Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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What is a calendar?

Monday’s xkcd made an interesting point:

I’ve sometimes asked people to imagine that they had an expandable ruler.  If an object measured as longer than they expected, they could add a centimeter or two to the ruler to match their expectations.

Such a ruler would not be much of a measuring device.  Likewise, the calendar, with its expandable and contractible bits, its subdivision into the week, which is not commensurable with the other major subdivisions of the calendar, its months of varying lengths, etc, is not particularly satisfactory as a measuring device.  Indeed, if its chief purpose were to serve as a measuring device, it would have been replaced long ago.

What a calendar chiefly is, is a series of commands.  Many of these commands are tied to specific events in nature, and so we resort to leap days and the like to ensure that they come up at reasonable times.  That today is 22 April means, in much of the world, “Observe Earth Day!”*  That yesterday was 21 April meant, to Latin teachers, that it was Foundation of Rome Day, and so they have to organize some cheesy kind of classroom activity, possibly involving togas.**  That tomorrow is 23 April means, to Christians in certain categories, that it will be Saint George’s Day and so they ought to do whatever it is they do to commemorate Saint George.***

*xkcd fans will understand me when I say that my first reaction to this command is to resolve that I will not be going to space today.

**I am a Latin teacher, but I teach in a college, and I don’t have language classes on Tuesdays.  So I got out of it.

***I recently assigned myself in one of those categories, and I value Saint George for various reasons.  First. as a soldier who was put to death for refusing an unjust command, his memory should give courage to others whose consciences urge them to say no when it might be easier to join in atrocities, such as Albert Battel or Hugh Thompson.  Second, as a saint revered in all the major communions of the East and also in parts of the West, George is a potent symbol of Christian unity.  Third, the particular category of Christian I’ve ended up in is Anglicanism, and that’s one of the Western churches where Saint George has played a special role.  And fourth, my grandmother was born on 23 April, so I like to make a fuss about something on of that day.

I’m puzzled by today’s xkcd

Here’s today’s xkcd:

My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about

It’s true that not knowing much about sports is culturally isolating, far more so than not knowing much about meteorology or space probes.  In the USA, where xkcd creator Randall Munroe and I both live, ignorance of American football* is more isolating than ignorance of meteorology and space probes even among faculty and students of universities with departments of meteorology and aerospace, as witness the relative pay scales and promotion schedules of football coaches and professors of those subjects.

Considering how much money and power are put into promoting football in the USA, it is simply absurd to claim that football fans are vulnerable to some kind of power that an individual acquires by not caring about the sport.  Whether or not you care about football, if you live in the USA you have no choice but to pay taxes that subsidize football, to seek employment in businesses managed by people whose small talk consists largely of discussions of football, to receive news and entertainment through media outlets that are saturated with football, and to be educated in schools where football is enshrined as the supreme collective experience.

Indeed, Americans are so heavily incentivized to like football, and football games are so intensively covered by US media, that I find it hard to believe that there are a great many people in the USA who haven’t tried to like football.  I suspect most Americans who dislike football simply find it impossible to overcome the stupefying tedium of watching a bunch of costumed men standing around doing nothing for hours at a time, and that most who complain about football or mock football fans resent the power that football has in American social life.

I would hasten to add that the experience of playing football isn’t dominated by the 90% of the time that players spend standing around doing nothing.  I have far more vivid memories from my high school days of the 9% of the time that players spend striking and holding poses in formation.  I remember the many times I was called off-sides, which in football means that a player is posing incorrectly.  While from the spectator’s perspective football is like staring at people milling about at a bus station, from the player’s perspective it is much more like being a fashion model.

There is so little action of any kind in an American football game that I cannot help but be suspicious of the reports one hears about the rates at which players suffer head injuries.  I find it particularly incredible that the almost perfectly immobile players of the National Football League can all suffer concussions during their games.  Perhaps they all sustain heavy blows to the head before coming onto the field, and that’s why they do so little during the game.

