Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Big Boobs

Yes, the phrase “big boobs” (technically, B16B00B5) did crop up in a bit of Microsoft code. The hexadecimal string was found within code used to make a Microsoft program work with Linux, and Microsoft has already apologized. I’m now going to talk a bit about hexadecimal coding because it’s necessary to understand the issue, but I led with the bit about boobs because I actually want people to read this (that was a stupid thing to admit).

I began with some extensive research on hexadecimal codes, by which I mean I skimmed a Wikipedia article for a few minutes while texting a programmer from Stache Studios (who is also my little brother, Ian). Hexadecimal codes are strings of code that correspond to a base sixteen numeric system. The digits 0-9 represent (surprisingly) the digits 0-9. The letters A-F represent the numbers 10-15. The way you get a total is to add up the value of each letter/digit times sixteen to the power of whatever place it occupies. For example, B00B135 (boobies!) is (11 x 166) + (0 x 165) + (0 x 164) + (11 x 163) + (1 x 162) + (3 x 161) + (5 x 160), all of which equals 184,594,741. So if I ever tell you to “check out her one hundred eighty-four million, five hundred ninety-four thousand, seven hundred forty-one,” you now know what I mean (telling me to double-check my math should buy you enough time to quietly walk away).

These codes are commonly used to represent values (that’s actually the only thing any code has ever been used for in the history of codes). It’s entirely possible that some programmer actually had a legitimate need to use that number. 2,976,579,765 (big boobs) is commonly used as a sort of placeholder between 2,976,579,766 and 2,976,579,764. It’s also handy if you happen to have 2,976,579,765 of something and wish to accurately relay that information.

In all fairness, it’s equally possible he (or she) was using it as a password, unique id, test number, or one of many other functions that Ian told me about after I lost interest. In that case it was completely intentional (and pretty funny). Developer Dr. Matthew Garrett, who is quoted in the BBC article I stole this story from, disagrees with my assessment. “Puerile sniggering at breasts contributes to the continuing impression that software development is a boys’ club where girls aren’t welcome,” he wrote.

First off, lighten up (it sounds like someone could benefit from a little puerile sniggering.) Second, I’m not a software developer (I’ve done some light programming here and there), but I know a few, and I’m certainly a nerd. Software development may be a male dominated world, but it’s not at all intentional on the part of the members. As boy’s clubs go, it’s the sort that would happily waive membership dues for any girl willing to join.

And now they’re talking about whether such a chunk of code is sexist (and anything that can be construed as –ist is immediately malicious). This is despite the fact it could have been a legitimate accident (like a random five letter code coming up penis) or at worst a minor prank that most people would never know about (like a construction worker drawing a penis on a 2x4 that they’re about to put sheet rock and drywall over). I also have to wonder what the reaction would have been if the programmer had used the number 762,133 (BA115 or Balls). It would probably somehow get the same reaction, despite having the puerile sniggering directed at male naughty bits.

Maybe we’ll have to treat certain strings of hexadecimal code like the 13th floor (or 13th street in Rome), and just avoid them altogether regardless of how irrational and stupid it is. In case that happens, I think we should help them to determine which numbers to avoid. So, what sort of inappropriate/amusing things can you come up with using the following?

A  B  C  D  E  F 0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9

We’ve got B00B135, B00B1E5, B16B00B5 and BA115 so far. Let’s find more. Comment here, or Tweet possibilities (#B00B135). I’ll be Tweeting any I come up with throughout the day, and I’ll post them here sometime.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The S&M Cephalopod

"The squid mate for up to three hours and the male must physically restrain the female during this time," Amanda Franklin of the University of Melbourne told the BBC. I've always known that sex in
the animal kingdom tends to be on the rough side (hence similes such as the famous one found in Nine Inch Nails's classic love song "Closer"). However, when I picture rough animal sex (well, not like picture it, but, eh, you know what I mean), smallish dumpling-shaped squids are
not what comes to mind.

The Euprymna tasmanica, or Southern Dumpling Squid, is the creature described by Ms. Franklin. Recent research probably found out all sorts of fascinating things about it, but obviously, the bit bout sex is all that got reported, and thus is the part that I will be amusingly regurgitating for your consumption (that sounded gross, and rather bird-like). In their defense, if I had to skim a large article about squid and then to bang out 1000 words, I'd probably skip to the naughty bits too.

