Tuesday, June 22, 2010

the solstice

Happy Belated Summer Solstice!

This is my favorite time of the year, when it stays light until well into the evening and even in Berkeley I can wear short sleeves on my motorcycle, and of course, there's no school obligations to get me out of bed before I darn well feel like it.

I was thinking about the mechanics of the solstice yesterday as I was trying to answer someone's question on Quora (the new Q&A website that has no real purpose except to waste time, but hey sometimes that's fun when you're on summer vacation and in denial about the need to get back down to business). I guess the first thing to understand is that the summer solstice is not defined by the longest day of the year, but by the maximal tilt of the Earth's axis towards or away from the Sun. This animation explains the mechanics:

So, in addition to the seasons changing as we move around the sun, the length of daylight also changes, because when the northern hemisphere is pointed towards the sun, more of it is illuminated than the southern hemisphere. So it takes longer to rotate from one edge of the illuminated hemisphere to the other.

Here's where I'm working from my own logic in a simplified celestial mechanical system, so someone correct me if I'm wrong. The exact time of the summer solstice can occur at any time of day. On half of the Earth at that time, it's daytime, and that day will be the longest of the year. But in other parts of the world it is nighttime, and then either the day before or the day after might be the longest day of the year. That is, the shortest day might not be the same calendar day as the actual solstice. Say the time of the solstice, in your time zone, is 12:01 am on June 21. The sun set on June 20 at 9pm and rose on June 21 at 6am. Therefore, the solstice was closer in time to the daylight hours of June 20, so actually June 20 is your longest day of the year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet where the solstice occurred at 12:01 pm on June 21, June 21 was their longest day. Likewise for the nighttime: either the night that begins the calendar date of the solstice, or the night that ends it, might be the shortest of the year.

There is at least one confounding factor that might make me wrong though. The Earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit, moving slowest at aphelion (its farthest point from the sun) and fastest at perihelion (its closest). Aphelion occurs in July and Perihelion in January (no, that's not backwards - the tilt of the Earth causes the seasons, not the distance from the sun, hence reversed seasons in the Southern hemisphere and the slightly more extreme seasons there.) These are NOT the same times as the solstices. Since the Earth is moving at slightly different speeds around the sun on the day before and the day of the solstice, the lengths of days are also changing at different rates, so that screws up the calculation a bit. I imagine it is a negligible effect though.

Unfortunately, the only sunrise/sunset times that I can find are only accurate to the minute, not second. Since they change by less than a minute each day, rounding errors are an issue, and I can't verify my intuition. Anyone know where to get daylight times to the second? Or have a different answer for what is the longest day of the year?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

opportunity cost of driving

MR quotes Interfluidity saying "I've found smartphones increase the opportunity cost of driving, tilt toward public trans. just me?"

I don't understand. Books have always been available, tilting me towards subways when they are available and not too much slower than driving. And even if your attention span lets you enjoy a smartphone but not a book, there have always been magazines and newspapers. Why would smartphones significantly increase the opportunity cost? The possibility of checking your email, on the off chance your subway has cell reception? Who would want to do that on a tiny tedious smartphone instead of on a computer once you get to work anyway? I think this is an unnecessary and hollow insistence that modern technology isn't so bad for literacy / cultural quality as many people think.

I'm well attuned to the tradeoff with books though. Cars and busses make me so carsick that I avoid being a passenger in them anyway at all costs, and the BART and airplanes are ok but only if staring out the window in the forward direction... but if there's a subway available, or the bus/car trip is cross-country (so dramamine is worth the sleepiness to be able to read), I'll always choose that option so I can read on the way.

Although, books on tape have made driving less costly again. I used to opt to ride with other driving people or let someone else take the wheel for awhile on a cross-country trip, naively underestimating the misery of carsickness, in order to work or read or save gas money, but now I'd much rather pay for the extra gas to drive my own car and monopolize the wheel if I can play a book on tape.

But nonetheless, as with so many things in life, NYC with its 24-hour goes-everywhere subway is really the best of all worlds... *why-didnt-I-go-to-NYU sigh*

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Yes, exactly. People who pride themselves for being more rational than average tend to overthink things and make themselves miserable with stress about every decision and rethinking and analyzing every step of life. Logical analysis is of course very important but intuition is the best outline to fill in with syllogisms, and most of the time merely going with your gut will work just fine. And, it never results in misery resulting from following the 'logical' decision that doesn't feel right but you don't realize why until long after the fact.

Especially in Berkeley... All the people wearing "live simply" t-shirts contradict that philosophy with their bookshelves full of self-help and philosophy-of-life books about everything from eating habits to childrearing to retirement plans to meditation. Mostly, if you do what your instincts tell you to do and use some common sense when modernity manipulates atavism, you'll be fine. Eat what you crave when you're hungry, but be wary of engineered crap. Sleep when you're tired. Exercise enough to get tired. Your body knows what it needs. Don't worry, be happy.

(It's not all overthinking though; a lot of what gets bundled into this perception of needless analyzing is indecision... Most of the time the right thing to do is right in front of us in big obvious neon letters, yet we waver and deny reality and wish that things were different and get lost in irrelevant details instead of just doing what needs to be done.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

go-to schmo-to

Credit for this analogy goes to Guy Consolmagno, the funniest Jesuit priest astronomer the world's ever known.

In other news, there is a bright blue comet visible nearly naked eye in the wee hours right now. Hopefully naked eye in the evening by early July. Pretty picture.

A very nice guy on the TAC listserv clued me in to a great dark sky site only an hour away and without any state park bureaucracy to deal with. Any time it's clear and the moon isn't up, I'll take you and force you to let me show off my awesome new telescope. And then shoo you away so I can draw Messiers in blissful tedium.

