January 30, 2007
Congratulations to Portland Oregon for building that most civilized of all mass transit systems...an aerial tram. The $57 million dollar tram system runs more than half a mile from the bank of the Willamette River up the hill overlooking the city. Here's an article about it in the New York Times.
(Photo by The One True b!X/flickr.com)
Computers behind blogs
Iain Tait of crackunit.com gets credit for the idea.
The history of photography, in Legos
If there is a God of Art, she must surely smile down upon the innocent fanatics who recreate great works of art entirely out of Legos. Case in point...the photographic recreations of Marcos Vilarino.
Vilarino has restaged some of the most famous works from the history of photography, entirely in Lego blocks. The example above is, of course, the Lego version of Robert Capa's famous photograph of a soldier dying during the Spanish Civil War. Compare Vilarino's Lego version with Capa's original.
January 27, 2007
Many Eyes and the rise of data for the people
If knowledge is power, then a clear interactive visualization of data is power on steroids. And in the past few months there's been an explosion of tools that let the average duffer create powerful data displays. A few weeks ago Swivel appeared, with the promise of doing for data what flickr has done for photos. Now IBM alphaWorks has rolled out their free data visualization suite, called Many Eyes.
Many Eyes lets you upload data and then show that data in lots of different ways...treemaps, pie charts, on world and U.S. maps, scatter graphs, stack graphs, and lots more. And since the data runs inside of java applets the displays are interactive, allowing the user to turn data on and off, zoom in and out, change colors, etc.
Right now you can link to the completed data chart, but you can't embed it directly in your own page. But I'm sure that's coming...being able to embed an interactive chart the way you can embed a YouTube video is just too powerful a feature not to offer.
By the way, IBM's alphaWorks may be the best-kept secret in the world of online hacking. They seem to knock out all sorts of crazy tools and ideas on a regular basis.
January 26, 2007
Nicholas Feltron: A Life
Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates doesn't need to worry about Nicholas Feltron. Feltron is a New York-based graphic designer who documents his life in austere diagrammatic "annual reports". Feltron's 2006 Annual Report is now on-line, and it's filled with piles of info-porn...percentage breakdowns of types of alcohol consumed, number of e-mails sent and received, most consecutive days spent entirely on the island of Manhattan, all sorts of cool and quirky stuff.
The Ad Generator
There are so many ads out there, you would think the last thing the world needs is something that generates more ads automatically. But the Ad Generator is kind of cool.
The Ad Generator takes real corporate slogans (things like "Just do it" and "Think different"), chops them up and remixes them, and then combines them with related random images from Flickr to create ads that seem simultaneously real and off-center.
It's the creation of Alexis Lloyd, a grad student at Parsons New School of Design.
January 24, 2007
Traffic safety at the Hajj
I have an unusual interest in the psychology and mechanics of traffic control (here's a recent article of mine), so it was like a big pipe of crack on Christmas morning for me when I saw this item on Boing Boing about traffic control at the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to the holy sites in and around Mecca.
Dirk Helbing, a professor of traffic modeling who makes a specialty of studying crowd movement, analyzed videos of pedestrian traffic flow at last year's Hajj, where more than 350 people where crushed in crowds. After implementing Helbing's traffic flow suggestions, not a single Hajj pilgrim was crushed at this year's Hajj.
How to extract your own DNA
Looking for a quick Saturday afternoon science experiment? Why not extract your own DNA! It's suprisingly simple, just follow the instructions in this simple brouchure. Don't want to use your own epithelial cells? Some lightly blended raw onion works really well.
January 23, 2007
State of the Union visualizer
With President Bush's State of the Union address(*) happening tonight, it's a good time to reming you all of Brad Borevitz's State of the Union visualizer, a cool online tool that lets you browse through every US presidential State of the Union address... from 1790 all the way up to the present. For each address common words are displayed with the size showing how many times they were used in the speech and the height on the graph showing the word's significance as compared to other speeches. The visualizer also tracks speech length (Jimmy Carter had a lot on his mind in 1981) and grade-level of each address.
You can also do A-B comparisons of different words ("freedom" vs. "terrorism" might be interesting). Shortly after tonight's speech is finished, the Visualizer will be updated with that text as well.
(*)Note to foreign readers: The U.S. Constitution requires the President to address the Congress at least once a year with a general report on how things are going in the country. This "State of the Union" address is often where Presidents announce major new policy initiatives.
