Thursday, January 31, 2008


Never forget!

1-31-07, the day Boston authorities freaked out over the ATHF Mooninites ads. They had been hanging for two weeks without people freaking out over Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters outlined in LEDs.

I have a video of a still-hanging Mooninite in a Hyde Park Institution(tm).

More Mercury science releases

The Messenger science team produced some great press release images and the Planetary Society Blog has a great analysis. Make sure you take a gander at the Mercury departure movie.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The winter moon

There is no doubt that the northern winter continues on at full strength, ignoring the cold and wind chill. The full moon rose last night well to the north of east, roughly opposite in the sky to where the sun is. The full moon will be precisely opposite the Sun on February 20th, just a month from now, as proven by a total lunar eclipse. I placed the camera directly on an east-west fence line; the moon is the white circle in the sky to the left.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NYC detector bill

This will probably be my last comments on the proposed New York City bill to regulate detectors, hopefully because it sounds like some people realize the inanity of the bill; two very insightful sentences in this article from the Downtown Express

(NYPD Deputy Commissioner for counter terrorism)Falkenrath would not commit to publishing a list of approved devices or approved device specifications, because he said that list could give terrorists information about what the city is capable of detecting.

Vallone replied that the council normally does not pass bills with such broad language, but that he would defer to the Police Department’s judgment in this case.

So in other words, you need a permit for your detectors, but they won't tell you which detectors you'll need a permit for. Nor could manufacturers build devices to specifications for sale in NYC, because they wouldn't be able to know what those specifications were.

Friday, January 18, 2008

More on the New York Geiger Counter law

From the report of the committee on public safety:

However, the emergence and commercialization of new and highly sophisticated technology developed for the purpose of detecting weapons of mass destruction brings with it the possibility that the private sector will acquire detection capabilities which were previously used only by properly trained military and law enforcement officials.

I love how science and education had nothing to do with the invention or previous use of this technology. Geiger counters must have sprung from the forehead of the Police Commissioner! They couldn't have been invented in 1911, because the government says they're new.

P.S. No more Cloud Chamber experiments either, because those would detect radiation. Can't alarm the masses.

New York wants to ban geiger counters

I'm not making this up:

is reporting that New York City wants to require "licenses" for any detector for nuclear, biological, or chemical detectors. We know how "permitting" devices works in Chicago--they never banned handguns in the city, they simply stopped issuing permits for them.

Geiger Counter
Is this Mr. Dangerous?

What exactly is so bad for someone to possess a detector? The claim is that the Police Department wants to prevent mass panic. In reality, they want to control information. They want to prevent citizens from making their own judgement and force them to rely on "authorities". Why not make a law to make it a crime to create a false panic? There's probably one already on the books, so we don't even need any more laws to deal with it. How many false panics have we had? What? None?

This as more than an attempt to prevent false panic from misinformed geiger counter owners. I see it as the city declaring that individuals are not allowed to think or do on their own, that they must be informed only by the authorities, that the police always know what's best. That's a bunch of bull.

The bill is so broadly and poorly written as to make illegal chlorine pool testers, geiger counters, and even your own nose. What if I make a radiation detector out of a fluorescent light bulb or LED? Are you going to require permits for those too?

EDIT: Schneier compares it to locked fire alarm boxes that slowed the response to the Great Chicago Fire.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New star in a box

I received my latest box of goodies from Jameco, and in it was a particular weakness of mine.

I'm a sucker for the latest and greatest LEDs. This particular white LED is named "Piranha" by the manufacturer. In the picture I am running it at half-brightness.

Slightly underexposed to highlight the brightness

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mercury's unseen hemisphere

Mercury from Messenger's closest approach, edited to highlight the terminator from the stock release image.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Messenger reaches Mercury

The Messenger spacecraft is now 17 hours away from closest approach to Mercury, the first spacecraft to visit the tiny, dense, and baked interior planet in 30 years. Only about half of Mercury is currently mapped. It only passes by this time; it will flyby twice again, then finally enter orbit in 2011. See an orbital movie here. You might also remember this Earth flyby movie, mentioned almost two years ago here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Compact Fluorescents

Compact fluorescent lighting is a hot topic in the media right now. Repeated utility and environmental group campaigns have encouraged people to switch to them, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will phase out the sale of incandescents in 2012. Economically speaking, there are real incentives for consumers to switch to them. But... people who have done so often come right back to incandescents. Why is that?

