Monthly Archives: November 2017

Seminar food guidelines

The food should be easy to eat from a plastic plate in one’s lap, without paying attention to it. It should not require a knife, fork, spoon or chopsticks. Sandwiches fulfill these criteria. Sushi can also be eaten with one’s fingers. Sandwiches should not be so thick that they have to be disassembled to fit in the mouth. Sandwiches should not contain ingredients that are difficult to bite through, for example prosciutto, non-crispy bacon, meat with tendons in it.
The food should not drip or stain the hands, especially with a greasy or otherwise difficult-to-remove sauce. Wraps should not have the bottom cut off or contain a thin sauce that leaks through the bottom. Sandwiches should not have contents falling out – avoid a thick stack of many fillings between the breads. A single filling can be thicker, e.g. a chicken breast. Biting into the food should not cause the food to fall apart (rice paper rolls have this problem) or something to squirt out the other end (as happens with sandwiches with a lot of sauce or mayonnaise).
Avoid ingredients with a strong, specific taste that some people love and some hate. Examples are sauerkraut, pickles, olives, capers, kimchi, herring, anchovies, hot spices. The food should be like a politician – trying to please everyone, avoiding controversy. Spices and sauces can accompany the food separately, like wasabi and soy sauce with sushi – then everyone can add the amount they like.
The mechanics of eating the food is as important as the taste. The ease of eating of various forms of food can be tested in a seminar-like situation: eating sitting, with a small plastic plate in one’s lap, no table, only occasionally glancing at the food.

The obsolete PhD degree

Let’s distinguish the knowledge from the degree first. The average skill requirement of jobs (measured in years of education for example) is rising over time, so people need more knowledge before entering the labour market. What is obsolete is the packaging of that knowledge into degrees and perhaps its teaching in universities.
The PhD takes six years on average ( and during that time the student is guided by one or at most a few advisors. Working on the same topic on years is often necessary to become an expert, so unavoidable. But being tied to the same advisor is a throwback to the medieval guild system where the apprentice and journeyman work years for the master. It means seeing only one viewpoint or set of techniques. Most importantly, the topic of the thesis is limited to what the advisor is competent in (sometimes a laissez-faire advisor allows a dissertation on an unfamiliar subject, which is even worse – incompetent advising follows). Taking courses from other faculty in the same department or university broadens the horizons a bit, but there may be an institutional culture that introduces biases, or expertise in some fields may simply be missing from the university. Attending conferences again broadens the mind, but conferences are few and far between. Suggestions that run counter to the advisor’s views may be interpreted as wrong by a novice graduate student.
Ideally, a trainee researcher would be advised by the whole world’s scientific community, mostly but not exclusively by people in the same discipline. Electronic communication makes this easy. Many different viewpoints would be explained to the graduate student, interpersonal issues would be easier to resolve by changing advisors (no lock-in to one person who determines one’s career prospects). People who just use students as free labour without providing much in return would suddenly become lonely. The problem is moral hazard – if no specific person has responsibility for a student, indefinite postponement of advising effort may occur. Credit for useful advice would be spread between many people, which dilutes incentives. In short, advising is a public good.
Still, public goods are sometimes provided, despite the difficulty of explaining this with a rational agent model. People write free software, answer questions from strangers in forums, upload advice and instructions on many topics. This suggests some volunteer advisors would step forward under a shared responsibility system. The advisor pool may become more ideologically biased than now, because people who want to spread propaganda on their strong views have a greater incentive to volunteer advice. They do this on the internet, after all. Similar incentives for shrill prophets operate in universities, but if each faculty member is required to advise some students or if there is a cap on how many disciples one can take, there is less scope for indoctrinating the masses. Such restrictions can be imposed online to some extent. There could be a reputation mechanism among the advisors, so the crackpots are labelled as such. The larger pool of opinions may balance the biases.
The economies of scale in advising one student are reduced with sharing. A single advisor per student means that during most of the PhD program, the advisor is already familiar with the student’s work and only needs to read the new part each week. With many advisors, each would need to devote time to the same material. Some sharing of responsibilities (one reads the introduction, another the conclusion) is possible, but the interdependence of the parts of the research does not permit full splitting.
Another medieval aspect of the PhD is paying for the received teaching in labour, not money. Graduate students may be free from tuition and may even get a scholarship, but in return have to work as teaching assistants or do the advisor’s research in their lab. Less ethical help also occurs, such as reviewing papers the advisor is officially the referee of. Inefficiencies of a barter economy are introduced. Instead of paying for the program with money earned in the job the student is the most productive or happy in, the student is forced to work as a teaching assistant and essentially pay the difference between a fair market wage and the teaching assistant wage to the university. Further, the teaching work is restricted to the university of the PhD program, even if other universities need teachers more and offer higher wages. This gives the university market power and allows it to depress grad student salaries.
A doctoral program may lose money directly, in the sense that teaching the grad students is more expensive (due to small classes, advanced material, so more professor time per student) than their TA work. The fact that universities still keep the PhD programs suggests the existence of indirect benefits. One is reputation – attracting paying undergraduate and Master’s students. In some countries, an institution is not allowed to call itself a university if it does not teach at the doctoral level. Altruism by the higher education sector is possible, even if John Quiggin’s quote “never stand between a Vice-Chancellor and a bucket of money” suggests otherwise.
One utopic proposal is an online system where graduate students and advisors sign up and can talk over video calls, send emails etc. It keeps a record who communicated with whom and how much. Later, data on the academic achievement and job market performance of students can be added, so advisors can be rewarded for their students’ success. There may also be some popularity index, meaning students rate their advisors and vice versa. But in the end, an advisor’s contribution should matter more than popularity, so the latter is optional. Advisors may look at and rate each other’s advising sessions to limit the spread of bad advice. Students can collaborate and may decide to meet in person.
For experimental science, lab space can be rented by student cooperatives. Instruction in the use of equipment can be given via video. Classroom space can also be rented directly by groups of students if needed. The students may pay advisors. Some people may only advise conditional on payment. Students may teach other students (including TA jobs), whether for money or pro bono. The system would cut out the middlemen – university administrators – making education cheaper for society. Of course, in the lab and classroom rental business, other middlemen would appear and take their share.

