Thursday, November 10, 2016

More words

Today's sticky word was vituperative. Having looked it up again, it's a pretty easy guess what context I must have pulled it from.
Despite recalling the definition, this one remains stuck. (It is kind of fun to say, isn't it!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election 2016

Discouraged, disgusted, dumbstruck, disappointed. That is not the way I expected to feel upon learning that yes, it is true that anyone can become president of the United States.

As I decompress after a five hour fixation on electoral results, I'm coming away with an odd jumble of encouraging and depressing thoughts. Hopefully writing them out here will help me figure out where I think we can and should go from here.

Note: I'm writing this mostly for myself. If you are as fed up with the election season as I am, the last thing you want is another opinion blog about the state of the union. 

I think nearly everyone in the country, regardless of their opinions on the candidates, has been sickened by the hateful, polarizing rhetoric of this campaign. I don't have much hope for that to change soon, but I am reminded that this mudslinging is neither new nor worsening. Ever since George Washington stepped down, candidates have appealed to the worst instincts and prejudices of their constituencies, and this year is by no means the most egregious. Those of us who were shocked by the vitriol have fallen into the trap of thinking ourselves more enlightened than our forebears. People are pretty much the same everywhere and everywhen, and we are fortunate to live in a system where some of our worst tendencies are tempered by institutional checks and balances, and (sometimes) by open communication.

I suspect that a majority of votes this year were cast not for a candidate but rather against their opponent. Personally, I consider myself a right-leaning moderate, and I was deeply disturbed by almost everything that now-president-elect Mr Trump said and did throughout this campaign. My vote is best characterized as against Trump rather than for Clinton, and I can understand much of the opposition to Clinton's candidacy. However, weighing my options based on how much damage they would do to the country and the world seemed to make it an easy decision, and I am unhappily surprised that so many people in our country came to the opposite conclusion. I think this election result is a disaster, and I only hope the next few years show it be a small one.

(Still, if it came down to it, Trump would have gotten my vote over Giant Meteor, so I guess I don't see this result as entirely apocalyptic. I recently read a book about meteors hitting Earth, and those are really bad news.)

Wholly aside from whatever policies the new administration enacts, I think that Trump's election alone has harmed the things I value about America. For instance, the mere fact of his candidacy has helped to destroy the image of Western democracy in the eyes of the world. My main worry coming into the election had been that the racist, misogynist, and xenophobic voices in America would feel legitimized by a win (or even just a solid showing) by Trump, who has expressed those views time and again. Those voices are rightly condemned and vilified in the media, and should be actively opposed in the interest of peace, understanding, tolerance, etc. And now those voices can look to President Trump for strength and coalescence.

But you know what? I think most of those racist, misogynist, and xenophobic people already felt legitimized. And regardless of whether Clinton or Trump won the electoral college, the country would still be the same divided place, with about 50% of voters backing each of them. Maybe the best thing to come out of Donald Trump's win is that it makes it impossible to ignore the supporters who put him in office. Maybe it is a wake-up call to the country that these pernicious attitudes are persistent, popular, and powerful, and they need to be addressed. Perhaps analogous to the way that recent police violence led to more open discussion about the racial divide. I hesitate to make that comparison, but I'll leave the idea here. How we go about healing the hatred is something to which I hope many people give serious thought.

One tangent, here at the end: there was quite a bit of discussion about the media's supposed liberal bias. While some think it doesn't exist at all, I believe that
1) it is real
2) it is less dramatic than some (e.g. our new president) would have you think
3) in an abstract sense, it is a good thing!
Yes, despite having a conservative bent myself, I think that a liberal media is a sign of healthy democracy. Defined along a single spectrum, conservative means resistant to change, while liberal means upsetting the status quo. Whatever that status quo is, the people or party in power would like to preserve it. No matter how they start, over time the incumbents will necessarily become the new conservatives. Thus, in the long run a media that biases toward liberal reveals that it is independent of the government. A free press is one of the foundational necessities for a functional democracy, allowing for transparent inspection of the officials and institutions that administer justice. Without that, the government ceases to be accountable to the people. So, though there are things you or I may dislike about liberal bias in the media, or its effects, the fact that the bias exists is a hopeful sign that our way of governing is in fact working as intended.

NOTE: As usual, comments on this blog are moderated.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Partially Plumbed

In chemistry you often heat reactions but don't want any of the liquid to boil away. The solution is to use a condenser on top of your flask-full-of-science. A condenser, like the one pictured here, is simply a double-walled glass tube. You run cold water through the outer portion, which cools any vapor on the inner portion enough that it condenses to liquid again and falls back into the flask. 
* Image of Allihn condenser from

The slightly warmer water then runs into a sink and down the drain. From there, it tends to become the concern of your municipal waterworks. 

Unless, of course, the pipe draining your sink simply runs 40 feet through the wall and fails to connect to anything resembling regular plumbing.

In that case, it will fill up the pipe until either the purple laboratory glove shoved into the open end bursts a leak, or until the duct tape holding it in place gives up the fight.

Which, naturally, explains why a lab-mate and I discovered a quarter inch of standing water in one of our rooms just before 5pm on Friday. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Walden 2.0

On our Labor Day weekend we visited Walden Pond. Thoreau met us outside his cabin to show us how much simpler things are now that he can simply write his blog using his smartphone. 

We even got to take this selfie together!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Just (can't be) Right

There are some things we've been told enough times that we just accept them as truth. But some of them clearly don't add up, and now that I'm noticing the discrepancies, it is hard to know which parts of our received wisdom can really be trusted. I'm talking, of course, about the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.

