Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chief Wahoo: An Apologia

I know I'm supposed to be upset about Chief Wahoo, but it just ain't happening. Here's why:

1. The only people who think Chief Wahoo has anything to do with real Indians are the protesters. In other news, the Dallas Cowboys do not ride horses and the Green Bay Packers don't work in a meat-packing plant.

2. It's my understanding that most real Indians don't give a frog's fat behind about Wahoo. If there were some kind of mass sentiment against him, I would respect that, but Native Americans apparently do not consider Chief Wahoo to be among their most pressing problems.

For a while there, I was almost on the side of the protesters. If Chief Wahoo were supposed to be a caricature of a real Indian, he'd be a pretty gross one. But that's not what he is. As an Italian-American, if I'm not worked up over Super Mario Bros (and I'm not) then I'm not going to get worked up over Wahoo.

The obnoxiousness and sanctimony of some of the protesters probably had a part in moving me into the pro-Wahoo camp. At one time I thought it would be better to sort of quietly retire him in the off-season, but now I'd rather see the old guy stick around because I don't want to hand yet another victory to the Thought Police.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fake Science

When studies are conducted to determine whether Drug X cures Disease Y, success is declared if the link is proven "at the 0.05 significance level." In layman's terms this means there is less than a 1 in 20 chance that the result was caused by insufficient data. Think of it this way: if you see a bunch of nurses one day and they are all female, you might conclude that all nurses are female. But in reality, there are male nurses; you just didn't happen to see one that day. You were fooled by the smallness of your sample size.

An amateur faker makes up data to support a hypothesis. We have a cute name for this: "dry-labbing." An amateur also may think up bogus reasons for throwing out data that don't support the hypothesis.

A real professional faker with a big research budget does lots of studies and publishes the one that by chance showed a positive result at the 0.05 significance level. 20 is the average number of studies needed, assuming there is no correlation between administering the drug and curing the disease. It might take 10 or it might take 40 depending on how lucky you are. Even 40 studies are a small price to pay when billions of dollars are at stake.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sicilian Easter Cookie

Here's a recipe for a Sicilian Easter cookie. Well, I hesitate to call it a cookie - it's more like a sweet biscuit. I don't know the name for this thing - anyone who does, feel free to comment.

This version is from my Great Aunt Mary who passed away last year but would be 96 this year. Aunt Mary made her living as a baker and was accustomed to baking by the ton, so the quantities are huge. Feel free to proportion them down.

3 lb all-purpose flour (4 cups to the pound)
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 T vanilla extract
3 3/4 T baking powder
1 1/4 c. milk (or more if needed to fully moisten the dough)
1 1/4 c. shortening (Editor's comment: the secret to good cookies of any kind is to use shortening instead of butter.)
1/2 cup anise seed. (I like to bruise up the anise seed a little in a mortar and pestle to really bring out the flavor. If you are in Cleveland, get your anise seed from Gust Galucci's. It'll cost you about a quarter of what you'll pay at the grocery store.)

Cream shortening, eggs and sugar with an electric mixer, whisk dry ingredients together, then combine everything in a big bowl and work with your hands until smooth. Don't knead it, just get everything together.

Shape as discussed below and bake in preheated 375 degree F oven until lightly browned on top.

Traditionally these are baked around a colored, hard-boiled Easter egg in the shape shown below. The cross over the egg is interesting. Everyone knows the egg is a symbol of fertility and goes back to the pre-Christian spring holiday of the Romans and earlier. Then the Christian cross goes over top of it. It's syncretism, straight from your oven.

Now...Aunt Mary's recipe makes the old-school version of the Easter cookie, which is very dry and not very sweet. They are hard to eat without coffee or milk. To make a modernized version, increase the sugar to 2 cups and the eggs from 5 to 6.  You shouldn't need to increase the milk. Then, glaze them with any kind of simple sugar glaze. Vanilla and lemon are good flavors for the glaze. Colored sprinkles are optional. I usually don't make more than 3 or 4 of the "egg-basket" versions because they're so huge. I make lozenge-shaped cookies out of the rest of the dough - you can see these at the upper right corner of the picture below. If you do the eggs, shave 3-4 minutes off the boiling time or else by the time they get out of the oven they'll be rubbery.

