April 27, 2007

Futuristic homework somehow manages to make my homework seem even worse

Here I am, up late on a Friday night doing homework, and I must say, it is not nearly as much fun as it looks in this future-depicting illustration from the 80's. No floating cars, no hologram phones, and no hilarious orange homework machines. I am very disappointed in you, "scientists." The page says that "homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books." Um, if your idea of "an electronic game" is Mathematica.

I've been looking for an excuse to credit Paleo-Future with something for a while. They write about all manner of old-fashioned visions of the future belonging to the categories: (a) Predictions That Were Hilariously Wrong, (b) Predictions That We All Wish Had Already Come True And Are Pretty Sad About Not Fulfilling Yet, and (c) Predictions That Look Really Neat. I considered reviewing this extremely prescient list about what may change in the 100 years following 1900, but didn't get around to it before all the really "cool" blogs noticed it, so I didn't want to seem like one of those posers who just reposts whatever they saw on BoingBoing that morning ("Knit Cthulhu cup-holders? The world must know!"). In most of those mentions, people seemed to generally be making fun of the list, printed in that famed Periodical of Record, The Ladies Home Journal, which I found somewhat astonishing. Although they use sort of imprecise language they foresee the instant transmission of photographs all over the world, increase in average height, refrigerated food and ready-made meals, the population (if there had been no World Wars), automobiles instead of horses, wireless telephones, Major news events "brought within focus of cameras connected electronically, with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span." Plus a lot of things we would take for granted now, but which would be practically unthinkable then, like frequent transportation of tropical fruits to cold climates, financial aid at universities for poor people (mostly true), little study of Latin (unfortunately true), music transmitted into people's homes, and air conditioning. A few things are off, but not in a way that would be idiotic if you actually bothered to put yourself in the context of that time. They are looking one hundred years into the future, and the worst predictions they make are that "airships," though they will exist, will not be used for everyday travel and freight; Pneumatic tubes will be used extensively; and C, X and Q will no longer be in the alphabet. "Airships" hadn't even been invented, pneumatic tubes should be used extensively, and the letter C sucks big time. There is some stuff we really could do too if we wanted, like grow gigantic fruit, but when you actually look over what they have, it is pretty impressive, and parts of it just sound silly because they are using the vernacular of the world they are accustomed too, and don't have words like "television." I'd give it an A-, I don't think many of us could do better.

April 26, 2007

Matter or Energy? You Decide.

Our Greatest Living American takes down Einstein. "Relativity is just science's way of flip-flopping. Space or time. Mass or energy. Which is it? Pick a side. We're at war."

Today's Neutrino Picture

I love neutrino detectors and I don't care if the whole world knows it. They are huge containers that get filled up with special super water and buried inside mountains or mines. Plus, the idea of going deep underground to do astronomy that relies on detecting individual photons is just intrinsically amusing. Andrew Jaffe points out this astonishing photo taken inside the Super-Kamiokande tank by some photographer guy. Evidently the man is quite renowned for his work, which seems to mostly involve massive scenes like those synchronized North Korean demonstrations.

It seems kind of like he's just taking pictures of things that are already interesting, but I am unrefined. I can't wait until neutrino detectors are the size of TV's, and they retire the Super-K and let people go swimming in it.

April 25, 2007

Colloquium Drawing of the Week 9

Colloquium Drawing of the Week 9.

The pressure to turn these things out is killing me.

April 24, 2007

Carina Nebula: Eat it APOD!

I am going to take a page out of Zosia's book and post this fantastic panorama of the Carina Nebula just released by Hubble. Amazingly, the area in this photo of constant starbirth actually spans 50 light-years. It consists of 48 pictures incorporated seamlessly together with "Red correspond[ing] to sulfur, green to hydrogen, and blue to oxygen emission." It will almost certainly be tomorrow's Astronomy Picture of the Day, so it gives me pleasure to preempt them like this, as imaginary revenge for this time, when they beat me to an awesome photo of the Orion Bullet Pillars. Plus, I turned it on its side and enbiggened it, because I know enough to tell that it doesn't matter which side is up. Unlike those APOD jerks...

Update: As usual, we were right. Now the question becomes, why is APOD so afraid to admit that they were beaten to the punch?

April 23, 2007

Further Adventures in broadcasting

Due to the programming mysteries of NPR I just managed to spend half an hour listening to people discussing the French presidential election. (I don't exactly know what the point of running for any sort of office in France is, they must not realize that the government is in Washington.) All I care about? What they plan to do about the prices at Au Bon Pain.

Adventures in broadcasting

It isn't enough that we have to put up with Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver in these nationally broadcast games, now we've got to deal with bizarre technical problems. One of the irritating parts of these games in the first place is those green-screen ads behind home plate that hover artificially over the background and bleed into the uniforms of surrounding players. In the spectrum of life's annoyances these things come in somewhere in between used straw wrappers and the slightly reduced stickiness of tape that required additional effort to tear. Some weird phenomenon in the later innings of yesterday's game was more interesting than irritating though. Ordinarily, the ad takes up only its designated rectangular area, which is a distinctly lighter shade of green than the wall. But some glitch caused the camera to view all of the backstop as it's target area, and while it showed a black SportsCenter ad, the entire wall behind home was dark black. It isn't so easy to see in the picture, but I assure you, when they contrasted clips from before they went to these black ads it changed drastically. It wasn't lighting or anything like that, it ought to the same color as the dark grass. I have never seen this happen before, the only mistakes I've ever seen with these devices are when someone happens to be wearing exactly the same color, but that is clearly not the case here. Somehow the "color sensitivity" got reduced really far without affecting anything other than the backstop. I also guess that the frame of reference for the banner has nothing to do with borders and relies on something totally different, probably some type of software that can tell the orientation of camera. Of course, with the way the Sox were hitting last night, they could have avoided all this trouble by simply pointing the stupid thing at Lansdowne St. and going out for a pizza.

