Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Anything You Can Safely Bury in Your Backyard"

Today I finally noticed Stanford's guidelines for what you should compost: "Anything you can safely bury in your backyard"

Well, I don't know about you, but my mind has just gone in very bad directions...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Visualization of a Career

Here is a very cool (and rather intricate) visualization of the outcomes of Derek Jeter's plate appearances throughout his career. (The data comes from the usual sources, and the graphics are by a company called Chartball. I might well want to buy a poster from them about my team, my favorite players, or something else interesting.)


I think I just literally experienced the sharpest, most intense physical pain that I have ever had in my entire life (and my fingers were once slammed in a car door, so that's saying a lot).

I was walking merrily along to get a smoothie for lunch, and some insect stung me horribly in my right pinkie right in the bottom spot where I bend it. The stinger went all the way through and poked another (smaller) hole through the skin farther up my finger.

I ending up apologizing profusely for my salty language to the two nice ladies who stopped their walking to ask me what was wrong.

That was close to 30 minutes ago, and my hand is still shaking a bit (and I can't make a firm fist, and it really shakes when I force myself to make a fist). And it still hurts like Hell, though not as intensely as during the heated moment. The pain is very slowly dulling.

I hope that insect dies a slow, painful death (maybe nailing me was its last act of defiance?), and then I hope it gets experimented on. I know biologists --- I could make this happen.

I have been stung before --- on the bottom of my foot, even --- and it was nowhere near as painful as this time.

As some of you know, I have a history dating back to not just my Caltech days but all the way to Beverly Hills. (I never did get stung by one of the Caltech hornets, even though they harassed me a lot.)

My smoothie was well-earned.

In conclusion: Ouch. And Fuck.

Quantum Espresso

I am on the mailing list for The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, and I recently received an e-mail from that advertises an upcoming conference with a very compelling acronym (ESPRESSO).

Here is an excerpt from the e-mail: In collaboration with the Quantum ESPRESSO Foundation and CECAM, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy, is organizing an Advanced Quantum-ESPRESSO Developers' Training Workshop to be held in Trieste from 19 to 30 January 2015.

What, so classical espresso is no longer good enough?

Academics Write Like Crap

Well, at least most of us write like crap for our academic writing. Additionally, most of us don't include humor in our scientific articles either.

I do the best I can to buck this trend, though others will be the judge of how well I do. I certainly attempt to put humor in some of my writing, and quite a few of my papers (e.g., this one) contain easter eggs. I do think that I am a good writer, and at minimum I am definitely very anal about my scholarly prose.

Although I don't agree with everything in the article about what we do that is bad --- for example, I think the paragraph with "The rest of this article is organized as follows." is genuinely useful for many readers, especially if the article is long --- but I agree with a lot of it. Also, I can't overemphasize how much my scientific career has benefited from my experience in journalism at Caltech. (Yes, being a Tech Editor has been amazingly beneficial. It's one of the best and most important things I did for my education.)

(Tip of the cap to Carlos Castillo Chavez.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Even More Average Than Before?

Former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler offered some astute analysis about the Giants' playoff chances: "The loss of Pagan makes an already league average offense more average."

In related news, I subtracted 0 from 0, and I still have 0.

Note: Pagan's injury is a very big loss. Kapler had a sensible point in mind, but the way he phrased it is "fantastic".

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Smell of Old Books (and of New Video Game Systems)

Have you ever noticed the smell of old books? One researcher described it as follows: a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.

On a similar note, I also have always noticed a distinctive smell when I get a new video game system. Yummy!

Headline: Sudden Execution Causes Extinction of Matrix Products

Here is a quote from a paper I finished reading this morning: "We first execute the last matrix product..."

Well, damn. Now I guess matrix products have become extinct. Cruel bastards.

Induction and Birthday Parties

Well, this is a very depressing way to apply induction.

I find this SMBC perversely amusing, though I have been in this kind of situation before and it's not fun.

