Notes from our potluck meeting

Posted in USP Symposia by uspblog on December 16, 2012

After a yummy meal, we all sit down to discuss some preliminary opinions as to how to guide the symposium. Sam believes we ought to unify the groups more, Bobo argues that our segments should not be predictable (e.g. no near future/distant future/remote future) Tori says we should not worry about creating new content, instead we should focus on picking talks on subjects we’ve already done/are doing.

Then we begin to discuss what the symposium should actually be. Meg, Nikki, and Maya consider composing a dance number. Sam will orchestrate the music. Carlos suggests using a time capsule. Someone suggests turning the entire symposium into a time capsule. Topher points out that if he were to present, he might talk about the Future of Crystalography

We decide it might be good to consider actual segment names for the symposium:
Bobo suggests “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda.”
Sam – Future Perfect, or How different views of the future interact (spoiler, he keeps bringing this back up throughout the night)
Someone suggests the Future of Revolutions as a topic, it is pointed out that Silvia’s proposed presentation of on Brazil and the BRIC countries could fit in here
Meg – the Future of Power?
Sam suggests an idea that is quickly adopted: instead of presentations, we should include a full panel for the third segment
Carlos suggests Actualizing the Future
Sam – Uses & Abuses of the Future
Someone points out that the term “futures” is also interesting to approach as part of the “Uses & Abuses” segment
Meg – No, “Using the Future” is a better title. Everybody agrees, but we spend several more minutes discussing alternate names. As in Valuing the Future or Visualizations of the Future.
Meg – Also, I like Carlos’ suggestion, but a better name would be “Practical Futures.” As in what you can do for the future. Someone suggests “Fyoutures.” It is unclear how serious of a suggestion this is.

We conclude with three topics to guide our symposium, one of which will eventually be a long-form panel presentation: Future Perfect, Using the Future, and Practical Futures.


Media and Politics

Posted in USP Seminars by uspblog on November 7, 2012

7:27 – Tori introduces professor David Paletz
Tori reads out various comments from Unis and recent media. For instance, Irene had something to say about Gene Weingarden talking about media bias toward conflict. Paletz agrees that he is correct.
7:33 – David begins. Thanks Tori, says he’ll return to the Uni comments later. He begins to talk about the election. “Obama had Bush… Obama had all of those advantages. He had one major disadvantage: the responsibilities of the presidency. High, albeit unjustified expectations”
7:35 – “One important reason was race.” Paletz points out that one study argues that Obama received 5% less than he would have received if he was white. Another study in 2012 suggested he lost 3%
Paletz begins to discuss the youth vote. “The demographic 18-29 are usually 11% of the electorate, in 2008 they increased to 18%.”
7:37 – In this election cycle, Paletz says “Obama was in trouble. The major factors that drove him to victory in 2008 had mostly dissipated in 2012.” So what he did was change his strategy. Candidates pick their strategy based on their own polls. He begins to identify features that influence a strategy:

  1. PARTY identification (Paletz points out that no political parties were ever mentioned in presidential ads all this election cycle?)
  2. IMAGE. The same facts can be described in many ways. Take Romney’s experience at Bain Capital. It can be described as smart, pragmatic, job creator or calculating, job exporting, uncaring
  3. ISSUES. “It was clear early on that if this election was settled on Obama’s performance as a manager of the economy, he would lose.” So he responded by pivoting away to focusing on how the economy would look in the counterfactual world in which Obama was not elected.
  4. The importance of the GROUND GAME. Paletz tells a fun anecdote of himself as an English schoolboy pressuring people to vote.

