Friday, March 25, 2011

Fear not the alligator

Where I come from we have alligators. Lots of them. If I found a 700 lb dead alligator my first thought would NOT be, "Whoa! Big alligators live here! I am afraid of the water now!" it would be, "Whoa, some asshole came on my property and shot this perfectly good alligator! Where is he now? What if he finds my shed and steals my chop saw?!"

I don't understand people who fear nature but are perfectly comfortable around people. In the United States every year there are over a million violent crimes perpetrated by people on other people. Alligator attacks only happen about 20 times. People hurt alligators a lot more than the other way around. Witness the dead alligator in the story. Why are people not more afraid of people?!

Is it just because they are accustomed to being around lots of people who are harmless? Maybe that's the difference. I'm just weird because I grew up around more alligators and poisonous snakes than people so to me they seem harmless and the people are scary.

Apparently they caught the guy that shot the alligator but haven't charged him. It's only a misdemeanor to poach an alligator and brag about it on Facebook?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Throwable Baby!

 IEEE Spectrum 

FirstLook: iRobot's New Throwable Baby Surveillance Bot 

When I saw this on Twitter my first instinct was to Google "throwable baby." New oxymorons are kind of rare, and that one is GREAT! And apparently it is TOTALLY ORIGINAL! All references to it were about this product. I tip my hat to iRobot and IEEE for instant search engine optimization greatness.

Freedom is Happiness, Transitive Property

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tastes like a spider just came in my mouth!

You can sometimes propel amusement up the corporate ladder. I think they like it. Poor things, sitting up there in their expensive chairs looking out their big plate glass windows dealing with one gripe after another. An amusing anecdote is probably what they live for.

According to MacRumors, Apple is carefully tracking the reasons for iPad2 returns. One came back to the Apple store with a post-it note on it that said "Wife said no." This amusement made it up the chain of command until a VP decided it would be funny to send a free iPad back to the guy with a note on it; "Apple said yes." Hysterical. I hope his wife is into retracting her decisions. It's likely she didn't object to the expense as much as him ignoring her because he was engrossed in his iPad. I've heard of this. Wives that tell their husband they aren't allowed to read books because the wife finds it too hard to get their attention.

My own experience in corporate amusement is with Coca-Cola. Some time ago I was building a garden house for my aunt. My mother wanted to come watch the progress so she called up to see if she could bring anything from town. I asked her to get me some blue Powerade. That's what we drank during the 1996 Olympics, the blue juice, and I'd acquired a taste for it. We had a special Tyvek dollar bill that made all the Coke machines in Atlanta dispense any canned beverage we wanted for free. But when Mama turned up she had gotten the sports bottles with the flexible check valve and cap shaped like a SCUBA regulator. I opened one up and took a big swig. Mama looked skeptical. "What flavor is blue anyway?"

"You know, citric acid, fructose, and sweat," I said. "Here, try it."

She tipped it up and then looked annoyed. "How do you work it?"

"You gotta suck on it," I said, "Or give it a good squeeze."

So she threw her head back and pinched that bottle hard. Her eyes flew open and she snatched the bottle away and held it at arms length as she gasped, "Aaaaagh! It tastes like a spider just came in my mouth!"

After I composed myself from convulsions of laughter I made up my mind to compose a message to Coca Cola regarding this incident. I can't remember what email address I sent it to. I found some feedback form on their website I guess. A couple of weeks later I got an envelope in the mail from Coca Cola with a coupon for a free six-pack of any Coke product and a generic thank you note for my input. 

Now I don't know if they send that to everybody who goes to the trouble to send email or if somebody really did get a kick out of what my mama said about the blue juice in the ejaculatory bottle. If you look for that bottle in the store now you won't find it. I hope it's not my fault they replaced it with something less evocative. I wasn't complaining, I just wanted to amuse them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Moon Buggy

I love this video.

But since I've been harping on weight and mass lately I think I'll take some time to brush up on my high school physics. At around 4:13 in the video James says the lunar rover has two stated weights. Approximately 4 tonnes on earth or 760 kilograms on the moon. I'm pretty sure he meant tonnes, 1000 kilograms, not tons, 2000 pounds.

But what did he mean about it performing differently? Well, real weight is a force vector. Force = mass times acceleration, this time acceleration is gravity, 9.8 meters per second per second on the earth, or 1.63 m/s^2 on the moon. Weight has direction.  The lunar rover on the earth exerts a downward force of

F(earth) =  4000 kg x 9.8 m/s^2 = 39,200 kg m/s^2
F(moon) = 4000 kg x 1.63 m/s^2 = 6,520 kg m/s^2

A kilogram meter per second squared is a newton, the proper SI unit for weight. People say weight when they mean mass just like they say motor when they mean engine. It's not right, but to correct them would be rude. Context usually makes it clear what they meant. When he says 760 kilograms he means something that weighs 760 kilograms on earth would press down as hard on the earth as the lunar rover presses down on the moon. So picture a Smart car on the Earth and the lunar rover on the moon -- same force vector down towards the ground. Good thing the rover has so many more wheels because it will need the extra surface area to provide necessary traction.

