All posts by Stephen

About Stephen

The LOLTrek guy. Science lecturer, robotics researcher, award-winning interactive fiction author, Disasterpiece Theatre and WhatTheCast podcaster, and occasional programmer. My Google Profile+

Night of the Ninjas

We started our Halloween festivities early Monday morning. Eli’s school was having Mad Scientist Day, a celebration I can completely get behind, so we put him in my lab coat, spiked his hair, and gave him purple highlights because that’s all the rage among hip young mad scientist these days. I too dressed up, for the first time ever since coming to work at AOS.

Me as Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters

I don’t quite have the giant walrus mustache that Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters has, but it’s as close as I could get without driving myself crazy. Besides, who wouldn’t want to wear a costume that has your co-workers encouraging you to blow stuff up?

We spent the evening trick-or-treating with some friends in their neighborhood since our neighborhood has been vaccinated against the Halloween spirit. Our friends’ neighborhood appears to have been lifted wholesale from the movie E.T., complete with decorated houses and hordes of kids roaming the neighborhood and attacking anyone with a bowl of candy. At one point in the evening we passed a compact front-end loader pulling a flat-bed trailer filled with trick-or-treaters and a smoke machine. In its front scoop was a flashing pumpkin that made it look like it had plowed through some poor church’s pumpkin patch and perhaps a high-voltage line.

Early on Eli declared he wanted to be a ninja. In hindsight, us letting him dress as a ninja was like an unregulated credit default swap: good in theory, bad in practice. Not only was he wearing a black costume that encouraged him to hide in the shadows, but every fifth boy was dressed as a ninja. We had three kids dressed as ninjas in our group alone. Even his cousin Sam in Kansas City was a ninja. Liza, on the other hand, just wanted to wear a random dress over her warm clothes. She ended up with a mermaid dress that her friend Kate had.

We had between seven and nine ninjas, mermaids, and Angry Birds in our party. The kids quickly divided into three groups. The older boys would run ahead, with Liza running pell-mell in their midst. Liza’s friend Kate would follow behind at a more stately pace, with Kate’s younger brother Jordan trailing behind. Keeping the kids together was like keeping spilled marbles from rolling everywhere. We parents eventually adopted small squad tactics. One parent would run to the first house on the block, the next parent would take the second house, and so on until we were strung out along the street and ready to intercept our mob of candy-crazed kids. As the kids would leave one house, the parent at that house would send the kids to the next parent before running ahead of all the other parents to keep the train going. All we were missing were SWAT vests and shouts of “GO! GO! GO!”

The two Angry-Bird-suited kids eventually tired of wearing their costumes, so I inherited one of them to wear until we got back to the house. This led to a combination costume of Jamie Hyneman and Angry Birds that I can only call Angry Beret.

Me plus an Angry Bird costume equals Angry Beret

While Eli and Liza were mainly excited to run from house to house shouting, “Trick or treat!”, caring little for what candy they got, they ended up with a huge haul of candy. We split it into five gallon-sized Ziploc bags: two for the kids, one for Eli’s classroom, one for me, and one for work.

The giant haul of Halloween candy

In conclusion, this is how I developed adult-onset diabetes.

The Only Talk Combining Exoplanet Hunting and My Little Ponies You Will Need Today

At last it can be seen: my hour-long talk about how astronomers find planets outside our solar system, complete with a Goatse joke and pedagogical My Little Ponies.

I gave this talk for the second time at Geek Media Expo in Nashville. I had good panel attendance even though I was talking at 9 AM on Saturday, and the talk went really well, which is nice since I was taping it for posterity. You always hope that footage of you that ends up on YouTube doesn’t make you look silly.

Well, there goes that hope.

If you want to follow along with the presentation at home, feel free to download the PowerPoint presentation and even my script.

