September 29, 2006
So, you think you can design a mascot?
It's still four years away, but the preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are in full-swing. And the 2010 organizing committee has turned its attention to one of the million little details to take care of before the Games begin...coming up with a mascot.
A bad mascot can be a disaster. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, that Games' mascot... a weird looking creature named Izzy... was the object of derision and ridicule. And having a stupid mascot wasn't just a matter of embarrassment; it cost the Olympics millions of dollars in lost royalties. The 2010 Olympic organizing committee wants to avoid that fiasco, so they've thrown the mascot process wide open. This week they issued a RFP for the mascot design. It's open to professionals (individuals or companies) in the fields like illustration, animation, graphic design, and fine arts. This first round RFP is to choose the folks who get the actual shot at the mascot design, and the deadline is tight... if you want to apply you have to let the Olympic committee know by Oct. 11, and get all of your application info in by the 1st of November.
The winning mascot design will be revealed to the world during the second half of 2007.
Airbags for motorcyclists
Technology has made driving much safer in the last couple of decades. Unless you drive a motorcycle that is. After the invention of modern motorcycle helmets, there really hasn't been much improvement. But now there is development in an area you wouldn't have thought possible...motorcycle airbags.
Earlier this month Honda announced they had figured out how to build a practical motorcycle airbag. The bag is triggered by sensors mounted on the bike's front fork, and it fires the airbag in the event of a head-on collision.
That's all well and good for a head-on, but what about spilling your bike when you hit a gravel patch while rounding a curve? A company called hit-air has you covered. They've created a motorcycle airbag jacket lined with inflatable pockets. Get tossed from your bike and airbags inflate around your neck, chest and back. The airbag jacket doesn't use lots of complicated electronics like automobile airbags and Honda's motorcycle bag. Instead, the rider clips a cable attached to the bike to his jacket once he's on the bike. If the rider falls off the bike, the cable yanks a trigger that fires compressed air cartridges to inflate the jacket. The company says there's little danger of the jacket firing off if a rider forgets to disconnect the jacket when dismounting...you have to pull the cable way harder than that. You can also re-user the jacket after a spill, just screw in some new compressed gas cartridges. Assuming of course you're not now terrified of getting back on your bike.
P.S. BTW, check out Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash for the future of protective clothing, as worn by Y.T., the skateboard-riding uber courier.
Pluto: latest update
A little bit more Pluto-related action (for the story thus far, click here).
I was delighted to learn that the Science Museum in London has added my bumper sticker to their permanent collection. Now I do belong to the ages!
I was also delighted to learn that someone has made a bumper sticker based on mine, taking the opposite point of view. I got one immediately. You can too.
September 27, 2006
Walk on water
There's an astonishing art installation right now in London, called Bridge. Michael Cross took a former church and flooded it with water. Sunk beneath the water, a series of stepping stones. Stand at the water's edge and the first stone rises up out of the depths. Step on that first stone, and the next stone slowly surfaces, one step ahead. Step forward again, and another stone rises up in front of you, while the stone behind sinks away again. It takes 30 steps to make it out to the middle of the lake within the church, another 30 steps to go back the way you came.
Visitors to Bridge (which is part of the London Design Festival) say that participants have widely varying reactions. Some think it's a wonderful experience, others find the whole thing terrifying. Personally, I don't know if I'd try it. But I sure would love to see it.
How to draw one second of The Incredibles
There's a brief moment in The Incredibles where Dash, the little kid brother, does a double-take, his face going from an expression of happiness to one of surprise and fear. That sequence was created by Pixar animator Victor Navone, and on his blog Navone has de-constructed that take frame by frame. Even though it's just a tiny moment in one shot of one scene of the movie (the sequence lasts less than one second) Navone and Incredibles director Brad Bird put an amazing amount of thought into it...
Frame 7 - Pop! The eyelids spring open. They do a fast-out as if they were forcibly yanked up by the brows. The brows continue up slightly, overshooting the "B" pose. The mouth is reversed into a frown but is still closed. It starts to narrow as the jaw stretches, giving it a sense of volume preservation. Note the shrinkage of the pupils AND irises. Real human irises don't shrink, of course, but this is animation and it makes for a clearer, more extreme attitude. Normally this and the following frame would be considered "off-model" for Dash, since it doesn't really look like him any more. I can get away with this because it's happening in a fast action. I would never hold a pose this extreme.
One of the big differences between animation and live action film is that in animation there is nothing accidental on the screen...every background building, every cloud, every leaf, every twitch of every eyebrow...is explicity created, the result of deliberate thought. I think this mini-tutorial is a wonderful view into that thought process. Check out Navone's tutorial here. You may also enjoy Navone's blog.
