Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is It Irony?

I've started another blog Is It Irony. I've been called pedantic for many things, and my obsession with the correct (possibly prescriptive, a dirty word) usage of it. Early musings have led me to some interesting insights into why exactly people use irony to describe something, whether it is because they are uncomfortable, scared, or just plain surprised, it has nothing to do irony, it has to do with our misperceptions about the world. Perhaps the use of irony is cognitive dissonance in action, or maybe I read too deeply into subtle phenomena. Either way, it is interesting to me, and I'll try to update it once a week or so.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Great Unknown Scientists #1

John Von Neumann was an influential mathematician and physicist in a wide variety of fields, basically all the ones I'm interested. To quote Wikipedia, he
made major contributions to a vast range of fields[1] including set theory, functional analysis, quantum mechanics, ergodic theory, continuous geometry, economics and game theory, computer science, numerical analysis, hydrodynamics (of explosions), and statistics,
Truly, a staggering amount of fields. His 1944 work, with Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior , basically founded what we call game theory. Game theory is truly everything. Sports, poker, evolution, economics, warfare, it describes everything we do, and is truly one of the most powerful theories of modern society. He contributed heavily to the Manhattan Project, and his genius added greatly to it.

Have you heard of a computer? Probably, since you're reading this. What you might not know is that your processor is almost certainly based on the Von Neumann architecture . He also contributed to the development on the Monte Carlo method, the idea that random algorithms could provide performance without complicated ideas being needed. Finally, Knuth credits him as the creator of the Merge sort, which is not as impressive as say, Quick Sort, but it was 15 years before, and as far as I can tell, the first sorting algorithm with O(n*lg(n)), and almost certainly the first to be implemented. To a computer scientists, this is incredible.

He was also know for his personality and wit.
He once reported one of his many car accidents in this way: "I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path.

Finally, one of my favorite stories ever, possibly apocryphal , is
two bicyclists start twenty miles apart and head toward each other, each going at a steady rate of 10 m.p.h. At the same time a fly that travels at a steady 15 m.p.h. starts from the front wheel of the southbound bicycle and flies to the front wheel of the northbound one, then turns around and flies to the front wheel of the southbound one again, and continues in this manner till he is crushed between the two front wheels. Question: what total distance did the fly cover? The slow way to find the answer is to calculate what distance the fly covers on the first, northbound, leg of the trip, then on the second, southbound, leg, then on the third, etc., etc., and, finally, to sum the infinite series so obtained. The quick way is to observe that the bicycles meet exactly one hour after their start, so that the fly had just an hour for his travels; the answer must therefore be 15 miles. When the question was put to von Neumann, he solved it in an instant, and thereby disappointed the questioner: "Oh, you must have heard the trick before!" "What trick?" asked von Neumann; "all I did was sum the infinite series."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Great Unknown Scientists

Everyone knows about Einstein , Newton, and Galileo. You've heard of Marie Curie, and you probably know about her husband Pierre, but did you know her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law, Frederic Joliot-Curie. The Joliot-Curies, with their oddly progressive names, won a joint Nobel prize in 1935 for chemistry. Everyone knows about Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Archimedes, but do they know about Galen, Epicurus, or Aristarchus? We all know about Oppenheimer, Fermi, and the role they played in the Manhattan project, but what about Leo Szilard? Who really invented the computer, and why is there such a large overlap with the previous question? You know of Charles Darwin, but what about Alfred Russel Wallace? And why does "Russel" only have L in it? Everybody knows Thomas Edison, but rarely mention Nikola Tesla, there's more to him than coils, you know.

This will be an ongoing series of posts (hopefully once a week) about the great scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers that my public education either skipped or glossed over. Many of them will be of particular importance to computers, my field, but who are not well known outside computer science curriculum, like Alan Turing. Others will be mathematicians, like Paul Erdos. Chances are, unless you studied a lot of math, particularly combinatorics, you'll never have heard of Paul Erdos, despite the fact he is the most prolific mathematician, ever.

