The Amateur Mad Scientist – Episode 2

Haha! And you thought this was gonna be another of those Life of an English Major “series” that I lose interest in two weeks later and forget about. But no! There are now at least two episodes of the Amateur Mad Scientist. In the last episode, I put five pillbugs in a nasty-ass recycled deli container and tried to force them to breed. This one’s not quite that mean, if for no other reason than no macroscopic organisms are involved. I present to you: the Super-Ghetto Biosphere.

For an enclosure, I decided to use a little glass jar that totally didn’t used to have tartar sauce in it.

To that, I added sand enriched with organic material. Sand I totally didn’t steal from my hermit crabs. And then the water. Nasty-ass water. Water, like, swimming with little critters. Paramecia ‘n’ shit, yo. Sorry…that joke was fucking stupid. But anyway: the water is also fortified with organic matter (not floating aquarium-snail poop, I promise).

And now the keystone of the entire ecosystem: a cutting of the infamously tenacious water wisteria plant (Hygrophilia difformis). Because if experience has taught me anything, there’s nothing plants like more than being sealed in jars.

So that’s the setup as of 6-22-2011. I’ll post pictures over the weeks to come detailing my resounding success (Ha!). Watch this space!

Update: As pf 7-2-2011, the plant is still (somehow) alive, and has deigned to throw down at least one root. Also, algae.

Update: As of 7-7-2011, the plant is still, in spite of my worst efforts, alive, and the algae has proliferated and started consuming all the detritus I was too damn lazy to screen out.

Visual Numbers: The Next Generation (I)

Hey, just because I’m an English major now doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a bit of math on the side. Therefore, I present to you Visual Numbers: The Next Generation (Part I, insert obligatory Star Wars joke).

I’ve always been a big fan of fractals. I was imagining fractal-esque recursive structures back when solving 2x + 5 = 0 seemed intimidating. Recently, in my wanderings through the hallowed halls of physics, I stumbled across the idea of generating fractals by coloring each pixel of an image according to the final state of a differential equation, with the x and y coordinates of that pixel as input parameters. Of course, being an incompetent programmer, I haven’t been able to write a stable integrator for a differential equation, but I’m just smart enough to manage simple stuff like the discrete logistic map, where every new x is computed according to the formula x = λx(1-x), where λ is a constant. The other day, I had a brainstorm and decided to create a two-dimensional version of the same sort of thing, only with x as a vector and replacing x at each step with F(x), where F is a vector function. Basically, all that means is that I now have two integer variables to play with, which allows for more interesting behavior and allows me to create pretty pictures like this:

In this image, each pixel is colored according to the following rule: all pixels start out white. Then, each pixel is turned into a vector v(x,y), where x and y are the pixel’s coordinates. The function v(x,y) = v(-x.y,x.x + floor(0.5 * x.y)) is then applied repeatedly for a fixed number of steps (in this case, 750). If at any point during iteration the vector reaches a previously-visited point, then that point forms a closed, repetitive orbit in 2-space and the pixel is colored black. If this doesn’t happen, the pixel is left white.

The shapes here are pretty nice, even if I do say so myself. From some prior experiments with similar mappings, I think that the smaller black ellipses with banding and satellite blobs represent orbits shaped like three elliptical orbits connected into a weird triangle, and that the large oval with the large banding represents the “spirograph-like” orbits.

The really neat thing about mappings like this is that they’re a (relatively) computationally-inexpensive alternative to the differential-equation mappings I discussed earlier. I’m no great mathematician (obviously), but I get the feeling that these two-dimensional mappings are discretized analogues of the mapping that generates the ever-beautiful Mandelbrot Set.

Interestingly (and here I’m playing mathematician again), you can write this type of mapping this way:

F(v) = v(ax + by,cx + dy). In the case of the above map, a = 0, b = -1 , c = 1, d = 0.5.  With a = 0.5, b = -1, c = 1, and d = 0.1, you get a beautiful spiral pattern:

It’s a little hard to see because the orbits are so dense, but this pattern is actually fractal, too (or seems to be): there are smaller spirals to the top-center and left-center of the big one, and what looks like unformed proto-spirals in between those.

And this lovely pattern is created by a = 0, b = -1, c = 1, d = 0.1. Note the eleven-pointed stars in the upper right and left and the lower right. Watch this space for more mathematical prettiness.

The Size of the Sun

Sun and Earth

In the above image, the tiny red rectangle towards the middle of the Sun represents (approximately) the surface area of the Earth. Meaning that the sunspot above it is almost big enough (approximately; some perspective effects come into play) to encompass the entire surface of the Earth. Odds are that everything you have ever done or seen has taken place in an area smaller than a sunspot. The universe is odd.

(Image courtesy of NASA’s remarkable Solar Dynamics Observatory)

The Amateur Mad Scientist (Part 1)


Oh hi. Didn’t see you there.

Sorry, I haven’t done this for a while. The ol’ sense of humor is kinda rusty. But, it seems that I’m back, and even geekier than ever.

