Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Ground Speed Check

I haven’t posted in a few days, but I just stumbled across this and figured anybody who’s actually reading this blog would probably appreciate it.  It’s Brian Shul giving his famous “LA Ground Speed Check” story.  For those who don’t know, Mr Shul is the author of “Sled Driver” and a former SR-71 pilot.  He knows speed.  There are a few variations on this story floating around, from all the different times he’s told the story, but this is the first time I’ve heard it in his voice.  It’s delightful.


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Why Is That In There? Gum arabic in beverages

I don’t have a fanfic to post today, on Fanfic Friday, so instead I’m going to finally give you the second installment of Why Is That In There? – this time looking at gum arabic!

As a traditional nerd, I am quite fond of Mountain Dew, and one of the ingredients puzzled me for a while.  Why is there gum arabic in it?  Gum arabic is actually found in a lot of soft drinks — and even in some hard ones, specifically wine.  It’s also found in a lot of candies and pastes and frostings.  Less surprisingly, it’s also found in chewing gum.

I first was exposed to gum arabic as a thing through art class.  It’s used in a lot of paints, and I know it’s a natural glue.  So why is it in drinks?

Well, a little thought maybe could have given me the answer, but I went and googled it instead.  Its gummy nature means it makes an excellent emulsifier and an excellent thickener.  This is actually also what it’s doing in paint — it helps the pigment mix with the solvent, allowing it to spread evenly through the paint, which is particularly important with water-based paints.  So in Mountain Dew and other soft drinks, it helps the pigment, the flavors, the caffeine, and the sugar remain evenly distributed without separation, which is why you don’t have to shake it before you drink it — which, since it’s also carbonated, is a very good thing.  😉  In wine, it serves as slightly different purpose — it tends to bond with the particles that would precipitate out of the wine to create an unpleasant sediment (which is mostly dead yeast) at the bottom of the bottle.  If added to the barrel, it will help the sediments come out much more quickly, so they can be captured and removed when bottling the wine.  It is less common today than it was in the past, as more consistent materials are now available.  (Maybe one of these days I’ll write about isinglass, which is a rather surprising ingredient when you first learn what it is.)

Oh, and why is it called gum arabic, you might wonder?  Well, it comes from the sap of a couple of species of acacia trees, mostly ones found in the Sahel, a semiarid region south of the Sahara, but they’re also cultivated widely in Saudi Arabia, which is where Europeans first encountered it.  It’s a completely natural, biodegradable, and edible adhesive and emulsifier that has been used since ancient times.


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Happy New Year, and Welcome 2017!

Welcome to 2017!  It’s gonna be a heckuva year!  Forget about politics — here’s some of the stuff I’m looking forward to in 2017:

1) Series 10 of Doctor Who!!!!!  More of the Twelfth Doctor (or, as my nine-year-old calls him, “Doctor Eyebrows”), new companions, new adventures . . . I can’t wait!

2) The total solar eclipse across the United States, August 21.  I’ve already made plans; my family will be camping across South Dakota and Wyoming, aiming to observe the event itself in Casper, Wyoming, which is expected to be way busier than it normally is; the longest duration will be closer to the tourist-trap haven of Branson, Missouri, but Wyoming is predicted to have the most reliable weather.  If you have not made plans, well, expect everything to be booked solid already…..  I’ve been anticipating this one for about twenty years.  😉


3) The Falcon 9 return-to-flight mission.  After the shocking launchpad mishap last year, Falcon 9’s had a bit of a downtime, and now has a backlog to process.  They’re looking to return to flight possibly early in January, with a 10-spacecraft launch out of Vandenberg AFB on behalf of the Iridium NEXT constellation.


4) Possibly also the Falcon Heavy maiden flight.  Resembling a Delta IV Heavy, and likewise comprised of three cores strapped together, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it finally launches.  It’s a crucial element of SpaceX’s larger aspirations – they still have Mars in their sights.

5) November 13, there will be a very close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus.  They’ll be closer together than the width of the full moon in the sky, a rare visual treat.

6) New Mythbusters, perhaps?  With the annual Mythbusters Mega-Marathon underway, I’ve got Mythbusters on the brain; but it would be lovely to get some new ones.  Jamie and Adam have moved on, but Discovery is running a sort of game show to select their successors.  Should be interesting!  Expect explosions!

