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March 31, 2007

Geography + Information cards

Email is cool and all when you're traveling, but there's still no substitute for the venerable old postcard. But what to write? The cliche "Weather is good. Wish you were here." doesn't really cut it.

So why not turn yourself into a roving geographic correspondent via these postcards from The Geography + Information Distribution Project? The cards come in sets of four forms to fill out, each one covering a different facet of cultural and physical geography...climate, flora and fauna, population and culture, and industry and natural resources. There's room on the back for free-form text.

Of course, nothing says that you have to be factual in what your report. The cards are also the perfect canvas for little bits of travel art, fiction, and fantasy.

The cards cost $5.95 a set, and there are volume discounts for schools, stores, art projects, etc.

The cards are the work of studiobenben.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:38 AM | Comments (0)

March 29, 2007

Di Vinci's bicycle

Di Vinci's original transmission, and the nuvinci version

History of technology junkies know that every bicycle carries a little bit of Leonardo Di Vinci in it. Back in 1493 Di Vinci came up with a chain-based way to transmit power, a design that looks remarkably similar to the chain drive in virtually every bicycle.

Now you have the opportunity to put another piece of Di Vinci tech to work on your bicycle. A company called Fallbrook Technologies has made a continuously variable transmission based on a design that Di Vinci knocked out six hundred years ago. The transmission, which they're calling the NuVinci, can be infinitely adjusted, letting you dial in the precise gear ratio for any riding condition. No more being trapped between a gear that is too easy and one that's too hard.

A bike company called Ellsworth is going to start making a high-end cruiser bike using the NuVinci later this year. The bike, called The Ride, ain't cheap ($3,000!) but they look totally bad-ass.

For more on the bike transmission itself, check out Fallbrook's video demo of the tranmission in action.

CORRECTION: I originally wrote that the transmission on the Ellsworth bike automatically shifts to match changing road conditions. That's not true. The Ellsworth has a continuously variable shifter that let's you infinitely adjust the gear, but it doesn't do it for you (though there have been some other comtinuously variable transmissions that also featured automatic shifting). Thanks to Flounder for pointing out the error!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 27, 2007

Video game playing kids help cure cancer

cartoon from Little Gamers online comic

It's been about five months since Sony's PlayStation 3 hit the market. Since that time there have been countless virtual touchdowns scored, putts sunk, and monsters slain. But all of those PS3s have been doing something else too -- helping fight disease.

It turns out every PS3 sold has a link to download and run Folding@Home... a free computer program that allows the PlayStations to help solve extremely difficult computer problems, such as figuring out the complex ways in which protein molecules can fold and change shape. (Scientists think errors in protein folding may be behind diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's).

The Folding@Home software only runs when the PlayStation is not actually being used to play games. Every time a gamer takes a break to do homework or go to bed the PS3 works on another tiny bit of the protein problem, sending its results back to Folding@Home H.Q. at Stanford University.

Nearly 50,000 PS3s already have the software installed, and more download it every day. Collectively, all of those PS3 make one of the most powerful supercomputers on Earth.

CNN has an article
on the whole thing. The Folding@Home website has lots of cool stats, as well as links to download the software.

(Cartoon from little-gamers.com).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:31 PM | Comments (1)

March 26, 2007

Building something from nothing

photo of a machine shop lathe

Perhaps the only thing I have in common with Issac Newton(*) is that we are both fond of the famous phrase "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" as a shorthand way of expressing gratitude to the multitude of scholars who have come before, and upon whom all present and future learning and discovery are based.

But that "building upon the past" meme isn't just true of knowledge. Something very similar has happened in the physical world, where early inventions and machines have made it possible to build new inventions and machines, which made possible still other inventions and machines, and so on, all the way from the wheel and spear to the iPod.

On the blog for his forthcoming book The Technium, Kevin Kelly tells the wonderful story of some crazed folks who are recapitulating big parts of that journey, all on their own. For instance, take the story of Dave Gingery...a machinist who started out with nothing but some metal scraps found in an alley, and eventually built himself an entire full-scale machine shop...

