Friday, December 30, 2011

iTunes Oracle: 2012 Edition

Well, it's Friday December 30th, but I am going to be gaming tomorrow night, so I'll write this blog entry now. What I really ought to do right now is work on a grant proposal (due imminently) or read the draft of a chapter of my student's Ph.D. thesis (on which feedback is needed immediately), but I'm not in the mood right now. Sorry. And it's already December 31st in the UK anyway---so there!

It's almost the end of the year, and it's time to once again bring out the iTunes Oracle, because I have to figure out somehow what 2012 has in store for me. You can take a look here to see the predictions for 2011 and links to the predictions for 2006-2009 (I skipped 2010).

The iTunes Oracle ambiguously predicted "One Hit" for 2011, and we'll see what the future says about whether that is indeed the case. I think I had my share of both hits and misses in 2011; happily some of the hits were big; some of the misses were big, too, but I have fought through some and will fight through others. Such is life. So what did this year have in store for me? Well, 2011 included a new friend, one new niece (that I know of), the usual academic adventures, a trip to Korea, some professional and (now-resolved, thankfully!) personal hiccups, lots of gaming, movies, baseball, Glee, occasional reminders that I am human (in both good and bad forms), and [most importantly!] plenty of good times with good friends (old and new). And did I mention gaming? And I'm sure there was other stuff that I am forgetting. Perhaps gaming?

Before I get into what the Oracle has to say, perhaps it's worth mentioning that I should just make my usual New Year's resolution: be a little bit less neurotic than the year before. [I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to ponder whether this is a 2-step recursion or a 1-step recursion.]

Here is what the iTunes Oracle has to say about my 2012:

1. The Covering: A-Ha, There's a Reason For It
2. The Crossing: The Smithereens, Cigarette
3. The Crown: Simple Minds, New Gold Dream
4. The Root: Rammstein & Wolfsheim, Die Flut
5. The Past: R.E.M., Mine Smell Like Honey
6. The Future: Nouvelle Vague, Friday Night Saturday Morning
7. The Questioner: Enrique Iglesias, Solo Pienso En Ti
8. The House: The Rosebuds, Leaves Do Fall
9. The Inside: ABBA, Take A Chance On Me
10. The Outcome: Gipsy Kings, Pide Me La

Bonus Track: Oingo Boingo, Goodbye-Goodbye

Well, The Covering is nicely telling me that there is a reason for the reason. Isn't it supposed to actually give me a reason. Seriously, I should get my money back. The Crossing makes no sense. Usually things are ambiguous enough that I can at least fake a hokey interpretation. Come on, Oracle. The Crown seems to be rather positive, at least---or maybe it just refers to getting access to the gold luxury in my current Civ V game? I might well understand The Root, except I don't speak German and am too lazy to look up a translation. I think there is no comment that I could make about The Past that wouldn't sound really bad. The Future, however, is so bright (if short term) that I gotta' wear shades. Actually, given what that song is about, things really don't seem to be very promising at all. The Questioner seems to be heading in the direction of OCD. Or something. I suppose that The House can be construed to make some sort of sense in some sort of highly generic sense. (Does it even make sense to be "highly generic"?) The Inside could mean a lot of interesting things, and it has the right level of ambiguity for a fortune. And, yes, please do ask me about The Outcome. This whole thing is like answering a question with another question. Not that I would ever do such a thing.

And, finally, the Bonus Track is practically an ideal way to end things in this kind of blog entry. So, Happy New Year to all of you. And to those friends of mine who are reading this, drop me a line if we haven't talked in a while---or even if we have---and I hope to see you soon!

And in the end, I think there's really only one thing to say about 2012: Bring it on.

The Power of the Mind (Pure Energy?)

The contents inside this demotivational poster (ignore the caption, which is stupid) are pretty damn amazing. I was indeed able to read the scrambled words without a problem. That's pretty damn cool.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Great Latke Debate

My mother and brother made latkes for lunch today. Yay!

When it comes to latkes, though, there are two big debates: thin vs thick and sour cream vs apple sauce.

I am on the side of thin (though this seems to be a rare preference) and sour cream.

I didn't previously realize this, but there really does seem to be a genuine latke-hamantash debate. This looks pretty damn funny! I especially like the comment about which one constitutes the universe's dark matter.

One Does Not Simply Google-Map into Mordor

Wow, this is awesome! Way to go, Google!

(I checked Google Maps myself and verified this easter egg. I approve!)

Messing with the Youngsters

My brother recently told me a short story about my Grandma Doris, who was sharp as a tack until the day that she died (in December 2003 at, I think, age 93). I don't remembering hearing this story before, but I have to say that it doesn't surprise me.

Although Doris was sharp as a tack (unlike most people her age, who usually exhibit a good amount of dementia), she did seem to occasionally be forgetful. One might start out a story with something like "Did I tell you about the time...?" And, on occasion, Doris would do that with a story maybe 5 minutes after having told us that same story. Well, one time, my brother caught her doing that on purpose---with full knowledge of having just told the story---just to fuck with us. And I bet she did it a lot; I certainly wouldn't put that past her, and I'm sure we deserved it, too.

I am so going to steal this idea when I'm old (assuming I last that long) and it's my turn to tell stories to the youngsters. Right before I tell them to get off my ****ing lawn...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"I'm a Jew on Christmas"

Thanks to Lemming for showing me this lovely song a couple of weeks ago. It summarizes my feelings about this "holiday" rather nicely.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The New Mathematics Building is Like Disneyland

We really need to be adding easter eggs into these monthly time-lapse movies of the construction of the new Mathematical Institute building. Somewhat less interesting (to me, anyway) are the daily time-lapse videos.

Every time I see something like this, I always think of the old time-lapse movies of the construction of Disneyland. I suppose that a new mathematics building is a little bit less sexy than that, but I like it.

As a special bonus, can you find me in any of the monthly videos?

By the way, one thing that would have been really awesome is to turn in such a video along with one's PhD thesis when ending one's graduate-school career.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Mathematical Genealogy and Department Prestige"

Here is my latest winning entry in Chaos's Nonlinear Science Gallery. It's also apparently my final one, as (sadly) the competition has been discontinued.

My coauthors on this paper are Sean Myers and Peter Mucha.

Also, I'd like to give a special shout out to Chaos staff member Janis Bennett, who is retiring in a couple of days and with whom I have corresponded about numerous of my papers since I submitted my first paper to Chaos in 1999. That paper was the first scientific paper that I ever published (the final version came out in 2000). [Previously, I had submitted a paper from my undergraduate research to a couple of places, but it got rejected.] People like Janis, who need to put up with people like me, don't get enough credit for their hard work.

(Several means something like a dozen, by the way.)

What Happens in the LA Area Stays in the LA Area (Take N)

I am flying to LA at about 11:30 am tomorrow morning, and I am slated to arrive at LAX just after 3 pm. Hilarity will ensue.

Among other things, I am looking forward to friends, gaming, and sidequesting. I'll also spend a week and a half visiting Andrea Bertozzi's group in the UCLA math department. Once again, hilarity will ensue. Actually, I'll be collaborating with her group on mathematics and social systems, and I am particularly keen to work with them on something that uses the LAPD crime and gang data to which they have access.

And did I mention that I am going to be seeing my friends and gaming? Yay!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Too Many Turns?

I keep reading the local "Christmas Art and Craft Fair" signs as "Christmas Antiaircraft Fair" signs. Clearly, I have been playing Civ V way too much lately...

(This isn't quite as extreme as the Tetris pieces that used to fall when I closed my eyes and went to bed, but I still don't think that this is a good sign.)

Toffee Wins the Battle!

You can tell that toffee is of high quality if it comes with a hammer (and accompanying instructions) to help break it into pieces.

Maybe I should schedule an appointment with a dentist while I am in LA?

(I hope somebody gets the allusion in the title. Also, I encourage responses with your best possible MC Hammer references.)

New Mnemonics

XKCD has come up with some awesome new mnemonics! They will surely make school much more fun for the modern kids! Yet another big win from xkcd!

A big opportunity was missed, though: the planet one really should have included a joke about Pluto.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Models Discussing Quantum Mechanics

This commercial is fantastic.

I would love for some of the academic text I've produced (even if plagiarized, as was the case here) to end up in a commercial like this one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hitler Reacts to Albert Pujols Leaving the Cardinals

This isn't as cool as the video about the proverbial third referee, but Hitler's reaction to Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals is still pretty amusing.

What Happens in Henley-on-Thames Stays in Henley-on-Thames

In perhaps the irony of the century, I am here in Henley-on-Thames for an Interdisciplinary workshop on the evolution of social norms.

Because you know me: I'm all about social norms. Yup.

