Monthly Archives: June 2008

Zebrafish are very interesting

I was working in Memorial Union today, trying to figure out what I think the phrase “random pro-p group” should mean, when I noticed that the guy in the booth next to mine was reading an 800-page conference proceedings about zebrafish. Well, I just had to ask. What’s so interesting about zebrafish?

It turns out that developmental biologists are BFF with zebrafish, whose growth to maturity is both very visible — their eggs are transparent — and very, very fast — from a single cell to a creature with a functioning nervous system in 24 hours, and to something resembling a fish in 4 days. So you can follow many hundreds of generations of these guys from fertilization on, watching closely on a microsopic scale, making different kinds of cells light up so you can see what they’re up to, flicking different genomic switches on and off … SCIENCE!

All material above paraphrased from my conversation with unnamed zebrafish expert, and not checked against an authoritative source — please do not use in your term paper, zebrafish Googlers! Perhaps a better resource would be Zebrafish — the peer-reviewed journal. Or the University of Oregon zebrafish FAQ, where you can find the answer to “How can we obtain mutant stocks of zebrafish for our high school lab?” Gotta go, I think I just had a great idea for a low-budget horror movie.

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Bespewed

A lot of products for kids — for instance, my Bob Revolution jogging stroller — advertise “stain-resistant fabric” as a feature. How stain-resistant is stain-resistant? I can’t speak for all products. But this weekend I found myself in the position of having about a pint of blueberries and stomach acid spattered all over the Bob. Nice, rich purple color, looked pretty permanent. And you know what? I took a hose to it and in three minutes it looked like new, and smelled fine. Here’s to you, miracle space fabric designers at Bob!

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; you can’t really sell a $350 product for kids that gets ruined if someone vomits or defecates on it. But I wonder what the testing process is? Do they actually bring in kids to barf on the stroller? Or is there some kind of industry-standard simulacrum?

These are the questions you ask yourself while doing fine detail work with the hose.

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Something I learned by moving to the Midwest

I can’t deny it: it is somehow agreeable, on a cool summer evening just after sundown, to catch a hint of distant cowshit on the breeze.

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Update: Cabrera at the bat

You ask a question, you get an answer: Stat of the Day informs me that Daniel Cabrera is, indeed, the only player in the modern game who’s had as many as 11 career at-bats and struck out in every one of them.

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The Orioles’ first visit to Miller Park, and ours

The Orioles came to Milwaukee this weekend to play the Brewers, their first visit here since the Brewers switched leagues, and — if I understand the interleague schedule correctly — their last until 2014. So it was time for CJ to attend his first ballgame. I didn’t expect him to make it through the whole game, but he did — partly because both pitchers worked fast and the game only lasted two and a half hours, partly because I bought a tub of popcorn at the 7th inning stretch which held most of CJ’s attention during the late going.

Not that there was much to watch; the Orioles lost, 3-2, but it never seemed that close. Apart from the two-run pinch-hit homer from Oscar Salazar, the Orioles never seemed to catch up with Milwaukee pitching. When you see a lineup that ends with a Murderee’s Row like Ramon Hernandez, Adam Jones, Freddie Bynum, and Daniel Cabrera, you rest your head in your hands and wonder how we ever score at all.

Cabrera was lousy on the mound, too — in trouble and behind in the count all game long, and lucky to get out of it allowing just three runs. He managed only one 1-2-3 inning out of the six he pitched. I had the impression that Cabrera was the kind of pitcher who was either dominatingly brilliant or wild with flashes of dominating brilliance — but in fact, Cabrera on a bad day looks like any other mediocre pitcher.

CJ didn’t really follow the game, though he clapped when he saw other people clapping (in other words, at the wrong times). His favorite part of the trip was when the retractable roof opened. His second favorite part was the Sausage Race. His third favorite part was a tie between the aforementioned tub of popcorn and a corn dog.

A little more Daniel Cabrera:

  • In person you get a sense of how weirdly tall and big he’s built — not really a superathlete tall and big, more of a hyperpituitary tall and big.
  • This is especially evident when you watch his ungainly attempts to hit. Cabrera has 11 at-bats in his career, and has struck out every time. Is this a record?

Addendum: Almost forgot to record the strange dream I had after coming back from the game.  Because of the construction on I-94, Brewers officials stopped my car on the way out of the park and asked if I could drive Melvin Mora and Cabrera back to their hotel.  Cabrera got in the back next to CJ and was clearly pretty cramped, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking Mora to get out so they could switch.  Amateur psychoanalysts, get to work!

