Tater’s Takes – Space Wall

February 28th, 2011 by Potato

Went grocery shopping, with largely two things on my list: real food, and candy. At the intersection of the two: cocoa krispies, but they look to have discontinued them! Which is dastardly, because they were on sale this week!

Wired had a good article on magnetic navigation in sea turtles. Neat, because I was just talking about this in my lecture last week! Hope the undergrads find this. I love this quote: “A skeptic could reasonably believe that the latitudinal cue is magnetic, but that determining east-west position depends on magic,” Another recent article also discusses the radical-pair mechanism. I’ve long lamented the poor quality of journalism, especially science reporting, in these times of ours, but I have to say that I’ve been reasonably impressed with a few articles from Wired recently, in particular because they actually include the citations to the papers they’re talking about, so I’ve subscribed to their RSS feed.

The Berkshire Hathaway annual results are out, including Warren Buffet’s famous annual letter to shareholders. Worth a read even if you’re not a shareholder. Of course, many blog posts out there to help you digest the wisdom, including Larry MacDonald, Canadian Capitalist, and Michael James.

Barry Rithotlz points out that banks are writing credit default swaps on debt that doesn’t exist… if you figure out how to view the full story on the WSJ, let me know, I only got the first few lines as a preview, and there wasn’t even a link with the option to buy the article, so to me it just looks like a broken website (way to go, newspapers, you show the internet how conveying information is done!).

I got a response from my MP after my UBB letters: basically just a form response that the Liberals oppose UBB, and that they’ve received a lot of letters on the topic! Other than that, I haven’t noticed any news on the matter, so now I think we just wait and see what comes out of the CRTC.

A bunch of other bloggers got copies of various tax programs to give away (come on Intuit, it’s not a personal finance blog, but I do taxes too!). Oddly enough many of them only opened their contest up to their email subscribers. I guess people who use RSS to follow every. single. post. just aren’t worthy.

With even the permabulls like the real estate boards calling for the housing market to at the very least flatten out, it’s important to market your home’s selling features. A snazzy virtual tour may help, but might I suggest a space wall?

Space wall. A whole wall for a space scene. In your basement. What more do you need from a house?

Toronto Realty Blog considers moving up. The post highlights a few things that I see as being horribly sick and wrong with the current Toronto market (well, it doesn’t intentionally highlight them, but they stand out to me):

  • Five years is far above the average time that a condo-owner will spend in one unit in downtown Toronto…” Transaction costs are high: so far, price appreciation has dwarfed them, but in a flat market, moving very often means more people should lean towards renting rather than buying. If people are feeling squeezed out (or bored, or whatever other reason they have for moving so frequently), then they do need to start to consider the risks of buying at the top, as they can’t just wait out a downturn in the unlikely event that it happens (even if that’s what they tell me). Five years sounds like a very short amount of time to buy a place for to me, so for that to be above the average sounds crazy.
  • As I look around the living room, I see a bookshelf with so many books stacked on top of the unit itself that I’ve begun a small pile on the floor […] and I can’t tell you how many things (skiis, snowboard, golf clubs, hockey equipment, baseball gear, winter tires) I keep in seasonal storage in my mother’s basement. Not only have I outgrown my space, but I can afford far more now as well.” The condos that are going up (even in Markham) are freaking tiny. I have trouble seeing how a single person fits in some of them, let alone a couple. That is partly due to amenities: no need to set aside room for a treadmill if your building has a gym, and space for more than two guests can be taken care of by the party room and movie theatre. But I have to wonder how much of the demand for these tiny units is driven by people buying from plans, and when the buyers will finally stop trying to get a place, any place, and start demanding livable space.
  • Let’s assume that I own my condo in cash, and I have no mortgage.[…] For whatever reason, I would rather keep my money in my condo th[a]n throw darts at the board known as the stock market […] so my all-in cost of living is only $545 per month.” Once again, the fallacy that owning your shelter somehow makes it free, or nearly so, without taking into account the opportunity cost, that is, the return one could get by investing that money elsewhere. Even a GIC-like rate added to the other costs listed would put that monthly total north of $1600 — more than what a 1-bedroom rents for. And along with it, the notion that somehow the stock market is risky but Toronto condos are not. Eventually, fundamentals will matter.

Tater’s Takes

February 16th, 2011 by Potato

Haven’t had one of these for a while.

The bar for the diet goals, as you may recall, was significantly lowered for the thesis writing here, because it’s just too hard to sit and try to write all day and not “fuel up” — and there is a limited supply of willpower. The goal was simply to not gain weight. Sadly, I’ve failed even that, as this last week I’ve jumped up nearly 5 pounds (I blame the 1 kg jar of cashews I just couldn’t resist buying). I got called in to spare a bunch for curling though, so I’ve been doing that about 3 times a week, and the snow keeps coming, leading to lots of shovelling-related “workouts”.

