Saturday, September 14, 2013

Watching TV: You're doing it wrong

I caught an article in the Independent today saying Samsung is making a curved organic light emitting diode television* (OLED) that will allow two separate content streams to be displayed simultaneously. Viewers sitting side by side can see and hear entirely different shows. Of course they'll have to wearing special glasses with attached ear buds (optional purchase, $200 for a pair).

Whoever set up this imaginary room for this photo should be
smacked. That is all wrong! Way too much light! I get that London
is unusually bright this summer, but in the winter won't it be
cold in there? And who are the white chairs for? You arrange
a few cabbages there and mock them when you
 beat them to the answers on QI?
This baffles me. If you don't want to watch the same thing on TV as the owner of said TV, move out! What is this fixation with living with other people?!

Second of all, where is there a head of household so accommodating that they will sit and watch TV wearing special glasses and headphones instead of using their complete surround system? Just so the other person in the room can be involved in something else entirely, yet they are right there? I guess these are the same people who go to a cafe with a companion and poke at their phone the whole time. I don't understand. What's the point of being in the company of somebody who doesn't share your interests?

Frankly I think the better invention would be an app to automate my preferred TV experience. I watch shows with other people all the time. But they're at their house and I'm at my house. We type messages back and forth on Google Hangouts while watching mp4 files of the TV shows. The hardest part is synchronizing the playback so I'm not cracking jokes about a line of dialog they haven't heard yet. If I was actually there on their sofa speaking out loud in my unpleasant voice it would be annoying. But I don't worry about it when it's just text popping up. They can ignore text. So I don't feel bad about blurting out whatever amuses me and I enjoy myself without being reprimanded to shut up. Ever since MST3000 and Rifftrax and live Tweeting it's as much fun to watch horrible TV shows and mock them with your friends as to watch the good ones by yourself.

The second hardest thing after synchronizing playback is achieving a pleasing proportion of text to TV picture. I have a 27" Sony TV for my monitor at the foot of my bed. It's hooked to a Mac Mini. I line up the Messages window next to the VLC window and then zoom the whole screen until I see just that part and the text is big enough for me to read from 6 feet away. (I use a big trackball with a scroll wheel that controls my picture really well.) I could have Hangouts on my iPad and just watch the TV show full screen, but I like focusing on both at the same time.

That's the way to do it. Share the experience, not the personal space. The other way around? That's just weird.

Apple TV and Google, you are free to contact me to consult on your inevitable development of this implementation of existing technology.

*Aside from this one weird feature this is probably a stand-up piece of technology. (see additional technical info) I'm just joking. I still support new technology, the sillier the better. That's how we eventually end up with stuff I want. I'm kind of surprised I didn't pay more attention to this in January when it was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Because They Fly

A juvenile gopher would fit in this small bowl.
The largest one in my yard would just fit
in the dishpan.
Yesterday I saw an adult gopher tortoise and then a baby gopher tortoise and suddenly a question popped into my head. "Why do birds grow up so fast then stay the same size until they die?" Gophers grow pretty quickly for 8 to 10 years until they reach sexual maturity, then they grow more slowly. But they keep growing. Why don't birds?

Short answer: Because they fly.

This is what I would tell anybody who asked me how I know a 1 1/2" hole is the right size for a wren nesting box. Why are all birds of that species capable of fitting through a hole that size? Aren't there smaller ones and bigger ones? Nope, I'd tell them. They are all pretty close to the same size. It's because they fly. After they hatch they have to quickly get to that ideal size for their particular flight physics. Then they stay that size forever because their ability to fly depends on it.

I would be making it up, but that's what I would tell them.

If anybody ever asked. Which they don't. Because every intelligent person knows a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk is the same size as an adult, even if he doesn't have his pretty red tail feathers yet. (I'm so socially stunted I assume everybody has read the same children's books I read, even Rufous Redtail, which is so rare I have never found another copy besides the one that burned up in my childhood home.)  But there are really ignorant people who don't know this. I've heard of people who think wrens at the bird feeder are baby robins.

