Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Happy birthday to the universe

Today is the day German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler calculated as being the day the universe was created - in 4977 BC! I would love to know how he came up with that number. Did he actually do the calculations based on the laws of planetary motion that he developed or was it from a reading of the Bible and figuring the the first day of creation mentioned in Genesis was also the creation of the universe? I hope to do more reading about this.

Johannes Kepler was an amazing scientist. He wrote the first published defense of Nicolaus Copernicus theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. He was an assistant to famed astronomer Tycho Brahe and he corresponded with Galileo Galilei about the telescope - even making improvements to the design of the telescope. Kepler's work inspired Isaac Newton in his gravitational theories, too.

Modern scientists may laugh at Kepler's date saying that it is nearly 13.7 billion years off. Do any of the people who come up with that larger number have the courage to set a specific year, month and day for the Big Bang? Another thing that has always bothered me is that cosmologists and astronomers talk about how we are looking back in time when we look at distant objects in the universe. They say we are all speeding away from each other and, since the speed of light is a constant, when we look at a star that is a million light years away (in distance), we are seeing that star as it was a million years ago. From what I understand of the Big Bang Theory, stars started forming about 100 million years after the Big Bang itself. That's a very short time compared with the age of the universe. Did we "out-run" the light of those early stars as we rushed away from them? Or did time itself not really kick in until a certain point in the expansion? Is it possible that what seems like 13.7 billion years is not really that long because the "clock" wasn't running all that time?

I've not studied this stuff and people who are smarter than me have come up with these theories. It sure makes me curious and I'd like to read more about it. Some day, as I find out more about these things, I'd like to write more about them. Till then, let's sing Happy Birthday to the universe, have some cake and play a game of pin the tail on the comet.

Monday, April 25, 2011

3,000 miles

The odometer on my scooter turned over 3,000 miles this morning on my way into work. If I'd have used our van for those miles, it would have probably used approximately 176 gallons of gasoline. At the current price of around $3.80, that's $668.80 in gas alone to travel those 3,000 miles. On the other hand, my scooter has only needed 35 gallons. That's only $133.00 to travel those 3,000 miles - a savings of $555.80. And that's just for the gasoline. It takes a lot more to keep a car running than just the gasoline. For instance, we had two repairs done on our van just a few months ago that totaled almost $2000. No repair on my scooter would ever cost that much - or I'd just buy a new scooter. It only cost $2,500 brand new last year.

The gas price I used, $3.80, is actually lower than we have to pay in our area. But the gas prices happen to be really high right now and continue to go up. So, of course, these numbers are all estimates. I'm not sure if the price of gasoline will stay this high but it's never going to go down too low. The world is increasing its use of gasoline and other petroleum products faster than we are discovering and exploiting new sources. But every time I see a report on the news about how high the price of gasoline has risen to, I smile a little thinking about my scooter.

[Update - April 26. In case you want to check my math: I know you could figure this out but to make things easier, I'll tell you that our van (a 2005 Chrysler Town and Country) averages 17 miles per gallon. For my scooter, the average is 85 miles per gallon.]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"He is risen!"

"He is risen, indeed!" That's the message of Easter. Christ died and was buried and rose again on the third day. He is our redeemer. On Good Friday, Jesus was the Lamb of God. On Easter, he arose as the King.

Easter church services are always crowded and our church has a Saturday evening service so we went to that last night. As part of the sermon, our pastor repeated the oft-told story of Jesus' resurrection and the part I am always surprised and delighted with is the writers of the Gospel admitting that none of Jesus' disciples and followers really understood or believed that he would rise again on the third day. They thought that their cause had died with Jesus on Golgotha. The men all scattered and were afraid. The women, who didn't run away but went to the tomb, didn't believe either because they went to the tomb to put burial spices on a dead body. They were all shocked and elated to see Jesus alive. The fact that they were willing to admit this just speaks to the truth of their message in the Gospel. If you were making up a story to set yourself up as the leader of a new movement, wouldn't you try to make yourself seem to be all-knowing and understanding the message of your movement? The disciples were just telling what happened. The message of Jesus' death and resurrection was the message. Not their own abilities or lack of them. They were the first to acknowledge that their power came not from themselves but from God, his Son and his Holy Spirit. This lovely picture is from this site.

