Stan’s Obligatory Blog

Happy Halloween

Page 2 of 20«12345»1020...Last »

5/22/2016

ET-94 on the Sunday Bike Club Ride

Filed under: — stan @ 3:15 pm

A few years ago, we rode down to near Exposition Park to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavour being moved to its new home at the California Science Center. And today, we rode down to the park to see the last remaining external shuttle fuel tank, which was delivered to the park yesterday.

It was cool and overcast in Pasadena when we started out, but it cleared and was pleasantly sunny as we headed south into Los Angeles. We rode through downtown L.A. all the way to Exposition Park.

Come along and ride into the park with us:

Leaving Exposition Park, we headed west on Exposition Blvd. As part of the Expo Line, they built a bike lane along the street, so we rode that all the way out to Buckingham, just past Crenshaw. Along the way, we saw westbound trains with signs saying that they were headed for Santa Monica. The new Expo Line extension from Culver City to Santa Monica just opened this weekend.

Turning north, we rode up into Hancock Park and our snack stop at Noah’s in Larchmont Village. After that, we headed home by way of Benton Way across Silverlake, and back through Eagle Rock to Pasadena.

44 miles.

Route map and elevation profile

3/8/2016

ME72 2016

Filed under: — stan @ 6:29 pm

Today was the ME72 contest at Caltech. This is the engineering class where the students get a box of junk and have to use it to make one or more machines to compete in a contest. I’ve been going to see this for as long as long as I’ve been at the USGS office at Caltech, and it’s always great fun. This year’s contest was the Tridroid Cup, where each team was supposed to build three robots to compete as a team to score points by putting small soccer balls through goals at the far end of the playing field. The two floor-level goals were worth one point, and the single raised goal was worth three points.

All the teams get the same junk to start with, but they all come up with different approaches to the problem. Most of them had machines with sort of a scoop on the front to be able to push the balls through the floor-level goals. The Caltech Armored Division team’s machines were very fast and manouverable, and they were able to score lots of points by just pushing lots of balls through the goals. But then one of them got stuck trying to drive over the divider down the middle of the field, which was a limitation of their low-to-the floor design.

Today’s contest was special in that it was the first time in 20 years of coming to see these things that I saw one of the machines catch fire during a match. Their machine was just driving across the floor when a small circuit board on it just suddenly caught fire. They smothered the fire with a wadded-up T-shirt, and the match continued.

In the end, it came down to the Blitzkrieg Bots against TBD. The TBD team had machines that could pick up several balls at a time and fling them through the high goal. At three points for each ball, they won lots of matches by just parking their machine in front of the goal and shooting balls through it. But the Bots had a low-slung ball-pusher machine, and a tall machine that they used to block the balls being flung at the high goal, and in the end, that divided strategy worked, and they were the winners. And the whole thing was very entertaining to watch.

2/5/2016

My Pet Project Turns Ten

Filed under: — stan @ 11:00 pm

The USGS Earthquake Notification Service, also known as My Pet Project, went online to the public on January 31, 2006. It all started back in about 2000, when I was talking to someone from Caltrans, and he was asking if we could set up something where they could put in lat/lon coordinates of key freeway bridges and interchanges, and then be notified any time there was an earthquake within some distance of any of them. At the time, we couldn’t do anything like that. But then, fate intervened.

We have occasional cookouts at the office, and in 2003, I thought it would be nice if I could set up a web form for people to fill out online so that I knew who was coming and what food they wanted. I thought this would be sort of like a gift registry, so I went on Sourceforge and found a little gift registry program that someone wrote. I downloaded it, and I hacked it to make an online signup for our office cookouts. In the process of doing this, I learned a bit of MySQL. And then, when I was riding my bike in one morning, I realized that a database like MySQL could do something like what the guy from Caltrans had asked for. So I whipped up a simple database with some rudimentary geographic information, I plugged in the worldwide earthquake feed, and it started sending me earthquakes from all over the world.

I recruited a few ‘guinea pigs’ around the office to set up accounts in it for testing. They suggested other things they would like it to do. At first, it could only define geographic regions as lat/lon points defining a box. People asked for circles, and then arbitrary polygons. Drawing a polygon on the map and figuring out if a given earthquake fell inside it kept me thinking for a while, but I worked out a reasonable way to do it. And while all this was happening, my little system was being shown around to everyone, until the National Earthquake Information Center saw it and decided that it should be an official product of the Earthquake Hazards Program.

