When I was a post doc at BU in the nineties, I used to go to a cafe on Commonwealth Ave just down the street from my office on Cummington Street. I don’t remember the name of the place but I do remember getting a cappuccino that looked something like this:Now, I usually get something that looks like this: Instead of a light delicate layer of milk with a touch of foam floating on rich espresso, I get a lump of dry foam sitting on super acidic burnt quasi-espresso. How did this unfortunate circumstance occur? I’m not sure but I think it was because of Starbucks. Scaling up massively means you get what the average customer wants, or Starbucks thinks they want. This then sets a standard and other cafes have to follow suit because of consumer expectations. Also, making a real cappuccino takes training and a lot of practice and there is no way Starbucks could train enough baristas. Now, I’m not an anti-Starbucks person by any means. I think it is nice that there is always a fairly nice space with free wifi on every corner but I do miss getting a real cappuccino. I believe there is a real business opportunity out there for cafes to start offering better espresso drinks.
Archive for the ‘Recreation’ Category
Here is a true story. A young man is trained to hit people as hard as possible and to react immediately to any provocation with unhindered aggression. He signs a 5 year contract for 35 million dollars to do this 16 times a year or more if he and his colleagues are very successful at doing it. One day he gets upset with his fiancée and strikes her in the head so hard that she is knocked unconscious in a public place. This creates a minor stir so the employer mandates that he must apologize and is prohibited from smashing into people for 2 of the 16 times he is scheduled to do so. The fiancée-now-spouse also refuses to press charges because she doesn’t want to jeopardize the 27 million over the next 3 years owed to the man. However, a video showing the incident is made public creating a huge uproar so the employer abruptly fires the man and condemns him since he now is no longer financially useful to the employer. The public now feels vindicated that such a despicable man is no longer employed and that domestic violence now is given the attention it deserves. However, the spouse is very unhappy because her comfortable lifestyle has just been pulled from right under her. Now, other spouses who live with violent but rich men will be even more silent about abuse because they fear losing their livelihoods too. If we really cared about victims of domestic violence, we would force the employer to set up a fund to ensure that spouses that come forward are compensated financially. We would also force them to support institutions that help the many more victims of domestic abuse who are not married to rich and famous people. This young man is probably an upstanding citizen most of the time. Now he is unemployed and potentially even angrier. He should not be thrown out onto the street but given a chance to redeem himself. The employers and the system who trained and groomed these young men need to look at themselves.
The question in this week’s New York Times Ethicist column is whether it is wrong to watch football because of the inherent dangers to the players. The ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, says that it is ethical to watch football because the players made the decision to play freely with full knowledge of the risks. Although I think Klosterman has a valid point and I do not judge anyone who enjoys football, I have personally decided to forgo watching it. I simply could no longer stomach watching player after player going down with serious injuries each week. In Klosterman’s article, he goes on to say that even if football were the only livelihood the players had, we should still watch football so that they could have a livelihood. This is where I disagree. Aside from the fact that we shouldn’t have a society where the only chance to have a decent livelihood is through sports, football need not be that sport. If football did not exist, some other sport, including a modified safer football, would take its place. Soccer is the most popular sport in the rest of the world. Football exists in its current form because the fans support it. If that support moved to another sport, the players would move too.
Well, I spoke too soon in my earlier post on the America’s Cup. Oracle Team USA has since won 7 races in a row and now it is 8-8 in the best of 17 match (although they have already had 18 races). The final race to determine the winner is today. Check out the action here. In the past, America’s Cup races had usually been best of 3 or best of 5 matches. In this new format, the races are much shorter, taking less than an hour rather than several, and they try to get in two a day if the weather permits. In the beginning New Zealand had the faster boat. They had already been racing for over a month in the challenger series and were just better than Oracle. However, the long format and some weather delays has given Oracle a chance to get up to speed and now they are definitely the faster boat. Yesterday, they flew by New Zealand on the upwind leg. The only chance New Zealand has to win today is if Oracle makes a mistake.