7:45 – Paletz discusses the impact of media on strategy. He lists four categories:

  1. MEDIA ORIGINATED. The media was something they could not typically control. The comedy programs mattered. They were popular and all in Obama’s camp. The cable news channels are avowedly partisan. Talk radio is also partisan and typically against Obama’s camp.
  2. MOSTLY MEDIATED. Message of the day, spinning stories, and winning story cycles. But ultimately, the media makes the decisions, which is why the candidates call the media “the Beast.” When you think of the media, you mostly think of scandals, gaffes, and goofs. You also think of news.
  3. PARTLY MEDIATED. Candidates have some control over how they are presented. e.g. conventions, debates, show appearances, etc.
    Obama did not have a primary, so he did not have to take extremely liberal positions. Romney had a very hard-fought primary and found himself having to take extremely conservative positions, which meant that when he found himself in the election he was in a difficult position of either being far to the right of the mainstream or withdrawing all of his positions.
  4. UNMEDIATED. The campaigns control for the content and placement of their messages, which are transmitted uninterrupted. e.g. political ads. Things that are important for political ads: credibility, memorable visuals, timing. Here Paletz shows some political ads:

8:11 – Obama ad declaring Romney a vulture capitalist. Paletz points out key details and word choice in ad.
8:15 – Romney ad declaring Romney saved his business partner’s daughter. Paletz points out key details of music and composition.
Paletz talks about recontextualizing & reframing. The New York Times reported on the effect of money in the campaign, but failed to contextualize it or point out cases where money did have a key role in the election. Two more ads:
8:22 – Obama ad pointing out how he killed Bin Laden. Paletz points out the medium and the messenger was thoughtfully chosen.
8:25 – Santorum ad showing consequences of Obama victory. Paletz points out how other countries find this perplexing.

Question and Answer section
8:28 – Daniel Rice (1st Year Law Student) asks about the Supreme Court and Citizen’s United. Paletz responds with how it has a huge impact on the local elections
8:30 – Meg Shea (Physics 2nd year) asks about how the primary processes. Paletz responds that the primary process makes the candidates vulnerable. So in the future, they will try to limit the length of the process.
8:34 – Nina Brooks (Pub Policy 1st year) Obama on whether he has a mandate going forward. Paletz points out that there are many issues, what happens internal to the party, demographics, and how the parties interact.
8:39 – Connor Tinen (Engineering) whether Obama’s coalition of women, young, middle class, urban will influence how the Republican party will evolve. Paletz says that the Republican party feels it has not run an appropriate campaign to win Cubans, and other individuals. They think they need to revise their message.
8:42 – Wanyi Ng (Mech. E fresh) Super Pacs and the presidential race. Will they ever stop? Paletz: You are so nice, he says ruefully.
8:44 – Meg Perry asks whether we can ever go moderate if all the money comes from the extremes? Paletz: if Republicans lost, they might reconsider Citizen’s United.
8:47 – MaryAnne (Div 1), where do you see CNN? Paletz: in theory, CNN is in the middle, but in practice they are merely commentators on the other channels.
8:49 – Sarah Feagles (Business 1), what will the news channels do now that the election is over? Paletz: cable television relies on the pomp over policy. We just don’t know.
8:53 – Abhijit Mehta (Physics 8): what kind of effect will polling and Nate Silver have on the media? Paletz: the polls have done well despite their limitations. Pollsters are not happy with his popularity.
8:57 – Andrew Cannon (Div 2): what is the role of faith in the campaigns? Paletz: I must be careful, because this has caused problems in my class, particularly with relation to Sandy. If we take this at its word, then perhaps God wanted the Democrats to win with Sandy. God is central to American politics, especially when seen externally.
9:03 – Greg Payne (Business 2): Do you think the Republicans missed out on the opportunity to highlight Romney’s positive religious aspects without emphasizing Mormonism. Paletz: they decided that there was no way to use Mormonism, the electorate that could be swayed by it was already going to vote for him
9:06 – Nina: what about the cult of personality around Obama. Paletz: shows Super Pac ad attacking Obama for being popular yet ineffective.
9:09 – Thank you all.

The Reality of Climate Change

Posted in USP Seminars by uspblog on October 23, 2012

Is the climate changing? Are humans partially responsible? Should we expect more serious climate related impacts in the years to come? Can anything be done?

