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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Puzzle Number 14: Fair Game?

We have just started looking in detail at randomized algorithms in my computational complexity course. In addition to being a fascinating topic, it is also full of all sorts of fantastic results that make for great puzzles.

This puzzle takes the form of a game for two players, Player A and Player B. Player A has two cards, and he must write a distinct non-negative integer on each card, then lie that card face down on the table. Player B then chooses to flip over the card either on the right or the left, view the value of the number recorded, and must guess whether that value is greater than or less than the number on the other card. Player A is sneaky, however, and adds a rule that Player B must tell Player A the method he will use for determining his guess before they play the game (and Player B is not allowed to deviate from it).

Even with Player A trying to obtain an unfair advantage, it is relatively straightforward to show that Player B can still come up with an algorithm to make his guess that will make the game a fair one (each player has an identical chance of winning):

Player B's Fair Strategy:

Flip over the left card.
If that card has the value 0, guess that the other card's value is larger;
Else randomly (with a 50% chance either way) guess that the other card's value is larger or smaller.

Knowing this strategy ahead of time, Player A will obviously never put a zero on the left-hand card. Other than that, however, there is nothing he can do to increase his odds of winning above 50%, and the game is therefore fair.

Is this the best that Player B can do, or is there an alternative algorithm that he can use that will put his chances of winning above 50%? If there is, what is that algorithm?

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Today Sarah has a whole collection of puzzles posted in honour of Martin Gardner. You should definitely go have a look.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Overheard on the subway

Yesterday I was riding the subway home when I ended up sitting across from a trio of high-school girls. Although I tried not to eavesdrop (I usually try to capitalize on my transit time to get some reading done), the subject the girls were discussing was university. The speech that particularly caught my attention was the following:
"I'm so excited to start university; you have so much free time! I mean, you only have two or three hours of class a day, it's nothing like high-school!"
I kind of wish I could be there to see her get her first list of required readings, or her first problem set. It's true that high-school is nothing like university, but, unfortunately for this young girl, it is in the opposite sense from what she thinks (at least if you're doing it right).

Monday, September 20, 2010


So, I have left my blog fallow again for an extended stretch. Part of that is because the new academic semester has started with a rush (along with a week-long stretch of the flu that didn't help), but another part is that my personal life has had some important developments as well. This weekend I asked Sarah to marry me, and she said yes. So, that is my big news, and that means I have another big non-blog project starting up... helping to plan a wedding!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Equine Fun

This is one of the most darling videos I've seen in a while (aside from my initial fear that the poor horse might break one of its fragile legs). The clip is well worth watching all the way through.

Who knew that horses played like that? It really does look an awful lot like our cat repeatedly pouncing on one of her ball toys.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

"At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, American novelist, 1896-1940

"The sense of being well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow." - Miss C. F. Forbes, English writer, 1817-1911

"What we call evil is simply ignorance bumping its head in the dark." - Henry Ford, American car manufacturer, 1863-1947

"The extension of women's rights is the basic principle of all social progress." - Charles Fourier, French social theorist, 1772-1837

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scientific Literacy

Alice Bell has written an interesting piece entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy. I think it is quite interesting, and touches on some of the issues brought up in Advice and Dissent, the main difference being that Advice and Dissent concentrated solely on the relationship between science and politics while Bell concentrates on the relationship between science and the population as a whole. The two are, of course, coupled in a representational democracy. I would like to expound more on the topic, but I actually have a fair bit of work to get done at the moment. Therefore, I thought I would bring up Bell's post for now, and hopefully get some further analysis of it done in the next few days.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Conservapedia Does It Again

It seems like it has simply been too long on this site since I last poked fun at Conservapedia, so here is the latest bit of their crazy that is making the rounds on the internet: how general relativity is liberal nonsense. My friend Mitch has an excellent take-down over at Skeptic North (with screen shots in case Conservapedia fails to load for you... it has been giving me trouble all morning). I don't have a whole lot to add, since Mitch nicely highlighted the the main chunks of hilarity, but I just thought it worth repeating: reality does not have a liberal bias no matter how many times Conservapedia might (inadvertently) make that claim.

Monday Morning Quotations

I have skipped the quotation instalment from the last two weeks, so this is more than overdue.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." - Richard P. Feynman, American theoretical physicist, 1918-88

"It hath been often said, that it is not death, but dying, which is terrible." - Henry Fielding, English novelist and dramatist, 1707-54

"Never cry over spilt milk, because it may have been poisoned." - W. C. Fields, American humorist, 1880-1946

"The best causes tend to attract to their support the worst arguments." - R. A. Fisher, English statistician and geneticist, 1890-1962

I like to think that the last quotation is referring to most environmental and animal rights groups.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dirty Energy Money

The website Dirty Energy Money was recently brought to my attention. It attempts to track the flow of fossil fuel money through the United States Congress, a lofty goal in my books. The site is highly interactive, and they have gathered an impressive amount of campaign contribution information. Without a good deal of marketing or getting picked up by a major news outlet, however, I'm not sure the website will have the impact it is trying for.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Computing Intelligence Relaunched!

I have finally gotten around to reactivating my research-oriented blog Computing Intelligence with a new post on The Challenge of fMRI Interpretation. I have had the post half-written for about two weeks now, but it is now finally done and up. I have some more posts outlined, so I should start producing content more regularly.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

I apologize for missing last week's quotation instalment. As it is, the epitaph edition was the last 'E' section, and we are now into the 'F's.

"Human probabilities are not sufficient grounds to make war upon a neighbour nation." - Thomas Fairfax responding to the proposal in 1650 to forestall an expected Scottish attack by invading Scotland first, English Parliamentary general and commander of the New Model Army from 1645-1650, 1621-71

"Why sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!" - Michael Faraday responding to Gladstone's question about the usefulness of electricity, English physicist and chemist, 1791-1867

"The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left - the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds." - Farouk, King of Egypt from 1936-52, 1920-65

"If I could remember the names of all these particles I'd be a botanist."
"Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge."
- Enrico Fermi, Italian-born American atomic physicist, 1901-54

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I saw this charming video a couple of weeks ago, and thought it was definitely worth sharing. Just keep your harpoons and tow-cables stowed away.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cayo Largo, Part III: More Beach Critters

In Cayo Largo, Part II I ended with my first successful fish pictures off the tip of the Playa Sirena peninsula. I had also mentioned that there were some massive starfish, but the depth and bareness of the sand makes it difficult to appreciate their size. I took some much better starfish pictures which will appear in a later part. During our snorkeling about, though, Sarah did borrow the camera to grab a photo of me showing off my snorkel prowess (and I'm a critter too).

Snorkeling about (click for larger size).

The next day we took the train again, only this time we got off at Playa Paraiso. On the southern edge of Playa Paraiso is a whole series of quite extensive tide pools which we decided to investigate. The pools were surprisingly deep, although far too gooey to make snorkeling desirable. Large swathes of the pool edges were covered with snails, and Sarah's practiced critter eye managed to spot a couple of snail shells that were not exactly what they seemed.

As far as wild invertebrates go, hermit crabs are some of the safest and easiest to pick up and play with (provided you spot them). Their claws are largely ineffectual (at least with crabs of the size that we found), and they don't move very quickly. We did manage to spot what looked like a horseshoe crab, but it was a very fast invertebrate and disappeared long before I could get the camera ready.

