Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Giggling Excitedly: A Non-Programmer's Small Trip through Windows

The trip I've just described may not be an epic one. It pretty much lasted for only fifteen minutes. It might have lasted a lot longer had I not felt compelled to blog about it... right now. If you are a programmer, or in fact have any knowledge of how to navigate an operating system without making any unintended and/or irreversible changes, I don't know what sort of emotions there would be reading about my short experience. There may possibly be groaning, and maybe a few amused chuckles. There may also be other emotions and reactions that go beyond the two aforementioned, but I'd bet on them being the most common. If I did a lot of betting.

At first, I wanted to pick back up on trying to learn Python. I've mostly heard that it's an easy and remarkably versatile programming language, tuned well to the beginner. There was also one guy at camp who said it was awkward and strange, but he wasn't sure precisely how someone as inexperienced as I would start, seeking the most effective learning experience. He just said no python. Nonetheless, I had picked up my trusty Python for Dummies book, figuring that each time I gave it a shot, a little more of it stuck after I stopped. Anyway, at the very beginning, when it gives instructions for how to actually open python, the instruction for Windows is to open the Command Prompt and type "python". Originally, I didn't even read that part; I'd already installed python, and I had a nice little shortcut to the folder with the executable in it. This time, however, I decided I'd see what it said for other operating systems. For all of them, it suggested opening a coding equivalent as opposed to doing it the lay way and entering python. I decided that I'd try this method out, just to see if I'd learn something.

I opened Command prompt from Accessories, on the start menu. It started with the location of my user folder, and from there I didn't think I could reach python. Upon some other checking, I didn't actually know what I could access from there. After some digging, I found out exactly where the user folder went. I ended up successfully looking up a .DAT file, but it belonged to a (trusted) site, and I didn't actually know how to open it. Nonetheless, I was wondering how to get it to open from a different location; I didn't know how to change it inside the prompt (though, in retrospect, there's probably a help section for that), so I decided to find out exactly where the file was located. I found it in system32, and then opened it again. This time, it started from an extension there! Now, I had found the target from the properties window, and hadn't bothered to refresh my memory with regards to the weird and exciting things that lie in system32. I started with opening Windows Accessibility from the command line, just to test it out.

It worked, and all of a sudden I had Windows Accessibility open, in the regular window format as opposed to streaming down code I wouldn't have a chance at understanding. I decided to go along with the program to see what I could find, and it first asked me what font size I wanted (incidentally, it was all in small font up until that prompt). I told it to set everything to standard font, and then clicked Next. That's when it appeared to freeze. I waited a bit, but there was no sign of activity. The blue XP bar at the top looked a bit smaller than usual, with a shortened font, but I ignored this when clicking the now mini-x-button. It told me the program was unresponsive, and then I force quit. I went on again, and took a link to magnifying glass.

This is where the giggling began. It's really a funny little program; you get a zoomed window in a section of the screen designated by the user, and at first it was set to follow the mouse. I moused around and was moderately amused by the program. I then decided that the options looked fun, and put up the magnification. This made things very difficult to find in that screen until I made it larger, and then I moused around with that a little. When I looked at 'invert colors', I got really interested. I hit that, lowered the magnification, and then I could move around a negative image of a nuclear explosion seen from the sky (I believe a rendition), and it was negative and magnified to various degrees. This blew my easily amused mind (no pun intended). Some negative hilarity later, I checked and all of the info bars had all actually taken on the shortened qualities mentioned before.

Being in extreme violation of what I consider aesthetically pleasing on a modern computer (it was in between refined in a modern sense and raw-code no-extra-graphics-added style, that when put together just looked outdated to me), I went back to accessibility to change it, without using the command line (we're out of that section of the story). I set it to display in the larger font, and then it froze again. Cursing my learning flat line, I exited and found that not only were the bars the same size as before, but all other fonts associated with the system were now large. I almost tried to find the factory reset for the system, and then remembered my good, simple friend, the properties under right clicking. After setting the font size back to normal in Accessibility (it would merrily do what it was told, while freezing), I went there and checked the display properties. There were none listed that accounted for the short display; however, after reaffirming my preference for the XP style, it went back to that. Believing there would be a cautionary tale in there somewhere, I hurried over to Blogger to post about my exciting journey.

