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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.