Archive for the ‘The Tech’ Category

Unnecessary Truncation

September 19, 2013

We should consider every day lost

-Friedrich Nietzsche

You miss 100% of the shots

-Wayne Gretzky

People often say motivation doesn’t last.

-Zig Ziglar

I hated every minute

-Muhammad Ali

We can’t help everyone

-Ronald Reagan

We all have dreams, but…

-Jesse Owens

I don’t know the key to success

-Bill Cosby

I don’t know where I’m going

-Carl Sandburg

Your time is limited

-Steve Jobs

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed

-Mark Twain

… life is not worth living


You can never cross the ocean

-Christopher Columbus

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said

Maya Angelou

Fall seven times

-Japanese proverb

I would rather die

-Vincent Van Gogh

It does not matter


These quotes are culled from top Google hits, meaning many of them are probably false attributions, even in untruncated form.


January 30, 2012

Outrun a Tiger

Alice and Bob were walking in the woods when a snarling tiger jumped out in front of them.

Alice bent down and starting changing into running shoes.

“Why are you doing that?” asked Bob. “You can’t outrun a tiger.”

“I don’t have to out…” said Alice before the tiger sank its razor-sharp death teeth into the soft flesh around her jugular. It takes at least a minute to change shoes, and the tiger was only, oh, let’s say 20 meters away to begin with.

Then the tiger killed Bob, too. Not because it was hungry. Just because it lived for the moment when it saw the life go out of its victims’ eyes.

Moral: Tigers are nature’s perfect killing machine. By the time you see one, it’s already too late.

Looking For Keys

A drunk man was in the parking lot outside a bar, looking intently at the pavement under a streetlight. A woman came out of the bar, tottering back and forth some as she walked over to the man and asked, “Oh, did you lose your keys here?”

“I don’t know where I lost them. Probably over there by my car, I guess,” said the man.

“Then why are you looking under the streetlight?” asked the woman.

“Because there’s light here,” said the man.

The woman seemed to think this was ridiculous.

“Look,” said the man. “I suppose there’s about a five percent chance I lost my keys under this streetlight, but if I did lose them here, there’s a ninety percent chance I’ll find them. That makes four and a half percent chance that I’ll find my keys by looking here. On the other hand, there’s a thirty percent chance I lost them in a similarly-sized area around the vicinity of my car, but it’s so dark that even if they are there, there’s only a ten percent chance I’ll find them. If I search near my car I only have a three percent chance of success. Therefore I’m acting logically by looking under this streetlight, even though I don’t think this is where my keys are.”

“Oh, I um…” said the woman.

“Hey,” said the man. “Why don’t you just give me a ride? My place is only two miles away, and I would gladly pay you a fair price for your inconvenience. I can come back tomorrow and look some more when there’s light.”

“You’re weird,” said the woman. Then she shot pepper spray in the man’s eyes.

Moral: Everyone hates nerds.

Zen and the Teacup

A Westerner wanted to learn Zen, so he went to visit an old Zen master in a humble, secluded hut.

The Zen master, on hearing the man wanted to learn, invited his guest in for tea. The master filled the man’s cup all the way up, and the tea started pouring out over the brim and onto the table.

“Stop!” said the Westerner. “You’re overfilling it.”

The Zen master calmly replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

“This was a bad idea,” said the Westerner. “You’re crazy.” Then he went back home and tried to live his life as best as he could. He still had good times and bad times, but he was a little less likely to believe any given person had all the answers. Also, before he flew home he bought a samurai sword that looked really cool and authentic and stuff and once it even helped him get laid.

Moral: Just because you act super-calm while you’re doing something doesn’t make it wise.

Food for the brain

December 17, 2011

I’m not sure why, but someone on Quora wanted to know what you can learn from eating a book. So here you go:

If you eat a book, you might learn

  • whether you can stomach Chuck Palahniuk
  • how to Chew Your Own Adventure
  • that you need a cookbook cookbook
  • that you don’t have to finish a book just because you start it
  • that Finnegan’s Wake is indigestible
  • you’d rather rush to eat salmon than eat Salman Rushdie
  • that some things are worse than airline food
  • that “eat three squares a day” isn’t to be taken literally
  • that you can get away with murder by feigning insanity
  • what people mean when they say, “His words are coming out his ass!”

I was looking up “serendipity” in the dictionary when I unexpectedly discovered serenity.

December 14, 2011

The blog has been dormant recently. I’ve put more effort into and Quora. (You can see my profiles on those sites here: Phys.SE, Quora)

I figure I can cross-post content that I like, though. Here’s my answer on Quora to “What is serendipity?”

Serendipity is when

  • your alphabet soup spells out “Eat me.”
  • there’s a rock in your shoe, and it completes your collection.
  • you take a summer job herding sheep and wind up falling in love (consequences notwithstanding).
  • you buy an old used book, and the margin contains a proof of Fermat’s last theorem.
  • you take your dog to the park and there’s an Ultimate tournament going on.
  • you’re on a camping trip and it starts raining. A moment before, you had been thinking your oatmeal was too dry.
  • you decide to try to hold out a couple extra days before doing laundry, and then a dread virus triggers the zombie apocalypse.
  • you get in an accident with a truck carrying avocados, and you just bought a huge bag of tortilla chips
  • right before you get up for a bathroom break, the FedEx guy arrives. Your cheating ex sent you more flowers.
  • you write a tongue-in-cheek Quora answer just as a lark, and hundreds of people upvote it, and then some guy gives you a boat.

