7 Quick Takes (10/5/12)

7 Quick Takes (10/5/12) October 5, 2012

I was about title this “7 Geeky Takes” and then I thought, “Why is this day different from all other days?”

— 1 —

I have always loved Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I loved him as a kid and I loved him even more when he guested on Numb3rs and turned out to be a terrible actor (which means all his science enthusiasm is totally unfeigned).  So I’m delighted to tell you guys that there’s a great interview with him in Fast Company.  All the bits are my favorite bits, including this anecdote:

And then in January of 1987, we needed six minutes on the comedy show [because a guest cancelled].

I did this bit, “The household uses of liquid nitrogen.” Because we all have liquid nitrogen around. So this was just reminder of some tips. I know normally you use it by fitting up your close-fitting machine parts, by getting one part really cold, but you can also use it for straightening out limp celery. You can slice onions with it, when you hit them with a knife, it’s really satisfying. It sounds like breaking glass. It’s a really striking sound. Striking, ah! Hilarious pun. Now the payoff, what I spent a lot of time doing, is you cook or roast marshmallows in liquid nitrogen and then you chew them and steam comes out of your nose. It’s really good.

And yeah, you can burn your tongue, but we’re artists.

— 2 —

I feel obliged to follow that article with this video from College Humor which imagines Breaking Bad with Bill Nye as the protagonist:


— 3 —

Want more people to carry the exuberant geekiness torch?  Vi Hart has a youtube channel of engaging math chats, and below is her introduction to hexaflexagons.


— 4 —

And in more good news, Eliezer Yudkowsky has started a new sequence on Less Wrong.  It’s titled Highly Advanced Epistemology 101 for Beginners and the two installments are up: The Useful Idea of Truth and Skill: The Map is not the Territory. Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

Skill 1: The conceivability of being wrong.

In the story, Gilbert Gosseyn is most liable to be reminded of this proverb when some belief is uncertain; “Your belief in that does not make it so.” It might sound basic, but this is where some of the earliest rationalist training starts – making the jump from living in a world where the sky just is blue, the grass just is green, and people from the Other Political Party just are possessed by demonic spirits of pure evil, to a world where it’s possible that reality is going to be different from these beliefs and come back and surprise you. You might assign low probability to that in the grass-is-green case, but in a world where there’s a territory separate from the map it is at least conceivable that reality turns out to disagree with you. There are people who could stand to rehearse this, maybe by visualizing themselves with a thought bubble, first in a world like X, then in a world like not-X, in cases where they are tempted to entirely neglect the possibility that they might be wrong. “He hates me!” and other beliefs about other people’s motives seems to be a domain in which “I believe that he hates me” or “I hypothesize that he hates me” might work a lot better.

Probabilistic reasoning is also a remedy for similar reasons: Implicit in a 75% probability of X is a 25% probability of not-X, so you’re hopefully automatically considering more than one world. Assigning a probability also inherently reminds you that you’re occupying an epistemic state, since only beliefs can be probabilistic, while reality itself is either one way or another.

— 5 —

Foreign Policy ran an interview this week with Naval analyst Chris Weuve about the plausibility of various space warships and tactics (with a particular focus on Battlestar Galactica:

FP: You seem particularly concerned about the “aircraft carrier in space” concept.

CW: I don’t think “concerned” is the right word. Let’s call it amused. Aircraft carriers are a particularly good model to illustrate how the differences between the ocean and the air really drive how naval combat works, and hence don’t work so well when converted to space. An aircraft carrier is built around three things: the flight deck, which functions as the airplanes’ doorway between the sea and the sky, and also the parking lot for the airplanes; the hangar deck, where essential aircraft maintenance is carried out; and the propulsion spaces, because you really want that flight deck to be moving fast to generate wind over the deck, which in turn makes it easier to land and take off. Everything about the “airport” aspects of an aircraft carrier point towards making it big: big engines, and big flight deck that is also elevated away from the turbulence of the ocean surface. So, since you need a big ship anyway, we decide to put a lot of planes on, plus extra fuel, command and control facilities, a hospital, a post office, and so on. You name it, an aircraft carrier has it.

But in space, you don’t need that doorway between the sea and the sky, because your “fighter” is operating in the same medium as the mothership. You don’t need a flight deck. You just need a hatch, or maybe just a clamp that attaches the fighter to the hull if you don’t mind leaving it outside. You don’t need the big engines or the big elevated flight deck. And hence it doesn’t make nearly so much sense to put all of your eggs in one basket. There might still be some efficiencies in grouping them together, but the fighters are probably more analogous to helicopters rather than F-18s. Almost every ship in the U.S. Navy carries a helicopter, or at least could temporarily.

