Author Archive

Murphy’s Law

April 13, 2008 6 comments

I sent the following email to DOF yesterday:

So the used [duplexer base for my ancient Laserjet 4+ printer] arrived in what I think might be the biggest box I’ve ever received.  It barely fit through the door.  In order to find a place to put it, I had to rearrange my network hardware, and move my DVD player around.  Hooked everything back up, and it all worked perfectly.  Check.  Then I put the printer on the bottom shelf of the TV table, and configured it to work on the network.  The hardest part of this process was remembering the admin password on the router.  After I got that working, I followed the instructions in the service manual: took the back door off the printer, set the printer on top of the duplexer, and everything just snapped into place.  Then I tried duplex printing, and *everything worked perfectly the first time.*  Past this point, the only difficulty was getting Milly’s laptop to work with it.  The internet eventually told me how to configure a printer which just has an IP address instead of being a shared printer (something which is so counterintuitive, I can’t imagine how anyone figured it out in the first place).  The only remaining issue is to figure out how to make Milly’s computer *not* duplex when she wants it to.

Ok, here’s the thing:  I ripped up all the infrastructure in my apartment, moved it around, installed a 15-year old piece of equipment bought on eBay, and it all worked fine.  On the first try.  With no complications.  I’m scared.  There must be some karmic balance in my near future, presumably involving something bursting into flames…

Less than an hour later, my internet connection wasn’t working.  It was a bizarre intermittent problem, where suddenly the connection would stop working for one computer but not the other one.  To make matters weirder, the computer whose internet connection didn’t work could still access the router just fine.  Resetting the router seemed to fix it, but only for a few hours, and whenever I tried to configure the security settings, it would stop working altogether.  I think I’ve finally solved the problem, which was caused (as are so many obnoxious intermittent problems) by the router overheating.  You see, I put the RCA-to-coax converter box on top of the router, which caused it to become extremely hot.  The router has been working properly for about 7 hours now, so hopefully my karmic balance has been restored.

If you have an old Laserjet, I highly recommend getting a duplexer base for it (they may only be available for some models).  They’re fairly cheap on eBay, and double-sided printing is pretty awesome.

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The banana: “the atheist’s worst nightmare”

April 11, 2008 5 comments

Behold, the power of stupidity:

I think this may be the worst argument I’ve ever heard.  Yes, the banana.  So perfect, it’s easy to propagate with the seeds it produces.  Wait, no.  It’s a triploid mutant which is completely sterile and has to be propagated by cloning.  It’s also practically disease free, and certainly doesn’t require massive amounts of fungicide to grow.  But, by God, he is right that bananas certainly are easy to eat.  Pomegranates, it seems, were created by Satan. 

Or maybe we like to eat bananas because they are so easy to eat, not the other way around.  If God were trying to create the “perfect food,” he probably should have put more protein in it.  In fact, many people in the third world have protein deficiency problems caused by a diet consisting largely of plantains (a type of banana).  Oh wait, this is an application of the more general principle that God hates poor people and wants them to suffer.  Aha!  So this is just another example of God’s perfection!

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The Power of Science

April 9, 2008 2 comments

Sure, science may have figured out how to make computers, life saving drugs, and auto-vacuuming robots, but can it save dinner?  Sure it can.  Kyle over at the Chem Blog describes how his keen knowledge of chemistry saved his dinner of chicken breasts and collard greens.  Khymos describes how osmosis can save wilted lettuce, complete with neat time-lapse photography:

Kids Prefer Cheese links to a study about starting salaries for different majors, and science majors do pretty well for themselves, especially (cough cough) math majors, who came in third with a starting salary of $46,405.  (In fairness, that number would probably be a lot lower if actuarial sciences majors weren’t grouped with math majors).

Of course, science isn’t all delicious dinner and bling.  The Curious Wavefunction has a fascinating and quite detailed rundown of a simulation of 50 fifteen-kiloton nuclear explosions on the Indian subcontinent.  Apparently nuclear war can still mean disaster, even if it’s “small.” 

