# Summer 2K15 – Feeling Sleepy in the City that Never Sleeps

Life in your early to mid-20’s likes to play tricks on you in the fact that as soon as you feel comfortable in a new setting it ships you out to somewhere else.  I’ve spent my last 8 weeks in New York, Texas, Florida, and finally after a long 5 days of being back in the city (the longest I’ve been in one place since June!), I get to go home.  And by home I mean Pennsylvania, and then about two weeks later I get to go back to real home-away-from-home, a.k.a. school.  So really, to quote a famous 21st century poet, life is literally saying, “We Can’t Stop”.

But otherwise, life’s been pretty fun!  In the past 8 weeks I’ve met some pretty amazing people, had the opportunity to work on a pretty sweet healthcare project, and also spent my weekends in one of the most amazing cities in America, surrounded by old friends, new friends, family, jazz cafes, and oddly themed bars (ask my friend Gus about a small place called Moscow 57 on Delancey St…don’t ask him how or why we ended up there).

Now when you’re being tossed around the country, lack of sleep catches up with you.  This is not something uncommon as a college student, but until recently I’ve never been successful at sleeping on the go…it’s a skill you have to learn.  But on plane flights at 6:24 in the morning (my Monday weekly), it doesn’t become too difficult to throw your head back and catch some zzz’s.  Now, roll forwards to New York City Saturday nights; nights spent on subway cars, corner bars surrounded by crowds of people in dark rooms and basements with smoke-filled air.  Ask my friend Maddie about these nights – before you realize it they’ve gotten away from you, and the clock strikes 4AM and you rush home waiting for a train in a humid subway stop, half asleep on 14th and 8th with Thomas Nast statues lurking in the distance.

It’s my favorite stop.

Many of these nights I would go visit my brother, who used to live in a typical hole-in-the-wall Williamsburg apartment (though it did have character).  The type of apartment you would expect 3 young professionals in New York to live in – and in any other city would fit one.  To do this, I would take the A train down to my favorite station above, and then use the L to reach Brooklyn.  It was on one of these late nights, that I woke up from a normal daze on the L-Train to look above me and see a very colorful add neatly pasted above the dark New York subway windows.  It was from a small company called Casper sleep and here are a few examples:

Other than the irony of waking up to a mattress add on a 4AM subway train (and boy did my mattress sound wonderful at the time), I really enjoyed the playful nature of these pieces.  I would look forward to my time on the L-Train, where I could study the cute cartoons and feel a little comic-relief to whatever was on my mind at that time of the day, and I began to wonder what attracted me to the tiny adds.  Was it the color-scheme?  Bright, yet faded with a plain blue line-distinction and soft shadowing effects.  Or, maybe it was the pictures.  What person doesn’t like cute animals personified by eating pizza, or sleeping cozily next to each other.  Or maybe it was the sentence below, using words that usually are associated with happy subjects: “mattress”, “perfect”, and words that represent friends and comfort like “locals” or “frenemies” (which is a cute antithesis in itself).

The idea of taking subjective qualitative concepts, such as an emotion described with the words of an advertisement, and trying to generate objective subject-matter around it is a unique topic in the field of machine learning.  Now “machine learning” might sound like some big, dangerous topic, but in reality all machine learning involves is training a machine (like a computer) to make some recognition that normally a human would make.  It allows computers to recognize faces in pictures, Siri to talk to you on your iPhone, and political scientists to interpret election data to make a prediction for the future.

Ask Siri what 0/0 is and you will understand why this is here.

Now comes the fun (heh heh evil engineering laugh…ok back the post).  I’m going to show you one application of machine learning, and how it might be able to explain my fascination with Casper sleep adds.  There’s one topic in machine learning called Natural Language Processing, or simply NLP.  Essentially, NLP is a topic that is trying allow computers to interact with human language – a subject that can surprisingly be difficult to derive information from, because the meaning of a sentence can be a really subjective thing.  Think about it: when someone speaks to you, the meaning you derive from a sentence is largely dependent on the situation surrounding it, the speaker, and then the word choice used.  It’s not easy to program this stuff for a computer to recognize.

