March 16, 2008

Still Alive

screen shot from Portal

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."

Listen to "Still Alive"

(*) 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.

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March 02, 2008

All the species you can eat

 diagram of the tree of life

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?

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March 01, 2008

The Powers of 2 inbox

Powers of 2 chart

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?

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December 27, 2007

Hello? Is this blog dead?

photo of cobwebs. Released under a Creative Commons license. Original at

If you've been a reader of this blog you may have been wondering, "What the hell's happened to it?" Good question.

A confluence of work and personal demands pegged my amount-of-stuff-I-have-to-do-every-24-hours meter way past the red line. But now I'm back, so let the discovery of new and wondrous things resume!

(CC-licensed photo of cobwebs by Mullers/flickr)


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May 06, 2007

Off to a new gig

APM and DIG logos

Hey all, a brief bit o' personal news and open disclosure... I've stopped working at American Public Media. Starting May 7th my day gig will be as a web developer at the Walt Disney Internet Group.

Now, back to the blog, which is already in progress.

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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!

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January 30, 2007

Computers behind blogs

photo of my blogging set up

The above photo is my contribution to "Computers Behind Blogs", a flickr group where blog authors post photos of their computer set-ups. Check out the full collection.

Iain Tait of gets credit for the idea.

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January 18, 2007

Happy 100,000th!

photo of an odometer at 100000 miles. Photo available under a creative common license at

Just a brief note to say that sometime last night this blog had its 100,000th reader. To whoever you are, "Hello!" Thanks to all of you who stop by to read, to leave comments, and to send me suggestions.

If you're a new reader, may I suggest you check out the archives? Lots of interesting stuff happened before you got here, just pick one of the past months and browse away.

(Photo: Giant Ginko/flickr)

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January 17, 2007

Hey! Why so long with no new posts?

illustration of the digestive tract

Starting last Sunday I was laid low with a wicked case of stomach flu. Better (and thinner) now.

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January 08, 2007

Post Number 300

post number 300

We briefly interrupt our regularly scheduled blog to mention that this is post number 300 (which, by the way, works out to a new blog post every 23 hours and 46 minutes).

Thanks to everyone who's visited, left comments, and suggested items.


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December 31, 2006

Daisy chains

photo of daisy-chained locks

Hiking in the mountains around southern California, I often come across access roads barred by gates secured with long chains made up of padlocks, all linked together. These daisy chains of locks are the physical manifestation of a wonderfully complex social system, filled with possibilities of cooperation and betrayal.

The locks themselves are owned by various agencies (fire, sheriff, forest service) and companies (cellphone carriers, radio and TV stations, logging companies) who need access to the road. Opening up any one of the locks breaks the loop of locks chaining the gate, so everyone in the chain has equal power to use the road.

photo of daisy-chained locksBut consider what it takes to get your lock added to the chain. You can't add it unilaterally...someone who already has a lock on the chain has to open it and allow you to connect your lock to theirs, as well as to the lock they were formerly attached to, thereby re-forming the chain. From that moment you are a co-equal member of the chain, able to lock and unlock the gate at will.

If you ever want to quit the chain you can of course just stop using your lock without effecting anyone else... you often see old, rusted, obviously no longer used locks on daisy chains.

But to get your lock back, you again require the aid of a lock neighbor -- this time to reconnect the chain after you've been removed. Unless of course you just take your lock and go home, leaving the gate open.

There's one other bit of social interaction possible with daisy chained of betrayal and exclusion. It's possible for someone to connect their lock not to the next lock in the chain, but to one further down the line. That action leaves the skipped over locks literally out of the loop and dangling like a pendant. The only way those cut-off locks can get back into the loop is if one of three locks (the lock from which the cut-off pendant lock(s) hang, or one of its immediate neighbors) reconnect it.

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November 26, 2006

Hello Boston Globe readers!

Boston Globe logo

A quick "Hello!" to those of you who have reached this blog via my piece in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

I'll be writing from time to time for the Globe, presenting trends in the worlds of technology and design that I find particularly significant or interesting. (Today's piece is on the rise of Intelligence programs that use actual human intelligence).

Here on my blog, I discuss many of the same types of issues, plus point out art, design and science items that just strike my fancy. Hope you enjoy it!

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October 01, 2006

Video (kind of) of my Google talk

photo of Chris Spurgeon speaking at Google

Even their unparalleled technical expertise wasn't enough to help Google when I showed up at their headquarters earlier this week to give one of their Tech Talks. It turns my jinx ability was in full effect, and the guy running the AV system forgot hit the "Record" button on the video recorder until half-way into my talk. But the video of the second half of my talk on the great geohacks of the last 3,000 years is available now on Google video.

