Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

What you see is what you get

August 16, 2016

Here is a very nice image, composed of four squares. The upper-left and lower-right squares are pink with black horizontal stripes, and the upper-right and lower-left squares are green with black vertical stripes.

McCollough

What do you mean by “you’re talking nonsense”? Any fool can see that two squares are pink and two are green, and if all you see is a black and white image, well, you had better get yourself checked for total colour blindness; I’m surprised you hadn’t noticed it until this far in your life! Now, we could argue about this for quite a long while, and you would claim that no matter which way you look at it, it’s a black and white image, and I would say that maybe it does depend on which way you look at it, but that would be quite worthless; I see what I see, and that’s that.


We all keep in back of our heads the fact that different people see the world differently. Either literally, as in, they are colourblind, or more abstractly, as in, they grew up in a different environment and had different life events and experiences and relationships and traumas and solar flares which shaped their persona in unique and delicate ways. But often the “back of the head” is very, very deep inside, and we are not consciously aware that we are judging others based on our own experiences and not on theirs.

So it’s good to occasionally get a reminder. A reminder that our experiences change the way we perceive the world, maybe even permanently; a reminder that what may be crystal clear to one may be the exact opposite to another. The McCollough effect is such a reminder, and a darn freakin’ awesome one at that.
The McCollough effect is produced as follows: you look at a grating with horizontal stripes (much like the top-left square above) that is coloured green for a couple of seconds. Then you look at a grating with vertical stripes that is coloured pink for a couple of seconds. Rinse and repeat for, say, 5-10 minutes. Afterwards, when you look at the ordinary black and white gratings, they appear to be coloured pink or green, depending on their stripe pattern.
This is reminiscent of “image burning” on the retina, where if you stare at an image for a while and then at a blank wall, you see an “afterimage” of what you looked at. But it goes much deeper than this. For example, it’s specific to the grating pattern: if you rotate the grating you are looking at by 90 degrees, the green and pink colours are swapped; if you rotate by 45 degrees, they disappear altogether! It also lasts longer. I did the experiment for 10 minutes, meaning I endured a 10 minute staring contest with the pink/green gratings, and the effect lasted for three days. Let’s repeat: for three days afterwards, instead of seeing a black and white square with horizontal stripes, I saw a pink square with horizontal stripes. Some people retained this effect for months!

Here is a link where you too can witness the phenomenon:
http://lite.bu.edu/vision-flash10/applets/Color/McCollough/McCollough.html
It takes a bit of patience to sit through 10 minutes of staring, but I think it’s quite worth it; it’s certainly much better than all those TED videos claiming they will change the way you see the world.

Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into this overall esoteric phenomenon. After all politics and worldviews are much more concrete, aren’t they? Well, what you see is what you get.

But to end lightly, let’s finish off with an ever relevant SMBC:
http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2011-03-23

I don’t like spinach: Book Review: Giant Book of Jokes

April 25, 2016

giant_book_of_jokes

I got Joseph Rosenbloom’s “Giant Book of Jokes” when I was around 9. It contains over one thousand jokes, which really might seem like quite a lot for a young boy. In an age before the graphical image macros and social media, one did have to resort to books to get some literary humor.
I can’t testify much to the quality of the book. Most of the jokes are one or two liners, and many rely on awful puns and homophones. For example:

  • I don’t care if the basement wall is cracking. Please stop telling everyone you come from a broken home.
  • Hot weather never bothers me. I just throw the thermometer out the window and watch the temperature drop.
  • Nit: Please call me a taxi.
    Wit: Ok, I’ll call you a taxi, though you look more like a truck to me.

Haha!

If your taste is a bit darker, there are some more sinister or sarcastic ones:

  • Junior wrote a letter from camp:
    Dear Mom,
    What’s an epidemic?
    Signed, Junior
  • Salesman: That suit fits you like a glove.
    Customer: Great! Can you show me one that fits like a suit?

In other words, if we want to keep up to date with the current jargon, it’s a book of “dad jokes”.

