Archive for June, 2012

For the less literal, more artsy minded folks out there, here’s another interesting Game of Thrones map to follow up my last post on the topic.  Artist J.E. Fullerton put together some great full color stylized maps with illustrations of lots of the characters and creatures from the books.  He also has detail maps of a lot of the story locations.  It’s too bad he isn’t able to sell these because they would look even better on my wall than the last map I posted.  I understand that George R.R. Martin, author of the series is putting out a map folio sometime this fall so I hold out hope Martin acquired these to include because I’d love to legally own them.


Once again, thanks to io9 for bringing these to my attention.


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We’ve already discussed what the term ‘100 year flood’ actually means.  So now the question has become, how do we figure out what the 100 year flood is for any particular location?  It’s an important thing to know for any number of reasons ranging from determining if that dream house you want to buy is too close to the creek to the farmer deciding how much of his land he can plant on to the millionaire land developer deciding if he can build a Walmart on his property.  This is the ultimate goal of most hydrology studies and it’s often referred to as flood frequency analysis.

You mostly hear ‘100 year flood’ in the media, but lots of different floods are important.  In my day job we use everything from the 2 year to the 500 year flood.  You can refer back to my previous post to review what that number means, but it’s referred to as the recurrence interval.  The recurrence interval for any particular design varies depending on the importance of the project and the amount of risk you’re willing to put up with for that project.  In most design situations the engineer will consider multiple recurrence intervals.  For purposes of this discussion I’m mostly going to use the 100 year recurrence interval.

So, how do we decide how much flow the creek has to have before it’s a 100 year flood?  Or how deep the ditch out back will get during a 100 year flood?  In an ideal world you would do a detailed hydrology study with lots of modeling and calibrating.  If you have a good hydrology model all you have to do is input a rainfall amount and it will spit out a flow.  (There’s a whole different branch of civil engineering that turns that flow into a depth in the creek.)  Some of the most advanced models can even pull the rainfall data out of those Doppler radar images the tv weather folks like to show.  The problem… hydrology modeling requires a lot of detail and is time consuming and expensive.  Hydrology models are extremely sensitive to minute changes and aren’t always reliable because they can be thrown off by something as simple as two rainstorms in two days.  So hydrology modeling is generally only done in larger watershed wide projects.

The next best solution involves someone getting their feet wet, because if you’re really lucky there might be a stream gage near your project.  A stream gage is a location where specialized equipment has been set up to keep track of the water depth in a creek, river, etc…  If you’ve collected data from your stream gage for a long enough time period you can use the magic of statistics to define what constitutes a 2 year storm, 100 year storm, and so on.  The log-Pearson Type III methodology is generally accepted as the best.

Sadly, there are very few stream gages in Tennessee.  That number grows significantly if you include old stations that are no longer in operation, but it shrinks again if you start excluded stations that don’t have enough data to try and figure out the larger recurrence interval storms.  Just how many years of data you need in order to realistically determine a 100 year storm is a matter of some scientific debate, but it’s not an insignificant time period.  The most recent study to tackle this included gage stations with at least 10 years of data collected which amounted to 453 stations.  You can draw your own conclusions on the validity of using 10 years of data to determine a 100 or 500 year storm but I suspect the 10 year limit was a compromise between rigorous science and real world needs.

If you are unlucky enough to have a project that isn’t near a gage station then you have to employ a little more voodoo statistical analysis.  I’m not going to try and give a detailed description of how this works, mostly because I don’t know much about it myself.  In broad terms, The gage data is analyzed to develop a relationship between the measured flow rate and certain site specific variables.  Once a statistically relevant relationship is determined, you have an algebraic equation that you can apply that to other, non-gaged, locations.  Due to differences in climate, geology, etc… each equation is only valid for a particular area.  Equations developed in the Nevada desert can’t be used in rainy Seattle, and the same can be said for equations developed in flat, sandy Memphis versus the mountains around Johnson City, TN.

