Friday, August 29, 2008

The Palin Spin

What an inspired choice! As we discussed at work today, Gov. Palin has lots of experience dealing with junior hockey referees as a Hockey Mom, which is perfect preparation for dealing with Putin. Even better, I now learn that she has never thought much about Iran or Iraq (despite the impending deployment of her son), so she can look at it with fresh eyes right after getting brainwashed by Cheney's team.

But that's not why I'm blogging. I'm blogging because Dan Barlett, now paid by CBS to act as a mouthpiece for George Bush and the Republican party, said tonight that Sen. Biden will have to be careful to not be too tough on Gov. Palin in the VP debate because she is a woman.

Apart from being positively insulting to women in general, does Bartlett think that Putin would "play nice" just because our President was a former beauty queen, should she have to take over in January if something happened to McCain's health due to the stress of the coming campaign?

She has a ways to go to prove that she is anything more than an older Paris Hilton with a good campaign slogan, a big hairdo, and an assault rifle. She is certainly no Golda Meir (who was active in national government for decades before becoming Prime Minister) or Margaret Thatcher (ditto), and I can already hear Sen Biden saying "I know Hillary Clinton, and you are no Hillary Clinton".

It was also clear that Bartlett was already concerned about her limited knowledge of world affairs in the way he compared, unfavorably, preparing her for the VP debate to preparing then Gov Bush for his Presidential debates in 2000.

McCain looks as desperate now as Mondale did in 1984.

Notes Added:

Apparently the way she cut taxes on Alaskan citizens was to increase the price of oil to the rest of us by raising the oil extraction tax collected by Alaska. According to this article, Gov Palin's plan transferred SIX BILLION DOLLARS from our gas tanks to Alaskan citizens in just the past year.

Unlike Obama or McCain, she took a publicity photographer along with her when she visited wounded troops overseas: see this photo from the Wiki commons obtained from the state department of military affairs while it is still there.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

What a bunch of whiners

Isn't politics about who is more popular in an election?

Isn't it about being able to excite people and get them to come to a rally and vote for you?

So why is it a bad thing when your ideas can convince 75,000 people to cross the country on their own to attend a political rally, as the Republican "somebody says" folks feeding talking points to the media claim?

Oh, I know why. It's a bad thing because your own candidate can't do it.

The Republican Party is whining about Obama drawing a big crowd because their own candidate can't do it. In fact, lots of party members and elected officials are doing all they can to stay away from him.

And they are muttering about him being a "celebrity" because that is the closest they can get to calling him what is in their Nixon and Karl Rove infested minds: an Uppity N*****. Why do I say this? Because the Republicans thought celebrity was just fine when they picked Ronald Reagan to run for office. And because John Sidney McCain III came home as a huge celebrity (I remember his return from an NV POW camp) and that celebrity status played a huge role in all of his campaigns. Even today he exploits it, playing the POW card whenever he gets in trouble. If being a celebrity actually disqualified you for public office in the Republican Party, they would never have nominated Ronald Reagan and would have dumped McCain back when he became well known as one of the Keating Five - who worked for the fat-cat bankers against the interests of their working-class depositors.

So when they complain about how many people showed up, on their own, for Obama's speech, they are just admitting that he is a great political leader and that they can't even come close to getting that many people to listen to McCain - even when they pay their expenses to go to their own convention.

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Happy Birthday, Bro!

Had a wonderful time celebrating your 55th birthday today.

Sang "Happy Birthday" at about 9:30 and had a fantastic chocolate cake with chocolate frosting - not to mention infused with raspberry liqueur - as part of the long distance celebration. Yummy.

You see, a coworker (and namesake!) shares the same birth date, and we try to do it with style in our part of the building. That goes double when that date falls during the insane, mind-numbing first week of classes, as it does this year.

