Tag: english

New-to-me Harry Nilsson video

Posted by – September 10, 2017

Harry Nilsson apparently plied some pensioners with alcohol and party hats to get them to perform the backing vocals for “I’d Rather Be Dead”.

Breast left behind

Posted by – September 8, 2017

From the dept. of interesting evolutionary hypotheses, Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Ape” suggests that breasts as a secondary sexual characteristic evolved to trigger existing attraction to buttocks, which in turn dates back to when our ancestors walked on all fours, and buttock presentation was a sex opportunity.

Deep thought

Posted by – September 6, 2017

To be a truly normal person, you should have a normal amount of abnormalities.

Elvis on rock

Posted by – September 3, 2017

On Elvis’s “Live 1955 Hayride Shows” release there’s a radio interview with the following section:

Q: And what about music, what kind of music really appeals to you?

A: I like different types, I like rock ‘n roll, hillbilly, pop.. Some classical, I like different kinds of music, I like anything, any kind if it’s good, you know.

Q: Well speaking of rock ‘n roll, what’s your opinion on this rock ‘n roll phase that’s going through the country right now?

A: Rock ‘n roll has been in for about five years. I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s going to last because I don’t know. But all I can say is that it’s good, the people like it, it’s sellin’. I don’t mean my, I don’t mean rock ‘n roll, but.. it might change, like years ago when the Charleston was real popular, the Vaudeville acts, stuff like that.. y-you could have told all those people when they was with it, it was going to die out and they wouldn’t have believed ya, but it’s dead now, see.. and maybe four-five years from now rock ‘n roll will be dead.

Q: But as far as rock ‘n roll goes, you really like it, huh?

A: As far as rock ‘n roll goes I really like it and I enjoy doin’ it, and, uh the people have really accepted it great and it just really makes me wanna knock myself out to keep givin’ them something to enjoy.

Elvis also attributes his “unique style” (the interviewer’s words) to “religious quartets” which he was a close follower of, who do a lot of “rockin’ river spirituals” (may have misheard that). No mention of rhythm ‘n blues.

Is there intelligent extraterrestial life?

Posted by – September 3, 2017

My commonsense position on intelligent extraterrestial life: it surely exists, but very likely its lightcone and our lightcone don’t intersect, so we can’t interact with it because it’s too far away, too long ago or too far in the future. In this way aliens are like God: the universe in which they exist isn’t necessarily observationally distinct from the one in which they don’t.

All day dark star

Posted by – September 1, 2017

If you’re looking for something to listen to, here’s a supercut someone made of Dark Stars played in 1972, a bit under 12 hours long.

Longevity of nations

Posted by – August 29, 2017

Some countries, like Israel or Finland, are not likely to exist for very long, because if they are ever in a weakened state, they will be quickly overrun or assimilated and be unable to make a comeback. And everything runs into problems at some point. (Incidentally, I think it’s more likely that Finland will disappear into the EU than Russia.)

Other countries, like Russia or China, will probably exist indefinitely, because even in a weakened state they are next to impossible to truly wipe out, both due to expansive geography and culture.

Finland is a classic borderlands country, and I sometimes think of it being that way in time too – occupying a brief window from the dawn of nation-states to its end sometime in the future.

This has something to do with the Lindy effect, whereby a long history suggests a long future. Even though Switzerland is small, it has good chances judging by a ~700 year history of its confederacy that hasn’t been extinguished by historical events yet.

Babies, immigrants and all that

Posted by – August 26, 2017

A couple of days ago, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) tweeted “This is the future that ACLU members want” with a picture of a toddler with a shirt saying “Free Speech” and holding a US flag. Responses included:

  • “A White kid with a flag?!”
  • “What? All blond folk! I don’t get this silly post. The future ACLU wants is a little blond kid???”
  • “I’d rather have this future:”, with several pictures of black characters from TV shows.

Soon, the ACLU account responded with “When your Twitter followers keep you in check and remind you that white supremacy is everywhere”, with a reaction gif of Kermit the Frog saying “That’s a very good point” – meaning that the ACLU conceded the point.

