Saturday, October 27, 2012

Looking At It From a Different Perspective

The flick, Armageddon, where intrepid astronauts blow up a menacing astroid using nukes, has been debunked by scientists stating said tech employed could never do the job.

The heroic act, made possible by Willis's drilling expertise, splits the asteroid into two even halves which drift apart and fly relatively harmlessly past either side of the planet, saving humanity from extinction.

But now the effectiveness of the solution has been called into question by a group of physics students who claim mankind does not possess a bomb big enough to do the job.

A mathematical analysis of the situation found that for Willis's approach to be effective, he would need to be in possession of an H-bomb a billion times stronger than the Soviet Union's "Big Ivan", the biggest ever detonated on Earth.

Using estimates of the asteroid's size, density, speed and distance from Earth based on information in the film, the postgraduate students from Leicester University found that to split the asteroid in two with both pieces clearing Earth would require 800 trillion terajoules of energy.

In contrast the total energy output of "Big Ivan", which was tested by the Soviet Union in 1961, was only 418,000 terajoules.

Deep Impact, from the scientific perspective, fares better but blowing up the comet is not only impossible but also is a bad thing to do.

 Both movies missed the opportunity to startle the audience with enormous sonic booms. The fragments that strike Earth are travelling about 100 times faster than the speed of sound. Deep Impact did do a wonderful job of showing the atmospheric pressure wave, which expanded outward from the collision site.

     In Deep Impact, the comet is blown up by several nuclear devices at the very last moment. It is understandable that Hollywood wants to create as dramatic a movie as possible. But such a procedure would not save the world. It is impossible to pulverize a comet as portrayed in the movie. The nuclear devices would break it up into fragments that would act like a multiple warhead. The devastation might even be worse, as the destruction would be spread over a larger area of Earth. The atmosphere would suffer more damage.

But, there could be a way to avert disaster, if we have enough warning, by simply painting the object in question with white paint, a suggestion posted by an MIT grad student who looks at this problem from the creative perspective. :) (Note - Comets are dark, dusty bodies of ice.)

Given sufficient warning, an asteroid headed on a collision course with Earth could be diverted by firing paintballs at it, an MIT graduate student has calculated. While the idea might seem facetious or amusing on its face, it was good enough for Sung Wook Paek of MIT's department of aeronautics and astronautics to win the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition sponsored by the United Nations' Space Generation Advisory Council, which solicits creative solutions from young professionals. Paek presented his paper this month at the International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy.

Paek's proposal would work on two different levels. The paintballs themselves would impart a slight momentum change to the incoming asteroid, diverting it slightly -- but probably not enough to avoid a collision. But using white paint or other light color in the paintballs would increase the asteroid's albedo, or reflectivity. The pressure of photons of sunlight bouncing off the asteroid could, over time, provide a much greater shift in course. A similar effect is behind using solar sails for spacecraft: Light striking the sails and being reflected would provide impetus to move the craft.

Alternative approaches to the solving of complex problems is good for the soul. - Robert E.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You Are What You Eat

Just read a really good article from the NY Times titled The Island Where People Forget to Die, a piece about the Greek island Ikaria, home to some of the oldest people in the world. Besides being breathtakingly beautiful, the lifestyle of it's denizens is the stuff of dreams.

Seeking to learn more about the island’s reputation for long-lived residents, I called on Dr. Ilias Leriadis, one of Ikaria’s few physicians, in 2009. On an outdoor patio at his weekend house, he set a table with Kalamata olives, hummus, heavy Ikarian bread and wine. “People stay up late here,” Leriadis said. “We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then.” He took a sip of his wine. “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here.”

Pointing across the Aegean toward the neighboring island of Samos, he said: “Just 15 kilometers over there is a completely different world. There they are much more developed. There are high-rises and resorts and homes worth a million euros. In Samos, they care about money. Here, we don’t. For the many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”

Additionally, the old mantra of "You are what you eat." rings ever true, something the processed food companies of this country have completely ignored in creating cheap, compromised editables that have compromised the health of millions in a way completely alien to the Ikarian diet of natural foods left relatively untouched by the tech that permeates nearly everything Americans eat 24/7.

As I knew from my studies in other places with high numbers of very old people, every one of the Ikarians’ dietary tendencies had been linked to increased life spans: low intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy was associated with lower risk of heart disease; olive oil — especially unheated — reduced bad cholesterol and raised good cholesterol. Goat’s milk contained serotonin-boosting tryptophan and was easily digestible for older people. Some wild greens had 10 times as many antioxidants as red wine. Wine — in moderation — had been shown to be good for you if consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet, because it prompts the body to absorb more flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. And coffee, once said to stunt growth, was now associated with lower rates of diabetes, heart disease and, for some, Parkinson’s. Local sourdough bread might actually reduce a meal’s glycemic load. You could even argue that potatoes contributed heart-healthy potassium, vitamin B6 and fiber to the Ikarian diet. Another health factor at work might be the unprocessed nature of the food they consume: as Trichopoulou observed, because islanders eat greens from their gardens and fields, they consume fewer pesticides and more nutrients. She estimated that the Ikarian diet, compared with the standard American diet, might yield up to four additional years of life expectancy.

