Friday, March 28, 2008

gummy banana slugs and real slug weirdness

"The banana slug is a bright yellow to olive green-ish, slimy mollusk found in the northwest redwood forests and can grow up to 12". It the official school mascot for UC Santa Cruz."

I love banana slugs. And now, out in California, I actually see them. So imagine my glee when I discovered these gems of randomness.

You can buy a gummy banana slug from Candy Warehouse for $5.90. These sugary wonders are 5.5 inches long and weigh 45 grams. Or get a similarly sized candy mollusk for only $4.75.

But if we are talking random fabulous, buy your gummy slug from McPhee. While you're there, you may want to pick up some meat trinkets including a bacon placemat and assorted meat pencil toppers?! Or pick up an avenging narwhal play set or other bizarre types of candy!

Lake Quinault Lodge even has a stuffed slug?!

As strange as these fake banana slugs may seem, the reality of these mollusks is much, much stranger. Banana slugs,
Ariolimax columbianus, are hermaphroditic, which means they have both male and female parts. This is not all that strange in the animal kingdom, especially among invertebrates. However, it's what they do after they mate that is unusual. Slugs generally fertilize each other at the same time, but because they can have rather large reproductive organs, one of the slugs can get stuck. The other slug then does an activity scientifically referred to as apophallation, where they... ahem... gnaw off the other slug's penis to get the slug loose from its mate. While this may sound crazy to us, scientists believe this may serve an important purpose. They slug who loses their male organ is forced to become female and offer up eggs.

Still need more banana slug science? Here's a coloring page.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

chicago and san francisco go dark for earth hour

The Chicago Tribune reports that there will be dark spots in the Chicago skyline for an hour Saturday night when more than 160 downtown buildings switch off their lights. The Sears Tower, John Hancock Center, the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, 485 area McDonald's and Chicago's theaters (Oriental Theatre, Cadillac Palace and the LaSalle Bank Theatre) all plan on participating by switching off as many "non-essential" lights as possible as part of the Earth Hour global campaign to raise awareness about climate change. The Allerton Hotel will even be turning off its historic "Tip-Top-Tap" sign during the night-time hours for the first time since the 1940s.

The World Wildlife Fund
’s (WWF) Earth Hour climate change campaign is largely symbolic in an effort to get the word out about reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Although it can be a little more than symbolic. At the first Earth Hour in Sydney, Australia, on March 31. 2007, the site claims, "Over 2.2 million Sydney residents and over 2,100 businesses switched off, leading to a 10.2% energy reduction across the city." But organizers stress that Earth Hour is more than cutting back for one hour. It's about "taking a stand and thinking ahead about what you, your neighbors and your city can do to slow climate change."
Chicago will serve as the U.S. flagship city for Earth Hour in 2008, with Atlanta, Phoenix and San Francisco joining as leading partner cities. But everyone throughout the US and around the world is invited and encouraged to turn off their lights for an hour on March 29 at 8 p.m. local time--whether at home or at work, with friends and family or solo, in a big city or a small town. (main site)
Interstingly enough, San Francisco was so inspired by last year's Sydney event, that they created Lights Out San Francisco and held a citywide energy conservation event on October 20, 2007. For that hour, such icons as the TransAmerica Building, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges and City Hall turned off their lights. To promote long-lasting energy saving, organizers distributed free compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout the city. They were planning the second Lights Out event for March 29, 2008, but out of solidarity, Lights Out has chosen to support the Earth Hour campaign instead.

Both of my favorite cities offer suggestions to promote energy consciousnes after the event - check out both San Francisco's and Chicago's energy saving tips.

According to NBC News, Earth Hour will "literally be a worldwide event. It will start in Christchurch, New Zealand, and then roll through 14 time zones and 25 cities in 10 countries, including Brisbane, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen, Dublin and Toronto. It will be the largest worldwide voluntary power down in history, according to WWF officials." Pretty good for an event that only happened in Sydney last year!

Some of the international cities choosing to participate in the 2008 event include Atlanta, San Francisco, Phoenix, Bangkok, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, Dublin, Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Copenhagen, Aarhus, Aalborg, Odense, Manila, Suva, Chicago, Tel Aviv, Toronto and Christchurch.

Will you participate?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

use less oil

License plate in San Francisco, CA. Not surprisingly, on a hybrid Toyota Prius.

Using the United States Environmental Protection Agency's ratings, the Prius was ranked the most fuel efficient car in 2007.

