Saturday, June 30, 2012

D & D Monster Manual: Baseball Pitcher Edition

Here is a pretty clever article that discusses some Major League Baseball pitchers using the format of D & D Monster Manual entries. Overall, I think the idea was much better than the implementation, but there are a few bits that are fantastic. (See, in particular, the entry for Jamie Moyer.)

(Tip of the cap to Justin.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

What Happens in Orlando Stays in Orlando

Tomorrow afternoon, I will be flying to Orlando to take part in a conference on differential equations and dynamical systems. I went to the 2000 iteration of this conference but this is my first one since then. It is a math conference with both pure and applied parts of those two areas represented. Orlando is going to be 95 degrees and humid the entire time I am there, so I'll basically just stay indoors and blast the air con. (Scheduling a conference for Florida for the first week of July is a rather strange choice.)

A couple of Techers from my era (including one of my CS 1 TAs!) are attending the conference, and I am going to hang out with a different Techer (Ben Williamson) who lives in Florida and who I haven't seen since 2007. Also, this is my first trip to Orlando since 2004.

Colorful Ants

Ants + Liquid + Food Coloring = Big Win!

(Tip of the cap to 'I Fucking Love Science'.)

Fortune Cookie of the Day

This evening, I got one of the best "fortunes" I have ever received: "You can always tell luck from ability by its duration [in bed]."

Network Topology versus Network Geometry

There is a terminological issue in the study of networks about which I need to rant.

Many people write about network topology, and this is good terminology when referring to connectivity alone. Ignore whether edges have any weights and just consider which ones are connected to which others (with either directed edges or undirected edges). Such terminology is a good extension of the mathematical notion of topology, which only cares about how things are connected to each other but doesn't care a whit about actually measuring distances. Things either are connected or they're not.

The problem is that numerous papers still use the word "topology" when they are talking about the weights of edges. That is a notion of distance, so using the word topology is in fact dead wrong. When one is describing edges weights and playing around with them, the term that people should be using is in fact network geometry, as the point of the mathematical notion of geometry is measuring distance.

So please, please, please distinguish between "network topology" and "network geometry" when you give talks, write papers, etc. Otherwise you are committing a rather egregious mathematical sin.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Star Trails over the Australian Outback

These pictures are absolutely gorgeous. Star trails for the win!

(Tip of the cap to 'I Fucking Love Science'.)

Classic Word of the Day: Psychoceramics

Today's word is one of the all-time classics:

Psychoceramicist [n]: someone who studies crackpottery. (And, of course, "psychoceramics" is a synonym for "crackpottery".)

(This word is based on longstanding discussions with Arcane Gazebo, who as far as I can tell is the inventor of the word. He doesn't practice psychoceramics, though. He's got a physics PhD and works in finance. Oh wait... :P)

Update: I have a Facebook comment from the Gazebo that reminds me about his blog post about psychoceramics, which explains how he found out about the word. I also have an e-mail from Cosma Shalizi with two websites that I assume either are or have the origins of the word contained therein. This one is an old blog post of his, and this one is an entire archive about pyschoceramics. So, no, the Gazebo did not invent the word. By the way, this brings back memories that the Gazebo used to (or maybe still does?) read Cosma's blog, which perhaps brings things back full circle?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

These Aren't the Books You're Looking For

No, really. I am serious about this.

Update (6/24/12): Investigator (and Caltech alum) Jimmy Lin has confirmed that this store does indeed exist. It is located in Hong Kong. I am so visiting that store when I go to Hong Kong. (I don't currently have a trip to Hong Kong planned, but it will happen eventually.)

Another Win for Google Doodle

Today's Google doodle celebrates the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth. And this is one sweet Google doodle!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

This particular strip from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal gets it exactly right. Truer words were never spoken. The importance of the research that gets me excited me is simply because it's fucking awesome. There's really no other reason at all. If it ever truly helps with anything, so much the better. But that's not what I care about or why I do research and love science. I do it because it's fucking awesome!

(Tip of the cap to the people who post items for I Fucking Love Science on Facebook.)

New Olympic Events

I've posted way too much today, and I apologize for that. But dig, if you will, the picture: I am at the movies to see Rock of Ages. "Chariots of Fire" is playing on infinite repeat. And right in front of me is a couple making out. Somehow combining that with that particular Olympian song as the background just creates a bizarre scene.

I guess they were going for a gold medal!

