Friday, February 27, 2009

TGIF: How not to get your ass kicked by the police

Chris Rock kickin' the edumacation old-school:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Word of the day: Quixotic

For some reason I stumbled into the political section of VG from following some link on the front page. As I was fixin' to move from that quagmire to - you know; actual news, my eyes wandered to the following header: Kystpartiet vil flytte hovedstaden til Trondheim (The Coastal Party wants to move the capital city to Trondheim). According to the leader of Kystpartiet Kjell Ivar Vestå, the distance between the public and the government is too large, and thus Kystpartiet wants to make the capital relocation part of their political agenda. Relocation of the capital will be an important step towards a unifying political stragety for the country, Vestå says.

In case you haven't heard of Kystpartiet before, here's a link to their web page (Norwegian only). This party is - according to themselves - a value conservative political party in the center of the political spectrum based on Judeo-Christian values and individual rights. I have no idea what percentage of votes they're gettin', but I'm thinkin' it's got to be close to the margin of error. I browsed through some selected sections of their party program, and the sum total of their plan for higher education consists of three very short paragraphs, which can be summarized as 1) Higher education should be free, 2) Universities should do research within the limits of available funding, and 3) More of our petroleum fund should be used towards fundamental research.

Yeah; I'm sold.

Relocating government from Oslo to about choosing your battles. Yo Vestå; I overheard them windmills over there badmouthing you...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Black metal prank call

TOTALLY awesome: Some black guy calls about an audition as lead guitarist in a white-bread middle-class American suburban black metal poser band.


Monday, February 23, 2009

GQ5: Jumping the Shark - Final Results

Before we get into he final standings, here be the songs:

  • Song 256: Iron Maiden - Hallowed Be Thy Name. Final song on the fantastic "Number Of The Beast" album. Nuthin' but net.
  • Song 257: Iron Maiden - Aces High. Another classic from Steve Harris' merry bunch.
  • Song 258: Bon Jovi - Bed Of Roses. From the 1992 album "Keep The Faith".
  • Song 259: Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven. Allegedly many, many music stores banned this song due to hordes of wanna-be guitarists incessantly playing this very intro all through the opening hours. Moreover, LZ apparently jacked this song - at least the main riff and guitar lines - from a lesser known British band.
  • Song 260: Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force - Black Star. You better believe it.

Time for the Final Round Scores:

  1. Marius (8 points)
  2. Cathy (6 points)
  3. T-bombz (5 points)
  4. Anders/Sondre (tied at 4 points)

Well done, Marius! The Final Standings for GQ5: Jumping the Shark are:

  1. Cathy (44 points)
  2. Sondre (39 points)
  3. Anders (34 points)
  4. T-bombz (31 points)
  5. Marius (25 points)
  6. Nils (23 points)
  7. Pigeon (19 points)

Congrats to Cathy - Queen of the guitarquiz! Also congrats to Marius for a valiant effort in the final round - too bad it didn't take you all teh way.

Soccer geishas?

Yet another tragic consequence of the financial crisis - Bergen soccer franchise Brann can no longer afford to stock the VIP boxes with professional models acting as "hostesses" to the VIPs. Read all about it in Bergensavisen or in Dagbladet. Typically, the "hostesses" have been finalists or at least contestants in Miss Norway and similar arrangements. I am sure they were hired because they are such good conversationalists in addition to being astute observers of the game.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but "hostess" isn't the only word used to describe women who are paid in order to hang out with (predominantly) male customers.

Girl power indeed.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Damn skippy it is!

How much do Americans know about 9/11?

Thanks to Marius for bringing this segment of "Chaser's War On Everything". It's either really funny or really depressing, depending on your point of view:

Now just to make it clear; I am under no illusions that a random selection of Norwegians would fare any better either on 9/11 or any local matter. All you need in order to purge yourself of any such illusion is to watch a teelvised debate show like Tabloid and pay attention to the text messages at the bottom of the screen, alternatively listen to the call-in's at the end of the show. Scary stuff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A lesson well learned

I'm in the process of repackaging a "damaged" manuscript for submission to a new journal. Which, in case you're not familiar with the publish-or-perish deal, means that the journal we originally opted for put the kibosh on our submission.

