All entries for October 2005

October 30, 2005

Cranky Mathematics

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The internet has provided a wonderful outlet for cranks from self-appointed messiahs such as David Icke (who claims the Pope, the Queen and George Bush are literally baby eating lizards) through to the curious delights of Gene Ray's 4 dimensional time cube.

Recently I stumbled across the website CRANK DOT NET which provides the service of "presenting Web sites by and about cranks, crankism, crankishness, and crankosity". Surprisingly there is an entire section devoted to what one might call Maths Cranks – brave souls fighting the conspiracy of teachers and professional mathematicians who have been lying to us all these years that two and two make four, and you cannot divide by zero.

Take the first link, for example, called Zim Mathematics in which we learn that "All Mathematics is equal" although the meaning of this mysterious sentiment is not elaborated on. Navigating the website leads to many a bizarre equation. For example, I defy anyone to make sense of anything on the Quantity = Quality page, which contains such exotic incoherency as…

Quan Quan => Qual ; Unsubordinate Fact
(N1 + N2 + N3) (A + B + C)
A = Not A
1 1 = > 1x
1 Sheep + 1 Ram ( Sheep + Not Sheep + Ram + Not Ram)

(That last has to be my favourite.)

October 28, 2005

The Thick of it

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The great political comedy The Thick of it can now be watched in online at the BBC 4 website. Unmissable stuff.

October 27, 2005

Francis Wheen

Writing about web page,6109,1140156,00.html

Francis Wheen is perhaps my favourite writer, broadcaster and journalist. He writes the Street of Shame column in Private Eye in which he exposes the hypocrisy and in-house scandals of stories in Britain's newspapers.

His recent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World makes a case for the decline of reason over the last quarter of a century. Wheen's targets include the rise of theocracy in the Middle East and, arguably, Republican America; the increasing fashionability for New-Agism in Britain, including the increase in lifestyle Gurus and alternative medicine; the sillier aspects of postmodern thinking; the unquestioning worship of lassez-faire market principles and the teaching of creation mythology as science in some British schools. The best thing about Wheen is his no-nonsense, cutting prose style – almost every sentence could act as a stand-alone quotation. It is controversial and refreshing stuff.

A brief introduction to Wheen's writing is available at the Guardian webpage Francis Wheen's top 10 modern delusions. His Radio 4 programme The History of Folly can be listened to on-line here.

October 21, 2005

Google Scholar (Advanced Search)

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I'm just starting my PhD and so am lost in the Fangornian forest of potential reading materials. There are many ways to locate material but I'd like to share a method I am increasingly favouring over others because I find it produces a tighter focus.

  1. Think of a seminal paper pertinent to your area of research
  2. Go to Google Scholar's advanced search page
  3. Enter the title and author in the corresponding boxes
  4. Click search
  5. Assuming your paper appears click the "Cited by" link

That produces a list of (possibly less well known) papers likely to be helpful. No doubt there are other ways to locate citations but it works for me and led to an extremely useful paper that other methods missed.

I'd be interested to know if others have found stategies to help "filter" their literature hunts.

October 16, 2005

The End is Nigh!

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We're lucky to be here at all in this month of October in the year 2005. We have survived the Millennium Bug, skipped the predictions of Nostradamus, dodged strikes by city-sized meteors and redeemed ourselves from the dire apocalypses foreseen by many a prophet. But we're not out of the woods yet! For the globe is warming and bird 'flu is spreading and God is coming and Big Brother technology is almost here and… well I could go on.

Check out this website for a telling, informative and humorous round up of End of the World panics and hoo-has, both past and present.

But hurry whilst earth lasts!

October 12, 2005

The vaccination approach to presenting research

Researchers often acknowledge the likelihood of distortion, bias or flaws in their approach and data. This is commendable of course, except that they then typically continue unabated. It seems merely listing possible gremlins in the works immunises conclusions from any ill-effects. All manner of things can be vaccinated against in this way – contextual factors, unrepresentative test subjects, inexhaustive trialling, suggestive questioning and so on and so on.

Well, now I've said that I'm permantly protected against being accused of glossing over problems in my own research. Funny thing is I had a flu jab today too.