The glaring problem is the porridge temperature. You know the story: the Bear family serves porridge into bowls and goes for a walk while waiting for it to cool. Goldilocks arrives on the scene, sees the three bowls set out on the table,  and promptly samples each one. Big bowl: too hot. Medium bowl: too cold. Small bowl: just right. 
Wait, WHAT!? 
It is the same porridge, in the same room, on the same table. How did Mama Bear's porridge cool off more than Baby Bear's? All three servings started at the same temperature, and judging both by experience and by the laws of thermodynamics the smaller portion should cool off faster than the larger one. Unless Mama Bear keeps her cast iron bowl in the ice box between meals, we've been lied to. It was Mama Bear's porridge that should have been just right!

No doubt you are now imagining some (unlikely and unsatisfying) explanations that could potentially account for the reported temperatures. But before we get sidetracked into a discussion of bowl shape or fireplace proximity, let's consider the other suspect elements in the story. The Bears return home, discover the eaten porridge, and proceed to the sitting room where Papa Bear and Mama Bear both comment on the mussed cushions or other small indications that someone has been sitting, however briefly, in these well-used chairs. Can't you hear Baby Bear's incredulity when he ventures to mention that someone has broken his chair to pieces, right there on the floor! How did Mama and Papa not notice that first?

The same scene basically repeats itself upstairs. Despite the fact that it should be clear to both of the adults that they are dealing with some form of home invasion, they studiously avoid noticing the actual person sleeping in their child's bed, instead drawing attention to how their own blankets have been disturbed. How wrong is that?!

I'm sure that you can see the conclusion we must draw. Either these parents are self-centered to the point of total neglect for their child's safety and well-being, or the whole situation was purposefully staged. Recall that neither parent moves to question Goldilocks or stop her from departing. 

What kind of parents would pull a stunt like that? Apparently they hired Goldilocks to teach Baby Bear some sort of life lesson. Fear of strangers? Importance of locking doors and protecting personal property? Don't go on walks? I don't know what they told Baby Bear afterward, but I am disinclined to trust any moral derived from such a manipulative experience. 

Papa Bear's story is too contrived. Mama Bear's story is too worrying. Baby Bear's story is just not right.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


The experience of getting a song stuck in your head is somehow universal. A casual association reminds you of the beat or the melody or the lyrics and before you can say "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the song had taken up residence and you will be living with it for the next two or three eternities. The squatter in your brain can range from benign to maddening. Occasionally they will leave their own, but usually they have to be forcibly evicted by (per the usual method) trying to invite a more tenacious guest supplant them. The most disconcerting for me is when someone around me starts singing along, in sync with the song my head. Then I know that the invading troops have suborned my vocal cords and are launching a sotto vocce invasion of the world around me.

But the point is that it isn't only songs that get stuck on mental flypaper. While earworms are the most common, I've discovered that many people experience the equivalent with their own unique mental constructs. For one of my sisters, it is typing sequences on a keyboard. One of my friends has numbers follow him around. In my case it is words.

Words that get stuck and repeat themselves in my mind for hours or days at a time are necessarily interesting. (Or at least, I only ever notice one that is uncommon.) The ones that stay the longest are those whose meaning or usage have somehow escaped me. The less I know about the word, the more insistently it presents itself, as though it is confident that this time, there must surely be a way to apply it to the situation. In these cases looking up the definition is often enough to start the eviction process.

Anyway, here are some examples of my recent thought-guests. I will post more as they come up, with far less of an introduction.
  • Hirsute
  • Inveigle
  • Anodyne
  • Philately
EDIT: It looks like I've mentioned this in passing before.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sick Odds

I like to play the Pandemic cooperative board game series (for which I just learned there is now a third expansion, along with the non-cooperative tie-in game where you play as diseases trying to wipe out mankind). Awhile ago received a present of the dice version, called Pandemic: The Cure, so on my birthday I got to choose a game to play, and that's what I picked. We'd only played it once before that, and I was surprised when we lost badly three times in a row. Only one of those times were we even close.

While our strategy was certainly suboptimal, the real culprit, I believe, was the number of players. Three seems to be perfect for most of the board game variants, with other numbers of players (both higher and lower) possible but tricky. For The Cure, though, I suspect more is always better. The game is listed as 2-5 players, but it seemed that three was too few. When we played the first time out of the box, we went ahead and used all seven characters since that was the number of people we had present, and the game was simple to beat. We will have to play some more and see if the number of players really makes that much of a difference, or if we just had a bad night of poor strategy. (The link above suggests that other people disagree and think 3-4 is probably best, and that the game can swing between simple and brutal on just a few dice rolls.)

The thing that stuck out to me, though, was the dice themselves. Each color (representing a different disease) has a different set of numbers on its faces. For example, black has three 3s, and one each of 0, 4, and 5. Compare that to blue, which has one each of 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4, plus two 6s. Since you roll the disease cubes individually to see where they end up, this ensures that the different colors show up preferentially on different continents (numbered 1-6, plus 0 for no effect). But since you also roll multiple dice of a given color together to try to "find a cure," it also impacts the odds of rolling the required sum (usually 13).

I was going to do the math to figure out the probabilities, but a quick web search reveals that other geeks have already done this. The upshot is that with 4 or more dice the colors behave nearly the same: all have a 45% chance of success with 4 dice, 5 dice takes you up to between 67% (red & blue), and 77% (black), and 6+ gets you into 90% territory. But if you are trying with only 3 dice, you'd better be using the scientist (who only needs a sum of 11) because she has about a 1 in 3 chance with all colors. Everybody else needs to pay attention to the color, because they are very different from each other. With three dice, your chances of success are: 23% (blue), 20% (red), 12% (yellow), and 7% (black).