Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gender: Gobsmacked by the Younger Generation

How the internet works in 3 steps.

Step 1
Someone makes a post that points out a problem. In this case the general problem is the lack of female entrepreneurs forming high tech startup companies. Specifically the lack of women participating in the Y Combinator program that invests in and helps startups. Tereza Nemessanyi wrote an article called XX Combinator in which she proposes a female centered version of the Y Combinator.

Well... not quite just a female centric version of it. She proposes something slightly different.
The XX Combinator program would provide women who know their target market extremely well, based on personal and professional experience. They’d have a huge innovative idea in a huge market and a clever idea about how to crack it. The program would help define their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to get to market. Benevolent hackers would work side-by-side with them to build it, for equity and possibly paid salaries by sponsors and can convert into CTO positions.
It would be scheduled and located so that women with families could actively do it. No “3-months in Silicon Valley”.
The post is informative, offers a possible solution, lays out some of the issues, and is a call to arms for people to create what she's proposed.

Step 2
Someone in the field makes a valid counter post. Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, wrote a reply also called XX Combinator. He doesn't make light of the underlying problem. He doesn't suggest it isn't a problem. He does however point out some problems with the proposed XX Combinator solution.
XX Combinator is a cute name and makes the point well. But I suspect a different model is required if this were to work. First, it is not so easy for 40 something women to move to silicon valley for three months. Second, if you have a team of hackers in-house, then you are an incubator more than an accelerator program.
Fred doesn't suggest the problem isn't real and he thinks her idea might work. But not quite the way she originally thought. And... he's not against the idea. He closes by saying:
If there are entrepreneurs out there with the idea, the plan, and the passion to do this, please contact me. I'd be happy to help get something like this rolling.
His reply understands the original issue, discusses and adjusts the proposed solution a little, and continues the call to arms to help solve the problem.

Step 3
Somebody misses the point spectacularly, misuses outdated ideas from a historical figure, tries to apply 'science' to the result, and proves what their thinking on the subject really is - all while adding nothing of value to the discussion.

In this case it's Beatrice Pang's post called Freud explains why there aren't more women entrepreneurs. In which she doesn't seem to think there is actually a problem because there are good reasons why women aren't entrepreneurs. The reason? Time to drag out the historical figure.
The answer is very obvious. Freud is right, sex is the ultimate driver to explain most human behaviors. It's primordial but often the most powerful driver explaining human behaviors. Why do you do all these things to look good? To attract potential sex partners, consciously or subconsciously.
Okay... let's leave Freud and move to evolution as a reason for women not being driven to be entrepreneurs. After all... there are reasons women wouldn't want to work hard such as:
For women, the price to be an entrepreneur is much higher and the return is not as attractive. First, the cost of maintenance is much higher for women - clothes, skin care, hair, shoes, etc. Second, working long hours in stressful conditions age a woman. Given beauty is often a more important criterion than success, women are less willing to make such a bet. Finally, women often need a partner before they reach the end of their safe childbearing ages, and that's typically before they reach 40. 
If you think this is an isolated opinion think again. I quote:
For girls at GSB [Stanford Graduate School of Business], taking an entrepreneurial path right after the expensive school means financial uncertainty while your well-earning classmates lavish on travel, food, fashion, beauty or simply socializing leisure time. Few can stand such tradeoffs in personal lifestyles, especially when you are at the optimal age to find a partner.
Don't worry... there's more to come if you read her piece. Let's throw in an unproven claim that would be considered offensive if a man said it. Beatrice extends her argument in a simple fashion by saying:
Beyond entrepreneurship, if you look at any career (except for fashion modeling or nursing), it's difficult to pick one where there are more successful women than men historically. Men often spend more energy on becoming successful in career.
The result? Well... we don't need to change things, improve things, or hope for equal treatment since:
How can we make more women successful? Without fundamental changes in how men and women perceive attractiveness, it will be difficult to change the status quo.
Let's hear it for being held back by biological determinism. It bothers me that bad science, overextended analogies, and almost backwards views of equality and progress can be considered the norm. And all by a young woman who's the beneficiary of the hard work and struggle of so many women before her.

Regardless of how their biology limited their ability to change and improve society. After all they didn't make any fundamental changes in how men and women perceive attractiveness now did they?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Games: The Story of an Early 3D Game

In the late 80's I played a game called The Colony. Long before Wolfenstein 3D or Doom a lone developer named David Alan Smith created a game in which you help the survivors of a remote space colony.

For a look at what one of the first 3d action games looked like just watch David A. Smith demo the game on youtube (part 1) (part 2). I have many memories of moving slowly down hallways and wondering where the next alien might be. There were many immersive worlds and environments to come but The Colony was my first taste of what games would be like.

If you're interested in the story behind The Colony, and some of the technical details that made it very advanced for its time, David A Smith has written My Colony Memoir. It's hard to imagine a single person working on a computer that didn't even have complete development tools building a complete game from scratch. Especially since we live in the era of huge budget games created by huge teams of specialists. Sometimes it's good to remember what can be done on a small machine by one person.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Language: The Language of Science Humour

We all know how science progresses. We read about it every day. In fact... we're so familiar with the language and the forms of progress that we instantly know when they're being spoofed spectacularly. It's nice to realize that even science has its own special and recognizable language.

