Articles about physics, psychology, anthropology, and the like


These are articles of general scientific interest. You know what kind of nerd I must be when I have separate sections for Science and Technology... and multiple subsections for each.

Book Review: The Drunkards Walk

This book is -- hands down -- the best book on probability and randomness written for the general public.

I am typically disappointed with pop-science books written for the general public... they usually don't present enough data for me to make up my own mind about their conclusions... and when they do present data, they almost never provide enough details to determine whether or not their results are "statistically significant." In other words, how do they know that their "supporting data" isn't just a great big coincidence???

This book bucks that trend big time, and the results are very impressive.

The author wrote this like a history book about the field of statistics, and how it evolved (slowly) over they years. But, every time the author introduces a new concept in statistics, he also shares real-world situations where people made terrible mistakes because they didn't understand these basic principles. It highlights very well that in general, people are terrible at recognizing randomness, and thus will always be controlled by it!

Randomness is very unsettling to people, as such we have a tendency to give order and purpose to the world... People frequently see patters where they just don't exist. One great example of this was discovered fairly recently, called "regression towards the mean." The author's example was as follows:

A psychologist was visiting a group of Air Force instructors after World War 2 to help them design a new training program. He was telling the instructors that positive feedback was much more effective at getting people to learn than negative feedback. At which point, an instructor jumped up to yell at the psychologist for talking hogwash.

"When my students have a good day and I praise them, the next day they slack off and don't do as well. But, if they do badly and I yell at them well, the next day they do MUCH better. So don't tell me this 'positive feedback' garbage works, because it doesn't!"

Surprisingly, both the psychologist and the instructor were right! Regression Towards the Mean means that on average, people perform at the average of their abilities. It doesn't sound monumental, but people forget it sometimes. If you flip a coin enough times, eventually you'll get 100 heads in a row. Likewise, if you do a task enough times, eventually you're going to have a 100-item winning streak that is entirely random luck... and people will incorrectly assume that it's because of greater competency. Sure, you need to be competent enough to perform the task, and you need to do the task very frequently... but after that, any winning streaks are probably just dumb luck.

It's the same reason why some mutual fund managers do better than others, but only for a few years... it's why Roger Maris beat Babe Ruth's home run record, and then very few records after that... it's why some CEOs do amazingly well at one company, but then crash and burn when put in charge of another. You need only be as talented as the average to have a great winning streak...

My other favorite section was when the author covered false positives on medical tests. Most people -- most doctors even -- aren't good enough with statistics to understand when medical tests lead you astray. Towards the end of the book -- after a highly readable introduction to statistical theory -- he presents the following question:

  • assume breast cancer is present in 0.8% of the population
  • assume a mammogram says a healthy person has cancer 7% of the time (false positive)
  • if a mammogram says you have cancer, what are the odds you actually have cancer?

Most people would assume that the answer is 93%, since there is a 7% false positive rate. When asked to a bunch of doctors, the average answer was actually around 70%. But the correct answer is much different: if you test positive for cancer, there is only a 10% chance you actually have cancer!!!

How is this possible? Do the math... out of 1000 people getting a mammogram, 8 will have breast cancer (0.8% incident), and be told so. However, because of the false positive rate of 7%, another 70 people will be told that they have cancer, when in fact they don't! That's 78 people who test positive for cancer, but only 8 actually have it... therefore, if you test positive for breast cancer, there's only about a 10% chance you actually need to worry. In fact, even if you get 6 positive mammograms in a row, you still have better than a 50/50 chance of being totally healthy! Medical tests for rare diseases are fraught with this kind of problem, and it's a shame doctors aren't better at telling their patients the true odds.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everybody. It is really easy to read, and it is chocked full of examples where very smart people made very bad decisions... simply because they didn't understand how randomness rules our lives.

Email Patterns Can Predict The Health Of Your Company

As I mentioned previously and in my latest book, data mining your corporate email can yield some pretty interesting information... even if you don't read the contents. My angle is that by analyzing who emails whom and when, you can get a sense of who is "friends" with whom... and by doing so you can hit the ground running with any Enterprise 2.0 social software initiatives.

One nugget that I never thought of was how the emergence of email "cliques" can determine whether or not your company is in serious trouble... Two researchers -- Ben Collingsworth and Ronaldo Menezes -- recently analyzed the email patters at Enron to see if there were any predictors of the impending doom. Initially, they thought they would find interesting changes immediately prior to a large crisis... However, what they found was that the biggest change in email patterns happened one full month prior to the crisis!

