Friday, October 31, 2014

The Bacterial Call of Cthulhu

Yes, really.

At least it's good for publicity.

Revisiting the Cult of Genius

Thanks to an illuminating Facebook post and discussion by Sara Solla and some e-mail discussion with Puck Rombach, I was reminded of a blog entry I wrote in early 2007. (How is that for a Flashback Friday!) I had my Oxford faculty job waiting at the time, but I hadn't yet started it.

I just reread my entry, and I still agree with myself.

I will add that one of the things that really helped make me understand I could be a successful scientist was in seminars in grad school: there were many really intelligent and successful faculty at Cornell who did amazing work that I admired. When faced with a seminar in which both they and I didn't know the topic, I found that I usually figured things out faster than they did. So even though I didn't have the track record that they did, that was one of the early clear signals that I could be a really successful scientist. (Though there were still many more hurdles to come...)

Also, here is the thought-provoking seminar abstract that Sara posted on Facebook. Please read it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Timeless Moral Dilemma: Saving Friends Versus Proving Theorems

I found a silly online quiz with this question while I was searching for the quiz 'Prof or hobo?'

For those of you who don't know what it's like to be a mathematician, let me assure you that we face this kind of moral dilemma all the time.

(See, there is an alternative explanation for why some mathematicians don't have many friends.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Diego Rivera's "The Mathematician"

One of the UNAM meeting rooms include a reprint of "The Mathematician" by Diego Rivera. If I had heard of this picture before, I had forgotten about it.

As an exercise for the reader, try to how many stereotypes of mathematicians can you find in it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Happens in Mexico City Stays in Mexico City

I have made it to Mexico City (my first time ever in Mexico, which is pretty surprising, given that I lived 25 years in LA and environs). Mexico is my third new country for 2014.

Along the way to the hotel, we passed many posters with Frida Kahlo on them.

And I have been assigned to room 100π (well, room 314).

I'll be giving a talk in IIMAS at UNAM.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Real Reason Brontosaurus Went Away

Here is the real reason that brontosaurus was removed from our dinosaur history books and we now have apatosaurus instead. :)

In Real Life As Well, Let the Wookie Win

I love this particular Facebook 'trending' headline.

Remember: Let the wookie win.

Update: There is also a video of the incident.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Networks Revolution is in Progress in Mathematics

It's really amazing how quickly the study of networks (and, to a lesser extent, complex systems more generally) --- in contrast to more traditional graph theory --- has gone from being taboo in mathematics departments, which are usually very conservative compared to other subjects, to not only being acceptable and legitimate, but it's now reached the point that any mathematics department that doesn't embrace these topics is simply going to be left behind.

It's been awesome to see this before my very eyes.

A Primer on the Origin of Mathematical Symbols

The Guardian just published a short article by Joseph Mazur that advertises his new book on the origin of mathematical symbols. The article itself contains a couple of tantalizing hints, but I wish it had more without needing to jump to the whole book.

(Tip of the cap to somebody who posted this on Facebook. I already forgot whom.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Foaming at the Mouth: Academic Inbreeding

One of the nice things about having old issues of The California Tech available online is that I can occasionally look at articles I wrote as an undergrad and see how much I agree with what I wrote back in the day. In this issue from 1998 (the year I graduated), I have a commentary on p. 2 about academic inbreeding. In this case, I pretty much agree almost completely with what I wrote 16 years ago. My occasional feature column, by the way, was called "Foaming at the Mouth". I was a Tech Editor before then and, additionally, my articles from early in my Tech career were reporting more often than features. I made an active change during my time at Caltech. Now if only the Rivet were online so that I could post the blurb from the time (last week of senior year) that I was named "International Terrorist of the Week".

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Most Excellent Welcome Back to Caltech Indeed: Googly Eyes at Caltech

So, I am here at Caltech today to be a dinner guest at Lloyd House, and I was so tired (and was just getting some work done) that I didn't even notice some excellent handiwork.

