Archive for the 'Universities' Category

Purple America

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Via (which I’m still reading for some reason), we find another really cool map. This is an animated GIF showing the electoral results by county for every presidential election from 1960 – 2004. It’s called Purple America, and it was created by from Robert Vanderbei from Princeton University.

You can watch counties change from blue to red and back again. You can see where Ross Perot and George Wallace had the most support. Or you can squint your eyes and watch the entire country change its shade like a mood ring. Enjoy!


Sunday, November 9th, 2008

I was looking over the current electoral map, and I realized something extraordinary. If Obama took the states where he won by 7 percentage points or more, and McCain took all of the states where Obama won by 6 points or less, Obama would still have won the election 291 – 247. This would put Ohio, Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina in the red, but it would not have changed the outcome. Ohio may have locked in the Obama victory, but it turns out that he didn’t need it.

Looking at a traditional electoral map can be deceiving, because the states are shown in proportion to their land area. If instead, you look at a cartogram, you can see how the states compare to each other by, say, population (shown below) and you can really get a sense of how much of the country went red or blue. Professor Mark Newman from the University of Michigan has some good examples on his site:

So, is all of this just post-election gloating, or am I making a larger point? Well, it’s mostly post-election gloating; it has been a long eight years. But there is a larger point as well. President Obama will enter office with an overwhelming mandate, not to mention a friendly Congress and an enthusiastic public. I know some of my good friends are determined to cling to their cynical views, and I understand where they are coming from, but let me ask them this: If the potential for the change you want were to come along, would you recognize it? Would you believe in it? Would you do everything you could to support it? Because if this isn’t it, I don’t think we’re ever going to see it.

Question of the Week

Monday, December 17th, 2007

Yesterday on This Week, George Stephanopoulos cited a “stunning” statistic from the Congressional Budget Office:

From 2003 to 2005, the increase in income for the top one percent exceeded the total income of the bottom twenty percent.

Turn that over in your mind for a moment before we move on to the Question of the Week, which comes to us via the Hoover Institute, a conservative think-tank at Stanford University.

How much does the gap between rich and poor matter? In 1979, for every dollar the poorest fifth of the American population earned, the richest fifth earned nine. By 1997, that gap had increased to fifteen to one. Is this growing income inequality a serious problem? Is the size of the gap between rich and poor less important than the poor’s absolute level of income? In other words, should we focus on reducing the income gap or on fighting poverty?

It’s a fair point. Do rising waters raise all ships? And if so, does it matter if the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer? Or is income inequity really the problem, and a bigger slice of the pie for the rich means less for everyone else? And is it okay to mix ship and pie metaphors when talking about economics? I guess what I’m asking is this:

Does the income gap matter?

Conundrum: Five for Five

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Last week’s Conundrum about kings named Henry reminded me of a Shakespeare final I gave about five years ago. This was for an advanced graduate course on Shakespeare, and I actually decided to give the final exam as a takehome. What’s more, the first five questions were True or False. Surprisingly, only two students got all five questions right. Sounds like quite a Conundrum to me…


1. Twelfth Night is named after a holiday in December.

2. Gloucester (in King Lear) has two sons; the bastard one is named Edmund.

3. Katherine of Valois was wife to Henry V, mother to Henry VI, and grandmother to Henry VII.

4. Based on evidence in Hamlet, it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare may have read at least some of the writings of Sigmund Freud.

5. The title of The Merchant of Venice refers to a Jewish merchant named Shylock.

I should point out that the five questions combined were ten percent of an exam that was ten percent of the final grade, so these questions alone were not enough to affect anyone’s final grade. I don’t believe in trying to trick students, but I felt that a takehome exam deserved a little extra bite. The rest of the exam was short answer and essay and was very straightforward.

Can anyone answer all five questions correctly?


Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

In the 1950’s, Alan Turing suggested that artificial intelligence would not truly exist until a machine could pass a particular test, which we today call a “Turing Test.” It goes like this: a human examiner poses a question to two unseen participants, who return typewritten responses. The examiner knows that one of the participants is human and the other is a machine, but does not know which is which. The examiner must determine which is the human and which is the machine based on the responses returned. If the machine can fool the human examiner, it passes the Turing Test.

Today, however, it’s the machines who have much more of a need to make this determination. With automated spam-bots trolling the Internet, many Web 2.0 sites and blogs have had to adopt automated mechanisms for determining if the contributor is a live human being or not. One common method is a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), which shows an OCR-proof graphic image of letters and asks the would-be contributor to type those letters out. Spam-bots can’t read graphic images, at least not yet.