After reading this, one realizes the adage, Less is More, applies to more then just Jazz, architecture and writing but also to a lifestyle more in line with how nature operates, a notion more people should follow, including yours truly. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Design Aesthetic

This is one of many pictures yours truly took on a trip to Shaker Village in Hancock, MA. I knew about Shaker design from various publications but never saw any of the tools or products first hand until now. The part that amazes one is the sheer elegance and simplicity of design imbued in everything the Shakers did including this shoe cobbler work bench, an example of form following function to the nth degree. 

Seen above is a foot powered jigsaw, a precise and elegant tool able to do the job in ways not even conceivable in today's age of cheap tools intended to be thrown away once their usefulness has been used up. Without question, the Bauhaus designers knew about the Shakers and, IMHO, were indirectly influenced by their craft and strict adherence to the aforementioned design adage of form following function as seen by not only the Shaker jig saw and cobbler's workbench but also in the Bauhaus designed Olivetti typewriter.

As a last reminder of the importance of Shaker design, seen below is the Round Barn, a structure not only strikingly original in it's appearance but also in it's practicality.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A Poverty of Words

No, this post is not about the 2008 Daily Kos Word Clouds analysis of the Biden/Palin debate but rather about the importance of words and why a scarcity of them, especially at a young age, can relegate one to a less successful life as stated in a NY Times piece titled, Before a Test, A Poverty of Words.

This notion of word deprivation and the adverse impact it has on poor kids is emphasized in an insightful critique by E. D  Hirsh of a book titled How Children Succeed, a work written by Paul Tough describing the problems disadvantaged children have in a world increasingly dependent on one having the necessary word skills needed in order to succeed in life.

A Public Service Announcement :)

Wired comes through with a primer on how to read a scientific paper, something yours truly does but with some difficulty. Now, with this little gem of an article titled Learn to Read a Scientific Report, writers and readers alike will know what to look for when wading through a tome describing the intricate mechanisms of some esoteric organism or phenomenon. To whit:

Reading an original paper isn’t the same as understanding it. Science journalists try to help on that front, but as with any filter, important bits can get lost in translation. So you need to explore a few critical elements—of the study or the media coverage about it—to determine whether it contains life-changing advice or something best deposited behind the couch in the dentist’s office. And what are those elements? Glad you asked.

Causation vs. correlation
How do you know if a study’s results answer the question it set out to ask? Sometimes an outcome is just a coincidence—there’s a correlation but no causation. Meta-analyses pool the results of smaller studies and filter signal from that kind of noise.

True size of the effect
Watch out for weasely language—a “threefold increase” might only be a shift from 1 percent to 3 percent. One recent paper reported that women’s mortality risk rose 133 percent. That sounds scary, but the elevated mortality rate was still just 1.9 percent.

Statistical power
Look at two key factors, the n and the p. The n is the number of subjects used in the study. Multifaceted experiments typically have fewer subjects than simple surveys. Genetics studies need a big n. The p value lets you know whether the result is “statistically significant”—it’s the probability of something occurring by chance alone. You want to see a p of less than 0.05. (Results can be statistically significant and still only show correlation, or have confounding factors.)

Conflicts of interest
Most journals now note this as a matter of policy. Was the company making the drug or product associated with the laboratory that did the study? Are any of the authors trying to sell a product? For example, the authors of a study exploring the effectiveness of “brain training” techniques on cognitive enhancement worked for the company that developed (and sold) those techniques. They disclosed this, but that’s still a red flag.

Any questions? :). 

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Muscle Memory

Interesting post from the NY Times regarding exercise and muscle memory.
As an avid cyclist, I often take off after doing something complex on system as a means of getting away from bits and photons and have found that remembering complex actions done a few days before is easier to do if I ride right after doing the deed in question. Maybe it's because cycling tends to be a lot more fun then trolling for the right bits while trying to do the next great thing prior to the next ride yours truly will take in order to help remember if I did the next great thing or not. :)


It's been a while. Yours truly has been swamped, thank god, with work and BRT has suffered (yeah, right :)) from a dearth of articles pretending to say significant things about humanity's often misquided approach to dealing with reality but blurbs will be forth coming yet again like this one regarding Fargo, the existientialist's/absurdist's approach to understanding existence from the perspective of us rubes, Minnesota style.

[Marge bends over next to the overturned car, as if she's looking at something on the ground] Lou: You alright there, Margie? Marge Gunderson: Oh, I just think I'm gonna barf... Marge Gunderson: [standing up again after a moment] ... Well, that passed. Now I'm hungry again.

Another writer's take on the meaning of it all, filled with the same kind of irony as Fargo's, is seen in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Any questions? :)