Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say


Two Seconds Hate: Britishisms

When I’m at a loss for stuff to write about, I should just crank out these diatribes. I never have trouble coming up with them, but I worry about transforming this blog into one whose format is just complaining about inaccurate use of phrases like “beg the question” or “the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

I don’t hate British slang. This isn’t a general complaint about UK-sian/Irish/Sometimes-Australian language differences. It isn’t stupid or bad that they use words differently, have colloquialisms that we don’t, or even that they spell words differently (though it’s dumb how vehemently they seem to believe it is important that color be spelled with a ‘u’). This is a complaint about some specific, annoying, obviously wrong ones.

I watch a lot of British shows, particularly comedy, (despite their stupid insistence that a season of a show should only be 6 episodes long and that a ‘season’ should be called a ‘series’) and I’m even fond of some radio things from over there, like Ricky Gervais’s XFM program that introduced the world to Karl Pilkington, Stephen Merchant’s late unlamented 6Music show, podcasts like The Bugle, Infinite Monkey Cage, and that kind of thing. It’s nice to listen or watch stuff that’s a little different (but not too different, because that would be scary). The point is that I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to how them people talk over there. But still, there are some things that make me cringe every time I hear them:

  • Drink Driving — instead of ‘drunk driving.’ This makes no sense. ‘Drunk’ describes the person’s state when they are doing the driving. Theirs is two verbs next to each other. Or at best, a noun and then a verb. But when we (both) use noun-verb pairs, the noun is the thing being acted on or used. Like ‘lawn mowing,’ ‘bar hopping,’ or ‘bird watching.’ (And I mean ‘use’ in the sense that that object is the fundamental part of what’s being done). ‘Drink driving’ is like saying ‘get drink’ instead of ‘get drunk.’ Obviously, no one would say that, unless they were really drink.
  • Fancy Dress — to mean ‘in costume.’ This is the term for any kind of costume, and ‘fancy dress party’ means costume party. This is simply misleading. Costumes are not necessarily fancy. And what if you’re trying to throw a party where people are supposed to dress like rich old fashioned people, and everyone shows up dressed like characters from Battlestar Galactica instead?
  • Middle Class — The way we use ‘Upper class.’ It seems like Upper Class over there is sort of reserved for nobility, permanently wealthy and otherwise super-fancy people (but not ‘fancy’ in the sense of ‘dressed like clowns or werewolves or whatever’). While more conventionally rich and refined people are called middle-class. This is very strange, and I can’t get used to how they sneeringly refer to well-off twits as ‘middle-class’. I realize this sort of implies that I am calling for more of a distinction between poor and working-class people, but whatever, it’s strange to say that those in the upper portion of society are in the middle.
  • Public School — this means ‘private school.’ So they’ve essentially just chosen the opposite. This originates from the desire to distinguish between those who were educated on their vast estates by tutors, ‘privately’ and those who studied with others at a fancy boarding school, which was ‘public’ by comparison. I suppose nobody else went to school back then so it didn’t matter. Thus, in both England and America, Middle class kids usually go to public school…but those mean different things.
  • Maths instead of ‘math.’ This is due to different ways of abbreviating ‘mathematics’—they kept the ‘s’ and we didn’t. Presumably we decided that it was silly to drop the rest of the word but then keep the last letter, while they decided it was a plural ‘thing’ so they kept it. You can find both ways abbreviating in English so it is hard to make a case that either is superior. Sean Carroll covered it recently and came down on the American side (this stuff is much like the DH debate, it usually depends if you’re an AL or NL fan). In his words: “’Physics’ is just a word with an ‘s’ at the end, not an abbreviation. ‘Econ’ is an abbreviation for a singular concept, and doesn’t get an ‘s.’ ‘Stats’ is an abbreviation for a plural concept, and gets an ‘s.’ Because ‘mathematics’ is not the plural of ‘mathematic,’ there’s no reason for its abbreviation to retain the vestigal ‘s.'”
    It’s hard not to agree with this logic.
  • Dating System (21/12/12 instead of 12/21/12). This, in addition to looking stupid and illogical, is stupid and illogical. There was a graphic circulating around the internets recently, that purported to make the opposite point, while throwing in some other things like Fahrenheit vs Celsius. The little triangle they made (and basically everything else about that chart) illustrates only that they have never heard the phrase ‘begging the question’ (at least not in the sense that it means ‘tautology’). How far does this go then? Should clocks then go Seconds:Minutes:Hours? The point is that we really should be going Year:Month:Day: Hour:Min:Sec (as we do in most programming, and certainly in astronomical applications), but since we don’t always need to write the year, it’s the afterthought. Month is more important, so it comes first, and our system isn’t “arbitrary”—you only need to learn either one once.*
  • Cuppa — for ‘cup of tea.’ This is nails on a chalkboard. It’s an abbreviation that ends with an ‘of.’ Arrrgghgh!
  • Fag — for cigarette. C’mon people, not cool. I mean obviously it has a prior meaning that has nothing to do with the slur, but well, being uncomfortable with it is just a reflex.
  • Pronouncing lieutenant as ‘leftenant’ — I don’t know how they justify this— and I don’t want to know.

