Friday, November 12, 2010

Faster Than The Wind

I was wrong. A year ago, my future son-in-law asked me if a sailboat could travel faster than the wind. I said no. If the sailboat were travelling faster than the wind, then, to a person on the boat, the wind would seem to be coming from the opposite direction. This applies to downwind sailing, not to tacking against the wind. My mistake was going with my intuition, not my analysis.

I have studied many websites explaining how a sailboat can go (at an upwind angle) faster than the wind. Most explanations are flawed. Many quote Bernoulli’s principle, which isn’t an explanation. In the same way, physicists have stopped using Bernoulli’s principle to explain why planes can fly. (Otherwise, how could they fly upside down?)

Some websites contain text or comments from readers linking the claim that a wind-propelled craft, on land or water, can travel faster than the wind to a claim of perpetual motion. This, of course, is faulty thinking. Such a vehicle is getting its energy from the wind, and the wind is losing energy to the craft. No wind, no motion. Nothing magic about that.

But, for those still worried about what pushes a boat faster than the wind, here’s a simple explanation. First, what pushes a tacking sailboat forward against the wind? The answer is, the water. The wind pushes the sail, which is attached to the boat. The sail pushes the boat, which includes the keel. The keel pushes the water back (at a slight angle) and the water pushes the boat forward [Newton's 3rd, action and reaction.] Remove the keel (e.g.. raise the centerboard on a tiny sailboat) and the wind shoves the boat back, no matter which direction the boat is facing.

The faster a tacking sailboat travels, the greater the force of the wind on the sail, the greater the force of the keel on the water, the greater the forward force of the water on the boat. The limiting factor is not the speed of the wind but the friction of the water on the hull.

Going downwind faster than the wind (DWFTTW) is a little more anti-intuitive. A great blog entry with videos that demonstrates that an object can move faster than the object (and wind is millions of “objects”, air molecules) that propels it is

Phony e-mail "News"

On Remembrance Day yesterday, someone I love and trust sent me a wonderful email about the origin of the bugle call Taps. It was beautiful, and inspiring, but fiction portrayed as fact. The PowerPoint presentation provided an alternate description of the composition of Taps and the tradition of playing it at military funerals and remembrance ceremonies.

The trouble is that the facts, and the real composer, got lost in the shuffle.

I find the prevalence of phony facts a big issue. Today, what is taken as fact is what one receives in one’s email. How long will it be before the real composer of Taps gets replaced in the history books?

One of my relatives forwards inspirational stuff to me regularly. It’s filled with ridiculous accounts of miracles, reports of events that never happened, stuff that can be easily verified as phony (like a reference to a non-existent doctor in a non-existent hospital in Boston.)

But if I point that out I am a party-pooper, I am negative, I am destroying her honest attempts to make other people’s lives better. (Other people = the hundred on her forward list.)

I suppose this isn’t different from 50 years ago when people would say, “I heard at the water cooler today that….” and pass on phony gossip. Yet, somehow, it is different. The water cooler is now as wide as the entire Earth. And we get the “news” from people we love and trust.

As an educator, and as a parent, I think it’s important that we instil in our students/children a healthy skepticism for what they read, even for what they see on the news. (For example, on 9-12, US radio stations carried the phony report that 9-11 attackers crossed into the US from Canada. The 9-11 Commission found that none did. Yet Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated it the claim in 2009, then corrected herself. And Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed candidate in Nevada, made that claim anew.) The trouble is, receiving the stuff in email from a person you trust is different from seeing it on the front page of the National Inquirer at the supermarket checkout.

I try to keep passing on the other-side-of-the-issue to people who send me preposterous reports. But should I use Reply or Reply All?. I sent a counterargument to a report of a miraculous treatment for some serious ailment that a sister-in-law sent to fifty people. I got roasted for the action by a person on the list worried that I had embarrassed her. After all, she was only trying to be helpful. Same thing when I sent a “don’t worry — it’s a hoax” about a phony virus notification forwarded by a relative to the dozen people on his list. Apparently, it’s better to let everyone worry about something untrue than correct the fact.

So, should I reply to the sender of the Taps email? If I did would I be “making a mountain out of a mole hill”, or “taking the joy out of a nice story?”

Well, I did send evidence of the more widely accepted credit for the origin of Taps to her alone and received an “I knew you would say that” rejoinder.

I wonder what that means.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Non-missing links...Creationist's error...

My friend Bob is a creationist. He has asked me more than once, "What about the missing links? If evolution were true, there shouldn't be transitional fossils?"

Answer: This question keeps coming back, no matter what scientific discoveries are made. If there are two species in existence today--call them species A and B--that evolutionists propose have a common ancestor, we should be able to find bones in the fossil record of the common ancestor. The ancestor would be the "link" between them and, presumably, have some of the attributes of each species.

