Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Weekend scuba diving in Lake Skaneatles

Apartment - Syracuse, NY

This weekend was fun. We did a bunch of scuba dives and a little snorkelling as well. This was part of a scuba diving course taught by National Aquatic Service on our university campus. The basics of diving were taught in a swimming pool in our school, and this weekend was in Lake Skaneatles - it is also the fresh water source of Syracuse.

The water was crystal clear, and we could see 10-20ft, except for when we newbies were kicking up the silt from the lake bed due to poor buoyancy control and could see nothing! Here's a pic of our dive site.

Well, the weather wasn't quite this great when we got into the water. It was cloudy and the water had gotten choppy, but the dry suits did their job!

A summary of what I've learnt so far - Most of diving is fun, although setting up the equipment is a long and tedious process - there's (i) wearing the dry suit for cold weather (a Syracuse signature :)) (ii) setting up the buoyancy compensator (BC) (iii) setting up the cylinder of compressed air, (iv) cleaning the mask with the solutions so that it doesn't fog, (v) Even putting the fins on can be a bit of a hassle (vi) making the necessary air supply connections to the BC, and of course, the primary air source for us to breathe! Since tightness of connections is important and land does not provide the flexibility that water does, it can get to be quite a process especially when it's cold outside and your fingers aren't working so well :)

A little fish has all these systems built in, and here is man, with all his intelligence, struggling hard to spend a few minutes like a fish! Humbling, eh? :)

Continuing with what I've recently learnt - Things to keep track of while underwater include increases in pressure by 1atm per 33ft, air supply getting lower which requires monitoring. Then there's the nitrogen absorption rates which matter, they are known to cause "bends" if rate of nitrogen release is not right, hence ascent is supposed to be always a slow process. Residual nitrogen amounts based upon depth and duration of dives also govern when, how long and how deep our next dives can be, although it was not quite a concern at these low depths and low dive durations. Also, our eyes are not adapted to look in the water, so the mask is essential. Water could get into the mask, hence the mask has be made such that there is a process to clear it. Light appears different since different colours are absorbed at different levels. There's many others to keep in mind - with regards to air supply, somebody else needing assistance, etc.

Again, a little fish...

When I was under, I could see a few fish (I'm told they were bass/trout) and they seemed unconcerned about us and did not flee as I'd thought they would. Seemed like friendly fellows :)

I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive about going so deep ("so deep" is relative - perhaps this wasn't nearly as deep as professional divers go, but it was by far the deepest I had ever been, the previous being 16ft in a swimming pool). To me it's still a new and unknown world. Everything we take for granted on land, starting from the basic process of breathing, does not come for free in the water. OK fine, it's not quite "free" on land either but that's a different subject for another day!

One of the primary reasons for sticking to shallow waters is that pressure increases rapidly, and the human body is not quite adapted for this. But at about 35-40 feet (the maximum depth of our dives this weekend), with 2 atmospheres of pressure, it was perhaps the mermaids of the deep giving us a warm hug - welcoming us visitors into their world!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Music and memories: key-value pairs?

Marshall Square Mall - Syracuse, NY

It has always made me wonder how a certain piece of music triggers a set of memories. A quick Google search reveals that there is scientific basis for this - a study published by LiveScience in 2009 shows that this is so. (There are probably other pieces of research on this as well.) In this study, they perform a survey with test subjects and scanned their brains for activity while playing some music which was popular when the subjects were 8-18 years old. They say that this scan showed spikes of mental activity when a song triggered some vivid memories. The article also identifies the part of the brain that is responsible for this - the medial prefrontal cortex which is just behind the forehead.

Obviously not all music has this effect. Interestingly, the memories that come flooding back are not the people/places/activities of the first time that I listened to it, but the first time I connected with it. (I don't know if this is the same for everybody.) In other words, I would have heard that song before, perhaps on the radio or television, but would not have made this connection. Or perhaps I would have felt that it is a nice song, and forgotten about it. But there is that one unique point in time where I would have connected with it that keeps coming back, the time, place, what I was doing then, etc. And it is not always the expected connections - such as a girlfriend, or a party, etc. It could also be something really...blah.

