Archive for October, 2008

On wizard books!

October 30, 2008

A news item that Dawkins is planning to spend his retirement writing children’s books which will compare fairy tale explanations with scientific ones sets John Hawks into penning a nice post:

I disagree with Dawkins’ idea, by the way. I think wizard books (and fantasy generally) convey the idea that the social universe is governed by regular rules, even if a physical universe can have different rules than our own. And the very notion that a physical universe might have different rules gives many opportunities to reflect on the nature of physical laws, which are in many cases hardly obvious to human perception. I think we want scientists to be a little bit anti-rational, to think that there might be organizing principles that they can’t see with their eyes.

Hawks ends the post with the thought

I’m wondering whether we should be scaring children with Dawkins…

I agree!

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Lessons learnt while playing World of Warcraft

October 28, 2008

Alex, in this Insider Higher Ed piece, notices the parallels between raiding and teaching, and on further analysis, reaches some hard to swallow conclusions:

I had always known that raiding is a form of learning. It takes weeks of time and dozens of deaths before a guild-first boss kill, and even more time until a boss is so routinely killable that he is, as we say, “on farm.” But it wasn’t until those Kael attempts that I realized just how similar raiding and teaching are.

A 25-person raid is the same size as a class, and like a class its leader can only take it to places places that it is willing to go. Teaching, like learning to down a boss, is about helping people grow their comfort zone by getting them to spend time outside of it. The question is how to push people so that they will be ready to learn, instead of ready to tear their hair out.

Raiding has taught me that being a good teacher requires laying down strict guidelines while simultaneously demonstrating real care for your students. The stronger the ties of trust and respect between teacher and student, the more weight they will bear. In the past I’ve cringed when my raid leaders cheerfully announced that we would spend the next four hours dying over, and over, and over again to a boss who seemed impossible to defeat. But I’ve trusted them, done my job, and ultimately we have triumphed because they insisted on perseverance. The visiting raid leader who took us through the Kael raid lacked that history with us — he was too much of a stranger to ask us to dig deep and give big.

A willingness to take risks can also be shored up by commitment and drive. Our guest leader drove my guildies nuts, but impressed me with his professionalism. Does this mean that after graduate school even generous doses of sadism seem unremarkable? Perhaps. But it also indicates that I was willing to work hard to see Kael dead, even if it meant catching some flack. For them, it was a game, and when it stopped being fun they lost interest.

What I learned that night was that I believe in the power of fear and humiliation as teaching methods. Obviously, I don’t think they are teaching methods that should be used often, or be at the heart of our pedagogy. But I do think that there are occasions when it is appropriate to let people know that there is no safety net. There are times — not all the time, or most of the time, but occasionally and inevitably — when you have to tell people to shut up and do their job. I’m not happy to discover that I believe this, and in some ways I wish I didn’t. But Warcraft has taught me that I there is a place for “sink or swim” methods in teaching.

Teaching is about empowering students, and Warcraft has taught me that there is a difference between being powerful and feeling powerful. We had a chance to grow as a guild, but in the end we just couldn’t hack it. In the course of all this I learned that I am a person whose believes that there are some things in life too important for us to give up just because achieving them might make us uncomfortable.

Anthropologists love to tell stories of their emotional communion with the people they study. This story ends on a darker note, because what I learned from my attempts to kill Kael’thas Sunstrider was that I was not the same kind of person as my guildies — a fact made even more disconcerting by the fact that we are supposed to be members of the “same” culture. My fieldwork has not taught me to find commonality across cultures, but to see diversity within my own. Playing Warcraft has taught me that I have a dark side when it comes to pedagogy which I wish I didn’t have — I’ve realized that a seam of commitment that surfaced in one place in my biography lies hidden in another. Does this mean my guildies need to care more, or that I need to learn to care less? It’s a question that I try not to ask, because I’m afraid I might not like the answer.

The post also reminded me of the famous Moore method and its unreasonable effectiveness — did fear and humiliation play a role in it too?

Technology and stock markets

October 27, 2008

Paul Graham, in his latest piece:

Technology progresses more or less independently of the stock market.

Graham goes on to argue as to why you should start a startup now, when the economy is bad. Take a look!

On not reading White Tiger

October 27, 2008

Amitava Kumar on the novel (link via Maud):

I find Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive. Here is his description of the migrant Bihari workers returning to their villages after their hard labor in the cities:

A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of flesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.

I have witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seems to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he writes about. I want to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the passage above and recognize how wrong it is, how the appearance of verisimilitude belies the emotional truths of life in Bihar.

Take a look!

Scotch tape, X-rays and all that!

October 25, 2008

In a tour de force of office supply physics, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown that it is possible to produce X-rays by simply unrolling Scotch tape.

Next step: nuclear fusion.

“We’re going to do that,” said Seth J. Putterman, a professor of physics at U.C.L.A. “I think it will work.”

But first, X-rays.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, Dr. Putterman and his colleagues report that surprisingly fierce flows of electrons were unleashed as the tape was unpeeled and its gooey adhesive snapped free of the surface. The electrical currents, in turn, generated strong, short bursts of X-rays — each burst, about a billionth of a second long, contained about 300,000 X-ray photons.

The scientists even demonstrated that the X-rays were bright enough to take an X-ray of a finger.

That does not mean that tape dispensers on office desks are mini X-ray machines. So far, the phenomenon has been observed only when the tape is unpeeled in a vacuum. Something about air — perhaps moisture — short-circuits the X-rays.

From here (Thanks Eddie for sharing the link in Google Reader).

