Friday, December 16, 2011

Higgs boson, anyone?

what a Higgs boson might "look like"
The Higgs field works like this

Granted, I don't know anything about anything, but the Higgs field seems fishy to me.

The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland may have detected a Higgs boson, the theoretical particle that transmits the "force" of the Higgs field to all matter.  You are probably familiar with the boson for electromagnetism, the photon.

The Higgs idea, over-simplified, is that the universe is occupied by the Higgs field. Some things can pass through the field easily, hardly bothering with Higgs bosons.

 Other things are like Higgs boson magnets. They have to wade through clouds of Higgs bosons. In this way the Higgs field confers mass.  That is, we perceive more interaction with the Higgs field as mass.

Or, an elegant way to account for mass.

But a universal field smacks of the aether,  a Medieval invention that in centuries hence was employed to explain how light waves could travel through a vacuum. Physicists reasoned that water and air are necessary for sound waves, so the same mechanism must hold for light.

Michelson and Morley, two American physicists, set out in 1887 to measure the aether, or ether. To make a long story short, they did not find any evidence of ether. The theory of special relativity did not depend on ether either. Today the idea of luminferous ether seems naive. 

Mathematically, we are told, the Higgs field and boson solve the "where does mass come from?" question economically and convincingly.  

But it does sound a lot like ether, which turned out to be unnecessary and nonexistent, doesn't it?

Friday, November 4, 2011

cold, wind, and temperature

Since it seems as if winter temperatures will finally arrive, a word about wind chill.

Wind chill was developed to describe how wind velocity changes the way temperature feels to exposed skin.

We hear about wind chill so often that many people have become confused. Only warm blooded animals with bare skin, humans basically, are affected. If the temperature is 35 but the wind chill is 16, a container of water placed outside will not freeze.

Wind might make the water freeze more rapidly at an ambient temperature of 32 degrees by carrying away heat. Entropy always increases, after all.

So fear not. Your car will die equally well at 16 degrees or minus 10 with the wind chill.

Is Everybody Happy?

Speaking of ridiculous nonsense -- and why not? -- we have Harvard scientists concluding that  happiness depends on the contentment of friends of friends, or neighbors you may not even know.

This may apply to some people, but it is demonstrably false for the vast majority. If it were true, after all, as long as one person on Earth is happy, so should everybody. The happy fellow is friends with another, who is friends with another, and so on, ad absurdum.

Besides, how can you possibly characterize someone as happy or unhappy? Some people are unhappy most of the time, and others are in as good mood most of the time, but no one is joyful at all times. 

Part of adulthood is learning how to keep these emotions private. If you found a $100 dollar bill, would you walk around with a broad smile and tell everyone you pass on the sidewalk? Would you call up your friends?

Perhaps $100 isn't sufficient to cause elation. Suppose instead that you won $50 million in a lottery. You're ecstatic. Is this going to make all of your friends jolly?

Some of them, sure. Most of the others will curse their luck, feel sorry for themselves, and/or ask you for money, since you now have an endless supply. Decline any of these requests and you've made an enemy for a long time.

Moreover, most people don't appear to be happy. At best they're able to maintain a guarded equilibrium. Next time you're at a store look around. See many smiling faces? No. 

And finally, what kind of society aspires to be happy all of the time? 

Only one in which people are losing their jobs left and right, banks are collapsing, businesses are failing, auto companies are on the brink of bankruptcy, newspaper chains are going under,  and people are afraid to spend money.

Good times. Happy people. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

dog bites man again and again

Either the dog or the leg are artificial. Maybe both.

Are aggressive pit bulls and other breeds of dogs inherently violent, or are they made so by their owners?

It is both nature and nurture, of course. 

However, let's consider different species. How many people are bitten by rabbits? By goats? By guinea pigs? Probably not too many, nor too seriously. Could you provoke a rabbit to bite you? Yes, but it would take persistence. 

The point is that animals exist on a continuum, from shy to scary. Sharks, rattlesnakes, and alligators are considered dangerous. Some sharks are more mellow than others, but all in all, they're at the dangerous end of the spectrum. 

Clearly, so are dogs. Humans started out with wolves and domesticated them into dogs. In fact, the modern canine is largely a human invention. Dogs were bred to guard, attack, hunt, and bite. Certain species were intentionally bred to have strong jaws and the capacity to maul. 

There are many types of dogs now, but as a group they're closer to the shark end of the line than the bunny end.  Face it. Snails, turtles, bats, woodchucks, beavers, or otters are highly unlikely to bite you. 

Most dogs will not bite you.  A lot of them will. 

