May 10, 2011

Technology Life Skills

photo of woman by Jenny Lee Silver. Used via a Creative Commons license

There may be no one who's thought more deeply, and from more different perspectives, about technology than Kevin Kelly.He's a founder of Wired, written books on everything from the history of technology to emergent complexity.

Kelly's written a practical set of rules for negotiating the ever changing technological landscape. Among his guidelines:

You will be newbie forever. Get good at the beginner mode, learning new programs, asking dumb questions, making stupid mistakes, soliticting help, and helping others with what you learn
Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. To evaluate don't think, try.

Read the full list here.

Photo "Learning" by Jenny Lee Silver made available under a Creative Commons license. Original and details here. Thanks!

Comments welcome via email to

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December 02, 2008

Meet the real Time Lord

atomic clock at the US Naval Observatory

A brief bit of geek porn for you, courtesy of the BBC. Recently the BBC paid a call on Dennis McCarthy, the Director of Time at the US Naval Observatory, and got a look-around at the facility that keeps the official time for the United States, and also supplies the time reference for the global GPS system.

Here's the BBC article, and accompanying video.

BTW, Director of Time has got to be one of the most bad-ass job titles ever.


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May 01, 2008

The end of phone tree hell?

fonolo logo

We've all spent endless hours in phone tree hell... Press "1" for customer service, press "2" for tech support... If only there was a better way.

A company called Fonolo thinks they've come up with it. Their automatic systems have dialed hundreds of phone menus, meticulously working through every option, recording it all along the way. As a result, Fonolo has become a kind of Google for automated phone menus, letting you search for the specific number to call and the exact sequence of buttons to push to get to the information you need.

Better yet, the Fonolo system will make the call for you, and connect you in after it's slogged through the phone tree on your behalf.

Right now Fonolo is in limited beta. You can sign up to receive notice when they're ready for more users (sometime this fall). In the meantime you can check out this video of Fonolo CEO Shai Berger explaining his product.

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March 04, 2008

Nokia's concept for a nanobot phone

Nokia nanophone concept images

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)

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February 12, 2008

Top 10 off switches

off switch

Let us now praise simple devices... the little, ubiquitous objects that underly our technological lives. Case in point: The UK version of CNET has a has a sweet little piece titled The Top Ten Off Switches...

In the last ten years, the off switch has seen something of a decline, being replaced by its trendier sibling, the standby button. But we miss good old offy -- his sturdy construction and good humour were a welcome break from the monotony of day-to-day life.

Check out the article and see if your favorite off switch makes their list.

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February 07, 2008

Oh Noes! No more Polaroid film!

photo of an SX-70 camera

Maybe I'm just getting old, but these days it just seems like the the end of one era after another. The latest change to cut me to the quick is Polaroid's announcement that they're going to stop making instant film. Once upon a time, Polaroid camera were THE BOMB. "You mean you can see the picture right away, without having to have the film developed? It's a miracle!"

And then, in the early 1970s when the SX-70 camera came out, it was hailed as a stunning technical achievement. But the rise of digital photography has made instant developing chemical-based film an anachronism. Nothing lasts forever I guess. Meanwhile, I'll be scrambling to buy up a bunch of film for my vintage SX-70.

By the way, all of this is a perfect excuse to watch this mashed up SX-70 video. It's from a demo film of the camera made in the early 70s by the great design team of Charles and Ray Eames. But here the original soundtrack has been stripped out and replaced by the punk band The Cramps performing "Garbageman". Why? I have no idea. But it works.

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June 09, 2007

Robot faces of the future

photo of Meiji University's Kansei robot

I've written before about the work being done to make robots more empathetic and easy to get along with. There's some interesting work in this area going on right now at Meiji University in Japan. Their experimental robot, Kansei, is designed to exhibit facial expressions appropriate to the words it hears. (We humans do this type of thing all the time. During conversation, we're constantly tweaking our expression in tiny ways that indicate interest and empathy to the speaker).

Kansei recognizes about half a million words, and will tweak its facial expression to match the conversation it hears. This YouTube video shows that we still have a long way to go in this area, but it's interesting nevertheless.


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May 31, 2007

Microsoft Surface

photograph of Microsoft Surface

A couple of years ago at the TED and ETech Conferences, NYU computer scientist Jeff Han wowed the crowds with his demo of his elegant and powerful touchscreen computer interface. (Watch a video of Han's TED Conference presentation).

Now Microsoft is going to bring a touch-interface computer system to market. They're calling it Surface, and their initial plan is to build the system into a futuristic minimalist coffee table, suitable for bars, restaurants, etc.

God knows Microsoft has had a mixed record when it comes to hardware, but I really hope this does well. Just because the whole desktop and folder metaphor thing has become the dominant was in which we all interact with computers, there's no reason to think it's the only possible way.

