Monday, August 31, 2009

The Physics of Costco

I've been in Costco twice in the last couple of days to get supplies for the Star Party. Everyone who comes gets a free five-gallon jug of mayonnaise and we're raffling off a case of 800 mini-quiches.

Not really. It's just for soft drinks. You guys can get your own eight-pack of hair gel.

But I love going into those places, just to watch. Because everything is in bulk, people shove these giant overstuffed carts around. The backstories you can build by watching a 5'2", 95-lb elderly woman balance a month's worth of bacon and 200 yards of garden hose on a 52" plasma TV will keep you in giggles all the way home. Try it.

Still, today wasn't about stories. Today was a harsh lesson in basic physics.

There was a standard shopping cart filled to overflowing. I didn't inventory what was in there, but what I noticed was meat-based. The 20-something woman pushing it was a little heavyset, but nowhere near the equivalent of the cart. She was clearly frustrated in dealing with this quivering food mass.

She starts pushing, and it moves. She keeps pushing, and it moves faster. Faster. Faster. She was a woman possessed. Got the thing up to about a slow jog or medium mall-walk.

I'm no physicist, but I do have a minor in physics and a passable amount of familiarity with how inertia works. There are a lot of ways this cart can stop, almost all of them hilarious.

She had aimed well, but apparently forgot that she has to stop so the Costcestapo can check her receipt. (My least favorite part about Costco. How am I going to fit a 55-gallon drum of milk in my jacket anyway? Where's the trust?)

The poor girl tried to stop. She could have done it with a little more of two things: friction and upper-body strength. She actually slid for a couple of feet before the cart tore loose from her hands. Then everything else froze as the cart trundled out the door and into a concrete column. The top 20% of the contents slid to the sidewalk.

It was hard not to laugh. At least, I think it was hard not to laugh. I didn't try. But it could have been tragic -- that cart could have hit a child or someone in a wheelchair. Or my car.

Okay, the wheelchair would have been kind of funny.

All was well. When I walked out, she was trying to rebalance everything in her cart as the CostCop ticked things off her receipt. No lasting harm done, and she learned a basic principle of the universe that she should have picked up in high school -- and she wasn't the first: that was a well-scuffed column. Some people just have to see things in action.

I hope all of you reading this can take a little something from this. Always be aware of your surroundings at Costco. Being mowed down by 450 pounds of yogurt cups and dishwashing soap would be a hila-- horrible way to die.

Friday, August 21, 2009

You Don't Know Jack

Sad news. A few days ago, my mom had to make The Long Drive to the vet with her 12.5-year-old dog Jack (a Jack Russell terrier). The poor guy had bone cancer in one of his legs, and it had gotten to the point where he couldn't breathe and was in pain pretty much all the time. Knowing its really the right decision doesn't seem to make it easier, though I imagine the local chipmunks are having a block party.

Jack had a tough early life. He spent his first four years with my uncle Charles, who either didn't know much about taking care of dogs or wasn't interested. You can't really leave a Jack Russell outside all the time, even in a climate as mild as north Alabama's. At his chunkiest, Jack couldn't have topped 10 pounds, and didn't have much hair.

In Charles' defense, he was also fighting with cancer (a fight he would eventually lose). During that fight, my mom would visit, and that's when she met Jack. One day Mom was out there, and noticed that Jack had been "skunked." When she left, she scooped up Jack and drove back home. Jack got a bath, went on his very first vet trip ever, and never went back because Charles passed away a couple days later.

Being adopted by my mother is the dog equivalent of winning the lottery. Food and shelter become last on your list of worries, replaced by finding the right spot on the couch to nap between chasing chipmunks in the back yard.

The last thing many chipmunks saw

Jack was a horror of Biblical proportions to chipmunks. Everything else out back -- squirrels, rabbits, etc -- were perfectly safe from the Tiny Ferocity, but chipmunks and mice? Doomed, unless they could climb a minimum of two feet up a tree.

To everyone else, he was friendly and cuddly. When you walked into Mom's house, he spent about 30 seconds making noises like a handgun being fired into a frying pan. If you withstood such an onslaught, you were okay by him and he would totally sit in your lap the minute you sat down. (Unless my mom was also sitting down. That was a dog that never forgot where his bread was buttered.) He was also one of the most well-traveled dogs I knew. Mom used to make the occasional business trip to Denver, CO, and she would drive it with Jack in a dog bed on the passenger seat.

Jack never really shook off his hard youth. When Mom got him, he was riddled with heartworms. After they were gone, he had a slight wheeze in his breath, and we always sort of suspected he would go early. That he made it to 12.5 and died from something else is a testament to Mom's Extreme Pampering Skilz.

So, it's a little quieter at Mom's these days, although not by a whole bunch. Mom also pampers a chihuahua named Chico and a Schnauzer named Beardo. (Also good dogs, but didn't have Jack's humble beginnings, the ungrateful brats.) As for Jack: when your story starts out hard, you can do a lot worse than to have a comfy and loving middle and a merciful end.

