Archive for July, 2007

Not Hillary; OBAMA

July 31, 2007 11 comments

I can only stand and applaud:

“When you have pastors and television pundits who appear to explicitly coordinate with one political party; when you’re implying that your fellow Americans are traitors, terrorist sympathizers or akin to the devil himself; then I think you’re attempting to hijack the faith of those who follow you for your own personal or political ends,” the freshman Illinois Senator said at The Brody File…

“For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice,” Obama wrote to Brody, pointing to early American leaders who fought to include the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

He went on, “Whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers.”
- The Raw Story: Obama defends his stand on Christians “hijacking faith”

That’s telling it like it is. 

Let’s see; so far Obama has called Hillary “Bush-Cheney Lite”, he’s gone to Detroit to tell the auto industry and the unions to get up off their asses and compete, he’s opposed the war from the beginning, he’s told the education establishment to stop coddling 8th graders, he’s told coddled 8th graders to expect a long road to success, and brought both Republicans and Democrats to task for putting their partisan interests ahead of those of the whole country and the world.

And that’s just the stuff I know about. He’s not a ‘gut player’, he has guts which is a very different thing.  And (not to sound too anatomical) brains and heart, too.

We need to be on a high road if we want to shine our light out to the world.  It’s time we started showing the rest of our troubled planet that there really are American ideals.  We can’t expect the warring factions of the Middle East to accept pluralism if we can’t handle it here. 

And for anyone impressed by Hillary’s “toughness” I don’t see her deliberately challenging her audiences like that.  Any of the poll-driven, pandering simpering political dress-up dolls running against him even in the same class?  Compared to him, they were all held back. 

from SEB

Categories: Politics

Now THAT’S a big truck!

July 30, 2007 1 comment

Suppose you want to build a really big telescope – weighing, oh, 120 tonnes to do sub-millimetre wavelength radio astronomy.  And despite its weight, you’ve got to handle it carefully, because you want to build it with 20-micron precision.  And what the heck, why not build 25 of them (maybe eventually twice that many) and make them into an array?  And since sub-millimetre radiation is absorbed by water, you’ll need to put the array someplace dry, at maybe 5000 metres altitude, like the Acatama desert in Chile.  You could call it the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or “ALMA”, for short.

Side note #1:  The Atacama is one of the few places on Earth that tempt me to travel outside the United States.
Side note #2: Now I have Tom Lehrer’s song, Alma running in my head.

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well
Once you picked her up on your antenna
You’d never be free of her spell

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine
There were three famous ones whom she married
And God knows how many between…

Of course, power is a problem because only heavy diesel equipment can lift anything that heavy, and diesel engines aren’t fond of high altitudes. And because you’ve got to lift these things and set them down ever so gently (to say nothing of running them up a long road), you’ll need a custom-built buggy, like one of these. 

Well actually, two of these, because they’re building two of them to meet the construction schedule for the array.  But what are they going to do with them when the array is built?  Offer tourist rides?  The U-shaped monstrosity isn’t exactly built for speed.  (See update for more on this)

A practical question: The telescopes will be “set down on a concrete pad.”  How the heck do you mix concrete at “about half the cruising altitude of a 747”?  That’s up in oxygen-bottle territory, hardly conducive to heavy construction.

Once the array is in place, there will be a problem getting the public’s attention for the discoveries it will make.  Radio astronomy doesn’t produce quite the kind of pictures that the Hubble telescope does – but it plays an equally important role in assembling the puzzle.  A lot of science is like that; not really flashy, but…

UPDATE: Science Daily has a much more detailed article about the truck and the observatory that makes for interesting reading :-)   Apparently they plan to be able to physically reconfigure the array during its useful life, using these two trucks.  So the trucks are part of the long-term, incredibly ambitious project.

