Archive for February, 2009

Don't Do This to Your Kid

‘Most unfortunate names’ revealed

Justin Case, Barb Dwyer and Stan Still.
It sounds like a bad joke, but a study has revealed that there really are unfortunate people with those names in the UK.
Joining them on the list are Terry Bull, Paige Turner, Mary Christmas and Anna Sasin.
And just imagine having to introduce yourself to a crowd as Doug Hole or Hazel Nutt.

I knew someone whose girlfriend had a gynecologist named Harry Beavers. Is it a case of destiny? Perhaps. There’s a blog called Appropriately Named that has more.

Blink and You'll Miss It

Magnetic self-assembly in slow motion

90 1/8″ small magnets arranged in a 9×10 matrix with a larger magnet brought close. Beautiful self-assembly occurs

Slower and slower motion, so you can see what’s happening.

Making Sense of Some Mind-Boggling Stats

Stray Thoughts on 1962

Questions about the connection between gaudy stats and helping your team to win aside, a look at a comparison between the insane stats posted in 1962 and what’s going on today, in terms of the pacing of the game, then vs now.

Okay, so you’ve all seen Wilt and Oscar’s numbers from 1962… but have you ever sat down and looked at the league averages that year? In ‘62, the average team took 107.7 shots per game. By comparison, this year the average team takes 80.2 FGA/G. If we use a regression to estimate turnovers & offensive rebounds, the league pace factor for 1962 was 125.5 possessions/48 minutes, whereas this year it’s 91.7. Oscar’s Royals averaged 124.7 poss/48, while Wilt’s Warriors put up a staggering 129.7 (the highest mark in the league). On the other hand, the 2009 Cavs are averaging a mere 89.2 poss/48. It turns out that the simplest explanation for the crazy statistical feats of 1961-62 (and the early sixties in general) is just that the league was playing at a much faster tempo in those days, with more possessions affording players more opportunities to amass gaudy counting statistics.


What's in Your Toolbox?

Mathematical Tools for Physics


It's Pure … Something

Tiger Woods’ game after surgery may be pure physics

Woods’ swing has been the envy of golfers around the world ever since he burst onto the professional scene in 1996.

His action is pure efficiency, combining hip, shoulder and wrist motion to exert the greatest possible force on the ball.

Pure efficiency? Does that make him the Carnot of golf. Perhaps we should refer to the swing as the “Woods cycle.”

The applied physics of his swing propels the club head at an estimated 125 mph at the point of impact with the ball but it also concentrates intense and repeated kinetic energy on his left knee.

Ooh, concentrated intense and repeated kinetic energy? That made me wince, but not from ligament damage.

Much of the rest of the article is about biology and medicine. I don’t know how badly mangled that is.

More Amazon Shopping Fun

Check out the comments for Nuclear Grade 48-Millimeter-by-54.8-Meter Duct Tape, Slate Blue

When we found cracks in the containment structure, we used to have to shut the whole plant down; then there was a lot of hassle with the nuclear regulatory agency about structural integrity and environmental contamination. With this quality duct tape, that’s all in the past. Now, when we see a cracked or crumbling wall, we just bring out the tape. The slate blue blends right in. I do recommend that you use use double layers for openings near the reactor core.

But while the red duct tape has no reviews yet, 16% of those viewing it purchase Ghirardelli Chocolate Premium Hot Cocoa Mix, Double Chocolate, 16-Ounce Tins (Pack of 4), while buyers of the blue tape bought Gummi bears. What does that say about their psyches? Discuss.


America's First Great Astronomer

Just got my copy of Physics Today, and noticed that the cover looked familiar. It’s a drawing from a photo, depicting Simon Newcomb at the USNO’s 26″ telescope, and the article inside, Simon Newcomb, America’s first great astronomer, was co-written by a colleague. And it’s one of the free stories.

