Monday, March 11, 2013

MoAR #10: not five articles, but five sections.

maybe i should spend less time on the internet .. because it's getting harder to keep my word. as you may recall from the first roundup, i promised that i'd only share the top 5 articles in any given week.

well, this week there are considerably more than that .. but if this were more like a newspaper, then they do fit neatly into five different sections, each with at least three articles.

oh well;
today being a monday, you didn't expect to get any work done, right? (-:

the Technology pages:
collective search for research, and how computers see.

odd: it seems that the best implementations of machine vision do not involve making the machine able to see well .. but instead, making it good at remembering what it (or its predecessors) have seen before.
"The latest work on the Kinect uses the same sort of machine-learning approach to distinguish between an open hand and a clenched fist. Although there are no details, its general method was to use a large number of images of people's hands and supervised training to distinguish between open and closed hands. The learning algorithm is based on a forests of decision trees, which is the same general method used to implement the skeleton tracking."

~ from "Kinect Can Detect Clenched Fist" @i-programmer
so in some ways, it's not really "vision" .. but computers taking advantage of what things should look like (instead of what they "really are" .. whatever that means).

going another direction, computers and networks do have a knack for putting things together at a scale of complexity that is otherwise hard for mere humans to fathom, much less detect.
"Enter search engines. Much like Google Flu Trends reveals influenza outbreaks by tracking flu-related search terms, search queries about drug combinations and possible side effects—say, "paroxetine," "pravastatin," and "hyperglycemia"—might enable researchers to identify unanticipated downsides to medications, says bioinformatics researcher Nigam Shah of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "If a lot of people are concerned about a symptom, that in itself is valuable information."

Although many bad reactions to drugs never get reported to doctors, people talk about what's bothering them all the time on a casual basis to their friends or online, notes computational biologist Nicholas Tatonetti of Columbia University, who was also involved with the study. "They don't really know," he says. "They're just reporting on their symptoms, which is just a normal thing that humans love to do.""

~ from "Should You Mix Those Two Drugs? Ask Dr. Google" @sciencenow
lastly, part of why i support the open source movement is its independence.  it is a not a corporation dictating the terms of service to you (though that happens often in other situations).  it is about people building software and solutions for other people.  the profit incentive does drive innovation .. but being ultimately economical in nature, it has its limitations: if it is not cost-effective and/or profitable, then corporations won't touch it ..

.. even if society has a need for it.  enter, then, the hackers: corporations may be efficient in what they do, but what they do does cover everything a society needs.

this isn't their fault, either: it's an issue of their self-preservation;
sometimes the people must take the impetus to help themselves.
"... the pharmaceutical industry isn't interested in paying for compute time—or any sort of research at all—on many rare and not-so-rare diseases, simply because the potential financial payoff for finding a drug is so low. While researchers working for universities, disease advocacy groups, and other nonprofit organizations have found thousands of target proteins for rare and "neglected" or "orphaned" diseases such as malaria, they have not had the resources to use software such as TerraDiscoveries' to look for good drug candidates.

That's where the Quantum Cures effort comes in. TerraDiscoveries is providing its software for free to the organization and is repackaging it for use on individual Windows, Mac OS, and Linux PCs as "screen saver" software. The software, which will be available starting in June for download, installs with user-level permissions and will allow individuals to set how much of their compute time is made available. Husick said that a version for Android and Apple's iOS will follow later in the year, allowing individuals to donate time on their mobile devices."

~ from "Crowdsourcing the cloud to find cures for rare and “orphaned” diseases" @arstechnica

the Tabloid pages:
a scandal, an accusation, and a ~100year old op-ed

my mind is split about this first article. on one hand, students should expect to be treated fairly.  on the other hand, if you're going to be taught by a world-class researcher, then you can't possibly expect to be given your professor's full 100% attention.  these are men and women who are not formally trained in pedagogy, but through training and experience have among the sharpest minds in science and letters.

there are plenty of small, liberal arts colleges full of faculty who are concerned only with education and the well-being of students.  if a student really wanted this kind of experience, then why wouldn't they go there, instead?

at any rate, the tone of this writer suggests that harvard students will do enough, but not more.  in that sense, they are clever and efficient young people.  i would have thought, however, that they would be suspect that they are more intellectually driven that that and more than mere mercenaries .. but not being present on their campus, the educational climate remains a mystery to me. [1]
"“The modal Harvard student takes their courses as seriously as they think the instructor is taking the course,” says Lewis, now Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science. “Situations in which you get multiple cases of breach of academic integrity [are] where there is a general consensus or a general feeling in the student body that the instructor is somehow behaving dishonorably, or unfairly, or bizarrely in some way that is contrary to Harvard students’ general expectation that if they’re going to have to work hard, the professor should damn well seem to be working hard too.”"