Categories: Science & Technology

Ingmar Bergman dies

July 30, 2007 Comments off

Ingmar Bergman has died

I still have the movie poster from the first time (of several) I saw The Seventh Seal.  Damn, what a cool movie.  (And I enjoyed the tribute to it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s   Last Action Hero.)  Of his huge filmography I have only seen TSS, Winter Light, and Wild Strawberries.  But I only saw the others once each and while I remember enjoying them, not much else.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

I guess I just feel like trashing Marilyn Vos Savant today

July 30, 2007 9 comments

Every Sunday Parade magazine features the putative “world’s smartest person,” Marilyn Vos Savant.  People send in questions and try to stump her, and she answers them, often completely missing the questioner’s point.  She has written a number of books, including one about Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I am assured by an actual mathematician is completely off-base.  Her husband is famous, too; he’s Howard Jarvik, the artificial heart guy who is now shilling for some cholesterol medicine.

Today Ask Marilyn was a special issue, “Questions Too Funny To Answer!”  I suppose the “joke” she is trying to make is that the questioner is such a dumbass that they don’t deserve a real answer.  But many of the questions were quite legitimate.  Here’s a sample, along with my answers:

Suppose we could get all living beings on Earth to face one direction and then begin running.  Would this influence the speed of the Earth’s rotation?
- Waterloo, N.Y.

My answer; Yes.  But because of the tremendous difference between the Earth’s mass and that of the runners, the effect would be almost too small to measure with the most sensitive instruments, and normal rotation speed would resume when everyone stopped running.

Where did all the stars go?  In the ‘50’s the sky was loaded with them.
- St. Petersburg, Fla.

My answer; The stars are still there, but because of light pollution, it’s harder to see them.  Your town’s population of a quarter-million people, and location next to Tampa, ensure you won’t see many stars without going out into the country.  Street lights and advertising lamps that spill most of their light up into the night sky are to blame – and better-designed light fixtures would solve the problem.

Do flies ever get sick?
- Riverside, Calif.

My answer; Yes they do.  In fact, some of the parasites they get have been commercialized as non-chemical pest control. 

I see falling stars nearly every night. They seem to come out of nowhere.  Have stars ever fallen out of any known constellations?
- Batesville, Ark

My answer; Fortunately for us, “falling stars” are not really stars, but little chunks of rock or debris burning up as they enter our atmosphere.  You are fortunate to live in a town of less than 10,000, away from big-city lights, where you can see the night sky.  You might enjoy getting a telescope and doing a little stargazing!

I just observed a flock of geese flying in a “V” formation.  Is that the only letter they know?
- Holbrook, N.Y.

My answer; The ‘V’ formation is actually for aerodynamic efficiency.  The lead goose is breaking the airstream for all those following, and if you observe enough flocks, eventually you’ll see them switch off this harder-working position, an example of “altruistic” cooperative behavior among animals.

When I dream, why don’t I need my glasses to see?
- Peabody, Mass

My answer; If you mean that in your dreams, you aren’t wearing glasses yet you can see perfectly well, then your self-image isn’t that of a glasses-wearing person.  Or, that you’re so used to wearing glasses that you’re just not really aware of them.  Have you tried contacts?

Comment: I think a lot of these were serious questions, and all ‘Marilyn’ did was make fun of the people who asked them.  Savant advertises herself as being in the Guinness Book as “Highest IQ” but her talent for missing the point is even greater.  I guess being really smart doesn’t make you a good listener.  Nor is intelligence even something you can just map out on a linear scale.

Categories: Media, Reviews

Gold’s gym shoots self in foot

July 29, 2007 2 comments

The gym I go to has been in the midst of a huge remodling binge to make their interior look really cool and high-tech.  But their cardio machines were getting worn out, and my favorite “Life Fitness” cross-trainer, that did a great whole-body workout without trashing my knees or wrists, was down to only two working examples (on a good day).  But today I found all new cardio machines had been installed.  Whoopee!

