Monday, March 31, 2008

Tales from the ArXiv

Here is the abstract of a paper that just got posted to the arXiv:

Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2008 08:11:02 GMT (20kb)

Title: Crime and punishment in scientific research
Authors: Mathieu Bouville
Categories: physics.soc-ph physics.hist-ph
Comments: 10 pages, 2 tables
Arguments against scientific misconduct one finds in the literature generally
fail to support current policies on research fraud: they may not prove wrong
what is typically considered research misconduct and they tend to make wrong
things that are not usually seen as scientific fraud, in particular honest
errors. I argue that society cannot set a rule enjoining scientists to be
honest, so any such rule can only be internal to science. Therefore society
cannot legitimately enforce it. Moreover, until an argument is provided to
prove that lack of honesty is far worse than lack of technical competence,
intentional deceit should not be punished much more harshly than technical
Keywords: cheating; ethics; fabrication; falsification; integrity;
plagiarism; research fraud; scientific misconduct.
\\ ( , 20kb)

Let me repeat the abstract's last sentence: Moreover, until an argument is provided to
prove that lack of honesty is far worse than lack of technical competence,
intentional deceit should not be punished much more harshly than technical

Comment: That is just utter bullshit. I understand that technical incompetence can cause at least as much damage as dishonesty, but there shouldn't be "punishment" for honest mistakes! What kind of society does this guy want to live in? In my ideal world, there is a big difference in how people react to dishonesty versus honest mistakes. Sheesh...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Long Hitting Streaks and Probability

Julius Su (of capacitor fame) e-mailed me to tell me about an opinion piece in the New York Times about the probability of there being a hitting streak of at least 56 games, which baseball players had that streak, and in which season it was most likely to occur.

When I looked at the url for the article, I noticed that the name of one member of my thesis committee (Steve Strogatz) was in it (because he coauthored the piece).

The basic premise was to simulate the history of baseball 10000 times using a Monte Carlo method (including all real end-of-season statistics from which to sample) and to determine the longest streak in each of those alternate histories, who accomplished the feat, and the year in which he did it. The result was that there was a streak at least 53 games long more than half the time. The longest streak was between 50 and 64 games 2/3 of the time. The most likely people to have the longest streak were Hugh Duffy and Willie Keeler, and the most likely year for the streak to occur was 1894. Now, here comes the eerie part: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio was the 56th most likely player to have accomplished the feat. Curiouser and curiouser...

I asked Steve by e-mail whether there is a technical article, and he just responded to confirm that there isn't any (and wasn't sure if he and his coauthor were going to write one).

Preliminary good Fucking awesome news

I'm listening to tonight's Dodger game (well, this afternoon's game where it's being played), and I have some good fucking awesome news to report.

First, the opening day starting lineup is slated to have Matt Kemp in right, Andruw Jones in center, Andre Ethier in left, and Juan Pierre on the bench. Hell yes!!!

Second, Chin-lung Hu made the team. Third basemen Nomar Garciaparra, Andy LaRoche, and Tony Abreu will all be starting the season on the disabled list (DL). I don't think Hu will be starting every day---he'll probably just be platooning---but I can always hope that that happens until LaRoche comes off the DL.

I don't know yet if Pierre will be benched for a longer period of time, but the fact that he won't be starting on opening day is absolutely awesome. Let's just hope it's a sign of things to come...

Update (3/31/08): The Dodgers have now officially announced that Andre Ethier will be the starting left fielder and that Juan Pierre will be starting the season on the bench. Hopefully, he'll stay there (or that, even better, we'll find someone to take him off our hands). Rob Neyer summarized this piece of news in a particularly excellent manner: Finally our long national nightmare might be over, as Joe Torre has bowed to reality and will use his three best outfielders as, you know, his three outfielders. But we must remain ever-vigilant, sports fans.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fearless baseball predictions (2008 season)

Here are some fearless predictions for the 2008 baseball season:

National League:

MVP: David Wright
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie of the Year: Joey Votto (honorable mention for Chase Headley)

Division Winners: Mets, Brewers, Dodgers
Wild Card: Arizona Diamondbacks

National League Champion: New York Mets (though hopefully it will be the Dodgers)

Team on the Rise: Milwaukee Brewers
Team on the Decline: San Fransisco Giants (yes, despite their poor 71-91 record in 2007, I really do expect them to be a good deal worse this year)

American League:

MVP: Travis Hafner
Cy Young: Erik Bedard
Rookie of the Year: Daric Barton (honorable mention for Evan Longoria)

Division Winners: Angels, Red Sox, Indians
Wild Card: Yankees

American League Champion: Cleveland Indians

Team on the Rise: Tampa Bay Rays (note the new name)
Team on the Decline: Minnesota Twins (though only for one year; they'll already start to rise again in 2009). I considered listing the Orioles, but I think their fall from 2007 to 2008 will be less precipitous than that of the Twins.

World Series winner: Cleveland Indians

A Never-ending Battle

I just got a message on the 'defend science' e-mail list. It mentions a new movie of which I hadn't previously heard that seemingly has the potential to do a lot of damage. I'm not going to write any of my own commentary in part because this is the first that I've heard of it and I don't have any information besides what's in this e-mail, though of course my gut feeling is unsurprisingly going in the usual directions. There was some font substitution in this e-mail and I'm just doing a copy and paste, so I apologize for that in advance. (It should not hurt the readability of the text, and I really don't feel like copy-editing the whole thing.) Anyway, here is the text of the letter:

Defend Science Letter to Signatories

The Movie \"Expelled: No Intelligence
Allowed\" - a big attack on science

The Ben Stein movie/documentary \"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed\" is
scheduled for release on April 18th. The movie casts Stein (former Nixon
speech-writer with a minor acting career) as an ~Santi-establishment rebel~T
facing off against ~SBig Science~T. It is a crude attack on evolution,
insidiously framed as defending the ~SFreedom of Speech~T of scientists who
dare to go up against the scientific establishment. P.Z. Myers, evolutionary
biologist and author of the science blog Pharyngula, was recently expelled
from a screening of the film (although his guest, Richard Dawkins, was not!)
Myers, who was interviewed by the producers under false pretenses and appears
in the film, immediately exposed the hypocrisy of the films producers who
ejected a critical voice from the screening of a film purporting to be about
freedom of speech. (See his blog This, and other
exposures of the film~Rs attack on evolution, created a firest
orm in the blogosphere and brought the film some much needed criticism
(check out the links below which give a general idea of the discussion). Here
we aren~Rt going to repeat material well-covered elsewhere. In this email we
want to address some of the specific strategies of the film.