Friday, September 26, 2014

More Retiring Baseball Players

Recently, I blogged about Adam Dunn's likely retirement. Understandably, Derek Jeter's retirement tour has gotten most of the major headlines --- and deservedly so. And as much as I can't stand the Yankees (and sometimes get annoyed by all of the jeterating), Jeter deserves immense respect, will make the Hall of Fame in a first-ballot landslide, and I love it that his last game at Yankee stadium had a storybook ending. I'm also not surprised that the The Onion has had a series of articles during the last week poking fun at Jeter. (They have a history of doing that, like the time that I discussed in this blog entry.) I also want to bring up Paul Konerko, who has also has had an excellent career. (When Konerko was a prospect, the Dodgers traded him for Jeff Shaw. Sigh.)

Well Done, Onion: Infernal Edition

I somehow missed this article that The Onion published last year as a satire of homosexual people being condemned to eternity in Hell. This has apparently done wonders for the lifestyle down there.

Four-Sided Polygons: Basically a Rehash of Triangles

I really like today's SMBC about a website in which you can post reviews on anything.

My favorite is one of the reviews of 'four-sided polygons': meh. basically a rehash of triangle.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How The West Was Won

The Dodgers beat the Giants tonight and are now officially National League West champions for 2014!! Tonight we were led once again by Clayton Kershaw, who right now is the best pitcher on the planet.

Go Dodgers!!!!

Spectral Graph Theory: Cover Art

Here is my new cover art for the field of spectral graph theory. (I couldn't wait until Halloween to make this picture.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Laboratory Safety Dance

The guy who gave me the key to my office wanted me to undergo a minicourse in lab safety, but thankfully I was able to talk my way out of it. (This is one of the perils of sitting in a biology department.)

Fun Fact: When I was a frosh... I broke so many things in the digital electronics lab that the department changed the policy after me so that future students had to pay for what they broke. I had a collection of the broken items taped to my door in Lloyd House.


Weird Al and Weird Mason

I have pretty much the same hair as Weird Al Yankovic. Just sayin...

Monday, September 22, 2014

"Big Data" is a Religion

As far as I can see, "Big Data" seems more like a religion than anything else.

I like "Good Data" (which is far from the same thing) and "Good Models" (which can, e.g., include parameters fitted from data). I feel like I have a chance to actually understand things that way.

Data analysis definitely has its place and I certainly also have my moments when I do data analysis (see some of my papers), but data is far from everything. In short, I have ambiguous feelings about "Big Data".

Anyway, data analytics is an approach, and I use it sometimes, but there are also many other approaches that one should pursue to try to understand phenomena and solve problems.

By the way, I first posted the picture to which I link above in this blog entry, I ranted a bit about it in this blog entry, and I talked about a Small Data project at ECCS in 2013. (That work I described in that talk has subsequently been published in PNAS.)

The Random Walker Rankings are Back!

The random walker rankings are back for 2014!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Live Action Paper Mario in the Best Western?

The Best Western breakfast room in a small American town provides an interesting cross section of the population.

If this were a Paper Mario game, I would start querying them to check if any of them had seen Luigi.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Buffalo Beholders and Other Fantasy Football Teams

Here are some very cool fantasy football t-shirts that 'put the fantasy back in fantasy football'. I especially like the Buffalo Beholders, and some of the other ones are also really cool.

(Tip of the cap to Greg Stolerman.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

"I Deserve a Fucking Cookie."

I had a long and tiring flight and then a rather ornery cab driver (and, of course, the website that estimated the taxi fare was off by a factor of about 2.5).

At least the hotel's reception has complimentary cookies at the front desk --- so to quote one of my esteemed Oxford colleagues, "I deserve a fucking cookie."

Humorous Grammar Lessons

Yes, indeed.

(Tip of the cap to Jennifer Nicoll Victor.)

Have I Gotten Stuck in a Mirror Universe?

I think I might have accidentally entered a mirror universe: a store that was a Starbucks just a few days ago has now turned into something else.

Surely that is one of the strongest signs that one has ended up in a mirror world?

(This needs to be used in the beginning of a sci-fi story.)

2014 Ig Nobel Prizes

The 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded last night.

The clear winner among this year's awards is the Economics prize, whose citation is as follows: ISTAT — the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

I also really like the prizes in Physics, Neuroscience, and Biology. (As concerns the Pyschology Prize, maybe I should point out that I am a night owl...?)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Rescheduling my November 31st Talk

I just realized that I committed to give a talk on November 31st, which was subsequently confirmed by the host institution. I think I'm going to have to reschedule...

