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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Funny Names and TAing Fears

While working on a rather pointless report last night, I discovered that one of the original designers of the laboratory has one of the most amazing names I have ever heard: Dr. Cosimo Commisso. I considered doing a Scientific Appreciation post about him, but decided that was a little unfair since I was only drawn to him as a scientist due to his enjoyable name (that and I couldn't actually find any information about him when doing a quick Google search... Wikipedia only has an article on a Canadian soccer player who is also apparently named Cosimo Commisso and some sort of Italian organized crime fellow). Anyway, while perhaps an inane thought, I really liked his name... it kind of reminded me of some sort of Mensa or IQ test question:

Cosimo Commisso ...
What is the next word in the above pattern?
A.) Commmissso
B.) Coio
C.) Cosssimmmo
D.) Coosimoo

The answer is, of course, C for Cosimo Commisso.

Speaking of funny names, though, many of my friends are TAing courses this year. One such TA had the unenjoyable task of marking a giant stack of papers the other day, but one of the enjoyable outcomes of that task was he discovered on the students in his class had the last name, "McFail". I feel quite badly for that student, because that is a remarkably unfortunate last name, especially since the poor kid apparently did fail one of the tests (although the student did pass the second test with enough of a margin to pass over all, prompting my friend to consider writing "Congratulations, you McPassed!" on the paper, but his better judgement overruled him). It makes me worry, slightly, for when I am a TA and have to do large stacks of marking. Hours of tedious work tend to errode my judgement, as was the case in first year when I made up highly imaginitive names for my computer program variables (before finally getting docked a significant number of 'style' points to bring that practice up short). I just don't want to end up a bitter TA who leaves comments on papers like those I received in one of my third year courses, including (if my memory serves me correctly), "Don't know basic algebra??", "You're very wrong here", and a smiley face next to some lost marks (that one was the most confusing).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Political Science Review: Machiavelli

Out of all of the works we read over the summer, Machiavelli's were my favourite. Not necessarily because I agreed with him, but because he recognized that politics is a dirty business that doesn't necessarily have an absolute answer. While everyone else (aside from Thucydides) seemed to think that he had developed the definitive treatise on the proper manner of government, Machiavelli recognized that perhaps there might be better minds than his who would come to different conclusions, but he nevertheless strove to write texts that would be useful to people living in the real world rather than in some ideal world where men acted as they ought to, and not as they actually do.

We read most of both The Prince and The Discourses. While The Prince seems to be his most famous work (I think that is simply due to the fact that it is the most shocking of the two in its blatant sociopathy), I found The Discourses to be far more insightful and penetrating. It was also where I think Machiavelli found some redemption, as he displayed himself to care about the lives and security of the citizenry and not just the welfare of a ruler. He was one of the first political theorists to recognize that there is a certain degree of wisdom amongst the entire populace of a country, and not just in an aristocratic elite (of course, the suffrage of the masses was something that I have always been raised to see as the correct and best form of governance, and it was an apriori assumption that I believe this course challenged the most for me). The need for a balanced institution was argued for by Machiavelli both eloquently and rationally. He took great pains to back up his claims by using historical precedence as well as a degree of psychological pessimism that was both enlightening and depressing.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. Perhaps I was simply initially set in favour of Machiavelli because of his rejection of the political theories of all those thinkers who we had previously read who I found to be so logically lacking (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero). As promised, do you remember Cicero's statement: "fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man..."? Machiavelli has a direct allusion to that when he states in regards to the qualities a prince must have, "One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves." I do not think that is my entire reason for enjoying Machiavelli's works, though.

I think I will end this review, therefore, in saying that I greatly recommend reading Machiavelli's works. While they are in many ways depressing and cynical, they are realistic and rationally laid out. I think in many ways it is unfair that Machiavelli's name has become associated almost exclusively with negative connotations of underhanded power grabbing and backstabbing, for there is a lot more to his texts than an advocacy for brutality and deceit. Of course, that said, I think I will end with a choice quotation from The Prince that displays the clear sociopathic psychology that so characterizes this particular work.

