Tag Archives: Humor

Scientific What-Ifs on XKCD

This thought experiment is from XKCD‘s new “What If” blog, which considers the consequences of various unlikely (read: impossible) scenarios.


What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

– Ellen McManis

Let’s set aside the question of how we got the baseball moving that fast. We’ll suppose it’s a normal pitch, except in the instant the pitcher releases the ball, it magically accelerates to 0.9c. From that point onward, everything proceeds according to normal physics.:

pitcher throwing ball

The answer turns out to be “a lot of things”, and they all happen very quickly, and it doesn’t end well for the batter (or the pitcher). I sat down with some physics books, a Nolan Ryan action figure, and a bunch of videotapes of nuclear tests and tried to sort it all out. What follows is my best guess at a nanosecond-by-nanosecond portrait:

The ball is going so fast that everything else is practically stationary. Even the molecules in the air are stationary. Air molecules vibrate back and forth at a few hundred miles per hour, but the ball is moving through them at 600 million miles per hour. This means that as far as the ball is concerned, they’re just hanging there, frozen.

The ideas of aerodynamics don’t apply here. Normally, air would flow around anything moving through it. But the air molecules in front of this ball don’t have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball smacks into them hard that the atoms in the air molecules actually fuse with the atoms in the ball’s surface. Each collision releases a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles.

fusion illustrationfusion zone of baseball

These gamma rays and debris expand outward in a bubble centered on the pitcher’s mound. They start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma. The wall of this bubble approaches the batter at about the speed of light—only slightly ahead of the ball itself.

t=30 nanoseconds

The constant fusion at the front of the ball pushes back on it, slowing it down, as if the ball were a rocket flying tail-first while firing its engines. Unfortunately, the ball is going so fast that even the tremendous force from this ongoing thermonuclear explosion barely slows it down at all. It does, however, start to eat away at the surface, blasting tiny particulate fragments of the ball in all directions. These fragments are going so fast that when they hit air molecules, they trigger two or three more rounds of fusion.

After about 70 nanoseconds the ball arrives at home plate. The batter hasn’t even seen the pitcher let go of the ball, since the light carrying that information arrives at about the same time the ball does. Collisions with the air have eaten the ball away almost completely, and it is now a bullet-shaped cloud of expanding plasma (mainly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen) ramming into the air and triggering more fusion as it goes. The shell of x-rays hits the batter first, and a handful of nanoseconds later the debris cloud hits.

When it reaches the batter, the center of the cloud is still moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. It hits the bat first, but then the batter, plate, and catcher are all scooped up and carried backward through the backstop as they disintegrate. The shell of x-rays and superheated plasma expands outward and upward, swallowing the backstop, both teams, the stands, and the surrounding neighborhood—all in the first microsecond.

Suppose you’re watching from a hilltop outside the city. The first thing you see is a blinding light, far outshining the sun. This gradually fades over the course of a few seconds, and a growing fireball rises into a mushroom cloud. Then, with a great roar, the blast wave arrives, tearing up trees and shredding houses.

Everything within roughly a mile of the park is leveled, and a firestorm engulfs the surrounding city. The baseball diamond is now a sizable crater, centered a few hundred feet behind the former location of the backstop.

mushroom cloud

A careful reading of official Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch”, and would be eligible to advance to first base.

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12 Burnout Prevention Tips from MIT

The MIT Engineers. How creative.

I ran across these “MIT Burnout Prevention and Recovery Tips” the other day:

1) STOP DENYING. Listen to the wisdom of your body. Begin to freely admit the stresses and pressures which have manifested physically, mentally, or emotionally.
  • MIT VIEW: Work until the physical pain forces you into unconsciousness.

2) AVOID ISOLATION. Don’t do everything alone! Develop or renew intimacies with friends and loved ones. Closeness not only brings new insights, but also is anathema to agitation and depression.

  • MIT VIEW: Shut your office door and lock it from the inside so no one will distract you. They’re just trying to hurt your productivity.

3) CHANGE YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES. If your job, your relationship, a situation, or a person is dragging you under, try to alter your circumstance, or if necessary, leave.

  • MIT VIEW: If you feel something is dragging you down, suppress these thoughts. This is a weakness. Drink more coffee.

4) DIMINISH INTENSITY IN YOUR LIFE. Pinpoint those areas or aspects which summon up the most concentrated intensity and work toward alleviating that pressure.

  • MIT VIEW: Increase intensity. Maximum intensity = maximum productivity. If you find yourself relaxed and with your mind wandering, you are probably having a detrimental effect on the recovery rate.

