Category Archives: Science!

COVID Vaccines: They are Safe and Effective (What we know Right Now)

[This is a fast-moving and controversial topic, so if you’re reading this, you may disagree with what I say, or I may be wrong. Please feel free to read the sources linked throughout my post. If in doubt, please consult with your doctor. Also, I’m writing this as much for myself, to process all the things that I’ve been hearing and reading, so this may or may not address your specific case. #notmedicaladvice]

By the time you read this, if all goes well, I will have received my first vaccine dose. I’ll be getting the AstraZeneca-made vaccine, for a bunch of reasons, perhaps best summed up by this quote from our Prime Minister:

In the words of the Canadian Prime Minister: “The best vaccine for you to take is the very first one that is offered to you”

There’s a bunch to unpack here. In order for a vaccine to be offered to anyone, it needs to go through a number of steps, shown in this handy chart from UNC Healthcare:

Infographic from UNC Healthcare showing the FDA vaccine approval process, and how it differs under an 'Emergency Use Authorization'
Infographic from UNC Healthcare showing the FDA vaccine approval process, and how it differs under an ‘Emergency Use Authorization’

1) The initial R&D of the vaccine, including the conceptualization, and very likely in vitro (cell culture) tests and in vivo (animal) tests, both to show safety and effectiveness
2) Three phases of increasingly large clinical trials, to test for safety & effectiveness
3) Formal approval

The above process is the one for the U.S. FDA, but other jurisdictions will have similar processes. In Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) does a review of the evidence, and makes an approval decision. As vaccines can have risks as well as benefits, the NACI may approve vaccines for certain demographics, and not others. A common example of this might be restricting approval to adults 18 and over, due the difficulties and ethical restrictions of testing on children. Indeed, the current statement on the AstraZeneca vaccine includes such a statement:

“The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use in Canada for adults 18 years of age and over. Health Canada has determined that it is a safe and effective vaccine.”

The availability of multiple approved vaccines has led to comparisons of the four vaccines currently approved for use in Canada: Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna

This being a fast-moving topic, affecting millions (really, billions) of people, science news is being reported on a daily basis in the popular press, which has a number of effects:

Because the topic is fast-moving, there is a lot of news, not all of it checked to normal standards of scientific rigor.

Because the topic is affecting millions of people, we see effects that we might not otherwise see in small populations. For example, of the approximately 9.5 million vaccine doses administered in Canada to date, there have been 3738 ‘adverse effects’ reported, with 529 of those being deemed ‘serious’, or about 55.5 per million. (For a breakdown by demographics, click here.)

(Apologies for the formatting below, but WordPress is tricky. You may want to rotate your phone to read the table in landscape.  The full description of each of the columns is available here, and the names of the columns appears before the abbreviations below.)

Here, you can see a summary of the adverse effects seen in Canada from COVID vaccines so far, as defined here. (Rotate your phone to landscape if the table does not display properly.)

Number of adverse event reports by vaccine name up to and including April 16, 2021 (n=3,738) Vaccine name Non-serious reports Serious reports Total reports Total number of doses administered Total non-serious report rate* Total serious report rate* Total report rate*
                 Non-S Ser Total   Total   Rate  R(ser) R(non-ser)
 Pfizer-BioNTech 1,762 395 2,157 7,183,048 24.53   5.50    30.03
 Moderna         1,311  83 1,394 1,843,805 71.10   4.50    75.60
 COVISHIELD        124  36   160   491,171 25.25   7.33    32.58
 AstraZeneca        11   9    20   615,582  1.79   1.46     3.25
 Unknown             1   6     7       N/A   NaN    NaN      NaN
 * Per 100,000 doses administered.

(‘COVISHIELD’ refers to the AstraZeneca vaccine, under a slightly different brand name.)

Overall, between all the vaccines administered, there have been:

“Up to and including April 16, 2021, a total of 38 reports identified deaths that occurred after the administration of a vaccine. Following medical case review, it has been determined that 19 of these deaths are not linked to a COVID-19 vaccine and the other 19 are still under investigation. As investigations are completed, the numbers are updated accordingly.”

(From the page, and the recommendations for on-site supervision immediately following vaccination[1], my guess is that deaths associated with vaccination are generally caused by anaphylaxis, but I don’t have good data on that.)

