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Odd Lots

  • Here’s a nice graph of the smoothed sunspot number for the last four solar cycles (21-24.) Our current Cycle 24 is still young, but it stands fair to be the weakest solar cycle in 200 years. It may mean nothing, but 200 years ago we saw cycles like that frequently and were in the worst part of the Little Ice Age.
  • Darrin Chandler pointed out Maqetta to me: an HTML5 WYSIWYG Web editor, free and open-source. And from IBM, yet. Haven’t tried it but hope to in coming days. Has anybody else played with it at any length? I use Kompozer for Web work right now, and it’s not evolving very quickly, let’s say.
  • And what we may need more than Maqetta for Web pages is Maqetta for epub ebooks. I remain appalled at how much kafeutherin’ it still takes to do an epub with a cover image and even the simplest forms of paragraph differentiation. (Like no first indent to indicate a new scene in a story.) People continue to hand-code ebooks. This is idiocy to the seventeenth power.
  • Sometimes you read a short, casual mention of something in a book or article, and the weirdness of it doesn’t really hit you. So stand ready for some pretty boggling astronomical weirdness: A 400-meter asteroid that moves in a horseshoe-shaped orbit. And guess who’s in the gap of the horseshoe?
  • At our most recent nerd party, my new friend Aaron Spriggs mentioned Chisanbop, a method of finger arithmetic created by the Koreans and little known here in the US. This is very cool, and would be extremely handy on fictional planets (like my own Hell and the Drumlins world) where electronic computation either doesn’t work and hasn’t been invented.
  • A brilliant new method of imaging underground structures like magma plumes shows that the Yellowstone supervolcano is bigger than we thought. The imaging is done by measuring electrical conductivity in the rock rather than the transmission of physical (seismic) vibration. The images give us no additional information on how close (or far) we may be to another eruption, but it may help us to interpret what little data we already have.
  • Hoo-boy, here’s a problem I don’t think anyone anticipated in the wake of Japan’s recent catastrophic tsunami: Safes full of (soggy) money washed out of individual homes are now washing up on the seashore.


  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    The linked chart only shows the current cycle for 21 months, that is, up to September 2010. So it is significantly out of date. There are supposed to be charts on that site that were updated April 1, but they are all “not found”. (It could be malformed internal links, so that may be their latest data.)

    This chart is current through February 2011. It shows a spike up to 57 for February – still lower than the last three cycles, but much closer, and above cycles 10, 12, 14, and 16.

  2. Lee Hart says:

    Wasn’t it J.B.S. Haldane that said, “Not only is the universe stranger than you think; it is stranger than you *can* think.” This asteroid with the horseshoe-shaped orbit is a case in point!

    How is such an orbit possible? I have an inkling. It can be in a slightly lower orbit than Earth, and so slowly gains on us. But when it gets close, something (Earth-Moon interaction?) kicks it into a slightly higher orbit. It slowly loses ground until it approaches Earth from the opposite side of our orbit. At that point, something kicks it back down into its original lower orbit and the cycle repeats.

  3. Blunt instrument? Where’s your sense of adventure? The last time I needed to destroy a batch of hard drives, I used thermite. The one before that, I used my .44.

    1. Thermite interests me. A friend of mine mixed some up when we were 13, but we couldn’t get it to light and eventually gave up. We even had magnesium ribbon, but the ribbon wouldn’t ignite the powder. I no longer remember what the mix was (that was 45 years ago!) but I’m guessing it wasn’t correct.

      Pumping a couple of .44 rounds into a drive would probably do the trick (I’d worry about ricochets / flying debris, especially at close range) but for broad damage to the mechanism as a whole, I don’t think thermite could be beat.

      (BTW, was this comment by chance intended for yesterday’s entry?)

      1. Yeah, it was.. I guess I clicked on the wrong link.

        As to thermite, it utterly and completely destroys a hard drive beyond any hope of retrieval. Even the NSA wouldn’t be able to get anything from it.

        Yes, thermite can be very difficult to ignite. Even a magnesium strip can fail sometimes. One sure method to get it lit is to put a small pile of potassium permanganate (sold by Sears for removing iron from water) on top of the thermite and then add a few drops of glycerin (drugstore).

        There are many types of thermite (it can be used to produce pure chromium and other metals), but the standard mixture of iron oxide and aluminum powder works great once you get it burning.

        1. When I was in Boy Scouts (figure 1964 or 1965) the Fox Patrol won a fire-starting contest by dropping some potassium permanganate crystals on some tinder and adding three drops of glycerin. Whoosh! (I’d read about the reaction in a public library book on chemistry.) Some of the other guys who were basically using friction complained–but the rules said nothing about permissible methods beyond forbidding the use of electricity.

          I may order Lindsay’s book just for fun. Thermite is a very steampunkish technology, and I’d forgotten about its use in reducing metal ores to metal. One of the other library books I read as a tween described how to reduce some chromium compound to a button of chromium metal using a thermite-like reaction. That was in the mid-1960s and I don’t recall the details, but it looked very energetic and would be fun to reproduce.

  4. Yes, you can simply substitute chromium oxide (or many other metal oxides) for the iron oxide, and you end up with molten chromium rather than molten iron. Aluminum powder really, really wants that oxygen from the metal oxide.

    When I was a young teenager, I watched a railroad repair crew replacing a rail. They had thermite pre-packaged. Once the rail was in place and secured, they put this form-fitting package of thermite on the joint and touched it off. Instant weld.

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