Step one... after the research is done... the scientific paper must be written. The best illustration of this is the aptly named Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken (pdf) by Doug Zongker. If you've never read a scientific paper before I suggest you start here. If you have read a scientific paper before I insist you read this one as well.

Step two... the findings must be presented to a conference of fellow scientists. It's a short presentation. I do suggest you stick around for the questions. Not only is the source of funding challenged but an important question is raised which demands a follow up by the Doug Zongker.

Step three... a scientific paper is read by a journalist who shares the findings in a newspaper article. The article will be formulaic and predictable but it will be all most people will ever read.

There. Now you know how to write your own scientific paper, how to present it, and how to have it written up. Just do a search and replace for some key words and you too can write your way to scientific superstardom.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Math: Mathematics Humour - Alice and Bob

In 1978 Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adlemen (known as RSA) published a paper entitled A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems (pdf). All modern public key cryptography descends from the work in this paper. If you use PGP or GPG then you are using math that was pioneered by Rivest, Shamir, and Adlemen.

The paper describes how the system works by working through scenarios where A and B are trying to communicate securely. Ron Rivest has said that he came up with the names Alice and Bob so he could use A and B in mathematical notation. Having one male and one female also meant that "he" and "she" could be used in the scenarios and people would know which "person" the authors were talking about. The introduction of the most famous couple in cryptography is as follows:

For our scenarios we suppose that A and B (also known as Alice and Bob) are two users of a public-key cryptosystem. We will distinguish their encryption and decryption procedures with subscripts: EA,DA,EB,DB.
Now Alice and Bob were soon joined by others. Eve is an eavesdropper on the conversations between Alice and Bob. Mallory is a malicious attacker. The list goes on and on.

Only 6 years after the original RSA cryptography paper John Gordon was able to give an after dinner speech where, tongue firmly in cheek, he gave more details and insights into Alice and Bob. John Gordon's The Alice and Bob After Dinner Speech covers Alice and Bob, how mathematicians share jokes, how to represent the alphabet with words, and even why you should be nice to your calculator.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The New Industrial Giants Make Small Products

The term industrial giant brings to mind steel foundries on a vast scale, ship building, production lines of cars, and vast quantities of raw materials being turned into the infrastructure, appliances, and technology of modern life. If you ponder the history of these industries you think of Victorian era factories and workers moving to the cities from the countryside slowly changing into factories learning to deal with new unions and workers groups and slowly changing to the arrangements we have now. It seems like a process that has taken place and is ended.

What about the people and companies who build computers and phones and other technologies? What's happening around the world were our high-tech gizmos are being made?

The Man Who Makes Your iPhone in Business Week looks at one company and one person but along the way takes a look at the changes that are happening in Chinese factories. It's remarkably similar but on a different time scale. Terry Gou won't be the last industrial tycoon. More industries and more tycoons will appear. But his story and the issues his companies are facing is an insite into the current situation for millions of workers around the world.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: Eating a City and Eating the World

Here's a typical conversation that can happen in large cities with lots of different restaurants. It starts with:
"Where do you want to eat?"
Typically followed by:
"I don't know. What type of food do you feel like?"
In 1989 a group in Toronto decided to solve the questions of "where do you want to eat?". They'd eat at every restaurant in the city, one a week, in alphabetical order. Every year they take the Toronto Yellow Pages restaurant section and continue from whichever restaurant they last visited. The Serial Diners are still going strong. Their agenda shows that as of July 2010 they had reached the letter K - kniblets LMT to be exact.

Their site has the rules, and copies of several articles that chronicle the story of the group. If you own a restaurant in Toronto which starts with the letter L then be prepared. On a seemingly random Friday a large group of friendly diners will descend on your restaurant unannounced.

That solves the question of where to eat. What about the type of food?

Well three intrepid diners living in New York are trying to systematically handle that problem. They are going to eat the cuisine of the United Nations. Again the approach is to take the countries in alphabetical order. But they aren't going to fly around the world. They don't need to do that. After all they live in New York City. Home of the United Nations and one of the most diverse cities on the planet - at least in terms of cuisine.

So, to use their tag line they will be "eating the UN, A-Z without ever leaving NYC". The wonderfully named Confined Nomads are not quite as proscribed in their choice of restaurants. They don't have to visit every Chinese restaurant. They will jut try and do a representative sampling of the cuisine of China. Their journey, which as of now has reached Columbia, is filled with discussions on how much is representative and insights into the cuisines and restaurants they've encountered.

Being Canadian I decided to check out what the confined nomads came up with for Canadian cuisine. Canada is blessed with being a large country where we freely eat and enjoy the foods of the world. Toronto is probably even more diverse in terms of ethnic and regional restaurants than even New York. But we've been so busy eating the cuisine of the rest of the world that I'm not sure we've created a unique cuisine of our own. So I was a little hesitant to find out what represented Canada in New York City.

Canada, according to our restaurants, is TPoutine (and who doesn't love the concept of poutine), Tim Horton's Donuts (though they didn't like the coffee. Must be all that over roasted and burnt starbuckian crud the USA calls coffee. At least it isn't the watered down barely dark brown water they used to serve in the US), and The Ontario Bar. They didn't make it to Mile End which is a Montreal style deli.