A blog post today by Rod Dreher reminds me of a hypothesis of mine about how football became so popular in the USA in the twentieth century.  Dreher quotes and comments on a conversation between Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis about how financial institutions and financial markets are able to exercise enormous power without much public scrutiny simply because their operations strike most people, including most reporters and certainly most politicians, as intolerably dull.  I suspect that the average American is aware of the fact that a high threshold for boredom is key to gaining wealth, power, and high status in our society, and that as this awareness grew in the last century football, the most boring of sports, crowded out boxing, horse racing, and ultimately even baseball to become not only the king of American sports, but the lingua franca of social interaction in corporate America.

*Hereinafter referred to simply as “football,” because this post is all about conditions within the USA.

“The internet age, one where men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos.”

Earlier today, Amanda Marcotte posted an interesting tweet:

This reminded me of a couple of things.  One was this old xkcd:

Another was this even older post of mine about “Why I Post Under a Pseudonym,” in which I say, among other things: 

First, I teach at a college.  Many of my students look me up on Google.  If I blogged under my real name, they would immediately find this site.  I already catch them spouting opinions which they take to be mine in an attempt to make points.  If I were to make hundreds of posts in which I give my opinions about virtually every possible subject so easy for them to find, I could expect to encounter that sort of thing every day. 

Second, I often tell little stories about people I know.  Since I use a pseudonym and do not identify these people, the reader cannot be expected to know who they are.  Even readers who know me and recognize the characters may find something of the detachment of fiction in a story published under a pseudonym.  If I were to use my real name, however, I would have an obligation to give the others a right to rebut what I have written about them. 

Third, I am not the sole author of this site.  Others post here, still others comment here.  Some of these are people who are connected to me in some identifiable way (for example, my wife) and who may occasionally make remarks here that they would not want to share with everyone in the world.  If I obscure my identity by using a pseudonym, those others may be able to preserve some measure of privacy.

When I first read the xkcd comic above, I thought of that phrase “some measure of privacy,” and saw it as potentially misleading.  “Privacy” is a problematic word for anything that one puts online.  “Detachment” might be better. That I’ve published hundreds of items over a period of more than seven years, some of them quite lengthy, some expressed with fervor, under the name “Acilius” shows that Acilius and his creator are to some extent the same person.  But only to some extent; important as the opinions expressed in those items may be to Acilius’ creator, he is at the end of the day a human being, who would still exist even if he changed or abandoned every opinion he had ever held, while Acilius, as an online persona, is nothing more than the sum of those opinions and the sensibility that informs them.  That’s why I don’t take any steps to make it particularly difficult for tech-savvy readers to identify Acilius with his creator.

“Private sex photos” would for this reason be in a different category from online commenting personae.  Bodies and their sexual responses are usually closer to the core of what makes a human being into a coherent self than are any set of opinions.  I’m not saying that it’s always easy to draw bright lines between opinions and sexual responses; one opinion might translate into disgust where another might promote arousal, and vice versa.  But I would say that if someone confronted me, in real life, with an opinion that had appeared under the name of Acilius, I would have an entirely different set of options as to how to respond to that confrontation than I would have if someone were to confront me with a graphic image of me engaged in sexual activity.  

That also suggests the difference between data-hacking that results in the public exposure of “private sex photos” and data-hacking that results in the hijacking of financial information.  Banks, credit card companies, and other financial services companies usually offer at least partial refunds of moneys stolen by that sort of hijacking, and those refunds represent at least partial remedies for the injury caused.  But there is no refunding any part of that which is lost when “private sex photos” become public.  

While “privacy” is not the same thing today that it was before the digital revolution, it still isn’t some of the things it wasn’t then.  It isn’t now, and never has been, at all the same thing as secrecy.  A secret is something that cannot be made general knowledge unless those who know it choose to reveal it.  So the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes are not secret; anyone looking at you can probably form an estimate of these things to a rather high degree of accuracy.  

Privacy, though, is a concept from the economy of the gift.  We as a society have decided that definite knowledge of the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes is a gift which you have the right to share with or withhold from certain people under certain circumstances.  Granted, there are other people to whom we must give this knowledge because of some relation in which they stand to us; for example, medical professionals attending our cases, fellow members of military organizations in which we may find ourselves obligated to serve, etc.  But most of us are in these situations for a finite portion of our lives, and when all is well these situations are themselves governed by well-defined and rigorously enforced rules.  

