28 November 2006

Baby nuking

An Ohio coroner has declared death by microwave for a 1-month-old baby brought to the hospital by its mother a year ago.

The death was ruled a homicide caused by hyperthermia, or high body temperature. The absence of external burns ruled out an open flame, scalding water or a heating pad as the cause, [coroner] Betz said.
Betz said the case was difficult because "there is not a lot of scientific research and data on the effect of microwaves on human beings." (CNN)

Any volunteers? ;)

Explosive Supernova Discovery!

A single supernova has been found that does not follow what we know about supernovae. What's known as Type Ia supernovae start off as white dwarfs, the remnants of stars like our own, with more massive companions. The buddy dumps extra mass onto the WD, pushing it up to exactly 1.4 solar masses (according to the old Chandresekhar theory) at which point it goes *BOOM!*

Since all of these started off as the same size, they make the same size boom, or in astronomer's terms their light curve is the same (with minor corrections which aren't yet understood but can be accounted for). Because of this handy-dandy little fact that they all look the same really, we can use how bright they appear to us here on Earth to determine how far they really were. This is one small piece of the puzzle that tells us the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, is accelerating its expansion, is geometrically flat, infinite in size, and contains 70% dark energy.

This group has found evidence that the supernova known as SNLS-03D3bb was bigger than 1.4 solar masses (2 solar masses was reported elsewhere) when it exploded.

If the WD wasn't 1.4 solar masses to start, we don't know how big its *BOOM!* was, we don't know how bright it really was, we don't know how far away it really was. If this was just one star, no biggie, it's a freak. If this were MANY stars, we don't know how bright any of them really were, and therefore we don't know the universe's age, acceleration, shape, size, or composition.

This one anomaly isn't going to send the whole theory of the universe down the drain, but it is disturbing. Believe you me that there will be a LOT of double checking of work in the next year or two, you'll probably hear about some in early January at the next big national (and international) astronomy conference, and after that if it's not just an anomaly textbooks will be rewritten again.

(And they'll get the fix that pesky Pluto typo too.)

21 November 2006


WTF?! What were this person's credentials? A substitute teacher in a high school bio class had students pricking their fingers to take a blood sample, and then pass the needle on to someone else! If this isn't a good reason to require all teachers to have degrees in their subjects, including substitutes, I don't know what is. I don't even get why they'd let a sub run a lab anyway. STUPID STUPID STUPID!!!

20 November 2006

More on averting armageddon

Yet another article on how to avoid doomsday due to an Earth-crossing asteroid, and as usual there's very little content. I think this's the first time I've heard of a gravitational tugboat, but it doesn't seem practical to me since the asteroid would be pulling the ship as well, so you'd need to continaully thrust the ship, but have the particle streams pointed around the asteroid (think of a cone w/ the point on the grav. tugboat and asteroid as the icecream scoop), which is horribly inefficient due to that nice cosine of half the opening angle.

19 November 2006

iTunes 7 Hint

When burning an mp3 CD in iTunes 7, if you have the playlist sorted on the artist name or album name, iTunes will automatically create folders and subfolders on the CD. This unfortunately is not readable on many mp3 CD players (including my car). To not do the folders, sort either on time, song title, or song order (first column, unnamed, and ordered by default by when you added it to the list though you can reorder them), and then burn.

If you really really want them sorted by artist or album but without folders, first create a dummy playlist. In the real playlist, sort by artist or album, then select all (Cmnd-A) and drag into the dummy playlist. Delete the original playlist and rename the dummy to the name you want. When you sort on song number, it should be the same order as when you dragged into it.

05 November 2006

The Big Picture

Here's something fun to play with. Called "The Big Picture," it's a zoomable wide-field visible light survey of part of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. Unlike most large three-color images, this one is NOT a mosiac, but instead was taken in "drift mode" at the Palomar Observatory - the telescope points at a place in the sky to start and then stays fixed in where it's pointing (relative to the ground) as the sky rotates past. However, a physical mosaic version of it's been installed in the newly reopened Griffith Observatory.

03 November 2006

MIT Mystery Hunt Time!

Do you download the daily sudoku variation from WebSudoku? Are the NY Times Sunday crosswords too easy for you? Did you figure out what the heck my icon means just because you could? When you see a series of dots, do you immediately start interpretting it as Morse, Braille, constellations, or T-stations? If any of these apply to you, then you may be interested in joining our team for the MIT Mystery Hunt.