The film is not aimed at winning over scientists or friends of science. It
doesn~Rt attempt to make a rational case for the truth of intelligent design
(which can~Rt be made in any case, but it doesn~Rt really try). The movie
instead openly poses religion in opposition to evolution, and panders to the
prejudices of its intended Christian fundamentalist audience. It poses the
little guy vs. ~SBig Science~T; ~Sfaith-based common sense~T vs. the
complexities of reality; and Americanism and freedom of speech vs. the way
science has really developed and what science has learned about the world. If
you apply the logic Stein applies to evolution to another field, for example
astronomy, what is really going on becomes clear to anyone. The logic is
equivalent to saying that if the field of astronomy insists on professional
standards and demands that astronomers all acknowledge that the earth goes
around the sun, then this is an assault on freedom of speech ~V what about
those who want to be a
stronomers and insist that the earth is the center of the universe?

In this framework, it also makes an insidious political linkage. Stein wrote
a piece on the Expelled blog in October: \"Darwinism, perhaps mixed with
Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism, a form of racism so vicious that it
countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other
groups in the name of speeding along the evolutionary process.\" Using
innuendo, images of Nazi death camps, and even filming at the memorial to the
victims at the Dachau concentration camp, the film ~Sestablishes~T the horror
of ~SDarwinism~T.

As for ~SBig Science~T, the film utilizes what everyone knows - that
corporate interests and governments often subvert science to serve immediate
narrow objectives - and twists this to unfold a slander campaign against
~SBig Science~T, in a way that equates science itself with ~Sbig
government~T, ~Sbig brother~T, etc. The claim is made that ~Smany
scientists~T face persecution for suggesting that intelligent design is
evident in such things as DNA and the genetic code. Isolated examples
(already thoroughly discredited, as the film-makers must have known) are
seized and twisted to paint a picture of the horrible dictatorship of ~SBig
Science~T. The battle is framed as a struggle of the little scientists who
question orthodoxy against ~SBig Science~T. In this way, such things as peer
review, professional standards, and - most fundamentally - the process by
which science, and scientists, sort through data to reach new understanding
of the world, and then test that understanding, are all put in the camp of oppressive ~SBig Science~T.

The same company that did the campaign for Mel Gibson~Rs ~SThe Passion of the
Christ~T promotes \"Expelled\". They have used the tactic of screening the
film for creationist-minded people (tapping into church networks, getting
favorable reviews from people like James Dobson of ~SFocus on the Family~T)
to try to create a big audience for the film when it is initially released.
To some degree this tactic appears to have backfired (negative publicity,
exposure of lying and deceit in production methods, and hypocrisy on the
freedom of speech issue raised by expelling P.Z. Myers), and it is not clear
exactly how the producers will respond (so far they have lied about the P.Z.
Myers expulsion and cancelled scheduled preview showings throughout the

There is great duplicity here that needs to be highlighted. The promoters
cast the film in terms of opposing fascism and ~SBig Science~T, yet the
endorsement of people like Dobson, who advocates the theocratic
transformation of American life and political institutions and who sees
science and scientific understanding as a real obstacle to that plan, is
central to their strategy. \"Expelled\" is a well-funded attempt to
consolidate and expand creationist forces as the Bush Administration enters
its final year.

It~Rs great that the plans of the producers to quietly build an audience
among creationists to launch \"Expelled\" were spoiled by the excellent work
of P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins and others. But this film highlights the
fact that the creationist forces are still at it, and also that the attacks
on evolution lie at the heart of the attacks on science. Defend Science does
not call for opposing religion per se, but for defending science from a
specific right-wing political agenda, still in power, which is coupled with a
particular brand of fundamentalist, religious ideology. All this calls for
stepped-up efforts to broadly defend science!

--Defend Science

Sources of further information:

\"Expelled\" trailer;

National Center for Science Education list of links:

Greg Laden~Rs list of blog entries regarding P.Z. Myer~Rs expulsion:

Expelled~Rs backers exposed: Scott Hatfield on MonkeyTrials blog:

OK, maybe I should make one quick remark: Where is Ferris Bueller when we need him?


My stomach is happy.

I don't usually blog about restaurants. Because dinner hasn't been available in Somerville's dining hall during spring break, I've been using this as an opportunity to try some more of the local restaurants. The tapas restaurant I tried tonight had been on my list for quite a while, and I just hadn't gotten around to it yet. Clearly, I should have.

I had an early dinner on my own (it's a bit weird for me to be blogging about dinner that I just ate when it's only 6:40 pm, isn't it?) and wanted to have something nice because I had leftovers last night, skipped lunch entirely today (though today's errands did include an impulse buy of a very cool stuffed Sonic the Hedgehog, so it wasn't a total loss), and had been getting a lot of fast food lately. It was clearly time for a good meal. I ordered three tapas (which I pronounced pretty much correctly): meatballs, garlic fried chicken, and a skewer consisting of steak and bacon-wrapped dates (with potatoes on the side). Yum! This place also has a meat sampler meal, but it's for a minimum of 2 people and I figured I'd wait until I went to this place with somebody instead of nuking half of it. (If it takes too long before I find someone to go there, then I probably will go ahead with the nuking plan.) After seeing the menu (and especially after trying the food), it occurs to me that this is one of the restaurants at which Lemming and I should eat when he visits me. [It also occurs to me that the term "bacon-wrapped dates" could be interpreted in an entirely different manner---though it, too, would probably be delicious. :P ]

The other thing of note from today was that I started a new calculation. I may eventually bring collaborators with me on this project, but the key thing this conveys is that I actually have some time now to not just to read papers, supervise students, revise drafts, and do various other research things [which I have to be creative to find time to accomplish for any reasonable length of time when classes are in session], but that I even have time to get my hands dirty and do actual calculations myself! Hooray! I actually have a decent idea of a neat thing I can do with this particular calculation, though it will obviously take a while to go through everything. Additionally, I do have numerous other projects that are far more immediate, so even during spring break, I do expect to experience long temporal gaps between my chances to work on this. That said, it is really nice to start a new project on which I intend to be the first author. It is natural to write fewer first-author papers as one ascends the academic hierarchy, but it's both important and very nice to continue to do those kinds of projects too.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"And that happened."

