Saturday, March 28, 2015

Quote for the Day: Abraham Lincoln

The Half Life of Facts

“Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you.”

- Vinny Gambini, My Cousin Vinny
Opening statement by defence counsel

Would it surprise you to know that most of what you learned at school will be proved eventually not to be true. I’m not talking maths, 2 plus 2 will always equal 4, but things such as physics, science, history, astronomy, sociology. . . 

* * * * * * * *
Some comments:

* * * * * * * *
Half-life is the term used to describe the amount of time required for a quantity to fall to half its value from a certain time. It is usually applied to describe something undergoing exponential decay and is constant over the lifetime of the decaying quantity, but does not need to apply only to something decaying exponentially. Hence radioactive decay is measured in half life amounts but is not always a constant half reduction. A more correct definition therefore would be "Half-life is the time required for exactly half of the entities to decay on average". 

Knowledge and facts have also been described as having half lives, but more of that later.

* * * * * * * *
The science of measuring and analysing science itself is known as scientometrics. One of its early exponents was mathematician Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983):

Based on a 13 year study, Price released his findings in 1960 that scientific knowledge had been growing steadily at a rate of 4.7 percent annually since the 17th century. According to Price, scientific data was doubling every 15 years and was expanding by a factor of 10 every 50 years.

* * * * * * * *
The consequence of knowledge expanding so dramatically is that some things that were believed to be true get shown to be incorrect as other facts and knowledge replace or expand the existing information.

At various times in the past it was believed, as fact, that:
  • witches should be burned at the stake
  • the Sun revolved around the earth
  • Pluto was a planet
  • evolution was heresy
  • segregation was scientifically justified.

Those beliefs no longer hold true.

* * * * * * * *
If knowledge is expanding by factor of 10 every 50 years, at what rate do former facts disappear? 

Harvard mathematician Samuel Arbesman sought to answer this in his 2012 book “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.” 

Samuel Arbesman

Some points made by Arbesman:

·Arbesman applied the concept of half-life of radioactive isotopes to facts and looked at how long it took for clinical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis to decay. 

According to Arbesman, “the half-life of truth was 45 years.” In other words, half of what physicians thought they knew about liver diseases was wrong or obsolete 45 years later.

· Like radioactive decay, we cannot predict which individual facts are going to be proved false, but we can know how long it takes for half the facts in a discipline to become obsolete.

· Facts and knowledge break down at different rates. 


“Medicine still has a very short half-life; in fact it is one of the areas where knowledge changes the fastest. One of the slowest is mathematics, because when you prove something in mathematics it is pretty much a settled matter unless someone finds an error in one of your proofs.”

· When we integrate new facts or changed facts into our minds and psyches, we do so as part of the store of facts we already have. 


“We persist in only adding facts to our personal store of knowledge that jibe with what we already know, rather than assimilate new facts irrespective of how they fit into our worldview.” 

· Arbesman: 

“Exponential knowledge growth cannot continue forever. Knowledge growth is slowing compared to major leaps in the past, all the low-hanging fruits having been taken. 
In some fields science is getting harder, but I would not say that science as a whole is becoming more difficult. We are still adding new scientists every year, but the rate of growth has slowed and science is increasingly being done by large teams. But there are many areas where we thought there is nothing left to explore, only for someone to come along and say that there is something there, after all. 
In mathematics there was an extreme case of this in the 1990s, when two high-school students figured out a new way to prove one of Euclid's theorems, something that had not been done in a thousand years. So even though basic geometric proofs are not the frontier of mathematics, there are still things you can do. And even where things slow down in science, often that slowing forces scientists to be cleverer, both in finding ways to create new knowledge but also in finding new ways to combine disciplines. Plus nowadays new technology is a real driving force; the new computational tools have created the potential for a scientific revolution."

* * * * * * * *
Some criticisms of Arbesman’s half-life of facts concept:

· Facts and knowledge do not break down exponentially.

· It is unclear that there is any way to establish what constitutes "knowledge" in a particular area, as opposed to mere opinion or theory.

· Knowledge cannot be quantified.

· Falsification of a doctrine is not comparable to the exponential decay process that atomic nuclei go through.

· The whole concept is imprecise and varies from discipline to discipline.

* * * * * * * *
What’s useful about the concept?

· It highlights that a lot of what we know and believe will be unreliable next generation.

· Arbesman: “Stop memorizing things and just give up. Our individual memories can be outsourced to the cloud.”

