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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, June 25, 2004

Better Than Cats

Speaking of spell-check and porn servers, the paper that we were writing up on krypton background measurements has finally been sent off to a journal, and posted on the preprint server. I encourage everyone to check it out-- it's a real page-turner...

Posted at 11:16 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Spell-Check

The suggested replacement for "eroticism" in the previous post? "Heartaches."

That's either a seriously weird algorithm, or somebody has Issues.

Posted at 11:04 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Missed Opportunities

Via a passing mention at Grim Amusements, a moderately interesting article on gay rugby players. There's a really interesting article to be written here, or at least an article that would be really interesting to someone who played rugby. Even in the pinko-liberal Northeast college world where I learned the game, it never struck me as a particularly gay-friendly atmosphere, and the clubs I saw in the DC area were not an improvement. The interactions between a gay rugby team and straight clubs ought to be interesting, and it would be interesting to find out what effect (if any) this would have on the various non-athletic rituals surrounding the game. Do they sing the same obnoxious songs? Engage in the same sort of utterly-subtext-free-really-we-mean-it idiocies as the college teams I played for and against?

Sadly, the actual article only touches briefly on these things (in the last section), being written in the basic mode of a typical Salon article, where you end up learning more about the author than about the ostensible subject of the article. This can be done well, but it's a badly overused form, and I'm becoming thoroughly sick of it.

There's a painfully over-analytical tone to the whole thing as well: "Rugby is a blank slate for me: Similar to football in its outlines, it lacks the cultural baggage that comes with being the American sport. I can be tough without feeling like I'm part of a predetermined narrative about American manhood." But it's sort of silly to complain about this, given that it's published in the Village Voice, and that seems to be what they do.

About the most interesting thing in the article was the comment that rugby has seen a huge surge of popularity among gay men since 9/11, when an openly gay rugby player was among the people who rushed the hijackers of Flight 93. On some level, that comes across as desperately shallow, but that's probably more a reflection of my irritation with the form of the article than anything else. Likewise the thought that it's a good thing there wasn't a similar influx of new blood after this incident.

Another amusing tidbit was the statement that there are rugby-themed porn sites that "trade on the eroticism of the sport." Because, you know, wrapping black electrical tape around your head is just plain sexy...

Posted at 10:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Do My Homework For Me

Following on the previous post, I do have one idea for a useful way in which to hand out GMail invites as prizes.

This coming fall, I've agreed to give one lecture as a part of a class on Election 2004. This is a one-off class, with of order 100 students and twenty-odd faculty each giving one lecture on a topic in their general area of interest. I've offered to do "How to Lie With Statistics," which ought to be a rich subject given who the candidates are.

Given the nature of the class, and the size of the class, it seems like it ought to be possible to do some more immediate demonstration of the important ideas. I'm thinking of things like the difference between mean and median values, the improtance of sample size, the effect of selection bias, the difference between correlation and causation, and stuff like that. (Given that list, I obviously haven't written the lecture yet...). With a hundred-odd students, there ought to be a way to demonstrate some of this stuff using the class as a sample. We'll also be using Blackboard for the class web page, so I'll have the ability to ask questions ahead of time, and do some basic analysis of the answers.

The problem is, I don't know what questions to ask. So here's the challenge: What questions should I ask a group of 100 college students at an elite liberal arts college that would be likely to get me a data set that will show the difference between mean and median, and other such effects?

Posted at 11:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments


As a Blogger user, I automatically got a free GMail account. I bet all you people who crowed about switching to Movable Type a year ago feel pretty small now, don't you?

Anyway, the account comes with an apparently infinite number of invites that can be passed on to others, at least judging from the way Kate's been handing them out. Of course, I'm not as nice a person as Kate is, so I'm more inclined to make people dance for my amusement in order to claim them.

Problem is, I'm not as clever as John Scalzi, so I don't have any brilliant ideas for contests to run for GMail invites ("Tell me a funny physics joke that I haven't heard before" is roughly equivalent to "Chop down the tallest tree in the forest with a herring"...). But why should that stop me?

