Friday, September 30, 2011

2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

Here are the 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes. By the way, "structured procrastination" (see the literature prize in the link) is exactly what I do to be productive.

Also, in case anybody wants to nominate me for an Ig Nobel, I do kind of hope that this paper will eventually be found deserving of one.

Finally, hopefully this is the year when Michael Berry finally wins his richly deserved Nobel Prize. He would then become the second person to have both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel.

None of the Stereotypes are True!

Quora compiled some of the search statistics of some of the top US schools (Caltech, Stanford, etc.), and they found that there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the stereotypes are even remotely true. Really. I mean it.

I think my favorite part of this is that the kings of sports at Caltech are table tennis and chess! (Go Caltech table tennis!)

(Tip of the cap to Julius Su.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Historically Choking

As baseball fans reading this know, the Red Sox and Braves both completed their epic chokes, and neither of them have made the playoffs. Instead, the Rays and Cardinals are the two Wild Card teams. The Braves choke was pretty epic, but that's only because the Red Sox choke---which was definitely of historical proportions, in the context of baseball---overshadowed them. And just look at how everything changed at the blink of an eye last night. Wow.

One other thing the Red Sox and Braves epic choke did: they pretty much made Matt Kemp's run at the Triple Crown go under the radar. Considering the modern media and that no Major Leaguer has accomplished that feat since 1967 and no National Leaguer has done it since 1937, that's not easy to do.

I'll Take Ergodicity for the Win.

The room in which I'll be discussing statistical mechanics problem sheets this fall has a microscopic whiteboard, which will cause significant problems, but at least it also has poetic justice: The table around which the students will be sitting is shaped like a Bunimovich stadium.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Freshman Seminars at Caltech

Wow. I wish these freshman seminars were offered at Caltech when I was a student there. Some of those look really neat, and that's just the right way to suck freshman in.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Help Save Math in the UK!

EPSRC, the research council that claims to fund mathematics, announced a policy that postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics will henceforth only be given in the fields of statistics and applied probability. Seriously, what the fuck? That's completely asinine---even by EPSRC standards. This will cripple UK mathematics and turn its slow decline into irrelevance into a rapid one. And do you know why? Because most of the best worldwide talent in all but 2 specific fields will go somewhere else, and most of the best UK talent in all but 2 specific fields will leave. Hello? Anybody home? And the UK might want to check what happens to countries who let basic science go by the wayside---the whole country tends to go to Hell with it. Where do you think the technical workforce comes from?

In response, graduate students and postdocs from University of Warwick have started a petition to be sent to the Prime Minister. As you can see from the links on this site, famous mathematicians (and mathematical scientists in related fields) have already started the call to arms. Thus: To arms! If you are a UK grad student or a postdoc, please sign this protest. And if you care about UK mathematics, please pass this protest along.


(Tip of the cap to Mariano Beguerisse Díaz for informing me about the petition.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Today's Google Doodle is Awesome!

Today's Google Doodle is awesome! It honors the late Jim Henson on his 75th birthday. I played around with it a bit, and I managed to get the red monster-muppet on the right to eat the long green stringy muppet next to it. Hilarious! I also got the second one from the left to briefly lose its glasses, which was also pretty amusing.

For reasons I don't understand, connecting to YouTube from Somerville has been abysmally slow lately, but I did something else while the page took forever to load and then I watched this hilarious video. (I wonder if the painfully slow loading of YouTube is a firewall issue?) I'm sure that there are many more of these to come.

(Tip of the cap to Jimmy Lin.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Dodgers and a Dunn

With last night's showing (3 doubles and a homer in 5 at bats), Matt Kemp's quest for the Triple Crown---leading* one of the leagues in batting average, home runs, and RBIs in the same season---suddenly is starting to look possibly realistic. I didn't blog about this earlier primarily because of the big gap in batting average between Kemp and the two people ahead of him, but after last night, Kemp is at .326, Jose Reyes is at .329, and Ryan Braun is at .330. Matt Kemp has 118 runs batted in, which is 5 more than Ryan Howard and 6 more than Prince Fielder. Kemp has 36 home runs, which is second to Albert Pujols's 37. The last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, so Kemp's season has a chance to be historic. Obviously, Kemp is one of the leading Most Value Player award candidates, and I hope he wins it. If the season ended today, I think he would deserve the award---e.g., check out his wins above replacement and compare it to that of everyone else in the National League!. Of course, I expect him to be hurt somewhat in the voting by the Dodgers' place in the standings. (However, I expect that Kemp's run at the Triple Crown will mitigate this significant, so this might well be enough to push him over the top.)