Antipodes Attract

From Strange Maps, a blog documenting the cartographical oddities of the world, comes this chart of Earth's prime tunneling locations. The dark blue indicates antipodes, the places that you could go straight through the planet and come out the other side. As usual, real life disappoints by placing most of the places that I live opposite some useless ocean. Most of the dry land located in opposition is in one of those second-rate hemispheres, like the "Southern" or the "Eastern." Lame. Imagine the disappointment of someone trying to dig their way out of Siberia and ending up in Antarctica.

They are also smart in pointing out this Earth sandwich project: a group committed to the idea of placing slices of bread at precisely opposite points of the planet at exactly the same moment. [It was achieved between folks in Spain and New Zealand.]

Other Strange Map highlights include the most generic map ever, the last surviving territory of East Germany, and the secret Soviet plan to remove the entirety of North America, to name a few.

April 22, 2007

(One of) The dark underbelly(s) of elite schools

At least in the Physics community, there seems to be a great deal of emphasis on the under-representation of women. There is also some concern about the lack of minorities. Coming in at a distant 3rd, if it is discussed at all, is the difficulty of coming from a modest background. I am probably biased, but based on my experience, I believe the latter to be at least as big a handicap as the first two. Someone out there will probably hate me for saying this, and obviously I'm not any sort of expert here, but I think the main reason for the lack of females has more to do with societal expectations or pressure before matriculating to universities, rather than marginalizing attitudes once they are there. (Some of my other thoughts on this matter are already well known.) The sort of old-fashioned sexist professors often imagined to be influencing this disparity are a dying breed, and they are being replaced by the sort of diversity-minded people who write op-eds and hold conferences about women in science in the first place. There is a lot of attention paid to that issue, as well as scholarships, preferential programs, etc. -- all things which are important -- while there is basically no attention paid to the difficulty of coming up through a system that is totally unfamiliar to anyone whose parents have never, under any circumstances, imagined that they would one day be in the position to buy a Volvo. Rather, the academic mainstays are the folks who were fortunate to be guided by parents who are intellectuals of one type or another, and who probably at least "considered" getting a PhD themselves. Growing up, I was frequently warned about the price of those "really good" colleges by my folks, and later about grad school, which they were surprised to find out was not something I would need to pay for myself. The uncertainty of never knowing whether the rug is going to be yanked out from under you definitely has a stifling effect on academic achievement.

This isn't a woe-is-me post. My upbringing was never very uncomfortable and my folks made a point of fostering intellectual development. But I was one of the people fortunate to have parents who were trying, there is no chance I would be on my way to a PhD program if they didn't undertake the tremendous effort of shuffling me around to decent schools and supporting my desire to go on to a career they knew almost nothing about. This is all a very roundabout way of getting to this excellent article from the NY Times Book Review on the way "income inequality" manifests itself at elite colleges. It is a bit more serious and scolding than the kind of stuff I usually point to...

[C]ampus liberals far prefer the soft issues of racial and gender diversity to such hard issues as the effect on American working families of cheap foreign labor or the gross inequities of a public school system funded by local property taxes, or, closer to home, the failure of their own institutions to recruit and support more talented students with no money. I have met very few faculty members who, even as they agitate for far-flung social causes, care to look closely at the admissions policies of their own institutions.

...but it considering the unfortunate rarity of such articles, it is worth pointing out.

Topography of Ignorance

So, obviously I made some changes. "Fish Heal Thyself" had been a non-sequitur and was always intended as a temporary name. But then you've got it there and you've got better things to do than think about what you should title your Very Special and Important Weblog and before you know it it's been two years. I decided though that I should try making things look more sciency so as to bring the title and appearance more in line with the general theme (at least when I'm not writing about potatoes and SkyMall). Ten points to anyone who recognizes the origin of my old banner (there's an example here).

The new title comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes (the physician and essayist, not the Supreme Court Justice) who once wrote that

Science is the topography of ignorance. From a few elevated points we triangulate vast spaces, including infinite unknown details. We cast the lead, and draw up a little sand from abysses we may never reach with our dredges. The best part of our knowledge is that which teaches us where knowledge leaves off and ignorance begins.

I have always considered this attitude to be the boldest aspect of the scientific philosophy. The devotion to doubt and uncertainty to be one of the things that I find so great about the discourse in physics and astronomy; I am not big on pretense in any aspect of life, and I am not sure whether it is the cause or effect of my love of science, but it is certainly somehow related. A frank assessment of one's limits of knowledge is at the very core of scientific work -- and not just in an abstract way either. I am not so uncynical to think that everyone in these fields is perfectly without biases, but as the ideal to be striven for, this sort of commitment to staunch honesty is such a wonderful and unique thing in our history. And when I stumbled across that quote a few weeks ago it just stuck with me. "Topography of Ignorance" just seemed like such a succinct and clever way of saying it, and with knowing-what-you-don't-know being my favorite principle of my chosen field of study, it seemed like a pretty good title for a website that I use to write about lobsters and the gyroball.