When I arrived here, I started typing and when referring to the Dummies book, I accidentally threw up the source code for the page, forgetting that Blogger has no such underline shortcut (being Ctrl-U, for people without PCs and who don't know). That... is the conclusion to today's dose of inane and minor technical mishaps. Though our family is leaving tomorrow for Ottawa, where presumably there won't likely be much Internet access (a tenet of our trips), I believe I've learned something important having to do with using more time. That would be to make my trips through my computer much more thorough and random next time I do it; That would leave me with more to write about. In separate posts, with their own parts... just like the good old days, when I didn't only have that material, I was compelled to seek it because not finding it meant losing marks. This time, I'll do it for a reason that I love but usually ignore. The reason being because I can.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Michael Nielsen Interview

Recently, I had to do an interview of someone who was on, or had been on, a similar career path to the one we want to pursue (being in grade 10, there's some growing up left to do, but it doesn't feel right to say 'when we grow up'). I've been thinking theoretical physicist as of late (have I mentioned that before?) and I was hoping to interview someone who's... in theoretical physics. At first, it seemed like a hopeless journey; how could I reach someone who's in physics and actually convince them to do an interview? I didn't even know where to start to find a physicist, unless one counts asking my dad. Of course, he said something along the lines of 'Michael Nielsen! He was a physicist and is now writing on the future of science as a whole. He's famous and his career path is extremely relevant.' My curiosity was piqued.


On Tue, 2 Dec 2008, Sam D wrote:

1. I hear various things from time to time about the demographics across scientific disciplines (while watching physics, mostly), and if one really wants to see them, statistics are readily available online. These statistics have a tendency to change though, and therein lies a lack of solid information (considering the future hasn't happened yet, and sociology is far from perfected), but enough speculation to go around. What are your thoughts about demographic change in the next ten or twenty years?

There are many demographic changes going on in physics. Some of the dimensions along which change are occurring includes gender, nationality, and age. (And, of course, there are many others). All of these are fascinating, and have potentially huge implications.

One that I find particularly interesting is the growing internationalization of physics and more generally science. It used to be that do cutting-edge work there was a huge advantage to being in one of the richest countries (e.g., Canada or the US), preferably at a major research University. Although there are still big advantages to that, it's becoming increasingly possible to get involved from anywhere in the world.

For example, projects like MIT's Open Courseware and Rice University's Connexions make high-quality University-level educational materials available for free to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Other initiatives are making it possible for people anywhere to keep up with (and, in some cases, become involved in) the latest research. I don't know what the long-term consequences of this shift will be, but it seems very important, and it seems like this will be a major change over the ten to twenty years that you talk about.

2. Science fiction, being imagination often having no association with actual science, is inherently based on the imaginations of people that, well, write imaginative pieces for money. Through my logic, this inherently leads to very interesting ideas, if still often not founded on reality. How many physicists, roughly, look into the ideas presented by authors? Among those physicists, (if there are any,) how often would they, on average look into these fancies?

I don't know. A lot of my physicist friends read science fiction, but I've never asked any if it's had a direct impact on their science, and so I don't know. I don't recall it ever having a direct impact on my science, but it's certainly had a major impact on what sorts of things I find interesting in science, and more generally. I believe the futurist Peter Schwartz once commented that science fiction writers can actually change the future, because they influence what the next generation of scientists will dream about. That seems about right to me.

3. Besides writing a book in its promotion, adopting it personally, and possibly talking about it to people in general, are there other ways that you plan on marketing, promoting, and otherwise helping along the adoption of Web 2.0? What would you suggest to others to help its proliferation?

On the first part of your question, I'm still trying to figure that out myself. I view the book as part of a much bigger project (not just my project, but one shared among many) of helping scientists really take full advantage of online tools. I have a lot of ideas about how to do that, but I'm still pretty preoccupied finishing off the writing of my book, and so I won't make a concrete decision about what's next until I'm near being done with the book.

