30 March 2008

Is this conscious action?

In the below video (8:28), a visitor at a zoo records an elephant paint a picture, apparently a self-portrait of elephant with flower.

This begs the question to me: is the elephant aware of what she is painting? She definitely is deliberate about her actions, it's not just a case of putting random splotches on a paper that humans then interpret as a picture. But the question is whether she understands that it's a drawing of an elephant, or if to her it's a random pattern of lines that she has learned produces praise from the audience and treats from her keepers. If we saw creativity (that is, variations of the picture), that might lean me towards thinking it's conscious action with understanding, but then again elephants are remarkable creatures and perhaps she is capable of memorizing dozens of patterns that result in rewards.

Paintings are not, in my opinion, reliable Turing tests for animal intelligence.

29 March 2008

"Earth Hour"

Tonight, Saturday March 29, there is a movement called "Earth Hour." From 8 to 9pm tonight (in your local time zone), turn your lights out to help raise awareness of energy conservation. To me this's a win-win situation - by 8pm it's dark out. If everyone really does turn their lights out, it'll make the night skies that much darker (though yes, I know streetlights won't be out) and that much better for observing! T$ points out that it isn't going to be all that effective since we can still leave on computers and TVs - which are probably a bigger power drain for most modern families. But it's better than nothing.

28 March 2008

Help me understand a misconception....

An interesting situation came up in my Physics class today, where two of my students surprised me with a question they asked. To try and understand their thinking so I can teach the content better, I'd like to ask that everyone take a look at the below situation and tell me what you think will happen. I don't care if you know any physics or if you're a professional ear-wax taster, I want to know what you think and why.

In the picture below, Box 1 (m1) is hanging from a string that passes over a pulley. There's no friction in the pulley, and the pulley has no mass, so it can spin freely. The string is then connected to Box 2 (m2) sitting on a table. For simplicity, let's assume there's no friction on the table - there's some lubrication between the box and the table.

Open this page in a new window or tab to fill out the poll - there's 6 short questions (check boxes) about how the blocks will move.

X-posted a couple places.

20 March 2008

Crayon Physics

I've been wanting a tablet PC for a while now, and this game (page currently lagging) only reinforces it. In case the page won't load, here's a review of it, and below is a demo.

I've seen tools like these accompanying textbooks before, but unfortunately never had one with a book that I chose. I should write to a few publishers to see if they have demos I can download. Unlike this "game" version, they're generally designed to accompany a Physics I course, so students can explore physical situations without friction, or so that students can perform online labs. (I'm curious about doing online labs and wish to explore the possibilities, but I will take a lot of convincing before I'm willing to do it.)

17 March 2008


Oh man, this comic says it so well. :)

They're not science, and yet they are! And Zombie Feynman!

04 March 2008

Y Baad Speeling Iz Gud

Stolen from a friend of mine, who stole it from elsewhere.

* 0. Stop spelling correctly before it's too late! | 03/04/2008 07:41:42 PM UTC

The Daye Aftur Tumurrow: Y Baad Speeling Iz Gud

Recently, I've seen many people on the internet trying to correct others' spelling. Unfortunately, in doing so, you are endangering the lives of every good person on earth.

As you all know, Earth rotates on its axis, giving us day and night and stopping any portion of earth from freezing or incinerating. What you may not know is that the primary driving force of this rotation is English teachers. More precisely, English teachers rolling in their graves. Thanks to conservation of angular momentum, for a teacher to spin one way forces Earth to spin the other way. Our ENTIRE EXISTANCE depends on these teachers! To clarify the point, here is a diagram:

But how, you ask, could this possibly be related to the internet? As it turns out, teacher grave-spinning is fueled by only two sources: 1st grade essays, and the Internet. Unfortunately for us, 1st grade spelling has rapidly improved in the last decade, leaving the internet as the only source of terrible spelling. For each idiot on the internet, one teacher spins, and this effect has increased over the past decade to become the only force keeping our planet alive. Misuses of there/they're/their and you're/your are especially potent, and account for over 90% of the Earth's rotational velocity.

Why do you care? Because your life depends on it. I put out as a call to all mankind, PROMOTE BAD SPELLING! It is the only thing between us and a horrible, barren world where everything good is dead. For example, consider the following image (it may be shocking to some, parental consent is advised for young children). The red areas are burnt to a crisp, the blue areas are at roughly -42 Kelvin, and only the yellow portions survive.

To prevent the horrific image just pictured, you must forget the grammar and spelling you have learned. Still, if you choose to continue in your rash action, please at least slow down the damage you cause by including the following in your signature. The repeated posting of such content should be enough to allow those truly willing to solve the problem to do so.

Q u o t e:
Their they're, an tey hav there lewt w/thm. Your so dum you're brane is leik a peenut.

Thank you for reading this, and please, consider the future of humanity when you post.

And because I'm who I am (physicist and daughter of an English teacher), I just had to reply...

For completeness, I must point out that there is actually a secondary source of angular momentum: living English teachers rolling their eyes. However, this is a second-order effect for two reasons. Firstly, angular momentum depends upon the mass and the radius of the object (L=mvr), and eyes are both less massive (m) and smaller (r) that entire bodies, so each individual eye will have less of an effect than each individual body.

Secondly, although it is wel known that teachers (of which English teachers are a subset) have eyes in the backs of their heads (resulting in 4-8 eyes per teacher, depending on whether they wear glasses on any of said eyes), there are stll many fewer living English-teacher eyes than dead English-teacher bodies.

Combining these two reasons, the angular momentum from living English teachers rolling their eyes is expected to be more than four orders of magnitude smaller than the angular momentum from dead English teachers rolling in their graves, and therefore can be safely ignored for the purposes of this argument.

Your Astrological Career!

The Chronicle of Higher Education as a *stellar* article on how to find the best career after college - no more of those fancy schmancy personality tests, instead counselors should just ask your sign.

Took me three readings of the intro/closing paragraphs to figure out that it was tongue-in-cheek, despite my *knowing* the Chronicle wouldn't espouse pseudo-science. Have I mentioned I'm not too good at dry humor?

And my ideal career? Academe! :-P

Aquarius: (January 21-February 19) Like all Aquarians, you are unique. You have the celestial gifts of depth and foresight; you are the shaper of new paradigms. You are probably the voice of your generation. Everyone likes you and thinks you are beautiful, kind, and progressive. You are reluctant to stay in one place for too long: You need your freedom to be who you are, and many other places need to benefit from your wisdom and generosity. To Kill a Mockingbird is your favorite book and movie. Above all, you want to help people, and there is nowhere that they can hide in the long run. Of course, you don't want to be the "tool" of any kind of "institution," but you also know that the children are our future. Consider a degree in ethnomusicology, education, women's studies, ecology, or social work. Once you've grown beyond academe, consider expanding your horizons as a community activist, organic farmer, folk artist, co-op worker, weaver, basement gardener, or astrologer.

...or astrologer...