Oh, and we hope you were amused by the gift and its wrapping. Mrs. Pion was really on the ball when she spotted it at one of many absurdly eclectic shops in town. The wrapping was my idea, but I'm sure you figured that out.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

If I was writing the speech ...

I would have Hillary hold up a coat hanger and ask the PUMAs out in the audience "Is this what you want?"

McCain could not have made it clearer that his vision of the future is a return to illegal and unsafe back-alley abortions, simply to punish young women for their sin. As if he has the right to cast the first stone.

But it is actually worse. If he got his way and made every fetus a protected human life from the moment of conception, every woman who had a miscarriage would be guilty of involuntary manslaughter and those who smoked or drank might be considered guilty of voluntary manslaughter or third degree murder.

With that focus, maybe the PUMAs would no longer be tossed softballs by interviewers when they pretend that a true Hillary Clinton supporter would celebrate a McCain victory. My conclusion is that every last one of them must be a racist.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ready to Rock!

So the cycle begins again!

One sign is the release of Beloit College's list of the mindset of the class of 2012, as I was reminded in a recent IHE article that picked off their favorites.

Mine was:
20. The Warsaw Pact is as hazy for them as the League of Nations was for their parents.
because they might get drafted to fight there against Russia.

But the real sign is that I have a tall stack of syllabi ready and other materials ready for Monday, the last pre-semester meeting is over, my adjunct is all set to do a great job this fall, and my only remaining task is to verify rosters one last time before Monday.

Oh, yes, and finish cleaning my office.

I started cleaning my office, so it now looks like someone's front yard when Clean Sweep comes to visit, but never got past stage 1.

But it looks like the semester will be fun. The economy has brought me some really good students (entering physics as a freshman with AP calculus) along with some promising older students, even if one of them last took calculus before the first one was born. Time to get the game face on and remember Jumpin' Jack Flash. I've already put the Basics idea to work, not only in my classes but as a meme for some others. It has been well received, so thanks to everyone who provided feedback on that subject. And I see some academic-politics storm clouds on the horizon. No great year can lack those.

On a closing note, my second fave from Beloit was
34. Pee-Wee has never been in his playhouse during the day.
The one about the Hubble Space Telescope would have been up there if Astroprof hadn't already reminded us that the Hubble has been up there for 18 years and has now completed more than 100,000 orbits

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Adjunct Job

This is the rather belated completion of a belated posting following up the comments I posted on Dean Dad's blog addressing questions from a poster looking for a first job as an adjunct. (You should also look at the comments on the IHE version.)

I pointed the poster to my "jobs" articles, but I thought I should pull out the ones that I think are of greatest relevance.

1. Part 3, on types of jobs.

You may think you know what academia is all about, but most students (such as the person wrapping up a PhD at Big Name University) have only seen a tiny (and rather elite) slice of it. The starting point is to have a vague idea of the differences between where you went to school and the 4-year or 2-year schools you want to work at.

2. Part 5, on getting a CC job

One of the themes in my article that also showed up in the discussion in Dean Dad's blog is the importance of teaching experience. It's great that this person is thinking about how to get an adjunct job a year before seeking it, but I think that person should get at least a single good class worth of experience before leaving Big Name U to head west for a job.

I mean, the only thing you might need to do to get an adjunct job is call or drop by the relevant department office this week. Seriously. I think we just covered one of the sections for majors a day ago, and I am sure there are still some classes being taught by Professor Staff or Ms TBA. We don't quite go beating the bushes near the homeless shelter (that disheveled teacher in surfer shorts is a fulltimer), but that is a common snarky suggestion directed at the Dean at this time of year.

That said, the time to get your name in the hopper is when the full-time sections are set and the adjuncts are getting lined up. This could be anywhere from late spring to early summer depending on how well managed the college is.

