Category Archives: Math/Science

Chasing Endeavour’s Last Flight Down the California Coast

Chasing Endeavour’s Last Flight Down the California Coast

It has been in the news all week that the space shuttle Endeavour would be doing a fly by of the Bay Area this morning.  (Originally it was supposed to be yesterday, but weather reports of fog in San Francisco [duh] caused them to delay it by a day.)  Given that I had an 11 AM flight out of OAK, I knew this meant I would miss seeing the shuttle buzz the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.  When NASA was being cryptic about the specific time Endeavour, riding atop a 747, would fly over the area, I thought it might mean that I would miss it all together.  Even worse, the shuttle was flying to LAX, where I was also flying, and it seemed there was a chance I would just miss it there too.

But man, oh man, did I hit the jackpot instead.

First, while waiting for my flight to board in Oakland, the shuttle did a low flyby of the Oakland Airport runway at about 10:15 AM.  It was an awesome site to behold.  Then, about 10 minutes later, it came by again, though further away.  Another 5 or so minutes later, we got a third glimpse of it as a silhouette flying above the hills in the distance.  As Endeavour faded off into the distance, it was time to board my first flight of the day and chase the shuttle down to LA, where I had only a 45 minute layover.

The flight was relatively uneventful, until we were about to land.  The captain announced the descent and told us it was time to fasten our seatbelts and turn off electronic devices.  I continued reading my dead-tree book and waited for landing when the captain came over the intercom again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that we have an usual situation here.  Due to the flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, we’re in a holding pattern.  We weren’t expecting this.  It’s not something the military tells civilians about in advance.  I believe the report is that Endeavour is landing at LAX right now.  But if we’re lucky, we’ll have a view of it while we’re taxiing on the runway.”

Hmm, I thought to myself, I guess this means I should have my camera handy when we land.  And shortly thereafter the captain came on again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems I was mistaken about Endeavour having already landed.  If you look out the left side of the plane, you should be able to see it.”

At this point, I believe I violated FAA regulations by unbuckling my seatbelt, getting up, and turning on an electronic device — my camera.  I had an aisle seat, but I was determined to get a view out of the left side of the plane.  Luckily for me, the gentleman in the window seat was more than willing to let me (and my camera!) use his seat for a few minutes.  By sheer luck, I managed to get a shot of the Endeavour passing in front of the Hollywood sign.  [Incidentally, that photo is the only tweet I’ve ever had get tweeted by multiple random strangers.]

Soon thereafter, we were cleared for landing… and noted that everyone at LAX was watching us land.  Because the Endeavour was about to land her final flight right behind us.  Or so we, and our pilot, guessed.

Except apparently not exactly like that.  After deplaning, I immediately joined the crowd at the gate window, just in time for Endeavour to do a low flyby of LAX.  (She was still going to do one more loop around LA before landing, apparently.)  That was the closest, most detailed shot I got of the shuttle as it flew directly over our window.  It was unreal.

Unfortunately, and this was my only bad luck of the day (did I mention I also got upgraded to first class?), I was boarding my flight when Endeavour actually landed.  There was even a special announcement by the gate agent: “Ladies and gentlemen, I know the shuttle is flying over, but we need to board the flight so it’s not delayed further.”  I pushed it as much as I could, but alas, I missed the landing.  I did however, see her two more times: once from the ground while taxiing to take-off and once more from above as we took off and flew directly over her.

Farewell, Endeavour and the US Space Shuttle program.  I hope we send more of you up there soon.

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Ocean fun: Tidepooling


This past week I have twice taken advantage of the fact that I live very near the Pacific coast.  Saturday I went hiking in Point Reyes on what turned out to be a cloudy morning and today, in much better weather, I helped chaperone a field trip organized by my teacher friend Amber to take her students tidepooling at Half Moon Bay.

For the coastally challenged, “tidepooling” essentially means walking along the coast during low tide and looking at all the lifeforms that are underwater during high tide.  For Amber’s students, they had to take a two foot square of the tide pools and record all the lifeforms they saw, including sea stars, anemones, urchins, mussels, algae, and barnacles.  Because this beach is not a protected area, the students’ data is actually used (along with data collected from lots of field trips) to determine if it should be protected in the future.

I think it’s awesome that the kids get this opportunity.  Growing up in the middle of the country, a field trip to the ocean wasn’t ever on the radar for me.  Before we left, some of the kids were actually complaining about having to go — one even remarked that she thought a trip to the science museum would be more fun.  Science museums are great, but I’d rather see marine biology in its actual native habitat over a science museum aquarium.  At the end of the trip, I caught up with the same student and she agreed that the beach was pretty cool and much more fun than she expected.

