Monday, August 27, 2007

Sudoku National Championship in Philadelphia

Anyone want to come try it? (article)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More on Women in Science

Matt's right, this is in it's final days. Here are my parting shots:

Women in Science
by: Philip Greenspun
February 2006

Why does anyone think science is a good job?
The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

1. age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college
2. age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month
3. age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year
4. age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year
5. age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.

Is There Anything Good About Men?
by: Roy F. Baumeister
American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007

When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men.

Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.

The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in today’s American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren’t equal. This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were women.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Road to Clarity

Joshua Yaffa writes in the NYT Magazine this week:

The Federal Highway Administration granted Clearview interim approval in 2004, meaning that individual states are free to begin using it in all their road signs. More than 20 states have already adopted the typeface, replacing existing signs one by one as old ones wear out. Some places have been quicker to make the switch — much of Route I-80 in western Pennsylvania is marked by signs in Clearview, as are the roads around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport — but it will very likely take decades for the rest of the country to finish the roadside makeover. It is a slow, almost imperceptible process. But eventually the entire country could be looking at Clearview.

Some comparisons between Highway Gothic Series E and Clearview are given here:

NYT slideshow accompanying the article

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Earthquake Fun

For those of you who don't know, I'm in LA this week. I arrived tonight and as I was going to sleep, i felt this! Almost as fun as a thunderstorm :-) I hadn't gotten to sleep yet but Elise was awoken by it so it was pretty substantial.

Woohooo! Good stuff!

Guitarist for Queen to get PhD in Astrophysics

A buddy of mine passed this along to me: I'm actually not took him over 30 yrs!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Barry Bonds' Other Advantage

Rich sent me this article about the advantage Bonds gets from wearing his colossal arm guard. According this the author, it's much more that just reducing the fear of getting hit, including physically keeping his arm in the correct plane and allowing him greater leverage at impact. I'm not sure I agree with all the arguments, but it's interesting to think about.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

If you're in LA in Aug or Sept this year...

...then try to check out the Florian Maier-Aichen exhibit at the Pacific Design Center. He takes photographs and then digitally alters them to make pretty pictures. "Long Beach" is my favorite. You can read more about him in the Summer 2007 Aperture Magazine (flash required).

Why I hardly ever post to this thing

From the number of updates there have been recently, it seems like this blog experiment is in it's last clutches of life. Perhaps that's just because it's summer and Alan and Dave have better things to do now that the weather is nice. I've wondered why I don't post to the blog very often, and figured since no else is either, I would list my reasons and everyone else could list theirs and that would increase content, at least briefly. So, here goes:

1) It's painfully slow for me. I am an extremely deliberative writer, for better or worse (probably worse). Practically, this means that it takes me between one and two hours to produce any typical entry. It just doesn't really seem worth the effort to me. Of course, this entry is typed straight in and is not deliberate in any way, so will take a total of about 5 minutes (I'm a decent enough typist).

2) I don't really have much interesting to say. The information that I choose to access is generally either too specialized (for work), too dated (I mostly read big old books on history), or too commonplace (cnn, bbc, espn, etc.) to be worthwhile in a post format. I don't really run across much in the way of truly interesting internet articles, at least what I would consider interesting to a wider audience. In my opinion, this leaves two serious options for things I would post about if I were to post on a regular basis--carefully researched opinion articles on a topic that strikes my interest and general, under-informed rants. I don't really see the point in either of those.

Those are my excuses for not posting much. Does anyone even care? If anyone have their own reasons for not posting here much (other blog/ interesting life/ etc.), it would be interesting (to me, at least) to read.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Four Books, each of which you can read in an afternoon

I don't have a TV or the internets in my new apartment, so i've been forced to read alot and sleep early:

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

A single woman takes a vacation from her job as an accountant.

A friend of mine has been talking about Muriel Spark since she (Spark) passed away a year ago. Running out of ways to avoid doing work, I finally borrowed the aforementioned book. It's written in a detached style that manages to hold your interest and then totally messes with you at the end. Spark is imaginative and doesn't give you the hollywood ending that you think she is leading you to. After you read it once, you'll want to read it again to see how you could have missed it. Spark is the kind of writer you think that you can be, if only you had any good ideas. Needless to say, I'm now hooked. The next book by Spark that I'm reading is called Memento Mori. It's about the various responses to a prank phone call a group of different people receive reminding them that they will die one day.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

How a couple (both virgins) spent their awkward wedding night together

I kept hearing about *this* guy and *this* book. Once I realized how short it was, I caved in. Don't read the reviews for this book, they give too much away! I thought it was mostly hilarious and then you get hit with a bad case of "Carpe Diem" at the end. This book is the fancy literary analogue to the movie "American Pie." Be sure to keep track of the number of times that he uses the phrase "a sign of maturity." McEwan is the kind of writer that makes you realize that, even if you had a good idea, you couldn't ever come close to his writing ability.

The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

Similar topics as my earlier post, but more coherent & incisive, using fewer but bigger words

Posner is a judge who is famous for, among other things, his contributions to law and economics. He defines plagiarism as "unauthorized copying that the copier claims is original with him." In addition, this claim *must* cause the copier's audience "to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth." One thing that I learned was that judges are, at most, simply editors of their opinions which are actually written by their clerks. I don't know if this is also true for the supremes. One final point: Posner argues that originality and creativity are two related but very different things (perhaps a future post).

The Big Book of Irony by Jon Winokur

What Irony is and isn't, Who does it well, and Why some people don't like it and why

This little book is funny yet thought-provoking. Winokur is a master quote collector and it shows. He frequently refers to Douglas Coupland, who coined the term Generation-X, and a very bright but strange guy named Jedediah Purdy. Purdy wrote a book in his early twenties lamenting the widespread use of ironic detachment in his peers (people our age).

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy Independence Day

A great day for barbeque, baseball, and remembering one of the most significant documents in history. I've seen a few references this year to the rough draft of the Declaration which among other things contains a remarkable attack on slavery:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating
it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of
a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying
them to slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable
death in their transportations thither. this piratical warfare,
the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian
king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN
should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for
suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain
this excrable commerce
Pretty amazing. I'd also like to echo a point made by a commenter on Volokh that we were not Americans fighting the British. We were British, and we were fighting our own people and our own government. I cannot imagine what courage and principle it took to sign one's name to such a document, but we owe a lot to them and part of what we owe is to preserve what they fought for.

Monday, July 2, 2007

More than Meets the Eye... Really?

I was discussing this Saturday night at a party and thought it would make for a good first post. This is a cautionary tale.

There are many things that I have always wanted to do, and as it so happened recently, several things aligned in a way that allowed me to do one of those things. Like any person who has "sold" out to industry, my easy job (by CalTech standards) gives me plenty of disposable cash and quite a bit of free time on the weekends. Add to that a Hollywood marketing juggernaut, and I quickly found myself longing to complete this specific quest once and for all.

I suppose this particular desire originated sometime around 1985 but has been largely dormant since that time. There was a brief stint when I tried to accomplish it during 1998-9. Jaideep joined me for a while, but alas the zeal for our adventure faded away quite rapidly... until this month.

I am, of course, talking about watching the entire Transformers Generation One Cartoon Series.

