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Friday, July 31, 2009

Sage Advice

I'm pretty exhausted today. I was up late last night with the pre-conference dinner, and then I slept poorly with a stomach ache (I assume I ate too much protein and possibly drank too much beer and wine). As a result, I missed what was reputed to be a very good talk this morning by Dr. Leonid Bunimovich. I did see a great talk by Dr. Klaus Pawelzik (which I will try to have a review of in the near future) and part of a talk by Dr. Elisha Moses (unfortunately, my narcolepsy was rearing its ugly head for that talk and I missed a lot of the middle...). Tonight at the conference dinner, however, I got a chance to hear Bunimovich speak again (which is nice, because he is a great speaker). Rather than a scientific talk, however, he was giving a birthday speech for the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization director, Dr. Theo Geisel. As part of his speech, he offered the following advice:
Life is much better after sixty, as you gain a much better perspective on life. You see, when you are a young man in your twenties walking down the street on a lovely day and you see a beautiful girl walking toward you, you enjoy the sight of the beautiful girl. However, when you are a man of sixty walking down the street on a lovely day and you see a beautiful girl and her mother walking toward you, you enjoy the sight of the girl and her mother.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Puzzle Number 8: Return of the Oblique Titles

As they seem to be more popular than my other puzzle forms (and they are easy and fun to think up during brief breaks from work throughout the day), I thought I would put up another set of oblique titles for people to ponder while I get my work and studying done. Here are ten more titles of books, movies, and television shows (with a couple that fall into more than one category) that have been obscured by rewording. Have fun!

1.) Every Canine Travels to Space

2.) Strange Peeper

3.) The Soricidae Domestication

4.) Stopping Device, Inventory, And a Pair of Wooden Containers Giving off Vapour

5.) Ritual Starvation and Feeling Enraged

6.) The Sightless Horologist

7.) Story Breakers

8.) Conflict Cudgel

9.) Maritime Marauders of the West Indies: The Profanity of the Dark Mollusk Bead

10.) The Quiet Equine Speaker

Note: Solutions can be found here.

Mathematica Update

As some will remember, I complained a month ago about several bugs/shortcomings with the technical computing software Mathematica. To my astonishment, I was contacted in very short order by their customer relations and then technical support staff. And that is about where it ended. I got a nice phone call from one of their technical support staff in which I explained in more detail the problems I was having and the specifics on the system I was using, he said he would look into it and contact me the next week, and that was the end of my contact with them. The only contact they have maintained is sending me invitations to online Mathematica training courses, which to me is focusing on entirely the wrong problem (though it is nice of them to offer to help me overcome my Mathematica inexperience, that is not my main problem with the software). Since my research exchange ends next week, it is a little late to get in contact with me to resolve these issues, but on the off chance that someone from Mathematica continues to stalk my blog and truly wants to help people get the best out of their software, I can refer you to other researchers who are here on a more permanent basis with the same or very similar issues.

For the record, I think Mathematica does have some remarkably useful aspects as a piece of software. It has a wide variety of graphical outputs, and supports both symbolic and numerical computation. There are times that I find it obtuse and difficult to fully control, particularly when it comes to keeping track of which variables are instantiated (and to what) in a given kernel. I also recognize that when designing software for a variety of computer configurations and operating systems there are bound to be some bugs that are difficult to diagnose and track down (such as the window resizing bug and stability issues). One change that I think would go a long way to mitigating some of the frustration inherent with Mathematica's use would be to extend the editing environment so it supports auto-saving/document recovery capabilities or at least multiple undo/redo.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number 7

Here are the solutions to Puzzle Number 7: Molecular Tagging. To briefly recap, the object of the puzzle was to determine whether a set of four molecules of type A, which could form a single bond type with up to three other such molecules, was the most effective alphabet for molecular tagging, or whether it was instead a set of three molecules of type B, which could form up to two polar bonds (of opposite polarity) with up to two other B molecules. Scott successfully solved this puzzle, although there were some hiccoughs along the way as he and I hammered out the details of what I was exactly asking for (the hiccoughs in no way reflect badly on Scott's talents as a puzzle solver - they were all due to ambiguities in my puzzle writing). So, congratulations to Scott not only for solving the puzzle, but also for helping me work out improvements in the puzzle presentation.

The first stage in solving this puzzle is to move past the chemical presentation of the problem and recognize that it is really a combinatorics problem with two types of graphs. If each molecule is treated as a node in a larger network of molecules (networks of four nodes for type A and three nodes for type B), then the type A networks are undirected graphs and, due to the polarity of the bonds, type B networks can be viewed as directed graphs.
Type A network with all bonds

Type B network with all bonds

A cursory look at the graphs reveals that each has 64 total configurations (each bond can either be present or not and each graph has 6 bonds, yielding 2^6 = 64 configurations). However, there are two major constraints that are not taken into account by such a cursory examination: the graphs must be connected, and there is no vertex labeling, which means we must also eliminate graphs which are isomorphically the same (which basically means they are equivalent networks through some rotation, either of the whole network or about some of the bonds). Once all unconnected and isomorphically identical networks have been eliminated, we are left with a kind of molecular alphabet for each network type. As Scott pointed out in his solution, selecting between the alphabets requires the additional unstated assumption that the cost of bond activation and subsequent reading of the bond's presence and (if applicable) polarity is the same for each molecule type (an assumption which Scott pointed out was "a laughable claim indeed"... sometimes I think he's a little too clever for his own good). While Scott was correct that such an assumption might be stretching the bounds of what is a reasonable hypothetical problem, for the purposes of this puzzle we can assume those costs are negligibly different and concentrate on which molecular alphabet is capable of encoding more information.

While there may be an elegant way of mathematically determining the number of isomorphically distinct graphs with a set number of nodes, these networks are small enough that it is also possible to do an exhaustive analysis by hand. Doing such an analysis leads to the discovery that, despite an equal number of total graph configurations, the B networks have more than double the number of isomorphically distinct structures (there are six isomorphically distinct connected A networks and thirteen isomorphically distinct connected B networks). Thus, molecule B is the best choice for your company to invest in.
The six isomorphically distinct connected A networks

The 13 isomorphically distinct connected B networks

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Upcoming Conference

I just wanted to put up a quick note: at the end of this week the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) is going to be hosting a symposium entitled Nonlinear Dynamics and its Applications in Science. I will be helping out with the running of the conference as well as attending most of the talks (assuming I'm not crammed in my office furiously writing my research report). I will try to post a summary of the talks I manage to go to, but we will have to see how that goes... the next couple weeks are going to somewhat hectic.