The answer to each of these questions is yes, as described by Dr. Franco Einaudi, the former Director of Earth Sciences NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, in a seminar organized by the Karsh International Scholars and co-sponsored by the Reginaldo Howard Program, the University Scholars Program, and the Office of Undergraduate Scholars & Fellows on October 22, 2012. Dr. Einaudi now works to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, especially because of the critical challenges facing our world today.

Dr. Einaudi walked the large and diverse audience, ranging from undergraduate engineering students to nurse anesthesiologists, through each of the key questions on climate change. He started by presenting the incontrovertible evidence of a changing climate over Earth’s history, and then identified the extreme change in very recent history. While acknowledging that climate change and variation occurs “naturally,” without the inputs of humans, since the start of the industrial revolution, humans’ energy-hungry growth utilizing the combustion of fossil fuels has greatly increased atmospheric carbon levels, reinforcing the “greenhouse effect,” where the Earth traps and absorbs more solar energy than it releases back into space.

Graph: Global average temperature over prior 1500 years

Source: NASA

The result of the human contribution to “greenhouse gases” has been a rapid warming of the planet beyond the historical variation of climate that occurred naturally. This warming is tied to huge environmental changes, from more extreme and more frequent weather events, notably hurricanes. The year 2011 was recording breaking in the United States, with 14 events costing more than one billion dollars in damage.

Dr. Einaudi talked about the numerous cutting edge science necessary to both understand climate change and to predict future events. In particular, he discussed a pair of gravity-measuring satellites monitor from orbit the swiftly reducing thickness of the polar ice caps, as well as the huge improvement over just 10 years in hurricane track predictions. Thus, while hurricane damages are far more costly than ever, they are much less deadly, even tragic Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Einaudi encouraged scientists to get their hands dirty and be experimentalists, because even though it is challenging, field work produces the critical data used by modelers and theorists.

Climate change is real and the risks are huge, Dr. Einaudi repeatedly underscored. The risk of physical tipping points, including the Hollywood-popularized failure of the major thermohaline circulation patterns are a real risk, and we must act. However, the system is complex and difficult to fully understand, even by the scientific community. Furthermore, the scale of action and the timeframe of effects are far outside our normal decision-making as individuals and in politics. Many of the questions and audience discussion focused on what we can do to understand and act. Dr. Einaudi endorsed including individual actions of energy-use conservation (using mass transit, reducing electricity use), as well as research on large scale geo-engineering, including the recent controversy of dumping iron shavings into the Pacific Ocean. The necessary changes to human activities to slow climate change could cost more than 5% of global economic activity, Dr. Einaudi claimed. However, as one audience member suggested, the care of our planet may be the most consequential ethical decision we face.


Big Data: Big Promises (with Big Problems?)

Posted in USP Seminars by uspblog on October 16, 2012

On the wonderful Tuesday evening of October 9th, the Unis present were treated to two lectures by two of our own graduate student Unis: James Johndrow, graduate student in Statistics and Allen Riddell, graduate student in Literature. The topic of interest was “big data” and we’re talking BIG (James casually mentions that a 15 minute neuroscience experiment using an fMRI will generate, oh, about 1 billion data points).

The first lecture by James was titled “Big Data and the Future of Human Knowledge” and, lest you think this was going to be an optimistic paean to the endless possibility of expanding human knowledge, he started us off with a quote from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. Through Sagan’s writing, we immediately receive a warning that perhaps our understanding is lagging while our ubiquitous technological innovations such as the iPod increase in complexity. But, before the “future of human knowledge”, we get a quick overview of the history of “big data”. Big Data requires big storage space and our capacity for storing information has increased quite rapidly from the punch-card to the floppy disk to (skipping a few years) the storing of information ‘in the clouds’ (on networks maintained through enormous server farms and accessible everywhere, think Dropbox). Finding themselves in possession of this treasure trove of information and of increased computational capacity though computers, smart people started looking for ways of using it (aka making money off of it). The first people to find a way to profit from the new information: you guessed it, Wall Street (the ‘quants’). Soon after, a number of online businesses, such as Amazon, started intelligently using information on people like us to sell us goods. But the real explosion in the use of Big Data came in the first decade of the second millennium, when one by one the fields of human inquiry started joining the bandwagon. James’ interdisciplinary is visible in the survey he provides of a number of these fields (he must be a Uni): biology, neuroscience, health care, government, business, Netflix, etc.