Assumptions in communication

All communication relies on assumptions, for example about the meanings of words. If someone says: „Pass the salt, please,” then without assumptions, endless clarifications would be needed about the meaning of „pass” and „salt”, about the language used and whether the request is a joke or carries some hidden meaning. If the requester clarifies: „I did not mean it as a joke, I really want you to give me the salt,” then clarifications about the clarification would result. Again, the clarification may be a joke (we shouldn’t assume it is not) or use words like „not” in an ironic way with meaning the opposite of the usual (we shouldn’t assume the usual meaning). There would be an endless cycle of clarifying the clarifications of… of clarifications.

Real vs movie fighting

It will surprise nobody that real fighting or full-contact competition differs from movie fighting. What is perhaps less obvious is that the incentives for the actions are completely opposite. The actions themselves are not completely opposite, because movie fighting is supposed to look somewhat like a real fight, which constrains the difference between them.
An obvious incentive difference is the desire to hurt an opponent in a real fight vs not hurt a fellow actor. A more subtle distinction is that in a real fight or competition, nobody wants the opponent to see a punch or kick coming. In a movie, the flashier and more visible the attack and defense, the better. So in a real fight or competition, the movements are quick, preferably without wind-up by other parts of the body, mostly in a direct line from one body to the other (although some curved punches and kicks are used). The movements may be masked by feints, but these are subtle, like eyes flicking right while punching with the left. In a movie, the kicks especially move in long visible arcs, with the body turning 360 degrees in some cases, and not too fast. Every move is designed to be seen by the audience, which implies seen by the opponent.
In a movie fight, the techniques should not repeat, otherwise the audience gets bored. In a real fight, the only reason not to use one’s best move exclusively is the need to surprise the opponent. Only a few of the most effective techniques are used. Another reason for this is that real fights end quickly (not counting the posturing and shouting), so there is not much time to showcase a variety of punches and kicks. A wider range of moves is used in competitions, but still not close to the range in movie fights.