September 25, 2006
I speak at Google
Google has a regular series of Tech Talks, where people from all branches of science and technology talk about their fields of interest. I was today's speaker, talking about a subject that's long fascinated me... the endless path of innovation that's taken place in the areas of mapping and geodesy. If you're a Google employee visiting my blog for the first time, Welcome!. Here's a link to some selected readings if you're interested in learning more about the people I profiled today. If you want the PowerPoint of my talk (Warning! It's a big-ass 37 MB file, and I doubt it makes much sense on it's own without my accompanying speech) you can download it by right-clicking or Ctrl-clicking on this link and saving the file to your local machine.
Google says they will have the video of my talk online in a few days.
September 23, 2006
Live inside a Yes album cover
It turns out that Roger Dean, the artist who created those mind-blowing Yes album covers back in the 70s, has been delving into architecture in the recent years. He's offering his own design of homes... a rounded, hobbit-looking pre-fab affairs that would be right at home in one of his paintings. The homes are very cleverly designed, made of cast concrete sections that are then quickly and easily assembled on-site. Dean also has plans for an entire village, called Willowater, to be built in the English countryside.
Small World winners announced
A small...I mean really small... bit o'beauty for your weekend. Nikon has announced this year's winners of their Small World photography competition. Nikon (which makes a lot of high end equipment for photomicrography) has held this contest for more than 30 years (see past winners here), and this year's winners are another jaw-dropping collection of the weird, colorful, and beautiful. This year's grand prize winner is a stunning blue photograph of a tiny section of a mouse's colon. (The shot above is the second place winner, of some cyanobacteria and a diatom).
A photo exhibit of the winners will be touring science museums in the U.S. and Canada in the coming year, and Nikon's putting out a calendar of the winners.
September 22, 2006
Amazing composite photo of the Thames
The River Thames in London is a real working river, filled with commercial shipping traffic, commuter ferries, tour boats, naval vessels, you name it. And in recent years the amount of river traffic has exploded, leading to all sorts of congestion problems.
The Daily Mail newspaper in London has a story about all of this, but what caught my eye was the brilliant photograph accompanying the story. Photographer Alisdair MacDonald snapped a shot of every boat that passed by London Bridge in one hour, and then composited them into one image to give a powerful visual sense of the overcrowding of the Thames. I think this is a great example of how a manipulated news image can illustrate a story better than a straight photograph. You can see an somewhat enlarged version of the photo (and read the story) here.
September 21, 2006
Time lapse of Second Life's hotel
In the last couple of months there's been a real explosion of commercial promotion and advertising in the online world Second Life... things like American Apparel opening a store in Second Life and Toyota seeding Second Life with virtual Scion automobiles.
Now add the new upscale Aloft Hotel chain to that list. Aloft is building a full size model of one of their hotels in Second Life, and they've just posted a cool time-lapse movie of the hotel's construction. It's interesting to see the similarities and differences of virtual vs. real construction (even in a virtual world ya gotta grade the land first, but you don't have to worry about walls collapsing, so it's OK to build the walls of a five story building without any trusses or bracing, something that would be impossible in the physical world).
September 20, 2006
Happy MacArthur Day!
Yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year, the day that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this year's MacArthur Fellows. The Fellowships (unofficially but universally known as "genius awards") give a select few people working in the arts, science, or the humanities a cool half million dollars each, no strings attached.
The thing that I love so much about the MacArthurs (besides the basic karmic goodness of an organization that out of the blue just gives folks doing great work big-ass piles of cash) is that I get to learn about a bunch of amazing people I never would have heard of otherwise. Sure, like millions of parents, I've introduced my kids to the great picture books of new MacArthur recepient David Macaulay and I've listened to the music of John Zorn, but I had no idea about the amazing things being done by some of these other people.
For instance, check out D. Holmes Morton, a country doctor in Pennsylvania who specializes in treating genetic disorders in Amish children. Or Josiah McElheny, who creates astonishing sculptural works in glass. Or Linda Griffith, who's figuring out new ways to grow human tissue in the laboratory.
Tell you what... take five minutes, look at the full list of this year's MacArthur Fellows, and read the bio of someone you find interesting. It's worth it.
P.S. It was my great pleasure to once work for someone who later received a MacArthur fellowship, broadcasting visionary Bill Siemering.
September 19, 2006
Customers get to help design the next generation of digital recorders
The online store Think Geek has all sorts of wonderful tech gadgets and ephemera... everything from high-tech lava lamps to T-shirts that say "Obey Gravity, it's the law!"
