February 29, 2008


February is my least favorite month, and for that reason, it is bothersome to me that it occasionally has an extra day. I appreciate the oddity of it, of course, and yet I think I'd prefer that additional day to be the 33rd of May (I'm subtracting another day from February, as long as I'm in charge of the calendar). There are however, people who are so bothered, not only by our unusual leap day, but also by the very fact that dates of different years fall on different days, and that it takes a rhyme to remember which months have 31 days and which have 30 that they have cooked up a drastic and unrealizable dream calendar system. And of course, much like Styx or Ron Paul this crazy idea has a traveling band of earnest fanatics who just can't let it go.

The principle of the World Calendar is as follows: every third month has 31 days, all the others have 30 (Jan 31, Feb 30, Mar 30, Apr 31, and so on). Since this only gives you 364 days however, you tack on a so called "Worldday" at the end of December. Yet, in order that the calendar has the same calendar date falling on the same week day every year, this day does not belong to the week. In the rioting and violent chaos that would inevitably ensue upon this day, we would all note appreciatively that it was unnecessary to buy a new calendar from year to year. And so we would forever stare up at the yellowed pages of our "Kitties - 2023" until humankind's eventual vaporization by androids in the late years of the 21st century.

And of course, there would be leap years as well, but again, so as not to mess with the date-weekday correspondence it would be another of those blank days (a June 31st).

The ghastly system was devised originally in 1930 and supported by something known as the World Calendar Association for several decades. The lobbying of this organization succeeded in gaining some notoriety for the idea, and introducing unsuccessful bills in the U.S. Congress supporting the concept. Evidently, the League of Nations devoted a bit of time to debating and promoting the calendar in the mid-1930's while absolutely nothing of international importance was going on.

Aside from the obvious fact that the confusion and disorder that would result from changing over to this system would completely negate any possible benefit from it, there are a number of groups that have come out in firm opposition to the World Calendar, as though it had any chance of coming to pass. The first group, with the dumbest reasons for disagreeing with it, are religions who feel that the blank weekday would send the planet careening off its axis when the 7-day pattern of worship was disrupted. Second are the publishers of calendars, a politically formidable adversary. And if the World Calendar started gaining in popularity, people born on March, May, August and November 31st would emerge from the woodwork, uniting to protest the idea. If you've every talked to someone born on February 29th you know how defensive people can be about their birthdays getting taken away (Feb 29ers wouldn't mind if we just had 366 days every year and the seasons slid completely out of whack -- so bitter and self-centered they are). Plus, when it comes to birthdays, it would be unfortunate to be consigned to a life of Monday celebrations while guys like me lord their Saturdays over them.

But of course, in the words of the WCA, "THINK ABOUT IT: How can any civilized world achieve world peace while its main calendar battles with everyone who uses it?" And they have a point here, after all. People forget that the Bay of Pigs invasion failed due to confusion over the number of days in March.

February 20, 2008

Dekamegajoule Railgun

The navy is trying to build a humongous railgun, a crazy, probably pointless weapon that shoots a projectile purely through electromagnets. Which is why I have no clue where all that fire is coming from. The video is still pretty cool though. The test depicted below involves roughly 10 megajoules of energy and Mach 7 for the 7 pound projectile. This site says "an 8 megajoule test shot has an impacting force that the Navy describes as being the equivalent of 'hitting a target with a Ford Taurus at 380 mph.'"

Oh, and by the way, the flames are from the ignition of aluminum particles on the outside of the shell, heated to 1,000 °C by the aerodynamic drag.

Miniphotos of Marine Minatures

Hey look! Really small marine creatures! Seriously, look how small they are! Especially the little spherical fish. But the amorphous collective thing above seems really cool:

This jellyfish relative called a blue button isn’t one organism but many, joined at the gas-filled hub that keeps the colony afloat. Each tentacle has a specialized role in the cooperative—catching prey, digesting, or reproducing. The pigment blocks ultraviolet rays.
Joooooooiiiin usssss. Resistance to the blue button is futile. You will be incorporated into our gas-filled hub...