I'm going to profile these scientists, their lives, their work, why they are important, and why they aren't household names. My goal is to profile at least one scientist a week. I'm starting with a list of a dozen or so, partly taken from the above, and hopefully as I write these, I'll come across other scientists who deserve to be better known.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Largest Beef Recall in History

The USDA is ordering the largest beef recall in history. As sad a day this is for beefism (my fake religion), this story is a little more disturbing.

The tape, made secretly by a slaughterhouse worker and provided to the Humane Society of the United States, showed electric shocks and high-intensity water sprays administered to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own,

That's right, they electrocuted the cows, and they WATERBOARDED them.

Gun Violence

With all of the recent gun violence hitting close to home, I'm forced to reexamine my feelings on gun control. I lived in Tinley Park, where 6 women were killed in a robbery last week, and I have friends who go to NIU, where a gunman killed 6 people and then himself. The shooter was enrolled at my alma mater, the University of Illinois .

I strongly support the first amendment. I've often said that without freedom of speech, a tyrant like Stalin or Hilter could take over and stay in power, because no one could oppose him. Freedom of press is the same, without reporters able to shed light on what the government is doing, people won't know they need to protest, leading to the next freedom, of assembly. A lone madman can do a lot of damage, but can't overthrow a dictator. Freedom of religion is actually similar. People need to be able to think for themselves, to discuss their ideas with others, and disseminate these opinions to the public, and religious dogma prevents this from happening (look at Saudi Arabia). Essentially, the first amendment is protecting free thought.

Now we come to the second amendment. I've at times been vehemently pro and against gun ownership. Recently I've settled into a, need more control, but still allowing people to own firearms position. If the first amendment does its job, and people realize the government is doing wrong, but don't have any weapons, then nothing could be done. Imagine the Revolutionary War if the Minutemen didn't have any muskets. Furthermore, I know that those who would give up temporary security for temporary liberty deserve neither. And I can't suddenly shift my feelings on gun control when a shooting happens close to home.

There will always be mentally unstable people. If we simply let them wander around with access to guns, bad things will continue to happen. However, we can't start locking up people who have signs of mental instability, since at some level, we all do. And we can't take away all access to firearms either. So we are left with a middle ground. To enjoy the freedom we do, we must be willing to risk losing lives. However, helping teachers notice signs of mental illness, and improving gun control regulation can help, while still allowing us our freedoms.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

This post is particularly apropos seeing as today is Darwin Day .

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's excellent non-fiction work Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors , which doesn't seem to have a wikipedia page, so either I or one of my readers will have to create one. This book is about the creation of the stars and universe, as well as evolution, and particularly, evolution of higher order behavior, social structure, culture, sexual behavior, especially amongst our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos. The science is a bit out of date, however the ideas are still revolutionary. Sagan presents with such a clear view his ideas on how we got here, and briefly touches on what this might mean to where we are going, as a culture and a species. A must read for any fan of Sagan or evolution.

On a personal note, I have now read almost every Sagan work of popular non-fiction. All that's left is to borrow Kirsten Dunst's copy of "The Varieties of Scientific Experience"

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sad post from an American Hero

I recently read about Major Andrew Olmsted, who was sadly killed in Iraq. I warn anyone who might read this that it will make you sad, and might even make you cry. It was to be posted in the event of his death, which occurred at the beginning of the year.

His Final Blog Post .

In between quotes from tv shows and movies that influenced him, including our shared favorite show, Babylon 5, and my favorite movie, The Princess Bride, he shared a profound understanding of humanity, what it means to be here, where we're going, and what we can do to get there. I never knew him when he was alive, and I wish I had been reading his blog since it started. He chose to go back to the army, knowing he would be sent to Iraq. He requested his death not be made political, for either side, which is commendable to the utmost degree. He speaks truth in a manner that is rare in today's world.

He closes his message to this world with moving, beautiful words to his wife.

"I will see you again, in the place where no shadows fall."
Ambassador Delenn, Babylon 5

I don't know if there is an afterlife; I tend to doubt it, to be perfectly honest. But if there is any way possible, Amanda, then I will live up to Delenn's words, somehow, some way. I love you.

It is hard to read his post and not want to be a better person, a better friend, a better family member. It is hard not to want to make something out of our lives, and to mean something when we die.