October 14, 2020: Starship Sizes, Bismuth Crystals, Linux Webcams

Starship Size Comparisons

Here is a neat video that I ran across recently showing 3D renderings of various starships and space stations (mostly fictional, of course) presented in order of size. The Space Shuttle and ISS are thrown in for reference, as is New York City in the background. In all, 107 objects are shown, plus the Earth and the Sun. This video was published less than a month ago and is the second version, the first being about five years old now and only showing 45 objects in roughly a quarter of the time. Looking at the MetaBallStudios YouTube page, they have a variety of similar videos, including this one showing the relative sizes of objects, characters, vehicles, and even planets in the Star Wars universe. Being a rather old-school sci-fi fan, I would really love to see them add the Gunstar One (Last Starfighter), the USS Cygnus (The Black Hole), Deep Space 9 (Star Trek), and the TMA-1 monolith (2001: A Space Odyssey) to the next edition.

Growing Bismuth Crystals (The Hard Way)

Bismuth is a chemical element used as pigment in cosmetics and paint, and serves as a replacement for lead in alloys. It is also the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol. One uber-geeky YouTuber posted a video, Making metal crystals from Pepto-Bismol. He does note in the video that this was mainly for fun, and is not a cost-effective way to produce the pretty iridescent metal crystals often used for art sculpture. Instructions on How to Grow Bismuth Crystals using bismuth without having to extract it from costly medicine can readily be found online.

Best Linux Webcams

In this COVID world of remote education and WFH, webcams are in demand. Luckily, their prices don’t seem to have inflated too badly. As with anything hardware, Linux users have to pay a little more attention to what they are buying. Personally, I have rarely run across a webcam that doesn’t work on Linux, but considering my luck with flatbed scanners, I will not easily dismiss the notion that some webcams are just not compatible. Also, some cams rely on software to obtain the promised resolution and, of course, that is usually only available for commercial operating systems. If you are in the market, I suggest you take a look at this page: 10 Best Webcams for Ubuntu in 2020. The front-runner on the list is the “Pro Stream Webcam”, selling for $50 on Amazon, though at the time of this writing, that link now shows an “upgraded” model with the “Sherry” brand name and selling for only $40. I can personally vouch for the Mural Wall Art PC Webcam, selling on eBay for less than $15. It works well on my Ubuntu MATE 2016 machine, registering in Cheese as “HiCamera” with a max photo and video resolution of 1920×1080. (It does not work on my older Ubuntu 2014 installation, but then, I haven’t looked for drivers for it either.) I also tried it on Windows 10 with good results. Just be aware, it does have a 110° wide-angle view, so be mindful of your background!

Unprecedented Times

If 2020 were to be given its own motto based on popular opinion, it would likely be “We are living in unprecedented times.” This statement has remained ubiquitous since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially in this or similar phrasing, but then, as months drag on, in more cheeky expressions often found in social media posts and memes, such as “Why not? It’s 2020.” And it’s not really about the virus itself, about the number of cases and of deaths, but about how people are dealing with it, national and world leaders included. It’s an election year in the USA, which only exacerbates the tension of the current situation, even between those who we call friends.

Whether or not this notion holds water is somewhat relative, however, as pandemics coincidental with major world events have marked our history for at least the last two centuries. One need look back only to the late-1910s to find, not only the Spanish Flu sweeping across the globe, but the bloodiest war ever known to man (at the time) and the establishment of Marxist-Leninist Communism in Russia, which would reshape the diplomatic and military landscape on a global scale for at least the next 70 years. Four major pandemics occurred in the 19th Century, amidst the social, political, and economic turmoil of the New Imperialism and countless continental wars, not the least of which being the American Civil War. Indeed, it would appear that the events of 2020 are only “unprecedented” in that similar times do not exist in the personal memories of anyone alive on the planet today (save, perhaps, for the lucky few who have lived to be over 110 years old).

This phrase brings with it the recollection of a curse, unfoundedly attributed to Chinese tradition, that states “May you live in interesting times.” It is a curse because “interesting times” are usually only “interesting” because they witness upheaval of one kind or another — a change in power or culture, a conquest or revolution — and all too often the realization of great losses. With that in mind, it is quite evident to this author that just about everyone — whether he wants everything to simply “return to normal” or is embracing the opportunity for a “new normal,” — is worn of living in these “interesting” and “unprecedented” times.

April 9, 2020: Clipper Guards, Wheel Alignment, Capillary Action

Clipper Guards

With all of the hair salons temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are resorting to having their hair cut at home. This is something that many of us haven’t experienced or even attempted for decades. Clippers make the job much easier, especially for the boys, who often opt for a short buzz in the back if not all the way around. Of course, this coupled with the current health situation has led to a sudden shortage of clippers on the retail market. Ours will arrive eventually. In researching the options, I paid special attention to the accessories, and the guards most of all. These are the plastic combs that attach to the head of the clippers that keep the blades a constant distance from the scalp, resulting in a uniform cut (i.e. no uneven patches were the clippers got too close!). For a long time, my default request was a #3 cut, scissors on top. But what exactly does “#3” mean and is it the same for all clippers? As it turns out, the guard sizes are more-or-less standardized. The most common interval is 1/8-inch increments, so a #1 guard is 1/8-inch, #2 is 1/4-inch, and so on. Most clipper sets will include guards up to and including the 1-inch #8. There is some variation between manufacturers. Out of curiosity, I did a search for European clipper guards, and it appears that the same English/Imperial increments are used, but an approximate length in millimeters is presented to differentiate them. An eighth of an inch is approximately (but not exactly) 3mm, so the first eight guards are listed as 3, 6, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, and 25mm.