Personal Aside

My imminent departure from Göttingen and return to Toronto suddenly seems much closer this side of the weekend than on Friday... While I have a variety of planned posts, most of them are only partially finished (or only exist right now in my head) and must yield to more pressing concerns such as writing my final research report covering what I've done here at the Max Planck Institute and studying for the exams that are awaiting me in Toronto. While I do find blog maintenance a good tool of procrastination/relaxation between bouts of work, my mental moods do tend to get more unstable and my writing more sporadic when under stress. Thus, I warn you that updates might not flow very smoothly over the next two and a half weeks, but there will likely be the occasional flurry of snippets.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Puzzle Number 7 Errata

As Scott brought to my attention, part of Puzzle 7 was poorly worded. I have corrected it in the actual post, but wanted to post something quickly pointing that out as well.
Each element of an alphabet must be constructed so that all molecules are bound to at least one other molecule in its network, but not all bonds need to be activated on a given molecule, thus allowing distinct and distinguishable bond networks to be constructed.
This is not worded the most clearly... what I was trying to say was that all elements of the alphabet must be connected (in other words, you cannot have two pairs of bound A molecules that are disconnected), but not all bonds within the network need to be activated. Also, your company can distinguish the difference between different bond arrangements and not just the total number of bonds.

Going on a trip

I'm going to Munich this weekend, so I won't get a chance to work on refining my thoughts from the last post or put up the answers to the most recent puzzle (which no one has sent me solutions for yet... get those in soon!) until Monday. Since I seem to have been overly hitting the philosophy and public policy theme recently, I thought I would lighten the mood with a funny video from youtube. I've pointed out the Star Trek: The Next Generation video edits before, and since then quite a few more have been released. I thought the 21st one was particularly well done, so I've embedded it here. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Clarifying Note on Philosophy, Empricism, and Emotion

I had a small number of people lodge objections to my discussion of Timothy Williamson's talk, saying that I neglected a very real portion of human cognitive life - namely our emotional experiences - when I stated that worldly knowledge was rooted in empirical data. To clarify, my essay on Williamson was focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of the field of philosophy as a discipline that seeks to understand the fundamental system underlying the world and our existence therein. I very much recognize that not all thoughts are rational or based on empirical evidence, and, as one of my correspondents pointed out, emotions are facts to the people experiencing them. Not to belabour the point, but not so long ago I brought up the very real existence of irrationally motivated thought when I discussed the irrationality of our individual mental lives in relation to public policy. Thus, all I was trying to say in my post on Timothy Williamson was that, in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, it is necessary to base our reasoning on empirical underpinnings and engage in informed cognitive introspection to try and eliminate subjective or irrational reasoning from muddling our conclusions. While in the essay I was concentrating on the field of philosophy, I think such a process should be applied to most professinal pursuits.

For example, I think it is an important ethical consideration for any political advocate to at least try and ensure his policy is supported by strong reasoning motivated by an empirical basis. While holding fast to an ideological stance is both easier and, unfortunately, usually more popular with voters (people seem to like certainty), it is irresponsible and damaging. A good example of this is with the debate over sexual education. There are numerous studies showing that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy than comprehensive sexual education, yet numerous politicians continue to advocate for abstinence-only education based on the ideological principle that sex outside of marriage is sinful. To the politicians, their feelings that premarital sex is a sin are fact, but it is not fact to everyone in their society, nor is the classification of a behaviour as sinful enough to dissuade everyone (including a good number of politicians) from doing it. Thus, in order to most effectively govern, one must put aside one's own biases and concentrate on the empirical evidence of what is the most effective strategy. This is the same way that effective scientists and philosophers must be willing to put aside their own possibly flawed intuitions in light of new evidence. The danger of any dogmatic ideology (religion is my most common target, but politics is rife with ideologies resistant to change as well) is that it actively resists the adoption of new practices despite new evidence. The power and beauty of science rests with its fundamentally self-correcting philosophy (even if self-correction is not always perfectly performed, complicated as always by the personal facts of the scientists themselves. The best we can do is simply strive to eliminate those tendencies).

Once again, I would like to stress that all of this talk of eliminating responses based on emotion is in the realm of understanding and interacting with the world at large. I am in no way advocating that people should strive to eliminate all emotion, but that they should not be afraid of introspection into why their emotions tell them that the world is a particular way. It is hard work, but I think it is worth the effort.

Also, I would like to point out that I recognize the practical reason why politicians are not so ideal as to be guided solely by the empirical ramifications of their policies. Elected politicians must pragmatically deal with the realities of getting elected, and if the majority of the population (or at least the portion of the population that controls their election funds) wants a politician to enact an ideologically based set of policies, the politician only has so much leeway before being replaced by someone more willing to follow the given ideology. I don't have a solution for getting around this, other than through public discourse and staunch resistance to ideological proponents. I recognize that my voice is a small one, but for now it is all I have. This, too, is hard work, but I think it is also worth the effort.

Note: I don't actually have a reference to any abstinence-only studies on hand. I believe this is fairly close to Robert's field of study, so perhaps he would be kind enough to offer some supporting citations (or tell me I am remembering the conclusions of studies incorrectly).

Edit on 29 July, 2009: Robert and I have continued to discuss this topic through private messages. While I have more to say on the topic, I am putting it to rest for now while I deal with the more pressing matters of report writing and exam preparation.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reference Game Recap

So, it has been a little over a month since I announced a revamping of the Reference Game. Here is the list of new Reference Game post titles:

1.) "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot."

2.) "Bob Loblaw"

3.) "Anonymity is your name"

Send your emails in with the correct description of where the reference is from!

Here, too, is the description of the past references (I should be giving credit to the solvers, but my record-keeping was not great in those early days of the blog and I don't have that information readily available. I apologize to anyone who feels slighted).

1.) "That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth"
This is a line spoken by Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin, from the television show Firefly. He said this line in the episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds" after Simon, the doctor, explained that Mal, the captain, had been knocked unconscious by a poison spread over the lips of a girl he had accidentally been married to, and who turned out to be a sociopathic (but hilarious) villain intent on selling their spaceship.

2.) "Gonna live it up down old South America way"
This is a line spoken by Gob, played by Will Arnett, from the television show Arrested Development. He said this line in the episode "In God We Trust" after discovering a fake set of airline tickets which he assumes mean his brother Michael is fleeing the country (obviously, his geography is a little off). The airline tickets were actually printed out by his niece Maeby, who was trying to get her parent's attention.

3.) "All non-believers stand aside in fear"
This is the first line from the song "The Running Free" by the band Coheed and Cambria. I actually know who successfully identified this reference, actually, because Regan is a giant fan of Coheed and Cambria.

4.) From whence came the word "propulgate"
This post was actually explaining where propulgate came from (as I used it in the title of another post as well), so you can follow the link.

5.) "Kids say the darndest things"
This is the title of an American television show hosted by Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby. I realise now that I actually should have punctuated it differently, as it was a title rather than a quotation.

6.) "It's alive"
This actually references many things, but the phrase was primarily popularized (I believe) by the 1974 horror film with the same name.

7.) "In a garb of black we must pay respect to the colour we're born to mourn"
A line from the song "What's Left of the Flag" by the band Flogging Molly.