Inertia is the thing that has the same units as weight. It's the mass times the acceleration again, but this time not the gravitational acceleration but the actual acceleration from the torque in those wheels moving the rover forward, or sideways, or whichever direction it wants to go.

Inertia isn't what we have values for though, so let's just look at the momentum. If the rover is going along at 10 miles an hour (top speed at 2:45 in the video) or about 4.5 m/s to keep our units consistent*, it has the same momentum on the moon as on earth.

p(rover) = 4000 kg x 4.5 m/s = 18,000 kg m/s
p(Smart) = 760 kg x 4.5 m/s = 3,420 kg m/s

There's no shorthand unit for momentum, or good explanation for why the symbol is p. This would be a vector going straight ahead. So the Smart car would have a lot less momentum than the Rover.

I've never driven a Smart car though so I don't know what that's like. The rover is about 3 times more massive than my Honda station wagon. If I move that multiplier to the speed instead of the mass it would be like my Honda station wagon going 30 miles per hour but with the traction of that cut-down VW bug we had when I was a kid. I'm kind of terrified just thinking what it would be like to drive that. I guess the good news is that on the moon you don't have trees to hit when you swerve to miss a tortoise. Slamming on brakes would be out of the question in that scenario; you'd never stop in time.

I bet the dynamics of the tipping would be all different. A low center of gravity would be a lot less important on the moon. Yes, I'm agreeing that he chose a good word. The performance would be "different."

I want to go and perform some traction and inertia experiments in the field on my mountain bike now though. I have thought about this enough now to remember why I don't design vehicles for a living.

*If you don't know about the Google unit converter or calculator you should. You just type in the search window "10 mph in m/s" hit enter and get the answer

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Several explosions followed by a car crash

Here's Commander Scott Kelly's very dignified interview after landing in Russia two nights ago. I guess I can see why they didn't they ask him what Japan looked like from up there. It was an interview about him, not that. But I want to know! How far out into the ocean could he could see debris from the tsunami from his vantage point in space? Or was it not in the trajectory? I'll just have to interview him myself one day and replace all those vague personal questions with interesting ones with specific answers. Not that I don't care about that stuff, I clearly do, but to just say to him, "Your sister-in-law got shot, share how that makes you feel," doesn't it seem, I don't know, obvious? He felt terrible! He handled the question beautifully so I guess it was fine. If somebody did that to me I would get all choked up and it would be awful.

He was very polite about what a Soyuz landing feels like too. He did say the Navy trained him to be tough. I guess that includes not complaining about skidding for 25 years across Khazakstan.

Unfounded Fear

OK, first world countries, stop trying to one-up each other with how concerned far away you want your citizens from a nuclear plant in trouble. In this Guardian story the British foreign office advised their citizens to consider leaving Tokyo even when their chief scientific officer said they was no risk of a serious safety problem in Tokyo. We've been over this here before. In a comment on a previous blog I mentioned the frustration of research and development projects where:
some marketing wank would make me do something stupid, like that time I had to change a warning label from "stay back 1 meter," my calculated distance of safe radiation plus a fudge factor, to "stay back 2 meters" because the marketing guy said that's what the competitor's sticker said. They claimed 1 meter made our antenna seem weaker. I claimed 2 meters meant you'd have to jump off the boat and swim around the damn thing, but they won.
So we're getting to the point where you have to swim around. The source of the radiation is on a rather narrow island. The arc they want people to avoid is going to get really inconvenient. (from the Guardian article)
The British advice differed from other western countries. The US, Canada and Australia recommended that citizens who were within 50 miles (80km) of the plant should evacuate or take shelter indoors; however, France has advised all citizens in Japan to leave Tokyo for the next few days.
The hysteria over radiation is getting annoying and vaguely offensive. People really just don't pay attention in school do they? Atoms aren't scary. Anybody can understand it.

Why are people in California worried they're going to get radioactive iodine in their thyroid? (Potassium iodide is all sold out.) I have no expertise in this at all but my instinct is "Absurd!" I know at least enough to look it up. First of all the half life of radioactive iodine is only about 8 days. Even if there was a huge plume of steam that got in a cloud and it made it across the Pacific it would have mostly decayed and be extremely diluted before it got to California.
A major study in 2007, presented to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security in 2008, of what messages people wanted to hear and who they would trust after a nuclear disaster found that local officials, such as firemen, were trusted above prime ministers or scientists.
Can we please get some firemen to go to the drug stores to tell people to relax?