— 6 —

Information is Beautiful has had its first annual awards ceremony.  I think my favorite is Notabilia’s interactive visualization on Wikipedia arguments for deleting threads.  Click to see it.


— 7 —

Most of this has been Yay Science! geekiness, so let’s close out on Yay Humanities!  The Atlantic has been doing a series on how to teach writing, and my favorite installment is “The Writing Revolution” which follows one school’s attempt to go back to basics and make sure the students understand the structure and logic of language.

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”



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  • That which can be destroyed by the truth should be

    This struck me because we have a “should” being asserted by someone who believes is logic and data. Where does he get it from. In the paper he does a proof by example and just shows that embracing truth will often be the right thing from a pain and pleasure point of view. Leaving aside whether pain and pleasure is paramount, it is far from clear that this will always be the case. If a man has cheated on his wife and is pretty sure his wife will leave him if he tells her. That truth can means a lot of pain. How can we be sure that the pleasure he gets will out-weigh it? We can’t. So the “should” needs to come from somewhere other than pain and pleasure. There needs to be something virtuous about truth-telling.

    Atheists typically value truth a lot. That is good. But is that value subject to the map/territory skepticism?

    Anyway, the series seems pretty basic but it might have a lot of good content as it goes on. I did take a couple of courses in philosophy but that and history are the subjects I wish I had taken more of when I was in college.

  • deiseach

    And now I want to get my hands on some liquid nitrogen for slicing onions, because I love the sound of breaking glass!

    (Anyone else old and decrepit enough to remember the Nick Lowe song? Never mind the Beatles’ “Glass Onion”, which also sprang to mind!)

  • I just started homeschooling this year and we’re Bill Nye junkies. I know a lot of Christian homeschoolers avoid him because he’s a hardcore evolutionist, but the subject rarely comes up in the videos we’ve used.

    • leahlibresco

      Magic Schoolbus, too, I hope!

      • My kids love Magic School Bus. Maybe we need to find some Bill Nye YouTubes. Evolution is really not an issue because we are Catholic.

      • Sort of on the topic of education. I am in the process of helping my oldest daughter pick a university. I ran into this:


        I wonder what your take is on post secondary education, moral development and what would you do if your daughter was in grade 12 right now.

  • Ben

    That writing article was amazing – I had this big gap in my head between knowing how to read and write simply and not, and it never occurred to me that someone might be able to read but not really *think*, or at least no idea how to communicate because they didn’t know how to use “although.” Shocking.

    • deiseach

      I was saddened by that article, though I did have a laugh at (what seems to be) the obligatory Taught By Nuns reference.

      Back in Sixth Class, I hated the grammar lessons when Sr. Josephine would write sentences on the blackboard and make us parse them, but by cracky, it has stood to me. Definitely children need the basics; how can you raise a house if you don’t have a solid foundation?

      What is actually depressing is not that the children don’t know these things, but that it is necessary to point out to educators that you can’t make bricks without straw.

  • Ted Seeber

    I was disappointed in #2- I wanted it to be the discussion between the protagonist and the buyer on why his meth was blue (my favorite episode of Breaking Bad was, of course, the CHEMISTRY- which is why I stopped watching that show at the end of the first season).

    Oh, and on #5- that’s another reason why I loved Babylon 5 in comparison to Star Trek, or Star Wars. I can understand a universe where you group smaller ships into a larger ship to gain hyperspace capability. I cannot understand a universe where the ships fighting in normal space don’t move in Newtonian Physics or are always right side up.

    The average “aircraft carrier”, at least from the Earther fleet in B-5, was little more than a framework of engines and clamps holding a bunch of star furies.

  • Libby

    Of course your quick takes are posted on Fridays… the easiest day of the week to become utterly distracted at work!

  • Regarding #7: We see the effects of this grading papers in first-year English. There’s a consistent problem with the use of sentences like, “While Hamlet was procrastinating.” It does seem like students have no idea what a complex sentence is (or, really, what a sentence is).
    However, I wonder how the article’s student papers were written? Was it by hand under timed conditions? If so, it’s possible that the student’s idea of the sentence shifted during the writing. While the student was writing “Although,” she was planning a complex sentence, but while she was finishing the first clause, she forgot about the second clause. That’s a problem with the type of testing; in-class writing is popular, but it is not very representative of the student’s abilities.
    Anyway, I sometimes feel like higher education programs should compile lists of the problems they see and then send them to high schools, who should read those lists and address the numerous and obvious problems revealed therein. These problems should not be getting out of high school, but they do.