Today may be the last race for the America’s Cup yacht series between the US and New Zealand. Here are the highlights from the last race.
It is a best of 17 series and New Zealand has 8 wins so today may be the last chance to watch these hundred million dollar multihull yachts fly around San Francisco harbour at close to 50 miles per hour. All the races are posted on You Tube.
Right outside of Jackson, Wyoming is the National Elk Refuge, which was established in 1912. It is the wintering ground for a herd of ten thousand elk as well as eight hundred bison. During winter, the elk come down from the mountains to the Jackson Hole valley where the snow is thinner so they can access grass more easily. You can take a horse drawn sleigh right out to the herd with the Grand Tetons as the the backdrop. Here are some pictures.
Here’s whats on my iPod these days. I definitely try to listen to the following three each week. They are all about an hour so they fit into my drive home from work.
Quirks and Quarks: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly radio science show. I used to listen to it as a child. The first host was former scientist and current environmentalist David Suzuki. It is now hosted by Bob McDonald.
The Science Show: This is Australia’s long running radio science show hosted by the inimitable Robyn Williams
Radio Lab: Possibly the most innovative thing ever on radio. If you’ve never listened to radio lab, your missing out on a fantastic experience.
I sometimes listen to these. The philosophy shows are half an hour or shorter while Econtalk is often longer than an hour so they are not as convenient to listen to on my drive.
Philosopher’s Zone: A show that is probably only viable in Australia, which has a vibrant philosophical community. Host Alan Saunders is also a food expert.
Philosophy Bites: These are usually quite short but informative
Econtalk: Salon-like conversations between George Mason economist Russ Roberts and a guest covering a wide range of topics in economics and beyond Although Roberts is a self-professed believer in markets his show is fairly well-balanced with different viewpoints.
I used to listen to these shows more but find myself dialing them up less for some reason these days:
All in the mind: I find this half hour radio show a little too melodramatic at times but it can be interesting
The Naked Scientists: This is a very popular radio show/podcast out of Cambridge, England. I find it a little too flip at times and the hosts sometimes make mistakes.
In addition to these regular podcasts, I also listen to university lectures, mostly in philosophy, available on iTunes U.
National Geographic is conducting a research project (The Genographic Project) to analyze historical genome patterns by sampling DNA from people all over the world. The main aim is to sample from various indigenous peoples from around the world but the public can participate as well. The website for the project is here. There is a charge for a participation kit, which is used to defray the costs of the study. You can have your mitochondrial DNA, which follows your maternal lineage, or if you are a male, the Y-chromosome, which follows your paternal line analyzed. I recently did the test for my Y-chromosome and I am a member of Haplogroup O with the M175 marker. My earliest male ancestor emerged roughly 50,000 years ago in Africa and is the common ancestor of every non-African male alive today. The man with the M175 marker emerged about 35,000 years ago during the ice age somewhere in Central or East Asia. There were probably something like 100,000 Homo sapiens alive at that time.
When I was a child, I lived across the street from the Ontario Science Centre. I loved the place and would go quite often. When it first opened 40 years ago, the Science Centre was quite innovative in its use of interactive exhibits and demonstrations as well as its architecture. It drapes over the side of a valley. I still remember the excitement of riding down the escalators to the lowest levels where my favourite exhibits were.
I went back to the Science Centre this past weekend for the first time in several decades. It has changed quite a bit but some of the old exhibits still exist in a room called the Science Arcade. The architecture looks a little dated on the outside but holds up fairly well on the inside. As I walked around, I wondered whether people actually learn anything at these museums. There are lots of neat things to play with but do they actually get it. An example is an exhibit of a Cartesian Diver, which consists of a small glass fish inside a cylinder of water. The fish is partially filled with water. The visitor pushes a button that pumps air into the cylinder and the fish sinks to the bottom. However, there wasn’t a detailed explanation of how it works. The write up basically said that as air is pumped into the cylinder the pressure rises and squeezes the air inside the fish. It didn’t say explicitly that the fish had a hole in it so that water could move in and out and as the air in the fish was being squeezed by the water moving in due to the increased pressure, the fish became less buoyant and thus sank. I saw a boy watch the fish sink and say, “how did that happen?” Perhaps, the exhibit will spur his curiosity to learn more about it.
