February 28, 2017

Tautochrone curve

When a rolling start gives no advantage, Tautochrone curve.

May 17, 2016

When John Locke went to the mat with René Descartes over the source and nature of human knowledge

"Bing" is a word that Stuart Hameroff, the University of Arizona professor who organizes these mindfests, uses to describe the moment when the spark of consciousness lights up the brain. Imagine a mad scientist hooking together neurons one by one until suddenly they reach a threshold of complexity and -- bing -- consciousness emerges.

We all know the feeling, one that science has been powerless to explain. The audience seemed familiar enough with the words, and so they sang along in 4/4 time.

Before launching into the tune, Timbre Wolf played a recording of an eerie composition called "Brain Dance," derived from vibrations generated by tiny molecular structures called microtubules, which are part of the scaffolding of brain cells. The music, to his ear, was reminiscent of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Cuban rumba, Gustav Holt's "The Planets," and the visual rhythms of strange mathematical objects called Penrose tiles.

All of this, he suspected, had something to do with quantum mechanics and consciousness, an idea that Dr. Hameroff has long been pursuing.

There even seemed to be undertones of the Devil's Triad, a discordant combo of notes known since medieval times that forms the opening riff of "Purple Haze."

That all made for good metaphysical fun. More disconcerting was the starring role given to the New Age entrepreneur Deepak Chopra. Dr. Chopra believes that human consciousness (through epigenetic feedback) directs the unfolding of human evolution.

No one seemed to object as Dr. Chopra, whose Chopra Foundation was one of the sponsors, shared the stage with prominent professors who engaged with his ideas as if he were another esteemed colleague.

But that's how it is at Tucson. There were talks on psychic phenomena and retrocausality, the hypothesis that the future can affect the past through quantum emanations. Presentations that didn't make it into prime time were laid out in colorful posters attached to rows of bulletin boards: "What Might Cause a Star's Consciousness?" "The X-Structure: The Basic Nature of Life and Existence."

Also included in the lineup were presentations hypothesizing that dark energy could explain consciousness and that homeopathic medicine might work through nanoparticles and quantum entanglement -- as if homeopathy worked at all.

Beyond all of that, there was still plenty of serious theorizing. For a rapid-fire summary, you can hear Baba Brinkman, a rap artist who provided a daily report on the meeting, which he called "half science lab and half Burning Man."

Late one night at an event called Club Consciousness, Mr. Brinkman joined Dorian Electra and the Electrodes as the band regaled the crowd with songs like "Mind-Body Problem" (a reference to the age-old question of how something as seemingly ethereal as consciousness emerges from the brain) and "Brain in a Vat" (the idea that for all you know, you're just a brain kept alive in a laboratory flask and what seems like reality is an illusion).

"Chinese Room" was about a thought experiment that the philosopher John Searle claims to be a refutation of the possibility of artificial intelligence. But the big hit of the night, "Sensual," which has been made into a rock video, was about a famous intellectual conflict that has raged since the 17th century when John Locke went to the mat with René Descartes over the source and nature of human knowledge.

April 26, 2016

Math, universal ?

Linguist George Lakoff of the University of California, Berkeley and colleague Rafael Nuñez argue that the idea of a universal math is a fallacy: Math is embodied in the human brain and is a direct product of how it evolved in a very particular set of circumstances. Similar brains, as in intelligent aliens evolving on an Earth-like planet, may repeat some of our mathematical findings -- but that's due to their brain structure and not to some kind of universal truth being plucked out of an ethereal realm.

Marcelo Gleiser, theoretical physicist and cosmologist; and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7.

December 20, 2015

Physics happens after the classroom

By suggesting, and sadly litigating, that diversity -- and more important, inclusion and equal opportunity -- aren't paramount to the production of new scientific information, we wrongly imply that the most important part of scientific discovery is in the classroom.

The purpose of the classroom is to build a tool kit and to understand what we know in the hopes of uncovering something that we don't. It's the door through which we create new physicists. Closing that door to students of color unless they can justify their presence is closing the door to the kinds of creativity that can be shown only after a student has mastered basic skills.

A physics class should interrogate and transfer the canon of scientific knowledge. Those students will go on to consider the many unanswered questions at the frontiers of what is known about the universe.

If we limit the physics classroom to white students, or students whose presence in a classroom we leave unquestioned, we also limit the production of new information about the world -- and whose perspective that world will reflect. If that's the case, then we all lose.

-- Jedidah C. Isler, a National Science Foundation astronomy and astrophysics postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University.

November 28, 2015

Simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable

Nothing intrigues philosophers more than a phenomenon that seems simultaneously self-evident and inexplicable. Thus, ever since the moral philosopher Philippa Foot set out Spur as a thought experiment in 1967, a whole enterprise of "trolley­ology" has unfolded, with trolleyologists generating ever more fiendish variants.

Fat Man was developed by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, in 1985.

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September 13, 2015

Steven Pinker's Quiz

Steven Pinker's Psychological Science.

May 25, 2015

PLOS' Sci Comm's Hello World

Hello open science.