Gingery began with a simple backyard foundry. This was a small 5-gallon bucket packed with sand. In its center was a coffee can of smoldering BBQ charcoal. Inside the can of charcoal was a small ceramic crucible into which he threw scrap aluminum – cans, etc. Gingery forced air into this crude furnace via a fan, burning the charcoal with enough heat to melt the aluminum. He poured the molten metal into a mold of wet sand carved out in the shape he wanted. When the cast was cool he had a workable metal holding plate, which became the heart of a homemade lathe. Other lathe parts were cast. He finished these rough parts with hand tools. His one "cheat" was adding a used electric motor – although it is not impossible to imagine a wind or water powered version.

When the rough lathe was up and running he used it to turn out the parts for a drill press. With the drill press and lathe operating he constantly reworked pieces of the lathe itself, replacing parts with improved versions. In this way, his tiny machine shop was an upcreation device, capable of generating higher a machine of precision than itself. He used this upcreation tool to manufacture the pieces needed for a fully functioning milling machine. When the milling machine was completed he could make almost anything.

You can read the full account, as well as Kevin's very interesting thoughts on just how insanely hard it is to really completely recreate a technological world, at www.kk.org/thetechnium/.

(*)I just thought of another thing Newton and I have in common, both of us have visited Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Of course, when he visited he was already dead.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 24, 2007

Going to ETech?

ETech logo

Going to the Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) in San Diego next week? Me too! If you're a reader of this blog, I'd love to meet you. keep an eye out for me between sessions, and on the IRC channel. And by all means, say Hi!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:34 PM | Comments (0)

Is this the new face of robots?

photo of the keepon robot

I've written before on the efforts underway to make robots more "intelligent" -- better able to adapt to changing circumstances. This is a necessary step in making advanced semi-autonomous robots easier for people to use and interact with.

But that's only part of the story. We'll also want...and need...robots that are empathetic and pleasant to be around. There is some very interesting work going on right now in this area, a lot of it coming out of Carnegie Mellon University. Case in point...Keepon.

Keepon (pronounced "kee-pong") is an extraordinarily cute little robot. It knows how to dance in time with music, but more importantly it's teaching researchers valuable lessons on how machines should interact with people. Keepon's eyes are wide-angle cameras and its nose is a microphone, so it can react to visual and voice stimulus. Watch this quick video to see how it turns to look at an interesting object and how it reacts of the sound of a nearby human voice.

close-up photo of KeeponKeepon also teaches (or rather re-teaches) a valuable lesson in the psychology of face recognition and human empathy. Keepon's appearance couldn't be simpler...two yellow sphere and three circles in the approximate location of eyes and a nose...yet that's all it takes to trigger universal comments of "Aww... how cute!". Add those squishy exaggerated body movements (something that nearly a century of animated cartoons have taught us to associate with sweet innocent fun-filled imaginary creatures) and you don't just have a robot, you have your new best friend.

(Thanks New Scientist)


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:05 AM | Comments (1)

March 20, 2007

Chris Ware animation on This American Life

still image from Chris Ware's cartoon for This American Life

Like many people, I've been looking forward to the premiere of the television version of This American Life. I'm even more excited now that I've learned that cartoonist Chris Ware has animated one of the segments.

As I'm sure just about all of you know, Ware is a brilliant graphic artist and story teller, though I have to admit that I find it very difficult to actually read his material(*).

But his animation of a This American Life segment is spot-on perfect! It's the tale of how some elementary school kids started making fake TV cameras, and how that changed life in the schoolyard. Watch it here, and watch the entire show beginning March 22 on Showtime.

(*)Many of Ware's stories have to do with children suffering through lives of bleakness and despair. My childhood was pretty bleak too, so I find his stuff a bit too close to home).

