He's (not) on fire! The myth of the hot hand in basketball.

He's (not) on fire! The myth of the hot hand in basketball.


I follow the NBA at arms length. One of the most exciting things to see is a player get a hot hand and make four or five shots in a row. This idea featured heavily in the game NBA Jam I used to play1 as a kid–make three shots in a row and your player catches on fire.

It turns out that the idea of a hot hand is a myth. According to a new paper in Nature Communications title Reinforcement learning in professional basketball players, two things happen when a player makes a three point shot:

  1. They player is likely to try and make another three-pointer the next time they get the ball.
  2. The player's chance of making the shot goes down.

I'll say that again. If you make a three-pointer your chances of making a second one go down2. Instead of heating up you are more likely to cool down. He's on ice isn't nearly as catchy though.

Humans have a hard time making sense of randomness. We often look for patterns when none are present or selectively filter out information that we do not agree with. In this case basketball players focus more on the shots they make not the ones they miss. This is why Kobe Bryant can throw up thirty shots a game, miss the majority of them, and still feel like he has a hot hand. The numbers say otherwise.

  1. And now, occasionally, on the iPad. 
  2. Unless you are Dirk Nowitzki in the clutch during the playoffs. 

How to use Apple's iBooks in Full Screen Mode

How to use Apple's iBooks in Full Screen Mode

Using iBooks to read Walter Isaacson's book Steve Jobs left me with a healthy distaste for the program. As an eReader it is subpar compared to Amazon's Kindle App1. There are formatting bugs that occasionally pop up, and I find the interface too cluttered. The metaphor of a book is cute at first, but quickly becomes distracting. It constantly gets in your face and breaks your concentration. Instead of becoming immersed in the reading experience, iBooks constantly demands that you pay attention to how clever it is.

I have been wanting a full-screen mode that does away with the book metaphor, so I was pleasantly surprised when I check the App store tonight and found an iBooks update waiting. The main new feature is a distraction-free full-screen option!

This new option can be selected by first clicking on the text icon in the top right-hand corner as shown in the figure below.

iBooks with the new full-screen option

At the bottom is a switch that enables the new full-screen view. Turn this on and the book background disappears. It's not perfect, but it is still a big improvement.

New full-screen mode in iBooks

There is also a new night mode. This reverses the colours, making it easier on the eyes at night. I'll definitely be using this feature to read in bed.

The new night mode in iBooks.

A very welcome iBooks update. I hope that a future update will include an option to disable the page turning animation.

  1. I go into more detail about the Kindle app in my last apps roundup

Please Stop. I'm Bored

The organizers of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony solved an ancient problem: How to keep speeches from droning on and on... The solution, called "Miss Sweetie Poo", is an 8-year-old girl who tells long-winded speakers to "Please stop. I'm bored. Please stop. I'm bored..." Here are Miss Sweetie Poo highlights from several Ig ceremonies.

I wish Miss Sweetie Poo worked the Oscars.

Scott Aaronson writes about Quantum Computing for the NY Times

Scott Aaronson provocatively lays out the importance of quantum computing research without resorting to hyperbole and fluff. Often, when quantum computing is explained to the public, the focus is on the razzle-dazzle promise of future computing power. What are left out are the advances in our understanding of nature that have happened as a result of physics using techniques from computer science.

Scott writes:

Quantum computing really is one of the most exciting things happening in science right now. Just not for the reasons you usually hear. [...]

And yet, even though useful quantum computers might still be decades away, many of their payoffs are already arriving. For example, the mere possibility of quantum computers has all but overthrown a conception of the universe that scientists like Stephen Wolfram have championed. That conception holds that, as in the “Matrix” movies, the universe itself is basically a giant computer, twiddling an array of 1’s and 0’s in essentially the same way any desktop PC does.[...]

But the biggest payoff so far may have been an improvement in the way quantum mechanics itself is taught and understood. Since its beginnings in the 1920s, quantum mechanics has been considered the prototype of an abstruse, complicated theory: something beyond the grasp of all but a few physicists. Today, though, I and others regularly explain its underlying logic to students by focusing on the simplest imaginable system to which that logic applies: the qubits that make up a quantum computer.