Meanwhile, Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw is also having an awesome season, with an excellent chance to win both the Cy Young award and the Pitching Triple Crown (leading* a league in wins, earned run average, strikeouts in the same season). However, if you clicked on the link above, you'll notice that the Pitching Triple Crown is considerably rarer than the (Hitting) Triple Crown, which is therefore considered the more exciting of the two achievements.

Of course, Matt Kemp is not the only person having a remarkable season. In fact, Matt Kemp's season only has a chance to be historical; Adam Dunn's season is already historically bad, but he has a chance to set a rather dubious record: lowest batting average in a season by somebody with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. The White Sox left him completely out of the lineup for a while, and they were playing him increasing infrequently before than because of his execrable performance (which is rather amazing, given his prior hitting prowess). I think the ChiSox started playing Dun again because they calculated that he wouldn't get enough plate appearances to set that rather dubious record. However, I believe that there is still a way it can work: add imaginary at bats with hits in each one and see if Dunn's average would still set the record once this leads to having enough plate appearances. (Imaginary hitless at bats are added to people without enough plate appearances when it comes to determine who is awarded a batting title in the history books, so there's no reason the analog shouldn't apply in this case as well.)

It basically felt like the Dodgers were already out of it in April---until recently, that's what kind of season it's been. I was pleasantly amazed when we recently made it to .500, so hopefully we'll finish with a winning record. It is possible that Kemp will win the MVP (I hope he does!) and that Kershaw will win the Cy Young (I hope he does!). If I remember the answer to a recent Dodger-broadcast trivia question correctly, only one team in baseball history has had both the MVP and Cy Young winner and not gone to the postseason, and that team won 102 games and lost a 1-game playoff game to determine who would go to the postseason. For a while, it looked like the Dodgers might finish in last place and have both the MVP and Cy Young winners. Thankfully, our final win-loss record will be much better than that, and we still have a chance to make some baseball history.

* Being tied for first in a category is ok, though for batting average, one would of course go to the fourth digit and beyond if necessary.

Update (9/29/11): Matt Kemp didn't win the Triple Crown, but Kershaw got the Pitching Triple Crown. Kemp did end up leading the National League in HRs (39) and RBIs (126), and he also missed entering the 40/40 club (40 HRs and 40 SBs in one season) by just a single homer. It will be a crime if Kemp isn't the MVP. I actually think Roy Halladay deserves the CY Young more than Kershaw---the main reason is that his home park is a favorable to hitters whereas Kershaw's is favorable to pitchers---but I hope that Kershaw wins. If both Kemp and Kershaw win, then the Dodgers will make history (see the discussion above). Oh, and Adam Dunn has managed to have what is literally the worst season in history by a Major League position player. Ouch!

Somerville College and the Immutable Laws of Physics

An e-mail sent today at 3:15 pm included the following statement: I would be grateful if you were able to reply to the Academic Office by noon on Friday, 23 September, if possible.

My response to this was: It will be impossible for us to reply by noon on Friday 23 Sept as you requested below, given that you did not send us this message until several hours after that 'deadline'. Of course, as you did not specify the year, the only way to interpret that would be to imply that we have 1 year less 3 hours to respond, so what deadline do you actually have in mind?

We will, of course, be prompt about this.

Now, this is pretty clearly a simple typo that didn't have the intended 'deadline' or perhaps was an e-mail that originally was going to be sent earlier (for which that deadline would make sense), so this is a rather easy bug to make in an e-mail, and I'm sure that I have done the same thing on several occasions. What is amusing in this context, however, is the phrasing "if possible" in the request. The e-mail sender was referring to the time schedules of people like me---which is why this is a 'deadline' rather than a deadline---but the relative times indicate naturally made me think of physical impossibility rather than ones that have to do with my own schedule. Hence, it is excellent that the fact that the request might not be possible was included, though I'm sure that relativistic effects were probably not part of the equation. Still, the phrasing is uncanny. (Or maybe it's just that I'm easily amused?)

Perhaps it's best to end this by quoting Jerry Seinfeld: Unfortunately the immutable laws of physics contradict the whole premise of your account.

Yesterday's e-mail from a Mathematical Institute colleague about the changing of a schedule because of a "dairy clash" was arguably even more amusing---especially given that I'll actually be talking a bit about cows when it's my turn to speak.

Update: My Ph.D. student Martin Gould has reminded me about this exciting, hot-off-the-presses piece of physics news.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bring back the Caltech Bookstore

Three years ago, my alma mater Caltech decimated its bookstore, which now almost exclusively memorabilia (rather than, e.g., books). It does have some books---including, importantly, this one---but it no longer has the massive selection of academic books that used to make our bookstore a source of pride. As an academic and (especially) as a Caltech alum, I consider it a travesty that we don't have a real bookstore anymore. Frankly, it's embarrassing.