For example, the number of active email cliques, defined as groups in which every member has had direct email contact with every other member, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before the December 2001 collapse. Messages were also increasingly exchanged within these groups and not shared with other employees... Menezes thinks he and Collingsworth may have identified a characteristic change that occurs as stress builds within a company: employees start talking directly to people they feel comfortable with, and stop sharing information more widely [prior to a crisis].

Interesting stuff... although this is only one data point. The increase of "active email cliques" is probably a good indicator of the amount of stress and negative rumors in your company, or in a specific division. However, as an actual predictor, it might not work so well. It will be difficult to know for sure, because its really difficult for researchers to get access to random corporate emails.

Also, if you institute any kind of email data mining system, people will alter their behavior. These email cliques will simply go offline if think that big brother is watching... they will probably leave some kind of a trail, but it will be more subtle, and lead to lots of false positives.

Ultimately, as a manager you're probably better off just talking with your employees to see if they are demoralized... because spying on them might only make matters worse.

(Hat Tip: Nat Torkington)

The Bucket List

Pie is feeling reflective... so he tagged a few of us with the question what do you want to do before you die?

I actually covered this back in 2007 in a post about The Buried Life. In case you don't know, The Buried Life is a show about 4 college guys who made a list of 100 "what to do before we die" tasks. Then, after making the list, they asked themselves what the heck are we waiting for?!?! So they rented a motor home, and toured Canada one summer doing as many things as they could. And every time they scratched something off their list, they tried to help a stranger fulfill their dreams as well.

I realized with some surprise that I had already done about a quarter of the things on their list... including:

  • skydiving,
  • hot air ballooning,
  • learning to play a musical instrument,
  • swimming with sharks,
  • catching something and eating it (not a shark), and
  • destroying a computer

That last one can be sooooooooooo fulfilling...

So, what's left? Pie wants us to pick one "bucket item" and explain it. I'm not sure if this means it has to be #1 on the list, or just the one you plan on doing next... In my case, I think they might be the same thing:

I want to invent some physical device that is both popular, and practical.

In my high school and college days I was a bit of a tinkerer... more with electronics than anything. However, my job these days is writing software, which is a tad less fulfilling than inventing a device with actual physical dimensions... I have a few ideas for devices that could save fuel, save money, and even save lives, but I haven't set aside the time to properly implement them. Michelle and I are planning on buying a house soon, and one of my requirements is to have a shed where I could experiment. I'm also going to try to dedicate 10% of my work week to tinkering. Hopefully, its only a matter of time before I invent something useful, or I blow up my shed. One or the other...

I had several others that didn't make the #1 spot:

  • Get a degree in economics: since clearly nobody else in the world seems to be using theirs...
  • Write a book NOT about computers: I have many other book ideas that I think are great, and I've even started outlining them... but Michelle only wants me to write one book every three years. Apparently, deadlines make me grumpy.
  • Build a school: in some poor part of the country, or the world. I think it should be based on the KIPP methodology with a strong emphasis on Non-Violent Communication as well. That's a big project I probably can't get around to it for a few years... but I really want to do it some day.
  • Travel lots and lots and lots: my list includes Greece and Turkey because I'm a history nut... Australia because the people there are just plain cool... Galapagos and Antarctica because I'm a science nerd... and Japan because they make 80% of the world's weirdest stuff. I don't know if I can do it all, but I'll certainly try.

I don't feel like tagging anybody else with this meme... These kinds of reflections can be a bit of a bummer for some folks, so I won't subject them to it. However, if you're inspired to write your own "bucket list" because of this post, leave a link in the comments, and I'll retro-tag you ;-)

Half-Baked Idea: Bribe People To Stay Healthy

People have a tendency to behave differently when they have insurance... they are a tad more careless than they should be, because its suddenly "somebody else's responsibility" to pay when things go wrong.

Auto insurance? If somebody scratches your car the insurance company has to pay for the paint job... even if you yourself scratched your paint job a dozen times prior to that. Theft insurance? Maybe you care less if somebody steals your 3-year-old computer, because then you get a new one. Health insurance? Well, then you might demand a CAT scan for every headache, an MRI for a sprained ankle, and expensive drugs instead of just taking a walk once in a while...

If "somebody else" is paying the repair costs, people tend to stop taking care of their stuff... This is what economists call adverse selection, and its a common reason why insurance is more expensive than it should be...

As we move towards health care reform in this country, a lot of people are concerned about this kind of behavior becoming more widespread. We need some kind of system that prods people into being more responsible with their health, but it cannot be coercion, nor can it be preachy nagging. This is the paradox about us: Americans love telling people what to do, but we hate being told what to do.

