SpaceX launches private rocket

On Sunday, a private company called SpaceX launched a rocket into orbit. You remember all the commotion a few years ago about Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. That was a private rocket too, so what’s the big deal now? Well… Burt Rutan’s space ship is definitely worthy of praise, but it only takes millionaires on suborbital joy rides. It’s a tourism game for the Drag-My-Rich-Ass-Up-Mount-Everest set. And you don’t even get that much space time for your $200,000. You can stick your tongue out and lick space at the top of your bounce, but that’s about it.

SpaceX, on the other hand, was designed not to win a competition but to put satellites into space for paying customers. Put another way, NASA is never going to compete with Richard Branson to put tourists into space, but SpaceX is now competing with NASA and every other launch vendor on the planet. And their launch manifest is full.

The launch on Sunday was actually the fourth flight, but it was the first that worked perfectly from end to end, proving once again that space flight is hard. Here’s a great video of the launch. I love the fact that there’s no sound. No countdown, no voice of Mission Control. Just fizz, ka-boom, and off she goes!

The launch site is on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Here’s a fun exercise: can you find the launchpad with Google Earth by looking at the shape of the island as you fly away?

Visual music

Stephen Malinowski is a polymath composer/musician/programmer who created something called the Music Animation Machine. What it does is animate music scores in a way that makes their rhythmic and tonal structures really jump out at you.

For example, here is a Chopin Etude (opus 10, #7)

Having warmed up with that, you’ll have fun watching Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 4, third movement, presto. Fugues are fun to watch, since the visual patterns help you follow the repeating elements in the music. Here is a piece by Vincent Lo that builds a Bach-style fugue from Nokia’s default ringtone: the Nokia Ringtone Fugue. When they perform that one, do you think they encourage people to turn on their cellphones?

Malinowski has a YouTube channel with several other videos. Of course, since he spent years making this thing, he’d really like to sell you a video about it. It looks like a good deal to me, but the store page is really notable for the shockingly different musical constructions you see from different composers. Go look at it now. It’s mesmerizing. Compare Bach’s braided filigrees with Chopin’s slabs and slashes.

Thanks to YouTube, we all have synesthesia.

Mapping football teams with Parallax

One day as I was flying high above the Earth, as I like to do, I happened across this corner of London (Fulham, actually) wherein I spied a lovely football pitch situated thus:

“Great cows!” thought I, “all those soccer fans and not one scrap of parking! In my homeland this would not be.”

Compare this with the parking on offer at, say, Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, home of the Brady-less Patriots. It’s a stark contrast, and a good reminder that there’s no need to take public transportation as long as there’s PLENTY OF PARKING FOLKS!

This got me wondering how many fans attend that stadium in London (answer: 26,000 at full capacity). Which in turn made me wonder what team played there (answer: Fulham F.C.). Fulham plays in the Premier League, which put me on to something I’ve wondered about before. I know the names of a number of English football teams, but I have no idea where they are. Okay, Manchester United is in Manchester, but what about Arsenal? For some reason, when I last looked into this, I couldn’t find a simple map that showed what I wanted to know. I’ve since found several, but no matter, because this gave me a great opportunity to try out Parallax.

I learned about Parallax from Ben Hyde. As Ben observes, you should really watch the video to understand what Parallax does, but I would describe it like this: a search engine that carries along piles of intermediate results as you move toward your ultimate aggregated final answer. To pick a simple question: how many presidents went to West Point? It’s not a hard question to answer, but you’d have to visit a lot of Wikipedia pages to get the definitive result. Parallax lets you lasso all the presidents and then pick other questions to ask about the entire set. So we quickly discover that U.S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower went to West Point. Jimmy Carter is the only presidential graduate of the Naval Academy (John McCain went there too, for what it’s worth).

Back to English football: starting with Arsenal, I continued to the entire Premier League. From there I clicked on Arena/Stadium, and then Show results on map and voilĂ :

Wow! Now that’s what I’m talking about.

False equinox and the refraction bonus

The autumnal equinox is nearly upon us. Or is it?

Equi + Nox, which comes from the Latin for “noxious horse”, or more generally “nightmare” … oh I’m sorry … wrong book. Here it is: equinox means the length of the night should equal the length of the day. Theoretically.

But someone’s been lying to you. Here’s an article that blows the top off this seasonal myth: The Equinox Error: The Fallacy of Fall’s Arrival.

If you look at the sunrise tables in your local paper, you’ll see this first day of Fall is longer than the first night. Can nothing be trusted? First Lehman Brothers, now this!

The discrepancy is due to the refraction bonus. Mr. Atmosphere bends Mr. Sunbeam over his knee so that by the time you see the Sun kissing the horizon, it’s actually been out of the building for some time. That is: the Sun’s light gets bent in such a way that its apparent position is lower than its actual position.


I think this phenomenon actually may be due to an expensive government bailout intended to stabilize the public markets. “Give them more daylight, for God’s sake!” said Ben Bernanke, “They need to buy!”

How do you plan to spend your refraction bonus?

Crowd-mapping Home Depot

Mapping is expensive. There are lots of accurate maps of London, but not nearly so many of Hanoi. You have to pay a lot of people to get a good map. Or you used to. Another way to get more information about a place is simply to ask the people who live there to help. Accordingly, Google announced a plan this summer to fill in the empty bits of their maps with information directly from their customers, which is to say, you and me and all the folks in Hanoi.