 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Almost one in five of those who are bitten;  (and) a total of 885,000: require medical attention for dog bite-related injuries. In 2006, more than 31,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery as a result of being bitten by dogs."

The  "dog bite denial" folks point out that there is no way to determine which breeds are more likely to bite you. True. But obviously, pit bulls put more people in the hospital than beagles. There is a reason that German shepherds are the dogs of choice for protection and paramilitary work. 

For mysterious reasons, people these days tend to be more concerned about animal,  rather than human, welfare. (It's possible to care about both). This society sends people who hurt dogs to prison. 

What we don't do is hold hold owners accountable for their dogs.  Only in the most serious  mauling cases are the dogs themselves killed, or are people charged with a crime.  

Dogs can be a gentle, loyal,  lovable part of a family. They can provide nonjudgmental companionship. But owners need to control their dogs as if each pet is a potential killer.

 Especially people who insist on owning pit bulls. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I made a mistake because I made a mistake

We all make mistakes, that is, those of us who are human.

But have you ever been asked to explain a mistake? Ultimately, the only way to explain a mistake is to circularly say "I made a mistake," which is not really an explanation.

Can you explain why you accidentally knocked over a glass of milk? Clumsy? Clumsy is just another word for "prone to making mistakes." 

Forget an appointment? "I got mixed up." In other words, I got mixed up because I got mixed up.

So, what is a mistake? Something you did that you did not mean to do? That suggests that the left side of the brain doesn't know what the right side is doing. A circuitry problem.

And there are those who contend that there are no mistakes; that actions are a response to unconscious urges. Calling Dr. Freud. 

Mistakes are a key aspect of atonement, as in the day of atonement, or Yom Kippur, which is observed by Jews next month. In this context anything done in violation of God's law must be atoned for. 

Life would be easier without mistakes.

 But, a large majority of us are human.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Brother can you spare a cylinder of acetylene

Barack Obama does not confer with me about jobs programs, but there is something I'd like to say to him.

Say there are about 14 million people in the U.S. who are unemployed. Construction workers constitute about 1.7 million of that number. That's 12 percent.

Yet when the President talks about creating jobs, he almost always refers to "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects such as bridges and highways. 

Since the bridges and highways in the U.S. are not adequately maintained, they are crumbling and rusting into oblivion, so rebuilding all of those decaying pieces of infrastructure makes sense. 

But where does that leave the other 12.3 million unemployed Americans? The experienced and older white-color unemployed? Those cast off by corporations so that young, inexperienced people can take their places for much less money? 

The newspaper business comes to mind. As the New York Times recently reported,  many news organizations are using people with no professional experience to cover the ongoing presidential election cycle. 

If you can replace someone working for $50,000, who has 30 years of experience, with someone working  for $30,000, who has no experience, that saves a lot of money. Or, so it seems. The public is less informed, but who cares?

This dynamic is apparently happening across the board. 

White collar jobs at hospitals, software companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, consulting firms, etc. are going to young people. If you are 50ish, good luck. 

I wouldn't mind learning how to weld, or lay concrete, or drive rivets, or whatever. But who is going to hire a 60ish welder with no experience? 

As everyone who knows anything knows, the country needs New Deal-type boost, so that people who are otherwise unemployable can get jobs and spend money. No one I know wants to get hand outs. 

"Over my dead body," quoth the Republican majority in the House, a la Eric Cantor.

Not exactly. Over my dead body. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane hype and the rule of threes

It's better to plan for a disaster that does not happen, than not plan for a disaster that does.

But  does that mean it's good for cable news channels to spend 24 hours a day talking up a level 1 hurricane as a monster killer storm that could wipe out major cities on the East Coast? 

No one wants to repeat the horrendous mistakes that turned Katrina into an historic mess.

And, if you're the owner of a house that got swept away, or the relative or spouse of a person who was killed or injured, then Irene was a killer monster storm.  However, it was nowhere near as nasty as the National Hurricane Center or the Weather Channel led viewers to believe.

Coverage splits into three phases: First, evacuate, prepare, stock supplies, board your windows, and make ready for a disaster. Television is good at that. The next phase is reporting was actually happened -- or in the case of Irene -- what did not happen. The third stage is either "Armageddon" or "We missed the bullet."

New York city was not inundated. Storm surges, created by low pressure and strong winds, were not as high as predicted. The number of storm deaths was relatively low (except if you are the lost one's brother, sister, or spouse, in which case Irene was as a bad as it could be).

Hundreds of thousands along the eastern seaboard lost electricity. In Connecticut alone, about 700,000 spent hours or days without electricity, which is no treat, to be sure. 