As I often do, I toted along the camera and took a bunch of pictures…

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Our office, like many offices, is having a pool for the NCAA tournament. Well, technically, it is all for fun, but there’s a “donation” if you want to be eligible for a “prize.” While I entered the traditional bracket chosen by random inferences such as “I really want Minnesota to win at least a game,” and “Of course I believe Wisconsin will beat Kentucky,” and other Big Ten slanted favoritisms (Ohio State excepted), I also did something a little more scientifically random: two randomized bracket simulators using two different methods to choose a winner.
In the first method, I looked only at the seeds and no other outside information. If an x seed played a y seed, the x seed has a probability y/(x + y) of winning the matchup. Thus, for the 1 seed vs. 16 seed games, the 1 seed should win 16/17 times. Running five* different simulations of this algorithm predict the champion to be Kansas (twice), Wisconsin (!), Duke, and Vanderbilt (whoops).
In the second method, I used this article from ESPN to generate the probabilities of winning in any given matchup based on the historical matchups between seeds. (If a matchup occurred in the championship or final four that had never occurred in the championship or final four before, I used the regional bracket matchup for those seeds. If a matchup occurred which had never occurred before, I defaulted to the lower seed always winning.) Thus, in this simulation, a 16 seed never beats a 1 seed (because it’s never happened before). Five different simulations of this algorithm chose Kentucky (twice), Kansas, Duke, and Ohio State as champions.
After day one, the brackets generated using the first method have selected 11 games on average correctly. The brackets generated using method two have on average selected 9.6 games correctly. In addition, method one generated the bracket doing the best overall (and tied for first in the whole office pool with my co-worker who follows basketball closely) with 13 correct games. This bracket picked Kansas (my actual pick, aligning with Barack Obama), so it may be the one to beat.
For complete scientific openness, I’m posting the code for each method. Of course, they’re written in perl, so if you can read and understand them, it’ll be a miracle.

* Yes, if I was being truly scientific, I would have run it more times. But it’s really tedious to enter brackets on the CBS website we’re using for work.

My job


Red is infected; green is uninfected. Squares are males; triangles are females. Not that they’re all that visible at this resolution, but (very thin!) blue edges are marriages and (almost invisible!) violet lines are short term relationships.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again


Today I spent the day building a “barn” (okay, shed) with the intention of having pyrotechnics launched at it with a giant trebuchet, only to discover that due to time constraints, we would not be launching at the barn and then dismantling the barn. But the trebuchet did launch pyrotechnics at a wooden “house” a number of times… and missed a number of times. However, during the last launch the house was filled with explosives and detonated anyway, just as the fiery projectile landed a few feet short (again).

And how was your Saturday?
Oh, you want an explanation? The short version is Zoz, a Discovery Channel show, and an e-mail looking for a driver to take Zoz and some undergrads to New Hampshire, which I happened to respond to. The long version involves waking up at 6 am this morning and is best illustrated with pictures and video… most of which I will post here soonish.

When the moon is in the seventh sun…

The “star balls” at the University of Michigan Planetarium (technical term, according to Nathan Crockett) courtesy of Arnab Nandi

One of my housemates, Nate, is an astronomy PhD student and the GSI (i.e. TA) for Astronomy 101. As such, he has been trained to run the planetarium in Angell Hall, which quite frankly I didn’t know existed until he told us about it. Last night he treated a bunch of us to a free show after hours.

It’s a small planetarium (seats 32), but that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. For starters, before Nate got the appropriate software loaded, we were all highly entertained by the LED light arrays that lit up the screen with varying colors. Being that a high concentration of us were EECS nerds, we of course inspected the arrays and discovered that they were made by Color Kinetics! (Okay, I was the only one in the room who was excited by that, but I did call Johnston to let him know that we were using his company’s lights.)
Once things were up and running, Nate very professionally led us through the constellations as seen from various locations and time — I learned quite a bit. And he had to put up with a lot of backseat planetarium navigation: “Nate, move us up 10 degrees,” “Nate, show us an eclipse!” “Nate, can we see what it’s like in Alaska,” “Nate, show us an eclipse!” “Nate, we want to see the planets,” “Nate, show us an eclipse!” “Nate, back up a few days — no, no, other way!” (For what it’s worth, despite the fact that he insisted it couldn’t be done, he sort of managed a solar eclipse.) My personal favorites were seeing the planets in retrograde and making sound effects when the moon would zip around us.
Oh, and because I said I’d blog this… “This one time, I was trying to impress a girl with my three-inch refractive telescope…”

Winnie Cooper


Danica McKeller, who is the only person to have been in both of my two all time favorite TV shows*, has just written a book about math aimed at pre-teen girls. It’s disguised to look like a magazine, complete with quizzes like “Do you hide your smarts (especially around boys)?” Honestly, I doubt I would have picked it up as a 12 year old… I was beyond pre-algebra at that point and I wasn’t really into the teen magazines anyway, but I’m glad it exists. I’ve already e-mailed my uncle and suggested that he look into it for his middle school aged daughter.
For those more mathematically advanced, here’s her paper on “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z².” If you ever doubted that Winnie Cooper was out of Kevin Arnold’s league, this pretty much seals the deal. Also, according to her website, she’s done The Vagina Monologues, which just makes her that much more awesome.

* Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years and Elsie Snuffin on The West Wing… I half expect someone to correct me on the “only” caveat and tell me that Bradley Whitford once had a guest spot on The Wonder Years as one of Karen’s boyfriends or something.