Archive for 2011

Why the Mythbusters Newton’s Cradle failed

10 December 2011

What with the Mythbusters having a bit of a mishap this week (a vast understatement by the way, and thank goodness no one was injured), folks have likely forgotten about their most elaborate and ambitious project of the current season: the supersized Newton’s Cradle. The thing was enormous, consisting of giant orbs hung from steel girders suspended over an empty drydock. It was an awesome concept.

But it was also a dismal failure.

Why? Well, there’s the inherent difficulty of precisely aligning such a massive structure such that the balls are in a perfectly straight line and a minimum of energy is lost to sideways motion. This was what much of Adam’s and Jamie’s fine-tuning addressed—but try as they might, they couldn’t get the giant clack-clacking effect they’d hoped for.

An in-depth analysis on Wired goes into the physics of a Newton’s Cradle, and what might have gone wrong, but ultimately punts a definitive conclusion by stating that “the camera angle wasn’t the best for analysis.” Now, I am not a professional physicist, but I think a hint at the real problem may be summed up in one comment in that Wired article: “It seems that these balls are not elastic.”

Right. See, the balls they used were not the solid steel balls of an ordinary Newton’s Cradle, scaled up, which apparently would have been prohibitively expensive to acquire. Instead they were homemade: spherical steel casings, each with a thick steel disk at the equator and both hemispheres filled with concrete.

As I said, I am not a physicist, so what follows might be off-base. But my impression of the impact event in a normal Newton’s Cradle goes like this:

  • When one ball strikes another, the first ball’s momentum is transferred as a force acting on a single point (ideally, that is) on the surface of the second ball.
  • That force of impact radiates in all directions through the second ball. The energy can’t escape from the ball (except for the bits that become heat, and that clacking noise), so as it crosses through the interior of the ball, the energy that reaches the surface is reflected (or refracted?) back into the interior.
  • Ultimately all that energy converges back at a single point on the surface of the ball, exactly antipodal to the impact point.
  • That energy convergence causes the ball to react and move—and if there’s another ball touching that convergence point, the energy is transferred into that next ball, and the Newton’s Cradle does its thing.

So far, so good. Here’s the problem: as I said, the interior of the Mythbusters balls were mostly concrete, not steel. Therefore most of the energy entering each impacted ball was muddled, diffused, slowed as it moved through that medium. Only the energy passing through the steel equatorial disk—a small fraction of the whole—was transferred efficiently into the next ball. The result was as seen on TV: powerful action, anemic reaction.

I believe that, had the Mythbusters used enormous, solid, hardened steel balls for their giant Newton’s Cradle, they might have come up with the amazing visual they—and we—were all hoping to see.

Call me a shill, but those Apple ads ain’t lyin’

16 November 2011
Categories: Research

Several months ago, I made a flat statement that I will never own a Kindle. For what it’s worth, my reasoning was a combination of technological expediency (what if, years from now, I want to read a book that I purchase today?) and sentimental tangibility (by holding this book as I read it, it becomes imbued with more value than is contained in its contents alone). The stodgy old reader in me declared “books are better.”

My stance remains the same, at least with regard to single-purpose readers like the Kindle. But I have a sudden, tremendous, newfound respect for tablet computers, thanks to my wife who recently gave me a new iPad as an early Christmas present.

Why? Because a tablet makes an absolutely indispensable research tool.

Consider this: as I explore topics to expand my website A Brief History of East Lansing and the Michigan Agricultural College, my core research materials include History of the Michigan Agricultural College by William J. Beal, the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan,* the Minutes of the Board of Agriculture/Trustees, and Semi-Centennial Celebration of Michigan State Agricultural College edited by Thomas C. Blaisdell. I own copies of the books, purchased at some expense given their age and limited printings; and I have downloaded PDF scans of the Annual Reports and Minutes.

Trouble is, Beal’s book is over 500 pages; Blaisdell’s, nearly 400. The Annual Reports are thousands of pages long, and the Minutes count to well over 10,000. I would need a duffel bag to carry it all, or maybe a rolling suitcase.

