Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giant Snakes Want to Go On Dates

When I was a little girl my father told us stories about anacondas, the biggest snake in the world. He told us how they could wrap themselves around a whole deer until he was dead and then swallow him whole. He was probably particularly interested in anacondas because he used to work for Anaconda Wire and Cable. (Electric cable with improved resistance to moisture penetration, United States Patent 3315025 Google Fu is strong! I found my dad's patent in under a minute.) Anyway, while Anaconda Wire and Cable was being sold and resold until they ceased to exist as a company the real live anacondas and other large constrictors were also being sold and resold as pets. Unfortunately they don't become less valuable until they disappear. They become big and scary and their owners just stupidly let them go in the wild. Stupid isn't even a strong enough word. This is an irresponsible, egregious, and ILLEGAL thing to do.
379.305. Rules and regulations; penalties
(1) The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may prescribe such other rules and regulations as it may deem necessary to prevent the escape of venomous reptiles or reptiles of concern, either in connection of construction of such cages or otherwise to carry out the intent of ss. 379.372-379.374.
(2) A person who knowingly releases a nonnative venomous reptile or reptile of concern to the wild or who through gross negligence allows a nonnative venomous reptile or reptile of concern to escape commits a Level Three violation, punishable as provided in s. 379.4015.
I looked up s. 379.4015. That's a first degree misdemeanor which is jail time under one year and a maximum fine of $1000. If you do it twice the fine is no less than $750.  I'm not sure that's much of a dis-incentive. I think they should be made to have that nightmare I had about the Inland Taipan (see comments) every night for a month. Invasive exotic species are one of my real pet peeves.

I clicked a link in the USGS Twitter feed today to the Giant Constrictor Risk Assessment:
Frequently Asked Questions
. It was a pretty good read. I'm still gradually coming to understand how little regular people understand about nature. OK, about anything. People are really ignorant. They don't seem to think very far ahead. When you try to tell them what you think might go wrong they tend to dismiss it because their brains aren't trained to think that way. Hopefully explaining very specific instances where your worst case scenario has ALREADY played out will help, like this comparison to Guam.
Q: How could these giant snakes change South Florida’s ecosystems? What about other ecosystems?

The most likely avenue for ecosystem change would be that introduced giant constrictors would change food webs by eliminating or depleting vulnerable native species. If enough species are lost, entire ecosystem processes could be changed. For example, on Guam the introduced brown treesnake has eliminated most native vertebrates (birds, bats, and lizards) that pollinate trees and flowers. Consequently, these native animals are not available to disperse seeds. As a result, some of the native trees have greatly declined in abundance, and may disappear.

Similarly, as fish-eating birds have been lost from Guam, the natural nitrogen transport from aquatic and marine systems to bird rookeries on land has been lost as well. Some Burmese pythons in the Everglades accumulate extremely high levels of mercury in their body tissues, potentially poisoning higher level predators that might eat them, such as alligators and panthers. We do not yet know how a specific system in South Florida would be disrupted by the addition of a novel predator, but from experience with other ecosystems disturbed by introduced snakes we know that serious disruption is a distinct possibility.

Today I also came across this incredibly elaborate flow chart regarding the social suitability of certain partners. So people have no problem working through what-ifs for stuff like this because it's about people? But they don't give a crap about snakes and bats and fish and birds and trees? What a bunch of weirdos.

From Erik Bryan's article in The Morning News

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Technohumanist Persecution

Have you heard about Vance Gilbert? He was the black man looking at a picture of a 1921 Italian tri-plane on a flight out of Boston that returned to the gate so he could be questioned by Massachusetts state police. Because the flight attendant thought his book looked suspicious. He was wearing a shirt with airplanes on it. He was CLEARLY a fan of airplanes. Here's his letter to the American Civil Liberties Union.

My first impression is that this was prejudice against technology. Nobody would have blinked if he'd been looking at People magazine, even if he was coloring in teeth and drawing mustaches on the models and otherwise being antisocial. If people were more accepting of technohumanists this wouldn't happen.

But I realize a flight attendant HAS to know there are people who are fans of airplanes. They have those special toys for kids and stuff. I think Vince Gilbert is right that they were suspicious of him because they think black men don't read books.

And also because the flight attendant was utterly ignorant of technology. What did she think the picture of a triplane WAS?! She thinks he's studying a diagram of an elaborate weapon that he's carrying in the bag at his feet? RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER? Does she imagine the 911 hijackers passed the time before takeoff stropping their razor knives on their belts? And why didn't she just say, "Oh, that's a cool schematic! What is it, an old clothes dryer?" I mean her job skills are being able to deal with people. She can fake caring about the drawing.

Well I guess the good news is the instructional designers will have a new assignment coming up with a Lunch-n-Learn to teach flight attendants one more thing not to do. They probably already told them not to question suspicious passengers. Now they just need to hire people with a well-rounded education who aren't technophobes.

*Update: I've decided the more precise name for this affliction is "schematophobia."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Progress resupply ship crashes into Siberia

I am in a BAD mood. I mean really dark. Grrrr. I got up this morning to go take pictures of my friend's house and to measure to make a floorplan to help him sell it and before I left the house I got the news that the resupply ship bound for the space station crashed into Siberia instead of going into orbit. Fucking great. Way to go. Glad Atlantis dropped off so many extra supplies. But dammit this just sucks. We have no capacity for contingencies anymore. And by we I mean the whole fucking planet's worth of engineers and scientists that are unappreciated and hindered by the economies of idiots.

