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Talking Cars

Tom Magliozzi of the National Public Radio (NPR) program Car Talk died on November 3rd, 2014 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77 years old.
I’ll admit that when I heard this news on the radio, I started crying. Those of you who know me also know that I cry at a lot of things: the big, life-changing things and quite a few little things. Nemo’s clownfish mom (spoiler alert!) dying in the first ten minutes of Finding Nemo? I cry. About every other StoryCorps segment on NPR? I cry. So – I have this tendency.
Still, I don’t typically break down blubbering when the famous die. For instance, though the death of Robin Williams was a terrible tragedy, my eyes did not immediately start leaking in response to that news1. And yet, there I was, rolling into the parking lot at work on Tuesday morning with tears streaming down my cheeks. Others have done the job of eulogizing Tom better than I can2, but the guy was a feature in my life for as long as I can remember, so I feel obligated to say, well, something.
I don’t really know when my parents started listening to Car Talk, but I was young. Young enough that I don’t even distinctly remember how I reacted to the program other than a vague sense that I liked it, and that it was on most Saturdays. It’s not as if the whole family would gather around the radio and sit rapt as Car Talk “wasted” one of our perfectly good hours, but it was/is a constant presence in my memories of weekends growing up. I remember my Dad always doing this ridiculous little dance to Car Talk’s bluegrass intro music3. I remember someone, maybe my Mom, commenting that perhaps Tom and Ray shouldn’t laugh at their own jokes so much. This admonishment made me try to stop laughing at my own jokes, though I don’t think it stuck. I remember going away to college and occasionally flipping on this little clock radio my parents got me on Saturday mornings to listen to Car Talk – then realizing it made me a little homesick. I remember going away to grad school and listening to Car Talk almost every weekend. At that point, it had become something that centered me a bit and reminded me where I had come from and what I was doing there in Oregon. Some small part of my mild success during my first year of grad school should be attributed to the Magliozzi brothers.
More recently, my Car Talk listenings had become more sporadic. Maybe I was finally settling into my own identity, finally re-defining my home as wherever my wife and I were rather than back in Chippewa Township4. Whatever it was, I was catching my Car Talk fix going to and/or coming back from the Berkeley Bowl. I’d catch a horse eating someone’s steering wheel on the way in, and if I was lucky, a Katherine with a K5 telling Tom and Ray about the whizzzzz—-wub—–wub—wub–wub-wub-wubwubwubwubwubwubwub sound her car was making when going around a lefthand turn that was greater than 90 degrees, oh, but only during the winter months. And on odd-numbered days. And only on even-numbered days if it had snowed the previous day. Stump those chumps, Katherine, stump them good.
And now, well, here we are with the Magliozzi brothers down to half strength and retired to boot. Mr. Berman, the often-good-naturedly-maligned executive producer of Car Talk has stated that there are enough unique Car Talk segments to fill eight years of re-runs. I sincerely hope that he is incorrect, and that the edited re-runs we now hear continue to be run for many years beyond that. After all, my wife and I are expectant parents of a daughter that I hope will have her sense of home and humor partly defined by the voices, laughs, and intellects of the Magliozzi brothers. Thanks to both for many years of entertainment, knowledge, and memories.

1 And to be clear, I’m a big Robin Williams fan. Even went to see Patch Adams, though I’d like that time back please.
2 Try these for good stuff from people who knew Tom personally:  NPR story, Car Talk memorial
3 If you’re interested, the piece is called ‘Dawggy Mountain Breakdown’ by the David Grisman Quintet. Oh, and thanks Dad, I have inherited your dance moves.
4 Yeah, that sounds like pop-psych crap to me too, but hey. Oh, and Chippewa 4 life playas! FOR LIFE! I’ll always love Oakville Road.
5 Obviously.


Knees, Rabbits, and Super Rabbits

The thread of a conversation:
First, my lovely wife and I were lying on the couch after watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation1, when I commented that her knees were kind of small. She claimed that her knees were normal and in fact that it was my knees which were unusually large and weird. We agreed to disagree. She then started wondering how it was that knee replacements are done2. Are all the ligaments and tendons cut and re-attached?  I suggested that perhaps they were moved out of the way and that only the ones attached the joint itself were removed.  She replied that if the joint was titanium, then biological tissue could bond to it and vice versa.  She revealed that she had learned this while reading The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, which describes the original experiment involving a rabbit and a very thin piece of titanium being placed over its healing leg bone so that the process of how bone marrow produces new blood cells could be observed but not be exposed to the environment.  Creepy.  The scientist3 found that the titanium was bonded to the bone as the bone itself healed.  My wife expressed sadness that a rabbit had been subjected to such a trial.  I agreed, though I suggested that the rabbit had likely been further experimented on to determine the extent of titanium’s ability to bond to bone until the skeletal structure of the rabbit was mostly made up of titanium. Horrifying as this must have been at the time for the rabbit, it now had super powers like Wolverine4, and once it had escaped, it could use its powers both for good and to visit a righteous vengeance upon its oppressors and bunny oppressors everywhere. Soon, as its skills developed, all the warning its enemies would receive was a slight rustling in the brush, and then a brief silence as the rabbit launched itself5 through the air toward the jugular of its foe.  Later in its evolution, I concluded, the intensive training and its unique bone structure would allow it to achieve sub-orbital flight with a single hop.  The only warning its enemies would then have was the sonic boom the bionic rabbit would create as it re-entered the troposphere6.  Unfortunately for them, this forewarning would be unlikely to save their lives.  One hop later, and the only evidence that the bionic bunny would leave behind was the resulting carnage and a few errant hare hairs.
“It needs a name”, my wife said.  “Ellie Junior”, I responded.  “Not very superhero-like”, she responded.  I promised to come up with something more appropriate if something of this sort ever came to pass.
And then I went off to brush my teeth.


