Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lick Observatory

Today, for the last day of 2011, we went to the Lick Observatory.  It is about 45 minutes up twisty-turny roads from San Jose to Mt Hamilton where the multiple telescopes and their domes reside.  There must have been about 6 different domes housing everything from the massive 120 inch spectrograph Shane Telescope to the new 2.4 meter Automatic Planet Finder.

Air Swimmers

These look like a lot of fun.  Radio controlled fish the swim through the air!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nice View

Over the holiday we made a little film called "Nice View."  Its nothing complicated, but we hope you all enjoy the result.   Be sure to watch it in high resolution (720p or 1080p) for best effect by clicking near the bottom of the video where it says 360p.  Also click on the full screen button in the lower right corner.

The movie was created with a Sony NEX-5 camera and iMovie.  The music was created with GarageBand.  With these simple, consumer tools, we were able to follow a process very much like a big budget Hollywood movie.  We shot multiple takes with different camera angles.  We were able to write the music, then edit the video to fit the music (and edit the music to fit the video too).  We edited dialog, music and effects.  We even did dialog replacement for the one and only line of dialog (is it a line of monolog then?).

The whole idea was to make a movie of the simplest concept that would allow us to follow all the steps that the big guys do.  From that perspective the project was a success.  I also must say that its pretty amazing what quality you can get from consumer grade tools.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Digital Devices can Ruin Your Health

OK, we definitely like our gadgets here at the Digital Diner, but, as with anything, one has to watch out for the signs of overuse.  This infographic has some good points about all the ways that mobile devices are bad for you.  There are certainly a few things to think about.  It probably wont stop me from using anything, but it may help influence my behavior a bit.

via holykaw

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bikes and Design

Yesterday we went for a ride on our bikes since Bix got a fancy new mountain bike for Christmas.  It was certainly fun.  Bicycles are amazing machines.  As we rode along, it reminded me of young Steve Jobs' concept that Apple was building "bicycles for the mind."  The reason that this analogy captivated Steve Jobs was that he read a Scientific American article that talked about the efficiency of locomotion of various animals.  Condors were most efficient and humans finished somewhere in the middle of the pack.  However, someone at Scientific American had the brilliant idea to compare the efficiency of a human riding a bicycle to the other animals and the cycling human was off the charts.  To Steve, the bicycle symbolized man's ability to use tools to gain an advantage.  He felt (rightly so, I think) that computers would ultimately be this type of tool for our minds.

That's fun and all, but not why I choose to write about this topic today.  Bix and Widdikay both have fancy new-fangled bikes compared to the old school bikes that Monika and I ride.  Seeing how dated our bikes were looking started me thinking.  While they did look old, it was intriguing to me that the actual design of the  bicycle hasn't changed much in a long time (certainly nothing like the changes that computers have gone through, but that is a different story).  Sure, we've come a long way since the high-wheeler of yesteryear, but the modern chain-drive, diamond-frame design has been around for over 100 years.  The geometry of the frame has been tweaked a bit over the years and specialized for different purposes, but the overall design has remained stable - possibly because we have hit on a very efficient design.

Bike Concept from Yanko Design

When I saw the new bike concept above, I was immediately captivated.  It really does look like something different.  It's beautiful.  The lines are not those of a standard bike, but the human still fits on it in the same old fashion way.  Of course, this design is completely impractical.  The wheelbase is so short that it would likely be difficult to control at high speeds.  That wouldn't be too much of problem since it would be very difficult to get any speed since it would take several rotations of the pedals to get the wheel to turn a single revolution.  Actually, there is so much rake (angle) on the front head tube that it is likely difficult to control at any speed.  Still the design is a thing of beauty from an artistic perspective.  I find it interesting how some designers get caught up in the art of their creations and lose track of the usefulness and practicality.   To me, the most beautiful designs are those that are artistic and functional.

The bike above is designed by Yanko designs who recently published their top designs of 2011.  Their collection includes several interesting designs; some practical, some not so much.  Which is your favorite?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why is Saffron so expensive?

