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.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food: I Can Eat it But Not Grow it?

The war against drugs has had some weird consequences. America has an incredible number of people behind bars for what, elsewhere in the world, is considered a minor offense or no offense at all. The U.S. spends incredible amounts to stop the importing, growing, creating, transporting, selling, and use of a whole number of substances.

From crystal meth to marijuana to ecstasy and opium law enforcement is on the case.

Which leaves me with a minor problem.

The problem isn't that I use drugs. I don't use drugs - not 'hard' nor 'soft'. I don't judge those who use drugs. Especially if they use them medicinally, or recreationally, and above all responsibly. I consider alcohol as much of a drug as most of the 'illegal' ones and I don't think everyone should stop drinking.

The problem isn't that I'm dead set against the drug war in its entirety and that I think all drugs should be legal. I'm split on the issue of legalization since I don't think any and all drugs should be legalized. I'm not particularly in favour of open unregulated legalization of everything.

No the problem is that I happen to like a food that is intimately related to an illicit drug. One that can set of false alarms on drug tests and happens to taste really good in pastry.

You see... I like poppy seeds and I'm not afraid to admit it. From just a sprinkling as a topping on bagels to the extremes of makowiec I'm a fan.

But the plants that make poppy seeds also make opium. All you need to know is how to turn a poppy from a nice flower into a drug producing plant.

Years ago Michael Pollan wrote about the problems and issues with poppies. As weird as it sounds it's only illegal to grow poppies if you know how to 'misuse' the plant. Otherwise they're just harmless flowers. You can read all about Opium Made Easy.

I just don't know if you're allowed to grow poppies in your garden after reading the article.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sports: Beyond Being a Master

Some sports have their senior circuit or leagues. A place where the old guard can play against each other without the young whippersnappers getting in the way. Golf has the Champions Tour for athletes over 50.

In many disciplines you are considered a master at the age of 35 or 45. But what happens when you go even older?

Bruce Grierson wrote The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian in The New York Times which looks at someone who's well beyond being a typical master. Olga Kotelko is continuing to set records in track and field at the age of 91.

There's always someone out at the edge of the bell curve. Someone who's health, stamina, capabilities, and abilities put almost everyone else to shame. Olga is such a person. Not everyone will turn out as healthy and athletic as Olga. Hopefully though she'll help us learn how more of us can be that fit and healthy that far into life. In the meantime she'll just keep amazing us with her feats.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Language: Without Speaking Any Words

It seems like a silly question at first. Then you think about it for a moment and how profound the question is hits you.
How do deaf people think if they can't 'hear' words in their heads? What language do they use and how does it work?
 The answer is quite interesting. Here are two attempts to describe the answer. First here is the Cecil Adam's take from The Straight Dope. The second one is How Deaf People Think from Today I Found Out.

It just goes to show that the human mind is incredibly resilient and powerful. Remove the ability to hear and it still finds a way to think and acquire language.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Math: A Classic Reborn

All the talk of the long S last week reminded me of a classic math book. Actually it's a classic version of a classic text.

Euclid's Elements is a 13 book classic on geometry and math. In 1847 Oliver Byrne created a version of the first 6 books in which he used colours to indicate the different elements in a drawing instead of using letters and other labels. A scanned public domain version of the book is available thanks to the Mathematics Department of the University of British Columbia.

It may take a few minutes to get to used to the long Ss but after that... it's relatively smooth sailing. Now why didn't texts like this end up as part of my education?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Does it Require That Much Discussion?

We all have to do it sooner or later. It may be an almost daily occurrence in a large household or for those souls who live alone it can be a very rare task. It doesn't matter how long it takes but sooner or later we are all faced with the simple task of replacing the toilet paper.

Yes sooner or later the roll runs out and a new one needs to be put on the toilet roll holder. Which seems like a minor task. At least it does until you're faced with a simple question.

Under or over?

You may not have a preference. You may not care. Or you may be one of those people who have a passionate proponent of one orientation or another.

Or... more sadly you may be in a household where you are of one mind and others are of the other persuasion.

In which case, though I'm not sure it will help, may I recommend logical arguments and dispassionate discussion? If you need some ideas and more background... Wikipedia has a page to help you understand the dilemma of Toilet paper orientation.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Science: Speculation Leads to Deep Thoughts

Here is part of the definition of the word science as it was defined almost a century ago:
1. Knowledge; knowledge of principles and causes; ascertained truth of facts.
2. Accumulated and established knowledge, which has been systematized and formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operation of general laws; knowledge classified and made available in work, life, or the search for truth; comprehensive, profound, or philosophical knowledge.
3. Especially, such knowledge when it relates to the physical world and its phenomena, the nature, constitution, and forces of matter, the qualities and function of living tissues, etc.; -- called also natural science, and physical science.
4. Any branch or departament of systematized knowledge considered as a distinct field of investigation or object of study; as, the science of astronomy, of chemistry, or of mind.
Thank you Webster's of 1912.

I don't think we'd disagree much on the definition. Science is knowledge. Science is principles and causes. Science is systematic fields of study.

But does it have to be? Is there some use of stepping outside the expected and speculating for a while? Maybe stepping outside of the typical can lead to some interesting speculation and ideas. Thought experiments have a long history in science. Why shouldn't idle speculation on seemingly absurd topics?

A couple of years ago Brian Trent wrote about a particular bit of speculation. The result was Was There Ever a Dinosaur Civilization?.

