Friday, December 25, 2009

Uncertain Christmas Gift

At first, this gift was in a mixed state.

It was clearly a book, and the odds favored it being a particular book, but could we know for sure without opening it?

Ah, now we know for sure ...

It is a GREAT book!

Notes added to correct a major oversight -

Link to the How to teach physics to your dog book web site. (Chad gets an extra cut if orders go through there.)

Here are the two semi-famous blogs that started it all:

Those stories are the basis for two of the chapters. Each chapter starts with a dialog with Emmy, followed by an elaboration on the science behind that idea.

Chad deserves major kudos in my view for including a final chapter that debunks much of the junk that has been written based on pseudo-quantum non-science.

Other material can be found in Chad's general category of Physics with Emmy, but that is mostly about writing (including the story of how he got the book contract) and promoting the book. So you don't have to dig through all of that for the best bits, here is the link to one that includes the slides from a talk he gave, and two movies that deserve special mention: The Bohr-Einstein Debate (with puppets) should not be watched while drinking coffee. The choice of character actors is, shall we say, priceless. But it is not just whimsy. As a long-time student of those discussions and owner of a personal library of some of the key books, I think Chad did a very good job selecting what belongs in his little play.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

It is almost Christmas ...

... and it's not really Christmas until we hear dogs barking "Jingle Bells".

It was a sure sign of the approaching holiday when J. P. McCarthy would play that song on WJR.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Bank!

Bank failures continue. Every week (usually on Friday), the FDIC moves in and takes over a few more failing banks. Most are in trouble because of bad commercial loans. There was one striking example locally where an investor group led by a Realtor bought a 5 million dollar property and couldn't even pay the taxes on it from the rents. It sold for less than half that in foreclosure. Although the bank that lost about three million dollars on that one loan was not in this state, some local banks have made similarly bad decisions.

[Memo to the right wingnuts: There has been no change in the law regarding loans to poor people to encourage home ownership, yet the banks have tightened up their lending practices. That is what mathematicians call a counterexample to the claim that politics rather than greed caused lenders to loan money without checking anything. Another counter example would be where a Swiss bank nagged an owner into refinancing a now-bankrupt resort so they could earn the origination fee.]

So how can you tell if your bank is over extended? How can you find out how many toxic loans it has, or how many bank-owned properties it owns? Easy:

An MSNBC story provided a nice, color coded map showing the extent of the problem on a state-by-state basis with links to a separate "bank tracker" site. The main article only does banks, but if you go to the main site you can choose (top of the left column) to look for banks or credit unions as well as their methodology and who has obtained TARP funding.

It is worth a look, although you do have to know where your bank has its headquarters.

What I like is that they show the time dependence of the bad assest ratio in a bar graph, so you can see the trend as well as the raw numbers in a table. For perspective, the reason their bar graphs don't max out when a bank gets to a 100% ratio between troubled assets and capital plus reserves is that the ones that have been taken over can be in the 300% to 600% territory. However, that is not the only metric. I saw one bank where the ratio was just over 100% but they had been losing over a hundred million dollars a quarter for a year.

I was glad to see that our banks and our credit union are in reasonable shape. One has a ratio around 40%, but it has been stable for most of the year and they are still making a profit. Not so for another local bank, which has advertised how helpful it is to local businesses. Their ratio has been going up by leaps and bounds, hitting 100% last quarter along with a large negative profit. I wouldn't buy any stock in that one!

And always remember: the cap on FDIC insurance applies to the sum of all of the accounts in your name, not each account.

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Lazy American Students?

There is an interesting "quick take" in IHE today asking the rhetorical question Do American Students Bring Down the Curve? based on an opinion column in The Boston Globe that answers it in the affirmative.

First, it is important to realize that this is the opinion of one instructor, and even she does not claim that all low grades go to Americans (which make up 80% of the undergrad population at her private business college) or that none of the A grades go to Americans. But, from where I teach (at a CC), I think she has it all wrong. She has a problem with Snowflakes, not Americans. Let us start with where she teaches, then look at what she might not be doing where she teaches.

The college:

She teaches at Babson College. Yeah, I had to look it up, although I suspect Bostonians would be aware of it. This is a small (the entire freshman class of 471 would fit easily in one half of the dorm I lived in at Enormous State University, with space enough for half to have private rooms) expensive private college ($37,824 for tuition plus $12,500 for room and board) that is basically devoted to business majors. [Aside: that room and board rate is almost twice what it is at Enormous State, so they probably do all have private rooms.]

They look selective (471 enroll out of 4100 applications), but their middle-50 on the SAT (1830 to 2070, meaning 610 to 690 on each part) puts about a quarter of their freshman class below the "aptitude" of most of my 2nd year CC students and in a range where we would likely be requiring remedial math or english classes. A bit over 20% are international students.

(These details are from their official facts page. Purely by accident, I saw an article in a November "Business Week" that ranked them highly for custom executive business education programs.)

Definitely "snowflake" territory. Many of the American students are probably Wannabe Trumps with well off (if not wealthy) parents and got by with minimal effort in suburban schools where you get a bonus point toward your GPA just for taking what is called an honors class. [Schools where a 4.0 is the new 3.0 average.] In that environment, the mere fact that the college gives out C, D, and F grades in a freshman composition or history class is probably a shock. I'll admit that I am shocked that grades like that are tolerated by a student-centered retention program where one mid-year drop out costs the college $25,000!

To continue my generalization, they have probably never had to work for a living, and might never have held a job. They know they want to be business men or women, but don't know what skills are used on the job.

I can definitely see how one tail of the distribution in her class might be made up of the 25% who combine mediocre skills from high school with poor motivation.

The teaching:

My thoughts here are driven by an observation I posted just the other day on FSP's blog in a discussion about why tenured professors should care about what is in student evaluations of teaching. My comment concerned a favorite student observation of decades past: An engineering major stated that ze hated physics and couldn't understand why ze had to take it. What did I learn? That one thing I need to teach real early in the course is why it is required for engineering majors! Turns out lots of them don't know why because they don't know what engineers actually do. This student probably would believe that something taught in an engineering class was relevant to a career, but didn't get the concept of prerequisites so everything else was just a speed bump that got in the way of what they thought they needed to study.

I'd be willing to guess that the problem is even bigger with rhetoric classes. Now Babson College knows it is relevant, but do the students?

Here is a key remark from Babson's About page that might put this in perspective:

The undergraduate curriculum integrates core competencies, key business disciplines, and the liberal arts into foundation, intermediate, and advanced-level courses. The competencies are rhetoric; quantitative and information analysis; entrepreneurial and creative thinking; ethics and social responsibility; global and multicultural perspectives; and leadership and teamwork; and critical and integrative thinking.

Notice that reference to "rhetoric", the subject taught by the author of this opinion piece?

[Side comment: I like the word FOUNDATION as a synonym for prerequisite, although I'll stick with BASIC for some of my applications. It sends the right message for engineering, in particular.]

I would hope something this basic to the learning goals of the college was part of their orientation. Of course, if those kids were busy updating Facebook (which might rival drinking as a reason for failing out of college) during orientation, they might have missed it so it needs to be said in every class, and not just on the first day. "Today we are working on the foundation for the report-writing skills refined in Business 301, skills that will get you that first big promotion." And I would hope that the teachers in their freshman business class refer to the importance of rhetoric just as I point to specific math skills they will learn later on and apply (along with physics) in more advanced engineering classes.

We all have to signal the importance of the whole of what they are learning if we expect them to retain the parts that really matter.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Solstice!

I've been pretty silent here, so should interject something.

The solstice this year was just after mid day, so the sun was at its highest point when it reached its lowest point (relatively speaking) in the southern sky.

Elsewhere ...

The topic of teaching evaluations and improving teaching at Female Science Prof's blog might be a jumping off point, but I'm not quite ready for spring semester yet. When I am, I might also pick up a few other loose threads, like math education.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Torque and Angular Momentum

Rhett Allain has a very nice blog post about angular momentum featuring the precession of a bicycle-wheel gyroscope that he demonstrates here:

I find wearing a long-sleeve shirt with shorts to be an interesting touch.

