Friday, December 31, 2010

Reviving a computer

My sister's old computer - an IBM Thinkpad - was a few years old when she got it in 2004. By the time she got a new laptop in 2007, it was ancient and incredibly slow. It got put away for a while.

Fast-forward to today. Took it out, decided to see if we could make it work again. We tried turning in on, but nothing happened. Plugged the cord in real tight, tried again, it actually booted up. Verrrrry sloooowly. I immediately went to work. First I deleted all my sister's old documents (long since copied to a flash drive), then her music, then pictures. I had to restart once or twice when it froze, but eventually I cleaned everything out.

By this time the computer was getting pretty hot, so I figured it could use a cleaning inside as well. I got a few screwdrivers and started removing parts - very carefully, and keeping a neat order. Within half an hour, there were a CD/DVD drive, a 20 GB hard drive, keyboard, PC Card adapter, two RAM chips, a wireless card, CMOS supply battery, main laptop battery, and several dozen screws lying about on the floor. I wasn't able to clean the fan like I had hoped, but I did get some dust out and I cleaned the connections. Then I reassembled it, from memory.

Amazingly, it booted up on the first try. I uninstalled almost every program on the machine, leaving just Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and the system tools. Once I restarted to finish the uninstalls, it immediately started moving a bit faster. I ran the Disk Defragmenter and it cleared up lots of room. Et Voila, functioning laptop. It's not fast, but it works.

I plan to install some sort of basic antivirus so I can go online, then perhaps I can try my hand at installing Linux, or we might just use it to play Amazon Trail and other old games. We shall see.

Twin Cities: Metro Transit rail map

I've made a pretty nifty map of a number of Metro Transit rail lines in the Twin Cities (St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN). It's on Google Maps, so it's zoomable and everything.

The map shows six lines - two heavy rail commuter lines and four light rail interurban lines. Only two of the lines are currently in operation - the light rail Hiawatha Line (shown in yellow) that serves downtown Minneapolis, the airport, and the Mall of America; and the Northstar commuter service (shown in blue) that serves the northern suburbs. (The proposed Northstar extension is, of course, in lighter blue.)

All six lines will eventually terminate at Target Field station in Minneapolis - light rail lines at street-level on a bridge, and commuter rail lines below. Currently open lines are bolded; the lighter a line is, the further it is from starting operation. Stations with currently open or visible station platforms have a dot in their marker; stations without do not.

The Central Corridor light rail, shown in red, is currently under construction and will open in 2014. Running on a few miles of the former 512-mile streetcar system, it will serve both downtown areas plus the University of Minnesota via University Avenue.

Southwest Corridor light rail has been approved for construction and is planned to open by 2016. The alignment is pretty much set, but the exact location of each station is not known.

The fourth light rail line is planned to be the Bottineau Boulevard Transitway serving the northwest suburbs. Two possible alignments are shown; the A alignment is more likely to be built.

The proposed commuter line is the Red Rock Corridor, to serve Minneapolis and Hastings via St. Paul. It is shown in pink and may start as soon as 2018.

View Twin Cities: Metro Transit Rail in a larger map

Scary realization

There are now children, born after 9/11, who are older now than I was then.

That's a very strange thing to realize, and it makes me feel oddly...old. Like the assassination of JFK for the previous generation, you remember exactly where you were when you heard that the twin towers fell. I was sitting in my third grade classroom. When I went home that day, I watched the news, and I understood what was happening.

There are now kids - nine years old - who were born after the towers fell. They've lived their entire lives in the decade from hell.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Animated GIF test

I just discovered that I can post animated GIFs in blogger. This makes me very happy, especially now that I have GIMP and can create them.

The above image is a short loop of Kaylee (Jewel Staite) from Serenity, the first episode of Firefly.

Actual building!

I've finished the repairs on the Orbital Transport. The shock cord is reattached to the new extended forward section. I cut two new forward fins from the old pattern, coated and sanded them, and attached. The next time the weather warms up, I'll primer the forward section.

I've gotten a decent start on the MLAS. I decided not to use the motor hook and engine block, because I want to use D13W reloads at some point. (They weigh less than C6s, so that shouldn't be a problem.) I've got one of the two massive 3.5" diameter centering rings fully glued in place, and the other is currently drying.

I've also started on the nose cone. I glued the two-part cardboard base together, and drilled a quarter-inch hole for weights in the foam nose cone. Dick Stafford says about 0.3 oz added to the stock bolt should be sufficient; I'll use about an inch of quarter-inch steel rod from... something.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


We humans, we tend to like danger, without actually being in danger. Danger gives us an adrenaline rush, but real danger just stinks. So, we as a species tend to find dangerous things, and then sit back and watch them unfold.

It's why we watch football. We get to watch twenty-two strong young men attempt to break each other, all while sitting back and enjoying a jumbo plate of nachos with that delicious not-quite-cheese sauce.

It's why we watch dangerous-situation reality shows like Deadliest Catch, because icy waters and ferocious storms can't harm you in your living room.

We love to ski and snowboard at high speeds down icy mountains - but only once we've strapped on a helmet, goggles, and plenty of layers of clothing.

We love action movies, because few things get the heart pounding like River Tam taking out a planetful of flesh-eating monsters. But not one of us would want to be there because, well, they're terrifying.

Danger, it seems, is only fun when you're not actually in danger. And that, my friends, is why there are few things better than sitting in a hot tub in below-freezing weather, watching the wind whip the powdery snow into a fury. While you are safe in your bubble of warm air. Absolutely magnificent.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Snow (n): a white, fluffy form of microcrystalline ice that only forms when there is no school for cancellation

About thirty-six hours ago, the weathermonkeys were predicting 11 to 16 inches of snow. We got maybe six inches, maybe not quite. I've learned to roughly halve the TV estimate if it's over six inches. It's usually pretty close to right, because we never live up to what they're saying. I wonder if they intentionally inflate the numbers so people will get inside and be safe.

In any case, it's not all bad. I get to have a snowball fight tomorrow with a couple of my friends. They have no idea what they're in for.


I got a Quest MLAS scale kit for my TRF Secret Santa gift last year. I'm finally starting to build it, mainly because I finally feel ready for the challenge. It's a very difficult kit - foam parts, not a huge amount of structural strength, and of course very finicky stability. Plus, I want to get a good paint job on it.

But, I've crossed that cardboard Rubicon. I started assembling the motor mount and the nose cone yesterday. So far, so good. I'll have more later; looks like we're going to be snowed in a bit.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nerdy Christmas Loot

Thanks to my family and friends, I had a wonderful Christmas, and I got some really awesome presents.

I got nine books, almost a whole linear foot:
  • by Richard Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Six Easy Pieces and Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Path
  • Transit Maps of the World - a collection of subway and metro maps, showing how they evolved over time to become the iconic works they are today
  • Earth From Above: 365 days
  • The Math Book - a collection of 250 milestones in mathematics, with really cool stuff
  • 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer
  • Historical Atlas of North American Railroads
  • Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds, and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly - a brilliant collection of critical essays about my favorite show.

I also got a bunch of really awesome stuff:

  • Firefly and Sherlock Holmes on DVD
  • Several pounds of twizzlers
  • A really nice pocketknife, with a neat saw and a few other attachments
  • A very weird alarm clock
  • A Estes scale Patriot rocket kit - more about that later
  • "Define interesting" t-shirt - a Firefly joke

My favorite, though, was my sister's present - this awesome Ada Lovelace shirt.

