steuard: (lake)
Thursday, November 3rd, 2016 08:27 pm

I've seen lots of people talk about this year's Presidential candidates in terms of equivalency: "They're both so awful this year," or "Why do we have two people who ought to be disqualified this time?" I doubt anyone's going to change my mind at this point, but I always really want to understand viewpoints that differ from my own. And yet when I try to list huge, potentially disqualifying problems for each candidate, I honestly can't see anything approaching parity. (Especially when we limit it to topics specific to this pair of candidates, rather than longstanding policy differences between the parties.) Here are the top few points cited as "deal breakers" for each candidate that I can think of:


  • Suggested the US might not honor NATO mutual defense obligations, which runs the risk of destabilizing the entire post-WW2 deterrence structure and courts global war between nuclear powers. (Even hints at this by a President would lead to those consequences, especially given Russia's behavior these past few years. I've seen claims that Trump having considered it publicly as a major candidate could have a negative effect, even if he loses.)

  • Suggested that the US could intentionally default (partially) on its debt, which could very easily lead to a collapse of the entire global financial system and would at least drive our cost of borrowing absolutely through the roof.

  • Actively encouraged racist and radical nationalist sentiments among his supporters, contributing to the public normalization of those attitudes to a degree we haven't seen in years (decades?): this is likely to persist well beyond the election even if he loses.

  • Bragged about his willingness to do sexual things to women without asking for consent. That's sexual assault, by definition, and even if you want to insist that doesn't mean he really did those things (despite women's claims), his words show at a minimum that he believes that behavior to be something that other men would admire. (This is just the most egregious of his many terrible behaviors toward women.)

  • Said he would insist that the US military kill the families of terrorists. This is morally breathtaking, and an obvious war crime. (He's also advocated other war crimes, like torturing terror suspects because "they deserve it" whether or not it's useful, or )

Again, that's just the absolute deal breakers that come to my mind offhand. There are plenty of truly awful policy positions that he's advocated (some of which trample on the Constitution and might deserve to be on this list for that reason), and in general he's demonstrated both serious ignorance of issues and structures in national and international policy and seemingly an unwillingness to learn what he needs to fill in those gaps (which might also be taken as a deal breaker).


  • Seriously mishandled classified information over email, using a private server for some State Department business. (Note, though, that the investigation was mostly completed over the summer and did not result in evidence clear or serious enough to merit prosecution.) If new evidence came to light that was substantially worse than all of the previous evidence collected, she could potentially be charged with a felony.

  • ...?

  • (Some might add "Would nominate Supreme Court justices who support Roe v. Wade", but that doesn't explain why she's framed as being so much worse of a candidate than any other Democrat in the past 30 years.)

I honestly don't know what the next item in that list is supposed to be. There have been countless investigations of her over the past 30 years (I think she has been subjected to more intense scrutiny than just about any other politician in my lifetime: you can decide how much of that was primarily politically motivated), but literally none of them have turned up actual evidence sufficient to convict her of a crime (or maybe even charge her) or to demonstrate that she abused her position or was negligent in her duties. Also, she's sometimes seen as "unlikable", but that's a different issue than "disqualifying".

I would really, really welcome help in understanding the perceived awfulness of Hillary Clinton, and while I won't promise not to push back against assertions I think are false or overblown, I'll do my best to be respectful and to try to understand.

steuard: (lake)
Tuesday, September 1st, 2015 10:03 pm
I hate shopping for clothes. I'm terrible at it, and it takes forever, and it is miserable. I have stories.[1] This is no doubt part of the reason that I'm getting close to the point where my entire wardrobe needs replacing.

And that strikes me as an opportunity. Part of my problem, I'm sure, is that I've never had even a slightly concrete sense of a personal style: what sort of look might be a good fit for me, and what sorts of clothes could get me there? I realized a few years back that I'd actually appreciate having some rudimentary answers to those questions, and I have a decent guess that it would make shopping less horrible.

The challenge, of course, is that there's presumably quite a bit of effort involved in figuring this stuff out from very nearly complete ignorance, and I've got plenty of higher priorities for ways to spend my time. (That's not even including the fact that trying to contemplate this stuff hits all my usual "oh god I'm shopping" buttons.)

So this is my question, or my plea: are there shortcuts? Can I find some algorithm or assistant who (perhaps for some not too painful investment of my time and money) could help me skip over most of the dreaded "personal style 101" tedium and get quickly to a halfway decent wardrobe? (In a perfect world, I'd be able to emerge from the process with at least a rudimentary idea of what made it decent. Enough so that I could have some confidence in my ability to shop for new clothes later, and maybe even use that as a starting point to learn more as time and interest permitted.) I'd welcome any suggestions, general or specific. Note, incidentally, that I live in a rather small town nearly an hour's drive from the nearest decent-sized city, and that my work schedule these days is roughly 9-5 (plus lumps of evening class prep and grading).

