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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Crazy Check

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

(via Deus Ex Malcontent)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Midweek Quotations

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Solutions to Puzzle Number 13: The Phantom Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Morning Quotations

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Puzzle Number 13: The Phantom Titles

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

1.) Epic Stories of the Collapse

2.) Exponential Parkland Protectors

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

4.) Meeting with the Seventh Avatar of Vishnu

5.) Fortified Domicile

6.) Happiness

7.) Excellent Future Notions

8.) The Hilarity of Mistakes

9.) No Sound from the Cowboy Film Forward Face

10.) Ferric Guy

As usual, send your solutions to

Note: Solutions can be found here.

Solution to Puzzle Number 12: The Unpopular Code

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

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

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

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

Message 1

Message 2

Monday, June 7, 2010

Start of the Week Quotations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sir Patrick Day

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

Acupuncture Takedown

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

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

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

3 Quarks Daily Science Vote!

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Advice and Dissent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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