Archive for: July, 2008

Skydiver takes out marching band

Jul 18 2008 Published by under ... the Hell?, Sports

Ouch. On Thursday, a parachutist went off course during a jump at Fort Riley, Kansas, and crashed feet first into the 1st Infantry Division's marching band. Three band members were significantly injured during the landing; video of the crash can be seen on CNN here.

This sort of accident is highly unusual and, from watching the video, seems darn near inexcusable. Modern parachutes provide a significant ability to maneuver and pick a proper landing spot (note the forward speed on the parachute in the video). The marching band was standing still and should have been easy to see from the air and avoid; furthermore, the landing field is large enough that the parachutist should have been able to avoid the crowd and land safely with only a slight change in course. Even with a risk of hitting the crowd, he should have shouted a warning to those below, but "they didn't hear anything except a brief rustling of the jumper's parachute."

The only explanation I can imagine for this is that the jumper had relatively little experience and froze when he realized he was off course. The Yahoo News article states:

Two parachutists jumped from a single-engine plane at about 6,000 feet. Keating said the second jumper's parachute lines apparently became tangled, pulling him off course.

The parachute looks to be flying properly in the video, so I suspect the jumper simply didn't know what to do when faced with an unfamiliar landing area. This is a risk that all jumpers should prepare for: know your 'outs'! When jumping, always be familiar with other possible landing areas in the region and possible obstacles on the ground.

I actually landed off the DZ during a jump this past weekend. Once my canopy was open, I knew I wouldn't make the main landing area, so I carefully weighed my choices: I could land at the very edge of the airport runway or take a more conservative landing in a field across the street. I ended up having enough time to make the edge of the runway, but I was very carefully watching my altitude and my ground speed to see if that choice was feasible.

Anyway, thankfully nobody suffered any life-threatening injuries, and I hope they make a speedy recovery.

(Note: I forgot to say h/t Karen for the newslink!)

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Jeff Lindsay's Dexter in the Dark

Jul 18 2008 Published by under Horror

Jeff Lindsay stole my idea!  Well, he didn't, really, but I'm amused that the central plot of his most recent book, Dexter in the Dark, is stunningly similar to a short story that's been sitting on my computer half finished for years.  I've really got to start finishing my stories, though I'm not sure I could do it with quite the charm that Lindsay does.  Okay, enough personal musing:

Dexter in the Dark is the latest book in the highly successful series chronicling the exploits of Dexter Morgan, Miami crime scene investigator and serial killer.  The book series has inspired the Showtime television series Dexter, which has drawn rave reviews.  I first started reading the series the same way many people did: by picking up the book at the airport.  After that, I was hooked.  I gobbled up Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter and eagerly awaited more.

Curiously, though, Dexter in the Dark takes a bit of a departure from the previous books: it introduces what can only be called a supernatural element to the storyline, as is clear from the very first chapter.

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Vet pulls hook from shark's stomach, by hand

Jul 17 2008 Published by under Animals

Though a lot of people wouldn't find this heart-warming, I did: an Australian veterinarian, David Blyde, ended up putting his arm into the jaws of a grey nurse shark to remove a steel fishing hook, saving the animal's life.   The three-meter shark was spotted off the coast with the hook protruding:

Seaworld diver Trevor Lond lassoed the shark, which was brought in for a team to work on.  Blyde had the seemingly scary task of actually reaching in and removing the hook (though he was protected by a pvc tube which had been first inserted).  Video of the process can be seen on CNN here.  The shark was released to continue a life of eating various things that it shouldn't.

The grey nurse shark is a lovely creature which, despite its appearance, isn't particularly hazardous to humans (though some attacks have been reported).  It is, however, one of the most endangered species of sharks (with possibly as few as 500 in Eastern Australia), which makes this rescue of a female an especially happy success story.

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E. and H. Heron's Ghost Stories

Jul 16 2008 Published by under Horror

A few months back, I did a post on 'psychic detectives' in fiction, discussing the classic detectives such as John Silence and Thomas Carnacki as well as some lesser-known and more modern detectives.