Now they're offering something called the Neuros OSD Linux Media Recorder, a kind of uber-device that will let you grab and play back TV shows, radio programs, music, etc., plus translate audio and video for use on your cellphone, plus all sorts of other things, including some features that have yet to be invented. Which brings us to what's so special about this product.
The Neuros OSD is fully hackable, and Neuros is taking advantage of that, by offering cash bounties for programmers who can figure out how to add new functionality to their product. Figured out how to integrate the device with a USB telephone? Neuros will pay you 500 bucks. Can you come up with a way to have the OSD grab YouTube videos? They'll pay you 1,000 dollars for that. Neuros has full details about the bounty program on their website.
This is taking things to the next level. First there were products that were pretty much unalterable (e.g. televisions). Then there were products that are open to extensive customization (e.g. PCs). Now here's a product that is not only hackable, the company will actually pay you to hack it.
September 18, 2006
How to legally cheat at roulette
Back in the 80s one of my all-time favorite books was The Eudaemonic Pie, the true story of how a bunch of physics grad students built a hidden electronic gizmo that would let them cheat at roulette (the device would secretly record how fast the wheel was spinning, how fast the ball was whizzing around the track, and how quickly both were slowing down. The device would then quickly determine in which part of the wheel the ball was likely to come to rest. It would cut the odds down from 1 in 38 to about 1 in 10, enough to make betting profitable).
Electronic roulette devices are illegal in Las Vegas and other U.S. casino spots, but a quirk in British law means such devices are not illegal over there. And the devices have gotten smaller and more and more accurate. As a result, according to this fascinating article in the Guardian newspaper, they're selling like hotcakes. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the end of roulette.
[Roulette wheel photo from redune/flickr.com]
Jacque Fresco's Future by Design
For more than a half-century, inventor and futurist Jacque Fresco has been on a quixotic quest to redesign cities, transportation... hell, all of human society when you get right down to it. Envisioning changes on a scale right up there with R. Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, Fresco champions what he calls a 'resource-based economy' that replaces the need for the scarcity-oriented monetary economy we have now.
There's now a documentary film about Fresco called Future by Design. It's not exactly in what you would call wide release, but it looks like it would be worth keeping an eye out for it. And the trailer is definitely worth a look.
September 16, 2006
Jill Greenberg's Monkey Portraits
Disturbing yet riveting. Dramatic yet funny. Nature, yet high fashion. It took Jill Greenberg five years to make these meticulously crafted photographic portraits of monkeys. See them online at The Paul Kopeikin Gallery website and in her new book, also called Monkey Portraits. Want to see them in person? They'll be on display at the Clampart Gallery in New York beginning October 12.
September 14, 2006
The Royal Society puts their 340 years of publications online
If you're a history of science junkie (or if you just like looking at cool old stuff) this is great news. For the rest of the year, England's Royal Society is offering their archives -- all 340 years of it -- on line for free viewing. This is an unbelievable collection of stuff. Among the highlights:
Benjamin Franklin's report on his experiments with electricity.
Francis Crick and James Watson describe the double helix structure of DNA.
Alexander Fleming's discovery of pennicillin.
After the New Year, the archives will still be available, but at a cost (between 8 and 25 pounds (U.K.) per article). Hopefully, the good press the Royal Society is getting from the free trial will persuade them to make the free offer permanent.
September 13, 2006
Robots in sickness and in health
A couple of items from the world of robots...
In Japan there's now a robot hospital. The Kazawa Roboclinic in Osaka is set up to deal with your limping Aibo or catatonic Robosapien. Personal robot toys are a BIG deal in Japan, and some people can become VERY attached to their little robot buddies, so the Roboclinic is feeling a real need.
Japanese roboticists are also working on giving robots better manners. The Humanoid Robotics Centre at Waseda University in Tokyo is looking at how people interact with robots, and vice versa. The theory is that robot servants are going to become a bigger and bigger part of our lives, and we want them to make our lives easier, not more annoying. That means teaching robots thousands of little human foibles, like that it's OK to vacuum your rug, but not when your asleep on the couch.
There's a great article on making robots more humane in the current issue of New Scientist magazine.
September 11, 2006
Do bike helmets increase your chances of being hit by a car?
Ian Walker, who studies traffic psychology at the University of Bath in the U.K., has just released a fascinating new study that shows that if you wear a helmet overtaking cars pass by you more closely than if you're not wearing a helmet. Walker equipped himself with an ultrasonic distance device, hopped on his bike, and recorded how close more than 2,500 vehicles were when they passed him on the streets and roads of Salisbury and Bristol. His conclusion...wear a helmet and the average car passes you at a distance of 1.33 meters (4 feet, 4 inches). Don't wear a helmet and cars give you three inches more room when they pass. Walker theorizes that wearing a helmet indicates to the driver that you are a more experienced cyclist, and are therefore less likely to make sudden turns or otherwise behave unpredictably. (Of course, that may not be true at all, since inexperienced cyclists are particularly urged to wear helmets).
