Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Mitchella Repens!

Merry Christmas!

I found this on the forest floor today. My best identification is Partridge berry (Mitchella Repens). It's supposed to be edible, but not tasty, so I didn't try it, but it did remind me of the season.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

When Good Democracy Goes Silly

Voting is such a joke. Well, it must have seemed that way, for some people as they made their way to the Minnesota polls. I've watched a little of the Minnesota Canvas Review Board webcast at, and in the space of a few minutes some crazy ballots came up, reflecting our dear Minnesotans' sense of humor.

The first one thought it would be fun to change the name of candidate Franken, to Frankenstein, but I bet they didn't expect their mischief to appear on state-wide TV! [ Especially since they spelled it wrong. ] The Coleman campaign advocate was brazen enough to suppose that the voter was voting for someone else named Frankenstin, and definitely not candidate Franken!

The second ballot voted legitimately for Senate, but on lower level offices, our voter clearly subscribes to Flying Spaghetti Monsterism. All hail to His Noodly Appendage!

I'm glad for my Minnesota brethrens' senses of humor, but perhaps the voting booth is not the place to express it.

Update: Here's one more. I for one welcome our new Lizard People overlords.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tomato Legacy

Well, today I finally finished the last of my summer garden tomatoes. The last bunch was picked green before the frost right before Thanksgiving, and they slowly ripened over the past few weeks. Most of those last ones were small cherry-like tomatoes, and not so tasty, but a few were great! I had a grand total of 70 tomatoes from three plants. I will definitely try this again next year.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Multiplier Effect - some results

My previous post, "Multiplier Effect," outlined the economic impact of various possible stimulus packages. On the top of the list -- those stimuli that provide the greatest productivity improvement per dollar spent -- were capital infrastructure improvements.

President-elect Obama's new plans include:
Save one million jobs through immediate investments to rebuild America's roads and bridges and repair our schools: The Obama-Biden emergency plan would make $25 billion immediately available in a Jobs and Growth Fund to help ensure that in-progress and fast-tracked infrastructure projects are not sidelined, and to ensure that schools can meet their energy costs and undertake key repairs starting this fall.
Create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments.

It sounds promising, but of course the devil is in the details. As this Washington Post article points out, many of the actual projects will be more maintenance-type activities, rather than huge monorail systems. But if the goal is to improve the job situation at the same time as improving national infrastructure, these types of projects will certainly help. The big risk, when spending large amounts of money quickly, is of fraud, theft and corruption. In that case, the money will still have a stimulative effect -- even the thief spends his swag -- but the national will not get the full benefit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"A goodbye kiss from the Iraqi People"

From the BBC, Shoes thrown at Bush on Iraq trip (click link for video):
A surprise visit by US President George Bush to Iraq has been overshadowed by an incident in which two shoes were thrown at him during a news conference.
In the middle of the news conference with Mr Maliki, a reporter stood up and shouted "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," before hurtling his shoes at Mr Bush, narrowly missing him.

Around the world, American leaders are now welcomed with open arms and bare feet! Who knew that in Iraq, it was a sign of endearment to play doggy-fetch with your slippers?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Multiplier Effect

Because of the developing economic crisis, I've been reading more economics blogs. My favorites are Econbrowser, hosted by Profs. Hamilton and Chinn; Macro-Man an anonymous but extremely incisive and hilarious day-trader*; and Follow the Money by Brad Setser. Any other reader favorites?

One excellent post by Prof. Chinn has direct relevance to governmental policy initiatives to deal with the economic problems. Her post is based on work by Mark Zandi of The question is: given that the economy needs to be stimulated, what method of stimulation yields the largest economic benefit. The benefit here is expressed as the stimulus multiplier, which is the amount of increase in GDP per unit of stimulus. For example, if we simply gave every person in the country $1, each could go out and buy a McDonald's value menu item. But the benefit doesn't stop there because with the increased consumption, McDonald's has to hire more workers, who in turn consume more; purchase more supplies from its suppliers, who in turn hire more workers, etc. So in principle, a $1 stimulus package can have more than $1 benefit to overall production.

So which economic stimuli had the greatest benefit? The top three were:
  • Temporarily Increase Food-stamps (multiplier 1.73)
  • Extend Unemployment Insurance Benefits (multiplier 1.64)
  • Increase Infrastructure Spending (multiplier 1.59)
The first two items have the obvious benefits of keeping people on their feet, but also provide an extra 64-73% advantage beyond the direct stimulus. Of course these benefits can only be temporary. On the other hand, the third item has the advantage of improving neglected infrastructure -- a long term "capital gain" -- while at the same time providing an extra 60% bang for our buck.

Now for the worst stimulus concepts:
  • Make Bush Tax Cuts Permanent (multiplier 0.29)
  • Cut Corporate Tax Rate (multiplier 0.30)
  • Make Dividend Tax Cuts Permanent (multiplier 0.37)
Since these multipliers are less than unity, it means that for every dollar of tax break, the country's production actually goes down. Of course some small segment of the population may benefit from such tax cuts, but in hard economic times, it's not clear why they would deserve a benefit when the broad population and the overall economy do not. To be fair, a few of the tax cut concepts do a little bit better, most most are break-even at best.