Courtesy Rob Neyer's blog, here is a wonderful example of announcing (on a blog called Awful Announcing) that can only be described with one word: "awesome"

Wow. I think the announcer (musician John Mayer) needs to stick to what he does best: singing fluffy love songs that make people want to puke.

Cause for optimism?

Rob Neyer made the following comment in his blog today: I was in Anaheim last night, where Orange County hosted Los Angeles. I might have seen the end of Juan Pierre's career. He's been complaining about not getting enough at-bats this spring, while getting more at-bats than every Dodger but one (James Loney). Last night he led off for the Dodgers. He played all 10 innings, went 0 for 5, and left six runners on base in the 2-2 tie. He's now batting .179 over 78 at-bats.

Please, please, pretty please: Say it's so!

I saw Pierre's performance in the box score, but of course games like last night are now making me feel the time zone gap. Evening west coast games like that will always start too late for me to watch live. Last night's game started a few minutes after 2:00 am local time and tonight's game will start after 2:45 am local time. I'll be able to watch lots of baseball on the web, but the time zone is going to make me miss a lot of Dodger games (and I greatly prefer watching them live rather than recordings later on). I knew that would be the case when I made my decision to come here (and I made my peace with that without an issue), but that doesn't mean I can't wish it weren't the case. :)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My hand hurts.

My copy of Super Smash Brothers Brawl arrived today. (Thanks Lemming for mailing it to me!)

I unlocked Ness, Captain Falcon, Luigi, and Marth. I had a chance to unlock Ganondorf, but I lost that battle. Also, I accidently used the hammer item early and unlocked something rather mundane. If I had realized, I would have saved it for something I'm unlikely to accomplish.

It's been a long time since I played this many hours of games in one night that did not involve playing with other people. (And I may very well do this again tomorrow. However, my eyes are tired and my left hand hurts, so I'm done for tonight.)

Locals: Time to come over and brawl!

Jumping the Dodger

Zifnab IMed me yesterday morning to let me know about a scene from the Royals-Dodgers game the previous night in which Joey Gathright leaped over a Dodger in order to make it safely to first base. (I missed the game because it started at 1am my time.) It was quite cool! Gathright is a speedster who has basically no other baseball tools; he's a great athlete, but he's a marginal baseball player. It turns out, though, that he is actually known for his leaping ability: He used to jump over cars.

If somebody has a good 'jumping the shark' joke to contribute, I encourage you to post it here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More comments on the fact that Juan Pierre sucks

Rob Neyer devoted yet another blog entry to the simple fact that Juan Pierre sucks and (even more relevantly) that we have better players who we can (and should!) put in the everyday lineup instead of him. Amen, brother!

By the way, today was Opening Day of the baseball season (the earliest it's ever occurred). The Red Sox and Athletics played a game in Japan this morning---I watched about an 75 minutes of it before I needed to go to a meeting---and play another one tomorrow. Meanwhile, other teams are still playing exhibition games. In fact, the Red Sox and Athletics will go back to playing a couple of additional exhibition games before the regular season starts in earnest (with every team playing games that count). This is, naturally, an artifact of playing two regular season games in Japan. (I very much support the idea of playing some regular season games in other countries. I think it is excellent to do that.)

Oil Money Networks

You can follow the oil money at this website.

I found out about this one from an e-mail that Skye Bender-de Moll sent to the SocNet mailing list:

"Dear Friends,

I've been involved in a project by the non-profit Oil Change
International to create interactive network visualizations of U.S.
federal campaign contributions from the Oil and Gas industries. The
website has finally been officially launched, and I think some of you
might be have fun exploring the networks:

The goal was to create accessible visual summaries of ~80,000
contributions, displayed in network and drillable/sortable tabular
forms for both chambers of Congress and presidential races from 2000
to 2008. The network images are bipartite graphs of companies and
politicians, linked by arcs giving contribution amounts. Clicking on
nodes gives additional information. Companies are actually
aggregations of giving by company Political Action Committees and
individuals' declared affiliations. Networks can be thresholded by
quartile ranges independently for edges, companies, and politicians.

The data come from U.S. Federal Election Commission filings, cleaned
and categorized by the Center for Responsive Politics, and includes
links to the actual filing receipts to document each contribution. We
have also integrated the data with a crude industry support voting
score based on selected energy and climate congressional votes. We
may be able to make formatted network and attribute data available to
researchers who are interested in working with Oil Change
International to do more rigorous and sophisticated forms of
statistical analysis. (...)

Technical note for those interested: The site is built from open
source components in PHP and javascript/AJAX. The coordinates for
the layouts are produced using the Kamada-Kawai layout implementation
in the GraphViz neato package. The Graphviz community was kind enough
to make some modifications to their code to assist us. Additional data
for id linking and voting came from and the Sunlight Labs

Monday, March 24, 2008

Not more than four...

Justin Howell sent me an e-mail with a link to an article about recent research that apparently shows that fish can count up to four. It goes on to say that their concept for 'four' and 'many' is essentially the same with the caveat that if n > 2m + 1, then they can still tell n and m apart. Even with this extra ability, I automatically thought of gully dwarves---in particular smart ones like Bupu who could get up to three.

Here is the article's money quote: Dr Agrillo said: "The most interesting thing is that fish performance is very similar to what is observed in adult humans who possess a very limited vocabulary for numbers."