(Please note that this number of 19 per ~9.5 million may go up or down, but as it stands, it’s about at 2 per million, or 1/4 as dangerous as being a pedestrian, or 1/13th as dangerous as driving a car for a year. (2017 data))

Drivers: 985 (26/1e6) Passengers: 311 (8.5/1e6) Pedestrians: 284 (7.7/1e6)
Canada Population: 36,708,083 (approximate)

(Please also note that all of these vaccines seem to have similar rates of serious and non-serious side effects.)

The item at the top of the news at present is that there are currently specific questions about blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine. Health Canada performed a review, and determined:

Health Canada’s review of the available information concluded that a link between the use of AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine and COVISHIELD and the risk of these blood clots with low platelets is possible. The risk of these events is very rare, and the overall benefits of the vaccine in protecting Canadians from COVID-19 continue to outweigh its potential risks.
Health Canada did not identify risk factors, such as age or gender, for these very rare events, and is not restricting the use of the vaccine at this time.
A potential mechanism for the combination of blood clots with low platelets is the triggering of an immune response by the vaccine, leading to a condition similar to that seen sometimes in patients treated with the blood thinner medication heparin.

(You can see the timeline of updates here. You can see the current ‘product details’ here.)

This article talks about the relative absolute risk of these blood clots vs. the population risk of COVID.

In the UK, this incidence seemed to be:

The potential risk of blood clots with low platelets is very rare. Based on their vaccination rate as of March 31, 2021, the United Kingdom Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency estimated the overall risk of these blood clots to be approximately 4 people in a million who receive the vaccine. Reported cases of these adverse events have been seen after the first dose, usually within the first 14 days after immunization.

While the overall population risk seems low, when people have options, they will move to optimize their decisions with whatever information they have available, especially when there may or may not be demographic effects on these issues. At its worst, this leads to ‘vaccine shopping’, exacerbating outbreaks, but at its best, it involves people making educated decisions about their personal risks and benefits from taking a particular vaccine. Indeed, from the NACI April 23rd statement:

“At this time and based on current evidence, NACI recommends that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine may be offered to individuals 30 years of age and older without contraindications, if the individual does not wish to wait for an mRNA vaccine and the benefits outweigh the risk.”

This represents the fact that individuals between the ages of 30 and 40 are at reduced risk for COVID (compared to older individuals), and they may be at the same or increased risk for these blood clots.

There has been speculation that this is auto-immune linked, but the current (not yet published) research has not found (or ruled out) a link yet. (Numbers are still very small, and this is a tricky determination to make.)

However, if you know that you are more susceptible to auto-immune issues (especially those with high estrogen levels), you might want to consult with your doctor, or wait if it remains safe for you to so, while the science is worked out. Ultimately, only you (with your doctor) can make this determination.


Overall, the title of this post still stands. There are a small number of rare side effects associated with these vaccines (mainly PEG allergic reactions for Pfizer & Moderna, and blood clots for AstraZeneca), both of which are detectable and generally treatable. I’m planning to get my shot tomorrow morning, and I believe that the vast majority should also, as soon as they can.

Stay safe.

-Nayrb 🙂

[1] “The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is contraindicated in:
– Individuals who have ever had a severe allergic reaction (i.e. anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of an mRNA vaccine or to any of its components (including polyethylene glycol (PEG) and/or polysorbate) or its container, should not get either mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. PEG can rarely cause allergic reactions and is found in products such as medications, bowel preparation products for colonoscopy, laxatives, cough syrups, cosmetics, skin creams, medical products used on the skin and during operations, toothpaste, contact lenses and contact lens solution. PEG also can be found in foods or drinks but is not known to cause allergic reactions from foods or drinks.
– Vaccination should be deferred in symptomatic individuals with confirmed or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection, or those with symptoms of COVID-19.
– As a precautionary measure and in light of the need to be able to monitor for COVID-19 vaccine adverse events without potential confounding from symptoms of COVID-19 or other co-existing illness, it would be prudent to wait for all symptoms of acute illness to completely resolve.
– Individuals who have received another vaccine (not a COVID-19 vaccine) in the past 14 days.
– Individuals under the age of 16: The safety and efficacy in children under 16 years of age have not yet been established. The manufacturer plans to conduct clinical trials in children.
Considerations for other patient groups
– Guidance for special populations, including for example breastfeeding or pregnant individuals, individuals with allergies, individuals with autoimmune conditions, or individuals who are immunocompromised due to disease or treatment, is available in the Vaccination Recommendations for Special Populations guidance document.
Precautions during vaccination should be taken for:
– Patients who have a bleeding problem, bruise easily or use a blood-thinning medicine should receive the vaccine. Individuals receiving long-term anticoagulation with either warfarin or heparin are not considered to be at higher risk of bleeding complications following immunization and may be safely immunized through the intramuscular route as recommended, without discontinuation of their anticoagulation therapy.
– There is some evidence to suggest that instramuscular administration may be safer when given with a small gauge needle (23 gauge or smaller) and when firm pressure is applied to the injection site for 5 to 10 minutes
– Individuals with a history of severe allergic reactions (i.e. anaphylaxis) not related to vaccines or injectable medications—such as allergies to food, pet, venom, environmental, or latex, etc. should be offered the COVID-19 vaccines.
– An extended period of observation post-vaccination of 30 minutes is recommended for these groups
– For more detailed recommendations on people with allergies, please consult the Vaccination Recommendations for Special Populations guidance document.