There's an article about the study in today's Daily Mail newspaper.
P.S. Don't let this study trick you into doing something stupid. Of course you should always wear a helmet when cycling. There are lots of other ways to have a bike accident than by being swiped by an overtaking car.
[photo by Hey Paul/flickr.com]
Thousand of Yankee fans help Rob find his seat
The mysterious group known as Improv Everywhere has done it again. This time, they decided to see what would happen if Rob, the most helplessly lost person in the world, tried to find his seat at Yankee Stadium. Would total strangers...thousands of them... band together to help Rob? Hell yes!
EPA to get all of its energy from renewable sources
According to this press release from the Environmental Protection Agency, from now on the EPA will be getting all of their electricity from renewable sources...
EPA is the first and only major federal agency to purchase green power equal to 100 percent of its estimated annual electricity use nationwide.
As of September 2006, EPA will be purchasing nearly 300 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of green power annually in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs) or delivered product. This amount is equal to 100 percent of the total estimated annual electricity consumption at all of EPA’s nearly 200 facilities across the country—enough electricity to power 27,084 homes for an entire year.
I think it's probably too much under this administration to hope that other federal agencies will follow suit, but I think grass-roots efforts to get organizations like universities, museums, and churches to make the switch to renewable power could be really effective.
September 09, 2006
I bed jump, and I vote!
You've almost certainly never trashed a hotel room like a rock star. And sad to say, there's a good chance you may never have had a delicious illicit affair in a hotel room in an exotic foreign locale. But there's one bit of hotel-based indulgence open to you... the bed jump.
bedjump.com captures men and women (and kids too) in mid-flight, as they leap onto their hotel beds. Check out the photos... better yet, take a photo of yourself making the leap!
September 08, 2006
Oahu's last tiki bar is up for sale
Looking for a change of career? How about taking over the last tiki bar on Oahu? The La Mariana Sailing Club has been serving up umbrella-festooned drinks since 1955, but now the owner, 92-year old Annette L. Nahinu, says it's time for someone else to take over. She'll hand you the keys to the place for a measly three million bucks. The bar is down a dirt road on the outskirts of Honolulu, and it's a veritable museum of tiki art and culture, filled with decorations from the original Trader Vic's and other tiki cool spots that are no longer around. There's a full article in The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper.
TO DO in L.A. Sunday night: Check out the Menger sponge
If you're looking for the perfect way to cap off your weekend in L.A., why not pop over to Machine Project and check out the giant Menger sponge made entirely from business cards? I know, that sounds like going to see the world's largest ball of twine or something, but the Menger sponge is one of the easiest to understand...yet most mind-blowing...shapes in all of fractal geometry. As it gets more and more detailed the sponge's volume gets closer and closer to zero while at the same time its surface area approaches infinity.
This sponge isn't infinite, but it sure is a whopper. It took volunteers nine years to build it, out of more than 66,000 business cards, and it weighs 150 pounds. This Sunday night Dr. Jeannine Mosely, the woman who organized the build, talks about the science of the Menger sponge, and about the crazy hobby fanaticism of trying to build one. The talk begins at 8 PM, but you may want to get there early (since a large part of the smallish gallery space is taken up by the Sponge of Honor.
Machine Project is located at:
1200 D North Alvarado Street (by Sunset)
Los Angeles, CA 90026
September 07, 2006
The Smoke Tree
This past week the happening place to be was Linz, Austria. That's because Linz was ground-zero for the Ars Electronica Festival. It looks like there were all sorts of amazing exhibits and seminars (many podcasts are available) and, of course, some astonishing art.
One of the pieces receiving the most buzz was John Gerrard's Smoke Tree. It's a 3-D display of a single oak tree in an Irish pasture. The scene is strikingly realistic except for the fact that the tree seems to be growing clouds of smoke instead of leaves. The smoke (which represents the carbon the tree would give off if trees didn't convert convert carbon dioxide to oxygen) ever so slowly billows, and the sky changes in real time to match day and night. After 200 years(!) of viewing, the virtual tree will die and fall over.
It sounds like you have to see the actual interactive display to get the full power of the piece, but even the video on John Gerrard's website looks pretty damn cool.
Coming soon: The Science of Sleep
The website for Michael Gondry's forthcoming movie The Science of Sleep is now up. As you would expect from the director of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and some of the greatest videos ever, the website is wonderfully quirky. Take a few minutes and go play.
