Friday, October 24, 2014

Your morning laugh...

Your morning laugh ... courtesy of my mom.  Oh, the hypocrisy of those socialists!

Chinese launch trans-lunar mission...

Chinese launch trans-lunar mission...  This is a practice mission, to test their ability to send a spacecraft to the moon and back to earth, then land.  They're planning to use a skip reentry method, a particularly sophisticated choice that requires enormous precision in navigation, and the ability to react to atmospheric variations.  The benefit is that it can use a smaller, lighter heat shield.  The U.S., back in the '60s and '70s, didn't have the ability to navigate precisely enough to do this, nor did we know enough about the upper atmosphere to be confident even if we did – so our Apollo missions needed large and very heavy ablative heat shields.  More here.

The next step for the Chinese space program is to land a robotic explorer on the moon (something they've already done once), collect some rock samples, then return to Earth.  Their space program is ambitious, and more than a little impressive...

AR2192...

AR2192...  It's a giant active region (a “sunspot”) turning toward Earth, and could hammer us with a giant CME.  Via APOD, of course...

If you're of a certain age...

If you're of a certain age ... and you were an avid follower of the U.S. space program in the '50s and '60s, then this page will send you trippin' down memory lane.  It's a collection of high quality audio recordings from NASA, covering things from Sputnik to the Space Shuttle, and more.  At right is one of my favorite examples.  I remember sitting in my uncle's basement, watching a grainy picture of Houston Mission Control on a crummy black and white TV set.  I, too, was holding my breath waiting for word of whether Armstrong and Aldrin had landed safely...

Economics over panic, act 45,992,822...

Economics over panic, act 45,992,822...  Remember the great rare earth panic, in which China had a stranglehold on the world's supplies?  Well, that raised prices – and all of a sudden, other countries discovered that they, too, had profitable reserves of rare earths – which turn out to be not so rare after all.  The same phenomenon is why the U.S. has suddenly become an oil exporter: the high price of oil makes fracking economically feasible...

“When you're using a slide rule you have to be engaged.”

“When you're using a slide rule you have to be engaged.”  That's a quote from a decent article about slide rules just published by NPR, of all folks.  The article reprises a broadcast segment of All Things Considered that's also quite good (you can listen to it from that link).  That quote is from a piece of both the article and the broadcast that talks about one of my favorite things about using a slide rule: that you have to think about the math as you're using it (as opposed to a calculator, which just hands you the answer on a silver platter).

Obama administration sinks to a new low...

Obama administration sinks to a new low...  They apparently have no sleaze or arrogance limit at all...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Investment opportunity...

Investment opportunity...  Reader Jim M. passes along this investment opportunity for your consideration:
Thought you might want to consider getting on board early.

A German Engineer just started his own business in Afghanistan He's making land mines that look like prayer mats.  It's doing well.  He says prophets are going through the roof.

Old Glory flying over the homestead...

Old Glory flying over the homestead...  Naturally, the day I first get to have it flying there isn't even the whisper of a breeze :)

Canada honors its hero from yesterday's terrorist attack...

Canada honors its hero from yesterday's terrorist attack...  The Parliament's Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers.  Via my mom...

Barn: insulated!

Barn: insulated!  The insulation crew finished the entire job yesterday, and the results are pretty impressive.  The blown-in fiberglass fills every last nook and cranny in the walls, which is how they manage to get such high R-factors.  It was fun to watch them work; the modern materials and machines really made the job go fast.

For example, the netting was stapled up with hundreds upon hundreds of staples, at an average interval of about 2 inches.  They did this with a staple gun that works like a machine gun – they just run it down a stud or rafter, and the staple gun spits out staples at a rate of 8 to 10 per second.  When you see how many staples they put in, you'd think they spent days doing it – but it actually went very quickly.

Blowing the insulation in was also a fast job.  A huge machine inside their truck has a hopper full of the raw fiberglass, and a large blower.  When the installer presses a trigger on his “insulation gun”, this machine starts chopping and fluffing the fiberglass, then blowing it at high speed down a long flexible hose to his gun, where it fills whatever cavity he's working at that moment  (see the last two photos below).

The bottom line: a three man crew installed top quality insulation in the walls and ceiling of a 4,000 sq. ft. barn in about 9 hours.  That's darn fast!


