Category Archives: technology

It’s a Wonderful Life in the Universe

The Webb infrared space telescope made news with the release of its first high quality images. Among those images is a rather spectacular view of a part of the sky that's featured in the opening scenes of the classic 1946 Christmas movie It's a Wonderful Life.

Here's an image that appears in the film, which features Stephan's Quintet, a group of galaxies located near the constellation Pegasus in Earth's night sky.

Stephan's Quartet, as featured in 1946's It's a Wonderful Life

Since several of these galaxies are in close enough proximity to interact with each other, they have been frequently studied by astronomers since their discovery in 1877. In 2007, NASA published the following image taken of the Quintet using the orbital Hubble Telescope, in which the orientation of the Quintet is rotated nearly 180 degrees from how it was featured in the classic movie!

Stephan's Quartet, 2007 Hubble Space Telescope Mosaic Image

This image had been the highest quality image taken of these galaxies. Until the orbital Webb telescope focused on the cluster of galaxies as part of its first set of high resolution images. The next image shows much more detail than has ever previously been seen.

Stephan's Quartet, 2022 Webb Space Telescope Image - Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Here's how NASA describes the new achievement:

Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.

With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster.

Together, the five galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92). Although called a “quintet,” only four of the galaxies are truly close together and caught up in a cosmic dance. The fifth and leftmost galaxy, called NGC 7320, is well in the foreground compared with the other four. NGC 7320 resides 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319) are about 290 million light-years away. This is still fairly close in cosmic terms, compared with more distant galaxies billions of light-years away. Studying such relatively nearby galaxies like these helps scientists better understand structures seen in a much more distant universe.

This proximity provides astronomers a ringside seat for witnessing the merging and interactions between galaxies that are so crucial to all of galaxy evolution. Rarely do scientists see in so much detail how interacting galaxies trigger star formation in each other, and how the gas in these galaxies is being disturbed. Stephan’s Quintet is a fantastic “laboratory” for studying these processes fundamental to all galaxies.

But wait, that's not all. Ethan Siegel describes the scientific advance the Webb Space Telescope has already made in observing Stephan's Quintet.

Focusing back on the cluster of galaxies itself, however, the various wavelengths of light expose a variety of features inside each of them. In the mid-infrared alone, however, you only see the gas and dust, plus one never-before-seen feature in some of these galaxies: supermassive black holes. The topmost galaxy is active, emitting radiation, as an actively feeding supermassive black hole. The variety of wavelengths over which JWST can observe, even in the mid-infrared, gives us so much information about these objects in mere days that we haven’t been able to uncover with over a century of observations prior to that.

We'll close by pointing to the online tool John D. Christensen created for comparing Hubble and Webb images to show off their relative imaging capabilities. Scroll down the page to see the comparison for Stephan's Quintet - it's remarkable how much more detail, such as much more distant galaxies, appears in the new Webb images. The most stunning difference however is shown for the Southern Ring Nebula, so be sure to check out that comparison while you're on his site!

Inventions in Everything: The Motorized Ice Cream Cone

July is National Ice Cream Month in the United States. The IIE team is marking the occasion by celebrating a U.S. patent dedicated to improving the experience of consuming ice cream: the Motorized Ice Cream Cone!

That's the official title of U.S. Patent 5,971,829, which was awarded to Issaquah, Washington inventor Richard B. Hartman on 26 October 1999. And let us tell you, this patent is special.

It is not just because of the subject of the patent, which qualifies as the kind of "Hey, Martha!"-type topic favored in the media for its "can you believe this is a thing?" content. It is because it contains this description of how ice cream is consumed:

Hand-held ice cream eating receptacles, including those commonly known as "ice cream cones," have been popular and enduring dessert items for generations. In their typical form, a cup- or cone-shaped receptacle is grasped in a person's hand in order to support and contain an individual portion of ice cream which is gradually consumed through the repeated licking actions of the person's tongue.

It is amazing that such a description needs to be provided for such a "popular and enduring dessert item" like "ice cream cones" that have been around for "generations". But to appreciate Hartman's innovation, it is important ground to cover, because in the following passage from the background of the invention, he identifies what generations of potential innovators have missed:

Because the act of eating an ice cream cone has traditionally been performed by holding a scoop of ice cream largely stationary in one's hand relative to the continuous licking movements of one's tongue, the appeal of a device that basically reverses this procedure - that is, continously moves the ice cream portion while one's tongue is held in a relatively stationary position - has been largely overlooked. However, it can be seen that such a device is enormously entertaining, extends the natural enjoyent and creative play possibilities of eating ice cream and similarly malleable foods, and enhances the overall experience of eating such foods for young children and adults alike. Therefore, it can be seen there remains a need for a novel, hand-held cup spinner for supporting, containing, rotating and sculpting an individual portion of ice cream or similarly malleable food during consumption that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, and facilitates new and entertaining methods for eating such foods.

