I saw this post on Facebook a while back (don’t ask):

flat earth for post.png

Most people ridiculed the post, saying that it didn’t make any sense—that it was just the ramblings of a crazed flat-Earther.

I disagree.  Much of the post makes perfect sense.  I think it deserves to be answered scientifically, and the conclusions might surprise you.

What is the poster trying to say, exactly?

“…the atmosphere near the equator would be spinning around at over 1000 mph…”

True.  The velocity of anything on the surface of the Earth at the equator would be v = 2πr/T = 463 m/s = 1036 mph.  Way to go, flat-Earther!

“…and gradually slower down to the poles where the atmosphere would be unaffected at 0 mph.”

True.  So what’s the problem?

“…this alleged force…[is] proven non-existent by the ability of airplanes to fly unabated in any direction without experiencing any such atmospheric changes.”

So apparently, the flat-Earther is bothered by the idea that you can be going 0 mph at the North Pole and 1000 mph at the equator, and that if you flew from the North Pole to the equator, you would speed up by 1000 mph, which would seem to be noticeable.

Well, that objection seems reasonable to me!  It doesn’t sound totally absurd.  But since we know the Earth is round, where has our intuition failed us?  If I flew from the North Pole to the equator, how come the 1000 mph difference wouldn’t, in fact, be noticeable?

First, the 1000 mph at the equator won’t show up on your speedometer, of course.  I’m not exactly sure how an airplane speedometer works, but it’s surely going to tell you your velocity relative to the ground (or air) around you.  So if you’re at the equator and you’re spinning with the Earth, that speed won’t be apparent.

But maybe you can feel the change in your speed as you go from 0 to 1000 mph?  Why don’t we notice this acceleration?

It’s a matter of scale.  Suppose I’m in a 747 cruising at 255 m/s, and I fly from the North Pole to the Equator (I know, I know, that’s a bit too far without refueling…)  The distance is about 10 million meters, so it takes 10,000,000/255 = 39,216 s (not quite 11 hrs.)  My North/South velocity doesn’t change, but in the lateral direction my velocity goes from 0 up to 463 m/s, to catch up with the spinning Earth.  This represents an acceleration of Δvt = 463/39216 = 0.0118 m/s2, which is below the threshold of human detection (around 0.065 m/s2 for lateral motion).  For a 100-kg person, this represents a force of around 1 Newton (i.e. about a quarter of a pound) which would be easily detectable with laboratory apparatus, but is not noticeable by an individual, since the 980 N pull on you downward (due to gravity) drowns it out.  (For the same reason, a 100-kg person doesn’t feel the pull of the Sun, even though it’s a respectable 0.6 N).

The conclusion is simple: the flat-Earther is right except for one thing: the change (going from 0 to 1000 mph as you travel South) happens too gradually for humans to detect.  I believe this is just a matter of underestimating the size of the Earth.  0 to 1000 mph seems like a big difference, but the Earth is huge.

Not every objection to science is ridiculous.  The best way to combat ignorance is with scientific argument, not ad hominem attacks.  So please, please, don’t make fun of these fusty nuts with no kernels.  They’re too dumb to get most insults, anyway.

This is a follow-up to the last post, in which I “composed” three poems in some nefarious way.

All of these poems were “written” with the help of Google Translate.  I simply took the source material in English, cut-and-pasted into Google Translate and then cycled through 3 others languages before returning to English.  The result is just the original poem in English again, but twisted linguistically.

To illustrate the process, let’s take a single sentence from Poe’s “Conqueror Worm”:

And the angels, all haggard and wan,

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy “Man,”

Its hero the Conqueror Worm.


Let’s go to German:

Und die Engel, die alle hager und blass,

Aufstand, Enthüllung, bekräftigen

Dass das Spiel der Tragödie ist “Mensch”

Sein Held, der Eroberer Wurm.


And now to Turkish:

Ve melekler, tüm bitkin ve solgun,

Ayaklanma, meydana çıkarma, teyit

Oyun trajedi “Adam” olduğunu

Onun kahraman, Fatih Worm.

And then to Greek:

Και οι άγγελοι , όλοι εξαντληθεί και χλωμό ,

Εξέγερση , αποκαλυπτήρια , επιβεβαίωσε

Τραγωδία παιχνίδι ” Man” είναι

Ήρωά του , Πορθητή Worm.

Finally we get back to English:

And the angels, all exhausted and pale,

Uprising, unveiling confirmed

Tragedy “Man” game is

Hero, Conqueror Worm.

This particular stanza is not much worse for the wear.  The only editorial choices I made were what languages to phase into, along with a bit of cleaning-up of the punctuation.  The process is much like the “telephone game” (“Chinese whispers” in other countries) where a phrase gets distorted gradually, like a Philip Glass melody, until it no longer resembles the original in any way.

I’d be interested to see other people’s attempts at Google Translate poetry.

Here are three poems.  How did I compose them?



Turn to the waters of the Atlantic,

falcon-resistant falconer;

Everything is broken; site control;

the chaos, released on the world.

Blood-gray in the political tide is loosed,

and everywhere at the innocent drowned;

a good general lack sin guilty full of deep flavors.