PayPal arbitrarily cancels Christmas for needy children.

Sickening. This is what happens when you get to act like a financial institution without being subjected to the same regulations as a financial institution.

PayPal's customer service is reprehensible in this situation:

"I just had an hour long conversation with a jackass over there that was unbelievable," she tells us. "First he said that you can only use the Donate button if you're a nonprofit. I told them that was false; the PDF of instructions to use the Donate button only says 'worthy cause.' I pointed out that people have the donate button on their blogs to raise money for themselves, and he said, 'You can use the donate button to raise money for a sick cat, but not poor people.'"

After forcing her to painstakingly refund all the donated money (which PayPal took a nice transaction fee on), they decided to kick her where it hurts:

PayPal then froze Helen's personal account, including the revenue for her book, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the charitable fundraising done on the site.

We know who is playing the role of grinch this Christmas.

UPDATE: Bowing to the negative press they have been receiving, PayPal has released the funds and reversed their position. This time. How often does this kind under-handed behaviour happen? It shouldn't take internet outrage to force a company to behave decently.

The quantum state cannot be interpreted as something other than a quantum state

Speaking of Scott Aaronson, here is his entertaining, as always, take on the recent quantum foundations paper by Matthew Pusey, Jonathan Barrett, and Terry Rudolph. Scott ends with the following (after taking a jab at Luboš Motl):

There’s an important lesson here for mathematicians, theoretical computer scientists, and analytic philosophers. You want the kind of public interest in your work that the physicists enjoy? Then stop being so goddamned precise with words! The taxpayers who fund us—those who pay attention at all, that is—want a riveting show, a grand Einsteinian dispute about what is or isn’t real. Who wants some mathematical spoilsport telling them: “Look, it all depends what you mean by ‘real.’ If you mean, uniquely determined by the complete state of the universe, and if you’re only talking about pure states, then…”

Toy Story 3 copies well known Lindy Hoppers

Rik Panganiban pointed out last year that the dance scene between Woody and Jessie borrows heavily from a solo spotlight by Todd Yannacone and Frida Segredahl in the Liberation finals at the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown 2006.

I decided to take the two videos and place them side-by-side to show how closely they match up. This is about the closest you can come to a cameo in a Pixar movie. It's only Tuesday, but this gets my vote for Awesome Thing of the Week.

I Don't Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore

Dan Pallotta, writing for the Harvard Business Review, nails it. I recently attended the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. There was so much of this crap communication happening. Not between the top people there, but rather amongst those in mid-level positions in an organization. I couldn't understand half of what was being said, nor did I care to try by the end. What was sad was how many of these people worked in communications departments.

Dan writes:

When I was younger, if I didn't understand what people were saying, I thought I was stupid. Now I realize that if it's to people's benefit that I understand them but I don't, then they're the ones who are stupid.

And later adds:

So you get phrases like, "You should meet this guy with the SIO. He's sort of this kind of social entrepreneur thinking outside of the box in the sustainability space and working on these ideas around sort of web-based social media, and he's in a round two capital raise in the VP space with the people at SVNP." How many times have you heard what you now recall to be precisely this sentence? […]

You will gain tremendous credibility, become much more productive, make those around you much more productive, and experience a great deal more joy in your working life if you look someone in the eye after hearing one of these verbal brain jammers and tell the person, "I don't have any idea what you just said to me."

(via Ben Brooks)

On Determinism

Is the universe deterministic? This is something I have spent many hours thinking about and debating with other physicists. Sean Carroll, in a response to a post by Massimo Pigliucci, provides a good introduction to some of the different view points taken in this debate. Much of it hinges on which interpretation of quantum mechanics you choose to hang your hat.

Sean makes several interesting observations including this one:

My personal suspicion is that the ultimate laws of physics will embody something like the many-worlds philosophy: the underlying laws are perfectly deterministic, but what happens along any specific history is irreducibly probabilistic. (In a better understanding of quantum gravity, our notion of “time” might be altered, and therefore our notion of “determinism” might be affected; but I suspect that there will still be some underlying equations that are rigidly obeyed.) But that’s just a suspicion, not anything worth taking to the bank.

Emphasis added by me. This is an excellent point that I had never considered before. There is a chance that our view of time and determinism our incomplete within the current quantum framework. This would be surprising (at least to me), but I have not spent much time think about issues in quantum gravity.

Sean also makes a good point about arguments concerning free will. Often determinism and free will are conflated with one another:

It matters, of course, how one defines “free will.” The usual strategy in these discussions is to pick your own definition, and then argue on that basis, no matter what definition is being used by the person you’re arguing with. It’s not a strategy that advances human knowledge, but it makes for an endless string of debates.

A better question is, if we choose to think of human beings as collections of atoms and particles evolving according to the laws of physics, is such a description accurate and complete? Or is there something about human consciousness — some strong sense of “free will” — that allows us to deviate from the predictions that such a purely mechanistic model would make?

If that’s your definition of free will, then it doesn’t matter whether the laws of physics are deterministic or not — all that matters is that there are laws. If the atoms and particles that make up human beings obey those laws, there is no free will in this strong sense; if there is such a notion of free will, the laws are violated. […] Quantum mechanics doesn’t say “we don’t know what’s going to happen, but maybe our ineffable spirit energies are secretly making the choices”; it says “the probability of an outcome is the modulus squared of the quantum amplitude,” full stop. Just because there are probabilities doesn’t mean there is room for free will in that sense.

Interesting and thought provoking. I am eager to see how this discussion unfolds.

Megaphone, a big honkin' amplifier for your iPhone

Megaphone, a big honkin' amplifier for your iPhone

Screen Shot 2011-12-05 at 11.09.31 AM

Turn you iPhone in to a french horn. This looks awesome and completely impractical. Now available in gold.


I wonder if they will eventually release a tuba-sized iPad version.

9 iPad Apps for Scientists and Students

9 iPad Apps for Scientists and Students

I have had a first generation iPad for nearly 18 months now and it has become my favourite computing device. Most of my web browsing and email consumption1 happens on the iPad instead of the computer. At conferences I see more-and-more physicists abandoning their laptops in favour of the iPad; it is so much lighter and portable than a laptop.

The iPad is a fantastic for reading PDF copies of academic papers (and scribbling notes on them too). I also use the iPad to take notes and work out equations. I no longer have to scan my notes and email them to myself, now they are all present in one spot.

After a year-and-a-half here are the apps that have stuck2.

Apps for reading

The iPad is an excellent device for reading (as long as you are not in direct sun light). It has been a long time since I have carried a book or stack of papers around with me. This is due in large part to the following three apps.


Papers is an app designed to house all of your academic papers. It includes an above average PDF reader and displays important meta data like the abstract, authors, and journal. Papers plays nice with other iPad apps too making it easy to fire over a PDF to any other app that supports PDFs on the iPad.

Where Papers shines is when it is paired with Papers for Mac. For years I downloaded PDFs into a hodge-podge collection of folders on my computer. It became so hard to find a PDF in the labyrinthine maze of folders that it was quicker to just download the paper again. Along came Papers and I have never looked back.

Papers strives to be the iTunes3 of your academic collection. Every paper I download immediately gets loaded into Papers. Searching and sorting papers is easy, and the built in PDF reader is optimized for journal pages. You can also search for and download new papers from within the app, but I prefer to use my web browser and the bookmarklet to automatically send a paper to Papers.

Papers for Mac also has bibliographic support (for things like Latex), but I find it to be more miss than hit. For that I maintain a separate Bibdesk database.

Papers for Mac can sync over WiFi with Papers for iPad, allowing me to take all of my papers with me. I rarely add a new paper to the iPad app. I find it too finicky and time consuming. But having constant access to every paper in my database is worth the price of admission.