If, as Ms Marcotte puts it, “men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos,” and these claims carry the day, then privacy disappears altogether.  If people who do not stand in any specific relation to us can take as a matter of right what previously we had made available only as a gift, then such things cease to be possible as gifts.  Not only do photos and other graphic representations of nudity or sexual behavior under those circumstances, but also nudity and sexual behavior themselves lose some of the fragile qualities that make each revelation of nudity and each sexual act such an uncommonly precious gift.  The body responds to every stimulus in its environment, consciously or unconsciously; a sex act involves every aspect of the context in which its participants find themselves.  To make a gift of nudity, to make a gift of a sex act, is to make a gift of oneself as one is at that moment, to give everything and withhold nothing.  Even disguises and role-playing and the like only reveal oneself to one’s partner.  Surrender that, not as a gift to a partner, but as payment of a debt collected by a third party, and the economy of gift yields everything to the economy of the marketplace.       

The internal structure of the calendar, part 2

In December of 2012, I posted a few remarks about the calendar.  The visual representations of the calendar we see in the West usually take the form of a grid in seven columns, each representing a day of the week, with the rows representing the succession of the numbered days of the month as iterations of the sequence of the seven days of the week.  As for example:

What, you've seen one of these before?  That's FANTASTIC!

What occasioned my post in December of 2012 was this xkcd cartoon, in which Randall Munroe wrote the number of each date in a size that reflects the relative frequency with which that date is mentioned in materials searchable through Google NGrams:

In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date.  It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

The patterns here made me wonder if our usual grid layout oversimplifies the way the calendar is actually structured in our thought and social practice.  I’m a Latin teacher, and so my working life brings me into contact with the calendar of the ancient Romans.  That calendar did not include the week and was not organized as a grid.  Rather, each month had an internal structure in which days were expressed by their proximity to other days and by their religious status.  A visual representation of the Roman calendar might look like this:

This drawing is based on some fragments from about 60 BCE

Recently, other bits have appeared online suggesting that the calendar may have more internal structure than we commonly realize.  This morning on Slate, Ben Blatt looked at times of the year when newborns are most and least likely to be given particular names.  Mr Blatt’s charts, and the box in which readers can search for the seasonal patterns of particular names, are based on death reports released by the US Social Security Administration, since there is no national agency in the USA that collects and publishes comprehensive reports about births.  So his data is about 80 years behind the times, but it still is interesting.

For example, Mr Blatt shows that babies born on prominent saint’s days in the USA 80 years ago were much likelier than other babies to be named after those saints.  So lots of Valentines and Valentinas were born on 14 February, lots of Patricks and Patricias born on 17 March, lots of Johns and Janes born on 24 June, etc.   This strikes me as a bit sad- I’ve always thought the Orthodox had a good idea with celebrating both a birthday and a name day.  Having your birthday and your saint’s day simultaneously would cheat you out of an excuse for a party in your honor.  Mr Blatt also shows that lots of girls named June were born in June, lots of boys named August were born in August, etc.

Last week, Cracked highlighted an old piece called “The 9 Most Statistically Terrifying Days on the Calendar.”  I remember the weaknesses of Cracked magazine, I even remembered them in a post here,  and more than once I’ve seen things on the site that I knew to be false.  So I take everything I read there with a grain of salt.  But each of the items on that listicle looks pretty plausible.  For example, #9 tells us that traffic accidents spike the morning after people set their clocks ahead for daylight savings, since the hour of sleep-deprivation has the same effect as drinking a couple of shots of Scotch.  I haven’t done any checking to verify that or any of the other claims on the list, but none of them is outlandish on its face, and they all have explanations attached that make me feel smart when I read them, so why the hell not repeat them.

 

 

Games people and avocados play

Hmm, it seems to have been several months since anything has been posted here.  We haven’t disappeared from the internet completely in that time.  One thing we’ve been doing is tweeting links.  Such as:

1. A couple of years ago, there was a thing on Cracked by John Cheese about bad ways to respond to bullies.  It is very hard to read, for three reasons.  First, John Cheese tells stories about how several of these bad ways cost him and his family dearly when he was a boy beset by bullies.  Second, he doesn’t suggest any ways of responding to bullies that would be  more successful.  Third, he raises the terrible thought that “bullying” and “politics” are two names for the same thing.