Eli, Liza and their cousins

From Kansas City to Geek Media Expo Vol. 3

We’ve been going from pillar to post the last few weeks. The bulk of our time was taken up preparing for and then taking a trip to Kansas City to see my brother and his family. Eli and Liza were very excited to see their cousins. The four of them immediately formed a band and posed for their first album cover.

Eli, Liza and their cousins

This is, of course, not how they normally behaved. This is how they normally behaved.

Eli, Liza and their cousins mug for the camera

You will be surprised to discover that Granade kids can be hams, I’m sure. We also got to hear a great concert of Virgil Thomson’s music. Thomson was a composer and music critic from Kansas City. The concert, which took place in the beautiful Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, was part of a planned PBS special. My brother the musicologist was one of the hosts, which meant he got to go up on stage and educate us about Thomson while also being funny.

Before the concert we went to Oklahoma Joe’s, a barbeque restaurant in a gas station. I didn’t include “housed in a gas station” in my rundown of how to choose a barbeque restaurant, but I should have: two of the best barbeque places I’ve eaten at were in gas stations. We dressed up for our night on the town, went to Oklahoma Joe’s, and then went to the concert smelling faintly of meat and awesome.

When we came back I headed to Geek Media Expo, where I did my usual guest schtick of talking about science, My Little Pony, and more science. Crispy and I taped our 100th episode of WhatTheCast there, complete with new theme music and several defunct Zunes to mark Microsoft’s ignominious withdrawal from the world of mp3 players, and the two of us provided sports commentary for the Race of the Tauntauns, in which our racers leapt around a ballroom in ThinkGeek tauntaun sleeping bags. This was highly entertaining, especially in the final race which involved two tauntaun racers checking each other, shoving each other into the ballroom’s pillars, and trying to step on the other racer’s tauntaun’s tail. I also did an unusual thing for me: I wore a costume for part of the convention. If I can find a picture of me being Jamie Hyneman, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of me in my Super Saiyan form that Thomas Kerns took.

Stephen as a Super Saiyan

I’ve got video of my exoplanet talk which I’ll be posting later as well as the 100th episode of WhatTheCast. With luck, you’ll also get to see me wearing a beret and a scowl.

Becoming Disillusioned With Insects

My first inkling that something was wrong happened the other night when Liza came running to me, holding her large stuffed bee and crying. “A fly landed on bee-hee-hee,” she sobbed, tears leaving shiny trails down her cheeks.

Liza had always loved flies, calling them our “usually fly pets”. I couldn’t understand why she as so upset, which, to be fair, is often the way it is with four year olds. Confused, I asked her, “Okay, but what happens when a fly lands on bee?”

“IT VOMITS ON BEEEEEE!” Liza wailed.

Misty had the same look that my dog MacGregor used to have when he realized he’d done something wrong by accident. “I told her that flies vomit on things they’re going to eat.” She paused. Liza wailed louder. “I think that may have been a tactical error.”

Indeed, Liza took to freaking out any time that a fly was in the same room as she was. The fly would buzz and Liza’s eyes would widen as she backed away from the fly, possibly afraid that it would sense her fear and vomit all over her in a giant Cronenberg-esque display of grotesqueness.

This story has a happy ending, though. This morning at breakfast several flies were flying around our table. “Maybe we could put out really sticky fly paper and put some food on it and then the flies could have their own food,” Liza told us.

Eli chimed in, “I helped her not be afraid of flies. I told her that when they vomit, they suck it right back up so it goes away.”

I can’t wait to see what Liza does the next time she has a stomach virus.

but what if i’m the bats guy

While I was deep in preparation for Dragon*Con this year, artist Katie Cook had a flash of insight: what if Bruce Wayne actually thought he was a bat, aided and abetted by Alfred? It all started with a tweet.

[blackbirdpie id=”103272093067657216″]

From there Katie soon had a rogue’s gallery of villains from an actual scarecrow in a field to a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s one of the best Batman pitches I’ve read in a long time. Plus there were drawings!

