Archive for May, 2010

My kind of party

31 May 2010

I was invited to a party with a theme of science.  I was invited to bring whatever demos I wanted.  The host was one of my colleagues, and the party was in honor of a woman who is moving back to Hawai’i.  She felt that science was lacking in her education and requested a physics party.

The party was two days ago.

My colleague had acquired some liquid nitrogen, so he used it to freeze cheetos, which we all ate and “breathed smoke.”  He also exploded a few small plastic bottles, tossed some in the swimming pool, made ice cream with it, froze flowers and made them shatter, and shrank balloons down so that three of them fit inside a small metal pot.

He and his son had also created a small amount of thermite, leading to the quote of the evening: “Here, I’ll hold your beer while you light the thermite.”  We expected bright flames and sparks, but there was little to see.  Nobody got hurt!

I brought a 9-volt battery which I used to ignite some steel wool, which illustrates why you need fuses or circuit breakers in your home.  I also distributed “palm pipes” which are short pieces of PVC pipe that are “tuned” to produce certain notes when one open end is whacked against the palm of your hand.  Then I conducted several short tunes which the entire party could participate in performing.  I also brought along my geyser kit: some string, bricks, plastic bottles, a large plastic trash can, and some dry ice.  It turns out that when you fill the trash can with water, put some chips of dry ice in a plastic bottle tied to some bricks, seal the bottle and drop the bottle and bricks into the trash can, you get this:

Learning while listening Part 2

31 May 2010

I’ve been spending a lot of hours walking.  A LOT of hours.  I’ve walked over 150 miles in training for the 3-Day, and at three to three-and-a-half miles per hour, that’s between 40 and 50 hours.  Mostly, I’ve been walking without companions.  That’s dull.

To remedy the dullness, I have been listening to my iPod.  I know that this isn’t the safest practice in the world, but it is certainly accepted practice.  Why else would so many people have those arm bands to carry their music players?  Anyway, I am very careful and I always watch where I am walking and look both ways before crossing any streets, Mom.  It is OK, I PROMISE.

I don’t listen to music, for the most part.  Certainly music can be very motivating and energizing, but I have instead been listening to audio courses from The Teaching Company.  These people charge huge sums of money for their audio courses, but they do have very regular reduced-price sales.  I recommend you wait for a sale before buying any.

The first course I listened to was The Old Testament, and the lectures were given by Amy-Jill (AJ) Levine, a former Swarthmore professor.  I never managed to take a course with her in college (too many physics and education courses in my schedule, plus I wasn’t sure I was interested in religion, despite how much everyone LOVED her courses.

I thought the course sounded interesting, and there was a lot I had never learned about the Old Testament.  I never read it, for one thing, having been scared off by the language and uninspired by the plot.  I had a marginal understanding based on a children’s book of bible stories my mom bought for me to prevent me growing up in complete ignorance (the Unitarian Universalist Sunday School I attended taught us about childbirth and non-Christian religions and sharing and personal growth, but was lacking in catechism) of the basis of much of Western literature and art.  But the main things I remembered were the story of Jonah and the story of the writing on the wall.  Both of which are actually pretty minor.

I really liked this course, especially learning about the archeological and historical evidence for the various events, rulers, and battles.  I finally learned what is meant by “the twelve tribes of Israel” and learned WAY more about Moses than I ever did at friends’ seder dinners.  What is a prophet?  I never really understood that until listening to these lectures.

The second course I listened to was The Story of Human Language by John McWhorter.  This was absolutely fascinating, and I will probably put some of his recommended books on my summer library list.  There were sooo many fascinating topics, from ancient languages like proto-Indo-European, to modern pidgins and creoles (and what the difference is between them).  How do languages change over time?  Words are acquired from other languages, vowel sounds change, consonants fall off or change from difficult sounds to easier sounds.  Why do some languages have clicks, some have tones, and some have a zillion word endings depending on tense, person, location, or mode of information?  Can dying languages be revived?  Why do we spell words one way and pronounce them another way?

Now that I am out of lectures, I am considering whether I want to get some more.  I’m not sure.  They ARE awfully pricey, but I have a lot more hours of walking ahead of me.  In the meantime, I am listening to unabridged recordings of some really long novels…the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  Each novel is about 3 inches thick, and the audio versions are over 33 hours each.  I’m on the second one, out of seven novels in the series (so far).  So, I can go about 110 miles per book.  Woo hoo!

[UPDATE 6/6/10: I have now purchased (at a great discount) the audio course “The Wisdom of History” and listened to the first two lectures on a 5-mile walk.  More learning!]

