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Physics savvy?

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I stumbled upon the Intuitor Stupid Movie Physics site (very interesting, by the way) and of course had to take their Physics Savvy test. Hah! Quail before my l33t physicz skillz, I thought… but I ended up with just a humbling 87.5% score. 4 out of 30 wrong!

Analyzing my four mistakes was instructive. One of them (#17) was due to a linguistic error – I simply forgot that “speed” and “velocity” are not synonyms in English. Another (#15) was due a subtle difference between scalar and vector acceleration – I thought they meant one but they meant the other. Another mistake (#14) involved “sensation” which I was unsure how to interpret in physical terms. Finally, there’s one (#23) which I disagree with.

This brings to mind the arguments I had in school with my various physics teachers… in retrospect, they usually hinged on trick questions or definitions of technical terms. I remember one especially complex one, involving acceleration in multiple moving frameworks, where the teacher finally had to invoke Lorentz contraction to fend me off. 😀

Anyway, I suppose the average movie director and/or movie-goer would get the majority of these wrong.

For some time I’ve been trying to recall favorite sites I used to visit in my pre-Mac OS X days; not easy since my old bookmark file went to that great bit bucket in the sky nearly two years ago.

Anyway, an errant neuron just coughed up one of those URLs: Outrageous On-Line Uncle Al: New Weapons of Mass Consumption. Alan “Uncle Al” Schwartz, an industrial chemist by trade, publishes vitriolic essays on varied subjects – he’s at #345 at this writing, and a subscription to “the collected wisdom of Uncle Al” is available. He’s a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, with the additional infuriating habit of often being right. As they say here in Brazil, when he dies he’ll be buried in two coffins (the second one’s for his tongue). He also was the original inspiration for my disclaimer. (I hasten to disclaim that Uncle Al’s political and philosophical orientation may not be congruent, parallel or even orthogonal to my own.)

Uncle Al’s site’s HTML contains this line:

<META NAME=”description” CONTENT=”Luxuriate in surreal mentality, indulge in wicked and delicious excess. We have come for a piece of all mankind!”>

Come to think of it, this probably was one of the first weblogs, in intent if not in format. His list of search engines and power user links has been invaluable to me in the past.

Herewith some excerpts to give you an idea:

One is Officially informed that the Food and Drug Administration exists for benevolent safeguarding of US citizenry…

I purchased a 148 milliliter bottle of McIlhenny tabasco sauce amply free of anything your body needs – hence its voluptuous palatability. Printed on the box flap was this warning:

“The Food and Drug Administration’s suggested measure is 1 teaspoon.”

The folks who won’t let you smoke marijuana to prevent blindness from glaucoma, or ameliorate 24 hours of projectile vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, or lessen screaming in Burn Wards recommend you use tabasco sauce by the teaspoon. Shake a drop (1/50 of a teaspoon) on your tongue. What is wrong with this picture?

…As your FDA minimum recommended dose of a full teaspoon of Tabasco explodes within your face, foments massive sensory erosion down all forty feet of your gastrointestinal tact, and finally exists with a searing scream… look at the bright side. Fruits like grapes and peppers contain resveratrol, especially in their skins. Said 3,4′,5-trihydroxy-trans-styrene is the apparent anti-carcinogenic principle of red wine. Those who indulge in tabasco’s searing siren song may be prolonging their life and improving every second of its enhanced duration.

If that is not a valid reason for the FDA to ban the stuff, I cannot imagine what is.

Finally, he also apparently wrote a paper about “Parity pair tellurium test masses will violate the Equivalence Principle in Eötvös experiments” which contains such assertions as

Unitary groups U(1), SU(2) and SU(3) parameter spaces are isomorphic to (in one-to-one correspondence with) the circle, the sphere (a surface) and the “three sphere” (not a ball) respectively. Fields with non-abelian symmetries divide into “electric” (curl-free; e.g., gravitational) and “magnetic” (divergence-free; e.g., inertial) fields as do abelian electromagnetism and the linearized form of Einstein’s field equations for weak gravity and slow matter.

And that’s in the preliminary arguments, where I think I understood all words, if not the entire sentence…

Most of the time I read news and other weblogs over their RSS feeds in NetNewsWire, but every so often it pays to look at the real thing in a browser.

Nick “taliesin” Barrett posted some nice things about me on his weblog (thanks!); he’s on my blogroll, but I decided to check out his own recommendations. The theory is that anyone who likes my own writings will probably link to other interesting sites…

…and I hit paydirt on the first one I tried. missingmatter: the other 95% of the universe links to dozens of great articles about particle physics, astronomy, space exploration, robots, number theory, and so on. Highly recommended.

Shelley Burningbird Powers writes about George Lakoff‘s article Metaphor and War, Again:

…I also have found it interesting and fascinating and well written as well as very astute. But as a call to arms, or even a call to communicate, I found it to be, well, innocuous; at most, safe reading for a world feeling bruised by too much war and too much rhetoric. Even those who point to it do so with little commentary. It seems to absorb discussion as a felt lined room absorbs sound.

