Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where did I put that spectroscope...

An article in the NY times today, by George Johnson, quotes Martin Rees about what scientists can do as thy grow old: Become an administrator; content yourself with doing science that will probably be mediocre; or strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory, and quickly get in over your head. Rees says that “in contrast to composers, there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.”

Um ... why? Could there be something wrong with the way science is conducted, that prevents old and wise scientists from making wise contributions to their beloved fields? Science moves fast enough, perhaps, that the techniques of a particular field, even its terminology and paradigms, will be unfamiliar to the elderly, making it hard for them to apply their wisdom to anything that is current. In contrast, the classical composer, throughout his life, develops his own technique and builds upon it, at his own pace.

But I'm not persuaded by this argument. In the last twenty years there have been breakthroughs in fields that had stagnated for many years. Often, these breakthroughs required someone to examine what had been taken for granted, to apply thoughtful ideas from other disciplines, or to find a new way to do experiments. It ought to be possible for some of these breakthroughs to come from older scientists who have had a long time to think about their field. So I ask again:

Has the world managed to structure scientific investigation in such a way as to prevent elderly, deep scientific thinkers from making thoughtful contributions?

I will blog just a few times in the next few weeks. See you all, regularly, in mid-november!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

So ... What's with the Yankees?

I followed the Joe Torre story with great relish. He's gone now, but the Yankee baseball team promises to be a melodramatic tear-jerker for years to come. I'm an ex-Yankee-hater. I got used to the Yankees during the few years that the Mets baseball team was actually repellent, and I sometimes even root for the Yanks. Now I just want to see what will happen.

All my career in software development, I've been fascinated by how hard it is to MANAGE anything. The Yanks will give me a treat in studying management problems. Every bit of the saga will be played out in my favorite daily papers. Oh, the humanity!

The bottom line is that the Yankees have to have a year or two of "rebuilding." I'm amazed that the sports columnists haven't focused on the rebuilding issue. The Yanks are losing free agents and aging stars. They have some great young talent, but not enough, and their young players are YOUNG. Any sane management would realize this and give the new talent time to develop. It's SO unlikely that the Yanks will do that!

The Yanks are controlled in an unusual way. It's quite normal to have an ownership that is not skilled in baseball. The owners give the GM, the general manager, a budget to work with. The GM, an experienced baseball person with some ability to control an organization, makes the personnel decisions, and leaves player development to the field manager. The Yanks used to be controlled by one highly competitive, rich martinet owner. Right now, that aging martinet wants decisions to be made with both his sons -- who know little of baseball -- in agreement. They could leave the GM, Brian Cashman, in charge, but they won't. And they obviously feel that their feeble Yanks are almost as good as the powerhouse Red Sox.

So we have a recipe for disaster here. Will they luck out? Will they come to appreciate how lucky they were to have Joe Torre run the club in past seasons?

Oh I almost forgot to mention, they have to hire a new manager, and they may in fact hire a Newbie Manager. Suppose the team does badly next year and the owners decide it's the manager's fault. They probably won't fire him, but neither will they realize -- still -- that the team isn't that good, and has to rebuild.

While writing this item, I corrected a misspelling, but in the future I may continue to use it. The team we're talking about here is: The Ynaks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Library of all Possible Books:

Jose Luis Borges wrote a story about the Library of all Possible Books, and this concept has fascinated many authors. When young, I read an essay about this library that intended to help me better understand large numbers and infinities. Imagine a library that contains every possible book. (Don't think about the niceties of placing a limit on the size of these books, to make this an exercise in finite numbers; it'll make your head spin.) You can imagine that somewhere in this library there is an index to all the books in it. But if you think you've found that book - maybe you've actually found a book that is an index to all the books in the library except for one tiny mistake, or ten big mistakes; or maybe it just LOOKS like an index to this library, but every book it names doesn't exist. (Is that possible?)

When I was young, the "library of all possible books" was an interesting, if impractical meme. But today: we have the internet! As the internet's collection of web pages grows, it resembles, more and more, and with all its warts, the Library of all Possible Books.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When to hog a handicapped parking space:

Our car has a handicapped parking sticker right now. Some friends say that a handicapped parking sticker is merely the entrance fee to a parking game: whether my wife's in the car or not, how good a parking space can I get?

