Friday, February 27, 2009

Snow Blowing

(For poster, see here.)

We just had a big snowfall yesterday. Eighteen inches of snow compressed to ten inches of pure white concrete while I was watching it. By the time I got out, it was too late. Four hours later, the snow blowing was done and so was I.

But, you can make lemonade out of anything.

So, today I'm going to talk about open loop guidance and closed loop guidance.

I work on the Ares I launch vehicle. We're responsible for the software that determines how the Ares vehicle gets the payload (Orion) where it's going. We have a target, defined to be a direction and a velocity. Ares does it with two stages. Orion takes that and either rendezvous with the ISS or the hardware that will get it to the moon.

But let's talk about a hypothetical rocket with only two stages, the First Stage (FS), we'll say is a brute force rocket capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound and catching bullets in its teeth. The Upper Stage (US) is cut from finer clother. It's the Energizer Bunny. Not as strong as the FS, it just goes on and on and on. The FS uses open loop guidance and the US uses closed loop guidance.

Now, let's imagine you're snow blowing up and down the driveway and for some anally retentive reason you want to snowblow a straight line. (Those of you down South that don't quite understand that water can freeze outside and fall to the ground naturally, think of cutting your grass.) So, you're walking up the hill and trying to go straight. You could sight on a distant object that lines up where you want to go and walk towards it. You're not taking into account where you are on the driveway, how straight you already are or how fast you're going. You just keep sight of that object and walk towards it. Every time you glance at it, you aim towards it. This is open loop guidance, a form of open loop control. Washing machines, heaters and the First Stage use open loop control. It's a form of control that does not take into account your current state but only the state where you want to be. It's ideal for the Big Brute where little mistakes aren't meaningful and just waste energy.

Let's change the scenario. Let's say you're walking up that hill, the distant point is still fixed in your gaze, but now you're watching the snow you're cutting, seeing how straight your path is, how much it deviates from the previous path. You take into account you're going up a hill-- the snow blower is going to slow down--the fact that it's a right wheel driver that gives it a kick in that direction, the tilt to the road, how much you wish this were over and how much you want a beer, etc. You are, in point of fact, taking into account your current state and using it to figure out how to best reach that target. That's closed loop guidance and it's a form of closed loop control. It uses feedback. It takes into account the current state of the vehicle and determines the control output. Most modern cruise control systems, power steering and the Upper Stage use closed loop control. Long and slow, it gets you there precisely where you want to go.

Strange things occur to you while blowing snow.
Wall of Idiots
More Bobby Jindal
Rush Limbaugh and here
25% of Northern Ireland

Links of Interest
HIV: Evolution in Action
The Very Best Darwin Posters
Cheap Homeless Shelter
Cellular Thermometa
Elephant Shrews
Dracula Lamp
Boston Skilshare
Aaron Ristau
The Running Water of Mars
Ten Maker's Tools
History of Medicine On Line and here
Artificial Flagella
Extreme Piano

DIY Wikipedia Books
V: Mobius Music
Kestrel Nest Box
NASA ParaWing
Ball Mill
Root Cellar
Confetti Cannon
Grapefruit Souffle
Ballistic Stuff
Home Chemistry
Lichtenberg Figures
Whole House

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dirty Pictures for Science

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I'm not the religious person in the world. Religion is a form of anthrocentrism: humans are the center of the world. Copernicus proved that we weren't the center of the astronomical world. Darwin proved we weren't the center of the biological world. Modern cosmology proves we're way, way low on the universal scale. This is sort of a three laws of Human Dynamics:

You're not the center of creation
You're not the pinnacle of creation
You're not even close to the game of creation.

But, that said, there's amazement at the weirdness of the world and how far from the organizing principles we actually are. Take for example, Callosobruchus maculatus, the Cowpea Weevil. a member of the group referred to as seed beetles or been weevils. (See here.) A recent study showed that injuries by the penis of the weevil (a relative, C. analis, shown above) are beneficial to reproductive success. A summary article here. The National Geographic article here. The dirty pictures here.