There are many, many transitional fossils. We have fossils of creatures that are intermediary between humans and apes. (Note the often misunderstood point: humans did not evolve from chimps. Chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor. We were never apes. The phrase "Man descended from the apes" is not correct, and not part of evolution theory. Modern apes and modern humans had a common ancestor. Any chimpanzee teaching her offspring that chimps descended from humans is making the equivalent mistake. )

We have fossils of a link between fish and land animals. Tiktaalik, discovered in Canada in 2004 had physical features from both, allowing the huge fish to live in very shallow water. It has the cranial features associated with both fish and land-living animals, including a neck (i.e. the earliest fossil with a neck). It had primitive lungs, leg-like fins adapted for life in the shallows, and ribs of a land animal, but the primitive jaw, scales, and other fins of a fish.

Some modern animals have remnants of their ancestors. For example, some whales have vestigial legs and pelvic girdles inside, showing that their DNA still possesses the codes for constructing the legs of the land mammals they evolved from. So do pythons (snakes).

We have fossils that are clearly intermediary between birds and reptiles. The famous Archaeopteryx is one.Unlike all living birds, Archaeopteryx had a full set of teeth, a rather flat sternum (breast bone), a long, bony tail, gastralia (belly ribs), and three claws on the wing. However, its feathers, wings,wishbone, and reduced fingers are all characteristics of modern birds.

Now, it is true that many of today's evolutionist do not consider Archaeopteryx to be the ancestor of birds. Instead, some other transitional fossils have been found that are better candidates. But the point is, there ARE transitional fossils.

Some creationist articles say, in effect, that there are no transitional fossils, that Archaeopteryx looks like a transitional fossil but "even" evolutionists think it isn't. What they don't say is that scientists have found even better transitional fossils bridging dinosaurs and birds than Archaeopteryx.

The point I am making is that many anti-evolution writers are either ignorant or dishonest about the existence of transitional fossils when they claim that the "links" are "missing".

By the way, not only do we find transitional species in the fossil record, but they are ordered the correct way. We find the ancestors of species A and species B in sediment that is older than the sediments in which we find species A and B.

Are there "missing links". Sure. But are there non-missing links? Yes. Many.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wii Fit...Recommendation and Spoiler

I strongly recommend Wii Fit (and especially Wii Fit Plus. Get it for sure.) In addition to the hand sensors you have likely seen, Wii Fit includes a balance board. The Wii board can sense shifts in weight. The way you can try to walk tightropes, get through obstacle courses, ski slalom courses, and bicycle around the Wii island.

There are dozens of games that are very imaginative, and extremely well done. They allow you to work on your balance, your strength, and endurance. Some, like the stepping, running, and biking, allow you to work up a sweat. There are many little challenges to keep you thinking while you exercise.

Speaking as a computer programmer, I am very impressed by the 3-D graphics, the flexibility, and the intelligence built into the programs.

Now: For those who do the free biking, here are the locations of the 20 balloons and the fastest route I've found to get them. I just got off the "bike" and had them in 20:24:25, a new record for me. (I know one place I lost a second.)

If you want to find them yourself, don't read any farther.

To get the balloons in a fast time, start near the top of the mountain, at the balloon on the grass by the stone pillars. That way you head downhill at the start and don't have to climb the mountain again. The free ride starts where you last stopped, so prepare by going up the mountain and stopping after popping that balloon. (Press B to stop there, and exit.)

Also, have you found that the A button rings a bell that attracts a pet? With it alongside you, if you are pointing at a nearby balloon and ring the bell, the dog or cat runs ahead and pops the balloon while you are turning around. Don't ring too soon, though.

OK, here's the fastest route I've found.
1. On the mountain path, by the pillars. Head down...
2. Behind the castle. Keep going around and pick up a pet.
3. Curve around the pond, up on the grass on the right before you get to the tunnel.
4. Cut down slope to tunnel. You will survive and pet will follow. After tunnel, cut right and skirt the cliff to a raised grassy strip. Balloon at end.
5. Go back, up sand path through tunnel with iron bridge. Curve right at exit of bridge. Balloon is in the field.
6. Cut right toward the big rock. Pass it on the right; go across the two suspension bridges, cut up the grass through the tunnel to balloon on sandy plateau.
7. Go back, follow cliff around to left...balloon near the rock.
8. Cut right. This is the trickiest. Coast down and cut sharply around the FIRST fence (passing it with your right shoulder.) Balloon is at far end of a narrow grassy strip. Careful when you turn around.
9. Reverse, follow lower fence; cut around it at end and find balloon near the water by the left side of the bridge.
10. Cross bridge. (You will probably lose your pet.) Cut left at town and take first grass path between houses to balloon.
11. Follow around houses to town square and up the ramp to the upper town. JUST BEFORE you go up, ring bell twice to summon pet.
12. After breaking balloon go back down the SAME ramp. At the bottom, ring bell again. Pet should come running up as you turn right. Head through town, turn down towards water at last street. Go behind last house on right to find balloon (on grass, near water.)
13. Follow black walk, then up to lighthouse. Pass left of lighthouse to balloon on the point.
14. Pick up road that goes around the island. Take immediate right after short tunnel. Balloon is on right side of pond.
15. Another balloon on left side of pond.
16. Cross road, up grass to ruins. Balloon behind ruins.
17. Out of ruins, continue on road through tunnel. Take immediate left down to balloon near water.
18. Follow shore along the sand. (Fastest along the harder, wet sand.) Balloon just past the first large rock with small tunnel in it.
19. Keep going toward end of sand. Go up the jump to the left of the next rock. Balloon on top.
20. Keep going past balloon. Jump down. Keep going. Pick up pet just before final large rock. Follow around the left. Tell pet to break the last balloon.