So here's the contest: Come up with something interesting that I should ask people to do in order to get a GMail invite. The best suggestion (or suggestions) gets a GMail invite.

Posted at 11:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Uninterested Readers Are Invited to Piss Off

I've got a bunch of research-type stuff that needs doing today, and I don't feel a really pressing need to blog about any news stories today. I'd be tempted to write about our enjoyable weekend in The City, but Kate already posted a trip report on her LiveJournal. The interested reader is encouraged to go over there and check it out.

Posted at 10:22 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Pretty Soon You're Talking About Real Money

the big technie news of the moment is the (mostly) successful sub-orbital test flight by "SpaceShip One" yesterday over the Mojave Desert. The Post article makes it sound like an unalloyed triumph, but the coverage takes a more sober approach (somewhat surprisingly).

Of course, this will ineviatably be held up as a great example of the transformative power of capitalism and private enterprise, as the ship was built in part to go after the X-Prize of $10 million for a privately developed manned space vehicle. I have my doubts about whether this really proves any such thing, though, as the current effort has been funded by Paul Allen to the tune of $20 million or more. Spending $20 million to win $10 million is hardly a canny market maneuver, though it's about par for the course for Allen. This is more of a demonstration of the creative power of amazingly wealthy True Believers than anything else.

(Which is not to say that I hold Allen in contempt, or anything. I'd love to be him when I grow up-- he lucked into more money than he could ever possibly spend, and he's doing his damnedest to spend it all on cool stuff. I admire that in a billionaire.)

I really don't mean to demean their achievement, but the people who are really into this stuff have a gift for snarky public comments that really get my back up. See, for example, many of the comments to this post, or, for that matter, the comments of the mastermind behind yesterday's big flight:

But [Burt] Rutan and his team are the first to do so with no government help -- and not in a titanium machine powered by solid-fuel rockets, but a relatively lightweight craft. It was "a manned space program designed from scratch," Rutan boasted, in four years for $20 million -- about what NASA would spend "on a paper study," Rutan taunted.

Well, maybe. Of course, it's a little hard to say exactly how much NASA would spend on launching a single test pilot to a height well short of Earth orbit, because they're not in that business, and haven't been in that business since 1961...

If you want to try to make the comparison, though, here are some numbers: NASA's Mercury program cost something like $384 million (source) and launched 20 unmanned missions, two sub-orbital flights, and four orbital flights. Rutan's $20 million in modern dollars is roughly 3.2 million in 1960 dollars (source), so he's spent a bit less than 1% of the whole Mercury budget to come a bit short of Alan Shepard's altitutde in four years, rather than two.

I couldn't find any information on the cost of the sub-parts of the Mercury program, so it's hard to do an exact comparison, but it's probably not a big stretch to say that at least half of the Mercury budget was spent before Shepard went up. So on a strict cost-per-milestone level, Rutan is clearly ahead.

But that "from scratch" is a little hard to swallow. The Mercury program was really starting from scratch-- not only did they not have the launch vehicles, they didn't even know what to expect when they got into orbit. Consider this recollection from an older piece:

Glenn, who flew again aboard shuttle Discovery in 1998, remembered a small eye chart taped to his Mercury console. Researchers expected his eyes to swell in microgravity and his vision to blur.

"I was supposed to look at that (chart), and if the letters got blurry, I was to do an emergency re-entry," he said. "We all laugh at that now, but it was a real concern."

That's what "starting from scratch" looks like. Whether he's using their rocket technology or not, Rutan is the beneficiary of close to fifty years of experience in sending humans into orbit, and is spared the costs of finding all that stuff out.

On some level, this is a petty gripe, and I agree that Rutan and his colleagues are to be congratulated for an impressive achievement. Still, the level of rocket-geek triumphalism surounding this flight is just a little hard to take.

Especially since I'm still not particularly clear on what the point of all this is. If space tourism at $10,000 a pop is the best rationale they've got for manned space flight, well... But that's a different rant.

Posted at 4:07 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

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