Goodbye, Jack. If you're anywhere right now, I hope the pillows are fluffy and the chipmunks are fat.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sexy time!

Lots of discussion these days about sexism among the skeptical movement. It's very depressing to read, both because I don't see a solution, and (or maybe "therefore") I'm not sure I can see the problem.

There's a voice in my head that says "stay out of this," and "no happiness lies at the end of this road," and "seriously, stay the hell out of this and keep your stupid mouth closed." But where would I be if I listened to advice like that, besides thin and rich? I'm going to wade in anyway, mostly to organize my own thoughts. Should they occur.

I think I just exist with a neutral zone around my head on this issue. Maybe I am just so damn male that I'm blind to sexism. I'm sure that's part of it. But it's scary too, because I would be horrified if everyone thought I was a sexist. How would I get my feet rubbed? Tim might be my Hetero Life Mate but I don't want his fingers on my plantar fascia any more than he does. (Before you write your "What's the Harm in The Man Version?" SkeptiSlashFic, look up what the plantar fascia is, please.)

Why aren't women better represented in skepticism?

I've tried to noodle this out, oblivious as I am. It's tough, because I don't think we know a cause. Some possibles have floated by:

Skepticism is still a Good Ol' Boys Club.

There are undoubtedly pockets where this is true, but I think it fails as a cause for two reasons: 1) No one has pointed to any instances of actual repression of women by the hoary old men, and 2) accusing a group of nameless men someplace of being unable to accept women in their groups strikes me as... well... sexist.

From what I've heard of the latest discussion, no one is really accusing anyone of intentionally shunning the ladies. We're probably guilty of some mannerisms and telling some stupid jokes that can be offensive, but that's hardly unique to skepticism. Nor is it a one-way street.

Until we can get more women really active in the sciences and in science advocacy, I think the women we have need to do some grass-roots stuff. It's thanks to grass-roots skepticism that most of us have heard of HLM Tim Farley, or Robert Lancaster. Or Rebecca Watson.
Which brings us to...

There aren't as many women in the sciences.

This has certainly been traditionally true, although I hope the numbers are getting better. (I could tell you for sure, but that would require research I would frankly rather not do.) Is there still a stigma about women going into science and math? Is there some cultural facet that keeps the ladies out of theoretical physics classes but tuned into Oprah? I don't know -- which is just as well, because if there is, I don't have a clue how to fix it.

Oh, Oprah. Is there anything you can't make worse?

Skeptical gatherings aren't family friendly.

Since I don't have kids, this idea didn't occur to me until my friend Lisa mentioned it in a comment on Skepchick. Almost every local skeptic group I've heard of meets in bars. The Amazing Meeting is held in Las Vegas (which hardly anyone confuses with Disneyworld, except when Disney is covered in sand, filled with hookers, and baked at 350 degrees) and is one long drunken debauchery broken up by guest speakers. If any of that sounds like family entertainment, your kids may end up being taken away. Or lost in a blackjack game.

As a life-long teetotaler, I admit I've been frustrated that every skeptical gathering of more than two people has to be around alcohol. It must be worse for parents who would like to be more involved but can't just leave Junior alone with a box of diapers, 20 tins of tuna, and a can opener while Mom and Dad go to a five-day frat party. (I don't have a solution here, either. Getting skeptics out of a bar is probably harder than getting an Oprah fan to be an astrophysicist.)

So what do we do?

I am not going to presume to lecture the women who are discussing this issue on Skepchick and other forums. They are all way smarter than me, and I've already admitted a blind spot.

I don't know how to get young girls interested in science across the board. For science to become "cool," something bigger than this blog (!) has to happen with our culture. Broader space exploration might help recapture the days of the Apollo missions. Or space tourism, if that ever becomes safe and affordable. All that seems like a long way off when we're actually arguing about whether the U.S. President wants send senior citizens to their deaths. (Doesn't that sound like a certain radio talk-show host got baked on oxycodone and watched Logan's Run over and over? And aren't we due for a Logan's Run remake? And is Logan's Run available on Netflix? I should go loo--.... sorry.)

Until then, any science interest must be planted and fostered at home. So we have to get moms and dads interested in science. Grrrr... I blame Oprah again. Maybe the best investment for all this stimulus money is to make jobs in science for attractive financially.

As for the family friendly thing...

I'm not just kissing up to Lisa (although doing so has always been a good policy), but the more I think about this, the more I see how this can be a barrier. It sucks, because my experience with people in the skeptical movement has been entirely positive. I've never met more caring, friendly, and interesting people, and there's not a group I'm prouder to be associated with. Even the more bizarre members are very kind. Except for that one guy. You all know who I mean, right? That dude is a tool.

I hate to think that others who want to be with us cannot because they're having the kids that we so desperately want to become scientists. Maybe it's time for skeptic gatherings to evolve beyond the floating kegger stage. We're smart people - I'm sure we can figure out a kid-enabled alternative that wouldn't ruin the dynamic that we currently have. I *like* Las Vegas, but maybe it's costing us in ways we can't feel in the pocketbook.

