7 Quick Takes (5/24/13)

— 1 —

I have excellent friends who know me very well.  How do I know?  This week, one of them sent me this video with the subject line: “For your prosthetic limbs beat.”

— 2 —

Presumably he sent it because I’m the kind of person who kept a NYT article on reawakening nerves to give better control over prostheses in my Quick Takes file for six months looking for a chance to slot it in.

The complexity of the upper limbs, though, is just part of the problem. While prosthetic leg technology has advanced rapidly in the past decade, prosthetic arms have been slow to catch up. Many amputees still use body-powered hooks. And the most common electronic arms, pioneered by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, have improved with lighter materials and microprocessors but are still difficult to control.

Upper limb amputees must also cope with the critical loss of sensation. Touch — the ability to differentiate baby skin from sandpaper or to calibrate between gripping a hammer and clasping a hand — no longer exists.

For all those reasons, nearly half of upper limb amputees choose not to use prostheses, functioning instead with one good arm. By contrast, almost all lower limb amputees use prosthetic legs.

— 3 —

Also sitting in that file was an article on Oscar Pistoris making a complaint that an opponent had used non-regulation prosthetics to win a race back in the Paralympics.  Quoth Andy Miah:

If Oliveira’s prosthetic legs are bigger and better and legal, then Pistorius really ought to get some. If his body height precludes this and the only reason why Alan Fonteles Oliveira has longer blades is that he is taller, then Pistorius has been beaten by a more biologically privileged athlete. However, there might be an argument to divide athletes by height as well as disability – and this is something I’ve argued should be applied not just to Paralympic sport, but also the Olympics. In the same way that we separate athletes in weight divisions, height also has a huge impact on likely achievements

…The deeper issue underpinning this debate is what counts as a legitimate human within either Olympic and Paralympic sport. This is why the fall of Oscar Pistorius is more important than the fall of any other athlete before him, even Lance Armstrong. This is because Pistorius symbolizes the rise of the cyborg and the demise of the natural human. If his loss yesterday was fair, two conclusions are possible. Either, there are more like him coming and this will spark a tidal wave of change within Olympic and Paralympic sport, but, more broadly, in how society perceives ability. If his loss was unfair, then we may ask whether it is ok to transcend the normal human body and change people in a way that bears no resemblance to species typical norms.

— 4 —

Well, perhaps that’s enough of an unusual, niche hobbyhorse for the day.  Shall I switch topics?  How about a nifty feature on Shinichi Mochizuki’s possible proof of the ABC conjecture?   [No math background needed to enjoy it].

Today, the math community faces a conundrum: the proof to a very important conjecture hangs in the air, yet nobody will touch it….This foundational stone is one that mathematicians are proud of. The community works together; they are not cut-throat or competitive. Colleagues check each other’s work, spending hours upon hours verifying that a peer got it right. This behavior is not just altruistic, but also necessary: unlike in medical science, where you know you’re right if the patient is cured, or in engineering, where the rocket either launches or it doesn’t, theoretical math, better known as “pure” math, has no physical, visible standard. It is entirely based on logic. To know you’re right means you need someone else, preferably many other people, to walk in your footsteps and confirm that every step was made on solid ground. A proof in a vacuum is no proof at all.

Even an incorrect proof is better than no proof, because if the ideas are novel, they may still be useful for other problems, or inspire another mathematician to figure out the right answer. So the most pressing question isn’t whether or not Mochizuki is right — the more important question is, will the math community fulfill their promise, step up to the plate and read the papers?

— 5 —

I’m in a lovely, spirit of mathematics mood, since I saw my fifth production of Arcadia this week.  In one of the many excellent quotes, the tutor Septimus Hodge tells his pupil Thomasina not to mourn the Library of Alexandria:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

At a different point in the play, a lit professor in the present day agrees with Septimus that all scientific truths will reemerge, but he finds that property distateful:

A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

— 6 —

And let me introduce you to one more thing from mathematics — this time from game theory.  A Schelling point is a solution that players in a game with no communication will choose, confident that their partner will match.  For example, if you knew you were meeting a friend in New York City, but hadn’t specified where or when, where would you turn up?  Most people all give the same answer: gur pybpx va Tenaq Prageny Fgngvba ng abba.