By my calculations, this would be a relatively easy task for someone who routinely watches seasons of TV shows (all 5 seasons of 24, Veronica Mars, Lost, etc) in 24 hour chunks. There are 98 original episodes and one animated feature film. Clocking in at 22 minutes an episode, that's only ((98*22)+120)/60 = 38 hrs -> easily manageable as a two weekend event.
So, I blocked off my calendar, invited others who may have been excited by the premise, and got down to business. 51 episodes in, here is what it is like:

Episode begins with Decepticons attacking some sort of hydroelectric dam/oil rig/nuclear plant/energy source. Autobots, notified by their all-knowing computer Teletraan I, go to defend humans. Battle ensues. Everyone shoots at everyone but no one hits anyone. Starscream mocks Megatron's leadership abilities. Decepticons are somehow defeated and escape.

Repeat 51 times.

Granted this was a cartoon series designed to push a toy line, but watching the episodes back to back unexpectedly highlights the obvious redundancy in the first two seasons. My expected glee at reliving my childhood is slowly being replaced by the dreaded realization that my 10-year-old self was easily entertained and possibly stupid.

Nevertheless, I march on, hoping that my memories of a deeper mythology will be justified in upcoming episodes. Indeed, the last few story lines have taken place on other planets and have begun to flashback to the Cybertronian past of these robots in disguise. All the while I keep watching, anticipating the moment when the series will reveal its grand story and show me once again that this cartoon truly was more than meets the eye.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A little bet...

Imagine someone offered you a bet - you pay $1 and pick an integer between 1 and 100. An integer in that range is randomly chosen, and if it matches your choice you win $200. Do you take it?

If you do, it's probably because you do this calculation in your head (whether you realize it or not): $200*(1/100)=$2. Since the expectation of the game is greater than $1, you're better off taking the bet.

Conversely, imagine someone offers you a $1, but if they pick the right number (again out of 100), you owe them $200. Would you take that bet instead (presumably no one thinks it makes sense that you would take both)? Well, towards what I thought was the end of a discussion about economics, a friend of mine did take that bet. Three years later we're still talking about it, so it's time to share it with all of you.

A rational person is expected to undertake any action in which the person believes the marginal benefit outweighs the marginal cost. If someone offers you $2 for something you value at $1, you'd be wise to sell it to them. However, how do you value things that are not definite, but instead have some probability of having a certain value? The conventional explanation is to calculate the expectation. It is the sum over all outcomes of the chance of that outcome happening times the value of that outcome happening.

My friend claims that it is not only the expectation, but also the distribution, that is important in determining what the actual value is. In this case, 99% of the time he wins money. The expectation is closely approached only over a large number of trials, so if he plays only once he is quite likely to come out ahead. Needless to say, since we've argued about this for some time, but I disagree with his reasoning. While I realize that the added information about the distribution may be valuable, I fail to see how. In the end you must make a yes/no decision, and there has to be some point at which your decision changes based on the particular probabilities and payouts. I claim that point is when the total expectation becomes negative. I think it's a significant point that expectation has all sorts of nice properties like additivity.

I think the problem here is a cognitive bias: treating a small probability as if it were zero. I bet the calculation goes: 1/100 is approximately zero, so 0*$200=$0 which is less than $1. So he takes the bet. I wonder if there is some way to test this - at the very least it seems like there are some psych experiments in here somewhere.

If you agree with him, here's the question I'd most like answered: you must go through some decision making process - what's the formula you use to determine whether to play or not?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Genarlow Wilson ordered released

Before my highly anticipated post on the use of expectation in decision making, I thought I'd pass along what I think is some great news (if a bit old) - last week a Superior court judge ordered the release of Genarlow Wilson. For those of you who are not familiar, Wilson was sentenced to ten years in a Georgia prison for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old girl when he was 17. After his trial, the Georgia legislature changed the penalty for his crime to a misdemeanor, and at the time consensual intercourse was also a misdemeanor. The law was applied so harshly in part because he was accused of raping another girl and refused to plea to that charge. He was aquitted of rape but convicted of statutory rape and the jury was not allowed to know that a mandatory 10 year sentence was required.

Understandably there was a great deal of outrage over this case, and he got coverage in ESPN, the New York Times and even from Mark Cuban. He is still in jail pending the Attorney General's appeal, but this decision is a big step towards his freedom. This Volkh Conspiracy post discusses the legal reasoning and chances of it being upheld on appeal.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blatant self-promotion

As some of you know, I've decided to take the rest of the year off to travel. If you want to keep track of where I am and what I'm up to, take a look at my travel blog.


Some things I've seen in recent weeks that I found interesting but weren't blog-worthy
on their own:

Stopping Menstration with the Pill (Slate): One thing I found interesting was the argument that menstruation was actually somewhat unnatural because for much of human history women spent most of their fertile years either pregnant or breastfeeding.

Reverse Contact Lenses (The Independent): Lenses you wear at night which squish your eyes back to the right shape, restoring perfect vision for up to 48 hrs.

Living Streets ( An interesting article (and a cool site by the way) about how to get people to drive carefully on residential streets. One neat idea is to make the street environment more vague, forcing the driver to slow down to figure out what's going on. I can't explain it as well as he can, so just read the article.

AT&T and the NSA ( Recently published documents show that AT&T has installed sophisticated NSA equipment into its internet backbone which an expert claims has the capacity to filter through up to 10% of all traffic passing through it. I'm sure this isn't a shock to many, but it's pretty disturbing that there is now evidence.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Avandia and the "New-Media Man"

In all honesty, I don't give a @$#@ (that's French for rat's ass) about the diabetes drug Avandia. While this article in the New York Times is ostensibly about the recent news that Avandia has been associated with an elevated risk of heart disease, the author spends much of his time discussing his research for the article. He refers* to himself as a "new-media man", meaning that rather than trust the headlines, he utilizes the "entire niche of blogs and digital news sources on relevant subjects — drug risks, Big Pharma, diabetes". I was pretty impressed. This guy was going to do a little digging and come up with a nice take-home message, empowering his reader to use the internet to look past the headlines and scrutinize what they are reading. So what was his take-home message?

"And here is what I found: everything, except insight."

What a disappointment! Maybe I should have guessed as much, after all the title of the article is "Call the Doctor". But this was a gimme! The take-home message is so simple, yet the author got caught up trying to weigh opinions of others when he would have been far better off just reading the study and forming his own. To me, the value of so-called "new-media" is unprecedented access to primary sources, allowing the people (as in "we the") to form their own opinions rather than simply selecting between those of politicians and journalists. (The Durham-In-Wonderland blog is a fantastic example, to which I've linked to multiple times before.)

A quick skim of the actual study in the New England Journal of Medicine given a pretty simple take-home message:

There is a 95% that the increase in risk of heart attack due to the use of Avandia for 24 months is between 3% and 98%, the best estimate being 43%. In other words, Avandia does seem to increase the risk of heart disease, but the studies have been small so the precise magnitude is unknown until larger studies are conducted. This result should be taken very seriously because Diabetics are at higher risk for heart disease to begin with, so even a relatively small percent increase in risk is significant, in the same way that doubling your chances of getting in a car accident is more significant than doubling your chances of being hit by lightning.

* in reference to Jaideep's comment, formerly "refferse"

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Choose Responsibility

Five years ago, near Charlottesville, a woman threw a birthday party for her son. To insure that none of the guests drove home drunk, she insisted that (1) the guests not drive to the party and (2) that they spend the night. No one at the party drank above the legal limit for driving and no one left the house as agreed...until the police showed up. For their good faith efforts, Elisa Kelly and her now ex-husband were sentenced to over 2 yrs in jail a piece on 9 counts of providing alcohol to a minor.