Now you should have a few minutes to start back to the grass for the long trek back for your next run. (Or try this run in reverse!)

Good luck.

The other day, my friend Ray called Obama a Nazi, a socialist, a danger to Western democracy, a man intent on bringing down the United States. He shied away from calling him the Antichrist.

I couldn't believe that a person I thought was an intelligent, rational, free-thinking person would make that preposterous statement. So, what led him to it? I conclude that the 'free-thinking' attribute was probably wrong. He was trumpeting the standard line spouted by Beck, Palin, the Tea Partiers, and other radical right types. (I do not claim that Beck, Palin, and every Tea Party member thinks the same thing. But if asked to take a stand for or against Ray's statement, I propose that they would be Ray-supporters. So I will continue to generalize.)

"Ray," I said, "think for a moment. You are just saying stuff other people say, without thinking about it."

"Look at the bank bailouts," he said.

The bailouts were started by Bush, not Obama. Did Obama allocate more funds? Yes. But why? Not to line the pockets of the filthy rich CEO's. Obama is as upset as everyone at those robber-barons getting multimillion-dollar salaries for incompetent management of assets. Many of those assets came from Main Street, and represent many honest Americans' pension plans and life savings. By keeping the banks afloat, the bailout safeguarded the financial futures of millions of ordinary people.

According to the NYTimes: Losses from the $700 billion financial rescue are expected to be much less than initially feared, according to a Treasury report and government audit late last year. Besides banks’ repayment of their bailout money with interest, the government also has made money by selling the bank warrants that it held as collateral for its loans to the institutions.
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"What about healthcare?" Ray demanded. "That's socialism."

Well, so is using taxpayer's dollars for building roads. Everyone pays, even those who don't use the roads. (Of course, everyone benefits. The trucks bringing food to your grocery story use the roads, even if you don't.) And tax money funds schools. (Even if you have no children, presumably you want your doctor to have had a good education.) The idea of a decent universal healthcare system is that the country benefits as a whole from the good health of its citizens. Economy of scale considerations suggest that the total amount spent by the citizens of the country could go down. (I acknowledge that the two sides disagree on that point. Certainly, prevention costs less than cure, so if people see doctors early, before conditions worsen, every person who is spared a hospital stay helps save the system money.)

I guess what bothers me the most is that Ray echoes the people who shout the apple pie slogans: no taxation, no driver's licenses, no restrictions on guns, no restrictions on freedom, no government interference in anyone's lives, etc. etc.

No income tax? Right: who is going to build the roads? Who is going to pay for the navy that guards the shores? Does everyone then teach their kids at home? (Ray: "People can freely combine and pool their money for a community school." Me: "Give me a break! Would the US have gained prominence in so many areas if it hadn't had government-funded schools?")

Regarding government influence: Do you want no standards for quality of food? No standards for toxin-free paint or microbe-free water?

What I'd prefer is that you Tea Partiers, you local militia folk, you radical Right people just come out and say it. Be honest. You guys don't want a black president; you guys don't want to contribute to the common good of your country (except on your terms); and, basically, you want anyone who thinks differently from you to get the hell out of your country.

P.S. McCain said, regarding working with Democrats on other big items on Obama's agenda. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of this year." Although he softened the statement after receiving criticism, it speaks volumes about whether Republicans care about governing the country. The country can go to hell before any Republican will participate in honest government. Sabotaging the president is their highest priority.

P.P.S. Many in the Tea Party movement do not shy away from calling Obama the Antichrist.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Lying for Christ ... Three questions.

I just received an email that contained a religious PowerPoint presentation created, apparently, by Bro. Joe. It begins with a "news" article about an Egyptian man who kills his wife for reading the Bible, then kills and buries his two kids. Fifteen days later people go to bury an uncle and find the girls alive. They describe a Christ figure as feeding them after their interment.

On subsequent pages, the a commentator (not Bro. Joe) expands the story. He claims that the people in Egypt are "outraged" and that the "man will be executed in July." Also, the writer predicts that "Muslim leaders are going to have a hard time to figure out what to do with this."

Of course, the story never happened. According to, the email was first seen in 2004, and its creator has been identified (the wife of a pastor). It's a fabrication. [Subsequent note: now reports that the pastor's wife says her husband received the story via email himself.-Rob]

It's a lie. There were no news reports about this event; no one was sentenced to be executed for this crime.

Now for the first question. If the writer wants people to believe in God and Christ, is she justified in creating a phony story to convince people of Christ's presence and miraculous powers? I think not. Christ used fables to get a point across, but I doubt if he used phony news reports. I doubt if he would have sanctioned such an ends-justifies-the-means approach to spreading his message.