Friday, December 24, 2010

One Kilopost

That is, 1000 posts. It's taken me 30.5 months - since June 10, 2008.

1000 posts in 928 days is 1.077 posts a day - a post every 22 hours 15 min.

Figure half an hour per post, and that's 500 hours - just about three straight weeks of time, used for posting.

I took posts from all three Julys - 2008, 2009, and 2010 - and averaged out the wordcounts. I average about 185 words per post. That means I have written about 185,000 words. By comparison, Animal Farm is about 30,000; Ender's Game is just over 100,000.

(I'm still not up to the 560,000 of the English translation of War and Peace, though.)

It's just crazy to me to think that I've written this much. I'm not sure if it's a sign that I'm incredibly arrogant, or that I need a therapist, or that I need a life. But it's by far the biggest and longest-running project that I've ever undertaken. It's also really neat to see what comes out of my brain when Ive got a blank canvas to put it down on. I mean, this morning I just got thinking about zero while I was dragging my sorry carcass out of bed, and I ended up with 788 words about zero.

In any case, I'm pretty pleased.

It's almost midnight now. I'm listening to Trans-Siberian Orchestra play "Christmas Eve in Sarajevo", and there is no better music for the evening. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Proving Equality to Zero

Say you have several variables - in a computer program, for example - and you want to make sure that they all equal to zero. (For the sake of this example, let's assume that they are all real numbers, i.e, 5.5 rather than 5+8i). With one variable, it's easy; you just have to set up some form of the equation

x = 0

Of course, you'd have to actually implement that in code, but that depends on the programming language and isn't really relative to this. With one variable, you have a very nice, neat equation, and it works.

With two variables, you could still do something along the lines of

x = 0 AND y=0

But that becomes very unwieldy - and decidedly unelegant - when you want to use any more than two variables. Surely there's a simple equation that one can use. What about this:


Unfortunately, this equation is a flop; it only requires at least one of the variables be zero*.
If x=0, then y and z can be any number, and so on for y=0 or z=0. What about addition, then?

x + y + z = 0

This is marginally better; it is slightly less likely to produce a false positive. However, it doesn't work. The set (x,y,z)=(2,4,-6) is a 'solution', yet none of the three variables equal zero.

A logical next step is to modify that linear equation to eliminate some false positives. for example:

x(y+n)(z+n) + y(x+n)(z+n) + z(x+n)(y+n) = 0

This eliminates most false positives, and it does in fact work if n is guaranteed to be of greater magnitude than x, y, and z, i.e, n is a sufficiently large positive or negative number that x+n, y+n, and z+n are all positive or all negative. Otherwise, however, there are still at least four solution sets: (-n,-n,-n), (0,-n,-n), (-n,0,-n), and (-n,-n,0). Additionally, if you try to generalize to complex numbers it doesn't work, and it's just plain ugly.

Eliminating those four trivial solutions is possible, if don't mind an even uglier equation:

x(y+a)(z+b) + y(x+c)(z+d) + z(x+e)(y+f) = 0

But, the problem with equations 5 and 6 is that they're not truly solving the problem. Unless variables a through f are picked very carefully, there might be a few values of x, y, and z that create a false positive, and with that many variables theres no general method to check that this is not the case. They don't generalize well to either lots of variables (to prove that ten variables all equal zero by this method, you'd need as many as 55 arbitrary variables a through j) or to complex numbers.

Now, let's think about the problem geometrically. What we are looking to prove is that the point (x,y,z) in 3D space is equal to (0,0,0). Or, if you prefer vectors, that <x,y,z> = <0,0,0> =

In other words, that our point (x,y,z) is within a radius of zero from (0,0,0). Now there's a handy equation for distance:


In this case, a=b=c=0 for the origin point (0,0,0). However, if the square root equals 0, then the equation inside also equals zero. Thus, we get a very neat equation:


And equation 8 is pretty nifty. It generalizes to any number of real variables. It's elegant - it requires only a small amount of code that works on basically system, and it uses only squares and addition - operates that are much faster than square roots or division.

Additionally, if you have a system like Mathematica or a graphing calculator that can deal with vectors, it gets better. Most systems can't check the equality

<x,y,z> = <0,0,0>

or, where = vector u,


However, there's a nicely equivalent operation, taking the magnitude (length of the vector), that does work:


For vector-ready systems, equation 11 is elegant, though not as fast due to the square root involved in taking the magnitude of the vector.

Equation 8 can also be modified to make it even more powerful; this version allows determination of which single variable is nonzero. The exact constants do not matter; they simply must be primes greater than 3.


Thus, if the result of the left side is nonzero, it can be examined. If it is divisible by an odd power of 5, x is the non zero variable, and so forth. If it is not divisible by an odd power of either of the three constants, then two or three of the variables are nonzero.

All of the really nice-looking equations are made using Codecogs LaTeX Equation Editor; Detexify is spectacularly useful for finding LaTeX symbols.

* Incidentally, equation 3 actually generates the three coordinate planes when graphed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Elementary School Scientists

What sort of science did you do in elementary school? It was pretty basic stuff, right? Units covering the very basic bits of biology and chemistry and physics. Basic cell biology, weather, simple machines, stuff like that. Not much in the way of actual lab 'experiments'; they didn't trust us to work with beakers and balances until seventh grade, and such things as hot plates and acids were completely out of the question until high school.

Doing an actual controlled experiment - that's never been done before - with live animals, and getting published in a legitimate scientific journal? Utterly out of the question.

Yet, that's what exactly what 25 elementary school students between ages 8 and 10 did in Britain. (BBC News article)

The children designed the experiment, asked the question, hypothesized results, and wrote the majority of the paper. The only things done by the teacher and an assisting scientist, Beau Lotto, were to supply trained bees and to transcribe the student writings.

And they did indeed get results. Although they didn't refer to previous scientific literature - which would have been above their reading abilities - and they hadn't been trained in the use of statistical analysis, they were exploring a hole in scientific knowledge. They found that bumblebees "can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from."

They determined that it was possible to train bees to follow a logical pattern in determining where to seek found. In this case, they taught bees to go to the center of an opposing circular pattern of colors - i.e, to go to the blue center of a yellow flower, or the yellow center of a blue flower. This is different from normal circumstances, in which bees are attracted to flowers of a certain color.

The full paper, published in Biology Letters, a publication of the prestigious Royal Society, can be read in full online here. If you've got half an hour to read and understand, it's an excellent read, and more accessible than many scientific papers.

The paper was peer-reviewed by several other scientists, who determined that despite the lack of references or statistical analyses, the paper was "cleverly and correctly designed and carried out with proper controls" and "[the students} hold their own among experiments carried out by highly trained specialists". High praise indeed.

Just as impressive as the results is the repercussions of the experiment. They were denied public funding for the experiment because it was believed that children could not run an experiment that would generate results, so the experiment was funded by Lotto's LottoLab group. But they did indeed get results; this should show us all that the importance of research is not by who runs it or their ages, but what we can learn from it.

The students, I imagine, have also been impacted. They have been taught that they can do real science at a young age, that there is littler than they cannot do. That alone is incredibly empowering, and I imagine that those 25 children will be largely ambitious and successful as adults. But they have also been taught that science is interesting, it is alive, that it is everwhere. That science is about asking questions and finding a way to test them. ("Ideas are tested by experiment") How many scientists and engineers will there be in that group of twenty-five, how many whose abilities for scientific thinking were unmasked by this?

