Monday, December 7, 2009

Best father in the solar system

So you may know I'm a real science buff. The other night I went to see the great Dr. Freeman Dyson speak at the UO - although the room was full and I got stuck in the 'overflow room' watching via video. It was a great experience, but that's not what brings me here.

Theo likes to talk about science - sometimes just because it's a good way to distract me, I think, but sometimes just because it's fun. He also loves for me to read to him from my books. He'd love for me to read him the novels I read, but it's been a while since I read one which wasn't far too adult for him to hear at bedtime. But sometimes, when we run out of juvenile novels to read, I break out one of my non-fiction science books.

Tonight was one of those nights, and I picked up "1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science" by James Trefil. I turned to the chapter on astronomy and started reading. The first entry of the chapter includes the sentence, "The sun, like a campfilre at the end of an evening, will someday stop burning and die."

"Dad!" Theo interrupted, "how will the sun die?"

"Well, when it runs out of things to burn, it will stop making light, and it will die."

"And it will be dark outside?"

"Well, it will be a really long time before the sun dies. And by then, all the people on Earth will be somewhere else."

"Will we get to take all our stuff, dad?"

I fumbled over the notion that we'd all be gone by then, but eventually settled on, "Well, maybe we can move the whole Earth!"

"How, Dad?"

"Maybe somebody will make a really big truck and just pull it away," suggested with a smile.

He got this sort of distant expression on his face for several long seconds. "Wow," he said, with a sense of awe in his voice that told me that he truly does have some kind of grasp about how big that truck would have to be.

"Do you want to build a truck that big when you grow up?" I asked, aiming to help alleviate any uncertainty he might have about the sun going dark.

"No," he said, sort of sullenly, "I won't."

"Well, I'm sure somebody will."

"Yeah!" he said, suddenly animated again. "You will, Dad!"

It's good to be Dad.

Meanwhile today when I got home, the moment I sat down to give the kids a hug, Lily pointed very urgently and conveyed the message that she'd like to be picked up. I lifted her towards the lightswitch, and she was so happy as she repeatedly demonstrated the new trick she'd learned today with Mom. She's so different from Theo, so pensive, so calculating to his impulsiveness. It's a nice change, and I'm glad I have the two of them to keep me on my toes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Ghostbuster Halloween

You may know that Ghostbusters is one of my favorite movies of all time. So this summer I played Ghostbusters for Theo for the first time. He liked it quite a bit, and watched it several times. Then in July when we decided to start planning our Halloween costumes, I asked him what he wanted to be. When he boldly announced that he wanted to be a Ghostbuster, there was no stopping me.

Soon I had formulated a plan that was gloriously epic and amazingly awesome. It has also cost me a large amount of marital capital and many long nights slaving over my workbench.


So Theo is a Ghostbuster, obviously. Lily is just a baby ghost, we wanted to make a slimer outfit for her but ran out of time. If you don't know what I am dressed as or why Jessica is dressed as Lady Liberty, please rent Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II immediately.

Theo is clad in his jumpsuit with authentic "No Ghosts" patch and custom embroidered name tag courtesy of Grandma W. The main prop of course is the pint-sized proton pack.

I spent about 80 hours making this thing, which features chase lights on the cyclotron, a light-up panel on the gun, blue LEDs (sadly not chasing) for the power cell, and a three-color cycling LED for the gun blaster on its own switch. Theo loves the switches.

Here it is after two days of fairly heavy use. I admit it's fairly ugly, but everyone we met recognized him right away, and plenty of kids and dads were in awe of the thing. I am crazy to spend so much time on a thing that a three year old will be using for games involving combat.

(Lily is cut out of this picture which a passerby kindly took)

The statue of liberty just took Jessica a lot of hours of searching for the perfectly colored sheet, and a few hours to make the crown and the torch, which I painted.

Lily's costume is just a simple draped fabric, as I didn't think she'd likely tolerate a proper hooded ghost costume.

Mine, however, is characteristically unpractical. I shaved my head for it, and actually had to fit in the passenger seat of our little car when we drove to our parties on Friday night. Unfortunately the crotch ripped and I was losing stuffing all over the place.

I just have to say, if anyone else calls me dough-boy and pushes my tummy this week I'll punch them in the mouth. Serious.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Observations of the moment

When I drive to work, I listen to KLCC (local NPR station) and then come to work and listen to Jefferson Public Radio's News and Information stream all morning.

When I ride my bike to work (7 miles each way, go me!) I listen to Pandora Internet Radio.