"Whenever you have to kill someone, make sure you have a suitable excuse and an obvious reason; but, above all else, keep your hands off other people's property; for men are quicker to forget the death of thier father than the loss of their inheritance."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some more quotations

"Better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below." - Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, 1818-81

"On bisexuality: It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." - Woody Allen, American film director, writer, and actor, 1935-

"Gratitude, like love, is never a dependable international emotion." - Joseph Alsop, American journalist, 1910-89

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Project Background Part I: Mirror Neurons

As I mentioned at the beginning of the semester, I am taking a fourth year project course this year. It is a fairly open-ended project, especially since the focus is outside the usual realm of endeavours that my supervisor performs with his research group. However, my supervisor is a great professor in one of the robotic research groups at UTIAS with a great variety of intellectual interests, and hence he was excited about the idea of letting me have a go at coming up with something interesting. It is slightly daunting, since it means a lot of what I am doing I am just kind of muddling through without direction from above, but at the same time it is exciting because it is my question and my problem to search for an answer to.

Anyway, I will get to the actual project in a little while. Rather than have a giant single post which will take ages to write and then likely not be read due to its length, I decided to break it up into some useful background posts first, and then a post on how this background ties into the experimental question I am pursuing. Suffice for now to say that it is centered around developing communication among multiple independent robots (all in simulation, of course, since physical robotic experiments are much more difficult, expensive, and time consuming to perform).

The first part of necessary background knowledge for the project is a thing called mirror neurons. These are a special class of neurons first identified in macaque monkeys by a scientist named Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma. These neurons are special in that they fire (neuroscience shorthand for meaning they change their firing pattern and increase firing frequency) in response not only to an individual performing a specific action, but also for an individual watching another perform that same action. For example, when you watch a game of soccer on television and see the slow motion replay of a brilliantly executed shot on goal, somewhere in your head a set of neurons are playing out the same pattern that they would were you on a field running up to a ball and letting fly your best kick.

The existence of such a system of neurons clearly has important implications for both motor learning as well as social interaction. It helps explain such simple psychological phenomena as why people often have the urge to smile when they see others smile, or feel a rush of testosterone filled manliness when watching a mindless action movie (perhaps that's not an event familiar to everyone, but I know it at least works on a childhood friend of mine who, if given the choice, only watches mindless action films. I don't know if he reads this blog or not, but if he does, he knows who he is). It also has many important implications on learning and social behaviour, although those implications will be discussed in more detail when I talk about the project itself. In the meantime, stay tuned for Part II, which will discuss some different control theory models and their applicability to neuronal systems.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tee Hee

Continuing with the lack of actual substance from the past little while, I thought I'd post a photo I giggled at (and have seen at least two other places on the internet, so if you've seen it before please bear with me).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Lack of Actual Substance Lately

I haven't actually posted much of substance lately (other than donation requests for the CUPC... you should still do that, or even if you don't, consider advertising on your own blog (if you have one) or to your friends to get people to donate). I apologize for that... things have been pretty hectic. It's fall midterm season and this year is the added work of helping organize the CUPC and applying to graduate schools... all of which somehow has to come together along with the normal course work. Anyway, I just wanted to put that out there... maybe after next week things might calm down a bit. This weekend is the subject GREs, the CUPC, and Friday night I have a midterm (who schedules a midterm on a Friday evening from 18:00-20:00?), and Monday I have the general GREs...

Maybe I should start reading the Globe...

While talking to my friend this morning he sent me the this link from the online business section of the Globe and Mail. I really enjoyed the fact that people don't even seem to feel the need to pretend to like George W. Bush anymore, with statements like:

'“We're in this together and we'll come through this together,” the deeply unpopular Mr. Bush said in a brief Rose Garden speech.'