October 11, 2005

Nineteen Eighty Four

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My favourite book is 1984 by George Orwell. When I first read it as a teenager it had a profound impact on me. At the time I was just realising that the world is a pretty screwed up place, all in all, yet my peers and most adults accepted it cheerfully and without question, or at least seemed to. In Winston Smith, the book's protagonist, I found a soul mate – another who knew something was deeply wrong but couldn't express it nor find an ally in his plight.

Particularly profound was when Winston obtains a copy of the banned book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by underground resistance leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Just as Winston had found a description of the true nature of reailty in Goldstein's book, so had I in Orwell's book.

I'm older now and naturally no longer have such a messianic opinion of 1984. But I have read it many times and, though I have never studied it formally, have spotted the following apparent flaws and problems:-

  • In the first chapter Winston turns down the volume on the telescreen. Why would he ever have turned it up to need turning down?
  • Why are telescreens unaffected by power cuts?
  • Why do O'Brien and others write the Goldstein book? Is it accurate?
  • Is The Times actually published and printed? If so how can it be constantly rewritten with any credibility?
  • How does Julia obtain real coffee etc? Is it from corrupt inner party members and if so does she sleep with them? – if so why is she interested in pasty outer-party Winston and his itchy ulcer? If she just buys it on the black market then how come Winston never got in on the action with all his visits to prole areas?
  • Is there a genuine affinity between O'Brien and Winston? Does O'Brien take more time and effort over winston than your average subversive?

If anyone has any solutions to these, or any problems of their own with the book, I would be intrigued to hear.

October 10, 2005

From naive clarity to informed fuzziness

As I start my doctorate I have much reading to do into the nature of social science research and how to go about it.

There seems to be a prevailing notion of starting out foggy and unsure and, as the object of study is painstakingly constructed, becoming increasingly focused. Initial ideas and research questions can be expected to change and should not be set in stone. A continuous convergence emerges as one refines the problem until finally it is crystallised and clear.

But that's not how I'm feeling as I take the first step on a journey of 1000 miles. Instead I see myself as starting out with a sense of naive clarity and fairly precise ideas. I hope and expect, after three years, to have moved towards a sense of informed fuzziness. Neither do I feel the need to ensure my current naive clarity be flexible. I prefer to think that it is brittle and inevitably going to be smashed to bits when tested in the field. From the rubble will emerge the phoenix of a new set of ideas – less sure, less clear and all the better for it. Ideally this process will continue iteratively with each working hypothesis getting smashed against the rocks to make way for the next. The whole thing will be messy, discontinuous and painful – but hopefully thorough.

Then again perhaps I should get off Warwick Blogs and go do some reading instead.

October 05, 2005

Jones's Blog or Jones' Blog?

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There is a take-away food shop near my house called Wongs.

If it was written with an apostrophe, as in Wong's then the name of the shop would mean "the place belonging to a person called Wong". But as it stands, written Wongs, it means instead "many people called Wong". I'm almost tempted to commit my first ever act of graffiti and go and spray an apostrophe late one night.

A fascinating insight to the origins and usage of the apostrophe in modern English is available at the excellent website The Dreaded Apostrophe. It starts with the improbable-sounding claim that there is one rule, only one rule and nothing but one rule to using the apostrophe:

Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

Pretty obvious for contractions such as don't but less obvious for possessives such as Wong's Shop.

The website explains that the rule holds for possessives because in old English you used to add an 'es' to nouns. So in old English we would write the bookes title ; the bookses titles ; the womenes hats and so on. In modern English the apostrophe replaces the 'es' in words ending 'ses' and replaces the 'e' is words ending 'es' (without a preceding 's'.) So we have the book's title ; the books' titles ; the women's hats and so on.

Sometimes it's optional. Joneses blog in old English becomes either Jones's blog or Jones' blog and both are correct.

That said it can still be confusing. For example, consider how to rearrange the following to use a possessive form instead of 'of'...

The hats of the mothers-in-law.
The hat of the mothers-in-law. (i.e. many mothers-in-law have shared ownership of one hat – improbable I know!)
The hats of Bill and Ben.
The hat of Bill and Ben. (Bill and Ben have shared ownership of one hat.)
The budget of the union of the students.

October 2005

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  • So true. I am tired of these so–called global warming theories. by Desi on this entry
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