[1] Well, really just one, but it makes the point. A few years ago, I was trying to buy a few shirts at a local department store. I spent entirely too long wandering back and forth through the store figuring out what the options were and which ones I liked and whether the ones that fit came in other colors. How long, you ask? Long enough that about 3/4 of the way through, a security guard walked by to ask why I'd been hanging around for so long. "I just really hate shopping," I said, and I guess I was convincing enough that he left me alone.
steuard: (physics)
Monday, April 28th, 2014 04:40 pm
I'm teaching a First Year Seminar class this fall entitled "Time Travel in Science and Literature", and I'm looking for suggestions on the "Literature" part. I honestly don't know how much reading is reasonable to assign in this context, so my main request here is for short story suggestions. (I'm also considering a couple of short-ish books: Einstein's Dreams by Lightman, and possibly The Time Machine by Wells.)

There are a lot of angles I could take on the "literature" side of things, so I'm open to a wide range of suggestions. The important thing is for time travel itself to be central to the story in some way: there should either be a focus on the "science" itself or it should be an essential ingredient of the plot or the meaning of the story. (That makes me hesitate a bit about the Wells, in fact: his science is quite nice, but I'm a little worried about whether "time travel primarily for purpose of social commentary" strays a little far from my aims. But it is a classic, and that's clearly a valid use of the time travel plot device. I just wonder whether it's a whole novel's worth of value in my context.)

[Edit: Oh, and for the record, I'd love to have a good "twin paradox" story, too.]

Other background info:
I'd like to have included the phrase "the Nature of Time" in the title, too, but it started to feel cluttered... both as a phrase and as a course.

On the science side I have an initial sense of what I'm going to do (probably), including talk about space-time diagrams and having them read (at least part of) Sean Carroll's book "From Eternity to Here". (There are no prerequisites for the class, so I can't really use much math at all: concepts and pretty pictures it is!) I may not have time in the class to talk more than a little bit about entropy and the arrow of time, though, so I'm still contemplating options here, too.
steuard: (lake)
Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 10:12 pm
I've been sharing links to this all over social media since I heard about it earlier today. "Robot Turtles" is a board game project on Kickstarter by Dan Shapiro (a fellow Mudder). From the looks of it, it's a fun game that's designed to teach kids (3-8 years old, he says) some basic programming concepts along the way (and that gives the kids the chance to be in charge of the adult playing with them: always fun). It sounds like there are multiple layers of complexity, depending on what a given kid is ready to handle.

Have a look! It's rocketed past its funding goal in the day or two that it's been out, and it sounds like the game design and logistics for production are pretty much set.

(While I'm at it, what are some other good board games for the preschool set? Bonus points if they're sneakily educational like this one.)
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, August 19th, 2012 12:48 pm
Walking around town, you occasionally see things that seem a bit funny. This sign, for example, is in the window of a local bar:

They clearly take underage drinking very seriously.

I've wondered about this sort of thing for a long time, actually. It's surprisingly common to see folks apparently using quotation marks to denote emphasis. Where does that come from? It's easy for me to imagine that folks who don't read as much as I do might not be familiar with the usual "quotation marks indicate some sort of qualification or doubt" usage, but what is the source of people getting it exactly the other way around?

And while I'm posting puzzling things, our campus bookstore has started selling "PooPooPaper", which is based on fiber harvested from animal dung. It seems like a clever idea in general, but their comment on Step 1 of their process confuses me:

They collect the poo, but don't worry, "It's not gross - they don't eat meat!" What on earth are they talking about? I've seen my share of cow dung, and let me tell you, it's plenty gross. (Is there some insular vegetarian subculture that believes that their own poop is no longer at all gross, because of their diet? I'm kinda weirded out by that thought... I hope the folks who make PooPooPaper still take the time to wipe.)
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 04:56 pm
Lots of people seem to like this "Legend of Korra" show, and I've heard the helpful tip that it's viewable free on the Nickelodeon website. But... um... turns out I haven't managed to watch Avatar yet. How important or helpful would it be to see The Last Airbender before leaping into this newer show? Is there anyplace I can conveniently watch that? (And ideally at no extra cost to me. Netflix is a viable option, particularly if it's streaming.) I have no idea when or if I'm going to get to either one, mind you, but I'm interested in adding them to my queue.
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, February 9th, 2012 06:14 pm
I'm looking for ideas!