The people we should be concerned for are the workers at this plant. They have to figure out how to circulate water in places that are bona fide sources of ionizing radiation. They can't just walk up and lower a garden hose into the cooling pool. They are running power lines to try to get the pumps on but where is the interconnect? Is it going to be like a movie where somebody has to sacrifice himself to go clamp jumper cable on some terminals somewhere? I'm worried about that guy, not myself.

Radiation is like your oven. If I'm cooking a casserole and I bend over to get it out the air in the oven is going to feel warm. If I actually touch the glowing element it's going to burn like hell. But somebody in the other room won't know anything is happening until I start cussing. For that person in the other room to put on oven mitts and huddle in the corner crying instead of getting me an ice cube is just fucking stupid and frankly very selfish. Especially when they eat that delicious casserole later when  it cools off.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Architecture for Humanity

I like the idea of this charity. Architecture for Humanity. We are the last responders. We don't offer hope, we build solutions. I just sent back some stuff I ordered online and had money sitting in my PayPal account so I just transferred it to the charity instead of back to my checking account. Easy peasy.

I don't have any real expertise in vetting non-profits, but I did a bit of digging just to be sure they aren't a bunch of crooks. If they are then they did a good job sprinkling the internet with their good name. They have a book called Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises. It has good reviews on Amazon, and I like the title.

I spent my youth at the Red Cross office with my grandmother and I worked the bloodmobile canteen all the way through high school. I have nothing against the Red Cross, even if it is based on religion. It beats the Salvation Army all to pieces.* But I am going to go ahead and admit that I feel like the first response to disaster is best handled with official government channels. I have no problem with tax dollars being spent to get food, water, blankets and shelter to people in immediate peril.

Personally I am uncomfortable with the idea of charity. My childhood home burned down Labor Day of my a senior in high school. The main emotion I recall from the whole thing was embarrassment. I didn't want to tell anybody what had happened for fear they'd say something idiotic like, "Oh! You've lost all those memories!" I never knew what the hell that meant. My memory is fine. Only the stuff burned up. So I just kept it quiet. My dad took me to the mall in Tallahassee and bought me some new clothes and a couple pairs of shoes and let me stay at his house until I finished high school. I snuck into the book room at school and got new textbooks. My teachers didn't find out what happened until the end of the year when they saw that the numbers didn't match and I had to admit I burned up my original books. And sure enough they acted all sentimental and sorry for me and couldn't believe they didn't know. Yuk.

Pro-bono architecture seems a lot less humiliating though. I designed my little house on my own with the help of Ramsey and Sleeper's Architectural Graphic Standards, Fifth Edition (it was my dad's and therefore did not burn up.) It's just a tiny cottage but it was kind of hard. If you are going to do anything with more than one person living in it I think an architect is a great idea. I can envision a scenario where an architect you don't have to pay can work into a project without embarrassing anybody.

I'm glad I found an organization that is right for my idiom. Because some just really are not.

*I refer to the Tim Minchin incident from last November:
Your song "White Wine in the Sun", which includes lyrics critical of Christianity, caused controversy last week in Australia when it was used on an album of Christmas songs sold to raise money for the Salvation Army. What's your take on the fuss?
I think the Salvos are idiots. I didn't know they would benefit from the CD, but by the time I found out I didn't want to make too much of a fuss. So I gave my song free, then they turn around and say that they don't agree with the sentiment of the song. Obviously, they are talking about how I think Jesus is not magic. Part of me is hugely outraged by what imbeciles they are, to bite the hand that feeds them and put their proselytizing above charity.
It's a terrible paradox that most charities are driven by religious belief. I believe very strongly in giving only to secular charities, because I don't think there should be a back end to altruism. I won't make this mistake again. I tweeted that if people want to buy my version of the song independently, I'll give the proceeds away, as I did last year, to the National Autistic Society, a non-proselytising charity.
Christmas means much to billions of people who don't believe in Jesus, and if you think that Christmas without Jesus is not Christmas, then you're out of touch, and if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you're a dick.
If anybody has evidence of Architecture for Humanity proselytizing for Jesus and not just for reduced construction waste, please let me know.

Soyuz lands

I stayed up to watch the NASA TV coverage of the Soyuz landing last night. Scott Kelly posted this last spacegeo contest yesterday that showed the part of Kazakhstan where they would be landing. Thanks to one of the comments giving the latitude and longitude I was able to study the terrain closely in Google Earth in summer conditions. It's an interesting place; salt flats and sand dunes as well as grass and little mountains. They didn't have video of the landing site or much of what was happening on NASA TV, just the horribly noisy audio with steady heavy breathing. Apparently they don't have automatic mic mixers in the Soyuz. After reentry started they just had reports of telemetry reporting separation. Helicopters reported seeing the drogue chute deploying. All good signs. According to the article on Spaceflight Now today they followed the preferred non-ballistic entry path but still skidded 25 years (sic) dragging their parachute before coming to a full stop.