My list was not complete, however, and I'm still running across 'ghost hunter' compilations!  I just finished reading Ghost Stories, by E. and H. Heron, and I thought I'd add their ghost hunter Flaxman Low to my list!

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The Giant's Shoulders #1 is up!

Jul 16 2008 Published by under Science news

The first edition of The Giant’s Shoulders is now up at A Blog Around The Clock. Being the first, there’s a huge number of entries to the carnival, so check it out!

The next edition will happen at The Lay Scientist, with entries due August 15th. Let’s keep it going!

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Einstein vs. Whittaker, with Born in the middle

Jul 15 2008 Published by under History of science, Physics, Relativity

My former thesis advisor is the greatest! I recently helped him update an electronic compilation of his collected papers, but refused any payment for my services. He ignored me and sent me a copy of The Born-Einstein Letters, a compilation of correspondence between Albert Einstein and Max Born between 1916 and 1955.

This gives me an opportunity/excuse to discuss one of my favorite exchanges between the pair, concerning Sir Edmund Whittaker's book A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity.

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In depth: depth of focus and depth of field

Jul 14 2008 Published by under Optics

Update: The original website with its digitally-altered 'miniworld' pics seems to have been taken down.  I've constructed a few of my own 'miniworld' pics to give the reader an idea of what I'm talking about:




From now on, I save an archive of all photos I use from the internet!

While stumbling through the 'tubes the other day, I came across a very cute series of photos, an example of which is pictured below:

Is it a picture of a real place, or a picture of a miniature model? All the pictures are apparently of real places, digitally modified via Photoshop to make them look tiny! If you are skeptical, you can see the original picture of Stonehenge in the snow here, and what looks to be the original of Tokyo Tower here.

I'm not a digital photo expert, but it looks like a number of 'tricks' were used to make the pictures look miniature, including the simple psychological effect of always having views from above. The most significant modification, though, is of the focus: in the modified pictures, the foregrounds and backgrounds are out of focus, and this alone can fool the eye. Why is this?

This effect is a clever exploitation of the concept of depth of field, and its related 'cousin', depth of focus. I thought I'd do a short post about the idea (my friend Personal Demon suggested the topic months ago, actually) and the related mathematics. Along the way we'll introduce a few simple lens topics from geometrical optics.

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Five days left until The Giant's Shoulders!

Jul 10 2008 Published by under Science news

Just a reminder that the deadline for submissions to the first edition of The Giant's Shoulders is coming up on July 15th!  Entries should be sent to Coturnix at A Blog Around The Clock.

For the first edition, there is obviously no requirement for entries to have been written since the last edition, so we'll take anything (only chronologically speaking, of course).   We'll be automatically including all the entries for the "Classic Papers Challenge" that I hosted a few months back, as well.

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Invasion of the gluten-lacers!

Jul 09 2008 Published by under Health

I never thought I'd be happy to be diagnosed with a disease.

I've teased my fiancée for some time for having a similar attitude. She has had chronic, misdiagnosed medical problems for quite a few years. Her frustration is palpable, and understandable, but I couldn't help but tease her gently that she often would seem genuinely delighted at the possibility of having a problem.

But a diagnosed disease can be treated, which is where the excitement comes from. I was recently diagnosed with celiac disease, and it was truly a relief.

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Rant time: The End of Theory? (Updated)

Jul 08 2008 Published by under ... the Hell?, General science, Science news

This one's already been passed around the blogosphere like a cheap bottle of wine, but I feel the urge to comment on it myself. A recent issue of Wired Magazine has an essay by Chris Anderson with the very provocative title, "The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete." The argument, in short, is that computers have gotten so good at processing massive amounts of data that we don't have to understand the underlying processes that produce the data anymore: we can just let computer algorithms sort through the data and give us explanations. Anderson labels this new, model-free age "the Petabyte Age."

This article and this attitude really irks me, and not just because I am a theorist by trade: the attitude presented here is, to my mind, so wrong-headed that it is actually hurtful to the progress of science. Let's take a look at some of the claims.

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