So how is this useful for marketing?  Well, there’s a topic in NLP called sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis deals with trying to pull subjective information such as text, and group them into categories, maybe emotional categories.  Let’s say we have a group of text from a Casper Ad, like the following:

“Perfect” “Mattress” “Locals”

As you can see, I’ve stripped this text from the above add of all articles and prepositions, to really pull parts of speech that deal with larger subject matter.  The idea for a lot of NLP is to try and build dictionaries of relevant words that fit these categories, and then try to label words with these categories. For example, let’s say I have two categories, a category for Positive words and a category for Negative words, and I have dictionaries of words for these categories.  I can write software that tells a computer to scan in text from an advertisement, and label all relevant words that fit these categories.  For instance if I were to feed in the three words above, they might be identified to fit positive and negative categories as follows:

Positive: mattress, locals

Negative: perfect

This means that the words “mattress” and “locals” were found in the positive dictionary, and “perfect” was found in the negative dictionary.  Now, what happens if words are not in the dictionary?  Well, then there’s a little manual work involved to identify words and place them in the categories yourself.  But, as with most machine learning, the idea is that the more advertisements one shows a computer, the more words will be placed into a dictionary, and in the long-run the majority of words will be labeled, thus less manual work will be involved.

42

Or, it can put you asleep (figuratively…if this is boring enough, literally…if you’re me on a subway car).  But regardless, it gives more power to how words can send overall impact and responses can be measured.  This is powerful in communication as a whole, something we all deal with on a daily basis.  But, back to sleep, which is something I’m about to engage in quite comfortable on my flight home in about an hour.  And with that…hope everyone has had a well rested summer, because sometimes there’s nothing more beautiful than a pillow, mattress, and catching some zzz’s at home.

Until next time…peace out NYC

# My Actions and Reactions

I’ve had a really hard time for some reason coming up with this post.  It’s not even like I’ve been neglecting to write…literally my draft box is full of half-posts, quarter-posts, one-liners.  But still, I think I needed to just wait until I found something I really wanted to write about before sending this out.  So be prepared…a lot of thought has been put into this baby.

But first off junior year.  Well…what was junior year.  It’s over!  Three year’s of college bam, pow, done finished.  Just like that.  I was told coming into junior year that it would be a transition period.  First off, myself and most of my friends are living in apartments and houses.  It’s the first time you deal with paying bills, budgeting money for food (yeah ma I know I haven’t been too great at that one…), and not being watched over to make the right living decisions.  People begin to legally drink; that entire rebellious attitude that (let’s be honest here) we all mildly have wears away into the reality that age comes with responsibility.  I’m not saying complete responsibility yet…but there’s a mildly different feeling that occurs.  In addition, friends are graduating and getting internships which are likely to lead to jobs, careers and in a year from now, lives that are moving in other directions.  It’s just….I don’t know how to put it other then…really weird?  Heck, run back about 14 years and I looked like this:

Thanks MAdler for the memories…also Lilly ❤

And now…well I’m…bigger.  And older.  And not feeling wiser nor as confident.  But at the same time there’s much more control over my future.  Which is exiting but stressful.  But at the same time stress is good right?  Stress can be scary, and can knock us off of our feet.  Personally, during this past Fall I became very stressed, and almost was knocked off my feet a little bit too much.  But dealing with stress can be very deterministic of our nature and future to come.  And the reactions we have to our actions which create stress allow us to push forward and lead the lives we want to live.  So…how do we act and react?

Those same two good lookin’ kids +14 years

So, action and reaction forces are described in the third and final of Newton’s Laws of Motion.  I think all of us remember Newton…the guy with the apples falling from the tree.  Well he was kind of the founder of modern physics.  And his third law states that for every active force, there’s an equal and opposite reactive force.   Or as shown below:

$F_{12}=-F_{21}$

This means that the force on one from two has the same magnitude but opposite direction (as indicated by the minus sign) than the force on two from one.  An easy example would be the idea of walking on the ground.  When you walk, you don’t push a force in the direction you’re walking right?  You push on the ground.  The question then becomes, how do you move?  Well…Newton’s Third Law tells why.  When you push on the ground, there is a reaction force by the ground on your body that pushes you forward.