My solution? Bribe people to stay healthy. It sounds silly, but similar projects have shown promise for different kinds of insurance...

Take a classic case of unemployment insurance. In general -- and barring a widespread economic downturn like today -- most unemployed people find work within the first 2 months of being unemployed... even though they are receiving unemployment benefits. After this, there really aren't many people who get jobs in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th month of unemployment. That's because unemployment insurance lasts 6 months. At the last moment -- right about when the free money dries up -- there's another huge surge of people getting jobs.

In the 1990s, there was something called the Illinois Reemployment Bonus Experiment, where unemployed people got a bonus for getting a job within 60 days. Instead of waiting around for 6 months, most people worked hard to get jobs in 60 days, just to get that bonus. About half of them applied for different jobs with their previous employer. Overall, this decreased the costs of insurance, because they didn't have to pay the extra benefits for the other months. Critics say it could use some more fine-tuning -- many people quit the new jobs right after they held it enough to qualify for the bonus. Nonetheless, they proved their point, and saved a lot of money, despite the cheaters.

Why not try similar experiments with health care? How about instead of wasting money on preachy public service announcements that never work, you give $500 to anybody who quits smoking? How about a $1000 bonus for marathon runners? How about if your health care costs are significantly below average, and yet you still qualify as "healthy" in an annual physical, you get a little bling? How about on your income tax return, you can get a deduction of 300 minus your blood cholesterol?

Naturally, I'm not a doctor, nor an insurance guru, nor a biostatistician... and my friends who are experts seem divided on whether this will work. There are problems with setting the right "bribe," caching cheaters, general fairness, and a feeling that genuinely sick people shouldn't be doubly punished. All valid points, but I'm not talking about individuals; I'm talking about the aggregate.

All I know, is that if we have universal health care -- in ANY form -- there will be no direct economic incentive to stay healthy. Given how generally unhealthy Americans are already, and how we like to overspend on doctors, that's a recipe for big financial problems. I know people "should" just stay healthy because its the "right thing to do," but we also all "should" eat 5 servings of veggies per day. We don't, because the payoff is too vague.

But what if your health insurance provider gave you $500, if you could prove you ate broccoli every day?

I would bet anything that a lot more people would suddenly become more interested in their health...

Do it in Under 300 Milliseconds, or You Are Painfully Slow!

I'm working on a pet theory about "slowness" in user interfaces... triggered in part because of issues in a new-ish Oracle product that shall remain nameless...

I'm sure other UI gurus have noticed this before, but when you are clicking buttons or other UI tasks, and it takes longer than about half a second, you will perceive it to be "slow." Why? Who knows! Is it a hard and fast rule? Or just an approximation? I think the root of this answer lies in neurobiology...

I recently devoured the book The Brain That Changes Itself. Highly recommended... It contains some amazing stories about a phenomenon called Neuoplasticity, or essentially the brain's amazing ability to re-wire itself. They told many stories about people with learning disabilities, strokes, cerebral palsy, autism, or even blindness, and how these people "rewired" their brains to heal themselves!

In one section about amputees, they mentioned that it takes 300 milliseconds for a brain signal to reach the hand. That made me think... I wonder if there is a co-relation with that number, and the threshold for when people get annoyed with "slow" computers? Maybe your brain "thinks" that the computer is actually a part of your body, and if it doesn't respond in 300 milliseconds, you get the feeling that something is wrong?

In a section about pain, they emphasized the fact that your brain doesn't "know" where your body ends and the world begins. For example, you can perform the following experiment to prove it to yourself:

  • Place your right arm on a table, behind a screen so you can't see it.
  • Place a fake rubber arm in front of the screen, aligned with your arm, and so you can see it.
  • Have an assistant gently stroke both the rubber arm and your arm in the same way for a few minutes.
  • Next, have them just stroke the rubber arm.
  • Your brain will actually "feel" your arm being stroked when you see the rubber arm being stroked!

This doesn't just work with rubber arms... it also works if you just stroke the table in front of you! Doctors have used similar kinds of trickery to cure amputees of phantom pain that they "feel" in their amputated limbs. Chronic muscle pain might have similar roots, but they didn't go into it much.

Anyway, since the brain doesn't "know" where the body ends, it probably reacts as if the computer is a part of your body. In other words, if your brain wants to make the computer do something, and you don't get feedback within 300 milliseconds, it might trigger some anxiety because it "thinks" something is wrong with your body! It doesn't know that its just a computer... your brain is probably wired to trigger genuine anxiety when your computer doesn't behave as naturally as your hand! In this case, something should happen in under 300 milliseconds.