The tide pools were also large enough to house a number of fish. Although the water was not nearly as clear as the open ocean, I still managed to grab my only underwater shots of the trumpetfish that we found all along the beaches (once we learned to look out for them).

Trumpetfish in the tide pools at Playa Paraiso (click for larger size).

The next day we had our last big beach adventure when we wandered south about three quarters of a kilometer down the beach from our resort looking for a stretch of coral. En-route we discovered a patch of rocks covered in swift scuttling crabs. We spent a few minutes trying to grab a video showing off how the crabs moved from crevice to crevice, but they never quite cooperated for getting a good video. I did manage to snag a decent photograph, though, of one crab that decided it was comfortable enough in its current crevice.

Crab hiding under the lip of a rock along Playa Blanca (click for larger size).

Once we got to the beach with the coral we broke out the snorkel gear and headed into the water. Although the depth didn't drop off with the same extreme slope of the tip of the Playa Sirena peninsula, it did get appreciably deep much faster than the beach in front of our resort and the main beach at Playa Sirena and Playa Paraiso. The coral was a small patch nestled at the base of a rocky shelf. Although it was far more exciting than anything we had previously encountered, there still wasn't a lot of colour or fish swarms about. I was very excited to spot my first 'tropical' fish: the banded butterflyfish (not that the other fish weren't tropical, but the butterflyfish had the stripes that always come to mind when thinking of tropical fish).

Banded Butterflyfish near small coral patch off Playa Blanca (click for larger size).

Our best snorkeling was yet to come, though, from our boat excursion the next day. That, however, means it doesn't count as beach anymore, and will thus be covered in the next installment.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations - Epitaph Edition

This week the typical alphabetic ordering is interrupted, and instead the collection of quotations are all actual or suggested epitaphs.

"Excuse my dust." - Dorothy Parker's suggested epitaph for herself in 1925, American poet and satirist, 1893-1967

"God damn you all: I told you so." - H. G. Wells' suggested epitaph for himself in 1939, English author, 1866-1946

"Good friend, for Jesu's sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."
- inscription on William Shakespeare's grave, English dramatist, 1564-1616

"Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia." - W. C. Fields' suggested epitaph for himself in 1925, American comedian, 1880-1946

"He was an average guy who could carry a tune." - Bing Crosby's suggested epitaph for himself in 1977, American singer and actor, 1903-1977

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cayo Largo, Part II: Beach Critters

In Cayo Largo Part I I talked about many of the exciting critters that Sarah and I discovered on the resort grounds. Of course, going to a tropical ocean paradise means some ocean exploration is in order, and so we bought ourselves a pair of snorkel sets before we left. The beach in front of our resort, adequately described by the resort name of Playa Blanca, was a beautiful strip of dazzling white sand. While providing lovely scenery and an excellent place to relax or take a casual ocean dip, the pristine water and sand didn't leave much to see through the goggles.

The beach at the Playa Blanca resort (click for larger size).

Our first attempt to find some interesting snorkeling was a trip north along the beach towards a strip of rocks. We decided to go north because we figured the rocks might provide a better sea creature habitat than the plain sand. It turned out, however, that the life supported by the rocks was mainly an extremely slippery gooey green covering. Combined with a strong surf, we ended up getting knocked around and dunked a few times but never did find anything worth putting on the goggles and flippers. Our trip up and back down the beach also involved far more middle-aged man-parts than either of us would have liked, as we discovered that the stretch of beach just beyond the resort was the designated nude beach. I don't know why, but by and large all nude beaches I have seen seem to be nearly exclusively occupied by middle-aged (and older) men. Perhaps the breeze is nice, but I would worry about the possibility of a very painful sunburn.

After our disappointing opening-day trek up the beach, the same helpful couple who told us about the iguana pointed out a few possible places for us to explore: the eastern side of the peninsula that formed the south-western-most beach of Playa Sirena and a small coral reef at the next resort to the south of ours (we had clearly picked the wrong direction to travel on the beach).

Armed with new knowledge of where to go and the promise of seeing giant starfish, we set off the next morning to Playa Sirena. Looking at a map of Cayo Largo you can see in the southwest a pair of beaches called Playa Sirena and Playa Paraiso. These two beaches are common beaches for all visitors to the island - there are no resorts on the beaches, and 'trains' are provided to transport visitors from the resorts to the beaches. I put train in quotations because it is in fact a little car designed to look like a train engine that pulls a set of passenger cars. There were two main trains: one had cars that had rickety roofs while the second pulled a set of uncovered cars. Although the roofs were nice for keeping the hot sun off, they also creaked, squealed, and swayed disconcertingly like they were about to give up and collapse. By far the oddest thing about the trains, though, was that we took them four times in total (out and back once to each beach), and never once did we complete the trip on the train we initially boarded (often we would even have to transfer between the trains multiple times). One of our transfers had a clear and legitimate reason, as the brake line between the second and third car burst, which meant the last two cars no longer had brakes. However, the other three times seemed to be completely random - we would would be riding along when we would suddenly pull over, wait a few minutes in the blistering sun, and then the other train would pull up. Our driver would leap out and gesture wildly at us, and everyone would disembark and transfer trains. Still, the trains were a free service, so one shouldn't complain too much about operating mysteries.

Train car providing transportation to Playa Sirena and Playa Paraiso (click for larger size).

Once we arrived at Playa Sirena we spotted what I felt to be the most upsetting institution on Cayo Largo: swim with the dolphins. I recognize the thrill of interacting with dolphins (one of my favourite memories from my childhood was of swimming with dolphins in the ocean off of New Zealand), but the health of the dolphins needs to factor into any setup. These dolphins were held in a fairly small pen along a stretch of shore, and a significant portion of the pen looked like it was only about knee-deep.

Dolphins performing in their much too small looking pen (click for larger size).

Walking past the dolphins, however, we got to the undeveloped side of the Playa Sirena peninsula. The flora and fauna started off fairly gooey, from tiny underwater forests of algae to small pulsating lumps of jelly on the sand, with the most colourful collection clustered on the rotting stumps of an ancient dock that jutted from the ankle-deep water.

Assorted underwater growth on an old dock pylon (click for larger size).

Although gooey tropical marine life is certainly more exciting than the algae we find in Canada, the conch that Sarah pulled out of the water shortly thereafter was far more exciting. It was also the feistiest conch I've ever seen, wildly flailing about with its foot.

Not long after we put the conch back in the water we reached the tip of the peninsula. We spotted a number of other people in the water snorkeling, so figured there must be something to see. The shore on this part of the peninsula was quite different from the main beaches since the depth dropped quite quickly after only a brief stretch of shallow water, which was fairly convenient for snorkeling. Although the sea floor wasn't covered with bright coral, sporadic vegetation shared the sand with some impressively large starfish and an immense conch. A number of different fish were also swimming about, although they were all a translucent milky white colour that made them quite difficult to pick out. However, when I ended up in the middle of a small school I finally had a chance to catch a few pictures of fish.

White fish off the coast of the Playa Sirena peninsula. If anyone can identify the species, it would be much appreciated (click for larger size).

Continue reading: Part III: More Beach Critters

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Crazy Check

Political advertisements are by their nature awkward, particularly for candidates that don't have the budget for a slick promotional team. If you are running for office, though, the one thing you should always ensure is that your ad doesn't make you look flat out insane.

