Category Archives: funny

My God. It’s full of stars.

I recently finished listening to all of the fascinating lectures in the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures series of podcasts. I highly recommend these lectures to anyone that has an interest in astronomy and space exploration. I expected these lectures to be very dry, technical, and boring, but for the most part they were very engaging and directed towards the general public in understandable language. There were some forays into overly obscure technical topics, but overall, the speakers kept things very understandable. And some of them have cool-sounding names, like FRACK-NOY and CROOK-SHANK. The main thing that kept me interested throughout the lectures was feeling the connection to the speakers’ excitement over new space-related discoveries and possibilities. There are just so many awesome space missions going on right now. I felt like a kid again, poring through library books about space, marveling at the explorations of the universe. Yet, it is already 2008 and there are STILL no space colonies (ISS doesn’t count), despite the ambitious claims made by most of the space books from my youth. This cuts me deep. Real deep. *Sniff*.

Oh, groovy 1970s artist renditions of space colonies, why did you never become real?

Nevertheless, the topics of current research and exploration were very interesting. Some examples:

  • The New Horizons mission to visit Pluto. It launched in 2006, and was the FASTEST object we ever launched from our planet (the craft only took 9 hours to get to the moon!). Even so, it won’t get to Pluto until the year 2015, but it has already visited Jupiter. While there, the craft made this incredible animation of an active volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io. And this cool montage of Jupiter and Io:

    Jupiter-Io Montage from New Horizons. Click for a larger view (take a look especially at the big volcanic plume and glowing-red lava of Io). See an even closer view of the volcanic region by clicking here for a picture taken during the Galileo mission.

    Seven years is a long time to wait to see close-up pictures of Pluto. Should be pretty exciting when it happens! Mission scientists also expect to discover new objects in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of our solar system with interesting remnants of its birth. Check out this illustration which includes several known Kuiper Belt objects.

  • Many scientists on Earth make discoveries by breaking things. Biologists can dissect animals, geologists can break apart rocks, physicists can smash particles together. But astronomers have to settle for only being able to look at things from a vast distance. Look, but don’t touch! So this is why astronomers were extremely excited when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter in 1994. Yay, we can see stuff break to find out how it works!

    Impact site of one of the comet fragments. Ow! My atmosphere!
  • When we look at distant galaxies, we discover that the universe is expanding. Under physical laws, we expect that these heavy objects will slow down in their expansion over time, due to gravitational effects they have on each other. For example, when you throw a ball straight up into their air, it will eventually slow down and come back towards you. But the expansion of the universe isn’t slowing down. It’s getting faster. The ball is continuing to go up into the air, moving faster and faster, and isn’t coming back down. What the hell is going on??? There isn’t even enough so-called dark matter to account for this — there is a new hypothesis that “dark energy” is causing the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. This stuff hurts my pathetic brain. All I can think about is the classic pepper and soap experiment where the pepper rushes almost instantaneously away from the soap due to changes in the surface tension of the water.
  • Dr. David Morrison discussed the possibility of Earth being impacted by a large enough asteroid to cause mass extiction, an event strongly believed to have happened at least once in Earth’s history. The Alvarez hypothesis theorizes that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs long ago. This theory is very strong because sediment layers (which act as geologic time capsules) taken from the ocean from many different locations all show the same abnormal concentration of Iridium. Iridium is very rare in Earth’s crust but is very common in asteroids. This, plus other material found in the samples, strongly suggest that the dinosaurs and many other species were snuffed out by a bigass rock from space. Luckily, there is a NASA program busily surveying the skies for near-earth asteroids to discover them before they interfere with our ability to kill each other and watch reality TV shows.
  • As of this month, there are 271 planets that are known to exist beyond our solar system. We’ve made most of these discoveries in only the last dozen years. Almost 300 planets in just 12 years. Before twelve years ago, we suspected a large number of planets, but we had no direct evidence. This is just the tip of the iceberg – astronomers believe that MOST stars that we can see are orbited by planets. We currently have a lot of trouble finding the smaller, Earth-sized planets, since they are so far away, and so small relative to their stars. But there are several exciting upcoming missions that will learn more about planets outside our solar system: SOFIA (a jumbo jet with a big infrared telescope sticking out of an open door), the Kepler mission (a space-based telescope whose top priority is to find “other Earths” — it is scheduled to launch just next year!), and the Space Interferometry Mission (a.k.a. Sim PlanetQuest; this mission is also designed to locate Earth-like planets). Over our lifetimes, we can expect a lot of new, amazing discoveries.

    Artist rendition of “Earth-like” planet we hope to discover with one of these missions. I hope “Earth-like” doesn’t mean “also populated by fans of reality TV shows”.

  • The Hubble Space Telescope, despite its early (and corrected) near-sightedness (see here for a nice before-and-after), continues to generate loads of important data and discoveries. Not only does it make awesome pictures to hang on your wall next to your Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead posters, but it can also look backwards in time! One of the most amazing things astronomers did with Hubble was point it at a tiny piece of seemingly empty sky, devoid of stars (“roughly one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky”), and “left the exposure on” for over eleven days to capture the tiny amount of light coming from that tiny piece of sky. The result was the “Hubble Ultra Deep Field”, an image showing around 10,000 galaxies. It makes me think of looking at a tiny drop of water under a microscope, and finding it teeming with tiny microbial life. The galaxies are so distant that the light has taken 13 billion years to reach Hubble; this means the image is a snapshot of those galaxies as they were 13 billion years ago, when our universe was only a billion years old. It is amazing to me that we can time travel this easily just by looking into the sky.