April 20, 2007

Left-wingers now regulating Earth's rotation

From the "I hope this is satire" category, a letter to the editors of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, on the far-ranging effects of extending daylight by an hour each day. Regulating foreign and interstate commerce, levying taxation, declaring war, ratifying treaties, approving judicial nominees, and now apparently, specifying the rate of the Earth's rotation...are among the roles of the U.S. Congress.

You may have noticed that March of this year was particularly hot. As a matter of fact, I understand that it was the hottest March since the beginning of the last century. All of the trees were fully leafed out and legions of bugs and snakes were crawling around during a time in Arkansas when, on a normal year, we might see a snowflake or two.

This should come as no surprise to any reasonable person. As you know, Daylight Saving Time started almost a month early this year. You would think that members of Congress would have considered the warming effect that an extra hour of daylight would have on our climate. Or did they?

Perhaps this is another plot by a liberal Congress to make us believe that global warming is a real threat. Perhaps next time there should be serious studies performed before Congress passes laws with such far-reaching effects.

Curse these big-government liberals meddling in the amount of sunlight to callously increase Al Gore's dvd sales! Today, more daylight, tomorrow they'll blot out the sun over the red states!

Automated Spam: the truest art form of our time

Poetry is basically dead. It was pretty cool back when there was no way of disseminating auditory or visual arts. But nowadays all the brightest minds are drawn to the far superior media of film or music or photography or prose. Or sculpture. Or pork chops. Seriously, can anyone name the most recent Poet Laureate? Or any Poet Laureate other than Frost or Angelou?

The correct answer is "no." If you do know more than one or two other ones, go away and write a haiku about how I'm being arrogant and hateful. Anyhow, poetry seriously needs some kind of jolt. An impetus. Some competition perhaps?

It is a sad commentary on the low quality of modern poetry that I when I read spam emails I am immediately reminded of "abstract" verse. Sure, highly-trained professionals can extract some meaning from the human-generated variety that isn't present in the random, computer-generated doggerel. But could they really distinguish between the two in a blind trial? I doubt it, Alan Ginsberg.

Here is what I mean. The only changes I've made are the line breaks (which seem to be where most of the meaning is conveyed anyway, an probably the reason this works):

Secret, by anywhere

Stuff accessible backups,
Shadow happened overwrite, certain file undo.
Deliver safer, reliable, produce.
Lovingly refer: kill switch prompted.

Ago indicator was locked, addition.
Say it should.
Kill switch, fail constantly!

I can really sense the author's existential angst. Oh, it was written by a random spam generator? How embarrassing for me, enlightened arbiter of culture.

Awarded, by MCE Samarsurf

East tells the story the night became.
Smoker presets, autotuner perfection tweaker?
Scheme devised, reverting, reduced.

Vittrke modified text, see!
Antique wood, boats lockers?
Mentions package caution, replace happens.

The sad thing is that both of these are far superior to anything that William Carlos Williams ever wrote. Yet, is it so sad that we now have computers spraying out emails with this (to use a clichéd expression) "uniquely American" artform? Could anything be more characteristic of this brave new era when computers do, sloppily, so many of our other tasks? A melange of verbiage delivered daily to--

OK, that's enough of that.

April 18, 2007

A Colbert by its own Light

Earlier this night I watched the Colbert Report while eating Stephen Colbert-flavored Americone Dream Ben & Jerry's.

In a moment of hyper-literate acuity I was reminded of the passage in Moby Dick about eating a whale steak by a lamp of whale oil. "Eating the whale by its own light," as Melville puts it, in the chapter about The Whale as a Dish. My experience was equally compelling.

Slate Magazine now ripping me off

Two days ago I wrote about some of Airline catalog SkyMall's finer products. Today, Slate's Ron Rosenbaum pens an article pointing out many of the same absurdities. Coincidence? I think not.

Of course, his piece contains a bunch of nonsense about how the existential anxiety of flying leads to the catalog's obsession with fancy watches. Not to mention a gratuitously dumb reference to event horizons and a weird connection between chicken wings and American imperium. As usual, in the process of stealing from me, Slate has watered-down what I wrote and stuck in a bunch of moronic platitudes.

April 17, 2007

Dear Radioactive Ladies and Gentlemen!

On of the few innovations in science to emerge from correspondence, rather than any kind of scholarly publication, the neutrino got its start in a timid letter. In 1930, Wolfgang Pauli, thought he may have had the solution to why energy seemed to be missing from the beta decay process. But he was afraid to propose it publicly for fear that observing his suggested neutral particle would be impossible. (Since it took 20 years to do to observe it at all, and another 30 to do it well this concern seems to be well-founded.) Symmetry, that slick monthly of particle physics has an article about his original letter, sent to nuclear physicists of the day, about to convene at some important conference. It is this letter for which he is credited as the father of the neutrino, even though the theory was mostly developed by Fermi. They have translated this neutrino Declaration of Independence.

I have hit upon a desperate remedy to save…the law of conservation of energy.

