Saturday, March 20, 2010

Little Oscar explains the old egg balancing thing and other myths about the Equinox

It's That Day Again
Happy Vernal Equinox! I tried to get Little Oscar to repeat his equinoctial egg-balancing trick from last year, but he refused. "Once is enough to serve as a proof of principle," he said. "Why would you want me to repeat it?" He didn't think taking another photo was sufficient reason. So I had to use last year's photo.

But he did go on to expound about the myths surrounding the Vernal Equinox. It began when I made the mistake of referring to the Equinox as the day when the hours of night and day are equal. "No, they're not," he said, adding cryptically, "It's because the sun is not a point and the earth has an atmosphere."

He went on to explain that the day when night and day really are the same length depends on where you are, but always comes before the spring equinox and after the fall equinox. He said it was all explained in this National Geographic article, which I obviously had neglected to read after he had recommended it. "It also explains why the date of the first day of spring bounces around," he added. "If you just listened to me I wouldn't always have to repeat everything."

"As for the idea that you can balance an egg on end only on the equinox because the gravitational forces balance out, that's just stupid," he said. "You can balance an egg any day of the year. All it takes is some patience." he referred me to this deconstruction of the myth on Snopes.com and read from it for my benefit.
Many, many superstitions involving the breaking, balancing, burying, decorating, reading (for purposes of divination) and hiding of eggs have come to be part of the annual spring celebration. (The linking of egg-balancing with spring celebrations is demonstrated by the fact that the practice is associated only with the vernal equinox, not the autumnal equinox.)

The Chinese are thought to have originated the practice of standing eggs on end during the equinox. Just as the equinox symbolically restores balance to the world by signalling its rebirth after a season of darkness, the equinox literally balances the day by dividing it into equal portions of darkness and light. If the symbol of fertility — eggs — could be balanced on end during a day equally divided between day and night, this was a sign that all nature was in harmony. That the balancing of eggs could be achieved on any day of the year was of no importance; what everyone wanted and needed was a familiar, reassuring ritual to demonstrate that all was right with the world.
Suitably enlightened, I thanked Little Oscar and promised to take his reading suggestions more seriously in the future.

Snow on the first day of spring makes me (and the crocuses) want to curl up and go to sleep

Snow on the First Day of Spring
Last night's light snow made many of us just want to curl up under the blankets and go back to sleep until it melts and goes away. These crocuses, wide open the other day, had no blankets to curl up in, so they just curled themselves up.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Will throwing rocks at it really help Mother Nature break up the ice?

Helping Mother Nature Break Up the Ice By Throwing Rocks at It
Hard to say -- but it sure helps pass the time while waiting for the lakes to clear.

From Fifty Year War to Forever War

Last November Jonathan Schell wrote an article in The Nation titled "The Fifty Year War." It was written a few weeks before President Obama announced his Afghanistan troop surge, when there still was some question about what policy he would decide on.

Schell looked back at what we now know about how the U.s. got bogged down in Vietnam. He points out that, far from being the gung-ho, cocky cold warriors of myth and legend, U.S. officials -- from MacNamara to the Bundys all the way to LBJ himself -- knew that we could never win that war. And yet they went ahead and escalated. Why? They were afraid of the wrath of the right, and a new outbreak of McCarthyism if they "lost Vietnam." These were not idle fears, as George McGovern's massive defeat demonstrated in the 1972 presidential race.

Schell wonders if anything has changed.
In short, in strictly political terms, the Vietnam dilemma has been handed down to Obama virtually intact. Now as then, the issue politically is whether the United States is able to fail in a war without coming unhinged. Does the American body politic have a reverse gear? Does it know how to cut losses? Is it capable of learning from experience? Or must it plunge unchecked over every cliff it approaches? And at the heart of these questions is another: must liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right when it comes to war and peace? Must presidents behave like Johnson, of whom his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, later said, "It would not have made any difference what anybody advised him--he would have done what he did [in Vietnam].... It was fear of the right wing." What is the source of this raw power, this right-wing veto over presidents, Congresses and public opinion? The person who can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history--and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama as he considers what to do in Afghanistan.
Now, four months later, it's pretty clear that nothing has changed. The Forever War continues with little hope of ending anytime soon. It seems as if our political leaders, when confronted by a quagmire, can think of nothing better than to jump right in. Getting out? Let somebody else worry about it.

