Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Hacking Days!

A case of bronchitis has me housebound and seriously burning up with cabin fever. So I'm expanding my computer skills a little. Somebody told me GIMP (GUI manipulation program) could be used to make animated gifs.

With help from a fellow blogger, I also figured out why Blogger wouldn't animate the gifs. Apparently, blogger copies and displays a trimmed version of the picture, not the original. The solution was to link to the picture instead. I opened a photobucket album.

Once I was all set to blog, I needed a better demo. This picture Smiley toon bear face with compulsive lip-licking
took me around 15 seconds to create this from two pre-existing pictures, including flipping one into its mirror image with GIMP to create a third image. Now you know why those annoying animations are everywhere.... grin.

Can I make the picture stop moving? Voila! Smiley toon bear face licking chops once Hmm, I have only an option between "loop forever" and a single cycle. Bites. That can't be right; I did better on Visual Basic 10 years ago.

Looks like I could always duplicate it a few times for a longer animation cycle. That would mean more memory for the same stuff, and that's a total waste of broadband. I don't like it. Time to get more GIMP-savvy and see if I can do advanced settings instead.

This is all part of my mad plan, of course. Today, a simple little licky bear face; tomorrow it shall be animated diagrams bringing Pulsating Science to a Computer Near You. Well maybe not tomorrow; but as soon as I get all sciency-bloggy again, I promise you, I'll also be GIMPy. Or something.

In the meanwhile, here's a hot review of a 71-year old guy who is a YouTube superstar for his amazing lectures/demos on physics at the Massaschusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT has open courseware of various lectures for all to enjoy. You can download them; MIT even allows you to translate them into the language of your choice, as long as you identify their source. Therefore, those videos can be copied and captioned for the benefit of the hearing-impaired.

I understand various video editing softwares can make captioning relatively simple, but I'm not very savvy on video editing-- yet. Google has some information here, as well as instructions for how to subtitle your google video uploads.

Unfortunately Youtube, while popular, still stinks at its captioning features, according to this blog's review.

So... will we have captioned MIT open courseware for the deaf soon?


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Reload that magazine for me, please...

I grew up subscribing to science magazines. The idea of reading fiction in magazines was alien to me, except for the usual "ELVIS FATHERED MY 3-HEADED ALIEN BABY!" titles that I inched away from in the supermarkets.

Now, I'm looking to broaden my magazine tastes. Enter the internet-- many magazines have websites with covers, table of contents, and samples of their issues. So I went a-browsing, and I turned up two gems thus far.

One is Image magazine, which advertises itself as "art, faith, and mystery". It's challenging to pigeonhole what it IS. But I found some good stuff in it, such as this poignant essay, "The Fifth Chair" by Mary Swander. Still, I don't always want serious reading.

This poem was a nice change and very hip.

I also found this blog which discusses writing as a form of healing. Very interesting!

To that article, I would add that writers should never forget to take their daily dose of laughter while writing for therapy, as well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

O Midsummer!

As benefits a good gnome, I have been trying to master the rudiments of knitting. I just got shown the basic "casting on" stitch around 50 times before I finally realized I kept doing some moves in the opposite direction than I should. Who would have guessed I have knitting dyslexia? Ah well. It's safer to be confused on up and down when knitting than when flying.

I'll eventually learn knitting somehow and then watch those needles smoke... and if I don't, these needles will DEFINITELY go up in smoke.

I was told that in ye old gnomish pioneering days, when sheep were more plentiful than clothes stores, that every gnomelet would be expected to practice knitting for 2 hours an evening until they either poked their eyes out with needles or got that Phygrian cap just right. I guess it was prehistoric Nintendo.

Nowadays they're thinking kids don't know how to go outside anymore-- thanks to the siren song of the computer. Someday we'll MAKE computers be good camping buddies and have tactile interfaces to teach us to knit and start fires, In the meanwhile I say pack those spoiled brats off to camp-- you know, no e-mail, no cell phones, and all.

Until then, I'll keep unhooking myself from cyberlife to enjoy the Great Outdoors with Wilbrodog.

I live in an area with some risk of Lyme disease if you get bit by deer ticks. I've caught 2 crawling up my arm and removed them before they could bite. Just a word of warning, try not to handle ticks directly. Even if lyme disease is not epidemic in your area, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and other tick-borne diseases may exist instead. Vaccines are being worked on for those.

But heck, life isn't meant to be safe-- it's meant to be lived. Just pay attention to any hitchhikers on you and your pets that are NOT carrying towels.

