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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Looks like there's some explaining to do...

There is a lot about the recent Iranian elections that looks rather suspect - the severe crackdown on foreign journalism and internal dissent, the ridiculous speed of announced results, and the massive landslide victory for the incumbent regardless of the region (including the home cities of his rivals). Now there is further evidence compiled by the Polish astrophysicist Dr. Boudewijn F. Roukema in which he displays highly suspicious and statistically anomalous deviations from Benford's Law. I don't have a lot of time at the moment to try and explain his results (nor do I think I am the best person to try), but I thought it was an interesting case of applied mathematics. Of course, getting a government to admit they recently perpetrated a massive fraud on their own people is a bit like convincing a billionaire that he ought to renounce worldly possessions and live off of the generosity of others. I don't have high hopes for the Iranian regime to come clean and open their records.

One More Mathematica Complaint

One thing I forgot to mention in my last post about Mathematica problems is the fact that operating the program with Num-Lock on tends to cause all sorts of problems (it is no longer possible to select a single cell, among other things). Why any mathematical program (even one that deals largely with symbolic mathematics) would be unable to handle have the number pad engaged is utterly baffling to me. Like the window resizing error, this one really makes me wonder about the professionality of Mathematica.

Edit: Wolfram responded to my post, as I describe here.

Software Complaints: Mathematica and UTORwebmail

Yesterday was an exceedingly frustrating day at the Institute, primarily driven by one piece of software: Mathematica. I know that learning how to use a new piece of software can often be frustrating, and so I have been trying to reserve my judgment. However, there are a few things that I feel justified in complaining about now, because I know they will drive me nuts for a very long time to come (and there is very little excuse for a professional software bundle to have some of these problems). While I am complaining about software bugs and oversights in Mathematica, I thought I would throw in a complaint about the University of Toronto's webmail as well (just because it has been irking me for years now, and, as has been pointed out in the past, part of what blogs are for is complaining). For the record, I am using Mathematica 6.0 on a Linux system (KDE 3.5.7), so it is possible some of the issues might be compatibility issues between Mathematica and Linux.

To start, Mathematica seems to be ridiculously unstable. I had it crash with a segmentation fault twice yesterday on startup (in other words, I hadn't even opened a file and started doing any computations yet). To make the instability worse, Mathematica never seems to do any sort of autosaving (sure, one should not rely on autosave, but it is a courtesy). The lack of an autosave is exacerbated by an inability to 'undo' and 'redo' more than a single change (and what Mathematica registers as a change is hard to predict). All that combines to make any sort of code development far more unpleasant than it ought to be (using the term code loosely - Mathematica is not really programming, which is also frustrating, but I recognize that program development is not exactly its primary function).

A relatively minor thing that has really started to get under my skin, though, is the fact that Mathematica opens a lot of windows (if you need help on the use of a function, you can highlight the function name and hit F1 to bring up a documentation window on that function - this is actually a very handy feature). This in and of itself would be tolerable, if slightly messy, but every time you close one of those windows the program for some reason resizes one of your other windows that remains open. Other than sheer unprofessional oversight on behalf of the software developers, I cannot imagine why this should happen. Even if your only remaining window is maximized, it will kick out to some oddly shaped default window size. Although this is not that big a deal (it's a simply matter of resizing or maximizing your window again), when you are frustrated with syntax or in deep concentration over the underlying mathematical motivation of what you are trying to do, it is horribly distracting.

The rest of my gripes are probably more related to unfamiliarity with the software (for example, I find the syntax to be ugly and cumbersome, but that may change), so I will turn my rant to UTORwebmail now (in fact, this is a problem with the entire UTORid system). In all the years I have spent at the University of Toronto, I have yet to figure out why the login screen times out after two minutes "for security purposes", but the only way to logout is to close the browser. Someone got that completely backward.

Edit: Wolfram responded to my post, as I describe here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fox News Makes Me Feel Ill

I have taken the weekend off to work on another project (that will likely never be finished, but it is nice to dream), so there hasn't been a lot of activity around here. One thing that The Barefoot Bum pointed out yesterday, though, that ought to get more coverage (and outrage) than it has is Fox News arguing successfully for the legal right to lie. Yes, freedom of speech is important, but so is consumer protection. It is not within a food manufacturer's rights for free speech to print, "Lead free!" on contaminated food, so why is it any different for a news broadcaster?

I have tended to try and laugh off my abhorrence for Fox News by, for example, looking them up on Conservapedia, but this is really hard to laugh at. The more I think about it, the more I want to let loose with a tirade of vitriolic invectives (and even coming up with fancy ways of saying I want to swear and curse can only distract me so much), so I think I'm going to have to end this post here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Solutions to Puzzle Number 5

This must have been a more challenging set of oblique titles, since no one successfully solved them all. I had several people say they would send me further solutions as they thought of them, but those solutions have not been forthcoming. Scott solved titles 1, 2, 6, 8, and 10. Robert solved 2, 6, 8, 9, and 10. jbrydle solved 4, 6, and 8-12. Oddly, it would seem that on the whole the even numbered titles were easier to solve than the odd ones. Oh well, here are the solutions to them all. Congratulations to those who solved some! I have added to each solution whether it was a movie, television show, or book, just in case someone has not heard of it before. I think there are a couple of the solutions that some of you may kick yourself for not getting.

