Robot Videos

As you may have guessed, I am a member of IEEE. They do a magazine, Spectrum, which often covers geeks out over robotics. Occasionally (ok, most of the time) they are misled by shiny gadgets. As an example, they went to the Detroit Car show this year and gushed over how popular the electric cars were. (popular to them and the media, I guess) When the general public got to the car show, they avoided the electrics and crowded the newest Ram Monstrosity. (and yes, I want one too.)

Ok, so most of the current crop of robotic innovations may never see a store, but this is part of the “designing a robot that actually works” game. A lot of robots are pretty, but can’t actually do anything. Now they are working on making robots able to interact properly with humans.  For example, a robot can swing around fast enough to take off your head. If it were carrying a sharp object, well, it would be dangerous. So some scientists got to work on collision detection .

Those aren’t terribly impressive, but they do get the point across. Now lets look at how fast a robot with a knife can stop. Yes, a human decides that he should play with the robot to test it.

Repeat Measurements

There is an interesting article in the New Yorker,  “The Truth Wears Off ” which demonstrates somewhat dramatically a known problem in “HARD” science.
1) Repeating a measurement is hard.
2) Your improvements in measurement skill, can look like data.

How does that work?
Ok, so you are looking for a result.  Occurrences of the word AND in a paper. You aren’t using a computer, so you thumb through a page and count the ANDS – there are 10 of them.  Repeat – 14, Repeat – 9, Repeat 14. Ok, so you believe 14 is the correct answer, you drop the 9 and 10 as screw ups, and take the 14. Maybe you hedge your bet and say (10 + 14 + 14)/ 3 “My average answer was about 13.”

Now, we are assuming this is a HARD science, so there is a real number of ANDs. The computer may count it, and the computer comes up with 14. You feel justified. If you repeat the test, you get 14 every time.  There, you believe you have done HARD science.  False. You faked your error bars, so you have no idea what your real answer is or was.

Repeat the test on a new page, and get 9, 10, 11, 10.  Yeah, you are better at this, so you don’t screw up as often. What you are measuring is your failure rate. Your testable error bar is roughly 1, but when you started, your error bar was much higher, like 4. 

SO, when you measure something, like someone’s reaction to medicine, you have to include the uncertainty about your measurement. In many fields, like medicine, your uncertainty changes. The effect you may be measuring is emphasized by your interaction with the data. You are now measuring yourself. Your error rate.

This is a statistics class picture I stole from a physics class…and here they are taking it seriously for examining statistics, but I have seen the same picture used for invalidating scientific approach. Why? Because when you send people to look for something, they get better at it. Commonly in high school and college science classes, the early samples of an object are poor. If you send students to look for bugs, leaves, or whatever at the parking lot, and later send them to the woods, the diversity and size increases dramatically…however, if you send them to the woods first, then the parking lot, you get the same result. 

Why? Because the kids get better at finding good leaves, bugs, samples. The initial error bars should be doubled, with reduction of roughly 10 – 30 % occurring with each test, until you reach your limit. Many tests are really just examining the doctors skill at measurement. Unfortunately, part of the skill is lack of excitement and attention to duty. The more excited you are about an experiment, the more likely you are to fudge the data upwards. It only takes a couple fudged points to really skew a data set. Trust me.

Obviously Biology, or Climatology, are sciences. But honestly they aren’t Hard science. They aren’t squishy like psychology or sociology, which are only science by comparison to literature. Archeology and Paleontology gather information in a very scientific manner, but interpretation is terribly squishy, with very few chances to counter-test results. Biology and Climatology require human input at almost every stage, which leads to numerous experimenter fudges. And greater error than they like to admit.

And some people use computer models to generate their error bar, which … when the results are falling far from their error bar, means that they didn’t properly generate the error bar. If it doesn’t encompass the results, you clearly screwed up. Since the solar cycle folk at NASA  have screwed up 3 or 4 in a row, the models apparently don’t mean squat.