After all, their "principal finding" had a second part, just as important as the first part: "We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Finding stuff with Google Street View

So, I'm doing some research for a Wikipedia article, and I need to find the location of a former railway station in Montreal. It hasn't been used since 1912, so it's not easy to find. Not to mention, directions are given weirdly in Montreal. I'm not quite sure how you can give directions as being east or west of a street that runs east to west, but they do, somehow.

In any case, I was stuck. So I just went on Google Maps and turned on Street View, and started looking around. And then I found it:

Not only does the former station building still exist, but several tracks have been preserved as well, right down to the metal stops on the ends.

(In case you're interested, it's Dalhousie Square Station).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Final Went Well!

I'm not allowed to say anything else about it for the time being - because Conn College has a don't-talk-about the-test honor code which I respect - but my calc final went well today. All the studying paid off.

Now let's see if the same goes for my Marine Science test tomorrow. not so likely.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's Calculus Time

It's just about time for my calculus final. I have until Wednesday to take it, but I plan to take it tomorrow. It's only five chapters worth of material, but those are five dense chapters, covering vectors and 2D vector calculus; 3D functions, partial derivatives, min-max problems and Lagrange multipliers; double and triple integrals; and 3D vector calculus up to Green's Theorem.

I just spent from 3:40 to 11:30, minus two hours to visit my grandmother, studying - several times longer than any other final I've studied for before. I did 51 problems covering the last 9 sections and wrote up the essential formulae that I must know. The formulae cover front and back of two whole sheets of paper.

Eul me up, boys. It's Calculus Time.

I don't usually talk about politics...

But it looks like Don't Ask Don't Tell is going to be repealed. Passed the House earlier this week and the Senate. Eight Republican senators had the balls (and ovaries) to vote for what's right, instead of the party line.

Friday, December 17, 2010


I'm a pretty darned left brained person. I like logic and order, science and math. But, sometimes I branch out. I play the trumpet. I tried acting for the first time last year, and I (disastrously) tried writing a short story for NaNoWriMo.

So, now I've branched out. I started a second short story, and now I've written three short pieces for drama. Two are short plays; the third is a monologue. Here is the current draft, in full.


They weren’t quite sure how it happened. Not that they had a lot of time to figure it out. It might have been a freak mutation, DNA gone wrong. Might have been some sort of sickness, a ruminantarian Mad Cow Disease. There was even speculation of malevolent action.
            How it happened is beyond mattering now. Somehow, a small population escaped, and they multiplied like rabbits. They grow and breed at over ten times the natural rate. They eat everything organic, strip the soil bare.
            They reached a critical point sometime in March, and the population exploded. Within a week, half of Nebraska was wasteland. Some folks managed to get out. Most didn’t. The military did their best, but they were ill-prepared to fight the massive herds. Three nuclear weapons barely dented the population. Biological weapons were useless. Somehow, the Joint Chiefs didn’t anticipate warfare against llamas.
            It didn’t take long for the internet to dub it ‘Llamapocalypse”. Cute name, but no one was laughing. The rest of the world will survive; they quarantined the continent immediately. They finished dynamiting the Panama Canal bridges last week. But North America is reduced to a few defensive perimeters – New York, D.C., Denver. Some will hold. Life might return to the land someday.
            As for me, well, it’s times like this that I really regret ever learning math. It’s the world’s worst word problem. If the tallest building in Cincinnati is one hundred meters high, and the llamas pile on an extra meter every single hour, will my meager food supplies run out before or after I become llama chow?

I had a good day.

After the crapstorm that was yesterday (friend drama, lousy lab in Marine Science, long day, deferred from MIT) I needed a good day.

And, I got one. My physics quiz went excellently today, and then we spent most of Marine Science watching Blue Planet. If you haven't seen that show, you're seriously missing out.

Then, I had brownies, because I brought some in to reward the folks in my assigned homerooms who brought in money for the National Honor Society toy drive (bribery: it works, folks) and there were half a dozen extras.

Then, third block, I had study, so I played chess with some friends from band. They're much more interesting to play against than the computer. They haven't beat me yet, but one gal is getting quite tricky.

And then, I remembered that I had physics homework. So I did my entire problem set for the next chapter - three or four nights of homework - in one 80-minute block. Thank goodness for my ipod.

When I got home, I found an envelope from WPI. I'm accepted. So, I know I'm definitely going to college. Which is a nice feeling, even if WPI isn't my first choice.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ice Cream

Protip: It's never too cold for ice cream. Anecdotal evidence from yours truly suggests it's just as delicious down to below-freezing temperatures.

Voyager 1 has left the building

After thirty-three years, Voyager 1 has left the first layer of the Sun's domain - the first manmade object to cross the termination shock.

The sun puts out a huge volume of charged particles - protons and electrons, mostly - massing 6.7 billion tons every hour, the equivalent of five Empire State Buildings every second. This is known as the solar wind; it can bring a devastating amount of radiation, and Earth's magnetosphere shields us and makes life possible. The solar wind interacting with the upper atmosphere forms the auroras.

The solar wind eventually begins to peter out at around 90 AU (Astronomical Units, the earth averages 1 AU from the Sun. 1 AU is about 93 million miles), a boundary known as the termination shock. Phil Plait brings the awesome news that Voyager 1 has reached a point where the solar wind equals zero velocity. Within a few years, it will reach the heliopause, where it will feel the wind from other stars. At that point, it will be officially out of the sun's domain, and into interstellar space.

And, what's crazier: this was launched thirty-three years ago. There were no cell phones (only a few giant prototypes), no real personal computers. No internet. It's a marvel of technology. It is expected to have enough power to operate some instruments until 2025, 48 years after launch. Nothing that we have made will catch it - thanks to the gravity slingshots it received from Jupiter and Saturn, it is going faster than the Pioneer probes, faster than its twin Voyager 2, and faster than New Horizons which will visit Pluto in 2015.

This wasn't even its primary science mission. It was just supposed to last a few years, take pictures of Jupiter and Saturn. It discovered Jupiter's rings, volcanic activity on its moon Io, and took thousand of scientifically important images of the two planets.

Perhaps the most important image that it took, though, was the Pale Blue Dot image - which shows the Earth as exactly that, a pale blue dot. Seeing how all of human life ahs taken place on and around that tiny dot reinforces the need to protect it.

This is why I want to go into aerospace. To create things that go where nothing has explored before. To see what's out there. To create the rockets that show us what exists beyond that pale blue dot.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

More Nell Rebuilding

Believe it or not, rebuilding the Nell is going surprisingly well. Although many of the joints are broken, they retained their basic shape reasonably well. I just finished gluing and clamping (with masking tape) the last two joints than needed to be rejoined. It's actually a lot easier the second time around, because all the puzzle pieces do fit together.

I'm using entirely wood glue, and it seems to be absolutely strong enough. I'm still worried about twisting in the airframe, but hopefully that will fix itself when I reglue a few critical joints.

I also started repairs on the Orbital Transport, which crashed a few months back. I removed two inches of crushed tube from the front, and replaced it with a 24mm coupler and seven inches of tube. The extra length will make it significantly more stable, and look more like the original design.

On the road to recovery

The Nell, that is.

I started the length rebuilding process today by fixing the broken side tubes. Both failed in the exact same mode - the joint halfway down the tube was not glued inside, so the outer cardboard tube snapped instead of the inner dowel.I put a layer of wood glue both between the two dowels and on the dowel-tube layer, thus ensuring a very strong joint. Once I re-enforce them with a layer of wood glue or epoxy clay, they will be two of the strongest parts of the rocket, instead of the weakest as before.