Otherwise, I like this place in summer a lot. Today, at the summer solistice, the sun rises shortly after 5 AM and sets at around 9:30 PM. Now that's what I call a LONG day-- more than 16 hours of sunshine!

And it's time for me to unplug and go and enjoy me this midsummer day. I am not allowed to indulge the gnomish rituals of midsummer, but here are some ideas for celebrating the outdoors.

Don't forget to take your knitting along.

-- Wilbrod the Gnome

BTW, hope you like the updated pic of me to the side. Spiffy for a gnome, eh?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reeling, Writhing and Fainting in Coils... in Sign?

... As Lewis Carroll wrote, the Mock Turtle Academy teaches those three subjects, as well as the major branches of Arithmetics-- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision. My childhood is long past, yet I still smile at those puns.

Play with words helps learning. Interestingly, pretend play can help with the development of reading skills. This link is about as readable as mud, but the bottom line is, imaginative play helps develop the language skills needed for reading.

Daily, we find it easier to rely on environmental cues to communicate just what "give me that" means. But the rules in pretend games are different! You must communicate more clearly-- "give me the glass of lemonade you have in your hand." The ability to construct a story is also very important for reading.

Studies on language and our short-term memory indicates we only have so much memory for a chain of nonsense words-- from a low of 3 to a best of 7 on average. We need to chunk words and ideas into bigger concepts that we then memorize in order. By this chunking process, a person can memorize Pi to ten thousand digits, as a series of phone numbers, whatever... and then on demand, reel it all out. Amazing! That's REAL reeling.

When a child is struggling with reading words, the words themselves first need to make sense, then the child must be able to recognize chunks. The whole sentence needs to be understood, too, and the understanding comes from building a mental storyline in your head of the sentence.

Man bites dog. (Latin: Canem homo mordit)
Dog bites man. (Latin: Canis homem mordit)

Read right, these sentences give very different ideas of what's happening. Here's the question: how does the reader or language speaker learn to recognize the difference between the two sentences? No 2-year old endures daily language drills to learn grammar.

Instead, kids learn by example, repetition, looking for patterns. And they often get it wrong now and then on the way as they learn language.

By age 3-6, a child will start doing wordplay such as:
Rhymes: recognizing how words sound
Tongue-twisters: pronouncing similar words
Jokes based on simple puns
Repetition of words in songs, especially culmulative songs

Culmulative songs especially may test and develop memory strongly.

When kids begin reading, they can be introduced to wordplay on paper-- rebuses, "wacky words", which can help teach idiomatic language. This of course is the timetable for children growing up with spoken languages.

The pattern with sign language is slightly different. Kids can learn to sign clearly quicker than for speech, but will otherwise develop grammatically on a schedule similar to hearing children.

Older kids may do the following games in American sign language (ASL):
ABC or number stories, using different handshapes-- like acrostics in English.
Bilingual word play== "I understand" (I STAND (under))
Play on mistranslation of homonyms-- RIGHT as (correct, righthand, legal rights)

There are not many "finger-twisters" told using the same hand signs, as they are easier in ASL.

My personal favorite example of a true finger-twister is: "Silly yellow dutch pipe cow phone." This will truly make your wrist writhe as you spell it.

Another type of finger-twister may occurwhen the signer attempts to sign two different simple words at the same time, such as DOG/CAT... and then try and speed it up to normal fingerspelling levels. This will make your mind reel-- as it's impossible without a lobotomy.

Another game in sign language might be "Mirror sign" in which two hands will fingerspell or do signs in unison, facing each other, as in a mirror. This is easy to sign, but challenging for others to read.

And of course, ASL signers can do visual word play in English by moving their hands as they fingerspell. Many "loan words" in ASL incorporate movement.

A simple example: "B-a-c-k" is often signed rapidly as "B-ck" and the direction of movement will show the meaning-- "back to me", "back to you", etc.

Many ASL signers spontaneously show diacritical marks (`' ~^ over letters) by moving the letters they are fingerspelling.

Therefore an ô will bounce, an ì will slope downwards, an Ä will be signed "A " rapidly followed by a crooked V stabbing the dots over it. An Ç will be a C moving down in a short J.

Apostrophes such as in "C'est" will be spelled as a twisting C followed by EST as the C handshape is used to paint the apostrophe. The exception may be for "O'" in Irish names where the O may move in a circle before moving to the next letter.