In addition to my comment on his blog, I'll add the following about how I introduce it in my classes:

Based on experience as a student and an instructor, I think it is usually best to present the prediction before doing the experiment. However, in this case I generally interleave the two.

As with most intro textbooks, mine packages angular momentum along with the cross product definition of torque in its own section so it is easy to omit completely. I integrate tau=rxF into my initial introduction of torque and the various ways of calculating it, but then stick with tau = I*alpha until I get to L.

As soon as I introduce L, I go into the generalized second law as tau = dL/dt (pretty much the way we jump from F = ma to F = dp/dt once momentum is defined). After connecting this to tau = I*alpha, I then ask "So don't you wonder if that cross product in the definition of torque is real? Is torque really perpendicular to the force?".

Then I do the demo, quickly, just enough to see the rotation.

WTF? At this point I do the detailed calculation, exactly as shown in Rhett's blog, and then REPEAT the demo. This time, however, I slip an "L" arrow onto the handle so they can see it precess.

What if I hold it by the opposite handle? What is tau now? Aha, it goes the other way!

What if L = 0? Ah, so "falling" is actually rotation in this case.

... and finally ...

What force keeps the center of mass from falling with L is not zero?

The string! Now if I could only measure the force on the string during the demo with L not zero and compare it to the force when L is zero ....

But to summarize: In this case I think they need to see a taste of the phenomenon to understand why I would bother with such a detailed calculation. It also means that I end up doing the demo itself several times, and I use the wheel with the L arrow on it when doing the drawings, since they are not yet experienced at getting a 3-D image out of two projective views. Few have had a drafting class or Calc III.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Historic papers available on line

The Royal Society has put 60 historic papers on line for free public access. It is available here.

Franklin's paper about his experiments with lightning and Newton's with color components in white light appear to be well worth a visit.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Must read!

Check out the new PHD Comics offering: Buzzwords!

This clearly shows the evolving importance of various research topics. By the way, a big part of the "Carbon" peak would be due to the "nano" peak: Carbon Nanotubes.

Also, anyone from my generation has to be amused to see "blog" passing "postmodern" in the post-postmodern era.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Return to The Village!

The Prisoner returns on Sunday on AMC.

Can it match what Patrick McGoohan created (all of the old episodes are available) back in 1967?

Only time will tell, but I rather like the updated version of The Village, with what look like the twin towers in the background. It has that ticky-tacky ersatz village feel one can see in the real town of Seaside, where "The Truman Show" was filmed.

It might also help that they pulled it into just 6 episodes. The original was a bit much for the casual viewer!

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Now something for Sherman Dorn ...

Time to post something amusing about educational outcomes and testing.

The british are complaining that math exams are getting easier while a separate article looked at how science exams were being dumbed down. The latter is particularly interesting because they slipped some 50 year old questions in among contemporary ones on a chemistry exam. This classic bit of exam norming was a real wakeup call.

But the best part?

Both articles contain links to old exam questions!

One of the conclusions in the article was not too surprising to me. "Experts who have been looking at the results concluded that students today are required to do fewer complex calculations." Less critical thinking has been the norm, but I think that statement is true even for my exams today compared to some I still have from the past. I am more likely to ask easily graded pieces of a problem rather than a complex problem where a class of 50 students might come up with 35 different answers resulting from 20 different mistakes. However, my exams today are getting harder as I find ways to challenge them while still being able to grade the problems in a reasonable time.

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Upcoming unemployment data

The lead in this article says "unemployment could crack 10%. I have little doubt of that, because passing an inflection point in unemployment only means we are on our way to a turn around, not that we are there already. I'd be surprised if monthly unemployment numbers for this depression fail to reach 10%, and not too surprised if they surpass those for the worst recession in my memory -- which was 10.8% (quarterly average of 10.7%) in late 1982.


The change in the slope seen between my first post on the subject in June and my most recent post in October is indicative of a turnover, but there are indicators that it will coast upward for a few more months.

As another recent article put it, the pace of layoffs is slowing ... which means there are still layoffs and that means unemployment is still growing. The weekly claims are falling -- but are still high at 500,000. As currently shown on this page, where the employment and unemployment numbers will appear on Friday, job cuts peaked in January (the inflection point?) but we are still losing jobs.

Except for changes as people drop off of the unemployment rolls, which becomes less likely as Congress again funds an extension of unemployment benefits, we need to see job growth -- not just jobs saved -- before the unemployment rate turns around.

That is bad news for the new Republican governor of NJ, who is clearly hoping that an Obama recovery will make it possible for him to cut taxes, eliminate an 8 billion dollar deficit, and balance his budget without draconian cuts in education, medical care for elderly in nursing homes, and public safety.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Ten Twelve

Today is the ninth anniversary of 10/12.

Lots of people commented on 9/11, including myself and some other bloggers I follow, echoing the media emphasis on that important and memorable event. But the media gets it wrong when they assert that it was Al Qaeda's second attack on US territory. It was the fourth. And it says something sad about us as a nation that we give more importance to an attack on a civilian office building than one that left dozens of our servicemen either killed or wounded.

I am, of course, talking primarily about the attack on the USS Cole on 10/12/2000, which killed 17 sailors and left 39 others wounded. (The other event I allude to was "8/7", the attack on two US embassies on 8/7/1998. Embassies, like US flagged military vessels, are considered sovereign US territory.) Al Qaeda's first attack on the World Trade Center was not viewed as an act of war. Oddly, even their attack on a US naval warship was not viewed as an act of war. Even more oddly, it was their second attack on the World Trade Center -- not the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon and/or the White House and probably the Capitol -- that got recognized as an act of war.

This attack on our warship is so far off of our cultural radar that, when I alluded to this event on Dean Dad's blog last week, even my reference to "naval warships" left him scratching his head about 10/12, thinking I was talking about Hitler rather than Japan. No, I was not talking about Japan invading China or Germany invading Poland or France. I was talking about Japan attacking US Navy ships while in port at what was then US colonial territory (Hawaii) as well as on the seas in and around another US colony (the Philippines). Al Qaeda attacked a US Navy warship visiting a port in Yemen, almost a full year before it attacked the Pentagon. Both attacks on naval vessels provided an abundantly clear indication that they were at war with us, whether we liked it or not. Some might argue that both were wars of "choice", we could have chosen to let Japan control the Pacific as its own private lake and we could have disengaged completely from the middle east (including Saudi Arabia and Israel), but neither were likely choices for us to make.

Al Qaeda's timing was perfectly bad, by the way.

They hit a pair of embassies in the summer of 1998, when the US was totally preoccupied with a sex scandal and the subsequent impeachment of the President. The Clinton administration, weakened as it was by those events, seemed to view it as an isolated act of terror rather than part of a growing campaign against the US. That view seemed to be shared by the professionals in the DoD and CIA, as reflected in the refusal to attack bin Laden when we had him in our sights.

They hit the USS Cole in the late stages of the 2000 Presidential campaign, and the information about the connections to Al Qaeda were developed during the interregnum period that included a delayed handover because of the contentious recount in Florida. The report of the 9/11 Commission makes it pretty clear that the Clinton administration, having been unable to get the CIA and DoD to attack bin Laden himself for previous acts of war, did not even try to push that point during its last weeks in office. It also makes it very clear that the Bush administration seemed to think that those were attacks on the Clinton administration rather than on the United States, blowing off the new information developed in December and January by the FBI and others.

Forgetting the USS Cole seems typical of the way we have, as a nation, downplayed the significance of the war against Al Qaeda in response to its war against us. We had 8 years of the Bush administration talking about how much it cares about US servicemen, yet they did nothing when 17 of them were killed by Al Qaeda and continued to do nothing when reports surfaced that the same people were planning more of the same. When they complained that Oh, we didn't think they would attack the US, all I could think was What do you think a ship flying the US flag is, if not part of the US? Did Bush and Cheney really think it would be no big deal if Al Qaeda sunk more ships?

