Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Stealth bugs

My brother was reading a biography about the development of the F-117, the stealth fighter. According to the author, the first visceral feeling he had that stealth technology actually worked came in the run-up to the first gulf war. Bats lived in the aircraft's storage hangers, and every morning they'd find dead bats littering the floor, from when they'd run into the tail because they couldn't see it with their echo-location.

Its a cool story, but it got me thinking about how often we get engineering ideas from biology--aircraft wings from
birds, velcro from burrs, suction-cups from octopuses, camera lenses from the eye, etc. In fact, we steal ideas from Mother Nature so often that people think that nature does a good job of exploiting the laws of physics to produce some amazing things.

But, I think stealth is an example of an area where nature has fallen down on the job. I can't think of any animals, insects, etc that use the sort of signal deflection and absorption that are used in stealth aircraft. You'd kind of expect those insects which are hunted by bats to have evolved such things, since it seems like it would give them a big advantage.

Then again, I can think of a couple of reasons why it wouldn't have evolved. Stealth is usually useful from only one direction--maybe since bats tend to come from multiple directions its impossible to minimize one's cross-section from all angles without just plain being smaller. Also, I imagine its really tough for nature to produce the sort of flat surfaces that stealth seems to require, although this is less compelling when one considers that the B-2 bomber seems to be mostly curves. One of the biggest reasons, I imagine, are the low thresholds for abnomaities; one hears stories about how just three rivets 1/8th of an inch too high are enough to destroy a F-117's stealth ability. Maybe insects just can't meet those exacting standards consistently across generations.

Even so, though, it seems like some sort of evolutionary motion should have been made in that direction by insect hunted by bats in the last few million years.


Saw this on a forum.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Best line

The best line I heard from last night:

Girl: I've never been to a party in Virginia where the host didn't speak to me all night.
Host: Well, when the invites went out I recalled you as being much more attractive...

Efficient partying

In one of the few discussions I've had with my father about the Viet Nam war, he felt that one of the biggest mistakes made in that conflict was that the planners tried to be too efficient. Ideally, they wanted the last soldier to fire the last bullet as he was jumping in to the last helicopter.

Which is totally spurious, except that I'm glad that doesn't apply to the rest of life. For our party last night we bought a keg and 6 cases of beer. There are now three beers left in the house. Not quite perfect, but all in all not bad.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

State of the house

My fellow bloggers, let me deliver a state of the house: it is falling apart.

The fence between us and Jay's fell down in the wind.
The refigerator stopped being cold so all the milk and yogurt and ice cream went bad.
The floor of the bathroom/ceiling of the kitchen still has a hole, which will be really interesting if its not fixed by the party next weekend.
Still no heat.

On the plus side, the roof remains dry and the walls seem to have maintained some structural integrity. And we can still walk to the metro.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Value of Art

The washington post ran a story last week about the role that context plays in aesthetics. In the article, Joshua Bell, a famous violinist, played his Stradivarius violin in a subway station during rush hour. He played for an hour, over a thousand people walked by, less than 30 stopped, and he made less than $40.

What I find fascinating about this story isn't so much that no one stopped, its that the context in which something is presented plays a huge role in our appreciation of that thing--in fact, it probably plays a bigger role than even the thing itself. The most clear-cut example of this I can think of is forgeries of famous paintings. It is to the point now that forgers are so good at mimicking the originals--copying brush strokes, replicating paint, even simulating aging, that we have to use the most sensitive measurements available to tell the difference between a fake and an original. The human eye can't see these differences--you need things like scanning electron microscopes.

Given that I never intend to look at a Picasso under a scanning electron microscope, I guess this begs the question: why do we care if its a fake? If a fake is really so nearly identical to the original, why wouldn't I like the fake as much? In fact, much like the philosophical problem of thesius' ship, I could imagine some contexts where a fake might be more real than an original that has been restored.

