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December 31, 2006

Daisy chains

photo of daisy-chained locks

Hiking in the mountains around southern California, I often come across access roads barred by gates secured with long chains made up of padlocks, all linked together. These daisy chains of locks are the physical manifestation of a wonderfully complex social system, filled with possibilities of cooperation and betrayal.

The locks themselves are owned by various agencies (fire, sheriff, forest service) and companies (cellphone carriers, radio and TV stations, logging companies) who need access to the road. Opening up any one of the locks breaks the loop of locks chaining the gate, so everyone in the chain has equal power to use the road.

photo of daisy-chained locksBut consider what it takes to get your lock added to the chain. You can't add it unilaterally...someone who already has a lock on the chain has to open it and allow you to connect your lock to theirs, as well as to the lock they were formerly attached to, thereby re-forming the chain. From that moment you are a co-equal member of the chain, able to lock and unlock the gate at will.

If you ever want to quit the chain you can of course just stop using your lock without effecting anyone else... you often see old, rusted, obviously no longer used locks on daisy chains.

But to get your lock back, you again require the aid of a lock neighbor -- this time to reconnect the chain after you've been removed. Unless of course you just take your lock and go home, leaving the gate open.

There's one other bit of social interaction possible with daisy chained locks...one of betrayal and exclusion. It's possible for someone to connect their lock not to the next lock in the chain, but to one further down the line. That action leaves the skipped over locks literally out of the loop and dangling like a pendant. The only way those cut-off locks can get back into the loop is if one of three locks (the lock from which the cut-off pendant lock(s) hang, or one of its immediate neighbors) reconnect it.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:19 AM | Comments (2)

Activist artist Natalie Jeremijenko

still image of Natalie Jeremijenko from seedmagazine.com

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the projects of Natalie Jeremijenko. On the one hand, I think she does brilliant stuff focusing her expertise in guerrilla robotics and use of online tools on issues of pollution, loss of privacy, and globalization.

On the other hand, some of her misconceptions about animal behavior (elk migration is linked to PCB levels. Will pigeons like to live in nests that are shaped like eggs because of an innate desire to return to the shell?) are somewhere between whifty and just ridiculously wrong.

But love it or hate it, her stuff is always worth checking out, as are her talks. This month Seed magazine posted a couple of videos of her on their website.

In this video Jeremijenko gives a nice overview of how and why average citizens should get more involved in science.

Meanwhile, in this second video, she gives an overview of her latest project, OOZ (that's "zoo" backwards), a rooftop installation exploring human interaction with the natural world.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:46 AM | Comments (0)

Leo Palmer photography

image from Leo Palmer photography

A little bit of beauty for your weekend. The above image, of the Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan, is by photographer Leo Palmer. Check out his online gallery at at www.leopalmerphotography.co.uk.

(Thanks notcot.org)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:35 AM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2006

Conserve helium!

photo of balloons by jk***/flickr.com. Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jkristofer/276414491/ image kindly provided via a Creative Commons license

I can live with a gasoline shortage. Or a coffee shortage. Or another set of California rolling brown-outs. Or a spinach recall. But please God don't cut off my supply of helium!

According to this AP article in the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle, we're facing a global helium shortage. helium plants in Qatar and Algeria are off-line, and there are pressure problems in the pipelines that carry helium gas between the main U.S. helium facilities in Kansas and Texas.

All of this may mean... brace yourselves... balloon rationing this Valentine's Day, which is peak helium use time.

(Balloon image by jk**/flickr.com)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:57 AM | Comments (0)

December 28, 2006

Evolution is too true!

photo of a brown anole

Meet the latest enemy of creationists, Mister Anolis sagrei, otherwise known as the Black Anole. This week's issue of New Scientist has a report on how these little critters are further proof (not that any further proof is needed) that evolution is really real. According to the report, when a new larger lizard species was introduced on the islands where the Black Anoles live, the Black Anoles quickly evolved longer legs, which let them run away more quickly.

Here's a link to the article.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:10 PM | Comments (2)

December 27, 2006

Pantone pool

Pantone pool photo

If you have anything to do with graphic design, sooner or later you're gonna have to turn toward Carlstadt, New Jersey, and kow tow. Cause it's there that The Pantone Company is located, the company that has cornered the market on color. Well, not color itself... not yet... but for decades now the Pantone Color Matching System has been the universal language for matching and describing exact shades of color. Printers use it, so do painters, manufacturers, fabricators, scientists and on-told millions of artists and designers. Hell, even the red in the flag of Canada is officially designated via its Pantone number. It seems that anything can be described in terms of Pantone colors.