The FPU(T) Problem

The study credited with including the first computational experiment, which is also marked as the birth of my field of nonlinear science (although there is a very long prehistory because of the work of Poincaré, etc.) is of the so-called Fermi-Pasta-Ulam (FPU) problem, which consists of a set of masses connected by nonlinear springs. The scientists were trying to study the idea of thermalization/ergodicity from statistical physics (a problem that goes back to Debye) in which an initial excitation of one mode would ultimately lead to an equipartition of energy in the system. Of course, things turned out to be much more complicated than they were expecting, and that's why over 50 years after their technical report appeared in 1955, a lot of research is still being conducted on this and similar systems. (By the way, my work on chains of granular materials uses an FPU-like model.)

One of the interesting things I noticed several years ago when going through the original paper---in addition to the article's Brooksian title and the fact that this article has the only abstract I've ever seen that includes the term "untimely death"---was the footnote, "We thank Miss Mary Tsingou for efficient coding of the problems for running the computations on the Los Alamos MANIAC machine." I always wondered who Mary Tsingou actually was because I could never find any other papers by her. So I was naturally very excited when this article came out in Physics Today in January and answered my question. (As you can now see, this is yet another delayed blog entry.) It turns out that she changed her name in her scientific work after getting married, and indeed continued to work on related scientific problems. Unfortunately, her fundamental contributions to this problem (which included doing the heavy lifting in the original paper!) have been largely forgotten. I'm not sure how things work with technical reports---note that the original paper wasn't actually published in a refereed journal and I still don't know the story of why Tsingou wasn't listed as a coauthor---but if this were one of my papers, she would have been first author. The Physics Today article proposes changing the name of the problem, though we'll see how well it can fight 50 years of habit and scientific literature.

By the way, another very interesting thing in the article is the preparatory diagram for the computational experiments and the story behind how those experiments found the amazing phenomena that have captured the imagination of so many people (including me). One could now do this in something like 15 lines of vectorized code.

In conclusion, don't forget the following: It's a MANIAC, MANIAC (on the floor)!

P.S. If you can't access the version of the article in Physics Today, it has been posted on the arXiv.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

2007: The Year in Gaming

How's this for a belated blog entry. I should have written this one in December.

Now it's time to discuss the year in gaming. First of all, here is what I wrote in 2006.

Let's break this down by category:

Board (and card) games:

For one thing, I played Ticket to Ride correctly for the first time. I enjoyed the game both with the correct way of playing and with the incorrect one, and I was even still able to apply graph theory intuition when playing it correctly. I'd like to get a UK edition of the game because I've been on several of the routes now.

I also played the British Isles Edition of Apples to Apples, which contains a mixture of cards that could be in any version of the game and some that are specialized for this one. Among the latter, I now understand a few things but most of them are still almost completely lost on me. Obviously, this game is awesome.

Another expansion I tried is the Dunwich Horror Expansion to Arkham Horror, which makes the game even more complicated/involved than it was before. One new featured that I very much appreciated was the opportunity to develop psychological problems when one runs out of brains unless automatically going to Arkham Asylum. Mmmmm... braaaaaaaains.

Speaking of braaaaaaains, I also played the non-zombie version of Fluxx. One way to describe this---who was the person who described it this way? It wasn't me...---is as 1000 Blank White Cards with rules. It was extremely fun, even without the zombies.

Another card game I played is Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, which is an expandable card game. It is like the game Nuclear War, except with bunnies. The game dragged on the couple of times I played it, and I wonder if some of the expansions help.

I also tried Blokus this year. That was pretty fun.

I'm sure there are other board/card games I tried for the first time this year. Some of them that I have tried pretty recently are coming to mind, but I'm pretty sure that all of those date from 2006 or earlier.

Role-playing games:

Let's see... I played in two one-shots in March when we visited Mylanda in Florida. I played a somewhat monkly kobold (though he actually had one level each in three different classes) in a D & D game. I'd really like to spend a lot more time playing as this character (which I was really getting into), but given the game's one-shot nature, that probably won't happen. My die rolls when creating the stats for this character were just about the best rolls I've ever seen. The other one-shot was a Serenity game that Zifnab ran. (Mike)^2 was able to participate via video iChat, and this was done in quite a clever manner. (We were the field team and he was back at the ship. It worked quite well, though I think my feet occasionally got in the way of my laptop's camera.)

After I got to Oxford, I played in a Vampire game without vampires. We used the psychic powers expansion book, and my character specialized in seeing and interacting with dead people. The setting was contemporary Oxford and it was interesting to play in a world that was basically my current world with a fantastical twist. I believe that there will be a sequel to this minicampaign at some point.

Console games:

I played Guitar Hero II for the first time in January when I visited Travis and worked up my skill level from needing to play even the early songs at easy to being able to pass Freebird at medium. (I had seen the game before but hadn't played it, and I had played a total of one or two songs on the original Guitar Hero.) I also spent a bunch of time playing this in Pasadena and its environs at various times throughout the rest of the year. When I visited Travis again in August, we worked our way through Guitar Hero: Rock the 80s, although only a few of the songs were ones I really liked. (Unfortunately, they didn't include too many new wave songs. I did, however, find out just how much knowing a song really well helps one with this game.)

More recently, I played a lot of Rock Band when I visited the gang in December and January. The guitar stuff was more of the same (though it was cool to play using the spiffy perky goth guitarist who I designed), and I was trying to make the transition from medium to hard (which I am finding to be extremely difficult!). I can do some songs on hard with effort, and I can now actually get 100% on some songs in medium, which is quite a far cry from where I was in January 2007. The rest of the gang is much better than I am, but I'm happy with improving my ability compared to what I was before. It doesn't matter how I compare with other people. Playing the drums was really fun, and I am currently making headway through the songs on medium level. As I wrote in a separate blog entry a while back, the thing that makes Rock Band special is rocking out with ones friends. That's what I liked best about the game. I wouldn't get close to as much out of it playing on my own.