Spending three hours trying to sketch up a simple floorplan in Google Sketchup did nothing to improve my mood. I guess considering it's free and I didn't bother to learn it I got what I deserved. Fortunately I have a high resolution 27" Apple monitor so I was able to get decent output by taking a screenshot. I quickly abandoned trying to print to a PDF file. No idea what it thinks is the part I want to print. And why it pans the drawing and leaves the text where it is makes no sense. I guess I was supposed to place it on a surface or something. I just wanted lines and words and the convenience of feet and inches. Nothing is easy.

Then it was too hot to stay upstairs because it's FUCKING 105°F outside and forecast to be 109°F on Friday and Saturday. So I went downstairs to find some food and found out Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple. Had to come back to the computer to check the news. Concern and worry on in the comments and then I looked at some business websites and was just horrified by the terrible things people were saying. He's a man dying of pancreatic cancer! Don't be mean! Damn you jealous bastards! I had pancreatitis once. It was the most pain I have ever experienced. I have no idea what Steve Jobs is going through but it must be bad and I feel terrible for him. I appreciate him making it possible for me to have beautiful machinery in my life. I am not interested in the least what happens with Apple's stock price. But I hope some of those mean bastards guess wrong and lose money.

And there's this. Just... dammit all to hell. What are we going to DO?!

*Update: Senator Hutchison released a statement related to the Progress crash. Pats herself on the back for funding STS-135 and wants to halt layoffs? Really? Can that happen?

"We strongly encourage NASA to immediately announce this week - not next month - the design for their next launch vehicle, which will halt the further loss of skilled aerospace workers now poised to be laid off from the NASA manned spaceflight program."

Dare I say, yay?

Thanks to @astroengine for the RT

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake in VIRGINIA?!

Oh neato! An earthquake just happened! I was sitting here watching my Twitter feed and the first mention of it I saw was Patton Oswalt feeling it in New York City. Then Treelobsters felt it in North Carolina, then PaulandStorm [P] in Pennsylvania, then Felicia Day commented that her timeline was full of earthquake news from NYC, then ThinkGeek reported it in Fairfax, VA, NASA_SDO reported feeling it at Goddard, then PaulandStorm [S] reported it in Rosslyn, VA. Next Patton Oswalt claimed to have caused the earthquake, which originated in his hometown, because when he was a teenager he and four friends banished Thra'axx the spider-demon to a chymic chamber and forgot to keep up the spell to hold him for eternity. He apologizes for the inconvenience. Neil DeGrasse Tyson quips that earthquakes are "clever ways Earth is telling us to get the hell off. Yet another reason for a space program." PaulandStorm [P] is speculating on how Fox and Friends will report this, "I just find it *interesting* that Obama goes on vacation, and today there's a quake. Poor leadership?" Astroengine notices that East Coasters have a much more dry sense of humor about earthquakes than West Coasters.

Well that's because there is no plate boundary anywhere near there. The Oatmeal jokes "goddamn Mid-Atlantic ridge keeps trying to grab my ass" - North America. Only I don't think that has anything to do with it. This 5.9 earthquake was less than a mile deep and poorly constrained. {Update: they changed it to say it was 3.7 miles deep} (USGS info) The little hiccup thing I remember from my Coastal Geology class in grad school is that the East coast is still rebounding from the weight of the ice from the ice age, so a sudden jump up could cause an earthquake. And also they have some large regional disturbances from withdrawing too much water from aquifers. I think it would be really neat if this was related to subsidence and rebounding combined. Those smug oil tycoons might have to admit that the acts of mankind can have a drastic effect on the physics of the planet. Urban planners might finally get some decent funding for infrastructure and research if a giant earthquake was caused by providing a seemingly endless supply of cheap, clean water to oblivious city dwellers.

I searched the USGS site for subsidence and rebound and as you might expect their site is slow to respond right now. I repeated it a few times and got some papers to look at. Most of them are about California though so it will take me a while to find the ones about the other side of North America. I could just wait a few days and one of their experts will write it up for me. I'm excited to find out what they think!

This image has not yet been reviewed by humans. The other link above has been reviewed and calls it 5.9. This is based on a 5.8 magnitude.

*Update, Phil Plait made an animation of sensors across the country showing the traveling waves

*Another update: USGS News released a statement. Apparently they changed the number back to 5.8 in the link I gave above. They give this explanation for why the shaking was felt so far away.
Western rock is relatively young, which means it absorbs a lot of the shaking caused by earthquakes. Thus, western earthquakes result in intense shaking close to the epicenter, but fade more quickly the farther the earthquakes travel.

In the eastern United States, on the other hand, the rock is far older, and so earthquakes can have a much larger and more widespread impact. Earthquake energy can therefore spread farther and have a greater impact.
What? That sounds... stupid. Age is not a variable I have ever seen in a physics formula of motion. Give some physical parameter, like density or friability or permeability. Say something about the Piedmont or the fall line. Mention eroded mountain ranges and sedimentary deposits. That is a weak cop-out. USGS I am disappoint.