8.) "You, sir, are a mouthful"
Also an Arrested Development quotation, this was a line spoken by Tobias, played by David Cross. For reasons that will likely be obvious to some (and will become obvious to others), I will refrain from going into details for this one until the next set of references are explained.

The Bankruptcy of Accommodationism

As I mentioned two weeks ago, a there was a minor maelstrom within the intersection of science and atheist bloggers centered on the debate between Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum on one side and PZ Myers on the other. A great deal was written, said, and commented upon in a startlingly large number of blog posts. While I have some strong thoughts on many aspects of the debate, there is one area in particular that I think was glossed over to the detriment of the debate. Incidentally, the reason I think it was glossed over is because I believe it is a fatal flaw in the accomodationist stance being advanced by Kirshenbaum and Mooney. It was mentioned briefly by their critics, but without any engagement it seemed to be forgotten under the deluge of the rest of the argument.

Essentially, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are arguing that there is no conflict between science and religion, and therefore outspoken atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are damaging the cause of science by alienating people with moderate religious perspectives in the fight against fundamentalist religion (which they do admit conflicts with science). I am going to decline to comment on whether the actions of Dawkins and Myers actually does damage the cause of science as a whole (as I have only anecdotal evidence on the matter, but that would seem to be all Mooney and Kirshenbaum have on the matter as well), and instead focus on the philosophical underpinnings of their position. Mooney tried to defend the accommodationist approach by an appeal to the argument set forth by Eugenie Scott. She tries to empirically justify the compatibility of science and religion by pointing out the existence of a number of religious scientists. Of course, any discussion on this matter inevitably brings up Ken Miller, as he is a distinguished biologist, stalwart critic of intelligent design, and outspoken Catholic. Miller has publicly stated, however, that when religious claims are in direct conflict with science, religion must adapt. Likewise, Mooney and Kirshenbaum quote the Dalai Lama as saying, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." However, in the very same article that they quote the Dalai Lama, they also point out that survey results show that 64% of Americans would hold onto a cherished religious belief that conflicted with science, thereby rejecting or ignoring scientific results. Thus, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's stance basically boils down to the idea that there is no conflict between religion and science as long as they don't make conflicting statements about the world, and, when they do make conflicting claims, you accept the claims of science over religion. Since religions (beyond, as I have mentioned before, deism) have a tendency to make empirical claims, though, you frequently run into trouble, and have to make the choice between science and religion. You redefine your religious beliefs as a metaphor or a nebulous philosophical outlook, or you shift it slightly back into the gaps of our current knowledge, or you reject the science. What Mooney and Kirshenbaum do is focus only on the first group of people and say, "See, there is no conflict between religion and science." Dismissing the 64% of people who are in the last group, though, as a lamentable state of affairs that will only get better by pretending they don't exist is disengenous at best. It is basically advocating for religious belief only of a certain kind (the kind that is mutable and open to changes in scientific knowledge), but doing so an indirect manner. As far as I am aware, they do not once address how holding up the small group of religious people who accept scientific claims over religious ones as examples of how science and religion are without conflict will help reduce the numbers of people who come down on the side of religious claims over scientific ones without still expressly telling people that their religious beliefs are wrong. Thus, Mooney and Kirshenbaum's strategy is stealthier and less confrontational than the "New Atheist" stance, but it is still telling people they are wrong if they reject science for religious reasons. The only difference that I can see is accomodationists are telling people they are wrong in a much more round-about manner that is easier to ignore.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Well, he could have said it...

"There is nothing so simultaneously dull and mentally detrimental as spending your Sunday morning in a church." - George Washington, 1st President of the United States of America.

Haven't heard that quotation before? That's because I just made it up. Chances are, George Washington never said that, but a lack of documented evidence for the attribution of a quotation is apparently no problem for some people. It would seem that a pair of theocratically minded citizens of the United States decided it was perfectly reasonable to make up a sentence that corresponded to their beliefs, and then slap that statement on a billboard and attribute it to George Washington.
Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."

"I don't believe there's a document in Washington's handwriting that has those words in that specific form," Kemple said. "However, if you look at Washington's quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there's no question he could have said those exact words."
I really hope some sort of truth in advertising group gets a hold of this... does anyone know of a good group to contact about this sort of thing? The blatant rewriting of history really irks me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Mooniversary

Forty years ago today, the first manned spacecraft landed on the surface of another astronomical body. It was a testament to science and engineering, to the amazing results which can be achieved by a committed and concerted effort, and to the courage and fortitude of all the pioneers who had risked their lives to further our understanding of aeronautics and space exploration. Even after forty years, the moon landings continue to be a source of profound inspiration. Though I was not alive to witness the event itself, I would like to talk a little bit about the effect of the Apollo 11 mission on my life.

As a child, my first great intellectual love was the dinosaur. It started so early that I do not even know how it started. When I was two years old I informed my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist. Where I aquired that word still baffles my parents, but so it went. For the next eleven years I was sure I was going to devote my life to the study of dinosaurs. I hitched rides whenever I could to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, confounded my mother by selecting the Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs for my bedtime story (and insisting that she pronounce all the dinosaur names correctly), annoyed the school librarians by fact-checking the dinosaur books we had available (the biggest pet peeve I had was illustrations of Tyrannosaurus Rex with three digits on its arms), and collected a massive quantity of toy dinosaurs. As I began to enter my teen years, however, I realised that the prospect of spending weeks at a time wandering around deserts did not particularly appeal to me. I am sure there were other reasons as well, but that is oddly the most salient point that I remember thinking about. Regardless of the reasons, my childhood fixation on becoming a paleontologist was over. I no longer had an answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It was a distressing turn of events.

I briefly fixated on the idea of becoming a professional writer, but there were a number of problems with that (among them the question of whether or not my writing was good enough). What eventually saved me by providing a new focus was the idea of becoming an astronaut. It was not a particularly well thought out plan, but it gave me a goal to strive for. It did not take me long to discover I was both too tall and lacked adequate vision for the job, but the idea of the space program had still taken root in my mind. As I wrestled with the idea of where to go to university and what I should study, I settled on aerospace engineering at the University of Toronto. Even if I couldn't go into space myself, I figured aerospace engineering was my best chance to be working on the projects that sent people there. Of course, as it does if you are doing things right, my undergraduate experience changed many things about me. As I gradually became aware (helped in no small part by my girlfriend), what I delighted in the most about the idea of working at NASA was the joy of discovery. The idea of doing something that has never been done before to fundamentally alter our understanding of the world, the universe, and our place in it. That, to me, is what makes the moon landing so special. It embodies the ideals of science and engineering - of striving to achieve something monumental, beautiful, and unprecedented. While I eventually decided to focus my energies on exploring the underpinnings of intelligence rather than exploring space as I had originally thought I would, that does not diminish the inspirational quality of the moon landing. In the same way that the giant fossil skeletons of the Royal Tyrrell Museum offered a link to the ancient past for my impressionable young mind, the moon landing provided a tangible example of intellectual daring to guide my future aspirations. I hope everyone will take a moment today to think again about all the intellectual effort and all the industry exerted those forty years ago to do the seemingly impossible; to put a man on the moon. When it comes to inspiration, it is hard to get much better than that giant leap.