I'm giving a talk on "The Physics of Gaming" at a small convention this weekend (run by our college anime/gaming club). My plan is to first talk about "good physics" (games where some aspect(s) of physics are done well and important), then about "bad physics" (games where some aspect of physics is horribly inaccurate), and finally about how gamers wind up thinking like scientists (based largely on "Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds" by Steinkuehler and Duncan).

What I'd really like would be some neat, current examples of "good" and "bad", and ideally YouTube videos to illustrate them. I've got some ideas already, but any suggestions would be welcome. Thoughts, all you gamers out there?
steuard: (Default)
Friday, July 29th, 2011 03:09 am
I'm planning to add an entry about racism/feminism issues to my "Wow, Good to Know" page, and I want to give a useful link for each one. But (and I hope this doesn't come across poorly) I've had a lot of trouble finding "Feminism 101" or "Racism 101" pages that sound like they were written by someone who was actually in the mood to teach. (Many of the sites I've found are, quite understandably, written by people who are clearly fed up with people asking basic questions that distract from more nuanced discussions. That's fine, but I'm looking for a place where I can send clueless people who haven't just derailed a conversation somewhere.) I suspect that something like a wiki format would be better than a blog format, for what it's worth (or more generally, a structured site rather than a series of entries).

So, any suggestions for sites that feel like an actual "Feminism/Racism 101" course rather than elaborations on "Boy, do you need some Feminism/Racism 101!"?
steuard: (Default)
Friday, July 1st, 2011 11:15 am
I finally got a memory card for my Samsung Alias 2 phone, but when I copy MP3s onto it and say "scan card for new music" the phone always randomly *reboots* after it's processed 20-100 of them. The songs already processed work just fine, but further attempts immediately fail. (The 4GB microSDHC card is the same brand that Samsung sells on their site under "accessories" for this phone.) What the heck is going on?

[I've already tried: 1. Repartitioning the card into two 2GB partitions, just in case there was a size limit that I didn't know about (and that Samsung was ignoring in their own store). I went back to a single 4GB partition after that didn't help. 2. Deleting all the irritating auxiliary file cruft that my Mac saves onto the card alongside the actual music. 3. Loading files in smaller chunks. (The first 35 song chunk worked fine, but it rebooted during the next 33 song chunk.) But I've had it crash as early as song #24 or so, too: I've yet to identify a pattern.]
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, June 30th, 2011 11:47 pm

I've been soliciting suggestions from various social networks to help me make a list of surprising but important bits of life knowledge that my college students may not have heard. I gave three examples to start things off:

  • Tylenol/acetaminophen OD can be awful: no symptoms for 12 hours, but without help in 8 you need a liver transplant to live.
  • Unless you need help, NEVER talk to police without a lawyer (innocent or not). WATCH THIS:
  • A tender, warm, swollen spot on a leg could be a blood clot waiting to dislodge and kill you: see a doctor fast!

My twitter tag #WowGood2Know utterly failed to draw interest, but on Facebook this is easily the most commented post I've ever had. Early consensus was "This is the scariest FB post ever" (followed by "Steuard, walk. away. from. the. computer."), but it really took off. People have suggested some rather silly things ("Each human has a unique tongue print") and some very valuable ones ("Always be friendly to the secretaries"). I plan to keep collecting and summarize my favorites eventually.

So, any new ideas from folks here? What important insights do you think more people ought to know by college?

steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 03:59 pm
I think I've mentioned before that the drain for our driveway and rear walk sometimes has trouble, well, draining. This was a problem yet again last night, and I'm tired of that little stream of water flowing through our basement when the lake forms against the back wall. It's pretty clearly more than just the grate getting clogged that's to blame, but I've exhausted my limited ability to investigate and fix the problem myself.

So: what kind of contractor should I be calling for this? It sounds vaguely plumbing related, but it falls a bit outside of my vague mental model of what plumbers do. Should I be looking instead for the sorts of folks who could repair the cracked sidewalk nearby at the same time? (And, er, who are they, exactly? I've not yet had to have any serious structural work done around the house.) Advice would be appreciated!
steuard: (Default)
Monday, November 8th, 2010 08:52 pm
My mother really, really loves Skype. That's really caught me off guard, because for some reason I've never been very excited by it. So I want to know: do any of you folks use Skype regularly? And can anyone suggest why I might be more hesitant about Skype than I generally am about nifty-sounding new technologies? ('Cause thus far, I haven't come up with any plausible explanation.)