Book Review: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

January 4, 2011

This review is for The California Tech, where it should appear later this week. You can listen to the full audio of my interview with Mike Brown here

Amazon Link

If you read enough pop sci books, you’ll learn that black holes ain’t so black and that our genes are selfish. Along the way, you’ll pick up a few tidbits about the lives and research of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. If you read enough memoirs by scientists you’ll learn that Feynman could crack the safes at Los Alamos (and knew the codes for something else men want to access), or that James Watson didn’t use modesty to discover the secret of life. You’ll also get a few tidbits about the character of physical law or the structure of the double helix. But if you read Mike Brown’s new book, you’ll learn that a scientist’s work and a scientist’s life are separate but inextricable, that the motion of the planets really can affect the path of a life, and that sometimes there is no distinction between teacher and raconteur.

“The amusing thing that I get now,” Brown told me about the hate mail he’s received since publishing How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, “are these obscene phone messages.” He’s smiling as he tells the story. “They sound like drunk fraternity boys who were probably thirteen when Pluto got demoted. They were pissed off then and now they’re drunk and pissed off.”

Brown, of course, did not kill Pluto. It’s still there, and still cold. What he really did was help it. He found it some friends. “The singular thing for which I am most famous is the discovery of Eris,” he said. “It’s not the most important thing I’ve done, scientifically. I don’t think there’s any question that the discovery of Sedna and this whole story I’ve been telling you is far and away the most important thing.”

Brown has been telling me the story about his discovery of several large Kuiper Belt objects – balls of rock and ice orbiting in slow, frigid ellipses beyond Neptune. Eris and Sedna are among them. Using the nearly-derelict 48-inch Schmidt Telescope at the Palomar observatory, Brown and his teams conducted several surveys of the outer solar system to search for these objects. His first search failed. His second did not.

They first discovered Quaoar, then Sedna, an object somewhat smaller than Pluto, but scientifically fascinating due to its extremely distant orbit, which separates it gravitationally from the influences of the gas giants. “Sedna never comes close [to the gas giants], and if you integrate the orbit backwards for 4.5 billion years, it never did,” Brown explains.

Since Sedna can maintain its orbit unmolested, it serves as the Solar System’s time capsule. “It’s this window into the earliest Solar System – into the formation of the Solar System. This is what really excites me. I want to understand what the earliest Solar System was like, how it led to what we have today, and what it tells us about the formation of other plantery systems. These objects out there are, I think, the best tools for understanding that we have.”

In other words, Brown wants another story to tell. He’s been hitting me with them since I entered his office, leaning in to tell me the good parts, then suddenly swiveling back from his desk, calling up online pictures of the Russian Venera lander’s panoramic photos of Venus, and holding them up next to an ultrasound of his daughter for comparison.

How I Killed Pluto is a repository of Brown’s stories. It recounts his obsessive data-recording and analysis, not of planetary motion, but of his infant daughter’s sleeping and eating schedules. Other anecdotes discuss the way Jupiter and Saturn looked on the epiphanous night when he first understood that the planets really are hanging up there in the sky, or just how relaxed his post-doc Chad Trujillo was when he announced their first Kuiper Belt discovery, or the gradual evolution from disappointment, to inkling mistrust, to deep suspicion as he learned that a particular discovery was perhaps not scooped, but stolen by a team of researchers in Spain. We learn Brown’s opinions on the weather near telescopes (nasty), the moon (his nemesis), living in the woods (good deal for a single guy), and, of course, whether Pluto should be called a planet (definitely not).

“I find that stories draw people in more,” Brown says. All the major events in his life – the beginning of his career at Caltech, his courtship and marriage, and the start of his family – occurred during the few years surrounding his search for planets past Pluto. For Brown, the personal context of the search is as important as the scientific context. If the book is about how he killed Pluto, it’s necessarily about those personal stories as well.

Brown says that even “scientific papers are more compelling and more readable when they have a story that they’re telling. Even if it’s a scientific story with data and analysis, it’s better if it’s a story.”

And if ever there has been a great story in need of telling, it’s the story of how a ball of gas twirling in deep space collapsed to form the Sun, the planets, and all rest of our Solar System. “It’s a huge set of phenomena. If you want to understand the entire Solar System and why it is the way it is, you need to understand details from quantum physics to organic chemistry to hydrodynamics to electrical discharge. I mean, there’s so many crazy things that go on that you’ll never be able to put all these pieces together in a predictive way and say, ‘I know exactly what happened.’”

Brown believes that careful scientific study of Kuiper Belt objects can still help fill in pieces of that story. For example, astronomical evidence from analyzing their orbits is currently giving insight into the mechanism of planet formation and whether the Sun formed in a cluster of other stars.