(Thanks BoingBoing!)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:55 PM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2007

The demographics of vampires

image of Christopher Lee as Dracula

Thanks to Collision Detection for pointing me to this totally cool study (.pdf) that uses the power of statistics and demographics to deduce the total number of vampires on earth.

The authors analyze how quickly a population of vampires grows based on how often they feed on the blood of the living, versus how often a Buffy-esque vampire slayer can reduce the vampire count. Their conclusion: if there were vampires, you could expect a total vampire population of between 128 and 512 individuals.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:11 PM | Comments (0)

Revenge of the rock paper scissors bot!

photo of the rock paper scissors robotic hand

Posting on this blog was a little light last week, and will be light this week too, all because of an email I received a few weeks ago from Mark Allen, the indefatigable head of Los Angeles' Machine Project gallery...

Machine has been challenged to compete in a rock/scissors/paper competition during the last week of March. As usual, the best course of action seems to be building a dangerous and ramshackle mechanism controlled by some basic pattern matching and predictive algorithms. Who wants to help? We could use some programmers, builder types, enthusiasts, and especially someone with some ideas about mechanisms and animatronics. Email if you're interested.

Of course, who could say no to that? With a bit of luck, and a few more sleepless nights, we should have a gear-grindin', AI-thinking, trash-talking, human-crushing, roshambo-winning arm of fury! In Los Angeles? Come cheer us on at Annual Rock Paper Scissors Rumble at The Explx in the Echo Park section of L.A. Full details at partyscammers.com.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:42 PM | Comments (0)

March 16, 2007

Wichita Lineman

Wichita Lineman photo

This is certainly one of the more unusual data visualization projects I've come across. UK artist Calum Stirling took the 70s song Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell and passed it through digital audio analyzers. Plotting time, volume, and frequency on the three axes he discovered that the song produces a shape remarkably like the Scottish highlands.

Check out some photos
of Campbell's 3-D model of the song's data.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:10 PM | Comments (1)

March 15, 2007

Mixable bottles on the way

photo sequence of choice enabled bottle

Demand beverage choice but have difficulty actually making that choice? Advanced consumer product design to the rescue! A Massachusetts company called Ipifini is developing something they're calling Choice-enabled packaging. Basically. they're containers for liquid (soda bottles, paint cans, perfume bottles, etc.) that have small burstable chambers built in. Squeeze one of the chambers and in pops, injecting its contents (soda flavoring, paint coloring, perfume scent and sex pheromones) into the main container.

The idea has applications beyond mere consumer choice, it also has value for liquids that shouldn't be mixed until right before use...glues, certain medicines, stuff like that.

Ipifini's website is just a bunch of PR talk, but they have a pdf explaining the choice-enabled packaging concept.

(Thanks technovelgy.com).


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 05:38 AM | Comments (0)

March 13, 2007

The rise and fall of flash mobs

photo of a typical flash mob

I hadn't thought of this until I read this article on the website for Stay Free! magazine, but you don't hear much about flash mobs anymore. Which is odd, given all of the press and hype they were getting just a couple of years ago.

"Bill", the guy who started the New York flash mob craze, gives a great account of their origin, explosion in popularity, inevitable backlash, and how and why he decided to move on to something else. Well worth reading.

P.S. It's also once again reminding fans of flash mobs and related art genres the debt they owe to the late Allan Kaprow, creator of the '60s "happenings".

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:35 PM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2007

Deleting selective memories

still image from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Remember the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play former lovers who undergo a medical procedure to have their painful memories of each other removed from their brains. A cool movie, but certainly not something that could be done in real life. Right?

Well, hang on bucko, because that exact idea is now one step closer to reality. According to a new paper in Nature Neuroscience, researchers have been able to remove one specific painful memory from rats while seemingly not affecting a different painful memory.

The experiment begins...as so many neurology experiments do...by shocking rats. This time, the rats are zapped while hearing one of two different musicial tones. As you expect, after a while the rats associate the tones with pain, and become agitated when hearing either tone.