Your second question really depends on who is involved: different people can do different things, and so I'd suggest different things to different people. One thing I think everyone interested in science online should be doing, though, is using at least some of the tools that are available (e.g., blogs, or wikis, or twitter, or whatever they like). I know of a few people who write papers about this stuff, but don't actually really use it themselves.

4. I've been told, through fiction and forums, that Occam's Razor weighs strongly when comparing theories that seem pretty much as strong as another, but roughly how seriously is it really used, in your experience?

I don't like the way Occam's Razor is often mentioned. It's very true that simplicity is a good _heuristic_ to use when trying to solve hard problems: if you have a very simple idea that seems to solve a lot of problems that previously puzzled you, it seems to be the case that it's usually (but not always) better than a more complex idea. But that's all it is: a good heuristic.

5. Among the questions generic to the extreme, I find this one still begs to be asked. What are your thoughts of job competition in ten or fifteen years for students wishing to enter theoretical physics?

It's very, very difficult to get a good job as a theoretical physicist, and I don't see that changing much. Many people start training to be theoretical physicsts, but very few end up with full-time work as theoretical physicists.

6. Ok, let's imagine that the open science approach has come around in about 15 or 20 years, if it takes that long (or is realized that quickly). Do you have any idea what the distant future will hold? What the step after the next might involve? Would you change your answer if this scenario were to take place in 50 years? If so, how might you change it?

Part of the beauty of open science is that it should accelerate the rate of discovery across all fields. This has an interesting consequence, though: it makes prediction harder. I do think that the possibility of developing a general-purpose artificial intelligence (which open science may help) is a pretty amazing one, albeit also somewhat scary.

Hope those answers are of help to you,


Michael Nielsen

Home: http://michaelnielsen.org/
Blog: http://michaelnielsen.org/blog
del.icio.us: http://del.icio.us/nielsen


On Tue, 2 Dec 2008, Sam D wrote:

Following q1: Does knowledge of various languages (for me, English, French and Spanish) affect entry into and the practice of physics? Also, considering the development of services that allow people to use the Internet to have meetings with people in other places, how often are scientists still travelling for them, and do you expect this to change?

At present, knowledge of English is very common among scientists the world over, and more or less seems to serve as a de facto language. It seems likely that in the future other languages will grow in importance - if India or China were to become the dominant scientific country, for example.

Following q5: Do you see any other shifts happening in employment for other physical fields, or do they all seem to be as the theoretical branch is: extremely competitive if one is pursuing exactly what they were taught?

I expect that most scientific fields will remain extremely competitive if you want to get a full-time job doing basic research, or as an academic in those areas.

Thanks again for answering these questions so quickly. Also, in forums I'd seen Occam's Razor used from time to time by people who considered it a very important scientific tool, and I wasn't sure how seriously they were to be taken, if at all. Once more, it's a huge help to me that I got these today, and I'm grateful.

On Occam's razor, please don't take my word for it. I'm just one person, and other people may have different ideas. The question you have to make up your own mind about is how sensible you think Occam's razor is, in each of its different forms - people tend to wield it in slightly different ways.

Let me give you an example, though, of why I don't personally think it's such a good idea to accept Occam's Razor in its strongest forms. In the 1940s Richard Feynman developed his own formulation of quantum mechanics, the so-called path integral formulation. It was in some sense "equivalent" to the standard formulation, but appears quite different. In many ways, it's actually much more complex than the standard formulation. Should we therefore reject it, on the basis of Occam's Razor? Well, several decades later, 't Hooft and Veltman proved a major result about certain quantum field theories using the path integral approach to quantum mechanics, a result that other people hadn't been able to obtain using the standard approach. They later won the Nobel Prize, in part for this work. Obviously, it's a good thing that 't Hooft and Veltman had this tool in their arsenal of ways to attack the problem, even if it's in many ways more complex than the standard tools.

Hope that's all of help.