General Archive

Monday, October 14, 2013

Happy Exploration Day 2013

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

Updated 2013-10-18: Okay, so it's a few days after Exploration Day, but reading back over this entry, I saw a couple things worth changing. I slightly reworded the paragraph explaining The Oatmeal's comic, and added an image of a portion of the comic (Photoshopped slightly).

Thursday, October 3, 2013

@%^$#!$ Steelers

SteelersI've never been a huge sports fan. I'm not oblivious to sports, but for the most part, I don't make it a point to watch them. I have gone through a few periods where I'll follow a particular sport for a little while, but none of those periods has lasted long term. When I was in middle school, it was hockey, back when Lindros was just getting started in Philly (when PRISM was still in business). Early in college it was English Premier League soccer - I actually recognized players. Later in college it was NFL football and college basketball, thanks to having roommates who were real sports fans. The college basketball thing was perfect timing, too - Maryland won the national championship the year after I graduated (and look where Juan Dixon is now). Once I moved down to Texas, my first year here I even hung out with a guy who got me to watch NASCAR. But once I got away from the influence of my old Maryland friends, I drifted away from watching sports. Of course, as a red-blooded American, I couldn't miss watching the Superbowl every year, and you can't avoid watching some sports, but I usually spent my time doing other things.

Well, last year, I actually started following football again. The problem is - I'm a Steelers fan. I was too young to watch them win their first four Superbowls during their dynasty years, so I always defended them as having the most Superbowl wins of any team, but never having seen them even make it to the big game. Finally, when I was in high school, they made it to Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys, but they lost, and I've hated the Cowboys every day since. But then, once I'd moved to Texas, they actually went all the way and won Super Bowl XL, and then again just a few years later for XLIII. But, like I explained above, those were the years when I wasn't following football very closely. So last year, when I started actually paying attention and watching them every Sunday, they began to suck. After a decent start to the season, they lost 5 of their last 7 games, taking them out of the playoffs.

And now this season, it's even worse. They're 0-4 right now. It's their worst start since 1968. The best thing about their bye this week is that I don't have to watch them lose yet again.

Anway, I just read an article on that sums it up pretty well, Steelers fans need lessons in losing. Here's my favorite paragraph:

Abandon all hope: Let's be honest, with so much to celebrate over the years, you may have, on occasion, talked some trash or acted superior to your friends in Cleveland or Philadelphia. These people have been waiting for decades to rub this 0-4 start in your face. Don't you dare give them the pleasure. It's gonna sting a little, but the best tactic is to beat them to the punch by accepting, fully, what is happening to your Steelers. Basically, says Simons, you need to "Accept losing: If you can enter a Zen state in which you abandon all hope and really, really expect them to lose every game, you'll have a fun, happy season."

Well, I've gotten part of that last sentence. I do expect them to lose every game for the rest of the season. I just doubt that's going to make it fun and happy.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Are the Beatles Overrated?

I've debated whether or not to post this entry because I'm really out of my element here, and some of my wonderings and musings come off sounding more positive than I really feel about them. So, I'll just stress up here that this isn't my area of expertise, and that I'm not nearly as certain as some of what I wrote below would make it seem.

The BeatlesPerhaps my favorite blog website right now is Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True. He posts about a variety of interesting topics, largely evolution and religion, and I agree to a large extent with his opinions. However, being one of those free-thinking types, I just can't accept authority unquestioningly. Last week, he posted a couple entries that I just couldn't agree with, Rock and roll is dead, and a follow-up, Match this song, extolling the Beatles as "the greatest rock group ever". Reading through the comments of that second entry was just too much. I had to leave a comment, and I figured I'd pull it out here to finally get this off my chest - the Beatles were good, but overrated.

Anyway, below is the comment I left on Coyne's site. To keep it easier to read, I'm going to denote the start and stop of that comment with '---' instead of using a blockquote tag, and I did add a bit of formatting (bullets) that wasn't in the comment on Coyne's site.