But so far I do not dare to publish anything about this idea, and trustfully turn first to you, dear radioactive ones, with the question of how likely it is to find experimental evidence for such a neutron…

I admit that my remedy may seem almost improbable because one probably would have seen those neutrons, if they exist, for a long time. But nothing ventured, nothing gained…

It is interesting to see how cautious and guarded Pauli is regarding the invention of a particle whose existence now seems obvious. The prevailing alternate solution to the beta-decay missing-energy problem at the time was that momentum was not conserved. Considering that people argued this seriously, it is amusing that somebody suggesting a light neutral particle would worry about sounding ridiculous.

Slice of the Day

This year's Patriot's Day game was severely disappointing compared with last year's. There was that lousy rain delay forcing the game from its unique AM start, generally crappy weather onwards, and unlike the 2006 walk-off HR, this year's game was basically decided in the first inning. All of which may have been contributing the rage that bubbled over yesterday in the form of an unprovoked pizza throw.

During an unsuccessful reach for a fly ball in the left field stands, some poor guy had a slice of cheese pizza lobbed at him for no clear reason. As we all knew it would be, the moment was notorious enough to warrant an entire column in the Herald today:

“I’ve never caught a foul ball in my life,” said Brookline’s Sole, 30, between innings. “It’s been my dream to catch one. That’s the closest I’ve ever come. The pizza just thwarted it.”

Tragic. But of course, tragedy + time = comedy, and since the tragedy here was rather small it only took about a minute for Remy and Orsillo to start combing over the footage like the Zapruder Film. The moment where they spontaneously stick that "Pepsi Fan of the Game" underneath him, priceless.

April 16, 2007


I've been perusing the SkyMall catalog online.

A reason that I don't specifically recall made me think of it recently (maybe I spied a magnetic eraser caddy somewhere) and I decided I had to check whether the catalog has a non-airborne website. Amazingly, it does, despite the obvious disadvantage they face when pawning their useless products to a group of people who are neither captive, desperately lacking reading material, terrified of flying, or oxygen-deprived. Needless to say the website is just full of splendor as what you've seen on flights.

I don't think we can say that these items are overpriced per se because no one else bothers to try selling electronic salt & pepper shakers to rich half-wits. Only SkyMall understands the untapped potential of the remarkable type of person who would willingly buy such a thing. I cannot imagine what their board meetings are like. Nothing is too ridiculous, too expensive, too pointless! Everything is approved!

Here are some such selected products, and please keep in mind that I was not particularly discriminant in selecting them. There is just so much there, it would not be hard to make a blog out of just these...

Inflatable Movie Screen

Bring the magic of the big screen to your backyard!
120" -diagonal Airblown Inflatable Movie Screen is perfect for family movie nights and block parties, because everyone in the party can see it all on this big screen out in your backyard! Screen can be set up and inflated in minutes, and includes everything you need: two UL-listed inflating blowers, stakes, tethers, even a storage bag.

Toothbrush Sterilizer

Did you know that you can get sick from your own toothbrush? It's true. When you have a cold or flu, your germs continue to live in the wet bristles even after you've recovered. Now you can sterilize your toothbrush daily - before, during and after any bout with a cold or flu. The OralTec sterilizes toothbrushes quickly, easily and safely using plain tap water to kill the germs and bacteria that cause colds, flu and a multitude of other infections. In just minutes the water poured into the chambers is heated to sterilizing temperature of up to 212 degrees F. You will be promoting good oral hygiene for your entire family by sterilizing your toothbrushes every time you brush. A must for every healthy home!

Scientific veracity: extremely questionable. Germs may live on for a short time in your toothbrush, but by the time you get better, you have already built up antibodies to them. It seems more likely that regularly boiling a plastic brush and bristles and then putting it in your mouth would have largely negative health effects. Then again, for $80 it must be really important.

Garage Door Threshold
$44.99 - $89.99

Pretty self-explanatory -- weather stripping for your garage. For those of us who live in our garages, or at least have a strong compulsion to make the car-hold airtight, a godsend. What kind of person doesn't go to the hardware store for this kind of thing? Oh right, the kind of person who would buy anything from The SkyMall.

See, that is the best thing about this catalog: it constantly begs the question "who is buying this stuff?" Not just rich people, not just idiots, a special combination of the two. Folks who somehow have enough money to throw it away on pointless garbage, and yet, somehow still have money. I have no understanding of this cross-over demographic. It reminds me of the Seinfeld bit about a warning on a Superman costume that says the cape cannot actually make you fly. Who can read but not figure out that dressing up as a superhero doesn't allow you to fly? Or, more appropriate to this blog, warnings that come on high-end telescopes to not look at the sun. I cannot imagine a person smart enough to balance their checkbook, but dumb enough to think they need a $200 device to monitor the temperature in the basement. Who are these people?

April 14, 2007

Biochemistry with the Stars!

I am lifting my ban on chemistry humor (?) to show this.
I've always been of the opinion that intractable problems can be solved by cloaking them in the form of a homework assignment or contest. I think the producers would be pleasantly surprised with the results here...