Poutine, Donuts, and an inviting bar with Canadian beer and Whiskey? That's good enough representation for me!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Science: What about Impure Science?

Science is a human endeavour. At it's best it's the most powerful and effective way I know of understanding our universe. We may never be able to explain everything. We may not even uncover all the principles and laws that make up our universe. We may never find out if there is a reason or a rhyme to it all. But nothing else makes us look at the wonders of the universe around us with more insight and insightful awe.


Science is a human endeavour. Some people promote theories for political and personal reasons. Some people strive to understand and discover for profit and glory. Some scientists have fudged figures, lied about experiments, and falsified data. Some scientists defend their turf not just with data and arguments but personal attacks and smear campaigns.


Over time experiments and results trump falsified data. Science is a collaboration taking place around the world and over time. Yesterday's mistakes are more than likely to be discovered and found out and corrected. Theories, no matter how useful politically, will end up being shown false and eventually replaced with better ones. Progress towards truth and understanding is not necessarily constant. There have been steps back as well as steps forward. Yet the overall endeavour continues. Slowly correcting itself. Slowly finding the laws and principles that are shown to work.

So when you read about Lies, damn lies, and Chinese science don't think this is a Chinese problem. Don't think the same sort of thing hasn't happened elsewhere. Don't think it won't happen again both in China and elsewhere around the world. Just know that sooner, or sadly later, bad science will be found out, bad papers will be retracted or removed from journals, and researchers who promote obviously incorrect theories and approaches will eventually be marginalized.

Science as a discipline slowly tries to improve our understanding and slowly tries to reach provable and testable consensus as to the best way of understanding the universe. That makes it a very special human endeavour.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gender: "Goin' to the chapel and we're \ Gonna get married"

Are women waiting too long to try and find Mr. Right? Should they settle for something less? How should a modern women look at, and toward, marriage?

In 2008 Lori Gottlieb wrote Marry Him! in the Atlantic Monthly. The article became a book soon afterwards. In 2010 Megan Mcardle wrote a follow up called Reader, Marry Him! where she mentions On Rings and Hand-Wringing by Emily Gould.

There are two things that fascinate me about this ongoing discussion into modern marriage. First... it does seem to be a better world for young women. After all they don't have to get married. Being single is an option. They don't have to get married young. Getting married in your thirties is a practicality. But they are still being told to be pretty, attractive, and to catch a man (even if only a good-enough one) before they can't catch one at all. I'm not sure whether this is progress or not.

Secondly... in many of these discussions of how women can decide to plan a family and/or plan their futures to match their expectations and goals there isn't much talk about what men should do. Should men try to get married? Do men even care? Do men even ask anymore or is that now the woman's prerogative? Aren't men allowed to want a family and do what's best to help themselves have one? Or are men not necessarily an important part of the conversation anymore?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Games: The Original Gratuitous Space Battle

Now I haven't played it yet... but there's a computer game I want to buy if only to reward the independent developer that came up with the name. It's called Gratuitous Space Battles. It's a homage to the tradition of large fleets of spaceships shooting advanced weapons at each other in glorious space battles. For all the explosions and carnage it's a strategy game and not an action game. It's a strategy game in that you equip hulls to create your own type of ship, you place a fleet to attack the enemy, you give your fleet orders, and then you sit back and watch the carnage unfold.

In an action game you'd be at the controls. In the midst of the fray. Navigating and shooting and being directly involved.

Now there are many games that do put you in the fray at the controls of a spaceship. Ones with incredible graphics and intense gameplay. But they all owe their existence to the original space fighting game - Space War. Not only is it the original computer game of space battling but it was also recognized as important at the time. Stewart Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Long Now fame, wrote a wonderful piece for Rolling Stone back in 1972. All you wanted to know about Space War and it's history.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Language: Putting Ideas on Paper

I had a real problem writing as a kid. My handwriting was rather bad. It still is. That however wasn't the real problem. The problem was that I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with my brain.

What made life easier was the computer. Or more correctly - the keyboard. I developed a self-taught hybrid hunt-and-peck / reasonable-facsimile-of-touch-typing technique that allowed me to get ideas out of my mind fast enough. Without the keyboard my life would by much more difficult. The idea of a mechanical mechanism that helps us transfer our ideas to paper or a computer should be considered one of the greatest inventions of all time in my opinion.

However unlike some other inventions that seem to be the work of a lone genius the typewriter has a long and detailed history.

If you want to hear some of that history may I suggest you take twenty minutes to watch The History of the Typewriter recited by Michael Winslow. You'll be mesmerized and speechless. It's hard to stop watching what can only be called a tour de force of the highest order. There is a review of the movie that gives a few details and there are some behind the scenes photos online as well.

As Michael Winslow shows so well, the typewriter has gone through many incarnations over the years. Now we don't use mechanical or electrical typewriters. We use keyboards attached to computers. That doesn't mean there isn't a great deal of technology behind the humble keyboard. If you want an in-depth overview of modern keyboard technology from the cheap and nasty to the sublime may I suggest the Mechanical Keyboard Guide by Manyak in the forums.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Math: What if pi is Wrong?