April 24, 2013

Experiment design: psychology

Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist was approached by another colleague of his at Tilburg, Ad Vingerhoets, who asked Stapel to help him design a study to understand whether exposure to someone crying affects empathy. Stapel came up with what Vingerhoets told me was an "excellent idea." They would give elementary-school children a coloring task in which half the kids would be asked to color an inexpressive cartoon character, while the other half would have to color the same character shown shedding a tear. Upon completing the task, the children would receive candy and then be asked if they were willing to share the candy with other children -- a measure of pro-social behavior.

October 30, 2012

Science with belt tightening, not collaboration,

A number of science and technology organizations are now arguing that the federal belt-tightening is affecting the ability of the scientific community to share research and collaborate.

The U.S. Public Policy Council of ACM, the Computing Research Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have written to Congress and federal officials, asking for an exemption from the spending policy for "recognized scientific, technical and educational meetings" and "meetings of national and international standards bodies."

"Participation in scientific conferences is a critical opportunity for scientists and engineers to keep current in rapidly changing fields of science and technology," said the letter, dated Sept. 10 and sent to House and Senate leaders of both parties, as well as the federal Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. "These conferences facilitate communication among scientists, engineers, practitioners and students. They provide an important venue for presenting cutting-edge research."

Representatives from agencies like the Energy Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department regularly attend conferences to exchange findings with private organizations. Participation in the events usually includes setting up booths where the federal researchers can demonstrate new technologies. Officials said the meetings emphasize collaboration, as well as education.

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October 25, 2012

Mandelbrot, "The Fractalist"

"I realized that mathematics cut off from the mysteries of the real world was not for me, so I took a different path," he writes. He wanted to play with what he calls "questions once reserved for poets and children."

He prized roughness and complication. "Think of color, pitch, loudness, heaviness and hotness," he once said. "Each is the topic of a branch of physics." He dedicated his life to studying roughness and irregularity through geometry, applying what he learned to biology, physics, finance and many other fields.

He was never easy to pin down. He hopscotched so frequently among disciplines and institutions -- I.B.M., Yale, Harvard -- that in his new memoir, "The Fractalist," he rather plaintively asks, "So where do I really belong?" The answer is: nearly everywhere.

As "The Fractalist" makes plain, Mandelbrot led a zigzag sort of life, rarely remaining in one place for long. He was born in Warsaw to a middle-class Lithuanian Jewish family that prized intellectual achievement. His mother was a dentist; his father worked in the clothing business. Both loved knowledge and ideas, and their relatives included many fiercely brainy men.

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June 19, 2012

Featural, configural: how to look

Should you trust your gaydar in everyday life? Probably not. In our experiments, average gaydar judgment accuracy was only in the 60 percent range. This demonstrates gaydar ability -- which is far from judgment proficiency.

Two such experiments in PLoS ONE, both of which yielded novel findings. In one experiment, we found above-chance gaydar accuracy even when the faces were presented upside down. Accuracy increased, however, when the faces were presented right side up.

What can we make of this peculiar discovery? It's widely accepted in cognitive science that when viewing faces right side up, we process them in two different ways: we engage in featural face processing (registering individual facial features like an eye or lip) as well as configural face processing (registering spatial relationships among facial features, like the distance between the eyes or the facial width-to-height ratio). When we view faces upside down, however, we engage primarily in featural face processing; configural face processing is strongly disrupted.

-- Joshua A. Tabak and Vivian Zayas

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May 24, 2012

Thinking about science

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" 50 years ago, Thomas Kuhn spent virtually the rest of his career defending -- often in vain -- its key ideas. At least, this is the story David Weinberger tells in an article on Kuhn at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Perhaps the most vexing problem Kuhn faced, according to Weinberger, is how to account for scientific progress, when concepts like paradigm shift and incommensurability seem to suggest that "progress" is at best problematic, or worse, impossible. Weinberger attributes much of the trouble to Kuhn's distaste for a straightforward correspondance theory of truth, and thinks abandoning one concept of truth means "we need another idea of what truth is and how we can ascertain if we're progressing closer to it."

May 23, 2012

Speed of change

Think for a second about the atomic bomb. There's a big, just gigantic, technological change. But when did it happen? We can argue that the "speed of change" was really slow until July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb exploded in New Mexico--the speed of change was super-fast on that particular day. This would be silly. So we have to average out the "speed of change" somehow. But over what timescale? So many industrial inputs (precision machining, computing and the like) and basic scientific insights (being able to calculate the likelihood that a neutron hitting an atomic nucleus will cause it to split in two) went into building the bomb that it's unclear where to start.

The claim that some forms of knowledge are fundamentally resistant to quantification (memorably described as a "bitch-goddess" by Carl Bridenbaugh in this essay) is anathema to policymakers today, who've emerged from business schools and management consultancies convinced that Excel macros will let them give reality to the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave.