Energy Efficiency and the ‘Rosenfeld Effect’

Art Rosenfeld passed away two weeks ago. Most people would not remember him, but they have been affected by his simple observation in 1976 that a “proposed nuclear power plant would not be needed if refrigerators were required to be more efficient.”

Here you can see the effects on the energy efficiency in the state of California:

"The Rosenfeld Effect."
“The Rosenfeld Effect.”

Note how the energy expenditure per capita flatlines from the time he made the observation above. It was never one thing, but a lot of little things Turning off lights at night, higher efficiency furnaces and fridges and stoves. Higher efficiency lighting. Better windows.

These are the kinds of things which make a huge difference in aggregate (and he was a master at expressing how much of a difference each of them would make singularly, such as spending 20mins with light switches saves 100 gallons of gas over the weekend). These are the kinds of incremental changes which are slowly reducing the scourge of cancer[1]. These are the kinds of things which can reduce changes to the climate.

Thanks, Art. Let’s keep working and doing things a little more intelligently every day.

Art Rosenfeld, California’s Godfather of Energy Efficiency, Dies at 90

[1]This is a fascinating topic. Check out these graphs:

1997: The year they made Contact

20 years ago, I watched Contact in the theater with my family[1]. Tonight, I watched it again, with S.

To me, it held up well as a movie. All the characters were believable, and the science and the effects were well within the normal parameters of suspension of disbelief.

What struck me[2] was how hopeful a movie it was, that our better natures would win out, that our endless curiosity would take us places we’ve never imagined.

[Note that spoilers follow]

It’s always interesting the things you remember 20 years later. “Why not make two, at twice the price?” The destruction scene. The prime numbers sounding so ominously alien from the aether. The speaking through her father. The 18 hours of static[3].

Interestingly, I had remembered that 18 hours of static as being the vindication at the end of the movie, that she was not crazy, that something had indeed happened, but I had forgotten how much it was covered up.

The one (gaping) plot hole I had missed the first time around was the absence of study and testing before a human was sent through the machine. If you look at the history of the Apollo program, you see that it was preceded by Mercury and Gemini, with dozens of sequential missions, each testing new parts, to make sure that each part of the system and plan were well-enough understood to ensure successful missions. The idea that they would build a half-trillion-dollar system in Contact and not fully study it (especially if it’s generating strange EM radiation) before sending a human through it ‘strains credulity’. Even the EM it’s radiating would be a fantastic discovery for humans.

But I can understand how they would cut out things to make a move that was watchable, and which was able to spend its time focusing on the humans in the story.

The alternative view of events that the NSA directory was trying to convince people of at the end of the movie was reminiscent (for me) of the big con[4] at the end of ‘Watchmen’, albeit at the opposite end of the hope-fear axis.

Apparently, like Bladerunner, the ending was supposed to keep your doubt alive as to whether the events she experienced had actually happened. To me, it didn’t, as 18 hours of static (and whatever metallurgical data they could get from the sphere) would be enough to prove the story.

I laughed, I cried, I am full of hope. A new year dawns. Time to use that hope to build something meaningful, starting with some words.

[1]We immediately followed it with Men In Black. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy this juxtaposition.

[2]If you’d read or watched any Carl Sagan, this would probably not be surprising. “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

[3]I had remembered it as 18 minutes.

[4]In ‘Contact’, it was posited that a billionaire had faked first contact to inspire humans to push themselves outwards. In ‘Watchmen’ (the graphic novel[5]), Adrian Veidt fakes an alien invasion to scare humans into working together against a common foe.

[5]’Watchmen’ the movie simplified the plot to have Doctor Manhattan be the scapegoat. this lead to a much tighter movie, but slightly less appropriate for my analogy, however much he played with space and time.