It's odd I've never asked why this consistency of size exists, or how. Now I want to know the mechanism for it.

I searched fruitlessly for a real academic answer to this question. I searched the Cornell Lab or Ornithology web site, I even looked in the index of Richard Dawkins' book The Greatest Show on Earth and found a single page that barely touched on the unique evolution of birds separate from reptile descendants of the common ancestor.* Even that didn't come right out and explain how constraints of flight made each species of bird so close to the same adult size.

Nobody explains why all Carolina Wrens fit through a 1 1/2" hole. Not anywhere I can find on the internet anyway. It may be chapter four in every ornithology textbook ever written, but it's sure a secret on the internet. Maybe it's just a boundary condition everybody takes for granted because it's so obviously true by empirical evidence.
Every Carolina Wren I've ever seen was this size.
Even the ones that fall out of the nest are this big.

I found a meta-study into the variation in adult body size based on latitude. There's a trend for birds who live in cold climates to be slightly larger than individuals of the same species who live where it's hot and humid. I read this whole paper (Patterns of within-species body size variation of birds: strong evidence of Bergmann's rule) and never did it explain why they expect the adults of the same species to be the same size in the first place. I hoped they would explain that before they started studying extremely minor variations of whole populations.

Finally I found a paper that turned on the lightbulb that allowed me to make up my physics-of-flight-constrains-size explanation. This paper didn't bother to explain why all grown birds of the same species are basically the same size. But it did explore why all grown birds of the same related group of birds are pretty similar in size. This paper (Similarities in body size distributions of small-bodied flying vertebrates) was very hard to read. I had to keep looking up words. Basically they amalgamated data on body size of perching birds, hummingbirds, and bats and compared them to the body size of rodents and the class that includes shrews and moles. They did a bunch of statistics, plotted the data, and decided that the flying ones and insect eating ones are more similar to each other than they are to rodents. I think they are saying related birds and animals like shrews have very specific functions therefore they have very specific (and similar) body size. Whereas rodents are more adaptable. I think that's what it says. Take a taste of this practically indecipherable text from the abstract:
Empirically, the clades with the most similar body mass distributions are the Passeriformes and Chiroptera, a result inconsistent with similarities among distributions being attributable to phylogeny. However, the other clade of flying species (Apodiformes +Trochiliformes) was less similar to either Passeriformes or Chiroptera than was the Insectivora, which is inconsistent with the pattern expected if body size distributions were influenced by constraints of flight. A test for phylogenetic symmetry indicated that the empirical pattern of similarity was statistically inconsistent with this hypothesis, while a test for functional symmetry indicated that the empirical pattern was statistically consistent with this hypothesis, though not perfectly congruent. Hence, we conclude that there is evidence that functional constraints influence similarities in body mass distributions among species of distantly related taxa.
I am not certain, but I suspect it actually says that for a group of related descendants of a common ancestor the requirement of flight does not force all subsequent evolutionary iterations to be similar in size. That's fine, I don't care. I just want to know why all Ruby throated hummingbirds are the same size, not how Bee hummingbirds can be so much smaller. First things first. I read the whole paper and studied the plots and read the discussion and conclusions. I looked up words. I decided it didn't have the information I wanted anyway and wasn't worth the effort to really understand it.

Maybe if I could work out what "phylogenetic symmetry" means I could come around to the answer.

It's frustrating not to be able to find a nice explanation. I may need to actually ask an ornithologist. I just hate to impose on them. I'll just continue to educate myself until I can read that abstract above without a cryptographic key. I'll read this whole Dawkins book and write an update if I figure it out.