Aside from the bondage bit, most stories are also reporting that the squid swim at about half their regular speed for a half hour after mating. And they say it as if it's surprising that they're tired. I don't know if you've ever had rough sex for three hours, but it's not something where you're able to start swimming at top speed immediately afterward (you have a snack and go to bed). Not to delve into his personal life or anything (as people tend to do that), but I'd be willing to bet that Michael Phelps  didn't have sex for three hours, hop out of bed (untie her), and go win some medals. To be honest, it's fairly impressive that the squid can recover in that short of time.

The really remarkable thing is actually that they mate for three hours. You're probably smugly grinning and questioning my sexual prowess. And for humans, you're right. Three hours isn't all that
impressive (especially if you use lots of complex knots, or temporarily misplace the key to the handcuffs). But these squids only live for about a year. For a human who lives 70 years, that three hours of the squid's life is the equivalent of eight days and eighteen hours. Yeah, I'm good, but I'm not that good.

Isn't marine biology sexy?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

T-Shirt Capacitors

Yeah, scientists found a way to store electricity in cotton. Researchers at the University of South Carolina treated a plain old discount store t-shirt (using science) to give it the capacity to act as a capacitor. Xiaodong Li, the professor running the project, called it "flexible energy storage" (Science Pun!). The treatment process doesn't even seem that difficult. I don't say this to diminish their discovery, but to point out that it seems really likely to have cost effective real-world applications. All you have to do is preheat your oxygen-free oven to a high temperature, soak the shirt in a fluoride solution, dry the shirt, and throw it in the oven (presumably you can tell when it's done using a voltmeter).

That process converts the fibers (or fibres in the BBC article I read) from cellulose to activated carbon. Activated carbon can, if some small bits are made into an electrode, act as a capacitor. Technically speaking, a capacitor is a thingy that stores up energy, yet is not quite the same thing as a battery. Batteries store more energy, but capacitors can release energy at a higher voltage. You can't shock yourself with a AA battery (which puts out about 1.5 volts), but a capacitor hooked to the same battery can put out 300 volts. Some capacitors are strictly used for storage, like the ones in electronic devices that keep them from failing while you charge the batteries. Xiaodong Li predicts that we could use our t-shirt capacitors in a similar fashion to charge phones, iPads, and stuff like that. I've got some more exciting uses in mind.

Does anyone remember that YouTube video some kid got in trouble (possibly with homeland security) for making? In it, he demonstrated how to make a TASER out of a disposable camera. Disposable cameras have a capacitor (used for the flash), and can be modified to deliver a shock (300 volts or so, as previously mentioned). Immediately upon seeing this, I decided to figure out how to make it more badass (and unsafe). My idea was to pull a capacitor from either an amplifier or the flash from a much larger camera (thus we're talking more voltage). Then I immediately decided to attach the electrodes to a glove, power fist-style (that's a badass weapon from the badass game series Fallout).

Shortly thereafter, I decided that since I never punch anyone, it would be pointless. Instead, I came up with a plan to create "shock armor." Basically I'd just run tiny exposed wires in a loose mesh pattern across a coat (a leather jacket ought to be an adequate insulator), ensuring that they don't actually touch at the points where they cross. Thus, when activated, anyone coming into contact with two wires would get a satisfying zap. With a capacitor t-shirt this would be even easier (and I wouldn't have to lug a traditional capacitor around in my pocket.) Since portions can be turned into electrodes, you could turn many small portions into electrodes (meaning it doesn't end up looking like a leather jacket wrapped in wire).

Such a device could have a wide array of applications. It would greatly enhance the user's ability to order drinks in a crowded bar. They would always be at the front of the pit during concerts, and people reaching around to tap their left shoulder while standing to their right would learn a valuable lesson. Mass transit would be a breeze, and if the shirt was long enough, the user would never have to worry about pickpockets. It also has the potential to make football a whole lot more exciting (obviously you'd only have a limited supply of juice for each player, depending on their position). This new and awesome technology allows all of this...and if you want, I guess you can just use it to charge your phone.

The research is published in Advanced Materials.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I don't normally write reviews of books. Most of my blogging experience consisted of reviewing bars, bartenders and the occasional stripper. Perhaps I'll post a link to that blog someday. Statistically speaking, someone, somewhere actually really, really enjoys this sort of thing (given that plenty of people also enjoy cutting themselves, getting pissed on and watching Jersey Shore, this is not particularly exciting to me). But I digress (the handiest three words if you like to avoid having to write smooth transitions).