January 21, 2007
Simple test to see if your boss is a self-centered jerk
Are people in positions of power and authority more likely to be self-centered a-holes, or does it just seem that way? That's the question taken on by some psychological researchers in this clever and funny study. The researchers ranked a group of test subjects based on their perceived level of power/control/authority over others, and then had them perform a simple task...
... We used a procedure created by Hass (1984) in which participants are asked to draw an "E" on their foreheads. One way to complete the task is to draw an "E" as though the self is reading it, which leads to a backward and illegible "E" from the perspective of another person. The other way to approach the task is to draw the "E" as though another person is reading it, which leads to production of an "E" that is backward to the self (see Figure 1). We predicted that participants in the high power condition would be more likely to draw the "E" in the "self-oriented" direction, indicating a lesser tendency to spontaneously adopt another's perspective, than would participants in the low power condition.
...and that's exactly what happened. Those in the high power group were almost three times more likely to draw a self-oriented E than those who were in the low power group. The researchers say this is related to a lessened ability to emphasize, sympathize, and see other people's points of view.
January 20, 2007
O'Reilly Energy Innovation Conference
I'm a big fan of O'Reilly Publishing's technology conferences. I've attended several, and spoke at one, and they've without exception been chocked full of ultra-smart people and mind expanding information.
So I'm very excited to learn that O'Reilly is putting on a new conference this summer that's outside their usual worlds of computers and the web. This one is all about energy, and they hope to bring together an eclectic mix of energy execs, scientists, activists, you name it, toss 'em all in a room for a few days, and see what kinds of new ideas and innovation comes out. Who knows?
The conference is in San Francisco at the end of August. For more information on the conference, or if you'd like to propose a presentation, visit www.energyinnovation.com
By the way, I'll be attending O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego in March. If you're going to be there too, say hi!
Le Grand Content
Here's a little bit of beauty for your weekend. Animator and motion graphic designer Clemens Kogler has created a funny (and a little bit poignant) movie titled Le Grand Content that shows the graphical interconnectedness of a girl named Mary, hamsters, the Pope, spam and teenage poetry. Why can't all business presentations be like this?
January 18, 2007
The Echo Navigo
So, you say you're in Manhattan and you have the urge to see some animals? Well, you could go to the American Museum of Natural History or the Central Park Zoo, but may I suggest you swing by the bitforms gallery instead? They've captured an Echo Navigo!
The Echo Navigo (scientific name Anmorome Istiophorus platypterus Uram) is a complex and beautiful robotic creation of Korean artist U-Ram Choe. Choe's even created a natural history for his creation:
The Echo Navigo lives near (a) huge antenna in the city, and eats a variety of electric waves.
Therefore, these electronic-beings have fins enabling them to fly through the flow of electric waves. During the daytime they can make their body transparent, and become nearly invisible.
These creatures were first found by a telephone engineer, who was trying to find the reason for the echo caused by the creature's fast flight around radio antennae. The larvae of Echo Navigo were found nearby.
Want to see the Navigo before it's released back into the wild? Swing by the bitforms gallery. It's at 529 West 20th Street in New York City. And check out their website for photos and a video of the Navigo in action.
Just a brief note to say that sometime last night this blog had its 100,000th reader. To whoever you are, "Hello!" Thanks to all of you who stop by to read, to leave comments, and to send me suggestions.
If you're a new reader, may I suggest you check out the archives? Lots of interesting stuff happened before you got here, just pick one of the past months and browse away.
(Photo: Giant Ginko/flickr)
January 17, 2007
Walk like a bomber
There are two traits needed to being a suicide bomber. The first trait is to be so crazed, or devoted, or brain-washed, or whatever, to think that blowing yourself and lots of innocent bystanders up. The second trait is the ability to get yourself in the desired position without everyone yelling "Hey! That guy's got a bomb strapped to him!"
The techniques necessary to counteract the first trait is beyond the scope of this blog, but the second trait is right up the hacker's alley. To wit: what if you could tell someone was wearing a bomb just by watching them walk? Rama Chellappa, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland is perfecting gait analysis software that can take video of someone walking, look at how the person's limbs and joints are moving, and then quickly determine that the person has unusual weight hidden on their body.
There's an article about it in Technology Review.
Hey! Why so long with no new posts?