The people questioning the war in Afghanistan need to remember that there is at least one target on their list that they haven't hit yet, the Capitol, and that past history says they will not rest until they carry out their plans ... unless we stop them first. We need to remember 10/12, or 9/11 won't be the last we hear from Al Qaeda.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Breaking Even

Two recent articles got me wondering about college economics when facing tight budget years, a news story in IHE about San Joaquin Delta College, pointed to by Dean Dad, and an off-hand comment by Dean Dad claiming "My cc loses money on every student."

This, and much of the discussion about Delta, made no sense to me at first.

How can you lose money by enrolling more students?

Then I discovered that Delta College only gets $26 per credit hour in tuition (in a semester system)! Mind bogglingly low. Almost free! Based on that, I could begin to believe statements like the one Dean Dad made. Nonetheless, that funding system is so alien to me that it is no wonder that people can make blanket comments that look like total nonsense to educators in one state while seeming quite reasonable to those in another state or region. At my CC, we profit from extra students and take a serious private-college-like approach to attracting and retaining those extra students.

Why the difference between Dean Dad's school and ours?

Well, I don't actually know if there is a difference - because Dean Dad has never produced even a crude outline of his college's income structure within something like the normalized college budget I suggested and then modeled with a sample budget for my CC. However, I do know what is going on at Delta College:

Out of every 10.0 million dollars in the budget, they get 5.9 million from the state, 2.7 from local property taxes, 0.5 from tuition, and the other 0.9 from a variety of sources that includes 0.5 from the federal government. Compare that to our budget: 5.9 from the state, 3.9 from tuition, and 0.2 from other sources.

That explains quite a lot!

I won't give our specific tuition level, but suffice it to say that it is more than twice what Delta students pay. Based on what I can discern from obscure collective bargaining documents, their full-time faculty are paid quite a bit more than ours are (but not enough to make up for the housing differences) while their adjuncts make somewhat more (but not much more) than ours do. The faculty salaries explain the very high classroom body counts, but those are sunk costs that are (like ours) covered by state funds. They don't impact the cost of adding an extra 100 students to the college's enrollment.

What does matter is the ratio between adjunct pay and tuition. If we have to add a section, our tuition appears to more than pay for the adjunct's salary once we get 12 to 15 students enrolled. (I don't know what other per-class costs, such as copying exams and the like, add up to. I do know that FICA and Medicare adds almost 10% to it, however.) My guess is that Delta needs more than 32, getting close to their normal load of 39, to break even on salary for a typical adjunct. But that is just salary! Add in FICA and other direct costs, and they lose money even with a full class. Working on the margin, when you might open a class with only 20 students during the last week of registration, they lose money and we profit.

Worse, their state income is set by enrollment but capped at a fixed value. That means they can get less but can never get more. Our state funds are based on a far more predictable formula.

PS -
If you are interested in some data related to the rising cost of tuition vis-a-vis state funding, you might look at this old article based on actual data for an R1 university. It is only one story of many, but it shows that very little of the growth in tuition (only $1500 of the $7000 increase) is due to reduced state funding (in constant current dollars).

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Unemployment Inflection Point?

The September unemployment data bring to a close another "quarter", so we now have an additional data point to compare to the naive projections made back when the incoming administration was hoping this was going to be a recession rather than the depression (four quarters of negative GDP growth) it turned out to be. [I figure "The Mortgage Panic of 2008" will make a good name for the triggering event.]

With that point, the inflection point is much clearer:

Click on the image to enlarge it significantly.

I emphasize the quarterly average because that was what was used in the original predictions, but also because it smooths out the noise in the monthly data.

The monthly data are still very noisy, but the break away from the rapid and accelerating ascent that had started a year earlier is much clearer now than it was just three months ago. The green and pink lines are explained below. [*] The noise is probably a result of the unseasonable timing of various things, whether it is the stimulus of car sales in what is normally an off season for car sales or the layoffs of teachers in the fall when they would normally be hired.

Unemployment is still going up, just not as fast as it had been. It is starting to turn over, but it doesn't look like it has turned over. It will go up a lot more when people re-enter the work force once they see jobs appear.

But the good news from this end is that I have finally seen an actual stimulus-funded construction project putting people to work. (I saw a lot more in another state, one that must have had a lot of projects ready to go, while traveling recently.) It just got started, so the stimulus effects are running about 8 months behind the starting point for that program.

Time will tell if it is enough.

As to which prediction curve applies, well, that would require correcting them so they follow the Q1 2009 data point rather than the optimistic estimate used back in late December of 2008.

The green and pink lines were described in detail elsewhere in the "Predictions" section.

The green line is a straight-line extrapolation (zero curvature) based on Q3 2008 and Q4 2008. It shows that the original blue predictions of the transition team assumed a recovery was already in progress by Q1 2009.

The pink lines are a pair of extrapolations from the actual Q1 2009 data point and the Q4 2008 point. The lower line is a straight line extrapolation (zero curvature), while the higher one assumes a continuation of the acceleration of job loss (positive curvature) that took place in the previous quarters of 2008.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Tagging this as "music" is a bit of a stretch, but ...

... this morning the folks on Squawk Box on MSNBC used a mashup of the now legendary Animal Orchesra with "We're All Water" by the Plastic Ono Band to lead in their "stocks to watch" segment at 7:55 AM today.

It was done so the Animal Orchestra clip led into Yoko Ono screaming. This was genius, because it was quite clear that a trio of beluga whales accompanied by a pair of walruses playing horns was more melodious than Yoko's truly avant-garde sound.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Today is the Autumnal (fall) Equinox, one of two days when you can tell for sure if a street you drive in the morning or evening runs due East or West! The sun is aligned with the equator today, so it truly rises in the East and sets in the West. From now on the sun will be heading south for the winter.

The equinox also has another little appreciated property: it marks the end of the day at the North pole and the dawn of a new (year-long) day at the south pole. The sun only rises and sets once a year at the poles.

It is also a day when it is easy to tell just how far off your current time (daylight savings here) is off from local "sun" time. The day is exactly 12 hours long, so sunrise and sunset should be at 6 AM and 6 PM (plus or minus some minor corrections because the Earth's orbit is elliptical rather than circular, causing the sun to appear to run fast or slow at various times of the year). If they aren't (and ours isn't even close), you can see how far your daylight has been shifted by the offset of most time zones plus daylight "savings" time.

In other news, today was also the first time I heard a Christmas Tune in a TV ad. The offender was Royal Caribbean. Definitely a sign of hard times if they are pushing holiday tours right now. On the other hand, I have seen two major signs of commercial improvement: the return of catalogs in the mail (although none of them are of the Christmas or Holiday variety), and the return of multiple pages of ads between the cover of The New Yorker and the table of contents. That mag was getting to be as thin as a local newspaper.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Reflections on Eight Years Ago

Looking back at 11 September 2001.

What stands out in my mind was the first anomaly that hinted that something was going on. We had not had the TV on, so I had no idea anything had happened as I headed into campus just before 9 (between the two attacks on the World Trade Center). As usual, I turned on the computer ... but it simply would not boot up properly. It was taking forever to load various shared applications off of a network server. Forever, meaning something like 15 minutes to do something that normally took less than 1 minute.

Was something wrong with the network? Yeah, people all over campus (and one just down the hall) were hammering it trying to get an update from CNN, or other news sites. When I saw what an office neighbor was trying to understand better, I also went to CNN once my machine was up.


Just before I had to leave to teach my 10:00 class, I got lucky. I killed a page load to shortcut its failed attempts to load all the advertising crap from akamai, and managed to 2nd click to just load a single news image. Its name actually said all I needed to know: "second plane". You know what it showed.

We were under attack.

So I went and taught my morning class, which was probably a lecture about electrostatic potentials and fields. I don't recall anything about that part of the day, except that most of the students had no idea that anything had happened. (And the studies of 9-11 indicate the government was in a similar state at 10 AM.) When I got back to my office, it was clear we were likely at war. In truth, of course, we had been at war with Al Qaeda for almost a decade but only Al Qaeda was taking it seriously until that day.