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September 29, 2006

Pluto: latest update

Pluto bumper sticker vs. anti Pluto bumper sticker

A little bit more Pluto-related action (for the story thus far, click here).

I was delighted to learn that the Science Museum in London has added my bumper sticker to their permanent collection. Now I do belong to the ages!

I was also delighted to learn that someone has made a bumper sticker based on mine, taking the opposite point of view. I got one immediately. You can too.


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September 25, 2006

I speak at Google

Google logo

Google has a regular series of Tech Talks, where people from all branches of science and technology talk about their fields of interest. I was today's speaker, talking about a subject that's long fascinated me... the endless path of innovation that's taken place in the areas of mapping and geodesy. If you're a Google employee visiting my blog for the first time, Welcome!. Here's a link to some selected readings if you're interested in learning more about the people I profiled today. If you want the PowerPoint of my talk (Warning! It's a big-ass 37 MB file, and I doubt it makes much sense on it's own without my accompanying speech) you can download it by right-clicking or Ctrl-clicking on this link and saving the file to your local machine.

Google says they will have the video of my talk online in a few days.

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September 01, 2006

"Honk if Pluto is still a planet." recap

Honk if Pluto is still a planet bumper sticker

Well, it's been an interesting seven days, being a minor internet meme. A number of folks have asked me for a recap:

Last Thursday, 6 AM (PT):
The International Astronomical Union announces that Pluto is no longer a planet.

Last Thursday, 7 AM:
I design a bumper sticker and make it available on cafepress.

Last Thursday, 11 AM:
BoingBoing puts the bumper sticker on their blog. Zillions of people see it.

Last Thursday, 2 PM:
The BBC runs a story of the Pluto controversy, mentioning the bumper sticker.

Last Friday morning:
I get interviewed by the Associated Press. They also send a photographer named Nick Ut to take some photos of me. It's only after he leaves that a friend points out some of the other photos Nick Ut has taken.

Last weekend:
The AP story shows up in hundreds of newspapers.

Tuesday morning:
I get interviewed by Europe 1 in France.

Things seem to have died down. Checking the sales figures, I see that several hundred bumper stickers have been purchased, so I get to send a nice little chunk of change to The Planetary Society. Woo Hoo!

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August 19, 2006

Reason #2,432 that Iceland kicks ass

section of New Scientist chart showing acceptance of evolution in different countries

If you know me, you know that I'm a rabid fan of Iceland...the landscape, the location, the people, the music and art scene, the bar scene, the whole vibe of the place. I don't need any further reasons to think Iceland is totally happening. But new reasons keep popping up anyway. The latest is a study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University showing that Iceland leads the way when it comes to the percentage of people who believe we evolved from other forms of animal life. Miller and his colleagues quizzed people in 32 European countries plus Japan and the U.S. Nearly 85% of people in Iceland accepted the scientific explanation of human evolution. Shockingly, only 40% of American in human evolution. Only Turkey had a lower score.

According to Miller and his team, the low number for the U.S. is due to high percentage of fundamentalist Christians in this country. Happily, Iceland is not burdened with that nonsense.

There's a write-up of Miller's study in this week's New Scientist. magazine. The study itself is published in the August 11 issue of Science.

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July 10, 2006

Podcast of my "best geo hacks of the last 2000 years" now available

Last month I presented a talk at the O'Reilly Where 2.0 conference in San Jose titled "The Best Geo Hacks of the Last 2,000 Years";. O'Reilly's now made audio of the talk available... it's part of this week's installment of their "Distributing the Future" podcast.

The editing is a bit rough, and of course since it's audio only you're not seeing the slides that go along with the talk, but it mostly still makes sense. If you're interested in learning more about the hacks I talk about, I've put together a list of resources.

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July 08, 2006

Dinner In The Sky

dinner in the sky image

Oh man, I am so doing this when I become a billionaire. Dinner In The Sky is a company that will set you and twenty of your friends around a dining table, and then hoist the table, along with you and your friends (not to mention a gourmet chef and a couple of waiters) 50 meters into the air. Brilliant!

(The pesky details... it costs about 8,500 Euro, plus extras like the food and wine, photographer, permit costs, etc. But you get the set-up for 8 hours. You are wearing 4-point chest belts while in the seats, which could be a bit of a problem with evening wear. The seats swivel 180 degrees, giving you a great view, as well as making it easy to flirt with strangers on both sides of you).

If someone set this up over here in L.A. for an after-Oscar party they would rule.