1 Eye of the Beholder, Season 7.  A good one.
2 My father recently had one of these, so this wasn’t completely at random.
3 Dr. Per-Ingvar Branemark.
4 Snikt, snikt.
5 Hop!
6 Note: the bunny would require specially-made goggles.



I think everyone doodles at some point.  Probably during a meeting that should have been over a half hour ago.  Anyway, I doodle, and if I’ve figured out the tool for adding an image to a post, you’ll be seeing an example in the space below.  For a more talented doodler whose style I approve of, go here.




Particle Physics and Boobs

So, when I first heard about the story I’m about to discuss, it was in the context of my favorite newspaper, the American Physical Society News.  I think at the time the details of the story were still in dispute and APS News tends to be about the least sensational news outlet I know1, so although I remembered some mild weirdness, it didn’t make me sit up and take notice quite like the article sent to me more recently by a friend.  In summary (though I would recommend reading the full article yourself) a notable theoretical particle physicist, Paul H. Frampton, has been sentenced to about four years in prison for (1) meeting a woman claiming to be Denise Melani on a dating website, (2) over a period of weeks being convinced that this was in fact the actual Denise Milani2 and that she was in love with him despite only communicating via Yahoo Messenger, (3) flying to La Paz, Bolivia to meet her, (4) being told that she had a last minute photo shoot in Brussels, that he could come and join her there, and ‘oh by the way could you bring this empty suitcase that I just happen to have left in La Paz’, and finally (5) being caught in the Buenos Aires airport with a suitcase full of his dirty laundry and two kilos of cocaine sewn into the lining.
Despite Dr. Frampton’s continually professing his complete ignorance of anything illegal or strange about the situation, subsequent court testimony and documents seem to indicate that he had more than an inkling of what at least might be in the suitcase.  Still, this 68 year old professor from Chapel Hill had seemingly convinced himself beyond much doubt that this glamor model was willing to drop everything, marry him, and have children with him.  He’s a bit young for dementia – after all, he was publishing papers in good scientific journals in 2011 with abstracts like

We examine models in which the dark energy density increases with time (so that the equation-of-state parameter w satisfies w < -1), but w approaches -1 asymptotically, such that there is no future singularity. We refine previous calculations to determine the conditions necessary to produce this evolution. Such models can display arbitrarily rapid expansion in the near future, leading to the destruction of all bound structures (a “little rip”). We determine observational constraints on these models and calculate the point at which the disintegration of bound structures occurs. For the same present-day value of w, a big rip with constant w disintegrates bound structures earlier than a little rip.3

He has a reputation for being a bit prickly and terribly arrogant, but these characteristics make him more likely to try and fluster some poor particle physics grad student during a conference talk rather than take on the occupation of drug mule.  The man also, by his own admission, “rarely listens to the opinion of others”, which is probably why he ignored a more worldly physicist friend who told him before he left Bolivia that he was being duped into carrying drugs.  The only thing that suggests to me that he might be a little more street smart and calculating than he appears are the facts that he had little in the way of savings, so needed money, and that the text messages he was sending to ‘Denise’ from Bolivia made specific references to his concern about drugs and drug-sniffing dogs4.
Personally, despite his conviction, I’m inclined to believe most of his side of the story.  The man certainly has a rational and penetrating mind, but one that had been cloistered and focused for decades on questions that have almost nothing to do with the world as most humans understand it.  As with any ability that is rarely or never used, his ability to interact with and read people who weren’t his peers in the academic community had clearly atrophied to the point of being nonexistent5.  As for his motivation, well, it could have been money.  To me though, his apparent complete naivete and not inconsiderable arrogance actually fits well with the story of his ‘finding love’ over the Internet with a glamor model he’d never met.  He thought of himself as a brilliant and famous physicist: a wonderful match for a famous, large-chested glamor model who was half his age.  Right.  One pubescent fantasy that was never outgrown, and so began the tragi-comedy that describes Dr. Frampton’s career change from respected professor to (perhaps unwitting) drug trafficker.  I would say something like, ‘let this be a lesson to you’, but it’s hard to come up a useful takeaway other than, “Well, sometimes people say things that aren’t true. So don’t believe everything you hear.”  Most of us, however, learn this earlier than Dr. Frampton did.  Unfortunate for him.

