Friday, October 30, 2009

Quote of the Day III...

This time from Escort81, posting at TigerHawk, and talking about the latest failure of talks with Tehran to accomplish anything at all:
This is turning into a high-stakes real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day, except I don't think anyone gets to sleep with Andie MacDowell at the end.

Then there's the old joke, "Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer like that?"

"Because it feels so good when I stop."

The difference being, I am not sure talks ever stop, even (or especially) after Iran tests its first nuclear weapon.

Sober up, “diplomats”, will ya?

Quote of the Day II...

From Neo-Neocon, while she was pondering the way European officials have begun to be critical of Obama:
One can almost smell the whiff of fear across the Atlantic at the dawning realization that Obama is exactly what the despised Right said he was: an empty suit, whose flowery and uplifting rhetoric consisted of mere empty words to match it. Europeans are finding that, although they chafed at the previous leadership (much as children do towards firm parents), now that they are leaderless they’re feeling more than a bit nostalgic for those olden days (Dad wasn’t so bad after all, now that he’s gone and you’re on your own).

A rudderless free world might not remain free for very long.

Stopped Clock...

This morning I noticed that the clock in our laundry room (at right) had stopped.  The second hand was wiggling once per second as the clock tried to advance, but failed.  Clearly the battery needs to be changed.

But this brought to mind a question I asked myself some years ago, and figured out: Why do most battery-powered clocks seem to stop at a particular time (generally either around  8:45:45 or 7:45:45)?

The answer lies in the unbalanced hands, especially the second hand and the minute hand.  By “unbalanced” I mean that if those hands were free to rotate they'd rotate so that the heaviest portion was pointing straight down.  Some clocks are made with balanced hands (this was particularly common on old-fashioned wind-up or weight-driven clocks) – either by making the short side of the hand wider, or by putting added weight on the short side.

When the hand is unbalanced, as in our laundry room clock, the tiny electric motor in the clock has to work harder while the hands are on the left side of the clock than it does when they're on the right – it's fighting gravity in one case, and gravity is helping in the other.  This effect is most pronounced for the second hand, which takes about 60 times as much force to move as does the minute hand.  The hour hand takes about 60 times less than the minute hand, or 3600 times less than the second hand.

The force required to move the second hand is at it's absolute highest when it's pointing directly to the left.  When it's pointing in this direction, the force of gravity has the most leverage with respect to the shaft that the motor must turn. the battery gradually discharges, the motor can produce less and less force.  As the second hand sweeps around the clock from the 12 o'clock position, at first little force is required (because gravity is helping).  As it passes the 6 o'clock position, more and more force is required (because the motor is lifting the hand and gravity is making it harder).  So as the battery discharges, the force required to move the hand is most likely to exceed what the motor can provide when the second hand moves to the 9 o'clock position.

Mathematically, the additional force required to move an unbalanced clock hand imposed by gravity can be described as:
-k sin(θ)
where k is determined by the degree to which the hand is out-of-balance, and θ is the angle of the hand (where 0 is the 12 o'clock position).  At 45 seconds after the minute, the second hand is at 270°.  One second before that, it's at 264°.  The sines for those angles are -1 and -0.99452, so there's about a half-percent more force required to move the second hand between the 45th and 46th second than between the 44th and 45th – and that little bit of extra force is why cheap battery-powered clocks stop at around the same time...

On thinking about this from an engineering perspective, it occurred to me that there are two very simple ways to extend the battery life of these clocks:
  1. Balance the hands.
  2. Remove the second hand.
Of course, the batteries last for years any way, so it probably makes no practical difference...

Over Thirty Congresscritters are Under Investigation for Ethics Breaches...

Every one of them belongs to a single party: the Democrats.

We only know about this because the Washington Post obtained an internal committee document accidentally exposed on a file-sharing system.

Pelosi is leading Congress out of the swamp, all right.  Leading us to someplace even worse, that is...

Why Do People Seem to Hate Math and Science So Much?

