7QT: Reasonable Answers to Patently Crazy Questions

7QT: Reasonable Answers to Patently Crazy Questions September 5, 2014

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My copy of Randall Munroe’s What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions just arrived today, and I’m really looking forward to starting it tomorrow.  (I have an even more awesome book to finish first).  My appetite has certainly been whetted by the interview Munroe did with FiveThirtyEight:

Walt Hickey: A whole set of “What Ifs?” touch on what it would be like to go to or return from space. The Curiosity rover also appears to be a recurring figure. How did your experience at NASA influence the “What If?” estimates? What do you make of the state of space exploration?

Randal Munroe: I think space is interesting because it’s defined by the presence (or absence) of such simple and common things — like distance, speed, light, heat, air and gravity — but in such bafflingly unfamiliar amounts and arrangements that we have no intuition about how they behave. I have a lot of fun trying to develop that intuition, trying to figure out how to get an Earth brain to think coherently about space’s staggering speeds and distances.

Walt Hickey: Which Google search that you had to make for the book do you think is most likely to put you on some type of government watch list?

Randal Munroe: For several calculations, I’ve looked up the street prices of hard drugs, and I’ve also Googled for a lot of phrases like “plutonium suppliers.”

But if I’m on a watch list, it’s probably for something more mundane, like the time I flooded the Library of Congress web interface with requests for random catalog numbers to try to get a statistical sample of items in its collection. After I had been sending requests for 10 or 15 minutes, I found I was abruptly blocked from the entire Library of Congress website. I still feel bad about that; I’d never been kicked out of a library before. So if anyone from the Library of Congress is reading this, I’m sorry. I just wanted to tell people about the cool stuff you have.


If you’re looking for a What If question to sample, might I recommend “What if a glass of water was, all of a sudden, literally half empty?”  (i.e. half vacuum).

(Seriously, add the What If site to your feed reader).

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Via Kotaku, here’s a man exploring an aburd What If in order to better divine the laws of physics… of a video game.  This player tried Fallout 3 with the goal of killing everyone, rather than following the intended course of the game.  By becoming a edge case, he learned more about how the game runs:

On some occasions, characters will care about murder sprees in strange ways—if you kill the overseer at the start of the game, for example, his daughter Amata will go “pay respects” to his body. In action, what this means is that her character will go to wherever the overseer’s body is—and Many a True Nerd couldn’t help but start dragging the dead body everywhere, just to have her chase him. In the first video of the series, you see him get obsessed with which specific part of his body she’s programmed to follow—and in order to find out, he chops the body into pieces and tests out what she’ll chase after. (It’s the torso. She doesn’t care about anything other than the torso. Not even his head!)

…The series is full of curious stories like this.

” …a minor NPC called Shrapnel [is a] merchant who works in Rivet City, and he’s completely unremarkable. He’s involved in no quests, and isn’t even the only weapon vendor in that city.

“But if you enslave the other weapon vendor, Flak, Shrapnel mysteriously leaves Rivet City and starts to wander the wasteland alone. If you run into him during combat, you realise that, for no obvious reason, the game has marked him as essential, meaning he cannot be killed. So he just wanders around in his terrible armor with his terrible gun, picking fights against vastly superior opponents, he chips a bit off their health bar, they knock him down, he jumps up and chips a bit more off their health bar, they knock him down again, and eventually he wins. He always wins, against the Enclave, and Deathclaws, and Albino Radscorpions.

“I ran into him 3 times in the wastes (and tried to kill him all three times too), so he just became part of the series’ mythos. Shrapnel became an NPC who was on his own Kill Everything quest, seeking his lost companion Flak.”

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And in more tales of warped science (fiction), I’m kinda excited for Bang Bang Baby.

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Looks like something went wrong in the experimental protocols for that town, but in “If Half of All Species Go Extinct, Will One of Them Be Us?” from Nautilus I found this description of clever experimental design:

In a 15-year-long research project, Young and Keesing set out to investigate the effects of removing animals from ecosystems. They wanted to study what happens when large mammals go extinct, but as Young put it, “If you want to know what happens if you take away pandas, you can’t just go out to the forest and shoot a bunch of pandas.” By fencing off areas of African savanna, the team was able to model an extinction of large mammals. Their local extinction simulation had profound and cascading effects: Small-mammal abundance skyrocketed; fleas (vectors for diseases like bubonic plague) rode in on the thriving mouse populations; venomous-snake abundance rose due to the increased food supply; acacia trees were gobbled up before they could reach maturity. In response to the removal of a single class of animal, an entire ecosystem shifted dramatically.

