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April 30, 2011

Star Wars meets Jean-Paul Sartre

Star Wars with Jean-Paul Sartre subtitle

It's well known that George Lucas used a a number of central themes from mythology when he created Star Wars.

But what if he had taken a different tack? What if he turned to...wait for it...French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre? The results might have been a little like this series of Star Wars clips. The sub-titles are all direct quotes from Sartre's works. Enjoy!

Thanks facilegestures.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:27 PM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2011

How to make an hourglass

photograph of hourglass being made

Here's a bit of beauty for your weekend. This lovely little video shows the step-by-step process of making an ultra high end hourglass. If you have US$28,500 you can pick one up from Marc Newson. If not, spend a tranquil three minutes watching one of these masterpieces taking shape.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:50 PM | Comments (0)

Search for extraterrestrial life put on hold

photograph of the Allen Large Array telescopes
I was sad to learn that budget problems has brought to a (hopefully temporary) end to the search for extra-terrestrial life. For more than two years the SETI Institute has used an array of radio telescopes in California to signals from distant stars that may be generated by some alien form of intelligent life.

Funding for the day to day operation of the telescopes comes...or came... from the University of California via grants from the National Science Foundation and the state of California. But now those grants have been slashed to a tiny fraction of the US$2.5 million dollars needed to run the array each year. As a result, UC has had no choice but to shut down operations.

While this is obviously a big setback for SETI, they're not giving up. They are actively looking for alternative sources of funding (perhaps funding from the Air Force in exchange for using the telescope array to also track space junk, perhaps funding from NASA to use the array in investigate exo-planets recently discovered by the Kepler space telescope). If you have an extra few million dollars, they'd love to talk with you!

Here's an article on the shutdown from New Scientist.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:02 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2011

The most expensive book on flies EVER

screen shot from Amazon, taken from Michael Eisen's It's Not Junk blog

You may have missed this, but for a little while earlier this year one of the most expensive science books in the world was a little known work called "The Making of a Fly" by Peter Lawrence. At least that's what a couple of book sellers on Amazon.com thought. It turns out both of these sellers have automatic systems in place that notice the price competitors have quoted for a book, and then adjust their price accordingly. In the case of "The Making of a Fly" two sellers were trapped in a feedback loop where each one set their prices based on the other's price. This process ran unchecked for who knows how many days before the book (which had an original list price of US$70) reached the insane level of over two million (US) dollars.

Evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen credits a postdoc in his lab with first noticing this craziness, and bringing it to his attention. Eisen tracked the climb in price day by day and he's written up a fascinating blog post analyzing the automated algorithms at work here.

Lessons to be drawn from this innocent run amuck process in light of the huge tangle of automated stock trading systems running right now all around the world is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2011

Sperm bike

sperm bike in Copenhagen

If you're moving goods through the narrow and bike-friendly streets of Copenhagen, using a cargo bicycle is a great way to go. If those goods are human sperm cells for Copenhagen's fertility clinics, than what could be cooler than having a bike that looks like a giant sperm cell? Answer: NOTHING!

The bike is called the 'Sperm Bullitt'. The "head" of the bike is designed to safely hold donor samples in their cryogenic flasks. Will we ever see these on the streets of US cities? Probably not, since if there are two things that go against the American mindset it's 1) increased use of the bicycle, and 2) having to think more about semen.

BTW, thanks to Treehugger for originally posting about this.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 04:34 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2011

Creating TRON:LEGACY's computer displays

Image from TRON: Legacy

If you're making a move that takes place entirely inside of a computer, the computer displays better kick all kinds of ass. For TRON: Legacy digital designer Joshua Nimoy got the call to come up with everything from hacker computer screens to world maps to 3-D virtual hearts.

Nimoy's written a great blog post detailing some of the techniques he used. Among other things he recorded himself using emacs, and built software tools that would let the movie's visual artists generate custom shaped fireworks.

DISCLOSURE: I work at the Walt Disney Company, the company that made TRON:Legacy (but I work in the division that does internet stuff and games, not the part that does movies or videos).