Interesting how the different routines - the structured, orderly thought of driving, the athletic challenge of seven miles in twenty-eight minutes - leave different parts of my brain stimulated.

Friday, June 19, 2009

OS Bridge

So my little trip to Open Source Bridge 2009 is just about over. It was a great event, my first real conference and quite stimulating.

I was running for the MAX train and my phone fell out of my bag. It fell apart as usual and I quickly found two pieces. The back cover was nowhere to be found, until I thought to look in the storm drain right next to the tracks. Once I satisfied myself that there was no train coming, I opened it up and pulled the thing out.

Now my hand and my Treo smell like fish.

On the train they did a ticket inspection with sherrifs waiting. I was amazed that half of the twenty people on the train got pulled off.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Oregon in Spring

Mow, then mow again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

An open letter to medical marjiana supporters

Dear medical marijuana supporters,

I'd like to identify a serious problem with the framing of the current discussion around marijuana legalization.

As many Americans, I have been close to someone who really did get a lot of benefit from smoking marijuana to relieve symptoms of sickness. I have heard about how difficult and strenuous it can be to prepare your own medicine in secret, for the fear of being perceived a criminal.

However there is a problem. If marijuana is medicine, then why do so many people consume it for pleasure? It has side effects, just like any medicine, however mild they are purported to be. Why shouldn't we alarmed by people consuming this medicine, just as we are alarmed by young people consuming MDMA, methamphetamine, or other medicine with recreational appeal? Should we allow any medicine to be sold at the corner store? Where do we draw the line?

There is simply too much cross-over between the arguments in favor of medicinal and recreational use. Please separate the two, and I think you will achieve universal legalization sooner.


JT Justman

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A different kind of identity theft service

About 18 months ago I drove two hours from my home in Springfield to meet with a man in Beaverton, Russel Weight, who wanted to talk to me a bout a web service he was developing using a software component I am familiar with, Catalyst Web Framework. He had declined to describe it; he wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I arrived at his house and we sat down at his kitchen table. We talked briefly about the way the project might be conducted, and whether we would be a good working fit. Russ let me look over the agreement; I signed it, and Russ took a deep breath and shared with me his vision, the first time he had pitched the idea to anyone outside his immediate circle.

Immediately I was floored by the scope of it. Russ wanted to get every bank and creditor in the country to check all of their new accounts with a central database - that he would build from the ground up - so that applicants whose information didn't match would be prevented from opening accounts in others' names.

At first, and I've never admitted this to Russ, I thought the whole thing was too crazy to work. I raised some concerns, and Russ addressed them. Soon I was encouraged. I began making suggestions. Soon we were bouncing ideas back and forth. Russ was well funded, was a skilled programmer in his own right; and just needed a little guidance how to build this system for the web. The project was right up my alley; I'm a big fan of radio consumer advocate Clark Howard and fascinated by the inability of the financial industry to engineer a solution to the identity theft problem. Together Russ and I spent weeks and months developing a specification, and refining his service model into something really amazing.

The brilliant twist in Russ's concept was that he would store all sensitive information in his database using irreversible cryptographic hash functions so that the information he stores could never be used to facilitate identity theft. This in addition leads to the creation of an application which is exceedingly secure at all levels. After I took my new position as a software engineer with End Point Corporation, I felt confident enough of this to ask my new bosses to endorse the site's security.

The bottom line is that I heartily believe in the Identity Profiles vision of eliminating social security number based credit card theft completely. If anyone can do it, it is Russ, with his bold vision, infallible integrity, and amazing ability to find common sense solutions to large problems. Common sense is one thing we've been lacking these days!

So, please take a look at the identity theft prevention services and consider participating in this noble effort!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

One of my favorite bloggers, Chad Orzel, has a book coming out in december, How to Teach Physics to your dog and has launched a web site to promote the book Talking to Your Dog About Physics. I love reading about science, and Chad is really good at explaining some really high-level stuff that I've never tackled before. Check it out!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Next: the back of the cerial box

So I've been reading 'chapter books' - juvenile novels - to Theo at bedtime. The slower pace is a lot less engaging than picture books and don't draw him out as much. More often than not he's asleep within a couple of pages.