Drawing of Alfred agreeing that Bruce is a bat

Comics Alliance and Newsarama have the full list of tweets. Katie later created a three-panel thumbnail of BATS. Seriously, go read this. It’s highly entertaining.

In Which I Use Scientific Reasoning to Doubt the Thorium-Powered Car

While I was away at Dragon*Con, stories about a possible thorium-powered car popped up in the news. From the write-up at Txchnologist:

Charles Stevens, an inventor and entrepreneur, recently revealed that his Massachusetts-based R&D firm, Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by β€œan accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” The thorium laser does not produce a beam of coherent light like conventional lasers, but instead merely heats up and gives off energy.

There’s a whole lot of science word salad in that paragraph — what does it even mean to have a laser that isn’t actually lasing and producing coherent light? So let’s detangle it and see if the proposed thorium-powered car makes sense.

The first thing to know is that there’s been a lot of work done on using thorium for fuel in a nuclear reactor. Thorium-232, the kind you dig up out of the ground, is only weakly radioactive and won’t undergo fission by itself. What you can do, however, is bombard it with slow neutrons from uranium or plutonium. That turns thorium into uranium-233, which is fissile and can be used in a nuclear power plant. That means you can use thorium as breeder fuel to produce the fissionable material you really want.

Thorium has several benefits over uranium-235, the usual nuclear reactor fuel. For one, thorium ore is about three or four times as prevalent in the Earth’s crust as uranium ore. For another, you can use all of the thorium you mine. Only 0.7% of uranium is 235U. The rest of it is 238U, which isn’t useful for nuclear reactors. That makes thorium far more abundant for nuclear power purposes.

There are downsides, of course. As the World Nuclear Associate fact page dryly puts it, “Despite the thorium fuel cycle having a number of attractive features, development has always run into difficulties.” There aren’t any commercial thorium reactors yet.

However, if you read carefully what Charles Stevens is saying, he’s not claiming to be using thorium in a nuclear reactor. The WardsAuto article on Stevens states, “Stevens agrees, emphasizing his system is ‘sub-critical,’ which means no self-sustaining nuclear reaction within the thorium creating significant amounts of radioactivity.” So what is he doing?

Unfortunately his two websites currently have very little information. To find out more we have to look at the 2009 version of his webpage and exerpts from that same page. Back then he talked about laser-driven cars in which a “Hybrid Solid state Free Electron laser” heats up thorium, which releases even more heat to turn water into steam and drive a turbine. Also an accelerator may be involved. And according to what he told WardsAuto, “1 gm of thorium equals the energy of 7,500 gallons (28,391 L) of gasoline Stevens says. So, using just 8 gm of thorium in a car should mean it would never need refueling.”

Right, let’s try and make sense of this, starting with one gram of thorium equaling the energy of 7,500 gallons of gas. This a question of energy density: how much energy can you extract from a given amount of fuel?

I have no clue what process Stevens is claiming to use that lets you bombard thorium with a laser and get energy out, especially since he said it’s sub-critical and thus not a nuclear fission reaction. Instead I’ll pretend he is doing nuclear fission, since that’s one of the more energy-productive reactions we can do and will set a good estimated upper bound on how much energy Stevens could extract from thorium. I’ll also assume 235U fission, since we don’t have a thorium reactor yet.

Uranium in a reactor produces about 20 terajoules of energy per kilogram. For comparison, gasoline gives you about 48 megajoules per kilogram. That means uranium gives us about 425,000 more power per kilogram than gas. Let’s assume thorium will give us roughly the same ratio. That means one gram of thorium would be like 425 kg of gas. Gas has a density of about 2.7 kg per US gallon, so that 425 kg of gas is equivalent to 156 gallons.

That’s way short of Stevens’s claim of 1 gm of thorium being equivalent to 7,500 gallons of gas. For that to be true, his laser-induced power output has to be fifty times more energy efficient than nuclear fission. That is an extraordinary claim, to put it mildly, and he’s offered no proof and precious few details.