A story, to Brown, is not just a trick to hold your interest. It’s the essence of science, an active process of discovery. He told me that to write about science, “I walk though the whole process of how I think about it, and why I come to that conclusion. I think it’s much more interesting to understand the process, in addition to just saying, ‘Here’s the answer.’”

Brown doubled the number of words he’s written, lifetime, in writing How I Killed Pluto. The effort will be repaid in full as thousands of people learn how mysterious our Solar System still is. Our understanding continues to evolve, with new evidence like that of Brown’s discoveries continually challenging and inspiring our stories about the Solar System. Brown, with his hallmark enthusiasm and joviality, tells me, “We’re really starting to be able to not as much rewrite those stories, as write them for the first time.”

Mike Brown, Planet Killer: “Mercury is Pissing Me Off”

December 19, 2010

Mike Brown is famous for discovering Eris, a dwarf planet larger than Pluto orbiting out on the far edge of the solar system. Ultimately, Eris’ discovery led to the redefinition of the word “planet” and the eradication of Pluto from children’s lunchboxes.

Brown’s new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming tells the story of his team’s discovery of a complete menagerie out past Neptune – a place most astronomers thought held little but hydrogen, comets, and a few bits of rock that occasionally get flung out there by gas giants.

In an interview from last Wednesday, December 15, Brown told me that his most scientifically-important discovery was not Eris, but Sedna, a large object lying so far away from the gravitational perturbations of Jupiter and friends that its orbit can be traced back to the beginning of the solar system, and whose existence has challenged astronomers’ conception of how the planets formed.

Brown also showed me the sonograms of his embryonic daughter (now 5 years old) to compare side-by-side with photographs of Venus taken by the Venera Lander, and commented on the gravitational influence of my mother.

Part 1 (17 minutes: Hate mail, the process of writing, science of the early solar system)

Part 2 (31 minutes: More science, more writing, international intrigue, Pluto’s appeal and wimpiness)

Thermal energy of a gas

November 11, 2010

If we have a gas with some heat, the atoms are all bouncing around and stuff. Their kinetic energy is

KE = 1/2 m v^2.

But momentum is given by mv = p, so we can rewrite the energy as

KE = 1/2 pv.

Everyone knows pv = nRT, so

KE = 1/2 nRT.

The kinetic energy of the motion of molecules is just the temperature of the gas!

(PS – this is a joke, but it actually gets the right answer for a 1-dimensional ideal gas. See wikipedia Thermal Energy)

Roll Call

November 6, 2010

I remember homeroom one day in high school during my junior year. My friend Howard was home with the flu that day.

Mr. Lotz was yelling out our names for attendence. “Stacy Walker?”


“Donald Young?”


“Howard Yu?”

Of course there was no answer.

“Howard Yu?”

There was finally starting to be a little agitation in his voice.

“Howard Yu?”

“Fine, thanks,” I said, “but Howard is home sick with the flu.”

Where Babies Come From, an essay

September 22, 2010

I can write essays really good because I went to school and there was the teacher and the teacher teached me how to write essays and you have to have a good title that says what you are going to write about and you need facts from like the encyclopedia and stuff but you can’t just copy it because that’s purgatory and it is pretty bad like you can go to jail and in jail they have something called “rape” and if my mom hears you say “rape” she will say it is a bad word and never to say it again and then she shivers and puts her hands over her face and runs away and won’t talk for a couple of days and stuff but if my dad hears you say “rape” nothing will happen because I don’t have a dad so I learned real good how to write essays and its like this special gift I have to write them and bring people joy so I wrote this essay for you to make your life a little happier.

You should begin your pair of graphs with a topic sentence. For example, you could start by saying, “You should begin your pair of graphs with a topic sentence.” Then you should talk about topic sentences. I can climb all the way up the big tree next to the monkey bars and yesterday I climbed all the way up there and the tree was shaking and it was trying to make me fall but I didn’t fall because I’m too good at climbing trees.

For example, you have to say “for example” and “according to” then cite your source and its credentials a lot in your essay. According to Mrs. Benny if you don’t say them five times then your essay is really bad and you will probably get a D which means you are dumb. One time, my friend got a D and then the next day his house burned down and his baby sister got eaten by a chimpanzee and he cut himself on a broken bottle and got AIDS from a bum and 103 people killed themselves in a cult in Wisconsin and a million people starved to death in Rwanda and also he stubbed his toe.

This is the next pair of graphs. According to Eric Schlosser, noted essayist and author of Fast Food Nation, I am almost done. There is one more thing I have to tell you. After that that will be it. Then I will be finished the essay. According to Jesus, the Son of God, this was a very good essay and deserves an A++++ 100% plus extra credit and a hand job.

Have You Ever Noticed a Panda Is Just A Fat, Slow Zebra?

September 16, 2010

At the end of the summer I took a crack at doing stand up comedy in front of an audience of the students at the camp where I’m a TA. There are a few jokes written for the occasion and a lot of one-liners culled from the last couple of years of me writing them down when I get one. There’s a weird moment where the video cut out and I filled in the missing audio later, but it comes back in a few seconds.