Note that these tax cuts that are discussed most readily as the solution to the economic problems have some of the worst possible effects on the economy. In fact, a tax cut actually hinders production, compared to other stimuli. Dr. Chinn discusses some reasons this may be true.

What fascinates me is the question of whether the multipliers work in reverse. If reducing corporate taxes by $1.00 hobbles the economy by $0.70, then would raising taxes by $1.00 improve the economy by $0.30? As heretical as that sounds, it seems that while raising taxes will withdraw $1.00 from corporate coffers and hence from the economy, it enables the government to spend $1.00 on more needful and worthy areas (say, on stimuli that have a large multiplier!).

The situation is somewhat more complicated because each of the stimulus concepts have different time scales, so it would require a more delicate touch than brute force. But it would be nice if, in the political dialog about what to do next, actual economic data would be used rather than mindless rhetoric with zero substantiation.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Under the Gunn

Last week I went to a presentation by Tim Gunn, well known as one of the hosts of Project Runway. I went with my friend Maggie and her friend April. It was held at the University of Maryland at the student union. Ostensibly, the purpose of the presentation was to help students transition their style from school to the workplace.

(my best photo, because they requested no-flash)

In reality, he spoke for a few minutes on that topic (his primary wisdom was, "be responsible for your look.") I was hoping for a bit of a slide show -- at least some kind of "do's" and "don't's" -- but he disabused us of that possibility early on, because he thought a slide show would be interpreted too literally by his viewers. To me that sounds like a bit of a cop-out.

One interesting thing I did learn is that Mr. Gunn has no formal training in fashion design, which is impressive because he has quite a good eye when advising his students.

Mr. Gunn is also extremely gracious, in person just as much as on his television shows. He's just an endearing guy. I have no doubt that, if there had been time, he would have loved to meet everybody in person and learn about their life story. Unfortunately the size of the crowd was huge, and the ballroom was packed to the gills! This turned out to be a problem at the end of the presentation, when Gunn wrapped up and moved for the door. The crowd literally mobbed him! Here's the scene:

(yes, that's him on the left, I only got the back half of his head...)

Eventually he waded through the crowd, and escaped through a service door. Whew! Hopefully he'll carry on his interesting career!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pardon Me, I'd Like to Cash in My Constitution

Recently the ACLU has been making a big deal about the US Government's declaration of a "constitution-free zone" around the perimeter of the country. The government has assumed that within 100 miles of the "external border" of the United States, border patrol personnel may detain and search any person or vehicle, including U.S. citizens, for the purposes of border enforcement activities. Get that? Even though you might never have crossed the border, you may be stopped and subject to being searched if you are within that zone, without a warrant. The ACLU site opines that this assumption places up to 2/3rds of the population within the so-called constitution free zone. My part of the country looks like this.

Yes, I live in the zone, and could be subject to searches. In fact, I am subject to such a zone every time enter or leave the security of my place of work. But these "border searches" are taking place far from any real border, on public roads, and are practiced on the general public.

I appreciate that the ACLU is resisting these types of actions, but I wanted to understand from where exactly this authority derives. After a little research, I found some answers. The authority comes in two parts, one from the law, and another from administrative regulation. The law is 8 USC 1357, whose crucial part reads,

1357 (a) Powers without warrant
Any [authorized] officer ... shall have power without warrant—...
(3) within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States, to board and search for aliens any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railway car, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle

So there you have it, within a "reasonable distance," border agents may search any vehicle without a warrant. But what distance is reasonable? Well, that's where we need to turn to the administrative regulation, as encoded in the Code of Federal Regulations (8 CFR 287.1 specifically), which specifies,

287.1 Definitions.
(2) Reasonable distance. The term reasonable distance, as used in section 287(a) (3) of the Act, means within 100 air miles from any external boundary of the United States or any shorter distance ...

These regulations are written by the executive agencies, as a way of codifying and interpreting how the law will actually be implemented. In this case, 100 miles is seen as "reasonable" by definition, rather than by any other claimed rationale.

But is this anything new? No, in fact. The definition of a 100-mile wide border has existed for at least several decades, and does not begin with the current administration. I found that the 100-mile limit was specified in the CFR as early as 1953 (Fernandez v. United States; 321 F.2d 283). The appeals court in that case found that a search 70 miles from the Mexican border was reasonable -- given the specific geographical and immigration situation. As of the date of that case in 1963, the "border" checkpoint 70 miles from Mexico had been in operation for 31 years, so this practice has existed for at least 75 years!

However, it is clear that the practice of unwarranted border searches is expanding, and it's a troubling sign. The truly scary part is that the search for illegal immigrants is being used as a pretext for other searches, such as for contraband. For law enforcement, it's a no-brainer. Why send "regular" police to do inspections if they need complicated stuff like warrants, when it's easier to send "border protection agents," who don't really need anything to start tearing through your personal belongings. As various agencies, including the border patrol, immigration and customs have been consolidated into the Department of Homeland Security, it is even easier to designate an everyday enforcement activity to be a warrantless border patrol activity. As more "border crossing" inspection sites are instituted, the more more we become a police society.

