Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aprils Fools!

April Fools has come a day early... Remember how March comes in like a lion and goes out a lamb? Well, it appears the lion came back in sheep's clothing.

Today included rain, snow, freezing rain, and sleet, in multiple scramble order. By the time I was driving home from after-school stuff today, it was snowing. Huge flakes. Pull away from a stop sign, it looks like hitting the warp drive.

By the time I reached home fifteen minutes later, it was sleet and freezing rain. Nasty stuff.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reynolds / Washburne 2012!

No, I'm not going political. I promise.

But I do have to take government class as a graduation requirement at my school, and on Monday we had to make (fake) campaign posters for something illustrating congressional and presidential powers.

This is my contribution: Malcolm Reynolds / Zoe Alleyne Washburne '12.

(click to embiggen)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Today's dose of dizzyingly amazing maps

I discovered Radical Cartography through some images they created and uploaded to Wikipedia. They've done some truly fascinating stuff with urban maps - showing how human factors (race, education, crime) and transport (rail and roads) determine what our cities look like and how we live.

Two of my favorites:

The Squares of Boston: Boston is a city built on squares - you've probably heard of Kenmore, Harvard, and Scollay Squares, and perhaps Haymarket, Davis, or Central as well. The original BERy, MTA, and MBTA lines connected squares, now it's interesting to see how they connect.

Boston Campus - 250,000 students make up nearly a third of Boston's population. Here's why they go to school.

But today's winner for epic cartography goes to Ben Fry, who (with a computer), created an incredible map of the US. It's a bit fuzzy, but the careful eye picks out a lot of detail - you can see cities, and interstate highways. A closer look reveals a wealth of detail - the Everglades and Adirondacks parks, dozens of rivers including the Mississippi and Ohio, and even the Appalachian Mountains. Detail maps show even finer details.

But none of that detail is actually there. The map only shows the 26 million road segments in a DOT database. All the geographic and urban detail is shown only by how the roads curve around mountains and avoid rivers, how they cluster in cities and how towns spring up along highways and rail lines.

It is fascinating. Information at its best - complex, thought-provoking, and mystifyingly beautiful.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lest You Think I've Forgotten About Rocketry:

...I haven't forgotten, I'm just waiting for the MLAS to dry.

Fortunately, it's just about dried. Amazingly, it suffered little permanent damage despite the thorough soaking. The base needs to be reglued to the nosecone and un-warped a bit, but otherwise all the glue joints rehardened just fine.

Although much of the the white paint coast got washed off, some remains. I plan to fill some spots, add a bit of primer, than a white coat on a non-rainy day.

The motor case that I used to hang the rocket got completely soaked, and it swelled and got stuck inside the motor mount. But after a week of drying, it shrank enough to pop right out.

The only permanent damage is around the centering rings. As the glue redried, it shrank, and it's now sinched in, like a tight belt. But overall, that's a pretty small amount of damage for such a stupid mistake.

The T - Past, Present, Future

So, my addiction (of the moment) is making maps. I've made one of the MBTA "T" subway lines - but not just the current setup. I've included several former lines - the Green Line A branch, the Heath Street to Arborway section of the E branch, and several elevated sections of the Orange Line.

I've also included a number of proposed extensions. This is everything from the Green Line extension into Somerville - expected to be complete by the end of 2014 - to the Urban Ring, an ambitious rapid-transit inner beltway that would connect a dozen different T and commuter rail lines.


View MBTA T - Past, Present, Future in a larger map

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Eldritch Abominations, as drawn by your kids

Lovecraftian horrors and the Great Old Ones, as drawn by elementary schoolers. Exactly what I needed to brighten my night.


So, I took the Acela up to Boston last Wednesday. It's over twice as expensive as the Northeast Regional, but it was worth it for this one time. The timing was better, and it was less than 40 extra bucks because it was a pretty short trip.

In for those not living in the Northeast, the Acela Express is Amtrak's premier train. It's the only true high-speed train in the western hemisphere. Based on European designs, the Acela trainsets are streamlined and capable of 150mph speeds.

Riding on one was really neat. Very sci-fi like. The first thing you notice is the doorways. On commuter rail and all other Amtrak trains (except possibly the Cascades train out west), the individual cars are connected by shaky metal doorways. You have to push a button - which doesn't always work - to open the door, and you step into a vestibule that's freezing cold, noisy, and you think you're about to fall to your death. On the Acela, the glass doors open automatically, and the vestibule is barely different from the rest of the aisle. This is because the Acelas are integrated trainsets, rather than individual cars.