If you use the desktop version of Papers then the iPad companion app is a no brainer. If you don't own a Mac or use Papers then I would give it a pass.

Papers Touch for iPad

Price: $14.99 CAD Developer: Mekenjost Download Papers

Good Reader

Good Reader is myy favourite PDF reading application. While Papers is great for academic publications, Good Reader is perfect for everything else. It is inexpensive, well maintained, and has excellent Dropbox and iCloud (amongst others) support. If anything, the program suffers from having too many options.

This should be one of the first apps you install on a new iPad.

Good Reader for iPad

Price: $4.99 CAD Developer: Good.iWare Ltd. Download Good Reader


Often when I am browsing the web I come across an article I want to read, but not right at that moment. Instapaper offers a clever solution to the problem. By installing a bookmarklet in your bookmarks bar you can send any article to Instapaper to read later.

Instapaper strips out all of the ads and other crud typically found on other sites, leaving only beautifully formatted text. The reading experience beats the pants off of most other websites. Before Safari introduced its Reader function, I would send many of the articles I read to Instapaper just because the reading experience was so much better. A great deal of care has gone into this app and it shows.

Before a trip, I often load up Instapaper with articles to read. Longform.org is a great place to find interesting stories, and it integrates perfectly with Instapaper.

Marco Arment, the developer behind Instapaper, also maintains an excellent blog I recommend checking out.

Instapaper for iPad

Price: $4.99 CAD Developer: Marco Arment Download Instapaper

Kindle App

For reading eBooks on the iPad I recommend Amazon's Kindle app. The app synchronizes with all of your Amazon.com book purchases. Some typographic improvements could be made to the app, but overall it is a straight forward no-fills approach to reading. For the most part the app just gets out of your way so you can focus on reading.

I am currently using the Kindle app to read Michael Nielsen's new book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, and it has been an enjoyable experience.

This is in stark contrast to Apple's bundled piece of e-reader crap, iBooks. I recently read Walter Isaaccson's tome Steve Jobs using iBooks. iBooks takes the metaphor of a real book too far. The page turning animations are cute for approximately three minutes. After that they become a distraction, breaking the immersion into the story. It is needless, distracting, and against Apple's typical "less is more" mantra. Even more unforgivable are the times when the app throws a seizure and randomly reflows a page causing you to lose your place. Unless Apple cleans this app up, I never intend on buying another book through their iBook store.

If you have your own eBooks (not through Amazon), then I recommend the app Stanza. It is a similar reading experience to the Amazon app (I actually prefer it), but it can be a bit clunky to synch new books to it.

Kindle for iPad

Price: Free Developer: Amazon Download the Kindle App

Apps for writing

These are apps designed primarily for text input through either the on-screen keyboard or an external bluetooth keyboard. My two requirements for any writing app are Drop Box synching and automatically saving the files in plain text format (.txt).

I am a heavy user of Notational Velocity,a simple note taking app, on my Mac. Before Notational Velocity I used to have dozens of different text files open, each acting as a reminder or temporary scratch pad. Notational Velocity excels at keeping notes, scribbles, thoughts, and drafts centralized and being able to quickly search for your text. Even with thousands of notes, the program returns search results nearly instantly.

Notational Velocity makes the entire workflow of note taking frictionless. Just start typing to begin a new note, and saving is done automatically, so you never have to worry about losing your work. I use Notational Velocity every day for everything from short reminders to longer form pieces like blog posts or letters. Because everything is stored as plain text it is trivial to transport and share your documents.

I have Notational Velocity set to store the text files in its database in a folder in my Drop Box account. I can then automatically synch these files with a writing program on my iPad. For an app to earn a place on my iPad it must be able to integrate with Notational Velocity.

Of the dozens of apps I have tried, two have stood out.

Simple Note

Simple Note is the closest implementation to Notational Velocity I have found for the iPad. It is a bare bones text editor that makes it painless to create new notes and automatically saves your work. The built in text search is fast, making it easy to find any note you have create. Simple Note uses a built in online service to integrate with Notational Velocity.

