Guess What Element I am…

I am a useful element with many practical applications, however I am not found readily and many silly humans trade me for money.  I am a transition metal that can be easily mixed with other metals to form useful alloys that conduct electricity and heat extremely well.  On my own, no other metal can rival my electrical conductivity.  My contact resistance is also the lowest in the periodic table, meaning if you brushed two of me together, sparks would fly (technically they wouldn’t, sparks=high resistance)! If you used me to make your house’s electrical wiring, you’d be broke, but your lights would be slightly brighter.  Like copper, I have natural disinfectant properties and can be used as an antiseptic when compounded with other elements.  My thermal conductivity is higher than all other elements in the periodic table!  I am commonly used for my stain and tarnish-resistant properties and am occasionally used to coat silverware. Apart from the ultraviolet spectrum, I am an excellent reflector of light and can be used to make thin shiny coatings for applications in photography.  My halide form can even absorb light in such a way that it records patterns and retains them for short periods of time!  I am slightly harder than my oft-coveted counterpart used to back the federal reserve, however we are both used to make Olympic medals.  Strangely enough, I am sometimes used in a special type of food coloring, but it’s not approved by the FDA so don’t ingest me!  Controversially, the iodide form of me was used several times in China to control the weather, most notably around the 2008 Olympics to prevent it from raining in the city area.


The Case Against Torture

In response to:

The Flawed Case for torture

Michael Levin’s “Case for Torture” makes several ground assumptions that make the article shaky at best and immoral at worst.  The first assumption is that constitutionality is less important than lives.  This is a major assumption to make, as many supreme court justices would disagree with Levin here.  The Constitution, which we choose to found our entire government on, dictates the basic rights every person should have, both as a citizen and as an inmate.  Disregarding the constitution may save a thousand lives the first time, but next time it may be disregarded to save only 100, and the time after that only 10, until it no longer holds meaning because we can shrug off the rights of a citizen with the justification that it will save lives.  Over time it will become so unvalued that the freedom of every citizen to never be used as witnesses against themselves may be overlooked to convict the simplest of criminals.  It sets a bad precedent.

The second major assumption made by the article is that torture is the only option.  Levin implies that torture will only be used as a last resort and in the most extreme situations, however if the government finds that it gets results, it will be used as the de facto standard for extracting information.  The fact remains, however, that torture is never the only option.  Basic technologies exist (such as alcohol) that make individuals divulge information, these are as immoral as torture itself when used as a tool of justice.  One cannot argue whether something is more moral or less moral, there is only moral and immoral.  The moment you begin to balance numbers of lives against the basic rights of humans as a species, you break the values that separate us from animals.

The third, but least severe assumption is that things are always clear-cut.  Every terrorist situation we’ve had in the past has had legal grey zones and questionable facts.  Apprehending the designer of the 9/11 plot and torturing him till he divulged the flight plans of the planes would have only allowed us to attempt to shoot them down, resulting in the deaths of everyone onboard, but maybe not the 3,000 in the World Trade Center.  This is precisely the grey zone, what determines whether the lives of those in the WTC could have been saved by sacrificing the lives of those on the planes, and who determines whether it is worth trying to shoot them down when there wasn’t a 100% chance that they would hit their targets.  In a world as clear as Quartz, torture may be used to achieve a defined goal that would save a definite number of people, and only for that purpose.

The final reason torture should not be considered is more logistical, its inaccurate.  When under excruciating pain a victim is unlikely to give accurate information, more likely they will say whatever they think will make the torture stop.  There have been several cases of information acquired behind the walls of Guantanamo Bay that has led down false paths.  When used as a tool of justice, torture is inaccurate, immoral, and it sets a bad precedent for the future of human rights.  Hundreds of years from now we hope for a better world that bases its justice system on truth, rights, and balance.  If we even begin to condone torture now, our future generations will look upon it as a valid method gaining the desired, but not the correct information from a witness or criminal.

Peculiar Romance

It beats!

Half-beating valentines heart

For valentines day I stayed up late the night before and made a small and very simple LED heart chip.  It’s composed of 14 LED’s arranged in a heart shape attached to an old wall wart.  I ran into three strange hiccups that turned this 30 minute project into a 3 hour one.

1. Cutting perf-board without a Dremel (couldn’t find the adapter for mine) is like trying to cut through half a ream of paper with baby scissors.

2. That old wall wart I used as a power supply was unregulated and wavered unevenly by almost 2v (this turned out to be a plus eventually).