The amateurish picture you see above is of two pillbugs (probably Oniscus spp. Edit: Probably Armadillidum nasatum), the coolest terrestrial crustaceans in existence. Their main functions in the forest ecosystem are consuming detritus and excreting soil (poop). Also, entertaining lonely twenty-somethings on Friday nights. They’re incredibly cute, completely harmless, easy to keep as pets, and if you don’t mind waiting a while, they make great compost. Ha! who needs cats?

But as well as being a nerd, I’m also a man. A manly man. With at least seventeen confirmed chest hairs. So, I like my coffee hot, my whiskey lukewarm, my women buxom (or plain, I’m not picky), and my bugs HUGE. And since the gigantic (we’re talking the size of my nose, and my nose is big. GRRRR!) pill millipede (see below) is native to the tropics and doesn’t do well in captivity, I thought “I’m a nerd. I’ve got spare time. Why not make my own?”

Glomeris marginata

So begins my new series “The Amateur Mad Scientist.” Experiment 1: the evolution through artificial selection of gigantic f**cking pillbugs! I started out with five of the largest Oniscus Armadillidum adults I could pull out of my dad’s compost heap (I’m almost afraid to look in my compost heap after the maggot episode of a few months ago…). Five is a nice number, and easy to keep track of, and most importantly, gives me roughly a 96.8% chance of having at least one male and one female. When they reproduce and the hatchlings grow to full size, I’ll pick the biggest ones and leave them in the experimental colony (the losers I’ll transfer to my aquarium-sized pillbug-millipede colony, after calling them sissies and stealing their lunch money, of course). I’m honestly not entirely sure how long a pillbug generation is, but I imagine (meaning: I hope) I’ll see the effects before too long. Watch this space!

Other Business: I’m going to try to get back into the habit of posting stuff. I’ve got a couple of NetLogo simulations worth talking about, and some other things. So yeah. Watch this space.

EDIT: So two of the pillbugs died and I got to thinking “How would I feel if someone put me in a Tupperware container and tried to breed me into a race of giants?” And I decided that I would, in response, crawl out of the container while my captor was asleep, shit in his eye, and crawl into his ear and eat his brain. The surviving pillbugs are now back in the wild, no doubt talking all kinds of shit about me, none of which, I assure you, is true.


A while ago, I promised some big(gish) news. Well, here it is: The Life of an English Major is getting rebooted. I’m switching to a new username and moving to a new patch of land in WordPress country. After four years (has it really been…?) I find myself a completely different person than the whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic who booted this blog in the first place. Don’t worry, I’m still a whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic, and I plan to do a lot of things the way I’ve been doing them since the blog began. Here are a few of the Life of and English Major set-pieces that won’t be going anywhere:

  • Visual Numbers: It’s true, I’m an English major now, but I do still love Math. A year ago, Math and I had a messy divorce after a long and increasingly loveless marriage. Now that I’m married to English and my ex and I have reconciled, I’ve decided to stay married to English and just have a steamy affair with Math behind English’s back. And what all that torturous mess means is: I’m going to keep up Visual Numbers, my (sort of) long-running series of posts visualizing the beautiful patterns that lurk in numbers, along with whatever interesting mathematical ramblings I manage to concoct.
  • Random bits and pieces: One reader found my blog by Googling “insect crawling up the rectum.” And I’m always seeing amusing targeted ads here and there. May it ever be so.
  • Stuff for writers: I love to write. I also love to write about writing (mainly because it’s a lot easier to write about it than to actually do it). I’m sure now that I’m actually almost kinda semi-serious about it, I’ll have more to say.
  • Reviews of stuff: I do love to give my cynical and often simpleminded opinion about things, and I shall continue to do so. Less simplemindedly now, I would hope.
  • Netlogo simulations: I do still love to program in NetLogo, and if I should happen to write a decently amusing simulation, I’ll let you know about it.
  • Random ideas like this one.
  • Random speculations and musings.
  • Unwise experiments with food and dangerous chemicals.

Hopefully, I’ll also come up with a few new things to do. In addition, there’s going to be a lot less random bitching and whining, half-baked ideas, and a hell of a lot more spelling and grammar checking (when I saw that I’d written “it’s” where I should have written “its,” I died a little). And there’s not going to be any politics. None. None at all. I have reached an advanced stage of serenity an disillusionment when it comes to politics. I’m going to take care of my little patch of the world, and that’s all I can hope to do. Let the politicians argue about the placesettings on the Titanic.

The re-vamped Life of an English Major should be up and running soon. See you there!

An Update (No, Really)

I’m still here. I’m still alive (mostly). I’m just busy. Like, really busy. Beavers? Beavers ain’t got nothin’ on me. I promise I’ll be updating again soon. (Hopefully) I’ll have some big(gish) news soon.


I’m not going to pretend to know the miseries of the Haitian people after the earthquake, and I’m not going to use guilt or pathos to appeal to anyone. I just want to say that, if you’ve got any money at all to spare, spare a little for Haiti. It’s in pretty rough shape, and it could really use the help. I suggest giving to the American Red Cross, I think they’re fairly reputable, but give wherever and however much you can.