3. An article about my CC students

I'll repeat that my students may not be typical. We are a largish CC that feeds a large university with the sort of programs (such as engineering) that attract a significant number of students to us who need to take calc-based physics or organic chemistry. But our students are different, in aggregate, from the ones who start as freshmen at Wannabe Flagship. The key point is that there are really good reasons for the interview questions about reaching "different types of learners", and that you will be more successful if you know something about the student body of the school you want to work at. More successful at getting the job, but also more successful in the job.

If you want to know more about the CC environment, there promises to be a lot of interesting information in a special report from the National Center for Education Statistics about community colleges. (I have not had time to read it yet, but the Feds collect every bit of statistical data you can imagine.)

Those, and the links in "Part 5" to the resources at the Chronicle and IHE as well as other blogs, should get you started.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

He Hate NBC Sports

10:30 AM EDT - while NBC was covering the Olympics "live"

Usain "Lightning" Bolt wins the 100 m gold medal in a World Record time of 9.69 s despite celebrating his victory over the last 15 m of the race! (Or is it actually faster to turn your body sideways to the wind?) What would have happened if he had run through the finish? It might have been as legendary as the 1968 long jump by Bob Beamon in Mexico City, where he broke the old record by 55 cm (almost 2 feet). That jump was so long that they couldn't use the official measuring device. Its scale was too short.

5:55 PM EDT - Advertisement for the 8 pm broadcast

Tune in for the 100 m, which might be the fastest ever.

Yeah, I think they could be right about that, since they have the result on their own website with a photo gallery showing his celebration nearing the line.

UPDATE: 11:30 PM EDT - Race shown on NBC

What is particularly annoying is the way NBC deliberately keeps the schedule a mystery, even when we know (from the official Chinese site) the exact time an event will run live and can get the official results within seconds of the end of an event. NBC has a fancy web site that will tell you what might be on each channel sometime in a three or four hour window. You would never guess that they might actually have a plan for the night's coverage or that the WWW can be updated in real time if a schedule has to change.

UPDATE: Commenting on the race.
I have to agree with the commentator that Bolt might have run a 9.59 if he had not cruised through the last 6 strides (which is what, 60 feet?). That would have put it in the "all time greatest" territory with Beamon. Beamon took the long jump record from 27 feet to 29 feet, skipping 28. Taking the 100 m record from 9.7 to 9.5, skipping 9.6, would be in the same territory. Michael Phelps, as impressive as his effort has been, is not in that territory. After all, he did not set a world record in every one of his events, as Mark Spitz did, and the one he missed was an individual event. Worse, he had to wear a swim cap and a $600 swim suit to do it. [Note: Follow that link for the photo. Mark Spitz is now an OLD MAN! Guess that fits my theory that most great athletes mature earlier and age earlier. Certainly was obvious at my 25th HS reunion.]

And I see that Dix got rid of those silly blue Nike arm covers that were supposed to reduce wind resistance. Memo to Dix: Your hair is a bigger source of aerodynamic drag at around 30 mph. You needed a Nike swim cap more than you needed those arm covers.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Identical Times by Phelps

When looking at the start info for tonight's (actually tomorrow morning's) 200 m Men's Butterfly competition, I noticed that Michael Phelps had equaled his own Olympic Record (set in his preliminary heat) when swimming in the semifinal round. Both were done in 1:53.70, which is 113.70 seconds. Identical to better than one part in ten thousand!

I thought it might be amusing to look at the splits to see just how evenly paced those two swims actually were.

The line labeled "Pace" gives the time needed to swim each 50 m segment.

50 m100 m150 m200 m

The consistency is amazing. He must have a clock running in his head that is accurate to the tenth of a second.

I find it interesting that the last length is faster than the previous two. They really do save energy for that final leg of the race, at least in these preliminary races where the only goal is to finish high enough to move on to the next race and when you might have other races coming up within 12 hours, or a championship race within the past hour. In this case, his second competition in the 200 m butterfly was at 11:10 am, while his world record in the 200 m freestyle had been at 10:16 am.

