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 it's 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: