Friday, February 24, 2012

Wish I'd thought of that... Wait, I DID!

Whenever I'm in an airplane, I look through the SkyMall catalogue. It's always an interesting mix of great ideas, snake oil, and raw consumerism.

An ad for image mosaics caught my eye. You can see an online version here.

Basically, they created a mosaic of Lincoln using political campaign buttons. What a great idea! I wish I'd thought of that!
Image mosaic of Lincoln
Close-up reveals that it's made of buttons.
Oh wait, I DID have that idea. Or, more accurately, Craig Kaplan and I did.

It's from our 2008 NPAR paper.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I frequently get e-mails from students asking if I'll supervise them for a master's or Ph.D. degree. A letter I received a few days ago includes this text:
Whether do  i need to have GRE and TOFEL even i already had bachelor degree from USA and the coming master degree?
The acronym TOEFL (not TOFEL) stands for "Test of English as a Foreign Language".

A grad-student's command of the English language is a very important consideration. A word of advice. Make sure your cover letter isn't peppered with grammar mistakes.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Your 3-Pound Thinking Machine

I'll be talking about your brain.

Though it might be hard for you to accept, your mind is the result of neurons firing in your brain. It's called and the computational theory of mind. Understanding how this electrical activity relates to your mind is largely a computer-science problem.

This lecture is designed to be comprehensible by anyone and everyone... no equations.
    Wed. Feb. 22
    7:00 - 8:00 pm
    Reception 8:00 - 9:00 pm
    Room 1006, Mathematics 3 (M3 on map)
    University of Waterloo

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Congrats to gays and lesbians in California!

I'm happy to report that today (Feb. 7, 2012) a federal appeals court overturned California's Proposition 8, thus reinstating the rights of same-sex couples to be legally married. The ruling made it clear that
Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently.
It continues to say that "There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted." And gets even more direct,
All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of 'marriage,' which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships.  Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.
Well said. Do I hear wedding bells?

Conservative MP wants to create false dichotomy

CBC News reports that the Member of Parliament for the Kitchener Centre riding, Stephen Woodworth, wants to know when life begins.

It's probably no surprise that Woodworth is in the Conservative party, noted for their anti-abortion stance.

Woodworth brings up a good point... that we already have a 400 year old definition of when someone becomes a human. From his press release, "The important question is whether this 400 year old Canadian law is supported by 21st century medical science and principles of human rights." I agree. The definition should be looked at, and then tossed away.

So, what's wrong with trying to determine the instance when life begins?

The problem is that it's a false dichotomy. The terms "life" or "alive" are used to label categories of things that usually exhibit certain properties: reproduce, consume resources. But there isn't any scientifically defensible definition for life. After all, we're all just bundles of atoms moving around. For example, if a person is blown to bits by a bomb, their cells will continue to live for a time in clumps strewn on the ground. Is that person dead or alive? Neither... it's a false dichotomy.

This definition (or lack thereof) for life might strike you as shocking. But it's the same for the term "species"; we have no bullet-proof definition. The widely used "population of organisms that can interbreed" seems okay, until you find two populations that CAN interbreed, but don't because they're too far apart. So, many define a species as a geographically localized population of organisms that can interbreed. In the end, though, the word "species" is just a label to help us categorized what we see. Just a word. It does not carry the fundamental cleaving of reality that most people think.
Life is the same way. It's not an all-or-none phenomenon.

The logical snags of the question even show up in Woodworth's own words, "Is it a correct principle for a Canadian law to designate anyone who actually is a human being as a non-human?" Huh?!

In the end, trying to paste a starting-line on when life begins is - at best - a value judgement, and - more probably - an attempt to make an end-run around science and install good'ol religious fundamentalist values into Canadian's lives, whether they like it or not.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Have you met Linda?

Here's an interesting factoid you probably didn't know about yourself. Let me introduce you to Linda.
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?
  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Go ahead, pick one.

If you're like most people, you picked the second one. However, that's not correct. Why? Answer this similar question.
Consider of a room containing 100 people.

How many of those people are:
  1. bank tellers?
  2. bank tellers who are also active in the feminist movement?
Which set of people is larger? Of course, option one contains all bank tellers, both feminist and non-feminist.

This is an example of the conjunction fallacy, in which people answer the probability question by instead thinking of plausibility. But when you're asked the same question in terms of concrete numbers (instead of percentages), you are more likely to answer correctly.

I got this from Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.