April 13, 2013

Moving on over

Grad School has taken a lot out of my blogging frequency. Yet after a couple years, I have started to feel that my many witty remarks and insight are just going unshared with the world. So my buddy Dave and I have created a group blog called Aitch-bar.

Will I ever return to Topography of Ignorance? Maybe. Probably. Even so, it is sometimes necessary to "blow it up" when it comes to certain marginally creative endeavors and start anew. I promise the new blog will be even more pointless and esoteric than this was.

Some good entries from it so far:
Observations on Observing
Swimming Tips
“Movie” Review: Boa vs Python (2004)

Physics Art Show Submission "Domeflat: SUPA00398520"
Where's My Planck Beach Ball?
Ask a Nazi Officer who is Frantically Reacting to the Invasion of Berlin

November 30, 2010

The Guardian wonders aloud about science

Once again, I am puzzled by how the British public has a better understanding of science than us, while the science journalism in that country seems to be much worse. Last week for example, I saw probably the worst sub-headline ever in the Telegraph:

Antimatter has been captured by scientists for the first time in an astonishing physics breakthrough that echoes the hit Hollywood movie Angels & Demons.
I wrote about some of their other shoddy work a while ago too. The Telegraph rarely disappoints (unless you are looking for it to actually be right). It seems like the headlines are particularly bad, so that might have something to do with having to compete with tabloids, or some cross-pollination or something.

So today when I caught this piece in the Guardian, often the least bad of the UK newspapers for science: "Ten Questions Science Must Answer" I expected the worst. It is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society and they were trying to come up with what challenging issues lie ahead of us in the near future. I usually enjoy lists like this, because they are a nice reminder of the big picture questions that many of us are working towards in a small way, or simply things that are unexplained by science, but part of common human experience. Science did a good one a few years ago, for instance (and weirdly, there is a wikipedia article titled "List of unsolved problems in physics"). This page is really good too. And there are white papers and yearly reviews in journals that are cool to look at, and more specific. So since the Guardian is just winging it, it has the potential for broad appeal, or disastrously poor scholarship. Because of the format though, it's a little of both. Instead of getting in, you know, scientists, who might know a thing or two about where their field is at the moment, and what is currently understood, and where it is ultimately all leading they seem to have been content to go halfway, and have non-scientists simply speculate about what they don't know about. I can't blame the random novelists and poets for not being on the cutting edge of organic chemistry, but why are they being asked in the first place? When they're cobbling together lists of "greatest movies of the past 50 years" or whatever, why aren't they getting Neil deGrass Tyson in there?

So most of the actual things they come up with aren't so bad:
What is consciousness?
Is there a pattern to the prime numbers?
Can humanity get to the stars?

And a couple of the novelists manage to ask not-idiotic things like:
How are we going to cope with the world's burgeoning population?
Will I be able to record my brain like I can record a programme on television?

Probably the most thought-provoking is Brian Cox's "Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive?"
This would be the greatest achievement for science over the coming centuries. I say this because I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. [...]
One only has to look at the so-called controversies in areas such as climate science or the vaccination of our children to see that the rationalist project is far from triumphant at the turn of the 21st century – indeed, it is possible to argue that it is under threat. I believe that we will only be able to build a safer, fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful world when a majority of the population understand the methods of science and accept the guidance offered by an evidence-based investigation of the challenges ahead. Scientific education must therefore be the foundation upon which our future rests.

Which is followed by John Sulston saying essentially the same thing but with a focus on the tension between liberal democratic government and the inability of these kinds of governments to work collectively to solve large-scale problems that most of the population doesn't recognize or understand. Both interesting and important questions; so far, so good.

Then we get this gibbrish by "broadcaster and writer" Joan Bakewell:
What happened before the big bang?

To simply declare – as some scientists do – there was no space or time before the big bang and that the question is therefore meaningless is hard to accept, as it suggests matter was created out of nothing. But then if there was some kind of pre-existing primordial chaos that was fashioned into the universe by the hand of God, then where did the chaos come from?