For that matter, let's make a note of the info from his 28 March 2007 world record set in Melbourne, Australia. After all, the odds are high that the winner of the Gold medal will set a new world record. [Updated: Yep, but just barely. I have added his 13 August 2008 world record to the table.]

50 m100 m150 m200 m

Interesting. His pacing is quite different when everything is on the line. In this case his last leg is only slightly faster, and slower than the second leg. He puts a lot more energy into the first half of the race, then hangs on to the finish. [Updated: Look at how similar these times are! When they showed the line for the WR pace during the race, he was right on it. And you can see why he was disappointed at his finishing time. As the commentators noted, he started to tie up and slowed down in the last 50 m rather than being slightly faster as in his race at last year's World Championship. A split of 29.21 would have put him solidly into the 1:51.xx territory.]

Note 1:
The first 50 m is always fast because of the huge advantage that comes from launching yourself off of the starting blocks.

Note 2:
This issue of pacing is not so different as it is for a race horse, where my analysis of the 2007 Kentucky Derby (here and here) showed that the horse pulling away at the end of the race was not speeding ... the others were slowing down. I didn't bother looking up the splits for the come-from-behind victory of the US over the French in the Olympic 4x100 m relay, but that might be what happened on the final leg of that race.

Note 3:
I decided I should link to his Wikipedia entry as well as the Beijing Olympics entry up at the top, and discovered that he also has his own website complete with a personal logo (he has a P.R. firm?), studly professional photos, and a version in Chinese!

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Last Week of Peace

It won't be long now.

As I wrote in a comment on another blog this morning, this is the last week of peace before the landing craft beach themselves in front of the dorms and apartments, disgorging the product of our public schools like Russians into Georgia. Or maybe that would be Sherman into the US state of the same name.

So much for the bucolic days and quiet streets so typical as the summer semester fades away to the quietest weeks in any college town.

We can already see the warning signs: Budget rental trucks and U-Haul trailers. One by one they appear, like Navy Seals clearing the beaches of obstacles or my greatN uncle's cavalry unit scouting the way for Sherman. It won't be long before they appear in waves.

I'd like to know how many cops are on vacation this week. I'll bet its a lot, since it will be nothing but overtime during the week of parties that lead up to the first week of hangovers in class. That all gets compounded by the start of public schools, as all of the Mommy Vans hit the road to carry Child Too Precious to Ride the Bus to school before going home and then to work. Three trips where there was only one trip the week before.

It really is amazing to experience every year. Its part of the rhythm of life. I should think about what periodic function best describes the exponential decay into calmness after the end of spring semester and the phase transition into madness when the kiddies arrive. Probably not far from the result when a square wave drives a simple circuit, but it needs a big overshoot at the start and a modest one for spring finals so it needs some coupled elements.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Opening Ceremonies (Free Tibet)

I guessed right: CNBC had a live shot of the stadium behind their Beijing staff at the auspicious hour of 8 - and the sky simply lit up with fireworks. (It looked like this picture from later in the show.) Only live shot in the US, I think! The NY Times is liveblogging from the Olympics, a sure sign that they aren't own by GE. You can also follow what is going on with the feeds, schedule, and photo gallery at the official Olympics web site.

Obligatory science comment and spoiler: one of the performances about the history of China will demonstrate movable type printing. Oh how I love artsy sciency performance art!

If "drum solo" doesn't strike fear into your heart, the ceremonies got rolling with 2008 drummers each with a chinese drum (fou) made of a clay pot. (picture and picture and picture) We'll have to see if the TV broadcast can reproduce that audio experience.

The fireworks I saw on CNBC were part of this show. (picture) The BBC story today on the start of the ceremonies shows the pollution level has fallen so it is merely at "almost OK for a developing country" levels - but that was before all of the fireworks!

