Laser Troubleshooting

So sorry to hear your cheap dollar-store laser pointer gave up mid-way through a presentation, forcing you to rely on armwaving and gesturing for the remainder of the talk. The following questions may help determine the source of the problem.

1) Have you considered that a dollar is far too little to pay for a reliable piece of super-advanced radiation-generating solid-state electronics? (Yes / No)

2) Did the batteries explode and leak acid all over the place, maybe? (Yes / No)

It’s okay… I have plans for this one.

Build Your Own Giant Lego X-Wing

Wired are running an article today about the world’s largest Lego sculpture, a titanic X-Wing displayed in Times Square that’s 41 feet long and weighs 23 tons. (Larger and heavier that some real fighter jets) It’s a doozy!

So I did a bit of back-of-the-napkin math for anyone who wants to build this at home. The X-Wing model is built out of 5,335,200 bricks on a steel frame – assuming they’re all 2×4 bricks, and you’re getting them from the source on the Lego pick-a-brick site, at $0.30USD each you’re looking at $1,600,560 worth of bricks, plus shipping.

I’ve always been kindof dubious about Lego’s brick pricing. I’ve heard Lego defenders claiming the moulds have to be ridiculously precise for the nubs to lock properly, so the bricks are expensive to make. It certainly seems like their little plastic cubes are getting more expensive, but the data says otherwise. The Reality Prose blog examined Lego prices, adjusted for inflation, and found that they’re getting cheaper – the sets are just getting larger. Certainly, if they ever release this x-wing as a set, it’ll bump some of the piece count averages up.


I discovered a new Google Maps mashup game last weekend that Natasha and I have been playing together, called “GeoGuessr“. Fans of Carmen Sandiego and avid travellers will get a kick out of it – the idea is that you’re dropped in some random location on the planet, and need to figure out (by exploring your local environs in google maps) where on earth you are. Points are scored based on the distance between your guess and your actual location.

We’ve had a blast (and feel very worldly) playing a few rounds and will definitely keep coming back for more. Our house rule is to never use Google for hints. A few noteable rounds:

  • We were dropped off on a dusty, featureless highway in Mexico with nothing in view but a solar-powered SOS phone. We managed to find a highway sign after about ten kilometers of clicking and nailed it to within  a couple of feet of our location.
  • We got dropped off on the island of Lampedusa, a Sicilian-owned rock jutting out of the Mediterranean just north of Africa. Flags on the boats gave away the country, and I found a seafood restaurant that  gave away the island name. (Then it took me a while to find the island on the map!)
  • Our worst performance was being lost in Novgorod (Gorky), Russia. There are signs everywhere, but everything is in Cyrillic alphabet and we were completely hopeless. Eventually we got trapped in a military park, and while I managed to figure out we were on the Volga, I put us about 400km downstream.

A few tips if you’re playing along at home:

  • Google blurs out license plates, but look at ads on the sides of trucks, and billboards. Some of them will talk about local establishments and everyone claims to serve the best borscht in Belgium. 🙂
  • Intersections of highways make it easy to nail down where you are. Most countries number their highways North-to-South, East-to-West, so you can figure out proportionally where you might be relative to the borders of the country.
  • Find the fanciest buildings in town, and read the plaques. They’re often public institutions, and have important town names and historical clues on them.
  • I’d like to think that if I knew more about tree species I’d be able to make a pretty solid guess – just based on the forests, a few times I found my self in Brazil thinking I was in Africa, and one time in South Africa I thought I was in the Caribbean. I suck at trees, apparently.

Post any big successes in the comments – I’m curious about how people do in their own wanderings!

My Worms Are Bigger Than Yours

I was out looking over the garden this evening after a rainstorm, and caught a bunch of enormous worms slithering out of their waterlogged holes to get a bit of fresh air. I had to run in and get a ruler, because nobody would believe I have dozens of 15 inch earthworms!

Worms are a welcome guest in gardens, they chew up rotting stuff and poop out nutrients for plants, and help make your earth “loamy”. I was happy to see these guys, because when I did my early spring tilling I didn’t see many of them. I’ve been intentionally trying to provide them with a worm-friendly habitat, so seeing these huge beasts, after just two years of turning compost into the soil, is a great sign that our earth is “alive”.

Edit: Natasha had to show me up. 🙂 Here’s Giant Earthworms from Australia. WOW!

The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron

On my first visit to the uOttawa library I was overwhelmed by the volume and depth of their collection. I’ve been to a lot of public libraries, but this was my first time really setting foot in a proper university collection and I was kindof in heaven. Assuredly, choice paralysis set in and I darted around trying to pick a couple of things to read before I had to catch my bus, and then I caught “The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron” by Joan Baum out of the corner of my eye and knew I’d found my book.

So as a ‘computer person’, I knew that Lady Ada was reputed to be the first computer programmer, that she had worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine, and that she’d had a career in mathematics, which sortof surprised me given that she was a woman in the 1800s, and that didn’t seem like a typical career choice.

I’d never made the connection before, but her father was Lord Byron, the poet infamous for his outrageous antics and behaviour – he’d be a fixture in modern celebrity tabloids if he were alive today. Boozing, gambling, racking up debts, multiple well-known public affairs, suggestions of incest and sodomy – all in all a pretty unsavoury character, despite all of his poetic genius and heroic exploits fighting in the Greek civil war. His own quote is accurate: “I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.”

So Lady Ada’s mom, Anne Isabella Milbanke, tired of dealing with his baggage, kicked him out and filed for separation. He ran off to Italy for a period of self-exile, and Lady Byron set upon herself the task of raising baby Ada – brainwashing her father’s influence out of her. There’s a number of excerpts from her letters in the book, specifically talking about using math and reason to ‘program’ her daughter, sheltering her from the evils of poetry and art. It’s actually pretty messed up parenting.

Ada Byron’s path in life was somewhat predestined by the machinations of her mother – she went on to marry a nobleman, meet and collaborate with a number of prominent mathematicians, and published a series of “Notes” on Babbage’s work that describe using “illustrations” to program a calculating machine. She was nearly a hundred years ahead of her time, and so she didn’t get a lot of attention when it was published, but in the 1960’s historians re-discovered her prophetic ideas about computers. She’d made all kinds of leaps of reason that were bang on.

With almost a poetic irony – the ‘brainwashing’ didn’t stick. Ada escaped her bubble long enough to learn about her father, she began to resent her mother, and slowly “Byronisms” started showing through the cracks of her otherwise perfect and rational life. She started cheating on her husband,  losing heaps of money at the race track, writing grandiose letters to people about how she was becoming an unstoppable goddess of numbers. It didn’t help that she was suffering from uterine cancer, and the treatments included copious amounts of Laudanum – a powerful opiate that ate away at her mental faculties.

On her death bed, she confessed her indiscretions to her husband, who abandoned her – she died alone at the age of 36.

I found her life fascinating, both as an unethical social experiment, and as an interesting lens through which to view the lives of some gifted people – wondering what hidden repression fuels their obsessions, and how those repressions will ultimately play themselves out.

Also – it adds yet another person to my list of notable characters who, on closer inspection, have had dark and tumultuous lives – I wonder how much of greatness is connected to having an unhealthy social life. It’s starting to make me feel like a real goodie-two-shoes that all these people I look up to have closets full of strange hobbies and heaps of moral flexibility.