Interesting comment by “grumblebee” on an interesting MetaFilter thread:
I don't think the main cause has anything to do with Math or Science per se. Someone upthread said that there's a profound anti-intellectual trend in America. I agree, but I think it specifically takes the form of A DISDAIN FOR PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS IN ACADEMIC SUBJECTS. This is just as true when it comes to Shakespeare as when it comes to Math.

The life-goal in America seems to be to get a well-paying job in which you don't need to think very much. I doubt this is a conscious goal, and it sounds so insulting that I doubt most people would admit to pursuing it. But in my experience, it is what people pursue -- and our education system trains people for it.

I became very aware of this when I started teaching computer classes. I was teaching applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Most of my students were upper-middle-class, educated, "smart" people. The majority were middle-aged.

Over and over, I heard people say, "I can't do this stuff. I'm just not a computer person." Now to some extent, this is true. These people were born before the Internet and the PC revolution, and their fear of the technology WAS a stumbling block. But the bigger stumbling block seemed to be that these folks couldn't handle basic problem solving.

The apps I taught mostly didn't hold your hand. For instance, if you want to make a photo look a certain way in Photoshop, there generally isn't a button to press. You have to think through the various tools and figure out how to combine them to create the look you want. That said, it's far from rocket science. I found that the moment I stopped giving people a formula that they could learn by rote, their brains turned off. It soon became clear to me that the problem wasn't new technology; the problem was that I was expecting people to use their brains in a way that no one else expected of them.

I started thinking about what these people did all day at their jobs. Gently, I asked some of them about what they did in their jobs. Many of them hand distinguished careers. How could they perform well at work without problem-solving skills? Answer: they don't need problem-solving skills.

It's not always obvious that these people don't solve problems (or puzzles), because many of these people are experts -- meaning that their brains are crammed with obscure facts. Our schools do very well at training people to learn facts*. At least when I went to school, memorization was pushed as a major intellectual virtue. We memorized the multiplication tables; we memorized the periodic tables; we memorized speeches form Shakespeare... Cultural literacy was pushed, too, though not as hard as memorization. No one was expected to really get into Shakespeare, but you were expected to know who he was and to have read one or two of his plays.

(*true, in America shocking number of people can't tell you the name of their congressman or the capital of North Carolina. But these people DO know the facts needed to get their specific jobs done.)

Pop-culture values reinforce fact-based intellectualism. A couple of years ago, if you'd asked people who was the smartest man in America, many would have said "the guy who won all that money on 'Jeopardy.'" (When I was a kid, there were many game shows on that actually required some problem-solving skills. These are almost non-existent. The shows are all about trivia now.) A "smart person" on a drama or sitcom is usually a guy who knows a huge number of facts.

I grew up around (humanities) academics, supposedly the ultimate smart-set. In my experience, they were coasting on memorized facts just as much as people in the corporate world. A professor would read every major German novel written in the 19th Century and all the critical writing about 19th-century German literature. Then he would spend his career passing on facts to his students. His "intellectual" work mostly involved keeping up with academic journals (learning new facts).

(From what I can tell, most G.P. doctors and most lawyers don't have to do much problem solving either. I do know that my doctor seems to be able to make a good living by doing the same formulaic tests over and over.)

Let me be clear that I'm not anti fact or memorization. Facts and rote learning are important. Facts are the building blocks you need. The are the tools you use when you problem solve. Problem solving is the next step. But it's a next step that most people don't take and don't need to take.

I don't think it's laziness. One can get by in our culture without problem-solving, so why bother with it? By get by, I mean that one can make a good living, have a big house, kids, etc. without having to solve intellectual problems.

And -- most important -- one can be a "smart person" (as our culture defines it) without solving problems. Most people want to be smart. They want to be seen as smart by others. Our culture sends a really strong message to them, which is "memorize a lot of facts and you'll be smart." My guess is most people think they ARE doing rigorous problem solving when they see something that needs to be done and have to search through their mental database to find the right fact or the right formula. I guess this IS a kind of problem solving, but it's the easiest kind. It's similar to solving a problem by searching on google until you find the answer.

When I was a kid, there was almost no problem solving in school. How often did the teacher just present us with a puzzle and say, "Here are some tools. Solve the puzzle!"? Almost never. One would think that MOST of education should be about solving puzzles, but in my experience, almost none of it is.

