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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Disconcerting Development

For some reason, the default dictionary for the spell-check available in both Open Office and Microsoft Word does not recognize 'neuroscience' as a word. I normally just ignore my spell-checker when it highlights words that I know to be actual words (like my name), but tonight, for the first time, while spell-checking a document I glanced at the suggested words box before I hit 'ignore'. To my horror, the first suggested word as a replacement for 'neuroscience' is 'pseudoscience'. Who knew that Open Office's spell-checking program knew how to insult me so effectively?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Picking on Mr. Crusher

I have mentioned the short Star Trek: The Next Generation videos that are available on youtube as new stories cobbled together by clever editing before, and whenever one that I think was particularly well done comes along I point it out. Well, since that time many more have been released, and another one has struck my fancy. I thought the random pieces of storyline were knit together rather well, and it succeeded without even having to resort to awkward sexual tension between the crew members.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday Midday Quotations

"There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light,
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night."
- Arthur Buller, British botanist and mycologist, 1874-1944

"Thanks to God, I am still an atheist." - Luis Buñuel, Spanish film directory, 1900-83

"There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue." - Edmund Burke, Irish-born Whig politician, 1729-97

Book Review: Darkness at Noon

I actually finished the book Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, about a week ago on my flight back to Toronto, but I put off writing this review until after I had written the first part on computability (and that clearly took me too long...). The author seems to have been quite influential and prestigious, but I will admit I had never actually heard of either him or this book before having it recommended (and handed) to me.

I think a little bit of context for the author's life is useful in understanding this book, so I will start with that. Koestler was born in Hungary in 1905, but was primarily educated in Austria. He joined the Communist Party of Germany, but grew disillusioned and left after a few years. He led a fairly tumultuous life, at various times serving as a war correspondent and communist agent in France and Spain, being imprisoned and sentenced to death in Spain (although he was exchanged for another prisoner before his sentence was carried out), and ultimately fleeing to Britain to avoid the Nazis. Interestingly, Darkness at Noon was originally published in German, but the original German text has been lost and all modern German versions have been back-translated from English.

The story itself tells the tale of a Bolshevik named Rubashov. Formerly a prominent member of the Russian revolution and communist party, the book details Rubashov's arrest and imprisonment awaiting execution by the Soviet state under Stalin's rule. The story primarily unfolds as a combination of dialogue between Rubashov and his interrogators, and as internal monologues, memories, and diary snippets from Rubashov. I found that the style was at first rather confusing, particularly because I was not sure if the story was meant to be based in an actual contemporary (to the time of writing) political setting, or if it was conjecture along the lines of 1984 (my confusion stemmed from the description of the aggressive German crosses worn by the officers who arrested Rubashov the first time in a flashback. I later realised that the German arrest was while he was serving as a communist agent in Germany, and the book was set in an actual historical setting rather than some fictitious communist state in Germany). Once I got used to the style, though, I found the novel to be quite engaging. It had quite a bit of the depressive charm of Eastern European literature, and it was interesting on both a psychological level as well as a political thought level.

While the book has been described as anti-communist, I do not think that is necessarily an accurate description. The story is quite anti-Soviet, but that is not the same thing. There were a few times when I wished I could leap into the story to correct what I saw as failures in the characters' arguments, but even when the arguments were bad it was a fascinating historical account of the thought processes followed by the Bolshevik movement (and I thus do not rule out the possibility that the flawed arguments were purposeful). I do not wish to go into any details, however, as I do not want to give anything away.

In summary, the book was quite fascinating. While I found the style awkward at first, those feelings quickly faded to the background. I think that if a reader did not have at least a cursory background in Russian (and general European) history from the early 1900s the novel might be slightly difficult to follow, but that shouldn't scare anyone off as I was able to follow along with just my high school knowledge. If you are interested in political thought and recent history, I recommend picking up a copy of Darkness at Noon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I am torn

An article I read in the Globe and Mail has me conflicted. I thought, therefore, that it might be a worthwhile weekend diversion to open the article up to my readership for discussion. Essentially, the article brings to light the fact that the Canadian government provides security for both former Presidents Clinton and Bush when they come to Canada on speech circuits, but the price of security for the two men varies massively (~$12,000 for Clinton and more than $100,000 for Bush). The reason I do not trust my own opinions on this are my massive disapproval of Bush, which makes me wildly indignant that my government is expected to provide such expensive security for a man who I would never want to hear speak. I find it particularly repugnant that he is earning massive amounts of money himself (as are, presumably, the people organizing the venues) without any sort of requirement to help cover the cost of his security. However, I also recognize that in Canada order is kept by our police force, and the high price of Bush's security is due to the heightened security costs of the large protests Bush garners. This just seems backward, though... the protesters do nothing to inhibit Bush's Canadian speech circuit, and instead increase the burden on the Canadian government.