The frightening thing about the study is the magnitude of the predicted ozone loss due to these accelerated processes; about 20% globally, 40% at mid latitudes and up to 70% at high latitudes. Also, these losses would last for at least five years or so after the war. These are horrifying numbers. The ozone layer has evolved in a synergistic manner over hundreds of millions of years to wrap up life in a protective blanket and keep it safe. What would the loss of 40% of the ozone layer entail? The steep decline would allow low wavelength UV radiation which is currently almost completely blocked out to penetrate the biosphere. This deadly UV radiation would have large-scale devastating effects including rapid increases in cancer and perhaps irreversible changes in ecosystems, especially aquatic ones. The DNA effects documented by the researchers are appalling- up to 213% increases in DNA damage with respect to normal levels, with plant damage up to 132%. In addition, the increased UV light would hasten the normal decomposition of organic material, further contributing to the natural balance of the biosphere.


On a brighter note, coffee/caffeine are good for you.  The way most people drink it is probably not so great.  I suggest green tea.

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Cash meets Reznor

April 6, 2008 3 comments

I never would have guessed that Johnny Cash had covered one of my favorite Nine Inch Nails songs, but here you have it:

Cash is such a talented person that his music is even considered good across a fairly wide spectrum of my generation, including one of the most cynical punk-rockers I’ve ever met.  Of course, Cash isn’t the only musical giant to have covered this song.  (WARNING: the previous link includes graphic drug use by muppets.)

(Hat tip: Evolving Thoughts.)

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Assorted links to fun stuff

April 4, 2008 10 comments

Mind Hacks has an interesting post about the one time that philosophical logic has ever come up in real life.  Apparently, according to the DSM-IV, the beliefs of a patient have to actually be false for them to count as delusions.  One patient, however, had paranoid beliefs that he was mentally ill, which if true, would imply that his delusion was not true, so he wasn’t mentally ill.  But if it’s false, it’s like…woah.  Or maybe the DSM-IV definition should be changed slightly.

Mathematics Under the Microscope has a post on Komolgorov’s 5/3 law in the theory of turbulent flow.  This is a fascinating post, especially for the questions asked at the end, about things like why small fish seem to move faster than big fish, and a fascinating law involving steam ships.  Anyone interested in education, especially math education should read this blog, though perhaps skim through the more math-laden posts.

A hilarious post about a truly disgusting recipe found in an ancient Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

LifeHacker has a neat post on 10 harmless geek pranks.  I especially like #2 (where you can change the status message on HP laserprinters), since I own a LaserJet.  I wonder what if I can get it to scroll “…and what the #$%* does `PC LOAD LETTER’ mean?”  Also, Star Wars, in animated ASCII-art form.

I found an old post from fields Medalist Timothy Gowers entitled “My favourite pedagogical principle: examples first!”  The title largely says it all, since the article won’t be that comprehensible unless you know a bit of math.  I love examples.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve struggled with concepts for hours until I tried working through one example, and found that it crystalized the whole concept.  There is an adage in math: “a good example is worth three theorems” (in the sense that good examples lead to more theorems).

What office hours are like for a TA in a math course.

Finally, Everyday Scientist asks “who would patent the atomic bomb?!?!”.  And remember the new season of Battlestar Galactica premiers in less than two hours on SciFi.

UPDATE: I tried the perl script in the comments for non-networked printers (which should work on Macs, Linux, BSD, etc), and my printer currently displays “DOES NOT COMPUTE”.  I tried the Office Space thing, but alas it does not scroll.

