Archive for September, 2011

Speed of light exceeded (astounding!)? Or was it measurement error?

This morning I read this NY Times news that European physicists measured neutrinos at 0.0025 percent above the speed of light.  If so, it may be only a matter of time before you can send yourself a telegram to not do whatever you did that you’ve always regretted and, by the way, to please invest a thousand dollars  in Microsoft, Facebook or the like (depending on the timing).

Years ago I visited Mount Wilson Observatory in California with my son Hank.  See me pictured by their two domes that house 60 and 100 inch telescopes; respectively.  This was the center for landmark experiments on the speed of light as detailed in this Wikipedia article.  Obviously measurement error made this a very difficult.

Being a skeptic, and seeing that a similar experiment* found neutrinos whizzing about at the speed of light, but not beyond that, I was going to advise caution.  However, Hank gave me the heads up to today’s xkcd cartoon (click the image to make it bigger and more readable).  I think this guy has got a better idea.

*Done with a group at the Soudan Underground Laboratory here in Minnesota.  They first did physics experiments there, in an abandoned iron mine, in 1980.  I featured this in a retro young-adult techno/adventure/mystery/thriller called The Secret of the Wolf Ring (Amazon, Kindle Edition).

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Blended learning for math & stats

Check out this intriguing YouTube video by Khan Academy proving the Pythagorean Theorem:

Now imagine grade schoolers being lectured like this at home and then spending their time in class following up one-on-one or in small group sessions with the teacher. See this report from a 7th grade math teacher in California who takes advantage of this “blended learning” approach. As face-to-face time with educators becomes ever-more expensive, expect more-and-more use of asynchronous web-based training like this. That’s what I foresee. Don’t you?

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Proofing Blackbeard’s rum

Being only about a week from this year’s Talk Like a Pirate Day this Atlantic Monthly article (read belatedly from a backlog of magazines) about Gunpowder on the Rocks caught my eye.  I like the idea of setting a drink on fire and then drinking it, as Blackbeard did to impress his pirate crew.

It turns out that this is a practical test of rum to ensure it hasn’t been watered down by a ne’er-do-well hornswoggler, as you can see in this video by experimental archaeologist Jeff Lindow.  After watching this, I decided not to try this at home as it would no doubt shiver my timbers.  However, if it gets cold enough this winter, I might consider a swig of this gunpowder-infused Man O’War rum.  Yo ho ho!

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It may pay to make your product less than perfect!


I once analyzed data from a designed experiment that quantified consumer distaste for flaws in chocolate-covered cherries.  This was a very rewarding project – lots of free candy!  It also produced a counter-intuitive result: People preferred boxes with a few upside-down morsels.  I figure this is akin to a beauty mark adding to the enticement of a model or actor.  This article on “When Blemishing Leads to Blossoming”, published online by the Journal of Consumer Research confirms that under specific circumstances, a flaw makes a product more attractive.  For example, in one experiment (highlighted in the July 16 issue of Wall Street Journal) the researchers (Danit Ein-Gar, Baba Shiv, Zakary L. Tormala) offered either perfect or slightly flawed chocolate bars to several hundred relaxed (strolling around) or stressed (rushing to exams) college students.  I searched out the results and reproduced them in this interaction graph from Design-Expert® software.  It seems to me that this surprising effect, presuming it’s real, provides yet another devious opportunity for marketing mavens to make us buy stuff.  One thing I might advise is that you never buy anything when you are in a hurry.

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