Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: March 2008

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War ain’t what it used to be

I’m not a war monger, but I’m not exactly a pacifist either. A well-armed and well-trained military is essential to any country that wants to consider itself a world power, and anyone who says otherwise is idealistic and has too much faith in other members of the human race.

I don’t know when war got gray and fuzzy, but from people I’ve talked to who actually lived through the 1940s, some of whom fought in the war that occurred in the first part of that decade, there wasn’t the opposition that we have today for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a clearly defined enemy who was definitely bad and it was the duty of the Allied Nations to defeat that enemy. The propaganda that came out during that war is difficult to watch now, and not all of it was from Axis Powers. If you don’t believe me, watch this, this, and this. From Disney! Imagine a mainstream film studio making a movie like this these days. Wouldn’t happen, and if it did it wouldn’t be accepted by any normal person.

One of the things I feel very strongly about is honoring those who have fought and died for their countries over the years. It’s easy to get mad at senior citizens for driving slow, walking slow, not understanding technology, and being generally unsuited to modern life, but before you get real upset think of what they might have been doing in 1943 or 1944. There’s a chance that nice old man down the street has seen (and maybe done) unspeakable horrors. That was before PTSD was recognized, by the way, so those soldiers had to cope with it by themselves.

The war on the home front, by the way, wasn’t quite as nice as it is today. Those living back home actually had to do without: gasoline was rationed, so was sugar, rubber, meat, and a lot of things that would make normal life pretty tough. In other words, soldiers in foreign theaters and citizens at home were all contributing to the war. Some gave up their comfort and convenience, same gave their service, some gave their lives, but the main point is that the war affected nearly every person in the US much more directly than it does today.

The casualty count is something else drastically different today than in wars past. People are outraged over the 4000 Americans who have died since the war began. That is a lot of fine young men and women, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25, who will never get to worry about Social Security or retirement, and it’s terrible that their lives have been cut short. Something I find rarely mentioned are the 29,000 US troops who have been wounded in the conflict, and I think it’s a credit to the quality of military medicine that the killed to wounded ratio is so low.

In comparison, consider the battle for the Island of Iwo Jima. This battle was a major campaign in the Pacific, in part because the US desperately wanted control of the airport on the island, and in part because it was sacred in Japanese folklore and the soil was considered to be the same as mainland Japan. The 21,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island knew they were going to die there, and it was their job to inflict as many US casualties as possible. They did a pretty good job, causing the deaths of over 6,800 US Marines and Navy Corpsmen and wounding some 19,000 more. Ready for the kicker? That took place over the entire length of the battle, which lasted just 35 days.

That certainly wasn’t the only Pacific battle with a high death toll: Guadalcanal (7,000 dead in 6 months), Tarawa (1,000 killed in 3 days), and Okinawa (12,000 in 2 months) were pretty bad too.

War just ain’t what it used to be, from the public opinion to the casualty counts to the propaganda campaign.

Extra credit on a test: Follow Up

The question I decided on is this: “Portland is the largest city in Maine. What is its population, to with 10,000 people?”

I’ll post the answer when everyone has taken the test. Hint: it’s pretty small for a state’s largest city.

Update 3/30/08
The test is over. The answer is about 64,000. I got answers ranging anywhere from 8,000 to 4 million (nearly four times the population of the entire state of Maine). It’s kind of sad and amusing at the same time when you realize that so many kids have such little concept of anything like that.

Prizes that you just don’t need

One thing that kind of bothers me is the prizes that are given for certain contests. For example, consider a golf outing. A number of foursomes go out on the golf course and play the same set of holes throughout the day. In addition to prizes for the overall winning score (either for an individual or lowest for the group, depending on the tournament) there are other smaller contests. Closest to the pin on a par 3 is popular, or longest drive, or longest put. They have little stakes with a notepad on it, and in the longest drive if your tee shot is in the fairway you go out, write your name on the pad, and put the stake where your shot landed. If the next person hits the ball the stake, he then writes his name on the pad and puts the stake where his ball landed. At the end of the day the name at the bottom of the list wins. The others work the same way.

And what is often the prize for winning the longest drive contest? A new driver! How about the longest putt? A new putter! Seems to me that the people who win the longest putt contests already have a putter that works pretty well. Do they really need a new one?

A more valuable unnecessary prize is often given for piping competitions toward the top of the amateur level. There are some fine pipers in this category who are on their way to being even finer professional pipers, and wins a contest REALLY knows what’s going on. So why then is it necessary for the prize to be a set of bagpipes, or a new chanter? The winner obviously has a set that works pretty well, and I generally subscribe to the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought.

Some amateur contests offer a new kilt to the winner, or piping supplies, or a scholarship to a piping school, all of which make a lot of sense. It’s certainly nice that a pipe maker generously donates a set of pipes, but it’s kind of like giving a new race car to the winner of the Daytona 500. Seems like they already have one that works pretty well!