Starting last Sunday I was laid low with a wicked case of stomach flu. Better (and thinner) now.
January 14, 2007
Walk like a cockroach
One of the greatest advances in robotics occurred about twenty years ago, when a number of researchers realized it was a colossal waste of time to try making robots look and behave like humans (I'm talking to you, Asimo) and turned to the insect world for inspiration. Here are a couple of great example videos I've recently discovered at Case Western University's Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory:
Case Western has a robot that uses simulated cockroach antennae to figure out how to navigate. They use a split screen to show the machine moving the same way as a real-life cockroach. Here's a link to the video (Watch out! It's 29 MB).
They've also built a flying robot called MMALV (Morphing Micro Air-Land Vehicle) that lands and then scuttles across the ground. It's a technique that's common in the insect world, but amazingly difficult for a robot. Check out that video too. (This one is just over 9 MB).
January 12, 2007
Flatland: The opera
You may be familiar with Flatland, Edwin Abbott's 1884 fantasy novel about life among 2-dimensional geometric shapes. But are you ready for an operatic interpretation of Flatland? In miniature? Staged in a tea room, around a table-top?
Leave it to the indescribably unique Museum of Jurassic Technology to stage such a thing. They'll be hosting performances of Flatland throughout the weekend of January 26th-28th.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is located in the Culver City section of Los Angeles. Here's a map.
Here's the email describing the event
The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information is
pleased to announce:
FLATLAND at the MUSEUM OF JURASSIC TECHNOLOGY
FLATLAND: A Romance of Many Dimensions
A Miniature Opera by Randall Wong
Performed by Dina Emerson and Randall Wong
Adapted from Edwin Abbott's celebrated 1884 geometric
novel, FLATLAND is a miniature opera about the
multiplicity of dimensions and the discovery of what
exists beyond the seen. Flatland is a two dimensional
world peopled by geometric shapes -- points, lines,
squares, and circles -- who learn that the universe
consists of more than their single plane. In the
tradition of the Victorian Toy Theater, the opera is
staged upon a large tabletop, giving the effect of a
performance viewed through the wrong end of a
telescope. FLATLAND, composed and co-performed by
esteemed male soprano Randall Wong, juxtaposes the
grand and the microscopically absurd, and collides
Victorian stagecraft and illusion with modern toys and
Friday, January 26th: 8 p.m.
Saturday, January 27th: 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Sunday, January 28th: 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Nota Bene: FLATLAND will be staged in the Tula
Tearoom. Due to the unique restrictions of the space,
we shall not be able to seat latecomers once the
performances have started.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology
9341 Venice Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
$15 General admission
$10 Museum members, students, seniors, active service
Please address queries & reservation requests to
January 11, 2007
The great TV highjack of 1987
The Damn Interesting blog reminded me of one of the all-time great hacks. On November 22, 1987 person or persons unknown briefly took control of the Chicago public TV station, jamming the regular transmission of an episode of Doctor Who and replacing it with a surreal transmission by someone in a Max Headroom mask. The Max person spoke for a couple of minutes (but not all of it is intelligible). He also dropped trou and submitted himself to a brief bare-assed spanking with a fly swatter.
As quickly as it appeared, the pirate TV show vanished and the regularly scheduled program reappeared.
The FBI and FCC did an exhaustive investigation, but they never figured out who was responsible. It remains one of the great mysteries in the history of pranks.
Fortunately, that fateful broadcast survives, via YouTube.
January 10, 2007
Bruce Sterling on what's in store in 2007
Each year on the venerable virtual community The Well author, journalist and futurist Bruce Sterling speculates on the year ahead. These conversations with the Well community are wide-ranging, insightful, and filled with Sterling's patented acerbic world-view:
I don't think it was popular indignation at his policies that drove Bush into this corner. If gas was a buck-fifty and there was a calm puppet government in Baghdad, everyone would think W. was Teddy Roosevelt. The guy is losing a war he didn't have to start and is blowing out the bank. That's what really scares his former backers, not the one-party state, the imperial signing statements, the loss of civil liberties, spying, torture, and all the rest of it. People watch the guy make power-grab after power-grab, then he either does nothing or he blows it. The more you hand over to him, the more he screws up.