Americans make a big deal out of a lot of other stuff that is simply word choice differences, but that stuff is just random. I’m annoyed at Brits who think petrol is more correct than gas, or that jail should be spelled gaol. But that’s just pointless cultural hubris. Calling dinner tea is a bit ridiculous, but whatever, metonymy.

*The other stuff on there is kind of stupid too. Despite being pretty into science, as I am, unless you’re doing a ton of conversions, it doesn’t much matter which units you have in your daily life. And, in fact, for some things, the non-SI units are better. Celsius temperature differences are great for chemistry, but that system is ‘arbitrary’ as well: it’s based on water. Kelvin is the one that isn’t arbitrary in this sense, but we don’t use it because we’d always be using three digit temperatures where only significant, memorable, number is at 0° for a temp that has physical significance but no meaning in daily life. 0°-100° Fahrenheit is at least a range that roughly spans the temperatures you will actually encounter in habitable parts of Earth. In Celsius, most of the livable outdoor temperatures are within like 40 degrees of each other, and the variation between a crisp autumn day and a gusty winter one is like 5°. Pounds and ounces are arbitrary too, but unless you’re doing conversions, it’s not a big deal. Units aren’t more or less logical than each other, what matters most is what you’re using them for.



Two Seconds Hate: The Darién Gap

Mind the gap.

The Darién Gap is a section of impenetrable jungle and swamps in eastern Panama that makes overland crossing between North and South American nearly impossible. A ~30,000 mile route from northernmost Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America currently exists—with the exception of a 54 mile break around the Panama-Colombia border. What the FUCK, Panama? Supposedly, without an overwhelming political or economic demand, and the prohibitive cost of constructing roads through a dense swamp full of FARC rebels, there aren’t even plans to ameliorate this fact in the near future.

Oh, I’m sorry, did I fail to account for the historical, engineering and environmental impact of building a major highway through an otherwise pointless stretch of jungle? I guess I was too busy not making excuses.

Am I planning on driving to Buenos Aires? Of course not. But I reserve the right to drive to Buenos Aires. I also reserve the right to not use accents on words that come from other languages. There you go Darien Gap, how does that feel? Somehow…incomplete? Now you know how I feel.

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Two Seconds Hate: Truck Nuts

There is a large truck directly ahead. Whatever your cruise control is set at, the truck is slightly slower. Tap those brakes. Can you get around? Negative; the truck is two lanes wide. Blue-tinted smoke bellows from its twin exhaust pipes. The sky rains asphyxiated birds in its wake, and you switch to recirculated air when the world begins to smell like cheap vodka. Judging from the bumper, the driver is geared to go fully Republican when the 2004 election rolls around. The back window is adorned with crucifixes and Gothic lettering, and you assume that the letters actually spell something, but your brain will be goddamned if it’s going to devote the energy necessary to decoding that stupid fucking font1. Still, you think, perhaps the driver is a person who you could hypothetically hold a conversation with. Perhaps, if the two of you were trapped on a desert island, there would be some grace period before things turned Lord of the Flies. And then your eye drifts toward the pavement, and the ensuing aneurysm and subsequent hemorrhage almost make you lose your cool. Camouflage truck nuts. There is only one thought left to think: camouflage doesn’t really work in some situations. Indeed. Not nearly as well as you wish it did. Dare I say, it looks more like leprosy. Enjoy this stretch of one-lane highway while you stare at something that looks similar to, but in fairness slightly better than, a pug’s rear2.

I assume that the endowment of trucks with reproductive organs is the reason why there are so many trucks on the road in the first place, in the face of soaring gas prices and concerns over manmade carbon emissions. There are a lot of issues to discuss on that front. I’m available for debate. Until then I’ll be in the Cabela’s parking lot, neutering pickups and affixing giant collars around their front grilles so that they can’t chew on their stitches3.