* Update: I'm really geeking out.  This is definitely beyond the tl:dr point. I doubt even my brother wants to read this.

I found a great USGS paper about the geology and aquifers of the Piedmont. I can't see enough detail in the maps to tell where exactly today's earthquake was in relation to the what they're talking about in this paper, but it's in the vicinity. I'm not claiming in any way that this earthquake is man made, I'm just investigating if it COULD be. Or even if mining or drilling could be just one factor. Or how it might be affected by the earthquake itself.

Check out this part of the paper where they talk about fracturing. They aren't talking about it in terms of how a sudden fracturing would feel as an earthquake, but if you think about it the other way around, today's earthquake could have implications for well water. Also coal mining definitely affects this whole geologic system:


Underground mining of coal disturbs the natural ground-water flow system when the mines are active because artificial drains are constructed to dispose of unwanted water and mining activities can create new fractures and thus increase permeability. The regional water table can be lowered when the drains are effective, and ground-water flow directions can be changed in some cases until flow moves across former ground-water divides into adjoining basins. Ground water tends to flow toward mines, which are usually dewatered by pumping. Adverse effects of mine drainage on well yields are greatest where the mines are not much deeper than the bottoms of the wells and where vertical fractures connect the aquifers and the mines. Abandoned mines can collapse, which causes fracturing of the rocks that overlie the mine and might be accompanied by an appreciable depression on the land surface. These conditions are likely to enhance recharge to the ground-water system and to reduce surface runoff and evapotranspiration.

Uncased boreholes that penetrate several aquifers, which might have different heads, provide artificial interconnections, or "short circuits," between the aquifers. The water that enters the borehole from aquifers with higher heads moves up the borehole and then laterally into aquifers with lower heads so that the composite head in the well is different than that in each of the aquifers. Flow within the borehole will continue, even when the well is not being pumped, until the head in the two aquifers becomes equal. The freshwater flow system of an area can be significantly altered where numerous uncased wells exist and may result in a change in the potentiometric surface.

Although bedrock formations in the Appalachian Plateaus Province can be traced over many miles, the distribution of local aquifers within these formations depends, in most cases, on the distribution of fracture permeability. Erosion is one factor that controls the distribution of fractures. Local aquifers, in some cases, are in valleys (fig. 92). Near-vertical tensile fractures and horizontal fractures are associated with slumping that takes place along valley walls, and recharge tends to be concentrated by the fractures. Under the valley floors, the most significant fractures are parallel to bedding, or nearly horizontal. Relief of compressional stress results when the weight of the rock that overlies a valley is reduced, because part of the rock is removed by erosion. This causes the remaining rock to separate along bedding planes and also results in the formation of vertical fractures. Fractures that underlie the valley are interconnected with those along the valley walls, and the interconnected fracture set enhances the permeability of the rock. Away from the valley walls, fractures are scarce and less likely to be interconnected; accordingly, wells in these areas will tend to have lower yields than those in the valleys. Furthermore, water in the shallow fractures on hilltops tends to drain in dry seasons, and yields of some wells might accordingly decline. In general, well yields are directly proportional to the number of interconnected fractures.

Here's another quote about how oil and gas exploration have changed the natural situation.

Contamination of ground water by the improper construction or plugging of oil and gas wells is a common problem in the Appalachian Plateaus Province. The area is the cradle of the oil industry in the United States; drilling for oil began in the 1860's, and drilling for brine began even earlier. Natural brines are associated with accumulations of oil and gas and are at shallow depths in many places. Wells that penetrate aquifers that contain brine, if not properly cased and cemented, can provide conduits for the brine to enter shallower freshwater aquifers. It was once a common practice for brine produced with oil and gas to be discharged into open pits from which it seeped downward to contaminate fresh ground-water bodies. Such practices are generally prohibited now, but effects of the past remain.

Oh I found the geology map in this paper that shows the fault lines in the area of today's earthquake. I got to it from here. I'm not sure it's cool to link to their server so I copied it to mine. This is from the USGS HA 730-L Regional Summary. Man I love I can just get this right off the internet. Comparing this to the map that shows the location of the quake it looks like the point of interest is just below that little owbow feature, sort of at the tip of the dark pink that represents felsic gneiss and granite formation where it meets the green colored cretaceous sedimentary rocks. Man I really hope my brother isn't trying to read this. I bet this map is useless for a colorblind person since the text key is unreadable.

*Update 8:45: Now that there's been time for some other people to wonder about man-made effects, let's see what I've found online. Anybody blaming big oil for earthquakes yet? That would be so fun!

Donald Gilliland wrote about the connection between oil and gas exploration and earthquakes in Pittsburgh. Marcellus Shale drilling to blame for Virginia earthquake? No fracking way, industry officials say He says deep well injection has been connected to earthquakes before, and there are 70 such wells in Virginia. I don't know how many drinking wells there are. I know there are a lot of municipalities that depend on well water instead of surface water in Virginia. This paper I found only has data from 1985 where Norfolk was the biggest user of well water.