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:48 PM | Comments (0)


photo of a funicular

The Low-tech Magazine blog is singing the praises of my all-time favorite mode of transportation, the funicular. Funiculars (also known as cable trains, inclined railways, inclined planes, or cliff railways) are surprisingly energy efficient. And of course they're just totally cool to ride.

The blog post gives special attention to water powered cable trains...ones that move by filling a tank on the uphill train with water until it weighs enough to slide down the track, pulling the other car uphill in the process. It's wonderfully clever and low-tech.

Here's a global list of funiculars.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:37 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2011

Katharina Grosse

screen capture from Katharina Grosse's website

I was going to write about German artist Katharina Grosse's huge dazzling works of bright vibrant color created via her tool of choice... the industrial paint sprayer.

But then I visited her website, www.katharinagrosse.com. At first I was a bit annoyed at the interface, but after a few minutes I've come to really like it. No display of her art whatsoever on the home page, just an endless procession of lowercase text that are all hyperlinks. You are forced to click and explore. Which you are happy to do, since each link brings up another technicolor(*) work. Now I'm starting to wonder why don't more artists do their websites like this?

If you really just want to see a bunch of her pieces at once, use this Google image search.

If you want to see her work in person, road-trip your ass to MASS MoCA in north western Massachusetts where she has an installation on exhibit through the end of October, 2011.

(*)Yes, I know that Technicolor is the trademarked term for several types of color motion picture processes. But I was having trouble coming up with other adjectives for really bright vibrant colors.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2011

The Big Lebowsky Monopoly

card from Big Lebowsky Monopoly

Of course the original Monopoly game is still the best. But the knock-off and themed versions (The Simpsons, The Beatles, City of London, etc.) are always worth a smile.

I don't know exactly who the guy behind www.samzo.org is, but it is just so bad-ass that he's designed a Monopoly set based on the movie The Big Lebowsky. Go to the site to print out Lebowsky-themed cards and board.

Do not pass go! Do not Abide!

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 03:02 PM | Comments (0)

WANTED: Pilot-Astronauts

rocket as depicted on some old pulp sci-fi book

Regular passenger flights to space are one step closer, with Virgin Galactic's announcement that they're hiring Pilot-Astronauts for their planned commercial trips to the edge of space. As you might expect for a gig like this, they're not just accepting anyone who staggers in off of the street. To be considered, you'll need to have logged at least several thousand hours in high-performance and multi-engine aircraft, have graduated from a test pilot school, have proven experience with high-speed gliding aircraft, and are in general are a flying bad-ass, dripping with The Right Stuff. Extra points if you're a current or former astronaut.

BTW: If you're more the passenger type than the pilot type, Virgin Galactic is taking reservations for their flights. Tickets are US$200,000.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:45 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2011


placekitten.com image

Graphic designers often (usually) design their print and web projects before the final text and images are ready. To help them mock up how the finished project will look, they use dummy placeholder text (often beginning with the Latin words "Lorem ipsum") and placeholder images.

There are easy to use online generators that will spit out lorem ipsum text for you, but coming up with place-holder images of the precise dimensions needed can be a surprisingly annoying pain in the ass.

Or, at least that was the case before placekitten.com. Placekitten is a free service that automatically serves up images of the exact size needed. The fact that each image happens to be of a so-adorable-I want-to-die kitten is just a bonus.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

April 13, 2011

One of the greatest physics problems of the age - solved!

NASA image of the Pioneer spacecraft

You may have missed this from last month, but one of the most disturbing problems in physics has been solved.

Since the early 1970s, the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft have been sailing away from earth. Now they're more than twice as far away as Pluto, and heading out into interstellar space. The problem is, they're heading out just a tiny bit slower than they should be.

Astronomers have been precisely monitoring the speed of the Pioneer spacecraft for years. They expected them to slow down slightly (because they are being tugged back ever so slightly by the sun's gravity), but the problem is, they were slowing down too much.

The discrepancy was tiny... less than a billionth of a meter per second squared... but it was enough to drive scientists nuts. They looked at all sorts of possible explanations... calculation errors, leaking gas, drag caused by interplanetary dust, you name it. But everything they could think of was eliminated as a possible cause.

