Aeroplanes and Treadmills

I came across this ridiculous Internet argument today, via xkcd. I find it both amusing, and worrying, the number of people who insist that the plane will not take off. This is a classic example of what philosophers call a thought experiment, and demonstrates only what most thought experiments demonstrate: that our intuitions about even quite simple phenomena are often very wide of the mark. In this case, the intuition is that a vehicle on a treadmill will not move if the treadmill matches the speed of its wheels. While this is true for vehicles (and people) that get their forward thrust from pushing against the ground, an aeroplane certainly doesn’t. The thrust here comes from the propellers or jet turbines that push against the air. These generate an enormous force backwards, which, as per Newton, generates an equal and opposite force pushing the plane forward. If you draw a diagram and label the force arrows (as in school physics lessons), you will see an enormous forward arrow with the only opposing forces being air resistance and a tiny amount of friction from the wheels. It is a basic law of mechanics that when there is a net force acting on an object in a certain direction, then that object will accelerate in that direction. No amount of fast spinning treadmills can reverse the laws of physics. As others mentioned, the wheels will simply spin faster, as they are acted on by forces both from the aeroplane and the treadmill. The wheels decouple the rest of the plane from this treadmill force, and thus the transferred force is negligible. This is, after all, the entire point of having wheels on a plane, and not for instance just having skis.

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Computers and numbers

A pet peeve of mine is the ongoing public misperception that computers are really all about numbers. This is constantly reinforced by the mainstream (and even IT) media. Take, for instance, this quote from a BBC News story today:

The DNS acts as the internet’s address books and helps computers translate the website names people prefer (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numbers computers use (212.58.224.131).

What this quote means to say is “DNS transforms textual domain names (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numeric dotted-form (212.58.224.131) that is used by the Internet Protocol (IP)”. To the actual computer, both of these are just patterns of bits that represent symbols. A numeric interpretation is no more or less convenient for the computer than any other symbolic representation: it’s all just patterns of electrical charge as far as the machine is concerned. The inventors of IP could just as easily have chosen to use a DNS-style address representation. It happens that the sort of symbol shifting that computers do is very good for numerical tasks, and it also happens that we know a lot about how to do things with numbers, and so numbers are useful in a lot of applications of computers. In this case, the numeric form can be compactly represented, and efficiently manipulated. That was an engineering decision, not a fundamental limitation of computers.

My love of computers stems from a fascination with language, logic, and fundamental notions of representation and interpretation. Diving into computing has brought me into contact with all sorts of ideas from philosophy, physics, mathematics, linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, and AI. It saddens me that people miss out on these extraordinarily beautiful ideas because of a persistent belief that its all really about numbers, which puts a lot of people off.

The Decline of Violence

Steven Pinker has an interesting talk on the TED conference website, debunking the idea that we are living in an increasingly violent society. As Pinker shows, over pretty much any timescale you care to look at, violent death rates have been dropped considerably, and we now live in the safest time ever. Fascinating and cheering.

60 Years since The Baby

Manchester is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first stored program computer, “The Baby”. A link to this was circulated around the Comp Sci email at Nottingham. A fascinating website. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come in 60 years, but also how sophisticated those early machines already were.

Hello world!

I thought I’d get myself a blog, separate from my university pages. Hopefully from now on I can use this as a place to put various essays and ideas that I have that are not directly relevant to my academic career. For now, I need to get ready for my trip to Toulouse on Monday, so not much will appear here for a little while.