Bullshido is a term used for martial arts that make false claims about themselves, for example that the art helps a much smaller person defeat a larger one, or defend against a knife barehanded, or defeat multiple opponents. Such claims are marketing, but believing them puts people in danger, because instead of screaming and running, the believers may try to fight against hopeless odds and get injured. There are websites dedicated to exposing and ridiculing bullshido.
In addition, one should distinguish fighting and self-defense, and thus also unarmed combat training from self-defense classes. Detailed explanations are e.g. on the website Briefly, self-defense is about (1) avoiding crime (specific times, places, people), (2) noticing dangerous situations developing, (3) escaping them, (4) negotiating if escape is impossible (giving away your wallet and phone to avoid a beating), and (5) only as a last resort, fighting. Just like a castle has multiple concentric walls, self-defense has multiple concentric layers. Just like war happens when diplomacy and sanctions have failed, fighting happens when all other layers of self-defense have failed.
Returning to bullshido, one should apply the general principle that the burden of proof is on the maker of a claim. Some claims are hard to test without substantial danger, for example defending against a knife barehanded. But fighting larger people or many of them can be done with reasonable safety using boxing gloves, shin pads, soft helmets and similar protective equipment. The test should be scientifically rigorous, not like the demonstrations of martial arts clubs where the attackers and defenders have agreed on the moves beforehand. Such demonstrations are just theatre. In a real test, the attackers and defenders should not know each other, should not have the opportunity to collude, and each should be motivated to succeed, e.g. by a significant monetary prize for the winner. All moves should be made with maximal speed, without unrealistic „winding-up” movements calling attention to when and where the punch or kick will come.
Tests of this sort have been conducted for bare-handed fighting, namely in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the 1990s. There were several matches between traditional martial artists (karate, sumo) and more modern martial artists (Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing). Traditional martial arts did not fare well. The evolutionary process in UFC and similar competitions, e.g. Pride, has led to the development of mixed martial arts (MMA) that is actually effective in bare-handed one-on-one fighting.
In general, martial arts that permit a wide range of full-speed, full-strength moves in competitions encourage more realistic training and improve fighting ability. Some traditional martial arts are included in this category, e.g. judo, wrestling.
Knife-defense can be tested with some realism using imitation knives. Even a rubber knife or marker pen can penetrate an eye or throat, so when using these, safety goggles and neck protection should be worn. A better fake knife is made of foam rubber and lightly coated in paint. The paint makes it very obvious when the knife has connected with the body. Without such an objective marking of a „cut”, the bullshido artist subject to the test can claim that the fake knife did not connect with them. A shortcoming of such a test is that the knife usually connects with a hand or forearm first, in which case many types of cuts from a real knife would make the arm useless and let the attacker get to the torso. Examples are cutting a nerve, tendon or muscle needed to move the arm. A safe fake knife does not make a hand useless, so the defender can continue using it in defense. There should be a referee competent to evaluate the damage to the hand or other part of the body that would have resulted from the „cut” (paint stripe) that the fake knife made. The referee should order the defender not to use a limb if that limb would be useless had the cut been real. One way to make a fake knife more realistic, but slightly more dangerous, is to add an electroshock ability to the fake knife. This can make a contacted limb go numb and become less useful for defense.
The idea of the knife measuring contact in some way has been used in fencing. The foils used sometimes have a pressure sensor in the tip that detects a touch on the opponent.
Training with an imitation knife and a motivated opponent who does not collaborate in his or her defeat will quickly cure the illusion of being able to defend against a knife barehanded. The same applies to most weapons, e.g. sticks, chains.
I have two stories about my experience with bullshido. In my early teens I took karate classes for a couple of years. Among other things, the classes taught how to twist an opponent’s arm or hand in various ways (and catching their punching hand prior to doing so). In training, I managed quite well to catch a punch and put the opponent on the ground with an arm twist. This is because the training was theatre and the opponent collaborated.
Upon hearing that I had learned martial arts, an adult construction worker offered to let me practise on him in the following way. He held his hand steady in front of him and I could try to twist it in any way I liked, using two hands against his one. He did not interfere with me in any way, just held the hand steady against any force. He was a physically average man, not some weightlifter or giant. I was about 15 years old, above average in size (about his height) and in good physical shape, but I could not twist his arm in any way I tried, using all my strength. The claim that non-full-contact martial arts can teach a weaker person to defeat a much stronger one is false. Even realistic training in modern martial arts is limited in how much it can improve a person’s chances of winning a fight.
Do unrealistic martial arts still help a little, e.g. enable a practitioner to win against a slightly stronger, or equal person? This is where the next story comes in.
After a year or two training karate twice or more per week, over 1.5 hours per session, I participated in a competition internal to the karate school (only members of that school took part). I was matched against a slightly smaller and weaker opponent who had only taken karate classes intermittently for a few months. In karate class, we had practised punches that ended an inch short of the opponent, to avoid hurting our training partners. I was a good student, as it turned out, because during the competition, all my punches ended an inch short of my opponent. I tried to overcome this in-trained behaviour, but could not. My opponent, on the other hand, had not been trained much and used the most common street-fighting overhand punches (called haymakers). These mostly landed on me and were moderately effective when they did. I lost badly.
The lesson from this is that bullshido actually reduces a person’s fighting effectiveness, unlike for example ballet or yoga, which train some aspects useful for fighting (strength, stamina, balance) and don’t ingrain ineffective moves. Unrealistic martial arts „help” a person lose against a smaller, weaker opponent, while falsely convincing the person of his or her fighting ability.

Urination technique 101

Many urinals are shaped so that if your centreline is aligned with the urinal’s centreline, then no matter where you aim, the spray splashes right back to your centre.

The solution is to stand slightly to one side, not directly in front of the urinal, but still aim straight ahead (perpendicular to the wall when viewed from above, not necessarily when viewed from the side). The urine starts flowing or splashing forward almost parallel to the wall of the urinal. This is the principle in a squash game – the more bounces off the wall, the slower the ball moves. If the energy for backward reflection is dissipated, then the ball falls down under gravity. The same applies to a urine stream – the more forward splashes off the wall of the urinal, the more energy dissipated and the more the urine flows downward.