Archive for the ‘Everyday Science’ Category

Mathematicians like to take the fun out of everything, according to non-mathematicians. I like think more of this as a fun-replacement, with a new language of fun that most people hate. This may be because the only thing I got for Christmas from Santa were math books. For example, K bought me this book, Things to do and make in the fourth dimension, which takes all sorts of mundane topics, like knots, and bubbles, and adds a fun-jection of math.

The Secretary Problem goes something like this: you are interviewing potential candidates for a secretary position, and there are twenty lined up outside the office waiting for their turn.  The interview is done one at a time.  We live in an archaic world where email communication is not possible, so your only chance to provide feedback to the candidates is to give them a yes or no at the end of their interview. We also live in a seller’s market, in the sense that once you say no, a candidate becomes so angry that he/she will storm off with a permanent grudge, never to return again. So you better be sure your ‘no’ is justified. You are also afraid that if you say yes to a candidate, there may have been someone further down the queue, who may have been better suited for the job.

This has (well, I think) a more direct application in the romance market. It also been called the Marriage Problem, which makes sense in a world where people date sequentially (assuming you aren’t dating multiple people simultaneously), and also that once you break up with someone, they will never come back. Once you marry someone, you are committed to them forever. That means you stop dating. You are also afraid of this:


. . . .

So obviously, math came in and found the least romantic way to optimally find happiness by avoiding the situation above, but also the one where you date 20 people, reject all of them out of risk averse-ness and end up alone forever. Not that being alone is some horrible life sentence anyways! Who decided that? Ugh. The point is, based on an assumed distribution the quality of your potential mates (I forget which one, probably normal?), the optimal strategy would be to take your entire useful dating life (let’s assume, you are planning on dating from when you are 18 to when you are 33), play the field without committing to anyone for the first 1/3 of that period (date until you are 23 sans commitment), and then choose the first person who comes along after this period which is better than anyone you observed previously. Obviously, there are risks, but without any foresight, this is theoretically the optimal way to maximize your chances of finding the best partner.

There are some potential caveats to why the direct transposition of the Secretary Problem onto the Marriage problem doesn’t make sense, so don’t run off and breakup with your person just yet:

  • Unlike interviews, your observations of eligible candidates can occur while you are still in a relationship. Well, take from this what you want, but I mean in the sense that while you are with someone, you are observing people around them, and are free to make passive evaluations on whether or not they would be a good partner without anyone being the wiser. This should mean that your search time goes down, since you are collecting information on what’s out there all the time.
  • Unlike interviews, your pool is changing. Sometimes, rapidly so. In the interviews, your pool of 20 candidates is captive, sitting there and waiting for you to make decisions. In romance, I’m going to assume that as you get older, and making a very simplifying assumption that you are looking for someone around your age (ahem), you are going to find that this pool is shrinking from death/marriage and commitment to people who are not you. I feel like once I hit 23 (which is ridiculous), the number of weddings popping up on Facebook started to blow up my newsfeed. Do these people know about the optimization? Did they all meet the best person right after their evaluation window ended? That means that you may have to spend more time searching before you find someone suitable.
  • Unlike interviews, you can observe what other people are doing and apply their experiences to your own search. Based on those previously mentioned weddings, your friends, what your family is telling you, you probably have a lot of research done for you on what a happy relationship looks like. You also have a lot of information on what a crazy relationship looks like.  You will probably use this in some way to better your understanding of what you are looking for, which makes your search time go down.
  • Your secretaries are interviewing their own secretaries. They may be applying the exact same type of optimization simultaneously, which makes the whole problem kind of a problem within a problem within a yeah . . .

Which one of these competing forces will win? I’m not sure, but I think that the last two are key.  I more than anyone would love a well-reasoned approach to all my living sources of happiness, but who really knows what they are doing?


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I started this post several weeks ago, before the end of term and deadlines took over.  Before the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and gun reform became a big topic.  

The Murder of Jordan Davis

The trial of Michael Dunn in the murder of 17 year old Jordan Davis, began at the end of 2012.  If you are new to the trial (like me), apparently, if you are at a gas station, and a group of teenagers blasting music is a bit loud for your liking, and then you shoot the car full of teenagers several times (who are unarmed, by the way) and then flee without telling the police, then this is an act of self-defense.  I think this is ridiculous.   Michael Dunn claims that he saw a shotgun, and thought the teens threatened his life.  It doesn’t explain why he would flee the scene and why he hid from the police.  I will be interested to see how the trial goes.

The Wild Wild Florida

Very un-technically, the Castle doctrine in the United States are the collection of laws that allow for the use of deadly force in the act of self defense against intruders on one’s property (protect your castle).   In some cases, this can itself be overreaching.  However, Stand Your Ground laws will do you one better and allow for the use of deadly force  outside of one’s home, and in the case of Mr. Dunn, it is being allowed anywhere.  Florida has famously found itself at the centre of a mess of “self-defense” related murders in recent months with its own Stand Your Ground law.  Getting to the point of ridiculous, a man was shot because he complained he was waiting too long for his pizza.