September 06, 2006
Get a better handle on your energy use
One third of the energy you'll use today will be used at home...your TV, your lights, the refrigerator, maybe the computer you're using to read this blog. You want to reduce your energy use at home, but how to begin? Just yelling "turn out the lights!!!" isn't going to cut it.
There's a whole new generation of power meters coming to market that give you more details about your electricity use than you ever thought possible (for instance, check out the one from More Associates). The BBC has a fine article about the meter revolution.
September 04, 2006
TechShop makes personal fabrication one step closer
We are at the dawn of a new revolution, similar in size and ramifications to the personal computer revolution. This revolution is about personal fabrication... the ability to design complex physical objects and then just make them, using a variety of powerful, computer aided tools.
The signs of this revolution are everywhere... in the publication last year of Neil Gershenfeld's(*) book Fab, in the popularity of Make Magazine, in the explosion in the use of computer-aided fabrication devices in design schools.
In not too many years, it will be as commonplace and as simple to crank out a few copies of a chair or lamp that you've designed as it is now to mix and rip some music CDs on your PC.
If you live near Menlo Park, CA (about 30 miles south of San Francisco), you can get a head start on the revolution by joining TechShop. It's an open-to-the-public fabrication facility with just about every tool and machine you could ever want to use... milling machines, 3-D printers, sand blasters, plasma cutters, vacuum casters, silkscreen printing presses, welding rigs... you name it, they got it. And don't worry about not being expert in all of this stuff, they assume most people don't know (yet) how to use these things, so they offer lots of quick classes to get you up to speed.
Use of TechShop is by membership... a monthly pass costs $100, $1,000 dollars gets you a full year. A bargain! I can't wait for them to open a branch in L.A.
(*)There was a good interview with Neil Gershenfeld last year on the public radio program Weekend America.
September 03, 2006
Writing with water
Earlier this summer, I came across a mechanical device that uses wave interference to form letters on the surface of a pool of water (check out the blog post and cool photo). Today I learned about another great device for writing with water.
By precisely turning on and off streams of falling water, the device creates the effect of sheets of falling letters. Look at the video on this page to see what it in action. I'm amazed by the detail...it's not just rough block letters, you can even be sleective about fonts! Amazing.
[Thanks Wooster Collective]
A little bit o' visual beauty for your weekend...check out director/cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay's beautiful commercial for Nike, titled Defy.
September 02, 2006
Automats are back!
The rise and fall of automats almost exactly spans the 20th century...the first one opening in Philadelphia in 1902, the final one closing in 1991.
But now the automat is back! The Bamn automat just opened up in downtown Manhattan. The menu is part traditional automat fare (hamburgers, mac & cheese) and part asian (pork buns; Japanese-seasoned beef sliders). The food is housed inside glass-fronted vending machines, just like the old time automats.
We Feel Fine
Do you get more empathatic as you get older? I've been wondering about that recently, for a couple of reasons. First, I sure as hell am getting older. Second, a while back I listened to an episode of the public radio program Radio Lab dealing with the biological basis of morality and empathy. This reminded me of earlier work (some of it quoted in Richard Dawkin's classic The Selfish Gene) that looks at the relationship between a species lifespan and their behaviors.
For whatever reason, I find myself surprisingly moved by an online art piece called We Feel Fine. The piece scours blog feeds looking for phrases like "I feel" and "I am feeling". It then encapsulates those statements into swirling dots that fly open when clicked, revealing the person's statement.
We Feel Fine is created in the Processing programming language. I've put a lot of years into doing visual stuff with Flash, but every time I see something like this I start to think I should blow that off and start diving into Processing. Check out the Processing gallery for more amazing stuff.
September 01, 2006
"Honk if Pluto is still a planet." recap
Well, it's been an interesting seven days, being a minor internet meme. A number of folks have asked me for a recap:
Last Thursday, 7 AM:
I design a bumper sticker and make it available on cafepress.
Last Thursday, 11 AM:
BoingBoing puts the bumper sticker on their blog. Zillions of people see it.
Last Thursday, 2 PM:
The BBC runs a story of the Pluto controversy, mentioning the bumper sticker.
Last Friday morning:
I get interviewed by the Associated Press. They also send a photographer named Nick Ut to take some photos of me. It's only after he leaves that a friend points out some of the other photos Nick Ut has taken.
I get interviewed by Europe 1 in France.
Things seem to have died down. Checking the sales figures, I see that several hundred bumper stickers have been purchased, so I get to send a nice little chunk of change to The Planetary Society. Woo Hoo!