Sometimes it’s the simple things.
Archive for May, 2011
So a couple weeks ago, I acquired something I’ve wanted for years, and have been waiting a long time to purchase: a turntable! It’s a Pro-Ject Debut III USB. This puppy is decidedly unassuming in appearance, but instead has got all the pizzaz where it counts: fidelity.
There’s something great about playing records. Maybe it’s the nostalgia associated with the format that you used to play on your parents stereo as a little kid. Or the enjoyment of physically moving your music around, touching it, and having to place the tone arm on the vinyl, instead of clicking a mouse, or pressing a button. Vinyl is the most tactile medium of music playback, moreso even than it’s analog brethren the cassette tape. For these reasons I think it has an emotional appeal to it that makes other mediums seem… sterile by comparison.
There’s something intellectually appealing about it as well; the waveforms reproduced by the speakers essentially come from a physical drawing on the record. There’s no sampling rate, there’s no digital to analog converter trying to smooth out a bar-graph of 1’s and 0’s to reproduce the original signal. Sure, you could make a successful arguement that with the sampling rates of common digital formats, the difference is imperceptible between a signal that is pure analog versus a signal that has been converted from A to D to A again. But still. It’s neat to know that the song you’re hearing is (at least for analog-recorded source material) EXACTLY the original waves.
Another intellectual appeal to the format is that it requires your interaction. You can’t set up an eight-hour long playlist and then go do something else while the music plays. Often when an LP reaches the end of a side, I remember my friend Craig Bauman yelling from the kitchen to the partiers in the living room “GO TEAM VINYL!” to express his displeasure that no one had jumped up to flip the record yet.
Vinyl also makes it tedious to skip tracks, or to jump around on an album. You put on a record, and you listen to it straight through. In this way it forces you to check out songs that might not have grabbed you on the first or even tenth listen. I’ve had an interesting experience with this idea on Orgone’s double LP “Killion Vaults” which I listened to for months in mp3 format, before this turntable arrived and I was able to play the vinyl copy. Now that I am forced to listen to the tracks in the intended order without skipping any, there’s totally several cuts that I had skipped over before that are starting to grow on me now!
Last, vinyl is hip because it has its own sound. The tone-arm, the cartridge, the different masterings of vinyl recordings versus their compact disc brethren… all these things impart a unique flavor that isn’t present in the digital-only version.
Reviews of records are forthcoming…..
Going immediately off of my last writing, why do we spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators and millions of dollars on antartic neutrino detectors? Answer: the quest to understand what we are made from, and how that matter is affected by the universe around us.
It’s the story of where we came from, and how we’re connected–all of us–to events billions of years ago and as many light years away.
In that spirit, I’m excited that the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour contained the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02. It’s an outer-space particle physics experiment that will study cosmic rays, antimatter, and search for dark matter. In short, it’s tackling the big questions. It makes me happy to think that if this is the second to last shuttle mission, at least it brought up a gigantic, heavy, badass physics experiment that’s going to be probing the secrets of the cosmos for the next decade. This thing is the silver lining in those opaque clouds that hovered over Endeavour’s launch.
The AMS-02 is a particle detector, the most sophisticated ever sent into space. It was developed by a team of over 500 scientists and tested at CERN in Switzerland where they shot the particle accelerator beam at it. Let me just repeat that: they hit it with the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and now it’s going into outer space to listen to cosmic rays, those invisible beams of radiation that are literally shooting through the entire earth this very moment, emitted from the deaths of distant stars and playing some role in our evolution by causing random mutations. I think the awesomeness-detection circuitry in my mind is fried now. If you’d like to learn more, hit the wikipedia link, it’s utterly fascinating stuff.
Check out this video to see them install it in time-lapse. This slow-motion space ballet is the launching of a masterpiece. So uplifting.
It’s also a nice bit of irony that this big hunk of metal is up there in the sky, out towards the vast infinity of space; it was put there in order to study the tiniest sub-particles hidden deep in the infinity of the very small. There it is, up above the Earth, reaching for infinity in both directions…
A thought that keeps going through my mind is that galaxies collide all the time, but collisions between stars or planets are rare. I remember watching a captivating animation of this at my local planetarium, where all the stars merged like a cloud of bees, flying in a small area but somehow not crashing. Galaxies, as giant as they may be, are made up chiefly of empty space!
You could say a smiliar thing about the objects right in front of you on your desk: the spacebar on your keyboard is made up of lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, jammed in tightly to make a solid piece of plastic. Those atoms are bumped up right next to each other, yet their electrons and nuclei are never colliding. By comparison, the electrons in their shells around the nucleii are just like tiny little planets in far away orbits around the atomic core, where literally >99.9% of the mass is concentrated. Those hydrocarbon molecules are made up cheifly of NOTHING.