At the other end of the timescale, I'd like to know whether robots will ever supercede humans. We are told scientists have already created artificial intelligence that can respond to emotion, but will they be able to go beyond getting robots to affect responses and generate feelings spontaneously – such as falling in love?...

And it goes on like that. OK, there is nothing wrong with wondering this about the big bang, and it certainly doesn't make you stupid to not understand the subtleties of cosmology, but this isn't actually an open question, which is the point of the article. Time is a dimension, and dimensions may be bounded. It is difficult to accept intuitively, because the passage of time seems like something fundamental, but asking what came before the big bang is analogous to asking what is north of the north pole. It is a singularity, the question simply has no meaning. It's like asking what the big bang "expanded into" or something -- not a stupid question unless you were born with an innate intuition for higher dimensions, but not actually a new area for discovery. Scientists aren't going around arrogantly "declaring" things to irritate you, if you asked one about it, she'd explain what it means, not spit on you for not majoring in physics. Acting like there is some attitude problem, where we all go along with something that non-scientists can easily poke holes in just to frustrate them is ridiculous and illogical. And what the hell was that jargon about robots? Why didn't someone read this before it got in a newspaper? This article was written or compiled by Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society and an astronomer, who surely knows that the time question is nonsense (at least the way it was phrased). Why doesn't anyone check these things?

Then we have a poet laureate, Andrew Motion, spouting off on what reads like a genuine plea to have someone explain things to him:
Can someone explain adequately the meaning of infinite space?

The idea of there being no end to space seems logically impossible. How can there be no limits to space? We know the universe is expanding, but what is it expanding into? Is it squeezing into something else and making that contract, or is the universe just venturing into nothingness? In which case, nothingness and somethingness appear to be much the same. We are also told the universe may contract in time; this raises similar questions. What replaces the space that was the something of the universe?

On a more frivolous level, I'd also like to know whether my cat is fully evolved as a species. She certainly gives every impression of having pretty much everything she needs. Following on from this, I'd also like to know whether humans are the final step in the primate evolutionary ladder, or whether there will be another species running the world one day while we get locked up in zoos and forced to smoke cigarettes in laboratories. I'd die a happy man with answers to these questions.

Hey look! I wrote that thing about what space "expands into" and here he goes and wonders about exactly that! It's incredible. Again, these are questions that you could find out the answers to by googling -- they are not unsolved mysteries for the Royal Society to get around to. Here's an idea: instead of wondering aloud about your own ignorance in a national newspaper, why don't you just read a book about it? There are zillions of books about cosmology written for a popular audience. And then there is that nonsense about cat evolution that just demonstrates he doesn't know the basics of biology either. Why didn't the person who took down this quote just tell him that those aren't open questions? I am so annoyed by this guy getting his uninquisitive musings published that instead of kindly explaining them in the patient and eloquent manner that I am known for, I am going to dismissively and angrily jot down responses to each of the questions he poses. In order:
- There just can
- The idea of something being "outside the universe" is meaningless: counterfactual
- No and no
- Counterfactual
- All living animals are "fully evolved"
- There is no "final" step in evolution, species don't evolve "toward" something, they evolve to adapt to or flourish in their environment.

There, I just solved 10% of the mysteries of the universe.

Ironically, by seemingly not having anyone edit these, they're contributing to the science-education problems that two of the prescient commenters pointed out! With garbage like this, how are the people there better educated on science issues? I would genuinely like to know...maybe without researching it, I should try to get my pointless witterings published in a newspaper and then someone will tell me...

Guardian - Ten Questions Science Must Answer

October 20, 2010

Sensitive Female Chord Progression

From Here and Now on NPR a while ago, the revelation that many many songs have the same boring pattern. Having heard it explained, you will be forever cursed with the knowledge that these songs are derivative garbage.

Entertainment writer Marc Hirsh has been noticing the same chord progression in a large number of rock and pop hits over the past few years. He’s dubbed it the “Sensitive Female Chord Progression” because he first heard it in songs like Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery”. But guys can play it too.