Insects diverged from the line leading to us hundreds of millions of years ago and have been selected upon by a completely different set of circumstances so it's not surprising they are different. Yet, I can't imagine anybody not feeling a shred of empathy for the female C. maculatus and a slight shiver when contemplating the above picture.

Ah, the shock and awe of biological diversity.


Links of Interest
Walking Man: Here. Here. Here.
Blown Glass Light Bulb Animals
Pi Day's Coming Up
So Much for Brain Training
Future War Toys
Vintage Children's Books On Line
V: MAKE Presents the Capacitor
Chicago, Israel
Fish Psychedelica
The World Clock
MoFilm and Here.
Tiny Snakes
Brandywine Clocks
Octopus Hijinks: Here. Here.

Gravity Clock
Cheap Screen Printing
Phonebook Organizer

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Barreleyed Evolution

Some things are just weird.

The little gem to the left here is the Barreleye Fish, Macropinna microstoma. The green spheres are the eyes. The things that look like Sad Sack eyes are in fact nostrils.

The fish has to watch up to find food and look for predators but, as can be seen, the mouth is below where the eyes can look-- or, below where the could look if the head wasn't transparent. There's an abstract for the mechanism of biological transparency here. The ecology and physiology is discussed here.

Transparency has evolved over an array of organisms, mostly pelagic. Worms, medusae and fish and other groups all have transparent representatives. My own feeling is that though the underlying mechanism may be primitive and thereby available to multiple groups, the selection pressure to propagate transparency is likely vastly different between, say, a comb jelly and a fish.
Wall of Idiots
Bobby Jindal and here
Stimulus Lies

Political Links
US Funded Family Planning Pays for Itself

Links of Interest
Vibrosaurus and V:Here
V: Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy
The Story of the Match
Cod are Evolving
Stirling Engine Chip Cooler
Vitamin D Aids Immune Response
The Ice Man
Cooking and Human Evolution
Neurophysiology of Esthetics and here
Global Warming -> Harsher Weather
Eyeglasses at $1/Pair
The Amazing See Through Head and here and here
Junk DNA and the Origin of Complexity
Mountains Under the Ice
V: Office Supply Rockets

Hand Embroidery
Paper Architecture
Chocolate Bowl
Clockwork Piston

Comet Lulin

Comet Lulin is now visible. This morning was the best visibility and it was clear and I completely forgot about it until I got into work. Tough to see the comet after sunrise. Sky and Telescope have a good way to show it here. Pictures of it so far this month are here at the Spaceweather. NASA has a map here.

It's hard to see with the naked eye though it has been reported.

Wall of Idiots
Eyelashes by Prescription

Political Links
Burning Economic Bridges
Causes of the Collapse

Links of Interest
Searching for Outer Solar System Life
Discovering Bin Laden
Flu: The Final Vaccination
Viewing Comet Lulin
Skylon Still Going
Neanderthal Genome
Building Planets
Steam Powered Pencil Sharpener
Vat Grown Teeth
Bent Music Box

Magnify the Workbench
Hot Knife from a Soldering iron
Acrylilc and Machine Screws
Fishing Lures
Snow Sled
What to do with an Old Computer

Monday, February 23, 2009

Weekend Warrioring

I attended the New England Model Engineering Society yearly demonstration over the weekend. Many Stirling engines. Many steam engines. I'll put up pictures later.

Also Ben and I worked on building his guitar. We got a kit from Music Makers and have been working on it. We have put the neck and body together and this weekend glued up the fingerboard.

It's funny. I tend to be much more excited about mechanical systems whether they be machines or musical instruments than modern electronic systems. I think it is, in part, that modern s/w and hardware have made the problems so much easier. Back in the 19th century, people actually had to think about control-- cam systems, mechanical linkages. When they were building lutes back in the 16th century they did so by trial and observation. They had no mathematical models.