As a postscript, there are some daring people challenging new inspection sites. Consider Mr., who has been documenting the increase of the interior "border" checkpoints in the southwestern U.S. for the past few years. You can see some of his encounters here and href. He routinely approaches the checkpoints and takes control of the situation. Dude has balls of granite.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Tomatoes Made It This Season

This year the tomatoes worked out! My mom and dad came in May and helped pick out and plant them. (OK, let's be honest, my dad did all the planting.) There are two indeterminates planted against the front of my house (both Early Girl), and one determinate of unknown type planted a bit further out.

So far I've gotten about 30 tomatoes, and there are still a few on the vine at various stages of maturity. Almost all of them have turned out well. The determinate plant produced the largest crop, although I have to admit that the Early Girls were tastier and more tender.

The Early Girls are now close to 11 feet tall, definitely taller than I can reach! The cages are pieces of concrete reinforcement mesh from the local home center.

This year is much better than two years ago, when some kind of blight destroyed my entire tomato patch. I think I got a hand-ful of cherry tomatoes out of that effort. This year I even gave a few away!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I'm Not a Physicist, but I Play One on TV

If you watch television, you might have seen two separate advertisements -- one for high-end LCD televisions and the other for solar panels -- but both are from the same company, Sharp Electronics Corp USA. This summer they began a major advertising campaign for both products, as unrelated as they might seem, as life changing products. Both feature a curious white-haired academician expounding the virtues of Sharp's wares.

The LCD television commercial starts like this, (video)
Seems like you need to be a physics professor to choose the right TV. Luckily, I am one. ...
while the solar panel pitch begins, (video)
I'm an astrophysicist, a star gazer, but here's something cosmic I discovered on earth, ...

Both commercials are narrated by a flaxen-haired, well-dressed man, identified by the caption "Professor Gerard Fasel, Astrophysicist." Who is this man? Is he really an astrophysicist? Read on, you may soon know him better as "Albino Security Guard."

Dr. Fasel is indeed listed on the faculty at Pepperdine University as a "Visiting Professor." His college biography lists courses taught in physics, mathematics and astronomy. He also appears to have teaching ratings at for the years 2003-2008, so we can assume he has been teaching at least part-time for most of that period of time.

However, according to Dr. Fasel's list of publications in the subjects of physics and astrophysics, his last publication of any sort was in 1995, or 13 years ago. The article, "Dayside poleward moving auroral forms: A statistical study," was published in the respected Journal of Geophysical Research. During his academic hayday of 1992-1995, he published a total of four refereed publications, either as primary author or co-author. All of these publications regard the study of terrestrial aurora, which is in essence a study of the interaction between the solar wind, earth's magnetosphere, and upper atmosphere. By the way, the phenomenon of terrestrial aurora, while very interesting, has virtually nothing to do with what I would call astrophysics, nor with solar-electric power.

But Fasel is much more than an academic! Dr. Fasel's acting career, as listed by IMDB has shown much more activity. In the past six years he has had four significant acting parts, both in television and movies. His next role will be in the movie The Truth About Angels, due out in 2009, where he plays the coveted albino security guard role. I'm sure Rutger Hauer is howling mad that some physicist beat him to the punch!

Sharp Electronics is proud of its spokesperson. In a press release on July 14th, 2008, announcing their campaign, they wrote,
... The commercial will feature Professor Gerard Fasel, a visiting professor of math and physics at Pepperdine University. With a PhD in Physics and a sophisticated and engaging persona, Professor Fasel lends a scholarly credibility to the new solar and LCD commercials.
The important words here are "lends a scholarly credibility." Based on his scientific publishing record, my opinion is that Dr. Fasel is no longer an active researcher in science, and indeed has spent more time acting in the past decade than publishing research papers. I think it's pretty clear that he is not an astrophysicist, since none of his articles discussed astrophysics. For that matter, he has not published work related to solar physics, televisions or solar panel technology either. I don't doubt that Sharp took the time to give Dr. Fasel a tour of the manufacturing plant and its technology development labs, and Fasel probably has a reasonable understanding and appreciation of the physics that goes into the technologies that he is advertising. But judging by his research and teaching history, I doubt that he has any better skill choosing a television or a solar panel than your average Joe Sixpack.

In my opinion, he is simply an actor -- a spokesmodel -- hired by an advertising firm and used to make the company's technology seem more credible. They hired him for his interesting looks, his personality, and yes, the three letters "Ph.D." at the end of his name. Couldn't they just have easily hired him to do a commercial for medicine? Hmm, I think I could write the script...
EXPERT: Seems like you need to have a Ph.D. to understand cold remedies these days. Luckily I have one. ...
Oh Dr. Fasel, will you star in my commercial?

(Photo credits:; Sharp Corporation, 2008)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Close Call

Frank, a friend, recently posted a nice article about his white water rafting trip on the Lower New River in West Virginia, including photos.

His post reminds me of a time about 8 years ago when I floated down the Youghiogheny River (the "Yough") in southwestern Pennsylvania with friends. One of the friends was kind enough to arrange the trip, including lodging us in his vacation house (which he built!), and hiring a rafting outfitter. Unlike Frank's experience, our outfitter simply provided us with rafting equipment, a short safety talk, and then we had to prepare for our two minute time window at the put-in site. No guide. And all equipment was optional, including helmets. Guess which option I chose.

