Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pictures of the Irene aftermath (with video bonus!)

We got power and phone service back last night, and that makes us very lucky; much of CT does not have power back yet, and some might not get it till next week, because Connecticut Light & Power is overloaded by the sheer volume of downed trees. My neighborhood has cable back, but our connection is down, so I'm at the library for internet right now.

This 6" log fell across my street; fortunately it was soft, so I was able to break it up and remove it.

30-foot branch about 15 yards from my house.

Tree back in the woods, bent in a U by a branch that fell and speared it.

The pointy one in the background is an 11" thick tree, snapped in half by the storm.

Two 30-foot branches, collectively weighing about a ton. The bush took a hit but the garage got off without a scratch.

And now, the video daily double bonus: I took a video. It's fuzzy and shaky, but hey, video. You can see the downed cable (in the video I mistake it for the phone line), a downed branch stuck up in the front tree, and the remains of the log I moved.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I'm Alive!

The hurricane wasn't as nasty as we feared; it was a tropical storm by the time it hit. We had some monster branches down, but no house damage, and no one I know is hurt or homeless.

But, the power's out, and projected to be out for a while. Half the state is without power, and the rich/politically connected folks in Hartford and Fairfield County are the priority. Apparently, Connecticut Light & Power is bringing in crews from as far as Colorado and Canada. So, the next time I have power at home, much less internet, might be at college on Saturday.

However, not all is bad. My dad's office has power (ramen and a hot pocket never tasted as good as when I hadn't had hot food in 36 hours...) and internet, so I'll be hanging out here a lot. My grandparents have power, which means hot showers are possible, and the roads are mostly okay. (After I removed a 6-inch log from our street, that is).

It was also clear last night and with the blackouts there was almost no light pollution. More on that later.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Goodbye Internet

Irene is coming; scheduled to hit us hard tonight and tomorrow. Thunder is starting; that means we're turning the computer and the router off shortly, and we stand a good chance of losing power. So I might not have internet access for a few days.


After it being clear earlier this evening - I took my binoculars out for a few minutes - it's clouded over. These clouds are the very outer fringes of Hurricane Irene:

The next time I see a clear sky... may be in the eye of a hurricane. That's surreal.

(Image: Fair-use screenshot of Intellicast water vapor satellite imagery)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A (galactically) nearby supernova

Phil Plait reports that there's a new supernova in the galaxy M101, one of the nearest galaxies. It's only magnitude 17.2 right now, not visible without a 15+ inch telescope, but it's supposed to brighten to magnitude 11 - enough that I may be able to spot it with my 8-inch scope.

This is a pretty major event; there's only been one supernova in recent years (in 1987) that was closer. It's a Type Ia supernova, which unlike many supernovae is not formed by the collapse of a supermassive star. Instead, it is created by a binary star system, consisting of a large, cool, and massive red giant and a small, hot white dwarf. The white dwarf steals material from the red giant; when it reaches 1.38 times the mass of the sun - the Chandrasekhar limit - it can no longer support itself, and it begins to implode. Carbon, normally not prone to nuclear fusion, fuses into magnesium in what is called carbon detonation, and the thermonuclear 'flame' destroys the star in a burst of energy equal to two billion billion billion billion billion of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima.

Discovery notice
Archival discovery of possible precursor stars

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Central Corridor Map - improved

I've been busy recently, what with college packing, Wikipedia, and cartography. I just finished the first of several vector maps of the Central Corridor Rail Line, for use on Wikipedia and their website. This is a lower-detail image; I'm currently finishing the high-detail large-format map.

I used the PNG version because it has a white background (the svg would have my blog's green background), but it links to the main svg.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The danger of using stock images

So, I was putting away books at the library the other day, and I suddenly stopped. I was looking at a Luanne Rice novel, "The Edge of Winter". I has this photograph of a young women on it:
(All images here are fair-use images: low-resolution versions of copyrighted material, for non-profit educational use only.)

I walked over and pulled out another book: "Finding Alice", by Melody Carlson:

Note the similarities: It's the same young woman, in the same skirt and jackets and boots, walking on the same wooden barrier.

Now, here's the back cover of "Finding Alice":

It's the exact same image that's on the cover of the Luanne Rice book. Quite clearly, the photos are stock photos, and the publishers didn't know (they have different publishers) that they'd been used on another book.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Image maps

Image maps are a neat little HTML trick (that I really hope works in Blogger). They let you assign shapes on an image (circles, rectangles, and arbitrary polygons) with attributes. They can display text when you mouse over them, link to websites (useful for things like an interactive periodic table), or act as a detection (on click or mouseover) that triggers other events.