An Essay on Bargaining

I think the laws are inherently dangerous, and here’s why.  In its own twisted way, the interaction between a shooter and the victim is a negotiation or a bargain.  Each side communicates a commitment to an action, and then either follows through on that action, or doesn’t.  In other kinds of acts of bargaining, such as union-management negotiations, each side would communicate their demands, the actions they would commit to should those demands be met or not met, and sometimes, a signal that gives this commitment credibility.  In this case, union leaders could encourage members to fire them if they do not emerge from negotiations with the desired objectives.  This seems crazy, but what it does is sent a signal to management that the union’s demands are “binding and final”; leaders can’t leave with anything less without being fired.  It is less about career suicide and more about enforcing the credibility of a threat to stick to the original demands.

Another idea in bargaining theory is the idea of the “last clear chance”.  Sometimes in negotiations, it is advantageous to give the other party the “last chance” to change their minds.  Think about the simple game of chicken.  If somehow there was a perfect way to show that you are committed to driving straight no matter what, then you are placing the obligation to retreat (in order to avoid mutual destruction) on the shoulders of the other person.  The person who supposedly has the last say actually has none of the power, knowing they must bow to the credibility and commitment of their opponents.

Stand Your Ground laws affect both communication of credibility and the “last clear chance” principle.  First of all, it makes gun threats more credible since one can reasonably commit to shooting someone without having to worry about repercussions, like criminal charges (if it is in the name of self defense).  Additionally, Standing Your Ground means that the other party now has the “last clear chance” onus to retreat.  The responsibility of retreating is no longer on the individual making the threat of violent force.

The Problem?

This would all be great because it communicates to trespassers (Castle Doctrine) or random strangers (Stand Your Ground) that you have a gun, you are going to use it, they need to concede or face certain death.  In theory, it would mean the other party retreats faster and without protest in order to avoid getting shot, and this would make the world a safer happier place without all those trespassers and random strangers getting all up in your face at gas stations with their loud music.

The only problem in practice is that the act itself is not a clear cut act of bargaining on both sides.  In Jordan Davis’ murder, the teenagers were not aware that they were in the middle of a self-defense bargain.  They thought they were just arguing over the volume of their music with a grumpy stranger.  In the case of Yoshiro Hattori, he just happened to ring the doorbell of the wrong house.  And in the case of the Little Caesars pizza shooting, I’m sure the victim had no idea that the argument had escalated to a place where guns were necessary.  The problem in the Stand Your Ground laws is that they apply perfect rules of bargaining to imperfect situations where one side feels like it is absolved of all responsibility of diffusing a potentially fatal situation, and the other side is completely oblivious to the situation.

There are many other problems with Stand Your Ground laws.  For example, when does it no longer become a negotiation, and the party with the gun has actually no intent of withholding force?  What about it being used as a defense against pre-meditated murder?

What about the criticisms that the law is applied unevenly across racial groups?  It feels almost too easy to go there.  It is really difficult to get the numbers but this is a good start.

PBS: Stand Your Ground Laws

The laws are a great example of what happens when theory and practice don’t mix well.   Kind of like how hot-tempered gun owners and just about anyone else don’t mix either.

Some extra stuff to think about: 

Are Stand Your Ground defenses racist?

The death of Trayvon Martin

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The Dark Stuff

Have some time on your hands?  Here’s a read by the economist about how scientists are trying to confirm that the universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate ( it’s a long read if you, like me, have no physics background, be warned!)

The Dark Side of the Universe

The curious thing I got out of it was about the cosmological constant that Einstein erroneously placed in his first draft of the Theory of Relativity because he wanted to make the assumption that the universe is stationary (neither growing nor shrinking).  He later took it out and regretted ever putting it in there, but from the books I read when I was a teenager on Christianity and God creating the universe, the authors always explicitly stated that this was due to Einstein’s own atheism and his denial of the beginning of an existence.  There’s none of that mentioned in the article, nor in Wikipedia, and so now I’m starting to question who is making the omission here.  Was this a case of Christianity inserting itself into matters where it does not belong or of physicists who came after Einstein rewriting his history to make it more secular?

Either way, it now looks like the cosmological constant itself wasn’t such a mistake, he might have been onto something?  I’m very confused.

Another post on dark matter from Wired:

Dark Energy could be Einstein’s Cosmological Constant

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Fish Love

In my last week at the NFB I was working on a project that will soon be released about wildlife in Banff.  Occasionally, useless factoids from my degree will bubble to the surface and I’ll feel the need to share them with other people.   Today is one of those days.  Welcome to “Fish Lovin’ Techniques.”