*page 159-160 discusses the cladist view regarding the common ancestor to birds and reptiles and how excluding birds from the reptile line is not accurate because alligators are more like birds than they are like turtles.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Citizen Science: Gopher Tortoises

I like to do experiments. I've measured how hot t-shirts and birdhouses get in the sun, set fire to different materials used for rain screens on houses, and simulated rocket shock waves with ripple tanks. I even count developing recipes for making a single serving of cake cooked in the microwave in a tea cup as science. These are mostly physics and chemistry experiments. I like the hard sciences. It can be done in a short period of time, asked and answered.

I also like natural sciences. I just find it a challenge to my attention span. I don't have the stamina to go out in the field and take measurements with the regularity and precision that would produce a set of data that seems accurate to my physics-adjusted mind. I know I should probably prepare a study plan and apply for a grant to collect data on the endangered gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) that live in my yard. It's just that they are most active in the time of year where the woods are uniquely hostile. The ticks, chiggers, ants, and yellow flies would eat me alive if I had to go out every day and survey a large number of gopher burrows. But I can't help paying attention to them when they are all up on me. I always have my iPhone, so I take pictures.

Today I was climbing down from my loft and saw something outside the window that was a bit odd.

A gopher outside my window isn't odd, but what's that on his back?
Eww, that's a gopher turd. How? I can't even guess how that got there.
I'm guessing it's related to this behavior. 
There is usually one gopher per hole. I've never seen this persistent bickering until recently. But then again, I wasn't able to constantly observe a gopher hole until I started doing small years.

These two male gophers have been fighting over this hole in my yard for at least 2 years. Every day in the summer the second gopher walks over there and spends the day on the apron of the burrow. When I walk by they go down the hole, but the back one won't let the other one in all the way. Once he got himself turned around and was trying to come out and gopher behind him must have had a grip on him and wouldn't let him out. I think they fight a lot when I'm not looking because the apron of that burrow is just a mess of gopher scuff marks and toenail digs. In 2005 I came upon a gopher upside down in my driveway. He was right outside a burrow and there were gopher turds here and there. It's about like cow or horse manure, but I don't have a cow or horse so I deduced it was from the gopher. They eat the same thing after all (see video at the end. Bahia grass and whatever they can get in their mouth they eat.) I guess they shit when they fight? Which is, well, I have no opinion on that.

So when I saw this gopher today with this turd stuck to his back I figured it was something that happened in a fight over that hole.

That hole wasn't there when I built my house in 2005. It turned up the second year I was here as a juvenile's burrow. Then a large gopher usurped it a few months later and enlarged it. It is southeast of my house, in full view of my east and south facing windows. I can do ecology observations without even leaving the air conditioning.

This second gopher spends the night either in another hole on the North side of my house or maybe in one of the burrows to the south near my lab. (The converted Spartan trailer) If I was a better scientist I would track him and note where he went every morning and night and make a chart. If I see him coming or going in the morning or at dusk I just make a mental note. I cannot imagine what makes the stump hole so popular. Maybe because it's under a giant stump it has some structural advantage.

Last year another juvenile dug a hole nearby. I put a stob near it to stop the UPS man from driving over it.

Here you can see the stump with the hole going under it.
The stob in the background is next to the juvenile's hole.
I painted a sign to warn people not to run over my gophers.
Note proper acceptable use of Comic Sans. I actually asked
Perry Hart for permission to use these images from
the comic BC on my handpainted sign. (I made friends
with her via email in Oceanography grad school because
 Clumsy was my inspiration.)
You may be wondering how I know who lives in which hole. I kind of don't. I am not that rigorous in my identification. Whoever goes in that hole is that name that day. But I can kind of guess how old the gopher is that lives there because they are like the hollow tree entrances in Peter Pan. They are exactly fitted to the user. Although these large ones that are worth fighting over may have a bit larger error bar. If I was a good scientist I would measure the gophers and measure the holes and make a chart.

