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February 24, 2009

Milky Way Transit Authority

Milky Way Transit Authority map

Nothing like a good map to help you get your bearings. That's true when you're in an unfamiliar city, or an unfamiliar country, so why wouldn't it also be true with an unfamiliar galaxy?

Samuel Arbesman, a postdoc at Harvard University, has just the thing to help you find your way around this vast collection of stars we call home. He's created a map of the Milky Way galaxy in the style of Harry Beck's iconic map of the London Underground. The lines correspond to the spiral arms of the Galaxy, and our own neighborhood rates a minor station (the Sol stop on the Orion line).

Arbesman has a page describing his map. You can also download a PDF of it there.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

Give me Freehand, or give me death

Excerpt of Design Republic's save Freehand poster

If you're a digital graphic designer, the odds are overwhelming that you use two tools to create your images... Photoshop and Illustrator, both made by Adobe.

But, according to an article on Creative Review, there's a tiny dedicated minority out there who pledge their allegiance... and their clients' artwork... to a obsolete and discontinued program called Freehand.

Freehand was originally made by a company called Aldus. Aldus got bought by a company called Macromedia, and then a few years ago Macromedia got bought by Adobe.

Since Adobe already made -- and heavily promoted -- two graphics programs of their own, it came as no suprise when they announced back in 2007 that there would be no further Freehand updates. Since then Freehand disciples have lovingly guarded their aging software (for instance some designers make sure to never update any software on the machine holding their precious Freehand, just in case some random new printer driver or security patch could be Freehand-incompatible).

There's more than just stubbornness or technophobia going on here. An artist's tools are an extension of their mind and soul, and you trifle with them at your peril. I'm usually all about change, but if I had a design gig to farm out and had to choose between a designer who creams over the latest features in Illustrator and one who has a solid decade with Freehand, and can make it do exactly what they want it to do without hesitation, I may just have to go with the Freehand guy.

By the way, the image illustrating this post is from a limited-run poster called "I Would Save Freehand" by the influential British design firm The Designers Republic.


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

February 16, 2009

Data + Art

still image from Radiohead's House of Cards video

If, like me, your favorite thing in life is the beautiful display of complex data, you gotta make it to Pasadena, California, for the best art exhibit of the year.

Data + Art: Art and Science in the Age of Information at the Pasadena Museum of California Art has brought together some of the most notable recent infoporn works, as well as some timeless classics.

There's a working installation of the laser ranging system that Aaron Koblin used to create Radiohead's mind-blowing "House of Cards" music video, as well as a couple other of Koblin's best-known works, the time-lapse display of air traffic, and the hundred dollar bill drawn by 10,000 anonymous online workers.

There's an adorable pair of tiny solar powered robots who draw patterns in response to light in the gallery, amazing MRI videos looking inside an egg at the bird developing inside, an actual copy of the Long Now Foundation's Rosetta Disc, and a wall-size homage to perhaps the greatest data chart ever created, Charles Minard's graph of the destruction of Napolean's army in Russia.

The show runs through April 12. As an added bonus, there's a couple of really great mini-exhibits running simultaneously at PCMA: 3-D stereo murals of Mars from JPL, and stunning electron microscope images by David Scharf.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:44 PM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2009

We're All Gonna Die

image from We're All Gonna Die

A little bit of beauty at the end of your weekend... as veryshortlist.com tells it, Danish photographer Simon Hoegsberg spent nearly three weeks photographing pedestrians as they walked across a bridge in Berlin. Hoegsberg then montaged the portraits into a 100 meter long uber-mural.

Scroll through the online version of the mural, and see if you get the same slightly surreal feeling that I did.

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

February 09, 2009

Where are all the extraterrestrials?

radio telescope

For at least a century scientists have speculated on the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Many, perhaps most, scientists are of the opinion that given the vast number of stars and planets in just our galaxy, the possibility of Earth being the only planet with life is virtually zero. The galaxy must be TEEMING with life.

Back in the 1950s, Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi heard the arguments in favor of extra-terrestrial life and posed a simple question: if the odds say there should be many other civilizations scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy, why haven't we heard from them? Why have we yet to detect a single signal from an alien civilization? In other words, where is everybody?

That simple question, known as the Fermi Paradox, has stymied astronomers ever since. But Reginald Smith, from the Bouchet-Franklin Institute in Rochester, New York, thinks he's gotten around the paradox.

Smith says physicists have neglected to take into account the fact that radio signals get weaker the further they travel, and that eventually the signals become so weak they are drowned out by background radiation.

After doing some calculations on the size of the galaxy and the distance typical signals can travel before they become too weak, Smith has determined that it would take at least 300 alien civilizations before we earthlings would have a decent chance of discovering one. Or for that matter, before any civilization could detect any other. If there were only, say, 100 advanced civilizations we could all think we were alone forever.

You can check Smith's math, and plunge into the pro and con comments on his research, at http://arxivblog.com/?p=1167.


the inverse-square law into account

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:41 PM | Comments (2)

Greatest chemistry videos

image from Kent's Video Chemical Demonstrations

Back when I was in grade school, chemistry was totally cool, even bad-ass. It still is, but you'd never know it from the wimpy live-in-fear-of-an-accident-or-terorism way that chemistry is taught these days. And don't get me started on how chemistry sets have been emasculated over the years.

The time has come for chemistry to get its mojo back, to once again convince kids that chemistry can be as cool as computers or art or anything else their schools have to offer. If you need some help, sit your kids down in front of this great collection of videos from Kent's Chemistry Page.(*) Magnesium burning inside dry ice! Gummy Bears dying in potassium chlorate! Mixing thermite and liquid nitrogen! Great stuff.

(*)I have no idea who this Mr. Kent is. I gather from his extremely old-school website, he's a high school chemistry teacher somewhere.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:17 PM | Comments (1)

February 03, 2009

The Impossible Project

photo of Polaroid film machine

One of my most prized possessions is an original Polaroid SX-70 camera, IMO one of the greatest technical achievements of the 20th century. But alas, even brilliant design objects like the SX-70 eventually lose their sheen, and decline in popularity. Polaroid stopped making SX-70s in the late 1970s.

Happily however, Polaroid kept making SX-70 film (which also worked in later model Polaroid cameras) for another 30 years, finally ceasing film production in last June.

You would think that would be that...Polaroid aficionados would use up their remaining film stock, and then move on to other things. But you underestimate just HOW SERIOUS a Polaroid obsession can be.

Case in point...a group of Polaroid users has leased a closed SX-70 film manufacturing plant in the Netherlands, hired a team of film chemistry experts from around the world, and set themselves the task of reverse engineering Polaroid film packs and then manufacturing new batches of SX-70 compatible film that matches, or even exceeds, the specs of the original. They are aiming to have the first film packs roll off their assembly line in 2010.

This is such a crazily complex mix of chemistry, mechanical engineering, electronics, assembly and testing that the folks behind the idea chose the most obvious name for their dream, The Impossible Project.

I'll be watching their progress (they have a mailing list), hoping they can do the impossible, and let my beloved SX-70 live again!

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)