Hubble IMAX 3D

March 21, 2010

Go See It.

The movie is only 45 minutes long but contains more science than most American school children receive in a year.  (And if they’re in Mississippi or California or Hawaii,  more than they will probably get from K-12).

Avatar and Alice in Wonderland have given the world a new appetite for big screen effects.  Done right, 3D adds immersion unapproached by flat projection.  Hubble 3D combines those effects with reality in a way that the imaginary worlds of Pandora and Wonderland cannot.  Yet so many Americans will ho-hum this because it’s about science.

Go See It Anyway.

The Innovation Center

May 21, 2009


I got a chance to tour the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Innovation Center – part of the former Trico complex – to see how progress is being made on turning the building into business and lab space for the fledgling Life Sciences industry in Western New York.

It looks, um, nice.  Inside it will be clean, bright and modern.  I only wish they would have gone for the “Thomas Edison” open laboratory look, but with various tenants doing super-secret bio-science stuff, walls are needed.  It is unclear what the exterior will eventually look like.  The only things apparent were the replacement windows and a bowed-out atrium.

The Innovation Center is a 100,000 square foot, 4-story add-on adjacent to the monstrous half-million square foot, 6-story Trico building that was essentially abandoned by the late Stephen McGarvey when he took ill, but not before he had the roof taken off.  Years of rainwater distributed Trico toxins throughout the building and the cost to clean up the mess means that the Innovation Center may be the only portion of the complex that is ever renovated.  So we’ll have a small, nice-looking building full of state-of-the-art laboratories servicing brilliant medical minds next door to a dilapidated poisoned edifice that is in such bad shape they’ve had to cordon off the sidewalk around it for fear of falling bricks.

Urban renewal comes slowly, in very small increments, to Buffalo.

E = MC²

March 18, 2009

mr-fusionMy undergraduate degree was in Bio-medical Engineering.  As part of the curriculum I had to do a “senior project” which many of my peers regarded with disdain and did whatever they could to get the lamest assignment and do the least amount of work.

My advisor – who thought nothing of pulling a bottle of Jack Daniels out of his desk and sharing it with people he liked, had aspirations for me.

“Plasma physics,” he said.

Now, I did okay in physics.  I loved learning about things like torque and the coriolis effect and relativity.  But I had expected my focus to be in something bio-medical.

“Nonsense,” my advisor said.  “You need to expand your horizons.”

So I spent the better part of my senior year in the plasma physics lab, learning about deriving energy from seawater using the same process the sun uses:  Nuclear fusion.

That was long ago.  Energy from controlled fusion was just around the corner, maybe 20 years off.  Last summer the news was that it was still 20 years off.  Fusion is a lot harder to control than everyone thought.  Uncontrolled fusion – Hydrogen bombs – have been around since the Cold War.  Controlled fusion, that’s another story.  Most of the world has given up believing that it could be REAL SOON NOW.

This past month the National Ignition Facility announced that it had reached a milestone in the simultaneous firing of 192 laser beams focused on an inert target, signaling the end of the facility’s massive construction phase.  The facility is huge:  A 10-story building that takes up about 3 football fields, designed to implode a tiny tiny pellet of deuterium with such force that virtually its entire mass is converted to energy, releasing many times more energy than it took to implode it.

With the completion of the facility and one in France using a technique identical to what I studied, commercial production of energy from fusion is just around the corner, if just around the corner means sometime around 2050.

That’s like 40 years from now, and not a moment too soon.  The world’s supply of easily-extracted fossil fuel is estimated to run out in about 75 years.

Like the pyramids, controlled fusion will take many lifetimes of careers to build.  I am more optimistic that it will happen within mine.

About that Satellite Collision…

February 16, 2009
Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

So, what was that satellite collision really like?

Glad you asked.

Two satellites with a combined weight of 3200 pounds met in a broadside collision at a closing speed of about 5 miles per second.  The kinetic energy of that collision generated around 18 billion joules, the equivalent of 4 tons of TNT.