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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!

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March 29, 2007

Di Vinci's bicycle

Di Vinci's original transmission, and the nuvinci version

History of technology junkies know that every bicycle carries a little bit of Leonardo Di Vinci in it. Back in 1493 Di Vinci came up with a chain-based way to transmit power, a design that looks remarkably similar to the chain drive in virtually every bicycle.

Now you have the opportunity to put another piece of Di Vinci tech to work on your bicycle. A company called Fallbrook Technologies has made a continuously variable transmission based on a design that Di Vinci knocked out six hundred years ago. The transmission, which they're calling the NuVinci, can be infinitely adjusted, letting you dial in the precise gear ratio for any riding condition. No more being trapped between a gear that is too easy and one that's too hard.

A bike company called Ellsworth is going to start making a high-end cruiser bike using the NuVinci later this year. The bike, called The Ride, ain't cheap ($3,000!) but they look totally bad-ass.

For more on the bike transmission itself, check out Fallbrook's video demo of the tranmission in action.

CORRECTION: I originally wrote that the transmission on the Ellsworth bike automatically shifts to match changing road conditions. That's not true. The Ellsworth has a continuously variable shifter that let's you infinitely adjust the gear, but it doesn't do it for you (though there have been some other comtinuously variable transmissions that also featured automatic shifting). Thanks to Flounder for pointing out the error!

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March 24, 2007

Is this the new face of robots?

photo of the keepon robot

I've written before on the efforts underway to make robots more "intelligent" -- better able to adapt to changing circumstances. This is a necessary step in making advanced semi-autonomous robots easier for people to use and interact with.

But that's only part of the story. We'll also want...and need...robots that are empathetic and pleasant to be around. There is some very interesting work going on right now in this area, a lot of it coming out of Carnegie Mellon University. Case in point...Keepon.

Keepon (pronounced "kee-pong") is an extraordinarily cute little robot. It knows how to dance in time with music, but more importantly it's teaching researchers valuable lessons on how machines should interact with people. Keepon's eyes are wide-angle cameras and its nose is a microphone, so it can react to visual and voice stimulus. Watch this quick video to see how it turns to look at an interesting object and how it reacts of the sound of a nearby human voice.

close-up photo of KeeponKeepon also teaches (or rather re-teaches) a valuable lesson in the psychology of face recognition and human empathy. Keepon's appearance couldn't be simpler...two yellow sphere and three circles in the approximate location of eyes and a nose...yet that's all it takes to trigger universal comments of "Aww... how cute!". Add those squishy exaggerated body movements (something that nearly a century of animated cartoons have taught us to associate with sweet innocent fun-filled imaginary creatures) and you don't just have a robot, you have your new best friend.

(Thanks New Scientist)


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February 25, 2007

Retro-future visions of space stations

artist rendering of a space colony

Here's a quick bit of beauty for your weekend. Back in the 70s, NASA commissioned paintings of what future space colonies might look like. Now they've released more than a dozen of these gorgeous paintings into the public domain. While it looks like it's going to be quite a while before we're all living in giant spinning rings gently circling the globe (hell, we still can barely get humans into low earth orbit) but when we *do* get there, it's going to look amazing.

P.S. If you like these images, you may enjoy these images I found from the dawn of the Apollo program.

(Thanks Paleo-future).

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February 04, 2007

Welcome to the golden age of robot kits

a typical Pico cricket project

Being the disposable-income-laden adult with a penchant for well designed products that you are (hey, I know my audience) you are no doubt on top of things when it comes to advances in consumer electronics -- your iPhones, your slingboxes, etc. But you may have completely missed the explosion of creativity in one specific area -- electronic robot kids for kids.

A few years ago, if you were a kid who wanted to build a robot or other electronic gizmo your choices were pretty much limited to cardboard boxes and your imagination. Not anymore! Now there are all sorts of powerful electronic and robot kits...easy enough for children to use, but powerful enough for serious hacking.

Kids are already going great things with LEGO Mindstorms and the Vex robotic system).

Now there's another entry in the field, called PicoCricket, a kit specially designed to make it easy for kids to create electro-mechanical art. PicoCricket's design comes out of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT's Media Lab, and they've taken a wonderfully fun, wide-ranging view of the types of things kids will do with the kit. I can't wait to see what kinds of things kids kids armed with a bunch of these things will come up with.

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January 02, 2007

Help pick public TV's next science show

image from Wired Science

PBS wants a new prime-time science show, and they're asking the public to help pick it. Over the next three weeks public TV stations across America will air demo episodes of three contenders. Based on audience reaction (both the TV audience and visitors to the shows' websites), PBS will green-light one of the series for regular production.