  • 1. Quantity of light. CF manufacturers are blatantly over-reporting the luminosity of the CFs. This will probably not be resolved until a lawsuit occurs over the false advertising. To get an equivalent amount of light I always recommend getting the CFL that is a step-up: so if you are replacing a 60W incandescent, buy a "75W" CF. You'll be much happier, and don't fret the increase in energy use, since you are still using less energy than before (60W vs 20W for a "75W" CF), it's still a win.

  • 2. Quality of light. This is the most legitimate complaint, and most of it stems from failure of manufacturers to label the color temperature of their bulbs. For most consumer applications, getting the color to match tungsten (2700K) is critical for acceptance. Some of the cheaper CFs have poor color rendition: they are too pink or too green and it turns off people. This is the fault of using the wrong phosphor blends. Take a gander at this quote from yesterday's NYTimes article on CFs:

    In the living room, for example, where there are four recessed lights along one wall, Mr. Chipman tested six dimmable bulbs and determined that one made by Greenlite with the same hue as incandescents worked best in certain spots, attractively lighting an exposed brick wall and maple bookshelves. A Satco brand bulb with a slightly whiter hue made a limestone-tiled fireplace in the middle of the wall look best, so he installed one above it. Mr. Chipman’s wife, Liz Diamond, 53, a theater director who considers herself even more particular about aesthetics than her husband, said investing time in trying multiple bulbs made a big difference. “There was one bulb that made the limestone look really freaky, ugly and moldy,” she said, but the Satco bulb now in place makes the space look “fabulous.” “I was amazed at how much variation there was, but you can really get a color that you like,” she said. Mr. Chipman agreed. “You really have to experiment with different bulbs to find the ones that work for you,” he said. “But they exist.”

    Get the right color for your application. I use GE 6500K daylight bulbs during the day to completely match outside light--you would be hard pressed to figure out if the light from the other room was from a window or the bulb. I also have some old tube "full-spectrum" fluorescents to wake up to in the morning in my bedroom. Again, these have fantastic matching color rendition to daylight.

    For nighttime, it's best to limit your exposure to blue light, as it disrupts the production of melatonin and hence your sleepiness. I switch to tungsten matching lights at night as much as possible. For matching incandescents, both the n:vision soft white and GE series match the color. The n:vision lights instantaneously, whereas the the GE takes too long to light (and has other objections below).

  • 3. Noise. A false objection is the claim that compact fluorescents buzz like old magnetic ballast fluorescent tubes. This is just wrong--CFs haven't used magnetic ballasts for a long time. Electronic ballasts, as used in CFs, can make noise if components in them aren't physically attached as well as they can be, and if certain cheaper circuits are used. The fundamental switching frequencies are ultrasonic, so you can't hear the old buzz that magnetics do. But with the design issues mentioned you can have a variety of whines and higher frequency buzzes.

  • 4. Time to light
    Many CF bulbs take a delay to light. This is annoying and a common complaint for many brands of bulbs. I've found that GE's Soft White 20W(75W) has a 1/2 second light time that drives me insane.

    In addition, every CF I've ever owned takes time to warm to full brightness. I don't mind a short delay. I've had no problem with the the warm-up time, but in hotels I've seen lights that have taken literally minutes to light up to full brightness.

  • 5. Short lifetimes
    A lot of people have reported the CFs aren't lasting as long as claimed. I can believe this, especially if they bought by price. The compact fluorescents also are very intolerant of cycling--don't use them in closets and places you don't need the lights on for hours at a time. The lights are also sensitive to overheating--so don't stick them in unventilated fixtures, or recessed ceiling cans, or in general any upside-down fixture.

