General Archive

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

An Early Christmas Present - Koch Snowflake Christmas Ornament 3D Printer STL Files

Koch Fractal SnowflakesI've had a 3D printer for a little while, now. While I mostly experiment with printing out various concept aircraft, I figured that for Christmas, I'd print a few Christmas ornaments. But with me being the nerd I am, I couldn't just print out any old random ornament. It had to be something a bit nerdier. So, after reading a post on Scientific American Blogs, A Few of My Favorite Spaces: The Koch Snowflake - A look at the most festive fractal, I was inspired to print a few tangible interpretations of the fractal. And I've shared the STL files below, for anybody else who might want to make them.

But first, here's a really cool animated gif from that Scientific American article, originally from Wikimedia Commons, showing the development of this fractal.

Koch Snowflake Fractal
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Credit: António Miguel de Campos

And here are the STL files. I've put a preview of each model. Clicking on the thumbnail will show a higher resolution image. To download the STL, use the actual download link.

Koch Snowflake 1 Preview Download Koch_Snowflake_1.STL
  
Koch Snowflake 1 Preview Download Koch_Snowflake_2.STL
  
Koch Snowflake 1 Preview Download Koch_Snowflake_3.STL

And here's a photo of the completed products.

Koch Snowflake Ornaments
Click to embiggen

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why I Like Wichita Falls

The Falls of Wichita FallsI just recently came across and answered a Quora question, Do you like Wichita falls, TX?. Out of all the answers I've written for Quora, I suspect this is one of the most niche answers. So, to help maybe a few more people see it, and for anybody who might be interested, here's my answer (slightly edited).

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Yes, I like Wichita Falls, Texas. I moved here back in 2001, in my early 20s. As a point of reference, before that, I'd grown up / lived in Pennsylvania (outside of Pottstown, on the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch Country), Maryland (outside Frederick, before it built up like it is now), and inside the D.C. beltway (College Park and Greenbelt, and working in Crystal City and Alexandria).

Now, I'm not one of those people who says, I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. I mean, if I could by magic live back in the northeast but instantly arrive in Texas for my job and to visit my friends/family here whenever I wanted, I'd probably do it. And Wichita Falls was certainly a culture shock coming straight from D.C. But Wichita Falls grows on you.


The Good:

Perfect Sized City - Wichita Falls has around 100,000 people. That's big enough that there are enough major stores to support everything you need - Walmart (obviously), Kohls, Penney's, Lowes, Home Depot, Sam's, Ross, Academy, O'Reilly's, Autozone, furniture stores, etc. There are also plenty of restaurants, both chains and local places. Granted, we don't have every major store or restaurant chain, but we have enough.

Barbecue - Speaking of restaurants, if you're comparing Wichita Falls to cities in the northeast or the West Coast, barbecue is one of America's greatest culinary gifts to the world. Smoked brisket and sausage are delicious, and there are a few good local places around here to get it. Or, once you make a few friends, you'll probably meet someone with their own smoker.

No Traffic - Compared to bigger cities, traffic in Wichita Falls is minimal. There are a few shopping areas where the traffic has picked up a bit in the time I've been here, but nothing too bad. We always joke that you can get anywhere in Wichita Falls, from anywhere else in Wichita Falls, in less than 10 minutes (some trips may be more like 15). Compared to my in-laws down in the DFW metroplex, that's great. It can take them 10 minutes just to get to the closest grocery store.

No Crowds - Last time I visited my parents up in Maryland and went shopping at Costco, I was overwhelmed by the crowds. No matter where I tried to stand, I could never find an out of the way corner. It was just people, people, everywhere. Wichita Falls is much more laid back. You can shop in relative peace no matter where you go, or walk down the sidewalks in downtown without being caught up in a sea of people.

Generally Helpful People - I've always been the type of person to stop and help someone broken down in an intersection. But here in Wichita Falls, by the time I pull over and make my way over to their car, there's usually a group of other people who've done the same thing, so we end up with a team of people to push the car somewhere safer.

Major Cities Nearby - Making up for the lack of major cultural attractions in Wichita Falls, we have bigger cities within a 2 hr drive - Oklahoma City to the north, and the DFW metroplex to the southeast. DFW is actually the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S., behind only New York, L.A., and Chicago, so you know that DFW is going to have a lot of everything - museums, theater, stores, zoos, restaurants, Six Flags, major leage sports, etc.

