Perplexing Ping Pong

July 30, 2012

This summer I’ve been playing competitive table tennis at the Rhode Island Table Tennis Association (RITTA). It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been strengthening my rating in a fairly linear fashion (you take points off a player you beat based on your respective ratings). But lately I’m reached a bit of a stumbling block… my equipment. I’m using a $5 paddle I bought at some discount store. It’s what is called a “hardbat” paddle, which is to say the kind of paddle that comes with a table and has its pips (the little embossed rubber circles on the face) out.

Now that I’ve climbed to the upper half of the B division my opponents are using heavy rubber and foam and expensive “blades” (some guys have spent up to $200). These paddles generate a ton of spin without too much effort. While I’m still competitive with these players I’m not going to be able to beat them regularly without upgrading. As a humble (and therefore poor) teacher, I can’t afford to pay that kind of money on a summer hobby, but I’ve been trying to research the most economical way for me to get on more equal footing. Unfortunately, the complexity is mind-boggling. Blades have different speeds and weights, and the rubber parts (you apply them to your blade) come with an even greater range of properties (spin, speed, control). Then there are over 30 manufacturers of these products. So far I haven’t made a decision, so this Tuesday my $5 special will once again be in action.


One Man’s Oneirology

July 25, 2012

I woke up grumpy and sad today. I have no reason to feel that way, but I had an unpleasant dream which affected me even after I awoke. Even now I’m still struggling to shake off the negative feelings so I can enjoy my day. As part of that shaking off process, I did some dream research (oneirology).

I discovered that negative emotions are far more common in dreams than positive ones. Anxiety is #1, sadly. To make it worse, sexual content appears in less than 10% of dreams. The world would be a happier place if those were reversed. Oh, and juvenile dreams about driving a Kia Optima around a racetrack filled with bikini models are nonexistent. 95% of all dreams aren’t remembered, but if you wake in the middle of having one you are highly likely to remember it. Women are more likely than men to recall dreams, and apparently you can train yourself to remember your dreams more frequently.

Most of this information comes from human studies, but all mammals dream. Anyone who has watched their dog “running” while sleeping knows this to be true (I hope the negative feelings bias is human specific). Dolphins are minimal dreamers, humans are mid-pack, and possums are prolific dreamers (probably dreaming about being something other than a possum).

I don’t know if the possum can do it, but lucid dreaming is a real thing. If the dreamer is aware of the dream it qualifies as a lucid dream. In some cases the dreamer (the oneironaut) is able to exercise control over the dream. I once saw the movie Waking Life, which was clearly made by someone who was high (or dreaming). In the movie the dreamer knew it was a dream because the digital alarm clock couldn’t be read no matter how close it was.

Like that alarm clock, dreams are enigmatic. Despite being studied since the dawn of humankind, we still don’t know the purpose of dreams. There are many theories, of course. Freud theorized dream content was driven by wish fulfillment. Jung moved slightly away from that to say that dreams are messages to help resolve emotional issues. Perls argues that dreams represent an uprising of sorts from the parts of the self that have been ignored or suppressed. These last two could explain the prevalence of negative emotions in dreams. In any event, this exercise was therapeutic and now I’m off to have some fun.

I love peanut butter. I don’t eat it that often but every once in a while I remember how good it is (sometimes because Meet Joe Black is on TV) and will eat a spoonful or make a sandwich. I was eating once such spoonful the other day when I started thinking about rampant peanut allergies and wondered why this is a big deal now but not back in the olden days when I was a kid. So I looked it up and expanded my search to peanuts in general. Here’s what I found:

• Peanuts are legumes, not nuts. So they are more closely related to beans and peas than walnuts and almonds. This is why some people have a peanut allergy but not a tree nut allergy and vice versa.

• Peanuts originated in South America and were domesticated in what is now Paraguay or Bolivia. This is where the wildest strains grow today.