Note: The image displayed above was downloaded from NASA's image archives.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Puzzle Number 7: Molecular Tagging

Taking a break from the word puzzles, I thought I would offer a more science oriented puzzle. I am not sure if my puzzle scenario is entirely clear, however, so if you have any questions please don't hesitate to send an email or leave a comment.

The Puzzle: You are working for a nanotechnology company on a project that involves suspending small molecules in a solution and subsequent detection as a method of labeling (kind of like a chemical bar-code). Your company has developed two possible compounds to use, and wants you to determine whether one compound is better (although it is possible there is no difference). Compound A is a relatively simple molecule and can be activated to form non-polar bonds with up to three other A molecules. Compound B is slightly more complicated, and has two different types of binding sites that can be activated to form polar bonds with the complementary binding sites on up to two other B molecules. Bonds need to be activated to form, so molecules will not spontaneously bond in solution. Your company can detect the presence and polarity of a bond when analysing the compound in a solution.

Two A molecules bound together.

Two B molecules bound with unequal polar bonds.

Due to the higher complexity of molecule B, it costs the same amount of money to synthesize three B molecules as four A molecules. Your project leader therefore wants you to decide between two different molecular alphabets: either four A molecules with varying intermolecular bonds or three B molecules with varying intermolecular bonds. Each element of an alphabet must be constructed so that all molecules are bound to a single network, but not all bonds need to be activated on a given molecule, thus allowing distinct and distinguishable bond networks to be constructed.

Your task, therefore, is to determine whether networks of four A molecules or three B molecules are more effective at encoding information.

Note: Yes, I made the diagrams in Paint. Yes, they are ugly. Hopefully, though, they get the point across clearly.

Note: Solutions to the puzzle can be found here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Solution to Puzzle Number Six

Here are the solutions to Puzzle Number 6: Star Media Quotations. For those who have forgotten, the puzzle involved a set of ten quotations from various television shows and movies with 'star' in the title. The puzzle was to come up with what show or movie it was from, who said the quotation, to whom, and what the context was. I received partial solutions from Sarah, Robert, and Scott.

1.) "I'll make it up to him next year; I promise."
From Star Wars: A New Hope, this was said by Uncle Owen to Aunt Beru after Uncle Owen tells Luke he has to stick around for the harvest rather than go to the academy.

Sarah and Robert both correctly identified this quotation, although neither managed to name Aunt Beru.

2.) "There are four lights!"
From Star Trek: The Next Generation, this was said by Captain Jean-Luc Picard to his Cardassian torturer. Picard had been captured by the Cardassians after being lured into a trap, and his torturer began to mess with his head by insisting that he was being shown five lights when in fact there were only four. He would then ask Picard how many lights there were, and cause him immense pain if Picard answered "Four". When Picard was finally released, he took a moment to bellow that sentence at his torturer, thereby reminding viewers that Picard is awesome, defiant, and all around the coolest captain.

Sarah, Robert, and Scott all successfully managed to identify this quotation. Oddly enough, though, both Sarah and Robert thought that the Cardassian was demanding he say there were three lights, and Scott couldn't remember the number of lights (the reason I say that was odd is because, to me, the number of lights is a very distinct part of the scenario).

3.) "He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a ground assault."
From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, this is Darth Vader letting General Veers know that he has very little esteem for a certain Admiral Ozzle, and more than likely Admiral Ozzle is about to die a rather unpleasant death by asphyxiation. The Imperial fleet was at that moment preparing to attack the Rebel base in the Hoth System, and they came out of light speed too close to the planet (thus letting the rebels detect them and activate their energy shield).

Sarah had the most complete answer on this one, although she was unable to name General Veers (that, after all, would be an immense display of geekdom). Scott knew it was Vader, but he couldn't place the scene.

4.) "Welcome home, Mr. President."
From Battlestar Galactica, this was said by Chief Tyrol to Gaius Baltar as Tyrol brought Baltar out of a trance by placing a pistol against his head. The remark was followed by Tyrol pistol whipping Baltar into unconsciousness. Baltar had been under the care of the cylons following the retreat from New Caprica, and in this way he was brought into custody by the colonial forces.

No one managed to get this one. I was actually worried it would be too vague, but at the same time I figured any line with "Frak" in it would be too obvious.

5.) "Yub yub."
From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, this was said on a number of occasions by several small furry critters called Ewoks native to the forest moon of Endor. As it was said several times, whom it was being said to and the context have multiple answers. Probably the one that stands out the most is when Leia first meets her Ewok friend and he is beckoning her to follow him back to his home.

Sarah is the only one who got this one (I think a large part of that is due to her predilection for small furry critters, but she is also clearly a competent Star Wars authority as well).

6.) "your basic hedonistic predilection for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection,"
From Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is an excerpt from Lt. Commander Data performing his Ode to Spot. As this was a performance, I was less concerned about who the audience was, although it did include Geordi, Worf, Picard, Riker, Troi, and some unnamed people who suffered from hairstyles transplanted out of the 80s.

Scott did an amazing job on this one, going into remarkable detail on the context and audience. He remembered that Worf, Picard, Riker, and Troi were all there, and that the point of the scene (other than showcasing Data's socially awkward awsomeness) was that Riker was unusually sleepy. He nods off during the poem, Troi pokes him awake, and, thinking the poem is over, he starts clapping in the middle.

7.) "I've lost the fellatus to speak properly."
From Stargate: SG1, this was said by Colonel Jack O'Niell to the other members of his team in the briefing room (and, presumably, to the General, although I cannot remember exactly... nor can I find it on the internet just now).

Sarah and Scott both got this one, although, like me, both of them were not entirely sure who he said it to. Also, both Sarah and Scott specified that it was O'Niell with two l's, cementing their claim to geekdom in the Stargate universe as well.

8.) "sometimes a cake is just a cake."
From Star Trek: The Next Generation, this was said by Counsellor Deanna Troi to Lt. Commander Data as the two of them contemplated cutting into a Data shaped cake that Troi had brought. The reason for the cake was that Data had been experimenting with dreaming and, after having a nightmare that featured Troi's head on a cake shaped like her body that people were eating, Data ended up stabbing her in the shoulder trying to attack an alien he was only vaguely aware of.

Scott and Sarah both got this one.

9.) "Hey, look! I'm an engineer! I can do math!"
From Stargate: Atlantis, this was said by Bill Nye the Science Guy to Dr. Rodney MacKay as Bill Nye and MacKay were trying to come up with a way to shut down an interdimensional rift that was threatening to freeze everyone to death.

No one managed to get this one, which I'm not entirely surprised at... I just thought it was funny that Bill Nye played himself in an episode of Stargate: Atlantis. Plus, as a former engineer-in-training turned scientist, I chuckled at the scientist/engineer squabble over whether engineers could do math.

