Monthly Archives: December 2006

What’s Up 2007: 365 Days of Skywatching

All of you backyard astronomers should definitely check out this excellent and free 110 page downloadable e-book by Tammy Plotner. It gives you a great astronomical target for every night of the year complete with photos, background and the history of each celestial object.

What's Up 2007

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Aurora Over Iowa

Here’s an amazing image that shows the earthbound effects of the recent solar storm from APOD.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

Aurora Over Iowa
Credit & Copyright: Stan Richards (

Explanation: Last Thursday evening, stars were not the only lights in Iowa skies. Spectacular northern lights also shone from the heavens, extending across the midwestern USA and other locations not often graced with auroral displays. The wide-ranging auroral activity was triggered as a large solar flare – an energetic cloud of particles blasted outward from the Sun a few days earlier – collided with planet Earth’s magnetosphere. Alerted to conditions ripe for aurora, photographer Stan Richard recorded this apparition over Saylorville Lake, near Des Moines, Iowa, USA. While the colorful rays seem to end just above the water, they are actually at altitudes of 100 kilometers or more.

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A LEGO Trebuchet

Backyard ballistics are just too much fun. Don’t miss this awesome page over at Format C: describing the design and fabrication of a fully functional replica of a medieval siege engine. The designer was inspired by this picture from Wikipedia:

And created the replica from the LEGO Technique sets (The Toy of the Century).

Here’s a video of the weapon in action:

For those of you interested in more modern LEGO weaponry, check out this project that created a LEGO machine gun that shoots 96 bricks per minute from a 16 round magazine.

I’m not sure where to find more details other than an attribution to “Billy Glenn.” But note, you can make ANYTHING with LEGOs.

Here are some other siege weapon links for the hobbyists among you:

Ripcord’s Trebuchet Page
The Hurl
Nice Google Video on Large scale Trebuchet models


Filed under Education, Technology

Aphabetical Bias ,or What’s In a Surname?

Judging by a recent paper from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, it would appear that I stand in good stead if I ever want a job in economics accedemia, and I have my father to thank for it.

And no, it’s not just because he was such a great dad and taught me how to fend for myself and all. Not that he didn’t help set me on numerous paths of opportunity. He did indeed. But one step would appear to have accrued simply from sticking with the country’s naming tradition.

A paper entitled “What’s in a Surname? The Effect of Surname Initials on Academic Success” by Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv (of Stanford and Caltech)showed some rather comprehensive data that showed measurable advantage to those with names starting with letters earlier in the Alphabet.

The more elite the selection criteria, the more the bias was evident. Check out the paper.

In retrospect, I can remember that just through the happenstance of my last name, I usually ended up first in or second in line whenever a class was organized, and got to start projects earlier than most. Maybe that sort of things add up. So all you teachers out there, start switching up and be sure to sort from the back of the alphabet half the time, or else suffer the risks and liabilities of unintended alphabetic discrimination.

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Filed under Economics, Math

A Fantastic New Robotics Kit: Robotis

TechEblog had a pointer to this great video of a robotic puppy that someone had put together using a couple of Nokia 770 PDAs and an educational robotics kit.

What really caught my eye on the video, beyond the oh-so-pathetic doggie graphics on the screen, was how complex the movements were, and how high-torque the servo motors were. So I tracked down the source of the kit and found a treasure trove for the aspiring roboticist at very reasonable prices. Check out the Robotis Web site.

The Bioloid educational robotics kits are some of the best in the business, and genuinely useful for some real robot hacking.

All sorts of Robots are possible.

There is even a programming environment with movement training and image processing capabilities accessible through code written in C.

Here’s a photo of the expert kit:

I wish they had one of these suckers when I was a little sprout.

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Ever Wonder Where Your Tax Dollars Are Going?

Check out the Death and Taxes Poster in this zoomable Flash applet. It’s not the easiest interpretation to decipher, but it is packed with visually interesting information, and does attempt to show relative budgets by the circle sizes. (Also note that this just covers the discretionary budget that is voted on, and approved every year, and does not include service on ongoing programs like Social Security).

Here are a couple excerpts related to some of our recent foreign endeavors:

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And on the domestic front:

If all that doesn’t already depress you, just note that the circle for the national debt of over $9.3 trillion is larger than the entire chart in its expanded form. Wasn’t fiscal discipline supposed to be a fundamental plank of the Republican party? What happened?

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Ice Layers on Mars

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has collected some amazing images of complex strata of ice at the Martian poles. Check out this image and the story that follows for more details.

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“The polar layers are at the top of the image, while the darker materials at the bottom might have been deposited as sand dunes. The Martian ice has mixed with dust to give it the reddish hue. (Click on Image for high-resolution version)”

Check out the latest images from mars at the NASA site here.

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