March 27, 2008
A new hat for the Eiffel Tower
Sacré bleu! The Eiffel Tower is about to get a makeover. In honor of the Tower's 120th anniversary, the viewing area at the top of the Tower is being expanded, allowing twice as many tourists to take in the view at once.
Visually, the addition will look like a large round platform way up by the peak of the Tower. Now obviously, changing one of the world's most famous architectural silhouettes is not without controversy. To mitigate the anger, the architects of the addition have designed it so it can be added and later removed from Tower without damaging the original structure. (It'll be attached via a mesh of high-strength Kevlar cables).
The addition will be unveiled, accompanied by a blizzard of snidey architecture critic essays, next year. Here's an article in the Guardian newspaper about it.
March 23, 2008
The sounds of Saturn
Looking for the perfect sound for that sci-fi movie you've been working on? Cassini to the rescue!
My interplanetary buddy, the Cassini spacecraft, has been busy collecting data from Saturn and its moons for years(*). Way back in the late 90s Cassini recorded the electro-magnetic radiation that occurs in the polar regions of Saturn's atmosphere (similar energy causes the Northern lights here on Earth). A while back some JPL scientists converted the transmissions to audible sound, giving us a sense of what Saturn sounds like.
I think the sound has a wonderfully spooky storm-at-the-South-Pole quality to it, combined with just the type of static that sounds like outer space. In short, it's JUST the sound you would want to use if you were making a creepy sci-fi space horror epic.
Wouldn't it be great if movie sound artists started using the Cassini Saturn sound everywhere? If it became as widely used as the Wilhelm scream?
(*) The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth in 1997. After following one of the gnarliest flight paths ever devised, Cassini went into orbit around Saturn in 2004.
If you're reading this, take a bow. For you are descended from a line of ancestors who achieved something seemingly impossible. Consider... every single one of your direct ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life on Earth several billion years ago, managed to survive long enough to successfully reproduce. It's an astonishing achievement, and the tiny detail that we share that achievement with every single organism on the planet shouldn't make you crow about your particular success any less.
It's evolution and natural selection of course that gave rise to the astonishing diversity of life on earth, processes that are still operating all around us all the time.
Like for instance, while you're eating dinner. And what better way to remind yourself of that fact with every bite, than this set of cutlery by designer Harry White?
Starting with two knifes, two forks and two spoons, White imagined how the utensils would look if they could interbreed and produce offspring. The full 49-piece set includes some truly bizarre flatware hybrids. But nothing odder than what nature itself comes up with.
March 17, 2008
How to think
When Ed Boyden applied for a teaching gig at MIT's famed Media Lab, he pitched the idea of teaching a course called "How to Think". The best I can tell, that course has yet to make it into the official curriculum, but Boyden has written up 10 rules for thinking and posted them on his blog on Technology Review. Among his suggestions...
Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas.
It's worth reading the full list, as well as the thoughts of the commenters. I also highly recommend the O'Reilly book Mind Performance Hacks.
March 16, 2008
For a little while now one of the songs in heaviest rotation in my personal music universe has been a soft, haunting ballad sung by a computer program. It's a tune called "Still Alive" from the video game Portal. As I understand it(*), in the game you take the role of test subjects, trying out a hyper-advanced new gun that blasts holes through the space-time continuum. As you move through progressively more hairy test courses you receive instructions, snide comments and encouragement ("If you live, there will be cake") from an artificial intelligence robot with a flat synthesized female voice. (Here's a trailer of the game). Make it all the way to the end, and the AI bot serenades you with "Still Alive" as the closing credits roll.
The song was composed by Jonathan Coulton, who's picked up a bit of minor cult fame for it, including performing it last week for a crowd at SXSW. The song is also going to be included as a number in the popular video game Rock Band.
Meanwhile, I find myself charmed by the song's mix of melancholy and optimism. Now, it times of struggle, I say to myself, "You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake."
(*) Disclaimer: I've never actually played Portal since I don't have a high end game console or a PC. Lame, but then you don't have a working SX-70 and Apple Newton.
March 14, 2008
Scientists create artificial traffic jams
Long time readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of the psychological aspects of traffic. So I was delighted to learn that Japanese scientists have been doing live simulations of one of the most enigmatic traffic phenomena... the shockwave jam.
Shockwave traffic jams are patches of stop and go traffic that appear out of nowhere and seem to have no cause. Traffic engineers have been looking at shockwave jams for more than 15 years. Using computer simulations, they've worked out that the jam is started when a driver on a crowded highway slows down. That causes the following driver to tap the brakes, which causes other cars to slow down, and so on and so on.