Simple Note has a neat trick up its sleeve: versioning. You can easily revert back to a previous version of any document with an easy to use control button. This is handy as the program automatically saves everything you do. If you make a bone-headed mistake and overwrite important information it is simple to undo the changes.

The combination of Simple Note and Notational Velocity works well to satisfy my text input needs. My only complaint is that the text from the notes could use some typographic help. The text is small and hard to read; this program is not suited for keeping presentation notes on.

Simple Note with Versioning

Price: Free with Ads/ $4.99 with no ads Developer: Simperium Download Simple Note

Write Room

I began to look around to see if there is an app with better typography. My father was interested in using his iPad to read his sermons. Simple Note's type setting does not cut it. I decided to give Write Room a try.

Write Room beautifully formats text making it much easier to read. The app embraces a minimalist design that resonates with me. Write Room has the option of storing all of its notes in Drop Box folder. This allows me to automatically synch with Notational Velocity; I have set Notational Velocity to store and read its notes from the same directory. Now my copy of Notational Velocity and Write Room are always up to date.

The only downside with Write Room is that its search function is clunkier than Simple Note. Searching for files brings up a dialog box that makes it feel like an extra step is required. I can live with this minor inconvenience though, and Write Room has become my default writing app.

Write Room for iPad

Price: $4.99 Developer: Hogs Bay Software Download Write Room

Note Taking Apps

The iPad, with its touch screen, is a remarkably good hand writing and note-taking device. The iPad's screen has limitations; it is designed for input from fat fingers. Trying to write feels like finger painting. There are two ways to get around this limitation: using a stylus and clever apps.

Steve Jobs famously said "If you see a stylus they you blew it". I agree for most things, but I find a stylus much more precise for writing and drawing. Any cheap stylus will do. I picked mine up for $12.99 CAD at a local book store.

An entire breed of Apps has popped up that make it easy to take notes by hand. They do this by splitting the screen in to two sections. The upper portion of the screen is the document you are working in. The bottom screen contains a magnified few of a small region of document. This allows you to make nice, large and natural, strokes and have them automatically shrunk down to the size of normal hand writing. The best of these programs feature automatic stroke smoothing. The result is that my hand writing on the iPad is better than it is with a pen and paper. I even know of a couple of professors who write up all of their course notes on the iPad for this reason.

These apps are especially useful for working out equations. It is then a simple matter to email a PDF of the results to a student or colleague. I have tried a number of different note-taking apps (Muji Notebook, Noterize/Paper Port, Penultimate, Bamboo Paper, and Underscore Notify) but these are the three that have stood out for me. Each app does something I like, but right now I still have not found the perfect app for me.

Note Taker HD

Note Taker HD was one of the first apps to support the magnified zoom view for writing. It offers a number of different paper styles, above average stroke smoothing, and a plethora of options and settings (too many in my opinion). It does a good job and is currently rivalling Notability as my go to note taking app.

It feels clunky though. Options do not always "stick". The design is ugly. I don't understand why developers feel they must reinvent their user interface instead of using standard components from the developer kit. Very few people can pull this off, and Note Taker HD is not one of them.

Note Taker HD has also been updated to support text entry (via keyboard) as well. It does this by bringing up a side bar where you enter text. You type this text in the side bar and then it appears on the page off to the side. I wish you could just enter the text directly on the page. Fortunately I never use these apps for text entry, just handwriting. In fact, this is the only way I have ever seen anyone else at a conference use this app.

A big plus is that this app has a very active and responsive developer. Updates are constantly available, and there is a large community of users that has developed.

Note Taker HD

Price: $4.99 CAD Developer: Software Garden Download Note Taker HD

Notes Plus

When Notes Plus first came out just over a year ago I switched to it immediately from Note Taker HD. It looks better, has a better designed file system, allows audio recordings in a note, the drawing of shapes, plenty of options, and the split-screen

I find the shape function hokey and have turned it off. The audio recording option is nice, but I still have not used it for a serious purpose yet. It may come in handy one day though. The text insertion works well, but I do not need this feature.