(via Deus Ex Malcontent)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

Things continue to be a little slow around here as the World Cup starts to get exciting... an epic Iberian showdown is imminent, and the South American powerhouses are crowding out so much of the competition that they are starting to turn on themselves. Still, I cannot slack off too much - this week should see another chapter from the Cayo Largo trip and I plan to re-open my Computing Intelligence blog. For now, here are the week's quotations.

"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher and poet, 1803-82

"The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own." - William Empson, English poet and literary critic, 1906-84

"Everything has two handles, by one of which it ought to be carried and by the other not*." - Epictetus, Phyrgian Stoic philosopher, c. 50-120

"Without Britain Europe would remain only a torso." - Ludwig Erhard, German statesmen and Chancellor of West Germany from 1963-6, 1897-1977

*This observation was clearly made before American litigiousness required adequate safety labels to be placed on all product handles.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Midweek Quotations

Sorry for the lack of posts - the World Cup has been just too exciting. To tie things over, here are some (rather late) midweek quotations.

"He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow."
"A difference in taste of jokes is a great strain on the affections."
- George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), English novelist, 1819-80

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." - T.S. Eliot, Anglo-American writer, 1888-1965

"I will make you shorter by the head." - Elizabeth I, Queen of England from 1558-1603, 1533-1608

"I sometimes sense the world is changing almost too fast for its inhabitants, at least for us older ones." - Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom from 1952, 1926-

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Solutions to Puzzle Number 13: The Phantom Titles

Last week I released the prequel to my oblique title collection, Puzzle Number 13: The Phantom Titles. Although reviews pointed out that its plot and overall structure were weak in comparison to the original trilogy tetralogy, citing the lack of notability in the fourth part, awkward attempt at a romantic inclusion in the seventh, and blatantly obvious conclusion*, many still conceded that advances in computer technology** helped overcome notability weaknesses, and the brilliantly choreographed and scored wordplay of the penultimate part made the whole puzzle worth going through. Additionally, critics all agreed that at the least the whole thing wasn't about taxes and none of the solutions hinged on the outcome of a pod-race.

Solutions were sent in by Mitch, Sarah, Cornucrapia, Kim, and Kevin. The solutions are as follows:

1.) Epic Stories of the Collapse
Legends of the Fall (Movie)
Solved by Mitch, Sarah, Kim, and Kevin.

2.) Exponential Parkland Protectors
Power Rangers (Television)
Solved by Mitch, Kim, Cornucrapia, and Kevin. Sarah helped me test this one, so she was excluded from answering it.

3.) Firearms, Pathogens, and Carbon-Iron Alloys
Guns, Germs, and Steel (Book)
Solved by everyone who sent in solutions.

4.) Meeting with the Seventh Avatar of Vishnu
Rendezvous with Rama (Book)
Solved by Cornucrapia. Mitch, Sarah, and Kevin all managed to solve it with the help of Google and Wikipedia, and Kim managed to figure out that Rama was involved, but didn't know any titles that went with that.

5.) Fortified Domicile
Castle (Television)
Solved by Mitch, Sarah, Kim, and Kevin.

6.) Happiness
Glee (Television)
Solved by Mitch, Sarah, Kim, and Kevin. Sarah also pointed out that 7th Heaven could have been a valid possibility.

7.) Excellent Future Notions
Great Expectations (Book)
Solved by Mitch, Sarah, Kim, and Kevin.

8.) The Hilarity of Mistakes
The Comedy of Errors (Shakespearean Play)
Solved by Mitch, Sarah, Kim, and Kevin.

9.) No Sound from the Cowboy Film Forward Face
All Quiet on the Western Front (Book, also turned into a Movie)
Solved by everyone who sent in solutions.

10.) Ferric Guy
Iron Man (Film)
Solved by everyone who sent in solutions.

*Writer/director/producer Mozglubov tried to defend the obviousness of the conclusion by stating that such story elements were necessary "for the kids", but his argument was generally panned among critics.
**Google and Wikipedia

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

"Long experience has taught me that to be criticized is not always to be wrong." - Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon, British Conservative statesman and Prime Minister from 1955-7, 1897-1977

"If my theory of relativity is proven correct, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew."
"Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before you reach eighteen."
- Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist, 1879-1955

"When preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." - Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, 1890-1969

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Puzzle Number 13: The Phantom Titles

Although it was only two puzzles ago that I last did an oblique title set, the fact that I took a long break from puzzle posting means it has still been a while (plus, these puzzles are the most fun to make). As usual, the puzzle consists of a set of titles pulled from movies, television shows, and literary works (and, occasionally, more than one of those categories) and then obfuscated with synonyms and alternative definitions; your task is to determine the original title.

1.) Epic Stories of the Collapse

2.) Exponential Parkland Protectors

3.) Firearms, Pathogens, and Carbon-Iron Alloys

4.) Meeting with the Seventh Avatar of Vishnu

5.) Fortified Domicile

6.) Happiness

7.) Excellent Future Notions

8.) The Hilarity of Mistakes

9.) No Sound from the Cowboy Film Forward Face

10.) Ferric Guy

As usual, send your solutions to

Note: Solutions can be found here.

Solution to Puzzle Number 12: The Unpopular Code

So it turns out that code-breaking is not the most popular activity among my readers; Puzzle 12 was the first puzzle for which I received no solutions. For anyone who was curious about the code, though, the solution is as follows.

Messages were encoded according to the following steps:
1.) For all letters, convert to a number according to the alphabetic position (A -> 1, B -> 2, etc.)
2.) Subtract 12 from each number
3.) If a resulting number is less than or equal to zero, subtract one more (this gets rid of any zeros)
4.) Convert all positive numbers to their alphabetic equivalent (1 -> A, 2 -> B, etc.)
5.) For all negative numbers, take the absolute value and convert that to their alphabetic equivalent. Follow the letter with a (pseudo*)random integer.

Thus, the encoded message HH8L9, H1L9FA9 F4FH8M, E1CH can be decoded as follows:
H -> 8, 8+12 = 20 -> T
H8 -> -8, -8+13 = 5 -> E
L9 -> -12, -12+13 = 1 -> A
and so on, to reveal the original message TEA, EARL GREY, HOT

Since I had decided to make the category classic science fiction film and television, I went with the two messages that are most iconic in my mind of the genre:

Message 1

Message 2

Monday, June 7, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

"I have too much respect for the idea of God to make it responsible for such an absurd world." - Georges Duhamel, French novelist, 1884-1966

"All generalizations are dangerous, even this one." - attributed to Alexandre Dumas, French writer, 1824-95

Thus, with a pair of sardonic Frenchmen, we finish the D's and move onto the E's:

"History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." - Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat, 1915-2002

"If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations - then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation - well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation." - Arthur Eddington, British astrophysicist, 1882-1944

And, finally, a dose of crazy to end on:

"Jesus of Nazareth was the most scientific man that ever trod the globe. He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause."
"Disease is an experience of so-called mortal mind. It is fear made manifest in the body."
- Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement, 1821-1910

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sir Patrick Day

March 17th might be St. Patrick's Day, but now June can join the club with Sir Patrick day. Everyone should sit back with a nice cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, and boldly go where no one has gone before (or at least watch these videos).