Possibly some of the commenters didn’t notice the words on the shirt, “Free Speech”, and only noticed the whiteness of the child, and made the sinister connection with “the future that ACLU members want” plus an American flag. Other comments may have not noticed the whiteness and kept looking for the point of the picture, which is the shirt. Other tweeters reacted with offense upon offense; “What has the world come to when a picture of a white kid is racist?” This must be one of the button-pushiest issues imaginable. Whose babies do we really like?

Also a couple of days ago, the chairman of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, Antti Rinne, expressed concern about low fertility numbers in Finland. He called on everyone to “pitch in” on this and make more babies, saying “Two is already well done”. Commentators were appalled, members of his own party evoked the Third Reich and his choice of words was universally condemned.

Some of the pushback was opposed to the idea of a man telling women what to do about reproduction, and some had to do with environmental concerns (“There’s already too many of us”). A lot of it was about the nation-building connotation. As a positive solution, many promoted increasing immigration instead (this included many who were concerned about the environmental impact of having children). One comment was “Finland doesn’t need more babies. Finland needs more immigrants.”

Despite the PR catastrophe, I think Rinne had some political wisdom. This issue of “our babies” vs. “those immigrants” is extremely potent, and even a ham-handed display of approval of “our babies” can be very valuable.

Of course, it’s potent in the other direction too. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, it is extremely distasteful to show preference for “us” over “them”, and many will now suspect Rinne of that. The idea itself of “us” and “them” in the context of babies is dangerous – to that side of the spectrum, which I might as well call the left, “us” and “them” applies to class and politics, not to ethnic groups.

Also a couple of days ago, there was a knife attack in the Finnish city of Turku killing two and wounding another eight. The attacker was a Moroccan asylum seeker who had been denied asylum. In the initial press conference, when solid information was scarce, the minister for the interior, Päivi Risikko, relayed the information that the attacker had been “foreign-looking”. This was met with dismay and disapproval. Does Päivi Risikko not know that there are dark-skinned Finns now? The “non-Finnish-looking” posted selfies challenging anyone to say what a Finnish person looks like. Parents of dark-skinned children took to Facebook to voice their concern that their children will be stigmatised as “non-Finnish-looking”. Columnists made the point, obvious to them, that there is no such thing as “Finnish-looking”. That perhaps there never was, but there certainly isn’t now.

Of course, this whole thing only made it obvious to everyone that it is pretty clear what “Finnish-looking” means. If it didn’t mean anything, there would be nothing to talk about. Predicting who might have felt their “Finnish-lookingness” questioned would not have been difficult.

(In case you’re wondering, I am sometimes asked about my non-Finnish name. It has not occurred to me to respond that there is nothing non-Finnish about my name, because these days Finns are named all kinds of things.)

That there is no such thing as “Finnish-looking” is something that educated Finns might be able to believe, but certainly Middle-Eastern and African immigrants, such as the attacker, who might be among a “Finnish-looking” majority for the first time in their lives, know exactly what it means. Those of a truly impeccable moral character might feel that there is no “us” and “them” between ethnic Finns and recent far-group immigrants, but hardly any of those immigrants fail to consider their own co-ethnics an ingroup. It is an iron law of social behaviour if there ever was one – people are groupish, and every emigrant group to anywhere ever has demonstrated intragroup solidarity.

Even though there is obviously every other kind of groupishness, the idea that there is no such thing as Finnishness has considerable purchase, but it is intended for domestic consumpion only. From the outside, it has the appearance of a cosmopolitan affectation. In reality, Finns are a relatively distinct ethnic and linguistic group (though not a very unified one – there is considerable distance between west and east genetically). But it is the same in every western country; of course there is no We, the very idea is both meaningless (there can be such thing) and disproved by history (did you know people have always moved around?).

As politics turns more and more to the fundamental question of politics, “Whose side are you on?”, you can expect to see more and more stake-claiming, and more talk about babies and immigrants. It did not occur to Antti Rinne to single out for praise residents of African and Middle-Eastern background, who have chidren at almost three times the rate of the rest of the population. As a demographic group, parents, who after all can hardly be politically discounted, would have reacted quite differently to that.

Georg Lichtenberg

Posted by – August 17, 2017

On the topic of commenting on nonsense culture war issues:

“I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that *they* have not convinced *us*.”