Quote of the Day (Again)

Here is one of my e-mail utterances for today: "Thankfully I am good at pissing people off and bad at keeping track of money. My personality sometimes comes in handy."

Time-Dependent Properties of the Hair of Physicists

Physicists have established a fine tradition when it comes to hair, and I have made it an important part of my life to continue this tradition.

(Tip of the cap to Physics Today.)

Tales from the ArXiv: "Dangling Nodes"

This new paper discusses the distribution of "dangling nodes". Yes, that's right! The term "dangling nodes" is now in the literature!

Of course, I think that there might be a big difference between a dangling-node distribution and a dangling node-distribution.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lego Turing Machine

Yes, that's right: someone has endeavored to build a Turing machine out of Lego. Pretty cool, huh?

(Tip of the cap to Krešo Josić.)

Monday, June 18, 2012


This plot is extremely depressing.

However, I also noticed something else: Many countries are missing, so my scientific eye automatically makes me wonder whether the data was cherry-picked. How were countries selected to be chosen for the statistical fit? It doesn't change how depressing this plot is, but cherry-picking data really irks me too. (Maybe only these countries were surveyed, but I find that hard to believe.)

(Tip of the cap to Frances Schaeffer.)

What about "A Number Of"?

Today's xkcd touches on a topic that is all too familiar.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Just. One. More. Turn.

Somebody played Civ II for 10 years and has ended up with quite an apocalyptic world.

(Tip of the cap to Josie Messa, who mentioned this at tonight's math leavers party, as well as whoever does the Facebook posts for Civilization.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

RIP Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012)

Elinor Ostrom, the only Nobel Laureate to be produced by my high school (Beverly Hills High School), has died of pancreatic cancer.

(Tip of the cap to James Fowler.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

RIP Warner Fusselle (1944-2012)

Warner Fuselle, announcer for the Brooklyn Cyclones and former fill-in for Mel Allen in This Week in Baseball, has died.

One of the reasons I am writing this blog entry is to point out the back-handed nature of the ESPN article, which highlights the fact that he was a fill-in. To be fair, that is why I know he is --- and presumably others are most likely to recognize him for this reason --- but it's still rather strange.

Headline: Oxford's IT Learning Programme Seeks to "Create More Pleasurable 'User Experiences' "

Let me quote directly from the beginning of an e-mail from Oxford's IT Learning Programme that advertises one of their upcoming courses:

"The need to (...) create more pleasurable 'user experiences' when designing technology has become increasingly apparent in recent years."

What on earth are they teaching at this university???

Saturday, June 09, 2012

License Plate of the Day

The license plate in this demotivational poster is fantastic (especially when in the context of the particle vehicle it's on).

And, as a special bonus, here is another demotivational poster that I really like.

"Differential Recruitment of the Sensorimotor Putamen and Frontoparietal Cortex During Motor Chunking in Humans"

A new article of mine just came out. This is my second article on neuroscience, and there are plenty more where it came from! (I've been having a lot of fun working on projects in neuroscience, so I intend to continue doing a lot of work in this area.) This journal (Neuron) apparently doesn't have page proofs, which I did not realize. I usually do a final OCD pass on article text once page proofs are available, so I'll need to keep that in mind the next time I submit to this journal. Anyway, here is some information about the article. (And, by the way, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I convinced my coauthors to let me bring up Guitar Hero explicitly in the abstract. I purposely start my explanations of this project by bringing up Guitar Hero...)

Title: Differential Recruitment of the Sensorimotor Putamen and Frontoparietal Cortex During Motor Chunking in Humans

Authors: Nicholas F. Wymbs,Danielle S. Bassett, Peter J. Mucha, Mason A. Porter, and Scott T. Grafton

Abstract (which contains neither the word 'guitar' nor the word 'hero'): Motor chunking facilitates movement production by combining motor elements into integrated units of behavior. Previous research suggests that chunking involves two processes: concatenation, aimed at the formation of motor-motor associations between elements or sets of elements, and segmentation, aimed at the parsing of multiple contiguous elements into shorter action sets. We used fMRI to measure the trial-wise recruitment of brain regions associated with these chunking processes as healthy subjects performed a cued-sequence production task. A dynamic network analysis identified chunking structure for a set of motor sequences acquired during fMRI and collected over 3 days of training. Activity in the bilateral sensorimotor putamen positively correlated with chunk concatenation, whereas a left-hemisphere frontoparietal network was correlated with chunk segmentation. Across subjects, there was an aggregate increase in chunk strength (concatenation) with training, suggesting that subcortical circuits play a direct role in the creation of fluid transitions across chunks.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Importance of Being Anal

Collaborations are a form of marriage. They last differing amounts of time and can fail for all sorts of reasons.