National Geographic - Marine Minatures

February 19, 2008

Flat Earth? Teach the controversy!

I've been seeing ads for Flat Earth vegetable chips recently. I doubt that they're actually a snack food espousing the Flat Earth Hypothesis and I am having trouble figuring out how they settled on this name. It does give me an opening however to mention that of all the crackpots out there, Flat Earthers (they even have a Society, BTW -- check out the wiki article for a good laugh) are among the most pathetic science deniers in the spectrum of science denial. Even if it is inexcusable, you can still understand why people disbelieve evolution. It is an amalgamation of several fairly complex processes that happen over millions of years and can't be easily observed in macroscopic creatures over short time-scales. And they are told that "believing" in it makes them irreligious, so the blinders go on anyway. Some people don't buy relativity either, being another hard-to-demonstrate-to-people-who-don't-like-physics type theory which is also really contrary to our everyday experience. And again, though these people are ignorant, you can sort of understand why they exist. But there are few essential facts about the world easier to explain to people than the Earth not being flat. You can just look at it. You have to be so paranoid to think there is an elaborate conspiracy to doctor photos showing Earth's sphericity that you are hardly worth trying to reason with in the first place. And contrary to popular belief, people have known the planet was round for thousands of years, as opposed to evolution and relativity which are 150 and 100 years old, respectively. I don't have any more profound stuff to say about this, railing against a hilariously quacky theory doesn't really serve any purpose. The wiki page is pretty good on its own, the explanations for phenomena like eclipses and tides are so much more convoluted and unlikely than the notion that the planet is a ball.

The Flat Earth Society also maintains that the Earth is accelerating upward at a rate of 9.8 m/s², thereby simulating gravity. This upward momentum is caused by the "Universal Accelerator", a vague term used by the Society to describe a force that originated at the Big Bang and caused the Earth to speed upwards. Gravity cannot exist on a flat Earth since the disc shape would eventually collapse on itself. However in a few Flat Earth models, other planetary bodies such as the moon and the sun are alleged to have gravitational pulls, causing the gravitational force on an object to decrease as it increases in altitude. This also allows spacecraft to "orbit".
Anyhow, for bargain basement pseudoscience, you can't go bagainier than these people. What else is there? The existence of the moon?

February 15, 2008

Stephen Colbert's Fallback: Astrophysics

Mere moments after calling attention to Zosia's criminal record I have occasion to conveniently post exactly the same thing as her. What a coincidence...

Of course, a bit featuring Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson wouldn't have gone very long unnoticed. Especially one in which he states the unvarnished truth about astrophysics: it's a safety career.

Breakfast of ions

Atheist Sees Image of Big Bang in Piece of Toast

"I was just about to spread the butter when I noticed a fairly typical small hole in the bread surrounded by a burnt black ring. however the direction and splatter patterns of the crumbs as well as the changing shades emanating outwards from this black hole were very clearly similar to the chaotic-dynamic non-linear patterns that one would expect following the big bang". "It's the beginning of the world" he added excitedly.

Ever since news of the discovery made national headlines, local hoteliers have been overwhelmed by an influx of atheists from all over the country who have flocked to Huddlesfield to catch a glimpse of the scientific relic. "I have always been an Atheist and to see my life choices validated on a piece of toast is truly astounding" said one guest at the Huddlesfield arms hotel.

What a coincidence, I could have sworn I saw the early large-scale structure of the universe in some latte foam yesterday!

February 13, 2008


I don't care that this is neither timely nor newsworthy, I just saw this simulation on The Universe and I had to post something about it. This computation group at UChicago seems to have come up with these beautiful videos of Type Ia supernovae exposions. The spike originating from the center is the dramatic ignition of carbon, and the entirety of the simulation comprises only 3 seconds in real time.