Here and Now [Mar 4, 2009 -- scroll down to the fifth story to hear it]

And as a related issue, nearly the same theme explored as a comic rant against Pachelbel's cannon (which doubtlessly has it coming)

October 17, 2010

The Modern Insane, Illegal, Fairly Pointless Cannonball Run

This is in no way timely, but I recently re-encountered this story and thought I would be deficient in not posting this article I saw a couple years ago, about the people attempting to record the fastest ever time crossing the American continent on land, for no purpose other than impressing their other independently wealthy, overcompensating, friends. The time to beat is 32 hrs 7 min (amazingly) from New York City to LA*. They have an enormous array of radar equipment, several co-pilots, at some points, an effing helicopter, and are regularly traveling at 100-140 mph along the normal highways. The technology is primarily aimed at averting police detection, because not only would it slow them down, but at these speeds they cross over into the kind of territory where you don't get speeding tickets anymore. Furthermore, even if they do accomplish it, they have to wait several years to claim the title, until the various statutes of limitation expire in the states where they have been recklessly endangering. Not to mention regularly outrunning the police who spot them. "To beat the record, Roy has calculated that he needs to maintain an average of almost exactly 90 mph from Manhattan to the Santa Monica Pier. For occasional spurts, 90 is not uncommon on the highway. But for a day and a half of barreling across the United States, 90 miles per hour is essentially insane...As a Cannonballer makes his way across the continent, the accumulation of his time and speed forms a rising and falling curve called a running average. For every second spent below his 90-mph target, Roy will need to compensate by investing a second going faster than that average."

I don't think I have much to say about this, of my own, other than that although I can't really see the point of this kind of thing, and I would never want to be friends with any of these people, because they're probably way more into Vin Diesel than I could ever be comfortable with-- it is impossible to ignore how rare this kind of maniacal devotion to anything is. The story is just so strange and incredible that it is surprising that it isn't better known.

Wired - The Pedal-to-the-Metal, Totally Illegal, Cross-Country Sprint for Glory

*Or one of those annoying outskirt towns that is essentially the same thing.

Electric Box 2

A quality waste of time. By which I mean that it is a quality way of wasting time, by trying to be smart.

Electric Box 2

September 21, 2010

Volcano Tornado!


Stephen & Donna O’Meara explain the chaos in above photograph: “As the hot eruption cloud swirls, a vortex is created that spins off rare volcanic cyclones. As red rivers of lava pour into the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano, huge explosions blast fragments of hot lava and cinder upwards 1,000 feet or more. These pieces of fragmented lava are called tephra –the booming tephra explosions create arcs of color during long exposures. During the daylight hours the hot lava looks black. As sun goes down it begins to glow red and a vast steam clouds form as it meets with ocean water.”

[Visual Science at Discover]

August 27, 2010

Moher, Moore, More

Been traveling a bit lately. In June I went to Ireland, the land of my impoverished potato-farming lineage. When we visited Cobh in County Cork, the departure point* for most Irish emigrants to the US, we saw this statue depicting Annie Moore and her brothers out on the former site of the pier. Ms. Moore was the first person to pass through Ellis Island. Someone shoved her to the front of the line saying "Ladies first!" and an official gave her a $10 coin. Her brother is oriented so as to be pointing directly at New York City. So naturally, there is a picture of me with it, looking like a zombie:

It is a bit weird then that there should be a statue of her in Ireland, since her importance seems primarily Ellis Island related. But that is because this is just one half of a pair of statues, with the other one being in New York! So somewhat by coincidence, when I was in New York last week, we went to see the other one:

I'm trying to imitate her pose, but it just looks like I'm saluting -- an appropriate compliment to the other inexplicable photo. We expected the NY statue to be a mirror image of the Cork version, but disappointingly, she isn't even facing her twin. And where are her brothers? I want a $10 coin.

*My ancestors likely spent their brief time there nervous and heartbroken, I wandered around taking pictures of goofy wax figures and having a lovely toasted sandwich. Isn't history fun! (Advice: Get a sandwich at the Cobh Heritage museum, they're dynamite).

'Roid Rage

Asteroids that is. And they're not actually angry. They're just being discovered from 1980-2010. It's cool to see that many objects in orbit over time, who doesn't like a little Kepler's Law in action?