Most of that energy was imparted on all those pieces that are now dispersing in the most crowded orbital volume, increasing the likelihood of another collision and an eventual chain reaction that creates a 500-mile high debris cloud dense enough to render that volume unsafe for any spacecraft.

I frankly don’t care if the U.S blames Russia or Russia blames the U.S., but imagine the consternation had this happened in 1985!  Today it’s merely a serious inconvenience; tomorrow it could completely change the way we launch and protect our billion-dollar satellites.

High-Def: Ready for Prime Time?

January 18, 2009

So the switch to all digital television will take place across the U.S. in a few weeks.  I mentioned previously that I thought this was long overdue.

Yet over the past week HD reception at my home has been, in a word, terrible.  Sound out of sync with picture (which is really spooky-looking!).  Picture breakup as the signal is lost, then regained, then lost again.  Picture with no sound.  Frozen frames.

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

And I have cable.

Saturday’s Buffalo Sabres’ game was a hoot while the same four measures of some song were substituted for a period’s worth of out-of-sync announcing.  While that was probably a programming error at MSG, it nonetheless leaves me questioning if the technologists running the system have their act together and are ready with all their new toys.

We have been led to believe that reduction in quality is the price we pay for technology gains.  That’s so much crap yet the first question we ask when a friend has computer problems is “Did you reboot it?”  Cell phone reception generally sucks, as do most earbuds and MP3 audio compression. Refrigerators may be more feature-rich and efficient but they last what, five or six years tops?  One only needs to walk through the aisles at Walmart (and be over 30) to see how complacent we’ve become with low quality products.

Anyway, it doesn’t have to be that way yet the switch to high-def will demand acceptance of a television system that works well far less than close to perfect; and that it will take a long time – with lots of head-banging – before HD becomes everything we expect of it.

It’s still long overdue.

R.I.P. Analog Television

January 11, 2009


The Obama Administration has proposed delaying the abandonment of analog television beyond the current February 17th date.  President-elect Obama expressed concerns that America just wasn’t ready.

Analog TV in its current form dates back to 1939 (and 1953 for color broadcasts) and has essentially been obsolete for almost 20 years.  I recall articles in EE Times from the late 1980’s declaring that digital encoding standards and microelectronics had advanced to the point where high-definition signals would be ready for public broadcasting by 1992.  That never happened, and it took another 10 years before other countries – Japan and Germany in particular – leapfrogged the U.S. in establishing digital television as the standard.  The last official cutover date before this one was December 23, 2006.  Before that there were others.  [The FCC had hopeful expectations, unmatched by either the electronics industry or Congress.]

Half a decade later the U.S. is ready to forsake a 70-year-old technology and embrace a much more versatile broadcast media.  The transition will never be perfect no matter how hard Obama and Congress might want it to be, but it’s still long overdue.

If only we would move to eliminate the incandescent light bulb.  The tungsten filament will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.  It too had a good run but really, it’s time to move on.

R.I.P. Donald Hess

November 14, 2008


Don Hess, the Hauptman-Woodward Institute’s board chairman, entrepreneur extraordinaire and friend, died last night in a private plane crash in Florida.

What a tragic loss for Buffalo.  Don was a techno-geek like me, someone who successfully co-founded one of Buffalo’s better-known companies.  Amherst Systems is now a division of Northrup-Grumman, but before its eventual purchase was grown from a couple of employees to one of the largest engineering firms in the area.

I don’t think Don ever forgot his roots.  Whenever we met we would discuss science, or engineering, or business, or any other matter of curiosities.  He was always willing to provide advice to me and, I’m sure, other local start-ups.  He was easy to talk to:  We had the same comfort zones.

He will be missed.

My Dinner with Newt

October 16, 2008

Newt Gingrich was the keynote speaker at last night’s BioMed Upstate conference hosted by the Foundation for Healthy Living.  The moderately well-attended (but overly long) conference focused on the barriers our state imposes on the Life Sciences economy and solutions to overcoming those barriers to accelerate growth in Life Sciences.

