January 29, 2016

Some people believe it means being happy. Some people find it in religion. Some people think it is in nature, all around us. Some people *know* it doesn’t exist, and we are doomed to spend our pitiful time in worthless agony and despair. But all those people are wrong. *I* have the true answer. I have found the meaning of life, the very question that drove men mad for centuries. Oh, those poor sad souls, from ancient Greek thinkers to Muslim prophets, they never had a chance.
According to Wikipedia, the meaning of life was invented somewhere between 1717 and 1720, whereupon Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Chaconne in D minor as part of his second violin partita. People were a bit skeptical first, but now there is absolutely no doubt: this piece is, de facto, bona fida, in vivo, cum laude, ad infinitum, the meaning of life.
Do you want to know how to win at life? If you are reading this, it’s probably a bit too late for you, you already developed too large of a gap, but maybe your offspring still have a chance. It goes something like this. You are born. You spend the first couple of years of your life acquiring motoric skill and the ability to control when you expel excrements (to a limited extent). You learn just enough mobility to use the mouse on the parent’s laptop, and just enough language to go to Youtube. From then on, it’s heaven on Earth.

All possible emotions are contained within this piece, of all possible magnitudes. All lifetime experiences collapse to a recurrent harmonic and contrapuntal rollercoaster of immense complexity. Close your eyes when the bow first touches the strings, and open them only when you feel the silence tremble. Let yourself die and be reborn, and when you are through, you will be all the stronger.

Celebrity Academy

December 15, 2015

A lot of famous actors want to make the world a better place.
For example (thanks, Wikipedia!), Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie donated several million dollars to causes such as Doctors Without Borders, relief efforts in Darfur, and restoration after hurricane Katrina; Jennifer Lawrence supports the World Food Programme and the special olympics; and Johnny Depp donated a million pounds to a hospital.
Pitt, Jolie, Lawrence and Depp were just the first four celebrities that popped into my head. It’s a rather common thing: if you are famous and rich and popular, you are probably doing some philanthropy or donations or similar acts of altruism. In fact, I’m 80% confident that more than 90% of popular celebrities (say, 100 highest paid actors, to be concrete) do this sort of thing.
I’m not criticising this, by the way. It may be that some celebrities do this sort of thing because everyone else does it, and they have a public image they want to keep. But which one of us doesn’t wish for “world peace” when blowing out the birthday candles? Famous Rich Celebrities, being both famous and rich, are in a much better position to actually make a change towards that better future. If you had a spare million dollars lying around, wouldn’t you want to help end world hunger?
Alas, despite their best intentions, I think celebrities are not doing enough, or, more precisely, their efforts are misdirected. The huge fortune spent on hurricane relief and ending strife in Darfur are the philanthropist’s equivalent of giving a man a fish. A multi-million-dollar fish, but a fish nonetheless. The man will be fed, for a day. But what will happen tomorrow? What we really need is to teach them how to fish. In other words: education.
And not just any education. STEM education. If there is anything lacking in the education of the billions which throng the Earth, it is analytical thinking, healthy criticism, and a good, solid foundation in scientific understanding.

How many times have you tried watching educational videos on Khan Academy, only to be deterred by the ghostly and detached narrator? Oh, that unseen Narrator, hiding behind a blackboard of pixels. How can one learn without making eye contact, without creating a psychological link of understanding between the student and the teacher? It is beyond doubt that real, live teachers far outmatch their shadows. One cannot teach with just a voice. A teacher needs presence. A teacher needs charisma. A teacher needs to engage, to entertain, to make you sit on the edge of your chair as she nears the climax of a proof. Any seasoned lecturer will tell you, a class is a show, and the students are a hard audience. A good teacher will make them laugh, will make them cry, will make them learn without even realizing it.
Actors have presence. Actors have charisma. Actors engage. They entertain. They make you sit on the edge of your chair with nothing but a monologue. They make you laugh. They make you cry. They change your perception of life. They are performers, from head to toe.
I therefore propose “The Celebrity Academy”, an educational initiative aimed at finally giving the mindless masses the massive minds they need. In its core, it will contain hundreds of courses, most notably in STEM fields, each with both lectures and tutorials. In this aspect, it will not vary much from other projects, such as Opencourseware or the Khan Academy.
However, consider this:

  • Introduction to Linear Algebra taught by Jennifer Lawrence
  • Representation Theory of Compact Groups taught by Johnny Depp
  • Topics in Complex Analysis with Brad Pitt
  • Additive Combinatorics and Fourier Analysis with Angelina Jolie

The Celebrity Academy will utilize the strong stage performances of the celebrities in order to generate clear, empathetic video lectures. An argument might be raised that actors are not teachers, and this much is true; but it should well be noted that they need not be. Video lectures avoid much of the challenges in a live-audience classroom, and allow cutting, post-editing and retaking to achieve material of utmost quality. Further, the lectures need not be written by the actors themselves; a “lecture director”, just like a film director, will help plan them.
However, to make it clear, the actors will NOT be ignorant of the subject matter. Johnny Depp will teach Representation Theory of Compact Groups, after he himself has studied and passed the course. This will surely take some time, as most actors do not have graduate or even undergraduate degrees in scientific fields. But, given the dedication to their art, and the mental and physical preparations that some actors undertake when learning a new role, I am sure that most professionals will have no trouble meeting the required criteria.
It is important to understand that the celebrities’ presentation skills, while potent, will only contribute to half of Celebrity Academy’s strength. The other half will be gained by their reputation. How many millions of views will “Evolution Theory” have, when it is taught by Matt Damon? How many lives will have been saved, when Scarlett Johansson explains in detail the mechanism behind vaccines and why they have nothing to do with Autism? How many people will cease to be fooled by politician’s statistics, once they have learned Statistics 101 from their childhood idols?

Celebrities can inspire millions to think abstractly about things they have never thought about before. With a single word, they can distribute the world’s knowledge to hundreds of thousands. What have we to gain? Our education, our future. What have we to lose? Just a pitiful three years where our actors will cease to appear in films, and instead focus on their Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, Physics, and other STEM fields. And after those three years, believe me, the films they will produce will change your world in ways no previous film of theirs could ever come close to.

US churches, now and then

December 6, 2015

Some of you probably watch John Oliver, and may have seen his video about televangelists. If you didn’t, you can do so now, it’s as entertaining as it is depressing.


I’m reading “Stranger In a Strange Land” now, by Robert Heinlein, and a couple of days ago I came across a particularly interesting paragraph:




The book was published in 1961.
Of course, I should not be surprised: the IRS video in John Oliver’s show did say “for reasons as old as the United States”. It’s more depressing than surprising, I guess; there is no change – the first derivative is practically zero. And by the looks of it, the second derivative isn’t so great either (I’m not sure yet if general American opinions are going towards or away from increased religion and theocracy). Maybe, somewhere out there in the world’s Taylor expansion, way off in the 100th term, there is a struggling positive element; silently pushing on, slowly affecting derivative after derivative, trying to make a better world, one ε at a time.

Book review: The Futurological Congress

December 2, 2015

phoca_thumb_l_1977 Futura Great Britain

10 VI 2015. I finally decided to replenish the endless yet dwindling tower of books that sits near my bedstand, waiting in vain to be read. Armed with only my credit card, I directed my browser to 2000 NIS worth of books later, a small library is now headed my way, including “Quantum Computation and Quantum Information” by Nielsen and Chuang, “Introduction to Analytic Number Theory” by Apostol, and “The Futurological Congress” by Lem. Needless to say I am excited, but know that many moons will pass until I can lay my hands on my newly acquired fortune.
In the meantime I started preparing for my test in electrodynamics, and learned by heart all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

07 VII 2015. Today I had my final test in electrodynamics. I think it went OK.

08 VII 2015. I have successfully forgotten all possible identities involving cross and dot products of three vectors.

17 VII 2015. The books have arrived! Weighing in at half my body weight, they look imposing, yet seductive. The Futurological Congress winks at me playfully.

