Monthly Archive for August, 2015

Innumeracy Watch

Did Stanford university surgeons fail first grade arithmetic? Or do they just assume the rest of us did?

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Dear Old Golden Rule Days

ssyShortly before I started Kindergarten, my mother purchased a book called “Steven’s School Years”, with pockets to store my report cards and school projects, and questionnaires for me to fill out at the end of each school year.

I was not diligent about filling in the questionnaires, and they remain mostly blank. But had I been forced to, I wonder how I would have answered the following question, which was to be answered annually at the end of Grades 1,2,3,4,5, and 6:

(According to my mother, my ambition at age three was to be an electric drill, and sometime after that a rabbit. No other records of my early career inclinations seem to have survived.)

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Seeing Things Differently

Can humans learn to see in more than three dimensions?

What follows is highly speculative (and therefore possibly nonsense), but bear with me. (Or, if you prefer, don’t.)

First, let’s think about how humans learn to see in more than two dimensions. Your visual cortex (at least as I understand it) is pretty much two-dimensional, but apparently your brain is pretty adept at converting two dimensions worth of information into a three-dimensional picture of the world around you.

To accomplish that feat, your brain employs (at least) two tricks. First, it can infer an object’s depth (by which I mean its distance in front of you) from the angle between it and your two pupils:

Second, your brain can infer an object’s depth from the size of the accommodation reflex (change in lens shape, pupillary contraction, etc) needed to focus on it.

Ordinarily, these two methods pretty much agree, and your brain uses that answer to construct its map of the world.

But suppose I could surgically adjust your eyes in a way that breaks that agreement. For example, the angle-method might continue to work just as it does now, but I’d disrupt the accommodation reflex so that your pupils now contract by an amount that depends not on the distance to an object but on, say, its redness, or its squareness, or even just varies randomly. Better yet, suppose I could do this at a very early age, when your brain is still learning how to process visual signals.

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The Ashley Madison Test of College Faculty Cluelessness

Science marches on. Recent developments have made it possible to answer the age-old question: What percentage of your college faculty used their work email addresses to establish accounts at Ashley Madison?

In a sample of 33 highly ranked colleges, the answer ranges from a low of 1.6% at Oberlin to a pretty much unbelievable 22.6% at the University of Minnesota. (The full rankings appear at the bottom of this post.)

I got these percentages by counting the number of unique email addresses ending with, say, “harvard.edu” in the leaked Ashley Madison database, and dividing by the number of Harvard faculty, as reported by the college either on its website or in its Common Data Set filings.

The methodology, is, of course, fraught with peril. First, the majority of academic email addresses belong not to faculty, but to students. But it seems like a good guess that faculty (by virtue of their average age) are both far more likely than students to be trolling Ashley Madison, and far more likely than students to be clueless about acquiring anonymous email addresses. Besides, a quick spotcheck of the email addresses in the Ashley Madison database does indeed confirm that most of them (at least in one small but random sample) belong to faculty members.

There are also, of course, staff, and the staff-to-faculty ratio probably varies a lot from school to school, so weeding out the staff could change the relative rankings quite a bit. But again, my (still small but still random) sample continues to indicate that these are mostly faculty members.

A far more important issue might arise from the fact that some universities have multiple campuses. It’s possible, for example, that the 657 umn.edu email addresses in Minnesota’s numerator came from many campuses, while the 2913 facuty in their denominator represents only the main campus. This will tend to inflate the rankings of the big state schools, and might account for the appearance of Minnesota, Virginia, Michigan and Cornell at the top — suggesting that if the numbers were crunched more carefully, the prize might go to Liberty University. If I were going to use these rankings for anything important, I’d give this issue a harder look.

One might also note that anybody can type anybody else’s email address into Ashley Madison, but I’m inclined to discount the importance of that, because it’s hard for me to see what the motive would be (except, perhaps, as part of a campaign to flood someone’s email box with unwanted replies).

With those caveats, feel free to use these rankings as a measure of your college faculty’s average cluelessness, at least when it comes to maintaining anonymity over the Internet.

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Politics As Usual

paulTo me, the biggest disappointment of this camapaign season has been Rand Paul. I’m sure there will be others.

I just saw Senator Paul on Fox News, where he made four substantive statements, one nonsensical, one innumerate, one economically illiterate, and one evasive to the point of dishonesty.

On the subject of collecting cellphone data without warrants, the host posed a hypothetical situation where a foreign terrorist is identified and we want to know which Americans he’s been talking to for the past six months. Paul’s answer: Get a warrant. The problem, of course, is that not even the US government, even newly armed with a warrant, is powerful enough to gather calling data that vanished into the ether six months ago. When the host pointed this out, Senator Paul ignored it.

On the subject of his tax plan, when presented with estimates that he’d be cutting taxes by 3% for the poor and by 13% for the rich, the senator could either have denied those numbers or defended them. Instead, he patiently explained that if you cut everyone’s taxes by 10%, then of course the rich will get bigger cuts (in absolute terms) than the poor. True, but to think that this was in any way relevant to the question requires a complete abandonment of all knowledge of arithmetic.

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Rearrangements

So apparently I screwed up last night and posted many of my second-debate comments in the first-debate thread. And apparently this confused some readers, who gave up and went away. Others followed my lead and posted their own comments to the wrong thread.

I’ve gone ahead and moved all second-debate-relevant comments off the first-debate thread and onto the second-debate thread. Sorry for all the confusion. I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to share your thoughts about these guys.

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The Second Debate in Real Time

This thread is your opportunity to post comments on the second (9PM eastern time) Repbulican candidates’ debate, in real time as the debate occurs. I might or might not find the stomach to participate.

Keep in mind the guidelines I posted yesterday:

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as they appear. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

Now have at it.

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The First Debate in Real Time

This thread is your opportunity to post comments on the first (5PM) Repbulican candidates’ debate, in real time as the debate occurs. I might or might not find the stomach to participate.

Keep in mind the guidelines I posted yesterday:

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as they appear. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

Now have at it.

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Goin’ To the Candidates’ Debate

I might regret this, but…..

Thursday evening (August 6) there will be two debates among the Republican candidates for president, the first beginning at 5PM eastern time and the second at 9PM eastern time.

Shortly before each debate, I plan to open a thread and invite readers to post comments in real time as the debates progress. Each thread will appear on this site ten minutes before the debate’s starting time.

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as it appears. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

I might or might not join the fray myself.

The first post will appear slightly before 5 and the second shortly before 9. I am heading out now to stock up on junk food.

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