Local Cultural Attractions - The previous point doesn't mean that Wichita Falls doesn't have anything like that. We have two community theaters, several local museums, an indoor football team, a reviving downtown and art scene, etc. If you keep an eye out for announcements, there's almost always something going on. It's just that a lot of it isn't quite to the same caliber as what you'd find in a bigger city. (Sadly, we no longer have an ice hockey team - they just announced in April that this was their final season - End of era for Wildcats and their loyal supporters).

Local Traditions - A town like Wichita Falls has a lot of local traditions - the Old High vs. Rider football game, mums, Midwestern State University's homecomeing celebrations, debutantes, cotillion (this, not the dance), etc. My daughter has grown up her whole life here, so she really gets to be a part of all these traditions.

More Multicultural Than You'd Expect - There are two reasons for this. There's a NATO Training Air Force Base in town, so we have a large number of foreign military personnel and their families. The local university, Midwestern State, also actively recruits from foreign countries, especially the Caribbean. So, the Caribbean Student Union puts on a CaribFest every year. The Germans host an OktoberFest every year. The Dutch host the Queen's Birthday. There's a lot more multiculturalism than you'd expect from a smallish Texas town.

Inexpensive Cost of Living - Here's a link - Wichita Falls, Texas Cost of Living. Housing, especially, is less expensive in Wichita Falls than many other areas around the country. I love the house we have, but know it would cost a fortune back in the regions where I grew up.


The Bad:

Politics - Wichita Falls is about as red as you can get. Maybe that would be a plus for some people, but it drives me up the wall. For example, here are the Wichita County 2016 Election results. Straight Party tickets were 15,302 Republican vs. 4,870 Democratic. Trump won 27,609 votes, compared to only 8,752 for Clinton. Our representative in the State Board of Education has pushed for creationism in the classroom. Related to that (and religion - see below), we also have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

Religion - This is another that depends on your personal views, but Wichita Falls is way too religious for my taste (I happen to be an atheist - which I don't volunteer freely to just anyone I meet here given the). Just about any public dinner, whether a school function, Girl Scouts, an Air Force event, or anything else, starts with a prayer, not to mention PTA meetings, and even during an emergency city council meeting a couple years ago. Wednesday night church services are common, in addition to going on Sunday. My daughter's high school biology teacher started off the unit on evolution by saying that she was a Christian and didn't believe in it, but it was part of the curriculum so they had to get through it. On the plus side, going to Walmart on a Sunday morning means absolutely no lines at the cash register.

Racism - Yes, I know racism is an issue everywhere. Back where I lived in Maryland, the local KKK headquarters was just a few towns north of me. And not everybody here is a racist. But the people who are racist are much more open about it. I had a guy at a bar complain to me about "n*ggers" right after a black guy sitting next to us got up to leave. I've had coworkers complain about good white girls dating black guys. I was at a party a few miles out of town in the country where a few guys started talking about whether or not to go burn a cross in a house where a black family had just moved in (they didn't, but guess where I've never gone back). Iowa Park, a town about 15 minutes away, is even worse. My wife and her black friend were refused service at a restaurant. Some black friends of ours who used to live there always came to Wichita Falls to grocery shop because of all the stares they got in Iowa Park (they were military, and didn't realize the town's reputation before moving in).

Climate - It's not quite the desert, but it's right on the edge. It gets hot in the summer. One year, we had over 100 days in a row where the high exceeded 100°F, and you can usually expect at least a few days every summer to exceed 110°F. The all time high was 117°F. Though, I will say that you get used to it. 100° days don't really phase me anymore. And it also means you get plenty of use out of a swimming pool - not like my friends' pools in PA growing up.

It's also pretty dry. If you want to grow a garden or flowers, you definitely have to water, since you can't rely on the rain. We just got out of a horrible drought, that was so bad we resorted to recycling treated waste water directly back into the drinking water supply ("Toilet to tap" wastewater recycling begins in Texas city). And with global warming, I only suspect droughts like that will become more common.

But when it does rain, especially in the summer, it can come in buckets. The rains that ended the last major drought actually caused flooding, and we were one forecasted storm away from a catastrophic flood (the reason for the aforementioned emergency city council meeting).

Winters aren't great, either. The thermometer shows a warmer temperature than the areas where I grew up, but the wind just cuts right through you. It's cold enough to make you uncomfortable, but not quite cold enough to give you much snow to have fun in. Though, you can expect one good snowfall per winter - just don't expect the snow to last more than a day or two before it melts. And since snow and freezing rain are so uncommon, the local governments don't invest much in equipment to handle it, so the roads are really bad when it does happen.

