Greg Kuperberg: a paladin fighting against the ogres of hype

Nothing much to add here, but Greg Kuperberg has an excellent article at Slate which clarifies the power and limitations of quantum computers. The article is brief, accessible, and highly accurate. The next time a science journalist contacts you for a story, be sure to pass on a copy of this article as an exemplar of accurate, non-technical descriptions of quantum computing.

Taken to School

Here is a fine piece of investigative journalism about a very wide spread scam that is plaguing academia. Definitely worth a watch.

Katamari Damacy Any Website

If you know what Katamari Damacy is, then you will love
(The script was created by University of Washington students Alex Leone, David Nufer, and David Truong for the 2011 Yahoo HackU contest. See, dear physicists, the benefits of living in a computer science department 🙂 )

Hippy Software Licenses

One of my favorite software licenses is the Beerware license, here in a version due to Poul-Henning Kamp:

* --------------------------------------------------------------
* "THE BEER-WARE LICENSE" (Revision 42):
* <> wrote this file. As long as you retain
* this notice you can do whatever you want with this stuff.
* If we meet some day, and you think this stuff is worth it,
* you can buy me a beer in return Poul-Henning Kamp
* --------------------------------------------------------------

Recently I came across a license of a form I’d never seen before, this one for one of the top graph isomorphism software programs, nauty:

Copyright (1984-2010) Brendan McKay. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby given for use and/or distribution with the exception of sale for profit or application with nontrivial military significance. You must not remove this copyright notice, and you must document any changes that you make to this program. This software is subject to this copyright only, irrespective of any copyright attached to any package of which this is a part.

Just as there are socially conscious mutual funds, it also appears that there are socially conscious software licenses! Who knew?

A Mathematical Definition of News?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the news. Mostly this involves me shouting obscenities at the radio or the internet for wasting my time with news items the depth of which couldn’t drown an ant and whose factual status makes fairy tales look like rigorous mathematical texts (you know the kind labeled “Introductory X”.) But also (and less violently) I’ve been pondering my favorite type of question, the quantification question: how would one “measure” the news?
Part of motivation for even suggesting that there is a measure of “news” is that if someone asked me if there was a measure of “information” back when I was a wee lad, I would have said they were crazy. How could one “measure” something so abstract and multifaceted as “information?” However there is a nice answer to how to measure information and this answer is given by the Shannon entropy. Of course this answer doesn’t satisfy everyone, but the nice thing about it is that it is the answer to a well defined operational question about resources.
Another thought that strikes me is that, of course Google knows the answer. Or at least there is an algorithm for Google News. Similarly Twitter has an algorithm for spotting trending topics. And of course there are less well known examples like Thoora which seeks to deliver news that is trending in social media. And probably there is academic literature out there about these algorithms, the best I could find with some small google-fu is TwitterMonitor: trend detection over the twitter stream. But all of this is very algorithm centered. The question I want to ask is what quantity are these services attempting to maximize (is it even the same quantity?)
The first observation is that clearly news has a very strong temporal component. If I took all of the newspapers, communications, books, letters, etc. that mankind has produced and regarded it without respect to time you wouldn’t convince many that there is news in this body of raw data (except that there are some monkeys who can type rather well.) Certainly also it seems that news has a time-frame. That is one could easily imagine a quantity that discusses the news of the day, the news of the week, etc.
A second observation is that we can probably define some limits. Suppose that we are examining tweets and that we are looking for news items on a day time scale. We could take the words in the different day’s tweets and make a frequency table for all of these words. A situation in which there is a maximum amount of news on the second day is then a situation where on the first day the frequency distribution over words is peeked one one word, while the second day is all concentrated on another word. One could probably also argue that, on the day time scale, if both frequency distributions were peaked on the same word, then this would not be (day scale) news (it might be week scale news, however.)
This all suggests that our friend, the news, is nothing more than the total variation distance. For two probability distributions p(x) and q(x) , the variation distance between these distribution is d(p,q)=frac{1}{2} sum_{x} |p(x)-q(x)| . This is also equal to sup_{E subset X} |P(E)-Q(E)| where P(E)=sum_{x in E} p(x) and similarly for Q(E). Ah, so perhaps this is not as exciting as I’d hoped 🙂 But at least it gives me a new way to talk about the variational distance between two probability distributions: this is a measure of the news that we could associate with changing from one probability distribution to another.
Of course this is just one approach to thinking about how to quantify “news.” What are the drawbacks for my method and what should a real measure have that this one lacks? I mean whats the worst that could happen in thinking about this problem. Okay, so maybe you would learn how many holes it takes
to fill the Albert Hall.