“A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.”

Both from the same author, Georg Lichtenberg! He also provides the True but Impossible path:

“Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.”

The man is a quote goldmine:

“Everyone is a genius at least once a year. The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.”

(I have found this to be true, although with a liberal definition of “everyone”.)

“We have no words for speaking of wisdom to the stupid. He who understands the wise is wise already.”

“A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”

“One’s first step in wisdom is to question everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

“Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, etc., at times before they’re worn out and times – and this is the worst of all – before we have new ones.”

“Actual aristocracy cannot be abolished by any law: all the law can do is decree how it is to be imparted and who is to acquire it.”

And many, many more.

Deep thought

Posted by – August 14, 2017

In relationships, as in gambling: “Once you win, stop playing.”

Go back to 1959

Posted by – August 13, 2017

Thought: I was just listening to a Dead show from 1971, and after they’ve played Truckin’, there’s some tuning and audience noise. After someone shouts something – possibly “turn the lights on”, and then something about sounding like the Beach Boys, Bob Weir says, “Hey man, go back to 1959”. That’s like saying “Go back to 2005” now.

The subtlety of Randy Newman

Posted by – August 13, 2017

Randy Newman is best known for a couple of satirical humorous songs, Political Science and Short People. Political Science is a send-up of American wounded amour propre:

No one likes us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one
And see what happens

We give them money
But are they grateful
No, they’re spiteful
And they’re hateful
They don’t respect us
So let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one
And pulverize them

Short People is racial prejudice translated to heightism:

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet


They got lil’ baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
‘Round here

Perhaps because of these songs, Newman has a reputation among some people for “on-the-nose” satire, being too obvious by half. According to my dad, legendary Finnish songwriter Juice thought that. But if anything, that’s backwards. I think Randy Newman is so subtle, even smart people often miss a lot. This is from a song called Rednecks:

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

Now your northern nigger’s a negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free

Now *that* is on the nose! In fact so on the nose that it seems like it’s satirizing the satire. Indeed, the song starts:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song

So the rest of the song is explicitly in the character of this second songwriter:

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
And we’re keepin’ the niggers down

The song is in fact a take on smug liberal attitudes from the opposite point of view. So is Newman making fun of it or not? Well, you can be pretty sure he’s not in favour of racial segregation or opposed to the civil rights movement. But when the Southern man says:

[…] the North has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston

I think Newman is genuinely allowing his Southern character to put a strong foot forwards and allowing his point that the liberal north hasn’t really solved the black man’s problems either, and that some of its moral superiority is unwarranted. Also, he allows his Southern character to effectively be self-deprecating, *in character*:

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they’re keepin’ the niggers down

I think this shows that the Southern character who is the voice of the song *does* admit that the South is backward and racist, while simultaneously claiming that it is misunderstood and blamed for everything. It’s really quite a deep setup, and of course Randy Newman himself *is* a “New York Jew” (though not really, he’s from New Orleans and Los Angeles, and not observant; supposedly when turned away from the country club where he was supposed to go on a date, he had to ask his father what a Jew was).

Here’s another one, called Christmas in Cape Town:

This English girl from the North somewhere
Is stayin’ with me at my place
Drinkin’ up all my beer
Talkin’ about the poor niggers all the time
It’s a real disgrace, she says
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about things
You don’t understand
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about something
You don’t know anything about
I tell her, Darling, if you don’t like it here
Go back to your own miserable country

You know my little brother, babe
Well, he works out at the diamond mine
I drove him out there at five this mornin’
The niggers were waitin’ in a big long line
You know those big old lunch pails they carry, man
With a picture of Star Wars painted on the side
They were starin’ at us real hard with
Their big ugly yellow eyes
You could feel it
You could feel it

It’s Christmas in Cape Town but it ain’t the same
The stores are open all the time
And little kids on skateboards cut in and out of the crowd
And the Christmas lights still shine
Myself, I don’t like to drink the way
I used to, man, you know
It don’t seem to get me high
And the beer don’t taste the way it
Ought to taste somehow
And I don’t know why

Don’t talk to me about the planes
Man, I’ve heard it
Just take a look around
What are we gonna do, blow up
The whole damn country?