Now no one is suggesting that mathematics has been wrong for the last few thousand years. Don't worry pi still has a value of 3.14159265...  If you look at the formulas where pi is used though you'll find something interesting. More often than not you see 2pi (2 times pi). Maybe we should be using a value of 6.28318531... instead.

pi is Wrong! (pdf) by Bob Palais is where the idea hit the web first. Bob suggested a new symbol that looked like pi but has a 3rd leg in the middle to represent twice pi.

The problem is that a completely new symbol isn't available on any computer system and would take quite a while to become widely adopted.

Michael Hartl took up the cause of twice pi and decided to use an otherwise underutilized symbol. The letter tau. The Tau Manifesto is a lengthy explanation of why twice pi is much more useful than pi is. Filled with examples and derivations it is a useful starting point to incorporate the tau in your mathematics. Tau, or even just twice pi with any symbol, may never catch on. Sometimes the most rational and clear headed ideas get ignored and can't replace current conventions.

We'll just have to wait and see if tau starts gaining traction.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Spies are Easy to Spot

How do you spot a spy? Hang out at a baccarat table looking for an Englishman in a suit? Look for the belly dancer in Paris hanging around with important politicians? It shouldn't be that hard or take that much work.

Maybe, just maybe, it isn't that hard to Spot a Spook.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Mythbuster Explains

Adam Savage is one half of the Mythbusters. If you thought the show was interesting... watch Adam outside of his Discovery Channel habitat.

Watch him talk about his approach to solving problems, then talk about his colossal failures, and finally he goes into details of his level of obsessions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Science: About That Future I Was Promised

Is the future here yet? I'm not talking about mundane things like flying cars either. For decades we've been promised flying cars. For years people have been asking where their jetpacks or flying cars are and I have to say I don't understand the appeal.

After all people are idiotic enough driving around a few thousand pounds of metal on the roads. Do you want the average half asleep commuter to be flying over your house?

I'm not talking little things like flying cars. No. I'm talking the bigger and better future. Where are the spaceships? What about the power sources? What about the weapons? Big powerful futuristic weapons!

Now in case you think this is silly and unimportant... don't worry. I sort of agree with you. Why sort of? Because thinking about semi-impossible futuristic weapons is a great way to look at science.

After all... how powerful is antimatter? How much damage would the beam of the Death Star do and would it destroy a planet? What parts of many fictional weapons can be explained using science and modern theories? It turns out it's a great way to exercise one's scientific thinking. So off we go on a web wide tour of the science of the future.

Let's start with two articles from Death Star Firepower gives details on what would have gone on with the Star Wars superweapon. (I say would have... because even if it's fiction we should remember that Star Wars isn't the future. It happened "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."). If that isn't enough about destruction on a vast scale also has Planet Killers.

When you think about it for a minute planet killing can't be easy. Are we talking about just destroying all life on a planet? Are we talking about rendering it uninhabitable? Are we talking about destroying what's on the surface? Or are we going to go all the way? If you want to destroy a planet properly then what you're left with after you're done can't meet the definition of a planet. How to destroy the Earth looks at what it would take to accomplish such a feat and then looks at various ways this might be done. Why do I feel I should warn people not to try any of these techniques at home?

If you want to look at slightly less immense weapons there's the Space War: Weapons-Exotic page from Project Rho's Atomic Rocket Pages. All the science you need to know to build rocket ships, equip them, and then trundle off to battle. Here there is material on propulsion, weapons, tactics, and much more.

In and amongst the outrageous silliness of thinking of these far fetched weapons and ideas there is a lot of real science. You can learn a lot about the world we live in while exploring the world that may be our future.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gender: What if Society is Starting to Favour Women?

It's a simple question. What if our apparently inherently male dominated and male oriented society changes to be female dominated and female oriented? This simple question seems to me to break down into two more questions.

What would the transition from our current society to that new one look like? How would men and women work through the upheavals and issues? How would society find its new balance? Would it find a balance?

And what would the result be like? Would it be a more equitable and fair society? Would it be more empathic? Would it be more egalitarian? Or could it bring unexpected and unforeseen new issues of gender and equality?

Sounds like a farfetched question? Sound like we don't have to worry about it in our lifetime?

Not if the trends pointed out in Hanna Rosin's article The End of Men? are a taste of the future. We may have to start looking at those questions more seriously.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Games: Philosophical Musings on the Meaning of Tetris?

Okay... I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry or take this seriously. No Truth In Game Design: An Argument For Idolatry by Jason Johnson is either a brilliant satire of how to be a post-modern deconstructionist or... or... I should start to get worried about how seriously scholarly attempts are at "reading" the world around us. To which I have only two things to point out.

First - The first comment to the article is actually quite profound. Tim Carter points out that "Symbolism isn't idolatry. Idolatry is when you forget a symbolic object is a symbol".

And second - the comments reminded me of one of my favourite stories and tutorials on how to understand and perform a post-modern deconstruction of almost anything. How to Deconstruct Almost Anything -- My Postmodern Adventure by Chip Morningstar is well worth a read. Whether or not Jason Johnson meant to be funny or satirical, or even whether he meant to be deconstructionist, he certainly fell into that mode easily.