We had a lot of fun on the upper part of the run. A few of us fell out on some of the more challenging rapids, but we stayed safe. Then we came to Dimple Rock. The outfitters had warned us about Dimple Rock during the safety talk. Basically it's a small rapid with a large rock at the bottom. If you don't approach at the right angle, it's easy to hit the rock and flip your raft.

Well, we definitely did not approach at the right angle, and we definitely flipped our raft. It was a little bit eerie to hear people from the shore trying to coach us, "stroke, stroke! STROKE!" but as we approached the rock, the coaching subsided to, "UH OH!" We bonked into the rock, tossed over, and the whole crew fell into the drink. (The safety instructions we were given about the "high side" technique were forgotten.) I actually fell into the water on top of our host. I popped up after a few seconds, and the host did a few seconds later, and we both scrambled out. Some of our raft crew actually floated down river over some more rapids without a raft!

I realize now that there was a significant chance of me or someone in my crew dying. I could have hit my head and been knocked unconscious, or I could have been pinned under a rock, and drowned. Those few seconds underwater, at the mercy of the currents, seemed like forever. I will never take something like that so lightly again.

Here are two videos on YouTube showing the rafting wrecks at the same Dimple Rock. However, one difference is that the year we ran it, the water was much lower, and there was actually a small falls approaching the rock. I found out later several people have died there. There's a hollow below the rock which sucks people under.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


As I've said before, I'm lucky to work at a place which has some reasonably natural areas, with basically no urban development. I regularly walk through these areas, and once in a while I see some great wildlife scenes. On the even rarer times when I remember to take a camera along, I can capture the scene.

My best moment so far was finding two owls perched together over a small creek on September 3rd. I'd seen a single owl several times perched near the same location, and some bird-watchers had told me they had spotted an owl's nest nearby as well. I had imagined it to be a solo owl nest, so imagine my surprise when I saw two next to each other! I actually ran all the way back to my office to get my camera, and the pair was still there when I got back for this photo (in fact they had gotten a little closer!). This is a pair of barred owls, which is common in North America. I assume they are pair-bonded, but I never saw any owlets. The fact that they are out of the nest together suggests that, if the pair reared any owlets, they are now out of the nest. This was probably a relaxing evening out for them! (please see OwlCam and their wonderful DVD to find out more about their young-rearing cycle). Just after I took this photo, one owl flew away, and then about a minute later the other owl flew right over my head to another perch. They were very silent.

The next day I did remember to take my camera, and caught this fox crossing the road. I've seen the same fox at the same place several times, so this is his local hunting grounds. He spotted me while I was setting up for the photo, thankfully posed, and then walked off into the brush on the side of the road. There is a nearby pond, so I suspect he has lots of frogs, birds and ducks to go after.

Of course, there are the ever present deer. This photo was taken last year when there were a lot of deer seen roving the workplace, even in the more urbanized parts. This year, however, the deer have been a lot more scarce. Perhaps they have been removed or lured away by maintenance staff. However, today I came across a herd of eight deer, about three does and six fauns, which is the most I've ever seen at one time! They were very close to the trail and I walked right past. The largest doe stared me down, stomped her hoof and snorted, but I held my ground too. The others retreated into the forest.

Here's another shot from last year, with a smaller herd near the edge of the forest. There is a feeder on-site for deer, which is supposed to reduce the number of ticks and tick-borne disease, and this photo was taken near that feeder.

(Previously, previously.)

(Sorry about the image quality, but all of these photos are taken near dusk with a cheap consumer camera with few manual settings. The red-eye is due to flash. Non-flash photos are hopelessly blurry due to long exposure times.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Unstable Physical World

A very interesting paper just appeared on the preprint server. It presents the work of two different groups measuring the radiactive decay rates of two specific isotopes, Silicon-32 and Radium-226, who found some strange and intriguing results indeed.

Scientists believe we live in a universe where physical "laws" apply the same everywhere. It shouldn't matter whether we are on the earth, the moon, or the depths of outer space, the equations and theories should be the same. Radioactive decay is governed by the so-called "weak force," which is in principle a nuclear-scale force that shouldn't really care about the anything beyond the nucleus itself. So it is natural to expect that Silicon and Radium should decay radioactively at the same rate wherever we find it.

But that's not what was found by Jenkins et al. in their analysis. Taking data from two different laboratories, at Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York State and another in Germany, the authors found the decay rate goes up and down with an annual cycle. See this blog entry for a graph. The variations are less than a tenth of a percent over the course of a year for both radioisotopes.

The authors speculate that the effect is dependent on the distance between the sun and earth, which also has an annual periodic modulation as the earth moves in its orbit between perihelion and aphelion. Of course, this would violate our precepts about the physical laws governing radioactive decay. They further speculate that this may be due to a changes in the amount of solar neutrinos that reach the earth, which might somehow modulate the nuclear decay rates. Or, perhaps it is a variation in the "fine structure constant" with distance from the sun (the fine structure constant dictates the strength of the weak force).

However, if you look closely at the graph, you will see that the radioactive decay rates and the distance variations do not match up quite that well. In fact, the measurements lag the distance template by a few months. I can't imagine what force law could describe such an oddity, but it is definitely not a simple distance relationship.