The most obvious problem (or rather "challenge", "issue" or even "learning opportunity") the manuscript suffered from was that it was too damn long, and structured more like a straight-up dissemination of data than a real story. Consequently, there were blocks of text with a significant degree of overlap.

Enter one of the co-authors. After having struggled a while with minor improvements, he (probably got fed up and) ixnayed the entire "Results" section, decided that the more immediately descriptive sections of the "Discussion" part should be stripped of interpretation and re-labeled as the new and improved "Results". He also marked every large paragraph with "Can this be condensed?".

I have to admit that I was quite hesitant and sceptical at first. Also, restructuring the manuscript in this manner took quite a lot of work.

However, the manuscript went from ~11 000 words to ~6 000 words! Plus; so far all indications from the co-authors who have read the new and improved version point to the manuscript being easier to read, with all of the relevant information and interpretations intact.

What teh hell was I doing when I wrote the first couple of drafts?

Because it's funny

.....and I needed an injection of teh funny today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weight reduction: basic science fail

Recently, there's been a debate over at regarding whether overweight is best dealt with by activity or diet, and which factor has the largest impact. This debate has also raged on in various fitness and nutrition magazines for as long as I have paid attention (and longer), and is important mostly because magazines can't sell ads if the rest of the magazine is empty. The differing points of view can be exemplified by the following feature articles - one from the diet-matters-most camp, respresented by Pål Tangen Jåbekk, and one from the activity rules camp, represented by Eivind Aadland. The former feature article by Jåbekk is perhaps the most entertaining. While the piece is quite rambling and incoherent (including the brilliant statement "Like the rest of the population, the "scientists" have also fallen into the trap" (of believing that there is a correlation between working out and losing weight)), the conclusions are very interesting:

"Vi har blitt lurt til å tro at vi kan redusere energiinntaket vårt uten at det påvirker energiforbruket, og tilsvarende at vi kan øke energiforbruket uten at energiinntaket også øker. Dette forutsetter som sagt at energiforbruk og energiinntak er det man kaller uavhengige faktorer. Det er de ikke. Basta.

Om du legger på deg eller ikke, blir ikke styrt av hvor mye du spiser, men hva du spiser. Om trening gjør oss tynnere, så er det ikke fordi vi forbrenner mer energi når vi trener.

Så til alle dere som står krokbøyd over stepmaskiner rundt i det ganske land og teller kalorier; dere har blitt lurt. Det har ingenting å si hvor mye du forbrenner. Det er ganske enkelt ikke sånn kroppen virker."

Loosely translated: "We have been duped into believing that we can reduce our energy intake without it affecting the energy expenditure, and correspondingly that we can increase the energy expenditure without a concomitant increase in energy intake. This presumes that energy intake and energy expenditure are independent factors, which they are not. Whether or not you gain weight is not controlled by how much you eat, but rather what you eat. If working out makes us thinner, it is not because we expend more energy when we work out."

I don't know about you all, but upon reading this, I got a flashback to one of my favorite Simpsons episodes, wherein Homer walks in on Lisa, points to her (functioning) perpetuum mobile and exclaims: "LISA!! In this house we obey the laws of THERMODYNAMICS!"

While I don't claim to have the be-all end-all answers to the question of whether dietary or activity-related factors are weighted higher (to the extent one can claim one ratio of variables to be true for the entire population or even for large population segments), what I DO know is that there are two extremely important aspects which are overlooked in this sample debate (although mostly by Jåbekk as exemplified by his conclusions above):

1: The human body obeys the Laws of Thermodynamics
There is a relationship between the energy input (i.e. caloric intake), the energy expenditure (i.e. calories consumed) and the variable body mass. If you keep the activity level constant and vary the caloric intake above or below the maintenance threshold (number of calories required to maintain your current body mass and composition under your present activity level), you increase or reduce your bodyweight, respectively. Unless you drastically change the nutritional composition of your diet simultaneously, that is. So making blanket statements about how it does not matter how much you eat but what betrays a fundamental lack of basic thermodynamics. And while there is no doubt that factors such as glycemic index and p/f/c ratios significantly affect the metabolic rates etc., you can't escape the basic truth that of you take in less energy than your maintenance threshold, you'll create a negative caloric balance, which over time leads to weight loss.