In fairness, Kelly definitely screwed up for "[misleading] parents who called to ask about alcohol [and for trying] to get the kids to cover it up after police got there." There are certainly different ways of looking at this case: Radley Balko of Reason (here) and Charlottesville's Daily Progress (here). Along these lines, Balko has also written about a group called Choose Responsibility headed by John McCardell, a former college president. As first reported in this article of the Chronicle of Higher Education, McCardell argues for a plan which would lower the drinking age to 18 with a "catch." People between the ages of 18 and 20 would be given a provisional license to drink alcohol, but it would be revoked if they screwed up. People under the age of 18 would lose access to the provisional license if they screwed up before turning 18. The idea is that this gives kids under 18 an incentive not to drink until they turned 18. It also gives people between 18 and 20 an incentive to drink responsibly. Some Q&A here.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Test Your Ethics (or Lack Thereof)

Did I just plagiarize that title? Anyway, John Tierney at NYT has posted this about a survey on ethics administered by Carnegie-Mellon. It takes about 10 mins, so try it out if you want, and then read the rest of this post.

The survey presents certain actions in different scenarios and you're asked to specify (a) how ethical it is and (b) how often you do it. You're also given a chance to specify whether it is even an ethical issue at all. I found myself answering that, very generally speaking, most of the things listed were not ethical issues. (Though, there were some definite exceptions.) On the other hand, I also answered that I almost never do most of those things. This is profoundly confusing: "If those things aren't even ethical issues, then why don't I do more of those things?" At first I thought, "Oh, those aren't ethical issues, they're moral issues." But I don't feel comfortable with that distinction either. When taking the survey, my reasoning often went something like this:
Only a dick would do that and I'm usually not a dick, so I wouldn't do that/haven't done that....but it's not like it's a moral or ethical question. If I saw someone doing those things, I would think, "they're probably dicks, but you never know, maybe they're having a bad day."
Since I probably don't know what they mean, I looked up morals and ethics in wikipedia. Even though the entries were different, I really can't tell the two apart. Is there any difference? If so, what it is? (This is straight out of Election.) For whatever reason, I associate morality with big (traditionally) religious questions of good and evil (should i steal/kill/etc.) and ethics with professional/business questions of right and wrong (should i give that person credit for their ideas/steal my work computer/etc.). Are these kinds of questions completely separate or are they different applications of one larger abstract fundamental concept? Is there a word for the "smalller" stuff? In other words, does there exist a concept for actions for which the consequences aren't really that big of a deal, but if you do it, you're a dick/douche/appropriate slang?

For "big" situations, a person has probably thought about it beforehand. Therefore, their response has probably been orchestrated based on a personal "worldview." However, I suspect that, in the heat of the moment and in a split second, for scenarios that haven't been thought about ("small stuff"), one probably tries unconciously to minimize the future potential for feeling guilt. To do this well, one probably has to have some sense of whether a particular action will lead to guilt. If so, presumably one get "better" with time after accumulating more experience. Maybe it's like muscle memory? Does feeling guilt and/or regret have anything to do with things that are considered wrong/evil/not okay/etc.? Is there a relationship or mapping among right/wrong, good/evil, and okay/not okay?

Does the degree of an action even play a role in whether it's okay or not? For example, kicking one ugly, loud, obnoxious, anti-social, disfigured puppy into the middle of an empty road late at night when you're drunk can, from a certain point of view, be rather funny (i.e. it's okay). On the other hand, throwing a box of cute puppies into a busy intersection during rush hour is probably not cool (i.e. it's not okay). Maybe that's not the best example, but hopefully it gets the point across. (note: I don't kick dogs of any kind.) How much weight should be given to the motivation of an action versus the consequences of the action? What, if any, are the moral/ethical absolutes? (Never kick puppies...) In other words, is it always possible to cook up a realistic situation that presents mitigating circumstances for any kind of action? (...unless it's for self-defense) Personally, I can think of only one thing that you should never do under any realistic circumstances (which I'll leave unsaid to encourage discussion); but there could certainly be others. (I know, I know: define "realistic"...)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Hard Sudoku Puzzle (and Solver Website)

I was trying to do this Sudoku puzzle without writing down anything other than the correct solution. That failed miserably, and even after I gave up on my "no scratchwork" rule, it still wasn't easy. I wondered if there was an website that would solve it for me, and of course there is. How difficult do you think this one is? Got a harder one for me to try?
















Puzzle 136 from "Sudoku to go" by Will Shortz (the NYT crossword guy)

Wasteful-but-Wonderful Fruit Salad

It's summertime again, and you know what that means? Alan's wasteful-but-wonderful fruit salad.


2 large ripe watermelons
1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
1 lime
4 ripe bananas
1 ripe cantaloupe

Refrigerate the watermelon and cantaloupe over night. This is essential! If the melon is room temperature when mixed with the banana, you'll either have warm melon or mushy banana at the end.

Once the melons are cold, cut out the hearts of each of the watermelons and toss out the rest. The heart is the middle part that has no seeds. (In a seedless, use your best judgment) Cut the watermelon hearts and your cantaloupe into about 1 inch cubes. Add mint. Cut the bananas into bite-sized slices and juice the lime over them. This will keep them from turning brown. Mix it all together and let rest in the fridge for 1 hr. Serve COLD!

1. Other fruits can be added (blueberries would be my next choice) but avoid oranges and grapefruits; They don't play well with others.
2. If you REALLY like sweets, you can shake 3 tablespoons of splenda over the salad. Spenda is better that sugar here because of its high solubility in cold water.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

He's baaaack

Those of you who are non-Techers never got to meet Mason.
Heck, I should never have gotten to meet Mason.
Mason was a Caltech student who graduated in 1998, well before I arrived. Once or twice a year, though, he would appear on the couch in our house's gathering area known as Lower Crotch. Long after everyone he went to school with had moved on with their lives, I would walk down the stairs and find him sitting there in the same sweat pants, faded Lloyd shirt and sneakers with the same messy, curly hair.
But anyway, eventually I graduated and I didn't really ever think of him again. Except he keeps reappearing! Last month, it was in a friend of a friend's wedding pictures, and this week in a press release about Caltech's latest book of pranks (he's an editor).
"The Legends of Caltech series contains a collection of first-hand accounts
and remembrances of high jinks past, compiled by the Herculean efforts of a
handful of alumni. This latest installment, edited by alums Autumn Looijen
('99) and Mason A. Porter ('98), illuminates Caltech student life and the
schemes that often stemmed from late-night study sessions fueled by donuts
and caffeine. Colorful escapades described in Legends III include pranks
ranging from the elaborate to the simple: reprogramming fellow classmates'
clocks to run backwards; reengineering a building elevator to consistently deliver
passengers two floors below where they wanted to go; or freezing a dormitory
hallway floor to create a rink for "alley broom ball" (ice hockey a la Caltech)."

Anyway, this is a pretty long post for a pretty short purpose, which is basically to say: look guys, Mason edited a book of pranks, isn't that weird? Oh, and also the book is named Legends of Caltech III: Techer in the Dark.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bicycle Helmets

As I've often been told to wear my helmet more, I decided to do a little research, and thought I'd write a post on what I found. I browsed some websites and read some original research. Turns out though, I could have just read this amazing wikipedia article on the subject. It is chock full of information, referenced with many of the papers I read, and is completely reasonable in its conclusions.

The gist of it is that it's very difficult to tell if helmets do much or any good. From first principles, they should help if there is a low speed collision involving direct head injury. At high speeds a normal bike helmet will absorb very little of the total energy, and they offer no protection against rotational trauma.