Plus: working with your hands is fun.
Political Links

Truth in Stimulus
EPA Moving to Regulate Carbon
Betsy McCaughey Makes Things Up
Reshaping Economics
Data Flows Towards Profit
Chu Chews Red Tape

Links of Interest
Pictures at Work
Investing in the Long Term
ReCaptcha Translates Books
Kepler about to be Launched and here
Pterosaurs and Birds
Ready Made Magazine
Watershed Sculptures and here
Momento Mori
Vicodin Earrings
Loran Scruggs' Tin Toys
Tipping Climate over the Edge
Dana Farber Graffiti
Caveland and here
Scams in Space
Enhanced Piano

Duct Tape Corsage
Banana Bread
Valentine's Day Chocolates
Save Humidifier Water
Origami Picture Frame
Hydraulic Ram Pump
Homemade Lox
Low Tech Fixes for High Tech Problems

Friday, February 20, 2009

Whither Thou Links?

(Photo from Bioephemera)

I mentioned my blog at Boskone over the weekend and one SF writer, who shall remain nameless except to say it was supergenius Alex Jablokov, said there's nothing in there. Just links.

Most things I think about and talk about end up in the fiction I write. Often, things that piss me off end up here-- which was pointed out in dinner conversation makes me appear to be a grumbling curmudgeon who spends his life irritated at the world. The fundamental truth of this assertion aside, it's probably not a good idea to actually say so out loud.

But about the links.

Whether I have anything to say or not, I do read a great deal. Often, what I read is poignant or creepy or awesome or strange. Things people build, make or think can be interesting, breathtaking or just disturbing. When I find them so, I put them here.

So if I have nothing to say, so be it.

But that doesn't mean I don't have anything to show you.

Wall of Idiots
Stupid Tax Law Tricks

Links of Interest
Chimpanzee Attack Analysis
The Future of Alternative Energy
Upcoming Comet
First Liquid Water Found on Mars
NASA's Europa Mission
The Ignite Show
Elizabeth I's Superguns
Box of Clouds

The Tubble
World's Smallest Spot Welder

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Boskone 2009 Evolution Panel

I was also part of the Evolution Panel at Boskone. Here are my notes from that.

Evolution Panel

Human acceptance of evolution
• >1/2 Americans don't believe humans descended from earlier animals. Similarfor Brits.
• Alfred Wallace didn't think natural selection applied to human beings.
• We know about the different school systems: Dover, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas.
• Where physics happens outside of us; biology (evolution) happens inside of us. It says where we came from.
• The implied limitation of God.
• The comfort of evolution: We know where we came from and where we're going.
• Evolution is not human centric. Progression of scientific thought is away from human centric.
• Nature of religion is steadiness and constancy. Nature of science is change. Natural selection is not in jeopardy. But our understanding how it is implemented is. Even the concept of species is insecure.
• Humans are uncomfortable with insecurity. No one likes to say I Don't Know.
• There are creationist investigators-- you can't really call them scientists-- that are trying to recast physics in some way that the Young Earth Creationism is viable.
• Not entirely clear on how people can deny something that is so obvious. Gee: electricity makes lights. The sky is blue. Evolution is obvious.

Seems like there are subgroups of human evolution:
Survival selection: Adaptations that favor physical survivorship of individuals
Reproductive selection: Adaptations that favor reproductive success
Sexual selection: Female choice of mates.
Cultural selection. The ability to navigate cultural complexities in order to achieve reproductive success.