A selected gene is like garlic mustard

October 25, 2008

That is from this post of John Hawks, which has several other interesting things to say too, as the following quote shows:

A selected gene is like garlic mustard. We may say that only a few members of the Roman elite intermarried with Britons. But if a single Roman married a Briton, carrying an advantageous gene, that gene has the chance to grow exponentially. That chance is not a guarantee, any more than a single garlic mustard seed is a guarantee. A single copy of an advantageous gene still has a very high probability of being lost by chance. But selected genes have a much higher chance of spreading than neutral ones. A very slight amount of long-distance gene flow can cause a selected gene to spread vastly faster than diffusion across a population.

Besides that, in this case, the history is incomplete. Roman legions occupied Britain for more than 400 years. Those legions were not only Italian, but included soldiers from across the empire, including in one famous instance thousands of Sarmatians. Sarmatians carried with them genes from the steppes of Central Asia, much farther than Rome. Soldiers were stationed for years, and many left the service and became local merchants, landowners, or minor nobles. They were not celibate. For that matter, neither were the early Latin clergy…

A must-read post. Have fun!

Two really good papers — to get into the circuit!

October 22, 2008

In the modern academic world there tends, in any given field — whether it is international finance, Jane Austen studies, or some branch of endocrinology — to be a “circuit”, the people who get invited to speak at academic conferences, who form a sort of de facto nomenklatura. I used to refer to the circuit in international economics as the “floating crap game”. It’s hard to get onto the circuit — it takes at least two really good papers, one to get noticed and a second to show that the first wasn’t a fluke — but once you are in, the constant round of conferences and invited papers makes it easy to stay in. By the summer of 1980, with five or so really good papers either published or in the pipeline, I was pretty much guaranteed a lifetime place.

Paul Krugman in this very interesting autobiographical piece; take a look!

A gap that never closes

October 22, 2008

Rex delivers some truths — in a post that is worthy of quoting (almost) in full (so, I am going to):

In the video Glass points out that people who are just beginning to write (or do work of any kind, I reckon) experience a gap between what they know is good, and what they are capable of. They can see what quality work is—they have a sense of it and a passion for it that motivates them to create, and yet at the same time they feel that their own capabilities are insufficient to make work that meets their own standards. Glass urges people to develop their skills so that they can close that gap, and he urges them to do it by producing tremendous amounts of material, forcing them to hone their skills through repeated practice. To make people feel better, he emphasizes that he is incredibly successful and has closed the gap, and that it took him years and years to do so, so we should not be freaked out if it takes us a while.

The situation that Glass describes is totally true and I see it in my students—particularly my graduate students—all the time. His tip to work work work is also spot on—Greg Costikyan once told me “you have to throw the first million words away”, which is great advice. And Glass’s willingness to demonstrate that if he can do it then anyone can adds ‘story’ to his argument and makes it more compelling.

I recently began giving Glass’s speech to my students because they find it tremendously reassuring. But then I stopped giving it because I think it is actually a lie. Who in the world actually ever manages to close that gap? In my experience, and the experience of everyone I’ve ever talked to, people’s ability to produce good work develops over time, but so does the scope of their ambitions and the precision of their standards.

A less comforting truth is this: people who do mediocre work have some mixture of low standards, low energy, unambitious goals, and a high opinion of their abilities. People who do good work have high standards, work hard, stay hungry, and are all too aware of what the work demands and what they are capable of. Doing good work, doing it healthily, and over the course of an entire career, is not about closing the gap between taste and achievement, it is about keeping it open, and managing that gap in a healthy and productive way.

I am sure that if we were to actually watch Ira Glass at work we would not see him breezing into the studio, effortlessly tossing out perfectly honed pieces, and then knocking off at eleven for an early lunch, cocktails, and golf. I bet he sweats—a lot. And I bet he loves doing it.

Telling students that it will get better is easy—it makes them feel better, and it makes us feel better to convince others that we are stronger than we really are. But the truth is that the gap between taste and achievement doesn’t go away, the scale on which it operates increases, and the ease with which we manage it lessens. Less comfortable, but the truth—and what students deserve.

Take a look!

Materials Miscellanea: inconsistencies in a series of articles

October 21, 2008

Academic put downs are always su…ch fun; recently, a friend of mine drew my attention to a paper which elevates such put downs to the next level — the paper is an analysis of a series of papers by a specific researcher and his co-workers to describe and discuss all the inconsistencies in them:

Comments on the work by Wei and co-workers on free eutectic and dendritic solidification from undercooled metallic melts

M Li, S Yoda and K Kuribayashi

Inconsistencies throughout a series of articles contributed by Wei and co-workers on free solidification from undercooled metallic melts are pointed out due to their simply grouping the unconstrained dendritic growth models and the constrained eutectic models. Other misconceptions in the use of the dendrite growth model, the estimation of droplet undercooling, the calculation of partition coefficient, and the evaluation of physical properties of alloys are clarified.

That reminded of the following quote of Schwinger (about himself):

Other people publish to show you how to do it, but Julian Schwinger publishes to show you that only he can do it.

I guess you can also publish to show how others can not do it 🙂

On the necessity of blogging

October 20, 2008

I have been telling far too many people these days that they should blog; so, it was good to see Stevey’s (a few years old) post You should write blogs (via):

I’ve talked with a lot of people who are reluctant to write blogs. Everyone offers pretty much the same reasons: they’re too busy, or they’re afraid to put something on “permanent public record”, or they think nobody will read their blog, or they think blogging is narcissistic. Or they’re worried that they either don’t have anything good to say, or they won’t say it very well.

I’m here to tell you that none of these reasons should stop you from writing in your blog. I’ll talk about each of them in turn.

Take a look!