Sunday, August 10, 2008

Oil Can Guitar, Part 2

Part 1 here.
I have now assembled all of the ingredients for my guitar. The Singer oil can I ordered, which I thought was from a defunct oil company called Singer turns out to be machine oil for Singer sewing machines. A gallon of it. I imagine the average consumer wouldn't use a gallon of oil in a lifetime, so it would have to be for repairmen or factories.
Here's the plan: Screw the neck into a piece of hardwood. (While guitar nomenclature calls these "bolts," they are technically screws.) Stick the neck+wood into the can (cutting a hole to fit). Screw the neck into the can. Drill holes for the bridge. Add the bridge, wire the pickup, and we have ourselves a guitar.
I went with one P-90 pickup in the bridge position, like an LP Junior*. However, I don't like tone knobs, so it just has a volume control. (Note on volume knobs: Single coils typical use a 250k ohm volume control, and humbuckers usually use 500k. The LP Junior, however, uses 500k. But I don't have a tone control**, so I worry the 500k would be too bright. I talked to the folks down at Ye Olde Guitar Shoppe and they decided it wouldn't make a difference, and if it didn't like it I can exchange it. I went with 500k because that's what they had in stock.)
I have a feeling putting this together will be easier said than done. Stay tuned for updates.
(click for larger)

*Introduced in 1954, the Les Paul Junior was meant as an "entry level" Gibson. (It cost $50 at the time, $380 in today's money.) It had one P-90 pickup, as opposed to the full Les Paul, which had two. (Humbuckers would be introduced in 1957.) Like most Gibsons, the LP Junior had a 24 3/4 inch scale length. The neck I have for this guitar is a 25 1/2 inch scale length, which is what most Fender guitars use.
**Why don't I like tone knobs? All a passive tone knob does is add a capacitor into the circuit that bleeds off high frequencies. The more you turn the knob, the more highs are bled off. But even when the tone knob is turned all the way up, the signal is still degraded by the capacitor. Taking the tone out of the circuit really opens up the sound and makes it sound full and less strangled. Oddly, someone who agrees with me is the guitar player for Blink-182. He's not exactly a musical hero of mine, but his signature model Fender doesn't have a tone knob and he gave basically the same reasoning I did. So I have it set up for a "wide open" sound, and if I need to adjust the tone, I can do it on the amp.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Japanese Honey Bees Do It Together

At the risk of seeming like I'm on an insect fix, I want to share with you the story of the Japanese honey bee and the hornet.
In Japan there are native honey bees and imported European honey bees. There are also hornets that like to kill entire bee colonies. The largest hornets in the world, in fact.
If the hornets (Vespa mandarinia) descend on a European honey bee colony, they will lay it to waste. But if they attack a colony of Japanese honey bees (Apis cerana japonica), they will use a unique adaptation to protect the colony.
Watch this to learn more

It seems the Japanese honey bees can survive temperatures a few degrees higher than the hornet, and use this to their advantage.

Insects That Really Hurt

It seems entomologist Justin Schmidt devised a four-point pain scale to rate the pain caused by various stinging insects. Down at the bottom are sweat bees and fire ants, working up to tarantula hawks, and, finally, bullet ants.
Now, the tarantula hawk (a kind of wasp) and bullet ant stings are considered the two most painful of any insect, but they are of a very different character. One researcher described the tarantula hawk sting as:

"To me, the pain is like an electric wand that hits you, inducing an immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations. The pain for me lasted only about three minutes, during which time the sting area was insensitive to touch, i.e., a pencil point poked near the sting resulted only in a dull deep pressure pain."

Schmidt himself said of the tarantual hawk: "
Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath."

And the bullet ant, you see, is described as "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel."

However, here is the most interesting distinction: While the tarantula hawk sting hurts for about three minutes, a bullet ant sting throbs for up to 24 hours. I once planned to get stung by a tarantula hawk, because I figured someone can stand anything for three minutes, but then I saw this video about bullet ants and decided it would be pointless.