Like I said, I am not really sure what to think about this, so I welcome any input.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The History of Computability

As part of my forays into the subjects of philosophy and empiricism, one of the things I advocated for is the idea that scientists should be more aware of the philosophical underpinnings of their respective fields. I have been meaning to do a series on the philosophical underpinnings of my own chosen field (namely, how intelligence works) for quite some time now, but in order to do that I need to lay some groundwork. One of the most important pairs of concepts for the theoretical pursuit of understanding how intelligence works is also the fundamental pair of concepts underlying computer science: computability and complexity. As I had mentioned in my Scientist Appreciation of Alan Turing, computer science is a relatively young discipline with much of its fundamental work done by Alan Turing and Alonzo Church (who I never did get around to doing a Scientist Appreciation about). These days people take the idea of a programmable electronic device for granted, but it was remarkably recent that a formal architecture to describe and discuss such devices was actually rigorously developed.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, however (and electronic computers are quite far ahead), I will begin at the turn of the 20th century. A remarkably brilliant man named David Hilbert compiled a list of 23 unsolved mathematical problems in 1900. This list in many ways served as a sketched outline to guide theoretical research for the coming century, with a number of the problems remaining unsolved even today. Although many of Hilbert’s problems are fascinating in their own right (I’m sure all of them probably are, but I don’t actually understand a few of them), the one which is relevant to the discussion at hand is his tenth problem. Hilbert's tenth problem is ordinarily written as something along the lines of
Find an algorithm to determine if a given Diophantine equation with integer coefficients has an integer solution.
However, this is not actually how Hilbert posed the problem, as the word algorithm had yet to enter useage (Webster's New World Dictionary, for example, did not include the word 'algorithm' prior to 1957). The actual original statement of the problem was something along the lines of:
Given a Diophantine equation with any number of unknown quantities and with rational integral numerical coefficients: To devise a process according to which it can be determined in a finite number of operations whether the equation is solvable in rational integers.
Before a number of my readers balk at the term 'Diophantine equation', it simply means an indeterminate polynomial equation (for example, x + y = 5 is an Diophantine equation, since there is no single assignment of values that satisfies the equation. Rather, the solution is the line x = 5 - y).

As I mentioned, at the time that Hilbert originally posed this problem the term algorithm was not in use. An algorithm is essentially a process or sequence of instructions, but with a number of specific properties (namely, that it has a finite sequence of instructions and is well defined (at no point does it reach a state in execution in which it is not clear what it is to do next)). Informally, algorithms have been around for centuries. One of the most famous (and one that is likely familiar to any computer science student) is Euclid's algorithm for determining the greatest common divisor of two numbers. However, prior to Hilbert's problems, very few people had ever attempted to analyse the notion of abstract processes. Mathematicians and scientists developed and utilized specific mathematical methods for specific problems, but, for the most part, each one was developed and investigated within the context of its application alone. What changed all of this was that people began to question whether or not there actually existed the process that Hilbert's tenth problem was asking for. The fact that some problems could be unsolvable was a fairly ground-breaking notion, and provided the impetus to explore the general notion of solvable methods.

Although the actual proof that no such algorithm exists which can solve Hilbert's tenth problem did not come about until 1970 with the publication of Yuri Matiyasevich's doctoral dissertation, the inkling that it might be unsolvable began much earlier, particularly from the field of logic with Kurt Gödel's famous incompleteness theorems. Motivated by the growing question of solvability and mathematical truth, in 1928 Hilbert proposed another, more general algorithmic challenge called the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem). The Entscheidungsproblem takes a formal language and a mathematical statement in that language as input and outputs whether or not it is true. The problem piqued the interest of both Church and Turing, motivating the two of them to independently formalize the concept of calculability in the mid 1930s. Both Church and Turing independently showed that the Entscheidungsproblem could not be solved. The models of computation that Church and Turing each used (λ-calculus and Turing machines, respectively) were subsequently shown to be equivalent, and thus the field of computability was formed.

I will discuss the actual material of computability in the next post on this topic, but I thought an historical overview might help illustrate the motivations behind the field as well as provide a somewhat less painful introduction for those not familiar with the terms. I am not sure I was entirely successful with the latter aim, but feel free to leave any comments or send me questions via email for parts that are not clear.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reference Game Resurgence

I realised that lately I have been rather remiss with the reference game. Since my blogging output has been much diminished for the past month, there is only one new reference:

1.) "What's in a name?"