(Yup, the day still doesn't exist. I guess that explains why the November 31st slot was still available?)

I think that this was quite an achievement in "awesomeness", even by my lofty standards.

"(Then again, it may not.)"

One of the new papers on the arXiv today has an abstract that ends with the following sentence: "The work may shed light on the possible properties of different ensembles of mixed systems."

Whenever I see a sentence like that to end an abstract, I automatically think about the implicit "(Then again, it may not.)" sentence that naturally follows as the next sentence.

Update (9/19/14): This also applies to sentences that end conclusions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2014 MacArthur "Genius" Awards

The 2014 MacArthur Fellows (i.e., the so-called "genius awards") have just been announced.

And I am super excited about them this year, because my coauthor Dani Bassett is one of the recipients! It is, unsurprisingly, richly deserved. (At age 32, she is also the youngest of this year's Fellows.) The work in which I was involved is cited among her major contributions --- especially this paper and several follow-ups. Major congratulations to Dani!

A couple of mathematicians are also among this year's winners, and of course that always makes me happy. (Among the mathematicians, it is particularly cool that Yitang Zhang won because of his career path.)

53 Colorized Historical Photographs

Many of these colorized historical photographs are way cool.

(Tip of the cap to David Blau.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pictures from Göttingen

Here are some pictures that I took during today's excursion from the conference.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Happens in Göttingen Stays in Göttingen

I am now traveling to Göttingen for a workshop in ecology and "networks on networks". The program, which was sent to participants yesterday, makes it looks much more like a conference than a workshop.

Academic Rookie Cards

Today's SMBC is a big win! Creating academic rookie cards is an excellent idea, and I love the snarkiness in the associated joke that SMBC told. I approve!

P.S. I am listening to the closing theme of "This Week in Baseball" right now. How appropriate!

Mathematicians and Justice

Oxford currently has a photography festival that is spread over many buildings in the city.

The two themes that we're housing in the Mathematical Institute are "Mathematicians" and "Justice".

The punchline is left as an exercise for the reader.

Grandpa and Grandmaster Flash

Through the magic of autocomplete, many grandmothers have been accidentally tagging rapper Grandmaster Flash on Facebook. I love it!

Like Grandmaster Flash, the Grandmas had no part in the song "White Lines".

Friday, September 12, 2014

Adam Dunn and the Three True Outcomes

Adam Dunn is almost certainly going to retire after the 2014 season is over. He is currently third all time in strikeouts among hitters, and he's only 34 years old. He would only need to play a couple more seasons to set the record.

Jayson Stark wrote about Dunn's career today, and some of the numbers are mind-boggling (like how often fielders weren't particularly needed when he came to the plate). Amazing.

Update (10/01/14): It's now official (and unsurprising): Adam Dunn is retiring. He is on the Oakland Athletics, who just lost to the Royals last night in the AL Wildcard one-game playoff. This season was the first time that Adam Dunn got into the playoffs (after more than 2000 games played, which made him the active "leader" in that category), and he didn't even get to play in the game.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Being Part of the Story of Science

When you are an undergraduate student, and for the most part when you're a graduate student (though it starts to change then), you read scientific and mathematical results that have been neatly polished and compiled into books --- and then somewhat less neatly polished and compiled into papers. You probably will see that there are many mysteries left to uncover, but it's still knowledge and somehow something that already exists. And then you become a scientist (and mathematician) and you realize that there are stories --- often very interesting ones --- behind the knowledge and that can occasionally be just as fascinating (or even more so) than the knowledge itself. It's not just that some of the personalities are genuinely interesting (though that is also true) but that the path to knowledge is typically a maze of twisty little passages, all alike --- and there are a lot of inside jokes and events that become part of the stories, and these jokes and stories often have many layers (pun intended).

Being a professional scientist isn't merely about creating new knowledge (though that definitely is part of the deal). It means that you're part of an ever-enfolding story that people outside can watch and appreciate, but you are actually in the story, because you're one of the people helping to create it.

And let me tell you: It is incredibly awesome being one of the players in this evolving story! It's hard to beat being part of that, and I can't imagine trading it for anything.