1.) The Second Finisher: Day of Giving One's Opinion
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, movie

2.) The Correct Cost
The Price is Right, television show

3.) Thinking Something Grand is on the Way
Great Expectations, a novel by Charles Dickens

4.) Deities from the New World
American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman

5.) Leading up to a Base
Prelude to Foundation, a novel by Isaac Asimov

6.) Two Dozen
24, television show

7.) A Period of Time in Which a Certain Female Acted Naughty
When She Was Bad, apparently the title of a myriad of trashy novels

8.) Law Breaking and Retribution
Crime and Punishment, a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

9.) The Vitis Fruits of Anger
The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck

10.) Rhythmic Body Gyrations with Lupine Companions
Dances with Wolves, movie

11.) The Inexplicable Nocturnal Canine Event
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a novel by Mark Haddon

12.) The Ruler of the Outer Tent Linings
Lord of the Flies, a novel by William Golding

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some Miscellaneous Announcements

So... the Robots with Organic Brains post still isn't up. As with most posts that actually relate to my area of study, it has gotten bogged down in my brain with a myriad of details and caveats. It is definitely on the list of things to publish in the near future, but I don't know precisely when that will be.

In the meantime, though, I have apparently graduated despite still having to take my last three exams this August. Clearly there has been some sort of confused mix-up (although I did technically pass two of my three courses with outstanding exams just based on course-work, and those were the two required for my program, so I guess it is possible for me to have graduated...), but my profile information has been due for an update anyway. For posterity, I am going to copy the old profile here:
I am in my final year of undergraduate studies pursuing a specialist in computational neuroscience at the University of Toronto. I spent three years studying aerospace engineering before deciding to switch into a science degree, so I might write some posts about aerospace subjects occasionally as well. I am a bit of a dork, geek, or intellectual, depending on one's perspective.
Now I shall replace it with a more up to date profile.

Slight Delay on Robots Post

I just wanted to point out that I am aware my promised 'Robots with Organic Brains' talk review did not happen yesterday... I apologize for that. I cannot even keep deadlines I set myself... Anyway, I'm back at the Institute working on some stuff probably late into this evening, but I will try to get the post done either at lunch or this evening. I apologize if anyone was greatly looking forward to it...

Also, puzzle solutions for Puzzle Number 5 are coming out tomorrow. Get your solutions in if you have them!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ask, and people answer

So, in my post yesterday I made a somewhat flippant remark that people should go out and tell their friends about my blog. Today, I spent most of the afternoon talking to my research supervisor, and missed all the excitement following Jackie posting a link to my recent post on irrational beliefs and public policy on PZ Myer's blog. My page hits nearly quadrupled. Jackie, I think you deserve a thank-you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Holographic Stimulation

There hasn't been a lot of activity in the past few days for some reason, which is odd because I think I have actually been writing both more regularly and substantively. Of course, it is summer time and apparently the rest of the northern hemisphere is actually enjoying some warm weather (people may complain about British weather, but it seems Germans don't have it much better), so perhaps people are just off having real life fun instead of sitting inside reading my ramblings. Also, I haven't actually written a lot about science lately, so it is entirely possible that what I think have been substantive posts have simply been amateur attempts at besting the triviality that so readily consumes a blogger's body of work. Ah well, I guess what I am really trying to say is I am intellectually vain and enjoy it when people at least appear to be reading what I write, so you should all tell your friends about this site.

In the meantime, here is a quick return to science. We had a symposium at the Institute today with two rather interesting talks, so I will give a brief summary of each of them (the first talk tonight, the second talk gets a summary tomorrow).

The first talk was by Dr. Christoph Lutz from the Université Paris Descartes. He was describing a new technique his group has developed for more effectively stimulating neurons optically. This requires a bit of background, though. One rather interesting experimental technique for analyzing neuronal properties is optical stimulation (technically called photolysis excitation or inhibition depending, naturally, on whether you excite or inhibit the neurons). I believe it is a fairly recent technique, but I might be mistaken. The basic idea is that you bind a neurotransmitter (in the case of the experiment Dr. Lutz described, they chose the most common excitatory transmitter in the brain: glutamate) to a specific molecule which essentially prevents normal interactions with the transmitter (this is called 'caging' the neurotransmitter). You then bathe the neurons (in this case, a slice of tissue from a rat hippocampus) with the caged neurotransmitter. The inactivating molecule has been specifically selected, however, such that in the presence of a specific wavelength of light it releases the neurotransmitter, thus allowing you to release a targeted dose of neurotransmitter as though you just activated a group of synapses by shining a laser onto the tissue.

What Dr. Lutz and his fellow researchers have done is extend the technique using optical techniques in holography. Up until now, experiments in optical stimulation have used a single column of laser light with various degrees of focus and targetting systems. Using a liquid crystal spatial light modulator, however, you can take a column of laser light and create multiple focus points, even at different focal lengths. Thus, Lutz was able to specifically stimulate along the length of a dendrite using a thin band of focused light without also activating the neurotransmitter farther away from the dendrite that the normal circular column of light would do (this extra neurotransmitter that is activated would then be free to diffuse through the local region, both weakly stimulating the neuronal membrane region being looked for an extended period of time after the laser light was turned off as well as possibly interacting with other nearby dendritic branches). By only stimulating the neurotransmitter directly along the length of the dendritic branch, you can more carefully localize the activated neurotransmitter to much more realistically simulate synaptic input. Alternatively, you are able to simultaneously focus light on multiple branches of a neuron's dendritic tree, allowing you to look at the interaction post-synaptic electric potentials generated to see how the signals interact.