Making the best out of Newton’s Third Law

Now, engineers like to take these simple physical ideas and model other processes that are somewhat like them.  As I said before, junior year of college can be a stressful time, and we’re going to put our engineering-caps on (hard-hats…I guess?) and make a quick model of a common action/reaction force that I dealt with and to learn one way on how to successfully deal with stress.

We’re going to listen to Tigger here, and show how I’ve dealt with college

First off, let’s generalize what I mean by force.  Force can be a physical quantity as defined by physics, defined by mass multiplied by acceleration, such that:

$F = ma$

where m is a mass in kilograms and a is acceleration is in meters/second^2.  But the “force” of stress doesn’t really have a mass nor an acceleration, right?  As a college student, stress maybe deals with the force from pressures in school from classwork,  and another force from activity pressure.  Let’s say that:

$F_{stress} = F_{school} + F_{activities}$

But there are forces counter-acting this stress, correct?  There’s positive forces that help our lives, like a “force” from support of families, and a positive “force” from support from our friends.  There can also be positive forces from school and activities right?  One that’s educational/developmental, which helps us grow as people.  Since these “forces” decrease from our force of stress, we can subtract them off in our model.

$F_{stress} = (F_{school} + F_{activities}) - (F_{friends} + F_{family} + F_{development})$

See…modeling is simple right?  Now, what do we mean by force of stress, school, activities, etc?  Well, to develop an entire model of what each of these forces is equal to would be hard, but we’ll show an example on how to maybe go about a few of them, and then I’ll let you decide how to develop the rest further.  So let’s look at the force of school work.  Maybe this hypothetical force depends upon how much energy (alpha below) you put into working over a certain quantity (beta below).  Realize, that we are trying to still follow physical models of force, in which a force is equal to some amount of energy put over a certain distance.  We are just defining these quantities loosely (i.e. distance could mean for us energy over a certain time, subject, etc.).  When a variable depends upon two other variables, we say it is a function of these other variables (which we’ll call g( . ) ).  Thus:

$F_{school} = g(\alpha_{school},\beta_{distance})$

Again, it is hard to say how these quantities of energy and our “distance” actually determines force, we are just stating the fact that they most likely do.  And in starting to make a simple model, it’s perfectly alright to do that.  Now, let’s say that in a similar sense, the positive “force” from your family also is a dependent on some positive energy put into the system, over the same amount of “distance”.  Thus now we have:

$F_{family} = g(\alpha_{family},\beta_{distance})$

And to complete our model we would keep going until all variables have been defined by similar quantities such that the units (the physical description of each force that gives them meaning) are the same, and therefore we can actually use math to add and subtract these quantities.  If the units were not the same between the forces, we would not be able to do anything mathematical to them (imagine subtracting seconds from feet…that wouldn’t work right?).  And thus, in about 500 words we’ve developed a partial model of describing stress of a junior year college student.  The key is now balancing the positive and negative stress forces such that the net stress force equals 0, i.e:

$F_{stress} = 0$

such that

$F_{friends} + F_{family} + F_{development} = F_{school} + F_{activities}$

Well…not yet, but you get the picture.

And to realize that this model is applicable to a lot of things is pretty cool.  My junior year was filled with many action-reaction moments.  I experienced death for the first time of students my age- one I did not know at school at all and one that I had previous contact with, but had wish I had known more.  Each active force from these events created an equal and opposite reaction force from the student body.   My home in Baltimore grew with active forces after an incident of police brutality occurred right on our streets, and an amazing reactive force grew in response to a night of protests, looting and fires to build this city back up.  It’s now clear to me that a lot of active forces are not in our control, but it’s what we do with our own reactions to set the net force to 0 that determine our futures.  A lot of people say don’t react, but act, but we always act in response to something down the line.  I say react, but make sure your own reaction is as loud and clear as the trigger that created it to begin with.

