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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Life Imitates Homicide

Jim Henley is following the Montgomery County sniper story closely. As he should be, what with living there, and all.

As a former resident of Montgomery County (1994-1999, while in grad school. I lived in one of the few bad neighborhoods in Rockville, not far from the Rockville Metro station), I find this whole thing is profoundly creepy. I can picture most of the places where the shootings took place, and like Jim, I've shopped in some of those stores.

I hope they nail the guy soon, and sanity is restored to the area.

Posted at 10:54 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Bike to Work or the Terrorists Win

I saw another of those damnably annoying "if you buy drugs, you're funding terrorists" commercials yesterday. It occurred to me that there's a golden opportunity for a parody spot with an actual point dear to the hearts of left- and right-wingers alike.

You could keep most of the dialogue the same-- "We were just having a good time," "We weren't hurting anyone," and all that-- but change the speakers from druggie kids into soccer moms and men in suits. With the money shot at the end being somebody gassing up an SUV. After all, as the warbloggers are fond of reminding us, most of the funding for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups comes from the theocratic Gulf states-- when you buy their oil, you're funding terrorists in a much more direct and verifiable way than the somewhat tenuous drug connection that the ONDCP is cynically flogging.

For a wide variety of bad reasons, the Bush administration is unlikely to really turn the screws on the Saudis and others, but there's no obvious reason why some grass-roots group shouldn't push the idea of conservation as counter-terrorism (other than fear of political reprisals). And there's a much more direct connection between oil money and terror funding than between drugs and terror, or even Iraq and terror.

The beautiful part of the idea is that it ought to bring together the weenie liberal tree-hugger crowd and the hawkish "Saud delenda est" wing of the "blogosphere." Less oil use means less pollution, which makes the Green types happy, and less oil money means less Saudi largesse for terrorists, which makes the warblog crowd happy. It'd be like WWII, with two natural political enemies coming together to fight a greater foe (though we'd have a hard time getting John Ashcroft to sport the Stalin mustache...).

(This only just occurred to me, which means that some blogger who thinks about this stuff all the time probably came up with the idea months ago (especially since the right wing has all the smart and funny people)... But there is a serious point here: given the dependence of the much-reviled Saudis on oil sales, and the oft-repeated mantra that the Saudis are the real problem, shouldn't the warblog crowd embrace oil conservation as a way of undercutting terrorism? How about it, Messrs. Reynolds and Den Beste (among others)?

(Why do I suspect that an actual attempt by Greenpeace or the Sierra Club to make a link between oil consumption and terror funding would be denounced as yet more America-hating or another proof that the environmental types just want to destroy modern technological civilization?)

Posted at 10:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Friday, October 04, 2002

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That...

The folks over at 75 or Less are saying nasty things about the new Rhett Miller album:

"Like the Air Suppliers said," Rhett? "I cannot believe that you're my lover," Rhett? Ken and Murray and Phil must be rolling in their graves with laughter. Oh, I know the Old 97s are still together, supposedly. But they would be forgiven for never wanting anything to do with you ever again. It seems loooooove has taken its toll on your cheese detector. The most annoying thing? Some of the songs are actually damn catchy. But who wants to be singing stuff like "unless you come around/so come around"? Triple fucking gag. Call the boys, beg forgiveness, and then we'll talk.

(Actually, that's the whole review, not an excerpt. That's sort of the point of their reviews, after all-- no more than 75 words... There's more snarkiness in the comments, though, so click on over there anyway...)

Now, I'll agree that some of the lyrics are dippy, but, really, are they any worse than some of the stuff on Too Far to Care (which, for the record, has been the album of choice in my office and lab for the past month or two). Like, for instance:

So I sidled up beside her,
Settled down and shouted "Hi there,
My name's Stewart Ransom Miller, I'm a serial lady killer."
She said "I'm already dead."
That's exactly what she said.

or what may be my favorite dippy line from the album (no, I can't explain why):

'Cause I got issues, yeah
Like I miss you, yeah.

(I could lift more from Fight Songs, but that was already regarded as a sell-out album, so it doesn't carry any indie cred...)

The lyrics on The Instigator are clearly the product of the same mind that gave us some of those earlier gems. The only real difference between them is that the songs on the new record are happy-- they're about what happens when the girl with the big brown eyes who's eighteen hundred miles away comes home. Maybe this is just a sign that I've lost all coolness points by being happily married, but what's wrong with that? Does coming from an alt-country background mean that Miller has to be drunk and bummed all the time? He wrote and recorded some dippy pop songs-- big deal.

And, as the review grudgingly notes, they're catchy as all hell. There are worse evils in this world than an album full of insanely catchy and reasonably literate pop tunes-- in fact, given that the prevalence of sludgy, angst-ridden pseudo-metal these days, I'd say that we need more albums like The Instigator. I wouldn't turn down another Too Far to Care or Fight Songs, either, but "Four Eyed Girl" is the very pinnacle of dippy pop songcraft, and worth the price of the record all by itself.