    Now for long life. In 1991 or so I bought a very early CF. It was underpowered--I think it's a 7W. I used it for a few years and then went to college. It's still sitting in my old room at my parent's place, and I use it whenever I visit. Granted, this means it doesn't have many hours on it, but that CF bulb is older than many people I know.

    My own specific recommendations are to get N:Vision soft white CFs for general use. I can say they are as close to an incandescent as I've seen in CFs.

    I built an awesome "halogen torchiere killer" that I'll describe in another post.
  • Thursday, January 10, 2008

    Will the Green House at MSI be green at night?

    Via Chicagoist comes news of a green house exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry for springtime. I have to ask a serious question: if after all the work creating this low-energy house, will they light up the outside poorly (by poorly I mean by lighting it to excess and waste to the sky) to advertise it and destroy the night environment? Here at the U of C, we've squandered any savings during the Battle of the Bulbs and such by increasing the nighttime lighting by 1000% (this number is accurate) in the last year.

    Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    Latest Mars Asteroid update

    The latest observations nearly exclude the possibility of 2007 WD5 colliding with Mars, dropping the probability to 0.01%.

    This unfolding story and the present results have been made possible by the tracking efforts of many astronomers at several observatories around the world:

    * 2007 WD5 was discovered using the Mt. Lemmon 1.5-meter telescope by Andrea Boattini of the University of Arizona's Catalina Sky Survey, which is led by Steve Larson.
    * Follow-up from archival images taken by the 1.8-meter telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona were provided by Terrence H. Brezzi of the University of Arizona's Spacewatch Project, which is led by Robert McMillan.
    * Andy Puckett of the Univ. of Alaska obtained pre-discovery measurements from archival images of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s 2.5-meter telescope on Apache Point, NM.
    * Bill Ryan of New Mexico Tech's Magdalena Ridge Observatory observed 2007 WD5 on several crucial nights, with critical support from university and observatory staff.
    * Observations from the 6.5-meter Multi-Mirror Telescope (MMT) Observatory in Arizona were provided by a team consisting of Holger Israel (Univ. Bonn), Matt Holman (Harvard/CfA), Steve Larson (Univ. Ariz.), Faith Vilas (MMTO), Cesar Fuentes (Harvard/CfA), David Trilling (Univ. Ariz.) and Maureen Conroy (Harvard/CfA).
    * The 3.5-meter telescope at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain provided follow-up through a team consisting of Adriano Campo Bagatin (Univ. Alicante), Gilles Bergond (Calar Alto Obs.), Rene Duffard (Inst. de Astrofisica de Andalucia), Jose Luis Ortiz (Inst. de Astrofisica de Andalucia), Reiner Stoss (Obs. Astronomico de Mallorca and Astronomisches Rechen-Institut) and Javier Licandro (Inst. de Astrofisica de Canarias).
    * Fabrizio Bernardi, Marco Micheli and Dave Tholen of the Univ. of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy observed the asteroid at its faintest using the 2.2-meter UH telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

    Tuesday, January 08, 2008

    Saturn's extra-weird moons

    Meet the craziest of the wacky, the weird moons of Saturn's panoply: Atlas and Pan.
    In the December 7th 2007 issue of Science Sébastien Charnoz, André Brahic, Peter C. Thomas, and Carolyn C. Porco argue the equatorial ridges on these moons are a result of post-formation dumping. Pan sits in the Encke Gap in the A ring. Atlas is just outside the A ring. And it makes sense, too. They are in the outer regions of the ring system, the ridges are aligned with the Saturn ring plane, and that the kinematics would allow particles to preferentially land on the equators of these moons, plus the fact that they don't rapidly rotate (to dismiss a "frozen" rapid rotator), you can easily see this is an easy case.

    Indeed, if you look at the Atlas image you can see how the central sphere is a rocky body, and the equatorial ridge is smooth, as if made of dusty particles.

    One question not addressed in the paper is if Iapetus' equatorial ridge is similar in origin--others have attempted to use rapid rotation to explain that one, and it doesn't sit well when other satellites in the same system have ring-based ridges.

    All of these images break my brain from the multiple viewing geometries.

