Felix Baumgartner: The Mathematics of Falling Faster than the Speed of Sound

Earlier this month, Felix Baumgartner jumped from 39,045 meters, or 24.26 miles, above the Earth from a capsule lifted by a 334-foot-tall helium filled balloon (twice the height of Nelson’s column and 2.5 times the diameter of the Hindenberg). The jump was equivalent to a fall from 4.4 Mount Everests stacked on top of each other, or falling 93% of the length of a marathon.

At 24.26 miles above the Earth, the atmosphere is very thin and cold, only about -14 degrees Fahrenheit on average. The temperature, unlike air pressure, does not change linearly with altitude at such heights. Jason Martinez, a programmer at Wolfram|Alpha, did a number of calculations to see how Felix’s record-setting jump came to be. It’s a very math-heavy post, but something I have been looking forward to!


Felix Baumgartner’s mach speed at various portions of his free fall.

If you’re into the nitty-gritty mathematical computations, I suggest reading the whole blog post.

Emily Witt on Online Dating

In this London Review of Books piece, Emily Witt shares her thoughts on online dating. It’s an interesting read:

Like most people I had started internet dating out of loneliness. I soon discovered, as most do, that it can only speed up the rate and increase the number of encounters with other single people, where each encounter is still a chance encounter. Internet dating destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words. It had a similarly harmful effect on my sense that other people can accurately know and describe themselves. It left me irritated with the whole field of psychology. I began responding only to people with very short profiles, then began forgoing the profiles altogether, using them only to see that people on OK Cupid Locals had a moderate grasp of the English language and didn’t profess rabidly right-wing politics.

Internet dating alerted me to the fact that our notions of human behaviour and achievement, expressed in the agglomerative text of hundreds of internet dating profiles, are all much the same and therefore boring and not a good way to attract other people. The body, I also learned, is not a secondary entity. The mind contains very few truths that the body withholds. There is little of import in an encounter between two bodies that would fail to be revealed rather quickly. Until the bodies are introduced, seduction is only provisional.

In the depths of loneliness, however, internet dating provided me with a lot of opportunities to go to a bar and have a drink with a stranger on nights that would otherwise have been spent unhappy and alone. I met all kinds of people: an X-ray technician, a green tech entrepreneur, a Polish computer programmer with whom I enjoyed a sort of chaste fondness over the course of several weeks. We were both shy and my feelings were tepid (as, I gathered, were his), but we went to the beach, he told me all about mushroom foraging in Poland, he ordered his vegetarian burritos in Spanish, and we shared many mutual dislikes.

It is interesting how we tend to characterize the online vs. “real” worlds as such disparate entities…

Snap, Crackle, Pop: Sounds that Sell

If you’ve ever opened a Snapple bottle, you’re no doubt familiar with the “pop” (or “click”) sound the cap makes when opened. The Wall Street Journal, in this piece, investigates how firms are doing research for pleasing sounds. Turns out, product noises are a big deal in market research.

The most interesting bit was about Mascara making a sound:

Last month, Clinique introduced High Impact Extreme Volume mascara, which produces a soft, crisp click when the top is twisted shut. The click reassures users that the package is closed and the liquid mascara won’t dry out. But more subtly, Mr. Owen says, the click conveys the elegance of the $19.50 formula.

Mr. Owen and his team fiddled with some 40 prototypes of inner parts of the mascara tube, paying particular attention to the tiny, curved plastic tab, called a “nib,” that emits the click when the top twists over it. By adjusting the slope of the curve and a corresponding tab located inside the top, designers could alter the click’s tone. A steep curve made a high-pitched click, which the team thought sounded cheap. A flatter curve made a dull sound. “We sweated that detail,” Mr. Owen says. “You have to pay attention to it and manage it through all the materials you consider and all the manufacturing steps to be sure you get it right.”

One of the largest companies in the United States, General Electric,

[W]orked with a sound designer who composed a “soundtrack” for each of its four major brands. Instead of beeps, rings and buzzes, the appliances play snippets of their song. Turn on a machine and hear the music crescendo; turn it off, and the same snippet decrescendos. For time-sensitive alerts, like a timer, the music becomes increasingly urgent.

Each brand’s music is meant to appeal to the target customer. Hotpoint, a budget-friendly line, will have a grunge-rock tune. The Monogram line, GE’s priciest, will feature light piano music. “This is more Aaron Copland,” says David Bingham, GE Appliances’ senior interaction designer. “Very forward-looking and elegant-feeling.”

Interesting throughout.

The Worst Sound in the World

What is the most annoying sound in the world? If you answered “nails on a chalkboard,” your emotional response doesn’t stand up to the science. According to Smithsonian:

[W]hen a group of neuroscientists decided to test which sounds most upset the human brain, they discovered that fingernails on a chalkboard isn’t number one. It’s not even number two. As part of their research, published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience, they put 16 participants in an MRI machine, played them a range of 74 different sounds and asked them to rate which were most annoying. Their top ten most irritating sounds, with links to audio files for the worst five (although we can’t imagine why you’d want to listen):

1. A knife on a bottle
2. A fork on a glass
3. Chalk on a blackboard
4. A ruler on a bottle
5. Nails on a blackboard

6. A female scream
7. An anglegrinder (a power tool)
8. Squealing brakes on a bicycle
9. A baby crying
10. An electric drill

I’ve never heard of a knife scraping a bottle, but I guess I can be glad of that.