Today however was a late nap day. So after a late movie (Beethoven, which I've never actually seen before) and a trip outside to see the stars (he procured from somewhere a toilet paper roll and used it in lieu of a chance to see through my binoculars) we engaged in the nightly ritual. We had only one chapter remaining in 'The Mystery of the Dinosaur Bones' and I tried to draw it out. We were close when we reached the final line, but beyond that was an appendix: a list of dinosaurs, with their descriptions. Finally I reached the 'Tyranosaurus' at the alphabetical end of the list, and glanced up to see eyes half closed. So, hardly skipping a beat, I went on to read the inner back flap of the dustjacket, which was the location of the 'About the Author' section.

Now Theo will be dreaming of an odd dinosaur from Eugene, Oregon named Mary Adrian.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Amateur Astronomy

So I have been trying to get my feet wet with amateur astronomy for a while now. I finally have a good book with some star charts, and a nice set of binoculars suitable for star-gazing. Tonight I thought I was going to go to my first Eugene Astronomical Society meeting but the meeting was actually last night. So on a lark I decided to grab my gear and head up to someplace really dark - I settled on a place I'd seen mentioned on the EAS mail list, Eagle's Rest. My motivation for leaving the house had as much to do with wanting to get away from distractions as with needing more dark - we have really very good skies here at the house depending how many neighbors have porch lights on on any given night.

Before I left I checked various sources of detailed weather forecasting, and I had this notion that I might have dark, clear skies for a little while right after sunset. So I drove the 40 minutes out and up the hill on Eagle's Rest Road. The fragmentary directions I had suggested there was a clear site a mile and a half up, and there it was, a little ways past the end of the pavement, a little turn-off surrounded by muddy 4x4 ruts and thousands of spent rounds of ammunition. Sad, really, that people can't be bothered to pick up after themselves.

It was still fairly light, so I settled down to review my books and practice with my binoculars. Soon though a large cloud bank started to slide in over my location. In another half hour there was a tiny open patch of sky with a single solitary star visible in it. The binoculars turned this into a pepper-specked field of deep blue. I jumped from one hole to the next for a while, just practicing focusing. I tracked a couple of airplanes, and a couple of satellites.

There were hundreds or thousands of frogs nearby calling wildly. However any time I made a distinct noise, they would all stop very suddenly. It was really strange. They would also stop when a dog who had to be a mile away would bark. Once I heard a coyote.

Finally it was dark, and the southern quarter of the sky opened up. I was able to locate right away what I was sure was the Pleiades, and near it Taurus. My mom taught me a few constellations when I was 8 or 9 and those two were ones I felt pretty confident about. But I couldn't line it up on the chart and I feared I might be wrong. The clouds were darting around. I saw some interesting stuff, but I got discouraged and started to drive back down the hill.

As soon as I got to the bottom of the hill I looked south and now the sky was much more clear. I stood there trying to get my bearings. Suddenly the clouds pulled back and I recognized unmistakable Orion! I corroborated the position of Taurus and Pleiades, and tried to find some other constellations. I think I found Pegasus and Gemini. But I went back to Orion and saw what must have been the nebula. Then I saw a shooting star, and traced another, brighter satellite all the way across the sky.

I love looking at the stars! I can't wait to really get my bearings, so I can be prepared for deeper explorations!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Samsung RMA

Well I've never had to RMA a monitor before. But as I mentioned my 22" Samsung went out and I finally got the RMA posted this morning. It was quick and painless, and they have an option where they will advance the replacement to the nearest UPS store, and I can take the old one in and swap. Sweet! We'll see how fast it is.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I don't know if I've ever even heard of Barry Schwartz before. All I have seen is this:

Which was downright awesome.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baby Pants Music!

One of my favorite 3 bands - I mean, averaged over time, seriously probably #1 - is The Presidents of the United States of America. I was about 13 when 'Lump' was in the top ten and I bought the self-titled cassette at Tower Records in Sacramento. Well let me tell you I wore out that cassette and hunted down everything I could find from the guys, which wasn't much at the time! I bought II when it came out and ate it up. It was the first CD I ever bought - I bought it at the little short-lived CD shop in Myrtle Creek in the front of the old movie theater. When their 'indefinite break' happened I was devastated.

Well anyway after a while PUSA re-formed and made some cool new albums. I've lived on the same coast as these Seattle locals - I've even seen Metallica and Clutch up there - and never seen the guys live. I just don't follow these things closely enough.

I do love singing PUSA songs and there are a couple that they sometimes have at karaoke bars. 'Lump' which is not really my favorite, 'Mach 5' which is a lot of fun and 'Kitty', which is slow and simple and has the word 'fuck' in it at the end. So one time I made the infamous local karaoke jockey Jared very angry by singing it in a theoretically all-ages establishment. Despite the fact that that very night he'd been humping an inflatable dolphin on stage as some college girls sang 'Baby Got Back'. Anyhow.