I wish we could just all go to the MKS system and stick with it. Meters, kilograms, and seconds. And please can we straighten out if we mean years or yards, seconds or meters? I can see mixing up yards and meters, but time and distance seem more fundamentally different. I still can't figure out if the Soyuz really fires the soft landing rockets 1 second off the ground or 1 meter off the ground, which would be much less than a second. I find articles that say at 2 seconds before impact the rockets fire 0.8 meter above the ground and slow it to 1.5 m/s. That just makes no sense. It would go 0.8 meters in less than a second at 1.5 m/s. What happens the other half of the time?

Anyway, it doesn't matter because skidding for 25 *units* dragging the parachute means it didn't take advantage of soft landing rockets in any kind of symmetrical way.

But they made it back intact and I trust they all passed their physicals. Scott Kelly is probably nearly back to Houston already since he was due to fly straight back there after the flight surgeon cleared him. When the rescue crews extracted them from the capsule it was in the 20s, which I assume is degrees F in that article since 20s C wouldn't be so snowy. Texas is nice today, in the 70s. Fahrenheit. So welcome home, CDR Kelly!

Monday, March 14, 2011

SXSW Photo Walk: After

Well the photo walk was a lot of fun. I failed to make any new friends, but that's not unusual. My poor ol' small aperture camera struggled with the low light. I switched it to high speed night mode and got some neat effects. And I made this little video.

AT&T will feel the wrath of my rhyme

Paula Poundstone says, "I have tasted despair and I can tell you it's better with butter." It's going to take a hell of a lot of butter to take the taste of AT&T's betrayal out of my mouth. 

 "AT&T will cap DSL and U-Verse internet, impose overage fees" is filling me with so much despair it may ferment into pure rage.

Beware, beware!
Don't go there!
That video you're streaming,
Do you dare?

Do you dare to read the news?
Watch the game to see who'll lose?
Video chat with your sweetie?
When they're visiting Tahiti?

Fuck you, hulu watching junkie
and fuck you too, ass picking monkey
AT&T has shut the valve
We're gonna need a lot of salve
They burned us bad, and rubbed it in
They took off 14 layers of skin

But when we've recovered from the shock
We'll grab AT&T by their brazen cock
We'll snatch it up to their face
and ask "Can't you keep this in it's place?" 
Do not put this in our bill
We will not stand for this shill

This is bullshit, plain and simple
You festered, throbbing, oozy pimple
Fucking fix your network, you piece of shit
Run new fiber, the whole high speed bit
You let it lapse like nothing matters
Well it's embarrassing, it's in tatters

If you hired engineers in the United States
And paid them enough to put food on their plates
You'd have bandwidth and speed 
That we don't want, we NEED
I depend on my internet, it's how I'm sociable
I'll tolerate no limits, it's non-negotiable

I'm fucking mad, I'm really pissed off
Engineers at the space center are getting laid off
Wall Street bankers are getting giant bonuses
While people who fix things are left with the onuses
Instead of making it work like it ought to
AT&T thinks they will just charge more for the top 2
But if you'd just done your job
Instead of stroking your knob
We'd have plenty of bandwidth for all our citizens
Instead of begrudging each single bitizen

Sunday, March 13, 2011

SXSW Photo Walk: Before

As part of the ongoing anti-antisocial experiment I'm planning to go to Trey Ratcliff's photowalk tonight. I've been reading a lot about Trey Ratcliff this week. I tried to find the link to some list of advice where I read he never took any photography classes but instead I found this one. I can't even read all that. It kind of makes me squirm. Especially the part where he says you have to get a DSLR. I have been a professional photographer, as in paid to do it, off and on since 1985. I had a Nikon F3 with a nice set of lenses and everything. I still have two enlargers in storage. But I sold my Nikon when digital photography took over, figuring if I wanted one later I could buy one used then and not have to worry about getting mold in my lenses in the meantime. That was a good damn camera.

But one time I carried it on a hike in the Muir Woods with all the lenses and it just about killed me. For the kind of photography I do I just can't beat my Casio EX-FH20. It's lightweight, it takes macro shots at 1 cm and zooms to 20 times. It's also noisy and it has purple fringing in bright backlight, but damn, I can fix that in Photoshop! I don't get how Trey Ratcliff can insist people carry all this extra weight and not have the right lens to get the shot they want AND THEN digitally doctor all his pictures to the extent there's not a single realistic pixel remaining. Don't even get me started on the expense. I just flatly disagree with him on this. Hell, I have almost 2 million views on my rocket video if you combine Vimeo and YouTube because I was the only person there WITHOUT a damn DSLR and I got the shot.

