Category: Science

Geometry News!

I appreciate a nice polyhedron but as an area of interest it isn’t one prone to many events. The regular polyhedra were fully classified a very long time ago and while that’s just one set of an infinite space of 3D objects with polygonal faces. If you allow for curves or slightly curved, almost polygons then there is a lot to play with but not many objects stand out from the crowd.

Anyway, biology to the rescue! An article in Nature ( ) looks at the issue of cell-packing. Our cells are squishy 3D objects that pack together to form tissue. Now getting objects to pack together to fill a space efficiently is a well-known and difficult to solve problem if you dealing with anything other than cubes. Hexagonal prisms are a solution that crops up in nature in places such as basalt rock formations and bee hives (and presumably bee hives made out of basalt on some planet with magma bees and honey volcanoes).

In 2D one way of filling a plane with irregular but simple polygons is a Voronoi pattern. Arrnagments of cells in a layer looked at ‘top-down’ can (apparently) resemble that kind of pattern but that doesn’t help describe the 3D aspect of the cells. Prisms don’t work because the ‘top’ face may be smaller than the ‘bottom’ face. Frustrums (chopped off pyramids) don’t work because the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ faces maybe polygons of different sizes and frustrums don’t neccesarily pack nicely. Enter the scutoid.

Scutoids are (apparently, I’m just reading the paper) messed up prisms. The example picture shows a shape with a pentagon-bottom and a hexagon-top and the vertices of each polygon joined by  curved edges with the exception of an additional triangular face. Flip the same shape upside down and they can nestle into each other. Which is sweet.



Fig1 from ‘Scutoids are a geometrical solution to three-dimensional packing of epithelia’ Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 2960 (2018)


So not quite polyhedra, crazy mixed up nearly prisms that know how to pack. The picture of the beatle is there because of the distinct pattern of five shapes – specifically that little triangle at the top where the line between the carapace covering the wing splits. The combination of faces on the scutoid reminded the researchers of the beatle and the ‘scutoid’ name is derived from that.

Also I don’t know if you say “scoo-toid” or “scuh-toid”.

Other coverage:



Vox Day is still dancing the anti-science two-step shuffle

I visit the self-styled dark lord’s blog less often these days. He’s still saying mostly the same things in the same way. One predictable pattern is if he writes a post about the poor quality of scientific research papers on a given day, then within a short period, he will be breathlessly quoting some particularly dodgy paper as if it holy writ — indeed he’s likely to assert stronger conclusions than the paper.

Case in point this post (*) he asserts that:

“Never forget that science cannot be considered reliable until it is called “engineering”. Until then, the most that one can accurately assume is that it has about a fifty percent chance of actually being correct.”

Is followed on the same day by a post pushing more anti-vaccine nonsense. This time his target is anti-HPV vaccines and a paper that claims reduced birth rates. The paper is here and it is bad in multiple ways:

There is a thorough take-down of quite how bad the paper is by the indefatigable Orac at the Respectful Insolence blog:

Suffice to say it is a bad piece of very speculative epidemiologist by an economist with a bias against vaccines. The study ignores factors such as contraception or other behavioural differences between people who have or haven’t had the HPV vaccine to draw a fallacious conclusion.

Orac points out:

“After all, existing evidence largely contradicts Delong’s findings, with HPV vaccination having no effect on fertility except in one group. The group? In females with a history of sexually transmitted infections or pelvic inflammatory disease (i.e. a group at high risk of exposure to HPV infection), HPV vaccination made pregnancy more likely.”

Earlier in his essay Orac speculates on why vaccines against HPV get such pushback:

“For some reason, HPV vaccines seem to have an uncanny ability to turn such people into raging antivaccinationists almost as loony as the merry band of antivaccine loons over at Age of Autism. At the very least, they seem to make seemingly reasonable people susceptible to blandishments and tropes for which they’d normally otherwise never fall. Truly, Gardasil and Cervarix seem to be vaccines that make reasonable people lose their minds. I tend to think it’s about the sex. After all, HPV is largely a sexually-transmitted virus, hence the tendency for fundamentalist Christians to find it particularly objectionable.”

I’d add to say that it isn’t just the anti-sex attitude but also misogyny or both in tandem. The idea that sexually transmitted diseases are a punishment for sex and in particular a punishment for women, is one that is prevalent in right-wing circles. There really are people out there who would rather women died of cervical cancer than eliminate a virus.

At least with the apparent pro-cancer stance of the cigarette lobby, you could see how the money trail worked. In this case, we have Vox acting like he is being paid by the pro-virus lobby**.

*[I’m not bothering with archive links in this case – the links are here for completeness but there’s little to be gained by reading them:

I don’t particularly want to archive this nonsense.]

