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Preview: Juha Haataja: Universe of Science

Juha Haataja: Universe of Science

Mathematics, Biosciences, Chemistry, Popular Science, and Science Writing.

Last Build Date: Fri, 07 Aug 2009 10:35:35 GMT

Copyright: Copyright 2009 Juha Haataja

Goodbye to Universal Rule - closing shop

Fri, 07 Aug 2009 10:32:27 GMT

As the Radio Userland software is at the end of its life, I'm closing down this blog and will not move it elsewhere. Some parts of it (book reviews etc.) may appear elsewhere at some point, but no promises. The blog will disappear from the net at the end of 2009, perhaps even earlier.

Photography is the thing

Mon, 05 Jan 2009 20:58:04 GMT

I haven't been blogging much here at Universal Rule for some time, but those who are interested in what I'm currently doing, please check out the Light Scrape blog, which is about photography. I'm nowadays mostly using the Panasonic LX3 for taking photos, over 23,000 photos taken so far with the camera. There has been much less time for other topics since I got a major interest in photography, but that can of course change at some point. But currently it seems that photography poses an interesting long-term project, defined in my own terms. So, other topics such as DRM, Macs, and such will have to wait.

Uses of science in advertising

Sun, 13 Jul 2008 08:41:39 GMT

These U-Haul graphics are great. A different way of making your vehicles memorable. Many of the illustrations contain science and mathematics topics.

The generative internet - is the bell tolling?

Mon, 07 Jul 2008 21:12:49 GMT

I have been reading an article by Jonathan L. Zittrain on the so-called generative internet, that is the "capacity for unrelated and unaccredited audiences to build and distribute code and content through the Internet to its tens of millions of attached personal computers". The impact has been huge, and the growth and innovation has made it possible to engage in all kinds of new endeavors.

However, there has been a backslash, trying to restrict innovation, the freedom of speech, and building new things on top of existing. I hope the generative capacity of the internet will survive, but it is far from certain.

Much ado about the end of theory

Thu, 03 Jul 2008 20:18:02 GMT

Backreaction discusses The End Of Theory, a proposition that data management and analysis will make obsolete the model-bases scientific paradigm.

I beg to disagree. Science is currently going to the exactly opposite direction. Huge amounts of data have been gathered in, e.g., biosciences, but still we don't know much about how biological systems work. Trying to find insight from a huge pile of data produces noise - accidental correlations and similar artefacts.

To make progress we need predictive models. What use is it for us to notice - after the fact - that something happened, when we need to model, predict and act.

For example, in finding the right action in a potential worldwide pandemic, or in fighting the climate change, data is just junk by itself if we can't make predictive models.

Changing the world

Sun, 29 Jun 2008 09:30:13 GMT

Chris Guillebeau wrote an interesting (although simplistic) pamphlet on how to set personal objectives and how to change the world. The two key questions are
  1. What do you really want to get out of life?
  2. What can you offer the world that no one else can?
These are interesting questions, and hard to answer. Thinking about the future is hard, and I'm not altogether convinced that it is productive thinking. But I can look instead at today: what kind of things would I like to do if I would be able to do anything.

Here is the thing: I wouldn't change much of the current situation. What I would like to change is the world. Make it better - more collaborative, more fair, more open, less cynical. And of course I would like to live a good life while doing that.

I believe computational science is a key area for solving the complex societal problems we are currently facing. Thus, promoting computational science is the key thing for me. Whether we are talking about climate change, bioscience or nanotechnology, computational science is needed to make progress. Thus, developing the knowledge and recognition of this field is essential for the society.

Currently I'm in a position where I can make changes happen. But it is not easy and fast - it takes time, constant discussions, and repeating the message again and again. I hope I can to a certain degree provide a bridge towards understanding.

I'm not a deep specialist, but I can help on the general level. And there are others who are willing to participate in the change. We can become a spring of insights, and act as stepping stones on the way to change.

The Britney Spears Problem

Sat, 28 Jun 2008 08:08:25 GMT

Brian Hayes has written on interesting article in American Scientist on the so-called Britney Spears Problem: "What I'm trying to understand is how we can know Britney's ranking from week to week. How are all those queries counted and categorized? What algorithm tallies them up to see which terms are the most frequent?"

The article is an interesting discussion about a relevant computer science problem. Hayes ends his article in a wish: "Years from now, someone will type "Britney Spears" into a search engine and will stumble upon this article listed among the results. Perhaps then a curious reader will be led into new lines of inquiry."

Might it be possible to help Hayes to get the deserved future recognition by linking to his article?

Is computational science really "science"?

Tue, 17 Jun 2008 16:14:00 GMT

Norman Chonacky (and Greg Wilson) discuss the status of computational science in an interesting way in the May/June issue of "Computing in Science and Engineering". Can computational scientists can call their work "science"? The writers say that currently the "practices" on researchers in computational science are far from good. Scientific work should be reproducible and materials and instruments should have open and verifiable provenance. In computational science this is not (always) the case. The writers point out that most departments feel that the basic methodology and skills should be developed, but in practice it is difficult to fix the problem. As a key example, basic programming methodology is often lacking: understandable coding, version tracking, scripting languages, debuggers etc. We should develop the skills so that "computational scientists [...] can modify their programs continuously as their questions are answered."

Life came from space to Earth?

Fri, 13 Jun 2008 21:30:51 GMT

Finnish media is reporting on Zita Martins' research, which was discussed a couple of months earlier on the web. Well, better late than never. It is surprising how out of sync the media often is on the (important) discussions.

In any case, if it at some point turns out that Earth was seeded from elsewhere (which is far from certain based on the current evidence), this would be the science story of the century. Perhaps the building blocks of life arise spontaneously all over the galaxy.

Views on computational science

Fri, 13 Jun 2008 18:10:53 GMT

I got some comments on my opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat. Because my affiliation was not included in the writer information, some of the messages asked whether I'm the author of the text. There are quite a few people with the same name here in the Helsinki region. I hope they have not been bothered too much.

By the way, it is interesting how few comments (relative to the size of the readership) there usually are from HS pieces, compared to other much smaller publications. Perhaps the big audience hinders commenting. Years and years ago, when I wrote a couple of opinion pieces to Helsingin Sanomat and Yliopisto, my two favorite forums at that time, I did get some nice feedback, and one interesting contact (the correspondence lasted quite a while).

One reader pointed out the writings of Heinz R. Pagels, a completely new name to me. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be new printings of his books available, only used ones. The most interesting book for me is "The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity". The topic of the book is of course discussed by many other authors, but it seems that Pagels has some interesting interpretations. I'm not sure whether I agree. In any case, have to read the book first before any further commenting.

An opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat

Thu, 12 Jun 2008 12:14:27 GMT

Today my opinion piece on the role of science in society appeared in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. The title was changed but the text mostly as it was - however, I had a phone discussion with an editor who wanted some scientific terms changed to easier ones. In retrospect, it is interesting to note that the text also contains some advanced economic terms which the editor accepted as they were.

EU wants openness - sends message to Microsoft

Thu, 12 Jun 2008 12:06:03 GMT

New York Times reports on the EU comments related to Microsoft business practices vs. openness:
"I know a smart business decision when I see one - choosing open standards is a very smart business decision indeed," Ms. Kroes told a conference in Brussels. "No citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to choose a closed technology over an open one."

Much writing (to do)

Wed, 11 Jun 2008 15:48:46 GMT

I have been writing quite a lot lately, scratch writings as well as drafts for columns etc. to be published later. Some days ago I counted that I have 19 published writings so far this year, mostly columns but also articles. And some are still waiting to be published. Of course, this is nothing exceptional, a quite normal year that is.

Two-three weeks ago (May 24th) I also had an opinion piece published in Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest Finnish newspaper. I haven't submitted opinion pieces to HS for years, but now there was an interesting discussion going on in the newpaper (and also on other forums in Finland) about the role of science in society. I have much more to say on the subject, and there are a lot of forums where to discuss this further, but I have to see when there is enough time to polish the ideas into clear enough shape.

In addition to these published pieces I have been writing a bit for myself only, all kinds of free-flow thinking and scratch pieces. I haven't done much of this type of writing for years, but now there has been a demand for this as well. I think this type of writing is a nice way of cleaning up the rubbish from between the ears. Just letting the words come without minding what they are helps a lot in finding the right words later when there is real writing to be done.