I got my Wii in 2007, so I've spent some time with a few of those games. I did some Wii sports, which is basically a tech demo. It serves it's purpose, however. My favorite game on it is tennis, and the boxing game is quite exhausting (especially when one is punching madly before the game actually starts! Oops...). Making a Mii is pretty cool as well. Mine actually resembles me quite a bit, and my collection now includes Miis that several of my students (and a few of my colleagues) have made. I tried Rayman Raving Rabids, which has lots of minigames. There was one that I just couldn't handle at all (sometimes, one has to just recognize that something isn't working), but watching others play the game and the associated sense of humor was a pretty fun diversion. But there were only a couple of minigames that was interested in actually playing.

I have now beaten the boss in Super Paper Mario, though I still want to do the pipe of 100 battles (or whatever its called) and the 100 consecutive battles against the Samar people (I died at the 90th battle yesterday... bloody Hell!). As with prior games in the series, this one has an excellent sense of humor. Also, Mario's special 3D ability is awesome and the allusions to things like Flatland (the first world is called "Lineland" and, for instance, has fake mathematical equations in the background), nerd culture (Francis is awesome), and more were really great! I'm also almost done with Zelda: Twilight Princess. I'm on the final boss battle (which I tried once and failed), and I plan to do the Cave of Ordeals after that. It's not a huge jump over recent Zelda games, but there were some very clever additions (like Spiderlink and the ball-and-chain weapon). My copy of Super Mario Galaxy arrived, but I haven't technically tried it yet. I will soon. Also on the docket (finally!) is Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which will arrive pretty soon after its layover in Pasadena.

I tried a bunch of console games and a couple of card games at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). (See my old blog entry on that.) It's not really worth getting into the various details because there would be too much to write to cover all the things I tried. I beat one of the designers at an incomplete version ('You can't play as that monster yet.') of a Godzilla game for the Wii. That game wasn't very good, but I pretty much just tried it because it was there. Another of the many games I tried was a Wii version of ping pong, which I had previously tried for the XBOX 360. I prefer playing in real life.

Portable games:

I also played a couple of Nintendo DS games, and I am eagerly anticipating playing the DS version of N+, which I tried at PAX for a different system and which was most recently slated to come out two days ago. (I plan to pick it up while I'm in LA, assuming it's actually come out.) I have done a bit of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, although I have lately been concentrating on my console games. I also played some Puyo Pop Fever (Did I actually buy this in 2006? I don't remember anymore.), whose computer players are ludicrously challenging in the player-versus-player mode! (Somebody should have playtested that better, because it reached ridiculous levels.) Of course, I am quite pleased to have a DS version of Puyo Puyo. "Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit!" Also, I think I spent some time playing New Super Mario Brothers last year, but that was more of a 2006 thing. I ought to finish that game at some point...

Computer games:

I played some Civilization IV and decided that I really like cultural victories. That's about it. (Does Scrabulous count?)

I'm sure there's stuff I'm missing, but this entry is already way too long, and I should have written it in December anyway...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rob Neyer blog entry: "Dodgers need to eat Pierre's money"

Here's the blog entry in question.

Here is the summary of Neyer's point: "What you can't do is pretend that $44 million wasn't dropped into a giant sinkhole, and keep running Pierre out there every day. Not if you're serious about playing big games in late September. You just can't."

Comment: Amen!

Sentence of the Day (Bulwer-Lytton edition)

After seeing a particular "awesome" (and awesome!) line in Super Paper Mario (it was along the lines of "I will hit you like an unseen dodgeball in a sweaty high-school gym" and I assume it was borrowed from something similar in the movie Dodgeball) last night, I was reminded of the Bulwer-Lytton bad fiction contest. I just wrote and submitted the following entry:

"After staring lustily at a frustratingly vicious--yet oddly compelling--differential equation that reminded him vaguely and for no good reason of his recently imprisoned ex-girlfriend, the notion that he was about to retire and shouldn't bother with such nonsense hit Professor Cvitanovic like Morrissey singing about a bad debt that he (Cvitanovic, not Morrissey) could not pay."

By the way, here are the 2007 winners of the contest. (And, yes, I did borrow the last name of my former [unofficial] postdoc advisor.)

Please share your "awesome" sentences in this spot. I think that one can do considerably "better" than my entry.

Update: The person who runs the contest (Scott Rice) responded to my submission with the following comment: "Only one submission, from a person with your powers of invention?" Now I feel compelled to come up with more sentences... Any thoughts on what I should put in there? Currently, I'm thinking of being meta- and including the idea of being short of inspiring ideas for a clever sentence. Maybe I can just be recursive? Here's a start: "Short of ideas for an "awesome" sentence to submit to the Bulwer-Lytter bad fiction contest, Oxford professor Mason Porter decided to rely on recursion." This clearly needs some embellishment, however, and I'd like to make the sentence itself recursive.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Two concerts

Here is another belated post.

On my (2^5)th birthday (February 10th), I saw Alison Moyet in concert. She sang most of the songs I wanted to hear, including two songs from Yaz ("Only You" and "Don't Go"). This included a couple of extremely interesting reimaginings (and one somewhat annoying reimagining). The main songs (by far) that I was disappointed not to hear were "Situation" (one of my favorite songs ever) and "Nobody's Diary".

A couple of weeks after that I saw Nouvelle Vague, which specializes in bossa nova covers of new wave and punk songs (note what 'nouvelle vague' translates to in English...). I really enjoyed that concert as well, and the two lead singers had an incredible stage presence together. They did some of the songs as duets, and they complemented each other very well not just with their singing but also with their on-stage interactions. The performance included a Frente!-esque version of "Bizarre Love Triangle" that I hadn't heard before as a studio version. I've written about this band a couple of times before in this spot, so I'll let you follow the link for more information.

Friday, March 14, 2008

How to write a sentence that is impossible to parse

I am currently refereeing a paper that has one of the most unparsable sentences I've ever seen. (The paper itself is pretty good, by the way.) This sentence includes a whopping total of ten prepositional phrases, including seven in a row.

