Haskell @ Google

The other day Google showed a list of various prizes Googlers had achieved recently. One competition which is of special interest for me since I've participated in it (although not this year) is the ICFP programming contest. I was impressed to see that two different teams from Google had taken both first and third place. And moreover, the winning team had actually used Haskell! So Haskell has a foot in the door at Google! That's great news!


Some Science

I just want to mention two articles I read today.

The first one is from Scientific American and talks about what it is that makes a genius. Or, rather a grand master in chess. Most of the article talks about how the mind works for the best chess players and then generalize about the theories to other disciplines. So, how does experts think, and what makes their brain work this way? The answer is both rather surprising and liberating. It seems that to acquire the mental model of an expert all that is needed is practice. Experts learn to see patterns and these pattern evolve in the brain through practice, practice and practice. So, what about wonder kids? They just start early and work hard. And working hard is an important ingredient. You have to keep challenging yourself with problems that are slightly more difficult that what you can handle, thereby constantly pushing yourself. So, anyone can be an expert, it just takes passion and perseverance.

The other article really surprised me. It's a list of bogus science that nevertheless have had an impact on what we believe. Take a look at item no. 4. It discusses an observation about moths changing colors. This has been used as an example of evolution happening right in front of us. And I've taken it as proof that evolution really happens today. But it seems that it was all totally bogus. So have anyone observed evolution happening without relying on old fossils and various dating methods? It would be interesting to know.
[EDIT: It seems I shouldn't have been so quick to believe that web page. Here are some links that goes in to a bit of discussion around the peppered moth experiments.]


Six = Infinity?

Gee, this piece of news really made me dissillusioned. You've probably heard of the theory that all people in the world are connected in at most six steps. This urban myth sprung out of an experiment made by a guy called Stanley Milgram. He performed an experiment to see if he could get letter to a specific person far away from himself by only using a chain of friends. The result? On average it took six people to get to the final destination.

So what the problem? The problem is that in 97% of all the letters sent didn't reach its target at all! So drawing any conclusions on the 3% that's left is just totally bogus.

You can read a more detailed article over at BBC in the article Connecting with people in six steps.


Good film news

The other day tripped over some really pleasant film news. First and foremost: The Hobbit is going to happen! But it still remains to be seen whether it will be Peter Jackson who makes the movie. If he's going to make it it's not going to be anytime soon as he's signing up for quite a lot of projects right now. I would love for Peter Jackson to do The Hobbit though. Considering how Lord of the Rings turned out I don't think there is a single Tolkien fan who doesn't agree with me.

So they're going to make a Terminator 4. Which makes me skeptic. With no Linda Hamilton and no Arnold Schwarzenegger they really have to reinvent the whole concept to make a good movie out of it. I just wonder: Why? The first two Terminator movies are true classics. They don't need to undo film history as the Wachowski brothers did with the Matrix trilogy.

If I may digress a bit I'd like to take the moment to say a few words about Terminator 3 which I saw a few months ago. It wasn't as good as the first two but it wasn't that bad either. The movie didn't quite have that creepy feeling of the first two, the feeling of constantly being hunted by an unstoppable terminator. And the dystopic vision of the future wasn't quite there either. Also the choice of actors wasn't a very good one, especially the actor playing John Connor wasn't a very good choice. What really saved the movie was the ending.

The Thomas Crown Affair is getting a sequel which I think is exciting news. I like the movie a lot and the final heist in the movie is quite enjoyable.

Finally, not mentioned on the webpage I linked to above, it seems they're making a National Treasure 2. This is good news to me. National Treasure is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again and still enjoy it. I guess a lot of American history teachers are using it as it contains many highlights from American history. And I suppose there are enough interesting historical people and events in the US to make a second film. I'm looking forward to it.

et al.