An experimenter needs to be worried about subtle biases. Both of the experiments were done in the northern hemisphere. Perhaps there is some kind of earth-bound seasonal effect? For example, there could be seasonal temperature variations that affect the sensors. Or, it could be something even more subtle, like annual changes in the cosmic ray flux which affect detector dead-time. An interesting test would be to use a southern hemisphere lab where any seasonal biases would be reversed. There have been some other spectacular results which have been later retracted due to failure to account for equipment (mal)function. A famous example of this was the discovery of a 2000 Hz optical pulsar in Supernova 1987a, which later turned out to be electrical interference from another piece of equipment. These people are not dumb, it's just that the physical world can be more complicated than the ways we can control.

It's worth noting that this paper has apparently not yet been refereed. It's quite possible that during the refereeing process, a lot of these points will be addressed, or the conclusions of the paper might change. Until then, it's still a quite fascinating result!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

We'll Tell You How Much Democracy You Can Have

Slashdot Headline: In MN, Massive Police Raids On Suspected Protestors

I have no doubt these people were planning some kind of disruption, but is disruption necessarily illegal? No, but it would be embarassing during the convention. Unfortunately there is no such thing as embarassment in the first degree, so the police and FBI went for bogus fire code violations instead. I would think that the house I live in is a "free speech zone." Yay for democracy.

My friend Tod says it more forcefully. And Glenn Greenwald is all over the issue. It's very disturbing.

Location Does Not Compute

I just got an iPod Touch about a month ago. iPhones and iPod Touches have a cool "locate-me" feature which allows you to press a button and find where you located on the map, anywhere in the country. The Ipod does this over Wi-Fi only by finding known wireless access points, based on a drive-by scan done by SkyHook Wireless.

A few days ago this feature started going haywire and putting me in Boulder, Colorado. No matter what I did, I ended up there.

Now I know why. My next door neighbor moved to Boulder a few months ago and must have brought his wireless access point along! Crap! This is a case where a very cool technology, the ability locate yourself anywhere in the country by interrogating the wireless environment, has gone wrong. The problem is that SkyHook has made a simplifying assumption that the environment does not change between the times that they do their surveys. In reality, people move and bring the wireless gear with them. I don't doubt that the iPod software sends all wireless access points it finds, so SkyHook can dynamically expand its database when new access points pop up, but that doesn't handle the case when an access point is physically moved. The result is a frustration for me.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Prepare for Take-Off!

Another in my series of insect taming adventures. Previously.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rainbow - Once Again

Since so many people couldn't see the cross-eyed version of the 3-D image, here is a version you can try with 3-D red-cyan glasses instead (red filter over left eye). Of course, you need the glasses for the effect to work, as opposed to the cross-eyed version which doesn't require any equipment at all, if you can get your eyes to work right. It's not the best kind of picture for red-cyan glasses, but the effect still works quite well. Be sure to click on the image for a larger version. Unfortunately the Blogger upload process has made the image a bit more "ghosty" than it started out with.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rainbow in 3D

A friend recently published photos of her trip to Florida, where she saw a double-rainbow at sunset. It's a nice catch, and even nicer because she caught it at sunset close to the summer solstice, where the sun sets farthest north (you can read more in the comments).

As it happens, we had a chain of thunderstorms pass through here in Maryland just before sunset. A colleague told me to come out right now! because of a nice rainbow. My colleague was right. The rainbow was brilliant, and the second rainbow was also easily detectable. In fact, the supernumerary rainbow was also evident. Even though it was still drizzly, I snapped a few photographs. So as a complement to my friend's seaside rainbow, I give you an.... errrr... another rainbow.

To spice it up a little bit, I tried a simple technique to make a 3D image for the first time, a so-called cross-eye image. To view it, you will have to cross your eyes until you see three images, and then try to focus. Click the image to see a bigger version. I usually try to "lock" onto a landmark like the lamp post or the car. For more viewing help you can read this nice tutorial by Ray Tomes. He also describes the simple cha cha you need to do to make your own 3D photos. The only trick is that the photo you take while standing on the left should appear in the right panel of the cross-eye image.

I admit, the composition isn't the best, and a rainbow also isn't the best demonstration of the 3D effect, but the 3D effect is quite stunning for all of the foreground objects. It's so easy to do, and wonderful to look at. There are lots more cross-eye photographs linked from the tutorial mentioned above.

UPDATE (25 Jun): I'm sad to report that about 3/4ths of the people that tried to view it, couldn't see the effect. It's too bad because the effect is quite striking.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oh Bubbler Where Art Thou?

I'm proud to say that I'm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It has some wonderful distinctions such as Summerfest on the lake, and the Milwaukee Domes. We also have another strange distinction of being one of two small isolated regions in the country that drink their water from bubblers instead of something more mundane, like a water fountain. Actually, they're the same thing, but Milwaukeeans are proud of their bubblers. I still have a "bubbler" t-shirt to commemorate my home town. (I also love my Moo-waukee t-shirt, but that's a different story.) I still remember going to college in California and getting strange looks when I asked for the nearest bubbler. Strangely, if I'd gone to college in Boston, they would have probably known what I was talking about, since that is the other place in the country that maintains the bubbler shibboleth, as shown quite nicely by this regional dialect survey.

