Balancing Act, Part I: Introduction

If you’ve been following CSC, you’ve probably noticed that it’s been a little science-heavy for a blog that aspires to straddle the letters-and-science spectrum. Blame the lopsidedness of my life, in part, but also blame the NFL playoffs.

You see, my not-so-double life as a full-time engineering grad student and part-time freelance writer and editor (the latter more to preserve my sanity than to pay the bills) dictates that almost all of my freelance work gets done on weekends and semester breaks (the timing of this blog’s launch is no coincidence). Thus, the writing/editing/humanities-grab-bag aspect of this blog is (I believe) going to take shape on the weekends, which is when I try to temporarily forget about science (at least when GENIUS is behaving itself and the homework situation is favorable). But since I’m a good green-blooded Wisconsinite, that weekend shape-taking has been usurped of late by Packers playoff games–at least until yesterday’s frustrating loss (what happened to the run game, Mike?).

So, to even things up, I give you a trifecta of posts that don’t mention science any more than I already have (unless I just can’t help myself or it becomes genuinely necessary, which latter would only serve to reinforce this blog’s complementary M.O.).

Insane in the Brain

Two crazy brain-related stories caught my eye today in Science Times. One of them, get this, involves involves a monkey controlling a robot on another continent. Monkeys and robots? Nice. Turns out we wrote a similar story in Wisconsin Engineer; there’s some (probably related) research going on at UW-Madison.

The other story, perhaps more bizarre, just screamed out for me to link to my two favorite Dinosaur Comics. [Warning: some sexual dinosaur content.]

Miscellany

Apologies for the week-long absence. I’m sure it doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of this blog, but I’m honestly just trying to enjoy my last couple weeks of relative sanity before the new semester starts. And again, that means we’re pushing back the anticipated release of the CSC Sunday column. (Conveniently, that gives me more time to figure out just what the hell it’s going to be.)

Plus it was my birthday. More on that in a second.

First, here are a bunch of news items that caught my attention in the past week:

Financial Times: Green activists concerned over People’s Car

This has been in the news quite a bit and is a little worrying due to the pure numbers involved.

Science Daily: Mysterious Explosion Detected In The Distant Past

Includes some brilliant science writing:

Most bursts fall in one of two categories: long bursts and short bursts, depending on whether they last longer or shorter than three seconds.

New York Times: Digital Tools Help Users Save Energy, Study Finds

One of the (relatively few) John McCain ideas I can get behind is his point about wanting to inspire people to be willing to make sacrifices for something bigger than themselves (see David Foster Wallace’s excellent “Up, Simba!“). I think efforts like this could turn into our generation’s version of victory gardens and the like. Then again, my roommate and I have been talking about finishing up that insulating-plastic-on-the-windows thing for a couple weeks now (ever since we got our first real winter electric bill to go with our frickin’ hotel room heater), so it’s not like I’m tearing it up on the being-part-of-the-solution tip.

New York Times: Running and Fighting, All to Save Her Son

Why have my roommate and I been watching “Terminator: The TV Show”? (1) I love robots. (2) It’s writer’s strike good:

I propose circumventing the problem with the creation of two temporary critical categories: strike-good and, well, just plain good. To the second denomination I submit “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” a new Fox series that begins on Sunday.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I don’t think Michelle’s actually interested in the series, it’s just that we only have one TV.)

Science News: Small Infinity, Big Infinity

In other David-Foster-Wallace-has-written-a-book-or-essay-or-something-about-it news, here’s a neat little Cantor article. Set theory, meet game theory.

The Chronicle Herald: Another way to fly: blimps

No energy- or technology-related insight here, I just think it would be cool to fly around in blimps.

New York Times: Team Creates Rat Hearts Using Cells of Baby Rats

One of those “I didn’t know we could do that” moments. Well, something like that. Until recently, we couldn’t.

Times West Virginian: ‘Kids think it’s a game’

Another “Officials noted there may soon be a shortage of engineers” sighting.

Waco Tribune-Herald: Hewlett-Packard CEO visits Waco, talks about U.S. technology field

And another.