Statistical studies, as is the norm with these things, are difficult and ambiguous. People who wear helmets seem to get head injuries less often, but they're different in many ways. Mandatory helmet laws have not been shown to have a statistically significant effect on the rate of head injuries.

Cycling is safer when more people do it - which is why cycling in the Netherlands, with little helmet use, is much safer than the US, with high use. Helmet laws that discourage cycling are therefore counterproductive.

Of course this doesn't necessarily answer whether I should wear a helmet (any more than the bozo who gets counted in condom failure statistics should impact my decision). My general rule - if I'm wearing sneakers, I'm wearing a hat. I'm traveling slowly, unlikely to fall over, and if I do I can react to prevent myself hitting my head. If I'm wearing bike shoes, I wear my helmet. I'm out for a real ride, up and down hills, and traveling at a higher speed. And given that I'm already going to go click-clack if I try to walk anywhere, it doesn't really matter that I'll have to carry a helmet too.

My final point is that regardless of whether you wear a helmet or not, cycling is not dangerous (by most people's definition). Conservatively, cycling is twice as safe as walking, per mile. Meanwhile, the benefits of cycling are obvious. I mean, obvious.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Arms to Lebanon and its converage in the US media

This is an email I received from my brother Kurt, posted here with his consent.

I know this is everyones favorite subject: politics and what the US does abroad (or at home for that matter), but this article kind of stuck out to me because I was happy that someone was answering the obvious question that comes up when browsing the headlines about whats going on in Lebanon these days: why does the US need to make emergency military arms shipments to the Lebanese army so it can fight a tiny militant group in a refugee camp?

I don’t know why I am sending it to you all in particular, I guess because its something interesting and a bit different maybe from what we usually think about as a family.

Is anyone following this at all? Is there any discussion in the news about why the US needs to send arms to Lebanon? I’m curious.

Everyone hates sprawl

Ask most people how the feel about sprawl and you'd get a generally negative response. The word has an almost exclusively negative connotation, at least from what I've seen.

The standard solution offered to eliminate sprawl is to drastically increase urban density. There are certainly many positive advantages to living in densely populated metropolitan areas---diversity, culture, increased public transport, and decreased reliance on automobiles.

Of course, if no one liked sprawl, there wouldn't be any. You can blame developers or local government, but it seems that it rarely occurs to sprawl opponents that some people actually like the suburbs.

It seems to me that the people that advocate against unregulated urban growth are the people that are negatively effected by it--namely people that already have somewhere to live and those that have no desire to exchange cultural vibrancy for extra space. Unfortunately for them, people like living in houses. People like having big yards. Many of them are willing to drive an hour to and from work every day to get it.

The question becomes what are the rights of individuals and communities to determine development? What rights do individuals and corporations have to build on unused land? Should everyone be required to either be farmers or live at urban densities of 100 households (not people, households) per acre (which is denser than Hong Kong) or 500 households (denser than the densest part of Macao, the densest municipality in the world)? Do we let the market take care of these problems? Is there some middle ground?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sodium Benzoate or Flash - Which is the Silent Killer?

New research indicates a possibility that sodium benzoate - a common preservative - has adverse effects on yeast mitochondria, with possible implications for humans. I'm normally not remotely alarmist about these sorts of things (I could be described as risk-tolerant, to say the least, as may be indicated in a future post). Of course it's worth looking into, and I'm curious to find out whether this is a real concern. It is a preservative, so it's purpose is to kill things, just hopefully not people.

After reading about this, I figured it was worth going to a few websites to determine which of my favorite sodas had sodium (or presumably potassium) benzoate. What amazed me is how little the Coca-cola and Pepsi websites had to do with drinks. Go to, and in addition to an annoying flash display, you see links to music, car culture, sports, entertainment, and fashion. Smaller links below include "brands and products", which is more than I can say for, which as far as I can tell contains no information on the Coca-cola product whatsoever. After 12 mouse clicks, through the corporate page and more annoying flash crap than I would wish on anyone but my worst enemies, I managed to find out that Sprite "has an honest, straightforward attitude that sets it apart from other soft drinks." I wish I were making this up, but I don't think I'm capable of it, unlike the moron that designed this website. Eventually I googled "Sprite ingredient list" and the first hit confirmed that it does indeed include sodium benzoate (as do diet drinks and Dr. Pepper it seems, but not regular Coke and Pepsi).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I think I just self-plagiarized all over myself...

Plagiarism is something that I think about alot for a couple of reasons. One of them goes back to my first non-Tech honor code experience. During my first year at UVa, the student newspaper catapulted a physics prof to national attention for rosenwinkelling over 100 students in his class for plagiarism. Lou Bloomfield taught a very popular non-mathematical intro phys class called "How Things Work." The "final exam" for the class is essentially a paper that should describe how something works. Motivated by accusations from one of the students in his class, Lou wrote a simple text comparison program to investigate all the papers submitted electronically over the years. In the end, a bunch of students were asked to leave the school or had their diplomas revoked. That particular case was pretty cut and dry because, in most instances, large chunks of the papers had been copied verbatim.

That brings me to the another reason why I think about plagiarism: "Self-Plagiarism." Many of my talks and presentations and technical writeups are copied from each other. In other words, once I've found a way to describe a piece of equipment or a physical process, I simply recycle that piece of text without attribution. I mean, I wrote the damn thing in the first place, right? That should be okay, right? Well, if you google "self plagiarism," one of the first links that comes up is this website by Miguel Roig written for the Office of Research Integrity at US Department of Health and Human Services. Three of the things that Roig lists under self-plagiarism are "redundant or dual publications," "salami slicing," and "text recycling."

An example of dual publication is when the same work or paper is published in two different journals. I personally have never seen this and have trouble believing people try to pull this off. Ok, nevermind: my cubicle buddy just informed me that theorists (snicker) do this all the time. Salami slicing or to quote Roig "the segmenting of a large study into two or more publications" is considered "unacceptable scientific practice." Really? If I understand this correctly, then we do this all the time. Without getting too technical, let me explain: we measured quantities I'll call "A1" and "A2" as a function of another variable "v." One paper we published was essentially "(A1-A2)/v." We then published another paper that was essentially "(A1-A2)v^3."...And then three more papers were published that were literally different linear combinations of A1 and A2. I'm almost almost almost not kidding. The physics of these "derived" quantities are related, but different. Even though all the data came from one experiment taken over a single time interval, is this still self plagiarism and unacceptable?

Here's another situation that Roig talks about (called data augmentation): "when a researcher publishes a study and subsequently collects additional data, which typically end up strengthening the original effect, and publishes the combined results as a new study." Guess what, we've done exactly this as well (see first two links)! Again without going into the details, we count the number of electrons that hit the detectors after they bounce off the target. Being a "counting" experiment, the relative statistical uncertainty scales as the inverse of the square root of the number of electrons counted. We took data in three chunks over two years. Our preliminary results were published after the first year and our final combined results were published after the experiment ended. This appears to be an almost perfect of, in Roig's words, "old data that has been merely augmented with additional data points and that is subsequently presented as a new study." Roig calls this practice a "serious ethical breach."

