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This Saturday, I’ll be joining a horde of local authors in Sherwood Park for a book fair. I’ll be reading my children’s story “The Tokayak’s Tokomak”, which is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Come by, say hi, and support local artists!

Here are the details posted from the WITP website:

Book Sale and Fair

Saturday, October 19, 2013
1:00 pm – 4:00 pm

Free Admission
Book purchases are cash only

Grab a coffee, shop for books, and meet local authors at this annual celebration of writers and poets. Plus, listen to authors share their works in an open-mic session and snag an autograph on your new purchases.

Click here to find out who is coming to Words in the Park 2013!

Open-mic schedule:
1:00 pm- Mandy Eve-Barnett hosts Children’s Authors
2:00 pm- Sharon Baggs hosts Poets
3:00 pm- Linda Pedley hosts Life Stories

Strathcona County Library, 401 Festival Lane, Sherwood Park (in the Community Centre). Driving/Parking Directions

LLNL breakthrough

Image courtesy of BBC.

I spent a good chunk of my Master’s research on fusion, so I have to share this.

Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab.

Wow. This is AWESOME news.

Why? At the end of a very expensive research campaign that made big promises, there was great potential for fusion research to be shunned and pushed to the fringes indefinitely, to the great detriment of humanity. This milestone means more legitimacy in scientific communities around the world, with more effort toward this ultimate source of green energy.

We’re not quite wearing fusion belts yet, Mr. Asimov, but we’re getting there.

"You must be [mad], or you wouldn't have come here."

“You must be [mad], or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Does believing in the disappearing cat from Alice in Wonderland qualify you as a crazy-cat-person? Let’s take a gander through the looking glass and find out.

Vexing Riddles & Mannerisms

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

The Cheshire cat speaks in riddles, making him nearly unintelligible despite the fact that he can speak. There are two possibilities that need to be investigated:

1. You’re being hypnotized or mad as a hatter.

2. There are developmental reasons why the cat can’t say much of use.

Possibility 1: Hypnotization.

After some searching it would appear that Sarah Hartwell is the Internet’s foremost cat expert, and most of what I’m about to say is straight from her thorough research.

There have been suggestions that cats can call birds to them by chattering their teeth, inducing a form of hypnosis through the high-frequency jitter. It’s possible that this sound could make prey–which would normally avoid the cat–overcome caution for curiosity.

These teeth are better than any opiate.

These teeth are better than any opiate.

There are a great many curious things in Wonderland, and the Cheshire cat appears to have a tremendously large set of teeth. It might be reasonable to conclude that the purpose of his large set of fangs is solely to hypnotize and induce drug-like hallucinatory effects, which could explain a lot of what occurs in Alice in Wonderland (and despite rumours to the contrary, Lewis Carroll was not on drugs when he recorded the events).

Unfortunately there are few other easy ways to prove whether or not Alice was hallucinating during or after her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, so we shall just have to accept the possibility of madness or hallucination and keep tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Possibility 2: Cat Development.

It’s been said that dogs speak only in consonants, whereas cats make use of vowels (or vice versa, depending on who you ask). In fact, the extent to which cats seem to be able to give more nuance to their utterances prompted Alphonse Leon Grimaldi, in 1895, to declare the discovery of cat language. He made reference to 63 different notes, while others made different categorizations to try and better understand their feline companions. Some have declared there to be 19 different meows. Despite the lack of agreement there seems to be a common theme that cats have much richer inner lives than they might otherwise let on. Some have suggested that were the speech of cats studied as rigorously as birdsong, we would recognize the depth to which it really goes.

Theories abound, but little remains proven. There is anecdotal evidence that numerous cats have been reported speaking to their owners in either Turkish, Mandarin or Cantonese, but unfortunately there is a strong correlation between the number of these claims and the number of crazy cat persons.