Essentially, Lutz and his fellow researches have provided a novel application of well understood concepts in physics to design a much more powerful experimental technique for probing the properties of neurons. Since the computational power of a neuron rests in the electrochemical dynamics of its cell membrane, this expanded ability to probe the membrane's reaction to targeted chemical stimuli is likely to provide valuable information into the complicated world of neuronal computing.

Tomorrow: Robots with Organic Brains

Monday, June 22, 2009

Blatant Bribery

This article has so many amazing lines, it is hard to pick specific ones to comment on...
Men, beer, and the church.

I Get Email (Scams)

The thing about email scams is they tend to be really bad. The major problems that usually crop up are atrocious spelling and grammar, and internal inconsistencies. If you are taking the time to design and send a scam, I would think it would make sense to put just a little bit of editing effort into the matter. Of course, even if the spelling and grammar are entirely correct and the content is actually consistent with itself, you still have to hope the recipients are gullible enough to relinquish whatever information you are trying to steal from them. The reason I bring this up is because I got a scam email yesterday that actually made me chuckle. While the spelling and grammar were surprisingly good for a scam email (some minor punctuation errors like a missing space here and some random capitalization, but compared to the usual spam crap it was fairly good), they still fell into the inconsistency trap by telling me that I have 24 hours to respond before my account is deleted, and later that I have two weeks to 'update' my account before it is deleted. What made me laugh, though, was the sent-from and reply-to email addresses (you might have to click on the picture to see it large enough to read).

Leaving out the fact that there is no reason password, date of birth, occupation, and country information should be required for verifying the use of an email account, why would Google's Gmail team use a Yahoo email address?

Puzzle 5 Extension

I was planning on posting the solutions to Puzzle Number 5 today, but there are a couple as-yet unsolved titles. Therefore, I thought I would give people a reminder to check the puzzle out and then a couple more days to think about it and try to solve them all (even if you have not solved them all, feel free to send me the ones you think you know. I do give credit for partial solutions, too!).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Spurious, Vapid, and Disconcerting at the Same Time

I have argued before (on more than one occasion, actually) that religious rights in and of themselves are fundamentally untenable when they pertain to actual action rather than mere belief. There is absolutely no reason why one person's anathema or predilection for a particular action should carry more weight than my own simply because that opinion is religiously motivated. Likewise, if that religious opinion interferes with the worldly rights of another person, rights based in this world should take precedence. My reason for raising this subject again is this article detailing how an Orthodox Jewish couple is bringing a case to court on charges of religious discrimination because a sensor was installed to automatically turn lights on and off in the hallway.

As a person who has a tendancy to obsess over odd things, I know what it is like to feel deeply disconcerted over seemingly innocuous things. For example, as an impressionable child I was introduced to the (normally) harmless childhood rhyme
Don't step on a line, or you'll break your mother's spine.
Don't step on a crack, or you'll break your mother's back
as the premise for the game of walking along the sidewalk avoiding cracks and lines. I guess either because of my intrinsic inclination to play games and follow rules, or some internalized irrational fear for my mother's well-being, it got to the point that I thought about this game every time I walked down the street. I would make up other sets of rules on other floor patterns (not so rhythmically composed, but sometimes far more interesting depending on the tile pattern). As I got older and most people grew out of childhood rhymes (and as my feet got bigger) it got more and more awkward to avoid breaking these walking rules. It was particularly awkward when walking with a group. Eventually, fear of social awkwardness ended up winning out over internally driven discomfort and I gradually began to convince myself to step on cracks and lines. When alone, I still sometimes find myself involuntarily hesitating when I step onto a cobblestone or brick street, or subtly adjusting my stride to avoid stepping on breaks between the sidewalk blocks. I can usually snap myself out of it, but I am not being fasecious with this story. It genuinely bothered me to break my internal rules of walking. It is not something I am always comfortable talking about (after all, it sounds a little crazy. It is also why I so greatly enjoy this xkcd strip, though; it makes me realise I at least might not be singularly crazy), but I bring it up to demonstrate my point.

I am not claiming that people should be unallowed to have irrational beliefs, and even subsequently irrational behaviours. However, I am saying that those irrational beliefs and behaviours should get no special treatment when they are religiously based, and must be restrained by the rights and needs of all other members of the community. I am, after all, free to walk as oddly as I want in order to meet whatever rules I come up with or hear in a childhood rhyme. Likewise, though, other people are free to ask me why I walk that way (and are free to laugh at my response or probe my motivations). More importantly, the civil authority responsible for constructing and maintaining the sidewalks is free and bound by its responsibility to the good of the whole population to use construction methods that are the most expedient and effective, regardless of how difficult that might make my subsequent attempts to avoid cracks and lines. Why should it be any different if my discomfort stems from an ancient book rather than a childhood rhyme?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Further Discourse on Demonizing Darwin

In my most recent Scientist Appreciation post on Friedrich Wöhler, I pointed out that Darwin, in my opinion, receives a disproportionate amount of discussion and demonizing by the religious right compared to other historical scientists. Regan responded to this by saying:
The biggest reason that Darwin is such a huge target is because the work he did and inspired totally invalidates the story of genesis.

