All articles with the Quickie tag

Sometimes my attention span's a little sho

Are women really the fairer sex?

Posted January 6th, 2009 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

As a young boy, I was often intimidated by beautiful women. I only began to conquer this social anxiety when I concluded that the situation was symmetrical; women probably thought the same thing about handsome men. Later, I began to notice that many women don’t agree with my early conclusion. As evidence, here’s a conversation from Seinfeld:

Elaine: “Whoa! Walking around naked? Ahh… that is not a good look for a man.”
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
Jerry: “So you don’t think it’s attractive?”
Elaine: “It’s hideous. The hair, the… the lumpiness. It’s simian.”
George: “Well, some women like it.”
Elaine: “Hmm. Sickies.”


Beliefs are like glass sculptures

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Posted January 2nd, 2009 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , .

I have a tendency to get attached to my beliefs, because in a very real sense they’re the only possessions which can’t be taken from me. I’ve poured countless hours of effort into them, whether I derived the belief independently or found them in another person’s writings. I find it easier to be an intellectual parasite in this sense, because independently deriving beliefs is much harder. But some beliefs can’t be easily falsified, so critically examining them is often just as difficult as independently discovering them. Either way, the prospect of abandoning any of my beliefs is painful because it involves admitting I was wrong. I always find that difficult; the shame of admitting my mistake and the difficulty of re-aligning my worldview pose serious challenges. (more…)

Brontosaurus never existed

Posted November 29th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , , .

When I was a college freshman, a fiery preacher named Tom Short would stand in a courtyard, evangelizing and arguing with any pedestrian who challenged him. More often than I’d care to admit, I found myself in that courtyard listening to him. It was like watching a car accident– horrible but so fascinating that I couldn’t look away. He spent a lot of time talking about Hell. He casually dismissed accusations that his homophobic rhetoric was indirectly responsible for a recent tragedy– the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard– by suggesting that Matthew was actually killed by other homosexuals. Other frequent topics included the pack of atheistic lies called “evolution,” and the argument that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.

Then one day, I heard him say: “Brontosaurus never existed.” Someone immediately responded: “That’s ridiculous! Of course (more…)

Climate destabilization

Posted April 7th, 2012 in Physics. Tags: , , , , , , .

The overwhelming majority of scientists endorse this statement:

“Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” [IPCC Summary for Policymakers, 2007]

Here, “most” means at least 50% of the 0.55°C rise since 1950. Some mistakenly call this an “alarmist exaggeration” but it actually understates the human contribution because it’s easy to incorrectly conclude that the other 50% of the trend might be caused by natural forcing variations: (more…)

Cold weather really can make you sick

Posted December 5th, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

My mother always tells me to bundle up before I go outside during the winter, because otherwise I’ll “catch a cold.” When I first learned about the germ theory of disease, I thought she was wrong. Cold doesn’t make you sick, I thought. Germs make you sick.

Recently, it’s become obvious that I was wrong and she was right. (more…)

Farewell, Dr. Mandelbrot

Posted October 17th, 2010 in Math. Tags: , , , .

Dr. Benoît B. Mandelbrot passed away last Thursday at the age of 85. He’s best known for coining the term “fractal,” so it might be appropriate to remember him by looking at some pictures of the Mandelbrot set. He discovered this hauntingly beautiful fractal shape while exploring the mathematics of imaginary numbers. His discovery inspired generations of scientists and mathematicians, some of whom have recently found a 3D version that they call a Mandelbulb. (more…)

People who argue to win annoy me

Posted December 1st, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , .

I enjoy civilized debates, but only rarely get a chance to engage in them. That’s because in my experience nearly everyone assumes they’re correct, so they only debate to beat their viewpoint into the other person’s head at all costs.

In other words, most people argue to win… and I can’t stand it. Whenever I mention this pet peeve, the response is almost always “Oh, so you argue to lose, huh?” (more…)

Stereogram puzzles

Posted November 11th, 2008 in Math. Tags: , , , .