It’s like deciding that if your dog ate three cups of food a day when she weighed 20 pounds and six cups a day when she grew to 40 pounds, then your new dog will eat the same amount when he weighs that much.  There’s some variability from one dog to the next, but if the new dog is the same breed as the old then you’re generally going to be right. But if your new dog is a different breed, then you have to start from scratch.  The vet already knows how much each type of dog eats because she has all the historic data, just like the US Geological Survey knows how much flow a 100 year storm will generate for just about anywhere in the country.

If you’re interested in too much detail, read this USGS study.

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‘Ain’t technology grand?!?’ is my intermittent series on appreciating the little things that technology does for life. In these posts I dwell on how things are cooler now than they were back when I didn’t have gray hair, mouths to feed, creaky knees, and a pill a day pharmaceutical habit.

Lasers were the weapon of choice when I was a kid. Space ships, guns, light sabers… they all used lasers, or so I assumed. The best use of a laser in fiction officially belongs to Real Genius though. There’s an extended scene where the merry band of nerds and misfits gets revenge on someone by placing a giant foil packet of corn in his house and then hacking a military fightersatellite to focus its laser on the house. The laser heats up the corn and before you can say ‘Yes I want butter!’ the house is full of popcorn.

The other day I was taking care of some business* at work and I realized that venerable go-to weapon of decades of sci-fi writers was actually watching me whizz**. The office men’s room had gotten the ultimate power-up, automatic flush toilets.

* By ‘taking care of some business’ I mean ‘peeing’.

** By ‘whizz’ I mean ‘peeing’.

Innocent laser sensor, or tool of Skynet?

Auto flush toilets aren’t that new, we’ve all been using them for years in airports along with their HATEFUL brethren, the automatic faucet. But I hadn’t really considered the amount of technology that goes into one. They actually use infra-red wavelength lasers to determine when somebody is in front of them so they know when to flush.

I did a little Googling before I started writing and discovered that auto-flush toilets are a bit of a controversy. Some think they aren’t green enough, and others just want to pre-flush or courtesy flush. Myself, I’m pro lasers-that-watch-us-pee (at least until the rise of Skynet). Being an engineer means spending your days around a LOT more men than women so our men’s room is heavily utilized, and a good majority of the clientele are apparently germ adverse. So it’s pretty common to see some yahoo flushing with his foot.*** An auto-flush means I don’t have to touch that handle after some shoe that also walked across the nasty men’s room floor has been all up on it.

*** I HATE foot flushers. I dream of finding a would-be stomper in a puddle on the men’s room floor because of a mid-flush loss of balance.

I have to admit, they are a problem for children too small to be seen by the sensor. I can’t blame a 3 year old for being a bit concerned when that huge flush goes off while they’re already swinging bare bottom in the breeze. A friend had trouble with her newly potty trained twins refusing to go in public restrooms because they were afraid of the flush. She ended up having to carry post-it notes in her purse and cover the sensor. It’s an untapped market that 3M Corp should look into.

So if you see those TDOT guys on the side of the road standing a little straighter now, you know the auto-flush toilet has made them healthier and happier. (Or if it’s me, then you’ll know I finally saw a stomper lose his balance.)

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Game of Thrones map geekery

I’m a huge fan of maps. As a kid I used to love to drag out my dad’s Rand McNally road atlas and study it before any big trips. Half the fun was always looking at all the places I was going to see and imagining what it would be like. I don’t spend as much of my free time looking at maps these days, but I’ve been known to lose an hour or two of my life on Google Maps. It’s pretty much the ultimate dream for that little kid. A road map AND real satellite photography to see even more stuff…

The map love also extends to fake maps. That may even be why I started reading fantasy as a kid, the really good fantasy books always had maps in the front. I remember reading Sword of Shannarra and constantly turning to the map in the front so I could follow the characters’ travels. (And complain about the low quality of the map.)

