Interactive decision making

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When I was a freshman at Dartmouth one of the classes I was most interested in taking was on game theory, which sounded both fabulously fun (games!) and incredibly interesting (theories!) Luckily I read the reviews of the class before I signed up which unanimously decried the class as not at all fun and not at all interesting.

Game theory encompasses a variety of explanations of relatively simple behavior in mathematically complex ways. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind, John Nash stumbles upon his famous equilibrium concept by checking out ladies at a bar:


Easy, right? Well here’s the mathematical equation for this phenomenon: \forall i,x_i\in S_i, x_i \neq x^*_{i} :  f_i(x^*_{i}, x^*_{-i}) \geq f_i(x_{i},x^*_{-i}).

Dr. Haim Shapiro, game theorist, calls this type of a equation a mathematical x-ray of a situation. Indeed it looks something like the bones of a complex organism. Here, in a TEDtalk, he discusses the Beautiful Mind scene as well as several other examples of strategy:


Well I’m off to meet up with friends for dinner. Now I just have to figure out how to make them pay for my filete a la rossini

Curation of laughter and mustard

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Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum

I wanted to do a post about the most beautiful museums in the world…but you already know about the Louvre. And Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. And maybe even the Milwaukee Art Museum, the incredible bird-wing/ship-mast addition designed by Santiago Calatrava. (No? Well, I’ll put in a photo just in case you haven’t heard of it. And so my architect dad will be happy).

But then I realized I’d be doing the theme of curation a disfavor. After all, art museums aren’t the only museums in the world. With just a quick google search, you can find a museum for just about anything.

The macabre is well-represented in the world of museums. For instance, Guanajuato has an entire museum devoted to mummies. You can walk through halls of mummified bodies, 111 in all, in various states of decay. I’m sure the curator had fun with this one (“should we arrange by date exhumed or by state of decay?”). And there’s the Museum of Death in Hollywood that features artwork done by serial killers and videos of autopsies, among other things. What better place for a museum of death than a place obsessed with eternal youth? Amsterdam has a Torture Museum, but it’s not the only place. There are torture museums in Prague, Italy, Germany, and even friendly ol’ Wisconsin Dells, a place better known for its water park.

Just go to Wisconsin, lady!

But if you’re only in Wisconsin for one day and have to choose which museum to visit, why not skip the torture and the art housed under Calatrava’s wings and head to the National Mustard Museum, formerly known as Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. My Wisconsinite boyfriend tells me there was much controversy when the world’s only mustard museum relocated from one tiny Wisconsin town to another. What does Mount Horeb have to offer the world now? Perhaps just find another beloved and questionable food group…don’t pick Spam though, because we Minnesotans have the market cornered on Spam museums.

Minnesota does have its own share of odd museums. We even made a blogger’s list of “7 crazy-ass museums” with the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, aka the Quackery Hall of Fame (on every list of ridiculous museums was New Delhi’s International Museum of Toilets). I visited this museum with friends when I was in junior high school, researching for a project on Freud. We tried on the phrenology device, wrapped ourselves in the conveyor belt that you were suppose to wear as a real belt to eliminate fat, stepped into the x-ray machine to measure foot size that was all the rage with cobblers right after x-rays were discovered. Apparently, even Marie Curie’s death from radiation hadn’t raised red flags with the Adrian X-ray Company, based in Milwaukee (it always comes back to Wisconsin). The last x-ray machine found in operation in a shoe department was in 1981 in West Virginia. 1981.

My favorite museums, at least in theory, are museums of intangibles. I wrote about the Museum of Lost Smells last March, and just found about about the Laughter Museum in Wiesbaden, Germany. Although I’m sure the real museum is nothing like this, I imagine a large white room where people just go in and start laughing. And after having a good laugh yourself, you can tour white hallways listening to a vast library of laughter. Napoleon’s laugh, Gandhi’s laugh, Salvador Dalí’s laugh. The price of admission would be a guffaw. Excuse me, I have to go start designing my laughter museum.

