Archive for the ‘Let’s Read The Internet!’ Category

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 11: Good and Bad Explanation

May 14, 2010

Do you think rationally about all the opinions you read, carefully considering why you agree or disagree with any given viewpoint, or is your method for discourse more like the way you sift through a hundred crappy photos of yourself to find the kinda-hot-but-not-too-slutty one that will be your Facebook profile picture? Oh yes, I like this one. All the other can go now.

It’s been a long time since I last read the internet with you, so it’s time to do that again. Hopefully you’ll be entertained, and also question the way you think about facts and reality. Although this is a links dump, incredibly none of it involves cats or pornography.

Via Swans on Tea, Feynman discusses, in a tangential manner, what magnetism is.

When I launch into an explanation, my goal is something is along the lines of, “I’m going to say something to you, and when I’m done, you’ll understand it the way I do.” My guess is that most people implicitly think about explanation the same way. An explainer says some words, possibly along with drawing pictures or doing a demonstration, and the explainee watches, listens, and understands.

We expect some confusion and some back-and-forth questions. Also, the scope of what is explained may be very small, so that the explainer perhaps knows a lot more details, but despite these caveats I think this “I will give you my knowledge” approach is the subtext for most of our explanations.

The strange thing is that if you ask people directly what explanation is, they do not believe this. They believe that explanations are highly context-dependent, and that they’re imperfect, and that their scope is limited. (“I don’t expect the explainee to get everything. The explanation just gives the general idea, and they’ll work out the details in due time…”), but when I watch two people engaged in a explainer/explainee interaction I get the feeling that they will consider the exchange a failure (or at least not wholly successful) if the explainee ultimately does not understand the subject the way the explainer does. Even the drastically different approaches people take when explaining something to an adult or to a child seem based on the principle that in order for the explanation to be effective, it must be worded to suit the audience, but the explainer still hopes to be completely understood. They just need to find the right way to say things.

Feynman points out that this sort of explanation is impossible because knowledge doesn’t consist of tidbits. Feynman cannot take his knowledge of magnetism and “dumb it down” in any sort of accurate way, because that knowledge is couched in the context of everything else he knows about nature. Feynman’s understanding of magnetic forces was much more thorough than the interviewer’s because Feynman understood the fundamental forces involved; he knew all about quantum theory and the interaction of light with matter, and had a feeling for what things were and were not already known and explained by physical models. He also had practical experience with magnets, and had taught students about magnetism and investigated all sorts of magnetic phenomena. But in addition to this knowledge of the theories and models of magnetism, Feynman’s understanding is tempered by his abilities. What separates the scientist from the layperson is not their knowledge of science, but their ability to mathematically manipulate the model, or even create a new one, to derive understanding.

If Feynman were still around and he sat down to tutor me in all aspects of electromagnetism, we could probably make a lot of progress. With enough time, he could teach me everything he knew. But I still wouldn’t understand it the way he did.

With that, let’s look at an explanation I particularly liked:

We Recommend a Singular Value Decomposition
David Austin at the American Mathematical Society.

This is an explanation of the singular value decomposition, a basic tool in linear algebra. I remember learning about it while studying linear algebra, but I didn’t understand it very clearly. I thought about it only formally, and I kept getting the idea of what it was confused with the proof that it exists. As a result, if I were asked to explain singular value decompositions to someone else, I’d have first gone back to my linear algebra book to review, then pretty much repeated what it said there, trying desperately to do things just differently enough that I wasn’t copying.

I got the feeling that Austin did the opposite in writing this article. he did not sit down and say, “Okay, what are all the things I know about SVD and all the good examples of it, and then how can I condense them all and make it appropriate to the audience?”

Instead, it seemed like he said, “I happen to know a couple of good pictures that make this clear in the case of a 2×2 matrix. Based on that, what sort of presentation of the SVD makes sense? What level of detail would muddy the presentation? If I change the order I present the ideas, how will that change the reader’s perception of the SVD’s theoretical and practical importance? What can be left out, and how can I get straight to the heart of the matter and communicate that first?”

Very quickly in the essay, Austin gets to this picture:

Singular value decomposition of [(1,1),(0,1)]

which illustrates the singular value decomposition of

\left[ \begin{array}{cc} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{array}\right].

There are only a few short paragraphs before that, but already we’ve walked through a story that motivates it. Austin gives three examples showing how we can understand linear transformations visually, and by the time we finish the third, it was apparent to me that a singular value decomposition is a logical extension of the linear algebra I was already familiar with. He had me hooked for the rest of the article.

After giving his example, Austin builds directly to the equation

M = U \Sigma V^T

which illustrates why it’s a “decomposition”, and what each part of the decomposition means. Only after giving a fairly complete explanation of what a singular value decomposition is did he start to go into how to find it and how to apply it.

Lots of math or physics writing I see doesn’t take this approach. Instead, the first I see a particular equation is at the end of its derivation. That means that all the derivation leading up to it seemed unmotivated to me. Austin doesn’t even include the derivations. There’s enough detail that I could work through the missing parts by myself, ultimately understanding them better than I would if each step were spelled out for me. For example, he writes

In other words, the function |M x| on the unit circle has a maximum at v_1 and a minimum at v_2. This reduces the problem to a rather standard calculus problem in which we wish to optimize a function over the unit circle. It turns out that the critical points of this function occur at the eigenvectors of the matrix M^TM.

That’s actually more effective for me than actually going through the details of the calculus problem. It points me in the right direction to go over it when I’m interested, but in the meantime lets me continue on to the rest of the good stuff.

By reorganizing the material, omitting details, and (literally) illustrating his concepts, Austin finally got me to pay attention to something I ostensibly learned years ago.

Next, I’d like to illustrate my lack of creativity by returning to Feynman, this time his Caltech commencement address from 1974

Cargo Cult Science

Feynman identifies a problem:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

and suggests a solution:

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

For an example of awful science, take a look at a story that made it to Slashdot a little while ago, Scientists Postulate Extinct Hominid with 150 IQ.

The Slashdot summary says,

Neuroscientists Gary Lynch and Richard Granger have an interesting article in Discover Magazine about the Boskops, an extinct hominid that had big eyes, child-like faces, and forebrains roughly 50% larger than modern man indicating they may have had an average intelligence of around 150, making them geniuses among Homo sapiens. The combination of a large cranium and immature face would look decidedly unusual to modern eyes, but not entirely unfamiliar. Such faces peer out from the covers of countless science fiction books and are often attached to ‘alien abductors’ in movies.