All You Need to Know About Pedicularis furbishiae

By now you've probably read the Wikipedia article I wrote on the Saharan silver ant. But you find yourself wondering: Are there any plants I've written articles about? Read here about Furbish's lousewort. This rare specimen is only found along the banks of one river. And it has a really silly name.

Four Notable Bank Heists

Bank heists have always captured the imagination. Think about it: that's where all the money is. And most of it is insured, so you're not really ripping off the depositors. Many have planned the perfect heist, and most have been caught. These four bank heists give you some idea of the possible outcomes.

Air France Heist
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Year: 1967
Take: $420,000 ($2.6 million in today's money)

Lowdown: Air France carried large amounts of US currency into New York from France, where it had been exchanged by tourists and members of the US military for French currency. From the plane, it was taken in duffle bags to a strong room in a warehouse at the airport, before it was taken to its final destination. There was easy access to the warehouse, but the guard to the strong room kept the key on him at all times.

The thieves brought an expensive escort in on the operation to seduce the guard. (The escort operating, of course, out of Wildwood, New Jersey.) While he was otherwise occupied, the keys were stolen, copied, and returned.

On the appointed day, they walked into the warehouse, opened the door to the strong room and walked out with the money. There was no alarm, and the guard didn't notice. And they were never caught.

Dunbar Armored Heist
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Year: 1997
Take: $18.9 million (24.7 million in today's money)

Lowdown: This job was done with the precision that is usually associated with inside jobs. Because it was an inside job. A safety inspector learned the layout, security procedures, and timing of security cameras. He recruited a gang of his childhood friends and walked in, subduing one guard after another. They loaded the dough (and the security camera tapes) into a U-Haul and went off into the night. Most of the bills were non-sequential, but an accomplice accidentally let an associate see a stack of cash with the strap still around it. He was picked up and rolled on the others. While the gang is in the can on a 25-year ticket, $10 million is still unaccounted for.

Banco Central Heist
Location: Fortaleza, Ceará , Brazil
Year: 2005
Take: 164,775,150 reais ($69.8 million)

Lowdown: Some bank jobs just require two guys, some Richard Nixon masks, and a fast getaway car. This is not one of those. The Brazilian authorities have so far identified 43 suspects.

In this heist, the gang rented a house across the street from the bank. They turned the house into a business front. A landscaping business. Perhaps you can see where this is going. They tunneled 256 feet, under the road, to the vault of Banco Central. How did they hide almost 1400 cubic feet of dirt? They trucked it away in their landscaping vehicles. Once they reached the vault, they broke through 3.6 feet of steel-reinforced concrete and absconded with the loot. On top of the audacious criminality, I appreciate the logistics. They moved 7,700 pounds of money in a weekend. And the bank didn't notice until they opened on Monday. The story does not end well, as a surprising number of suspects have been found dead. However, $61 million still remains unaccounted for. Also, in this case the bank had not insured the money.

Agricultural Bank of China Heist
Location: Handan, Hebai, China
Year: 2007
Take: 51 million yuan ($6.7 million approx.)

Lowdown: The previous October, a bank manager, with the help of two guards, stole 200,000 yuan. Being the criminal mastermind he was, his plan was to invest in the money, and return the original 200,000 to the bank before anyone noticed. He then proceeded to buy 200,000 yuan worth of lottery tickets. Against he odds, his diabolical plan worked.

Being a criminal, however, he couldn't just be satisfied with his modest ill gotten gains. Teaming up with another manager, the two stole 33 million yuan over the course of two months the following spring. This time, lady luck was not in their corner. Having struck out at the lottery, and needing to come up with the money, they stole an additional 18 million. Learning from their mistakes, they spent it all on lottery tickets. This time they won. All of 98,000 yuan. 50,902,000 short of what they needed. Two days later, bank authorities noticed the missing money.

Our Chinese Butch and Sundance used their 98,000 bankroll to hit the trails, buying fake Ids and cars. (How hard can it be to disappear in a country of a billion people?) After being put on the Most Wanted list, one was picked up in Beijing, and the other was pinched in Lianyungang. Being China, they were sentenced to death. The only winners were three informants in Lianyungang who split a 200,000 yuan reward.