I’ve actually had quite an experience looking back and rereading the book (now out of print). This is probably where my humor converged to. If only my parents had known, twenty years ago, that I’d absorb this kind of thing to my bones, maybe they’d have gotten me a book about knitting instead. But the damage is done, and in fact, I still use some of the jokes today (!).

They say that every joke has a sliver of truth in it. Ok, obviously not *every* joke. But sometimes you find a joke so accurate, it shakes you with an exhilarating vibration. Two short examples:

  • Junior: Why does it rain, Dad?
    Father: To make the flowers grow, and the grass and the trees.
    Junior: So why does it rain on the sidewalk?
  • Teacher: Let us take the example of the busy ant. He works all the time, night and day. Then what happens?
    Pupil: He gets stepped on.

The first is a parody of pretty much all purpose-oriented explanations you would get in response to any question (and some scientific ones, too); the second is an all-too-accurate reminder of the futility of our pitiful existence.
But my probable favorite among them all is this gem:

I don’t like spinach and I’m glad I don’t like it, because if I did like it, I would eat it – and I hate the stuff.

In one simple nonsensical sentence, the joke exposes a basic fault of people dealing with politics, religion, and schisms: the belief that one’s opinion is clearly the correct one, and that there is no use in even trying to look at an issue from another perspective, because one’s opinion is clearly the correct one. To apply, just replace spinach with liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, alpha, beta, emacs, vim.

And as for me; I too, used to dislike spinach.

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:

 

church

 

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.

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 (http://biomedicine.imedpub.com).

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”:

insights_in_biomedicine

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]!”

archive

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 (http://neoplasm.imedpub.com).

site2

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:

journal_of_neoplasm

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. (http://www.imedpub.com). 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:

404

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.

Do not track

August 23, 2014

“Home is where the wifi connects automatically”.
The question remains to be asked, how does it know to connect automatically? Well, of course, the computer saves a list of network names (or other identifiers) and their passwords, and tries to connect when it sees one it recognizes. I bet the passwords are saved in plaintext, too, but you should know better than to use the same one for your wifi and for your bank.

Anyway, Ubuntu is no exception. This is a laptop, and I don’t have a GPS that records my coordinates at all time, so it’s still interesting to see that if you know enough about me and obtain access to my computer, you can track my position with fair accuracy. Here is a list of networks I’ve connected to, by default sorted by date.

wifi_networks

Take a look at the connections. Can you reconstruct a map of where I’ve been as a function of time? Try to do so now.

.
.

All done?

.
.

I think the average user can, after a bit of thinking and googling, make at least some sense out of the somewhat-cryptic names. Certainly he will arrive at some route of the form: Technion -> Boston/MIT, with a stop in Europe. Here, let’s do it together. Start from the past:

ISRAEL-RAILWAYS – well, that’s easy. I sometimes take the train to the Technion, so no biggy there. Just two months ago I still had classes!
TechPublic, eewifi – TechPublic is, of course, the Technion’s campus-wide public wifi. eewifi is the same, for the department of electrical engineering. So a month ago I was certainly on campus.
caXXXyy – these are a bit a tricky, and require prior knowledge. “Canada” is the name of the dorms I live in. Specifically, ca94305 is my own apartment wifi. So after having connected to the public Technion wifi for the last time, I was at my dorms. But I haven’t been there for the past 29 days. It must be summer vacation.
Bezeq-n_6202 – my house wifi. Ok, you had no chance of guessing that :). But wait! Last time used, 27 days ago? Oh my, where have you been all this time?
Swisscom – that’s a Swiss communication company. How did that happen? Indeed, on my way to Boston I had a connection in Münich. Not quite Swiss, but close enough.
Loganwifi – Logan is Boston’s airport. I’ve been here for 26 days!
percher – stayed at a friend’s for a while. That might take a bit of digging. Seeing as it was used 22 days ago, and I arrived 26 days ago, one can conclude that I’ve stayed there for 4 days.
HMS public – unfortunately, not Her Majesty’s Ship, but Harvard Medical School. Went there for a visit.
MIT – ‘nough said. I spend most of my time here.
StataCenter – if it weren’t enough that you know at which institution I spend most of my time, you now also know the exact building. Oh well; as seen in a previous post, my wikipedia editing IP gives about that much information anyway.