The survey also turned up another oddity. I've lived my entire life in a soda zone. While most of the country says pop or coke for sweetened carbonated beverages, the places I have lived (eastern Wisconsin, California, and Maryland) are all known for saying soda instead. To me pop sounds like what kids would say. And coke... it's just kind of silly. I don't say pitbull when I mean dog now do I?

It's also fitting that one of the dialect survey questions is actually about the pronunciation of the name Craig. To be honest I don't know how to answer that question.

Reference. The Dialect Survey conducted by Bert Vaux, who, ironically, has moved to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

He Must Have Used the Wrong Balloons

What do you do, if you want to raise awareness for a cause in Brazil? And none of this boring stuff like asking for donations. How about flying from one city to another carried only by children's party balloons? Father Adelir Antonio de Carli thought it was a good idea too, and he even took the precautions of wearing a thermal jump suit and crash helmet. It sounded like he was planning ahead, but what he didn't take into account was that the winds weren't blowing to his destination city, and instead took him out to sea! In a story that channels Scott Fischer's ordeal on Everest, the priest called his supporters from above the ocean via satellite phone and spoke with them as he was descending. Eventually contact was lost, and to date, only a handful of balloons have been found, and hope is fading. Oh dear. Next time, do a little more research on the wind patterns. Assuming there is a next time, that is.

The cherry on top of this bizarre story is that Father de Carli was raising awareness for a truck-stop chapel!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Mighty Wind

The second week of my visit in Alexandria really blew. Literally. We experienced a wind storm like I have never seen. Walking between the hotel and the Library of Alexandria, I was almost blown off my feet several times. The biggest difference between this storm and the storms I have experienced before, is that the wind was continuous and strong for so long.

By itself, the wind made our personal lives interesting, but there were broader implications. Because the wind was so strong, commercial ships outside Alexandria laid anchor further out in the Mediterranean than usual. In fact, they anchored right over the spot where two major communications cables pass, and severed the cables. The internet to Egypt was crippled! While this story made news in the rest of the world, we experienced it directly at the library. Web and email browsing crawled almost to a halt. Thank goodness that the students we were working with had already downloaded the data they needed.

The effects were not just felt in Egypt. The severed cables also connect other parts of the Middle East and India, which also experienced sever disruptions. Who knew a little wind-storm could have such a global effect?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pyramid Power

Mostly a travelog here. Yesterday, Saturday, was our one-day excursion to the Pyramids of Giza. It was wonderful, impressive and inspiring. After a long bus ride from Alexandria to Giza, we visited the site of the great pyramids and sphinx. We were permitted to enter the great pyramid of Kheops and climb to the large hall in the inside. Let me just say that even though I have seen many television documentaries about the pyramids, so I know what it is like visually, there is still something humbling to be standing in the same hallway built thousands of years ago. The Egyptian students feel a strong respect for their ancestors, which I appreciated.

Afterwards, we entered the museum of the solar boat, sitting next to the great pyramid. The timbers of the boat look maybe 200 years old, not many thousands!

The area is a strange chaotic mix of the encroaching city, which basically comes right to the doorstep of the pyramids; the rustic majesty of the pyramids themselves; and the unfortunate flocks of souvenir hucksters.

At that point, we realized we had lost one of our group, who we eventually abandoned. Eventually we found out that he left the pyramid site and took the train back to Alexandria by himself!

After that, we had a conference dinner with University of Cairo officials, and also members of the Egyptian science ministry. It was a long day, but I'm glad I went.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Shock to the Google System

There is nothing more strange than to visit your friend Google in a foreign country, and find that all the words are squiggly backwards!

Since I am staying in Egypt, Google automatically converts to Arabic mode, which has writing from right-to-left. It's a new experience to be typing on the right hand side of the search box instead of the left.

Walk Like an Alexandrian

I arrived in Egypt on Sunday, and it's already Friday! I'm participating in a workshop to train young African and Middle Eastern students in the techniques of X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy. The workshop is being held at the New Library of Alexandria, which of course has the library and also a planetarium and museum. Alexandria is located at the Mediterranean coast, and the library is right at the coast. The library is shown by night (with moonlight glinting from the reflecting pool.

So far I haven't actually done much sight-seeing since we are focussed on helping the students. I have learned one small strip of Alexandria between the hotel and the Library very well, and nothing else!

The conference hotel describes itself as a "heritage hotel" in its brochure. As far as I can tell, this is a kind way of saying that it has lofty goals of being a high-class establishment, but is slowly falling apart. In my room, both a telephone and lamp are non-working.

We will be visiting the pyramids of Giza tomorrow for a day-long excursion. Hopefully I will find some nice souvenirs. However, I think the nicest souvenir would be to get a library card for the Library of Alexandria.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Getting Parked On

I read with some amusement and dread a few days ago, about a Pennsylvania man who was charged for disorderly conduct for writing an obscenity on the check he used to pay a parking ticket. I have to say I know what this man is going through.

The one time I visited Philadelphia, I got an parking ticket for being about three minutes over time limit. It was especially frustrating because I had just arrived in the city, parked in a 10-minute loading zone, went straight up to my friend's apartment to fetch her, and came straight back down to move my car. Now I see why I got the ticket.

