Daily Archives: December 4, 2012

Our Conversations Should Be Like a Cold Fruit Salad on a Dusty, Hot, Summer Day

I am having a conversation with my friend, Pat. We are talking about the way we talk when we have a chance to spend some time, or the way our emails seem to go.

“I tire of being asked what I think about something only to have the conversation derailed at the first ‘bump’ in my logic, at the first self-contradiction,” Pat says, of life in general.

My response: “I savor your contradictions. It’s my desire to explore them with you and to experience the change that happens when you wrestle with them.”

“Yes, I think you get it. How refreshing.”

As you can see, Pat and I have a deeply meaningful relationship. Enviable, in fact. It is based on not knowing things that we want to know, and how to fix that. There is also an element of bringing unformed or poorly formed thoughts to the table, cutting them up like a fruit salad, and enjoying them. Our conversations are like a cold fruit salad on a dusty hot summer day. Yes, very, very refreshing.

But not everybody has the opportunity to interact that way. This is because all utterances are questionable, if you want them to be. All communications are subject to measurement against a standard that one can easily justify as “Teh Standard,” even though one has merely pulled it out of one orifice or another. In fact, there is a place where that kind of communication is favored, revered, honed and practiced, and imposed by force of will and repetition on those who do not come to the table oppositional in affect and armed with snark.

That place is known … as the blogosphere.

But, dear reader, that is a Continue reading Our Conversations Should Be Like a Cold Fruit Salad on a Dusty, Hot, Summer Day

How long can a fly fly?

That is the title of a book by Lars-Åke Janzon, with the subtitle “175 Answers to Possible and Impossible Questions about Animals”. Oddly, that particular question appears to be evaded in the book itself, but most of the 175 questions seem to be addressed accurately. This is one of those books you keep around and read bits from now and then…perhaps you bring it on a trip and the tweens use it to create a game show or perhaps you keep it in your Life Science classroom and use it to generate discussion or test questions, or perhaps you just thumb through a fifth of it or so before going to bed, then a few months later you wonder “where the hell did I learn that thing that just came into my head…”

How Long Can a Fly Fly?: 175 Answers to Possible and Impossible Questions about Animals‘s author, Janzon, is the “Biologist In Charge” (of answering questions) at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and this book is inspired by the many questions he fields as part of his stewardship of public knowledge about Natural History. For this reason he focuses somewhat on the widespread myths people seem to pick up and the common questions people tend to ask.

Because the author is working in Swedish there is both a Swedish and a European slant to some of the topics, which is usually not important when addressing general principles, but is sometimes a bit too focused for the non-Swedish reader. For instance, I’d much rather know about snakes in the US, in particular the upper Midwest, than the Swedish viper, when it comes to practical advice. Also, there are some interesting language issues; did you know that Swedes (or Europeans?) call “purring” of a cat “spinning”? I didn’t. But now I do!

This is a definite stocking stuffer for the budding naturalist or Life Science teacher.

Oh, by the way, do you happen to know: if a mosquito is hit by a drop of rainwater, will it die?

Tinkering with Lego Technic

Lego Technic is a Lego based technology that includes a combination of totally new kinds of Lego pieces and fancy technology that lets you build some amazing things. You can get kits that range in cost and sophistication from the LEGO 8514 Technic Power Roboriders a sort of motorcycle for robots that costs tens of dollars to a Motorized Bulldozer that will set you back nearly $700. Actually, I think there may be Techno kits that cost way over $1000.

The modified Lego pieces include the techno “brick” which comes in many forms that have holes in them through which specially shaped parts can be inserted, to have an armature that does not rotate, an axel, or some sort of pivot. Some of the tecno Lego parts seem to converge on Erector Set pieces, but without the annoying little nuts and bolts. Then there are gears and pullies and all that stuff, and on top of that, electronic doohinkeys. You can get electric motors, you can get a differential, and clutches. You can get lights. There is even a pneumatic system. Actually, there’s two different ones, a legacy system and an updated system.

With enough parts and some good design, you might actually be able to design a Lego Technic machine that does something useful. Like one that brings you a beer or scares away solicitors at the front door.

I’ve got this book that seems to be the book to have if you are going to start messing around with this Robotic Technology: The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide. If you know someone who is planning to play around, er, I mean engage in DIY hobbyist activities, with this form of Lego, do them a favor and get them this book so they can mix and match and design their own stuff rather than buying those expensive kits. Some details from the publisher:

The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide is filled with building tips for creating strong yet elegant machines and mechanisms with the Technic system. Author Pawel “Sairel” Kmiec will teach you the foundations of LEGO Technic building, from simple machines to advanced mechanics, even explaining how to create realistic to-scale models. Sariel, a world-renowned LEGO Technic expert, offers unique insight into mechanical principles like torque, power translation, and gear ratios, all using Technic bricks. You’ll learn how to:

  • Create sturdy connections that can withstand serious stress
  • Re-create specialized LEGO pieces like casings and u-joints, and build solutions like Schmidt and Oldham couplings, when no standard piece will do
  • Build custom differentials, suspensions, transmissions, and steering systems
  • Pick the right motor for the job—and transform its properties to suit your needs
  • Combine studfull and studless building styles for a stunning look
  • Create remote-controlled vehicles, lighting systems, motorized compressors, and pneumatic engines

The The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide, being unofficial, is not a catalog or sales pitch, but rather, a very well organized and clear guide to getting the most out of your new toy, er, hobby. Start at the beginning, work towards the end, and you’ll be an expert modeler and maker of things Lego-Technic. Nothing that flies, though. But a lot of stuff that drives.

Best of the Times Top Ten Space Moments: The Moon Sunk Titanic

I was just looking at the newly released Time Top Ten Space (science) Moments of the year. This is a little unfair, actually. The year is not over. Something could easily happen between now and January 1, 2013. Anyway, there are things on this list I didn’t know, so I therefore assume that you did not know them either.

It appears that the Moon sunk the Titanic. At first this sounds silly, but it is actually quite possible and even if an exaggeration of sorts, interesting. On January 4th, before the Titanic sailed, there was a Spring Tide. This is the monthly (in lunar months, obviously) extreme high tide caused by the opposition of the Sun and the Moon. On this day, however, Earth was at it’s annual perihelion in its orbit around the Sun, and the Moon was at a 1400 year orbital low in relation to the Earth. So, the Spring Tide that month was extremely extreme.

This, then seems to have lifted large ice bergs that would have normally been grounded and put them back into action, and one of them went over to the Titanic and sank the damn thing.

One of the items I knew about but want to remind you of: An Earth-like planet was spotted at Alpha Centauri. Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

The others are all more commonly known, and they are good choices for a list of top ten space science events. Interesting, though, that the strangest and in some ways most unexpected one is about an early 20th century boat.

See you in Minneapolis on Thursday, right?

Thursday, at 7 to 9 PM in Room 412 of the Science Teaching and Student Services Building on the East Bank. A few of us involved with Atheist Voices of Minnesota: an Anthology of Personal Stories will be doing a thing called “Telling our Stories.”

The event is run by the UMN Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists, and will include August Berkshire, Robin Raianiemi, Eric Jayne, Stephanie Zvan, and Me. Details are here.