5) STOP OVERNURTURING. If you routinely take on other people’s problems and responsibilities, learn to gracefully disengage. Try to get some nurturing for yourself.

  • MIT VIEW: Always attempt to do everything. You ARE responsible for it all. Perhaps you haven’t thoroughly read your job description.

6) LEARN TO SAY “NO”. You’ll help diminish intensity by speaking up for yourself. This means refusing additional requests or demands on your time or emotions.

  • MIT VIEW: Never say no to anything. It shows weakness, and lowers the research volume. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do at midnight.

7) BEGIN TO BACK OFF AND DETACH. Learn to delegate, not only at work, but also at home and with friends. In this case, detachment means rescuing yourself for yourself.

  • MIT VIEW: Delegating is a sign of weakness. If you want it done right, do it yourself (see #5).

8) REASSESS YOUR VALUES. Try to sort out the meaningful values from the temporary and fleeting, the essential from the nonessential. You’ll conserve energy and time, and begin to feel more centered.

  • MIT VIEW: Stop thinking about your own problems. This is selfish. If your values change, we will make an announcement at the Corporation meeting. Until then, if someone calls you and questions your priorities, tell them that you are unable to comment on this and give them the number for Community and Government Relations. It will be taken care of.

9) LEARN TO PACE YOURSELF. Try to take life in moderation. You only have so much energy available. Ascertain what is wanted and needed in your life, then begin to balance work with love, pleasure, and relaxation.

  • MIT VIEW: A balanced life is a myth perpetuated by liberal arts schools. Don’t be a fool: the only thing that matters is work and productivity.

10) TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY. Don’t skip meals, abuse yourself with rigid diets, disregard your need for sleep, or break the doctor appointments. Take care of yourself nutritionally.

  • MIT VIEW: Your body serves your mind, your mind serves the Institute. Push the mind and the body will follow. Drink Mountain Dew.

11) DIMINISH WORRY AND ANXIETY. Try to keep superstitious worrying to a minimum – it changes nothing. You’ll have a better grip on your situation if you spend less time worrying and more time taking care of your real needs.

  • MIT VIEW: If you’re not worrying about work, you must not be very committed to it. We’ll find someone who is.

12) KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Begin to bring job and happy moments into your life. Very few people suffer burnout when they’re having fun.

  • MIT VIEW: So you think your work is funny? We’ll discuss this with your director on Friday, at 7:00PM!

***Also… wow.

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Really?

My friend Patrick showed me this website on Friday. It’s a collection of real front-page (table of content, or TOC) figures from scientific papers. Click on the images to see it in situ on the journal’s website.

I can’t believe people manage to publish this stuff…

-Joel

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An Accidental Nuclear War

Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is? 

You should. Back in the 80s, when the U.S. and Russia were being all ridiculous and arms-race-y, Col. Petrov managed to save the world while hunkered down in a bunker near Moscow. Check out this article I wrote about Petrov and why the future of the world rested on his shoulders on one September day in 1983.

Time to get back to writing my final paper as a Stanford student…

-Joel

So true.

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Why TV Shows Aren’t A Complete Waste of Your Time

I used to think that watching TV shows was a complete waste of time. But I just changed my mind.

Exhibit 1: Hilarious TV show.

What changed?

I realized that watching a good TV show clears my mind.

These days, I always have at least 10 things circling like vultures around my mind at once: research ideas, problem sets, upcoming meetings, graduation, grad school, summer jobs, summer housing… It’s way too easy to get distracted by an “urgent” email while I’m working on a research problem—Mac Mail’s red email indicator kills productivity without fail—and the closer I get to graduation, the more thoughts of post-Stanford life start to pop up at inopportune times (i.e., all the time). It gets harder and harder to clear my mind and focus.

Enter the TV show.

When I’m watching a good show online—i.e., on my own schedule, with no commercials—I get lost in the characters’ world, a sense of flow not unlike what I feel when I’m reading a good book. The characters are crucial: I empathize with some, laugh at others, and the effortless endeavor to psychoanalyze—to make sense of the ridiculous antics, jokes, and drama—washes away all the other thoughts floating around in my head. And once the episode ends, I can jump right back into my work, thinking of nothing but the show. Turns out it’s a lot easier to forget a silly TV show than 10 stressful thoughts about my future, and when that’s gone, my mind is clear.

There are many other ways of achieving the same effect of flow, of total engagement, mind and body. Read a book. Meditate. Play a sport. I’ve tried them all, and they all seem to work. But few diversions have been as widely maligned as watching TV, and it’s comforting to me and surely some others to know that TV shows, correctly wielded, have a place in even the busiest of lives. Watching a good show with friends is like meditating, but more social and more hilarious.