I wish for you all the truth and light that comes from understanding these things.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A solution to what problem?

I've been riding my scooter into work most days now. But when there is (or is going to be) a heavy rain, I take the car. On those days, I listen to the radio on the way in. That's the one bad thing about riding my scooter - no radio. I really miss listening to Morning Edition and All Things Considered from National Public Radio.

Wednesday was a rainy day and as I listened to Morning Edition on the way to work, I was sure I had either misheard the announcer or they were playing a joke on us. They introduced the next segment by saying someone had invented 2-D glasses.Why would anyone want those? We normally see in 3-D so they couldn't be talking about regular, every day glasses. Why would you need 2-D glasses for a movie? They already have 2-D movies and you don't need special glasses for those. It turns out to be a clever response to a very specific problem. More and more people enjoy going to 3-D movies. But some people are bothered by the not-quite-real effect of watching the movie through 3-D glasses. What do you do if you want to go to a movie with someone and that other person really wants to see the 3-D version but you're bothered by the 3-D glasses? You have to sit there without the special glasses and look at the fuzzy screen with a disappointed look on your face.

Now, this company, 2-D Glasses, has a solution. If you wear their glasses in the 3-D movie, you see it clearly as a 2-D movie without the fuzziness, eye strain or headaches. It's a pretty nice solution to an interesting, though probably not wide-spread, problem. It goes to show you that there are many more opportunities for innovation than we think. The sad part, though, is that you have to pay the extra cost of getting into the 3-D movie and then you have to pay even more for the 2D glasses. It's another manifestation of one of those universal laws - you just can't win. Unless you're the guy who invented the new glasses.

Here's a link to the short piece on Morning Edition. The little graphic here is from the 2-D Glasses website.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An old solution to a new problem

Electronic books are getting more and more of the market thanks to electronic book readers like the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad (not that the iPad is just an electronic book reader).  I don't have one so I can't offer any recommendations. I want to talk about a problem all of the e-readers have. And it's not just these stand-alone electronic book readers. There is a problem if you want to read a book on your computer screen, too. It turns out that not all electronic screens are the same size. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. We all know that. The problem is page numbers. If you're reading a book on your Nook and you find a really interesting passage on page 23, you can't call your friend (who has an iPad, for instance) and point them to page 23 because the same amount of text doesn't fit on the two screens. What shows as page 23 on your Nook may be page 18 on your friend's iPad.

The manufacturers have known about this problem for a while and each of them has come up with their own solution but none of them are compatible. So far, all the solutions are in the e-readers themselves. What's needed is a solution in the material itself. There needs to be a way to have marks in the text that are common to all of the e-readers. But there is one book that doesn't have this problem. If you're reading your Bible on an e-reader or your computer or even on paper, you can say to anyone reading it on any of those devices, "I hear this week's sermon in on Mark 10:32-44. We should read ahead to be prepared." And anyone you tell this to will be able to find that exact section with little trouble.

Yes, this problem has been with us for centuries and it was solved centuries ago. The Bible, of course, can be printed in books of many different sizes, in type of many different sizes and in different languages. There needed to be a way to reference specific passages across all of these different formats. Maybe more modern publishers will look to the Bible for even more wisdom. It couldn't hurt.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More about our small blue dot

In my previous post, I mentioned how in the planetarium show Passport to the Universe, as you seem to travel further away from Earth, they pause to turn the view back toward Earth and ask you to find our planet among all the other points of light in view. After they point it out as just a small blue dot among all the other stars and planets, the narrator says,
"That's home. Everyone you ever knew or ever heard of came from that tiny spot."
It turns out that this is a paraphrase of what Carl Sagan wrote in his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space about a composite picture of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990,
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
Yes, once again my own writing comes up short when you compare it with a good writer. That's just the way it is. Of course, Mr. Sagan is just talking about human civilization and leaves our the fact that God doesn't exist just on the "pale blue dot" but that's not the point he was trying to get across. I don't know if Mr. Sagan believed in God and I don't know if he was a Christian. But we can't just dismiss his words because he leaves out the fact that God, his Son and the Holy Spirit didn't originate on Earth. His are still thought provoking words.