But, as in any arms race, the opposition hasn’t given up just yet. Some enterprising young hacker has put together a program to lure humans into helping crack CAPTCHA codes in the guise of a strip tease program. Type in the correct CAPTCHA code and “Melissa” takes off another article of clothing. Never mind that you’ve just helped give an automated program human bona fides.

Hoping to harness the same energies for good rather than evil, a group working out of Carnegie Mellon has released a program called reCAPTCHA, which has the user demonstrate humanity while also contributing to it. When encountering a reCAPTCHA, the user will enter the text of a word that OCR technology wasn’t able to read, which is meant to speed up the ongoing effort to digitize print books. A known word is included as well, as a human-check.

That sounds like a worthwhile cause, except then the user has twice as much to type to contribute a comment. I haven’t put any CAPTCHA on this blog, yet, because I want to encourage people to post comments freely. But I have to say that I do spend a good amount of time deleting spam, and so when I’m ready to go Turing, maybe reCAPTCHA is the way to go.

The whole reCAPTCHA idea reminds me of the ESP Game, in that it allows users across the Web to contribute to a piece of a mostly automated project that only humans can do. Actually, both of these schemes remind me of the ESP game, except that one is good and one is evil.

And I hope we need no Turing Test to tell us which is which.

Speaking of Samuel Johnson…

Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Speaking of Samuel Johnson, you can read the Preface to his landmark 1755 dictionary at this Rutgers English professor’s university page.

It’s worth checking out, if not to gain a deeper insight into this unique moment in the art of lexicography and the development of the English language, then at least to enjoy Dr. Johnson’s wry prose style.

Surveys on Moral Philosophy and More!

Friday, March 30th, 2007

If you’re interested, you can take this survey on your intuitions of causation.

If you like this sort of thing, you can head on over to Harvard and take these kinds of tests all day. Start with the Moral Sense Test and the Moral Sense Test 2.

Then check out the series of Mind Surveys.

There are also surveys on Visual Cognition, Music Universals, and Implicit Preferences.

Have a good weekend.

The End Is Nigh

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Yesterday, I assured you that there was no need to worry about super-sentient robots taking over the world and ruling humanity. Then, I read about this.

Researchers at Cornell have announced the creation of self-replicating robots. These are robots that are designed to build exact copies of themselves. They are made up of identical building blocks (cleverly named “molecubes”), each of which contains all of the information needed for the program, not unlike DNA. The current version is simple, only able to self-replicate, but they have big plans for the future:

Although these experimental robots work only in the limited laboratory environment, Lipson suggests that the idea of making self-replicating robots out of self-contained modules could be used to build working robots that could self-repair by replacing defective modules. For example, robots sent to explore Mars could carry a supply of spare modules to use for repairing or rebuilding as needed, allowing for more flexible, versatile and robust missions. Self-replication and repair also could be crucial for robots working in environments where a human with a screwdriver couldn’t survive.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but add the idea of self-replicating robots to yesterday’s discussion of robot evolution and now we have ourselves a problem. You see, the only elements that are needed for evolution are self-replication, the possibility of error in that replication, and a competitive environment. The errors that increase the chance of survival within that environment will then spread throughout the population, leading to the inevitable evolution of something entirely new.

But what, you ask, are the odds of robots actually being put in a position where they will be able to reproduce and evolve? Um, how about one hundred percent? Because you just know that this is exactly what researchers are going to do once they have the ability to do it – put self-replicating robots (with the possibility for random mutations) in a competitive environment and see what evolves. Hell, that’s the first thing I’d do, and I’m the one warning you about it. Even if it leads to the destruction of humanity, it’s too cool. It must be done.

But then the robots evolve laser-guided heat-seeking missles before the experimenter has the chance to flip the off switch, and the evolving robots run amok in the wild, mutating and evolving at breakneck speed. And then, one day, humanity gets a bitter lesson in the true meaning of “survival of the fittest.”

So that’s it then. We’re all doomed. Long live the age of the robot.

Brain Man

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

This week, 60 Minutes did a fascinating piece on a remarkable young man named Daniel Tammet:

Twenty-four years ago, 60 Minutes introduced viewers to George Finn, whose talent was immortalized in the movie “Rainman.” George has a condition known as savant syndrome, a mysterious disorder of the brain where someone has a spectacular skill, even genius, in a mind that is otherwise extremely limited.

Morley Safer met another savant, Daniel Tammet, who is called “Brain Man” in Britain. But unlike most savants, he has no obvious mental disability, and most important to scientists, he can describe his own thought process. He may very well be a scientific Rosetta stone, a key to understanding the brain.