Let's count them, shall we: "This is consistent (1) with the relative smoothness (2) of the return times, which are proportional (3) to the averages (4) of a function (5) of a flow (6) over the trajectory arclength (7) between successive crossings (8) through the Poincaré surface (9) of section and (10) to this arclength itself."

Say what?

(Well, in truth, some of the phrases aren't actually doing any harm, but others are making this sentence really hard to read.)

Students: If any of you are reading this, please don't ever write a sentence like that.

Quote of the Day

Today's quote is: "[Name] is a big cuddly teddy bear compared to you."

Context: I was recently recruited to be one of the assessors of the dissertations that OCIAM's M.Sc. students will be submitting in September. I am replacing someone else, and the comment above reflects our different marking/grading styles and our expectations of what the students probably think of this change.

Anybody who doesn't believe that the above statement is accurate should ask members of my research group who have witnessed the sea of red on their manuscript drafts. (And nobody who knows me should be surprised.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is theoretical and/or computational work actually physics?


This is going to be a rant because I just saw something that (as a matter of principle) really pisses me off.

The American Physical Society (APS) recently sent an e-mail to all its members asking for nice physics images to put on its website. I, in fact, have quite a few of those from my research (including two items that have been selected as winners in the APS March Meeting's Gallery of Nonlinear Images), so I figured I would submit some of my stuff and see if the relevant people were interested in any of them. It turns out that they weren't. That's fine, because people can choose whatever images they want and whether they like or dislike something is essentially arbitrary. What really chaps my hide is the grounds on which I was rejected. Namely, no graphs, diagrams, models, or animations are permitted. In other words, to even be eligible in the first place, apparently the work has to be experiment. That is (a) extremely myopic and (b) horseshit. The e-mail I received included the following message:

"Home page images are selected because they are:
Beautiful, striking, or interesting
Current (January 2007 - Present)
Not animations
Not graphs or diagrams
Not models
Photographs of phenomena not people
Owned by the submitter
At least 500 pixels wide x 225 pixels high in good resolution"

I was then told that my stuff had to be rejected because they were graphs, animations, etc. So unless I am completely missing something, it really does seem like all theoretical and computational pictures are rejected a priori. That is utter tripe.

What this reminds me of (because it reflects the same attitude) is one of the referee reports I once received on a (theoretical and computational) paper that I submitted to Physical Review Letters. The referee said that the work was very nice but that it shouldn't be published in PRL because there weren't any experiments in it. I think perhaps the best response I can give here is to quote what George Takei said to William Shatner in a recent roast: "Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on!"


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Baseball Name Game (reprise)

The Mets outfield today has (Ryan) Church in centerfield and (Angel) Pagan in rightfield. (Actually, Pagan has one of the best monickers in baseball because of his combination of first and last names.) Of course, we really need Pagan to play for The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I want to think of someone else to put in the outfield with Pagan and Church. Maybe we can get Jim Rome to interview them?

This reminds me of a great outfield that played together in a couple of games in Cincinnati: (Dmitri) Young in leftfield, (Mike) Frank in center, and (Chris) Stynes in right. This gives an outfield of Young, Frank, and Stynes! (Mel Brooks would approve.)

Also awesome is that a couple of times the Giants had a battery of (Bud) Black and (Steve) Decker.

Brewers to bat Kendall 9th and pitchers 8th

According to this article, Brewers manager Ned Yost is planning to bat catcher Jason Kendall 9th and his pitchers 8th in his everyday lineup. This goes against conventional wisdom, but it has the potential to be a good move. Kendall has no power at all, but if he can recover some of the one-base skills that he used to have back in the day, then this gives the Brewers #2 and #3 hitters a chance to have more people on base when they're up without having to sacrifice at-bats to do this. (You might recall that Tony LaRussa of the Cardinals has played with such a lineup modification a few times in the past.) Of course, based on the way Kendall "hit" last year, he shouldn't even be in the Major Leagues (let alone playing every day).

I hope Yost keeps this up the whole year because it's nice to see some line-up novelty for a change instead of the usual resistance.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Netflix movie recommendation prize

As discussed in this article from Wired Magazine, Netflix is offering a $1 million prize for improving its recommendation system by at least 10%. I have known about the prize---launched in late 2006---for a while, but my networks group has only recently started tinkering with that dataset. (By the way, a tip of the cap to group alum Eric Kelsic for letting me know about the article in Wired.) I don't particularly care about the prize (and I doubt we're even going to explicitly try for it at any point), but this is a fucking awesome dataset, and I do care a great deal about that!

The article's title is a bit misleading. If you read it (and it's an extremely interesting article), you'll find that the psychologist has a Masters degree in operations research, which provides extremely relevant mathematical tools, so the idea that he's not approaching this with mathematics is hogwash. I certainly appreciate his attempts to use psychological ideas to help drive the algorithms, and his comments are quite reminiscent of the things I have heard social scientists say about the mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists who study social networks. Basically, they (correctly!) try to remind us that while we're focusing on crunching numbers, it helps considerably (and can be necessary---they would say that it's always necessary, but I don't quite agree with the statement when it's phrased with that strength) to remember that what we're actually dealing with people (or other relevant agents rather than numbers and to incorporate that as necessary in our algorithms.

The psychologist's daughter is apparently starting a mathematics degree at Oxford in the fall, so maybe I have a potential recruit for my research group?

Also, I very much appreciate the fact that a popular article like this one discusses singular value decompositions. I approve!

Now it truly feels like spring!

And do you know why?

Because I am listening to Vin Scully announce the Dodger game, of course! (For the past several years, Vin only broadcasts a couple of spring training games a year.) In many ways, it truly feels like baseball is back when I finally get to listen to Vin Scully broadcasting a game again. Awesome! It's a damn good thing I came back home after ping pong with some fast food instead of having a sit-down dinner somewhere.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Two movies

Here's one of many overdue posts. (I still want to discuss a couple of concerts and my 2007 year-in-video games.)

