Archive for April, 2006

Those houses must have been shorter than they looked

April 16, 2006 4 comments

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Many homes damaged by flooding during Hurricane Katrina likely will have to be raised 1 to 3 feet to qualify for flood insurance, a FEMA official said Wednesday as the government released long-awaited new projections on area flooding risks.
USA Today- FEMA: Louisiana homes must be raised off ground

If I understand correctly from several articles I’ve read, rebuilding will be allowed (and enabled by federally subsidized flood insurance), but the houses in some of the hardest-hit areas will have to be raised 3 feet.  This is a relief to some people who were worried that their homes might have been required to be raised 10 feet, the height of the waterline.

Would those be the same areas where people were trapped in their attics, stranded on their roofs?  Or am I missing something?

Categories: Uncategorized

Free speech: once more real slow…

April 15, 2006 2 comments

This display was up in the central quad at our university the other day as I went to work.  It consisted of 3,600 little crosses to represent one day’s aborted fetuses. 

A similar display at Northern Kentucky University was destroyed when an English professor “encouraged her students to exercise their right to free speech by destroying the display”.

It’s sad that anyone would have to explain this to an English professor, but the answer to ‘offensive’ speech is counter-speech, not vandalism and theft.  The professor should have put up her own damn display if she had something to say.  Instead she put a nice plum in the pocket of the pro-life movement with her idiocy.

The professor didn’t win many friends in the pro-choice camp, either.  Read the reactions below for a sample:

OK, once more, real slow:  if someone says something you disagree with, or even find offensive, the answer is counter-speech, not violence

Categories: Uncategorized

I got your ‘obsolete’ right here, buddy…

April 14, 2006 5 comments

One of the curiosities you’ll find in my briefcase is a slide rule.  It isn’t a conversation-piece; I still use it.  I love slide rules, though some people think I’m a little odd because of it.

So I was just delighted to see this wonderful article by Cliff Stoll in the May ‘06 Scientific American on the history and use of the slide rule.  It even includes a ‘make-your-own’ page you can photocopy and cut up to produce a demonstration slide rule.  Stoll writes:

Yet slide rules had an Achilles’ heel; standard models could typically handle only three digits of precision… worse yet: you have to keep track of the decimal place.  A hairline pointing to 3.46 might also represent 34.5, 3,460 or 0.00346.

That slippery decimal place reminded every competent engineer to double-check the slide rule’s results.  First you would estimate an approximate answer and then compare it with the number under the cursor.  One effect was that users felt close to the numbers, aware of rounding-off errors and systematic inaccuracies, unlike users of today’s computer-design programs.

Chat with an engineer from the 1950’s and you will most likely hear a lament for the days when calculation went hand-in-hand with deeper comprehension.  Instead of plugging numbers into a computer program, an engineer would understand the fine points of loads and stresses, voltages and currents, angles and distances.  Numeric answers, crafted by hand, meant problem solving through knowledge and analysis rather than sheer number-crunching.

All true, but that isn’t why I use a slide rule.  Fact is, I am dyslexic and have a terrible time reading the numbers on a calculator. My dyslexia went undiagnosed until I was in my thirties, but I am forever grateful to a math teacher named Frank Marvin, who took his lunch hours to teach me how to use a slide rule back in about 1970.  Since the slide rule is an analog device, and the ‘numbers’ on it are just positions on an engraved logarithmic scale, it’s easier for me to track them accurately.  And it doesn’t hurt that I am a sucker for cleverly designed, elegantly functional things.

I am not steering spacecraft in the trackless vacuum between here and Mars.  One part of accuracy in a thousand is plenty for most of my purposes, and the fact is, no matter how many decimal places appear on the display of your calculator, most likely the incoming data isn’t any more exact than that.  Or, operational variables will devour that accuracy long before it reaches the output of whatever real-world process you are reckoning.

When you are using a slide rule, the concrete relationship between the numbers and a physical reality needs to be grounded in visualization.  Scientific notation helps a lot, and you have to concentrate on ‘what it all means’. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and it works just fine on either side of the decimal point.

The slide rule played a major role in the industrial revolution right up to the space age, and even helped develop its own replacement, the “electronic slide rule” that we now know as a pocket calculator.  It is one of those little-known inventions whose economic importance is all out of proportion to its modest function.

I would love to see someone manufacture new slide rules – with laser engraving and Chinese manufacture a very good one could be made quite inexpensively.  They could be used for a good high-school math course: “math and physical reality”, if you could find anyone to teach it.  I understand Frank Marvin has retired.


Categories: Geeky

Chrome dome burn

April 13, 2006 3 comments

Feeling fine, I had a wonderful outdoor lunch with friends in absolutely amazingly perfect weather.  Within an hour, I began to feel inexplicably ill.  Leaving work early, I went home to lie down for several hours.  I’m still feeling quite under the weather.

