Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Getting Tougher On Guns

When I was about twelve years old, my friend and I used my Red Ryder BB gun to play a preposterous game we had invented called "JFK." One kid would ride a bicycle past the house, and the other kid (standing in place with the BB gun) would be allowed a single shot at the kid on the bicycle. Then we'd switch places. Though it was painful to be hit, neither of us got seriously hurt, and if we dinged any passing cars in the street with errant BBs, nobody ever circled back to confront us over it.

My first experience with a real firearm, ten or fifteen years later, was more sensible. In one of my old photo albums, there's a photograph of a much younger me on the firing range with my nephew's .357 Magnum revolver—a Smith & Wesson Model 586, it might have been. That's a big, six-shot revolver with an unloaded weight of almost three pounds. I still have the paper targets, which weren't bad for a first-timer. Anyway, I won't dig up the photo now because I'm not running for political office.

Instead, here's a photo from a long-ago blog post. The .22 rifle is a Marlin Model 60SB I'd purchased several years before as "curriculum materials." That is to say, I'd decided to conduct the ballistic pendulum experiment in my intro physics course, so I went out for lunch one day and bought the rifle at Wal-Mart. The physics experiment worked, but the presence of a firearm on campus made the Dean anxious and created extra work for the security staff, so I didn't repeat the experiment in later years.

The next use I found for the .22 was to create an artwork, which is what I'm working on in the photo. (The finished piece is shown here, or read the post the photo came from.)

The main use-case for a rifle, hunting, probably isn't for me. I only hunted an animal once, and by "hunting," I just mean carrying my .22 out onto the back porch and waiting for a problem woodchuck to turn up. Well, the woodchuck did turn up. But it happened she had a little pup in tow, so I stood down. I made peace with the woodchuck, and here is a picture of her visiting at our back door.

Living where I did—far from neighbors, and even further from law enforcement—I liked having a gun in the house. I think a dog would have been better than a .22 rifle, though, and anyway I put the gun into storage once my firstborn started walking.

But I still like guns and will occasionally buy Guns & Ammo or another such magazine when I'm on vacation. Few of my friends share this interest, and it's not a big hobby of mine or anything. But I enjoy the physics, and I admire the beautiful workmanship of some firearms.

So far, none of this sounds like a post about "Getting Tough On Guns." Let's get to that now. I think there is room to improve gun laws. First, every state can implement Gun Violence Restraining Orders, borrowing models from the several states that have them today. Every candidate for state office in either party should have this in their platform. I think GVROs are a productive response to mass shootings, because even if the relationship between mass shootings and mental illness is a confusing one, it seems to me there is a pretty clear link between mass shootings and being the kind of person who makes other people worry about a potential mass shooting. GVROs allow people to act on these concerns, while preserving due process. GVROs are politically viable in ways that other proposed policies are not, so let's book the win.

Second, I think anti-gun activists can learn something from the successes of the anti-abortion movement in the decades since Roe. State legislatures didn't hold themselves back just because 20-week bans and surgical-center regulations were plainly unconstitutional according to Casey. States just passed those laws anyway. After all, it's the same strategy that replaced Roe with Casey, and it's the strategy with which they hope to replace Casey with something else down the line. It's smart, and I wonder if a policy wonk could find analogs for gun laws. Stop worrying that measure X or measure Y is unconstitutional according to Heller. Just pass the law and push the courts. A city council could do it; a school board could do it; a PTA bylaw could do it. And there are probably some wealthy individuals who would pay legal fees when the inevitable court challenge comes.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Worksheet From Today's Saturday School

One of the things we worked on today was a worksheet that provides practice with calculating sums and differences of three-digit numbers. (Click here for a PDF.)

The left-hand column gets the juices flowing and exercises the muscles for algebraic thinking. The right-hand column, the main reason for creating the worksheet this morning, provides some practice with using the standard addition algorithm and the standard subtraction algorithm for three-digit operands. I wanted this to become a faster, smoother, more confident, and more accurate process. I think it was a productive session.

The worksheet refers to the standard algorithm, which is an undefined term in the standards. Defining the standard algorithm is harder than you'd think! But my kids know what I mean when I use the term. (Among other things, it means that the calculation unfolds from right to left, and the result appears directly below the horizontal line.)

In a typical worksheet, the problems on the right-hand side would be presented in vertical format (as a signal to the student to use the written algorithm). Normally I use that convention too, but this time I used a horizontal format for the right-hand column. There were two reasons for this. First, a horizontal format allowed me to fit a greater number of practice problems on a single page. I think it's great to give a single-page worksheet when possible. Sometimes there's no way to fit all that must be done, but other things being equal, I prefer a single page because it looks more like a fresh and fun challenge.