So the next time you open a math book and see a theorem (or some other important or maybe not-so-important result), remember that that theorem might well have an interesting story behind it. It's more than just a piece of deductive reasoning. And, obviously, the same goes for all other scientific discourse. :)

And what made me think of all this particularly poignantly right now? Ergodic clams, of course. None of the thoughts above are new to me (I have had them many times, in fact), and I'm sure that I could have phrased them more eloquently, but I have to thank Petter Holme and Sang Hoon Lee for the immediate inspiration for writing this post when I should have gone to bed instead.

Now I better start thinking about what my theme song should be...

Hmmmm.... I Think Oxford is a Cult

If you think a bit about this comic from SMBC a bit, it does kind of make one ponder the possibility that University of Oxford is a cult. There does seem to be some level of truth to that perspective.

Pendulum Wave: Bowling Ball Edition

Go ahead: Take a look for yourself. It's pretty damn awesome! (I like demos.)

(Tip of the cap to Damien Storey.)

Ten Books

Over the past couple of days, I was seeing a meme over Facebook to name 10 books that have stuck with you for whatever reason. This meme seems more interesting to me than most, and I was tagged today, so I decided to play along.

The rules are as follows: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard---they don’t have to be the "right" or "great" works, just ones that have touched you. (And because it says "books" rather than "novels", I decided to include some math and physics books, because that is part of what came to mind. I also included some other possibly "nonstandard" choices, but I could try to come up with a list that is pure fiction if you want. :) )

Here are 10 books (in no particular order), but numbered for convenience:

1. Introduction to Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos, Steven H. Strogatz

2. The Dragonlance Chronicles (original trilogy; you could possibly include Dragonlance Legends as well), Weis and Hickman

3. Dark Elf Trilogy (especially Homeland, which is the first book), R. A. Salvatore (3 books again)

4. Manual of the Planes, Jeff Grubb (1st edition AD & D sourcebook)

5. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and its sequels), Douglas Adams

6. Shōgun, James Clavell

7. Noble House, James Clavell

8. The Scouting Report/The Scouting Notebook series of yearly baseball previews (may they rest in peace), by Stats Inc. in some years (with writers John Dewan and others)

9. Thermal Physics, 2nd ed, Kittel and Kroemer (this was my first statistical mechanics textbook, from Ph 2c at Caltech; I found it really inspiring to start from counting and to derive things like temperature)

10. Rotisserie League Baseball: The Official Rule Book and Draft Day Guide, various yearly editions, Glen Wagonner, Robert Sklar, and others.

"99 Red Balloons" Covered with Red Balloons

Yup, yes it is.

(Tip of the cap to whoever posts for Nena on Facebook.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

New to the Blogroll: Bruggebrain

Through the magic of e-mail signatures, I noticed that my doctoral student Birgit Brüggemeier has a blog. She studies neurogenetics, and is working on an awesome project. You can read about what she studies on her page.

At some point, I should also delete the blogs on the blogroll that are no longer being updated, but for now I'll let you --- dear reader --- scroll just a little bit more. That is what Janis Joplin sang about, right?

Community Detection and Scottish Independence

A few years ago, I read a very interesting paper that is rather topical when it comes to the issue of Scottish independence.

The final sentence of the abstract reads as follows: We also quantify the effects of partitioning, showing for instance that the effects of a possible secession of Wales from Great Britain would be twice as disruptive for the human network than that of Scotland.

The methodology in the paper is "community detection" --- a type of clustering --- applied to networks constructed from mobile phone data.

Technology Translation

So.... can anybody translate what a funding agency means when they write "Describe the empowerment of new and high-potential actors towards future technological leadership."

Seriously, WTF. I read that, and my mind just goes "[tech] [tech] [tech] [tech] [tech] [tech] [tech]" like in the script for a sci-fi movie.

I had a ton of problems with just the buzzword version of the word "disruptive", which seems like child's play compared to the sentence above.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Quote of the Day: Referee Request Edition

Well, I haven't used this line in my decline letters (at least not recently) because maybe it isn't the kindest thing in the world to write, but there are certainly times when I want to end my e-mails declining a request like this: Please also make it clearer in the future what method of communication you would like from me for declining review requests.