I've always liked the Beatles well enough. There are a handful of their songs that I really like, and then a bunch of songs that I won't skip when they come up on my playlist. But all this fawning over them is enough to turn my stomach. So, as an antidote, I went googling "Beatles overrated", and found a few entertaining articles. For anyone interested, here they are (I hope this isn't a bannable offense):

Here's an excerpt from the first article:

The blues permeates the most vital contemporary music of the last century like a rich seam of platinum. It runs like blood through the beating heart of just about any music of note outside the classical world. Don't even try and claim a similar legacy for those third-rate, mop-topped hacks. I'll just laugh. Or poke you in the eye with my pen. As if a case could ever be made for, say, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath or even Simon and Garfunkel being, in any way, defined by some shallow, plastic, pop-tarts from the 60s! Go on; try. Yeah, thought so...

And another:

As far as individual musical proficiency goes, it'll take barely a paragraph to pull these fakers from their Ivory Tower and expose the Emperor's New Clothes (excuse the mixed metaphors; that's what they do to me, God damn 'em!). Ringo, you're first up, my man; as a drummer, Mr Starr, as Lennnon himself famously remarked, was not only not the best drummer in the world, he wasn't "...even the best drummer in The B*atles". Sadly, poor old Ringo lacked sufficient talent to even polish John Bonham's cymbals. Or pour Keith Moon's booze. Or even chop Ginger Baker's lines with his sticks.

And here's an excerpt from the second:

The Beatles are what they always were - the safe, money-spinning, housewives' choice. Their albums are easy listening (fine for 50-somethings, but the Beatles were cardigan-wearing duffers in their 20s). Sgt. Pepper, their much-trumpeted "psychedelic" album was as mindbending as an Asda mushroom pie. Give or take Helter Skelter, they never even rocked, really. Next to the Stones, the Who or the Troggs, the Beatles are the low alcohol lager of the 60s.


That first link really is good, and puts the Beatles into perspective (another short excerpt - "The world's first, and still, its most successful, boy band."). They were a good band, and they were and continue to be extremely popular, but I wonder if their true talent and influence on rock music have been greatly exaggerated.

Actually, I'd originally intended for this entry to be pretty short and end with the above paragraph, but this leads into a larger discussion. How influential are any individuals/small group in history, vs. riding the tide of the forces surrounding them? In my field, I can easily bring up the Wright Brothers as an example. They were the first to successfully fly a heavier than air machine. Their insights and achievements were extremely impressive. But honestly, they were only a few years ahead of their time, at most. There was a rather large field of researchers investigating flight, and they were making progress. The Wrights themselves built on the work of previous and contemporary investigators, such as George Cayley, Gustave Eiffel (of Tower fame), Hiram Maxim, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, and Otto Lilienthal. And although the Wrights first flew in 1903, they kept their ongoing research largely secretive while attempting to perfect their machines, and in the meantime, others such as Alberto Santos Dumont, Louis Blériot, and Glen Curtiss were getting their own machines aloft. So, even if the Wrights had never decided to try to make a flying machine, the world would still have had airplanes by the late 1900s or early 1910s.

So, what about the Beatles? Well, to start off, they didn't develop in isolation. They started in skiffle, and developed their sound from there along with the other Merseybeat groups. When the British Invasion occurred in the mid 1960s, it was spearheaded by the Beatles, but they were quickly followed by acts such as Dusty Springfield, The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, Donovan, Them, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, and The Who. Those other acts weren't copying the Beatles. They were contemporaries who had developed their own musical styles at the same time. i.e. While there's always some cross pollination in the art world, the Beatles weren't a huge influence on these other early acts of the British Invasion. In fact, several of those groups were completely outside the Merseybeat genera, with many being influenced much more by pure blues. And those other bands/singers are nothing to sneeze at. It makes you wonder whether music today would be much different had it been The Stones to have led the British Invasion instead of the Beatles. Or, to put it another way, were The Beatles really that influential in the British Invasion, or were they just in the right place at the right time to put a face on a burgeoning music scene that would have exploded no matter what?