**[That is a joke. Viruses don’t have a lobby as such and this is pro-bono lobbying work by Vox for viruses.]


No, that doesn’t settle it.

A Washington Post article about a research paper claims to have settled the question of whether to put one space or two spaces after a full-stop (or as Americans like to say a ‘period’*).

The research neatly encapsulates some of the elements of questions of objectivity and meaning that I keep returning to.

The research had two components. The first was about usage and is interesting but not consequential. The second is of more note. Using eye-tracking, the researchers measured how a number of people followed sentences they were reading. Using that data, they could compare the relative reading ease of texts that used a single space after a full-stop and texts that used two spaces.

The results showed a small advantage for two spaces. By ‘small’ I mean:

  • ‘comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing’ i.e. there was no measurable difference in how well subjects understood the texts they were reading.
  • there was some evidence that ‘initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces’.

So practically, two-spaces was not obviously better but MAYBE it required a smaller effort to read, perhaps. Note this second conclusion requires its own chain of inference that’s not well established i.e. it assumes that the processing of the text was facilitated but that was not measured directly.

But the bigger issue (mentioned in the WP article but not in the abstract of the paper) was that the text used was… a monospaced font.

That does not make any of the findings in the report invalid. It doesn’t undermine the quality of the methodology used. It doesn’t make the findings less objective BUT it does entirely miss the point of the underlying argument.

The two-space versus one-space debate pertains to the transition from typewriters to modern wordprocessing. Classic typewriters had to use common widths between letters due to the mechanics of a typewriter, including a degree of error as to exactly where a letter might be placed. Modern word-processing uses typefaces where letters and the spacing around them are customised for not just individual letters but also for punctuation. The two-space versus one-space argument is one about the transition from classic typing to modern word-processing.

There is a parallel with drug trials here. For example a new drug or treatment might be compared with a placebo. That’s a scientifically legitimate approach to collecting data and looking at efficacy. However, its often not the relevant question. More pertinent is how the new drug compares with existing treatment rather than a placebo.

The point being – what is the underlying issue or what is the question being asked? These are more vague, more wooly aspects of scientific inquiry but also deeply important. The more clarity on those aspects help us judge whether empirical evidence is relevant to the question being asked.

However, my point above does not mean the research was wasted. It does demonstrate a couple of things:

  • The typing habit of using two spaces after a full stop had some merit.
  • The possible advantage of using two spaces is very small.

I don’t think either conclusion helps out the two-spacers much. The first implies social habits and vague aesthetics of people who type can be trusted – and that would tend towards favouring the one-spacer’s attitude to modern texts with modern fonts. The second implies that the cost-benefit of using two spaces is a best marginal and at worst a waste of time. Although, I’m clearly showing my one-spaced prejudices here.

*(As we are engaged in trivial quibbles of no actual consequence, let me just say that ‘period’ should be retired as a name for the full-stop. It should then be re-allocated to the n-dash whose role is often to indicate a period of time, such as when it joins two dates together. I also have opinions about hyphens and dashes that I will reserve for another post – I feel the controversy would just be WAY too much for you all.)

Timothy’s Alternative MCU Running Order

Good evening movie watching people everywhere. It is I, Timothy the Talking Cat, editor, writer, gourmand, and counselour of the cinematic arts. Was it not the great Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès himself who once said “Sacre-bleu a talking cat! If only I had ze talking pictures I could make a film of this but instead I stick this rocket in somebody’s eye!” Yes, yes, I speak French now as well because I am a great linguist among other things. As Noam Chomsky wrote to me only the other day in reply to my letter about the intrinsic nature of grammar in the feline brain: “Please cease and desist from any attempt to contact me again.” That’s one of his famous sentences that are technically grammatical but don’t make sense.

All the truly great films are very long and the great film experiences are so long that they have to have an interval. Consier this:

  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: has an interval and an overture.
  • Warcraft the Movie: does not have an interval or an overture.

Case closed I think. The Marvel Cinematic Cosmos does not have intervals but it does have breaks between films so you can go and pee. You can just have a pee in the cinema if you bring your own litter tray but some cinemas frown on this practice as they want you to spnd the extra money buying abig tub of popcorn so you can pee in that instead.

The point I’m trying to make is that I need the toilet.

That’s better. Typing on a full bladder is not wise even when you are getting somebody else to do the typing.