Geography - There are a few tiny hills around town, but not many. We're in the North Central Plains. So, if you like variation, head down to the Texas Hill Country, or North to the Wichita Mountains (a great day trip), but don't expect to see too much of interest in Wichita Falls. And don't expect to see many real trees outside what people have planted in their yards. Mesquite has taken over just about everywhere, along with not uncommon patches of cactus.

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So, on the whole, I like it in Wichita Falls. It may not have been my first choice, but now that I have roots here, I plan to stay a while. I'd much rather be here than anywhere in the DFW Metroplex. Wichita Falls has the feel of a big small town, where you know or know of just about everybody, but with enough amenities to be comfortable. And even though there are some racists, bigots, and religious zealots, there are enough good people to counter them (and everywhere has their fair share, anyway). And there are big cities close enough by to get your fill of 'culture' without having to deal with the traffic on a day to day basis.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How Bad are Unpronouncable Chemical Ingredients in Food?

I ran across a new line of frozen lunches the other day, SmartMade by SmartOnes. One of the key selling points on the box is 'Made with real ingredients you can pronounce'. This seems to be a common attitude among people who don't understand chemistry as well as they could. But how bad for you are foods made up of all these strange sounding chemicals?

For example, here are the ingredients to a treat I eat nearly every weekend:

Ingredients for Weekend Treat


And here are the ingredients to an energy drink I drink nearly every day:

Ingredients for Energy Drink


Should I be worried about all those chemicals?

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Okay, it was a trick question. I cropped those images to hide what types of food they were. Here are the original, uncropped images, made by James Kennedy, showing what the foods were (click to go to source):

Egg Ingredients


Coffee Ingredients


Mr. Kennedy has a whole series of these types of images (as well as posters of them for download and for sale).

The whole point is that everything we eat is made up of chemicals. Living things, especially, are this whole complicated cocktail of chemicals. And most of those chemical names sound very foreign to those of us who don't study them on a regular basis. But that doesn't make them dangerous.

When certain chemicals are added to processed foods, it's done in a very controlled way. Instead of the cocktail of chemicals you get from natural foods, they're adding very specific ingredients, in tightly controlled quantities. There's nothing inherently dangerous about not being able to pronounce those chemicals, unless you think we should be avoiding eggs because they contain arginine and eicosatetraenoic acid.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Putting This Blog in Perspective

PerspectiveI wanted to expand on something I wrote a few years ago in the entry, The Misleading Image of Bloggers. If you come and visit this blog and read my entries here, I think it would be very easy to get a misleading image of what I'm like in real life, and maybe even some misunderstanding over just how strongly I really feel about certain issues.

First of all are the topics I discuss here. I write an awful lot about religion and politics on this blog, as well as skepticism in general. Those are topics that interest me, but I know they're not topics that interest everybody, and even if they did, they're not necessarily polite topics for dinner conversation. Nobody wants to be that guy that's always starting a religious or political debate every time you hang out with them. Granted, I do like to discuss these things when they come up, but I usually wait for other people to bring them up. If you happened to meet up with me on a Friday night to go grab a beer, chances are that these topics wouldn't even come up. So, this blog gives me an opportunity to write about these issues without boring my friends.

Plus, it's not like I only think about religion and politics. Like I wrote in that older entry, "Nobody except my friends and family really cares what TV shows I've been watching, what I've been eating for supper every night, the chores I did around the house last weekend, the grades my daughter makes in school, how she did at her piano recital, or many of the other things I do or talk about on a daily basis." I write about certain topics because I do think there's an audience that will like reading about them. And even if it's not a huge audience, at least it's a bigger audience than just my wife and parents, who are just about the only people that would want to hear about all my mundane day to day experiences.

Second is how I feel about the 'opposition'. I criticize religion, creationism, conservative politics, climate change denialism, etc. And while I may at times call out certain individuals holding those positions, I don't mean to imply that all people holding those positions are bad people, nor necessarily even the specific individuals I'm calling out. All people have a multitude of views on a multitude of issues, and I seriously doubt that any one person is going to agree with me on everything. So, when I criticize creationism, for example, I'm specifically criticizing just that one belief. I don't think most creationists are bad people. I think they're just mistaken about that particular issue.*

Moreover, while I criticize religion a lot and think that on balance it does more harm than good (see the previous entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, for plenty of examples of the harm of religion, including fire bombings and persecuting children as witches, or a recent entry, Christian Privilege, showing the undue privilege religion receives in our culture), I don't think it's universally horrible in every aspect. Religiously motivated soup kitchens and homeless shelters do good in the world. Christmas bazaars and pot lucks can foster a sense of community. People who have had traumatic experiences can often find comfort in religious beliefs.