The sessions drifted off-topic to the various ways the New York stifles economic growth in general and to the great divide between Upstate and Downstate, to which the attendees agreed “Change is needed“.   As to what that meant and who should take responsibility for leading it, those answers were not so clear.  Not so clear at all.  And the conference was pretty dry – academic in nature, almost dispassionate really, and IMHO was very poorly attended by industry representatives who are ultimately the ones who create jobs and/or leave the state.  Numerous academics and government officials were in attendance, but the one group that could really make a difference was way under-represented.

Anyway, Newt was pretty interesting.  He made a point about how poorly the Federal Government doesn’t understand the difference between investment and expense.  He cited that the Baby Boomer generation alone will cost the U.S. $1.6 trillion in health care costs just for treatment of Alzheimer’s patients.  But if treatments could be found that delayed the onset of severe symptoms for just 5 years, the costs would drop $600 billion.  Then he challenged the audience:  If you could save $600 billion over the next 20 years, how much would you spend today?  Newt’s implication was that far too often the government won’t budget for that kind of savings – they won’t make the investment – because today it’s just an expense with no short-term benefit.

Conferences like these raise important questions but rarely do the spawn that passionate white knight who can lead the charge to a new way of thinking, and actually persist long enough to stimulate real change.  How do we convince our political leaders to reach beyond the policies of the past 50 years to something that bears future fruit?  At the conference, we were at a loss to answer that question.

For the Sake of My Hands

September 9, 2008

Today I could no longer take the wrist pain that develops while typing so I purchased the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.

Not that I like Microsoft very much; on the contrary, their gorilla tactics, legal tactics and marketing tactics all leave me wanting for other options.  However, the reviews on this type of keyboard were quite positive, I was at Office Max anyway, and I was desperate.

The pain from repetitive strain injury is alarmingly chronic:  It doesn’t go away for a long time, and mine has been with me for much of the past year.  Most of my achiness was coming from having my hands cocked at a funny angle over a very flat laptop keyboard.  The 4000 lays out the keys so that my hands are in a much less strained position, almost as if I’m trying to shake hands with the keyboard rather than lay them flat.  Although the photo doesn’t show it well, the middle keys (the ones nearest my index fingers) rest on a hill higher than the keys nearest my pinkies.  It took me all of twenty minutes to get used to that hill and the obviously split keyboard.

The reduction in pain was almost immediate, and I recommend this to anyone suffering from even the slightest wrist pain – it will only get worse.  Now, if only they would bring back those tactile, spring-loaded keys like they had on the IBM Selectric typewriters.  Those were the best.

Mythbusters and the Fake Moon Landings

August 26, 2008

On Wednesday, August 27th, Mythbusters will take on the Apollo moon landing hoax.  I think they are trying to debunk the myth that the moon landings were faked.  But I’m not sure, and they’re not saying.

Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appeared to have a lot of fun filming the show, working with NASA, taking low-gravity flights to simulate the moon’s gravity, doing just about everything they could to reproduce the moon landing short of going to the moon.

Phil Plait (from Bad Astronomy, a great web site worth visiting if you’ve never heard of it before) was on hand to provide advice.  He wrote about the very bad Fox TV show years ago that tried to make the myth sound plausible, and went into long explanations (too long, actually) to debunk each of the myth’s claims.

Mythbusters is a fun, light-hearted program to watch; this upcoming show should be entertaining to anyone with even a passing interest in space and astronomy.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if the claims of fake moon landings are to be taken seriously.

Trayless Cafeterias

August 25, 2008

Colleges are going trayless.

At least at some colleges.  The Associated Press reports that West Virginia’s Glenville State College has eliminated all cafeteria trays in an attempt to conserve.  Colleges in Georgia and North Carolina, two drought-stricken states, are doing it to reduce water consumption.  Some college studies are finding that in addition to saving water and energy a side benefit is that it reduces food waste:  Students don’t/can’t stack up food while holding a plate like they can when they’re holding a tray; and maybe it’ll help fight the Freshman 15 to boot.