Now I get that people have different taste. I don't happen to like a lot of Trey's photos. But clearly plenty of people do. My online friend @Harbles on Twitter seems to think the world of him and recently asked him this....
@ As a Blogger do you consider yourself equivalent to press?
and got the reply from Trey
@ I don't think of myself as press because I'm not a journalist. Also, my blog gets 50x more traffic than any local station. 
As a blogger I do so sort of consider myself equivalent to press. I used to be the Features Editor for my college newspaper, though, which makes me a bit journalism minded. I was also a staff photographer as well as the photographer for the Physics department with my own darkroom. And I took a photography class. So back to the bit where Trey Ratcliff never studied photography; it's a shame to have a photographer with that much blog traffic put down the optics and physics involved. I guess he's ONLY a photographer and he's trying to be an evangelist to amateurs, where  I'm a photographer and a physicist/oceanographer/interior decorator/writer/house builder and I don't really like amateur photographers. For me anyway, Physics of Photography at Georgia Tech was a really good class. The professor, Dr. Braden, also taught Classical Electricity, which is hard core electromagnetism with differential equations, and he taught a 7 hour Electronics course with an hour lecture every day and a 6 hour lab. I took all of those. Photography was only moderately easier than the other two. Solid angle physics is non-trivial. Here's a page out of his notes.
I scanned all of the notes from that class a few years ago for a former student who is now a professor who wanted them. I uploaded them just now to my iDisk in case anybody wants to download them (Like my brother or Shane for nostalgic purposes.) I expect they don't offer this class anymore since Dr. Braden not only retired but also died. (It makes me cry to think about it. He was so nice. He got lung cancer from asbestos exposure when he was refitting ships in the Navy.) It's a 4 MB, 189 page PDF. If you click the following link it's just going to start downloading, no viewer preview.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Video with no information

Here's an interesting video with zero useful commentary.

What you see here is liquefaction. (from Wikipedia, sorry, I'm in a hurry.)
The pressures generated during large earthquakes with many cycles of shaking can cause the liquefied sand and excess water to force its way to the ground surface from several metres below the ground. This is often observed as "sand boils" also called "sand blows" or "sand volcanoes" (as they appear to form small volcanic craters) at the ground surface. The phenomenon may incorporate both flow of already liquefied sand from a layer below ground, and a quicksand effect whereby upward flow of water initiates liquefaction in overlying non-liquefied sandy deposits due to buoyancy.
Notice that the guy taking the video is nonchalant about this because aside from weird water coming up in the park and cracks moving around nothing dramatic is happening. That's because the buildings around him are not bearing on that fill soil. Modern engineering practices call for pilings to be driven through the soil to something that can support the weight. There's a picture on that Wikipedia page of buildings that fell when the ground liquified under them in the Niigata earthquake in 1964. That sort of thing motivated them to implement more expensive engineering solutions.

A Good Day for Engineering

I woke up this morning to news of tsunami warnings and school closings. When my phone alarm goes off I hit snooze and turn on KPLU in Seattle. The two time zone shift works for my schedule. I listened to them talk about the coming tsunami in several local news breaks before I really comprehended the seriousness of what happened in Japan and got up to look at images online. Damn.

I got good links to news stories and video on Twitter from Dr. Ian O'Neil, Space Producer for Discovery News and Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. Once again they are great source for vetted material. I also follow the official U.S. Geological Survey account on Twitter. USGS is the best source for information about earthquakes. I spent a lot of time poring over their data during oceanography graduate school.

For a human take on on the disaster I scrolled back in time on Twitter and read Patton Oswalt's live tweets watching the news coverage on TV last night. Kind of glad I waited for the edited down internet version. He makes TV sound pretty bad.
Just went downstairs. Watched CNN. I saw people die. This is horrible.    
"CNN - Yen falls sharply after quake".”// I saw that. ASSHOLES.
How in the fuck do you put an oil refinery fire out, anyway? Nitroglycerin, like in WAGES OF FEAR?
How long 'til one of these CNN shovel-brains says, "'Miyagi' was the name of Pat Morita's character in THE KARATE KID."
Al Jazeera's covering tsunami like professionals, has informed anchors, and probably thinks Charlie Sheen is a floorwax.
So back to the science. Here are some good links:
  • USGS Earthquake Summary: 8.9 magnitude earthquake cause by thrust faulting at or near the subduction zone interface plate boundary between the Pacific and North America plates. This sounds weird, but the North America plate wraps around the Ring of Fire. There were several large foreshocks and aftershocks. They say the Japan Trench "hosted" these events. Really? That's how geologists talk? Umm, I'm pretty sure they need some other word for where earthquakes happen.
  • Map of the plates
  • Autoupdated list of the Latest Earthquakes in the World Just look at how many foreshocks and aftershocks came with this thing! No wonder people in those tall building got seasick. They were rocking all day.
Some videos:

This video shows the wave rolling through the tidiest farmland I have ever seen. I mean ahead of the wave of black water and debris of course. After, not so tidy. What are all those neat lined up things like greenhouses? I like how the editor cut away when the water gets to roads where cars are driving along. I don't want to see those get washed away. Thank you for that. I'm sorry whatever channel Patton Oswalt was watching didn't have the same grace.