The handwriting can sometimes become jagged and my documents have occasionally experienced minor visual glitches. The app also feels sluggish on my first generation iPad. I am not a fan of the faux leather used in the app though. After using this app extensively, I have now left it for a combination of Note Taker HD and Notability.

Notes Plus for iPad

Price: $4.99 CAD Developer: Viet Tran Download Notes Plus


Notability has recently shot to the top of the iTunes store download charts. It is cheap and had good reviews so I took the plunge. Notability fixes many of the complaints I have with Note Taker HD and Notes Plus, but introduces some irritating limitations.

The application takes a different approach to documents. Each page is designed to take in text input from a keyboard like a traditional writing app. There is an option to insert pictures or sketches. Choosing to insert a sketch brings up a second window with a number of drawing options. When the sketch is complete, it can be resized and placed anywhere in the document. Text that is being typed automatically flows around any inserted sketch or image. This is a nice option if you are interested in using the program this way.

For me, I am primarily interested in how it performs for capturing handwritten notes. Notability has the best implementation of the zoomed handwriting mode of the three. It has excellent stroke smoothing, is never laggy, and the auto-advancing is well done. I just wish it was possible to change the size of the magnified area. Right now it is quite small meaning the text you write is shrunk to a tiny size on the page. You can fit more on the page, but there is no way to write significantly bigger. UPDATE It has been pointed out in the comments that the size of the target box can be adjusted by using pinch-to-zoom on it. I have tested it and it works! This somewhat mitigates the following complaint.

A bigger problem is that the program does not allow you to pinch to zoom in on a portion of the page using the writing tool. Often I will want to include a sketch, plot, or diagram in my Notes. It is possible to draw directly on the document using the pen tool, but this leads to crude, giant, drawings like using a dry erase marker on piece of paper. The way Note Taker HD, Notes Plus, and just about every other drawing program out there gets around this is by allowing you to use the standard pinch-to-zoom gesture to magnify an area of the document and then begin your drawing. This allows you to make detailed sketches that, when you zoom back out, are appropriately scaled.

Bafflingly, Notability does not include this feature. Instead, you must use their sketch mode that opens a separate window. Even there pinch-to-zoom is not implemented. The result is frustrating and limiting. If you frequently need to sketch diagrams, consider going with Notetaker HD instead.

The other annoying thing about Notability is the lack of background choices. Specifically, there is no option for using a simple, white, background. The default background has a slight tint to it. There are a number of backgrounds available, but why this most basic one is not included is puzzling.

Notability is the best looking app out of the three. While it looks good, I wish more care had gone into thinking about usability issues. Instead of employing the standard convention with folders and files, the developers have implemented their own take on a file structure. The result is that it is frustrating and time consuming to do things like move a file from one folder to another (it took me a week before I realized this was even possible). There is a standard way to do this in iOS, but instead the developers have gone out of their way to reinvent a crappier wheel.

Despite these limitations, I am sticking with Notability for now. The zoomed handwriting is good enough that it is worth enduring the other hassles. Another nice thing about Notability is that it is easy to mark up PDFs. If I need to sign something or proof read a document, Notability has become my go to app.

Notability for iPad

Price: Currently on sale for $0.99 CAD Developer: Ginger Labs Download Notability

I am still disappointed with the note-taking apps out there. They are all lacking in some way. What is annoying is that if I could somehow make a Frankenstein app that merged only the good bits of each program it would be close to perfect for my needs. For now, I think either Notability or Note Taker HD have the best chance of overcoming their respective limitations. If a better app comes along I would not hesitate to switch.


Drop Box

Drop Box is the glue that ties together many of the applications on the iPad. It acts as a file system in the cloud that allows files to be seamlessly shared amongst Macs, PCs and mobile devices.

Apple has recently released iCloud, their take on how cloud storage and synching should take place. It is very good at what it does (as long as you have bought into the entire Apple ecosystem), but for many uses Drop Box pants it. Drop Box has become such an integral part of my work flow that I have upgraded from their free account. There are other cloud services out there, but Drop Box has become as close to a standard as you can get.

