Sunday, February 27, 2011

Carried Away by Music

... Imagine there’s no music
I wonder if you can
No notes or rhythms to move us
A tragedy for man ...

Will art be man’s enduring legacy?  A recent discussion with one of my best friends, Peter Katz, urged me to ponder this question further.  The two of us usually have a lot to talk about, because he is a professional musician who is fascinated by science, and I am a scientist who is fascinated by music.

Peter and I met in the year 2000, when we played together in a Dave Matthews Band cover band called “Spoon”.  He sang, I drummed, and to this day, those Spoon days sit in my mind among my favourite adolescent memories.  Peter is a Montreal native, but moved to Toronto ten years ago to pursue a degree in Theatre, and was bit by the performing bug.  For the better part of the past decade, Peter has been busy writing a wonderful collection of songs, and winning the hearts of audiences throughout Canada and Europe.

How much does Peter Katz tour?  Toronto is where his home is, but he spent only two months living there in 2010.

I had the delightful opportunity to drum in his band in 2004, but logistics brought that to an end.  Peter has been performing as a solo artist in recent years, and brings more passion to his performance than just about any full band I have ever witnessed. 

For years, people of the press have been referring to him as a budding singer songwriter with a great deal of talent.  While his talent as a singer, poet, and guitar player is substantial, he is no longer merely “budding”.  A recent Peter Katz show that I attended at La Sala Rosa was a showcase of an artist in full bloom.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Misinforming About Global Warming

This morning, I was planning on posting a pleasant article describing Watson’s dominance on Jeopardy! (for those of you that missed it, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter had a two-day total of around $20,000 apiece, whereas Watson surpassed $77,000).  However, my mood is less than pleasant, and there is something I need to get off of my chest.  I don’t get angry very often, but yesterday morning I was fuming.

On February 16, 2011, a local radio morning show featured a con-artist posing as a scientist.  Larry Bell, a man with no expertise in climate science, was pedalling his book, which claims that global warming is a hoax.  It is not illegal to deliberately misinform the public, but if it were, Bell would be behind bars.

I firmly believe that those who mislead the public intentionally should be made accountable for their actions.  People like this Larry character move the world several steps backwards.  Scientists, rather than focusing on the science, must spend their time correcting the cranks, like damage control.  It is like when a teacher must focus his efforts disciplining a student rather than teaching content.  Bell is an adult, who should not need a parent to hold his hand.  At the very least, Bell should not be allowed to publish anything in the future.  I believe in free speech, but my disdain for propaganda trumps it.

As you can clearly see, I am less than pleased with Mr. Bell, a Professor at the University of Houston.  Yes, you read that correctly: this man teaches students – what could be more dangerous than a crook with an audience?  He wrote a book about global warming.  Does this make any sense, considering that the man is a Professor of Architecture?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Love Function

Typically, my semesters are spent teaching Physics courses.  The past two semesters have been a little bit different for me, with some Mathematics courses thrown into the mix.  A few weeks ago, in my Calculus course, one student, we will call “Jimmy”, asked if math could be used for something useful.

I explained that math was the language of science, and science affects us every day.  Also, business requires math to predict where it will go based on where it has been and other factors.  The social sciences require a deep understanding of statistics to make sense of our lives.

Jimmy said that business and science are good, but not all that important to him at this stage of his life.  “Can math help us find love?” he asked.  What an excellent question.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jeopardy is Elementary for IBM's Watson

Mark this coming Monday on your calendar: history will be made.  On Valentine’s Day, as you are sitting down to dinner with the love of your life, make sure that your PVR is set to record Jeopardy!.  From the 14th to the 16th of February, Jeopardy! will feature its first non-human contestant.  IBM’s most ambitious creation, an intelligent computer, will compete on TV’s longest running game show against its two top champions: Ken Jennings, who won on seventy-four consecutive outings and Brad Rutter, the show’s top money earner.

IBM’s super computer was affectionately named Watson, after the company’s founder (not Sherlock’s sidekick).  Watson is just a jumble of silicon, wires, and coding, yet it represents a major step towards artificial intelligence.  By today’s standards, it is not a significant accomplishment to build a computer that stores massive amounts of information, and accesses it on a whim.  What sets Watson apart from other super computers is its ability to understand a question and generate an appropriate answer.  Of course, to succeed in Jeopardy!, it must comprehend a question and generate the correct answer, but it amounts to the same thing.