Frankly, I'm slightly more ethical than that. Really! When I enter a parking lot without my wife, I think hard about whether to preempt a handicapped space. Here's the truly moral and ethical issue: Suppose there are hardly any regular spaces left, but plenty of handicapped ones? Then the kindly thing to do is to grab one of those handicapped spaces, to make it a bit easier for "normal" people - some of whom have trouble walking, by the way - to get better regular spaces. Okay? I hope you understand now.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where are the hot guys?

I visit my new health club at many different times of the day and week. I can't help noticing that there are always women there -- of all ages -- who have excellent physiques. Some of these women might be sculpting their bodies to attract men, others are probably just working to get better at the sports or outdoor activities that they like.

But where are the corresponding guys?
I often see a few handsome men, especially after work hours. But it's not the same thing. Without question, young and early middle-aged women have a much greater desire to improve themselves at this club than the corresponding guys.

I've thought of two reasons for this dichotomy, and I suspect they are both true:
  • There are no sports at our club. The guys who play racquetball, tennis, basketball, etc., go elsewhere.
  • It's a culture thing. In our sick society, it's much more important for women to work on their figures.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Which law would you rather break?

Late one night, I was waiting for the light to turn green so that I could turn onto US Route One. A sports car came down the highway and hot-pinked the light. He was doing at least 85 on a 55 mph road. Had he driven any slower, he would have run the red light as well.

Now that set me thinking: maybe he SHOULD have dropped his speed to 55 and just gone right through the red light. Late at night there's little traffic, and he would have hit the light at the beginning of the cycle. My car would hardly be in motion, I could see him and brake for him. Now please think about this:

Q.: Would you rather blow though an intersection, 30 mph over the speed limit, or just run a red light without speeding?

When you look at it that way, the answer to this question is obvious:

A.: I won't get a ticket, will I?

Well you could get a ticket. And surely you'd be in A LOT MORE TROUBLE for speeding 30 mph over the limit! But we all know human nature, don't we? Nobody's going to slow down so that they can run a red light without speeding, for gosh sakes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Picky, picky, picky:

I've listened to many different podcasts, and I've learned from them that podcasters are different from most humans. They worry about the tiniest audio problems. They apologize for sounds we cannot hear. They fret about inaudible refrigerator noise. They rejoice in equipment changes that – so they tell us – have improved their audio quality. Exposure to all these worriers helped to convince me not to try to podcast, for the simple reason that I was, obviously, not one of them.

But there's been a change. I'm trying to learn how to make an audio recording of my novel, which I plan to post on the web for free downloads. I got the (FREE!) program Audacity, which makes editing audio fun. I recorded a few simple tracks, loaded them into the editor, and listened to them. At once I was apologizing to myself for nearly inaudible noise sounds, worrying about how to remove every possible sound blemish, and in fact, I think that in less than a minute, I became one of THEM.

You know that old saying that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well if you can edit audio, every sound looks like a work in progress.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Toy Store Nostalgia:

I love to go to toy stores, and, with young grandchildren, I have an excellent excuse these days. But why the nostalgia? Hardly anything that I associate with toy stores can still be found in them. Sixty years of imagination, and the evolution of plastics and computers, have utterly changed the landscape.

One of my last landmarks is rapidly disappearing. I used to find the Monopoly game in every toy and game store. Today we find Monopoly variants: New York City Monopoly, Louisiana State LSUopoly, Bible-opoly, Dino-opoly, Texas Hold-em monopoly, Popeye Monopoly, Al Qaeda Terrorist Monopoly, NSA Surveillance Monopoly, Chinese Poisonous Imports Monopoly, Cable TV Monopoly, Bermuda Triangle Monopoly, Hollywood Oscars Monopoly, Drug Rehab Monopoly, Hedge Fund Monopoly, Subprime Lending Monopoly . . .

I'm not upset to find all these variants. I congratulate the various game companies that have owned Monopoly rights over the years, for resisting this temptation for so long.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Windbelt:

Last year I blogged about how wind turbine farms -- an excellent sourvce of electricity in some places -- are incredibly ugly, even though wind turbines seem to be photogenic. If you've seen photos of them, but haven't seen them in the wild, you may wonder why anybody wants NOT to have them in his backyard.

