The Art of Getting There

Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Pasadena Museum of History. I went to check out their exhibit on railroad-inspired art. It was delightful! Among other things, several of the pieces were inspired by the very steam locomotive that I got to operate a few weeks ago (see art at right!), as well as other engines and people from the Nevada Northern Railway.

One artist whose work I enjoyed was Bradford Salamon. The first item in the gallery is a dynamic locomotive he painted (titled “Unknown Adventures”), which sadly I cannot find online or on his website to share with you (and photos were not permitted). It was accompanied by a charming statement describing how he enjoys painting “portraits” of objects, not to reproduce the objects, but instead to trigger a memory or feeling associated with them. He paints typewriters, phones, radios, cars, … and trains. Here is one of his trains that I was able to find:

There were also several woodblock prints from Japan that were commissioned to get the public excited when trains were first introduced in Japan (~1850s). Because they were commissioned before the trains actually arrived, and none of the artists had ever seen one, they often copied from U.S. or British publications that showed steam engines… and in one case a steam fire-engine (to put fires out)!

One artist copied from a picture of a train on the Panama Railway, in which one car had “U.S. Mail” printed on it; in the Japanese version, this became “U.S. Maus” (‘maus’ happens to be ‘mouse’ in German). The gallery showed the source images that the artists had used, and you could definitely see how “Mail” could be misinterpreted as “Maus” if you did not speak English!

Here is the Panama original (but not at high enough resolution to read the relevant letters):

Now I want to ride the Panama Railway! You can – it’s a one-hour ride that costs only $25, and includes an open-air viewing deck! Time for a trip to Panama? :)

The Tool Petting Zoo

Yesterday I volunteered with Kids Building Things to offer a Tool Petting Zoo. This is a chance for kids (and their parents) to see, touch, and use tools of all kinds — screwdrivers, bubble level, wire cutters, hammers, saw, a drill press, and more.

Even better, I got to learn some new tools myself! I got to use a pipe cutter, which looks like this:

You put the pipe inside its jaws and then spin the screw until it grips the pipe. Then you rotate the cutter around the pipe, tightening the screw whenever it feels slack, until it slices through the pipe. Magic!

I then got to use a pipe bender:

This picture shows a pipe after it’s been bent with the tool. It requires very little effort. You put the flat pipe through the device. Then, as you squeeze the handles together, the pipe bends in a nice curve, supported by the metal disk, which dictates the radius of curvature. You stop squeezing when you have as much curve as you want. This is great fun!

Finally, I learned to use a rivet puller:

You line up the holes in whatever pieces you want to attach, then put a rivet through it and squeeze the handle. This pulls the bottom of the rivet up, fattening it out on the reverse side, and eventually it can pull no further, the top snaps off, and you’re left with a beautiful rivet.

The kids were encouraged to make a sculpture, or whatever they wanted, with the tools. I made a mini Loch Ness monster:


Check out my cool rivets and bent pipe!

Rapatronic photographs

High-speed photography can capture athletes in action. But you need really high-speed photography to capture events like a nuclear explosion.

At the recent National Radio Science Meeting, I first encountered the idea of a rapatronic camera. These cameras have exposure times as short as 10 ns. They were developed in 1940 to capture the rapid expansion of a nuclear explosion, and they were gems of ingenuity. No mechanical shutter at that time could possibly open and close that quickly, so Harold Edgerton came up with a non-mechanical way of controlling the shutter: he put a Kerr cell between two polarizing filters oriented at 90 degrees from each other. Normally, no light would penetrate between the crossed polars. But when voltage is applied to the Kerr cell, it rotates the polarization of the incoming light 90 degrees—permitting it to pass through the second filter. By only activating the Kerr cell for a very short time, you obtain an ultra high-speed shutter.

You can view Edgerton’s hand-drawn circuit diagram to see how it worked.