Beside the co-dependence of these variables pointed out by Jåbekk, there's this thing called free will. According to Jåbekk's conclusions, increasing your activity level leads to an increased caloric intake. What I suggest is the following experiment to test Jåbekk's hypothesis: Tomorrow, write down exactly what and how much you eat. The day after tomorrow, eat precisely the same amount of the same food at the same time, but increase your activity level - say by running up and down a flight of stairs instaed of just ascending or descending every time you have to traverse floors. If Jåbekk is correct, you'll wake up in the middle of the night with a mouthful of food exactly big enough to compensate for the extra activity, without knowing how you got there and with no chance of controlling your eating. In the likely event that you don't experience involuntary feeding following this experiment, the conclusion must be that Jåbekk is full of it.

Not only do Jåbekk's conclusions negate the possibility of free will, but it also makes it impossible for a person to be anorexic, for example. Wow - that was easy. I wonder if he does requests?

2: Body composition is more important than body mass
Why is it that the success of a diet and exercise plan is measured by the change in body mass? There are plenty of athletes who weigh approximately the same - or more - as Michael Moore at the same height, so why am I stuck with the sneaking suspicion that Moore is not as healthy as the body mass index would suggest? And what about the fact that muscle weighs more than fat, so if you start to exercise, you'll build more muscle mass, the added weight of which will offset the concomitant fat loss?

Gotta love soft sciences

Friday, February 13, 2009

Because it's Friday and it's been a while...

Because it's been a while and it's Friday

Happy Friday the 13th

...a.k.a. Jason Voorhees Day. horror movie villain ever

Thursday, February 12, 2009

GQ5: Jumping the Shark - Final Round

Final round of GQ5.

Submit your answers to mfactorquiz (at) by the end of Friday 022009. Each song holds the potential of two points - one point for artist and one point for the song. Answers will be posted on Saturday 022109.

Song number 256:

Song number 257:

Song number 258:

Song number 259:

Song number 260:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If he floats, he is a witch.

According to a selection of christian faith healers, Snåsamannen is being hypocritical when he criticizes healers (like themselves) who are charging for their services. The chief inquisitors among the healers (Misjonen Jesus Heler and Misjonen Helse for Hele Mennesket) have compiled the following list of heinous crimes committed by Joralf Gjerstad a.k.a. Snåsamannen:
  1. The accused does not charge for his healing services
  2. The accused has held down a full-time job and now is the beneficiary of social security
  3. The accused has received voluntary monetary gifts from people who have employed his services. Said gifts have been put in a fund for charitable purposes.
  4. The accused has been criticizing christian faith healers and others for charging for their services
  5. The accused has stated that he does not believe in the concept of Hell

They're kidding, right? A bunch of self-proclaimed devout christians are getting down on someone who has not advertised his services, does not charge for said services and has held down a full-time job thus adding value to the society as a whole in addition to helping people in his spare time.

How dare he cut into the profit of christian faith healers and others who look upon healing not as a fringe practice but as a hard-core business concept? 'Cause it's not like they can accuse Snåsamannen of being a fraud........

Instead of speaking in tongues and getting all hopped up on sulfuric vapors and one-upmanship on what kind of torment awaits in the afterlife for everyone but them, the two competing (in that they both charge for their services) organizations responsible for the criticism - Misjonen Jesus Leger and Misjonen Helse for Hele Mennesket - should worry about this attack being a very real justification for an anti-trust lawsuit.