Extra credit on a test

I don’t give many extra credit assignments, but I do like to put a bonus question on a test, worth a few extra points added to the overall score. These are sometimes questions about physics or astronomy (“What star is closest to us besides the sun?”), the school (“What year did the science building open?”), or other random things (“At what point in his life did your teacher start playing the bagpipes?”). Little fun things that they either know or can make a reasonable guess.

I’m giving a test tomorrow in my Honors Physics classes, and I’m trying to think of a good question to use as a bonus. Any ideas?

P.S. – Alpha Centauri, 1995-1996 school year, college or age 18

My impure and immature mind

I have this podcast that I listen to from time to time; considering the musical instrument I play this should come as no great surprise. It’s well presented, the commentary isn’t obstructive or inane, and I get to hear music outside of the “mainstream” of bagpipe and Celtic music out there.

So I’m listening to the St. Patrick’s Day episode (part 1) and Marc was talking about Danny Boy. It’s not doubt one of the most famous, popular, and widely requested Irish songs, but it turns out most Irish people don’t like it. It was written by an Englishman (legend has it he never even went to Ireland) and set to a traditional Irish tune. So what has this to do with the title of the post? I’m glad you asked. It’s the title of that Irish tune that has adopted Danny Boy.

It’s a slow aire from County Derry. It’s called The Derry Aire.

You can’t tell me that isn’t funny.

All my ducks in a row


Ok fine, they’re actually chickens but I’m not going to split hairs (nor feathers). Here’s more proof that balancing an egg or two is possible when it’s not the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox; notice the date on the computer screen, and it’s not the Vernal Equinox! It’s two days later! Easter Sunday, to be eggsact. As with the previous picture, there’s no cheating and no fowl play here, just simple physics and a bit of patience.

I’d like to note two things about this:

  1. This is the first time I’ve ever balanced more than one egg at a time
  2. It’s significantly more difficult when using eggs with smoother shells. The bumps you find on some eggs really make life easier.

What exactly is quantum mechanics anyway?

Frequently when I tell people I was a physics major, or that I teach physics, or that I had to take quantum mechanics in college, they contort their faces into a look of disgust and say something to the effect of “What exactly is quantum mechanics anyway?” My response is “Quantum mechanics is the physics of itty bitty things. When you get down to objects that are small enough (like down to the size of an atom or so), they don’t behave the way we are used to things behaving.”

That’s not a bad introduction, and most people are satisfied with that. A few will push me further and ask for details. “Well,” I say, “imagine you have a box with a baseball in it. If the box is sealed, there’s no way that baseball is coming out, no matter what you do to the box. Now imagine a box with a single electron inside. If the walls are thin enough, there is a probability that the electron will appear on the outside of the box without damage to either the box or the electron. Now the electron doesn’t pass through the wall of the box, it just appears on the other side of it.” This is one of the bits of quantum theory that is pretty surprising to the average person (and rightly so), and it’s known as quantum mechanical tunneling.

There are other bits of the theory that are quite odd, and here are a few listed:

  • In Newtonian physics (the stuff usually taught in high school that does a pretty good job of explaining our daily experiences), knowing the position and momentum (speed) of an object is essential to describing its motion at some time in the future. In quantum theory, it’s impossible to know the position of a particle at all. The best you can do is come up with a probability that a particle will be somewhere at a given time, so it’s really more accurate to say the particle is everywhere, but it’s not really anywhere either.
  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that it’s impossible to know both the momentum and position of a particle. The more precisely you know its momentum, the less precisely you can know its position and vice versa.
  • Making a measurement or observation of a system will cause it to settle into a certain state, where it will remain. In other words, once you make an observation, you throw the particle’s probability distribution straight out the window.
  • Light travels in the form of particles (or quanta) known as photons. Newton said that light traveled as a wave, and indeed there have been many tests to demonstrate that it does travel as a wave. However there are an equal number of tests showing that it is also a particle. Whatever your experiment is set up to measure is how you will observe the light.

You might look at this brief list and say “I don’t buy it, it just can’t be true.” Hate to break it to you, but quantum mechanics is the most accurate scientific theory yet, and careful and repeatable experiments have proven beyond a doubt everything I’ve listed here, and much more.

So why do we need quantum theory at all? The answer is that Newtonian physics isn’t always true. Newton made some great contributions in science, so many that most of what is taught today in your average high school physics class was developed by Newton. But when you get outside of the realm of our everyday experiences, for example near a star where gravity behaves much differently than we’re used to here on Earth, Newtonian physics breaks down and no longer provides reasonable predictions. This gravitational snafu was addressed by Einstein in his theory of General Relativity, which has replaced Newton’s gravity as the foundations of astrophysics for the last century. But when you go in the other direction, down to the scale of very small things, the theories of both Newton and Einstein break down completely and provide nonsensical predictions. In other words there are certain realms, i.e., when dealing with very small things, that both Newton and Einstein were wrong. Enter quantum mechanical pioneers like Fermi, Planck, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, and others, who began to think about a few cases where experimental results didn’t agree with Newtonian predictions, and after a few decades quantum mechanics was born.