Neat recent things about evolution
• FOXP2 work show its use in language, bird songs and echolocation. Humans have 2 mutations that chimps don't. What does that mean? No one knows.
• MYH16 function is lost. In chimps it is active only in the muscles of the head, including chewing muscles. Relaxation of these muscles result in skull growth freedom?
• Brain size is controlled by at least 4 genes. Knocking out some of these genes results in microcephaly. These genes are evolving more rapidly in primates than rodents and especially fast in chimps and humans.
• 4 mutations are involved with different forms of lactase preservation. European lactose tolerance comes from one mutation. African from others. Euro form is about 7,000 years old. Africa about 5,000.
• Gene duplication appears highly correlated with human evolution. Salivary amylase is one.
• Pace of evolution is speeding up in the last 40,000. In the last 5-10k, evolution has speeded up to about 100 fold as measured by gene adaptation over time.
• DRD4, a version of a dopamine receptor gene, is sweeping through the Euro population right now.
• Blue eyes appeared between 6 and 10k years ago and has appears to have a 5% evolutionary advantage. Why? no one knows. Darwin thought it was sexual selection. Some other scientists think its associated with an actual advantage that is unknown.
• Neanderthals have been sequenced. Doesn't look like we interbred. But they also have the FOXP2 gene.
• Tiktaalik discovery based on evolutionary predictions: a time lapse set of fossils show the evolution of tetrapoda from fish.
• Platypus sequence: sex chromosomes that sequence like birds but act like mammals.
• Lancelet genome is helping sort out chordate evolution. Have most of the same genes as vertebrates and they are arranged similarly in the chromosomes.
• Trichoplax has something that acts as nerves but has no nerve tissue. However, it has many of the genes necessary to transmit nerve impulses indicating an underlying structure to support nerves prior to when they exist. Darwinian evolution: The structure selected upon predates the selection.
• Evo-Devo: The path of evolution through developmental embryology. Gene regulation of other genes.
• Soft inheritance: ancestral environmental experiences cause later generational effects. Epigenitic generational inheritance. So far the process best understood is by DNA methylation. Stress conditions can cause it. Disease can show up. Variations in flower morphology. Etc.
• Oldest eucaryotic life may be sponges.

Speciation and the Web (not Tree) of Life
Horizontal gene transfer:
• "The battle came to a head in 2006. In an ambitious study, a team led by Peer Bork of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, examined 191 sequenced genomes from all three domains of life - bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (complex organisms with their genetic material packaged in a nucleus) - and identified 31 genes that all the species possessed and which showed no signs of ever having been horizontally transferred. They then generated a tree by comparing the sequences of these "core" genes in everything from E. coli to elephants. The result was the closest thing yet to the perfect tree, Bork claimed (Science, vol 311, p 1283).
• Other researchers begged to differ. Among them were Tal Dagan and William Martin at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, who pointed out that in numerical terms a core of 31 genes is almost insignificant, representing just 1 per cent of a typical bacterial genome and more like 0.1 per cent of an animal's. That hardly constitutes a mighty oak or even a feeble sapling - more like a tiny twig completely buried by a giant web. Dagan dubbed Bork's result "the tree of 1 per cent" and argued that the study inadvertently provided some of the best evidence yet that the tree-of-life concept was redundant (Genome Biology, vol 7, p 118).
• Last year, for example, a team at the University of Texas at Arlington found a peculiar chunk of DNA in the genomes of eight animals - the mouse, rat, bushbaby, little brown bat, tenrec, opossum, anole lizard and African clawed frog - but not in 25 others, including humans, elephants, chickens and fish.
• HGT has been documented in insects, fish and plants, and a few years ago a piece of snake DNA was found in cows. The most likely agents of this genetic shuffling are viruses, which constantly cut and paste DNA from one genome into another, often across great taxonomic distances.

• based on reproductive isolation as set out by Ernst Mayr in 1942.
• But Darwin, who once wrote that species were “indefinable”, might have described a species as a segment of a branch on the ever-expanding tree of life, the same tree he drew as the only figure in the “Origin.” Or he might have said it was something more distinct than a variety and less than a genus.
• Genetic reproduction isolation genes, Nup 160 and Nup 96, in fruit flies. Seems to be involved in the nuclear pore complex that controls what molecules enter or leave the nucleus. What does this have to do with hybrid sterility? Another class of genes in plants, involved in fending off disease, may be involved in speciation in plants. Speciation genes appear to have diverged under powerful natural selection.
• Sexual selection is now showing itself in action: A small Amazonian frog known as Physalaemus petersi provides a particularly strong example of how females’ choosiness in mates may be driving the formation of a new species. Males of the mottled brown species reach just over an inch in length and can be found singing in choruses to attract females. In some populations, the males’ song is what is called a “whine” — a kind of frog meow. But in other populations, males whine and add a squawk. Michael J. Ryan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas, Austin, and colleagues have found that the difference evolved because females in one population preferred pure whine, whereas in another they preferred whine and squawk.