W3C specification document

I made one from this map I made of the Abraham Lincoln, a train in Illinois (now integrated into the Lincoln Service name). Mouseover tips show tips for making geographics maps of train systems; the title links to the article on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mabus Arrested

Mabus, aka Dennis Markuze, is among the craziest and nastiest trolls out there. For 15 years he has been spamming James Randi, PZ Myers, Jen McCreight, and anyone else in the atheism movement he could find. He moved from general wackiness to stalking and increasing legitimate death threats, including going to an atheism conference (and getting stopped from going into others). He made dozens of new Twitter accounts every day, just to threaten people who he happened to disagree with, with all manner of gruesome death. He threatened families, and threat-spammed anyone, even minors. He made it very clear that this was no clear harassment; he was a danger.

And what did the police in Montreal (his home base) do? Nothing. They chose to ignore complaint after complaint, despite all indications being that he might hurt someone. Only after he started threatening a Montreal resident, and a petition was created that (legally) emailed the Montreal police every time it was signed, did they start an investigation.

Today, the police tweeted that an arrest has been made in the case. This man is clearly mentally ill; perhaps he will get the professional help that he obviously needs. Hopefully, those in the movement will feel (and be) less in danger.

Tim Farley has an excellent and complete accounting of the whole story; I highly recommend you take a few minutes and go read it.

That's no Burger King, that's a...

...train station?

Should you find yourself to be driving on South Street in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, you might find yourself passing Depot Street. Should you look down it, you might notice a very unusual building. It's the fanciest Burger King you ever saw.

(From Wikimedia Commons; click for filepage)

Why such a fancy restaurant in a blue-collar town? It didn't start out life as a fast joint. This is the original Old Colony Railroad depot, dating from 1893. (The new commuter rail station, from 1997, is half a mile south.) It was designed by Bradford Gilbert, who designed a number of well known buildings, including a version of Grand Central Terminal that was demolished to make way for the current building.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This is, apparently, real.

This is a vertical wind tunnel, often used by skydivers to train. It's also capable of making epic things happen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Free-use images on Flickr

I don't, as a general rule, use Flickr. Not that there's anything wrong, but I don't really need a new photo hosting service. All my good images - maps and high-quality images - usually find their way to Wikimedia Commons. My rocketry pictures and other personal stuff, I just upload directly with Picasa and Blogger, or I upload them on a forum like TRF if I use them there. Not all animated GIFs work directly in Blogger, so I have a spare Imgur account lying around somewhere.

That's not to say, though, that Flickr is bad. In fact, I'm quite fond of Flickr, because unlike most image hosts, they give users a setting to release images under various Creative Commons licences. Only a small number are so licensed - 196 million of 5 billion, or about 3.9% - but 46 million of those images have Attribution or Attribution-ShareAlike licences. Those types - which permit derivatives and don't restrict commercial use - qualify as free images.

That means that they can be used, without restriction, on all Wikipedia articles. 46 million images represent a body of images 4 times the size of Wikimedia Commons, the normal image source for Wikipedia. Since Wikipedia doesn't allow linking external images, there's a system set up where free images can be migrated to Commons.

I've started transferring a few images, mainly to fill the gaps in the current MBTA images. There are some very good photographers on Flickr who allow free use of their photos. Here's a sampling of them; click on them to go to the Commons file page for embiggening and attribution.

MBTA Commuter Rail at Providence:

Davis Square on the Red Line:

Streetcar at (pre-renovation) Mattapan:

Blue Line platform at Government Center:

Central Corridor Rail Line now has a website is now the official home of the Central Corridor Rail Line project. I've been in communication with one of the project leaders, as they're currently using my map (from Commons) on the page. Which is not only perfectly legal (I released it into the public domain) but pretty awesome as well.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dear Google Chrome dictionary

Heterosexist and heterosexism are words. Transphobia and transphobic are also words. Thye're quite important words when we're talking about equality. Learn them, and don't try to tell me that they're not words.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Worst Patron I've Ever Seen

The library I work at is pretty slow; we get anything from 2 patrons an hour (Tuesday nights) to 20 (weekday mornings during summer reading, and Saturdays). Most of our patrons are friendly or at worst indifferent (and I don't work directly with most of them; I put away books).

The worst ones are definitely the parents of small children that ignore their children. I understand that they want to check out books or browse the internet. But they are still parents, and they can't arbitrarily discard their parental duties.

A 2-year-old will not sit calmly and solve a puzzle. A 2-year-old will mess up the puzzle, walk around, and mess up the neatly arranged books. A 2-year-old cannot be left unsupervised.

Some 5-year-olds will solve a puzzle, or play with the blocks, or even read a book without supervision. If their parent knows they will, then that's okay. But many 5-year-olds are not that mature, and they need a constant eye on them.

One such child was in today. He was energetic and almost completely unresponsive to anyone speaking to him; he may be on the autism spectrum. I first found him in the adult fiction section, where he was busying himself removing books to make a hole for his head. When he bored of that, he tried to climb the shelves. His mother, at this point, was up at the front desk unaware of his antics.