Could Morris Cove in New Haven been flooded? Absolutely. By tropical storm Irene? Not likely.

 But police driving around and using public address systems warning people to leave or face potential catastrophe was enough to convince my family to impose on a brother-in-law in East Hartford overnight.

His power went out. At our vacant home, electricity was off for about an hour and then restored. Trees did not topple on our street, although one cracked and fell on a lawn. 

So, it turned out we would have been fine if we'd ignored the unenforced "mandatory"

Other people along the coast were not as lucky. Beach houses were damaged and washed away. However, if you want to see major damage, Google the hurricanes of 1954 and 1955.

Which brings us to coverage phase three: Back-pedaling, or "We missed the bullet." WMB is a handy journalistic device because you get a story either way. Either a groan or a "Phew!"

What would have been helpful was a balanced, level-headed explanation of the storm. We know that hurricanes lose force in cooler northern waters. We know that hurricanes get tapped out when they travel over land. 

None of the news people or meteorologists seemed to wonder about what that might mean for Connecticut. New York City was the big story, and not much happened there. Phew.

The next time hurricane warnings are issued, will people  around here pay attention? Probably not as much as they should. That's the downside of the hype. 

I'm not a meteorologist, but I doubted that Irene's predicted level of  destruction was likely. If we have the misfortune of a category 4 or 5  hurricane heading straight for Connecticut I will expect major damage, regardless of what the televised people say. I will be getting away from Long Island Sound long before the police arrive.

Next time a hurricane approaches, how about a realistic discussion of the worst, best and most likely possibilities of damage. 

That's doable. 

 Fewer reporters standing in the rain, and more independent meteorologists in the studios.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cue the lumbago

Television ads for anti-depressants are getting more depressing.

The advertisement for airipiprazole (Abilify) is a case in point. Not only is there a patient and a doctor in the animated creation, there is also a stand-in for depression.  Depression is a ovoid black, animated thing that can resemble a blob, or turn into a hole. 

The "patient" is a woman and depression is by her side throughout the commercial. She is taking notes as the "physician" describes possible side effects and counter-indications. Depression has its own clipboard and is also taking notes.

What does this mean?

Depression is a character and as real as the patient. Is depression taking notes so that it can defeat Abilify?

The cartoon woman and her family then go for a picnic and depression tags along like the family dog.  In fact, depression never leaves.  What does this say about your expectations? Aim low. Don't count on your depression actually lifting.

Same with a gout medication called Uloric (febuxostat). A guy is walking around a city carrying a huge beaker of green liquid that is supposed to represent uric acid. Gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals in joints. Our patient gets Uloric and the size of the beaker shrinks. 

But at the end of the ad, he still has to carry a small beaker of green liquid. In other words, this medication may improve the condition, but it will not cure it. 

Along the same lines is a medication for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The opening scene is of a man with COPD with an elephant sitting on his chest. A good metaphor, perhaps for chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Presumably the elephant is a computerized drop in.

The actor playing the patient actually says that there is no cure for COPD. He proceeds to play pool (why pool?) and the elephant remains in the same room. Spiriva (tiotropium bromide inhalation powder) may improve your symptoms, but you're stuck with the elephant, who at least is letting you stand up and walk around. 

In ads for heartburn medicines, the heartburn is neither a character nor does it linger. Does this mean that heartburn is "curable?" Sort of. It can be controlled. Same with ads for mucus dissolver, blood thinners, and anti-cholesterol drugs. 

Mucus, unwanted blood clots and artery-clogging cholesterol are all potentially chronic diseases,  but they have no cartoon characters.  A blood clot could be like a strawberry, cholesterol lends itself to an amorphous blob shape, and mucus suggests a green critter. 

Some of these cartoon diseases may spin off their own animated features. A woman pursued by a black blob, a coughing guy and his elephant sidekick. Cholesterol as a cat burglar. 

Weirder movies have been made. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Twist and shout

I twisted Rubik's World to an inclusive standstill, but I had the last laugh. 

Sort of.

For those unfamiliar with things Rubik, the "world" is a sphere composed of 8 pieces. It's like a 2 by 2 cube, but spherical.

I insouciantly tore the wrapper off and started to fiddle around. It didn't look that complicated.

What followed was hour upon hour of spinning the pieces, matching South America to North America, trying to get Australia in the right place, and so on. With Africa and South America in the correct spots, half of Asia was somewhere in the Pacific.

Then I managed to get most of it right, realizing that either the eastern or western hemisphere was upside down.  If I keep moving things around, I reasoned, sooner or latter I will blunder into a solution. Then I realized that that strategy is useless. 