Oh; and if you can't be bothered to read the article in adressa, it's hardly necessary. Roughly, the arguments put forth by the christian faith healers can be translated into English as "You'll ALL be sorry when the mothership behind the comet arrives!"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Myths about myths about peer review

I recently peeped in a post titled Three myths about scientific peer review on Michael Nielsen's blog (by way of a post on Kjerstin's blog). Now; Michael Nielsen is undoubtedly a very smart and knowledgeable guy, and I'm taking nothing away from his professional accomplishments - within his actual profession of theoretical physics and quantum computing (a self-professed "pioneer of quantum computing") - when I say that this particular post failed to impress me in a most spectacular manner. With his post, Nielsen aims to "debunk three widely-believed myths about peer review, myths which can derail sensible discussion of the future of peer review." The three myths are as follows:

Myth number 1: Scientists have always used peer review.
While many scientists believe that peer review has been widely employed since early in the history of science, this is false, and worse still, most scientific journals didn't routinely use peer review until the mid 20th century, Nielsen states. He then goes on to mention examples to "illustrate the point" (which point is meant to be illustrated remains somewhat unclear), including the fact that most of the Great Albert Einstein's papers did not pass through peer review. As a matter of fact, it might be that only one of his papers went through a peer -review process, and this review came back negative. Outraged, Einstein wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the journal, and submitted his work elsewhere.

A couple of things with this example. First of all; I don't recall having ever heard anyone use "Oh yeah? Well..scientists have ALWAYS used peer review" as an argument neither for not against peer review. As a matter of fact, I fail to see the merit of using such an argument. The fact that something has been around forever (even though it really hasn't in this case) hardly qualifies as the sole reason for anything.

Second; Albert Einstein was a rare scientific mind, in all likelihood ranking among the most influential scientists in our history. While I'm sure that many scientists would like to think that they are close to his league, the odds are overwhelmingly against them being anywhere near his level. "Peer" means "one that is of equal standing with another". Let me ask you a rhetorical question: Do you expect a peer review system to work particularly well for a singular mind and statistical outlier like Albert Einstein? Personally, I would prefer a system which works for the vast majority of submitted work and has a somewhat lower reliability for values with large deviations from the mean. Pretty much anyone working with "real" data would know that an algorithm which is meant to include extremities and outliers is little more than a model of noise.

Third; the reviewer was correct and Einstein was wrong in this (rare) instance. So; this is actually an example of the peer review process working like a charm - even the work of Albert Einstein could benefit from peer review (not that I'm expecting this to be a robust trend). Using Albert Einstein in an example about peer review....unimpressive.

Myth number 2: Peer review is reliable.
Here, Nielsen starts off with the time-tested "every scientist has gotten bad reviews" in a slightly new wrapping: "Every scientist has a story (or ten) about how they were poorly treated by peer review - the important paper that was unfairly rejected, or the silly editor who ignored their sage advice as a referee. Despite this, many strongly presume that the system works “pretty well”, overall."

Ya think? Now; I have personally complained about - what I perceive to be - poor reviews on this blog. Funny thing is; I typically don't make a post every time I get solid, constructive feedback, which actually happens most of the time. I also tend to make blog posts about things which are at least slightly outside of the norm. Moreover, if every scientist has a story about poor treatment, then that represents a very small fraction of the number of publications said scientist ought to have if he or she is anywhere close to productive. And you know what; every student has a tear-dripping story (or ten) about getting an undeservedly poor grade. Every actor or musician can give you a tale involving unfair reviews. Most people feel they pay too much tax, etc. You can't please everyone, and every system is flawed.

Nielsen goes on to say that there isn't much evidence to suggest that the peer review system "works pretty well", and describes a rather famous example of papers about organic superconductors by German physicist Jan Hendrik Schoen in 2000 and 2001 which were published (after passing peer review) in very prestigious journals. Eventually, the findings appeared too good to be true, and it turned out that much of Schoen's work was fraudulent. Natch, a bunch of his papers was retracted, and there was a big hubbub. I remember this very well; early in 2001 my Ph.D. advisor put me - the newest addition to his research group - on a project aiming to investigate surface-immobilized DNA structures for their possible use as superconductors, based on these papers. For me, that was a waste of time to the tune of two months. To the grad student initially assigned to the project, it was the final straw and exit grad school by way of M.Sc.

Sure; it was really bad that so many manuscripts slipped past the reviewers. Good job it was caught. You know what, though? It wouldn't have caused a big stir unless such a slip-up happened very rarely. Every time some douchebags like Sudbø, the cold fusion people*, or Schoen get caught, there is a big media production, and an outrage in the scientific community. This - to me - is comforting. Does it mean that the peer review system has flaws? Sure - plenty of them. However, this does not amount to much unless you've got an alternative which has been reliably documented to outperform the existing system. When that time comes, I'm all about the new system. I'm highly susceptible to facts and logic. Bandwagon-jumping - not so much.