Despite the ever-expanding amount of data that we have been collecting, however, there’s a catch: our computation power is behind our data storage capacity! In fact, quite far behind. James provided all the relevant formulas and I’m sure he could provide them to any Uni wanting to dig deeper at the limits of human interaction with these data monstrosities. Long story short, we can only looked at the relationships between a fairly limited set of variables and that’s bad news if your information is on any large subset of the 30,000 human genes and you’re dying to get at the measure of “dependence”. With this caveat and many others, we finally receive a glimpse of the future and the future is about prediction, not estimation. Yes, dear fellow Unis, the demand for revealing the future to us in the present is as high as it was when seers and sooth-sayers were. We want to know what stocks will do in the future, what will happen to the price of oil, which people are going to need treatment for which diseases in the near future and well, pretty much everything else! However, James warns us that people tend to ruin even the most beautiful prediction by learning about it and then acting with that knowledge in new and unpredictable ways. This serves as a natural limitation to how much we can anticipate human behavior. Additionally, the most important to predict events are the really rare ones and most of our models have assumptions built in that tend to deal badly with the occasional financial crisis or oil shock (some of the blame goes to our affection for the beautiful-to-work-with normal distribution function). James ended his talk on a note of realism, dividing our questions about the future into categories according to the difficulty of prediction (easy, medium and hard).

The second lecture by Allen was titled “Big Data and the Humanities: How to Read 22,198 Journal Articles”. You may expect that the answer to the ‘how to read’ part is ‘very slowly’, but Allen has been working out a very interesting mechanism to overcome the great difficulties of this task. There are many very large collections in the great human cultural edifice, from collections of ancient texts or religious manuscripts to collections of novels, letters and diaries from particular times and places. These large collections have previously demanded that scholars dedicate an entire life to reading them in order to absorb the information collected within. One famous example of someone performing this task of ‘direct reading’ (as Allen refers to it) is Laurel Ulrich, whose book “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary: 1785 – 1812” won a Pulitzer Prize. The book was based on the author’s close to 10 years long reading of the diary of Martha Ballard, a woman who had written a diary entry during every single day of her life. While such gargantuan tasks are to be admired, one can easily see how they can be frustrating to undertake. An alternative strategy developed by scholars is called ‘collaborative reading’ and has been a part of “GENRE: Evolution Project” – a database studying portrayals of technology in various short stories and classifying them according to broad categories (positive-negative portrayal of technology, for ex.). Collaborative reading again involves the actual act of reading the short stories, but a group of researchers are assigned partly overlapping and partly independent reading lists, significantly reducing the time. However appealing these first two methods might be if the works under consideration are fascinating literature, there are many examples when scholars either simply can’t physically read or probably should not dedicate the time to read the enormous amounts of literature required to answer a question.

This very impediment was present in Allen’s own research on trends in the history of German Studies. Collating the four main German Studies journals with articles going from around 1928 to the present, he was faced with the task of reading 22,198 journal articles. And, as if this weren’t bad enough, the kind people from JSTOR (for copyright and other reasons) have provided him with only word counts of various words in each article, in a completely unordered pile and frequently with disastrous transcriptions of the original German. He was faced with an enormous ‘bag of words’. Fortunately, Allen represents a rare breed of the humanist with quantitative skills and so he implemented a sophisticatedly named model (I believe it was a ‘Latent Dirichet Allocation’) in order to make sense of this very big dataset of words. As an example, Allen masterfully demonstrated how one can use the chapter-by-chapter word counts of Elizabeth and Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” to get a sense of the importance of the characters as we move through the novel. Mind you, Allen is not advocating that we substitute the word count method for ‘direct reading’ on a mass scale! It is merely to serve as a useful tool for uncovering trends and supporting one’s arguments empirically. In the case of studying the trends in German Studies, the dataset is significantly vaster than two words, which is where the previously named Dirichet comes in. Quite miraculously for the uninitiated into these statistical mysteries, Allen succeeds in obtaining angles between different words represented as vectors, and then plots for us various trends in the history of German Studies, showing us a marked decline in the study of the German Language and a marked rise in literary analysis. The Grimm Brothers also make an appearance, showing a large upward swing in importance during their bicentennial and confirming that the method works quite well.

