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   problems with units and practical physics
Thursday, January 7 2016
Today when I was reading an article about the white guys who recently siezed an Oregon Wildlife Refuge (because of their fervent belief that the West should be redistributed to wealthy private ranchers and corporations and closed to the American public), a phrase stuck in my crawl: "thousands of miles of federal land." Anyone who cares at all about units of measurements and the logical thinking they have a way of enforcing would agree with me that that is a truly meaningless expression. One doesn't measure land in one-dimensional units unless one is only measuring one dimension of it (say, length, width, or possibly elevation). But since, with the possible exception of the length of interstate highways, no single-dimension measurement of federal land is ever "thousands of miles," this expression is absurd. We're all expected to mentally change this single-dimension unit of measure into units of square miles, though sadly many will not know the difference, maybe because of mental training from earlier instances of this same mistake. And so it contributes to the cause of expanding ignorance even among those who can and do read. One assumes that there was an editor for this article in addition to its original writer, but nevertheless the ignorance slipped through because, it seems, editors (even for major media outlets like ABC News) are not expected to be fluent with such fundamentals of logical expression.

While I was sitting at my computer this afternoon, I heard the beeping of a large truck backing up. I looked out the laboratory window to see the Hurley Highway guys were out there with a big truck, a backhoe, and a man with a chainsaw. With some assistance from the backhoe, the man with the chainsaw went a short distance in the strip of woods across Dug Hill Road and felled a dead White Pine trunk from which, five years ago, the highway department had removed the top. Evidently they were responding to some new directive stating that it was no longer acceptable to leave the standing trunks of dead trees within a certain distance of the roadway. In keeping with such a hypothetical directive, the man with the chainsaw then crossed over to our side of Dug Hill Road and proceeded to cut down another standing dead trunk, though this one had belonged to either some sort of elm or possibly a mulberry tree. (I suspect it was an American Elm that had somehow survived Dutch Elm Disease only to succumb to highway salt.) What I know about that tree comes from my experience splitting up the pieces produced when the highway department cut off its limbs five years ago. I know that its wood is so difficult to split that, knowing what I know now, I never would have attempted to salvage wood from it. The Hurley Highway Department, however, had none of my experience with that tree. Unlike the obviously-worthless White Pine trunk they'd just felled, it seemed they wanted to salvage it. It's likely that at least one of their employees likes to burn the wood produced by normal highway maintenance, and this trunk had all the hallmarks of a suitable hardwood. But this wasn't going to be an easy job, since access to the tree was blocked by a guard rail. So they attached a chain to the fallen trunk and then brought in the backhoe in hopes of lifting it up the embankment and over the guardrail. At this point, I saw them make a mistake suggesting unfamiliarity with the sort of everyday physics one would normally encounter in a job like theirs. The guy with the chainsaw attached the chain too close to the chain's middle, and the overextended backhoe didn't have the power to lift that much weight. The trunk slid along the ground, ran into the stump it had recently been attached to, and refused to go any further. Typically in a situation like this, you make adjustments and try something different. But no, they just kept trying to bruteforce something that physically couldn't do anything but resist their efforts. After ten minutes of this, the guy with the chainsaw did the correct thing, which was to put the chain around the part of the trunk nearest the backhoe. This allowed the backhoe to slide the trunk up the embankment. Now that it was closer, the machine had the power to lift the trunk from its middle and place it in the back of the waiting dumptruck. It's possible the Hurley Highway Department has a power splitter capable of splitting that wood, but it's also possible that that trunk is going to cause someone to have to buy a brand new power splitter.

The evening, while coming out of my laboratory, I happened to look down at the ever-enthusiastic Ramona the Dog and was horrified to see that her left eye appeared to be a bloody mess. I wasn't immediately sure there was even still an eye there. What had happened? Had she been hit by a car? But as bad as it looked, she didn't seem too upset. Gretchen cleaned it it up with a moist towel, whereupon we could see that the injury was a small one restricted to the edge of her lower eyelid. Perhaps she'd just been running through the forest and stabbed her eyelid on a stick. Fortunately, due to Clarence's recent veterinary visit, we had some antibacterial salve known to be safe around the eye.

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