Second, casting a problem into vertical format is itself a step in the algorithm—and it's a nontrival step. Mistakes can be made here! But if you always provide the problems in vertical format, then you won't be able to observe and debug those mistakes. Such mistakes include writing the wrong operation symbol (or forgetting to write it altogether), writing the numbers so messily that crossing the places becomes likely, and writing the subtrahend on the top. My daughter, it turns out, had developed some bad habits here. Specifically, I observed right away that her practice was to begin by drawing the horizontal line; this, I learned later, was her way of ensuring that the problem setup as a whole would be compact and well aligned. After drawing the horizontal line, she would look at the given expression X + Y, write the first addend (X) immediately above the line, and then write the second addend (Y) immediately above the first addend. I found this curious, but I didn't say anything until her method caused her to write 987 − 321 with the 987 on the bottom and the 321 on top. After allowing her to make that mistake a couple of times, I said, "Maybe drawing the line first isn't the best way?" She agreed and changed her original approach of drawing the horizontal line first.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Play Your Cards Right (A Word Game)

By overlaying the given cards atop existing letters, change one letter in each word to make a new word.

Update 3/4/2018 to try to clarify these instructions. In each given puzzle,

  • Place exactly one card on each word. 
  • Use all of the given cards. 
  • Do not put the same card on more than one of the words.

Puzzle 1:

Puzzle 2:

Puzzle 3:

Puzzle 4:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Word Chandeliers (A Word Game)

To play Word Chandeliers, I'll give you a starting word, which you can think of as the top level of a chandelier. Starting with the given word, your job is to create lower levels of the chandelier by discarding two letters at a time (any two letters) and rearranging the remaining letters to form shorter words.

In the example below, the top level is given as MUDDILY. The next level was created by striking the letters U and D from MUDDILY and rearranging the remaining letters to make DIMLY. Then, the next level was created by striking L and Y from DIMLY to make DIM. (Here it turns out no rearranging was necessary, but typically some rearranging is required at each step.)

The chandelier is complete when you reach a three-letter word.

Any chandelier is an accomplishment, but try to find a special one for which the letters you discarded along the way can be rearranged to form a bonus word. The above chandelier is special in this way:

Below are fifteen starting words; each is the top level of a chandelier. The starting words are in alphabetical order (not necessarily in difficulty order). Enjoy!

As usual in my word games, you should avoid proper nouns, foreign words, slang, contractions, hyphenated words, acronyms, and jargon.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Twist On The Strike Two Word Game

A little while ago I received an email from reader Robert, who noticed something interesting about Strike Two, our most recent word game. Recall that in the example CONFUTE, we struck E and F then rearranged the remaining letters to form COUNT. What Robert noticed is that in some cases we can keep going and remove another alphabetically adjacent pair of letters. For example, removing N and O from COUNT, we obtain CUT.

That's a great catch! Here are words from the earlier post that allow a second iteration.

AUTOPSY → ? → ?


BOATFULS → ? → ?

PRICKLED → ? → ?

SANDWORT → ? → ?

WORTHIES → ? → ?


For each word in the list above, strike two letters from the word and rearrange the remaining letters to form a new word; then repeat the process once more. The letters you strike don't have to be adjacent in the word, but they do have to be consecutive in the alphabet.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Six-Actor Diagram!

Improving on the known results for the 2017 Holiday Challenge, reader Joanie sends this diagram with six actors.

With so many actors and connections to show, Joanie provides a tabular display. The six actors in the table are Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter. For every pair of actors, a distinct acting credit is shown in the table.

(I checked all fifteen shared acting credits on IMDB. Note that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows refers to Part 2.)

Thanks for sending, Joanie!

Does a diagram exist with seven or more actors?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Visit to the Lorraine Motel / National Civil Rights Museum

In November I drove with a friend from Kansas City to New Orleans, taking the long way around to visit the quiltmakers' collective in Gee's Bend, Alabama. It was my first time driving across "the flat south"—as distinguished from Appalachia, which is the South I'm more familiar with, and which is where my own Southern heritage lies. In past years I'd seen cities in this part of the country (Jackson, Monroe, Tallahassee, and others) but hadn't driven along rural byways with cotton fields stretching away to either side.

A day or two into our drive, we paid a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, on the site of the Lorraine Motel: where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A shrine in outward appearance, the motel turns out to have an extensively rebuilt interior. The design of the museum is a linear pathway that takes you through a series of high quality exhibits, some of them interactive. The museum helped me to integrate my disconnected knowledge of the civil rights movement. If you had asked me before my visit to fill in the blank in "Montgomery _____" or "Memphis _____", I would have supplied the answers "Bus Boycott" and "Sanitation Workers' Strike"; but I couldn't have told you which came first, or what the arc between them was. The museum tells the main story and includes some prior context, parallel narratives, and aftereffects.

The material presented is sobering, jarring, horrible, illuminating, and sometimes inspiring. Unfortunately, I can't say that the overall experience is anything but tragic, from the moment when you first glimpse the sadly beautiful funeral wreath on the motel balcony to the moment when, standing inside those glass doors, you try to measure all that was lost. Dr. King was taken from us at the age of 39.

To celebrate the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., our family has made a small donation to this necessary museum via the website.