Well here is a remarkable invention. Go here and play the short video. Then click on the inventor's name: Shawn Frayne to learn more. His invention is a belt that is suspended to allow wind, or even a gentle breeze, to make it vibrate. Magnets at one end of the belt turn this vibration into electricty. The belt is the only moving part, making the windbelt cheap and probably reliable. It can be scaled up to a large size, although the windbelt vibrations may pose interesting maintenance challenges for a really large belt. But in small scale, it seems like a very easy source of low-power electricity. In the video, Shawn explains the windbelt's advantages over wind turbines.I think we are going to see a lot more of this invention.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The bottomless bowl of cookie names:

Brian Wansink recently received an Ignobel prize for his Bottomless Bowl of Soup experiment. A good-natured scientist, he picked up his ignobel in person, even though I'm sure he feels, as I do, that he was getting the reward for brilliant experiment that demonstrated something truly useful. Wansink's research often illuminates how people decide when to stop eating, and this Ignobel story reminded me of when I was 18 years old and a camp counselor for the first time.

Before bedtime, a counselor from each bunk (my campers were 8 years old) picked up the milk and cookie snack that ended each day. We wanted our kids to eat this snack before bedtime (what did we know? It was 1959). An ongoing concern was the cookies: flat, blah sugar cookies without the slightest interesting variation. I made up names for the cookies each night: sasquatch cookies, umga blamga cookies, sugar-tower-armadillo cookies, whatever. The kids were always eager to hear what I would call them, and my co-counselor and I thought the names made the snacks go down better. (Wansink has done other research into how naming food can make it more or less desirable.)

In mid-summer, my parents visited me on my weekly day off. They brought me a Gugelhupf from our favorite Manhattan babka bakery. I ate some of it, and, at day's end, brought the rest back to share with the kids. As I held out the cake to them, they asked, "What's it called?" I think you can tell yourselves the end of this story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

If I Did it:

Have you read Justice Clarence Thomas's new book, If I were biased?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Freeze Frames from Video:

I am pretty sure that people rarely step through video to select individual frames to post on the internet. There are exceptions, especially with regard to evidence of crimes and women without underwear. But here's what I know: When you record a human being in motion, at thirty frames per second, you capture hilarious in-between expressions and postures that you'd never notice while watching them in motion. Some people are "worse" at this than others. When I worked on video capture, I watched many talking heads. Some of their faces remained quiet and placid while they talked; others flitted through hilarious momentary expressions that you could only see by looking at individual frames. Based on my experience, I have to wonder why such expressions are not showing up all over the internet. But I think I know why:

Good hi-res still shots always set the standard, at any time, for quality images on the internet. Still-frames are generally much clearer than motion frames. In fact, most people record their video in compressed formats. If you step through compressed formats of people in motion, you'll often see little detail, blurred images that trick your eye into seeing smooth motion. But these frames are no where as clear as posed still shots. Some day the quality of motion frames will dramatically improve, and then you'll all get to see these hilarious expressions. I doubt we'll have to wait more than ten years, so let's hope for the best!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Nec-tar-ine: (1,111)

Hey, this is my 1,111th post to Precision Blogging. How about that?

I was thinking: an awful lot of fruits have one or two syllable names in English. Apparently we like fruit names to be as simple as their operating instructions. 'Nectarine' is a notable exception. I suspected that this word was a 20th Century invention, but a quick web search will show you that the word is at least 400 years old.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Driving with a Red Inspection Sticker:

New Jersey used to send us a reminder, whenever we had to get our car inspected. Now there's an honor system, backed by a nasty ticket if a policeman catches you. We're supposed to READ our sticker to figure out when we need the next inspection.

One day my wife pointed out to me that I should have gotten the car inspected seven months ago. Life was very busy, so a few weeks passed. Each time I had to drive my car, I consciously chose roads that were unlikely to have police cars along the way. I felt like a nervy miscreant. Eventually I got my car inspected. It had a hideous problem that actually occurred the moment I handed the car over for inspection - the brakes failed. My car was now undrivable. They slapped a red sticker on the car and gave me 48 hours to repair it and return for reinspection. I had to get the car towed to the repair shop of my choice.

Two days later I drove my repaired car back to the inspection station. I drove proudly, head held high, not the least bit afraid of being stopped by a police car. After all, I no longer had an expired inspection sticker. I had a legal, RED, FAILED, sticker.