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Sunday, December 02, 2012

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 6

Read Part 5: The Ship of Theseus

5. Galileo's Gravity Experiment

In order to refute Aristotle’s claim that the speed of a falling object is dictated by its mass, Galileo devised a simple thought experiment:

According to Aristotelian logic, if a light object and a heavy object were tied together and dropped off a tower, then the heavier object would fall faster, and the rope between the two would become taut. This would allow the lighter object to create drag and slow the heavy one down. But Galileo reasoned that once this occurs, the weight of the two objects together should be heavier than the weight of either one by itself, therefore making the system as a whole fall faster. This contradiction proved that Aristotle’s hypothesis was wrong.

One of the most famous stories about Galileo is that he once dropped two metal balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter ones. In actuality, this story is probably just a legend. However an astronaut did perform this famous Galileo test with a hammer and a feather in vacuum with low gravity on the surface of the moon (see video below).

So what can I learn from this thought experiment? As a Computer Science researcher, many times it is easier for me to just sit down and code up experiments. But sometimes it might be a good idea to stand up and then write down the math formulations on the whiteboard. Simplifying the math calculations or jog down some proofs can actually dramatically reduce the amount of coding I have to do and also improve the performance of my algorithms. Of course, if I could do all these in my head it would be wonderful, but I am no Galileo, and I also have severe short-term memory deficit -- a strong sign and that I am almost ready to graduate!

Read part 7: Monkeys and Typewriters

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Air Swimmers -- a fun "robot" toy for parties! You can get them here.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Outcast: Volume 1 Chapter 9