Unfortunately, I also discovered today that most of the angled side joints are broken. I may have to peel off the string, rewrap, and then finally refix them. I am not sure yet; it may vary joint-to-joint.

I will take more precautions on its return flight. An 18" plastic parachute, in warm weather, with plenty of wadding to protect it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Galaxy Zoo: Hubble

I've talked about Galaxy Zoo before a couple of times. It's a citizen science project to classify galaxies from automated sky surveys by type and shape. After not doing anything on the project in 18 months, I'm back. I've classified 135 'galaxies' today... including about actual galaxies, plus a few stars and a satellite trail.

The new project uses galaxies from the background of several Hubble Space Telescope images. Many are proto-galaxies from the beginning of the universe, too young to have formed into round spirals or ellipses. They just look like - like bluish lumps. Some 10 billion years old.


In just over 10 hours from now, the date in time (in American format) will be:

12/11/10 9:08:07

Friday, December 10, 2010

Brass Trio

What happens when your second trumpet and baritone player are late.

In retrospect, it's really fortunate than the first trumpet part had all the melodies. Otherwise, the dear folks at Mystic Aquarium would have been subjected to some rather strange harmonies.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

When I am the benevolent dictator of the world

99% of Christmas music will be banned, to be replaced with Trans-Siberian Orchestra music.

Headlights will be auto-on, making you actually work to turn them off.

White lab coats will be standard attire for all science classes, even the theoretical courses.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Middlesboro Impact Crater

Take a close look at the Appalachian Mountains in the southeast corner of Kentucky. Mile after mile of long, high ridges and narrow valleys carved by streams. And then, just at the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, there's a very strange shape.

It resembles a giant smooth bowl:

View Larger Map

It's a very strange and out-of place shape. It's got nicely circular walls in a few spots. Yet, there's no volcanic activity for a few thousand miles. How do you get a crater in the middle of folded ridge-and-valley mountains?

From space.

No kidding.

It's a three-mile-wide impact crater, formed sometime in the last 300 million years. (Wikipedia article | Entry in Earth Impact Database) The crater size estimator at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory estimates an impactor diameter somewhere around 180 meters (600 feet). That's like getting hit with a ball of rock or iron the size of Fenway Park.

And that's a small crater. There are several confirmed craters on Earth with diameters greater than 100 km (60 miles), indicating an impactor over one mile in diameter. That's like getting smacked with the entire city of Boston instead.

But it gets crazier. Look carefully at that map again. The southeast corner of the crater rim touches one of the mountainous ridges. Right where it touches, there's a little gap in the ridge. You might vaguely recognize the name from your last American history course. It's Cumberland Gap. It's where Daniel Boone crossed the mountains to bring settlers through. It was where 250,000 settlers passed through on their way to the fertile Ohio Valley.

Now, that gap was, it seems, created by the impact. Which means that that anonymous space rock played an important role in American history.

I for one welcome our non-Phosphorus-needing bacterial overlords

I don't think I need any more explanation.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ooh, pretty picture!

See this beautiful, sexy picture?

Yeah, I made that. Took a blank map, added the stations and the legend in GIMP. I'm rather proud of it.

(Click to take you to the file page, for embiggening.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010


So, I've been getting a cold, one symptom at a time.

Last weekend, I keep being hot and cold.

Then I couldn't stop sneezing.

Then I couldn't stop coughing.

Then my nose was runny.

And now I have a postnasal drip.

Plus, I may be on my way to an upset stomach. Happy funtimes.

Gentlemen (and Ladies), we can rebuild her.

We can rebuild her. We have the technology. We can make her better than she was. Better... stronger... faster.

I am going to rebuild Nell. It's not going to be easy, but she will fly again.

Now, recall the result of her first flight. No parachute opening, ballistic recovery, crunch splat:

It's broken not-so-neatly into two parts. One contains the rear section plus one side brace; the other is the front section plus the second brace. Both braces are broken in the middle at the dowel joints.

The first order of business is fixing those dowel joints. They carry a whole lot of force, so I;m going to use JB Weld epoxy to fix them together, then epoxy clay to smooth the joint. Then I get to go about the arduous business of regluing all the old joints, then sanding, priming, sanding again.

Goal for the second flight is the first quarter of 2011.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brian Marsden

I know this is old news by now, but I feel I owe him at least a few words. Brian Marsden passed away on the 18th of November.

His official title was director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but he was so much more than that. He was a walking encyclopedia of astronomy, an absolute genius. If you thought you'd found a new comet or asteroid, he was the guy you talked to. I was never involved in serious astronomy, but I sure had heard his name.

Sky and Telescope has a wonderful obituary and biography that says far more than I could possibly say.


Back in November, I saw Ledyard Drama put on a performance of Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice. It was absolutely fantastic - I saw it twice - and several of my friends played the leads, and a minor part, and mandachan was stage manager.

Near the end of the play, Eurydice's father dips himself in the river Lethe. Before he does, though, he states a series of memorized directions. I got a script from a friend; here is what he says:

"Take Tri-state South - 294 to Route 88 West. Take Route 88 West to Route 80. You'll go over a bridge. Go three miles and you'll come to the exit for Middle Road. Proceed 3 to 4 miles. Duck Creek Park will be on the right. Take a left on Fernwood Avenue. Continue straight on Fernwood past 2 intersections. Fernwood will curve to the right leading you to Forest road. Take a left on Forest Road. Go 2 blocks. Pass first entrance to the alley on the right. Take the second entrance. You'll go about 100 yards. A red brick house will be on the right. Look for Illinois license plates. Go inside the house."

It turns out, it's an actual set of directions. A few of the mileages are wrong, but it actually leads to an assuming brick house on an unnamed street in Davenport, IA.

Here's a road map of the route. It's not perfect - it actually takes the third entrance into the alley, not the second - but it provides a good idea of it.

View Larger Map

So, then, what does this route mean? Is it just a random journey?

Turns out, it is not. I found a very illuminating article in the New York Times. Apparently, Sarah Ruhl owns a large collection of her grandmother's clothes. She loves the memory of her grandmother that she finds contained within them. Memory, I should note, the remembering of love and family - is what Eurydice is all about.

The article goes on to discuss that Mrs. Ruhl grew up outside Chicago (Wikipedia says a town called Wilmette). Interstate 294 runs just a few miles from Wilmette, and is the best highway to jump on for journey to points west - like Iowa.

The kicker, though, is where her grandmother lived. Davenport, Iowa. I would, then, consider it reasonable to assume that that red brick house did belong to her grandmother. The journey from her home to there, the article says, was one she experienced many times during her childhood.

For her father, who is roughly analogous to Eurydice's father, the journey would be natural - from his own home to his mother's - the place where he grew up. It's ingrained in his memory, the last thing he gives up before his brain is wiped. And death is often likened to going home or joining one's relatives - and giving up all his memories is like dying again.

The directions end with the following, as he dips himself into the river:
"In the living room, look out the window. you'll see the lights on the Mississippi river. Take off your shoes. Walk down the hill. You'll pass a tree good for climbing on the right. Cross the road. Watch for traffic. Cross the train tracks. Catfish are sleeping in the mud on your left. Roll up your jeans. Count to ten. Put your feet in the river... and swim

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Six Thousand Two Hundred Sixty-Five Words

Thats my final word count for NaNoWriMo 2010. Not a terribly impressive word count - I know folks who have written ten times as much this month, and it's only one eighth of the goal, but I'm pretty proud of myself. That's the largest thing I've ever written, by over half. I'd never really written more than a few hundred words of fiction before, and yet I managed to write something the size of a decent shorty story.