Wohler's challenge to vitalism is different in the sense that there is nothing in the bible that says "And lo god created vitalism, and it was pretty neat", so it was easier to rationalize that concept into the theological worldview. The work that Darwin did and inspired can't be crammed into the bible no matter how hard you try. The bible says X happened, and the study of the processes of natural selection and evolution says Y happened. There is no possible way to reconcile the two.

I think the stranger scientist to be demonized by religion is Galileo. The bible doesn't even explicitly say the sun travels around the earth, and they still put him under house arrest until he died.
Since Regan's statements do not satisfy the quandary I meant to be presenting but are nevertheless factual and reasonable, I thought it worth writing another post on the matter to hopefully elucidate my original intent more clearly. As with most of my posts on subjects outside the realm of computational neuroscience, I have not made exhaustive study of the topics I cover here, so it is reasonably possible I am basing my discourse on incorrect information (of course, that is still possible when I am talking about computational neuroscience, just I tend to think it less likely). If you disagree with what I write, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email.

The thing is, revealed religious truths are awfully dependent on the ephemeral whims of people. Organized religions also tend to have a couple driving forces to deal with - there is both the scripture itself as well as clerical dogma. Before widespread printing of the Bible, these two forces in the Christian world were largely one and the same - Christianity was governed by one of a few theocratic hierarchies (the Catholic church in the west, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east). My historical knowledge of eastern Europe is weaker than my knowledge of western Europe before the 1900s, so I will primarily concentrate on the west. This merging of clerical dogma and scripture under the closed purview of the Catholic hierarchy meant that, for the most part, there was one accepted version of Christianity and alternative interpretations of the scripture (which could possibly lead to new dogmas) were not widespread (since few had access to scriptural learning) and, when they did occur, suppressed through threats of excommunication and the charge of apostasy. This situation could help explain the reaction to Galileo, as the view of Earth as the centre of the universe, while not explicitly scriptural truth, was heavily part of the clerical dogma. Given the philosophical stance of the Christian faith that humans are the favoured creation of an all-powerful god, Earth as the centre actually fits better. Combined with scriptural references like Joshua making the sun stand still, the conclusion that Earth was not the centre of the universe and rather revolved around the sun contradicted current dogmatic law based on the currently favoured interpretation of scripture. Galileo's conclusion, therefore, was, in some interpretations, contradictory to scripture, but, more importantly, was subversive to the power of the religious hierarchy. As time progressed and Galileo's view of the solar system became more and more undeniable, the religious dogma gradually shifted to accommodate. The story of Joshua was recast either to 'metaphor' or interpreted as the miracle of the Earth halting its rotation and orbit rather than the sun halting its motion, and the clerical dogma avoided comment on the issue before finally apologizing for Galileo's treatment a couple decades ago when someone must have realised they were still remiss in that regard. Of course, one reason the Catholic church is usually so slow to apologize or admit wrongdoing for anything is because, technically, their head guy is supposed to be divinely inspired by an omnipotent and timeless all-powerful being. As their god's agent on Earth, the pope should infallible (at least once he becomes pope). Admitting mistaken persecution of a brilliant scientist because his claims were deemed wrong makes the infallibility of a divinely inspired leader a little harder to argue.

Moving past Galileo and back to the time period of Darwin and Wöhler, however, schisms within the world of Christianity had been amplified by the translation of the Bible into many languages as well as widespread availability of printed material and an increase in literacy. Although there was still a certain amount of power concentrated in clerical hierarchies, there happened to be more of them now that the Church of England existed along with other Protestant branches like Lutheranism, and that division weakened their overall power. As was pointed out by Andrew, Darwin did not operate in a vacuum. Geology and paleontology were being developed by pioneering scientists like Georges Cuvier and James Sutton. Darwin was not the scientist who first developed the idea that extinct species had once lived on Earth without any evidence of mankind in a period of time far further in the past than one could feasibly trace the Biblical story. What he did was develop a theory that elegantly explained the appearane of the biological rule based on these observations as well as zoological observations in his current day. I would argue that it was the scientists who developed the fields of paleontology and geology who more directly contradicted the Biblical story of genesis.

Thus, the manner in which Darwin's work contradicts Biblical creationism must be seen more as a philosophical contradiction rather than a direct one, in which evolution can be seen as a naturalistic mechanism to explain the distribution and form of extant species. This explanation weakens the need for a divine explanation for the form of modern life, although it says nothing about the origin of life. Before vitalism had been demonstrated incorrect and we were able to generate organic substances from inorganic subtrates, an avenue for theological retreat remained widely open. By recasting genesis as a metaphor and enfolding evolution into "god's plan", the divine origin of life was much more easily defensible when there was no known natural mechanism for going from inorganic to organic. Without the abandonment of vitalism, theistic evolution is a much more viable outlook (although I would contend that one still has to answer how a benevolent and all-powerful god would deign to rely on such a largely unforgiving and unpleasant mechanism).

Evolution, it would seem, largely attacked the dogmatic idea of immutable forms, while the disproof of vitalism greatly weakens the idea of a divine origin for life. Both are aspects of the Biblical creation story, which is why I thought Wöhler's work also undermined religious dogma in a similar manner to Darwin's.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Puzzle Number 5: More Oblique Titles

I apologize for the lack of science and mathematics in the last little while (since that is, ostensibly, what this blog is about), but I have been fairly busy with being moderately sick and, when not sick, trying to conduct research at the Institute. To hopefully tie my readers over with a little more intellectual stimulation, here is another set of oblique titles. In order to make this a little more challenging (and perhaps to entice those in my audience who do not associate with the vulgar media of television and film), I have introduced book titles into the mix of film and television show titles. While most book titles are either from relatively recent best-sellers or classics that I would expect the majority of people to at least recognize, I do admit that there is one random smut novel title thrown into the mix just because I find it funny (for the record, I never actually read the book... just hid it in my best friend's backpack in grade 8 as a joke).