Acupuncture Takedown

At the end of last week a study was (surprisingly) published in Nature Neuroscience claiming to justify acupuncture. I say surprisingly, because many aspects of the paper are dubious. The fundamental biochemical findings were interesting and quite promising (which is presumably how the study made it into Nature Neuroscience), but the connections to acupuncture were overly belaboured and should have been harshly criticized during review. There have been three excellent blog reviews published since the article came out, and I highly recommend giving them a read:

The main take-home point (and why much of the language in this article should have raised flags for reviewers) is the fact that this study demonstrated at most a plausible mechanism for the localized pain relief claims of acupuncture. The actual efficacy of acupuncture as a legitimate pain treatment modality, like any other medical treatment, still needs to be demonstrated clinically (something which it has largely failed to do despite years of research), and this study has no bearing on the non-pain treatment claims of acupuncture. Unfortunately, the article fails to acknowledge the lack of clinical support for acupuncture as a treatment modality, as well as failing to acknowledge the many aspects of acupuncture which are in no way validated by these results (non-pain treatment claims, body meridians, and all the rest of the unsupported magic an acupuncturist spends years learning), all while claiming validation for acupuncture.

What angers me the most about situations like this is that negative result studies for alternative 'medicine' modalities never receive the same sort of coverage. The prestige and respect of the journal of Nature Neuroscience will now be co-opted by the alternative medicine community to justify far more than the only somewhat plausible technique of poking people with needles to provide temporary pain relief - all, of course, for a 'reasonable' price.

3 Quarks Daily Science Vote!

3 Quarks Daily is holding their annual 'best science blog post' vote. One of Sarah's posts has been nominated, so give it a read and then go vote (obviously you are not obligated to vote for Sarah's post, but I really think you should).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Advice and Dissent

I finished reading the book Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena, by Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, a little over a month ago*. It is probably the driest book I have ever found absolutely enthralling. Primack and Hippel are both respected physicists, and they shared the American Physical Society's Forum Award in 1977 for their work on Advice and Dissent (the book was published in 1974). What Primack and Hippel do is essentially analyze the role of scientific and technical advisors in the American government through a series of case studies. Although all the case studies surround issues from well before my time (for example: supersonic transport, antiballistic missile systems, and the banning of cyclamates), I found the analysis and power structures involved were still very much relevant today. Primack and Hippel, while they were clearly not neutral on the issues involved, presented their arguments lucidly and concisely with exhaustive lists of references.

As I said, the specific case studies are all fairly dated (although the details are nonetheless quite interesting. I think I would go so far as to say that Nixon was, in fact, something of a crook), but the issues that are discussed in their context translates well into our present age. While I highly recommend that anyone interested in technical and scientific expertise in the realm of public policy (and, considering that my friend Paul is starting a graduate program in public policy at MIT this September (congratulations, again!), I know of at least one person reading this who is) should pick up a copy of Advice and Dissent to get the authors' full discussion and contextual development, I thought I would at least reflect with my own thoughts on two of the most salient issues that were highlighted.

The first major issue is the unequal power structure between a science advisor and politician. The politician is in no way bound to listen to the advice of the advisor, while the advisor is bound by confidentiality in both implicit and explicit forms. Explicitly this takes the form of directly classifying all reports and experimental findings of the advisor as confidential. The politicians are then free to claim scientific support for their position, regardless of what the findings actually are. Implicit confidentiality arises from the fact that if the advisor endeavours to make their own opinion known publicly (in colloquial terms: kick up a stink) they often find themselves dismissed (see here for a modern example) or, in the case of consultants without official appointments to begin with, ignored in future calls for advisory panels**. Although these points seem obvious in retrospect, I found the discussion nevertheless quite illuminating. I always assumed that much of the problems of modern policy decisions lay in a lack of scientific advisors or inadequately qualified appointees. Although I think an advisory lack remains an issue, the institutional power disparity is a much deeper problem and intrinsic to the current implementation of scientific advisory boards.

The second major issue was actually one which shook my preconceptions much harder. Whereas the institutional gagging of technical advisors did little to disrupt any preconceived notions of mine, the authors also presented numerous instances of regulatory failure by the institutions whose very existence is designed to protect citizens. Long-time readers (and those privy to personal political discussions with me) are aware of my general trust in bureaucratic institutions and regulatory boards (like the FDA). The FDA (and the HPFB in Canada) are mandated to protect the consumer from unsafe food and medical products. While I have previously noted major risks in consumer protection through restrictions of agency powers over certain classes of products (like the natural products debacle), I generally felt that agencies like the FDA, if adequately funded and left to their own devices, were generally competent and interested primarily in consumer protection. In the case of the construction of nuclear power generators, they even document how the task of ensuring generator safety was given over to the same entity in charge of building the plants in the first place (does that not sound familiar to the off-shore drilling situation we have now?).

Thus, while Primack and Hippel thankfully don't launch into any sort of nonsensical libertarian screeds about how regulatory agencies should be abolished and we should let the free market take control, they carefully outline and document numerous examples of institutional apathy, obstruction, and manipulative changes to regulations that confounded the mandates of protective agencies. Their analysis is nuanced and realistic, calling not for the abolishment of governmental regulatory agencies (after all, the resources of those institutions are usually necessary to carry out the appropriate safety tests and enforce regulations - something that we could easily invest even more money in), but for an increased openness to information and the necessity of what they call 'citizen scientists' to become involved and active in policy decisions. It is unrealistic to expect a cadre of citizen scientists looking out for the common good to spontaneously arise, however. One suggestion introduced in the book is the institutional backing of universities through local project courses. I think that is a fantastic idea, but one which would need greater systematic support, particularly when it comes to disseminating any findings.

In the end, Advice and Dissent helped me revise some of my own naive political views, and strongly argues in a manner largely free of ideological overtones (a refreshing attribute for political discourse) for the importance of open discourse between politicians and experts, and for independence on the part of advisors. Unfortunately, I cannot help but notice that this book is 36 years old and our society, in many ways, has actually regressed (the dependence of biochemical drug testers on the pharmaceutical companies themselves for funding is one such glaring example of systemic hamstringing of any sort of unbiased testing and regulation). In a complex world in which it is virtually impossible for anyone to have appropriate expertise (or even competence) in all areas of life, how we manage expert input in the realm of public policy is an extremely important aspect of political life that is rarely even acknowledged. Advice and Dissent thus stands out as a unique form of political analysis, and one I would highly recommend.

* I usually prefer to get reviews written in a more timely fashion, as the book is therefore fresher in my mind. This book lent itself to more careful analysis, however, which meant I have gradually developed this review over the last month instead of just sitting down and writing it in one go.