The trial kicks off this Wednesday night with Wired Science, a fast-paced eclectic show based on Wired Magazine (Full Disclosure: I did a bit of writing for the Wired Science website).

The following Wednesday it's Science Investigators... a team of researchers look into mysteries such as the global drop in frog populations and the physics of the knuckle-ball. The trial finishes up with 22nd Century, a series devoted to speculation about the future of technology.

Don't want to wait for TV? All three shows are available right now for online viewing, and are available as video podcasts. Full details on the PBS website.


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December 01, 2006

We know why apples are red

apple photo by PPDIGITAL/

After a five year search, scientists in Australia have located the gene that controls the red color of apples. Apples get their red color from chemical compounds called Anthocyanins, and the researchers have figured out which gene controls the amount of Anthocyanin produced.

Produce industry folks are hoping this discovery will lead to new and more popular varieties of apple. Me, I hope they extract that gene and start putting it into all sorts of other fruits and vegetables. I could really use a watermelon that is red on both the inside and outside.

There are a number of science websites reporting the discovery, but it's more fun to read about it at Food-USA navigator!

(Apple photo by PPDIGITAL/flickr)

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November 24, 2006

Mystery of the Antikythera solved! (so they say)

photo of the Antikythera Mechanism

In another week or so, there's going to be a conference in Greece about one of the most mysterious machines in all of human history... the Antikythera Mechanism. The Mechanism is a heavily encrusted collection of gears found a century ago off the coast of Greece at the site of an ancient shipwreck. With a creation date of approximately 80 B.C., it's one of the world's oldest known geared devices. It appears to be some sort of astronomical calculator, used for figuring out the position of the planets, but there's no definitive proof of that.

CT scan of the Antikythera MechanismBut now researchers say they've sussed out the purpose of the Mechanism! They're keeping mum about their findings, waiting for the conference to unveil their conclusions. But there is a bit of a preview contained in an article in Network World.

If you want to get the latest on the Mechanism (and you aren't planning on a trip to Greece at the end of November) you can sign up for the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project's mailing list.

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November 20, 2006

Inventing by sketching

early sketch of the Brannock shoe fitting device

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a great on-line mini-exhibit showing the original sketches and doodles that eventually led to commercial products. Pictured above, Charles Brannock's early design sketch for the foot measuring device that is part of every kid's shoe store in the universe.

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October 22, 2006

Kite Power

artist illustration of kite power generator

While there's been growing interest in wind-power as a means to generate electricity, there's been surprisingly little research in how to capture the energy of the wind... pretty much everyone agrees that large, fixed, rotating blade systems are the way to go. But are there alternative methods?

Some Italian researchers think so. A company called Sequoia Automation has come up with an idea called the Kite Generator (KiteGen for short) that uses a bunch of mile-high kites tethered to a merry-go-round like contraption on the ground. Each kite's angle to the wind can be precisely and continuously controlled...kites in the downwind phase of their orbit are tilted to catch as much wind as possible, in the upwind phase they tilt down to easily slip forward.

A kite-driven carousel the size of a football field could generate half a gigawatt of power, and for about 1/30th the current cost of electricity in Europe (the researchers recently published a paper in the IEEE journal with the technical details. Here's a pdf). The researchers also say the kites can be quickly retracted if the winds die, or if there's an oncoming airplane.

Wired News had a piece on the kite generator earlier this month.


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October 21, 2006

Happy Lightbulb Day!

webcam image of the centennial lightbulb

There are no parades scheduled, but today, October 21st, is a date worthy of commemoration. On this date in 1879 Thomas Edison figured out the secret to the electric light bulb. Edison had spent months trying to find a workable filament that would conduct electricity, that would glow brightly when electricity was passed through it, but that wouldn't quickly burn up or melt due to the high temperatures produced. Edison started out by trying platinum wire, and eventually tested scores of different materials without finding fit the bill.

At about 1:30 in the morning on this date, Edison tried a bit of carbonized cotton thread. He turned on the power and his light bulb glowed brightly...and continued to glow until 3 o'clock the next afternoon. This was a huge breakthrough -- within a year Edison had a bulb that could last more than 1,200 hours. (Typical modern incandescent light bulbs burn out a bit quicker than that, but they glow much brighter).

OK, 1,200 hours is impressive, but to be really impressed by lightbulb longevity, get yourself to the fire station at Livermore, California. Hanging from the ceiling in the fire engine garage, there's a lightbulb that was made in 1901. A lightbulb that's still glowing more than a century later! The bulb has been turned off a few times in the past 105 years, due to power failures and a brief period 30 years when the fire department moved to a new building, but it's been on every second since (they have it hooked up to a backup power supply to guard against future power outages).

There's a website about the Livermore lightbulb, and a live webcam so you can reassure yourself that the bulb is still glowing, at

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September 13, 2006

Robots in sickness and in health

robot hospital

A couple of items from the world of robots...