On January 19th, I saw I'm Not There, a very good Bob Dylan biopic. It was really good, and the method the film used to tell the story--with several interlaced Bob Dylans (none of whom was actually called "Bob Dylan") from different stages of his life who would occasionally show up briefly in the same scene in a clever manner (in some ways like what was done in Sin City)--was absolutely fantastic. Cate Blanchett was the best Bob Dylan! (She was robbed of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.) Heath Ledger (RIP, sadly) did his usual solid job as well.

More recently (on February 24th), I saw Be Kind Rewind. I have to say that I was disappointed by this film. It's not that it was bad or anything---it was somewhere between pretty good and good, and it had occasional moments of brilliance---but I expect much more from Gondrey. After the brilliance of movies such as The Science of Sleep and (to a somewhat lesser extent, IMO, though I guess that's sacrilege in some parts) Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, I wanted more than what mostly felt like a generic comedy that had Jack Black once again playing an "ambitious" (this doesn't feel like quite the right word) screw-up with dreams of grandeur. Haven't I seen him play the exact same character before? Many times? The use of Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters theme in the trailer sold me on the film (and the fact that it was by Gondrey, of course), but at the end of the day it wasn't anything special and that's why I was disappointed. Ah well.

Update: There's one more thing I meant to write in my review of Be Kind Rewind. It put me in the mood to watch some of the Lloyd movies again. Of course, they require a proper audience to watch correctly. ("Use the string!")


This evening, I saw a play called Mort, which was adapted from the eponymous Terry Pratchett book. I have (obviously) heard of Discworld, but I have never actually read any of it. Nevertheless, the idea of a play based on stuff like that sounded appealing [and, interestingly, Tolkien's (great? great great?) granddaughter, an Oxford freshman, was in the play so there are other fantasy connections as well] and I was not disappointed. (It turns out that one of my perturbation methods students from last term was also in the play.)

I hadn't know about the play until I read a review of it in one of Oxford's student newspapers, and I was thankfully able to make it today (the last day). The author of the review seemed to find it mediocre, but I was intrigued by both the theme and his/her comments that the character of Death had a very dry sense of humor. That was more than enough to make me want to see it because I like that sort of thing. Sure enough, Death was awesome!

One thing this makes me want to do is read the book, but in looking at Mort's wikipedia entry, there appear to be three books that come before it. My question to the audience is first whether this is necessary for this particular book and second (independent of the answer to the first query) what you think of those three preceding books (as well as this one).

Friday, March 07, 2008

How to write about baseball cards

Courtesy Rob Neyer's blog, here is a link to a Cardboard Gods post about how to write about baseball cards. Simply priceless.

Academic journals and copyrights

I was going through the new cond-mat arxiv listing today, and I found an item that had been accepted by Physical Review Letters but which had had its acceptance revoked by a disagreement over copyright laws. This was intriguing, so I looked it up and found the following discussion. I only skimmed through it, but I thought it would be an interesting thing to post here to see if any of you have any thoughts on the matter.

Here is a summary from the web page: "Recently, one of the APS journals, Physical Review Letters (PRL), rescinded their previous acceptance of two papers by myself and coauthors [OW][OSW]. This occurred because we wanted the option to contribute parts of our paper to the intellectual commons. While PRL had allowed such options in the past, and initially agreed that this was permissible, their current policy inadvertently prevents authors from posting their own figures on Wikipedia (for example)."

That's pretty lame of PRL. What they're doing doesn't exactly jive with their supposed mission of disseminating science. (It's worth mentioning that many of the other policies in their copyright agreement---such as not having a conniption about scientists posting material on their own websites---do jive with this mission. However, they're missing the boat when it comes to wikipedia and other such ventures.)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The best story from tonight's Ig Nobel event

Tonight I went with two of my friends to the Oxford show on the 2008 Ig Nobel UK tour.

The best story was a vignette that appeared in a certain section in New Scientist. (The speaker was the guy who came up with and still edits that section.) Apparently, several years ago there was a married guy who met a married woman online and then really got along well. They were complaining about their current spouses and talked online for months. Eventually they decided to meet up at a local place and they would identify each other by bringing a single red rose. Of course, you can guess what happened. The two people who met online happened to be married to each other, so they were quite horrified when they saw each other at the hook-up place. They each subsequently filed for divorce on the pretext that the other was trying to cheat on them. Wow!

The sword swallowing was really cool too. (A big difference between this show and the one I saw at Cornell several years ago was that there were a lot of guest speakers, including several Ig Nobel laureates.)

The two friends who went with me are Nick, who I know from the complex systems group (he's in the physics department), and Johanna, who was the first friend I made here---and it was one of those accidental meetings (she is the medical student and MIT alum who ate dinner with the math crowd during the very first Somerville dinner of the year because there was a spill-over of one).

If you ever get a chance to go to an Ig Nobel event, I highly recommend it! (I really want to get an Ig Nobel prize, by the way...)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Awesome reference in music video for "The Sun Always Shines On TV"

At dinner in Somerville's hall tonight, I actually had a conversation about 80s music---including obscure stuff. As it turns out, the graduate student sitting next to me has her own radio show on Friday nights and they always play music with a theme. This week's theme is television, so I was trying to convince her to play "The Sun Always Shines On TV" which is distinctive because (1) it's one of the best songs ever and (2) it's the song to bring up to point out that A-Ha is not a one-hit wonder. (I was apparently the second person to try to convince her to include this song and to use reason (1) as why.) Anyway, she told me that the music video for that song actually has a reference to the video for "Take On Me" in it (including the same girl from that video!). I approve! As I have told Lemming on numerous occasions, the video for "Take On Me" is just fucking awesome and in many ways it helps define 80s music for me. I also suggested Trans-X's "Living On Video", and her response to that one was receptive.

Anyway, a night when I can talk about 80s music (including obscure stuff) with an interesting person is always a good one. And after dinner, some of my friends and I hung out in the SCR, which is also obviously a good thing.