Finally, he gets to the question that I originally had about text recycling: "a writer’s reuse of portions of text that have appeared previously in other works." Roig gives examples when this is acceptable and when it is "borderline or unacceptable." As you can probably guess by now, we've done it. I'll spare you the details. do i reconcile these things? Well, first of all, the things that I described are fairly common practice in the field I work in: nuclear physics. This is what I call the "cultural differences" defense. Roig makes many good arguments for why self plagiarizing is bad in the "biomedical and social sciences" arena...but can analogous arguments be made to be suited for other fields? I don't know, but maybe I've been "cultured" to believe that what we do is okay. When I think about text recylcing, I feel it's no different from using the same figure depicting an experimental apparatus over and over again. Should you have to make a unique diagram for each new publication if the experimental apparatus is the same? I would say no, but then what's the difference between that diagram and the text used to describe that diagram? And what about our salami slicing? Well, as my cublicle buddy argued, all of those articles were published in a journal that has a limit of ~4ish pages per article. There is no way that we could cover ~20 pages of physics results in ~4 pages. This is what I call the "It's not our fault" defense.

Finally, the trickist one is data augmentation. In the example I used for what we did, the two papers had a different emphasis. Our first year data was a "new" result in the sense that no one had measured it before and it could have been "zero." The fact the the result was not "zero" was a significant finding itself: it was consistent with what we call the Standard Model of Physics. In our second paper, we were interested in seeing if there was any small deviation in the quantity that we were measuring from the theoretical value. This question required more data so that we could achieve the desired statistical precision. (By the way, there wasn't a statistically significant deviation.) Because the scientific questions were different, I claim the two papers really stand on their own. This is what I call the "No, no they're really two different things (hands waving)" defense. My last defense and maybe the most relevant one is the general idea that at no point did we ever try to "decieve" the reader, which is the standard that Roig repeats throughout his document. But this leads to the question of whether an author's "intent" is relevant to the determination of whether plagiarism has occurred. The answer probably depends on what kind of plagiarism is meant by "plagiarism."

Let me attempt to clarify using the ideas of Erik Campbell: "hard" plagiarism is the copying portions of text verbatim. In his very amusing article at the Virginia Quarterly Review Campbell reflects on his run-in with "accidental" hard plagiarism in poetry. He also presents the idea of "soft" plagiarism: "pilfering another’s ideas." This turns out to be a very murky subject because one has to walk a careful line between "creative influence" and "stealing ideas." How does one draw the line when discussing an artistic endeavor?

Take the case of Bryony Lavery's Tony-nominated play "Frozen" as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article. The play is about a killer, the victim's mother, and a doctor who is studying the killer's mental state to understand his motivation. As Gladwell recalls, the doctor is based on a real life person named Dorothy Lewis whom he had written about in a New Yorker article years ago. The play's author, Lavery, adapted many of the scenes for her play directly from events described in the original article. In some cases the dialogue was (verbatim ) quotes cited in the article. None of these things were attibuted to Gladwell or to the real life doctor Lewis by Laverly. Gladwell goes back and forth about it and ponders how different things that are the result of a creative process, particularly musical ones, are related to each other. Is the relationship one of "cut and paste" or one of transformation and change? Eventually he chides the "plagiarism fundamentalists" for "[pretending that] chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life."

Meghan O'Rourke at Slate goes into more detail about how originality and creativity are related to plagiarism. Her article is relevant to the case of Florence Deeks and H.G. Wells which is recounted in Jonathon Keat's review of A.B. McKillop's book "The Spinster and the Prophet." Whereas, in the Lavery case, Gladwell argues that the two works share a "parent-child" relationship, this one is more of a sibling rivalry: a single path bifucates into two different competing trails. The controversy surrounds H.G. Well's famous book "The Outline of History." McKillop argues that although Wells and Deeks appear to have come up with the idea of writing a "history of everything from the beginning" independently, Wells' books clearly borrows heavily from Deeks' book. However, for Keats, hard plagiarism takes a back seat to soft plagiarism. He argues that Wells' book provides evidence for the important and original idea that "the progress of society" is to be measured against the yardstick of democracy. On the other hand, Deeks had written a feminist tome which presented evidence for a different idea but similarly "deeply original for its time", namely that "civilization (as opposed to barbarity) is feminine" and that "peace and properity were characteristic of female leadership."

In all of aforementioned literary examples, care is taken to distinguish between questions of plagiarism, which in my opinion are resolved in the court of public opinion, and questions of copyright infringement, which is a legal issue. Along these lines Tim Wu at Slate produces a thought provoking article discussing the legal battle between Dan Brown (the Da Vinci code) and Robert Leigh, "a self-appointed grail expert." Essentially the historical and religious claims that Brown presents as fiction are the ones that Leigh and his coauthors present as non-fiction in a book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail." Wu addresses the following interesting questions (1) "Can one writer freely borrow someone else's wacky historical speculations?" (2) "When an author offers up a speculation like "space aliens killed JFK," does it really make sense to call that a fact?" (3) "How can dueling authors ever have a meaningful public discussion of who Mary Magdalene was, if, for example, one side claims exclusive ownership of the theory that she was a lowly prostitute?" The precedent for this case exists in American law and Wu summarizes the reasoning succintly: "If the author calls it a fact, you can steal it."

Finally here are some things that I'll save for another post by me or some interested party: (1) the many pieces of software that exist to uncover hard plagiarism, not the least of which is Google itself: Paul Collins at Slate discusses the impact that google book search will have on old and new cases of literary hard plagiarism. (2) Recent high profile cases of the two historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. (3) How the question of plagiarism is approached in a journalistic context. (4) John Fogerty's long and strange legal battle with Fantasy Records.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

First Annual Infodder/Virginia State Standards of Learning Quiz Competition!

JLab hosts a set of "Standards of Learning" tests for the fine state of Virginia. The questions are from science, math, and technology from the 2nd grade level to the 8th grade level. You can choose to answer 10, 20, or 40 multiple choice questions in random or fixed order from different subjects. At the end, you get a summary of your results. I got a 37/40 on a random selection of questions from all subject areas at all grade levels. The Algebra I portion of the test really killed me....on that note, I challenge you to a friendly competition! For a fair comparison, you'll have to select the same number of questions, same subjects, and same set of questions:

First Competition: 40 questions, Science 8, Technology 8, Earth Science => and then under "more options please": all years, all "strands", FIXED SET NUMBER 1

Second Competition: 40 questions, Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry => and then under "more options please": all years, all "strands", FIXED SET NUMBER 1

Highest number of correct answers per minute will prevail. Post your score and time in the comments. Enjoy!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Stocking a Home Bar

For quite some time now I've enjoyed entertaining, whether in my dorm room, apartment, or my parents' house. The major thing missing has been alcohol. While I enjoy being around people having a good time, whether that involves alcohol or not, I don't like to drink much myself, which makes it difficult to make drinks for others. However, I would like to throw a cocktail party or two in the future, and so I'm thinking about how to get started.

Some google searching has led me to, and specifically their page on tastings. I figure that's a good start in determining which brands are good values. I've also snooped around, which has a section on establishing a home bar. They have a rather extensive list of "essential spirits": bourbon, brandy, canadian whiskey, dark rum, gin, light rum, scotch, tequila, vodka, and rye whiskey. Then there are the liqueurs: amaretto, irish cream, creme de cacao, coffee liqueur, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, and orange liqueur. That's a lot.

I've also seen the Good Eats recipe on cocktails, which unsurprisingly I found fit my style. He presented just three cocktails (martini, daiquiri, and julep) to make very well, with the idea that you should be able to adapt to others from there.

So given that I'm not going to drink a lot myself, what should I be stocking, and what are the most likely drinks that people will want to have available? What should I learn to make well? Any other good resources, with recipes, reviews, etc?

Why are Americans so Fat?

This article in the nyt last month makes a good argument as to one cause. Agricultural subsidies are primarily directed towards a few crops, including corn and soybeans. This makes the goods derived from these crops, such as high fructose corn syrup, cheaper, while making other produce, such as carrots, oranges, etc more expensive. This means that healthier food ends up being a luxury good.