Slashdot is known for being strong on computer news, not for their science coverage, but still it’s surprising to me that such a ridiculous bit of claptrap got so much attention. A few commenters point out how absurd the conclusion that an entire race of people had an average IQ of 150 is, but there is so much white noise in the comments of any large online community that most people usually don’t read them, probably including the people who write the comments in the first place.

And even if Slashdot will publish sensational cargo cult stories like this, what business does it have in Discover Magazine, which I don’t read, but had assumed was fairly reputable? Discover published this quote about the Boskops:

Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church. Alas, if only the Boskop had had the chance to stroll a Parisian boulevard!

First, that doesn’t sound like high intelligence to me. It sounds like autism. Second, how the fuck would you know that from looking at some skulls? Such conclusions obviously have no place in the science-with-integrity Feynman described.

20 years ago, if I had read that story I would not have gone to the effort to follow up on it. (For one thing I’d have been five years old, and so instead of doing some research I would have drank a juice box, gone outside to play, and pooped myself.) Now we have the internet, and follow-up is very easy. Fortunately, high up on the Google results is John Hawks’ article, The “Amazing” Boskops. Hawks, summarizing his review of literature on the Boskops, writes,

…in fact, what happened is that a small set of large crania were taken from a much larger sample of varied crania, and given the name, “Boskopoid.” This selection was initially done almost without any regard for archaeological or cultural associations — any old, large skull was a “Boskop”. Later, when a more systematic inventory of archaeological associations was entered into evidence, it became clear that the “Boskop race” was entirely a figment of anthropologists’ imaginations. Instead, the MSA-to-LSA population of South Africa had a varied array of features, within the last 20,000 years trending toward those present in historic southern African peoples.

Hawks then followed up with more detail later.

The good news is that the Boskop nonsense will die out because it’s wrong, and our system works well enough that things that are wrong do eventually die out.

In that little vignette, I looked at a big magazine and published book that were nonsense, and debunked by a blog. It’s not always easy to determine the credibility of a source, and its reputation can be misleading. Blogs have a terrible a reputation in general, while some people seem to believe that if it’s in a book, it must be true. (Unfortunately people take this to the extreme with one particularly poorly-documented and self-contradictory bestselling book!)

A more difficult stickier issue is anthropogenic global warming. There is little doubt in my mind that anthropogenic global warming is real, but unlike with evolution, I do not believe that because I have looked at the scientific evidence and thought about the arguments for and against. I haven’t examined the methods of collecting raw data or the factors accounted for in climate models. I don’t even know how accurate those models’ predictions are. I take it all on the word of climate scientists and a cursory review of their reports. I do not see this as a problem or a failure of my rationality. I do withhold judgment on whether global warming is as important an issue as, say, pollution or direct destruction of natural resources, but I do not feel reservation in stating that I think it is very likely that if humans continue on the way they’ve been going, the Earth will warm with severe consequences.

What does this have to do with cargo cult science? Cargo cult science is the reason I believe the climate scientists rather than the climate skeptics. My goal here isn’t to convince you one way or another about climate science, or to link to the best-reasoned discussions about it or to give an accurate cross-section of the blogosphere’s thinking process. These are various opinions on anthropogenic global warming, and my hope is that reading for the underlying decision-making process is an instructive exercise.

Here is Lord Monckton, a prominent global warming critic:

Here he is interviewing a Greenpeace supporter about why she believes in anthropogenic global warming:

Here is the UN group Monckton criticizes, the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
In particular, their Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report, a 52-page summary of all things climate science. For more detail, their Publications and Data are available.

Here is a recent letter published in Science. It discusses the process scientists use to create reports on the climate, the uncertainty in scientific results, the fallibility of scientific findings, and the role of integrity in science.
Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

Here is statistician and blogger Andrew Gelman talking about expert opinion and scientific consensus:
How do I form my attitudes and opinions about scientific questions?

Here is famous skeptic James Randi on the pressure for scientific consensus, the fallibility of scientists, the uncertainty in models of complicated phenomena, and his skepticism of anthropogenic global warming:
AGW Revisited

Here is the petition Randi describes, the
Petition Project

Here is a reply to Randi and the Petition Project from PZ Myers, a biologist and well-known angry internet scientist.
Say it ain’t so, Randi!

Here is a graphic by David McCandless. Its goal is to present an example of the arguments one would uncover in an attempt to self-educate about climate science using only the internet.
Global Warming Skeptics vs. The Scientific Consensus

Greg Laden writes about skepticism, rationality, and groupthink in a lengthy post.
Are you a real skeptic? I doubt it.

Here is the Wikipedia Article on anthropogenic global warming, along with tabs to the discussion page for the article and the article history. This is a featured article on Wikipedia.
Global Warming

My focus on the process people are using to come to terms with global warming isn’t meant to deemphasize the importance of this issue and of other aspects of the relationship between humanity and our biome. Our Earth is a fantastically diverse and endlessly beautiful home. Of course I want to understand it better.

Click to watch "Home" by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Also here is a physics blog story about a mathematical model of cows.

Let’s Read the Internet! week 10

May 11, 2009

It’s been a while since I read the Internet. If people would stop writing it so fast, it would be easier to keep up.

Dammit I’m Mad
Demetri Martin in Slate

A 225 word palindrome which, if not totally coherent, is at least reasonably well-themed. How hard is that to do? It took me an hour to come up with this one 10% as long:

No peels? Rev ire!
Line, not pen, I draw.
Yawn ever?
Even wayward inept one, Nile River, sleep on.

The real crisis? We stopped being wise
Barry Schwartz at the TED conference

“We are engaging in a war on wisdom.” That’s what Schwartz says about America. This is the epitome of refined oration. Balancing passion with reason, Schwartz lays out the case against the abuse of rules and incentives in a talk of watertight coherence.

Schwartz condemns a formulaic, rule-based approach to work as inflexible and homogenized, saying “Scripts… prevent disaster, but what they ensure in its place is mediocrity.” He cites the example of a kindergarten curriculum in Chicago that lists 75 precise items the teachers must cover while reading at 25 page picture book to their class.