I'm going back to just blowing up pixels for a while. Or maybe I'll just enjoy a video or two or three about Tetris.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Language: Nothing Wrong With Being Homophonic

Howard L. Chace, a professor of romance languages at Miami University, wrote a story in the early 1940s. He wrote a story in which he substituted the sounds of the words with slightly different ones. English is such a versatile language with so many words of so many sounds that it wasn't hard to come up with substitutes. Originally it was a story based on the idea that war time deprivations might have to extend to the spoken word. To quote the professor:
I wrote it about 1940. It was going to be part of a little article I was writing. It was in the days of rationing during the war and I thought about what would happen if we had to ration language. If our vocabulary were cut in half, we'd have to get along with other words. Consequently, I thought I'd see how you'd get along with the other half. I've never written that article, but I've always thought of doing it.
The story he wrote was a retelling of the tale of a young girl who visits her grandmother who lives in a dark wood. You might recognize the girl in question. She had a particular taste in cape and cap. The girl in question is, of course, "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut".
I taught French, and I used the story in my class to show the importance of intonation in learning a foreign language. You see, if you take these English words and put them in columns like a spelling book and just read them, they have no meaning. However, if you read them with the proper intonation, the meaning appears for certain people. For other people the meaning never does appear.
On today's web you may occasionally hear a tale of someone who posts something and it just takes off. It becomes popular and takes on a life of it's own without any help. This happened in the case of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" years before the web came around.

I never submitted it to anybody, but it got spread some way or other. It's one of those things that got completely out of control. I showed it to a few friends and to a book salesman who came to see me. He liked the thing because it had to do with words. I think I may have given him a copy, and he must have given it to someone else. It first appeared in print in the Merriam Company's magazine Word Study. I think it got in Stars and Stripes (U.S. Army newspaper) because I heard from people in Baghdad, Sweden, all over the world. Sports Illustrated found it in another publication and gave me $1000 for it. Arthur Godfrey found it in Sports Illustrated, and he broadcast it and very generously told any readers that wanted a copy they could have one by sending me postage. To my surprise, I mailed about five thousand of them. After that episode, Prentice Hall asked me to write a series of stories for a book, which I did.
The book of stories was called Anguish Languish. It not only contained Ladle Rat Rotten Hut but also other Furry Tells and some classic Noisier Rams by Mother Goose, some Fey-Mouse Tells, and Lath Thing Thumb Thongs. Of the songs... may I suggest Hormone Derange.

The trick to reading homophonic stories is to read them out loud and not think to much about the meaning of the words themselves. Just let them roll off your tongue and let your mind transpose the words to the ones you really need. It also may be easier to listen to the story being read to you. That way you don't get caught up in what the words mean and you tend to listen to the sounds they make instead. Give a listen to a version of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut and see if it makes sense to you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Math: You Can Do What With a Sphere?

Mathematics may be the most pure of the sciences. The most abstract of disciplines. And being the most abstract it allows for many problems that seem impossible or just plain flights of fancy.

One such problem is how to turn a sphere inside out.

Now we're talking about math and we're talking about the concept of a sphere. Don't think about trying to take a balloon and turning it inside out. It's not a real object mathematicians are talking about. A physical object can't be pushed through itself. A mathematical entity can. A real sphere can be torn and creased. A mathematical entity can't.

Even with a set of self imposed rules it turns out you can turn a sphere inside out (video).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Follow Up: More Precision Machinery

I keep forgetting that I live in a world that's very different than the one that existed only fifty years ago. We live in a digital world. There were computers of a sort that could calculate using mechanical means and there was certainly a great deal of precision equipment and technology around. However the digital world puts all that to shame.

For example I'm surrounded by clocks. Almost every electronic device has one. My smart phone has one. My computers each have one. Heck... video game consoles have one and will let the time of day in a game match the time of day in the 'real world'. And thanks to carrying pagers for years, and now the ubiquitous smart phone, I don't think I've worn a watch in decades.

Even when I did wear a watch it was a quartz or digital marvel that told time with accuracy of seconds per month. Not seconds per day... per month. Maybe even more precise. I took that for granted.

Which makes it hard to imagine that a good quality mechanical watch once was truly a useful and treasured possession. Expensive mechanical watches are just flashy luxury goods now. After all if you want to keep accurate track of time you don't turn to a wind up device anymore. Once they were truly marvels.

Two promotional films from the late 1940s made by the Hamilton Watch Company give an idea of how sophisticated, technical, and complex a good timepiece was. How a Watch Works explains how the various pieces of the mechanism fit together and work in a watch. If you ever wanted to know what part ticked or how the spring you wound up kept time this movie will tell you. It turns out that the mechanism is quite simple in principle. You'll have no problem understanding how it works.

If you figure out how they then make it fit into a tiny watch let me know. No wonder designing a watch took so many people so much time.

The second movie is a more direct promotional film. What Makes a Fine Watch Fine? reminded me that a good watch was really a thoughtful gift. While the first movie explains a watch this one goes to great lengths to show the level of detail and miniature manufacturing that was needed to make a watch. It's also fun to watch to see how many times the narrator uses the word fine.

