Thursday, February 28, 2008

Heroes of Science

I recently read about an soon-to-be-released movie titled The Fall. I was immediately interested for a number of reasons. The trailer makes it clear that visually it is quite stunning. Some descriptions of it call it a combination of Pan's Labyrinth, Big Fish, and the comic version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (far far superior to the movie). And the lead is also the star of a tv show I enjoy a great deal, Pushing Daisies.

The movie appears to follow a band of five heroes (at least in a story-within-a-story structure). Which brings me to what may be my favorite part: one of the heroes is Charles Darwin. I just think that is a fantastic idea; I just haven't come up with the proper cliched action-hero catchphrases for the good doctor. "You've been naturally selected... for an ass-kicking!"

It also doesn't hurt that the score to the trailer is one of my favorite pieces of music, the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Supposedly Schubert and Wagner thought it was the greatest piece ever written.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


It's like Zippy the Pinhead, surreal and inscrutable: Garfield minus Garfield.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

That Money Is Rightfully Mine

This is an incredible article, about the salvage team that righted a car carrier off of Alaska last year. It's especially interesting because all of the naval architecture problems discussed are types I've solved on the job. Not all together, in a unique situation like with the Cougar Ace incident, but I know I could do everything they did, engineering-wise. However, the article makes it clear just how dangerous the work is: one of the team (the nav arch, actually) died during the effort. An excellent piece, about one of the more adventurous forms of engineering.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Helicopter. Autogyro. Cyclogyro

I've always thought autogyros were fairly clever contraptions, and I find their "Frankenstein's Airplane" look amusing. Well, they may have been topped. Engineers in Singapore have built a functioning cyclogyro.

The concept is similar to cycloidal propellers sometimes used on ships. A set of blades is arranged to revolve around an axis that parallels their length. The pitches of the blades are varied as they revolve, adjusting the net thrust. So the same blades can provide lift and thrust. With two sets, one on each side of the craft, the thrust differentials can be used to spin the around the vertical or longitudinal axis.

Cycloidal propellers on ships have always interested me - they are often used for vessels that need extreme manueverablity. I remember learning about them while reading about the exploration of the Titanic wreck. The ship that supported the first exploration dives was equipped with them, allowing for precise station-keeping while controlling the ROV at the end of a 5 mile long cable. I never considered the possibility the same concept would be viable for aircraft.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Busboys, Poets, Mexican Gangsters, Assassins

I spent a really enjoyable afternoon in Shirlington yesterday. For those who don't know it, Shirlington is an odd little oasis of restaurants, theaters, and businesses in Arlington. It's not really connected to the nearby neighborhoods. It just sits by the side of the I-395, near the Condo Canyon. Recently, it has been changing a great deal. Previously, it was a collection of businesses in high-rises (WETA headquarters is there) with a single street of restaurants and some shops, terminating in the movie theater. Now there Signature Theater has built a new home there, sharing space with a branch of the city library. New shops like CakeLove, more cafes, high-rise condos, a big grocery store - all have opened up recently. So it is quite lively, a sort of suburban downtown, not as far as DC, not as congested as Old Town.

I went to lunch at the cafe/bookstore Busboys and Poets, which was fun. It was extremely crowded - so much so they had to use the little "Your table is ready" buzzers like Ruby Tuesdays. They fixed me up with a delicious barbecue chicken panini. I was tempted by the peanut butter and banana panini - the Elvis Special. Maybe next time.

Because of the crowd, I just barely made it through lunch in time to get over to the movie theater for the showing of No Country for Old Men. I'm a big fan of all of the movies the Coen Brothers have made. I find they fall into two types: comedic capers (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, O Brother Where Art Thou?) and tragic thrillers (Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple). No Country is clearly one of the latter. Of course, it retains a great deal of their signature humor, mostly of the gallows variety.

After watching the movie, I am forced to agree with what many reviewers have said. The Coens are less interested in the mechanics of the plot - who gets what, wins, loses, etc. - than in the question "why do they do these things?" It doesn't hurt that the many switches and turns of the story have the players reversing roles constantly. To steal a line, it is less a game of cat and mouse than a game of cat and also cat. It's a very tense film, but not in an artificial way - scenes play out slowly, ratcheting up, without feeling drawn out or stretched. If you like any of the other movies by the Coens, I recommend you beat feet down to the movies and see it on the big screen while you still can.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lost Moon

I watched the initial minutes of the lunar eclipse tonight, using binoculars and my old refracting telescope. I took some pictures, but they did not turn out well:

A proper photograph looks like this:


It was cold and clear out, which made for good seeing. Unfortunately, it was very cold, with pretty decent breezes. I managed to stay out until most of the disk was in the umbra (total shadow), but came back in to warm up. I will go out for one last look before turning in, though.

