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General Interest

The Dancing Physicist Launches

Nearly two years ago I launched Quantum Pie as a personal blog and web site. I knew I wanted to talk about physics, dance, and other things that interested me, but the name Quantum Pie never felt completely right. Last week I performed a dance routine, to explain quantum entanglement, as part of the Institute for Quantum Computing's new building opening. After the show it hit me; I am a dancing physicist and my website should be called "The Dancing Physicist." It fits and captures who I am beautifully. So as of today is now All of the old post have been migrated over and Google has been notified of the change. I think this will also provide focus to the site. Expect even more dance and physics content.

Keep on dancing/calculating.

Salman Rushdie on being sentenced to death

A powerful, riveting, essay in the New Yorker by Salman Rushdie about how the fatwa, issued over the publication of "The Satanic Verses", tore his life apart.

“How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number.

If someone thousands of miles away suddenly – and very publicly – ordered my death, I don't think I would know how to react. A career in Physics does not prepare one for that. But neither does a career as a writer.

A few years back I read several Rushdie books back to back. "The Satanic Verses" is an impressive, nuanced, and sprawling work. For me, one of the most interesting parts of Rushdie's essay is where he discusses the story which inspired "The Satanic Verses". It is startling how badly the book was misinterpreted.

The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an “insult,” he wanted to reply, “I can insult people a lot faster than that.” But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who “attacked Islam” for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much repeated phrase “He did it on purpose.” Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How could one write a quarter of a million words by accident? The problem, as Bill Clinton might have said, was what one meant by “it.

As a physicist I have become used to popular accounts of my working being mangled when they are reported. This is not due to incompetence or maliciousness by the reporter, but is often because trying to explain what is happening at the cutting edge of quantum mechanics to the average person is an extremely difficult and subtle task. At worse we end up with misguided blog comments or the occasional angry rant laced with ad hominem attacks. When a writer like Salman Rushdie's words are mangled people die.

Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children Movie Poster

Walking by the Princess Cinema here in Waterloo I saw this poster for Deepa Mehta's new movie adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Midnight's Children, winner of the the Booker of Bookers prize, is the best book I have read. Rushdie seamlessly blends fantasy with history as he tells the story of India's independence, the partition of India and Pakistan, and the growth of two nations.

Given the scope of the book, it will be interesting to see how this is condensed and reworked for the silver screen. The film makes its debut at TIFF and then opens October 26th.

[UPDATE]: Apparently Salman Rushdie wrote the script. This movie is shaping up to be epic in scope.

Peak Babies

Hans Rosling on whether the type of religion (Christianity, Islam, or Eastern religions) is correlated with the average number of children a woman gives birth to.

A great sound bite from the talk:

The number of children [per family] is not growing any longer in the world. We are still debating peak oil, but we have definitely reached peak child.” (Hans Rosling)

Why great ideas come when you aren’t trying

Good to see some research being carried out into this.

As well as revealing that breaks on their own do not encourage creative thinking, Baird’s work suggests an explanation for one of psychology’s great mysteries: why we zone out.

From an evolutionary perspective, mind-wandering seems totally counterproductive and has been viewed as dysfunctional because it compromises people’s performance in physical activities. However, Baird’s work shows that allowing the brain to enter this state when it is considering complex problems can have real benefits. Zoning out may have aided humans when survival depended on creative solutions.

Reminds me of this Google Tech Talk by Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Man "On Getting Creative Ideas"

Eleven months at the bottom of the Earth

Last week I had the chance to sit down with cosmologist Keith Vanderlinde, a CIFAR Junior Fellow at McGill, who spent eleven months straight living at the South Pole in Antartica. During the winter temperatures dip below -70 C and their is continual darkness for nearly six months straight. It gets so cold during the winter that planes cannot fly in–once the last plane takes off you are stranded there until the following sumer.

While in Antartica, Keith was in charge of keeping the South Pole Telescope running. Every day he had to walk 1 km to and from the telescope, often in white blizzard conditions. Keith took his camera with him and captured a series of incredible photos of the night sky and life in Antartica.

While at the South Pole, Keith maintained a fascinating blog about what life is like. My favourite entry is about the 300 club:

There's a tradition here at pole dating back decades, that whenever the temperature outside falls below -100F, the 300 club convenes & initiates new members. You gain entry into the club by first sitting in the sauna with the temperature turned up to 200F, then running outside (a 300F temperature differential, hence the name) and around the pole, all wearing nothing but boots and a smile.

Only once - in the half century for which we have records - has the temperature failed to hit -100F over the course of a winter. It's expected that the 300 club convenes at least once each winter, more likely twice or three times. Well, with the sun now up and temperatures already rising into summer, our low for the year is sitting at -99.9F, and there's no way that would count. Seriously.


TEDxUW behind the scenes

The IQC has made a short behind the scenes video about my TEDxUW talk. The video contains a hint about some of the things I am planning in my upcoming TEDxWaterloo talk.