The seats aren't much wider than standard Amtrak cars, but there's more footroom. And then you sit down, and it's quiet. The AC is nearly silent, and the trainset vibrates less than a normal train. It's actually quiet enough to sleep, which is what everyone not on laptops or smartphones is doing.

It's also a lot smoother going around curves. The Acela trainsets can tilt up to something like five degrees, which means you don't slide around at all, and you don't even really feel most curves.

Tilting, plus the Acela design, means you also go crazy fast. There's only one section of track - 18 miles near Kingston, RI - signaled for 150mph, but a lot of sections allow 135mph and 125mph, and that's still faster than most Northeast Regional trains. You don't have much of a feeling of speed till you look out the window, but you cover a lot of ground very quickly. It's only 40 minutes from New London to Providence, and 40 more till you're exiting at South Station.

Is the Acela perfect? No. Is it good for most corridors? No; only densely populated corridors like the Northeast Corridor, California, and maybe Florida and the Midwest have enough population to make high-speed rail viable. Is it worth the extra money over a Regional? Not unless you're a businessrobot and can expense it.

But it's amazing. I rode into Boston in half the time that it take to drive. No traffic to deal with, no cops to watch out for. Wifi if I wanted it, and the chance to get up and stretch my legs. Every politician should get out and ride it sometime. Proof that rail transit is certainly not dead.

Friday, March 25, 2011

1000 edits on Wikipedia

In a disturbing indication of having no life, I've reached 1000 active edits on Wikipedia - i.e, those that were not on pages now deleted.

849 of those edits were article edits - adding directly to articles. Perhaps one-third were typos or other minor corrections, one-third were geocoordinates, and one-third were major work, plus some vandalism deletion.

The other 121 were elsewhere. Editing my user page to keep tabs on what I need to work on, talking about planned improvements to articles, participating in discussions on whether or not to delete an article, stuff like that. The two file edits were correcting links in the file descriptions; the template edits are for symbolic templates of rail lines.

(The four deleted edits are from two deleted articles - one an advertisement, and the other a single-line article about a wholly unimportant former elementary school. On both, I marked the article for suggested deletion and explained on the talk page, and an admin later deleted the article.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What a Day

We got two inches of snow last night. Thick heavy snow, a bit icy.

It took me ten minutes to scrape off enough of my car to drive this morning. Nasty ice. I broke both the windshield wipers (one seriously, one minorly) trying to extricate them.

Roads were bad. Real bad; worst I've ever driven. Slushy and wet, and slippery.

There were at least two accidents in Ledyard this morning. One was a car that flipped over; I don't know the details. The other I saw the aftermath of - on a big wide curve in the road, there were a few emergency vehicles, and taillights. A car had gone off the road and into an eight-foot ditch. Apparently a fellow senior.

Last I heard was no one seriously hurt. Which is good. But those accidents shouldn't happen at all.

But did we get a delay in school opening? Nope.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


No time for an actual post, but here's a few pictures from today:

Old streetcar displayed at Boylston:

And a new(er) streetcar at Science Park:

Commuter rail locomotives at South Station:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shipping Up to Boston

I'm heading up to Boston tomorrow to shadow a student at Boston University, one of the colleges I'm considering attending. The actual visit isn't terribly long, but it promises to be an interesting day.

Due to timing, I'll actually be taking the Acela Express up to Boston. It's very cool, and capable of 150 mph in a few sections in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. True high-speed rail. I've seen the Acelas a number of times, including from the other side of 150 mph, but never ridden one.

After my visit, I'll have some time to kill before my train home, so I'm bringing a camera and I'll be taking pictures to fill current gaps in Wikipedia. (Don't worry about me getting arrested; the MBTA allows nonsuspicious photography, even going so far as to specifically include "rail buffs". Relevant legal policy is here.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

...All right, I cheated. glue.

Supermoon and the Saros cycle

By now, you cannot possibly have escaped the furious news blitz over the "Supermoon". In case you've been living under an Everest-sized rock, here's the story: the moon, last night had what's known as a "perigee syzygy".