10.) "I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss!"
From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, this was said by Han Solo to Princess Leia Organa after she told him, "I'd sooner kiss a wookie." This was before the Imperial Forces attacked Hoth when Han was planning to take his leave to pay off Jabba the Hutt, and Leia was mad at him for leaving.

Sarah managed to get this one, while Robert successfully got the characters but wasn't able to place the context.

So, a trio of readers have displayed their science fiction biases (among my own biased selection... you will notice that all Star Wars quotations were from the original movies (as the dialogue from the new movies really isn't much worth quoting) and all the Star Trek quotations were from the Next Generation). As I said when I posted the puzzle, this was done predominantly from my own (possibly flawed) memory, so if you notice any mistakes please let me know and I will post corrections.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I see what you did there.... or not. Actually, I'm terribly confused.

I'm sorry, but even for me there is a limit to which I will take being a dork. While I have been known to make a Harry Potter reference or two, I recognize that there is a time and a place for it. This article scoffs at that place and goes barreling into the realm of the inappropriate. I know it's just a random opinion piece, but did she seriously just advocate taking legal inspiration for how to deal with the complicated issue of childrens' rights to autonomy from Harry Potter? As in Harry Potter, a fictional wizard boy whose entire personality and world outlook is written by an adult? For once, I'm not really sure what to say... I'm not even sure whether it's more appropriate to continue this rant or to laugh.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Anonymity is your name"

When I started this blog over a year ago, I intended to keep it purely anonymous. As it has developed, however, the notion of anonymity has diminished in my mind as something to care about. This is partly motivated by a large portion of my reader base actually knowing me in real life (as well as a few very obvious failures on my part at maintaining anonymity, such as accidentally responding to emails using my name rather than my online label), but it is also partly because I have gotten to the point where I figure if people are doing Google searches for my name anyway, they might as well find this instead of cross country statistics from my junior high days. Plus, for those readers who don't actually know me in person, the following story from this past weekend would not make any sense.

You see, this weekend I took a trip to the German town of Calden. It is not much of a town, with a population of not quite eight thousand, and it was also rather difficult to get there as it is one of the seemingly few places in German not to be situated on a rail line. The reason I wanted to go there, though, is because my name is Calden Wloka. It is an unusual name, chosen by my parents based on the inability of my two year old (at the time of my birth) sister who was unable to say their original choice of Calvin. In my entirely non-objective stance, though, I am rather a fan of my name and prefer it to Calvin (also, being a precocious blonde child named Calden already netted a significant number of references to Calvin and Hobbes... I can only imagine how much more common that would have been had I actually been named Calvin). It is an unusual but not exceedingly difficult name. However, as a child and adolescent, there were times when I lamented it. One thing I always wanted as a little kid was one of those souvenier objects (keychains and the like) that had my name on it. Of course I never actually found one, and that always seemed rather sad for me. When I went through the awkward adolescent experience of moving to a rural town in a foreign country, having not only a Polish last name that had the temerity to follow a 'W' with an 'l' without an intervening vowel, but also an unusual first name meant there was always an awfully unwelcome pause at my name when teachers took attendance. For people with names that they do not have to repeat a few times when they meet someone new (and subsequently just settle for whatever pronunciation seems to suit your new aquaintance best), my giddiness about going to an entire town with my name (replete with signs and business names testifying to that fact) might not make sense. You will just have to take my word, then, that this was an exciting trip for me. Of course, I made the mistake of taking the trip on a Sunday, when everything in Germany seems to be closed, but I still managed to make it there, get plenty of pictures, and then make it back without too much hassle and lack of food (the only thing I found open was an icecream parlour, which wasn't much of a lunch). There were a few awkward moments when I had to explain to people why I was taking pictures of random signs and company names, but on the whole I got through it without too much embarrassment.

Even better than visiting a town with your name, though, is the experience of discovering that your name has an associated coat of arms displayed in stone. Behold, the Calden Coat of Arms:
For a geek, that is an awfully exciting discovery.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Timothy Williamson and the Philosophy of Philosophy

A couple weeks ago, I went to a lecture at the Paulinerkirche given by Professor Timothy Williamson, a philosopher from Oxford, entitled Armchair Knowledge and the Philosophy of Philosophy. The talk was for a general audience, so I am sure Professor Williamson simplified his arguments and glossed over some of the supporting ideas that have helped spur his own, but I still felt somewhat dissatisfied with overall presentation and thrust of his argument.

Professor Williamson started with a description of the general practice of philosophy as an exercise of cogitation one performs from the comfort of an armchair. He then gave a humorous anecdote about an Irish chemist being surprised that English universities regularly also had philosophy departments (the chemist had assumed that Dublin's Trinity College philosophy department continued to exist as a matter of tradition rather than for any sort of pragmatic utility). Thus, Williamson set up the central conflict on which his talk centered as the question of whether or not the criticism of philosophy as antiquated and made obsolete by experimental science was apt, and what that meant for the motivations and practice of philosophy (the philosophy or philosophy, if you will).

The central thrust of Williamson's argument started with the idea that no one is a pure empiricist, as basing all of one's beliefs on direct empirical evidence is impossible. In this, Williamson is certainly correct. Earning one's education is in many ways an exercise in academic trust, although, as was astutely pointed out in the How To Think About Science series, one of the inherent strengths of science rests not so much with its skeptical roots as with its ability to determine who and what to trust. One of the problems I continually run into in subjects outside of the realm of science (and even within some discourse that claims it is scientific - namely certain branches of psychology) is that the established basis for some discourse is not clearly defined or, in some cases, is clearly defined but erroneous (either in light of later discoveries, in which case it may be excusable, or simply because it was assumed true without empirical evidence, in which case it is less excusable). For example, as those who remember my reviews of a selection of historical treatises on political theory may recall, I was thoroughly disappointed with both Plato and Aristotle. I thought Hobbes did a much better job by specifically and carefully defining his terms and assumptions (some might claim that this was a little overly pedantic on his part, making his text more difficult to digest than one which skips over such dry discourse as careful definitions, but it is important nonetheless). Of course, I think Hobbes' analysis still ends up flawed, but it is much easier to follow his reasoning and in that way determine where I disagree thanks to his methodological approach. I seem to be getting away from myself, however. Getting back to Williamson's talk, I grant that calling for a purely empirical framework for knowledge and belief is not feasible. We do choose to trust knowledge disseminated by other sources, but I think the important point here rests on our determination of the trustworthiness of sources. Basing trust on human charisma, while often the most common method, is unfortunately a highly flawed method as it easily leaves one open to being taken advantage of. The system created around unbiased and rigorous verification of knowledge rooted entirely within the natural world that is modern science is the best that I think we can currently hope for in the department of trust.