(They have a great page that follows the pollution status of the city with a picture taken of the skyline each day from the same location. If you scroll through the pictures and correlate visibility with the pollution level given in the caption, you will see that describing it as "fog" is totally bogus. On "foggy" days it is high, on clear days it is low. Maybe someday the Chinese will learn what they learned in London when they got rid of coal-fired stoves in every kitchen, that the famous "London fog" was just good old smog.)

That said, I can't wait to see the 29 fireworks "footprints" cross the city to the stadium, apparently (from the description on the official site) as the lead-in to the start of the performance. I think I heard CNBC say that 35,000 fireworks costing almost 1% of the ceremony cost (hence almost a half million dollars) will be used for the show. That is a lot of air pollution!

Hopefully, all of that spectacle will not overshadow the Chinese support for the tragedy in Darfur and the oppression of Tibet. Your fear level has to be really high to have to arrest people who are praying.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

63rd Anniversary of Hiroshima

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. (One of these years we need to take a vacation across the Pacific that includes both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, to see both ends of that war.) The city that is now a thriving metropolis and home to the factory that built the car I drive was destroyed in a few seconds on 6 August 1945.

I knew one of the people in the photo recon plane that took the famous film of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, so that event means a bit more to me than it does to everyone in my generation who grew up under the threat of nuclear war.

One thing that many people don't know is that we NEVER TESTED the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. (The test we performed in late July 1945 was for the bomb later dropped on Nagasaki.) This has important political /science consequences in today's world.

There is no need to test a uranium weapon.

The design of the "Little Boy" was simple and was invented independently by a Russian (Flerov) and the team (given their many nationalities, I hesitate to call it an "American" team) that put together our plans in the summer of 1942. The physics behind this is not trivial, but the calculations provided in the Los Alamos Primer show how easy it was to use the basic facts of nature and deduce that a gun (literally a gun, I was once told the exact model used) would provide enough velocity to push together the two sub-critical pieces of U-235 without the chain reaction starting prematurely. All we had to do was purify uranium, separating out the rare U-235 isotope from the U-238 isotope (which is called "depleted uranium" when it is used to make bullets and anti-tank weapons). Anyone who has pure U-235 can make a bomb.

That bears repeating. ANYONE who has enough pure U-235 can make an atomic bomb comparable to what destroyed Hiroshima. They don't have to test it. (The reputed fizzle of a North Korean weapon's test was almost certainly for a plutonium-based weapon, which is much trickier to design and does require testing.)

Eliminating excess U-235 that might fall into the hands of someone less responsible than the USSR or the USA is, therefore, a big deal. This is why the US has been burning Soviet U-235 in its reactors since a major initiative began in 1993. [It was important enough that it started under GHW Bush, was implemented by Clinton, and might have been the only major Clinton foreign policy program retained by GW Bush.] It is also why the enrichment of uranium by the Iranians is a big deal, and also is why obtaining "yellowcake" (which is not enriched) had squat to do with a WMD program in Iraq even if the report had not been a total fabrication.

However, the difference between taking natural uranium that is 0.7% U-235 and turning it into "enriched" reactor-grade uranium (around 3% pure, a factor of 5) or turning it into weapons-grade "highly enriched" uranium (probably around 99% pure, a factor of 140 or so) is significant. It takes many more resources (or a lot more time) to do the latter. The scale of such a facility (and its energy requirements) makes it easy to identify, but the only way to know its objectives is to inspect it. That is why the IAEA has always played such a major role in controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I highly recommend Richard Rhodes' book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" for anyone interested in this subject. Not to name drop, but Robert Serber (who gave the lectures summarized in the Los Alamos Primer) told me it was an accurate description of what went on during the Manhattan Project.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Famous Physicist Dies

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died late Sunday (3 August 2008) at his home.

Given the quasi-autobiographical nature of his early books, I should have guessed from The First Circle (the first of his books I read) that he had a scientific background but only learned that he had been trained in physics and mathematics in the obit from the BBC.

