Friday, December 25, 2009

On Christmas break

In previous years, I've written Christmas posts talking about the reason for the season: axial tilt. I also explained the Milankovitch Cycles. But I'm going traveling a bit (and I can't think of anything more to say about axial tilt anyways), so I'll return in 2010. I guess this means you have more time to solve the last puzzle I posted.

So I'll just leave you with one last thought for the decade. You know all those Christmas movies and stories where Santa is real, but only the kids believe it? One of my friends pointed out to me that the parents would have to be blind to disbelieve Santa. Where do they think those extra presents come from? "I don't remember buying that gift, but I must have done so if it's under the tree." If you think about it, the parents are essentially flat earth atheists.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas atheist advertising

One thing that has changed in atheist news in the past year or so is the advent of atheist advertising. I don't remember what the first advertisement was, but I think the first one that hit it big was the one that says "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Nowadays, you can see news of atheist advertising popping up all over the world the whole year round. You can keep track of the subject on Friendly Atheist, but there's so much of it that I daresay the story is boring by now.

Of course, around Christmas season, the atheist advertisements become Christmas themed, and they seem to increase in volume. And of course they would! Christmas is when they get the most media attention!

The above is an advertisement put out by the American Humanist Association. Their website has a bunch of videos of its news coverage.

You can see from the news coverage that some people are getting the message of the advertisement horribly wrong. No, it's not an attack on Christians. It's not meant to challenge people's faith. It's certainly not meant to be a complete argument against theism. And no, atheists don't "loathe the baby Jesus."

There's one particular common response which I would like to correct. Some people think that the advertisements are anti-Christmas. It's all part of the War on Christmas, supposedly. But look just look at the ad! There are a bunch of smiling people in Santa hats! How much clearer do they have to make it that they're pro-Christmas?

I mean, who here is fighting a war on Christmas? Is it the atheists who apparently enjoy such playful traditions as the Santa hat, or is it people like Bill O' Reilly or Garrison Keillor, who insist that everyone must celebrate the holidays their way or no way?

After a year of hearing about all these atheist advertisements, it's become clear that people are offended no matter how nice they are. Therefore, in my opinion, future atheist advertisements should try to be as friendly as possible, since people will be offended anyhow. The friendlier they are, the more apparent it will be just how silly and wrong people are to be offended. My proposed message:

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Enjoy winter break!
-From a godless atheist

Monday, December 21, 2009

Coming out, a second time

Every year, around this time, my mother sends out some sort of family newsletter to a bunch of relatives. It's some sort of Christmas tradition. I barely see the newsletter myself, but last I saw, I noticed that she plugs my blog. Okay. She has permission to do that. I don't mind, but it makes me slightly uncomfortable saying what I'm about to say.

I have chosen to identify as gay.

There's a long and unusual story behind this. Though I am 21, this is not something I've been hiding all my life. It was not something I was just too afraid to admit to myself until recently. It was simply never obvious to me. It still isn't obvious to me.

Only half the gay experience

The fact of the matter is that I relate to one half of the gay experience much more than I relate to the other half. That is, I relate to the experience of not being interested in women. I'm not particularly interested in men either. That's why, last summer, I chose to identify as asexual, meaning that I am attracted to neither gender.

I still identify as asexual. Asexual and gay. I would actually like to identify as something inbetween, but unfortunately, there isn't any well-known word to describe such a person. In any case, there are many different ways to be between asexual and gay. It's not simply a spectrum between the two. It's more like a multi-dimensional space. To simplify things, I will only talk about where I am in this multi-dimensional space.* Please realize that I represent no one but myself.

*If you are familiar with the asexual community, you know that many asexuals experience a separation between the romantic and sexual. However, I do not, so you can assume I'm talking about both together.

Yeah, so I'm not really into girls. I've experienced some degree of alienation my whole life, starting in seventh grade, because I just didn't get why all my friends would go on so much about the opposite sex. It continues to this day, when my roommate points out hot girls to me, and my only reaction is "huh?"

I tend to put a low value on attractiveness, because I can barely distinguish it from unattractiveness. Perhaps I could teach myself to recognize the difference, the same way I could teach myself to recognize the difference between different kinds of English accents, but what would be the point? It still wouldn't provoke any emotional reaction, so I don't care about it. Some people have told me, "That just means you're not shallow." But this presupposes that I'm attracted to something deeper than outer beauty, such as a good personality. It doesn't work that way, not for me. I like people with interesting personalities, but as friends.