Yes, there is an algorithm that sorts everything out, but  the knowledgeable people on You Tube either covered the puzzle with their hands, or were vague. Among the more confusing aspects of the explanations is that regardless of how the puzzle is held, the top is called the top, the left called the left, and so on.

Consequently, one second you're looking at the top, and the next you're looking at the top, which is now a side. Some day the Khan Academy will post understandable instructions on Rubik puzzles.  Meanwhile, more clockwise, up, clockwise down, left, left. etc. 

Eventually I'd had enough and proceeded to take the thing apart so I could reconfigure it in the correct position and put it away.  This is the real puzzle, I thought, as a bunch of black plastic pieces fell out. I must admit shamefully that after I got all but two of the pieces back inside, I glued the whole thing together. 

Now it is forever (relatively speaking) solved.

Are there people who enjoy puzzles? Who actually like the bewilderment and repeated false steps? Doesn't seem likely. Trying to fit the World back together was far more enjoyable than the puzzle itself. 

Part of the problem with Rubik puzzles is that they are abstract. The sole purpose is to figure out how to manipulate the thing. Everyday puzzles are more rewarding. You may think about how to fabricate a bird house, or a shelf, or some other minor wooden project. 

Consider doing this, or that. Maybe Plexiglas is the best bet.  Perhaps cut this piece at an angle, or put the frame on the outside, or build the thing out of cardboard boxes. 

At the end, you have something to show for your trouble.  If it's junk you can rip it apart and do over.

Rubik-wise, the reward seems to be the knowledge of how to solve the puzzle. People compete to see who can rearrange the cubes fastest. No one in his right mind fiddles with a Rubik's cube or world for 20 minutes a day, before taking a walk, or after breakfast. 

Having an unsolved Rubik sitting around is practically intolerable. Chess puzzles are similar. They are made to solve, not ponder. 

One conclusion has become clear: I am not a Rubik's kind of person: too many screwdrivers and types of glue.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The measure of a bridge

Measure twice, cut once, woodworkers say.

Accurate and precise measurement are the keys to 90-degree square corners, even legs, and generally, pieces fitting together properly. On a small project it's usually possible to correct errors  by cutting, planing, sanding, gluing, or using wood putty.

Now imagine you are building an enormous bridge, highways, and on and off ramps over New Haven Harbor to replace the old bridge.

The materials are way too big to measure with a tape. Can a steel fabricator guarantee that a 50-foot girder will be within 0.001 inch of the blueprint girder?  When construction workers pour concrete into stories-high wooden molds,  how are they able to make the finished product exactly the right size? Also, all of the angles have to be correct, because the bridge and associated sky ways are curved.

Who is out there with a yard stick making sure the project is built according to specifications? A cursory inspection does not reveal anyone with prospecting tools, and you do not see the workers looking at plans. Maybe this all takes place in a trailer somewhere.

Still, who determines the correct height of the mold and how is this applied in practice? How do they make the towers plumb?

Sure, there are project engineers, bridge engineers, and all of those people. You ever see them measuring anything?
Maybe they are doing the equivalent of drawing out a tape measure and marking a spot, but using unrecognizable equipment. Infrared or laser beams? Global positioning systems? 
But even if an engineer can determine that a particular support needs to be 35 feet, six and half inches tall, how do the workers possibly fabricate something that big and with such precision?

It's not easy to make six two-by-fours all exactly eight feet long, for example. However, in theory, the job is straight forward. What theory do builders use when six pieces of concrete have to be exactly 50 feet long?

Maybe all highway support columns and other construction elements are a standard size, and so all of the fabrication equipment is automatically gauged properly.  That does not seem plausible. 
Or maybe the crews just eyeball the whole thing and modify as they go. That doesn't seem plausible  either.

Same holds true for skyscrapers, dams, stadiums,  oil tankers, and all enormous man-made things.

Suppose 100 men and women are working at a site, and each one is accurate down to a hundredth of an inch. At the end, won't whatever they're building be off by at least an inch?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Murder most foul...Yawn

Why are so many television shows and books devoted to murder?

Collecting forensic evidence, looking for fibers, and unravelling complex subplots and meta-plots. Some homicides are fascinating. Serial killers are morbidly interesting, and occasionally someone does something really bizarre like puts his wife through a wood chipper.

But all of those twisting and turning plots and big surprises and shoot-outs? Life's not like that at all. You mean what we see on television is not perfectly accurate? Afraid not.

If a spouse turns up dead, the prime suspect is always the husband or wife. That's about as complicated as it gets. 

Most murders are solved through confessions, or by people who overhear other people talking about how they killed someone, or by people with information seeking to lessen their own prison time. 

