Solipsism Gradient

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Lamentations about the disappearance of classical “science kits” appear on the media every few years. Recently, the New York Times, Boing Boing and others wrote about it.

A chemistry kit from Kosmos (a German company that still makes them) was one of several my parents gave me, and I used it intensively for several years. Here’s a picture of the kit itself:

kosmos1and here’s a list of the contents (in German):

kosmos2(both pictures are courtesy of Hugo Rune). Several compounds, notably sulfuric acid, nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, were not sold with the kit – for safety reasons – and my father obtained them at his company. I soon learned that there were a few chemical supply houses in town, where I could buy extra test tubes, glass and rubber tubing, and replacement chemicals.

As far as “safety reasons” go, I believe that almost none of those chemicals would be allowed today. To quote one manufacturer of modern kits (from the New York Times piece):

Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit.

I suppose that for today’s kids, with their nanosecond attention spans, atrophied self-preservation instincts and parents who sue anybody at the drop of a hat, these precautions are necessary. For myself, I was used to seeing my father handle dangerous tools and substances in his workshop, and although I had a few scares with exploding reagents, nothing serious happened. For a few years – until I discovered that there were actual computers available outside of science-fiction books – I even thought I would pursue chemistry as a career.

Even so, this kit was extremely important and life-changing for me. At the time, my father still smoked occasionally – this was in the early 1960s. My kit included a simple glass aspirator pump (it’s not on the above parts list, for some reason), and I noticed that one of the glass tubes had a flared end that was the exact fit for a cigarette. I hooked the pump up to most of my glass tubes and soon had a primitive cigarette-smoking machine. The pump vacuum was strong enough that a lighted cigarette was smoked down to a nub in less than a minute! But the most impressive result was that the tubes were completely clogged with a black, foul-smelling, viscous substance.

Cleaning the tar out of my precious tubes made me strongly resolve to never start smoking in any form, and I think that my father stopped smoking very soon after seeing the results of that experiment. Maybe some educator should consider selling such smoking machine kits; the episode was certainly decisive for me.

I also fondly recall several other science/engineering kits from my childhood. My chemistry kit, unfortunately, no longer exists, but I still have the Märklin Metallbaukasten I got at the age of 3 (and even use it now and then)! I also had a Lectron Elektronik kit, several other electronic kits from Brazilian companies (Heathkits were, unfortunately, unavailable), and uncountable puzzles and educational games. We also subscribed to several magazines about such subjects.

In retrospect, I’m extremely grateful to my parents in making these and other materials available to me under difficult circumstances.

Update: just found a scholarly paper by Daniel Wolf about science kits (in German); very interesting.


Some years ago, when I needed to re-check my eyeglasses’ prescription, I found an article on the Internet about an optician – I think in Los Angeles – who was making special glasses for computer users. (I can’t find that URL anymore, unfortunately.)

Aside: my personal case is rather uncommon. I’ve always been nearsighted in the left eye (-4 to -5 diopters), while my right eye was normal. The left eye also has a slightly different color response, seeing things a little greener and darker than the right. Until my late 30s, both eyes had an overlapping range where both would focus well… starting at 30cm out and going to about 90cm (1 to 3 feet if you’re stuck in the imperial backwaters). Then, presbyopia set in and astigmatism became worse; my eyes’ focusing ranges no longer overlap at all, so I started needing different eyeglasses to work and to drive. (I still need no glasses to read with the left eye, at least.)

Anyway, having two different eyes taught me to be able to switch between them as needed and to tense and relax the eyeball voluntarily – call it manual focus. I hear this can be learned in a short time even if your eyes are equivalent.

So, the trick is to learn to relax your eyeballs, deliberately making stuff go out of focus. When you do that, you should see things at some distance between 4m and infinity in perfect focus. Next, you should measure your desired working distance to your screen; mine is exactly at arm’s length.

Now you go to the optician and do all the standard procedures, except that you’ll hold that small eyechart at arm’s length, or whatever your preferred distance is, and relax your eyeballs throughout – think of “idly gazing into the distance”. I find that the resulting diopters are about 0.25 to 0.5 stronger than they are for my driving glasses, but of course YMMV. Ideally this should also be done without any of those pesky dilating eyedrops, as you want your eyes to be as near to the normal state as possible.

If you did this correctly, you should be able to sit at your screen for hours without any eyestrain. Of course you still should get up and stretch every thirty minutes or so, unless you also have an “infinity focus” chair… icon_wink.gif

I seem to remember hearing that there are modern laser-based machines that measure your lens directly without having you read charts or whatever; I suppose that if you run into such a thing, you’d have to do the “relax” trick while this is done. Be sure to talk it over with your optician; mine needed some convincing the first time.

Update: this article about computer glasses confirms my experience. You may want to check other articles on that site for more up-to-date information about vision problems and corrections (especially if you’re based in the USA).

So The Onion said:

Hallmark Scientists Identify 3 New Human Emotions

…In 2002, McMurrough monitored the MRI activity of nearly 10,000 test subjects between the ages of 25 and 40 as they described all emotions they had experienced in the past six months and rated each for its intensity, duration, and whether it would be conveyable to others by mail…

The first emotion the project successfully isolated was “requiapathy,” the combination of relief and guilt that comes with the sudden realization that you no longer miss a dead loved one. That discovery quickly led to the uncovering of “seprudity,” the feeling of appreciating a coworker’s dedication without fully understanding his or her job function, and “trepatiousness,” a synthesis of rage and jealousy, though more muted and often accompanied by a sensation of weight-lessness.