I hope it was cold and clear wherever you were, and you got a chance to see this fairly rare and beautiful phenomenon.

EDIT: The next total lunar eclipse visible here will be on December 21st 2010, but the real show to look for is August 21st, 2017.


After a long winter of varying temperatures and little snow, today we are finally getting a nice coating. I should say "nice for DC." I've become so used to snowless winters that this seems remarkable. And at this "late" date, too. I was working outside in a t-shirt last Saturday. This weather will of course lead to widespread panic.

I had an odd thought at work today. My job is very episodic, in the sense that it is clearly broken up into arcs, not unlike the plot arcs of many tv shows. I'm sure in some degree this is true of many jobs - you work on one project, finish it, and move on to the next. However, I've noticed that my projects seem to vary quite a bit. There is the common thread of ships and engineering, of course. But a month ago my job was to be a researcher and writer. Today, I was a statistician with side helpings of physicist and computer programmer. And in a few weeks, depending on if we get particular contracts, I could be a middle-manager, an accountant, an electromagnetics analyst, or a draftsman.

I'm curious if this is the case for most people. It wasn't true at my one other "real" job working in the bookstore. It was all pretty book-related: finding books, selling books, buying used books - not a lot of variety. And even what little there was, it would all come in a farrago over the course of a day. Not like this job, where I'll often do one sort of job for a week or even months, then suddenly switch to another. It demands a certain flexibility

In other news, I wonder what the hell is going on here:

(via MAKE)

Saturday, February 16, 2008


After a full morning of chores, I had an extremely helpful PE study session with Sarah, Jane, and Jackie. Between the four of us, we had lots of references and plenty of received knowledge and tips on how best to prepare. I use the term "we" pretty liberally. Jackie had all kinds of references, Sarah knew a bunch of stuff cold - I think because she actually used a lot of it as port engineer, and Jane shared some brilliant ideas on how to organize and prepare. Needless to say, I will shamelessly copy these techniques, and buy/borrow/steal the same references. Jane also provided cookies. So it was time very well spent, though I don't think I brought much to the table. Where these ladies were organized and methodical (Sarah is preparing for the test next year), my study habits are slapdash and sloppy. I hope we can do it again, because I found I worked longer, and better. I am sure that I learned more in those 4 hours than I would have on my own.

Afterwards, I went and saw There Will Be Blood. It was incredible. I won't say 'I've never seen anything like it,' because it is kin to many other great epic movies. It was like a cross between Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with oil and betrayals and greed and madness.

The movie looks amazing, taking good advantage of the stark California desert landscape it is set in. Though one sequence, involving an oil fire, was a pure visual and visceral thrill. At first, it seems the movie will rely on pictures alone - the first 20 minutes or so have almost no dialog. I've heard other people remark it could have been made as a silent movie, like the lost classic Greed. As the movie goes on, the dialog becomes better and better (which is not to say the visuals lose anything). By the end, there is dialog paraphrased from historical Senate testimony over the Teapot Dome Scandal involving drainage and milkshakes. It sounds dry, but I assure you it's fantastic.

The movie may seem a bit over-the-top at times. Actually, the main character played by Daniel Day-Lewis is the one who does so. But not to give away the plot too much, but that is the story. The movie itself stays very grounded, as some of the characters, in very realistic ways, snap their moorings and go adrift. It is fascinating. It is a dark film, and I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. But it is compelling, with excellent performances and an intriguing story arc.

I saw the movie at the always-entertaining Old Town Theater in Alexandria. Independent - no previews, no commercials, and they don't start the movie until everyone gets in and seated. The concessions sells wine and beer, and the owner comes out and takes questions before the show. It won't last forever, though: he's moving away in a year and a half, donating the theater to a non-profit organization. The plan is it will continue as-is, though it won't be the same without this character coming out with his plaid slacks and salesman's patter to tell you what will be playing next week.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


noun (Late Latin): the four subjects forming the upper course of study in a medieval university - arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

I've finally taken up my studies for the Professional Engineering Exam in earnest. And I'll be blunt: I feel dumb dumb dumb. I recognize a lot, but don't remember how to do anything. Some things I don't recall ever seeing before. I don't remember ever using the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) shafting design equations, but there they are in the example problems. Well, they are called out in the example solution; I do not now have a copy of my own. I don't think I ever have, actually. I am starting to become concerned.