Categories: Uncategorized

The human cost of meat

April 4, 2008 2 comments

My girlfriend is a vegetarian, which, as Samuel Jackson once said, means that I’m pretty much a vegetarian too.  She’s not really opposed to me eating meat, we just mostly eat together, and so we cook things we can both eat.  I have always been completely unconvinced by the ethical arguments regarding animals.  Sure, slaughtering animals is probably an unpleasant task, and one which I wouldn’t want to do myself, but I find that I’m relatively unmoved by PETA’s videos of the “animal holocaust” going on in our slaughterhouses.  Until yesterday, I had never thought about the human cost of meat production very much, which is not insubstantial apparently.  According to two papers referenced in the link, workers in slaughterhouses suffer psychological disorders from their work, and are more likely to commit crimes.  Add to that the (relatively slight) dangers of aerosolized pig brain, and the more substantial high carbon footprint of meat should give you a bit of pause. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like steaks, burgers, RIBS, chicken, duck, salmon, and just about every other kind of meat I’ve had.  But think about the real costs associated with meat, and maybe stick with a nice healthy, small portion next time.  Also, learn about the deliciousness of beans, which are an oft-neglected part of American cuisine.  Seriously, that recipe is amazing, though if you must, it would probably also be good with some spicy Italian sausage.

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Computerized assault

March 29, 2008 1 comment

Via Slashdot, here is a link to a story about the sickest example of computer hacking I’ve ever heard of.  Allegedly, someone put some posts a message board for the Epilepsy Foundation which included flashing lights.  Flashing things can cause seizures and migraines in a small percentage of epileptics, and apparently did cause symptoms in a few individuals.  Things like this really make me wonder what goes on the minds of some people.  What on Earth would possess anyone to do this?  I hope that the person or people responsible for this are caught, and charged with assault.  For severe epileptics, seizures can be deadly, so maybe an attempted murder charge would be in order as well.

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Guest post by Lucas:  Kurzweil, “exponential thought”, and gee-whiz numbers

March 27, 2008 4 comments

Ok, you can call me pedantic, but this article on Ray Kurzweil (link at end) has an error which should have been caught at the copyediting stage:

“But Kurzweil had a special confidence that grew from a habit of mind he’d been cultivating for years: He thought exponentially. To illustrate what this means, consider the following quiz: 2, 4, ?, ?.

“What are the missing numbers? Many people will say 6 and 8. This suggests a linear function. But some will say the missing numbers are 8 and 16. This suggests an exponential function. (Of course, both answers are correct. This is a test of thinking style, not math skills.) ”  [It’s probably more a test of how much experience the reader has with computers. -LW]

“Look at it this way: If the series of numbers in the quiz mentioned earlier is linear and progresses for 100 steps, the final entry is 200. But if progress is exponential, then the final entry is 1,267,650,600,228,229,400,000,000,000,000. Computers will soon be smarter than humans.”

Based on that mistake, maybe not.  He probably calculated this in some calculator program, which gave him a result in scientific notation.  Instead of just saying “…is approximately 1.26*10^(whatever),” he decided to write that the entry is that number.  This number is clearly divisible by 10, and no power of two is divisible by 10.  Of course, his computer did *exactly what he told it too*, and nothing more. It wasn’t smart enough to realize “Oh, I’m being asked this so that my owner will have a lengthy number to write down verbatim to prove a rhetorical point.  I surmise that he wants this number in arbitrary precision rather than the customary approximation I would normally give his feeble human mind.”

According to my Python interpreter, the correct answer is exactly:

Wait, “L” isn’t a number.  Oh well, I guess the computer knows what it’s doing…  (L stands for “long”, the data type Python uses to handle integers that are longer than a certain number of bits.)

I swear, every article written about Ray Kurzweil pisses me off.  The blog that linked to it had this quote:

“Many computer scientists take it on faith that one day machines will become conscious. Led by futurist Ray Kurzweil, proponents of the so-called strong-AI school believe that a sufficient number of digitally simulated neurons, running at a high enough speed, can awaken into awareness. Once computing speed reaches 10^16 operations per second — roughly by 2020 — the trick will be simply to come up with an algorithm for the mind.”

The blogger commented: “Which is a bit like saying “once we have the technology to travel to another galaxy, all we have to do is get there”.”  Not the best analogy, since it makes it sound like computers are like the technology to travel to another galaxy.  I would say that this is more like saying “Once we can make enough aluminum to build a rocket, we can go to the moon.”
- Lucas