When You Wish Upon a Star…

So, a good friend of mine recently posted the following meme:

Depressing thought...But is it true?
Depressing thought…But is it true?

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

It’s a really depressing thought, perhaps even more depressing than the Nietzsche/Kubrick mashup: “God is dead, and you are alone in an uncaring universe.”[1]

At least with an uncaring universe, something with persist after you are gone. If all the stars are dead before you can even see them, would there even be anything left after we are gone?

But extraordinarily depressing statements require extraordinary evidence. So let’s take this sentence apart and define some things.

First: “According to astronomy” means that we get to (and have to) use astronomy in our proof or disproof. It also likely refers to modern astronomy, as it did not specify a time/technology period. (It may be interesting to see if any answers would be different under astronomy from a different time period, but that will be a secondary investigation.)

Second: “when you wish upon a star….” has a few different readings. The phrase seems to come (at least most recently) from the song written for Disney’s Pinnochio. In that movie, Gepetto says the following:

Look! A wishing star!

Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…

I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I make tonight.

This is an ‘English language nursery rhyme’ first published in the late 19thC (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, it seems to refer to ‘shooting or falling stars’, or meteors. These would certainly be ‘dead’ (as they are vaporizing in the atmosphere during the ‘wish’, but not for ‘millions of years'[2], as the distance from the viewer to the meteor can be measured in tens or hundreds of kilometers, an insignificant time light distance[3].

But going back to “When you wish upon a star, the meme-maker seems to be clearly referring to the 1940 Disney song and film. Looking at the occurrences of this song in the film:

At 0:34, you can see the image of Gepetto wishing upon the star:

The star is clearly stationary, as can also be seen in the reprise at the end of the film, where Jiminy Cricket is looking upon the same star, still unmoving:

So, this restricts us to the realm of non-moving (or slowly-moving) celestial objects[4]. From the film, the star also seems significantly brighter than the surrounding stars, but the exact extent to which this is true could be dramatic license.

The rhyme mentions ‘first star I see tonight’, which also suggests that the celestial object seen is unusually bright.

So, non-moving (or slowly moving) celestial objects which are bright. This leaves us with comets, planets, and bright stars[4][5].

Comets are objects orbiting through the solar system, and unless they fall into the sun, impact another body, or otherwise breakup, they tend to go on ‘living’ after we see them. (Halley’s comet has been known since at least 240BC.)

Planets could easily look like stars, often like unusually bright stars. Venus was called the ‘evening star‘[6] since antiquity, and it would be bright enough (up to apparent magnitude -4.9) to be significantly brighter than anything else in the sky. Venus could be considered ‘dead’ because it may have once supported life before a runaway greenhouse effect millions of years ago, but this seems an unlikely metaphorical interpretation. Mercury (up to apparent magnitude -2.45) would also be significantly brighter than anything but Venus (and the moon and sun), but has never been ‘alive’, being too close to the Sun[7]. Mars (up to apparent magnitude -2.91) could have been alive at some point, in the same vein as Venus. One or more of the moons of Jupiter (up to apparent magnitude -1.61) or Saturn[8] (up to apparent magnitude 1.47) could have been home to life, under this same metaphorical definition. (The other planets and other bodies in the solar system are too dim to ever be a ‘bright star’.)

So, a planet could be a metaphorical source for this quote, but this seems unlikely, as the quote seems to be referring to the fact that the celestial object is no longer emitting the light itself.

This leaves us with bright stars. Looking at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (up to apparent magnitude -1.46), it[9] is only about 8.6 light years away, so we would know in less than a decade if something were to happen there.

The next 91[10] brightest stars are listed here:

You will note that even the furthest among these, Deneb is still only 2600 light years away, much closer than the ‘few million years’ mentioned above.

Based on all this evidence, it would seem that the original meme:

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

is false, which is good, because it would be super-depressing otherwise.

If you enjoyed this sojurn through astronomy, you may like the rest of my blog. Comment below with things you want me to talk about or investigate!

[1]If you have a better source for this, please let me know.

[2]If you want to be pedantic (and I know you do), you could say that meteors are the dead husks of possible (or tidally destroyed) planets, and their burning up in the atmosphere is hundreds of millions of years after they ‘died’.

[3]Much less than a second, even if you assume they impact the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of kilometers away.

