Monday, February 21, 2011

Math: The Stats Ma'am... Just the Stats

Look... I know some people don't like math. I know some people struggled with it in school and don't see the point of advanced math. I also know I was one of those kids who really liked math and to whom it all made sense. Until I got derailed early in university (but I digress).

One branch of mathematics is rising to a new found prominence - statistics. Statistics is incredibly powerful for two different reasons.

First it allows us interpret information about large groups (people, cars, planets, etc) by looking at a small sample of the things we're looking at. You don't have to ask everyone in a country how they'll vote to run an opinion poll - though I do still think we should all get our individual votes counted in the election. Statistics tells you how to find the group properly (so as not to end up with a biased result), tells you how to ask the questions, and tells you how to interpret the results. It even can tell you how accurate the results of the sampling are.

Secondly statistics allows you to understand what's behind numbers. How to pluck information and meaning out of piles and piles of information. With computers we have more information than every. In many cases businesses and governments don't have to worry about sampling the data since the computers can look at it all. Learning about what the information can tell us is very important. Especially when there is so much information going around.

If you want a light hearted but serious look at the power and uses of statistics then you should look no further than Hans Rosling's program on the BBC The Joy of Stats. Hans Rosling is a professor of International Health and Director of the Gapminder Foundation - which is hosting the Joy of Stats and other videos. Hans burst onto the scene with several celebrated TED talks. He's a fantastic public speaker. The same page that holds the Joy of Stats also links to some of his other videos.

Poke around and see how modern stats can change how you think. Hans Rosling will make you reconsider the idea of the third world. He'll make you change your mind on population growth and give you new insights into HIV and other diseases. He may even make you think that statistics is sexy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Food: An Obvious Question...

I suppose any cuisine seen from the perspective of another culture must be a bit odd. There are any number of foods we eat as part of our own cultural heritage that others look upon with a mix of wonder, disbelief, and even disgust.

From Western eyes Japanese foods can raise many of these feelings. After all who else creates create-your-own-sushi-candy kits?

However beyond the surface cuisines can raise really simple questions. Using Japanese cuisine as an example here's one question: Why does a food additive we tend to despise for its believed side effects not seem to affect a country that's swimming in the additive? Or more specifically If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?

It's an interesting question on several levels. Alex Renton's article for the Guardian back in 2005 covers quite a few of those angles. Including a fact many of us don't know. There is another basic taste other than the four we're usually familiar with. We learn about sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But there's a fifth - savouriness or umami. And nothing provides umami like glutamate. In fact mother's milk has 10 times the glutamate than cow's milk. We like the taste of umami a lot. Most of it just don't know that it exists let alone how good it makes food taste.

So, unless you are allergic to monosodium glutamate, it may be time to rethink our dislike of it. Or at least we should rethink the power of glutamate in general. Foods that are high in glutamate may end up making your meals taste better than you ever thought possible.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Language: Dialects of North America

From the drawl of a Texan to the dry delivery of a Bostonian, from a Newfoundlander through to a person living on the west coast, we know there are differences in the way we speak across North America. But just how many dialects and variations are there? How many dialects are out there?

If you want to explore the regional flavours of English across North America I can suggest no better place than North American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns on Not only is there a map of all the regional dialects (with the appropriate details and differences listed) but for almost every region there is a link to a speaker of that dialect. Thanks to youtube and the rest of the web it's possible to get good samples of what the differences are. Most of the clips were recorded for other reasons and not as samples of dialects. Which makes them perfect for hearing people just talking as they normally would.

What's most impressive of all is that the entire page is a hobby. It's a sideline. But what a sideline. Computers and the internet allow anyone with a passion and an interest to collect, write, catalog, and then share their interest with everyone else. This is another incredible piece of the Longer Web.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Math: Public Secrets?

We tend to use a great deal of complex mathematics everyday. Or more correctly we tend to use technology that uses complex mathematics everyday. One such complex area is cryptography. When we log on to our bank account or our online email there's a lot of math going back and forth.

This isn't a post about how cryptography works. It isn't really a post about details of math and mathematical processes. Instead it's a post about unsung and unknown computer scientists who came up with the idea we now call public key cryptography and who haven't, until recently, received any recognition for their work.

The Alternative History of Public-Key Cryptography looks at one of the fundamental algorithms of our time. Whether or not you know it or understand it you use it daily. Like many of the ideas in the world of cryptography it was first conceived of in secret. Later it was rediscovered and brought to the world at large. Now it's time to give credit where credit is due.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Science: The Myths of Evolution

Okay... maybe not myths... how about misconceptions, incorrect ideas, and conclusions drawn with insufficient knowledge of how evolution works? That's a more accurate title and description of Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions at New Scientist. Though I'll admit their title is pithier.

Evolution is one of the most amazing concepts science has ever come up with. To me it's an idea that seems so obvious in retrospect that it's amazing anyone can try and deny that evolution is happening all the time. But evolution is one of those simple topics that leads to lots of interesting and amazing conclusions. 24 myths... points out more than a few of those and hints at how a simple process can end up evolving something as wonderful and complex as us.