In other words, the moon doesn't have a perfectly circular orbit. It varies from between about 222,000 to 252,000 miles away from Earth (center-to-center); the far distances (apogee) varies little, while the near distance (perigee) varies from 222,000 to 230,000 over a few months. The absolute maximum range is about 221,439 miles to 252,724 miles.

Occasionally, the moon gets to perigee at the same time as the full moon; due to the way the earth's and moon's orbits interact, the closest full moons usually occur between November and March. This is colloquially known as a "supermoon" and some astrologers, in typical astrologer lack-of-brains style, think it's actually significant.

Even worse, some people think yesterday's supermoon could be capable of causing earthquakes. Never mind that a) it's only 2% closer than the supermoons that occur 4-6 times per year and b) the Japan quake was a week before the supermoon, when it was still at first quarter. Phil Plait has a complete debunking.

But there is some neat stuff about supermoons. For example, the extreme ones don't occur completely randomly. Take a look at the current list of the most extreme ones (not sure about the criteria which were used) from Wikipedia:

November 10, 1954
November 20, 1972
January 8, 1974
February 26, 1975
December 2, 1990
January 19, 1992
March 8, 1993
January 10, 2005
December 12, 2008
January 30, 2010
March 19, 2011
November 14, 2016
January 2, 2018
January 21, 2023
November 25, 2034
January 13, 2036

Now look at what happens when I rearrange the dates a bit:

November 10, 1954
November 20, 1972
December 2, 1990
December 12, 2008

January 8, 1974
January 19, 1992
January 30, 2010

February 26, 1975
March 8, 1993
March 19, 2011

January 10, 2005
January 21, 2023

November 14, 2016
November 25, 2034

January 2, 2018
January 13, 2036

Every single one matches up with another or several, a little more than eighteen years apart. In fact, 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours. That's a number that will immediately ring a bell for astronomers.

It's the Saros cycle - a pattern on which solar and lunar eclipses repeat.

Why, then, do these seemingly unrelated lunar events have the same periodicity? It's because of what the Saros cycle is. It's a combination of three lunar cycles - synodic, draconic, and anomalistic. After one Saros cycle, the moon has the same phase, the same node (location above below the plane on which the see the sun) and the same distance from Earth. This sets up identical eclipses - and also provides the conditions for nearly identical supermoons.

The Saros cycle, due to its combination of the three most significant orbital cycles of the moon, shows up in all sorts of weird places. Jean Meeus, in one section his brilliant book Mathematical Astronomy Morsels, analyzed the closest and farthest distances of the moon over the period 1500-2500. The closest approach and farthest apogee during that millennium occur in the mid 2200s - 1 Jan 2257 and 7 Jan 2266. That's 9 years 6 days - half a Saros!

It's the Equinox!

And, as everyone's favorite pseudoscience tale goes, you can balance an egg on its end.

In fact, that's not true. While difficult, you can actually balance one on its end any day of the year.

Two, though, requires astronomy superpowers:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Making more fake liquids

It's been almost a year since I made fake coffee. Now, I'm back with more convincing fakes.

Red wine: Fill a normal-sized wine glass halfway with water. Add 8 drops of red food coloring, and one blue. You may need to dilute this slightly with additional water to make it a bit clearer; you may also wish to add more red.

White wine: Mix 1 drop green with 4 drops yellow in water. You'll need to dilute this a lot; that much coloring makes almost a whole bottle's worth of fake wine.

Olive oil: in about 8 ounces (240 mL) of water, put in 1 drop green, 1 drop red, and 4 drops yellow.

Apple cider: In a 1:2 milk/water mixture, add 1 drop green, 2 drops red, and 5 drops yellow. You may need to futz with this one a bit for it to be convincing.

The most difficult fake so far, though, is orange juice. It's weird, and hard to replicate. It's darker than simply mixing red and yellow can achieve, and not as warm a color.

The trick is to start with green - mix one drop each of red and green plus 4 drops of yellow (use fake olive oil) in 8 oz of water. Then pour out half and replace with water. Do this three times, so just 1/8 of the original liquid remains. Add one drop of red and 4 drops yellow to the pale green liquid, then pour a bit out so you have about 6 ounces of liquid. Then, add an ounce of two of milk. It's not perfect, but it'll fool at a casual glance.