Bonus heist: NOKAS Heist
Year: 2004
Location: Stavanger, Jæren, Norway
Take: 57.4 million krone ($9.3 million)

Lowdown: Much is made of the differences between the US and Norway. This story illustrates this as much as any. Thirteen men stormed the NOKAS (Norsk Kontantservice) bank in Stavanger, commando-style. They had masks, body armor, and military rifles. To slow down the police they put a flaming truck outside the police parking garage. In the course of their heist, they killed a police officer who was on duty. He was the first Norwegian police officer killed in the line of duty in over six years, and only the seventh to die in the line of duty in the post-war period. When the gang was finally brought to justice, the thirteen received a total of 181 years in prison, although none received the Norwegian maximum, twenty-one years.

What do we learn from all this? That crime doesn't pay, especially in China. And don't enter into a criminal conspiracy with 43 other guys, some of whom would rather have you dead than turn state's evidence.

(All factual information courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Early History of the Robot Rebellion

There will come a time when we are governed by robots. That's a given. What we can speculate about, however, is what their history will read like. Here we learn about the first people killed by robots.
The earliest robo-death was Robert Williams. He was killed in a Ford plant in Flat Rock, MI by a robot. It was a parts fetching robot. It wasn't fetching fast enough so Robert Williams was sent back to get a part. The robot didn't see him and killed him because he was standing in the way. This led to some of the first case law in robo-ethics. It seems his family sued the manufacturer of the robot for not programming it not to kill. They were awarded $10 million (over $31 million in today's money), Michigan's largest personal injury settlement at the time.
Two years later at a Kawasaki factory in Japan, Kenji Urada, a maintenance engineer, was shoved into a grinder by a robot and killed. Because it was Japan, there was no personal injury lawsuit.
Perhaps these stories will be in the history books our robot overlords make us read.

David Remnick on Phil Schaap on Charlie Parker

This great article from the New Yorker talks about Phil Schaap, the world's leading Charlie Parke expert. I liked it.

State of Modern Electoral Politics

Burgess Meredith and Adam West critique the American electoral process.

All You Need to Know About Cataglyphis bombycina

I not only read Wikipedia, I've been known to dabble in writing for it. One article I wrote (with help) was on the Saharan silver ant. Read it here. Be sure to read the citations. One of them is a David Attenborough video.

There's a great site that lets you see the hit count for any Wikipedia article. Saharan silver ant was featured on the front page of Wikipedia (in the "Did You Know..." section) on May 19th. On that day, it got 4,400 hits. The next day it got 3,500 hits. The next day it got 131. How fickle fame can be.

Ideally Dressed Male, 1935

This article, if you scroll most of the way down, claims:

A survey of about 50 female University students revealed that
the ideally dressed man wore a checked jacket, gray slacks, a
bright plaid tie and socks and white shoes. Bow ties, stiff collars
and black shirts elicited a largely negative response.

The survey indicated that a slight majority favored the wearing
of hats on dates, but derbies were widely frowned upon.

Derby hats frowned upon? I guess I don't want to live in 1935.

Market and Non-Market Labor

When economists measured the amount of work someone does, it was almost always "market" labor. That means work you are paid for. Eventually, they allowed women to become economists, and it was realized that a great deal of production and labor happens outside the labor market. For instance, making pancakes as a short-order cook counts as labor, but making pancakes for your family does not.
Here's an interesting chart showing the market and non-market labor of men and women in a bunch of different countries.
Things to notice: Women in the Netherlands do more non-market labor than any other group, although women in Nepal, Kenya, and Indonesia do more work overall.
Men and women in the US, surprisingly, do similar amounts of work. Men in the US and UK do similar amounts of work, but women in the UK do more non-market labor than their US counterparts.
I'm sure you'll discover your own interesting facts in this chart. (Click for larger.)

John McCain Genealogy

Some effort goes into tracing the genealogy of national figures. Reading this report, I found something noteworthy about John McCain.
It seems "John Coddington" of the 1600's is John McCain's
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather through three separate
lineages. That means some cousins married at some point in the past 400 years of McCain
history. John McCain: If we can't trust his cousins not to marry, how can we trust him to
kick the special interests out of Washington?