It’s a happy story. In fact, it’s becoming common to use crowdsourcing, to the point that I hardly notice feel-good stories about crowdsourcing anymore. Not to mention the fact that I’m not going to Hanoi anytime soon.

But here’s the thing. I was wandering around Home Depot the other day looking for either a rainspout or a store employee who could help me locate one. I could find neither. I might have spent days in there if a fellow customer hadn’t taken pity on me. That’s when I realized we need a crowdsourced approach to mapping out where to find things in Home Depot. Store staff be damned! You can never find them when you need them. I want to whip out my iPhone, punch in my desired hardware, and then see exactly what aisle it lives on.

I have no confidence that Home Depot could or would do this. But you and me? We could. We totally could.

Ulysses S. Grant invents American prose

If you read first-hand accounts of the Civil War, you get used to a certain blustery high-minded prose style peppered with tortured latinate constructions. In witness of their poltroonery, we set upon the knaves with much promptitude, winning the battlement with but minor effusion of blood, etc. etc. Huzzah!

When I read this stuff I think to myself: Did they talk to each other like this? Did they talk to their families like this? Yonder mongrel absconded with my Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper! After him, lad! Let the cur be seized! Huzzah!

That’s why it’s so refreshing to read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a man completely devoid of the boastful, windy style of so many of his peers. Grant became close friends with Mark Twain near the end of his life, and it was Twain who published Grant’s memoirs. Between the two of them, I believe they invented modern American prose. I always wonder how much Twain influenced Grant’s writing. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on their conversations.

For a quick comparison of styles, consider these descriptions of the events preceding the surrender of Fort Donelson in 1862. The first is by Lew Wallace, a Union commander and a famous author in his own right (he wrote the best-selling Ben Hur).


“The night of the 14th of February fell cold and dark, and under the pitiless sky the armies remained in position so near to each other that neither dared light fires. Overpowered with watching, fatigue, and the lassitude of spirits which always follows a strain upon the faculties of men like that which is the concomitant of battle, thousands on both sides lay down in the ditches and behind logs, and whatever else would in the least shelter them from the cutting wind, and tried to sleep.


The sun went down on the night of the 14th of February, 1862, leaving the army confronting Fort Donelson anything but comforted over the prospects. The weather had turned intensely cold; the men were without tents and could not keep up fires where most of them had to stay, and, as previously stated, many had thrown away their overcoats and blankets. Two of the strongest of our gunboats had been disabled, presumably beyond the possibility of rendering any present assistance. I retired this night not knowing but that I would have to intrench my position, and bring up tents for the men or build huts under the cover of the hills.


Binary marble adding machine

I like this hand-crafted wooden adding machine modeled on the digital logic found in microchips. It’s a very simple wooden computer. Still, as simple as it is, it really is showing you how to add any two positive integers that sum to less than 64. Any further addition is just more of the same.

You look at it and you think, whatever those computer circuits are doing on silicon, it just can’t be this simple. But of course it really is that simple. You just need a heaping great crapload of adders to do anything interesting. Which really isn’t a problem when you’ve got a few billion transistors floating around. “Crapload” factors a billion a good many times.

Sundials and improvised compasses

I joined iPhone Nation a month or so ago. The iPod touch was my gateway drug. It seemed harmless enough at the time, but things got out of control. Now I’m one of those people. One of those iPhone people. You know the kind. Even I think we’re insufferable.

Anyway, I’ve been having fun with the applications available at the App Store, and one that caught my eye was Masayuki Akamatsu’s Compass. Here’s a little video on how it works.

In a nutshell, here’s the theory. If you know where you are, and you know which way is north, and you know what day of the year it is, you can build a sundial that keeps very accurate time. (If you don’t know what day of the year it is, you can build a sundial that’s reasonably accurate, but that’s another matter.) Stated another way, if you know what day it is, and you know where you are, and you know what time it is, then you can build a sundial that will tell you which way north is. It turns out an iPhone has all the information it needs to build just such a north-pointing sundial. Which is to say: a compass. No magnet required.

I had a similar thought four years ago when I was noodling around with some sundial code in MATLAB. I even wrote a contribution for the MATLAB Central File Exchange called Building Sundials. That contribution came with some explanatory text that closed with this statement.

Suppose you were lost in the woods, equipped with only a computer, a printer, and a copy of MATLAB. How would you orient yourself?

I meant it as a joke, but that’s essentially where the iPhone has gotten us.

Okay, I admit that a real compass is cheaper than an iPhone. And it works at night. Without batteries. And when it’s cloudy. But still… Hey, did I show you my beautiful new iPhone?

Negative signage and the letter of the law

When I first moved to Massachusetts from California, I learned about the value of the private snowplow contract. When it snows hard, it’s really nice to have a pro come plow your driveway, even if it does set you back a little cash. But one winter when there wasn’t much snow, our (presumably cash-poor) plow guy would pay us a visit and send us a bill at the drop of a flake or two. We had to reach an agreement that he was not to plow unless more than four inches had already fallen. My housemates didn’t go for my solution: a sign in the yard that was exactly four inches tall that read

Do not plow the driveway

I was reminded of this recently because of a funny post at (“putting the rarin back in librarian since 1999”) about how the Patriot Act lets the FBI invisibly explore your library usage. If you’re a librarian, you are specifically forbidden from telling anyone that the goons have been sniffing around. But let’s say you’re a librarian and this policy really bugs you. What to do? What to do?

Here are’s five technically legal signs for your library. My favorite?

[First spotted on LibraryThing. Follow the link and read about the scofflaw library patron who ended up with a criminal record.]