And that’s my lame, but hopefully mildly meaningful lesson that I’ve learned from junior year.  And to think one more left…and that someone is going to trust me with this crazy thing called “real-life” that’s allegedly approaching.  I think I’m almost ready to handle it.

Have a good summer! From Mr. Newton and I

# Bacon Numbers

Throughout college, I’ve felt like February can be one tough month.  Maybe it’s because classes have restarted at school, activities are back in action, and I still haven’t recovered enough sleep from the Fall semester.  Or it could be that I went an entire two weeks of college without a laptop (which surprisingly made me a lot more productive).  Maybe it’s due to the fact that it’s cold outside, and that the low for today in Baltimore is -4 degrees F (and earlier this week my building’s heat shut off on the chilliest day since 1905…really…and its going to be shut off again tonight).  Or maybe it’s because one of my best friends is spending time in Sydney, Australia for the semester, where it’s currently in the 80’s.

No sympathy friend 🙂

On the bright side though…it’s the last full month of winter.  Days are getting longer and Spring is right around the corner.  My junior year second semester is almost a third of the way over (WAT) and I can tell it’s already going to fly by.  Now…I’m not going to spend this post on big picture questions like I did previously…this time I’ve got a specific problem for you.  And…it involves how close you are to bacon.

…oops wrong bacon

^^ Not that bacon (though it does look lovely right now…and also heart attack inducing…so still lovely).  We’re actually going to look at how close you are to Bacon, well, Kevin Bacon to be exact.

There he is

Any 21st century student who has a mild addiction to social media (so everyone), has heard the simple question…”how many degrees of separation am I from Kevin Bacon?”  In reality, this is a play on the classic “six degrees of separation” concept that states that there are 6 or fewer “steps” to between every person in the world.  The concept, first publicized by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, can be seen in his short story “Chain Links“.  Kevin Bacon became involved when actors/actresses/film industry staff members in Hollywood began to trace their connections to Kevin Bacon through mutual acquaintances.  The number of people between themselves and Kevin Bacon eventually became known as their “Bacon Number”

props to my friend in Sydney on the pic. request

Now…how do we find our own Bacon Number or, more generally, the separation between us and another person?  Now, we’re going to use a little help from… GRAPH THEORY (anticlimax ensues).  No…we’re not looking at the y=mx+b graphs you probably fretted over in math class.

Not this…

These graphs are a little different.  Imagine you have a set of dots on a piece of paper, which we’ll call “vertices”.  Each dot represents a person in the world.  Then, we’ll draw a line, or “edge” between two vertices if the people representing those vertices know each other.  Therefore, we have a graph representing simple social connections between people.  To illustrate a simple example, I drew up a little graph of my family.  There are vertices for my mom, myself, my brother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother.  My mom, brother, grandmother and I know each other, but only my mom and grandmother met my great-grandmother.  Therefore, there are edges between those who know each other, and no edges between people who have never met.  Check it out here:

Ta-da…this is a graph

Now…in this graph, pick any vertex and leave it through one of the edges connected to it.  Continue doing this until you stop at any vertex.  Crossing edges between vertices is called “traversing” a vertex, and doing this along edges continuously creates a “walk” in the graph.  A walk without any repeated vertices is called a “path” and the “length” of a path is the amount of edges traversed between two vertices.

So…sorry for all of the terminology, but now let’s go back to our original problem.  With this graph-model in our pocket, how can we see the degrees of separation between us and another person?  Well…it’s simply the length of the shortest path between two vertices.  For example, my mom and I only have one degree of separation, since there is only a single edge between us.  On the other hand, my great-grandmother and I have two degrees of separation, because the length of the shortest path between us (which is either me to my mother and then to my great-grandmother, or me to my grandmother and then my great-grandmother) is two.  Get it?

Now we can walk all the way to Kevin Bacon

So you try…talk to people you’re close with and see if you can find links to others throughout the world.  By computing this graph model you might be able to easily find your own Bacon Number (mine’s only 3)!