The new reality television show Parking Wars reveals that Philadelphia parking enforcers are literally hiding and waiting for parking limits to expire. (Unfortunately the producers didn't go with my Scab Pickers reality show concept, and did parking instead.)

I was ticked off enough that I made out my check to the "Money Grubbing City of Philadelphia." And they cashed it. Good thing I didn't cross the line between annoying and obscene.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Towel has been Thrown In: A New Car

OK, so I finally gave up on my old Camry. It has served me well through almost eight years, but it was time to move on. Thank you Camry!

The new car is a friendly little used hybrid Prius that I bought from a person in Virginia. Vis:

So far I am quite happy with it. The previous owner took very good care of the car. When a friend got in the car he exclaimed, "Dude! Are you sure this is not new?"

It's a very geeky car. It's all about saving energy. When the car comes to a rest at a stoplight, the engine turns completely off, which is a bit disconcerting. When starting up again, the electric motor and battery can get you going, but the internal combustion engine starts (silently!) if you want to accelerate quickly or go over about 30 MPH. The "brakes" are actually regenerative brakes that use the electric motor as a generator to save your kinetic energy in the battery.

My favorite geeky part is the Star Trek-type visual displays in the on-board computer:

How do I re-route the ODN conduit?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Thermodynamics of Heating a House

Follow along as I explore trying to make my house a little more energy efficient, look at my energy usage history, and do a little thermodynamics. There will be some small equations, but I'll explain them in words as well. At the end, I discover something about the insulation efficiency of my house.

I live in a region which is heating-challenged. Every house or apartment I've lived in has had issues with heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. Builders in this area just don't seem to get that a little insulation goes a long way. For my current house, the homeowner's association also decided in its infinite wisdom that it would rip out all the old oil-fired boilers because they were too expensive, and replace them with electric baseboard heaters, because they are more economical. Whatever insane reasoning that led to that decision is now negated, especially since electricity has doubled in price over the past two years here. While it is true that electric heaters themselves are 100% efficient, the power plant and transmission lines are not. Furthermore, baseboard heaters tend to be mounted on outer walls below windows, so much of the heat can be conducted through the wall and escape the house.

I'm trying a few new strategies to try to make my house more comfortable, given its current limitations. First, I added transparent window films to almost all of the windows. The idea is that they hold an still pocket of air against the window, which adds an extra insulation factor. They also can contain small drafts so that cold air can't get in. It does take some work to install them, which basically involves stretching a huge sheet of saran wrap onto double stick tape mounted on each window frame, but eventually I developed a pretty efficient method (especially for smoothing the wrinkles).

A second thing I did was install curtains in the living room doorways, in order to keep the heat from escaping to colder parts of the house from the room I use most. These are cheap but heavy curtains I got on sale at Wal-Mart, hung from an expandable shower curtain rod across two doorways. Finally, I put some foam-board over my back door. It's a thin wooden door that conducts a lot of heat out.

I think these efforts have helped in a very qualitative sense. The living room is much less drafty, especially near the windows. Before installing the films, a cold down-draft from the windows would collide from an up-draft from the heaters to make chilly turbulent zone right where I was sitting. These drafts are gone now. The curtains also definitely help keep the heat where I appreciate it most.

Comfort is good, but I'd also like to know if this is saving energy and money.

PEPCO kindly puts my energy usage history on each bill, so it was a matter of collecting a few old bills and entering them in the computer. That's shown in black below (click for larger image).

The plot shows the number of kiloWatt-hours I use each month (ignore the red and blue curves for the moment). Unfortunately, I don't have data yet for December, the first month that I installed the window films or curtains, so I have to put the efficiency question on hold for now.

I decided to check out this plot a little more carefully. I use the greatest energy in the winter, obviously for heating. There are also small bumps in the summer, corresponding to cooling. Up until recently, I had a very old air conditioner which I rarely used, so my cooling expenses have never been large.

What to compare this with? Well, the there is a nifty number called a heating degree day used for heating calculations. Basically, any day that the mean temperature dips below 65 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a "heating day," and for that matter when the mean temperature is above 65 it is a "cooling day." The number of heating degree days is the number of degrees the mean temperature is below 65. The US National Climatic Data Center (not to be confused with the Climactic Data Center! Ooo la lah!) provides tabulated historical heating and cooling degree day data. The monthly total heating and cooling degree days are shown in the above plot (red=heating; blue=cooling; averaged over Maryland & Washington DC).

It's no big surprise that the heating and cooling curves match up with my energy usage pretty well. It's physics after all.

In fact, the Mr. Quantitative in me wants to do more. I decided to perform a linear regression between these quantities, with energy usage per day as the dependent variable, and heating/cooling degree days per day as the two independent variables. The simple function I tried was:

E = Constant + H(Th) + C(Tc)

where H(Th) is some function of heating degree days (per day), and C(Tc) is another function of cooling degree days (per day), both of which describe power usage versus temperature. This equation has the interpretation that I use some constant electric power all the time (for lights, water heater, etc.), plus the amount I use for heating and cooling, which depend on temperature.