Computer modeling is all well and good, but until now no one's ever tried to generate shockwave jams with real cars on a real road.
As you can see in this very cool YouTube video, the Japanese researchers spaced 22 cars around a circular track and started driving. Though the drivers tried their best to maintain a perfectly constant speed, they invariably sped up and slowed down by tiny amounts. Those tiny changes got amplified by the following drivers' reactions. Eventually there were times when some of the cars had to stop completely.
There's a write up of the experiment in this week's New Scientist.
March 11, 2008
Hear me speak at Where2.0
Speaking of maps, I'm chuffed to say that I'll be speaking at this year's Where 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. I'll be hitting the crowd with true tales of some of history's craziest and most extreme mapping projects. The conference, by the way, is a great gathering of the people behind the most innovative geolocation applications around. See you May 12th to 14th!
It's not pictures that are worth a thousand words, it's maps. Maps are visual reality, a concise (and occasionally beautiful) distillation of a complex world.
But that's not to say that maps have to be straight-forward and dull. The Strange Maps blog is a celebration of the cartography that slips through the cracks. Like the map shown above, showing the Area Code of every woman rapper Ludacris claims to have conquered in his 2001 song "Area Codes". Or a map of South Carolina showing where people prefer catsup and where they prefer mustard. Or the map of the US showing where the most UFO sightings occur. There's something for everyone.
March 09, 2008
Incredible as it seems, Brits like to surf. Thousands of 'em don wetsuits and hit the coast (Cornwall is a popular destination) while others head to Africa, Asia, and here in America. But soon there'll be a new destination for those itching to catch a wave(*), London.
A massive new sports complex called Venture Xtreme is being built in an industrial area of London. When it opens in 2011, it'll feature rock walls, skate parks, an artificial whitewater kayaking run, and... jutting out into the river Thames... an artificial wave pool for surfers.
The pool will have waves up to 6 feet high, though they'll often be set lower for newbies and shoobies who can't handle the big stuff. Did I mention the surf will be heated? An hour will set you back 30 pounds.
(*) The new London Venture Xtreme surfing venue is an exception to the rule "When you're itching to surf, the only lotion is the ocean."
March 04, 2008
Nokia's concept for a nanobot phone
I've said it before but it bears repeating... the revolution in materials science that's just beginning will make the computer revolution seem like a peanuts. Just you wait, bucko, until nanotechnology really takes off (5 years? 10 years? Certainly less than 20?), we'll have products that will seem unbelievable.
Cellphone giant Nokia feels it's not too early to be thinking about those products. Check out this video demonstrating the Nokia Morph, an example of what they think phones will be like in the Future.
(And thanks to Chris for the pointer)
March 03, 2008
Off to ETech
Today I'm off to the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, for a few days of mind-expansion. If you're going to be there too, say "Hi!"
March 02, 2008
All the species you can eat
Behold the grand spectrum of life... the five kingdoms (or four or six, depending on which system of classification you use), the several dozen phyla, the hundreds of classes, all the way down to the millions and millions and millions of species.
I got to thinking, how many of those species do I interact with on the basic predator/prey level. Put more simply, how many different species do I consume?
For the entire month of March, I'm recording every species I eat. I'm only two days in, but I've already racked up several dozen species...animals like cow and chicken, plants like corn and rice (including a surprising number of trees. Just think of where things like maple syrup, apples, lemons, and walnuts come from). I've also picked up a few species of bacteria (thanks to some yogurt) and a couple of species of yeast (the result of some sourdough bread and a beer).
Check back at the end of the month and I'll have the total count. Any predictions?
Best band logos of all time
It doesn't matter how hard your band rocks, you could still benefit from a kick-ass logo. Just ask Aerosmith, or the Ramones, or Korn, or Phish. (The Grateful Dead took this to the extreme, having a visual iconography as large and varied as Tibetan Buddhism).
Spinner.com lists their picks for the 25 best band logos of all time. See if their faves match yours.
March 01, 2008
The Powers of 2 inbox
Like a lot of people, the size of my mail inbox is a constant source of anxiety for me. While I continue to work diligently on hacking through my email morass, I've been looking for a simple way to quantify just how much progress I'm making.
Nat Torkington came up with a great idea... measure the size of your inbox as a power of 2. Got 50 messages in your inbox? Your mailbox factor is 5. Got a thousand messages? Your mailbox factor is 9. (But be careful! Another couple dozen messages and you'll jump up into factor 10).
Right now I'm suffering under a mailbox of 11. Let's see if I can get it down to 10.
What do you think? Is this a good way to quantify mailbox anxiety?