Daily Prompt: World’s Best Widget

Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt is

You’ve been granted magical engineering skills, but you can only use them to build one gadget or machine. What do you build?

Photographers, artists, poets: show us MACHINES.

Okay: here’s my invention. I’d like to see a video projector built with thousands of tiny lasers on a chip. Since the technology to make dirt cheap laser diodes in red, green, and blue is already out there (you can get retail laser pointers in various colors for $10-20), it shouldn’t be too hard to put together a 1024×768, or higher, (times 3 for the RGB pixels) on a single chip.
The advantage, here, is that you don’t need a different light source and you don’t need a screen: any flat, white surface (wall, ceiling, bed sheet on a clothesline) will do. The response time can be faster than an LCD because there’s no need for the pixels to chemically relax. And it could potentially be made small enough to fit into a smartphone, or big & powerful enough to drive 3D movie projection without too much dimming from the glasses. Heck, since laser light is polarized anyway, run two of them side by side and wear the 3D glasses.

Right now, I’m sure some electrical engineers are developing such a thing. After all, if I can dream it up on the spur of the moment like this, then somebody who gets paid to think up stuff like this is already working on it.

If not, well- Patent trolls: Spoiler alert, you saw it here first.

Update: UberGizmo in 2006 wrote of something like these ring invented by a Korean company, and said they’d be in cellphones by 2010. Rather miffed that my 2013 iPhone 5 hasn’t got one…

Snow Emergency!

Local friends: it will come as no surprise to you that Minneapolis has declared a snow emergency.

Let’s review the parking rules:

  1. Do not park on Snow Emergency Routes for the first nine days of a snow emergency.
  2. Do not park on trees, bushes, or other foliage in median lanes of boulevards ever.
  3. Parking on northbound non-snow-emergency routes is permitted on the left side for the first day of the snow emergency, and on the right side of southbound streets on the second day.
  4. Parking is permitted on the odd-numbered side of eastbound streets, and the even-numbered side of westbound streets, except boulevards, only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and odd-numbered Saturdays.
  5. If you are in doubt about whether your street is a Snow Emergency Route, check the color of the street signs on the corner. Blue is for snow emergency routes, green is for non-snow-emergency routes, and brown is for streets that will be abandoned to become impassable mud-holes.
  6. We leave the “Snow Emergency Route” signs up year-round because you just never know.
  7. All snow must be removed from areas surrounding your trash containers or you’ll be left a little note on brightly colored paper by your trash guys. This note will blow away, leaving you to wonder what it said, and if you’re going to be fined or maybe have garbage dumped in your back yard for the rest of the year.
  8. Alleys will be plowed no later than May 15th (May 16th if the 15th happens to be a Sunday.)
  9. Cars parked in appropriately may be ticketed, towed, or just buried by the plows.
  10. Excess snow will be deposited in that narrow walkway you’ve just shoveled out between the sidewalk and the streets.
  11. If you live in St. Paul, don’t park at night where it says “Night Plow Route”. That’s all.

Of course, it does snow elsewhere in the country. Apparently it snowed in Atlanta, causing terrible problems. One person had to survive on Mountain Dew and beef jerky for twelve hours while stuck in traffic. For twelve hours. If you live in Los Angeles, twelve hours in traffic is normal.

Of course, given what the media portrays as the usual diet of Atlanteans, that’s a step up.

Achievement Unlocked!

Here’s the big news I hinted at yesterday! I’m officially approved for my first sabbatical ever. I’ll be working on converting my class notes and worksheets into a coherent whole, adding in reflection and metacognitive questions,  then making them into an e-book with interactive figures and (I hope) even machine-checkable exercises.

To do this I’ll be doing a lot of learning of software tools and web tools, probably integrating ChemDoodle into HTML and maybe iBooks Author. You can read all about my learning curve – and see betas of some of the tech stuff – by following posts tagged Sabbatical.

I’ll have to learn how to take my rudimentary HTML skills from “yay, I can make a link tag” to quite a bit higher. Fortunately my employer has a site license to Lynda.com so I can get plenty of tutorials from there.

Shuffle And Remember

I had a cool idea this morning – in the shower, where inspiration so often strikes. It’s the second day of Spring semester, with the sequel O-Chem 2 course (and therefore 95% of students were in my Fall course), so after the usual first-day “welcome back, here’s the syllabus, here’s the lab reports you turned in the last days before the final” and a bit about finding summer research internships in the sciences, the students agreed that they’d rather spend a day refreshing themselves on reactions from O-Chem 1 before plunging ahead.

I thought I had some good review materials in Powerpoint clicker format, but nope. I had good review material for about one and a half chapters. So what to do? Have each student say one thing they remembered, in turn, no duplicates? Write a worksheet or maybe hand out an old final exam? Naah.