Reading space opera

Tue, 02 Oct 2007 20:07:45 GMT

Some time ago I read "Old Man's War" by John Scalzi, now I'm reading "The Ghost Brigades". These book are space-opera type science fiction, but they also have a serious weakness: Scalzi's alien characters are not alien at all, but all too human. In fact, many of the human characters in the Vorkosigan books by Bujold are more alien that Scalzi's aliens. But on the other hand, Scalzi has built a nice technological universe with new twists on the usual sf ideas.

There is no memory in research

Tue, 11 Sep 2007 04:52:09 GMT

Yes, IRs are broken. Let’s talk about it.: "Institutional repositories as a class are in serious trouble. They are not producing the outcomes they promised—or, indeed, much of any outcome in many cases. [...] Fundamentally, the value proposition on which IRs were sold to libraries was in error. Voluntary self-archiving in institutional repositories simply does not happen in the absence of deposit mandates. From a library perspective, this changes the picture from the original “build it, step back, and they will come” to “make a tremendous ongoing investment in marketing and library-mediated deposit services that may never pay off if other libraries at other institutions don’t do likewise.” It’s only sensible that many libraries back away from the latter commitment." [Caveat Lector]

This is something I have been thinking about for some time. Much of the produced research data (and metadata) is never preserved, but there currently doesn't seem to be ways to fix this, even though decisionmakers in Finland and elsewhere have a lot of good will to make it happen.

As things are, the society does not get as much value from investing in research as it should. Measurements are done again and again, data is seldom reused, and things have to be discovered again and again from scratch. Not good for the society, and not good for the researchers.

Finches live long

Sun, 01 Jul 2007 09:35:37 GMT

New Scientist reported about the suprising longevity of finches. These small birds have long lifespans, and the reason was a scientific mystery until now. Never thought much about the relative life spans of different birds, but in retrospect this is an intriguing question. Why some species don't obey the normal rule of life span vs. body mass?

Using a data matrix

Thu, 21 Jun 2007 07:26:17 GMT

Every once in a while you see a data matrix, which is a format for coding information into matrix barcodes. Below is the URL of this site in a data matrix. This may become popular with cameraphones.


More emphasis on book reviews

Thu, 14 Jun 2007 09:16:20 GMT

I lifted links to my lists of book reviews to the top of the blog homepage, because most of the visitors come here because of these: I have several more drafted, but I'll take some time to polish them before publication.

Blue Ocean in Finland

Tue, 29 May 2007 05:41:36 GMT

Did you hear that W. Chan Kim will come to Finland to lecture on Blue Ocean Strategy? My review of the book, in Finnish translation, Sinisen meren strategia (W. Chan Kim ja Renée Mauborgne; Talentum, 2005) has generated some interest recently.

Solving Einstein's Riddle in Python

Tue, 29 May 2007 05:33:14 GMT

I noticed Google searches trying to find code for solving the so-called Einstein's Riddle. Here is object-oriented Python code (I updated the link) for solving the problem. Here are the final results of a run:
Choices: 1
1         2         3         4         5         
yellow    blue      red       green     white     
norway    denmark   finland   german    sweden    
water     tea       milk      coffee    beer      
blues     opera     rock      pop       metal     
cat       horse     bird      fish      dog       
Here you find Python code for solving logic puzzles like this one. This code is rather nice, and more general than mine. On the other hand, the code is also slower due to the generality of the approach.

The open world of pictures

Mon, 02 Apr 2007 09:24:22 GMT

What to do when you urgently need a picture to illustrate a point in a presentation? There is a great solution on the net, as described in The excellence that is Flickr and Creative Commons: "So I’m doing a presentation called “What’s Driving Open Access?” next month. And because I will happily take a metaphor, run it into the ground, resurrect it, run it back into the ground, then hop up and down on its exanimate corpse just to make the point, I went to Flickr’s Creative Commons search looking for pictures of buses. [...] I found some awesome stuff. I found more metaphors than even I can shake the proverbial stick at. I found the “rubber meets road” picture. I did. I swear I did." [Caveat Lector]

Death of Fortran inventor

Tue, 20 Mar 2007 10:25:37 GMT

I have spent several years working with Fortran-related things, so it was sad to note that John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies: "Mr. Backus assembled and led the I.B.M. team that created Fortran, the first widely used programming language." [NYT > Technology]

Corrupting Finland

Mon, 19 Mar 2007 06:28:06 GMT

Finland is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. But this only applies to economics and administration. When we are talking about information technology, things are different. (See my new column, in Finnish, Korruptoituva Suomi.)