Portable Applications

So, for some strange reason I carry a flash drive in my pocket. Pretty much all the time. Most guys jeans have a double pocket on the right side - one about 3 inches wide and 5 deep, and one that's no more than an inch or two wide and the same deep. It's too small for most cell phones, but it does fit a USB flash drive perfectly.

My old one recently broke; it had no cap, so the metal part got pushed back and forth and eventually some connection snapped. My new one is a 4 gigabyte drive (that I got for 8 bucks), and it retracts into the base.

First thing I put on it was a small text file; it is titled "Bring me home!" and gives contact info for me. Then I realized - I have a 4 gigabyte flash drive, which I use solely for transferring documents from school to home, and to the printer. It's never going to have more than a few hundred megabytes of data on it.

So, I've started putting portable applications on it; Portable Apps has all the programs you want.

I started with Tor, which is a special anonymity software, which runs via a worldwide onion routing network. It's perfect for bypassing censorship; it's used by anonymous whistleblowers, bloggers, and those behind firewalls (like in China) worldwide. I'll use it to bypass the ridiculous filtering software at my school, which blocks perfectly acceptable websites like Youtube (which doesn't work with Tor because Flash video can compromise anonymity, unfortunately), The Onion (a parody news source), and most anything related to fighting censorship.

Then I got a portable version of Google Chrome. Tor runs on Firefox, but I'm not a huge fan of Firefox. I'll use Chrome instead of the crappy old versions of Internet Explorer on school computers.

Then, I got Nethack 3.4.3, so I can waste time.

Now, I'm looking to get some more applications. Maybe GIMP and Inkscape for graphics work, maybe chess or some other games. Maybe OpenOffice.

All of this is on my flash drive. How cool is that?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In which I'm proved wrong

Last year, in American Literature (11th grade English), I thought there was nothing more obtuse and ridiculous than Puritan writings. Denser than Dickens and crazier than Timecube.

I was wrong. Oh boy, was I wrong. Those wacky Puritans had nothing on medieval writers. Geoffrey Chaucer is downright ridiculous; never before or sense has anyone said so little in so many fancy words. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is not much better.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eight Birds with One Stone

I had possibly the most productive errand trip today. (Errands? Dang, I am getting old.)

I went to the bank. Boring, but entirely necessary.

I got Chinese food (Asian beef > American beef) and ate it with mandachan.

We planned our secret project.

I went to Staples and bought a new USB drive. I always keep a USB drive in my pocket (for transferring data, and to always have a portable version of Firefox and Tor), but my old one broke. This one is neat and retractable, so it won't break. It's 4 gigabytes - and cost me only eight dollars. That's five hundred megabytes per dollar. In 1993, the year I was born, a dollar bought you a 1.44 megabyte floppy disk.

Then, I went to Union Station in New London to pick up my ticket; I'm visiting BU next week. I get to ride the Acela; how cool is that?

I went to Lee' Toy and Hobby in Groton. I bought packs on B6-4, C6-3, and D12-5 motors, plus thick superglue for repairs.

I also bought materials for a small part of the secret project.

Then, I went to work.

And now I'm home, avoiding homework.


I took some steel wool to the MLAS yesterday, leaving the primer smooth and clean. Then, I went outside and painted it.

...and then I left it overnight. And it rained.

It's quite the mess. The automotive primer (designed for wet-sanding) protected the body tube, but the outer layer of paint is a mess. The nose cone fared the worst; it fell off sometime, putting a big dent in it and removing some of the primer. The water weakened the glue holding the cardboard base of the nose cone so much that it actually fell off when I was bringing the sorry remains inside.

The worst damage on the body is inside the tube; the motor mount is grotesquely swollen, and the empty motor which I use to hang it for painting is also swollen with water, and also stuck inside. I'm suspicious about the status of the glue joints for the fins; they too may have to be replaced.

Once it dries. Which is gonna take a while.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Presenting: the Jayne hat

This is the Jayne hat (from Firefly) that my aunt knitted me for my birthday.

How's it sit? Pretty cunning, don'cha think?

Unparliamentary language

While researching my last post, I came across a very unintentionally funny page on Wikipedia: unparliamentary language. In a number of Parliamentary houses (including but not limited to Britain Canada New Zealand and Ireland plus serial commas), certain words and phrases have been banned.