Anyway, some interesting reading. (to me) Maybe it will be fun for you.  (Better than my bad poetry at least.)

Oh, and some fellow in Italy thinks he has cold fusion . Honestly, it looks like an interesting Nickel Hydride battery. This is an example of measurment problems, again. These folks are putting into the experiment more energy than they get out…but if you only measure input electricity, they seem to be making more heat than the electricity would generate. As their measurement skills improve, the results will slowly decrease, until they drop below unity. Energy in > Energy out. So saith the Lord Thermodynamics, who may not be an angel of God, but his Entropy Sword (which can be expressed as fire) hasn’t let a human into the garden of Perpetual Motion Machines since time began.  Not likely to start now.

The “No Bad Poetry” Award

Anyone who has read here a while, knows I have a penchant for bad poetry. When scientists use sex to sell their research, I feel that I need to take notice, and make fun of them. Checking back, it has been nearly a year since I have been FORCED into bad poetry. (Its not my fault, really, they make me.) Technically speaking, the post on the speed of sperm was September of 2009. So, I could have given this Motivational Award last October.

Keep Classy Scientists, Because you know I won’t…

Oh, and a quick reprint of my classic …

For Effective Sperm it is Said
they must have the smallest of head
Aerodynamically shapes us
To win the sex races
So that quicker is better, in bed

Long Term Projects

Flashy science gets the big bucks. Alarmist science gets the big bucks. But what does long term research reveal?

1) While Global Warming is the “Hot” new science, I still remember the Ozone Hole. Apparently they believe that we will be able to measure some change in the Ozone hole in 10 years. Should be “back to normal” in 50 years or so.  I am not convinced by any of the science done for Ozone and CFC research. It hasn’t made any verifiable claims, period. When you set the verifiable claims 20 – 30 or even 50 years in the future, you can guarantee that no one is going to be busting YOUR bubble with anything like negative results.

Whether or not it was good science. The political purpose of the CFC science was to ban air-conditioning, which many people believed was an un-necessary evil. They banned air conditioning … we developed new chemicals to get air conditioning, so they are working on banning those as Global Warming chemicals. 

2. Richard Lindzen – Climate Scientist from MIT, has a nice take down of global warming. Purely based on the evidence gathered by climate scientists. They simply refute their own hypothesis. They don’t report their failure to measure AGW, they just go on making things up. (Modeling) Come on, I can make a computer model tell me anything. Don’t try to pretend that your model “shows” you anything.

image for Giant crustaceans terrorize Dover seaport.

3. Researchers discover Giant Crayfish  – This is the true end of the world, giant crayfish eat everything, cutting down trees, cattle, humans. Nearly immune to bullets… oh, not quite that big. I grew up with these fellows in Tennessee, I played in the creek with lobster sized crayfish… apparently scientists haven’t really checked out the bio-diversity of the local population. A lot sexier to travel to Thailand to investigate crayfish than to examine the ones in Tennessee. BAH!

(Hinds cave, apparently at the Hind-end of Texas, where some scientist examines what come out of the hind of … ok, so we are going down hill.)

4. Apparently early Indians ate dogs  –  Which just proves we are all descended from Koreans.  Seriously though, for a second. Who tells their friends that their job is digging through 9,000 year old poop? Um, no.
He probably tells them he works at the lunch counter, uses a shovel, digs ditches.  I would leave poop out of the job description entirely.

5. And lastly, when the US can’t get $5 to build a spaceship. Europe was tricked into buying a satellite system from France. Way over budget, does EXACTLY what your Magellan does, but costs more.  (And doesn’ t work yet.) But its French, so 5.4 billion dollars spent on a duplicate GPS system. wow. Gotta love those Europeans priorities.

Ok, snarky is done for today. I’ll play nice tomorrow.

