Tuesday, February 27, 2007


What is a theremin, you might ask? This unusual-looking instrument happens to be the only musical instrument you play entirely without touching it. It works with ether waves (like radio wave) and your body affecting its electro-magnetic field.

There are two antennae. The upright antenna manipulates the pitch. Put your hand close, and you hear a high-pitched squeal. Pull your hand farther away, and you hear a lower tone. The horizontal antenna controls the volume. A close hand drops the volume, and pulling your hand away increases the volume.

The theremin was invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin. He came to the United States in the 1920s to promote his invention until he returned to Russia. The instrument almost became extinct, until the 1950s, when Robert Moog helped to revive interest in this electronic oddity.

In recent years, the theremin has even been used in some more mainstream bands. The Beach Boys used a theremin-like instrument in "Good Vibrations," and Led Zeppelin took advantage of its eerie sounds for "Whole Lotta Love." According to a recent New York Sun article, a "new generation is embracing the theremin."

The lead singer of the theremin-based band, The Lothars, posted a pretty sweet video in which he explains the instrument and plays "Video Killed the Radio Star"!

For a more classical sound, see Masami Takeuchi or Lydia Kavina. Or watch an older clip.

Thereminworld has perhaps the most theremin information on the web, though you might visit thereminvox.com for all the latest theremin news.

Looking to buy a theremin? You can get a kit and build it yourself. Or if you are looking for a fully assembled model, you might check out the Moog or Kees theremin.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

blue man group & global warming

In November, the Blue Man Group participated in the TBS special, Earth to America!, a "two hour comedy special celebrating life on Earth by taking aim at one of our planet's most serious problems, global warming." As part of their participation, they created this video. The end is particularily interesting.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

ski dubai - a desert ski resort

On this snow day, it seems fitting to highlight one of the strangest snow phenomenon I have ever encountered. The resort is called Ski Dubai, and is located in Dubai, in the desert climate of the United Arab Emirates. This 22,500 square meter facility in home to five ski slopes and 6000 tons of artificially made snow.

I couldn't believe it either when I heard it! However, a peek at Snopes.com and a BBC article reassured me that it does exist. You can visit Ski Dubai's website for more information, including a .pdf on how the snow is made.

Ski Dubai has real snow. Snow is made using a simple procedure similar to how snow is made at outdoor ski resorts. Pure water, with no chemicals added, is put through a chiller to cool. It is then sent through pipes to the snow guns which are on the ceiling. When the cooled water is blown out into a freezing cold environment, it crystallises and makes snow. The final product is real snow, as if it came from nature. We just give it a little help.

Yeah, and another thing that helps keep the snow around are the kilometers of tubing that run under the snow base to chill it. (Think: the tubes on the back of your refrigerator.) The place manufactures 30 tons of snow daily. Year round. Whoa.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

organic clothes not just for hippies anymore

I must admit, when I think of "organic clothes," I think of those scratchy, free-flowing pants and tops, in muted browns and greens, that are sold in stores next to the hacky sacks, incense holders and tarot cards. However, a recent AP article in the Chicago Tribune article (.pdf) made me think about "organic" in a whole new light. (I borrowed its title for my post, catchy, isn't it?)

The Tribune explains,
Whether shoppers are buying eco-friendly because it's trendy or because they hope to preserve Mother Earth, they no longer have to sacrifice fashion for philosophy. With major retailers like Target, Victoria's Secret, H&M and Nike joining the green trend, there's something for fashionistas of every price range in 2007.

Target, which carries a select number of organic baby clothes, is expanding its line this year. (Sam's Club and Wal-Mart are among the top five brands who use the most organic cotton globally, according to Organic Exchange.)

Victoria's Secret will also add organic cotton to its collection this year, Klein said.
People have been embracing organic food and health and beauty products for years, why the interest in organic clothes, seemingly all of sudden ?
With celebrities endorsing hybrid cars, vegetarian diets and launching their own eco-friendly clothing lines, experts say it was only a matter of time before the Hollywood trend caught on with fashion.