I am the oldest bank receives tourists.

He said, “two legs and trunk

they stop in the desert . . . There, on the sand,

half-frown, lying face broke down,

and lip curling and the face of cold command.

They say that they read their own passions and sculptor.

This is the seal of the living things to survive,

beating them and nourishes the soul.”


This is real life?  The right of this?

Caught in the slip (no escape from reality).

Open your eyes, looking at the sky and see,

I’m just a poor boy, I have no girlfriend,

because I do not come easy, go easy—

High and low, low, low—

But the wind blows: there is a lot of significance for me


A poem

What are you?

The quaternions form a strictly skew field under addition and multiplication;

Let us say the quaternions are you.

To form is to have once been;

A strictly skew field is the stuff of stars;

Addition and multiplication are the pitiless gaze of the Milky Way.

The quaternions form a strictly skew field under addition and multiplication.

Sphinx of Giza--color 600wide

[An updated version of a post from 2012 which first appeared here.]

Economics don’t matter in this year’s election.

At least, they don’t matter to me.

There are smart people who think Hillary’s economic plan is better for America than Bernie’s.  There are smart people that think Cruz’s’s plan is better.  (Of course, Trump has no plan.) We have some idea of what a Democrat as president would be like, and with Obama at the helm the economy has improved greatly since the Wall-street induced recession of 2008, even with an obstructionist do-nothing congress.  But maybe you think a Republican could do better.  Who knows?  I don’t really know as a fact which candidate would be better, from an economic standpoint.  (Except for Trump.  Trump would be a disaster by any measure.)

And let’s be honest.  You don’t know who would be better, either.

Oh, there are a few people who claim to understand the economic issues involved.  But let’s face it, “experts” can’t really pick stocks better than monkeys or dartboards.  Why do we expect the American economy to be any more tractable?  In the language of mathematics, the economy is a chaotic system.  Any small change in policy is likely to produce unpredictable results.  So when you pick a candidate based on “economic principles” you’re really just saying “I believe this candidate’s meaningless economic rhetoric more than the other guy’s meaningless economic rhetoric.”  If you have a PhD in economics, maybe I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…but if you’re a truck driver, or a doctor, or a waitress, or a welder, then your ideas about the economy are probably total bullshit.

I am a physicist.  My ideas about the economy are bullshit.

Ever play one of the Civilization computer games, such as Civilization V?  If you have, you see how complicated and interconnected every decision is.  You have to juggle money, and the happiness of citizens, and threats foreign and domestic, and culture, science…the tiniest decisions can have huge ramifications, and no monolithic blanket ideology will get you to the promised land of victory.  It’s a balancing act.  Sometimes you have to raise taxes.  Sometimes you have to cut them.  Sometimes you increase education, sometimes you build infrastructure, sometimes you go to war, sometimes you seek a diplomatic solution.

If the pundits are to be believed, being president is simpler than this.  Just drink the Flavor Aid, follow the party line, and everything will be great.  Being president is as simple as doing everything that Rush Limbaugh (or Michael Moore) says.

I don’t buy it.  And if you’re honest with yourself, you won’t either.  Just say it to yourself: “I know nothing about economics.  I know nothing about economics.”

Why is it that people who admittedly know nothing about chemistry, poetry, physics, differential equations, music theory, pottery, animal husbandry, statistics, number theory, ancient history, modern Japanese culture, biology, leatherworking, genetics, Shakespeare, phonetics, linear algebra, astronomy, geology, philosophy, music history, Greek, marketing, calculus, modern history, evolution, quantum mechanics, medicine, world religions, and engineering, think that they know anything about complex economic issues?

(Not you, Ken Rogoff.  I know you know economics.)

Why is it that people who are ignorant of 99% of the world’s body of knowledge still have strong beliefs concerning tariffs or debt ceilings or free trade agreements or progressive taxes?  Let me be frank: if you don’t know what something is, you have no logical right to an opinion about it.  (Do you think that decoherence is sufficient to explain effective wave collapse, a la the Copenhagen interpretation?  Or do you feel that, ultimately, some non-local theory will gives us the loophole we need to sweep Bell’s Theorem under the table?  I didn’t think so.)  Just once I’d like to see a fry cook from Burger King say, “I have no opinion regarding stimulus money…I don’t understand all the complex economic concepts involved…but you know, the Thirty Year’s War was less about Catholic/Protestant bickering and more about the Bourbon-Habsburg rivalry.”

Economist John Maynard Keynes

If you don’t know who I am, then why do you even pretend to know the first thing about economics?

So.  The economy shouldn’t matter in your voting decision.  So where does that leave you?

Well, what’s left are social issues.  Issues like civil rights for the LGBT community, civil rights for women, civil rights for immigrants, the failed war on drugs, the continuing (attempted) theocratization of America, and the stranglehold that the vile NRA has on our political system.  I can’t in good conscience vote for a party that denies the fact of global warming (and here’s where I will play the “PhD in physics” card), the fact of evolution, the fact that the Earth is billions of years old.  The Republicans give every impression that they are the anti-science party, the anti-women party, the party of a solely-Christian America, the party of Wall Street.  If that is not the case, it is still true that very few Republicans distance themselves from such stances.