So even if the oil industry had nothing to do with CAUSING the earthquake this wastewater injected into the earth could now be connected to drinking water wells through new fractures. This kind of disaster could motivate some spending on science to determine the risk and on engineering to come up with a back up plan when municipal wells are suddenly contaminated with heavy metals from deep well injection of byproducts of the oil and gas industry. Tax them already! We need money for engineering! Science! They are GOING to screw us over. It's just a matter of time. We need to be ready.

I also like the rant in the comments hating the headline. " Are we supposed to feel giddy and naughty about mentally substituting a vulgarity in its place? Why not just use the word you wanted to so you could get fired and some more professional journalists could replace you?" I think somebody isn't up on pop culture. It's a Battlestar Galactica reference. A joke. Relax.

Here's another one from WNYC. Explainer: Did Hydrofracking Have Anything to Do With the East Coast Quake?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

T-shirt colors in °C

I got a request on Vimeo to repeat the experiment in Celsius. It's too hot to do that, but I can do the conversion. Here it is.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

If that's what women are, then what am I?

Back in 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair titled Why Women Aren't Funny: What makes the female so much deadlier than the male? With assists from Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, and a recent Stanford-medical-school study, the author investigates the reasons for the humor gap. I picked up the link from Twitter today where it was referred to as good science writing. Good thing I wasn't expecting it to be humor.

I read about two paragraphs and sent the link to my step-sister because I was so confused. What's he talking about? She wasn't online right then to help me figure it out so I kept reading. By Page 3 of 5 I wanted to shoot myself. What is he TALKING about?! I asked a friend who was online and he said it's just Christopher Hitchens being an absolute asshole. Well, ok then, but now I'm just mad that he gets paid to barf up nonsense for Vanity Fair and I don't. It's still an astounding display of asshattery and it wants exposition.

He starts out explaining how women brag that their boyfriends make them laugh but men never say that. (That extra comma is really in the Vanity Fair article. If they give me a gig writing articles I promise to proofread carefully and not let that happen.)
Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

OK, really, I have no idea what you're talking about. My dad thinks he's the funniest man in the town. Repeating jokes you heard on satellite radio does not make you funny. But my step-mother slays me. When my dad was trying to get out of helping me load my moving truck he said he hurt his knee. "I haven't been right since Spring, isn't that right, wife o' mine."

She retorted, "What YEAR?"

Hitchens goes on to explain that men HAVE to make women laugh because they have no other redeeming qualities. He claims it has been "one of the crucial preoccupations of my life." Maybe he should have turned off the satellite radio and gone to the gym to impress her with his ability to load bags of concrete in the car. When it comes to the evolutionary differences in the sexes I'm still preoccupied with the ox-like usefulness of a man. When I want to laugh until I cry I watch Top Gear. (It's the techno-humanist in me.)

He claims that, "Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift." What? But I don't have big boobs. This article is just confusing me. I don't know what the hell he's talking about.

The science part is just a quote from Biotech Week that basically says women find humor in language. Men don't? How do you explain P.G. Wodehouse? The study also found that women are better at identifying things that are unfunny. That's a fair cop. I sort of wish this weren't though. "Men will laugh at almost anything, often precisely because it is—or they are—extremely stupid." Now that is not exclusive to men. While it's true that I don't go for scatological material, my step-sister has made a speciality of fart jokes. Is she some kind of statistical anomaly?

Apparently so. According to Hitchens, "Most of them {female comedians}, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." Ouch. There's no explanation for that sentence but "Man this guy is an asshole." That might be me finding the unfunny right there.

This is the part where I wanted to shoot myself.
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.
Is that right? Well doesn't that explain a lot! I KNEW my wasted life was all my mama's fault! How dare she not teach me to not appear too bright! Here I am middle aged and single and it can all be traced back to a lack of sex-role stereotyping. (That's sarcasm right there. I'm being funny. I'm also ironic. Deep, huh?) Of course on her side of my family this is normal behavior -- being single and funny. We'd rather amuse ourselves alone than have to edit our personality to coddle the ego of an easily threatened man. What the hell is the point of THAT, Christopher Hitchens? I don't understand why in hell a woman would do that.

For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle.

Oh. I mean. WHAT?! Sooooo my aunt and I get to be be funny because we don't have kids? And in fact abhor the whole idea of them? Does that mean she and I are the only two people in the world that laugh at the mental image of her antique Volvo parked at the school where she taught first grade with the imaginary bumper sticker "NEUTER YOUR CHILDREN"?

As every father knows, the placenta is made up of brain cells, which migrate southward during pregnancy and take the sense of humor along with them. And when the bundle is finally delivered, the funny side is not always immediately back in view.

Oh. I mean. Wait just a fucking minute. Now I don't know a lot about pregnant women but HUH?! He's saying pregnancy makes you... what? A bitch? My step-sister was HILARIOUS when she was pregnant. I might have to search up some emails from her when she was pregnant. What is he TALKING about? Maybe to the father it's not funny. I'm guessing that's his punk-ass ego again then, getting shown up by the sex with the uterus. Just pitiful.

And because fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks. Good grief! Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate a dream she's just had?

OK, for real, is that what men think women are like? IS that what women are like? Because if that's women, then what the fuck am I?! I think Christopher Hitchens has known some pretty weak specimens of women in his time, poor thing. I thought he was supposed to have consulted with women comics on this article? I kind of feel bad for him if this is how his life with women played out.

