Monday, February 27, 2006

Lunes Links, Part III

Did you notice how, when I miss the weekend and find myself posting on Mondays, the posts seem to be lazy collections of links instead of deep insights or scientific explanations? Huh. Weird.

Anyway, your theme for this week is old pictures.

I've been meaning to link to this huge collection of World War II posters from Northwestern University Library for so long that I forget where I originally found it.

Then there's this gallery of old newspaper ads which reveal the way of life of previous generations of American capitalists. The host of those images also brings us World War II ephemera (his politics show a little bit there, be warned) and, for a change of scene, bad seventies interior design. The photos he used to have in that gallery had me cracking up helplessly at a library computer one day, but he pulled them down when he published them in book form. These new ones are almost as good.

Let's see, what else... Well, I found myself watching reality TV while I worked out again tonight, so I might as well link to this article about the original unscripted elimination contest: the Miss America pageant. But the theme was supposed to be pictures, so here are the pageant's archive pictures of the winners from the 1920s, with links to the other decades. You can view individual years, too.

And if you'd rather look at men in long socks instead, here is an archive of baseball card images, 1887 - 1914.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February Poem

I did a report once in high school about Robert Conquest, so I decided this month, I should find one of his poems. Unfortunately very few are online. I found one I hadn't seen before, but in order to enjoy it I first had to google a few words: "Phlegrean Fields" -- turns out it's the region of ash, cones, and craters "formed about 35,000 years ago with the eruption of 80 cubic km of ash (the Campanian Tuff)" from Mount Vesuvius.) And "mephytic" (the person in that link quotes from a book I really like: "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader" by Anne Fadiman. The subject of one of her essays was a word quiz she put together. One word was "mephitic. "The English professor said, 'Mephitic! That must mean foul-smelling. I've seen it in 'Paradise Lost,' describing the smell of hell.' My brother, a mountain guide and natural history teacher who lives in Wyoming, said 'Mephitic, hmm, yes. The scientific name for the striped skunk is 'Mephitis mephitis,' which means 'Stinky stinky.'.")

So now that I'm clear on those words, I can feel more confident in presenting the poem:


The Arts that sensuously address
The raising of the consciousness
Bloom in a spread of themes and tones
—Geology of various zones

Some scale the great volcano—sky,
Flame, precipice, immensity.
While some tread, in the charming vale,
The villages–and–vineyards trail.

The grandeur group (though kindly) tends
To mock at its more modest friends,
While they, in turn, are quick to spot
Pretension in the peak–proud lot.

But both despise one who resigns
The glorious vistas, the green vines
For Phlegrean Fields that gall each sense
With flat glooms round mephytic vents,
A matter of tastes and temperaments.

—Robert Conquest

Friday, February 17, 2006

What is the Value of Algebra?

A column by that title appeared in the Washington Post.

The columnist, Richard Cohen, describes the case of a girl who dropped out of high school in her senior year after flunking algebra six times. Algebra was a graduation requirement.

Richard Cohen himself flunked algebra once, apparently, and barely passed the second time. He says it was a miracle he made it through geometry, and that to this day, although he can do basic arithmetic, he struggles with percentages. And yet he has had a successful career - his own column in the Washington Post! The lesson he draws is that algebra is completely unnecessary. He has never used it, and never regretted not being able to use it.

What's more, he doesn't believe that alegebra teaches reasoning. He says that writing is the highest form of reasoning - you know, rhetoric, debate, the stuff that lawyers do.

Okay, I'm not going to write the blistering critique that this undoubtedly deserves: P.Z. Myers already did. You should read his post, because he's right. But, as usual, he makes good points in a way that makes me want to disagree with him.

See, I struggled with algebra too. I think I got a C, actually. Around the same time, I was getting 50th percentile on standardized math tests. And although those events were around age 14, I also chose more recently, to take the new writing-reasoning section on the Graduate Record Exam instead of the old analytical section: "Amy sits across from Bobby and Carla sits two places down from David. Where were Emily and Frank sitting?"

Not a single math class ever came easily to me, but I learned it, and learned more, and I'm glad I did.

What I've learned is that algebra isn't just for solving homework problems. I took a formal logic class from the philosophy department, and learned that statements, as well as numbers, can be represented symbolically. I used algebra for any chain of reasoning longer than a simple syllogism. I honestly believe that lawyers and Washington Post writers would perpetrate fewer logical fallacies if they all had to take that class.

That's the class where I first learned about truth-tables, a technique I went on to use in my electronics course, where I learned how to build simple digital logic circuits. Richard Cohen may not do a lot of algebra, but I bet he uses a lot of digital logic circuits. I used algebra in computer programming -- I bet he uses a lot of computer programs. He can claim it's not necessary for him to know algebra, but he can't claim algebra isn't useful to him, because it makes a lot of the things that he uses possible.

But those are just utilitarian arguments. He probably thinks that the world worked just fine before all of these things were discovered. Cars are useful too, but we are not all required to learn auto-repair in high school. He probably sees math as a vocational skill. He seems to think that the engineers who built these things were "whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence." (He mentions a girl from high school who couldn't locate the Sahara desert on a map. Never mind that according to National Geographic a third of Americans age 18 to 24 can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map.) To Richard, math is like money. Flashy modern electronics may require a lot of it, but it is a shallow subject.