• The top three producers of peanuts mirror the top three countries by population. China is by far the biggest producer of peanuts (they were introduced there in the 17th century by Portuguese traders) followed by India and the USA.

• Mr. Peanut will turn 100 in 2016. He was drawn by a 14-year old as part of a contest held by Planters. Artists added the fancy clothing accessories (top hat, monocle, cane) to this drawing. In 2006 Planters conducted an online survey asking if he should be further fancied up by adding a bow tie, pocket watch or cuff links. The public wisely declined.

•  The Azteks mashed peanuts into a paste similar to what we consider peanut butter. The main difference (though it’s not always clear) is the addition of vegetable oil to make it more spreadable and sugar to sweeten it.

• Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Montreal was granted a patent for a process of creating peanut butter in 1884. George Washington Carver promoted peanuts in the early 20th century and created over 100 different uses for them.

• Peanut allergies are one of the most common causes of food-related deaths, but this danger level is actually very low. Only 10 people or so a year die of peanut allergies in the US. Bee stings and lightning are far more deadly, with each killing 50-60 people a year.

• We don’t know what causes peanut allergies, but there is some interesting data out there. One study showed that UK children are 10 times as likely to have a peanut allergy than Israeli children. The main difference between the two cultures in this case? Israeli children are given peanuts at a much younger age, while UK parents are advised not to give children peanuts until age 3. This phenomenon is part of the hygiene hypothesis, which could explain greater rates of other childhood afflictions in developed countries.

Rolling another 7

July 15, 2012

I love old stuff, especially old buildings. Most of the places I want to visit have architectural wonders I’d be thrilled to see. Growing up I also loved Greek mythology and was fascinated by Greek and Roman history. That’s when I first became aware of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The list of wonders served as milestones for Greek tourists in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD (the original Grand Tour), guiding them about the Mediterranean. While great for those tourist, I found the list a bit disappointing because only one entry has survived to the present time (the Great Pyramid of Giza). The rest of the list, all built between 600 and 280 BC, are long gone with the Lighthouse of Alexandria surviving longer than the others (until sometime around 1400 AD). So unfortunately there’s not much to see for the modern tourist, and with no photos or contemporary paintings we even have to guess at what they looked at based on limited written descriptions.

But all is not lost! On July  7, 2007 a new list of Seven Wonders of the World was created after a seven year process with over 100 million votes being cast. Seeing all of these would make a fine addition to any bucket list. But unlike the ancient list, this new seven are spread quite evenly about the world. You probably already know quite a bit about most of these, but here’s a recap:

Chichen Itza • This is an ancient Mayan city that features a distinctive pyramid (El Castillo). Located near Cancun, Mexico this city thrived from 600-1200 AD.

Taj Mahal • Completed in 1653, this marble complex of buildings is located in Agra, India (not far from New Delhi). It’s domed marble mausoleum is most prominent and stands 561 feet tall.

Petra • Carved from solid rock in present-day Jordan, this city was built around 1200 BC and features dozens of buildings and monuments so there’s more to see than the “Treasury” that is most often scene in photos.

Christ the Redeemer • This 130 foot tall statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro is the newest of our new wonders, having been completed in 1931. While not close to being the largest statue in the world, it has the benefit of standing atop a 2,300 foot mountain that serves as its pedestal.

Colosseum • I’ve seen this one, and it is especially beautiful and impressive at night. Built in the first century AD in Rome it could hold 50,000 spectators, which is considerably more than “old” Fenway Park’s capacity.

Great Wall of China • Started  in the 7th century BC (the iconic sections were built around 200 BC), the wall stretches over a mind-boggling 13,000 miles.

Machu Picchu • This Incan city atop a mountain isn’t as ancient as you might expect (15th century AD) but like the other South American entry has altitude on its side (it stands almost 8,000 feet above sea level) and like all great architecture enhances the natural beauty around it.

The Great Pyramid, being the sole surviving ancient wonder, was granted honorary membership to this group.