A complete account of Newcomb’s many achievements in astronomy, mathematics, physics, and economics is beyond the scope of this article. Indeed, the collection of his works held in the Library of Congress contains more than 46 000 items. We focus on Newcomb’s contributions to one of the central astronomical issues of his time: accurately determining the astronomical unit, the distance from Earth to the Sun. Newcomb did everything he could to ensure the success of massive American campaigns to better determine the astronomical unit by observing the transits of Venus in 1874 and 1882. Yet he also set out independently on a different path to reach the same goal. Ultimately, he succeeded in deriving a more accurate value sooner, at a tiny fraction of the cost, and without leaving Washington.

(I got to see the transit of Venus in 2004, with one of the views being through one of the telescopes that has been used to observe these 19th century transits)

Nerd Alert!

Zapperz has stumbled across the ideal gift for that geek who loves to play prime-number-card stud, or superconducting supercollider hold ’em, or even CP-symmetry-not-conserved (e.g. deuces wild) games.

Physicist playing cards at the AIP store. “Historic” deck and “modern” deck.

I already have the Periodic Table playing card decks.

Got Human?

One of our HP printers is broken, and I’ve wasted several hours the past few weeks trying to arrange to get it fixed. Waiting on hold and wading through phone trees, and at the end of it all, the promised support technician never calls to arrange a visit, and the contact number I have just sends me back into the morass of “please listen carefully as our options have recently changed” lies that never led me to a live person. (and never mind the emails, invariably from noreply@whatever or some person who responded with “that’s not my department” and subsequently ignored me)

Customer support cheat “codes” that help bypass the phone tree and let you talk to a human. It used to be that pressing “0” would do it, but many systems have changed that. With these cheat codes, you talk to a live body, your stats are maxed out and you get 10,000 gold.

I can’t vouch for all of them, but the one I was interested in got me to “Pete” (in India, from the sound of it) who transferred me to a person in the right department. While the issue was not yet fully resolved at this point, I felt that my time was being wasted in a much more efficient manner. I did get a repair tech to call, and he was fixing the printer within three hours.

I particularly liked this entry in the list:

SUNOCO Press 00000; mumble when prompted for an account number.

The sad reality is that most big companies don’t really want to talk to you if it doesn’t involve the sale of their product. Seth Godin sums it up nicely

The only reason to answer the phone when a customer calls is to make the customer happy.

If you’re not doing this or you are unable to do this, do not answer the phone. There is no middle ground on this discussion. There are no half measures. Saving 50 cents a call with a complicated phone tree is a false savings. Think of all the money you’ll save if you just stop answering altogether. Think of all the money you’ll make if you just make people happy.

Your choice.

H/T to Jay for making me aware such lists exist

Grade Entitlement

Entitled, which points to an article in the NY Times

I have an inbox filled with student email saying “I studied really hard for the quiz..” (so why didn’t I get an A?).

This post might sound cynical, but I must not be completely cynical because this surprised me:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Ah, yes, I remember it well when I was TA-ing in grad school. I was somewhat desensitized to the problem by my time in the navy, because there was simply no room for changing grades. Student feedback (aka whining) was irrelevant on that point — you were judged by how much knowledge you demonstrated on test day, and that was about it. If you were borderline, you might buy some extra time by passing a verbal grilling in an academic review board, but that didn’t actually change your grade; it merely gave you additional time to pass some tests and raise your average.

In grad school I was a TA the modern physics class, which included a lot of students trying to get into the engineering program. When I passed out the first set of graded labs, there was howling and gnashing of teeth. “A 7? I can’t have a 7! I need to get accepted into the engineering program!” My answer was, “Do better next time.” I had pointed out the shortcomings in the lab reports, so there was ample information how to get a better grade. The funny thing was that my evaluations came back as being a really tough TA, while the other TA for the course remarked how easygoing and laid-back he was (literally a surfer-dude). But the also professor told me that grades from my section were actually higher than his. Tough love wins in the end.

From the article

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

As I’ve noted before, in the students’ view, good grades are earned by the student, while poor ones are given by the professor. Looks like Vanderbilt is pushing to change that concept.

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