But this is the digital age, and at some point I discovered that the band has a website with a blog, and front-man Chris Ballew posts a lot! It's so fun reading about these guys. Chris started posting about he was so excited about making kids music. Well he's got his first CD out at Baby Pants Music and has a bunch of songs up for free. I LOVE the songs, they are so lighthearted and fun but stimulating and unpredictable in true Chris Ballew style.

You can tell Chris is doing this for the love of it: he's only charging $10, shipped, with an autograph! Squee! Needless to say I PayPal'ed right up and will be eagerly assailing the letter carrier till it arrives.

Now I just need to pay attention so I can see PUSA the next time they are playing the west coast!

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I am in Salem's historic waterfront carousel park. A lady on a PA tells me that there is cake somewhere. I am skeptical. For a while I had to hold a white square napkin with a heart shaped cookie on it.

Monitor woes

My nice new 22" widescreen Samsung LCD monitor is not behaving properly. It seems to stop working whenever it hits a non-native video mode - including at boot up. If I boot the system from the other monitor (which is smaller and has a lower native resolution) and upscale to 1680x1050 it works until the first time the screen saver blanks the screen.

It's really a bummer. I am a serious screen real estate hog. Good thing it's less than a year old and surely under warranty...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Man-made margin of error

For a few months I've been reading the blog 'Watts up with that?' Anthony Watts comments on many things, but mostly focuses on collecting evidence of bad scientific technique in the measurement of climate conditions. Anthony is a global warming skeptic - and so am I.

Today Anthony continued his ongoing series, 'How not to measure temperature'. This is part 75 of that series. Anthony and the people he works with have uncovered STAGGERING numbers of weather stations which should be considered invalid due to various effects.

Check out the links at the top for a selection of worst offenders. My favorite is the one next to the barbecue grill.

Anthony also runs an effort to physically survey all the weather history stations in the country: One of the worst offenders listed there is right here in Oregon: a weather station 10 feet from an air conditioner in forest grove.

Just look at these sites and see if you start to see a different correlation than CO2 to this supposed temperature increase. Maybe someone should make a graph of 'global warming' versus the cost of window-mounted air conditioners.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Energy origins

I had several good discussions in response to my little alien conversation a while back. Unfortunately they all happened either offline or in the (private) FreeAllegiance/Steel Fury forums. Post in the comments next time you slackers! I know you all have Google accounts.

Anyway so something several people mentioned was, 'how could an intelligent species develop a photovoltaic cell before figuring out how bump the right two rocks together?

I see the following possible answers:

* They are in an environment unsuited to combustion (underwater, highly humid, delicate chemistry)
* They saw an example in nature

The first is so strikingly simple: underwater beings would have to find other ways of creating energy. The bouyant and tidal forces would be amazingly useful if you lived your whole life underwater. Particularly if you had an easily accessible atmosphere above the surface of your sea. But solar isn't particularly useful unless you're willing to spend enough time underwater.

The second possibility fascinates me even more. What if there was a simple animal or plant evolved to take advantage of the photovoltaic principle? It may sound far fetched, but electronic potential is a fundamental force.

One such fanciful creature: imagine colony of spores, whose natural enemy were small, slow-moving insects. Suppose a mutation emerged which resulted in the development of photovoltaic potential. In the daytime, this small potential might be enough to discourage the pests. Natural selection continues, and soon there is enough voltage developed for a sentient creature to notice and study. Perhaps given the right environment and enough time this effect could even produce theoretically perfect efficiency.

Imagine also a sentient creature who burns neither plant material nor fossil fuels because the smokey output is displeasing to a sensitive respiratory system. Such a creature would not have taken to steam powered conveniences as we humans did. When we discovered the photovoltaic principle, its output paled so far in comparison to what we could get from coal-fired steam or even the early internal combustion engine that it was not pursued with the same vigor as dirtier technology.

If we were, for some reason, unable to burn coal, how revolutionary would have been the discovery of the solar cell? In our vigor, how soon would we have discovered Cadmium Telluride? Perhaps most strikingly, would we still measure the economy of such devices to such a high standard as the one we hold now, the standard of the abundant-petroleum economy?