Next year, I'm going to try to actually complete it. Yes, I'll have college work, but I won't have induction to plan which took up so much time, nor application essays to write.

Monday, November 29, 2010

T.F. Green Airport T station

So, I knew that T.F. Green Airport (just south of Providence, Rhode Island) was getting its own MBTA Commuter Rail station. When flying out on Friday, I managed to get a quick glimpse from the air, and it looked nearly completed.

Turns out, it opens next Monday - a week from today. Three Boston - T.F. Green trains and a couple T.F. Green - Providence shuttles in each direction per day, with more coming later when an additional station in Wickford opens next year.

This is pretty cool. If I go to college in Boston, I could take the commuter rail down to the airport to join my folks on a trip - like to another OSU game - or just for them to pick me up so I can go home.

Oh, and did I mention the skyway? Yeah, the giant glass-and-concrete skyway from the airport to the station. 1250 feet long, about 75 feet in the air, and huge. Way cool.

Ohio Trip!

An absolutely excellent weekend. I had a freaking great time in Ohio. My first time attending the OSU-Michigan rivalry game

Flights to Ohio were pretty okay, though there was turbulence and we were a tad delayed out of BWI. (It's very strange... there are no direct flights from Providence (T.F. Green) or Hartford (Bradley) to Columbus, but many two-flight combos. Intermediate airports include BWI (Baltimore), Washington - Reagan, Washington - Dulles, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and several of the New York airports. But I digress...)

We stopped to get wings - which are delicious even at 3:15 pm - then headed up to my uncle's house up north. My cousin and her husband arrived later and we played two great games of an old game called Rail Baron.

Woke up early Saturday morning, drove back to Columbus. We were a bit late, so we had a hard time finding a parking spot. Normally, we get one only a few blocks east of campus, but this time, we were right up next to the train tracks. Not too bad, though, just a longer walk.

The game was absolutely fantastic. The Buckeyes started out slow as they tend to, but then Terrell Pryor nailed a 39-yard pass up the middle and it was on. Once they took the lead early in the second quarter, they never let go. At one point, Michigan scored to make it 10-7 OSU. After Michigan kicked off, it was 17-7. Halftime score was 24-7.

OSU Marching Band lived up to their nickname as The Best Damn Band In The Land.  They did the famous Script Ohio before the game - the field show upon which all else is graded. It's just incredible. They cross lines through each other at full march speed, and start from a giant block O made from several rotating lines. For halftime, they had several classical pieces and elaborate formations; the last was an incredible Des Irae / Ode to Joy melody.

During the first half, Michigan's quarterback and running back had success running, though only one score. OSU owned the third quarter. Michigan had ten total yards; the Buckeyes had several scores, including a 98-yard run by Dan Herron (that was reduced a bit by the officials due to a BS holding penalty) and Pryor just killed the defense with his throws.

In the 4th quarter, Michigan had a long drive. They had 2nd and goal on the 1-yard line. Ohio State took over on downs on the 7 yard line. They not only prevented the score, they drove them back. The Buckeyes defense has a few holes, but when the pressure is on, they are deadly.

Final score was 37-7 Buckeyes. And the 105 thousand rejoiced. I can't wait till the Buckeyes play in January.

Afterwards, we headed out to Easton and took advantage of the all-you-can-eat ribs special at some restaurant. We ate 3 and a half racks between us. Since the game was at noon (less nastiness afterwards cause less people drink in the morning, not that there weren't some thoroughly plastered people there), it was only 5:30 by that point, so we went and saw Unstoppable. An excellent movie.

When we got in the car to go back to the hotel room, the first song the DJ put on was classic Ozzy. "Crazy Train". Oh, the irony.

Flights home were uneventful. I like Columbus - beautiful city - but it's nice to be home.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I'm pretty much addicted to the internet

So, when it goes down for a couple hours, I am lost. I did get some stuff done, though. Unfortunately, I need to be off to bed. So, you get to hear all about my trip, my literary adventures, and other stuff - tomorrow!

Friday, November 26, 2010

CATO 167: Punkin Chunkin: Part 5

Here are a few pictures of Al Gloer's Darkstar Itty Bitty on an F30SS:

And some unknown rockets:

CATO 167: Punkin Chunkin: Part 4

The next flight was the SpaceShipTwo on an A10-3 mini motor. Despite the RSO's concerns, it launched straight up, with little spin.

My final flight of the day was the Scissor-Wing Transport on a C6-3. The boost was fast and straight; the glide was not great, but because of the wind it leveled out a bit and landed safely.

CATO 167: Punkin Chunkin: Part 3

After that, I decided to launch my Fliskits Nell, which I had labored over for months. I had primed it, but not given it a full paint job. Like the Great Punkin, its launch (on a C6-3) started out well:

And then it took a turn for the worse. The parachute, which I had packed too tight, failed to deploy. Instead, my beautiful rocket tailslid to a sickening "crunch".

It's broken in several pieces. I am not sure if it can be repaired.

CATO 167: Punkin Chunkin: Part 2

Shortly after the flight of Svetlana, my folks showed up, bearing cameras. My second flight of the day was my pumpkin-lofting flight, the Great Punkin on a G53-7 FJ (Black Max) motor. Simulated altitude 890 feet. The booster had a 16 chute; the punkin had a 36" by 66 chute that I made out of a garbage bag.

It started out well:

But, the giant chute did not open, and instead of soaring, my punkin plummeted to the ground. It, amazingly, survived. My revenge was swift and tasty:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

CATO 167: Punkin Chunkin: Part 1

CATO was on Sunday this month; Saturday was rather windy. And, I haven't had time to write about it till now. Pictures will come later tonight, or tomorrow.

My first flight was the Svetlana on an F35-8W - my first launch with my new 24/60 case. It simulates to 1192 feet on Openrocket, and that might be conservative. It zoomed off the pad - the 57 Newton-second (Ns) load packs a lot more punch than a 40 Ns E18 load. I drilled the nominally-8-second delay down to about 6 seconds, and it ejected just past apogee.

Since my old baffle was destroyed at NERRF, I opted to make a temporary one out of duct tape. Just a 10" long tube, made using a 29/240 case as a mandrel. I tapered one end to fit in the motor mount tube, and stuffed the other end in the nosecone. I packed the 12" chute as usual and sure enough, it deployed without being burnt. The duct tape was barely burnt. Fun fact: duct tape can take the heat of a blackpowder ejection charge.

Even with the small 12" chute, it drifted a lot. Everyone thought it was going to land in the woods... but nope, it touched down on the adjacent field. Easy to get to, and I even found someone else's nose cone on the way to get it.

Next: I have pictures!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Well, that was strange

This morning, as I'm driving to school, I get a call from mandachan. I pull over and pick it up, but the connection's bad, and all I hear is 'accident'. I get back on the road, but when I come to the first major intersection in town, there is a minivan in the middle of the intersection.

On fire.

There were flames about three feet high coming from the engine block. There was also a large white truck off to one corner, and what I think was an unmarked cop car with lights. Fortunately, at that point the cop was still letting traffic by.

As I got about half a mile away, I heard sirens and I pulled over to let two fire trucks, an ambulance, and three more cop cars by.

As it turns out, mandachan was just approaching the intersection when it happened. The minivan apparently ran a red light and struck the truck, then spun around. Fortunately, the neither driver was seriously injured, and the minivan driver got out before the flames. I'm sure it'll be all over the news tomorrow morning. Scary stuff.