The indecision on campus was amazing to see. Are classes cancelled? No. OK. And it was soon time to teach my afternoon class on classical mechanics. That was the hardest class I ever taught. But before getting down to doing physics, I told the class what was on my mind:

That I had a much better idea of how my parents felt when they learned about Pearl Harbor.

And I told them that saying that made me wonder if we would learn the same things about this attack that we now knew about Pearl Harbor -- that we had plenty of evidence that it was coming, and missing it was a failure of intelligence rather than of Intelligence. (I knew all of the details of our code breaking and what had been done with it in late 1942, how our code breakers knew the Japanese were breaking off negotiations before their diplomats did, but that information was so secret that the military could not be told about imminent war and be put on alert.)
Wow, did that turn out to be insightful! But it was just a good guess based on the odds that we had too much excellent data to be able recognize a totally novel method of attack as a real possibility. Novel military tactics have a long history of working really well the first time.

By the time that class was over, it was announced that the rest of that day's classes were canceled. No labs that afternoon. Time to adjust schedules and make it work for the rest of the semester. (One of several cases that tell me I could figure out how to accommodate the disruption of H1N1 if it only led to the closing of campus for a week.) But we were back to normal only in the most limited sense.

The class that started the first semester of physics that Fall of 2001 was different from any of the others I have had. It took quite a while for them to get back in focus, and quite a few lost focus and quit. But the ones that stuck it out were serious about being ready to win that fight as engineers. That was a hard working bunch of students that year.

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Monday, September 7, 2009


Ah, that was a nice vacation, getting recharged for the fall while limiting myself to commentary on other blogs. Now it is time to post this, my 400th article, before getting back to some old and new topics.

What I thought I should do is post links to some "feature" articles from the past that I think are fairly timeless in their relevance to the business and pleasure of teaching science (in my case physics) at the college level. Although I might be at a mere CC, the calculus-based physics class I teach to future engineering majors -- with a few physics majors and others wandering in at times -- is the same as it is anywhere except for some elite programs. (I use the level of the class at the top-quartile R1 where I grew up as my reference point, and that seems more than enough for the kids that transfer to Wannabe Flagship.) So here goes ...

  • Freshman Orientation where I argue for telling new college students some of the huge differences between high school and college. Some of these include the fact that teachers had to pass you in high school, so you were never taught at "your level". Teaching was directed at the bottom 20% that the principal insisted pass the class and the NCLB exit exam.

I didn't mention telling them that they had been lied to when they were told that they were graduating with a high school knowledge of math, a detail touched on in an article about math remediation, but I should have. I actually jumped for joy when Arne Duncan said this weekend (midway down page 6 of the pdf transcript from Sunday, Sept. 6) that "In too many places I think, Bob, we are, honestly, we're lying to children. ... If a child hears they're quote-unquote 'meeting the state standard', that child, that parent, the logical assumption is, they're going to be on track to be successful. But in way too many places around the country ... they are totally inadequately prepared to be successful in higher education. That has to change. We have to stop lying to children." Too bad that did not make the talking-points sound-bite list for newspaper headlines. It got swamped by "The Hinny" (H1N1) and people who don't want other folk's children to be told to study hard, or don't want their own kids to see that the President is Black.

  • Replace "prerequisite" with "basic", arguing for using a term that freshmen might understand. This followed a nice discussion of some alternatives. I've been trying this, here and there, and I like the results so far. I think it helps to tell a kid that trig is a "basic skill". Now I am waiting for an answer to the question about what basic math errors should be punished unmercifully in pre-calc.

  • Critical Reading That article is actually toward the end of my comments, but it links back to earlier ones. I continue to experiment with this skill and ways of teaching it (borrowed from the way Dr. Crazy does it in an English literature class) in conjunction with solving physics problems. Reading and readable textbooks were at the top of the list of some comments about college readiness from the viewpoint of someone teaching physics to future engineers.

  • Jobs, starting from a supply and demand history for physics, this series ends up looking at what it takes to get and keep an academic job. That link is to the lead article in an irregular series that all end up filed under the jobs label. That lead article and the graph is due for an update with more recent data about PhD production, as are some of the others. (The AIP updates its information on this subject annually.) I want to emphasize, for those who read this far, that the advice in Part 5 applies to any job search at a community college. The differences between subject areas is minor compared to research job hunts.

I'll also link to this article (because it points to a nice series by Unbalanced Reaction about taking a Visiting position) and this one (because it points to a great blog by Dr. Crazy about teaching intensive jobs from the 4-year regional university viewpoint).

  • Retention of learning and of students is probably a focus for the coming year or two. Outcomes assessment is clearly going to be more important in the near future, so we should think hard about what measures our actual goal. Is it the passing rate this year or the passing rate in the next class?

There is probably more I should mention, but that will do for post number 400. OK, maybe I should stick this here at the end:
  • Community! is starting in less that two weeks. Okay, that is not exactly a rocket science article, and blogging about it probably guarantees that it will turn out to be stereotypical junk, but that "start your life over" bit at the end gives it promise. At minimum, we can use it to laugh at ourselves and how others view us and our students as the week winds down with another episode of "30 Rock".

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ageing Gracefully

Dr. Crazy recently blogged about her impending birthday, so it is worth noting an interesting article about a study that shows that people get happier as they age.

The main lesson was summed up as follows:

They found older adults generally make the best of the time they have left and have learned to avoid situations that make them feel sad or stressed.

Now there is a good principle to hold in mind as we start a new semester! It also seems to summarize my parent's approach to a long and happy retirement. Some of it certainly results from living through the death of many old and dear friends and family. The start is to spend your time like the valuable capital it is. Don't let someone else spend it for you.

So .... is there someone out there whose goal in life is to annoy you until he gets what he wants (often an unearned grade)? Refuse to play the game. Demanding e-mail? Answer it on a set schedule - your schedule. We can choose to enjoy what we do and make 09-10 a good school year.

I'm ready. Literally and figuratively. I even have my first-week concept picked out, evolved from the old "critical reading" discussions, to see if I can repair the weak foundations they have with setting up problems (starting with reading them, before they show up as problems with actual physics problems. Should be fun for everyone.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Stimulus is Working

If all politics is local, so is much of economics. This picture is worth 1000 words.

Thanks to the $8,000 first-time buyer tax credit, the house across the street has sold after being vacant for more than a year. Better yet, the house next to it has also sold after also sitting vacant for more than a year. Both were sold to young, first-time home buyers who could use help with a downpayment but could move quickly because they did not have to sell a house to make the move.

Even better, my parents home finally sold after being empty for about 18 months. It also was bought by a first-time buyer. Like the two cases on our street, the seller cut the price significantly to get rid of the property, having long since moved to another place with its own expenses, so this does not signify any recovery in the price part of the market - but it has meant work for roofers, maintenance people, surveyors, and actual real income for realtors.

Along with one other sale about a block away, all of the properties up for sale in our immediate neighborhood are "gone" - and none of them were converted to rentals. That last part is a double bonus of the stimulus plan. With prices down, people with cash can pick up potential rental properties at a song. (One house on my drive to work went from "sold" to "for rent" in one day, but it is closer to the colleges.) This plan puts an owner in the house, which is a big plus for everyone around us.

So this part of the stimulus bill is working well. The only difference between it and the "cash for clunkers" program is that it isn't using appropriated dollars so there is nothing for the Republicans to complain about yet. It remains to be seen if they will complain about having to subsidize a TAX CUT for new homebuyers in the same way they criticize a rebate for people replacing a 14 mpg truck (SUV) with a 28 mpg car that will cut each individual's demand for foreign oil in half!

Any bets?

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

A View of America

There was a very interesting column from BBC World News today. Their American Correspondent is ending an 8-year stay in this country, and writes his thoughts about America, from how we approach buying a home to a rural road in South Carolina to his view that our "anyone can get ahead" worldview is closely tied to our "carelessness" (i.e. lack of a Nanny State). Liberty is, after all, necessary for someone from the lower classes to move into the upper classes even if it also lets parents refuse to treat their child's disease.

I thought the one thing he missed was that the sub-prime mortgage crisis only brought down the rest of the world's economies because they were as greedy as we were (the exception being China, who only buys government paper), and that the housing bubble was not much different from other scams that helped create this country, including ones that brought the first settlers here.