So why are we subsidizing farmers at all? As technology advances, fewer people can grow more crops, which lowers demand for farmers overall. Of course this has been true forever, and job churning, while painful to the individual, is exceedingly good for society as a whole (or else 90% of us would still be farmers). These subsidies probably have an adverse impact on immigration also, as poorer countries like Mexico depend more on agriculture and can have difficulty competing with subsidized US crops, which pushes Mexican workers across the border.

Ah, the government, encouraging illegal immigration and obesity in one fell swoop. But hey, ban trans fats, because that's a lot easier than acknowledging where the real problems come from.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

High-Risk Jobs

You may or may not know about the movie "A Mighty Heart" that is being released about a month from now. It's about the life and kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and his wife Mariane's efforts to find and recover him. Mariane wrote a book by the same title, so that their then-unborn son would have a chance to learn about his dad; the movie is based on this book.

For the last couple of months I have been doing research on journalists that have been kidnapped and/or killed in the line of duty. You might not realize that this is such a big thing, but we really take our freedom of speech and freedom of the press for granted. Elsewhere in the world, journalists are regularly targeted for exposing crime and corruption, or simply for speaking out against policies they disagree with. Until the Iraq war, one of the worst places to be a journalist was in the Philippines; now, of course, insurgents specifically target journalists in Iraq so the number of deaths there has easily leapfrogged journalist deaths anywhere else.

If you are curious about this, go check out the movie website: The "In Memoriam" section lists all confirmed journalist deaths in the five years since Daniel Pearl's abduction. Of course, there were plenty before that too, but they really didn't get publicity until Pearl's abduction and subsequent videotaped beheading.

If you want some other links to explore on this topic, you can read:
There are other websites too, of course.

Some of the stories on these sites are pretty shocking. For example, check out this story about the murder of Brad Will; one of the photos actually captures his murderer in the act. Or this story about Venezuelan photographer Jorge Aguirre. After he had been shot, he took one last photo of his murderer fleeing on a motorcycle. The vast majority of these journalists were targeted specifically because of their work, not because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This will probably give you a different perspective when you listen to your favorite acerbic, loud-mouthed radio talk show host.


Well, we're back, after a great weekend. We didn't have any incredible discussions, unless you're curious why you need to regress statistical projections to the mean. Still, it's political season (even though elections aren't for another 18 months) so you can take this quiz to find out who you should vote for. Answers to the questions are a bit limited, but in the end they nailed me pretty well (not that it's difficult).

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Congratulations Matt and Heidi!!!

Since I've moved to the Pacific Northwest, I've been waiting for the weather to get nice so I can enjoy this outdoorsy corner of the country. I've been loving it, but one bit aspect is missing...cycling. I want to invest some money and time into buying a bike and relearning how to ride one (the last time I was on a bike besides Alan taking me out once or twice, was when I was a kid riding around my neighborhood). Many people at work bike-commute, and I just think that is so awesome! So, any suggestion as to what I should get? Used/new? Hybrid? Any other things I should pay attention to?

And just for fun, here's an article about how global warming with affect sex trends, and here's a neat little story about tax returns.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Congrats to Matt (and Heidi)!

Posting is likely to be very light over the next few days (as if it weren't already), as both Alan and I will be out of town for Matt's wedding this weekend. So we know it goes:

1) Matt's wedding
2) Blogging
3) Work

A hearty congratulations to Matt, and hopefully we'll brainstorm something interesting to post about when we get back. Hey, we're nerds, and we don't drink much.

Also, I'm told Heidi reads the blog on occasion, so if for some reason that occasion is two days before your wedding, congrats to you too!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Funny Commercials: Mac vs PC and more

The Mac vs PC debate is practically a religious one; People have violently emotional beliefs on the subject with little evidence. For some reason I'm on the PC side and boy do I hate macs, but sure do I like their ads :-) You can watch them all here, even three new ones! This site also has a bunch of hilarious ads from the US and over seas. In light of my earlier post about birth control, I found this add particularly appropriate, but this one was my favorite cuase hey, there's nothing quite like watching a bear get kicked in the nuts.

On another note, this is the cutest thing I have ever seen!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, is on pace to add the career record for home runs (755) to his trophy chest this summer. Unlike the home run race between Mark Mcguire and Sammy Sosa which saved baseball after the '94 work stoppage, there are mixed emotions this time around. A poll given by ESPN tried to determine why so many people dislike Bonds. In it they ask, "Overall, do you think Bonds has been treated fairly or unfairly?" and then the followup question asked to those answered unfairly: "Do you think he's been treated unfairly mainly because of his (race), mainly because of his (personality), or mainly because of his (alleged use of steroids)?" Certainly each of these factors has an effect, but which is the "main" effect? The results show that of the people who think Bonds is treated unfairly, 27% of Blacks vs 1% of Whites say it's "mainly because of his race". To me, this just doesn't make sense. I don't have any numbers to back it up, but the anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that people treat him how they do primarily because he did steroids and because he's a huge jerk. The fact that he's black seems to me to be a distant 3rd. Am I missing something? I'm certainly not an expert on racial bias so maybe I'm totally wrong.

Here's the evidence as I see it.

1) People were captivated by Bond's chase to hit 73 HRs, before the steroid scandal hit. Only after it become clear he used steroids has he really gained widespread hatred. (although people did think he was a dick before that) This supports steroids at the main cause of his treatment.

2) People loved McGuire, but as soon as he refused to say if he used steroids while testifying before congress people turned against him. Now people hate him. I doubt anyone would claim that people have treated Mcguire unfairly because of his race. Another point to steroids.

3) Bonds is widely regarded as one of the biggest jerks who has every played the game, and was already regarded as such before steroids was even on the radar. According to Jeff Pearlman, the author of the unauthorized biography Love me Hate Me, Bonds was even voted off his college team by this teammates but it was overridden by the coach. Somehow I doubt that was bcause he was Black. Point for "mainly because he's a jerk".

4) If race was the main factor for Bonds' treatment, even though Bonds is a steroid using d$ck, it would imply that even if bonds were a nice, steroid-free player he would still be treated with much of the hatred he is now, just because of his race. That certainly was the case in baseball at one time, and I'm sure race is still is a factor to this day, but clearly black players are no longer hated simply because they are black. (Ken Griffy Jr, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Some stuff you can watch online for free...

Reading is hard. Typing is not fun. I have nothing to say, but I *do* like to eat donuts and watch stuff:

The Collapse of Intelligent Design by: Kenneth Miller A seemingly emotionless almost robot-like journalist interviews scientists, philosophers, and theologians about stuff I pretend to be interested in.

Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics Blackboard Lunches: About 10 years of talks on a potpourri of topics with varying degrees of formality and technical details.

Beyond Belief 2006: A program put together by The Science Network on science, religion, reason, and survival.

Moving Image Archive at the Internet Archive: Of note are (1) The A/V Geeks Film Archive: bunch of old educational and industrial training videos from a simpler time, (2) Squeak the Squirrel, and (3) The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis.

Wholphin: A DVD magazine of "unseen films" from those McSweeney's people. There is some free "web-only" content. By the way, it's real.

EepyBird: Diet Coke and Mentos...what will they think of next?