From YouTuber's szyzyg's description:

The final colour of an asteroids indicates how closely it comes to the inner solar system.
Earth Crossers are Red
Earth Approachers (Perihelion less than 1.3AU) are Yellow
All Others are Green

Notice now the pattern of discovery follows the Earth around its orbit, most discoveries are made in the region directly opposite the Sun. You'll also notice some clusters of discoveries on the line between Earth and Jupiter, these are the result of surveys looking for Jovian moons. Similar clusters of discoveries can be tied to the other outer planets, but those are not visible in this video.

At the beginning of 2010 a new discovery pattern becomes evident, with discovery zones in a line perpendicular to the Sun-Earth vector. These new observations are the result of the WISE (Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer) which is a space mission that's tasked with imaging the entire sky in infrared wavelengths.

Currently we have observed over half a million minor planets, and the discovery rates snow no sign that we're running out of undiscovered objects.

[via Neil deGrasse Tyson]

August 23, 2010

Fluorine: It tastes like burning

This is the first I've seen of Dr. Martyn Poliakoff's Periodic Table of Videos but it's a good one. Each video is about an element, and this one focuses on Fluorine, one of those non-heavy elements that you still don't see very much of because of its extreme reactivity. That reactivity is on display in this as they use it to burn through steel wool and charcoal -- just by squirting it at them, even in cold, liquid form.

Unlike most chemistry, this video comes with a moral: don't mess with fluorine.

[via BB]

August 11, 2010

Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule

Mr Rodriguez contemplating the
implications of the Supreme Court's
1972 Flood v. Kuhn ruling which
upheld Major League Baseball's
exemption from anti-trust litigation,
despite what many observers
considered an 'overly strict'
reliance on stare decisis
...and Chien-Ming Wang's rash.
While carrying out my usual research on the broader public importance of obscure facits of baseball I happened across this unusual legal article that explains, in excessively footnoted detail, the legal and societal precidents for the adoption of the Infield Fly Rule. For those sociopathic Americans who don't tivo spring training games, or humans who are from that wild and lawless land that isn't America, the Infield Fly Rule states that when there are less than two outs and runners on first and second, the batter is automatically out if he hits a pop-fly that could be easily caught by an infielder -- whether or not the infielder actually catches it. This prevents the defense from intentionally dropping the fly ball to make a double-play. The runners in this situation have no choice but to stand near their respective bags, assuming the ball will be caught, and then in the event that it isn't, would be too far from advancing to 3rd and 2nd to avoid an easy double play. It's baseball's equivalent of the en passant.

The article, (which was published anonymously and later revealed to have been written by then law-student William S. Stevens), describes the invention and evolution of the rule in the 1890's in a scholarly/mock-scholarly tone that apes similar, less light-hearted works with overt formality. A footnote on the word "origin" reads:

6: For a discussion of origins, see generally Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1927). Genisis 1:1-2:9. But see even more generally Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968); R. ARDREY, AFRICAN GENESIS (1961); C. DARWIN, THE DECENT OF MAN (1871); C. DARWIN, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (1859).
Stevens mainly describes how the rule developed out of a widespread desire to preserve the 'gentlemanly' nature of the sport, and was later modified with the same goal in mind -- for instance by reducing the role that umpires originally had in enforcing it, whereby they would make a ruling on who was out and where they runners ought to be after the play had taken place. Since this could cause arguments (and a purpose of the rule is to let the game play out with everyone playing to their best abilities) it was changed so that the umpire calls it and gestures during the play, to put everyone on equal footing. Also interesting is his retelling of how the calls for such a rule arose out of a game in 1893 where an infielder intentionally allowed a fly to drop with a runner on first, but only in order to catch the runner because he was faster than the batter. He got only a single out, not two, merely substituting a fast runner on first for a fat, slow one, and this isn't even a situation that the rule applies to! And once this tactic had been realized, similar plays seemed to have the umpire calling out the runner regardless of the fact that there was no rule against intentional drops.