Now…if you think this is a little trivial…graph theory can do a bit more work to trace the social connections between people and show some pretty neat ideas.  For instance, take a look at your Facebook “Suggested Friends” list.  How do you think Facebook finds out which people to play here?  What Facebook does is actually draw out a graph connecting you to each person you’re friends with, and then draws another edge from your friends to people they are friends that you currently do not know.  Note that these are each paths of length 2.  It then computes how many of these paths lead to the same person, and uses this number as the likelihood that you will know that person  Pretty sick right!  This is all the basis of social networking theory…and Facebook graphs can get pretty intense:

This is my Facebook network…thank you Wolfram Alpha

So that’s a wrap.  If you stuck with me, I hope you found that detour into Applied Math pretty cool!  Just realize how awesome it is to live in a world where we can be so connected to such a large body of people.  As a college junior…you realize how much your small social network impacts you, and this tiny network is comprised of your closest friends.  Personally, I don’t think I would have been able to get through another tough February without them.  And there’s a lot of beauty in that.

# Cows and College

Any college student has to deal with a concept of the ‘bubble’.  I’m not talking about the soapy bubbles that you probably blew when you were 5 years old.  This bubble is more of a shield, a shield that is strong during freshman year but slowly decreases is size, or thickness, and becomes more vulnerable as you move through the undergraduate experience.  Around junior year, the strength of the bubble has decreased immensely, and the realities of adulthood, or what undergrads call, “real life”, begin to set in.  Now…as my second semester of junior year dawns on me, I am totally feeling that the bubble is almost gone.  See my excitement below:

good old Snapchat

So…as I was sitting in Starbucks today wondering what I want to do with my life (ya know, little things…right?), I began to do the normal thing a college student does when productivity seems possible.  I started to surf the internet.   My search began with a trip to Facebook…followed by randomly clicking on links to Wikipedia.  I learned that you can actually ski in Arizona, that someone in Australia recently caught a crazy-looking shark, and that Bill Nye is spending his time on ESPN proving Bill Belichick doesn’t know how footballs deflate.

“I did not have relations with that…football”…oops wrong quote?

But…I also found something pretty cool, and yes it does involve a little engineering (but we’re not going to get too technical this time!).  There’s a non-profit development company based in San Francisco, called D-Rev that’s designing solutions to many world issues.  They’re currently developing low-cost devices to help babies with jaundice, and a knee-joint for amputees in the developing world.  Yes, this does sound very Bioengineering-esque, but I wanted to highlight one of their older projects to show that engineering can be more than applying math concepts to solve issues, it lets us design solutions to problems that are present in the every-day world.

According to their past-project page, D-Rev once found a problem they wanted to solve in East Africa.  As D-Rev states:

“Remote rural farmers with dairy livestock face challenges getting their milk to market since unpasteurized milk can spoil quickly in warm climates. Pasteurized milk spoils in as little as four hours in 30°C temperatures. To prolong shelf life, farmers in East Africa must bring their fresh milk to a chilling plant immediately after milking. For rural farmers, this is simply not possible—they live too far away.” (content was taken from here).

Moo

Now…this sounds more like a public health problem then an engineering problem.  But, much of the creative processes that engineers use attempt to solve problems like this.  This type of thinking is called “Design Thinking”, or as I like to think of it, simply using creativity to solve problems and build something.  That something might be a prosthetic, it might be a particle collider, a new business process, or a way to help a community preserve milk.  In the end, it’s something that is not limited to engineers or designers, it’s a concept we use in our daily lives.

How D-Rev attempted to solve this milk issue was to isolate the true problem.  If you know anything about bacteria (which is what spoils milk), bacteria multiple exponentially.  If you need a little math brush-up, this means that if we originally have 2 bacteria, we might have 4 the next second, 8 one second afterwards, and this growth is multiplied by 2 each second.  This is called exponential growth (though in reality the exponential function is a little more complicated…but we won’t get too much into that).  Essentially, once we reach a certain amount of bacterial growth, the milk is spoiled.  The company also noted that there aren’t a lot of available resources to preserve milk.  Therefore, they thought that the solution involved either protecting the milk from getting spoiled, or to somehow kill off the bacteria before spoilage could occur.