** As a side note, I thought I would also point out that the authors do also occasionally slip into somewhat dated narration, most notably on page 106 when it is noted in reference to this implicit gagging of advisors:
“This gives rise to the apparently common situation where an advisor conserves his effectiveness like a beautiful girl her virginity - until no one is interested anymore."
Although I imagine such a simile might elicit a wink and chuckle back in the days of the book's first publication, such a mysoginistic comparison is only humorous in the present day through the context of “I cannot believe they wrote and published that”.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

Last week I missed posting some quotations at the start of the week because it was a long weekend here in Canada and my whole sense of the week got thrown off... but no more excuses. Here are this week's installment of quotations:

"I got disappointed in human nature as well and gave it up because I found it too much like my own." - J. P. Donleavy, Irish-American novelist, 1926-

"You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements." - Norman Douglas, Scottish-born novelist, 1868-1952

"You see, but you do not observe." - Arthur Conan Doyle, Scottish-born author, 1859-1930

"Thus when we fondly flatter our desires,
Our best conceits do prove the greatest liars."
- Michael Drayton, English poet, 1563-1631

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cayo Largo, Part I: The Resort Ground Critters

About a month ago, Sarah and I went on a trip to Cayo Largo, a beautiful little resort island off the coast of Cuba. Part of what makes Cayo Largo such an interesting place to visit is that there are no permanent residents of the island; everyone who works on the island only spends a few weeks rotation at a time. Most of the island remains undeveloped and wild, particularly the northern half. While such a situation sparked a number of resort reviews that gave only mediocre results due to guest boredom, it meant that Cayo Largo was a perfect destination for us. We weren't going to hang out in Latin night clubs, we were going to relax and explore beautiful tropical flora and fauna. The resort that Sarah and I stayed at was called Hotel Playa Blanca, and from what we saw it was definitely one of the nicest on the island. Oddly enough, another common complaint in both reviews and even from some of the guests we talked to was that the food was nothing special, but we found it to actually be quite enjoyable. There was always a lovely selection of fresh fruit, and the cooked dishes usually had a fascinating assortment of root vegetables.

We arrived in the middle of the night at the tiny airport located on the island, and got shuffled off to various buses going to the different resorts. Despite it being the wee hours of the morning the heat was intense and the humidity oppressive. Our bus also had an adorable little boy who was clearly confused by all this traveling, and, after being told by his parents that he was in Cuba now, loudly announced that he didn't like Cuba because Cuba "had no food". According to his logic, he was hungry for a snack and, since his parents weren't able to give him one at the moment, this meant the whole country must be devoid of food. We spotted him happily playing around the resort a few days later, so I believe he eventually got his snack and learned that Cuba did, in fact, have food.

Our first day was spent mostly exploring the grounds around the hotel. Even just strolling along the path, however, we spotted a host of critter holes littering the grounds and a huge number of anoles basking on the rocks and vegetation. Although we took a number of photographs of the anoles, they were by far the most impressive when showing off their dewlaps. I managed to catch a pair mating, which led to an impressive display of the male's bright orange and yellow dewlap (either in an attempt to frighten me off, or as part of the mating ritual - apparently dewlaps are used for both). Towards the end of the week, Sarah managed to catch one also giving a dewlap display, so I have included that picture here as well.

An anole mating pair, with the male showing off his impressively coloured dewlap (click to see full-size)

Anole partially displaying his dewlap (click to see full-size)

After wandering around snapping pictures of the anoles, we discovered who was making all the holes: land crabs! Although most of the crabs spent their time underground during the day and barely ventured beyond the threshold of their burrows in the evening, we ran into one intrepid explorer scavenging one of the restaurant floors for food just before noon. After we started showing some interest in him, he put up his claws and got into a scuttling stand-off with Sarah (she got a few successful pokes on his back without getting pinched) before finally escaping in a bed of vegetation.

Scavenging crab looking for a fight (click to see full-size)

Scavenging crab got away (click to see full-size)

The resort also included a band of fairly scraggly cats running around (probably feral - they were pretty skittish when it came to people) which we gradually spotted over the course of the week. Probably the most exciting on-resort creature, however, was the resident iguana. Despite our wandering through most of the resort that first morning, we did not discover him until the second day after getting a tip from some return guests (a very nice couple who we ran into multiple times).

The iguana starting to escape, but deciding the effort to get off the path was just too much (click to see full-size)

The iguana lived underneath one of the resort villas, and here he was hanging out just outside his hole (click to see full-size)

Here is my favourite photograph of our iguana friend (click to see full-size)

We ended up visiting the iguana every day after we found him. Although I am not sure he appreciated our visits, he was just so interesting that Sarah insisted we go see if he was out having a bask. He never quite warmed up to us the way Sarah thought he should have, but he grudgingly seemed to put up with our gawking.

Sarah sneaking up on our iguana friend (click to see full-size)

Continue Reading: Part II: Beach Critters

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Puzzle Number 12: Code Breakers

In honour of recent contributions in encryption made by researchers at the University of Toronto, I thought I would finally come out with a new puzzle. In this puzzle, I have designed a relatively simple encryption algorithm (one that could easily be implemented either by hand or on a computer) and used it to encode two messages. The messages are both under the category of 'Classic science fiction film and television', but are otherwise unrelated. In order to make the puzzle somewhat more reasonable, I will point that all non-alphanumeric characters (punctuation) have been unchanged and are not involved in the encryption. Also, I only used a single case for the letters (in this case, capital) simply to make my life easier.

Message 1:

Message 2:

Good luck, and remember to send in your answers (or clarifying questions) to

Note: Puzzle solutions found here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Distraction of Cuteness

I thought I would put up a personal note this evening relating one of the massive distractions that has shown up and disrupted my planned work schedule: Sarah and I adopted a kitten over the weekend. Whether or not I would have actually gotten work done in her absence might be debatable, but she is a legitimately adorable distraction.

Her name is Klein, which means both "little" in German (and she is quite little, at least for now!) and is also the surname of the brilliant mathematician Felix Klein (there was already a Felix the Cat, so we figured there should be a Klein the Kitty). We adopted her through a local program called Animal Rescue Krew.

Although hanging out with Klein is wonderful for all the reasons that pets are wonderful, it is also quite exciting to watch her development. She has only been with us since Sunday morning, but already there is a marked improvement in her coordination. When we first brought her home she found the lack of traction on our parquet floor baffling, and slipped into walls and furniture on numerous occasions. This evening, though, she has already adapted and now uses the sliding motion in her pounce. I spent about a half hour dangling a little stuffed mouse in the air and she only snagged my hand instead of the mouse a single time. Her motor learning is remarkably impressive.

Welcome to your new home, kitty.

Monday Morning Quotations

It has been some time since I last started the week with a set of quotations, but it is time to start the proper return to blogging. To that end, here is a set of quotations to start off the week.

"What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?" - Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Danish author, 1885-1962

"Fancy being remembered around the world for the invention of a mouse!" - Walt Disney, American animator and film producer, 1901-66

"Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends."
"I will not go down to posterity talking bad grammar."
"It seems to me a barren thing this Conservatism - an unhappy cross-breed, the mule of politics that engenders nothing."
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - attributed
- Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, British novelist, Tory statesman, and Prime Minister in 1868 and 1874-80, 1804-81

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I swear to think the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Lie detection and eye-witness testimony is a messy business. There are a myriad of issues that can arise, from outright lying to false memories created by after-the-fact suggestions and rationalizations. It is the latter effect that makes the proposed use of fMRI in a civil case so troublesome, because even if fMRI were a perfectly accurate technology for identifying lies and truths (which it is not) there would still be the problem of knowing whether the person telling the truth was telling an objective truth or a falsehood he believed to be true. Although the argument could be made that fMRI would function simply as a method for screening outright liars from sincere witnesses (at which point other evidence must be relied upon to determine the veracity of the sincere witnesses' statements), there remain two major problems:

1.) Outright liars can turn into sincere but misled witnesses given enough time and repetition. Since access to MRI scans is not always available in a timely fashion, this would likely be a major issue (for example, the scan in this case comes four years after the incident).