(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

How to Read Like a Skeptic

Ryan Holiday offers some advice on how to skeptically read a blog or news article in his book Trust Me, I’m LyingHoliday writes that he is “tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it.”

When you see a blog being with “According to a tipster… ,” know that the tipster was someone like me tricking the blogger into writing what I wanted.

When you see “We’re hearing reports,” know that reports could mean anything from random mentions on Twitter to message board posts, or worse.

When you see “leaked” or “official documents,” know that the leak really meant someone just emailed a blogger, and that the documents are almost certainly not official and are usually fake or fabricated for the purpose of making desired information public.

When you see “breaking” or “We’ll have more details as the story develops,” know that what you’re reading reached you too soon. There was no wait-and-see, no attempt at confirmation, no internal debate over whether the importance of the story necessitated abandoning caution. The protocol is going to press early, publishing before the basics facts are confirmed, and not caring whether it causes problem for people.

When you see “Updated” on a story or article, know that no one actually bothered to rework the story in light of the new facts — they just copied and pasted some shit at the bottom of the

When you see “Sources tell us… ,” know that these sources are not vetted, they are rarely corroborated, and they are desperate for attention.

When you see a story tagged with “exclusive,” know that it means the blog and the source worked out an arrangement that included favorable coverage. Know that in many cases the source gave this exclusive to multiple sites at the same time or that the site is just taking ownership of a story they stole from a lesser-known site.

When you see “said in a press release,” know that it probably wasn’t even actually a release the company paid to officially put out over the wire. They just spammed a bunch of blogs and journalists via email.

When you see “According to a report by,” know that the writer summarizing this report from another outlet has but the basest abilities in reading comprehension, little time to spend doing it, and every incentive to simplify and exaggerate.

When you see “We’ve reached out to So-and-So for comment,” know that they sent an email two minutes before hitting “publish” at 4:00 a.m., long after they’d written the story and closed their mind, making absolutely no effort to get to the truth before passing it off to you as the news.

When you see an attributed quote or a “said So-and-So,” know that the blogger didn’t actually talk to that person but probably just stole the quote from somewhere else, and per the rules of the link economy, they can claim it as their own so long as there is a tiny link to the original buried in the post somewhere.

When you see “which means” or “meaning that” or “will result in” or any other kind of interpretation or analysis, know that the blogger who did it likely has absolutely zero training or expertise in the field they are opining about. Nor did they have the time or motivation to learn. Nor do they mind being wildly, wildly off the mark, because there aren’t any consequences.

When you hear a friend say in conversation “I was reading that… ,” know that today the sad fact is that they probably just glanced at something on a blog.

A classic that I’ve read that relates to this topic is Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaIt will make you a more skeptical reader of the news.


(hat tip: Farnam Street)

Write More. Write To Your Friends.

James Somers has an idea: more people should write. He explains in his blog post:

When I have a piece of writing in mind, what I have, in fact, is a mental bucket: an attractor for and generator of thought. It’s like a thematic gravity well, a magnet for what would otherwise be a mess of iron filings. I’ll read books differently and listen differently in conversations. In particular I’ll remember everything better; everything will mean more to me. That’s because everything I perceive will unconsciously engage on its way in with the substance of my preoccupation. A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind.

Writing needn’t be a formal enterprise to have this effect. You don’t have to write well. You don’t even have to “write,” exactly — you can just talk onto the page.

But this was the most interesting idea. Any takers?

I suggest writing emails to your friends. Writing with an audience in mind makes the writing better, and writing to a friend means you won’t get hung up on how you sound. You’ll become closer, too, to whoever you share your thoughts with, and odds are you’ll draw the same thoughtfulness out of them. Your inbox will become less of a place for coupons and bullshit than for the thoughts of humans you like.

I like it.

Of Horses and Bayonets

Last night, the topic of “horses and bayonets” lit up Twitter and the blogosphere after Barack Obama mentioned the phrase in the debate against Mitt Romney. Today, Bloomberg has a piece ascertaining the decline of horses but the (relative) stability of bayonets:

The U.S. Marines, though, remain fixed on bayonets.

In 2004, the Marines ordered some 90,000 OKS-3S new model bayonets from the Ontario Knife Co. in Franklinville, New York, a unit of Servotronics Inc. (SVT) of Elma, New York. According to a report on the Marine Corps website, the new “multi-purpose knife” is more durable than the old M-7 bayonet and also doubles as a combat knife.

Some elements of combat, however, never change. The 2004 article quotes Marine Major Allen L. Schweizer of the Marine Corps Systems Command as saying: “The Multi-Purpose Bayonet is best used on the enemy, and it causes physiological as well as physical damage.

And as for horses?

As for horses, although a few reappeared in the opening days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the special operations forces who rode them were carrying laser pointers to direct air strikes rather than sabers and lances to carve up the enemy.

While Obama was correct that the U.S. Army has fewer horses and bayonets than it did in 1916, as anyone who has seen the movie or play “War Horse” knows, the days of the cavalry charge and fixed bayonets were already waning in World War I. They were victims of machine guns and artillery.

While the U.S. Army still used horses for transport and supply duty, the last of them were traded in for trucks and Jeeps at the end of World War II.

Horses and bayonets became a meme very quickly indeed.