One of the big problems with flooding farmland during hurricanes in places like South Carolina is the spike in nitrates and bacteria from lagoons full of pig and chicken waste mixing with rivers and estuaries. I don't know if this area of Japan has anything like that, but it probably does. That is just one of many things they will have to deal with in the aftermath of this disaster -- so many things people don't even know about. It's not a matter of just picking up the actual debris, but a long process for the natural systems to rebalance.  It's a great opportunity to research these processes because there is a lot we need to learn about restoration of aquatic systems. I'm a proponent of leaving it alone and letting it happen naturally. What your mama always told you when you were a kid with a skinned knee sounds right to me: "Don't pick at it!" If anybody is going to convince me that human intervention is more efficient than leaving it alone they're going to need a lot of accurate data, and it better be precise too. Not like what we did in Louisiana.

(From MSNBC) To the south in Tokyo the main problem was the actual earthquake, not the tsunami. Not a single major structure collapsed as a result of this earthquake. Not a major bridge, nothing. I get a little choked up just thinking about that. I'm so proud of all those engineers for doing the calculations properly and the builders for following the specs and the owners for agreeing to the extra costs! I've seen a PBS special on the special dampening and isolation systems they put in those buildings. It's amazing. I can't find the link again but I heard somebody in an interview this morning say the only problem they had in their office building was that they got seasick. It's because they design them to dissipate the energy by moving instead of storing up the stress and breaking suddenly. Plus they have practice drills so the building occupants and people living in low lying areas know what to do in these situations besides panic. The people that live in that farmland are taught that if an earthquake is strong enough to knock them down they need to move to higher ground immediately. I hope they did, and I hope this motivates more people to think about what might happen and make a plan just in case.

It's important that everybody realize what Japan invested in their infrastructure and culture to prepare for this just-in-case. And also realize America has not made this investment. As a nation we have become stingy with our engineers to the point that we threaten them with legal action if they don't build a rocket ship with inadequate resources. Stingy to the point that we have major bridges collapse on a normal day when nothing in particular happens at all. This exact same kind of earthquake and tsunami could happen on the other side of the Pacific plate, except, as Robert Yeats of Oregon State University puts it, "they are better prepared than we are."

Now I could put in more videos, like the one I watched of boats breaking free in Santa Cruz harbor and bashing into other boats, but frankly that just makes me mad. Huge damn disaster in Japan, and just an inconvenient strong current in California but it makes as much news as the other stuff. It doesn't deserve it. People that can't tie a boat up properly just ruin it for everybody. HUNDREDS of boats tied up carefully and some 15 break free and bang into the other ones. I saw this one boat crash broadside into the bow of a sailboat so hard the railings got tangled together. And even with that other boat broadside to the current the lines on that sailboat held and kept that renegade boat from doing any more damage.

I listened to President Obama's press conference this afternoon. He was asked how the US is going to help Japan and he said we are going to lend them our "heavy lift capacity." I guess that means we're sending bulldozers. There was actually one particular technology they were working on at Georgia Tech that was for disaster clean up -- a portable plasma furnace that can incinerate contaminated debris into volatilized organic gases plus an inert glassy slag byproduct. The gas can be burned to generate power. Maybe those projects were cancelled. I can't find anything about them since Katrina. Another thing President Obama said in his press conference was that in the balancing of the budget we can't stop investing in research and development. "That makes no sense," he said. Welcome to my world, Mr. President.

Another tweet from @astroengine I was glad to see was titled Why Surfing a Tsunami Wave Won't Work. I thought this would be the case since a tsunami wave goes from the sea floor to the surface, not like the regular surface waves fetched up by wind. I learned about tsunami waves described with differential equations, which would be as incomprehensible to surfers as the surfer terms are to me -- thick, mushy, nothing for the board to hold onto. Huh? I notice in the comments of the article people are still bullheaded enough to think they're going to get some high surf out of this. It's not a hurricane. No surf. Back away from the water. Get far back. And for the other commenter, no it's not tacky to bring this up today. How is everybody interested in the science of this event at fault for not "doing something to help out"?

So as for helping out, I just went to Phil Plait's blog looking for a list of charities and I see he's done a post just about like mine, including that same YouTube video, which I did get from him in the first place. Not as much opinion and more links. To finish up I'm going to blatantly copy his list of places you can donate money.
There are many charitable, non-profit organizations that may or will be providing aid and relief. I asked on Twitter which ones people liked, and here are a few. I do not necessarily endorse these groups, but provide this for your information.

My 40 hr HAZWOPR certificate is still good, so if anybody needs an Aquatic Environmental Scientist  with FEMA experience, I will gladly go to Japan. I already emailed the company I worked for doing hurricane recovery work and asked them to let me know if they get a contract to work on this disaster.