Cafeteria trays were very popular when I was in college, but not because they carried our food.

They were popular because they carried our asses down a small hill next to the Freshman dormitories, during the winter months when we needed a diversion from studying Differential Equations or any myriad number of engineering courses.  Those slick-bottomed trays didn’t take long to ice over the hill, which tended to make it all the more dangerous – and fun.

We learned physics (at least, acceleration and generally rapid deceleration) on cafeteria trays.

The Rescue of Mono Lake

August 19, 2008

Mono Lake

In 1982 I traveled to Mono Lake, near Yosemite National Park in California, to witness the tragedy of a national treasure being sucked dry by the demand for water elsewhere.  For 40 years the rivers that fed the lake – Lee Vining, Rush, Walker and others – had been diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and evaporation was rapidly dropping the lake levels so low that what was previously a vastly rich ecosystem was now about to collapse to dust.

Mono Lake is a basin surrounded by mountains.  It has no outlet.  Fresh water streams fill the basin and as the water evaporates it leaves behind a brackish lake that is home to an amazing variety of brine shrimp and other aquatic animals, insects and tufa towers!  Birds loved the shrimp and alkali flies.  For millenia the lake was a waypoint to thousands of migratory fowl.  In its middle was an island which provided an immensely dense breeding ground, protected by water from predators.

Then the lake levels dropped; a land bridge appeared  – and that allowed coyotes and other carnivores to help themselves to a high-protein egg feast.  [Aside:  There is an interesting story somewhere about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trying to blow up the land bridge to save the breeding ground; it was an extraordinary failure.] By 1982 the lake level had dropped almost 40 feet from its historic levels.  I shot over a hundred photographs of what I thought was the death rattle of (what some say is) the oldest lake in North America.

But the obituary was a bit premature.  Around the same time an organized push was made to save the lake.  Through its efforts and the efforts of others the Mono Lake Committee successfully petitioned the California State Water Resources Control Board (CSWRCB) to reduce the flow diversions to a point where lake levels are now slowly climbing.  The land bridge is again under water.

Today Mono Lake is 10 feet higher than when I visited, but still 34 feet below its historic level, and has about 8 more to go to reach the targets set by the CSWRCB.  Even so, it is a step in the right direction and an inspiration to those who long to find that balance between societal demands and natural resources.  I was (un)lucky enough to capture photographs of what will hopefully be, in another generation, submerged land.

A World of Metric

August 13, 2008

Buzzfeed had an article today about all the countries in the world that haven’t embraced the metric system.  There are but three left:  Burma, Liberia and the U.S.  This is, like, embarrassing.

Actually, most engineers, scientists and technicians in our country have used the metric system for many years; even car mechanics use metric (and well as English) wrench sets for use on foreign vehicles.  Our country’s general refusal to adapt is, however, a harbinger of its eventual collapse.

Average America needs to get off its collective couch and get with it.

While we’re at it, we also need to successfully wean ourselves from the QWERTY keyboard to something more ergonomic, before we’re left with nothing but wimpy handshakes from all that carpal tunnel.

Spot the Space Station

July 11, 2008

On Saturday, July 19th, the International Space Station will pass almost directly overhead starting in the southwestern sky at 10:12 PM.

The station will be observable as an extremely bright, fast-moving object, moving southwest to east-northeast.  It will take about 5 minutes to cross the sky.

If you’ve never seen the ISS fly by, it’s worth standing outside on a summer’s night (hopefully cloudless – a lot more fun) and away from city lights to observe the satellite’s motion.  It is quite unlike anything else in the sky, day or night.  It will be brighter than Jupiter, currently the brightest object in the night sky (excepting the moon, of course).