It’s a little more complicated than that Garfield…

D-Rev tried to explore a technological innovation to help solve the problem, but decided that they needed to really explore more about the user-side of the milk process before moving forward.  Sadly, funding for the project was insufficient, and they closed it in 2010.  You can read the study they wrote here.  It’s pretty cool!

So…I got a little technical with the whole “exponential growth” deal, but it wasn’t too bad!  As you can see, math, engineering and design thinking are intertwined in a very beautiful way.  Bringing people together who are creative thinkers can lead to some pretty cool results and tackle the world’s biggest problems.  D-Rev is just one example, but there are many companies who are solving real-world issues using design thinking as their basis.  Definitely check them out when you get a chance!

Now, it’s your turn to find your own problem in the world, and help solve it to create a better future.  For me right now, I guess it’s the personal problem of figuring out the next steps in my life and dealing with the bubble bursting.  But…if I ever have the opportunity to do something like D-Rev’s project above, and use my background to help people live better lives, I think there’s one beautiful future ahead.

# The Problem with My Memory

First off, thank you to the random person who followed my blog a few weeks ago (Emily I believe), reminding me that this exists and something needs to be done about it.  In case you have lost all belief in my writing, I would like to take a second and shed a little light on the fact that I gave an attempt to write a post this summer.  To make this anticlimactic…I have absolutely know idea where that post went and what it was about (facepalm to follow).

Yes Conan, I feel the same way

But, life has been quite exciting regardless.  This past summer, I worked at an amazing med-tech start-up company at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation in Mountain View California.  I published my first research paper (woo), had the poster presented at a conference, and learned that I am actually somewhat artistic (well…I can code and let computers do artistry for me; I suppose that’s how web development works…but check out my site!).  Then afterwards, my junior year of college started and well, as Vonnegut would say:

I don’t want to bore you with my life

And to think all of this happened in such a short period of time is amazing and scary!  As you see from my lack of blogging, my memory can only handle so much…with so much occurring in our lives, you start to wonder how we remember anything!

So…because ya know…this is an engineering blog of sorts, let’s look into this whole memory thing.  And to help us, we’re going to use the work of Atkinson-Shiffrin’s memory model and look how it uses one of the core theories in engineering, called Control Theory.  Though it’s not the perfect model, it gives great insight into putting this engineering principle into good use!

Atkinson-Shiffrin’s memory model is simple.  It states our memory is composed of a sensory registrar, short-term memory, and a long term-memory.  Essentially, drawing attention to something in the sensory registrar creates a short-term memory.  This memory remains in the short-term memory through a process called rehearsal, until it is transferred into the long-term memory where it is stored.  When we remember it later, it is temporarily retrieved from the long-term memory and stored as a short term memory again (original paper is here).

Yeah…I guess that was a lot to handle

So, if you feel like Louis above, we can actually make what I just said a little easier.  And you guessed it, we’re going to use control theory to do it.  Control theory is simple.  The basic idea is an input is taken into some sort of “black box” system (a thing that changes the input), which creates an output.  This output is then also placed into a new system, which somehow measures information about what the intended output was supposed to be based upon the input that was given.  It then relays this information back into the original system, and the system slowly works to reach its intended output after more inputs are given.  This is called a “feedback loop”, and an example of a basic control system is below:

check it check it

Now…these guys are used everywhere.  One easy example can be seen when you drive a car and your brain takes in visual feedback.  When you press the pedal of the car (the input), the car (our system) moves at a certain speed and the dashboard translates the output into visual feedback.  Our brain (which measures the difference on the intended and actual output) then looks at the dashboard; after, we either press the pedal harder or lighten up until the speed displayed on the dashboard aligns with the speed at which our brain has determined we want to move.  So, next time your brain decides it should pass that wonderful car moving 35 mph on the highway (sums up my afternoon), you have a great model to explain how you go about that pass.