Thanks to @astroengine, @badastronomer, @USGS, and @pattonoswalt
also Dr. Huettel, Dr. Spears, and Dr. Froelich, my biological, physical, and chemical oceanography professors at the now defunct FSU Oceanography department.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Punching a Dolphin in the Mouth Could Release Isovaleric Acid

The anti-antisocial experiment continues. Tonight I left work on time to go to Book People for Matthew Inman's book signing.

There was a presentation before the signing where he showed some of his comics to illustrate the range of topics he covers and to discuss using the internet to make a living with creative work. This is a topic I think about a lot. I couldn't rationalize the extravagant price of a pass to SXSW Interactive to hear about this stuff so I went to this instead.

I made friends with a mechanical engineer in the audience after the talk. We had to wait over an hour to get in line for book signing. When we got to this glass case you see behind Matthew Inman in the picture my new friend noticed what was in it -- anatomically correct Chinese figurines demonstrating sexual positions. Kind of perfect since Matthew Inman started after a consulting job for a sex toy company didn't work out. He got a lot of page views with quizzes on his online dating site so they wanted something like that. He made a quiz for them but they said it was highly inappropriate. It's called How many baboons could you take armed only with a giant dildo. (I can only take 29.) The sex figurines in the glass case weren't very big though. About the size of a peach pit. If you threw them at a baboon they would just wipe shit on them and throw them back.

I'm trying to more stuff normal people do, so I asked my new friend (I forgot to ask his name. I fail at society) to take my picture with The Oatmeal. It's like a festival of social awkwardness. Could we look any less relaxed? Notice I'm wearing a shirt I designed myself. Cool, huh? I bet Isaac Mizrahi wears his own stuff all the time too. (For sale in the Teephage store, see right side) This is a new thing I'm trying based on a quote on a Talking Heads album cover. "People will remember you better if you wear the same outfit."

My friend had Matthew sign his book "Yes, I am the motherfuckin' Pteradactyl" from the lyrical song of the Pterodactyl. I was not as well prepared. He just wrote The Oatmeal in my book. The book is titled 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides). The eponymous comic is of course a satirical guide, not literal (a topic for another comic). He's not really advocating punching dolphins any more than Jonathan Swift thought a society of racist horses was a good model for English society when he wrote Gulliver's Travels. So I didn't tell Matthew what I learned about dolphins in Ocean Acoustics class. It may have implied I am a humorless idiot who is accusing him of something I'm not. So here's the interesting thing about dolphins' mouths.

Dolphins have a very thin-walled hollow jawbone. If you really did roundhouse kick a dolphin in the face it would probably break his jaw. And that would be really bad for the dolphin. That hollow bone is filled with a special fat with unique acoustical properties. It's kind of an impedance matching material to better transmit the sound from the water to the ear without reflections that could interfere with the phase information in the signal. It's like why you have to use 75 ohm coaxial cable for your TV and not just two wires like telephone. Anyway, this fat is so unique that it is actually toxic to the dolphin if it gets out of the jawbone. I am totally not making this up. It's toxic for skin contact, inhalation, and the gastrointestinal tract. It's not like venom, which you can drink and it's fine. It's got isovaleric acid in it, which is apparently pretty nasty stuff.

Dolphins are so evolutionarily superior to humans it's the natural reaction of an inferior creature to want to punch them in the mouth. They don't call it "only human" for nothing.

Monday, March 7, 2011

STS133 Ascent Highlight Video

This is really nice. They picked some of the best stuff I've seen in the last week and edited it into one really nice video with enough different kind of music to annoy and touch everybody. I love French horns.

Also my friend Chris Warnock the parachutist tracked down an actual person who works on those parachutes for the SRBs, Dave Hillebrandt. I'm hoping to get an explanation for how they do the reefing to make them open in three stages like that. I think that's totally cool.

William Shatner Records Discovery Wake-Up Call



My social life is probably 90% chatting with people on instant messenger. I actually don't know how to carry on a conversation without swapping hyperlinks. My friend Ronnie just dropped a link in my IM window to an article called "The power of lonely: What we do better without other people around" (By Leon Neyfakh). He quickly followed it with a imgur link to a rage comic, so I know what web site he's on. I don't even have to go to Reddit because my friends will send me all relevant links.

I spent two solid years as a hermit back in Beachton. I moved to Austin as a kind of experiment to try the opposite, to see if I could do it. Can I live in public? I tell you what, it is hard work. Most of these IM friends are people I made friends with during that time as a hermit. Most of them lived hundreds of miles from my isolated house in the woods. I nurtured written friendships sometimes for over a year before ever meeting in person. I lived through their interpersonal dramas, gave them sage advice and reveled in my simple life. Now I apply this same effort to people that live in my same town, including bugging them every single weekend to hang out with me. It's exhausting. I can get turned down up to 7 times for one event before I just go by myself and have a good time.

