Tuesday, November 29, 2011

(A Big) Part Of Science Is Publicizing Your Results

I’ve actually seen this sort of thing—claiming a result while backing off from claiming it, circulating a writeup to a few people but not really circulating it, burying an observation where no one will find it—happen over and over again in science, and its invariable effect is to leave fields in a state of utter confusion. There’s an excellent reason why, 350 years ago, science moved from the “announce-by-cryptogram” model to the model of rapid, widespread dissemination of research. And I’m not willing to forsake the attendant gains in human progress, just because some commenters here seem to enjoy the romantic image of someone stuffing the proof of a theorem into a bottle, throwing the bottle into the ocean, then going back to collecting seashells (or whatever), secure in the knowledge that the history of mathematics will need to be rewritten once the bottle washes up on some distant beach a thousand years later. Sorry, not how it works in this civilization.
That is yet more interestingness by Scott Aaronson in the comments of his blog. There is a thin line here, no doubt, as too much marketing and not enough meat is anathema to progress. But yes, in order for our results to be useful, we must attempt to ensure that they are heard by people who can use them. One way to do this is to split disparate ideas into separate, shorter papers, even though that practice is sometimes disparaged.


Of the well-subscribed to bloggers I read, Aaronson is one of the few who consistently responds to commenters. He also seems to have grown quite tired of his commenters, as he has threatened to shut down his blog more than once. Perhaps long-lasting success in the blogosphere selects for people who do not respond to comments. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Does "Statistical" Mean To You?

What exactly do [the authors] mean by a quantum state being “statistically interpretable”?... Basically, [the authors] call something “statistical” if two people, who live in the same universe but have different information, could rationally disagree about it.... As for what “rational” means, all we’ll need to know is that a rational person can never assign a probability of 0 to something that will actually happen. 
To illustrate, suppose a coin is flipped, and you (but not I) get a tip from a reliable source that the coin probably landed heads. Then you and I will describe the coin using different probability distributions, but neither of us will be “wrong” or “irrational”, given the information we have.
That's Scott Aaronson discussingpaper about the nature of quantum states. Googling "define statistical," I see, unsurprisingly, "of or relating to the use of statistics," and then googling "define statistics," I see "the practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities." 

To me, the large quantities bit emphasizes that the role of statistics is to parse signal from noise, which is only possible with more than two data points (or, to be fair, some assumptions). So, I'd consider the authors' use of the word statistical to be sort of non-standard, because it seems to be able to be used for interpreting just one quantum state. 

Quite possibly this is actually standard use of the word statistical among certain physicists, which would make this yet another example of why you shouldn't assume that terminology is at all consistent across disciplines. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Self-Reinforcing Effects Of Ignorance

Outside of baseball there had been, for decades, an intellectual revolt, led by a free thinker named Bill James, devoted to creating new baseball knowledge. The movement generated information of value in the market for baseball players, but the information went ignored by baseball insiders. The market’s willful ignorance had a self-reinforcing quality: the longer the information was ignored, the less credible it became. After all, if this stuff had any value, why didn’t baseball insiders pay it any attention? To see the value in what Bill James and his crowd were up to you had first to believe that a market as open and transparent as the market for baseball players could ignore valuable information—that is, that it could be irrational.
That's Michael Lewis, more here. In particular, to find value in old, unorthodox stances, you have to believe in the possibility of status quo bias. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A New Solution To A Grid Coloring Challenge

It is here, as explained by Alexandre Thiery. The challenge is to find a four color schema such that a 17 x 17 grid has no rectangle with the same four colors at each corner. The best known solution, shown below, has three rectangles. They are denoted by the black lines.

Who can find a schema with no such rectangles? Does one exist?


The fact that I enjoy this so much indicates some sort of bias towards colorful things. Or maybe just pretty things, more generally.