Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I've moved!

In case you're still subscribed to this blog for some reason, even though I haven't posted anything in over a year, you should know that I've begun blogging again at Please visit the new site and change your RSS subscription if you need to.

(The site is still really rough. I'll be improving it, but getting back in the habit of writing blog posts is my highest priority at the moment.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Handsome Men's Club

Maybe I need to start watching some more Jimmy Kimmel, because man, oh, man; this is hilarious:

Friday, March 5, 2010

This Too Shall Be Amazing.

Wow. Wow wow wow. Okay, I've taken several days to actually write this blog post, and this video is spreading so fast that I've probably squandered the chance to break this news to you, but here I go:

OK Go has outdone themselves this time. By miles and miles. To be fair, they had a lot of help from Syyn Labs and the Mindshare crew. Regardless, it's amazing that anyone was able to pull off this massive Rube Goldberg contraption and set it to music and make it so beautiful, hilarious, and charming.

If, by magic, you have not yet had this music video forwarded to you by your mom, shown to you by a clueless local TV reporter, or explained and spoiled for you by a friend, here it is (actually, you should go to YouTube to watch it in HD, but here it is for you lazy folk):

I have seen this like five times now, and I still get goosebumps. So freaking gorgeous. Unbelieveable. It almost makes this Honda Accord commercial look like child's play.

OK so, I have to insert my self-righteous statement of indie cred here: I've been an OK Go fan since fall 2005, a good nine months before the famous treadmill video was released in July 2006. I still harbor resentment toward the bandwagon jumpers. I wrestle frequently with whether those feelings are justified. Also, I have to utter the other music snob cliché: Their first two albums are way better than this latest one, though the latest isn't bad.

OK Go seem like the coolest people ever, as you will learn in these four "making-of" videos. I desperately wish they were my friends. The bass player, Tim, once recorded a voicemail greeting on my friend Paul's phone. I've been jealous about that for years.

This video has me thinking about quitting my job and doing something really awesome. Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to build something pretty much exactly like the stuff you saw in that video. Anyone have a job for me?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why it Matters: Beakman's World

Was I born with special engineer genes? Genes that built my entire body and brain protein by protein to constantly wonder, "How does that work?" Did God himself plan from the beginning of time that I would build model rockets, learn chemistry in my spare time for fun, and work on my own car? Probably. There were other factors, however, that helped me along my path to becoming an enginnerd: my parents, my grandparents, and Legos, to name a few. One TV show in particular was hugely influential in shaping my future. 3-2-1 Contact? No, too boring. Bill Nye? Getting warmer, but still boring. Beakman's World? Abso-freakin-lutely.

If you've never seen Beakman's World, you missed out. Seriously. You might have become a scientist. Beakman made science more fun for me at age 7 than pretty much any program before or since (except maybe Radiolab). It had everything a 7-year-old could want: rockets, explosions, airplanes, 6-foot-tall rats, talking penguins, goofy sound effects literally every two seconds, a techno-accordion theme song by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and a host with a lime green lab coat and hair that sticks up a foot above his head.

Below is a segment about rockets from Beakman's World. This segment in particular shaped who I am today. Throughout the course of elementary school, I launched dozens of air and water powered rockets in my backyard. I designed and built new and better ones. One exploded with a near-deafening boom as I was pumping it up. That was maybe the most fun rocket I ever built. I designed (though never successfully tested) gyroscopic guidance systems with gimbaling nozzles for these water rockets. This six minutes of television provoked literally dozens, probably hundreds of hours of childhood R&D, which I believe has made me a better engineer and a better person.

A few more notes about Beakman's World:
  1. Josie (Alanna Ubach) was the best assistant by a long shot. Her replacements, Liza and Phoebe, were not nearly as fun.
  2. Air pressure was the scientific principle behind pretty much everything in the first couple seasons. Pressure and fluids have been a particular engineering interest of mine. I don't know whether this is directly because of Beakman's World, or if it's just a coincidence. Regardless, pressure is cool. It makes airplanes fly, rockets launch, and bombs explode.
  3. The relentless sound effects may have contributed subliminally to my love of sounds today.
  4. I did not understand at age 7 that the name "Professor I.M. Boring" was hilarious.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lady Gaga

The post below is a comment that I posted on my friend Luke's blog, in response to a post in which he confessed to liking Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance".

