24 July 2008

Cost of driving, per minute

Hi -

We're all fired up about $4/gal gas prices, and some of us may have an idea of how much this translates to in $/mile. But have you considered how much it's costing you per minute of car use?

Let's see. Assuming:

  • We're only talking about gas (not depreciation)
  • $/gal = $4.089/gal [1]
  • Fuel economy (name, city, hwy) = { {"Honda Accord 2002", 20, 28}, {"Toyota Prius 2008", 48, 45}, {"MINI Cooper automatic 2008", 26, 34}, {"Lamborghini Murcielago 2008", 8, 13}, {"Hummer H3 5 cyl automatic 2008", 14, 18} } [2]
  • What's "city", 35 miles/hour?
  • What's "highway", 55 miles/hour?

My 2002 Honda Accord costs me between 12 and 13 cents per minute while driving. [(4.089 * 35) / (20 * 60)]

The 2008 Toyota Prius, which is "The Most Efficient Overall" according to [2], is costing you a nickel per minute at city speeds and 8 cents/minute on the highway.

Meanwhile, the zippy MINI is around $0.10/minute, that guy with the freakish Hummer is spending around 20 cents per minute, and it looks like I need to keep my Lamborghini in the garage another summer because that would cost me about 30 cents/minute, which clearly I can't afford.

1. MSN Autos - Gas Prices near 02476 (July 24, 2008)
2. www.fueleconomy.gov


23 July 2008

What scientific discovery feels like (and music, at the end)

Hello -

If you enjoy science, engineering, or the history of science, you might check out Alan Lightman's The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs of 20th-Century Science. It's a paperback - got mine at Barnes & Noble. It's an unusual compendium of 22 discoveries chosen by Lightman, a professor at MIT, with the help of his colleagues. Unlike most watered-down science books for the popular audience, Lightman chooses to pair an intermediate-level discussion of each discovery with a reprint of the actual journal article (or two) that announced the finding.

As he explains, "There came a moment, in the spring of 2002, when I had finally gathered together the twenty-five papers that I would include in this book. I was home, in my house in Concord, and the golden forsythia were just starting to bloom. For six months I had been badgering astronomers, physicists, chemists, and biologists for nominations of the greatest discoveries in their fields in the twentieth century. The original publication of the theory of relativity. The first quantum model of the atom. The discovery of how nerves communicate with each other, the discovery of the first human hormone. [ ... ] I held the stack of twenty-five papers in my arms, a century of scientific thought. My eyes filled with tears."

I have mixed feelings about the book, but I do think it succeeded in expressing the joys of discovery. Of discovering things so far out on the edge of knowledge that they would change the course of how subsequent generations would consider topics as fundamental as light, time, and genetics. In my opinion, Lightman, with degrees from Princeton and CalTech, could in some places have done a slightly better job explaining the science. But that didn't detract from its theme of human achievement.

I've never known the feeling of discovery, of noticing or figuring out some primary element of nature. I've experienced the act of invention several times, though, a rare coming-together of elements in a new way, usually viewed through some funky angle. This book makes me want to experience invention again soon. The book makes me jealous, somehow, of these people with their careful star-measurements, their crystallography, their inverting those assumptions which are so basic as to have escaped everyone else of being assumptions in the first place.

It's also a "kick in the seat of the pants." Sure, 100 years of discovery are packed into an inch-thick book, as if Nobel Prizes are handed out like carnival favors, so I shouldn't be so hard on myself. But it's a reminder what people can achieve if they structure their efforts around a goal that they approach methodically and persistently.

So - here it is on Amazon.

Hey, what do you know, the book lets me segue into...

Another six hours in Portland, Maine
Sometimes I work best out of the office, so I threw my computers into two bags with a 2000-page instruction manual for Mathematica, and The Discoveries, which I read over my customary bangers n' colcannon lunch at Bull Feeney's. Several hours flashed by while working on some plots and graphs at Breaking New Grounds. Moved the car, went to a second cafe, and acted on Wubbahed's (and "Ted"'s, and Nathan's) suggestion that I try Duckfat. You gotta look at this menu.

