Saturday, November 28, 2009

Crazy Unicode Characters

  1. : the interrobang, usually written '?!', has been combined into a single character.
  2. : the unicode snowman, as seen on
  3. : skull and crossbones.
  4. : hammer and sickle.
  5. : victory hand.
  6. : the symbol for terahertz (and you were writing THz, like a sucker)
  7. : the character for radians per squared second.
  8. : umbrella.
  9. : shooting star, supposedly.
  10. : telephone.
Unicode face.

EDIT: There's a crazy new emoticon floating around Facebook that uses some truly perplexing characters:


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lockhart's Lament

This article on K12 math education was written in 2002, but it finally found its way onto my class's Google group in the past couple days:

Before you dash off to read it, I should note that there are a couple big flaws with the argument. The main one is that he claims that math is useless and that this is a good thing. Math is not useless and it would not be a good thing if it were. Further arguments are below, but you can go read the article first.

--- Waiting. Go read the article. ---

Okay. You've read it? Here we go...


Lockhart's stance that math is art and thus useless (but capable of, you know, enlightening people...) does a disservice to both artists and mathematicians. Sure, art can be done for art's sake, but good art is done because people (even people who are not the artists themselves!) like it and it is thus useful.

Indeed, Lockhart's view of art reminds me a lot of List A pieces from the Royal Conservatory of Music. These are the classical, historic masterpieces that are critically acclaimed and all that [lack of] jazz, but are dead boring to a lot of modern students, such as myself. Music, art, and math do not exist in a vacuum. They are made better by being applied to the real world, to real situations, and to real problems.

Lockhart asserts that trigonometry is useless to most people's lives; this is clearly for lack of trying. Trigonometric functions provide a basis for the analysis of all periodic systems, from electrical circuits, to mechanical oscillators, many biological processes, and so forth. Can the beauty of the periodicity of a periodic function be appreciated without realizing this? Sure, maybe, for some people who would undoubtedly make fine mathematicians. There are, however, many cases where math is not developed for its beauty, but for its practical application. Take the Dirac delta function: a vertical spike at the origin of infinite height but with area one. Does that sound beautiful? (Okay, honestly, it does to me, but that's mainly because I've read ahead.) It's hard to imagine someone coming up with the impulse function for purely aesthetic reasons — as it goes against pretty much everything math has to say about functions — but it turns out to be extremely useful (I mean, man, you have know idea how important this one concept is, seriously, yow) for signal processing and the design of linear-time invariant systems (ie. not quite everything, but a large subset of everything).

The point that I want to make though is that the art metaphor is not flawed, but Lockhart annoyingly neglects the idea of pop art (stuff that people can actually relate to) for stuffy avant-garde postmodern cruft that can supposedly be admired for its intrinsic celestial beauty. Art is only art because it has context; math is only math because it is grounded in applications. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, pop culture will never be lowbrow.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. For those of you who have noticed that I drop a lot more Lady Gaga references now than I did before, it's because I need an excuse to link to this video which is awesome. I don't care what you think of dance pop, if you can play the piano with your foot that is damned impressive.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Need a Home?

I remember the days when I had to search for a place to live. Those were not particularly fun times. Finding yourself in a similar situation? Well fear not, for I have the perfect place for you: my townhouse room. 15 minute walk north of campus, $375/mth + utilities. I'll even throw in some fancy furnishings like a desk/dresser convertible, plus a normal computer desk for those of you who aren't into convergent furniture.

See that thing in the foreground there? It's a pull-out desk. I know, eh? Pretty awesome. Also, notice the keyboard in the background? Yeah, that's not staying, but think of all the extra room you'll have!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quizzes, More Quizzes, and the Glowing Sidewalks

I had a bunch of rather stressful quizzes (aka midterms, except that they aren't necessarily in the middle of the term) in the past couple few days. On the plus side, I also had a couple midterms returned that I did reasonably well on. It was particularly interesting to finally see how marking works in non-engineering faculties (disclaimer: note that one midterm can't fairly be used to extrapolate to all courses taught by all non-engineering faculties, but I'm going to do so anyway). For one thing, the marks were quite high: an average of 78%? A top mark of 100%? Only one failure? Preposterous! But aside from that, it was weird to see comments like "good, but too short" instead of "good: 10 marks" or "wrong: zero out of ten". Oh subjective marking, how I've missed you.

Disclaimer 2: engineering does actually have subjective marking. It's currently mostly relegated to a certain online professional development course; still, even mathematical courses usually have some degree of subjectivity. Incidentally, that certain online professional development course has recently been the subject of an independent review (PDF) which is an informative read for anyone interested in such matters.

On a completely unrelated topic: there's a tutorial on Instructables about building a pressure sensitive glowing sidewalk as seen in Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" music video (obligatory link to the official YouTube copy of the aforementioned video). Fun times.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing Things the Hard Way

The System's Coffeehouse is Tuesday. The 'coffeehouse' event is basically the laid-back version of a talent show, where everyone does an act, maybe playing a song or two, and it's usually a pretty good way to spend an evening.

This year, I told some people that I'd be doing a song, but I didn't actually start writing it until, well, today. It turns out that I no longer have that (legal!) copy of PrintMusic lying around on my computer thanks to the Great Reformatting of '09 (I could reinstall, of course, but the CD's in Ottawa) and after a few frustrated minutes with a trial version of Sibelius (which looks pretty when it works, but is disappointingly buggy), I decided to write out the darned thing by hand. It's been a long, long time since I've had to write any music by hand and I've forgotten how utterly painful it is.

