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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Quick Hits and Sapping of Motivation

It's strange-- last summer, when I started this blog, I had no trouble at all keeping up with both this site and my book log. Since buying the house, though, my interest in all things blogospheric has dropped way off. Partly, it's that all the political news at the moment is just so damn depressing (see, for example, Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Fourth of July post and references therein), but that wouldn't really explain the seven book backlog on the book log (four books, now, since I added three last night. Go check it out.). Mostly it's just that owning a house, and having responsibility for maintenance of the house and yard, and having a rather nice back yard to loaf around in provide more attractive options for spending my time than reading and writing weblog posts.

This is not, I hasten to note, a declaration of superiority to those who continue to blog a lot. It's actually something of a shock to find that I'd rather be re-framing the downstairs bathroom door than putzing around with the computer. I really don't understand how this came about, and I'm not sure I wouldn't like it to stop.

Anyway, I've started putting together references to explain the five-quark particle thing, so maybe that will kick-start some new physics posts (it'll probably take at least two to explain what's up with that). In the meantime, here are a few quick notes about stuff that has caught my eye recently:

1) If you enjoy deadpan legal humor, there's a great line buried in Jack Balkin's explanation of Lawrence v. Texas:

Why Justice Scalia thought it important to assert the state's right to regulate masturbation on the basis that it is immoral is beyond me. I leave this very interesting question to your imagination.

It's also a very good explanation of the decision. His explanation of the Supreme Court's fundamental majoritarianism is also good reading.

2) On a lighter note, I heartily support the Poor Man's prescription for media reform:

It is my opinion that all journalists should be fired and replaced with tenured physics and engineering professors, and then we would soon find out exactly who stands where and who has been faking the funk.

Amen, brother. Hallelujah. Northrup for President.

His post about Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt is very good as well.

3) Finally, to end on an actual science note, we have this article from the BBC, about the discovery of a new extrasolar planetary system:

Astronomers have found a planetary system similar to ours - a Jupiter-like world circling a Sun-like star in roughly the same orbit that Jupiter follows our Sun.

Of course, if you read down a little farther, you find out what "roughly the same" means:

But this Jupiter-like world stirs memories. It circles its parent star at a distance of 467 million kilometres (290 million miles), not a lot different from the 778 million km (483 million miles) that Jupiter is away from our Sun.

The similarities do not end there. This new world circles its star every 6 years; our Jupiter takes 12 years.

Because, of course, 193,000,000 miles is a pretty trivial distance, and six is a lot like twelve, in that they're both greater than two.

I also like the "Artist's impression of the new planet and possible moons" which is a wonderfully generic gas-giant-with-moons painting that I've seen used elsewhere as an artist's redition of the view of Io and Jupiter from one of the outer Jovian moons. It's probably done duty as cover art, too.

(To be fair, it's conceivable that, in terms of astronomical taxonomy, anything within a factor of two of Jupiter's orbit in either direction is pretty similar-- astronomy is a science of vast distances, strange units, and error bars in the exponent, so this is actually a fairly close similarity, as such things go. But whoever wrote those two paragraphs should be smacked upside the head with a math textbook...)

Posted at 9:33 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Actual Science-Type Content

In other news, a colleague here at work is part of the CLAS collaboration, and just returned from a meeting at which they confirmed the discovery of a new type of particle:

When months of checking the apparatus produced no alternative explanation, the scientists concluded that they had indeed found a five-quark particle. The particle would consist of two up quarks, two down quarks and one known as an anti-strange quark.

The findings will be reported Friday in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Dr. Hicks and other researchers then reviewed data from similar experiments at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, VA., and again found the same signs of a five-quark particle. Physicists in Russia have also found similar evidence.

My understanding of the world of QCD barely passes the undergraduate level, but I'll see if I can put together a halfway sensible explanation of what this all means. I've been shamefully neglecting the physics part of this weblog for a while now, and this is significant enough to deserve an attempt at explanation.

