Thursday, January 25, 2007

Comet McNaught's Two Tails

Check out my favorite photo of Comet McNaught taken by Jim Thorpe in Australia (hat tip to

It is so clear, that you can make out the two tails.

"When comets are warmed by sunlight, they spew a mixture of dust and gas into space. Instead of forming a single tail, however, the two substances drift in different directions. Dust lingers behind the comet and traces its curved orbit. Gas is pushed by the solar wind into a straight line pointing away from the sun. Comets, therefore, have two tails, the dust tail and the gas tail. (The gas tail is also known as the "ion tail.") The two tails of Comet McNaught are obvious in most photos since Jan. 22nd."

More Posts Coming

Hi all,

Sorry for the recent sparseness in postings. Work got crazy for a bit, and now I'm in Davos Switzerland for the World Economic Forum as MobiTV was chosen as one of the Technology Pioneers of 2006.

More to come next week on how we techies got a chance to to rub elbows with the powerful and try to explain how technology could help make the world a better place.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

BEAM Vibrobots

The online Make magazine portal just published a nice article on how to make your very own BEAM vibrobots. For those of you unfamiliar with the BEAM movement, the basic notion is to wire up simple circuits that connect photo-sensors almost directly to motors, so that by shining a light on the simple robot, it will scurry around either towards, or away from, the light thereby mimicking any number of insects. And then, of course, there is all the fun and art in arranging the components to look as insectile as possible.

 Vibrobot Standard

The Vibrobot takes this notion to a minimalist extreme by eliminating wheels, and reducing the number of motors to one tiny pager motor with an eccentric weight attached. When light shines on the photo-cell, the motor vibrates, and with proper sprung leg designs, the robot will scurry along in fine insect fashion. And without the wheels, the vibrobots are ever more insect like in form as well.

Vibrobot Partcallout

Here's a page from the no-doubt forthcoming print edition showing the simple circuit used for these nifty little critters...

Img413 1582

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Comet McNaught Now Visible in Broad Daylight

All you need to do, really, is step outside and look just to the left of the sun any time this weekend. It helps to use your hand, or a tree, or wall to block the direct sunlight, at which point, the comet should be clearly visible all day long (though best viewed around noon).
Photo credit to Giuseppe Menardi, Mont Lagazuoi (2.800 mt) Jan. 10, 2007. The comet is very bright (visual magnitude -3) with a 4-degree long tail. Photo details: Canon EOS D60, 200 mm lens, f/3.5, 200 ISO, 1/80 sec.

Here's how to find the comet at high noon:
Just step outside and face south.
The comet lies about 5 degrees to the left of the sun.
(Use your closed fist held horizontally at arms length to estimate a 5 degree angle.)
The comet should be obvious as soon as you screen out the sun.

At magnitude -4 to -5, McNaught is the brightest comet since Ikeya-Seki in 1965. So don't miss seeing one of the brightest comets in the last 30 years! Go out and take pictures! And send me all the images you take so I can post them here!

Hat tip to

Friday, January 12, 2007

CES Report: A Roomba for Robot Hackers!

The Mobi team and I have just returned from a hugely successful stint at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Overall, I'd have to say that CES has now grown to the point of absurdity, far beyond the capacity of the conference centers, and even the city to manage. At one point, it actually took us almost two hours to get out of the trade show parking lot due to the gridlock. Cabs weren't an option as the lines were over two hours long, and the silly little monorail could only transport 50 people at a time when more than 150,000 of us geeks were trying to arrive and depart from the show. It would have been laughable if it wasn't so painful.

It ended up being faster to just walk the several mile round trip to the hotel and back. Nonetheless, we endured the orgy of large screen television, mobile technology and jimcrackery that now fills the convention centers beyond capacity, spilling over into all the nearby hotel suites.

I fondly remember a day when there were two more manageable shows, Comdex for the computer stuff, and CES for electronic widgitry and televisions. Well with the demise of Comdex, CES subsumed all, and has acquired a ponderous bulk that must eventually suffocate it. Nobody I knew at the show enjoyed it, and would have avoided the now massive inconvenience of the venue if it weren't for the show's unique importance to the industry.