Which leads us to this wonderful photo group on Flickr, the Pantone Pool...everyday objects photographed next to the closest matching Pantone color sample.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:27 AM | Comments (0)

December 26, 2006

Stellar Axis

Image from Lita Albequerque's Stellar Axis

As the human presence on Antarctica continues to grow, so does the number and type of human artifacts. For instance, there's now a highway on the Antarctica.

And there's a growing amount of art. The latest work is L.A. artist Lita Albuquerque's installation "Stellar Axis". Albuquerque placed 99 blue spheres on the ice sheet at McMurdo Station, in a pattern mirroring the arrangement of stars overhead at the moment of the solstice.

For a full set of photos of the project, and a great diary on what a royal pain in the arse it is to try to do large-scale art on Antarctica, check out Albuquerque's blog.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:29 PM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2006

James Brown 1933-2006

photo of James Brown

Please please please please
(please please, oh oh)
please, please, please
(please, please, oh oh)
darlin please do oh
oh yeah, I love you so
(please, please, oh oh) . . .
Please, please, please, please,
please, please, please, please,
please, please,
Darlin please
Oh oh
Oh yeah, I love you so.
I just wanna hear ya say:
I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I
Darlin please, doh –oh
Oh yeah, I love you so . . .

Goodbye James, and thanks.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:51 AM | Comments (1)

December 24, 2006

The Alchemists

still from Apple 1984 commercial

Some of the best documentaries are the ones that introduce you to people you've never heard of, and then explain how those people have had an enormous impact on your lives. A perfect example of this was "Standing in the Shadows of Motown", the great 2002 film that showed how a half dozen anonymous musicians were the engine that drove a zillion musical hits.

Another such film is in the works right now. It's called "The Alchemists", and it's the story of five people who changed the world... through advertising.

Among the subjects are Lee Clow, who created the Apple "1984" commercial; Hal Riney, who created the commercial that got Reagan elected; and Dan Wieden, who took murderer Gary Gilmore's last words and used them to drive Nike's multi-billion dollar business.

The movie's producers are still trying to raise money to finish the project (you can make a donation if you'd like), but they have a great trailer on the film's website.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:03 PM | Comments (0)

The secret world of the coffee judge

screen-shot of barista judges instructions

We all know about the years of dedication and training needed to become a top competitor, but how often do we think about the dedication and training needed to become a competition judge?

I just discovered that not only is there a whole world of barista competition, there's a whole sub-world of barista judges. And the qualifications can be a real killer.

For instance, potential judges with the Speciality Coffee Association of America face a surprisingly difficult taste test. The test has nothing to do with identifying different flavors of coffee, it's much more basic, and more challenging. You're given a series of clear solutions with different concentrations of sweet, sour, and bitter. All you have to do is sort them and put them in order.

But, man, it's a killer! Read one judge's account of the test, and another judge's hints for passing.

If you're interested in why taste tests are so hard, there's a great chapter on just that topic (complete with a great profile of, of all things, a mayonnaise taster), check out Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:54 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2006

Want to win $50,000? And save the world?

artist rendering of Apophis

OK, here's the deal. On April 13, 2029, an asteroid the size of a football stadium is going to pass close by the Earth. Really close. Close enough that you'll actually be able to see the thing whizz by with the naked eye, an event that's never happened before in recorded history. The asteroid, known as 99942 Apophis, won't hit the Earth that day, but passing so close to the Earth will alter the asteroid's orbit and there's a tiny (one in several thousand) chance its orbit will be altered in just the exactly wrong way, so that when Apophis comes back seven years later it will smash into the Earth, with horrendous consequences.

The reason we're not completely sure if Apophis will miss us or not on that second pass is because we don't know its orbital course accurately enough. We need a more precise way to monitor its position and direction of travel. And that's where the $50,000 comes in.

The Planetary Society(*) is sponsoring a design contest to see who can come up with the best way to put a radio beacon, radar reflector, or other tracking device onto the asteroid. A device like that could be hugely important...the sooner we know for sure that Apophis is on a collision course, the more time we have to figure out a way to nudge the object out of the way.

Now, just to be clear, the Planetary Society folks aren't overly concerned about Apophis per se, but they feel it would be a good idea to know how to track any future near-Earth asteroid, and the contest is a great way to jump-start creative thinking about the problem.