It’s nothing new to claim that the algorithmic approaches we take towards problems like the legal system and education lead to results that are no better than acceptable and sometimes pitiful. But I wonder about our ability to draw a line. Humans are rules, though complicated ones. Everything we do relies on other people being mostly predictable.

If we value rationality, then we also value rule-following. Human social interactions are mostly systems of tacit rules. Some are more obvious: when we should shake hands and when we should hug, but others are less visible because they are so deeply ingrained: the way our voices should inflect at the end of a question or the angle at which we ought to stand while holding a three-way conversation. Comedians make their living by calling attention to these social rules (by breaking them).

Education, which Schwartz loves, consists mostly of learning rules; the state of knowledge about a given field consists largely of rules of how to think about it. Rules are so pervasive that nearly anything we can comprehend has some sort of rule. Schwartz lauds virtue, for example, and what is virtue but adherence to rules? We have a name for people who follow no discernible rules – insane.

Rules, though, exist on a continuum. Schwartz is focused on rules at one part of this continuum. He is against rules that are very specific. If you’re programming a robot to navigate a maze, you can take two approaches. One is to write a clever algorithm that tells the robot the general guidelines it should follow. We could tell it to take every single right turn it encounters until it reaches a dead end, then to go back and take the first available unexplored branch, then to keep making right turns until it reaches a dead end… Alternatively, we could look at the maze for ourselves, find the route out, and tell the robot the exact path to take. They’re both rules. According to Schwartz, we’re choosing the second option, but the maze is changing in ways we can’t follow. Our robots are running amok. If people are robots, they’re at least very clever robots. We should treat them that way.

It’s a judgment call, though, just how much preprogramming and how much intelligent freedom we should have in any given situation. At least, it’s a judgment call from Barry Schwartz’s point of view. You want a fast food worker to be mostly algorithmic and a gourmet chef mostly creative. You want citizens driving automobiles to follow rules more closely than they do, and judges who interpret everything literally to loosen up a little.

If each situation is unique, on what criteria do we make the unique judgments they demand? How do we decide on where on the continuum people engaged in a certain activity should lie? Or should we instead not make those decisions, by try to establish a system in which people naturally adjust to the appropriate level? All Schwartz offers is the opinion that we’re too far to one side – the strict rule-following side. But how can we intelligently decide just where we should be?

More novel (or at least less hackneyed) than the lamentation of rigidity in rules is Schwartz’s coupling of the creative paralysis brought on by strict procedure to the moral paralysis brought on by reliance on incentives. He claims, “Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprive us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.”

Schwartz’s opening statements entwine ‘moral skill’, the knowledge and ability to do the right thing, and ‘moral will’, the innate desire to do the right thing. Only when both are present do we get people to do the sort of good work that makes the world a better place.

The issue of incentives is, for me, more clear-cut than the issue of rules. To the greatest extent possible, incentives should be extremely direct. People should want to do things specifically because they want to do that thing, not because it earns them ulterior incentives (monetary or otherwise). The reason is exactly as Schwartz says. If you are laying the foundation for your client’s house, you do a good job to protect your professional reputation. But if you’re laying the foundation on your own family’s house, you build that thing to withstand a motherfuckin landslide (see John McPhee’s Los Angeles Against the mountains (behind a New Yorker pay wall, sadly)).

It’s pervasive. The people I live around are mostly students, and many of them pursue grades and good recommendation letters rather than understanding or creative insight in their field. The result is that even at a top-notch school many students are uninterested and unskilled (at least compared to the many other good students we have here). These students go on to get jobs, and the incentive becomes money. Or the incentive can be recognition, or control, or sex, whatever. It’s so blindingly obvious to me it’s the wrong way. But this indirect incentive mentality is engraved in our culture, if not our nature. It’s in different people to different extents. It’s in me more than I like and even more than I can normally admit to myself. The question then becomes, “how do you get it out?” Forget changing the nation. How do you change one person? I hear a lot of cliches about this. I know a lot of hypocrites, too.

Kids’ Letters to President Obama
from McSweeney’s

Alex, age 11, from Ann Arbor Michigan, says to President Obama:

Will you have a peaceful place to sit in the White House? I’ll tell you about the big city of Ann Arbor and how things flow there. Two thousand eight was a large year for doing such things as going to the symphony and eating out for dinner.

Bryan, age 9, from Chicago Illinois says:

I hope you like your new house. I hope you miss Chicago. You are very famous. Can you invite me to your new house to eat pizza?

Mark, age 24, says

Have you ever been sitting on the toilet whistling, and then stopped because you suddenly realized you’re the President of the United States of America? Also, do you get “Hail to the Chief” stuck in your head very often? For me, your celebrity has made you like Einstein, in that the more I hear about you, the less able I am to think of you as a human rather than as a socially-constructed Barack Obama abstraction. Presumably, you’ve spent most of your life on pretty intimate terms with yourself. Does that get harder to do everyone in America knows your dog’s name?

Fun With Sums
Peter Luthy at The Everything Seminar

3^2 + 4^2 = 5^2
10^2+11^2+12^2 = 13^2+14^2
21^2+22^2+23^2+24^2 = 25^2+26^2+27^2
36^2+37^2+38^2+39^2+40^2 = 41^2+42^2+43^2+44^2

Follow the link to find out what’s going on.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
Carlo M. Cipolla and James Donnelly

It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly:

a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions…

Even if you disagree with them, and even if you think they’re raving wildly or spitting venom out of unchecked contempt, it’s damn fun when someone is willing to say exactly what’s on their mind. Especially if what’s on their mind is irreverant, insightful, clever, and flawed.

from South Park

Feel the vengeance of the Economy!

Sailing Into the Wind, or Faster than the Wind
Terry Tao at What’s New

“By alternating between a pure-lift aerofoil (red) and a pure-lift hydrofoil (purple), one can in principle reach arbitrarily large speeds in any direction.”

The Volvo Ocean Race
Oskar Kihlborg at The Big Picture

Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion
Teller is the quiet one from Penn and Teller. Turns out he can talk! And his house is a crazy trick illusion house. I bet he’s a secret murderer who enjoys fooling his victims into thinking their own head has been cut off a bunch of times. Then he actually cuts it off and they don’t even realize it’s for real cause they’ve gotten so used to the fakes. Anyway, he’s creepy enough for that.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 9

December 22, 2008

Orgasms During Childbirth
Lisa Belkin in The New York Times

It appears giving birth may cause women to have an orgasm. But ladies, if that’s what you’re looking for, I’m sure you and I can work out something that doesn’t (necessarily) involve so much screaming and blood.