The lectures were great, but unfortunately question time had to be cut a little short. The themes raised there included quantum-computing, protein structures, stock prices and academic writing. Just what you would expect from an interdisciplinary group like the Unis!

Summer Enrichment Part 1, with Dhrusti Patel, Albert Hu, Ash-girl Chapfuwa, and Jodi Hyman

Posted in USP Seminars by uspblog on October 8, 2012

Every summer, USP upperclasspeople have the opportunity to apply for funding to go do Interesting Things.  When they get back, they present their experiences to the rest of the program.  These are the summer enrichment reports for four of our members, presented in liveblog format.

7:20 Introductions around the room; today’s theme is, naturally, “What I did this summer”

7:31 We unplug microphones until the feedback stops

7:35 Dhrusti Patel is an environmental policy major and premed. She spent her summer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

7:37 She’s also been studying abroad in India (traditional birthing practices) like it ain’t no thang.

7:38 You can find your destiny via Google (or at least find your destiny’s contact information).

7:39 Specifically, Dhrusti was evaluating the effect of the basic Minimum health service policy on reproductive health in Afghanistan

7:41 “Health policy is often fragmented in post-conflict countries.” We have an early contender for Understatement of the Evening.

7:42 These policies often focus on cities and leave rural areas un/underserved.

7:44 Murphy’s Law strikes and the project is changed to a systematic literature review.  Then Murphy’s Law unstrikes and the original project (correlating information from interviews) returns.  Huzzah!

7:46 Manual encoding for themes in interviews takes a long time.

7:47 Lessons learned: How to do research in a way that will actually sway policy makers.

7:49 Recommendation for future students: Find programs with well-defined roles for you to play.

7:54 Western scientists hate puny anecdotes! RARG! SMASH!

7:56 We do the microphone shuffle.

7:59 Albert Hu is a junior BME (BioMedical Engineer) who spent his summer working on microfinance projects at a credit union in Uganda.

8:01 Albert was recruited to the project by Jade Lamb, another Uni. Yay us!

8:02 The nascence of the program left space for exploration and perhaps a chance to leave a personal mark.

8:03 Talking to previous interns before heading to Uganda proved to be an excellent idea.

8:05 Embedded videos at Dutch angles? What has Science done!? You should watch this video yourself, it’s deserving (though if the questions at the end were any more leading they’d probably be President).

8:14 Specifically, Albert worked on an Instant Credit Medical Payment Plan to encourage early treatment and attendance at credible hospitals

8:18 He also finished up a mobile banking project from the previous year – the proliferation of cellphones is an awesome thing sometimes.

8:19 Solar stoves are hot stuff! (I’m so, so sorry.)

8:20 Albert is now looking to expand the Instant Credit Plan to another village and is looking to recruit students for next year’s trip.  If you’re interested, you know who to talk to.

8:29 Ash-girl Chapfuwa is an Electrical and Computer Engineering major with a Markets and Management Certificate on the side.

8:31 She’s been doing Pratt Fellows research on a wireless heart rate and breathing monitor (separating those signals is apparently a bit of a trick) for her ECE major.

8:32 Ash-girl spent the summer in Zimbabwe, working for Edgars, a clothing retail store to get real world experience to build on her Markets & Management certificate.

8:33 She followed up a pre-existing connection to find this internship.

8:36 Specifically, she was supervising design and development of the marketing website and serving as an interface between technical and non-technical parts of the company.

8:39 The experience changed her interest from academic PhD to more hands-on and ground-level interaction.  Ideally, she’d like to serve as a business IT consultant in Africa, to help businesses with their IT needs and expand IT infrastructure in Africa.

8:40 As always, the planned and intended projects have a way of changing when you least expect it, and suddenly you find yourself speed-learning web code.

8:42 Ending in the allotted time? Astonishing!

8:45 From Q+A session, it turns out that advertising methods are surprisingly universal across cultures – the same media are used in the same ways, although in Africa, the primary media is still the newspaper, as internet access (and even televisions) are more limited.  Hence… Ash-girl’s desire to expand IT infrastructure.

8:48 Despite enjoying the presentations, I question my dedication to minute-level recaps.  Too late now!

8:50 Jodi Hyman is a Visual Studies major who spent the summer in London at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

8:51 She was drawn here by the cosmopolitan London scene and the intersection of art and fashion.  This was Jodi’s first time ever outside the United States.

8:52 Look, there in the sky! It’s abstract art! It’s a dress! It’s both!

8:53 Lots of research done, both on the business side and in the pursuit of compelling images.

8:54 FORBIDDEN! to look at actual fashion images during this research.

8:55 Summer Study Abroad courses served as an introduction to the London art community and people “living in a place of passion”.

8:56 Kitsch vs. Passion: The Artists’ War for Breadwinning

9:00 Sharing art with and learning from people of different cultures is good times.

9:01 Intervention art is art done “without permission.” See Banksy.

9:02 While Jodi was collecting cigarette butts in the street for an intervention art project, an onlooker suggested she find another hobby.

9:03 “They thought another student’s intervention art was a bomb, so we ended early that day.” O_O

9:05 Towards the end, Jodi and the other artists curated a show as a team. This was a challenge!

9:07 Also a challenge: Communicating intended display orientation to curators.

9:10 Lessons learned: Art school good, fashion “meh”. Also time spent free from the need to make art with explicit meaning was valuable.

9:15 Closing thought: Cigarette butts are the most numerically common type of litter in the world.  Ew.


The Quest for the Elusive Higgs Boson, With Professor Al Goshaw, Duke Physics

Posted in USP Seminars by uspblog on September 27, 2012

(This year, we’re doing brief blogpost recaps of our seminars. If you’d like to write one for an upcoming seminar, let us know!)

Tori started the seminar by asking the room, on a scale of 0 to 5, to rate how much they knew about the Higgs Boson.  0’s and 1’s were most common, and even the physicists in the audience were hesitant to say anything higher than 3.  Particle physics is intimidating stuff.

To ease us into the topic, Prof. Goshaw gave an abbreviated history of physics, chronicling the discoveries and formalizations that led up to the relevance and pursuit of the Higgs.

For our purposes, the path to the Higgs started with Isaac Newton and his formalization of the Law of Gravity and the gravitational force.

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb formalized the electrical force (with an equation that frankly looks like he just changed some of the letters in Newton’s).

Carl Gauss proposed the existence of electric fields in space.  The idea of forces between objects having associated fields would be important later to the proposal of the Higgs Boson.

André-Marie Ampère similarly proposed the magnetic force and the existence of magnetic fields.

Michael Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic induction, whereby the motion of a magnetic field can generate a current in a wire.  This is how most electrical generators work.

James Maxwell did a neat bit of blackboard math and worked out a unified theory of electromagnetism, expressible in four equations.  This tied together the work of Coulomb, Gauss, Ampere, and Faraday into a coherent vision, but didn’t account for Newton’s gravity.  It was still a useful little pile of math, allowing such feats as the calculation of “c” (the speed of light, which will reappear, squared, in two more scientists).

Marie Curie discovered natural radioactivity and with it a new kind of force: the weak nuclear force.

Albert Einstein and his blackboard set out to answer the question “We know the speed of light.  But what is the speed of light relative to?”  The answer turned out to be “everything” and from this work came general relativity, special relativity, and the famous E=mc2.