To give some context, I consider it exceptionally obnoxious when somebody asks me to referee something on a short timescale and assumes that I will accept the reviewing assignment. It's a very poor assumption, and in fact it increases by a rather substantial margin the chance that I will decline the request.

It would be good, by the way, if every such request automatically included the procedure to decline and not just the procedure to submit a referee report.

P.S. Get off my lawn!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Gaussian Curvature and its Practical Consequences

Wired has a very cool article about manifolds and curvature.

I have used ice cream cones (and the act of unrolling them) to help explain curved versus straight geodesics for one of the problems our student had to do in calculus of variations. I then "assigned" my students to do this the next time they went to the local ice cream place.

(Tip of the cap to Jeremy Kun.)

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Pop Sonnets

The blog Pop Sonnets presents Shakespearean-sonnet versions of pop songs. It's pretty amusing.

(Tip of the cap to Alan Champneys.)

RIP Joan Rivers (1933–2014)

Joan Rivers, a comedy legend, died today.

I don't remember when I first heard of her, but it was a long time ago, and vastly predates when I saw her in 1987 in Spaceballs, where she played the voice of Dot Matrix (who is, roughly, analogous to C3PO). That's her role that I know the best (by far), and my favorite quote of hers from that movie is the following one: That was my virgin-alarm. It's programmed to go off before you do!

(Tip of the cap to David Blau.)

Polymeric K_{3,3}

Some chemists have now constructed the graph K_{3,3} (and other tiny graphs) out of a polymer, and they seem to want to go after Königsberg next.

In related news, I think the South Side (aka: applied and related) of the Mathematical Institute now should annex the North Crystal, which just so happens to have a K_{3,3} graph as its vertices and edges.

(I'll be truely impressed, however, when somebody successfully constructs the ZKK graph using such polymers.)

Best Pitcher on the Planet

Well, first of all, Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet right now, and he's really showing this year that he truly is one of the all-time greats.

We saw a bunch of that before, but he's really taken things to a new level. I hadn't realized this until last night's Dodger broadcast, but Vin Scully mentioned that Bryce Harper's homerun against Kershaw during Tuesday's game against the Nationals was not only the first homerun by a left-handed hitter against Kershaw this year but it's also the first RBI of any kind against Kershaw by a lefty this year. Holy shit! I looked at Kershaw's 2014 stats late last night --- and, in particular, his separate stats against righties and lefties --- and indeed this is true. Spectacular! (Note that the game recap to which I linked mentions the fact about Harper's HR but not about the RBI that went with it. The latter is considerably more impressive.)

It's so awesome having Kershaw on my team! Hopefully, he'll get not only the National League Cy Young Award this year but also the Most Valuable Player Award. (Right now, I think Giancarlo Stanton is a slightly better choice for MVP than Kershaw, so we'll see what the rest of the year brings.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Basis of a Good Outfield

An article tagline that I would love to see in a newspaper: "Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Denard Span form the basis of a solid Nationals outfield."

Sadly, I doubt most newspapers like linear-algebraic jokes as much as I do. Maybe an independent newspaper?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Tales from the ArXiv: Herbivore Meltdown

I love the main label of the caption of Figure 5 (on page 12) of this new paper. It starts with the bold text "Meltdown of the herbivores." I love it!

Anyway, the next time you go into a forest, be very careful in case of herbivore meltdown. (I have all sorts of wonderful images in my head at the moment.)

And googling "herbivore meltdown" yields the fact that "ecological meltdown" is actually a standard term. It's certainly very image-provoking. I have to say, though, that I also find the term very humorous, even with its very serious implications.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Mathematical GIFs

These mathematical GIFs are sweet.

Invertible Yogurt

The yogurt that I had on Saturday successfully passed the Invertibility Test* (that is, it was invertible), so I knew that it was safe to eat.

* The Invertibility Test (tm) is especially important for milkshakes, as passing this test is the only way to ensure that they are safe to consume. (For other food items, the only way to pass this test is to not be invertible.)

For more about invertible milkshakes, see Legends of Caltech III and also one of its web-only stories.

(Tip of the cap to Frances Schaeffer for taking the picture.)

Raindrops on Spider Webs

I really like the patterning that I saw this morning with a bunch of raindrops on spider webs. I am showing one picture in this entry, but here are a few more.