However, I should also be posting the results from the previous batch. I apologize for anyone whose answers I missed, but I was not all that organized this time around. The answers I did find were from Scott, Robert, and Sarah.

1.) "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot."
This one was known by all who sent in answers, with answers varying from Scott's very thorough:
Picard to pretty much every replicator on TNG, and also Data's service woman on Earth in the final episode. "Well of course it's hot!"
to Sarah and Robert's pithy:
Obviously, that's Jean Luc Picard.

2.) "Bob Loblaw"
Scott knew that this one was the name of one of the lawyers on the television show Arrested Development and that Lindsay Bluth (played by Portia de Rossi) tried to have an affair with him. Since Arrested Development is a favourite show of Sarah's and mine, she sent in (somewhat facetiously) probably the most complete reference answer I have ever received:
I just thought I'd point out that the "Bob Loblaw" reference is from Arrested Development. See, the humour of Bob Loblaw, was not just that it sounded like Blah Blah Blah, but that Bob Loblaw is played by Scott Baio, who was Chachi on Happy Days. Chachi was brought in to fill the gap that Henry Winkler's character, Fonzie, left in viewer demographics as he aged. Henry Winkler played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development, the Bluth family's original lawyer, who was replaced with Bob Loblaw, because, paraphrasing his own words, 'it was not the first time he had been brought in to replace Barry Zuckerkorn and that Bob Loblaw could do everything that Barry Zuckerkorn could for the Bluth family, plus skew younger, with juries and such'. The humour came from the situation mimicking the situation on Happy Days, where Chachi was introduced to replace Fonzie and appeal more to younger viewers.

3.) "Anonymity is your name"
Sarah is the only one who got this one, knowing it was from Men in Black and said by:
That small old wrinkly guy (His name was actually Zed, played by Rip Torn).
Robert reported that he could hear the voice going over and over in his head, but he just couldn't place it and had to use Google. I applaud his honesty (I have to do that all the time for references... I don't think I'd be very good at my own game).

Now, as promised, I will also give the answer for the 8th reference from the previous set:
8.) "You, sir, are a mouthful"
This was said by the character Tobias Funke (played by David Cross) also in the show Arrested Development. The reason I did not give the full answer in the last set is that he was saying this to Bob Loblaw after Bob told him about posting something to his Law Blog (Bob Loblaw's Law Blog).

I just want to apologize once more for my slow return... it is surprising the number of errands that have to get done despite my lack of classes or a job (of course, many of those errands include trying to find a job, but there are others too like finding a new doctor now that I am no longer eligible to be part of the University Health Network).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Return to Toronto Quotations

I arrived back in Toronto last night, so now both my blog and physical vacations are over. It is time to get back to being productive, and part of that includes posts that are about science and mathematics. There will, of course, be a few more residual vacation-style posts, and I also plan on a couple more posts to showcase some more of my photography, but for the most part those should be interspersed with the rest of the posts rather than making up the bulk of my discourse.

Without further ado, here are the post-vacation quotations:

"Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." - attributed to Lord Brougham*, Scottish lawyer and politician, 1778-1868

"The liberals can understand everything but people who don't understand them." - Lenny Bruce, American comedian, 1925-66

"An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support." - John Buchan, Scottish novelist and Governor-General of Canada, 1875-1940

"Learn to write well, or not to write at all." - John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, 1648-1721

*For those pedantic souls keeping track, I recognize that Brougham comes before Broun, and this quotation therefore should have been with the last installment while Broun's should have gone first on this one... I accidentally skipped this one when I posted the last one, so now I am selecting it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Banff National Park

My vacation is steadily drawing to a close (I return to Toronto on Thursday, at which point it will be time to start trying to find a job, finish my outstanding report from my summer research, continue my summer research, and return to blogging proper with the promised columns on computability and complexity and Pawelzik's talk summary, among other things). Before things get back to normal, however, I wanted to take another opportunity to post some images from my time out here in western Canada. I probably won't get another chance to visit the area for at least a year, and I am going to miss the mountains. These three images are taken from my family's trip to Banff National Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world (of course, I am rather partial to the Canadian Rockies in general). As always, please click on the images to see them full-sized.