Talking of stuff on the screen, there are some awesome-looking movies coming:

7) LEGO Batman!  Really, ’nuff said.  😉

8) Beauty and the Beast looks pretty amazing too:

9) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  Luc Besson is amazing, and this movie is seriously his baby.  The comic book it’s based upon was a huge inspiration and influence to him growing up, so this should be pretty spectacular.

So, there’s a taste of stuff to look forward to in the new year!  There’s definitely some cool stuff coming our way.  😉  How about you?  What are you looking forward to in 2017?


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Merry Geekmas!

I’m not going to post a fanfic today.  It’s too crazy around the holidays.  😉  So instead, enjoy some Christmas geekery and other humorous miscellany, and have a very happy holiday season!  This is a playlist, so let it play through and it’ll go right into the next one.  Or, view it on YouTube and you can flip through them — I didn’t really put them in any particular order, after all.  Enjoy!


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Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner With a Drone

There really aren’t any words I can add that improve upon this video.  Just watch it.  😉  (But probably do not try this.)

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What’s a Supermoon?

There’s a lot of fuss on the Internet right now about the supermoon, so you might be wondering: what is it?  And what’s the big deal?

The easy answer: a “supermoon” is the biggest full moon of the year.

The long answer: the Moon doesn’t always cover exactly the same amount of sky — it can appear slightly larger or smaller depending on where it is in its orbit (although truthfully, the difference isn’t really perceptible).  This is because the Moon isn’t always the same distance from us.  Like most orbits, its orbit is elliptical, not circular, and the Earth (or, more accurately, the common center of mass) sits at one focus of the ellipse.  The closest point is called periapsis (or perigee, when talking specifically about objects orbiting Earth), and the farthest point is called apoapsis (or apogee). The supermoon is, therefore, the full moon that occurs closest to perigee.

A full lunar cycle, or lunation (which is not exactly the same as a lunar orbit, but close), takes about 29 and a half days.  This is also precisely the length of a lunar day, but about two days longer than the lunar orbit.  This is because the Earth-Moon system is moving around the Sun, which affects the angle of sunlight.  (This is also why there’s a difference between a solar day and a sidereal day.  The former is how long it takes to go from midnight to midnight, and is what we set our clocks by, but the latter is how long it takes the Earth to complete one rotation with respect to the “fixed” stars.)  So all this basically means the Moon will be at different points in its orbit when it hits different points in its cycle, but it may take a long time for the cycle to repeat.  Tomorrow, the Moon will be the closest to perigee when it hits full moon than it has been since 1948.  So that’s why people are calling it “the closest supermoon” or the “biggest supermoon”.

Now, what it isn’t is the closest pass the Moon has made sine 1948.  In fact, the last time the Moon was thi close was . . .

. . . a whopping 27 days ago.  And it will be this close in another 27 days.  It just won’t be full at the time.

Still, it’s kind of a cool thing.  And the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team has put together this amazing visualization of all the lunations for 2016 — including the current one.  They didn’t do it just for the supermoon; in fact they did this last year too.  It’s a beautiful visualization of the process, showing just how much bigger or smaller the moon may appear, and showing at top left where the Moon is in its orbit (not to scale, but clearly indicating perigee and apogee).  Skip to 4:24 to see the supermoon.  Also notice how the Moon moves more quickly near perigee than apogee; the slider to the right, showing the Moon’s distance from Earth (to scale) is a good place to watch for this.  They rendered this for both northern and southern hemisphere viewers; I’ve inserted both below:


By the way, this may also give you some insight into why not all solar eclipses can be total.  If there can be a perigee full moon, there can be perigee new moon as well, and all eclipses are at new moon.  A perigee solar eclipse will produce a total eclipse.  An apogee solar eclipse will produce only an annular eclipse; the Moon at perigee appears too small to cover the Sun completely.


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A spectacular view of Chicago – from a new perspective

Astronomy Picture of the Day for November 7 was an amazing picture of the city of Chicago — well, sort of.  Chicago actually is only barely in the picture.  Instead, what you see are the shadows of its downtown skyline, stretching out across the vast expanse Lake Michigan, as seen from an airliner waiting for its turn to approach Chicago-O’Hare International Airport. Click through to see it in its full-res glory!

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