~ from "The Fall of Academics at Harvard" @thecrimson
taking a different turn, one point that i think many people overlook is that philosophy isn't supposed to be science.  historically, science is the successor to the so-called "natural philosophy" of the 18th and 19th centuries, made systematic through quantitative and repeatable methods.
"If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate."

~ from "Was Wittgenstein Right?" @nyt:opinionator
philosophy is different.  its generality is astounding in that it encompasses science, mathematics, art, and the social sciences.  by its nature it is therefore messy.  you have to deal not only with atoms and/or mitochondria .. but with humans and not only their observable and measurable behavior, but their wants and desires and inclinations .. however irrational.

the critics of philosophy are also ignorant of another point: time scales and evolution.

the body of knowledge that is relevant to philosophy has only increased with time. in the late 19th century, for example, the very human discipline of sociology was born. in the last 15-20 years, there has also been a systematic study of the psychology of motivation; referring only to what little populist books and articles i've read, motivation is a highly non-intuitive phenomenon that hardly fits perfectly with, say, first-order symbolic logic.

think of it this way: if you can't trust economics to make consistent, unequivocal predictions .. then why are you insisting that something of a more general framework be even more precise, especially when it becomes more general with time? we already have a well-established discipline called science, so why are you trying to insist that philosophy narrow down to one of its subcategories?

lastly, here's an excerpt from chesterton:
"To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide. But, passing over the bad logic and bad philosophy in the phrase, we may take it, as these writers do, in the ordinary sense of success in obtaining money or worldly position. These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation—how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker."

~ from "The Fallacy of Success" by g.k.chesterton.
the tone of this almost sound fatalist, but he makes a good point.  as the quote goes: "the world is all that is the case."  to figure out causality is quite hard .. assuming that there is even a clear causality in a given situation.  how would one discount the possibility that a colleague's success was not, say, due purely to luck?

highlight on Education: on- or off-campus?

simply put, perhaps education should not refer to what, but how.
"Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of "time served" to a model of "stuff learned." Because increasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know. And therefore it will not pay for a C+ in chemistry, just because your state college considers that a passing grade and was willing to give you a diploma that says so. We're moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency -- in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class -- and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency."

~ from "The Professor's Big Stage" @nyt
as for the actual logistics of education: i'm all for the e-book revolution, as long as it means that students have more access to resources.  there's a catch, though: what if you need the internet to do your homework, but you have no internet?
"The e-textbooks used in the project, run by the Fairfax County Public Schools, worked only when students were online—and some features required fast connections. But it turns out that even in such a well-heeled region, many students did not have broadband access at home and were unable to do their homework, sparking complaints from parents that led the school system to approve the purchase of $2-million in printed textbooks for those who preferred a hard copy."

~ from "'Bandwidth Divide' Could Bar Some People From Online Learning" @the_chronicle
lastly, having spent more than a year in finland and spent an extended work trip to spain, the economic advantages to staying with family and attending the local university are becoming more apparent to me.  i'm all for independence and self-realisation .. but not every parent is the helicopter sort.  as long as the university is good enough, why spend additional precious resources just to move away?
"That approach might also help address one of the most serious potential objections to the idea of killing off our current aid system: that it could accidentally make school more expensive for some of the poorest families. The reality is that tuition is not the biggest expense for most full-time undergrads at public colleges: It's cost of living. After all the other aid low-income students receive, Pell Grants and tax breaks often end up paying for their meals and rent. But if colleges continued charging at least some tuition for wealthier students, the money could be cycled back into living expense grants for the neediest"

~ from "How Washington Could Make College Tuition Free (Without Spending a Penny More on Education)" @the_atlantic
in fact, i wonder if the family environment would make a good, stabilising effect.  college is fundamentally different from high school, with all kinds of new aspects of life and learning.  why not keep intact something comfortable from your previous stage of life, then?

the Feature pages:
celebrating int'l women's day

i can't tell whether (a) there have always been women in science, but just unreported due to the societal mores of the time, or (b) women were that effectively blocked from those areas of study and work. (it's probably both.)

little by little, i think mathematics is paying homage to the great female mathematicians, after centuries of acknowledging men only; of those whom come to mind, i remember  kovalevskaya, ladyzhenskaya and uraltseva, noether, uhlenbeck, and daubechies. my hope is that the next generation achieves even more greatness.

as for some lesser known female researchers ..
"Cartwright herself was always somewhat diffident when asked to assess the lasting importance of her war work. She and Littlewood had provided a scientific explanation for some peculiar features of the behaviour of radio waves, but they did not in the end supply the answer in time. They simply succeeded in directing the engineers' attention away from faulty equipment towards practical ways of compensating for the electrical "noise" - or erratic fluctuations - being produced."