Friday, June 11, 2010

modernity is disturbing

This is the creepiest thing I may have ever seen. Dancers shouldn't do the hips/breasts-shaking thing if they're too young to have either...

...I'm tellin' ya rotten kids nowadays, back in my day I had to walk six miles to school in the snow where we called the teachers yes'm and yessir and didn't talk back and we had one public broadcast tv channel... The world is goin' to hell in a handbasket I tell ya...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

take responsibility

I make $2000 per month and spend $500 on rent, but I live in Beverly Hills where all of my friends and neighbors spend $200 per night on fine dining and alcohol. Since I feel that I am entitled to the same standard of living (after all I have a very rough existence as a single mother, can't I treat myself to sushi at the end of a hard day?), I also spend about $1000 a week on food and alcohol, so I am months behind on rent and have had to keep my daughter out of preschool because I can't afford the materials and fees that cost about $250 per month.

Do you feel bad for me? Do you think I can't be blamed for my financial trouble because everyone around me is so much better off and I deserve the same? Society has taught me my bad habits and is anyway unfair so it's not right to hold me accountable to my horrendously awful spending habits?

No, of course not. Yet the dominant reaction to that article has (predictably) been "how conceited and racist of you! How can rich westerners expect poor Africans to refrain from the things we take for granted? Everyone deserves a drink once in awhile."

Yes, there are awful economic problems and extreme poverty in Africa that individuals are not responsible for that we do need to worry about, and those issues are likely larger than alcohol (Kristof's anecdotes don't prove the scale, only existence...) But when someone is spending $2 per day on alcohol but has pulled his son out of first grade five years in a row because he couldn't pay the $2.50 fees, I don't think dire circumstances are to blame. IT'S OK TO SAY SO. It does not make you a hater of the poor or of black people or of different cultures. It does not make you blind to other problems. It's just acknowledging that an ethic of personal responsibility is absolutely necessary for economic success and all the aid programs and first-world guilt in the world won't change that.

So yes, I expect that father to shape up his act, and yes, I expect poor urban minimum wage workers not to spend hundreds of dollars per year, on average, on lottery tickets. I expect single teen mothers who can't afford the children they have to be careful not to have more. I expect people to pay their credit card bills when the "introductory 0% APR" teaser period is over.

There are of course systemic issues to fix, but the first step is to not be reckless and short-sighted on an individual level.

Monday, June 7, 2010

alleged sexism

A man and his son are driving and get in a terrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the boy goes in for surgery, the doctor says "I can't operate on him, he is my son." How is this possible?

Now try it this way:

A man and his daughter are driving and get in a terrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the daughter goes in, the doctor says "I can't operate on her, she is my daughter." How is this possible?

You've probably heard this riddle before, in the first version. The answer is that the boy's mother is the surgeon, not father. People tell it to point out how inherently sexist we all are because it's not immediately obvious. It's shockingly powerful: my honest first thought was "the boy has two gay fathers." Ridiculous... (or maybe I'm just really sexist.)

But I think that at least part of the source of the trouble is that we mentally confuse gendered familial nouns as referring to either the self or the relative. Aunts and Neices, Mothers and Daughters, Grandfathers and Grandsons; like the scene in Friends where Ross doesn't know the sex of his baby yet and Monica says "I'm going to be an aunt," to which Joey adds "or an uncle." Joey isn't the brightest crayon in the box, but it's an honest source of confusion in general (unless I'm just as dumb as Joey and am a false basis for generalization...) When the riddle refers to the son, we impose a male identity on both the father and son.

If you haven't heard the riddle before, was the second one more obvious?

Friday, June 4, 2010

feed the homeless and reduce waste

Berkeley has a bread factory. Behind the bread factory is a dumpster that is designated only for the surplus bread they have to throw out and which smells pleasantly like fermenting yeast rather than, well, a dumpster. In the dumpster every evening is a giant heap of unbelievably delicious bread, still in their packages, free for the taking. I don't even like bread usually, and would certainly never spend $5 for one of these loaves, but this gourmet crusty sourdough stuff is so good it's probably going to start comprising about half of my diet. For free.

The important point though is that this is a massive quantity of perfectly good delicious food going to waste in a town with a very high homeless (but apparently not anywhere near starving...) population. And these people regularly accost anyone leaving a store or restaurant asking for a handout. So don't bother feeling guilty, don't bother throwing money at the problem, solve two problems at once by giving them the address to the local bread factory.

(I know I have a reputation for being inordinately cheap economically prudent, but this isn't just me talking; I know quite a few other people who are completely normal and not nearly destitute who are just as excited about this. And it's even in a book by a local resident.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson - "The book that started the environmental movement." Outdated of course, but all the more fascinating because of it. It's astounding the reckless environmental poisoning that went on, by the government in many cases despite protests from affected residents, in the first half of the century. It really makes you wonder what kind of horrendous things we're cluelessly relying on now that will look unfathomably idiotic in 50 years.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss - I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a book. About punctuation, of all things. Anyone who loves language will adore it and be inadvertently drawn into the ferocious battles of punctuation that really no one should care so much about. Long live the Oxford comma! Put the period outside of the quotation marks unless a whole sentence is quoted! Wanton hyphenation be damned! (But please put one back in Zero-Tolerance in the title...) Woe is the forgotten semicolon! Her defense of artistically intentional mispunctuation got me more riled up than pro-life Bushies. And yet the ending section of the book, in which she describes the artistry of punctuation when the rules are less definite, was a touching ode to the beauty of the written word. Must-read!!

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman - Typical Feynman. Always entertaining. This one made me work on being able to tap in n beats per measure with one hand and n+1 with the other (he could allegedly do 10 and 11. Crazy... I'm still shaky on 5 and 6.) What Do You Care What Other People Think is still my favorite though.