Possibly stupid softball question

For the last few years I've been on softball teams made up partially of novice softball players---usually foreign student who have never played softball before. At least for their first year, they typically only reach base on errors. Along with these newer players there are usually a few really good players who almost never get out as well as a number of ok players who hit safely somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the time.
The question I have is what is the optimum lineup for such a situation? The rules in the league are that everyone at the game gets to bat. The two approaches I see most often are stacking the front of the order and interspersing the good players among the bad. I don't really have a feel for which works better, so I'm throwing the question out to anyone who may know "the answer" or at least have an idea. I'm wondering if the answer changes depending on the relative numbers of each set of player or if the final answer is that batting order doesn't matter at all.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Manny is Manny

There was an article in the Onion about Manny Ramirez that tipped the scales to me posting about him. Check out this article in the New Yorker which includes such quotes as:
When I asked his teammate David Ortiz, himself a borderline folk hero, how he would describe Ramirez, he replied, “As a crazy motherfucker.” Then he pointed at my notebook and said, “You can write it down just like that: ‘David Ortiz says Manny is a crazy motherfucker.’"
After the third such incident, Duquette ventured down into the locker room. “I said, ‘Manny, let me ask you something. I was just wondering why you get back in the batter’s box after ball four.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the balls.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the strikes, either, until I got two.’"

There's been a lot of talk about Manny's real value. No one contests that he's a great hitter, but his issues playing defense are also well-known. An article in the nyt (registration required) claimed that his defense made him a merely average player. Turns out, the metric was seriously flawed, as it was designed such that Manny was responsible for catching walls that hit twenty feet up the Green Monster (see post 27 - though the importance of that is still in some dispute).

All this being said, Manny signed a huge, long-term contract in 2000, and I think the most exceptional thing is that for every one of those years he's performed exactly as expected the day the contract was signed. Crazy motherfucker and all.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Identity Theft MySpace Style

To make a long story short, a random guy named Joe Anthony started a myspace page about Barack Obama. Initially he and Obama worked together to update the site but when the campaign decided it wanted total control, Anthony asked them for $39,000 in return. Obama's campaign decided to have MySpace intervene instead, and took control of the name (Joe Anthony got the 160,000 friends though). It's really interesting how politics is changing these days with the advent of myspace, youtube and blogging popularity. It reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa starts the Red Dress Press after Mr. Burnes buys all the mass-media outlets :-)

A similar thing happened to my brother, jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. A fan started a MySpace page about Kurt and was responding to people's messages as if he was Kurt. Eventually MySpace intervened there too, and transferred control of the site to Kurt's management team.

When are we really dead?

This is a really interesting article about what happens when a human's heart stops beating. It seems our cells don't really die when the oxygen is cut off, but rather when oxygen is restored to a previously starved cell. This motivates a much different approach to resuscitation than is typically used involving a slow and controlled restoration of oxygen supply and a lowering of the body temperature.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

NBA Refereeing Bias

An article in the New York Times about a academic paper written by Justin Wolfers (Wharton School of Business, UPenn) claims that there is a statistically significant bias in foul calls based on the race of the referee and the player. The actual paper has yet to be published, so it's impossible to say if they study was done correctly but experts who have read it (see NYT article) claim that it was. We can't really say until we see the actual paper, and nor can anyone else. That's why the response people have had to the article is so amazing. Here are a few:

Charles Barkley, NBA hall-of-fame player: "There are more black players so obviously there will be more fouls on black players" This is a popular sentiment which I've heard three times in the last 2 hrs on ESPN. Do they really think this Penn Professor hasn't though of this, an accounted for it? I guess it's possbile, but according to the three experts the NYT consulted he did, along with a bunch of other effects that these guys haven't thought of.

Kiki Vandeweghe, NBA analyst for ESPN: [Paraphrasing] "The refs get the majority of the calls right. If this were happening, we would have noticed" He also was not the only person to make this argument, and what a horrible argument it is. The entire point of doing statistical analysis is that "noticing" small statistical effects is really hard. Also, a huge fraction of the calls in basketball could go either way so in this case even "getting it right" is subjective.

Mark Cuban, Owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks: "We’re all human. We all have our own prejudice. That’s the point of doing statistical analysis. It bears it out in this application, as in a thousand others." Exactly! Thank you Mr. Cuban. The study is either done well, or it isn't. If it's done well, it either shows a statistically significant effect, or it doesn't. That's all there is to it.

The NBA: [paraphrasing] "We have better data that we claim does not corroborate your results, but we won't let you see it so you'll just have to trust us that what you are saying isn't true" I'll take less detailed data and peer-reviewed analysis (which this isn't yet but will be, mind you) over the best data and secret analysis any day.


A few days ago I discovered one of the coolest pieces of technology that I have seen in a long time. It is a powerful technique for dealing with spam e-mail, called greylisting. The basic principle has to do with how an RFC-compliant mailserver is supposed to respond to SMTP error codes. If an e-mail cannot be delivered due to a temporary condition on the receiving mailserver, the receiver can send a "temporary error; try again later" message to the sender, and the sender is supposed to respond when "later" actually arrives.

Greylisting servers employ this simple technique to great effect. When an e-mail arrives at a greylisting mailserver, it records some basic details about the e-mail, then sends an error message back to the sender saying that the destination address isn't available. "But try again in 5 minutes, okay?" Of course, most spam mailservers don't stick around for this kind of nonsense; they just go on to the next addresses they have in their list. But a normal, RFC-compliant mailserver will try again in five minutes, and at that point the graylisting server will let the e-mail through. The result? A nearly total elimination of spam e-mails.

Users of the postfix mailserver can use a project called postgrey. I installed postgrey a few days ago. Since I installed it, I haven't gotten a single spam e-mail. Go postgrey!

Alas, this great technology does have some negative effects, too. I am sad to say that I no longer hear from my harem of Russian girlfriends. However, since the flow of "male enhancement" drugs has also stopped, it's probably all for the best.

Seriously though, there are a few mailservers out there that aren't RFC-compliant when it comes to this behavior, so it is possible that one of your friends will suddenly get bounced e-mails from you with strange 45x errors. It is pretty unlikely though; the vast majority of mailservers in use are good about handling these errors properly.

I'm a female

So I've been reading this blog since it's inception and have been enjoying it thoroughly. Thank you to all you contributors have have made each day a little less boring and a little more enlightening.

But I've been rather intimidated to actually post anything myself in fear of sounding "dumb".

Now I'm none other than gender identity. I read this article a few days ago and found it truly fascinating. If you know me, you know that I'm very interested in the concepts of race and culture. I also sometimes find myself interested in the concept of gender. I'm beginning to think the common trend between these issues (and education, my field of work) is that of self-identity and human development.

Just for fun, I'll add a funny story to that....The Spanish teacher at my school found out last week that one of her students, Courtney, is a girl. Courtney, being a non-Spanish name, did not clue her in, and the student had short hair and always dressed in baggy t-shirts and jeans, so the teacher always referred to Courtney as a boy. School started in September. I wonder if Courtney would be offended if she knew...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Good South Park article

Here's an article discussing the different roles of Matt Stone and Trey Parker in producing South Park. I really didn't know it worked the way it is described in the article. South Park's a great show, and I think the movie is the greatest comedy of all time, and it's interesting to see how they've kept it together for so long.

(Found through Digg.)

The Moral Basis of an Athiest

I thought I'd flash us back to an old column at Volokh. It asks how irreligious people justify believing that certain things are morally right or wrong. There are some good comments, and I think you can make quite a convincing argument. One comment summed it up nicely, I believe:

It would be logically inconsistent, essentially crazy, for someone to say they really do want others to force them to do things that in fact they do not want to do.