New York Times: Ford and Chrysler Unveil Their Redesigned Pickups, G.M. Buys Stake in Ethanol Made From Waste, Toyota Will Offer a Plug-In Hybrid by 2010

Thought it was interesting that all three business articles in my NYT email this morning were about auto makers. By the way, if you’re interested in “the alcohol economy” (as an energy, not intoxication source), check out Energy Victory by Robert Zubrin.

New York Times: American Cut Back Sharply on Spending

I don’t want to sound like a total economics ignoramus, but I really want to be excited about this news.

whatsnextblog.com: We Can Use Salt Water as Fuel Right Now

I’m not sure you should believe the hype, but this is interesting. I’d heard about this guy’s “radio”therapy stuff but not the burning salt water.

Lake Superior State University 2008 List of Banished Words

Great leadoff: “perfect storm.”

See, I wasn’t totally neglecting my blogging duties this week. Anyway, here’s a few pics from my birthday Saturday. Thanks to everyone who came out; it was terrific to see you all.


My parents came into town and brought a stadium cake (we were all sitting around watching the Packer victory). Not a good thank-you line: “Wow, did Rachel make it?’

Sarah and co. had just come from a rodeo (well, bull riding only).


The next day, Sarah brought over another cake, one Emily’s mom made. She (Sarah) went a little overboard with the candles.

Sorry about the ratio of pictures of cake to pictures of people. Apparently it’s no longer a good idea to post pictures of adults drinking beverages they’re legally allowed to drink.

Gaining Energy

I got one of those thirty-hour stomach bugs this weekend, so I didn’t get to unveil my cool Sunday column this past weekend because I could barely get off the couch. Stay tuned!

As I slowly regain my own energy, I thought I’d pass along two energy-related news items, complete with short, grumpy commentary:

Detroit Free Press: “Ford to unveil eco-friendlier engine

I know embarrassingly little about how cars work. Seriously, Car Talk is the source of virtually all my automotive knowledge. But even I know about turbocharing. I even wrote a report about it in my sophomore dynamics class.

Yes, implementing new technologies into any complex machine is a difficult task. And, yes, I realize this article mentions that the EcoBoost derives its performance “with a combination of turbocharging and direct injection technology” (emphasis added). But, damnit, why couldn’t we have had this thing five or even ten years ago? It’s awfully hard not to assume it’s just because of industry lobbyists fighting against emissions standards. Better late than never, though (one hopes).

Muskegon Chronicle: “Pondering wind energy possibilities

No speculation is necessary about why many wind energy projects don’t go forward, though–people apparently think they’re ugly! Are you frickin’ kidding me? Who cares? Uglier than the alternative? Surely not.

This article goes to great pains to bring up–three times–the issue of whether or not this and other offshore wind projects are actually visible from shore. Why? Because apparently most people’s aesthetic sensibilities are totally divorced from any symbolic influence. I’ve said for several years now that I believe spent nuclear fuel should be held up as a beautiful beacon for a technology that doesn’t force us to indiscriminately dump our energy byproducts into the air. Unfortunately, spent fuel it’s actually much to look at. (Though it’s not the glowing green stereotype from The Simpsons’ credits. It looks exactly like fresh fuel!)

Quiet, graceful, and lithe, windmills really are beautiful, and they also symbolize responsible environmental stewardship. Why do we treat them like eyesores?

Hitting the Links

I added a bunch of links to my work today, and it occurred to me that two of the items I posted do an excellent job of representing the kind of complementary writing I’m trying to do in this blog of letters and science. I wrote them both a few years ago, but I’d still love any feedback you might have.

Wisconsin Engineer: “Mercy mercy me”

I took two courses this summer. The first was Afro-American Studies 156: Black Music and American Cultural History, taught by UW-Madison’s Professor Craig Werner. The second was Nonproliferation Issues for Weapons of Mass Destruction, a symposium at the University of Missouri. In retrospect, I’m grateful the order wasn’t reversed.

As I have argued in the past, I believe courses from both ends of campus can complement each other in sophisticated ways. For instance, I certainly expected that my year of studying some history of science would have prepared me for a class on WMDs, and it did to a certain extent. Not long after I got to Missouri, though, I found myself much more grateful for my newfound knowledge of black music than for my perhaps more applicable knowledge of Niels Bohr’s idea of the complementarity of the atomic bomb or Donald Mackenzie’s commentary on the history of weapons testing. That’s because, by the end of the first day of the symposium, I was in need more of emotional support than historical or scientific background information.