EDIT: Allegro 2007 30-day trial to the rescue!

EDIT 2: Okay... saying that I need 256 MB RAM and "installation will continue but performance may be affected" is great and all, but I have 4 GB of RAM. Grr. Come on, guys, get it together now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

IGEM Jamboree 2009

I arrived back in Waterloo from MIT about 15 hours ago now. I'm a little bit behind in school work right now, so I can't really do the Jamboree/conference/competition justice (not that I could ever do it justice in a single blog post), but I thought I'd type up some assorted thoughts anyway...
  • Road Trip (1): It's a nine hour drive. A couple of the more experienced members of the team chose to pay for flights instead.
  • Road Trip (2): Toll roads... everywhere.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (1): I've had an unhealthy admiration for MIT for a very, very long time so a lot of the people who knew me assumed I'd be disillusioned by this trip.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (2): They both have those ugly abstract sculptures that are just beams welded together and painted a single colour; however, MIT's are bigger, blacker, and placed in the open while Waterloo's are small, orange, and pushed off to the side. Lesson: if you're going to have a Big Ugly Statue, you might as well make it Big.
MIT has ugly statues too! Ours are still uglier.
  • Hotel (1): The Marriott. Not to be confused with the other gazillion Marriott's in Cambridge.
  • Hotel (2): Once we found the Marriott, it was surprisingly swank. I'm more used to hostels and motels, but the Marriott is a genuine hotel.
  • Jamboree (1): We missed breakfast on the first day. Never miss breakfast if you want to be alert for six morning lectures on synthetic biology. It's painful.
  • Jamboree (2): The Osaka team presented their work on gene art; Valencia mock-interviewed themselves about voltage-controlled light-emitting cells (that were controlled using a laptop sound card); Pavia, Wisconsin, and Uppsala Sweden presented various ways of using biology to solve energy/environmental problems.
  • Jamboree (3): The lunches provided by MIT catering made up for the lack of breakfast. Never has grilled roast beef and pasta tasted so good (with a side of a bun and a godly brownie).
  • Jamboree (4): I saw several talks in the information processing track on Saturday afternoon. I found them more understandable than the morning talks; being fed and interested in the information processing category helped substantially. The Bacterial Decoder project (Illinois) and Satisfiability problem sover (MoWestern Davidson) were particularly cool.
  • Jamboree (5): The 4:30 PM timeslot on Saturday had a few interesting-looking presentations. I passed up the chance to see the MIT and Freiburg software presentations to go to the John Hopkins' talk about their Build-A-Genome course.
  • Poster Session (1): Tom Knight's presence greatly excited a couple members of the team.
  • Poster Session (2): I talked to a few groups about their projects. Nobody really discusses modeling.
  • Hotel (3): Staff are dressed for Halloween. This is probably the only day when plastic weaponry can be freely brandished in the lobby. Then again, it is the States, so maybe they do allow rifles in hotels.
  • Hotel (4): The team from Brussels meets us in the lobby and provide an audience for our practice presentation.
  • Hotel (5): No. Cheaper by the Dozen is not a good movie.
  • MIT vs. Waterloo (3): The campus is surprisingly dead. I feel like there's some cool stuff lurking around, but without any students around it feels like any other conference center. Also, our section of Cambridge is a ghost town over the weekend.
  • Jamboree (6): I didn't see the Alberta presentation, but other members of the team were quite excited by it. They were working on a toolkit for artificial genome construction. This somehow included a "Lego DIY biofab robot". I'm not quite sure how this all worked, but I plan on reading Alberta's wiki soon.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (4): Woke up really early to get breakfast on the second day. It was worth it. Bagels, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt parfait's, fruits... I can't believe they ran out on the first day.
The MIT nerd crossing sign.
  • Jamboree (7): Another day, another twelve presentations. Waterloo's own presentation about our chromosome engineering project was an obvious highlight.
  • Jamboree (8): Bristol's presentation, which immediately preceded ours, included some pretty cool modeling software. They eventually won the modeling award.
  • Poster Session (3): More posters... it's a bit frustrating that they're all spread out, there were a couple of teams that I wanted to talk to that I just never saw.
  • Poster Session (4): Technically, I could have found posters by looking up the teams in the provided poster list. I think I lost mine.
  • Jamboree (9): the iGEM Canada meeting was quite interesting. It'll be interesting to see how attempts to organize the Canadian teams unfold. There's currently a Facebook group.
  • Hotel (6): The hotel had no free wifi, but it did have a single room with three computers (the "business center") where I could check email and (more importantly) accept a job offer. Collectively, the iGEM teams hogged the business center.
  • Social Event (1): More free food (hosted by Jillian's).
  • Social Event (2): Also free pool, bowling, and ping pong. What type of a bar has a bowling alley?
  • Social Event (3): There was also a dance downstairs. I have never seen so many dancing scientists and engineers in one place. More awesome.
  • Jamboree (10): Finalist presentations. I liked Heidelberg's presentation about developing standards for mammalian synthetic biology. The biologists also swooned over the idea of a universal endonuclease (Freiburg) and Cambridge's pigment-producing E. coli biosensors.
  • MIT vs Waterloo (5): The city and campus came back from the dead on Monday. MIT looks a lot more like MIT when it has students swarming over it.
  • Jamboree (11): Cambridge won the grand prize. Heidelberg was the first runner-up and Valencia was the second runner up. Alberta won for "Best Foundational Advance".
  • Road Trip (3): Parking cost a little over ninety dollars from Friday until Monday.
  • Road Trip (4): The return trip was still a nine hour drive.