I stopped him, replaced the books, and watched him wander off. Within 30 seconds, he'd knocked down a row of kid's books, intentionally. At this point I took his hand and told him he was going up to mommy (who, at this point, was still clueless).

He immediately ran back to the kid's section but didn't knock any more books around, so I went back to work. About two minutes later, I heard a loud thump behind me. The boy had gone up to the mezzanine, taken a large 5-pound book, and managed to throw it over the 4-foot railing. I scooped up the book, went upstairs, and scooped the kid up in one arm. Only when I carried him to his mother did she understand what he'd been doing - and even then she had little to no control over him.

That's the only time I've had to physically restrain someone, and I was only willing to do it because he was putting people in danger. That first book was only fifteen feet from me, and he moved fast. A five-pound book falling from the mezzanine (the rail is fifteen feet above the floor) could easily hurt someone, like the patron sitting at a computer who could have been right in the path of another book.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Filesize: in physical terms

Kilobyte. Megabyte. Gigabyte. And now Terabyte. We here these terms very frequently when talking about storage space and file sizes- but what do they mean? How do they translate to items we're familiar with?

A bit is a 0 or 1. A byte - a unit capable of handling one letter, or one basic color - is equal to 8 bytes. Everything is expressed in terms of bytes.

A kilobyte is 1 000 bytes.
A megabyte is 1 000 000 bytes.
A gigabyte is 1 000 000 000 bytes.
A terabyte is 1 000 000 000 000 bytes.

(There are also binary versions, using 1024, 1048576, etc bytes, but they don't differ by more than a few percent.)

The smallest .txt files are about 4 kilobytes. A Word document starts at 12 kilobytes and a three-page essay is about 25kb. An image from a digital camera is between one and 6 megabytes. A four-minute mp3 song is about 10Mb. Photoshop CS5 - one of the largest programs in existence - requires up to 1GB of space to install.

Now, consider a piece of ordinary 8.5 x 11 (A4) paper. At 80 zeroes and ones (10 bytes) per line, 25 lines per side, 2 sides per page, a single sheet of paper works out to 500 bytes, or half a kilobyte.

Two sheets of paper, then, are equal to one kilobyte. One megabyte (2000 sheets) will stack about 6 inches high. One gigabyte (2 million sheets) of paper will fill a 5-foot cube, or one minivan - and weight 6 tons. One terabyte of data stored in this manner would require 33 C-5 Galaxy heavy lift cargo planes to carry.

But that's a wholly inefficient method of storage - we have more characters than just 0s and 1s to write. What about writing?

An average book is six by eight by one inch, 400 pages long, and has 200,000 words averaging five letters long. That works out to one million characters (plus 200,000 for the spaces), or about 1.2 megabytes. (The bible is about 4MB and was formerly a standard unit of storage capacity.

One gigabyte would then be 800 books, or several bookcases, or a 34-inch cube, weighing 1400 pounds. One terabyte would be 800,000 books, or 20 mid-sized libraries, and would require just 4 jets to carry.

Okay, then, we're gonna use electronic media. What about the good old floppy disk? It's nothing great, but at 1.44Mb in a small package (3.5" by 3.5" by 0.1") it's still superior to written storage.

One gigabyte of disks (700 disks) would stack to 7 inches square and 2 feet high. Weighing 'just' 31 pounds. You could carry a gigabyte of floppies in a milk crate. Even a terabyte of floppies could be delivered in a single 18-wheeler.

CDs, at 700 megabytes each, are even more efficient. One gig fits on a pair of CDs with room to spare. You could fit a terabyte's worth in the trunk of a small car and still have room for a cooler.

Modern memory, though, is even better. A 32 gigabyte flash drive can be held in the palm of your hand. My new laptop (more on that later) has a 500 GB hard disk...and that's the standard model. For less than 100 dollars, you can now buy a one-terabyte external hard drive that weighs just a few pounds and is smaller than a hardcover book.

The winner, though, is still the human brain. One thousand terabytes (one petabyte) of storage in just three pounds. But, for the first time in history, one dedicated person could probably acquire enough storage to match that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Here's so much of what is wrong with the world

(via Pharnygula)

Women STILL earn 25% less than men, for the same educational level. In fact, women earn the same as a male with about 2 years less education - and those figures are for women who work full-time year-round.

A man without a high school diploma earns the same as a woman with one.
A man with a high school diploma earns the same as a woman with an associate's degree.
A man with an associate's degree earns the same as a woman with a bachelor's degree.
A man with a bachelor's degree earns the same as a woman with a doctorate.

A man with a master's degree will earn, on average, more than a woman of any educational level.