Compared to painting French punctuation in the air while spelling the words, "FAINTING" in coils is easy.

Now you can see why I enjoy Lewis Carroll.

I am curious, though-- where are the memory games in sign language? There is no precise parallel to culmulative songs in ASL. Echolalia does not count. But now I think of it, culmulative songs could be done in turn, with each new signer contributing a verse in logical order.

This makes it similar to an ASL-story around, also known as a round-robin story. This does test listening memory and the ability to keep a story going.  Many people can tell you that inventing, memorizing, and performing an ABC story is indeed challenging to the memory.

Round robin stories were in fashion among educated Victorians during the 19th century, when ASL had its strongest development period before the Milan Congress in 1880.

However, among hearing people, culmative songs can be played even further as a memory game if the person is required to repeat what others have already said before adding a new verse.

I have not seen a ASL Round-robin story played this way. I would be interested to know if anybody has in fact played a round-robin story like this.  I doubt it.

I think I have seen ABC stories done like a culmative song, as one narrator gets stuck on an letter and another child repeats the ABC story and tries to devise a new letter.

What are your favorite word games from a child?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Gesturing with your voice?

Scientists are unearthing "verbal gestures"-- changes in pitch, speed that help convey emotion and also movement. Also, a deep voice helps with for male hierarchy stuff, like dominance. If you sound big, you probably ARE big.

Also, vision and sound may work together very closely. Although, after reading this article, I must comment that anybody who can't find rhythm in dancing even with the sound off probably is so tone-deaf they can't keep time.

The subject of sound playing a role in animal communication is a fascinating subject, and I recommend "Animal Talk" by Tim Friend which covers sound, vision, electric signals, touch, smell, etc. It is a wonderful effort to condense the research for the lay public. I had so many questions after reading about acoustic communication.
For instance, the clicker is promoted as a "neutral" sound for dog training but I always doubted this, just from watching how my mom reacted to my playing with a cricket-type clicker once (she nearly strangled me). The information Tim Friend covers about short, sharp and abrupt sounds strongly supports my doubts that the clicker is that "neutral" to the ears.

I'm now reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and I'm finding it really interesting reading; Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and he covers all the facets of music, including hearing music, hallucinating music, so he also covers a lot about deafness (and not just Beethoven). It seems many late-deafened deaf people often hallucinate music as their hearing goes. He also covers how partial hearing loss can affect enjoyment of music. And for the normal-eared folks, an overview of tune cooties or earworms is interesting, although perhaps not quite what some readers were expecting.
Oliver Sacks tends to think this is primarily music-oriented although he mentions poetry can sometimes do the same effect. This research indicates though, that the lyrics are often the focus of why the tune cootie sticks in the mind. I know myself I can wake up with a silly phrase I read somewhere stuck in my head; often poetic or just unusual in its phrasing.

Oliver Sacks talks about how music seems unreleated to the real world.

Ah, Tim Friend would disagree; he writes at length in his "Animal Talk" about how animals in dense forest use sound to communicate, find food, and even orient themselves-- every inch of forest can sound uniquely different because of the different mix of plants, and he points out that orchestral music may mimic the complex chorus of the rainforest. If you want to know the true origins of music's appeal, Tim Friend's book is it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Jet man soarin' over the Alps

Apparently manned, winged flight without the use of wheels, tails, and body has been accomplished by the Swiss Jet Man.

If you don't understand French, then instead just look at this video at YouTube. Here is a news release on this flight in Bex, Switzerland .

Some of us would think more of the Jetsons with these cartoon jetpacks, rather than Icarus. Jet packs to propel humans have been worked on since WWII. But these lacked wings.

First off, I'm pretty impressed by this man's guts, and I'm also very glad I don't have to see those guts splattered on video as well. But then, Yves Rossy has had Top Gun military pilot training in Switzerland. Given how small Switzerland is, it's tough work flying inside their air space, so you know he has to be GOOD.

Let's analyze all the factors in why he's not a smear on the ground or plastered on a mountainside like Wiley E. Coyote. It's not just having "The Right Stuff" and good aerodynamics. Remember, the human body is NOT designed for flight.

The most important thing: the landing. For his first flight, he plays it smart. He launches off an airplane so he has time to get everything working. Second, he wears a parachute in case things go wrong. Very sensible. He uses it to help brake for a safe landing without dropping like a rock. You can still see that he has to bend his legs considerably on the landing.