John Cheese’s “5 Bad Ideas for Dealing With Bullies You Learned in Movies” are: “Tell An Adult- They’ll Teach You to Fight”; “Just Ignore Them- Unless You Can Verbally Slay Them”; “Run!  You’ll Have Your Victory Soon Enough”; “Fight Back- You’ll Always Win!”; “Fight Back- There Are No Consequences.”  A political scientist of my acquaintance is fond of the axiom “No unmixed strategies are valid.”  An opponent who can predict your reactions with a high degree of accuracy is one against whom you have little chance of winning in any sort of contest.  That applies at every level.  So the bullied child, or adult, or nation-state can achieve little by choosing the same response consistently when provoked.  The only hope is in regarding each response as a tactic, a tool to be used in conjunction with other tools, chosen and applied based on a cold-eyed assessment of the situation at the moment.   Sometimes you fight, sometimes you ignore, sometimes you run away, sometimes you report the situation to the authorities, sometimes you organize fellow targets in a coordinated resistance, sometimes you combine these responses with each other or with other techniques.  Whatever you do, make sure you surprise your opponent.

When I had to cope with bullies as a child, I was acutely aware of how little tactical sense I had.  I tried several methods, never in quick succession, never with much success.  If I had been shrewd enough to contain our neighborhood bullies then, maybe I would be rich and powerful now.  In which case you would not be reading this, as rich and powerful people do not maintain WordPress blogs.

2. John Wilkins is trying to figure out “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman.”  His theory is that we might be able to answer this question if we frame it as a failure to operate in a rule-governed manner, so he calls the post “On knowing the rules.”   I’m skeptical of that approach.  I suspect that the men we see as sensible are those who have persuaded us to see them as sensible, and that to persuade anyone of anything is the result of a successful application of strategy.  Moreover, sexual harassment, like other forms of bullying, is targeted precisely at a person’s ability to seem sensible.  Tell a story about a federal judge interrupting you at lunch to quote movie lines about pubic hair, and people will probably wonder if you’re “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”  Some strategies for establishing oneself as a sensible person hinge on making other people seem not-so-sensible.  So my suspicion is that the question should be, not “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman,” but how some men secure their reputations for sensible-ness by harassing women.

3. Speaking of tactics and strategy, the avocado has a reproductive strategy developed in response to a situation that ceased to exist 13,000 years ago.  This turns out not to matter, as the avocado has been flourishing all this time.  So maybe there’s hope for those of us who are not dynamic gamesmen.

4. Let’s assume you don’t want to be a bully, and you are having a debate.  You notice that the person you are debating is getting upset.  Leah Libresco suggests you ask what your opponent thinks is at stake in the debate.  She puts it memorably:

I’ve tried using this kind of approach in non-philosophical fights (with varying success) to keep forcing myself to ask “What is this person protecting?” I’ve tried explicitly reframing whatever the other person is saying to me as “Watch out! You’re about to step on a kitten!!” and then working out what the kitten is. This way, intensity in argument isn’t necessarily aggressive or insulting, and it’s not something I need to take personally. It’s just a signal of how passionately my interlocutor loves the thing they think I’m about to blindly trample on, and I’d best figure out what it is sharpish.

5. If the US government sends you a subsidy in the form of a check, you are very likely to think of yourself as a tax recipient and to find yourself on the defensive in political discussion and appropriations battles.  If the US government subsidizes you by means of other instruments, such as tax credits, you are very likely to see yourself as a taxpayer and to take the offensive.  As they say in xkcd, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.”  The difference between a benefit administered through the congressional appropriations process and a benefit administered through the tax code may be purely verbal as far as economists are concerned, but it has tremendous consequences for public policy and the long-term future of the USA.

6. While we’re talking about xkcd, it dealt the other day with one of the big differences between the artificial games we design to play for fun and the games we play to establish our relationships with each other in real life is that the artificial games allow only moves drawn from a single restricted set.  So if you are boxing and you throw a right cross, your opponent is allowed to respond only by guarding against the blow, dodging it, or anticipating it with another punch.  In real life conflicts, however, there is little or no restriction on the sets of possible moves from which a competitor can draw.  So when a legislator defeats a policy initiative with a parliamentary procedure, or an appropriations cut, or a personal attack, it’s as if the winning response to a right cross was a bishop’s gambit.

7. Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has been on a roll lately.  The other day, he posted this epitome of misleading infographics.  He also wondered what it would be like “If Arithmetic Were Debated Like Religion” (or anything else people are passionate about); pointed out that even people who are most cautious about trying to be reasonable “have a huge collection of specific views, the arrangement of which would not be held by anyone who died more than 50 years ago”; and revealed that the Sphinx of Thebes took some time to develop her riddling ability.

8. One of our favorite publications is The American Conservative; one of our favorite Americans is the thoroughly unconservative Alison Bechdel.  If this sounds like a paradox, think again- The American Conservative raves over the musical Fun Home, based on AB’s memoir of the same title.

9. Speaking of The American Conservative, I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s blog there.  Here’s a post of his, drawing on his book about his sister, in which he talks about the pros and cons of small-town life.  A quote:

The epiphany I had, the thing that made it possible for me to move back, is realizing that the bullying and the rejection that helped drive me away came from the same place as did the gorgeous compassion and solidarity with my sister Ruthie as she fought cancer. You can’t have one without the other.

I like this.  In bits 1 and 2 above, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on bullying as a set of moves in games individuals play.  It is that, I believe, but if course it is also more than that.  Bullying is a symptom of broader social structures, some which would be very hard to do without, and Mr Dreher does a good job of bringing that out in this post.

In another post, Mr Dreher thinks hard about Dante and W. H. Auden, ending with Auden’s line that “the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to.”  I suppose this is what “Virtue Epistemology” is getting at, in part, by its examination of ways in which ethical and intellectual qualities interpenetrate each other.

10. While on the topic of The American Conservative, I’ll mention one of its former writers, a person well and truly loathed by most of the people who have been regular readers of this site.  I refer to Steve Sailer, or as some of my acquaintances know him, the hated SAILER.  Mr Sailer has recently posted a series of pieces about how odd a style of thinking utilitarianism presupposes.  He concentrates on the fetish utilitarians make for decontextualization, which in their case usually means taking scenarios and abstracting out everything but the question of cost and benefit.  There are many other criticisms one might level at utilitarianism, of course.  So Virtue Ethicists focus on the incoherence of utilitarian conceptions of “pleasure” and “pain,” which is a bit of a concern in a school of thought that sets out to reduce all of experience to pleasure and pain.  Other thinkers focus on the fact that the hedonistic calculus utilitarians describe presupposes a level of knowledge that no human being can attain.  Since ethics is supposed to be about the standards by which humans evaluate their behavior, utilitarianism is thereby disqualified from the label “ethical philosophy.”  If you believe in a God to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, utilitarianism could be a theodicy, but theodicy is not ethics.

11. I am a fan of Irving Babbitt, and therefore sit up and take notice when Babbitt scholar Claes G. Ryn is mentioned.  A few years ago, Professor Ryn cast Paul Gottfried out of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, declaring Professor Gottfried to have strayed too far towards opinions that Professor Ryn deemed racist.  Professor Gottfried is still sulking about his banishment, and grouses about it in the course of a column about his and Professor Ryn’s criticism of the followers of Leo Strauss.   The heart of the column is in these three paragraphs:

Also not surprisingly, given their contemporary focus and ambitions, Straussians over the decades have turned increasingly to political journalism. Pure scholarship seems to count less and less significantly in their putative field of study. And the reason is not primarily that they’re battling the “America-hating” Left—it’s that their interpretations are methodologically eccentric and brimful of their own ideological prejudices. They represent neoconservative politics packaged in academic jargon and allied to a peculiar hermeneutic that I earnestly try to make sense of in my work.

Ryn raises the question of why Straussian doctrines have caught on among self-described conservatives. His answers here do not surprise me, since for many years the two of us discussed this puzzling matter and reached similar conclusions.

Conservatism Inc. has been so totally infiltrated from the Left that those ideas that used to define the Left—abstract universalism, the rejection of ethnic differences, the moral imperative to extend equality to all human relations—has spread to the official Right. The political debate in America now centers on Leftist propositions. Accordingly, someone like Bloom, who could barely conceal his animus against what remains of a traditional Western world based on what Ryn rightly calls a “classical and Christian” heritage, could be featured in the late 1980s as an American patriot and cultural traditionalist.