Learning while listening Part 1

29 May 2010

I am a long-time NPR listener.  I’ve been listening since 1989, or thereabouts.  I was hooked in college.  I love Morning Edition (and I still miss Bob Edwards) and All Things Considered.  On the weekends I used to fret every time I missed Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.  I was annoyed that This American Life was always on after I went to bed or during church, as is the case with On The Media.  I have learned a lot from Marketplace and Car Talk.  I’ve had plenty of those “driveway moments” when I have to stay in the car and listen to the end of a compelling story.  One of those moments prompted me to purchase a cassette tape of the story: Remorse: the 14 Stories of Eric Morse.  It came on a tape paired with Ghetto Life 101 on the other side.  These two stories are from 1993 and 1994, so if you missed them I highly recommend them (click the links to get to the websites where you can listen).

In the past couple of years I discovered RadioLab, and my husband introduced me to Planet Money.  My favorite RadioLab so far has an interview with Brian Greene, famous from his books The Elegant Universe (available also as a NOVA DVD) and The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.  My favorite Planet Money…well, I have several.

The thing is, I discovered RadioLab not on the radio, but as a podcast.  (Mom, you know what podcasts are, right?)  And Planet Money IS a podcast.  It is only occasionally actually on the radio, and when it is it is embedded in another show, either in This American Life which is where Planet Money originated, or in All Things Considered.  Through podcasts, I can also listen to This American Life and On the Media and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me whenever I want to, and not just when they are broadcast on my local NPR station (which yes, I do still pledge to).

Anyway, the point of all this is actually so I can talk about Planet Money, which I think you should listen to.  Planet Money has two podcasts per week, available on iTunes or you can listen at their blog site.  They investigate all sorts of issues related to economics and finance, making a point of making the economic news clear and understandable for people who have never studied this stuff.  They translate the lingo and use simple examples to explain complex issues, such as using a $100 dollhouse to explain toxic assets.  Then the Planet Money team, all the people involved in making the show, put together $1000 of their own money to buy a real toxic asset, and you can follow it’s “death” on their blog site.

It helps, in my opinion, that they have really smart people on the Planet Money team.  One (the son of a college roommate of a friend of mine’s father), has a PhD in Physics from Harvard.  All are seasoned journalists who believe in delivering the truth to the public.  They explore a wide variety of economic topics, including copyright protection; the economy of Haiti; creating, marketing, and selling a great t-shirt; and how hedge funds such as Magnetar and Goldman-Sachs bet against their clients’ investments in mortgage-backed securities and profited hugely while their clients lost large sums of money.

That whole Goldman-Sachs thing was ridiculous.  It makes me wonder if any of these hedge-fund managers have a conscience.  I was glad to understand what was going on, but depressed by how horrible these people were to their own clients, fellow human beings.  I don’t consider myself a Christian, but there are a number of things Jesus said to do that I try to do in my life, like loving my neighbor.  I kindof think Jesus would have overturned the tables on Goldman-Sachs like he did to the moneylenders in the Temple, if only he had the opportunity.  And while Jesus said we should forgive, I find it very hard to forgive people who deliberately set out to screw the people who have hired them to manage their money well.

Anyway.  The point is, you should listen to Planet Money.  I like to download the podcast and listen while I am busy doing something else, like driving someplace, walking, cleaning up, washing dishes, etc.  Give it a listen, and tell me what you think!

Law & Order

17 May 2010

Sometime while I was cooking dinner and my husband was taking a nap, our driveway got blocked by a police car from the town two townships north of us.  It wasn’t really the nice policeman’s fault, he was blocked from going any further down our street by another police car (from the township immediately to our north) parked crossways across the street in front of our house.  The police cars from OUR town (I’m not sure if our town has one or two police cars –  I think it is two) were further down the block.

[We live in a suburban county outside Philadelphia, where the townships cram up against each other.  Having police from the next town over show up on calls is a matter of course.  If we had kids, they would be in that school district anyway, since our town is too small to have its own school district.  Police from two towns over coming to help out on a call is more unusual, but our suburbs are generally pretty quiet.  I remember once (when living in another nearby town) having a car accident on the way to the video store (back when we went to video stores).  We had three police cars show up for our fender bender, and an ambulance stopped by just in case (nobody was hurt, so they didn’t hang out long).  So excitement attracts police from all around, desperate for something to do besides sit hidden near an intersection in hopes that they get lucky and catch someone running a stop sign.]

