Sep 232011

I noticed this on the back of the Domino’s sugar box in the lunch room on my floor:

Sugar is a 100% natural simple carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are an important part of any balanced diet. Sugar contains no fat or cholesterol and has 15 calories per teaspoon.

So yes, someone is trying to argue that sugar is a health food, now. Kids, take note!

Bowyer’s decision

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Sep 152011

The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicago (of all places) this week, but I’m not terribly excited. The only way my driver Clint Bowyer was going to get into the Chase was to win Richmond, and he didn’t. The same things that had been going wrong since Daytona in July went wrong there: he spun himself out, strategy didn’t pay off, and a poor finish was the result. With that his championship hopes were done, although they were realistically over after he spun out racing Montoya at Atlanta the previous Tuesday.

That means it’s time for Clint to consider what he’s going to do next year, which isn’t an easy decision. It’s clear staying at Richard Childress Racing means continuing to get short shrift. Although he’s a very talented driver (and could have made a serious run for the championship last year if not for the penalty after New Hampshire), it’s clear that Bowyer comes last, or next to it, at RCR. Harvick is the favored one, Menard brings his own sponsorship, and hell if I know what Jeff Burton is good for but CAT sure seems to like him. Meanwhile Bowyer, who is at least second best in the RCR stable, has suffered the most from Childress’ ongoing flirtations with a four-car team. There’s no prospect of moving up the totem pole, either, since Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon will be moving up to Cup in 2-3 years to take some of the premium equipment.

Despite some early promise, this try at four teams seems likely to end up not much better than the last. At least one of the Childress drivers will make the Chase this year (Harvick), but overall the team performance has been nowhere near good enough. During the Chase, Childress will make the right move and give Harvick the best of everything in a bid to win the championship, but that’s certainly going to rub Clint the wrong way as he tries to be the best of the rest. That has to make that contract he’s received from RPM look a lot nicer.

There’s the rub, though. As sticky as the situation at RCR is, everything else looks even worse. Richard Petty Motorsports managed to win a race this year, and the equipment they’re supplying Ambrose and Allmendinger is pretty good, but that organization has flirted with insolvency for years. Are they really capable of fielding three good teams? Will the contract be worth the paper it’s printed on? Michael Waltrip Racing is also reportedly interested, but that’s even more of a laugh. Their equipment has been inconsistent and the organization has struggled mightily to win. Clint would be top dog at either of these places, but he’d be the top dog of second-rate equipment.

The crazier rumors suggest that Roush Fenway might try to grab Clint. Their equipment is undoubtedly top-notch, but the most likely scenario there is that Clint displaces David Ragan, which would place him at best third on the depth chart, facing the same problem he has at RCR. Gibbs has also been floated as a possible landing spot, and Toyota does want another front-line driver, but I don’t really buy the scenario. For Carl Edwards they might have expanded to four cars or sidelined Logano, but not for Clint.

It’s a tough decision. Childress has undervalued Clint repeatedly (e.g. making him give up his points to Casey Mears during the last four-car experiment), and because he made Clint, he’ll probably always undervalue him. However, all of the alternatives have serious drawbacks and caveats in terms of team stability and development potential. NASCAR is currently contracting, and it may well be that the best Clint can do is to stay put, no matter how unhappy it makes him. Yet the way Clint and Childress are talking suggests that’s impossible. Of course, Childress has let things get this bad before and still gotten a deal done, but that was with Harvick, who he values a lot more than Clint. It’s not a great situation, and it’s a measure of the straits the sport is in that somebody who regularly makes the Chase and has been a factor for the Championship before can’t seem to find the kind of sponsorship that would guarantee him a ride.

East 2 degrees 20 minutes 57 seconds

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Sep 062011

Today it is possible to pull out your telephone and know immediately where you are and what time it is, so the prospect of, say, setting one’s watch by Immanuel Kant’s daily walk seems intrinsically absurd. Yet, before the turn of the century, it was not unusual for the time in one town to be very different from the time in the next town down the road, and the only unification of clocks came from the local rail line. Lacking a global idea of time, our knowledge of longitude was uncertain, so much so that cartographers could not pin down even the distance between London and Paris, much less that between the Americas and Europe. Our transit from “here there be dragons” to your iPhone’s GPS function owes much to French mechanist Henri Poincaré and physicist Albert Einstein, contributions Peter Galison examines in his book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps [Amazon].

Einstein comes first in the title, but it is clear from early on that Galison’s real interest is in Poincaré. Most Americans have an opposite preference, and it’s easy to understand why. Einstein’s peregrinations and iconoclasm speak to certain American sensibilities. Poincaré, by contrast, was French, and fiercely so, a student of the École Polytechnique, a member of many Academies and Societies, and an important member of the Bureau of Longitude.

That last may seem faintly hilarious, now, but at that time the determination of longitude was no small task. One of the first tasks of the mighty transatlantic telegraph cables was to fix the time of events at two distant spots, thus determining the longitudinal difference between them. Following on the international adoption of the metric system, the French hoped to have the Prime Meridian fixed to Paris, where the meter, kilogram, and associated measures lay. Poincaré even became involved in an effort to create a metric system of time. Rather than bothering much with Relativity, Galison devotes most of the book to examining the multiple levels where one if its key insights (the synchronization of clocks) played a role. As he puts it:

In to the precision swing of master clock pendulums, out to the undersea telegraph cables crisscrossing the oceans. In to follow the minutiae of individual train schedulers, jewelers, and astronomers; then back out to the legal recalibration of  national and world-covering time zones. In this process of scrutiny, historical light necessarily plays off the very different scales utilized by technological, scientific, and philosophical activity. Between 1870 and 1910, conventions of space and time scintillated with a critical opalescence.

One can see that Galison is not afraid to engage flights of fancy, and also that he is unusually fond of the word “opalescent”, which I saw more times in this book than in the preceding 30-odd years of my life. Niggling about style aside, the passage does give a feel for the many lenses needed to capture the drama. In Europe, intellectual titans like Poincaré were involved in the struggle to map the world and unify time, while in America, time became the province of businessmen and rail magnates, eventually resulting in the creation of the time zone system we find familiar (albeit not without digressing into some curious permutations along the way).

If you’re wondering how time itself could be so confusing, Poincaré did not. One of the central beliefs of his life was that systems, like time, were just conventions, only to be used until another, more convenient tool came along. If he had been able to follow this belief to its logical end, perhaps it would be he who was remembered as the discoverer of Special Relativity. Certainly his modifications of the Lorentz transformations were essential. Yet he ultimately became too attached to the familiar ether, insisting that there was one “true” time, while Einstein managed to punch through that barrier and recognize that time itself was variable. Galison seems to like Poincaré just a bit too much to judge this failure harshly, but that’s a forgivable flaw in a work that shines a much-needed light on a somewhat-forgotten genius.

Sep 062011

Hello and welcome to the second iteration of Discount Thoughts! The original blog had three rather disparate kinds of content, and I wasn’t happy with trying to jam all of them into a single place. So, I moved to private hosting (which will allow me to experiment with some other ideas I’ve been having) and relaunched as three separate blogs. Right now, you’re at the new Discount Thoughts, which will be a place for all my personal ramblings about life, politics, books I’m reading, and ham sandwiches or whatever. If what you really like are my posts about games, and you couldn’t give a toss about that other stuff, then you should head over to Ludonarratology, where my game-related writing will be stored in the future. Or, if you really prefer to read my discussions of scientific papers and commentary on structural biology, then you should click to Conformational Flux, where those posts will be appearing. Thanks for coming with me, and while we’re getting settled in, let me know if anything isn’t working.