Here are the new titles to be deciphered:

1.) The Second Finisher: Day of Giving One's Opinion

2.) The Correct Cost

3.) Thinking Something Grand is on the Way

4.) Deities from the New World

5.) Leading up to a Base

6.) Two Dozen

7.) A Period of Time in Which a Certain Female Acted Naughty

8.) Law Breaking and Retribution

9.) The Vitis Fruits of Anger

10.) Rhythmic Body Gyrations with Lupine Companions

11.) The Inexplicable Nocturnal Canine Event

12.) The Ruler of the Outer Tent Linings

Good luck to all.

Note: Solutions are available here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Revamping the Reference Game

As my long-time readers may remember, before I started posting puzzles I started what I refer to as the 'Reference Game'. The game consists of titles that are, either in part or whole, pulled from some other source (usually television or film, but sometimes also music lyrics or literature). In its original incarnation, I had wanted people to simply leave comments telling me the context of the reference. However, that format seems to be unwieldy. So, I am changing it. While I will still denote posts in the reference game with quotation marks around the title and the 'Reference Game' tag, I would ask that people send me their solutions to my email: Also, once a month or so I will publish a list of the most recent references (just in case people missed the quotation marks). Then, a few days later, I will publish the solutions to the references in a similar format to the puzzle solutions.

So, for those who missed them earlier, the previous references so far have been:

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

2.) "Gonna live it up down old South America way"

3.) "All non-believers stand aside in fear"

4.) From whence came the word "propulgate"

5.) "Kids say the darndest things"

6.) "It's alive"

7.) "In a garb of black we must pay respect to the colour we're born to mourn"

8.) "You, sir, are a mouthful"

Of those titles, 1-3 and 8 have all been solved, while number 4 was mostly solved. 5-7, however, are still open. As with the puzzles, there is an honour system at work here, so you should report whether or not you had to look the solution up or not.

Goodyear Leaving Unwanted Marks Again

Some may remember a few months ago when I bemoaned the fact that we have a scientifically ignorant hack as Science Minister. Well, Mr. Goodyear has emerged again to say something ignorant. Regarding a proposed conference on the prospects of peace in the Middle East, he complained to the funding board that "some of the participants may be biased against Israel". You know, I bet some of the participants are biased against Palestinians, too... if you are having a conference on an issue as contentious as political relations in the Middle East, you are going to have people coming into the conference with preconceptions and personal biases. Rather than a problem, that is the point of having a conference like this. It lets people air their opinions, debate, and perhaps think about the issues from another perspective. If you try to withdraw funding because people with opinions you don't agree have been invited to a conference, then you aren't so much have a conference as a one-sided party of self-affirmation. Of course, actual groups purporting dogmatic hatred and violence should not be invited. That, however, does not sound like it was the case, and I think the incident provides another piece of evidence that Gary Goodyear should not be our Science Minister. I don't have a lot of vested interest in or knowledge about the political climate of the Middle East, though, so I won't comment further on this.

Separate and Not Equal Doesn't Work Either

I thought I would share this article that was linked by PZ Myers over at Pharyngula. The article in question concerns a product called Zicam which is supposed to be a cold remedy. Unfortunately, it seems to have a propensity to destroy peoples' sense of smell, possibly due to large quantities of zinc. Of course, it is entirely possible the damage comes from some other ingredient, because the company did not have to get formal approval for their product, so who knows what is inside?
The FDA said Zicam Cold Remedy was never formally approved because it is part of a small group of remedies that are not required to undergo federal review before launching. Known as homeopathic products, the formulations often contain herbs, minerals and flowers.
The fact that homeopathic products do not need to demonstrate the same rigorous product testing as anything else we put into our bodies (food and drugs, as it were) is not only dangerous but also nonsensical. You cannot have a separate set of rules regarding "medical" (using that term loosely) products that does not require demonstration of their efficacy and documentation of their possible side effects and still proclaim to protect consumers. I do not think most people realise the lack of regulation for homeopathic products. Most people are so used to assuming that products are safe (thanks to a lot of government regulation and testing) that they expect everything available for sale to be safe. When products don't have to be tested anymore, though, you can end up with some pretty horrible results. The free pass that homeopathy has should have never existed, and it ought to be rescinded.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Germanic Gripe

There is nothing like a bout of cold, flu, or some other such illness to make one homesick (and, as luck would have it, I seem to have picked something up over the weekend). For the most part, I am enjoying my time here in Göttingen, but there are a couple things I miss desperately. Aside from the obvious ones of my girlfriend, family (even though my family was still thousands of kilometers away from Toronto, it didn't feel as far), and not living out of a suitcase, there is one thing that I am just baffled by here. Why don't windows here have screens? What started as a weird cultural quirk has, in my state of headache and general uncomfortableness, been amplified into a profound annoyance. Flies buzzing around the room are incredibly annoying, and that is no different here than it is in North America.