What has been observed, however, is that cats get positive feedback from sounds. They learn that a certain sound can invoke a given behaviour in their owner, and so development continues in this vein, progressing from simple tonal indications of pleasure or displeasure, all the way to near-conversation. That’s right–cats can mimic patterns of noise and pauses, so that if you were to muffle the sound, the overall impression would be that of two people talking. And this ability seems to get better with age.

Even if the Cheshire Cat weren’t speaking originally in English, it’s possible that he has a cat-speech interpreting device that tries to make sense of his larynx output. And if he had learned to mimic conversation by tonal patterns and pauses, it’s very possible that the speechbot’s output would be exactly what was observed…


“Haste makes waste, so I rarely hurry. But if a ferret were about to dart up my dress, I’d run.”


Bending light completely around an object is no longer the realm of fiction. Metamaterials research is an intensely interesting field of research right now, and the concept of cloaking is pretty simple. We can see things because of light scattering off them. Metamaterials suppress this scatter, and bend the light in such a way as though nothing were ever there in the first place.

How is this done? The advance of nanotechnology has allowed us to create patterns on such a small scale that we really can fine-tune how all of the normally scattered waves combine. We can make them cancel out, add up, in almost anyway imaginable because of the degree to which we can now control structure. One of the major hurdles, however, is the fact that this process is colour-sensitive, so that a material can be designed to perfectly cloak one colour. However, that means we can still see it in the rest of the visible spectrum. The road toward a perfect cloak will require a lot of work getting metamaterials that work for a broad spectrum of colours, and that’ll take a lot of computing. We might have time for a few catnaps between now and then, unless we can snatch the Cheshire Cat and figure out his secret.

Perpetual, huge smile

The cats of Cheshire England could potentially have a genetic adaptation in their jaws for hypnotizing their prey, in which case the large set of teeth makes sense, and we probably have long ago stopped making sense to those around us. Another possibility, however, is the fact that the Cheshire Cat has to have a way to observe the world around him, while still perhaps remaining cloaked. That means that he must have a way of selectively letting light pass through an aperture in his metamaterial cloak.

To maximize his field of view from a small aperture, a fisheye lens could be the cat’s best bet (although he might be sorely disappointed it tastes nothing like the real organism). You might already be familiar with some of the distortion effects a fisheye lens has on an object. Now if I were to apply this effect on our cat, and suggest that perhaps the lens is a trifle wider than it is tall to account for the cat’s binocular vision, we get the following result:

He could very well have a normal smile...

He could very well have a normal smile…

Fisheye Distortion might be responsible for the Cheshire Cat's signature sneer.

… with a bit of Fisheye Distortion to give the Cheshire Cat’s signature sneer.

Fur Colour

Apparently a cat’s fur can change colour based on temperature, sun, nutrition, and age. It is hard to imagine how such a vivid colour could be created through these factors alone, and let us assume that the Cheshire Cat’s owner is not drinking the Kool-Aid, or rather, not pouring it on his poor pussycat.

Another explanation, more in line with the above arguments, is that the metamaterial cloak the Cheshire Cat uses is imperfect, and less effective for shorter wavelengths (i.e. blue and purple!). All the colours of the rainbow go gliding on by, except the famously bright hues shown above.

It’s clear the Cheshire Cat has achieved complete invisibility, even if he selectively chooses to leave his fisheye lens aperture open to interact with the world. Therefore, a further explanation is that he has a secondary device which he switches on or off, working primarily on his signature blues and purples. The primary metamaterial cloak he keeps on all the time, rendering him mostly invisible if only us pesky humans couldn’t see purple.

The Verdict

The Cheshire Cat could be a normal cat, with the following devices:

1. A cat-speech interpreter that reflects the limits of cat language mimicry.

2. A primary metamaterial invisibility cloak that doesn’t work so well on shorter wavelengths (blues and purples).

3. A secondary, switch-activated cloak that renders him completely invisible; and

4. An apertured fisheye lens near his mouth that distorts his teeth in such a way as to make his grin appear larger than it really is.

In short, the Cheshire Cat is real, and he’s out there. Right now.