Over the course of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend (Fri Jan 12 - Mon Jan 15), starting Friday Noon (EST), our team of around 30-40 in-person and 10-20 remote people work on solving a set of 100 puzzles of any sort you can think of. Puzzle formats in the past have included sudoku, jig saw, crossword, word searches, physical treasure hunts, "paint by number," chess, and many original types; puzzle topics include words, history, programming, trivia, math, science, music, pop culture, MIT-specific, literature, internet searches, and many more. The winning team has to organize the next year's Hunt. (We will not win, we're not close to good enough yet, but we will have lots of fun.) You don't need to be an expert in anything, whatever anybody knows always gets utilized somehow. You only need to participate for as long or short as you want. Sleep is optional.

My team, Lake Effect Snow, will be participating in our third Hunt this January (2007). We are starting to make a name for ourselves as being more highly cooperative than most teams, and for having a large contingent of remote participants. While we are interested in adding more strong puzzlers to our team (Tortoise has been our only powerhouse for the past two years), and more MIT-natives, the biggest criterion for succeeding on the team is good teamwork.

One of the interesting things to the Hunt is the structure of it. It's not just a set of puzzles and whomever solves the most wins. Instead, each individual puzzle has at least two layers to it, and then combines with other puzzles into metapuzzles, and metapuzzles combine to eventually come up with the winner. When solving puzzles and working towards the goal of winning, you go through stages.

1) Simple (typical) puzzle Answer
A (live) launch event on Friday noonish introduces all teams to the theme of the Hunt. Then every team starts off with something like 3-5 puzzles. Each puzzle you first solve as "normal." For example, finding all the words in a word search.

2) One-word Solution
Somehow the "normal answer" to the puzzle has to be turned into a one- or two-word solution. Maybe the leftover letters in a word search spell something, or identifying locations on the MIT campus from photos will spell out a word if you plot them on a map. Sometimes you'll have to use anagrams or other similar things to go from the "normal answer" to the "solution". Sometimes you can get the Solution without the "normal answer," and if you're progressing towards the goal, the Solution is all you need.

Solutions are usually submitted to the Hunt organizers (Hunt HQ as we call them), via phone, and once you submit them, they will verify the solution and unlock (reveal) some 3-5 additional puzzles that you can then work on. We typically experience exponential growth of the number of puzzles available during Friday afternoon/night, and then taper off on Saturday as we get stuck and can't come up with more Solutions. Puzzles unlocked together are part of a group, called a Meta or Metapuzzle.

3) Metapuzzle
The one-word Solutions for a few "linked" puzzles then combine to create an additional layer of puzzles (metapuzzles), which also have a simple answer and then a one-word solution. Solving one Metapuzzle will usually unlock a few simple puzzles within a new Metapuzzle.

Some Metapuzzles are also typically on timed release, so groups that are struggling with one set will eventually get new puzzles and and can progress from them. Last year there were actually two Metapuzzles for each set of puzzles - we didn't realize this for quite a while, and then when we suddenly realized it we unlocked a crapload more puzzles. :-P (Not telling the puzzlers what's required is typical, figuring out the "rules" to the game/puzzle is part of the fun.)

4) Run-around
Solve enough Metapuzzles, and they further combine into a treasure hunt throughout the MIT campus to discover a coin or token that is hidden. The first team to the Coin wins. Typically 2-3 teams (unlikely to be us, but we can always hope!) make it to this stage. This usually happens between Sunday morning and Sunday night of the weekend.

Once one of the teams completes the Runaround, locates the Coin, and brings it back to Hunt HQ, the game is over. It typically takes another hour for word to trickle down and all the teams to realize this through their sleep-deprived caffeine-fogged brains, but when no one answers phones at Hunt HQ it's usually a good sign. A (live) wrap-up then occurs some 3-8 hours later, where the organizing team summarizes the overall structure of the year's Hunt, describes the Runaround for all the other teams that didn't make it, and then does a Q&A session for anyone who wants to stick around.

If you are interested in participating, please let me know - email me at zandperl-AT-gmail-DOT-com if you want privacy, or comment on this entry if you don't. If I don't know you in person, tell me a little bit about yourself either here or via email - we haven't been particularly screening out people, but since we want to make sure we keep the good teamwork I think it'd important that we know a little about people who want to join.

I hope to hear from people!

02 November 2006

Were you?

You paid attention during 91% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

Do you deserve your high school diploma?
Make a Quiz

I bet it's one of the history ones... I'm not entirely sure what the Immaculate Conception one was doing in there.