This is the juvenile hole apron. I mow pretty close to it.
They don't seem to care. They could bite off this grass if
they wanted to, but they don't so I guess they like
the camouflage.
Juvenile hole up close, medium size. Note color of soil is yellowish.
Baby hole. Small. Note color of soil is white.
All of these holes are in that same little mown patch outside my window. I guess that makes me Goldilocks?

Here's a gopher that fits that size hole. I took this today too, right after the turd gopher.

Slightly older than a hatchling
There used to be a 4th one for a guy this size.

Hatchling, June 27, 2013

He came from one of these. 
Gopher egg, June 22, 2013
I found a lot of these rolling around my yard this summer, mainly in the driveway. The female gopher is old and lazy and doesn't do a good job digging the hole for her eggs and they get washed up or dug up by predators. I rebury the ones I find intact. I have no idea if they ever hatch. I try to keep them right side up, but I don't know if they were rolled around by whoever dug them up.

There was a hole by the stump for a hatchling gopher but something round has taken over that hole. This WAS a gopher hole a few weeks ago, but now it is home to something round, like a snake or a mouse maybe.

Baby Gopher hole usurped by another species
You may be wondering about the significance of the color of the sand outside these holes. The soil on my hill is original undisturbed earth. It's never been tilled for agriculture. So it retains very clear boundaries. I learned of this when I dug the post holes to build my house. The first foot is very white sand. Then there is a layer of yellow sand. Then all of a sudden it turns bright orange. This is called the Norfolk fine sand profile, and is clearly shown in the county soil map from 1905. (Back in 2005 I called the Georgia Archives and they mailed me a CD with a giant TIFF file of this poster size map.)

Soil color changes with depth
The point is that if the apron of a hole is only white and yellow sand I know it is shallow. When the soil they're pushing out is bright orange then I can tell they have gone about 3' deep or more. This is only valid when it's freshly dug up. Rain and sun soon bleaches and leaches the apron of the burrow.

If I was a good scientist I'd put my iPhone on the tripod holder and put it on my extendable monopod with a flashlight and a wheel taped on and shove it down those gopher holes and see what they're like down there. But it just seems terribly rude. The gophers are nice enough not to come in my house and eat my porridge, I feel like I owe them the same respect. 

I did start recording hole locations on a free iPhone app. But I got bored with that too. 

You can see the holes are all clustered around my house.
That's observation bias, not related to actual density of holes.
If I was a good scientist I'd pay for this app so I don't have to look at advertisements. And I'd document ALL the holes I can find, and I'd go look for them in a systematic search. (Unrelated note, the aerial photo here is old. My pond is full now.)

I believe I can tell females from males because males have a larger gular plate under their chin. I suppose it's for fighting over the best burrows, a lever arm to turn the other one over. I could be wrong in my guesses though. The only real way to tell is to turn them over and see if the bottom plastron is concave, then it's a male. Females are flat. I think turning a tortoise over is extremely rude, so I don't do that. It's not that important to know which is which. Also it's illegal. I don't have a science permit. Civilians aren't supposed to harass endangered species.
The thing between the front legs is the gular plate. This is Turd Gopher from today.
Here's a gopher picture I took between the lab and the house. I think this might be Chimney Gopher. That's a hole to the northwest of my lab by the pile of bricks from the old chimney. I don't mow near it so it would be a week of itchy chigger bites to push through the briars to go take a picture.
Chimney Gopher posing for a picture. He's bigger than my house!
I started to get confused about which gopher was which as I went through all my pictures so I went out to study Stump Gopher's gular plate to convince myself he's a male. I took my zoom camera and went in the house to wait for him to come out. Then I tried to go out there fast and catch him before he went in his hole.

Gopher action shot! They actually are quite fleet-footed. The stereotype is wrong.
I just went out again as the sun set and inventoried the four large gopher burrows near my house. They were all at home.
Lab Gopher hole near the driveway to the lab. Faces west.
Lab Gopher at home.
This is the gopher in the most coveted stump hole tonight.
Stump Gopher at home. Faces northwest.
Shed Gopher was home too. Her hole faces north so I couldn't get a natural light photo. Batteries were low in my zoom camera so I used my iPhone with the flash.