That must take skydiving practice. However this still looks like a good way to bust a leg if you don't extend your landing gear correctly; although who knows, properly designed crutches may turn out to be great landing gear after all.

Right now, most of us plebian fliers would have to make do with barf bags as parachutes in case of engine malfunction, so I'm somewhat jealous. Shoot, I want a 'chute next time I fly.

One downside that I see-- those wings are like chopped red toy airplane wings from an airplane ride, they wouldn't give even a fifth of the lift of a hang glider, no way. So, the jets are what keep him in the sky. That means a lot of acceleration. And speed. In fact, his cruising speed was 115 MPH-- very respectable. Small airplanes have a maximum cruising speed of roughly 120-200 MPH to my knowledge.

So, just thinking about that speed, you want to be wearing an overall, not any kind of clothing held up by waistbands or belts alone. In fact, he's wearing a flight outfit with gloves and all.

As you may know, air gets colder the further you go up-- adibatic cooling. In the video, you can see the Alps have scanty snow, suggesting it might be close to the freezing point. Now, add a 115 MPH (or so) wind chill to that, and you definitely would not want to streak across the sky like a streaking nude.

Clouds, being icy water vapor and dust also make very chilly clothing for the accidental aeronautic ecdysiast. There will never be a Mile-High Club on winged jet packs, then. For which we must be grateful.

I will also add that ice easily forms on wings, which can lead to crashing. For this reason, he probably also made the decision to avoid flying through clouds.

Yves aborted his flight shortly after encountering turbulence. Now, imagine turbulence on the unprotected human body. Turbulence is basically felt as irregular forces, experienced as a "bumpy ride" on a plane. Even if the "bumps" weren't hard enough to cause bruises, they can cause blood pressure changes in different parts of the body. Combine that with the vibration from the jet packs, and you could have a bad case of airsick even for the toughest pilots.

And who wants to be airsick in a helmet and splatter your visor when you're the only one flying the blasted thing? Or worse, knock yourself upside down or sideways before or AFTER you throw up?

Studies have shown that even the best pilots can't really judge if they're completely right way up by feel alone or their vestibular system without being able to see the horizon or use instruments-- and that's before any airsickness going on.

An experienced pilot always knows his limits. We hope.

After all, common sense says this has to be more dangerous than hang gliding.

Other than that, it appears he has two ways to control this jet pack: One, he can change his center of gravity by moving his legs and body up and down, and two, he can manipulate the the flaps on his wings to create drag and turn the aircraft, That must be really cool. It's much more like what a bird can do, but not quite-- more wing control and flexibility is called for.

Yves Rossy has done an amazing thing in doing what he did. However, I hope he will go back to the drawing board for his wings and perhaps add aerodynamic body armor of some sorts. But he's probably happy he got it done on whatever budget he had. And lived with both legs intact.

I admit, I hope the next model will be painted black and yellow and called "The Bumblebee" in French.

- Wilbrod the Gnome.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Boyd's Last Briefing

An amateur military historian showed me this link to Boyd's last briefing, a presentation made by the military strategist Col. John Boyd of the U.S. Air Force. This concise briefing covers warfare strategy from ancient times through WWII.

Byrd also introduces the "Observe, Orient, Decide, Action time" loop that is key to the enemy's response to any strategy. It is worthwhile reading by anybody interested in military history in any era, whether the war was well-fought or not.

Interestingly, he combined concepts from physics and mathematics as axioms-- entropy, uncertainty, etc. He helped design the tactics for the First Gulf War, which lead to the mass surrender of the Iraqi army.

He also used a concept of natural selection which is not well explained, but goes to the basic need for survival and the drive to keep as many chances to survive open, from food acquistion, trust of others, etc. "Natural selection" has often acquired an idiomatic cultural meaning that is totally distinct from the Darwinistic sense.

Perhaps "The Red Queen's Race" is more apt. That every survival strategy is always in a race against opposing strategies is indeniable. Any kind of survival strategy must be flexible, ever-changing, and never stationary or it will be exploited by disease, predators, etc. (This concept also recurred in a popular motivational book called "Who moved my cheese?", which is kind of... cheesy.)

Boyd approaches war strategy as survival strategy, period. The enemy must never have time to adapt to the opposing strategy. The enemy must be demoralized and ready to surrender rather than fight you. Resistance must not continually breed itself from the resentment of the people. That is the surest way.