Before we go any further, the motorized ice cream cone went on to some limited success, by which we mean it was produced and marketed for sale to consumers during the period the patent was in effect. Although it is unavailable today, it was possible to buy a Motorized Ice Cream Cone through Amazon as recently as 2012. Its marketing campaign brought it to the allegedly often alcohol-fueled fourth hour of NBC's Today show with hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb in 2009, which featured the invention in this 37-second video clip:

Although you cannot buy a motorized ice cream cone at this writing, you can however buy a framed print of pages from the patent on Amazon. Prices at this writing range from $94.95 for a 16" x 20" framed print up to $119.95 for a 20" x 24" version. It seems presenting Figure 1 from the patent, illustrating a cutaway cross-sectional diagram of the motorized assembly that rotates the ice cream from within its cone-shaped handle, combined with the text of the patent's first page that includes the portion of the background we excerpted, makes for an attractive and remarkable art piece.

Amazon: Motorized Ice Cream Cone Patent Art Print in a Beveled Black Wood Frame with a Double Mat

Proving, once again, there's more than one way to realize the utility of a utility patent! We weren't kidding when we said this patent was special!

From the Inventions in Everything Archives

The IIE team has previously presented the following two ice-cream related innovations!

Mars Recovers from First Recessionary Event

On 7 December 2022, we documented the birth of the Martian economy and estimated the planet's GDP. Six Earth months and just over one Martian quarter later, we're ready to revisit the Red Planet to find how things have changed.

And change they have, because in between then and now, Mars' economy experienced its first recession-like event. After collecting its sixth cored rock sample on 29 December 2022 and putting it into inventory, the Perseverance rover ran into a technical problem that prevented it from collecting more samples, effectively suspending economic activity on the planet. Here's the story from NASA's press release:

On Wednesday, Dec. 29 (sol 306) Perseverance successfully cored and extracted a sample from a Mars rock. Data downlinked after the sampling indicates that coring of the rock the science team nicknamed Issole went smoothly. However, during the transfer of the bit that contains the sample into the rover’s bit carousel (which stores bits and passes tubes to the tube processing hardware inside the rover), our sensors indicated an anomaly. The rover did as it was designed to do - halting the caching procedure and calling home for further instructions.

NASA subsequently determined that rocky debris from its latest core sample blocked the rover's drilling equipment from seating properly, taking it out of action until it might be cleared. Here's a photo of the debris, which you can see at the bottom of the rover's drilling bit carousel:

Debris in Perseverance's Bit Carousel: Pebble-sized debris can be seen in the bit carousel of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover in this Jan. 7, 2022, image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It took almost a full Earth month to do it, but NASA's engineers succeeded in ejecting the debris from the bit carousel, allowing the rover to continue its rock core sample collecting mission. The rover would proceed to collect its seventh rock core sample on 8 March 2022 after traveling to its location in Mars' Jezero Crater. One week later, the rover collected its eighth sample that will someday be exported to Earth.

Since then, NASA engineers directed the Perseverance rover to travel to a new location in an ancient river delta within the crater to scout where it might collect additional rock samples. It has not collected more as of the end of the Martian quarter.

That brings us to the first revision of Mars GDP for its first quarter and the first estimate of its GDP in its second economic quarter.

We find our first estimate of Mars' quarterly GDP missed the collection of the fourth sample on 24 November 2021, so we need to adjust the estimate to account for it. We find Mars' GDP in its first economic quarter would fall in a range between $88,624 and $702,464. That range is up from the previously estimated range of $66,468 to $526,848.

Having added four samples to those original four in Mars' second quarter, we estimate the red planet's GDP will likewise fall between $88,624 and $702,464. With NASA engineers making a concerted effort to be more discriminating in selecting rock samples to core and store for future export to Earth, we think Mars' GDP will run to the higher end of that range.

We should also point out that had the debris issue not arisen and required a month to resolve, the Perseverance rover might have already collected its ninth rock sample. Martian GDP has fallen below its potential GDP for the first time.

If you're curious how Mars' future export economy will work, the following video explains what planetary scientists have in mind:

Back on Earth, NASA selected Lockheed Martin to develop the rockets that will be sent to Mars to collect the rock samples currently held in inventory by the Perseverance rover on the planet's surface on 7 February 2022.

Previously on Political Calculations


Just because it's cool, here's video of a solar eclipse as seen from the surface of Mars involving its moon Phobos!

How Long to Crack Your Password with Brute Force?

How long would it take someone who has no idea what your password is but who has a lot of computational capability to crack it using brute force?

By brute force, we mean using their code-cracking computer systems to systematically run through all the possible permutations of characters that may be in your password. Which for all they know, may be anywhere from 1 to 22 characters long.

For their part, cybersecurity specialists Hive Systems put the following chart together to show how long that might take a well-equipped independent hacker. Or rather, one with the code-cracking technology Hive's analysts believe is already available to them in 2022.