Shed Gopher at home. Faces north.
I checked the other gopher hole adjacent to the road downhill from my lab, Drain Field Gopher. That's the biggest of all the holes. It's at the bottom of the drain field for the septic tank.
Drain Field Gopher at home
He was too far down in his hole for me to get a picture. I know he was in there though because he huffed at me. That's what the gopher says. HHHHFFF!

I started this blog entry today because seeing that big gopher and little gopher together made me think of a question. Why do birds hatch from eggs and then quickly grow to their maximum size and then just stay that same size forever? Ornithologists would roar with laughter if you said "Ooo! A Pileated Woodpecker! And it's a BIG ONE too!" But gophers seem to keep growing. Drain Field Gopher is remarkably huge. Alligators keep growing, and there are as many sizes of turtles sunning on logs in the river as there are sizes of scallop shells on the beach. Is it related to sexual maturity? Lifespan? If I was a good scientist I would know this, but I didn't get any advanced biology classes. It's an embarrassing gap in my education. I'm going to attempt to research it without access to a university library database. If I figure it out I'll write another blog. If anybody knows a good resource, let me know in the comments.

Meanwhile, here's a video of shed gopher grazing outside my window from many years ago. I believe this to be the female that lays all the eggs, mainly because I caught her laying eggs in the soft soil I'd just dug out for a post hole when I was building my house and she ran back to that hole on the shed side of my house. The hole could have changed hands but I'm kind of stuck with that notion now. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Early Exposure to Solar Energy

When I was a young college student I had to walk right by this solar furnace dozens of times a week to get from my classes in the Industrial Engineering building to lectures in the Physics building.
I think they replaced it with a building in the '90s. 

I wonder if these mirrors on the hill somehow imbued me with an abnormal appreciation for the power of reflected sunlight? It sure seems like a lot of people dismiss it.

Also I must point out that London man's melty jaguar was black. Here's a color experiment I did a few years ago that is obliquely relevant.

Copernicus Weeps

"What a jackass!" --  Copernicus
OK, this is just the last fucking straw. All week long IEEE Spectrum has been running stories about how the STEM shortage is a myth created by the tech industry refusing to pay decent wages to experienced scientists and engineers. No shit. I've been saying that for 15 years. The only thing about the stories is how bland they are. Why am I the only one that finds the whole thing infuriating and rant-worthy? Why don't they end with a call to FUCKING STOP IT! The idea that a scientific education becomes obsolete is just idiotic. The whole basis for this is bullshit.

My first consulting job out of college in 1989 I was hired to create a computer interface and write some software to test hardware that allowed airlines to communicate with their pilots in the air by radio. I'd had one Applied Physics class called "Interface Electronics" and I took Fortran and Pascal like everybody was required to back then. But I had never done any RS-232 interfacing or used the computer interface card they had and I hadn't ever even glanced at C programming language. But Baker Audio bought me a PC and Borland C++ in a box at the computer store, sent me back to my graduate student office at Georgia Tech and expected me to figure it out. And I did.

So what the hell is this bullshit about becoming obsolete? I can figure stuff out from scratch even better now than I could back then. Now I have the internet full of forums with people explaining what they tried already and why it didn't work. THAT is what STEM education is about. Learning how to teach yourself, learning how to solve problems. When I worked on circuit design in school we had to learn the resistor color code to identify leggy little guys we could use in our breadboards. Then I got a job designing printed circuit boards with surface mount resistors. They had tiny numbers printed on them to indicate how many ohms they were. No problem. The schematic is identical. They didn't change Maxwell's Equations did they? Do antennas not work the same way they used to? Is it no longer the right hand rule, it's the left foot shortcut? This is bullshit. I'm not obsolete, you're stupid. >hrumphhhh<

