Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Fake Science Papers

Abstract of a scientific paper written in the style of a postmodern humanities scholar:

The implications of inertia have been ably limned by Newton, Euler and others in both a point-mass and extended body milieu. Later workers such as Einstein and Bohr provided differently paradigmed anti-absolutist and post-continuum perspectives that served to undermine and transgress old assumptions in diverse directions. In the present work, multiple strands of thought are compared, contrasted and combined to result in a new framework within which is developed, inter alia, an anti-post-post-modern reckoning of the precession rate of a spinning hoop.

Abstract of the ideal engineering paper:

The orthogeometric method has been used to derive a governing equation for the number of nodes in a directed network. Using Hopf's Theorem, it is shown that the governing equation has precisely four solutions for boundary conditions that cover all situations of practical interest. A special case of the first solution recovers the well-known result that traffic circles are better than stoplights. The solution set provides additional low-cost traffic-control strategies with a lower-bound reduction of 93% in travel delays for Los Angeles with no changes to existing vehicle characteristics, total road mileage or right-of-way width.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out

We just finished a family viewing of A Christmas Story with its immortal line "You'll shoot your eye out!" At the end of the movie, Ralphie very nearly does shoot his eye out, but he was luckier than my dad was...

Dad has been gone for six years now, but let's hear it from the old man in his own words. This happened in about 1945.

My two best friends when we lived at Glen Alum [West Virginia] were Jerry Dunman and Buddy Collins, brother of Margaret and Jean. We did a lot of playing up in the hills surrounding Glen Alum and the popular game of our age group at that time was Cowboys and Indians. Jerry, Buddy and I had constructed some bows from which we would shoot dried 'stick weeds' as arrows. Anxious to try them out and knowing if our parents knew about them they would be confiscated, we decided to go up on the mountain for a trial run. Where we started up the hill happened to be right in front of the Gannons' house. Mrs. Gannon (mother of Charles, Ernest, Jr. and Kenneth) was working her yard and as we passed she spoke that well known phrase "You boys better be careful or you'll shoot your eye out with those things." Yeah, sure. As if we would do anything so stupid. Score one for Mrs. Gannon because that's exactly what we did. I was hiding behind a tree and Buddy, I believe, was sitting on a branch of another tree. I stuck my head out and before I could draw it back I felt a blow like someone had hit me with a fist in the eye. Buddy had launched a stick weed in my direction and validated Mrs. Gannon's warning. We ran off the mountain and my mother took me to the company doctor. This happened to be Dr. Kayle who was not known for his gentle bedside manner. He took one look at me and said, "Boy, you've lost yourself an eye." This seemed ironic to me considering the fact that he also had been blinded in one eye sometime in his past. He put a patch on it and told my mother they should take me to the hospital. The hospital was in Welch, which I believe was about fifty miles away. Since we didn't have a car it was decided that we would wait until the next day and catch the train. During the night, infection set in and I became delirious. My father, who had become general foreman of the mine by this time, called Mr. Boyd, Emerson and Robert's father, whom he knew had a '37 Studebaker, and Mr. Boyd saved my life by getting out of bed and driving us to Welch. The doctor said if we had waited until the next day the infection would have caused damage to my brain and I would have died. I would like to extend my belated thanks to Bob for his father's compassion.

Dad was fitted with an artificial eye he could pop out any time. I don't think he enjoyed it when I brought my friends around and said, "Hey, Dad, show them how you can take your eye out." On the other hand it is true that he once made himself a Halloween costume using a spare eye set right in the middle of his forehead.

Once, for some reason, he had to have a new eye made and I went with him to pick it up. It was made by one guy working in a little office up in a high-rise somewhere on the east side of Cleveland. The office was strewn with all kinds of eyes in various states of manufacture. They were made of some kind of ceramic, and he painted them himself. They were extremely realistic -  the guy was quite an artist. You would never be able to tell Dad's eye was artificial just by looking at it. I can still remember the smell of the paints and glazes as we waited for the eye to be finished.  

(Does it strike you as odd that he not only remembered the year and make of the car that took him to the hospital, but included it in the story?)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Five Warning Signs That You Will Soon Die

These days you constantly hear people worried about closing "gaps" in educational outcomes, and it's not surprising that all the schemes for closing the gaps involve taking resources away from kids who are doing well and giving them to kids who aren't doing well.