This 1976 paper lays out his concepts of the laws of nature as applied to war. Everything destroys itself in part or in whole to re-create itself. Nothing is fixed and certain. They cannot be, by the laws of physics. Couched in the language of math and physics, it still sounds Taoistic. This makes me wonder if Col. Boyd had read the "Tao of Physics". Certainly he would have been aware of this book as it was written in 1975 and became a bestseller. He would have wanted to explore the connection between Taoism and Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Dawkins once spoke of cultural ideas as "genes" which he called memes, which mutate and adapt as they spread, and are subject to pressures from the real world, as well. Boyd's last Briefing is a nice example of the memes of war, but what interests me even more is how he incorporates memes from so many sources in his analysis.

When tracking down those memes, I also learned about Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who had a Tao-like philosophy and who directly influenced Socrates and Plato. His comments have become memes, as well. "Everything flows." "You can't step in the same river twice."

Boyd's take-home message: Adapt, never hold still, fight the enemy that exists, not the enemy you wish you had. Holding the course and using predictable tactics will lead to failure.

We shouldn't ignore the guy who did help engineer a victory in Iraq last time.

-- Wilbrod the Gnome ---

Friday, January 05, 2007

I must go down to the seas methane the smelly lake in the sky
All I ask is a small ship
and a star to steer her by
And the beans' kick and the wind's song
and the belly's shaking,
And an odd mist out of my space
and a grey jet breaking.

I must go down to the seas methane,
for the call of the flowing stink
Is a wild call and a clear call
that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day
with Titan's clouds flying,
And the bung spray and the blown fume,
and the ship-jets crying.

I must go down to the seas methane
to the vagrant Titan life,
To the fuels gay and siren's way
where the wind's like a whiffy wife;
And all I ask is for some beano
from a gagging fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream
when the long rumble's done."

-- "Sea Flatus", by John Methansfield (original poem here)

Sometimes science news writers sure mangle the point of a discovery.
Take this piece on the discovery of lakes of methane on Titan.    Methane is CH4, a simple hydrocarbon and a stinky gas produced by the decomposition of organic compounds-- not to be confused with crystal meth.  The "point?" The methane lakes of Titan (catchy title) proves that Titan is earth-like. Yeah, I do the backstroke in my favorite methane lake every morning.

"I love the smell of methane in the morning." -- Full Metal Spacesuit

The reporter couldn't simply explain that it proves our models about the chemistry of methane on Titan, and may support some new ideas of methane production on Earth as well. This article explains it a little more.

But this misses the point: why we SHOULD care. Ever heard of giving a little background, guys, for those of us who don't subscribe to Methane Quarterly to find the latest centerfolds of sexy methane sources?

A boy's awareness of methane normally proceeds like this: one, methane in a fart is what will turn a flame blue. Two, cows burp and fart methane too. Very hilarious. Three... um. It's a long way to Titan methane from this rudimentary foundation.
The OFFICAL scientific interest in methane, chemical formula CH4, is because it has a certain odium on Earth as a greenhouse gas. Methane, aka "natural gas" also makes a handy fuel for cooking, heating. It is the simplest hydrocarbon (CH4)-- just one carbon atom with 4 hydrogen atoms around it. As a result, it is often released by any kind of chemical process breaking down larger hydrocarbons without oxygen involved.

Methane is not as stable as water, though; methane quickly gets converted to other molecules. Yet if you put carbon dioxide and hydrogen together, they will react to produce methane and water.  
Earthly life, being wet and carbon-based, thus has endless methane-producing reactions. Still. Titan and methane? There are no Congressmen on Titan. Nor are there rice paddies, burping 'n' tooting cows, or human pollution to form methane.
So, physical scientists have looked at Titan and other methane hotspots in the solar system and came to this staggering conclusion--"By crikey, the Earth must pass gas without the aid of life somehow!"

Suddenly, geologists are hot to know if natural gas might be trapped in the earth's crust. That could mean a LOT more fuel to burn when petroleum has had its heyday, and maybe our gas heating bills will finally go down. This article discusses methane in the earth's mantle.

It is still the general belief that methane comes mostly from life on Earth. Rice plants have been caught exuding methane (but they didn't inhale) when young and alive. Decomposing plants produce that famous swamp gas stink, too. Bacteria make methane, too. And there always is the good old cow, a regular bacterial factory.
One scientist is exploiting the bovine methane angle by "Gobar" (cowdung) gas research in Northern India. Hmm, wonder if you get to share the livestock when you buy the stock shares?
Ah, enough gassing for now.

--Wilbrod the Gnome--