Again, it’s not like he’s in favour of Apartheid, and this isn’t the sort of intelligent satirizing storyteller from Rednecks, but it is a genuine character. This is not a straight in-your-face moralization about the end of Apartheid. It’s about a character, not a hate figure, but an ordinary dumbass with relatable feelings.

And while he was in some sense on the opposite side ideologically from this character, I suspect Newman probably did think that people really didn’t understand what they were talking about when talking about South Africa, himself included. And he let this outgroup member say so. I really like that. And of course, the reality has turned out to be more complicated and depressing than newspapers at the time were probably expecting.

These are one idiosyncratic type of Randy Newman song. Here’s another, of an unsympathetic character laying down his flaws in such an endearing way that it’s hard not to go along with it to some extent. From It’s Money That I Love:

I don’t love the mountains
I don’t love the sea
I don’t love Jesus
He never done a thing for me
I ain’t pretty like my sister
Or smart like my dad
Or good like my mama

It’s money that I love
It’s money that I love

They say that money
Can’t buy love in this world
But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year-old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love but it is all right


Used to worry about the poor
But I don’t worry anymore
Used to worry about the black man
Now, I don’t worry about the black man
Used to worry
‘Bout the starving children of India
You know what I say now about the starving children of India
I say, oh mama

It would be easy to listen to just part of the song and figure it as the character assassination of people who only care about money. But really it’s someone who’s laying down his shortcomings, his feelings of inadequacy and his self-awareness in going for “now that may not be love but it is all right”. You can’t condone it, but you can’t feel superior over it either. I’m so moved by this poor guy’s story that when I listen to that song and hear the part about a half-pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year-old girl, I’m going “Hell yeah that’s all right!” just in support of him. (Note: I have never used cocaine.)

Somehow he sells just about any character so well you can’t really truly see them just from the outside, as a clown or a villain. Even this violent homophobe who meets with an absurd transformation, in Half a Man:

This big old queen was standing
On the corner of the street
He waved his hanky at me
As I went rolling by

I pulled the truck up on the sidewalk
And I climbed down from the cab
With my tire-chain and my knife

As I approached him
He was trembling like a bird
I raised the chain above my head
He said, “Please, before you kill me
Might I have one final word?”

And this is what he said:
“I am but half a man, half a man
I’d like to be a dancer
But I’m much too large
Half a man, half a man
An object for your pity, not your rage”

Oh, the strangest feeling’s sweeping over me
Both my speech and manner have become much more refined
I said, “Oh, what is this feeling?
What is wrong with me?”
She said, “Girl, it happens all the time”

Now you are half a man,
Half a man
Look, you’re walking and you’re talking like a fag!”
Half a man,
I am half a man
Holy Jesus, what a drag

I don’t really even know what to make of that song. It’s closer to the absurd writing of Daniil Harms than anything else. But who else is going to write a song about an intended anti-gay murder where the murderer gets infected by homosexuality and you can’t really figure out what it’s all supposed to mean? Whatever it is, it’s not obvious satire.

There’s another fairly well known Newman song, You Can Leave Your Hat On, which paints a picture of a dirty old man:

Baby take off your coat (real slow)
Baby take off your shoes
(Here I’ll take your shoes)
Baby take off your dress
Yes yes yes
You can leave your hat on

Go on over there
And turn on the light
No all the lights
Come back here
Stand on this chair, that’s right
Raise your arms up in to the air
Shake ’em

But the delivery, if not the words, of the last verse must leave everyone siding with the dirty old man:

Suspicious minds are talking
Trying to tear us apart
They say that my love is wrong
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
I know what love is

And what about those obvious songs I started with, Political Science and Short People? In the middle of Short People, there’s this bridge verse:

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It’s a wonderful world)

Sung by a we-are-the-world choir together with Newman. Is that then supposed to be satire too? It certainly doesn’t seem like a genuine message either. Is it an attempt of the in-song character to make fun of we-are-the-worldism? I don’t really know. Even that song is a bit puzzling the more you think about it.

