Monday, December 20, 2004

Don't go towards the light! 

Yet another break in holiday programming to bring you the following exchange of emails regarding the highly publicized possibility that terrorists are hoping to use lasers to blind airline pilots during landing. It all sounded pretty menacing, so one of my brother's friends wrote him to ask if it could be true. Joshua, said brother, and his friend Rob are students at the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers at the University of Central Florida. A technical but less scary than conjecture explanation:

From: Drew Thoeni
Sent: Friday, December 10, 2004 4:38 PM
To: Joshua Duncan
Subject: Some help needed here

OK, so there's this story in the news about terrorists using lasers to blind pilots in the cockpit (from five miles away) while they are landing a plane in hopes of blinding the pilot and crashing the plane. I have a lot of theoretical problems with this that you may be able to confirm or, if I'm wrong, set me straight on.
1) These would have to be very powerful lasers to have any real affect at five miles out. Such lasers are hard to come by.
2) Assuming you had one, it seems it would require more than just a household 110 volt plug, so you couldn't just plug it in anywhere and start burning out pilots' eyes.
3) Even if you could get one, and power one, you'd have to hit a pretty small target.
4) Even if you hit that target, you'd have to *focus* on that target toget to concentration of power needed to burn their retinas. Of course you could just get a more powerful laser and have to worry less about focus, but then we start over on point 1.
Your thoughts?

From : Joshua Duncan
Sent : Sunday, December 12, 2004 3:05 AM
To : Drew Thoeni
CC : Rob Bernath, Sarah Duncan
Subject : RE: Some help needed here

I'm going to have to side with you on this one. (Rob, correct me if you see an error.) On your points...
(1) True enough. Not only hard to come by, i.e., regulated, but also expensive. A cheap 5-Watt solid-state green laser will run you about $35k new. There's always eBay, but you still probably wouldn't find one say below $15k or so. And I'm not even saying that 5 watts would be enough ... just an example.
(2) Invariably so. We used a small 10-Watt green laser last year, and still the head is about the size of a shoebox. Then there's the power supply, which is probably about 5U of rack space, and a chiller the size of a medium toolchest. And you need probably a good 30 Amps of 110 to run it all. And it takes half an hour to warm up.
(3) A small *moving* target, no less.
(4) Not necessarily focus; your eyes will do the focusing. But you would have to have a sufficient power density at that large a distance. A good laser will give you a divergence angle of about a milliradian (probably can do better, but that's typical).

Some basic calculations:
tan(theta) = y / x -> y = x tan(theta)
So the distance multiplied by the tangent of the angle will give us an indication (ballpark) of the beam's size at 5 miles' distance: (5 miles)(5280 ft/mi)(12 in/ft)(tan 0.001) = 316 inches
The power density of a 10-Watt laser at that distance would be (10 W) / (pi * (316 inches) ^ 2 / 4) = 127 microwatts / square inch.

Pretty darn small. Not going to hurt you. The sun dumps about a kilowatt per square meter on earth, so that works out to 657 milliwatts / square inch (4000 times higher), if I'm doing the math correctly. I'm not figuring numerical aperture and all those fun things that you have to take into account for careful calculations, but it should be a decent estimate. And of course, that's a $100,000 laser.
I've heard stories of spy planes that flew over Russian ships where supposedly the pilots got their eyes zapped by lasers, but still not to the point of blinding them, and it's a lot more feasible to get a big laser on a ship. Now, of course, it's a lot easier to do damage with a pulsed laser system, and my calculations are for continuous, but even still ... it's going to be a big system that could cause someone eye damage at 5 miles, and it's still a small target moving a few hundred miles an hour.

Oh, and I might also note ... there are co-pilots for that sort of thing. And, though it's not widely known, with the instrument landing systems that are currently in use, planes can land themselves. The main reason they don't is so that the pilots get more practice.
The short answer ... umm, no.

From : Robert Bernath
Sent : Sunday, December 12, 2004 1:54 PM
To : Joshua Duncan, Drew Thoeni
CC : Sarah Duncan
Subject : RE: Some help needed here

Sounds like a good estimate to me. You could always go more advanced into a channeling regime but that would require a half million dollar laser and probably a few million dollar tracking system (the things only governments like to build).
My brother has told me stories that he heard about this (for those who don't know, he is a pilot for USair) and he was saying that what people were trying to do was to blind the pilot's night vision (in the version that he heard). For night flying the cockpit is very dark so that you can see outside and just a very bright flash would cause temporary "blindness". My brother was saying though (as you noted Josh) that that is why you have two people. Also, you can just turn up the lights and fly it in with instruments. He didnt think it would cause any problem with landing, more just a big irriation to have.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My Grown-up Christmas Cliche List 