Posted at 12:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The previous post was brought to mind, in part, by a line written on the tailgate of a pickup truck I passed on my way to work this morning. The owner was presumably trying to demonstrate support for the troops, and one troop in particular, but a few articles were edited out (presumably for space reasons, this being a smallish pickup truck), making it something else entirely:

My Son: One of the Few Proud Marines

Posted at 12:28 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Context Is Everything

The past weekend in Vegas was spent at the Hard Rock, which isn't actually that great on the casino front, but was pretty much appropriate for the stated purpose of the weekend (namely, a bachelor party for a friend from college). They aim for a younger crowd than most of the Strip casinos (this particular weekend, they were aiming a lot younger-- there was a skateboard competition and a Linkin Park concert, both attended by people with a mean age of about fifteen...), and have a rather extensive pool complex, which has the reputation of being a good place to see scantily dressed attractive women. The actual crowd is, of course, the sort of mix that you get at a place that has a reputation for being a good location to ogle half-naked women-- one part scantily clad attractive women to three parts meatheads who came hoping to see scantily clad attractive women-- but it's a nice pool, at least.

It definitely partakes of the surreality of the whole Vegas scene, though. This is, after all, a city where a gigantic hotel built a shopping mall as a mock-up of a street in Venice, complete with a fake canal (gondola rides available for a fee), fake sky, and fake sunsets. The whole city is about slapping various pseudo-real elements together in a haphazard manner to create a bizarre spectacle that strains toward the level of authenticity achieved by Disney World.

In the case of the Hard Rock you get, well, fake rock. They pipe music into the casino, they've decorated the place with various bits of rock memorabilia (mostly tending toward the sequined-jumpsuit, big spectacle side of things), and everything is decorated with "rock"-themed sayings. The "Do Not Disturb" signs, for example, all say "I Hear You Knockin' But You Can't Come In." A little of this would go a long way, but this is Las Vegas, possibly the most irony-deficient city outside of Branson, MO, so they beat it into the ground.

The most disturbing thing, though, was the use of out-of-context song lyrics to decorate the place. For example, they had a line from the Prince song "Kiss" (complete with affected spelling) blazoned on the wall over one of the exits:

U don't have 2 be rich 2 be my girl U don't have 2 be cool 2 rule my world

That was probably the most appropriate of any of the lines I saw quoted on various walls-- after all, you're unlikely to be rich on your way out of a casino, so the quote might provide some comfort.

The lyrics posted in the elevator were a little stranger. One of the elevators featured an Aerosmith quote:

Love in an elevator, livin' it up as we're goin' down

which is at least vaguely relevant, though hardly the sort of behavior you'd expect them to encourage. The other, though, went back to Prince (specifically, "Let's Go Crazy"), and managed to be completely ridiculous:

Don't let the elevator bring you down

So... this is an admonition that I should save energy by taking the stairs? A fire safety warning? The line never really made any sense in the actual song, but it's certainly not something I'd be happy to see when the doors slide open on the thirteenth floor...

The kicker, though, had to be the quote behind the registration desk, from Kurt Cobain:

Here we are now, entertain us.

This just tells me that the people running the place are, at heart, about as rock-and-roll as The Sinatra Group. Could anyone who had actually listened to that song put that line on the wall of a casino? I'm no huge fan of Nirvana, but this is not a shiny, happy, "Woo! Vegas, Baby!" high-five-your-buddy sort of song.

Then again, I guess it could count as a "truth in advertising" sort of thing-- a shiny, wall-mounted notice that you should not expect any understanding of context, or the slightest hint of self-awareness during your stay. Which is fairly accurate.

It is a nice pool, though.

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Tonight's Lotto Numbers: 1 2 3 4 5 6

The last time we were both in La Vegas, Kate decided she wanted to play roulette, so we wandered over to a table. She got a stack of chips, picked a number to bet on, and asked me to pick a number (actually, the intersection of four numbers, for slightly better odds). After a dozen or so spins, my number had hit twice, and she said "OK, that's hit a couple of times-- pick a different number."

I just sort of stared at her, because, of course, history has no effect on the odds. There is no "Law of Averages," and a given number is no more or less likely for having come up a few times in the recent past (if anything, you might as well leave your money right where it is, because a physical system like a roulette wheel might have some systematic bias toward one area of the wheel...).