31 X 2015. I have been unable to get out of bed. And it’s not that I’m sick or anything, it’s just, I don’t see the point. I mean, we go through life having all these experiences, but sometimes I wonder if I really know which ones are authentic and which ones are phony. I mean, I love my wife, of course I do, yet there are days when I have the feeling that this love is not my own. Could she have just put the right chemicals into my drink since our first date? There are all sorts of such substances, you know: Hedonidol, Felicitine, Empathan. Perhaps even Halcyonal. And if she gave me some Antagonil or Sadistizine, would I start hating her instead? Would I hurt her? I certainly don’t want to hurt her. But what if she is just pretending? How do I know if I’m colorblind or not? Ok, so there are tests, but what if *everyone* is colorblind? After all, we are all magnetic-field-blind. What does a pigeon feel when it navigates according to Earth’s magnetic field? Is there a drug I can take to feel how it is to be a pigeon? Maybe if I were a pigeon for a day, I would have a reason to get out of bed. But only for a single day; nobody wants to be a pigeon forever. Not even pigeons.
I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but I finished The Futurological Congress today.

05 XI 2015. I can’t let go of how many things are in this book. We do all sorts of things in life, but we don’t really *have* to do them. You don’t really need to see “The Matrix”, and you don’t really need to watch “Inception”. You don’t really need to buy consumer products in order to feel good with yourself. But what you do really need, is to read The Futurological Congress. It will play with your mind and poison it like LSD on an acid trip. It will distort your thought and twist you in the same way that the society it portrays twists the minds of its citizens. It will make you laugh. It will force you to look into the inner void that are your own lost feelings. But you will not be able to put it down. You will know that you are being played with, yet this will not help you. You will want to see the light, and you will want to shout out, but your eyes, your ears, they will all be muffled by a stifling haze. In fact, they already are, but you will only see this when you read the book. Lem’s iron grip will squeeze you like a sponge.
Maybe I should write a book review about it, though I’m finding this book difficult to accurately describe. How to take on this hybrid? Its first half is a morbid mocking comedy, which several times caused me to laugh out loud – a rare feat. But the second part… An explosion of imagination, it is enlightening and depressing at the same time, with a powerful ending that many lesser authors would surely have blundered in. Mortal words can hardly do it justice. But what else do I have? Nothing – alas, it seems as if the only way to understand the world Lem had in mind is to read it – no shortcut will do in this case. But if I find something, I will post it.

06 XI 2015. Nothing.

07 XI 2015. Nothing.

15 XI 2015. Still Nothing.

18 XI 2015. I thought I had something, but no, I was wrong. Nothing.

02 XII 2015. Here we are, taking one small step at a time towards a dark, unknown future.

Not suspicious at all

November 18, 2015

It’s not every day that you get an email like this:

Dear Dr. Renan Gross,
Greetings from Journal of Insights in Biomedicine
It gives us immense pleasure to e-mail an eminent person like you.

We have chosen few scientists who have contributed excellent work in the field of Medicine and it will be our honor if you could contribute a research, review, short Commentary.

Your valuable manuscript will be published in the upcoming issue, to boost the quality and value of our journal “Insights in Biomedicine Journal! “

Actually, I get one like it about once a week, ever since I joined the Weizmann Institute, and this is an interesting phenomenon by itself. But perhaps you should know a few facts first:

  1. I just started my Masters a month ago. In expectation, I have at least five more years until reaching doctoral status.
  2. The amount of “excellent work in the field of Medicine” that I have contributed is exactly 0.
  3. The top three images when googling “eminent people” yields Malala Yousafzai, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. Further search reveals that, shame, I’m not even shortlisted.

This is not suspicious at all; in fact, I am deeply honoured! This email was certainly crafted personally for me, and I will be glad to contribute a research, review, and short Commentary. So I went to their site (


Ok, so the homepage seems nice: they have a list of subtopics with descriptions that are related to biomedicine (including some weird ones, such as biophysics, and biomedicine itself…). On the right there is a list of suggested conferences, all of which are about a year(!) away and have an almost identical web-page because they sit under the same organizer (omics): there are no individual university conferences and this is not suspicious at all.

But enough about that – I want to see what sort of papers they already accepted, to see if I should write something in a similar format. They have an “articles” tab. Here is what they have under “articles in press”:


What is this? It seems like the cover page of a journal. But is it? it has no date. It has no “see page 47 for full paper”. It has NOTHING. And this is the only thing on the page.
They also have a “current issue” tab. It has EXACTLY the same image, and nothing else.
Ok, but what about past issues? Well, the “archive” currently holds the following: “No Volumes and issues availiable.. [sic]!”