He's right about the limericks though. I know some good ones. My dad taught them to me when I was a girl. I wonder if Hitchens knew the Lady from Nizes, with her appeal best viewed in profile.

There once was a lady from Nizes
Who had boobs of two different sizes.
One was so small
it was nothing at all
But the other was large and won prizes.

And here's an original limerick, since he challenged me and all.

There once was a lady who was funny.
She sold tickets and made lots of money.
Some men were appalled
And covered their balls,
But better men would gladly be her honey.

White Shirts are Cool

So I guess I have a lot of t-shirts. And now that I have a non-contact infrared thermometer a science/art project seemed to be in order. It's not strictly science because I didn't do a good job controlling how long I let these shirts come up to temperature before I took the measurement. You'll see there's a blue shirt towards the beginning that's cooler than the white ones. It might not have heated up all the way yet so I didn't count it as the minimum.

I had some problems with my equipment overheating. First the thermometer started to overheat. You can see in the pictures how extra LCD elements start showing through as I progress through the colors. Then it goes back normal. That's because I had to stop and wave it around in the shade until it cooled off. My original tripod setup put the LCD of my camera facing right into the sun. So when I stopped to cool off the thermometer the camera turned itself off and said ALERT! It's never done THAT before!

I moved the whole arrangement back to the edge of the little rectangle of shade cast by the building to get the camera in the shade and the shirts in the sun. Then both items overheated again anyway and I carried the whole arrangement into the air conditioning, let it cool off, then went back out and did the white shirts again. So it's not the best science, but it definitely shows a trend. Also the camera wasn't consistent with exposure. The blackest shirt doesn't look black when it's in front of the thermometer. In the previous picture when it's moving up the line you can tell it's a pitch black shirt. It was too hot and bright for me to adjust each exposure. I probably should have used automatic bracketing but I only just now thought of that.

This video doesn't meet my standards for perfection but it was just not really safe working conditions out there. The day after I shot these pictures I saw the high school football team practicing. Full blazing sun, scorchingly hot. They had a squad in dark red jerseys, one in dark blue jerseys, and one in white jerseys. The coach was walking around in a black shirt. I started to go over there with my thermometer and call the coach an idiot in front of everybody. But then I realized that this is Texas and they don't necessarily believe things like empirical evidence.

I guess evolution made some people more tolerant of heat. Maybe I'm extra sensitive. Hot things hurt me. I've asked other people if solder flux popping onto their fingers hurts them when they solder. They usually don't know what I'm talking about. The idea of my shoulders getting up to 145°F, five degrees from a medium-well steak, is just unacceptable to me. I wouldn't wear that black shirt of mine before dark. But the high school kids I see walking to their cars on my street at lunchtime in their black retro rock shirts seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that they are cooking. They have no hats, no sunglasses, and they're fine! Amazing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Huffington Post Challenges Department of the Interior to a Douche-Off

Remember how mad I got that the Department of the Interior had a $1000 prize contest for a logo to go on the uniforms of some 70,000 employees? Huffington Post just beat them by asking for one for free. The comments on here are worth paying for. There are HUNDREDS. Every single one saying essentially the same thing. "Hey, Huffington Post, go fuck yourself." Way to go internet, I'm proud of you.

I have selected a few choice ones that prove you do not need a sarcasm punctuation mark.

Here's one that parrots their exact language. Awesome.

Do you need a logo that screams 'awesome politics coverage'? Enter it in the 'I need a designer to make me a new logo' contest.

For the next week or so, I'll be accepting your proposed paychecks for my next job. You can submit your proposed paychecks to me via paypal, check, or directly deposit it into my checking account. Once I have a good group together, I'll put them all up for a vote, which will inform the final pick. If your paycheck wins, I'll design your logo.

This next comment with link to a design submission violates the instructions to make it square. They should have deformed the Hewlett-Packard logo to make it perfect.

Enbawks McGee
Out of respect for the fantastic opportunit­y you have given the community, i labored all morning to come up with a new logo for HP. Please see it at the following URL:


I'm confident that you too will find this to be a modern, sophistica­ted HP logo, and I look forward to seeing it displayed on your site soon.

I'm starry-eye­d over the opportunit­y to redesign the illustriou­s HP logo. I imagine my utilities company will be so impressed by my internet fame that they'll waive my next bill.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Thermodynamics of Ducks and Tees

I went to the Middle Eastern deli yesterday to get some lunchtime shawarma with one of my unemployed friends. When he showed up in a black tee it made me want to do some rigorous testing of my pet peeve of people who wear black in the blazing sun on a 100°F day. Since Phoenicia is close to Horrible Freight it was impossible to not follow through. I had my friend go in and find me an IR radiation thermometer. Then I dashed in with my debit card, holding my breath, and bought it. (The air in Horrible Freight is one part air and one part volatile organic compounds from outgassing cheap Chinese wheelbarrow tires. Toxic to me.)

We decided to take my new toy up to the main reservoir for Austin, Lake Travis, to see how low the water is. As soon as we'd been standing in the sun for about 2 minutes I tested his shirt, 105°F and my shirt, 95°F. I KNEW IT! But when I tested our hands I was hotter than him so I decided the control was not that good since the wearer may affect the shirt. I did a more controlled test today, but wouldn't you know the sun was behind a cloud. I'll do it again tomorrow to verify my findings.