The Checklist
Atul Gawande in The New Yorker

I like it when I don’t die. Giving doctors and nurses a checklist of things to do to not kill me is good. Here, Gawande puts the word out. I wouldn’t be shocked (although I guess somewhat surprised) if the publicity of a Gawande article in the New Yorker led to much greater adoption of checklists in US intensive care units. And as always, Gawande makes for an engaging read. I doubt the checklist would be quite the panacea he makes it out to be, but it wouldn’t be good rhetoric if the effectiveness of the checklist were downplayed the whole time.

Space Elevator Trips Could Be Agonizingly Slow
Rachel Courtland in New Scientist

Space elevators just won’t go away. You can never kill an idea that sexy.

Check Your Chinese Characters
The Omnibrain at Of Two Minds

A German research journal mistakenly printed the advertisement for a Chinese brothel as the cover to their latest edition. It’s ironic, because at the same time, the brothel mistakenly conducted fundamental research on the excited states of an entangled quantum oscillator. They studied the coupling (in a super position).

Can Science Help Solve the Economic Crisis?
Edge Magazine

Short summary: Yes
Longer summary: Yes, but you have to use our science, which is way better than your science.

Green Sahara
Mike Hettwer at The Big Picture

Broad Use of Brain Boosters?
Emily Singer at Technology Review

I have never used Adderall, Ritalin, or related drugs, so I don’t have any direct experience with how good/bad these things are. As far as I know, they’re not actually going to make you smarter. They’re more in the department of helping you get stuff done. That seems fine to me. We’re already giving them to kids willy-nilly, even if they don’t want them, just because they’re rambunctious in the way that boys normally are. Still adults can’t decide to use them for themselves? Sounds messed up to me. On the other hand, I’m not fond of the “let scientists use Ritalin because it’s good for the world” argument, which is pretty damn conceited.

Let’s End Drug Prohibition
Ethan A. Nadelmann in The Wall Street Journal

How well does the current prohibition of recreational drugs mirror the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s? I’m not enough of a historian to know, but it certainly sounds plausible that they’re similar scenarios.

One issue that occurs to me is that if we legalized drugs, we would undoubtedly do it in a series of incremental steps. At first, the barrier to entry of becoming a legal drug dealer could easily be so high, and the work required to buy the drugs legally so great, that legal drugs aren’t cheaper than illegal drugs are now. This is the current situation in California. You can obtain marijuana legally by going to a doctor and saying you have migraines or something, and that you think medicinal marijuana is the thing you need. Then you get a prescription and buy the authorized marijuana, grown by authorized growers, from authorized vendors. But the medicinal marijuana is still much more expensive than the street version, so the incentive for illegal activity has been reduced, but not eliminated by this semi-legalization.

We actually want drugs to be cheap. If drugs are cheap, they aren’t profitable for criminals. Also, addicts don’t have to steal your shit to pay for their habits. If street drugs became cheap, we’d get rid of an awful lot of Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke type nastiness, as well as those rather mean drug lord guys running South America. Or maybe I’m being naive.

Photoelectric Follies
Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles

Millikan didn’t believe in the photoelectric effect. He didn’t like it, anyway. But he did the experiment and dutifully reported the results he got. Now we know it’s true. Go science.

Aquatic Clean Energy from Vortex-Induced Vibration
from Skulls in the Stars

I still don’t really get this all that well. But it’s something related to energy I hadn’t heard repeated in a hundred different places before. Sounds pretty cool.

Barack Obama’s weekly address, on choosing his scientific advisors:

Let’s Read the Internet! week 8

December 8, 2008

Wind-Powered Perpetual Motion
Why the Directly-Downwind Faster Than the Wind Car Works”
Mark Chu-Carroll on Good Math, Bad Math

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates would have to be a fan of the scientific method. We frequently acclaim the shift towards naturalism in Western thought, as a turning point in our intellectual maturity, but that shift brought with it the less-recognized roots of an even higher goal – the eradication of hubris in the search for understanding. Naturalism, the philosophical position that empirical observation holds the final word in debates on truth, essentially kills the argument of “because I say so.” Truth comes from no one in particular, so there’s at least the faint possibility that people trying to understand the way things work will some day no longer jockey and battle to be “the one who got it right.” That’s a far-out ideal, and maybe if nobody thought they were going to be credited with brilliance, nobody would have the incentive to try to do something brilliant in the first place. But at the very least, when two naturalists have an argument, they can frequently appeal to a common, impartial, higher source – nature – as arbiter.

That’s what’s happened here on Mark Chu-Carroll’s widely-read blog. He initially, and incorrectly, believed a certain device that drives overland into the wind and faster than the wind was a fraud. After long, long debates, he changed his mind, and carefully explained the mistakes in his own reasoning and what he had learned in the process of investigating his own error. Which is pretty much awesome, because such things hardly ever occur in arguments on less savory topics, like abortion. (Oh my God, was that an eating-dead-babies joke?)

I also appreciated the sort of emergent didactic property of the hundred-some post comment thread on Chu-Carroll’s original post. After watching the youtube video of the device (linked from the original post), I wasn’t completely sure whether the treadmill test was fair. It seemed reasonable enough, but I certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to defend it against someone eager to argue the opposite way.

As I read the thread, commenters raised most of the points I was considering. Other people answered those points, and then even more people chimed in with takes that I hadn’t considered at all. The overall effect was for a large amount of white noise and repetition, but also for a strikingly-diverse set of mindsets converging on the same problem. By the time I was done reading what everyone had to say, I felt that I had appreciated more intricacies in the problem than I would ever have discovered thinking about it alone, and I probably understood it better than I would have even if a single skilled author had written a long exposition. The challenge of interpreting each new voice’s arguments, incorporating them with the previous knowledge, and then parsing all of it for myself over and over, trying to find holes in everyone’s logic and patch together a firm understanding piece by piece, was absorbing because it’s so much more interactive than simply reading one single person’s explanation, no matter how clear, detailed, or precise.