What happened?  It wasn’t the food.  Just color the top of my hairless head, bright red.  The malaise follows a rather large-scale sunburn, on top of a thoughtless head.  After all, I have a ball cap on my desk, where it remained all through the lunch…

Categories: Uncategorized

Abstinence-only street crossing

April 13, 2006 5 comments

It’s a pity so many young lives have been tragically cut short by permissiveness, when a strong moral message could have saved them:

“…Indeed, a consideration of the matter will show that teaching kids about “crossing safety” simply encourages them to cross the street, sanctions their self-endangerment, with the predictably tragic consequences….
- ***Dave: Just Say Don’t Walk

Won’t someone please think of the children?!  And pass the link around…

Categories: Uncategorized

Book: ‘Why Things Break’

April 10, 2006 Comments off

One of the books I read during my vacation last week is Why Things Break, by Mark E. Eberhart.  It is a biographical story of Eberhart’s life work in discovering the quantum chemistry roots of materials fracture. More below the fold:

Eberhart does a great job explaining for the layman (such as me) the relationships of thermodynamics, crystal field theory, atomic topology, grain interface boundaries, and other delicious tidbits.  But he also embraces all the people he’s known along the way; mentors, bureaucrats, a generous cop, and many others.  The book ranges widely from cynical observations about academic funding to the joy of knowing great scientists.

I was repeatedly struck by how closely the conclusions Eberhart reached in the 21st century parallel those of Theodore Honey, the dysfunctional boffin of Neville Shute’s 1948 novel No Highway, which I also recently (re-) read.  Eberhart, being a real scientist nearly 60 years beyond Shute’s fictional one, got rather farther down the road toward understanding the quantum mechanics of fracture but I could easily imagine a conceptual thread.

I enjoyed Eberhart’s description of a scientist:

Dr. Olson – Greg as i now call him – typifies everything wonderful about good scientists.  They exude enthusiasm and curiousity.  To scientists like Greg, the whole world is a series of puzzles, and their desire to solve them is downright contagious.  To many, such scientists seem more like children than responsible adults.  Perhaps this is the reason that good university scientists seldom look their age… (p. 59, 60)

Why Things Break begins with Eberhart’s glass marble fracture experiments as a child, his broken kayak in college, trips along the prehistory of materials science (discovering copper in pottery glaze, for instance), and revisits the Titanic disaster repeatedly as an important case of materials’ embrittlement.  There’s lots of human psychology to ponder, too, such as why a passenger about to board an Aloha Airlines plane failed to raise any objection to a large crack she noticed in the fusilage (part of the plane ripped off in flight, killing a stewardess).

Another example: why do incandescent light bulbs have a continuous spectrum, and flourescent a discontinuous one?  The answer turns out to be rooted the quantum properties of large and small molecules, related to Slater’s observation that the appearance of wave properties in photons are a result of the wavelike properties of the laws of probability.  And this, too is fracture-related.

By now you should know if you’d enjoy the book.  I found it very entertaining, and I accidentally learned a lot too.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Can’t take my foot off the gas

April 9, 2006 4 comments

Of course I had a long list of things to do in this vacation and didn’t get most of them done.  I’m jittery with vacations – it takes me a week before I get the first day of real rest.

But I did work on my old VW.  I hooked up the radio, with some old computer speakers (long-term plans include some rather fantastic Blaupunkt speakers I got second-hand, but that entails building a rear deck over the back-seat well).  At least the car has tunes.

Having had endless problems with the mechanical fuel pump – odd because I drove all over the country with them back in the day – I installed an electric fuel pump.  There was something wrong with my German carby so I put in the Mexican spare.  It runs well but leaks, which is bad for all the obvious reasons and some not so obvious.

So this evening as the sun was going down I went down to the office to swap out the offsite backup drive (I use a pair of 260gb USB’s for that) but instead of just driving home, I headed out the West side of town.  The blacktop narrowed as I just kept driving, past farms and rural churches and agricultural jobbers.  I hadn’t been out that road before but the desire to drive on was strong and before I knew it I was 15 miles from town…

Navigating in central Illinois is no great trick.  If you were driving West, you can turn around and drive back East.  Or if you prefer, you can turn North, go a couple miles, and turn East, so you’ll see different farms, rural churches, and jobbers, which is what I did this evening.  The road may curve a bit this way or that, and it may join up with another road, but there’s no getting turned around.

After wiring up the radio, I turned it off because the music of the boxer engine behind me had me in a reflective mood.  It’s hard to explain why I like old Beetles so much, but the short answer is that they are so mechanical.  The steering wheel is connected to an unpowered steering box, which connects to the wheels.  When you step on the gas, you’re pulling a steel cable that pulls the throttle lever on the carburetor behind you.  There’s no power brakes; if you want more braking force, it’s up to you.  The dashboard controls consist of the ignition switch, lights, wipers, emergency flashers and radio – that’s it.  Gauges?  Speedometer and gas guage.  (Older ones just had a spedometer).  Want the window down?  Turn the crank.