Income Inequality by Party

According to this, incomes for the lowest four quintiles grow faster during Democratic administrations. I wonder if this has implications on the "both parties are essentially the same" argument.
I sent the first graph to a friend and he replied "Republicans must be better for income." That is clearly the opposite of what it says, so I tried to figure out how he misread it. I think he thought the x axis was time and the y axis was total growth. But it isn't. The income quintiles are in the x axis and percentage growth is the y.
Interestingly the income growth for the highest earners is the same in Democratic and Republican administrations. I guess they have it all locked up.

Taxonomy of Animals You're Are Likely to Encounter

If you are like me, you sometimes find yourself wondering: What biological family is a groundhog in? Is it more closely related to a raccoon or a squirrel? And raccoons: they seem kind of bear-like, don't they? I wonder what that relationship is. Well wonder no more.

I've charted here the taxonomic relationships between fifty animals you are likely to either encounter in North America, or wonder about. No ungulates, though. Because who cares about ungulates? “Look at me, I support my weight in the tips of my usually hoofed feet.” Nope, no ungulates.

The chart is kind of self explanatory, but it does leave out the classification “suborder.” The interesting thing to note about this is in the order carnivora, the two suborders are feliformia, the cat-like carnivores, including cats, hyenas, and mongooses (mongeese?), and caniformia, the dog-like carnivores, which include dogs, bears, skunks, walruses, and weasels and their allies.

It's kind of hard to read, so click the chart for a larger image.

Too Many Emails?

I had a friend recently complain that I send too many emails. He said he recieves “on the order of three a day” from me. I've gathered the data on the past month of emails to test this hypothesis. As you can see, three is not an uncommon number, but the mean is 1.7.

Next, if we view this next to his emails to me, which have a mean of .77, we see it is not all that different.

So how about you crunch the numbers before you complain, eh?

(Although, one of the reasons I started the blog was so that I didn't have to email amusing things anymore.)

VAM: Mexican AMC

In the 1960's, import substitution industrialization was all the rage. Developing countries were trying to develop their own products for their domestic market. Watch these two videos by Ha-Joon Chang for why this is a good idea.

It seems Mexico had a nationalized auto company called VAM, or Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos. This is very clever because “vam” is close to the Spanish word for “to go.” (Contrast with the Chevy Nova, which translates into Spanish as “doesn't go.” While this isn't true, why let “facts” get in the way of a good story?)

VAM started in 1963 as a venture between the Mexican government and AMC. (This involved nationalizing Willys Mexicana, which had been producing Jeeps and other AMC designs since 1946.)* Mexican law required them to source at least 50% of their parts locally. This is because they were communists who hated the free market. Most of their cars were AMC designs that were modified to work with lower octane fuels, and other Mexican conditions.

By 1982, a recession in Mexico and a devalued peso led to the company being sold to nationalized French company Renault (who had a relationship with AMC) for negative 200 million dollars. That's right: the Mexican government paid Renault 200 million to take VAM off their hands. Renault, of course, shut down VAM. (AMC itself was bought by Chrysler in 1987, who discontinued the brand, although certain models, such as the Jeep, continued being produced by Chrysler.)

So if you ever seen an AMC Gremlin with Mexican plates running on low octane fuel, give a salute to VAM.

Also, check this link for some VAM magazine ads from the '70s.

All factual information on VAM courtesy of Wikipedia.

*This added after rousing the anger of the BaadAssGremlins forum.

How Many Shakes at “Pizza Bob's”?

Down the street from where I live is a pizza place that also serves shakes. What is notable is that there are 18 flavors, and they allow the customer to combine shake flavors in any way the want. Every time I go in, I wonder how many possible shakes there are. I searched the combinatorics literature, and didn't find one equation that would answer this problem. So I needed to invent one.

My starting point was the “choose” function. This is for calculating total combinations without repetition. The formula is , where n is the number of objects from which you can choose and k is the number of objects to be chosen. If we were to calculated 18 choose (2), this would tell us how many two-flavor shakes can be made with 18 flavors. But we want to know how many combinations there are if you can choose between 1 and 18 of the eighteen flavors. So we need to add 18 choose functions.