In the 1960’s, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam extended Maxwell’s unified theory to include Curie’s weak nuclear force.  This resulted in the “Electroweak Theory of the Standard Model”, on which we’ve more or less been operating since.  The problem with this model, however, was that it only technically works if all the particles have zero mass.

Which brings us to Peter Higgs.  Higgs proposed a new kind of field (like the electric and magnetic fields before) that would grant mass to particles and patch up the problems with the Standard Model.  The fantastical thing is that this field (the Higgs field) and the particle that carries its effect (the Higgs Boson) were proposed out of mathematical necessity, not physical observation.  Almost fifty years of science and engineering have gone into designing an experiment (CERN) powerful enough to blast a Higgs Boson into observability.

On July 4, 2012 the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN presented observations of a particle that matches the predicted properties of the Higgs Boson, and Peter Higgs was there to hear it.

(For more, but still approachable, details on physics and politics this Science article is a fine place to start.)


University Scholars Discuss Symposium Topics and Keynote Speakers at 2012 Fall Retreat

Posted in Symposium speakers,Uncategorized,USP Symposia by uspblog on September 18, 2012

The University Scholars gathered at the annual USP Fall Retreat to visit with returning Unis, meet the new graduate, professional and undergraduate Unis, and to brainstorm ideas for seminars and the annual spring symposium.  This year’s topic, “Futures,” provoked animated discussion and great ideas for symposium topics and keynote speakers.  The ideas flew fast and furious as USP Director Victoria Lodewick scrambled to jot things down on the white board.

Suggested keynote speakers for USP “Futures” symposium

Proposals for keynote speakers for the “Futures” symposium included:

Pradav Mehta (sp?) creator (?) of “How It’s Made” television show (n.b. I couldn’t find any connection between someone named Pradav Mehta and the show.  I welcome clarification from whoever made the suggestion.

Bill and/or Melinda Gates – The foundation’s work on contemporary efforts to fight diseases – what’s next in the arsenal, what’s the next big disease battlefield?

Mark Jordan, professor of Religion at Washington University of St. Louis  –  future of religion

James Reynolds, professor of Environmental Science and Biology at Duke- human domination of the earth

Alex Galloway, professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU with a Ph.D. from Duke’s renowned Program in Literature.  Galloway is a founding member of the Radical Software Collective, works on gaming and network theory, and contemporary continental philosophy.

Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher of psychoanalysis, political and cultural theory (for a more in depth perspective, see Zizek’s biography from the European Graduate School website), frequent visitor to Duke’s Program in Literature

More keynote speaker suggestions

A science fiction writer working on near future possibilities – suggestions for names welcome!

Winner of Royal Canadian Mint electronic wallet challenge, a.k.a. “The MintChip Challenge

Elon Musk co-founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and Solar City

Achille Mbembe, visiting professor and Franklin Humanities Institute Research Scholar in Romance Studies and English at Duke, is a Cameroonian philosopher working on globalization, decolonialism, post/modernity and contemporaneity.  He’s teaching a course at Duke this semester on “The Future of Nature”.  He is also affiliated with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

USPuzzle Contest: 5 – Bad Math Puzzles

Posted in Uncategorized by uspblog on March 7, 2012

I’ve fallen behind on puzzle posts, so look for another post near the end of this week.

This set of three puzzles revolves around bad mathematics.  Each puzzle is worth 1 point if answered correctly.

1.  The Conqueror Worm: A small worm is at the bottom of a 30-inch pit, and is trying to escape.  Each hour, the worm crawls up 3 inches, then slides back down 2 inches.  How long will it take the worm to reach the top of the pit?

2. The Truant Student: A student was called to the office to discuss his poor attendance.  “But I don’t have time for school,” he said.  “Here, I’ll prove it to you.  I need 8 hours of sleep, which amounts to about 122 days a year.  Weekends off – Saturday and Sunday – are a must, and that’s 104 days a year.  Summer vacation is about 60 days.  If I spend about an hour on each meal – you wouldn’t begrudge me meals, would you Mr. Principal? – that’s 3 hours a day or 45 days a year.  And I need at least 2 hours of exercise and relaxation time each day to stay physically and mentally fit, which is another 30 days.