"It clearly has gotten more attention now because .... It's a global phenomenon," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group, a market-research firm. "We're seeing it in cars, we're seeing it in homes products, apparel, food."
Organic clothes used to mean only help, which was, for the most part, brown and scratchy. Now, you will find cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, soy, corn and other natural fibers being used to manufacture natural and healthy fabrics. But, like many responsible ecological choices, it is not only about the product. The process is also better for the environment.

It takes about a third a pound of pesticides to produce one cotton T-shirt. About 180 to 300 pounds of chemical fertilizer is used on one acre of cotton in the U.S. About 90 percent of the fertilizer doesn't stay on the plant, but washes off, ending up in water supplies and habitat, says Klein.

Retailers say it's not just about buying organic, it's about the entire process. Under The Canopy uses a dye factory fueled by rice husks instead of fossil fuels. Growing organic also requires crop rotation, meaning a field that this year is used for cotton could be used for food the next.

With all these benefits, who wouldn't buy organic? Well, it's back to those two staples of American life: convenience and price. While organic clothing is becoming more widespread, it is generally easier to find non-organic clothing. Any organic clothing will cost you more. According the the Tribune, "A men's vintage-style organic cotton T-shirt at Wal-Mart is $9.83, while a similar regular cotton T sells for $8.83. Levi Strauss & Co. started offering organic denim jeans in select stores in November -- $68 for their Red Tab jean compared to $40 for non-organic. "

A blogging couple explains why organic clothing costs so much. (Plus, you can learn a lot more about the topic, on their blog, Organic Clothing!) They basically explain that organic seeds are more expensive to plant and harvest. The cotton or other fiber is also harder to manufacture and advertise, due to the relatively small market and lack of the mass-buying power that large chains have. Also, many organic vendors recoil from using "sweat shops," instead choosing to keep the labor in the US, paying fair wages. All of these factors contribute to the higher price.

An inconvenient truth is that organic and all-natural clothing will always be more expensive than conventional, chemical clothing. The good news is that the price gap will continue to shrink as the market size of organic clothing grows and the economies of scale improve. Doing what is right is not always easy … or cheap...

Thursday, February 8, 2007

stinky 'corpse flower'

What flower can grow to over nine feet tall, have a tuber that weighs almost 200 pounds, blooms only once every 3 - 10 years, and smells like "several days old road kill on a hot, sunny day"?

It's Amorphophallus titanium, and it intrigues scientists and "regular people" alike. (You can investigate articles from National Geographic and BBC news to learn more.)

References to the "corpse flower" or "giant corpse flower," most often refer to the plant species Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the Titan arum, which has the largest unbranched inflorescence (cluster of flowers) in the world. (The apparent "giant" flower is actually made up of many, smaller flowers.)

Looking at the picture, it may not be difficult to imagine why the Italian scientists who first discovered the flower in 1878 named it after Amorpho meaning shapeless, phallus meaning penis, and titanum meaning huge.

The plant, which is native to Sumatra (a providence of Indonesia), uses its scent to attract pollinating insects, just like most other flowers. But unlike most flowers, this one hopes to attract flies and carrion beetles - insects that like to feed on rotting meat. Even more strange - it can actually generate its own heat, with the UC-Davis plant heating up from 68 degrees to 90 degrees at its peak hours of smelliness.

Amorphophallus titanum, bloomed for the first time in the United States at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937. As mentioned, it only blooms once every few years. In preparation of blooming, the plant can grow over 6 inches a day until it reaches its full height. Then, when the flower finally opens, it releases its powerful stench for a few middle-of-the-night hours each day for 2 - 3 days. Then the blooms fades until its next appearance.

Though it is highly irregular for these flowers to bloom in the winter, there is one 220 miles southwest of London that is blooming right now! An article in Scientific American suggests that:
The warmth of 2006 and mild winter to date have encouraged the Titan Arum or Corpse Flower into a phenomenal growth spurt and into flower -- an event that usually happens only once every six to nine years.

More effects of global warming?

Some recent blooms in the US include:

  • August 2006 - Brooklyn Botanic Garden, NY
  • August 2006 - Virginia Tech (claims to have 1 of the only 2 blooming corpse plants in VA)
  • August 2006 - Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory
  • June 2006 - Fullerton Arboretum, California State University
  • July 2005 - University of California, Berkeley's Botanical Garden
  • June 2005 - Greenhouse, UW-Madison, WI (They were so excited, they made video updates!)
  • May 2005 - San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers
  • June 2004 - University of Connecticut's Dept. of EE Biology Conservatory

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

chicago's global warming art

You may have read the recent reports (BBC, CNN) that humans are mainly responsible for global warming. (duh.) Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago has heard it too. And the city has responded with an idea of its own.