Continuing from the fact that everyone accepts knowledge not personally empirically derived, Williamson also brings up the fact that even empirical scientists further process empirical results with a set of mental reasoning tools which Williamson classified as akin to imagination. We are mentally capable of trying out ideas and following avenues of thought which have not explicitly been borne out in the real world. At this point, Williamson went on a slightly odd detour by ruminating on the origins of the human capacity for reasoning given our evolutionary past. He justified its survival advantage by giving an example of a person running from a tiger - the person would be able to gage the appropriate response by running through possible future scenarios in their mind (such as hiding behind a rock, climbing a tree, and so on). Of course, it was a simplistic example, so I won't spend too long quibbling with it, but I do want to point out that any person who stopped to think so carefully while being chased by a tiger was going to be caught and eaten. Our capacity for rational thought serves more to modulate what sorts of behaviours we practice to increase our future survival capacity rather than serving us in speedy split-second survival decisions. Ignoring that nuance for the sake of the argument, however (and it does not particularly change the logic to go from reasoning about what sorts of behaviours are best to practice for future enactment and what sorts of behaviours one should execute in the current moment), it is true that we continually process empirical information (often in ways we are not even immediately aware of - see my series on top-down processing in vision).

Essentially, those two points are what led Williamson to his justification for philosophy. Philosophy is therefore, according to my understanding of Williamson, simply engaging our capacity of hypothetical rational thought as a valid exercise in knowledge derivation. I would contend, however, that Williamson's version of philosophy is continuous with and enveloped by the combined fields of mathematics and science, and the areas of philosophy that remain outside of those fields still have no valid justification as sources of worldly knowledge. As I see it, there are two possible ways in which one can engage the rational faculties that Williamson established to exist. One can ruminate on the purely abstract, such as the field of logic. Philosophy of that sort, however, becomes indistinguishable from the field of mathematics. It can be a valuable avenue of thought, but it does not tell us directly about the world. When philosophy moves beyond the abstract and begins to make statements about reality, then I think it should be held to the same empirical accountability as any theoretical science. Philosophers may not be the ones gathering the empirical data, but that does not excuse them from being aware of the implications of that data. Far too often people entirely ignorant of neurophysiology and even behavioural psychology embark on developing vast treatises of the philosophy of the mind. Of course, philosophers often focus on different questions and aspects of a field, and in that I think they make their most valuable contributions (for example, fields like the philosophy of physics or the philosophy of mathematics, which often draw upon the larger philosophical field of epistemology, are exceedingly important for any scientific field and, in the same way that I think philosophers should make an effort to be aware of at least general trends of empirical results, so too should more scientists be aware of the philosophical underpinnings of their fields). Fundamentally, though, all knowledge of our world is rooted in empirical data, and thus I think the philosophy of philosophy leads us to the same place as the philosophy of science and mathematics.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Idle Thoughts Can Have Consequences

I'm sure most of my readers, even if they have been reading this blog since October of last year, have likely forgotten about this post on my rather trivial enjoyment of a couple of names. I certainly had forgotten I had posted it... until I got a comment and an email from Cosimo Commisso himself! Thankfully, Cosimo Commisso seems to have a good sense of humour and rather enjoyed the post. Still, it is a reminder for minor bloggers like myself - you might be used to prattling on about whatever happens to pop into your head, but you never know who might actually decide to have a look at what you have written (even months after the fact). So, Dr. Commisso, thank you for having a sense of humour.

Anyway, I am off on a day trip to a nearby town tomorrow, but be sure to check back early next week. I am putting the finishing touches on a review of a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago by the philosopher Timothy Williamson, so that should be up Monday or Tuesday.

Puzzle Number 6: Star Media Quotations

This is a light-hearted weekend puzzle based on a game my research partner and I played last summer while performing the tedious task of mixing electrode paste for our EEG cap. The game my friend and I played was to take turns saying a line from one of the original Star Wars movies (I limited it to those because I had only seen the new ones once each), and then the other person had to try and name who said it, to whom, and what the context was. For this puzzle, I have extended it to include television shows with star in the name. This should increase the difficulty somewhat, although I have tried to pick at least somewhat memorable lines. So, to be clear, the task for each quotation is to name the movie or television show it is from, who is saying it, to whom it is being said, and the general context of the scene. Occasionally, there is more than one context or listener, but those should hopefully be fairly obvious. Also, I came up with most of these by memory, so if I've made any errors, please be sure to let me know. Also, as usual, partial solutions are also welcome.

1.) "I'll make it up to him next year; I promise."

2.) "There are four lights!"

3.) "He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a ground assault."

4.) "Welcome home, Mr. President."

5.) "Yub yub."

6.) "your basic hedonistic predilection for rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection."

7.) "I've lost the fellatus to speak properly."

8.) "sometimes a cake is just a cake."

9.) "Hey, look! I'm an engineer! I can do math!"

10.) "I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss!"

Note: Solutions can be found here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Surly in the Morning

Some of my readers may notice that my previous post was uncharacteristically petulant and childishly indignant, but I am feeling cantankerous this morning. Part of that is the fact that I have spent long hours over the last two days continuing my duel with Mathematica, while nary a peep has been heard from their staff since last week (despite assurances of a response this week - even if just to say that nothing had yet been done). Of course, they may respond this afternoon, at which point I will have to offer another apology, but my expectations are currently low. Anyway, rest assured that I do not intend to turn this blog into a tirade of self-righteous whining, but sometimes I am irked and it is relaxing to vent.

Chris Mooney and SIWOTI

I am annoyed with Chris Mooney, not, as some might guess, because every time I hear his name a little voice in my head annoyingly pipes up, "...Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs", but rather because I think he is wrong (and, as I have shown in the past, I am rather susceptible to SIWOTI syndrome). Of course, I have not had a chance to read his book, so I will concentrate my criticism on his blog. The situation would seem to go like this: Chris Mooney and his compatriot Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote a book called Unscientific America that had a section highly critical of PZ Myers. PZ Myers read the book, pointed out that he was admittedly biased but would nevertheless give an attempt at a proper review, and then proceeded to write a post of substantial criticism for the book, followed by another one. Chris Mooney responded first by pointing out a small collection of people who liked the book, and then dismissing PZ Myers' review because he was criticized and therefore not objective. Promising more on PZ Myers response soon, he then cherry-picked a (admittedly awful) comment off of Pharyngula and used that to once again dismiss PZ Myers' response.

