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April 28, 2007

Do schools kill creativity?

still image of Sir Ken Robinson speaking at the TED Conference

For more than a year I've been forcing friends to watch this 20-minute presentation by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson on what's wrong with our educational system. Now it's your turn. His talk (filmed at the 2006 TED Conference) is funny, profound, inspirational, inflammatory, and paradigm shifting Watch it and see if you don't also want to throw out our K-12 and college curricula and start over.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:13 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2007

Cultural differences in cellphone use

photo of a cellphone

Here's a great little collection of infoporn. Cellphone giant Nokia commissioned an international study to discover the differences in how people in different cultures use cellphones. A couple random findings:

In Tokyo, virtually no one carries their phone on a belt pouch, but in Ji Lin City more than a third of all people do.

In Seoul you wouldn't be caught dead without a strap on your cellphone but in Kampala put a strap on your phone and you'll be laughed right out of the bar.

The short, but visually attractive, report is available as a PDF. There's also a web-based summary.

(Thanks future perfect)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:53 PM | Comments (0)

Pimp my arm

pimp my arm logo

The open source movement has revolutionized the computer world, so why not apply that same philosophy to some other fields of endeavor? That, in a nutshell, is the reasoning behind The Open Prosthetics Project, a collaborative group working to design better and less expensive artificial limbs. The Project brings together industrial designers, metal prototyping wizards, bio-med experts, roboticists, Lego wizards, you name it, to hash out new designs for prosthetic arms, legs, and other body parts.

Got an idea for a new hand? Post it on the brilliantly named Pimp My Arm section of the site. Want to see the latest in retro-hook design? Check out the new version of the Trautman Hook.(*) Want to help out? Sign up on the site, or just shoot 'em some bucks via Paypal.

(*)My grandfather had a Trautman hook, the result of his being in the wrong place at the wrong time...the wrong place was directly in front of a steam-powered corn combine, and the wrong time was when the combine decided to suddenly lurch forward, blades whirling. I have happy memories of watching the hook open and close as my grandfather flexed a muscle in his shoulder.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2007

The secret of Mavericks

photo of Mavericks by tomplunkett/flickr.com. Photo available under a Creative Commons license. Details and original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomplunkett/36052758/ .

The bit of central California coastline known as Mavericks is regarded as one of the best big-wave surfing spots in the world, with waves sometimes hitting 50 feet in height. Now geologists have figured out exactly what it is that makes this particular spot of coastline so special.

It turns out at that spot offshore there's a narrow, gently sloping bed of hard rock that acts like a natural ramp, allowing arriving ocean swells to smoothly rise up and continue to rise to truly gnarly heights.

The work was done by the Seafloor Mapping Lab at California State University in Monterey Bay. Check out the cool undersea charts with the report.

(Photo of Mavericks by tomplunkett/flickr.com)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

Gail Barlow's paper sculptures

image of one of Gail Barlow's sliceform paper sculpture

I've recently developed an interest in sliceforms, a type of paper sculpture related to origami.(*) Poking around to find some current practitioners of the art, I came across the work of English artist Gail Barlow.

Barlow has crafted a number of lovely and intricate sliceform sculptures. Check out her site's gallery.

(*) Origami is based on precisely creasing and folding sheets of paper. Sliceforms are based on precisely cutting sheets of paper and interleaving them into three dimensional shapes.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2007

Artificial snow in Tibet

photo of snowy mountain

Mankind's relentless drive to have dominion over nature took another tiny stumbling step this week, when the Chinese government announced that they had created an artificial snowfall in northern Tibet. The high plateau region of Tibet has been experiencing reduced snowfalls and increasing rates of glacial melting. As a result population centers at the lower altitudes are facing a water shortage. So the Chinese government... in a perfect example of old-school "we're a totalitarian government so we control everything, even the weather!" mindset... has been experimenting with increasing precipitation in the region.

Engineers seeded clouds with silver halide particles and got a snowfall of just under half an inch. Here's a press release about the experiment from the Xinhua news agency.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:03 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2007

The bigger the city the better

photo of Times Square by Christopher Chan, http://www.flickr.com/photos/chanc/463830261/

One of the great cliches in the arts is that people driven by creativity migrate to large cities. Think of all of the stories you've heard...Dylan moving to New York City, Picasso moving to Paris, Jackie Chan moving to Hong Kong, blisteringly fast African guitarists moving to Kinshasa. Now some researchers have quantified the relationship between city size and creativity.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled "Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities", shows that the bigger the city becomes the more creative it becomes (they quantified creativity by looking at statistics like the number of patents issued, number of "creative" jobs, and number of people working in R&D). And the rise in creativity increases faster than the population, so a city twice as large tends to be more than twice as creative. Meanwhile a city's negative aspects (things like waste created and power and water used) do not rise as quickly. In short, the bigger the city, the more bang for your buck.

According to Jose lobo, an economist at Arizona State University and one of the paper's authors, "Cities are really one of the most important innovations in humans history... We need a different perspective about cities, one that is away from thinking of large cities as a source of problems but as possible sources of solutions."