Somehow it became 7 pm, so I popped into Bull Moose - every time I go to Portland, I pick out two CDs. Actual, physical, meatspace, representations-of-bits-in-plastic CDs. Radiohead's "OK Computer" [iTunes] and Squarepusher's "Hello Everything" [iTunes] I went into it genuinely wanting to enjoy both CDs, but let's say the effort's been a little more cerebral than I had hoped. Not to offend 90% of the music-listening universe, but this first experience with Radiohead sort of hits me as an excellent rhythm section with the rambly moanings of a lead singer who sounds like he had his lunch money stolen too many times. (I admit, I enjoy it a lot more after I read the lyrics. I couldn't tease out a single word without them.)

As for Squarepusher, wow!, that is one talented musician. It's an acid / jazz / electronica thing, over a frenetic drum and bass background.

"Drum and bass" you say? Yeah, electronic music in which this phrase plays at 2 zillion bpm. Here, you can hear the "Amen Break," the sample which it's derived from.

Aw, yeah. It's those third and fourth measures that gitcha'. (Click the picture if it isn't all showing.)

The rainy drive home had one of those infrequent moments of "radio synchronicity," you know, where you listen to one great song (AC/DC, "Back in Black"), and you change the station and it's another one (The Who, "Who Are You?"), and you enjoy that all the way through, and when you switch back, it's yet another (The Who, "Love Reign O'er Me"). I sound like the grumpy old-man Muppets when I say this, but most of the bands of today just don't have it like the older guys did.

Enough from me... but hey, I got some science in there, right?


ps (sigh) now I am thinking about music again.

Let's see. DJ QBert with some crazy vinyl drum "sample" action:

Some actual DRUMMING (Joe Morello):

Here's some DJ Shadow showing you another way how the sample-playback can be done.

15 July 2008

(v1.1) 15+ engineering and analysis "daemons"

I offer a collection of pointers when performing design or analysis - or, as my undergraduate advisor Peter Kindlmann might've called some of them, "daemons" or background processes. These are really basic, but they've served me well. [And... with a few more from the folks from the xkcd fora.]

1. Think something's wrong? You might actually be getting the correct results! Check your intuition or understanding of the phenomenon or the device itself.
2. Don't be fooled by the barber-pole illusion. The scrolls aren't moving upwards, the ocean waves aren't exactly moving at you quite the way you think, and... you get the point.
3. Strive for maximal component utilization across timescales - within reason.
4a. Parallelize, even if it's "embarassingly parallel." Especially when technology hasn't caught up with your idea.
4b. A related point: some initially mechanical solutions evolve towards solid state.
4c. An obvious corollary: better engineers use fewer components.
4d. The "nature-made theory": the great analog circuits are tangled, interconnected, non-modular systems.
4e. Consider a genetic algorithm.
5a. The olfactory factor: smell it.
5b. My grandfather taught me that you shouldn't touch electrical circuits, but if you can't stop yourself, use the back of your hand so that if it's high-voltage you'll involuntarily seize up away from the circuit (rather than grab it).
5c. Unrelated to design, but related to prototyping: don't look into the freaking laser light. And try waving around a business card to inspect time-varying phenomena.
6. We're prone to getting the hard stuff right, and the easy stuff wrong. So:
6a. Check the interfaces, or edges, between modules.
6b. Make sure the polarities are correct.
6c. Count the parentheses and remember the semicolons.
7. Have a complete plan before sitting down at the lab bench or keyboard. Trial-and-error mode is a symptom of poor planning and a lack of understanding of your tools.
8a. Do a literature search, but don't be constrained by it. If your invention is an invention, you won't find it in there.
8b. Can your quandry be helped by cold-calling an expert?
9a. Stuck? Pretend you're explaining it to your grandma.
9b. Stuck (but getting help)? Explain the goal, not the process.
9c. Stuck (getting an idea)? Mix three usually disconnected disciplines.
10. Envision what your hero would do in the situation.
12. Reframe the problem with broader words. E.g. not "four-wheeled vehicle with a seat and combustion engine," but "a means of conveyance."
13. Make a real effort to spend even more time with optimistic, inventive, supportive people - or, at least spent less with in-the-box naysayers. See also dynamic optimism.
14. Meditatively construct a mental mechanical model of it - and then play with it. (E.g., if a circuit, watch current pull springy resistors down from the voltage rails. If optics, don't be afraid to use your hands in the air as virtual lenses or rays. Code up a simulation and tweak it.)
15. Deal with simple but forgettable stuff with some peripheral vision Post-Its: like this, this, or even this.

Do any of you have more?

Updated from the xkcd hardware forum (thanks: Solt, wst, and Red Hal):

16. Document what you do. What seems obvious now probably won't to you or others in the future.
17. Remember to test the obvious and bizarre use-cases.
18. Hit "save" all the time - and promote big changes to a new file.
19. Don't be afraid to sleep on it, to give your subconscious a chance to solve it for you.


14 July 2008

Starbucks Vivanno: fail?

I interrupt the usual haughty erudition of this blog to bring you some night-before-the-actual-launch review action of a new Starbucks drink, the banana-chocolate and shot of espresso "Vivanno."

This baby packs 16 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber and... it tastes like it. It reminded me of a combination of light cocoa, some faint (but real!) banana, the airiness of a cosmic marshmallow, and a ground-up cardboard box.

Ah, well. The folks at the local Starbucks were really excited for me, so that I could leave my Monin banana syrup at home.

[Edit, Tuesday: Hmm. I just sampled it again at a different Starbucks and it was... good. Sampling error, maybe?]

Okay, back to the erudite haughtiness. If anyone has any questions about, I don't know, optics or medical imaging or something, ask away.


ps I think I get points for not using the phrase "epic fail."

12 July 2008

You aren't married until you've assembled Ikea

Hello -

Sorry to disappear on you, dear readers, for the last several weeks. Business took me to a bicycle-laden European country, a trip that was followed by some unusual work hours and three trips to see all of Toby's grandparents on various seashores.

We're baa-aack, just in time to continue assembling Ikea furniture flat-packs. Any guesses what LEKSVIK is?

Starbucks banana gossip: Buddies at the local Starbucks know me as "the guy who brings in his own banana syrup and then sits there and works." They excitedly tell me that a new drink with real, actual bananas will be available in just a few days. Read more here.

NYTimes: "In Novels for Girls, Fashion Trumps Romance:" And I thought I was behind for not knowing what Webkinz are. This article in today's Times is about several young-adult novels packed with product placement: "Indeed, you can often tell the bad guys by their unfortunate brand choices. The beautiful heroine of the “A-List” series, Anna, drives a Lexus (mentioned seven times in Chapter 1 of “American Beauty”) and wears a Molinari dress and Sigerson Morrison sandals. The poor thing gets in a car crash with some idiot middle-aged woman in a rusty Honda Civic, whose gray roots are showing and — here you may want to exercise parental discretion — who is wearing a bad Chanel knockoff scarf."

I'll restrain myself from making a wisecrack about the irony of the journalist's opening salvo: "A while back, Naomi Johnson, a communications professor at Longwood University in Virginia, sent me her doctoral thesis, which she described as a feminist analysis of the new wave of teenage romance novels. I don’t read lots of dissertations, and almost tossed this one when the words “ontological,” “objectivist” and “constructivist” appeared in the same sentence, on Page 38. " [here]

Anyway, what will Toby be subjected to, a few years from now? Heck, I don't even know what most kids read. Is Choose Your Own Adventure still in? Maybe it's Ender's Game.

Speaking of, ah, our ability to keep up with information, Danny Hills said it well (yet again) in his response to an article on whether or not Google is "making us stupid":

We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.

(the whole thing is at Edge.org)

From the "If You Don't Control Your Destiny, Someone Else Will" department: "Autopsy: Blood clots caused waiting room death," of a woman left waiting for 24 hours in a hospital ER. (CNN.com)

Back to something slightly techie. Seth Godin's 18 ideas on things that could be done with the Amazon Kindle.

For your iPod: I finally reloaded my iPod with some new tunes. If you like plinky thoughtful electronica, try out "Still Tired" from Herrmann & Kleine. Will put Ikea furniture together to 50 Cent's "In da Club" and Dr. Dre's rougher "One Eight Seven." Relive 1993 with Alice in Chains's "I Stay Away," whose alterna-anthem bridge at 2:12 still gets me. It's a good song to yell out loud. In your car, I mean, with the windows up.

If you want something more meditative and less angry, have you heard male-f0lk Iron & Wine, or really listened to Kris Delmhorst's choosing-my-own-way "Weathervane"?

Into trance? You know, like if you, say, exercise, which I don't, but hear is good for you? The iTunes podcast "Radio 538: Tiesto's club life podcast" is a frequently-updated 1-hour download of good stuff.

Happy Summer!