Wrap Up

The iPad is becoming a versatile tool for scientific applications. It is by no means a laptop replacement, but there are certain things it can do far better than any laptop. Note taking and simple email and web browsing are some of those things. That is why I think iPads are becoming so common at conferences. It used to be that while giving a talk I would look out and see a sea of laptops open. More frequently these are replaced with less conspicuous iPads.

In the coming years I expect laptops to become rare and endangered species at conferences as tablets take over.

  1. Although I find typing anything longer than a couple of paragraphs a chore and revert back to my computer. 
  2. There are many useful applications that I do not cover in this review: VNC and screen sharing applications that allow you to control your computer remotely using the iPad, SSH and terminal clients, calculators and computational tools (a simple version of Octave, the Matlab clone, is available). I only use these type of apps occasionally, and instead decided to focus on the apps I use regularly. 
  3. Back before iTunes started to suck. 

Review of The Muppets

Review of The Muppets

The Muppets with Jason Segel

Wow. I hope the new muppet movie wins picture of the year. It is that good. In one of the final scenes in Pixar's 2007 film Ratatouille, the rat chef Remy serves a bowl of ratatouille, peasant food, to the feared food critic Anton "the Grim Eater" Ego. Ego sneers at the simple dish, but the first bite transports him back to his fondest childhood memories of his mother's cooking. Ego's cynical exterior cracks and he is filled with child-like joy and wonder for the first time in years.

The entire muppet movie for me is like Ego's first bite of ratatouille. I do not think a movie has ever made me so happy as I watched it. There were parts of it where I laughed so hard it brought literal, not metaphorical, tears to my eyes. I loved the muppets when I was younger and this movie played on that nostalgia perfectly.

The Plot

I went into the movie knowing next to nothing about the story. For the past week I have avoided all reviews and discussions about the film.

My first surprise is that it is a well executed and witty musical! I am a song and dance kind of guy and the muppets did not disappoint. The villain, Mr. Richman, has a hysterical and unexpected song, but the real showstopper is Am I a muppet or am I a Man? I won't spoil it, but I have never witnessed an audience united in such sustained laughter before. This number alone is worth the price of admission.

The plot line is standard fare for a muppet movie; the muppets are in danger of losing their theatre unless they raise an exorbitant sum of money. The only option is to reunite the cast and put on one last muppet show. Hijinks ensue. Yadayadayada.

The difference between this muppet movie and its predecessors is how well it is executed. As Ella Fitzgerald once sang "T'aint what you do, it's the way that you do it". The movie never takes itself too seriously, and never tries to be anything but the best, most authentic, muppet experience possible.

Jason Segel

In a movie full of A-list cameos Jason Segel shines. Puppeteering is a passion of his and his love for the craft comes through every scene. According to Jason1

It's impossible to be in a bad mood. Even when we shoot a 14- or 16-hour day no one in the crew gets angry. Kermit's there. You're not gonna be a jerk in front of Kermit. It's like being a jerk in front of your mom. You know that they won't approve. So, yeah, we've all been having a great time and now seeing the dailies there was a real sense that we were doing something special.


This is a great family movie. Leaving the theatre you will be filled with joy, happiness, and those irritatingly catchy lyrics from Manaman.

Verdict: Watch it. Multiple times if possible.

  1. From the November 2011 edition of the Cineplex Magazine, page 28. This is the magazine they hand out in the movie theatre to read before the film starts. I skipped the article on Twilight New Movie! and went straight to the Muppet movie article. 

Santa Claus Lindy Hopping

Santa Claus Lindy Hopping

Jon Seiger Singing at the UW Holiday Party

Last night was the University of Waterloo's annual holiday dance. Jon Seiger, who does a mean Louis Armstrong impersonation, swung hard all night long–he is so much fun to dance to. Santa made a visit and even busted a few moves. Video evidence is below.

Guitar player in Jon Seiger's band

A big thanks to the organizers and all the volunteers.