It has to be that way, because if the same education were offered to everyone, it is fairly obvious this would increase inequality, not decrease it. Present the same material to smart people and dumb people, and the smart people are going to get smarter, while the dumb people might get a little smarter or they might, through confusion and misapprehension, actually get a little dumber. There might be a big gap between the top student and bottom student in a high school class, but send both of them to MIT for four years and the gap is going to get exponentially bigger. And it's not confined to academic knowledge. Someone tried to teach me how to lay up composites once, and the sole result was that we both ended up angry.

Was this movie a work of fiction?

This is why the Internet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is increasing inequality. When colleges make their courses available for free online, this gives a huge advantage to the tiny slice of people who are already smart enough to benefit, and leaves everyone else back at the starting line. People think that tiny slice includes a lot of people who would otherwise continue in ignorance. I doubt it. I think the tiny slice is mostly made up of people who would eventually find the knowledge somehow (they're smart, remember), and the online courses just make it easier for them.

I just visited a middle-of-the-road website, time.com. Putting aside the question of whether the left-hand side of the bell curve would even go there, as opposed to, say, tmz.com, let's look at what's on the site and how different people might react to it. It's a very big page, so it's easy to find stuff meant to mislead. "Science Confirms James Bond is an Alcoholic" - dumb person learns that scientists have the ability to diagnose fictional characters. "1 in 14 Americans Faced Identity Theft Last Year" - dumb person learns 1 in 14 Americans had their identities stolen last year. "Baseball is About to Get Even More Boring" - easily bored person learns that most people think baseball is boring. "SNL to Add Black Female Cast Member" - dumb person learns that this is a first. Our dim friend loses interest and goes on over to the Huffington Post, where he clicks on an ad to find the seven warning signs that cancer is growing in his body and the ten things he must never do after age 50.  Is he smarter or dumber for the experience?

If a certain educational system made dumb people twice as smart, but smart people ten times as smart, I would consider that to be a good system for us all. But some people of course wouldn't. It's a political question.

Of course, you and I don't need to worry about this, because we're clearly smart enough to only take in information that will continue to make us smarter, and to avoid information that will make us dumber, right? And we can be sure of this because...we're smart enough to know, uh...help me out here...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Sound of Technology

I taught a class on space missions earlier this year, and suggested some space-related music to break the grind of studying. There is of course The Planets by Holst. I feel the John Glenn launch scene in The Right Stuff, accompanied by Holst, justifies the entire space program There's also some pop music --- "Space Oddity", famously performed in space by astronaut Chris Hadfield (lots of people think it's called "Major Tom") and a weird song called "Let X=X" by Laurie Anderson that includes the line "Satellites are out tonight." I warned my students away from "Rocket Man" by Elton John. It's an anti-space song --- he says that Mars is no place to raise your kids and is cold as hell.

Personally, I find it impossible to work with music playing; I can't concentrate. But for some reason I've developed certain...hypotheses...about the music people listened to while they were making some kind of groundbreaking technical advance.

It is said that most people who worked on the Apollo program were under 30. Someone who was 30 at the height of the Apollo program in 1966 would have been 18 in 1954 and most likely in the pre-rock demographic. So, while I would like to think someone had "Good Vibrations" cued up during key structural dynamics tests, I don't think a lot of rock was played in the workshops of Apollo.

But, around 1970, everything changed. Before 1970, astronauts looked like this:

Gordo Cooper, 1963

Then something got into the Houston water supply, and astronauts started looking like this:

Garriott, Owen K.
Owen Garriott, aboard Skylab in 1973

To be fair, it's hard to shave in space, but that is some handlebar he's got going there.

So I think after 1970, say during the planning for the later Apollo missions, someone was listening to "Aquarius" by the surprisingly nonwhite Fifth Dimension. I can't be sure they named the Apollo 13 LM after that song, but if the Apollo 10 CSM could be named after a comic strip character, anything is possible.

Then they moved on the the Shuttle. For the sole reason that the Shuttle was designed in Downey, California, and the Carpenters were from Downey, California, I always imagine someone drawing up the body flap for the Orbiter with "Close to You" on the radio. The Carpenters also recorded a song called "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" but that was far too silly. We engineers are conservative folk, even when we're designing ass-kicking rockets.

How about another technical field? Steve Jobs made no secret of the fact that he was a huge fan of countercultural music like Dylan and the Beatles, but let's face it, Jobs was no engineer. His biggest contribution to the Apple II was probably the case. On the other hand, Steve Wozniak, who designed the entire freaking computer nearly single-handed, did so while listening to 8:05 by Moby Grape. My evidence? I have none. Woz just seems like a Moby Grape kind of guy.

Jobs, if you play the White Album one more time, I'm gonna assault you with this soldering iron. (Kidding. Steve Wozniak is too nice to say something like that.)