Misc: June 2008 Archives


June 28, 2008

I was listening to NPR this morning and caught an interview that made me think about the hierarchy of importance of appearances in public radio. Obviously, being on the radio is good, but some appearances are better than others. In ascending order of importance in the public radio universe, the list goes something like this.
  • Appearing on This American Life
  • Appearing on a "specialty" show like Latino USA or News and Notes.
  • Being mentioned in a news segment.
  • Being interviewed briefly in a news segment.
  • Appearing on a local show, like Forum
  • Appearing on a national show, like All Things Considered
  • Appearing on Fresh Air.
  • Appearing repeatedly.
  • Appearing repeatedly on Fresh Air.
  • Getting mentioned when you die.
  • Having Fresh Air rerun your interview when you die.
  • Getting mentioned on the anniversary of your death.
  • Having Fresh Air rerun your interview on the anniversary of your death.
  • Having your relatives interviewed on the anniversary of your death.
  • Having your relatives interviewed on their birthday.

I'm not kidding about the last one, by the way. I heard an interview today with Ernest Hemingway's son, on his 80th birthday—the son's not Ernest's.


June 23, 2008

So, I'm at Safeway yesterday and they ask me whether I want to donate $1 for prostate cancer. Here's the promotion of which I speak. Now, I'n not unsympathetic to the cause of prostate research—I own a prostate and it might someday decide to go berserk—but one suspects that this isn't the most efficient way to run a health research program. Indeed, it looks rather like a case of rent seeking, with the monopoly rent in this case being space at the Safeway cash register. And as with all rent seeking, we have to worry about two kinds of inefficiencies: inefficient allocation of resources, and money spent lobbying to acquire the monopoly rents. Again, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with funding prostate cancer research (though I think it was breast cancer or MS a few months ago), but it's also pretty unclear what the connection is between being able to convince Safeway to sponsor you and being a good place to put research dollars. This, after all, is what we pay NIH to do.

That said, while I did see people in front of me in line handing over their money, I wonder whether the value here as far as the prostate cancer foundation is concerned is the money they collect at Safeway as much as commitment and consistency: once you've handed over your dollar (as I recall that's what they're asking for), you're probably a lot more likely to be willing to favor prostate cancer research later, whether you're asked to hand over significant amounts of money or just to vote for it. While we're on the topic: I wonder whether this sort of promotion has any impact on how likely grant reviewers are to favorably rate proposals for research the disease du jour.


June 21, 2008

When I was at the NIST IBE workshop, I happened to notice the NIST standard reference material (SRM) catalog. Leafing through it, I noticed you could order a bunch of cool stuff, like, for instance, Plutonium-239. So, interesting question: could you order enough fissile material to make a bomb? Unsurprisingly, the answer appears to be "no." NIST's Pu-239 SRM is 220 Bq and costs you about $1000 ($937). Plutonium's activity is about 4.4x10^{-10} g/Bq, so the SRM consists of about 10^{-7} g. Critical mass of plutonium is about 10 kg (10^4 grams), so you would need need 10^{11} samples, for a price of $10^{14} (100 trillion). Seems a bit spendy. I should probably mention that the samples are 5 ml each, so this would be 5x10^8 liters of fluid, which might be a bit much to manage. Also, I suspect that NIST would notice when you called to place your order.

June 12, 2008

I'd already heard that a bunch of airlines were going to start charging for checked baggage, but I read that USAir is now going to charge for soft drinks. Unlike the checked baggage policy (and previous policies for good seats), however, it doesn't look like they're going to exempt elite flyers. It's easy to see why that would be inconvenient for them to do ("please show me your card, sir"), but this, along with new, higher fees for award travel (travel bought with miles), elimination of mileage bonuses, and closures of a bunch of lounges, starts to look like they've decided that they don't value their elite flyers. Obviously, they have no obligation to suck up to elites, but the result is that travellers don't have any real incentive to choose USAir over other carriers, so they're forced to compete almost entirely on price.

Conversely, the charge for checked baggage (at least on United) may actually make being elite more attractive, at least comparatively. First, not having to pay the baggage charge is a benefit if you want to check baggage. Second, a baggage charge incentivizes everyone to bring more carry-on, which makes overhead bin space scarcer, which makes the early boarding privileges that come with being elite more valuable.


June 10, 2008

Hovav Shacham ran a small physics problem by me the other day. You have a body rolling along a flat, frictionless, track of length L, as shown in "A" above. Assume it's been given a single initial impulse so it's moving at speed S. We all know that it will take time L/S to traverse the track completely.

Now, consider the diagrams labelled B, C. These are two tracks with the same horizontal displacement as A, but we've added either a hill or a valley to the middle of the track. The diagrams aren't to scale and don't assume that shape of the hill/valley is an arc, even though it's shown that way, but you can assume that:

  • There's only one hill/valley. It's not rolling.
  • B and C are mirror image of each other. I.e., they're equally deep and high with identical slopes.
  • All tracks are symmetrical around the dashed line "Y"
  • The ball is moving fast enough to complete each track (in particular, to clear the top of the hill in B).

So, two questions:

  1. What's the relationship between the time the ball takes to traverse B and C? You don't need a numerical answer, just equal to, less than, or greater than.
  2. The same question as above, but for A and C.

This doesn't require calculus or detailed mechanical calculations, just simple qualitative physics and some intuition.

Answers after the break.


June 7, 2008

Noticed this sign in the window of a drug store today.

Aside from the fact that I'm a bit nonplussed to be lectured on ethics by a company which spent years denying nicotine was addictive, but this seems like the bumper sticker version of some pretty confused ethical reasoning. It's not like there's some principled ethical argument to be made that selling cigarettes to 18 year-olds is OK but selling it to people who are 17 1/2 isn't. I'm not claiming that it's OK to sell it to toddlers, but setting the dividing line at 18 is purely arbitrary. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the legal age is 19 in some parts of the US, let alone the rest of the world. Is PM claiming that the state of Utah is immoral? You'll notice that they don't say "18", just "minors", so these signs are quite usable in Utah.

Now, that's not to say that it's not necessarily moral to sell tobacco to 17 year-olds. For instance, you could argue that it's wrong to sell tobacco to anyone, in which case it's also immoral to sell it to those under 18. Presumably, that's not the argument that PM is making. More plausibly, one could argue that while there's nothing special about the 18 barrier, but that it's wrong to break the law in any case, but then "It's not just wrong, it's illegal" doesn't make much sense, since it's wrong only because it's illegal.