NetHack Wiki

I received a very nice email today from Tjr, one of the admins of Nethack Wiki, asking me to change my links from the old site on Wikia to the new one, which is on the same servers as Apparently Wikia was being nasty with a new default skin and putting too many intrusive ads on.

So, the links are changed and as a bonus, I might start playing Nethack again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Getting ready for Punkin Chunkin

I made a parachute from a garbage bag today. Huge friggin' chute. 36" by 66". It'll lower a 7 oz punkin at just 4 feet per second.

(And yes, it is 'punkin', not pumpkin. Only punkins get launched.)

I've also got the Nell ready for launch - added the launch lugs and shock cord. The final coat of paint can wait for after its first flight.

The Great Punkin - my half-assed punkin lofter, cobbled together last year out of two mailing tubes and some scrap wood - had aquired new decoration in preparation for its second flight tomorrow. It now has a zigzag black stripe around the yellowish body. To say I am pleased would be an understatement.

Friday, November 19, 2010


It is going to be very windy tomorrow. Punkin Chunkin is delayed until Sunday. I have to wait another day before I get to launch punkins.


On the other hand, I actually have time to make a large parachute, and get my rockets ready. So it's not all bad, just frustrating.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Strange Hybrids

Dick Stafford brings information about Aluminum - carbon dioxide hybrids and hybrids with 3D printed fuel grains. I have nothing more to add.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tell Me, People, Am I Going Insane?

(Yes, I am.)

Marine Science outline yesterday (1200 words, 3 data tables)

Calc midterm #2 today - two hours of difficult math

Programs, agendas, and maps to make for National Honor Society induction, which is Monday

And, tomorrow, I will be gone for 14 consecutive hours, between school, calculus course, herding children, and senior night for marching band. The only saving grace of which is that it's senior night. So, we don't have to wear the awful marching band uniforms - we can actually wear warm clothes - and we have shenanigans planned.

And, maybe, possibly, I will have time to blog.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Central Corridor Rail Line Map

So, I've made this neat map of the proposed service, using a Google Maps template. Markers are green at current stations (with Vermonter / Northeast Regional / Acela / Shore Line East service), yellow at proposed stations (including several cities that formerly had service, which will now be restored). The three pushpins indicate where the corridor splits from other passenger services.

I calculated mileages based on matching curves to the track on the map. The exact locations of all of the yellow stations (except for Willimantic, which has a small concrete platform left over from previous Vermonter service) are approximate; they could be in an entirely different part of town from where I guessed. However, the total mileage - 122 miles - should be correct.

View Central Corridor Rail Line in a larger map

I've also created a Wikipedia page on the line. The information isn't complete because I have to use sources available to everyone, but it's pretty nice. I like the route map, pieced together from a standard set of symbols.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Template Frustrations

Something's been funny with my template today. If you see only the first part of posts on the main page, and not the whole posts, let me know.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Internal linking!

I've taught myself something new. I can now link to an arbitrary point in the middle of a page or post, rather than just the top of the post. How? With a little snippet of code that looks like this:

<span id="name"></span>

where name is the name I am assigning to the link.

I then link to it with the following modification of the standard link code:

<a href="">link text here</a>

When I implement that in actual html, it looks like this: link text here and it links to the span tag that I put just above the sample code. Try the link to see what I mean.

So, I can link to the middle of pages. How is that useful? Well, check out the links at the bottom of the page. Say, I want to link to my comment policy, which is halfway down the massive infopage. If I link to the page, it's hard to find. If I link directly to the section, it's real easy.

Wikipedia also uses a similar system when dividing up pages. It means you can link to any section of a page, including when doing internal links. Very convenient.

Building and Priming

Finally finished building the Nell. Well, mostly. I still need to attach the launch lugs, but I'm not sure about those - I will probably add them after painting. But I filled every single nook and cranny with a little fillet of glue, repaired the broken tube completely.

It was, amazingly, 62 degrees out, so I primed the lower half of the Nell. It was a bit windy, so I didn't get a great coat, so it's a start.

I've also been working on the Transwing. It'a already built, and a successful glider that gets 30-second flights on C6-3s. But I want to make it better. I'm repairing the wingtips - one I cut too short and barely stays under the flap that holds it down during boost, and the other has a chuck out of it from a hard landing.

I'm also sanding the wings smoother and redoing the hinge joints. Nothing major, and mostly mechanical rather than aesthetic, but they should add up to a slightly better boost and a somewhat improved glide. I want to beat 1 minute on a C6-3, then 2 minutes on a D13 at NERRF next year.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Things that bug me: The Mentalist basement scenes

I like The Mentalist, I really do. The crimes aren't terribly interesting, but the interplay between the characters is entertaining, and Cho is extremely amusing.

But, one thing about the show really bugs me. The basement scenes. There's been three or four so far where someone's been held in a basement by a kidnapper, in what I think might even be the same set. Every single time, the kidnapper has been killed or seriously wounded by a CBI agent standing at the top of the stairs. It gets old.


I mean, take last night's episode. Patrick Jane has been taken to a basement, where he's handcuffed to a pole. Then, Lisbon is taken and brought down to join him, after she gets taken*. Even though their hands are handcuffed to the thin pole, they both have a lot of freedom of movement. They manage to lure the would-be killer to the basement and convince her that Jane killed Lisbon to save her from burning. Lisbon gets the jump on the killer, and there's a whole lot of ways it could go.

Lisbon could choke her with the handcuffs (a la Malcolm Reynolds) or with her hands. Patrick Jane (the mentalist) could grab her gun , which he grabs at but obviously misses. The baddie has a cattle prod which she drops; Jayne could easily grab that and stun her, or stop her heart. Lisbon would certainly not be alone in carrying a backup weapon (many cops do, and considering all the nasty cases she works...); she could grab that, or he could. Any of those would have been an excellent way to end the episode. But no, the baddie escapes Lisbon's grasp, only to get mowed down by the cop at the top of the stairs. Deus ex machina. A total cop-out, pun intended.

* A glaring plot hole. No cop would abandon their vehicle, and their gun because a psychotic would-be killer says they'll lead them to the kidnapped man. That's just stupid. Especially if she doesn't let anyone know where she's going, or carry a second weapon.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Julian Assange for Man of the Year

I voted for Julian Assange for TIME Magazine's Man of the Year. Why? That's, unfortunately, political. But suffice to say that I believe that transparency is a vital condition for democracy, and that supporting transparency in government is usually more important than getting the government to do exactly what you want. I encourage you to go vote.

Monday, November 8, 2010


So, I'm not a fiction writer. Not even close. Tried a couple short stories, never got anywhere with em.

So, what do I do? I attempt to write a 50,000 word novel. In a month. An absolutely ridiculous task, that only about 20% who sign up accomplish. Odds are, I won't be one of them, but I'm giving it a try.

It's called NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.

At the moment I'm up to 3063 words.

Snow delay! Wait.... what?

I wake up this morning, hit the snooze button, and idly check the weather outside before turning on my light. And...wait. It's white out there. We got about maybe half an inch of snow. But it's nice and fluffy and...nope, it's thick and slushy and icy. PITA to drive in, but we get a 90-minute delay out of it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Yep, two shows in two days. Saw Spamalot with Mandachan and my folks at the Garde Theater in New London. Absolutely hilarious.

And now I'm going to bed, because I am tired. Good night, world.

Comet Hartley 2 and EPOXI

Yes, I know this is old news. I'm a slow blogger, okay?

