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Archive for April, 2009

Inward: The Heart and Lungs in Motion (Separately)

April 30th, 2009

I considered placing this post under the meta-title “Studies in Repetition” as well, but I already have another item on deck under that heading. I’m not sure if this reflects latent obsession or creative laziness on my part. Probably both. Regardless, I find the following videos informative and fascinating. There is a bit of clinical gore, however, so you should maybe not watch during mealtimes.

[Originally seen a bit ago here, though of course the video itself appears to have originated on medical television?]

This is an example of open chest defibrillation. During surgery the heart had lost its regular pacing and proceeding to flip the f— out (a technical term, of course). The electrical jolt provided by the paddles overwhelms the wild confusion, briefly bringing everything to a stand-still. Eventually the heart’s natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial node, takes charge and strong, regular contractions recommence. Wondrous.

[The video appears to be first connected with this article, where you can find a multimedia link to watch at higher resolution than in this youtube rip.]

I like this video not only for being able to see a set of real lungs doing their thing, but also for its pretty awesome title: EX VIVO LUNG (out-of-body lung, I think). This set of lungs is patiently awaiting transplant, being kept at a toasty 37 celsius, happily nourished by a bloodless solution of proteins, nutrients and all-important oxygen. A pump system continuously cycles inhalation and exhalation, allowing the transplant surgeons to access viability and giving them up to 12 hours to make any necessary repairs. This allows for a great expansion in the pool of lung transplant candidates, since they need not be pristine at the time of donation in order to prove useful to the lucky recipient.

steven Video is Moving Pictures ,

Optico-aural Synergy: “Chrysanthemum” by Kelley Polar

April 28th, 2009

As I was saying the other day, I don’t do too well when it comes to understanding what’s going on in a song. The following Kelley Polar song is a great example of this.

See, Kelley Polar is a favorite musician of mine. He creates incredibly tight, brilliantly layered neo-disco tracks, which most of the time are decently deep philosophical musings, or use scientific concepts as themes. His debut album (the cover image of which was a photograph of the Pillars of Creation) takes a lot of its inspiration from staring out into space. It features songs entitled, “Cosmological Constancy,” “Matter into Energy,” and, “Black Hole;” the first opens with the line, “All the beauty of the velvet sky above.” As you might imagine, this album and I got along rather well, what with my being an astrophysicist with expansive musical tastes.

I enjoy his sophomore album (I Need You to Hold on While the Sky is Falling) even more. Before I even saw the track listing, I delighted myself by realizing that the second song was about Zeno’s paradox (the song is titled, “Zeno of Elea”). I wanted to share the entire album with many of my friends, but wanted to make sure I started with songs that were easily accessible and distinctly Kelley Polar.

One such track was, “Chrysanthemum,” which was also conveniently available on his myspace profile. The only problem was that it seemed to be about murdering lots of people… and I couldn’t really suss out any motivation or causes of death, just making a, “chrysanthemum of everybody’s head.” Then I caught the music video for the song and everything made sense:

[I've embedded the youtube version of the video out of ease/accessibility, but highly recommend watching it in higher resolution at the creator's, Marco Cibola, website.]

Now, I feel a little silly for not catching the painfully obvious; “two atoms kiss / what a funny valentine,” after all. Still, if I was forced to learn from this beautifully simple video, with its striking, clean linework and illustrations, obviously informed by the ’50s, well, I’m pretty happy with that. And, anyway, it’s another song to add to my collection of, “Songs I understand, now.”

If you enjoyed that, I strongly encourage you to seek out the rest of Polar’s work. I mean, he’s a virtuoso who was kicked out of Julliard for starting a riot at his thesis recital. It’s pretty rad.

steven Optico-aural Synergy

Digital Playpen: The Jackson Pollock Webapp

April 25th, 2009

If you click on this link: I can be Jackson Pollock too! and then click on “Enter JacksonPollock.org” (”I thought that’s what I was doing  before!” I know, right?) you’ll be taken to a pretty delightful little browser application.

Move your mouse around the blank white canvas, and suddenly you’re slopping about digital paint. Go ahead, get all of your abstract expressionist feelings onto the screen! Click the left mouse button (only mouse button for the Macs amongst us) to change color at random. Press space if you need a new sheet of paper.

I think it’s a pretty entertaining distraction, and my current desktop image is a product of the fusion of webcode and my artistic vision:

It took me a while to be happy with the color progression

It took me a while to be happy with the color progression

Enjoy! And please point towards your own awesome creations in the comments!