So please consider signing this protest to resuscitate our formerly-lovely bookstore.

R.E.M. Calls It Quits

Well this sucks: R.E.M. announced on their website today that they're calling it quits.

Hopefully, they'll get back together someday.

(Tip of the cap to Myah Evers.)

Googly Eyes

Amazon just sent me an e-mail suggesting that I might be interested in the following items:

* Black & White Wiggly/Wobbly/Googly Eyes 100pk
* Super Bright Wiggle/Wiggly/Wobble Eyes 100pk
* 2 Packs (60 total) Googly Wobbly Stick on Eyes. Art & Crafts
* Sticky Googly Eyes
* 100pk Fluffy Pom-Poms
* 100pk Multi Coloured Pipe Cleaners

Really, Amazon? WTF?

(Now do you believe me that a lot of research still needs to be done on item recommendation systems?)

In case you're interested, here is what the Super Bright Wiggle/Wiggly/Wobble Eyes look like.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vote for Me. :)

I am one of the two candidates to become Secretary (2012-2013) for SIAM's Activity Group on Dynamical Systems. You can find a listing of the candidates for all positions and links to their professional biographies and candidate statements on this web page.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mariano Rivera Sets Saves Record: Arrrrrrrr!

Ahoy, Mateys!

Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, t' best Major League reliever ever, recorded career save number 602, which puts him ahead o' Trevor Hoffman for #1 on t' all-time list. And that doesn't even include his postseason excellence.

And in case you're wonderin' why I be writin' this way, it's because today I be celebratin' one o' t' most important holidays o' t' year.

Avast, ye Scurvy Dogs!

Update (9/20/11): Apparently, the Pirate Party did very well in the Berlin elections on Sunday. Arrrrrr! (Tip of the cap to Karen Daniels.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Professor in the Sweater

I just received an e-mail from my collaborator Peter Mucha with these words: Dude, I think you are now officially the professor in the sweater, not the student. 8-)

And with this link.

Reaction: Ouch, now this one does hit a bit close to home.


My first paper on cow synchronization has now been published in final form.

Title: A Mathematical Model for the Dynamics and Synchronization of Cows

Authors: Jie Sun, Erik M. Bollt, Mason A. Porter, and Marian S. Dawkins

Abstract: We formulate a mathematical model for the daily activities of a cow (eating, lying down, and standing) in terms of a piecewise linear dynamical system. We analyze the properties of this bovine dynamical system representing the single animal and develop an exact integrative form as a discrete-time mapping. We then couple multiple cow "oscillators" together to study synchrony and cooperation in cattle herds. We comment on the relevant biology and discuss extensions of our model. With this abstract approach, we not only investigate equations with interesting dynamics but also develop biological predictions. In particular, our model illustrates that it is possible for cows to synchronize less when the coupling is increased.

Snarkiness with Spelling Mistakes

Here is a website that compiles snarky responses to misspellings on Facebook. Some of the comments are really obnoxious, but they're also really damn funny.

(Tip of the cap to Iain Macmillan.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This one is for all of those programmers out there...

According to this comic strip from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, humans are part of the junk code. Well, maybe.

(Tip of the cap to Greg Fricke.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scala & The Kolacny Brothers

Kevin Hickerson posted this cover version of "Creep" by Scala & The Kolacny Brothers, which is "a Belgian girls' choir, conducted by Stijn Kolacny and arranged and accompanied by Steven Kolacny on the piano." And they performed the proper version --- i.e., the one that uses the word "fuck" --- rather than the censored version I heard dozens of times at Pax 2007. I don't remember having ever heard of this group before, so I looked them up on iTunes, and they have also covered artists like Depeche Mode (3 times!), Nirvana, and even a certain song by The Divinyls. And, believe me, you haven't truly lived until you have heard a children's choir sing "I Touch Myself." This is admittedly a bit disturbing, but these choir versions of those songs are also awesome (and simultaneously also "awesome"), so I bought some of their music. Sweet! Also, I am highly amused.

This is one of the reasons I like Facebook: It makes it easier to find gems like this.

Update (9/16/11): I think this version of "I Touch Myself" is perhaps slightly more disturbing in music video format, and as my cousin Scott points out, the conductor is all kinds of creepy.

Scientist of the Day: Dr. Chew Shit Fun

Nope, I can't make this up: Chew Shit Fun is actually her name. Sometimes it's really awesome when Asian names are spelled out using Western letters (and the English language is employed). The Improbable Research Blog has, for the third time, named her Undersung Scientist of the Month. The blog also calls her "Shit Fun Chew", which in my opinion is not quite as ... er ... fun as "Chew Shit Fun".

A Community-Detection Problem

Take a look at this article on the proposed winners and losers of boundary changes for United Kingdom constituencies.