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Connected components of John McCain’s America

On today’s FiveThirtyEight.com map, the set of states projected to go to John McCain is connected. (We exclude Alaska and Hawaii, for obvious reasons.) How likely is it that a presidential candidate’s states will form a single connected block? It turns out that the last person to manage this trick was …. George W. Bush, all the way back in 2004. Before that, though, you have to go back to Ronald Reagan in 1984, who won everything except Minnesota and DC. In fact, every other example I found of a connected electoral component was either a blowout victory (Reagan in 84 and 80, Nixon in 72) or a candidate of geographically limited appeal (George Wallace in 68.) To win a connected set of states in a close election, as GWB did and as McCain might do, is significantly more challenging. I challenge Isabel, who deftly solved the combinatorial-electoral problem posed by FiveThirtyEight last week, to estimate the probability it’ll happen in 2008!

Has there ever been an election where each candidate won a connected set of states? Yep, it’s happened three times in the twentieth century. In fact, there was an election in which three candidates each won a connected set of states. Can you guess the year without looking it up? Hint after the line break.

Continue reading

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Wikidirections

Mrs. Q and I tried to drive from Philadelphia to Metropark the other day, with a printout from Google Maps to guide us. At a critical point we were directed to make a slight left onto Kaighn Avenue. What we were in fact supposed to do was to take the left-hand side of a highway split, which was labeled “NJ-38 / NJ-70.” It turns out that NJ-38 is Kaighn Avenue — but, not knowing this, we ended up toodling around lower Camden for a while before unfolding the state map and figuring out how to get back on course.

You could take various lessons from this — that we should have had the map of New Jersey open in the first place, that we should have a GPS for navigating unfamiliar territory — but my first thought was: why isn’t there a Wiki overlay for Google Maps? There ought to be a website in which I can load up the relevant directions, then annotate “4. Slight left on Kaighn avenue” with the comment “No signage for Kaighn avenue: take the left-hand side of the split, following signs to NJ-38 and NJ-70.” Then anyone else whose Google Maps directions query involved the same maneuver would be given the option to see my annotation, and hopefully the total amount of Camden-toodling in the world would be diminished.

The annotations wouldn’t be limited to clarifying the signage; they could also include things like “brutally short merge lane entering from the right” or “speed trap” or “the diner at the corner of this left turn makes really good corned beef hash.” Wouldn’t something like this — if it were popular enough — make Google Maps a lot more useful? Or are we the only ones who have this problem?

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Blogiversary!

It’s a year since I started this blog with a post about Austin Grossman’s novel. I’ve made 250 posts and gotten 530 comments, and according to WordPress been visited about 35,000 times.

I’m glad I decided to do it. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it helps me remember small thoughts I’d otherwise have forgotten. None of my colleagues have expressed any disapproval — in fact, many have started blogs of their own over the last year.

The best piece of blogging advice I got was from David, who said that if I wanted to keep a semi-regular blog going I had to remember that “bloggable” is a very low bar to clear. As you may have noticed, I’ve held to that religiously.

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Harvard reunion — the chin scratched yet again

Matthew Yglesias reports that the Harvard class of 2003 has gotten more liberal over the last five years. I have the 15th reunion survey of the class of 1993 in hand, and it’s the same with us: of the 467 respondents, 42% describe themselves as “liberal” or “extremely liberal,” up from 34% in 2003. I’d like to see the figures for 1998 — it’s not clear whether our class is actually drifting steadily to the left, or just dislikes the current President in sync with the rest of the country.

The poll was taken early in election season, when Clinton was down in the primaries but not out of the running. A big plurality of the class, 59%, back Barack Obama, with 16% liking Clinton and 15% for McCain; pretty much identical with the figures Yglesias gives for our 5th reunion counterparts.

Most surprising results: 7.3% of male respondents say they’ve paid for sex. 39% of men with children have spouses staying home full-time. 25% of all alums are married to another Harvard grad. Lawyers are much less happy than other people. OK, maybe that last one isn’t so surprising.

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Update on 2-dimensional Kakeya sets over finite fields

A few months ago I wrote about the problem of giving a sharp lower bound for the size of a Kakeya subset of F_q^2; that is, a subset containing a line in every direction. Apparently this problem has now been solved: Simeon Ball, in a comment on Terry’s blog, says that Blokhuis and Mazzocca show that a Kakeya set has have cardinality at least q(q+1)/2 + (q-1)/2. Since there are known examples of Kakeya sets of this size arising from conics, this bound is sharp. The argument appears to be completely combinatorial, not algebro-geometric a la Dvir.

I’m a bit confused about attribution; Ball calls it a result of Blokhuis and Mazzocca, but links to a preprint of his own which apparently proves the theorem, and which doesn’t mention Blokhuis and Mazzocca. So who actually proved this nice result? Anyone with first-hand knowledge should enlighten me in comments.

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