[4]A close supernova might also qualify, as it could easily be brighter than anything else in the night sky, would last just long enough to be a ‘wishing star’, and would have been ‘dead’ for some time before it was seen by a human observer. This might indeed be source of this rhyme, where a ‘guest star‘ could inspire wishing and omens. However, looking at this list of supernovae, any supernova which would have been visible as a ‘bright star’ with the naked eye would be at most tens or hundreds of thousands of light years away, not qualifying for the ‘few million years’ mentioned above. I also personally see supernovae more as a seeding of the galaxy with heavier elements, and thus wishing upon one of these would be wishing that the spreading of heavier elements would inspire life to form elsewhere in the universe.

[5]I see no way that any reasonable person could confuse the Sun or Moon with a ‘wishing star’.

[6]Interestingly, the Babylonians had figured out that the ‘evening star’ and the ‘morning star’ were one and the same. It took the Greeks a significant amount of time to discover this themselves, calling them ‘Phosphorus’ and ‘Hesperus’. How many times have there been such dark ages, where knowledge needs to be rediscovered? Was there a Greek ‘renaissance’, or were the Babylonian star charts lost until modern archaeology? Did mere dregs survive to inspire subsequent scientific revolutions?

[7]…unless there was life along the terminator, at some point in the past…

[8]Or [spoiler alert]:

One of the planets themselves!

[9]They, really, as Sirius is a double star, but that is outside the scope of this post.

[10]93, including the Sun, Sirius and the next 91 of magnitude 2.5 or greater.

Burning Man in Pictures XLII: True Reflections

In our last installment, our heroes had gone a little playa-crazy from their adventures in the land of test pattern.

Now, it was time for them to rest and reflect on what they had experienced.

But first, the nose car:

Nose car.
Nose car.

Our intrepid heroes encounter a strange tent, titled ‘True Reflections Palace’. An arched entranceway beckons them in…:

What awaits inside? (It's difficult to tell because the sign is itself reflective.)
What awaits inside? (It’s difficult to tell because the sign is itself reflective.)

A welcoming sign:

This is the coolest tape we'd seen outside of Japan.
This is the coolest tape we’d seen outside of Japan.

It turns out that ‘True Reflections’ are what happens when you reflect a person’s image in such a way that it looks to them like they look to other people:

This was really spooky.
This was really spooky.

Of course, there were tinker toys, distracting to builders such as our heroes:

Tinkers toy!
Tinkers toy!




Aha! The truth revealed!
Aha! The truth revealed!

Some research on this topic:


This is they type of coverage that you may have seen of this before, how the two halves of of the face are seen very differently, and how swapping them can have huge effects, most often done to celebrities so that people will click the link:

Not even Bruce Willis is immune.
Not even Bruce Willis is immune.

Some interesting commentary on the psychology of changing how someone sees themselves, possibly similar to people hearing themselves speak:

How people respond to their 'true reflection'.
How people respond to their ‘true reflection’.

They can probably tell you more, more succinctly and correctly than I can, so I leave you with a blatant (but happy) plug[1]:

A blatant (but happy) plug.
A blatant (but happy) plug.

Next time, our heroes encounter a (friendly) match between El Pulpo Mechanico and his grasshopper friend, and visit the Serpent Mother. Stay tuned!

[1]They are really cool, though. I feel like I look totally different in the ‘true mirror’, like twice as attractive. I wonder if this would help people understand privilege better…

“Senseless Juxtaposition of Wildcards.”

He had to admire the the gall of the programmer who wrote the error messages.

“Senseless Juxtaposition of Wildcards.”

It might as well have said:

“Grow a brain!”


“Try listening to classical music.”

But then it got him thinking…

What would be a senseful juxtaposition of wildcards?

First, we would have to make a list of possible wildcards:

The ‘standard’ wildcard character, specifically referring to a character is the question mark, ‘?’. Generally standing in for any one of some set of things (or in Perl, 0 or 1 of a thing).

The ‘larger’ wildcard character, ‘*’, which stands for any number of something (including 0), sometimes expressed as ‘%’, if you’re speaking SQL.

The ‘even larger’ wildcard character, ‘…’, which is like a recursive ‘*’.

But could there be something larger still? Something which climbs the directory hierarchy in the oppsosite direction, perhaps? Something which can make it past all of the automatic filters, but is clearly wrong? Something like typing ‘NaN‘[1] into a number field box? Something which steps outside the usual boundaries, like Thiotimoline?

In a biological context, there are entire alphabets of more-and-less-specific wildcards.

So, knowing all of this, what would be a senseful juxtaposition of wildcards? Something like ‘**’, or ‘?*’, or ‘*?’ would be meaninglessly equivalent to ‘*’.