    “The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.”
    – Ryszard Kapuscinski, in his book Travels With Herodotus.

    Maybe if we keep looking, we’ll eventually see a reflection of a permutation of ourselves, distorted in the endless funhouse mirrors we continue to find as we peer in our vast universe…

Go forth and listen to the lectures for more amazing topics!

P.S.: Here is a bad physics joke told during one of the lectures:
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, developed in 1927, states that the simultaneous determination of two paired quantities, for example the position and momentum of a particle, has an unavoidable uncertainty. Some people suspect that when he came up with this principle, Heisenberg may have been having problems with his love life: When he had the time, he didn’t have the energy. And when he had the position, he didn’t have the momentum.

You need this book.

I have nothing to blog about. Therefore, I must show you this:

That is all.

(Thanks, Galen.)

Compelling evidence that I am not insane

The UK Daily Star confirms that I am not wasting my time with my fruitless pursuits of the Zodiac killer’s unsolved mysteries:

But that’s if [Britney Spears] can tear herself away from the internet where she has been indulging her latest obsession – trying to solve crime.

The star has become fascinated by the unsolved Zodiac killings that took place in California in the late 1960s.

They are the US equivalent of our Jack The Ripper murders. The recent film Zodiac about the case starring Jake Gyllenhaal, 26, captured Britney’s imagination.

She has been spending hours on a website called and is convinced she can crack the case as many people believe the culprit is still alive.

Gimme my Cheetos, y’all; We’re gonna crack this thing!!

Silicon heaven

From Microsoft’s Help and Support pages:

Computer Randomly Plays Classical Music
View products that this article applies to.
Article ID : 261186
Last Review : March 27, 2007
Revision : 3.3
This article was previously published under Q261186
During normal operation or in Safe mode, your computer may play “Fur Elise” or “It’s a Small, Small World” seemingly at random. This is an indication sent to the PC speaker from the computer’s BIOS that the CPU fan is failing or has failed, or that the power supply voltages have drifted out of tolerance. This is a design feature of a detection circuit and system BIOSes developed by Award/Unicore from 1997 on.

Anyone remember the famous scene in 2001 when HAL the computer gets shut down?

[HAL’s shutdown]
HAL: I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
Dave Bowman: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]
HAL: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.


Apple’s running this obnoxious commercial featuring a possibly bogus airline pilot who, as a passenger on a weather-delayed flight, heroically saves the day by using his magical iPhone to check the weather:

(video link)

Now, an anecdotal tale has emerged where another guy tried to use his iPhone on a delayed flight to second-guess the airline’s ability to check to weather. He gets a flight attendant to pass his weather prediction on to the pilot, and the pilot’s response over the intercom is hilarious:

“If the passenger with the IPhone would be kind enough to use it to check the weather at our alternate, calculate our fuel burn due to being rerouted around the storms, call the dispatcher to arrange our release, and then make a phone call to the nearest Air Traffic Control center to arrange our timely departure amongst the other aircraft carrying passengers with IPhones, then we will be more than happy to depart. Please ring your call button to advise the Flight Attendant and your fellow passengers when you deem it ready and responsible for this multi-million dollar aircraft and its passengers to safely leave.”


I don’t know if the story is true. But, dammit, I still love it.


Computers is smart

This fortune I read today seems like a natural follow-up to my previous post:

This is the first numerical problem I ever did. It demonstrates the
power of computers:

Enter lots of data on calorie & nutritive content of foods. Instruct
the thing to maximize a function describing nutritive content, with a
minimum level of each component, for fixed caloric content. The
results are that one should eat each day:

1/2 chicken
1 egg
1 glass of skim milk
27 heads of lettuce.

— Rev. Adrian Melott


Chris sent me this funny email he received this morning:

From: terptix
Sent: Mon 10/22/2007 1:38 AM
To: Chris
Subject: Ticket Notification

This is just a reminder that the Request and Claim period for student
tickets for the @Sport game vs. @Opponent on @EventDate will begin
shortly online. Please check the student ticket website for exact
schedule information.

Somebody needs to put some data behind that template!

Use an ashtray!

A few weeks ago, I brought Iris to her preschool, and we were alarmed to see that a fire crew was there. It turned out they were just putting out a small fire in the nearby woods. Someone must have dropped a cigarette there or something. I walked Iris into the school, and we talked about the fire for a while. I mentioned to her that I thought it was caused by a cigarette thrown from somebody’s car. But Iris had another theory. She said: “I think a bad birdy did it.”

She may be right.

(illustration unceremoniously lifted from Dave Shelton’s site).

An unrelated Iris story:

Iris has a pair of pants that have little embossed hearts attached to the botom of the legs. After several washings, the hearts started the crack a bit. So, one day, she takes a look at the pants, and says to us, “my heart is broken!”

Dry academia

Despite its rigorous, almost unapproachable mathematical foundations, Doug Zongker’s groundbreaking academic research paper remains one of the most important scientific studies you will ever read.

Doug Zongker himself presenting his paper:



I get no respect.

My online Data Mining course has a web-based forum that students can use to post questions. The course instructor asked how everybody was doing on the first homework assignment. I replied, and in my reply, I asked the instructor if I was on the right track for one of the homework problems. The subject of the reply was quite surprising:

Man, that’s cold!

Wow. Harsh. I know that these instructors are very stressed graduate students; but this can’t be good for bumping up the enrollment numbers.

Sadly, the source of the subject wasn’t as dramatic as true malice, because the subjects are simply generated from the first parts of the responses. Here is the real reason the subject was so insulting:

Oh. Not REALLY fighting words.

Technology is the culprit. One day it will enslave us all! (Wait… I think this has already happened…)