Read on…

Wisconsin Engineer: “Resonant frequencies”

In February, Scientific American reported what fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien had written half a century before. The creation of the universe, it seems, might be better summarized by “Give us some music” than “Let there be light.”

It’s high time Tolkien agreed with a scientist.

The article, entitled “The Cosmic Symphony,” described how cosmologists have come to reason that the big bang “triggered sound waves that alternately compressed and rarefied regions of the primordial plasma.” Scientists have a record of this compression wave phenomenon in the form of the cosmic microwave background, a nearly uniform spread of radiation that has guided cosmologists in their quest to explain some of the mysteries of creation.

Read on…

Point of Contention

Is The Tipping Point‘s central tenet–that “‘social epidemics’ are ‘driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people'”–correct? Some networks theorists writing in Journal of Consumer Research don’t think so.

I won’t start my “Network Flows” class until the end of the month, but I think these guys’ central point makes sense:

Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. ‘If it had been raining,’ Dodds says, ‘that same match wouldn’t have had an effect.’ Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.

In other words, they’re claiming that it’s better to find a way to reach “a critical mass of easily influenced individuals” rather than a few “exceptional people”.

This is disappointing news, if you ask me. I’d rather hear about trends from well spoken experts than a gang of easily influenced chumps.

In other news, it turns out I’m not the only one who watches video on his lunch break. Then again, I’m in grad school, so I do plenty of non-lunch-hour video watching as well. You try sitting at a desk 12-14 hours a day debugging code without a few Power Thirst breaks. Unacceptable!

Molten Swing

This article from Power Engineering caught my attention today. One common claim about renewable energy is that you can’t use it to make “base load”–the electrical power you need available all the time: day or night, rain or shine, wind…or no wind. My gut tells me that the claim is effectively true, though of course I’m biased and there vehement detractors (some of them Australian, apparently). My (developing) expertise in systems analysis–nuclear fuel cycle systems analysis, though, not the power grid–says that the question’s probably harder to answer definitively than either side is willing to admit.

Anyway, the game would totally change if energy produced from renewables such as solar and wind could be efficiently stored. One interesting idea for storing solar power is to use the collected energy to heat up molten salts, which are suitable thermal-hydraulic fluids because of their high heat capacity and good conductivity. This is one of those great “now why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, although the news note is a bit light on details. Let me know if you know anything about how the currently-employed technology (in the Nevada Solar One plant) works.

Speaking of molten salts as thermal-hydraulic fluids, I was (as usual) fairly impressed with the Wikipedia article on molten salt reactors. Check it out.

And on a totally unrelated note, here’s some news about our continuing, tragicomic insistence that spending billions of dollars on missile defense is a good idea. (And as long as we’re talking about missiles and whether they hit their targets, I can’t help but point you toward “Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy” by Donald Mackenzie, which I read some time ago in Richard Staley‘s excellent history of 20th century science class.)

New Year’s News Wrap

Mourning yesterday’s Badger loss in the Outback Bowl due to a “gutsy” but selfish and foolhardy performance by Tyler Donovan, subpar secondary play, and questionable play-calling (you guys had all three of your gifted running backs available and this is the best you could do?!), I decided to just do a quick news wrap-up today. (By the way, congrats and thanks to Michigan; you guys helped the Big Ten manage to not look like total chumps yesterday.)

USA Today:Tech could reduce coal facilities’ emissions

I didn’t know USA Today wrote stories this long. Anyway, this one’s worth a read just to keep tabs on this important technology (integrated gasification combined cycle). Any honest nuclear engineer will tell you that nuclear alone isn’t going to solve all our energy problems, so everyone should be rooting for the carbon-capture potential of IGCC.

Chicago Tribune:Space power could be bright idea

The hallways of UW-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute (which takes up most of the floor I work on) are decorated almost exclusively with framed articles about the interesting but rhetorically nightmarish idea of mining the moon for helium-3 to fuel fusion reactors (“but you haven’t even gotten one to work yet!” the critics would rightly decry). This power-from-space idea seems slightly less far-fetched, though still a little frightening (“but what if you point your one megawatt microwave transmitter in the wrong direction?”).