Turns out a good assumption about where to find me is the opening night of any production of Arcadia, as three friends found me in the balcony at the show.

— 7 —

Oh, and finally, over at the CFAR blog, I have two more posts up about the survey of rationality habits.  First, a discussion of ways to welcome bad news, so you don’t cut yourself off from data.

Welcoming bad news as data can also help you have better, more honest relationships with friends and coworkers. If you thank people for information, even if it’s not the data you hoped for, you won’t be training your friends to present you with a skewed picture of the world. That doesn’t mean you have to cover up your instinctive disappointment, or pretend it isn’t there. Just remember that being upset about the way the world is is different from being upset about knowing that fact. And you need to know to be able to make a change.

There’s also a post up on the benefits of asking for and generating examples.  I gave a personal example of giving examples to clear up confusion in the piece:

When I was talking to a friend about college classes that had made a big impact on me, I told him that taking Linear Algebra Theory had really improved my writing. He was confused, so he asked me for an example, and I explained that working through proofs each week and spending a couple hours mentally moving matrices had made it a lot easier to fall into the same mental pattern when writing essays and move arguments around in the paper. Before, it had been harder to keep the entire structure of a writing assignment in my head at once.

And finally, we’re taking applications for a one-day workshop on June 1st; a beta test for other, shorter workshops.


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  • tedseeber

    BTW, as your articles in quick take 7 reminded me, I have to thank you. It went over like a lead balloon on the internet, but you’re the one who introduced me to the Litany of Tarski, which led eventually to me writing a chaplet for the Rosary specifically to address the problems Catholics with Atheist Family members have:


    • Zach

      I don’t think the litany of Tarski makes sense for a funeral. Funerals, for an athiest, are about remembering the deceased’s life and the memories you share with them, as well as expressing sadness at their death and comforting others who knew them. The litany of Tarski seems a bit dry and emotionless for that.

      Reciting the same thing over and over on each bead is alien to most athiests too and they might find it boring and unnatural.

      If you want to know what athiest funerals might look like you could try googling ‘humanist funerals’.

      ht tp://humanist.org.uk/billyjenkins/a-typical-humanist-funeral/

    • tedseeber

      I was going for the “gather up the family for the reading of the will” style, with a Catholic twist for the Catholic family members.

      Usually when you have a mixed family between Catholics and Atheists, one group or the other are converts. If you have enough generations of Catholics to actually do a novena at all, the atheist family members will NOT find it totally alien, or even boring and unnatural (though If you notice I did throw in a few bones- the decade meditations include Clarke’s Law and Rationalism).

      I wasn’t going for a full funeral rite- that is usually done separately from the novena anyway- the novena is usually held at home 9 days preceding or following the funeral. It is roughly analogous to the Jewish custom of Shiva.

      For those who can’t follow Zach’s link, here’s the corrected version:

      Though this one would be more appropriate to the topic of mixed Catholic/humanist funerals:

  • Cam

    5: “Discuss amongst yourselves.”

    Aye aye!

    Well, there’s a thousand things wrong with what the lit professor has to say about scientific knowledge- where to start! One of them is that knowledge even from the fields of cosmology or astrophysics has day-to-day application: because we know that meteorites were disinterested rocks orbiting the sun, rather than missiles hurled by an ill-tempered storm god, we can skip spending twenty minutes each day praying for meteroite-free skies, which is at least an economically more efficient allocation of our time.

    Having said that, you Catholics still like, do exorcisms. So “screw science let’s just believe what makes us happy” works well for you guys I guess? And if you also reject anything from the fields of physics and cosmology that can’t be made to fit with Revelations or Genesis, the lit professor would probably be right at home in the Pontiff’s Palace?