You can see a better quality video and a decent article related to it here.

ASC / Alliances Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes

Update: It has recently come to my attention that the illustrious Zosia was part of the team responsible for stealing the very video shown above and posting it on YouTube. From the comments,

he got this video from ME, and i stole it from rocky, who stole it from don lamb...please, i'd like some credit for the multiple levels of stealing i'm responsible for.
Credit awarded.

With all that larceny experience, it's no wonder she's so good at stealing from my blog.

February 10, 2008

Well so's your coffee

For your entertainment: a few commercials that didn't stand the test of time very well. We all know how funny ciggerette ads from the 50's seem nowadays, but racist Jell-o? Misogynist coffee? Who knew.

February 9, 2008

Only the Room is Virtual -- the Waiting is all too Real*

Jan 26. Regular Red Sox ticket sales. I sign onto the ticket buying website at 10am, and spend hours in the Virtual Waiting Room™ with no success. My prospects of visiting Fenway this year appear slim.

Feb 6. Email from the lottery machine, letting me know that it has deigned to permit me to try, just try, buying tickets to one of this year's "special" games.

Feb 9. - 12:00pm I sign into the Virtual Waiting Room™.

10:11pm I actually get through the waiting room, and buy some sweet obstructed view seats. At least they're for Opening Day.

*Title shamelessly stolen from Jere.

I Humbly Accept

In honor (I assume) of my blog's 3rd birthday, the knowledge that I am getting a steady stream of hits for people googling the "Best Scientist in the World."

If it is on Google it has to be true.

February 8, 2008

Three Years

...of this blog. Founded Feb 8, 2005.

Sure, it may not publish every day, address the important issues of the day, or otherwise contain anything of real worth.

But hey, it's something.

February 7, 2008

To Serve Man...Neutrinos

I love the idea of putting neutrinos to use for something. Anything really -- they are so difficult to detect that at this point we are working for them. But I am hopeful that mankind may, one day turn the tables on the weak reaction and put it to use for the good of humanity, as these folks are trying to do.

AIP Physics Bulletin: Anti Neutrinos and Nonproliferation

A new compact detector may help international inspectors peer inside a working nuclear reactor in a non-intrusive way by directly measuring the flux of anti-neutrinos coming out. Since their first use, nuclear reactors have, at least in principle, been closely related with nuclear weapons. For example, reactors produce plutonium which can later be fashioned into bomb material. The question of how to monitor the actual operation of a particular reactor and compare the changing plutonium inventory to what is expected from normal operations (producing electric power, say) is a large component of nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

For some perspective on this, the picture is, of course, of the Super Kamiokande detector. The Super-K can tell the direction neutrinos are coming from and detect weaker energy ones than you'd be looking for coming out of a reactor. Even considering this, a cubic-meter sized detector, as is being developed by the folks in the article, would be quite an accomplishment.

February 6, 2008

This Primary is Killing Me

So I have been paying a bit too much attention to the presidential primary lately. I ought to know that I get nothing in return for this attentiveness other than anxiety and the ability to make shallow and occasionally witty observations about politics to my friends. And yet, I can't help myself. I like reading about history, and trying to understand human events.

So hopefully, by dumping out the contents of my brain in this blog entry I can get it out of my system and get back to worrying about things I have some control over.

First of all, I like Obama. This would not be a problem for most people, but I like being contrary, and instead everything about me is right in middle of his demographic. I'm 23, male, well-educated, from a liberal state. I am in academia and going into science. I use facebook. I am not religious. I have a gmail account. This is his wheelhouse.