Looking through his other claims, it sounds as if he glued together actual science together as if making a collage for kindergarten, regardless of whether the results made sense or not. You could in theory make an actual thorium laser, though that’s not what he’s doing. You can use a particle accelerator to drive a nuclear reaction by knocking neutrons out of other particles, though again that’s not what Stevens is doing despite him adding “accelerator-driven” to the description of his process. You can even induce nuclear reactions using super-powerful lasers, but Stevens says he’s not inducing fission.

So to sum up: Stevens isn’t claiming to have made a nuclear-powered car. He’s claiming to have made a steam-powered car where the steam is heated up when he shines a laser on thorium. I don’t know of any physical process that would let you get more heat energy out of the thorium than you’d spend on making the laser go. For his process to be so awesome that it would power a car for some 200,000 miles on a single gram of thorium, he’d have had to come up with something that’s fifty times more powerful than a nuclear reactor. And he hasn’t released any papers, only press releases. That’s 3 out of 3 red flags for the research not being real.

Sorry, world. If we’re going to have a laser-powered car, it sounds like this isn’t it.

Talking Science at Dragon*Con 2011

It took me a while to realize how much science content there was at Dragon*Con, mainly because I was distracted by Steampunk Zombie Marvel Superheroes Made of Cardboard and Patrick Stewart. Now that I give talks for and hang out around the “reality tracks” in the Hilton (i.e. Space, Science, EFF, Robotics, and Skeptics), I know there’s a tremendous amount of science stuff at the convention. For instance, this year alone we had a solar telescope and a working fusion reactor. We also electrocuted a pickle for science.

All three of my solo talks were well-attended, even my one on D-Wave One and quantum computing that took place on Friday at 11:30 AM. That’s right, for the EFF track’s second panel I talked about qubits and quantum superposition. Thank goodness the audience pretended to be interested! I’ve included my slides and the scripts for my talks. In the scripts, advance the filmstrippresentation every time you see a #. Note that all of my slides use the free font Fontin Sans, and that the online versions aren’t exactly converted properly.

First up, D-Wave One! Learn about quantum computers, qubits, and how many different images I have for “dooooomed”.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Next is Planet Hunting, describing our successful search for planets outside our solar system. I believe this is the world’s first science presentation to combine astrophysics and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (Note: ponies are used strictly for pedagogical purposes.)

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Finally there was my robot helicopter talk. This was my busman’s holiday, as a lot of what I talked about is directly relevant to my day job.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Finally I once again took part in the Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow panel, which packed the Hilton Crystal Ballroom. This was something of a science variety show. I got to talk about the leukemia trial that involved patching a patient’s t-cells to replicate like mad and attack the leukeima, said patching being done via a modified HIV variant, and if that doesn’t sound like mad science, I don’t know what is. Jason Schneiderman talked about using magnets to turn off people’s ability to make moral judgements and showed videos of MRI machines sucking in wrenches and office chairs and guns. Paul Gregori electrocuted a pickle to show electroluminescence and then made people in the audience eat the pickle. Chad Ramey showed off his working fusion reactor. And special guest Phil Plait was escorted to the stage by stormtroopers, where he got to talk about death from above and accept an award for Mad Scientist of the Year.

I had a great time with all of those panels, and I hope that attendees both enjoyed them and learned a bit of science at them.

Podcasting at Dragon*Con 2011

My Dragon*Con this year was far more packed than normal, so I’m splitting my normal recap post into several, divided by topic. First up is podcasting! We did our usual live episode of WhatTheCast, which was raucous and fun. We had Patrick Jarrett calling in as our roving sports reporter from Philadelphia, where he was covering the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour as part of his job as Editor in Chief of Gathering Magic. We got to meet Lizzie Lynch, who learned about Dragon*Con from WhatTheCast years ago and was attending the con for the first time.

