Monday, January 31, 2011


A thought I had today:

What if Beethoven lived today? What if he'd been born in, say, 1993? He would be 17 and looking at college.

He showed musical promise early, though it wasn't until his early twenties that he showed his true musical abilities and his incredible abilities for composition. He was frequently depressed, and had massive mood swings, possibly brought on by his increasing deafness. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He would be an angsty teenager. Locally respected for his musical abilities, but not nationally known, because far more students are taught music now than were three centuries ago. Trouble respecting authority, and struggling to find his faith.

But there's a lot I don't know.

Would his talent win out; would he be applying to Julliard or another prestigious university? In a world devoid of royalty, would he have a patron? Or would be struggle with life in a broken home, with his mother dead and his father an alcoholic by the time he reached age seventeen?

His mood swings would be beginning to make themselves clear. Would he see a doctor and be medicated? Would he be diagnosed with ADD, or bipolar, or depression? Would medication make him saner, or would the calmness mask the brilliance, prevent him from truly creating?

If he did manage to compose, what would he write? The same classical music as he did in the seventeenth century, now relegated to NPR and the occasional professional orchestra? Would he adopt modern instruments, going from violins and brass to electric guitars and a drum set, in the Neoclassical style (as is done by groups like TSO with his music)? Or would he create something entirely different?

(Another interesting thought experiment: what if he were transported to modern times, as an adult? Would he be thrilled by the power of amplifiers and synthesizers, the ability to add a new depth to his music, or would he be horrified by the perversion of the purity of his compositions?)

It's a lot more questions than answers, and we cannot truly know much of it. But it's a real interesting thought experiment.


Or, I Am So Very Tired of the Massive Quantities of Snow That Have Been Dumped on Connecticut.

We've already gotten somewhere between 5 and 6 feet of snow this month - in an area that averages 2 feet per year between November and March. Something like 6 snow days already, and the western part of the state is even worse off. Some districts didn't even have school today.

And it gets worse. Way worse. There's another storm gearing up to hit us. Huge. It's got the potential to dump a foot of snow in a 2100-mile corridor from Maine to Ohio to Oklahoma.

We're supposed to get snow starting after midnight tonight, lasting until the afternoon. Then a few hours of respite. Then an ice storm.

The long and short of it: we're screwed.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Baltiimore - Washington Regional Rail

I found this real neat proposal for increased commuter rail service in the Baltimore - Washington metro area. It's far too ambitious to be put into place any time soon, but the guy was designed it is an urban planner, so it's an impressively well-thought-out design.

It's quite a plan - adding four new commuter rail lines in Maryland (including connections to Annapolis) and extending all five of the current lines. It would involve the construction of several new tunnels in Baltimore and Washington, including a tunnel from Union Station to Farragut square. It would cost billions of dollars - but it will probably be needed within 40 years.

What's really neat about the plan, though, is the center city connection. Currently, there are five commuter rail lines serving Washington D.C. - two in Virginia (VRE) and three in Maryland (MARC). They meet at Union Station in downtown DC. The proposal would extend the MARC lines along the VRE tracks to Alexandria, and add additional capacity to two VRE stops inside the city. Thus, the load from the commuter rail lines would be spread out onto four stations instead of mainly Union Station, which would lessen the load on the Metro's Red Line.

And now, I'm off to map it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


I haven't blogged much in the past week. Part of that was first semester exams - which are now over. Part was plain old lazyness. And a whole lot was Wikipedia - 150+ edits in the past seven days.

But, most of it was, I've been busy with other stuff. You might even say I've been culturing myself. Here's all the neat stuff I've been up to:

I've been archive binging on four different webcomics. I've finished Head Trip which is a ... kinda slice-of-life comic, focusing mainly around a geek girl, Mal, people up, mostly. Also, there's really weird superheroes.

I'm very slowly going through Penny Arcade, a gaming webcomic with lots of really random side jokes.

I am really liking Girl Genius. It's a steampunk / gaslamp fantasy web serial, featuring the thoroughly original genius Agatha Heterodyne.

And, I'm attempting to finish Dr. McNinja which is exactly what you think it is.

Not to worry, though, I'm not wasting all my time reading webcomics. I'm also reading real books, too. I've started reading Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers short stories - mystery stories, featuring a club of gentlemen and of course the peerless waiter Henry.

I've also been reading some stuff on educational theory, particularly at the high school level. What makes certain teachers effective. Very interesting.

And, I have been listening to strange bands.