In practice, this means many things for better user interface design... but at the very minimum it means that computers should give feedback at least every 300 milliseconds. If something can be done in under 300 milliseconds, then it always should. If not, then you absolutely must give some kind of feedback that stuff is happening: a spinning wheel, a progress bar, maybe dancing frogs.

Either way, 300 milliseconds is a pretty good rule of thumb to ensure your users avoid feeling anxious and ill while using your products...

Data Means The End Of Theory??? Puh-lease...

Once in a blue moon I pick up a Wired magazine... then I usually am reminded why I so rarely read it...

This month, they came out with a terrible article about The End Of Theory, all about how the deluge of digital information will make the scientific method obsolete.


It started out OK, with info about how Google was doing well not by making theories about trends, but instead by collecting massive amounts of data on behavior. True enough, and no complaints there... but Wired then extends this in bizarre directions, saying that this means an end to all scientific analysis: there are no more grand theories, its all just statistics now.

Further proof in the article? Quantum physics stopped trying to find out "why," and instead just focused on gathering tons of info on the "what." He also uses the "shotgunning" approach to DNA sequencing as the prime example of the end of theory. The whole thing was tons of useless "data" that didn't even come close to supporting his "theory" that data trumps theory.

How ironic... but what else would you expect from somebody with only a passing knowledge of science?

Firstly, every single example in the entire article is a false analogy. Either massive amounts of data were supporting existing scientific theory, or they were giving guidance where theories needed massive amounts of recent data. Is there a theory for what trends will be popular with 13-year olds? Sure, there are tons... but they are all based on the ability to quickly acquire recent data. The article claims that knowing the raw numbers is all you need... its a decent first approximation, but anybody with a passing knowledge of marketing knows that spotting trends are about two things: how many, and who? Google knows how many, but if you can determine if the "who" includes trendsetters, then the trend can turn into an epidemic.

The hard sciences -- like physics and biology -- also have well-established models that serve us well, which are pretty accurate even if based on old data. These models are great estimates in the absence of new data. That's the whole frigging point! Sure, you can tell which plane will crash by building 1,000,000 virtual models, and test flying them all... you'll sure get tons of data! But its a lot more cost effective to analyze data, make models, and test just 1 model at a time.

You should never be tempted to put data ahead of theory... do so, and I guarantee you will be destroyed by those who understand both. For example, there was a 10-year old article in the Atlantic Monthly warning about how the digital age will create an over-reliance on data instead of theory... one researcher demonstrated something like how over the past 50 years, the ups and downs on the S&P 500 nearly exactly mirrored milk production in Burma.

According to Wired, just watch milk production in Burma, and you'll be a billionaire! Of course, that advice is total crap... because next year cotton output in Egypt might be a better example. Or perhaps the length of Warren Buffet's fingernails is even better. If you just rely on data, your "model" changes too quickly to be useful... unless its based on a theory that depends on up-to-date data as an input, and can give guidance when you only have old or contradictory data.

Google makes the process faster, but ultimately changed nothing about the process itself. The discovery of useful knowledge still follows the scientific method:

  1. gather initial data
  2. make an initial hypothesis
  3. test the hypothesis with new data
  4. if the hypothesis is validated, it graduates to become a theory
  5. use the theory in lieu of up-to-data data, but
  6. continuously refine your theories with newer data, data in a different context, and data acquired with more accurate techniques

Seems to be what everybody is still doing... and apparently the editors of Wired were asleep during Science 101.

Big Oil Going The Way Of Big Tobacco?

I love of energy... I always thought environmentalists got it wrong about energy. The problem isn't overconsumption, its unsustainability. So, go ahead and drive your Hummer, as long as it runs biodiesel from sources like algae or bacteria. If Big Oil was sharp, they would stop denying global warming, and embrace new carbon-negative oil technologies before the high tech venture capitalists steal all their business...

To add insult to injury, it seems that some prominent scientists want to put Big Oil on trial for global warming. At first, I believed that these kinds of trials would go exactly nowhere. Until I found out about one case backed by a dream team of trial lawyers: Steve Berman and Steve Susman.

The former was the lead lawyer representing 13 states against Big Tobacco in their historic defeat in the 1990s. The latter was the man who defended Big Tobacco. Now, they have teamed up and are taking on Big Oil, with pretty much the same strategy...