The town of Banff as seen from the lookout point on Sulphur Mountain. It was a wonderfully clear day for taking pictures. Banff is actually quite a fascinating town, being both the town with the highest elevation and the first (and largest) incorporated town existing within a Canadian national park. Its existence within the Banff National Park leads to obvious environmental concerns and subsequent policy decisions, including a restriction on the number of permanent residents allowed.

The famous (and absolutely amazing) initial view of Lake Louise that a visitor is greeted with. Fed by the Victoria glacier, Lake Louise takes on many of the brilliant hues that can be found throughout the waters in Banff National Park thanks to the glacial flour suspended in the water.

A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ewe, this lady was part of a small herd in Kootenay National Park (which we drove through on our way up to Banff) just outside of the town of Radium.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Summarizing many of my thoughts on health care in the United States

This article by Neil Macdonald from the CBC summarizes many of my thoughts on the subject. Basically, the private health insurance providers do some unconscionably cruel and immoral things in the name of profit, and somehow people are more scared of the government than those corporations.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Question for my American Readers

I have been relatively quiet recently on the topic of politics. That is largely due to the fact that I am on vacation and thus I am not being overly attentive to current events, but another large factor is simply the fact that I really don't know what to say. I remember my dejected incredulity when George W. Bush was elected for the second time in 2004, but even that doesn't compare to the absolute lunacy that seems to currently pervade a good portion of the United States. Has a significant chunk of your country honestly gone fervently insane? Between Glen Beck's public paranoia, the fact that there are still prominent politicians who deign not to laugh with incredulity at the birthers, contrived conniptions over the President of the United States addressing American school children to urge them to do well in school and thereby cultivating a "socialist-fascist cult of personality", the insane demonizing of actual attempts at humane health care reform, the bald-faced hypocrisy of the most popular news organization as it proceeds to rip baselessly into the President of the United States during a time of war with blatant disregard for the troops*, to this most recent heckling of the President of the United States in the middle of a policy speech by a member of Congress, I am left utterly bewildered. All of my previous posts agonizing over the philosophical role of evidence in policy decisions seem to now be an exercise akin to a man devoting himself to the careful selection of the correct type of drywall while his house collapses around him due to lack of a frame. Is it just me who thinks the level of crazy seems to be ramping up on overdrive?

* I in no way think that criticizing the President amounts to harm to American troops, but for seven years that is precisely what was insisted by the very same people who now most venomously launch tirades against Obama.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Book Review: Catcher in the Rye

Since I seem to have extended my blog vacation to include my physical vacation to British Columbia, I thought I would continue the trend of light posts and discuss my most recent reading of fiction. One of the outcomes of my university education is that I hardly ever read books for pleasure anymore. Reading is still a great enjoyment of mine, however, and I therefore do manage to occasionally find the time to read a book, particularly when I travel. Thus, my recent trip to visit my family has given me the opportunity to finally read one of those books that it seems like virtually everyone else has already read: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

Until I started reading the book on my flight out here I did not actually have any idea what the story was about other than knowing that the main character's name is Holden. The reason I knew the main character's name is Holden is because my grade eleven and twelve history teacher kept calling me that for about a month while she was reading the book (apparently Calden and Holden are similar enough to be confusing for her). Now that I have read the book, I find the comparison a little disconcerting. While I certainly did have my share of teenage angst in high school, I was never a pathological liar nor do I think I was overly concerned with people acting 'phony' all the time.

I also have to admit that, now that I have read it, I am a little puzzled about why The Catcher in the Rye is considered such a classic piece of literature (or at least classic enough to be on many high school reading lists). I recognize that it was a highly influential book stylistically (it reads, after all, like a book that is much more modern than it actually is simply because it helped define the modern style), but I am not even sure why it ever gained such influence in the first place. The reason the style of the novel strikes me as so modern is because it contains a high concentration of precisely those stylistic elements common to modern novels but rare in literature from several decades ago (or earlier) that irk me to no end. It is perhaps unfair to judge the structure of Salinger's prose too harshly (since the book was basically written as an oral narration by the teenage protagonist, and the choppy sentences, awkward segues, and frequent descriptive profanity are therefore reasonable elements to include), but it does bother me that Salinger's text helped to make those narrative structures popular stylistic choices even outside of a first person narration by an angsty teenage boy (basically, Salinger helped poor sentence structure become regarded as legitimate individual choices in style).

