February 2009 Archives


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I'm a pretty relentlessly rational person, on the whole, so it always irks, or at least amuses, me when I notice myself doing something completely irrational. (Not to be confused with unreasonable, mind you -- I am highly unreasonable on a regular basis.)

In that spirit, here's a behavioral quirk of mine that I was thinking about the other day: I always touch the outside of an airplane just before boarding.

There is a rationale for that, in a sense. If I'm about to trust my life to a machine or tool, I'd want to give it at least a cursory inspection first. Boarding an airplane certainly qualifies, unless you're just planning to take it for a spin around the tarmac. But you and I have neither the ability nor the opportunity to gauge the flight worthiness of a commercial jet beyond observing that the correct number of wings and engines are present. So somewhere along the line I picked up this habit of touching the fuselage on my way through the hatch. Is that a "I'm trusting you, so don't let me down" pat like you'd give a horse? Just making the only hands-on inspection I'm allowed? Couldn't say.

So what's your quasi-rational quirk?



Well, our once-or-twice yearly real blizzard has hit. There's a noticeable optical depth between my lab window and the building across the sidewalk. I'd guess the visibility is 100 meters or so. But it's supposed to end by tonight, so we'll pick up less than a foot of snow in total.

Here's what the system was doing earlier today, though:

Radar map from Wunderground.com for 10:35 CST, several hours after the snow storm was supposed to have reached us.

This sort of thing happens in the summer with rain storms too, though to a lesser extent. That hole developed pretty much right at the edge of the Twin Cities suburbs as the system moved in from the west, and stuck around for five or six hours, meaning that while it was snowing both east and west of us by 7 am, it didn't start here (in the urban core) until almost 1 pm. I don't think it's a heat island thing, exactly, since it was well below freezing here all day. Rather, my theory is that the metropolis has its own associated convection system that may disrupt the convective processes of incident weather systems and thus delay the onset of precipitation. However, this is a pretty obvious phenomenon and plenty of other non-experts have observed the same thing, but local meteorologists have been asked about this on several occasions, and they never seem to know much about it.


Out to Lunch

Yes, the ongoing series of somewhat disjointed posts shall continue, as I still read a lot and constantly run across things that I'd like to share, but with a ballooning campaign coming up in a month or so, I really don't have time to work up extended narratives on the subject(s). Running with Connor's delightful street fair metaphor, EGAD is out to lunch, but on the bulletin board by the entrance there's an activity list of self-guided adventures you might enjoy. To wit:

Heads up, comet fans: Comet 2007 N3 (Lulin) makes its closest approach to Earth today. It's been quite photogenic, and currently at sixth magnitude and skirting past Saturn should be an easy target. Keep an eye on Spaceweather.com for the latest.

An addendum to last week's thoughts on digital signals: an in-depth introduction to the MP3 format. While only the extremely bored or those trying to write an MP3 player from scratch will want to read the whole thing, it's quite interesting to skim if you want an idea of how those ubiquitous MP3 files manage to cram hundreds of CDs worth of music onto your hard drive, and the compromises that make them sufficiently annoying to work with that people keep inventing alternatives.

An endlessly fascinating online museum exhibit: Visible Embryos is a project of the University of Cambridge. Today, the image of the human embryo and fetus is common, widely used in scientific, political, and cultural contexts, but the first reasonably accurate images of the pre-natal human were only drawn about 200 years ago. The exhibit charts the developing human image of the developing human from late medieval monsters to test tube babies and abortion propaganda.

And speaking of images (and the corresponding weight of words) GOOD Magazine collects a great deal of vehicle fuel consumption data into one flawed but educational plot. A pity that they left out airships and pirate schooners, but appreciate how well this chart emphasizes a key point: by any reasonable standard, the bicycle is the most energy efficient form of transportation in existence. (No fair pointing to downhill skiing, either -- you have to count the energy used by the lift too.)