1 Which simultaneously explains why I enjoy reading it and why almost no one reads it.
2 An internet search will provide plenty of scantily-clad photos of this very pretty and, er, top-heavy glamor model.
3 I’ll see if I can get back to you on the meaning of that.
4 He, unsurprisingly, claims he was merely joking around with his beloved.
5 Kind of a scary thought, really.


The Moon and Mr. Armstrong

Approximately 4.5 billion years ago, a mere 30-50 million years after our solar system started to coalesce, our young planet was struck by Mars-sized object named Theia, the Titan mother of Selene, Greek goddess of the Moon*.  The result, after a mind-bogglingly violent collision**, was a slow accretion of our Moon out of the wreckage left in orbit around the Earth, or rather, the “new” Earth.

Then, for quite some time, not much happened.  Despite its unusually large size compared to its parent, the Moon didn’t have sufficient mass to hold an atmosphere, so it just had to watch the Earth’s form and evolve.  It also was much less massive than its neighbor, so even though it started out happily spinning at a spritely clip, Earth’s gravitational field eventually forced it to match its rotation period to the time it took to orbit the Earth.  For this reason, millions of years passed with the same face of the Moon always staring at Earth, though with different bits of it lit by the Sun depending on when one looked.  For a long time, there was no one around to observe this oddity, and then after there was, thousands of years passed as humans tried to explain this eerily beautiful phenomenon.  Once we figured that out, it took only one more geological blink-of-an-eye before someone, let me call them Chris***, had the idea of visiting someday.

I like to think that Chris wanted to go there for the sheer wonder of it, rather than wanting to plunder the Moon’s famous green cheese reserves or some such thing.  This isn’t completely wishful thinking on my part.  After all, at the time Chris was having this thought, flying through our own atmosphere was the exclusive pervue of certain wildlife.  The idea that a human could not only fly but make it to the Moon was such a leap that you would think only whimsy could bring it into the mind.  It is a bit sad that whimsy was far from the primary motivation that set the mission of the Apollo program, though admittedly a whim is scant reason to spend $170 billion (in ‘modern’ dollars).  Still, at its heart, before Apollo became fraught with strategic and material concerns, before it become a symbol of democracy’s triumph over the Soviet system, before Apollo even became Apollo…there was the thought of “Well, why don’t we just go there and find out?”.

For the Apollo Program to ultimately succeed, it needed people with this kind of thought and with the seriousness of mind that could make it a reality, and it got them.  One of the most famous, Mr. Neil Armstrong, died on August 25th, 2012, some 43 years after setting his feet on the Moon and some 4.5 billion years after the Moon was spectacularly blasted into being.  I cannot do credit to the man and the myth that was Neil Armstrong****.  Suffice to say that I think he is nearly unique among humanity’s modern icons and will likely continue to be even after we someday place a person on Mars or beyond.  Those nerves of steel.  That blood of ice.  That first step on a celestial body other than our own.  For me, just thinking about it gives a chill and then an exhilirating sense of freedom to imagine what might be possible.

I acknowledge that losing oneself in such imaginings without corresponding action is probably harmful, maybe just a little, maybe quite a bit.  …and to concentrate on what might be possible, is perhaps to lose sight of what is possible, right now, on Earth.  To put it mildly, humanity has its problems.  I’m sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but I would argue that things like the space program need not directly come at the expense of doing good here on Earth and can do good in ways that are difficult to foresee.  I think the sentiment is expressed beautifully by a quote our neighbor to the north contributed to a silicon disk left by Apollo 11 on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

Man has reached out and touched the tranquil moon.  Puisse ce haut fait permettre a  l’homme de redecouvrir la terre et d’y trouver la paix.  (May that high accomplishment allow man to rediscover the Earth and find peace there.)

-Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada



* There you are, evidence that scientists don’t name all ‘new’ astronomical objects things like “NGC 2770”, which is a pretty boring name for a galaxy that has produced lots of supernovae recently and is 88 million light years (8.36 x 10^20 kilometers) away.

** To get some idea, take the Barringer crater in Arizona as a reference.  It’s over a kilometer wide, 170 meters deep, and was created 50,000 years ago by a meteorite traveling >10 kilometers per second with a mass somewhere around 500 million kilograms (think, mass of a filled oil tanker).  Theia was probably traveling slower, just a couple kilometers per second, but had mass about 1,000,000,000,000,000 times greater.  Boom.

*** Best to hedge here and give the person a gender-neutral name in case, um, risen-from-the-grave-Chris ever shows up to claim credit.

**** For a good obituary, read here.