Roof: the destruction continues...

Roof: the destruction continues...  Most of our house's roof is so steep that the roofers cannot use their powered shingle-removal machine.  They're reduced to hand tools that are about the same as they were 100 years ago – and a lot of muscle power.  It's going to take them more than a week to strip all the old shingles off...


Rosetta's latest imagery...

Rosetta's latest imagery...  I can still scarcely believe that we can actually see what a comet looks like close up.  Click to embiggen, as usual. 

In just a few weeks, Rosetta's little lander (Philae) will attempt to land on comet 67P.  Awesome!

Environmentalists beaten about the head and shoulders with science...

Environmentalists beaten about the head and shoulders with science...  Fracking doesn't cause water pollution...

The end of the vacuum tube era...

The end of the vacuum tube era...  If you're not an electronics geek, you can be forgiven for believing vacuum tubes disappeared quite a few years ago, with the advent of flat screen TVs.  In fact, millions of vacuum tubes are still being manufactured every year, and bought by consumers worldwide – including, quite likely, you.  Every microwave oven manufactured since the 1940s contains a vacuum tube called a cavity magnetron – the gadget that produces hundreds of watts of microwave radiation to heat your food.

I've long been fascinated by cavity magnetrons, less for their technical attributes than for their contribution to the Allies victory in WWII.   Their invention by British scientists, and mass production by American industry, led directly to small, lightweight, high resolution airborne radars – and gave the Allied air forces a huge advantage over those of the Axis.  That same device is what cooks your food in today's microwave ovens.

But this is about to change.  As this article describes, recently introduced high frequency, high power transistors are about to revolutionize the world of the microwave oven.  The transistors are better in many ways, but what the consumer will notice is infinitely variable power, and no loud noise.

My electronic career got started with devices that used vacuum tubes as their active components.  It's been many years since I last designed something using a vacuum tube, but I've still got a fond place in my engineer's brain for them.  Once the microwave industry has converted (which I expect will happen extremely quickly), there will be no more high volume vacuum tube production – just low volume boutique production for the crazy people (some of my friends amongst them :) who think vacuum tube audio amplifiers sound better than solid state ones... 

Minimum wage laws kill jobs, part 30,289...

Minimum wage laws kill jobs, part 30,289...  This was totally predictable, and in fact many did (including yours truly).  The reaction of businesses to high minimum wages is to automate every low-skill job in sight.  The latest to announce a move in this direction: the classic low-wage entry-level employer: McDonald's.  Yep, that's right: get ready for burgers flipped, built, and served by robots.  As the McDonald's executives make abundantly clear, this is only happening because high minimum wages tipped the economic scales: investing in robotics is now cheaper than hiring high school kids.

Of course, with the tumbling cost of robotics and the rising cost of labor, this was inevitable at some point anyway.  But high minimum wages are hustling that day forward, and long before society has adjusted to that reality.  Once the robots are widely deployed at fast food joints, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost.  Perhaps worse, one of the largest employers of young people with zero job experience will stop providing that valuable introduction to the world of gainful employment.  As a society we don't have good alternatives yet...

Here we go again...

Here we go again...  Fannie and Freddie are going to start providing loans at 97% loan-to-value to high risk borrowers.  This is exactly what led to the popping of the last housing bubble, just a few years ago.  This is unbelievably irresponsible and stupid from every perspective except one: political.  CoyoteBlog has an excellent piece on this insanity, and Reason is on the case too.  Unfortunately, the politicians we've elected know that good news today is worth a lot more, politically, than bad news down the road...

Amazing photos...

Amazing photos...  I ran across this Flickr page for a photographer named “Max R.” who has an absolutely stunning collection.  I could spend hours here...

Early morning Beatles...

Early morning Beatles...  Since about 3:30 am this morning, I've been kicked back in my little temporary “office” listening to the Beatles while I do some bookkeeping, answer some email, order some needed supplies, read the news, and update my blog.  Listening to this music takes me right back to the '60s and early '70s, when I listened to the Beatles (and lots of other contemporaneous music) as I went about my (mostly awful) jobs.  The music was great, though, and it still evokes the same happy enjoyment that it did when I first heard it.

It's wonderful that I can listen to it still, almost 50 years later, on incredibly high quality equipment that's tied to my computer.