Tammet has a condition known as synesthesia, which is when the brain gets its wires crossed, and two or more senses overlap. In some cases, days of the week might seem to the afflicted to have their own personalities (as they do here at Shakespeare Teacher). In other cases, particular years might, for an individual, occupy specific locations in space. In Tammet’s case, he can actually see numbers.

“I see numbers in my head as colors and shapes and textures. So when I see a long sequence, the sequence forms landscapes in my mind,” Tammet explains. “Every number up to 10,000, I can visualize in this way, has it’s own color, has it’s own shape, has it’s own texture.”

For Tammet, 289 is an ugly number. He describes 333 as very beautiful. Pi is “one of the most beautiful things in all the world.” In fact, Tammet holds the European record for reciting the digits of pi from memory, rattling off 22,514 digits without error in just over 5 hours. In my very best attempt, I have not been able to recite half that many.

Fans of the blog know me as an armchair brain science researcher, so I’m naturally fascinated by the idea of synesthesia. What other forms might it take? Could there be people who can smell the letters of the alphabet? Would a metaphor have a different taste than a hyperbole? Could you fall in love with a time of day? And would all people with the same kinds of synesthesia map their senses out the same way? We all know what a green square looks like, but would another person with Tammet’s brand of synesthesia agree with him about what 2,192 looks like? In other words, does 2,192 have an inherent visual representation and he’s the only one who can tell us what it looks like, or is his mind inventing its own unique schema to help it make sense of a neural configuration that was never supposed to happen? And if it’s the latter, what is the logic behind that system? Every question leads to more questions. But for scientists – um, real scientists – some of the answers may lie with Tammet himself.

There are maybe 50 savants alive today. These abilities generally go along with some kind of autism, making it difficult for researchers to interview the subjects and learn about the condition. But Tammet’s autism is very mild, and he’s able to articulate his experiences and provide researchers with a unique insight.

Tammet’s abilities, and disabilities, are described in much greater detail in this article in the Guardian from about two years ago, as well as some insight on what brain science researchers hope to gain from working with him:

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University, is interested in what Mänti might teach us about savant ability. “I know of other savants who also speak a lot of languages,” says Baron-Cohen. “But it’s rare for them to be able to reflect on how they do it – let alone create a language of their own.” The ARC team has started scanning Tammet’s brain to find out if there are modules (for number, for example, or for colour, or for texture) that are connected in a way that is different from most of us. “It’s too early to tell, but we hope it might throw some light on why we don’t all have savant abilities.”

The clip below is the second of two from a British documentary about Tammet. You can view the first one here if you’re interested. The clip below is just over eight minutes long. I’m including it here so you can see the first four minutes, where Tammet describes how he “sees” numbers. If you want to watch the last four minutes, though, you can see Tammet meet Kim Peek, the real-life person on whom “Rain Man” is based.

Armchair Brain Science Research

Friday, January 12th, 2007

There has been some Internet buzz over an obnoxious Christopher Hitchen’s piece (is there any other kind) in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. This post isn’t about the piece or the buzz, but if you’re interested, you can read some good responses here and here by people who seem to like Hitchens less than I do and are willing to use more ribald language than I am to say so.

The reason I even bring it up at all is that he cites a study from Stanford University that’s far more worth discussing than anything he has to say about it:

According to a new Stanford University School of Medicine study, gender affects the way a person’s brain responds to humor.

The first-of-its-kind imaging study showed that women activate the parts of the brain involved in language processing and working memory more than men when viewing funny cartoons. Women were also more likely to activate with greater intensity the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings in response to new experiences.

Okay, that makes sense. The brain is stimulated when it has to readjust to an unexpected outcome to a scenario, like the caption of a cartoon or the punchline of a joke. The result of this dissonance is perceived by our brains as funny, and this study demonstrates that women experience the effect more profoundly than men.

But, wait a minute! Doesn’t that sound a lot like the effect that was described by the University of Liverpool study that I blogged about last week:

Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English, said: “The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as ‘he godded me’ from the tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited. By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity – a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Just like a joke! Except that instead of a one-shot deal that makes us laugh, Shakespeare hits us with shift after shift until we’re carried away on a brain-chemical high. When Shakespeare finally gives us a release, it can be extremely intense emotionally. But the two studies appear to be describing the very same process.

So, based on these two studies, one might expect women to be more profoundly affected by Shakespeare than men would be. That is to say that women would feel more intensely the rewarding feelings (Stanford study) that Shakespeare’s use of language has been demonstrated to generate (Liverpool study).

I don’t mean to be an armchair brain science researcher or anything, but this might make for an interesting follow-up study. And clearly, some informal preliminary field research on my part is in order immediately.