I am a very anal person---absolutely through-the-roof anal---and one of the things about which I care very deeply is exposition. In my publications, I want to get my wording precisely right if at all possible, even though I will invariably change my mind about some things when looking back later after my memory of why I wanted a particular phrasing has faded away. (My writing goals for this blog are rather different, as you have probably noticed. Here my goal is to write in a stream-of-consciousness form whose intent is for you to imagine me ranting at you---or perhaps even to imagine me discussing things calmly with you, which does actually happen on occasion.)

So, in short, I believe that not only are scientific calculations critically important but that one also must be ultra-anal (one might even call it "OCD") about writing things both for clarity and for style. One can certainly argue endlessly about style, but let's just say that I have a style, and we can forego discussions of whether or not you or anyone else think it's crap. (I hope that's ok.) And because of this, I am generally a major pain in the ass for people like journal editors---possibly frustrating interactions with me have caused at least one reputable journal to change their editorial policies (or so I believe)---and, of course, my coauthors. Hashing out phrasing when I am on the author list can be a somewhat trying experience, and it usually lasts longer when working with me than it does when working with others. So if you can't handle that, than you shouldn't work with me. The marriage just won't work.

Anyway, I believe very strongly that scholarly work depends not just on the raw scholarship but that my personal scholarship is enhanced substantially by my anal writing. (I will speculate that this particular attitude meshes much better with my arts and humanities colleagues than it does with my scientific ones.) I spent time as a journalist in college, as I put in 4 years as a writer and 1 year as a co-editor for a vaunted (snicker) publication known as The California Tech, and I cannot overstate how important that has been for my scientific career.

But back to things closer to the point: I am presently dealing with the revision of a paper (for which a journal editor and referees keep moving the bar, which is massively annoying). I know that I tend to frustrate many of my coauthors with my keen insistence on language, but because of the circumstances with this revision---and there are some additional complicating factors that I am not telling you---perhaps things have boiled over a bit, and one of my coauthors (indeed, a soon-to-be-former coauthor) dismissed as trivial what I consider to be very important grammatical, stylistic, and spelling corrections (which I made crystal clear that I considered to be very important things to do to improve the paper). And it's fine for my coauthor to think things are trivial even when I think they're important. I can handle that, and we're all entitled to different opinions. Collaboration---like all marriages---requires compromise. But I will simply not accept something I consider as critically important being dismissed as trivial rather than hashed out (or my being allowed to have control of the file so that I can make the damn changes myself). If I make it clear that I feel something is important, then my coauthor damn well better either work with me on it or let me spend the time to make the changes I want and then iterate with me as necessary until we both like things. So when this paper is over and we get our final acceptance from this journal or some other one, we'll part ways---not because my coauthor thinks my comments were trivial but rather because the fact that I obviously considered them important wasn't construed as a sufficient reason to hash them out anyway. In these situations---namely, when my collaborator finds that something is important, regardless of whether I find it important---I do make time even when it doesn't exist, and I expect the same of others. (And, very importantly, I obviously deserve my share of the blame for our parting of ways. I can be difficult to work with at times, and it would be improper for me to deny that.)

Alright, I have now ranted a lot. Such is my nature. Let me end on a more positive note and bring things full circle (or perhaps the orbit has a different shape?). What are the fruits of being anal? To give one example, I am really proud of the introduction to this recent paper. It discusses different types of assumptions that people make when deriving approximate theories to study dynamical systems on networks, and it carefully distinguishes various assumptions (which are often implicit in many papers rather than discussed explicitly, let alone carefully) that are made when developing certain types of theories. I have been writing some lecture notes on dynamical systems on networks in preparation for my book (on which I am woefully far behind, by the way), and I have drawn one short section from the relevant part of this paper's introduction. I have looked through many sources while preparing my lecture notes, and I can't find a single other one that presents these assumptions so clearly, and here we have them all in the same place in one coherent discussion. This paper is a technical paper on a rather specific topic and it appears in Physical Review E, which is a very good but decidedly non-sexy journal. So it's readership isn't going to be very broad or include overwhelming numbers of people. And the discussion in the introduction to this paper is not the kind of 'impact' (shudder!) that concerns the UK government, University of Oxford, and (I believe) most researchers from most disciplines. But my coauthors and I did the best job I have ever seen of explaining this particular set of material, which is confusing to many people and is typically explained poorly (if at all) in other works that discuss analytical approximations for dynamical systems on networks. Granted, my coauthors and I hashed out this exposition after nontrivial referee prompting, but that's a story for another day. It was certainly worth it, though! (Hence, mad props go out to the referees as well.)

