Someone recently contacted me to ask the following question: What is the probability that two students, each taking the same multiple choice exam, with q possible answers per question, will get k or more identical answers in a row? I initially imagined this to be straightforward. It’s just a sequence of n Bernoulli trials with p=1/q, with k successes, right? Probably just a few terms clumped with a binomial distribution? Oh, boy was I wrong. Go try it out. MathWorld has an especially interesting solution: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Run.html

We live on a former Superfund site, so when I started planting in the garden a few months back, I was worried that there would still be some residual contamination from heavy metals and other deadly chemicals. I sent in a soil sample to the UMass Extension Service for testing, and just got back the results. The good news is that the dangerous stuff are all pretty low. Trace of lead (30ppm), very low cadmium (0.1ppm), etc. The interesting parts were actually the nutrients and soil composition. The pH turned out to be 7.5, with nitrates at just 3ppm, and extremely high calcium levels (20187ppm). The soil is buffered at a pH of 7.4, probably because of the high concentration [more . . .]

I was doing my daily blog rundown, and this video caught my eye. Go watch it. It’s pretty cool. Of course, a recorded demo doesn’t say that much about the actual technology accomplishments, so I went ahead to check out the lab’s web site. Their technology is named SOINN–Self-Organizing Incremental Neural Network, and their page is here. It seems that SOINN is essentially an online variation of the Self-Organizing Map (SOM), using pretty standard Hebbian learning, and also something called Growing Neural Gas (GNG), which I haven’t heard of before. The SOINN algorithm itself is really interesting, but doesn’t seem as revolutionary as HuffPo and Engadget are making it out to be. It’s another online unsupervised learning algorithm. I’m more interested [more . . .]

The Department of Justice has just filed an amicus brief supporting the upholding of the US Federal District Court’s opinion that genes by themselves are not patentable. This is huge. The patenting of sequences of DNA has always been controversial. Opponents fall mainly in two camps. The first argues that there are those that say DNA, as a defining element of life, should be held by a private company as a patent. I don’t agree with this viewpoint. There is nothing extrinsically different about DNA from other materials that should differentiate it by this argument. The second camp makes a much stronger argument, and is the reason cited by the DOJ’s amicus brief, and is also the reason I am [more . . .]

Go take a look at Wolfram Alpha. It’s a “computational knowledge engine.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It definitely has the potential to completely blow away any factual search engine that has come previously, of which the most prominent example may be Powerset. The brains behind this, Stephen Wolfram, is an acclaimed computer scientist that has had many incredible creations already, including the heavily used software package Mathematica, which adds jaw-dropping features in every release, and the stunning if controversial book A New Kind of Science, so he definitely has the background and the resources to create a good factual search engine. In fact, Wolfram has frequently posited, both in A New Kind of Science, and other sources, that he believes [more . . .]

Do a Google search for “Yellowstone.” The first result is is the National Park Service’s official Yellowstone National Park web site, as expected. The second site is yellowstone.net, which promises to help you “plan your yellowstone vacation.” Still as expected. But the third is for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Wait, what? Isn’t Yellowstone a volcanically inactive geothermal cluster? Why can’t we see black lava flows like on Kilauea or even St. Helens? The answer is complicated, but in a sentence, Yellowstone sits on top of a volcanic hot spot that enjoys blowing up in a “supereruption” every few hundreds of thousands of years, but in the meantime, keeps itself fit by spewing geysers, unleashing thousands of earthquakes, and triggering hydrothermal [more . . .]

I am wowed. I will never consider last week’s temperature of -25°F cold ever again.

A handy chart from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (via Earth2Tech). Let’s hope for algae to mature… (Click to enlarge)

One of my new favorite blogs, Earth2Tech, has just posted on ClimateCounts’ release of the latest Climate Scorecard, scoring companies on their efforts at informing and taking action on climate change. Not sure exactly how accurate this is, as Dell is surprisingly low on the list, considering its now industry-standard recycling program and efforts at creating more eco-friendly laptops and servers. This is similar to the well-known “Guide to Greener Electronics” released by Greenpeace, which has a greater emphasis on the use and disposal of toxic materials and release of greenhouse gases in production.

Harnessing the millions of easily distractable minds worldwide, groundbreaking science is being done. Rosetta@Home, the software that is modeled after Stanford’s Folding@Home and designed for distributed calculation and prediction for 3D protein shapes on millions of computers worldwide, now has a new feature. As the Economist article describes, the new Rosetta@Home software contains a game in which users (players) can manipulate the 3D protein structure according to basic laws of chemistry and physics in order to minimize energy. This was created due to the fact that 3D protein alignments and folding are still hugely computationally intensive, and often, the best 3D structures are found by molecular biologists working by hand rather than a computer using a heuristic algorithm. Moreover, humans [more . . .]