In addition, I hold people to different standards depending on the situation. I've already written about this in the entry, Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists. Most people never had evolution presented to them well in high school biology, and don't have much reason to study it, now. As I wrote previously, "It's hard to get good and pissed off at someone who believes something and hasn't ever been shown a good reason not to believe it." But when someone like Ben Carson, a respected neurosurgeon, goes and gives a presentation to the public, or participates in public debates, then I do expect him to have done enough research to understand the issue and speak about it knowledgeably. And then there are the prominent creationists / creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis, or Kent Hovind, or Ray Comfort, who I know have been exposed to credible science, yet continue to spread their falsehoods. And even though I just used creationism for my example, that's not the only issue where I look at things this way. It applies to politics, science, and a whole bunch of other fields. I get much more upset with people who should know better but continue to spread misinformation.

In real life, I have friends of all types of religious and political persuasions. I have friends ranging from fundamentalist Christians to Muslims to agnostics and atheists, from young and old earth creationists to evolutionary biologists, from die hard Trump supporters to people who are far more liberal than me, from gun rights absolutists to people who would like to see more gun control (though no one I know of who would advocate outright bans). We get along because most of the things we do on a daily basis are talk about work, or vent about personal problems, or get together for a crawfish boil, or go out to happy hour, or help each other move, or, well, all the normal stuff everybody does.

So, if you're reading this blog, and you think I'm attacking you personally, please keep in mind that that's usually not my intent. I try for the most part to be civil and criticize ideas, positions, or policies. If I've crossed the line and written something offensive, then I apologize, and I would ask you to point it out to me so that I could address it in the future.

And keep in mind that this entire blog is only a small slice of my views - the ones I think people would be interested in reading. If you ever met me in real life, even if we disagree about these issues, there's still a very good chance we could get along just fine and find common ground in other areas.

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*As a side note on that, though, I'm not so naive and idealistic as to think that everybody is always acting honorably. I've written quite a bit about Ray Comfort on this blog over the years. I know he's been exposed to the science regarding evolution, but he repeats the same falsehoods year after year. And he still uses dishonest tactics like quote mining and selective editing to make documentaries. It gets harder and harder to believe that he's not knowingly using dishonest tactics.

Image Source: Return of Kings

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Happy Fastnacht Day 2017

You may call today something else like Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, but if you grew up in the same part of Pennsylvania as me, it's definitely Fastnacht Day (pronounced foss-not*). Fastnachts are more or less a potato based donut. They're a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition** (meaning it was originally a German tradition) to use up all the fat and sugar and before starting the Lenten fast. We even got them in school lunches when I was in elementary school (and I'd suspect they still do). Well, I don't do the traditional fast anymore, but I definitely keep up with a tradition of making good food. Like years past, my daughter and I woke up super early this morning to get started on making the fastnachts, and the two of us and my wife each took a bunch of fastnachts with us to share at work / school.

If you want to try making them yourself, it's not too late. Just stop on the way home from work to buy the ingredients you'll need, and make a batch. Here's the recipe my family uses:

Fastnacht Recipe

And just because, here are a couple pictures from when we made them this morning. Since we were running a little late, everybody was grabbing fastnachts to take with them before they were all done, so I didn't get a picture this year of the entire completed double batch.

Alex Cutting the Fastnachts Frying Up the Fastnachts

And to give an idea of how popular fastnachts are in that part of Pennsylvania, here are a few articles from local newspapers up that way, along with the Wikipedia entry.

So go get yourself a fastnact today. If you're not near Pennsylvania Dutch country and don't feel like making them yourself, at least go buy yourself a cake donut as a decent approximation.


*The original German is a bit different. In fact, a German coworker said they were called fasnachtküchle where he was from in Germany, but I couldn't pronounce it. Though I have other German friends from a different part of Germany, and they'd never heard of the tradition. So I guess it's regional in Germany, too.

**Just to be clear, Pennsylvania Dutch is not synonymous with Amish and Mennonite. Granted, the Amish and Mennonites still stick to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions the strongest, especially in still speaking the language, but there were/are lots of other Pennsylvania Dutch people.

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