Recently we celebrated St. Lucia Day (The Festival of Lights).  A part of this tradition is the always yummy saffron buns.  The distinctive taste of saffron is a key part of the flavor of these buns, but saffron is alway expensive and hard to come by.  Apparently it can run up to $1000/pound.  The folks over at put this into perspective with their article that explains why.  You see saffron comes from the crocus flowers (Crocus sativus).  Apparently each plant produces four flowers per year and each flower produces three saffron threads.   That means that you can get a maximum of 12 threads per year, per plant if all goes well.  One pound of saffron is usually 50,000 - 75,000 threads, so that can be up to 25,000 flowers.  As you can imagine, with each thread being manually picked, it's a labor intensive process, not to mention that it takes a football field sized area to produce a pound of saffron.  To me, knowing this will just make those saffron buns taste all the more unique.

via Nomilicious

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

A collection of starlings is called a murmuration.  The video is a chance encounter with a murmuration.  Quite a spectacle.

Thanks for the link Annemarie.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Modern Woman

A very cute video entitled "The Modern Woman"  

The video shows a "work day" for this young woman.  I think the video is well done, funny, and thoughtful.  Watch and enjoy!

More Earth-like Planets Discovered

It was exciting enough that the planet Kepler-22B was discovered right around the time that we got to see Frank Drake talk just over a week ago, but today NASA announced the discovery of two new earth-size planets.  Kepler-22B has just the right orbit to be a good temperature for life, but they believe it may not be able to support a rocky surface because of its size (about 2.5 times Earth's diameter).  The newest planets are more earth-like in size, but they are very close to their sun, so they are unlikely to have water in liquid form.  Also, obvious to all of you who know Kepler's laws of motion, if these planets are very close to their sun, they will have very short orbits, so a year there is is between 6 and 20 days here.  I just had a birthday, and while I can see that it would be nice to have a lot more birthdays, I'm really glad that I don't live on Kepler-20f because I would be 2872 years old!  Since this system is about 1000 light years away, its unlikely that I'll get to visit there anyway.

None of these planets are outstanding candidates for life as we know it on Earth, but its really exciting that the Kepler spacecraft is finding so many interesting planets so quickly.  It really is starting to seem quite likely there are many Earth-like planets out there.

Read more about the Kepler-20 star system here.

The History of Santa

I remember as a child being a little confused about why it was that nobody seemed to know all the details about Santa.  Well, now I see that its completely understandable since what we know of him has come from so many places...


I really like the little Minute Physics videos.  They are entertaining and informative.  This episode tells you everything you need to know about Neutrinos in two minutes.  Watch and then impress your friends with your deep physics knowledge.

If you like it, watch more here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Beautiful Exploding Ornaments

We've talked before about high speed photography, and seen some amazing examples of the incredible results you can get.  Now, in keeping with the season, a fellow Alan Sailer has a few interesting shots of exploding Christmas tree ornaments.  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Another Youngster TED talk

I'm really starting to like these TED talks by relative youngsters.  This time its 11 year old, homeschooler, Birk Baehr talking about the food system.  Go get em Birk.

Friday, December 16, 2011

New Amateur Balloon Record

Some time back, we were involved in a weather balloon experiment and I must say, it was a lot of fun.  Our balloon went up to nearly 100,000 ft (considered "near space") and covered almost 100 miles in its flight.  The flight ended, as most of these do, with the planned popping of the balloon.  You see, our weather balloon that started at about 6 feet in diameter ended up about three times that size in the thin atmosphere at those high altitudes. As the balloon ascends, eventually it's too much for it to take and it pops.  This allows us to recover our payload which we track with ham radios using a system called APRS.
At the time I remember thinking that if we could control the altitude properly, we could keep the balloon from rising all the way to its bursting altitude and thus keep it drifting with the winds to cover a really long distance.  Well, the folks at the California Near Space Project have done just that in a rather spectacular way.  They launched from San Jose, CA (not far from where we launched our own balloon) and three days later it landed in the Mediterranean Sea near Spain after crossing the entire US and then the Atlantic Ocean.
I suppose the next goal should be to go all the way around the world.  Anyone want to try?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reindeer Facts

We saw quite a few reindeer this summer in northern Norway.  Around this time of year, even here in California people start to think about reindeer.  After all, Rudolph has to be in top form to get Santa around to all those homes on Christmas night.  I don't know about what populations of reindeers can fly, but for covering a lot of ground, reindeer are a good choice.  Some populations are known to migrate over 3100 miles a year.   That's an average of 23 miles [~46,000 human steps for you FitBit wearers] per day!  Its more than any other known terrestrial animal.  They can run at 50 miles per hour and swim at 6.2 mph.