At this point someone pointed out to me the “vanilla” isn't really a flavor, because it is just the ice cream with no flavor added. So I modified it to 17 elements, but choosing 0 is valid.

So we calculate and the answer is 131,072. Consider the implications. You could have a different shake every day for almost 359 years. Or 359 shakes a day for one year.

Something for the math-clever among you to consider: If we replace k in formula two with 18, the result doubles. Why is it that increasing the number of elements by one always doubles the result? (Also, does anyone know a better way to write formulas in blogger?)

Planes Gliding When They Shouldn't

I read on the Wikipedia about the “Gimli Glider” incident. Apparently it was a culmination of multiple errors. The way I understand it, the Boeing 767 had two redundant fuel gauges. Howver, it was a new craft and they were still working out the kinks. On this particular 767, the fuel gauge wouldn't show the correct level if both were function, so the mechanic pulled the breaker on one of the gauges. Next, a mechanic at the next stop reset the breaker and forgot to notate it. Also, they were using the wrong conversion factor between kilograms and liters of fuel. They used the conversion factor between pounds and gallons. So they had around half what they thought they did. You can see what's about to happen. The plane runs out of fuel at 41,000 feet. The pilots then glide the aircraft to a military airstrip that was at the time set up for a “Family Day” drag race. They landed nevertheless. The van of mechanics sent from the nearest airport to the impromptu landing, coincidentally, were delayed when the van ran out of fuel.

A similar case involved an Airbus A310. It couldn't raise it's landing gear all the way, and it's computers calculated fuel consumption as if the landing gear were up. It ran out of fuel 20 km away from it's destination. They glided it to the runway, landed short and totaled the plane. No one died.

Sometimes nature can turn a powered craft into an unpowered glider. A Boeing 747 flying near Java flew through a volcanic ash cloud. Engines, it turns out, don't like being flown through volcanic ash clouds. In protest, they flamed out. The pilots had to glide 261 km. Being British, they announced this as “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” I wouldn't tell the story if they crashed, so you know the ending. Why did they fly through an ash cloud? Because it didn't show up on their weather radar. Thanks, computers.

Our final story of “planes that really shouldn't be used as gliders” is a Airbus A330. This time, the mechanic “upgraded” a hydraulic line, but use the wrong part. He told his boss it wasn't the right part, but he said to use it anyway. This left not enough room between the hydraulic and fuel lines. The hydraulic line vibrated enough to cause a fuel leak in the fuel line. The pilots, while over the Atlantic, noticed a fuel imbalance between the two tanks, so they opened the cross-feed valve. This just poured their fuel from the good tank to the leaky tank. Consequently, they ran out of fuel and had to glide to an airbase in the Azores. What I want you to do is find a map and find the Azores. Notice how much nothing there is surrounding them? They were pretty lucky they were within distance. Not much to land on in an ocean.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia:

Americans Have Confidence in Three Things

A Gallup poll came out showing how much confidence Americans have in various institutions. The only ones with more than 50% confidence were the police, the military, and small business. All three branches of government were near record lows.

Interesting correlation: When confidence in the military is high, confidence in organized religion is low. It seems you can only worship at one alter.
See? (Like that linear regression?)

Also interesting: big business and organized labor both have similar confidence levels throughout the history of the poll. This year, they were tied at 20%.

Follow the link to see it and historical levels for yourself:

M. Ward + Zooey Deschanel + Yo La Tengo = Phish?

Those of you who know me know that my favorite currently producing musician is probably M. Ward. He recently made a new album with Zooey Deschanel that is pretty great. Here's a clip of them playing on Late Night with Yo La Tengo. I find it sounds more than a little like Phish. The piano especially.

Here's an even better clip of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, this time on the Late Late Show:

Something Likable About Bill Clinton

It's no secret that I'm not particularly fond of the Clinton Administration. However, I did hear one story that warmed my heart: Webster Hubbell, associate attorney general under Clinton, wrote in this autobiography that Clinton once told him the following: “Webb, if I put you over at Justice I want you to find the answers to two questions for me. One, who killed JFK? And two, are there UFOs?”