Similar to the fiberglass "Cows on Parade" from 1999, one hundred 5-foot-wide globes will be featured this summer in areas along the lakefront. Each globe will feature an artist's design to help "
bring awareness to the need for solutions to reduce global warming." (Chicago Tribune article)

Mayor Daley announced his plans today and plans to call the exhibit "Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet."

"We all share responsibility for global warming," Daley said. "We can all be a part of the solution."

Now, here's the even cooler part. After the globes hang out at the lakefront for the summer, they will be auctioned off. The money raised from the auction will be used to expand environmental programs and conservation clubs in the Chicago public schools. Now, that is a great way to give back.

Art teacher Turtel Onli, from Kenwood Academy High School sponsors such an environmental club. He says, "We want to help children make the transition from consumers to committed, passionate citizens." Very cool.

Monday, February 5, 2007

go bananas

It never ceases to amaze me what people can market. Imagine my delight when I ran across BananaName.com, a site that will post your name on a banana for a modest price. Anyone who knows me, knows bananas amuse me.
I haven't posted any good banana links since the Banana Bunker, so heree's some to check out:
  • Bananas Bucks explores what life would be like if we could use bananas as currency
  • Caution: this sped-up version of Raffi's Bananaphone will get stuck in your head!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

tattooed fish

Alright, I have come to terms with a lot of crazy pet trends, but does the world really need tattooed fish? A tropical fish supplier in Hong Kong is offering a new service in which it will decoratively tattoo fish using a laser. Apparently, dyed fish are not new, since people have being using acrylic paints or dyes on fish since the 1980s.

According to an article in Practical Fishkeeping, Chairman of the HK Aquaria Mall, Alen Lee, told the Chinese newspaper Mingpao,
Firstly, we need to select the appropriate fish and use only low intensity laser beams. We only engrave on the fishes’ scales, not through them. We also had concerns over the possibility of animal abuse, but to date the mortality rate has been zero. The fishes don't even bleed.

Some experts claim that the technique is no different that the dyes used to track fish for ecological studies, while others condemn the practice as being cruel and totally unnecessary. The UK's Practical Fishkeeping Magazine has even been sponsoring a Dyed Fish Campaign since 1996.
It devalues living creatures and treats them as if they were some inanimate object that can be decorated purely for whim or commercial gain.
Hmmm...I wonder what that says for human tattoos? (Although I understand that the fish do not have a choice in the matter.) If you are interested in more information, a Los Angeles TV station offers a slide show and video of some of the fish that have found their way to the States.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

don't drink the hand sanitizer

After an entry in the The New England Journal of Medicine, U.S. doctors are warning against drinking hand sanitizer. While this may seem like common sense to many of you, apparently two men drank the substance in an effort to get drunk. One man, when questioned, said he drank the substance because the label read "Active ingredient 63% v/v isopropyl alcohol."

Now, it is important to note that there are many kinds of alcohol. The kind of alcohol that most people think of is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, the type of alcohol found in beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. When described in Encyclopedia Brittanica, ethanol doesn't sound like something you would want to drink!
Ethyl alcohol is toxic, affecting the central nervous system. Moderate amounts relax the muscles and produce an apparent stimulating effect by depressing the inhibitory activities of the brain, but larger amounts impair coordination and judgment, finally producing coma and death. It is an addictive drug for some persons, leading to the disease alcoholism.

However, many people choose to drink it. But, it is important to realize that not all ethanol is safe to drink. As many students know, ethanol is used in schools as burner fuel. It can also be found in many other products, such as hand sanitizers and mouthwashes. However, most of this ethanol has been denatured, which means a poison (usually methanol) has been added to make you very sick if you drink it. But some people, like the men in these articles, are so desperate, they will take their chances. As you can read, it was not a very good idea.

UPDATE: Hand sanitizers, while effective in reducing germ transmission, can also cause intoxication in small children.