I headed out the door to see what was going on, which is what we do on our block.  Last year there was a fire a couple of houses down (a very minor fire – the house remained completely livable) and the whole neighborhood was out chatting about it in groups on our lawns and sidewalks.  But this evening the woman next door poked her head out and told me that I should go back in, because the police down the block had rifles.

Well, I had dinner on the table, so I didn’t mind going back in.  After another half hour or so, the police came one by one to put away their rifles and drive their cars away.  We can leave the house by car again if we want to.  Not that we want to.  I’m supposedly grading papers (actually writing a blog post) and my husband has a WoW raid.

What I really like about watching Law & Order on TV is that when a bunch of police investigate something, before the hour is up there is a suspect, an arraignment, a trial, and a  verdict.  Done.  Forget this real life stuff where there is no guarantee I’ll ever know what was going on.  Law & Order is one of my favorite shows.  I’m a little bummed that NBC isn’t going to continue it.  You’d think that after that whole Jay Leno fiasco they’d be keeping the known good shows.  Oh well.

In other news, President Obama called and left a message on our answering machine today!  There must be a tightly contested senate primary election tomorrow!

[UPDATE: 5/29/2010

It happened again, only this time we had been out at a party, and returned home to find that we could not get to our driveway because one of our town’s police cars and an ambulance were parked opposite each other on our street, with not enough space to squeeze between them.  We parked on the street a couple houses down from our own house, and as we were walking across our driveway to get to our front door the other police car from our town showed up and parked across our driveway.  Our block gets more and more exciting!]

Is it PTBATTD* already?

10 May 2010

Today as I was driving home, when I was about three blocks from home, on a busy and slow road, I saw this guy.

He was wearing black cargo shorts with shiny silver snaps and buckles and maybe studs.  Shiny!  The shorts ended just above his knees.  He was wearing tall black boots, made of what seemed to be canvas, laced up the front, to just below his knees.

His knees were covered in some sort of black neoprene-looking material, perhaps some sort of leggings, but it was hard to tell because of the black cargo shorts and the black boots.

He was wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and a black pocket-covered vest, like a photographer’s vest, over the top.

He was pushing a black bicycle up the hill.

And he was black.

So imagine, you are sitting in your car, and you see this guy.  Who is this guy?  Why is he wearing these clothes?  Have you ever seen anyone wearing black canvas lace-up boots and black cargo pants with shiny silver snaps and buckles?  I was happy the traffic was very slow, because I totally stared at the guy.

I wondered if he was having “Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day” (PTBATTD) today.  This is a holiday invented by Aaron Diaz, the artist of one of my favorite webcomics, Dresden Codak.  Shortly after he invented it, the holiday became much more popular than his webcomic.  Originally the holiday was in December (2008), then moved to September in 2009.

Maybe the guy was pretending to be a guy from the future who was completely misinformed about the fashions of 2010, or perhaps he’d gotten the year wrong when he entered the coordinates into his time machine.

I think it would be fun to celebrate PTBATTD, but it is the sort of thing where you need a group so you can video people reacting and then all have a good laugh over beer afterward.

Civil Engineering

9 May 2010

Last weekend I helped out at the 33rd Annual International Bridge Building Competition. It was held at a local high school, and our local Physics Teachers’ Association had helped to sponsor it. Students came from all over the country, having qualified in a regional competition earlier in the year.

While the Illinois Institute of Technology sponsors the competition, they try to hold the final event at a different location every other year, in between holding it in Chicago. This year our local Physics Olympics League had bid to host, and we won!

The goal of the competition was to build the most efficient bridge, materials-wise. Everyone had to use official competition basswood (which was specially dyed with a fluorescing dye detectable with UV light) and had to keep their bridge below 30 grams in mass. The bridges had to span a gap of 30 cm, and there were restrictions on height and the level of the “road” and there were requirements for the places where the load mass could be placed. Then each bridge was individually loaded from below with sand poured into a bucket until the bridge gave way. The bridge that supported the greatest mass of sand per gram of bridge mass would win.

The bridges were assigned a random order for testing, and as each student set up their bridge and started pouring sand the audience hushed.  The longer the time before breaking, the more sand and the more mass.  And the quieter the crowd.  Each crack of breaking bridge released a sigh and applause.  Then the mass of the sand was entered into a computer and the efficiency displayed on the screen above the stage.  The spreadsheet with the data was set up to display the rank of each bridge from most efficient to least, and the student with the number one bridge had to watch all the bridges after hers, hoping that none of them would be more efficient and displace her top score.

This is the winning design for this year:

The girl who made this bridge went home with an iPad and an offer of $15,000 per year for four years in scholarship money if she is accepted at the Illinois Institute of Technology!