Monday, March 24, 2008

bring your own big wheel race in sf

Wow! I haven't laughed this hard in a while. For the last 7 years on Easter Sunday, people have gathered along Lombard St (said to be the "most crookedest street in the world" in San Francisco - pictured to the left). They come wearing a wide variety of gear and carrying a equally bizarre collection of plastic children's bicycles, most of which are destined to break when supporting more than 80 pounds.

This year, the event was held down Vermont St., which could be considered even more crooked, with much sharper and steeper switchbacks, though not quite as many (or as well landscaped) as Lombard St.

Anyway, it inspired my second YouTube video. (Shhh... I didn't get the musician's permission for the soundtrack...)

And, here's a great video from the 2007 race:

Saturday, March 22, 2008

nokia morph nanotechnology

A student alerted me to a video on YouTube demonstrating the Nokia Morph concept phone.

This phone might be capable of being flexible, having a self-cleaning surface, detecting environmental factors, and harvesting solar energy. It is a two piece design that would use nanotechnology to accomplish these feats.
(image from

One nanometer is a billionth of a meter or about the width of three atoms lined up next to each other. When scientists talk about the nanoscale, they are talking really, really small. Apparently, when everyday materials get down to the nanoscale, they start to do really unusual things.

Scientists hope to one day use nanotechnology to do things like build the Morph, clean up the environment, design drug-carrying nanoparticles for targeted medical treatment, design more effective cleaners, coat implants (like hip replacements) to help the body better accept the foreign material, design food that indicates when it is spoiling, improve car materials... the list goes on. The truth is, no one really knows yet just what nanotechnology may help us develop in the future.

It sounds like science fiction, but some of this technology is already in use. You can check out a list of consumer products that currently use nanotechnology. Antibacterial doorknobs, kodak photopaper, lots of clothing (including pants from L.L. Bean!), even a teddy bear that allegedly resists bacteria, mold, and mites!
Serious nanotechnology runs the gamut from things we can't do yet--so-called “spooky” nanotechnology like build-anything molecular assemblers and bacterium-size supercomputers--to things we are beginning to be able to do like diagnostic nanosensors and superstrong carbon nanotube materials. Then, there are things that are barely nanotechnology at all. Nano-Tex is a company that uses nanoparticles to make stain-resistant fabric found in pants and shirts from Eddie Bauer and others. (These clothes really work, as my potentially disastrous gravy incident last Thanksgiving proved, but they're not the sort of thing that most people mean when they talk about nanotechnology.) - Popular Mechanics

If you want to learn more, there are many kid-friendly sites about nanotechnology, including a free BRAINPOP video on nanotechnology, the Lawrence Hall of Science site, kids introduction to the nanoworld, and

Or you might want to watch this great 30 minute video on nanotechnology basics from UCTV: UC San Diego. These goofy scientists do a good job breaking down a very difficult subject.

The Nokia Morph was featured in the MoMA online exhibition "Design and the Elastic Mind". It has been a project of Nokia Research Center and Cambridge Nanoscience Center.

Friday, March 21, 2008

google logos for the holidays

Ever see one of those great Google doodles on a holiday or special occasion (like the first day of Spring?) If so, thank Dennis Hwang, who has been designing these logos since 2000. (Although this is not his only job at Google.)

I really wanted to post a few here, but the site does ask nicely - "We have a variety of logos commemorating holidays and events. We've put them in this online museum for your amusement. Please do not use them elsewhere. And please, don't feed the kangaroo." (Ummm... the kangaroo?!) On another page, it asks again,"Please don't use them elsewhere as each has a special history at Google and we'd like them to enjoy their well-deserved retirement."

OK, OK. I won't use them on my blog. But I encourage you all to check them out on the Google site. You can search back to 1999.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

boston dynamic's military robot dog!

Boston Dynamics, an engineering company that specializes in robotics and human simulation, has created one of the most fascinatingly creepy things I have ever seen - BigDog.

This robot has a strikingly animal-like walk, due to its many sensors that help it judge its position, force and load. In fact, this robot can't be knocked down, although engineers gave it a good kick during the demo video.

BigDog trots at about 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rough terrain, snow and ice, and carries a 340 lb load. And it is noisy... it sounds like a hive of buzzing bees. BUT - it can carry packs where humans can't or shouldn't go, and won't get spooked by gunfire. And it's come a long way since the 2006 model.

BigDog is being developed with the goal of creating robots that can go anywhere on Earth that people and animals can go. The program is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). (DARPA is also funding a project to develop a robot that climbs trees?!)