And pretty much everyone I know is supporting Barack. It makes me feel silly to be part of this mob, but it just can't be helped. I wish I wasn't so predictable, but I actually like Obama, and can't begin to imagine how cool it would be to actually like the president, rather than to simply prefer them to the alternative. There is though, a certain "empty vessel" quality to him that causes supporters to believe that he reflects their own attitudes more closely than he probably does. Fortunately for me, I'm not obsessed with the minutae of anyone's views. Presidents do not get to determine the exact details of any policy, those are decided in Congress. I just want the president to be a smart Democrat who doesn't annoy or anger me, so that I can ignore the news more easily. It is the broad outlines that are important. I think he would help build a solid majority in the House and Senate, inspire the public to embrace more progressive views and take advantage of the fact that the country is listing leftward right now. Unlike most Democrats in recent memory he actually appears to have a spine, and doesn't simply water-down rhetoric to appeal to the mushy middle that doesn't actually prefer to vote for candidates who seem to be apologizing for their views. Electing someone like that would really help me get back to ignoring the news.

There is a thing George W. Bush did when he was running in 2000 and 2004 where he would drop cloaked biblical references into his speeches to signal religious votes that he was one of them. Obama seems to be doing the same thing. The best example I can think of off the top of my head: every speech I have heard him give uses the word "science" or "scientists" at least once, whereas this is not something other candidates make a point of doing. This seems like code for bevy of issues that are important to the left like global warming, evolution, stem cells, and religion in politics. Well, not to mention the fact that he has actually expressed opinions about these things too...

Here are some thoughts in no particular order about the candidates:

The night we bombed Iraq I tossed and turned for hours before puking and falling to sleep in a cold sweat. And not because I am some hyper-sensitive humanitarian, I just knew it was going to set off a cascading, long-term disaster in about 50 different ways. Anyone who knew less than I did, as a (then) 18 year old college freshman, about Iraq in 2003 should not be president. They probably shouldn't be anything.

I have heard a lot of people say "We all know that both candidates have an equal chance of winning the general election..." Back up there, hypothetical person, "we" don't know anything. This statement is untrue for several reasons. Firstly, Clinton sets up a lousy contrast with McCain. Her primary campaign is based on the notion that she is experienced by virtue of (in the minds of most people) being famous for longer than her opponents. 7 years in the Senate, wherein she regurgitated Bush's talking points, caved on practically everything of importance, and supported the war, shouldn't count for much. McCain spent roughly the same amount of time being tortured in Vietnam, and then another 30 years in the Senate. Equating the years she spent attending the funerals of minor world leaders with those he spent being an actual Senator is going to seem pretty flimsy. When she tries to take advantage of public sentiment favoring withdrawing from Iraq he'll simply remind us that she voted for it. Obama on the other hand will draw much cleaner distinctions. He can hammer McCain non-stop for his bellicosity. He isn't pretending to be experienced, and can sell his candidacy convincingly as a break from the past. He is a probably the best political orator in a generation and he is much, much younger. McCain will seem tired, old, and cranky in contrast to Obama.

Secondly, there is no elasticity in public opinion about Clinton, everyone knows her already. Anyone who already dislikes her is not going to be won over. And those who do dislike her do so vehemently. With McCain the Republican nominee, conservative voters are going to feel a lack of enthusiasm in the election...unless the Dems nominate the person they already hate more than anyone else. Obama is not well known, on the other hand, and the more people see of him, the more they like him.

Most people are predicting a Democratic win in the general election either way, but I don't see it. It seems to me that Obama would win by a significant margin and H-bomb, barring something unforeseen would lose, but probably narrowly. I'm sort of invested in the Dem race so I can't predict it with any accuracy, but unfortunately for us, the cool, inspiring candidate who the young clever people like never wins the nomination. This is what gives me a sense of dread about the rest of the campaign, but who knows.

On that same note, here is a nightmare scenario I would like you to contemplate: Sen. McCain taps Huckabee for VP to shore up religious voters. The Democrats nominate Clinton and lose. After 15 minutes in office, McCain dies, since he is about 150 years old, leaving Huckleberry in charge. Jesus replaces Washington on the $1 bill. The End.

