All entries for September 2009

September 28, 2009

The Photoelectric Effect

Alexander's Alternative Definition

The Photo-Electric Effect

For those who like Physics. The reason this post is so ultra-short is because I don't have Internet in my new house yet so I have taken my laptop to the library but there is no power socket so I'm running on battery and I'm running low but I'll be back with more around the 2nd October okay thanks bye.

September 23, 2009

Choosing 2nd Year Modules

Inspired by this post, I decided to talk about the different modules I plan to take this year. If you're not a maths person, you can take pleasure in knowing that you will never have to know about this stuff. Also, it's a good way to get an idea of how many different areas Mathematics cover. It's not just one big 'Maths' module.

First, the compulsory ones (Core modules):

Second Year Essay: I have a friend who studies Politics (at Warwick). She always has at least two essays she's working on. We Maths students, on the contrary, only have yearly essays, which is of course totally sweet. And as if that weren't enough, we also get to choose the topic! I haven't decided on that one yet, though I'm wavering between Mathematics-of-Card-Shuffling and Something-To-Do-With-Chaos-Theory. The maths behind the Rubik's Cube could also be fun to have a look at, but I wonder if my tutor would accept that.

Differentiation: You'd think that by the end of our first year Maths course we would at least have covered differentiation. But oh no, it has only just started. From what I've gathered, it's about differentiating several functions of several variables. A generalised notion of a derivative, basically.

Vector Analysis: I've heard it's a bit like Geometry and Motion, with paths and trajectories and areas and surfaces and volumes and change of coordinates and all that.

Analysis III: I know what this is all about: formally defining integrals. Judge all you want, but I actually liked Analysis I and II. Learn and understand definitions of intuitive notions ("increasing", "tending to a limit", "continuous" ...), and rigorously work from there to prove complex theorems that often seems dead obvious when you think about them, that's what I like. Also the overall direction was very clear. I think I'll like this.

Algebra I: Also known as Advanced Linear Algebra. I wasn't too keen on Linear Algebra last year; it went from being mind-numbingly boring to over-your-head difficult. But I've made peace with eigenvalues and eigenvectors over the summer, so I think it'll be all right in the end. It'd better be; it's compulsory.

Algebra II: This is basically Group Theory, as far as I know. We touched a bit of Group Theory in college, and since then it has had a few cameo appearances in lectures. I don't understand what all the fuss is about, the definition of a Group seems rather straightforward to me, albeit a bit pointless. I hear Group Theory is a crucial concept in Mathematics, though.

Now we get to the optional ones, of which I still have to take a certain amount:

Metric Spaces: There's something magical about this. I've read ahead on this topic, and every time I read something new, I get this tingling feeling of delight in my stomach. There's just something neat about visualising metric spaces in your head. Maybe it's because I know that this is what leads to Topology, that it gets me so excited. Metric Spaces, please don't disappoint me.
This isn't strictly speaking a compulsory module, but one must take either that or...

Partial Differential Equations. And I've chosen both. PDEs don't appeal to me in the same way Metric Spaces do, but I've been told it's a useful tool to have. Although I know exactly what the module is about -- it's differential equations, but using partial derivatives instead of normal ones (duh) -- I have no idea of the difficulty, the concepts, the scope or whether I'm going to like it or not. We shall see.

Geometry: I want to do Geometry. Proper, formal geometry. Yes.

Mathematics of Random Events: The title sounds tantalising, but I guess the content is what matters. From what I can tell from the description on the Maths Department's website, this is something of a mixture between Analysis and Probability. While I adored Analysis, I abhorred Probability, so this is going to be an interesting one. But come on, "This module aims to provide an introduction to the mathematical ideas and language underlying the notion of randomness, which permeates through much of modern mathematics, as well as statistics and probability theory." I mean, who can resist that?