The cat behind the cloak.

The cat behind the cloak.

Be sure to check back next week for the next “What if” segment. Have suggestions for the next article? Post them in the comments or e-mail hal.friesen@gmail.com.

Could this be the Cheshire cat's preliminary cloaking enclosure?

Could this be the Cheshire cat’s preliminary cloaking enclosure?


Pineapple PossibilityI probably don’t need to tell you who lives in a pineapple under the sea, but for those interested in selecting the ideal underwater dwelling, I’ve put together this helpful flow chart to get you on the right track. And here are some good reasons why you’d want to live under the sea. For the record, yes, this flowchart implies that Aqua Man would live in an aquarium.

Okay, so maybe you’re not a sponge, and maybe your pants don’t happen to be square (or rectangular, as the case may be). But you still want to live in a pineapple. Under the sea. Can you do it?

Simplifying aqueous realty since 1985.

Simplifying aqueous realty since 1985.

First of all, there is evidence that the plucky yellow sponge does not, in fact, live in a real pineapple under the sea, since his house displays bilateral symmetry which no natural pineapple would ever exhibit. It just so happens that, looking from the top of the fruit, the number of clockwise spirals and counter-clockwise spirals have totals that are two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. (The Fibonacci sequence is a collection of numbers formed by adding the two preceding values, starting with 0,1, followed by 1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.). As pointed out by Vi Hart, SpongeBob’s pineapple does not exhibit this beautiful display of math in nature.

But I digress. It is clear that the show is a fictionalized account of a heroic sponge living on the frontier of the ocean floor, and some dramatization may have misrepresented certain details. On to the more pressing matters.

The Pressure

Any diver can testify to the tremendous water pressure at very large depths. Pressurized suits (with or without squirrel) are needed beyond a certain point. Can a pineapple handle it?

The first thing the pineapple has on its side is shape. It turns out that one of the best ways to withstand the tremendous fluid pressures is with a cylindrical tower or sphere. I think our oblate tower of citrus counts.

Scientific PineappleWhat about overall compressive strength? A study in Guangdong, China, was done with the aim of making robotic pineapple pickers, who obviously do not want to rupture the fruit. It turns out that between 0.146 – 0.243 MPa is the compression limit for fresh Bali pineapple. This is about 2.4 atmospheres of pressure, and corresponds to a maximum ocean depth of 14 m. One can hardly say that qualifies as “under the sea”. We could conduct a more in-depth study ourselves on other varieties of pineapple, but that would probably involve using a penetrometer, which doesn’t sound like any fun at all. I wish I were joking.

Continually hoping robotic fruit pickers are never given penetrometers.

Continually hoping robotic fruit pickers are never given penetrometers.

Is there a way around this limit? In canning and preservation processes, structural rigidity can be increased by bathing fruit in calcium salts, which forms hard calcium pectates. It is hard to imagine that such a controlled environment could improve the compressive strength by more than double, which still only brings us down a few dozen meters. Botanists can’t solve our pineapple fever.

Maybe structural engineers can. It seems like there is a metal lining in parts (if not all) of SpongeBob’s home. Concrete compressive strength is about 50 MPa,  whilst steel is about 200 MPa (corresponding to 5000 m and 20,000 m, respectively). Mariana’s Trench (the deepest known part of the ocean) has a maximum depth of 10.9 km, so somewhere in between steel and concrete would do just fine for our fruit housing needs.

There have been demonstrable improvements to asphalt concrete by replacing the coarse aggregate with palm kernel shells. Maybe we could do the same with pineapple?

You can certainly make delicious foam with it, but that’s not of the construction variety. You can cook in it, make drinks in it, salad decorations, compile a detailed list of associated crafts on which to use its various parts, eat the shell, and even make paper out of it. But can you make a concrete composite out of it?