A Toronto statistician found a flaw on some Ontario lottery tickets. Interestingly, the end of the article suggests that Bingo tickets are still exploitable. I’m not sure how useful that is though — in the article, the fellow says he brought the flaw to the OLG not because he was necessarily moral, but because it wasn’t worth his time to try to scam the system. And that was for the tic-tac-toe tickets: the Bingo tickets are much “busier”, and the hit rate isn’t as high according to him, so it would be even less worthwhile trying to exploit. Nonetheless, my curiosity is piqued. If anyone wants to bankroll buying a few dozen tickets to try to find the exploit (might even get a paper published out of it!) I’d be interested in trying to analyze them.

Lenny sent me to a new webcomics site, Abtruse Goose. Lots of geek love there.

For those that like to watch rather than read, TVO has a decent video on the UBB issue, summarizing it in 3 min. And Michael Geist also caught Bell’s admission in the Industry committee hearings: there is no congestion on the last mile (and if there was, they’d have to be fair and charge UBB to their IPTV service).

The Torontoist reports on the CRTC’s cavalcade of failure, this time highlighting their decision to not allow a TV station to air more (Canadian) music videos.

“This is literally a decision that benefits absolutely nobody, which is why it’s so amazing: usually when the CRTC makes a horrendously bad decision, it at least has the appearance of being because Rogers or Bell whispered in their ear that they wanted to make more money.

“But this? This is so witless that we are forced to wonder if maybe we’ve misunderstood the CRTC all along. Maybe they aren’t a shell of a government agency beholden to corporate media giants to the point of uselessness. Maybe they’re simply so stupid that uselessness is their natural state, and all along we’ve been blaming Bell and Rogers for influencing the acts of lunatics. It’s possible. After all, the CRTC honestly thinks MuchMusic airs music videos.”

Via Reddit, an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on whether the goal of science (and science funding) should be to improve life. I have to disagree with Neil on the first part of the interview: not everyone would choose the video over the transcript given the option. And not just Canadians with our backwards limited-usage internet. I skip over a lot of video/audio content on the internet because I can read a transcript much faster than an effective audio podcast can convey information, because a transcript is searchable and quotable, and because I just can’t stand listening to some people talk (even more so when they amateurishly try to film from the side of a busy street), even if I wouldn’t mind “hearing” their thoughts. Yes, some content is lost without facial expressions, gestures, cadence, and tone of voice. But you know what? We’ve been communicating effectively for centuries in a textual fashion — on a hot summer’s night, there’s little I like better than curling up with a book at the cottage — so I don’t see how he can call into question the worthiness of producing transcripts.

As Canadians, I think it’s sad that we don’t get to appreciate just how awesome the US version of Amazon is. At the lab today the very real question was asked*: where do we go to buy a superconducting coil? We’re still looking for a supplier to meet our needs, but lo and behold, frakin Amazon! * – PS: science is awesome some days.

USB Fridge

October 7th, 2010 by Potato

Wayfare got me this cute little USB-powered Peltier cooler single-can “fridge” for our anniversary (aside: thanks to Amazon, I got her a big pile of late).

The idea is neat: using the power from your computer’s USB hub, you can cool a plate down to a respectably cool temperature, and use that to cool your pop. Then, encase the whole thing in retro-styled plastic. It’s a great gift idea for me, as I’ve been known to drink a half dozen or more caffeine-laced beverages through the course of a stressful work day. Because I’m cheap, I keep a case of Coke bought from the grocery store under my desk rather than go down to the vending machine or caf to spend waste $2.25 a pop. However, I then have to go to various lengths to make them cold, such as stealing ice from various hospital ice dispensers (the caf used to have a free ice dispenser for this purpose, but they took it out during the last renovation and never put it back in), or putting my Coke outside on the window ledge in the winter. After all: a One that is not cold, is scarcely a One at all.

Unfortunately, the cooler doesn’t look to be quite powerful enough to get the job done. After several hours on the plate, my Coke was barely any cooler than the ones that had been sitting on my desk at room temperature. However, the plate itself does get nicely cool, so I figured it maybe just needed more time to bring the temperature of the Coke down. However, even after sitting there overnight, the Coke is at best “not warm”. The air inside the fridge is also not particularly cold.

So, time to hack!

I can immediately identify two issues with the design. The first is that though the plate gets cold, only a small ring of aluminum from the can actually contacts the plate to transfer heat. So, I grabbed a handful of copper wool sitting around to see if I could increase the surface area for conduction.

The other issue is insulation: the little plastic fridge isn’t insulated. I figured it would at least limit convection and so should work better than the similar pop chillers that consist of just the cooler plate alone… however, remember in thermodynamics there is no free lunch. Though the top half of the plate gets cold, the bottom half gets hot, and in the system as a whole there is a net increase in heat. There’s no insulation break in the plastic around the heat dissipating area on the bottom and the chilled area on the top — the plastic may be serving as a route for the heat to get back up to the can, working against the chiller’s job. Though the fridge is very nearly perfectly sized for a single can, there is a tiny bit of wiggle room for insulation. Though I do actually have some syrofoam here, it’s way to messy to try to cut down to the right size, so I’m going to start by testing some bunched up tissues.