Stochastic Processes: Another module linked to probabilities. As much as I dislike probability, it is an important area in the mathematical world, and I know I can't try to work my way around it. So I might as well meet it face on, with my head high and a positive attitude. Besides, we did a bit of stochastics in college, and that wasn;t too bad. Also, I like the idea behind random walks, and that's one of the topics that will be covered, I believe.

Mathematical Economics A: Last year I did Introduction to Quantitative Economics, which was essentially Economics from a mathematical point of view. The one aspect I really enjoyed about the module was Game Theory. Game Theory is, in a nutshell, a mathematical study of what happens when two people play a game but they don't know what move the other person is going to do. Rock-paper-scissors style. Now, Mathematical Economics A is all about Game Theory, and nothing else it would seem. And I think it's fun.

Mathematical Methods for Physicists II: I'm no physicist, but this module was recommended to me by an older student, because it provides a nice introduction to something called Fourier Analysis. I have no clue what that is, but it comes up in later years and is a big thing. It should also be noted that while the word 'Physicists' is in the title of the module and while the exercises will probably be Physics-oriented, the actual content of the module is (apparently) purely mathematical. Which is a good thing.

Quantum Mechanics and its Applications: Last year I did Quantum Phenomena which was okay, if not a bit dull. Quantum Mechanics should provide a more mathematical and abstract presentation of Quantum Physics, which is just the way I want it. I am, however, taking this module tentatively, because I've been told it's a heavy load and it might not be so fun in the long run. But I want to give it a chance.

C programming: For the uninitiated, 'C' is the name of a programming language. I really like programming, although I would still qualify myself as a beginner. It's a kind of hobby for me, except I ought to spend more time doing it if I want it to become a serious pastime. Last year's module about Java programming was a good introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, but according to my friend and local Computer Scientist, Sarah, C is a much better language for programming games, a skill I would love to develop and perfect. After all, why else would you want to program?

Finally, there's Russian for Scientists. I definitely won't be doing this for credit, but I'm considering doing it for fun anyway, because I love languages and because I have a Russian-speaking friend. Plus, being able to say that you know a bit of Russian sounds awesome. Doing it for no credit also means I can easily drop it if it becomes too much of a burden.

All that brings me to a total of 173 CATS. The minimum is 120, maximum 180, and recommended maximum 150, the most sensible thing to do for me is to drop one or several of these modules as soon as I know which ones displease me the most.

Little side note explanation here: non-UK people often get confused when I talk about CATS, the Credit Accumulation Transfer Scheme, since they are used to ECTS, the European Credit Transfer System. ECTS is part of the Bologna process to make educational systems in Europe more comparable, which is why most European countries now use ECTS -- except England. The systems can still be compared, though, as 1 ECTS point = 2 CATS points. The irony is that "ECTS" is an English abbreviation.

September 18, 2009

I Love Life

I have in my room a poster, with the title "I ♥ LIFE". Upon it is a picture of a sunset, along with 50 pieces of advice. I thought I'd share them with you.

We are all born to die. What is important is what we do in between.
The following advice should make your life enjoyable, as well as for those around you.