    • Matt R

      The article hit the problems I’ve seen among my peers as a student spot on.
      My sophomore teacher hated my use of semi-colons (6 or 7 in a 3.5-4 page paper) so I stopped using them as much and broke up my sentences. Then I got to International Baccalaureate English as a junior, and we were encouraged to write compound-complex sentences; my junior-year teacher was frustrated that most of the class didn’t know the grammatical concepts necessary to write these sentences. It also irked him that the sophomore-year teacher didn’t teach grammar and work to improve our writing, and my IB English teacher was frustrated to no end that my sophomore-year teacher never challenged us to look deeper into specific literary devices in the pieces we read. Of course, that would also improve our writing, because we could then discuss certain elements in detail such as diction, syntax, and imagery; the requirements of the IB syllabus meant that we needed longer sentences or else the rhetorical analysis would just fall flat, so it’s a good thing I had my teachers in the order I had them. I love looking for the one simple sentence I used in a paper, and sometimes I don’t even have that.
      In-class writing at my school is done once during the grading period (six times a year) to prepare for the IB and AP exams. I agree that it is not always representative of the student’s abilities, because the best critical thinkers can struggle with a piece and then turn in a poor essay (though sometimes the teacher gives a harder piece, to really challenge us, so that the exam is easier). But, if the students are doing well with reading and composing essays at home, then on-demand writing in class should not be too bad.
      Junior year is the time to fix the problems, though it would be nice if teachers prepared students better for advanced English as a junior. More grammar instruction is probably all that it takes, because students will be able to apply the concepts they already know, look at them in the pieces read in class, and then use them in their own writing.

    • deiseach

      A lot of the problems don’t stem from high school but are carried over from primary school. You get twelve year olds starting who are behind their peers on literacy and numeracy, and then it’s a constant tail-chase to get them up to standard while not holding the rest back in class as they progress.

      Unfortunately, a lot of them never do catch up that lost ground for various reasons: teachers haven’t time and support to catch the kids up with the rest of the class, they fall further behind, they lose what little interest they had and are disruptive in class which leads to a vicious circle of teachers spending more time keeping the peace than teaching (or sending the kids out of class to sit in the discipline room unsupervised) which means they lose further ground.

      On the other hand you alarm me, Christian, if you say that by the time they have the first half of the sentence written down, the kids may have forgotten what they intended to say in the second. I’ve never had the greatest attention span, but I could have managed to hold in my head the sentence “Although I dislike shellfish, I will sometimes eat prawns if they are included in a dish such as a paella” long enough to write it all down.

      • “On the other hand you alarm me, Christian, if you say that by the time they have the first half of the sentence written down, the kids may have forgotten what they intended to say in the second.”
        It is somewhat alarming, yes, but I notice that I sometimes make this kind of error as well. However, when you re-read your sentences after writing them, it becomes easier to fix such errors. Students don’t always do this. I think the forgetting comes in part from students starting to write before they have planned out what the entire sentence will look like when finished. And I think it comes in part from the terror some people experience during in-class examinations. It is for these reasons that it does not seem too strange to me.

  • This semester for the first time in years I’m back in the classroom as a student, taking a class in early modern fantasy just for fun. It’s an undergraduate-level course but almost everyone is a senior, meaning they’ve had four years of college-level work, and most of them are English majors, meaning they’ve had several years of writing and reading practice. When the professor wants to emphasize or discuss a particular passage during class, she often asks a student to read it aloud and I’ve been saddened at the results. They get the words right most of the time, but many of them read mechanically, as though one word has nothing to do with the next, and without any emotion or interpretation. They might as well be reading MapQuest directions.

    Granted that some of these are difficult texts (Spenser’s The Faerie Queen has some of the most fiendishly complicated sentences ever, not to mention its archaic language and spelling), but still, you’d expect senior English majors to have a little more skill in interpreting a compound sentence and reading it in such as way as to bring out that meaning. Their lack of the simple ability to read aloud in a lively manner (by which I mean, a manner that shows they understand what they are saying) is rather depressing.

  • jenesaispas

    I used to love origami! 😀
    It’s a massive shame that we as English speakers tend not to know a verb from an adjective (I know I can’t talk my punctuation is awful), because it makes learning other languages easier. But then we don’t need to do that because everyone speaks English *groans*.

    Here’s a good sciency channel:

  • Darren

    Re Space Combat

    My favorite “Real Physics” space combat depiction is in Verner Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep”.
    It is a small part of the story, but great in its detailed adherence to the novels physics engine.

    Given FTL drives and a limited form of FTL sensing (roughly limited to sensing ‘subspace’ ripples from moving FTL ships, but little more) but _not_ any type of FTL weaponry. Starship combat boils down to fleets of FTL ships lobbing massed swarms of FTL equiped really-big H-bombs at each other, each drone equiped with an FTL proximity fuse. The idea being to get a drone out in front of an enemy ship, so that upon detonation the ship has to fly through the expanding shell of x-rays and is destroyed.