Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is More Information Always Better?

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Start of the Week Quotations

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Discover Your Purpose in Life"

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

Roughly, the set of talks went like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Will Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Government Outreach

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Corruption of Journalism

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

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

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

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

Start of the Week Quotations

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Couple of News Stories

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Blog Excitement

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

Midweek Quotations

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Puzzle Number 9: Final Hint

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scientist Appreciation: Persi Diaconis the Mathemagician

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Puzzle Number 9: Hint One

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

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

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

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

Science Outreach - You're Doing it Right

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday Morning Quotations

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Absolutely Terrible Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode

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

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

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

Puzzle Number 9: Epic Word Scramble

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

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

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

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

Note: Solutions to the puzzle can be found here.

Avoiding Neuronal Tangle

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

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

Ongoing Goodyear Problems

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fascinating Art

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

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