The (Your Name Here) Story

Have you had to endure industrial or promotional films? Do the crass clichés of commercial hack-work leave you cold and unmoved?

Or, are you a communications specialist in a burgeoning field of industry? Do you have a pressing need to explain the world-changing innovations of your corporation to the public?

If these descriptions sound familiar, then Calvin Communications has the tool for you! We here at Science After Sunclipse are proud to present The (Your Name Here) Story, the world’s first truly multi-purpose cinema document:

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Arithmetic and Stoichiometry

Two summers ago, four men tried to “top” the terrorist attacks on the London Tube but failed, for a reason any science educator can appreciate:

The explosives would have caused carnage on the transport network, but the plot mastermind, Ibrahim, miscalculated the ratios of ingredients when making the bombs, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper has reported.

The court heard Ibrahim personally bought the bleach and chapati flour used to make the devices in his flat, which was also booby-trapped. Police said the highly volatile triacetone triperoxide, known as “mother of Satan” was used as a detonator.

But Ibrahim, who failed maths at school, got his sums wrong when mixing the recipe, making the bombs — which were packed with nails and screws — harmless.

This story doesn’t make explicit that the “bleach” was actually hair bleach, which the plotters tried to distill to get hydrogen peroxide.

The jury was told that, using two saucepans and a frying pan on the flat’s small cooker, the men set up a seven-day rota involving Ibrahim, Asiedu and Omar to oversee the process of boiling it down to the required concentration. Some was re-bottled with labels suggesting it had reached the required strength. Subsequent test firings by forensic scientists suggested that one reason why the bombs had not fully exploded could have been that the chemical had not been sufficiently reduced.

Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) was also used in the 7 July 2005 attack on the London Underground, and many people speculated that the terrorists responsible for the “War on Liquids” were also trying to make TATP in airplane lavatories.

(Via John Armstrong.)

Spam Statistics

Or, “Why oh why don’t people make raw data accessible?”

The Akismet people have made some statistics available on how many spam messages their WordPress plugin has trapped. They use a Flash applet to display their graph, which I hope means that the graph is being updated (instead of merely implying horrible software design). Here’s a screen shot from a moment ago:

This graph shows a few features of interest. First, there’s a big jump — of apparently several hundred thousand — legitimate messages in mid-May. I wonder if this actually represents a new spamming technique. Second, both “ham” and spam show periodicity. Running this time series through a Fourier transform might yield intriguing results.

Sadly, the Akismet folks aren’t providing actual numbers to go along with the pretty pictures, and extracting them from a graph like this doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun Wednesday afternoon.

I’d also be curious to see what the ratio of spams caught to Akismet plugins installed looks like as a function of time.

UPDATE (12 July 2007): The algorithm always finds raw data! The numbers necessary to draw the chart can be retrieved in XML format here, and the snapshots I’ve been playing with are here and here.

The Physics of Nonphysical Systems

We just heard Steinn Sigurðsson complain that there’s no science in Harry Potter, and therefore the book title The Science of Harry Potter is a non-starter. Jennifer Ouellette then leaped to its defense:

I think in this instance, I’d conjure the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” :)

But then, that’s just the sort of viewpoint you’d expect from somone who wrote about the physics of the Buffyverse.

In a display of the kind of synchronicity one might expect whenever the system is large and the selection criteria are loose, Bee at Backreaction just pointed to a new paper on the arXiv, “Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun but Limited Science Literacy” (9 July 2007). C.J. Efthimiou and R.A. Llewellyn declare their intentions as follows:

In this article, we examine specific scenes from popular action and sci-fi movies and show how they blatantly break the laws of physics, all in the name of entertainment, but coincidentally contributing to science illiteracy.

Movies under their microscope include Speed (1994), where projectile motion is thrown out the window; Spiderman (2002), which stretches Newton past the breaking point; Aeon Flux (2005), whose muscles really have to torque; The Core (2003), which just doesn’t float at all; Superman (1978), which ought to make a physicist’s head spin; X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), whose finale is cut loose from reality; and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which I haven’t seen.
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Ecclesial-Academic Complex

The only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it. This book will explain why I have come to such a conclusion. In the process, it will review the history of academic biblical studies as primarily a religionist apologetic enterprise, despite its partial integration of secularist epistemologies. The majority of biblical scholars in academia are primarily concerned with maintaining the value of the Bible despite the fact that the important questions about its origin either have been answered or cannot be answered. More importantly, we will show how academia, despite claims to independence, is still part of an ecclesial-academic complex that collaborates with a competitive media industry.

From Hector Avalos’s The End of Biblical Studies (2007), freshly picked up from the mail room.

While it’s definitely too early in the day to use the word epistemologies, I like the coinage ecclesial-academic complex. Expect more on this book as I progress through it.

Outages Redux

Yeah, yeah, it happened again. This is what you get for hosting your corner of the Matrix on MITnet: everything is going just peachy keen, and then some joker in the next building tries to make heavy neutrinos in his bathtub, clogging up the tubes. . . .