If you vote for someone, anyone, don’t hide behind the “I just prefer his economic policies” defense.  At least have the courage of your convictions.  Say what you truly are, and why you prefer the social ideas of your preferred demagogue.

I am a liberal, in the best sense of the word: the world could be better, and we have a long way to go.

What are you?

“I tried to start a business, but it failed. It must be Obama’s fault.”

People make this sort of argument all the time. They use their own experience (i.e. one data point) to make some generalization about POTUS or Congress or the governor or whatever. But such arguments are, most of the time, completely bullshit.

I’ll go out on a limb: if your business failed, it’s probably your fault.

The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to succeed in business. After about six years or so, over 50% of new businesses have failed. [See here to see where I got my hard numbers, most of which come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.] How do you know, if your business failed, that it was x, y, or z’s fault and not your own? Would your business have really survived, even under a perfect utopia of your imagining?

First of all, the consistency of the “current administration” (and by that I mean POTUS and Congress and the governor and your local city council and so on) doesn’t really matter jack squat when it comes to business survival rates. Check out this graph:


There’s no noticeable difference between Clinton, Bush, and Obama here. 20% to 25% of all new businesses fail in their first year, no matter who’s in charge. (This is a little hard to see from the graph directly, as the x-axis is shifted in a strange way.  I used the hard data here.)  After a decade, roughly two-thirds have failed. You can blame POTUS if you like, or alternatively, blame whoever is controlling Congress, but either way you’re slipping into the No True Scotsman fallacy: “Sure, 25% of businesses fail in their first year, but I am different… I would have succeeded had it not been for x, y, or z. I am not bad at business; I would have succeeded if only…” You get the idea. (By the way, and anecdotally, if I were playing a blame game, I’d be more likely to blame a governor, because in my experience state policies tend to effect businesses more than federal policies.)

Now, I’ll admit that certain laws (passed by Congress) or policies (enacted by POTUS) can hurt businesses in specific instances. If you start the Acme Widget corporation, and there’s a huge Widget Tax enacted, your business might fail, and you wouldn’t be remiss in blaming Congress or POTUS. But I’m more interested in generalizations: given that your business failed, can we estimate (if at all?) whether or not it was your fault, or someone else’s fault?

Here’s where Bayes’ Theorem comes to the rescue. First, let’s make some definitions. Let

P(good) = Probability that a random person is good at business;

P(suck) = Probability that a random person sucks at business;

P(fail|good) = Probability that your business fails in year 1, given that you’re good at business;

P(fail|suck) = Probability that your business fails in year 1, given that you suck at business;

P(suck|fail) = Probability that you suck at business, given that your business failed in year 1.

Bayes’ Theorem can help us calculate that final quantity, given assumptions about the previous four. Let’s start with a pretty arbitrary guess:

P(good) = 20%

P(suck) = 80%

What’s my justification for saying that 4/5 people suck at business? Well, the graph above seems to be approaching 20% asymptotically. Only 20% of businesses survive “for the long haul”. And 20% “feels” right: most people aren’t good at business, but there’re still millions of people who are.

Now, let’s say 1000 people start a business. Based on the assumptions above, 800 of them suck at business, whereas 200 of them are good at it. We’ve already mentioned that (say) 75% of the businesses will survive their first year, and 25% will fail: 750 vs. 250. Let’s further assume that

P(fail|suck) = 30%.

I pulled that percent out of a hat, but it seems reasonable to assume if 25% of all businesses fail in their first year, then more than 25% of businesses run by sucky managers will fail. But not too much more: 75% of businesses still succeed in their first year, no matter who is running the show. With P(fail|suck) fixed, we’re forced to concede that

P(fail|good) = 5%.

Bad luck, that. Some 5% of businesses run by good managers will still fail in their first year. These are the people who can rightly blame the administration. (Where did the 5% come from? Well, 30% * 800 + 5% * 200 = 250 failed businesses.)

Now: on to Bayes’ Theorem! (For a discussion of how to use this handy tool, see here). We find that

P(suck|fail) = [P(fail|suck) P(suck)]/[ P(fail|suck) P(suck) + P(fail|good) P(good)]

P(suck|fail) = [(0.3) (0.8)]/[ (0.3) (0.8) + (0.05) (0.2)] = 0.96

Translated into English, this means that if your business fails in its first year, we can conclude that it was probably your fault. There’s about a 96% chance that you suck at business.

This is a fascinating result…and you’ll get similar results no matter what assumptions you make, as long as they are reasonable and consistent. For one thing, you’ll always get that P(suck|fail) > P(suck). If I take a person off the street, they have about an 80% chance of sucking at business. But if I take a failed business owner, someone whose business failed in its first year, then I have some extra data, and their chance of sucking at business has gone up to 96%. (There’s a 4% chance that they are good at business but got unlucky.)  A person whose business fails has no right to complain about their failure. It was probably their fault.

There are two lessons here. One, stop whining. Two, remember Bayes’ Theorem!


I suck at business, too.



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