Epica is a Dutch symphonic metal band. This is "Never Enough":

Van Canto is a German 'hero metal' band. They have no instruments, except the drum set. They are also probably the only a capella band that uses guitar amps for their microphones. This is "Kings of Metal":

Agata Kristi is a Russian goth (ish) metal band. This is "Серкет" ("Serket"):

MLAS Building

I've actually gotten a pretty decent start on the MLAS, now. I finished assembling the motor mount, including the kevlar / elastic shock cord. It's all glued into the main body tube now.

I also have made good progress with the nose cone. I coated it with wood glue and white glue, which seals all the cracks and gives it a pretty smooth surface.

I also tested my favorite automotive primer on it, and the results are great! It does not dissolve the foam, and it seems to stick just fine. I'll need to fill a lot of pinholes after I prime it (when it's warmer, and there's not two feet of snow outside...) but it appears that Rustoleum Automotive Primer works well.

Also got some other work done. I'm building a wooden dagger as a prop for a drama show; that's coming along. I fixed the broken fin on the Sudden Mach; it should be able to withstand 1.5 Mach. I also fixed one of my two 29mm rocket stands, and I'm starting work on a third.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Statistical Anomaly

Southeastern Connecticut averages about 22" of snow annually. Average winter.

So far this winter, we have tripled that. Just got eight more inches last night. Thick, wet snow.

We've had five or six snow days so far, and it's destroying our schedule. We were to have something like eight days of school between the new year and exams; now the new semester starts on the last day of January.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parody at its Finest

The Chicago Dope gets it perfectly. I am a king of sarcasm, and they absolutely nail it.

Magnetics Part 2: Polyhedra

After I finished my hyperbolic plane, I kept playing. After a few minutes, I ended up with a cuboctahedron:

The cuboctahedron is an Archimedean solid - one that has several types of regular polygonal faces (in this case, squares and triangles) that meet at identical vertices (each with two squares and two triangles, alternating).

It can be constructed by cutting off the corners of an octahedron:

..or of a cube (mine is not a perfect cube; I'd need shorter pieces):

Cubes have the interesting property that by choosing four vertices so that none of them touch, you get a tetrahedron:

The cuboctahedron can be sliced into two halves. If you rotate one of the halves by one-sixth of a revolution, you get a triangular orthobicupola. It's not quite regular like the cuboctahedron; instead, it's something called a Johnson solid.

Both the cuboctahedron and the triangular orthobicupola have a very similar internal structure. It's not technically part of the polyhedra, but it fits almost exactly. It has three layers of rods - 3, then 6, then 3:

There's only one other way to symmetrically fit twelve rods onto a single vertex: a 1-5-5-1 arrangement:

...which happens to almost be a solid internal structure for an icosahedron:

Unfortunately, it doesn't work perfectly, because an icosahedron is just a tiny bit different from being twenty tetrahedrons put together - a few percentage points different in internal dimensions.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cold Snap

We get a lovely cold snap, starting tonight and continuing for a few days. It's currently 6.3° F outside and dropping. It's expected to drop below zero by 1 am, bottom out at six below, and not get above zero degree before noon tomorrow.

This is Connecticut, not Canada.

It's currently 25° F in some parts of Antarctica. At noon on Mars, it can reach 20° F.


Magnetics Part 1: Hyperbolic Planes

After being inspired by Vi Hart, I started playing with my magnetics set. It's a building toy that works really well for making polyhedra and other mathematical stuff.

I started by making a hyperbolic plane. There are several ways to create one. You can have four pentagons meet at each vertex (432°), or three heptagons (386°), or three triangles, one square, and one pentagon (378°). Having more than 360° at each vertex prevents the plane from being flat, and instead warps it into a hyperbolic plane.

Wikipedia has a complete list; it uses compressed plane tilings (Poincaré disk model) rather than 3-D hyperbolic planes but they're mathematically the same.

I built a small section of an Order-7 triangular tiling, which has seven triangles (420°) at each vertex. Its Schläfli symbol is {3,7}, indicating 7 triangles around each vertex. ({3,3} is a tetrahedron, {3,4} an octahedron, {3,5} an icosahedron, and {3,6} a flat plane; {3,8} and above are hyperbolic surfaces that don't tile well.)

The green is the center vertex and seven triangles, with blue outer edge. The red and yellow are the next outward layer of triangles from the arbitrary center point; the silver is a nice aesthetic edge.