I'm not saying science doesn't advance. It was great fun to retake the FSU equivalent of Nuclear Astrophysics and Stellar Evolution again in 2007. So much new information since I took it in 1988! There's a whole new theory about where the moon came from. But hey, look at that! There I was in the class learning the new stuff. Because THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT! Once I bought into science, technology, engineering and math education as a life choice I didn't just stop in 1989 when I got my BS degree. I actually immediately signed up for grad school with no intention of finishing just because I really wanted to take Psychoacoustics and the professor was about to retire and the opportunity would be gone forever.

Which brings me to why I'm so fucking outraged by this Jaguar-melting office tower in London. People have no respect for the people who truly understand the underlying science and they rely far too much on computer models where they wouldn't know the wrong answer if it set their clothes on fire. Why is it acceptable for an institute to just discontinue an entire subject when the professor retires? I see the body of work of scientists past just discarded as trivial and obsolete and it incenses me. My professors at Georgia Tech were truly brilliant and now they are dying and their knowledge is dying with them.*

The insanity of this building design and the completely lame excuses just fill me with a speakable-only-in-expetives rage.
"I knew this was going to happen," said Viñoly, speaking to the Guardian on Friday. "But there was a lack of tools or software that could be used to analyse the problem accurately."

No, seriously. That is completely unacceptable. What the fuck, you utter jackass?! Get out a goddamm piece of paper a pencil and a straight edge and figure it the fuck out! You are an insult to the profession. I'm not even IN that profession and I am insulted. Here, you useless sack of shit, here's a picture of a the Universal Sun Chart in Ramsey and Sleeper's Architectural Graphic Standards, copyright 1951.

There is no way anybody with a decent architecture degree doesn't know how to do this most basic optics calculation. Is this chart too complicated for your computer-model atrophied little brain?Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. If you didn't get this in high school that's a crying shame. But to get an architecture degree and not know this, then I think your university should be outed as a fraud. The angle of incidence is not a goddam secret locked up in some non-existent software. It's hiding in an advancement-proof file format known as a BOOK. Even with a severe case of middle age I could work through the worst cases of this problem on a piece of graph paper in less than 8 hours. And I'm not that bright. Barely average based on my grades at graduation. I am far too afraid I'd mess it up and embarrass myself if I really did it and put it on my blog though. I leave it to the class as an exercise. The point is if I am so sure it could be done why the hell did this building get built this way? I'm not sure if it's a case of people having no brains or no balls. For fuck's sake, you just shouldn't start building something if you can't afford to build it so it doesn't ignite the neighborhood.

THIS is what you get when you fire everybody on their 30th birthday and fill all the STEM jobs with underpaid fresh-outs. Management loves their fresh ideas, but they don't have to take them seriously when they predict something bad is going to happen. More from the Guardian story:
In London, he said the issue was the result of the nature of the development process in the UK, in which the architect is often sidelined.
"One problem that happens in this town, is the super-abundance of consultancies and sub-consultancies that dilute the responsibility of the designer," he said, "to the point that you just don't know where you are any more."
The developers have blamed the problem on "the current elevation of the sun in the sky," a position Viñoly seems inclined to share.
"When I first came to London years ago, it wasn't like this," he said. "Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"
Just fucking stop it. You're killing me.

* Sorry the link to Dr. Braden's class notes at the end of the linked article is broken. My free FTP at Apple went obsolete.

*Update: After I published this and tweeted the link I got a reply from @ed_davies on Twitter with a link to a video where an astronomer does the exact thing I described above. This is wonderful. I'm impressed with how calm he is and not reduced to incoherent cursing.

I notice this is by the same guy that does the Periodic Table videos. I love those.

** 2nd Update Here's a still picture of the protractor work sent to me on Twitter by Professor Mike Merrifield from the University of Nottingham. Also seen in the video above.