The First Circle is the story of a scientist who gets to live a very nice life in the part of the gulag reserved for people who could be of some use to the state. (They not only live better than in the real gulag, but they probably live better than most Soviet citizens at the time.) It raises very interesting questions about the moral choice involved in trading comfort and the technical pleasures of working on something as cool as the very first "voice print" machine when that machine will only be used to send someone to his death in the gulag. The book is loosely based on his own experience, since part of his time in the gulag was in just such a place.

At the time I read it, some chemistry major friends of mine faced that sort of choice when it came to taking a high-paying job working on chemical weapons like napalm. One wonders what was going on in the mind of the man who worked simultaneously on weaponized Anthrax and an Anthrax vaccine - and apparently ended up using that bio weapon against people in his own country.

I recommend the book to any scientist. The wiki article identifies the real people who were the models for the characters in the book.

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Surviving a Fall

Girl falls 14 floors down chimney, saved by pile of soot. Her only injury was a broken hip, and it was guessed that she had fallen headfirst down the chimney and landed on her back.

No problem (with a bit of luck), but a good physics problem.

One "floor" is usually about 10 feet or about 3 m, so she fell about 140 feet or about 42 m, plus or minus.

Her maximum speed at impact would be sqrt(2 * 9.8 * 42) = 28.7 m/s, which is about 64 mph or about 100 kph.

Her actual speed will be much less, for two reasons. One would be any friction impact with the sides of the chimney, and the other would be air drag, which would be significantly increased by being inside a restricted area. It is more difficult for air to flow around an object when it has to squeeze into the gap between here and the walls of the chimney.

Her maximum deceleration at impact would be 42/0.6 (or 140/2 if working in feet) = 70 Gs (70 times the acceleration of gravity), which is a survivable impact under the right conditions.

Two other news stories(AP and New York Times put the height at about 180 feet (almost 55 m), which would increase the deceleration to about 90 Gs. That really is lucky.

The Times says the building has 13 stories (so they probably skip one floor and count 10, 11, 12, 14) plus a 25 foot chimney. That would be about 155 feet, not counting the roof height, but you also have to include the basement. However, that story also says "several feet" of soot, and that would have been after she landed and compressed the ash. Two feet is probably a lower limit on the distance to stop.

The Times said the chimney had an "opening of about five square feet", which would only be 27 inches square or 24" by 30". That must be wrong. She could easily touch the walls in that case, and would have trouble landing on her back. Their (innumerate?) writer probably meant "five feet square". That would leave room to rotate your body but increase drag due to restricted air flow around her body. (See my earlier comments above.)

It is kind of cute that we don't need to find the velocity to calculate the rate of deceleration. Both calculations use Vf2 - Vi2 = 2*a*X, so we have 2*g*Y = -2*a*X, so a = -g*(Y/X) with Y=distance fallen and X=distance to stop.

A good reference point for surviving collisions are the numbers used for crash testing of automobiles. NHTSA uses about 55 Gs at the chest as a fairly conservative limit on the acceleration your body can take in a crash. The LD50 number (the acceleration that will kill half of a population) is thought to be closer to 80 Gs with a torn aorta as the cause of death. [Your body stops but the heart keeps moving, tearing off the major blood vessels that are still attached to your body. IIRC, something like this is what killed Princess Di, who died of internal bleeding.] I say "thought to be" because accelerometers often measure values like 100 Gs in racing crashes where the driver walks away, although those drivers are in a form-fitting seat rather than landing in a pile of soot.

The acceleration of this girl on landing would be reduced because there were other forces acting on her as she fell, but she was extremely lucky that she landed in a way that applied the forces to parts of her body that are less vulnerable than her head. Breaking her hip absorbed energy that would have done greater damage if applied elsewhere.

Safety hint:

A 30 mph car crash without a seatbelt or airbag is like jumping off of the roof of a 2-story house and landing face first on the padded dash of an automobile that is lying in the yard.

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