Monday, April 14, 2008

Crazy scientists

I'm taking a class from a fairly prominent professor whose name I won't be divulging this term. He's one of the more well-known professors in the UCLA CS department -- he formalized the field of causal reasoning, which is what I'm studying this term. It's kind of neat taking a class from someone like that: on the off-chance that I meet someone in the outside world who's ever heard of this field, I can totally brag about how I took a class from a mini-celebrity! Oh, what an exciting life I lead.

In my admittedly limited experience, academics seem to care less and less about social propriety as they go along. A week or so ago, he was lecturing on the concept of Minimality in regards to Bayesian Networks. In essence, this is just a restatement of Occam's Razor, but recast in statistical terms. Basically it just says that, given two models that equally well describe the data, you should prefer the one that makes less assumptions about causal relationships. Very straightforward stuff. But to make sure we got the point, he decided to give us an example.

Prefaced by the very brief disclaimer, "I hope I'm not offending anyone," he launched into a fairly extended diatribe about how science provides a better model for interpreting the universe than religion. Imagine, if you will, with a thick Israeli accent: "You see, the difference is that science sticks out its neck! It sticks out its neck and makes a hypothesis that you can say is wrong! But in religion, something happens that you don't expect, and you say 'God did it!' and you don't explain anything. It doesn't stick out its neck! What good is that? Useless!" This went on for a good several minutes. Mind you, I completely agree with his rant -- it's just not quite the kind of lecture I expected to hear in a computer science class.

Unrelatedly, last weekend I went out to Cal Tech to listen to Stephen Hawking lecture about black holes (what else would he talk about?). Admittedly, I spent a huge chunk of the talk wondering exactly how much of the talk was pre-scripted -- I would have been surprised if he could form phrases fast enough to do a lecture in real-time, but it seemed kind of strange to have a lecture in which the speaker essentially sat still for several hours while a pre-recorded speech was played in the background (which was, in fact, basically what happened). As I sat there thinking vaguely disrespectful thoughts, Hawking makes a vagina joke. Hearing a prominent physicist joke about how the French read suggestive subtext into the name "black hole" caught me more than a little off-guard (apparently, the maxim "A black hole has no hair" only served to reinforce their suspicions).

He also said some other stuff about how information can escape a black hole and stuff like that, but frankly, that wasn't what stuck with me.

And, apropos of nothing, a lesbian stand-up comic called me a male hooker last night.


  1. 1) I'm pretty sure you blew your cover in your description of your professor. It's possible "Israeli Accent" was enough to do so.

    2) I think it's true of age in general: that the older you get, the less you care about offending people. It's like, "I've had several decades to consider this position and I'm certain I'm right; if you disagree, well, too bad for you, you're wrong." And I think Academia amplifies that instinct. I totally agree that old academics are the worst at choosing metaphors and examples that will not offend.

    3) That Stephen Hawking... what a character! Also, it should be noted that the French this that everything is a metaphor for the vagina (except for long sender things which are obviously penes).

    4) Do you take it as a compliment that a lesbian called you a male hooker? Is it like that brief period of time when people were calling each other "tits" (circa 1998/1999 - I think this was possibly an imitation of The Gays)? Or was it part of a riff about how men don't wear hats any more except for gigolos and so she now assumes all men who wear hats are gigolos and you were in the front row and wearing a hat so she called you out and suggested that if any ladies were looking for a date that they slip you their phone numbers? Because that is a riff that works for everyone. :)

  2. I figure anyone who knows said professor could easily divine who he is. But, I thought I might as well keep it out of a casual web search -- it's not a particularly unflattering quote, and it was said in a public forum, but I'd rather not use people's real names in my posts unless it's explicitly OK.

    The standup called on me because of my funny hat (actually, two standups in a row did that). She asked me a question (where I was from, I believe), which I answered. Apparently my low voice makes me sound like a male hooker. Who knew?

  3. I think when somebody says something like "I hope I'm not offending anyone," they actually do want to offend someone. At least most of the time.

    Your professor reminds me of Christopher Hitchens- someone whom I agree with about the religion thing, yet lacks a certain sense of propriety when stating their views. Actually, I think there are lots of secularists like that. I've been that secularist, to be honest. But, calling people's religions "useless" and belittling them will make many people just defend their world views all the more strongly. Finesse is a good thing.

    When you mentioned that you went to hear Stephen Hawking speak I thought to my self "That sounds cool, but he wouldn't be the most dynamic speaker, would he?" Guess I was right. But, if he can pack in the crowds, more power to him. And of course he'd think vaginas are funny. He's partially paralyzed, not dead.

    Your voice doesn't make you a male hooker, Joseph. The fact that you have sex for money does.

  4. Stephen Hawking is a notoriously filthy man. And the physics community loves him for it. On a side note, the man who coined 'black holes' died a week ago. John Wheeler.

    Oh, we've all been down that road before. But you just end up blowing all the money on tight pants and gold chains.

  5. Guys, I have to make it through grad school some how. I thought you would be understanding. Now I'll have to keep my employment a secret from you guys. Happy?

  6. I'm still ignorant. (... as usual in this group it seems) so... your secret is safe with me...

    but I am reminded of when my brilliant 60 something fairly heavy Physical Chemistry prof came into lecture and announced his zipper had broke and he forgot his belt so it was just one little button between him and the rest of the world....

    sometimes I think these science types do to many drugs.

  7. So I need to do more drugs to become a brilliant scientist, eh? I'll get right on it!

  8. Joseph, you are a male hooker! But you shouldn't undercharge. You're a minimum $500/hour ride! You should have offered to take numbers and to take your client to Disneyland. Would they censor those photos?

  9. Don't worry, Dan, I don't undercharge. You just got a special "good friends" rate.