They then gave the rats something called U0126, a drug that induces limited amnesia. While under the influence of that drug, they played just one of the tones and shocked the rats some more. A day later (after the drug had worn off) the rats were no longer scared of the tone that accompanied the shocks they received while they were drugged. Somehow, UO126 broke the link between the sound and painful memory associated with it.

This isn't exactly something you're going to be able to pick up at your corner drugstore any time soon (UO126 is not approved for even experimental use on humans) but scientists are already excited about the possibility of using it on patients with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:37 PM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2007

Happy pi day!

first digits of pi

This coming Wednesday, March 14th, is known for many things. It's the day the Birmingham Six were freed(*), the day legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones was born, the day Karl Marx died.

It's also Pi Day (March 14, or 3/14, being close to 3.14, the first three digits of pi). The AP has a nice story about the people who obsessed with the mathematics and mysticism of this most special of all the numbers.

(*) Forget who they were? Go rent In the Name of the Father.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:27 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2007

New symbol for radiation danger

New radiation warning symbol

The International Atomic Energy Agency has unveiled a new graphic symbol designed to warn people that they're in the presence of dangerous radiation. The symbol, meant to supplement the ubiquitous trefoil radiation symbol that filled us all with dread and fear back in the Cold War days, will be used in situations where proceeding further could result in grave consequences. For instance, you might find the symbol inside of a food irradiation device, on the internal hatch covering the radiation source. The message being "Dude, you don't want to take this cover off". Most people will go their whole lives and never see this symbol.

The new symbol was the result of five years of work that included testing in 11 different countries all around the world. But not everyone is happy with it. For instance, check out this critique by usability expert Andrew Crow from Adaptive Path.

I can't wait 'til I start seeing these stickers on skateboard decks.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:26 AM | Comments (1)

Every ad in Times Square

photo of a Family Guy billboard in Times Square

For his Ironic Sans blog, photographer and designer David Friedman recently set himself a noble goal... to photograph every advertisement in New York's Times Square.

To get the full effect, go to this page on his blog and start scrolling!

By the way, I'm well aware that you could look at this collection of ad photos and get all riled up and angry about the rampant consumerism pervading our culture, but in this case that's a little like going to the Amazon and complaining about all of the leaves.

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

March 08, 2007

Helvetica screening schedule

Helvetica movie poster

Forget Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter. For me, the big movie event of the year is the release of Helvetica, Gary Hustwit's feature-length documentary about the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface, and how it's helped shape global visual culture. The film premieres next week at the SXSW conference in Austin, and then plays at design-geek friendly venues throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. Visit the Helvetica web site for the full screening schedule.

Here in Los Angeles, the first screening is April 27th at USC. Want to join me?

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:22 AM | Comments (3)

March 07, 2007

Printable Cold Sores

printable cold sores

You've probably seen the recent ad for Dove soap... the one showing how a woman's appearance is altered my makeup hairstyling and photographic manipulation to achieve a level of beauty that's unattainable for mere mortals, but standard in advertising. (If you haven't seen the ad, watch it here).

If you want to take your derision of the consumer culture's impossible beauty standards to the next level, and don't mind a bit of law breaking, arm yourself with some of these printable cold sores and begin infecting the ad faces at your regular subway or bus stop. (Employee of the Month photos are a good target too).

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:01 PM | Comments (0)

Planetary Defense Conference

PDC logo

Right now you're missing the most bad-ass conference EVER. The Planetary Defense Conference in Washington DC brings together scientists, astronauts, politicians and futurists to come up with a master-plan on how to keep an errant asteroid from smashing into Earth and bringing life as we know it to an end.

Conference attendees will be talking about how to detect oncoming asteroids, what's the best way to nudge potential planet killers into safe orbits, and what's the right way to tell all of humanity they're about to die. Now that's what I call a conference.