In what is actually a related story, Raul Castro says he is not going to "reform" Cuba into a capitalist country. That's OK, it will become one as soon as the South Florida Cubans get over the fall of THEIR dictator and realize that the fastest way to bring down the Castro system is to let people visit there and spend money. That won't prop up the government, it will destroy it, one iPod at a time.

As Fareed Zakaria puts it in his book on illiberal "democracies", first security, then middle-class incomes, then democracy. China is well on its way down this path, whereas Russia (and the many failed democracies of the post-colonial era of my youth) failed because the people were too poor. That was the most fascinating bit of statistical politics in the entire book. Our isolation of Cuba, originally at the behest of former Batista allies, is keeping the Castro family in power!

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Racing Helmets

The problem is not that of a standard inelastic collision, yet that is the essence of the problem: how to dissipate energy while conserving momentum, and how to reduce the acceleration of the head inside the helmet when the impulse being applied is not under your control. Complicating this is the need to keep the weight of the helmet down so that the helmet itself does not cause injury by increasing the forces on the neck in a crash (the problem that the HANS device helps solve as part of a coordinated systems approach to safety). More on the physics at the bottom of this article.

There is an excellent story on the Formula 1 website about the evolution of racing helmets, driven by the amazing survival of Felipe Massa after being hit in the helmet by a 1 kg spring that came off of Barrichello's car (at a closing speed of about 160 mph), although it doesn't give much credit where it is really due over the history of motorsport. The helmet they show Fangio wearing, which originated for use when playing polo, was similar to the one worn in a key death in the US that started the move toward today's safer helmets.

It was the Sports Car Club of America that was the first to require seat belts in automobile competition (1954), and it was an SCCA member who started the Snell Memorial Foundation in 1957 to provide testing for helmets used for automobile racing after the death of Pete Snell in a racing incident. Their page about the history of the organization and its current activities shows the crash that killed Pete Snell, discusses the physics of a crash, and shows the sort of testing that goes into certifying a helmet. The photo at the very bottom of this page shows a sample drop test of a helmet that tests for the sort of thing that happened to Massa.

The Massa incident was as close as it gets. Getting hit in the head by 1 kg spring at a relative velocity of about 160 mph would be fatal without a helmet even when the spring was deflected by the nose of the car and the bolster on the side of the cockpit. Even the helmet was put to the ultimate test, because the impact point was at the edge of the opening. You can see the effect in the AP photo that accompanies this news article. Higher resolution images of just his helmet and eye injury are available if you search "massa crash" on google images, but I don't recommend doing so.

The Physics

Some things about the collision of an object with a helmet are outside your control. The momentum of the incoming object is a given. The amount of momentum transferred to your head and helmet is somewhat under your control, but mostly depends on things like the angle of impact that you really can't do much about. Bouncing off (elastic collision) makes the momentum transfer worse for your head, so design can help a bit, but physics puts a lower limit on what engineering can do about this part of the problem.

The amount of momentum transferred to the helmet is what is called "impulse". You can reduce injury if the helmet or its lining is soft enough to increase the duration of the collision, thereby reducing the force applied to the head. This is also the job of seat belts and other safety systems, but only a helmet can protect you against the impact of an object or the road itself.

BTW, there isn't much that a helmet can do if something large (like a wheel) hits you at high speed. There are things that will kill you in motorsport. Based on one of Hemingway's rules, that is what makes car racing a sport. (If there is no chance that the animal you are hunting can kill you, he did not consider it a sport.)

The helmet has to provide an artificial skull, to protect your skull. (That means it has to be hard and strong, so it is the job of the lining to dissipate energy.) Even though the impact was right at the edge of the "eye socket", the helmet Massa was wearing did an amazing job. It appears that fragments from the helmet or visor injured his eye, although the damage could also result from a fracture as the helmet hit his head. That is the other thing the helmet has to do: absorb energy and redistribute the forces over the entire head. Massa's helmet just barely managed perform that task. He still had a fractured skull as well as a concussion from the forces that were applied to his head by the helmet.

Apparently he also had a fracture at the base of the skull (what killed Dale Earnhardt), which is supposed to be less likely with a HANS device. His roughly 120 mph impact with the tire barrier should not have produced this, as I understand the designs, so that might also have resulted from an unanticipated motion of the helmet from the spring impact. It also makes me worry about how the emergency people were moving him in the news photo I link to above!

And just to be clear:
Physics is not the entire story. Physics tells you the constraints of the problem. It tells you what physical principles apply and what forces MUST result from those principles under specified conditions. Engineering is the task of choosing materials that will handle those forces and dissipate energy without adding too much weight, so the forces that get to the head are within limits known from the analysis of deaths and injuries from past crashes. More will be learned from this one.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Course in Literary Criticism

"The Poetry of Sarah Palin's Tweets"

If you haven't seen it ... check it out. [Sorry for the ad.]

This is seriously good stuff, although it owes a lot to William Shatner channeling the beat era Howl of Allen Ginsburg plus a very careful choice of tweets.

But what fun! What insights could we glean from this poetry?

And could it bring back beat poetry in REAL coffeehouses like I recall from my freshman year in college? Haiku, meet tweet-haiku, limited to 140 characters. A new art form!

PS -
Since the ad I am seeing is for cat owners, I'll counter it with this story about a UK cat that rides a bus.

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Birther Hypocrisy

You can't watch very much of the chattering classes on cable news without seeing the ongoing rants about whether Obama is a "natural born citizen" and eligible to be President. You can see some of the latest here.

My opinion is that they are asking these jive talking politicos the wrong question.

They should be asking these Republicans if they think John McCain is a natural born citizen eligible to be President of the United States.

You see, every Republican member of Congress was at the convention and voted to nominate McCain. If they think it is so important that we know if Obama was born in the US (not to mention all future Presidential candidates), why didn't they press that issue with McCain before nominating him? After all, there is no question at all that Sen. John Sidney McCain III was born in the Panama Canal Zone, not in one of these United States.

If being the son of a United States citizen was sufficient for them to nominate McCain, why isn't it good enough for Obama? That is the followup question for any of these solons.

Or is it possible that they were all part of a bizarre conspiracy to elect McCain, sue to have him immediately declared ineligible, thereby putting Palin in the Presidency? Then Palin gets someone like William Kristol approved by Congress as her VP, and immediately resigns because she is a lame duck. Coup complete.

Nah, that isn't possible. They are just jive talking maroons.

Read Entire Article......

Reason for a Liberal Arts Education

The news yesterday contained a horrifying story about how the US military leveled part of the ancient Babylon archaeological site. They apparently bulldozed mounds that were what remained of parts of guest palace of King Nebuchadnezzar's, damaged pottery that had cuneiform writing on it along with other items that date back over 2500 years, and carried on activities that damaged the reproduction of the Ishtar Gate at that site.

I am embarrassed that they did not know better, as one would expect from any decent humanities course or bible study in church school, but there is a precedent from World War II:


Every time I happen to hear a story about Kyoto that mentions how it managed to survive the war, I wish they would tell the whole story. The people planning the bombing of Japan had no idea of its religious or historic significance, let alone the beauty of the temples that fill the city. The only reason it was not firebombed was that it had been put at the TOP of the list of places to use the first atom bomb! Hiroshima was number 2.

You see, in order to be sure we could see the effects of the bomb, we wanted to use the A bomb on a pristine city. The people in Hiroshima and several other cities were sure they had said a special prayer to have been spared the bombings, whereas the reality was they were in the cross hairs of something far worse than about 400 planes carrying explosives and incendiaries sufficient to burn tens of square miles.

But it happened that Secretary of War Stimson knew Kyoto well, and fought hard to get it off the list and to keep Gen. Lemay from bombing it with conventional weapons during the rest of the war. You can read the details in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. Either Groves and others were ignorant of its cultural value to the world, or they wanted to destroy it for that very reason.

