Archive for November, 2007

A triumphant telescope-making turnabout

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Two weeks ago, I found the zen in telescope making. I learned to appreciate the journey more than the destination, because I was clearly getting farther from the destination throughout that night. But this past Friday was an utter triumph. Forget the zen of telescope making; bring on the ecstasy of telescope making!

This past Friday saw me doing really short strokes for about an hour trying to fix the turned-down edge, but with little success. At this point, we collectively said “Screw it.” The turned-down edge only takes up a small fraction of an inch on a mirror that is 8″ in diameter. It’s not a big loss. After I’m completely done with figuring, I’ll simply bevel off that edge, so that all of the remaining mirror surface is correctly figured.

Once I gave up on the somewhat unrealistic goal of a perfectly figured mirror from edge-to-edge (it’s very hard to do; many ATMers simply don’t bother), I met with success after success. I switched to a wide W-shaped parabolizing stroke, doing five minute sessions interspersed with frequent Ronchi tests. I made sure not to apply too much pressure. After each five minute session, the lines in the Ronchi test were slightly more outwardly curved, thus indicating I was getting closer to a perfect paraboloid. And along the way, the abnormal hole in the center of my mirror vanished. I had the same nice curve across the entire surface of the mirror.

By the end of Friday’s session, I was so close to the correct paraboloid shape that a Ronchi test wasn’t cutting it anymore. So at the start of the workshop tomorrow, we’ll do a Foucault test, and then I’ll know where to go from there. Optimistically, I could be done with figuring by the end of the workshop tomorrow. Then, the final step with the mirror will be aluminizing it; after that, the only things left to do are — everything else! But the primary mirror is by far the hardest part, and takes more time than the rest of the scope total.

I’m so excited. All of my hard work is about ready to pay off. With any luck, I’ll be looking up at the heavens before the end of the year.

Assembly rules for constructing funny phrases

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

I happened to get in a discussion with a friend today about why some made-up phrases are inherently funnier than others. Pick a few random words, throw ’em together, and regardless of whether they make sense together or not, the result is most likely not going to be a funny phrase. There’s an obviously an art to putting together funny phrases. Here are some ground rules to get you started.

First, go heavy on inherently funny words. There’s no hard or fast rule about it, but some words are simply inherently funnier than others. Inherently funny words are often funny merely because of the way they sound, not necessarily for what they represent. For example, underwear and underpants mean the same thing, but underpants is inherently far funnier. A few other inherently funny words: cow, pickle, Hoboken, gazebo. Just throw some inherently funny words together and you’re already well on your way to coming up with a funny phrase. Pickled Hoboken gazebo.

Besides the choice of words themselves, the other aspect to funny phrases is how well the words work together. This is where the real humor of funny phrases comes from. The words don’t necessarily have to be thematically related — and indeed, if you’re going for absurdity, they probably shouldn’t be. For instance, let’s say I want to build up a funny phrase around the word scrotum. What word works viscerally with scrotum in an absurd manner? If you said pinata, give yourself a gold star. Now you’re thinking funny. Mmmm, Scrotum Pinata.

There are all sorts of humorous relationships that you can take advantage of when binding your words together into phrases. Above, I use the notoriously delicate nature of the testicles along with something that is known for getting the crap beaten out of it. Don’t reach too far: the relationship should be immediately obvious, like it is with scrotum and pinata. Let’s try another one. What goes with the inherently funny word cactus? Well, cactuses are sharp, prickly, and unpleasant to touch. What works well with that? If you said vibrator, give yourself another gold star. Mmmm, Cactus Vibrator.

You’ll notice that, above, I’m using a generally crude sense of humor. But don’t think funny phrases only work if they’re crude. Indeed, they can be the height of culture and sophistication. That’s just not my cup of chai. So I’ll leave you with one more funny phrase that isn’t necessarily crude, merely anatomical. And apparently I’m the first one to ever utter it online. I mean, would you believe Google doesn’t have any search results for Kumquat Sphincter?

The danger of the Nerd Handbook

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

There’s a “Nerd Handbook” making the rounds on the nerd social news websites (e.g. Digg) that’s a fascinating read, but it takes some of its premises a little too far. I do agree with a lot of what it says, but the wrong parts are quite misleading. Let me explain.

The handbook is written in the second person with the intended audience being the girlfriends of nerds. However, it seems to me that the vast majority of the readers are actually the nerds themselves. No matter. One of the author’s main points is that nerds always seem to have a project they are working on that takes up a lot of their time. I can’t argue with that. My current projects are: making a telescope (4 hours a week), exercising (1 hour a day), and writing a novel in one month (2-3 hours per day). Some of my recent previous projects included writing code for Veropedia, writing code for Wikipedia, writing Wikipedia, making a wall-mounted neon lambda sign, my computers, etc. So the projects part is right on, at least in my experience. I do have to take issue with this though:

Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around with a mouse.

The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality. Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant grid construction where X and Y mean something.