And yet every one of these is available online for free. They fit into my iPad all together, with plenty of room to spare. (It bears mentioning that cramming all the Minutes into it was a chore; iTunes choked more than a few times on my attempts to import 1,262 PDFs at once, and also when I combined them into seventeen PDFs that averaged 200+ megs each.) Plus it has a web browser, so I can find other information I might need. I can write notes in it about new discoveries. I can even update my website directly through it. And when I get tired of research, there’s always Catan, or a Ken Ken or crossword puzzle to solve.

Sure, it’s not going to replace my treasured copy of Beal, especially since the online version lacks the full-size foldout map and timeline that the hardcover included. But I now can leave Beal safely on the shelf—and read him anywhere at the same time.

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

4 November 2011
Categories: From the armchair

My experience with The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis is much like that of Laura Miller, which she describes in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia: love, then betrayal, followed years later by warm reconciliation.

I was brought up in a secular household. We almost never went to church, except on rare occasions such as Christmas Eve services with Grandma (who, I suspect, liked church more for its social aspects than its religious ones), and the first communions of my cousins, who were raised Catholic. As a kid with limited exposure to it, religion was always something alien and perplexing to me.

Nevertheless, the Chronicles were some of my favourite books in my youth. At age eight I was given a box set of paperbacks (the 1970 Collier/Macmilllan printing) and devoured them repeatedly. Even in my earliest readings I was able to spot many of the more obvious allusions, like the Crucifixion and Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the Day of Judgment in The Last Battle. I saw these similarities and shrugged them off; if Lewis had borrowed some themes from the Bible and Christianity, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books (although the conclusion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with the lamb that turns out to be Aslan, always seemed anti-climactic after the rollicking adventure that preceded it).

I outgrew the books and moved on to other reading, keeping Narnia as a fondly remembered piece of my childhood. Meanwhile, by the time I reached my teenage years, I was an avowed atheist. Partly this was a typical teenager’s know-it-all attitude: “you can’t prove nothin’ to me.” Partly it was a form of quiet rebellion against what I saw as grating and superfluous aspects of Scouting, with its Oath (“…to do my duty to God and my country…”) and Law (“a scout is… reverent”). Who needs God when you’re learning to tie a clove hitch, or finding your way to the next campsite using only a map and a compass? Intellect alone will get the job done.

Then, in my early twenties, when I was still profoundly atheistic and a stubborn know-it-all, I ran across a slim paperback in a used bookstore: Narnia Revealed by Paul A. Karkainen. It’s not a particularly good book—yet another exegesis among many, detailing every little bit of Christian symbolism and metaphor in a dry litany—but its hype-y jacket copy caught my eye: the real meaning behind the Narnia books! I skimmed it and the dawning awareness was a dope-slap to my forebrain: Clive Staples Lewis wasn’t just borrowing themes here and there, the whole thing is Christianity’s tenets, retold! He was trying to convert me! That sneaky bastard!

The feeling I had was, simply, betrayal. I turned my back on Narnia and closed off a little bit of my magical youth.

It was many years later, having found some semblance of spirituality within myself (not through organized religion, mind you) and having become a (hopefully) far more open-minded agnostic, that I returned to the Narnia books and was pleased to find that, despite their trappings, they remain quite excellent children’s stories. That magic, regardless of its putative intent, had not been lost.

Which is why Miller’s book is such a breath of fresh air: it’s a departure from most critical analyses of the Chronicles, and shares a new appreciation for the books from a secular perspective. Instead of mere exegesis, she discusses the Chronicles for their literary qualities, only delving into their Christian aspects where needed to illustrate some of Lewis’s intentions—as a writer, rather than an evangelist. As a result, The Magician’s Book is an intriguing and thoughtful look at Narnia, its place in the pantheon of children’s literature, and most of all: an insightful look at not merely how we learn to read, but how we become readers.


Meanwhile, as a lengthy aside… Like Miller, I too have a strong preference for reading the books in their publication order. This is a deeply dividing argument, and much has been written on both sides (including this excellent run-down). The present executors of Lewis’s estate have come down on the side of strict story chronology, but there are definite artistic reasons for preferring publication order—the moments of initial discovery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are ruined if the reader has already seen Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. And I tend to suspect, as Miller does, that Lewis was “just being kind to his young correspondent” when he wrote, “I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books.”

