A joke I first heard from my father, using our family ophthalmologist as an example:

What do you call the man who graduates last in his medical-school class?



Some apartment had to be the most ridiculous in New York, and this one is nominated. It’s basically just barely big enough for B^4 and a pizza, or for me and my ego. But…IT’S STEPS FROM PARK AVENUE! IT HAS A TERRACE! IT IS “ADORABLE”! IT IS, AS YET, UNINFESTED BY ZOMBIES!


Sandy, And Thoughts On How Things Work

This is probably the first of a series. I spent three days stuck at my parents’ apartment in Queens* watching TV and getting pissed at how few people understand physical reality. In part I blame the fact that it’s okay in ‘merkin primary education to learn nothing about reality; in part I blame Star Trek and its ilk for propagating an incredibly unrealistic view of physical reality.

First item: almost everything follows some kind of bell curve, if not necessarily the normal distribution. In this context, that includes forces from natural processes and the structural capacity of just about anything. Take the simplest possible example (non-Sandy): a wood joist in a house. We have a design load, which is meant to be an upper bound or the actual loading, which follows a bell curve, with a mean somewhere** and lesser-likelihood tails above and below. The load can exceed the design load, but it’s unlikely. We have a design capacity for the beam based on its nominal size and the stated allowable stress for the wood species and grade, but the size and allowable stress follow bell curves as well. The set-up of structural design is to minimize the overlap of the tails of the bell curve of loading and the bell curve of capacity, but that overlap will never be zero. There are unlikely loadings and unlikely occurrences of bad pieces of wood that will result in failure.

On to Sandy…you’ve all seen images of a crane failure at a 70ish-story building on 57th Street. People are searching for someone to blame. It’s entirely possible that no one is to blame. There may have been a freak gust of wind that exceeded the actual capacity or the  even the design capacity of the crane. In that case, the failure is what insurance companies used to call “an act of god.” Could the crane be made stronger? Sure, and the result would be to reduce the overlap of the two bell curves but not to eliminate the possibility of failure because that cannot be done. And every single construction project that requires a crane will become more expensive – a not-insignificant social cost – in order to prevent a freak occurrence.

My point is that people seem to think reality can be perfected and it can’t be. Any human-made object or system is subject to random failure. Be an adult and fucking live with a little uncertainty.***

*Privilege alert: I had it a lot easier than a lot of people. I was never without power or in fear for my safety.

**Ordinary residential use, the mean is probably around 10 pounds per square foot. The design load is 40 psf.

***The only thing that kept me sane at m parents’ was their 14-disk se of George Carlin. Can you tell I’ve been watching him?