Even if you aren’t the least curious about the technology of the multi-billion dollar space station, it puts on such a unique performance that it’s well worth hanging outside for a few minutes to watch it.  Not to be missed.  But if you do, here’s a place where you can find out just when it will pass overhead again.


July 9, 2008

I got my first chance to use a Nintendo Wii a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had 4 other couples over for dinner.  We bowled and we boxed, and our guests left sweaty and sore.  For a few hundred dollars, the electronics technology that goes into the playstation is pretty amazing, not to mention the physical workout one can get.

The Wii Remote, in particular, has captured the imagination of many games developers, and some have garnered a bit of fame making the Wii do things that it was never intended to do.  Take Carnegie Mellon PhD Johnny Lee, for example.  As one of the more (if not most) notable Wii special effects developers, he’s not only created some really neat software but then he puts it on YouTube for all to see.

The links from Johnny Lee’s website at CMU to other sites get pretty techy, pretty quickly, and are even for me a bit overwhelming and dry.  However, what fascinates me is the capability built into the Wii Remote:  A 1024×768 infrared camera with hardware blob detection and a 3-axis accelerometer, both running at 100 Hz sampling.  All in a device weighing a few ounces.  For about $39.99 retail.

Even if you don’t understand infrared, blobs and accelerometers, suffice it to say that this technology combination appeals to many:  space exploration, especially the use of robotic spacewalkers, just got easier and cheaper.  Intelligent automobiles that not only know how to maintain proper stopping distance from the car in front but also understand lane changes.  Total immersion into a 3D virtual realm running off a standard video display.  Completely foldable, interactive displays.  Motion capture.

All of this innovation has led both Microsoft and Sony on a fast track to catch up and maybe surpass Nintendo’s capabilities.  As a result of this competition the games industry will shortly turn Bioshock and Unreal Tournament into your grandmother’s Oldsmobile overnight.

After years of ho-hum single-person shoot ’em ups, gaming is interesting again.

The End of the Polaroid

July 5, 2008
Polaroid Photographs

Polaroid Photographs

Polaroid Corporation is closing the last of its film manufacturing plants by the end of 2008, bringing to an end the original instant photograph.  Done in by marketplace conditions – a great euphemism for digital photography – the innovative camera and film system brought joy to both amateur and serious photographers, nature lovers and voyeurs alike.

The demise of Polaroid is a rather sad tale of lost vision and bad management.  Even though the company dabbled in digital photography – selling some of the earliest digital cameras – Polaroid never really saw the digital revolution coming.  Like Kodak, they stubbornly stuck to their mission – innovative but obsolete chemical technology – and paid a heavy price.  By 2020 the company’s technology will be just a footnote alongside the buggy whip.

I am sorry to see analog photography disappear.  There was always something about getting my hands wet in the darkroom, the feel of the photographic paper, the smell of stop bath.  But I’m also a realist, and the business model that allows me to shoot thousands of digital photographs at essentially no cost but the camera is going to beat out film photography hands down.  And it did.

Although it’s still kicking, Kodak has for years been in retrenchment as it tries to leverage its knowledge of optics and photography to create product lines that will enable its future survival.  But it’s a shadow of its former self.  Kodak Park has been all but torn down (less taxes to the city of Rochester) and its consumer digital products have much smaller margins than its former film products.  Will it survive in the long run?  It’ll probably outlive me, but not because it relied on silver halide chemisty as a foundational business element.

In the meantime, Polaroid will be gone, and very shortly at that.  Au revoir, Polaroid.  You barely outlived Dr. Land.

Ice on Mars

June 20, 2008

Ice on MarsThe Mars Phoenix Explorer, which landed on Mars about a month ago, has been digging little trenches here and there as a prelude to digging a bigger trench later.

One purpose of this space mission was to determine if water ice is present just under the planet’s surface.  The presence of water of any type is a vital clue to determining if life similar to what we are familiar with could have, did, or still does exist on Mars.  In the face of some revealing articles today, it appears that there is ice just under the surface where Phoenix landed.