That’s a huge over-generalization. Most nerds aren’t into Linux, and you don’t often see Windows nerds using the (very deficient) DOS command line. Yes, I do use the command line a lot, and thus, I do use a monospace font, but that’s simply because no other font makes sense on the command line. When I’m doing other things, like writing blogs or word processing, of course I prefer adjustable width fonts. It’s about picking the right tool for the job. The jump from using a monospace font in one of the few applications in which it makes sense to “These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment” is totally unfounded. He goes on to talk about “system-redefining events” that cause nerds to be frustrated and act erratically. Huh? Sounds like pop babble psychology to me.

He talks about how each nerd has a “Cave“, which frankly, I just think is reaching. I don’t know any nerd who has a “Cave”. Yes, every nerd has a computer with Internet access. And maybe some knick knacks. But who doesn’t? Everyone has a personal space that they like to keep in a certain way. There’s no sense in calling just the personal spaces of nerds “caves”.

I do mostly agree with the rest of the overall points of the blog post, especially this part: “If you’ve got a seriously shy nerd on your hands, try this: ask him how many folks are in his buddy list? How many friends does he have in Facebook? How many folks are following him on Twitter? LiveJournal? My guess is that, collectively, your nerd interacts with ten times more people than you think he does.” The parts about nerds liking puzzles and videogames, typically having warped senses of humor, having an amazing appetite for information — all are mostly true, but are trivial observations. What really gets me about the handbook is the overriding concept that nerds can be understood as if they were computers.

A lot of the terminology and examples he uses are computer-related. He talks about nerds being adept at “context-switching” as if they are changing between windows on a computer. He says nerds like monospaced font because it lets them see things in X and Y coordinates. He even says “[The nerd] sees the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable.”

He’s missing a huge point here. Nerds are people, not computers. Just because nerds use computers a lot doesn’t mean that they are even anything close to being like one. This should be incredibly obvious, but it needs to be pointed out: nerds are humans too; they have human emotions, human limitations, make human mistakes, etc. Trying to understand people by thinking of them as computers is dangerous. It’s the exact same fallacy that the author chides nerds as having when he says “seeing the world as a system” is “a fragile illusion”.

This emphasis on trying to understand nerds as a system strikes me as coming from someone who’s read too much about autism spectrum disorders (or, not to be mean, maybe someone who suffers from one). Autistic people lack emotional faculties, and thus try (and often fail) to understand other people logically as systems, rather than emotionally. The same fault is present in this handbook’s analysis of nerds. It’s destined to fail. My one advice to any girlfriend out there trying to understand her nerd is this: Think of him as a person. You’ll only have much worse results if you think of him as a computer and then treat him accordingly.

Debugging lethargy

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Yesterday, Saturday, I woke up normally, but within an hour, I felt very lethargic. It was so bad that I wasn’t able to accomplish anything I wanted to get done during the day, including exercising and working on my NaNoWriMo novel. Luckily, I did recover enough by the end of the day to attend the meet-up with PZ Myers and Phil Plait. But it really had me worrying: why was I so lethargic?

This wasn’t a new phenomenon, either. In the past few months I’ve always been a lot more lethargic on the weekend, particularly on Saturday. I never really thought of a possible explanation, except to reason that I was worn out after a week of work. But yesterday was much worse than that. And I finally figured out why.

One of the perks at my office is the refrigerator stocked full of free drinks. So, during the day, I routinely drink Diet Cokes, probably around three to four on average. And Diet Coke has a lot of caffeine in it. My weekend lethargy coincidentally started around the same time as I started working here. You see where I’m going with this. I would drink up to four Cokes per day for five days in a row, then my body would go into shock on the sixth day (Saturday) because it was addicted to caffeine and it wasn’t getting its fix.

This weekend was particularly bad because last weekend I had an energy drink in the morning on both Saturday and Sunday, thus feeding my caffeine addiction without consciously realizing it. So that made it a full twelve days in which I consumed a large amount of caffeine daily. No wonder I crashed yesterday. The reason I never ran across this problem before is because I never drank large amounts of caffeine on such a regular basis.

The most obvious fix would simply be to bite the bullet by feeding my addiction and drinking caffeine on the weekends, which is what the large number of Americans addicted to caffeine in the form of coffee do. But I’d rather not. I simply don’t like being addicted, so I’d rather fight it than give in. Fighting it will be simple; I’ll simply switch over to the caffeine free Diet Coke in the refrigerator at work. Such a simple change, but with such important consequences! I’ll finally reclaim my Saturdays!

But I will miss the taste of regular Diet Coke. I don’t know if anything in the formulation between the two is different besides the lack of caffeine, but that alone is a huge difference. Drinking a regular Coke is nice because you’re getting caffeine along with a huge sugar rush. Drinking a regular Diet Coke is still awesome because you’re still getting another hit of a drug you’re addicted to. Drinking a caffeine free Diet Coke is just … meh. There’s nothing in it anymore that makes it appealing. Maybe I’ll switch to water. That’s probably for the best anyway; all of those artificial sugars can’t be healthy.