Anyway, full-blown revolution or at least massive civil unrest seems to be going on in Iran, so griping about my fly problem seems a little petulant.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Friedrich Wöhler

One thing that confuses me about Charles Darwin is just how greatly he is demonized by anti-science groups (primarily the fanatically religious). After all, while Darwin did make profound contributions to the field of biology, he is not the only scientist to help expand our knowledge of the natural world into an area that was formerly staunchly under the purview of theology. One other such scientist was Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist from the nineteenth century.

Though he spent much of his younger days working in various institutions throughout Germany (and even briefly in Stockholm), he spent the final portion of his professional life working in Göttingen (which is why his statue now graces one of the town's squares). Among a copious output of work that included the isolation of aluminium, titanium, and several other elements, Wöhler also began the field of organic chemistry through the synthesis of urea without the aid of a living cell. This turned the idea of a 'vital force' required for generating organic compounds on its head, and brought the exploration of biological organisms within the sights of the physical sciences. In modern terms, he helped spark the development of organic chemistry and thus the related fields of biochemistry, molecular biology, molecular biophysics, and bioengineering.

Of course, Wöhler's singular demonstration of the synthesis of an organic compound did not fully discredit vitalism, but it got things started. Now, the idea of a vital force unique to living beings has been virtually abandoned (outside of a few caveats which I will soon be discussing). What I find strange is that the acceptance of the physical and chemical basis for our bodies has been, for the most part, complete. The previously widespread set of beliefs in various life forces has retreated entirely into the form of an incorporeal and undetectable soul or New Age woo of some indefinable energy that can be somehow helped (expensively) by interior decorating consultations or dubious and mildly unpleasant physical interventions. This retreat, too, has been performed without reference to the historical shift in our perception of life and its constituent parts. There is no demonizing of Wöhler, or false stories of recanting on his deathbed. In actuality, Wöhler is pretty much a ghost in the public mind. Outside of those who study chemistry or have an interest in the history of science, his name barely registers. While part of that may be that chemical synthesis is slightly more direct to demonstrate, as we have seen with the shifting goal-posts of the many incarnations of creationism, scientific demonstration is not actually the point.

I don't really have an answer for this difference in the way history has treated the two scientists, but I do have an appreciation for Friedrich Wöhler's contributions to science. His initial synthesis of urea may have been an accident, but it was no less ground-breaking.

Hometown Blues

I may sometimes decry the fact that, aside from beer, the only thing that puts my hometown on the map is its proximity to fundamentalist polygamist religious groups. Still, it could be worse... my hometown could be this one. While I have a much deeper philosophical divide with fundamental Mormons than I do with Trekkies (after all, I am a fan of Star Trek. I just don't understand the hardcore Trekkies' desire to base so much of real life around an acknowledged fictional universe... that and the popularity of Klingons continues to baffle me), I think it would be rather hard to live in a place so completely consumed by a single franchise. The Bountiful community, in contrast, tends to spend all of their efforts in shielding their children from our community (aside from baby-sitting jobs, which are seen as valuable sources of income and training...). Of course, I am not advocating that Vulcan should not be capitalizing on their name, as it seems like Star Trek has financially saved the town from oblivion. I just feel badly for any residents who could never stand the show.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 4

I posted Puzzle Number 4 a few days ago. Very quickly, jbrydle, Kim, and Scott all sent me a correct list of solutions. So, adulations to them for being champions of puzzle solving! The solutions are as follows:

1.) Best Firearm
= Top Gun

2.) Martial Engagements of a Stellar Nature: A Recent Sentiment for a Positive Outcome
= Star Wars: A New Hope

3.) Foreigner Against Hunter
= Alien vs. Predator

4.) Growth Prevented By Legal Restraint
= Arrested Development

5.) Veritable Sanguine Fluid
= True Blood

6.) The Ruler of the Circles: The Monarch Comes Back
= The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

7.) Visual Receptors of a Serpent
= Snake Eyes

8.) Famous Person Hike: Traveler
= Star Trek: Voyager

Friday, June 12, 2009

Intellectual Schmoozing

Lately I have been fairly bad about maintaining this blog, and I apologize for my lack of recent posting. A lot of that is due to a moderate degree of mental exhaustion; I spend long hours at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) combined with the generally overwhelming feelings that accompany a move (even a temporary one) to a new country. However, I cannot complain too greatly about being tired, because the work is interesting and I am learning a lot. I am also coming to view neurons from a different perspective, and that is a fun and fascinating thing.

It is not just work and dealing with a different culture that has been keeping me from blogging, though. Academia is as much a social institution as any other human endeavour, and, while at a large university like the University of Toronto it is easy to keep your head down and coast along without ever really being aware of the academic community (aside, of course, from the people teaching your classes), at a small institution like MPIDS the sense of community is much more universal (in general atmosphere, MPIDS has much in common with UTIAS. For those who have forgotten, you can reread my fan-boyish fawning over UTIAS here). So, there have been a couple nights where I have been out late either enjoying food, wine, and beer with a few people from the Institute or at the Institute itself sharing the aforementioned victuals with a larger portion of the general Institute population.

