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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, November 04, 2005

Approval Ratings Explained

Via Slacktivist, the best analysis I've seen yet of Bush's poll numbers:

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

For a more nuanced big-picture discussion, see Scalzi's thoughts on the matter, which are pretty much spot-on. Saves me a lot of typing.

Posted at 10:08 PM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fast Plants and Ethical Dilemmas

We had a very nice colloquium today by Dwight Whitaker of the Physics department at Williams, talking about a project he's been involved in recently using a high-speed camera to study the physics of pollen launching mechanisms in various plants. There's a Nature article about one of these plants, the bunchberry dogwood, and if you've got full-text Nature access, there are some very spiffy video clips on their web page.

These flowers are really something else, acting basically like tiny little trebuchets flinging pollen up into the air. There's an elastic filament that grows in a bent configuration, and stores up elastic potential energy. When it lets loose, it accelerates a pollen-containing pod at 2400 times the acceleration of gravity, launching pollen grains into the air at a speed of a few meters per second-- which doesn't seem like much, but is actually quite impressive for a tiny flower flinging a pinch of dust. The pollen reaches a height of something like ten times the height of the flowers themselves. The filaments and pods are really optimized for this sort of launch, with the pods swinging freely like the sling on a trebuchet.

During the question period, somebody raised the issue of "Intelligent Design," asking if this is the sort of thing that wing nuts are likely to pick up on, and how this sort of structure evolves. Dwight gave a very good explanation of the evolutionary origin, pointing out that the basic structural elements that make the little trebuchets are present in lots of other plants in the dogwood family, so the change from existing plants would be very small. He also explained how it would be evolutionarily advantageous for this particular dogwood plant to have an effective pollen-launching mechanism, as it's a shrubby little thing that can easily benefit from both wind-borne and insect-borne pollination.

However, he did note that their work has been picked up by Creation Magazine, where it will presumably be cast as evidence of "Intelligent Design" of dogwood pollination schemes. He said that it was a bit of a dilemma for him and his co-authors when they were asked for permission to use the figures and video clips from the Nature article.

In the end, they decided that they had an ethical obligation as scientists to make their data freely available, even to wing nuts (they did insist that the article include pointers to the original source, which isn't peddling nonsense). I tend to agree, but it is an interesting question: If you knew that your work was going to be used as "evidence" to support pseudo-science, would you give the whack jobs permission to use your figures?

(Over to you, PZ...)

Update: PZ Myers weighs in, and via a TrackBack at Pharyngula, some interesting thoughts from Dr. Free-Ride.

Posted at 9:16 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Gained in Translation

I mentioned a little while back on Kate's LiveJournal that I wouldn't mind having an MP3 version of the very cool opening theme music from the Japanese cartoon Hellsing (about ultra-stylish vampires and vampire hunters). Kate, being an enterprising BitTorrenter, found the entire soundtrack on-line.

Of course, this ended up giving me forty-some tracks worth of incidental music, in addition to the one song I really wanted ("The World Without Logos"). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as some of the other songs used in the cartoon are pretty good. The real benefit of this, though, is that the song titles have a certain loopy grandeur.

I mean, how can you go wrong owning a track named "The World's Last Sagacious Period"? Or "Gypsy of Atonement"? Or "Hatred Guy of Sinfulness"? Or my current favorite, "Vague Drum of Grief" (which is awfully peppy for a song with that title)?

Of course, what's really brilliant about this is that they could be clumsy translations of sensible Japanese titles, or they could be faithful transcriptions of daft English titles (sometimes called Engrish). The two are about equally likely, really. And I'm not going to check-- it's more fun not knowing.

I'd really love to see "Hatred Guy of Sinfulness" on a business card, though.

Posted at 7:59 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Harvest Season

The email address in the left-hand sidebar exists mostly as a spam trap, these days. I have other accounts that I use to handle most of my real email, and use this one only for the occasional blog-related contact. It gets a fair amount of spam (20-30 pieces a day), though about a factor of five less than my old Earthlink account used to draw.