We had a few old-style mailing lists that were open to the public at that time. One for worldwide quakes M5.5 and over, and two for California quakes. One for M3 and higher, and one for M4. Those mailing lists formed the initial subscriber base. I wrote some scripts to port the mailing lists over, creating an account for each person with notification rules that would give them the same earthquakes they had been getting before. All told, this made for about 100,000 initial subscribers.

Now it’s been ten years, and it now has about 400,000 subscribers. Over ten years, that’s an average of about 80 new subscribers every day. Most days get about 30-35 new subscribers, but this goes way up after big earthquakes. The largest jump was about 75,000 new subscribers in the two weeks after the 2011 M9 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan.

Because this all started from wanting to have an online signup form for the office cookouts, I thought we should have a cookout for the occasion. I made a cake, and we all gathered out on the patio behind the office. It was a nice time. And it’s still amazing to me that this thing I wrote that started out as a little Pet Project has turned into a thing. And that’s it’s used by 400,000 people. And in the end, I guess that’s the greatest satisfaction.

10/24/2015

A bit of aerospace history

Filed under: — stan @ 6:19 pm

Back in the late ’80s, I spent a few years working at Hughes Aircraft Radar Systems Group in El Segundo. Part of our department was moved to offices at the old Hughes Helicopter plant near Culver City. I had occasion to go over there a few times, and I’d heard that the land there had been built up after Hughes Aircraft was divided up and sold in the ’90s. So when I got something from the L.A. Conservancy about a tour of the remaining buildings there and how they were being renovated as new office spaces, I figured a visit was in order. I called up my old friend Kathleen, who I first met while we were both working at Hughes, and we made plans to go visit the old place.

The tour started in Building 15, which is an enormous wooden structure that was built in 1943 to accommodate building the H-4 Hercules, otherwise known as the “Spruce Goose”. It was impressive to see how they were able to build such a big building out of wood. Our docent said that the only metal parts were hinges, nails, bolts, and the reinforcing plates on the support arches. But I put my long lens on the camera and got a close-up picture of one of the plates, and we could see the wood grain of the plywood. So even the reinforcing plates were made of wood. They told us that the enormous building had been used as a sound stage since the early ’90s, and that it was used for movies that needed to build large indoor sets that would be used for an extended time.

The next stop was the building that used to be the company cafeteria. The docents told us about the design of the building, and also about how the Hughes cafeteria was known for serving good food for the employees. Kathleen and I could verify that. The cafeteria where we were in El Segundo was quite good. The old cafeteria building has been fixed up, and now it’s offices for a video game design company.

The next building was formerly the company fire station. It’s been turned into offices and studio space for Youtube. We didn’t get to see much on the inside there, since the studios were all in use. And the final two buildings were formerly office buildings in the Hughes days. And they’re still office buildings. The are leased by an advertising company. But because of that, we were not allowed to take pictures in those buildings.

It was fun seeing the old place again.

7/26/2015

That’s an even bigger telescope…

Filed under: — stan @ 1:26 pm

Last September, we went to Mt. Wilson for an evening with the 60-inch telescope. But last spring, I got a notice from the Atlas Obscura people that they were going to be doing an evening with the 100-inch telescope. That telescope is the one that Edwin Hubble used to discover Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda nebula, which enabled him to establish that it was in fact another galaxy. This was a major discovery, since it proved that the universe consisted of far more than just our galaxy. It was also the telescope he used to discover the expansion of the universe. All told, it’s a big piece of astronomical history.

Our group met up in La Cañada before heading up Mt. Wilson. At the top, our session director, Shelly Bonus met us and led us back to the telescope. Inside, we got a tour of the dome while we were waiting for nightfall. As it started to get dark, they pointed the telescope at the moon so that we could have a look. The magnification on such a big telescope is pretty large, and we could only see a few craters in the small field of view. After that, they moved the telescope just a bit to have a look at Saturn. The Cassini Division was clearly visible, and this was the first time I’ve ever seen the C-ring. The planet also showed some nice color, and bands in the clouds.

Next up was M13, the big globular cluster in Hercules. I didn’t recognize it in the big telescope. In my little telescope, it looks like a ball of fuzz. But here it was big, and it was resolved into stars. Many, many stars. Then we moved just a short distance away to M92, which is a smaller globular cluster. It didn’t fill the field of view, so it was more easily recognized as a globular. We looked at a few double stars just to admire the resolution of the big telescope. Then we looked at Campbell’s Hydrogen Star. The nebula around the star was a deep red color, and it looked good. All in all, it was a fun time in a geeky way.

