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Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Morning Quotations

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blog Vacation

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Review: Your Inner Fish

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 10

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

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

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

Monday Morning Quotations

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Midweek Quotations

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Personal Update

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Puzzle Number 10: Tetris Shape Reconstruction

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

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

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

Note: Solution to the puzzle can be found here.

New Post at Computing Intelligence

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

A Weird Reason to be in the News...

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weekly Quotations: Graduation Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

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

This Week on the Internet:

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

Title Change, New Blog, and Twitter

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

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

Monday Morning Quotations

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

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

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

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