(In fact, I know we can make these things kid-friendly, and we're going to prove it once again at Dragon*Con. If they get bored by skeptic speakers, the children are never more than a few feet away from someone in an Iron Man outfit.)

Like everyone else, I don't have answers. (But I do have access! I can get right to the top of the JREF with a simple phone call! I just have to say "Maria, next time you talk to Phil, tell him I said hi!" I am so in.) We're smart folks, we skeptics. We can think through this if we can define the problem. I don't think we've quite taken that step yet.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Star Party Org Stuff

To My Astronomer Volunteers:

If you're planning on submitting a video for the Star Party, please let me know. A couple of you have contacted me, and a few more have hinted at it. Who knew astronomers were such teases? (Wait... I guess we all did. Or at least we hoped.)

Anyhow, you don't have to have the completed videos ready, although the clock is tickin'. We're just trying to get the agenda for the night ironed out.

So far we have the food and mingling, then the talk with Phil and Pamela, assuming we can extract Pamela from Rio. Then the gazing, then the Running of the Biologists*. Place your bets early!

(* The name is sort of an anachronism. We don't actually make any biologists run. It's just a catch-all name for the traditional sacrifice of a life sciences or social sciences student.)

Anyway -- please let me know if you're doing one so we have an idea of how long it'll take.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Belated RIPs

After I got that fruit out of my system, I looked up some info for the Star Party, and noticed that Jeff Medkeff died exactly one year ago yesterday. Doesn't seem that long ago, but it reminded me that I let another important death pass without comment.

Actually, I let several slip by.
  • David Carradine: No! Bad Grasshopper! Bad! What a way to allegedly go. Bad enough dying by asphyxiation; gotta be even worse to feel your spine curve and hair grow on your palms right before the end.
  • Ed McMahon: Always liked Ed, but my fondness for him was mostly because of his association with someone more famous. (Not that I can relate to that.) He had it rough at the end with his health and his finances (I think the last time we saw him was on a Cash4Gold ad during the Superbowl), but he knew how to work that giant novelty check.
  • Farrah Fawcett: Like most guys my age, I felt Farrah's greatest work was the red swimsuit poster from 1976. Her right nipple sent more boys into, through, out of, and back into puberty than all the 20-something third grade homeroom teachers in America put together. Now, every memory I have about her last days and death are tainted because I just read that Ryan O'Neal hit on his daughter Tatum at Farrah's funeral. Uncool. You gotta give your daughter at least a month to mourn her stepmother's death before you try to have sex with her.
  • Gidget the Chihuahua: Got a national commercial campaign and did two movies with Reese Witherspoon. Good gig for an animal bred to either shake or pee at all times. I've got a soft spot for chihuahuas, but 15 is ancient.
  • Walter Cronkite: Now I'm depressed. When he told us something, we believed it until he told us differently. We don't give that trust to, say, Katie Couric or Geraldo. For good reason, too. But Cronkite was, what, 92? That was a big life.
Seems like I'm forgetting someone...

Oh right! Michael Jackson. I was never a fan of his music, to be honest. He had one great song (of course I mean Blame it on the Boogie) and one good move (making Jay Leno stop telling jokes about his child molestation trial). Every mention of his name during the last 20 years was followed by a slow head-shake and a chill up the spine. He sustained the careers of many mediocre comedians and all late-night talk show hosts for more than a decade -- he was the airline seat belt lecture of pop music.

But the one I want to mention is a man who had a subtle but major impact on me: David Eddings, died two months ago.

Eddings was a decent-not-great epic fantasy author. He had basically one plot idea which he and his wife stretched into two five-book series and two trilogies. And that plot idea was suspiciously similar to Lord of the Rings.

But those were the first books I read that built a world from scratch (this was before I read LotR). Eddings had created separate cultures and histories and mythologies and tied them together in one complex story with clunky dialog. I'm sure this outs me as a Righteous Nerd to the one or two people there who hadn't guessed it already.

So be it, but losing myself in epic fantasy books kept me sane through high school, college, and every long plane ride since. It opened me up to grander works such as Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books.

Eddings wrote his last book in 2006, not long before Leigh died.

It's hard for me to argue that he deserved more press coverage than anyone else mentioned here (except maybe Gidget, but we are nuts for our puppies -- ya hear that, Michael Vick, you stupid bastard?). Yet his work opened up some doors for me that have stayed open since. I'm sorry he's gone, and I'll remember him fondly. Might even reread his books. RIP Mr. Eddings.

Maudlin Postscript: August 5, 2009 is the 60th Anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire. I'm working on a talk about that event, the ignorance and poor communication that caused it, and the science that spawned from it. If you're local to Atlanta, stay tuned!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fruit

This is me in the video, but it's an idea I stole from Hetero Life Partner Tim (HLPTim). It's a little dated, since the Ray Comfort thing has been around awhile.

Still, it's a confluence of events:
  • Wife out of town
  • I had nothing to do
  • I had fruit