I wonder what the equivalent gift is today? What do we give someone when we want to give them something practical that will have be useful and which (and this is the trick) will last and be used for years?

What is the modern equivalent of a fine watch?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Follow Up: Clearing Traffic Jams

More thoughts on improving traffic. First there was the idea that traffic signals and signs may be the cause of congestion and not the solution and then there was an example of how drivers react when traffic lights are removed.

So it may be possible to ease congestion, increase traffic flow, and cut down on accidents and wasted time by removing traffic lights and unnecessary traffic signs. That's great for city traffic. What about highways?

What happens when those wide open stretches of asphalt become parking lots? When there are many lanes of horrible traffic jams? What about those small jams that appear out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason? Is there a way to get rid of those and make the commute easier?

William Beatty may have the answer. The answer may be that even a single driver can erase those stop and go traffic jams.

Yes.... erase. As in remove completely.

First he explains that they aren't so much jams as traffic waves. If a car is slowed down then the one behind it slows down and so on. A wave of slow cars interrupts the flow of traffic. Then he explains one way of making the waves vanish. Don't be part of the wave - disrupt it by driving a constant speed behind those cars in front of you that are doing the "stop and go" thing. He then goes on to look at the slowdowns that occur when lanes merge.

This isn't just a theory. He has video to prove it works. Just taking the time to remove the wave helps smooth out traffic behind. Maybe one driver can make a difference on the highway.

And if you want to learn more about how traffic works and what can be done about it he has a page of links to information, theory, traffic simulators, and lots of other resources.

We may never get rid of congestions while there are cars on the road and we may not be able to get rid of wasted gas and time on the highway or in the city. But it's nice to know that drivers can help make things better on the roads.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Science: So You Think You Can Explain the World?

Continuing on the theme of education I'm turning to look at science. Not just any science. The science of theoretical physics.

Gerard 't Hooft has put together an overview called How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist. Unlike learning to become a mathematician Gerard's site is more informal and built for a specific purpose. I'll let him explain:
It so often happens that I receive mail - well-intended but totally useless - by amateur physicists who believe to have solved the world. They believe this, only because they understand totally nothing about the real way problems are solved in Modern Physics.
Think of the site as a corrective primer for those who would try and solve modern physics using non-scientific or  pseudo-scientific means. He starts with language and math and slowly builds a rough curriculum for modern physics. All the links I've checked are to free resources online. Even in sections with a few, but wonderful resources, Gerard lists the types of topics one should understand.

I'm not sure people who have a new pet theory will use the resources to teach themselves modern physics. I'm not sure the site will dissuade any cranks from working on theories that have fundamental flaws. I am sure that Gerard's site is a great resource for those of us who want to learn more or who want to refresh what we know with useful resources around the web.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gender: You Want to Study What?

If you're interested in studying human sexuality then maybe... just maybe... you should look at what graduate students are up to. Not yet full time professionals in the field but definitely well ahead of mere amateurs when it comes to looking in to the mysteries of how we all act. In fact if you want to know what interesting (or boring) things a field may lead you to research then reading what grad students are up to may be your best bet.

I got thinking this way when I stumbled across an article about some research on how women's sexual activities (or their "reproduction expediting") changed as their biological clocks started ticking louder. The title of a summary article says it all: Ticking Biological Clock = More Casual Sex.

This may seem to be an obvious observation. If you think about it though it's a bit counter intuitive. If I asked you how women's level of sexual fantasies, the amount of thoughts of sexual activity, and the willingness to have casual sex and a one-night stand would change as women get older and closer to menopause... would you have thought they all increase? After all isn't lower fertility sort of linked to less sex?

Apparently not.

And don't go thinking that this effect is based on whether a woman has had children or not. The hypothesis behind the numbers seems to indicate that this trend occurs whether or not the woman has had children. So the biological clock doesn't seem to be turned off if a women has had kids. At least not in this case.

Let me explain how I went from an interesting article to the idea of looking at what grad students are studying. The article linked to the actual study (pdf). Now studies are most often behind pay walls on sites that take your money before you see more than the abstract. So I checked the link to the PDF and it's from the website of one of the authors, Judith Easton, who's a grad student at the University of Texas.

Now in case you don't think you should go and read some of the other papers she's co-authored or contributed to let me give you a sample of some of the titles.

  • Reproduction Expediting: Sexual Motivations, Fantasies, and the Ticking Biological Clock. Personality and Individual Differences
  • Morbid Jealousy and Sex Differences in Partner-Directed Violence
  • How Having Children Affects Mating Psychology
How about some details on her research interests?
  • Jealousy/Morbid Jealousy: [With two colleagues] I'm studying how men who suffer from erectile dysfunction may differ from normally functioning men in their expression of jealousy and associated pre-copulatory anti-cuckoldry tactics.
  • Female Short-Term Mating: Engaging in short-term mating seems to be not in the best reproductive interest of a woman, and yet it is clear that in fact women do use this mating strategy. Previous research has provided several reasons why mated women may engage in this risky behavior, but the reasons why non-mated women do so are less clear
Reading a few of the papers and looking around I've come to two conclusions. If you want to know what a field of study will get you involved in your best bet is to look at what grad students are doing.