The Planetary Society is conducting this competition in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and other agencies. It's open to anyone...individuals, private groups, companies, universities, etc.

Want to take a crack at maybe saving the world? Here are the full rules. You have to declare your intention to compete by March 1st, proposals are due by August 31.

(*) I'm a proud member of, and contributer to, the Planetary Society.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:47 PM | Comments (0)

The kidz R alright

photo of text messaging girls by Moritz/flickr.com. Original, and Creative Commons licensing, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mo/22337757/

Nothing angers me more than pundits who spout off about how today's crazy mix of video games, text messaging, music videos, TV, film and rock and rap music is somehow destroying the minds of our youth. They particularly love to make the claim that kids and teens are reading less and are therefore, ipso facto, becoming less intelligent. The fact that there's a big pile of evidence showing just the opposite seems to not matter at all.(*)

An article on Technology Review's website should help shut those people up. In it, Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association, points out that inventions like e-mail, instant messaging, and mobile text messaging are causing kids to put more emphasis on reading and writing skills than a generation ago.

Meanwhile, reading of traditional printed books has become more fun for kids in the past several years. The article talks about the explosive popularity of the Harry Potter and Series of Unfortunate Events books; works that are longer, more challenging, and more literary than the most popular youth books of a decade or two ago.

Shanahan says the best mix is to let your kids do everything...text and IM their little fingers raw plus have them read great stories.

Take that, book only snobs.

(*)For a good overview of the distortions of the anything-but-reading-is-bad crowd, read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You.

(Photo by Moritz/flick.com)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2006

Coolest psychology experiment ever

series of images from Simons and Levin's psychology experiment

On his Mixing Memory blog, the cognitive psychologist who goes by the nom de blog "Chris" describes what he calls the coolest psychology experiment ever.

Having read it, I totally agree! This is one of the weirdest, oddest, coolest example of how the brain works that I've ever heard of. I won't spoil the details of the experiment here, you'll just need to go over to Mixing Memory and read all about it.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:49 AM | Comments (2)

December 19, 2006

Relative size of some planets and stars

still from the size of planets and stars video

Douglas Adams said it best...

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.

But yet, we do try to get our heads around how big space is. We fail of course -- the distances are too vast and the magnitudes of scale are too large for our brains to really deal with(*). The best we can hope for our some clever little snippets of knowledge(**) and the occasional brilliant visual aid. Charles and Ray Eames short film The Powers of Ten is still the best example, but I'm also mighty impressed with a short film I just saw on Google Video.

The 90 second film shows the relative size of several of the planets, and then, as the camera pulls out you start getting a sense of the relative size of different stars, and how that compares to even the largest planet.

Watch the video here.

(*) In this video from the 2005 TED Conference, biologist Richard Dawkins explains how the human mind evolved only to understand the "middle-sized" world we can observe.

(**) For instance, to remind myself of the size of Saturn I remember that it's about 10 times further away from the Sun than we are, and that the rings fit neatly in the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:51 AM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2006

Do traffic signs make you less safe?

traffic sign in Friesland. Photo by jacco de boer/flickr.com (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaccodeboer/5935932/)

A quick ego-based heads-up. My brief article on the idea that in some cases removing traffic signs can actually improve highway safety ran in the Boston Globe yesterday.

The article's titled "No Signs Ahead", and here's a link to it.

(Photo from jacco de boer/flickr)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:13 AM | Comments (1)

Harvesting the underwater forest

artist rendering of swordfish in action

This seems like something right out of an alternative future...like rocket belts or houses in the sky. A Canadian company called Triton Logging specializes in logging underwater forests -- forests that have been completely submerged by dam construction. They say worldwide more than 300 million market sized trees, worth $50 billion, are under water right now, and they're out to get 'em.

To pull this off, they've created a robotic sub called The Sawfish. The Sawfish dives beneath the water, clamps onto the tree trunk, attaches a large airbag to the tree to help with buoyancy, and then cuts through the trunk with its built-in bad-ass 55 inch chain-saw. The tree bobs to the surface where it's easily retrieved.

Here's a brief article from the Globe and Mail about the Sawfish.

(Thanks nxtbot.com)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:44 AM | Comments (2)

December 17, 2006

History shots

thumbnail of Civil War history shot

Nothing says "Season's Greetings" like a nice big bit o' infoporn. History Shots specializes in intricate three-foot info graphics displaying topics. They've got charts showing changes in the Union Army, the race to the Moon, the year to year variation in the number of people who attempt to climb Mount Everest and the evolution of rock and roll.

