That glop of computer code

February 23rd, 2018

That glop of computer code you see on the left part of our web site—the space that ordinarily shows a menu—appeared suddenly. We are tracking down what caused this delightful glitch, and hope to repair it ASAP.

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For now, here are direct links to the list of all Ig Nobel Prize winners, and to our events schedule.

Talent vs Luck: the Role of Randomness in Success and Failure [research study]

February 23rd, 2018

Are successful people better than people who did not achieve success—or are they to a large degree lucky? This physics-based analysis looked into that tangled question:

Talent vs Luck: the Role of Randomness in Success and Failure,” Alessandro Pluchino, A. E. Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda, arXiv:1802.07068v1, February 20, 2018. The authors, at the University of Catania, Italy, report:

“It is very well known that intelligence (or, more in general, talent and personal qualities) exhibits a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – often considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law), with a large majority of poor people and a very small number of billionaires. Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale (the average talent or intelligence), and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based toy model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time.”

Co-authors Pluchino and Rapisarda, along with their colleague Cesare Garofalo, were awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize for management, for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

They documented that prize-winning work, in the study “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study” [Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010, pp. 467-72].

They have also delved into the role of randomness in other fields of human endeavor, including the question of how best to select politicians. Here’s video of Andrea Rapisarda discussing their work, at an Ig Nobel show at the University of Oslo:

Sad news: Dick Taylor is gone

February 22nd, 2018

Richard Taylor answers questions his the Nobel Prize press conference, Oct. 17, 1990.

A news report from Stanford University says that Dick Taylor died today.

We had a good time back in 1998 at an Ig Nobel show at Stanford University. Lila Guterman, writing in the Stanford Report, described part of that evening:

Theories of improbability: Gum-chewing Nobelists talk silly science

A paper airplane whizzed through the air and hit Stanford Nobel laureate Martin Perl in the head before he answered the first question in an interview Wednesday evening, April 8. He and fellow SLAC Nobelist Richard Taylor were grilled about chewing gum in front of an audience of 200 people in Stanford’s Terman Auditorium.

Their interviewer was Marc Abrahams, editor of the irreverent science magazine The Annals of Improbable Research. Abrahams was at Stanford to promote the new book, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research. The result was an evening of silly science.

Abrahams chomped on gum as they discussed the lofty topic, and he offered the two Nobelists their own sticks.

“How often do you chew gum?” Abrahams asked them.

“Whenever I get a bad idea,” said Perl, munching away.

“Same,” responded Taylor. “Never.”

The airplane-throwing audience laughed upon learning that Perl uses gum to stick his telephone to his desk and to plug vacuum leaks. But Taylor adamantly denied using chewing gum. “I’m more used to bubble gum,” he said….


A dinosaur movie that scholars can admire

February 22nd, 2018

Dinosaur scholarship becomes ever more open to discussion between scholars and the general public. This video is evidence thereof.

(Thanks to Sally Shelton and Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

(At least) Two Ways to Frustrate a Desire (for a Cup of Tea)

February 22nd, 2018

How might a person’s desire be ‘frustrated’ by another person? Philosophers David Birks and Thomas Douglas at the University of Oxford, suggest two ways in the Journal of Value Inquiry, September 2017, using the desire for a cup of tea as an example.

“Suppose that a person, call him Andrew, has a desire to drink a cup of tea. He boils the kettle, pours the hot water into the teacup, places the teacup on a side table, and sits down next to it to wait for the tea to brew. When Andrew looks away, and before he is able to satisfy his desire, Beata quickly pours Andrew’s tea into a nearby plant pot because she believes that caffeine is bad for Andrew’s health. Let us call this example Tea Plant

Now imagine a different case. Andrew has the desire to drink a cup of tea, and then, rather than pouring away the tea, Beata sprays a chemical in the air that stops Andrew drinking that cup of tea: as Andrew begins to lift the cup to his lips, the spray extinguishes his desire to drink the tea. Andrew knows that Beata’s spray was the cause of this change. Let us call this example Tea Spray

For further consideration –  and seemingly unfettered by the paper’s title – they also give a third example – in the form of a modification to Tea Spray :

“We could modify Tea Spray so that perceptual processes are involved. Let us do this by imagining that rather than spraying a chemical in the air, Beata employs hypnosis to stop Andrew from drinking that cup of tea: she gently swings her pocket watch in front of his eyes, while talking softly to him. As Andrew begins to lift the cup to his lips, the hypnosis causes him, without his knowledge, to enter a hypnotic state, during which the hypnotist extinguishes his desire to drink the tea. To Andrew it appears that he has whimsically changed his mind. Let us call this case Tea Hypnosis.

See: ‘Two Ways to Frustrate a Desire’ Journal of Value Inquiry, September 2017, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 417–434.

BONUS Assignment [optional] Suggest other ways (using a cup of tea) in which one could frustrate the desires of another.