National Arboretum

This past May, Ligia and I visited the National Arboretum here in DC. We try to go there at least once a year. The grounds are huge, and they have both outdoors and indoors facilities. Admission is free, and the grounds are open from 8 AM to 5 PM daily, every day of the year except on Christmas.

The National Arboretum was established in 1927 through an Act of Congress. It is administered by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Its mission is to “serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment”. It sits on 446 acres and has 9.5 miles of roads.

Among its gardens are:

  • Single-genus: azalea, boxwood, daffodil, daylily, dogwood, holly, magnolia, maple, and peony.
  • Major gardens: aquatic plants, the Asian Collections, the Fern Valley Native Plant Collections, the Flowering Tree Collection, the Flowering Tree Walk, the Friendship Garden, the Gotelli Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifer Collection, the Introduction Garden, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the National Capitol Columns, the National Grove of State Trees, and the National Herb Garden.

If you’re in the area and you haven’t been yet, please visit, it’s worth your time.

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-12

Cool science videos

The Japanese have come up with a swimming snake robot:

Ronald Mallett is a university professor and a physicist. He believes time travel is possible, has a theory about how it can be done, and is working on a time machine:

The first dynamically-balanced robot, Dexter, learns to walk:

Here’s another robot, called Murata Boy, that can ride bicycles:

A home-made anti-gravity kit. Could be a hoax, but then again, I haven’t tried it out for myself, so I don’t know:

A demonstration of the principle of atomic halving through noodle-making. Awesome!

The FLIP is a research vessel that can literally flip to a vertical position while in water. It’s designed so its stern submerges deep underwater. It becomes incredibly stable that way, and this allows scientists to perform very precise measurements at sea.

Cool science videos

I like to see scientific principles at work in everyday activities. Here are a few videos that illustrate this. Enjoy the weekend!

Galileo postulated that objects fall at the same speed in a vacuum, regardless of their weight. When we got to the moon, they did this experiment on live TV:

Here’s a bar trick that involves simple density physics:

Another bar trick involves simple dimension estimations:

Handling molten glass is an art and science onto itself. Molding it into shape, whether by blowing into it or by using tools, while it’s still white hot, takes knowledge about materials, temperatures, talent and a lot of hard work. It looks easy in this video, but it isn’t.

The Aardvark is designed to take out land mines. Its action is simple. It rotates chains with attached deadweights at high speed, combing through the ground. When it hits a landmine, they go off. The vehicle is heavily plated, and incurs no damage. It’s really cool to see physics and chemistry in action. Can you spot the different forces at work?

This next video shows what happens when water freezes: it expands. Because in this particular location the water is surrounded by rocks, the extra volume of ice has no place to go but up. It’s an unsettling sight, but it’s just a simple natural phenomenon.

The ferrofluid sculpture you’re about to see made the rounds a while ago. It’s a crowd pleaser, but it works based on magnetic forces. The fluid is filled with iron particles, which are magnetized. Electricity is likely used to create a magnetic field which varies in size and force, allowing the artist or a programmable chip to control the fluid’s movement.

Cool science videos

Here’s what happens when Alka-Seltzer gets added to a water drop in space:

Want to see an aluminum foil ship float on “nothing”? (It’s not quite nothing, but it’s still pretty cool.)

Asimo, the robot made by Honda, ran at the 2007 CES:

The blind learn to see with their tongue:

Boeing conducted a 777 ultimate wing load test:

Here’s another Boeing 777 test, the maximum rejected takeoff:

I’m an airplane sucker. Here’s a Boeing 777 on final approach in high cross winds:

How many of my photos were stolen?

For the moment, this is a rhetorical question. I’ve been re-thinking the way I publish my photos online in view of the recent and very prominent theft of Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir‘s photos from Flickr. Call me naive, but I really believed, and still would like to believe, that people will wish to stay legal and pay for the right to use my photos, especially for commercial purposes. That’s why I’ve been publishing my photos at full resolution. I wanted folks who weren’t able to pay (developing countries, for instance), or only wanted a nice desktop background, to be able to download a photo of mine and enjoy it without financial obstacles.