[Thanks to my friend Mike for pointing me to this months ago.]

steven Digital Playpen ,

Upward: M53 and Praesepe

April 24th, 2009

Two of the three objects that I showed tonight, the first night of UConn’s infamous Spring Weekend:

A fine example of a globular cluster

A fine example of a globular cluster

This is M53, a globular cluster in the constellation Coma Berenices. It presently spends most of the night climbing out of the eastern horizon, and looks something like a fuzzy pebble here at Storrs observatory. The very bright center of the cluster is just visible using averted vision.

[Photo grabbed from the Wikimedia project, located here, though it's in the public domain as it was captured by the Hubble.]

Cancer's 'bright mass' per Ptolemy

The bright mass in the breast of Cancer, according to Ptolemy

This is M44, also known as Praesepe (Latin for ‘manger’), also known as The Beehive Cluster. It’s an open cluster in the constellation Cancer. Something of a late-winter/Spring Pleiades, it makes for a beautiful binocular object and completely overflows even a low magnification telescope’s field of view. Open clusters tend to elicit the second-best response from students, after planets and just before nebulae. It’s especially powerful if I have the opportunity to show them an area just away from the cluster, and then bring the cluster in. The contrast between “a couple of stars” and “there’s so many stars!” is very nice.

I should mention that really only the bright stars in this photograph stand out when viewed from the ground.

[Photo grabbed from here, origin beyond that unknown.]

steven Upward , ,

Studies in Repetition: A Spider’s Variegated Weave

April 23rd, 2009
Check out those colors!

Check out those colors!



This spider web’s photons were captured by the brilliant kthread (Kristen Taylor), who is the kind of modern polymath I aspire to emulate. She’s a gifted photographer, skilled foodie and I gather well-versed in our New Media culture. She’s also consulted on a dinner party that I once co-hosted, so I’ll have to get her something nice if I ever have the pleasure of meeting her.

I grabbed this photo both to share its beauty, and because I’m excited by thin film diffraction.

See, each of the threads in the web is thin enough and spaced closely enough that the light from the other side is being bent (or diffracted) as it passes through. Light diffracted by the threads near the center has to travel a different distance than that near the edges, so that when they both reach your eyes (or your camera lens), the light waves from the different source locations are at different points in their oscillations (otherwise known as ‘out-of-phase’). This difference in distance travelled is called the path length difference.

The path length difference leads to wave interference: the waves are added together as they arrive and can appear brighter or darker than any individual wave. With lots of sources (like all of the threads and spaces in a spider web) there’s a lot of destructive interference happening, with waves mostly or totally canceling each other out. What’s left are bright peaks, the perceived color of which depends on the angle at which you’re viewing the web. This is because different colors have different wavelengths. Differences in wavelength changes the path length difference, in turn effecting where the bright maxima occur.

Since you see different parts of the web at different angles, it appears to shimmer kaleidoscopically, depending on which color is constructively interfering at that particular vantage point. This is ultimately the same phenomenon behind the rainbow of colors seen in gasoline spilled at the fill-up station, or the bands reflected on the back of a CD.

[Update! As E. J. points out in the comments below, if this is diffraction at all, it's likely due to reflection of the light rather than transmission through the web. The underlying principles of interference remain. However, it may also be that the camera wasn't capturing diffraction at all, but that the color is the result of Moiré patterns. This possibility didn't even occur to me, likely because I hadn't taught a lab on Moiré just two weeks ago.]

steven Studies in Repetition ,

The Rare Endorsement: Koss PortaPro Headphones

April 23rd, 2009

I don’t plan on doing this very often, but I need to gush about a material thing for a moment. Namely, my totally kick-ass headphones that I was able to pick up after Mid-Winter Gift Exchange: my Koss PortaPro SomethingSomething Model. I apparently can’t be bothered to look up their exact specifications, except that I ended up doing just that after typing the comma. Get this, the “Model Number” is apparently just writing PORTAPRO. “We don’t need numbers for our inventory, just give everything an all-caps name!”

What was I saying?

Oh yes, I love these headphones. Let me tell you why.

I’ve never been all that capable of discerning the lyrical meanings of songs. I love music, but I often have absolutely no idea what’s being said, much less what’s trying to be said using those words I can’t make out. Over the years, I’ve learned to just treat listening to the voice as listening to an instrument: if the consequences of the structural form and diction are that they sound nice and complement the other melodies and rhythms, I’m a happy, happy camper. Sung syllables are pretty much just sort of another set of notes to me.