More background and some possibilities... )

I suspect that (for example) Kim and I would have loved Skype when we were living far apart after college: seeing each others' faces more often would have been wonderful. So why haven't I leapt at the chance to have that same extra closeness with family and friends today?
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 10:59 pm
Here's what I want as my computer desktop image, or maybe as a screensaver:

I want a pretty landscape, maybe a mountain lake with some nearby woods. I want the lighting of the scene to follow a more or less real time 24-hour day/night cycle (including shadows, appropriate tints for dawn and dusk, things like illumination by moonlight, and stars in the sky at night). If possible, I want the appearance to adjust to follow the seasons in real time, too. (Including a bit of variation in weather or at least clouds would be interesting as well, though I'd want to be able to forbid completely overcast skies.) Something like this may exist: anyone know?

But... I want this simulated landscape to be located on a habitable, Earthlike moon of a gas giant planet. (Rings? Maybe.) The scene's lighting should be based on not just the sun but also light reflected from the sunlit parts of the central planet (and perhaps on any other moons that pass nearby in their own orbits), and the planet's appearance in the sky should be scientifically accurate. The seasonal cycle should be based at least generally on some calculation of solar heating based on the orbits involved. (That might not be much different than what we're familiar with, but I'd want to check. Would there be any significant monthly cycle on top of the annual one?) It might even be fun to include some mildly spectacular feature somewhere in the night sky, too: a nearby nebula or cluster, maybe. Bonus points if there is a practical orbit for another inhabited moon of the gas giant to occasionally come close enough to see continents and weather patterns (and city lights at night).

I'd be amazed if anyone had actually written a program encompassing this whole idea, but I think it should be possible today. If it were done well (with good attention to both art and science, and with configurable details if possible), I'd be willing to pay a fairly substantial price for it.
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 12:28 pm
There's a thought-provoking article on medical ethics in today's New York Times: New Drugs Stir Debate on Basic Rules of Clinical Trials. The crux of the article is this: controlled clinical trials are the gold standard of medical evidence because they give the clearest evidence about whether one treatment is better than the alternatives. If we have no clear expectation for which treatment is more effective, then there's no ethical dilemma: the control group might well be better off. But the more compelling the evidence that one treatment will turn out to be superior, the greater the moral difficulty in refusing that treatment to the study's controls.

As the article points out, there have been times in the past when we've short-circuited the trial/approval process for treatments that seemed clearly better, only to learn later that they actually hurt survival rates. Careful testing really is important! And if you release a promising new treatment before formal testing, you may never be able to convince people to participate in a trial that could deny it to them. But none of that makes it any easier to look someone in the eye and tell them, "You have to die so we can make sure this new drug works as well as we think it does."

So there's the question: Is there any scientifically acceptable alternative to the usual 50/50 controlled trial that would reduce the ethical dilemma in cases like this?

Or to frame that in a concrete (if extreme) scenario: Imagine that every participant in a small Phase 1 trial took a single pill, and their advanced cancer immediately vanished and showed no sign of recurring after six months. What sort of full-scale trial would you demand as hard evidence that the pill was effective? How far from this extreme would the results have to be before you could accept a standard trial?
steuard: (Default)
Friday, August 6th, 2010 06:31 pm
I'm clearly naive and idealistic, but I continue to be astounded when I see mainstream public figures spewing blatant bigotry and hate and fear. I'm not talking Mel Gibson here: his racist outbursts have generally been publicly condemned by just about everyone (including himself, in a series of increasingly threadbare attempts to apologize). I'm not even talking about the gay marriage debate for the most part: most mainstream opponents of gay rights at least make some attempt to hide their prejudice behind rational-sounding arguments. I'm talking about cases where someone makes overtly bigoted statements and substantial fractions of the public and the media nod and murmur "good point".

I probably see this sort of blatant bigotry most often in discussions of immigration, but the example that's currently making me shake my head in disbelief is the controversy about building a mosque in New York City near the World Trade Center site. Apparently (and yes, I'm sure this is old news), "National Republican leaders, like the former House speaker, Newt Gringrich, and Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, assailed the proposal, calling it offensive." Their objection, as far as I can tell, is simply that because the Sept. 11 terrorists were crazy, fanatical Muslims, we shouldn't... er... let any Muslims congregate near the site? Or something?

I'll be honest: I don't even follow the supposed logic here. I have not come up with any way of understanding this position that doesn't boil down to the twin claims that "We think all Muslims are the same" and "Muslims do not deserve full citizenship in this country." The former is based on an egregious logical error. The latter is based on an astounding failure to understand our nation's bedrock principles. And both very openly reflect an unfounded hate for a specific group of people.

