Monday, September 26

Two Simultaneous Mistakes

Britt Blaser is a pilot, among other things. So he blogs about aviation stuff some days, and today is one of those days.

The post is about a JetBlue plane that, due to bureaucratic risk-minimization, was not able to take the most sensible course of action when a mechanical malfunction happened -- instead, it put its crew and passengers at more risk, because the people in positions of authority on the ground didn't want to make the decision that would result in them having responsibilty for whatever calamity could have (but didn't) happen during landing. Britt relates a few other related points on bureaucracy and its limitations as a mechanism for efficient collective action, but the most interesting part of the post for me was this quote:
it's rarely the initial problem that bites an aviator in the ass. It's the second problem, combined with the first, that then spins off harmonics of woe and wisps of chaos.
Even leaving aside the wonderfully poetic turn of phrase there -- harmonics of woe indeed! -- that's a beatifully true statement. Most systems are tolerant of disruption along one axis at a time; after all, when engineers build something they typically think about the common individual failure modes and account for them in the design. Natural systems exhibit the same characteristic. Because selective pressures occur individually most of the time, constellations of resilience usually take longer to evolve.

When two things go wrong at once, that's when the shit really hits the fan.

Thursday, September 22

Good Advice

It's a terrible URL, and it's a worse title, but "hugh macleod" at said some pretty cool stuff about a year ago on how to have smarter conversations. It's good advice, and an interesting piece; his point #6, "Ruthlessly avoid working for companies that think they know better than you", struck me as particularly non-obvious. That said, I understand exactly what he's talking about. It's hard to have smart conversations, to advance the state of the art, in an environment that's not centred on doing so.

What I'm not certain about is whether that situation -- your employing organization thinking it knows better than you -- is discernible from personality conflict between you and your management. Sometimes organizations do know better than you, because they have experience you don't. Sometimes that experience isn't obvious at first glance; sometimes it's baked into processes that are there to make it difficult to do the easy, but wrong, thing. Is that conflict resolvable? Should Hugh have made a distinction between companies that think they know better and don't and companies that think they know better and do? How does a peon go about determining which case they're dealing with?

John Unger's comment on the post had a Quotable Quote in it too, on the subject of bathroom graffiti: "there's a disconnect between the idea of seeking wisdom and finding it on the shithouse wall."

Tuesday, September 20

Digg proves its worth: Water is Weird

Rands introduced me to Digg last week, and it was cool enough at the time that I put their all, science, gaming, and tech feeds on my list.

Today, it proved its worth; the top link of the Science feed was 41 Anomalies of Water. I had no idea it was so weird!

read more | digg story

Monday, September 19


I'm a little late getting this on STDU, but late is better than never -- so here's a link to babylona. As her title text on the sidebar says, she's an MMO economics theoretician. Yup, that's right -- her blog consists mostly of thoughts on the intersection of obsessive gaming nerdery and theories of value creation and distribution. Right up my alley.

I haven't read more than the first few articles, but the ones I have read seem to have their heads on their shoulders, so to speak. Although the pseudo-academic tone is making me rethink my own writing style -- I think I have more in common with her than I want to, and her long sentences make my brain hurt a little. Note to self, then: shorter sentences.

Thursday, September 15

Chemical Chronicles: Answers

Jeremy has completely answered the questions to the original quiz, which saves me the trouble of going through the exercise myself. Now I'll just go down the list and fill in the few gaps he left while explaining the rationale behind each question. Where my students got the answer wrong, I'll say so; otherwise, you can assume they answered the same way as Jeremy. To be honest, I was not expecting them to do nearly as well as they did, which elates me because it makes my job a lot easier.

