He recommends you read the book The Ig Nobel Prizes. So do we.

October 16th, 2017

Adrian Wallwork explains, in this video, why he recommends that his students read the book The Ig Nobel Prizes. We recommend that, too. (Too, we recommend to you The Ig Nobel Prizes 2.)

Blank pages in 18th century books (study)

October 16th, 2017

Anyone who’s seen the phrase “This page has intentionally been left blank” and who has been left thinking that it’s a relatively modern construct – think again. Intentionally blank pages have been around, in abundance, since at least the 18th century. Dr. Anne Toner (Trinity College Cambridge, UK), has extensively researched varieties of incompleteness in literary works, and covers the blank page in : “Blank Emblems: The Vacant Page, the Interleaved Book and the Eighteenth-Century Novel”, Word and Image 22.4, 2006, 363-71. Explaining that, in some cases at least :

“The vacant page makes explicit, then, the failure of correlation between imagination and manifestation in a text that seems to do all it can to proliferate the processes of narrative communication. “

The blank page shown above is from an edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (first published in 1759). It was deliberately inserted so as to provide a space for readers to do their own illustrations. Many other literary works of the time had blank pages so that readers could make their own non-fictional notes. To the extent that for some years it became almost fashionable to do so. The author cites one work from 1639 that had 125 blank pages – more than a third of the entire volume.

Question [optional] Is it time to revive the fashion for blank pages? Justify your answer.

Also see: Empty Photographic Frames : Punctuating the Narrative

The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law (new study)

October 15th, 2017

Vehicles could be fitted with what they call an ‘Ethical Knob’, under a proposal by Giuseppe Contissa, Francesca Lagioia, and Giovanni Sartor of CIRSFID, at the University of Bologna,  Italy. The device might help clarify ethical/legal issues with Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). What for example, should a self-driving car do when it ‘realizes’ (in an impending crash situation) that it could swerve to avoid a large group of pedestrians but in the process kill the driver and passengers?

Before a journey starts, the driver could set the knob to Altruist | Impartial | Egoist (or anywhere in between) and the AV would take the appropriately-weighted action in the case of an emergency.

The authors point out that the idea of the Ethical Knob can be viewed either from a Utiliarian or a Rawlsian perspective:

“The Rawlsian approach could appear more acceptable if we assume that the disutilities being considered represent personal injuries having the same probability, but different gravity. For example, assume that 0,6l is the quantification of the damage from paraplegia (the loss of the use of both legs) and that 0,3l corresponds to the loss of the use of one leg. Assume that by proceeding the AV would cause with certainty the pedestrian to become paraplegic, while by swerving it would cause with certainty each one of three passers-by to lose one leg each. Then it might be argued—though this conclusion is very debatable—that swerving is preferable to proceeding, on grounds of equity/equality.”

See: The Ethical Knob: ethically-customisable automated vehicles and the law Artificial Intelligence and Law, September 2017, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 365–378.

Also see: from Giovanni Sartor : Why Lawyers Are Nice (or Nasty)

Pseudo-profound bullshit commemorated: The Laffer Curve

October 14th, 2017

Today the New York Times celebrates, deadpan, a fake relic of a historically influential example of pseudo-profound bullshit. Under the headline “This Is Not Arthur Laffer’s Famous Napkin,The Times says:

It is one of the iconic moments in modern economics: A young professor named Arthur Laffer sketched a curve on a bar napkin in 1974 to show an aide to President Gerald R. Ford why the federal government should cut taxes.

The Laffer Curve became famous; the Republican Party became the party of tax cuts; and, in 2015, the Smithsonian announced that it was putting the napkin on display.

But the napkin now celebrated for starting a tax revolt is not, in fact, the original napkin….

Although some politicians claimed to take the Laffer Curve seriously (thus leading to their claimed reverence for a replica napkin), mathematicians, economists, and the world in general delighted in pointing out that it was nonsense.

Martin Gardner, the Scientific American columnist, destroyed the Laffer curve illusion, in one of his final columns. Martin also is the person whose advice started me on my writing career. I wrote this about that, when Martin died:

My own favorite of Martin’s works is the final column he wrote for Scientific American — a deadly, hilariously efficient dissection of a gold-plated piece of nonsense. That final column was called “The Laffer curve and other laughs in current economics” [Scientific American, December, 1981, vol. 245, pp. 18-31]. It drew wrathful, spittle-flecked letters from  people who bought their intellectual fashion items at The Emperor’s New Clothes shop. “No economist has the foggiest notion of what a Laffer curve really looks like except in the neighborhood of its endpoints,” the column says. One of that column’s lovely technical drawings is reproduced below (thanks to Wikipedia).

That final column itself  [you can read it online] is reproduced in the book The Night Is Large, a collection of many of Martin’s best writings.

In celebrating anew the Laffer curve, pretending that it corresponds to reality, some politicians (and perhaps the New York Times?) unintendedly also celebrate the 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Gordon PennycookJames Allan CheyneNathaniel BarrDerek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” [That paper was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 10, no. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563.]

 

Downstream reactions from the 4-legged periodic table table

October 13th, 2017

From Mark Peplow’s review, in the journal Nature, of the new book by Ig Nobel Prize-winner Theo Gray:

Gray’s career as a chemical evangelist began in 2002, when he misread a line in Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten (Knopf, 2001) and imagined the periodic table of elements as a literal table. A skilled woodworker, Gray decided to build it and stock cavities beneath each symbol with samples of the elements.

Then, he recalls, “things really got out of hand” (go.nature.com/2fdcm9b). The table won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and spawned a cottage industry: Gray now sells periodic-table posters, books and quilts, and makes museum displays. With photographer Nick Mann, he has amassed a gallery of element photos, showcased in his 2009 book The Elements. Its sequel, Molecules, followed in 2014; Reactions is the final part of the trilogy (all published by Black Dog & Leventhal)….