Meanwhile here are some pictures I took with my phone.
Very low water at the dam.
We went to a city park in Lakeway so we could get down to the actual water.
What's left of it.
The lake bottom in this cove is strewn with cables and what I assume are
concrete mooring anchors.
Here's a Christmas tree thrown in to provide fish habitat.
I think it takes more than one for this to work. And water of course.
Aww man, somebody probably cussed with they dropped these needlenosed pliers overboard.
This looks like another cussing situation right here.
There was a Great Blue Heron hanging around.
Here I am in the designated swimming area. 
My friend said there used to be a floating bar here where he drank margaritas the day
he lost his job. That was in April. They must have towed it to deeper water.
 These ducks made their living pestering patrons for food scraps.
They came right over to see if we had anything for them.
The water measured about 90°F, but I don't think this is really the right instrument
for measuring water. The soil here was about 107°F. I started wondering about the
dark colored ducks. Feathers are a terrible conductor so they should be cooler,
I'd think, when put side by side with something like my dark green
steel car hood. (135°F) I couldn't get close enough to a duck to get a
good reading. Just waving the detector around I could pick up a
cool spot that I wanted to think was the duck.
Now back to shirts. I have 4 identical knit shirts in different colors. I lined them up on a black plastic folding table and took them out in the sun. For the first time in two months there was a cloud so it wasn't blazingly bright. But since my results match my hypothesis I'm going with it :) I'll do it again tomorrow at high noon to verify.
White shirt: 95°F
Red Shirt: 100°F

Purple shirt: 101°F
Blue Shirt: 101°F
Black Feather: 100°F (I moved the thermometer
over after taking the measurement
so you can see the feather.)
I just happened to have a black feather so I threw that on the white shirt to see if it radiates more IR. It does. I took Thermal Physics in college but I was not that good at it. Because Applied Physics majors had the choice of Thermodynamics in the Mechanical Engineering department or Thermal Physics in the Physics department that created a loophole whereby I could take it pass/fail instead of letter grade. I was all over that! I took the one in the Physics department during the summer so I wouldn't have to walk across campus in the heat. (I know!) I still had to study like crazy to get what would have been a D. I'll never forget the final exam asked us to derive a mathematical proof to solve this question: "It's autumn and a leaf falls from a tree. Does the entropy of the universe increase or decrease?" Sigma bite me, Dr. Weisenfeld. I can't do that! I remember losing sleep over the idea of paint separating. Isn't that a decrease in entropy? He said entropy is always increasing. I went to Dr. Weisenfeld's office to ask him. He said the friction makes heat as the buoyant particles pass the other ones on their way up and vice versa for the heavy pigment falling to the bottom. That heat energy balances the decrease in entropy. Good answer!

So what's this got to do with ducks? The point is that there are experts in these things that are not me. Time to look it up. Sure enough, I found a scientist who wrote the book on feathers. Alas they don't have a PDF edition to download. Forums say I have to download the Kindle app from the App Store for it to work in Lion. I may do that and buy the book about feathers. I'm sticking with my plan to not accumulate any more paper books. Also I think I'll ask Thor Hanson if he did a comparison of the radiative heat coming off of dark colored birds versus light colored birds in the book. Did heat have anything to do with how they evolved? Is that why Great Egrets (pure white) are speculated to be Great Blue Herons that just evolved for the Everglades where there is no shade? Should we be trying to figure out how to synthesize feathers to make better outdoor gear for hot weather, not just for cold?

Birds pant when they're hot, like dogs.
Here's a Great Blue Heron trying to cool off. 
We may still need a Dr. Weisenfeld to explain the principles at work in this detector and the properties of the materials I want to measure. I know that a stone wall measures not as hot as a steel door. One has thermal mass, the other is a thermal conductor. The door is going to cool off a lot faster when the sun isn't shining on it anymore. So of course the non-contact IR radiometer is going to call it hotter. But a duck has low thermal mass and low conductivity. But apparently it still heats up more than something white. Does it make the duck uncomfortable? I didn't see any of them panting. I guess I need to measure the temperature on the shady side of the feather. Man, I wish I had that entire turkey wing back at my aunt's house in Beachton. That's how to do this experiment. Maybe I should appeal to one of my cousins back there to do this as their science project and tell me what they find out. 

I have been working on the topic of heat and color since I was in high school myself. I made steel boxes out of flashing at my dad's shop in all the different colors of flashing metal he had -- white, seafoam, blue, goldenrod, burnt umber, and galvalume. I put them in the sun with the outdoor sensor of an indoor/outdoor thermometer inside the box. I learned then that the air inside the white metal was MUCH cooler than all the other colors. Galvanized was just as hot as burnt umber. People think it's shiny so it must be reflecting the heat. HA! You'd be wrong. That's why the roof on my house in Beachton is white and nothing but white. 

So I'm sticking with my policy to never wear a black shirt before 7 pm in the summer. I wish I could get somebody to sponsor me to do some performance art where I get one of those road side speed detector signs and interface it to my IR thermometer and take the temperature of people going by in their dark colored clothing. I'd set it up at the entrance to the Austin City Limits Festival and arrange to get a kickback for every white tee shirt sold.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I don't know what this song means

I saw this video on YouTube and thought, "I can do better than that." I'm a little puzzled about what this song really means and these particular women lip syncing it only makes me more confused.

