The end of (video) reality

I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab podcast. It tells of new software that can create completely fabricated audio and video clips. This will take fake news to an entirely different level. It also means that citizen journalists with smartphones, police body cams, security cameras, etc. will all become obsolete. No recording can be trusted. On the other hand, we had no recording technology of any kind for almost all of human history so we will have to go back to simply trusting (or not trusting) what people say.

Terry Tao in the Times

There is a nice profile of mathematician Terence Tao in the New York Times magazine this week. Tao is astonishing in his breadth and depth. He could probably master any subject in any field if he just put his mind to it. The article plays up his “normality” in contrast to the stereotype of the eccentric asocial mathematician like Gauss, John Nash or Grigory Perelman, who proved the Poincare Conjecture. However, in my experience, most mathematicians, even the very best, are reasonably normal and sociable. My guess is that the rate of personality disorder among mathematicians is no higher than the general populace. It is perhaps true that mathematicians are more introverted and absent minded than average but rarely to a pathological degree. I think the myth persists because of a few very prominent examples but also that mathematics is a pursuit where having a personality disorder is not a major handicap. One could probably not be a great lawyer, physician or statesman if they were socially abnormal. Thus, if the rate of historically great eccentric mathematicians is high compared to other fields, it is because the sample is biased.

Have we crossed peak food?

The New York Times has an article today describing the decrease in food consumption over the past decade.  Here is one primary reference. I used to joke that the obesity epidemic would eventually be curbed by either a huge increase in oil prices or a depression. The great recession of 2008 made be believe that food consumption would come down but the data shows that it may have been dropping earlier and mostly in families with children.  The biggest decrease is in sugar sweetened beverages.

Here’s Kevin’s mention:

The recent calorie reductions appear to be good news, but they, alone, will not be enough to reverse the obesity epidemic. A paper by Kevin Hall, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, estimated that for Americans to return to the body weights of 1978 by 2020, an average adult would need to reduce calorie consumption by 220 calories a day. The recent reductions represent just a fraction of that change.

The failure of science museums (and some radio shows)

Three years ago, I posted my ambivalence about science museums. I recently accompanied my seven year old on a field trip to one and now I am of the firm belief that they have very little utility for educating children about science.  Current science museums strive to be as interactive as possible. Many of the exhibits perform some simple experiment where the user participates by pulling or pushing some buttons or knobs. However, unless you are patient enough to read the information placard, the exhibits are more like toys or video games. I’m sure there are seven year olds out there that do read all the information and are enriched by the exhibits but not the ones I chaperoned. Their level of engagement with each exhibit did vary but if any scientific information was transferred, I would be shocked. The juxtaposition of interactivity and passive reading is just a bad idea. If you want to be interactive then all the information must be presented interactively.  No child and probably most adults won’t bother to read a sign before randomly hitting some buttons to see what happens. It may work better if there were some sort of gate that prevented access to the exhibit until the introductory information was read. I don’t know what the optimal format would be.

While I’m in the ranting mood, I’m also going to criticize my  favourite childhood radio show Quirks and Quarks on CBC. The problem I have with the show these days is that it basically only covers astronomy, dinosaurs, and animal behavior. Occasionally, it will also cover high energy physics or climate change. It pays scant attention to the rest of biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, or mathematics. The show does a very poor job of giving the public an idea of what most scientists really do and what constitutes scientific breakthroughs. I think it is more important now than ever that science shows try to educate the public on how the scientific method really works, to get across how difficult it can be to come up with experiments to test hypotheses and how long it takes to get from breakthroughs in the lab to applications. They should also better convey the sense of how it is impossible to predict what will become useful in the future and how lots and lots of failure is a prerequisite for progress. I hope Quirks and Quarks will become more serious because it’s migrating its way to the bottom of my podcast stack.


Financial crisis on Frontline

If you have any interest at all in economics, finance, or the financial crisis, then I highly recommend PBS Frontline’s series on Money, Power and Wall Street, which can be accessed here.  I watched episode two last night on how the 2008 bank bailouts were engineered in 2008.   Then New York Fed president Tim Geithner favored bailouts, following the game plan established by Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan during the 1990’s.  While then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was initially hesitant because of the moral hazard.  However, he did approve of the bailout of Bear Stearns in March, 2008 where the US Federal Reserve basically gave JP Morgan 30 billion dollars to buy it. Paulson had a total change of heart after he let Lehman Brothers fail in September, 2008.  The credit market seized and he started to panic when even non-financial institutions started to complain that they would have trouble operating because their access to loans had dried up.  This led to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) where Paulson forced all the major banks to take money without any conditions.  I thought that we should have let the banks fail in 2008.  The US Fed could then temporarily nationalize the failed banks and start anew.  They could even retain most of the lower level staff so institutional knowledge would not be completely lost.   Instead of bolstering insolvent banks, we could have lent to small businesses and homeowners directly.