Wheel Alignment

True story. I recently put my car in for an oil change and a few other minor services, including an alignment. When the report came back at the end of the visit, it said that one of the angles (caster/camber/toe; I don’t recall which it was now) was off by 0.25°. I decided to test the service rep a bit and asked him if that was a lot. I could tell immediately that I caught him off guard, because he asked to see the report, uttered a long “ummmmm”, and looked around the room (I assume) for a nearby mechanic. After a short pause, he pointed to the 0.25° pre-alignment metric and with confidence said, “You know what a 45° angle looks like, right? This is about half that, so yeah, that was pretty big.” I just nodded, thanked him, and drove away amazed that I had managed to get around town for so long without doing donuts up and down the road.

Capillary Action

Here is a neat experiment for the kids. Place six juice glasses on the counter or table arranged in a circle (or hexagon?) as close together as possible. Fill every other glass with water (i.e. empty, full, empty, full…etc.) all to the same level, about three-quarters full. In the three glasses containing water, add a few drops of food coloring (different colors; red, yellow, and blue are good choices) and stir well. Now take six napkins or paper towel squares, roll or fold each, and bend in the middle. Drape the napkins over the rims of the glasses such that one end of each napkin is in a glass with colored water and the other end is in one of the empty glasses adjacent to it. When finished, the six glasses should be “chained” together with the napkins. Now wait. Eventually you will see water gathering in the bottom of the empty glasses. The colors will mix, proving that some of the water is coming from the glass on the left and some from the glass on the right. If you took my advice on using the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), then the glasses that started off empty will contain the secondary colors (orange, green and purple). This transfer of water will continue until equilibrium is reached and all of the glasses contain the same amount. This effect, called capillary action (and a few other names) is caused by a combination of surface tension and adhesive forces. [Note: the adult version of this experiment works as follows. Brew a cup of coffee. Place a napkin – or better yet, a super-absorbent paper towel – on top of the cup because a fly is loose in the house. Get distracted with some other vital task, like checking your blog stats or killing the fly. When the center of the napkin or towel eventually absorbs enough steam from the coffee, it will sink into the cup and a few minutes later, coffee will have transferred from the cup to the place mat and/or the super-absorbent and now super-stained table cloth.]


April 7, 2020: COVID-19 Dashboards, SafeYouTube

COVID-19 Dashboards

I doubt that anyone reading this is unaware of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on the world over the past few months. I really didn’t want to blog about it at all, but it’s really hard to ignore, so here we are. The following are a couple of dashboards I’ve been using to monitor the spread of the disease.

nCoV2019.live – This has been my go-to dashboard from the beginning of the pandemic. It was created by a very enterprising high school student in Washington State by the name of Avi Schiffmann. I like it because it looks nice on mobile and breaks down the statistics not only by country/region, but also by State (so I can keep an eye on Texas, of course). There is also a recovery and fatality rate shown for each section, which I think were added recently.

covid19dashboards.com – This site has a lot of graphs to play with. You can look at growth by state, projected mortality rates, all sorts of stuff. And on many charts, you can highlight specific states and see how they are faring against the national average. The “Deaths per Capita” is the chart I’ve been watching the closest.


Distance education is a new and interesting challenge, as many parents around the world are now discovering, especially when there is a variety of solutions and technologies being utilized with little or no consistency. Instructional videos have been my biggest peeve so far. Some teachers upload MOV files directly from their phones to Google Classroom, but most upload them to YouTube…which, unfortunately, we block as part of our parental-control regimen. He had to loosen controls for a while and hope for the best.

Thankfully, one of the teachers started publishing links to her videos using SafeYouTube.net. The great news is that anyone can generate links, even parents. Just visit the site and paste the URL to any YouTube video and a new link will be generated for you. Not only does the new page exclude all of the excess page elements, like search capabilities, related/suggested videos and comments, but the viewer doesn’t get blocked (at least not with our setup, but I cannot guarantee it will work perfectly for everyone without some additional configuration).

I had been toying with the idea of writing some sort of proxy server that would cache requested videos and present them in a similar fashion, but now there’s no need. The site has an API too, so I may end up creating a self-service function that will save me from having to generate links by hand. They will only be able to generate links using YouTube URLs they already have.

Sharing & Feedback

I have found the resources covered in this post to be incredibly helpful, so please, share this post with your friends. If you have questions or comments about the items above, please leave them in the comment section below or feel free to send them to me via Twitter (@brandonsnotepad). Thanks!


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I have always been fascinated by the stars. When I was young, it was the mythology that captured my imagination, and only as an adult, the science.

For now, this is a growing list of stargazing-related articles. I am certain that some logical organization will eventually emerge.