Friday, June 27, 2008


I don't remember it being this smoky from forest fires since about ... 1991? The news said there are 1000 fires burning, and besides here, the smoke is in the San Francisco bay area, Las Vegas, and Reno, and an advisory was issued.

NASA's released some great pictures with brief explanation, but the 250 meter resolution picture is really impressive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A funny thing, and a strange thing

The funny thing is I was reminded of this cartoon that's been going around software engineering organizations for years (this version is from David Male's site). The caption is always something like the manager saying "You start coding, and I'll go see what they want."

The strange thing is a surgeon in Honolulu is experimenting using music in the operating room to calm patients. That's understandable. The weird this is the surgeon is actually playing a piano in the room.
A total of 203 patients underwent ophthalmologic procedures when the piano was in the operating room, but 88 had no music played. The result was "a statistically significant increase of their mean arterial blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate," the study found.
No complications were associated with the music, and patients "were very happy their doctor was playing the piano for them," Camara said in an interview.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two non-bestselling books

I recently finished two books about high altitude (over 100,000 feet) ballooning (and jumping). Some really crazy stuff.

The pre-astronauts: Manned ballooning on the threshold of space includes Joe Kittinger's amazing jump from over 102,000 feet. The second book, Magnificent failure (also by Craig Ryan) is about Nicholas Piantanida who died during a high altitude balloon mission (summarized below in an excerpt from a Wired article):
Skydiver Nicholas Piantanida tried to break Kittinger's unofficial record three times, beginning in 1965. On the first attempt, a 6-knot wind decapitated his balloon at 22,700 feet. On his second attempt, Piantanida couldn't disconnect from his onboard oxygen.

The circumstances of Piantanida's third and fatal attempt remain baffling. He was still on his way up at 57,600 feet when ground control staff heard a scream and then a monstrous gush of air come through their monitors. Piantanida had lost pressure at 11 miles high. One theory is that he may not have prebreathed sufficiently before taking off, later causing him to struggle for breath, panic, and open his visor. If so, "it was basically suicide," speculates his daughter, Diane Shearin, "like crossing a desert with one canteen."
One of the high altitude pioneers profiled in The pre-astronauts is Jean Piccard. Wikipedia reinforced my suspicion that Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard is his namesake.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Something in the State of California's report on EMF (electric and magnetic fields) executive summary reminded me of Tufte's work, particularly sparklines.

Here's the context of the EMF study:
On behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), three scientists who work for the California Department of Health Services (DHS) were asked to review the studies about possible health problems from electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from power lines, wiring in buildings, some jobs, and appliances. The CPUC request for review did not include radio frequency EMFs from cell phones and radio towers. ... All three have published original research in the EMF area and have followed the field for many years.
Here's the part that interested me from the executive summary. You can see that in general, Reviewer 1 thinks there is more risk than the other reviewers.

If you like that, you might want to "cook like an engineer". Alas, not everyone loves Tufte, in fact this person thinks he sounds like Gene Simmons from KISS :)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Perverse incentives

In his discussion of "perverse incentives" (reward systems that lead to the wrong behavior), Bob Sutton uses a Dilbert cartoon that I've been showing software engineering classes for over 10 years :)

The comments to his post seem to be fixated on rewarding developers for finding software defects, which is the point of the Dilbert cartoon, but Sutton is making a larger point :)

I also like the Dilbertian take on user interfaces (here, and here).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Singular Intellect

If you're interested in Artificial Intelligence, the June 2008 issue of IEEE Spectrum is about "the singularity". The "Who's who" grid refers to Jaron Lanier's "You can't argue with a zombie", and says
[Lanier] wrote an entertaining 1995 essay in the Journal of Consciousness Studies titled "You Can't Argue With a Zombie." It zinged Daniel Dennett, Daniel Dennett's critics, Dartmouth students, and philosopher David Chalmers, among others. Sample line: "Arrogance is always a bad strategy in science. In philosophy I suppose it's fine."
You can also watch a talk given at Google in May 2006 by Doug Lenat about "Computers versus common sense".

Speaking of the IEEE Computer Society, my nomination for "strangest article title" is from the Summer 2008 issue (Fresno State people can click here) of IEEE Technology and Society magazine: "The engineer, the dancer, and the severed head". Here's a quote:
Are we, as engineers, content to dance for the king’s entertainment, producing whatever we are paid to produce? Or are we willing to be prophets, speaking technological truth to power? If we aspire to prophesy, we should expect to occasionally get our metaphorical
heads handed to us on a platter. Personally, I think it is worth the risk.
Changing subjects, The July 2008 issue (Fresno State people here)of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies issue emphasizes "Collaborative and social aspects of software development". If you're interested in agile/extreme programming,take a look at the table of contents.