I’ve found stereograms entrancing ever since I first managed to “see” one. If you can’t see them, try viewing these images on one of those shiny new LCD monitors and focus on your own reflection. Be sure the monitor is perfectly level, and your head is perfectly vertical. Then use your peripheral vision to search the image for a hint of 3D structure but keep your face in focus. With any luck the image should simply pop into view. (Unless your eyes point in slightly different directions… right?).

These images fascinate me because they’re essentially tricking my binocular vision into hallucinating objects when I look “through” a pattern of (almost) random noise. I used to make my own stereograms using (more…)

The faint young Sun paradox

Posted May 24th, 2009 in Physics. Tags: , , , .

According to the standard solar model, the Sun’s brightness steadily increases because helium ash slowly builds up in its core. The introduction of heavier elements like helium forces the Sun to fuse hydrogen faster in order to prevent gravitational collapse, so it shines brighter as it ages. The Sun was ~25% dimmer 4 billion years ago compared to now.

Liquid oceans had already formed 4 billion years ago, so Earth’s temperature must have been above the freezing point of water. A faint young Sun presents a paradox: how could a 25% dimmer Sun warm the Earth enough to develop liquid oceans? (more…)

The Moon wobbles

Posted December 4th, 2008 in Astronomy. Tags: , , , , , .
Lunar wobbling animation

This is what you get if you take a photo of the Moon every night for a month, then make a movie out of those pictures. The Moon’s phases aren’t surprising, but the Moon also appears to grow and shrink as it orbits the Earth. This happens because the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical; its distance to the Earth varies by about 10%.

Also, the Moon appears to “wobble” from left to right. That’s because the Earth’s gravity pulls harder on the Moon the closer it is to the Earth, so the Moon travels faster in its orbit when it’s closer to the Earth. The Moon’s rotation rate matches its average orbital speed (which is why we only see one face of the Moon), but its orbital speed varies during the orbit while its rotation rate remains fixed, so the Moon appears to wobble from left to right.

2009-08-10 Update: I’ve noticed that many people arrive at this article by googling moon wobbles. All the other sites on the first page claim that “moon wobbles” are responsible for explosions, mass-murder, earthquakes, terrorism, etc. Sadly, I need to emphasize that the wobbling I’m describing can’t possibly result in these kinds of ludicrous effects.

The Moon’s final resting place

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Posted February 19th, 2015 in Astronomy. Tags: , , .

I’ve been wondering about the future evolution of our solar system.

The Moon is spiralling away from Earth due to tidal friction, which slows Earth’s rotation. I used to think tidal braking would stop when Earth’s daysidereal day, to be specific. matched the Moon’s orbital period, as with Pluto and Charon. (more…)

Theories and metatheories

Posted April 16th, 2009 in Science. Tags: , , , .

I’ve previously called evolution and the Big Bang “theories” to confront widespread confusion regarding the differences between theories and hypotheses. However, using the word “theory” in these instances might be a subtle mistake. It may even be partially responsible for the systemic communications barrier between scientists and the general public. (more…)

What causes motion sickness?

Posted February 19th, 2009 in Biology. Tags: , , .

I used to go scuba diving, but I routinely got seasick on the boat. Since I had nothing better to do while leaning over the water, I wondered why I had to go through this wretched experience. I understood the origins of physical pain– an animal that didn’t realize it had sprained an ankle would likely hurt itself even more rather than waiting for it to heal. But why should I feel nauseous when on a boat? I wasn’t being hurt by the waves, so this incapacitating condition wouldn’t have provided any advantage to my ancestors and therefore shouldn’t have been favored by natural selection. (more…)

Why do pigeons bob their heads?

Posted November 23rd, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

Recently, I’ve started to wonder why pigeons bob their heads in such a violent manner when they walk. This habit seems like it consumes a lot of calories… don’t they need every bit of energy in order to fly? I don’t understand why natural selection hasn’t bred pigeons that walk without bobbing their heads. Wouldn’t they be more efficient and therefore more fit?

Here are some hypotheses I’m toying with to explain this behavior (more…)

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