By the way, I thought getting here would be easy, but in fact there was massive confusion, so I'm going to need to talk to the organizers about this. (I got so frustrated that I actually came close to heading back on the train to Oxford tonight.) Anyway, I'm here and I'm looking forward to the science!

(In fact, I will have one norm in my talk---exactly one norm: the entry-wise matrix 1-norm.)

"Tastes like fresh milk"

Sorry, but I'm skeptical.

Alternatively, one could attempt a 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' joke.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lyrics of the Day

Today's lyrics are the first three lines of Pi by Kate Bush:

Sweet and gentle sensitive man
With an obsessive nature and deep fascination
For numbers

Lookin' Out My Back Door

This is the current view from my back door (rotated by 90 degrees).

I am absolutely sick of such shit being put in front of my door and invading the sanctity of my home. I have tried to be patient, but I am now out of patience. Formal complaints to the city will follow shortly if this is not removed soon and if anything takes its place. If a war is what they desire, then a war they shall have.

Here are some more pictures.

As for who "they" is, that is not entirely clear. My College (Somerville) has asked for prior things to be moved when I have brought this up before with them, and I have been assured that things won't be put back. (I believe it has usually been the contract workers they've hired who have actually put this stuff here.) That's all well and good---but this needs to start being enforced in practice, and it needs to happen now. So I'm not even sure who to file a complaint against and I will need to figure that out. But this has got to stop.

Oh, and cue the Creedence.

Update (12/11/11): I forgot to mention this, but notice all of the warning and danger signs on this 'skip' (to use the UK term). I especially like the sign about the in-progress asbestos removal. Because that's what they're doing: they are in the process of removing asbestos from College buildings (for safety reasons!) and storing it 3--4 feet from my house while work is in progress! Bastards.

Friday, December 09, 2011

"As You Are No Doubt Aware..."

Here is what appears to be a Britishism: "As you are no doubt aware" means something like "I think you missed this really obvious point (you moron)."

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Albert Pujols Signs a 10-Year Deal with the Angels

Wow, this is pretty major! Albert Pujols has signed a 10-year contract with The The Angels Angels of Anaheim! Wow!

Update: As you can see in the linked article above (which has been updated), the Angels have also signed free agent starting pitch C.J. Wilson.

Update: Meanwhile, my beloved Dodgers continue their tweaking with greaybeards. Aaron Harang is just about officially signed now. All of these bit players are useful (and trading Dana Eveland for prospects is solid), but we really need to get our ownership situation in order so that we can do some more serious things. Thankfully, we have signed Matt Kemp to a mega-extension, and that of course is an excellent start to righting the ship. Anyway, we have two of the best players in the Majors in Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, and hopefully the minor tweaks will help enough in the short term to really get our butts in gear once the ownership situation is fixed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Epic Fail. Just Epic.

You're kidding me, right? Apparently, Tim McCarver has won the Ford C. Frick Award (and his name in small ink in the part of baseball's Hall of Fame museum dedicated to broadcasters) for his excellence in broadcasting. He sucks. He is absolutely one of the single worst broadcasters I have ever heard. He's sometimes correct in what he says, but even then McCarver makes his point in seemingly the most arrogant and condescending manner possible---and then he repeats it almost word for word at least five or six times.

From a baseball awards perspective, this is a nightmare. While we're at it, why don't we also make sure that Juan Pierre gets into the Hall of Fame based on his playing career?

I know this is very much a First-World Problem (tm), but still: What on earth were they thinking?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Realism Redefined

Here is what some children's drawings would look like if they were painted using a "realistic" style. Sweet!

(Tip of the cap to Kevin Hickerson.)

Null Hypothesis

This xkcd comic strip about the null hypothesis is an old one but a great one.

(Thanks to the London Mathematical Society Newsletter for reminding me about it.)

Monday, December 05, 2011


This video montage is best described using one word: fascinating.

You definitely want to watch the whole thing, by the way.

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)


The security guard at the Oxford train station location of Mark and Spencer followed me around and kept staring at me as if I were going to steal something!

I was going to pick up my dinner (and maybe some sweets) there, but screw that! I'll buy dinner elsewhere or skip it entirely.

I might not always behave with dignity, but that doesn't mean that I don't have dignity!

P.S. Notice the use of the subjunctive. :)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

What Happens at University of East Anglia Stays at University of East Anglia (2011 Edition)

I am at a lodge on the campus of University of East Anglia, where I will give a talk tomorrow in the math department.

I ordered some Chinese food for delivery, and I am currently waiting for it to arrive. Exciting, isn't it?

(I was previously here for NetSci 2008.)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Comic Sans Strikes Back

Seriously, this is brilliant.

(Tip of the cap to Mark Rogers.)

Friday, December 02, 2011

Paper Sculptures

The paper sculptures shown in this blog entry are incredibly awesome.

(Tip of the cap to Alex Cayco-Gajic.)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Freedom University

This interesting article about "Freedom University" is very much worth reading.


This demotivational poster is exxxxxxcellent...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Six Degrees of My Umbrella

I have inadvertently started a variant of Stanley Milgram's small-world problem with my attempt to get back the umbrella I accidentally left in Bath today.

First, I checked to confirm that I left it in Chris Budd's office rather than in a random place in Bath. The obvious possibility was to get it back to Oxford next Tuesday, as next week's seminar speaker is also from Oxford's Mathematical Institute. And then presumably I could get it back shortly thereafter.

But then Chris e-mailed me to point out that several of the complex systems people from Bath are attending a complex systems workshop in Oxford this Thursday. He called the conference 'cow' (which doesn't mean anything to me aside from synchronization issues, and cow sync isn't relevant here), but I think he means the Scaling in Social Networks workshop that is being held by CABDyN on Thursday. I can't go to this workshop, so either those people can go to Dartington House reception or the Somerville lodge, but it would be more convenient for them to just give this to somebody I know who is attending the same workshop. So once I confirm the identify of the workshop, my next step is to e-mail people who I think will be attending it to arrange for them to pick up the umbrella and then to give it to me.

As another variant, I still am in possession of copies of a pair of PhD theses that passed from Jaroslav Stark to Heather Harrington and then to me. These are copies of the theses written by one of my collaborators (Ricardo Carretero-González) and his wife, and the question is when is the next time and place I will see him---or whether I can get it back to them faster via an intermediary who will see him before I will but who I will see before he will.

So, essentially, the problem becomes not just to reach the target but to do it as fast as possible and consider temporal ordering as part of the whole process. There is perhaps some penalty to increasing the number of steps, but there is definitely a penalty for the amount of total time between the start of passing the 'message' (or the umbrella or the PhD theses) and the time it reaches the destination, and there can also be a penalty for 'inconvenience' from e.g. having to walk from the building where a workshop is being held to another building.

One could actually make a nice generalization of some message-passing problems by thinking about this in a tractable mathematical context. An appropriate abstract model with these kinds of effects would be a pretty neat mathematical problem, actually.

See, my research is practical!

Another comment: Sometimes its strange how inspiration is born.

Also: I know there has been some work on message-passing (and algorithms for it), but I believe that this leads to a different problem than what has been considered thus far.

And (hopefully) finally: It turns out that "COW" = "Camridge Oxford Warwick" and is an algebra and geometry meeting that moves around rather than the complex systems workshop. But my ideas still make sense. :)

Monday, November 28, 2011

XKCD, Privacy, and Hyperspace

The final panel of the new xkcd becomes even funnier (by leaps and bounds) in the context of Caltech and the South Houses.

Is "Applied Mathematician" a Prestige Class?

Three of my undergraduate students decided to make a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet on my behalf.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This is Why I Like Math

Here's another winner from xkcd. The mouse-over is particularly awesome, by the way.

Pictures from Korea (So Far)

Here are some pictures from Korea

Update (11/27/11): Here is a second set of pictures from Korea.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ryan Braun Wins National League Most Valuable Player Award

Grrrr.... Matt Kemp got robbed of the National League MVP award. Ryan Braun had a fantastic season, but Matt Kemp was better. (Not that I'm biased...)

I'll be boarding my flight soon, but hopefully the link above will eventually have the full results of the voting.

Tales from the ArXiv: One Word to Rule Them All

Damnit. I want to write an article whose title consists of only one word. I must figure out a way to do this. Any suggestions from the audience?

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Happens in Korea Stays in Korea

Tomorrow I am flying to Korea to give a talk at the Cosmic Brain Network conference.

I'm really excited about this trip, which will be my first ever trip to Korea! Yay! I'm really looking forward to this! (And Korea is my first new country to visit of 2011. I almost went the entire year without visiting a new country, but now I'm making up for it in style!)

Of course, I return on Sunday evening right before the last week of term, so I'll be paying for this mightily next week.

But in the meantime, I intend to have some Korean BBQ for Thanksgiving...