Hive Systems: Time It Takes a Hacker to Brute Force Your Password in 2022

But what about tomorrow's technology? What about passwords with more than 18 characters? What if you could use more kinds of characters?

Answering questions like those is why we created the following tool, which we built after reverse-engineering the results from Hive Systems' table. If you're reading this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click through to our site to access a working version.

Password Data
Input Data Values
How many different kinds of characters can be used in your password?
How many characters are used in your password?
How many billion attempts per second can a hacker's system use to crack your password?

How Long to Crack Your Password?
Calculated Results Values
Time Needed to Crack Password Using Computational Brute Force

Here's an article discussing the math behind the tool. The default of 95 kinds of characters represents the 10 numbers, 26 lower case letters, 26 upper case letters and 33 special characters available on most U.S. English keyboards. If you play with these figures, you should be able to reasonably duplicate the results from Hive Systems' chart. Within a relatively small margin of error, that is.

The tool is also computationally limited in how many characters might be in a password, to avoid exceeding JavaScript's computational limits. We've arbitrarily limited the potential passwords to be a maximum of 20 characters, which works for 95 kinds of characters, but may not for larger potential character sets. If you get results that seem haywire for the numbers you've entereed, odds are you've run into that computational limit.

But the thing we're most leery of in building the tool is that we set "billions" as the basic unit for entering the number of attempts per second for the hacker's password cracking system. How long will it be before that seemingly large number becomes unreasonably small?

Inventions in Everything: The Imaginary Jump Rope

We live in a wireless age, cutting the cord is all the rage.

Or so it would seem. Whether it be connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi, ditching traditional cable television for digital streaming services, or shopping for the latest Bluetooth-powered wireless earbuds, the people have spoken. What they're saying is that they don't want to be physically tethered to the tech they use.

So why would anything be different for physical fitness technology?

That's part of the thinking behind inventor Lester J. Clancy's cordless jump rope, for which he was granted U.S. Patent 7,037,243 on 2 May 2006. Here's how he describes the invention in the patent's abstract:

An exercise apparatus is provided that simulates the effects of jumping rope, but does not utilize an actual rope. Two handles are provided similar in appearance to jump rope handles. At the end of the handle, where the rope would typically be, a donut-shaped enclosure is provided and mounted to the handle along its symmetrical axis. Inside of each donut-shaped enclosure, a weighted ball that rotates around a circular chamber within the enclosure. When rotated, the weighted balls generate rotational torque to simulate the use of a jump rope.

Figure 1 from the patent illustrates Clancy's conception of what a completely cordless jump rope should look like:

U.S. Patent 7,037,243 Figure 1

One cynical wag suggested a Latin name for Clancy's cordless jump rope: maracas. What possible benefit could come from eliminating the rope in a jump rope?

Reporters at CBS News asked Clancy that question back in 2006, shortly after he received his patent. The following excerpt from their story gives more background into his invention:

If you think keeping fit is merely mind over matter, Lester Clancy has an invention for you _ a cordless jump-rope. That’s right, a jump-rope minus the rope. All that’s left is two handles, so you jump over the pretend rope. Or if you are truly lazy, you can pretend to jump over the pretend rope.

And for that idea kicking around Clancy’s head since 1988, the U.S. Patent Office this month awarded the 52-year-old Mansfield, Ohio, man a patent. Its number: 7037243.

What makes this invention work is the moving weights inside the handles. They simulate the feel of a rope moving, Clancy said. Well, it’s only one handle so far because Clancy is waiting for financial backers before building its partner.

But why jump rope without a rope?

It’s perfect for the clumsy, Clancy said. “If you are still jumping, you’re still using your legs as well as your arms, and getting the cardiovascular workout. You just don’t have to worry about tripping on the rope.”

It is also good for mental institutions and prisons where rope is a suicide risk, said Clancy, who works as a laundry coordinator in a state prison. And low ceiling fans aren’t a hazard any more, he said.

Those are very practical considerations, which clearly factored into the development of his invention.

We went searching to find if his invention ever made it to the marketplace. We came up empty, but only because a different form of cordless jump rope has become popular, including one model that has garnered over 3,000 reviews on Amazon. While that other style now defines what a cordless jump rope looks like, that so many of these other kinds of cordless jump ropes exist validates Clancy's inventive vision. There is a market for imaginary jump ropes.

If you want to take things a step further, a decade after Clancy's patent was issued, Nintendo's Wii proved there is a large market for "imaginary" physical activities and sports. That's carried through to today with Nintendo's Switch, which includes, yes, a jump rope challenge.

In 2006, Clancy's invention was something that many people wrote off as silly. Today, we can say that Clancy's concept was perhaps more cutting edge than anybody appreciated at the time.

From the Inventions in Everything Archives

The IIE team has seen its share of physical activity-related patents and virtual inventions over the years. Here's a sampling of some of the innovations that solved problems you many never have known existed!