Not as in super-injunction banned, but politeness banned. Remember that congressman here in the US calling Obama a liar? There's a word you're not allowed to use in almost any Parliament, at leats not when talking about a fellow MP.

Canada has a lot of banned phrases. I'd like to know the story behind them:

parliamentary pugilist (1875)
a bag of wind (1878)
inspired by forty-rod whiskey (1881)
coming into the world by accident (1886)
blatherskite (1890)
and especially, girouette (French for "weathervane") (Québec 2007)

The winner, though, is New Zealand, which has "his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides" and the priceless "energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral".

Fred Goodwin is a banker

Fred Goodwin is a banker.

Fred Goodwin is a banker. But you can't say that on British television.

Fred Goodwin is a banker. He essentially singlehandedly ran the Royal Bank of Scotland into the ground. He spent lavishly as head of the bank. He was one of the people who causes the near-collapse of the British economy. Then he got a lot of bonuses for leaving.

Fred Goodwin is a banker. And he has some powerful friends. Friends in Parliament, who managed to get an injunction to prevent the press from talking about him, or ever calling him a banker.

Fred Goodwin is a banker. His friends didn't just manage to get him an injunction. They got him a super-injunction. Which means the press can't even talk about it. It was only revealed when an MP, speaking under parliamentary privilege, revealed the super-injunction.

Fred Goodwin is a banker. And I'm telling you here, because they can't tell you in Britain.

Best birthday weekend ever

On Friday, I had a solo in Jazz Band. I was bored and wanted to be different, so I made a tie out of duct tape. I don't have a picture, but it turned out pretty well. I also got a package from my aunt - a handmade Jayne hat, made to match the hat from Firefly down to the stitch. It is a cunning hat, and I love it.

On Saturday, I got up early with my dad to go skiing. We drove up to Okemo; on the way, he slipped in a CD and played me Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" - appropriate given that is was my eighteenth birthday. We had a great day at Okemo - 22 runs, many of them on an uncrowded section of the mountain with good trails and a fast, uncrowded lift. I turned eighteen shortly after arriving home. My mom made a delicious berry trifle, and I was given two fractal t-shirts and two bags of candy. I also found out that I won a vintage Boston T publicity booklet (with cool images) via a trivia contest on a railroad forum.

Yesterday, mandachan took me out to a delicious dinner at an Indian restaurant. I had a delicious lamb korma (lamb chunks in a yellow cashew sauce). mandachan (yes, it's lowercase even when beginning a sentence) then surprised me with tickets to the Dropkick Murphys concert at the Sun. The concert was absolutely fantastic (and extremely loud).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rumble in the Jungle

Every once in a while, I produce something that I am truly proud of. This is one of those times.

(For those who weren't alive in 1974, it's a carefully designed parody / copy of the fight posters for the Rumble in the Jungle, a very famous boxing match between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. You can see the original poster here.)

It's for the cover slide of my group's powerpoint presentation for the ongoing lawsuit between Ecuador and Texaco, over pollution in the Lago Agrio oil field.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Laurence Philomène

So, I read a lot of things on the internet. At last count, I read eleven webcomics, four forums, and at least seven blogs on a daily basis, and that's before I start reading Dark Roasted Blend again. And I tend to get linked to other blogs by those blogs, and linked again, and so on.

Today, I got linked to something (possibly a photograph of National Geographic Channel floating a house with balloons a la Up), which linked me to a photography site, and on said site I found a page about Laurence Philomène, a 16 (now 17) year old photographer in Montreal.

I'm not normally an artsy person, but there is something really neat about her pictures. They're offbeat, haunting, and very impressive. Take a few minutes and port through her Flickr, or the giant-scale images on her website.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Caught Red-handed


This morning, for reasons that are still beyond me, I was playing with a pen. Not just any pen, but a malfunctioning red pen, one of the rollerball gel ones. Though still nearly full of ink, it mysteriously refused to write.

So, of course, I was sticking a dowel into the ink tube, trying to push enough ink to clear the blockage. Of course, I was using a dowel almost the exact same diameter as the inside of the plastic ink tube, and gel ink, like water, is a mostly incompressible fluid.

One slip of the hand and blorp (actual sound effect), the tip of the ink tube falls out and there's red ink all over my hand. And I mean red. It was more or less the color of fresh blood, and about the same consistency.