Although I doubt Chris Mooney will ever read this blog, in the off chance that he does, here is my response:
It is not a valid objection to an argument to say, "I criticized this person, therefore he is not objective, and therefore his criticism of my work is not valid." If I wrote an essay (baseless or not) all about some sort of horrible aspect of your character or work, and you responded to it with a series of both general and specific criticisms of my essay, would you expect me to respond to your list or dismiss it out of hand because you are "not objective"? Remember that you sent your book to PZ Myers for review, and he has offered (granted, publically) a review. To then thumb your nose at his review as not worth responding to in substance because he was criticized in your book (something you presumably were aware of when sending the book to him with an oddly redundant little note asking him to try to suspend judgement until after reading the book) brings up the suspicion that you only sent the book to him so that he would publically criticize it, thereby drumming up potential readers based on the old pearl of wisdom that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If that is the case, then you are, frankly, being an ass. If somehow you actually do ever end up reading this, take offense to my assessment of your motives, and respond, I assure you that I at least will endeavour to respond to your specific points detailing how you are not an ass, rather than dismiss any response as not objective and thus not worthy of my notice.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Bob Loblaw"

As I have been mentioned a few times over the last couple of days, I gave a talk yesterday morning. I mentioned it so often because I was fairly nervous about it, and I was fairly nervous about it not because it was a talk of any great importance, but because I don't have a lot of experience giving technical talks to highly academic people. The talk was titled Phase Response as a Function of Graph Structure, and was essentially an overview of what I have spent my last month doing. The first half of the talk was a mathematical and intuitive development of the concept of phase response, and then the second half was how that related to dynamical networks (primarily of identical weakly coupled oscillators). Robert left a comment to my post about being nervous, pointing out no one was likely to remember my talk in ten years. As this was an intra-departmental talk to an audience of about ten people, I would be surprised if memories lasted even half that long. What was nice, though, was that I received several compliments on the talk, including from the head of the research group. What was less nice was the Ph.D. student I've been working with and I discovered a handful of minor mistakes on the slides the morning of the talk during my last practice run-through, and my audience managed to spot all but one of them (at least it means they were paying attention). I guess that is what happens when you give a talk to an audience primarily composed of mathematicians and physicists... they actually pay attention to the equations you have on your slides!

I will now try to give a brief overview of what the subject Phase Response as a Function of Graph Structure actually means. If you take an arbitrary dynamical system (which is essentially a fancy word for saying a system that evolves through time) that has a stable periodic limit cycle (which means the system has a state that repeats after a period of time T, and small perturbations to that system will disappear over time and it will settle back to the periodic motion), then you can define something called the phase of the system as how far along in the period the system is. Phase is usually parameterized to be between either 0 and 1 or 0 and 2π by convention. I find the 0 and 1 parameterization more intuitive (it essentially translates to what percentage of the period has already passed, with 0.5 being 50% of the way through from whatever point is defined as the period beginning). The idea of phase can then be generalized to the basin of attraction around the limit cycle (which is essentially the region of your dynamical system's feature space which eventually settles onto your limit cycle), such that a point on the limit cycle and point within the basin of attraction are considered to have the same phase if they evolve through time to the same point on the limit cycle. A rough picture of this idea is shown in Figure 1. This leads to the idea of an isochron (the dotted lines in Figure 1), which is the collection of points in your feature space that all share the same phase.

Figure 1: A point on the limit cycle and off that have the same phase. The mustard yellow curve represents the time evolution of a point off the limit cycle as the moves back to the cycle, while the green curve represents the evolution of a point that starts on the limit cycle. When the mustard yellow curve rejoins the limit cycle, it does so at the same point that the green curve reaches in an equivalent length of time. The two starting points are therefore said to have the same phase.

With phase now defined both on and off the limit cycle, one is able to develop the idea of phase response. If a perturbation (essentially, some sort of externally applied influence that drives the system away from its normal time evolution) is applied to a dynamical system with a stable limit cycle, the phase of the unperturbed system and the perturbed system are both defined (assuming the perturbation is small enough that your system remains within the basin of attraction of the limit cycle), and the change in phase resulting from the perturbation is the phase response of the system (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: The phase response (Δφ, where φ is the phase of the system) to a perturbation ε.

Until now, I have left the discussion fairly open-ended about the properties of the dynamical system under analysis. The idea of phase response is usually applied to the analysis of single oscillators. An example of such a system would be the Hodgkin-Huxley model of a neuron exposed to a constant ambient current such that it is tonically firing at a set period. The feature space of the system is then the voltage across the membrane, the applied current, and the ionic concentrations (both intracellularly and extracellularly) of several key ions (such as potassium and sodium). What we have been investigating is the phase response of networks of oscillators coupled together, at which point the coupling relationship between oscillators becomes part of your feature space. A perturbation applied to one element of the network might ellicit a different phase response than a perturbation applied to another element.

On the surface, one might wonder what the point of all of this is. The thing is, coupled dynamical systems are found in all sorts of areas. Networks of neurons are an obvious example, but gene expression is another area of biological research where there are large systems of interacting biochemical pathways. There are examples outside of biology as well, but I am having a hard time thinking of one off the top of my head since my group tends to focus on the biological tie-in of our research. Therefore, having a better understanding of the phase response of networks will lead to a better understanding of these exceedingly complex systems.

Note: Figure 2 was pulled from Christoph Kirst's diploma thesis, Dynamics of Pulse-Coupled Neuronal Oscillators with Partial Reset. Figure 1 was a (rather shoddy) edit of Figure 2 that I made over the weekend using GIMP.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Talk Stress

Tomorrow at 10:00 I have to give a talk on what I have done since I got here. A month is not a great deal of time to have actually achieved anything, so the talk is mostly an overview of the mathematics behind the analysis of oscillatory networks that we are doing. Since I have had to learn a lot of the math in the past few weeks, I'm not feeling particularly confident in my full ability to do the topic justice (especially since the Ph.D. student who I am working under and who has spent several years developing an intuitive grasp of the subject is also going to be in the audience, likely cringing at every other sentence as I subtly butcher the actual explanations). The presentation still has a fair bit of work to go, but I thought some pictures of small furry critters might help set my mind at ease. In case any of my readers happen to be stressed as well, I thought I would share the pictures with you.

A baby and adult capybara - the largest extant rodent species.

A pika - a small lagomorph (not a rodent) native mostly to mountains in North America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

A cheetah cub. Cheetahs are unfortunately suffering from a dangerous lack of genetic diversity due to a population bottleneck from about ten thousand years ago. This means their population is drastically inbred, resulting in low fertility levels and other health problems that threaten their survival.

So, there you have it. Three adorable pictures with a little bit of trivia to go along with them. Now it's time to go back to preparing my presentation...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Tea, Earl Grey, Hot."

One of the things that has always fascinated me is the idea of acquired tastes. As a child, whenever someone told me a food was an acquired taste, I wondered just how people ever got started eating it in the first place. For example, I found tea and coffee to be absolutely vile drinks (coffee more so than tea... in fact, I still dislike coffee greatly. Although some predicted that I would never make it through my undergraduate education without learning to drink coffee, it would seem I have proven them wrong). They are also fairly non-trivial to prepare, so one would wonder how and why someone would go through all the effort of preparing coffee grounds or crushed tea leaves, boiling water, and steeping a drink that, on first taste, prompted a scrunched face of disgust. Of course, not everyone seems to have my initial dislike for the drinks, so perhaps the few people who enjoy such bitter draughts convinced everyone else to give it a try.