A Picture Worth 60 Trillion Burgers (and Words)

Take a look at this demotivational poster, which visualizes the distance to the nearest McDonald's throughout the United States. Notice that the country's borders are not drawn in this picture---the border arises just naturally from the visualization.

The visualization is awesome, but the story it tells is sad (on multiple levels).

Update (11/22/11): Jed Yang told me about this link, where one can find the factoid that one is always within 107 miles of a McDonalds in the contiguous US. The farthest one can get is in South Dakota.

Pitcher Justin Verlander Wins American League MVP Award

For the first time since 1992, a pitcher has won a Most Valuable Player award. (And for the first time since 1986, a starting pitcher has won the award.) The honoree is Justin Verlander, who capped his incredible season---which previously earned him the American League Cy Young award---with the AL MVP award. I approve!

Now we just need Matt Kemp to get the National League MVP, and then I'll be able to say with all confidence that something is right with the world! Now about that "bipartisan" deal concerning the US debt...

Tetris for MATLAB!

Also, let me assure that that I would never, ever use Matlab to play Tetris---especially not while I am trying to eat my dinner, catch up on my almost-40 e-mails that have built up since 2:00 pm, finish reading the transfer thesis draft on my desk, do some reading of the PhD thesis draft on my desk, or pack for tomorrow's flight to Korea. Never.

(Tip of the cap to whoever in Matlab is posting stuff to FB.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mushroom Death Suit

I have to say that when I saw this headline, I immediately thought of Super Mario Brothers and raining death upon my enemies with this new suit.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Revised Baseball Playoff Format and Astros in the American League

Two recent items of discussion in Major League Baseball have now become official (though a few details remain to be worked out): (1) There will now be two wild-card teams in each league, and they will face off against each other in a one-game sudden-death playoff to see who advances in the postseason; and (2) the Astros will be moving to the American League.

Both of these are likely to start with the 2013 season. Unlikely many previous changes in the playoff format, I massively approve of change (1). I think this is excellent, and it reinstates the situation of division leaders having a genuine advantage over wild-card teams, which was the major reason that the institution of the wild card annoyed me so much in the first place.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Clayton Kershaw Wins National League Cy Young Award

Dodger hurler Clayton Kershaw has won the National League Cy Young Award. Yay! I'm very happy he won, though I actually think Roy Halladay deserves it more. The Dodgers are my team and Kershaw had a superb season (just not quite as superb as Halladay), so I pleased he won. You can find a comprehensive list of the voting on this page.

Now let's cross our fingers that Matt Kemp gets the MVP award that he so richly deserves!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kirk Gibson and Joe Maddon Win Manager of the Year Awards

Baseball's Manager of the Year awards have now been announced. Kirk Gibson won in the National League, and Joe Maddon won in the American League. Neither result was a surprise, and I'm pleased to see Kirk Gibson win in his first full year at the helm.

Tomorrow is when the National League Cy Young Award will be announced. I have my fingers crossed that LA Dodger Clayton Kershaw will win, though I think that Roy Halladay deserves it slightly more than Kershaw does. I still want Kershaw to win, though. :)

Where Citations Come From

Here is a new xkcd strip about where citations come from. They're kind of like babies but slightly less messy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Justin Verlander Wins American League Cy Young in Unanimous Vote

To put it frankly, I'm shocked.

(Everybody paying attention to Major League Baseball saw this one coming a mile away.)

Here are all of the votes.

You Versus The World

This demotivational poster is brilliant (and exceptionally well-done). I approve!

Monday, November 14, 2011

2012 Rookies of the Year and Big Dodger News

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel and Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson have won the 2012 Rookie of the Year awards.

The article to which I link doesn't yet include all of the voting results, but presumably it will reasonably soon.

Of course, today's really important baseball news is the 8-year contract extension for Matt Kemp that the Dodgers are apparently going to announce officially this afternoon. Woot!

Update (11/15/11): You can find all of the voting results in this article. In additional Dodger news, we have signed second baseman Mark Ellis to a 2-year contract.

Update (11/15/11): The Dodgers have also apparently signed Matt Treanor to a 1-year contract to be their backup catcher. This is even smaller news than the Ellis signing, though the Kemp one is obviously a wonderful piece of news for the Dodgers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hairstyles and Baseball Jerseys

The picture in this demotivational poster is pretty funny. (The caption is dumb.)

By the way, did any of you get the Timbuk3 reference in the title of this entry?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let's All Go to 11 Today!

Now that it's after midnight (and I'm letting it all hang out...), this is Spinal Tap Day.

In case you haven't heard, today is Spinal Tap Day. And during my 11:00 am - noon statistical mechanics lecture, I'm hoping to quickly pause at 11:11 am to commemorate the event. Hopefully I'll find something to do at 11:11 pm as well.

In case you haven't seen the movie This is Spinal Tap, it's kind of a cult classic. One might even say that it goes to 11.

Watching the movie would be the proper way to celebrate tonight, but I will be attending Somerville's formal hall instead. One of tonight's guests is the Member of Parliament for our district, so hopefully I'll get a chance to talk to her and let her know how important this holiday is. (Plus, I want to ask her about whether it might be possible for me to get access to census data as well as about a 'networks for politicians' event that I think would be a nice thing to try to do.) But if you haven't seen the movie before, then tonight is the perfect day to see it. You'll never again have such a momentous opportunity to do it.

I used to have a 'My d10 Goes to 11' t-shirt, but sadly I lost it at some point in 2010 (no later than during the summer), and it's no longer being sold. Sigh. [This is a proverbial first-world problem rather than something serious, but I'd still really like to get another one of these shirts in my size.]

In conclusion: Today I'm Going to Rock You Today. :) [Yes, I adopted the lyrics slightly.]

(Tip of the cap to Peter Mucha for informing me that tomorrow is Spinal Tap day and to several others who mentioned more mathematically but less-awesome aspects about today.)

Update: I was unaware of it until the 10 seconds of silence at tonight's formal hall in Somerville, but November 11th also marks a far more serious day of the year. As you know, I'm very good at paying attention to the world around me.

An Excellent Statistics Question

Now here's a truly excellent statistics question.

Those of you at Caltech who also took Alan Hájek's "Philosophy of Probability" course will know exactly what this question reminds me of. :)

Hajek's test was the best test ever when it comes to exam-taking paranoia: It was multiple choice. For each question, instead of picking a correct answer, we assigned a probability of correctness to each possibility, and our score on each question was determined by a formula that included a logarithm. Woe to anybody who assigned probability 0 of correctness to a choice that turned out to be correct, because then one got a grade of -infinity in the course. The result of this was to ask oneself nervously on every question: Am I truly sure that I am 100% confident that this answer isn't right? (Not only that, but exactly how confident am I on every possible answer for every question?)

[The scoring methodology was announced before the exam when I took the course, so I computed beforehand exactly what I should place instead of '0' on the questions in which I was maximally confident that some choice wasn't correct.]

(Tip of the cap to Tammy Porter and Danny Suiza.)

Monday, November 07, 2011

Grand Unified Theory of Cutlery

Here is a Venn diagram for the recently proposed Grand Unified Theory of Cutlery. Nice!

Postdoctoral Position in My Research Group to Study Community Structure in Networks

The advertisement for the postdoctoral position in my group is finally live. You can find it here. The deadline is 9 January 2012, and the project entails the study of community structure in networks. The advertisement includes detailed application instructions.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Excellent Use of Signage

This picture made me laugh. I'm sure I can figure out a way to adapt this for use over here. :)

Prof. or Hobo?

Here is a small visual quiz to see whether you can tell profs and hobos apart. I scored 7/10. (Tip of the cap to Thomas Kroedel.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Good Riddance

Frank McCourt has agreed to sell the Dodgers. Good riddance. (I hope he had the time of his life.)

In other Dodger news, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Clayton Kershaw all won Gold Glove Awards. Hopefully this hardware will be followed by a Cy Young Award for Kershaw and an MVP for Kemp.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"I don't know what kind of bullshit passes for jurisprudence down in the 4th Circuit these days."

There are times that The Onion just nails it. This is one of those times.

Dysfunctional Markets: Featuring Principal Component Analysis

Here is a video describing some insights based on research by my former Ph.D. student Dan Fenn. There is some discussion of this work in his Ph.D. thesis and also in this paper.

Somehow, when the media gets ahold of it, a "PCA" turns into a kind of "Risk On, Risk Off index". (Actually, I think HSBC chose to use that name.)

(Tip of the cap to Stacy Williams of HSBC.)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tony LaRussa has Retired

Wow, I didn't see this one coming: Tony LaRussa announced his retirement today. He goes out on top, as he just managed the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship. Next stop: Cooperstown.