3. Work out the voltages and connections before you twist 40v worth of LED’s together, nothing produces exactly 40v.

The perf-board problem was resolved by just using the soldering iron to widen and weaken a row of holes, followed by cutting through it with normal scissors, then sanding it off afterwards.  The LED voltage problem I solved by dividing the LED’s into two halves, left and right.  Unfortunately when testing the right half I accidentally fed it 36v instead of 24v and blew out the entire half (had to tell my girlfriend that only half the heart lit up because it symbolized us sharing a heart).  The most interesting thing about this entire project was that I picked out an unreliable PSU and ended up with a source that wavered by 2v at about 80BPM, coincidentally this is an average resting human heart rate.  When I wired it all up the left half would beat like a heart, speeding up when you first plugged it in, then leveling out, then slowing when you unplugged it before finally flatlining when the capacitors run out of charge.  All in all, well-spent time for a great Valentines day gift.

LED legs!

Flip side of the perf board



Cans of butane

A selection of butane products

Butane.  This wonderful, yet under-appreciated chemical with properties that seems to help in almost every field.  Let me start by listing a few of its properties: when mixed with oxygen it deflagrates explosively, when in low-oxygen environments it burns with a low flame, it’s a liquid at 0C but rapidly evaporates at anything higher, and when stored as a liquid the pressure is reasonably low, but still enough to keep a can pressurized.  These may seem like common features of many common hydrocarbon fuels, however none are as cheap and readily available, yet also safe and useful.

Tip: Always have a 1-2ft long tube of heatshrink attached to the nozzle, so that you are never using the can to apply butane directly.  If you have to light the jet, you can hold the tube farther up and control the stream safely without putting your hands near the fire.  A nifty side effect of using heat-shrink is that if the flame ever gets too hot, the tip of the tubing will begin to contract and cut off the supply of fuel, effectively putting out the fire that could’ve raged out of control.

Tip: Keep a “bubble” of un-shrunk heat-shrink about 1″ or 2″ away from the tip of your 1-2ft long tube.  This can be done by holding a lighter on the very tip for a second, then holding it briefly on a section about 3″ up.  This little bubble acts as a temporary reservoir of liquid butane between sprayings, allowing you to dribble out droplets of it, or light the evaporating stream without igniting the full jet.

Here are some of the reasons I always keep a can of Butane handy by the workstation:

1. When un-lit (be careful) it is a very efficient coolant.  When hot-gluing a project you can rapidly cool the hot glue by briefly spraying butane on it.  Frosting and condensation on the surrounding parts is an unfortunate side-effect, but this can be avoided by spraying in bursts.  (another use would be in regenerative cooling in one of my rocket projects)

2. When lit (be even more careful) it provides concentrated bursts of extremely hot flame, useful for localized melting and ignition.  When using lit butane, it is always important to remember that the un-lit gasses can build up and explode suddenly when they reach a critical mass.  I’ve had a few accidents where I’ve lost most of the hair on my legs this way.  Luckily these explosions are scary but rarely do any real damage, as they last milliseconds and very little heat is transferred to surrounding materials.

3. It’s usually stored pressurized and can be used like any other pressurized gas.  I personally like to use it whenever my laptop starts to overheat by spraying a long burst of it on the CPU bridge (beware condensation).  This also makes for a very nice effect when DJing at parties, as the misty fog rolling off the laptop looks quite awesome.  The evaporation cools the laptop, and the pressure dusts off my keyboard nicely.  [side note: it can be used to inflate balloons, which–when popped by a lighter–explode with a deafening bang]

Bike Booster Rocket

This project evolved out of my need to invent an Iron-Man-esque suit, specifically the rockets on his feet and hands.  Here, I’m testing butane (lighter refill fluid) as a possible fuel, as it’s cheaply and easily bought.  The combustion chamber is highly inefficient and barely works to provide a boost at all, it’s more for the 3 foot flame jet shooting out the back of my bike as I’m going down the street.

Filing a Patent

Do you know how hard it is to file a patent in the USPTO?  I was under the impression that the US patent office welcomed and encouraged patents, however simply applying with no guarantee that they will ever get to your patent app in their stack of backlogged apps from software companies, costs $250-$380.  While this may be a small fee for any serious inventor, a student like myself or a nearly bankrupt inventor would have trouble conjuring up the thousands required per-patent as maintenance fees every few years.

My advice for any aspiring entrepreneur would be to create a firm that communicates/collaborates with the Creative Commons and advertises themselves as an alternate service, for those who wish to patent their ideas, as opposed to copyrighting them.  The acceptance process for patents could be more selective and more biased against worthless software patents, to prevent what has caused the notorious inefficiencies in the USPTO.  Fees could be lowered depending on the applicant.

The only reason I’ve looked into patents recently and created this blog, is my interest in patenting a design for a comprehensive music-centric social network inspired by listening to my iPod on a subway, and wishing I could hear what other people around me were listening to.  More on this in another post…

The Ceilingizer

This project has been on my mind for quite some time and I finally got a free weekend and a budget from my parents, the only catch was that I had to build it in my little brother’s room and not my own.  The circuit is incredibly simple and cheap, the LED’s are also available for very low prices.  The purpose was to have a sound-reactive LED array on the ceiling that could be plugged into my brother’s DS so that when he played music or games, the ceiling would flash.