The future of physics

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So, if you’re like me and you watched Brian Greene’s TED talk on string theory, you probably wonder how experiments on little strings vibrating in curled-up dimensions will affect our daily lives. In fact, there are plenty of ways, detailed in this list of how physics will change the future.

The first time I heard about the useful application of quantum mechanics was in the field of cryptography. As we store more and more of our personal information online, it’s that much more important for this data to remain well-encrypted. The race between code makers and code breakers has been close through the ages, but the cryptographers may finally win with the help of photons. Once quantum key distribution becomes the norm, it will be impossible for hackers to get into a system without announcing their presence, thereby defeating their purpose.

Quantum dots latched on to cancer cells

Cancer cells might not be able to go undetected anymore, either. Quantum “dots,” tiny semiconductor crystals, glow when exposed to ultraviolet radiation and, when coated with the right substance, latch on to cancer cells. Doctors can then pinpoint exactly which cells to target with treatment while leaving the rest of the healthy cells alone.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, scientists are using quantum physics to replicate turbulence in the lab so that someday we may be able to predict the chaotic swirls in gas and liquids. Flights will become smoother and weather reports more reliable.

But then again, if you want to just skip the security lines altogether you can always invest in transportation research. Scientists have been able to scan molecules and reconstruct them elsewhere…but don’t recycle your 3 oz liquid bottles yet: these aren’t exact copies of the molecules, they are twins. In the process of teleportation the original is destroyed. Sound like a good plot line? It’s already been done; beautifully, in my opinion, in 2006’s The Prestige (it’s a great movie so if you don’t want the ending ruined don’t watch the following clip):

Proof positive


The Simpsons--making me smarter yet again

In a Treehouse of Horror episode, Homer gets sucked into a bizarro dimension where he becomes 3D. Take a closer look at that equation behind Homer: 1782^12+1841^12=1922^12. Looks relatively simple, right? If you were to pull out a pocket calculator, it would confirm that this equation is true. And yet, not only would your pocket calculator be wrong, it would belie a mathematical enigma that went unsolved for 358 years.

A "tree" made out of Pythagorean relationships

We are all taught in geometry class about Pythagoras’s discovery of the special nature of right triangles. The relationship of the two legs of the triangle to the hypotenuse is a^2+b^2=c^2. Duh. A-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared has the familiar ring of E equals MC squared…even if you don’t exactly know what it all means.

In 1637, mathematician Pierre de Fermat wondered if such a relationship would be possible, though, when values are raised to a power higher than 2. After some study, he conjectured that in fact no three positive integers a, b, and c can fulfill the equation a^n+b^n=c^n where n is greater than 2.

When I heard about this theory, later termed Fermat’s Last Theorem, it seemed irrational. I thought through the order of cubed numbers (numbers raised to the third power): 1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216, 343…surely if you went far enough, you would find two cubes that could be added to each other and result in a third cube? But no–it’s impossible. Even so, though, it seemed like the explanation for this should be obvious. It should, it seemed to me, be an elegant solution that matches the elegance of the original conjecture (and I wasn’t the only one who thought this–the fictional Lisbeth Salander from the wildly popular Stieg Larsson series is obsessed with finding her own proof for the theorem).

And yet, while Fermat was correct in his conjecture, it took several hundred years and extremely elaborate proofs to show why. Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician, submitted a proof in 1993 that was based on numerous other proofs that had already gone up against the theorem. His theorem contained a major error, but with another year of diligent work and vetting from other mathematicians, Wiles submitted a finalized proof in 1994, published in 1995. The proof is more than 100 pages long and draws from such esoteric concepts as absolute Galois groups, Hecke eigenforms, and abelian variety. Wiles’s proof has many ramifications in algebraic geometry and number theory, and he was knighted for his work.

I think they just should’ve sent Matt Damon in to solve the thing:

Babel and The Bible

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I especially like Pieter Brueghel the Elder's interpretation of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel towers high as allegory, as genesis story, as good ol’ fashioned storytelling. Painters have depicted it countless times, and theologians, literary theorists, and linguists have read into it a million ways.