The Atlantic outlines the logic of the case quite well. There have been dozens of lawsuits against Big Tobacco, dating as far back as the 1950s. The plaintiffs were all the same -- people who got addicted to cigarettes, and got health problems, and were now suing the tobacco industry for selling an unsafe product. Early anti-tobacco lawsuits all ended the same way: the judge would declare that every consumer product has some danger, but its not the judge's responsibility to decided an acceptable level of safety.

Defining what is an "acceptable level of safety" is up to Congress... who are always on top of things...

This of course led Big Tobacco in the past -- just like Big Oil right now -- to funnel millions of dollars to "skeptical" scientists, and use them to pass off PR as genuine research... and use that to influence congress and the media into inaction. Not to mention the millions in campaign contributions, free trips, lobbyist jobs, etc. etc. etc.

Unfortunately, Big Tobacco finally realized the flaw in that plan:

  • When you pass of PR as genuine scientific research, it is a lie.
  • When you lie about consumer products you sell, it is fraud.
  • When you defraud consumers, class action lawsuits are not far behind.
  • When you get sued, you have to produce old memos, emails, and data relevant to the case... which are usually very incriminating

The Steves' plan is not to claim that oil is causing "too much harm." The plan is to prove that Big Oil used both licit and illicit means to downplay the actual harm of their product, whatever that harm may be. Essentially, when companies engage in fraud, they make it impossible for a consumer to make a reasonable choice about whether or not to use their product... and congress has a long list of laws against that...

Essentially, even if oil is 90% safe, if the Steves can prove that Big Oil claimed it was 95% safe, and that Big Oil downplayed evidence to the contrary, then Big Oil is guilty of both fraud, and conspiracy to commit fraud. That exact tactic brought down Big Tobacco, and it seems like it would be pretty easy to do the same to Big Oil...

I, for one, am curious to see how all this pans out...

Genetically Modified Crops DECREASE Food Production

File this one under "whoops":

Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis. The study – carried out over the past three years at the University of Kansas in the US grain belt – has found that GM soya produces about 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent, contradicting assertions by advocates of the technology that it increases yields.

Why the difference? Well, its simple... it takes a REALLY long time to genetically engineer plants. By the time you have one new viable generation of frankenstein foods, traditional breeding techniques could generate dozens of new varieties... in which case, the best traditional crop will almost always outperform the best genetically modified crop. If not now, then probably in a season or two.

I'm not as paranoid about the label "genetic engineering" as some folks -- probably because I did it once in a lab and it wasn't what people think -- but what always bugged me was the woefully unscientific methods that Monsanto used to promote modified crops.

At best, Roundup-Ready crops introduce a new dimension to the arms race between farmers and pests... and one that has much more collateral damage than others. As pests inevitably grow resistant to pesticide, then only the second generation of modified crops and will survive... what then happens to traditional farmers? Or organic farmers?

If they want to use superorganics techniques to grow drought-resistant, flood-resistant, or salt-resistant crops, they have my support... but pesticide-resistant crops make absolutely no sense in the long term. And now it appears that they can't even keep up with the food yields of traditional crops...

Back to the drawing board, I guess.

Cell Phones Cause Cancer? Probably Not.

OK, I hate cell phones, so I'm no fanboy... but I hate junk science even more.

No doubt you've heard some rumblings about an award-winning neurosurgeon named Dr Vini Khurana who reported that cell phones double your risk of brain tumors. The web is all a flutter trying to make you scared of your own shadow, yet again... so I thought I'd add my two cents.

First of all there have been numerous numerous cell phone cancer studies before, none of which found a causal link. Dr. Khurana noted that these studies were flawed, because brain tumors take a very long time to develop... so any such study should restrict itself to people who have used cell phones for 10 years.

woah... that narrows the field... so much so that I'm not certain if Dr. Khurana had a large enough sample to support his claims. I've looked all over the internet, and I couldn't find any info on his sample size. The most recent study that cleared cell phones of any wrongdoing had 420,000 test subjects. If Dr Khurana is using anything less than a sample size of 2,000, then the odds are good that he found nothing more than a statistical anomaly.

In other words... that's like trying to gauge the number of rowdy drunks in the US, but restricting your research to a bar during the Superbowl. You aren't going to get a reliable number that way...

Also... even if his claims are true, what's the actual increase in risk? Brain cancer is very rare... and this increase is not nearly as bad as the tenfold increase in lung cancer due to smoking. Brain tumors cause 13,000 deaths per year in the USA, out of 2,400,000 total... or about 0.5%. This new study -- if true -- means that if you've been a cell phone freak for ten years, your odds of dying from a brain tumor shot up a whole half percentage point.