Not suspicious at all.
One possible explanation is that it’s a new journal, and doesn’t have any older issues available. This would sort of fit in with the fact that they sent that highly-flattering-yet-totally-off mail: they are not well known yet, so they want to recruit more authors. (Exercise for the readers at home: try googling “Insights in Biomedicine” and explain the results).

We can explore the site a bit more. For example, go and see who the editors are. There are plenty: Paulo Marcos Pinto, who is a doctor from Brazil; Wei-Lan Yeh, who is a doctor from Taiwan; Dr. INTHRANI RAJA INDRAN, who is a doctor from Singapore (his name was written in caps on the site). And there are 11 more, all doctors and professors. Quite a big team, yes? You can try googling their names. While some of them are real professors with a university site and all, for most part you don’t get as many results as you might think. It seems as if most of these people really haven’t published enough material in their life to have the needed expertise to edit a journal; at least, that’s by googling. (I wonder if they published enough to exist; not suspicious at all).

But it’s not like I care about the editors; what’s really important is handing in manuscripts. The “Author guidelines” quickly shows that submitting a manuscript costs anywhere from 320 USD to 520 USD (it’s an open access journal, after all). This is not a trivial amount, but other open access journals have been known to charge a lot more – the more famous ones may take thousands of dollars per submission.
Here is what “author guidelines” says about this:

Publishing with open access is not without costs. Journal of Neoplasm defrays those costs from article-processing charges (APCs) payable by authors onces [sic] the manuscript has been accepted for publication.Insights in Biomedicine does not have subscription charges for its research content, believing instead that immediate, world-wide, barrier-free, open access to the full text of research articles is in the best interests of the scientific community.

Whoops! What the hell is “Journal of Neoplasm”? Sounds like a journal name to me. Either the two hold a shared bank account, or else we witness a copy-paste error of the type that causes your code to crash in the middle of the night.

Luckily, Journal of Neoplasm also has a website (


Not-suspiciously, it looks exactly the same as Insights in Biomedicine. Same colours and fonts and everything. In fact, they also have a “current issue” tab. It holds only this:


Needless to say, the archive shows “No Volumes and issues availiable..!”.

Maybe it’s time to visit the source: the publishing company behind these journals, Insight Medical Publishing. ( Their homepage shows all the journals they have under their wing, as well as the holy grail: recent papers!
Finally, we see some actual, peer reviewed papers! The “recent articles” box on their site contains eight papers. Some of them are not in English (but that’s ok, we don’t judge by language). The latest of them is from 2015 (no specific date, but there is something about “volume 6”), while the last one on the list is from 2014. Interesting – in the eight most recent papers, some are from 2014. That’s it? Well, you can press a “view more” button, but can you guess where that leads? Yup:


Yes, they have two !! in there, and that’s legitimate for a respectable publication company.
Now, you might be led into thinking that this is odd, and that there aren’t any papers at all in this entire network of journals, but that would be wrong. Because this error message is indeed followed by a list of all their journals, of which there are over 200. Every one of these has its own identical-looking website, complete with a list of editors, information for authors, ethical malpractice information, and articles.
Some of these journals have an astounding number of editors. I picked one at random, on orthodontics and endodontics, and it had 18 editors, one of which is “Vincenzo Grassia, Professor of the master 2014 ‘Orthodontic therapy in adult patients’ of the Sun”. Another, Journal of Informatics and Data Mining, has about 23 editors. Unlike Insights in Biomedicine and Journal of Neoplasm, this one had some papers in the “articles” tab: two grand issues, each of which has about six papers. Overall, this journal has more listed editors (each with a doctorate!) than papers.

It seems like people have put a lot of work into these sites, and yet many of them are almost empty. It turns out that “Insight Medical Publishing” is redirected to “OMICS” in Wikipedia, and there it is stated, “According to a 2012 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about 60 percent of the group’s 200 journals had never actually published anything.” The same Wikipedia entry also has all sorts of scary words, like “predatory publishing”, “cease-and-desist letter”, and “false claims of affiliation”.
Now, I could say a lot of bad things about giving open access journals a bad name and luring unsuspecting scientists and how the hell did they get my email and know I’m into science did they dredge all of Weizmann’s address lists?!, but I digress. I think for the present, I’ll skip the opportunity to publish with Journal of Insights in Biomedicine. Maybe I’ll return to it at a later time, after I finish my homework on Markov Models.