So why this attachment to the original? The answer, of course, is the "provenance," the story we are told about this piece of art; its the context. Its actually the provenance that a forger is trying to steal when she presents a fraud for sale, because that is actually what art collectors are buying when they pay $30 million for a Picasso. If all they wanted was the image of the painting, they could get a print for significantly less. They actually want a link to the artist, to be able be part of a causal chain going from themselves back to the moments in which Picasso first started putting paint to canvas in Guernica. Everything else--the paint, the canvas, the brushes, are replicatable. It is the story, the context that is unique and worth the money.

But given this, it truly is remarkable to think that $30 million for a painting isn't buying the object. It buys the story. But then again, maybe it isn't so weird. After all, in computers, for example, the hardware is almost never worth as much as the software in it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Urban Tribe of Huntre Gatherers

Our first clue that something was the matter on an otherwise blissful Saturday morning was a loud banging noise that reverberated in the walls of the house, accompanied by an intermittent screech. Upon investigation, with the aid of Google, we hypothesized that the circulator on our boiler was kaput. Its a pump which moves water to the radiators after its been heated by the boiler. Sadly, it also means that our house heating system is inoperable.

Normally, this would not be an issue, except that it happened during what I'm sure is the last cold snap of the season. Temperatures on Saturday dropped into the 20's, and there was about an inch of snow on the ground from the night before. This unusually cold April weather persisted through Easter to today, when Warren Ulney cheerfully announced on my morning radio that we'd expect another cold day tomorrow...

Since we only have two space heaters amongst five people, the house solution was obvious: two go to stay with their respective girlfriends, the rest forage for firewood around the neighborhood. So, rather absurdly, tonight we had the scene of Aaron, Shantanu, Matt (who had come over for poker) and I collecting branches from neighborhood yards to burn in our fire place to keep warm.

I guess we're just couple of urban tribesmen trying to survive in an urban jungle. And its cold.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Watching Sunday night TV

Its been a long time since I've watched TV of any kind, and I'd forgotten just how annoying the ads are. I find it especially frustrating when an ad runs multiple times in a single commercial break. One such ad was for a new Fox show "Are you smarter than a 5th grader" in which, Jeff Foxworthy asks questions to see if people can recall "what is a trapezoid."

I realize that its supposed to be tongue-in-cheek; precisely because the bar is set so low that we take pleasure in those who cannot even pass it. But still, its sad that we seem to be lowering rather than raising what we urge people to achieve, and I don't see how this could be a good thing.

Perhaps this is on my mind because, in a scary bit of synchronosity, I watched the movie Idiocracy this weekend. At the time of my watching, I kind of felt like the movie had about 15 mintues of funny stuff, but was unfortunately 90minuntes long. Now, I can kind of see some of the points it raised, and fear it might be a clarion-call for our collective mental decline. (It is just a little scary that Luke Wilson has to be harbinger of the dumb.)

Returning to the "Smarter than a 5th grader," the funny part its that my buddy Kevin has already figured out the next step in our cultural mental decline. He joked that he doesn't so much care if he's smarter than a 5th grader. What he wants to see is a show: "are you tougher than a 5th grader?" In which adults of various ages and physical fitness try to beat up a 5th grader...


So, here's some perspective for you. I'm in the wealthiest 99.76% globally. Combine that with the fact that I'm pretty happy, and life looks quite good right now.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

And interesting point...

It never fails to impress me just how difficult it is to measure'd think with something as central to our lives, we'd be better at it. Still, this is a pretty good discussion of the problem, from crooked timber:

For those who came in late, and probably didn’t imagine economists ever thought about happiness, the crucial finding is that “Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.”

The data that supports this consists of surveys that ask people to rate their happiness on a scale, typically from 1 to 10. Within any given society, happiness tends to rise with all the obvious variables: income, health, family relationships and so on. But between societies, or in Western societies like Australia over time, there’s not much difference even though both income and health (life expectancy, for example) have improved pretty steadily for a long time.

I’ve long argued that these questions can’t really tell us anything, and an example given by Don Arthur gives me the chance to put it better than I’ve done before, I hope.

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.

One way to respond to this problem would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and income.