So with all that said, my normal instinct would be to suggest that fringe products (and even some core ones) should get their own individual themed trade shows to make the whole event more manageable. So it is very unusual for me to say something like "...boy am I glad they've added this new ______ widget..!" But with this one, I couldn't resist.

It turned out that the iRobot booth was about 150 feet from the MobiTV booth, and I had a great time catching up with my old MIT buddies who run the company. I was very pleased to note that they had just won an award for the release of the iRobot Create programmable robotics platform for students and hobbyists.

iRobot Create

Based on the same platform as their famous Roomba vacuum cleaner, it stands alone as probably the most polished and refined robotics kit on the market, having endured several generations of industrial design with hundreds of thousands of units scrubbing floors across the world for the past few years.

Rather than tell you about, just look at a few of the early hobby efforts, and your next stop will be the iRobot web page where you can buy a few for the kids in your life, and even find curriculum materials (and educational discounts) for the teachers in your life. My inner child is certainly clamoring for a couple.

Here are some highlights of a few of the early projects.

The RoboMaid

Fridge robot
The Fridge-mate

Hamster bot
And my favorite, the bionic hamster.

Here is an excellent review of the kit from Robot Magazine, and here are links to my earlier posts on iRobot: Making Money Making Robots, and A Great Hackable Robot: Roomba from iRobot.

Nature and Nanotechnology

Understanding Nanotechnology has a nice chart that compares the scale and complexity of natural structures as compared to artificial ones we can fabricate.

A Lego Car Factory

Don't miss this video of a model car factory line that assembles a tiny LEGO car model. It is absolutely fascinating how they have fabricated all of the automated carriage transport, part feeds, and assembly complete with mechanisms for part registration, and stations to move the work in progress.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Real American Dream: Get Rich, Blast Off!

After watching NASA struggle through the eighties and nineties to finally have a fantastic year in 2006, what with the Mars Rovers, Hubble results, Nobel prizes and whatnot, I tend to go back and forth as to whether privatization of the US space program is a good thing or not. Before this year, NASA's steady decline over the past decade from a technology powerhouse into more of a contract-management shop-oriented government bureaucracy that couldn't engineer a successful program under its whithering budget was a harbinger of a private future. That combined with the current Republican administration's general shutdown of fundamental earth and space science in order to support the "return man to the moon" obsession that offers dubious scientific benefits had me completely convinced that private enterprise was the only long term solution.

Of course, just when I had lost hope, the NASA administration changed, and the agency really stepped up to excel this year after a marathon turn-around effort. Was it a coincidence then, that private enterprise also made amazing milestones the same year? Burt Rutan's Spaceship one, funded by Microsoft multi-billionaire Paul Allan, garnered the X-prize,


and now Jeff Bezos, of fame has funded his own first Space success, Blue Origin. Their first launch vehicle doesn't look like much on the launch pad, but in a way, it's the very minimalism compared to the awesomely complex Space Shuttle that is impressive. You can literally see the promise of greatly reduced launch and payload costs.

Do check out the Blue Origin web page for more photos and videos of their recent successful launch, and note that they are hiring! After all, how often do you get a job where people cheer engineers like they are sports celebrities? (see photo below from the Blue Origins launch)

And just think! You could take the short cut and go directly to space without having to become a dot com billionaire first. Not that there is anything wrong with becoming a successful entrepreneur. After all, it's starting to look like the real American dream is starting to become "get rich and then fund Stem Cell Research or space science and technology." I love this country.

Matchstick Eifel Tower

I just love projects that highlight both engineering and art, particularly when they are managed with limited resources and simple tools.

eiffel tower made of matches

Check out this fantastic model made with matchsticks! Did the hobbyist is qustion, one Alexandr Pashkevich of the Ukraine, simply have too much time on his hands? You decide.

eiffel tower made of matches

eiffel tower made of matches

eiffel tower made of matches

eiffel tower made of matches

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Catch Anyone Cheating Lately?