It was Mr. Sagan who asked NASA to turn the Voyager 1 spacecraft around in its flight through our solar system to look back toward Earth and take a series of pictures. I mistakenly thought the view was taken from just past the orbit of Saturn. It turns out that this view was generated from the viewpoint of approximately 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Earth. That's beyond the orbit of Neptune and almost as far as Pluto's farthest distance from the Earth! The pictures from Voyager 1 aren't the pictures you see in the planetarium show. It was these pictures from Voyager 1 that inspired the view in Passport to the Universe. The image is much more clear in the planetarium show than the images that Voyager 1 sent back to Earth.

And before we get angry at the writers for the Passport to the Universe show for taking Mr. Sagan's words, keep in mind that one of the writers of the show was Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow. I think she has a right to use them. If you are interested, there is more information about the images from Voyager 1 in Wikipedia in this article.

And yes, Mr. Sagan is wrong in saying,
" all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."
There is help from elsewhere but he (Carl Sagan) probably didn't want to acknowledge that. Too bad.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Passport to the Universe

In a previous post, I mentioned that we saw a good planetarium show in the Alden Planetarium at the Ecotarium in Worcester, MA. The show was titled Passport to the Universe. It is different from a lot of other planetarium shows we've seen. It's not produced by the usual 'star ball' projector nor is it a movie made by animation and artist's conceptions of the planets, stars, galaxies and nebulae. It was produced by entering the precise positions of all the known objects in our universe into a computer that can change how we see the objects in places other than the Earth. It also includes images from the Hubble Space Telescope so you're seeing the real thing.

We've seen this show before (three years ago when we were here last) but it amazed me as much this time as the first time we saw it. Both of our children are older now, too, and could appreciate it more. It is amazing to think that for every star we see with our eye at night, there are 50 million more that we can't see - in our galaxy alone!

You start the show with a view of the Earth and travel out through our solar system. As you get past Saturn, the point of view shifts to look back toward Earth and they ask if you can find the small blue dot among the stars, the Sun and the other stars. Of course you can't and they have to point it out. Then the narrator, Tom Hanks, says,
"That's home. Everyone you ever knew or ever heard of came from that tiny spot."
Isn't that amazing to think about? In all the vastness of the Universe - among all the stars and planets - for all of time - we've all come from that small, blue dot (more later about an error in that statement, though). It kind of goes two ways. In one sense, it means we all need to pull together to work for our common good. If we screw up this one place, there's nowhere else to live. This is a precious, limited resource.

But in another sense, it makes you realize that, left to our baser instincts, we don't get along sometimes (most of the time?) . We're all "crammed" together in this one tiny place. If you don't believe that our goal is to love one another and look out for our neighbor, then the "every man for himself" mentality can take over. People can try to carve out their minuscule part of a tiny place and defend it against everyone else. Which is it to be?

As I said two paragraphs above, there is an error in the quote from the show. Not everyone we've ever known or heard about came from that spot. God did not come from Earth. He created the Earth (and the Universe) and came to Earth, as Jesus, to save us from our baser instincts. He left his Holy Spirit here to help us do what we should. He came to remind us that he created this magnificent universe and that he loves us. He came so that we would help our neighbors on this blue dot. He wants us to be joined together in him, to love each other and rise above what we would do if left to our own knowledge, abilities and desires.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Flip camera is being discontinued

Today, Cisco Systems announced that it was dropping the Flip camcorder (article about this at the New York Times). They will not sell the product to another company nor will they spin it off into a separate company. They are just not going to make it anymore. This might seem like a strange subject for me to write about. After all, I know nothing about how large corporations work and what it takes to make a consumer product.

Cisco didn't create the Flip camera. They bought it from the original company (Pure Digital Technologies) that conceived the idea and brought it to market. The little video camera was a huge success. People loved it for its simplicity. One of its best features was that it didn't have too many features. It did just a few things but it did them well. It was reliable. It was easy to use. It just worked! Then the founders sold the company to Cisco which is known for its computer and Internet networking hardware. They knew nothing about this type of product but they had the money to spend and wanted to diversify their company. The creators of the product wanted to sell and they picked a good time. But now, this terrific little product will not be available anymore. Yes there are competitors  but this was the one the set the pace and led the competition. Here is a short article in Forbes magazine from a writer who will really miss the Flip camera.

