Friday, December 30, 2011

On a train...

And yet I'm blogging. We're heading to my cousin's wedding in Washington, D.C., which is a seven-hour drive from home. There's no way my grandparents would be okay with spending that long in a cramped minivan, so we're taking the train.

Amtrak happens to be a lot nicer way to travel than airlines. No ridiculous security theater, more footroom, no turbulence, free outlets - and free wi-fi. This isn't the first time I've used wi-fi on a train, but it's the longest Amtrak trip I've used it on.

So now I'm blogging from a moving train, just south of Philadelphia. The wi-fi isn't bad - Blogger works okay - but Wikipedia is slow and there's no chance of enough bandwidth to upload photos. So I'll be taking this chance to work on a huge map I've been working on that encompasses the entire MBTA district.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A letter to the T

From the Globe comes the sad news that the anonymous employee who brought Boston this bit of holiday spirit might face "a written warning, suspension, or termination".

I thought the prank was funny, well-timed, and in good taste. The following is what I just sent to MBTA management using their feedback form:

To the MBTA management:

The anonymous MBTA employee who programmed the Park Street sign to play "Deck the Hall" yesterday deserves not discipline or termination, but commendation. Many other transit systems - New York and Chicago, in particular - have special holiday trains covered in lights than run their systems in December. Even Amtrak outfits the Downeaster with wreaths.

To tell this employee that their action - harmless, pushing no viewpoint save cheerfulness, and genuinely funny - is worthy of reprimand is a robotic and unreasonable reaction. I hope that the MBTA will have a laugh and move on rather than punishing this employee.

David Sindel
MBTA customer

Someone at the T has the holiday spirit

(found via forums)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

(High Dynamic Range (HDR) image created from a stack of 4 images with exposures ranging from 1/16 to 8 seconds, combined with Luminance HDR (using Ashikhmin algorithm))

Friday, December 23, 2011


Although I am a solidly left-brain person, what with my engineering classes and my persistent love affair with good data, I do have a creative interest at times. I've posted a few things about interesting art I've found, and occasionally I will make an attempt to write something worth reading.

Yesterday, probably through Reddit, I stumbled across this post about some incredible sculptures. Guy Laramee takes old encyclopedias and carves incredible landscapes out of the thin, dense pages. He even carved one out of a stack of leaning books.

The blog on which I found the page about him is called Colossal, and it's an art and design blog with an emphasis on cool installation and sculpture art.

One such artist I found on there was Cameron Booth. He takes some excellent photos, but what really caught my eye was his maps and diagrams. He takes systems like Amtrak and the US Interstate system and makes them into easy-to-read subway-style diagrams. Here's one of the numbered US routes:

U.S. Routes as a Subway Map
(Click for full version on his Flickr)

Possible the most impressive, though, is this one of France's high speed rail (TGV) routes:
Itinéraires de train à grande vitesse de la France


"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Well, maybe. A picture can be worth almost nothing; take a look at 100 random images on Flickr, and you'll see that very few of the site's 6 billion images are worth more than a sentence.

But, when properly applied, a single image can replace thousands of words. I probably read through several thousand words of blog posts, forum posts, and old newspapers to trace the former Green Line branch that once surfaced at what is now Eliot Norton Park in the Theater District. Descriptions of streetcar lines and that "...the right tracks went under the grade of the left tracks and split, with the left branch going to City Point outbound..." are simply insufficient to describe a complex, multilevel three-dimensional track crossover - particularly one that has not been seen in 4 decades and thus no good pictures exist.

If I may toot my own horn a moment, then take a look at this map that I created. I designed it to quickly show a viewer which tracks went where, and in what configuration. In this case, it tells the reader as much as those thousands of words of prose and even more than the few grainy photographs available. It does not replace them; it cannot entirely replace a picture, however poor quality, that shows the actual tunnel rather than simply a schematic. It is helpful, too, to know that the Orange Line connected to the portal between 1901 and 1908, or that the #43 streetcar to Lenox Street was the last route to use the portal. Even when included with the images (as I did with the Orange Line), it still requires text. But the map both elucidates and replaces text, and thus the old maxim holds in this case.

Of course, pictures can replace words without being merely informative. A picture of, perhaps, a lonely pond can show desperation and loneliness just as a poem or story could. Our vision is one of our most powerful senses; like taste and smell, it can have a strong correlation with memory. How else, for example, could my father recognize a cousin that he had not seen in decades? His brain could combine old images with its knowledge of aging and provide a plausible composite which it then compared with each passerby until it found a match.

The human face, in particular, is a subject where image is superior to the written word. One ran write about a person and get a reasonably accurate portrait of their body, their mind, their mannerisms and even their voice. But the face is a masterpiece of subtlety; tiny variations cause huge changes in the way it is perceived. A few millimeters in the symmetry of the features and the relative locations of nose, mouth, and eyes is much of the difference between average and beauty, or especially between merely beautiful and truly gorgeous. Emotion is written almost entirely in our faces: the way the eyes change direction, the separation of the lips, and the minor movement of the eyebrows can signal almost anything. The features are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to describe in a nonvisual medium; the mediocre artist will find themself able to produce a tolerable if slightly lopsided facsimile of the human body, but the face will be downright unrecognizable. Much artistic skill is required even for the most basic outline, and even more if that outline is via prose, yet even the grainiest photograph provides instant recognition.

So a picture can be worth one word, or a thousand, or more than any writing could ever produce. A poor graphic, perhaps on a Powerpoint slide, can do more harm than good: instead of saving words, it requires more to explain it that it would to simply leave it out. When dealing with something complex yet quantifiable an image can disambiguate text and render only a caption necessary - but only if the image is in fact superior to the text. Only when dealing with subtle subjects: the face, or an object of beauty, or simply something beyond the ability of human language to render it - does the printed word fail completely.