It's been a hard day's night, say the Beatles...

Ballot fraud...

Ballot fraud...  James O'Keefe puts the lie to the claims that there is no significant election fraud, so loudly made by (primarily Democratic) opponents of voter ID laws...

Rh null...

Rh null...  What it's like to be someone with an extremely rare blood type – in this case, one shared by just 40 people on the planet...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flagpole: up!

Flagpole: up!  Hooray!!!  Randy B. and his sidekick Jeff drove his 24,000 lb. loader over, and in amazingly short order we had the flagpole up and perfectly vertical.  We spent a lot more time worrying about how to raise it without dinging the aluminum than we did doing the actual raising :). 

Once we had it up, just sitting in the sleeve, it was time to make it perfectly vertical.  The sleeve is about two inches larger in diameter than the flagpole's bottom is, so there is some “wiggle room” there. The way you secure the flagpole in the perfect position is interesting: nothing but sand holds it in place.  First we poured the sleeve about 1/3 full of sand, then we maneuvered the flagpole into a perfectly vertical position (using a level).  After that, we gently banged the side of the pole to vibrate and settle that first bunch of sand.  We re-checked the vertical, tweaked it for a final time, then filled the whole sleeve with sand and vibrated it.

There was one more step after that: covering the sand with a sealing layer of silicone caulk (so the sand won't get wet), and then installing the decorative aluminum flashing on the bottom.  I took the photo above before I'd finished those steps, as the light was failing.  But it's all done now, and ready to attach a flag to.  As soon as it warms up just a tad in the morning, Old Glory will be flying over our heads...

Barn: it's insulation time...

Barn: it's insulation time...  Yesterday afternoon I met with a garage door contractor, and I picked out a door.  I chose the model with the best insulation I could get in a 2" thick door, which turns out to be R19.5.  Naturally, that particular model has the longest lead time :)

This morning the insulation crew arrived, and as I write they are installing the netting (see photos below) that will contained the blown-in fiberglass they'll be installing later today.  They call this stuff “netting”, but it reminds me of the stuff they put on the bottom of box springs these days, except this stuff is much heavier...


Roof: let the demolition begin!

Roof: let the demolition begin!  The roofing crew arrived early this morning to start demolishing the existing shingle roof on our house.  The roof was covered with a thick layer of frost when they got here, but that quickly vanished once the sun got above the trees.  After that (hopefully soon after that!) they will start installing a new standing-seam steel roof...

Fireplace: acid-washed...

Fireplace: acid-washed...  The masons were here on Monday evening to wash all the rock down with dilute muriatic (sulfuric) acid.  They scrubbed each rock off with a stiff brush and a rough rag, after draping the mantle to keep the acid from it.  After that, they rinsed everything off.  The main reason for the acid wash was to remove the thin scum of Portland cement (from the mortar) that ringed most of the rocks.  It's all gone now.  The hearthstones had never been cleaned, so this wash really made them look good.

After this we all went outside with a few of the leftover pieces of stone.  We painted each one with two different sealers (half and half).  Tonight we will choose a sealer and paint the actual fireplace with it...


Flagpole: arrived!

Flagpole: arrived!  UPS Freight delivered my flagpole on Monday morning, and I've been busy putting it together (it's a kit, of course) and getting it ready to be erected.  This afternoon Randy B. (who lives just north of me) will drive his loader down here.  It can raise 30' high, so it should make short work of getting the flagpole up.  After that, all we have to do is pour some sand around it (while making sure it's standing straight up!), do a little sealing with silicone caulking, and then it's ready to go.  The crummy photo at right shows the bottom section of the pole with one end near the concrete foundation, and the other section still in its tube on the left.  The logs on the lawn are holding the pole up off the grass, which apparently can permanently stain the aluminum of the flagpole...

Holy cracklin' sunspots!

Holy cracklin' sunspots!  Via APOD, of course...

Yet another...

Yet another ... list of “must read” science fiction.  I confess to be one of those who started, but didn't finish, Gravity's Rainbow.  I have read seven of the ten listed, and they'd be on my top 25 list for sure – so I might just have to read the other three (and finish Gravity's Rainbow)...

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce...

The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce...  I know Ambrose Bierce only by one of his writings: The Devil's Dictionary, which is one of my favorite works to read when I need cheering up.  I had no idea about the rest of his story...