I do not comprehend how a mature person with any sense of public decorum would be willing to make this sort of statement repeatedly. I do not comprehend how a mature person can listen to these statements and not immediately think, "Whoa, that's over the line," the same way they do about Mel Gibson. But as noted, I'm naive and idealistic. So you jaded folks out there: how can this possibly be seen as acceptable in a civil society?
steuard: (Default)
Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 07:07 pm
I'm really trying to figure out what happened here:

My best guess (which still seems crazy) is that the person designing these measuring cups looked up a conversion factor from ounces to metric and from cups to metric, and the two factors were rounded differently, so they decided to put both (different!) scales on the cup.

It's amazing how much less that makes me trust the thing. What else did they get horribly wrong? (And how did this ever get past any sort of quality control?)

Edit: Oh, hey, just ask Wikipedia. Apparently, the people making this measuring cup decided that the people using it in the US where it's being sold would surely intend to use "metric cups" (250 ml). A customary US cup is about 237 ml. Strangely, the legal definition (for nutrition labeling) of one cup in the US is 240 ml. Meanwhile, an Imperial cup is 284 ml. A Japanese cup is 200 ml, which for some reason differs from the traditional Japanese "gō" which measures 180 ml (all of which explains why the cups that come with rice cookers are so confusing).
steuard: (physics)
Monday, June 21st, 2010 08:16 pm

A recent SMBC comic featured "Polish hand magic", a rather remarkable mathematical trick for multiplying on your fingers. I want to talk a bit about the trick, and maybe a little bit about the broader philosophical idea involved. So go read the comic, and then I'll babble a little.

Read it? Okay then... )

The broader issue that this touches on is our scientific desire for a satisfying explanation of the workings of the universe. I've always hoped that once we really understand the foundations of physics, we'll know the reasons behind all of the seemingly random patterns in particle physics and astronomy and cosmology. ("Why are there four fundamental forces? Why are some of them so much stronger than others? Why are there three copies of the fundamental particle multiplet, with such different masses?" And so on.) It would seem almost cruel if there weren't some deeply satisfying structure beneath it all, and one big hope for string theory has been that it will provide those answers.

Or at least, it was. These days, people have come to realize that no matter how unique the basic structure of string theory may be, the connection between those immutable laws and the particle physics we actually observe depends on many details of how the universe happens to be shaped here where we live. I didn't want to accept that at first, but it wouldn't be the first time science turned out that way. Kepler's early attempts to explain the orbits of the planets in terms of nested Platonic solids seem almost laughable now that we know the true history of the solar system: at this point, asking for a fundamental reason why we have the planets we do doesn't even make sense. So while there's still some hope that string theory will pick out our particular universe as uniquely preferred, it doesn't have to be that way.

So there's the question: When is it reasonable to hope for a deeply satisfying answer, and when should we expect that much of even a beautiful pattern is just due to random chance? Is there any way to guess in advance?

steuard: (Default)
Friday, May 28th, 2010 08:53 pm
I've followed most of the news about the oil leak in the Gulf, but I haven't read much commentary or analysis about it lately (too many guests and travel). So perhaps those of you who have been following the discussion can answer a question that's come to my mind:

Is there any reason at all that the hard-core environmental activists don't have every right to say "I told you so" to the rest of us after this? (Not that they should...) After all, given the likely enormous economic impact of the disaster (let alone the environmental consequences) this seems like exactly the sort of scenario they've been warning about for years (and in very much the way they might have predicted, with the government complacently believing the oil industry's rosy assurances that nothing could go wrong).
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, May 9th, 2010 10:04 pm
Risotto alla Milanese is absolutely delicious.

That is all.

(Ok, one question: Anyone out there know what "1/4 teaspoon" of saffron threads actually means? I generally measure a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of threads without compressing them at all and that works out fine, but I've always wondered what my recipes are actually trying to tell me. Surely there's a way to convert that to some rough number of threads?)
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, April 29th, 2010 06:09 pm
This weekend, Kim and I are going to Penguicon, a "Science Fiction and Open Source Software Convention" near Detroit. I've never actually been to a con before, so it should be a fun experience. This one's a little unusual with its "open source" aspect, but Kim figures that's a plus for me: if there's a time when the sci-fi side of things doesn't match my interests, I can go hang out with a bunch of Linux geeks and pretend I never abandoned them for a Mac. :) (I've still got at least some open source cred, since I've contributed a few bits of code to Firefox in the past.)

Any advice for how to have an enjoyable con experience? (I wonder if I should try to perform my Silmarillion-inspired Simon and Garfunkel parody at one of the Open Filk nights. Hmm.)