Book Review: The Secret Life of Germs

September 29, 2015

They are on your hands. They are in your food. They are underneath the carpet. They are in your gut. They are in your butt. They colonize your teeth. They prowl the house while you sleep. They crawl on your skin at this very moment. Chances are, they will kill you. If they won’t, they will eat your decomposing body. They are what decomposes your body.
There is no escape. There is no hope. There is only death.
Enter at your own peril, for here lies only doom and woe: presenting “The Secret Life of Germs”, by Philip M. Tierno Jr!


Surprisingly, this is not a horror-thriller book – it’s popular science. In general, it describes different types of germs – an inclusive name for fungi, bacteria, viruses and any other microbial badasses which have you on the top of their kill list – how you may interact with them in everyday life, and how you can prevent them from eating you alive (seriously, I’m not making this up. Go ahead and count how many times the phrase “flesh-eating” appears in the text).
After reading this book, you will know when to wash your hands, and which types of germ invasion you are preventing when doing so. You will also learn guidelines for preparing food, bathroom layout, handling pets, taking hikes, and basically anything else that relates to personal cleanliness. In short: it teaches you elementary hygiene, something which of course everyone should know, but at a much deeper level than you are used to. Which is nice.
But it’s also fucking scary. If you take its content at immediate face value you will not be able to finish it, because you will be curled up into a little ball, whimpering in the corner of of a remote island while continually pouring bleach on yourself. This is because “the modern office is densely populated with objects that can harbor infectious germs”, “[dollar] bills are contaminated with germs of fecal, respiratory and skin origin”, “leaky vacuum cleaner kept resuspending Salmonella”, “the infant’s walker had a heavy growth of S. aureus”, and “The steering wheel was covered in beta hemolytic group A strep, which can cause strep throat or flesh-eating disease”.
See? Flesh-eating! These examples are from a pretty much random sample of 20 pages around the middle area, and they aren’t even the most frightening ones. How can anyone touch anything after reading this?
Of course, it could be that Tierno is a bit exaggerating, but his descriptions seem to me to be accurate enough and fit in with what I already know – that bacteria can live practically anywhere and in almost all conditions. I guess the real thing to be learned here is this: that the human immune system is one badass piece of machinery, which successfully deflects innumerable invasions, agressions, sieges, infiltrations and all out bombardments without us so much as flinching. I tend to get sick about once a year on average, usually with a seasonal cold. There’s an army of tiny flesh-eating soldiers out there just waiting to get me, but all I get is a couple of coughs and sneezes.
Still, Tierno describes a dangerous reality, and takes large precautions to avoid those dangers. If you follow his instructions, you will probably wash your hands about 100 times a day (and remember, effective hand-washing requires at least 20-30 seconds of soap-rubbing, including underneath the fingernails). You will change the clothes you wear to the movies, the food you eat, and the amount of times you pet the dog.
This book is therefore very irritating. The advice Tierno gives seems sound (at least if you really want to avoid germ contact; we won’t discuss “training your immune system”). It’s logical. It’s clear. It makes sense. But it’s also annoying – it involves being “picky”, “overly-hygienic”, and changing habits that I have acquired throughout my whole life. It will require increasing my hand-washing time by an order of magnitude. It will require being conscious of the horrible world of the germs at all times. It involves “not eating sushi” at all because there is a chance that uncooked fish carry a Vibrio germ. It requires checking for fleas and ticks on my groin and behind the ears every time I walk through the woods. In short – it presents a mild inconvenience. This, at the benefit of a potentially longer life span and less sickness. It adds another “worry” to your world.
I’m in conflict. The rational part of me says, “you would be a fool not to embrace this advice. If you don’t, you can forget about me helping you when you contract a new strain of SARS”. The lazy and doesn’t-want-to-be-disturbed part of me says, “I have lived all my life as I do now, and my surrounding and neighbourhood act as I do. We are generally alright; why live your life in worry?”