1. Say "Hello" to people. It's amazing what a "Hello" from you can do for individuals.
2. Say "Please" and "Thank you", even when you don't have to. Instead of saying something crude like "Get out of here and don't come back", you should say, "Please get out of here and don't come back. Thank you." Notice the difference? Sure you do.
3. To live a life in fear is cowardly. Learn to face your fears head on.
4. Look after your teeth - even though they can be replaced.
5. Look after your eyes - they can't be replaced.
6. Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do or what you want out of life when in your twenties. The most interesting people I know still don't know what they want to do with their lives - and they're in their forties!
7. Don't worry about the future. You cannot plan or change what's coming.
8. Be on good terms with as many people as possible.
9. Make your point quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
10. Avoid loud and aggressive people.
11. Avoid people with a negative outlook or opinion.
12. Don't expect anyone else to support you. You may have an inheritance or a wealthy spouse. But one day either could run out on you.
13. Don't compare yourself with others, you may become bitter or vain; there will always be greater or lesser people than yourself.
14. Decide for yourself what's important for you in your life.
15. Keep interested in your chosen career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing forunes of time.
16. Exercise caution in your business affairs; the world is full of con men, get rich quick schemes, deceit and fraud.
17. Be yourself. Let your personality shine through.
18. Accept that other people will always appear to have more luck than you in health, jons, love, wealth, friends and life in general. However it's all half chances. So don't feel bad or aggrieved. Be happy with your lot; it's your life and no-one else's.
19. Enjoy your achievements and look forward to your plans.
20. Don't waste time, it's a precious commodity. Life is short, enjoy it to the full; it's not a dress rehearsal.
21. Hang on to your dreams, whatever they may be. Ignore the doubters; they're just jealous because they don't have any.
22. Don't work too hard for your employers; they only care about what you can do for them.
23. There's more to life than a job. When it gets you down, get a new or better one, even if it's at a lower salary. Money isn't everything.
24. Don't vote for the same politician twice; make them work for a change. Voting for them only encourages arrogance.
25. You can't buy happiness or love, so don't even try. Some things in life are free.
26. To be loved and wanted is one of life's greatest feelings. Return the favour in equal measure.
27. Do not fake affection, be honest and truthful about your feelings.
28. If you love and care about someone, tell them before it's too late. It's the things you don't say you regret the most.
29. In a loving relationship, do not count the years, count the moments.
30. Keep all your love letters. Read them when you are down and feeling unloved.
31. Get to know your parents. You'll miss them when they've gone for good. Do it before it's too late.
32. Be nice to your siblings. They are your best link to your past and your future.
33. You're not going to get much out of life, if you only ever do what's safe.
34. A person who dies rich, dies in disgrace. Donate money to worthy causes, you'll feel better for it.
35. Make the best possible effort in everything you do in your life, while you can. Be part of life and participate in it.
36.  Enjoy your freedom; you'll appreciate it more if it's taken away from you.
37. Pass on your wisdom, and learn from others.
38. Cherish every moment with your children, they are only young once in their life.
39. Do not criticise your children too much, as they could be bitter towads you afterwards. Praise them more than you criticise.
40. If you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything at all.
41. Practise the Teflon technique, where others' negativity slides off you. Everybody suffers insults and put-downs.
42. Fear of failure is no excuse for not trying. There are only two failures in life: not trying and giving up. Nothing comes to those who will not try.
43. Quit moaning. Put your energy in to doing something positive about the problem instead.
44. Learn to cancel and continue. When actors make a mistake they instantly have to put it behind them and give their all to the next part. So when things go wrong, just try again. Don't fear future mistakes or hang onto past ones.
45. When you're angry with someone, do nothing until you've cooled down - or you'll say something you'll regret.
46. Try to be calm, you'll have a better chance of being heard. If you shout, the person you're telling off will hear your anger - rather than the point you're trying to make.
47.  Dance or sing on a regular basis. By yourself, with your spouse or in a group, but just do it. Either will make you feel good.
48. Every year make 5 promises. Try to keep at least one of them.
49. Exercise on a regular basis. It's good for your body as well as your mind, so exercise by running, playing sports or in the gym.
50. Never trust a skinny cook.

September 16, 2009

Minor Frustrations #1

I have started making a list (I love lists) of all the little things people do, that I personally find irritating. I'm not talking about the big issues that some people dedicate their lives to changing, I just want to address some the minor frustrations that don't really cause me any serious problems, but which would nevertheless be cool to get rid of. I guess the most exact description I'm looking for is: things that make me frown at people. Not visibly, but just silently in my head.

So here goes the first one. If you have read the blog so far, you may have an idea of what is coming.

I mentally frown at people who... consistently use bad grammar, spelling or pronunciation when writing or speaking. Non-native speakers are excused, and the occasional mistake by native speakers is also easily overlooked, but chronically ignoring the inner workings of a language, is in my opinion not OK.