And... I wish someone had told me what areas detailed psychological research can lead to.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Games: So You Want to Play the Beautiful Game?

Here in Canada we look after our hockey prodigies. In the U.S. it's American football, baseball, and basketball. In the rest of the world it's football.

And what a system to look after and encourage kids with talent. Here in North America we can't even begin to imagine how much help there is. During the World's Cup the New York Times reported on How a Soccer Star is Made.

Too bad we can't do that much for every kid and in the particular area, sporting or otherwise, where they show talent.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Language: Anything New Under the Sun?

Continuing with the theme of education since it's early September and school is just about to start here's something I found on originality.

A couple of years ago the IRC chat channel running for people who like the XKCD webcomic site started an experiment. In order to increase the general level of discourse they programmed a bot (a computer program) to watch an moderate everything that is being typed in the chat channel. The primary purpose of the bot is to collect and remember everything that has been typed and to punish anyone who types a sentence that has been entered before.

Yes... punished. Type anything that has been typed before and you're muted for two seconds. For two seconds you can't type. The second time it's four seconds. Then eight. Then sixteen. Every six hours your punishment time decays by half for the next time you violate the rules.

The intent is to force people to type interesting and original sentences. "Yeah" is going to get you muted. Any longer and more interesting phrase is much more likely to be original. You can read all about it in ROBOT9000 and #xkcd-signal: Attacking Noise in Chat.

If you think about it all the bot is doing is preventing plagiarism by punishing violators. Of course a person who logs on to a chat channel isn't expected to know everything that's been typed before. So the problem on the xkcd chat channel is not so much plagiarism as it is an overabundance of inane conversation.

Plagiarism is a problem in schools though. Thanks to technology much like the bot written for xkcd it's also easier to catch than ever before. Actually... thanks to something as simple as a Google search a person who suspects a phrase or paragraph isn't original to a student can find it almost immediately. Not only can students find information (which they may decide to copy verbatim) but the schools and teachers can spot the copies quite easily. The results could end up being an arms race between the cheats and the schools.

Luckily there are people like Steven Dutch to help stop the war from getting out of hand. Steven Dutch teaches natural and applied sciences at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. He wrote Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism. An article I wish all students and teachers would read.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Math: So You Want To Be A Mathematician?

With school starting this seems like a good time to find out what it takes to learn a good cross section of modern math. Which leads to the aptly names How to Become a Pure Mathematician (or Statistician) website.

The main page is the overview and contains a few notes at the bottom. I don't suggest clicking on the stage links (ie Stage 1, Stage 2, etc). Since the site is created using blogger the Stage links show the posts for that stage but not necessarily in the correct order. Clicking on the links below the Stage headings is much more useful. Elementary Stuff is where to begin.

The site itself is nothing more than a collection of links to books and resources. Direct links in the case of resources and books that are online and amazon links to the rest.

Even if you don't want to become a mathematician or a statistician give the site a look. The list of topics and required readings is overwhelming. No wonder it's hard to become a mathematician.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cutting Spending and Creating an Unfortunate Deficit

Saving money is a good thing right? Cutting costs is beneficial right? A government that controls spending and can lower taxes is in all our best interest right? Well... maybe not.

Sadly... short sighted thinking like that can lead to all sorts of long term problems.

It's the Labour Day long weekend as I write this. The end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Which makes a post by professor Michael O'Hare all the more appropriate. He's written an open letter to his new students where he tries to apologize to them for the terrible swindle that has been pulled against them.

Read professor O'Hare's letter and ask yourself a simple question. Can you even imagine a politician explaining what needs to be done in these terms? Can you imagine a policy maker putting forth a program that isn't immediately popular by explaining the long term impact on our children and our society?

Me neither. Which is a shame. Any politician who can begin to see that far ahead would get my attention. Sometimes policy has to be about more than just the money involved.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Follow Up: More Tut

Since most of the original notes, maps, and pictures from the excavation of King Tut's tomb are available online I decided to see what else is available.

National Geographic has a long history of pictures and writings about Tut. In 2005 National Geographic created a flash tour called Unravelling the Mysteries of King Tutankhamun and an article on how modern forensics are being used to look at his mummy. As interesting as these are they don't compare to being able to read At the Tomb of Tutankhamen and being able to look at the photographs they published back in 1923.

Of course the discovery of King Tut's tomb did create a cultural phenomenon. I'm not talking about the interest in Egyptology and archeology. I'm talking about the curse.

The curse was already being debunked back in 1934. If you want more details on the supposed curse, and if you are willing to risk investigating the curse yourself, there are one or two resources online to explore.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Science: Don't Forget the Amateurs...

We're used to science being a discipline of professionals using expensive equipment and working for large universities, organizations, or even corporations. It wasn't always like that of course. Science used to be the domain of the talented, and more than occasionally self funded, amateurs.

It turns out there is still a place for amateurs in science. Especially in astronomy. Average people are able to look into the night sky and observe much of the wonders around us. Maybe not with the detail and precision of a Hubble space telescope or a large earthbound observatory. But there's more than enough up there to look at.