But I talked with my brother this morning, and he told me some things that made me think twice about my approach. He’s a professor at a university in Transylvania (Romania), and he does a lot of field research in ethnology and religion. He takes a lot of photos, and shoots a lot of video. When people ask him for copies of his work, he’s very nice about it and does so, hoping they’ll respect his academic work and cite him or ask for his permission when they use it. But he’s been finding out that they don’t. They’ll reuse his photos and his videos, and he won’t hear about it until he sees his work somewhere else. Just recently, someone entered one of his videos in a contest as their own creation, and he found out about it only after that person won. It was very disheartening. He’s now thinking of watermarking both his videos and photos, and of only publishing lower resolution copies on the Internet. He’s tired of constant theft and no attribution.

So I had to ask myself: how many of my photos have already been stolen? I haven’t yet heard of or seen a particular instance, but I also haven’t really looked around to see. It’s probably just a matter of time before I start finding my work in someone else’s portfolio, website or printed materials. When you combine high-resolution photos with people that have no respect whatsoever for someone else’s hard work, you’re asking for trouble. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, good people, those that respect other people’s property, are few and far between, and it’s best not to tempt the thieves or uneducated ones by making good photos easily available.

I’ve taken some steps already. I used to upload to Flickr at full resolution. Not anymore. Since they offered Rebekkah no help whatsoever, and even deleted the photo where she complained of image theft, along with the thousands of comments that she received there, I’ve lost respect for them. If that’s how they’re going to treat one of their best users, then I sincerely hope they get what’s coming to them, and I hope it’s a wallop.

I may also start to watermark my images. As much as I hate this (it uglifies an image, imo), I’ll do it, just to make it harder to pass my photos around without crediting them properly. I may also start to copyright my photography with the Library of Congress, and pursue damages to the full letter of the law (up to $150,000 per incident).

Finally, I may also stop uploading at full res to Zooomr. I keep waiting for them to push out the Mark III upgrade, and it seems that every time Kris is ready to do it, something happens to stop it. This week was the third time the promised upgrade didn’t materialize, and I’m pretty disappointed. Mark III is supposed to have this really nice image theft prevention built in, so I could continue to upload a full res, but restrict the sizes available to casual visitors or even my contacts at certain resolutions, and only make the full res size available to buyers. But if Mark III doesn’t show up any time soon — and since Zooomr has no photo replace feature like Flickr — I may just delete all of my photos, or make them all private. I do not want to see my hard work go to waste.

It’s a real shame that we can’t function equitably as a society, at the local, state, national or global level. If only everyone would respect other people’s property (physical or intellectual), things would work a lot better. One would think the concept of property has been around long enough for most people and cultures to grasp it…

Michael J. Fox campaigns for stem cell research

Michael J. Fox appeared in some TV ads recently, to support stem cell research for Parkinson’s disease. The ads showed him moving uncontrollably, due to Parkinson’s. They were candid, and truthful. I’ve always liked Michael as an actor, and I thought he’s been a real gentleman throughout his ordeal with Parkinson’s. I agree with him, and with the ads. Stem cell research should be allowed, because it holds the potential for so many cures. So I was shocked to hear that Rush Limbaugh — although it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s callous and inconsiderate — accused Michael of faking it in the ads. I love Michael’s response, which shows, again, how much of a gentleman he is:

“The notion that you could calculate for effect … People out there with Parkinson’s are going, would that we could.”

If I had been in his place, I wouldn’t have minced my words — and perhaps, that’s why I’m not in his place. Bravo to you, Michael! Keep up the fantastic work you’re doing, and I do hope they find a cure for Parkinson’s soon!

To buy or not to buy an Apple

Updated 3/7/08: My opinion has changed quite a bit since I wrote this post. I am now going to get a 15″ MacBook Pro after working on a Windows laptop for the past two years. Feel free to read this further though, because it shows how far things have come since then.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately, because I’m looking at buying a new laptop. I’ve got this terrible dichotomy in my head. On one hand, I love Macs, and I’d love to get a Mac, but on the other hand, most of the work I do (web development stuff) is still handcuffed to Windows. It’s not minor stuff, either: Access, SQL Server, ASP, ASP.NET.

Yes, I know, I can run Windows on the Mac with Boot Camp now, but have you taken a look at the caveats? Apple’s had to write the Windows drivers for the Apple hardware, and certain things simply won’t work. Among them are: the Apple Remote Control, the Apple Wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, Apple USB Modem, the sudden motion sensor, the ambient light sensor, and, most importantly, the built-in iSight camera.