The second question is related. Was the pastor's wife trying to gain converts? My guess is that she is preaching to the choir. Will any non-Christian read it and decide to become a Christian? Surely not.

Besides, it's my guess that she sends out such God's message emails to friends who are already Christians. (I have relatives that do that.) So the desire is either to make them feel good or to reinforce an "us versus them" perception. Hence the anti-Muslim slant. Part of the reason for sending it out is fear.

Now the third question. Why did Joe make the woman's email the foundation of a PowerPoint presentation and send it out to his friends? I will assume that Joe believes the story was true. In a dozen pages following the story he urges the reader, many times, to send the slides on to many others. Why is only bad news forwarded? he asks. Why jokes but not messages about God? As I read, I could feel his despair. He bribes people with "Send this on and God will abundantly reward you."

By the end, instead of the beautiful scenery over which he had pasted his text, he was putting images of Christ in the clouds, with lines of scripture beneath. Poor desperate Bro. Joe.

So, about the entire production. I find myself annoyed with the creator of the phony news article. No girls in Egypt were found alive after being buried for 15 days. It just didn't happen.

I find myself feeling sad for Joe who is so desperate to get the good news out that he creates a PowerPoint presentation about it. (He rushed it, as shown by the cut-and-paste errors he made from an original HTML document.) That he even believes the story, though, causes me to lose sympathy for him.

And I find myself frustrated that so many people will believe the countless crap that appears in our mailboxes, whether it's reports about abductions by UFOs, conspiracy stories, or tales of little girls surviving in the ground because Christ visited them bearing food.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gulliver Knew His Physics ...

One of the best illustrations of the influence of Isaac Newton, and of the intellectual capability of the eighteenth century readers, pops up in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726, amended 1735). The official name is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships.

Most people have heard of Gulliver's visit to Lilliput, home of the little people. Many don't realize that gulliver travelled to several other lands, too. Swift wrote the book as a satire and condemnation of the injustices of society in the century before the great democratic revolutions. But Swift had to be careful. He couldn't just come right out and say, for example, that the king was an ass, or that the British House of Lords was composed of imbeciles, or that justices of the peace were corrupt. Doing so could have got him thrown in jail, or worse.

Instead, he had Gulliver visit lands where the king was an ass and the appointed governing body was composed of imbeciles. When challenged, he could always say that he'd written a book of fiction. He wasn't talking about home, for goodness sake.

Isaac Newton had revolutionized science. He showed that the universe runs on simple mathematical laws. He broke down the distinction between heaven and earth by showing that the same laws of physics that govern the actions of objects on Earth apply to the planets. Prior to Newton, nature was mysterious, and scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were more properly called) were limited to explaining Earthly phenomena. The Heavens were governed by their own laws, and why not? Heaven was the realm of God, and God should not be subject to the same laws that constrained the behaviours of Earthly objects.

A generation before Newton, Kepler found that the planetary orbits follow mathematical rules. The planets travel on elliptical paths at varying speed. (Their speed increases as they get closer to the sun.) And Kepler found a fascinating, but mysterious relationship: the cube of the a planet's average radius of orbit divided by the square of the planet's period of orbit is the same for all planets. In math lingo, T-squared varies directly with R-cubed.

Newton used this relationship, Kepler's elliptical orbits, and the calculus that Newton invented while on summer holidays when he was an undergrad at Cambridge University to come up with the Law of Gravity. He could demonstrate that the same force that makes apples fall keeps the planets in orbit around the sun. When he published his discoveries (some twenty years after he made them) he became an instant celebrity.

So, back to Gulliver. On his voyage, he landed at Laputa, where astronomers studied the heavenly bodies through great telescopes. In Swift's time, no moons of Mars had been discovered, so he decided to pretend that Laputian astronomers made a fascinating discovery. Read this:

They have discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars; whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost, five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars; which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies.

Did you see what he said? Kepler's T-squared/R-cubed law holds for the moons of Mars, showing them to follow Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation!

I think this speaks volumes about Swift's society. Swift counted on his readers knowing Kepler's and Newton's Laws. He knew that his characters had instant credibility if they were included in Newton's great intellectual revolution.

How many authors of fiction today assume their readers would be as intellectually accomplished?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tidy rooms...

My wife regularly asks my daughter Debbie to tidy her bedroom. Debbie's response is always either, "I did," or "It is tidy." Here are two photos of the room after my daughter insists it's tidy.

After many years, I still haven't cracked the code. I figure "It is tidy" means one of these:
1. it's good enough for me
2. this matches the definition of "tidy"
3. don't tell me what to do.

To be sure, number 3 applies as a general rule to any suggestion my wife makes to my daughter. "Don't tell me what to do" is a given. But I've come to the conclusion that Debbie actually believes that a room qualifies as tidy even if the floor is covered in paper, empty water bottles, underwear, spilled cat litter, books, CDs, and overturned containers.