Atoms are made mostly of empty space, and galaxies are made mostly of empty space. Sort of takes me back to the Buddhist idea of emptiness; nothing has a unique identity (ie it’s empty) because it’s completely full of everything else. In this way, a tree is empty because it is filled to the brim with nitrogren from the soil, photons from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and maybe even the intention of someone who planted it. Our galaxies and our molecules may be made mostly of nothing, but they are in another sense quite full. Let’s explore!
This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
The latest installment of the Primo Vino Art series, celebrating cool labels on wine bottles: Cycles Gladiator.
The art is merely a ripoff of a classic piece, created in 1895 by French painter Georges Massias, but hey, I didn’t know that until I read the label. There you go, putting the snooty “oh” in Pinot.
See for yourself:
A little photo essay collage thing of the new fan. Yes, that’s right spacefans, a fan called the galaxy. It might even be sweeter than that other one I detailed before.
This 16″ galaxy fan is powerful. And it makes a great blade sound, like a large propeller plane. When you press one of the piano key speed selectors it makes a click similar to an old cassette deck. Majorly diggin the style on this thing. Just in time for the hot weather!
I’ll keep things rolling on the space tip with this incredible compilation of slow-motion footage of the space shuttle. Some of you may have seen this already; it made the rounds sometime around christmas last year. And it’s LONG! If you want to skip right to the money shot, go to 34 minutes, on the dot. Don’t forget to hit the 720p! Simply breathtaking.
You can listen with the commentary on if you really want. I recommend putting on your own tunes while watching this gorgeous explosion of rocketry. This is what I liked the best. It’s good for reflecting on the ends of things. The conclusion of something glorious. On one hand, it makes me feel like I just got handed a copy of this:
On the other hand, I suppose all things, both good and bad, must come to an end; phases of life, our favorite restaurants, our favorite thursday night routines… and our lives, our planet, our sun, and the space shuttle program. A clichéd expression that does give me some optimism is “don’t be sad that it’s over; be glad that it happened.” That is true. It’s been an excellent 30 year run.
Only 2 launches left! Plan your parties now.
I’m still buzzing from what went on this weekend! I spent maybe two or three solid nights last week putting together that SETI infographic and wow, was it ever worthwhile! (Understatement.) On a lark, I sent an email to Phil Plait, formerly of the Hubble Telescope project and famous astro-blogger extraordinaire who has a devout following on his site Bad Astronomy, where he writes about all things cosmical and skeptical. I’m surmising most of you are probably intimately familiar already, but just in case, this whole incident made me notice that I never called out his site on here–I check it nearly every single day and there is always something wonderful there. If you aren’t familiar, get at it, post-haste!
This is my first time experiencing something of this magnitude. Quickly the image was captured and rehosted elsewhere since the site was barely accessible. I awoke Sunday morning to a whole bunch of email and a rapidly exploding string of comments, especially on reddit. Reading the wealth of opinions has been fascinating! Phil sent a message saying I should swap the infographic over to flickr, which I hastily did. As of this writing it’s at 21,031 views and still climbing almost every time I hit refresh. The one the redditors used for a mirror is at 3,983 views. Considering it had almost 12,000 of those in the first 12 hours… That kinda blows my mind.
And delights me. I’m happy that after reading science blogs and surfing sites like digg and reddit for so long I finally made something of interest to give back, something worth looking at. Reading all the thoughts people have chimed in with has been simply excellent, and, AND!! There have been some even cooler things that happened! Let’s go down the list:
1. People started talking. Other bloggers chimed in, and Florian Freistetter, a PhD astronomer in Germany even wrote a blog post about it. (tip: use google translate) This thing went around the whole world! CRA-ZEE
2. I got to talk with the Bad Astronomer a little. Phil is a really cool guy! He was super nice to me, and generally a peach about everything. I hope that maybe in the future I will come up with something else worth emailing him about (hint: it’s not this post!)
3. Crossing over into the realm of ridicu-cool: one of the comments on Bad Astromony was from Jill Tarter. Yeah. That’s the woman who Jodie Foster’s character is based upon in the movie Contact. Wow.
So hey, there you go! I really should try infographics more often. I guess having a good idea for one is really the hard part.
Part Deux: So You’re Here! Now what?
Well, I suspect that there is now a new crowd around here, or at the very least, a handful of elite surfers still hanging out. And you’re probably interested in space. Okay, space, we can do that! I’ll separate it into two nice categories for you:
Category Alpha: “I’m one of those brainy types who needs in-depth, thoughtful prose to hold my attention”
Category Beta: “Who are you kidding, this is the internet! I need short, quick space porn to gawk at between twitterati meltdowns and clicking refresh on gadget blogs”
If you liked imaginary numbers, get a load of these: Imaginary Colors.