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June 20, 2006

American Apparel opens a store in Second Life

image of American Apparel store inside of Second Life

If you're looking for further evidence of the growing influence and importance of Second Life, check this out -- L.A. based clothing manufacturer American Apparel has now opened a store in Second Life. Second Life citizens can buy American Apparel clothing for themselves in the "real world" as well as for their avatars in Second Life. FutureLab's blog has a posting about it.

(P.S. I've bitten the bullet and got myself a Second Life account. Look for me as the suavely-named "Ralph Beeper").

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June 14, 2006

I just spoke at the Where2.0 conference

Me (Chris Spurgeon) speaking at the Where2.0 conference.  Thanks to James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media for the photo

...and had a great time. The Where2.0 conference brings together folks who are doing all sorts of amazing things with mapping, visualization, and location-based technologies. Got to spend a fun day at Google headquarters hanging with the Google Maps and Google Earth folks, and two fun days having my eyes opened to some of the great mapping-related things going on.

My talk was titled "The Best Geohacks of the Past 3,000 Years" and I got to turn people on to things like Cassini's mapping of the moons of Jupiter and Polynesian navigation. I made a book reading list if you want to learn more about the stuff I was talking about. (Sorry, I don't have my slides online...they don't really make sense without the talk).

(Thanks to James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media for the photo of me speaking).

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April 18, 2006

I'll be speaking at Where 2.0

Where 2.0 logo

Woo Hoo! I'll be speaking June 14th in San Jose at this year's O'Reilly Where 2.0 Conference. My talk is titled "The Best Geo Hacks of the Last 3,000 Years". I'm looking forward to blowing folks minds by showing some of the amazing things people were doing with maps, surveying, and navigation waaay before the internet.

I'll be giving a rough-draft, dress-rehersal version of the talk at the great Machine Project art space in Los Angeles in late May or early June. Why not subscribe to their mailing list to learn about all of the great stuff going on there?


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April 07, 2006

Welcome to the end of North America

rift at the junction of the North American and European plates in Iceland

This is pretty much as far as you can travel in North America, the point in west central Iceland where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. The plates are spreading apart at a rate of about 15 to 20 feet every 1,000 years, causing the fissures like the one I'm standing in here. The European plate is to my left side, North America to my right.


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April 01, 2006

Off to Iceland!

The family and I head off on vacation starting this weekend... Los Angeles to Washington and then on to Reykjavík, Iceland! A week there, then a week in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.


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March 22, 2006

Day of the Dolphin

Last Sunday the kids and I and some friends spent the afternoon at Point Dume State Park in Malibu. As the kids dashed around at the ocean's edge, we noticed a dolphin swimming along amid the waves. The dolphin cruised along parallel to the beach for a few seconds. Then it made a 90 degree turn and headed directly for shore.

It kept coming and *kept coming* and KEPT COMING, right through the waves, all the way onto the beach. Where it began to thrash, flop, roll about, quiver, and where -- less than five minutes later -- it died.

photo of recently died dolphin at Point Dume park in Malibu

I missed the animal's final moments, having run up the beach to the nearest lifeguard station once it was apparent that we were dealing with one *very* sick creature. I called a local marine mammal rescue group, and they got there within 15 minutes or so, but I think they could have shown up in 15 seconds and it would have made no difference whatsoever.

This is perhaps one of the oddest, most surrealistic events that any of us there have ever experienced. It's not every day that a large alien creature appears out of nowhere, silently heads directly for you, and then dies at your feet. I'm not quite sure what to make of it symbolically, or how to feel about it.

The marine rescue folks say it was a long beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis). They're found along the California and Baja coasts, as well as off the east coast of South America, near the south African cape, and a number of other places. Here in California they're a little uncommon but not really rare, with about 30,000 of them between Baja and Canada.

This one almost certainly died by eating sardines or other small fish laced with domoic acid... a toxin produced by algal blooms off the California coast.


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March 18, 2006

Is there a better way to learn math?

A guy named Steve Yegge has an interesting rant against the way that math is taught. He proposes an alternative way to re-learn all of that math that you learned in college and then forgot:

I think the best way to start learning math is to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day surfing in Wikipedia. It's filled with articles about thousands of little branches of mathematics. You start with pretty much any article that seems interesting (e.g. String theory, say, or the Fourier transform, or Tensors, anything that strikes your fancy. Start reading. If there's something you don't understand, click the link and read about it. Do this recursively until you get bored or tired.

OK, what the hell, I can scam 15 minutes somewhere each day. Off to start re-learning matricies...

Link to Steve Yegge's article

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