In Japan there's now a robot hospital. The Kazawa Roboclinic in Osaka is set up to deal with your limping Aibo or catatonic Robosapien. Personal robot toys are a BIG deal in Japan, and some people can become VERY attached to their little robot buddies, so the Roboclinic is feeling a real need.

Japanese roboticists are also working on giving robots better manners. The Humanoid Robotics Centre at Waseda University in Tokyo is looking at how people interact with robots, and vice versa. The theory is that robot servants are going to become a bigger and bigger part of our lives, and we want them to make our lives easier, not more annoying. That means teaching robots thousands of little human foibles, like that it's OK to vacuum your rug, but not when your asleep on the couch.

There's a great article on making robots more humane in the current issue of New Scientist magazine.


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August 23, 2006

Making robots more intelligent

robot from the I, Robot film

Robots have long since left the realm of science fiction and become a part of industry...of medicine...of life(*). But robots still aren't very smart. Robots typically need to be pre-programmed with their operation patterns before they can function properly, so their applications tend to be limited and they tend not to adapt well to changes in their surroundings. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has just funded a big initiative to come up with a truly intelligent robot in ten years.

METI is putting up $17 million dollars (2 billion Yen) to fund research in areas like image recognition and decision making.

(*)METI says there are an astonishing 840,000 robots in operation around the world...everything from giant industrial machines to little roombas.


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August 09, 2006

Fallen Astronaut

photo of Fallen Astronaut

Over at The Kircher Society website I was reminded of one of the less well-known events in the manned space program, the placement of Fallen Astronaut.

In July 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 placed on the surface of the Moon a three inch tall metal sculpture of an astronaut, accompanied by a small aluminum sign bearing the names of the 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who had died up to that point in space or in training for space. (*)

Fallen Astronaut was the work of Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, and it's been labeled as "the only work of art on the Moon". I don't think I buy that, I think the Moon is covered with art... there's the iconic American flag, there's the austere abstract sculptures of the base stages of the lunar modules, hell you could argue that making the first human footprint in the dust of the Moon is one of the greatest works of conceptual art in history.

But Fallen Astronaut may just be the smallest memorial art ever created. I certainly can't think of any other memorial that's only three inches tall. And yet somehow the tiny size strikes me as exactly right. Space is a huge place, and we humans are such a tiny part of it, it seems completely appropriate that this memorial is a tiny thing placed at a tiny spot on a minor planetoid.

You can see a blow-up of the NASA image of Fallen Astronaut here.

(*) The number of astronauts and cosmonauts who have died for the cause of space flight has now risen to 28, due to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

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July 01, 2006

Simon Norfolk's Supercomputer Photos

Simon Norfolk photo

Photographer Simon Norfolk has been traveling throughout the US and Europe photographing some of the world's most powerful supercomputers. These machines are technical marvels, but Norfolk is not at all comfortable with them...

These computers are not amiable assistants they are distant and sinister; cold and inscrutable. In a zero-sum game, it feels like they grow stronger not to help us, but at our expense.

You have to pick your way through Norfolk's flash-driven portfolio site a bit to find the supercomputer photos, but it's worth the extra clicks. For that matter, his other photos are pretty amazing too. (Thanks to BLDGBLOG).

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June 17, 2006

Donald Norman sez: Maybe we're doing user observation all wrong

still image from Franklin Institute video of Don Norman

Human-based design pioneer Donald Norman has posted a provocative essay on his website about how we study the way people use the things we create. Norman and others have long proposed that we study our users in order to gain insight into how they could best use our product (be it a website, a kitchen appliance, or a weapons system) and then go ahead and build the product. Now he's not so sure:

Most projects are enhancements of already existing projects. Why do we have to start studying the users all over again? Haven’t we already learned a lot about them? Shouldn’t we be studying them all throughout the adoption period? Once a project starts, it is too late.

Norman talks about adopting the same type of iterative approach used in programming to endless weaving together of design, observation, and manufacture. The full essay is here.

In other Donald Norman news, earlier this spring my old stmping grounds, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, awarded Norman the 2006 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer & Cognitive Science (press release). They made a nice little video (5:05, 17MB, mp4 format) talking about Norman's life and the influence of his work.

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May 18, 2006

Coming soon to airport near you...blimps!

photo of a dirigible over New York City in 1931

I am *so* ready to travel in style. And I may just get my chance, if Ethan Stock is right. He has an essay laying out how the rise in oil prices and drop in airline passenger satisfaction makes the time right for a return of commercial dirigables. Instead of 10 hours of cramped airliner misery to get from LA to London, why not spend a full 24 hours on a dirigible, cruising along in high style...great food, fine wine, full net access of course, total comfort. Sign me up!

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