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Lego Robots

Two large projection screens show close up Lego robot action on the tables set up in the foreground.Watching a bunch of elementary and middle schoolers compete in the FIRST Washington Lego Robotics “Animal Allies” Seattle Semifinals, hosted by Amazon. Some cool obstacles/challenges!

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Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth
Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth by Trevor Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked this one out from the library at work. It’s a basic collection of science anecdotes, mostly from the Enlightenment period up through WWII. The author is a British marine biologist, so most of the scientists mentioned are British, and the modern-day stories in particular naturally focus on the author’s mostly British contemporaries in the marine sciences.

One fairly clear agenda that the author has is wanting to recognize various scientists who made major “home front” contributions during WWI and especially WWII, often risking their lives to develop all sorts of non-weapon technologies necessary for the war effort, such as bomb disposal and submarine escape hatches. Many of them were Quaker conscientious objectors, and received no medals or official recognition of some of the dangerous experiments they performed on themselves to save lives on the battlefield.

There are a number of gross-out moments, mostly related to the symptoms of various terrible things either self-inflicted or applied to the public due to bad science.

I suspect there are fewer post-war anecdotes thanks largely to the standardization of experimental procedures with regards to informed consent and other protections for test subjects. Overall interesting, but not engrossing (as evidenced by it sitting on my shelf half-read for a few months).

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Connections at the MIT Museum

Today I took my Little Brother Patrick to the MIT Museum near Central Square. I had seen a blurb on their website about an exhibit on social media, and I wanted to check it out (and, since it was billed as interactive, I thought he would enjoy it as well, even though he’s 11).

The exhibit, Connections, features a number of interactive art and technology installations from MIT’s Sociable Media Group. I took a few mediocre iPhone pictures of some of the displays, all of which were very interesting. I love the cool stuff that arises when art and technology collide.

The first thing you see when you walk into the museum right now is the piece Metropath(ologies), which consists of several projectors some big white pillars, plus some speakers, a camera, and several screens. Technically, the first thing you see is the disclaimer that your image and voice may be recorded when interacting with the piece, but I think that’s really cool.



Twitter word clouds projected onto the white pillars of the Metropath(ologies) installation at the MIT Museum, with a visitor moving among them.

Twitter word clouds projected onto white pillars, with a visitor moving among them.

They also have some interesting ways of some Twitter (and other?) feeds; based on the posts they’re from about 2 weeks ago, not live, but I’m not sure what kind of harvesting they do to produce the visualization. As part of another piece, Lexigraphs I, they also have some stylized views of personal word clouds.


3-D visualization of Twitter posts from a few weeks ago

3-D visualization of Twitter posts from a few weeks ago


Person-shaped Twitter word cloud

Person-shaped Twitter word cloud

One of the other Data Portraits was the piece Themail, which gives a timeline word cloud of personal e-mail correspondence between three close individuals. I have e-mail archives going back a long time, I’d be interested in seeing what these look like over time; aggregated they’d just be a roughly Zipfian distribution of English, but presumably there’d be visible spikes as certain topics came and went.


Timelines for three individuals e-mail accounts over 3+ years

Timelines for three individual's e-mail accounts over 3+ years

Finally, there was a live display of data from the Mycrocosm service, of which I couldn’t get a reasonable picture. It seems to be very similar in concept to the tool Daytum, which I started using several weeks ago. The big difference is that MIT is explicitly wanting to study your usage patterns of the Mycrocosm service, and Daytum has a nice Twitter DM method for submitting data items while mobile.

The exhibit is up through September 13th, 2009, so there’s plenty of time to check it out. There are admissions discounts for students, but it’s free if you’re a Big Brother (or Big Sister) there with your Little :oP.




You can click any of the images above to view a larger version, or see the entire (small) gallery.

Posted in Reviews, Social Media Tagged with: , , , , ,

Genesis and Science

This morning at University Lutheran, in our weekly Morning Forum, we had a discussion of the interaction between the law (specifically, the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution) and the teaching of science (specifically, evolution in the classroom). The discussion was led by Tara Grove, Climenko Fellow Lecturer on Law from Harvard Law School, and Sasha Keyel, Provost Fellow in Biology from Tufts University.