Do you know what the acronym "et al." stands for? It's the kind of expression you see every day and roughly know what it means but never quite know what it comes from and what it stands for. At least, that's the case for me. So, today I decided to look it up. And Answers.com gave the following definition:
et al.
et alii (and others)

So, it's Latin. No surprise there. And it's short for et alii. Which really baffles me. Why on earth don't we write out the whole et alii? Replacing the last to i:s with a dot only saves one character. It seems totally silly to me. In fact I'm thinking of using the full form, et alii, from now on. It's simply not that difficult to write out the whole thing.

A last thought. Why do we use Latin at all? "and others" is not that difficult to write. "and so on" is in many situations preferable to "et cetera" or "etc." I guess it is an old relic from the time when English children had to study Greek and Latin. Spicing your language with a bit of Latin was perhaps a way to show off and as time passed some phrases became standard. Personally I don't mind these Latin abbreviations but I can't help feeling that the language would be simpler without them.

Modern life leads to more depression among children

I've blogged before about the mental illness of children and teenagers. Yesterday 110 teachers, psychologists, children's authors and other experts sent an open letter to the brittish paper Telegraph with the title Modern life leads to more depression among children. The letter is short and doesn't get into any details. The main purpose is to start a public debate about these questions.

Together with the public letter the Telegraph also had a short article around these issues "Junk culture 'is poisoning our children'".

This letter cause a bit of a stir in the blogosphere. Slashdot had some surprisingly good comments about this. And via Planet Haskell (yes, believe it or not) I stubled upon an interesting post about parenting.

I'll refrain from commenting about all this as I'm not a parent myself. But make sure to read the articles I've linked to. It's both interesting and thought provocative.


Lunar Eclipse

So, we've just had a very small partial eclipse. Did you see it? Well, I managed to capture it with my camera so you can see how it looked on the picture to the right. Not too exciting, but still.

Lunar eclipses are nice in the way that they can be seen from many more places than a solar eclipse. Basically half of the world can watch it at the same time. But I guess that solar eclipses are cooler because they're so hard to catch.

If you want to know more about lunar eclipses Wikipedia is helpful as always.


Programming Quotations

It's quote time again! This time a whole heap of Programming Quotations. There's lots of classics in there but most of them I haven't heard before. And some of them aren't specific to programming.

Some of my favourites:
It has been said that the great scientific disciplines are examples of giants standing on the shoulders of other giants. It has also been said that the software industry is an example of midgets standing on the toes of other midgets. -- Alan Cooper

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. -- Laurence J. Peter

A notation is important for what it leaves out. -- Joseph Stoy

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel


The Scientific Refereeing Process

Via shapr's blog I came across an article by what seems to be a very bitter mathematician yelling about the way scientific journals and conferences work.

In my experience the situation is not as bad as he describes it but there is a point to what he is saying nevertheless.

One reaction againts crappy researchers who organize conferences with no refereeing might be to fire them. The problem is, the universities that hire them might not be too keen on firing them. Why? Well, every university need to have its quota of scientists, right? It would look really bad for a university to not have any scientists. And since the number of research positions in universities is a log bigger than there are good researchers then universtities will fill their positions with lesser researchers.

Sigh. What to do about this whole mess? Well, I find comfort in that there is a lot of good research going on too. And I just try to do my part in increasing our knowledge, which is what science is all about.

Why People Don't Use Mass Transit

I bought a car a year and a half ago. For quite some time I didn't use it to drive to work but lately I've abandoned the tram in favour for the car. But I keep thinking about switching back.

Since I'm thinking quite a bit about these questions I was delighted to find a page explaining Why People Don't Use Mass Transit. The author of this piece takes a purely economical view of the problem. And his main point is that if you put a price tag on time then it's really hard to beat using the car. How do one put a price tag on time? Well, what do you earn for 40 hours of work? Divide that amount by 40 hours and you have a price per hour. Using the salary to measure the cost of the time taken to travel may not be exactly what people use when deciding whether to take the car or not. But it is clear that people do value time since they take the car to such a large extent, and using the salary is in my opinion a pretty good instrument here.

So, have I decided to use the car since I read the article? No. I'm leaning towards switching back to the tram. But I keep postponing the switch. The car's just to convenient.