Pump up on the broccoli and Omega 3s and you'll push that back down, I'd wager...

Although, there might be something to it... perhaps the analog cell phone technology from 10 years ago was much worse for you... or perhaps there was some chemical in old cell phone batteries... or some cancer causing flame-retardant in the ear pieces. It warrants more study, and perhaps you should use a hands-free system for a while.

Until they discover BlueTooth turns you into a zombie...

Awareness Test

How aware are you? Take this quick one minute YouTube test:

Its based on a book by Richard Wiseman about gaps in human awareness that we don't even know are there...

xkcd on science, and unscience

Oh, snap! Zombie Richard Feynman agrees, string theory sucks. And Mythbusters, despite being flashy and frequently dragging out a concept for waaaaaaay longer than needed, deserves some love.

"Pacemaker" For The Brain Improves Memory

This is damn freaky...

Some UK scientists accidentally discovered that by stimulating a specific part of the brain with electrodes, they can significantly improve a person's memory:

The accidental breakthrough came during an experiment originally intended to suppress the obese man's appetite, using the increasingly successful technique of deep-brain stimulation. Electrodes were pushed into the man's brain and stimulated with an electric current. Instead of losing appetite, the patient instead had an intense experience of déjà vu. He recalled, in intricate detail, a scene from 30 years earlier. More tests showed his ability to learn was dramatically improved when the current was switched on and his brain stimulated... Scientists are now applying the technique in the first trial of the treatment in patients with Alzheimer's disease. If successful, it could offer hope to sufferers from the degenerative condition, which affects 450,000 people in Britain alone, by providing a "pacemaker" for the brain.

The work is similar to previous work done to treat Parkinson's disease: 40,000 sufferers currently have similar implantations in their hypothalamus, stimulated by external battery packs. However, its very strange that stimulting the same region improves memory.

The early work with Alzheimer's patients is promising... but I'm still wierded out by the fact that some Dr. Nick Riveria was doing frigging brain surgery to cure obesity!

Oh well. Gift horse. Mouth. I see nothing...

Munchausen Syndrome: In Washington, and on Wall Street

You may have heard of an affliction called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, also known as Fabricated or Induced Illness. It was first diagnosed by a pediatrician, who observed that some mothers intentionally harm their children in order to get attention and praise from doctors.

Some now believe that Munchausen has infected the workplace! Harvard Business Review recently came out with the article Munchausen at Work after observing some very odd behavior:

Georgia Tech professor Nate Bennett studied team performance in over 30 companies and was struck by cases of employees creating fictitious organizational problems in order to solve them and receive praise for it. He calls the phenomenon "Munchausen at Work" -- a workplace version of the psychological disorder Munchausen by proxy -- and explains how managers can diagnose it.

Think about it... some idiot at your work decides to invent emergencies, just so he'll be the hero who fixes them. I've seen several of these folks in the software industry: they'll bad mouth the product in front of customers, exaggerate the danger of bugs... then they'll apply an already existing patch so they can "save" the sale, and make the customer happy.

Those people really tick me off...

This isn't without precedent... Firemen have been caught setting fires, just so they can be the hero who puts it out. Security guards have been known to phone in bomb threats, just so they can be the hero that uncovers the bomb. Political pundits invent problems -- like the "War on Christmas" -- so they can be praised for bravely fighting their straw man enemies.

I believe this phenomenon might even extend to Washington... Think about it: politicians are reasonably bright, and yet they sometimes implement unbelievably stupid policies. Some of this could be due to an imperfect political system rife with compromises... but I'm unconvinced. Might politicians intentionally create crises just so they can save us? Are they just desperately trying to demonstrate that they are still relevant?

Its pretty clear that politicians want us to be scared of something highly unlikely but newsworthy -- like SARS or Terrorism... even though the real threats are the highly likely but boring -- like Staph Superbugs or car crashes. Maybe its to get them votes... or get their names in the paper. Or maybe its just another aspect of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Maybe politicians intentionally cause fiscal problems, stir unrest, etc., just so they can be the ones to make everything better.

Or maybe I'm just a bitter cynic...

(Hat Tip: Know HR Blog)

Surfer Dude Invents Theory Of Everything

yep... some yurt-toting-frisbee-chucking-chiba-monkey has claimed to unlock the secrets of this ginormous universe... in between long moments on his surfboard. Graeme Thickins should be pleased.