For instance, I remember the first time I made a connection with Dido's “Here with me” when I had just picked my uncle up from the railway station in Bangalore; when I got back home, I'd seen its music video on television. I also remember that I'd played a game of chess with my computer immediately after. I'll list a few more in the table below.

So here's the hypothesis - Listening to a good song while thinking about something creates a key-value pair that can never ever be modified.

(A key-value pair is a data structure, which is effectively a tuple. So it will have the format of <name, value>.)

Table: Some of my musical key-value pairs
SongArtist(s)LocationSeason/Time of DayBlah Activity
Here with meDidoBangalore2000 Monsoon morning, ~8amPicked uncle up from railway station, came home and played chess with the computer
IrisGoo Goo Dolls/Ronan KeatingSolihull2006 Fall night, ~11:30pmLying on the bed, looking out the window. (Playing that night on the radio was Ronan Keating's version)
Urzu urzu durkutShreya GhoshalBangalore2006 Spring morning, ~7amGot on office bus, starting work in a new project/different location
Fix YouColdplaySyracuse2008 Winter evening, ~4:30pmKilling a couple of hours while waiting to go downtown
Ondra rendaBombay JayashreeChennai2004 Summer Sunday afternoon, ~3pmLazing indoors as it was too hot outside
Mar JawanShruti Pathak, Salim MerchantEn route from Toronto to Montreal2010 Winter afternoon, light snowDriving on Highway 401 E

Why this much (unnecessary) detail in the table? Exactly! I'm surprised at the kind of detail each song reminds me of, although nothing really extraordinary was necessarily happening at the time.

It was just another night when I was lying down on my bed. And what's the big deal about picking my uncle up from the railway station? Or lazing indoors? Also, all these songs I had listened to before and remember thinking that they were good songs, but why do I not remember the first time I heard them? And why did I make a connection at these “blah” times? As I said, these were not the first time I heard these songs, and definitely not the last time either. These are some of my favourite songs and are usually part of most of my playlists.

There are many more examples, of course. These are all just ordinary moments. I'm not even getting into the personal stuff where connections with certain music is expected because that moment was special.

Looking at the above examples, I cannot find any similarities between why these songs connected when they did. The only correlation I can think of is that all these times I was thinking about something, can't quite remember what for each instance, but my mind was drifting with thoughts. My conclusion from this one case study, i.e. me, (albeit not a very scientific conclusion) is that good music combined with exercise for your mind perhaps has this effect of reminding you of the scene at the time you connected!

In other words, you can hear it again and make all the connections you want again, but the one that keeps flooding back is the first time you make the connection, i.e. the initial key-value pair. So, the above table is now read-only, edits are not allowed! If you disagree, let me know. I'd be interested to hear other views on this. Please also point me to other articles on this subject in case you know of any.

In the study mentioned at the beginning of this post, the researchers also mention that even patients suffering from memory loss are also able to recollect musical connections, with the reasoning that the prefrontal cortex one of the last few regions of the brain to waste away.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good song creates a motion picture - and since, this is a set of many pictures, it is perhaps worth much more. But if it's a bad song, it triggers nothing. So my ordering with respect to its worth in words is: Bad song < Any picture < Good song (with a made connection)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Skydive from the edge of space!

Apartment - Syracuse, NY

Waiting for the skydive to begin - a quick summary of background info before the dive

It's a cloudy, drizzly and sleepy Sunday morning here in Syracuse as I start writing this post, but more importantly it is a bright, calm and clear day in Roswell, New Mexico where Felix Baumgartner will be attempting a record-setting skydive from the edge of space. As I write this, I'm watching the telecast live, although it's still a bit early for the main event.