It makes me want to argue about physics more often, but only in the good way where your ego doesn’t get too involved.

A Russian Teacher In America
Andre Toom, linked from God Plays Dice

A long essay that’s a borderline sob story about the woes of the American educational system. As a private tutor, I see exactly the sort of problems Toom is discussing on a daily basis – students, even (or perhaps especially) the “good” students, are so maniacally focused on their grade that learning becomes completely lost amidst a sea of test-cramming, and question-memorizing. Students are so wrapped up in the concrete performance markers visible to the world, that they don’t care at all for their true progress, visible chiefly to themselves.

That, at least, is the picture. I only partially buy it. It’s true, to varying degrees, for many students. But it’s not as if this entire nation has no one left interested in math. The sad part is that over two hundred or so students I’ve had, there have been a handful who are truly interested in math and physics, but they seldom have much guidance. Because these kids can gets A’s in math class, no one in public school is very concerned with pushing their limits when there are too many problem kids to worry about first. So I’m more interested in people with plans on how to reach interested young students with extra-curricular math opportunities than I am with people deriding a broken system.

Not everyone is going to love math. In fact, I doubt there’s ever been a society where a majority of people are interested. But the vast majority of our society has to take it in school. So yeah, it’s inevitable that there are lots of people taking math who don’t care about math. But I’ve done the same thing in a literature class before. Ultimately, math is cool enough that some people are going to discover it no matter what the educational system is like, so I’m not all that worried about the alarm bells being rung here.

Blow to Vitamins as Antidote to Ageing
James Randerson at The Guardian

We thought we understood, like, everything. Turns out not. But the next study that comes out will surely reveal the secrets to perfect health once and for all…

Swiss Approve Heroin Scheme but Vote Down Marijuana Law

Sounds like a pretty good plan to me. Administer heroin to addicts in a safe, controlled environment, thereby reducing health risks and driving down the general nastiness associated with black market activity. I can also understand why you wouldn’t want to legalize marijuana in just one small portion of Europe, since everyone would then go there just to smoke. The same argument doesn’t hold as much water for the US with its block-like geography, but I live in California, where marijuana is as good as legal anyway.

Tara Donovan

from Three Quarks Daily

The Not-So-Presidential Debate

The Not So Presidential Debate from aaron sedlak on Vimeo.
also from Three Quarks Daily

Why Punishment Is Worth It In The End
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science

Read this article or else! Nah, honestly I would never be able to go through life as someone who tried to understand human interactions by designing toy experiments like this. But It’s nice to get little sixty-second summaries of their months of hard labor.

Over-budget Mars rover mission delayed until 2011
Rachel Courtland at New Scientist

Bad news, since I work at the place where they’re building this thing, and they owe me two months’ back pay already.

15 of the World’s Most Creative Papercraft Artists

You get to feeling a little bit sleazy when you realize all the exposure you’ve had to art in the last two years has come in the form of internet lists with titles like “The Top Ten Totally Badass Avant-Garde Experimental Playdoh Exhibitions of 2008!!” But on the other hand, some of this stuff actually is pretty badass, for being a paper sculpture of a cat.

A Happy/Unhappy New Pair of Studies
Stephen Black at Improbable Research

Among the headlines of news feeds I scanned through this week, there must have been at least ten stories referencing a recent paper purporting to show that happiness is “contagious”, that is, if I were to reach down and magically make your friends happy, you would become happy as well. When I first heard about this, I was intrigued, because I was wondering how you would establish this is a “contagious” effect, and not just correlation. It turns out: you don’t. The researchers, from what I can tell, simply found a correlation and announced that happiness is contagious. News stories are apparently contagious, too, because once word of this paper got out, most of the major science news outlets published something on the story.

But as the link describes, another study found that height was also “contagious”. That is, if your friends are tall, it’s likely you’re tall, too. Just as with happiness.

Sine of an Inscribed Angle
Brent Yorgey on The Math Less Traveled

A cute visualization of the law of sines.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 7

November 30, 2008

Most Planets May Be Seeded With LIfe
Phil Berardelli Science

The title of this article really is “Most Planets May Be Seeded With Life”. I would point out what a ludicrous construction this is, but it would be approximately equivalent to nudging the guy standing next to you at the Taj Mahal and saying, “pretty nice, huh?”. The author also drops the journalistic gem, “The new find, described this week in the journal Astro-ph, is stronger.” Which is a bit surprising, because “Astro-ph” is not a journal at all, but just the name of the astrophysics section of, where physicists post free preprints of their work. The paper, which can be found here, has actually been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The paper uses the word “life” twice in seven pages of text – once in the abstract and once in the introduction. The news story uses the word “life” five times, including in the title. I made a token attempt to skim through the paper, but I have no experience with astrochemistry and can’t really say much about the scientific merit of the work. The data sure looks pretty.

Here is the bottom line: the researchers behind this paper work hard at solving technical problems. The problem they were trying to solve here is, “how can you tell whether some particular organic molecule is out there in a given direction of outer space, when you can’t go there, can’t send a probe, can’t do an experiment, and can only passively collect a little bit of light?” Their work is astrochemistry, and it has no honest direct association with the origin of life. Also, if you want to understand what they do, you will have to devote a lot of time and energy into it.

But, the science writer is on a deadline. I know someone who interned for Science and wrote this sort of five-minute story. You probably only have one day to read about the work, get in contact with and get a quote from one of the lead scientists on the paper, then find another, independent scientist in the same field, who has also seen this particular preprint on the arXiv, and get a quote from that guy to balance the story out. Then you have to throw your story together as quickly as possible so it can go through revisions and the art people can find a relevant graphic, so you add a pun if you can detect one, and somehow make it catchy or attention-grabbing with the least possible effort. Of course “Origin of Life!” becomes the slant of the story.

I see two problems with this. One is that there are a lot more “origin of life” stories out there than there are actual breakthroughs on the origin of life. So if you’re innocently following at home what “those guys in the white labcoats” do all day, you’d at first think they’re making huge progress every week. Then after a while, you’d begin to wonder why, if they’ve been making so much huge progress, they still don’t seem to have all this figured out yet.