Of course Hallmark was interested only in emotions that might be “[interpreted] in warm, concise verse; inoffensive, ingratiating humor; and reassuring pastel watercolors” to quote further from the article. What they neglected to say was that several other emotions were also identified, and I present a few of them for your edification.

Debloggery: the combination of guilt and panic felt when you realize you haven’t blogged anything for at least two weeks, and may have even forgot the password to do so.

Backupenia: the first stage of what you feel when your hard drive was wiped out and your only backup disk refuses to mount properly. The following stages are “disconnecticity” (blaming it on the cable and rushing out to buy a handful of new ones) and “declaimitance” (pretending to everybody that you actually wanted to initialize your drive anyway and the lost data were of no significance).

Retradelessness: the sinking feeling you get when you discover, upon returning from the store with your new Mac, that the Apple Store web page is offline in preparation for new products.

Fartusity: the rapid succession of superiority and that “uh-oh” feeling when you whip out your trusty 10″ slide rule at a job interview and the interviewer asks if it runs Linux.

Applemunity: the smugness you, as a Mac user, feel when you overhear two Windows users complaining about viruses.


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I’ve always been extremely skeptical about speech recognition. Like machine translation, it’s always been one of those technologies that for some reason is the “coming great thing” for a certain group of tech pundits, while not getting any closer (or even steadily receding) when you look at actual implementations. Here’s a particularly hilarious example. More here.

Understanding spoken language is a problem even for people. I listened carefully and, frankly, didn’t quite catch several sentences spoken by the operator in that first video. Even though he tries to avoid running words together as he would probably do when speaking to another person, he’s prone to leaving vowels out (“c’rrect”, “d’let'”, “cap’t’l”). Personally I’m able to misunderstand people in several languages, which actually adds to the problem – before decoding the words, I have to identify the language. Great fun on trips.


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In 1980, rocket engineer G. Harry Stine, writing under the pen name Lee Correy, published a quite good SF novel called “Star Driver“. In the story, an unemployed astronomer/pilot helps a small aerospace company invent and debug a “skyhook”: a device that converts energy into linear thrust without having anything to thrust against. Stine envisions it as a rod-shaped special alloy resonator fed by a careful synthesized waveform generator. The first prototype is built into a small plane that uses the device to attain record altitude.

Now there’s news of an invention which promises to do just that. (The article may not be available for long; there’s also a PDF explaining the theory of the device.) It’s basically a cone-shaped hollow resonator fed by a microwave generator. Current models generate up to 300mN of thrust – enough to levitate about one ounce of weight against gravity – from a 1KW generator. This sounds puny but is already better than current ion thrusters used in some space probes.

Roger Shawyer, the inventor, plans to modify superconductors now used in particle accelerators to make the thruster more efficient. He says 30KN per KW might be possible if the considerable practical obstacles can be overcome; this would be enough to levitate a 3-ton car.

The WikiPedia article lists many objections to the device’s theory, and it may turn out not to be practical or widely usable. Still, it’s always interesting to see how life can imitate fiction.

Update: Yes, I know that the device violates conservation of momentum; but I think it’d be cool that it might work by what Terry Pratchett calls “something quantum”, in spite of the obvious theoretical faults.

The jig is up

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OK, time to confess all. (cue ominous background music…)

You see, I have this congenital high activity monoamine oxidase A syndrome. In other words, I’m a neophile (also called “neophiliac”). One of the subtypes, at least… apparently I get an endorphine kick when I learn something new. Since you’re reading this, you may be one too! icon_smile.gif Very useful for a programmer, I must say…

Found at Media Life via Gizmodo.

Here’s a follow-up

The original cargo cults were religions that appeared in the South Pacific after vast amounts of cargo were brought in, mostly during the World Wars. The islanders then tried to keep the cargo coming in by sympathetic magic. Richard Feynman referred to Cargo Cult Science as being something that imitates the superficial appearance, but not the inner workings, of actual science. The analogous Cargo Cult Programming is also known to any experienced programmer. It’s one of my favorite memes; I’ve observed Cargo Cult Business Administration and Cargo Cult Politics in action many times.

Now the always-interesting Language Log confirms yet another thing I had suspected: Cargo Cult Linguistics.

…I think it’s fair to call this “cargo cult linguistics”. Just as some post-war islanders in the South Pacific engaged in ritual imitations of the airstrip activities of foreign armies, in the belief these actions would bring them cargo, so some post-war philosophers in Paris engaged in ritual imitations of the analytic practices of linguists, in the belief that these actions would bring them insight. The islanders carved wooden radio sets and sat mumbling in imitation control towers; the philosophers invented semiotic terminology and sat disputing in Parisian cafes. And just as the failure of cargo to arrive as expected led to social crises and theological reformations in the South Seas, the failure of stable insight to emerge in Paris led to “rapid changes in theory” and to “mobile” concepts expressed in an increasingly opaque style.

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