Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday photo

Burton Memorial Tower, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 2011

Marion Leroy Burton served as the University of Michigan president from 1920-1925, and he had a dream. He wanted a bell tower. The University Library had contained a clock tower with chimes, which rang at 8:00 am and 6:00 pm to mark the beginning and ending of study time - kind of a cross between the bells of a monastery and a factory whistle - but the library was torn down in 1917* and now there were no bells. Burton wanted bells. In a tower.

He thought he had a good plan to sell the idea: it would be a memorial to the UM alumni who had perished in the Great War. But somehow, he couldn't drum up enough interest and the idea languished. And then ... Burton died. He had been only fifty years old and folks wanted to do something in his memory.

So Burton got his tower. With bells, an entire carillon, in fact. And it was a memorial, as he had proposed. I don't suppose he intended himself as the honoree, but that's why they call it irony.

It also shows what it takes to earn a building at UM. Meeting your demise during the greatest war the world had ever known is not sufficient. Were you to cure cancer, invent a cheap and abundant source of energy, bring peace to the Middle East, end world hunger, or discover an alien civilization, it wouldn't be enough to get a building named for you. You have to have been president of the University. Or else pay for it yourself.

As a side note, this also happens to be the first Friday photo from my new camera, a Canon SX30IS. It has a ridiculous 35x zoom capability, but I'm really more excited about its wide angle capacity. My previous digital cameras have had very little in that department and near-far composition has almost disappeared from my repertoire.

* And replaced with a new one, no worries

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday photo: hot water, cold air

Grotto Geyser. Yellowstone National Park, December 2002

Last Monday it was so warm that it rained, but now it's turned cold again and we're not expected to reach 20° over the weekend. So here's some cold weather fun.

Geysers are at their best on a cold winter's day, when the hot water turns into volleys of little ice rockets, each at the end of its personal vapor trail, as you see above. It's a simple matter of surface area:mass ratio -- lots of little drops will freeze or evaporate faster than one large body of water because more surface is exposed to the air. It happens so fast that most of the water evaporates and the remainder freezes before it can ever hit the ground.

I don't understand why hot water evaporates quicker in cold air than warm air. You'd think it would be easy to discover, what with this awesome new intertubes thingy, but no. I haven't found anyone who explains it directly. So here's my best guess: since transitioning between water and vapor requires energy, evaporation happens easier when more energy is transferring between the water and the air, which happens faster when there's a greater difference between water and air temperature. So T(water) - T(air) = k*Evaporation rate.

That might be totally wrong. Maybe it's all about the humidity. We all know that cold air is drier than warm air, so maybe that's the major reason why the geyser basins so fill up with steam on colder days - because the air is drier, not because it's colder. That's certainly a factor, but I'd be surprised if it's a large one.

I posted this photo is a response to this great video which is getting a lot of attention this week. Yellowknife is only 4° south of the Arctic Circle and they expect a high of -27° F. today, which is quite a bit colder than it was the day I took my photo above. The evaporation is wickedly dramatic:

Not even a hat or gloves. Now that's a Canadian.

Video via Daily Dish

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I dunno, it sounded good

At Oh, For Goodness Sake, a perpetual roundup of all things Birther, another hilarious example of amateur lawyering:



OFGS sums it up pithily: "Court records being public records, except in extremely limited circumstances, there are no rights to reserve."

It's not uncommon for people to have no clue what copyright law is about, but in this case I wouldn't be surprised if these poor slobs didn't even know they were referencing copyright law.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Zuckerberg's brave new world

Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care what you think, so long as you keep giving him your private information. Everyone knows that, but it's still interesting to hear him say so himself.

Talking in San Francisco over the weekend at the Crunchie Awards, which recognise technological achievements, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

He went on to say that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’ and had just evolved over time.

I suppose my opinion doesn't count, since I'm way over 40 and out of touch with the hip new privacy-scorning generation. They don't think like me. Although, truth be told, some of them might come around to my way of thinking after learning of their ways. There have always been things you can do and say among close friends that you can't get away with in public and it's an almost unfathomable leap of utopianism to imagine that will change in one generation. Strangers are happy to rush to judgment based on scanty information; always did, always will.

Those pesky social norms exists for reasons; oftentimes bad reasons, but reasons nonetheless. Zuckerberg doesn't realize that. He sees privacy as just some random fad that some previous generation latched onto for no apparent reason, and that the present generation will discard with no regrets. Since privacy also happens to be a nuisance and impediment to his business model, I'm sure he feels no great incentive to inquire further. He just wants privacy concerns and the squares who value them to fade away into that long good night - or better yet, blink out immediately.

But there are good reasons for valuing privacy. Most of us don't live in tiny little communities where we've known everyone we meet for all of our lives. Instead, we often need to appeal to strangers, strangers who don't know our good qualities and might not spend the time to look past our faults. Hiding your shortcomings and missteps becomes a valuable strategy and failing to do so can really mess with your social life and job prospects. That's where Zuckerberg's analysis* fails: he thinks people will abandon privacy without asking whether or not it is becoming safe for them to do so. The current evidence from employers suggests that it is not. It's the latter norm - the willingness of total strangers to form negative opinions about you, given half a chance - that makes privacy so necessary.

The enlarged world of the internet only exacerbates that problem; you can lose even the chance to put your best foot forward. There are costs to being anonymous, but there are also costs to being too open, and protecting one's privacy - especially retaining the power to determine what you will keep private - is a necessary strategy for balancing those costs. The value of privacy won't change until the cost of being too revealing goes down, where you can expect to encounter generous-minded people who look only for the best in you. And that, I'm afraid, will require a vastly more far-reaching change in human behavior than even Zuckerberg imagines. Brave new world, indeed.