The second is a problem I’ve personally encountered. Science simply is not 100% adrenaline. Most of it is boring. Scientists spend much of their time waiting for gels to run, debugging their code, and fixing their lasers. (Sound awesome? It gets monotonous. But there are those few seconds every once in a while where you think, “Whoa! I play with lasers all day!” Then your thesis adviser tells you how much he’s looking forward to your presentation in group meeting on Monday. This is Friday night. You start to cry.) Having a science job is a lot like having a normal job. You just work more and get paid less.

That isn’t the picture you get coming in, though. Many of my high school students (I’ve had a couple hundred) have told me that they “love” science. I cringe a little when I hear that. (I cringe a lot when I get, “I love science, but I just don’t get the math part of it.”) Loving science, for them, just isn’t possible. They don’t know science. They might love the ideas they learned in science class. They might have loved doing their science fair project. But they probably will not love writing grant proposals or reviewing inscrutable papers. When they do finally get to the lab, they get a little confused about what it is they were looking forward to all this time. Come to think of it, maybe I was using the wrong pronoun this last paragraph, and wasn’t referring to my students at all.

Of course, seeing problems is easy. Everyone sees a thousand problems a day, mostly with other people. Then they bitch about it a bit and consider the issue closed. Not that I see a solution. But let’s leave the issue open.

Sea Change For Turtle Origins
Erik Stokstad at Science

I like this one much more than the last. Its attempt at a pun is so bad it’s simply confusing. It gives a nice picture of the “we don’t know shit” side of science. The underside of a turtle shell is apparently called a “plastron”, which is an egregiously-awesome term for such a mundane thing. Finally, there is a guy saying “The reason I’m excited about that is that it pushes the story of turtle origins even further back in time.”

Well shit yeah, baby! Now I’m excited, too. I’m so wired I can barerly acontrl my ffingers on the keybaorad.

Happy Thanksgiving
Nikita at Monosyllables

Here’s an awful confession. I was sitting around with some other guys like myself (well, not EXACTLY like myself, but other young American nerds) on Thanksgiving, projecting the computer screen on the wall so we could watch downloaded versions of Arrested Development. A story from Google news popped up citing the number of people killed that day in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I jokingly calculated that because Mumbai has about 13 million people in it, and people live 70 years or so, we could calculate the daily death rate there, which is order of magnitude 500. That gives a daily standard deviation of root 500, or 20-25 people assuming deaths are independent, randomly occurring events. The attacks that day were a three or four-sigma event. Barely statistically significant, because that many extra people should die totally at random in Mumbai once every few years. Then Nikita’s post reminded me there were real people there, that I knew some of them, and that it wasn’t so great a joke.

The Toughest Man In Cairo Vs. The Zionist Vegetable
Anand Balakrishnan in Bidoun

According to my old neighbor, Kamal Hanafi, the vegetables in Israel are huge and good for only one thing. “The cucumbers,” he exclaimed, eyes lighting up, “are this long”—he stretched his hands more than a foot apart. “They are this wide”—he made a circle with his two hands. “And they taste like shit, all chemicals and unnatural fertilizers.” He spat. “No one can eat vegetables that disgusting. The only people who use them are the women, who sit like this”—he spread his legs to demonstrate. “And the men, of course.” The invisible cucumber in his hands jabbed sharply up. “And now they’re sending their vegetables to Egypt to fuck us all.”

Dancing Droplets and Spherical Harmonics
Stefan on Backreaction

Little bubbles of oil resonating as spherical harmonics. I’ll bet you didn’t know they could do that. Now you do.

Perfect athlete’s 100m sprint time calculated
Dave Robson on New Scientist

More terrible abuse of the word “science”. The article says, “fitting the data to a mathematical model that matches the other results, Denny predicts future male sprinters will at best shave 0.21 seconds off Usain Bolt’s current world record of 9.69 seconds for the 100 metres.”

It’s wrong. It’s so terribly wrong. There is really no reason to believe that just because you drew a curve through some data points, you’ve predicted the future. If it were that easy, everyone would have done it earlier, and predicted today’s world records. But they didn’t. The article itself does technically refrain from calling the work “science”. But apparently it’s actually being published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, despite containing no experiment or biology. Can’t we just take all these people and send them somewhere?

Beethoven and Borge
from In The Dark

Humor on the piano. It’s like stand up comedy, but they’re sitting down. You better be, too, before watching these wacky films!

That’s it for this week. I read plenty of other stuff, but it was just boring things. Reminded me of you.

Let’s Read the Internet! week 6

November 24, 2008

Becoming Screen Literate
Kevin Kelly in The New York Times

I am not screen-literate. My first reaction to this article was to think the barrier to becoming screen-literate was still rather high – there’s a learning curve associated with using the video technology Kelly is writing about. Not all that many people are skilled at video editing, but nearly everyone can write. But then I realized that not that many people put much effort into becoming “screen literate”, whereas everyone in America is forced to write extensively in school for many years.

So what are the consequences of “visualcy” dominating over literacy? Is it a Brave-New-World-esque degeneration into overstimulation, short attention spans, and a intellectual hedonism, or a improvement in the efficiency with which we can absorb, process, and create new information that leads to higher levels of creativity, collaboration, productivity, and better life?

The Plan
Jack Handey in The New Yorker

Garrett Lisi’s Exceptional Approach to Everything
Greg Boustead in Seed

They forgot to draw his hair. Also, this story would be more inspiring if Lisi’s work were broadly considered by other physicists to be a meaningful step forward in theoretical physics. His work has gotten far more media attention than attention from his colleagues.

Chicks Dig Scars
Finally, a good reason to cut yourself.

Cool Things the Greeks Did in Astronomy
Dot Physics

How are you supposed to measure the distance to the Sun? Turns out it’s more than a million hot dogs end to end. Of course, hot dogs shrink a little as you cook them by putting them closer to the sun, but still, it’s a lot. How did they count that high anyway?

Let’s Read the Internet! week 5

November 16, 2008

I haven’t been reading the internet quite as much recently. I’m glad not to have wasted so much time, but sad to have left so many little blue links unpurplized.

Cyanide and Happiness

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Ten Worst Domain Names
Not really go for high-quality content this week.

Web 2.0 Presentation
Lawrence Lessig

“We need to recognize that the Presidency is not at the core of the cancer that infects this democracy.”

What Desires Are Politically Important?
Bertrand Russell

Pontificating, old school.