The exceptions (to a point) were Math and Science. But unless you're going into specific fields, you can quit taking Math and Science pretty early on in life. The other courses are easier and it's pretty clear you won't need Math and Science to get by in life. So why waste your time on it?

Meanwhile, the few people who stay in problem-solving fields move further and further from the intellectual norm: I program computers for a living. Which means I solve puzzles eight hours a day. I constantly have to create something from nothing, and I constantly have to learn new skills. Sometimes, I am so mentally exhausted that I can't do my job.

It was when I started discussing this with friends that I realized how different my career was from most of theirs. Sure, they often are exhausted at work. But they CAN get their work done. They say things like, "I was SO sick of filing today" or "Uh. If I have to grade ONE more paper!" But they don't say, "My brain just shut down and I was unable to figure out..."

I know this sounds snobbish. But I am not trying to diss other people or their jobs. My doctor may not do much problem solving, but I am grateful for his help. I am just saying that most jobs involve little or no problem solving. Mathematicians are from Mars.

I have been talking mostly about corporate and academic jobs. In reality, I think there's a lot of problem solving going on in America. It's just outside of the intellectual world. And it follows a long tradition. In America, our main problem solvers are farmers, football players, carpenters, etc. People who build things and who play games MUST solve problems or they fail. It's really weird, because most such people can't talk the intellectual talk. They don't know Shakespeare from Euler. So we don't consider them smart, and they aren't smart in the limited way we tend to define the world.

Meanwhile, the "intellectuals" are barely using their intellects.

I think there's a lot of truth in there.  Unfortunately...

The Sizes of Little Things...

Very nice interactive graphic (slide the little bar under the picture) from the University of Utah...

The Jewish Service Heard Round the World...

Sixty four years ago, the first Jewish service was broadcast from Germany since Hitler's ascent.  I first came across this event (which happened before I was born) referred to in one of Stephen Ambrose's books.  Since then I've read about it elsewhere as well.  All sources agree: at the time it was a famous, widely-known event that moved a great many people.  Sixty-four years later, very few people seem to know it ever happened.  There's relatively little material about it on the Internet, even.

To place this in just a bit of context: this service took place less than a week after the bitter, bloody Battle of Aachen.  Watch the video:

One-Tier Health Care in Action...

Saskatchewan, Canada has North America's showplace “public option” health care system.  It's the system that both Pelosi and Reid have repeatedly offered up as the model for their bills. 

Today I read this little piece (by a frustrated Canadian) about one effect of Saskatchewan's health care system: the delivery of the flu vaccine.  A little googling brought much more detail.

It seems that the politicians and bureaucrats that run Saskatchewan's health care system have chosen “fairness” as their ultimate measure of success (not health, recovery, wellness, survival, or anything pedestrian like that).  So for the flu vaccine, they've decided that fairness can only be achieved by having everyone receive the vaccine at the same time.  What is explicitly not allowed is having doctors or pharmacies delivering vaccinations, as that would be unfair – some people would be vaccinated before others, simply because they chose (gasp!) a different doctor or pharmacy.  Can't have that!

So, for example, in the city of Saskatoon, if you want the flu vaccine you'll have to join the crowd at Prairieland Park.  In that crowd will be those who are already infected, those who are infectious, and those who are about to be infected.  But it will be fair!

Quote of the Day...

Our congresscritters, apparently not having enough to do, pass hundreds of “ceremonial statements” every year.  Each of these requires a vote, and usually it's an automatic “yes” vote for these essentially meaningless exercises.  Presumably the congresscritters believe it gathers votes for them, else I'm sure they wouldn't bother either.

On the 28th (this past Wednesday), Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona's 6th district voted “No” on a ceremonial statement honoring the 2560th birthday of Confucius.  If I were in his shoes, my no vote would be explained by something like “I will not waste my time on such utter trivialities when there are lots of things I should be doing for my constituents!”.  Congressman Flake explained his vote this way, in our quote of the day:
“He who spends time passing trivial legislation may find himself out of time to read healthcare bill.”