The Austrian's ascent will be from Roswell and the jump will be from the edge of space - about 37km above the earth's surface into the New Mexico desert. The jump was originally planned for Monday, Oct 8, but the winds that day were unacceptable to the team and was hence postponed to today.

The Red Bull Stratos team has been preparing for a while, for about 7 years. The previous record set by Joseph Kittinger, who dived from 31.3km on Aug 16, 1960 - over 50 years ago!

A lot of new records will be set, apart from jumping from the highest altitude till date. With the record for height comes other records as well - longest, he is expected to freefall for 5.5mins and fastest - he is also expected to be the first human to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, the team estimates that he will reach a speed of Mach 1.2, about 1,110kmph. He will freefall until about 1.5km above the surface where he will deploy his parachute.

So what exactly is 37km? It is about 3-4 times the normal cruising altitude of long haul passenger aircraft. With respect to the layers of the atmosphere, the troposphere ends at about 8-10km above the earth's surface (8km near the poles and 10km near the equator). Since Felix will be jumping above New Mexico, this border (tropopause) will be somewhere in between. In any case, he is a good 27-28km into the stratosphere. In fact, the stratosphere ends at 50km and leads into the mesosphere. So Felix will be in the middle layers of the atmosphere when he starts his jump.

The temperature itself decreases with altitude in the troposphere and increases with altitude in the stratosphere, so at 37km, the temperature should be around -20C, similar to a pretty cold winter day in Syracuse. However, he will encounter temperatures around -60 to -70C during the jump, somewhere in the range of 10-20km, i.e. at the bottom edge of the stratosphere.

It is also about 14 times the altitude from which I had my only skydive, a tandem one, near Syracuse about four years ago. Comparing my 8,500ft jump to this 120,000ft one, I feel like mine was a bungee jump!

UPDATE: I just heard from the live feed that they haven't inflated his balloon yet waiting for the winds to die down, but Felix is all suited up and is breathing 100% oxygen.

Now, the pressure: This deep into the stratosphere, air pressure is an entirely different story when compared to temperature characteristics. Pressure just keeps dropping steadily, and so, at 37km, there is virtually no air pressure and the air molecules are very sparse. Hence, a pressurised space suit for Felix is a must.

Free fall speeds - Initially there is no air pressure, so it follows that there is no air resistance as well. So, the maximum speeds can be attained before air resistance starts slowing him down. According to the team's estimates on their blog, Felix will reach the supersonic speeds approximately 27-32km above the surface (around 30 seconds into the jump). To put it in perspective (although this speed is not hard to visualise) the Concorde aircraft had a top speed of about Mach 2 (2,179kmph).

The dangers of this dive, perhaps just to name a few are - blood could boil, balloon could stress, winds could blow him off course, uncontrollable spins could happen, unknown effects of crossing the speed of sound, the sonic boom - as described by National Geographic here.

UPDATE: The conditions on the ground are good, but they are waiting for winds at 700ft to die down.

OK, so that's the altitude, temperature, pressure, speed and the risks. That should about all I wanted to say. Please also follow the links above for interesting reads related to these, which are also my sources. What can I say - I'm a PhD student, I feel my article would have been incomplete if I did not list my references! :-)

Eagerly awaiting the skydive/spacedive now!


Balloon is now being inflated, capsule will be suspended from the balloon.

The balloon, I learn from the feed, is just 1/1000th of an inch -10 times thinner than a sandwich bag!

Balloon is fully inflated, winds are dying down fast, and launch is expected shortly, standing by.

Lift-off! He's at 7,500ft above MSL now.

Now past Mount Everest's altitude (8,848m) and the tropopause. Amazing views!

Coincidentally, I just learnt, it was on this very day 65 years ago (Oct 14, 1947) that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (in an aircraft, of course!)

Past passenger aircraft cruise altitudes.

Outside temperature is below -65C.

Hmmm....long way to go, will play a few Temple Run (Brave) games on my phone and listen to the live feed.