One would have hoped that today's generals would know something about Babylon's history and the nature of archaeological sites, if only because this city had an important role in the Bible, but apparently not. I'd hope that humanities teachers everywhere can draw on this as a teachable moment in their classes.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Followup on Gates and the Cops

Late last week, I posted my thoughts about the Gates Arrest based on the content of the police report.

Since then, we have heard the actual content of the 911 call (or, at least, significant parts that the media consider relevant, but the transcript is available from a local paper) and it raises new questions about the approach taken by the Cambridge police, both the arresting officer and the dispatcher. Indeed, when you read the transcript, it sounds like the dispatcher was doing some profiling when asking "And what do the suitcases have to do with anything?". Not even listening, it would seem, as that got turned into "backpacks" by the time the cop reported it back to us.

So, what do I think now?

First, just because the caller says she was careful about giving the race of the two men does not mean race played no role in the call since she was not the initial witness. It was another woman who had been watching what took place. However, it is clear from the call that she never even saw one of the men - probably Gates, unless she thought Prof. Gates looked Hispanic - so his race was never an issue for her. Certainly it answers my question about what she "said", because she never said what the arresting officer claimed she told him.

The important thing now is that her statements make it very clear that the story in the police report, that she told the cop that she "observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch", was, shall we say, quite wide of the truth. She doesn't have to answer for that, but it was fun to read how the Cambridge Police Commissioner acknowledged that the police report contains a reference to race, but said the report is merely a summary of events. Wow, can you imagine a defense attorney using that to impeach the information in any report filed by that officer in the future?

But second, why was the elderly neighbor woman concerned? That was part of my earlier question, as she was the original witness, and it remains unanswered. Was she concerned because she saw dark skinned men pushing on the door? Would she have been concerned if it had been a 60 year old white man doing it with the assistance of a white Limo driver?

However, there is no question in my mind that I would want one of my neighbors to call the police if they saw something like that happening, but I think my actual neighbors (including ones who walk this area regularly) know what I look like! Similarly, I think they know that a black family lives next door and would never question a black person going into that house. (That might make my neighbors less well protected from black-on-black crime, just as it makes folks in the wealthy all-white suburbs less protected against their neighbor's kids robbing them.)

Third, there are now serious questions about the part of the police report related to the cause for the arrest. We have heard the transmissions from inside the house, and there was no indication at all that Prof. Gates was yelling loudly enough to interfere with communication. Quite the opposite. The premise given to get him out of the house was just that, a premise, based on what the police department released about the call.

Finally, the caller was pretty clear about the most likely possibility that the men lived in the house (said so more than once) and were just forcing a stuck door and that she was just calling to be on the safe side. The dispatcher made the suitcases sound ominous rather than an indication of a likely non-emergency situation, as intended by the caller.

That is something for everyone to remember: the officer responding to a request will likely be totally unaware of what was said to the 911 operator, either because it got filtered by the operator or was only partially heard while finding the way to the address in question. Assume the cop has incomplete or inaccurate information, and explain all details as if it was the first time.

So, to give a one-line answer to the question about whether an apology is in order, I think the cop owes her and the rest of us an apology.

Note added:
Forgot to include a link to this interesting analysis, which matches my view that this was about Power more than race, although I still think he was arrested for being "uppity" based on the officer's own description of his shock at not being treated as the Master and his stated concern about being shown up in front of his fellow officers.

Read Entire Article......

Three Weeks and (not) Counting

Posting a comment over at Dean Dad's blog reminded me that we are just a few days away from the 3-week countdown to the academic equivalent of "pitchers and catchers report".

In the past, I might have said that it was time to get to work, but I now plan ahead. However, as mentioned in an earlier blog about how I now approach a new year (particularly in the comments), I can be susceptible to using the extra time to create more work for myself. With too much time to do the job, there is a tendency to polish the brass like I was a lowly seaman in the Navy. So this year I have to thank a post by Dr. Crazy where she mentioned setting a false deadline of July 30, as if that was the actual start of the semester.

Great idea. Apart from one detail (a possible course assignment that would alter the office hours that I always put in my syllabus), I will have all of my syllabi "printer ready" by then. That will give me some free time to take a mini-vacation and also thing about some bigger issues, ones mentioned in an article last year. I might also think about the workload issue mentioned more recently by Dr. Crazy as she finished of her third (of four) syllabi, but it is easy to edit by subtraction.

Oh, yes, lets not forget to mention the one sign that the semester is approaching: U-Haul trucks at the student apartment complexes.

The invasion is near!

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Gates and the Cops

As a (now aging and balding) "long hair" who has spent many years on and around the cloistered ivy covered halls of academe, I can understand Gates' attitude. After all, they give him a hard time but an earlier break-in of his house remains unsolved. And if I can understand it, it must be doubled and squared if you are black -- where having a "tumultuous" attitude (college-educated cop speak) was really being perceived as having an "uppity" attitude (a word that would be auto-replaced by the police report word processor). As the commentariot has put it, what would Henry Kissinger have done if ordered out of his house by a cop? Would Kissinger have asked "Do you know who I am?", called the Police Chief, and gone ballistic if arrested for being angry at being insulted in his own "castle"?

I'll put my experiences and thoughts below the fold.

Certainly Gates should have done the "Yes Massa" thing and thanked the cop for responding to a case of a black man entering his own home, mentioning his past problems with break-ins as a reason he is glad the police show up when called. But there is no law that says you have to be civil to anyone in your own home, and certainly not to an uninvited person who just walks in your door. Unless you are black, it would seem.

I learned enough from being around dumb-ass white kids in middle school and, particularly, in high school that it is not a good idea to act as if you are a lot smarter than they are even if the intelligence contest can be won with my dominant hand in a cast. Thus my way of dealing with cops is to go into "Yes Massa" mode. It has always worked well for me in the few instances it seemed relevant, and I don't have any problem going with it. However, I can imagine why a world-famous Harvard professor (holding a "chair" that makes him special even at Harvard) might not take that approach - and there is certainly nothing in the Constitution that says you have to do that in your own home.

And cops, even ones with a college degree (in a CJ major that is open to literally anyone at the universities that I know about), definitely come from that power-mad category that expects "Yes Massa" in every one of their interactions. That would probably be why the cop was "surprised and confused" by the behavior of a homeowner who was being treated like a common criminal. He certainly wasn't expecting an "uppity" black man, let alone expecting to be charged with racism by a child of the 60s in front of his fellow officers and the general public. He had no choice but to arrest Gates for embarrassing him. And since there is no law against embarrassing a cop, he charging him with being disorderly in the "public" place that was his own living room and, later, front porch.

I remember well an incident late one night when I was almost 30, walking across campus. As I approached a major well-marked cross walk with its "yield to pedestrians" sign, a car blew by me, well over the speed limit. A cop pulled out of a side street to follow that car, and I turned and said "go get him". What did the cop do? He ignored the criminal, and went after the long hair. Yep, next thing I knew, there was a cop car ON THE SIDEWALK following me. He must have made a U turn rather than follow the (likely intoxicated) speeder who had also failed to yield. God knows what he thought, but he wasn't expecting a Staff ID card (when he illegally asked for ID) or my question about why he had ignored the person who had threatened my safety. He just wanted to be a dick. I suppose I'm lucky he didn't charge me with "orderly conduct", but that "Yes Massa" act did the trick.

But the way this long-hair was treated almost three decades ago is certainly not how middle aged (Gates is a few years older than I am) balding faculty expect to be treated by the campus-area police.

On my minor (but not at all small) campus, I am known on sight by the campus police officers as well as the un-armed security personnel. I would imagine that Gates is also well known to the cops that patrol Harvard Yard, even if it is a much bigger place. After all, he has been there almost 20 years and is in a "named" chair. He has even had a PBS TV series, not that cops watch that sort of TV. My expectation is that the cops who patrol our campus (and Gates apparently lives in a Harvard-owned house) know who the faculty are and we get treated with respect. Well, at least this white one does. I don't know about the much younger black professor who is built like a power forward.