Vi Hart has a lot of neat stuff with hyperbolic planes; she makes them with apple slices and balloons.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yet Again

...Tomorrow is looking like a possible snow day. Which would be an unprecedented four snow days in two weeks.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vi Hart and the Beauty of Mathematics

Vi Hart is one of the most brilliant people I've ever found on the internet. She's a recreational mathematician - someone who plays with numbers and ideas for the fun and beauty of it, not to solve specialized problems or prove obscure theorems. She might be the coolest recreational mathematician since Martin Gardner.

Recreational mathematics: "I can quit it any time I want, I swear!"

A lot of her stuff is with geometry. She builds hyperbolic planes and geometric solids out of balloons and beads, fruit and candy and pennies, and more.

But, her coolest stuff is the videos she makes. She just starts with a doodle - a line looping on a paper, or snakes, or a line dividing in two - the sort of things you draw when you're bored in math class. The, she shows how it makes patterns. What happens if you make a spiral of numbers, and circle the primes? You get straight lines - a totally unexpected result.

What if you have a line divide every so often, so that you get 2, then 4, then 8, lines, and so on? You get a neat tree. But if you ignore when two lines join, you get a totally different pattern.

Ms. Hart has lots of neat videos in her Youtube channel; I command you to watch a few.

Very descriptive and nicely-done New York Times Article

Sunday, January 16, 2011


A friend of mine from state math team, Luyi, has a really neat geometry blog. She just linked to a game I've been trying to refind for years called Planarity. Read her comments about it here.

Planarity, in principle, is a really simple game. You get a circle of dots - vertices. Each is connected to anywhere between 2 and 5 other points with lines - edges. All you have to do is move the dots so that none of the edges cross. It's very tricky, and very fun. At the moment, I'm up to level 8.

2010 Motor Usage

A copy of my sidebar gadget, before I blank it for 2011.


Total of 46 motors on 33 flights - lots of clusters. Total impulse was 1208 Newton-seconds - equivalent to an 88.7% J.

Rocketry Todo

I've got quite a long build / repairs list.

  • Repair the broken fin on the Sudden Mach. It needs to be done perfectly to prevent the fin from rebreaking at speed, but it shouldn't be too difficult.
  • Rebalance the 29mm Pyramid. This will be tricky; there needs to be enough forward mass to keep it stable on a baby H, while not making it too heavy.
  • Repair or replace numerous old decals on the ARV Condor gliders

  • Primer and repaint the new forward section on the Orbital Transport
  • Use steel wool to shine the primer, then fully paint the rebuilt Nell

  • Estes Patriot: definite upgrade from original kit: definitely a baffle or payload section, possibly a motor upgrade or dual-deploy
  • MLAS - build, stock except for a few picky things on the motor mount
  • Buffalo: order extra BT-80 tubing, build for dual deploy

  • Openrocket: simulate a number of rockets, including Nell, MLAS, and Patriot
  • Rama: I need to decide what to do with Rama. Everything is falling apart - tube, motor mount, and fins. I could scrap it, or I rebuilt it, replacing almost every component.
FUTURE: My big project this year will be to get my Level 2 certification after I turn 18. I may use a 4" diameter Madcow kit, or Polecat Aerospace's 5.5" Mosquito. It'll be a lot of work, but a lot of fun, and it'll allow me to start (safely) working with experimental motors. A slightly smaller project will be Serenity. I intend to build a largish scale model of the spacecraft - an Firefly mid-bulk transport, class 03K64 - from the TV series Firefly and the movie Serenity. It'll be around two feet long, built from a jumbo Easter egg (for the ovoid trace compression block engine) with a 29mm mount and probably clear plastic fins.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Birthday, Wikipedia

As of today - January 15, 2011, Wikipedia is ten years old. That's incredibly impressive. It is the seventh-post popular site in the world, and the only noncommercial site in the top ten. It's goal is nothing short of staggering - to be a guide to all the important information of the world - and they're succeeding. Projections indicate that it'll top out at around 4.4 million articles - and as of the moment I write this there's 3,528,966.

The other statistics are staggering as well. Almost 850,000 image files have been uploaded, and on those 3.5 million articles (and 19.4 million other pages) there have been over 438 MILLION edits. There have been over 13 million user accounts registered - most for one-off edits, long forgotten, but there are still 90,000 active users who contribute frequently.

There are articles in over 250 languages. Almost everything on the site is licensed for free reuse, so that everyone may share in the wealth of knowledge. It's slowly but surely becoming incredibly well-written and well-referenced. If not a good source, it is absolutely a good way to start research and find sources.