Last night was one of those nights at the Institute, with the party sparked by the coincidence of a guest speaker (an American professor who I believe currently holds a post at an Italian university) and a birthday (one of the Ph.D. students, who, oddly enough, is also Italian). The guest speaker was particularly popular because his presentation was not so much a serious one but was rather a light-hearted application of visual computation algorithms in real-time. The motivation was ostensibly related to the motion tracking capabilities of the retina, but I found that connection tenuous as best (after all, the problem of motion tracking at a low processing level like the retina is highly dependent upon hardware, and the hardware of the eye and a computer differ greatly). Though posessing only a weak connection to visual perception, the talk was essentially an artistic presentation with a strong mathematical basis, and that can be fun too.

After the talk came the pizza, cake, wine, and beer. It also meant intellectual schmoozing in a whole smattering of languages (primarily German and English, of course, but there was also a little bit of Italian, Russian, and Farsi flying around). I got to meet a large number of people from the Institute that I had not yet had a chance to talk to, and we had some very interesting discussions ranging from politics, history, and languages to neuroscience, mathematics, and evolutionary theory. I will end this post with one of the more interesting classical psychological question series (which is fun to bandy about at parties), and the most tongue-in-cheek response I have yet heard to the query (of course coming, as you will see, from an evolutionary biologist).

The question series goes like this:
You are standing next to a branch in a rail line. A train is hurtling down the track without breaks, and the track it is currently set to go down has five workers on it oblivious to the danger. On the other track is a single worker. Do you throw the switch and kill the single worker or let the train continue on its original course where it will kill five workers?

You are now standing on a bridge overlooking a set of train tracks. Once again, there are five workers on the tracks below oblivious to a breakless train hurtling toward them. On the bridge with his back to you is a large man unaware of your presence. If you sneak up behind him and push him off the bridge onto the tracks below, he has sufficient mass to cause the train to dislodge from the tracks and come to a halt before it strikes the workers. Do you push the man off the bridge, or do you let the train continue on its path to kill the five workers?
The psychologically interesting thing is that the majority of people would throw the switch in the first formulation of the question but balk at the physical act of pushing the man in the second question off the bridge to his certain death. The snarky response I got from the evolutionary biologist was, "Am I related to any of them?" When I responded that he was not, he shrugged and said, "Oh, well, then it doesn't matter."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Puzzle Number 4: Oblique Title Puzzle

Taking a cue from the enjoyable puzzle I linked to a week and a half ago, I have created a similar puzzle (but with words instead of images). So, the idea is I have come up with a smattering of movies and television shows, and rewritten their titles with synonyms and definitions. So, for example, Cease Living with Great Impact would be Die Hard.

As usual, feel free to send your solutions to me (so as not to spoil the puzzle for others by leaving them in the comments) at When I publish the solutions in a few days I will be sure to mention who solved which titles.

So, here are the rewritten titles:

1.) Best Firearm

2.) Martial Engagements of a Stellar Nature: A Recent Sentiment for a Positive Outcome

3.) Foreigner Against Hunter

4.) Growth Prevented By Legal Restraint

5.) Veritable Sanguine Fluid

6.) The Ruler of the Circles: The Monarch Comes Back

7.) Visual Receptors of a Serpent

8.) Famous Person Hike: Traveler

Note: The solutions can be found here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


It has been a fairly exhausting last few days. Travelling can really take it out of you, especially if one is travelling alone to a place without previous acquaintances. However, I don't want to take my time this evening to write the long, reflective piece on travel and German culture that has been fomenting in my head for the last few days. So, in my attempt to relax but still get out some thoughts in unrepentent English, I will wax philosophical for a few minutes about telivision. Specifically, I would like to talk about the introductions of television shows.

Introductions at first glance do not really seem that important. After all, if one power watches television shows like a lot of young people do these days (wait for a good portion of the show to have already aired and then download and watch the show in large chunks of several episodes one after the other), often the introduction ends up just being skipped anyway to save those precious few minutes. However, a good introduction can do a lot for a show. Take, for an idle example, the introductions to Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Collectively, they are all really just a bunch of shots of planets and other spacey things interspliced with spaceships making fancy noises before leaping off into the distance with a flash of light and credits with an overlay of some sort of musical score. However, what Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have is that epicly cheesy voice-over of their respective captains declaring space as the final frontier, and those opening words have been burned into the collective conscience of popular culture almost as deeply as the words, "Luke, I am your father". While I do not necessarily understand the entrenched effect of the original series (after all, there really wasn't a lot that was epic about that series... it was all just Kirk hooking up with alien women in between scenes of fisticuffs and torn shirts in random alien gladiatorial rings), the cheesy seriousness of the voice-over fit the cheesy philosophy for the laymen that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show aspired to make people think, and, even if it often did so in obvious, elementary, and predictable ways, the soothingly authoritative voice of Patrick Stewart helps to set the contemplative mood in a monumental way.

I was going to go on to pass a few words of judgement on Star Trek: Enterprise, but I seem to have gone for a good deal longer with the subject of science fiction shows than I originally intended. What originally inspired me to write this post was to point out some of the very best examples of introductory television sequences I have seen in the last few years. Like with most television in general, the best examples come from Showtime and HBO. In the runner-up position is Showtime's Dexter. For those who have not seen it, give it a gander:

For those who have not seen or heard of the show, it is about a sociopath named Dexter Morgan who has the uncontrollable urge to kill people. Raised as an orphan by a police officer, his stepfather recognized the early warning signs and molded his psyche into a strict code of ethics such that he would only murder murderers who had somehow cheated the legal system. While the premise is a little creepy, the show is quite well done with a lot of interesting psychological development (at least for the first two seasons, I stopped watching after that because it was simply too stressful). The reason why I like the introduction so much is because it is so exceedingly fitting to the mood of the show... it is all about ridiculously careful precision with every last detail of even the most mundane of tasks (starting the morning), all the while carrying with it the foreboding visceral imagery of sizzling flesh, drops of blood, a grinder, and squirting juice from a blood orange.