Here they are. The cookie sticks to the egg, and I have many Easter memories of trying to gnaw the old-fashioned, hard cookie from around the egg without cracking the shell. If you can get into the Easter spirit without anise, well then you're not really Sicilian!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can a baseball pitch ever travel faster than the pitcher's hand?

From Bjorn the Berzerker comes this baseball question:

Will the ball ever travel faster than the speed of the pitcher's hand?

My off-the-cuff answer was that it could, because my perception was that the pitcher normally throws somewhat "down" at the batter. When the ball's motion has a downward component, gravity acts in the direction that speeds it up. The extreme case is if you just lobbed it straight down -- gravity would accelerate the ball faster than you threw it, until it hit the ground. If you're throwing a ball "down" from the mound to the strike zone, it seems plausible that gravity plus the downforce on a good curveball could well outweigh the slowdown due to air drag, even taking into consideration that air drag directly opposes the motion while downward forces are nearly perpendicular to the motion. (Remember that the speed of the ball is the vector sum of its horizontal and vertical velocities.) 

But on further consideration, it doesn't work out that way. Pitchers aren't throwing down at all, as I'll prove below. In my defense, judging slight deviations from horizontal is very difficult, as anyone who's ever been to the Mystery Spot can attest.

For simplicity, consider a perfect 12-6 curveball that stays completely within a vertical plane all the way to the catcher's mitt. If the pitcher is six feet tall and throws overhand from the standard 10-inch mound, the ball leaves his hand about 82 inches above the plate. I'm assuming here that the release point is six feet above the ground. (Pitchers release the ball over their heads, but they're not standing up straight when they do so.)

I'll assume the pitch has to be a strike, because otherwise the pitcher could just throw the ball straight down at the ground, which we have already discussed. The lower limit of the MLB strike zone is the bottom of the batter's knees, about 24 inches off the ground. So the pitcher has 82 - 24 = 58 inches of drop to work with. 

Let's say the pitch is an 80-mph curveball. Pitch speeds are measured (ideally) at the release point. This expert says pitches lose about 10% of their speed due to air drag by the time they get to home plate, so our hypothetical pitch would be going 72 mph at the plate. 

The distance from the pitcher's hand to home plate is about 58 feet or 696 inches. (It's 60.5 feet from the pitcher's rubber to the plate, but the ball is released when the pitcher is stretched way out in front of the rubber.) A ball moving at an average of 76 mph will take 0.52 seconds to cover the 696 inches to the plate. In that same 0.52 seconds, gravity will cause an object released with no vertical speed to drop 52 inches.  

That takes up almost all of the available 58-inch drop! It means that even a fastball has to be thrown nearly horizontal in order to be a strike. A downward-breaking curve would have to be thrown slightly above the horizontal.

This means there is no way the downforce could cause the ball's speed to increase after release. A horizontally thrown, 95-mph fastball takes 0.43 seconds to get to the plate and gains 9.6 mph in downward speed over that span of time (actually a little less, because fastballs have a slight upward break, but neglect that.) If the fastball loses 10% of its speed over the 0.43 seconds, that is an average deceleration of just about one g. There is no way the small fraction of the one-g gravitational acceleration acting along the ball's nearly horizontal path, can overcome that. (The one-g deceleration is perfectly consistent with this guy who says the terminal velocity of a baseball is 95 mph.)

It is even less likely that gravity could speed up a curveball, because the bigger your curve breaks, the higher above horizontal you have to throw it in order to hit the strike zone, and the later in the trajectory it reaches its apex and starts falling. By then, air drag has cut down on the speed so much that no reasonable amount of downforce is going to bring it back up to its initial speed.