Remember to Drink Your Ovaltine

They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside

It was actually an accident that brought to light the symbolic “sight-restoring” ritual. The decoding effort started as a sort of game between two friends that eventually engulfed a team of experts in disciplines ranging from machine translation to intellectual history. Its significance goes far beyond the contents of a single cipher. Hidden within coded manuscripts like these is a secret history of how esoteric, often radical notions of science, politics, and religion spread underground. At least that’s what experts believe. The only way to know for sure is to break the codes.

Say It Loud, Too, So I Understand

Slow Down! Why Some Languages Sound So Fast

[S]ome languages seem to zip by faster than others. Spanish blows the doors off French; Japanese leaves German in the dust — or at least that’s how they sound.

But how could that be? The dialogue in movies translated from English to Spanish doesn’t whiz by in half the original time, after all, which is what it would have to do if the same lines were being spoken at doubletime.

Vietnamese was used as a reference language for the other seven, with its syllables (which are considered by linguists to be very information dense) given an arbitrary value of 1.

For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second — and the slower the speech thus was.

And the Winner is… The Turboencabulator

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Several years ago, Rockwell International decided to get into the heavy duty transmission business. We were getting ready to tape our first introduction video, as a warm up, the professional narrator began what has become a legend within the trucking industry. This man should have won an academy for his stellar performance. Now remember this is strictly off the cuff, nothing is written down, this became the biggest talk in the industry, vs our new product which we were introducing. I think you will enjoy this once in a lifetime performance from this gentleman.

That there’s some awesome word salad, with a creamy low-calorie cryptojargon sauce. The Wikipedia writeup has a reasonable approximation of the transcript.

Update: more fun at

Pet Peeve of the Day

The wave of pedantry continues.

How is it possible to have two midterms in one class? This bugged me when physics professors for whom I was TA-ing would do it, and I’ve seen a couple of references more recently. A MIDTERM happens in or near the MIDdle of the TERM. It’s right there in the word. As the so-called immortals of Highlander would say, “There can be only one!” If it doesn’t happen then, it’s just a regular ol’ EXAM or a TEST. At least having more than one final exam hasn’t caught on yet, as far as I’m aware.

In Defense of Physics Pedantry

In yesterday’s Get a Grip, Drew asks a reasonable question in response to my pedantry about the use of terminology:

So when is the word ‘suck’ used appropriately (trying not to sound dirty, here)? Can’t there be a colloquial usage if we know what it actually means?

Used appropriately? Probably never, or rarely. And I have to admit, I can’t think of a situation (on short notice) where this conceptual mistake would cause a problem. We scientists can be rather anal meticulous about terminology, and there is a reason for it. Sloppy terminology might lead one to construct a flawed model of how things actually work, much like when one uses an analogy — there are always circumstances under which the explanation fails to hold. By using the proper terminology, the model is better and there are fewer circumstances under which it will fail.


This is not the only example of the sloppy language phenomenon. Others include heat and deceleration. Heat is probably the worst, and in no small part because physicists are sloppy in using it. To begin with, we present it in two different ways: as a process, by which energy is transferred because of a temperature difference, and also as the energy itself that is transferred. A problem arises when we use the two interchangeably. We then talk of heat flow or heat transfer, which is awkward if we are referring to a process. Beyond that, this reinforces the notion that heat (or, in general, energy) is a substance, as if you could have a little pile of heat somewhere, and heat transfer then invokes the image of pouring this substance from one container to another. The huge drawback here is that the misconception sidesteps thinking about the physical processes of conduction, convection and radiation. Heat (like work) isn’t something in a container, but we reinforce this error by using the term “heat capacity,” which tends to encourage this idea. All of this without even getting into the commonly-held misconception that infrared light and heat are the same thing.


Deceleration is an unnecessary term in physics, because acceleration is a vector, which just makes it a special case where the acceleration and velocity are in opposite directions. But some students have a hard time with the concept of vectors, and decoupling the terminology probably isn’t helpful, especially when you get into circular motion, where there’s an acceleration that doesn’t change the speed at all.


As I said at the outset, I can’t think of the pathway where using “suck” leads one onto the moors of misconception and into the bog of bafflement (not to mention possibly going over the cliffs of insanity), but I’m sure there is one. Because if there is one thing I learned while teaching, it’s not to underestimate the ways in which students will misunderstand concepts.

(edit: I don’t mean this last remark in a bad way — it’s not meant to disparage students. The issue is that if a teacher erroneously assume s/he understands what a student’s misconception is, the misdiagnosis is going to make it harder to fix the problem.)

The Most Serious Crisis of Our Time

Cap’n Refsmmat’s Blog of Doom: Breaking News

The National Hyperbole Reserve, first established during the Cold War to ensure that the President’s speechwriters could perform their duties under any circumstances, is now nearly depleted; the National Academy of Sciences estimates only several years’ worth of hyperbole are left, and most of the supply is in the hands of Fox News.

Hyperbole supplies are essential for many organizations, such as news media, political think-tanks, and Congressional debates. Many political experts suggest that governments around the world may collapse without a new source of hyperbole being found.