John Scalzi's latest novel, Redshirts, is a work of what one (or at least I) might call metametafiction and you should immediately go read it. (Seriously, stop reading this shit right now and go buy a copy). For those of you who are unfamiliar with Star Trek, I must first applaud you for reading a blog that's got a picture of a toy dinosaur (a dimetrodon, to be precise) wearing an aluminum foil hat in front of a field of stars (I don't know how you got here, but thanks for coming). Second, "red shirt" is the term used to describe the extras in Star Trek. They're the guys who go on away missions with main characters and usually die horrible deaths. The term has come to mean any secondary (or perhaps even tertiary) character whose only real function in the story is to die.

While Scalzi does a phenomenal job of lampooning many of the silly tropes and scientific impossibilites found in Star Trek and similar shows, there is much more to Redshirts. It tells the story of a group of these minor doomed characters (red shirts) as they become aware of their status as sacrifices upon the altar of drama (and not particularly good drama). This awareness leads them to take action to save themselves from the extra-dimensional force that controls their fate: The Narrative. This mission for survival leads them through the interior fourth wall (this story has two of them) via a black hole (they are fully aware of how badly this violates physics). Later on they even take a shot at the outer fourth wall, too.

I don't want to give away much, but rest assured it's an awesome read. If all you want is a good parody of TV science fiction, Redshirts has got it. If you want an honest and revealing examination of the nature of fiction, it's got that too. While I do recommend this book to everyone, I think that science fiction fans, as well as fiction writers will especially enjoy it (I'm a science fiction writer, so yeah, it rocked).

I actually listened to the audio version of this book (I do that a lot on cross country drives). I find it extra amusing that the reader is none other than Wil Wheaton, who is known for his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has been in other science fiction shows (Eureka, most recently). Not only is Wil a great reader, but his presence lends the audio book an extra bit of irony (I fucking love irony).

Monday, July 9, 2012

God Particle No More

DISCLAIMER: The fact that they call the Higgs Boson the "God Particle" does not mean that it has anything to do with God. I've seen lots of silly posts about how this discovery is somehow proof of God's existence. When they say God Particle, it's not like someone managed to bust off a chunk of God's toenail and take it to a lab to confirm its owner (as well as a partial DNA match to Jesus). It's just a very important particle.  

For my first post, I'd like to talk about the Higgs Boson. It seemed a good choice, as it applies to two themes that will be pervasive in this blog; science, and lateness. I'm so far behind that major news outlets have gotten around to mentioning it even though it's an election year. While I don't really understand the so called "God Particle," I am at least aware of this. I am a fan of science, in the same way I am a fan of music. I find it fascinating and have some basic knowledge, but giving me access to the Large Hadron Collider could be even more dangerous than listening to me play guitar. I'll try to mention the basics though.

The Higgs Boson was proposed by a dude named Peter Higgs, and several other people not named Higgs at all. It is the tiniest (we're talking quantum mechanics, so REALLY, fucking tiny) excitation of the Higgs field, which shares the name of Peter Higgs by pure coincidence (not really). This field is what gives all particles mass. The fact that it gives other particles mass is one theory for why people took to calling it the "God Particle." This theory seems unlikely, since it's actually priests who give mass (Pope Particle would have been great, though I'd never be able to picture it without a funny hat).

The reason the particle is important is that it was the last particle proposed by the Standard Model of particle physics. It more or less means that the Standard Model has been proven to be accurate. Another theory behind calling it the "God Particle," is its significance in that respect. Instead of listing theories I could probably just look up whoever coined the term, and then ultimately dismiss their reasons in favor of my own. (I would do that, but I'm on  a roll now.)

Personally, I thought the term "God Particle" fit, but is no longer apt, since they managed to observe it. It was some unobservable force that we determined was there because of phenomena we believed it to have caused. While evidence told us something was giving particles mass, we couldn't actually observe the elusive Higgs Boson. We took its existence on faith (and a whole lot of very detailed scientific data that left few other explanations for the way other particles behave). That all sounds pretty god-like to me.

The problem now is that its discovery has stripped away, or at least diminished all of those qualities. We've stopped calling the sun Apollo's chariot, and we know that it's just one of millions of stars, and a particularly mediocre one at that. Like a stripper without black lights, an observable Higgs Boson loses a great deal of its charm. Don't get me wrong, it's still pretty cool as particles go. It was just a lot more fun to try to observe the little bugger when no one else had yet.

But that's the way science goes. There are big discoveries and little ones. In years to come physicists will learn more about the Higgs Boson, but the huge discovery is passed. Fortunately though, in a universe as vast as ours, there will be a new "God Particle," some new pinnacle to strive for. There probably already is, but we just won't hear about it on the news until this election nonsense is over; longer if another celebrity dies.