Alcoholic drinks are another confusing item, as they too are quite non-trivial to prepare. While one might suppose that there was an ancient group of people with a particularly good crop of grapes one year. They juiced some of the excess fruits and stored them in casks, but were not able to consume the juice fast enough to prevent it from starting to go off. A few might have braved the possible stomach ache and consumed the spoiled juice, only to discover a pleasant buzzing which prompted further experimentation in reproduction. Of course, this sort of story might sound plausible, but it is the sort of "just-so" story which plagues fields like evolutionary psychology. With only the vaguest of evidence to support it (namely, wine exists now, so it was discovered at some point), the story could just as easily have been some ancient teenager stole his neighbour's jar of juice, buried it in a field for a few weeks, and then forced his little brother to drink it just to see what would happen.

The reason I have been ruminating on the subject of acquired tastes, though, is I always find it fascinating when traveling to discover the regional acquired tastes, both of the place one has traveled to and of one's home region. For example, vegemite is a vile spread for toast and bread in Australia. Australians, however, do not seem to share my abhorrence for its flavour (judging by the fact that it is still manufactured, sold, and consumed there). While I have yet to discover any popular German cuisines that turn my stomach, I have been informed by several of my European peers who have spent a fair bit of time studying in North America that root beer is a horrible drink, and they don't understand how North Americans can drink the stuff. Oddly, peanut butter is also one of those things which is often raised as a peculiar North American food, although the reactions to it tend to be more divided with some deciding it is unpleasant and others wishing it was more common here.

So, there was not a lot of point to this post. I do not have any answers for why certain flavours are popular in certain regions of the world, nor how people ever got to manufacturing and consuming some of our stranger and more acquired tastes. Idle conjecture can be fun, though.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Um... What?

My girlfriend sent me this story about a man offering loans in exchange for one's soul as collateral. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it... It's like the man is conning himself. Usually certain religious leaders and entrepreneurs make me wildly upset by ripping off people by taking advantage of their irrational beliefs (like those companies that allow you to insure your stuff for after the fall), but this man seems to be actively taking advantage of himself. I just don't get it...

Happy Fourth of July!

For my readers from south of the border, happy Independence Day. While I might ordinarily share in the Canadian pass-time of offering extensive unsolicited advice on the way your country ought to function and behave, I do admit that there are brief moments of time in the deepest, most hidden recesses of my heart and mind that I am moved by a feeling akin to patriotic pride by the history and symbols of our southern neighbours. In honour of all the good and positive aspects that the United States has which it tends to sound like I ignore for 364 days of the year, I would like to wish you all a happy Fourth of July.

Note: The picture shown here is copyright of
Edit: It seems I somehow forgot to put a title on this post... that has now been rectified.

Metamorphosis into a Weekend Warrior

This getting old business is no fun at all. As I enter my mid-twenties, I am already starting to discover things that are harder now than they used to be. One of the most blatant things is my inability to stay in relatively decent shape with a minimum of effort. Even just a few years ago I was able to play a pick-up game of basketball or soccer, run around for an hour chasing a ball, and wake up the next day with but minor twinges. This week I played a few games of four-on-four soccer Thursday evening and I'm still limping around like my hamstrings are on fire.

The soccer game itself was quite fun, however. At the beginning of every month, the Ph.D. students at the Institute have an evening get-together of some sort. This usually involves going to a nearby bar, but the fellow who organized it this month decided a barbecue and soccer tournament sounded like more fun. I was a little nervous about making an ass of myself, as I am well aware that Canadians as a rule are somewhat lacking in the soccer talent department. While I have played the occasional game with my Argentinian brother-in-law and his family, those games have served more as a demonstration of my Canadian-ness rather than as training for making me ready for soccer games on the world-stage. Luckily, however, this was not soccer on the world-stage, but was rather friendly soccer with a band of easy-going academics. Although I was certainly still no star, I succeeded in not embarrassing my country too badly. I even managed to score an average of one goal per game, which I was quite impressed with. Of course, we were playing games of four-on-four on a shortened field with no goalies, so the number of goals scored each game was high enough that 1/game was not exactly a record to write home about.

In my own typical fashion, I also somehow managed to discover some of the most vicious biting insects of the area that evening. I did not see it happen, so I still don't know what exactly bit me, but when I got home I discovered two relatively large swollen patches, one on my knee and the other on the inside of my upper arm. In the centre of each patch was a dark red dot where the skin had clearly been removed, making the bites not only itchy but also quite painful. Today and yesterday the bites have somehow spread out into mottled purpley-red blotches similar to the bite patches I got in Peru. I asked the Ph.D. student I am working with about them, and he seemed rather confused. He was not aware there were critters who left such bites in Göttingen, so it might just be some weird allergy I apparently have to insect bites outside of North America.

Anyway, I know this has been mostly trivial personal stuff, but it's the weekend. My legs are viciously sore, and I'm nervous about the talk I have to give on Tuesday. Writing about trivial personal stuff is somewhat relaxing.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Good Kind of Stalking

Earlier this week, in a fit of annoyed frustration and general contrariness, I made some complaints about the software Mathematica (first in one post in which I complained about instability, lack of autosave/undo features, and window resizing, then in a second post in which I brought up the incompatibility with 'Num-Lock'). To my profound surprise, I got an email from a fellow at Wolfram Research that night assuring me that these are not typical aspects of Mathematica, and that he would like to see if he could help me. A few more emails exchanged resulted in me getting in touch with one of the technical staff, and so part of today will be involved with figuring out why we are having issues. So, when I made the complaint as part of my ranting that Mathematica lacked professional polish, I may have been a little hasty. A response time of less than a day to a complaint not even directed their way, but rather just cast out from a minor blog into the sea of cyberspace, is quite impressive customer service.

Of course, no one with any affiliation with UTORwebmail, the other software I maligned as an afterthought to my first ranting post, has contacted me to explain their bizarre login/logout security choices. I guess not everyone can be as professionally aware as the Wolfram researchers.

Note: I have posted an update on the situation here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day

Since I am still in Deutschland, it would seem that I will be be missing the festivities and fireworks. Still, I think it is worth acknowledging the day that Queen Victoria (more likely the parliament, actually, but it sounds more romantic to say the monarch) changed the status of Canada from colony to dominion. Not that such a reclassification really changed much, as, like much Canadian history, our emancipation from Britain came gradually and with little fanfare. For example, it was not until after World War I that Canada gained independence in determining its foreign policy. So, while the history of my country's independence may be a little more complicated than simply the declaration on July 1st, 1867, that created, "one Dominion under the name of Canada", the day does serve as a suitable symbol. The fact that it lands in the middle of summer also helps to ensure it is a nice day to run around outside waving flags, painting maple leaves on one's skin, and doing all the other garishly patriotic things that sensible Canadians refrain from doing the rest of the year (except for wearing flags on our backpacks - that is a year-round thing).

So, without further rambling, Happy Canada Day!

Note: The lovely image of a Maple Leaf shown here is copyright of Ron Day.