I brought out my Theories of Translation book and read over philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay on Babel. He writes that Babel as a name is the name of God, yet Babel as a noun (and now as a verb in English) signifies confusion. Here is his thesis, as I read it: “In giving his name, a name of his choice, in giving all names, the father would be at the origin of language, and that power would belong by right to God the father. And the name of God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But it is also that God who, in the action of his anger, annuls the gift of tongues, or at least embroils it, sows confusion among his songs, and poisons the gift.” (That last phrase is a pun on the German noun Gift, which means “poison”). Later in the essay he goes on to say, “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility. Now, in general, one pays little attention to this fact: it is in translation that we most often read this narrative.”

Let’s face it: the stories of the Old Testament are confusing. The God of the Old Testament is especially confusing, full of vengeance and jealousy, enigmatic and indecipherable. He is nothing like the New Testament’s God, a Being who is as equally full of love and sacrifice. And so if we build on Derrida’s thesis, the Tower of Babel story is one of the most telling of the Old Testament God’s character: he sets himself as the origin, as the word, the primogenitor, and yet punishes his people so they cannot speak of him. God becomes unknowable, unpredictable. And so his people must rely on translation, which is anything but reliable.

Adam and Eve in fifteenth-century Italian orchard?

It is thus troubling when religious fundamentalists hearken back to the literal words of a religious text: not only have cultural norms changed over the course of 2+ millennia, the words themselves have most likely been translated. Of course, Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s word, verbatim, passed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. There is a standardized compilation of Muhammad’s text that has not changed, and the Quran in translation is technically not the Quran. Even in the case of this holy book, though, words that have remained in common usage have connotatively and qualitatively changed and thus there plenty of subtleties that contemporary Muslims would understand only with the assistance of historical accounts. (Side note: in translation class, we read a relatively long article that spoke only of one particular Italian word that is most commonly translated into English as “orchard;” the point of the article is that “orchard” does not call to mind the images that the Italian word would for fifteen century Italians, and yet the article concluded that “orchard” is the best–and only–possible translation of the word).

Christians who read the Bible in English are reading through at least two translations, and most likely many more: for some versions Aramaic made its way into Greek, and from there Latin, then German, and finally English. If plenty can be lost in a direct translation, imagine the material that is lost in four. And yet some translations are said to be divinely inspired. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament was said to be created like this:

King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

If the Tower of Babel tells the story of the splitting of tongues, the writing of the Septuagint sounds like a miracle of God’s atonement. What He has separated and confused He reunites so that all may speak and know His name. As we Americans say, E pluribus unum.

Personal heroes

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Are you my hero?

I planned to write a full post about all my heroes, expecting a long list to jump to mind immediately.

The obvious names came first (obvious, at least, for a person who went through the American school system): Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Tubman. Elie Weisel. Anne Frank. But as I thought about these and other historio-mythical figures, they didn’t seem specific enough to my life for me to consider them personal heroes.

So I moved on to geniuses in the fields of my own creative pursuits, i.e. music and literature: Mozart, Handel, Shakespeare, Rushdie. But while I’ve deeply appreciated the works these people have brought into the world, I’m not sure if I would call any writer or musician my hero. They have influenced my life, but none has saved it.

It’s a strange question, that: if anyone has saved my life. Certainly there have been incredibly powerful positive forces. I’ve had wonderful teachers, great friends, and am blessed with the most amazing, supportive family a person could ask for. Have any of them saved my life?

Perhaps. Perhaps my life is the sum of their gifts, and for this I am grateful and awed. But my original prompt was to find a singular, personal hero. I don’t believe I have one. Is this strange? Am I alone in being hero-less?

Do you have a personal hero? What reason is this person(s) your hero?

Modern day heroics

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Antonio Diaz Chacón, hero

I recently read Esquire Magazine’s December article “Patriots: A portfolio of Americans who stepped up in 2011.” While all six stories are inspiring in their own ways, I was particularly impressed with the actions of Antonio Diaz Chacón and Christine Marty. Here are their stories:

Last summer, Antonio Diaz Chacón did something dangerous and risky because he didn’t really see any other choice. He heard a neighbor shouting that a little girl had just been abducted, so he jumped in his truck and gave chase. At first the driver of the van didn’t seem to know he was being followed. But then the van began to speed up and to veer this way and that before sliding off the road and crashing into a pole on the outskirts of Albuquerque. The driver ran, stashing a roll of tape and some straps under a rock. Chacón hopped out of his truck and grabbed the girl. She was confused and scared, but he told her that everything was going to be all right, that he would take her home, and that’s exactly what he did.