They both did a great job presenting the issues in a Christian context, with Tara focusing on past case law from the Scopes Trial to Kitzmiller v. Dover and Sasha discussing the scientific method and evidence supporting the theory of evolution, such as the phylogenetic development of feathers in dinosaurs. There are few people that I know who get as excited about case law and science when speaking as Tara and Sasha :oD. After their initial presentation, the forum opened up for discussion, with various members of the congregation joining in with questions.

One of the most interesting comments was from Dr. Helmut Koester, Professor of Divinity (Emeritus) at Harvard Divinity School. I am paraphrasing as best I can from memory, as I didn’t think to record the discussion:

The account in Genesis 1 is in some ways a scientific document from 2,500 years ago. It was an attempt to demythologize the natural world: the sun is not a god, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the day; the moon is not a goddess, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the night. Similarly, it says that there is an order to the animals: things that fly, things that swim, things that walk on two legs, on four, and so on. We shouldn’t see it as an opponent of science; it was part of the demythologizing at the advent of monotheism.

It’s a viewpoint I hadn’t considered exactly before. I recall when I was preparing a statement of faith for confirmation, about 10 years ago now (!), that I made a point along these lines: the theory of evolution is not incompatible with the creation story, because the Genesis story (at least, for a non-literalist like myself) merely reflects the best scientific understanding of the nature of the world at the time the story was written down. I do not believe that it is impossible to see science as the “how” and God as the “why” of the Universe.

Darwin, even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, remains at the center of a legal and cultural battle, at least in the United States. I love that UniLu is a religious community that has open and heartfelt discussions on issues like this, especially when the focus is on the side of science, which is all to often ignored or rejected (selectively, it seems) by many American Christians. I hope to see a lot of debate in this area this year as Darwin’s birthday is celebrated.

Posted in Opinion Tagged with: , , , , ,

Vortex Cannon


I generally do Big Brother on Saturday afternoons from about 2 to 6 at Patrick’s house near Central Square. Sometimes we go out for a museum (a trip to the Museum of Science is likely next week), or a movie, but this week I didn’t have any ideas. Patrick had previously showed me some YouTube videos of  water balls, and we’ve done “kitchen science” before, so I was looking into that this morning… but it looked like the listed materials would be hard to obtain, and a number of comments claimed that the video was fake. However, in the related videos, I stumbled across this page on vortex cannons, and decided that would make a fun quick activity. Unfortunately, because I’m an idiot, I didn’t take any pictures >.<.


Due to the supplies at hand, we had to use a slightly different procedure, but the visual effect was pretty impressive.

  • One (1) 1-liter plastic bottle, empty and dry
  • One (1) tea candle target
  • One (1) fog machine
  • Matches (or some other candle-lighting device)
  • A room with still air


We found two techniques worked pretty well, but produced very different results. One, when combined with the fog machine, allowed us to really visualize what was happen, and gave me the opportunity to explain some of the science to Patrick; the other actually put the candle out.

We first tried it without the fog machine, but couldn’t get the candle to blow out; it turned out that our aim was a bit off. The chemical fog stuff (part of an old Halloween setup) allowed us to actually see and aim the smoke rings, and see the vortices forming.

Grabbing the bottle with both hands and squeezing in a quick pulse produces a large, slow-moving smoke ring, with a long-lasting vortex that you can watch stretch as the ring expands. If you squeeze too hard, you just get a turbulent puff; too soft and you get nothing. It takes some trial and error. While these were nifty to look at, they couldn’t put out the candle, even from only a few centimeters away.

I found tapping one side of the bottle with just two fingertips, very firmly, produced a small but fast burst that formed a very fast-moving smoke ring. You could barely tell it was a ring at that speed. They moved fairly straight (as opposed to the slower-moving rings that tended to drift a bit), but were a bit touchy to aim. Once you connected with the candle flame, it went right out, without any guttering as you would see when trying to blow it out manually. We were able to successfully put the candle out at about a meter.


This was a very fun demonstration, and only took a few minutes to set up. It also requires no cleanup, and you can hypothetically sneak up on your little sister and blow smoke rings at her. Not that I would encourage that sort of sibling mischief…

One thing I needed was a concrete example of why this is important science, and not just a toy demonstration. It’s hard to explain fluid dynamics to a ten year old. Patrick enjoyed it as a project, though.

Posted in How-Tos Tagged with: , ,

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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