As part of my e-mail exchange with the current Lloyd President (Grace Park '16), I included the following message:

In case Lloydies want to have a completed prank ready for campus that Friday (I estimate a few hours of work when split across many people the night before), my recent inspiration for such things is summarized in the following two webpages: webpage 1, webpage 2

Simple, but elegant...

(This is inspired by one well-placed set of such eyes I noticed on the Stanford campus recently.)

Anyway, it's just a thought. :)  I don't arrive until the Friday, so I'll see when I get there if this happens.

They were up until 5am setting up googly eyes all over campus, and as you can see they picked some very sweet spots. (These are not anywhere close to all of them. There is also one pair on a door to the math building, a couple of cyclopean ones, etc. Maybe some more pictures will eventually show up?) And perhaps my favorite: one on Millikan Library itself!!!

I have seen people taking pictures of the Millikan bust with the googly eyes and indicating that it looks even creepier that way (and it's when I accidentally saw that after walking around a bit that I realized that it looks like they actually did it... I was pretty well zombified until then), I have on quite a few occasions heard people talk about the various places they have seen it, etc. Apparently, the Lloydies stayed up until 5am working on this.

Way to do me proud, modern Lloydies! I approve! (Let me count the ways... So awesome!) Now that's the right way to welcome an alum back to campus!

Update: Here is one more picture I took. (Also note that this prank is not only simple and elegant, but also inexpensive and very photogenic.)

What Happens in Southern California Stays in Southern California

I flew into LA this morning, and my early flight led to a way-too-damn-early pick-up by Supershuttle, so I am exhausted and extremely sleep-deprived at the moment --- which, I suppose is fitting, because I am visiting Caltech tonight to be a dinner guest in Lloyd House (my undergraduate House). I last was a dinner guest there around 2006 when I was still a postdoc at Caltech. This is the second time since graduating that I'll be dinner-guesting in Lloyd, although I have visited Lloyd on numerous other occasions for various events over the years. (When I first graduated, I visited a lot, though now I have even't entered the House since I was a postdoc.)

Unsurprisingly, two of the people behind the counter at Red Door Cafe on campus who have been working there for many years recognize me. Jeff Kimble also gave me a brief nod. Soon I'm going to walk over to the theoretical condensed matter group just to see if any of the people I know are around.

Tomorrow, I will head over to Westwood, as I'll be visiting Andrea Bertozzi's group at UCLA. I'll be giving an applied math talk on Wednesday late afternoon and then heading for the airport to return to the Bay Area.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match: Migration of Populations via Marriages in the Past"

It's been a long road (filled with some interesting stories about the publication and typesetting process), but now our paper on long-term migration in Korea using marriages in family-book data is finally out. APS Physics has posted a popular synopsis along with the article. Here are the details about the article itself, which was published today in Physical Review X.

Title: Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match: Migration of Populations via Marriages in the Past

Authors: Sang Hoon Lee (이상훈), Robyn Ffrancon, Daniel M. Abrams, Beom Jun Kim (김범준), and Mason A. Porter

Abstract: The study of human mobility is both of fundamental importance and of great potential value. For example, it can be leveraged to facilitate efficient city planning and improve prevention strategies when faced with epidemics. The newfound wealth of rich sources of data—including banknote flows, mobile phone records, and transportation data—has led to an explosion of attempts to characterize modern human mobility. Unfortunately, the dearth of comparable historical data makes it much more difficult to study human mobility patterns from the past. In this paper, we present an analysis of long-term human migration, which is important for processes such as urbanization and the spread of ideas. We demonstrate that the data record from Korean family books (called "jokbo") can be used to estimate migration patterns via marriages from the past 750 years. We apply two generative models of long-term human mobility to quantify the relevance of geographical information to human marriage records in the data, and we find that the wide variety in the geographical distributions of the clans poses interesting challenges for the direct application of these models. Using the different geographical distributions of clans, we quantify the “ergodicity” of clans in terms of how widely and uniformly they have spread across Korea, and we compare these results to those obtained using surname data from the Czech Republic. To examine population flow in more detail, we also construct and examine a population-flow network between regions. Based on the correlation between ergodicity and migration in Korea, we identify two different types of migration patterns: diffusive and convective. We expect the analysis of diffusive versus convective effects in population flows to be widely applicable to the study of mobility and migration patterns across different cultures.

