Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What's Up 2007: 365 Days of Skywatching

All of you backyard astronomers should definitely check out this excellent and free 110 page downloadable e-book by Tammy Plotner. It gives you a great astronomical target for every night of the year complete with photos, background and the history of each celestial object.

What's Up 2007

Monday, December 18, 2006

Aurora Over Iowa

Here's an amazing image that shows the earthbound effects of the recent solar storm from APOD.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

Aurora Over Iowa
Credit & Copyright: Stan Richards (NightSkyEvents.com)

Explanation: Last Thursday evening, stars were not the only lights in Iowa skies. Spectacular northern lights also shone from the heavens, extending across the midwestern USA and other locations not often graced with auroral displays. The wide-ranging auroral activity was triggered as a large solar flare - an energetic cloud of particles blasted outward from the Sun a few days earlier - collided with planet Earth's magnetosphere. Alerted to conditions ripe for aurora, photographer Stan Richard recorded this apparition over Saylorville Lake, near Des Moines, Iowa, USA. While the colorful rays seem to end just above the water, they are actually at altitudes of 100 kilometers or more.

A LEGO Trebuchet

Backyard ballistics are just too much fun. Don't miss this awesome page over at Format C: describing the design and fabrication of a fully functional replica of a medieval siege engine. The designer was inspired by this picture from Wikipedia:


And created the replica from the LEGO Technique sets (The Toy of the Century).

Here's a video of the weapon in action:

For those of you interested in more modern LEGO weaponry, check out this project that created a LEGO machine gun that shoots 96 bricks per minute from a 16 round magazine.

I'm not sure where to find more details other than an attribution to "Billy Glenn." But note, you can make ANYTHING with LEGOs.

Here are some other siege weapon links for the hobbyists among you:

Ripcord's Trebuchet Page
The Hurl
Nice Google Video on Large scale Trebuchet models

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Aphabetical Bias ,or What's In a Surname?

Judging by a recent paper from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, it would appear that I stand in good stead if I ever want a job in economics accedemia, and I have my father to thank for it.

And no, it's not just because he was such a great dad and taught me how to fend for myself and all. Not that he didn't help set me on numerous paths of opportunity. He did indeed. But one step would appear to have accrued simply from sticking with the country's naming tradition.

A paper entitled "What's in a Surname? The Effect of Surname Initials on Academic Success" by Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv (of Stanford and Caltech)showed some rather comprehensive data that showed measurable advantage to those with names starting with letters earlier in the Alphabet.

The more elite the selection criteria, the more the bias was evident. Check out the paper.

In retrospect, I can remember that just through the happenstance of my last name, I usually ended up first in or second in line whenever a class was organized, and got to start projects earlier than most. Maybe that sort of things add up. So all you teachers out there, start switching up and be sure to sort from the back of the alphabet half the time, or else suffer the risks and liabilities of unintended alphabetic discrimination.

A Fantastic New Robotics Kit: Robotis

TechEblog had a pointer to this great video of a robotic puppy that someone had put together using a couple of Nokia 770 PDAs and an educational robotics kit.

What really caught my eye on the video, beyond the oh-so-pathetic doggie graphics on the screen, was how complex the movements were, and how high-torque the servo motors were. So I tracked down the source of the kit and found a treasure trove for the aspiring roboticist at very reasonable prices. Check out the Robotis Web site.

The Bioloid educational robotics kits are some of the best in the business, and genuinely useful for some real robot hacking.

All sorts of Robots are possible.

There is even a programming environment with movement training and image processing capabilities accessible through code written in C.

Here's a photo of the expert kit:

I wish they had one of these suckers when I was a little sprout.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ever Wonder Where Your Tax Dollars Are Going?

Check out the Death and Taxes Poster in this zoomable Flash applet. It's not the easiest interpretation to decipher, but it is packed with visually interesting information, and does attempt to show relative budgets by the circle sizes. (Also note that this just covers the discretionary budget that is voted on, and approved every year, and does not include service on ongoing programs like Social Security).


Here are a couple excerpts related to some of our recent foreign endeavors:


The image “http://img370.imageshack.us/img370/2971/thebudgetgraphcomafprone0.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.


And on the domestic front:




If all that doesn't already depress you, just note that the circle for the national debt of over $9.3 trillion is larger than the entire chart in its expanded form. Wasn't fiscal discipline supposed to be a fundamental plank of the Republican party? What happened?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ice Layers on Mars

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has collected some amazing images of complex strata of ice at the Martian poles. Check out this image and the story that follows for more details.