6/30/2015

Planetary Alignment

Filed under: — stan @ 9:11 pm

I’d read recently that Venus and Jupiter were having a conjunction in the western sky, and that tonight would be their closest approach. From what I’d read, I figured that they might both fit in the same field of view in my telescope, so I took it out to the sidewalk this evening to have a look.

I set up on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor’s house, where I had a good view through the trees to the west. And they were there, very close together. I was able to see both in the same view if I used my lowest-power eyepiece. Then I hooked the camera up to the telescope and tried taking some pictures. I started out with a 1/50 second exposure, and then went up from there. When I got to a 1 second exposure, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter became visible, so I declared victory. So here it is. Two planets in one photo. Doesn’t happen every day.

6/26/2015

The Miniature Engineering and Craftsmanship Museum

Filed under: — stan @ 6:32 pm

A few weeks ago, my friend Bruce sent me a link about a museum in Carlsbad that exhibits working models of airplanes, boats, trains, and so forth, with miniature working engines. Since I was headed to San Diego this weekend for the Towerthon, I thought this might be a good side trip.

The museum is in an unassuming industrial-looking building kind of off the beaten path. Fortunately, I had Waze to tell me how to get there, or I would have had trouble finding it. When I got there, I went inside, and immediately saw the featured exhibit. A tiny scale model of a supercharged V-8 engine. Apparently, it’s fully functional. Yikes. I wandered around the museum, looking at all the tiny engines. There was a board with some tubes attached to it that said it was three miniature steam engines. They were so small I had to look carefully to see them at all. At the back of the museum, they had a model of the Wright Flyer, and a working model of a P-38 fighter. Then, along the back wall, they had a display of miniature steam engines, all hooked up to a compressed air supply, and the sign said that they would run the engines and give a tour of the machine shop at 2:00. Since that was just a few minutes away, I decided to stay and see it. When the time came, they turned on the air, and all the little steam engines started running:

After looking at the tiny model of the Titanic’s engine, we went into the machine shop. The first stop was the “Do-Nothing Machine”, which was featured on Roadside America last year. Our guide described it as “a cat toy for humans”. It was pretty funny:

Next, they showed us four different tiny working engines. There were two different gasoline engines, one Stirling engine, and a fourth of a type that I didn’t recognize at all. Here is the first gasoline engine running:

The last part of the tour showed us another radial airplane engine that they are building there. They even had a model of the model to show us how the inside of the crankcase worked. I’d always wondered how cylinders in a circle could turn a crank, and now I know.

This was one entertaining little museum. At least for anyone with a mechanical and geek bent.


5/29/2015

Flying Machines

Filed under: — stan @ 6:28 pm

For twenty years, I’ve been getting the little catalog of PCC Extension’s courses in the mail, and I never paid any attention to it. But this time, Kathleen was looking through it, and she said, “Hey, they have some day trips and tours in here that you might like.” I picked it up, and had a look, and then I went online and signed up for the day trip and tour of Edwards Air Force Base. I’d gone there about 30 years ago to see the Space Shuttle land, but never went for a tour. I thought it could be interesting.

So I rode my bike over to PCC in the morning to meet up with the tour bus. I figured that it’s 1/2 mile closer than riding to work, so there really was no reason to take the car. And I figured that since PCC is a college, finding bike parking would be easy. I certainly had no idea how hard it was going to be. In the end, I found a fence on the edge of the parking lot and put it there. I’m still a bit dumbfounded that there was not one bike rack anywhere near that parking lot.

It’s a long ride up to Edwards, but we finally got to the gate. We had to wait at the entrance for the public relations guy to come out to meet us. While we were waiting, we had a look at the airplanes they had parked outside the gate. They told us later that they will eventually have a museum at that location.

When the public relations guy got there, he introduced himself and made the arrangements with the guards to let us in. Then he escorted our bus to the NASA flight research center. It used to be Dryden, but it was renamed after Neil Armstrong. We had lunch at the little food court there. Then we had a little time to visit the NASA gift shop, and to look at still more airplanes on display out front.