That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller than their classmates).

But, for all groups, I suspect you’d find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not change (or not change much).

So you’d reach the conclusion that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age. If you wanted, you could establish some sort of metaphorical link between being old relative to your classmates and being “looked up to”.

But in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Well, that's a thought that's gonna to fester...

One of the more interesting things I've found through American Footprints is Inside Iraq. It "chronicles daily life in a war zone through the words of Iraqi journalists in McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau as they risk so much each day to survive." I can't vouch for its veracity, but it certainly appears valid. My take is that if this is a fraud, these guys are very good in both what they've written, and how they write it; complete with the sort of language mistakes I've seen in non-native English writers.

That said, some of the posts from Inside Iraq are the most heart-wrenching as well as thought provoking I've seen in a while. For example, this one, questioning the allegiances of the current Iraqi government should push ever truly come to shove:
If the war started between U.S. and Iran, on which side the Iraqi government will be?
He goes on to point out that:
Please remember the Iraqi government is an Islamic government led by Islamist. Many of them were living in Iran for more than 25 years.

Many members of the current Iraqi government prefer to speak to you in Persian rather than Arabic

There are a host of reasons why even a Shi'ite Islamic Iraqi government wouldn't go towards Iran, 160k American troops being a primary one. But still, it is a thought that's gonna fester...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fastest Mardi Gras Ever

For tensies we went to Clarendon's Mardi Gras parade, just to see what it was like. Sadly, it was raining, and the parade was motorized, and it was a little cold. So, the whole thing was done in less than 15 minutes. And I don't mean that it took 15 minutes to pass our place on the sidwalk, I mean that we showed up at the endpoint of the parade at 8:13, to see the last float driving past...

So, here are some pictures, of Dave with a funny wig and Ellen. The last float. And, a dog with beads. Enjoy!

Monday, February 27, 2006

There's a reasonable explaination

I saw this in Hampi, at an Indian water park. I'm sure there's a reasonable explaination, I just don't know it...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Tristram Shandy

I saw the movie Tristram Shandy over the weekend. Very interesting, though I did get a little boring in the middle. The Washington post review of it is actually pretty accurate: it is a post-modern book written before there was a "modern," and the movie filmed it in pretty much the only way possible. I left the theater not exactly knowing what had happened, but with a strong desire to read the book.

Well I discovered that now you can, through the wonder of the internet, and by the convenient fact that "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," was written 40 years before US copyright law came into being. Click here:

What I think I like most about the book, of the first 10 pages I've read so far, are the long and wandering sentences. Laurence Stern (the author) clearly thought in whole blocks at once, and felt no need to break his thoughts down for the reader; he would just toss in a semi-colon and plow right along with his prose. If you consider sentences to be generally divided into units of thoughts, and also acknowledge that for some people consciousness is not so much a stream as a pool, then Tristam Standy seems to write by dropping water balloons on your head; you're startled, a little overwhelmed, but after some muddling you figure out what's going on. For example, the first sentence of the book is about as long as a whole page and ranges in topic from what his mother and father "had in mind" when he was conceived, to how this affects his temperature, body, mind and mood, to how his life might have been better off if they'd been considering something else.
Understandably, as a reader, you are a bit intimidated when greeted by this as the first sentence of the book...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Happy Birthday Nayarit Ella!

I mean this one literally. My friends Krissy and Yurii are the proud new parents of 7 pound 13 ounce by 21" beautiful baby girl. She was born Jan. 16, 2006 at 4:46 PM at Potomac Hospital.

Congratulations to them! And happy birthday to her!

I'll post some pictures when I get some. She's named after a provence in Mexico, the pronounciation is Nye-ya-rit.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy Birthday, Frank!

Its my brother's birthday today. Happy Birthday, Frank! He's 23, so everyone wish him a happy one.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The post office needs a watchdog group?

"Rick Merritt, executive director of PostalWatch, a nonprofit watchdog group." Its from today's post.

A postal watchdog group? Is that really necessary? What do you suppose he does?