Aside from the fact4 that they look stupid, and that testicles are useless without a corresponding man cannon (which no one has the initiative to put on their car for some odd reason), what amazes me is the number of women who attach these to their trucks. There are more than zero who do this. In fact I’m told that hot pink are the scrota of choice for ladies’ vehicles. This is to delineate that these male genitalia are a woman’s. At this point, whatever message one may have thought one was conveying is now pretzeled beyond recognition. We can distill only the basics: you have a Hemi and you want it to feel embarrassed when it goes out in public.

It’s worth noting that South Carolina has imposed a blatantly unconstitutional ban on bumper balls. Which is great news; I love it when two wrongs interfere with one another. And nothing better illustrates the point that South Carolina legislators are well-focused on critical issues. Last year the law was contested by a 65-year-old woman who refused to pay a $445 ticket for going anatomic with her truck, which I guess makes her the Rosa Parks of gluing balls to your car. Her jury trial does not yet have a date set. I await, rapt, her made-for-TV movie.

1. Fuck that font. Write in normal human letters.
2. Pugs look absurd.
3. I have a “Gone But Not Forgotten” tattoo with Bob Barker’s face. With Gothic lettering. … Oh. He’s not dead? Am I the only one who wasn’t aware of that?
4. Fact.

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Two Seconds Hate: The Myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from Space

Expedition 10 photo showing Great Wall of China

View from the ISS, with a 180mm lens

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the Great Wall of China is “the only man-made structure visible from space.” Why on Earth does that thought escape anyone’s lips? It takes less time to realize how stupid it is than it does to actually say the sentence aloud. The important, and impressive, fact about the Great Wall is how long it is, not how wide, and why would length alone ever be a factor in determining whether or not you can see something from a great distance? It is clearly less wide than any major highway (most of which also tend to be pretty long), and basically the same color.

This is the kind of thing I could only imagine becoming a myth before we could go into space and see how stuff looks like from orbit, (even though, for the extremely obvious reasons listed above, it would still be a stupid idea), and in fact, it does appear to date to at least the 1930s, in the form of “the GWoC is visible from the moon.” What?! Continents are barely visible from the moon.

This obviously completely wrong fact is even printed in Chinese textbooks. There have been many complaints about the lousiness of our textbooks, but at least our nationalistic garbage is vague and hard to convincingly disprove (to about 30% of people anyway). This obviously completely wrong fact is so ingrained in culture there that when their first astronaut was unable to spot it, panic ensued, and it took a second, American, astronaut taking the really indistinct picture above, to satisfy everybody. Seriously, that picture was plastered all over Chinese newpapers as evidence that this idiotic myth was true. Even though it was through a magnified camera lens and is still almost impossible to discern. I doubt it would have mattered, people everywhere else in the world already reflexively believe it to be true with no evidence or second thoughts in the first place anyway.


Two Seconds Hate: The Nerdist

I am going to inaugurate a recurring segment, by taking a page out of a blog I really enjoy called I Hate Everything. She is essentially compiling the enormous list of everything that is wrong with the world, one paragraph at a time. And when I say everything that is wrong with the world, I mean that in the sense of “Why would ‘Glee’ covers ever come up in iTunes searches before the actual songs?”rather than “Why do African warlords have to be such assholes?” The size of the complaint isn’t significant, nor is whether it is something that most people are likely to know about. It just has to be something that one of us knows about, and if you don’t, deal with it. It seems like a cathartic pastime. Today’s subject: The Nerdist Podcast.

Faux nerds. Ferds.

I don’t think they know anything about actual lasers.

The Nerdist is one of those things that seems to inhabit the same internet world as many other tech-savvy, geeky, science-interested things, like Boing-Boing and Wired. They describe themselves as being obsessed with “nerd-culture” and sci-fi and stuff, and the show revolves around them having meandering interviews with guests who have some importance to pop-culture. And many of their guests are legitimately nerdy, like people from Mythbusters, or Futurama or whatever. But the other more than 50% are simply comedians or normal actors. There is nothing wrong with this, (and you know, it’s free, so it isn’t like they owe anyone anything) but they are constantly banging on about what geeks they are, and professing this devotion to sci-fi etc, while never actually discussing anything beyond the mechanics of show business. It is not more interesting to hear Brent Spiner talk about auditioning for movie roles than any other random actor. And it is definitely not interesting to hear the hosts, who are comics, talk about what mutual people they know from which obscure LA comedy club, or who they met at some convention that I’ve never heard of.

It is fine to do a podcast where you talk about comedy and television and pop-culture things. But just because the formerly pejorative term ‘nerd’ has been watered down to the point where Britney Spears says she was one growing up, doesn’t mean that it is an appropriate description for a show where you talk to Joan Rivers and Will Ferrell about how they got into stand-up. If you want to do those things, you have to not call your program The Nerdist.