You know how I feel

How does this apply to the memory model we explained above?  Simply, sensory memory gets passed as an input into short-term memory.  Short-term memory has its own feedback loop through the process of rehearsal.  It then transfers into long-term memory after a certain amount of rehearsal has occurred, and long-term memory passes back into short-term memory through retrieval, creating another loop.  All of this can be seen in the picture below:

(drum roll) here it is

And that’s a wrap.  So what’s the take home message?  Well…life has a lot to offer.  And when you’re just moving through the paces and not taking the time to reflect, we get a lot of the left side of the picture and not the right.  As I’m finishing up college and dealing with everything school has to offer, I’ve realized that I have been letting things slip and not grasping and treasuring everything that I used to.  This is why I’m back writing- so that I can take a second to pause and place down on paper (or my computer) these words, and relay these messages to you so that you may also pause and reflect on the great things that have happened in your life.  And hopefully we can share these memories, creating our own little feedback loop, and enjoy this beautiful thing called life together.

# A Winter Olympics Sporting Guide (from a very non-sporting perspective)

oops

The winter Olympics have always seemed to be the ‘little brother’ in a way to its summer counterpart.  But this year, things seem to be playing out a little bit differently.  The buzz about Sochi has ranged from the extreme positive to the extreme negative; from new sports such as women’s ski jumping, to terrorist threats and protestors, the road to the Olympics has been bumpy.  But regardless, this Friday, all roads will converge to Sochi, and the 22nd Winter Olympic Games will begin.

someone’s been busy

But, as always, there’s another perspective of the olympics that we can look at.  And yes, it’s going to involve a little math.  But not too much.  The olympic games inherently are not about controversy, though world politics tend to have an effect.  The olympic games are about the 2,500+ athletes who will come together from all different corners of the globe to create a show for the next 2.5 weeks.  And in those 2.5 weeks, they will attempt to display some of the greatest and most spectacular qualities that the human body is capable of.  To you, this display has become known as sports.  To me, sports are simply the art of the human body to attempt to push itself against the laws of nature.  And in this art, there is quite a bit of physics involved.

He doesn’t work very well with nature

Let me prove it to you with a few examples:

When a skier rides off a jump, there are two factors involved in his/her performance.  The first, is obviously the ability of the skier.  The second involves the aerodynamics of the skier’s skis and the position of his/her body weight.  Once off the jump, the skier will experience three forces: the force of gravity pulling the skier down, the lift force that keeps the skier in the air (due to the aerodynamic properties of the skis), and lastly, a drag force that pushes against the skier.  The skier’s job is to successfully manipulate these three forces in order to perform the desired trick.  And of course, this is no easy feat to do.  (if you’re interested in the math, you can look into it here)

Newton was actually just a professional skier

Another testament to physics is figure skating.  When a figure skater spins, he/she is actually experimenting with angular momentum (which we’ll call the letter: “L”).  If you need a refresher, momentum could be thought of as the effort it would take to stop a moving object. There’s two types: linear (think of an object moving in straight line), and angular, which is due to an object’s rotation.  The angular momentum of the skier depends upon two things, the moment of inertia (which we’ll call the letter “I”…we’re not going to actually talk about our good friend “I”) and the angular velocity (which we’ll call the letter “w”…nor will we talk about “I” ‘s best friend w); it can be written as L=Iw.  Another way to think of angular momentum is the cross product (don’t worry about this) of the radius (r) of the object from its center axis and the linear momentum (p).

this probably how you feel right now #mindblown

So…if you’ve some how made it this far and don’t want to hit me (I really hope you don’t…), just realize that angular momentum depends upon the radius and the velocity (we can also say ‘speed’…engineers don’t kill me here) of the skater.  And it’s also good to note that no matter how the velocity and the radius change, the angular momentum must stay the same (also called conservation).  In other words, if the radius were to go down, the velocity would have to pick up, and vice-versa.  Therefore, when a skater pulls in his/her arms towards the body, the velocity picks up, and they spin faster.  As one’s arms are extended, the velocity slows down.  It’s actually a pretty cool thing, and you can get a simpler and clearer and probably nicer explanation here.

fast…and then slow

So…now that I’ve toyed with your brains enough…we’ll let the physics be.  Maybe I have given you a little more insight on what the athletes that will be competing have to contend with.  There’s a lot that’s going on throughout every second of competition that’s left unsaid.  No, I’m not asking you to think about it; I’m asking you to just realize that it is beautiful.  Physics creates a figure skater that puts on a graceful performance, and gives a skier the ability to defy gravity.  It allows the human body to create art and push itself past the boundaries that were given to it.