A couple of notes on local politics. Norm Coleman continues to refuse to leave the spotlight despite having essentially no chance of being declared the winner here -- he's being generously funded by the national Republican party as a cheap trick to keep Al Franken's presumptive seat vacant. I recently ran across an essay on Norm written by Garrison Keillor back in 2002 when he beat Walter Mondale for the seat. A good read and somewhat prescient: "...Norm is a slick retail campaigner, the grabbiest and touchingest and feelingest politician in Minnesota history... Was elected mayor of St. Paul as a moderate Democrat, then swung comfortably over to the Republican side. There was no dazzling light on the road to Damascus, no soul-searching: Norm switched parties as you'd change sport coats. ...To choose Coleman over Walter Mondale is one of those dumb low-rent mistakes, like going to a great steakhouse and ordering the tuna sandwich. But I don't envy someone who's sold his soul. He's condemned to a life of small arrangements. There will be no passion, no joy, no heroism, for him. He is a hollow man."

On a more encouraging note, just the other day my representative, Keith Ellison, became the first U.S. legislator to enter the Gaza strip in over two years; no congressional delegations have visited that fraught patch of land since Hamas took power and Israel placed it under siege. Given how much is tied up in or connected to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Gaza seems like the sort of place we ignore at our considerable peril.

Finally: Russian schoolgirl asks Vladimir Putin for guinea pig, embarrasses local officials over ensuing Kafka-esque ordeal, gets guinea pigs for her trouble.

And a photo for getting this far.

The Denver International Airport is rather a curious sight at night.


Stop me if you've heard this one.

So the infinite monkeys that have been working on the next version of Windows walk into a bar. The first one in line says, "Hey, give me a banana martini," and the barkeep goes to make one. Before he's even finished making that one, the second one says, "I'm watching my intake, I'll have half what he's having." Right behind that monkey, the next one says, "Same here, I'll have half what the second fellow is having." The bartender pauses to take in the infinite line stretching out the door, says "To heck with this," and puts two martinis on the bar.

I spent a chunk of this week re-learning various interesting things about digital signal processing, which (naturally) can be done quite conveniently in python these days. (Don't worry, I'll resist the urge to write import skynet in any programs.) In theory, if you type import scipy you can make python do anything Matlab can. While I'm still fundamentally suspicious of syntactically significant whitespace -- although I'm not about to revive that particular Great Internet Debate -- python has actually edged out perl as my go-to high level language of choice these days. The only excuse I have left to muck around in perl these days is maintaining PageCaptain, and to be honest, I've been severely delinquent on that front this year anyway.

Speaking of things digital, now that February 18th has passed, the great digital TV transition is underway. As one of the 15% or so of households still using over-the-air broadcast television, this has been of great interest to the roomies. While our rabbit ears pull in all but the two weakest stations reasonably well, the more couch-spud inclined of them have been agitating for an antenna upgrade. I might build one of these in that case. The Gray-Hoverman antenna is a nice example of Moore's Law enabling ever larger groups of people to do stuff that was the province of professionals until quite recently, in this case, design and optimize high-gain antennas. Back when the ham radio operators did this sort of thing on a regular basis, antenna tuning was considered among the highest of black arts.

Okay, that's enough of that. I'll leave you with a video that Elena showed me recently:

Music video to Schweine by Glukoza Nostra, from youtube


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So today happens to be the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and also of Abe Lincoln.

I think tristero nicely captures Darwin's spirit with this passage from his autobiography:

[O]ne day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

...I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin, W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ's College, and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became well acquainted, and went out collecting, with Albert Way of Trinity, who in after years became a well-known arch├Žologist; also with H. Thompson of the same College, afterwards a leading agriculturist, chairman of a great railway, and Member of Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!

The Origin of Species, incidentally, is a pretty good read; almost all of Darwin's works are available online as text and scanned pages (so you can see the pictures).

Lincoln was a gifted orator and made a great many excellent speeches, but the one most relevant to today isn't his most famous: his words in the Cooper Union Address could be delivered today, with just a few words replaced, when speaking of the unreasoning right wing of today's politics as well:

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Also, today is my roommate Adele's birthday. But to the best of my knowledge, her great speeches and world-changing books are still in the planning stages.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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