(Tip of the cap to my brother Adam, who sent me an e-mail about the news while I was busy tutoring.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Caltech: The Hottest Thing in Irish Lifestyle

After Caltech got named the #1 university in the world, the biggest newspaper in Ireland interviewed me -- as well as a couple of other familiar names -- to talk about it.

Unfortunately some of my best quotes got removed from the article. (Our book isn't even mentioned anymore, and my comment about physics and Dungeons & Dragons was in an earlier version of the article but got cut. The reason I was interviewed is of course because of the Legends of Caltech III book.)

Update (11/05/11): I found a link to what looks like the middle of an article that has some of the stuff that was left on the now-proverbial cutting-room floor. If any of you find a long version of the article to which I link above that contains something approximating a union of the text in these two URLs, please let me know.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Hold on to Your Penises!"

I'm going to tell you a story from way back in 1987 that I don't remember ever previously telling. (Of course, I could easily have forgotten past story-telling.) It's been 24 years, so some form of statute of limitations must be in place.

I haven't thought about this incident for many years, but for reasons that I cannot understand, John Steinbeck's return to San Francisco in Travels With Charley reminded me of this story.

It was the summer of 1987, I was 11 years old, and my immediate family and I were taking a 3-week trip up the coast of California up into Oregon and briefly into Washington. Unsurprisingly, one of the stops was San Francisco, which is where the incident occurred. Some of my family members and I were riding one of the trolley cars -- what are these things actually called? -- and some of the streets consisted of a serious of extremely steep hills. Even on some individual blocks, it seemed like we would go up at a 45 degree angle and then back at a 45 degree angle between consecutive street lights. The trolley was going pretty fast, and this proved to be a bit painful for a certain one of my appendages. Going fast downhill was particularly bothersome, and at some point I suppose I found that holding on to it eased the pain.

And I was a very helpful child. So when I saw a particularly steep descent coming imminently and I thought about the possible pain some of my fellow trolley-riders might be in if this caught them unaware, I decided that the prudent thing would be to warn them -- by saying the words in the title of this blog entry in a sharp, loud, insistent voice. I was only trying to help.

After my urgent words of warning, I remember an eruption of laughter coming from all around. But I could understand what was so funny. People were in urgent peril, and I was trying to prevent them from having to experience physical pain, because I knew that from my own painful experience.

I think it took me a couple of years to retrospectively figure out why people were laughing, and then I became retroactively embarrassed. (I don't remember anybody explaining this to me.) But it's been 24 years and I think it's a good story.

Anyway, I was only trying to help.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More Fruit Fly Sex

One of the winners of the 2011 Dance Your PhD Contest comes from Oxford, and the video is about mating in fruit flies.

And if you're wondering about the title, it's because of this blog entry.

(Tip of the cap to Philip Maini.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

At Least it was Honest

I just got a spam e-mail titled "Spam Application for Summer Internship". At least the person who sent this to me was honest.

(This was one of the usual e-mails that are mail-merged rather than an application meant specifically for me out of sincere interest. "Spam" was actually in the title of this e-mail---it was not flagged as such by my e-mail server.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Is it Examinable?"

Today I have spent most of my time writing up the solution set to one homework problem and writing up the problem sheets for the final three problem sheets in the brand new statistical mechanics course that I am teaching at Oxford this term.

I am not yet done writing up these problem sheets, so I really ought to continue work on that, but there is a major issue that arises both in lecture material (the actual lectures as well as the notes that go with them) and in coming up with problem sheets. These can be summarized neatly by the question in the title: Is it examinable?

First, let me say that I hate this question. I completely understand why Oxford students---including the best ones---ask this, because a module's end-of-year exam counts for everything in providing official recognition of what a student did or did not learn in a course. This sets up a whole swath of entirely understandable but rather artificial motivations for our students. Simply, they are in many instances judged almost exclusively on their exam results, so students will concentrate on working in order to maximize those results instead of working to maximize their learning of the material. These two things can coincide (and might even coincide a lot in some cases), but there are crucial situations in which they clash against each other---and this is especially true in advanced classes:

(1) Exam problems are supposed to take 45 minutes and are split into parts that are meant to help guide the student. Real problems don't work that way. The guidance can often be helpful for the learning, so that doesn't particularly bother me, and indeed I think it is desirable to add such things to homework problems as well. The 45-minute thing is a huge problem, though, because to learn most material in any reasonable fashion (and especially once one gets to the third and fourth years of the course), one needs to think about much more difficult problems. And then students understandably start asking about what can be tested and what can't be.

(2) As soon as one indicates that something is "not examinable", most students here (again, even the best ones) will typically not spend any more time trying to learn it, because the incentives they have been given by this system tell them that that is the optimal thing for them to do. So I can't blame them.

(3) Points (1) and (2) come into conflict a lot, as one wants to be reasonable (and, indeed, one has to be reasonable) regarding what can be asked on an exam, but there are things that one should learn from an advanced course in a certain subject---and those things are important for research, general education about problem-solving, and possibly even later classes.

(4) In my third-year and fourth-year courses (and beyond), I like to bring in some ideas from current research and to prepare my students for thinking about problems that have not been completely solved. In fact, at this stage of my students' education, I think that it is not just important but genuinely crucial to do this. One way to help do such things is to have some open-ended issues on some homework problems. This will help them not just for the material related to the course, but for other things, such as new applications of such material, modelling issues, and other really important things that many (and perhaps most) of these students need to learn for research, their future jobs, etc. Of course, if a student knows something is not examinable, the incentives at Oxford make it very difficult for such endeavors to work as intended. Sigh...

(5) For advanced courses, I would rather have examination via some kind of project or an open-ended exam (or both) and that would help get around these issues, but it's very difficult to set up such things here.

(6) I'm sure there are other things, and of course many of the things that I have mentioned above are deeply correlated with each other, but a fundamental observation remains: There are so many ways that examination can just get in the way of education---and the latter is obviously my goal when teaching a course!---and the inevitable "Is it examinable?" question that pops up so frequently around Oxford really underscores these conflicts.

OK, now I am going to stop ranting (at least temporarily) and get back to work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Assess", Not "Asses"

Note to self: Next time, write "assess" in the grant proposal instead of "asses".

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mason Porter and Me

Many moons ago, I found out via the magic of Google that there is a bluegrass band called "Mason Porter".

Friends of mine bring this up with me periodically (well, perhaps quasiperiodically or maybe just 'every so often'?), but the band doesn't appear to be that well known. It doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.

Moreover, it is a little-known fact that my twitter handle of 'masonporter' single-handedly prevented the band from using that handle, so they had to settle for 'masonporterband'. I purposely 'liked' the band's Facebook page just to give my friends a newsfeed item of 'Mason Porter likes Mason Porter', though I quickly hid the group because I didn't actually want to see the band's posts.

Today, I got a request from the MySpace page of Squid Music, who wanted to 'friend' me because they apparently thought that I was actually the band. In fact, I don't think that I have logged into MySpace since the day I set up my account (in around 2005, I think). Of course, if Squid Records wants to give me a free guitar---based on their website, they seem to sell guitars, among other things---then I might consider accepting their "friendship".

I think I am going to have the meet the band members someday, because I'm not sure if my life could ever possibly be complete without that. I wonder if they know who I am too?

Finally, just like the band Mason Porter, I like to believe that I "evoke[] the spirits of each and every person whose life [I] touch", because that's just the kind of guy I am.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tales from the ArXiv: Best. Abstract. Ever.

Michael Berry, one of my academic heroes, has posted a new paper to the arXiv that official has the Best. Abstract. Ever.

Title: Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?

Authors: M. V. Berry, N. Brunner, S. Popescu, P. Shukla

Abstract: Probably not.

(Tip of the cap to Annals of Improbable Research.)

Update: I am reminded by AIR (who were in turn reminded by one of their readers) that a certain John Doyle from Caltech previously had what one might construe as a Best. Abstract. Ever. [Actually, I had seen that paper before and totally forgot about that abstract. And, of course, I am absolutely shocked that John Doyle would do something like this. :) ]

Update (10/15/11): Courtesy of AIR, here is yet another Best. Abstract. Ever. However, I don't think that this one is as funny as the other two.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Community Structure in the United Nations General Assembly"

The final version of my paper on the United Nations is out, and it has a 2012 publication date.

Title: Community Structure in the United Nations General Assembly

Authors: Kevin T. Macon*, Peter J. Muchaa, Mason A. Porter

Abstract: We study the community structure of networks representing voting on resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly. We construct networks from the voting records of the separate annual sessions between 1946 and 2008 in three different ways: (1) by considering voting similarities as weighted unipartite networks; (2) by considering voting similarities as weighted, signed unipartite networks; and (3) by examining signed bipartite networks in which countries are connected to resolutions. For each formulation, we detect communities by optimizing network modularity using an appropriate null model. We compare and contrast the results that we obtain for these three different network representations. We thereby illustrate the need to consider multiple resolution parameters and explore the effectiveness of each network representation for identifying voting groups amidst the large amount of agreement typical in General Assembly votes.