Still, I think the introduction to HBO's True Blood may be even more well done than the introduction to Dexter. Briefly, the show is set in a world where vampires have recently 'come out of the coffin' following the invention of synthetic blood by Japanese researchers. There is still a lot of tension between vampires and people, and the main character, a waitress at a bar in a small southern town who can read minds, finds herself drawn into those tensions when she becomes involved with the a vampire intent on 'going mainstream' who moves into the town. Watch the introduction here:

The disturbing montage of erotica, religious imagery, Americana, racism, and wildlife, all set to a threateningly forward country song, seems to perfectly encapsulate the desired ambience of the American south. This is done with enough rawness to help drive back one's cognitive faculties and make the show more about turgid emotional reactions than logical thought (which is a good state of mind for a show about vampires). Also, the amazing pun of "God Hates Fangs" is highly enjoyable.

Anyway, this has been a longer ramble about exceedingly trivial matters than I had originally intended it to be, so I'm going to end my discourse here. As always, feel free to leave a comment or two with your own opinion on the matter.

Note: I am exhausted and I cannot seem to get my spellchecker to switch to English (it is currently stuck on German... damn IP address), so please forgive what I expect is an unusually high concentration of errors in this post.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Felix Klein

As some of you may have guessed by my post from earlier today, I have my suitcases and I am back in business. With so many famous scientists and mathematicians steeping Göttingen in history, I have decided it is time to ressurrect my Scientist Appreciation posts. Every time I find something named after a famous scientist or mathematician (and I have my camera with me), I will thus get a photograph and say a few things about the emminent fellow. Of course, I should therefore change the label perhaps to Mathematician Appreciation for fellows like Felix Klein, but I hope their memory will not be too tarnished if I place them under the label of 'Scientist' for the sake of reducing clutter on my sidebar (and for brand recognition...).

Felix Klein is actually someone who I mostly knew of thanks to my girlfriend. With her extensive interest in geometry and group theory, Felix Klein is a massively famous figure to her. A little bit of research on Wikipedia and he seems awfully impressive to me as well. Mathematically, he was exceptionally important in the founding of group theory and the relation of geometry to other areas of mathematics (I only have a vague understanding of the appropriate terms here, so to avoid wildly embarrassing my girlfriend and any other mathies who might be reading this, I will refrain from going into too much detail). What makes Felix Klein extra exceptional, though, is he was also exceedingly important as a facilitator of the scientific enterprise as a whole.

While serving as a young professor in Munich, he taught courses to Adolf Hurwitz, Carl Runge, and Max Planck (among others, but those three I have directly encountered in memorable ways within my own studies). After a brief stint in Leipzig, Klein moved to Göttingen where he worked to rebuild the city's prominence in the world of mathematics. To that end, he managed to fenagle Hilbert away from Königsberg, guide the mathematics journal Mathematische Annalen to become one of the best in the world, and begin allowing women to study in Göttingen. Perhaps even more widely impacting than his administrative and leadership roles in Göttingen itself, Klein also began to advocate for the adaption of calculus instruction in secondary schools, a practice gradually adopted in many countries even outside Germany.

So, whether you are a devoted mathematician or simply a dabbler like myself, you should take a moment to appreciate the endeavours of one Felix Klein. If you want more detail on the man, have a look at his Wikipedia article.

Finding This Blog

Out of curiosity, I recently added a statistics application to this blog. One of the things I just discovered it does is keep track of the keywords to searches that lead one to finding my blog. These results were all-around surprising. The term that came up the most was 'Mozglubov', which sort of makes sense aside from the fact that I honestly cannot imagine why anyone would search for my trans-literated, made-up amalgamation of Russian words unless they already knew about this place. Much more entertainingly, however, were the following:

In the past week:

Five people found the site by searching for 'propulgate'. I had no idea it was such a popular term...

One person searched for 'france diplomacy opening game', and another for 'austria diplomacy allies game'. I hope the advice I gave was good, because I honestly wrote it more for my own amusement than anything else. Since so few of my friends play the game (other than when I manage to force them to), I hardly expected anyone to read my analysis.

Oddly enough, one person searched for, 'hardest life science program at U of T'. I hope I convinced him or her to go into mathematics. Another person searched for '"university of toronto" "class rank"'. I'm not actually even sure how that would bring up my blog, other than my occasional mentioning of U of T.

One person found the site by searching for 'worst logic'. I don't know how to feel about that...

My absolute favourite search, though, was the one person who found this blog by searching for, '"Ancient and Modern Necromancy alias Mesmerism and Hypnotism Denounced" cult'. Yay for the craziness that is Christian Science!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Technical Difficulties

So... I arrived in Germany early this morning, but my bags did not... In addition to the inconvenience of no change of clothes, my bags also had all my plug converters from the North American plug shape to the European. That means I now have to ration my laptop's batteries very carefully until my baggage arrives (that should be in 24-48 hours). Blogging has a somewhat lower priority than familial email communication, so until my bags arrive I'll have to take a hiatus. What a bloody pain...