And here it is: Get two stacks of index cards, in different colors. Gave each student three cards. On one color, write (and name) an organic molecule with one or two functional groups. On the other color, write a set of reaction conditions they remember from the fall term, not necessarily related to the molecules they drew. Share the cards around, shuffled, so each student gets new cards from different people.

Then, the goal is to match conditions to cards so that all cards were paired up. The structure cards could be used as either reactants or as products, as long as the reagent cards worked. Thus, if a student had “cyclohexanol” s/he could match it with either “BH3-THF then H2O2, (as product of hydroboration/oxidation of cyclohexene), or maybe with “chromic acid” as the reactant (making cyclohexanone).

We got most of the cards paired off. They were allowed to swap cards as needed, in case of having unreactive combinations. With 10 minutes left in the period, I gathered the un-paired cards at the front to see what was left – there were a few more matches that could be made. There were also, for no good reason, three cards whose reagents were “CH3OH, H2SO4” – not sure where that came from.

I think it was a pretty good review exercise. I needed to give out a third color and have that be the missing reactant or product. Maybe it would be fun to see what kind of a “chain” I could have them make – hit something with this reactant, then that one, then that one. That would mean making many more reagent cards than reactant cards.

Anyway, just putting this out there for the inspiration of my “vast” readership of other chem teachers. How would you incorporate something like this as a pre-exam, or beginning-of-sequel-course, in chemistry or in some other subject?


PS Expecting an announcement soon….

Baby, it’s cold outside.

Apparently it’s gotten pretty cold out. This is big news. Hey, it’s January. It’s Minnesota. Yeah, it’s cold. The kids are getting one more day off school thanks to the weather.
<geezer mode>
Back in the early ’80s, now that was cold weather. In January 1982, I went cross-country skiing one night when the air temp was -30 F and the wind chill was in the -60 to -70 range. By the time I’d gone 50 yards, my glasses were completely iced over, so I had to put them in my pocket. That was probably a good idea, because the cold metal of the frames might have chilled my ears even more. (I did get a little nip of frostbite, not too bad).
In December 1983, there was a period where the weather was far below zero for a week or two. Two pairs of gloves, T-shirt, regular shirt, heavy flannel shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, hat. Long underwear, jeans, sweat pants, and still it was really cold walking four or five blocks. At those temperatures, it hurts to breathe, even through a well-wrapped scarf. That’s where the cold-receptor nerves just give up and send pain signals instead.
January 1986, first year of grad school, was pretty darn cold. Our Sri Lankan classmate gave up and transferred to someplace warmer.
</geezer mode>

And that was my introduction to seriously cold weather. I lived in upstate New York and Connecticut as a kid, so winter wasn’t a new phenomenon. But the multiple layers, the real frostbite risk, the feeling of truly bone-chilling cold, the point where a rapidly inhaled breath is cold enough to give you that ice-cream headache, that’s a Minnesota thing.

In the last thirty years, we’ve had enough global warming that our current cool weather is an unusual event. It hasn’t been this cold in 17 years. Now, I’m not going to do the climatology statistics, you can see that here and an analysis here. The take-home message is that, yeah, it’s cold, but it’s not as cold as it has been. Of course, the older I get, the more winters I’ve had and the more comparisons I can make. If you’re under 30, the 1980s are ancient history. I don’t remember the cold spell of December 1963, but that was a long time ago.

Now they are saying one good result of the cold may be a die-off of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer bug, which is chewing up our ash trees. Maybe a similar effect will help save the pine forests from their insect-related problems. But as very cold winters become the exception rather than a commonplace, we’re going to have more and more problems with these exotic species.

Take-home message: it’s cold, but not as cold as it has been. Buck up, weenies.

Movie Mashups I Want To See

Here are some ideas for movie/TV mashups:

  1. Breaking Bad News Bears: a grouchy, alcoholic geezer turns around a pathetic Little League baseball team by feeding them amphetamines, just like the pros. Desperate to keep their connection, the team surprises everyone.
  2. Walking Dead Man Walking: Susan Sarandon plays a nun in prison ministry when the zombie plague breaks out. Several months later a sheriff and his friends come across the prison and move in.
  3. The Lion King And I: A cub-prince is raised on the plains of the Serengeti by his governess, a young English woman named Anna, and her meerkat sidekick.
  4. Finding Captain Nemo: After a reclusive submariner disappears, his goofy friends track him 20,000 leagues under the sea to a dentist’s office in Australia.
  5. Monty Python’s Life of Brian Jones: a young accountant is pursued by Rolling Stones fans who refuse to believe that his name is, in fact, very common.
  6. Braveheart Of Darkness: Men in kilts and blue face paint establish a bizarre kingdom in the African jungle.
  7. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly Betty – a serape-wearing drifter in search of gold instead finds friends who give him fashion advice. Tip #1: lose the serape.
  8. His Girl Friday the Thirteenth: Classic screwball comedy about the romantic tension between a tough female reporter and her ex-husband, a mask-wearing serial killer.
  9. Enter the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: A noir mystery in which a bisexual punk hacker and a martial arts expert team up to expose corruption and opium smuggling in Sweden and Hong Kong.
  10. A Star Wars Is Born: Aging, burned-out Jedi (played by Kris Kristofferson) falls for talented princess (Carrie Fisher) and turns her into a pop music success thanks to The Force.
  11. Men In Black Hawk Down: Old story of the brash rookie and tired veteran gets a comic twist as they use their flashy pen thing to make the entire United States forget that it’s a bad idea to send troops into unstable middle-eastern countries with no clear goal except their own survival. Cameo by Donald Rumsfeld as MIB boss Agent Zed.
  12. The Remains of the Day of the Jackal: An aging assassin reminisces about his prewar relationship with the head housekeeper, realizing too late that she had loved him before his coldness and tendency to shoot at heads of state drove her away.
  13. The Princess Bride of Frankenstein: After his girlfriend is kidnapped, a young man discovers that True Love is going to reunite him with the one who was made for him – literally.
  14. The Sign of the Four Weddings And A Funeral: bashful but brilliant Sherlock Holmes (Hugh Grant) eventually gets a clue about a girl.
  15. The Magnificent Seven Samurai: oh, wait, that’s already been done.

Holiday traditions grow up

In my family, there are a few holiday traditions that we do all the time. The Christmas Book Fairy, an invention of my mom’s, is one of the best. One present, invariably a book, is left in the children’s bedrooms. They get to open that right away, and it keeps excited little ones from bothering their parents too early. Naturally this tradition has gone on to the next generation, but a corollary to the rule was that you actually had to read the book. So, one year, home from grad school for the holiday, I found at the bottom of my bed, Tom Clancy’s tome Red Storm Rising, which is several hundred pages long. Oh, ha ha, Mom, very funny. Of course I started reading it, and of course I got completely sucked in to the point where I didn’t want to go join the family for presents.

A second tradition, both sentimental and valuable for parental sleeping-in time, is the homemade caramel rolls. Making these rolls is a family activity that my daughters have come to anticipate almost as much as eating them. The recipe is from the old Betty Crocker cookbook, and it lets you make them the day before and refrigerate overnight. Then, all you need to do is pre-heat the oven and bake. The rule, of course, is that no kids are allowed out of their rooms (except for the bathroom) until they can smell the sticky-buns. I expect that this morning in Indiana and in Vermont, my nieces and nephew are eagerly reading their book-fairy book and carefully sniffing the air every few minutes.

So this morning, the rolls are baking, the children are reading, and Sue is still asleep. The only drawback is that she is the only one who knows where all the stocking-stuffers are, and she was too tired out last night to tell me where she’d stashed them. Given her frequent insomnia, plus the fact that she takes the (rest of) Christmas much more seriously than I do, thus working her fingers to the bone, I’m just going to let her sleep in while I drink all the coffee, make a second pot and start on that, and maybe even let her go past when the rolls are done.

Our third and final tradition is that we have birthday cake at Christmas dinner. Not in honor of an ancient birthday, but a more recent one. My older daughter was born at 6:55 PM on December 25, 1996. She’s seventeen today. And we are careful to save the second half of the day for her, as well as making sure there are some packages under the tree with birthday paper.

There are a few more holiday traditions that I’ve done irregularly. One that is from when Dad lived in North Carolina in the late ’70s to mid-80’s were playing Santa for the poor. His church would take collections of toys, food, and cash through December, and they’d get names and ages of a few dozen needy families. The cash would be used to buy perishable groceries or special-request gifts, and we’d get together to sort out the gifts (girl, 12; boy, 9; boy, 7, mom, size 8 shoes), and load up the car with bags of groceries and presents. As a surly teen, I resented having to (a) do the chore, and (b) confront the uncomfortable reality of small-town Southern poverty. Until I saw how needy and how appreciative these families were. The other one, which was a lot of fun, was that the city would have a huge collection of Christmas trees on New Years Eve, and burn them in a massive bonfire in some public park at dusk. That was very clever of the city: it solved the disposal problems, gave people a reasonable date to take down their trees, it got the potential fire hazard out of everyone’s houses, it provided a community gathering, and it gave the Fire Department something to do.


And now, we all sink back, over-caffeinated, over-sugared, and read our pile of new books. Happy holidays, whatever they are and whatever your traditions.

Correction: the Christmas Book Fairy (or Santa doing it, when the population was smaller and he had more time) dates back at least to the 1940s and Grandmother Blackburn, according to family lore.