Heredity blind spots

Posted by – May 20, 2017

One of the most conspicuous areas of ignorance is genetics and heredity, particularly with reference to humans. There’s sort of a blind spot about it, where people just don’t put much thought into it and attribute a lot to randomness. For example, I have more than once had to explain why it’s obvious that Michael Jackson’s children aren’t his biological children (they don’t look half-black). Here’s some concepts that have helped me make sense of things.

Firstly, regression to the mean. This is something that happens with polygenic (lots of different alleles have an effect) traits, where the particular combination of recessive and dominant alleles matter.

For example, you might expect that when two tall people have children, the children get “tallness” genes from both of them, and as a result the children are super-tall. But that’s not what happens. The children on average will be shorter than the average of the parents. That’s because each child gets a random selection of alleles from each parent, who happen to have a combination leading to tallness, and on average the children will have a more… average combination. Their height is predicted to be between the average of the whole population and the average of the parents. Likewise, children of short parents are expected to be somewhat taller.

This leads to interesting family patterns, like intelligent parents often having less intelligent children (than themselves), and dim parents often having smarter children. How many stories could be summarized as “child disappoints parents and rebels” or “child outgrows environment and feels shame”?

Also, there’s assortative mating, meaning that similar people end up together. This causes more dim-dim couples and smart-smart couples than you’d expect by random chance. This accentuates the mismatched parent-children -effect.

The second thing is the finding that everything is heritable. I already implied that intelligence is heritable, which is something that people will dispute (along with the idea that there is such a thing as intelligence). But there is really practically nothing physical or mental about people that isn’t heritable. Not just eye color and height, but obesity and muscularity. Not just intelligence and schizophrenia risk, but sociability, professional success, areas of interest and criminality. Really, look in the literature, it’s shocking just how subtle and pervasive the effect of genes can be.

Note that the more complicated a trait is to measure, the more inaccurate the measure is, and the less we can judge heritability on an individual level. Indeed, many conclusions about heritability are too weak to worry about on the individual level but become meaningful when measuring masses of people, where random variation washes out.

The third is that heritable traits are often correlated with each other in clusters. The stories we tell children often suggest that traits are anticorrelated in the sense that “everyone is good at something”; if you’re not good at something, there’ll be something else you’re the best at. The stories we tell to adults suggest that traits are fairly uncorrelated, that you never know what you’re good at. The reality is that lots of things go together in clumps. Different kinds of intelligence predict each other – high verbal intelligence is correlated with logical reasoning ability, and both are correlated with spatial awareness. In intelligence, this general correlation factor is called “g” and is the reason for the predictive power of IQ tests (it doesn’t matter if the test isn’t perfect, because it measures all intelligence by proxy anyway).

This has led to economists half-seriously suggesting that height should be taxed, because that too is correlated with all the other positively perceived traits, especially among men.

The fourth is that heritability increases with age. Many childhood interventions to improve outcomes appear promising during childhood, become unclear in adolescence and disappear completely in adulthood. The effect of genes is constant and permanent, while the environment fluctuates. Over time, the genetic contribution comes to dominate. Also, the individual comes to select the environment for himself, compounding the effect.

It is often remarked that children become their fathers or mothers as they mature, and I think it might be that that has less to do with psychology and more with this genetic effect. I’ve also wondered whether this is partly behind the tendency of adoptees to eventually become extremely interested in knowing about their biological parents, as they become more and more different than their adoptive environment.

The central enlightenment value in US vs. Europe

Posted by – April 25, 2017

According to Americans, free speech in that country went from being a left-wing rallying cry in the 60’s (when leftism was countercultural, and students wanted to be able to organize politically on campus) to being a right-wing rallying cry today (when rightism is rather liberal, and people want to be able to violate speech norms about racism and equality).

In Europe, free speech has never really been a respectable rallying cry. What freedom of expression as an enlightenment value is to America, reason and tolerance are to Europe.

Identity narrowing

Posted by – April 20, 2017

The process of identity liberation has clearly peaked and is in decline. We used to say a woman can be anything she wants to be, now a nonconformist woman will believe she’s non-binary, genderqueer, or a man trapped inside a woman’s body. A white person interested in another culture may be guilty of cultural colonialism or cultural appropriation, and a nonwhite person insufficiently devoted to their ethnic idenitity is whitewashing themselves or has internalized colonialism.