That the “classical and Christian” worldviews could be so utterly submerged by stale leftovers from the anticommunist Left of the mid-twentieth century would rather seem to lead one to doubt that these worldviews had much life left in them at the time this “infiltration” began, but Professors Ryn and Gottfried are among those who would disagree.  I know that the kittens on their floors (to borrow Ms Libresco’s image) include most of the things that a sizable fraction of the people in the world cared most deeply about for a couple of thousand years, so far be it from me to step carelessly in my hobnailed boots of postmodern secularism.

The world’s fastest manhole cover?

Tuesday, xkcd’s What-If mentioned the story of a manhole cover that may have gone into space before Sputnik:

A brief story:

The official record for fastest manmade object is the Helios 2 probe, which reached about 70 km/s in a close swing around the Sun. But it’s possible the actual holder of that title is a two-ton metal manhole cover.

The cover sat atop a shaft at an underground nuclear test site operated by Los Alamos as part of Operation Plumbbob. When the one-kiloton nuke went off below, the facility effectively became a nuclear potato cannon, giving the cap a gigantic kick. A high-speed camera trained on the lid caught only one frame of it moving upward before it vanished—which means it was moving at a minimum of 66 km/s. The cap was never found.

66 km/s is about six times escape velocity, but contrary to the linked blog’s speculation, it’s unlikely the cap ever reached space. Newton’s impact depth approximation suggests that it was either destroyed completely by impact with the air or slowed and fell back to Earth.

This remark includes a link to a post about the test on “Notes from the Technology Underground.”  A comment on that post takes some of the fun out of it:

It probably never left the atmosphere. As Newton found, a projectile penetration into a medium is proportional to their relative densities, times projectile bodylength, quite irrespective of projectile velocity.

Here we have steel projectile (8 g/cm3), thrust into air (0.001 g/cm3), meaning that the projectile will only travel 8000 times its bodylength into the atmosphere.

If it was 4 foot across, weighted 2 tons (I think I saw that figure somewhere else), and was roughly circular, this works out to thickness of 22 cm. So face up, it coul travel 1 760 meters high. If it somehow turned to its side and stayed in that position, it could travel 4 feet (120 cm) * 8 000 = 9 600 m high. Even this best case scenario is short from leaving the atmosphere. Thinning of air as you get higher is obviously not considered, but I don’t expect it would change the results much.

It gets even less exciting when we look at these old remarks on “Above Top Secret,” based on discussions with Dr Robert Brownlee, the principal investigator behind the test in question (known officially as Pascal-B):

For an authentic account of this incident by Dr. Robert Brownlee himself, this web site is pleased to host:Learning to Contain Underground Nuclear Explosions.

As Dr. Brownlee explains, the figure of “a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity” refers to the results of a simulation, that may not of been a good model of the actual test conditions (the actual yield for example, was unknown even if all other parameters were correct). No measurement of the actual plate velocity was made.

If the description of the plate is accurate – 4 feet wide, 4 inches thick and made of steel – then it would weigh about 900 kg (a lower weight is possible if the dimensions are inaccurate or if it was not of uniform thickness). A velocity of 6 times Earth’s escape velocity (67 km/sec, since escape velocity is 11.2 km/sec) would give the plate a kinetic energy 60% larger than the total energy released by the explosion. This is clearly impossible.

Brownlee explained to this author, by email, that the concrete plug placed in close proximity to the bomb was vaporized by the explosion. Thus the propulsion of the plate could be considered to be due to the energy imparted by this expanding vaporized material, rather like the propellant of a gun. From the descriptions available of the plug a mass of at least 3000 kg can be estimated, and if half the bomb’s energy were deposited in it then it would have an energy density of 50 times that of normal gun propellant. From the physics of high velocity guns, it can be estimated that velocities produced by the gas expanding up the long shaft could propel and object to velocities exceeding Earth’s escape velocity, perhaps as much as twice escape velocity.