The most trusted news source...

The most trusted news source...  The only major news source that is more trusted than distrusted across the ideological spectrum is ... The Wall Street Journal.

These are U.S. news sources and U.S. citizens only.  I note they leave libertarians out of the ideological mix (their numbers are small), but I'd expect the results to be the same.

It's interesting to ponder both the depth and the consistency of the inferred ideological bias across these news sources.  Only The Economist, the BBC, and a highly filtered aggregator (Google News) are perceived as being relatively biased.  The rest are perceived as sharply biased, with the majority being perceived as biased toward liberals.

I'd love to see something like this for the British press.  Their unabashed biases are, to me at least, refreshing and interesting.  Nobody their pretends to be biased, but behaves otherwise – their media are firmly for one side or the other (and there's a good mix) and they make no bones about it...

Dancing traffic light...

Dancing traffic light...  Via my lovely bride.  Cute...

Get the government out of the way...

Get the government out of the way...  Reader, friend, and former colleague Doug S. passes along this story about how the Nez Perce Indian tribe restored Coho salmon on the Clearwater River, taking them from extinction to fishable abundance in just a few years.  They were able to do this mainly because being a tribe exempted them from state and national government interference.

The success story is heartwarming and satisfying.  The reasons for their success make me want to tar and feather every Progressive son of a bitch in sight...

What the world eats...

What the world eats...  Reader, friend, and former colleague Simon M. passes along this interactive graphic.  It breaks down the kinds of food people of various countries eat, year-by-year, by calories or weight.  There were some surprises in here for me – such as Hong Kong folks being by far the largest meat eaters – but only in recent years.  I'd love to know the whys behind some of these data... 

Really?

Really?  According to this study, you can identify introverts by their facial expression.  Furthermore, the extroverted expression (at least) can be faked.

WWII Japanese “balloon bomb” found in Canada...

WWII Japanese “balloon bomb” found in Canada...  It's common for old ordinance to be found many places – but not in Western Canada, and not with such an interesting story attached.  See here and here for more details...

What does your instinct tell you?

What does your instinct tell you?  Consider these facts:
  • A Republican candidate notices that when he votes for Republican candidates, the votes are registered for Democratic candidates.
  • He's voting on a touch-screen voting machine.
  • He's voting in Illinois.
Election officials said that the machine's touch screen had a “calibration error”.

I wonder if there's some vote-fixing going on.  Because nothing says “shenanigans” like Democrats in Illinois...

California leads the way...

California leads the way ... in state-mandated elective abortion coverage – even for churches with religious objections to killing babies.

I'm pretty confident that this would not happen in Utah.

I'm sure the California law will be challenged on Constitutional grounds.  There's no telling how the Ninth Circuit (which includes California) would rule on it, but if they ruled to uphold the mandate, I'm sure it will be further appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court – where, at least with the current roster of Justices, it will be overturned...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

First steps...

First steps...

I know it's juvenile...

I know it's juvenile ... but I enjoyed the hell out of this:


“My dad’s in there!”

“My dad’s in there!”  A quiet hero – saves a guy from a raging fire, and then just disappears...

Loansharknado...

Loansharknado...  Anyone who's been observing American politics for as long as I have is going to be hard to surprise when it comes to campaign ads.  After all these years, I've come to the point where I assume I've seen it all.

I was wrong.

I've never seen anything quite like loansharknado before.  I can't decide whether the candidate deserves an award, or should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town...

Almond...

Almond...  At 60x.  It isn't often that my microscopy target is also a tasty treat!


Challenging problem?

Challenging problem?  I ran across this post by Terence Tao, a math professor at UCLA, that poses a puzzle.  It sounds very difficult (or even impossible), but it turns out to have an easy answer:
Three farmers were selling chickens at the local market.  One farmer had 10 chickens to sell, another had 16 chickens to sell, and the last had 26 chickens to sell.  In order not to compete with each other, they agreed to all sell their chickens at the same price.  But by lunchtime, they decided that sales were not going so well, and they all decided to lower their prices to the same lower price point.  By the end of the day, they had sold all their chickens.  It turned out that they all collected the same amount of money, $35, from the day's chicken sales.  What was the price of the chickens before lunchtime and after lunchtime?
As is often the case with such problems, the description (probably deliberately) makes the problem sound a bit more complex than it actually is.  You can simplify all that verbiage down to this equation:
a(52-x) + bx - 105 = 0
The problem is to find a and b.  Though the problem didn't actually say this, it turns out the answers are non-zero integers, which I just assumed was the case (for puzzles, this is the sort of answer one would expect).  Once I had this equation, I reasoned that the average price per chicken was 105/52, or slightly over $2.  So I tried 3 and 2 for a and b, and I had the answer (plug them into that equation, and you'll get x = 51).  Total time: under 5 minutes.