The image “http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/12/2006-1213layers.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
"The polar layers are at the top of the image, while the darker materials at the bottom might have been deposited as sand dunes. The Martian ice has mixed with dust to give it the reddish hue. (Click on Image for high-resolution version)"
Check out the latest images from mars at the NASA site here.

"Think Twice Before Getting in a Car With an Aries!"

Astrology has always ranked somewhere behind phrenology and the study of navel lint in my taxonomy of pseudo-science. I even distinctly remember a crushing blow from many years ago (before I was married) when this smoking blond was purchasing some software ahead of me in line at Comp USA. I mean really, how often does THAT happen? I was in proto-nerd heaven, giddy with the prospect that a technically oriented, yet still hot, young lady might find some common ground with someone in the Physics program. And then I noticed that she was purchasing Astrology software. Sigh.

Had I but known that some real actuarial data might actually back up some astrological claims, perhaps I could have mustered the initiative to ask her out, or at least what her sign was. So take heart, all you technical types. Perhaps those hot astrological chics are still within reach. Be sure to check out this press release. "According to Insurancehotline.com, astrological signs are a significant factor in predicting car accidents. "

The study, which looked at 100,000 North American drivers' records from the past six years, puts Libras (born September 23-October 22) followed by Aquarians (January 20-February 18) as the worst offenders for tickets and accidents. Leos (July 23-August 22) and then Geminis (May 21-June 20) were found to be the best overall.

"Now, changing postal codes is far less significant to me than drivers of certain astrological signs," she told Reuters on Wednesday.

Even age, another variable for determining insurance rates, is less of a consideration to Romanov. The cutoff line for being considered a higher risk driver is 24 years of age; 25-year-olds are considered not-high risk. "I'd rather get into a car with a 24-year-old Leo than a 25-year-old Aries," Romanov said. Leos, described along with the study results, are "generous, and comfortable in sharing the roadway. Aries, on the other hand, "have a 'me first' childlike nature that drives Aries into trouble."

"I wasn't believing in it before," said Romanov, "but I would think twice before getting into a car with an Aries."

It's in print. It must be true. Ahem.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Carving Crayons

From the folks over at the Make blog, check out these carved crayons by artist Pete Goldlust.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Spectacular Space Shuttle Launch



Friday, December 08, 2006

Long Range Effects of a Solar Flare

December 6, 2006 was an exciting day for our Sun. A major solar flare erupted sending millions of tons of ionized particles blasting out into the solar system. This explosion was so powerful, that even ground-based telescopes could see the tsunami-like shock wave propagating across the entire surface of the sun on the following day.

"The prototype of a new solar patrol telescope in New Mexico recorded a tsunami-like shock wave rolling across the visible face of the Sun following a major flare even on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006, at 18:28 Universal Time (11:28 MST). The shock wave, known as a Moreton wave, also destroyed or compressed two filaments of cool gas at opposite sides of the solar hemisphere.

"These large scale 'blast' waves occur infrequently, however, are very powerful. They quickly propagate in a matter of minutes covering the whole Sun, sweeping away filamentary material," said Dr. K. S. Balasubramaniam, of the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Sunspot, NM, who is studying these and other phenomena. "It is unusual to see such powerful waves encompassing the whole sun from ground based observatories. Its significance comes from the fact that these waves are occurring near solar minimum, when intense activity is yet to pick up."
At even longer range, we can see the effects here on earth when the blast reaches our magnetosphere and is channeled down towards the poles to generate fantastic light shows. Here is a photo from Vesa Särkelä, taken in Kemijärvi, Finland on Dec. 8, 2006.


Pining for a White Christmas? More on Snowflakes

Over the course of the last few months, it turns out that one of the most popular posts here on All the Best Bits was the one entitled: A Snowflake Closeup. So in honor of the season, here is some more on snowflake science.

Some folks from Caltech have posted Snowcrystals.com, a great site to learn all things snow related, including a great taxonomy of ice and snow crystals and more snowflake photos than you can shake a candy-cane at.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

PicoFlyer, the Furby of 2006

It's true that I tend to obsess about little hobby widgets. But this one is just too cool for words. A company in Norway called ProxFlyer has been developing tiny radio controlled helicopters for a few years now. More recently, they licensed some of the technology to a company called Interactive Toy Concepts which manufactured a toy for sale through Radio Shack last year. I tried to get one last year but they had sold out way before Christmas. Well, now they've outdone themselves. Check out their latest effort, the PicoFlyer.


