Links from the last week

Think I will try to start this weekly post up again, again because there are too many interesting articles I come across I’d like to share, and because I myself enjoy so many blogs (including posts that are mainly collections of links).  So here we go…

1. First The Fall Of Alexandria, And Now Fidget Spinners

Via a Facebook friend, a post in which fidget spinners lead to philosophy.  I always appreciate articles that remind us of something obvious Americans like to forget – our ancestors may have lacked our technology, but they weren’t idiots.  If something as simple as a fidget spinner would have produced the dramatic educational benefits some claim, that fact would have been realized a very long time ago.  (I personally have seen a couple in class – and yes, they did seem to enhance distraction, not improve the learning environment.)

If a fidget spinner is no different than spinning a pencil, spin a pencil. The fact of the matter is a fidget spinner is nothing like a pencil, for a pencil is made for writing and a fidget spinner is made for distraction. “It helps me pay attention” is the same manner of specious moonshine I floated back in the fourth grade when I told my mother Nintendo would help me “improve my hand-eye coordination.” The claim is passed from sneaky adults to children so that children can defend themselves with Recent Studies Show balderdash against the common sense of the stodgy adults. Only in America would adults give children amusing, distracting, mind-numbing, addictive, easily-hidden little toys and tell them, “These will help you pay attention in school.”

2. Walker Percy’s Last Self-Help Book

One of many articles making the rounds again because of the recent death of the author, Peter Augustine Lawler.

Darwin was basically right until we showed up. He’s right to say that we’ve been equipped by nature to be who we are, but he slighted or ignored the ways we introduced a fundamental discontinuity into the process of evolution. Darwin was basically right until the creature with a self or soul showed up who could actually discover the theory of evolution and fail to locate himself in it.

Darwin didn’t reflect enough about who Darwin, the being who wonders and wanders, is, and to some extent his theory is a diversion from that personal question. Darwin wasn’t scientific enough when it comes to the strange and wonderful being who can be a scientist, but is never only a scientist.

3. The True Purpose of the University

A nice Heather Mac Donald piece that basically says… the president of Yale says education is about teaching students to recognize “false narratives”, and Yale faculty are a model of stubborn skepticism when it comes to such narratives.  Heather says this is ridiculous because…

  • Like most universities, Yale is hardly a bastion of mythbusting and skepticism when it comes to the important progressive cultural narratives of the day.
  • Education isn’t about recognizing false narratives anyway, primarily.  It’s about spreading knowledge.  Because students arrive at college not knowing much at all in a tremendous range of subjects.  You can’t start arguing about interpretation when you lack knowledge of the bedrock.

So Salovey’s claim that Yale resolutely seeks out and unmasks “false narratives” is itself a false narrative. But is the routing of “false narratives” even an apt description of what a college education should ideally be? It is not, even though that goal, in different iterations, is widely embraced across the political spectrum. The most urgent task of any college is the transmission of knowledge, pure and simple. American students arrive at college knowing almost nothing about history, literature, art, or philosophy. If they aspire to a career in STEM fields, they may have already picked up some basic math and physics, and possibly some programming skills. But their orientation in the vast expanse of Western civilization is shallow; they have likely been traveling on a surface of selfies and pop culture with, at best, only fleeting plunges into the past.

4. The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies

“The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.”

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

Via Michael Shermer, Dr. Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsey craft a totally fake article with the title above, submit it to a peer-reviewed Gender Studies journal… and it gets published.  Lots of lessons here (read the piece), especially:

  • There’s nothing magic about peer-review.  It’s a good thing, it’s just not magic.  Oodles of flawed papers are published every year.  As I sometimes have to tell people, peer-review absolutely does NOT mean that someone reproduced your research and found it valid.  All it means is that someone, hopefully doing work somewhat like your own, read your paper, noticed no obvious flaws, and thought it important enough to publish.  (And perhaps offered some suggestions.)  That’s it.  That’s a good thing to have done, but it’s not magic.
  • Of course another one of the goals here was to poke fun at “Gender Studies” for being unable to distinguish utter nonsense from real work in the field – as I told a friend in the social sciences on Twitter recently, I feel like the social sciences on the whole are much, much less constrained by reality when it comes to what conclusions they may draw.  To me, they often feel much more like “just interpret this thing in some way nobody has interpreted it yet” – boom, publication.  The friend replied that the data in social science fields is just a lot more complicated, and that’s probably true too… but I still say the fields feel much less constrained by reality.  I am wary of commenting outside my field but there you go.