Also, my friend and I both agree that this is a brilliantly hilarious sentence:

'That a lame duck president was moving within a hair of nationalizing banks less than a month before Americans go to the polls underscored the severity of the turmoil.'

Of course, it's not all fun and games. If you read the entire article, it's actually kind of a terrible situation.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The CUPC Needs Help

The Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference (CUPC) is the largest conference in North America organized entirely by undergraduate students and right now the 44th annual CUPC is in trouble. Due to several sources of funding falling through, there is not enough money available to cover the costs of the conference. If the conference cannot find adequate support, this will be the 44th and final CUPC, which will be a tremendous shame for science education. The CUPC brings together students from across Canada and the world studying a vast array of subject areas from mathematical and theoretical physics to medical biophysics to engineering and applied physics. This important event gives many students their first experience with academics outside of the classroom, and helps to cultivate an interest in research and higher study.

The conference is only a few short days away and in desperate need of funds. Please go to the website ( and donate (or click on the link below).

Happy Thanksgiving

It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, so I thought I would do a little research (on Wikipedia, of course) into Thanksgiving. While I encourage everyone to go read about it themselves, if you just want some fun trivia highlights, here they are:

As is fairly common knowledge, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, while in the United States it is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

While the first Thanksgiving celebration is popularly regarded as being put on by the pilgrims at Plymouth, the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration in America actually took place in Florida in 1565, put on by the Spanish.

Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday everywhere in Canada except New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island.

The timing of Thanksgiving in Canada was not fixed to October until 1957. Prior to World War I (starting in 1879), it moved around from year to year and was themed based on something that everyone should be thankful for. After World War I it was observed in whatever week contained November 11 (Armistice Day, later renamed Remembrance Day).

Grenada also celebrates a Thanksgiving Day, but for a completely different reason. Thanksgiving in Grenada is celebrated on October 25th and marks the invasion of the island by a US-led force in 1983 in response to a military coup.

If you are waiting until Monday evening to celebrate your Thanksgiving (or if you are American and won't celebrate until November), now you have some trivia to evoke awe and adulation from your relatives with between bites of turkey and mashed potatoes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Some quotations to end off the week:

(Translated, of course)
"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when you have only one idea." - Alain (Emile-Auguste Chartier), French poet and philosopher, 1868-1951

"Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility. Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill." - Richard Aldington, English poet, novelist, and biographer, 1892-1962

"Science Fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts." - Brian Aldiss, English science fiction writer, 1925-

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Canadian Politics

I was talking to my mom on the phone yesterday and she made a political joke about Stephen Harper that I didn't get without an explanation. While I was very proud of my mother for utilizing political humour, the fact that I missed the joke is a little bit unfortunate and cannot be entirely blamed on my lack of a functioning television with any sort of cable service. After all, I spend an inordinate amount of time trolling the internet and compiling information about American politics (and not just the presidential stuff... I also recognize the names of some of the more prominent members of congress and even some political commentators who have absolutely no power beyond their ability to expound thoughts that people actually pay attention to). Of course, most of my internet time is not expressly political, it is just that time of the four year cycle in which politics intrudes everywhere from science to philosophy to whatever other random stuff I end up reading about. However, I am going off on a tangent. My essential point is that with the Canadian election in less than a week and the American election in about a month, I know vastly more about the state of American politics than I do about Canadian politics.

It pains me to admit it, but I do not think I am going to vote in our election this year. While part of that is apathy and annoyance at the federal government over the fact that, despite requesting voter registration when I filled out my tax form this past spring, I never received my voter registration information (either here in Toronto or at my parents' house in BC which is technically still my permanent address), part of that is also a decision based on my lack of knowledge about the political candidates this year. A portion of my ignorance can be blamed on approaching midterms and assignments (if they really wanted to galvinize young voters, they should have the election in September and not October. I'd be much more willing to take the time to read about politics when midterms aren't fast approaching), but a portion is also the cynical voter apathy that I find very prevalent among young Canadians. It is easy to follow American politics - it is kind of relaxing in a weird, visceral sort of way (like reading trashy fiction). The Republican party is so wildly inappropriate and blatantly ignorant of the constitution that they are horrifyingly fascinating, while even the Democrats (the 'acceptable' party) are really only acceptable because they are 1.) not as crazy as the Republicans and 2.) don't often stand for anything (other than not being as Republican as the Republicans), so cannot really piss anyone off (except for the hardcore Republicans, who are pissed off by them precisely because they aren't properly crazy).