So I was pretty excited when I ran across this serious looking map for the Game of Thrones saga. The internet is lousy with GoT maps, and HBO has a really nice interactive version to go with their Game of Thrones show, but this one is extra special. The map itself was created by a dedicated fan, but another fan went back and traced the paths of the various major characters on the map so it’s easy to visualize where everyone is going. There are some physical problems with the map. It’s so high resolution that I can’t zoom out to see the entire continent without losing all the detail even with dual 17 inch monitors, and it’s very difficult to keep track of which line goes with which character since it covers thousands of pages worth of travel (5 books worth). Some of the more popular areas get pretty muddled.

I’d be lieing if I said I wasn’t tempted to print it out poster size on the giant plotter at work that we use for bridge plans. It would make a really good wall display if the wife would let me hang it. Many props to serMountainGoat for putting together the original map and PrivateMajor for putting on the character lines. serMountainGoat’s animated timeline feature is also pretty great. And a hat tip to io9 for showing me this in the first place.

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What is a watershed?

Graphic illustration of major watersheds of the world via Wikipedia

I prematurely published this post before I was done writing and editing, so if you read it by RSS you may have gotten a rough draft originally.  I apologize.

In hydrology, watersheds rule.  A watershed is the entire amount of land that drains to a particular location.  You can define a watershed for anything from a gutter downspout on the side of your house (300 square feet) all the way up to something the size of the Mississippi River (1,245,000 square miles, 40% of continental US).

Determining a watershed is a sticky procedure.  Back in the olden days when dinosaurs smoked cigarettes and I was a new engineer it was a bit like hazing the new guy.  I spent many an hour bent over contour maps tracing the high points with my pencil and then tracing them with a torturous device called a planimeter to get the actual area.  Sadly, that was the waning days of doing it by hand.  These days our new hires can measure drainage areas a lot more easily using digital methods.

Mississippi River watershed

If you’ve driven much in Tennessee you’ve probably seen the watershed signs Tennessee has on the interstates and some of the major state highways.  I’ve heard a lot of questions from friends and families about them so I looked into it to see why they’re there.

Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Turns out the signs are a partnership between the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).  They’re part of a public awareness campaign designed to make the general public more familiar with watersheds and hopefully cut down on pollution.  The theory is based on the idea that you take better care of things if you think they’re yours.  They announce when you enter 55 different watersheds throughout the state.

187 of the signs were installed in February and March of 2008 at a total cost of  $280,194.  I’ve heard a lot of debate about whether they’re worth the money.  I’m not going to address that from a larger perspective, but from the TDOT point of view they’re definitely worthwhile.  TDOT’s contribution was partially based on a requirement as part of an environmental permit.  TDOT’s requires National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System approval in order to construct projects in Tennessee, and that permit has a requirement that a certain amount be spent on public education programs that have to do with water pollution.  Participation in the sign program satisfied a lot of that.

Wikipedia has an interesting entry showing the area some of the world’s largest watersheds cover.  If you’re interested in the topic you can also find out some interesting information, including looking at watershed management plans for specific Tennessee watersheds at TDEC’s watershed page.  I also recommend the USGS Science in Your Watershed page.

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Before I get into this review let’s just have a little warning. If you’re familiar with Kevin Smith you probably know what you’re getting into. If you’re not familiar with Kevin Smith… the dedication of this book mentions his ‘wife’s brown eye’. There’s a lot of Smith’s general brand of ‘dick and fart’ humor and more than a little discussion of how hot his wife is and how lucky he is to have sex with her. So, business as usual for Kevin Smith.

I picked this one up because Smith is a bit of a controversial figure who tends to say what he thinks so I was looking for some interesting gossip, and I wasn’t disappointed. He shares a lot of interesting behind the scenes info on his fight with the MPAA ratings board for his movie ‘Zack and Miri Shoot a Porno’ and he takes Bruce Willis to task for some problems during ‘Cop Out’. He also has a lot to say about his most recent movie ‘Red State’ and his efforts to keep it truly independent of the Hollywood studio system.