I don't actually have much more to say on the matter without turning this post into a rant against modern literature as a whole. I think it is a good thing that I finally got around to reading the novel, as it has had such an apparently profound effect on modern narrative style and remains a prominent element of popular culture, but I remain dubious about the actual merits of the text itself. I would call the text neither enjoyable nor interesting to read.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Royal Tyrrell Museum Pictures

In response to my last post, BeamStalk made a request for pictures from the Tyrrell Museum itself (and not just the badlands around it). Like many museums, it is hard for pictures to capture the experience of actually being there and looking at the exhibits, but I will attempt to oblige with a couple of the pictures that I did take. Please ignore my incredible dorkiness that mars what would otherwise be perfectly reasonable dinosaur museum pictures...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Badlands and Geek-towns

As I have mentioned, I am currently in my hometown of Creston, British Columbia, visiting my family. The last couple days, however, were spent traveling into Alberta to pick up my girlfriend, who is coming out for a week to visit my family as well, from Calgary. Despite the fact that it is a fairly extensive six hour drive from Creston to Calgary, many of my childhood memories center around some of the attractions in the area, and going there to pick up my girlfriend therefore provided a nice opportunity to show them off to her. It also gave me an opportunity to visit my good friend Cornucrapia (obviously not his real name, but since he maintains loose anonymity on the internet, I shall respect his wishes), who lives in Calgary.

First off, my mom and I drove to Calgary Saturday night (I don't drive in Toronto, so having someone else along to share in the driving was a big help). I spent the night on Cornucrapia's couch, and then we headed out to the airport the next morning to collect my girlfriend. Despite her jet-lag, we set off for Drumheller, Alberta, straight from the airport. If you have not heard of Drumheller (which, if you are not a western Canadian or die-hard dinosaur fan, is most likely), it is situated in the Alberta badlands and is home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. If you have never been to a region of badlands terrain, they are quite fascinating and I recommend going. I have included a picture (which I recommend clicking on to see at full size), but even that fails to fully capture the entire vista which surrounds you.
For those who do not remember, I have mentioned before that I spent most of my early childhood obsessed with dinosaurs. Thus, the Tyrrell Museum was one of my favourite places to go, and, despite it being an additional two hours north of Calgary (and thus just shy of an eight hour drive from my hometown), between grandparents, parents, and family friends I had managed to finagle five visits to the place before the age of ten. Shortly thereafter, however, my family moved to Pennsylvania, and I have not had an opportunity to return prior to this past weekend. I was thus a little giddy about the trip. I think my expectations were therefore a little out of proportion (it wasn't quite the magical land of endless dinosaur displays that I had remembered), but it is still a fantastic museum devoted to paleontology, and the surrounding backdrop of the badlands makes it well worth a trip if you are ever in the Calgary area. In addition to the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller also includes attractions like Reptile World, where you can see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians on display, as well as get an opportunity to hold a friendly boa constrictor.

While Drumheller can perhaps be considered a geeky place to have been a childhood dream destination, it cannot hold a candle to the geekiness which was our detour on the drive back to Creston after spending Sunday night in Calgary. Unfortunately, Cornucrapia was unable to come on this exciting detour, as we dropped him off Sunday evening. However, my mom, girlfriend, and I all got to experience the extraordinary geekiness which is Vulcan, Alberta.
Rather than simply smile at the fact that their town shares a name with Spock's father's race, residents of Vulcan have gone above and beyond in capitalizing upon the name to create a wholly bizarre tourist experience. Driving across endless fields of Albertan prairie, what at first appears to be a typical prairie town pops into existence. Once the buildings emerge from behind the heat waves and coalesce into a focused image, however, one is able to spot the giant Enterprise statue standing in front of the likewise named Enterprise Family Restaurant, which itself sits in front of a space-bubble style building that serves as both the Vulcan and District Chamber of Commerce as well as the Vulcan Association for Science and Trek.
Inside the Vulcan Association for Science and Trek building, you are greeted by a friendly staff, an astonishing array of Star Trek themed merchandise, and a $10 per use virtual reality game (we opted not to try the game, though if any of my readers do try it, you will have to let me know if we were missing out or not). Perhaps more impressive than the virtual reality game and the merchandise, however, was the room full of Star Trek memorabilia gifted to the town by a Calgarian collector. With a wall of Star Trek action figures (all in their original packaging!), a large number of full-sized cardboard cutouts, a fairly extensive uniform wardrobe (which were free to try on and take pictures - you better believe we did that!), and so many other items it is hard to remember them all, it was overwhelming, impressive, and a little bit creepy all at the same time. If you are a huge Star Trek fan, a trip to Vulcan might be a fascinating vacation destination. While I don't think I am a big enough Star Trek fan to have made the trip if it had not been merely a small detour on our way back to Creston, I still find it charming that such a place exists.