The plan for this column was supposed to be the top 10 holiday films, but instead I was beat to the punch by this fabulous, thoughtful email from Bobbi Brown (makeup artist)'s mailing list. It's Bobbi's Christmas wish list! How exciting. I thought it would be her favorite blush and mascara, but instead it's full of these gems...
  1. Spread beauty
  2. Do what you love
  3. Love what you do
  4. Keep it simple
  5. Laugh out loud
  6. Go with the flow
  7. Be real
  8. Focus on the positive
  9. Do your best
  10. Just breathe

It has it's own Oprahlike haze of pseudowisdom about it, doesn't it? I especially love the flip-floppiness of points 2 and 3, but here is what I always wonder--if you don't do what you love, do you have to love what you do? And how do you spread beauty? Does it come in a jar? Is it like a ham glaze? Is laughing silently allowed? How about being fake? Or sitting at your desk at work, just breathing?

The general originality of the list makes me think perhaps someone gave her an early Christmas present: An Optimist's Book of Shallow Cliches. Maybe we should all make affirmation flash cards and read them calmly to ourselves on the way to Pilates, or while drinking 3 gallons of magnetized water, or soaking in an endangered rose petal bath, or whatever else celebrities recommend you do because it works so well for them.

This time of year seems to bring out the advice giver in all celebrities. Apparently the fact that they're photogenic and have lots of free time makes them an expert on living a happy life as well. Or it could be the money and its tranquilizing effect on all their nutty relatives, ergo, happy holidays.


Bobbi's Resolution #1 - Stick to makeup.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Top Non-Traditional Christmas Songs 

The Christmas listing continues. Yes, I know I said that new Christmas songs should be outlawed, but after 7 years of brainwashing in the form of working at Express during the holidays, I still have a few favorite non-traditional Christmas songs. Only 10 though, because, let me tell you, 10 hours of ExpressMix including Tina Turner, Bing Crosby, Backstreet Boys, and non-English-speaking singers is enough to make a person insane! You might argue with the choices, but please remember that many of these songs were my life raft in a sea of angry shoppers, endless boxes of clothing, steam iron burns, crappy leftover holiday food, and extraordinarily late hours of work not excluding inventory marathons. I give you, in order of my childhood to the present...

Sarahphrase's Best of Semi-Christmas Music:
  1. Christmas is Coming - The Muppets: See the Worst of Christmas blog for lyrics. It's just fun and crazy, and reminds me of A Christmas Carole, which, as you know, I refuse to watch ever again, so it's like A Christmas Carole Cliff Notes.
  2. You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch - Cartoon version: This was my holiday ring-tone last year. How can you not love this song?! Favorite line: "Your heart is full of unwashed socks."
  3. Little Drummer Boy - White Heart: Ok, this is technically traditional, but I couldn't leave it off. We only listened to Christian contemporary music when I was young, and White Heart was a "hard rock" Christian group, kind of in the Def Leppard style (the music, not the message). For years, my brother and I sang the "ME AND MY DRAAAHHHHUUUUUUUMMMMSSSS" part over and over, accompanied by furious air guitar and screaming. I'm not sure that was quite the gist my parents were going for, but oh well.
  4. Mary's Song - Amy Grant: Another one from that genre, but a more serious song from Mary's eyes. Very powerful and touching; almost better than real Christmas songs.
  5. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Esther Williams & Red Skelton, Neptune's Daughter: Not really a Christmas song or movie, but it captures the flirty spirit of the season and is hilarious in the movie (Skelton dresses as a woman). The song most recently appeared in Elf, also to great romantic/comedic effect.
  6. Santa Baby - Madonna: And the Express songs begin! This song just cracks me up, especially her baby pseudo-Cindy Lauper voice. It's a great song to mortify shopping partners with when you start singing it in the stores, or, really, anyone, when they realize you know all the words.
  7. Last Christmas - Wham!: So Wham-George-Michael-synthy, it instantly feels like the 80s again. has the whole Relationships of Christmasses Past thing going for it.
  8. All I Want for Christmas - Mariah Carey: We've all had enough of her dog-whistle octaves, but she seems like she's having such a blast singing this loud, swingy version of the song, it's contagious.
  9. Please Come Home For Christmas - Bon Jovi: A good one for the Christmas Blues. Or not. It might only encourage them.
  10. Chrismas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2: Not the same thing as above, in finger-snapping, U2-howling style that makes you want to come home for Christmas because it sounds like so much fun. But only if it's to Bono, so may not be applicable as a dedication song. (ha)

Next time... More Best of Christmas, topic: Movies! Suggestions?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Few of My UnFavorite Christmas Things... 