“Now add that all up: 122 + 104 + 60 + 45 +30 = 361.  Out of a normal 365-day year, that only leaves 4 days to be spent at school, which I think you’ll find lines up perfectly with my attendance record so far.”

Obviously, this kid is full of it, but can you explain why?

3. The Confused Travelers: Three travelers stop for the night at an inn.  The cost for a room is 30 silver, which they split evenly so that each of them pays 10 silver.  Some hours later, the innkeep finds that the room should have been 25 silver, and he has overcharged the travelers.  Being an honest fellow, he sends his boy to the travelers with 5 silver.  To make the division easy, they each take 1 silver and send the boy on his way with the remaining 2 silver as a tip.  Then the travelers say to themselves, puzzled: “We each paid 10 silver and got each got 1 back, so it’s as if we each paid 9 silver.  Now 3 of us times 9 coins is 27, plus the 2 we sent of with the boy comes to 29.  It seems as if 1 of the 30 silver we paid to start has disappeared.”  Where did the missing silver go?

Answers go, as always, to  Happy puzzling.

USPuzzle Contest: 4 – Cipher spelled with an i

Posted in USPuzzles by uspblog on February 7, 2012

This week’s puzzle is a code.  The code from the fall semester’s puzzles ( ) may provide some pointers for how to go about this one, although this one’s subject matter is less meta and more like part of a traditional mystery.  Scoring is 1 point for an attempt, 2 points for mostly correct, or 3 points for everything but the quotes complete and correct.


BONUS POINT! If you can correctly translate the five letters inside the quotes, there is a rare and fabulous BONUS POINT waiting for you!  (Also a small quantity of undying respect.)  It may help you (or it may not) to know that the unused code letters from the fall puzzle translate as follows (CODED->decoded):

P-> j, J-> q, C-> v, M->z

As always, solutions go to Bonus point submissions can arrive under separate cover, just don’t try to brute force the solution.  Bonus points represent a higher-order tiebreaker and will not be timed, so you may work on that part at your leisure.  Good luck!

USPuzzle Contest: 3 – Crossing Puzzles

Posted in USPuzzles by uspblog on January 31, 2012

Here are three puzzles about crossing barriers under restrictive conditions.  Each puzzle is worth one point.


1. (This one is a classic that I’ve dressed up rather whimsically.  Ignore the silly names if you need to.) You are a Jedi traveling on Naboo.  You have with you an Arcona fugitive, a Trandoshan bounty hunter, and a man-sized bag of salt.  You come to a fast-flowing river with a small skiff moored nearby.  The skiff can carry no more than two beings’ weight at a time, and only you know how to pilot it.  The Arcona has a bounty on his head, and so cannot be left alone with the Trandoshan.  The Arcona also cannot be left alone with the bag of salt for obvious reasons.

How do you get yourself and your party (salt included) across the river without incident?


2. A family of two parents with two teenagers came to a wide river with no bridge. The only way to get to the other side was to ask a fisherman to lend them his boat. However, the boat could not carry more than one adult or two teens at a time.

How does the family get to the other side without leaving the fisherman stranded away from his boat?  How many times does the boat cross the river in the process?


3. Four men are traveling together at night.  They come upon a narrow, treacherous bridge that they must cross.  The bridge can only support two of them at once.  They only have one flashlight among them, and no one is willing to risk crossing the bridge without it (nor are they willing to risk tossing it across the gap – the flashlight must always be carried).  Of the men, Mr. Wan can cross the bridge in 1 minute, Mr. Tsu can do it in 2 minutes, Mr. Fyffe takes 5 minutes, and Mr. Tenn needs 10 minutes to make it across.  If two men walk across the bridge together, they must both travel at the slower one’s pace.

All four men reached the other side in 17 minutes.  How did they do it?


Submit solutions to . Fabulous prizes have been confirmed.

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