Essentially all the sources of energy we have at our disposal come ultimately from the pre-primordial cloud from which our solar system formed. So many elements essential to our life have come from generation after generation of stars who have fused together heavier and heavier elements. But two of the most common things in our solar system - photons and hydrogen - are really great sources of energy. It just happens to be really inconvenient way down here in our gravity well. In the scope of time the idea of painfully separating hydrogen from carbon, the idea of moving mountains to uncover rare uranium will seem just as alien as the idea of killing whales to make oil for light.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Astrology Apology

Good ol' Phil Plait once again demonstrates how silly astrology is. Ever since I read about it in his Bad Astronomy book I've been sorry about humoring the notion for all these years. I'm sorry, and I promise to no longer play along with all the damaging antiscientific mumbo-jumbo that is astrology.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Units of measure

Most people think in terms of familiar units they become acquainted with in their youth.

I think a lot of people think of energy in terms of the measurement 'trips to the 7-Eleven per gallon of gas'.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hurling planetoids

Suppose you have a large rock, and a large source of gravity.

Suppose that rock is an asteroid, and that source of gravity is the Earth.

Suppose you gently push that asteroid to an Earth orbit, catch it with some kind of gigantic space-tower-like device, and use the force of the asteroid's descent to generate electrical energy.

Okay, several huge flaws with this plan. Moving the asteroid wouldn't be cheap, a space tower that big is grossly impractical, and if you missed you'd cause serious trouble on the ground. However the idea sticks with me and I think it will be a fun exercise in armchair physics. I am a physics newbie so bear with me as I fire my sawed-off physics shotgun from the hip.

Let's start with the rock. How about Cruithne? This rock might just be plausibly near to earth in a couple hundred years. It's sometimes called "Earth's second moon" as it is in a very similar orbit to the Earth, although it orbits the sun. Cruithne has a mass of 1.3e+14 kg and a size of about 5 kilometers.

Let's assume that the rock will start from a 36 kilometer geosynchronous orbit (which is ridiculous, really, with such mass).

Assuming the force of gravity at a constant 9.8m/s^2 (it's not!) then we have a potential energy of (1.3e+14)(9.8m/s^2)(36000m) = 4.5864e+19 joules. In 2005 the entire population of the earth consumed approximately 5e+20 joules. So even ignoring the difference in gravity at altitude (marginal although I've struggled with the equations), efficiency of the system, and so many other factors, you'd need ten of these every year.

As a side benefit, you could send down asteroids with materials you need. Unfortunately I doubt we humans could consume all these materials, so in a few years you'd have dozens of kilometer-sized boulders strewn around. You'd also have to find a way to unload the things or they wouldn't be strewn very far.

Perhaps the idea has more merit as a method for powering a space spire, and primarily for delivering materials which would be unloaded. But you'd need a ridiculously huge and strong tower. Completely at odds with current space elevator designs and introducing a whole new set of equations. Heck, you'd need so much material just to make something that tall you'd leave a pretty big hole. Suppose you can do the whole thing with four columns each 10 meters on a side - quite optimistic! That's 3.6 million cubic meters of material or at least 2.82999348e+13 grams - or the entire world steel output for 20 years.

Take it down a notch: what about just refining raw materials in orbit and then shunting them down the spire. Use them as one-time counterweights to lift other items into orbit. Take the residual energy - which could be considerable. Send lots of (relatively) smaller chunks down the elevator.

Really a crazy idea. But now it's out of my head.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An outside perspective

"This one, such a large ship! What does it transport?"

In one long slow motion I propelled myself to the other end of the laboratory and glanced over at the screen of the computerized English lesson. "Oh, that is an oil tanker. It transports petroleum; the raw material which is refined into hydrocarbon-based fuels."

There was a pause as he looked up some of the terms I had used.

"You burn hydrocarbons? For what purpose?"

"To power internal combustion engines, which drive many of our personal transportation devices and other machinery."

"How impractical!" he squawked.

"Well, we're trying to stop," I said, apologetically.

"Why would you even begin to burn them? Your sun's energy penetrates your atmosphere; your large moon creates substantial tidal forces."

"It was only relatively recently that we learned to capture the potential energy of photons. And we still have not achieved full efficiency."

Another pause as the guest considered. "For my species, devices to capture energy from the sun were one of the first elementary discoveries. The... solar panel as you would call it... is one of our rudimentary devices. It's mastery is synonymous with the separation of our people from wild animals."

"In my people, the corresponding discovery was that of fire."

The visitor blinked an eye slowly. "How very interesting," he declared, "that explains so much."