    Sunday, January 06, 2008

    Added shared Google Reader items

    Instead of piling up Starred items in Google Reader, I'm putting the ones I don't plan on posting about in Shared items, and sticking them in the left column, a la Karl Norby. Don't think that I'm endorsing the the shared items.

    Friday, January 04, 2008

    Lens: a new way of finding things in the library

    As some people know, I work at the University of Chicago Library. I've been working on a project for some time now--a new "library catalog" as it were, although since the new "catalog" includes things not normally in a catalog, some people with credentials don't want it called that.

    It's cool, and more in tune with more modern searching techniques than the old catalog. I hope it encourages students and researchers to use the catalog more frequently.

    The new catalog is called Lens, and you can see it in beta here. My involvement with the project is that I am the system administrator on the machine behind the URL. It's running on a very nice Sun Fire v40z running Windows 2003 Server 64-bit on eight-cores, with 16GB of RAM. We also added more disk space to it by setting up a SAN and connecting via Fibre Channel. All these things are like new toys to sysadmins like me.

    The software itself is an application from a Dutch company called Medialab. They've been selling this software to lots and lots of libraries over the past few years, and now they're starting to sell it to big academic libraries, like us. We're not the first academic to use it; Oklahoma State has it up and running. But we do have a very large collection--some 5.3 million "things" come up when I ask Lens what we have (there are a lot more items in the library physically, since the catalog wouldn't count individual serials and such. Plus don't get me started about uncataloged items).

    On the left side of the new catalog is a Flash* app that finds some associations with search terms you've entered. I thought this was flashy, no pun intended, and pointless, until I began discovering interesting items in our collection I never knew existed. This ranged from UC dissertations to non-technical books that I've got lined up to read (one never runs out of reading material). Once I find something interesting, I dump the record into our site-licensed Refworks for later retrieval.

    Instead of scrolling through a long list of items, you can narrow your search by using the right-hand column to refine by a variety of methods like format, how old the item is, or by other means. You can also refine by the classification (aka the call number range) of the book: I'm usually quickly cutting off the chaff by refining by selecting Q (Science), for instance.

    We also bought additional content to stick into the new catalog--things like book covers and album art are de rigeur in Amazon, and it can grab your interest or make known items quick to find in a list. We also bought audio CD song title listings, the table of contents of many books, and some summaries of books.

    A neat little tool available is you can subscribe to an RSS feed for specific searches, so if something new comes along, you can discover it automatically. (Like say the acquisition or new publication of a particular author or subject). This RSS feed will give you new items of Bill Bryson, for example.

    There are some issues with it. It indexes the Library's web site, but the results are messy and voluminous. If you search for a specific author, often anthologies or chapters in a book come up before titles actually fully authored by them. The "relevancy" or ranking of an item, especially when you are searching for authors, is currently in flux and for the moment they put a lot of extra author refinements in to compensate until the main rankings are improved. For instance, if you search for science fiction author James Blish, it will bring up anthologies of science fiction he has stories in first, and then some non-related items that have the word "establish" in them, before titles written by him. A simple author refine on the right side gets rid of that, but it won't be there once the relevancy engine gets tuned.

    At some point in the near future, we might enable social tagging on the catalog, like LibraryThing, so people can enter their own tags to help sort the catalog, offer reviews, raves, and criticisms of items, and such. It's still up in the air.

    *If you don't have Flash, I made sure that the developers included a simple text version of the word cloud. And, if the thing annoys you truly, and you don't wish to discover items you may not have thought about to look at, you can turn it off too.

    Thursday, January 03, 2008

    Probable Future APOD from Cassini

    NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute -- click to enlarge
    Mimas is an old and quite battered moon. You know, the one that's 'That's No Moon', right? What's neat is that it's surface is ancient: you can date how old a surface is in the solar system by measuring the crater density. Such an old icy surface has been darkened to an albedo of 0.50 (50% reflectivity). And it compares so dramatically against the next moon out, Encedalus, which has fewer craters and is the brightest surface in the solar system: an albedo of 0.99 (99% of light reflects back from it).