I don't bother with MailWasher any more (having DSL rather than dial-up helps, too), but screen the messages more or less by hand. Which means I get to see the occasional gem in the flood of crap. Some recent examples:

Not obviously spam, but completely bizarre, was this weirdly hostile comment on a three-year-old blog post about libraries and Libertarians. I'm not sure what the hell that's about-- somebody has a strange grudge against Avram Grumer, or something.

Anyway, this is the kind of crap I distract myself with as the end of the term draws nigh. Two more weeks.

Posted at 7:57 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, October 31, 2005

It's Aliiiiiive!!!!

I neglected to mention after Saturday that the turbopump appears to have survived its roasting. It spun up with no trouble, and the overall system pressure is actually a little lower than it was before the mishap. This means a return to the regularly scheduled Lab Day tomorrow, other than a handful of meetings that have been scheduled for tomorrow by people I can't overrule.

As a place-holder, some random tracks from the four-and-five-star playlist:

That's thirteen, which is a good Halloween-ish number. And also the age of a clear majority of the Trick-or-Treaters working our neighborhood-- what's up with that?

Posted at 7:56 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Seventy-Five Years

I haven't posted anything about football here because, well, my Giants are doing pretty well, and why jinx them? OK, granted, their good record has come mostly from beating lesser teams, but they did manage to edge out a pretty decent Denver team last week, after looking absolutely awful for better than two full quarters.

I would be remiss in my fannish duties, though, if I didn't post something about the death of Wellington Mara, who was part owner of the team for seventy-five years. That's almost unbelievable. Put another way, his association with the Giants began a few years before that (when his father bought the franchise rights in 1925), the same year that my grandmother was born. Mara himself was a year younger than my paternal grandfather, who was the reason I'm a Giants fan in the first place.

He wasn't a Jerry Jones/ Jack Kent Cooke/ George Steinbrenner/ Mark Cuban type, so he wasn't a major celebrity. I was sort of dimly aware that he was the owner, and had been around forever, but I didn't entirely realize that he'd been around forever. He was apparently very close with the team, even though nobody made a big deal out of that, and a number of the Giants players yesterday were tearing up during the pre-game ceremony, and Dick Lynch on the Giants radio broadcast team got choked up and had to go off the air for a bit.

(Aside: I've taken to watching the games on tv with the sound turned all the way down, and the Giants radio broadcast on. It's not a perfect arrangement-- there's a three-second delay between the audio and video-- but I really enjoy the radio commentary, and I never have to hear Tony Siragusa. It's a very New York sort of homer broadcast-- they're unabashedly rooting for the Giants, but they don't hesitate to bloast them for bad play, either. Lynch's role is to provide slightly addled ex-player commentary (he's the Phil Rizzuto analogue), and throw in odd shout-outs to various relatives and friends. Yesterday's was a classic, as he acknowledged the guy who picks up his trash...)

Yesterday's game with the Redskins was set up as a tribute to Mara, and wound up being the sort of day where I almost felt sorry for the Redskins. (Almost. The only team I'd rather see the Giants beat 36-0 would be the Cowboys.) They just got blasted from the very first play (Tiki Barber running for 58 yards), and never got it together on offense (they didn't run a play on the Giants' end of the field until the end of the third quarter, and their 125 total yards mostly came after the outcome was already decided). They dropped passes, missed tackles, lost guys to injury, fumbled the ball away three times-- it was ugly. A totally unbiased game recap can be found here.

With the win, and Denver's drubbing of the Eagles, the Giants stand alone in first place in the NFC East. Go figure. It remains to be seen whether the intensity of yesterday's game can be carried over into the rest of the season, or whether they'll suffer a complete collapse and honk next week's game to the Niners. Regardless, for one day at least, they looked like a world-class football team again.

Posted at 7:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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