Ig Nobel 2011

The Ig Nobel award ceremony was last night, and is fully recorded on line if you want to see it. The Ig Nobel’s are given from the Journal of Improbably Research, whose moto is “First it makes you laugh, then it makes you think.”

A couple of my favorites from this year are:

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

MATHEMATICS PRIZE: Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of KOREA (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of UGANDA (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

PEACE PRIZE: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

More details, and complete video, can be found on their website.

The Grand Conspiracy

Last night, among a generally jovial conversation around new finds in astronomy, I also was subjected to various out bursts of “electrical theory of mars” (i.e. Mars was carved by machines) and similar Grand Conspiracy ideas about how NASA had hid all this from us. It all came from one new club member, who’s previous outbursts had been minor enough I hadn’t yet realized he was a full time crank. The reaction from the table was mostly ignore and move on.

But it still amazes me that someone thinks it’s far more plausible that tens of thousands of individuals are manipulating scientific information about Mars in a coordinated and consistent way. That they can manage to induct all new science students working on the data into their masonic clan. I guess it makes a good Dan Brown novel, but it maps really badly to reality.

And if the grand conspiracy was just at the kooky fringe, it would be something I could mostly chuckle at and move on. But grand conspiracies have become mainstream fodder. For instance, cable news generating a meme in conservative America that Climate Change is a hoax created by 10s of thousands of scientists to keep their jobs. Really? The next Dan Brown novel is going to be about grad students living 4 to an apartment, eating raman noodles, feeling so clever in their grand conspiracy?

I guess if you’re primarily motivated by dollars, have a poor understanding of science in general, and never worked with science researchers before, it might make sense. First, project your basest motivations on others. Then sprinkle gracious ignorance about how science or economics work. Make sure to pass over the fact that if you had the mathematical chops to work out something as complicated as a climate model, and money was your motivator, you’d easily make 10 times as much being a Quant for the financial sector. They heavily recruit out of the physical sciences, many of my classmates from college went that route. But no, the grand conspiracy would rather believe the route to riches is applying for competitive NSF grants instead of credit default swaps and derivative trading.

So why do people believe in the Grand Conspiracy? Because it’s comforting. It takes a complex world and makes it simple. Complex problems and motivations are now turned into mythical dragons that some mythical protagonist can go slay, making all right in the world.

The only problem with that: it isn’t real. The moon landing wasn’t faked, it took a generation of our best minds to get us there, and huge technological advances came out of it. Vacines don’t cause autism, they’ve eliminated a vast number of debilitating diseases that you no longer have to worry about if you live in the west, and are now starting to eliminate certain kinds of cancer. Climate change is not a hoax, it’s a real, hard problem, that we’re going to need to figure out how to address as a society. Evolution is demonstrated science, we don’t need a designer to create complex emergent behavior.

The world of facts and knowledge is one of spectacular beauty, complexity, and wonder, and doesn’t need Grand Conspiracies to make it majestic and exciting.

World Maker Faire

I was not prepared for the vastness that was World Maker Faire, this weekend in NYC. I took a few pictures, but I realized afterwards I shouldn’t have bothered, and just done video instead. So much of what was going on captures very poorly in still images.

There were so many forces at play. The giant kinetic art groups, like the people sized version of the board game Mouse Trap, were largely at one of the big fields when you came in. You then made your way through the crafter cluster, about 50 craft / vendors, mostly making clothing / jewelry. While some was normal craft faire bits, you also had things like laser cut felt necklaces, and scrabble tile coasters.

I then wandered over to tent city, which was a series of tents that sometimes had speakers, sometimes clusters of related things. Sustanability had a tent (think Urban Gardenning), as did Health 2.0, Arduino, Hacker Spaces. And those were just the ones with themes. Maker Bots were everywhere, as were things based on arduino. I finally got to see a Laser cutter in action, damn that’s impressive.

The actual NY Hall of Science had makers and vendors scattered throughout the exhibits. The Light, LED, and Sound room had some pretty impressive bits, including bike led spoke lights that could display full motion video via persistence of vision. There was also this incredible MFA project combining light, shape, and sound.

I have enough software and wood projects that I need to do before Christmas that I managed not to pick up another hobby… yet. But next year I’ll be more prepared, both with some video, as well as being ready to pick up a new project from the faire.

Irene – the Video

I’m not sure how to quite even setup this video, just watch it.

Irene. from Liam McKinley on Vimeo.

This is a preview. Much more work to be done on a final product as Rochester continues to rebuild after Irene. Leave me some feedback.

After the Storm by Mumford and Sons.

Some context: The woman speaking at the end is Mary Sue Crowley, the principal of the high school. Their house sits on a flood plain/corn field and gets surrounded by water every spring in the floods. This time around they were trapped on the 2nd floor until the water receeded. The idea that that house survived the ’27 flood is amazing, and inspiring.

Irene Damage in Vermont

Route 4 Damage in Vermont - courtesy of Mansfield Heliflight

While we lucked out with Irene where I am in the Mid-Hudson Valley, Central Vermont took it hard. If we hadn’t gotten out in advance of the storm, we’d probably only be getting out of the state now. Facebook became a makeshift disaster recovery system in a really fascinating way (someone should really study the emergence of that, it’s pretty damn impressive).

There are lots of pictures of this event, but these Helicopter Survey images are some of the most striking, as you can see the damage at scale.

Observe the Moon at Vassar Farms

Slightly over a month away, I’m starting to gear up on one of the biggest MHAA events of the year. Last year we had about 100 guests come to our Observe the Moon event at Vassar Farms, so I’m hoping we’ll top that this year.

More details on the MHAA website. Also, if you are in the area, please consider printing out a couple of fliers and sticking them up where they’ll be seen.

The Seeds of Psychohistory?

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was based on the idea that in the future overall societal events, like the rise and fall of governments, could be modeled mathematically.

Folks at the New England Complex Systems Institute have proposed a paper that looks at global food prices as compared to food riots and unrest, which in many cases directly preceeded much larger overthrows of governments. It’s a really interesting read.

This is not yet peer-reviewed published, so take that with the appropriate caution. The paper makes a point about the fact that many countries no longer have much of a local food system, which means they are directly impacted by global food price index. Two major statistical factors in the rise of global food prices are cited as commodity speculators and US corn ethanol policy.

I encourage interested people to read the whole paper, available on arXiv.