RIP Gary Gygax (1938-2008)

I just received word via the mailing list for Oxford's RPG Society that Gary Gygax has died. Go here for Gygax's wikipedia entry.) This is sad but unsurprising given that he has had heart problems. As many of you know, Gygax was the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, which is provided myriad hours of pleasure over the years for me (and for many others, obviously).

Update: Anyway, I'm feeling kind of sad from this just because this is someone who played such a huge role in something that is very dear to me. Not that I have any right to be sad---I'm just a fan and not family or friends---but D & D is a very important part of whom I am. (Nerds everywhere are in mourning, pretty much.) I have a copy of the 1st edition "Unearthed Arcana" (written by Gygax) that I inherited many years after it came out. I never read it cover to cover, and I suddenly have the urge to do so. This book was one of the revolutionary ones for D & D---among other things, it marks the first appearance of the spell "Tasha's Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter" which my kenderish sorceror used to great effect in a 3rd edition campaign.

Update 2: Zifnab has an extremely eloquent post about Gygax's passing to which I want to link here. He expressed things much better than I was able to above, and if you're someone who has shared these types of experiences playing D & D, then I highly recommend that you read it.

The California Tech wins college newspaper prizes

Here's something that (back in the day) I never thought would happen: The California Tech has actually won some prizes for quality work. It's come a long way...

And for those of you who aren't aware, back in the day I was a co-editor of this paper. We made some improvements back then and we definitely had our style, but it was also that style that would have made it essentially impossible to win these awards. (Granted, if we were more serious, it would have been a lot less fun to work on the paper.) There is still more work to be done, but The Tech is actually pretty decent nowadays.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Best and worst names among baseball prospects

Courtesy Rob Neyer's blog, here is The Baseball Crank's list of the best and worst names for current baseball prospects. (Neyer points out that minor league pitcher Josh Outman was miraculously excluded.) You've got to love a pitcher with the name Antonio Bastardo.

Let me also comment on a few baseball names of the past (occasionally recent past) that I really love: Razor Shines, Atlee Hammaker, Homer Bush, and Stubby Clapp. (Clapp's story is one of the best---he was a career minor leaguer and when he made his Major League debut in St. Louis a few years ago, he became an instant fan favorite basically because of his name.) Two other excellent baseball player names from the past are Sterling Hitchcock and Orel Hershiser.

I know that there are many great ones that I'm forgetting, but I don't want to spend too long thinking about this. Let me know what your favorite names are---baseball players, other sports, and tv/movie/theatrical actors and actresses are all fair game.

Tales from the arXiv: food evolution edition

Here's the abstract of a paper that just showed up on the arXiv today:

Date: Fri, 29 Feb 2008 14:16:37 GMT (323kb)

Title: The Nonequilibrium Nature of Culinary Evolution
Authors: Osame Kinouchi, Rosa W. Diez-Garcia, Adriano J. Holanda, Pedro
Zambianchi and Antonio C. Roque
Categories: physics.soc-ph
Comments: 15 pages, 5 figures, 1 table, submitted to Physical Review E
Food is an essential part of civilization, with a scope that ranges from the
biological to the economic and cultural levels. Here we study the statistics of
ingredients and recipes taken from Brazilian, British, French, and Medieval
cookbooks. We find universal distributions with scale invariant behavior. We
propose a copy-mutate process to model culinary evolution that fits very well
our empirical data. We find a cultural founder effect produced by the
nonequilibrium dynamics of the model. Both the invariant and idiosyncratic
aspects of culture are accounted by our model, which may have applications in
other kinds of evolutionary processes.
\\ ( , 323kb)

Insert a rant about power laws here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Bletchley Park

Yesterday morning through afternoon, I took a break from grant proposals to go to the museum at Bletchley Park with some math and CS folks. Here is the beginning of its wikipedia entry:

Bletchley Park, also known as Station X, is an estate located in the town of Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire now part of Milton Keynes, England. During World War II, Bletchley Park was the location of the United Kingdom's main codebreaking establishment. Codes and ciphers of several Axis countries were deciphered there, most famously the German Enigma. The high-level intelligence produced by Bletchley Park, codenamed Ultra, is frequently credited with aiding the Allied war effort and shortening the war, although Ultra's effect on the actual outcome of WWII is debated.

I got to see a remade Colossus in action and when the normal people in the guided tour were gone, we stayed and asked some more technical questions of one of the guys who built and runs the remake. The actual guided tour spend too much time on the war and not enough time on the technical stuff. :) I didn't get a chance to explore most parts of the museum at all because between lunch, the guided tour, and the extra conversation, there wasn't time for anything else.

I'm going to go back because there is a lot more for me to see. I know Lemming wants to go and my ticket is good for a year's admission, so hopefully he'll come visit within the next year.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bicycles in London: eBourbaki mathematical modeling contest

Eliana Hechter of eBourbaki just sent me an e-mail about the following:

e-Bourbaki, "a mathematical problem-solving firm whose mission is to solve the world's mathematical problems using contests to inspire innovation and creativity", sponsors a mathematical modeling contest every spring and the recently-announced 2008 contest pertains to bicycles in London.

I encourage any and all mathematics students to participate in this!

Here is what Eliana wrote in her e-mail:

I am writing to inform you about an upcoming contest for students of
mathematics, computer science, and engineering in the United
Kingdom. The contest, which asks students to mathematically model a
low-cost bicycle rental service for the City of London, will
commence at 5pm on Monday, May 5, 2008 and end at 5pm on Monday, May
12, 2008. We hope that you will encourage the students with whom you
have contact to participate.

The first prize is ?1000 and winning projects may have the potential
to be implemented as London strives to become more sustainable and
efficient in its transportation infrastructure.

The contest is hosted by eBourbaki, a mathematical problem-solving
website I founded dedicated to increasing interest and involvement
in mathematics in the global community, and is sponsored by Winton
Capital. Further information can be found at our website, Participation in the contest requires contestants
to register with eBourbaki website and we encourage participants to
do so as soon as possible, to stay informed about contest details.

In the past others have used eBourbaki questions as part of their
teaching program, or as a 'final project' for applied modeling
classes. We are happy to work with professors if they choose to
consider this option.