How do you that I spend most of my time connected to the last two networks? Since it’s unlikely that I’ve been without internet access all this time (what with the blog posts and wikipedia edits and all), the fact that there are no networks in between MIT and StataCenter, and, say, the Percher / HMS ones, indicates that I’ve repeatedly connected to them, thus refreshing their status and putting them at the top of the recently used.

By the way, the Stata Center is a really cool place.

For me this isn’t confidential information – here, I’m posting it online. But I suppose that for those of us who wish to remain anonymous, for whatever reasons, wifi connection history is just one more problem to worry about. And seeing that my own connection history had entries from over a year ago, it stays with you for quite a while.

(footnote: I have intentionally omitted a network from the list, of the place I’m currently staying; I do not know if the owner would appreciate having the network name put here. This does not change the above analysis)

The Greatest Ruse of Them All

April 17, 2012

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually the conspiracy theory kind of guy. In fact, I’m anything but, and I endorse all manner of logical thought and reasoning. You know, stuff based on evidence. Stuff that can be proven. Especially when it comes to issues of health, no stakes are to be taken.
So you might think that I’m totally against homoeopathic medicine, which, in effect, is basically water. But I have just lately realized the true ingenuity behind it. Whoever invented homoeopathic treatment was none other than a pure genius. Not in medicine, of course; near-infinite dilution doesn’t sound like a plausible remedy; but in psychology and human behaviour. A marketing genius. A people genius.
Think about it. Many harmful symptoms and health problems are not caused by bacteria or viruses, but are the result of our own mind. Mental stress, for example, can cause headaches and nausea but can be said to be relatively “self induced”. So while we can take pills to alleviate the symptoms, proper mental control can also reduce the problem.

photo by Getty

photo by Getty


Ach, but it’s so rather difficult to just “change our state of mind”, and make our body more at ease. Sadly, while we have control over many muscles, we barely control how we feel and what hormones we exert. Humans are quite lame at those things, and cannot do it alone. We cannot just “turn off the pain”. What we really need an external factor to help us change. If only there was something that could induce us to do so. Something that tells us, “there there, from now on, everything is going to be alright. Everything is going to get better”. Something cheap. Something that has no side effects.
Enter the placebo. A brilliant solution. You give a man a pill and say “this is certified treatment! It will remove your headache right away”. And viola! Two hours later, the man is fit as a fiddle and ready to go. Of course, the pill itself contains literally quite nothing; a dud. This mental trickery has been tested frequently, and is in fact so common and strong that nowadays new drugs are tested against placebos, and not against “no treatment”.
Alas, you cannot just put a box of pills at the pharmacy and label it “placebo”. It defies the whole concept. Placebos, once uncovered as such, are quite ineffective. A man has to be unaware that he is taking it for it to work.
And hereby the innovation of homoeopathy is quite apparent. In many studies, homoeopathic treatments have been shown to be about as effective as placebos. This is because… they are placebos! Think of it this way: a person taking it thinks that it will work. In essence, he is just taking water. Exactly like the case we described above. Placebo!
In an ingenious marketing, advertising, and ethically eyebrow-raising move, homoeopathy’s inventors and proponents have managed to find a way to sell a placebo to the public, without a large percentage of the public realizing it. Effective remedies can be sold en-masse, because they contain nothing other than water. We have plenty of that.
Of course, somewhere along the way, this plan went astray. While placebos are highly effective against pains, they are also highly ineffective against cancers. If anything, they only make matters worse, because while someone is taking them he is less prone to be engaging in real, medically proven treatments.
As far as pain relief goes, I’m not entirely against selling placebos to the public. It’s a cheap and efficient way of curing pain and stress, and the ethical damage is not great – it would seem silly for the users to complain afterwards, “you lied to us! The cure worked but for the wrong reasons, we demand retribution!”. This does not mean that I would outwardly support homoeopathy clinics, but it’s one less thing to worry about. However, such placebos should not be given as treatment against anything severe or life threatening, or as treatment for actual diseases. Small chances that they can heal malaria. If the proper regulation is enforced, I think that homoeopathy can be turned into a boon, instead of a medical nuisance.