* Notice that one of the authors on this paper on networks has the name "Kevin Macon". Hence, I have a Macon number of 1. (Technically, I already had a Macon number of 1 because of an earlier publication---but this clearly bears repeating.)

Physics Versus Math

Sometimes, all you need is a comic strip.

(Tip of the cap to Alex Cayco-Gajic.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Spear" Ribs and Lamb "Stakes"

Between the "spear" ribs on tonight's menu and the lamb "stakes" on tomorrow night's menu, Somerville College is doing its best to prepare its students for the impending vampire onslaught.

(And, for reasons that I cannot fathom, Facebook thought that "The Beatles" were somehow related to my recent post of the above words.)

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Watch the Signal. Obey the Signal. And Don't Careen into Me with Your Damn Bicycle.

Having a bike crash into me while it is going at full speed isn't fun. To quote Kramer, "My day was ruined!"

Although my left foot---the part of me that the bicycle wheel went over---does hurt, I have been walking on it without a problem and only a very slight limp, and I think the pain is mostly psychosomatic. The old lady who crashed into me fell off her bike in a heap, and she too seems to be fine. (I stayed to make sure she was ok, and several people came to help pick her and her bike up from the ground.) I must be as hard as a rock, because I'm pretty sure I never left my feet.

But here is a lesson to Oxford bikers everywhere: When the light for your direction has been red for a while and the traffic signal is a very clear green walk signal, please obey the bloody signals---especially when there is somebody walking across the street right in front of you (I was something like 10 full steps into the street) who clearly has no idea that you are going to continue careening at full speed while blatantly disregarding all of the traffic signals. This message was brought to you by the organization "Pedestrians who Think People on Bicycles Should Obey Traffic Signals". Thank you.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

It's not Wikipedia, bit it is a Start

I apparently have a wiki entry as a "writer" at BoardGameGeek because of an role-playing game article I wrote for Polyhedron in 1999. (I got the publication as a winning entry in a contest to design a character based on a picture published a couple of issues earlier in the magazine.) Somebody else wrote the page, and I just now added links to my blog and my Oxford home page.

I'd prefer an entry in Wikipedia, but I think I will need to become a bit more famous first. (And I'm not crass enough to write my own page.)

It is nice, however, to be have an entry on a gaming wiki. Ideally, the Legends of Caltech movie project will eventually land me with an IMDB entry.

You Know You're in Oxford When...

Now that some time has passed and Somerville's shiny new building actually has occupants, I think it's finally safe to tell a little story about one of the discussions that occurred during the long planning and building process. I wish I had remembered to bring this up on opening weekend, but a comment about something else entirely in an e-mail about completely unrelated things has reminded me of this.

When the 999-year lease on Somerville's new building was brought up a couple of years ago in a Governing Body meeting, a GB-member who shall remain nameless brought up---in all seriousness, at least as far as I could tell---what we should do when the lease expired. And then GB discussed it---in all seriousness, at least as far as I could tell---for the next 5 minutes. I'm pretty sure that I facepalmed, and I probably didn't do it only in my mind's eye. As I mumbled quietly for the benefit of the people sitting around me, "Why don't we leave some things for future generations to decide?" (I also mumbled comments along the lines of "I assume that my followers will have taken over the world by then." and "Are we so sure that the human race will still be around then?")

(In GB, we usually discuss more serious things, like the color of the couches in the Senior Common Room.)

Anyway, I just wanted to give you a little window into our "first-world problems". (I really like that phrase, by the way.)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Quote of the Day: Nobel Prize Edition has an absolutely wonderful quote in its sidebar on its article about this year's Nobel Prize in Literature: The award has gone to obscure Europeans three of the past four years.

Hah! Well done! (I approve!)


I think the squirrel that darted in front of home plate while Roy Oswalt threw a pitch was the highlight of yesterday's game between the Phillies and the Cardinals. Apparently, the squirrel now has a twitter account (go to the bottom of the article).

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

RIP Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Apple founder and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs died yesterday (or today, for those of you in earlier time zones, like in the USA). I can't say I expected to see that. I'm quite the Apple-phile, and (biased as I am) Jobs was quite the innovator.

(Tip of the cap to numerous people on my Facebook friends list.)

Teaching in the Ivory Tower

Perhaps I should really call it the "Stone Tower", but in any event I need to rant: I know things are really hectic right now with term about to start and I myself am running around like a headless chicken these days, and I know this can get extremely frustrating at times, but some of my Oxford colleagues seem to actively dislike having students around and also to actively dislike teaching. Well, I have this answer for them (and they do seem to dislike it whenever I respond this way to their seeming disdain for students and for teaching): Go somewhere else --- perhaps outside of the ivory tower --- and get a job that doesn't involve teaching! It's funny how they didn't bring up their dislike of students up during their interview! Sheesh.

Teaching is always time-consuming and often very frustrating --- and there are times when I will complain (rather loudly) about certain aspects of it --- but that doesn't mean that I don't value it. One of the blessings of being at Oxford is the awesome quality of most of the students here. I bring up what our undergrads and my research students can do, and frankly my colleagues at other universities are jealous of what we have. And they should be. This doesn't mean, nor should it have to mean, that there can't be lots of frustrations. (There is little more frustrating to a teacher than the brilliant student who is wasting loads of talent through laziness, real-life stupidity, or some combination of the two.) Another really great aspect about students here --- and this one, I think, is much less apparent until one actually gets here --- is the student-teacher relationship. Namely, at Oxford, the relationship between students and faculty is not an antagonistic one, and that contrasts very starkly with what one sees at many (and perhaps most) US universities. What we have here with the students is so much better than what academics have at just about any other place.

So, while it is true that there are times that teaching will take up loads of time from my research---and it's ok to be frustrated by that (I know that I am sometimes, and I'm more than willing to express it)---I have only one piece of advice for those colleagues who seem to have open disdain for students and for teaching: Leave.

Chemistry Nobel Prize Awarded for Quasicrystals

Physics didn't work out this year, but the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to some very cool stuff---namely, it's been awarded for the experimental discovery of quasicrystals, which are (i) damn cool and (ii) caused the very definition of "crystal" to need to be changed. You can read more about it on wikipedia.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Weekend at the Karolinska Institutet

That's an interesting loophole: The new Nobel Prize in Medicine pays unintentional homage to Weekend at Bernie's. Maybe they'll prop the new Nobel Laureate up during the ceremony?

The article I am citing mentions that the Nobel Peace Prize is the most anticipated of the prizes. Personally, I care most about the prize in Physics, and I hope that Michael Berry finally get his richly deserved Nobel Prize this year. Fingers crossed! (That said, I would kill for a Nobel Peace Prize...)

Damnit, I Am Not a Sheep.

Is this commercial from Air New Zealand somebody's idea of a sick joke?

I am so not ever flying on this airline, though at least this commercial has an obvious theme song.

I'm going to go crawl into a hole now.

(Tip of the cap to Ravi Montenegro.)

What Happens in Leeds Stays in Leeds

I took the 3.5 or so hour train to Leeds this afternoon, and I arrived here a couple of hours ago. (I managed to get a direct train that goes all the way to Edinburgh, so I didn't have to change trains.) I will be giving a seminar in applied math tomorrow.

I just had dinner at a local Mediterranean cafe, which earned points for playing excellent music (including--but not limited to--the greatest hits album of the Gipsy Kings, to whom I am now listening on my computer). Amusingly, the cafe listed "iced coffee" among "hot drinks". Sadly, it never occurred to me to bring my camera until after I was already on the train and out of Oxford.

One thing that I noticed is that tons of the people getting off at Leeds are rather emo. Do any of you know whether Leeds has a reputation for that. Seeing so much of this style as I exited the train was rather striking.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Unconditional Justice

My Bayesian friends and colleagues are not going to be happy about a UK court ruling that Bayes' theorem cannot be used to analyze statistical evidence in trials.

I have five comments:

(1) Is one still allowed to use Newton's laws for evidence in a course case? You know, just in case gravity might be relevant. about a minute ago

(2) Maybe this is what EPSRC had in mind with respect to building UK capacity in statistics?

(3) Seriously, what the fuck?

(4) Facepalm!

(5) I guess UK justice is unconditional after all.

(Tip of the cap to Mariano Beguerisse Díaz.)