Now don't laugh. You may be thinking "but there wasn't a dinosaur civilization so it doesn't matter". But how do you know there wasn't one? If the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago then any evidence of a proto-civilization would be 65 million years old. What would such evidence have looked like then and what would it look like now?

But even if you think the idea is completely absurd it still leads to interesting speculation. What is a civilization? What happens in the early stages of civilizations? What physical and mental characteristics are required to create a civilization? Why did mammals evolve them when dinosaurs and other creatures did not? And why wasn't it until long after the dinosaurs went extinct that some mammals evolved that far?

Even a seemingly silly line of speculation can get you thinking about the causes of civilizations, the remains of early civilizations, and more. You can keep speculating and thinking beyond the article. Why did civilizations not fizzle out? What is the advantage that made civilized humans more successful than uncivilized ones? Was civilization inevitable? If it was inevitable for humans why wasn't it for others?

Brian's article is well written, footnoted, and thought provoking. A silly idea leads one to consider all sorts of scientific disciplines and ideas in detail. Not bad for some idle speculation.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Food: A Food Controversy

Ethical and moral arguments rarely reduce themselves to simple sayings and truisms. This is true when one strays from the simplistic extremes of the arguments and head towards the middle ground. When one moves off to a fringe area... watch out - flame wars are easy to start.

In the world of food one large ethical argument is whether we humans should eat meat. Should we be vegetarian (or even vegan)? Or should we remain omnivorous?

The arguments on each side range from moral (we do or do not have a right to eat animals) through to practical (meat eating for all humans alive isn't sustainable). Most of these arguments are based on the simplistic extremes. One either eats some meat or eats none. Once you head for middle ground it gets even more complicated. For example: If one feels it is okay to eat meat... how much should one eat and how much should one worry about how the animals are raised and looked after?

Once you move away from the simplistic (meat or no meat) into areas of discussion that aren't so clear cut complications emerge.

As for the fringe... well.. there are areas of discussion that seem to invite more passion and controversy.

Take foie gras for instance.

Fattening ducks or gooses beyond 'normal' bounds and limits? Feeding tubes? Forced feeding? It's not hard to see why foie gras is considered beyond the pale in some circles. People who will argue politely over the meat / non-meat debate will get very angry over foie gras.

Is it possible to look objectively at foie gras? Can one get past the idea of what foie gras represents and look at what's really happening and how it happens?

If you are dead set against the idea of foie gras then The Physiology of Foie Gras on Serious Eats won't do anything to change your mind. If you're all for the idea of foie gras then the article will only make you feel better about the production of foie gras.

And if you're not sure one way or the other? If you think you have an open mind and might by willing to let a pro-food website take a look at foie gras? In that case I'm not sure. I don't know if the article works well as a defence of foie gras or if it will turn people against the idea.

My best guess is that for those who aren't sure the article will be like making a coin toss to help with a difficult position. If you ever want to know what choice you want to make you simply assign one choice to heads, the other choice to tails, take a coin and flip it high into the air, and your choice is whatever you hope the coin lands on when it comes back down. Even if you don't know your position on foie gras the article will help. By the time you have read half of it you'll know which way you want the coin to land.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Games: A Big Name in Video Games

Every area of human endeavour has its big names. Those people who have made a big impact. The personalities run the gamut. From giants and heroes on one end of the spectrum to the quiet unassuming types on the other.

In the world of video games one such quiet name is Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto may not be a household name but some of the video game franchises he has created certainly are. You may have heard of Zelda. You've probably heard of Donkey Kong. You most certainly have heard of Mario. All those and more are his creations.

Considering the impact his games have had on generations of players it's amazing how little is widely known about the man. Last year Nick Paumgarten took a look at Miyamoto in the New Yorker. Master of Play is a delightful look inside the mind of the man who's creations have entertained so many for so long.

We should all be so lucky to spend out time recreating the joyful parts of our childhoods as part of our job. Even if we can't do that ourselves we have the work of Miyamoto as he takes us to the best part of his own.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Language: A Letter Long Since Lost

I like reading a lot of books and other texts about history. One interesting side effect of reading a lot of history is that I see snippets of old manuscripts. Usually short quotations and excerpts used to show how times once were. If you see enough of these old snippets of English you realize that we don't seem to use the same alphabet we once did.

One seemingly odd part of the English language was the long S. That slender letter that looks like a normal s that has been stretched vertically. In case you wish to use the long S Andrew West's BabelStone has a detailed post on The Rules for Long S. If knowing when to use it isn't enough he also has The Long and the Short of the Letter S. And if that isn't enough he also has R Rotunda part 1 and part 2.

If that isn't enough it turns out all of BabelStone is a true wonder of the Longer Web. Posts are infrequent but then they'd have to be. They are so thorough and comprehensive that it's hard to imagine the amount of work and effort that goes into each one. The most recent post is part 4 of a series on the ancient Chinese game of Liubo.

From the proper usage of long lost letters to information about a long lost board game. What's not to like? Didn't I say I like to read about history?

Hmm... February... Time to Start Blogging Again

In the eternal conflict between rodents and bloggers I'm going to try and put the bloggers ahead again. With a day to spare before Groundhog Day I am starting to blog again on those longer pieces of the web that are worth reading.

While I'm continuing with the topics I had before you can expect some changes in the next little while. I've had a chance to think and ruminate over my short self imposed hiatus. A hiatus, however long or short, is something I thoroughly recommend. I'd have have stayed away longer... but there's too much good writing on the web that needs to be blogged.