friday fodder #2

FrazzledJen-Luc2 Dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, is it Friday again? It's been a busy week, hence the relative lack of blogage. But there was much to savor from the Internet firehose! Monday was a double celebration for geeks: official Pi Day — honoring everyone's favorite irrational number (although hardcore nerds will no doubt argue they would put Euler's constant (2) at the top of the list) — and Albert Einstein's birthday. Tuesday was International Blackadder Status day on Facebook (and oh yes, we celebrated this very cunning plan). Thursday was St. Patrick's Day (and "Friday, I'm in love!").

And then there was the Japan Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Emergency Aftermath….  The world is still reeling from the disastrous trifecta that hit Japan. Hard. It was hard to concentrate on much else all week, so there was, not surprisingly, a great deal of electronic ink spilled on various aspects of the topic. Some of the highlights: The New York Times' excellent interactive feature on how a nuclear reactor shuts down, and what happens during a meltdown; Snopes' expose of a fear-mongering map overstating the risks of global nuclear fallout; eye-popping video footage of the tsunami hitting Japan; Maggie Koerth-Baker's inside look at the basics of nuclear power plants; a geoblogger's series of interviews with her nuclear engineer dad; and Daniel of Cosmic Variance tells everyone not to lose their cool.

A Fishy Theory on the Evolution of Consciousness. Malcolm MacIver is a robotics scientist at Northwestern University, who also blogs for Discover's Science Not Fiction blog, and is one of the Time Lord's pals from his Chicago days. We all had dinner when Malcolm was in LA a couple of weeks ago, whereby I learned of his fascinating hypothesis about how consciousness may have evolved. As Malcolm explains in the blog post he subsequently wrote on the topic:

"Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer."

Reviving a Piece of X-Ray History. A team of physicists, engineers and radiologists recently revived a first-generation X-ray device that had been collecting dust in a Dutch warehouse. The old machine was originally built in 1896 by two scientists in Maastricht, the Netherlands, just weeks after German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen reported his discovery of X-rays.

1797178 Techie Hack of the Week. Who knew that an obsolete manual typewriter could find a new life as a computer keyboard? Jack Zylkin, that's who! The Philadelphia-based electrical engineer has designed a kit that makes the conversion reasonably easy for anyone who enjoys hands-on projects.

"Here's how the computer attached to the typewriter knows which key has been pressed: When a letter is typed, the key's metal support bar touches a single contact on the board. Meanwhile, the microcontroller is stepping a single logic "1" down the row of shift register pins and thus the leaf-spring contacts wired to them, letting the microcontroller detect the circuit made between the typewriter and the board. Then, like any other USB keyboard controller, it sends the appropriate code back to the PC. A few strategically placed magnets and reed switches detect the shift key, carriage returns, and whatever the user wants to configure as Alt or Ctrl."

Mathematics Gets Its Own Sokol Hoax. Ivan Oransky over at Retraction Watch ferreted out a winner this week: the retraction of a paper that was announced in the March 2011 issue of Applied Mathematics Letters, because the author purportedly "falsified mathematical findings and have made unsubstantiated claims regarding Euclid’s parallel postulate." Oh, and then there was that whole bit about how “Both science and spirituality came from space.” Carleton Univeristy math professor Ben Steinberg reviewed the manuscript in question and marveled that it ever passed peer review: "Basically the paper is pure rubbish and it is hard to believe it is not a hoax."

This isn't the first time the journal editors have been fooled, either. The next day Retraction Watch posted another paper retracted from the same journal, this time attempting to flout the second law of thermodynamics, by an author who makes a habit of claiming the second law "makes it impossible for evolution to improve living organisms." Hint to Editors: Anyone who claims to have found a violation of the second law is likely to be mistaken, or a crackpot — and such an extraordinary claim should require similarly extraordinary evidence.

Hot Trailer: Disney Princesses Kick Some Ass. Via my new favorite blog, The Mary Sue, I learned of this awesome mashup: setting the soundtrack to the upcoming sci-fi/fantasy flick Sucker Punch — basically an adolescent male's wet dream, attempting to pass itself off as some kind of feminist empowerment film — and scenes from Disney's animated princesses. The princesses put their live-action countrparts to shame.

Top Ten List of the Week. Must-read sci-fi blog io9 weighs in with the best Top Ten List of the Week: "the ten awesomest time machines of all time…. Note: This doesn't include time portals. So no Guardian of Forever. Also, no methods of time travel that aren't machines." Personally, I agree with the decision to give Dr. Who's Tardis top honors. Glaring omission: the Hot Tub Time Machine.

Everyday Physics of the Week. Tom at Swans on Tea showcases a nifty video explaining why packing peanuts he was transferring to a trash can suddenly stopped pouring in: "enough charge had built up that the additional peanuts were repelled by the ones in the can." Huh. I'd always wondered. Apparently it's known as Earnshaw's Theorem.

Antikythera Shipwreck's Forgotten Treasures. We're big fans of the Antikythera Mechanism at the cocktail party — both the real version and the LEGO model. But there was a lot more to that wondrous find, according to Jo Marchant of Decoding the Heavens:

"The Greek government hired the sponge divers to salvage what they could from the wreck, with the help of the navy, during a gruelling ten-month expedition in 1900-1901. According to the official report of the expedition, published (in Greek) by the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1902, their finds included bronze swords, pieces of a bronze throne, and bronze bedsteads engraved with busts of women and lions. There was also jewellery, for example a golden earring in the form of a baby holding a lyre, as well as a full-sized lyre, plus jugs, flagons, kettles, lamps, bottles and a silver wine jar."

A Choco-Holic's Delight. In the How-Did-We-Miss-This Department, last September, Georges Larnicol built and set sail in a boat made entirely out of chocolate in the port of Concarneau, a town in the Finistère department in Brittany in north-western France. And as a professional chocolatier, Larnicol would never waste good chocolate: his boat was made out of chocolate that was past its expiration date. That's right: he recycled.

It's All About the Beer. Since it was St. Paddy's Day, there was a lot out there on the science of beer. We've covered this at length before, but we had no idea that beer froth apparently forms an exponential decay curve as it coarsens. (h/t: Improbable Research) Oh, and io9 reported on some tips for making that stout beer even better.

Scientists At the Improv. Actor Alan Alda is a longtime science fan, and now he's helping scientists improve their presentation and communication skills through a series of workshops incorporating improvisational acting exercises.

Finally, here's an interesting modern twist on the old moving image technology known as the zoetrope. This "cyclotrope" made from old bicycle parts creates "a cycle of 18 images that is spun at a certan speed so that the frame rate of the camera filming it gives the illusion of animation." Enjoy!


The Cyclotrope from tim Wheatley on Vimeo.

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