Update (10/03/11): Cosma Shalizi has posted some nuanced commentary on his blog (much more nuanced than my commentary, as I was quite obviously in full attack mode). As I stated in my response to his comment in this space (when my head was a bit cooler than when I wrote the original post), I do agree with his point in general, so we will see if reasonable uses of Bayes' theorem remain permissible in UK courts. I am most definitely cynical enough to doubt it, so I am still not happy about the situation, but we will see what happens in practice. Yesterday, I admittedly went into my usual Kill-Billish red-alarm mode when I saw the article in The Guardian. However, Cosma and I might have to have some words about confounding me with Brits. :) I am only Brit-employed, and you won't find me going out in the midday sun* anytime soon.

* Except for the last few days, in which we actually had midday sun.

Monkey Rankings: Back for 2011

The monkey rankings (aka: random walker rankings) are back for 2011.

Through games of 1 October, we have Clemson at #1 for most parameter values.

Friday, September 30, 2011

2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

Here are the 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes. By the way, "structured procrastination" (see the literature prize in the link) is exactly what I do to be productive.

Also, in case anybody wants to nominate me for an Ig Nobel, I do kind of hope that this paper will eventually be found deserving of one.

Finally, hopefully this is the year when Michael Berry finally wins his richly deserved Nobel Prize. He would then become the second person to have both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel.

None of the Stereotypes are True!

Quora compiled some of the search statistics of some of the top US schools (Caltech, Stanford, etc.), and they found that there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the stereotypes are even remotely true. Really. I mean it.

I think my favorite part of this is that the kings of sports at Caltech are table tennis and chess! (Go Caltech table tennis!)

(Tip of the cap to Julius Su.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Historically Choking

As baseball fans reading this know, the Red Sox and Braves both completed their epic chokes, and neither of them have made the playoffs. Instead, the Rays and Cardinals are the two Wild Card teams. The Braves choke was pretty epic, but that's only because the Red Sox choke---which was definitely of historical proportions, in the context of baseball---overshadowed them. And just look at how everything changed at the blink of an eye last night. Wow.

One other thing the Red Sox and Braves epic choke did: they pretty much made Matt Kemp's run at the Triple Crown go under the radar. Considering the modern media and that no Major Leaguer has accomplished that feat since 1967 and no National Leaguer has done it since 1937, that's not easy to do.

I'll Take Ergodicity for the Win.

The room in which I'll be discussing statistical mechanics problem sheets this fall has a microscopic whiteboard, which will cause significant problems, but at least it also has poetic justice: The table around which the students will be sitting is shaped like a Bunimovich stadium.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Freshman Seminars at Caltech

Wow. I wish these freshman seminars were offered at Caltech when I was a student there. Some of those look really neat, and that's just the right way to suck freshman in.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Help Save Math in the UK!

EPSRC, the research council that claims to fund mathematics, announced a policy that postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics will henceforth only be given in the fields of statistics and applied probability. Seriously, what the fuck? That's completely asinine---even by EPSRC standards. This will cripple UK mathematics and turn its slow decline into irrelevance into a rapid one. And do you know why? Because most of the best worldwide talent in all but 2 specific fields will go somewhere else, and most of the best UK talent in all but 2 specific fields will leave. Hello? Anybody home? And the UK might want to check what happens to countries who let basic science go by the wayside---the whole country tends to go to Hell with it. Where do you think the technical workforce comes from?

In response, graduate students and postdocs from University of Warwick have started a petition to be sent to the Prime Minister. As you can see from the links on this site, famous mathematicians (and mathematical scientists in related fields) have already started the call to arms. Thus: To arms! If you are a UK grad student or a postdoc, please sign this protest. And if you care about UK mathematics, please pass this protest along.


(Tip of the cap to Mariano Beguerisse Díaz for informing me about the petition.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Today's Google Doodle is Awesome!

Today's Google Doodle is awesome! It honors the late Jim Henson on his 75th birthday. I played around with it a bit, and I managed to get the red monster-muppet on the right to eat the long green stringy muppet next to it. Hilarious! I also got the second one from the left to briefly lose its glasses, which was also pretty amusing.

For reasons I don't understand, connecting to YouTube from Somerville has been abysmally slow lately, but I did something else while the page took forever to load and then I watched this hilarious video. (I wonder if the painfully slow loading of YouTube is a firewall issue?) I'm sure that there are many more of these to come.

(Tip of the cap to Jimmy Lin.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Dodgers and a Dunn

With last night's showing (3 doubles and a homer in 5 at bats), Matt Kemp's quest for the Triple Crown---leading* one of the leagues in batting average, home runs, and RBIs in the same season---suddenly is starting to look possibly realistic. I didn't blog about this earlier primarily because of the big gap in batting average between Kemp and the two people ahead of him, but after last night, Kemp is at .326, Jose Reyes is at .329, and Ryan Braun is at .330. Matt Kemp has 118 runs batted in, which is 5 more than Ryan Howard and 6 more than Prince Fielder. Kemp has 36 home runs, which is second to Albert Pujols's 37. The last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, so Kemp's season has a chance to be historic. Obviously, Kemp is one of the leading Most Value Player award candidates, and I hope he wins it. If the season ended today, I think he would deserve the award---e.g., check out his wins above replacement and compare it to that of everyone else in the National League!. Of course, I expect him to be hurt somewhat in the voting by the Dodgers' place in the standings. (However, I expect that Kemp's run at the Triple Crown will mitigate this significant, so this might well be enough to push him over the top.)

Meanwhile, Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw is also having an awesome season, with an excellent chance to win both the Cy Young award and the Pitching Triple Crown (leading* a league in wins, earned run average, strikeouts in the same season). However, if you clicked on the link above, you'll notice that the Pitching Triple Crown is considerably rarer than the (Hitting) Triple Crown, which is therefore considered the more exciting of the two achievements.

Of course, Matt Kemp is not the only person having a remarkable season. In fact, Matt Kemp's season only has a chance to be historical; Adam Dunn's season is already historically bad, but he has a chance to set a rather dubious record: lowest batting average in a season by somebody with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. The White Sox left him completely out of the lineup for a while, and they were playing him increasing infrequently before than because of his execrable performance (which is rather amazing, given his prior hitting prowess). I think the ChiSox started playing Dun again because they calculated that he wouldn't get enough plate appearances to set that rather dubious record. However, I believe that there is still a way it can work: add imaginary at bats with hits in each one and see if Dunn's average would still set the record once this leads to having enough plate appearances. (Imaginary hitless at bats are added to people without enough plate appearances when it comes to determine who is awarded a batting title in the history books, so there's no reason the analog shouldn't apply in this case as well.)

It basically felt like the Dodgers were already out of it in April---until recently, that's what kind of season it's been. I was pleasantly amazed when we recently made it to .500, so hopefully we'll finish with a winning record. It is possible that Kemp will win the MVP (I hope he does!) and that Kershaw will win the Cy Young (I hope he does!). If I remember the answer to a recent Dodger-broadcast trivia question correctly, only one team in baseball history has had both the MVP and Cy Young winner and not gone to the postseason, and that team won 102 games and lost a 1-game playoff game to determine who would go to the postseason. For a while, it looked like the Dodgers might finish in last place and have both the MVP and Cy Young winners. Thankfully, our final win-loss record will be much better than that, and we still have a chance to make some baseball history.

* Being tied for first in a category is ok, though for batting average, one would of course go to the fourth digit and beyond if necessary.

Update (9/29/11): Matt Kemp didn't win the Triple Crown, but Kershaw got the Pitching Triple Crown. Kemp did end up leading the National League in HRs (39) and RBIs (126), and he also missed entering the 40/40 club (40 HRs and 40 SBs in one season) by just a single homer. It will be a crime if Kemp isn't the MVP. I actually think Roy Halladay deserves the CY Young more than Kershaw---the main reason is that his home park is a favorable to hitters whereas Kershaw's is favorable to pitchers---but I hope that Kershaw wins. If both Kemp and Kershaw win, then the Dodgers will make history (see the discussion above). Oh, and Adam Dunn has managed to have what is literally the worst season in history by a Major League position player. Ouch!

Somerville College and the Immutable Laws of Physics

An e-mail sent today at 3:15 pm included the following statement: I would be grateful if you were able to reply to the Academic Office by noon on Friday, 23 September, if possible.

My response to this was: It will be impossible for us to reply by noon on Friday 23 Sept as you requested below, given that you did not send us this message until several hours after that 'deadline'. Of course, as you did not specify the year, the only way to interpret that would be to imply that we have 1 year less 3 hours to respond, so what deadline do you actually have in mind?

We will, of course, be prompt about this.