How MBA-speak is hurting the scientific academy.
From: Konstantin Kakaes |Posted Tuesday, April 3, 2012

January 29, 2012

Shorter reports are not better science

IN recent years, a trend has emerged in the behavioral sciences toward shorter and more rapidly published journal articles. These articles are often only a third the length of a standard paper, often describe only a single study and tend to include smaller data sets. Shorter formats are promoted by many journals, and limits on article length are stringent -- in many cases as low as 2,000 words.

This shift is partly a result of the pressure that academics now feel to generate measurable output. According to the cold calculus of "publish or perish," in which success is often gauged by counting citations, three short articles can be preferable to a single longer one.

But some researchers contend that the trend toward short articles is also better for science. Such "bite size" science, they argue, encourages results to be communicated faster, written more concisely and read by editors and researchers more easily, leading to a more lively exchange of ideas.

In a 2010 article, the psychologist Nick Haslam demonstrated empirically that, when adjusted for length, short articles are cited more frequently than other articles -- that is, page for page, they get more bang for the buck. Professor Haslam concluded that short articles seem "more efficient in generating scientific influence" and suggested that journals might consider adopting short-article formats.

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May 7, 2011

Dropping science

Amazing corrections. How could the original have slipped past a science editor ?

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 20, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of microbes relative to the number of cells in the human body. Each person shelters about 100 trillion microbes, not 10 trillion, and is made up of about 10 trillion cells, not one million.

Correction: April 23, 2011

A headline on Thursday with an article about the discovery by a group of scientists that people can be classified by the bacteria in their digestive systems misstated the conclusions of the researchers. They reported finding three ecosystems, each involving a multitude of bacteria species, in the human gut -- not just three types of bacteria.

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March 25, 2011

Learning a skill so well you don't think about it

When people first learn to use a keyboard, they improve very quickly from sloppy single-finger pecking to careful two-handed typing, until eventually the fingers move effortlessly and the whole process becomes unconscious. At this point, most people's typing skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it's strange. We've always been told that practice makes perfect, and yet many people sit behind a keyboard for hours a day. So why don't they just keeping getting better and better?

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner tried to answer this question by describing the three stages of acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, making fewer major errors, and become more efficient. Finally we reach what Fitts and Posner called the autonomous phase, when we're as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot. Most of the time that's a good thing. The less we have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more we can concentrate on the stuff that really matters. You can actually see this phase shift take place in f.M.R.I.'s of subjects as they learn new tasks: the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active, and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the O.K. plateau.

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November 14, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's Science

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of "homology," "saggital plane" and "power law" and quotes an expert speaking about an "igon value" (that's eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

The problem with Gladwell's generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you'll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.

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September 3, 2007

False pretenses of unethical social research

In 1970, Laud Humphreys published the groundbreaking dissertation
he wrote as a doctoral candidate at Washington University called
“Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.” Because of his
unorthodox methods — he did not get his subjects’ consent, he
tracked down names and addresses through license plate numbers,
he interviewed the men in their homes in disguise and under false
pretenses — “Tearoom Trade” is now taught as a primary example
of unethical social research.

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March 14, 2007

Kübler-Ross model

The Kübler-Ross model describes, in five discrete stages,
the process by which people deal with grief and tragedy

Enumeration of stages (1969)

The stages are:

1. Denial - The initial stage.: "It can't be happening."
2. Anger .: "How dare you do this to me?!" (either referring to God, the deceased, or oneself)
3. Bargaining .: "Just let me live to see my son graduate."
4. Depression .: "God please don't take him away from our family"
5. Acceptance .: "I know my son will be in a better place"

March 7, 2007

e^Pi - Pi

e^Pi - Pi = 20.

-- XKCD.

March 23, 2006

Harvard podcast Understanding Computers and the Internet

Computer science lectures podcast from Harvard.
Alas, for extension student users, not for scientists.

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March 12, 2006

Bang me silly, Claude Allen

When all else fails, the Administration has simply preached:
In February, a hundred CDC researchers on sexually transmitted
diseases were summoned to Washington by HHS deputy secretary
Claude Allen for a daylong affair consisting entirely of speakers
extolling abstinence until marriage. There were no panels or
workshops, just endless testimonials, including one by a
young woman calling herself "a born-again virgin."

-- "Bootylicious" Brock.

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March 2, 2006

***You Passed 8th Grade Math***

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

Could You Pass 8th Grade Math?

April 18, 2003

Speak no evil

One Sunday I was driving through Missouri on Interstate 70, letting the
radio scan through the frequencies, and pausing on each station for a
minute. I heard a country station, a news talk station, another country
station, and a religious service. The commentator on the news talk station
was horrified that a grant for AIDS awareness was being used to
talk about sex (in San Francisco). His view now enjoys national influnece.

Speak No Evil

Scientists who study AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases say they
have been warned by federal health officials that their research may come
under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or by
members of Congress, because the topics are politically controversial.

The scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified, say they have
been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key
words" out of their applications for grants from the National Institutes of Health
or the Centers for Disease Control and Prion. Those words include sex
, men who sleep with men, anal sex and needle exchange, the
scientists said.

[Full story below]

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