You could attempt to mix SQL with bash-isms: “WHERE ID LIKE ‘%*’ “, showing that you expect an SQL character string followed by a bash character string, but that is again non-sensical.

Maybe it would have to be something like ‘hello??????'[2], to say that there are 6 characters of some type after your ‘hello’.

But there it was. The senseful juxtaposition of wildcards… bash statements inside command-line SQL statements.

That was it! But he had to think. How would he use this?

[1]And like the link says, you really don’t want to confuse it with NaN3. You really don’t want to confuse *anything* with NaN3.

[2]Or ‘hello……’.

Burning Man in Pictures 2015 XVI: Mirror Blaze Complete and Certified?

Yesterday, we had just reached day four (Sunday), and had checked in on the rest of Charnival (and various portapotties).

Today, we’ll check in on our intrepid heroes as they count down to the 7pm ‘soft open[1]’ of Charnival!

Here’s what Mirror Blaze looked like Sunday morning:

Mirror Blaze, Sunday morning (day 4 of construction).
Mirror Blaze, Sunday morning (day 4 of construction).

And a quick peek at FaIRE Hockey, and our common fuel depot:

FaIRE Hockey, and our common fuel depot, Sunday (build day 4) morning!
FaIRE Hockey, and our common fuel depot, Sunday (build day 4) morning!

Note in the pictures above, you can see the snow fencing used as a safety perimeter around Mirror Blaze and the fuel depot (those are 100lb propane tanks, for scale). We aimed for a 10′ minimum safety perimeter around the fuel depot, but this was never an issue, as we had lots of space.

So, next, we had to add all of the bunting around Mirror Blaze! This went kind of like this:

S: “Could you pass me the drill?” (the bunting was cloth S had cut into pieces slightly larger than 4’x8′ (the size of the mirrors), and then attached gromets around the edge, which would then be drill-screwed into the wooden frame.)
Me: “Here you go.”
Wind: “Wheeeeeee!”
Cloth: “Wheeeeeee! You can’t see me!”
S: “Augh!”

Thankfully, we had help other than the wind:

(l-r Fate, S) Due to an incident with red chromakey, Fate's hair and most of Sarah were removed in post.
(l-r Fate, S) Due to an incident with red chromakey, Fate’s hair and most of Sarah were removed in post.

While all this was happening, we were going through the process of being flame effect certified. After trenching and covering, and covering the flame effect wiring with aluminum foil so that the backdraft ‘FOOMF’ wouldn’t melt the wire insulation, we were ready to install the tube:


The tube was the single point of failure for the project. We had spare mirrors, could wrangle spare posts, spare screws, bolts, wind bracing, propane hose, propane tanks, bunting, gromets, screwdrivers, etc, etc, etc, but if the tube broke, all was lost. It didn’t help that we really didn’t know exactly how strong it was. It was (and still is) a 7′ long 1′ wide quartz tube, so chosen because it’s basically impervious to propane flame (which is why it’s used for fireplace windows/lamps/etc… It was obtained at great expense from China, including some quite involved negotiations[2] by S.

The intrepid build crew who helped mount the tube (Francisco came up with the nifty design for the ‘metal tape’ to hold the tube. It really takes a village.):

Build and tube raising crew day 4 (l-r S, Jack, Francisco, Kosta, Fate (shown in previous slide))
Build and tube raising crew day 4 (l-r S, Jack, Francisco, Kosta, Fate (shown in previous slide))

S took a moment to bask in her satisfaction (and the intense midday sun):

S's smug satisfied construction face.
S’s smug satisfied construction face.

We also took a moment to bask in the fact that our local Cheshire Cat NekoBus had received approval from the DMV[3]!:

Splat ecstatic about his Cheshire Nekobus DMV approval! (l-r Splat, Carl, Sara, Greg, Seth)
Splat ecstatic about his Cheshire Nekobus DMV approval! (l-r Splat, Carl, Sara, Greg, Seth)

While Sara was explaining something:

Sara explains.
Sara explains.

We were immediately caught off guard by a full strength ‘Last Flamethrower’ test:


‘Flamethrower[4] Shooting Gallery’ had been coming to the Burn for a number of years (we convinced them to join us at the Charcade in 2013), but the logistics were getting to them, so they decided to go for one last burn, but wanted to do something a little different. Instead of four flamethrowers, they decided to go for one HUUUGE flamethrower. Honestly, this pic does not do it justice.

Next time, we finish the Mirror Blaze bunting, and we’ll see if we also get approved!