In fact the amateurs have been more successful than the 'professionals' in finding new comets in our solar system. Martin McKenna wrote an Visual Comet Hunting - A Deeper Look. In it he writes about the various 'professional' systems that may end up being better than amateurs and pretty much concluded that the amateurs have nothing to worry about for the time being. They're still likely to find new objects before the new systems.

Even looking at known objects can be incredibly rewarding. Sites like and club sites like The Hamilton Amateur Astronomers are filled with galleries of pictures taken by non-professionals.

You can go and buy a good set of binoculars or a telescope to view the heavens but for an added challenge you can also make your own. Amateur telescope making has a long history and there are a number of resources available. The ATM Site (Amateur Telescope Makers) has lots of articles on many aspects of making your own telescopes. From notes on silvering and coating your mirrors to some thoughts about spiders in Newtonian telescopes. And no... that second one isn't about getting rid of a bunch of arachnids... it's about the thin supports, or spider, that hold the little mirror at one end of a Newtonian telescope.

Of course if you are going to design and build your own telescope it may help to know the physics and the math involved. Getting the best image, or knowing how good an image you can get, is complicated business. Vladimir Sacek's Notes on Amateur Telescope Optics site is as close to a complete textbook on the subject as you can find. Heavy on the math, detail, and diagrams it is dense but if you're trying to understand and work out telescope design there is no better place to start.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gender: What About Men?

I find it amazing that something can be put on the web and remain completely unseen and unread until suddenly, months or years later, it is found, shared, and gets passed around repeatedly. Case in point is a talk that both Wayne and I found being linked to around the web recently. The talk was given in 2007 by Roy Baumeister from Florida State University to the American Psychological Association.

The talk is entitled Is There Anything Good About Men? Professor Baumeister takes a look at how men and women are treated in society. He says he's not looking to see who's treated better or who should be treated better. He goes so far as to say "Gender warriors please go home".

I'm not sure that he manages to stay neutral in the debate over how culture and society treat the two genders. Granted his talk is biased to talk about how men are treated so that may explain the number of statistics that show men aren't as well treated as one may expect. Granted he's making a point that gender differences may be an important part of society. Granted he has his views and can express them.

Yet Is There Anything Good About Men? bothers me in two major ways.

Firstly he makes conclusions I'm not sure I can agree with. Some facts and points he makes are backed up by studies and research but many others don't seem as concrete or factual.

For example while talking about creativity he says:
I am a musician, and I’ve long wondered about this difference. We know from the classical music scene that women can play instruments beautifully, superbly, proficiently — essentially just as well as men. They can and many do. Yet in jazz, where the performer has to be creative while playing, there is a stunning imbalance: hardly any women improvise. Why? The ability is there but perhaps the motivation is less. They don’t feel driven to do it.
Really? He can prove it's because they don't feel driven? What about the female musicians (Jazz and otherwise) who do improvise?

Another example of non-factual facts comes when he talks about men and women and reproductive success. He says:
To put this in more subjective terms: When I walk around and try to look at men and women as if seeing them for the first time, it’s hard to escape the impression (sorry, guys!) that women are simply more likeable and lovable than men. (This I think explains the “WAW effect” mentioned earlier.) Men might wish to be lovable, and men can and do manage to get women to love them (so the ability is there), but men have other priorities, other motivations. For women, being lovable was the key to attracting the best mate. For men, however, it was more a matter of beating out lots of other men even to have a chance for a mate.

 I'm glad to know he backs up his point about how the sexes have different reproductive strategies by saying he doesn't find men as loveable and likeable as women.

The other problem I have with the talk is more general. Just because things are a certain way now (or historically) doesn't mean they should (or even have to) stay that way.

We're thinking intelligent beings. Yes we're partially driven by emotion. Yes we're partially driven by urges. Yes we're partially driven by deep motivations and instincts that we've literally evolved into.

But we don't have to be driven by them always and every time.

We, men and women, can be more than what we once were. We can consciously decide to be other than what studies or society or others tell us we should be. We can also build societies that are better than our historically brutish ones. We can build and shape a world with different priorities and goals then the most mundane.

If we can't aspire and reach to be more than our biological background and our society's history then we are just semi-intelligent automatons and not human beings who use what we've evolved into to turn us into so much more.

Or are we stuck as being no more than our base biology let's us... regardless of gender?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Games: Be Aggravating and Challenging Enough

Video games seem easier than they used to be. Sit an old gamer down and ask them about the games in the arcades and the early home consoles and you'll be subjected to war stories as heartfelt as those from any veteran of real wars.

Certainly there are games that are very easy and those that are incredibly difficult. The difficult games are frustrating and the easy ones are boring. I don't mean that games with simple mechanics and rules are boring. Tetris is a perfect example of a game with simple rules that gets very challenging. No. I'm talking about games that don't provide enough of a challenge.

It's not just a matter of making a game challenging. The player like to feel good enough to move forward and keep going. Barely being able to cope is challenging but not very satisfying. A good way of looking at challenge is an article from Pixel Poppers called Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone.

Next time you find yourself unable to leave the computer because "there's just one more level" or "this time I'll get it perfect" blame game designers who managed to get the balance and challenge right.