April 13, 2007

Colloquium Drawing of the Week 8

1816 all over again

Scene from my front door

Dear Invisible Overlords,
Please adjust the dial on the clandestine weather-controlling machine. Yes, yes, we all get the joke, but you are going to give it away with these freaky mid-April snow days. Al invented this thing for a reason. If you don't reset it to "Unseasonable Warmth" right away our secret plan to establish an all-powerful world government under the guise of environmental protectionism will not succeed. Remember that our goal is "the replacement of individual free choice and free markets with a collective that has the power to exterminate anyone and anything on behalf of a rational government model that justifies all actions without resort to bourgeois notions of morality." That's a tall order, and it'll never happen unless it gets warmer, not just haphazardly swings between extremes at unexpected times of year.

I feel like I am living on a glacier. This is never going to work.

Conspirator #4757

(cc: Al Gore)

April 12, 2007


Dynamics of Cats predicts the next Milky Way supernova. They occur within a galaxy of our size every 50-100 years on average, and yet we haven't seen one on our side of the galaxy for at least three centuries, which means we're due* [*statistically ignorant statement added for effect]. He goes on to note that several important instruments which would be extremely nice to have around if a supernova goes off, will be going off-line themselves in 2008-2009. Thereby ensuring that such an event will take place during that time, through the inescapable tenets of Murphy's Law. Among the observatories closing for business:

  • LIGO (Gravity Waves) - Shutting down for upgrades, 18 months begining late 2007.

  • ALLEGRO (Gravity Waves) - Shutting down permanently due to lack of funding.

  • Spitzer (Infrared Space Telescope) - Soon to be out of coolant (?!)
Meanwhile, Hubble is still missing its main camera, with only mixed efforts for rehabilitation (newsflash: space missions are dangerous) and the Webb Telescope not online until ~2013. There'll still be all the usual ground based radio, IR, optical, Chandra etc. But it is certainly troubling that we're coming up on this gravity wave blackout as well as a shaky Hubble and Spitzer -- all simultaneously. So if a supernova during this time explodes we'll be missing out on a lot of interesting kinds of data.

Of course, SNEWS is going strong, and with approximately 35 neutrino detectors working all the time we're pretty much covered there. Unless they all spontaneously break again. Too bad neutrinos get no respect.

Obligatory MiniBooNE Post

In accordance with established internet protocol, anyone who writes even peripherally about physics is required to draw attention to today's MiniBooNE result. They announced the results this morning and one of the researchers wrote a cool guest post at Cosmic Variance.

From the Fermilab Press Release:

Currently, three types or “flavors” of neutrinos are known to exist: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. In the last 10 years, several experiments have shown that neutrinos can oscillate from one flavor to another and back. The observations made by the LSND collaboration also suggested the presence of neutrino oscillation, but in a neutrino mass region vastly different from other experiments. Reconciling the LSND observations with the oscillation results of other neutrino experiments would have required the presence of a fourth, or “sterile” type of neutrino, with properties different from the three standard neutrinos. The existence of sterile neutrinos would throw serious doubt on the current structure of particle physics, known as the Standard Model of Particles and Forces. Because of the far-reaching consequences of this interpretation, the LSND findings cried out for independent verification.

...verification which it didn't get. Basically, the MiniBooNE experiment was conducted to explain some weird results from another experiment, LSND, possible evidence for sterile neutrinos. Basically, unlike regular neutrinos, which are constantly flitting about and interfering with daily life (not!), sterile neutrinos interact even less, which is to say: not at all. The Sterile Neutrino has been a theoretical digression for most of its career -- the kind of caveat absent-mindedly appended to many statements about neutrino-related scenarios. "...and that is the result we get...unless another species of neutrinos are steaming ineffably through their own unobservable astral plane." Hopefully, the days of that are over. The whole purpose of blogging is to harangue the masses with hyperbolic opinions, so here is one: sterile neutrino theories suck. There, I said it. I'm glad that this result rules against this lame, contrived model.

Wow, that was pointless. I think I'm done being a loudmouth. I'm going to go back to being facetious.

April 11, 2007

L'Enfant Terrible

The Washington Post recently conducted a very funny social experiment. They got one of the world's finest violinists, Joshua Bell, to pose as a street musician and play in D.C.'s L'Enfant subway station as mid-level federal bureaucrats made their way to work. Several days earlier he had sold out a Boston concert hall where seats went for over $100, and the goal of the experiment was to see, I suppose, whether these Washingtonians would form some kind of classical music appreciating flash mob. Or at least stop and listen at higher rates than usual.

He chose some of the hardest and most beautiful pieces of music, played his heart out (as you can hear at the article site), and, predictably, attracted little attention. Yawn. It is supposed to be a revelation that when it comes to cultural knowledge most people are phoning it in these days?

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

. . .
"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

"...ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

The saddest part is probably the bit about every single passing child wanting to listen and being dragged off by their parents. The whole article is fascinating and the video of it is indeed difficult to watch, especially since it lets you hear how beautiful his playing was, even in that weird acoustic environment.

Not surprisingly, (and I think I'm prettymuch alone here), I don't agree with most of the obvious interpretations of this event. No one ever gets tired of pointing out how degenerate our modern lives are -- regardless of when "modern" is taking place. When I first read this story, it reminded me a bit of something I wrote about last summer, where a blind taste-test showed that sommeliers couldn't tell regular wine from super-fancy wine without seeing the label. It was a nice little trial because it exposed some of the phoniness of pretentious wine people and confirmed what we all know to be true: that lines like "I detect a slight hint of peachy zest" are completely worthless. But is this the same thing? That people who flout their extensive knowledge of classical music, and would spend hundreds for a night in a gilded concert hall wouldn't recognize Joshua Bell, or even drop a buck in his violin case in a different setting? I'm not so sure.