[1]My understanding of the agreement with Burning Man for the honorarium project was that Charnival had to run for a number of days, a number of hours each. My understanding was that this played out as six days at four hours per day. (The six days being Monday-Saturday, with a late start on Saturday because of the Man Burn.) We opened an extra day on the opening Sunday, partly as a ‘shakedown cruise’, partly because we wanted to be open on opening evening, partly because we wanted to open and show off our cool projects.

[2]This included a frantic message in the middle of the night (Toronto time, probably daytime in China) probably in Mandarin that we didn’t understand, but the tube arrived, so I guess it was all okay?

[3]Department of Mutant Vehicles.

[4]In flame effect circles, there is a distinction between ‘flame effects’ and ‘flame throwers’. ‘Flame effects’ are made using gaseous[5] fuel like propane (safe(r) and legal), and ‘flame throwers’ are made using liquid fuel like gasoline (very unsafe and illegal). The Flamethrower Shooting Gallery got special dispensation to use actual flamethrowers by being the most meticulously safety conscious group of people I have ever seen (think a meticulous checklist combined with a range safety officer plus perimeter plus one safety officer per flamethrower plus I’m sure many other things).

[5]Yes, I know it’s a liquid in the tank, but it’s a gas at normal temperatures, so is safe(r) to use for flame effects.

Which ‘Magic Numbers’ do You Use?

I was talking with S earlier this week, and the idea came up for a post about the numbers that I remember and use for estimation. I enjoy the sobriquet ‘Magic Numbers’.

‘Magic Numbers’. They’re considered bad practice[1] in programming, but are such a useful and helpful part of human ‘back of the envelope‘ problem solving[2].


The ‘Magic Number’ which precipitated this post was the fact that one tonne[3] of water is one cubic meter in volume. Interestingly, this is actually a number of interlocking ‘Magic Numbers’, including: One tonne is one thousand kilograms, water has a density of 1 gram per cubic centimetre (‘density of 1’), one thousand is 10x10x10, one tonne is one thousand liters of water, one liter is one kilogram, etc, etc…

I mostly enjoy using this to respond to ‘I could eat a tonne of this’, or to estimate whether you could fit a tankerfull of oil in an office.

It is commonly known that ice will float on water, because the hydrogen bonds give the water molecules a structure which is more spaced out and less dense than close packed[4]. Also, water has its greatest density of about one at about 4 degrees C.


Incidentally, hydrocarbons have a density of about 0.7, so the tankerful of oil mentioned above would rather difficult to swim in. This 0.7 is close enough to 1.0 so as to make no difference for most back of the envelope questions. Strong acids are known to have densities greater than one[5], but that’s not really that useful most of the time.

The Earth has a density of on the order of five. Interestingly, while reading this, I learned that granite and quartz have a density of about three, much less than I had been assuming. No wonder pumice can float.

Gold has a density of about 20 (19 and change, when that matters). Osmium and Iridium are the densest, at around 22 and change.

On the list of interesting curiosities, Saturn is the only planet in the solar system known to have a density less than one, about 0.7! This was only useful in winning a scientific trivia contest with TJFN when I was young.

Scientific Constants:

Avogadro’s number is 6e23, Coulomb’s constant is 9e9, the ideal gas constant is 8.314 (I remember that one because it includes pi), G is 6.67e-11, the Planck constant is 6.63e-34. Most of these are useless without things like the mass or charge of an electron or proton. The only one I use is Avogadro’s number, and that’s largely to calculate how much of your body is made up of atoms which were once part of a particular famous person[7].

For atoms, what I’ve found useful is the fact that a proton is about 2000 times heavier than an electron, and that chemical bond distances are measured in Angstroms (1e-10m).

c is 3e8m/s, which is useful for Star Trek and Star Wars-type arguments. One atmosphere is 101.325kPa, or about 30 feet of water (which is important for divers).

Math constants:

Pi is 3.14159, or 22/7[6] to its friends. Pi comes up a lot.

e is about 2.718. e doesn’t come up very often.

log10(1) = 0
log10(2) ~= 0.301
log10(3) ~= 0.477
log10(7) ~= 0.845
log10(10) = 1

With these three, you can calculate all of the logarithms from one to ten, and much of everything else. In high school, we memorized all of the perfect squares up to 100^2, but most of those have fled from memory.

The (x+y)(x-y) = x^2 – y^2 trick still comes in handy, though.

Large Things:

The CN Tower is 553m tall, really only useful in Toronto.