It seems that, generically, organic materials can be made into composites and other nifty things for construction. Even here in Edmonton, Alberta, a huge portion of the city’s waste is recycled into fuels, construction materials, quite literally using the garbage to pick up the garbage. It’s remarkable how far humanity has come in this regard. However, pineapple shell is not listed on Mother Nature’s building materials, nor is it on California’s approved green materials list. No! How has the pineapple been exempt from such fame? Surely, someone, somewhere must have realized the fruit’s potential and reused pineapple for construction?

Indeed someone has: a form of rubber with pineapple fiber and clay composites. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to the exact numbers, but if we take rubber as our baseline, then we get a compressive strength of 30 MPa, which is about 3 km underwater. Not quite the bottom of the sea, but definitely a lot closer.


I’m going to assume at this point that you don’t have a natural mechanism to extract oxygen from water. Or that if you do, you’ll share it with me. This means that your pineapple home has to be water tight, and ideally even exchange gases with the outside environment.

PineApple_underwater_bubbles_freshFortunately, all plants have protective tissue in the form of specialised parenchyma cells pressed together to make a skin that can pass water and gas. Surface cells secrete a waxy cutin that forms a water impermeable membrane. For some reason describing it that way makes it somewhat grotesque, but in this case it’s a good kind of grotesque. It means we can have a water-free environment in our pineapple.

If the pineapple were somehow kept alive, then it could even produce 22 mL/kg/hr of CO2, providing oxygen for us. As long as there is chlorophyll in the shell, ethylene would be produced too, which could perhaps be collected and used for heating.

Our permeation problems are not completely solved, however. Pineapple flesh is translucent, and with such fruits there is an increased risk of injury and disease. If handled improperly, internal bruising could start to rot the pineapple from the inside out, gradually increasing porosity and losing the glorious gas exchange on which we depend. As a botanist would say, peduncle leakage would end our dreams of stewardship in a citrus sea. Penicillium bacteria would grow in any cracks and spread until the whole thing was nothing more than a flimsy window viewing the end of our world.

Oh, and no, a peduncle is not your Dad’s brother who rides his bike a lot.


The translucency of the pineapple’s flesh brings up another issue: temperature. Below 10-12 C, the pineapple experiences “chilling injury”, which means physiological breakdown, black-heart and internal browning. Again, our home would rot from the inside out if we go below this temperature, which means our home couldn’t be any deeper than about 500 m.


Sea sponges can range from a few cm to a few metres tall, which means that no matter what our pineapple has to be a lot bigger to accomodate 3 floors and a mezzanine library.

It seems we have to turn to genetically modified pineapple, of which the only focuses so far have been for preservation and making coconut-tasting varieties.

sandy pineapple 066

Who trapped me in this tiny pineapple under the sea?

However, if we take a look at the tomato and compare it to its ancestor, we can see that it is possible to obtain a 1000-fold increase in weight through genetic engineering and domestication. If we take a base of a pineapple to be an average of 13 cm (5 inches) diameter and 20 cm (8 inches) tall, then a 1000-fold increase in weight (and thus volume) could be 1.3 m (50 inches, 4 feet) diameter and 2 m (80 inches, almost 7 feet) tall . That would be about the size of a closet, which is liveable but not quite what you might’ve hoped for.

The Verdict

Using a regular pineapple, even genetically modified, appears to limit the depth of a pineapple closet to about 30 m, assuming roughly double the compressive capacity through calcium strengthening. If we reinforce the walls, then temperature limits the depth to about 500 m, which is still far away from being totally “under the sea”. As for the size, well, unless something drastic occurs in genetic engineering, you’d be living in a pineapple closet in perpetual fear of peduncle leakage.


Dole’s monument to the pineapple.


It’s not all bad. Let’s give the pineapple some more credit. You can replant the stems and watch your pineapple grow to fruition (pun intended). There are recipes for eco-friendly liquid plumber using pineapple juice. Leave a pineapple in your vehicle and let it work its magic as an air-freshener. Use it to prevent browning in bananas. Enhance your beauty with what I’m going to casually call a super fruit. Let the pineapple’s sweetness pass into all your bodily fluids.