I'll point out some of the baddies:

- "Definately". The word is actuallt spelt "definitely", but it seems that only a minority knows this. Maybe people confuse it with the spelling of "fortunately", however the two words have completely different roots: "Fortune" -> "Fortunate" -> "Fortunately"; "Finite" -> "Definite" -> "Definitely". Writing "defiantly" is even more wrong, especially since this means something else. Please have a look at this awesome site.

- "Must of". It may sound right, but the proper expression is "must have". "He must of gone" is nonsensical.

- "Aks". Some people pronounce "ask" this way. I know it's a dialect thing, but to me it is still a blatant disregard for the actual spelling of the word. If the word is "A-S-K", you pronounce the "S" before the "K". No?

- "I didn't used to". The expression "I used to" is so automatic that people forget how the past tense works. It should be "didn't use to", without the "d", just like you say "I didn't like it" rather than "I didn't liked it". A few days ago, I winced when I saw for the first time the alternative "I usen't to". Also, I'm reminded of Ali G, who says in one of his clips (as a joke of course): "[This officer] is here to show us that drugs isn't something you should do, but something you should don't!"

Pronunciation of "ask"

And don't even get me started about "Your" and "You're"...

If you happen to agree with what I've said so far, you should have a look at this page, a collection of common mistakes in English. I use it myself as a reference sometimes, when in doubt.

Disclaimer: As a consequence of Muphry's Law, I am bound to make some typos and some grammatical mistakes in this post. I apologise in advance for those.

September 10, 2009

Anosmia FAQ

I can't smell.

I have congenital anosmia, meaning I have never been able to smell. Since people usually have never heard of this condition, they tend to ask the same kind of questions. So, as a way of informing you about anosmia in general, and as an illustration of how unimaginative people are, here's a collection of things I get asked very often.


Q: What do you mean, you can't smell?
A: It simple, really. I just can't smell anything. My nose doesn't work. It's like being blind or deaf, except that your sense of smell is lacking, rather than your sight or hearing.

Q: Do you have a cold?
A: No I don't have a cold.

Q: Are you taking the mick out of me?
A: No I'm not joking. Check Wikipedia or WrongDiagnosis. I'm not making this up.

Q: So you really can't smell anything?
A: No.

Q: Can you smell food, or flowers? Or farts?
A: NO.

Q: Can you smell perfume?
A: Is it the 'N' or the 'O' that you don't get?

Q: How come you can't smell?
A: I don't know, really. I was born that way.

Q: Isn't it nice that you can't smell all the bad things, like garbage trucks or people with body odour?
A: Yeah I guess so. Now imagine if I lost all my other senses as well, I wouldn't be able to hear all the bad music and tragic news in the radio, or see all the ugly people and buildings in this world, or feel any pain whatsoever. I'd be the happiest man on Earth. Right?
Also, I'd like to point out that being being unable to smell the dog poo you trod in this morning, is not an advantage.

Q: Can you taste?
A: Why does this question always crop up? Blaaaargh! See? I've got a tongue. That's all you need in order to taste stuff.

Q: But when I pinch my nose I can't taste anything. So how come you can taste if you can't smell?
A: I dare you to pinch your nose and then take a large bite out of a lemon. Then think about your first statement again.