In Canada, there isn't that horrifying state of affairs to make things interesting (which is something I am actually fairly glad about, but at the same time it doesn't keep my eyes glued to the screen in dismay). Anyway, I really should wrap this up, because this whole meandering piece was supposed to eventually work its way around to the question:

Does the American Presidential election end up affecting us to nearly the same degree as our own Canadian federal election, or is that just the complacently ignorant view of someone caught up in the sensationalism of our southern neighbour's political process and simply coasting along with the system without knowing how it actually works?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stress Response - Post Some Quotations!

I am stressed out, so, in an obvious avoidance of dealing with work, I decided it might be nice to post some quotations. So here is this week's instalment:

"Practical politics consists in ignoring facts."
- Henry Brook Adams, American man of letters, 1838-1918

"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty."
"My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (of the vice-presidency)
"Fear is the foundation of most governments."
- John Adams, American statesman and 2nd President of the United States, 1735-1826

"After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for posterity."
- George Ade, American humorist and dramatist, 1866-1944

Monday, October 6, 2008

Kids will be kids...

I really enjoyed this photograph:

I know it is petty and unsophisticated to giggle at a little girl using the middle finger, but oh well, sometimes I'm weak.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ig Nobels

I hope some day to win one of these... or at least get to go to the awards ceremony.

The Middle-Thirds Cantor Set

I am not a mathematician. Sometimes I greatly wish I were, but that is not really the point here. Mathematics can still be really fun to think about even for non-mathies like me. Most people find such a statement a little ludicrous, but I am going to attempt to elucidate its merit with an example: the middle-thirds Cantor set.

The Cantor set is created in the following manner:

Take a number line from 0 to 1:


Remove the middle third:

0_________1/3 ... 2/3_________1

Then do the same thing for the remaining sections:

0___1/9 ... 2/9___1/3 ... 2/3___7/9 ... 8/9___1

And continue in that manner, removing the middle of all sections after each step. After doing this an infinite number of times, all the points that remain will form the Cantor set. What is fascinating about this set is that there is an uncountably infinite number of points remaining in the Cantor set, but at the same time the amount removed, when totaled all together, equals 1.

To get the total amount removed, one simply needs to notice the following:

In the first step, 1/3 is removed. In the next, 2/9. In the third, 4/27. In fact, it is not hard to see that in the ith step, the amount removed is 2i-1/3i. The total amount removed is thus the summation over i from 1 to infinity of 2i-1/3i, which can be rewritten as the summation over i from 0 to infinity of (1/3)(2i/3i), which is equal to (1/3)(1/(1-2/3)) = 1. Thus, the entire line is removed, but at the same time an uncountably infinite number of points remain (which I will endeavour to show next).

To show that an uncountably infinite number of points remain, let me first switch from using a decimal system of numbering to a ternary system. Ternary numbers basically use base 3 instead of base 10. For example, if one takes the number 0.467 (written in normal decimal notation), it could equivalently be written as (4/10) + (6/102) + (7/103). Similarly, a number written in ternary notation as 0.102 would be equivalent to (1/3) + (0/32) + (2/33). When writing numbers from 0 to 1 on the number line with ternary notation, only numerals 0, 1, and 2 are used after the decimal point. Visualizing this geometrically, we can see that for a number 0.x1x2..., if x1 is 0, the number must fall somewhere in the first third of the number line (if it is 1 it falls in the middle third, and if it is 2 it falls in the final third). Similarly, if x2 is 0 it falls in the first third of the subsection denoted by x1, if it is 1 it falls in the middle third, and if it is 2 it falls in the upper third. To give an example, take 0.02...:


The first digit is 0, which means it must fall in the first third of our number line:


The second digit is 2, meaning it must fall within the upper third of this section of the number line:


If I had written more digits to the number, we would be able to further hone in on the region of the number line upon which it exists. However, hopefully the example is enough to demonstrate that, if one recalls that we remove the middle third of all sections of our number line, that any number that contains a 1 at any point will be removed. Thus, the Cantor set is made up of all numbers that can be written as 0.x1x2... where all x's are 0 or 2. Since one can have an infinite number of decimal points, there must necessarily be an infinite number of elements in the Cantor set. However, that does not mean there are an uncountably infinite number of elements. That last bit requires one more quick proof:

Assume that there is a countable number of members of the Cantor set and we write them down in the following manner (note, the order I am writing them in is completely arbitrary, since the only necessary thing is that they can all be written together to form a large matrix):

and so on

Then, form a number in the following manner: take the first element of the first number in our matrix and reverse it (0 becomes 2, 2 becomes 0). That becomes the first element of our new number. The second element is likewise the reverse of the second element of the second number, and so on for every number in our set. We thus have formed a new number that is without 1s (so will be in our set), but which necessarily is a novel value because it has at least one digit that is different from every other number, which thereby contradicts the initial assumption that we could enumerate every member of the Cantor set.

Anyway, I just thought that the Cantor set was very interesting. The seemingly contradictory idea that you could remove chunks of a segment of the number line totaling in length to the entire segment, but still leave behind an uncountably infinite number of points is fun to knock about in ones head. I really should stop procrastinating, though, and get back to my work...

Another Set of Quotations

"Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody." - Franklin P. Adams, American journalist and humorist, 1881-1960.

"Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds." - Henry Brook Adams, American man of letters, 1838-1918.

I'm not quite sure what a 'man of letters' is, but who am I to argue with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Free Will

I have been given a request for a topic. Since that is an exciting occurrence that I don't want to discourage, I figure I should try to attend to the request (it has taken me a long time, but hopefully that won't count against me too greatly). The subject I am going to discuss, therefore, is free will. It is a topic that I am not a great fan of, but it is virtually impossible to study the brain and intelligence in any manner without having the question of free will pop up from time to time and leer at you. The reason I am not a fan of it is that I think it is a subject that has been marred over the centuries by association with a great deal of analysis that is not reality based. From Plato's conception of the soul in three parts to Descarte's conclusion that humans have souls and all other animals are simple automatons, there is a huge amount of crap unloaded by people who are largely unchallenged due to their eminent names. I don't actually have a name (hopefully it is appropriate to insert a yet here), nor have I taken any courses in philosophy of the mind or anything like that. I just thought it was appropriate to point that out.

Free will is one of those loaded subjects that everyone seems to have an opinion about. Most people seem to accept that we do have free will based on the fact that they feel like they have free will. However, without invoking a magical or paranormal exception for the mind (like a soul), it is difficult to reconcile the idea of free will with deterministic physical laws. Some people have tried to squirm their way around this by appealing to the craziness that is quantum mechanics, but those are usually fairly shaky and tenuous attempts. The fundamental problem is that people intuitively think in terms of whole entities - it is hard not to visualize functions of the brain as a tiny homunculus moving switches and making decisions. Of course, no such little fellow has been found, as well as that sort of visualization begs the question of how his brain works.