If you want to get in on the action, you still have time. The conference runs through Thursday.

P.S. Think this whole threat of being hit by an asteroid thing is something we don't have to worry about for a million years? You obviously don't know about 99942 Apophis.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:14 PM | Comments (3)

March 04, 2007


image from Justine Cooper's Havidol ad

Nice bit o' culture jamming from artist Justine Cooper. She's created a full ad campaign for a drug called Havidol, the first drug designed to combat Dysphoric Social Attention Consumption Deficit Anxiety Disorder. It's a completely made up condition of course... a commentary on our modern "want it all" culture.

(Thanks Wired's Table of Malcontents)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:56 AM | Comments (2)

March 03, 2007

The emergent mythology of Club Penguin

screen shot from Club Penguin

If you're a sociology grad student looking for a dissertation subject, look no further, I have the perfect topic for you... the rise of collective myth in Club Penguin.

If you're older than 15, you've probably never heard of Club Penguin. But if you're a kid or tween (or have one in your house) then you know all about this online analogue of crack cocaine.

Briefly, Club Penguin is a online world where everyone's avatar is a cute, waddling, cartoon penguin. The world is filled with games to play, igloos to decorate, and places to explore. It's ad-free, free to join (though you have to be a paid member if you really want to get into serious igloo decoration and penguin haute couture) and has all sorts of behind the scenes intelligence to block potentially unsafe chat.

It's only been around a bit more than a year, but Club Penguin already has more than three million members. And when you get that many people together in a culture... even a virtual one... cultural histories and mythologies develop.

another Club Penguin screen shotFor instance, watching my 9-year old daughter play Club Penguin, I noticed time and time again collections of penguins trying to tip one particular iceberg over. They're convinced that if they can just get enough penguins to dance on the edge of the 'berg, it'll flip over and reveal some sort of fabulous prize. There's no evidence that there's any truth to this... as far as I can tell the people who run the game have never said anything like this... but somehow this idea spawned and then spread like a virus. I think this is fascinating as hell. There's definitely a paper in it.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:22 AM | Comments (5)

Born under a bad sign

bad sign chart

This is one of those things that when you hear it you go "Nah, that can't be true." But it is true... there's a connection between the month in which you were born and your chance of getting certain diseases.

For instance, being born in northern hemisphere in February, March or April increases your risk of developing schizophrenia by between 5% and 10%. People with anorexia are 13% more likely to be born from April to June. Born in the fall? You're 8% more likely to suffer from panic attacks. These findings are the ravings of some crackpots or astrology con-artist... they are well executed, peer-reviewed, statistically valid scientific analyses.

So what the hell is going on? How is this possible? Researchers think it isn't the month in which you're born that makes the difference, it's actually the month in which you were going through key aspects of fetal development. For instance, the hormone melatonin varies with the amount of sunlight and those changing levels in the mother could affect fetal brain development in a way that leads to schizophrenia decades later.

Meanwhile, people with anorexia are statistically more likely to have had an anorexic mother. Perhaps anorexic mothers have a greater chance of becoming pregnant during the warmer summer months? The thought is that that there is slightly less metabolic stress during the warmer summer months, and that might make things just easier enough for an anorexic woman to conceive and bring a pregnancy to term the following spring, right when the spike in future anorexic births occurs.

A great article on all of this appeared in New Scientist back in January, but a paid subscription is needed to see it online. But it looks like The Civic Platform blog has said "screw copyright" and posted it here.

(Thanks to John Barth for the pointer).


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:23 AM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2007

Build your own control room

Barco control room

What geek hasn't dreamt of having their own high-tech control room...an inner sanctum where you become one with your inner omniscient child?(*) Well, do I have the company for you!

A Belgian company named Barco specializes in designing control rooms for utility companies, broadcast networks, government agencies and the like. Their photo gallery will blow you away.

(*) I once got to go inside of Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and they practically had to have the guards drag me out of there.

(Thanks Pruned).


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)