But come Friday, the physics won’t be what you’re looking at.  Your only job is to cheer, be amazed, and enjoy.  Whether it be for your country, your favorite athletes from around the world, or for the sake of countries coming together, attempting to forget their disagreements and compete side-by-side.  I’ll be cheering for the human condition, and for the beauty and art that the human body can create.

USA USA USA 🙂

# I Just Can’t ‘Kelp’ Myself from This One

I was browsing the internet a few months ago when I came across something interesting.   But before I tell you what I found, I’d like to give some insight into how I went about finding this piece of information.  You see…I’m one of those short-attention spanned college students who researches a topic online, looks it up on wikipedia…and then spends two hours scrolling through random pages about complete nonsense.  I kind of do it in spurts ya know.  One day I’ll have a really important paper to write for school, and I’ll end up finding some information on my ever so trusty source (Wikipedia that is), and then I’ll click on random links, until I slowly end up on a page that tells me Kim Jong Un is a giant fan of American basketball.

See I’m not lying

But, searching on Wikipedia can actually be resourceful too (in addition to making me really talented at Wikipedia races).  One time, I was online looking at renewable energy sources (you know, every day things), and I came across a remarkable apartment complex that was recently built in Germany.

Now when we talk about renewable energy, people usually think about wind power, or maybe solar power.  But you see, there are some even crazier sources of renewable energy that engineers have been trying to harness for years now.  For instance, cow poop.  Well, not cow poop…but it’s been recently estimated that cows are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.  But, more importantly, 65% of cow manure is made up of the greenhouse gas methane (if you don’t believe me look here: cow poop).

the true culprit of climate change

But don’t worry; my brother did not complete his project on cow poop.  What he was working on, and what I stumbled upon on the internet, was harnessing energy from algae.  Yes algae, which we also call kelp, or seaweed.  It’s that gross green-stuff that we try not to step up on whenever we go to the beach.  Or, what we don’t want to find in our pools during the summer time.  I mean, let’s be honest, algae can be pretty gross:

the product of swimming in algae (not)

But…algae is actually slowly becoming a major clean energy source, mostly due to the fact that algae goes through photosynthesis.  If you need a little refresher, photosynthesis is a process that harnesses energy from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce glucose and oxygen.  It’s the main energy reaction for plants and many other organisms (if you didn’t realize, algae are actually protists, not plants- kudos to a friend for reminding me [Nisu]).

Now why does this make algae such a great source of clean energy?  Well, carbon dioxide is the major greenhouse gas that’s released when we burn petroleum as fuel.  To be exact, burning one gallon of gasoline produces 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, which slowly drifts off into our atmosphere.  But, algae is so great because it actually uses that carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.  Therefore, not only can one create biodiesel, but using algae would actually help reduce greenhouse gases that are currently trapping solar radiation.

see algae makes us happy

So, now back to the apartment complex.  German engineers recently took up the challenge to try out algae-fuel in a large-scale setting.  And it actually worked really well.  The special thing about this apartment complex is that on its facade there are large panels filled with algae.  It looks like this:

do you like what you sea?

The building is called the Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) building.  The panels compose 129 bioreactors that grow the algae, and are constantly fed water and carbon dioxide to provide a hospitable environment.  Periodically, a company will come to ferment the algae, and transfer into biofuel which will power then power the building.  And to even add on to the pros, the facade also doubles as solar panels.  If you want to read more, you can check it out here: BIQ.

So, maybe this wasn’t too amazing, or enlightening.  Maybe not beautiful or surprising.  But personally, I’m all for efforts for a cleaner environment, especially when those efforts are, quite literally, ‘homegrown’.