Wikipedia articles of interest

I tend to think that the last couple of wikipedia articles posts I’ve posted weren’t all that good, sorry about that. Anyway, some of these articles were great:

i. Cooperative principle (& Grice’s Maxims)

“In social science generally and linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how people interact with one another. As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, it states, “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation.

Listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations.

The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean maxims, describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication.” […]

“Grice’s Maxims

Maxim of Quality

Be Truthful
*Do not say what you believe to be false
*Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity

Quantity of Information
*Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
*Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relevance

Be relevant. […]

Maxim of Manner

Be Clear
Avoid obscurity of expression.
Avoid ambiguity.
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
Be orderly.”

Even though the article makes it clear that these maxims are not to be considered prescriptive but rather descriptive, the piece in which he introduces them basically contains no data analysis whatsoever. And really, who needs data anyway when you can just postulate that “it is just a well-recognized empirical fact that people do behave in these ways…” (p.28-29). If I ever happen to refer to these maxims in the future, expect me to apply them as sensible prescriptive rules and nothing else; and seriously, I really think the guy who made them up should have limited himself to that as well. It’s not that they are wrong, it’s worse than that – I don’t see how they’re even testable. It’s perfectly simple to come up with examples where the maxims are violated and examples where it’s not hard to argue that they are not, but there’s a lot of stuff in between. Wikipedia also has an article on some related politeness maxims.

Incidentally, following simple ‘rules’ like these – whether you are explicitly aware of the fact that you do it or not – is actually pretty important in some contexts. I can think of at least two Danish bloggers (I won’t name names) who I’ve debated in the past who (…”in my mind”…; remember that this is a big part of the reason why it’s so hard to evaluate these maximes empirically – people have different standards of evidence, information requirements, ect.) so systematically violated these maxims every time we had a discussion that I eventually gave up any interaction with them. Obfuscation, ambiguity, irrelevant remarks, arguments based on insufficient data – that stuff is poison to any debate and I won’t engage people who add a lot of that stuff to the conversation, whether they do it deliberately or not. (I should probably add here that none of the readers who currently comment here are even close to violating any kind of ‘code of conduct-rules’ – you do brilliantly (which is why you should all comment more often 🙂 ). Of course, the above remarks also point to a second problem related to the maxims and the cooperative principle: Optimizing the efficiency of the information exchange that takes place is often not a main goal when people communicate, and doing it anyway can be suboptimal. Think of gossip related to bonding and tribal affiliations/coalition forming. Think of verbal communication along the lines of this discussion between Will and ‘the jerk’ – these kinds of discussions are status games and little else; zero sum, the winner gets the girl. Political discussions are often zero-sum; ‘the winner’ gets more power and status, ‘the loser’ loses face. There are a lot of settings where humans communicate with each others and where an approach of cooperation does not make sense even in theory.

ii. French and Indian War

“The French and Indian War is the common American name for the war between Great Britain and France in North America from 1754 to 1763. In 1756, the war erupted into the world-wide conflict known as the Seven Years’ War and thus came to be regarded as the North American theater of that war.” […] The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763, and war in the European theatre of the Seven Years’ War was settled by the Treaty of Hubertusburg on February 15, 1763. The British offered France a choice of either its North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. France chose to cede Canada, and was able to negotiate the retention of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and fishing rights in the area. The economic value of the Caribbean islands to France was greater than that of Canada because of their rich sugar crops, and they were easier to defend. The British, however, were happy to take New France, as defense was not an issue, and they already had many sources of sugar. Spain, which traded Florida to Britain to regain Cuba, also gained Louisiana, including New Orleans, from France in compensation for its losses. Navigation on the Mississippi was to be open to all nations. […]

The war changed economic, political, governmental and social relations between three European powers (Britain, France, and Spain), their colonies and colonists, and the natives that inhabited the territories they claimed. France and Britain both suffered financially because of the war, with significant long-term consequences. […] The Seven Years’ War nearly doubled Britain’s national debt. The Crown, seeking sources of revenue to pay off the debt, attempted to impose new taxes on its colonies. These attempts were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in so that representatives of the Crown could safely perform their duties. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War.[60]