He's rather think deep thoughts about the nature of the world we live in.

But guess what, Richard? At every level, the world we live in obeys mathematical laws. You are worried about injustice? Find me the statistics to tell me who is starving and how much food they need. There is no way you are ever going to solve the problem without quantifying it. You want people to know geography, Richard? Without algebra, sailors would never have been able to navigate beyond their own coasts. Are you at all interested in the fundamental questions about the nature of reality, about time and free will and what those lights in the sky might be? The answers are in physics, Richard. The stars and the planets and we ourselves are all subject to the same immutable algebraic laws. How can you be so incurious that you don't even care to know what they are?

P.Z. Myers is right. Algebra is useful to society if not to Washington Post columnists, and it opens doors to those who learn it. But it is more than just useful. It is the language in which the universe is written. Even if you don't like it for its own sake (I never did), you must learn it to even begin understand the world in which you live.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lab Lit

I have been reading more "Piled Higher and Deeper". I already linked to my favorite cartoons, but now I have a few more.

They're all depressing, but number 136 and number 137 particularly so, because hit so close to home... Still, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Then there's one about what grad school doesn't teach you...

And the answer to a moral dilemma, which is very similar to the one a friend gave me when I first started...

And some practical advice for group meetings...

And how funding problems are resolved.

I was prompted to start re-reading these by the true lab story post over on Uncertain Principles, which explains
'A true lab story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper scientific practice, nor restrain graduate students from doing the things that graduate students have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a lab story, you feel uplifted, or if you feel that you have learned some useful fact about science, you have been made the victim of an old and terrible lie.

He mentions this in the context of lab lit, of which "true lab stories" are a sub-genre. Following his links, I find more examples of lab lit. There's a couple of books I've read on that list. And if the Connie Willis books there are classified as "lab lit," then so is all of "Piled Higher and Deeper." So now I'm trying to write a story of my own, and reading PhD for procrastination inspiration.

I'll let you know if I ever finish it...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Measure Twice -- Cut Once

Part of me has always been attracted to science because it's not girly. "What's wrong with girly?" you ask. Well, the good feminist in me would rather do non-girly things because she doesn't like the implication that she can't do them. The evil anti-feminist in me likes non-girly things better because girl stuff is boring. It's usually guys who have all the adventures, in books and movies and so on, and when girls do participate (Alien, Alias...) you get the feeling they're not the kind of girls who sew.

So... what could be more manly than machine tools? Drill presses, grinders, band saws, spinning blades of all descriptions, capable of slicing right through steel (and bone! Grr!) Mere "power tools" are for wimps. Oh, and soon we'll be welding!

But what I have learned (and I commented briefly on this before) is that the actual skill sets for these things seriously overlap those of the girlier arts.

For instance -- it is amazing how similar the workings of a vertical band saw are to those of a sewing machine. Sewing machines have a spindle and a bobbin. Vertical band saws have a drive wheel and an idler. The main difference is that the thread keeps unspooling, while the band simply goes round in circles, but the mechanics are the same. On a sewing machine, you can lower the "foot" to hold your material in place and ensure that you stitch a straight line. On a vertical band saw, you can lower a foot to hold your material in place and ensure that you cut a straight line. Except I think they don't call it a "foot." That's just what I've been calling it, in my head. Both are manual drive machines, meaning that the needle (or saw blade) moves up and down and the operator moves the fabric (or metal) across. Stitching a curved line and cutting a curved line are both difficult, but if you can do one, you can do the other. Treat the needle (or blade) as the center of the circle and move the work piece in arc around it as you push it through. Both have adjustable speeds, and you need different needles for different fabrics, just as you need different blades for different metals. And don't kid yourself: a needle through the finger may not be quite as bad as a slice through the tip, but it's nothing you're gonna laugh off, either.

The last step of our first project (a plumb bob) was to put a piece of string through the hole we'd drilled. This was difficult, 'cause the hole was long and the string was floppy. I couldn't resist pointing out that a tool existed for doing this job - the humble needle threader. This is just a fine piece of wire folded into a loop. Stick the loop through the hole in the needle (or screw). Put the thread through the loop. Pull the loop back through the hole. They didn't have any of those in the shop. I have one at home, in the little sewing kit I bought the last time my keys tore through the lining of my coat pocket.

And then there's the whole process of planning, measuring, marking, tracing, leaving extra material around the edges on your first cut, the scrap baskets for small pieces that might come in handy later.... And honestly, is my plumb bob really any more useful than any of the decorative pillows I made in Brownies?

Okay, sewing doesn't involve fire, and machining eventually will. But on the other hand, cooking does, at least if you use a gas stove. (Man, I hope the welding torch lights itself. I hate lighting invisible streams of gas. Stoves, ovens, fireplaces, Bunsen burners... I always panic that either I'm going to somehow light the whole stream of gas, all down the pipe, and explode the building, or fill the room with gas and explode the building.)

I feel like I've made a discovery, here. Like there can't be all that many people who've noticed these similarities, because how many people have actually used both a sewing machine and a vertical band saw? How many people took both shop class and Home Ec in high school? Why are there so few? If you enjoy one of them, you ought to like the other. It's all about working with your hands, making things. If you're good at one, you'll be good at the other. What I think we need, is a class that teaches both.