There is a bit later on in the article where an art critic says that he isn't surprised about Bell's performance attracting so little attention because art requires "the right context." Nobody realized he was a great musician because he was playing in a subway and therefore, no one could have known what was going on. Like most things that come out of the mouths of artistic types, this is partially true, but for the wrong reason. If people had stopped to watch him because there was a sign saying "Joshua Bell, performer for the Crowned Heads of Europe" the passerby wouldn't be listening because they suddenly realized that he was a virtuoso, it would be because of his notoriety. The art guy compares it to taking a painting from the National Gallery and putting it for sale in a coffee house, where people like him wouldn't be able to tell the painting was any good. That certainly makes me think of the wine snobs. If your job is to understand the greatness behind certain works of art and then convey it to others, but you need to be told which paintings are worth looking at, what are you good for? If you actually purport to have this special ability for art appreciation, but basically just regurgitate the same established critical reviews that have been around forever...well, it's no wonder so much modern art sucks, the reviewers are just an echo chamber.

Anyways, I don't think it says anything so important about the plebians on their way to work other than that they didn't have the time to stand around listening to Bach in a subway station. If it was scores of music producers passing him on the way through the turnstiles, sure, it would show that they are hypocrites. But you can't tell that no one thought he was any good, even if they had wanted to stay and listen, everyone was rushing to work. This is not the right way to conduct this experiment. Try it in the afternoon and then tell me no one stops to listen. Sure, the vast majority would still pass by without breaking stride (I'll admit that I might even be in this group myself), but give me a more leisurely crowd and I'm sure that classical music appreciators would have lingered. If it shows anything, it is that most people are too worried about keeping schedules. Yes, most people are ignorant about classical music. Yes, it is sad that only one person recognized him while Paris Hilton treads the Earth on winged feet. Yes, everyone is too involved in their own affairs to "appreciate beautiful things occurring spontaneously in daily life." None of these things are news, and despite popular opinion, the intellectual world is not crumbling at a greater rate than usual.


#107 with a bullet

People who think there is no levity in the sciences haven't taken enough astronomy classes. Every astronomer I've known, especially the ones who seemed at first the dullest, has been some kind of dry wit. There must be something about looking at million year-old light all the time that automatically gives people enough perspective to have a decent sense of humor. The best thing about this is that the community is also small enough that the good stories get around. But the other day I heard one that ought to be notorious enough to warrant some kind of internet evidence (though I found none on the official website for this particular location).

McDonald Observatory in Texas' remote Davis mountains was a wild cowboy outpost in the middle of the last century. At least in the sense that toting guns around for "protection" from the wilderness during late nights of observing was not unusual. Unfortunately, the advisability of this scheme came into question in 1970 when an advisor-mentee relationship went off the rails in the worst possible way. No one seems to have many specifics on the nature of the disagreement, but it had been escalating for some time it seems. The advisor, who was working with some other students with the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope, finally frustrated this fellow to the point that he stormed out of the observatory and returned with a 9mm Luger. According to the version of the tale I heard, the disgruntled gunman/astronomer then declared "I'm gonna kill you!" and advanced upon this guy. They scuffled, and a shot was fired, but the advisor managed to escape to a downstairs optics lab with his shocked students, and climb out some kind of special trap-door installed in the event of an astronomy-related gunfight.

At this point the perp, left alone in the chamber, committed the worst offense imaginable: he lowered the telescope so that it was horizontal, and fired the rest of his ammunition into the primary mirror.

Threatening his original target may have been a crime of passion, but the later act was premeditated and deranged. In addition to the obvious insanity of shooting a nice mirror that never hurt anyone, it is difficult to see what he thought he would accomplish. If you shoot someone, they'll probably let you win the argument, but a broken reflector isn't good for anybody. Hundreds of other people used that telescope in some way, and moreover, he managed to turn a perfectly understandable act (taking a shot at another scientist, a common event in the academic world), into an completely unjustifiable one (taking a shot at a very useful inanimate object). More importantly, he ought to have anticipated that firing randomly into the reflector wouldn't actually damage it significantly. Telescopic glass is thick and resilient, and after some dark epoxy was added to the bullet-holes the instrument was back to normal -- something any psychopathic, gun-wielding astronomer should have known.

April 10, 2007

Momentum Conservation: the flash game

One day I'll cease to be impressed by little games that acknowledge the existence of momentum transfer. That day is not today. Probably because I'm in a statmech kind of mood, and additionally because anything that strives to translate the laws of freshman physics into flash game form is a good time -- I'm up to 600 seconds. I should be tired of silly simple stuff like this by now...but I'm not. Hopefully there are other conservation-law based games out there. Please let lepton number be one of them.

Red (Newgrounds)

April 9, 2007

arXiv Feud Escalating

ArXiv, after earning a place on my On Notice list with their retarded new paper-labeling system, is continuing to irritate. Today by mysteriously prohibiting me from looking at the daily astro papers -- which are free and open to everyone in the world -- except for me apparently. The above image is the bizarre message I got, in more than one browser. They must have read what I wrote...