So I made my own version with things that won't let you touch them and it makes more sense to me now. The only mp3 I could find to download doesn't go all the way to the end unfortunately. I'll rationalize it as a commentary on having a short attention span.

Blogger has a new gadget that lets you take a poll so I threw it up on the right side. Vote for which video you like better! I'll take it down in a week and post the results here. Thanks! *Update: I see I have a typo in the poll. I meant WRITHING women, not writing. That makes no sense. It won't let me change it now without deleting my 3 votes though, and since those may be the only 3 votes I get I'm keeping it :-) **Update: My video got 80% of the votes and The Sirens got 20%. Thanks for helping me test the polling widget!

The song is the actual recording by The Angelettes from 1972. The girls in the video are characters in a movie called Me Me Me. I haven't watched it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sinister Turn Signals

I used to have a book called Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles. It was sort of a lament of bad industrial design and a call to do a better job. This evening I was reminded of this title in the most literal sense. There was an Audi in front of me turning left. I was horrified. All I could think of was Lucille Bluth.

Do they not do user testing on new car design? They might ought to start. Especially now that they are playing with totally new schemes using super bright LEDs. They should really set up a simulation of following that thing in traffic at night. It can be really jarring.

I think I saw this same car coming towards me the other day and it has LEDs around the halogen headlamps too, like daytime running lights. I thought it was a good idea, but the placement of the lights gave it a kind of prissy look. It was like somebody who just flops their fingertips at you when you go to shake their hand. Maybe that's what they were going for, I don't know.

I had an interesting talk with my cunningly unemployed friend the other day about labels. He tried to explain to me what "secular humanist" means. I am uncomfortable calling myself any kind of humanist because I'm really not so keen on the idea of singling us out as a more important species than the others. But if we get to attach prefixes to it then I've decided I'm a "technical humanist" because I do enjoy the technical accomplishments of our species, as long as I get to be a critic.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Let's go to Jupiter!

I watched the live coverage of the Atlas V launch of the Juno mission this morning. Good stuff. It made a vapor cone when it went supersonic! I love that. My twitter feed is just one message after another about the launch. Nicole Stott (@Astro_Nicole) wrote "Our view of Juno launch from Cocoa Beach. Next stop Jupiter! Beautiful!" And I thought, oh, she's going to where my brother lives! You mention one town in Florida and I automatically think of the other one. I think she may have meant the rocket though, going to the planet. Wouldn't take 5 years to just go down the road 120 miles.

It kind of amazes me how fast the rockets clear our atmosphere. It is really very thin. I don't care how many times I watch a launch it blows my mind that they're clear of the friction of the air in a matter of hundreds of seconds but there is a lot of energy left to be expended before they're free of the earth's gravity.

Here's a summary of the mission by Phil Plait.

Photos up on Flickr by NASA

Some rocket specifics are here.
This mission was launched aboard an Atlas V 551 vehicle configuration, which includes a 5-meter diameter RUAG Space payload fairing. The booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine along with five Aerojet solid rocket motors. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10A engine.

Screen grab showing big faring around around the spacecraft and the external solid rocket boosters

The angle of this shot from the VAB roof makes it look like disappeared.
It's going away from the camera obscured by the smoke.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Talking about briney water on Mars makes me VERY ANGRY!

I just watched the live NASA press conference about the new evidence of water on Mars. (Here's Phil Plait's take on it.) I actually have a sore throat now from yelling at the screen. I am too touchy when it comes to ignorant people getting jobs covering NASA press conferences when I don't get to go. (I may be especially touchy when it's a blonde woman who shames us all. Actually, no, I would have reacted the same way if it had been anybody. I'm going to avoid referring to her in terms that draw attention to her appearance because that would seem misogynistic and would hurt my argument. Just so you know I thought about it. I'm trying not to do that.) It just hurts me that people sit in the presence of these scientists and insult them. Going to a press conference about geological evidence on Mars when you didn't pay attention in high school science class enough to know the most basic vocabulary is just insulting. It insults me as a person who did pay attention and can't get a job, it insults the people who tried to make their findings accessible to the audience they expected to be there.

So here's the science part. It was pretty straightforward. They have photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that show dark areas at the ends of gullies as though liquid ran out the end during the heat of the summer. There are other possible explanations but none that are related to the effects of additional sunlight.

Mars is salty. This makes perfect sense to me. Just look at it. If I went down to the dried-up creek near my house and found a dried up puddle that had been wet and then dry over and over and I licked it I would expect it to taste salty. I wouldn't expect it to be very salty, but I would sure be surprised if it was sour or sweet. If you filled up a pot and boiled it dry on the stove and did that over and over until you got a crust on the bottom from the minerals in your water and you tasted it wouldn't you expect it to be salty? And if you added back a tiny bit of water wouldn't you expect to get some kind of salty mud?