Evidently, there are a number of parallels between the standards that established the IFR and those that formed English Common Law. I'm not an expert on historical legal questions, but the comparisons he makes are fairly broad, so I doubt that they are too controversial. The idea that the academic world was begging for a comparison of these two things is a little more far-fetched, but it's still a great topic, due to the amount of analysis you can do on such an obscure rule.

Still, I can't help but wonder about one thing -- he rightly points out that the nature of baseball has its roots in 19th century English sporting culture, that it's intended goal was more about exercise and camaraderie than competition. The attitudes of this society and era, to "[keep] the rules simple and [allow] moral force to govern the game" is apparent in many aspects of modern baseball. For simplicity there are things like the fact that there are no rules about where fielders can stand (or that there are even any codified differences between them), or knocking over fielders covering a base (as long as you're not unnecessarily violent about it) what constitutes a pitch (the eephus counts), a strike, a fair ball, etc. There are even more examples of moral impulses codified in the rules*: balks, catcher's interference, crowd interference, uproar about sign-stealing, slapping at balls during a tantrum. It's not a rule, but people even get upset about running over the mound when you're not supposed to. Not to mention steroids. Hmmm...a lot of these things are A-Rod related...

Anyway, the thing that I think I disagree with him about is the notion that these attitudes are primarily English. I don't doubt that they were originally, but if that is true, why does baseball, which has been developing in the US for at least 150 years, retain a strong sense that right and wrong are important to the sport while soccer, which was also arose out of this gentlemanly English attitude of fair play (and is most popular there) is more rife with unpunished deception and fake injuries than pretty much all other sports?

"Aside, The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule," anonymous, 123 Univ. Penn. Law Review 1474 (1975).

*The primary counter-example to the moral prohibition against trickery in baseball that springs to mind is the hidden-ball trick, but it's overruled by the opposing desire for simplicity.

Battletrek Generatica

Some awesome bootleg covers that require no commentary:

A good-hearted tween comedy! [via Nerdist]

And this [via GammaSquad], which looks like it would probably be way more awesome than real Phantom Menace:

August 3, 2010

Some Reminders

-Like all (science) graduate students, I am woefully behind everything happening in the world of entertainment. So even though it's probably not news to anyone normal, I was surprised to find out recently that there is a Facebook movie coming out soon. I can't think of anything other than this:


And as usual I can remember the wild early days of Facebook where that "Too close for missiles, I'm switching to guns" tag-line comes from. Back before they started changing everything and letting in all the riff-raff who didn't go to Elite East-Coast Colleges.

I'd also like to point out, as I usually do in these circumstances, that the guy who founded facebook dated my ex-girlfriend's suitemate when we were freshmen at our Elite East-Coast Colleges. The only thing I remember about him was that he made an incorrect, but still lame, joke about trigonometry while playing frisbee in the common room. He said tangent when he should have used sine...or nothing. Also, that that girl dumped him shortly before he created that website and became a billionaire.

-I found out a few days ago that the expression "kid gloves" deals with gloves made from the skin of young goats -- not the kind of kids who are young humans. Please adjust your speech accordingly.

-I am sure that I have learned many other delayed or otherwise interesting things recently, but I've been busy doing astronomy stuff, and more importantly, programming, so that I can reduce images without having to think about each step of the process manually. For some reason, scientific (or even basic) programming is not yet part of any physics curriculum, though it seems like the primary thing many of us spend out time on. I've had to learn how to use various things, but never formally, and almost always in the context of "figure out how to do this for your job." It seems as though somewhere around your 3rd or 4th year of undergrad, professors start assuming that you know how to use most command-line programs, or write code in fortran or C, despite there never being any (even suggested) instruction on these things. Plus, many intro comp-sci classes tend to cover topics that are mainly useless to science majors. I wish my college had had some kind of "Unix-study abroad" style immersion program where that was the only way they let you communicate. (Hey, at least we'd get to travel...) I've gradually gotten proficient, but it's a lot more painful when you don't know how to phrase your (surely) stupid questions to get an answer out of the internet. Fluent or not, at least the end result is pretty:

July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July!