But what about something for which there is no equivalent in words? Some photographs are true art; they tell a message which is as clear as if it was spoken. They express ideas and feelings. But others simply exist. They are not high art, even if they are artistic in style. (And by 'artistic' I mean legitimately artistic, with attention paid to exposure, color, and framing - or developed by mere stroke of luck. The trend of 'tilt the camera, vignette the edges, and make it greyscale' is not nearly as artistically interesting as its practitioners would like to believe.)

Some would say that these are not worthy photographs, that they must either be useful or meaningful, and I do not deny that there may be merit in that statement. But I would like to believe that a picture can simply be.

I carry a camera everywhere and I take pictures because I find the subject interesting. The two following are from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, where a friend attends. The first was a spur-of-the-moment shot; the second I saw in an instant but it took a few moments to align.

This was from my walk on Tuesday, where I followed Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square. I will confess to taking a color image here and converting it to greyscale. I did so not because I think it of artistic value, but simply because I wanted the silhouette of the church. Frequently I will use such digital post-processing to improve or modify my photos; it is one of the joys of the digital age. In this case, I actually created several copies and experimented with fill brightness, contrast, and shadows to produce the effect I wanted: a blank church against a mottled background of the incoming storm.

(A note: I wrote this and posted it on my other blog back in October, and I never cross-posted it here. I felt it was worth cross-posting.

It's also an experiment in style; check carefully and you'll find that the post is precisely 1000 words in length.)

Launch Report #45 Part 4: Others' flights

There weren't that many people at the launch - perhaps twenty at the most, with most of them the regular CATO crowd. That meant the range wasn't crazy, so I was able to take lots of pictures.

Here's Al Gloer's Fliskits Richter Recker on a cluster of three motors, mostly likely D12s:

And his Free Rocket #1 on an unidentified red motor:

Someone's Black Brant on a green motor, at full power but not even moving yet:

I wore my Jayne hat to the launch. Little did I know that I would not be the only one. It seems Al owns one too:

Launch Report #45 Part 3: Two-stage rockets

Since this was my first time flying rockets in seven months, I didn't try anything too fancy. No clusters, no gliders, and nothing requiring a tightly-packed parachute or other finicky recovery devices.

But what's life without a little adventure? So I did fly two two-staged rockets at CATO, both old favorites with a few flights under their belts. The first was the Jinx, a rocket I was given in 5th grade by a teacher. It's solid plastic and basically unbreakable and waterproof - the perfect rocket for a cold day with lots of water on the field.

This was its eighth flight since I started keeping records and there'd been a few before then; this was its third boosted flight. I used a B6-0 in a generic booster stage I built a while back and an A10-3 mini motor in the Jinx. They're on the left rod:

It flew beautifully. Staging was low enough to be in sight yet the Jinx flew fairly high. It came down near the pads but on a wet area of the field, and a CATO member with hip waders fetched it. The booster came down just 100 feet from the pads.

My final flight of the day was my twin saucers staged on a D12-0 / C6-0 combo. As always, they were stable even in wind and a good low and loud crowd-pleaser:

As with the previous video, this one is worth watching frame-by-frame. Consistent with simulations, the saucers oscillate (both back-and-forth and speed up/slow down) due to the large area and flexible nature,

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Launch Report #45 Part 2: Happiness is a perfectly deployed parachute

Third flight of the day was the Mozzie on an F23-4 Black Jack that I've had since July 2009. It's a great motor - a baby F that still has enough kick to loft the Mozzie to a simulated altitude of 1065 feet. Due to the wind, the Mozzie arced over significantly weathercocked into the wind and reached a height of no more than 900 feet. But deployment was perfect and thanks to the weathercocking, it landed only 400 feet downwind of the pad.

A couple of the kids hanging around got to it before I did, which I don't normally like because I prefer to see the landing zone if a rocket was damaged on landing so I can prevent the mistake. But this landing was perfect - into the stream. Fortunately the paint suffered no damage, and the Mozzie will fly again.

Launch Report #45: CATO 180: Part 1

First launch in seven months! Busy summer vacation plus going to college prevented me from getting to CATO, and I didn't bother launching on my own. But I'm home for a month now, and so I headed off to Durham for some fun.

My first flight was actually not my rocket. Al Gloer showed me a tiny little thing: a rocket about the size of an Estes Mosquito that was made out of one piece of solid plastic, right down to the launch lug. I flew it on a 1/4A3-3 micro motor, which despite its tiny size and quarter-second burn time can throw a one-ounce rocket about two hundred feet in the air. As expected, we couldn't find it.

But, for the first time, I bring you a VIDEO:


It's pretty interesting to look at frame-by-frame. The cloud of smoke expands for four frames before the rocket actually starts moving.

Second flight was my Cosmic Cobra - my long-ago first rocket - on a C6-3. A gust of wind hit at liftoff and it arced heavily over downrange, but it was high enough for safe ejection. The body tube core-sampled into an open area of field; finding it was a lot easier than removing the 3-inch plug of dirt inside it. I had trouble finding the nose cone in the high grass, but after backtracing the flight in my mind I was able to identify a probably location for it - and I found it.

Here's it just moments after ignition:

Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest Post on I Ride The T

About two months ago, I was contacted by a fellow blogger, Tyler of I Ride The T, to write a guest post about my thoughts on public domain images. Et voilà, the final conceptual topic for my writing course was born.

It took a few weeks for me to write, but Tyler now has it up on I Ride The T. Tyler writes some fascinating history - I never knew just how much is under Government Center - and you're quite guaranteed to waste your next hour learning about all sorts of cool stuff about the T.