I have recently gone through this same phase of shame for liking Lady Gaga, but the song that snared me was Paparazzi. However, I have actually pushed through my shame and have come to embrace Lady Gaga and all her ridiculousness, and here's why:

Unlike so many of the other pop divas that have been hyped and marketed to the status of supercelebrity, I think that Stefani Germanotta (if not her Lady Gaga character) actually has some brains. First, she writes her own songs, which, superficial and overproduced as they may be, are actually carefully and cleverly crafted. Second, she has not always been Lady Gaga. It's a persona. She's thought about the Lady Gaga songs that she's written, and has designed a character to be the perfect subject for those songs. How much of this character has been created by her, and how much has been engineered by her managers? I'm not sure. I'd like to think that she is the sole creative force, but I'm sure that's not true.

Regardless, she has now become Lady Gaga not only on the stage, but in all facets of her public life. And that is what is most intriguing to me. I can think of three possible explanations for her transformation. 1: She has always been the fame addict that she portrays in her music. This celebrity status is where she always hoped her music career would lead. 2: Lady Gaga began as a joke, an experiment, but she has enjoyed her success so much that she has now embraced the lifestyle that she once lampooned. 3: Stefani Germanotta is still in the middle of creating a years-long piece of performance art: a satire of the United States' culture of celebrity worship.

I hope (and believe) that explanation number three is the correct one. Will anyone ever know for sure? I doubt it. Until I find out, I'll enjoy her distilled 180 proof pop, knowing that she has at least a spark of creative talent, and that she has not simply been chosen, engineered, and spoon-fed to me by a money-greedy record industry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Watch out, it's gonna get nerdy.

Let's do a little thought experiment.

Imagine writing down every number in the universe that you could find – the height of every building on earth, the weight of every molecule, the size of every object in space, the number of songs in every person's iTunes library – every number you can possibly imagine that represents something in the real world. You write each number down on a strip of paper, and you put all those pieces of paper into a giant bag (Santa size). You shake up the bag, mix all the numbers up really well, and start to pull them out, one by one...

12,756 - diameter of the earth in kilometers
6 - length of a large fire ant in millimeters
496.4 - molar mass of red 40 dye

Assuming you cut all the pieces of paper the same size, what are the chances that the next number you pull out will start with 1?

Well, numbers can't start with zero. That leaves 9 digits, so you'd probably guess that it's a 1 in 9 chance, or about 11%. The same as your chance of drawing a number that starts with 6, or 9, or 4, or any other digit, right?


Your chance of drawing a number that starts with 1 is about 30.1%. Your chance of drawing number that starts with 9? 4.6%.

It's true. There are probably about six times as many numbers in your bag that start with 1 as numbers that start with 9 (assuming you wrote down a really huge list of numbers and didn't accidentally pick a bunch of them that are really close together). I'm not making this up. It's called Benford's Law.

So how exactly is this possible? It doesn't seem to make any sense. Well, it has to do with the fact that there is so much stuff in the universe, distributed evenly from the very tiny to the very huge. Let's start small. Say you want to compare the height of my dog (1.5 feet) to the height of a diving board (10 feet). You could look at these numbers on a number line, like the ones you made in elementary school, like the one below.

But what if you wanted to compare the height of my dog, the height of a diving board, and height of the Sears Tower (1450 feet)? If you used a number line like the one above, with 0 on one end and 1450 on the other, it would be impossible to see the difference between the height of my dog and the height of the diving board. They'd both be right next to zero. If you want to compare the sizes of lots of things things that are really, really different (like all the numbers in the universe), you have to look at them on a line with a "logarithmic scale". I know that's a big, scary word, but don't worry about it. Here's what a logarithmic number line looks like:

Instead of the spacing being the same from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, etc, the spacing is the same from 1 to 10, 10 to 100, and 100 to 1000. It's a scale based on multiplication instead of addition. You can clearly see the differences between the height of my dog, the height of a diving board, and height of the Sears Tower all on this one short line. It turns out that the numbers in the universe are pretty evenly distributed on a number line like this one. More so than they are on the number lines you know from elementary school, because all the stuff in the universe is distributed pretty evenly from tiny molecules to huge galaxies.

Now we can see why numbers that start with 1 pop up so much more often than numbers that start with 9. Below, I've highlighted the ranges of numbers on this line that start with 1.

Here are the numbers that start with 9.

A much smaller area, right? So if the numbers in the universe are distributed evenly over this line, you're almost six times more likely to pick numbers starting with 1 than with 9. (All the other digits fall in between, so you're only very slightly more likely to pick numbers starting with 5 than with 6.)

So next time you're tempted to fudge the numbers on your tax return, remember this principle. It's possible to analyze your return, and if there are too many 7s, 8s, and 9s at the beginnings of your numbers, you could be in big trouble. No kidding. Benford's Law has been used in court.

I learned about this crazy Benford principle on Radiolab, a co-production of WNYC and NPR. It's a really, really good podcast that makes science fun again. Go check it out. "Numbers" and "Parasites" are two of my favorite episodes.

More fun with logarithms.