The thing sort of creeps me out, but I strongly suggest you watch the video on the Boston Dynamics site, or catch it on YouTube.

And, of course, as with anything new, somebody's got to make a parody.

UPDATE (Dec 2010): Also very cool is the climbing robot - RISE.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

marshmallow peeps contest?!

Now, I believe there are degrees of randomness.... and this contest is pure random. Apparently, the Chicago Tribune Q section held an International Peeps Diorama contest! (You may need to log in to view. I am not sure how long the contest link will be active.) As I write this, there are 224 entries so far - raging from whimsical to political to downright scary. (Peep guts?)

Here are some highlights:

I love the caption on this next one: "Harry Peeper and Sorcerer's Stone. After getting past Fluffy the three headed Peepdog, Harry is looking in the mirror sees the stone in his pocket."

Why didn't I think of that? :)

UPDATE 3.22.08: Here are the Top 10 Finalists and the 6 Grand Prize winners! Here's the first place winner:

"The Pampered Peep Spa"
Submitted by Noreen Czosnyka
Chicago, IL

Sunday, March 16, 2008

julian beever's amazing chalk drawings

Now, hopefully you all have heard of this guy, but if not, check out Julian Beever's work.
My favorite drawings of his are anamorphic art, or art that seems very distorted until you see it from a very particular spot. (The first anamorphic art can be traced back to a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1485!) For example, when viewed from the proper vantage point, Beevers art looks like this:
But, viewed from a different point of view, the drawing doesn't make much sense at all! (Do you see the camera from across the drawing?)

Here are just a few of the most amazing Julian Beever drawings, including his self-portrait. Check out the sites above for more!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

giant gulping whales

Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley have discovered some amazing things while studying fin whales. First, the gulps of some of these baleen whales can take in a volume of water equal to the size of a school bus. These are no small gulps, especially with jaws that can be up to one-fifth their 88 feet body length!

Baleen whale generally have 200-400 overlapping plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw, where you might expect to find teeth. These plates, called baleen, are made of a fingernail-like material called keratin. "During feeding, large volumes of water and food can be taken into the mouth because the pleated grooves in the throat expand. As the mouth closes water is expelled through the baleen plates, which trap the food on the inside near the tongue to be swallowed." (Info from the American Cetacean Society)

This picture (from the UC Berkeley article) illustrates the "feeding lunge of a fin whale, which can carry the whale some 35 feet and collect as much as 25 pounds of shrimp-like krill." (And these krill, averaging just 1-2 cm in length, are what feeds this 88-foot cetacean.) These whales eat using a series of 6 - 10 second lunges. Perhaps most incredibly, these lunges result the whale taking in enough water that, for those few seconds before the water is filtered out, the whale can be more than twice its normal body weight.

This process take a lot of energy for an animal swimming in the sea. Although each lunge takes them up to 35 feet through the water, there is a tremendous amount of drag on the animal.

Luckily, some whales can get their daily requirement of kill in just four hours of hunting. Pretty amazing when you consider that many whales can consume 2 tons (4000) pounds of krill each day!

Friday, March 14, 2008

more pi songs

OK, so it's time for my yearly pi post. (See 2007's post for some pi history and trivia.) This year, I'm all about the music.

Old favorites:

New hits:
  • Piano Pi - Pi transformed into "sweet piano melodies" using this translation: 1-C 2-D 3-E 4-F 5-G 6-A 7-H 8-C´ 9-D´ 0-E´
  • Pi, Pi, Mathematical Pi - by Stephen Toner, Mathematics Instructor at Victor Valley College
  • And, though it is not a song, a link to my favorite science museum's pi day festivities!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

harbin international ice and snow festival

In honor of all the snow in the Midwest lately, I thought I would pass on some information about an even colder place. Harbin, in China's Heilongjiang province, has temperatures that average 21.2 degrees Celcius (about 70 degrees F) in the summer and -16.8 degrees C (about 2 degrees F) in the winter. The temperatures can get as low as -38.1 degrees C (about -37 degrees F).

Harbin is also famous for its annual International Ice and Snow Festival. (Check out these pictures! You can also visit the official website, but it is written in Chinese.) The festival has been celebrated since 1985. It begins on January 5 and is scheduled at the same time as the nearby Harbin Ice and Snow World Exhibition of Ice Sculptures (whose 2008 theme is the Olympics), the Snow Sculptures Fair and the Ice Lanterns Fair.

Now, these folks know how to enjoy the cold weather!