Look, my den is often messy. I freely confess it. But, during those times, I don't call it "tidy". Our bedroom is often a mess. (My wife doesn't follow the adage "let she who is without sin cast the first stone.") But I admit the fact.

Debbie's definition of "tidy" is far from my wife's (and mine, but I stay out of it.) There will never be a day when my wife will be able to look in Debbie's room and say, "My, your room is tidy."

And there is only one or two days a year when our bedroom is tidy, and it only stays that way for 24 hours. But that's another story.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Congratulations US Congress ...

As a Canadian, I was pleased to see the Democrats prevail and pass a universal health care bill. Over the past year, I couldn't believe the vitriol from the Republicans. I was disgusted by the distortions, and misinformation, and outright lies about what the various versions of the bill contained and ramifications of ensuring that Americans can get access to health care.
I don't mind paying higher taxes than Americans in return for health care. One of my daughters had a brain tumor operation. No one asked for money for the operation and the three weeks in hospital. My other daughter went in for a seizure-caused dislocated shoulder. We just show our health card, and walk in. If I have a problem, I go to my doctor, flash my card, and that's it. The important thing is that it's the same for everyone, not just those that can afford insurance.

The fact that, in the US, some workers at insurance companies admitted that they automatically reject claims until appealed appalled me. I found it hard to believe that the country with the highest standard of living in the world wasn't embarrassed to see some of its citizens bankrupted by health problems, or worse, see some of its citizens having to forgo medical treatments because they were financially worse off.

That a country wouldn't take care of its citizens on such a basic issue as health care ... well, congratulations for seeing the light.

Shame on Republicans for NOT EVEN ONE voting for the bill. NOT EVEN ONE.

Defeating Obama was more important than doing the right thing for your country. I realize that Republicans will jump all over that statement, saying that they WERE doing the right thing for the country by voting against the bill. But it sure didn't look that way from here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Mentalist ... Getting Stupid

I'm getting more and more disappointed with The Mentalist. I cheered the concept at the start, especially when Patrick Jayne said, in the first episode, "There are no such things as psychics." The problem is, the police work in the show is getting far too stupid.

Cases in point:

Case 1

In one episode, the dead victim is in a field, shot from a distance. But where did he stand? We hear Jayne call, "He stood here." Jayne is standing behind a scarecrow, waving its arms. Of course, Jayne would be standing right on top, and thus destroying, possible evidence.

Case 2

A couple of episodes ago (January or February, 2010), The Mentalist never realized that a person was lying to him. Kinda destroys the very concept of The Mentalist, doesn't it.

Case 3 (Last week, March 4)

A second victim dies, right in front of the head of the crime unit (Teresa Lisbon). She sees him drop, eyes open, not breathing, not talking. Does she start CPR? Does she check for a pulse. No. She holds her hand in front of his face and cries, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Case 4 (Tonight, March 11)

A scientist in a bio lab became exposed to a virus and died. A few hours later, Jayne pulls a prank, admittedly clever, to catch the killer. But it involved announcing to at least 40 other people that they have now been exposed, that they should call their loved ones and say good-bye, and make their final arrangements. They only have an hour or so to live.

It was a fabrication, of course, but how many lives did he just hurt? How many people are going to sue him for pain and suffering.

Going back to Case 3. Where was an editor or consultant to say, "That's stupid. A supposedly experienced person is not going to say 'how many fingers?' to a dead person." Surely Robbin Tunney, if she really knew her role, would balk, and announce, "My character wouldn't say that."

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Dealing with unruly students

I have been retired from teaching or four years. I had a wonderful career, teaching high school physics. I was in good schools, got the best students, and had supportive vice-principals and principals. Generally, a more peaceful career than many teachers.

I did have the odd student who was a class disruptor, refused to do assignments, or skipped class. Here is a remedy that fixed the situation.

In brief, they were told to leave and not come back until the after the next test. I explained that each day they could come at the beginning to get page references for the lesson. But they were to learn from the text book, without my aid "Since, by your behaviour," I told them, "you showed that you do not value my contribution to your education, learn without me. We'll see how that works on the next test."

The result was that, after a day or two, the student requested to come back in the classroom. And that's how it should be. Students should be in class because they want to be, not because they have to be. A student isn't doing me a favour by showing up. I am doing him a favour by sharing my expertise. My method gets that point across.

Of course, the process was illegal. Putting a student in the hall meant that he was now, potentially, someone else's discipline problem. And if he left the school and got hit by a car, I might be held responsible because he should have been in the class under my supervision. I took the risk, and was supported by the principal because the system worked.

Here are some methods that ensure success.

Call home. Mention that the student is not learning as much as he should and ask for suggestions. Parents are almost always appreciative of your call, and the fact that you ask them for help shows you care and respect their opinion. Usually, if you are having trouble with the student, they are too. The phone call will be a sharing episode. Then say, "Here's something that might work. Suppose I tell him that he's not allowed to come to class. He's not kicked out of the course. He just has to learn on his own." Then explain the plan. Parents have always agreed to try it. Usually they're desperate to try anything.