The following comment appears in the article: New research suggests the Liberal Democrats could lose a quarter of their seats at the next general election before a vote has been cast, under coalition plans to redraw the political map of Britain.

Other projections have suggested the plans would not have such a devastating effect on Nick Clegg's party, but neither would they hand a significant boost to the Conservatives, as many have assumed.

The truth is, nobody really knows.

Hello people: This is a community-detection problem. The data exists*, so one should be able to find the answer pretty easily. Pretending that nobody can possibly have any clue about the answer is woefully naive.

* However, the data might be in a very annoying format, and compiling it to be in a good format might take some non-trivial effort. Maybe somebody has already done that compilation and can have something that is, e.g., Matlab-ready pretty easily?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


With last night's win over the Giants, the Dodgers have made it to .500. Given how poorly we played during the season's first few months, it's pretty amazing that we've gotten to this point. Let's hope that we manage to finish the season with a winning record. That would be awesome! (Let's also hope that Matt Kemp gets the MVP Award and that Clayton Kershaw gets the Cy Young Award.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Quote of the Day: Almost 10-Year Anniversary Edition

My quote of the day is the following: According to Mueller’s calculations, the United States would have had to stop four major bomb plots per day since the war on terror began for the security expenses that have been incurred to be considered cost-effective.

It comes from a very interesting article in The Boston Globe on research inspired by (or changed by) the 9/11 attacks. Free registration is required to read that article.

I found the article via a link on Aaron Clauset's blog entry on the probability of a 9/11-sized terrorist attack.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Another Baseball Blog: "Murph Talks"

I just found out that former Major League Baseball player Dale Murphy has been doing some blogging during the past few months. As the comments section of this entry demonstrates, he seems to be engaging with the fans rather nicely.

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)

Church Advertising

Sometimes the signs in front of churches can be pretty damned funny. I think that some of them might have been written by some of the same people who write scripts for the James Bond movies.

(Tip of the cap to Puck Rombach.)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Headline: Drunken Moose Ends up Stuck in Swedish Apple Tree

According to this news article, a moose got stuck in a tree after eating fermented apples. (Upon later inspection, it turned out to be Charlie Sheen.)

(Tip of the cap to Roussislava Zaharieva.)

What We Should Have Been Taught in High School

Here is The Oatmeal's version of what we should have been taught during senior year in high school. There is a lot of truth here.

And after reading several vivas with tons of elementary English mistakes, I am even more tempted than I might usually be to buy the poster version of 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

(Tip of the cap to Maria Satterwhite.)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Thermal Conductivity of SPAM

Check out Figure 2 of this article, which shows (among other things) a plot of the thermal conductivity of SPAM as a function of temperature. Nice! And it even looks like it might be a power law...

Your institution will need to have a subscription to this journal for you to see the other side of this link, but you can always e-mail me for a copy of the .pdf file if you don't otherwise have access to the paper.

(Tip of the cap to Jing Xu.)

Space Oddity: The Children's Book

Yes, really: David Bowie has recreated the song "Space Oddity" as a children's book.

Stay tuned for the sequel "Ashes to Ashes", in which Major Tom becomes a junkie. That can teach the kids about both drugs and economics.

If anything is both awesome and "awesome", then I think this is definitely it.

(Tip of the cap to Craig Montuori.)

Monday, September 05, 2011

Art Class

I am taking an art class for the first time since high school. The subject is landscaping, and I just got back home from the first session. Thus far, I have produced this. One might call it "art" or one might call it practice.

The class right before the one I am in is one focused on portraits, and it turns out that one of my PhD students is in that class (so we're going to compare notes, as it were).

Oh, and I enjoyed the class today, even though I am not very good at this. I have some idea of what I want to do but---unlike when I am mixing colors on a computer (e.g., with html)---I am finding it difficult to do things in practice even when I know I want to do.

Is Pixar paying attention to science?

Clearly, the folks at Pixar need to read about this scientific study that uses fMRI data to determine what type of car fronts males consider attractive.

Choice quote: Our findings allow the recommendation to give the grille a friendly expression whereas the headlights should rather look aggressive.

Also, I can't help wondering what kind of car Gary Numan would feel safest in?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Stocking Photos

Here are 20 pictures of people trying to recreate stock photos (usually with some amusing additional twists). It's pretty damn funny.

Note that I made the entry title deliberately vague.

(Tip of the cap to Anna Iwaniec Hickerson.)

Best. Street Address. Ever.

"666 North Pleasant St." has got to be one of the best street addresses ever. One of the only ones I like better is "1 Infinite Loop".

Thursday, September 01, 2011

2011 'Dance Your PhD' Contest

Come on: you know you want to do this.

(Tip of the cap to Greg Fricke.)