Ambient displays

Here in Boston, we have an ambient weather display built into the skyline: the old Hancock building (not to be confused with the sleeker newer Hancock tower by I.M. Pei) has a beacon atop it that changes color with the weather. There’s even a little rhyme to help you remember how it works.

Steady blue, clear view.
Flashing blue, clouds are due.
Steady red, rain ahead.
Flashing red, snow instead

During baseball season, the flashing red signal is means the Red Sox game has been rained out. Cocktail party conversation tidbit: a few years ago, opening day was delayed because of snow, making both senses of the flashing red signal true.

If you don’t live in Boston, you can now use the Ambient Weather Beacon from Ambient Devices. It uses a slightly different semaphore to get the message across.

The Beacon … glows more red when warmer weather is forecasted, and colder blue hues if cooler temperatures are on the way. The Beacon will also subtly pulse to show the chance of rain or snow.

A quick glance is sufficient to tell you which coat to grab on your way out the door. The Economist just ran an article about Ambient that includes this quote from the company’s CEO David Rose, “There’s a fallacy that more details are better,” he says. “What you actually want is awareness first and details on demand.” Details are vastly overrated.


Islam: A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles)

Given America’s problematic relationship with Muslims, I wanted to learn more about Islam. Karen Armstrong’s book filled the bill nicely. It’s a readable and sympathetic view of Islam. Armstrong goes out of her way to correct many of the negative biases that Western readers bring to the topic. She points out that fundamentalism, for example, shows up in every religion, and is almost everywhere violent and a distortion of the basic faith. She also does a good job describing the rise of secular society in the West as a slow and thoroughly disruptive process (think of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation). Secularism was later forced onto colonies of the West at breakneck speed in a superficial way. Backlash was inevitable… and is obviously still ongoing. I appreciated the altitude she gave to the topic; it’s helped me view current events in a more historical light.

Synthetic Biology 1.0

I’m off for a vacation this week, but here’s a good parting shot: EETimes (that is, Electrical Engineering Times) covered a biology conference last week. That must be a first. What conference was it? Synthetic Biology 1.0. Why does EETimes care? Here’s what they have to say.

A small group of about 300 attended the Synthetic Biology 1.0 conference here on the edge of the Massachussets Institute of Technology’s campus. Biologists from a variety of subdisciplines mixed with AI experts, circuit designers and chemical engineers along with a small clutch of researchers from the biotech industry. It seemed remarkable that this group has a common language, and one that an uninitiated EE would find strangely familiar.

Here’s the full article: Conference kicks off synthetic bio revolution. The electrical engineers and biologists are dancing together… the penultimate convergence is upon us. The last convergence will be when the poets, priests, and philosophers join in.

There’s more good information at

Naipaul on Islam

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

Naipaul writes unflinching and often unflattering stories about his travels in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This book was written in the late 1970s, around the time the Shah was deposed and the American embassy in Tehran was overrun by student radicals. Despite its age, the book feels like it could have been written last year. Naipaul’s directness on this thorny topic is refreshing: he describes a populist Islam that is unsurpassed at seduction but weak at construction. Again and again he hears magical faith being prescribed as the cure for all ills, particularly those imposed by external forces of Westernization. Since Islam defines itself as a religion that also encompasses politics, economics, and law, its cultural scope in an Islamic country is almost boundless.

Car buying tips

The last time I bought a car, I thought I was pretty well-informed by reading from sites like and (both have the obligatory Ten Steps to Buying a New Car: here and here). I read the buying guides, collected the data, and learned all my lines before the day of the big showdown at the dealership. But that was all years ago (way back in 2000), and the web just gets richer and denser every year. These days if you want to buy a car, you shouldn’t miss The guy behind the site is clearly obsessive… obsessive in a way that’s good for you. I can’t vouch for his personal happiness, but he can sure do you some good.

Inane Popular Mechanics

Many years ago, say in the 1970s, science magazines didn’t have nearly as much to report as they do these days. Popular Mechanics in particular always seemed to be hyping silly cover stories, stories that bore no relation to things that were likely or economically worthwhile, like a hotel on the moon or a personal helicopter in every garage. It’s tabloid science, but hey, it sells magazines. “Someday you will send superfast mail through transcontinental pneumatic tubes!”