Does such a profound change reflect the savanna’s frailty or resilience though? Extinctions leave significant voids in our ecosystems—holes in the food chains’ circuitry that conducts calories to any animal fit enough to tap into it. Energy builds up around the gaps and entices new species to fill vacant niches. Young quotes the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

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When I started this article from Cabinet Magazine, and found out that dumbbells are so named because they’re descended from dumb bells, as in church bells, or reproductions thereof that preserve the weight, but not the clapper, for the purpose of exercise, I said, “Huh.”  Then I read on and learned about Change Ringing, and said, “Wow.”

Change ringing operates on a simple but strict system of permutations. All the bells in a church tower are rung in rounds; each ringer rings a single bell, and the bells are hung such that the ringer is able to control the sound, making the bell strike once and only once per pull. Every bell must be rung once in each round, and the order in which the bells are rung (that is, the order of the round) may never be repeated. Change-ringing notation uses numbers, with each number standing for a bell. If a ring of five bells starts ringing from highest bell to lowest, with 1 representing the highest bell and 5 the lowest, the first orderly round can be written as 12345. The following round might be 21345, then 23145, and so on; each new round is known as a change. The aim, in theory at least, is to exhaust all the possible orders in which the bells can be rung, without ever repeating a round; different ways of exhausting all the possible orders are known as “methods.” Strict rules govern which bells can swap places with which, and ringers developed a terminology—words all full of motion: bobs and dodges, hunts and “extream” changes—to describe the various ordered swaps the bells need to make so that they successfully exhaust the circuit and return to the original round, 12345.

And then the piece goes on to relate this all to philosophy of permutation and 12-tone music (for the latter, I recommend ViHart as supplemental watching).

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And speaking of sounds (particularly those heard in public) the Atlantic had an interesting feature on audio, covering everything from noise ordinances, aural warfare, and a part of the industrial design process I hadn’t paused to think about:

So if you make vacuums, you probably want a roar that conveys power but isn’t so powerful as to be disruptive to the home environment. If you make dishwashers, you probably want a hum that is relatively quiet, but also loud enough—humming enough—to be soothing. If you make motorcycles, you want an engine, probably, that vrooooooms as plaintively as possible. (Its success in this area led Harley-Davidson to attempt to patent the signature chug of its V-twin engine. That attempt was, alas, less successful.) And if you make cars, you want, among other things, a door that slams with a thud that indicates substance and maneuverability at the same time.

“A Mercedes,” Berens says, “has got a “twuuuunk—”

“—a really solid feel,” Bowen says.

Whereas, Berens continues, a less well-made car, a Japanese or Korean car, might have a “dwiiiink.

So the question is, Berens says: “How do we make the cheap Japanese car sound like the more expensive German car?”

“Without,” Bowen says, “actually making an expensive German car?”

For a car door, this might mean playing around with the dimensions of the steel, with the air inside the door panels, with the spring elements in the door’s hinges. “So if your car door falls off,” Berens says, glancing at Bowen, “it’s his fault.”

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Oh, I am terribly familiar with the process of tweaking elements of a design to make it appear to be more luxurious/ornate/well-constructed than it is.  But my fudges are mostly visual (the mantra in the costume shop in college was “It only has to read from the stage”).  And, speaking of which, you guys let me go three weeks with no progress on my Halloween costume with nary a tsk!

The last time I posted an update, I’d made my first muslin mockup of the bodice, and it was ludicrously short and midriffy.  Here’s try number two:

costume progress

Much better!  And the sleeve setting is still the most confounding part, but it’s much less wonkus than last time.  I added three inches to the pattern, and I still think I’ll be looking for high waisted pants though.  At least tomorrow I can start working with the real fabric.

And, in order to keep your eyes (and mine!) fixed on the end goal, here’s the latest cosplay music video from Sneaky Zebra.



I’m on the final day of a Norbertine novena, in honor of my friend Michael Hannon, who just entered the abbey.  Please feel free to pray along.


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