Q: If you can't use your nose, then you can only taste sweet, salt, sour, and bitter (plus umami if we are to believe those zany Japanese). So doesn't that mean that you can't taste as much as normal people?
A: There's some truth hidden in this, but I'd like to be precise about the vocabulary we use here. 'Taste' is the the sensorial input we get from out tongue, 'smell' is what we get from our nose. Combine these two, and you get 'flavour'. Often, however, people mistakenly use the word 'taste' when they mean 'flavour', because they don't realise that at least 3/4 of the experience they get from eating is actually provided by their nose. So in my case, I don't get all of the flavour (I lack the smelling part), but I certainly get all the taste. What this means in practice, is that the sensorial input I get is different from what you get, probably weaker. Most spices affect the taste of the food very little (with a few exceptions like curry or pepper), so words like "parsley" or "saffron" mean nothing to me, and I'm still amazed that other people can actually tell the difference between those. The difference between canned food and fresh food is almost non-distinguishable in my mouth - as long as we're talking about the same product, of course. A lot of kinds of tea taste exactly the same to me, although I've heard someone say that this is not too unusual. Also, a lot of sweets are based on smell, so something that is meant to taste like strawberry, simply has a nice sweet taste to me. However, saying that I'm limited to four basic tastes is very misleading, since everything still has its own taste to me. To take an example where texture and temperature give no hints: I can taste the difference between apple juice, orange juice, ananas juice, grape juice, cranberry juice, blueberry juice, tropical juice, ... Heck, sometimes I can even taste the difference between different brands of water (as long as they're not too similar). I don't like the taste of salad, and I prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, so saying I can't taste is plain wrong.
Something that is also worth taking into account, is that since I don't get the smell of food, I tend to focus on other things such as temperature and (especially) texture. Nothing beats the feeling of teeth slowly grinding through the flesh of a ripe apple. Fried potatoes is the perfect balance between soft and crunchy. "Squishy" foods, however, like mushrooms, make me want to gag. Redberries have a nice taste, but they get stuck in the teeth afterwards. And so on.

I think the best analogy I've heard, is that being anosmic is like being totally colour blind. When you watch TV, you can still see everything that is going on, and understand it perfectly, you just don't get the colours. In the same way, when you can't smell, you can still enjoy food and get the taste, but you don't get the full experience because you're lacking the smell.

There are other much more interesting questions, but I never get asked those. I'll include a few of these Unfrequently Asked Qustions, for fun:

Q: Do you know anyone else with anosmia?
A: No, but I wish I did.

Q: Is there a cure for anosmia?
A: No. Most doctors haven't even heard of it. I don't think that some kind of cure would be too hard to find, but the problem is that the condition is so uncommon, not to mention unimportant, that little research has been done. Medical students, get crackin'!

Q: When did you discover that you couldn't smell?
A: By the age of 15, I had understood that something wasn't quite right, but when I was 18 did I fully realise that I couldn't smell anything. The realisation came in the same time as the discovery that there were other people out there with the same problem.

Q: Why did it take you so long to realise?
A: That's an interesting question that would take us into a long discussion about subconscious beliefs, social conformity and the philosophy of knowledge and perception. I might save that for another post. The short answer is that I thought it was something you gradually learned as you grew up. The surprise wasn't only that I couldn't smell, but that others could.

Q: Do you get annoyed when people talk about smells?
A: No! I can understand why you'd think I would, but no! If someone says, "It smells really nice here," I'm glad he's actually informing me that the present smell is nice. Otherwise, how would I ever know? If someone compliments me on my perfume or deodorant, I feel exhilerated because I then know that I smell good, and I'm somehow relieved. If someone forgets that I can't smell, I don't feel offended because I know they don't do it on purpose. Rather, I'm strangely amused and uplifted by the way they profusely apologise afterwards. It's like a comedy show, in a way.

Q: If you could fix your sense of smell, would you do it?
A: Er... I'm not sure I would, actually. If someone offered me an operation that could give me a sense of smell, chances are I would be too scared to take the operation, scared that afterwards I would be overwhelmed by a sensation I couldn't understand. If someone offered me a magical potion that could restore my olfactory abilities, I would buy it and then hide it somewhere in my closet, only to peek at it occasionally in a mixture of awe and fear.
If I ever did drink it, it would be out of curiosity rather than longing to smell.

You can't miss what you've never had.

September 06, 2009


Imagine a world where computers are dominating society. Not in a frigtening Terminator-end-of-the-world-way, but in a more peaceful, natural way. Humans have developed artificial intelligences so powerful and advanced that they can perform any task a human is capable of, only way faster and much more efficiently. Technology is progressing at a rate faster than ever, so fast indeed that no human is in fact able to keep track. Work in general is done by self-sufficient machines, leaving human beings to indulge themselves in whatever they take pleasure in. A world of leisure, rather than labour.