Putin is doing all the anti-democratic things that Bush is doing and then some, but Putin is hugely popular, seventy percent ratings. The Russians enjoy watching him work. They think he's the Man, he's poisoning traitors and turning off gas taps to entire countries... If Bush could have satisfied the angry and vengeful Red States with some similar competent acrobatics, we'd be looking at Republican dominance as far as the eye can see.
(Photo by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media).
Periodic Table of Visualizations
Can't remember the difference between Venn diagrams and Gantt charts? Or between entity relationship diagrams and feedback cycle diagrams? Well bucko, you need the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. Based on Mendeelev's famous periodic table of the elements, the table of visualization methods lists 100 different ways to display data or abstract ideas.
(Thanks Information Aesthetics).
January 09, 2007
TO DO Saturday afternoon in L.A.: BLDGBLOG First Million Event
I'm a huge fan of BLDGBLOG, the always insightful blog dealing with architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture and the like.
Evidently I'm not the only one... BLDGBLOG recently hit one million visitors. To celebrate, L.A.'s Center for Land Use Interpretation is holding an event in BLDGBLOG's honor Saturday afternoon in the Culver City section of Los Angeles. There will be interesting conversation and general mingling of people who think a lot about the grand sweep of the built world. Hope to see you there!
(If you're coming, why not come an hour or two early and check out CLUI's next door neighbor, the Museum of Jurrassic Technology).
January 08, 2007
Post Number 300
We briefly interrupt our regularly scheduled blog to mention that this is post number 300 (which, by the way, works out to a new blog post every 23 hours and 46 minutes).
Thanks to everyone who's visited, left comments, and suggested items.
Ami Sioux photography
Photographer Ami Sioux came up with a clever idea for her new book of travel photos... she had friends in Reykjavik, Iceland draw her maps of their favorite places around town. Sioux then set off to find the locations and photograph them.
The maps and accompanying photos are paired in Sioux's new book, REYKJAVIK 64°08N 21°54W. It's available via Scintilla Ltd. publishers.
(Thanks Cool Hunting).
January 07, 2007
ZIP Scribble Map
My friend Michael Fry reminded me of this clever and surprisingly serendipitous bit of data visualization, Robert Kosara's ZIP Scribble Map.
Kosara took a list of all of the ZIP codes, along with the longitude and latitude corresponding to each ZIP. He then drew a line connecting the location of every ZIP code, in ascending numerical order. The resulting graph turns out to have a surprising amount of order. Notice particularly how gaps naturally occur along the state borders (in the image above the adjoining states have been differently colored to make them stand out, but the gaps were not added).
I love how the location of state borders is hidden within the jumbled list of latitudes and longitudes, and they emerge only when graphed in this particular way. It reminds me of the types of hidden complexity Stephen Wolfram is always looking for.
The EagerEyes.org website has a full description of the project, as well as several larger format images of the Map.
MonsterPod is one of those genre-redefining inventions. In this case the genre is the camera tripod. With MonsterPod, the whole world is your tripod. The device consists of a rubberized disc bonded to an elastic polymer material that clings to just about anything. Slap it on the side of a tree, the hood of a car, a ceiling, you name it. Then take your shot and just peel it off. It sticks via Van der Waals force, not glue (it's the same molecular principle used in gecko feet) so the Pod doesn't leave a mark and never stops working.
Now the thing won't hold forever in all cases -- the camera on the side of a tree may only stay in place for several minutes to an hour or so before it begins to sag and eventually fall off -- and it's not strong enough to hold a pro SLR or a video camera, but for your typical digital camera it's brilliant.
January 06, 2007
Land of the skive
I have several dear friends in England (Hi Jeremy! Hi Hattie! Hi James! Hi Mike!) and this weekend my heart goes out to them and their fellow countrymen. For this is the final weekend of the Great British Skive...a growing phenomenon in the UK where workers don't just take off the week between Christmas and New Year's (a trend that's been growing there for about a decade) but have also increasingly decided to (in the words of an article in the Guardian Newspaper) "give a chunk of January a miss too".
All during the past week in the UK there's been lots and lots of people taking some extra vacation time (British workers typically get four weeks of vacation a year, not the paltry two weeks that's normal in the U.S.), and a 30% increase in employees calling in "sick".
Some business leaders see the Great British Skive as dangerous to the nation's economy. Me, I think it's a sign of a more civilized society.
(Thanks once again to Russell Davies).