If by some chance the metal that had made up the manhole cover did escape from the atmosphere (and after all, the atmosphere is thin enough that after less than two seconds going straight up at the hypothetical speed of 66 km/second the blob of molten iron that once made up the manhole cover would be in a near vacuum,) interesting things might have happened.  If it had fallen straight down, for instance, it would have bounced off the atmosphere back into space.  Perhaps it might have repeated that process several times, growing ever hotter.  With each bounce some iron vapor would have been flung down into the atmosphere, some flung outward into space.  Perhaps the bit of the blob that finally crashed into the ocean would have been quite small.

Probably nothing of the sort happened; probably the whole blob dissipated before leaving the atmosphere.  But one does wonder where the metal ended up…

The internal structure of the calendar

The ancient Roman calendar gave special names to two days in each month: the Kalendae (in English, “Calends,”)which was the first day of the month; and the Idus (in English the “Ides,”) which was the fifteenth day of March, May, July, and October, but the thirteenth day of every other month.  Other days were specified by counting the days until the next Calends or Ides.  So, the last day of April was pridie Kalendas Maias, the first day before the Calends of May.  There was some special significance to what came to be called the Nonae (in English the “Nones,”) that is to say, the ninth day before the Ides.  So, in March, May, July, and October, the Nones would fall on the seventh day of the month, and in other months they would fall on the fifth day.  So today, being the fifth, is the Nonae Decembris.   As far as the formal language of law and religion were concerned, this arrangement around the Calends and the Ides constituted the whole internal structure of the month.  The Romans did experiment with various forms of the week, most notably an eight-day week that determined when markets would be held.  Undoubtedly these sequences of days would also have influenced the Romans’ perceptions of time, even if they were not regularly integrated into the official calendar.

I bring this up because of an xkcd strip that appeared a week ago today.  Cartoonist Randall Munroe used Google’s Ngram search to tabulate the number of occurrences of each date by its name (ordinal number + month name) in English-language books since 2000.  In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date.  It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

His results suggest that our months do have some kind of internal structure that is not illustrated on our usual calendars.  Those simply display numbers in a grid of weeks.  Yet Mr Munroe’s findings suggest that there is more to it than that.  As the mouseover text points out, in eleven of twelve months the eleventh is mentioned much less often than any other date.  The exception is of course September, where references to the events of 11 September 2001 propel that date to the very top of the list of frequently named dates.  Yet this pattern was already well-established before 2001, and there is no obvious explanation for it.

Some variations in frequency are relatively easy to explain.  The first of the month is usually a day when many bills and reports are due, and so the first is among the most named dates of each month.  Holidays are also prominent; notice, though, that the eleventh of November, Veterans’ Day in the USA and Remembrance Day in the countries of the Commonwealth, is no bigger on Mr Munroe’s chart than the little elevenths of the other months.  The 15th of April is quite prominent; that has traditionally been the day when income taxes were due in the USA.  But, in addition to the mystery of the obscured elevenths, we also notice that the fourth and nineteenth are bigger than average in most months.  Why would that be?  Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, but perhaps there is some explanation that would become obvious if we were in the habit of thinking of calendars, not as the grids of weeks that are usually tacked on walls in the West, but as structures built around major days, structures like those the ancient Romans used.  Too bad we can’t raise some ancient Romans from the dead and put them in charge of investigating the question, their perspective might result in a most fruitful study.  I suppose the best substitute would be classical scholars who have spent time studying the ancient Roman calendar.

Wednesday links

Zach Weiner explains very succinctly why it’s so hard to be a pacifist, Eve Tushnet reads about single mothers, John Wilkins doesn’t believe politicians have mandates, some guy named “Zippy Catholic” decides that women’s suffrage and abortion rights are inseparable (and therefore women’s suffrage must go!,) Laura Flanders and Eve Ensler have never talked to each other about their vaginas and don’t plan to start,  this map does a terrific job of encapsulating the results of the 2012 US presidential election, xkcd is hilarious, and Jim Goad can think of ten good reasons not to assassinate Barack Obama.

The political history of the USA in two charts

This chart was published in 1880, in a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties, by Walter R. Houghton.  In July, Susan Schulten put it on her blog, Andrew Sullivan mentioned it on his, and I put it up on Tumblr.  Here it is full-size.

This was today’s xkcd comic.  Click on it for a zoomable version.

I think the chart from the Houghton book is more elegant, but this one is nice also.