100 years in 10 minutes

There is a European bias, but powerful work nonetheless. I found it interesting they chose to include Albert Einstein's 1921 Nobel Prize win as the one major scientific achievement. At the very least, the invention of the World Wide Web should have been added. I also found it strange that the great depression was not included.

Someone should make a video of 100 years of Physics1.

  1. Or a video of 100 years of Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, etc... 

An Angry Birds Christmas

I still remember when Angry Birds first came out. I spent a month playing the game obsessively trying to get all three stars on each level. I haven't kept up with any of the new incarnations, but it has developed into an impressive franchise. This time lapse is an awesome (and painstaking) Christmas tribute to the game.

Pair of Robbers Want Only iPhones, No BlackBerries

Katy Tur from NBC New York:

Twice at 526 114th St., and once at 556 114th St., the suspects demanded the victims hand over their iPhones, police said.

The first victim complied, but the second only had a Droid, according to police. The thieves apparently didn't want a Droid -- so they took cash instead. [...]

"It's insulting they don't want my BlackBerry," said a female student.

More bad news for RIM. Not only are investors dumping their stock, but even thieves don't want to carry their inventory.

(Via John Gruber)

How doctors die

Ken Murray, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC, writes:

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).

The article also contains an interesting comments thread worth reading through.

Several of my friends who are in the medical profession have said similar things to me. They do not want to be put on life support or die in an intensive care unit. This surprised me at first, but with two family members recently battling cancer I can better relate to their reasoning.

I would be interested to hear what other people think about this subject, especially nurses, doctors, and hospice workers.

He's (not) on fire! The myth of the hot hand in basketball.

He's (not) on fire! The myth of the hot hand in basketball.


I follow the NBA at arms length. One of the most exciting things to see is a player get a hot hand and make four or five shots in a row. This idea featured heavily in the game NBA Jam I used to play1 as a kid–make three shots in a row and your player catches on fire.

It turns out that the idea of a hot hand is a myth. According to a new paper in Nature Communications title Reinforcement learning in professional basketball players, two things happen when a player makes a three point shot:

  1. They player is likely to try and make another three-pointer the next time they get the ball.
  2. The player's chance of making the shot goes down.

I'll say that again. If you make a three-pointer your chances of making a second one go down2. Instead of heating up you are more likely to cool down. He's on ice isn't nearly as catchy though.

Humans have a hard time making sense of randomness. We often look for patterns when none are present or selectively filter out information that we do not agree with. In this case basketball players focus more on the shots they make not the ones they miss. This is why Kobe Bryant can throw up thirty shots a game, miss the majority of them, and still feel like he has a hot hand. The numbers say otherwise.

  1. And now, occasionally, on the iPad. 
  2. Unless you are Dirk Nowitzki in the clutch during the playoffs. 

How to use Apple's iBooks in Full Screen Mode

How to use Apple's iBooks in Full Screen Mode

Using iBooks to read Walter Isaacson's book Steve Jobs left me with a healthy distaste for the program. As an eReader it is subpar compared to Amazon's Kindle App1. There are formatting bugs that occasionally pop up, and I find the interface too cluttered. The metaphor of a book is cute at first, but quickly becomes distracting. It constantly gets in your face and breaks your concentration. Instead of becoming immersed in the reading experience, iBooks constantly demands that you pay attention to how clever it is.

I have been wanting a full-screen mode that does away with the book metaphor, so I was pleasantly surprised when I check the App store tonight and found an iBooks update waiting. The main new feature is a distraction-free full-screen option!

This new option can be selected by first clicking on the text icon in the top right-hand corner as shown in the figure below.

iBooks with the new full-screen option

At the bottom is a switch that enables the new full-screen view. Turn this on and the book background disappears. It's not perfect, but it is still a big improvement.

New full-screen mode in iBooks

There is also a new night mode. This reverses the colours, making it easier on the eyes at night. I'll definitely be using this feature to read in bed.

The new night mode in iBooks.

A very welcome iBooks update. I hope that a future update will include an option to disable the page turning animation.

  1. I go into more detail about the Kindle app in my last apps roundup

PayPal arbitrarily cancels Christmas for needy children.

Sickening. This is what happens when you get to act like a financial institution without being subjected to the same regulations as a financial institution.

PayPal's customer service is reprehensible in this situation:

"I just had an hour long conversation with a jackass over there that was unbelievable," she tells us. "First he said that you can only use the Donate button if you're a nonprofit. I told them that was false; the PDF of instructions to use the Donate button only says 'worthy cause.' I pointed out that people have the donate button on their blogs to raise money for themselves, and he said, 'You can use the donate button to raise money for a sick cat, but not poor people.'"

After forcing her to painstakingly refund all the donated money (which PayPal took a nice transaction fee on), they decided to kick her where it hurts:

PayPal then froze Helen's personal account, including the revenue for her book, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the charitable fundraising done on the site.

We know who is playing the role of grinch this Christmas.

UPDATE: Bowing to the negative press they have been receiving, PayPal has released the funds and reversed their position. This time. How often does this kind under-handed behaviour happen? It shouldn't take internet outrage to force a company to behave decently.