Volume One: Eastwood Is All Stones

Chapter 9: The raging bull

The First Constitution and the Wildlife Protection Act were, in a sense, the strictest and the two most enforced laws among all Federation laws. They also happened to be the top two on repair shop owner Feng Yu’s most-hated-laws list.
The origin of the First Constitution went way beyond the earliest historical records still in existence. Although it contained laws on the very sensitive issue of privacy protection, citizens of the Federation seemed to have grown quite used to it many years ago. No one ever questioned it. Perhaps the slow but steady development of civilization over the past hundreds of thousands of years inevitably buried many truths in the dark shadows of history.
The Wildlife Protection Act turned out to be another myth in Federation history. Many social activists still couldn’t figure out why, in all the territories of the Federation, the importance of wild animals and natural vegetation far exceeded that of the human. With the exception of mining, the Federation government had always limited its operations in planet surface alterations; as if there was an invisible hand that always pushed civilization in the direction of a harmonious co-existence with the natural environment.
Electric fences, common on every planet, separated massive regions outside of the cities and safely guarded the wild animals. Any poaching acts would result in the severest punishment from the Federation Administrative Committee. But there was a problem: coexistence as such could not be harmonious, particularly for people like Xu Le and Feng Yu who were particularly fond of natural meat – how can one be in a good mood when he can’t put meat in his mouth?
Although synthetic food these days could already achieve rich tastes and flavors, some people simply couldn’t get rid of things deeply seeded in their intuition, such as the passion for all-natural food.
“We’d better be careful this time. HTD agents raided the entire black market after we killed that bull half a year ago. For four days no one could buy any wild meat in the entire city. Luckily no one knew that we did it. Otherwise, we could do three months in jail…,” Xu Le reminded Feng Yu as he cautiously followed the uncle toward the electric fence, his heart still fluttering with fear.
“If the HTD is truly so incorruptible, …[cough, cough]…,” the repair shop owner ridiculed in between coughs. He threw the cigarette butt to the ground and then stubbed it out with his feet before continuing, “Where do you think all that rabbit meat or lamb on Bell-Tower Street’s black market came from?”
“But what we killed was…a wild buffalo.” Xu Le apparently never got over the fear. “No one dared to sell that stuff for years.”
“We didn’t sell it to the black market,” with a swift swing of his arm, Feng Yu said decisively. “Even if we get arrested by the HTD, it’ll be probation at most.”
HTD stood for the High council of national Territory space ocean and earth Division.  Although the name sounded terrifying, it was just a special agency set up by the Federation government according to the Wildlife Protection Act. It certainly had plenty of authority.
The two of them stared at the leisurely wandering buffalo across the electric fence and stopped next to the metal isolation guardrails. The wild buffalo obviously were not afraid of the humans on the other side of the fence. During their daily walks they could frequently spot these pitiful two-legged creatures locked inside the fence. Only that it had been many years since they last had close contact with these creatures. Today was different. The alpha bull of the herd could clearly sense the hostility radiated from the two humans on the other side. He lifted his giant head vigilantly with arrogance, and the agitation grew stronger and stronger in his eyes.
Xu Le was still pondering about the legal consequences when he noticed the lead wild buffalo’s provocative and defiant look. He couldn’t help but feeling a bit mad. All I ever wanted was some meat from you; did you really have to look at me with that much disdain? He thought to himself.
“Moo…Moo…,” Feng Yu suddenly roared in the direction of the electric fence, imitating the sounds of a wild buffalo. The alpha bull of the buffalo herd was instantly enraged and charged toward the electric fence. In the next second Feng Yu and Xu Le began running in full speed alongside the electric fence, until they led the raging bull to the foot of a small hill far from the mine pit.
While running as fast as he could and panting just as fast, Xu Le felt the utmost admiration toward the slightly clumsy figure running in front of him. “What a weirdo my boss is!” he thought to himself, “He can even enrage a wild buffalo without any effort! No wonder during the first few months of getting to know him I had always found myself in such a great rage that I would completely lose my appetite.”
At the hillside, Feng Yu stood on one side of the electric fence and spat in the direction of the buffalo on the other side, both of his hands on his hips. He fixed his gaze on the two sharp horns and the hoof that was still angrily digging the dirt underneath it. Clearly the bull was quite exhausted. Panting heavily, he exclaimed.
“No worries! These buffalo have been locked out for hundreds of thousands of years. They learned their lesson a long time ago. No buffalo dares to bang the fence.”
Xu Le leaned against the fence and nodded torpidly. The electric fences on the planet were all made of special alloy embedded with management chips inside. If the fence were hit with excessive force, it would automatically release a high voltage electric current. Many years had passed since the fences were put in place; the fences withstood countless windstorms and rainstorms, but showed no sign of rusty stains or scratch marks from hits and clashes. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine their level of endurance.
“Same rules! You kill the bull, I watch your back,” Uncle Feng Yu directed as if that was how it ought to be.
Xu Le eventually accepted his fate. He stepped next to the electric fence gloomily. Maybe driven by subconscious, he reached back and touched the chip on the back of his neck, wondering in his mind whether the electrical surveillance net would notice a small blip in signal strength.
After all, he had jumped the electric fence three times before. Therefore Xu Le wasn’t as worried as a typical criminal. He took a deep breath, spat on his palms, and then instantly turned into a monkey. With extraordinary speed and extremely agile techniques, he climbed over the fence with ease.
 “Not bad at all!” Feng Yu sat on a slope and watched with a smile on his face. “If the recruiter in charge of the Department of Defense Draft Exam is not totally blind, he would for sure recognize the talent and strength of this young lad in no time,” he thought to himself.
If citizens of the Federation ever found out that someone was capable of jumping the electric fence, the one nicknamed Wall of Tears by the black market peddlers, without decrypting and disabling it first, they would be shocked speechless. The electronic surveillance of the Federation was everywhere. When this young lad entered an unauthorized territory, how come the chip at the back of his neck didn’t send an electric pulse and the surveillance system didn’t react?
Xu Le had no idea that his easy jump, as smooth as the past ones, was such a devastating blow to the First Constitution and Federation society. Nor did he notice that in the palm of that military deserter, the owner of the repair shop, a small device kept emitting a very dim blue light, which completely enveloped the two of them together with that raging bull.
Only on large grasslands could a bull roam freely. Locking a bull inside an iron cage would only infuriate him.
Of course hostile intentions from humans could also easily infuriate a bull. As soon as Xu Le’s feet touched the grass outside of the electric fence, the dark brown raging bull immediately charged toward him, the mane on the back of its neck fluttered in the wind with a magnificent curve.
Xu Le could feel fear brewing inside his chest. His face turned slightly pale but he remained calm. When the sharp horns of the bull were only one meter from his chest, he suddenly rotated his left ankle and leaned sideways. Meanwhile his right hand reached toward the giant torso of the bull.
With a loud ZAP, blue electric arcs flashed in the air. Having no way to change the direction of its momentum, the bull barely missed Xu Le and took a straight hit from that delicate yet powerful electric prod.
BOOM, the bull collapsed to the ground, sending a puff of dirt and grass into the air. Xu Le walked toward it, his face covered with no excitement but caution.

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