Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How Do They Do It?

The latest from Quirkology:

I have my own theory, but I don't want to spoil the thinking for anyone. Leave your ideas in the comments!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Simply FOBulous

Friday night's AstroMovie was Simply FOBulous, sponsored by a graduate student whose boyfriend is on of the Also Starrings in the independently made film. The movie is about the oldest daughter in a Vietnamese-American Seattle family which is pressuring her into marrying a nice Vietnamese boy. The solution is a mail-order husband from Vietnam who she doesn't really want to marry. He arrives in the US seemingly Fresh Off the Boat (or FOB) and naive. Hilarity ensues as various people try to teach the new arrivee about life in America.

While there are parts that scream "low budget!"and many of the characters are strongly stereotyped, Simply FOBulous is simply hilarious. There were lines that many of us didn't catch because we were still laughing from the previous exchange. You can support independent film by buying the DVD, which was just relseased last Tuesday.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Philosophia Naturalis #12

So I decided a while back that in doing Philosophia Naturalis #12, I was going to have a really awesome theme, but I haven't been able to come up with a good one. At first, I was thinking I'd do a magic or Harry Potter themed post, and indeed there have been several reports in the blagosphere about the science behind Harry Potter. Anne-Marie at Pondering Pikaia has tackled such issues as the botany of wands, the genetics of wizardry, and other such biological quandries. Or, if you're like me and much more worried about things like energy and momentum in your fantasy stories and movies, Blake at Science after Sunclipse will remind you exactly which aspects of physics need to be ignored (or simply to become more, ah, flexible) in order to actually enjoy, say, the X-Men. But even though I'm going to be picking my copy of Book 7 up from the local Barnes and Noble at midnight Friday night, I'm really not enough of a fangirl (and, indeed, all of the hype is getting rather annoying, though the geeking is rather fun) to allow this analogy to go much further.

With Brian May of Queen finally getting his PhD (and giving a few talks along the way), I considered doing some sort of rockstar themed post, but really, there isn't much else there.

The adventure role-playing game theme can be applied to most anything. You could be a skepchick doing research out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, forced to send blog updates in via a co-blogger (such as parts one, two, three, four, five, aaaaand six ... and while you're over there, you might as well vote in the Mr. Wizard video competition). But then, as you're going along, minding your own business as you try to steal a shopping cart, you're thwarted! Blake Stacey at Science after Sunclipse has the story.

Or, not. And this is where I remember that, oh yeah, I actually find themed blog carnival posts mildly annoying because they're usually really difficult to read. I just want a nice list of blog posts, with perhaps a few words of description for each.

Alright, that's it for this month; I hope you've found something to enjoy and keep you busy while everyone else is reading Harry Potter 7 multiple times this weekend. PN #13 will be held at Cocktail Party Physics on August 16.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blended iPhone for Sale

For those of you who haven't seen it:

And, yes, the remains are for sale, currently going for $1126 with more than three days left on the auction. It comes with a "Will it blend?" DVD, a t-shirt, and one of their blenders. (By the way, if you've got that much to blow on such a "used" iPhone, then would you please just give me the money instead? I've got some student loans that could use a good knock in the teeth.)

Man, that's a nice blender.

UPDATE: Oh my god I am so awesome I EMBEDDED A VIDEO ....

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What is Math?

Apparently, math is within the purview of the Phiolosophia Naturalis blog carnival (*nudge, poke*, suggest articles!), which has got me thinking again of a discussion I had a couple of months ago with a group of MIT alum I didn't know very well. One of the guys in the group was trying to promote the view that math is a science, but the scientists at the table didn't like this idea very much. There are actually three distinct questions at play here. At the most fundamental level, what does "mathematics" mean and encompass, how do we approach and go about learning and discovering math, and how should math be marketed so as to not scare people away from it?

So, is math a science? Webster defines "mathematics" as "the science of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions and of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations." But any real mathematician (except perhaps a number theorist?) would be quick to say that mathematics is about mere numbers. Keith Devlin claims that mathematics is "the science of patterns." I grimaced when I first heard this proposed definition, in part because it shifts the definition from "mathematics" to "science" and "patterns." I think what sets math and science apart is a certain degree of allowed imagination: for example, it is possible to create a self-consistent theory in which gravity goes like r-3 instead of like r-2, and the only problem with this theory would be that it doesn't describe the world we actually live in. One has to go and look at our universe to realize this, however. With math, however, one can theoretically sit in a closed room with a good brain and an endless supply for paper and pencils and derive and prove all of math—in math, something either is or is not true, and there is no way to even self-consistently describe the stuff that isn't true. That is, math is, at its core, universal truth.

From a marketing perspective, though, would it be better to treat math as a science? If the idea is that "numbers are scary" but "patterns are fun," then treating math like something to be explored and investigated instead of memorized might help fewer people get turned off by it. Such an educational approach, however, is the kind that is expensive and difficult to test the results of... though an approach that teaches how there are patterns in the multiplication table rather than insistance on memorization might have benefits. I can't really speak to this, however, since I've never been an educator, and moreso, I can't imagine what it's like to not grasp elementary level math as intuitive.