The cross-trainers were replaced by “Nautilus” brand, so on Saturday I gave ‘em a try.  Very different motion, and I don’t think my knees will forgive me for a while.  Also it was difficult to hit my target heart rate because the rhythm was for someone with a different-sized body or something.  There were no adjustments.

On the brighter side, the digital readout informed me that I burned “267.7” calories during the thirty-minute cardio session.  Wow!  That’s ten times as precise as the display on the old cross-trainer, the last digit of which I always ignored anyway.  Ahh, the advancement of science.  Or of something.

I spent the rest of the session lifting free weights.  Pretty hard to screw that up.  On Sunday, I tried the new Stairmaster, which looks like a flight of stairs and an escalator got married and this was their offspring.  Worked as well as the old design, which was mechanically a lot simpler and less prone to collecting crud and dried perspiration over the upcoming years in a gym.

When membership renewal time comes up, I’ll be looking at other gyms.  Or even at getting my own Life Fitness cross-trainer, which costs as much as about four years’ gym membership. 

Categories: Reviews

Shop at Lowe’s

July 29, 2007 23 comments

What, a corporation that reviews the ethics of the programs on which it advertises, and tells Bill O’Reilly to take a hike?  Apparently so.

I wrote to Lowe’s and said how much I appreciate it.  O’Reilly damages my country every time he opens his mouth. Well, probably not every time.  Sometimes he’s probably just ordering coffee.

Categories: Advertising, business

The Harvard study on math and science education

July 28, 2007 2 comments

There was a Harvard study released this week linking high school math to success in college science classes (which I’m inclined to file under “Very Obvious Stuff”), and now it’s beginning to make the rounds of my favorite blogs.  So far the most interesting take is Rob over at Galactic Interactions: A cynical take on a study about high school science.  He basically says that while they’re learning mathematical facts and tricks in high school, they’re not understanding the math. 

First, though, I do want to agree that a solid grounding in math is essential. I have observed, and have heard other faculty comment, that students come into college not understanding algebra….

But let me suggest that there is another thing underlying the results of this study. That is, high school science is, in general, not taught the way it should be… and, college science is, in general, taught assuming students learned nothing in high school science…

It’s an excellent post, followed by a number of very interesting comments, so I didn’t try to reproduce much of it here. 

If Rob is right that high schools aren’t doing a good job of teaching math, then how does it help college science achievement?  One reason may be that the students who take advanced math courses in high school (probably with the intention of taking science classes in college) would learn math even from a bad math class, or in spite of it, or without it altogether.  They’re interested in the material.  They work harder at the material, they find their own books, they even rearrange their schedules to find the best teachers.

Being on college track, they are required to take the class, and we might be reading too much significance into the fact that they took it.  Their high achievement isn’t due to the fact that they took the class, it’s due to the fact that they took the class, as opposed to the poor achievers who tend to seek easier classes.

One of the themes explored in the comments to Rob’s post is that it’s difficult to test for understanding.  Science is a process, not just a body of knowledge; we know how to test for the latter but testing the former ain’t so easy.  This is equally true with math as with science.  So students arrive at college with a “magical incantation” approach to math, having memorized a lot of formulas, and able to apply them to recognized types of problems on paper, but not necessarily ‘getting it’.

I am skeptical that there is a “right” way to teach math in high school, though.  Invidivuals vary widely.  My own math education crashed and burned in school; decades later I learned of undiagnosed dyslexia, which makes it so difficult to read numbers and symbols.  (I had always thought I was just stupid.) Later still, I found that I can wrestle effectively with math concepts to whatever extent I can keep it all in my head; the problem occurs when the math goes to paper and I have to read what’s on the paper.  So I keep pecking away at algebra and geometry and before I die, damn it, I’ll get a functional grasp of calculus.

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to math education.  What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and neither of those approaches may work for that other guy.  I’m pretty sure we’ll have to get better at the messy process of identifying what will work for each person.  And notice I said “person”, not “child” because I believe there’s a tendency to regard children as somehow other than persons.  We squeeze ‘em into the school system and try to extrude ‘em out the other end just in time for their remedial classes in college.