In other words, simply google it when you need to know.

· Arbesman:

“I want to show people how knowledge changes. But at the same time I want to say, now that you know how knowledge changes, you have to be on guard, so you are not shocked when your children coming home tell you that dinosaurs have feathers. You have to look things up more often and recognise that most of the stuff you learned when you were younger is not at the cutting edge. We are coming a lot closer to a true understanding of the world; we know a lot more about the universe than we did even just a few decades ago. It is not the case that just because knowledge is constantly being overturned we do not know anything. But too often, we fail to acknowledge change.”

* * * * * * * *
“The only thing that is constant is change -”

534-574 BC

Friday, March 27, 2015

Quote for the Day: Betrand Russell

"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic." 

- Bertrand Russell in "Unpopular Essays", "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" (1950)

Funny Friday

Another Friday, folks.

Looking up something the other day I came across some pics of Barbie Doll heads used in imaginative ways.  Here's one:

Another, this time with Ken and Blaine . . .

One more:

So today’s theme is Barbie.

No, not that Barbie.

This one:

One day a father gets out of work and on his way home he suddenly remembers that it's his daughter's birthday. 

He pulls over to a Toy Shop and asks the sales person, "How much for one of those Barbie's in the display window?" 

The salesperson answers, "Which one do you mean, Sir?

We have: Work Out Barbie for $19.95, Shopping Barbie for $19.95, Beach Barbie for $19.95, Disco Barbie for $19.95, Ballerina Barbie for $19.95, Astronaut Barbie for $19.95, Skater Barbie for $19.95, and Divorced Barbie for $265.95". 

The amazed father asks: "It's what?! Why is the Divorced Barbie $265.95 and the others only $19.95?" 

The annoyed salesperson rolls her eyes, sighs, and answers: "Sir..., Divorced Barbie comes with: Ken's Car, Ken's House, Ken's Boat, Ken's Furniture, Ken's Computer, one of Ken's Friends, and a key chain made with Ken's balls.

They're bringing out a new Barbie doll called "Internet Barbie", which is really a fat guy claiming to be a hot blonde.

After months of putting up with my daughter's begging I've finally agreed that she can have a barbie for Christmas.

I prefer a traditional turkey roast myself, but it will be worth it to see the smile on her little face when I put those flame grilled sausages on her plate.

An Australian barbie . . .

An English guy relocates to the outback in Australia.

He'd been living there a few days, when the phone rang.

He answered the phone and the guy on the other end introduced himself as his neighbour, he told him he lived on a smallholding 50 miles away and would like to welcome him to Australia.

The neighbour then said, "Why don't you drop by on Saturday at about 7.30 for a real Australian barbie?"

"Yes, I'd like that", said the Englishman, "But what's a real Australian barbie?"

The Aussie said, "Well, we eat as much as we want, drink as much of the amber brew as we want and have as much sex as we want".

"The Englishman said, "Sounds great, what's the dress code?"

"The Aussie said, "Wear what you like mate, there'll only be the two of us".

Bonus item:

The following was sent to me in an email by Leo M.  It is not a Barbie item but it is too good not to post . . .

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A refuse collector in Cairns , Australia is driving along a street picking up the wheelie bins and emptying them into his compactor. He goes to one house where the bin hasn't been left out, and in the spirit of kindness, and after having a quick look about for the bin, he gets out of his truck goes to the front door and knocks. There's no answer. Being a kindly and conscientious bloke, he knocks again - a bit harder and then harder still. 

Eventually a Chinese man comes to the door. "Harro!" says the Chinese man. "G’day, mate! Where's ya bin?" asks the collector. "I bin on toiret," explains the Chinese bloke, a bit perplexed. 

Realising the fellow had misunderstood him, the bin man smiles and tries again. "No! No! Mate, where's your dust bin?" "I dust been to toiret, I toll you!'' says the Chinese man, still perplexed. 

"Listen," says the collector. "You're misunderstanding me. Where's your 'wheelie' bin?'" 

"OK, OK." replies the Chinese man with a sheepish grin and whispers in the collector's ear. "I wheelie bin having sex wiffa wife's sista!"

Corn Corner:

When Princess Di was a youngster, she took Ken and Barbie out of their dreamhouse and set them on fire.

After 20 minutes, the only thing still alight was Barbie's foot.