  1. I fully expected my two students to be able to name ten elements. The question was, which ones would they think of. It turns out they thought of the common metals fairly quickly, (copper, silver, gold, aluminum, etc.) but they struggled after number 7 or 8. After a few minutes, they remembered gases like hydrogen and oxygen. The song that Jeremy quotes is a brilliant, no doubt; I was already planning to play it for them once we cover the periodic table.
  2. This was just to see if they had any familiarity with SI prefixes. Strangely, they didn't know where "mega" fit on the scale. Neither do most non-scientifically-inclined adults I have polled, actually, which is distressing; they tend to think that a megameter is smaller than a kilometer. Weird.
  3. This was a sneaky way of finding out if they've ever heard of a neutron. Most people say, "Proton, electron... uh... " and then they proudly think of neutron after a long pause. If my students said pi-mesons or gluons or some such, then I'd know they were hobby science nerds.
  4. Most people know about sodium chloride, or at least slap their foreheads when told the answer (their own forehead, not someone else's). My goal was to reassure my students that the intimidating concepts of chemical nomenclature were not entirely foreign to them.
  5. The ion is a fairly critical concept that, if my students didn't know about entering grade 10, would make me very sad. Jeremy's answer, "a charged particle," is bang-on.
  6. This question was a sneaky way to see if my students had ever heard of the concept of specific heat capacity, one of the few things I actually remember doing in Grade 9. Most people can get this question by intuition, but the next one throws them for a loop.
  7. The few adults that I've informally quizzed have totally guessed at this. My students did the same. The correct temperature would be "close to that of water."
  8. Carbon dioxide, strangely enough, is the first thing that most people say - probably because they read about it in coverage of greenhouse gases and global warming. My students knew the correct composition of air; however, they didn't know that the third ingredient (forming almost a whole percent) is argon.
  9. There are tonnes of answers to this question: soft drinks, exhalation, combustion reactions, car exhaust. Strangely, this almost stumped my class until they said... car exhaust. Again, I'm guessing, probably because they've learned about the greenhouse effect before. After a while they said exhalation, which is a good thing because I expected them to know that from their Grade 9 biology class.
  10. I wasn't expecting my students to know about the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, but after a few minutes of brain-wracking, they remembered that the difference between the colours is wavelength. The adults I've polled (present nerds excepted) have no idea.
  11. The crystal lattice is a very important concept in semiconductor physics, but my students didn't know about it. They do now!
  12. The ol' magic static clinging balloon trick! Most children know the answer to this question; I asked it to get them thinking about electrostatic forces, which I want them to do before we start learning about the atom.
  13. One guy I polled said "the sun is a mass... of incandescent gas," which proved that he heard the They Might be Giants song "Why Does the Sun Shine." I asked this because I wanted to sneakily hint at (a) the distribution of elements in the whole universe and (b) the stellar origin of the heavier elements.
  14. I remember spending a whole lesson or two in my high school chemistry course about the states of matter. Most people know what they are anyway. If I can build off my students' inherent and intuitive knowledge of these concepts, I don't have to waste anybody's time.
  15. Bubbly ice: this is the only really tough question. I asked it to see if they knew that liquids (like water) could dissolve gases (like air) as easily as they could dissolve solids, like salt or sugar. Anyway, here's the full answer: the ice cubes in your fridge freeze from the top down. The first layer of ice seals off the water from the atmosphere. Then, as that layer thickens, dissolved gases evolve from the water little by little, forming a cloudy haze of small bubbles in your ice cubes. Restaurants have special machines that freeze the water from the inside out; basically, they consist very cold pipes immersed in water that freeze the water along their surface. This is also why your glassy-clear restaurant ice cubes often have that hole in the middle. Incidentally, you could make clear ice cubes in your refrigerator by boiling or distilling your tap water first. This would remove any dissolved gas.
  16. What is fire? Ah, the classic age-old question. All children ask this one, but how many people really know the answer? Well, Jeremy's response, "a too rapid exothermic reaction," is pretty good, but it's not the whole story. I'd put it here, but why not get the Straight Dope.
  17. This question had two goals. One was to see if my students heard of Pascal's Law. But even if they had not, the correct answer would have been, "let's try it out." A good scientific spirit involves always being ready and willing to experiment. This is a simple but intuitively perplexing experiment to perform for your friends and family. Try it!
  18. We are going to cover the definition of an alloy in the coming months; we might even get to coat a penny with brass, which is a very fun lab I remember performing in high school. I asked this question just to see if they were familiar with the concept. Sure enough, they could think of brass and steel... and whatever that nickel-zinc alloy that their American "nickels" are made of these days.
  19. "Why is the sky blue" is one of those "what is fire" questions. Everyone asks it and no one knows it. My students sort of did, but their answers were a little sketchy if essentially correct.
  20. Chemical reactions: strangely, this stumped my students, despite their having been asked "what is fire" only a few questions earlier. Upon prompting, they remembered combustion, respiration, digestion - all that good stuff, although I have to say that Jeremy's example of muscle contraction is pretty awesome. Here's another one: thinking! (I'm pretty sure a firing neuron involves some chemical change in the exchange of sodium and potassium. Am I right?)
  21. This one is a little tricky because while my students know the basic physical units for length, Mass, and Time, they had never seen the concept of "derived units." Hence their answer for speed was "kilometers per hour" and for pressure it was the Imperial "pounds per square inch." Most adults have no clue on these either, completely confusing power and energy, voltage and current, force and pressure, etc. It's not their fault, but it depresses me that the knowledge isn't as common as it should be.
  22. My students got this correctly, actually, though they probably guessed luckily. It turns out that salt melts before gold, which surprises a lot of scientists (who are probably thinking, hey, isn't that ionic bond supposed to be strong?) Sure enough, its melting point is still pretty high, just not that high.
  23. The mechanism behind the way a hot air balloon works isn't too complicated. I mean, my students could probably explain why air bubbles rise in water - it's the same principle, which Jeremy well and succintly describes. But they got it wrong, thinking that either it was some kind of action-reaction effect of hot air rushing out of the balloon (which would fry the occupants of the basket, but forget that) or something related to "thermals" rising inside the balloon "pushing" it up the way an eagle soars. It was interesting to see their misconceptions.
  24. A simple unit conversion problem. Everyone uses pounds (of gravitational force at the Earth's surface) for their body weight, and by Grade 10 I had hoped that they knew the conversion factor... but they didn't.
  25. Lemon juice, vinegar, the inside of a battery, ... stomach acids, etc., are all good answers to this question. They slapped their foreheards when I told them.
  26. How many molecules in a raindrop? It was interesting to see their guesses. One student said three million. The other student said 10,987,6534,321 molecules, just to be cute. Interestingly, he was stilloff by about eleven orders of magnitude. If a raindrop is on the order of 1 mL, which is about 1 mg of water, and the molar mass of water is 18 grams, then the real answer is closer to 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules. The reason I put this question on the quiz is because a local three-year old came up to me one day and asked it, out of the blue. I was very happy to be able to answer him.
  27. This is a personal question that surreptiously, by covert power of suggestion, was meant to convince my students that science is interesting. Their answers? The human body, said one. Dissection, said the other.