Please don't mow the cranes

Lawn Ornaments
Sandhill Cranes on Madison's far west side yesterday.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Recreation in Madison on the Ides of March ranged from ice fishing to going barefoot in the park

Varieties of Recreational Experience in Madison on the Ides of MarchMarch 15 straddles two seasons. Technically, it's not spring yet, but on a mild, sunny day in mid-March, most, if not all, Madisonians seemed convinced it was.

Ice Fishing and Walking Barefoot in the ParkSome, however, could not let go of winter. The approach of spring seemed to bring out the inner polar bear. Like these ice fishers on Monona Bay, the winter loyalists took refuge on a familiar patch of ice, hunched down deeper into their coats and parkas, drilled their holes and waited patiently for fish to swim by. Others exuberantly cast aside their winter gear and pretended it was even warmer than it was. Arms and legs were re-exposed to the sun. Everywhere there were people running, jogging, walking, biking, skateboarding -- or taking off their heels and strolling barefoot in the park, on the bike path warmed by the sun in Brittingham Park.

Sunday afternoon walk in Owen Park

Madison Skyline Late Sunday Afternoon from Snowless Owen Park
The Madison skyline was at its best Sunday afternoon when seen from Owen Park, the city shimmering in the distance above a park suddenly almost entirely devoid of snow.

On Feb. 2 it was cloudy and we had a light snow, which meant that our local groundhog (Jimmy) was not able to see his shadow. It made him a good prognosticator. We have an early spring, and the snow has disappeared almost overnight -- aided by a warm and foggy week, followed by an even warmer, windy weekend. At Owen Park, the only snow to be seen was on a couple heavily shadowed paths deep in the woods. The ground is even starting to dry out.

Spring Is Breaking Out Large On Black

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The underside of the Alicia Ashman Overpass over Campus Drive is showing its age

Underside of the Overpass
Composite view of the bottom of the Alicia Ashman Overpass, the pedestrian bridge over Campus Drive that was was built in 1977. It's showing its age. From the plaque: Vogel Bros. Building Co., General Contractor; Theo. Kupfer Iron Works Inc., Steel Fabricator; Strand Associates, Inc., Consulting Engineers.

View Large On Black

Little Oscar and I celebrate Pi Day in style with our annual ceremonial calculation of π


Little Oscar really loves pi, maybe because he's so fond of running around in circles -- in any event he's a big fan of Pi Day, the 14th day of March, the third month. But he's also absent-minded. He and I might both have missed it if T had not reminded us. We figured we might as well celebrate in the middle of the night. Since we're already losing sleep by setting our clocks ahead, what difference does a little more make? We'll feel the same tomorrow.

What better way to celebrate than with a ritual reenactment of a famous statistical method for deriving the value of pi? Buffon's Needle is a simple method of calculating pi to as many places as you want simply by throwing needles at two parallel lines and keeping track of how many fall between the lines and how many cross the lines. Of course, to get an accurate value, you have to throw a hell of a lot of needles.

We sped up the process by using a computer, with virtual lines and virtual needles -- which it could flip a lot faster than we could. Nobody ever said this was an efficient way to calculate pi. It took more than 14,000 tosses for the simulation to consistently lock in on three significant digits, and we weren't going to wait for the fourth. You can run the simulation yourself at this link. Your mileage may vary -- but in any case, it's fun to watch how quickly that red line, after some initial floundering, converges on a very rough approximation of pi.

The simulation also demonstrated that, in the real world, you would have to throw so many needles to derive a useful value of pi that you wouldn't actually be able to count the needles. (Long before we tossed 14,000, the lines were totally blacked out by piled-up needles.) But it's interesting nevertheless.

Buffon's Needle is a famous problem in the field of geometrical probability and was first stated in 1777 by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and author. You can read more about it here, and also check out another simulation. And here's more commentary.

Whatever detailed knowledge of calculus and analytic geometry I ever had has long since abandoned me, so I have to take the demonstrations of how these random needle tosses are related to π on faith. But the bottom line is that you can calculate pi from the needle drops by simply taking the number of needle drops, multiplying it by two and then dividing by the number of hits. That is, if D represents the number of needle drops and H represents the number of hits, then 2D/H = π (approximately).

As we noted, this is actually not very useful for finding pi in the real world. Is there anything Buffon's Needle is good for? Actually, there is. Flip that formula around, and it tells you the probability of getting hits. Turns out that your chances are better than six out of ten -- 2/π, or .6366. This is counter-intuitive, since most people at first glance think the needles are more likely to land in all that open space between lines. This can be usedto shift the odds in your favor in some cool parlor tricks or bar games. Here's a demonstration.

Happy 3.14159... Day!