2.) fMRI scans look so damn impressive that any jury (and even most judges) are likely to give them far more weight than they deserve. Considering the degree to which neuroscience peer reviewers can be dazzled by the colourful pictures (and these are people who spend much of their careers dealing with the nuances and limitations of fMRI) it is hard to expect a judge and jury, no matter how intelligent, to give fMRI evidence the appropriate level of ambivalence.

While I am all for the the use of science and technology to improve the justice system, new techniques must be introduced very carefully. The ease with which people can be dazzled by fancy technical words and graphics must be acknowledged along with just what exactly an fMRI 'truth scan' is showing.

Edit: According to alexismadrigal on Twitter, the use of fMRI has been rejected by the court. I found that out about five minutes after posting this... oh the magic of Twitter.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Not so much updating...

I did promise to get the blog back on its feet this week, but I forgot about a few things. After getting back from vacation I had to clean out my email boxes (which had accumulated a fair bit of correspondence), file my taxes, make sure I was fully registered for school (I start my Masters on Monday! Note the description update), and hang out with my visiting parents (not that spending time with my parents is a bureaucratic chore, but it does take away from the time I spend on the computer). However, at some point the backlog of subjects I meant to but have not yet blogged about should get typed up, so stay tuned.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

I took a bit of a break in putting up quotations recently, so here is a set to tie you over for the next two weeks.

"Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word." - Charles de Gaulle, French soldier and President of France from 1959-69, 1890-1970

"By convention there is colour, by convention sweetness, by convention bitterness, but in reality there are atoms and space." - Democritus, Greek philosopher, c. 460- c.370 BC

"Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!" - John Dennis, English critic, poet, and dramatist, 1657-1734
Said after hearing his new thunder effects used at a performance of Macbeth, following the withdrawal of one of his own plays after only a short run. Thus, we get the phrase "to steal one's thunder".

"The absent are always in the wrong." - Philippe Nericault Destouches, French dramatist, 1680-1754

"Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open." - attributed to James Dewar, Scottish physicist, 1842-1923

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." - attributed to Porfiro Diaz, Mexican revolutionary and President of Mexico from 1877-80 and 1884-1911, 1830-1915

The State of the Blog Address

As most will have noticed, I haven't been very attendant to blogging recently. Things should pick up a bit this week, but then next week I am going on vacation and will only have shoddy internet access at best. Once I get back from that, though, things should really start back up around here (and I'll start posting over at Computing Intelligence again as well).

So, there will be some light posting this week, a week off, and then things should get back to normal (and by normal, I mean the normal of about eight months ago).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Myth of the Bipartisan Initiative

From a Globe and Mail article on Obama's decision to provide steadfast support rather than retreat over the issue of health-care reform:
But the price of victory was steep. His decision to follow Ms. Pelosi’s advice and press on with health-care reform in the face of Republican antipathy effectively killed any hope of negotiating bipartisan compromises on other issues.
Was that ever an actual hope in the first place, however? With the right-wing descending in outright lunacy between vitriolic ignorance, the heckling jeers of "Baby-killer", and "You lie!" reality-denying outbursts, one wonders just how bipartisan compromise could be expected in the first place.

There is more to say on this topic, but the current political discourse in our southern neighbours is highly stressful and disheartening, so I will just leave it there for now.

Monday, March 22, 2010


To all those south of the border, congratulations! This is, of course, only the first step on your long road to social justice (and socialism and fascism...). There is still the matter of actually providing medical care for all citizenry rather than having the IRS enforce the purchase of insurance from a private company, but at least some of the more unscrupulous aspects of the insurance companies (such as not covering previously existing conditions) should now be curtailed. Also, I sincerely hope that the collective hernia of all those horrified tea baggers doesn't overload your fledgling system.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Out sick, so a fun link

I seem to have come down with some sort of unpleasant bug this week, which has resulted in me getting very little accomplished. While I feel sorry for myself and wish my immune system would kick in, though, Sarah has gone ahead and made a fantastic St. Patrick's Day webpage full of mathematically oriented humour. Don't feel too badly if you don't get all the jokes, though - some of them are pretty obscure (especially for non-mathies like me). Even if you only get a few of the jokes, though, it's still well worth having a look at.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

Since I had such a slow week last week, I wanted to make sure I at least started this week off with a proper set of quotations.

"Science offers the best answers to the meaning of life. Science offers the privilege of understanding before you die why you were ever born in the first place." - Richard Dawkins, English biologist, 1941-

"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy." - Christopher Dawson, English historian, 1889-1970

"Television... thrives on unreason, and unreason thrives on television... [Television] strikes at the emotions rather than the intellect." - Robin Day, British broadcaster, 1923-2000

"Politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians." - Charles de Gaulle, French soldier, statesman, and President of France from 1959-69, 1890-1970

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beyond The Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a term bandied about on the internet to describe situations when attempted censorship backfires and ends up amplifying interest in the targeted information or event rather than suppressing it. In what is possibly one of the most dramatic cases of litigious bullying backfiring, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued Simon Singh for libel after he called some of their unsubstantiated claims (such as chiropractic treatment for asthma and colic) 'bogus', and now find themselves in the ignominious and entirely fitting position of having one in four chiropractors under investigation for misleading medical claims (including some of the BCA's own officers). I am greatly impressed with Simon Singh's tenacity and backbone, and I think he and his supporters deserve a great deal of credit for taking a stand for critical journalism.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Big Decisions

Things are probably going to be slow around here this week (and belatedly, last week) as I contemplate my impending return to graduate school - decisions have to be made about where I am going to go and who I am going to work with. Of course, there is the possibility that the stress of decision making will produce a flurry of activity borne from a desperate desire to procrastinate... but that cannot be guaranteed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

Moving into the D's, we have a trio of the Darwin family expounding on science.

"There is a grandeur in this view of life." - Charles Darwin, English naturalist and scientist, 1809-82

"A fool... is a man who never tried an experiment in his life." - Erasmus Darwin, English physician and grandfather of Charles Darwin, 1731-1802

"In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs." - Francis Darwin, English botanist and son of Charles Darwin, 1848-1925

With a nod to Olympic patriotism, here is a Canadian quotation to change things up a bit:

"I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker." - Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, 1913-95

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Solutions to Puzzle Number 11

Well, it has been a week since the latest puzzle came out, so it is time for the solutions. I received puzzle responses from Scott, Robert, and Cornucrapia. I also would like to point out that Sarah impressively got the answer to 4 without any help from Google - who knew a physicist would be so awesome at zoology? Her solutions have not been listed below, however, because she lives with me and I am bad at not giving hints. I have reprinted the clues below with their solutions italicized below (and the media category in parentheses).

1.) At an Unknown Location
Lost (Television)
Solved by Scott and Robert

2.) The Manner in which I Became Acquainted with Your Most Recent Female Progenitor
How I Met Your Mother (Television)
Solved by Scott, Ian, and Robert

3.) The Misplaced Planet
The Lost World (Literature - I believe there is also a television show with the name, but I had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel in mind).
Solved by Scott, Ian, and Robert

4.) Lampyridae
Firefly (Television)
Solved by Scott, Ian, and Robert

5.) Vigorously Cleans
Scrubs (Television)
Solved by Ian and Robert

6.) A Story About Two Population Centres
A Tale of Two Cities (Literature)
Solved by Scott, Ian, and Robert

7.) According to Your Preference
As You Like It (Literature - the obligatory Shakespeare title)
No one sent me a correct solution for this one.