It seems her Ken doll burned out long before her leg end ever did.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Quote for the Day: Jonathan Swift

"And he gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, Ch. 6

Stephen Holland and Malcom Fraser

I am indebted to Byter Vince C for bringing the anecdote below to my attention.

Australia did not do well in the 1976 Summer Olympics at Montreal. 180 competitors took part in 115 events in 20 sports, winning one silver medal and 4 bronze. The East Germans, Russians and Americans dominated.

Although it had been decided that Waltzing Matilda would be played as the Australian anthem at medal ceremonies, it was never played because there was no gold.

Stephen Holland was Australia’s last hope of a gold medal in the swimming. His event was the 1500-metre freestyle but he was beaten into the gold and silver by American swimmers. It had been common knowledge for some time that other countries were putting a lot more effort and money into training of their athletes. Holland was not in the best mood as he got out of the pool, angry and annoyed at the lack of government support for Australian athletes.

He was told that there was a phone call for him in the press box. 

The caller said "Steve, this is Malcolm Fraser. I just wanted to say on behalf of the nation that you've done our country proud, and I wanted to offer my sincere congratulations."

Holland replied "Mate, where were you when I needed you? And I didn't vote for you, anyway. Fuck off."

It is believed that Holland’s words were part of the impetus for Fraser establishing the Australian Institute of Sport.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Quote for the Day: Alfred Hitchcock

When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, 'It's in the script.' If he says, 'But what's my motivation?, ' I say, 'Your salary.'

- Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

(Bonus Hitchcock quote re actors:
 "I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.")

What heights for Bytes to nod to God


How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews.

- William Ewer (1885–1976)

British journalist, prominent at the time for reporting foreign affairs but today remembered mostly for the above lines. He also spied for the Soviet Union during the 1920’s

Ewer’s lines have elicited various responses . . .

Not odd
Of God,
Annoy ‘im.

- Leo Rosten

* Those who are not Jewish

But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God,
Yet spurn the Jews.

-  Cecil Brown or Ogden Nash

The following are by anonymous poets:

Not odd 
of God,
His son 
Was one.

Not so odd
The Jews 
Chose God.


Not odd,
You sod,
The Jews 
Chose God.

. . . and the last word:

How strange 
Of man
To change 
The plan.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Quote for the Day: Mignon McLaughlin

 If an article is attractive, or useful, or inexpensive, they'll stop making it tomorrow; if it's all three, they stopped making it yesterday. 

- Mignon McLaughlin


American journalist and author. In the 1950s, she began publishing aphorisms that were later collected in three books.


Caution: risque content ahead . . .


Sent to me by Byter Leo: 

Spanish singer Julio Iglesias was on UK television with British TV host Anne Diamond. 

He used the word "manyana" (pronounced "man - yana"). Diamond asked him to explain what it meant. 

He said that the term means: "Maybe the job will be done tomorrow; maybe the next day; maybe the day after that; or perhaps next week; next month; next year. Who really cares?" 

The host turned to Albert Yatapingu from the Gumbaingeri Tribe (Australian aboriginal) who was also on the show. She asked him if there was an equivalent term in his native language. 

"Nah", he replied, "In Australia we don't have a word to describe that degree of urgency." 

I have previously mentioned some foreign words and expressions for which there is either no English equivalent (eg the German word for “a face in need of a fist”) or which are so much more imaginative than in English (the Polish expression “Not my circus, not my monkeys” to mean roughly the same as “Not my problem”). 

Here is another: “Don’t hang noodles on my ears.” 

It is a Russian expression that came to prominence in the West in 1991.

Back in 1991 after the Russian coup against Gorbachev had failed, the parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Lukyanov, tried to convince Gorbachev he had played no part in it. "Don't hang noodles on my ears," Gorbachev snapped. In other words, "don't pull the wool over my eyes", or "don't pull my leg" or “don’t try to fool me”. 

Which is not to say that English lacks great images and expressions. Is there not an immediate recognition and wealth of meaning in the expression “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.” 

Judge Judy felt so moved by it that she cleaned it up a bit and used it as the title of one of her books: 

Some others in the same vein, not exactly Shakespeare (who was not averse to a bit of ribaldry in his works) but quite expressive.  Hey, would I hang noodles on your ears?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Quote for the Day: Margaret Thatcher

"In politics, if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman."

- Margaret Thatcher
(1925 - 2013)

Monday Miscellany - Some Odds, Ends and Personals

No odds, ends or personals today, just some Tetris items to brighten your Monday morning.

Caution: risque content ahead . . .