Now, this is pretty clearly a simple typo that didn't have the intended 'deadline' or perhaps was an e-mail that originally was going to be sent earlier (for which that deadline would make sense), so this is a rather easy bug to make in an e-mail, and I'm sure that I have done the same thing on several occasions. What is amusing in this context, however, is the phrasing "if possible" in the request. The e-mail sender was referring to the time schedules of people like me---which is why this is a 'deadline' rather than a deadline---but the relative times indicate naturally made me think of physical impossibility rather than ones that have to do with my own schedule. Hence, it is excellent that the fact that the request might not be possible was included, though I'm sure that relativistic effects were probably not part of the equation. Still, the phrasing is uncanny. (Or maybe it's just that I'm easily amused?)

Perhaps it's best to end this by quoting Jerry Seinfeld: Unfortunately the immutable laws of physics contradict the whole premise of your account.

Yesterday's e-mail from a Mathematical Institute colleague about the changing of a schedule because of a "dairy clash" was arguably even more amusing---especially given that I'll actually be talking a bit about cows when it's my turn to speak.

Update: My Ph.D. student Martin Gould has reminded me about this exciting, hot-off-the-presses piece of physics news.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bring back the Caltech Bookstore

Three years ago, my alma mater Caltech decimated its bookstore, which now almost exclusively memorabilia (rather than, e.g., books). It does have some books---including, importantly, this one---but it no longer has the massive selection of academic books that used to make our bookstore a source of pride. As an academic and (especially) as a Caltech alum, I consider it a travesty that we don't have a real bookstore anymore. Frankly, it's embarrassing.

So please consider signing this protest to resuscitate our formerly-lovely bookstore.

R.E.M. Calls It Quits

Well this sucks: R.E.M. announced on their website today that they're calling it quits.

Hopefully, they'll get back together someday.

(Tip of the cap to Myah Evers.)

Googly Eyes

Amazon just sent me an e-mail suggesting that I might be interested in the following items:

* Black & White Wiggly/Wobbly/Googly Eyes 100pk
* Super Bright Wiggle/Wiggly/Wobble Eyes 100pk
* 2 Packs (60 total) Googly Wobbly Stick on Eyes. Art & Crafts
* Sticky Googly Eyes
* 100pk Fluffy Pom-Poms
* 100pk Multi Coloured Pipe Cleaners

Really, Amazon? WTF?

(Now do you believe me that a lot of research still needs to be done on item recommendation systems?)

In case you're interested, here is what the Super Bright Wiggle/Wiggly/Wobble Eyes look like.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vote for Me. :)

I am one of the two candidates to become Secretary (2012-2013) for SIAM's Activity Group on Dynamical Systems. You can find a listing of the candidates for all positions and links to their professional biographies and candidate statements on this web page.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mariano Rivera Sets Saves Record: Arrrrrrrr!

Ahoy, Mateys!

Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, t' best Major League reliever ever, recorded career save number 602, which puts him ahead o' Trevor Hoffman for #1 on t' all-time list. And that doesn't even include his postseason excellence.

And in case you're wonderin' why I be writin' this way, it's because today I be celebratin' one o' t' most important holidays o' t' year.

Avast, ye Scurvy Dogs!

Update (9/20/11): Apparently, the Pirate Party did very well in the Berlin elections on Sunday. Arrrrrr! (Tip of the cap to Karen Daniels.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Professor in the Sweater

I just received an e-mail from my collaborator Peter Mucha with these words: Dude, I think you are now officially the professor in the sweater, not the student. 8-)

And with this link.

Reaction: Ouch, now this one does hit a bit close to home.


My first paper on cow synchronization has now been published in final form.

Title: A Mathematical Model for the Dynamics and Synchronization of Cows

Authors: Jie Sun, Erik M. Bollt, Mason A. Porter, and Marian S. Dawkins

Abstract: We formulate a mathematical model for the daily activities of a cow (eating, lying down, and standing) in terms of a piecewise linear dynamical system. We analyze the properties of this bovine dynamical system representing the single animal and develop an exact integrative form as a discrete-time mapping. We then couple multiple cow "oscillators" together to study synchrony and cooperation in cattle herds. We comment on the relevant biology and discuss extensions of our model. With this abstract approach, we not only investigate equations with interesting dynamics but also develop biological predictions. In particular, our model illustrates that it is possible for cows to synchronize less when the coupling is increased.

Snarkiness with Spelling Mistakes

Here is a website that compiles snarky responses to misspellings on Facebook. Some of the comments are really obnoxious, but they're also really damn funny.

(Tip of the cap to Iain Macmillan.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This one is for all of those programmers out there...

According to this comic strip from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, humans are part of the junk code. Well, maybe.

(Tip of the cap to Greg Fricke.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scala & The Kolacny Brothers

Kevin Hickerson posted this cover version of "Creep" by Scala & The Kolacny Brothers, which is "a Belgian girls' choir, conducted by Stijn Kolacny and arranged and accompanied by Steven Kolacny on the piano." And they performed the proper version --- i.e., the one that uses the word "fuck" --- rather than the censored version I heard dozens of times at Pax 2007. I don't remember having ever heard of this group before, so I looked them up on iTunes, and they have also covered artists like Depeche Mode (3 times!), Nirvana, and even a certain song by The Divinyls. And, believe me, you haven't truly lived until you have heard a children's choir sing "I Touch Myself." This is admittedly a bit disturbing, but these choir versions of those songs are also awesome (and simultaneously also "awesome"), so I bought some of their music. Sweet! Also, I am highly amused.

This is one of the reasons I like Facebook: It makes it easier to find gems like this.

Update (9/16/11): I think this version of "I Touch Myself" is perhaps slightly more disturbing in music video format, and as my cousin Scott points out, the conductor is all kinds of creepy.

Scientist of the Day: Dr. Chew Shit Fun

Nope, I can't make this up: Chew Shit Fun is actually her name. Sometimes it's really awesome when Asian names are spelled out using Western letters (and the English language is employed). The Improbable Research Blog has, for the third time, named her Undersung Scientist of the Month. The blog also calls her "Shit Fun Chew", which in my opinion is not quite as ... er ... fun as "Chew Shit Fun".

A Community-Detection Problem

Take a look at this article on the proposed winners and losers of boundary changes for United Kingdom constituencies.

The following comment appears in the article: New research suggests the Liberal Democrats could lose a quarter of their seats at the next general election before a vote has been cast, under coalition plans to redraw the political map of Britain.

Other projections have suggested the plans would not have such a devastating effect on Nick Clegg's party, but neither would they hand a significant boost to the Conservatives, as many have assumed.

The truth is, nobody really knows.

Hello people: This is a community-detection problem. The data exists*, so one should be able to find the answer pretty easily. Pretending that nobody can possibly have any clue about the answer is woefully naive.

* However, the data might be in a very annoying format, and compiling it to be in a good format might take some non-trivial effort. Maybe somebody has already done that compilation and can have something that is, e.g., Matlab-ready pretty easily?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


With last night's win over the Giants, the Dodgers have made it to .500. Given how poorly we played during the season's first few months, it's pretty amazing that we've gotten to this point. Let's hope that we manage to finish the season with a winning record. That would be awesome! (Let's also hope that Matt Kemp gets the MVP Award and that Clayton Kershaw gets the Cy Young Award.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Quote of the Day: Almost 10-Year Anniversary Edition

My quote of the day is the following: According to Mueller’s calculations, the United States would have had to stop four major bomb plots per day since the war on terror began for the security expenses that have been incurred to be considered cost-effective.

It comes from a very interesting article in The Boston Globe on research inspired by (or changed by) the 9/11 attacks. Free registration is required to read that article.

I found the article via a link on Aaron Clauset's blog entry on the probability of a 9/11-sized terrorist attack.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Another Baseball Blog: "Murph Talks"

I just found out that former Major League Baseball player Dale Murphy has been doing some blogging during the past few months. As the comments section of this entry demonstrates, he seems to be engaging with the fans rather nicely.

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)

Church Advertising

Sometimes the signs in front of churches can be pretty damned funny. I think that some of them might have been written by some of the same people who write scripts for the James Bond movies.

(Tip of the cap to Puck Rombach.)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Headline: Drunken Moose Ends up Stuck in Swedish Apple Tree

According to this news article, a moose got stuck in a tree after eating fermented apples. (Upon later inspection, it turned out to be Charlie Sheen.)

(Tip of the cap to Roussislava Zaharieva.)

What We Should Have Been Taught in High School

Here is The Oatmeal's version of what we should have been taught during senior year in high school. There is a lot of truth here.

And after reading several vivas with tons of elementary English mistakes, I am even more tempted than I might usually be to buy the poster version of 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

(Tip of the cap to Maria Satterwhite.)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Thermal Conductivity of SPAM

Check out Figure 2 of this article, which shows (among other things) a plot of the thermal conductivity of SPAM as a function of temperature. Nice! And it even looks like it might be a power law...