…More importantly, there is nothing in the essay or in the conclusion that tells us how to break through the so-called frames, the conceptual metaphors. In other words, how to get people to listen. Then again, perhaps all this essay is meant to do is make us aware that we’re not listening to each other, and not to take it personally.

I think Shelley, as well as some other people who’ve commented on Lakoff’s article, misinterpret his use of the word “metaphor” somewhat. Here are some phrases indicating that misinterpretation:

…It’s here that his metaphor begins to break down a bit…

…there exist things in the world other than verbal formulations…

…The average person who is pro-terrorist uses metaphors also…

…Metaphors? They pale in significance compared to pictures…

(taken from comments on Shelley’s site).

The standard definition of “metaphor” is something like “a figure of speech in which a word that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another”. Lakoff expands this definition in a way that is surprising to non-linguists; he speaks of primary metaphors which are associations of sensory experiences with subjective judgments, and of complex metaphors which are built out of groups of primary metaphors somewhat like molecules are built out of atoms, or programs are built out of programming language statements; the effect is that metaphors can be described as being the atoms of thought. All thinking is thus metaphorical thinking, and one important point is that much of the interplay of metaphors happens on the unconscious level; much as programming statements are not directly visible at a program’s user interface.

The standard definition quoted above therefore describes a type of complex metaphor. This is discussed in great detail in Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, the “Phil Phlesh” book I’ve mentioned before, and several follow-up publications applying these insights to politics, mathematics, and other specific fields. For instance, “Phil”‘s second half deconstructs several philosophical theories, such as those of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Chomsky and others, in order to show which complex metaphors underlie their reasoning. Many other links on the subject can be found at wood s lot; I refer interested readers to Lakoff’s interview at

Lakoff’s article attempts to show what metaphors underlie Gulf War II, both for the pro- and anti-war camps; as this focuses on the mechanisms that underlie reasons, rather than on the reasons themselves, it comes off as dry and technical. Unsurprisingly, many people who do understand Lakoff’s concepts resent having their thoughts deconstructed in a way they consider unflattering – much like software companies dislike having their products decompiled, perhaps – and people who don’t understand them put them off as “simplistic” or “phantastic”.

By far the best commentary I’ve found so far is AKMA‘s:

Ideas don’t change things in and of themselves, but they can open us up to the possibility of changes we hadn’t been ready to imagine before.

Asking Lakoff to publish something like “Peace Metaphors for Dummies” would be a fatal oversimplification. Rather, let’s hope that his insights into cognition will help other researchers to find out why human reasoning comes to destructive conclusions.

As he did during the first gulf war, top cognitive scientist/linguist George Lakoff writes about the current war in Metaphor and War, Again:

My 1990 paper did not stop Gulf War I. This paper will not stop Gulf War II. So why bother?

I think it is crucially important to understand the cognitive dimensions of politics – especially when most of our conceptual framing is unconscious and we may not be aware of our own metaphorical thought. I have been referred to as a “cognitive activist” and I think the label fits me well. As a professor, I do analyses of linguistic and conceptual issues in politics, and I do them as accurately as I can. But that analytic act is a political act: Awareness matters. Being able to articulate what is going on can change what is going on – at least in the long run.

Lakoff is also co-author (with Mark Johnson) of the seminal work “Philosophy in the Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought”, a book some cognoscenti refer to as “Phil Phlesh”.

Thanks to Doc Searls for the link.

The Museum of Unworkable Devices features perpetual-motion machines, optical illusions, and many other interesting devices. One of the most interesting time-sinks I’ve seen recently.

Thanks to the Schockwellenreiter for the link!

HotAIR, the organization that publishes the Annals of Improbable Research and sponsors the famous Ig® Nobel Prizes, has a new project: Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. Any scientist possessing LFH may apply or be nominated for membership. Honorary members are Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Newton.

Although I consider myself to be a (computer) scientist, unfortunately I don’t qualify full-time for the hair part, as I – on standing orders from my wife – usually have my LFH cut as soon as it grows into the required length. 🙄

Thanks to Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing for the link!

Finally, someone came along and articulated my view that fearing gene-modified foods is silly. Richard Dawkins, noted geneticist and inventor of the “meme” meme, wrote this:

The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. All living creatures, on this planet at least, are the same “make”.

The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine (that’s exactly what a gene is) can be carried over into another species. This is why the famous “antifreeze” gene, originally evolved by Antarctic fish, can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same way, a Nasa programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet. A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection.

…What this means is that there is a case to be made on both sides of the argument, and we need to exercise subtle judgment. The genetic engineers are right that we can save time and trouble by climbing on the back of the millions of years of R & D that Darwinian natural selection has put into developing biological antifreeze (or whatever we are seeking). But the doomsayers would also have a point if they softened their stance from emotional gut rejection to a rational plea for rigorous safety testing. No reputable scientist would oppose such a plea. It is rightly routine for all new products, not just genetically engineered ones.

Recommended by Mark Frauenfelder on boing boing.

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