Tennis Ball High Speed Photography

Election Maps

Ian sent me this visualizations of the data from the presidential election.

The Best Possible Way to Go
This is another good option

Time Management for Anarchists
It’s a little ironic to post a comic about not wasting time on the internet.

Some Sort of IQ Test
I scored 139 or so. But I would have done better if the questions hadn’t been so hard.

Smart People Play Nice
Now that I’ve proved I’m smart (see above), being a good guy follows as a corollary.

Project Euler
Okay, so I’ve only done eight of these so far (it’s a programming competition, but a few actually do not require anything but a little brain power). Also, I only got through the last few I completed when I learned that Java has a built-in arbitrary precision arithmetic class. Yay for taking the lazy way out.

Let’s Read the Internet! week 4

November 2, 2008

2008 Eureka Prize for Science Photography
New Scientist

Why Are Female Blue Tits Unfaithful?
from Living the Scientific Life

Okay, so you don’t have to actually read this article, which has something to do with sexual selection in birds (really? birds? after a title like that?). As with Danielle Steele or eviction notices, the first line or two is good enough.

Spooky Images From Outer Space
New Scientist

That’s no Death Star. That’s a small moon!

A Programmer’s View Of the Universe
Steve Yegge on Stevey’s Blog Rants

I can’t figure out what this essay has to do with programming. As far as I can tell, it’s about fish. Also, something with a metaphor. Fish as a metaphor for life. Because we need more things that are metaphors for life. Here’s a question for you: if the fish is a metaphor for life, who’s going to be a metaphor for the fish? See, not even the Lorax dared to ask that one.

I like reading essays in which people attempt to come to grips with the biggest problems they face. Problems of unspeakable complexity are an example, as is fish ownership. What interested me most was the following take on facing big problems:

In time, though, programming eventually humbles you, because it shows you the limits of your reasoning ability in ways that few other activities can match. Eventually every programmer becomes entangled in a system that is overwhelming in its complexity. As we grow in our abilities as programmers we learn to tackle increasingly complex systems. But every human programmer has limits, and some systems are just too hard to grapple with.

When this happens, we usually don’t blame ourselves, nor think any less of ourselves. Instead we claim that it’s someone else’s fault, and it just needs a rewrite to help manage the complexity.

I do not interpret big problems this way. When I face a problem I can’t solve, I generally have one of two reactions. One is to be humbled, but by “humbled” I mean some more along the lines of “temporarily lose all sense of self-worth”. The other is to ignore the problem, or pretend that it is solved, or pretend that it is not important or that I will easily solve it tomorrow. Never do I adopt the tack of assuming that the fault lies in the problem. It’s a novel idea that I’ll certainly have to try out the next time something confuses me. Actually, I’m pretty confused by my toilet right now, but only because it has like a million little pieces in there that some idiot assembled with horribly unnecessary complexity.

Oh, and writing up that last little comment got me wondering they they had ever made an animated “Lorax” like I had seen with “The Butter Battle Book”. They did. Dr. Seuss is pretty much the best thing ever.

Google Books Settlement
You can read more about it elsewhere, and there is controversy about it, but this is the bare bones of what it would be nice to know about how Google Books will change due to their recent settlement. I’d say having access to millions of otherwise-unaccessible books free through the Caltech Library system, and for pay if I’m not at Caltech (or Caltech doesn’t buy in) is a pretty good deal. I’ve been meaning to read a million books, one of these days.

How To Survive Grad School

From the title, you might think this page is a bunch of funny jokes about graduate student life. Or you might thinks it’s a bunch of little packages of bullet-pointed wisdom. Actually, it’s just depressing. A grad student complains that grad school, and scientific culture in general, are nothing like what he/she imagined. But the sad part is that in the responses to the thread, the most optimistic advice anyone has is, “Yup. That’s the way it is. I guess you just have to try to deal as best you can.”

Why Your Ballot Isn’t Meaningless
Jordan Ellenburg on Slate

I voted for the first time in this election. I was 19 in 2004, and a sophomore in college. Because I’m a legal resident of Maryland, I couldn’t vote on Election Day, but I could certainly have obtained an absentee ballot with a minimal amount of effort.

I didn’t vote then, and I did this year. However, this was not because the mathematical sophistication I’ve gained in the last four years led me to re-assess the probability that my vote would count using a Bayesian analysis. Even with a one-in-a-million chance that your vote could decide the election, it’s not worth my time and effort to vote (i.e., if you take the time it took me to fill out the ballot and multiply by one million, you get my entire life span so far. And I would readily take my life so far over the chance to decide the next President between two major-party candidates.)

So my decision to vote had nothing to do with my estimation of whether or not it matters. Nor, I suspect, do most other voters’. So I disagree with Ellenburg’s thesis that it’s possible your individual ballot has more meaning than you think. However, I think the reasons people vote may vary widely.

One possible reason is explicit delusion: some people actually believe their vote makes a difference in terms of the outcome of the election. The other reasons to vote that come immediately to my mind are other, less direct forms of delusion, at least one of which I am guilty of.

Probably a common reason to vote is a sense of duty. People believe they are obligated to vote by society. I discussed this point before, and I think it’s insane. Voting is so meaningless that people’s obligation cannot possibly be to vote. If people have an obligation to the political system of their country, that obligation must be to a much more active participation than simply filling in some bubbles on an adult Scantron. (Dude, how did I never notice in high school that Scantron is a total Transformer name?) The same people who believe they have an obligation to vote frequently do not feel an obligation to educate themselves about the social, economic, and international issues that bear upon their vote. They do not feel an obligation to think rationally about their vote, to carefully contemplate and question their positions, and to attempt to recognize and grapple with their own prejudices. I would much rather have 25% of the populace vote with conviction backed upon rational thought and sincere concern for the well-being of themselves, their community, their nation, and the world, rather than 90% of the populace voting on what they read in People magazine.