Oh, yeah, and we won one of these:

That’s a Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Fan or News Podcast. It’s a juried award, and I was thrilled that we won it.

That would have been plenty to make this Dragon*Con special, but Sunday night topped it all in terms of sheer surreal wonderfulness. Colin Ferguson, who plays Sheriff Carter on the sadly-cancelled Eureka, agreed to be part of Disasterpiece Theatre, my other podcast.

So of course we had to cast him in the Eureka movie as directed by Michael Bay.

Colin Ferguson with Alex White, Brooke Fox and Stephen Granade

He was an excellent guest, funny as hell, and was quite willing to invent terrible things for his fellow Eureka cast members to do in the movie, like having Felicia Day play a villain with an over-the-top German accent.

I will note that the above is not the first picture we took with him. When we asked him if he’d be willing to take a cast photo with us, he said, “Sure! We should do it in the bathtub. We can all pretend to be passed out.”

Colin Ferguson with the cast of Disasterpiece Theatre

I believe this will now be the picture I use for my professional science gigs.

My Dragon*Con 2011 Schedule

I’m a guest at Dragon*Con again this year, which means I’ll be on all kinds of panels. If you’re wanting to find me to say hi or to hang out, your best bet is to find me right after one of these panels. Or you could haunt the Hilton — that’s where all of my panels are save the Late Show.

The Dragon*Con Late Show. Every morning at 9 I and my co-hosts Brian and Ally will go through the latest news, schedule changes, and what’s hot for the day. This gets broadcast on the host hotel channels, so you don’t even have to leave bed!

D-Wave One: The First Commercial Quantum Computer. Friday, 11:30 AM, Hilton 201.
The first quantum computer is now available on the market. Who is buying them and why? Are they ready for prime time? Can encryption be broken?

Answer key: Lockheed Martin, to play with it and see what it can do, sort of, not yet. I expect this one is going to be all kinds of fun, and should be accessible to anyone who’s willing to learn a little bit of binary.

Planet Hunting: Watching Stars Wobble & Dim. Friday, 8:30 PM, Hilton 203.
The new ‘in’ field of astronomy is the search for exo-planets but we don’t have the technology to ‘see’ an exo-planet. So how are we finding so many?

The description is actually inaccurate: we now can see extrasolar planets! And I have to admit, it’s extremely cool that we can. I’ll run through the history of exoplanets including some of the embarrassing claims that turned out not to be planets.

Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow: 9th Annual Recrument Drive. Saturday, 1:00 PM, Hilton Crystal Ballroom.
Methods of taking over the world for fun and profit – demos and audience participation. Plus evil ice-cream and a working nuclear reactor!

We’re not kidding about either the ice cream or the nuclear reactor. My co-panelists and I will go through real mad science, the crazy stuff we’ve been doing, and how to survive as an evil minion.

What The Cast – Live! Sunday, 2:30 PM, Hilton 204.
Join Brian, Crispy, Patrick and Stephen (the team behind DragonConTV) for nerd punditry at its best.

Or at least funny nerd punditry. Last year we had a guy in a squid hat, the team behind Chad Vader, and our one Zune listener. Who knows what we’ll have this year? (Seriously: we don’t even know. That’s improv for you!)

Helicopter Drone Units. Sunday, 5:30 PM, Hilton 208/209.
Autonomous helicopter drone talk and tentative demonstration.

Sadly no demonstration, as the quadcopter demo isn’t ready for prime time yet, but I will go through the awesomeness that is robot helicopters and how they’re taking over the world.

RevolutionSF’s RevCast – Live! Monday, 1:00 PM, Hilton 204.
Join the crew from RevolutionSF for a live recording.

Well, the crew from RevolutionSF and me. I’ve guested on several RevCasts and had a blast, so I’m looking forward to doing it live with the crew.

So come say hi! Stop by one of my panels and ask pointed questions! It’ll be fun.