LENGTH! Length is a key factor here. If you go see a short movie then Camestros has to pay the same amount as when he takes you to a LONGGGG movie. You get more movie for your money. But length is not enough. You also need:

  • Explosions
  • Vampires
  • Space
  • Exploding vampires in space
  • Cats

The important element of Marvel films is not just that they are long and have pee breaks between films (sometimes lasting several years) but each film is an improvement on the last. Have we reached peak Marvel film yet? Oh no, not by a long chalk matey! That’s not how a shared universe works. You introduce pieces piece by pieces until you have all the pieces and WHAM perfect film probably with an interval like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


So here’s my running order of Marvel films in the order you should watch them.

  1. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The Iron Man/Potts origin story. This is where the whole story starts and frankly it is a classic. They’ve been mapping this all out since 1910 or whenever this film was made.
  2. Blade 1: Vampires! Not in space but they don’t play all their best cards in one go. I tried that once in a fancy casino and they all got very cross with me. “You can’t bring your own cards” they shouted and “This is not a game of Uno!”
  3. Balde 2: More vampires. Keep playing the good cards not the best card. Like the ‘reverse direction’ card not the Uno wild card.
  4. Blade 3: Even more vampires. Just pile up the vampires early to raise the stakes.
  5. The Incredible Hulk. So this guy gets annoyed and smashes things. Genius. Best role Tony Curtis ever played*.
  6. Ha ha, ‘raise the stakes’ I just got that.
  7. It was too a deliberate pun.
  8. The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Bah-baaa-baaaa, Bah-baaa-baaaa, ba bah bah bha bah baah bah baaaah ba baaahh.
  9. Thor Ragnarok. Change of actors but it works – Mark Gruffalo does a passable Tony Curtis impression. The main thing is we go from vikings not in space with no explosions to vikings in space WITH explosions.
  10. Black Panther: Da na na na na CATMAN! He’s a man, he’s a cat, he’s CATMAN! Oh, gosh! Can you see how these films just keep getting better and better! He’s a cat but he’s also a man. Because he is a man he’s stuck with having to be a gregarious social mammal instead of just hanging out by himself in a tree with a half-eaten gazelle. Can he manage to be both? Not quite so he fights another catman. Classic!
  11. Infinity War: Oh my golly gosh! Check this out! Kirk Douglas is back and Mark Gruffalo and a bunch of people I don’t recognise. Black Panther is back, still thinking “Hey, I could be hanging out in a tree with a meaty carcase but I’m also a man and have to hang out with my extended family and friends like some kind of non-solitary apex predator” Emotional conflict drives character development. But oh look! He’s big, he wants to kill everybody because people are frickin’ annoying, he’s PURPLE! Yes, not the hero you people deserve but at long last a character I can almost identify with: FANOFF! He doesn’t have a cat face unlike Mr Panther but he’s got a cat personality. Who hasn’t sat out on the porch as the evening sunsets and thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I could just kill everybody?”

What’s next? Well, I think it is pretty obvious from who hasn’t turned up yet. In Part 2, Fanoff is like ‘OK, I saved the universe already. Now what?’ and then a whole bunch of vampires turn up! Fanoff then magics Blade back but he can’t travel in space, so fanos magics up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “That’s you car now!” says Fanoff. “Thanks” says Blade, “But I can’t kill all these vampires by myself!” So Fanos waves his hand three times and says “abracadabra” and MEEE-OWW! Its catman himself BLACK PANTHER! And also Tony Curtis and Billy Joel** “Time to kick some vampire butt!” says Tony Curtis. “No, we should stab them instead!” says Blade and then they all fly off in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Joel sings the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song. THE END.

*[I’ve no idea – CF]
**[No, I have zero explanation here either – CF]

Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

There’s no shortage of notes in Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life but that doesn’t mean every assertion related to facts is referenced. Also, when references are used they aren’t always tightly associated with the argument. Take this for example from chapter 2:

“This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Now there is a lot wrong with that statement factually but the right reference here, if this was an academic essay, would be to a source discussing historical patterns of employment. Peterson instead links to some modern labour statistics here The tables do use the term ‘traditional occupations’ and ‘non-traditional’ based on proportions of women involves but this is ‘traditional’ in a very loose sense and includes “Meeting, convention, and event planners”. My point here isn’t that the table is wrong of even questioning gendered-roles in employment – just that a lot of references are weak in this fashion. It is vaguely related but not neatly tied to Peterson’s argument.

(This is quite long – so more after the fold)

Continue reading

January Temperatures

As usual, here are last months satellite temperature anomalies – not because they are best data set for this stuff but because they are the one that engenders the fewest pointless arguments.


The green line is my addition, otherwise this graph is from here

As per the last goodness knows how long, the moral is – natural cycles exist but they don’t explain global warming. Things have cooled after EL Niño peaks but the ‘cool’ of 2018 resembles the ‘hot’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. Why, it’s almost as if things have got  systemically hotter over the decades.