So today I'm pulling into work and turn the radio to my favorite little station that only comes in clearly at night and hear one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But not any version will do, you know. It has to be the Muppet version from the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas Album, which I recently bought in CD version, since I no longer have a turntable. That album is necessary, so that you can hear stylin' tunes o' the past, such as...
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting FAT
Time to put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny then GOD BLESS YOU
(repeat ad infinitum in Miss Piggy voice)

And let's not forget the 12 days song itself, with one verse sung by Beaker. Who can resist? However, that did remind me of the Darker Side of Christmas--those songs, movies, foods, etc. that come up every single year and are no better this year than the ill-starred year they first appeared. So here it is with input from many of you...

Sarahphrase's Worst of Christmas

  1. Frosty the Snowman, animated version with Burl Ives - Let's admit it; it's just scary! Not only is it creepy looking, but then he dies. Yes, I know he'll "be baaaack aaaagaaaaain sommme daaaayyyy," but it will be a totally different snowman, won't it? Or is it snowman reincarnation? *shudder*
  2. "Merry Christmas/No War" by John Lennon - This is in strong contention with #3 as my least favorite song in the world. Not only is it trite and hippie, it features Yoko Ono, who is clearly tone-deaf, and, the kiss of death to any serious song, a children's chorus.
  3. "My Favorite Things" - a) This is not a Christmas song and it isn't about Christmas presents. b) It's recorded in a minor key, so it's menacing even though it shouldn't be. c) It sticks in your mind and replays itself endlessly, much like #2, above. Can you say "brainwashing," boys and girls?
  4. New Christmas songs - How many ways can you possibly rearrange the words "Christmas Day, presents, around the tree, love, laughter, tears, children, wish, and hope"? Their holidays are great, but they feel so guilty; or their holidays are Grown Up, but still full of Child-Like Wonder. Just stop it already. There are plenty to go around.
  5. Christmas songs involving death of loved ones - Do I have to explain this one?
  6. Hallmark Christmas movies - Normally shameless tearjerkers taken to the next level of hysterical crying. Kleenex should sponsor.
  7. "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson - A sweet little tale about a sweet little girl selling matches and fantasizing about a beautiful Christmas that she can never have because she's poor... Oh, and dead by the end of the story.
  8. Family Christmas Cards featuring Matching Outfit Pictures - Especially if said outfit is a white polo and khaki pants rolled slightly to reveal bare feet as they sit on the beach. People: It's been done.
  9. Combination Invention Gifts - These are those presents created especially for the holidays, like the one selling at Belk right now... Radio/TV/Lantern/Fluorescent Light Stick. Who dreams of that under the tree?
  10. Felt, spray snow, and glitter.
  11. A Christmas Carole Remakes - Scrooge. Tiny Tim. God bless us one and all. Ok. Got it. Moving on.
  12. "If it's not freezing/snowing/sleeting/etc., it doesn't feel like Christmas." - The Christmas spirit is inside you, and it's about giving, not the weather. In fact, I would be perfectly in Grand Cayman. Trade you?
  13. Animated Singing Character Dolls - This includes snowmen, santas, and any other thing that lights up and/or dances and/or sings loud Christmas songs when you walk by in the store, especially en masse.
  14. Creative Desserts - Apparently this is a popular one with the guys. I received several suggestions that raisins in baked goods, gelatinous mounds of fruit-like substances, and pretty-but-nearly-inedible desserts were the worst part of the holidays. Cookies, however, are just fine.
  15. Cart Vendors Selling Flying Objects in the Mall - You're walking by with bags. It's crowded. There's a guy at his kiosk next to you and then ZZZZIIIPPP... eeeeeeeee!!!! The only time I thought this was amusing was at the Florida Mall in Orlando in which the vendors were bored and started flying their helicopters into the fountain. That was funny. 5 inches from my head isn't. Also, they make eye contact as they're doing it, hoping you will think it's so, so cool. Note to Vendors: I don't.
  16. Strappy Holiday Dresses and Shoes - Even in Florida, it's too cold to wear them. Even if you get there with a full-length fur coat on, the room is cold enough for all the men wearing tuxedos. Also the problem with Florida... everything is casual, and you'll never, ever have a chance to wear them, even if you wanted to.
  17. Santa in church - Not only is that mixing your metaphors and meanings, but Santa is also a lie, and liars are fryers. Appropriate for church? I think not.
  18. Decorations Before Halloween - I saw this happen.

That's the list for now... But don't think I'm above adding, because you know I will!



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