They are fascinating animals and there are plenty more interesting facts in 11 Things You Might Like to Know About Reindeer.


I just learned about a game that has apparently been around for some time, but somehow I missed it.  It's called Wikiraces and it sounds like a lot of fun.

Here's how it works.
First, get a group of  players together in the same room each with their own web browser.
Pick a web page from Wikipedia as your starting point.
Pick another unrelated or random Wikipedia page as a goal.
Everyone loads up the start page on their web browser.
At the signal, each player starts clicking on links trying to find a path to the goal page.
Players are not allowed to type (no searches), use the back button or any other browser navigation features (just click on links)
First player to the goal page wins!

Of course the official rules are available on Wikipedia.

I think we might need to try this tonight.  If you've played, let us know how it went.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Isaac Newton Doodled in His Notebook!

Isaac Newton is arguably one of the most influential scientist/mathematicians in the history of civilization.  His contributions (Gravitational Theory, Calculus etc) have gone further to change how we think than just about anyone.  University of Cambridge has just scanned some books of his and made them available on the web, so now you can look at the actual pages he wrote for yourself.  

I find it fascinating to see the pages he wrote 350 years ago, before he was famous.  Most impressive to me is that if you look at page 5 of his Trinity College Notebook, you see what looks to me like a doodle!  Newton doodles?  I hadn't really thought much about what he must have been like as a young man in college.  Did his mind wander?  Did he think visually?  To me, his handwriting looks organized, but not overly neat or orderly.  It is clear that before computers and calculators, mathematics involved a lot of calculations.   For some reason, I'm particularly pleased to see the places where he scribbles things out and makes corrections.  

See for yourself here.

A New Way to Get to Space

Now that the shuttle is retired, its time to figure out a new, cost effective, safe way to get things and people into space.  Paul Allen seems to have his mind set on a combination airplane and rocket that can fly from an airport and then launch the rocket in mid air.

Tis the Season

I'm used to hearing music from the Nutcracker around this time of year, but I must say, I've never heard it on a glass harp... wine glasses really.  Its a nice performance with a very unique sound.

Happy Festival of Lights

Every year on Dec 13 we celebrate St Lucia Day.  It's a Swedish tradition that the oldest girl in the family dresses in a white gown with a red sash then brings coffee and saffron buns to the parents in bed at first light.  Well, last night we were up late making these saffron buns, and we have a busy day today, but still, it's still nice to take a few moments out to celebrate light here on one of the darkest days of the year.  So Happy Festival of Lights to all of you.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Secret Cure

It turns out that there is a miracle treatment for many diseases and ailments that face us these days.  It's astoundingly powerful, inexpensive and easily attainable, yet so many people who need it don't get it.  You may want to watch to find out whether or not you could benefit from it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Frank Drake Talk

Here is Frank Drake pointing up at aliens.  

On Friday my family went to a talk by Dr. Frank Drake at Foothill College.  He talked about the possible ways to communicate with intelligent beings on Kepler 22b,  probably an Earthlike planet that is 600 light years away.  He told us how SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) gets its data.  Also he talked about how we are transmitting less total radio power out from our planet and how it will change the likelihood of aliens finding us.  Of course, he explained the Drake Equation.  It was a little bit inspiring for me to start running things like SETI@home on my computer.

Here is a cool video that shows all the planets that the Kepler telescope has confirmed as of February.

This is what the electrical radiation looks like coming from Earth over time.  

This is how we can communicate with aliens using a gravitational lens.  

Here me and my sister are with Frank Drake

Lunar Eclipse

On Saturday December 10 at 6 am, the earth started to cross the path of the sun's light.  Our family had gone outside, in the cold darkness.  Then we saw a glowing red object, the moon.  The light from the sun is scattered by the Earth's atmosphere causing the moon to turn red.  A lunar eclipse occurred. The moon was covered by the shadow of the Earth.  Here are some pictures we took:

Friday, December 9, 2011


There is a new hardware prototyping platform out called TinkerForge.  It looks like they are trying to create an Arduino-like development platform that is easier to use.  You build things out of special function 4x4cm bricks and bricklets (parts that connect to the bricks).  The hardware components snap together and software allows you to perform basic functions without even programming.  However, if you do want to program it supports C, C++, C#, Java and Python.  Before you knowThis looks like it might be a fun new platform.

via Engadget

Lunar Eclipse Tonight!