The show that made me rethink TV was Community, a parody of student life at a community college. It fits the “good TV show” mold beautifully—clever, light-hearted, attractive—and it’s got me hooked. In a good way. I think.

-Joel

P.S. For those friends who don’t check Facebook, I’ll be starting a PhD in EE at MIT this fall! Just got my new email address (jjean@mit.edu), and the parka is on its way…

MIT in micro-bubbles (Courtesy of Manu Prakash)

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10 Reasons to Visit China (AKA Stuff I Bought)

After my earlier post about some of the less savory aspects of life in the world’s most populous country, I think I owe it to my Chinese friends to balance the scales by writing a (literally) uncensored post about China’s better half. Now if only they had access to the Internet… Anyway, here goes.

Note: In including Taiwan’s finest in this list, I have no intention of making any sort of political statement about Taiwan’s sovereignty or the current state of Cross-Strait relations.

1. Chinese bakeries and bread – I don’t mean to hate on American bakeries, but 4 dollars for a tiny pastry? You gotta be kidding me. Chinese bakeries are like the land of the Lotus Eaters, only slightly less narcotic: The moment you walk into a Chinese bakery, a blanket of divine scent envelops you, and you never, ever want to leave. And that’s before you’ve even tasted the bread. During my 3-month stay in China, I never managed to escape a bakery with less than 2 pounds of bread, and it never failed to disappear within 24 hours.

Feeding the hungry beasts (AKA Big Brother and Robin)

2. Efficient public transportation – With a population of 1,324,655,000 (as of 2008), China has had a pretty good reason to develop an efficient, high-capacity public transportation network. In my opinion, it’s a little too good: Beijing’s 2¥ (equivalent to 29 cents US) subway, which took us from the 4th Ring to the heart of Beijing faster than any car, probably holds several world records for human close-packing, a game that I don’t particularly enjoy. On the older Lines 1 and 2, anytime from 8AM to 10PM, you can consider yourself lucky if you’re touching fewer than 4 people at once. For a quarter a ride though, I can’t complain.

Shanghai's 270mph Transrapid maglev train is pretty cool too...

3. Boba (pearl milk tea, or 珍珠奶茶) that actually tastes good – And not just good, amazing. I’ve never been a big fan of boba, but then again, I’d also never tried Taiwanese boba before. Food typically tastes better in its country of origin, and boba is no exception. The milk is delicious—I’m lactose-intolerant, and I still couldn’t resist drinking it—and the palm sugar tapioca pearls are bigger, chewier, and simply better than the best California has to offer…

The best boba in the world: Taiwan's 青蛙撞奶 ("Frog hits the milk")

4. Cheap stuff – As a tribute to Inception, here’s a list-within-a-list of things I bought in China that were so-cheap-they-should-be-illegal-…-oh-wait-they-probably-are-illegal…

1.)  Tailored suit (made from scratch in 18 hours!): $88
2.)  4 tailored dress shirts: $59
3.)  A billion DVDs: See number 6
4.)  Dinner at a fancy restaurant: $5
5.)  2 pounds of sweet rolls: $1
6.)  Train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai: $100
7.)  Subway rides across Beijing: $0.29
8.)  North Face jacket: $33
9.)  Chinese prostitute: Priceless

Just kidding.

5. Street food – If you’re willing to risk your stomach lining, there’s cheap, delicious food to be had on every street in China’s major cities. And in reality, it’s not actually all that risky: as far as I know, no one in the Stanford group ever got sick from eating street food. Some of our favorites included roasted yams, sweet buns, pineapple skewers, haw skewers (bingtanghulu), and peanuts.

Bingtanghulu: Haw fruit on a stick, coated in sugar

6. Movies that come out on DVD the day after they open in theaters

Fact 1: Today is August 2, 2010.

Fact 2: Ironman 2 comes out on DVD on September 28, 2010.

Fact 3: I own Ironman 2 on DVD.

Interesting…

7. Night markets – Taiwan’s night markets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. A massive conglomeration of food stands, street vendors, arcades, and random shops, you could spend days browsing around and still not see (or taste!) everything. Most famous among them is the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. The best strategy of attack is to starve yourself for 2 days before hitting up Shilin.

Shilin Night Market's "XXL Crispy Chicken": A big slab of fried chicken

Mianmianbing: Super-fine shaved ice covered in sweet red beans and condensed milk. It's heaven on Earth.

8. Baozi (steamed buns) – During every quarter of the Stanford Program in Beijing, students gravitate to the Songlin baozi restaurant on campus. It’s such a simple concept—meat, veggies, or sweet custard in a steamed bun—but baozi have the addictive potency of crack cocaine. I couldn’t help visiting Songlin at least 4 times a week during my stay at PKU.