5. University Of Michigan Student Who Insists Wood Paneling Is Racist Gets It All Backwards

OK, I was charmed that this article was written by an undergraduate engineering major.  Also love the middle sentence.

The university describes the union building as “one of the University of Michigan’s most recognizable landmarks,” and if that is racist, sexist, and oppressive, then so is the entire existence of the University of Michigan—and maybe the existence of any college in America today. Civilizational progress is, in many ways, a making available to lower classes what once was available only to the elite. The changes of the modern age are always good when they take a wealthy man’s possession, like comfortable furniture, and allow the poor to have their own version of it.

6. Physicists discover mechanism behind granular capillary effect

Because I have to have some neat Physics in this line-up.

Dipping a tube into a container filled with water will make the water rise in the tube. This phenomenon is called liquid capillarity. It is responsible for many natural and technical processes, for example the water absorption of trees, ink rising in a fountain pen, and sponges absorbing dishwater. But what happens if the tube is dipped into a container filled not with water but with sand? The answer is – nothing. However, if the tube is shaken up and down, the sand will also begin to rise. Scientists have now discovered the mechanism behind this effect, the so-called granular capillary effect.

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This week’s post brought to you by “au revoir Montréal!”, a city we were vacationing in until yesterday.

Some photos from a construction tour of FRIB (the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams)

This is basically just the blogification of some social media posts I’ve written, since it occurred to me some web-searchers might find these photos also interesting! Caption accuracy is not guaranteed, click the photos to make them larger. If you don’t know FRIB, it is basically a $730 million bump-out of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) here in East Lansing, Michigan, that will enable them to run experiments much faster… it is also a linear accelerator rather than a cyclotron. The facility is a little over half-done. And now, some photos.

Here we are about to go on the tour.

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Most of the folks with us were cyclotron operators – that is, they run the show at the NSCL. It was fun overhearing their conversations (especially about how they were going to fix stuff that breaks in the new setup!).

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Place started to feel like a bunker once you headed underground, I know where I’m going once the zombies come.

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Here is the main beamline tunnel, 35 feet below grade and about 500 feet long, which the beamline will travel through in a sort of paperclip pattern. It was nice and cool down there. The facility electrical connection is for 25 MW, more than Michigan State University’s powerplant can provide, with a 4 MW backup for cryo systems. The walls down here are 3 feet thick, the floor 4.5 feet, the ceiling 3.5 feet.

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Just another photo of the tunnel, the long pipe running down the middle will carry cryo fluids.

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This is where they’re going to lower the Stargate into the tunnel to travel to other planets. They’ll never admit it, of course. (Oh… you’re all Stargate fans.)

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Near the target areas there was a special high-density concrete, cost $1600 per cubic yard, so high in iron it would attract a magnet (as our tour guide demonstrated).

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I want to say this was a cooling control room, but note especially the renderings on the wall – our tour guide mentioned that 300 draftsmen worked on the project.

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Lots of 3000 pound, lead-lined doors about.

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I can’t remember what this room was for, but here is Bec looking professional.

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The squares will eventually be leaded-glass windows looking into the target areas.

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Final photo – and this photo doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the space. The wall on the left is 7.5 feet thick (“because we have neighbors on that side”). The facility bottoms-out about 60 feet below grade with some water storage tanks, above that is the beam dump (the last place the beam goes), and above that are the targets themselves.

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Good tour.

Links I liked, July 19-25 (Bicycle Physics, Hungry Cleaner Shrimps, Family Bikes)

1. The Bicycle Problem that Nearly Broke Mathematics

Terrible headline here, but pretty cool story that goes to show that just because a device is very common, doesn’t mean it is well understood.  A couple snips:

In April 1970, chemist and popular-science writer David Jones demolished this theory in an article for Physics Today in which he described riding a series of theoretically unrideable bikes. One bike that Jones built had a counter-rotating wheel on its front end that would effectively cancel out the gyroscopic effect. But he had little problem riding it hands-free.

