In which I leave the house

We just got back from Doing a Thing, the annual Science Alive! event at the main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library in downtown South Bend. This is the third year my wife has taken my son; I didn’t go the last two years because I was working every Saturday. It’s an interesting event; they basically take over the library with tons of booths and exhibits (too many, honestly; there’s stuff everywhere you turn, and tons of people, and I was stressed out from trying to keep from bumping into people or knocking little kids over) and most of them are hands-on in some way or another, which is pretty cool.

The ground floor was basically a mini-4H fair, with a lot of vaguely bemused-looking farm kids letting the terrified city folk do stuff like pet chickens, with the occasional pig or snake thrown in for good measure.

The upper floors were more … science-fair-ish, I guess? Not in the sense of people showing off experiments, but more like lots of table staffed by local college kids demonstrating some aspect of SCIENCE! to the kids. The weird thing was a lot of the time the science they were wanting to talk about was miles beyond the comprehension level of the small kids (my son is 7, and he was about average for the crowd, and there were a lot of kids way younger) who were there. I spent a couple of minutes watching some poor woman who is probably an excellent teacher when she’s surrounded by college students who want doctorates gamely struggling to relate square dancing and mathematics and fractions to each other … somehow? She literally had a whiteboard covered with equations next to her and I had to keep myself from bursting out laughing when she, entirely seriously, asked the group of elementary-age kids in front of her who wanted to square dance what the negative reciprocal of 1/2 was.

I would wager that, if you threw out the actual scientists, no more than 10% of the adults in the building could tell you what a negative reciprocal is. I mean, it’s not a difficult concept, but it’s not one of those things that most folk need to worry about, y’know? Then there was an entire room full of particle physics folks and one lonely astronomer. And, like, okay, radiation’s cool, and particle accelerators are cool, and whatever the spinny ball-balancy thing that my son was so enthralled with was neat, but I found myself wondering if anybody at all was thinking about age-appropriateness when they put this all together. Waving a hand-made Giger counter at a piece of Fiestaware is pretty neat, but I’m pretty certain that despite a valiant effort at explaining radioactivity by the two Ph.D candidates behind the table, it really didn’t get anywhere with my kid.

So. Yeah. Interesting event, but they maybe need to think a bit harder about the age group they’re pitching to and how they’re going to do that in the future.

In which the impossible happens, over and over again


This thing– I’ll call it a cabinet, although I don’t think that’s quite what it is– is available for sale at my place of business.  It is made entirely of wood other than the hinges and the hardware on the drawer pulls.  It is sitting on a linoleum floor in front of a wood counter and is nowhere near any electrical outlets.

It is made– I’ll say this again, because it’s important– of wood.

This sentence is 100% true unless I am hallucinating or crazy:  I have, at least a dozen times over the last two days, touched that piece of wood furniture and gotten a static electricity shock from it.  Now, by my understanding of how static electricity works, that is entirely impossible.  I was working with two other people on my side of the store all weekend and unless they were fucking with me (which is not unlikely) neither of them experienced said shocks.  It was only me, and it was happening frequently.

Someone explain to me how this is possible, please, other than “You’re nuts, and that didn’t happen.”  Because, again, as far as I know it’s impossible, and yet it was happening anyway.

On math and feminism and societies

Feeling a little grab-baggish today.  First things first, watch this.  Shut up and do it, dammit, it’s Saturday and you can spare eight bloody minutes:

You didn’t watch it, did you?  Jerk.  Fine, I’ll sum up:  the fella in the video is a British physicist, and he demonstrates a couple of interesting properties of infinite series: first, that the sum of 1 -1 +1 -1 +1… out into infinity is actually one half.  Then, to further screw with our brains, he demonstrates that the sum of the series 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5… is negative one twelfth.  Which is completely absurd, but the demonstration he works through is elegant and relatively simple even for non-mathematicians (which, for the record, is a category I’m including myself in) so long as they have some recollection of how algebra works.

I came across this here, at Phil Plait’s awesome Bad Astronomy blog.  The article touched off a bit of a shitstorm in the comments and elsewhere on the Interwubs for what is probably a perfectly obvious reason; it doesn’t make a speck of logical sense.  The math concepts being applied are apparently actually useful in string theory.  The problem, of course, is that most of the people involved in the argument don’t have the faintest goddamn idea what they’re talking about– which, surely, is the first time something like that has ever happened on the Internet.  This makes the argument not terribly enlightening.

Me, I’m inclined to trust the experts– while I agree that neither answer makes a drop of intuitive sense, I’m also sympathetic to the counter-argument that infinity itself doesn’t actually make a drop of sense to our non-infinite brains and that therefore “this doesn’t make sense” isn’t actually a valid knock against the math.  In fact, if I’m being honest, I find that argument fascinating.(*)  The guy in the video also points out that you’re right that if you stop at any point along the sequence, yes, you’re going to get a certain number, either 1 or 0 in the first instance and something really big in the second– but that if you extend the series to infinity, a concept that doesn’t rightly fit in our brains, you get these wonderfully unexpected results.  It’s cool.  And he’s kind of adorable.  So go do what I said and watch the video, because I know you didn’t watch it the first time.


Complete change of subject: I need a feminist, or at least someone with a bigger vocabulary than me, to ‘splain me something, and to do it out of the goodness of her or his heart, because I’m perfectly aware I can research this myself but I’d rather ask the Internet for some reason:  is there a specific term for a society that is patriarchal in practice but not by law, other than “de facto patriarchy”?  Like, a single term?  The example I’m thinking of is America, obviously, where there are no longer any laws preventing women from, say, high office, or corporate boards, or other offices of high power that are currently occupied either nearly exclusively or literally exclusively by men, but that nonetheless all or nearly all of those offices are occupied by men.

To phrase it differently, I’m looking for a term or set of terms that distinguishes what I’ll call for the sake of argument a “hard” patriarchy– where women are literally not allowed access to positions of power via specific religious or legally enforceable and punishable prohibitions, from a “soft” patriarchy where the barrier is culture and not law.  Note that in a practical sense the effects can be exactly the same, which is why “de facto” and “de jure” would work if they weren’t phrases and not individual terms.

And maybe also you can see why I’m not trying to stuff this into a Google search, too.  🙂  Anybody got anything for me?


(*) We’re gonna leave my inconsistency re: theology there aside, although now that I’ve noticed it I may think about it harder later.


This is the greatest thing I have ever seen.