Are the Oscars getting snootier?

February 26, 2009 at 6:06 pm (film) ()

I enjoyed this analysis at OverThinkingit.com of trends in the Oscars – in terms of how popular films compared to how likely they are to win, or be nominated.  There is a very clear change around 2004 when the popularity of Oscar films fell through the floor.

It good to see someone getting out the figures instead of just winging for a change.  Note that the figures can’t distinguish between whether the Oscars are snootier – or whether its movie-goers that are not going to the best films…

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense…

February 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm (Articles, religion) (, , , , , , , , )

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

These are the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of the quantitative study of evolution. He wrote an essay about why evolution is so important, and also discussed how he reconciled his Christian faith and the scientific theory of evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, if you accept scientific reasoning. There is mathematically no way that evolution could not occur if just three things are true: more creatures are born than get to reproduce; they can vary in new ways; and that these variations are inherited. The first is trivially true as any look in the garden will show, as is the third: for example people take after their parents. The second is more difficult because although all individuals do vary, they mostly do so in an uncreative way by mixing up the traits of their parents. But it does occur: mutations are the source of these creative changes and it has been demonstrated many times that novel abilities (at the microscopic level) can arise.

There is a resurgence recently, particularly in America, to doubt evolution for religious reasons. However, this doesn’t have anything to do with the religion per se, but is a cultural phenomenon. Dobzhansky quite powerfully argues that to deny evolution on religious grounds is verging on blasphemous: it implies that the creator deliberately set out to deceive us. We have the ability to reason about the origins of fossils, or of finches in the Galapogos, and explain why they are there. There is no hole in the theory that has yet been found. To believe that this is some elaborate charade is absurd.

Dobzhansky believed in creation: that god created the world such that we would be here today.  It is a matter of philosophy whether this happened by divine will or by chance.  It is beyond science to answer the question of whether we were “created” in this way, or arose by chance, because there is only one universe from which to draw evidence. But in this Universe, we have surely evolved, and this is not evidencef or or against God in the slightest.

Check out his essay for details of the above discussion.

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The mad meta-poet

February 17, 2009 at 9:29 pm (Humour) (, , )

One day,
A mad meta-poet
With nothing to say
Wrote a mad meta-poem
That started: “One day,
A mad meta-poet
With nothing to say
Wrote a mad meta-poem
That started: “One day,
[…]
sort of close”,
Were the words that the poet
Finally chose
To bring his mad poem
To some sort of close”,
Were the words that the poet
Finally chose
To bring his mad poem
To some sort of close”.

Reference: feldgendler, with a google search indicating that this goes back to before 2007, origins unknown (to me).

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Study hard, young space warrior

February 7, 2009 at 6:44 pm (Humour) (, , , , )

Yes, it has finally happened: you can take a course in Starcraft at University, for credit. And the best bit? Its not as ridiculous as it sounds.

There are some simple rules guiding computer games and these also apply in real life. For example, the ability to obtain resources is related to power, which is in turn related to how much resource you currently have. So the “rich get richer”. How this happens, and how this affects competition between warring sides, can be modelled mathematically using differential equations. Additionally, you can understand the “best” decision to make with mathematics. Since Starcraft has simpler rules than the real world, you can get fairly good answers – and test them against other strategies.

And you get to blow stuff up. At University. For credit.

In other awesome academic news, you can also take a course in pornography.

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We are the many

February 7, 2009 at 5:42 pm (science) (, , , , )

This news is related to the research I did when working at BioSS in Aberdeen:

There are two important facts in here:

  1. that only 10% of cells in our body are human: the rest are bacteria and other microorganisms, and these vary a lot between people.
  2. What we eat affects which bacteria thrive inside our digestive system, and which bacteria are inside us affects us dramatically.  For example, our bacteria can change whether we get fat when eating food.  It can also affect our chances of getting cancer.

The findings of this research are a little depressing for anyone wanting to lose weight: if you are fat, your gut bacteria will give your more calories back from food than if you are thin.  But if you diet properly you can get a thin person’s gut bacteria whatever your weight – so all is not lost!

The bugs may have power over you, but you can still control the bugs.

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