    The Cassini spacecraft peers through the fine, smoke-sized ice particles of Saturn's F ring toward the cratered face of Mimas. The F ring's core, which contains significantly larger particles, is dense enough to completely block the light from Mimas.
    The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 18, 2007. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 772,000 kilometers from Mimas

    This one is nice.
    But this one is in color!

    Via Planetary Society Blog, a Cassini image that will likely be a future Astronomy Picture of the Day.

    Wednesday, January 02, 2008

    End of the year non-review #4: copyright and the public domain

    Edging closer to the mission of where I work:

    Happy Public Domain Day!

    We need serious copyright reform. What is the value of most of the works older than say fifty years?

    Data that should be free, since it's governmentally produced and therefore in the public domain already:

    Invaluable US government docs to be scanned and posted

    Making a Brouhaha in the Blogosphere -- Peter Brantley
    1.8 million pages of US federal case law to go online for free
    Carl Malamud Takes on WestLaw

    See an amazing amount of rescued video and data at: The Internet Archive

    Libraries or Pirate Places?

    End of the year non-review #3: Civil rights and the government,

    I continue running through my overflowing Google Reader "Starred Items" list.

    TSA to punish fliers for facecrime a la New screening technology might detect terrorists before they act

    The TSA and DIY culture clash
    I used to naively think as long as it passed the swab test, the TSA would professionally act accordingly and let it through, as it couldn't possibly be explosive. It seems that any exercise of your rights means immediate retaliation. The days of me refusing to let screeners and the Secret Service take photos through my cameras is probably over.

    Watching FISA fizzle
    Chris Dodd's actions on the telecom immunity provisions made me reconsider who I'm voting for in the primaries. More here.

    DEA War on Plants
    98% of all "seized marijuana plants" is wild hemp with no active drug content.

    Another Man Arrested For Using Free Cafe WiFi

    Ethicist Says Nothing Wrong With Using Free WiFi
    When your operating system automatically connects and uses an open wifi system, how the hell can anyone claim that's illegal? Close your systems if you don't want people to use them off-site. This nonsense is why we don't currently have a ubiquitous and free wifi in dense cities.

    My own philosophy comes from the old days of radio, where any radio wave entering your home or your personal space was fair game to receive and listen to. Telecom interests lobbied and paid campaigns well to get the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which suddenly made certain wavelengths illegal to listen to, all because their cordless and cellular phones were poorly designed and completely open to listening.

    Australian DRM from 1923 - dumb radio idea that refuses to die

    The Schneier section.
    Bruce Schneier usually gets it right about security and insecurity in the world.

    Papers Please: Arrested at Circuit City for refusing to show ID, receipt
    Remember that you are never required to show a receipt to leave a store. I never do, and it saves me much time on leaving busy stores like Fry's.
    A members-only store may issue such rules, but common law says when you bought the item, it's yours. Some of the people exercising this right are jerks, but that doesn't excuse the stores and their aggressive rent-a-cops.

    Insect Spy

    Protesters might even nab one with a net -- one of many reasons why Ehrhard, the former Air Force colonel, and other experts said they doubted that the hovering bugs spotted in Washington were spies.

    So what was seen by Crane, Alarcon and a handful of others at the D.C. march -- and as far back as 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York, when one observant but perhaps paranoid peace-march participant described on the Web "a jet-black dragonfly hovering about 10 feet off the ground, precisely in the middle of 7th avenue . . . watching us"?

    They probably saw dragonflies, said Jerry Louton, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Washington is home to some large, spectacularly adorned dragonflies that "can knock your socks off," he said.

    At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies -- an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison.

    "Dragonflies never fly in a pack," he said.

    Paranoia from activists or real? I'd really like to know--this is tantalizingly straddling the border between the kooks and real technologies. I don't trust either sides' judgement or statements on this.

    California Police Camera Surveillance Increasing
    The only solution now that public surveillance is out of the bag is to require the government to open up all the video and use of the system to the public. ,

    Video of Man Tasered to Death
    Incredibly uncomfortable, so much so I haven't watched it. Tasering is torture and our society uses them way too much. Overescalation is epidemic.

    Your color laser printer has been compromised and is leaking data.