How it's different with men

It's the same with men, but not quite. I can almost tell when men are attractive. But the feeling is rather disappointingly weak, and I'm left wondering whether it's strong enough to be functional. I have decided that it is functional.

To the point: I attempted a same-sex relationship this fall. This is the first time I've mentioned it on my blog, and now that we've broken up, I would prefer it be the last. I wasn't really into the guy at first, but gradually I felt something. Towards the end, I was happy just to be in his presence. I also had the really weird experience of wanting to kiss and make out with him. If you think about it, it's a rather oddly specific desire, like having an innate desire to shuffle cards, or an innate phobia of whales. But I'm told that this is what people normally experience, and now I have experienced it. It hurt when he broke up with me, but I'm over it.

So it seems like a pretty clear case of me being attracted to the guy. Why was this the first time? I feel like it was caused by a sustained intentional effort to think of the guy as a potential life-partner, but I'm not sure I believe that this is possible. I do believe that the fact it was a guy was essential. I just can't imagine it working with a girl, though I reserve the right to correct myself if I am in error.

Oddly, throughout the relationship, I continued to identify mostly as asexual. I felt like I could tell people, "I'm asexual, but I'm also in an ordinary same-sex relationship," and that would convey the complexities of the situation. But I need a better way. Therefore, I now identify as both gay and asexual. I am gay in the sense that I am seeking a same-sex relationship. But I am predominantly asexual in my everyday reactions to people.

Some thanks

I fully realize that the act of switching between sexual identities opens me up to some criticism from all sides. That's fine by me. I'm changing my identity for me, not for anyone else.

I will freely admit that I've felt a lot of internal conflict about it. I was worried, and am worried that I could be wrong. Maybe I'm fully asexual, and not gay at all? Or fully gay and not asexual at all? Maybe I was just too afraid of asexuality, and wanted to deny it? Maybe I can't let go of asexuality because that would imply that I made a mistake?

If it appears that I've overthought the situation, you haven't even seen half of my thoughts. Questioning my sexuality has been the most depressing experience of my life. It helped that I was queer-positive from the beginning, but I was still hit hard. And just imagine how many teenagers have to go through this, many without the support of their parents. I consider myself lucky for having the parents I do, and the friends I do. I think you will be hard-pressed to find a non-queer group which is as queer-positive as are skeptical college students. Because of where I am, I've felt little pressure to hide myself (obviously, or I wouldn't be open about this on the internet).

I'm also grateful to the asexual community. Some critics worry that asexuality can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but they needn't worry. It is the prevailing attitude in the asexual community that the label is always descriptive, and never prescriptive. People who move away from asexuality after a period of self-discovery get full support from the community. There is no sense of betrayal. I continue to support asexuals and the asexual community. I continue to relate to many of their experiences, and will continue to offer an asexual perspective where it is needed.

And finally, I'm thankful to all my readers for putting up with my venting about my personal life. It probably wasn't boring, but it was far from the intended topics of my blog. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, so it may very well continue to leak in, or perhaps it won't. Either way, thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The science of closed boxes

A friend pointed me to an article in New Scientist, "Why we shouldn't release all we know about the cosmos". The article suggests that data on the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) should be released slowly, not all at once.
If the whole data set is released at once, as is planned, any new ideas that cosmologists come up with may have to remain untested because they will have no further data to test them with.
It took a moment, but eventually I realized that they were suggesting the method of blind analysis.

We also used blind analysis in LIGO data (LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, a gigantic device designed to detect gravitational waves). Whenever LIGO records a set of data, only 10% of that data is released. That 10% is called the playground. We analyze the heck out of that playground! There's a huge computer program, called the data analysis pipeline, which is used to decide if there are any events in the playground which look like real gravitational waves. A large group of scientists build on the pipeline, finely adjusting parameters, adding new bells and whistles. And the whole time they are doing this, they are not allowed to peek at the other 90% of the data. That box is closed!

This is the sort of box I want you to visualize

Once the scientists are satisfied with the pipeline, they "open the box". That means they get to look at the other 90% of the data. But once the box is open, they're not allowed to change the pipeline in any way. If they want to add more bells and whistles to the pipeline, they have to wait until the next time LIGO takes a set of data, perhaps in a year or more.

What is the meaning of this silly ritual? Is it some sort of Christmas tradition among data analysts?

There are all sorts of ways you can bias your analysis. If you know what the results are every time you try a different method of data analysis, then you can, to some extent, "select" results you like. That's bad! We want the results to be unbiased, so that everyone can agree on them. Therefore, in blind analysis, there are two stages. First, you choose a method of data analysis without looking at the full results. Then you apply that method to the full results without changing it.