Mention the plan to the principal. A couple of times I drew up contracts, on school stationery, for the principal, parent, student, and me to sign. The student always wants to renegotiate after a day or two.

Soon, the student is back in class, under my terms, appreciative of my efforts to help him learn.

Sample Horoscope

One day, I went down the aisles of my grade 10 science class asking the kids their birthdays. Each was given the appropriate horoscope. Here's Aries:

Aries – March 21- April 19

You have had some difficulties in the recent past. Sometimes you wonder who your best friends are, or will be in the future.

Someone's words will take on a tone of intensity for you now. Don't fall into a dark, brooding mood as a result. It's good to clear the air, and time to break your silence.

There's high drama on your schedule for the next couple of days, so prepare yourself. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Still, you might want to warn your close friends.

Some encounters will be a very significant -- some more pleasantly so than others. Think of it this way -- you have a choice about how to use this energy, so use it to its best ends.

You're in the mood to catch up on the latest scoop, but your family and friends have been a little too intense for your tastes -- at the moment, anyway. Let them talk, and just listen closely. Your turn will be coming up soon.

I asked the kids to put up their hand if they felt the horoscope was accurate. Hands went up around the room. Then I had them pass it to the person beside them. They started to laugh because all the horoscopes were the same. (I made it up.) It's so easy to persuade people of the truth of something so loony (luney?) as astrology. And easy to demonstrate how false it is. Still, few believers can ever be persuaded otherwise.

BTW: Not a single person pointed out that in the second paragraph I advised them to speak out, but in the last paragraph to just listen.

What "Christian" means

Shari, a teaching colleague, once told me that she was against evolution because she was a Christian. Of course, what she meant was that she was a fundamentalist Christian.

I asked her if she thought the Pope was a Christian. She agreed that he was. But Roman Catholics are okay with evolution, I told her. So are Anglicans (Episcopalians) and some other Protestant denominations. She was surprised at that.

(The RC's position, stated in March 2009, is that there is no conflict between evolution and religion on the origin of species, but man's soul was a matter of special creation. I am simplifying, but I think that's the kernel of their position.)

I digress. My comments are on the use of the label "Christian". We hear of "Christian Schools". In Canada, we allow two school systems, the public school system (inclusive, open to everyone) and the Roman Catholic School system. Non-Catholics can, theoretically, attend (because tax dollars go to the RC boards), but it's catholic education. Then there are the schools not supported by tax dollars. The label "Christian" school goes to the private schools that are run by Baptists, for example, or other fundamentalist groups. In general usage, the term "a Christian education" does not apply to either of the two official school systems.

The fundamentalists have confiscated the word "Christian". In addition to Christian schools, we have Christian radio stations and Christian literature. Am I over generalizing here? Are there "Christian" televangelists who accept evolution? Are there any "Christian" radio stations that broadcast messages doubting the literal translation of Genesis?

Incidentally, Shari was a biology teacher who did an excellent job of teaching evolution. This despite her proudly announcing herself as "a Christian".

Denying Evolution

I almost feel sorry for the creationists these days. I have a couple of friends who take Genesis literally. There was an actual Adam and Eve, they say. One of them was surprised to hear that man have the same number of ribs as women. The other truly believes the Earth is not much older than six thousand years.

These are not morons--they are intelligent, rational people with good jobs (earning more than me!) But they deny evolution with a vehemence that astounds me. No, I'll take that back. I am not astounded by what adherence to a religious belief does. Witness suicide bombers who feel that
1. non-believers deserve to die, and
2. they themselves will go to eternal paradise by killing infidels with them when they go.

My two creationist friends aren't in that league. That is, contrary to some creationists I see on the web, they don't feel the need to make everyone believe, or else.

I feel sorry for creationists when I assess what they have to give up to maintain their beliefs. Although they might not concede this list, to deny evolution, they must ignore accepted facts in astronomy, geology, the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, genetics, molecular biology, continental drift, and embryology, at a minimum.

One of them even says, "There is no evidence for evolution." This floors me! The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, converging from so many disciplines. How can he say this?

What a wealth of knowledge people have to give up to maintain absolute consistency with a religious belief. So sad!

Sing the Damn Note!

I don't watch Idol because I can't stand the type of singing that everyone seems to do nowadays. Instead of singing the note as the composer wrote it, today's performers hit about five notes per syllable near the correct one, eventually (one hopes) lingering on right one long enough to demonstrate that they are familiar with the tune. I know Streisand did that (in moderation) years ago. Karen Carpenter used to scoop a note here or there, and Petula Clark would put a grace note in occasionally.

But now the instruction to "Make the song your own" means that the tune gets destroyed. I am especially irked when this happens to Christmas carols. When "ger" in "Away In The Manger" is awarded six notes, I feel like yelling "Sing the damn note".

That's one of the reasons I like show tunes. I realize I'm showing my age here, but when Shirley Jones sung a song, she hit the notes and put on the consonants. Same with the quality performs in "Cats", or "Phantom" or "Les Mis".