The Coke chiller with my crappy mods.

Unfortunately, even after leaving it on with the new mods in place overnight, my Coke was still no cooler than before. The copper wool turns out to not be a particularly good thermal conductor, despite being made of copper (I guess it’s all those air pockets). So, I grabbed some aluminum foil and tried to pack the bottom hollow of the Coke can to get better conduction, but still no joy. Then I did a bit more reading:

The Wikipedia entry on the thermoelectric coolers mentions that these USB drink chillers may not be very useful, providing milliWatts of effective cooling. For a quick calculation, the specific heat of water is about 4.2 J/°C/g. So, it would take 4.2 * 355 = 1.5 kJ of energy to lower the temperature of my pop by 1 °C. If 0.1 W of effective cooling were getting into the can, it would take over 4 hours to lower the temperature by 1 °C. Yikes!

Now I know why it says “keep your drink cold” on the box and not “cool your drink down” — it looks like the chiller is only powerful enough to slow down the warming up of an already cold drink. The answer may be more power!!!!!11one!111!! I’m pretty sure there are some DC power supplies not being used around here, though I’ll need to check with some of the more electrically-intelligent people around here if feeding more power to this thing could blow it up (or even help at all).

Other oddities: even though it only takes power from the USB (it doesn’t seem to try to load any drivers or work with the software in any way), it has system requirements, including 100 MB of free disk space…

Tater’s Takes

August 14th, 2010 by Potato

Wow, what a terrible, terrible week for exercise and diet. Started off with a StarCraft 2 “LAN” party, which involved 2 days of nothing but junk food. Then I was busy with work and it was hot and humid out, and I got my sleep schedule all screwed up, so I did basically no exercise. Weight’s up 2 pounds (and the scale’s calibrated right this time), so I’m going to have to be extra good this coming week. Meal plan: egg whites, oatmeal, fruit, repeat.

Of course, this was also the week that I started putting together “Little Known Facts About Calories” — a semi-secret project which I am teasing you about now, and hope to unveil soon… but not today!


Gamers can beat algorithms for finding optimum protein structures in a game simulating how protein chains would contort themselves to find their minimum energy configuration in the cell (with the water-like cytoplasm, and the fatty membrane layers). Turns out the algorithms are good at getting fairly close, but can be trapped in local energy minimums, which the gamers see past. A neat read.

OK Cupid has an article up investigating what can help make your profile picture look more appealing. Also, a neat graph showing that sluts are more likely choose iPhones as their smartphone of choice.

Yet more nonsense on the census. I don’t see the problem: StatsCan is a government agency with an excellent record of protecting privacy. The long-form census is incredibly useful and should continue to remain mandatory… I can’t believe the Cons are still trying to make an issue of this.

An illustrated guide to a Ph.D.. And, from the same author, 3 qualities of successful PhD students. To quote liberally from the second article:

“Smart” qualities like brilliance and quick-thinking are irrelevant in Ph.D. school. Students that have made it through so far on brilliance and quick-thinking alone wash out of Ph.D. programs with nagging predictability. Let there be no doubt: brilliance and quick-thinking are valuable in other pursuits. […] Certainly, being smart helps. But, it won’t get the job done.
To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end.
For students that excelled as undergraduates, the sudden and constant barrage of rejection and failure is jarring. If you have an ego problem, Ph.D. school will fix it. With a vengeance. (Some egos seem to recover afterward.)
Science is as much an act of persuasion as it is an act of discovery. […] You will have to write compelling abstracts and introductions that hook the reader and make her feel like investing time in your work. […] You will have to learn how to balance clarity and precision, so that your ideas come across without either ambiguity or stifling formality.
That’s why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don’t even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters.

I started my site in undergrad/high school, but the blogging platform didn’t arrive until grad school, so I suppose I can use this as a backwards rationalization as to why I did it :)

Scientific Obscurity

August 11th, 2010 by Potato

Netbug asks: “I always wondered about theses in the modern environment. The topics must be getting more and more obscure and specific so as not to tread on old ground…”

Well, to a certain extent, yeah. It’s tough to be a scientist (or any kind of academic for that matter) and know that the odds are high that everything you do is just going to be lost to the archives of some library and not do much. For the most part, we’re destined to toil in obscurity.

But even these specialized topics lead to surprising discoveries, that can open up entirely new fields and capture the public imagination.

Watson & Crick were doing obscure x-ray crystallography of some biological molecules when the structure that they saw — a paired double-helix — suggested a way for the molecule to copy itself. And that opened up a whole new field of study. Multiple fields of study.

One of which was to attempt to take dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitos and create cloned versions. They weren’t quite true to the original as time had caused a lot of decay, necessitating the incorporation of some newt and frog DNA to fill the holes. That unfortunately gave the dinosaurs the ability to change gender, so even though only females were bred, it wasn’t long before the dinosaurs were reproducing on their own. And now, because of that, another scientist has to do research on raptor-proofing structures, balancing the heat exchange needs of central Costa Rica.

Ah, the glorious cycle of discovery continues!