One more stunt like this and it's on to Dead To Me status.

April 6, 2007

100,000th Floor Please

I've been meaning to put something up here about the Space Elevator for years. During that time most people seem to have somehow heard about this rather unusual but brilliant idea. At least most of the ones I know, which is, of course, a fairly unusual crowd in its own right.

The Problem: getting to space. The Solution: climbing a rope. All you have to do is tie a counterweight to the end, and the centripetal force keeps it in geostationary orbit. Then, instead of worrying about the inefficiency and danger of getting into space with rockets, you just have to worry about the inefficiency and danger of getting into space by going up a ~22,000 mile tether.

You would locate the base at the equator and devise some sort of contraption capable of pulling itself up. Although this is certainly harder than launching a rocket, once you figured it out, this method would be a far superior way of getting heavy payloads into space. And not only low-Earth orbit; if desired you could use the rotational velocity to shoot off into space like a slingshot (a rare occasions when the word "slingshot" could be used in a non-idiotic sense in reference to space travel). Only twice a day, your tangential velocity would be in the plane of the solar system, (because of the Earth's tilt) and the directions within the plane would, of course, change over the course of the year. Apparently, one of the main ideas for powering the climber involves transferring energy to it from a massive laser beam at the base. I'm not sure how they would manage to avoid dispersion in the atmosphere, but maybe I've just been looking at stuff written by the wrong people. The other undeveloped technology required is the material for the tether, which has to be very strong and very light, and capable of being made continuous for hundreds of miles. Carbon nanotubes seem to be the popular choice here, since anytime you don't know the answer to something, ponderously replying with the phrase "carbon nanotubes" tends to shut down all further discussion.

Nevertheless, solving the many issues involved in creating a successful space elevator is far less interesting than considering all the ways the project could go wrong. The cable could snap, flinging the counter-weight (probably some kind of space station) off into the solar system at a high rate of speed -- possibly with the payload as well, the falling cable creating an equatorial swath of destruction. Probably, if light and made out of carbon, a lot of it would burn up in the atmosphere, but I can imagine a scenario where it snaps and is then dragged along the ground at an extremely high rate of speed (since the counter-weight of a taut cable would lag behind the ground base). That would certainly be fun. It is also hard to see how you could protect a cable that leads into space from sabotage, considering that it rises vertically for the entire atmosphere. Best of all, collisions with satellites are not only possible but inevitable given enough time. A line cutting upwards from the equator will be intersected by any normal, unaltered orbit eventually.

NOVA has a nice segment going into the basics and showing a rather unusual contest that took place recently to make a solar powered climber. You can watch it here for free.

[And if that isn't enough, there are a disturbing number of CGIed clips demonstrating the wonders of the Space Elevator over techno music or narration by true believers on YouTube. Though I wouldn't recommend any of them.*]

*Update: except for any produced by our commenter from LiftPort, which are excellent.

April 5, 2007

Bubble Theory still holding up

Cocktail Party Physics writes about bubbles today -- in the context of physics. Of course, like most casual observers, she misses the larger sociological ramifications of bubble-related science, but I can hardly blame her. The fact that women are drawn to astronomy in greater numbers than physics as a result of the unconscious pull of bubbles is, like most paradigm-shifting theories, not yet widely accepted (though all my female astronomer friends strongly approve). Anyhow, she has an excellent post that goes into many of the aspects of bubble-theory in physics. I believe, however, that many of them would be closer to the engineering/material-science side of things (are bubbles a material?) and pail in comparison to the amount of research conducted on bubble-related astronomy topics. As a way of demonstrating this I conducted a simple arXiv search for "bubbles" and looked at the number of papers about astronomy to those in the other fields of physics. It wasn't even close. Of the first 100 papers returned, 81 were about physics, they broke down as follows:

48 Astrophysics
14 String Theory
22 Condensed Matter (including 4 on DNA)
7-10 Other (a few that were mostly math)

So my theory is still solid, considering that the vast majority of bubble research is happening within the field of astronomy and the vast majority of females, 100%, (especially female astronomers) like bubbles.

I saw a commercial just now advertising a Nissan with a "CPT transmission." Apparently, it's a real thing, but I would have been more impressed if it had been a CPT-violating transmission.

April 4, 2007

Let's Play Gyroball; and Curt Schilling Probably Hates me

The secret government in charge of the universal weather machine seem to have missed the fact that baseball has started, since it has been snowing here all day. The opener didn't go quite as well as we would have liked, but would I attribute that mostly to Curt's switch from mostly RPG-gaming to weblogging, which everyone knows is much harder on the elbows. He'll get it together soon enough. Incidentally, The Sock seems to be have stopped by this site a while ago, when he had just started his blog. I saw that a Floridian IP was directed from the admin page of 38pitches.com right after I wrote a short post about his new endevor. This was a pretty disconcerting experience since I had jokingly referred to Mr. Schilling (whose player t-shirt I happened to be wearing at the time) as "pompous" in it. Obviously, since St. Curt has not only been stooping down among the mortals who maintain respected Sox blogs by starting his own, but also to the unpopular grad student-run websites, he should know that this was intended in a jocular way.