At the Armstrong line/limit: 63,000ft. This is the point at which the pressure is so low (1/16 atm) a human would not last long without a pressurised suit or cabin, because the body fluids (tears, saliva, etc.) apparently boil away otherwise!

76,000ft - They say you can see the earth's curvature from up here and the inky black sky.

85,000ft - The point of the highest aircraft/weather balloons

97,000ft - Felix's previous highest jump altitude

102,800ft - Joe Kittinger's record jump, i.e. past the highest ever skydive.

113,740ft - Past the 1961 record for highest manned balloon flight by Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather. Tragically, Prather had drowned during helicopter transfer after landing.

At float altitude, ~128,000ft. All points on the checklist covered. Confirmed - it's a go!

Capsule depressurised, door opens. wow! What a sight!

Free fall, not quite breaking Joe's record for longest, but definitely highest.

Parachute deployed.

Touchdown! Brilliant!! Congrats to Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team!!

Friday, October 12, 2012

What this blog is all about - or Potential FAQs

Lab - Syracuse, NY

1. What does this blog do?

I plan to pick (on average) one news piece a week on science, music, and sport and write about it. My guess is that it will be more of science than the rest. The main piece of news will most likely be from something I read online - I'll link to it. If it wasn't something big enough to make (big or small) news, i.e. if it was something local, or from the grapevine, I'll mention how I came across it. Naturally, views and opinions will be mine.

2. How do you pick that one piece a week?

Just whatever I feel like writing about. They need not necessarily be either the hot news of the week or even popular. Maybe I really admired something about it, or just that the subject looked different or interesting, or it somehow caught my attention, or whatever, you get my drift.

3. What will it NOT be about?

I do not plan on writing about politics, religion, spirituality, art or poetry. And very unlikely that I will get myself into something like iPhone vs. Android or Mac vs. Windows. Then again, some of these subjects might just creep up if it intersects with science, music or sport in some way. There is no shortage of grey areas.

4. Why are you writing this blog?

Just dabbling with writing in fields I am passionate about.

5. What areas specifically do you plan to cover?

Science (or Math) - quite a wide variety.
Music - Will try to go off the beaten path occasionally. But frequently mainstream rock or pop and Indian classical.
Sport - Primarily cricket and chess. Perhaps some poker, tennis, F1, football (soccer), occasionally other sports.

6. You missed out on Topic XYZ.

Possibly. In fact, probably. No wait, definitely. But that's not what this blog is about.

7. When will you post?

Most likely Sunday evenings - I suppose it'll also help take my mind off the impending Monday morning. Maybe during the week from the lab.

8. You are a graduate student - Will you miss some posts?

Like you said, I'm a graduate student. Hence, I'm lazy. I hope not to miss any of the three posts a week, or I may write two on science and none on sport, or vice versa. But I'm a graduate student. I'm lazy...

9. You are a graduate student - Will you write more than the three posts to escape from what you are supposed to be doing?

Hmmm...more than three? Now that is unlikely. But if I'm in the mood, sure!

10. In summary, it looks like you are pretty open ended about the content of posts, how frequently you'll post. Just that it'll broadly be about science, music or sport.

Whew. It took 10 questions, but you got it...finally ;-) Yup, just want to do some hobby writing on these subjects.

11. The title says "Bats, Beats and Bots". Shouldn't the description say "Sport, Music and Science" and not "Science, Music and Sport"?

Well yes, technically. But the title is alphabetical and the description is in order of priority of the subjects I plan on covering. (BTW, do you have a programming background? I sense that function signatures played a role here.)

12. Feedback/responses to comments/email?

Please feel free to compliment :-) Or give me constructive feedback. Please do swearing elsewhere. I'll respond to comments/email. But then again, like I said, like you said, I'm a graduate student, I'm lazy...

13. I don't like your style of writing.

Clearly it doesn't fall in the category of compliments. Please convert it into constructive criticism before telling me that :-)

14. You used a split infinitive in that last post.

I don't care.