These days, there’s enough fast moving science and engineering to fill a thousand magazines, but still Popular Mechanics insists on pitching things in an absurd way. Here’s an article about nuclear aircraft that is a beautiful throwback to the days of the 1958 Ford Nucleon and the family submarine:
The Return Of Nuclear-Powered Aircraft. It’s not like the story is a pack of lies, but it’s told with the breathless excitement of Tomorrowland, when after all, they’re talking about flying nuclear reactors. But the thing that really delighted me was the painting associated with the story. Look closely at the picture and you’ll see Mom, Dad, and the kids getting out of the cockpit while hazmat-suited technicians pull nuclear material out of the back. Meanwhile, two other nuclear planes are zipping merrily through the air on an apparent collision course. Are you buying this? A fully loaded 767 is a bad enough hazard without dumping in a bucket of hafnium-178 and a powerful x-ray machine.

To be fair, they themselves acknowledge this story has been here before: “Older POPULAR MECHANICS readers may recall that an atomic plane was featured as our January 1951 cover story.” I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the atomic plane. Perhaps this latest issue of Popular Mechanics will show up in a future edition of Yesterday’s Tomorrows.

Afghanistan and Central Asia

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe)

Peter Hopkirk’s book describes the back-and-forth intrigue between Russia and Great Britain in the cold war for Central Asia. The parallels between this 19th century power struggle and the 20th century battle between the Soviet Union and the US are uncanny. In both cases, Afghanistan functions as the “roundabout” of Asia, gating the flow of goods and peoples from Europe and the Middle East to India and China. In both cases, proud superpowers, in their fixation on each other, step on and generally infuriate the natives and nobody seems to win. In both cases, against expectation, the small country of Afghanistan brings down the mighty and sows the seeds of decades of misery.

Beautiful Bloglines

You may never have heard of RSS aggregators before, but someday you will, although eventually I’m sure they’ll have a sweeter name. If you’re the least bit of an information junkie, read on. Bloglines may well be the place for you to jump in and see what the fuss is all about.

I have complained in the past that I don’t care for most of the RSS aggregators I’ve tried. I like Aggie, but it’s old and it seems pretty clear that nobody’s moving it forward. I emailed Aggie author Joe Gregorio, and he confirmed this. As he put it, “The three-paned aggregators really took the wind out of our sails.” But then he went on to recommend Bloglines, which he uses. That was a good enough recommendation for me, so off I went to set up a Bloglines account. And sure enough, I like it. It’s still somewhat like a three-pane aggregator, but has the key features that I’m after. I can sort the blogs however I like, and I can mark them all as read in a single quick button click. And since it’s an online service (rather than a browser that runs only on my machine), I can view from anywhere, and I can show you my reading list. Voila:
Bloglines | Ned’s Blogs.

Nick Denton of Gawker Media has got a similar online blog aggregator experiment going on: It’s a simpler, more stripped-down tool, designed to bring weblogs to the masses. As it says on the site, “Kinja is not aimed at early adopters.” Read: “RSS geekboys need not apply. We don’t need your whiny noise around here.”

The Panama Canal

Path Between The Seas : The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

We hear often of the great adventures but not the flawed ones. We know of Shackleton’s astonishing second voyage to the Antarctic but not his fatal, aimless third. The French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to build two great canals. He succeeded wildly with Suez and failed utterly with Panama. In this excellent book, David McCullough tells the story of the spanning of the isthmus, starting with de Lesseps. The book is a wonderful characterization of big idea men. Lesseps thought big all the time. His grandiose vision served him well in Suez and ruined him in Panama, where he insisted, against a growing mountain of evidence, that the canal must be cut straight across at sea level. Panama was ultimately conquered by the industrious Teddy Roosevelt and his swarms of well-organized industrious yankees. One interesting observation that comes out in this book: the Panama canal could not be built any faster today than it was back in 1914.