Likewise, there was no way to mechanically advance the film fast enough to permit a single camera to take a sequence of high-speed shots, so in these tests they’d set up an array of the cameras, each with a slightly different delay. (Although I immediately wonder if you couldn’t have an electronically controlled refractive material behind the single lens to direct the light across a series of film segments so you wouldn’t have to physically move anything.)

The results are stunning:

At left is an explosion from Operation Tumbler-Snapper (1952), about 1 ms after detonation. The spikes along the bottom edge are evidence of the tower’s guy wires being vaporized by associated gamma rays. At right is an explosion from Operation Hardtack II (1958). This one was suspended from a balloon and the spikes here are the balloon’s mooring cables being vaporized. A beautiful ghostly array of such images is available from a google image search on “rapatronic”.

One thing I haven’t been able to determine is the etymology of “rapatronic”. It may be that Edgerton just coined it (with “rapa” for “rapid” and “tronic” for “electronic”—but that’s just a guess). Please share if anyone knows more!

You can read more about Edgerton and his various innovations aside from the rapatronic camera. Brilliant guy!

Vanity license plates

Vanity license plates can be an interesting form of constrained art, like the sonnet or haiku, but much, much shorter. In California, they can contain up to 7 characters, which are letters, numbers, and a few special symbols (like ♥ and a handprint). To while away the tedium of my commute to work, I enjoy spotting new and interesting plates. This being California, I always have plenty of plates to consider.

On July 28, I started recording the vanity plates I’d seen. As of today, I’ve collected 167 distinct plates. It surprises me that I’m able to find at least one new one practically every day I drive to work. There must be just enough variability in my (or everyone else’s) travel time that I get a slightly different sample of cars each day.

Some of the plates are funny, some are clever, and some are cryptic (probably in-jokes that don’t make sense unless you know the person). Here are some of my favorites:

  • 1 HOBBIT
  • BMRNATR (on a BMW)
  • C ATROX: a good puzzle — hint (rot13): fanxr
  • CAKE 4 U: it’s not a lie?
  • ESC2PCH: local reference
  • FTDHTR: really?
  • HYR N U (on a jacked-up SUV)
  • IDIG K9Z
  • IFYTE4U (the vehicle was emblazoned with lawyer ads)
  • KNEADY (the vehicle had massage therapist ads)
  • UKARYOT: go science!
  • WB OUIVR: a French geek?

Another cool one, which I didn’t spot but a friend did, is “TWS BRLG”.

Some are just a bit weird, or too obscure for me to “get” them:

  • AE6KO: ham radio call sign?
  • KHAL8
  • NOR DO I

What’s your favorite vanity plate?


I am a latecomer, it seems, to some of Edward Tufte’s brilliant ideas. Today I stumbled across the sparkline, a “small, intense, simple dataword” (Tufte) that is best illustrated by example. Sparklines permit you to display a large volume of numeric information in a very tiny space, while conveying the information perhaps even more effectively than if you’d used a large floating figure or a table. Tufte posted a sparkline introduction, which is an excerpt from his book Beautiful Evidence. Many others have followed up with their own sparkline creations, sparkline generators (in perl, HTML, Excel, and even special font encodings), and sparkline critiques.

One tip I particularly liked had to do with aspect ratio; Tufte suggests (after William S. Cleveland, 1993) adjusting the vertical scale so that slopes are about 45 degrees (rather than very flat or very spiky). While this is simply a rule of thumb, to be violated if the situation calls for it, I did find his examples to be compelling; “lumpy” data does seem to be easier to visually process than “spiky” data.

But what really took my breath away was this particular example:

This is cited by Tufte as appearing in Robert Sedgewick’s 1998 “Algorithms in C”. It illustrates several passes of mergesort being applied to a 200-item list. It is absolutely brilliant! Whoever thought of visualizing the values (sort keys) as the angle of the lines was absolutely inspired. This graphic stole my attention as only a true work of art can. I’m still staring at it in fascination.

I’ll have to be on the lookout for places where sparklines could be the right solution in my next technical paper.