The new songs aren't really Holland/ Dozier/ Holland or Smokey Robinson material, but they are cheerfully un-ironic love songs which somehow manage to not be utterly stupid. It's a refreshing change of pace from the current run of dire pop music, and a really good album.

Posted at 11:48 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Show All Work for Full Credit

Long Problems

1) A sprinter running the 100 meter dash is officially timed to have completed the race in 10.00 s. Pointing to his own watch, however, he claims that in his frame of reference, he ran the race in 9.70 s, and thus not only won the race, but set a new world record.

a) Assuming that he had set a record (i.e. run 100m in 9.70 s), what would the actual difference between his watch and the (stationary) official timer? (You will need to use the binomial expansion in order to get a useful answer.)

b) How fast would he need to be going for 9.70 s on his (moving) watch to take 10.00 s on the timer's (stationary) watch?

c) How long would the 100 m course appear at that speed?

d) How far (as measured in the timer's rest frame) would he have gone in the time the race took?

2) At the end of a term, a physics student prepares to head home for vacation. His home is 500 miles away, but he only has enough gas in his car to cover 300 miles, and no money to buy more. "That's OK," he thinks to himself, "If I drive fast enough, that 500 miles will be contracted to 300 miles, and I'll be all set..."

a) How fast would he need to go to accomplish his goal?

b) How much total energy would his 1000 kg car have at that speed?

c) Assuming that the kinetic energy of his car is generated from the energy contained in gasoline, how much gas would he need to have in the tank if the full mass of the fuel were converted into energy (an unrealistic assumption)? (Don't include the mass of the gasoline in the mass of the car.)

d) Once he reached that speed, what force would his engine need to supply to accelerate the car at 1 m/s^2?

Short Answer:

1) A particle with a mass of 1.0 10^-20 kg, moving at a speed of v = 0.8 c collides with a second particle which is at rest. The two stick together and move off together after the collision.

a) What is the initial momentum of the moving particle?

b) If the velocity of the two particles after the collision is 0.4 c, what is the mass of the second particle?

2) The "Doppler Weather Radar" advertised by every local news organization uses the Doppler effect to measure the velocity of wind-blown raindrops by bouncing radio waves off the drops and measuring the frequency change. To get an idea of how this works, think of a moving droplet as emitting radio waves at a frequency of 500 MHz, and consider the frequency detected by a stationary observer.

a) If the drops are blown toward the observer by a hurricane-force wind (v = 33 m/s), what is the difference between the frequency measured and the frequency emitted?

b) Radar waves are detected at 499,999,995 Hz. What is the velocity (magnitude and direction) of the wind carrying the drops along?

3) You're a physics professor in the late 27th century, supervising a lab in which students learn about the Doppler shift by looking at the light emitted by objects moving at relativistic speeds. You suspect that one of your students is lying about having done the lab. He claims to have observed blue light at λ = 450 nm emitted at a 90-degree angle (measured from the direction of motion) from a particular object. You look at the object in question (at rest), and note that it's green (λ= 532 nm). Immediately, you know that the student is lying about having done the lab. How? (Hint: What velocity would a green object need to have to look blue from the side?)

4) A very long spaceship (several km in length) has a set of evenly spaced lights all along its length. In the rest frame of the ship, they flash in unison every 10.0 s. As you're standing on the ground watch the ship fly overhead at a speed close to the speed of light (looking at it along the y-axis, as it moves along the x-axis), are the lights lit simultaneously? If no, in what order do you see them light up?

Posted at 5:53 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Michael Jordan Wouldn't Return His Calls

In a comment thread a while back, Jim Henley, arguing in defense of Steve Spurrier called it an "encouraging sign" that Spurrier "named Matthews the starter this season over Wuerffel, despite a clear early preference for Wuerffel, based on what he saw in preseason. Given that Matthews is at best a mediocre NFL QB while Wuerffel is at best an awful NFL QB, this was a sound decision."

In among the sports stories in today's Washington Post, we have: Wuerffel Is Redskins' Likely Starter. Whee!

(To be fair, I agree that Wuerffel (an ex-Giant) is an awful NFL QB, and I really shouldn't be gloating about the misfortunes of the Redskins when my Giants honked a game to the football-like substance of the Arizona Cardinals (once again failing to learn from the sorry history of Joe Pisarcik, and run the damn clock out, though you could argue that they looked less silly than the Broncos did last night...). But after six years of reading the Post''s local-rag bleating about the Skins, I derive great pleasure from watching them struggle. Add in Spurrier, who exemplified most of what's wrong with college football, and it's a match made in schadenfreude heaven...)