It's not just people who edit it, either. There are hundreds of bots - automated programs, built into special user accounts, that perform repetitive tasks. Some fix units, date templates like [Citation needed], or tag articles as needing geocoordinates. One bot is incredibly powerful - it is intelligent, it learns, and it is capable of destroying vandalism. It kills 60% of vandalism within seconds, with only one of every 400 a false positive.

Wikipedia is incredible. Congratulations for ten great year to Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, and the millions who have contributed. Here's to many decades more.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sidewalk astronomy

Tonight was "Aerospace Night" for the elementary school club - Aerospace Adventurers - that I help out with. They had all sorts of stuff in the gym - boomerangs, robots, space suits, and more. Patrick McConnell form CATO came down and brought some of his rockets to show the kids. I did too, though I broke a fin on the Sudden Mach. There were also some incredible paintings from a sidewalk artist in Brooklyn - he creates these incredible drawings of alien planets and landscapes, in just ten minutes, using spray cans and a few basic scraping tools.

There was a representative there from the Aldrich Astronomical Society there; he had a number of impressive meteorite samples. He decided not to bring a telescope because the weather wasn't too great up in Worcester. I volunteered to bring my 8" scope down; I live only five minutes away and I figured it was about time I actually got any use out of it.

I set it up around 7:10; I quickly had a steady stream of kids and their parents, and a handful of passerby who were at the school for unrelated reasons. Altogether, I probably had about 80 people in 80 minutes, all of whom saw the moon, Jupiter and its four largest moons, or both. The seeing wasn't great, but you could still see lots of detail on the moon and some belts on Jupiter. Many were quite wowed by the sights.

It was really neat; I'd never showed people astronomical objects en masse before. Just seeing Jupiter - a billion miles away - floored some people, especially when I pointed it out in the sky. It felt really good, and it warmed even my cold black hole of a heart.

It was about the only thing that warmed me, too. It was twelve degrees out (-11 C), and I was outside for seventy-eight of eighty consecutive minutes, in a winter coat and jeans. Thank goodness for ski gloves. (It took an hour afterwards for my toes to be back to normal, though.)

And it prompted an impromptu Taco Bell run with mandachan (my lovely assistant and fellow geek <3 ). Always fun.

Syne Mitchell's History in Code

Go read Syne Mitchell's History in Code. It's a really neat story of a teenage girl learning to program.

I recall fondly learning to program myself, on my aunt's old EL-5200 - one of the first graphic calculators. It used a weird custom programming language, and it wasn't spectacularly useful. It took 30 seconds to graph even the simplest function. I ran a few neat little arithmetic programs; I had a loop program that computed pi (and one for e, and one for the golden ratio), and a program to graph superellipses. One that computed Fibonacci numbers, some for geometry, and some for obscure little calculations for Mathcounts. The cubic formula, die roll, and something for finding your way through a maze. The Drake Equation, and relativistic time dilation. (Man, I was a nerdy seventh grader.) My big accomplishment, though, was "Pong". It wasn't interactive - there was no way to input anything without stopping the program - but it made a little dot bounce back and forth, and that was quite impressive to me.

End of eight grade, I moved up to a TI-84 calculator. Programming in TI-BASIC - not even a full BASIC command-set, but enough to do some neat things. I could do basic graphics (very, very basic), but enough to play PONG and Asteroids. I tried my hand at games, but I couldn't do a lot more than improving a friend's very nice version of blackjack. My big accomplishment was a rocket simulator; it grew to include several different functions and over 100 motors. BASIC is not a great language for the beginner - it corrupts your mind a bit - but I learned quite a bit about optimization. I figured out a basic search function for a database of motors, and I optimized a loop to run extremely fast. I still use it once in a while, for quick-and-dirty simulations (it's good to within about 5% of commercial simulators) and for parachute calculations.

Eventually, I'll get around to learning Python.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mathematical Beauty

This is one of the neatest videos I have ever seen. It's based around the Fibonacci numbers and the Golden ratio and how they relate to nature, but it's really about mathematical beauty.

Take the four minutes to watch it. Definitely turn the quality up to 720p in the lower right-hand corner; you may need to watch it here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Benedict Irony

Remember how I was ranting the other day about snow never canceling school?

Yeah. Winter Storm Benedict. Over a foot of snow overnight. No school today.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unfair snow

So far, this winter, we have received about 16 inches of snow, from three separate storms - one of which has just dumped almost 10 inches over three days, in two separate periods.

We've gotten exactly one snow delay from that. (Plus one day where afterschool activities were cancelled.) The delay was back in the fall, from an unexpected half-inch of snow.

Not. Fair.