Still need a food-based solution for your underwater home? A coconut husk might be another alternative worthy of investigation, since it can be used even for gas masks.


The Russian hotel coming soon under an island near you.

If you’re a scientist, another option would be to work in the world’s only underwater lab. Or, if you’re rich and needing an underwater adventure in a luxurious, non-closet-sized hotel, and aren’t too picky about the pineapple part of this quest, then you might want to check out the space-age Ark Hotel.

I think they could easily make it look like a pineapple.

Be sure to check back next week for the next “What if” segment. Have suggestions for the next article? Post them in the comments or e-mail hal.friesen@gmail.com.

What if Dora's Map Were Real?As an explorer, beloved Dora is often found in the business of travel, and even more often, she is going where no one has gone before. Well, at least she’s going somewhere she hasn’t gone before. And what better tool to help her in her explorer duties than a map? She has no ordinary run-of-the-mill map, however. Would you expect anything else, really? She’s Dora the Freakin’ Explorer.

The map, once Dora gives it the destination, sings a repetitive song as though it must continually reassure itself of its identity. It then gives Dora very simple visual directions that can be broken down into three steps, one of which is the destination. On top of all this, the map is paper-thin. Although Dora probably owns the patents, we shall herein attempt to logically reverse-engineer the technology inside her navigational gadget.

Requirement #1: Voice Recognition.

The fact that Dora can simply talk to her map is no small feat, and is a relatively new addition to portable technology in smartphones. Considering that the map must be paper-thin, how can a microphone possibly fit in there? Well, it turns out that the world’s smallest microphone is 0.5 mm squared on a flat capacitor. Dora’s making use of mics that were developed for hearing aids, and transforming them into her personal aid. And with a device that small, it could easily be rolled up. So far, so good, mi amiga.

Requirement #2: Computing Power.

What about the signal processing the map must do? Thin-film transistors or even single-atom transistors are some technologies that enable a large density of computations for a very small area. IBM’s fastest transistor, a graphene transistor can perform about 155 billion cycles per second (155 GHz), and measures only 40 nanometers a side. But are these latest technologies enough juice for our bilingual explorer’s navigational needs? Before we can answer this we have to determine what exactly Dora’s needs are.

Requirement #3: Offline map storage.

It was only very recently that Google enabled offline storage of its maps. Since Dora is found in the most remote of locations with no GPS, WiFi or cell coverage, we have to assume that the Map has some offline storage. Supposedly 500 MB will store about 100 square kilometers of Google Map data. Dora is rarely around any other humans, so in order to know how much storage she needs, we need to know how much of the Earth is unpopulated.

Apparently 29% of the Earth’s surface is land, 28% of which is mostly unoccupied. If we discard deserts, Antarctica, and agricultural areas, we’re left with 40% of uninhabited areas… which constitute 11% of the Earth’s surface. This is 56 million square kilometers that Dora could potentially explore. Now you know how she got the name.

Some quick math leads us to the realization that Dora’s Map requires 280 TB (terabytes, 1,000,000,000,000 bytes) of informational storage capacity if it is to operate offline. This would cover all the images, jungle views, distances and topographical information.

Researchers in the U.K. have demonstrated flexible storage–based on thin-film zinc-oxide (ZnO) transistors–that could replace FLASH in coming years. Apparently the storage density is already up at 1 TB/square inch. Is this enough for the Map?

If we assume the Map to be an average folding map size, 25.5″ x 35.5″ (65 cm x 90 cm), we get 900 square inches, or 5800 square cm. (Sidenote: you don’t want to know what I found while searching for that information). That means that if Dora’s Map uses ZnO transistors, there’s lots of space for storage–up to 900 TB.

Requirement #4: Flexible screen with power.