Four years ago, Chacón did something else dangerous and risky because he didn’t really see any other choice. He left his impoverished home in Chihuahua, Mexico, and snuck across the border near Santa Teresa. Married now, with steady work as a mechanic, he still doesn’t have his immigration papers.

Which means that Antonio Diaz Chacón is both a great American and not an American at all.


Christine Marty and her mother had just gone back-to-school shopping in Pittsburgh. She bought a dark-gray pair of BDG jeans, a Sparkle & Fade sweater, and some tank tops she could wear to both dance and accounting class. On the way back home, they could barely see the road. The Lexus RX 300’s defogger was broken, so Marty had to wipe the windshield down with a rag — then, gridlock. Pouring rain. Flooding. The water rose and soon began to fill up inside the car and to submerge their laps. And then the car itself was floating, like a bumper car, crashing into the other bumper cars along the street. By the time they got out — Marty through the window, her mother through the sunroof — they could hear the screaming of Romy Connolly, sixty-nine years old and suffering from lung cancer. Marty swam over and pulled Connolly out the window. With Connolly tucked under her left arm, she fought the current with her right. But Connolly had all but given up. She didn’t want to hold on anymore, she just wanted to let go. Then the praying started. Marty began reciting the Our Father, and Connolly mouthed the words. Everything was going to be okay. And soon it was.

But you don’t have to be an American, or even a human to be a hero! An incredible video came out of Chile, where a dog braved highway traffic to drag another dog who’d been hit out of harm’s way:

The United Maps of America

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Relief map of the United States of America

The United States inspire some pretty good-lookin’ maps. Since the land mass is so enormous and the landscape so varied, our weather maps always end up a veritable rainbow of temperatures. And because each region and state have their own identities we can plot our differences in multifarious and beautiful ways.

Let’s start first with our history. This is what the fledgling country looked like in 1800 (I especially like the contrast of the named states to the pink “Claimed by Georgia” territory):

After spending so much time studying a modern highway map on my road trip two weeks ago, it’s fun to look back on the roads available to the early driver:

And let us not forget the origins of the place names of our country, most of which we don’t really understand. The following is a map of English translations of the Native American names that have stuck with us. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version to find out that Manhattan means “where one gathers wood for bows” and Chicago means “at the skunk place.”

Poor Chicago “Skunk Place,” Illinois. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s state, especially after looking at the following map that shows what each state is worst at (thankfully, my state, Minnesota, is only the worst place for tornadoes!):

And perhaps some of us would feel embarrassed–while others would be proud–of which country our state’s GDP most closely resembles:

The next map is as lovely as it is shameful–a rendering of the lower 48 through the locations of every McDonald’s:

Wash that burger and fries down with a nice soda…or is it pop? Obviously we disagree:

Ah forget it, let’s just crack open a beer instead. At least we can agree on the name, if not the brand:

It’s a good-looking country, really, as long as you don’t divide us up by political leanings. Then we end up looking like a constrained heart, just one McDonald’s vanilla shake short of a heart attack:

The diamond planet, the sapphire island

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Underneath the outer layer, the planet is just one huge, cut, glittering diamond...right?

Less than a month ago, astronomers reported the existence of a planet that consists largely of extremely dense carbon…otherwise known as diamond. This diamond planet is just 4,000 light years away; I’m sure evil geniuses are already at work figuring out how to harvest this gigantic gem and ship it on home. Science fiction writers are no doubt similarly thrilled.

While the logistics of a mining a diamond planet may still be a little tricky, there’s a location closer to home that–at least until recently–had its own vast, untapped gemstone deposits.