The obvious choice is to make the two electric heating functions, H and C, proportional to temperature. However, I found that wasn't a good fit, as you will see below. Instead, there is an activation threshold. For small temperature excursions, no heating or cooling is required, and I don't use energy. This would be my comfort zone, the temperature range I'm willing to tolerate. I imagine I have a larger comfort zone than many people. As the outside temperature gets more extreme, then I use energy to maintain the inside house temperature within the comfort range. This function can be written as a constant when the heating/cooling temperature is within the comfort threshold, and a linear function outside of that. The linear coefficient of the function describes the number of kiloWatt-hours per day needed to heat (or cool) the house one extra degree Fahrenheit.

The fit works quite well, and here is how the results look. On the heating side, the function H(T) looks like this:

This means that I am willing to tolerate mean outside temperature drops of about 6.5 degrees (F) below the baseline temperature of 65 degrees before turning on the heat, and then I use about 0.84 kWh of energy per day for each degree (F) that it gets colder. At the current PEPCO price of 10.96 cents/per kWh, I pay an extra 10 cents per day for each degree colder that the outside temperature goes below about 59 degrees.

On the cooling side, the curve looks like this:

I'm apparently willing to tolerate large excursions before turning on the air conditioner (up to 10 degrees above the 65 degree baseline), and then I use 1.31 kWh of energy per day for each degree above that (for a cost of about 14 cents per day for each degree).

Finally, it's worth noting that I use 9.7 kWh of energy every day, no matter what the outside temperature is, just keeping the house going. I know for a fact that my refrigerator uses about 3.8 kWh every day on average, or about 40% of the total. It's a very old refrigerator from 1982 (!) which needs to be replaced. I used my handy Kill-a-Watt energy meter to measure this and other devices in the house. The refrigerator is by far the largest constant energy user.

Interestingly, last winter I changed from incandescent and halogen lamps to compact fluorescent bulbs. I predict this should save me between 1-2 kWh per day. A change such as this is barely detectable on the graphs, given the season and monthly fluctuations.

As one final exercise, I can estimate the overall efficiency my house, the effective "R-value". This quantity is defined as the reciprocal of the amount of heat lost per unit time per exposed area per degree temperature change, and has units of ft2 per (BTU/hour/Fahrenheit). I already know the second quantity, since it's the linear heating coefficient I found above (0.845 kWh/day/F = 120 BTU/hour/F). The exposed area of my house is about 2000 ft2, giving an effective R-value of 17. (NOTE 14 Jan: my original value of R-0.7 was had a unit conversion error and was incorrect).

An overall insulation efficiency of R-17 is okay but not great. As pointed out here, a house in my region (zone 2) demands an R value in the range of 18 (walls) to 49 (attic). However, as one of my commenters notes, there are other factors to consider, like how much air circulates through the building.

Remember that this data is all based on my house before I made the few changes above. Neither my usage data nor the climate data for the winter heating season are available yet. I hope to see improved efficiency!

Update (14 Jan): Oops! I made a unit error when converting from kWh/day to BTU/hr (missed a factor of 24). After the correction, the overall insulation efficiency of R-17 is more reasonable.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

When do you throw in the towel?

Since 1999, I have been the proud owner of a Toyota Camry, which my parents graciously gave it to me. This Camry was born in 1992 and has had a string of owners, starting with as corporate fleet, then to some other wanker, then my parents, and now me. It startles me to think that this car pre-dates the beginning of The X-files!

Well, gradually over the years, this car has been becoming more difficult to maintain. I try to do the standard up-keep, but more and more things are starting to fail.

The most recent failure is the passenger side window motor. Unfortunately for the current season (winter), the window has failed in the most awkward state (open), which can make for uncomfortable driving (breezy). The driver-side window failed a few years ago, so it's likely that the other window motors will go bad at some stage. It also means that I can't keep anything valuable inside the car, and it certainly isn't waterproof when it rains, like it did last night. On the positive side, I don't have to preoccupy myself with locking up!

Surely, as this is a very old car, there are many components that are near their failure threshold. And, as any rider of my car knows, I also just live with some of its (er) shortcomings. It's just a matter of time before more things go bad. The question is, how long do I keep dumping money into it for repairs?

Over the past few years, I've become more conscious of this problem. I've justified it to myself on the basis of, this $X repair will keep me going for another year. Last summer I spent a considerable amount on some repairs, with a certain amount of resolve that it would be the last time. So here I am, less than a year later, and something new has come up.

My friends and colleagues all say, "Dude, just get a new car!" Good point, but I'm way too analytical to just do that.

Unlike my first car, a Nissan Sentra (also a gift from my parents! Thanks again!), I don't have as much of an emotional attachment to the Camry. So from an emotional standpoint, I'm probably willing to let go.

Economically, the amount of repair work required to get the car into a "good" condition is approximately equal to its re-sale value if it were in good condition. So from that perspective, its probably worthless to me.

From a timing standpoint, it's good in a way. I have some travel coming up, where I wouldn't need a car anyway. On the other hand, it would have been "nicer" for this to happen in December. I could have donated the car to charity, taken a tax break for 2007, and bought a car at the end of the calendar year when it might have been easier to get a good deal.

From a personal convenience standpoint, it's not so great. I'm the kind of person that takes forever to buy a can of shaving cream, much less deciding on ditching a car and buying a new one. I don't relish spending my time visiting car dealerships, or going through the hassle of buying a used car.

There is no magic conclusion here, but my gut is telling me it's time to trow in the towel.