No ergodic clams were harmed during the undertaking of this research project. :)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tales from the ArXiv: The Cheese Flows Alone

I just noticed a new paper on the arXiv with the following eye-catching title: Quantifying thermally induced flowability of rennet cheese curds

I think I might smell an Ig Nobel prize in the authors' future...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Font Battles and a Childhood Fascination with Fonts

According to Sang Hoon Lee, the journal club for our collaborator Beom Jun Kim has devolved to include font battles in the slides that the speakers are employing. He posted a picture on Facebook to prove it. (I realize that most of you will not be able to access that picture; I am including it here for my own reference so that I don't need to go elsewhere to look it up.)

This reminds me of something: When I was a kid, I bought the program Fontastic so that I could design fonts without going into Resource Editor (aka: ResEdit) and destroying the systems on my disks (and needing to wipe them clean) in the process. I bought Fontastic as a toy. In short: I could totally win a font battle. You can read a bit about Fontastic in the Wikipedia entry about its sequel ("Fontographer"): "In December 1984, James R. Von Ehr founded the Altsys Corporation to develop graphics applications for personal computers. The first foray by Altsys into commercial font editing software was a bitmap font editor called Fontastic, released in the mid-1980s for the Apple Macintosh. The program, developed by Altsys founder Jim von Ehr, was able to edit the native bitmap font format of the Mac."

Yes, I really was editing fonts on my computer at the age of 8. It's really no wonder that I am still very anal about such things. (None of my fonts were any good, but that's a different issue.)

Cooking Hornets

Wow, now this is pretty impressive: the bees in a colony attacked by a hornet bum-rushed the hornet and vibrated their wings to raise the temperature and cook the hornet alive. (These bees can tolerate higher temperatures than the hornet.)

Bill and Ted and Their Quantum Computer

When I saw the picture associated with this post, the first thing that came to my mind was the quantum computer saying "69, Dude!" when asked about its favorite number.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I Want Labeled Axes!

I want labeled axes --- or possibly a giant sign for his door that says "Label your fucking axes!"

Misinterpretations are also welcome.

(We'll see if there are some labeled battle-axes or something similar waiting for me when I return to Oxford.)

As Rachel Gray points out, there is an an appropriate xkcd for the occasion that involves ending relationships and lack of axis labels. There is also another strip --- I think it might also have been xkcd? --- about putting snarky labels on any unlabeled axes submitted by students. I saw this a couple of years ago, and I might add a link to it later. (I looked briefly just now and couldn't find it, and I don't feel like looking more at the moment.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

2014 Nobel Peace Prize

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."

As noted in the CNN article covering the prize, there is significant design in the sharing of the prize of these two individuals from disparate backgrounds and beliefs (and from ones that have often come into conflict with each other).

At age 17, Malala Yousafzay is the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (and I would assume of any Nobel Prize, though the article neglects to mention this). I absolutely love one of the side tidbits in CNN's article: "Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai will give her first statement after school".

Thursday, October 09, 2014

How Many Assholes Are There On This Paper?

I knew it! I'm surrounded by assholes! (Yes, really.)

On a similar note, you can also read about an application of the "BS method" on the arXiv today.

(Tip of the cap to Improbable Research.)

Update: Improbable Research has now posted a blog entry about this.

Update (10/14/14): Improbable Research has posted an update about the story.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Caltech Math: Where One Goes to Learn "Topography"

Caltech's undergraduate mathematics has been listed as 10th best in the United States according to some way of ranking these things.