From the Telegraph: Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything

Lisi's inspiration lies in the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 - a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.


E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional. Lisi says "I think our universe is this beautiful shape." What makes E8 so exciting is that Nature also seems to have embedded it at the heart of many bits of physics. One interpretation of why we have such a quirky list of fundamental particles is because they all result from different facets of the strange symmetries of E8.


Lisi's breakthrough came when he noticed that some of the equations describing E8's structure matched his own. "My brain exploded with the implications and the beauty of the thing," he tells New Scientist. "I thought: 'Holy crap, that's it!'"

party on, dude!

Seriously... I'm a believer that the universe is a chaotic, dynamic system. I've never seen any evidence that the fundamental rules of physics must be immutable: believing so just makes the math easier. In short: as soon as we invent a theory of everything, somebody will discover a new everything.

Nevertheless, everybody seems excited about E8. Whether its the right answer, or just the next right answer, it's still very innovative.

UPDATE: There's a video of E8 rotating online. (Hat Tip: Ze Frank)

If you can solve this puzzle, you might have brain damage

Look at the mathematical puzzle below... in it you should be able to move one single matchstick to create a mathematically correct statement with Roman Numerals:

Single slanted sticks are not allowed: there must be 2 slanted stick in a V to represent 5, and a single non-slanted stick to represent a 1. You have 3 minutes... GO! The original blog article has the answer.

Next, try this one:

A bit tougher, huh? In studies, only 43% of people could solve the second puzzle in under 3 minutes. However, 80% of people with lateral prefrontal damage to their brain could solve it! Mental patents get all the fun...

In theory, that part of the brain is important for determining how to solve a problem, which is called cognitive guidance. It's essential for doing ordinary math quickly, but it hinders problem solving when you don't have a rigid framework to help you. In other words, a healthy brain makes it difficult to "think outside the box".


Thus, some brain damage patients are better at letting their minds wander and solve problems in any way that seems to work for them... which on occasion helps them see things that other people do not. In other cases, it makes it extremely difficult for them to solve problems within a framework with apparently arbitrary rules. I bet Kafka would have nailed the second puzzle...

So, chime in, folks! Who else here solved the second puzzle quickly, and might need color-coordinating tips for their tin-foil hat?

This Year, Thus Far, In Your Brain

Slate Magazine has a pretty good list of the top 5 brain-related news stories of 2007. I'd say that's a bit premature, since its only May, but I'm not in the magazine business... They are, in order:

  1. Software that can use a MRI to read your mind 71% of the time,
  2. You can change what people think is moral by altering their brain chemistry,
  3. The ability to genetically predict sexual orientation in mammals,
  4. The sedative Ambien wakes people up from a vegetative coma,
  5. Generally significant progress in artificial intelligence.

Yikes on the mind reading one...

I like number 5... but the full article missed one of my favorite examples: cognitive researchers at IBM have reproduced 10% of a mouse brain in a computer! They created simple software that behaved like neurons, and painstakingly connected them together in a massively parallel application. They've gotten it to behave like 10% of a mouse for about 10 seconds.

However, if these mouse guys succeeded, it makes the Chinese Room Argument in cognitive science a tiny bit problematic... John Searl argued that by definition a computer cannot have human consciousness, since a computer can only do symbol manipulation. A human who knows Chinese know the meaning of the question 怎么样您, which is "how are you?" Whereas a computer would just see the Chinese symbols, and reply with other symbols like 我很好, which would mean "I am well."

In a computational machine there is no context, therefore no true knowledge, therefore no true consciousness.

But... a neural network of computers might not suffer from this limitation. The binary ones and zeros are just the building blocks upon which neurons are created... and the structure of the digital neurons grant context, and perhaps consciousness. I see this as analogous to how physical neurons are composed of atoms and molecules, and consciousness is just an emergent property.

Of course, we could all just be fooling ourselves, and conscious might not really exist... its merely an illusion of an extremely complex system. Philosophers call this reductionism, and the thought makes most people uncomfortable... but that doesn't make it wrong!

Retrocausality, Time Travel, and Quantum Physics

If that title didn't bore the pants off of you, then the rest of this blog will!

The San Francisco Gate recently published an amazing article on retrocausality, which is the idea that things we do in the present go backwards in time to affect the past.

Naturally, many scientists think its silly to think you can go back in time: that would require something to go faster than the speed of light.

Plus, what about causality? Say I got my hair cut today. Then say I went back in time to yesterday to burn down my barber's place (no offense Scott, its just an illustration). Would my hair instantly grow back?