Now that is what I call an engagement ring! It's the work of Swedish artist Sigurd Bronger, who makes whimsical pneumatic and mechanical based jewelry and other objects d'art. Check out her range of creations at www.sigurdbronger.no.
January 05, 2007
The world's first time capsule
In the bowels of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta is perhaps one of the oddest rooms ever, the Oglethorpe Atlanta Crypt of Civilization. The room... built within an underground swimming pool, lined with porcelain and granite walls, covered by a seven foot thick stone ceiling, sealed behind a massive stainless steel door that's been welded shut...is the world's first time capsule.
The room was designed and built in the late 1930s and sealed in 1940. If everything goes to plan (one big, hairy, whopping, mother of all "if"s), the room will be opened again in the year 8113 A.D.(*)
All time capsules are wonderfully naive mixes of optimism about the future and cluelessness about what future civilizations will consider important, and this one is no exception. Consider some of the objects lovingly preserved for the future:
1 coffee set (drip coffee maker, cream and sugar)
1 Comptometer, Ser. no. J246635
1 transcription (Premier of Canada)
a device to teach the English language to the Crypt's finders
6 recordings (Artie Shaw)
1 set Lincoln Logs
1 container of beer (about one quart)
1 package containing 6 miniature panties, 5 miniature shirts, 3 drawers
So far the Crypt of Civilization has made it 1.08% of the way to the day it's scheduled to be opened, so it's still pretty early to get cocky. For instance, it's amazing how often time capsules get broken into, stolen, or just plain misplaced.
Thanks to the extraordinary Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society website for the pointer.
(*)Why the odd opening date of 8113 A.D.? Well, the first known recorded date in human history is 4241 B.C. There were 6177 years between then and 1940, the year the Crypt of Civilization was sealed. Go another 6177 years in the future, and you reach 8113 A.D.
January 04, 2007
A brief bit o' beauty to help you make it to the weekend -- check out this gallery of lenticular clouds. Some really jaw-droppingly beautiful stuff here.
January 03, 2007
Maybe it's because the solstice was just less than two weeks ago, or maybe it's because I just spent several days at a much higher latitude, or maybe because last year I took a class that covered the basics of navigating a spacecraft to other planets, but-- whatever the reason-- these days I often think about the grand whirl and motion of the Earth, Sun, Moon and planets...the giant clockwork in the sky.
Another notable event in the celestial clockwork happens this afternoon, at about 2 PM Pacific time. At that point the Earth reaches perihelion, the point where we are closest to the Sun. As you may remember from your high school science class, the Earth's orbit around the Sun isn't a perfect circle, it's a slightly squished ellipse and as a result the distance between the Earth and the Sun is constantly changing. This afternoon the distance reaches a minimum...about 147,093,600 kilometers according to the Bad Astronomy blog.
The Sun's distance doesn't vary all of that much over the year, only about 1.5%, so you don't really notice it. If you have precise instruments you can measure the change in the Sun's size in the sky, and you can record slight differences in the Sun's effect on tides, but that's about it. Oh, we also get a bit (about 6%) more energy from the Sun right now than when the Sun is at its' greatest distance, but you don't really notice that either. (It's the Earth's tilt, not changes in the distance to the Sun, that makes the seasons).
January 02, 2007
Help pick public TV's next science show
PBS wants a new prime-time science show, and they're asking the public to help pick it. Over the next three weeks public TV stations across America will air demo episodes of three contenders. Based on audience reaction (both the TV audience and visitors to the shows' websites), PBS will green-light one of the series for regular production.
The trial kicks off this Wednesday night with Wired Science, a fast-paced eclectic show based on Wired Magazine (Full Disclosure: I did a bit of writing for the Wired Science website).
The following Wednesday it's Science Investigators... a team of researchers look into mysteries such as the global drop in frog populations and the physics of the knuckle-ball. The trial finishes up with 22nd Century, a series devoted to speculation about the future of technology.
Don't want to wait for TV? All three shows are available right now for online viewing, and are available as video podcasts. Full details on the PBS website.
January 01, 2007
The most dangerous roads in the world
There's the got to be seen to be believed mud of the Russian Siberian Road to Yakutsk, the drive from Katmandu to Everest Base Camp, the scariest hiking trail on Earth, and (pictured above) the drive between La Paz and Coroico, Bolivia, where someone dies every week or two.