Even though these robotic missions are extremely expensive ($520 million, not quite as much as as, say, questionable war funding but expensive nonetheless) they provide insights into very fundamental questions about how life takes hold.

This mission has only begun to reveal surprises to us.

Resevoir Balls

June 13, 2008

Black BallsThe Ivanhoe Reservoir in Silver Lake, near Los Angeles, is being covered with plastic black balls in an attempt to prevent the bromate count from exceeding health quality standards.  There will eventually be a few million balls tossed onto the reservoir.

Too much bromate – a carcinogen – which gets created from a reaction to bromine and sunlight, is not good for you.  The reservoir feeds LA, hence the need to do something about this.  Someone or some group decided that the black balls will essentially shadow the lake and therefore reduce the creation of bromate.

When sunlight starts breaking down the plastic and releasing other chemicals into the water, how much will the state of California pay to remove the balls?  When algae start adhering to and scumming the black balls, turning them green, who will clean them?  When the lack of sunlight on the lake bottom starts affecting the ecological environment 20 feet under the water, will the environmentalists suddenly clamor to have them removed?

I smell the law of unintended consequences coming into play, real soon.  This article makes it sound like there is little to worry about.  I’m not so confident about that at all.

The Quiet Crisis

June 7, 2008

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $3 million over five years to a group of Upstate colleges, aimed at increasing the number of minority students in STEM degree programs.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The NSF grants are in response to the so-called Quiet Crisis – the threat to the ability of the United States to innovate, due to looming shortage in the nation’s STEM workforce.  Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, puts it in pretty plain English:

The crisis stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and its production of them. As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s prepares to retire, our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientific and technical talent to step into research laboratories, software and other design centers, refineries, defense installations, science policy offices, manufacturing shop floors and high-tech startups.

We ignore this gap at our peril.

I know of no engineer that needs to retire at age 65 if he or she doesn’t want to.  Even in the Buffalo area, which does not have a significantly large high-tech workforce, the demand for good engineers and scientists outstrips the supply.  Companies like Moog struggle to fill job openings.  My own company has been challenged of late to find qualified candidates for the engineering job openings that we’ve posted.

Minorities in particular are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.  The NSF-funded program hopes to increase minority enrollment in the Upstate college consortium and provide additional support through scholarships, mentoring and research opportunities.

The U.S. cannot afford to become a technological backwater.

Flight of the Phoenix

May 23, 2008

Phoenix LanderBy now most people who browse the Internet or catch any national news knows that the Phoenix mission will attempt an autonomous landing on Mars this coming Sunday. We will observe the lander setting down, either in one or many pieces, at 7:53 PM EDT.

Most people won’t care.

Some will decry the millions spent on the mission to dig into Mars’ surface looking for ice, money which could have been spent feeding the hungry or building new roads here on Earth. Others can’t wait for the science that will potentially be revealed by this spacecraft and other spacecraft that will follow in subsequent years.

I, for one, am ambivalent about most of the science but look forward to the ramifications should the mission discover abundant ice as well as key elements needed to sustain life. For if life – even fossilized life – is found a few feet below Mars’ surface, the whole idea of life originating on Earth (or perhaps, to God creating life on Earth) gets thrown into question.

If life exists – or existed – on both Earth and Mars, there are only three possible explanations: They sprang up independent of each other (or as part of a directed Panspermia); some kind of impact on Mars sent biological material into space and eventually to Earth; or some kind of impact on Earth sent biological material into space and eventually to Mars.

Celestial dynamics, gravity and atmospheric pressure dictate that the latter possibility much less likely than the Mars-to-Earth origin of life; so if we eventually get a spacecraft actually landed on the Red Planet that can analyze subsurface material for DNA, we might just determine with pretty reasonable assurance that the Martians were here first.

In the grand scheme of things I’m just curious as to how religious scholars, fundamentalists and secular intellectuals will deal with that.