Macroscopic Entanglement of Two Diamonds?

A new paper in Science claims to have entangled the vibrations of two large1 slabs of diamonds at room temperature! If this is true, it is a really cool result.

Until I have a chance to go through the paper in detail I remain skeptical of the results. At room temperature the entanglement would last for a vanishingly short amount of time. This must be an experiment that uses some form of heavy handed post-selection to see the entanglement. Still, the results are impressive.

  1. These diamonds would be pathetically small if you were to put them in an engagement ring, but to a quantum physicist they might as well be the size of the sun. 

The 56 best/worst similes

These similes abuse the English language like dogs/ballerinas abuse a fire hydrant. My favourites include:

2. He was as tall as a 6′3″ tree.

7. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

16. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

25. She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.

30. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

This sounds like Jose Canseco.

47. The baseball player stepped out of the box and spit like a fountain statue of a Greek god that scratches itself a lot and spits brown, rusty tobacco water and refuses to sign autographs for all the little Greek kids unless they pay him lots of drachmas.

A Victim Treats His Mugger Right

Julio Diaz was recently mugged getting off the subway one night.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, "like what's going on here?" Diaz says. "He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'"

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.

This is what my parents taught me through their actions. Growing up in Sri Lanka and Pakistan our family was robbed a number of times. My parents always said that whoever was desperate enough to break into our house probably needed what they took more than we did. They were never angry, just grateful that no one was harmed.

Instead of letting themselves become victims to the situation my parents used the situation to develop greater compassion and understanding. There is still so much I have to learn from my parents.

Julio Diaz's actions remind of what Ghandi said:

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Our criminal justice system is schizophrenic. It confuses the concepts of rehabilitation and punishment. They are not the same thing. Punishment is justice in the form of "an eye for an eye"; you did something to me, I'll do something to you. It is the easy thing to do. It is what our protective instincts want. We send individuals to prison to punish them and sugar coat it by saying they are being rehabilitated.

Prison is the second best educational institute1 a criminal can attend to hone their craft. Our current penal system does little to truly rehabilitate and help people. Its primary function is to punish.

If we want to truly help people we need to develop a more compassionate approach. Prisons will always be necessary. What we need is to take rehabilitation seriously. Leave the punishment aspect behind and instead focus on helping people change.

I wager this approach would be far cheaper in the long run to society.

  1. The best place to learn the lucrative art of white collar crime is Wall Street. 

Song: Quantum Decoupling Transition in a One-Dimensional Feshbach-Resonant Superfluid

Jonathan Mann has been writing a song a day for over 1000 days. According to his Youtube channel he is up to 1061 songs and is still going strong.

I imagine trying to come up with an original song every day is a challenge. One technique is to sing the abstracts of physics papers. On day 264 that is exactly what Jonathan did; he turned the abstract of this paper by Daniel E. Sheehy and Leo Radzihovsky into a song (free version of the paper here).

We study a one-dimensional gas of fermionic atoms interacting via an s-wave molecular Feshbach resonance. At low energies the system is characterized by two Josephson-coupled Luttinger liquids, corresponding to paired atomic and molecular superfluids. We show that, in contrast to higher dimensions, the system exhibits a quantum phase transition from a phase in which the two superfluids are locked together to one in which, at low energies, quantum fluctuations suppress the Feshbach resonance (Josephson) coupling, effectively decoupling the molecular and atomic superfluids. Experimental signatures of this quantum transition include the appearance of an out-of-phase gapless mode (in addition to the standard gapless in-phase mode) in the spectrum of the decoupled superfluid phase and a discontinuous change in the molecular momentum distribution function.

As awesome as I find this, there is a reason the Beatles and Rolling Stones have never tried this approach.

XKCD: Space Launch System and Wernher von Braun

This comic from XKCD is especially appropriate given my earlier post on Tom Lehrer. One of Lehrer's most famous songs is a satirical savaging Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who developed the Saturn V rocket for the US after World War II. Here is Lehrer's song:

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.