En garde

As a sophomore at Sweet Briar College, I received an honors grant to study the recreation and practice of Western European historical swordsmanship. Here is a video of me talking about the experience at the Pannell Scholars Fair in the spring of 2013, and here is an article with a few highlights.


Also see “En Garde” from xkcd.

Spotlight: Place

Spotlight, December 4, 2014: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

Image credit: weadapt.org

Timor-Leste is a country that takes up roughly half of a medium island in Indonesia. It has one of the highest fertility rates in the world (ranked 15th), with women having an average of five children during their lives. Almost half of its population is under 15 years of age. It has 16 indiginous languages and most inhabitants originally come from that island system, but there is also a small Chinese minority. Timor-Leste was internationally recognized as a country in 2002, but from 1999 to 2008 it suffered from uprisings by small numbers of Indonesia-supported anti-independence rebels who destroyed almost 100% of the country’s infrastructure. Even now, some of Timor-Leste’s country borders have yet to be officially defined, including its Maritime Exclusion Zone with Indonesia and some regions of its exclave, the Oecusse District. It’s four major industries are printing, soap-making, handcrafting, and weaving, but it has the 42nd highest industrial growth rate in the world, which isn’t bad for a country that has had to rebuild itself almost from scratch.

Source: Timor-Leste.” The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 20 June 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

A quiz

Question 1: Do you know that children sometimes look like their parents or grandparents?

  • Yes. –> great
  • No. –> start here; if Wittgenstein can use this idea, so can you

Question 2: Do you know how you get these traits (for example, the color of your eyes)?

  • Yes. –> cool
  • No. –> read this (also a comprehensive yet comprehensible explanation that’s good for kids)

Question 3: Do you know that traits do not get passed onto the next generation equally (so that the total number of parents who have a trait is different from the number of children who have the same trait)?

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Spotlight: Word

Spotlight, November 26, 2014: Kurtosis

Image credit: whatilearned.wikia.com

Image credit: whatilearned.wikia.com

Kurtosis is a description of how sharply peaked a statistical distribution is and how far from the horizontal axis (how heavy) the tails are. The normal distribution has a kurtosis of 3 and moderately heavy tails and is called mesokurtic. Distributions that are pointier with heavier tails (farther above the horizontal axis) than the normal distribution are called leptokurtic, and those flatter than normal and with lighter tails are called platykurtic. Because of this relationship between the peakedness and the weight of the tails, leptokurtic distributions also have sides with greater curvature than the sides of mesokurtic and platykurtic distributions.

Sources: Weisstein, Eric W. “Kurtosis.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource. http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Kurtosis.html (if you like math). Decarlo, Lawrence T. “On the Meaning and Use of Kurtosis.” Psychological Methods 2.3 (1997): 292-307. (if you like math drama)

“McMuffin-poopin’-cakes”: a theory of pet names

"Big man" Drizzt

“Big man” Drizzt

I sometimes call my sister “bo,” but other than that I refer to the humans in my life by their given names or common substitutions like “mom” or “dad”. On the other hand, I almost never refer to my pets by the names I decided they should have unless I’m talking about them to someone else. Yes, that does mean that I often talk to my pets directly. I call Drizzt, my bearded dragon, “big man” or “Drizzt-y-pie.” My American cat Isabelle is “pitoo” or “boo-boo,” while my Swiss cat Zora is “snuggle pumpkin,” “buckets,” or “butthead” (when she’s being annoying).

I have called every pet I’ve ever had by some cutsey name or, more often, a totally random word or sound. In the reverse, no one I know has a pet name for me as far as I am aware. One time, a friend suggested “kakes,” but it didn’t stick. Why do people use pet names at all? Is there some kind of mental or social benefit to that kind of communication? More importantly for me, why do I use pet names for animals but not for people? What does that say about me?

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Why get the flu shot?

herd immunity

Photo credit: http://www.vaccines.gov

Imagine that you’re at the mall and you see someone you don’t like – maybe an ex or that annoying kid from high school – but the mall is crowded that day and you can easily blend into the crowd and escape. Now imagine that the mall isn’t crowded. This unsavory person sees you and walks over. Because there aren’t a lot of people around for you to hide among, now you have to talk to someone you’d really rather avoid. In the case of infectious diseases, what actually happens is your body becomes the feeding ground of an organism whose numbers have been so long controlled by preventative medicine that they have all but faded from cultural memory.

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Spotlight: Animal

Spotlight, November 17, 2014: Swan swim speed


Mute swan on the Limmat River near Zurich Hauptbahnhof.

Every day I commute into the city of Zurich, and I walk past swans and ducks cavorting or sleeping on the Limmat River by the train station. I noticed one evening that the swans can swim surprisingly fast. It turns out that swans are the fastest swimmers and fliers of any waterfowl, as well as one of the longest lived of all birds. I discovered that they can fly at speeds of up to 50 mph, but I was unable to find any information about their swimming speed. In fact, my Google search turned up several entries from Dwarf Fortress Wiki and one hit through answer.com (how fast do swans swim?). The answer provided for that question was “swans swimm so fast at lest 100 mile pore awer,” so it didn’t seem to me like the most credible source.

I decided to calculate my own answer. I measured my shoe (25 cm) and used my steps to pace off the length of a room (26 steps). Then I timed myself walking through the room at the pace I best remembered for the swan on the Limmat (13 seconds). That comes out to a standard traveling-perpendicular-to-the-current speed of 0.5 m/s or ~1.12 mph. Not bad. That’s faster than I can bike uphill.

The vast sweep of human history

Photo credit: news.nationalgeographic.com

Photo credit: news.nationalgeographic.com

I’m reading a book right now (Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill) that at one point compares the spread of early humans out of Africa to a disease. He has a good argument, saying that the ability of humans to use technology allowed them to mutate, in effect, faster than local wildlife could respond and comparing human expansion to a pandemic. I might have used an invasive species as a metaphor rather than a disease because in this case it wouldn’t really be a metaphor – humans were at the time an invasive species. But in a book about pathogenesis in humans, such a comparison is apt.

So here is the question: to what extent is our history as a species inevitable?

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