8.) Personal Graphical Representation
Avatar (Movie)
Solved by Scott and Robert

9.) No Rural Region for Elderly Males
No Country for Old Men (Movie)
Solved by Scott, Ian, and Robert

10.) Overcook Announcement
Burn Notice (Television)
Solved by Scott and Robert

Well done to all the puzzle solvers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

It is a slow start to the blogging week, commemorating the long weekend I have had and the lazy Monday I have thusly celebrated.

"An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing." - Quentin Crisp, English writer, 1908-99

"You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." - Mario Cuomo, American Democratic politician, 1932-

"Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity." - Don Cupitt, British theologian, 1934-

And so ends the C's, and here is a sneak preview of the D's:

"How I love a colleague-free day! Then I can really get on with the job." - Hugh Dalton, British Labour politician, 1887-1962

Friday, February 12, 2010

Busy Day

Today is the 201st anniversary of Darwin's birthday, the Winter Olympics are starting, and I've got a whole mess of brains to co-register into a common space (a task which is proving far more difficult than it ought to be, considering how often published neuroimaging results are based on co-registered brains). I had planned to offer some commentary on the Olympics, but I wasn't able to find some of the links I wanted and now I don't think I will have the time to properly formulate my thoughts (perhaps that will come in a few days). I will, however, offer a brief tidbit of information that recently came to my attention concerning the city of Darwin, Australia.

Darwin is a lovely city, albeit suffering from an overabundance of humidity and, occasionally, the dreadful propensity common to many coastal tropical cities for inclement weather. When I visited Darwin as a child, however, I never even questioned how Darwin got its name. As I believe I have mentioned before, I was wildly into dinosaurs as a child and as such had quite a bit of exposure to de-facto acceptance of evolutionary theory. I was vaguely aware of some controversy when the idea was first introduced, but the fact that evolution was obstinately resisted by people living in the modern world had never even crossed my mind. Darwin, therefore, was a name I recognized for eminent scientific achievement and world-wide influence, and thus as fitting a name as any for a city. Apparently, however, Darwin was not actually named after Charles Darwin for his scientific achievements, but rather received its name because one of Darwin's former ship-mates was simply going down a list of old sailing buddies and naming places after each in turn. I guess it is just convenient that one of the most important cities in the Australian north ended up catching the most notable name on the list.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Puzzle Number 11: The Oblique Titles Strike Back

Clearly I didn't plan out my oblique title puzzle names properly, since The Return of the Oblique Titles preceded The Oblique Titles Strike Back. Oh well, hopefully my lapse in foresight will be overlooked by the great fun to be had in decoding the next set of titles. As before, these are a set of titles pulled from movies, television shows, and literary works (and, occasionally, more than one of those categories) and then obfuscated with synonyms and alternative definitions. I think a couple of these are rather challenging, so have fun!

1.) At an Unknown Location

2.) The Manner in which I Became Acquainted with Your Most Recent Female Progenitor

3.) The Misplaced Planet

4.) Lampyridae

5.) Vigorously Cleans

6.) A Story About Two Population Centres

7.) According to Your Preference

8.) Personal Graphical Representation

9.) No Rural Region for Elderly Males

10.) Overcook Announcement

Note: Anyone who gets #4 without looking it up has earned some profound trivial respect.

Note: Solutions can be found here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dirty Chemistry Humour

Similar to my post this morning, here is something that I forgot to put up when it first came to my attention a few days ago. Behold what is probably the most amazing image from an article abstract in years:

When I first saw this, I assumed it was a joke, but it appears to be from a legitimate article. So, to Sergio H. Toma, Miriam Uemi, Sofia Nikolaou, Daniela M. Tomazela, Marcos N. Eberlin, and Henrique E. Toma, I say well done.

Risk Intelligence

I meant to post a link to this last week after PZ Myers mentioned it, but then I wanted to try taking the test first which meant my post got delayed and then forgotten about for a few days. If you haven't already had a look at the Risk Intelligence test, though, I think it is worth going to (as far as internet intelligence tests go). The basic idea of the test is that you don't simply answer every statement with a True/False response, but rather with a percentage - 50% meaning you have no idea and think the statement as equally likely to be true or false, 100% meaning you are certain it is true, and 0% meaning you are certain it is false. There are 10% increments in between for all of those pesky facts that you are pretty sure you've heard somewhere else, but you wouldn't bet anything much of value on.

I scored a 78 - apparently that is a rather good score, but not as good as PZ Myer's 83. It would seem that I lack confidence in my responses (judging by the response curve given at the end). Of course, I don't know how much stock to place in any internet quiz, but I still thought it was an interesting project. Plus, whoever put it on seems to be gathering data, so you might be helping out someone's research by taking the test.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review: The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Over the weekend I finished my latest 'on the bus to work and back' book, which was the classic novel The Sea Wolf written by Jack London. Although probably not as famous or well-known as London's novels that actually involved wolves (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), The Sea Wolf was certainly an interesting piece of literature. If you are interested in late 19th century/early 20th century philosophy, literature, and psychology, then I would recommend reading this book. It is an exciting adventure novel and period piece with all the elegant prose that is so sorely lacking in most modern novels. Although I will try to keep from overly spoiling the novel, my discussion hereafter will contain details that those planning to read the book might not want to hear.

As one might have noticed, I hedged my praise in the introductory paragraph with the catch-all (and therefore not very descriptive or flattering) descriptor 'interesting'. The reason for this is that the book has a somewhat lopsided construction - the first half of the book is excellent and builds up a complex relationship between the narrator, Humphrey van Weyden, and Wolf Larson, the captain of the sealing schooner Ghost. Humphrey is a gentleman scholar and literary critic who was lost at sea following the collision of a ferry boat and steamer in the San Francisco harbour, only to be saved at the last moment by the passing Ghost. Instead of turning around and depositing him back on shore, however, Wolf Larson decides to teach Humphrey to "stand on his own two legs" and forces him to be part of the crew. As an intellectual and an idealist, Humphrey has great difficulty dealing with the world of harshness and brutality that he now finds himself a part of. While much of the opening chapters is taken up by tales of cruelty and violence, Larsen begins to emerge as an enigma to both distract and frighten Humphrey. Although never properly schooled, Larsen is an accomplished autodidact with a personal library pulling from literary analysis and grammar to astronomy, mathematics, and biology. That the captain possesses such a keen intellect but still acts in a monstrous and brutish manner both fascinates and appalls Humphrey, while Humphrey's years of education provide the captain with an intellectual peer for perhaps the first time in his life. The two develop a bizarre camaraderie, verbally sparring about philosophy and the meaning of life while the brutally physical nature of the ship continues around them in excessive violence.

Just as things seem to have reached some sort of uneasy equilibrium, London introduces a few new characters out of the blue in the form of a rescued lifeboat containing a trio of men (all pressed against their will into service by Larson) and a lone woman, Maud Brewster. The inexplicable introduction of Maud is generally greeted as a great failing in the construction of the story, but I disagree that this is the point where the novel goes entirely astray. Being the first and only woman the entire crew is likely to see for months at a time, the fact that Larson refuses to sail out of his way to drop the rescued foursome on shore clearly spells trouble. Maud is a dangerous element being interjected into the relationship of Humphrey and Larson (the only two men aboard the ship who have any clear chance of her affection, in the case of Humphrey, or possession in the case of Larson). She forces their relationship, oppositional though it has ever been, out of the safe realms of mental sparring and verbal debate and back into the savage physical world of the isolated life at sea. The tension seems wound to bursting, and a climactic showdown appears inevitable... except it never happens. The moment it appears that it is actually going to happen, when Larson begins a lustful and physical advance on Maud that looks like it can only end in her rape, and Humphrey abandons all caution and attacks his much more powerful adversary, the tension simply disappears as Larson instead collapses under a sudden and vicious headache.