Links of Interest
Entangling Einstein
The Skylon Spaceplane
More Exoplanets!
Fuel Boost from Bumps
Wooden Gear Window Blinds
Pride and Predator
NYC Toy Fair: Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.
Quantum Weirdness Day
Homeforged Tools

Home CO2 Scrubber

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Boskone 2009 Workshop Panel

I was at Boskone over the weekend and on three panels: Workshopping, Beyond Darwin and Treachery for Fun and Profit. I'll put my notes up here.

So: Today is Workshopping. I'm a founding member of the Cambridge SF Workshop. I won't bother talking about it in specifics since the link goes to the workshop website. Suffice to say, it has been in continuous operation since 1980-- next year we're going to celebrate our 30th anniversary.

Given that, the notes I have for the workshop panel reflect experiences I've had in CSFW.


Boskone 2009 Workshop Panel

About Me
• Clarion, 1978
• Co-founder CSFW, 1980-present
• Ran several 1 day workshops for Boskone and Readercon
• Poobah CSFW, last 8 years? ("Poobah" translates to "He Who Washes the Windows")

Inappropriate Things I have seen people use the workshop for
• Find somebody to sleep with
• Find somebody else to sleep with
• Find somebody to talk to regarding someone sleeping with or used to sleep with
• (insert other relationship possibilities here)
• Find interesting people to talk to
• Find people to talk to about how boring non-writers are
• Find other writers who must be more interesting than the last dreary bunch of writers.
• Find escape from people who are too interesting
• Find people to go drinking with
• Find people with more interesting ideas that can be stolen
• Find a good group of writers that won't steal ideas (mythical)
• Find someone to motivate the writing
• Find someone to motivate the re-writing
• Find a place to escape from the spouse
• Find approval for your work
• Find approval for writing
• Find group therapy
• Get better at the writing so I can support my acting (almost right)

A Workshop's only purpose is as a tool to help a writer become a better writer.

What a workshop provides
• A different point of View on your material
• Present material that represents at different pov on writing
• By critiquing other work your own work improves
• Retain community excitement for the act of writing
• Reinforcement of the worthiness of the activity
• An intelligent and articulate audience

Attitudes to take towards the workshop
• Be libertarian about the workshop: it must benefit you to be useful
• Be honest: the workshop might be telling you somthirig useful even if you don' t like it
• Be true: decide for yourself what is useful
• Be clear: recognize that if 5 people say the same thing there's something to it.
• Be also clear: What the workshop perceives, though real, may not be what is actually there

Things to leave at the door:
• Invective
• insults
• agenda
• personal distaste
• Drama
• Performance art
• wife, husband, children, mother in law, lover, dying parent -- except as they relate to the story or critique

Things to bring to the session
• Passion
• Effort
• Expertise
• Personal Offense (if my story is offensive to somebody, it's important to know. That might be my intention.)
• Beer. Brownies are also acceptable

Workshops are not for the squeamish.

Writing is not therapy. But Writing is analogous to therapy in that the writer must examine himself in the pursuit of the work.

Similarly, wokshopping is not group therapy. But, while the work is not the writer's self, it is derived from the writer's self. Therefore, indirectly, writer's flaws, blind spots and idiosyncrasies are laid bare and examined.

Suck it up.