(Thanks physorg.com)

(Photo by Christopher Chan/flickr.com)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:38 PM | Comments (1)

April 18, 2007

The Great Turtle Race

shot from the Great Turtle Race

Forget the basketball and hockey playoffs and the start of the baseball season. The sports event of the season is The Great Turtle Race. Eleven Leatherback Turtles on their spring migration from Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands have been outfitted with radio transmitters, and their precise location is being tracked throughout their two week journey.

The Turtle Race website has constant updates on who's in the lead, and the British betting house partybets.com will let you put hard cash down on the winner. Expect the betting to become more volatile now that Stephen Colbert has an entry in the race (the odds right now on Colbert's turtle, named Stephanie Colburtle, are 8 to 1).


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

April 17, 2007

The folding guitar

photo of DeVillain folding guitar

Find a need and fill it. It's a timeless business maxim, proven a thousand times. The latest proof comes from the DeVillain Guitar Company. They realized that guitar players had a need for a more compact instrument, and they've filled that need with the Centerfold, an electric guitar that folds neatly in half. But be forewarned, they ain't cheap...a Centerfold will set you back nearly 3400 dollars.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:03 PM | Comments (1)

April 16, 2007

Nikon Universcale

screen image from Nikon's Universcale

We humans are prisoners of our perceptions. We see only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hear only a tiny fraction of the sounds that other animals can hear, and we have a hell of a time getting our heads around the massive range of sizes that make up our universe.

Back in the 70s designers Charles and Ray Eames created a brilliant short film called The Powers of Ten to demonstrate the scale of the universe(*). Now Nikon has created their take on The Powers of Ten, an interactive presentation called Universcale.

Universcale presents you with an endlessly expandable timeline-like interface, letting you experience the size of objects as large as galaxies and as tiny as a subatomic particle. Check it out!

(*)I made an appreciation of Powers of Ten a couple of years ago for the public radio program Studio360. You can listen to it here.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:20 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2007

Deconstructing An Inconvenient Truth

chart from Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'

What's the one image you remember from Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth? I bet it's that one chart... the one that shows carbon dioxide levels over the last several hundred thousand years.

It's a powerful image, but exactly why is it so powerful? What makes it work? David Womack of Adobe's Think Tank website deconstructs some of the images used in the global warming debate, analyzing how to hit the right balance between data and art.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:46 PM | Comments (0)

How to Make an Object Invisible

light passing around the cloaking device

According to this article in Technology Review, we're one step closer to having invisible objects. The object in question is covered in nano-scale wires that have a negative refractive index. This can make light wrap right around the object and continue on as if the light wasn't even there.

This isn't exactly Harry Potter invisibility cloak stuff (this test only works for one frequency of visible light and you can still kind of see the object, but it's definitely a breakthrough.

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

April 10, 2007

Revenge of the peeps

Peeps diorama

This is a few days late, but I just discovered the Washington Post's wonderful Peep Show contest. The Post asked readers to create dioramas using Peeps, those marshmallow animals that show up every year around Easter. Some of the entries are truly amazing. I'm particularly fond of the one pictured above... the final scene of the movie Reservoir Dogs, staged with blood-soaked peeps. Check out the slide show of the winning entries.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:35 PM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2007

Coudal partners Swap Meat

photo from Coudal's Swap Meat film

The Chicago-based advertising and design firm Coudal Partners noticed that from time they receive unsolicited items in the mail... books, photographs, tee shirts, posters, stationery, stickers, games, pins, you name it.

"So..." they thought..., "what if we didn't just wait for stuff to come in, what if we asked people to send us items? And then mixed everything up and sent everyone back something different?"

That's the idea behind Swap Meat, and you can join in. Just send them something that you've made, and they'll send you someone else's stuff of approximately equal value and coolness. (They have a few other rules, mainly to make sure that people don't just empty out their closets and ship them a bunch of crap. Here are the complete rules and the address where you should send your item).

Want to see what type of stuff they've been getting? Check out their gallery of recent items. Want to join the Swap Meat? Send 'em something by the end of the month.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2007

Yuri's night 2007

the Yuri's Night logo

This Thursday, April 12, is the hippest of all holidays, Yuri's Night. For those of you who forgot your timeline of early space exploration, it was on that date back in 1961 that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, one of the great achievements in human history. And a great excuse to throw a party!

There are parties planned all over the world (see if there's a party near you. If not, start one!)

Here in Los Angeles, there's a party planned at the beautiful Griffith Observatory featuring author Ray Bradbury and...wait for it...George Takei, aka Mr. Sulu from Star Trek.

But it looks like the Yuri's Night celebration this year is actually happening the following night (Friday the 13th) just south of San Francisco. The Bay area Yuri's Night organizers have reserved an entire hanger at NASA's Ames Research Center and will be rockin' the hanger with multiple bands, interactive art, continuous science films, robots and who know what else. (Details and ticket info here). Be there or be earth-bound!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:14 AM | Comments (0)

April 07, 2007

From Pixels to Plastic with Matt Webb

slide from Matt Webb's from Pixels to Plastic presentation

One of my favorite moments from last month's Emerging Technology Conference was designer Matt Webb's keynote presentation From Pixels to Plastic.