Myth number 3: Peer review is the way we determine what's right and wrong in science.
I don't really know what to say about this alleged myth, as I've never heard or read about anyone using this one as an argument pro or con peer review either.

There's plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the peer review process. For example, it's pretty obvious trend that the time between submission and acceptance of a manuscript is significantly shorter when big-shot scientists are present on the author list. Any ol' WOS search can confirm this. To a certain extent, this is due to the fact that big-shot scientists are very good at what they do. However, the productivity of some of these prominent scientists, and the rather large number of members in their research groups, highly suggest that their direct involvement with at least some of the papers emanating from their groups is minimal. Still, reviewers might be more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a paper from a demonstrably excellent scientist from an Ivy-League university than to a work by Dr. Carlos Bandidos from the Dept. of mexican arctic and alien studies, Universidad de mexico. Is it fair? Arguably not. Is this particular bug fixable? You betcha'. A double blind system where the authors don't know the identities of the reviewers and vice versa is used by some journals, and unless it's a very narrow field with few players, I believe this evens the playing ground. When I act as a reviewer, I don't look at the author list until after I've read the manuscript and made up my mind regarding the quality of the work. I must admit that I've been surprised on some occasions by the abysmal quality of manuscripts coming out of some pretty famous labs.

There are plenty of unsatisfactory aspects in the peer review system. However, I have yet to see a system which outperforms it.

*Edit: By "the cold fusion people" I am referring to the famous "work" of Fleischmann and Pons in the late 80's which didn't turn out to be reproducible in any way, shape or form.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Win through Fail?

I'm apparently not in the zone today. Or at least I wasn't when I made the slides for today's lecture.

However, while it sucks to screw up, it's awesome when students actually catch the mistakes "live". After all, they can only do that if they a) actually pay attention, and b) are able to follow the tempo of the lectures.

All in all not too shabby for an 8-10 AM Friday morning lecture. A win through fail is better than a complete fail. And a likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I was listening to the radio on my way to "work" this morning, and came over a pretty interesting story. Director of education in Hordaland, Kjellbjørg Lunde, states in an interview that there are no laws that permits the school to assigne homework to pupils. It's just tradition and a silent agreement between the parents and the school. Moreover, homework should be abandond, since the pupils spend more time at school now then before, and that a work day including homework imay be 10-12 hours for the kids.

So far, so good. It may be that case that kids spend more time at school (I don't know, and couldn't be bothered to find out), and I'm all for trying new and improved methods to teach the nations young ones. So I basically have no issue with the above.

But, then Lunde states something that really grabbed my attetion: The (main?) reason why we should abandond homework, is that the parents have different capabilites to teach the kids at home. And that abandon homework would even out the differences between the students.

Hello! Do you really think that resourceful parents would stop caring about their young ones just because there is no homework? And "even out the differences" implies not only improving the weak students, but holding back the great ones. Do we really want that?

The Snåsa man

It's been a lot of media coverage the last months/ weeks about "Snåsakallen" (the snåsa man) and his healing power. Especially health minister Bjarne Håkon Hansen has gotten a lot of media attention for stating that Snåsakallen healed his baby son for colic over the phone. Many politicans share his belief in alternative medicine, among them half of the members of the commitee of Health and Care Services. And minister of fishery, Helga Pedersen, even went so far that she stated that she was provoked by people who dismissed Snåsakallen's powers.