As for racism, one wonders why no one in the media has talked to the "neighbor" who called the police about a Limo driver helping a middle aged man open his front door. She was, indeed, viewing Gates as being guilty of being a "black man in America". The cop simply picked up the ball and ran with it. Her story seems inconsistent, since the 911 call referred to two people but she only mentions one in the police report to the second officer. Is that because she eventually realized it was a Limo driver who had left? She was there the whole time, but never gave any info about the car these "criminals" had used, or that the Limo driver had (apparently) left, to the police officer who responded? Her failure to tell the cop where the second man had gone is a missing part of the story. And would she have even called the cops if it had been a 59 year old white man opening the door? She is the one who needs to lawyer up, not the cop.

Note: Here is one copy of the police report of the many that are available.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Old TVs, new Spot, Old Rocket, and Moon Pictures

Inspired by a comment from The Thomas, here is an article about the a working 1936 TV in the UK. Let that be a challenge to you! I was amused by the fact that it only had one channel because there was only a single (state owned) station in the entire UK, so it needs two converters to get over-the-air transmissions, and by the comments from the grandson of John Logie Baird (UK television inventor). I knew him from an old book (something about "electrons go to work") in my collection.

The article also has an extensive comments section, where various people posted the ancient things they have that still work. Reminds me of the refrigerator my parents have in the old house, which I think is older than I am.

Other news of note includes a new "spot" on Jupiter (possibly from an impact, but a "dark mark" could come from a Death Eater attack), and some older followup stories about Apollo:

The NASA article gives important details on the resolution per pixel (about four feet) and how the long shadow (due to a low sun angle) makes it easier to spot the lander. Imagine what we will see when the resolution improves by more than a factor of 2 after they circularize the LRO orbit later this year!

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

We can pretend I was live-blogging this one (40 years ago), but I am sure the posting time for this picture is about 5 or 10 minutes too early.

Armstrong stepped off the Lem around 11 PM EDT on 20 July 1969 (Wiki says he stepped on the moon at 10:56 pm EDT), and we were watching it live on TV, on CBS. I'm pretty sure it was our old Motorola Quasar b/w television (right Bro?). Aldrin followed about 15 minutes later, after Armstrong had picked up a quick rock sample, and then the TV camera was moved to a tripod where it would view the landing area.

At some point I set up my dad's old Ricoh SLR on a tripod and, guessing at the exposure, took one picture on color slide film to record this moment of history - with both astronauts on the moon with the LM. This is that image:

Special thanks to my brother for borrowing the slide from my parents and scanning it for me so I could include it here today. (He says the picture itself is much better than this indicates, and suspects his scanner's bulb is fading. Apparently you can also see the TV tuner, etc in the original slide.) Maybe I'll get a chance to try it on my own scanner one of these months.

You can click on the image for a slightly larger version but, as I say, it is really not of archival quality. I've smoothed and resized the original scan to get rid of various scanning artifacts, which also hides somewhat the rasters of the TV image itself that are in the original.

That was a really memorable day, with the landing on the moon in the afternoon and then a long wait into the evening to see the moon walk. I don't remember staying up past midnight to see the entire 2+ hour effort, but that first hour was simply amazing ... particularly the way they moved in the reduced gravity of the moon.

But perhaps the most amazing thing was that we had live television from the moon, even if it had to be a special "slow scan" system to fit in the available bandwidth. I had grown up with the Space Race, watching launches live on TV in elementary school, so it was easy to take a lot of this for granted. However, my grandfather had grown up before radio, and lived to see live TV from the moon. Never underestimate what the future can hold.

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History Channel ... Epic Fail

They hacked up the CBS broadcast pretty badly, putting very little of the landing coverage in the program, although the "first step" part was fantastic.

Their program "Moonshot" stinks. I'll never watch that turkey again.

In contrast, TCM's showing of "For All Mankind" (1989) is a keeper.

Sadly, they re-edit the audio/video sync of the first step so it matches the point when Neil Armstrong drops down from the ladder to the lander footpad for the SECOND time rather than when he steps off of the pad some 30 seconds later, but most of it puts a premium on real film and video with voice-over commentary - mostly from those involved in the mission.

Few "recreations". The actual astronauts getting dressed, not some actors like in "Moonshot", and certainly no fake dinner at home with the astronaut's parents.

The best part of "For All Mankind" might be the very beginning, where they play ALL of Kennedy's speech about going to the moon. I had no idea he went into such detail about the challenges that project would face.

However, the very best part is the high resolution film looking out during launches from the moon, where you can see the entire landing site (with instruments and tracks on the surface) as they pull away. Ditto for images of the Apollo 11 landing, which were much higher resolution than I have seen before.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Live from 1969

The History Channel just ran an ad announcing their schedule for Monday, 20 July.

They will run a half-hour program at 8:30 EDT (re-run about three hours later at 8:00 PDT) that is essentially a re-broadcast of the CBS News coverage I watched as a kid.

the actual CBS News/Walter Cronkite coverage of man's first lunar landing. Using minimal editing and leaving the original footage untouched viewers will feel as if they are watching the CBS coverage in July of 1969. While today we know the outcome of Apollo 11's mission it was not a given then. This will become evident watching Walter Cronkite and his colleagues as they watch the historic lunar mission unfold before them.

Afterwards, from 9 to 11, they will run the movie "Moonshot" with the film parts converted to high definition. I can't wait to see that.

Having seen other "as it happened" re-broadcasts (one was of the NBC coverage of the Kennedy assassination that I never saw in real life), this promises to be excellent.

You will also get to see how TV looked back then, and I'll get to see it in color.

(We could not afford a color TV back then. Or, to be more precise, my parents could not afford to save for our college education and have a color TV back then. They made some excellent economic choices.)

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Revisiting the Moon Landing

I've decided not to jump the gun like so many news stories, and hold off on posting my personal photo of the moon walk until roughly the anniversary of when it was taken (about quarter after 11 EDT on the night of 20 July). Today I will just reflect on the events themselves and some articles I feel are worth mentioning.

Looking back, we knew what was going to happen, in detail. Maybe in more detail than you can find in all of the Wiki articles put together, because we had been raised on the space program. We (meaning my brother and I) had read every National Geographic article about moon missions going back to the first high-resolution pictures taken by Ranger 7. And we had read everything in Popular Science, books, Life magazine, you name it.

In addition, there had already been several missions to the moon, and the dangers were clear. We had seen plenty of launch attempts fail in the early days, so we knew every launch was dangerous. We had seen quite a few early moon missions actually miss the moon, so we knew navigation was not a trivial detail. We knew the rocket on the Service Module had to work correctly several times. Once you slowed into orbit around the moon, you were stuck there unless it fired. We knew there was a very narrow window for reentry. You didn't aim for the earth, you aimed at the edge of the earth to just barely catch the atmosphere. Too little and you skipped off into oblivion, too much and you would be crushed by the g forces. And we knew that there was a lot of kinetic energy to burn off by the heat shield, because you were coming in at 25,000 miles per hour.

Worse, we knew that both the descent and, in particular, ascent engines on the LM had to work or you would be stuck on the moon - leaving one man to go home alone. And, unlike the main engine (which was used for mid-course corrections), that ascent engine was never tested. Sure, they had used one on Apollo 10 when the LM had descended to less than 10 miles above the moon, but that was a different spacecraft. You had one shot to get home.

Best of all, it was summer. We knew when it was going to happen and we could watch it all as it happened. It was like riding along with Columbus to the New World. And that is what we did, went along for the ride via television.

One news item out there that I really enjoyed was this Audio slide show from the BBC. The music is from the top songs at that time: "In the year 25-25", "Age of Aquarius", and "Something in the Air". However, the newsman narrating is wrong about just how much chance was involved in the selection of Armstrong for that flight. The only way he would have missed is if an earlier mission had failed in its objectives, and even then one suspects that the crews might have shifted so he was flying the LM with the same skill that he showed flying an X-15.

Another news item of note was this video interview with a self-styled beatnik who programmed the computers on the Apollo mission. I'll bet The Thomas will enjoy this, with its discussion of worrying about every byte of code that had to be squeezed into that box, even more than I did. No bloatware back then!