Fried shengjian baozi in Shanghai.

9. Hot springs (and other beautiful scenery) – A picture’s worth… well, at least a few words.

The Stone Forest in Yunnan Province

Taiwan's legendary Sun Moon Lake. Chinese kids grow up reading stories about this place, so when they visit Taiwan, they all want to go to Sun Moon Lake.

Me, Robin, and Neal on the Great Wall

10. New friends – It amazes me how close our group of 14 Stanford students grew in just a few weeks and how quickly and easily we became friends with our Chinese classmates at Peking University. In sharing stories and comparing life experiences, we each learned about the other’s culture and discovered that we weren’t so different after all, that the college student’s experience is (somewhat) universal: A mutual understanding seems to arise when you talk to any undergrad about all-nighters and finals, papers and GERs. Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t often meet people who were truly international, and I now realize that my 3 months of living and learning in China actually gave me more insight into my own life and my own (American) culture than into the Chinese culture that I was immersed in.

Stanford Shaolin in Pingyao. After summer internships and independent travel in China, my classmates are slowly drifting back to the US. Welcome back, guys!

Note: In case you didn’t notice, the previous paragraph was an attempt to stuff as many clichés as possible into a single paragraph. I think I succeeded.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

P.S. Number 11 on the list would have been “New takes on old things,” for example…

Taiwanese spork.

The definition of "fruit"

Viagra (This is actually some sort of candy...)

Tall buildings (Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world; the tallest is in Dubai, of course)

T-shirts

English (This is a sign for a bathroom)

Self-service restaurants (This one made us catch our own fish for lunch)

Definition of "edible"

Birds' nests

Toilets

Trash cans

Palm Drive (This is at National Taiwan University; compare this with Stanford's Palm Drive)

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10 Things You Won’t Miss Until They’re Gone

There are some things in life you simply don’t notice until they’re not there.

Take toilet paper, for example. After 3 months of living and traveling in China, I’ve become a outspoken advocate—OK, maybe not that outspoken—of toilet paper in public restrooms, because it simply wasn’t there. Even when you don’t need it, it’s comforting to know that your ass is covered (pun intended), that you can waltz into the nearest restroom and grab a few squares of 2-ply just in case you spill some soymilk on yourself or realize that the street food you ate really doesn’t want to stay in your stomach.

On a related note, you can’t just walk into a public restroom in China. If you’re in a part of town where you look around and see more foreigners than you can count on one hand, there’s about a 65% chance that a trip to the toilet will cost you 1¥ RMB, paid in cash to the little old man sitting outside the restroom door. Sure, with a $1 to 6.8¥ exchange rate, it’s a drop in the bucket, but it still pains the Patrick Henry in me just a little to be taxed without representation for an act that stray dogs on the streets of Beijing perform free of charge, anywhere, to their hearts’ content. At least I don’t have to worry about getting eaten. Fair’s fair.

And they're not even that great…

Here are 10 things that you don’t fully appreciate until they disappear from your life, derived from my recent travels (travails?) in China:

1. Toilet paper – Enough said.

1A. Free restrooms

2. Personal space – As necessitated by their country’s 9-digit population count, Chinese people are quite comfortable living, eating, and working in extremely close quarters with complete strangers. I am not. We Americans like our “personal space,” the couple-foot-radius bubble of open air around us that gives us the sensation of independence and safety, and we defend it with suspicious stares and reflexive backpedaling. In China, such strategies are hopeless. Say you’re at a market in Beijing, and the shopkeeper gets a bit too close for comfort. You could back away, but your Pyrrhic escape wouldn’t be worth the energy, because two things would surely happen the moment you took a step back: 1) You’d run into 2 other strangers, and 2) The shopkeeper would pursue you. Leaving you in a circle of 3 random Chinese people. Fantastic.

2.1. Silence – Every once in a while, you just want the world to leave you alone. In Beijing, that’s the cue for someone nearby to make a thunderous choking sound and spit. I think it’s a Pavlovian response to excessive silence.

3. Clean water – When you have to use waterless hand sanitizer after you wash your hands under the faucet, you know you’re in China.

4. Breathable air – As the home of over 20 million people, Beijing has a little problem: Its air cannot sustain human life. Even after the government pulled a large proportion of the city’s cars off the road, the situation is hopeless. Running outdoors is out of the question. One of my friends tried it and immediately got sick. And the particulates in the air are so small that you can never escape them, even indoors: I would wake up in my bed each morning blanketed in a fine layer of dust that had settled overnight. After one week in Beijing, I couldn’t tell if my lungs were still alive, not until we went on an excursion to the Great Wall and I found myself marveling at my ability to take full breaths.