The way I tend to think of the subject of free will is in the context of a dynamical system. The brain as a network of little computational units is a physical entity and therefore must follow physical laws in the same way that everything else does, so in that way it is as deterministic as anything. However, it also an exceptionally complex system that feeds much of its own output back into itself (sometimes in round-about manners), making the analogy to an iterative mathematical function somewhat appropriate. Though most of the dynamics I have studied is based on simple functions (like the quadratic function), even those very simple functions can exhibit chaotic behaviour that is virtually impossible to predict. When systems become even more complex, you can have a deterministic system that still follows all physical laws, but requires a system at least as complicated as itself to predict the exact outcome. An example of such a system is the weather. We can make probabilistic claims about the future weather, but we cannot completely predict its behaviour (and beyond a week, most predictions about the weather are fairly useless other than the very general ones like "as it gets closer to winter, it is going to get colder"). Similarly, we can make probabilistic predictions about a person's behaviour (most people, when presented with a sudden loud noise, will jump and look about in a startled fashion). As we get to know a person better, we get better at our predictions (when my girlfriend and I are out for a walk and we see a person walking a dog, I can very closely predict the degree to which she will get excited about seeing the dog based on its breed and age (puppies have a clear advantage over older dogs)). Likewise, after living in an area for a while, most people get much better at predicting what the weather is going to be like. Exact prediction, however, is still impossible, especially as one moves farther into the future.

In Hobbes' Leviathan, he spends the opening chapters arguing that the thoughts of man are entirely dependent on his previous experiences. Humans cannot come up with anything entirely novel that is not some sort of derivative of earlier sensory perceptions. Even things like mythological creatures (like centaurs) are still a combination of known things (in this case, a man and a horse). While this is not entirely true (many neurons in your brain generate signals on their own, especially before birth and during infancy), it is quite close to the truth, in that our thoughts are linked to our environment and experiences. Some of those factors are beyond our control and also unpredictable (making the complexity of the system even greater).

Putting all of these points together, my basic conclusion about free will is that it is one of those things that largely depends upon definition, but for all practical purposes it does and ought to be treated like it exists. Saying that an absence of free will makes us deterministic automatons is an oversimplification, because determinism does not mean machine-like lack of behavioural options.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Most Useless Laboratory Report Ever Written

Tonight I am spending a sleep-deprived several hours cobbling together a lab report for my neuroscience laboratory course. I feel the need to vent a little, however, about the course. For one thing, it is very disorganized. I am constantly in a state of confusion as to what is expected of me, and, while I would normally think it was something I was doing wrong, when I talk to other students I discover they are just as bewildered. For just one example of the organizational incompetence, we have to turn assignments in to a website called to check for plagiarism. That is fine, but each course is set up with an ID code and a password to ensure that work you turn in goes to the course it is actually supposed to. However, it took me nearly fifteen minutes to actually register for the course on (and I was one of the fastest, I found out later, only because I thought "Wait, what if someone was a profound idiot?"). You see, the password that was chosen for our lab course consisted of three words (since I'm sure I'm not supposed to broadcast the password across the internet, let's just say the three words were "I hate reports"). On the course website where it tells you how to sign up for, the following instructions were posted:

Password: I Hate Reports
(note: passwords are case and space sensitive!)

Can you guess what the actual password was? ihatereports! After specifically reminding us that passwords were case and space sensitive, you would think they would actually report the password with the correct case/space combination...

Anyway, that isn't what I am really unhappy about with the course. What I am actually rather unhappy about right now is the fact that I am writing a report on data that is not my own. The course organizers decided that the data collected by the class didn't look particularly good, so it wasn't even good enough to have us use the entire class's data instead of our own (which sort of makes sense, since it does give a larger sample size for statistical analysis), but they then also handed us a data set provided by one of the professors. I'm assuming it is something she and her grad students at some point generated, but who knows? Perhaps they simply fudged the numbers and wrote down what ought to have happened. It just doesn't seem right. Yes, I realise that many of the experiments we do in this lab are fiddly and prone to wild error, but that is part of science. Providing students with a prefabricated set of data and asking for a report on that is simply a test in applied statistics (how many different ways can you use the student t-test on this data set?).

Well, I suppose I should stop complaining and get back to the drudgery of analysing my mysterious set of numbers.