Anyway, chances are that two years ago, you heard of the Deep Impact mission. NASA sent up a small impactor and a larger space probe, and then smacked the impactor into comet 9P/Tempel (Tempel 1) at a combined closing speed of around 14 kilometers (9 miles) per second. The impact was the equivalent of five metric tons of dynamite, and produced a huge bright dust cloud. NASA got a huge amount of information out of the mission, huge success. And, oh yeah, they got pretty pictures too:

But wait. There's still a fully functional space probe up there, and it's got cameras and spectrometers, and plenty of fuel. It's time to science!

The University of Maryland joined in the project. They initially intend to fly it near comet 85P/Boethin, but it didn't return periodically as expected, and has probably broken up. So, they put the spacecraft on a holding pattern near Earth, and used it for other stuff. They used the telescopic cameras to scan for extrasolar planets, and the spectrometer to confirm observations of water molecules on the moon.

Then, in May, they had the craft, now titled EPOXI, fire its engines for 11.3 seconds, enough to change its velocity by around 3 inches per second. That was just enough that its July flyby of Earth, instead of continuing its holding pattern, flung it off into the black. Right into the path of comet 103/P Hartley (Hartley 2). It passed just 435 miles from the nucleus, revealing incredible sights:

Yep, it's a peanut, as was suspected from ground-based radar observations. The waist is smooth, but the two balls are rough, with craters and boulders, and a huge groove.

It's the fifth comet to be visited by a spacecraft; the next flyby will be when the Stardust spacecraft (which collected samples from comet Wild 2 in 2006) visits Tempel 1 in 2011.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trans-Siberian Orchestra!

Wow. Just wow. That was amazing... probably the best show of my life, better even than the Eagles.

I went to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra with my sister. It was just pure epic from the start. For the second song - "Beethoven" off of Beethoven's Last Night - two of the guitarists and the electric violinist descended from the ceiling on platforms. And, except for two minute-long interruptions to introduce the entire band, including the singers and the local string section, and to answer questions about their next album, they kept on rocking for two hours and forty minutes.

And they rocked hard. It was incredible beyond words. The reprise of "Joy to the World" that they ended with was awesome.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Corrections about the Central Corridor Rail Line

Things I forgot in my previous post about the Central Corridor Rail Line (which are now fixed):

The proposed service will run to Brattleboro, not White River Junction. There is already service between the two stations and there will be even after the Vermonter is realigned, so there's no sense running new trains on a line that's already served.

Second, there will be a station at Stafford Springs, between Storrs and the CT / MA border, and a station at Miller Falls in Massachusetts north of Amherst.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to rotate your screen

It works for some Windows computers...

To the right: [Ctrl] + [Alt] + [→]

To the left: [Ctrl] + [Alt] + [←]

Upside down: [Ctrl] + [Alt] + [↓]

And, to return it right-side up: [Ctrl] + [Alt] + [↑]

It's apparently useful for some things, like unusual-mounted computer screens. But it just seems like ripe for pranks.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Central Corridor Rail Line

A week ago, I went to a meeting for a really cool project, called the Central Corridor Rail Line. It's a somewhat ambitious plan to extend passenger service from New London, Connecticut to Brattleboro, Vermont.

Currently, the vast majority of the route is owned by the New England Central Railroad. About half the route is currently used by Amtrak's Vermonter service, but that will change as it shifts to a westward alignment. The new alignment will shave 30 minutes off that trip by eliminating section of track that requires the train to back up, but will abandon the station at Amherst.

The plan is to upgrade the tracks along the entire route to allow medium-speed passenger service, with speeds up to 80 mph being an eventual goal. NECR is highly supportive of this upgrades; it is currently engaged in a $70 million upgrade of its Vermont tracks and bridges - which includes part of the planned route - to allow them to carry 286,000 lb boxcars, a significant upgrade over their current 263,000 lb cars.

The line would serve over a dozen colleges, with something like 60,000 students, including part of the Knowledge Corridor. Planned stops include:

New London (Conn College, UConn Avery Point, Coast Guard Academy, Mitchell College)
Norwich (Three Rivers)
Willimantic (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Storrs / Mansfield (Uconn)
Stafford Springs
Palmer [intersection with Boston / Springfield corridor]
Amherst (UMass Amherst, Amherst, Hampshire)
Miller Falls

And the really cool part? It's not going to take a lot of expensive trainsets to run. They have a viable plan to purchase 34 refurbished Rail Diesel Cars. Vintage stainless-steel cars, with all-new interiors, controls, and propulsion. They can run as fast as the line will allow, stop on a dime to serve local stations, and be joined into multiple-unit trains to serve larger demands.

I'll have more on the project soon, and there will hopefully soon be an official website. There's already been quite a lot of press. These aren't a bunch of wackos, but people who can get stuff done: directors from NECR; local, state, and university officials, and other important persons from all over New England.

(Edited 11/5/10 to fix a few small factual errors)

Me vs. the Email Server: Round One

So, I'm taking a calculus class at Conn College, which is pretty cool. And, in theory, I have a Conn email account, that autoforwards to my primary account. But, I didn't get a recent email from my professor, which worried me.

So, I tried to log onto my Conn, it wouldn't accept my password. I called the tech support, and the very helpful person who answered the phone found that my password was expired and changed it for me.

So I try to log in, and I need to change the provided password to one of my own. I fill in the form... and the server barfs up an HTTP 500 error (internal error) and a page of javascript. Try again, same result.

I call tech support again, and apparently I've been doing everything right, there's just a problem with the server.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

V daggers

Almost forgot. My friend Laura came dressed as V, the title character of the excellent dystopian movie V for Vendetta. As a birthday present, I made her a nice set of 6 wooden daggers, pretty close to the ones from the movie. They're made from hardwood crown molding; each is a total of 15" long with a 10" blade. The crossbars are basswood, the grips made of common electrical tape.

I carved, sanded, painting, and gripped each one myself. The tips were quite sharp; I in fact gave myself a nasty puncture would with one before wisely blunting the tips.


(I was Dr. Horrible, from the eponymous internet super-villain musical, for Halloween.)

I made my death ray from duct tape and common household objects, and the goggles by painting a cheap pair of welding goggles. The gloves, boots, and lab coat belong to my father.

Mandachan was there as well, as Penny, also from Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog:

Fitchburg Line Map

I've made a map of the MBTA's Fitchburg Line commuter rail, including current, past, and future stations. All data is from the Wikipedia article. I put in the existing stations, matching the lines to every curve of the tracks, and filled in former stations from the wiki article.

View Fitchburg Line in a larger map

Unfortunately, it's not perfect. Some of the mileages are a few hundredths of a mile off. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but in order to allow me to fill in missing mileages on the Wikipedia article, I need exact numbers. I can't get that from station platforms; they're around 150-500 feet (40-150 meters) long. That's up to 9 hundredths of a mile So, I will start with one location I know exactly - the Park Street bridge in Cambridge, taken from Federal Railroad Administration crossing data - and reverse engineer the distances. Exactly.

More deep-sea gigantism

There's a lot of really cool species that exhibit deep-sea gigantism. The most famous is perhaps the giant squid. It's huge - females can reach 43 feet (13 meters) - and have been reported all over the globe. They have a complex nervous system, an advanced brain (somewhat like cuttlefish...) and dinner-plate eyes. And they're not even the biggest squid in the deep sea.

