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Biweekly links for 09/11/2009

by Michael Nielsen on September 11, 2009
  • …My heart’s in Accra » Steven Downes, Anders Sandberg on Cloud Intelligence
  • Anders’ Mad Scientist Page
    • Awesome set of links (many gone, but the titles still amuse): “This page is dedicated to all Seekers of Truth, regardless of how warped the truth may be.”
  • AIP UniPHY
    • Social networking site, aimed at physical scientists.
  • Cathemeral Thinking: What is a magazine?
    • Discussion of what a magazine is from David Harris, the founder of Symmetry magazine. I think the post makes a mistake in conceiving of “the magazine” as some sort of platonic ideal – it’s just a tiny little corner of the enormous space of possible ways of connecting readers and writers. But thought-provoking nonetheless.
  • How all Nigerians Became Scammers. | OoTheNigerian
    • A thoughtful post on modern stereotypes and the damage they can cause. The tune may change but the song remains the same.
  • Open Learning Initiative
  • Semantic Web-related Research using Wikipedia
    • Very little of this actually uses the semantic web in any serious way, but it’s still an interesting list of papers. Lots of articles on automated extraction of information, clustering, topic extraction, recommendation systems, and so on.
  • Eric Schadt – Enlisting Computers to Unravel the True Complexity of Disease – Biography – NYTimes.com
    • New York Times profile of Eric Schadt, and open approaches to innovation in biology. Interesting, although it would have been a lot better with more concrete detail about open innovation.
  • Paul Krugman: How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?
    • Krugman’s version of economic history. I found it informative and stimulating, even if oversimplified in places. Lurking in the background is the question of what it means to understand a phenomenon. The most obvious candidate is the ability to make predictions, but this seems to me to be neither necessary nor sufficient. It’s bothersome that sometimes knowing more actually leads one to make worse predictions.
  • The Open Dinosaur Project
    • An open invitation for people to help construct a database of skeletal measurements for ornithischian dinosaurs. Anyone can help out – they’re trying to do a comprehensive literature survey.
  • Market Design: Federal Judges Law Clerk Hiring
    • Fascinating summary of work on “cheating” (i.e., not obeying prevailing norms) in a market, in this case the hiring of clerks for Federal Judges in the US, as well as many interesting links to other work on the functioning of that market.
  • Nascent: Andrew Savikas visits Nature
    • Timo Hannay’s (head of Nature.com) notes on Andrew Savikas’ (O’Reilly media) talk at Nature. Many fascinating facts: O’Reilly ebooks outsell print by 2:1; ebook sales doubling every 18 months for last 5 years; “free” is much more complicated than you might think; price discrimination as a useful strategy (technically, this is illegal in the US, for reasons I don’t quite get, although there are easy ways around it); nice analogy to the first TV programs being just like radio.
  • The Trouble with Nonprofits (Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thought)
    • I thought this was interesting, and probably contained a kernel of truth: “What distinguishes people who are great at what they do from those who are just mediocre? The answer, it seems, is feedback.” Swartz gives as examples playing chess (rapid incontrovertible feedback) versus making political predictions (slow, vague feedback, easy to discount or ignore). I suspect that what’s going on in the political pundit case is a different kind of feedback, one not based on how correct the pundit is, but rather based on more superficial traits which make a person seem impressive. I wonder to what extent it’s possible to manufacture (and stick to) feedback methods for one’s work?

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2 Comments
  1. I have a *true* mad scientist story, concerning the Seattle Weird Science Group.

    One day, while my wife and I were awaiting our baggage at SeaTac airport, it chanced that I was examining (at very close range) some tiny optical retro-reflectors embedded in a large illuminated artwork hanging from the wall (we use similar retro-reflectors in our quantum spin imaging microscopes).

    Oddly enough, a rather wild-looking person—he had wild hair anyway!—immediately joined me, and this strange person also began scrutinizing the artwork, very closely and with a similar intensity.

    Perhaps encouraged by my brightly colored bow-tie (which I wear precisely to facilitate this kind of encounter) he smiled at me … and I introduced myself by saying “Not too many people take an interest in optical retro-reflection!”

    “Oh yes” the friendly stranger replied, “but then, I’m in Seattle to attend the Mad Scientist Convention!” … and he gave me his business card, which sure enough plainly announced his profession as “Mad Scientist.”

    I gazed at the Mad Scientist’s business card enviously. He announced that his speciality was Tesla coils (which are a great interest of mine too), and we had a wonderful discussion about them.

    Then I said: “I’m a mad scientist too … a quantum systems engineer!” To which the Mad Scientist said “Wow! What’s that? Tell me all about it.” So I gave a simple account … to which the Mad Scientist asked intelligent questions … and I gave a more detailed account … to which the Mad Scientist asked some mighty thoughtful questions … and so I gave the Mad Scientist a no-holds-barred ““yellow book”” account of quantum systems engineering … and yet the Mad Scientist was not baffled, but instead began asking genuinely creative and deep questions.

    I was dumbfounded … the P. G. Wodehouse line “You have uncommonly good diction, for a gorilla” came to my mind … and so I said “You have an uncommonly good understanding of practical quantum simulation algorithms, for a mad scientist”.

    Upon which the Mad Scientist somewhat abashedly produced his other business card.

    My wife, meanwhile, was laughing her head off. She explained later that we both looked like a pair of deranged hobos spouting equations.

    Now, the riddle is this … on that crowded day, SeaTac terminal had (perhaps) 5,000 passengers in it … the Mad Scientist and I overlapped within that huge for perhaps 15 minutes … what are the chances, that would would find each other, and interact so strongly and enjoyably?

    If there is a moral, it is this: Mad Scientists should always wear their “bow-ties” in public, either in the literal or the figurative sense.

  2. Wonderful story, John! Love the business cards… everyone should have one like the first.

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