I'm not asking for a lot. Just one or two snow days, bring it back up to parity. Enough to give us some time to catch up on sleep, but not enough to mess up graduation.

The Trees are... Glowing?

So, scientists have managed to make glowing trees.


It's been known for a while that chlorophyll releases light when excited by ultraviolet radiation with a 400 nm (nanometer) wavelength. What these researchers did, is they added gold nanoparticles to the leaves. The little spiky nanoparticles absorb different (285 nm) ultraviolet radiation (from the sun, or other sources) and put out 400nm UV light, which then causes chlorophyll.

Since it requires UV radiation to work, I'm not sure what the use is, but someone will surely find a use.

(Coming soon: really, really high-tech red-light districts!)

A Song to create Geocoordinates to

Post-punk goodness: Wire singing "41°N 93°W"

It's all about cartography - imposing grids of latitude and longitude on the landscape.

"Interrupting my train of thought
Lines of longitude and latitude
Define and refine my altitude"

The coordinates of the song's title are very appropriate - they lead to an area divided into the square sections created in the 1800s.

The Basement Geographer has much more, including the full lyrics, and maps of the coordinates. I recommend taking a look.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Speedy Snowstorm

The snowstorm currently blanketing the northeast was supposed to start yesterday morning around 9 am. Instead, it didn't start till 10 pm. But, in just over two hours, it's dumped nearly six inches of fluffy powder on us. Three inches an hours. I don't believe I have ever seen snow accumulate this quickly.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Checking out people... with your library card

The Toronto Public Library has apparently a program where you can check people out. No, seriously. You can use your library card to borrow a person for half an hour, to talk to them.

The concept is called a human library; it started in Europe about a decade ago. You have volunteers - living books - who agree to be checked out to anyone who wants to talk to them. It's designed to help people deal with and get rid of their prejudices. You talk to someone who you think you judge, someone who you stereotype, someone you pigeonhole - and instead meet a real, normal, person.

I think it's incredibly cool. Hat tip to the Connecticut children librarian's listserve, Goodnightmoon.

POV-Ray Hall of Fame

POV-Ray (Persistence of Vision Raytracer) is "a high-quality, totally free tool for creating stunning three-dimensional graphics." It's a raytracer - a computer program used to create highly detailing 3D graphics.

The Turing Test is a theoretical test to evaluate the abilities of a computer to think and act like a human. I can imagine a visual analogue - a completely computer-generated image which no one can determine is not a photograph. Current raytraces aren't quite there yet; graphics in video games are still not quite photo-like.

But we're getting close. The POV Hall of Fame has a number of spectacularly realistic renderings. this one is a beautiful rendering of glass objects, including some liquids.

This forest image, though, is my favorite. It looks strikingly like Zeta Pass (between South Carter and Mt. Hight in the White Mountains.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Best Scientific Paper Ever

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the group of elementary school students in Britain who wrote a scientific paper that was published. Now, I've found an even better paper, published back in 1974. I am 99% sure it's a joke:

"The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case
of ‘‘writer’s block"

It's scientific humor at its best: professional humor, but still funny to those outside the profession. What really sells it is the reviewer comment at the bottom.

But, it gets better. 33 years later, there was a paper with further research.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mysteries of the Universe: Mouse Batteries

I work primarily from a nice armchair. Unfortunately, the armrest is rounded, and it's a rocking chair, so I drop my wireless mouse a lot. In almost three years, though, I've only killed one mouse.

This mouse, though, has a strange habit. It will run for quite a while on a low battery - as low as 1.05 volts. However, if I drop the house while the battery is low, sometimes the mouse will stop working until I replace the battery. I'm not sure if the jolt kills the battery, or just resets the mouse. It's rather strange.

I am a bad blogger

I have not blogged for two days. Instead, I have been busy editing Wikipedia. I'm up to 283 edits, and I've become very good indeed at uploading geographic coordinates using Google Maps. I'm working my way through this list of Connecticut locations missing geocoordinates. It's currently at 353 items; I aim to get it below 300 when I'm done.

But, I haven't been blogging. Haven't had much of a chance to work on the MLAS either. I'll be doing those a bit more now.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Deep Linking to Youtube

Apparently, it's possible to deep link Youtube videos - to link so that it starts at an arbitrary time in the video. Nice if, you know, you want to link to the last ten seconds of a half-hour video.

Just add #t=00m00s to the end of the link. Obviously, substitute for the time you want to link to.

Thanks to Kick In The Head - an excellent webcomic - for the tip.

It's 2011

As I see it, it's the eleventh year of the future.

Now give me my flying car.