossing and we hand over our passports
BG: "Good evening. So you are all Canadian?"
J: "Yes."
BG: "Where are you headed?"
J: "Buffalo."
BG: "What for?"
J: "Um, to hopefully catch a plane."
BG: "Hopefully? A plane to where?"
At this point, Jennifer started floundering a bit, so I jumped in too
M: "JFK airport in New York."
BG: "And what are you doing in New York?"
M: "Hopefully catching a plane to Lima, Peru."
BG: "What? Peru? So you are not actually staying in the United States?"
J: "No, our flight from Toronto to JFK was cancelled, so we are trying to catch a flight from Buffalo to JFK."
BG: "And what are you going to Peru for?"
J: "I'm meeting my fiance there, and he's, uh-"
M: "Going to visit my family for Christmas. My sister lives there."
BG: "So your flight was cancelled and you decided to drive down to Buffalo to take another flight?"
J: "Yeah, we met in line and rented this car together."
At this point a look of utter disbelief falls on the border guard's face, and it didn't leave for quite some time.
BG: "Wait a minute, you met at the airport?" At this point he points at my girlfriend and I, "Do you two know each other?"
M: "She's my girlfriend."
GF: "We live together."
BG: "So you've never met these people before."
J: "No."
BG: "You're joking, right?"
J: "No."
BG: "How do you know they're not transporting drugs across the border? If they are, you'd get busted too!"
J: Looks at me and shrugs, "I don't know, you don't have drugs, do you?"
M: "No."
BG: "Ok, turn the car off and give me your keys."
J: "You're joking, right?"
BG: "No."

At this point the guard opened the trunk and searched through my girlfriend's bag and mine (he failed to spot Jennifer's bag in the backseat next to my girlfriend). After a bit of further dubious consternation over the contents of the boxes of smoked salmon I was taking to my sisters (for some reason smoked salmon boxes often have no distinguishing features other than some Native American artwork, making them suspicious looking boxes to an already alert border guard) the border guard finally decided that maybe we really were as crazy as we sounded and decided to let us go on our way. As we pulled back onto the highway, Jennifer asserted that if we ever somehow found ourselves doing something like this again, we had been friends for years.

After some more driving through fairly terrible weather, we finally arrived at Buffalo airport (airport number 2!). Apparently American Airlines only actually has employees at the Buffalo airport until 5:00, meaning there was no one there to help us in case our flight to JFK was canceled or delayed enough that we would miss our connecting flight to Lima (as it now appeared it would be). With our Jet Blue flight delayed an indeterminate amount of time and our prospects for actually making it to Lima diminishing, the three of us wandered into a bar.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Back in Canada

This will just be a quick post since I'm sleepy and want to take a post-trip nap, but I just wanted to say that now that I am back in Canada I should be more regular with posts again. There should shortly be a couple posts about Peru (and the nightmarish trip on the way to Lima), but for now, I'm going to bed. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to everyone.