~ from "A Point of View: Mary, queen of maths" @bbcnews
"Up until this point Hopper had worked on punch card programming, but with the move she now began to program in C-10, which required her to learn octal, the base-8 number system. But it wasn't a great solution and she wanted to simplify the programming system.To this end, in 1952 she invented the first compiler, A-0, which translated mathematical symbols into machine code, and updated the system with A-1 and A-2 the following year. "Nobody believed that," she said. "I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.""

~ from "On International Woman's Day we remember Grace Hopper" @theregister
"Lamarr realized that by transmitting radio signals along rapidly changing, or "hopping," frequencies, American radio-guided weapons would be far more resilient to detection and jamming. The sequence of frequencies would be known by both the transmitter and receiver ahead of time, but to the German detectors their message would seem like gibberish. "No jammer could detect it, no German code-breaker could decipher a completely random code" .."

~ from "Hedy Lamarr: Not just a pretty face" @sciam
to explain, lamarr was in fact a pretty face: she was a hollywood movie star who decided, in her spare time, to work on signal processing.  (having seen a few of her films, i can testify that she is a terrific actress.)

man: beauty and brains!

the Science section
progress and its discontents.

what i want to know is: if there are three bodies in the system, how many parameters are there, and why would they combine into 16?
"Specific repeating solutions have been hard to come by, however. The famed mathematicians Joseph-Louis Lagrange and Leonhard Euler had come up with some in the 18th century, but it wasn't until the 1970s, with a little help from modern computing, that U.S. mathematician Roger Broucke and French astronomer Michel Hénon discovered more. Until now, specific solutions could be sorted into just three families: the Lagrange-Euler family, the Broucke-Hénon family, and the figure-eight family, the last of which was discovered in 1993 by physicist Cristopher Moore at the Santa Fe Institute.

The discovery of 13 new families, made by physicists Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinović at the University of Belgrade, brings the new total to 16. "The results are beautiful, and beautifully presented," says Richard Montgomery, a mathematician at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved with the discovery."

~ from "Physicists Discover a Whopping 13 New Solutions to Three-Body Problem" @sciencenow
let me get this straight: as a community, you achieve the predicted goals from a generation ago .. and you're still not happy?  ye gods: what more could you possibly want?
"In the (unlikely) event that the particle doesn’t have a spin of zero, physics would be turned on its head! It would be a revolution — the universe that we thought we knew and understood is weirder than our weirdest dreams! In case you haven’t already guessed, this scenario excites physicists, a lot.

The current scenario (that’s looking most likely) would prove the existence of a particle theorized in the 1960s, thereby tying up the Standard Model of physics in a pretty, neat, red quantum bow. This is decidedly boring in comparison. What’s worse, of all the possible theorized Higgs species, what if the most “vanilla” option is proven to be correct?
And there you have a strange juxtaposition — a profound discovery that’s also an anticlimax."

~ from "Higgs-Hatin': 'Vanilla' Boson May Be Real" @discovery
you know what's even more inaccessible than physics?  maths!
"The language of physics is mathematics, and it cannot be done honestly without mathematics. That makes it inaccessible. The language of literature is English or Chinese or whatever, and that makes it accessible. And literature is about the human condition. Physics is about the nonhuman condition. It's not a taste that all human beings have."

~ from "Can Physics Experiments Catch Up?" (an Interview) @slate

[1] rereading the earlier version of this paragraph, it occurred to me that the article didn't ever indicate the nature of the course and its organisation .. or lack thereof. i still maintain that a good student (and imagine that harvard should be full of them) would rise to the challenge of accepting their own responsibility for their education, by picking up the organisational slack.

on the other hand, this reminds me of my early years in a ph.d. program, with weekly problem sets due on various days of the week. there is a difference, though: the faculty encouraged collaboration, as long as you wrote up your own solutions and, in some cases, referenced with which students you worked. in point of fact, i was once "cited" in a problem set from a course that i wasn't even taking!

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