Modern cars go to great length to insulate the driver from any connection to the machine.  Everything is power-driven, sound-insulated, and computer-controlled.  You can’t hear it, and you can’t really feel it.  It’s like being in an isolation tank.

Finally I came upon the Farm & Fleet store, as I knew I would, and stopped in to buy some things.  And then drove home.

The car is running about like it is supposed to, but my next trip should be to the tire store to replace the 25-year-old Michelin radials.  And, I need to replace the seats.  Although they are very comfortable, classic VW seats are notoriously unsafe.  Several companies make far superior replacements that bolt more securely to the frame.

And there’s body work, electrical work… I just realized my car will turn 40 next year.

This summer, the Mrs. and I will take a trip down to Southern Illinois, along the blacktop and gravel roads.  I’m looking forward to it.

UPDATE- see also: 34PICT-3 Carburetor Final.  That post will also be updated when new information comes in.

Categories: Personal, VW

The Dutch: “This is who we are”

April 9, 2006 2 comments

The government of Holland has produced an immigration kit which contains a DVD showing explicit scenes of Dutch society:

“Potential immigrants to the Netherlands will be faced with a film showing two men kissing in a park, and a woman in a topless swimsuit, after Wednesday of this week.

The DVD is part of a new entrance test designed to determine if applicants are open to the socially liberal views of the country. Their reaction to the footage will be recorded and used as part of the evaluation process.
- – Holland to show controversial DVD to some potential immigrants

Not surprisingly, Muslim groups are outraged at what they see as an attempt to keep them out of the country.  In the Chicago Tribune coverage of the story, a Muslim activist named Mesut Disli complains:

“They [Dutch officials] know that according to Islam, nudity and homosexuality are taboo. They know the feelings of Muslims on this subject. So, indirectly, they are saying that we are not welcome,” he said.

Bingo!  Glad you’re paying attention, Mesut.  For the Dutch, this all began with the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, by a Muslim attacker who was outraged over his film about treatment of women in Muslim societies.  Following other attempts by Holland’s Muslim population to restrict the freedom of non-Muslims as an accomodation to Muslim taboos, the government has produced this DVD to say pretty much what you think it’s saying.

The activists are especially miffed that only immigrants from Muslim countries have to view the DVD.  Although the reason for that is pretty obvious, they should make all immigrants view it to defuse that criticism.

A Dutch city official summed it up nicely:

“It’s like the warning label on the cigarette packs,” said Marco Pastors, a Rotterdam city councilman whose Leefbaar Rotterdam Party has been labeled anti-Muslim for its support of strict immigration controls.

“It’s not very subtle, but it prepares people for what they will find in this country,” he said. “If you want to live here, you have to accept that girls are allowed to wear miniskirts and can stay out until 3 in the morning. You don’t have to behave this way yourself, but you have to tolerate it.”

“You don’t have to behave this way yourself, but you have to tolerate it.”  In one word, ‘Freedom’.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tom Delay?  This is God… I need your help

April 9, 2006 2 comments

  Just a little visual aid for some of our Republican friends who seem to have difficulty telling the difference: the one on the right is Jesus, who founded a world religion.  The one on the left is a corrupt politician who wraps himself in the flag and the bible, dishonoring both.

They’re not all that different, though.  Apparently God needs Tom Delay out there every day to defend Him, or humanity will fall into darkness.

One down, how many messianically deluded whackos to go?

(from UTI: Tom Delay is insane)

Categories: Uncategorized

Read LawDog Files for laughter

April 8, 2006 2 comments

If you like Patrick McManus or Roy Blount, odds are you’ll split a side reading Law Dog, who is a Texas Deputy Sheriff and an expert storyteller.  One of his posts (linked from Cajun) started a big discussion in our house which MrsDoF actually carried over to her blog.  That got me reading some of LawDog’s other posts.

Anyway, this is a story from LawDog’s youth, when he and his brother were making rockets from bamboo and homemade blackpowder.  One of their 5-gallon batches of blackpowder set into a giant solid lump, which they needed to grind into a fine powder for it to work:

… Not to be defeated, my brother and I fetched our (steel) rock hammers, and with a mighty effort from our scrawny, sub-teenage muscles managed to reduce our war materiel to a large pile of walnut-sized chunks. Totally unsuitable for our purposes, and at a considerable expenditure in sweat (and sparks, I should add – steel hammers and a concrete driveway).

Anyhoo, somewhere along in our ruminations, we remembered The Coffee Grinder…
The LawDog Files: The rise and fall of the Nigerian space program

Home made blackpowder and an electric coffee grinder?  OK, I gave you the link; I’m not responsible for what happens if you click on it ;-)

Categories: Uncategorized