France attached comparatively little value to its North American possessions, especially in respect to the highly profitable sugar-producing Antilles islands, which it managed to retain. Minister Choiseul considered he had made a good deal at the Treaty of Paris, and philosopher Voltaire wrote that Louis XV had only lost “a few acres of snow”.[61] For France however, the military defeat and the financial burden of the war weakened the monarchy and contributed to the advent of the French Revolution in 1789.[62]”

Here are two maps from the article (I’ve modified the first a bit to make it fit the page, but no significant detail was lost. I decided it was better to just put in a thumbnail of the other, click on it to view that one in full resolution):

iii. Dodecahedron.

iv. Chemotaxis. Of course I stumbled upon this one while reading Human Microbiology.

“Chemotaxis is the phenomenon in which somatic cells, bacteria, and other single-cell or multicellular organisms direct their movements according to certain chemicals in their environment. This is important for bacteria to find food (for example, glucose) by swimming towards the highest concentration of food molecules, or to flee from poisons (for example, phenol). In multicellular organisms, chemotaxis is critical to early development (e.g. movement of sperm towards the egg during fertilization) and subsequent phases of development (e.g. migration of neurons or lymphocytes) as well as in normal function. In addition, it has been recognized that mechanisms that allow chemotaxis in animals can be subverted during cancer metastasis.

Positive chemotaxis occurs if the movement is towards a higher concentration of the chemical in question. Conversely, negative chemotaxis occurs if the movement is in the opposite direction.” […]

“The overall movement of a bacterium is the result of alternating tumble and swim phases. If one watches a bacterium swimming in a uniform environment, its movement will look like a random walk with relatively straight swims interrupted by random tumbles that reorient the bacterium. Bacteria such as E. coli are unable to choose the direction in which they swim, and are unable to swim in a straight line for more than a few seconds due to rotational diffusion. In other words, bacteria “forget” the direction in which they are going. By repeatedly evaluating their course, and adjusting if they are moving in the wrong direction, bacteria can direct their motion to find favorable locations with high concentrations of attractants (usually food) and avoid repellents (usually poisons).

In the presence of a chemical gradient bacteria will chemotax, or direct their overall motion based on the gradient. If the bacterium senses that it is moving in the correct direction (toward attractant/away from repellent), it will keep swimming in a straight line for a longer time before tumbling. If it is moving in the wrong direction, it will tumble sooner and try a new direction at random. In other words, bacteria like E. coli use temporal sensing to decide whether life is getting better or worse. In this way, it finds the location with the highest concentration of attractant (usually the source) quite well. Even under very high concentrations, it can still distinguish very small differences in concentration. Fleeing from a repellent works with the same efficiency.”

v. Dyson sphere.

vi. Hermann Detzner (if you haven’t heard about that guy, don’t beat yourself up. Neither had I, until I read this article. I knew a little about the Japanese holdouts after WW2 before reading this, but until now I had never heard about holdouts from WW1.)

November 9, 2011 - Posted by | Biology, History, Mathematics, Microbiology, Physics, Wikipedia


  1. Re French and Indian War: I can only speak for myself, but when I was taught world history in high school in Europe, there was not a mention of it. It’s another example of what used to annoy me immensely, but now mostly amuses me – the claims that Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world (which, in general, is very true), and Europeans are very educated (which, as this demonstrates, is patently false). I still get in heated arguments with my father, who leans left, even though he has shed most of his unfettered love for communism. He tends to blame almost every evil in the world on the US, and I have a hard time getting through to him with historical facts, since his English is passable, but not enough to read Wikipedia freely and easily, and I do not have the time, will, and energy to supply him with links in Russian, French, or Bulgarian. He sees all the drawbacks of Pax Americana (I taught him the term), but almost none of the benefits. For better or for worse, America has been a bigger influence in the world than most Europeans recognize, and vice versa.

    Re Dodecahedron: I can never credit Martin Gardner enough for lighting up in me an interest in almost all areas of mathematics – not enough to make me a professional mathematician, but enough to make me read enough to be able to follow almost every field, or at least the implications of advances thereof. I kid you not, I brought with me to the US back in the day (total luggage weight was limited, and I could not pay surcharges) four books – two dictionaries (almost never used them; threw them away soon), a mathematical/statistical encyclopedia, and one of Gardner’s books. Anyway, it was through him that I learned about the Archimedean solids. He truly was the Wikipedia of my childhood for mathematics. His discussion about whether the dodecahedron or the icosahedron is more similar to a sphere still warms my heart.

    Comment by Plamus | November 10, 2011 | Reply

    • Re French and Indian War: I can only speak for myself, but when I was taught world history in high school in Europe, there was not a mention of it.

      I’d never heard about it either before reading up on it on my own (well, to be perfectly honest: before Salman Khan sparked my interest in the subject, but…) That’s the case for a lot of the things I know about today. Come to think of it, I don’t think we ever even discussed the American Revolution in our history classes – then again, I’m not sure, I’ve forgotten a lot. Maybe some very broad strokes. I probably learned more about that historical event from reading Donald Duck cartoons than I did from history lessons – that btw. goes for other American stuff too; I first learned about Mayflower through Donald Duck, not school (don’t think school ever covered that one either, come to think of it). I know for a fact that I knew pretty much nothing about the history of South America five years ago, after having had, what, a decade’s worth of history classes behind me? We learned a little about Mesoamerica in primary school (I think), but that was the closest I ever got to that continent. I doubt a majority of the people in my class could even name 5 South American countries at the end of the 9th grade. History of China pre-1900? Forget it.

      My schooling was completely run-off-the-mill ordinary – public school until end of 9th grade, then public high school. I had a brilliant HS history teacher, one of the best teachers I’ve had, so that didn’t have anything to do with it. The curriculum did. Maybe there just isn’t time to cover all the stuff that ‘ought to be taught’, especially not given the combination of lazy and not particularly competent primary-and-secondary school teachers and likewise not-particularly-motivated-and-extremely-noisy-pupils. Either way, if you (metaphorical you, not you-you) haven’t studied this kind of stuff on your own outside school, you probably aren’t all that ‘educated’ – no matter which continent you come from.

      Comment by US | November 15, 2011 | Reply

      • Fully agreed – the history curricula are horrible. In my case, well over 50% (likely 60-70%) of the total time spent on history was national history which, unless you are American, British, French, or some such, is hopelessly parochial (well, it’s still parochial if you are one of these, just not quite so hopelessly parochial). It’s a tool to indoctrinate young people to be good little drones… oops, citizens – a very useful thing for a government, but not so much for said young people. Ah, patriotism… if religion is the opium of the masses, naive patriotism is their crack cocaine.

        “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” GB Shaw.

        Comment by Plamus | November 16, 2011

  2. Dyson Sphere made me think of The Singularity is Near. Have you read it? Would be fun to hear your thoughts on it.

    Comment by Lasse Birk Olesen | December 13, 2011 | Reply

    • Would be fun to hear your thoughts on it.

      (I’m not so sure about that… 🙂 ) My thoughts, short version: I have not read the book. I have no intention of reading the book. I think reading it would be a waste of my time.

      Comment by US | December 13, 2011 | Reply

  3. There are 12 books on my wishlist this Christmas:

    1. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Carol Tavris)
    2. Evolutionary Biology (Douglas Futuyma)
    3. Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 (James Belich)
    4. The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (John Gross)
    5. The Penguin History of Latin America (Edwin Williamson)
    6. Population Genetics – A Concise Guide (Gillespie)
    7. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Christopher Beckwith)
    8. The Wordsworth Book of Humorous Quotations
    9. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe (Peter Heather)
    10. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Eric Kaufmann)
    11. Calvin & Hobbes
    12. Applied Cryptography (Bruce Schneier)

    Lots of other stuff I could be reading instead. I’d never even heard about the book before you mentioned it, so it’s not like I have a lot invested here. But the wikipedia article about it didn’t do anything to convince me that it’s a book I need to read.

    Comment by US | December 14, 2011 | Reply

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