23 December 2012


A great comic from The Oatmeal, which I don't think I need to add anything to. See the rest of it below the fold or the whole thing here.

16 December 2012

A nice little tour of the space station

Phil Plait posted the video below at his blog Bad Astronomy today, and I quite enjoyed it. It's not overly technical but also not too vague or over-glossing. It manages to strike a nice balance that provides an interesting overview of life on the station. I found the whole thing quite charming.

Plait mentions expecting to only watch a couple minutes of it, and similarly I almost didn't watch it at all. I spent countless hours as a child poring over illustrations of spacecraft and space stations, and so my first thought was that it would be nothing new, so why bother with it? But as soon as I started watching I was glad for it. It turns out it's actually been quite a while since I considered the simple wonder of being in space. Lately my thoughts toward space exploration have been centered on putting people back on the Moon, with Mars following soon after, and anything short of that seeming like a waste. But this video brought back a reverence for any sort of space travel that I'd forgotten. My dreams of being an astronaut are far behind me, but watching this video brought back some childhood fascination—trying to imagine weightlessness while hanging upside-down from the jungle gym and all that. I still wish we were making better progress toward the Moon and Mars, but seeing the size and details of the station and watching the presenter flit about in microgravity put an old sort of smile back on my face.

While watching the Geminid meteor shower the other night I related a similar account of renewed appreciation to my viewing buddy. I told her how for a while I came to disregard the night sky due to its inherent humanocentrism. The constellations are hugely arbitrary, and from any other vantage point outside our planet's orbit would be unrecognizable, owing to their distribution through three-dimensional space. And by my thinking, why focus on a happenstance arrangement of local dots when there are such grander concepts pervading space? There are billions and billions of entire galaxies out there, and while our stars do little but twinkle, elsewhere there's cosmic drama as stars are being born and dying violent deaths. But in the past couple years I've come back around to appreciate the naked eye's view from Earth. I still can't be bothered to commit all the constellations to memory, but I'm once again awe-struck when I look up on a clear night. First by the pure beauty of it, and also by the ponderings of the immense scales of distance and time involved that captivated me as a child. And instead of resenting the arbitrary nature of our point-of-view, I've come to embrace it a bit. You can probably blame Sagan for my newfound regard for our unique position in the universe, and if you haven't seen it already (or even if you have) I wholeheartedly recommend the video of Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" remarks found on the "Wisdom" tab on this blog. :)

15 December 2012

Cephalopods because why not

Look on and despair. (Image source)
I'll ramble on about my love for cephalopods at the slightest provocation. They are, after all, the most-excellent of the invertebrates. Now I know there are some pretty fervent fans of beetles out there, and I'll admit their diversity of forms and downright beauty are impressive. And I personally know someone who studies the nudibranchs who would probably be aghast at my proclamation, and I can certainly see where he's coming from. But while both those groups are undeniably amazing in form, cephalopods are still the supreme creatures without backbones.

Why? Well, what it basically comes down to is that I don't worry about beetles or sea slugs taking over the world. For cephalopods I have no such peace of mind.

First of all, we'll never see them coming. Many of them have an incredible capacity to blend in to the environment. Some might call them "the chameleons of the sea," but frankly that's insulting because compared to cephalopods, chameleons are amateurs. Unlike what you might see in cartoons (or faked YouTube videos), chameleons cannot perfectly mimic whatever color or pattern is near them. While some species can indeed change color and while it is useful for camouflage (mainly in the ranges of green and brown), they certainly can't replicate complex patterns and the primary use of the ability is to convey emotional state. (Many of the videos you'll find online involve holding one up to a mirror so that it's fooled into thinking there's a rival in its presence, triggering the response.)

The good (or terrifying) news is that there actually are creatures who almost live up to that fictional prowess of chameleons, and which actually surpass it in some ways. Cephalopods such as cuttlefish and octopuses can indeed change their coloring to mimic their surroundings, and do a decent job of replicating complicated and artificial patterns:

As you can see, they go above-and-beyond chameleons both in the accuracy and subtlety of their colors and in the fact that they can actually change the shape and texture of their skin to blend in more completely. Here's a short clip of an octopus blending in amazingly well before being spooked.

Some go even further, and imitate the shapes and behaviors of other living things:

02 December 2012

As though I needed any more reasons to like Sweden

Sweden's got a supportive social structure, a very happy population with a high percentage of non-religion (and even the Church of Sweden is progressive enough that it performs same-sex marriages), and, of course, it gave the world Swedish swing rap.

So when I came across this page is was just icing on the cake—and I once again find myself wishing the world would follow Sweden's example. Top Toy, their branch of Toys 'R Us, put out a holiday catalog that doesn't divide its toys as strongly along gender lines. Boys are shown playing with dolls, girls are shown playing with guns. It's heartening to see people willing to let children be who they want to, rather than who adults think they should be. Now if only the toy companies themselves could follow suit and produce toys with more gender-neutral designs and color schemes (there are some good examples of it below, such as most of the kitchen sets and the Nerf guns, but I can't help but think that a boy would be more likely to play with that dollhouse if it weren't so hideously pink).

Our brain is biased toward dichotomies but in the real world very few things fit neatly into two discrete categories, especially human beings. Unfortunately a lot of our cultural norms are built upon such dichotomies, so I always enjoy seeing one dismantled like it is here. The site I linked to above seems to have compiled the images from articles here and here, and I've included the rest below the fold. Enjoy. :) (Click any image for a slightly larger version.)