This discovery meant that there was no simple rule-of-thumb that could guarantee that a bike is easy to ride. Trail could be useful. Gyroscopic effects could be useful. Centre of mass could be useful. For Papadopoulos, this was revelatory. The earliest frame builders had simply stumbled on a design that felt OK, and had been riding around in circles in that nook of the bicycle universe. There were untested geometries out there that could transform bike design.

2. Trump: Tribune of Poor White People

Everyone was passing around this piece of political/cultural analysis last week – give it a read if you haven’t seen it, any excerpt can’t do it justice.  But I’ll drop one anyway:

The “why” is really difficult, but I have a few thoughts.  The first is that humans appear to have some need to look down on someone; there’s just a basic tribalistic impulse in all of us.  And if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe.  By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe.  So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.

3. What Happened With the Library Millages

This is a local story but… I bet this sort of thing happens all the time.  City passes millage specifically for library that should increase their “intake” by about $2,000,000 – but actual intake only increases by about $250,000 because the city decreases the amount of money given the library from the general fund.  There is an obvious incentive here to pass specific millages for popular programs (like the library), to free up more general fund money for less popular stuff.  Be aware…

4. A Brief Word to J.I. Packer on His 90th Birthday

Thomas Aquinas died at age 49.  John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards died at 54.  Charles Spurgeon at 57.  Martin Luther at 62.

5. Facebook Messenger Hits 1 Billion Users

There is nothing deep and complicated about this article just… whew.

More than 10% of voice over IP (VoIP) calls occur on Messenger, and 17 billion photos are sent on the app each month. And interactions with businesses have risen sharply. People now exchange 1 billion messages with businesses every month, a figure that has more than doubled in the past year.

6. Heavy Boots

To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this question: 1

1. If you’re standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away,
b) float where it is,
or c) fall to the ground?

About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:

2. You’ve seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn’t they fall off?

About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them confidently answered, “Because they were wearing heavy boots.”

7. Cleaner shrimp stuffing his face at feeder ring

OK personal video here – I don’t know how common this is, but our cleaner shrimp has learned that me opening the top of our saltwater aquarium means food is coming, and he’ll now run up and over to the feeder ring and start grabbing food!  On the plus side his actions help the sinking food sink, which I suppose the other fish appreciate.

 

8. This man rescued a bear from the jaws of a cheese puff bucket

Man sees bear with cheese puff bucket on head.  Man lassos bear.  Man and bear roll around on the group together for a couple minutes (but bear cannot bite man because cheese puff bucket).  Bear gives up and climbs tree, man ties rope to tree, calls authorities to come help bear.

9. Taga 2.0: The Ultimate Most Affordable Family Bike

At the risk of totally getting sucked in by advertisement… this seems like a pretty awesome idea.

10. As More People Get High in Colorado, More Kids Head to the Hospital

By itself, not an argument against legalization perhaps, but legalization proponents like to pretend there is no downside, and that needs to be pushed against.

Although cannabis poisonings in children are not common, the incidents have definitely increased following Colorado’s legalization of recreational use in 2012. The rate of increase in hospital visits is considerable—it doubled between 2009 and 2015—but the overall numbers remain small: 1 child per 100,000 people before legalization and 2 children per 100,000 people after legalization. Numbers of poison control center calls, though still small overall, increased by more than five times.

11. 7-Eleven Delivered a Slurpee via Drone Without Dropping the Scoop Straw

Title says it all.

This week brought to you by blue jays in our backyard.

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Notes from Fall, 2015 MIAAPT Meeting

I have been meaning to post my notes from the delightful Fall MIAAPT meeting at Interlochen Arts Academy!  Here they are.  As always, my notes are my notes – accuracy is not guaranteed.  Here also is a photo of the venue.

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Links I liked, 8/10/2015 – 8/16/2015 (safe spaces, bad science, internet arguments)

Oh dear, I have been slacking on these lately.

