Tuesday, August 31, 2004
This decent into the obvious occured for Will Saletan while listening to the muck being shoveled at the Republican National Convention. His article ends with the sort of language you might expect from a rational, really middle of the road type guy (see his archive at Slate if you're curious along these lines) who's just finally had more than he can take.
"The ultimate testament to Bush's manhood, supposedly, is the two wars he launched. As McCain put it, "He ordered American forces to Afghanistan" and "made the difficult decision to liberate Iraq." But the salient word in each of those boasts is the verb. Bush gives orders and makes decisions. He doesn't take personal risks. He never has.
I don't mean to be unfair to Bush. Vietnam was a lousy war. He wanted a way out, and he found it. But isn't it odd to see Republicans belittle the physical risks Kerry took in battle while exalting Bush's armchair wars and post-9/11 photo ops? Isn't it embarrassing to see Bob Dole, the GOP's previous presidential nominee, praise Bush's heroism while suggesting that Kerry's three combat wounds weren't bad enough to justify sending him home from Vietnam?
Watching the attacks on Kerry and the glorification of Bush reminds me of something Dole said in his speech to the Republican convention eight years ago. It was "demeaning to the nation," Dole argued, to be governed by people "who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned."
You tell me which of this year's presidential candidates that statement best describes."
Apparently this guy thought it would be a good idea. The predictable, and sad, consequences, resulted.
Monday, August 30, 2004
Water changes phase (from liquid to gas) at 100 degrees C (assuming atmospheric pressure). What's interesting about that phase change (and even more so for phase changes of other substances - water is unique for all sorts of reasons not worth getting into at the moment) is that at these temperatures and pressures small changes in the environment can cause large changes in the macroscopic properties of the system. For example, small changes in the pressure in a vat of nearly boiling water can cause most of the water to boil off (more or less the idea behind a pressure cooker).
So phase changes are interesting in general, then, because they're times when small changes in the environment can lead to big changes in materials properties. If you want to design, e.g. concrete which cracks less readily in cold, plastics which are easier to shape or, as it turns out, steel which better resists rust, you need to understand what's happening at the relevant phase change and how to design your system to either inhibit or encourage change (depending on the specifics).
But back to corrosion. Prior work has demonstrated that viritually all metals form a protective oxide film when exposed to atmospheric conditions (because of reactions with water). Corrosion happens when holes are made through that film which rapidly grow and extend, downwards, into the underlying metal. Prior work has also demonstrated that under 'normal' conditions this protective film has small metastable pits. These pits typically appear and vanish on fairly small time scales, usually showing up at defects in the underlying crystal structure of the metal. Punkt et al. image metal surfaces under small changes in environmental conditions (small changes in temperature/salt content in the overlying water) and find that corrosion occurs when a critical density of the metastable pits occur: when the ms pits are close enough to feel each other. The observed sensitivity of corrosion to environmental conditions, and the pattern which corrosion follows once it starts can all be predicted (at least qualitatively) by a simple model of the process.
Why is this important you might now ask? If you're interested in a car which doesn't rust as easily or any other sort of metal part which works better when exposed to the environment, this knowledge is key. Now you know that one of the ways to beat corrosion is work really, really, hard at making your product defect free (so the ms pits occurs much further apart in the first place).
Unfortunately accessint the article requires a subscription to Science. For those so inclined the full reference is...
Punckt et al., Sudden Onset of Pitting Corrosion on Stainless Steel as a Critical Phenomenon, Science 2004 305: 1133-1136
Two of the groups involved in the research do have easily accessible web pages at which you can find out more about the sort of stuff they study:
-> Hudson Group at UVA
-> Mikhailov Group at the Fritz-Haber Institute
In light of the Paul Hamm huballo (i.e. those who say he won the medal on a mathematical error so should give it back (ignoring what seems to be the current conventional wisdom that if the whole South Korean routine was reviewed he would do worse)) it seems reasonable to ask whether the Italian who won the race (Stefano Baldini) should give his gold to de Lima.
I've argued below that I think, more or less, that Hamm has every right to hold onto his gold. Evaluating what happened in the marathon seems both harder and easier. Harder in the sense that no one will really ever know whether de Lima wasn't almost all spend (i.e. whether the other runners were about to put on a late burst to bring themselves back into contention). Easier in the sense that Horan's actions clearly tilted the playing field away from de Lima. Would you really want to recieve a medal which, mostly, might come from your principal rival being attacked. I think I can say with some certainty that I would not (for more on the story see this news item. Kieren Healy's also posted on the nutty Irish guy here)
2. "What's the best nation in the world?
"Spare a dollar man. Come on, you don't have to be a Rockefella to help a fella."
-The last two in a sequence of ten jokes told by a homeless man looking for some help.