I believe the current idea of curators who design science museums and exhibits is that science museums should try to make science fun and cool. Thus the exhibits need to been highly interactive and entertaining. Maybe this is the right strategy and people do get a lot out of visiting science museums. I really don’t know. The National Academy of Sciences has a report, which I haven’t read, on this very issue. I think having a science literate public is more important now than ever. Do science museums play an important role in educating the public?
Last Thursday I had to drive from Baltimore to State College, PA for the 16th Congress of the US National Congress on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics to give a talk in one of the sessions. I gave a condensed version of the kinetic theory of coupled oscillators talk I gave in Warwick last month. The theme of the session was on recent advances in nonlinear dynamics so the topics were quite diverse. I’m not sure my talk resonated with the audience. The only question I received was how was this related to the NIH!
During the six hours of driving I did going back and forth, I listened to podcasts of the Australian radio show The Philosopher’s Zone. This is a wonderful program hosted by Alan Saunders, who has a PhD in philosophy and is also a food expert. Every show consists of Saunders talking to a guest, who is usually a philosopher but not always, about either a book she has recently written or some other philosophical topic. The topics can range from the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Stoicism and everything in between. Saunders has a knack for making complex philosophical ideas accessible and interesting. In addition to The Philosopher’s Zone, I still regularly listen to Quirks and Quarks, The Science Show, Radio Lab, and The Naked Scientists. I’ll also sneak in All in the Mind from time to time.
Now that we’re almost through the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we have witnessed several examples of athletes excelling and underperforming. How an athlete responds to a high pressure situation could give interesting clues into the underlying neurobiology and evolutionary history of the brain. The brain has to operate under trade-offs. There is what Stephen Grossberg calls the plasticity-stability trade-off, where a system that learns must decide when to learn and when not to learn since learning involves overwriting previously learned patterns. There is also the question of how much cognitive control should be exercised. People talk about just letting their “muscle memory” takeover and go on “instinct” but what does that really mean neurobiologically? Recent research has shown that a movement resulting from a reaction is faster than one from an intention. These experiments found that people could hit buttons faster when they reacted to someone rather than when they initiated which shows that more cognitive control can make you slower.
I think it is quite clear that some athletes rise to the occasion under high pressure situations while others wilt. The question is why is there such variability. Naively, it would seem that always performing under pressure should be a good thing. The answer must be that rising to the occasion is not always optimal in an evolutionary sense. Let’s imagine in paleolithic times that you’re in a stressful situation where you’re trying to catch your dinner or are running away from something that wants you for dinner. That would be an analogous situation to a high pressure athletic event. I think that there is not always an optimal strategy. In some instances, you would want to simply run as fast as you can and being able to reach top performance would be helpful. In other instances, it may be better to hesitate and come up with a plan before acting.
Darts is a popular spectator sport in the UK. I had access to cable television recently so I was able to watch a few games. What I find interesting about professional darts is that the players must solve a Diophantine equation to win. For those who know nothing of the game, it involves throwing a small pointed projectile at an enumerated target board that looks like this:
A dart that lands on a given sector on the board obtains that score. The center circle of the board called the bulls eye is worth 50 points. The ring around the bulls eye is worth 25 points. The wedges are worth the score ascribed by the number on the perimeter. However, if you land in the inner ring then you get triple the score of the wedge and if you land in the outer ring you get double the score. Hence, the maximum number of points for one dart is the triple twenty worth 60 points.