I read the paper which is reported in New Scientist, and they have another cool explanation of the same idea. The goal in science is to compare a bunch of different models, and determine which model best explains our observations. But first, we need to come up with those models. The models will be educated guesses based on all the evidence we've collected thus far. So if we want to test the models, it's somewhat redundant to use the present evidence; we should instead collect new observations to test the models.

The problem in cosmology is that at some point, there will be no new observations to make. There is only one universe. There is only one CMBR map, with all its random statistical fluctuations. If you stare long enough at those statistical fluctuations, chances are good that you'll find some false pattern. The pattern will be very difficult to falsify, since there is no more data to collect after that. The solution? Release data piece by piece, so that there will still be new data to test our models.

So you see, even something which sounds as boring as data analysis can have all these counter-intuitive tricks involved. Hiding data in a closed box? It sounds silly, possibly even counter to science's goal of obtaining as much true information about the world as possible. But if it's necessary to filter out human biases, I think we should do it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Running BASS: First quarter

As I mentioned earlier, this year I am the president of BASS, UCLA's only skeptical and secularist group. Now that the first quarter is over, perhaps I can tell you a bit about how that's going.

Basically, as president, I have several roles:
  1. Pursue any opportunities that show up. Opportunities come in all kinds. Sometimes its something as simple as a BASS member who wants to make a presentation about their favorite skeptical topic. Other times, it's some evangelist with a zany scheme involving Origin of Species. Or it's an article in the Daily Bruin which needs a skeptical response. Or a new funding opportunity. Or a show or exhibit that BASS people might be interested in seeing.

    Sorry to say, I didn't get any real speakers to come over this quarter. This is, of course, my fault. Because as president, every failing of the group is ultimately my fault. Which brings me to the next role.

  2. Represent the group. Usually, this just means that whenever I tell people about our group, everyone recognizes that I am the authoritative source. But more concretely, it means that I do most of the correspondence with other groups, like the Independent Investigations Group, or with the media.

    Speaking of which, I was recently mentioned by name in the cover story of a major magazine! Let's just say that I am now on public record as opposing book burnings. You can thank Ray Comfort for, ehem, advancing the dialogue to the point where such things need to be said.

  3. Write meeting agendas. That means I choose discussion topics. This actually gets rather tiresome, and I wish I could somehow get someone else to do it. As much as I am a never-ending spring of topic ideas, it means that I am indirectly dominating the entire discussion. I want other people to have a say. People who are not upper-middle class hapa male physics students like I am. But other people are so reluctant to suggest topics. I think even last year, I was picking most of the topics.

    I have found, however, that people are generally more willing to make topic suggestions if it means they get to make a presentation on that topic. I'm not sure why this is. But it's great because presentations stimulate some of the best discussions, and they allow for topics which really require some research to discuss.

  4. Constantly, constantly bug other officers to do their jobs. BASS members, especially the most active ones, tend to be very fascinating, eccentric characters. It's really hard to describe them without describing them individually. But they can also be kinda flaky--in all sorts of individualistic ways. Some will say they'll do work, but never get around to it. Some will resign with little or no notice. Some will oscillate periodically between productivity and absence. Etc. Etc.

    The hardest part of my job is keeping them all in line, making sure that they do what they're supposed to do. I suppose it's easier than doing all the work myself, but sometimes I wonder. In the defense of the officers, they're really busy people. They're college students. They have classes, midterms, swine flus, and, uh, parties... But maybe this is my problem. If I were less sympathetic, maybe I'd be a better president. What do you think?
The other week, a journalist asked me how I came to be president of a secular student group. Was it because I had a great passion for fighting irrationality, for becoming an activist? Well, obviously, I have some passion for the topic, and I do believe that skeptical and secular activism are important. But plenty of BASS members are more passionate than I am. What it really takes is some organizational skill.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Two math problems

Last weekend, I took the William Lowell Putnam Competition, a national math competition for college students. It consists of twelve problems to prove in six hours. The median score is about zero. Sounds intimidating, huh?

Most of these are a bit more difficult than the kind of puzzles I intend to put on my blog, but here's an easier one which I feel is appropriate.
Problem A1: Let f be a real-valued function on the plane such that for every square ABCD in the plane, f(A) + f(B) + f(C) + f(D) = 0. Does it follow that f(P) = 0 for all points P in the plane?
If you are interested in seeing other Putnam problems, I refer you to the Art of Problem Solving Forum.

