Steven Chu: “The Energy Problem and the Interplay between Basic and Applied Research”

US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu gave an interesting Compton Lecture at MIT on May 12, 2009, on how researchers can fit in with providing energy for a crowded world.

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GreatBong on the Kolkata Knight Riders

From this heartfelt writeup from GreatBong on the Kolkata Knight Riders:

Then on days where we were playing among ourselves on the streets and there were not enough players to make teams, we would play by what was known as “lottery”. In this form of “gully cricket” every player essentially forms a “team of one” and all that was left to be determined was in which order we would bat (this would be the reverse order in which we would bowl). Everyone would field and he who made the most runs won.

So how was this order decided? Someone (let us call him A) would stand and the second person (let us call him person B) would hold his hand behind the first person in a way that A would not be able to see. B would then show a random number of fingers and A would call out a name from among those assembled. And the number represented by those fingers would then become the called out person’s batting position.

Thanks to the Knight Riders, I am once again in touch with my past in a way I never thought would be possible.

Leaving aside the zinger about KKR deciding their batting order using a random permutation algorithm, not only is the algorithm to obtain a secure permutation of the team’s batting order remarkable in its simplicity, the childlike political compromises that made such a permutation algorithm necessary in the first place are truly endearing. Those kids would bring a tear to Bruce Schneier’s eye.

Product review: Enso from Humanized

Executive summary: Any sufficiently advanced GUI is indistinguishable from a CLI.

People older than a certain age will recall the time when the only way to tell a computer what you wanted it to do was to type in stuff through a command line interface (CLI). So if you wanted a word count on a file, you typed wc filename and got the answers with no fluff. Then these kids came along with their graphical user interfaces (GUI) and persisted in believing that (among other things) opening the same file in a large and slow word processor and clicking on Tools | Word count was somehow more user-friendly than remembering commands like wc.

And where are we headed now? Watch this video about Enso (which is Japanese for circle) from Humanized, and you might almost believe that the future of a GUI is a CLI, perhaps a semantically aware CLI, but definitely some creature where you type commands (or start typing them anyway) instead of one where you point and click.

What’s Japanese for “full circle”?

That said, I downloaded and have used Enso for a few hours now, and it’s certainly got its uses. My first impressions are by and large positive.

On the plus side:

  1. the caps lock-based interface is usable and not intrusive — I had feared that using the caps lock key would interfere with normal operation, but it’s not bad.
  2. The calculator function is rather helpful, though currently limited to the four basic arithmetic operations with constant operands. It is reminiscent in functionality of the sagetex plugin for TeX and LaTeX, whose best use I have found is to write HOWTO documents for mathematics without typing the formula once and copy-pasting the results again. It’s probably helpful to think of Enso’s math abilities as a stripped down fast-response sagetex.
  3. The spellchecker and the case-toggler are nice, but your use for them will be much less if you type a lot in Firefox (blog posts, comments, etc) and already have a spellchecker add-on and the LeetKey add-on installed. Enso will probably be more useful if you do a lot of typing outside a word processor or a browser.

On the minus side (for me at least):

  1. I had a rude shock when (out of force of habit) I tried to exit Enso by holding caps lock and typing “quit”. Instead of quitting, Enso closed the application that was in the foreground! BE CAUTIOUS! Save all your work when you’re trying this thing out! This is not expected behavior for a habitual CLI-user, where if you type “quit” or “exit” you will only leave the command shell and be returned to the GUI. Perhaps “close” might be a better word than “quit” for closing other applications?
  2. The commands available for the calculator cannot currently read arbitrary scientific expressions, even ones that can be done with the plain old Windows calculator in scientific mode, or those that be done by asking Google Calculator. Hopefully this will change in future.
  3. It would be helpful if the user could switch between “replace the selected text with the result” and “append the result to the selected text” modes, particularly when writing math formulas in a document followed by their evaluations: the reader needs to see both the expression and the evaluated result.

Overall, the product looks promising, and I expect to find it more useful with a few more features and a little more extensibility.

On Cooking, Human Evolution, Obesity, and Type II Diabetes

An interesting write-up over at The Economist on Richard Wrangham’s argument about the role of cooking in human evolution, which he reiterated at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago. The orthodox view among the anthropology community seems to be that human brain size increased due to a shift in diet from vegetables to meat. Wrangham’s view is that it is the cooking of food rather than its origin which has influenced human brain size:

Cooking alters food in three important ways. It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments. It denatures protein molecules, so that their amino-acid chains unfold and digestive enzymes can attack them more easily. And heat physically softens food. That makes it easier to digest, so even though the stuff is no more calorific, the body uses fewer calories dealing with it.

On the face of it, it seems plausible. Cooked foods make more nutrients available, and would presumably require less chewing, reducing the size of the jaw and making more of the skull’s internal space available for the brain.

This is a more application-oriented twist:

Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods. These are softer, because that is what people prefer.

On a very unscientific level, I had suspected once that upma made with fine semolina was digested more quickly (and consequently felt less filling) than upma made with coarse cracked wheat. It is nice to learn that there is a scientific basis for that hypothesis.

Now: assuming that food habits are harder to change than foods themselves, would it be possible to make people gain less weight by making foods artificially rough? Could one make a taste-free coarse-particled edible powder (like a “magic food”) to sprinkle on (or mix with) soft creamy foods to make them digest more slowly? I’m not being facetious — if the food is grittier and rougher and takes longer to digest, the glycogen peak after a meal should be wider and shorter, and should presumably make a person less susceptible to diseases like Type II diabetes. One way to do this would be to eat naturally grittier and healthier foods (whole wheat flour instead of refined wheat flour for instance), but if one habitually eats foods that are too soft and easily digestible, could we add an antidigestive agent to the food to slow down the sugar rush?