Also, the ranks of police departments are not filled with beautiful women who wear low-cut plain clothes. Female detectives look like regular women. 

Moreover, there are so many more interesting topics than murder. But finding them is not as easy. Materials physics, quantum mechanics, robotics, fishing for crabs, logging, gun smithing, and history are all available on cable. Way more entertaining to see Bear Grylls eat insects or make himself a seal-skin vest, than one of the proliferating Murder She Wrote shows. 

How common objects are made, bridges are designed, ore mined, the Panama Canal widened, all more interesting than "murder."

Despite Agatha Christie and her ilk, murder is tawdry, mundane, messy, miserable, and kind of boring --  unless you're the murderer or the murdered.

Snow fools the eyes

Time to clear up some misconceptions.

We may not get any more snow now that April is here, but remember the big drifts of this past winter? The snow started out white and then after a few days, snow plowed to the side of the road turned gray and was dotted with pieces of dirt.

The typical explanation for the gray color is either "dirt" or "pollution" or dirt resulting from pollution.  However, if pollution were falling so fast that it could discolor snow in two or three days, we would notice it everywhere -- on cars, sides of houses, clothes, shoes, statues, and so on.  

Besides, the air pollution around here is tiny particulates (too small to see),  and ozone smog. Acid rain would not color snow, would it?

The drifts' gray appearance is optical. True, there are motes of dirt and assorted garbage in the snow, but the gray is the result of melting. Take a look at the ice cubes in your freezer. They are not snow white, they're gray. Snow that melts and refreezes is the same.

Snowflakes, incidentally, are clear, but very reflective. Catch a flake in your hand. It's not white. 

Ponder the color differences between rain clouds and fair weather clouds. The water-filled rain clouds are gray and the cumulus clouds are composed of zillions of clear droplets and appear white. 

Yale research has also found that some bird feathers and insect wings are colored not by pigments, but by refracted light. Same thing with snow. 

Now you know. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

The electric toothbrush jive

Just for fun, and to see how social networks function, start this rumor: Urinating while simultaneously using an electric toothbrush can cause electrocution.

This seems almost plausible if you don't think about it very hard, and is just weird enough to be true, if you don't think about it too hard.

Spreading rumors, or hoaxes, is hard work. You'll need to repeat the rumor to everyone you know, and have them repeat it ad nauseum.

What would all of this prove? That there's a reason the United States' ranking in science education is 48th out of 50.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I see jail and tidal waves in your future

Romania is considering punishing witches and fortune tellers if their prognostications do not come true.
Why bother fortune tellers, you might ask.  For one thing, the proposed law is aimed at  Roma, or the people who used to be called "gypsies." 

Romania must have more pressing problems than cracking down on something so trivial, but apparently Romanians are superstitious. Extremely superstitious.

But the parliament apparently did not figure out that the anti-fortune telling law is a logical riddle.

Suppose a man goes to a fortune teller, who predicts he will get hit by a falling piano. The man, who lives near a piano factory, goes home by a circuitous route to avoid the factory and any falling pianos.  In this case, the man relied on the fortune teller, and took evasive action. 

If a piano did actually fall, he would have escaped harm thanks to the fortune teller -- but then the fortune would be incorrect and she would face criminal charges.  Seems like a paradox.

Or suppose she predicts vaguely  that a client's relative is going to experience health problems. The client  could then take the relative to the doctor for a check-up and thus double-cross fate. The logical fallacy actually works in favor of the people he or she cons.

Unless the fortune teller specifies a certain date, she can always claim that the event is in the client's future. Eventually, decades down the road, the  client will develop a disease and will die.  "Health problems" inevitably happen at some point in a person's life.

It might take decades or centuries for a piano to fall on someone's head.  Would the fortune teller be released from prison if, 20 years later, a piano happens to fall on someone?  Or would that just confirm that she is a witch?

Witches have their own angle. They can defend themselves by blaming the fortune-telling cards. This puts the card manufacturer in a fix. The card maker could then blame the company that made the stock on which the cards were printed, who could then blame the rags that the recycler delivered to make the stock.  This road extends to infinity, or at least, to the beginning of the universe. 

This is sort of a "you can't prove a negative" argument. 

Now ponder Earth's changing climate. Skeptical politicians who refuse to recognize the problem are in the place of the Romanian parliament, and the fortune tellers are scientists.

As the Romanian example shows, the scientists cannot lose. And this is assuming that climate experts are simply guessing. Either the climate does change (it's in the process right now) or it may change in the future.

Maybe the Romanian parliament is just the body to deliver global climate change laws.