Since I got to Austin I've really made a serious effort to go out in public. I gave away my coffee maker so if I want a cup of coffee I have to go to Starbucks and face the public to get it. On a Saturday morning I still find it unnerving to be accosted by girl scouts trying to sell me cookies before breakfast. I am forcing myself to keep doing it though. I thought I would get more accustomed to it with exposure, but it's not working. I went to IKEA today, infested with hordes of people with small children. By the time I got to the exit I was ready to drive all the way back to Beachton. It doesn't help you have to go through the scented candle section to get out, which makes me extra mean. But I made it out of there and went to meet somebody in person I've only ever talked to online -- part of my regimen of reaching out. Then I drove back home and went straight to the greenbelt for a walk in the woods. At the end of my walk I saw a tiny sneaker on the ground. For a split second I thought of taking it home to display like a trophy. It struck me as funny on several levels, but then I realized that there were even more reasons it was in bad taste, plus it's got kid germs all over it. So I left it there. I predict that will be the last taboo. It will be cool to not like Jon Stewart before it will be cool to not like children.

But this was about this article about being alone. The last paragraph was to illustrate I REALLY don't like being around strange people, especially ones that take their kids everywhere. I have no problem being around people I have filtered for common sensibilities and I'm willing to go to a lot of trouble to make that happen. But I LOVE being alone. I'm really good at it. I started when I was very young.
Spending time alone....can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.
Yeah whatever. Maybe we just can't stand you and your growling dogs and your irritating kids and your goddam dryer sheets. I don't assume it means anything that my office mate says exactly 5 words to me every day. (First thing: "Morning." Last thing: "Have a good one.") If he has anything to convey to me he sends me a link on IM from across the room. Seems perfectly normal to me. (Aside: What is "private noodling"? Is he talking about the catfish thing or something else? In which case, Hey! That is PRIVATE!)
The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.
Ahh, they hit upon my secret -- the beauty of being all by yourself without being alone. It's a  treasure to be able to edit your friends down to people who can type fast.
...sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.
I hadn't even thought about this before. They go on to talk about going to movies with friends versus going alone. I have written reviews of movies I saw with friends, like Tron, as well as ones I've seen alone, Endhiran. Hell I talked about the other people in the audience both times. I enjoy going to live shows by myself with a mind to writing a review. (w00tstock, Patton Oswalt. I splurged on a single ticket to see Craig Ferguson next month so you can look forward to that.) I think part of why I get so stressed out about going out in public is because I can't hold myself apart from all those people. I do think about what they're going through, and it isn't limited to actual friends. I can't help it. I even project forward to stuff that hasn't and probably won't, but totally could happen. When I see a 4 foot tall boy pushing a lawn mower in flip flops I immediately envision severed toes and the horror of his parents realizing too late they should have made him wear boots. I FEEL what his parents will feel when that happens. And I have to make a conscious effort to figure the odds of kids who push lawnmowers in flip flops every day and don't get hurt and make myself think of something else.
...spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: ....people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.
So wait, this is saying that I have this irrational empathy for strangers BECAUSE I'm not socially connected? Well shit. That kind of makes sense. I still don't know what to do about it though. Trying to establish a social network at this point in my advanced state of misanthropy is a huge challenge. I am determined to stick with it until I have failed a statistically significant number of times. A PhD at my old job told me that meant 15 data points, so that's what I'm going for. I'm over halfway there. She was talking about trace metal water quality data though, so if somebody has a better number for studies involving social rejection let me know.

Friday, March 4, 2011

STS133 Solid Rocket Booster Video

14:48 -- My favorite is the left intertank view that starts out looking at something like a bellows. It has audio! It looks up. When the rocket detaches from the fuel tank you can hear it creaking and groaning, which sounds like thermal stress. It's freezing down at the bottom, I assume from residual liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and hot at the top from friction against the air. I'd love to hear some expert commentary on it. Anybody? There's a dark part at 19:00 where the nose cone flies off, then the parachutes open. I love the sound they make! I'm waiting for word back on my parachute rigger friend to tell me how they make them open in stages like that.

The sky is blue and the water is clear and the lines from the parachutes are floaty and pretty. It's all very nice. At 20:18 you can see the nose cone falling under parachute off to the right.

The rockets float nose up, about 30 feet up in the air, 100 feet down in the water. Two ships are waiting to retrieve them. They send divers out in a dinghy to swim down to the bottom of the rocket where they install a plug. A high volume/low pressure air compressor on the ship pumps air into the rocket through a large hose, displacing water out through a valve in the plug. The rocket rises straight up out of the water until it becomes unstable and falls over. They keep pumping the air until all the water is out. Then they close the valve on the plug and tow the rocket back to Florida! (The ship is not nearly as long as the rocket.) It's pretty far out, too. It takes 20 hours to get there from Cape Canaveral.