Although it would seem that perhaps this has only delayed the climax of the novel, instead Maud and Humphrey escape on a lifeboat that night and the story from that point on becomes one of survival in the northern sea and on an isolated northern island. It is this inexplicable twist that, for me, is the great failing of the novel. London spent the first two thirds of his book expounding flowery prose and conducting his words into what ought to be a resounding and terrible crescendo of struggle, action, cunning, and fight, only to transform his book into an oddly restrained love story of almost sickening chastity and propriety. Even when mutiny, rebellion, and foul weather lead the Ghost, carrying Wolf Larson himself, to shipwreck on the same god-forsaken rock that Humphrey and Maud end up having been washed upon by a storm, the philosophical and physical show-down has become spoiled and lop-sided through Larson's new-found infirmity (it would seem he is suffering successive strokes or suffers from some other degenerative neurological disorder). Thus, although it was very nice that Humphrey and Maud managed to repair the masts, sail off, find a steamship to rescue them, and finally get around to pecking each other on the lips, the last third of the novel was so anticlimactic that one hardly cared at that point. I might be, of course, overly harsh in hindsight, but it was rather disappointing.

Now that I have described the plot, however, I would like to give some incidental thoughts. London sets up the philosophical showdown as one of the moral, genteel man of faith (Humphrey) versus the materialistic, amoral, and atheistic brute (Larson). While I recognize the time period in which this was written, it does still somewhat bother me that no distinction was made between Larson's materialism and his sociopathy (for he really was a sociopath of the highest degree). During London's lifetime biological altruism was a seeming enigma, for kin selection, the iterated prisoners' dilemma, and all the other models and explanations explaining why cooperative behaviour really can be better for every individual had yet to be discovered. Despite my understanding, though, of why this particular dichotomy of outlooks was chosen, I really wished I could have interjected at a few points.

The other observation that struck me as a little funny was how comparatively uneasy modern society is with the idea of masculine beauty (at least masculine beauty being recognized by other men). There are several passages in which Humphrey describes the finely crafted lines of Larson's face and body, with one particularly awkward scene (to be fair, I would have found this scene awkward with any gender combination of characters since it strikes me that Humphrey was simply being a creep) involving Humphrey being summoned to the captain's quarters to help tend to his wounds after a fight. Rather than help out, however, Humphrey forgets himself when he is partway through wetting the towel and just stands and stares after Larson strips off his shirt. This is certainly not the first piece of literature I have read in which male characters dwelt at length on the beauty of other male characters (although the titles of those texts now escape me), but it is something that I think is very rare in modern novels (presumably, of course, there is some really smutty fan fiction out there involving Kirk giving moon-eyes at Spock's ears or Ron lovingly following the line of Harry's scar down to gaze soulfully into his soft green eyes, but I am here referring to mainstream writing). I am curious when and how that changed, and more-so why it only seemed to change for men. Women, after all, still seem perfectly comfortable remarking on the beauty of other women.

Now that I have inexplicably brought out a bizarre and only tangentially related observation at the very end of my review, I think I shall follow the form of The Sea Wolf and end here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

I have been taking a break from my start of the week quotations, but this week I am going to try and get back in my proper blogging habit. To that end, here are some quotations to start the week off right:

"the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer." - Charles Caleb Colton, English clergyman and writer, c. 1780 - 1832

"Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out." - Cyril Connolly, English writer, 1903-74

"It's only those who do nothing that make no mistakes..." - Joseph Conrad (Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski), Polish-born English novelist, 1857-1924

"Mankind has probably done more damage to the earth in the 20th century than in all of previous human history." - Jacques Cousteau, French naval officer and underwater explorer, 1910-97

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

American Congressional Reform

As we swing into an American Congressional election year, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps there is a better way to run things. Of course, as a Canadian civilian, my political clout in this matter is absolutely non-existent, but I thought I might field some ideas for the sake of it. There are two problems I would like to address; the most pressing one is that upon election House Representatives and, to a lesser extent, Senators must immediately begin devoting considerable time and resources to the project of re-election rather than focusing on their ostensible job of legislating in the interest of the people they represent. Secondly, election campaigns themselves tend to revolve around non-issues and are primarily decided by monetary input from special-interest lobbies and large corporations.

In order to try and minimize these problems, I thought that perhaps it would make sense to expand the judicial branch of the government in the following manner: create a body of judges and constitutional lawyers (hereafter simply referred to as judges) who are randomly assigned in sets of three or five to each Congressman two months (or some other appropriate time frame) before the election cycle is set to begin. The judges will be responsible for reviewing the Congressman's job performance, specifically with regard to whether the Congressman actually participated in the legislative process and whether or not there was evidence of some sort of justification and thought put into that Congressman's contribution, as well as whether any conflicts of interest from special-interest campaign contributors compromised the Congressman's votes and proposals. If the judges deem the Congressman's to have been adequate with minimal ethical issues, then the Congressman need not run for re-election. If there is a serious lack of engagement on the part of the Congressman or ethical breaches such as voting solely on the basis of campaign contributors' wishes, then the judges can call for an election in that district.

It is important that these judges be randomly assigned, as there should be no opportunity for the Congressman to use his legislative powers to further the agendas of any of the judges (thereby corrupting their votes). Likewise, in the same manner that the judicial branch is expected to function as ethically and impartially as possible, so too must these performance evaluations be done. The enquiries should be open, and any challenges to the impartiality of the judges should be evaluated by a judicial ethics board.

The point of all of this is to make Congressmen more accountable to their actual records in office, while also easing much of the burden of campaigning (thereby leaving them more time and resources to devote to their legislative tasks). When Congressmen are called for re-election, the election campaigns themselves should likewise be more focused on their actual performances since the judges will have performed the detailed scrutiny of their records that no voter could possibly have the time to compile (unless they happen to be independently wealthy, really into politics, and very well connected). Since the evaluations will be conducted in an open manner, any reasons for calling the election will immediately be at the forefront of the campaign and open for debate.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Writer's Block

I have clearly been neglecting this blog too much, since yesterday I was sent a list of quotations. I am not sure there are really any excuses for my lack of recent output, although I'm sure if pressed I could do some rationalizing. More than anything, I think it comes down to an intense case of writer's block. It is not that I don't have things to say, but that I just cannot seem to get them out. I get home from work, eat some dinner, and then I just cannot seem to bring myself to start writing. I am hoping the simple fact of announcing my authorial inadequacies might help loosen up the mental cogs, but if anyone has any other ideas I am open to hearing them. Otherwise, stay tuned for (hopefully timely) updates.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

"That's the fastest time ever run - but it's not as fast as the world record." - David Coleman, British sports commentator, 1926-

"Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding."
"Iago's soliloquy - the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, critic, and philosopher, 1772-1834

"Canada could have enjoyed:
English government,
French culture,
and American know-how.

Instead it ended up with:
English know-how,
French government,
and American culture."
- 'O Canada' by John Robert Colombo, Canadian writer, 1936-