From the articles I've read, most analysts thought that Cisco had made a mistake and this just proves it. If you read the New York Times article I linked to, you'll see a lot of reasons for why the Flip was being discontinued. The biggest "reason" was that smart phones could do everything the Flip could do and more. This is all wrong. Yes smart phones can take pictures and video but they cost a lot more (including monthly fees for connectivity), they are more valuable (so you can't just leave them laying around), they are more fragile, their batteries don't last as long - and I could go on and on. If Cisco or the original owner, Pure Digital Technologies, had really thought about it, they could have accentuated the strengths of the Flip to emphasize its superiority in certain areas over smart phones. For instance, the Flip would be a great surveillance camera. You wouldn't want to leave your smart phone laying around but you could do that with the inexpensive Flip (and it's smaller and easier to hide). Cisco, who supposedly know all about wireless networking, could have allowed the Flip to communicate with your wireless router or other Internet connection to let you keep tabs on your house - or your car - or your boat  - or even your bicycle. That was it's beauty. It was small and inexpensive. Another idea is that a lot of people would like to take time-lapse movies of certain things. The Flip could have been programmed to take a picture once every X minutes for a month or two. Then you would retrieve it and turn the pictures into a movie. You wouldn't want to do without your smart phone for that length of time but you could do that with a Flip. Or what about naturalists? They are always wanting to get pictures or video of animals that don't appear when you want them to. If the Flip had been augmented with a motion detection trigger, every wildlife biologist would have bought 10 of them! And these are just a few ideas that I came up with in a few minutes. If they had opened up the architecture of the Flip, a whole community of tinkerers would have grown up around it finding new and interesting ways to use a simple, inexpensive, reliable camcorder.

So, according to news reports, the bottom line is that Cisco just made a mistake in buying the Flip and were now admitting that. Yes, they were going to lose some money and some prestige but the Flip was a minuscule part of their business and they will recover just fine. But what about the 550 people who will be losing their jobs? What about the lost potential for a terrific product? And the Flip is still selling well, too. It's just not as big a money maker as Cisco would like. Yes, competitors can fill the void but that assumes the competitors know everything that the makers of the Flip did. Not likely. There will be lost knowledge and lost jobs. Our country doesn't need this kind of lazy, wasting of money and jobs right now.

[Update, April 15, In writing this blog, I hope to improve my writing. In the back of my mind, I think that some day I may try to write something and get paid for it. Then I realize that I'm not really a very good writer. Here is a link to David Pogue's blog post about the death of the Flip camera. He does a much better job of voicing the outrage at what has happened. I would have liked to have used this event to point out the larger, big problems we face when companies do stupid things like this. I didn't do that.]

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another view of change

Continuing on the theme of my last blog post, how our children have grown over the last three years, I offer two more pictures I took - three years apart. These pictures were also taken on the grounds of the Ecotarium in Worcester, MA. There is a small (very small) observatory on the highest point of the Ecotarium grounds. Our son Evan has always been fond of studying the stars and planets so I thought it would be interesting to get a picture of him near their observatory. Unfortunately, we weren't there when it was operating. Maybe some day. The first picture (top right) was taken on April 9, 2008 when Evan was 11 years old.

The second picture was taken just a few days ago on April 8, 2011 and he is now 14 years old. As you can see, he's grown quite a lot in three years. You can also see that he now needs glasses. He held off needing glasses much longer than my wife and I did, though. My wife needed glasses when she was about 3 years old and I needed them when I was about 8 years old. And Evan's eyes are not nearly as bad as either of ours. In this and many other ways, he is better than the sum of my wife and I. That is true of our daughter, Emma, too, but that is less surprising since we adopted her.

We also got to see a fascinating planetarium show that day entitled Passport to the Universe. I hope to write more about that in a later post.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

How kids change

On this date three years ago, my wife was taking some sewing classes at a conference in Worcester, MA. After we drove her there, I took my children to the Ecotarium in Worcester for something to do while we waited for my wife's classes to finish. We had great time and I took a lot of pictures of them. One of the pictures was with this life-size model of a Stegosaurus.

Now, three years later, my wife was again taking sewing classes at the same convention (The New England Sewing and Quilting Expo) in Worcester so the kids and I went to the Ecotarium again. The picture at the bottom is the picture I took yesterday of my children with the the same Stegosaurus model.