Now check out the comments on that post.  Many of the people tackling this problem made it far more complicated than it actually is.  You can almost see their knowledge of mathematical techniques getting in the way of their reasoning about the problem.  You've heard the old expression “If you have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”  I think there's a lot of that going on here :)

Martin Gardner's puzzles...

Martin Gardner's puzzles...  Eight of his very best.  Back when Scientific American was a real science magazine, Gardner's column was something I greatly looked forward to in each issue...

Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from?  Isaac Asimov on creativity, from 1959.  Several things from the essay resonate with me, but most especially the notion that solitude is a requirement.  The innovations that I have come up with have always occurred to me while working alone.  The most recent example I can think of is the approach I came up with for making Java's numeric formatting and parsing run more efficiently: it came to me after thoroughly understanding what Java does now, what other approaches people have made, and thinking hard about the problem while alone in my office over the course of several days.  That pattern seems entirely typical.  Asimov's references to the need for an informal, intimate atmosphere amongst a team also resonates.

It's interesting to note that the guy who wrote this essay is best known for his science fiction works, then for his non-fiction books about science, and then for his remarkable productivity (he still holds the record for the number of published books written by a single author)...

Remy, again...

Remy, again...  As always, I don't know whether to laugh or cry...

Bureaucracy kills...

Bureaucracy kills...  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of local citizens risked their lives – and those of their families – to help their country and the American forces by providing translation services to front-line troops.  There are many, many stories of bravery and heroism amongst this group; all you have to do is google and you'll find them.

Especially in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, Islamist forces have targeted the translators for retribution.  If they can't get to the translator directly, they'll go after the translator's family.  Dozens have been killed, many more kidnapped, injured, or maimed.

The translators often formed very close relationships with the troops they served, and those troops, once back in the U.S., have gone to great lengths to try to get their translator friends to safety in the U.S.  You'd think this would be easy, as under pressure from these troops Congress passed years ago (and the President signed) several pieces of legislation designed to do exactly that – but thousands of these authorized visas go unused, while thousands of translators yearning to be in the U.S. remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, afraid for themselves and their families every day.

Why?

There is no good reason for it.  Nothing other than U.S. State Department red tape is standing in the way.  This has been true for six years now.  Piles of forms, process that takes months, and other bureaucratic “features” are the only barriers.  It's disgusting, infuriating, and shameful.  These translators have already proven their friendship with Americans in the most meaningful way imaginable – by putting their lives on the line for their American friends.

In the YouTube clip I've posted here, John Oliver does a remarkably good job highlighting this problem.  He conveys the issue in detail, so far as I can confirm, in a completely even-handed and accurate way.  He's also funny in the process, a fact that I found challenging to deal with: humor while being angered is not something I experience every day.  Bottom line, he's very effective at communicating this issue – far more effective than any news organization or politician I've ever seen.  There are some lessons here that politicians could profit from...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Laugh or cry?

Laugh or cry?  Crowd walks out on the light-bringer.

For six years now, Obama's administration has hopped from one disastrous piece of policy and execution to another.  I could fill an entire post with just a list of them.  The public's opinion has been slowly swinging against him for a while now, but suddenly it's swinging fast – and all, apparently, because of the latest screw-up with the Ebola response.  I'd have to count that amongst the least frightening or worrisome of his screw-ups, so I'm really surprised at the general public reaction.   The actual (as opposed to the hyped or theoretical) threat from Ebola to the U.S. is effectively zero when compared with, say, the certain consequences of ObamaCare.  Or, for that matter, the likely consequences of the administrations serial mishandling of events in the Middle East.  In other words, the general public seems to have a strange choice of what to get all twitterpated about...