1. The Coddling of the American Mind

OK, everybody on the internet has already linked this article – so if you haven’t read it yet, go do so. Too long to really quote, but essentially about what making colleges places of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, where “microaggressions” are zealously hunted and punished, does to the way we think.

2. A Scientific Look at Bad Science

Another nice Atlantic essay on why an increasing amount of apparently bad science is being published.

3. There’s a sneaky trick that is allowing this biker to seemingly defy physics by driving on water

A free-body diagram! In a mainstream news article! (But is it correct?)

4. I Don’t Know if I’m Pro-Choice After Planned Parenthood Videos

As I’ve only realized lately, to be a man, and to declare yourself pro-choice, is to proclaim your neutrality. And, as I’ve only recently been willing to admit, even to myself, that’s another name for “wimping out.”

At least that’s how my wife sees it. She’s pro-life, and so she’s been tearing into me every time a new video is released. She’s not buying my argument that, as a man, I have to defer to women and trust them to make their own choices about what to do with their bodies. To her, that’s ridiculous—and cowardly.

Yes, someone unfriended me on Facebook because I shared this article, true story.

5. Whole Foods’ John Mackey: Why Intellectuals Hate Capitalism

I don’t watch a lot of video interviews. This was a good one. Made me order his book.

6. MY ID ON DEFENSIVENESS

Lot of ideas worth pondering in this essay.

People like to talk a lot about “dehumanizing” other people, and there’s some debate over exactly what that entails. Me, I’ve always thought of it the same was as Aristotle: man is the rational animal. To dehumanize them is to say their ideas don’t count, they can’t be reasoned with, they no longer have a place at the table of rational discussion. And in a whole lot of Internet arguments, doing that to a whole group of people seems to be the explicit goal.

7. Our Southern Mountaineers (1918)

Shot almost a century ago, this 1918 newsreel footage might possibly be the earliest known moving images of Appalachia.

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Lake Lansing as we flew into town this week.

Cheap camera obscura photo of our dining room

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Hey, looking good.  See if we can do better tomorrow.  Wikipedia has a nice short explanation of how this works.  The way I made this one was just to take two cardboard tubes…

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…cover the end of one with tape to form a “screen”, cover the other with aluminum foil with a tiny hole created by a tack.  Then…

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…just slide one over the other, and you’re off.  Look through the uncovered end – for the photo, I aimed my camera down the uncovered end.

Refrigerator magnets have a striped pattern of magnetization

Striped magnetization

I always enjoy hearing about the Physics of everyday objects, and there were several such presentations at the Michigan AAPT meeting. One of these, by David A. Van Baak, was about refrigerator magnets.

It turns out that refrigerator magnets, because of the way they are made, have a striped pattern of magnetization (N-S-N-S-N-S, though the magnetization actually varies continously). You can see this easily yourself if you hold one behind one of those magnetic films (pictured above), or if you just take two magnets, hold them back to back, and then try to slide one along the other. Every couple of millimeters or so is a “happy spot” where north on one magnet meets south on the other, and the magnets will try to freeze in position there.

One consequence of this striped magnetization is that a magnetic field only exists on one side of the magnet. (I’m still trying to wrap my mind around exactly why.) Try putting the magnet onto your refrigerator backwards – won’t work. And not because of the thin sheet of paper in the way.

UPDATE: @mskblackbelt sends along a Wikipedia link to the Halbach array, a similar array of magnets that has, indeed, a magnetic field on only one side.

Feynman on the social sciences

A while back I was blogging through Alistair McGrath’s trilogy on A Scientific Theology. I largely gave up on that project – they were difficult books to follow, and I didn’t feel I was gaining much for my effort. But one thing that surprised me about McGrath was that he was very accepting of the social sciences, and felt that while different, they were as truly sciences as Biology or Physics. Many physicists, I know, are not so generous in their thinking, and here is one famous physicist offering his opinion. Feynman’s big point seems to be that he has learned just how difficult it is to reach a point where you can really say, with certainty, that you know something, and the social sciences don’t often reach that point.