Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Hobby: Collecting Hobbies

I have come to the realization that there is a hazard inherent in possessing a broad range of interests. I have a tendency to accumulate hobbies and projects. This can be problematic for someone with the attention span of a gnat. Something (usually stumbled upon serendipitously) grabs my interest, I throw myself into it with zeal for a while, researching it, cobbling together just enough resources to get my feet wet, then.... Ooh, shiney!  Something else captures my attention.

Rinse, repeat....

And so it goes. Over time, my home fills with the detritus of unfinished projects, a mishmash of half-finished wonders and curiosities. (There's another hobby of mine: finding opportunities to use the word "detritus." It tickles me to say it. Detritus! Hehe.) And, all along, I think to myself "I'll get around to finishing that...someday." Consequently, I've become somewhat notorious for starting projects and not finishing them. The rare occasion when I DO finish a project is therefore truly cause for celebration.

So, as an aid to myself in organizing and prioritizing these hobbies and projects, and to give others a bit of insight into my interests, I present my hitherto unknown "List of Hobbies and Projects," complete with annotations regarding their current status. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ooh, toys....

Meet Chumby, a digital picture frame/internet appliance with a 3.5 touchscreen display. Essentially an ARM device running Linux, it was designed by its creator, Andrew "bunny" Huang, to be hackable, and he even encourages creative uses of the device. It is even available in kit form. Some have even tinkered with connecting it to Arduino devices, an idea which has sent my mind reeling with ideas, including using this combination as the controlling mechanism for a small CNC router that I've been wanting to build for quite some time.

Now, at just over a c-note, the Chumby packs in a lot of value, but doesn't offer much in the way of screen real estate. That's where the just-announced Insignia Infocast comes in. Available exclusively through Best Buy, the Infocast is basically a scaled-up Chumby with an 8" display. And Mr. Huang has provided details on the Infocast for would-be hackers.  Ooh, the possibilities....

UPDATE: Arduino and Chumby procured. Let the fun begin...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Bees and Spherical Chickens

In tackling problems in science and engineering, a vital tool in the problem-solving arsenal is making assumptions which simplify the calculations by ignoring or minimizing the contributions of factors which have little or no impact on the outcome. Examples of such simplifying assumptions include ignoring friction and air resistance, or, in the case of particle physics, ignoring the effects of gravity. So pervasive is the use of such simplifying assumptions, that it has spawned a joke which eventually made its way into an episode of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory." (Finally, a series about My People!) This practice of simplification even became fodder for an xkcd comic.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

CP violation observed in B-meson systems by the D0 detector at Fermilab's Tevatron!

While the eyes of the physics world have been glued on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the physicists toiling away at the LHC's predecesor in Batavia, Illinois have been hard at work making new discoveries. Team members of the D0 Collaboration at Fermilab's Tevatron have announced the observation of what appears to be a CP violation in the oscillation of neutral B-mesons into their own antiparticles.

Okay, now that I've made the eyes of any non-physicist reading this glaze over, perhaps a plain English explanation of this outcome and its significance is in order. It is perhaps easier if I start with the latter in order to provide historical context. To do that, we need to start at the beginning. The very beginning. The Big Bang.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Saturn's Enigmatic Hexagon

One of our planets has a hex on it. Seriously.

Perhaps I should back up and explain. Back in 1988, scientists analyzing images of Saturn sent back by Voyager 2 noticed an odd structure in the cloud banding circling Saturn's North Pole. One of the cloud bands was shaped like a hexagon! [Godfrey, D. A., 1988: A hexagonal feature around Saturn's North Pole. Icarus (ISSN 0019-1035), vol. 76, Nov. 1988, p. 335-356., doi:10.1016/0019-1035(88)90075-9.]

The public was dazzled and puzzled by the images. Atmospheric scientists looked at them and said "Oh, a standing Rossby wave. Interesting." Some of these scientists went on to work out the hydrodynamic calculations of how this structure might have been formed as a side effect of a cyclone near the boundary of the hexagon. [Allison, M., D.A Godfrey, and R.F. Beebe, 1990: A wave dynamical interpretation of Saturn's polar hexagon. Science, 247, 1061-1063, doi:10.1126/science.247.4946.1061.]

When the Cassini probe reached Saturn in 2006, the northern polar region was shrouded in winter darkness, but the Cassini VIMS team was nevertheless able to image the region in infrared. (See image to the right.) Sure enough, the hexagonal shape was still there, although the vortex that had been swirling about one of its sides was gone, which was verified in the visible spectrum as daylight began to creep back into the polar region in early 2009.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Nature by Numbers"

This video offers an exquisite glimpse into the mathematical beauty of nature:

Here is an explanation of the mathematics touched upon by the video.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl

My college history classes were never this much fun.