Of course, we have to give the singers who perform the national anthem permission to butcher the song. That's expected.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Conspiracy theorists

Glenn Beck on the radio; Mark Steyn in Macleans magazine; Conrad Black in the National Post... One thing these men have in common is their loud disbelief that global warming is occurring, much less caused by humans. Do they actually believe what they are saying/writing?

Evidently so. Just as the people who think that the US flew planes into the Twin Towers, that man has not set foot on the moon, that the Holocaust didn't happen, and so on. I sometimes wonder how intelligent people can let themselves be led to ridiculous, unsupported positions.

Of course, these guys are saying the same thing about me; namely, that I've been sucked in by all the baloney and believe that the Earth is getting warmer. Every day I hear new evidence--a study here, an observation there. What do Beck, Steyn, Black, and the other deniers think to themselves when they hear each bit of new evidence? Another deluded scientist has made a mistake (or is lying)?

For the record: I have had a cottage a few hours north of Toronto since 1976, and grew up at my parents' cottage before that. The lake temperature used to peak at 80 degrees F on or around August 1, and stay there for a day or two before starting to cool. In each of the last two years, my lake got to 80 F by July 13, and stayed that warm for over two weeks. And there are new birds in the forest. (I know by the new bird calls.)

Something has changed.

Base 3 Computers

Computers work by having ones and zeros represented by memory locations that either contain magnetism or no magnetism. These memory locations are combined to represent bigger numbers using binary arithmetic. For example 0010 is 2, 0111 is 7, and 1000 is 8. Is there any way of altering and determing the polarity of the magnetism? If there were, then "north-up" could be a 2, "north-down" could be a 1, and no magnetism would be a 0.

That way, the computer could work in base three. A 2 would be 0002, a 7 would be 0021, and an eight 0022. It took two digits to represent an 8 instead of four (not counting the leading zeros.)

In binary, the biggest 4 digit number is 1111, which is 15. So sixteen numbers (0 to 15) can be represented with 4 digits. In base three, however, the biggest 4 digit number would be 2222, which represents 80. Many more numbers (i.e. data) could be packed into the same memory space.

Is anybody working on base three computers?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Amazing? Not

I propose a ban on the use of the word 'amazing'. Just today I heard the following:

The figure skater's performance was amazing.
The Olympics were amazing.
Crosby's goal was amazing.
Avatar was amazing.
The book was amazing.
The video was simply amazing.
The blueberry cheesecake was amazing.
Human reaction time is amazing.
The hummingbird was amazing.
The [sensitivity of a] mousetrap was amazing.
A girl said her boyfriend was amazing, but didn't clarify.
The same girl said her girlfriend was amazing to her.

I'm ready to scream the next time I hear the word. The problem is, of course, that the word is used so widely that it has lost all meaning. To amaze is to overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder. But people now use it to mean excellent, interesting, better than expected, higher/lower/cooler/warmer/drier/wetter, and very tasty. Human reaction time might be incredibly fast, but it is what it is, so one should not be amazed. Same with the hummingbird, but not that it can hover. If it tried to hover and fell...that should be amazing.

I agree that a hockey player like Ovetchkin can score an amazing goal, like when I see him put the puck through an opponent's legs, twirl around the guy, pick it up again, slip it into his skates to keep it away from the goalie's poke check, then kick it up to his stick, and pop it over the goalie's shoulder with a one-handed shot. Something that makes me blurt out, "Oh!" or "Wow" should rank as amazing.

But not everything else.

How Many Dimensions Are There?

We have three physical dimensions: length, width, and height. A mathematician or physicist might represent them by x, y, and z.

In his Theory of Relativity, Einstein used time as a dimension, expressing the position of an object in space-time with four co-ordinates: x, y, z, and t. Hence the phrase "time is the fourth dimension."

Remember that the number of dimensions is just a convenience. Einstein's formulas, using four dimensions, described the universe better than Newton's equations.

You may have heard of string theory using eleven dimensions. What does this mean? Why eleven? Here's a quick explanation.

An application of the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of momentum, in senior high school physics, is calculating the final velocities of two colliding balls, given the balls' initial masses and velocities. (And the angle between them, technically included in the word "velocity".) There are two unknowns, the final velocities of each object, and two equations to use. You always need the same number of equations as unknowns.

What if there are three balls? You need three equations to find the three final velocities. But we don't have a third equation. This is the famous Three Body Problem. It's unsolved: physicists can't compute an exact answer.

But nature can! How does nature figure out what happens to three simultaneously interacting objects? It's clear that nature does know, because this situation comes up all the time. The sun, moon, and Earth are simultaneously interacting. (An interaction is one object exerting a force on another, and all three objects have gravity, which extends to infinity.)

Physicists attack the problem by dealing with the bodies in pairs, or approximating the situation by saying that the smallest object doesn't influence the others very much. But it would be nice to have a third equation, to get absolute answers instead of numerical approximations.

A special three-body question that can be solved by students is if one object comes in and hits two identical objects, like two balls touching and the third arriving on the mid-line between them. Because the situation is symmetrical, you can find an answer. (The third equation is that the final speed on one ball equals the final speed of the other, through symmetry.)