That honor belongs to the colossal squid, which is fairly similar. It can reach 14 meters - 46 feet - long and its arms not only have the suckers and teeth of the giant squid, but also swiveling and three-pointed hooks. They can take on sperm whales.

You know the tiny pillbugs that probably inhabit your basement? Imagine them a foot long, and you've got the giant isopod. It's related to crabs and lobsters, only it's disgusting and not known to be tasty. They're found in the deep waters of the Atlantic, they really are related to pill bugs, and they can go up to 2200 meters - 7000 feet - down into the depths.

Other giant abyssal species are edible, though. The Japanese spider crab grows up to 13 feet claw-to-claw, with a 16-inch-wide body (carapace). They can live up to 100 years old.

Possibly the single biggest deep-sea species is the appropriately named King of herrings, the giant oarfish. It can grow up to 56 feet long - that's 17 meters. You could lay the head next to the driver on a school bus, and the tail would still stick out the back door. It's so big that it's believed to be responsible for some sea serpent sightings.

Deep-Sea Gigantism

Every child has heard of the great land animals: elephants, giraffes, anacondas, hippopotamuses. But few know of the deep sea creatures that are equally as strangely large. It's a phenomenon called deep-sea gigantism.

It's a manifestation of several factors. The first is the water itself. Water weighs one gram per cubic centimeter, which means that an animal like a fish, which also weighs approximately 1 g/mL, is effectively weightless. It does not have to support its own weight like a land animal does, thereby removing one of the largest barriers to scaling - the square-cube law. An organism's weight goes up with the cube of its size, but the cross section of its skeleton only goes up with the square of its size. Thus, the larger the animal, the larger its bones must be to support its own weight in air. But, marine animals are mostly except from the rule. A 100-foot blue whale does not require the immense bones of a 100-foot sauropod dinosaur like Seismosaurus. The whale has bones only a few inches thick; the dinosaur's leg bones are over a foot thick.

Other physical factors also come into play. Scarcer food and nutrients at great depth mean sexual maturity is delayed, meaning the organism will grow larger before its growth stops at maturity. The freezing-cold temperatures at depths of thousands of feet mean that larger animals have advantages in body temperature regulation and reducing the need to constantly keep moving - thus requiring fewer resources.

Some organisms also manage to grow large because they can use the massive energy available from hydrothermal vents called black smokers. Giant tube worms can reach almost 8 feet long (2.4 meters), tolerate extremely high levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from vents, and survive depths up to several miles deep. They're basically giant cylinders that house bacteria which create nutrients like oxygen and carbon dioxide in a process called chemosynthesis, which the worm then feeds upon. The red tip of the worms contains a specialized hemoglobin that can carry oxygen with sulfides in the environment - most hemoglobins cannot.

No more Natural Gene Patents!

Via Blag Hag comes the welcome news that the federal government has issued a nonbinding legal brief saying that corporations should not be able to patent genes that occur naturally in humans and other animals. It's not legally binding, so it's uncertain whether the Patent Office will enforce it, and there's still other issues that need to be dealt with. But, it's a huge step in the right direction, and it represents a pretty big change in policy.

Basically, for years, companies have been able to patent human genes. That's right, someone could claim all legal rights to a piece of DNA that occurs in millions of humans - or everyone, just because they were the first to isolate it. That's like claiming exclusive rights to providing a new species to zoos, just because you discovered it, or claiming a royalty on all jewelry that includes a mineral your discovered. It meant that other companies and frequently research universities could not do research on that gene without getting sued.

The brief does say, though, that artificial manipulations of genes should still be able to be patented. This is both good and bad. Good, because it provides an incentive to not only discover genes, but do beneficial research on them. Bad, because it could still stifle important medical research. Also, companies that genetically modify plants have a nasty habit of maliciously suing small farmers who have had GM seeds drift into their field from nearby fields. Which, legally defensible or not, is just plain wrong.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rest in Peace, Mr. Conlon

I've been thinking a lot about you, and there's a whole lot I could say about your legacy, all those you helped.

But all that really needs to be said is, you will be sorely missed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


At 11:06 pm today, I submitted my MIT application. I am now done applying to colleges. The wait begins.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Longest things I have ever written

These are the longest things I have ever written. All are over 1100 words - the point at which a paper or outline takes serious work. I've got tons of labs, essays, and outlines between 900 and 1050 words, an amount of work which can be done in one afternoon, without a huge amount of work.

Longer than that takes a lot of work. The more recent outlines were spread out over 2-3 afternoons, as were most of my ninth-grade bio outlines. The 9th grade English and 10th grade History thesis papers were written over a week each. The three thesis papers and the Bushy Point Beach paper since then were all one-evening productions, taking until 1 or 2 in the morning. I've found it's easier to focus and write a cohesive paper that way, even if it is somewhat irresponsible. However, with those four items, I had extensive planning, notes and data, and I'd been thinking about them for a while.

Bolded is my chapter 16 outline for UConn ECE Marine Science, a college-level course taught at my high school by a biology teacher. It's the longest outline I have ever written. It's longer than many short stories. And I'm very proud of it.

1) Pearl Harbor thesis paper - History - grade 11 - 2948 words, 8.5 pages

2) Electoral College thesis paper - English - grade 10 - 2923 words, 9.1 pages

3) Aquaculture thesis paper - English - grade 9 - 2601 words, 7.7 pages

4) "Johnny Mnemonic" thesis paper - English - grade 11 - 2490 words, 6.9 pages

5) Bushy Point Beach report - Marine Science - grade 12 - 2254 words, 7.0 pages

6) Chapter 16 (Plankton) outline - Marine Science - grade 12 - 2180 words, 5.4 pages

7) Chapter 3 (Molecules) outline - Biology - grade 9 - 1861 words, 4.9 pages

8) Chapter 12 (Coasts) outline - Marine Science - grade 12 - 1711 words, 4.6 pages

9) Neutrality Acts thesis paper - History - grade 10 - 1601 words, 4.7 pages

10) Chapter 2 (Chemistry) outline - grade 9 - 1398 words, 3.9 pages

11) Chapter 4 (Cells) outline - Biology - grade 9 - 1361 words, 4.6 pages

12) Chapter 5 (Working cells) outline - Biology - grade 9 - 1239 words, 4.7 pages

13) Chapter 6 (Respiration) outline - Biology - 1194 words, 3.4 pages

Friday, October 22, 2010

There is Justice in the World

The Yankees are not going to the World Series.

A-rod struck out to end their season, send them home as losers.

Once in a while, life is sweet.

Once again, Canadians for the win

Recently, there's been a flap about Virginia's State Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, has been engaging in his own private war against climate scientists at the University of Virginia. His accusations are ridiculous - it's a politically motivated witch hunt, and has the goods.

Some of the scientists who Cuccinelli has falsely accused have returned fire with strong letters of defense. And now, UVa has returned fire. They've sent out a strongly worded court filing which condemns Cuccinelli's actions. They say the 'investigation' "constitutes an unprecedented and improper governmental intrusion into ongoing scientific research". Read it here.

It's pretty clear who's in the wrong here. Cuccinelli is abusing his power to harass scientists - a grievous abuse. But it's raised a lot of questions about how governments, state and national, wrongly interfere with legitimate and important scientific research for their own petty political means. There have been incidents lately with attempts to censor research results because they disagree with politician's personal convictions. There's also a lot of talk on what to do.

The Canadians, they don't mess around. Their Conservative Party illegally attempts to force them to get permission to share results with the media, they fight back. They launch a website to place research results where everyone can see them. They're fighting back against censorship., folks. That's where it's at.