Survey of my students

November 8th, 2012

Yesterday in class, we talked about science, math, and God. It was also the day after a presidential election. I did an informal, anonymous poll in my class and here were the results of the two questions “Who did you vote for” and “How old is the earth?”


I have about 340 students, and not everyone was there that day, and not everyone voted (i.e., this is not a scientific poll). More than half are freshmen, about 25% sophomores and some upperclassmen, too. Notice that more people were willing to say who they voted for than to say how old they think the earth is. (These were done on the same day in class, so the same number of people saw these questions.)

Reading the Alphabet

June 16th, 2012

I’m currently reading several library books (See my video post about that), two of the books talk about the actual process of reading and writing with marks on paper. The two books are “The Information” by James Gleick and “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs:

It just so happens that I ended up reading these two together in the parts where they both talk about the actual act of reading. In Jacob’s section (he doesn’t have chapters, essayist he) “All in Your Head,” he describes the physical process of moving one’s eyes over paper and processing the text. He claims that our eyes limit our reading speed and that our brains could absorb much more quickly. But later in the book he cautions against reading too quickly, so perhaps it’s a good thing to read slower.

Gleick makes the fascinating claim in Chapter 2, “In all the languages of earth there is only one word for alphabet… The alphabet was invented only once. All known alphabets, used today or found buried on tablets and stone, descend from the same original ancestor.” I find that amazing and a little hard to believe. There are other ways of writing, like writing with pictures as the Chinese do, but he says that using single symbols for parts of sounds is unique in the history of the world. I thought of Korean as a counterexample to his claim because I know that it’s phonetic, but each symbol is a whole syllable, made up of alphabetic parts, so maybe it doesn’t quite count as an alphabet. And I was surprised to learn (from the Wikipedia article on Hangul) that this system of writing is pretty recent. And technically, it’s a “featural” writing system, representing features that make up phonemes, not the phonemes themselves.

Anyway, I recommend these two books so far, even though I’m not finished with them. So I guess for now I recommend at least the first halves of the books.

Calculating Tips in Restaurants in America

February 12th, 2012

I just discovered that it’s customary to tip 15-20% of the pre-tax amount of the bill at restaurants in the United States. You may be surprised that I didn’t know that already. But the only part I didn’t know was the “pre-tax” part. I had always assumed it was on the total. It’s not.

My Rule-of-Thumb: $3 per $10 on the menu

Anyway, my standard rule-of-thumb still applies: I recommend paying $3 for every $10 that’s on the menu. That will pay for tax plus a good tip, rounded up a bit. I’ve created this chart that shows the actual numbers for some cities near where I live.

Although a 15% tip is considered acceptable, in larger metropolitan areas such as Southern California, a 20% tip is more standard. If you use my $3 rule, you’ll be tipping 12 cents higher than 20% on $10.

All of the cities in Orange County have a sales tax rate of 7.75% except La Habra. But even La Habra is cheaper than any Los Angeles County city. I recommend avoiding Pico Rivera and South Gate – they have the highest tax rate in the county. Maybe the whole state. Punish them for it by not eating in restaurants in those two cities.

A side note: when I was looking up the tax rates, the list of cities in Los Angeles County appeared to Google to need translating:

City names in Spanish


Best Lunar Eclipse

December 10th, 2011

This morning I got up early to see a total lunar eclipse, and it was the best one I’ve ever seen. When I first heard about it last night, I was initially disappointed that I live in a part of the world where the moon would set in the middle of the eclipse. Here’s a map from NASA, showing where this morning’s eclipse was visible:

If you live in Australia or most of Asia, the entire eclipse was visible. As I said, I was initially disappointed that I could not see the whole thing, but then when I got up and watched it for half an hour, I realized that I was privileged to see the phenomenon of the moon completely disappearing.

If you see a total eclipse of the moon in the middle of the night in a dark location, you can still see the moon. It turns dark red. However, when I started watching the moon around 6:00 a.m. Pacific Time (from the Amtrak station in Buena Park, California), I saw the last part of the moon enter the shadow then as dawn broke, the dark moon became less and less visible, even though it was still above the horizon. At 6:33 a.m., the greatest eclipse, I could not even see the moon at all. I knew where it was in the sky, and it hadn’t set yet, but the sky had gotten so bright and the moon so dark that it completely disappeared. The reason I say it’s the best one I’ve ever seen is because in an eclipse, it’s fun to watch the moon become less and less visible. And this time, it went completely away.

It didn’t hurt that I was wearing my glasses which are slightly out of date, rather than my contact lenses which I usually wear. Then I got cold and went back to bed.