Solar Science

Improved measurements of sun to advance understanding of climate change

Ok, the article speaks for itself, but I had to discuss one minor element. People always relate “solar cycle” and “solar radiance.” They are not particularly related. The sun’s output does change over time, but the solar cycle is a measurement of the suns magnetic field interacting with some sub-surface solar jet stream. The amount and speed of the particles hitting the Earth is related to the Solar Cycle, but not the irradiance. The Irradiance hasn’t been well measured or correlated to anything. Is the sun weaker than yester year? Why? No idea.

Now, particles from solar storms do impact the Earth and may relate to heating and cooling trends. This may explain the relative weakness of the heating cycle of the last decade.  But you have to separate irradiance and particle flow, because as far as I know, they aren’t related. Right now, in this extended solar minimun, we have a very low particle flow. We also appear to have a low irradiance. They MIGHT be related. However, the trend is long term, not 12 year cycles.  In any case, this new satellite may tell us a lot.

My Horoscope last week from the Onion

Pluto rising in your sign indicates trouble in your work life, which is problematic because, well, for astronomical reasons, Pluto will be rising in your sign for the next 87 years.

Umm… They are sick and twisted.  Is that enough reason?

Terrible Secret: I like Astrology

No, I didn’t confuse Astrology and Astronomy. Technically speaking, I have been a professional astronomer. (I have been paid to do professional work in Videography of Meteor showers and am part of a publication on Lunar Impacts.) Yeah, real astronomy.

Apparantly a real astronomer looked at the variation of the rise of constellations with date, and noticed that the shift had been…well… like a month. Now, people have been using the “traditional dates” since long before I was born. These dates were accurate back in Babylon, but currently are sufficiently in error, than the Astronomer decided to re-state the dates.

According to astronomers at the Minnesota Planetarium Society , here’s how your date of birth aligns with the constellations:

Capricorn: Jan. 20-Feb. 16
Aquarius: Feb. 16-March 11
Pisces: March 11-April 18
Aries: April 18-May 13
Taurus: May 13-June 21
Gemini: June 21-July 20
Cancer: July 20-Aug. 10
Leo: Aug. 10-Sept. 16
Virgo: Sept. 16-Oct. 30
Libra: Oct. 30-Nov. 23
Scorpio: Nov. 23-29
Ophiuchus: Nov. 29-Dec. 17
Sagittarius: Dec. 17-Jan. 20

Yeah, this just KILLS me.  I mean, I am a consumate Virgo! Everyone says so…now I am a LEO? My SISTER is a Leo. (and it never matched her well, I hope she enjoys being a Cancer, I always thought she was.) I am not a Leo, at least in my own mind…not that it ever made any difference to the horoscopes. Never had a horoscope (outside of the Onion) that I liked.  But the personalty profiles I thought were fun. Oh well, it was fun being a Virgo. My son is now a Scorpio, he loves Scorpions. He’ll like that. My wife … well … No great change. I had hopes, high hopes, of her ending up in Ophiuchus… In the words of the Immortal Sage “Missed it by THAT much.”

Just to talk about SCALE for a second.

Ophiuchus is famous for containing Bernard’s star, which is only 5.9 Light years away, our closest neighbor. However, it is a red dwarf and not very interesting otherwise.

Here is one of our closest neighbor Galaxies. It is actually easier to find than Bernard’s Star, which can give you an idea of how bright it must be. It is 35 Million light years away. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the universe. It currently takes about 6 months to get to Mars. If I could fly to Mars in an hour, traveling about 10 percent of the speed of light, the solar system is my oyster. I can travel all the way from Pluto to the sun in a few days. In a month I could explore the reaches of the Oort cloud. But, it would still take me 60 years to get to Bernard’s Star. Wow.

Now imagine I have a Starship with which can travel to our closest neighbor, Bernard’s Star, in about a day at 2000 times the speed of light. I can get to the center of the galaxy 50,000 light years away, in only 25 days. The Galaxy is now my oyster.  How close is our neighbor galaxies? They are still a 50 year flight away.