And here's another math puzzle, which is completely unrelated.
You play a game with me which involves flipping a coin. I flip the coin repeatedly until I get a heads. Let N be the number of times I flipped the coin. If N is even, we start the game over from the beginning. If N is odd, then you win N dollars. What is a fair price to play this game? (Hint: it's not $3)
If you're wondering how I did on the Putnam, I expect to get four correct, just like last year.

See the solutions

Monday, December 7, 2009

On the hiding of climate data

I've been hearing a lot lately about this "ClimateGate" story? Someone hacked the e-mails of a bunch of climate scientists, and found evidence of fraud. That's pretty outrageous, isn't it? Seriously, what kind of person goes into science, which is a method of revealing truth, only to cover up and fabricate? Not my kind of scientist, that's for sure.

But then I actually saw what they consider evidence of fraud.
I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.
I can see how someone might see this as evidence of a fraud. This scientist is talking about using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperature! But because of my limited research experience in data analysis, it's clear to me that it's completely innocuous, even without seeing the context.

In my experience, a significant part of data analysis is all about knowing what data to keep and what data to throw out. That's right, I threw out lots of data. Well, I didn't really throw anything out in the sense of deleting it from computers. I just excluded it from the analysis and from the results.

Let me explain a bit more about my research from over two years ago. I was looking at data from magnetometers, which very precisely measure changes in the Earth's magnetic field. One of the problems was that every so often, the Earth's magnetic field would jump up by a factor of a trillion or more. I wanted to cover this up! The public shouldn't be allowed to know! So what do I do? One by one, I went through these gigantic spikes in the data, and removed them. In retrospect, this was not a very efficient way to do it, but then I was an undergraduate researcher, so my time was pretty worthless anyways.

Why did I throw it out? It was bad data. I didn't like it. I clearly had some sort of personal vendetta against the data. More seriously, it's because these gigantic spikes in the data are caused by glitches in the magnetometer devices or other electronics. What exactly causes these glitches? Well, how should I know? I'm just an undergraduate researcher, not an engineer, and all I know is that the magnetometers occasionally acted really funky. If the earth's magnetic field really were jumping up by a factor of a trillion, I'd expect to see the effects all across the earth, at all magnetometers all at once. And I don't. So it was bad data. I didn't like it. I hid it in a little corner marked "raw data".

In my experience, data analysis is more or less one long string of choosing which data to throw out.

Of course, you don't just throw out data willy nilly. You have to come up with justifications for it. And saying, "I like the conclusions which we would draw from this data, but not that data," is not sufficient justification. It's tricky, because you don't want to bias yourself towards a previously held belief by only selecting the evidence which confirms the belief. There are some famous examples where scientists threw out data they thought was bad, but later turned out to be good. For example, before the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang was discovered, scientists had actually seen it on radio telescopes, but they thought it was just noise caused by pigeon droppings. Another example is the ozone hole, which was initially filtered out as bad data for about a decade. It's true, cientists make mistakes sometimes, but not because they're conspiring against the public, but because Science Is Hard.

Of course, those examples are the exception, not the rule. Data analysts throw data out on a regular basis, and the vast majority of the time, it's because they ought to.

So in the case of the climate researchers, even without looking at context, we know they probably had a good reason to throw out data. In fact, I know they have a good reason, because I looked it up. Apparently it has to do with the unreliability of using tree growth data to determine the temperatures of the last few decades. I don't really understand any of that, because I don't have much interest in climate science, but it should at least be clear that the justifications for their methods have been published out in the open. If climate scientists are indeed throwing out data that should be kept, it's not because they're part of a secret conspiracy.

So why is it that the e-mail talks about using a "trick" to "hide" data? Isn't that a bit odd word choice? Not really. "Trick" is commonly used to mean simply a clever method. "Hide" means that they're hiding unreliable data by putting more reliable data in its place. I have trouble seeing what the big deal is.

Tell you what it looks like to me now. Confirmation bias. People wanted to find a conspiracy, so they looked through a thousand e-mails and found a few e-mails to confirm their beliefs.* You'd think that if there really were some giant conspiracy, it would show up in more than just a few. But let's all just forget about the rest of the e-mails and documents. We don't like the data, so let's just throw it out, eh?

*Yes, there were a few others, but they don't impress me. I think the worst example was a request to delete some e-mail correspondence. In the interest of brevity, my response consists only of two words, "Hanlon's" and "razor".

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Matchstick solutions

See the original problem

Solution images are linked below, so as not to immediately spoil it.

Solution to cherry glass
Solution to six squares

If matchstick puzzles interest you, I recommend the collection on Puzzle Playground.