So you can solve more complex questions if symmetry is involved. Remember this fact.

Now picture a circle. It looks the same from all angles. Perfect symmetry. Even a small circle is the same as a large circle, in one respect, because a small circle is the large circle viewed from farther back.

How about a square and a diamond? Are they the same? Sure: a diamond is a square rotated.

How about a square and a hexagon? (A hexagon has six equal sides.) You can't rotate a square or view it from a different angle and direction and see a hexagon. So in two dimensions, a square and a hexagon are different.

Now use your imagination. If you illuminate a cube with a light directly overhead, the shadow is the shape of a square. But if you turn the cube, you can get a shadow the shape of a hexagon. (To convince yourself, draw a hexagon, and add the "missing lines" to make it look like a 3-D cube viewed at an angle.)

So, if you think in three dimensions, a square and a hexagon are the same thing. They're both 2-D shadows of the same 3-D object. The lesson here is that if you include an extra dimension in your considerations, you can sometimes find symmetries that didn't exist when you were working in fewer dimensions.

And symmetry allows you to solve otherwise unsolvable equations, remember?

The string theorists use eleven dimensions. Their equations are so complex, apparently, that they need eleven dimensions to give them enough symmetries to solve them.

Gun Control and American Over-reaction

(Warning: stereotypes used in this dissertation!)

Last night I had a discussion with a friend, Jim, about gun control. He was an American, now happy to have been granted immigrant status to remain in Canada. He's from New Hampshire (state motto: Live Free or Die) and owns several guns, stored at the home of his parents in the US.

He had been an Obama supporter, but last night made Obama out to be the worst person imaginable. Why? Because, Jim said, Obama was sneaking in legislation under the tax laws to take away people's guns. Jim was furious, and proceeded to bring up the right-to-bear-arms and denial-of-freedom-guaranteed-by-the-Founding-Fathers arguments.

I did some research and it turned out that he was incensed over an internet hoax. ( There was a bill about licensing of firearms (HR 45: Blair Holt...) before Congress--nothing to do with Obama--that Jim thought would permit the government to enter private houses to check the firearms, but the bill said no such thing. A similar bill had been brought before, and never voted on. Likely, that will be the same result here.

What I found surprising (shocking would be a better word, except that I'm no longer shocked because I've seen it so often) is how the barest hint of gun control provokes such a visceral reaction in (many) Americans that it trumps all other considerations. Jim argued that the reaction is against restriction on freedom itself. Okay, I'll buy that. But the scale of the reaction is way out of proportion to the "danger".

First, the reaction is against the mere suggestion of something that could possibly be used by an extremely totalitarian state to remove all weapons from its citizens. In fact the first site I hit when I searched for Obama and gun control displayed his picture beside Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Such comparison is ludicrous because the president doesn't have the power over the legislative and judicial arms that those guys had.

Second, there are many limitations on freedom in society that we (Canadians and Americans, both) tolerate. We accept having to contribute some income to the state (taxation), licensing our cars, being required to educate our children, and so on.

Jim made a distinction between privilege and right. Owning guns wasn't a privilege; it was a right. He was on pretty solid ground there, except that the distinction has, historically and in practicality, been that "right" is what a someone demands and "privilege" is what someone else demands but doesn't matter much to me. We saw how society changed on the Smokers' Rights issue, where smoking changed from a right to a limited privilege.

It seems to me, and to most Canadians (I claim), that the American defense of their "right" in the 2nd Amendment is far more vehement than their defense of any hint of infringement on any other right. The reaction looks, to Canadians, way out of proportion. And since we Canadians don't include the right to bear arms as a fundamental freedom, the fact that so many otherwise thoughtful, intelligent Americans demand the right to carry machine guns and rocket launchers down public streets looks preposterous and downright pathological.

Am I exaggerating? Sure, but there is a continuous line between pea-shooters and nuclear weapons. Air pistols, semiautomatics, and the other types of weapons fill the gap. Individual Americans place the line between acceptable and unacceptable somewhere, and there is vast disagreement as to where.

To Americans, I say that I accept that the right to bear arms is incorporated into the very fabric of the creation of your country, both to rid yourself of an oppressive regime and to defend yourself against external threats. So I can pardon the vehemence somewhat. But what's ironic (and scary) is that your vehemence is its own counterargument. Jim said it himself, "If Obama's going to restrict my right to carry a gun, I'll shoot him myself." The very fact that he made that declaration shows that he shouldn't have the right to own a gun. My own Florida relative, visiting my cottage during an earlier presidential campaign years ago, was watching Jesse Jackson on the TV news. She blurted, "That man should be shot." I stared at her in disbelief. Compare her statement to "we should vote against that guy" or "someone should write an editorial against what he's saying". Her automatic reaction perfectly illustrated the difference between Canadians and Americans.

I agree that I'm talking stereotypes. Many Americans favor gun control, and many Canadians are against the drive to register long guns in Canada.

But am I very far off the mark?