Unfortunately, you can see some wear and tear on old Mr. Stegosaurus and they've had to reposition him (including a few inches higher off the ground) and put a rope around him to protect him (the model isn't as tough as the original I guess). So, the kids couldn't stand right next to him but I think you can see the growth. Yes, it's true. Turn around and your kids have grown.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

X-ray vision needed

This story is about a product that has one major flaw. As you can see in the picture to the right, it's a paper towel dispenser. This one is in our office above the sink in the kitchen area. It dispenses those rough, not-very-absorbent, brown paper towels that come in a big roll. You pull down the lever (on the right) a few times until there is enough paper to do the job and then you tear it off. Notice the tiny white square in the center near the bottom. It slowly shows less white and more red color to tell you how much paper is left on the roll - sort of. This "how much is left" signal isn't good enough to tell you if there is enough paper in the dispenser to accomplish the job you're trying to do, though. About all it is good for is when you pull down the lever and nothing comes out and the little indicator is all red - now you know that the dispenser is out of paper.

That's where the flaw in this dispenser shows itself. No, not the useless "how much is left" indicator. The flaw I'm talking about is bigger than that. The fact that you have to change the paper will show you the big flaw. First, you have to find the key to open the front of the dispenser. Wait, is that another flaw? Well, I guess it is but not as big as the one I'm trying to tell you about. The key is a minor flaw. It is kind of silly, though, to force people to use a key to change the paper in something like this. I could see if this was a public restroom and you were worried about hoodlums coming in to steal the paper or something. But there should be a version of this dispenser for common areas where the people can be trusted. But back to my story about The Flaw. No more breaks. OK?

So, you've found the key and opened the dispenser. Here you see how well thought out this unit is. As you can see in the picture to the left, the instructions for reloading the paper are right there where you can see them. They are not terribly complex but, as you may be able to see, it takes three steps. The first step is pretty easy. You just swing a plastic arm out of the way. Then the second step is to put the new roll of paper in. My final picture, on the bottom right, is what it looks like after the second step. That went pretty well, too. Now, on to the third step.

Wait a minute! What was that third step? I forget and now it's too late to read it because the paper has covered up the instructions. Of course, what I ended up doing was taking the paper back out, re-reading the instructions and committing the third step to memory. Then I was able to finish the job. and let me tell you, the third step is definitely the hardest. It tells you how to thread the paper into the roller assembly and how to get the arm you moved in step one back into place now that paper is in the way. Yes, this is the big flaw. The dispenser itself works well. It doesn't waste any paper. And once you know how to do it, it turns out to be easy to replace the roll of paper. Just don't put the paper in until you've memorized the instructions the first time you do it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

April Fool's Day song

Many years ago when my wife and I were the accompanist and choir director (in that order) at a church, April 1 fell on a Sunday and we thought it would be fun to do something different for the choir's part of the worship service. I had heard a funny song years before on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion that we thought would work. Once in a while, A Prairie Home Companion would have a folk song show where listeners would send in their remembrances of folk songs from their youth (summer camp, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church or school) and the performers on the show would fill the entire show with them. Some of them were familiar and some were silly. Some were profound and some were forgettable. This one was silly but we figured that April Fool's Day kind of gave us license to try it. I passed it by the minister first (he was in the choir, too, so he knew ahead of time) to make sure we weren't being too sacrilegious. Here are the words. I've tried to add more verses over the years but I won't subject you to those.
Adam was the first man, Eve she was the mother,
Cain he was an evil man because he slew his brother.
Samson was a strong man, Noah built the ark.
Jonah ran away from God - got swallowed by a shark.

Oh, young folks, old folks, everybody come,
Come and join the Sunday School and make yourself at home.
Bring your sticks of chewing gum and sit upon the floor and
We'll tell you Bible stories that you've never heard before.
Moses mother hid him in a basket in the brook
Pharaoh's daughter found him when she went to take a look.
When she took him home she said she found him by the shore.
Pharaoh merely smiled and said, "We've heard that tale before."
Salome was a dancer. She danced before the king.
She wiggled and she wobbled - almost everything.
"Stop," King Herod cried. "We'll have none of that in here!"
"Oh, yes we will," Salome said. And kicked the chandelier.
The congregation really enjoyed it and we had fun performing it. As far as I know, it was never done again. I was the choir director for about seven years and April 1 didn't fall on a Sunday again in that time.