Then an Air Force bus came to take us on the actual tour of the base. They had a P-59 on display outside. They said it was the first jet-powered fighter for the U.S., but that it didn’t see combat. They said that the German jet fighters didn’t turn out to be decisive in the war, largely due to lack of suitable fuel for them to run on. So that was why our combat planes remained propeller-driven until after the war.

Then it was time for our tour of the flightline. We passed the headquarters building that they said was built in the shape of the B-2 bomber, and then we passed through the gate. They said that we had to put our cameras away at that point. The bus took us around to see airplanes in hangars being repaired, tankers parked outside, and lots of F-22 and F-35 fighters, each one parked under a tent-like canopy. We got to see a pair of F-22s taxi by after returning from a flight. They may be invisible to radar, but they were very loud.

At the start of the tour, they had promised us something extra, and we got that in the middle of the flightline tour. We stopped at a hangar where they have airplanes being restored for display in the museum there. The highlight of that was getting to see the F-117 up close. The guides said that it had had its radar-absorbing coatings removed, and the engine exhaust outlets were covered, since they said that some aspect of the design of the outlets is still classified.

After seeing the restoration hangar, we headed back outside. They took us on a tour of the rest of the base, including the base housing and schools, and even a Starbucks. I guess Starbucks really is everywhere. At the end, they dropped us off at the base museum. We had about 45 minutes there before it was time to head for home. It was all interesting in a nerdy way.

11/12/2014

Field Trip!

Filed under: — stan @ 8:50 pm

A few weeks ago, Sue Hough sent an email out to the office to see who would be interested in a field trip to tour the San Andreas Fault in the Antelope Valley, a bit north of Los Angeles. The sights would be taken from her book, Finding Fault in California. As it turned out, there was quite a bit of interest. In the end, it was enough interest that we rented a 24-passenger bus and driver for the day so we could take the trip.

We met at the office early Wednesday morning, and then we headed out. We went past JPL, which is located right on the trace of the Sierra Madre Fault, and has a very nice, steep scarp right behind it. Our first real stop was the small fault scarp next to the McDonald’s at 1955 Glenoaks Blvd in San Fernando. This scarp was formed in the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake. I took the bike club there to see the scarp last June.

Continuing on up the freeway, we went through the 5/14 freeway interchange. This interchange fell down in the 1971 earthquake. It was rebuilt, and then fell down again in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Then we went up the 14 freeway, through the mountains, coming out in Palmdale. We went one exit farther up the freeway than we needed to, since that let us go through a somewhat-famous road cut on the freeway. It’s where the freeway crosses the trace of the San Andreas Fault, and in that cut, the rock layers look particularly jumbled and twisted from the motion of the fault.

Heading east out of Palmdale, we went along the northern edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. We stopped for a photo-op at a place where some people put up signs on the road to mark the trace of the fault. Makes it really easy to find, when there’s a big sign pointing it out. This site was very near where Kerry Sieh did his first trenching studies on the fault, back in the ’70s.

A little while later, the road started to climb into the mountains, still following the trace of the fault. We stopped at another road cut where the cut went right through the fault gouge. The side of the cut was basically packed sand and pulverized rock. Digging into it with our hands, there were some solid pieces of rock buried in there, but as Sue showed us, those solid pieces were actually shattered, and we could crumble them to sand in our hands. We also saw a tree there that was kind of bent at the top. There has been some research done on trees in that area that grow along the fault line. There are trees that show signs of having been broken off in past earthquakes.

In Wrightwood, we took one small side trip to look at some recent debris flows, and how the town has attempted to guide future debris flows to minimize damage to the town.

Coming down the east side of the mountain from Wrightwood, we ended up coming out by the 15 freeway in Cajon Pass. We took one more side trip to see Lost Lake, which is a small sag pond on the fault there.

This made for an interesting day of sightseeing. Have I mentioned lately that I really like my job?

9/14/2014

what if?

Filed under: — stan @ 5:52 pm

On Sunday afternoon, we took a trip to Santa Monica to go to a talk and book-signing with Randall Munroe of XKCD. He has a new book out: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. It’s a collection of his what if? columns, and it’s all very entertaining.

The basic format was a conversation between Randall and Wil Wheaton. They talked about the book, about science in general, told stories, and took questions from the audience. It was a fun time, and at the end, we all lined up to get our books signed by Randall. And I got to thank him for the little bit of geek fame I got from when he mentioned my Pet Project in the mouseover text for this cartoon: http://xkcd.com/723/

Page 2 of 20«12345»1020...Last »

Powered by WordPress