Back in 1996 I saw the movie Se7en on video (back then we actually drove to a store and rented movies on VHS videotape – DVD wasn’t introduced until the following year), and to this day it is the movie that has disturbed me the most. I remember having trouble sleeping for a couple of weeks after watching it. The villain in the movie (Kevin Spacey) is “illustrating” the seven deadly sins with a series of crimes that are being investigated by police played by Brat Pitt and Morgan Freeman. I watched it again recently and wasn’t as affected but could appreciate the quality of the movie more than I did previously.

I bring this up because this month’s issue of Mental Floss has an article about the seven deadly sins (can you name them all before looking below?) that presents scientific information showing that these sins aren’t all bad. Here’s my ultra-condensed recap for your edutainment:

Sloth • People who work less have lower levels of stress, depression and death!

Gluttony • Chubbier politicians were deemed more trustworthy than thinner ones in a photo survey.

Envy • Jealousy of peers is a strong motivator, and may even explain the spread of the Arab Spring via “democracy envy!”

Greed • Swiss economist have determined that a moderate level of greed in a society is better than a low level.

Lust • Men who have sex more than once a week live more than two years longer (oh man!) and women who enjoy sex live eight years longer!

Wrath • A UC Santa Barbara scientist did an experiment that showed that angry subjects demonstrated better judgment and sharper analytical skills.

Pride • It turns out that pride (even if unjustified) prevents depression! Plus pride allows people to take leadership roles and take risks.


I’ve written about trains before, focusing on the U.S. and U.K., but I’ve recently done a bit of research into the longest railway, which is in Russia. Russia lagged behind us a bit when it comes to crossing their continent (we finished in 1869 while it took them until 1916), though the length of the Trans-Siberia railway is over 5,700 miles, more than twice the distance between NYC and Los Angeles. All told, Russian has the second longest total  amount of railway (after the US) and the most electric railroads.

All this got me started thinking about Russia, a country that has gone from being almost omnipresent in the news back in my youth (as the USSR) to a nation we don’t hear about much. So what’s going on there? Well, to start Russia is just one part of what was once the Soviet Union. So the population of 143 million is less than half what it was as the USSR. It turns out that the parts of the old union that are no longer unified with Russia are in the more populous areas, which becomes obvious when you consider that the geographical area of Russia is over three-quarters that of the Soviet Union.

Economically, things are looking good for Russia. It took a while for things to get better in this regard after the fall of communism, with the economy declining until the crisis of 1998. Since then, however, a steady growth rate of 7% per year has brought Russia to a point where they are the 6th largest economy by Purchasing Power Parity. They streamlined their tax code in 2001 with a flat tax of 13%, which simultaneously reduced the tax burden on the people and dramatically increased state revenue. Industry, agriculture, energy and transportation are all strong, and their educational system is a particular advantage over other developing economic powers. Problems going forward include infrastructure (plans are in place for a $1 trillion overhaul) and corruption (ranked 2nd most corrupt in Europe after the Ukraine).

The photo above is of the almost completed Moscow International Business Center, which strikes me as similar in style to the World Trade Center (re)construction currently underway.



Ignored Intelligence

July 1, 2012

I was looking up ocean currents online (a byproduct of reading Moby Dick – a great book but not a great novel) and one of history’s great minds made a surprise appearance. In 1768 Ben Franklin was deputy postmaster of the colonies and overheard a complaint from officials in England who wondered why it took British ships weeks longer to journey to New York than it took colonial merchant ships to travel to Newport. So he asked his cousin, who was a Nantucket whaling captain, and learned about the easterly current that the British ships sailed west against and the American ships avoided by sailing south first. He did more research and created a map of what he coined the Gulf Stream, a current that moves around 5 mph (quite significant when you consider sailing ships of the time averaged 15 mph). He send this map to England where it was published by the Secretary of the British Post Office, but it was largely ignored by ship captains. When they finally did heed the great man’s map they saved two weeks of sailing time.