Categories: Education

Review of $100 Laptop

July 26, 2007 3 comments

This has been making the rounds so you might have seen it – Fox News has a very good review of the $100 laptop, though right now it’s hovering around $160 and, uh, you can’t buy one.  “Get in line behind about a billion children,” says OLPC Chief Technology Officer Mary Jo Jepson.

Short version: amazingly low power consumption, great networking, good interface, tough construction, and the best screen ever for viewability in full sunlight.  You can customize applications for it, which means it’ll be used in unexpected ways, too.

Shouldn’t they be making a version in charcoal grey and selling it for $250 to businesses?

Categories: Science & Technology

Uspeakable horror… but let us speak of it anyway

July 25, 2007 4 comments

Occasionally I get to thinking that the FDA should be an advisory-only agency, usually when I consider stupid actions like banning the Chinese herb ephedra because a few people with heart defects took 5x the recommended dose and then turned out for high school football. 

But then I read something like Neurophilosophy’s Rise and fall of the prefrontal lobotomy. (The article is not for the squeamish)  There’s a clear description of how the operation evolved during the time it was practiced, and some context; for instance I was not aware that John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary had the operation, and was completely incapacitated by it.  And there are a few stories – most notably that of Howard Dully, who was lobotomized at the request of his stepmother because she found him a disobedient child.  It is not easy reading.

Previous cultures have held that the soul resides in the heart.  But the heart is a pump; a person does not become a machine while on a heart-lung machine.  If there is a soul, its surely resides in the brain.  In the top, the front, of the brain, where in the 1940’s and 1950’s a few doctors performed thousands of acts of ignorant vandalism.  There could be no operation more invasive to the person on which it is performed.

In recent years I have heard people make overheated comparisons between such horrors, and giving Ritalin to kids who have ADHD.  Instinctively I recoil from the staggering disproportion between the two – it is like comparing school detention to the Gulag Archipelago. But there is a discussion to be had.  In short, the two are not at all comparable along the axis of irreversibility, or of effect.  But by way of illustration and example it is worth discussing if the problem is really with the child, or with the school and family.  We’re awfully quick to try to change the child.

In the end, we may look at new medical technologies and give the green light.  For example that seems to be the outcome with stem cell research and therapies in most of the world except here (where cells apparently have souls). We’re squeamish about selling organs, too, for no reason I can quite discern.  And if informed autonomy is the core of medical ethics, I’m left without any explanation for the ban on medicinal (or any other) use of marijuana, or the ban on euthanasia.

Why speak of lobotomy all?  Because, now that the operation is all but forgotten, so is the ethical range of comparison.  We’re introducing new medical procedures and technologies at a pace undreamed of in the middle of the last century when lobotomies were all the rage, and we need well-maintained tools for discussing their ethical implications.  If nothing else, when someone makes too strained a comparison (usually involving Nazis) we know what has happened here, and how it differs from giving someone a pill that will wear off in four hours.  And, how other things fit in between. 

Categories: observations

The iHand

July 25, 2007 Comments off

I have to confess that iPods, iPhones, iThis, iThat… really don’t excite me that much.  Yeah, they’re sorta cool, but, “meh.”

Then there’s the iLimb, a bionic hand under development that will use a traditional muscle signal interface to produce dexterous action.  It’s intended to be a production, off-the-shelf technology in a price range that people will actually be able to afford it.  video clip and more details.

Ok, now that’s really cool.  Aside from the egregious use of the initial lower-case “i” for their product name, but I think we can forgive them that.

And here’s another project to develop a brain interface to ratchet up the dexterity to an even more natural level, like playing a piano.  (“Doc, will I be able to play the piano after this operation?…”)

One thought that comes to mind; they should use a wireless interface so they don’t need anything protruding through the skin.  Besides, it would allow the user to control the hand even when it was detached from their arm, which would give nieces and nephews nightmares…