Tue, 06 Mar 2007 08:47:07 GMT

What Are You? A Mind Reader? "Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. Researchers use a brain scan that lets them identify your intentions before you actually do anything." [Wired News: Top Stories]

Oh where have all the bees gone?

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 11:05:38 GMT

Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Crops and Keepers in Peril: "Bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate in 24 states, threatening the production of numerous crops." [NYT > Home Page]

To be natural or kyborg?

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 07:54:35 GMT

Soon at birth the parents will be asked: "Would you like a Nokia or a Motorola, and what operator contract?" What will be the consequences of modifying the human body? (See my column in Finnish, Ollako luomu vai kyborgi?)

Fri, 16 Feb 2007 14:25:52 GMT

Darwin Day Celebrates Science: "A little-known festival turns Charles Darwin's birthday into an international tribute to the glories of scientific thought." [Wired News: Top Stories]

Too clean air is a health risk?

Fri, 16 Feb 2007 09:12:00 GMT

Low levels of air pollution can raise stroke risk: "Low environmental levels of fine and ultrafine particulate matter, as well as carbon dioxide, increase the risk of stroke, but the heightened risk occurs only during warm weather months, Finnish researchers report." [Reuters Health eLine]

So, I guess Shanghai would be a good place to reduce the risk of stroke?

Hot or even hotter?

Fri, 02 Feb 2007 11:53:29 GMT

Climate Change Science Moves from Proof to Prevention: "Scientists have spent the past six years combing the seas, skies, land and space for data on climate change." [Scientific American]

Do you know mathematics? How about your children?

Wed, 31 Jan 2007 10:50:04 GMT

The Declining Quality of Mathematics Education in the US: "Mathematics education seems to be very subject to passing trends - surprisingly more so than many other subjects. The most notorious are, of course, the rise of New Math in the 60s and 70s, and the corresponding backlash against it in the late 70s and 80s. It turns out that mathematics education, at least in the US, is now subject to a new trend, and it doesn't appear to be a good one." []

Two new columns this year

Wed, 17 Jan 2007 06:18:06 GMT

What if cars had toilets? My column on the "too many features" phenomenon appeared on Monday (in Finnish, Ominaisuuksien vankina). I have been reading the excellent Australian book "The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Commonsense" (Park Street Press, 2006). I wrote a column on this book on January 2nd. There are a lot of airheads in Finland - and the number is increasing rapidly (in Finnish, Ilmapäiden voitto ja ymmärryksen häviö).

Six-word strories about information technology

Tue, 12 Dec 2006 09:12:09 GMT

Inspired by a recent Wired article about six-word short-short science fiction stories, I invented about two dozen stories on information technology. It was suprisingly easy to find ideas for this kind of writing. (In Finnish, Kuuden sanan tarinoita tietotekniikasta.)

New book reviews

Tue, 12 Dec 2006 07:49:04 GMT

Here are some new book reviews (written by me in Finnish). They originally appeared in the Tietoyhteys magazine. In total, I have written about 110 book reviews, which is a bit suprising, but on the other hand, writing one, e.g., monthly is not a great task as such. There are so many good books which benefit from each bit of publicity they can get. (Unfortunately quite few people write book reviews any more.)

Compute 45,000 times faster

Mon, 04 Dec 2006 10:46:02 GMT

Finland has acquired new supercomputers, upgrading the current capacity several dozen times. But code and algorithm optimization can result in even greater speedups. My column on this topic appeared today. (In Finnish, Laske 45 000 kertaa nopeammin.)

Tue, 21 Nov 2006 08:08:21 GMT

MIT develops model for wireless power: "There have been several attempts to develop a system that would allow consumer electronics to be powered wirelessly, but researchers at MIT have come up with a new, more efficient model to power devices in the home without cords." [Ars Technica]

Mini-sized killer robots

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 09:26:51 GMT

Israel developing anti-militant "bionic hornet": "Israel is using nanotechnology to try to create a robot no bigger than a hornet that would be able to chase, photograph and kill its targets, an Israeli newspaper reported on Friday."

One again, faster supercomputers

Thu, 16 Nov 2006 10:26:47 GMT

IBM holds lead on Top 500 Supercomputers List: "IBM holds a 47.8 percent share of the biannual Top 500 Supercomputers list to be released Tuesday at Supercomputing 2006, an industry convention in Tampa, Florida. Second-place Hewlett-Packard Co. holds a 31.2 percent share of systems on the list." [IDG InfoWorld]

Finland has now one supercomputer on the list, the HP cluster at CSC in position 80. The Cray XT4 system will be installed in early 2007 and thus in not yet on the list.

Crackpotting string theory

Mon, 06 Nov 2006 08:27:45 GMT

String Theory and the Crackpot Index: "Recently two books, by Peter Woit and by Lee Smolin, have been published questioning whether the enormous theoretical effort applied to the problems of string theory has been fruitful. [...] One response was published several days ago by Briane Greene on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times (also here). A famously grouchy observer called the editorial a long, wistful plea for patience. But what struck me most as I read it was its similarity to the crackpot index maintained by John Baez. So, for fun, I scored it." []

Mon, 06 Nov 2006 08:03:28 GMT

Scientists Discover Bacterial 'Switch Gene' That Regulates Oceans' Sulfur Emissions: "...a bacterial "switch gene" [...] helps determine whether certain marine bacterioplankton convert a sulfur compound to one that rises into the atmosphere and affects the earth's temperature or remains climatically inactive in the seas."

Mon, 06 Nov 2006 08:01:24 GMT

If only gay sex caused global warming: "...we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened."

Voice that came back in rhyme

Wed, 25 Oct 2006 06:02:24 GMT

Good news day: "I lost my voice about 18 months ago. Permanently. It's something exotic called Spasmodic Dysphonia. Essentially a part of the brain that controls speech just shuts down in some people..."

New supercomputer for Finland

Mon, 09 Oct 2006 07:43:27 GMT

A new supercomputer enables new kinds of research: "CSC, the Finnish IT center for science, acquires a new supercomputer system, which means a significant leap in performance of computer resources available for Finnish researchers. The new system enables new kinds of research and increases accuracy of current simulation models. At the same time CSC extends its super-cluster system as well. The purchase is totally funded by the Ministry of Education and the equipment will remain the property of the Finnish state under the possession of the Ministry of Education."

This is great. Having a Cray system provides the peak capability, and the HP cluster provides cost-efficient capacity for less scalable applications. A great leap forward for computational science in Finland.

Thu, 05 Oct 2006 07:27:50 GMT

New DNA test to solve more cases: "This application is a piece of software, along with a forensic scientist, that can help us interpret previously complex, mixed DNA profiles that the forensic scientist really couldn't interpret."

Old-fashioned detective stories

Mon, 02 Oct 2006 07:06:12 GMT

My column on detective stories appeared today (in Finnish, Kun dekkareista tuli vanhanaikaisia). Surveillance is increasing and crime scene investigation is more and more thorough. Are old detective stories the only place we can avoid the Big Brother any more?

The next theory of everything

Wed, 27 Sep 2006 07:50:23 GMT

Moving Beyond String Theory: "How do you get general relativity and quantum mechanics to live together? String theory is the darling for now, but other promising approaches are floating out there as well." [Wired News: Top Stories]

Hot Skills, Cold Skills

Mon, 25 Sep 2006 08:32:15 GMT

The IT worker of 2010 won't be a technology guru but rather a versatilist: "IT departments will be populated with "versatilists" -- those with a technology background who also know the business sector inside and out, can architect and carry out IT plans that will add business value, and can cultivate relationships both inside and outside the company."

Fri, 22 Sep 2006 11:59:59 GMT

Magnetic train crashes: "A magnetic levitation train crashes at high speed in northern Germany, killing several people." [BBC News | Technology | UK Edition]