The very reasons I want to get an Apple – fantastic design, tight integration when it comes to software and hardware, obsessive attention to detail – are stopping me from getting one. Since I’ll need to run Windows on it, and my cool Apple hardware won’t work with Windows, what’s the point? I’ll be forever shutting down either Mac OS or Windows XP in order to use the features I want out of each system. Want to use iChat to talk with my wife? Oops, need to boot up in Mac OS. Need to do a bit of development work? Oops, got to boot up in Windows. Got to use Skype Video Chat? Double oops there, since only the Windows version can use a webcam, and iSight doesn’t work in Windows!

As if laptop hard drives aren’t small enough, I’ll need to partition the drive and share it with Windows. Not cool! On the one hand, I want to handle photos, music and videos on the Mac, filling up the drive with that stuff. On the other hand, I need to do development work and create large graphics in Photoshop and sites in Dreamweaver, both of which are Windows licenses, by the way. I work with large files there as well, and I know I’ll fill up that drive. What am I supposed to do? Shuffle files between the two operating systems using an external drive? Sounds easy enough, until you realize that Mac OS doesn’t read NTFS partitions and Windows doesn’t read Mac drives. Huh? Yup, it means you can’t copy files bigger than 4GB to that external drive, since it needs to be formatted in FAT.

Oh yes, let me not forget about emulation/virtualization software… Or rather, let me forget. I still shudder at the dismal performance of Virtual PC on my PowerBook G4 or my iMac G5. Yuck! Everything crawled, including the web browser. Copying files back and forth between the operating systems, although it was only a drag-and-drop operation, was excruciatingly slow. Running software like Dreamweaver took forever, needless to say. Virtualization software like VMWare, running Windows on Windows, albeit a little faster, was still slow in the desktop version. Although the speed should improve if virtualization software is run on the new Intel Macs, I don’t hold high hopes for it.

There are plenty of caveats with virtualization, other than performance. Software doesn’t always behave as expected, because it’s not a real computer, and certain things simply aren’t available. Then there’s that always disappointing jump between the real OS and the virtual OS. Although it’s as easy as Alt+Tab on Windows or Command+Tab on the Mac, the performance hit is depressing every time one needs to use the virtual machine. I tried other emulation software as well. Q, was one of them, and although the interface was nicer than Virtual PC’s, it still disappointed. No, no thanks.

I’ll let Parallels talk about how fast their virtualization is all they want. I’ll believe it when I see it encode video and run the latest versions of Photoshop and Visual Studio at near the full speed of the CPU. Meanwhile, I’ve had enough of emulation/virtualization. It may be good for servers, as VMWare is proving with their Enterprise suite of products, but it’s not good when one’s computing needs involve lots of high-availability graphics, memory and processing power.

It seems like I’m hopelessly caught between Scylla and Charybdis, not knowing where to turn, part of me wanting Mac OS and part of me needing Windows. What to do? Nothing to do but to hold off for now, and hope that either Apple or Windows get their act together for people like me.

What color car should you buy?

Researchers at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, have conducted a study and determined that silver is the most visible color, making it the safest choice. Earth tones such as green, brown and black are less noticeable on the roadways. Source: Summer 2006 edition of the USAA Magazine.

Plastic fibers can change color

Newly discovered electrochromic polymer fibers can change colors when an electric current is applied. Currently, they can only go from deep blue to orange. The researcher who discovered them is making a big mental leap and saying they could be used in color-changing clothing, but they’ve got a ways to go until that happens. This is interesting nonetheless, and for those of you who like to invest in early technologies, this might be a good bet, although it’s a long shot.

Scientists debunk astrology

Discovery News has a great article detailing a large study done to see if there’s any connection between astrological signs and personality traits. The result: no such thing. I had a hunch this was true for some time now, and I’m glad to see scientific proof of it. Here’s the article.

Free shipping worth more than a big discount

From TechDirt:

“For years, there have been controversies (especially among financial types) over whether or not e-commerce shops should offer free shipping, especially as some fear that it takes too big a bite out of the bottom line. However, there’s more to free shipping than just the saved money. Researchers are finally starting to look at the psychological draw of free shipping deals. It turns out that people are much happier with free shipping deals than if they just got a discount. There’s just something about getting free shipping that feels right — which could explain why some people get upset when they feel the free shipping is really a bait and switch offer. This points at an issue that isn’t really covered in the original article. One of the reasons why people like free shipping so much is that they don’t feel tricked at the end of a purchase. Too often, online retailers hide excessive shipping and handling fees and only make them show up at the end. This makes people feel tricked…”

Here is the link.