So if you take anything at all from this blog entry, let it be one thing: it's really important for a scientist to be anal not only in calculations and other forms of 'raw scholarship' but also in their writing (down to the last comma).

The University Laundry Cycle

As XKCD illustrates quite nicely, it's a good thing that our term only lasts 8 weeks.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Bradbury died today. Here is his wikipedia page.

I really need to read Farenheit 451 at some point. I've intended to for years, but I have not yet managed to get around to it---this is especially true because my skype id is inspired by that title along with my own attempt at irony.

On this day, it is worth reading Ray Bradbury's awesome 2000 commencement speech at Caltech, which I had the pleasure to watch. On the topic of commencement speeches, which are rather seasonal nowadays, two other ones I got to witness are Bill Nye's 1998 speech at Caltech (that was the year I graduated) and Sandra Tsing Loh's 2005 speech at Caltech. Finally, let me also mention that one of my dynamical systems contemporaries D.J. Patil (who, alas, no longer studies dynamical systems and now works in industry) was given the incredible honor of giving this year's commencement speech at University of Maryland (whence he got his Ph.D. as a member of the infamous Chaos Group). I was unable to find Nye's speech quickly via Google, so please post a link in the comments if you're able to find one. (I really need to get back to work.)

(Tips of the cap for Jaideep Singh [who posted Bradbury's commence speech], Ryan Mack [whose post informed me more directly about Bradbury's death], and D.J. Patil [for posting a link to the text of his speech.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Legend Continues

Just now, I was looking through the new draft of a paper to be resubmitted that just arrived on my desk tonight. Annoyingly, I was finding tons of the same grammatical mistakes (rather egregious ones) that I pointed out in the last version and found that I was typing out many of the same suggestions.

I started to become really annoyed that almost none (or none) of my suggestions had been implemented, despite claims to the contrary. And then I noticed that I was accidentally going through the last version rather than the new one.

No wonder the same mistakes were still there!

(At least I'm consistent.)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Me as a Stick Figure

Here is what one of my students thinks I look like as a stick figure. Notice that the homework write-up is almost as large as my head.

Name a Symmetry for Charity!

Come on. Name a symmetry for charity! You know you want to!

Mine is called "Mason's Spectacular Narcisstic Group". Part of the inspiration for my name was the "extraspecial group", whose name would also be accompanied by giggling whenever my Math 5 prof mentioned it. [He also invariably giggled whenever he added "with 1" to "commutative ring".]

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Exam Survival Skills

Grrr.... I know it's the same story every year and in every institution, but damnit some of my students still aren't bloody listening to me!

Is it really that hard to grasp the following exam survival skill: Write down the damn thing that you're calculating so that partially correct things are easy to find for someone who is grading 300 exams and is therefore going to be bored, exhausted, looking at things quickly, and not going to excavate things. (Floating vector identities are much easier to find if, for example, what you're actually trying to do is indicated in some sort of clear fashion!)

Giving that advice once makes sense, but stubbornness on that particularly point is just really damn stupid. (When you go into the forest, you don't annoy the bears; and when you're taking an exam, you don't annoy the graders.) I'm not giving such advice just for shits and giggles. Sigh...

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Achievement Unlocked: Double-Digit Footnotes on Page 1

It is a little-known fact that the notation for the 10th footnote of a single page using the *, †, etc. convention is in fact "§§".

Yes, that's right, I actually got to the 10th footnote on p. 1 of a journal that uses that notation. If that doesn't deserve an "Achievement Unlocked!" when using this particular convention for footnotes, then I don't know what does.

It appears, however, that the journal in question (Quantitative Finance) seems to be using a nontraditional version of this typographic convention.

Powerful Photographs

Here are 40 powerful photographs. It's a bit too geared to recent things, but it is very much worth a look.

(Tip of the cap to Maria Satterwhite.)