Finally, some fortune cookie trivia: what is the relationship between the WWII internment camps, and fortune cookies? See the LA Times article. Here's a quote:
... Lee, a Chinese American, was not surprised that such a popular dessert originated in a country other than China: "Traditional Chinese desserts, any Chinese American child will tell you, are pretty bad. There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for won tons, and not for pastries."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Carbon footprints and talismans

A recent Wired has an article about things you might think are true about reducing your carbon footprint, but probably aren't. Hint: air conditioning a house is better than heating it.

Related to that, the Brookings Institution published "Shrinking the carbon footprint of metropolitan America" Surprisingly, if you look at "Per captia carbon emissions from residential energy use, 2005". Bakersfield is best (!), and 10 of top 12 are in California (Fresno is 6).

Also unbelievable are some of the superstitions involved with spaceflight. "The losing hand: tradition and superstition in spaceflight" talks about pre-flight rituals. Maybe it's because it's really risky:
But perhaps it isn’t as incredible as it first appears. Consider the risk: of the 483 people who have been launched into space as of March 2008, 18 have died during the mission. This mortality rate of 3.74% makes it one of the most dangerous professions one could follow: compare with a 0.39% mortality rate among the US military in Iraq 2003–2006 and 2.18% in Vietnam in 1966–1972, and you see that the risks are much greater for astronauts than they are even for combat troops.

Given this danger, it is quite undertstandable that astronauts should reassure themselves with ritual actions and talismans. It is a natural human impulse to control fears of death and injury by recourse to superstition—we might think of the bullfighter praying to his madonna before the corrida, going through a series of rites and responses built up over the history of this deadly sport.
Two more things: Something that any professor can relate to: "In the basement of the ivory tower", and a picture I really didn't need to see. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Dennis Rodman? Please tell me it's photoshopped :)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Legos and Jimson weed

Someone really likes legos and Spinal Tap. Here is the famous "but this one goes to 11" scene, recreated in Legos in stop motion animation. Also recreated is a concert scene in Legos.

Just as weird, this afternoon we were talking about a chapter in Berton Roueche's The Medical Detectives about a family who grafted tomato plants to Jimson weed rootstock. Hint: this is not a good idea. You can read a little about it here.

If your are a House fan you probably will recognize some of the plots from Roueche's book:
The creator of the television show House, M.D. hasn't made it a secret that he was inspired in part by Mr Roueché's writing, but I wasn't aware of the degree to which the show's writers mined the articles in this book for inspiration. In the first season of House, episode 5 ("Damned if You Do") is related to what happens in the article "Antipathies"; episode 6 ("The Socratic Method") is related to what happens in the article "Live and Let Live"; episode 8 ("Poison") is related to the article "The Dead Mosquitos"; and episode 13 ("Cursed") is related to "A Man Named Hoffman".
Besides the Tomato/Jimson weed chapter, there is one about why hospitals don't have aerators on their water faucets ("Three sick babies") and about surplus denim jeans making people sick in Fresno ("The dead mosquitoes"). Pretty interesting book :)

Chain link fencing versus flying bricks

Maybe this proves that everything ends up on the web sooner or later. One of my favorite Kennedy Space Center stories is of a bunch of going onto one of the pads (I don't remember if it was 39A or B) to look around (there wasn't a shuttle or mobile launcher on the pad). They only let us do this once, so we felt special :)

Two things I remember most are big pipes (12 foot tall "rainbirds") used to cover the pad with water just before lift off, and the flame trenches.

Looking down into the flame trenches you could see where a few firebricks were missing, and in the distance there were holes in the chain link fence where they'd gone through.

Most people think that dumping water on the pad is so that things don't burn up, but it's actually for sound suppression. Here's more than you want to know about flame trenches and such:
The flame trench is 13 meters (42 ft) deep, 137 meters (450ft) long and 18 meters (58 ft) wide. The orbiter flame deflector is 11.6 meters (38ft) high, 22 meters (72 ft) long and 17.5 meters (57.6 ft) wide. It weights 590,000 kg (1.3 million lbs). The SRB deflector is 12.95 meters (42.5 ft) high, 12.8 meters (42 ft) long and 17.4 meters (57 ft) wide. It weights 499,000 kg (1.1 million lbs). The Sound Suppression Water System is used to protect the launch structure from the intense sound pressure of liftoff. Its water tank is 88.9 meters (290ft) high and has a capacity of 1,135,000 liters (300,000 gallons).
The recent shuttle launch caused much more damage than usual. You can read about it here, but the pictures are great (scroll all the way down to see the bricks and fence), proof that I wasn't making up the story :)