That's not acceptable. There's no reason to pay someone a quarter less than they deserve, on account of them being female.

Sexism: makes the EGE very, very angry.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ledge Light

The New London Ledge Light is a unique lighthouse - probably the only marine lighthouse designed in a French Revivalist style. When it was built in 1909, local magnates Steven Harkness (Rockefeller's buddy, and namesake of Harkness Park) and Morton Plant (whose estate is now UConn Avery Point) insisted on a stylish design, rather than a simple tin can. The resulting structure is a square three-story house with a small light tower atop it.

The lighthouse has a rich history; it guided ships safely to port during the 1938 hurricane and welcomed submariners back to the Groton base during WWII. The lighthouse was converted to solar power and automated in 1987; the last crew returned to shore for the last time. (3 men had lived aboard the lighthouse at all times, to maintain the structure, wind the light, and spot ships in distress).

The lighthouse began to deteriorate, but a local couple has now formed a group and begun restoration with the intent that it become a museum. Project Oceanology, a non-profit educational group based out of Avery Point, has begun running a small number of tours with their Envirolab boats. I went with my family on Saturday, and it was quite impressive.

I'm starting to collate my images, so they'll be a couple posts over the next few days.

Although restoration has started in most rooms, and is nearly complete in several, one room on the west corner of the second story has been left untouched. I took a panorama from the doorway. Such a panorama is extremely difficult - any movement of more than 1% is noticeable on the final panorama, which meant I had to keep the lens within an inch while rotating the camera (my phone). Here's what Hugin produced from 14 images:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The World Wide Web is 20

On August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee created the first web page at CERN. It wasn't the first use of the internet - Usenet and other message boards were up before then - but it was the first web page. Berners-Lee used hypertext - the predecessor of HMTL - to create the page.

The Web didn't catch on right away. That first website was only accessible at CERN, because they were the only ones with web browsers. The first commercial browser, Mosaic, didn't come out till 1993.

(A note: the Internet is the global network of computers and routing systems. The World Wide Web is a service of interconnected hypertext documents (web pages) that are communicated via the Internet. The Internet existed before 1991, but services did not use modern hypertext documents.)

But, 20 years later, the internet has changed beyond anyone's imagination. Most information is easily available, shopping and phone calls are often done online, and revolutions have been created online. It's perhaps the most spectacular technological development in human history.

Juno launched!

For the first time in fifteen years, there is a probe inbound to Jupiter*. On Friday, after a last-minute hold at t-4 minutes, NASA's Juno probe left Kennedy Space Center at 12:25pm aboard a Atlas V heavy-lift booster.

Two years from now, the probe will pass very close to Earth for a gravity assist. Via this quirk of orbital mechanics, it will steal some orbital momentum from the Earth and reach Jupiter in just three more years.

It's set to study Jupiter's water ratio and core mass - which will help determine how it formed - and precisely map its gravitational and magnetic fields. It will also study the polar components of Jupiter's magnetosphere and the massive auroras it creates. However, the main purpose of the mission is to better understand the cloud systems that cloak Jupiter. In fact, the mission is names for the goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter, who could see through his veil of clouds - just like the probe will.

It's the first solar-powered probe to reach the gas giants, made possible by new advances in solar panels. Previous craft, like Galileo (the previous Jupiter mission) used radioactive thermal generators, which generate more power than solar panels. Juno's instruments are designed to use less current than previous probes.

Many spacecraft carry an interesting tribute. Many have CDs containing names of project members; the Voyagers carried the famous golden records. Juno is carrying three Lego minifigures: Jupiter, Juno, and Galileo.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Orange Sky

This is what my neighborhood normally looks like at dusk:

This is what it looked like yesterday evening. Now, this one is the original image, before color-balancing.

The sky was spectacularly orange. The weather had already been weird - threatening a thunderstorm, but no storm; very dark sky then lightening, and mammatus clouds, which I'd never seen before. But then, about 8 pm, the sky turned orange all over. Very weird.

Here's a panorama I took of about 120 degrees of sky. The wires are a bit messed up, but otherwise this is exactly the way it looked.

Monday, August 1, 2011

RIP Wireless Mouse

After two years, my wireless mouse finally died. It was a generic Microsoft mouse - the one Microsoft product that actually worked as it should.

The left mouse button finally stopped working. It worried me at first, because the same symptoms - inability to click anything, switch tabs, or close windows, or even open the Task Manager - are indicative of a more serious problem, like the computer freezing up.

I figure I just wore the switch contacts out. At perhaps 6 clicks a minute, four hours a day, that's 1440 clicks a day - or more than a million clicks. The little metal contacts in the switch had been getting shakier - I had trouble clicking and holding recently - and they finally just gave out.

I'm currently using an old wired mouse, which is spectacularly annoying. But it beats the touchpad.