I rushed upstairs, rinsed my hand in the sink, and... it didn't come off. My right hand had two fingers (plus thumb) literally stained blood red with liberal amounts of sanguine ink.

Fortunately, lava soap (soap with small bits of abrasive pumice) helped, as did a small amount of 120-grit sandpaper. Though it absolutely stained my skin cells, it didn't go very deep. In fact, I was going to take a picture, but it's almost gone now.

Still, though, I have a lot of pink skin on my right hand.

100th International Women's Day

Today is the 100th International Women's Day. Which, is very interesting in its own right, and certainly a good reason to look around and think about equality.

It's also rather depressing to realize that it's still needed. This day, designed to draw attention to gender-based inequality, has been around for a century. Last August was the 90th anniversary of women gaining the vote in what for most of those 90 years has been the world's most powerful country. And yet women do 60% of the world's work to earn just 10% of the pay, and own 1% of the property. Those are depressing numbers.

I'd also like to point you towards ways you can make a difference, and I'd like for you to watch this excellent video featuring Judith Dench and Daniel Craig (both of James Bond fame):

(video from Phil Plait)

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this quote from a thoroughly fantastic speech given by Joss Whedon (writer and director of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse):

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Not such a big fan of wind either

After all the rain yesterday, it cleared up today. Unfortunately, it also dropped to the low forties, and the winds were high all day. No chance to get outside to take some steel wool to the primer on the Nell or the MLAS.

Dear March: Forget the lion. I want the stinking lamb.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grrr... Rain...

I dislike rain. Strongly dislike it.

If there was not a rainstorm encompassing most of New England, then I would have gotten to go skiing today. I have not gotten to ski yet this season due to other conflicts, and time is running out.

If there was not rain today, then I would have been able to do a better job priming the MLAS. Today was the first day in a while that it got over 50 when I actually had time to prime the rocket. I primed most of it today, but I had to move it to dry in the shed before the rain got too heavy. Unfortunately, the shed has a window open to prevent the primer from making it smell horrible, so the primer likely didn't dry correctly due to the humidity. I won't know till I look tomorrow.

If there was not rain today, I would be in a better mood.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sad Day: Loki Research to close

Jeff Taylor, owner of Loki Research, announced on Thursday that he'll be selling off the assets of the company. He says that his business is doing well but he's lost his lease and he doesn't wish to move, so he'll be closing up shop. He hopes that someone will buy the rights, but if not he will sell the assets individually.

He points out that he's not leaving the hobby, just the business.

I'm sad to see this; Loki has a reputation for making seriously excellent high-power motors. I hope someone will step up and buy Loki. I wish Mr. Taylor the best.

Full story on Rocketry Planet

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shortt-Synchronome Clock

A what? A Shortt-Synchronome clock. Not just any clock, but a very special type of clock. The most accurate mechanical clocks ever built.

Instead of the normal single-pendulum grandfather clock, it's got two pendulums. One is normal, one resides in a near-vacuum in a specially designed metal tank. The near-vacuum eliminates aerodynamic drag on the pendulum and prevents it from being affected by atmospheric pressure variations. The pendulum itself is designed of low-thermal-expansion metals and has a special section with special thermal properties so that it remains exactly the same length regardless of the temperature. Since a pendulum's period depends on local gravity (not changing) and length, this means that the Shortt-Synchronome free pendulum clock keeps extremely accurate time.

How accurate? More accurate than the earth itself.

That's right. These clocks, which are not small, but not spectacularly large, were the first human-created objects to keep time more accurately than the Earth itself. And that's one impressive achievement - to keep time more accurately than a six-times-10-to-the-24st-kilogram spinning ball of iron and rock.

Said spinning ball is not perfect. In a process called nutation, the Earth's rotation varies, ever so slightly. The Shortt clock was the first artificial object that kept time more accurately than the earth. It looses just 200 microseconds per day - one second every twelve years. In fact, it's so sensitive that it can measure the change in local gravity due to the moon passing overhead.

And mind you, the first one was built in 1921 (by railway engineer William Hamilton Shortt and horologist (what a cool word; it means 'clock scientist') Frank Hope-Jones). That's before quartz clocks, that's before atomic clocks, that's before we could measure the blips from millisecond pulsars.

And that is engineering. Making something work.