This led some scientists to even wonder if some of the fundamental laws of the universe might be wrong... maybe the law of gravity, maybe Einstein's equivalence principle. (There's a chapter about the Pioneer anomaly in the book 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time).

But last month, they finally figured it out. A precise analysis of the shape of the Pioneer spacecraft shows that heat from the Pioneer's power source bouncing off of the spacecraft's antenna generates a very tiny force, just enough to explain the extra deceleration.

This whole thing is a great example of how science is supposed to work... first the observation of some new phenomenon, then the proposal of a hypothesis to explain it, then uncovering evidence that disproves the hypothesis, then another hypothesis proposed and disproved, then another, then another, finally getting to the point where you even question laws of physics that have been in place for hundreds of years. There's a good layman's write-up of the whole thing on the io9 website.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:19 PM | Comments (0)

Help redesign LA's time travel store

photo of the Time Travel Mart from good.is

This is kinda by definition the best design opportunity in history. The Echo Park Time Travel Mart, Los Angeles' first store devoted to the needs of time travelers (Wait, or is it the last store devoted to time travel? When time goes both ways this whole first/last thing gets so confusing) wants a new look for their front windows. Now it's going to be quite a challenge to come up with a store that sells replacement robot emotion chips, canned mammoth chunks, and ski Pangea posters. One that refuses to sell fire to any hominid who can't stand upright. One that sells Viking odorant. But it should would be fun to try.

Anyway, the Time Travel Mart folks really ARE looking for proposals to re-do their storefront and give it the perfect timeless time travel feel. The deadline for proposals is May 1st, which isn't a lot of time, unless of course you have access to time travel. In that case take all of the time you need. Here are all of the details, and a write-up about it from the folks at GOOD.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:44 AM | Comments (1)

April 12, 2011


scaffold photograph in Kabul

Let us now sing the praises of scaffolding...those wispy yet strong, temporary yet often permanent, completely utilitarian yet often stunningly beautiful skeletons that exist not for their own sake, but in noble service to some other edifice.

The SCAFFOLDAGE website proudly displays great photos of scaffolding from around the globe...everything from hand-tied bamboo structures to massive steel exoskeletons enclosing some of the world's biggest construction projects.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 06:39 AM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2011

Infographic of infographics

excerpt of Ivan Cash's infographic of infographics

OK, I'll admit it. I'm liberal enough, environmentally-conscious enough, upper middle class enough, white enough, and style-conscious enough to be a fan of Good Magazine and their accompanying website. And because of that, their trademark infographics have become a part of my visual vanacular over the past couple of years.

Turns out I'm not the only one. Good's distinct infoporn has caught the attention of graphic designer Ivan Cash. Cash looked at nearly 50 of Good's infographics, compiled their features, and created a meta-chart of his findings. It's an infographic of infographics. See it here.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

The most unusual Google Streetview images

caribou caught in Google street view

Google Street View cars have driven millions upon millions of miles, snapping millions and millions of photos of what's along a huge variety of highways and byways. Take all of those photos and you've just GOT to come up with some odd images. And boy, have they... little kids with guns, cars on fire, hookers climbing into lorries, guys vomiting in the middle of the road, the caribou loping down the road pictured here, all sorts of stuff.

Jon Rafman has created an online gallery of these found images at http://9-eyes.com/. No captions, no identification of where the images were taken, just the images themselves. Which kinda makes it even more fascinating.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2011

The FBI's toughest unsolved code

excerpt of the code written by murder victim Ricky McCormick

The FBI wants your help in solving one of the biggest challenges in current cryptography. Back in 1999, the body of a murdered man named Ricky McCormick was found near St. Louis, Missouri. McCormick's killer has never been identified, but the FBI believes the key to finding him may lie in two coded messages found in the victim's pocket.

The FBI thinks McCormick himself wrote the notes...family members say he wrote coded messages ever since he was a little boy...but no family member knows how to read them. Since the murder, FBI code experts have tried and failed to figure out what the notes say, as have amateur cryptography fans.