Moving past the early years of the British Invasion, I'm not alone in thinking that the Beatles earliest songs weren't their best. Even Wikipedia notes that "From 1965 on, the Beatles produced what many critics consider their finest material, including the innovative and widely influential albums Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968) [aka the White Album], and Abbey Road (1969)." But again, the question becomes how much the Beatles were pioneers themselves, versus being part of a larger movement. Aside from those bands mentioned in the previous paragraph, consider what other bands and musicians were acting in the mid '60s developing the Psychedelic rock scene, which would go on to spawn progressive rock, glam rock, hard rock, and heavy metal - The Sonics, The Incredible String Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, The 13th Floor Elevators, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company (feat Janis Joplin), Donovan, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, etc. So again, the Beatles were just one of the players in an emerging music format, and could actually even be described as very early adopters, following in the footsteps of those earliest psychedelic groups.

Anyway, I'm just a guy who likes listening to music, not a hard core audiophile or music historian. Most of my knowledge of music history is informed by a few articles here and there and Wikipedia, so take my commentary for what it's worth. I still like the Beatles, and I can understand how they did have a big impact in the way music was marketed, and popularizing the notion of singer/songwriters as opposed to just performing music written by professional writers, but it seems to me that their impact on music itself has been exaggerated. As I wrote above, it seems that they were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time to be the face of a new sound being pioneered in England (Merseybeat), and then to be astute enough to adopt new styles as the market shifted. I'm sure music would be somewhat different today if the Fab Four had never picked up guitars, but I'm really not so sure that it would be drastically different.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

P.S. I left out a lot of other musical influences from that era, such as Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, etc. When you consider all the great bands from that era, it's even harder to swallow the over-hyped influence of the Beatles. Again, this isn't to say the Beatles weren't good, just that they've taken on a mythic reputation that doesn't match reality.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

National Hot Dog Day

Chili DogToday is National Hot Dog Day. In fact, all of July is National Hot Dog Month, but I forgot to post about that earlier. So far this month, I've had a bacon cheese dog from Five Guys (very good) and a cheesy bacon pretzel dog from Sonic (also very good), not to mention numerous hot dogs at the house and at my parents during our vacation with various toppings from onions to chili to sauerkraut. Since hot dogs haven't changed much in the past year, I'll just quote a portion of the entry I wrote last year for National Hot Dog Month.

There are tons of different toppings for hot dogs, but here's one of my favorite combinations, which also happens to be just a little out of the ordinary. Ellicott Dining Hall at University of Maryland used to serve them this way, but it's the only place I've ever seen that did, and they've since remodeled, so I doubt even they make these hot dogs anymore. Really, the recipe's pretty simple - a hot dog on a bun, covered with sauteed potatoes and onions, with a bit of spicy brown mustard. The potatoes have to be diced pretty small. Simple, like I said, but very good.

And if you really want good hot dogs, make sure you buy good hot dogs. You can't beat hot dogs in a natural casing for the little bit of crispiness when you bite into it. Here in Wichita Falls, I can find the Boar's Head brand with natural casings, which are pretty good, but they're all beef. Back up in the northeast, Dietz and Watson makes natural casing hot dogs, too, and theirs have pork mixed in (I'd buy those if I could find them down here). Of course, if you know of a good local butcher, go there.

...Probably my favorite hot dog joint is The O in Pittsburgh. Natural casings, plenty of toppings, and a mountain of fresh cut fries to go with it. When I had my internship back in college, there used to be a guy with a hot dog cart that would pull up to our building every day. I didn't go there for every lunch, but it got to the point where I didn't have to order - once he saw my face, he'd just start preparing my regular. I've never seen a guy work so fast with toppings.

Anyway, there's no deeper meaning to this post. It's kind of frivolous, but I really like hot dogs, almost as much as potatoes, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about a whole month dedicated to them.