Plain charts are about $30, they also offer a wide variety of framing options.

(Thanks Visual Complexity)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:59 PM | Comments (0)

The Darfur wall

part of the Darfur Wall

As is the case with many things that go on in Africa, the industrialized First World has paid too little attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The Burke family of Seattle Washington decided to throw a bit of light on the issue, so they created The Darfur Wall, a haunting and eloquent online memorial to the 400,000 men, women and children who have died there.

Visually the centerpiece of the site is a series of black screens filled with tiny dark grey numbers, one for each victim. Click on a number and you are given the chance to donate $1 to Darfur relief. Make the donation and the tiny number turns white.

It's simultaneously shocking and a bit uplifting to see the huge collection of dark numbers and...scattered among them...tiny bits of white; places where someone has taken a moment to care and contribute.

Visit the Darfur Wall.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:37 AM | Comments (1)

December 16, 2006

Warning signs from the future

active nanodevices warning

I'm a long time fan of the art of warning signs(*), so was delighted to discover this series of warning signs from the future. They've got you covered for just about any eventuality... self-evolving system proximity, cognitive hazards, slippery synthetic diamond surface ahead... you name it. You can see the full set on Flickr.

Thanks to the Fallon planning blog for the pointer.

(*)I have an article in the Boston Globe this Sunday on how having too many traffic warning signs can actually make highways more dangerous.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:26 AM | Comments (0)

December 15, 2006

Hit the road, see some art

photo of Stonehenge

Jonathan Jones, who writes and blogs about art and architecture for the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., has been soliciting suggestions for his list of 50 works of art you must see before you die. Here's his final list. I'm delighted to see that Stonehenge makes the list. It's further proof of my long-held theory:

scientific artifact + long period of time = art


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:02 AM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2006

Nietzsche Family Circus

Nietzsche Family Circus sample drawing

The Nietzsche Family Circus takes the chronically unfunny and sanctimonious Family Circus comic, strips off the caption, and replaces it with a random quote from 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Brilliant!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:07 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2006

Share 2007 with Jonas Mekas

photo of Jonas Mekas

I have made my first New Year's resolution of 2007. I resolve to, every day, watch a new film by Jonas Mekas.

Mekas is a legendary avant-garde filmmaker, who's been at it for six decades years now. He hung with...and made films about...Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, and Salvador Dali. Oh, he also started Film Culture magazine and has been a film reviewer for the Village Voice for 48 years.

For 2007, Mekas is going to make a three to seven minute video every day. They'll be posted on his website, and available via iTunes.

I'm looking forward to looking.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:38 PM | Comments (1)

More or Less

sign at the U.K. national statistics office by niznoz/flickr.com

It seems impossible, but the BBC has pulled it off... they've made an interesting, enjoyable radio program about...of all things...statistics.

More or Less is a half-hour series that turns a mathematical eye to all sorts of things. Recent shows examined if mortality statistics can catch murdering doctors (in England, a physician named Harold Shipman was found to have killed more than 200 patients over the course of his career), how you can tell if an athlete's testosterone level is just naturally high or the result of drugs, and why one city's airport can always has more people departing than arriving.

There's no podcast of the show, but it is available for online listening.

(Nice photo of the sign at the U.K. national statistics office by niznoz/flickr.com).


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 01:23 PM | Comments (0)

Data for the people!

some typical swivel data

There's nothing I like more than a good stiff trend analysis or histogram, so I'm very excited about a new web application called Swivel. Swivel wants to do for data what Flickr has done for images...it lets you upload your data, tag it, share it with friends or the world and, best of all, display it and analyze it. Here are just a few of the bits of infoporn that people have already created...

Temperature vs. solar radiation in Cupertino, CA

Wine consumption vs. violent crime

Bush approval ratings vs. Microsoft stock closing price

The site is in beta (or, as they call it, Preview) so it's not always as fast as it should be right now. But never mind! This is going to be an amazing resource, one that could change how everyday people deal with the world of data.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:54 AM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2006

TO DO in L.A. Thursday night: inventor Chuck Hoberman

photo of Chuck Hoberman

If you're in the Los Angeles area (Pasadena specifically) Thursday night, come catch a free talk by Chuck Hoberman. Hoberman is the man behind that clever toy sphere that expands to huge size and then collapses down to a compact core. But he's designed all sort of other weird and wonderful structures that fold, collapse, spiral inward and otherwise disappear into themselves...everything from tiny cardiac artery stents that spring into shape when released inside the heart to folding roofs for giant football stadiums.