I don't really care about that (because such rankings are only worth a little bit anyway), but there is a choice quote in the article when it comes to Caltech: The Department of Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology offers an undergraduate program that introduces students to theories and principles of math, while strengthening problem solving and analytical skills. Classes in algebra, statistics, linear equations, discrete mathematics and topography build over the course of the program.

Why isn't the applied mathematics (which has been called "Applied and Computational Mathematics" for many years but was still called "Applied Mathematics" when I went there) even mentioned? I've obviously biased, but clearly I favor the applied mathematics major at Caltech over the mathematics major.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to go and practice my topography.

Jeffreys, Jeffreys, and Logarithms

My host (Marc Feldman) was trained originally as a mathematician, and there are a bunch of mathematics books --- he apparently doesn't use these anymore --- are in the office I am occupying.

There are a couple in there that I have interest in browsing through. For example, I was just looking a bit through the mathematical physics book by the infamous Jeffreys and Jeffreys (3rd ed, 1953). I like the following footnote in the chapter on asymptotics:

"Actually, of course, we should work out 100 log_{10} e and then evaluate by means of a table of logarithms to the base 10. When a multiplying machine is available two uses remain for logarithms to base 10; to work out high powers and logarithms to base e of large numbers."

Anyway, I enjoy the need to explain in 1953 (or earlier, if this comment predates the 3rd edition) that there are still some uses for log base 10.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Thesis-like Objects

I think that the term "thesis-like object" ought to be in standard academic usage. That is all.

Another Victory for The Onion: Education Edition

Wow, The Onion has scored yet another victory with this scathing article about education. I don't agree with what appears to be the underlying opinion of whoever wrote the article, but I still enjoyed its scathing humor. I don't think it's all doom and gloom, though: I genuinely think that one can reach students who are from the wrong side of the tracks or have other difficulties to overcome. (I do happen to believe a great deal in outreach and in attempting to inspire people.) At the same time, one shouldn't be naive and think that inspiration itself is enough, so it's not like there aren't any relevant implied points in this article.

Update: Thinking about this further, maybe the point of the author is that we should get behind all of our students --- and that is something with which I agree wholeheartedly. I was reading a more insidious message (i.e., not bothering with the difficult cases) into what I thought the author was suggesting, but maybe I was misreading the underlying opinion?

Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine Awarded for Work on the Brain's Navigation System

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine went to a trio for their work on the brain's navigation system. It's also great that neuroscience (and systems neuroscience, no less) was recognized with a Nobel.

A particularly relevant Scholarpedia entry is the one on grid cells (which, along with "place cells", help the brain to determine where it is and where it is going), whose authors --- a team of wife and husband --- comprise two of the three newly-minted Nobel Laureates.

Now about my horrible sense of navigation...

Update (10/10/14): I neglected to post the official announcement.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Here Comes the (Smell of) Rain Again

In case you are curious, here is a very brief primer on the origin of the smell of rain.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A City Named "Boson"

Note to self: the airport to which I want to fly is in the city of "Boston", not "Boson".

My search will probably be more effective now. And the best news of all is that more than one person can occupy that airport at once.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Omar Vizquel and Asymptotic Scaling

I think I just found my new favorite Wikipedia easter egg: "Little o" redirects here. For the baseball player, see Omar Vizquel.


What Happens in Goleta Stays in Goleta

I flew into Santa Barbara yesterday to give a talk called Cascades and Social Influence on Networks at UCSB yesterday. It's been a fun visit!

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Krukow and Kuiper

Giants broadcasters and former Major Leaguers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper are the second-best broadcasting team in Baseball right now. (The only one better is Vin Scully, who is only the best sports broadcaster ever.) I often make it a point to listen to them, and I have frequently chosen to watch Giants games over other non-Dodgers games in order to listen to them. They are excellent, and here is an interesting article about their friendship and about the significant physical challenges that Mike Krukow is facing because of a rare disease.