    • I think that without context something in the second Arcadia quotation is lost. Specifically, Bernard, the lit professor, is 1) angry about the amount of glory that the sciences get in comparison to the humanities and 2) contemptuous and probably nervous about a second character’s interest in quantitative methods being used to do things that Bernard would take to be the purview of the humanities (ie. authenticating a text). So his rant is emotionally-driven and therefore isn’t necessarily something he wholly agrees with: a third character, who has a crush on Bernard, is upset because it sounds like Bernard “doesn’t believe in penicillin,” but the second character assures her that Bernard does believe in penicillin and he’s just being a jerk (for which he’s well known). But I would say that Bernard demonstrates a persistent disdain for the sciences as uninteresting which the other lit professor in the play does not demonstrate and which you (Cam) demonstrate is a little foolish, or at least not as generalizable as Bernard may like.

      That being said, Bernard’s oblique claim in the quoted section that art has to be timely but science could happen at any time is something that I think the play takes a little more seriously than Bernard’s anti-science rhetoric, not least because Septimus disagrees with that claim in the first excerpt that Leah quoted: “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.” And I think Septimus is at least as enormously wrong about art’s recovery as Bernard is about science’s value: if Sophocles’s plays were re-written in a different time period and/or language, they would be different plays. (I’ve plugged this before and I will always plug it again: everyone please read the short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges. Also, if possible, for the sheer pleasure of it, read everything Borges has written. Penguin has some excellent editions.) The much wider play does show how much a person’s scientific/academic discoveries depend on the person’s personality and circumstances; I would say that the play at least encourages the audience to ask how much discovery depends on contingent matters, even if it doesn’t offer a clear answer to the question.

  • Vogon

    ‘Ancient cures for diseases will turn up once again’

    Well, they might- I saw on TV that the ancient Eygptians supposedly used mouldy bread on wounds, many years before the discovery of penicillin – but the loss of that knowledge has consequences. Thousands of people have died because they didn’t have the knowledge we do now about dieases, what causes them and how to prevent them. No-one’s going to die if we lose the complete works of Shakespeare, except maybe from boredom.

    The basic assumption behind science is that experiments are repeatable, so in that sense the character is correct. If we forgot how gravity worked, eventually someone, somewhere, would start dropping things and wondering why they didn’t float. If all knowledge of evolution disappeared, eventually someone would find fossils and start dating them and notice the gradual changes or do genetic studies of animals and work out how they can be grouped into related clusters. But it might take a long long time and I think that science is a product of it’s time and place as well as literature. A lot of things had to happen for Darwin to work things out. There had to be methods of travel across the globe fast enough that species from everywhere could be brought back and catalouged. Someone else had to work on the age of the Earth. In that sense science, like literature, builds on what has gone before. ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ as I think it was Einstein said. So, if the knowledge was lost, there’s no guarantee humans could get it back. The necessary circumstances might never again arise. But the knowledge would be ‘out there’ in the universe for people to find.

    I disagree that any philosopher is an ‘urgent need’. Philosophy is a luxury. Most people can and do get by without it. Clean water, food, shelter, medicine: those are our urgent needs. It’s science that does the best job of fullfilling them. It’s science that increased crop yields and made filtration systems and cured diseases. That doesn’tr necessarily have to do with ‘the speed of light’ but engineering is applied physics and engineering gets things don’t.

    Of course it’s good to have poets and philosophers as well. It makes life more pleasant, more entertaining. Can we recapture a poem if it’s lost? I’m not sure we ever get the exact words and rhythm back, but ideas do tend to reoccur, because we’re human and the business of being human has some similarities down the centuries and across cultures.

  • grok87

    I just love the ABC conjecture. I hope it’s true!

  • Jenesaispas2

    Great quick takes, thanks.