In effect, I am challenging your premise. I believe that this is logically self-evident, practically a tautology... But it is the foundational fact that leads my fundamental beliefs about how to act and how to expect others to act.
Crazy Craig: I don't want to do it.

Sane Sam: OK. I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: You mean you really do want to do it but can't bring yourself to do it without someone to providing additional motivation to get you to do it?

Crazy Craig: No. I really don't want to do it. This is not the sort of situation where I really do want to do it but can't bring myself to do it on my own.

Sane Sam: Well, if you really don't want to do it then I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: No! I don't want to do it AND I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: That's crazy.

Crazy Craig: Exactly.
There is no logical basis for any person to claim that she gets to be the only person out of six billion who gets to force other people do what she wants even while still being free from anybody else forcing her to do what they want.
Meglomanical Meg: I don't want you to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Sane Sarah: The same is true for me. I suggest that we agree that I won't try to force you to do things you don't want to do and you won't try to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Meglomanical Meg: No. I want to be able to force you to do things you don't want do, but I don't want you to be able to do the same to me.

Sane Sarah: So you'd be my master and I'd be your slave?

Meglomanical Meg: Yes. I believe that it is possible to live in a world where others can't force me to do things I don't want to do while I get to force them to do things I want to do.

Sane Sarah: Only a meglomaniac would expect a world where they are the master and everyone else is their slave.

Meglomanical Meg: Exactly.
The only sane conclusion to me seems to be that no one, not even me, should be allowed to initiate force against anyone else. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with defending yourself or others from being forced to do things we don't want to do.)

Call it "libertarianism" or "the golden rule", but to me it is just the way things are.

I happen to like the incidental consequences as well. Without the initiation of force there would be no murder, rape, kidnapping, mugging, etc.
12.1.2005 4:01pm

Well played.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Welcome to Durham-In-Wonderland readers!

Welcome to the readers of the popular (and excellent) blog Durham In Wonderland, about the Duke/Nifong case. (For our regulars, there is a link on DIW to Infodder so we figured we would officially welcome those who link over.)

The blurb on the top right of the page explains what this site is about: sharing information and ideas. Feel free to browse the archives and comment on the posts. Email if you'd like to be added as an author and write your own posts. Posts can be about anything you find interesting and would like to share, so have at it.

Whether you post, comment or just read, we hope you enjoy Infodder!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Clouds are big

According to Israeli scientists, clouds are much bigger than we can see with the naked eye. As anyone who has moved from New England to southern California can attest, clouds have a large impact on temperature. During the day clouds reflect some of the sun's light back into space, cooling the ground. At night, heat radiating from the ground is reflected back by clouds, keeping the ground warm. Because of this, clouds are important factors in predicting climate change, and some scientists (though not a "consensus") claim that the impact of cosmic rays on cloud cover is a driving force in climate.

Flat Tax

Since we were starting a bit of a discussion on the flat tax in my previous post, I'll expound some here.

First, my shorthand in the original post left things confusing, but the phrase "flat tax" usually refers to a single rate with one single deduction. It is possible to eliminate deductions without having a single rate, and to have a single rate with a bunch of deductions, but the ideas generally go hand in hand, and it's this combination that I'm supporting.

It is true that the system of deductions is probably a bigger problem than the graduated scale. It encourages rent-seeking behavior, since it may be cheaper to lobby congress for a tax loophole than to pay the tax you would otherwise owe. Furthermore, it's a playground for the government to attempt to manipulate the market in ways that I think it is ill-suited for. (For instance, you may get a tax deduction for buying a Toyota Prius. Think that's a worthy thing for the government to encourage? Well how about a Ford Expedition? Once the gov't uses tax policy to engineer social change, everything is fair game.)

So if you get rid of the deductions, isn't that good enough? Well I'd be pretty happy, assuming we lowered tax rates across the board so that the effective tax rate didn't go up. Of course we wouldn't, though - because lowering the upper rates benefits "the rich". The graduated tax system provides ample means to engage in counter-productive class warfare. Politically, it's easy to increase taxes on the upper fraction of wage-earners, to the point where the top 10% pay 50% of taxes. If you try to scale those taxes back, you'll be accused of only helping the rich. Politically we're not interested in achieving the most economically efficient state (for whatever our goals are) but simply in what a given law does to change the status quo. This also makes it harder to reduce the size of government, since a program directed at low income people can be presented as paid for by, again, "the rich". The nasty little catch to all of this is that the tax brackets (and deductions) aren't generally indexed to inflation, so what starts out as a tax on the rich ends up punishing more and more of us as time goes on, such as with the alternative minimum tax.

Beyond the rent-seeking and the manipulation, I still don't think a graduated tax makes sense. We can argue about which tax is more "fair", but I think a flat tax results in a better use of resources. As Alan pointed out, the marginal value of a dollar earned decreases. If you increase the tax on that dollar, then you increase the difference between the value to society of the work done to earn that dollar, and the value of the compensation to the worker. People at the upper end won't want to produce as much income, which means they also won't produce that good to society. The contribution of the 200,000th dollar earned is no less than the 50,000th; there's no reason as a society for us to want someone to earn 50,000 but stop before 200,000.

To put it more clearly, a flat tax (at least the ones commonly proposed), even on income, is a "consumption tax". That is, it equally taxes all money spent on goods and services, but not that spent on capital investment. This is a good thing, since capital investment increases productivity, allowing more to be made for less, and making us all richer.

To me, the ideal tax would have a generous standard deduction - perhaps $20k for a head of household, with $5-10k for each other member, indexed to inflation. This deduction makes the tax somewhat progressive - if all your income goes to the necessities of life, you pay no tax - but you pay a flat rate on all your disposable income.

Another intriguing option is to replace the income tax with a national sales tax. In some ways I think this is a spectacular idea. It's clearly a consumption tax; it can be quite fair if, as many states do, you exempt necessities; it would even tax the underground economy, since drug dealers don't pay income tax but would pay sales tax if they wanted to buy anything (except drugs I suppose). I'd be worried that we'd end up with an income tax and a sales tax though. And that would be even worse than the system we have now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some Radical Ideas

Let's add one for law enforcement:
Get rid of the exclusionary rule as well as qualified immunity.

Until some real news picks up, here's a list of some ideas that will probably never pass but I think would go a long way to solving what are perceived to be the most pressing problems. This was just a quick list so if I think of more I'll add them.

Mandatory health insurance to cover catastrophic emergencies
Eliminate employer deductions for health insurance
Flat income tax with a large per-person deduction
- Alternatively, replace the income tax with a sales tax, with exemptions for necessities
Term limits for congressmen
Balanced budget amendment
Phase out social security and the associated taxes
Allow parents to use the tax money spent on their child to send them to a private school
Legalization of drugs, prostitution, gambling
Line-item veto
Replace all government recognized marriage with civil unions
Extremely large increases in allowed legal immigration
High penalties for employers of illegal immigrants
Elimination of all corporate subsidies
Removal of all federal highway funding mandates

If anyone wants more details on what I mean, or why I think a particular idea would be good, let me know and perhaps I'll expand it into a full post. Otherwise you can be thankful that with this list I'd never get elected for anything.


Well, I haven't been posting much lately, so how else have I managed to waste my time? A game or two of kakuro each day helps. If you got caught up in the sudoku craze you'll probably play this until you see the numbers when you close your eyes, and eventually wish the game never existed. The two sites I've played on are, which has a great interface, and, which has a horrible interface but more difficult puzzles.

Hopefully something interesting (in a good way) will happen soon and I'll post on it.
php hit counter