Another possible delusion, and one that likely prompted my decision to vote, is a desire to avoid hypocrisy. How can I hold and argue opinions about political actions or social issues if I refuse even to make the the bare minimum effort to participate in the decision-making process, when that opportunity is offered? Forget the fact that, aside from school assignments, I have never written a letter to a politician, signed a petition, gone to a political rally, attended a town meeting, made a significant effort to express my opinions to fellow citizens, or in any way attempted to utilize one of the many avenues available for common citizens to participate in the political process. Not only do I remain largely ignorant of the proceedings of our government and of local and world politics. Not only do I eschew any personal sacrifice of even an afternoon’s worth of time or a few hours’ wages to help people whose political causes I believe in, I don’t even bother to take the most basic political action available to an American and cast a vote. The desire to avoid this hypocrisy is delusional because if casting a vote is worthless in terms of making a discernible impact on politics, then whether or not I voted should have no bearing on the probity of offering strongly-held opinions on politics.

I also believe many people vote due to a delusion that is essentially ineffable. Even if brushing your teeth were found to be completely useless in terms of oral hygiene, people would still do it, just because that’s what you do before bed (or whenver you happen to brush your teeth.) Similarly, I suspect that many people vote (and vote along party lines) simply because that’s what you do in election season. And they think about it no further.

Friday Sprog Blogging: Ghosts
Janet D. Stemwedel on Adventurers in Science and Ethics

I’ve been reading this stranger’s “sprog” conversations with her children for a couple of months now. I still don’t know what “sprog” means, but I think it has something do with with indoctrination into free-mindedness. The weekly column is hit and miss, but this one has a nice line or two.

Younger offspring: You don’t believe ghosts are real?

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess I just haven’t seen the evidence that would convince me.

Elder offspring: That creaking stair is pretty convincing.

Dr. Free-Ride: Look, at night, when we’re all in bed, our house creaks, but you don’t think it’s haunted, do you?

Younger offspring: No.

Elder offspring: Of course not! No one has died in it yet.

Providing Toilets for 39,000 Runners
John Branch for The New York Times

As soon as we can get the Times to run an article on nipple chafing we’ll really be on the way to getting the public to understand us runners.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 3

October 26, 2008

Self Control and the Prefrontal Cortex John Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex

Summarizes some research that indicates people only have a certain amount of willpower to ration out over the day. My first reaction to reading this article was to think, “yeah, but that’s only for weak people, not me.” My next reaction was to resist the temptation to check my email too frequently. My third reaction was to slaughter eight cats in a murderous frenzy, then to sit forlornly surveying the carnage I had wrought and wonder if this cycle would ever end.

Scott Belcastro’s Lonely Searching from Erratic Phenomena

I’ll admit I don’t know much about art, but I can tell when something looks cool. I saw how similar the paintings were, and felt surprised at first that people don’t get bored doing the same sort of thing over and over. But then I realized it must be because they’re refining, focusing down, and trying to work out subtleties and understand their subject more fully. Not that I see all the subtleties, exactly, but maybe if you read the text they actually talk about that stuff.

The Gallery of Fluid Motion
Videos of fluids being fluidy. Don’t get too excited, though. Despite what it sounds like, this is not a potty cam.

Amazing Super Powers

The Incredible Beauty of Hummingbirds in Flight RJ Evans at Webphemera

Small things can be pretty. They aren’t always pretty, which is sad news for your penis.

Is This The Oldest Eye On Earth? Tom Simonite on New Scientist

“It could be the oldest eye, or even human body part, still functioning or to have ever been in use for so long.” There’s a story for the grandkids.

The Laplace-Runge-Lenz Vector Blake Stacey at Science After the Sunclipse

A clever way to prove that orbits in a r^{-2} potential are conic sections, without solving a complicated differential equation. I’m surprised we didn’t do this in ph1a, although I’m kind of glad we didn’t, because it makes me appreciate it much more now.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 2

October 19, 2008

Davisson-Germer Experiment Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles
The first observation of the wave properties of electrons came by accident. Just like you.

A Beautiful New Theory of Everything Garrett Lisi on
In case you were wondering how everything works…

Didn’t quite catch that? Don’t worry. You can always read the paper.

Infinity is NOT a Number Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math
More comprehensible than the previous post, if less profound. The fundamental problem with making infinity a number seems to be that it lets you prove all manner of foolishness, such as 1=2.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It’s awfully pretentious to claim your document to be “universal”. Who has the authority? Further, what does it mean for everyone to be equal in rights? Clearly, we are not equal in many senses. Separating out “these things are rights” and “these things are what you have to deal with because of the circumstances of your life” is a tough task. For example, according to this declaration, everyone has a right to marry. But marriage is simply not a universal concept among humans. It’s perfectly conceivable to have viable, righteous societies with absolutely no concept of marriage. The concepts of privacy and property ownership could be sacrificed in righteous societies, under the right circumstances. Creating a list of rights that’s simultaneously universal and specific seems nearly impossible. But the visualization is nice.

Dead Waters Romain Vasseur et. al
Boats that get stuck in plain water. I don’t understand why this works, but the video is really cool.

Chimpanzees Make Spears to Hunt Bushbabies Not Exactly Rocket Science
Like it says, chimps make weapons and kill shit with them. In case you were wondering where we get it from.

Late Bloomers Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker
Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re useless. Therefore, you might as well slack off for another year or two before beginning that “great life’s work” stuff.

Where’s the Algebra? Michael Alison Chandler on X = Why?
Some chick with a seriously ugly smile asks whether algebra is important. But her “education” from her brother sadly misses the point. She asks, “what good are equations?”, and he replies “We have to learn equations to install lights.” But the entire article is written with the attitude that these equations are magical things that pop out of nowhere to describe lighting systems, their goal being to confuse blue-collar workers to the greatest extent possible. I don’t think there’s any understanding here the equations actually come from somewhere. Someone used a more basic set of principles to derive the equations, or else conducted experiments and then found equations to describe the results. Applying equations to describe real situations is not supposed to be a matter of plugging numbers into formulas.

The Cartoon-Off Farley Katz at The Cartoon Lounge
Normally, I wouldn’t bother linking to something that’s already been Slashdotted, but I bookmarked this page for “Let’s Read the Internet on Wednesday, and then the Slashdot post comes up just hours before I compile my links for the week. I guess the fact that the entire geek culture already knows about doesn’t really impact how funny it is.

The Sun
The web page that makes you go blind if you stare directly at it.

Fabry, Perot, and Their Wonderful Interferometer Skulls In The Stars
The author consistently produces wonderful posts explaining concepts in optics from a historical point of view. I actually used a Fabry-Perot interferometer in physics lab once. What I learned there is that they make surprisingly bad hammers.