Over the years, I’ve read many hundreds of New Yorker articles, but only a few linger in my imagination. One of these is the 2006 article The Path of Stones, an account of the gem trade in Madagascar. Burkhard Bilger describes the gemmiferous nature of the island:

The far north had basaltic sapphires, formed in volcanoes. The eastern escarpment had emeralds, deposited by superheated waters that broke through the earth’s crust when the mountains were formed. The central highlands had pegmatites: veins of hardened magma sudden with aquamarines, tourmalines, and other rare minerals. There were rubies as red as those in Sri Lanka, garnets as green as those in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, and some stones, like flaming-pink pezzottaite, that could be found almost nowhere else.”

Bilger’s article is chiefly a portrait of an American gem miner and dealer, Tom Cushman, who was part of a rush on Malagasy sapphires in 1998. Cushman had been in the country for a few years already, but hadn’t had much luck until the day a man showed him what he’d told the miners he’d bought it from were “peach-blossom garnets.” Both this dealer and Cushman knew the truth: they were pink sapphires, one of the most valuable stones on the planet.

2 Malagasy miners

Cushman immediately headed for the town of Ilakaka in south Madagascar where these sapphires originated, and spent the next several years buying, selling, and mining in the midst of what he calls the Wild West. Plenty of dealers have been killed in the area, and miners have died in cave-ins, as the mines are not well-reinforced. Thai and Sri Lankan dealers have crowded the market so much that smaller dealers mostly rely on synthetics to hopefully fool the larger dealers. The only ones who really made it big are those who “mined the miners”–the man who sold ice-cold beers to the miners, the prostitutes who followed the miners south.

The sapphire mines are pretty well tapped out now. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, did not see much of an economic benefit. Its gem trade is not quite so exploitive as the blood diamonds used to fuel warlords and insurgencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Yet the injustice is great: the rough sapphire that a man pulls out of the ground may earn him a week’s pay or a bullet in the head, but will go on to fetch tens of thousands of dollars after being cut.

Time to go harvest that diamond planet…I’m sure people will trade fairly there.

Finding the Hope

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Some things have happened before my time that I retroactively mourn. For instance, Mitch Hedberg’s untimely death happened when I was in college, but I only found about him in my friends’ eulogizing Facebook posts. And now I can’t help thinking about how many more jokes he’d have come up with even in five additional years.

Now that's a nice rock

I feel the same way about the Hope Diamond. The gem is stunning. But when it was first mined in India, about 450 years ago, it was twice the size it is now. The original diamond was known as the French Blue because of its ownership by French royalty. Louis XIV was the first proprietor; it passed to his son Louis XV and then to the much more ill-fated Louis XVI. After #16 and his famously ostentatious wife were beheaded, the French Blue disappeared never to be seen in quite the same way again.

This is where my heart breaks just a little–the French Blue was butchered into smaller stones, the largest of which is the Hope Diamond. Sure, a large diamond being somewhat larger would not make any impact on my life, yet it seems so needlessly cruel to destroy something so lovely (I feel similarly despondent about the extinct fauna of Madagascar such as elephantine birds and giant lemurs).

But I suppose we should be thankful that the Hope Diamond persists at all. The recutting could have gone much worse, and there are several owners who were somewhat incautious with its care. Evalyn Walsh McLean, its twentieth-century American owner, would deliberately misplace the stone around her property at parties and make a children’s game of “finding the Hope.” And, when Harry Winston decided to donate the diamond to the Smithsonian, he sent it in a brown box through the US post office, insured for just under $150.

I’m not the only one who’s thankful that that box arrived at the museum–the Hope Diamond is the second most-visited piece of art after the Mona Lisa, and there’s little wonder why. Only 1 out of every 100,000 diamonds has any color whatsoever, and blue is the rarest color of all. A tiny number of boron atoms interspersed in the carbon structure give the diamond its “fancy deep grayish blue” coloring (yes, that is the technical term). In addition, if exposed to short-wave ultraviolet light, the diamond shines brilliantly red. No wonder people thought it was cursed. So even though we may never know how gorgeous the original stone was, there’s still Hope to be found (ha ha!)–the Hope Diamond is utterly breathtaking.

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