Posted at 7:57 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Monday, September 30, 2002

All Pigs are Upward Mobile

(A bit of a rant, this... But it's been a frustrating week at work, and I can't rant about that, so I'm going to vent about something else. Dippy pop-culture stuff tomorrow, to even the scale...)

"Demosthenes" over at Shadow of the Hegemon has a post which nicely sums up my feelings about the seemingly inevitable war with Iraq:

Let's be frank, folks: this "debate" is a sham. It probably always have been. It's just one side throwing out one inane assertion after another and the other side racing around trying to disprove them, only to discover that the disapproval is irrelevant due to the latest bit of nonsense that's come out. IAEA document proves to be a lie? Doesn't matter, Bush is going to prove that he has a legitimate case at the U.N. Bush crapped out after Iraq invited inspectors in? Doesn't matter, the "Blair Dossier" proves that Iraq is dangerous. Analysis shows that it does nothing of the sort? Doesn't matter- they just found weapons grade uranium near Iraq. Uranium turns out to be best measured in grams? Doesn't matter, Iraq proved they were irrational because they have come out against an American proposal that is as transparently designed to start a war as Austria-Hungary's was before WWI. And so it goes. Can't wait to see what happens next.

That's why everybody is uncomfortable, angry, and/or frightened. It's not because they like Saddam, and it's not because they dislike Americans, and it's not because they're cowards, and it's not because of Trans-fucking-national Progressivism. It's because bullshit detectors are going off like obsessive-compulsive klaxons all around the world, but the people they're hooked up know they're powerless to do anything about it.

That pretty much nails it. At this point, I think I'd trust a new press release from Jan Hendrik Schoen than anything the Bush Administration or the "blogosphere" hawks have to say about Iraq. Schoen at least had the decency to do up some phony data and include them in his papers, rather than just claiming to have data which couldn't be published right at the moment. It wouldn't surprise me to see Ari Fleischer dip into the Uri Geller play-book, and declare that the evidence justifying an immediate attack on Iraq can't be released because of "negative vibes" from the press.

The hell of it is, it didn't have to be this way. I'm not a principled isolationist, or some sort of squishy no-war-in-any-circumstances pacifist. I supported the first Gulf War and took some flack for it in PoliSci classes (I was in college at the time). I thought the bombings over the Kosovo fiasco were justified, and I thought we broke and ran too quickly from Somalia. I'm solidly in the "interventionist" camp, and make no apologies for it.

I'll admit that I've long felt that, on economic and social issues, the Republicans in general and the Bush crowd in particular are dangerous lunatics, but I was willing to cut them some slack on the foreign policy front. I was right there with them when we started bombing in Afghanistan-- definitely the right move, no question about it.

But shortly after that, the problems started. They couldn't even wait until the local war was finished before reneging on promises to Pakistan, and have shown an impressive indifference to the ultimate fate of Afghanistan and its people. Watching the situation there unfold, it's like we're trapped in some sort of hideous experiment to test the validity of the old saw about those who fail to learn from history.

And since the focus turned to Iraq (far too quickly, I might add), it's been just one damn lie after another. Distortions, deceptions, omissions, and brazen, flat-out lies, all in the service of a predetermined foreign policy. It's the same preposterous song and dance routine that went with the tax cut, but with a river of blood waiting at the end.

(Some wit will no doubt pop up at this point with the canned "Yeah? Well Clinton lied a lot, and Gore lies all the time" line. Yeah, you're right. Clinton had at most a nodding acquaintance with the truth (though given the rest of his history, "nodding acquaintance" probably means he accosted it in the back of a limo and stuck his tongue down its throat...). You know what the difference is, though? When Clinton got caught in a lie, he at least had the decency to act like he was ashamed of it-- Bush and his gang of con artists don't even do that. They pretend that the lies just never happened, whip up a terror scare, or shout "Look! The Winged Victory of Samothrace!" and scamper for the exit.)

Saddam Hussein is a Very Bad Man, no question. He's working on weapons of indeterminate destruction, no doubt. Something ought to Be Done about him.

But the pack of lying swine we currently have in charge of things are just about the worst group of people we could have planning and carrying out this plan. The Bush foreign policy crowd shouldn't be trusted with the Blizzard machine at a Dairy Queen, let alone the military might of the world's only superpower. I could be convinced of the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and set up a different regime there. But not by these clowns. And their backers in the "blogosphere" are, if anything, even worse.

Posted at 7:48 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Always Check Your Units

Initial reports of several kilograms of weapons-grade uranium being seized by Turkish police have been downgraded to a hundred-odd grams of uranium that may be naturally-occurring, and thus not suitable for bomb-building. A minor difference, that... But then, who can keep those damn metric units straight, anyway?

The most surprising thing here is really the discovery that the Turkish police are using NASA contractors to handle their press reports...

Posted at 4:03 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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