Shortly afterward, he pushed through NAFTA, invaded Iraq, demolished welfare, and committed war crimes in the Sudan.

“Tokuda arguably embodies the contemporary state of Japan's sexuality “

If you're like me, you often find yourself wondering about the state of the Japanese adult film industry. And where for us to turn but Time Magazine.

Learn about a 74-year-old man that has starred in over 350 “elderly” adult films. Apparently his kids don't know. Or maybe they are just too embarrassed to mention that they saw one of his films.

How the Gasoline Market Works

For an in depth explanation of the gasoline market, read this.

My New Favorite Pair of Shoes

I hate shopping for shoes because I know it will be a disappointment. This time, I instead decided to make my next pair of shoes. I started with an old tire, and cut it into a sandal. I used clear duct tape stuck to itself as straps. These will last probably 30,000 miles. Also, I cut my thumb open and went to the ER while working on them. So in the end, they cost about $612. (If you want to make tire sandals, I basically followed the instructions here.

If you are worried about the lack of arch support, read this.

It is said that the Tarahumara, an indigenous group in northern Mexico wear tire sandals.

Top Gear and the Nissan GT-R

Apparently Nissan has made the first Japanese supercar. And British motoring show “Top Gear” raced it across Japan. Against the Bullet Train. I would tell you the amazing features of the GT-R, but you're just going to watch the video, so I'll leave it at that.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Smallest Wind Generator

As Spinal Tap reminds us, there is a fine line between clever and stupid.

I saw this small wind turbine on Internet. You strap it to yourself or your bike and it recharges your, for instance, iPod. If you can keep up a pace of nine miles per hour, it can give you thirty minutes of charge for every twenty minutes of wind. Clever or stupid: you weigh in.

Oil Can Guitars, Part 1

I heard about a company in South Africa called Township Guitars that makes guitars out of motor oil cans. Apparently there is some debate about whether or is the real Township Guitars. I throw my support behind because they seem to be higher quality.

As you know, however, I cannot see something cool without attempting to copy it. I therefore embark on a motor oil can guitar journey of my own.

The original is made out of a 5-liter Catrol GTX can. I bought a 1 gallon vintage Singer oil can on ebay. It is slightly smaller, but I like the look. I also acquired a P-90 pickup, and a stop-tail bridge. I should be pretty good. Watch this space for details as it unfolds.

Good pictures here, here, here, and here. And here's a good article.

Sabotaging Chevy Vegas

I have an economics professor who is prone to cryptic off-hand statements that don't get explained. One day in class he was presenting a model in which a firms “effective” workers depends on their wage rate relative to the market wage rate. And unemployment got worked in there. (So if there is high unemployment, people are afraid to lose their job, and you don't have to pay them much to get a lot of work out of them.) Out of nowhere, the professor comments that when he was an adviser to Richard Nixon in 1970, there was a concern that the unemployment rate was too low and that “the guys down in Lordstown would start sabotaging Chevy Vegas,” and that it was therefore a goal of Nixon's to raise the unemployment rate.

I had a hard time dissecting this statement, but I think I've made some progress. If you understand a “labor extraction” model of wage determination, you know that the wage is always higher than would allow full employment. In fact, if it were at full employment, there would be the “whistle while you work” level of labor extraction. No one would work hard because they would get another job easily if fired. So perhaps Nixon was concerned that the unemployment rate was so low, people had no fear of getting fired, and this could lead to a revolution situation, wherein the workers at Chevy's Lordstown Assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio would start to sabotage the Vega. Your thoughts?

Welcome to the Prestigious Internet!

Hello, world. This is my little corner of the Internet. Here I will post whatever interests me at the moment.
I decided to save up a bunch of things and post them all right when I start so that I didn't suffer from "empty blog syndrome."
I decided to call my blog "The Prestigious Internet" because the internet is the opposite of prestigious. The barriers for entry are so low, you can publish anything. Hence my favorite site, Wikipedia.