Quantum theory is unlike general relativity and classical Newtonian mechanics in one important regard: it doesn’t appear to break down outside of its comfort zone. In other words, where both classical physics and general relativity break down when you look at very small things, quantum is still just as accurate when you look at larger scale situations, and in those special cases it essentially reduces to the same results as classical mechanics.

The reason for this post was the video below that I found this evening. It’s a pretty good description of quantum mechanics. If it seems more philosophical than your usual science video it’s because the nature of quantum mechanics makes it unavoidable.

Politcal Correctness schmolitical correctness

I learned this evening that one of my friends and colleagues was fired from the Academy today. It’s still not common knowledge so I won’t refer to him by name, just as FT (as in Former Teacher). To be more correct I should probably not even use pronouns to identify the gender but I believe that is unavoidable. My source is the best friend and drinking buddy of FT so I am taking his description of the events with a grain of salt, but it’s true that our mutual friend no longer works here.

From what I’m told (and I don’t pretend to have all the facts), the story goes like this. The cause of this termination is a charge of “unwanted touching” of a female student. The “touching” in question involved FT putting his hand on a student’s shoulder as he steered the student toward a piece of educational equipment she had inquired about. Nothing more than a hand on the shoulder, but apparently FT was on probation for the last few years after a similar charge, and this hand to shoulder contact was in violation of that probation. The incident was “investigated” by the Academy lawyer who made her report to the headmaster, who in turn acted on the matter as he saw fit. I use quotes around “investigated” because the lawyer apparently didn’t see fit to interview the student in question, nor any of the other dozen or so students in the classroom at the time of the incident.

Now once again I stress that I don’t have all the facts and my source of facts was upset during our conversation. Let me also stress that FT is also a friend of mine, and though not a close friend I do find it very hard to believe the incident was anything more than a brief hand on the shoulder. My initial reaction is that political correctness is going to be the downfall of this society and I’ll do whatever I can to help FT.

After thinking about it a bit more, I’m pretty sure that FT is screwed. The reason I say this has nothing to do with him, and I’ll still stand up for the guy, but because the charge is “unwanted touching” and not “inappropriate touching,” there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. A thorough investigation by anyone should find, if indeed it was just a hand on the shoulder, that there was nothing inappropriate about this touch and FT was fired wrongly, but there’s only one person who can decide if it anything unwanted is involved. It’s a very sticky situation, and it’s not a law that is worded to the benefit of anyone with completely innocent intentions caught in a bad situation.

After thinking about it a bit more, I’m convinced that political correctness is going to be the downfall of this society. I won’t climb up on my soapbox because I there’s nothing profound or insightful about what I have to say, but there’s too much time and resources spent on not offending people to actually get anything productive accomplished. The Nazis certainly didn’t worry about offending people, and while I absolutely don’t agree with their methods, they were efficient.

Let me also go on the record as saying that sexual harassment is a bad thing, and the laws against it are necessary and well-intentioned. However I think people take it too far and people are fired for things that shouldn’t even be considered. If FT had slapped the student on the backside I would say he got what’s coming to him, but a hand on the shoulder? Come on people, wake up and smell the reality.

FT, hang in there pal. It doesn’t look good from where I sit, but I’m behind you.

The Egg-straordinary Claims of the Vernal Equinox

Today is the Vernal Equinox, which somewhat literally translated from Latin (I think) means “spring equal night.” In other words, it’s that one day in the spring where there is as much daylight as there is darkness. Since days are short during the winter and long during the summer, it stands to reason there’s some time in the spring where the day is just as long as the night. There’s one of those days in the fall too (September 22 in 2008), and it’s called, oddly enough, the Autumnal Equinox.

It’s also true that on the vernal equinox you can balance an egg on its end. Here’s the proof:


I did this during my free period today and snapped a quick picture. The egg is indeed standing on its fat end, and there are no tricks here (like salt or holes in the table). It didn’t take me more than a few minutes to get this guy balanced, and after a few tries you develop an “egg sense” that will tell you if it’s about ready to fall over.

So it is true that an egg can be balanced on its end on the vernal equinox. Actually it works on any day of the year by the way… stay tuned for more information.

Student Quotes #1

Being a teacher, I work with students every day. It’s hard work, it’s frustrating sometimes, and it’s usually thankless, but it has its moments that are really neat, when you see that spark of recognition and the student’s eye light up. Nothing beats the feeling of being responsible for that, and that’s my personal reward of teaching. On a rather regular basis a student will say something truly memorable, and I started this string of blog posts to capture some of the things they say, whether they be insightful or obvious, intelligent or not intelligent, intentionally funny or accidentally funny. This is an ongoing collection and will be added to when the collection of quotes warrants a new post.

“Tension, woo!” –H. H.

“Girls don’t fart, they fluff.” –J. M.

Me: “Why are you sitting in the back row? You sat up front yesterday.”
B. H.: “You spit.”

“It’s not nice being mean.” –M.C.