Tuesday, September 13

Chemical Chronicles: The Quiz

As an experiment, I'm tutoring a high school chemistry course. Since I had no idea what kind of science background my two students have, I decided to survey their knowledge with this very basic quiz. In a future post, I'll explain the rationale behind each question. I would expect most readers of this blog to answer most of them without any trouble, but there are a few curveballs along the way.

1. Name ten elements besides the following three examples: carbon, aluminum, oxygen.

2. Arrange in order from smallest (1) to largest (6):

millimiter ___
nanometer ___

kilometer ___

centimeter ___

megameter ___

micrometer ___

Name three particles smaller than an atom.

4. What is the chemical name of table salt?

5. What is an ion?

6. If I add 1 kilogram of hot water (at 90 ºC) to 1 kilogram of cold water (at 10 ºC) and stir it all together, what is the new temperature?

7. Now if I add 1 kilogram of metal (say, copper) at 90 ºC to 1 kilogram of water at 10 ºC, what will the new temperature approximately be?

8. What is the composition of air?

9. Name a place where you might find carbon dioxide (besides air, which is really only 0.03% carbon dioxide anyway)

10. What is the physical difference between red light and blue light?

11. What is a crystal?

12. When you rub a balloon against your hair for a few seconds, it will stick to the wall. Why?

13. What is the sun made of?

14. What are the states of matter?

15. When you go out to a restaurant, the ice cubes you get in your drink are see-through and glass-like, but the ice cubes you make in your freezer are hazy and dull. Why?