Organic thin-film transistors and OLEDs, which have very high flexibility, were combined and first demonstrated by Sony as the realization of screens that could be rolled up like Dora’s map. However, in Sony’s version, the rigid integrated circuit (IC) chips for a lot of the processing–that would prevent roll-up–were moved off-screen, which is not an option for Dora’s map. So we have the screen technology, but do we have the flexible chips to do all that number-crunching?

Apparently we do, but it’s pretty early technology yet, mostly at the research stage. Many aspects of the process (silicon cracking when you get to really small thicknesses) are uncontrolled and hard to reproduce, which makes the Map grow ever more impressive as a technological wonder. Humanity is slowly catching up to Dora, though: in the last few years the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has demonstrated flexible RAM (random-access memory) capable of writing, reading and erasing data.

Also in Korea, researchers have developed flexible Lithium-ion batteries that exhibit fluid-like behaviour in order to enable compression when bending (unlike most liquids). We don’t know how long the batteries can operate, but on average the map is online on for two minutes per Dora adventure, so presumably she can charge it between trips.

Requirement #5: Flexible speaker.

The Map gives visual as well as verbal instructions, and again, all of this has to be capable of being rolled up and stuffed into a backpack. Thankfully, Fujifilm has tweaked piezoelectric technology to make sound-producing diaphragms that you can practically blow your nose with. So that’s how the Map’s catchy tunes get passed through the airwaves.

Requirement #6: Simplifying Algorithms.

Now we have all the data and hardware that we need to get our instructions from the Map. We’ve come, however, to what is arguably the Map’s most difficult challenge: the ability to parse a complicated route into 3 distinct landmarks that will ensure Dora the Explorer does not become Dora the Wandering Hermit.

Vision-based navigation is an entire branch of computational study, and a large number of matrix manipulations and calculations are required to determine the direction and location of a given object. There are inherent errors in such calculations, but the real challenge is how to pick the landmarks in the first place.

In what might seem an unrelated field of study, there are algorithms for determining facial features which are attractive, and they use morphological shaping and genetic (adaptive) algorithms applied to a broad database of what is considered “attractive”. At the end they come up with a series of shapes and features which are desirable.

Using the same logic and general algorithm formulation, then, the Map could sort through its database of maps and come up with what the average human being calls a “landmark”. It could rank them on uniqueness, and relevance to the given route in question, then provide the instructions through its flexible Fujifilm speaker.

However, since Dora is a young child making developmental leaps every day, what is considered a “landmark” for her age changes dramatically in a short period of time. Thus the Map must update his database of “landmarks” on an ongoing basis. Since we’re pushing the boundaries of almost every piece of electronic technology in existence, chances are that Dora doesn’t leave the Map running any longer than it needs to, in order to conserve battery power and save the planet (which we can readily assume she wants to do).

Therefore, the only time in which the Map can update its inventory of human-perceived “landmarks” is when Dora asks it for directions, the two-minutes during each of her epic explorations. The Map now encounters the same constraints and demands placed on any other piece of technology: we want it to work fast.

The Verdict

The technological possibility in terms of hardware and computational power makes the Map almost within reach of current technology. What seems to be the most likely area where the Map weakens, however, is in the computational demands placed upon it. Trying to sort through a potential 280 TB of data and determine what Dora currently, in her present state of mind, qualifies as a “landmark”, is an extremely onerous task, and the most likely reason for glitches in the Map’s performance. Thus despite all the technological marvels that have gone into its creation, the Map still gets stuck in repetitive loops, playing the same audio (“I’m the Map I’m the Map I’m the Map…”) over and over until it’s finished using its resources for the direction computation. It is also very likely that while it is giving the directions, the Map rechecks its results based on Dora’s reaction, in a sort of error-checking feedback loop. In that manner it repeats the instructions, ensuring acceptance by the user and positive response that these are indeed landmarks that will bring Dora to her destination.

Not a bad piece of hardware, Dora. No está mal.

Be sure to check back next week for the next “What if” segment. Have suggestions for the next article? Post them in the comments or e-mail hal.friesen@gmail.com.