3. "Can I smell your feet?" - question addressed to me by a man who looked like a contractor/painter driving a minivan in the early afternoon in South Philadelphia.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
The back story here, for the perhaps two people who might care about the forward story (on which I'm about to comment) but don't know the background is that after Hamm won the gold the FIG (yes Federation International Gymnastique) reqviewed tape of Young's parallel bar routine and determined that his start value (the degree of difficulty for his routine) had been miscalculated by judges and that he was owed ~0.1 points (enough to move him from bronze to gold.
Let's ignore all the practical objections to this review: 1. by rule it should have happened at the event (the South Koreans say they were told to file a protext afterward by a functionary on the scene but, if so, this was clearly against the written rule. 2. Hamm points out that if you do review the start value you should review the entire routine, in which case Young loses more than he gains.
Instead I want to just focus on the fact that FIG publicly requested Hamm give up his medal. How truly, truly ridiculous is this? FIG is the governing body of a sport. It has no buiness publicly requesting anything!!!!! Sport's governing bodies make their ruling (there either was or wasn't a violation) and then they move on. Can you imagine the NFL hierarchy saying to Terrel Owens last year "We're not going to fine you for the Sharpie signing end zone celebration (there was no rule violation on your part) but we're really uncomfortable with it and, when we think about it, we think there probably should have been a rule so if you could just please publicly apologize that would make us really happy." Absolutely not. And if they tried anything of the sort they'd be villified 24 hours a day across the US (yes actually 24 hours a day I'm imagining this decision as sports talk radio fodder).
So Paul, if you're reading this (you know unlikely but just possible) keep your medal. You won it fair and square, by the rules of the competition in place at the time. Your performance was bold and inventive - you're a champion in my book.
UPDATE: A number of people have pointed out to me that, while it's seems clear that the FIG is acting badly, the question surrounding whether Hamm should give up his metal is, perhaps, a bit more complicated. I should note, along these lines then, that my understanding of gymnastics judging (something of which I have no first hand experience) is that you can change your routine on the fly. Which is to say that, if Hamm had known he needed a different amount of points to win (i.e. if Young had protested and his score had been changed during the competition) he could have changed his intended routine to one that was higher risk/higher reward.
Friday, August 27, 2004
Such a place is the weblog Red Bird Nation. This is a web log produced by a St. Louis Cardinal's fan so it mostly deals, naturally, with Cardinal related issues (hence the name). I've never been a Cardinal's fan but the guy who writes most of the entries is really more of a fan of baseball than of the Cardinals and his stuff is so consistently interesting and well written that it's a pleasure to read.
Saturday, August 21, 2004
Andrew E. Pelling, Sadaf Sehati, Edith B. Gralla, Joan S. Valentine, and James K. Gimzewski, in a just published paper in the journal Science, have found that the cell walls of live yeast cells vibrate with a characteristic frequency which is dependent on temperature. They argue that these oscillations are likely driven the the passage of groups of motor proteins on the inner side of the cell wall - something like the vibration of a house's wall as a nearby frieght train roles past (as Gimzewski explains on his web site). For the technically inclined, I should note that Pelling performed the observations using an AFM (atomic force microscope - essentially a molecularly small record needle) and live cells caught in the pores of a polycarbonate filter).
While the actual observation is interesting, even more interesting are the consequences. Pelling et al. seem to make the case the in the paper (and Gimzewski makes the case in other articles about the research) that it is likely that the observed oscillations are somehow passive: that they are diagnostic of healthy cell function. But it's clear from the paper that the oscillations take a lot of energy. It seems at least possible to me that, if the oscillations truly served no useful purpose (for the cell) the energy used to create them would have long ago been channelled elsewhere more effectively.
If the oscillations actually serve a purpose, it's not at all clear what that might be. More work is needed with tools which say something about the chemistry happening at the same time as these observed mechanical changes and that can resolve the dynamics of these chemical changes.
So there's still a long way to go, but if this oscillatory behaviour turns out to be spread widely among microorganisms, and if it turns out to be useful (to the cell) Pelling et al. have opened the door to an interesting new world.
The reference for the paper (only accessible over the web if you have a subscription to Science) is,
Pelling et al., Local Nanomechanical Motion of the Cell Wall of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Science 2004 305: 1147-1150
However, if you'd like a reprint and don't have a subscription you can drop Gimzewski a line and ask him for one here.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Monday, August 16, 2004
Where wind is inadequate it may prove possible to generate power by harnessing other natural processes: e.g. tides. In a small pilot project the energy company Verdant Power plans to install a series of turbines on the bottom of the Hudson river (next to New York City) which will rotate to follow the tides. Many practical issues still remain to be considered: e.g. the influence of fields of river bottom turbines on wild life, how to help the turbines spin freely in the presence of lots of debris, but wouldn't it be something, wouldn't it be really something, if someday New York got much of it's power from the tides?