Missing explanations

Posted by – April 10, 2017

There are some things that people think they understand, or assume to be straightforward to understand, but are (apparently) impossible or very difficult to understand properly. I think about explaining things a lot these days due to being a dad, and I always did like explanations, but all of these stump me to some extent.

An easy one to start. Imagine that you’re standing next to a bicycle with handlebar brakes. You’re holding the bicycle up and can roll it forward or backwards. Now, imagine you engage the back wheel brake. Can you now move the bicycle backwards? What about forwards? Now, engage the front wheel brake. Can you move the bicycle backwards or forwards?

What happens is that with the back wheel brake engaged, you can move the bicycle forwards, with the front wheel rolling freely and the back wheel sliding with some friction, but not that much. But you absolutely cannot move the bicycle backwards. The front wheel will lift up, and the bicycle rests on the locked back wheel. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t understand what’s happening here. But it’s somehow awkward to put it in words, and you can easily give an explanation that is missing the point, or begging the question. Especially at a first try. Go ahead and try!

Next, how does a bicycle stay upright when you’re riding it? A lot of resources will tell you that it has to do with the gyroscopic action of the wheels spinning, but the force from that is not big enough, and besides, you can stay up even at quite low speeds. Though it does give a piece of the puzzle. In fact there’s no single explanation, just lots of little pieces. Most people can’t keep the bicycle stable without using their hands on the handlebars to provide feedback to the front wheel, but other people don’t need to do that. They rely on adjusting their centre of gravity over the bicycle, plus other effects. There isn’t really any good explanation, even if you’re an engineer. On the other hand, it’s not like the physics aren’t understood – it can be simulated in a computer just fine.

A similar case is the wing of an aeroplane. The first explanation I heard was that at the leading edge of the wing the airflow separates, some going under the wing and some over the wing. Because the trip over the wing is longer, the air gets thinner, so the pressure is lower above the wing. This low pressure then sucks the wing upwards, and that’s what causes lift. But this explanation raises many questions. Why does the air take the same amount of time going over and under the wing? Why doesn’t it get deflected and flow away? How can aeroplanes fly upside down? This is the “Bernouilli effect” explanation, and it is not sufficient, even with combined with additional effects (eg. the Coandă effect causing air to stick to the contours of the wing, like the way water flowing from a faucet will be “bended” by the side of a drinking glass put in its path).

The only thing I can really honestly say to a child about an aeroplane’s wing is that the wing pushes and sucks air down, both from above and below the wing. At least this is what smoke in wind tunnels shows. I can’t properly explain why. And that the angle at which the wing meets the air is important – only at some angles does a wing generate lift. The wing doesn’t even need to be curved, though it does help. If you fly upside down, you probably have to angle the winds differently from right-side-up flying. If you slice your hand through water in a pool you can get an idea of how the wing needs to be positioned.

And I think something like the Coandă effect does have *something* to do with it – in fact, I believe an aeroplane could not fly if air had zero viscosity, but I’m not even 100% sure about that. Again, the wing can be modeled mathematically just fine, it’s just difficult to explain in words.

Finally, a question that most people (me included) don’t even think to ask even when they easily could have – and when I first heard it, I was very confused, because I first thought I understood the elementary physics, but had in fact encountered a quantum effect. Namely, if electrons are negatively charged and protons are positively charged, why don’t the electrons fall into the nucleus? Well, isn’t it like planets and the sun, where the electrons are attracted to the nucleus but moving fast enough to keep from falling in and they stay in orbit? But an accelerating charged particle would lose energy to radiation, and when you calculate it classically, the electrons really should fall into the nucleus. Oh, I know, this is that quantum thing, where the electrons are only allowed to have certain quantized amounts of energy, so they won’t radiate anything away and just keep going around in orbit. This is the “Bohr model” of an atom, but it’s also incorrect, predicting observations only for hydrogen atoms for which it was designed.

In the end, there’s a lot you can say about the quantum nature of an atom – like that the electrons don’t have a well defined position and speed anyway, so they can never be on a trajectory falling into the nucleus, or any other point – but nothing to really satisfy our classically conditioned minds. Again the only answer is in the mathematics, but it doesn’t explain.