Here are the stats from the ProxFlyer page:

Key specifications, components and materials used to build the small Picoflyer:



Main motors:
Tail motor:

Flight time:
    60 mm diameter (2 contra rotating 4-bladed rotors)
    Carbon rod 0.3 mm and 0.5 mm from WES-Technik
    Aramid 30 g/m2 fabric from CST, foam tape hinges
    72 mm long, 0.08 mm carbon plate, 0.3 mm rod,
    1.5 x 0.2 mm tube, brass bearings 0.7 mm from Didel

    4 x 8 mm, 11 ohm from Didel (2x)
    Plastic gears, module 0.2 from Didel (6.7 : 1)
    2.8 x 6 mm, 25 ohm from Shicoh, 0.16 grams
    1 x 3.7 V, 30 mAh Didel cell, 0.86 grams
    3 channels custom Plantraco 900 MHz radio control
    Atmel ATtiny26L with 3 x ESC
    Yaw control by differential speed of rotors
    Tail motor used for forward horizontal flight

    3.3 grams (incl. battery and control)
    Up to 1 minute, (0.5 minute continues)

Sadly, this one-off prototype isn't for sale, but you can get a slightly larger version manufactured by ITC at Radio Shack. Get 'em while they last. I'm ordering a bunch for all my nerd friends. And I might keep one for my four-year-old. Of course I'll have to help her learn how to fly it! Oh, and then I might also need another one for all the nifty little parts I could use on other projects....

Blog Image

Here's a video of the little copter in action.

High cool.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Solar Images from SOHO

So NASA has this great solar telescope in orbit with a massive ultraviolet telescope aboard.

[image of SOHO EIT telescope    without thermal insulation]

I am continually stunned by the amazing images it churns out on an almost daily basis. Check out these GIF movies at a couple of different filter wavelengths.



Monday, December 04, 2006

Vote for Me!

I realize that most of you are probably not reading this blog to find out more about the wireless or broadcast industries and I generally try to avoid blogging about work. But this is just too good to resist. RCR Wireless, one of the industry's trade rags has just nominated me as a candidate for "Person of the Year."

Aw shucks. I'm already flattered. But it would be even cooler to win. So vote for me at this link!

Will Canada Become the World's Breadbasket?

I couldn't escape the grand political irony exposed in this recent story entitled "New Crops Needed to Avoid Famines" from the BBC on climate change. The basic thesis is that the expected increases in global temperature will shift the regions amenable to fertile crop production northward. Worse yet, in the absence of any replacement crops, or the adoption of massive farming infrastructure in the newly fertile regions, broad famines will ensue. The shift has reportedly already begun with rice yields in Asia declining 10% per degree of average annual temperature increase.

Then it struck me. The cornerstone of political support for the Republican party lies in America's breadbasket, the Red States. The following map from the BBC article says it all.

Map of North America. Image: BBC

One would think think that such a clear and present threat to their core constituency would get a little more attention. But sadly, the Republican platform is currently opposed to both efforts at mitigating global warming AND genetic engineering which could develop more climate-proof crops. It is almost as if they are trying to guarantee the economic ruin of their constituency (and the rest of the US with them) within a couple of generations. Liberals take heart!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Japanese Science Magazine with Hands-on Kits!

Now THIS is a science magazine. It's called Otona No Kagaku, and the publisher, Gakken of Japan, calls it a Mook (Magazine+Book). Leave it to the Japanese to include actual kit parts and instructions so people can throw down some real hands-on experimental action. Maybe if we ramped up manufacturing in China and whipped off a few quick translations we could bring the issue/kit costs (typically around $45 ) down to the point where we could get subscriptions for a significant number of kids....Given MobiTV, I'm a little swamped at the moment. Anyone else wanna start a fun company?

The first one I stumbled across was the Sterling Engine issue that several people had managed to acquire, build, and document including a nice video on YouTube.

I'm particularly fond of the Sterling engine marketing photos on their US distributor's web site (The Karakuri Corner) The Canine-driven engine is my favorite.

Low Temperature Differential Stirling Engine

There are a bunch of other great issues that include great projects such as an Edison-style phonograph and a Berliner style Gramophone that record and play audio on plastic cups and CDs.

And check out these other fantastic projects from previous issues:

A mini planetarium and a replica of Newton's scope.

A crystal radio, and a Hooke's Microscope replica.

The working Gramaphone issue.

Needless to say, I've already subscribed and ordered several of the back issues. They also have a few other cool gadgets that are hard to pass up as holiday presents, including the Homestar planetarium.

Homestar Planetarium Star Projector Black

This nifty little gadget takes a 5cm diameter film image of the night sky and projects it on your cieling! Boy wouldn't one of those be a great Christmas gift for an astronomically inclined nerd... (hint, hint...) There's also an industrial version better suited for larger rooms called the MegaStar.