The Earth has a radius of about 6380m, has an orbit of 93e6 miles (150e6km), useful for things like Dyson Sphere and Red Giant arguments.

The Earth is about 6e24kg, has a diameter of about 40,000km (at the equator), axial tilt of about 23.5 degrees (Uranus is the only planet with an axial tilt significantly greater, almost sideways!).

The sun is about 400x larger than the moon, and is about 400x further away, and this is why solar eclipses work.


1.609 km/mi (0.621 mi/km), 2.54 cm/in (by law!), 9/5+32 degrees C-> degrees F.

SGD, AUD, CAD, USD, EUR, GBP are pretty close in value, and are in that approximate order with only a factor of about 2 separating them. HKD has maybe 6-8 times per unit, CNY is in that general ballpark, and JPY has about 100 times per unit.


My handspan is about 10″, which is very useful for measuring things.

Stories are about 2m tall.

3600s/hour, 86400 seconds per day, the Unix epoch started 1970-01-01, useful if you spend any time coding, or want to know how long something will take at ‘x per second’. (100k seconds per day is a useful gross approximation for many applications.)

And I would be remiss if I left out my favourite physics approximation (from the same class where I learned about Stirling’s approximation):

sqrt(10) ~= pi.

Thank you and good night.

[1]Although, compare some cases where they are considered not quite so bad practice.

[2]They are also almost essential for proper answering of ‘Fermi Questions‘.

[3]’Tonne’ means metric tonne, or 1000 kg. You can tell because it’s spelled in the French way, and SI (Systeme Internationale) was brought in while France was a preeminent country.

[4]I didn’t know what the actual structure of ice was before looking it up. Apparently, it’s tessellating hexagonal rings.

[5]’Add acid to water, like you oughta’, else you may melt the top of your beaker off.

[6]Really, it isn’t, but it’s a useful approximation sometimes.

[7]With some reasonable approximations, I remember it being billions of atoms with each breath.

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 1

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re starting today looking at DS9. I’m curious to know how it will diverge from TNG, and when. Or maybe it won’t. Which will mean there’s something about the Star Trek formula, or perhaps the general television formula[1].


High: 8
Equal: 2
Low: 9
Self: 0

So, this presents a significant departure from TNG. Even though DS9 is supposed to be grittier and have opportunities amongst the main cast, this is never the main adversary or obstacle in an episode. Also interestingly, the episodes almost exclusively separate into ‘very powerful outside force’ and ‘morality play where we try to solve problems without anyone getting hurt’.

The proportion of lower powered adversaries might be part of showing how powerful the Federation really is, as discussed by Garak and Quark[2] in ‘The Way of the Warrior‘.

You can also see this very clearly in the ‘Federation Maps‘ (direct link here). Just look at the size of the Federation compared to all of the other powers. Even if they’re not especially warlike, as any good Civilization player knows, if you have an economy four times the size of your opponent, they’re not really much of a threat. Add in the Federation-Klingon alliance, and they should be unstoppable. Gives you an idea of how powerful the Dominion and the Jem’Hadar must have been.

Perhaps it’s because the adversaries which are ‘just the right amount of challenge’ for the Federation haven’t really discovered the station yet, perhaps because the seasons-spanning plots haven’t started yet.

But I think a lot of it is the nature of the beast. A ship exploring will encounter all kinds of different adversaries and challenges. They can travel to see the Klingons or Romulans whenever they want. A space station will be visited by small numbers of beings at any time. Some will be spatial anomalies which threaten to destroy the station. Many will be travelers on their own missions, but not significantly powerful in their own right. Rarely, representatives from other governments will visit, even more rarely will they have warlike intentions.

(I’ve copied my rationale below, as the results were o surprising. Please check out Jammer’s Reviews and/or Memory Alpha and tell me how I’m wrong in the comments below!)

2 (celestial temple, convincing by Sisko)
1 (Cardassians)
0 (Bajoran person)
2 (virus)
0 (3 aliens)
“Were we interfering with these people, their philosophy, their society? At the same time, what has happening there wasn’t fair. It was a classic Star Trek story” – Colm Meaney
2 (Q)
0 (courtroom)
1 (contamination from destroying ship)
2 (alien game)
0 (Ferengi)

0 (1 criminal)
2 (immortal self-healing people)
0 (Bajorans)
0 (reluctant evacuee)
2 (spatial anomaly)

2 (entity in the computer)
2 (telepathic matrix)
0 (one Cardassian)
0 (Bajorans)

[1]After DS9, I should do Community!

[2]If the link is broken.