In 2006 and 2007, HBO aired two specials featuring comedic actor Robert Wuhl. Filmed before a class of New York University film students, the specials featured Mr. Wuhl offering up hysterical lectures on history as viewed through the lens of pop culture. Mr. Wuhl really should do more of these things.

(Not entirely safe for work due to language and a brief appearance by a nude Hedy Lamarr. Rawr!)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not out of the woods yet, but things are getting better....

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are signs that the economy is starting to rebound. Sadly, job growth/loss (the indicator which most directly impacts most people) always lags other indicators, but there is good news even there:

Learn more about the stimulus and the road to recovery

This is a chart showing monthly job gains/losses. After steady declines in job losses since the President signed the Recovery Act in February 2009, the economy is actually starting to gain jobs. Of course, it will take a while for jobs to open up for the bulk of people who have lost work during this downturn, and layoffs do continue. (A dear friend of mine was laid off just this month.) But the worst does appear to be over. The trends are moving in the right direction....

April 2 Update: The "bikini graph" has been updated with the latest data......

OK Go's Amazing Viral Videos

Surely you've seen it by now. The band OK Go has released the official video for their song "This Too Shall Pass," and it is cropping up everywhere in the InterWebs. Including here:

What can I say? I'm a sucker for anything involving Rube Goldberg machines. Few things tug harder at the heartstrings of my Inner Geek. And for more rampant geekiness, Wired.com has an article on the making of this video, complete with behind the scenes footage.

However, I should point out that this is not the first video from this group to go viral with this very song. There is a previous unofficial video, made with the help of the Notre Dame Marching Band. (Alas, embedding of that video is disabled at the request of the band's label, EMI, one of many bones of contention which brought OK Go to the decision to part ways with EMI.)  As with the Rube Goldberg video, this one is shot in a continuous take. And this one is a Band Geek's delight.

But wait, there is more. OK Go had an even earlier video go viral (albeit not to the same degree), with the video for their song "Here It Goes Again."  The novelty here? The band performs a choreographed dance on treadmills....

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Integrating Lilypond with more complex LaTeX documents

In a previous post, I described my trials and tribulations in getting the Lilypond music-engraving package to work with TeXShop, a Mac-based front-end for the LaTeX typesetting system. The example used to illustrate the technique was a rather simple document, with no included external images or files.

As I've continued my rediscovery of LaTeX (having first been exposed to it as an undergraduate), I've come to realize that the rather straightforward techniques I had described previously break down when dealing with more complex documents.  This first came to light when I attempted to incorporate Lilypond content into a LaTeX document built with the Tufte-LaTeX classes, a collection of layout classes created to render LaTeX documents using the design principals of Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and one of the worlds foremost experts on the presentation of information. A self-documenting example of the output of the Tufte-LaTeX book class can be seen here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple announces iPad...and not much else

No announcement for iPhone 4 or any hardware refreshes for the iPhone line. No Mac announcements.

The iPad is nice, and does a nice job of extending the iPhone/iTouch interface to a larger form factor. My reaction? Meh.

I would love to have that hardware, with the touch interface enhancements, but able to run Mac OS X applications. Looks like the eventual replacement for my aging MacBook Pro will likely be a MacBook Air (or whatever is equivalent six months to a year from now). But first, I need to replace my now non-functional G5 tower, preferably with RAID storage, so that I have a home server to securely store my data. (I'm thinking perhaps a Mac Mini connected to an external RAID enclosure via FireWire, or perhaps the Mac Mini server configuration with two hard drives.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We now join our recovery, already in progress....

Complete GDP data for the 4th quarter of 2009 isn't in yet, so this chart only shows three quarters for that year, but the signs are good. Of course, as usual, jobs are lagging, so many people fail to realize that the economy is in fact in a state of recovery.

Sadly, rumor has it that President Obama is poised to repeat the same mistake that FDR made in 1937, buckling to GOP pressure to cut Federal spending, a move which put the brakes on progress made by the New Deal in getting us out of the Great Depression and resulted in the 1937 recession, a mistake which I've touched upon before. (An economic boom is the time to curtail government spending and pay down the debt, not during a tepid recovery. This is basic material covered on, say, day 2 of an Economics 101 class.) We'll see what news is in store for us in the State of the Union Address tomorrow.