Rob Knop over at Galactic Interactions posted a nice thread on "funny cheating stories." Here's mine:

My favorite cheating story was as much about the botched follow-up as it was about the idiocy of the execution. Back in the late eighties when I was a High School teacher, I had a Trig & Analytic Geometry student ( a Junior) who undertook the oh-so-traditional strategy of writing the identities and other formula on the palm of her hand, which she then proceeded to consult regularly throughout the test period.

I said nothing throughout the test, but on the way out of class, asked her to step into the teacher’s lounge that happened to adjoin my classroom, and took a quick photocopy of her hand and had her sign it. Having received my code of conduct and ethics handout along with the starting syllabus, she acknowledged that according to our earlier agreement, which she had signed, she would receive a zero on the assignment in question, that I would contact her parents to discuss the problem, and that any future cheating would result in a failing grade for the course. I tucked the xerox page into my grade book, and we both went about our day, rather depressed and disappointed.

Later that afternoon, I was called out of another class to report immediately to the Principle’s office, and realizing I hadn’t yet had a chance to contact my student’s parents, I collected my things, handed the class over to the substitute who had arrived with the summons, and made a mental note to follow-up after my meeting.

Well, as soon as I entered the Principle’s office, I was confronted by two very angry people, who were introduced to me by an obviously irritated Principle as the parents of my cheating Junior. Before I could even say anything, the father literally stood up, slammed his hand on the conference table, and shouted at me, “How DARE you falsely accuse my daughter of cheating?!” I was absolutely shocked, and must have stood there with my mouth open for about 10 seconds while I thought of, and then discarded several choice responses, and ended up not saying anything at all. Instead, I just reached into my grade book, pulled out the xerox sheet with my student’s signed and formula-laden palm, complete with finger prints, and flipped it onto the conference room table.

Then it was Daddy’s turn to just stand there with his mouth open. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Asian person turn so red before or since. He apologized profusely and listened attentively to my report and recommendations, and even remembered my ethics sheet from the beginning of class. He ultimately left the room muttering under his breath about the “talk” he was going to have with his daughter who not only was caught cheating, but had been caught lying to her father in the face of incontrovertible evidence.

So which would any of you parents think was worse, and what would you do about it?

NASA Needs a New Publicist

Sean, over at Cosmic Variance, posted a great story on how the current generation is being spoiled by immediate technology and information access to the point of losing interest in the Space program. One of the major themes was the need for better PR, and I couldn't resist posting a comment on one of my own NASA PR experiences. Here it is for your reading pleasure...

I LOVE the suggestion about leveraging celebrities and the media to sell the space dream. Having worked at NASA back in the eighties and actually having built and handled a few instruments that reached orbit and even other planets, I am definitely sold on the dream and, at the same time, frustrated with the current realities of a largely underfunded bureaucracy that is today’s NASA. Despite all the frustrations, though, it has been a banner year for the agency results-wise with Hubble continuing to perform, the unstoppable Mars rovers, and the Nobel prize nod.

Yet with all of that, most of my friends and colleagues are simply unaware of what is really happening. It is no wonder nobody is interested or supportive of expanded budgets. They never even hear the science news amidst the clamor of popular celebrity-driven culture. (this, in fact was one of the key motivators to start my own science and technology blog.)

This post reminded me of a rather sad moment that supports the need for celebrity spokespeople. Back in the mid nineties, when I was the CTO at MicroDisplay, my girlfriend of that era, also a fine product of MIT, was recruited to present at the Discovery Magazine technology awards ceremony at Disney World, and I got to tag along and chat with some other folks from the MIT mafia that happened to be around the show. Several other luminaries and celebrities were recruited to present, including Bruce McCandless, the first Astronaut to pilot the MMU without any tether. Here is the link to the canonical image from his first untethered space walk. How cool is that?


The grand irony for me was that after the show, I happened to be sitting next to McCandless as we watched LeVar Burton, then playing Giordi Laforge on Star Trek: TNG get absolutely swarmed with fans, while nobody even gave McCandless a second glance. I turned to McCandless and asked him if he thought it was odd that people seemed more interested in the person that pretended to be in space, rather than the first person to actually fly a jet pack in space. He chuckled rather ruefully,and we just shook our heads together. The power of celebrity indeed. At least I had a great chat with the real space jockey all to myself.