16. What is fire?

17. I balance two almost-full cups of water on a ruler over a pencil as shown (side view), making a crude set of scales:

[-picture removed for copyright purposes-]

[-just kidding - I'll get it to work later, but you can probably figure it out-]

If I insert my finger into one glass of water without touching the sides, what will happen?

18. Give three examples of an alloy.

19. Why is the sky blue?

20. Give three examples of a common chemical reaction.

21. What are the standard scientific units for the following physical properties?

Length ___
Mass ___

Time ___
Speed ___

Force ___

Pressure ___

Energy ___

Power ___

Electric Current ___

22. Arrange in order of melting point, from lowest to highest: wax, ice, tungsten, table salt, gold, plastic

23. How does a hot air balloon work?

24. What do you weigh? Now, what is your mass?

25. Name something that you would find in your household that is an acid.

26. About how many molecules are in a raindrop?

27. What is the most interesting thing you learned in last year’s science class?

Jaron Lanier, eat your heart out!

Virtual reality is here. And it doesn't need immersive goggles or flying lobsters or digital gloves or any of that stuff: it needs gamepads, broadband-based cooperative terrorist-base infiltration, and headsets that ingame characters can hear.

Mac Hall knows exactly what I mean.

Wednesday, September 7

Penny Arcade tackles the pernicious problem of mental illness

Chances are that if you're reading this blog, you already read PA. On the off chance you don't, check this one out. It almost feels more like For Better Or For Worse rather than PA... based on the creators' lives, tackling a real problem in a (slightly) humourous way. (Obvious differences include the much-superior art and the anthropomorphized, obscene fruit jucier.)

I wonder if it's a realistic take on anxiety.

Tuesday, September 6

The Inevitable Panopticon

Paul Graham: Log Everything you can break the wealth->power link, thereby allowing you to reduce economic inequality without becoming a police state.

Charlie Stross: Log Everything and you become a police state.

Fraxas: Time to invest in easy, strong encryption, steganography, and a culture of plausible deniability.

Thursday, September 1

Bolshy horrorshow, droogs. Bolshy horrorshow.

JWZ give sa good round-up of the Katrina metacoverage in an article called the ongoing horror show.

My nomination for best worst best quote ever:
Coming up next: cholera!

Charlie Stross, in 1996, on DejaNews (now Google Groups)

A long time ago, Charlie Stross wrote a Rant against dejanews. It's here.

His thesis is this: universally accessible archives of usenet writing is morally equivalent to universal surveillance, and destroys not just privacy but also deniability -- Anyone can go back through the archives and find out everything you've ever said.

Which has been true for as long as I've been on the 'net.

Interestingly enough, this hasn't stifled discourse at all; instead, it's presented some evolutionary pressures: pseudonymity is now much more widely accepted, and deniability is built into most of what we write online. Usenet is less populated now that it was, and even its successor -- the web forum -- is hearing the baying of the hounds. Additionally, the very culture of the 'net operates to extinguish debate, which creates structural/cultural barriers to participation that make everyone think twice about the validity of what they're about to post.

On Online Debate

Charlie Stross speaks on the nature of online discourse:

It is there, as an arm or an agent of the mean lean peeve machine, that you will find fulfillment and bliss, your true purpose in life: as a mindless component of a destructive dialogue generator that engages in blistering and merciless repression of all dissident opinions.
--Charlie Stross,
A 1996 counter-rant on the suppression of dissent on Usenet

Edit: Atlas followed this post up over IM, and the following conversation occurred:

Atlas: I stay off forums
Fraxas: unwilling to be drawn into the howling maelstrom?
Atlas: Yes.
Fraxas: I consider myself a net contributor.
Atlas: I believe that to be true of you
Fraxas: I keep most of my bad mood to IMs between you and me and Dan and me.
Atlas: That is very contained
Atlas: Like a little jar of rage
Fraxas: I prefer to think of it as a magnetic-flux container for high-energy plasma.
Fraxas: burning hot, extremely unstable, requires huge amounts of energy to maintain, deadly in medium proximity, controllable by modulated EM.
Fraxas: hold on wait that's coffee breath