I had a friend who majored in the "philosophy of math" at Harvard. He said they didn't do math; they thought about doing math. When people actually "do math," i.e., prove new theorems and such, I think the process is rather scientific. You have some idea, a "hypothesis" perhaps, and you start with your assumptions and poke around until you prove or disprove the idea, or decide it's too difficult and the idea needs simplification. Science has a lot of trying new things to see what kinds of results can be produced; in this functional way, perhaps math is much more like an experimental science than a theoretical one, but where the "data" are trains of logical thought rather than measured values.

Of course, there are those who claim that math is a construct of the human mind, and, of course, we have no way of disproving this theory until we can communicate with other species. So you behavioral biologists and neuroscientists better get working on that.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Announcement of Philosophia Naturalis #12

I'll be hosting Philosophia Naturalis #12 right here at a geocentric view on Thursday, July 19. Philosophia Naturalis is a blog carnival for the physical sciences. If you'd like to suggest an article, you can email me at pn12@mit.edu or leave a comment here. The carnival webpage also offers a more detailed explanation on what kind of articles we're apparently looking for, as well as a few other ways you can suggest a post. I'd like for submissions to be in by the night of Tuesday, July 17 so I can have at least a little time to organize my thoughts. Anything since June 20 is fair game.

And, yes, I did use a mailto link up there. I'm not sure I approve, but you should email me anyhow, unless you're a spambot.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

ActBlue: Daniel Biss or Kakistocracy?

For those of you wondering this Independence Day what you can do to "get more blue states," I'd like to direct you over to ActBlue, "the online clearinghouse for Democratic action." The idea is that, through the ActBlue website, you can find out who the Democratic candidates are for given elections, and also through the ActBlue website, you can donate money to these campaigns. (They even have a blog if you'd like to get some up-to-date statistics.) Through ActBlue, you can learn about such candidates as Daniel Biss, who is a (very cool) University of Chicago math professor running for the Illinois House in District 17—he's also someone you can actually believe when he says his top priority is education, and that he thinks everyone should exercise their right to vote, regardless of their political leanings. Or, if you like to get entertainment value out of your donation money, you can donate to Maine's Hancock County Democratic Party by purchasing a Kakistocracy bumper sticker. (For those of you in need of a vocabulary lesson, a kakistocracy is a "government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.")

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Miracles and Missions

Last Tuesday morning I went with my family to the groundbreaking for the new "community center" at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). I've mentioned DJJ on here before; my dad is heavily involved with volunteer efforts out there, and apparently he was building coordinator for this multi-million entirely-donated dollar effort. The idea behind the community center is that, compared to once they re-enter the real world, it's relatively easy to get an incarcerated kid back on track while they are still behind bars. But in the real world, normal high schools—let alone colleges—don't want these kids in their halls. It's harder to get a job, to become a fully functioning member of society... and so they slip back into old habits. If I understand it correctly, the idea behind the community center, which is being built for cost on the DJJ campus, is to serve as a place where kids can become more integrated into the community before their release date. I can't keep track of how many years have been spent on this project to get it this far, and I have only the vaguest sense of how much effort and work it has taken. As such, I was completely taken aback when speaker after speaker at the little ceremony talked about how this is "a miracle from God." Seriously? It's one thing if you don't give yourself any credit for all of your hard work, but what about your coworkers and those who have donated money? Wouldn't a true miracle have been having this building just show up five years ago so that it could have benefited all the kids who have gone through DJJ during that time? I understand that these people think that God works miracles through people—I don't understand why they think this, but I understand that they do—but wouldn't it be a more positive message to send to people trying to put their lives back together before they've barely started that if you work really hard for something you can achieve it, rather than saying if you work really hard for something, that's nice and all, but it's not your accomplishment in any case?

So then Tuesday afternoon, the girl I was best friends with growing up got into town, and I got to hang out with her for the rest of the day. (Our parents lived two houses apart since I was five.) In July, she's off to Nicaragua for three years to teach at a school for children of missionaries. She'll be making barely enough to live off of, and since the school doesn't have a large influx of money (the kids have to pay tuition, but you can imagine how much spare money missionaries have in the first place), they want for the teachers to donate a good chunk of their salary back to the school. The solution? "Stateside" support, i.e., have your church, friends, and family back home "donate" money for you to live off of for three years. While I am worried about some aspects of this venture, I do think it will be a good experience for her, especially since she wants travel and adventure and has been trying to get a job teaching elementary school for the last year and a half. But this whole thing has gotten me thinking a lot about mission work; Nicaragua is an officially Roman Catholic country, but more and more people are becoming protestant. Why a christian country needs missionaries is a little bit beyond me, but over lunch on Tuesday, my uncle was explaining to me how his kids have been involved in mission projects in Mexico. These projects are to build a house for a family in a short time frame, free of cost. In the meantime, the kids get to learn about poverty, form a bond amongst themselves, and learn the personal benefit of helping others—all good things independent of any religious motivation. (Again, Mexico is extremely Catholic ... why would they need evangelizing to?) It seems that Chad over at Uncertain Principles has been thinking along these same lines this past week (see here and here, and be sure to read the comments): are there any atheist/non-religious charity organizations that provide both this kind of charitable work and such an enriching experience for the people involved? Values and religion are not the same thing, of course, and it is important for children—regardless of the religion or lack thereof of their parents—to learn values (whatever that might mean) and the importance of hard work and the power of people in action instead of praying that some god is going to miraculously fix the world in his own sweet time.