I guess the question is, “is the extra worry and ritual worth the expected benefit in your life expectation and comfort (due to less sickness)?” To each his own answer. But the good thing is, you can take as much as you want from the book, and leave the rest alone. While I will not embrace the full extent of its writing, it has definitely made me more aware of the general germliness of the world, and probably will affect my overall behavior. To all you germs – make much your time.

You’ve got your whole life ahead of you

August 24, 2015

There’s a nicely morbid Perry Bible Fellowship comic showing a kid on his birthday:


That’s what you get with strict determinism: the day we die is already decided on the day we are born; on the day the universe was born, in fact. But since we ordinary mortals do not have access to Death’s all powerful computing machine that lets him calculate the end of all tales (an abacus?!), we have to use statistics. Specifically, we like to use life expectancy, which is basically the average age of death of a certain population at a certain time.
Calculating it is rather easy for times far away in the past. What was the life expectancy for infants at 1900? Just look at all the people who were born in 1900, and take the average of their life spans. For modern times it’s a bit more complicated, since there are still so many yucky living people who spoil your statistics, but we get good results under reasonable assumptions.

Here’s a cool thing about life: if you haven’t died so far (and, as you are reading this, I assume you haven’t), you will statistically outlive the average baby born on the same year as you. In other words, the older you are, the older you die. This is pretty obvious, but it’s a nice pat on the back as it shows your accomplishments in the field of “not dying”. Are you 30? Congratulations! You should no longer be afraid of dying from chicken pox, drowning in a bucket, baby measles and child-malnutrition; and your chances of going to war are severely reduced. So you have to take out all those deaths out of the equation, and the net result is that your projected age goes up.

But there is a contrasting force in this whole ordeal: the older you are, the less time you have to live – because you’ve already lived some portion of your life. The life expectancy of an infant born in the United States in 2013 is about 78 years. She has 78 years ahead of her. The life expectancy of a 90 year old in the United States in 2013 is 94. She will die older (she has already passed the 78 year mark), but only has 4 years ahead of her.

This leads to the question: what is “the best age to be alive”, in the sense that “your whole life ahead of you” is the longest period of time? This depends crucially on the mortality statistics: we can imagine that in a world where most children don’t make it to age 10, people who are 30 will have more to look forward to than five year olds.

In fact, this is what happened in Massachusetts during the 1850’s (data found here):


In orange, we see how many years a person has left to live as a function of age in Massachusetts in 1850. We see that a baby just born has roughly 40 years ahead of her, while a child who made it to age 10 has about 47 years ahead of her! In the 1850’s during childhood, every year you grow older actually increases your life expectancy! In view of the comic at the beginning of the post, for these children, every time they celebrate their birthday, Death should add a bead to their life total (statistically speaking, of course; deterministically we are all doomed anyway). Newborn babies and 20-year olds can expect to live the same amount of time.
The yellow line plots the function y = x. The place where it crosses the orange line is the “half-life” point – the age where you have put as much time behind you as you have in front of you.
Finally, in blue, we see the average age of death. It continuously rises as a function of the age of the person in question. Notice that it is always above the yellow line y = x: This just means that when you look at a specific living person, that person will die older than she is right now. Unfortunately the data I have only goes up to 80 years, but eventually the blue line and the yellow line should coincide, at the age of the oldest person who ever lived.

But that was way back a hundred and fifty years ago. With the advancement of modern medicine, food, and infrastructure, are things any different now? Indeed they are. Here is the United States data for 2013 (data found here):


First, life expectancy went up; that’s a no brainer. But what’s interesting is that now the orange line no longer has a peak in the beginning. Further, the blue curve stays almost flat for the first ~40 years or so of life: The difference in the expected age of someone who is 40 and someone who was just born is a mere 4 years; contrast this to the whopping 29 years in 1850.
We have so completely decimated child and youth mortality, that it no longer “pays off” to grow older, in terms of gains in life expectancy. Looking at the data shows that this phenomenon – the lack of orange peak – started in the 1920’s, at least in the United States.
So the Death and the Abacus comic is indeed relevant – but only for the modern era. In the past, getting to 10 would have warranted a real celebration – for that is the age where “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you” carries the most weight. But today? The countdown starts with your first gasping scream for air.


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