If you happen to be up at 3:30am tonight (here in California anyway 11:33 GMT, Dec 10, 2011), look up into the sky and you may see an interesting site as the shadow of the Earth passes across the moon.  The entire event will last almost 6 hours, with the greatest coverage occurring between 6:06am and 6:57am (14:06 - 14:57 GMT) just about the time the moon sets here.  As you might expect, NASA has a plethora of information available for you to read here.
Durring a lunar eclipse the moon changes from a bright, full moon to a dim, often reddish, disc in the sky.

Disaster in Norway

We had a good time in Norway this summer, but I'm sorry to report that conditions have changed since we were there.  There is a serious disaster underway.  Of course, I'm talking about the butter shortage. According to Reuters, a new low-carb diet in Norway has got people there eating much more fatty food, mostly butter.  Sales were up 20% in October, then 30% in November.  Apparently a wet summer means that milk supplies were already low, and now, just in time for holiday cooking, Norway is out of butter! Read more in the Reuters article.

I've said it before.  Butter may kill you, but its probably worth it.  Be sure you spell my name right when you quote me on that one.

via Gizmodo

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Flying the way you do in dreams

Here's something that we didn't do on our recent trip to Norway.  Maybe next time...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mythbusters Oops

We're Mythbuster fans here at Digital Diner.  I've met with the Mythbusters on several occasions and I can tell you from experience that they are very safety conscious.  In fact, it was Jamie who showed me how to handle big magnets.  If I would have listened, perhaps I would have avoided the scar on my thumb.
Anyway, despite their attention to safety, accidents happen.  Explosions and firearms are dangerous even in the most careful hands.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Have you ever seen whales sleeping?

I never really thought about it, but I suppose it makes sense that whales need to sleep.  They also need to breathe.  So how do they do it while they are out there in the middle of the ocean?  Watch the video to find out.

Note, the second video is one about the sleeping whales.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Participatory Science

These are exciting times for the amateur scientist.  Thanks to the web and the power of crowdsourcing, many scientists are turning to us regular folks to help them with their big problems Mechanical Turk-style.  Last week at NASA, Brian Day told me about a web site called Zooniverse that pulls together several of these projects into a single place where you can go to add your contribution to science.  There are several projects going on that are looking for volunteers to do what humans do best, find patterns and similarities between things.  Most of these projects are astronomical in nature, but they are branching out to do more.  After the break, I describe few of  the 11 current projects which need your help.

Learn to Speak Whale

You know the scene in Finding Nemo where Dory says, "I know how to speak whale!" and then proceeds to speak in long droning whale tones.  Well, this is your chance to learn to speak whale and advance science at the same time.  A group of scientists has put together a web site called whaleFM to help identify similarities between whale calls.  They want you to help.  By going to this site and listening to the different whale songs, they hope that you can identify similarities that they can study in further detail.  So, you actually help marine researchers understand what the whales are saying by going through the site and choosing matches.  Its fun, and its science.  Try it out!

The site is sponsored by Scientific American and Zooniverse.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

37-Best Ever Science Photos

Life magazine has been around for over 75 years and they have always been know for amazing photography, so when they produce something called the 37-Best Ever Science Photos, you know its going to be good.  Take a look for yourself here.

Face Swapping

I always think it is interesting to see the evolution of technology.  Some tasks seem impossible.  Then someone figures out how to do it and for a little while only scientists can do it.  Then it finds a business case and only people with a lot of money can do it.  Then eventually it gets to the point where everyone can do it and what was once magic becomes common place.
This seems to be what is happening with some video manipulation technology, in the case of the video here, face swapping.  Yes, the ability to put one person's face on another person's head in a video.  It turns out that for some time, Hollywood has been able to do this.  Soon, you will be able to do it too.  Check it out.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dancing Science

Now here is an idea I haven't seen before:  No more PowerPoint presentations to explain complex ideas.  Instead, use dance!

John Bohannon at TEDx Brussels.

Minecraft and Game Boy Super Mario

If you don't know Minecraft or Game Boy, you should probably skip this post.

Ok, we have a little fun with Minecraft here at Digital Diner, and there is certainly some Game Boy playing in our history.  This puts me in a position to appreciate what has been done here, but I must admit, it seems more than a little bit excessive.

A little insight into how this was created after the break

A Warning to Parents

It may already be too late for our children.

via tek1now