I don't understand how people are so ignorant. It's like they go through life without observing anything. And somehow they don't even care? It's socially acceptable now to be utterly ignorant of what everybody around you is talking about? So what happened in this press conference that got me in a rant is somebody claimed that as an "average reader" she didn't understand what they meant about the liquid behaving unlike regular water. Could they explain in terms of something she would be familiar with on earth? Was it like say, buttermilk? This is where I got a sore throat. Fortunately the NASA experts, or unfortunately maybe, have more experience with dumb questions I guess so they handled it very calmly and tried to explain what brine means. Has this woman never eaten a pickle? Has she never watched a cooking show? Did she sleep through her junior year of high school? Does she not realize she could go back to her cubicle and look this up on Yahoo Answers? It's not like I expect her to read Spasms of Accommodation, where I already explained this in terms of things that happen on earth.

What does salt do to water? 
 It lowers the freezing point.
Sea ice is fresh. When the ice crystals form on the surface of the North Sea in the winter, for example, the salt molecules are excluded. Fresh ice floats on top of the salty seawater. If it's really windy and cold the surface becomes a strong salty brine and this water gets a good deal colder than 32°F or 0°C. 
I regret that I missed the beginning of the press conference so I didn't get the introductions with everybody's name. The first person who tried to answer her question kind of struggled. Then the lady at the end of the table gave a great example of freezing a bottle of soda. (I think it was Lisa Pratt, a biogeochemist at Indiana University, because that's the one woman they refer to in this article) You get a chunk of water ice in the middle and all the syrup is left unfrozen. They are guessing that the Mars water is like that. A non-freezing syrup.

Now that's a good explanation but I don't think the reporter who asked the question gets it. The one week's lesson in the phase shifts in water in high school science class is really pretty key. Unless you understand that you aren't going to get that adding salt to it changes where the transitions happen, or if they happen at all.

I think really she wanted to know if settlers on Mars could drink the water. Or get a spa treatment with it. I really think she was going for something she could relate to the "average reader." I just don't think she grasped at all that they were just talking about the most basic concepts of geology, nothing related to human beings whatsoever.

So they took some more questions then this same reporter had another question. "Could you explain what you mean by 'gully'?"

WHAT?! Kick her out. Just... she's out of there. I was not a journalism major but I'm pretty sure they teach you not to ask experts to define a word you can look up in an unabridged dictionary. Jot it down and look it up later. Clearly they are all talking about gullies like they are completely common and well known to everybody. I've linked to three articles about this press release and two of them avoid the word gully and refer instead to as "finger-like features lining certain Martian slopes." Phil Plait says gullies without any attempt to define them. I'm guessing it says "finger-like features" in the Science article. I know Phil was watching the press conference because I picked up the URL from his Twitter feed. The gullies they talked about were in addition to the finger-like features. Gully, like a natural ditch, erosion, have you NEVER watched water flow over the ground? Been to the beach and stood in the sand in the surf? Maybe it's just me that imagines where the water flows when I go hiking. I'm afraid it's just me.

So is it acceptable for a science reporter to be blatantly ignorant in front of her colleagues like this? Did I miss something? Are we not trying to be appear intelligent anymore? Is this why I can't get a job? My tendency to privately research embarrassing lapses in my expertise is out of fashion? I have to applaud her for not being shy I suppose. She was clearly thinking of how she was going to write this up for her audience, whoever that is. But it's like she wanted it all to be down in that spiral notebook before she even got out the door. She wanted the scientist presenters to do her job for her.

My expectation with these things is that there is a stair step of dumbing down. You have a Science article that is written for scientists. Discover and Discovery and PCMag bloggers dumb that down one notch for their readers. If a writer asks the original author to explain it at a People magazine level that's just wrong. Or at least lazy. Or ruins your job security.

The engineer in me thinks there has to be a solution to people getting into these press conferences and making me furious (NSFW link. I was EXTRA ranty when I wrote that one.) Could they give them a quiz or something at the door? A handy-dandy bridgekeeper? "What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" I would be sure to watch from the very beginning of the press conference if they would include highlights of the spring-loaded reporter exclusion device in action.

Expletive Weather

If you wondered why I haven't gone out and done anything interesting to take pictures to show you this is why. It has been like this for TWO MONTHS! It's like having a life threatening fever if you go outside. I've grown to actually prefer having one of my three day migraines because then at least I can just lie still and moan incoherently instead of fidgeting at the computer studying web sites about parks in Oregon. I saw a video on about rescuing a hiker who got lost on Mount Hood for 3 days. That wouldn't happen to me. Naw. Especially if I don't go. I calculated it would cost about $600 for gas to get there and back. Dammit I could fly out of here for that.

I did force myself to go out today even though I felt like I was being baked. I actually burned myself on my car key when I pulled it out of the ignition. The car had been parked in the sun and it super heated the key while I was driving I guess. I thought the steering wheel was unbearably hot, but leather doesn't conduct heat like a metal car key.

I went to Whole Foods (underground parking) to walk around and practice not making eye contact with strangers and to work on wincing painfully when children squeal on the escalator. They had quinces. I'd never seen those before. They look like apples but smell different. Kind of like some sort of melon or pear. Apparently they're in the rose family like the king of all jelly making fruit, mayhaws, so that explains why they are preferred for jelly making. They were very fragrant. It's too hot to make jelly though. Just forget it.

There were some interesting heirloom tomatoes and these beets were as bright as in this picture. I didn't buy any of this stuff. I just like looking at it.