Never mind that I end up with vague notions that “On the Bus Mall” is about two brothers, hanging out in Buchnell, or something. There were even songs that I could generally sing along with, though it was really more of a singing mumble. A sanglemum, as it were, though a particular example currently escapes me.

I had settled into this arrangement, figuring it was something with my ears, combined with a general disdain for lyrics websites. Then I got my new headphones.

My weirdly retro-styled headphones:

Check out that chrome and baby blue!

Check out that chrome and baby blue!

which can sort of pinch my hair sometimes and remind me that I’ve been meaning to get a haircut for a month.

But it’s always been very much worth it, because this is a pair of $40 headphones that produce brilliant, dynamic, crisp sounds. The bass thumps into my ear canal, the higher frequencies bright, easily distinguishable. Voices seem to float above or project from the euphony being presented.

I am frustrated that the particular example is escaping me right now, but these headphones have allowed me to turn the page as an appreciator of delicious harmonies. I was listening to a favorite song, a song that had been a favorite for years, that I would sing loudly when no one else was home, but that I would still have to sanglemum through at times. Then I listened to it in thee headphones, and I finally understood what was being said. It was revelatory.

And I think it takes a special pair of headphones to give you a moment like that.

steven The Rare Endorsement ,

Studies in Repetition: Kontoupoulos’ Frustrated Devices

April 21st, 2009

I’m positive that I first saw this video many months ago, but if it’s resurfaced on boingboing, I feel that I’m justified in bringing it some attention here as well:


Machines that Almost Fall Over from Michael Kontopoulos on Vimeo.

Plus, it’s a video that nicely fits into one of my meta-titles. I didn’t imagine there would be many of those.

As a minor note of criticism, I find myself wishing that the machines would knock themselves a bit more frequently. Perhaps the anticipation is key, and this was an aspect that was deeply considered by the artist, but I get a certain sense of rush from watching the near-topplings. There’s probably something zen to maximizing the length of time between experiencing those rushes, limited by the possibility of the viewer getting bored waiting for the next occurrence.

steven Studies in Repetition

Kitchen Capers: On Popovers and Pinot

April 20th, 2009

Sunday night provided for a variety of experiments in taste:

How does The Little Penguin pinot noir compare to Anisa’s experiences of other Southeastern Australian pinots selected for her while traveling Southeastern Australia?

Conclusion: Not all that well. Given that this particular wine is something of a “budget wine” the result is perhaps not all that surprising. I also got the impression that those selecting Anisa’s wines during her travels were operating under the restriction that, “money is an object” less than we must. However, as you can generally find TLP in the sub-$9 range, around here at least, I think it’s worth picking up. It sure beats the pants off any jug of Carlo Rossi.

If the tiny corkscrew on the swiss army knife is only stretching the rubber cork employed by The Little Penguin winery, how do you access the budget vino?

Conclusion: Extend the hole created by the wee corkscrew utilizing a thin kniting needle. This will release some of the pressure inside the bottle and hopefully minimize spraying during the next step. Said next step is to utilize the very largest knitting needle I’ve ever seen (this thing was like 2cm in diameter!) to push the cork into the bottle.

So about midway between the labels, that rounder, lighter thing there, that's the cork!

So about midway between the labels, that rounder, lighter thing there, that's the cork!

Please to note that knitting needles are not required, and you’re probably going to make some kind of mess doing this. Also, in my experience you will pour too large of a first glass while trying to get the cork to float out of the way. You’ve probably been quite irritated in the minutes before that point, though, so the extra wine will likely not be a problem.

How do cheddar thyme popovers go with pinot noir?

Conclusion: Deliciously!

How does the presence of cheddar affect the whole popover process?

Conclusion: It definitely seems to weigh down the batter, or possibly add structural integrity to the batter, or both. At least, this is what happened when fine shreds were thoroughly mixed into the batter:

Bit hard to see: the unsatisfactory dough mass is on the right side.

Bit hard to see: the unsatisfactory dough mass is on the right side.

While nearly every cup succeeded in “popping over” there was a matrix of dough and small air bubbles in the center of the treats, rather than the characteristic large, nearly empty cavern. The result was something more like a tall, chewy biscuit than the traditional thin-walls-is-basically-all-there-is splendor of a well-made popover. They still tasted delicious, and the outside was still basically perfect, and I’m going to eat my last one right now, I think, but I want to try again in the future using a different cheese introduction method.

I saw the suggestion in one recipe to pour the cups half-full, sprinkle in some cheese and then finish filling. I’m afraid that this would introduce the same “air capturing” problem in the centers. I’m currently thinking about forgoing cheese in the baking process at all, making regular popovers and then making a separate cheese sauce. This could then be used as a dip, or perhaps spooned into the centers of fresh popovers.