Life, Death, and the World is Such a Wonderful Place

I am not a big fan of THE NEWS. But then again, some days the universe just tees up some fun stuff. NyTimes obit, Frank W. Lewis, Master of the Cryptic Crossword, Dies at 98.

The younger Mr. Lewis attended secretarial school and the University of Utah (later earning a degree in absentia) and passed the federal government’s civil service test. He then headed for Washington, where he earned a master’s degree in music from the Catholic University of America and took government secretarial jobs.
Col. William Friedman, who ran the Army’s cryptography operations, was looking for very smart people on the eve of World War II. He heard about Mr. Lewis, who was bored “to tears” in the civil service’s death benefits section.
Colonel Friedman hired him as a civilian employee, and Mr. Lewis went on to help break the code used to coordinate Japanese ships. He became addicted to British puzzles while posted in England at the Bletchley Park decryption station at the end of the war. He then followed Colonel Friedman to the National Security Agency, where he won plaudits for his service, started the N.S.A. Glee Club and created English-style puzzles for an N.S.A. magazine.
Mr. Lewis’s 2,962 puzzles for The Nation were proofread by his wife of 74 years, the former Sylvia Shosteck….

One cannot make up, no matter how creative you are, the real life founder of the N.S.A Glee Club. In a similar vein, Sri Daya Mata, Guiding Light for U.S. Hindus, Dies at 96

Her death was confirmed by Lauren Landress, a spokeswoman for the group, the Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, which is based in what once was an elegant hotel on Mount Washington in Los Angeles.
Besides its headquarters, the society owns a 10-acre sanctuary in the Pacific Palisades, near Malibu, Calif., where a temple crowned by a golden lotus was built in 1966 under Sri Daya Mata’s guidance. Followers come from around the country to meditate.

Previous days obits included Samuel T. Cohen, Neutron Bomb Inventor, Dies at 89:

In contrast to strategic warheads, which can kill millions and level cities, and smaller short-range tactical nuclear arms designed to wipe out battlefield forces, the neutron bomb minimized blast and heat. Instead, it maximized a barrage of infinitesimal neutrons that could zip through tanks, buildings and other structures and kill people, usually by destroying the central nervous system, and all other life forms.
While doubters questioned the usefulness, logic and ethics of killing people and sparing property, Mr. Cohen called his bomb a “sane” and “moral” weapon that could limit death, destruction and radioactive contamination, killing combatants while leaving civilians and towns unscathed. He insisted that many critics misunderstood or purposely misrepresented his ideas for political, economic or mercenary reasons.
A specialist in the radiological effects of nuclear weapons, he relentlessly promoted the neutron bomb for much of his life, writing books and articles, conferring with presidents and cabinet officials, taking his case to Congressional committees, scientific bodies and international forums. He won many converts, but ultimately failed to persuade the United States to integrate the device into its tactical nuclear arsenal.
“It’s the most sane and moral weapon ever devised,” he said in September in a telephone interview for this obituary. “It’s the only nuclear weapon in history that makes sense in waging war. When the war is over, the world is still intact.”

In case you missed it, you just read an obit which included an interview of the deceased for the obit. Oh and then there is the moral question of killing people but sparing property.


This is a test.  I repeat this is only a test.  The emergency broadcast system’s got nothing on this test.

Random Question of the Day

A common refrain among members of the left in the United States in the last two presidential elections has been that if the right wins then they would “move to Canada.” This was, of course, recently one-upped by Tina Fey who quipped that if McCain-Palin won this year, she would “leave the Earth.” Today I spent way to much time trying to figure out where the right would say they are going if the left wins. Anyone?

Web Based Applications

You know that web based applications have really entered into your life when you click the Firefox icon and you wonder why the browser doesn’t appear and cover the document you are editing.