Smith likes to portray himself as a fat, lazy stoner who fell into a lot of good fortune. I view that a lot like I view Tina Fey’s portrayal of herself as an awkward, funny looking schlub. Maybe it was true at one time, but it sure isn’t true now. I’m not going to address the hot potato ‘fat’ portion of his usual schtick, but it’s pretty obvious he isn’t simply lazy. Even his own story about how he hit big with ‘Clerks’, his first film, shows that a fair amount of work went into getting it bought by Miramax pictures. A lot of Smith’s success has come from his active engagement with his fans by way of his website and prolific speaking tours. So maybe he is lazy, but he’s a lazy guy that works for what he wants.

Like I said above, I read the book for the gossip and because I respect Smith for saying what he really thinks. But I ended up finding some actual good life advice as well. Smith’s core point seems to boil down to that doing something is better than doing nothing. If you have a dream of doing something then work on it. Dreams are fun but they don’t happen unless you try. The book subtitle (Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good) is probably a bit of false modesty but also has a fair amount of truth. When he started, Smith had no idea how to make a movie, much less get people to watch it, but he persevered and learned as he went along.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who’s a fan of Kevin Smith, or who is okay with some serious raunchy humor. It’s got some interesting behind the scenes info and motivation for anyone not happy with their current life situation. But if you don’t like bathroom humor and sex talk I’d stay away.

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Awhile back I realized that the best green beans around (the best that don’t have lots of added fat and bacon grease anyhow) come from dad’s garden by way of my mom’s pressure cooker.  I poach a few jars every time I visit them, and it’s gotten to the point that dad decided to expand the garden so he can keep up with demand from myself and my younger* siblings.

*And not as awesome.

That experience made me very interested to read about the canning and pickling adventures of some friends of mine last fall (especially the pickled okra).  In a serious ‘teach a man to fish’ moment I discovered I didn’t have to buy a pressure cooker to keep some of the best from the farmer’s market around through the winter.  Turns out some foods can be canned and preserved with boiling water, and a little added acidity.

To that end I got a copy of Canning & Preserving by Ashley English.  From reading the book and poking around on her blog I get the impression that English’s authority on the topic comes more from extensive research than significant experience.  I don’t consider that a bad thing, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind while reading.

The book is essentially a text book rather than a cook book.  It’s light on recipes, and with the exception of some fairly complicated looking ‘seasonal recipes’ in the back, the recipes it does have it does have are pretty basic.  That’s most definitely not a drawback for me.  I was very interested in the step by step way English takes you through various canning and preserving techniques.  It’s well written and covers the basics without becoming boring.  In the chapter on fruit I finally learned the answer to a question that has been nagging me since my first grown-up trip to the grocery.  I’m proud to say I finally know the difference between jam and jelly.

There’s a great economy to the writing.  Her recipes and step by step illustrations are accompanied by a discussion of the chemistry of the process and topped off with a discussion of ingredients and prep techniques went well beyond what I expected from the size of the book.  I could have done without the tips on how to decorate the jars and the step-by-step for holding a canning party but they did help set the tone without detracting from the book.

Beyond the text, I can’t praise the graphic design enough.  The book is full of crisp pictures to keep your eyes on the prize, and the use of faded backdrops and color changes contribute a homey aesthetic.  I rarely notice much about the physical quality of the books I read, but this one stood out for its use of an extra sturdy binding and thick pages.  The sturdy construction should help the book survive extended kitchen use.

I only ran across one thing that really bothered me.  There’s a strong ‘going back to my roots’ vibe throughout the book that came off a bit smug and condescending.  (Tips for my own canning party and decorating jars? Not so hard to figure out on my own, thank you.)  English’s focus on local food also rubbed me the wrong way and felt a bit smug.  Most of these problems are probably more due to my personal grumpiness than anything English actually said, you can judge for yourself.

I’ve read most of what the local library has to offer on canning and preserving and this is the only one I liked enough to buy.  If you’re a new canner, or thinking about taking up canning, I can’t recommend this book enough.   If you’re an experienced canner you probably won’t get as much out of it, but I still recommend buying the book for a friend (and reading it before you gift it).

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