I won't go into that debate of whether Snåsakallen have real powers or not. But I came over this article by regional director of Norwegian Consumer Council, Terje Kili, which raises an interesting question: If such a large number of politicans truely believe in alternative medicine, why don't they see to more funding to alternative treatments? I would go even futher and ask, if they believe healing/ alternative treatment is equally or more effective then traditional medicine, why not cut the funding to healthcare and channel that money into alternative medicine? It is cheaper, no sideeffect and Snåsakallen has treated over 50 000 people. I don't think many medical doctors can come close to that...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Applying for Ph.D. positions - some reflections

Having gone through some 60 applications for a Ph.D. position, there are several lessons to be learned. On the plus side, there are many qualified applicants out there with what appears to be a genuine interest in pursuing a doctorate. The flipside is that there are many ways of diminishing the application. Of course, the candidate is to be evaluated mainly on the basis of the documented qualifications, but the accompanying letter - often including some sort of statement of motivation - is sometimes hard on the eyes. While there is no such thing as a singular way to prepare such a letter, many if not most of the more glaringly obvious pitfalls are easy to avoid, such as:

The ENTER key is your friend
Reading a full page of font 12 Times New Roman text without any breaks between paragraphs is brutal. Press that ENTER key every now and then - preferably in a non-random fashion. You'd think prospective Ph.D. students would know this, but the memo apparently didn't reach everyone.

Make sure you apply for the right job
Another apparent no-brainer. Still; a request for a post doc position is included in my pile of Ph.D. applications. Less than reassuring.

Make sure you apply for the correct position
The sequel to the preceding topic. If there are many positions announced, pay attention to which reference number of the position you're applying for. Otherwise someone like me is all of a sudden reading about how a degree in political science constitutes an invaluable asset to a research group working mostly with neural networks.

Read the announcement carefully
The announcement details what documentation you are supposed to provide. Failure to comply with these requirements means you're not qualified. Should you fail to provide the requested documents and still remain relevant for the position, you're in luck. Alternatively, it speaks volumes about the qualifications of the other applicants - take your pick.

Hit the submission button ONCE
Submitting your applications four times in a row because you "forgot to include something" the three first times annoys the hell out of the administrative staff who assign an applicant number to all your attempts, and it doesn't add much goodwill from the poor sap who's hiring either. Just say no to repeat submissions.

While using the spellchecker doesn't guarantee perfect grammar and fluent prose, it helps. Especially if English is not your native tongue. Proper use of the spellchecker also helps you avoid embarrassing juxtaposition problems, such as extolling the virtues of your English proficiency in a paragraph where the misspellings and bonehead grammatical errors are stacked deuce deep per sentence.

No camp stories
As a rule of thumb, avoid starting the application out with a story starring yourself as the precocious child prodigy. I'm sure there are examples of this working to the applicant's advantage, but I have yet to witness this firsthand. At least run the idea by someone objective that you trust or, failing that, your undergraduate adviser before you go all Feynman in the letter.

The fine line between being dedicated and being creepy
Being dedicated is a good thing, and a necessary quality for a prospective Ph.D. student. However, stating that your first living memory is of wanting to study metabolic rates and how you spend every waking moment working towards the goal of becoming a systems biologist ight be crossing the border between dedication and plain ol' creepy. If you can't even suppress the creepiness in a planned application letter,...

Sell, but don't oversell, yourself
Describing yourself as "brilliant", "unique" or worse - "extremely brilliant" or "very unique" - is seldom a good idea. If you're serious about passing yourself off as the second coming of Oppenheimer, at least make sure that the superlatives are not stacked next to a B average. Be good and damned sure to have a letter of reference from a Nobel Prize winner within the discipline you're applying for echoing your own words if you're gonna be that cock-sure in your application letter. Also, if you were anywhere near the level of Oppenheimer's tailor's assistant, you'd know that it's impossible to be "very unique".

Don't be pretentious
If your letter of motivation reads like the intro to Star Trek, or if you find yourself using the same words and phrases as Don King, you probably should tone it down a bit. "Ever since the Dawn of Mankind, the ultimate goal of civilization has been to extract principal components from cross-correlated, multidimensional data sets." "Creativity and Deep Thinking are my most conspicuous characteristics." "I have found that I am perfectly capable of converting concepts to words, and so I have always been a teacher to my peers." No. Also be careful about quoting famous scientists - especially quotes which make you look pretentious AND arrogant at the same time. An example would be the quoting Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have been able to see farther than others, it's because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Common sense will get you far, whether or not you are standing on the shoulders of giants. And if you are, make sure that you ask for permission first.