Rest assured, I’m looking into ways to stop it from happening again. Heck, I’d even try to get hired by the hive mind if they had decent equation support.

Poisonous Buckets of Warm Spit

Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker writes of Gellman and Becker’s series on Vice President Cheney:

Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable “war on terror.”

Joel Achenbach complains that the New Yorker hasn’t yet learned to hyperlink, so here is a direct connection to Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.

The Creation Museum is Decadent and Depraved

You know, sometimes I regret having a workaday job in the hinterlands of academia (that is to say, two subway stops from MIT). It drastically reduces the quantity and variety of the shenanigans up to which I can get.

To wit, I could never fake a website to create the illusion of a news organization, assume the role of a man inflicted with “Asperger’s Syndrome by Proxy,” bluff my way into Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum” and write the whole thing up, gonzo-style.

Yes, there’s video:

“In the garden,” Ham said, looking over me into the filtering crowd, “you know, the Bible tells us in the garden before sin, in fact in the world before sin, all animals were vegetarian and so was Adam and Eve, and even though they have sharp teeth…”

“Why they have sharp teeth?” I interjected in my slow droning falsetto.

A cameraman, most likely from a local news outlet, rushed to Bunting’s left to film the inspiring exchange.

“Right. There’s a lot of animals that have sharp teeth, uh, that only eat plants,” Ham ruminated, “for instance most, most bears are primarily vegetarian, yet they have teeth like a lion or a tiger…”

“They eat fish!” I vehemently disagreed. “I saw it on the Discovery Chan-nel… but it’s sec-u-lar.”

“Some of them do,” Ham conceded, “but a panda eats only bamboo.”

The interview was going well. Ham was spouting nonsensical creationist rhetoric, and I was in full-blown retard mode. We were like long lost twins. He continued averting his gaze, however. My assumed detriments reminded him of man’s fall from grace. It was time to test this man of God.

Read the whole thing. . . and have a safe and happy Independence Day.

(We were somewhere outside Newton on the Mass Turnpike when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying to Kevin and Mark, “I feel a little strange; maybe you should drive,” and suddenly the air was full of huge pterodactyls, swooping and diving around the yellow Datsun 240Z, and a voice was screaming, “Holy Jesus, what are these goddamn extinct animals?”. . . .)

Einstein Summation and Levi-Civita Symbols

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: if any of you saw me wearing black corduroy pants and a purple T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of my friend Mike wearing a squid on his head, yes, it was laundry day. Rest assured, the reality disruption was only temporary, and normal service should be resumed shortly.

Now, to the business of the day. Earlier, we took a look at rotations and found a way to summarize their behavior using commutator relations. Recall that the commutator of A and B is defined to be

[tex]\{A,B\} = AB – BA.[/tex]

For real or complex numbers, the commutator vanishes, but as we saw, the commutators of matrices can be non-zero and quite interesting. We recognized that this would have to be the case, since we used matrices to describe rotations in three-dimensional space, and rotations about different axes in 3D do not commute. Looking at very small rotations, we also found that the commutators of rotation generators were tied up together in a way which involved cyclic permutations. Today, we’ll express this discovery more neatly, using the Einstein summation convention and a mathematical object called the Levi-Civita tensor.
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TR Gregory on Fr*ming

ERV points me to Genomicron, where TR Gregory has a good post on “framing” science. Gregory outlines three major reasons for which the Mooney–Nisbet thesis causes dissatisfaction:

I will say that I found much to agree with as far as the descriptive components were concerned. That is, I think Mooney and Nisbet make some good arguments with regard to what is and is not working in scientific communication. This is Nisbet’s subject of research, and it was useful to see actual data applied to the question. My sense was that “framing” likely is something that nonspecialists do use when evaluating complex issues, and that this is a problem for scientists who want to convey complicated ideas with societal ramifications to them. However, I think the discussion runs aground in three major areas: 1) How it is presented to scientists, 2) In the failure to distinguish it from “spin” or “marketing”, and 3) When it shifts from description to prescription.

Gregory’s three points parallel, to a considerable extent, my seven points. He also points to Hayes and Grossman’s A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media (2006), which I had noticed in the local Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million but haven’t had a chance to read (sometimes, The Tale of Genji takes priority). Now, Gregory has had his own not-so-good experiences with science journalism, so I think his opinions are worth consideration.

The first of Gregory’s three points bears closer examination:
Continue reading TR Gregory on Fr*ming

Look Around You: Maths

I had dim sum in Chinatown today with nine friends. On the way there, all ten of us saw a street festival which we had not anticipated, and seven of us saw a beach towel with a picture of Spiderman and the legend, “Red Spider.” The bill came to 107 dollars plus twenty percent tip, which using roughly fifty person-years of higher education was proportionately divided among the ten lunch-eaters.

All of this is just to set the mood for Look Around You #1: Maths.

On the way back, we saw a real-life lolcat, on a box of crabs in the store where I bought the mango juice I am drinking now: “U B CAREFUL! WE STILL LIVING!”

(Tip o’ the fedora to Eric, who observes, “See in America we had Square One.“)