Less elaborately, I’ll probably just leave the cheese out of the batter, then sprinkle it onto the tops, so you’d end up with a nice and cheesy crown.

steven Kitchen Capers ,

Studies in Repetition: Spring has Sprung

April 17th, 2009
Flowers blooming in St. James Park, London

Flowers blooming in St. James Park, London

Though there have been a few times that the weather reached ‘pleasant’ here in Storrs, it wasn’t until today that I was able to go outside with a book and really enjoy the sunshine in the mid-60s. Unlike this child, though, I chose to spend my time far away from a field full of flowers because allergies, man, allergies.

Still, it makes a pretty picture.

[Photo grabbed from The Boston Globe's Big Picture feature, Signs of Spring entry. This image in particular is credited to Dan Kitwood, Getty Images.]

steven Studies in Repetition

Gustatory Escapades: Viva Fresh Pasta Co.

April 16th, 2009

Anisa asked me to decide between Thai-in-general or Vietnamese noodle soup. “Oh, like phở?” I asked, before quickly adding, “Wait, does that mean they also have bánh mì?” As I’ve had woefully little bánh mì since learning about it via Achewood, I chose to be optimistic with regard to the chances that this would be a Vietnamese soup and sandwich shop. We set off and after a lovely stroll through downtown Northampton, found out that the shop, simply called “Noodles,” was, as might be expected from its name, not interested in creating sandwiches.

Having set my hopes so highly on having my first banh mi since leaving San Antonio, I was done with Vietnamese for that night. Instead, we popped into the Italian noodle shop just across the alley, a delightful two-story affair called the “Viva Fresh Pasta Co.

After being seated and introduced to our fantastic, not-the-least-bit shy server Beth, Anisa and I found ourselves simply overwhelmed by the options presented. I believe there were 7 kinds of “Made that Day” pasta available, along with three special ravioli preparations and several starters and entrees. This was all in additional to the fixed menu, of which I wanted one of everything. However, as they were a fresh pasta company, I decided that I would limit myself to the front-of-the-menu “Daily Specials” options.

I initially gravitated toward the Sweet Potato Ravioli, prepared with maple-walnut sauté, before I decided that I also wanted a cup of the day’s soup: Butternut Squash Bisque. Since I’ve been wanting to limit the amount of orange that I have with any given meal, I chose to forgo the ravioli in favor of Egg Linguine alla Carbonara. The decision-making process was agonizing, as I found myself almost equally tempted by every delectable option. Anisa, meanwhile, had immediately and gleefully decided on the Artichoke Heart Ravioli, pairing it with the Romesco sauce. It was something about artichokes being the perfect food, I think.

[A brief aside: before stopping into Viva, I had never heard of Romesco, a Catalan almond or hazelnut sauce. Shortly thereafter, I became aware of the existence of fractal cauliflower, also known as Romanesco broccoli. I was quite confused for some time, though I've since become quite curious about attempting the not-quite-recursive dish of Romanesco in Romesco sauce.]

We placed our orders, and of course we wanted some of the garlic bread, with mozzarella, please. Then a wonderful mistake occurred: we were given garlic bread with Gorgonzola. Sweet, creamy Gorgonzola; it made me forget that I was even eating garlic bread aside from its toasty buttery-ness and which led me to later ponder a more extended application of Gorgonzola and pancetta. My bisque arrived at just the right moment, and had a very subtle sweetness and was not as creamy as I had expected. I carry a flawed mental concept of bisque, perhaps. It also reminded me that I wanted to try preparing a roasted carrot and red pepper soup of my own…

But nevermind that, it was time for the entrees! My carbonara more than made up for any creaminess that was bisque was (not actually) lacking, and the sauce had that lovely smoothness that I have yet to duplicate in my own kitchen. The linguine was the star, as one might hope from a restaurant priding itself on fresh pasta, perfectly al dente, and with a more restrained richness than I was expecting. The pancetta was generous, and its strong, meaty, saltiness played perfectly with the Gorgonzola when it came time to (rather improperly) wipe my plate clean.

Anisa, as I recall, was equally pleased, if not more so. I do believe that she loves her artichokes. I found the ravioli slightly undercooked to my taste, but that may just be my own unsophisticated American palate.

Altogether, the entire meal was absolute joy, and I heartily recommend Viva whenever you find yourself wandering Northampton, MA struck by the hunger that only a big plate of delectable, home-made Italian noodles can sate.

steven Gustatory Escapades