4+. The Sun – The pollution has a way of blotting out the sun. I felt like a dinosaur awaiting the Great Extinction.

5. Grass – As a son of the Midwest and its sprawling farmland, I’m pretty fond of grass. It’s great for relaxing, running, playing soccer, wrestling with your siblings… Too bad people in China don’t really do any of those things. (To find out why, see #2, #4, the 2010 World Cup, and the One-Child Policy, respectively)

6. Guns and Obesity – China has neither.

The real 6. Non-oily food – It seems all the food in China—at least for us commoners—is stir-fried or deep-fried. Can’t I just have a salad? Oh wait, lettuce is 95% water and washed in water, and water in China is poisonous… Darn.

7. Facebook – Sometimes you just want to Poke someone. But, oh no… You can’t. Because you’re in China. And the CCP took away the Internet.

7-and-3/4. Did I mention that the government censors texts too?

Chinese censors work a lot like this…

8. Democracy – Because it’s good to be free.

9. English – Even though I speak Mandarin somewhat fluently, my reading skills aren’t quite up to primary school standards. I never realized how exhausting everyday life can be, when even reading a restaurant menu requires intense concentration and a bilingual dictionary.

10. Family and friends – I missed you all. A lot.

The takeaway lesson? If you’re in China, always go to the bathroom before you leave home. If you’re traveling to China in the near future, practice holding it in, starting now.

Thanks for reading!

-Joel

The Spring 2010 BOSP Beijing group at our graduation. Thanks for an awesome quarter, guys!

On our trip to Taiwan, I saw my grandparents and a bunch of relatives for the first time in more than a decade. Here's a "family picture" with my brother, me, and my parents' wedding picture in the background.

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Are You A Procrastinator?

Stanford philosophy professor (and 1980s Soto RF) John Perry has discovered “an amazing strategy… that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

He calls his theory “Structured Procrastination.

How does it work?

Picture the To Do list you keep on your Windows 7/Mac OS X desktop, on your iCal/iGoogle, on an explosion of Post-Its all over your workspace, wherever. Now imagine doing everything EXCEPT the 2 or 3 most important tasks on that list. How much have you actually accomplished?

Not much, you might say, considering that you didn’t do what you most needed to get done. But if your To Do list was organized correctly––i.e.,  in line with the tenets of Structured Procrastination––you’ve probably never had a more productive day.

The key to Perry’s theory lies in the structure of the To Do list. Most people organize their list in order of importance, with the most important tasks (“Sign up for classes”) on top, moderately important tasks (“Brush my teeth”) in the middle, and trivial tasks (“Brush my dog’s teeth”) on the bottom. Note that a To Do item doesn’t have to be on top of the list to be well worth doing; working on these “less important” tasks becomes a way to put off working on the first few items on the list. And by putting tasks that only SEEM important and urgent (e.g., “Write a blog entry”, “Check my PO Box”) on top of the list, you can make progress on the tasks that really matter.

I don’t know if this game plan works for everyone, but I know I’ve been using a similar strategy for a long time. I’ll work on my research to avoid writing a paper, or make a flyer for ASES to skirt a trip to the post office, or plan out my classes for next quarter to escape packing. Try it out. Sometimes self-deception can be a very powerful tool.

-Joel

P.S. A word of warning from Perry…

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

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Study Break

In honor of finals week at Stanford, check out the work of some of the world’s best test-takers. (Courtesy of Mom)



And if you really want to procrastinate, read on…

Dr. Schambaugh, of the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical Engineering, is known for asking questions such as, “Why do airplanes fly?” on his final exams. His one and only final exam question in May 1997 for his Momentum, Heat, and Mass Transfer II class was: “Is hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with proof.”

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

“First, we postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass. If they do, then a mole of souls can also have a mass. So, at what rate are souls moving into hell and at what rate are souls leaving? I think we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave.

Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for souls entering hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, then you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and souls go to hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in hell to increase exponentially.

Now, we look at the rate of change in volume in hell. Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of souls and volume needs to stay constant. Two options exist:

  1. If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase until all hell breaks loose.
  2. If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over.

So which is it? If we accept the quote given to me by Theresa Manyan during freshman year, “It will be a cold night in hell before I sleep with you” and take into account the fact that I still have NOT succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then Option 2 cannot be true… Thus, hell is exothermic.”

The student, Tim Graham, got the only A.

And you thought you were good at making up BS. 🙂

-Joel

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