So go out and get your hot dogs today. Sonic is selling $1 hot dogs all day today, and 7-Eleven is giving them away for free, if you download a certain mobile phone app (alternate source for when those sites change).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sketching Art Masterpieces from Memory

Some of my fellow engineers and I watch the show, Brain Games, on the National Geographic Channel (I highly recommend watching the show if you haven't seen it, yet). On one episode, they performed an experiment based on the study, The Science of Cycology, by Rebecca Lawson. Subjects were given a basic, incomplete layout of a bicycle, showing just part of the frame, the wheels, the seat, and the handlebars, and then asked to fill in the rest of the drawing with the pedals, chain, and completing the frame. Below is a copy of the basic layout that they were given.

Cycology Skeletal Layout

This may at first appear to be a simple task, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult for a large number of people. If you want to see what types of drawings Lawson got from the test subjects, follow that link above to read her paper (it's not terribly long, and you can jump ahead to the interesting parts, anyway). If you really want to play along, try it for yourself before following the link.

The study listed errors in frame, pedals, and chain independently, so I'm sure there was some overlap in the errors, and I'm unsure what that overlap was, but nearly half of the drawings had the chain drawn incorrectly to where the bike wouldn't work. In other words, at least around half of the drawings were wrong. If some people got the chain right but made mistakes in other parts, then the number is even higher.

The hypothesized reason is that our memories really aren't as good as we think they are. While we all know a bicycle when we see one, and think we have a good memory of just what a bicycle looks like, the truth is that many of us remember only just enough to recognize the bicycle, but not much detail.

Of course, us engineers in the office had no problem drawing a bicycle from memory. In fact, we didn't even need the skeletal layout to start off with. We could all just draw it from a blank sheet. But I didn't think this was exactly representative. For one, we're all mechanical engineers (if you count aero as a subset of mechanical), so this is exactly the type of thing we pay attention to. For another, with our bent towards mechanical design, we don't actually have to remember what the bike looks like. We can just remember a few details, and then fill in the rest as we go to make a functioning product. That's the type of thing we do on a daily basis.

So, we got to talking about another way to test Lawson's hypothesis. Was there something else that we should be familiar with, that we would recognize instantly, to try drawing from memory. And we decided that art masterpieces were the perfect objects. These are things you see repeatedly throughout your life. And we couldn't use our mechanical aptitude to fill in details. We had to rely on memory.

Before I go on, I'll list the pieces that we attempted to draw. If you want to have some fun, try drawing them for yourself before you scroll on further (or before you click on the links).

[Intentional blank lines to leave some space so that you don't accidentally see the real versions if you want to draw them yourself.]





How did we do? Pretty poorly, and not just on artistic merit. I don't have copies of every sketch that we did, since the other engineer who was trying it was doing his sketches on a white board and had to erase each one to have a clean canvas for the next masterpiece. But I was doing mine by pencil on scratch paper, so I at least have all of mine. Below are my sketches and one of his, followed by the real masterpiece.

The Mona Lisa

Jeff's Mona Lisa Sketch The Real Mona Lisa

The Scream

Jeff's The Scream Sketch The Real The Scream

The Persistence of Memory

Jeff's The Persistence of Memory Sketch
Martin's The Persistence of Memory Sketch
The Real The Persistence of Memory

We may have gotten a few of the big details right, but we really missed a lot when it came to filling it in. We both missed many details in the Mona Lisa, even something as prominent as her hands. Neither of us had the extra people or the sailboats in The Scream. And my Persistence of Memory was particularly dismal (the other engineer's was pretty good, but he admitted to having painted a copy of it in an art class).

I can think of another permutation on this, actually similar to what Lawson did in another section of her study - multiple choice. How many of us would be able to pick the correct version of a masterpiece given multiple similar choices (either through alterations, or probably even more difficult, through the time honored tradition of hand painted reproductions).

Anyway, while this post is nominally related to Rebecca Lawson's study, and our anecdotes fall in line with what she's proposing, the real reason I posted this was because it was fun. Get together with some friends and try doing this for yourself. Pick a masterpiece, try sketching it from memory, and then compare your sketches to each other and to the real thing. If you're like us, you'll be surprised at how little you can remember, but you'll have fun doing it.


Selling Out