A picture of that galaxy, for your amusement.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.
Explanation: Gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years distant, toward the constellation Leo. Spanning some 50,000 light-years, its central region is shown in this dramatic image, constructed from data drawn from the Hubble Legacy Archive. The close-up view highlights this galaxy’s characteristic multiple, patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust and clusters of young, blue stars. In constrast, many other spirals exhibit grand, sweeping arms. A relatively bright galaxy in planet Earth’s sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes, but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M66 and M65.


Sorry that this week has gotten me off to a late start. Huntsville Alabama, home of the warm winter and the hot summer…has had a very cold winter. Since Christmas Eve, when we watched “The year without a Santa Claus” it was clear that the deal between Cold Miser and Heat Miser had gone through. We now had to believe in Santa Claus.  Yes, Southtown got its Christmas Snow storm for the first time… I think ever. There have been some “trace” snowfalls on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day on about 6 occasions since 1929. The day after that one it was 51 degrees, and all the snow melted. This year we got 6 inches and it stayed all week. Total now is around 11 inches for the month. Amazing.

SO, some links on snow.

 Electron Microscopy Unit Snow Page and
Alaskan Lake Ice and snow Page

I found them fascinating. Here was a fun experiment to play with. Ice Spikes in your freezer .
Get some ice cube trays, big ole square blocks, and fill them with DE-IONIZED water. yeah, it apparently matters how much mineral salt is in the water.  Then freeze it nice and slow, and you get …

Have Fun !

Green Flash, and some pseudoscience.

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

From Astronomy Picture of the Day – Explanation: Many think it is just a myth. Others think it is true but its cause isn’t known. Adventurers pride themselves on having seen it. It’s a green flash from the Sun. The truth is the green flash does exist and its cause is well understood. Just as the setting Sun disappears completely from view, a last glimmer appears startlingly green. The effect is typically visible only from locations with a low, distant horizon, and lasts just a few seconds. A green flash is also visible for a rising Sun, but takes better timing to spot. A dramatic green flash, as well as an even more rare blue flash, was caught in the above photograph recently observed during a sunset visible from Teide Observatory at Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The Sun itself does not turn partly green or blue — the effect is caused by layers of the Earth’s atmosphere acting like a prism.

I include this partly because I went to Tenerife, the Teide Observatory, just to watch the Leonids Meteor shower back in November 2002. Beautiful place.  As I like to say, there is nothing like being 10 miles from a tropical jungle and nude beaches to remind you that you are sitting on a barren hunk of rock in the middle of a snow field. Beautiful sky, just beautiful sky.

Ok, just some junk I saw today and thought was funny.

Duh! The Most Obvious Scientific Findings of 2010

Meth can harm an unborn child.
 – wow

Bullies pick on unpopular kids.

 – uh… wow

Smoking a lot of weed is bad for you.

 – wow, that is just deep…

Friendless kids are sad.
– but don’t deal with bff drama?

Guys prefer casual sex to dating.
– um, wow again, really deep result. How can I get into this study again?

Sitting in front of the TV all day can make a teen fat.
– Why wasn’t my skinny kid included in these results?

Novel way to lose weight: Eat less and exercise more.
– I’ll stick with the twinkie diet.

Caffeine affects kids’ sleep.
– yeah, after a cup of coffee it is hard to sleep at my desk!

Kids who study abroad drink more alcohol.
– There is probably a formula x = distance from parents and y is alcohol consuption. y = f(1/x)

Kids raised by gay couples do just fine in school.
Weird that they stick the controversial findings at the end of a set of absolutely non-controversial findings. I hate to equate worthless studies – caffeine affects kids sleep? – with a valuable study about sexuality and children. While this statement is fine, the article attached is a bit misleading. Specifically Lesbian couples raise kids to do well in school.  Though people want to use this study to prove just about anything involving gays. (Which says something about how few good studies out there show positive results for gays.)

Male partners with young boys in homosexual relationships and young girls in heterosexual relationships are unsafe. The more committed the relationship, the safer the male partner around the children. Kids are great in committed relationships, and lesbians appear to dominate the category. Not exactly what the author here states.