Webb's an impressive interactive designer who in recent years has branched out into physical world objects. His talk showed why, when it comes to the design of physical devices that are clever, magical, and simple to use yet powerful, we still have a long way to go.

He's done a great job transforming his presentation talk and slides to the images plus text format of the web. I urge you to take 20 minutes and read the whole thing.

Webb is also co-author of one of the most fun books ever about how the brain works, Mind Hacks.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:40 AM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2007


foldschool photo

If you're a fan of both math and art (and you know who you are) then by definition you're also a fan of origami. If you're looking for a king sized origami project this weekend, check out Foldschool. It's a series of kids furniture make out of corrugated cardboard. Download the free patterns, trace them onto some cardboard sheets, and then cut and fold away.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

April 05, 2007

Ideas in motion

Ideas in Motion photo

Dance is perhaps the oldest art form there is. But that doesn't mean it couldn't benefit from a little technological help. Ideas in Motion (a part of the annual Boston Cyberarts Festival) brings together dancers, choreographers, and new media geeks for two weeks of performance, discussion and collaboration. If you think dance is limited to stick-figure waifs in tutus, head up to Boston later this month and catch one of the events.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:14 PM | Comments (0)

The world's biggest sundial

photograph of the sundial at Mont Saint Michel

You only need three things to make a working sundial... the sun of course, some sort of pointer (technically called a gnomon) that casts a shadow, and some sort of dial upon which the shadow falls. Because they are so simple to create, and have been around so long, it's really rare for a sun-dial related record to be broken.

But that's just what happened when a French artist/scientist named Laurent Maget turned the entire island of Mont Saint Michel into a giant sundial. Maget used the spire of the island's famous monastery as the gnomon, and he had 600 one-meter reflective plates forming indicators placed in the tidal flats surrounding the island. (In a nice pacifist touch the French army helped place the panels). The spire cast a shadow as long as three-quarters of a mile. At that size you can actually see the sun's shadow moving as the minutes tick by.

The panels stayed up for several weeks and then were then removed, but you can see a video of the sundial in action.

By the way, if you're a fanatical fan of sundials, why not considering joining the North American Sundial Society? They have a geeky cool newsletter, an annual conference, and a website full of sundial facts.

(Thanks moonriver).


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

April 02, 2007

Body hacking

photo of Quinn Norton's finger undergoing magnet insertion surgery

I spent last week at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, and a mind-expanding week it was. There were a number of great presentations(*) but the one that's really stuck with me is Quinn Norton's talk about body hacking.

Body Hacking is kind of a catch-all term for any technique or procedure performed on your body to enhance its function or perceptions. These hacks cover a huge rage when it comes to cost, danger, and societal approval. At one end of the scale are things like getting braces and undergoing laser eye surgery...procedures that have been undergone by millions. At the other end are things like downing powerful prescription drugs for reasons the pharmaceutical companies never dreamt of and having sex change surgery...just because you've spent 30 years as a dude and thought it might be cool to spend the next 30 as a gal.

Norton's talk was a riveting look at what's going on with body hacking right now, and how society and the law are completely unprepared for the explosion in body hacking that's coming. (Are you ready for people covered in fur? For people who have elective brain surgery to tweak their personality?)

I expect that in a few weeks audio of Norton's ETech talk will be available. In the meantime, you can take a look at her presentation slides, and watch a video of her giving this talk at last December's 23C3 hacker conference in Germany. (Watch out! This video is a biggie, 184 MB. But it's worth it).

By the way, Norton knows about this whole body hacking thing first hand. Literally. She had a small rare earth magnet surgically implanted in her ring finger, giving herself the super-natural ability to detect magnetic fields. (That's her hand in the photo). Read her account of the operation and its aftermath. Let's just say everything does not go smoothly.

(*) I'll get around to writing about them soon.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:41 PM | Comments (1)

April 01, 2007

The forever clear windshield

water drops on a windshield

I continue to get little frissons of wonder every time that I read about yet another wondrous new material with some sort of amazing property. (And believe me, if you read the nanotechnology and materials science news like I do, you know that new materials are appearing practically every day).

The latest material is a polymer coating that's the holy grail for drivers...a windshield coating that make it impossible for the window to fog up AND makes it impossible for most types of dirt to stick to the window. The coating keeps water on the windshield from beading up (at the microscopic level the fog on windshields is made up of tiny water beads), while it forces oil-based substances (like many types of windshield dirt) to bead up, allowing it to be easily wiped or flushed off.

What makes this so odd is that normally water wants to bead up on glass and oil wants to form a thin even film. Here the exact opposite behavior happens. Weird and cool.

(Thanks Technology Review)

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:25 PM | Comments (1)