In general, this debate is between Einstein and his General Relativity fans, and the Quantum Physics fans. The former say time travel and faster-than-light travel is impossible, because that leads to incredibly weird paradoxes and a breakdown of causality.

The Quantum Physics folks basically reply, "Boo hoo! We've been dealing with incredibly weird paradoxes and a breakdown of causality for a hundred years... AND we've invented the laser, the computer, and superconductivity. What do you got?"

As you may have guessed, I side with the latter camp...

I am glad to read about a fearless quantum physics geek who may actually be able to prove time travel on a small scale is possible.

Boring physics experiments aside, the article goes into detail about the possibility that there is nothing strange at all about retrocausality. Quite possibly, time travel happens every day in small ways, and we are just not aware of it.

My hero, Richard Feynman, famously noted that a positron behaves exactly like an electron traveling backwards in time. Others have expanded on his observation with very interesting results. Perhaps these particles even go back in time all the way to the big bang, to affect the fundamental nature of our universe!

Paul Davies at the University in Sydney took this idea one step further... he and many other scientists have always been surprised at how unusually hospitable for life our universe is. If you look at how many ways it could have evolved after the big bang, its remarkable that we exist at all.

One theory is that this is nothing remarkable at all: there could have been an infinite number of big bangs before this one. If it was inhospitable to life, there would be no observer. The most recent kaboom just happened to work out well, and therefore we just happen to be around to observe it. Its just a numbers game. Fair enough...

However, if retrocausality actually happens, that means that we may live in a self tuning universe. Perhaps an unstable universe would have a lot of time traveling particles, affecting how the big bang happened, and it eventually settled down into the universe we now observe... if there is such a thing as "now".

It also leads to the possibility that disastrous time paradoxes may only exist in an unstable universe. In our universe, if somebody tried to do too much time travel, it might cause a flood of positrons to go back in time to make things more stable again... possibly by annihilating the time traveling anomaly before he does any damage.

Bad news for Dr. Who, I guess...

Update: Allerca a Con?

I blogged last week about a company named Allerca, which claimed to have bred hypoalergenic cats.

It turns out, not so much.

BoingBoing reported some very weird things about the company... such as the cats have a license agreement, so you're not allowed to sell them to other people! There was also an article at the San Diego Tribune that questioned their credibility.

Perhaps this was a publicity stunt for somebody who is close, but needs some extra capital before finishing... but that's a risky gabit, even if it is true.

One alert Boinger mentioned that the president of Allerca offered to breed a two headed cat for his father.

Creepy... and just in time for Halloween!

Oh well... its a good idea, but perhaps Allerca just doesn't have the stuff yet.

Space Elevator Tests - Reckless and Irresponsible

New Scientist recently put out an article on preliminary tests of the space elevator.

I am not pleased.

For those who don't know, a space elevator is a half baked idea about how to launch vehicles into space more cheaply. Basically, you put a huge rock in orbit around the earth, one big enough to destroy a whole country if it fell out of orbit. Then you tie a big rope around it, and climb up the rope to get to space.

Its only a little less crazy than it sounds.

In theory, an elevator would need to expend a great deal less energy than a rocket in order to get to space. Some numbers I saw a few years back made it sound like you could deploy something into orbit for about 100 times the cost of sending it via Fed Ex.

Neat! but there has to be a catch...

What concerns me is that nobody in the news seems to be talking about how incredibly dangerous it would be to have a rope 20,000 miles long stretching into space. What if something goes wrong? Weather? Asteroid? Terrorist? That tether could do considerable damage, even if the giant rock stays in orbit...

What concerns me more is that they are doing these initial tests without resolving the problems with nanotube toxicology! All of these tethers are made with nanotubes, since they are light and incredibly strong... but they have a nasty side effect of killing fish even in minute quantities. Many scientists ignore this, despite the fact that every proposed construction site in the middle of the ocean.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

I must say shame on New Scientist for not mentioning this fact in their latest article, because their own website posted two articles about how nanotubes cause brain damage in fish, and suffocate other marine creatures, one in March 2004, and again in April 2004. Don't they read their own articles?

It is reckless and irresponsible for scientists to be performing tests out in the open environment with materials known to be this toxic. They need to discover what species are effected by nanotubes, and why, so we can either create better nanotubes or try something else. Preliminary data suggests that there may be even inhalation toxicity for mammals... which means the asbestos problem all over again.

We don't need the space elevator any time soon... but we sure do need fish in the ocean!

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