It was right before I fixed this page to work in Explorer so he probably didn't even get to read it, but if he did, and was offended, and somehow found the time to check out people linking to him during the actual season, allow me to suck up to you by pointing out that: (a) I rated you in the top 20 all-time Red Sox (Socks?), unlike the actual people running the countdown; (b) when you were rehabbing in 2005 my dad and I came out to see you pitch in Pawtucket on the 4th of July; (c) I've got like 2 cards from early in your career in Houston and Baltimore (and I am holding on to them instead of selling them for the thousands of dollars I assume they are worth); (d) as previously stated I own one of your jersey t-shirts and wear it often. Presumably, I am dead to him despite all this, and next time he's on EEI he'll find some way to get in a dig on physics grad students, but I still think his blog has exceeded all expectations and the curly haired boyfriends of the world can go to hell.

In other news, the long wait is finally over. Matsuzaka time has arrived, giving me a flimsy excuse to stick this video up. Gyroball: threat or menace? You decide.

April 2, 2007

Terrible Job, arXiv

ArXiv.org, the major physics and math preprint site just changed their paper archiving format from a perfectly respectable one that had no major flaws or drawbacks to an extremely cryptic and awful one that nobody asked for. If it isn't broke, change it to an impossible and uninformative format? It used to be that they subdivided the different areas of physics into categories like astrophysics (astro-ph) and condensed matter (cond-mat) and then numbered them YYMM and then 3 numbers for the order in which it was added. So the first paper posted this month in high energy theory would be read hep-th/0704001, then hep-th/0704002, and so on. "Wow," you are saying, "that is really sensible and easy to understand. Anyone using a system like that for the past 16 years that everyone is used to and has no problems with would never change it unless they just wanted to make trouble and piss people off." Obviously, this is what just happened. Now, even though the different categories are still there to look at, they aren't part of the numbering scheme, which now goes YYMM.[4 random-looking numbers]. Awesome job guys, now instead of seeing astro-ph/0608303 and knowing that it is about astrophysics, and is from somewhere in the middle of August, 2006, I can look at arXiv:0706.8974 and have no clue what the hell is going on. People are going to start dropping the subject headings, I just know it. And the web address doesn't have the subject in it anymore either. AND part of the supposed advantage of their retarded new scheme is that they can now add further sub-categories with an additional dot. As in astro-ph.JK/0705.0505. Why the hell would you go from a non-decimal system to a system with TWO?! This multiple period garbage is an assault on my senses! Why couldn't they just come up with a system using @#$%^&* and the greek alphabet? If you need to subdivide, do what they've already done in certain fields. To separate cosmology and stellar physics within astro-ph, just make them astro-co and astro-st. Sticking periods all over the place is a recipe for disaster. Of course, today's [arXiv:astro-ph/0704.0221] is titled "The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology," so with cosmology ending, I won't have to put up with this horrible system much longer.

Shameless video post

A borderline creepy video displaying the bizarre "Kaye Effect," a fluid flow thing where a thin column of shampoo ejects a second flowing tendril of the substance. This video is captivating but somehow unsettling. I can't quite put it in words but I suspect it is to do with the music or the organic-looking nature of the liquid.

[Credit: Lucas]

Video #2 is features hideous floating blobs of water. Most of the scientific understanding that this contributes to the world involves looking at how cool it is. I guess playing with water in zero-g is pretty much all the space shuttle is good for anyway (besides serving Hubble).

And because all things come in threes, I am compelled to link to this trio of kinematics-demonstrating, and therefore baser, videos. (Meaning that they are less sophisticated than my usual high-brow content, of course.) Billiard tricks,
nothing unsettling here, though I would say that it is best viewed on mute. You'll understand why. [Credit goes here]. And lastly, these even baser, even lower-brow clips of some medieval-era physics: a human slingshot, and a poorly-thought out bowling ball experiment of some type. The type of things for which YouTube was invented.

Insurgent Lobestermen

I don't remember anything about this morning's dream other than that as I woke up I was urging some type of European nobleman with a waxed mustache not to invade the state of Maine. "It is suicide!" I warned, in a vocabulary that seemed too stilted for use in a dream.

If you are considering invading and occupying Maine, I say to you now, Sir: banish the thought! Like Russia in the winter, it cannot be done. At first, yes, perhaps they could be overpowered in Portland and Augusta, but the inland region is too vast and desolate to maintain decent supply routes or shut down the potato trade. And you could not long resist the insurgent lobstermen and their explosive lobsters.

April 1, 2007

String Theory: the pure product of Unfettered Intellect

Chad Orzel, voice of the downtrodden experimental physics blogger, wins April Fool's Day with today's admission of subordinacy to the to high-minded theorists, working in the most far-flung corners of abstract thought. Mostly he just channels Lubos Motl, best known for his ability to believe that the evidence for string theory is strong while simultaneously believing that the evidence for global warming is weak.

Physics is of greater worth than biology, theoretical physics is more worthy than experimental physics, and high-energy particle theory is the most fundamental and important field in the history of human thought...
Let us be clear: the entire history of human culture has been nothing more than a steady progression from liberalism and crude experimental science to the twin pinnacles of George Bush and string theory.
Only when theoretical physics is completely cut free of piddling concerns about matching physical reality can it reach its fullest flowering, as a pure product of unfettered intellect.
Let go of your petty objections, drink this Kool-Aid, and revel in the eleven-dimensional glory of what is undoubtedly the greatest creation in the history of human culture.
Read the full post here.