The point of this is not just to mock Kate, but to point out that even very smart people (she is, after all, smarter than I am) have a tough time with probability and statistics. Our brains are wired to find patterns in things, and seek causes for those patterns. While this is a good thing if you're solving word puzzles, it often produces spurious results, like seeing faces and other figures in pictures taken by space probes, or even the Hand of God flipping you off.

I was reminded of all this this past weekend, while in Las Vegas for a bachelor party. In addition to the traditional foolishness involving semi-naked women (see Izzle Pfaff for the definitive word on that subject, and Diary de la Vex if you want more), there was, of course, gambling.

There's really no place like a casino to make you doubt the laws of probability. I know that a blackjack dealer has absolutely no influence on the odds (an honest one, anyway), but I would swear that the woman who took $90 of my money Saturday night had some sort of mystical power to mess up my life. I'd have a 19, with the dealer showing a three, and she'd turn over four cards and end up with 20. Again, and again, and again-- it was uncanny.

But, of course, it's not. Pick any combination of cards you like, and it's bound to turn up at some point, given a seemingly infinite number of casino dealers working 24-7. It only seemed remarkable to me because it was my money vanishing off the table-- Sunday morning, when I won back the $90 I had lost, nothing seemed the least bit out of the ordinary, even though that sequence was, if anything, more of an anomaly (given that, in the long run, the odds favor the house). The odds don't change unless the rules do.

(That said, I have to say that I have a hard time with those wallet cards that people carry around, and the "book" that people always quote. I realize that the odds are fixed, and calculable, but every time I wound up resorting to "the book" to choose a course of action (as in "the book says you hit here"), I lost. I'd really love to know who wrote the book in question, and whether there's actually an appendix that says "Don't hit on that, you dolt. Jesus, what kind of sap are you, anyway?")

My ultimate reaction to all this is to sort of shrug, and say "boy, human brains are weird." Other people take it a little farther, though, such as the guy I wound up next to in the airport lounge. He noticed my college t-shirt, and asked what my connection to the school was. On learning that I was a physics professor, he quizzed me intently about the completeness of physics, because he was absolutely convinced that mystical shit happens on a craps table, and normal physics and probability just isn't able to explain what goes on in Las Vegas.

I argued against him, figuring it was my duty as a scientist, but my heart wasn't really in it. Sixteen hours earlier, after all, I was perilously close to arguing his side of things...

Posted at 3:38 PM | link | follow-ups | 15 comments

The Squirrel System

While on the subject of gambling, I should mention that I ended up winning $70 on the weekend (I was probably up about $150 at one point, and then suffered a flurry of losses). That's better than usual, but pretty insignificant in the end-- that just about paid for my share of dinner on Friday night...

Given that I played blackjack almost exclusively, I'm of course obligated to have a system for betting-- everyone whom plays more than a few hands has to have a system. Of course, given that I accept the laws of probability, mine is a system designed to minimize losses, and promises nothing about winning.

There are only two rules: 1) Start by putting down an amount of money that constitutes the maximum you're willing to lose in one sitting. These are the only chips you're allowed to have on the table, and you play until they're gone. 2) If you win a hand, put the winnings in your pocket.

This looks a little strange-- one dealer noticed me stashing money in my pocket and said "I see you tucking that away like a squirrel-- but when I stick with it, it works to keep me from getting stupid. It's primarily a psychological thing: I have a hard time getting up from the table if I have chips in front of me ("Oh, I can play just one more hand..."), so this provides a definite end to the game. When the original stake is gone, I'm done. It also limits losses to something acceptable-- the most I can lose is the original stake, and in practice, it's almost certainly less than that, as it's rare to sit down and burn through a whole stack of chips without ever winning a hand.

It also provides a nice kick when I go to cash out-- the game necessarily ends on a down note, when the last of the table stakes are gone, but that's redeemed when I go through my pockets, and find the money I'd been winning all along. It's fun to see the last of the original $100 stake disappear, only to pull $190 out of your pocket for the dealer to change into larger denominations...

(The same effect can be obtained by getting spectacularly drunk and losing track of $80 in chips until the next morning, but that has some unpleasant repercussions for the next day...)

Posted at 3:37 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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