Your institution will need to have a subscription to this journal for you to see the other side of this link, but you can always e-mail me for a copy of the .pdf file if you don't otherwise have access to the paper.

(Tip of the cap to Jing Xu.)

Space Oddity: The Children's Book

Yes, really: David Bowie has recreated the song "Space Oddity" as a children's book.

Stay tuned for the sequel "Ashes to Ashes", in which Major Tom becomes a junkie. That can teach the kids about both drugs and economics.

If anything is both awesome and "awesome", then I think this is definitely it.

(Tip of the cap to Craig Montuori.)

Monday, September 05, 2011

Art Class

I am taking an art class for the first time since high school. The subject is landscaping, and I just got back home from the first session. Thus far, I have produced this. One might call it "art" or one might call it practice.

The class right before the one I am in is one focused on portraits, and it turns out that one of my PhD students is in that class (so we're going to compare notes, as it were).

Oh, and I enjoyed the class today, even though I am not very good at this. I have some idea of what I want to do but---unlike when I am mixing colors on a computer (e.g., with html)---I am finding it difficult to do things in practice even when I know I want to do.

Is Pixar paying attention to science?

Clearly, the folks at Pixar need to read about this scientific study that uses fMRI data to determine what type of car fronts males consider attractive.

Choice quote: Our findings allow the recommendation to give the grille a friendly expression whereas the headlights should rather look aggressive.

Also, I can't help wondering what kind of car Gary Numan would feel safest in?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Stocking Photos

Here are 20 pictures of people trying to recreate stock photos (usually with some amusing additional twists). It's pretty damn funny.

Note that I made the entry title deliberately vague.

(Tip of the cap to Anna Iwaniec Hickerson.)

Best. Street Address. Ever.

"666 North Pleasant St." has got to be one of the best street addresses ever. One of the only ones I like better is "1 Infinite Loop".

Thursday, September 01, 2011

2011 'Dance Your PhD' Contest

Come on: you know you want to do this.

(Tip of the cap to Greg Fricke.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hopf Bifurcations in the Dynamics of Love

As discussed in this paper, beware of Hopf bifurcations in the dynamics of love! Who knew that a Hopf bifurcation could be so emotionally deadly?

Update: Does anybody agree with me that this would make a fabulous movie title?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Community Structure, Web Cams, and Online Privacy

Here is an interesting new article about how network analysis can help invade privacy. And you know what the biggest cited culprit is? That's right: computation of community structure (which, as many of you know, is something I work on).

And, of course, I noticed when reading this that one of the linked pieces of evidence had a bad characterization of what modularity values indicate good community structure.

This is a good article, and when the author writes that ideas about network communities can be used to glean information people don't disclose, he is talking "community structure" in the technical sense. (And, yes, computing community structure can give one a very good idea about information that has not been revealed based on information in one's community that has been revealed. See, e.g. this paper of mine.)

Now I better read the final 6 pages of that Masters-dissertation draft. I keep avoiding finishing this...

(Tip of the cap to Peter Mucha.)

Best. Controller. Ever.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Cow Dung Flung

Some cows are more adventurous than others.

(Tip of the cap to Maria Satterwhite.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011


I simply don't know whether to laugh or cry. Sigh...

Vin Scully will be back in 2012!

It's a year-to-year thing these days, so it's with great pleasure that I woke this morning to see a Facebook post from the Vin Scully page that he will continue to broadcast Dodger games in 2012. Sweet!

In other Dodger news, Matt Kemp became the second player in franchise history (Raul Mondesi was the first) to have a 30/30 season. (A "30/30 season" means a season in which a player hits at least 30 homeruns and steals at least 30 bases.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Scientist of the Day

The scientist of the day, who I have chosen only because of the awesome match between his name and an article he wrote, is Ferric Fang, who studies iron. An e-mail from the Annals of Improbable Research pointed out this bit of awesomeness because of the following article:

The Role of Ferritins in the Physiology of Salmonella enterica sv. Typhimurium: A Unique Role for Ferritin B in Iron-Sulphur Cluster Repair and Virulence, Ferric C. Fang et al., Molecular Microbiology, Volume 63, Issue 5, March 2007 pages 1495?1507.

Mamma Mia!

Georgia Tech astronomers have found a new planet that seems to be made of diamond.

One has to go to the original paper to find this, but the same scientists also report what appear to be red plumber outfits on that planet. One of the scientists also claims to have heard muted words that sounded something like "Mamma mia!"

(Tip of the cap to the Georgia Tech Department of Physics.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Neuroscience of Comic Sans

The Onion has decided to delve into the deep, dark secrets of the neuroscience of Comic Sans. (I love the new center at Princeton!)

Cornell's New Rivalry with MIT

The last time I checked, the rivalry with MIT was supposed to be with my other alma mater (i.e., Caltech). And what is this Ivy+ bullshit? (A bit of MIT and Stanford wannabe-ism, it seems to me.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Art of Blocking the Plate

As any long-time Dodger fan can tell you, Mike Scioscia was an absolute rock behind the plate---he was simply awesome at plate-blocking.

Well, today's Dodger game had a pretty awesome plate-blocking incident in the top of the third inning. Juan Rivera of the Dodgers was trying to score from second on a single by Casey Blake, but Rivera missed the plate while coming down the line. The ball got past Cardinal catcher Gerald Laird, who decided (without possession of the ball) to block Rivera from the other direction as he went back to the plate from foul territory. This one is probably going to make some highlight reels.

The Impending War Against Algorithms

Apparently, there is going to be a war against algorithms. Guess which side I'm on? :P

(Actually, the article makes some important points, and I could certainly provide some comments from my own experiences.)

Finally, with this blog entry, I have reached a milestone. This is blog entry number 2500. Man, I produce a lot of text...

(Tip of the cap to whoever controls Matlab's Facebook account.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Movies in Montreal

I saw three films at this year's Montreal World Film Festival.

The most important one to mention is the second one I saw. This film, called The Artist is a (mostly) silent film about a silent-film actor and how he deals with the coming of talkies. Not only is it meta, but it does meta exceptionally well: It is fantastic and is one of the most clever movies that I have ever seen. This one is slated to appear in US and UK theatres (presumably indie theatres) in the fall, and it is an absolute must-see. The film comes from France, and has both American and French actors in it. Awesome!

The first film I saw was Surnuaiavahi Tutar (The Graveyard Keeper's Daughter), which comes from Estonia. It was decent, and the strong-willed young girl protagonist was an interesting character.

The third film I saw, Aballay, El Hombre Sin Miedo hails from Argentina. I saw it because of the home-team connection. It was ok. I'm glad I speak Spanish, as occasionally some important meaning was lost in the subtitles. (The accents were rather thick, though, so at times I did need to rely on the subtitles.)

I doubt that either the first or third of these films will be released in theatres in the US, but you definitely want to go and see The Artist.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Today walked several miles along Rue St Catherine, where there are literally sex shops directly across the streets from churches. (Montreal is a strange juxtaposition of French and English, sex and Catholicism, and Celine Dion and smoked meat.) I went both farther west and farther east along St Catherine than I had ever previously done. I need to check to see whether I went all the way to the west end. I remember "vowing" in 2004 to one day walk the entire length of Rue St. Catherine.

By the way, one of the movies I saw today was fantastic. More on that in another blog post (after I watch the third of my three movies).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Adventures in the Montreal Airport

Here are some things that happened after my arrival in the Montreal airport.

1. I got a bit confused when I tried to dry my hands in the bathroom. A condom dispenser was where a hand dryer should be, so I held my hands and waited expectantly for about 20 or 30 seconds before realizing that the dryer was the object next to the dispenser. (It's kind of like the Mr. Coffee and Mr. Radar scene in Spaceballs.) Sometimes I wonder how I got this far in life.

2. I was in line at customs when I overheard the following conversation:

Teenage or college-age guy: Physics is everything, and everything is physics.

Young girl (maybe 13 years old): I thought everything is math.

(Comment: I approve!)

3. The Canadians gave me a bit of a hard time after I got through customs and I was trying to leave. First, a security guy bugged me while I was trying to get my luggage and asked to see my passport and my entry card, and he asked me to explain myself. (This lasted a few minutes and was a much more significant grilling than what I got from the customs officer.) Then I got asked stuff a third time when I tried to turn in my entry card and leave. What the Hell, people? I'm here to do math!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What Happens in Montreal Stays in Montreal (Take IV)

Tomorrow I am flying to Montreal for my 4th visit to that city, and Montreal just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite places to visit.

I will be there for a mathematics study group with industry, though while I am there, I will be partaking of indie films (and perhaps other things) at the Montreal World Film Festival and sipping the best hot chocolate I have ever had (yum!).

Update (08/19/11): Here are some pictures from Montreal.