It is so stuck-up and wrong to say this, but for lack of a better understanding of Hillary voters, I think they just don't follow the news very closely. Polls well in advance of elections essentially show name recognition. No one is really paying attention, and when asked, they simply go for the one they have heard of. When pundits are surprised about shifting trends shortly before the election day, that is really just voters waking up and looking at candidates for the (usually) the first time. My fear about this front-loaded primary was that following Iowa and NH there would just not be enough time for Barack to overcome his opponent's superior fame. He was on an upwards trajectory, and given another week or so, he likely would have won more delegates than he did. As a cynic, I was fairly blasé about his candidacy until I heard him speak, and then I was floored. The more time there is for people to hear him speak the better.

It is a minor miracle that Edwards dropped out when he did, though it was still late enough to do some damage. Edwards and Obama were splitting the liberal, thoughtful, anti-war, anti-Hillary vote. If he had not run at all, Obama would have won all 4 of the initial contests and would be far closer to capturing the nomination. Though he does indeed try promoting important issues, John Edwards seems quite opportunistic. I think he hasn't endorsed either remaining because he can't figure out which will win, and he would like something in return.

I think some of the subconscious appeal of Barack Obama is based on his name. It is so utterly ridiculous, that it triggers a rebellious impulse to support someone whose moniker conventional wisdom would deem an automatic loser. It is kind of a fuck-you to the establishment who pours over this kind of nonsense.

The next day that there will be a large number of delegates up for grabs is March 4th when RI votes along with Ohio, Texas, and Vermont. There are a few Obama-favoring contests between now and then, but there is an entire 2 weeks preceding March 4th with nothing on the calendar. We are much smaller than OH and TX, but I have no doubt that both candidates will show up and certainly both will advertise here. It is sort of cool, considering that everyone here had been disappointed that with the front-loaded schedule we would have no impact at all. Considering the paucity of contests around the same time though, it seems that we will get much more attention than we would have if we were part of Super Tuesday. And having split up Connecticut and Massachusetts, both campaigns may think they have a good shot at our precious 32 delegates. Probably by leveraging our state motto, pictured below.

Well, I feel a little better now...

February 4, 2008

Stupor Tuesday

There was a time, not too long ago, when the state of Rhode Island held their primary on Super Tuesday. But since those states decided to lurch forward little RI was left behind, on March 4th. It is the 2nd biggest day though, so if there is still an election going on I may -- emphasize may -- end up going to the polls. Nonetheless, this Daily Show clip is a pleasant look back at an era when RI wasn't at the tail end of the primaries, most of the correspondents on the Daily Show were funny, and they could send Colbert to Providence to have him interview our giant blue termite.

February 2, 2008

This is just to say (that William Carlos Williams blows)

You know that horrible poet William Carlos Williams? I sure wish one of my high school friends had written a scathing parody to stick it to him and his stupid palindromic face.

Oh wait, one of them did. And I came across the 2001 Bowsprit while rummaging through my attic. (The original "poem" may be read here This Is Just To Say.)

This Is Just To Say (To William Carlos Williams)
By Brendan Dougherty

I have eaten
your poem
that was in
my literature book

and which
you were probably
for rereading

Forgive me
it was delicious
so short
and so minimal

February 1, 2008

Prof. Carrey discusses the Ekpyrotic Universe

Remember that bit that Jim Carrey did about stochastic phase switching of electrons in penning traps on Conan O'Brien's show last year? No? Well then watch it here. I'll wait.

Done? Good. Well, somehow, Zosia (having recently awoken from her internet hibernation) has found a similar segment from that show, far predating last year's, featuring Carrey and little-known physicist Stephen Hawking. (It is a few minutes into the clip, btw.) The subject is less obscure (I'm always overhearing people discussing brane cosmology) but it is every bit as good. The Finnish subtitles are pretty hilarious too. In fact, I'll go one step further and say that Fins are hilarious.