I remember, as I read The Magician’s Nephew for the first time, being perplexed by its disconnect from the Narnia of the previous books (just as I had been with its predecessor The Horse and His Boy, which except for a pair of talking horses doesn’t seem very “Narnian” for most of its length). When the creation of Narnia is revealed, and it becomes apparent that The Magician’s Nephew is taking place long before the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, little eight-year-old me had a moment of smug satisfaction: Aha! those idiot bookmakers numbered the books out of order!

I was savvy enough, even at that young age, to look at the publication dates, to see that the books were indeed numbered in order of their publication. I begrudgingly acceded to the numbering—although I might have placed them in their box in chronological order for a while.

Yet one of the reasons the Chronicles are important to me, and my development as a reader, is that they were the very first to expose me to a simple but effective narrative device: the flashback. Being able to place that entire story outside of its “normal” order was an important step in my increasing understanding of How Stories Work. Sadly, the reprints have stolen that learning moment from subsequent generations of readers, and those readers will have to find it elsewhere.

Another thing that bugs me, beyond the more important ways in which the reordering ruins certain artistic aspects of the books, is how the reordering is handled in the preface to the reprints:

“Although The Magician’s Nephew was written several years after C. S. Lewis first began The Chronicles of Narnia, he wanted it to be read as the first book in the series. Harper Collins is happy to present these books in the order which Professor Lewis preferred.”

This flat statement of fact, without qualification or context, carries the same air of smug, we-know-better, self-satisfaction that I had at age eight—and, in my opinion, is just as juvenile.

Go green! Go—uh, what?

14 October 2011
Categories: Rants, Sports

College football uniforms—for that matter, sports uniforms in general—have two simple, immutable requirements, both equal in importance:

  1. Display the school colors. Most schools have two official colors: maize and blue, Chicago maroon and burnt orange, green and white. Use them both.
  2. Make the numbers high-contrast and as legible as possible. A person with normal eyesight, sitting in end-zone seats, should be able to read the number of the player who just scored a touchdown at the other end of the field.

The “Pro Combat Series from Nike” uniforms that the Michigan State Spartans will wear on Saturday in their home-field defense of the Paul Bunyan Trophy fail on both counts. The bronze-on-green numbers, at least in publicity photos, are not particularly visible. And there’s no white anywhere on the uniform.

Beyond that, what irks me is that the use of bronze in the place of white is purported to be for “historic” reasons, the original Spartans having been Bronze Age warriors. Never mind that use of the name “Spartans” for Michigan State’s teams was the concoction of two Lansing sportswriters in the 1920s who (thankfully) took exception to the lame, prosaic name change selected by popular vote: the “Michigan Staters.”

If they really wanted to be historic, they’d call themselves “Aggies” and put a big intertwined M.A.C. logo on their uniforms, like these guys:

1915 Michigan Agricultural College Football Team. Image © Michigan State University Archives.

Maybe they could wear leather helmets, too.

Seriously though, I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of branding per se: Nike and Reebok and Under Armour logos have been plastered all over uniforms for years, and that’s just a part of the biz. But these Pro Combat uniforms go far beyond that, making every player on the team—who of course will receive zero compensation—into a game-long marketing tool.

Also, they’re fugly.

Da city dat works

7 October 2011
Categories: Chicago

There’s a famous quote by longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, spoken to the press during the mayhem in the midst of the 1968 Democratic Convention:

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all: the policeman isn’t there to create disorder—the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

It’s a popular quote among many factions. Those who view the chaos in the summer of ’68 as a “police riot” will cite the quote as an example of a brutal fascist’s detachment from reality. Fans of the late mayor, or those taking a broader view of Chicago history, are amused by it: “oh, that Boss and his malapropisms,” they’ll say.

But this morning my wife had an epiphany, when a different interpretation suddenly occurred to her: maybe Hizzoner didn’t misspeak—maybe we misheard him.

We’ve seen the “Superfans” on Saturday Night Live, with their famous catchphrase: “Da Bears.” And I often hear cops on the police band radio saying they’re headed to gas up the patrol car at “Nort an’ Troop”—i.e., the city maintenance facility at North Avenue and Throop Street. That hard plosive (‘d’ or ‘t’) in the place of a softer fricative (‘th’) is a large part of the Chicago patois.

So maybe what Mr. Daley said was:

The policeman is there to preserve dis order.

“Dis” as in, “this.” As in: my order, my office, my administration, my regime.

It still falls into the realm of cocky, self-confident bluster, but that was King Richard for you.