Wall of Idiots

Wrinkle Treatment using Baby Foreskins

Political Links Analyzes the Stimulus Bill
Global Warming Underestimated
Bipartisanship For Real

Links of Interest
Darwin on Godless Creation
Erica il Cane
Liz Lomax and here
Using Photosynthesis
Updike on Evolution
V: Backwards Beekeeper
Killer Asteroids
Artificial Life
Cold Virus Mapped
Darwin and Cancer
The Secret Weapon of Sponges
Why Birds Collide With Airplanes
Climate and Neanderthals
UUorld: Explaining the World With Maps

Touchatag: RFIDs for the People
Wind Generator
Gymnastics Rings
Indoor Hydroponics

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Darwin Day

In my humble opinion, the gentleman pictured at the left is one of the greatest thinkers and scientists that ever lived.

Copernicus moved the earth from the center of the universe. Darwin finished the job of putting humans in their proper place in the universe that Copernicus started. We are better for it.

It's a beautiful world. To appreciate its beauty doesn't need Darwin. To understand the principles of the physical world, we needed Copernicus to set us on the road. To start on the road to biological understanding we needed Darwin in the same way. But Copernicus needed Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Darwin was Copernicus, Kepler and Brahe all rolled into one.

Because of Darwin, we have an idea of where we came from and where we're going.


Darwin Links
Appreciating Evolution
Darwin Online
Darwin's Galapagos
Galapagos Pink Iguana
Extending Darwinism
Evolution and Emancipation
NYT on Darwin
Wallace's Treasure Chest
Devolve Me
No Neanderthal/Human Hybrids

Political Links
Scientists Disappointed at Science Funding

My Heart Bleeds
Living on $500k in NYC

Wall of Idiots
Do Good Medicine. Get Sued.

Links of Interest
V: The Future of Music and here and here
V: Mandolin as Art
V: Chapel of Bones
V: New Monkey Study
V: Living Helping Hands
Rethinking SETI
How to Avoid Choking
Russian and US Satellites Collide
Air Powered Hybrids
Amish Hackers
Views of a Magnetar
Orphaned British Botanical Paintings
The Lab for Humanistic Fabrication and here
The Steel Yard: Providence, RI
School of Tinkering and here
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Guitar Tats
Free Electronic Samples
Fun with Sticky Notes
Designing Automata
Skittles Vodka

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stimulus Package for Mister Mongo

The stimulus package is winding its way through congress. And, like birds returning for spring or the tankers returning to Alaska for oil, I'm getting a lot of conservative spam telling me about the upcoming disaster.


You can analyze the stimulus bills yourself in this SEA link. Google has the House bill as well here. I find the SEA's more readable and it includes both the House and Senate bills. However, be warned. The SEA spreadsheet in in thousands of dollars and the Google spreadsheet is in dollars.

I noticed a great deal of infrastructure improvements-- but that depends on how you view infrastructure. Some of the conservatives suggest it's only a tiny bit but the rest is "pork barrel". "Pork barrel" includes things like making sure people get the proper A-D converters for their televisions. Note that the converters are only for broadcast television-- something that is used the most by rural communities. Cable penetration in urban and even suburban communities is quite high. If I were living on a farm in Wyoming or Alabama, I might think twice about the GOP keeping me from my reality shows.

Other pork barrel projects include actually repairing buildings in the national parks, roads and bridges and upgrading the national grid.

I live in Massachusetts and from 1991 - 2006 to we had Republican governors who were quite happily using their line item veto superpowers to leave our infrastructure to rot. There's a bridge over route 128 that was struck by a truck. Cracked the bridge. The "temporary" solution was to slap a 8 foot thick, sixty foot long steel girder over the sidewalk on one side and bolt it to the bridge. The accident happened in 1986 under a Democratic governor. But the repairs have been vetoed ever since.

I've decided the girder is a splint. They're waiting for the bridge to heal.

If you delay infrastructure repair you must take the blame when it has to be done.

Wall of Idiots

A New Reagan Movie

Political Links
Stimulus Package by the Numbers
Less Science in Senate Package
The Media Melody Again

Links of Interest
Turtle Creation
The Nature of Speciation
Narwhals on Parade
Birds Shift North
Salamanders Disappearing
Super Clocks
Australian Bushfires from Space
Saved by the Giant Gerbils of Kazakhstan