Life is hard when you are a fish.  Procreation is very un-sexy and involves zero contact and primarily releasing fluids into a small ditch.  Let’s go through the three main Fish Lovin Techniques:

1) Territorial – Traditionally the competitive male, physically dominant, will follow and defend a female from the attacks of other males until she is ready to lay her eggs.  Think of this as your traditional Alpha Male.  In a Disney movie, Territorial male would be Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

2) Sneaker – a non-competitive male of a smaller size and aggression level that kind of stalks a Territorial and its female companion and waits until the female lays her eggs.  At this point, Sneaker male will dart in, race past an unsuspecting (and soon to be cuckolded) Territorial male, release his sperm cloud and reap the sweet fruit that the other chump sowed.   Think of this as the ultimate fish c*ckblock.

3) Satellite – I still don’t fully understand the concept of a Satellite, except to say that it impersonates the female fish in appearance.  Said “female” will then follow an established couple, descend, and eventually inserts itself between the existing male and female pair.  The male does not notice at this point because he thinks that he is not guarding two females.  Satellite will then wait for the female to lay her eggs, where he then fertilizes them, and like Sneaker, swims away before Territorial male can inflict too much physical damage.  Think of this as the ultimate fish drag queen.

Both the Sneaker and the Satellite often get roughed up pretty badly from their repeated attempts to steal females from dominant males.  So why haven’t those two strategies died out when they are pretty risky?  How are they sticking around long enough to pass on their puny or girly-looking genes onto the next fish generation?  Mainly, the strategies are successful in their own ways.  Neither the Sneaker nor the Satellites need to invest much effort in protecting a single female, or in following her around during the mating season.  Because of this, they can attempt to ruin the baby-making process for several females, thereby increasing their chances of success.  So the result is a combination of all three, Territorials, Sneakers, and Satellites, surviving.

**Extrapolation Time** (because what is a fish story if not an allegory for some human lesson?)

Our strategies at finding mates are things that work uniquely for our skill set and personality type.  It really pains me to see some of my nicer, more pure-hearted, sensitive friends trying to play the part of elusive assholes just to try and score more women.  Just like our fish counterparts, our own life success depends upon whether or not we play to our own specific strengths or weaknesses.

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I love to watch tennis.  It started back in 2003 when Andy Roddick’s career was just taking off.  Yeah, his poster was in my locker.  And then I saw this.

He may not have one a major title in almost a decade, but this dude’s funny.  He’s trying to be funny, right?

I even tried to learn to play tennis.  I bought the skirt, the polos, the visor, the racket.   Yeah, and I diligently went to lessons . . . six times.  Tennis wasn’t my thing, I had floppy badminton wrists.  And then I decided my obsession was best confined to the tv screen.

One of the cool things about tennis now is the hawk-eye technology, that allows players to challenge linesman calls.  It shows this fancy computer generated replay of the ball as it is travelling across the court, including leaving a mark where the ball hits the surface.

My top three childhood theories for how Hawk-eye works:

1) There is a special radio/GPS something-tracker inside the ball that is monitored as it moves across the court by some airborne stadium satellite system.  Tennis balls  for major tournaments skyrocket in manufacturing costs.

2) Invisible lasers are set up across the entire surface of the court, kind of like the ones that you see in all the spy movies, the ones that set off the alarms?  You might ask, “what happens when a net, or a ballboy/ballgirl interferes with the lasers?”  I never had an answer for that one.

3) Hawk-eye was a big hokey!  Tennis is fake just like pro-wrestling!

So how does it actually work?  I found out today Hawk-eye doesn’t actually tell you where the ball lands, per se.  It uses four high speed cameras to track the location of the ball (using those nifty triangles we all loved in math to determine location), and then calculates, from the maximum impact upon the ball, and its trajectory, and predicts the path of the ball with a 3.6 mm margin of error.  Exceedingly accurate, but not technically a replay.

It took me like, 5 years to take the initiative to Wikipedia this.  I deserve a high five!

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This question is supposed to help you determine deep, immediate compatibility with someone on a first date.

Do you like your friends to be simple, or complex?

My preference is always complex.  When you filter through the people in my life, the simple ones tend to be more so acquaintances than actual friends.  Categorization along these lines are so involuntary that I was doing so long before I found out about the question.

I’ve always been a bit envious of my simpler friends – after all, ignorance is bliss, right?  Therefore, the simpler you are, the more easily amused, and more easily entertained you will be by the smaller “victories.”   You know, chocolate chip cookie type victories.  Not world peace type victories.  I’m always aching for something a bit more . . . substantial?

So I lol’d when I saw this article today.

It paints a picture of the brooding, depressed Woody Allen, absorbed in all the problems of the world, against a jolly, care-free George W. Bush.

Then it takes a detour by suggesting that the real joys in life are not the simple ones.  They are the ones that come through recognizing that life will always throw a few challenges and the result of mental fortitude, searching for solutions, and conscious optimism will produce a much more substantial, much meatier victory.

So toil on, my complicated friends!  For us enjoyment doesn’t come in the small things (although it can), but in the search and the perpetual struggle to maneuver through this world.

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It’s sad because it is true.

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