Want to give it a shot? The FBI has the full details.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:27 AM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2011

An alternative to giant wind farms

urban windmills pictured in a city park

Given how clean wind-power is, it's amazing what a royal pain in the ass it can be to get a major wind farm approved and built. According to this article on Fast Company's design website, many of the objections to wind farms are because of the very large size of the turbines. The Dutch design firm NL Architects proposes to make all of those problems go away by replacing the typical collection of large wind turbines dropped into relatively pristine or scenic vistas with armies of small turbines dumped throughout the urban landscape.

They'll arrange their mini-turbines into vaguely tree-like structures they're calling Power flowers and would plant them like trees in urban parks, along roadways and sidewalks, etc. The group is in conversation with the city of Amsterdam about a pilot project.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 07:11 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2011

Houdini's prop list

screen shot of part of Houdini's prop list

If you're the world's greatest magician it takes a lot to put on a show. Back in the day, before Harry Houdini hit the stage he needed (among other things) 100 gallons of boiling water, a fire hose, four gold chairs, and a 3 foot 6 inch step ladder (mahogany colored if possible).

See the full list here.

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

April 02, 2011

The United States of Dating

Map of the eastern US showing how often people on dating sites use the word 'kinky'.

It's been 46 years since the Beach Boys published their groundbreaking research into American regional variations in dating predilections. Allow me to cite a brief passage from their thesis...

East coast girls are hip,
I really dig those styles they wear.
And the Southern girls which the way they talk,
They knock me out when I'm down there.
The midwest farmers' daughters
really make you feel alright.
And the northern girls with the way they kiss,
they keep their boyfriends warm at night.

Musician and artist R. Luke DuBois is continuing the investigation via his project called A More Perfect Union. DuBois joined 21 different online dating services, harvested millions of bits of data from the sites, and looked for regional differences in the keywords used in members' profiles. He's generated a cool series of maps showing things like where people are most likely to describe themselves as shy or bored or, as shown in the image here, where people are most likely to use the word kinky in their profiles(*).

He's also made a set of state maps showing where certain words are more likely to be used. Some things are no surprise, such as the fact that the word actor shows up more often in the dating profiles of people from Los Angeles. But how to explain the fact that online daters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, use the word frightening more often than anyone else?

You can see all of the maps, and draw your own conclusions, at DuBois' website.

(*)I gotta say, I have doubts about that particular bit of data. I spent four years in West Virginia and conducted more than my share of "research" and I find it...to say the least... dubious... that the word "kinky" is used there that much more than in the rest of the northeast United States. I wonder if use of the word "kinky" in West Virginia online dating site bios is disproportionally preceded by the phrase "Not interested in anything...".

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

Visualizing the earth's gravity

Images of the earth's gravity from the GOCE satellite

Gravity isn't just a good idea, it's the law. But while gravity is a relentless force here on Earth, the strength of that force varies from place to place. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it's chiefly because 1) the earth isn't a perfect sphere and 2) even if it was, the mass within the earth isn't evenly distributed.

The European Space Agency's GOCE satellite has just produced the most precise data ever on how Earth's gravity varies, and they used the data to generate several cool visualizations. The images above are three snaps of a video of the rotating earth showing the gravitational variation...the high points in yellow correspond to spots where the gravity is stronger, the low blue spots (like the one in the middle of the Pacific ocean) are places where the gravity is a bit less.

You can watch the video on the GOCE site. There's also a good article about GOCE on the BBC website.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 09:28 AM | Comments (0)

The weather photography of Kris Dutson

Photo by Kris Dutson of a rainbow over Dorset England

Here's a little bit of beauty for your weekend. When you think of scenes of dramatic weather, you probably don't think of England. Take a look at the photos of Kris Dutson and your thinking will change. Dutson is an amateur weather geek and photographer, and he's spent more than a decade driving around Britain looking for just the right spot to photograph just the right type of weather at just the right moment. Check out this collection of photos just published in the Daily Mirror newspaper in the UK.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at 08:55 AM | Comments (0)