New York Times:Rock Is Back. Give Him a Cookie.

Review of that show I mentioned earlier. Glad to see Jill Scott opened. By the way, not that I’m any authority, but I’ve never read a disappointing article by Kelefa Sanneh.

New York Times:The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen

This article contains a half-dozen book ideas for some food-loving engineer. It reminded me of the time I had a homework question that asked for fluid mechanics and heat transfer arguments for why fryers and convection ovens cook turkeys faster than traditional ovens. (Come to think of it, that might make a good holiday post next Thanksgiving; this past year, CSC didn’t exist yet, plus my friends Carl and Brenna and I were too busy eating Thanksgiving burritos at Las Iguanas in Toronto).

New York Times:Web Playgrounds of the Very Young

When judging the recent regional Ethics Bowl Madison hosted, I heard the argument that “marketing is not brainwashing.” While I’m inclined to agree most of the time, the way the suits talk about “instill[ing] brand loyalty in a generation of new customers” in stories like this makes me not so sure. Those new customers are, like, seven.

Challah! Hallah! Holla!

As I’ve written elsewhere, my sister is a baker. Yesterday, to fulfill some Church-charity-auction-related obligation, she was baking a couple loaves of Challah (not to be confused with Ciabatta, as I eventually found out). Dutifully typing away at the terrific kitchen counter where I do all my work when I’m at my parents’ house, I paused to bug her a bit about this bread (whose name, as you probably know, is pronounced like the repeated word in the first line of John Legend’s “Used to Love U“) and get a feel for what things must be like at her school.

Kyle: So are people as obnoxious about Challah as I would be?
Rachel: What do you mean?
Kyle: Holla!
Rachel: Oh, yeah, totally.
Kyle: Good. I mean, that’s not a word I usually use, but how do you turn that down?
Rachel: My friend has a shirt that has a picture of one and says Holla, spelled the other way. She says she only wears it at school because nobody gets it.

I’m so glad people are nerdily goofy whatever their discipline. For our part, we nuclear engineers tend to hang a lot of Onion science stories on our office walls. “Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill” is my all-time favorite (except, of course, for this bit of non-science genius). More recently, “Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing” included a hilarious illustration that used drawings of a “science thing” many people in my group actually work on (the unwisely named and recently defunded International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

Pryor Precedent

Great article in the Times today about Chris Rock and his upcoming New Year’s show. I’ve been thinking about Rock lately in light of Dave Chappelle’s mostly MIA status. It reminds me of an interesting Rock/Chappelle moment from when a good friend of mine was in UW-Madison’s course Black Music and American Cultural History (which was created by the visionary Craig Werner, who taught the summer session of the class that I took, once told me I’d done a nice job on an especially tough midterm, is buddies with my friend Eric over at Streaming Media, and gave a killer introduction for Michael Eric Dyson when he spoke at Madison this fall [the gem, when mentioning that the intro to Dyson’s new Know What I Mean? was written by “a guy you may have heard of” named Jay-Z: “That’s a pretty good blurb. The best blurb I ever got was Michael Eric Dyson.”]).

My friend tells me that someone in the class made the comment that Dave Chappelle seemed like “the new Richard Pryor. ” The TA responded that Chris Rock “would be sorry to hear that,” since that was a role he had aspired to. It made me realize that while I’m a fan of both of these heirs apparent, I know embarrassingly little about Pryor beyond some superficial stuff: that honky sketch with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak, the cameo in The Muppet Movie, the mention in “Chocolate City” (a song Werner introduced me to), and one of the documentaries–the one where his wife tells the story about the time she tried using the n-word.

As I was doing a little research on Pryor and Chappelle v. Rock, I learned that Pryor himself had actually answered the question (his ruling: Chappelle). I also learned a hell of a lot more, mostly from an excellent article by William Jelani Cobb at seeingblack.com (not to be confused with this Cobb, who I occasionally read). Cobb’s distinction about Pryor and Chapelle’s primary “concern[] with humanizing Black folk” is key to the debate, if there even is much of one given that perhaps the most appropriate judge has already ruled and, as Cobb points out, is sadly no longer available for comment.