Hoberman's talking at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The talk start at 7:30 Thursday night. Admission is free. See you there!

UPDATE: Hoberman had to cancel his appearance at Art Center. They will reschedule his talk for sometime next year.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:36 AM | Comments (0)

December 06, 2006

It's raining, time for math class!

photo of schoolkid in the rain, from metro.co.uk

This is one of the coolest things I've heard of in a long time... kids at the Pott Row First School, in Norfolk, England, have all been issued one-piece waterproof jumpsuits and slip-on rain boots. Why? Because they plan on having half of their classes outside...regardless of the weather.

Teachers there had long noticed that the kids were happier and tended to concentrate better when they were outside. Parents say their kids love the new outdoors half the time plan. Brilliant!

Here's an article about the program from metro.co.uk.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:14 AM | Comments (1)

December 05, 2006

Show the world your DNA

DNA portrait

Want the world to see the real you? Want to show off what you're really made of? Got some disposable cash? Then you may be a perfect candidate for a DNA portrait from dna 11. For as little as $390, dna 11 will turn a sample of your genetic material into a custom work of art. Here's how it works...

Using the kit that dna 11 sends you, you swab the inside of your cheek, gathering a few epithelial cells. You then send the swab back to dna 11, which sends it to a genetics lab, which creates a gel spread of your chromosomes, which is then photographed and printed on canvas and then shipped back to you.

The company offers a variety of canvas sizes and print colors. They'll also combine two or more DNA samples into a split image, which would be about a zillion times cooler than one of those family portraits from Sears.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:16 PM | Comments (1)

December 04, 2006


moodjam screenshot

Let's say Socrates was right, and that "the unexamined life is not worth living". In that case, why not get busy and start keeping track of the ups and downs of your life? Sure, you could keep a diary, but that's just so...verbal. What if you're a visual person? The Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to the rescue!

They've created Moodjam, a web application that lets you record your current mood by assigning one or more colors to your mood(*). As you mark your moods over the ongoing weeks and months, you end up with a complex patchwork of colors chronicling your ever-changing moods.

For extra fun, why not create a Moodjam account for your department at work, and have all of your co-workers use it, thereby building up an anonymous profile of the depression and angst at your personal little cubicle farm hell.

(*)You can assign keywords and colors to your moods too, if you want. But really, it's all about the colors.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:36 PM | Comments (2)

Living on flickr time

flickrtime screenshot

The great thing about opening up your website via APIs is that you never know what kind of weird and wonderful thing someone will make out of your site's data.

Flickr has one of the most complete sets of APIs around, and there are all sorts of personal web experiments that have been built using them. The latest... flicker time, a clock that uses random images from flickr to spell out the numbers of the current time. Clever, and completely hypnotic to watch.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2006

An excellent stop motion animation

still from Minilogue animation

A bit of beauty for your weekend. Watch this great stop-motion video made by Ljudbilden & Piloten for the band Minilogue. Kind of like Jim Woodring meets Ryan Larkin.

(Found via Bob Breidholt, an artist with a penchant for Moleskine notebooks who lives in Reykjavik.)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2006

This is how I want to be remembered 30 years after my death

Elvis Reeses cup

Next August is the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, and there's going to be a hunka hunka big pile of observances, remembrances, parties, festivals, and god know what all.

One sign of the excess we can expect is this... according to AdAge, Hershey Co. will roll out a peanut butter and banana flavored version of Reese's cups, a homage to the King's fondness for fried peanut-butter and banana sandwiches.

Elvis also continues to be the King when it comes to posthumous moneymaking, bringing in more than $45 million last years in music sales and all sorts of wacky endorsements. (My favorite, the Elvis Presley "Taking Care of Business" Smith & Wesson revolver).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2006

We know why apples are red

apple photo by PPDIGITAL/flickr.com

After a five year search, scientists in Australia have located the gene that controls the red color of apples. Apples get their red color from chemical compounds called Anthocyanins, and the researchers have figured out which gene controls the amount of Anthocyanin produced.

Produce industry folks are hoping this discovery will lead to new and more popular varieties of apple. Me, I hope they extract that gene and start putting it into all sorts of other fruits and vegetables. I could really use a watermelon that is red on both the inside and outside.

There are a number of science websites reporting the discovery, but it's more fun to read about it at Food-USA navigator!

(Apple photo by PPDIGITAL/flickr)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:16 AM | Comments (1)