It's worth mentioning that my study pace is best described as "plodding." I'm behind where the official Review Course is right now - they started in January. And I'm not even to the truly hard stuff, like thermodynamics. It's doubly frustrating because things like this ship fascinate me, but the fundamentals of engineering (which are so often dealt with by computers now) often confuse and bore me.

Luckily, I've got nothing else to do right now. So I guess I'll go study again, some more.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Doctor of Fine Arts

SAAM 2-9-08
I had some free time today, and decided to make the most of it and take a quick jaunt into the district. I went to one of my favorite museums, the combined Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

They've completed the courtyard renovations since the last time I visited. It is a great public space - comfortable, lots of activity without being overly crowded. The two signature elements are the undulating glass canopy and the shallow pools. The pools are merely sheets of water, and are constantly in motion - pumped in on one end, flowing down a barely perceptible slope into a drain. Since it is barely a puddle, kids run through them constantly. It livens the place up quite a bit.

The entire museum has good exhibits, but the most popular single work today was the recently installed portrait (or is it portraits?) of Stephen Colbert. It is just outside the Hall of Presidents... in the antechamber of the restrooms. There's a photo in the album linked above. I walked by a few times, and there were never less than a dozen people crowding around for photos.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Vile Weed!

It's been quite some time since I've done any real cooking. Since well before the holidays, even, I've been making very simple stuff. Pasta with store sauce, quickie grilled chicken. And those were the fancy meals. There have been many servings of buttered noodles and grille cheese.

So this was an itch I've been meaning to scratch. Luckily Zina, Sarah & Paul, and Jane were able to come over tonight for dinner and give it a sense of occasion. This did require some adaptation on my part; I had to add some vegetarian options, and even made a bowl of foul broccoli. But it all worked out pretty well; I went so far as to get wine, which I almost never drink myself (though it was left untouched this time).

It was a surprisingly easy meal to make. The entree was Monster Pork Chops, accompanied by Coconut Rice, Fettuccine with Brussels Sprouts and Pine Nuts, apple apricot sauce from Trader Joe's, and the aforementioned vile weed. Dessert was Gingersnap crumble ice-cream tart, with reinforcements from various other cookies. It seemed like the entire meal was well-received. But I especially enjoyed the evening for the company; it's been a while since I've had people over, and it was a welcome change. It helps that this was an especially fun group of people to bring together - very similar senses of humor, and all quite clever.

On a more professional note, I've started looking for symposia and calls for papers that I could submit my (still hypothetical) paper to. One good candidate came up in the latest Naval Engineers Journal: the West Coast Combats Systems Symposium. I checked the Call for Papers, and it says abstracts are due on February 31st. I assume that means they must be in their offices by a quarter past Never on the Eleventeenth of the next Triple Leap Year.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I'm Learnding

Here in DC it feels like spring is coming, a season for change. And if you recall your Romance poets, growth, passion, and the like. It seems like many of my friends and family are acting accordingly. Ryan is talking about taking education classes, looking into teaching. Kirk has submitted his letters to leave active duty and become an FBI field agent. I just found out Sara is applying for a doctoral program in Nashville. Jane is setting up a study group for the professional engineering exam.

I am thinking of following suit - if smart people are all doing it, it must be the smart thing to do, right? I've already applied to take the PE exam, and plan on getting Jane to teach me everything at the aforementioned study group. I should start asking questions at work about getting tuition assistance for enrolling in the ocean engineering master's program from VTech. I regret not starting that sooner; if I had just dove in when I first started working, I could have my master's by now. Learn from my example, O People of the Internet! Don't put off until tomorrow, seize the day, children are our future, etc. etc.

I've also started some literature review and outlining for a paper. If I could get it published, that would mean a resume bullet and the publication bonus at work. Though the more I work on it, the more I wonder if I have enough to warrant a paper. The deeper in I go, the shallower it seems. Without going into the technicalities, it is an interesting topic to me, I'm not aware of any papers on it to date, but any real research would require a massive effort - lots of research, modeling, and simulation. What I have in mind is more of presenting a methodology that could be used for analysis in my field. I guess I'm wondering if my idea is self-evident and obvious to others. I think I may have to get some other smart people to talk to me about it.

I may be a little more enthusiastic about writing than usual, since we have just wrapped up a big effort to write a deliverable for a client. It ended up at almost 500 pages. We all put a lot of effort into it, and I think everyone ended up working a healthy chunk of overtime. Times like that are the ones I find the most professionally satisfying. Humility aside, writing and editing engineering text is something I've always thought I was good at. I wouldn't want to do it all the time - I like being an engineer first and an editor far less - but it is satisfying when I get to do it.