Videos and pictures:
I suppose everyone has seen the partial set of cleaned up video (BBC version here), but I'll also link in my blog from last year that includes comments about the edits of the audio-video sync (concerning Armstrong's jump down, up, and then down again) in many of the older "first step" versions out there. By the way, the picture I will post on 20 July was taken just a bit after the part shown at the 3:00 mark of the first YouTube video.

For that matter, I think the coolest photo of all isn't on the moon, it is this one of Neil Armstrong doing his best Jack Nicholson impression after returning to the LM after walking on the moon. That look of tired joy, and the twinkle in his eye, says more than his words did.

Side remark:
The one thing I would like to see that has never been on any program is a side-by-side comparison of the Saturn launch to the moon and a Space Shuttle launch. The Saturn just crawls off of the pad. Why? The shuttle has a thrust to weight-at-launch ratio of 6.8 to 4.5 (in millions of pounds) while the Apollo rocket had a ratio of 7.6 to 6.7. Apollo didn't get going until it had burned off a lot of fuel from the first stage. A friend who watched them all as a kid was stunned when he saw the first Shuttle launch. It went up like an Estes rocket, and the roll maneuver it did early in flight looked like one of those early rockets just before they blew up.

Cranks and crackpots:
I really enjoyed some of the articles about the silly people who think a friend of mine (who witnessed the launch in person) and even the Soviets (who tracked the mission and congratulated us on kicking their butts in the biggest competition of the entire Cold War) were pathological liars and/or part of a conspiracy to fake the landing. Matt laid out part of the answer to some complaints, but posted a few days before new photos (pointed out by Astroprof) showed up that allow us to see the base of the LM at the Apollo 11 landing site. Even better, the LRO photos also include a cool image of the Apollo 14 site where you can see the disturbed lunar dirt (I was going to write "earth"!) where the astronauts hiked back and forth to set up a science experiment. However, as a BBC article explains, they won't get the resolution down to 50 cm per pixel (twice what is in the images linked above and shown in Astroprof's article) until August. They will eventually orbit even lower, giving sharper images for the reasons Matt explained, but that will be some time next year.

One thing those cranks never deal with is the 3 foot jump needed to get up on the ladder to get back in the LM. If you were faking it you would have steps all the way down. No one, not even a basketball star, could do a 36" vertical jump with all of that equipment on in full gravity, but it is easy in 1/6 gravity. And why the big gap? The legs on the LM were collapsible, to take up the impact when they shut off the engine and dropped the last meter or two to the moon. The ladder could not go all the way down; it had to allow for the possible compression of the lander legs.

PS - Every news feed has their version of this info, but CBS deserves mention because their video archives helped make up for the landing videos that NASA destroyed or simply lost. I like the BBC versions because they seem to provide better bandwidth, particularly for video.

Here is today's story about Pres Obama honoring the Apollo 11 astronauts. The sidebar has a number of additional new stories related to the 40th anniversary of the landing.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Uncle Walter is Dead

What an irony, Walter Cronkite dying in the middle of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of man's first trip to the surface of the moon - because our journey into space seemed to be his personal mission.

Those of you who are too young to remember his era can't appreciate how central he was to broadcast news in the late 60s and early 70s. No one today matches his combination of reporting skill and accuracy and straight speaking. It is not an exaggeration to say that we viewed him as "Uncle Walter". I certainly did.

I remember him most for three things:

A program series "The Twentieth Century" that he hosted and narrated. (The title was a bit ambitous, since it ended in 1966 and really only covered about 1/3 of the century - the part where we had newsreel footage.) It was like The History Channel, only without the alien psychics in Bermuda triangle shorts touching a Tesla coil on an ice road. I learned a tremendous amount of history from that program.

Coverage of the entire NASA program. Because CBS was the dominant station (meaning the only one with a good signal) in town for years, they were what we watched in the elementary school gym when launches were broadcast live. He made sure he knew what was going on, and explained it to us as he understood it. That made him both the consummate reporter and a great model for teaching.

I hadn't thought of that until just now. He taught us the news. And what I just wrote is how I approach teaching: articulating what I needed to know or see to understand something.

Speaking out on the facts that argued for ending our involvement in Vietnam. With opinion so rampant on cable "news" channels today (to the point where CNN stopped doing news at all and put it all on Headline News, only to interrupt that with hours of non-factual blather so you often don't find any news there either) it may be hard for any of you to imagine the impact on the nation when an objective newsman stated that we needed to get out of Vietnam. Sadly, more than half of the troops killed in Vietnam died after that point in time.

But I will also remember him for speaking at commencement, even though no one remembers what anyone says at graduation. And I will never, NEVER, forget the way he covered the assassination of JFK and the subsequent funeral. Partly because he not only knew what to say, but when to shut up. He was willing to let the images speak for themselves, not like the idiots who talked over a person singing their heart out - literally - at the Michael Jackson funeral, or put their logos and "crawl" over part of the content they were trying to show.

Cronkite could watch the funeral or a rocket launch or the moon landing and moon walk with us, without narrating it like it was a prize fight. That will be missed most of all.

CBS Coverage of Cronkite's Death

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Commies better for Business?

The chinese economy is just rolling along (sample story), growing at +8% rather than slumping at -1% like in the US. That is despite a 20% drop in exports!

What is the difference?

Twice as much stimulus, relative to our respective GDPs.

Those crazy communists dumped 0.58 T$ into a 4.4 T$ economy. That is 13% of their GDP (IMF value).

Held back by the nay-saying Hoover wing of the Republican Party, the US has put just 0.96 T$ into our 14 T$ economy. (Made up of 168 G$ under Bush and 789 G$ under Obama.) That is just 7% of our GDP, less if you look at what we have spent.

So which system puts more national resources behind business? Clearly not ours.

There are other differences, of course. We were spending like drunken, coke snorting former Air National Guardsmen when our economy was good, so we lacked the resources to ramp up spending when the economy was bad. Perhaps more importantly, we chose to sift our stimulus money through state legislatures rather than spending it directly by the federal government like those commies do. This, along with time needed to get bids, slows down our system so much that we probably won't even spend half of it this year. So our stimulus might be only 1/5 of what China did.

The good news is that the budget deficit won't be what it is projected to be until we actually spend that money.

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New Element Named Cp

It is semi-official:

Now that the existence of element 112 has been certified, the discoverers have given their recommendation that it be named "copernicium", Cp, in honor of Nicolaus Copernicus.

Interesting choice.

This breaks a long string of names for trans-plutonium elements that reflect either the location of the discovery (Am, Bk, Cf, Db, Hs, Ds) or key people in the early history of nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry (Cm, Es, Fm, Lr, Rf, Sg, Bh, Mt, Rg). Until now, the exceptions were Md (101) and No (102).

I am stuck on the pronunciation. Will it be

1. koh-per-NEE-cee-em (similar to other names)


2. koh-PER-ni-CEE-em (to preserve some similarity to the name)


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Climate Change in Hell ... and more

Here are some great articles from The New Yorker for your entertainment.

  • Shouts and Murmurs takes a look at a symposium about Climate Change in Hell that was (allegedly) hosted by Former VP Al Gore
This is a short, fun article. It is an amusing twist on the usual physics problem concerning the temperature of Hell (as in, is Heaven hotter than Hell) and the on-going Big Science of Global Warming that manages to skewer a number of suspects. For example, why does Sony have a Portal to Hell in one of its sub-basements?

Hitting closer to home,
  • XXL, which looks at books about possible explanations for the rapid growth of obesity in the US.
Favorite factoid about consequences of changes in the past few decades: "It has been estimated that Americans’ extra bulk costs the airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of jet fuel annually." I personally thought the problem was a result of the SUV (like goldfish in a bigger bowl, people grew to the size of their vehicle), but the author seems to argue that the vehicles were needed to carry our supersized fries.

By the way, at my CC we are starting to have problems fitting students into the standard desks in our standard classrooms. Anyone else have this problem? We might have to cut class sizes just to make the aisles big enough for students to navigate their seats to their seats.

The review might be funnier than the movie. Not that I would know, since I won't bother until the DVD comes out, so to speak. It can't possibly compare to Zoolander.

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