* To the extent that he's truly analyzed privacy concerns; I might be a tad generous using that word in this context.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Greatest prank ever

I should have posted this one for the Rose Bowl game two weeks ago, but better late than never. Here is the greatest prank in the entire history of the planet, or at least that portion of history that's come to my attention, which surely must amount to nearly the same thing. You almost wish the word pwned had existed then.

Anyway, read about the great Rose Bowl prank of 1961, when fourteen Cal Tech students stole the plans to the University of Washington's proud flip card routine, and offered a few improvements of their own.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday photo

Relaxing bison bull. Nez Perce Creek, Yellowstone National Park, September 2001.

Relaxation made flesh. Once you've packed on the extra hundreds of pounds and are just waiting around for winter, that's how it goes.

It was a few years earlier, at this same site, that I thought I might get killed by a bison. Nothing came of it, but for a minute I thought I was in considerable danger. I had shot a couple photos of bison, just like this one, then saw the sun going down behind the creek, so I moved up onto the bridge to take a few shots of the creek. When I finished, I turned around and found that a number of cars had stopped to look at the bison, spooked them a little, and they were all fleeing the pack of cars -- right across the bridge. The one I was standing on.

Normally, a bison has a very sedate, deliberate walk. He'll cover a surprising amount of ground in a short time, but he won't look like he's in a hurry. When a herd starts trotting and huffing and grunting, it means they're a little agitated. That's what these guys were doing and half the herd was passing right by me, blocking both ends of the bridge.

I had the option of jumping over the side and down to the creek, but it was a fifteen foot drop and the creek is too shallow to break a fall. I mean, the bottom of the creek would break your fall, not the water, which means it would hurt more. Besides, the hitherto-unaccounted-for other half of the herd was crossing the creek right below me. It looked bad.

So I turned, sat on the abutment, and waited. One particularly large fellow seemed to be headed straight for me and I braced myself for impact. Then he swerved and just hustled on by. The rest did the same.

I've seen bison tolerate an entire busload of tourists lining up five feet away for a photo; at other times, I've seen them charge people from over a hundred feet away. It's not always clear what triggers a response. Here's a video of a bison chasing tourists at Old Faithful, for unclear reasons. When the bison lies down to wallow at the end, the narrator says, "Now he's taking a nap." Not really; wallowing is what a bison does to deal with the discomfort of skin parasites and maybe this animal was already in a bad mood because of the itching.

Here is what a bison usually does: just charge the annoying people and, when they run, settle for having made his point; without language, he still manages to say "Get out of here" in unmistakable terms. Here's what happens, though, when they carry through with the attack. You don't want that to happen to you.

AP, Fairey settle over Obama poster

Almost two years ago I predicted that serial plagiarist Shepard Fairey was likely to win his defense of using an AP photograph as the basis for his famous Obama poster. And this week, my prediction ... became moot. Fairey and AP settled the case and there is no ruling.

But if I score my prediction anyway, I might have to call it a miss. Under the terms, AP will share the revenue from the poster and Fairey agrees not to use any more of their photographs without permission. That's hardly a victory for Fair Use.

I thought the poster would pass muster as a transformative use of the photograph, that the original was more of a factual than a creative work, that Fairey's use did no damage to the market for the original, and that these factors would provide a reasonable chance of success in defending his poster. Fairey must have concluded otherwise, since all this deal does for him is make the threat of larger penalties go away. AP, on the other hand, probably couldn't get a much better deal even with a clear win, so it was better to settle on these terms than to keep spending money fighting a court case.

As I said two years ago, I'm no fan of the way Fairey uses other people's work, but this was one of his less egregious borrowings and I would have preferred to see it vindicated.

PS. reminds me that Fairey sabotaged his own case when he initially lied about which photograph he had borrowed and destroyed evidence to hide that fact. I had forgotten about that and no doubt it factored into Fairey's estimation of his chances in court.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Good popcorn - you need to know this

From "Investigation of the properties influencing popcorn popping quality," Maga J.; Blach, B.; Developments in Food Science (1992), 29, 543-50:

The roles of popcorn moisture content and storage temperature prior to popping as well as popping temperature and the amount of added oil and salt on resulting popped volume and number of unpopped kernels were evaluated. Max. popped volume was in the 12.5-13.5% moisture range while the proportion of unpopped kernels increased with increasing moisture. Popped volume decreased while unpopped kernels increased with an increase in storage temperature. The addition of 2-4% oil maximized popped volume and minimized unpopped kernels. The addition of 2% salt gave the highest popped volume and the lowest amount of unpopped kernels. Optimum popping temperature was 180°.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday photo

Winter scene. Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, February 2005

Our scenery in SE Michigan isn't quite so wintry as this, but we've had snow on the ground since before Christmas and the sky is full of big fluffy flakes even as I type. Just as it should it be.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Worth the trip

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy likes to feature the photography of Thierry Legault, and why not? He's just an amazing astrophotographer. Legault is especially fond of photographing transits of the International Space Station across the face of the sun and he made a special trip to Oman to catch one of these events during the latest solar eclipse:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Clever thinking

Via The Friendly Atheist, a clever way to get someone to clear the snow off your car for you:

I may have to try this some day.

Unhappy New Year

UConn proved their critics right - they weren't good enough to merit a BCS bowl. But they may still be too good for the Big Ten.