This in itself isn't an unrealistic scenario. We are getting better at building robots and developing Artificial Intelligence. In the 40's computers were "primitive" objects that few people had heard of or cared about; today most everyone in the Western world owns a PC, and computers are assisting humans in a multitude of tasks. The word "robot" was only invented in 1920, yet the field of robotics is in full bloom and new applications are constantly being found. In the future, it is likely that all trivial tasks within society will be performed by machines. Gradually, through training and self-learning AI, these can be taught to carry out more and more complex tasks. Eventually, we must reach a stage where we can build machines that are superior to humans and can take entirely care of us. The question is just how long it will take us to reach that stage. 1000 years? 500 years? 2000? More? Less?

Ray Kurzweil believes we will have reached this stage... by 2050.

This inventor and futurist is one of the most prominent advocator of what is known as the 'Technological Singularity'. In his article The Law of Accelerating Returns, he argues that technology will is progressing at an exponential rate, meaning that not only is it advancing faster and faster, the rate at which technology advances is itself also increasing faster and faster. This claim is supported by numerous graphs, Moore's Law, and also by the observation that, since computers are helping us advance technologically, faster computers means even faster progress, which in turn increases the computers capacities, and so on and so forth.



He then proposes the idea that we may soon reach the Singularity, a term which he loosely defines as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." The reasoning behind it is rather straightforward: Suppose we manage, one day, to build a supercomputer so powerful and intelligent, that it can perform any task a human would be able to, only better and faster. For instance, it will be able to design other supercomputers, even more powerful and sophisticated ones. These in turn will build computers that are even more advanced still. Quickly, we get an explosion of artificial intelligence, way beyond anything humans can fathom. This is the Singularity.

This event will lead to some radical changes in our lives, and we will have to reconsider some deep questions about what it means to be human. To keep up with the technological progress, it will become more and more common to enhance the capacities of certain humans, by genetically engineering their brain or body or by getting artificial machine implants that improve, say, your memory or your vision, thus effectively creating the first cyborgs (is this already happening?). Others will try to achieve eternal life, by gradually replacing every cell in their body by newer, healthier ones (using stem cell technology), or by transferring their brain pattern into an non-aging computer which perfectly emulates the input and output of the human brain. All the while, artificial intelligence wil develop and eventually reach a stage where it has become indistinguishable from humans in every aspect, which is going to raise questions about whether they should be treated as so.

All this may sound quite surreal, but Ray Kurzweil is not just some unimportant lunatic with a quixotical theory. Many academics before and after him have advanced similar scenarios, and a Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has now been created. Movements have also appeared, be it groups that embrace the Singularity and actively work to it about, or goups that have decided to fight the Singularity as they see it as a potentially dangerous, even apocalyptic, idea. However, there's still a lot of scepticism going on, and many are those who claim that it is nothing but wishful thinking, and that computers will never be able to simulate the powers of the human brain. Not to mention that the majority of people have probably never even heard a mention of the Singularity.

Ever since a friend of mine told me about it a few years ago, I have been fascinated by the subject. Whereas I do see the Singularity as something generally positive that is worth looking forward to, I am not entirely convinced that it will definitely happen. Of course, I don't know enough about either artificial intelligence or brain psychology to predict if computers will ever reach a superhuman level, but 2050 just sounds a little early to me. That being said, I sometimes find myself thinking about what a post-singularitarian society would look like, and hoping - even wishing - that I may live to see such a radical change take place on our planet. Lately I have also begun looking at ways to increase life expectancy, since I would hate to miss by only a few years the most mind-numbing and extraordinary milestones of human history.

For those who would like to learn more about this topic, Wikipedia is a good start. There are also a number of blogs out there with Singularity-related news, stories and essays: Singularity Hub, Sentient Developments, Transhuman Goodness. Finally, for those with a more artistic taste, I can recommend the Hob storyline from the Dresden Codak webcomic. Enjoy.

September 2009

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