Minuscule: Star Wars for bugs

xkcd-cartoon.pngThere is weirdness behind every blade of grass. We generally prefer our weirdness packaged and delivered in myths and monster movies, cloaked in comforting otherworldliness. But really, it’s right under our noses all the time. You don’t have to look far. I like how this xkcd cartoon treats the utterly bizarre concept of sleep and dreaming.

From Motionographer, I came across an excellent computer-animated piece in which Anakin Skywalker’s speeder (or Luke’s X-Wing fighter for that matter) is swapped for a ladybug chassis. When you contemplate a bug’s eye view of the world for a few minutes, you realize you don’t need to visit a Death Star for thrills. Provided you have a good imagination.


Leap years and MATLAB Central

Loren Shure keeps a blog called The Art of MATLAB at the MathWorks community site (a.k.a. MATLAB Central). She’s been extra busy this week so I filled in with a guest piece for her called Calendars and Leap Years. As befits the venue, it’s a mixture of prose and the MATLAB language code that’s used to support the discussion.

Part of the piece is the answer to the puzzle: what happens if you don’t have a leap year? The ancient Egyptians didn’t, and it made some weird things happen.

Google, O’Reilly, and Foo

My tent is now visible on Google Earth.

If you wanted to find the world headquarters for O’Reilly Media, you would need to go to 1005 North Gravenstein Highway North in Sebastopol, California. If you just want to take a virtual trip there, Google Maps will do just fine. If you zoom into the complex in the middle of the map, you’ll notice something odd about the back yard. It’s very green and strangely detailed. What’s going on? The rectangular region that constitutes O’Reilly’s “back yard” is filled with tents because the out-of-context snapshot was taken by a low-flying plane during Foo Camp in August 2006.

Foo Camp is a tech conference hosted by O’Reilly (Foo = Friends Of O’Reilly), and the Google Maps folks who attended arranged to have a special Easter Egg inserted into Google Maps: high resolution low-altitude pictures taken while Foo Camp was in progress.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Foo Camp, and we were told that the plane would be flying over during lunch. Some people, in anticipation of the flyover, went to some real effort, making Cylon Raiders and Space Invaders that would be visible from the air. Sadly, at least as of this writing, these constructions lie outside the small box of high resolution imagery.

I can tell you that the Google plane kept flying back and forth, back and forth, and we eventually tired of looking up at it and waving. After a while we got hungry and queued up for lunch. So what you see in the picture is a bunch of tents (the veritable Foo Camp campsite), a few brave souls stretched out in the damp grass looking up at the plane, a robot soccer field, and a bunch of people waiting in line for a free buffet. What’s really nice here is that anything you can see in Google Maps, you can see in much greater detail in Google Earth. And so it is that, if you open Google Earth and zoom in to 38.411360° north latitude, 122.840350° west longitude, you can’t quite make me out in the lunch line, but you can clearly and distinctly see my tent. Here’s what my tent looks like from a human perspective. And here’s what it looks like to God:


UPDATE: By coincidence I just noticed that Tom Coates blogged about this on Monday. He apparently has inside information from Google that the rest of the O’Reilly campus, Cylon raiders and all, will be appearing on Google Earth some time next month. You don’t even have to wait that long: Frank Taylor of the Google Earth Blog posted a KMZ overlay file of the whole thing.

The big brain

I was recently reading Sean Carroll’s excellent book on evolutionary developmental biology, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, in which he says that “brain size [in humans] roughly doubled in a million years.” This was a dramatic (and expensive) departure in the brainweight-to-bodyweight ratio compared to all other mammals. Carroll goes on to say:

The brain is a very expensive organ in terms of energy consumpution, drawing up to 25 percent of an adult human’s energy (and 60 percent of an infant’s).

Who knew the brain was such a hog? You can rest your legs and unshoulder your weary load, but your brain keeps drawing current rain or shine. And a good thing too. An evolutionary stockbroker might describe the relationship between the brain and the evolutionary fate of Homo sapiens as this: an expensive investment, but ultimately worthwhile.

These words were in my head as I recalled some articles I was reading about the growing electrical appetite of data centers. It turns out that data centers and server farms are sprouting like mushrooms along the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon. Why? Because that’s where the cheap hydroelectric power is. These giant computing centers, erected in rapid succession by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others are hot, hungry, and growing fast. The electrical power consumed by computers has become one of the most significant costs of a modern corporation, particularly since it has the knock-on expense of driving cooling costs too. Electrical companies joke about giving away computers and making up the cost on juice.

Who knew the computer was such a hog? We can regulate our trucks and trade in the Hummer for a Prius, but the great Google brain keeps drawing current rain or shine. Every day, as we commune by keyboard with the net, banging out our neuron’s part, the network is evolving.

I’m guessing it’s an expensive investment, but ultimately worthwhile.

Mashup Camp

Today I attended Mashup Camp in Cambridge, just around the corner from MIT. I went not expecting too much. I came away thoroughly impressed.

What is it? Mashup Camp = mashup + camp. Both parts are worth a digression. So:

1. What is a mashup? A mashup happens when you add new and sometimes startling value to someone else’s work. Because of this, doing mashups can get you in trouble with the authorities. Marcel Duchamp, who decorated the Mona Lisa’s face, was a champion masher-upper and troublemaker. Mashups are inherently derivative, but they can also be exceptionally inventive. If you spend much time thinking about it, you realize that mashing up is what all of us, farmers and artists alike, are doing all the time. Moaning about originality and the sins of derivation is a waste a breath. The marvelous thing that’s happening right now on the web is that mashups are finally getting the admiration and respect they have deserved all along. This is not small matter of internet culture. This is a fact of great significance for human culture.

2. Why the word “camp”? Camp in this context implies that this is an unconference. The salient feature of an unconference is that there is no pre-planned schedule. The attendees make it up during the opening session by signing up for hour-long slots in the master schedule. The final schedule that emerges in a few improvised minutes is every bit as good as one that went through hours of tedious revision in the yearlong run-up to a typical conference. The canonical observation about a typical conference is that the most interesting parts happen outside of, and often in spite of, the official schedule. This exposes a remarkable asymmetry: much of the tedium associated with planning a conference adds no value. An improvised schedule has a number of benefits (accuracy, currency, adaptiveness), but by far the most important is the energizing nature of active participation. Nothing is fixed in fatalistic preprinted timetables. If you don’t stand up and speak right now, you won’t be heard. Speak!

I let myself dwell on the abstract benefits of Mashup Camp, but the particulars were excellent. The Hotel@MIT was a good location, and the steady hand of seasoned conference leaders David Berlind and Kaliya Hamlin was much appreciated. Finally, if you’ve read all this way and you’re still wondering what the hell a real web mashup actually looks like, the best place to go is John Musser’s Programmable Web, a web site devoted to mashups. Take a look at HousingMaps, a site that famously mashes together Craigslist and Google Maps. Also see John Musser’s coverage of the particulars of Mashup Camp on his blog.

Jungle Disk and Amazon-based backup tools

If you’re like me, you are generally successful at denying the foolish position you put yourself in. You are fully aware that your hard drive could fail at any moment. You know the mayhem and suffering this event would cause. You even know that, as an imperfect product of human manufacture, your hard drive certainly will fail some day. And every time you reflect on this, you feel a dull momentary pain, because you NEVER BACK UP YOUR HARD DRIVE. Then the moment of guilt passes and your well-honed skills at denial resume their duty. So much to do! You’ll get around to it one of these days.

I need a no-hassle solution to this problem, because I know that I simply can’t trust myself to be responsible. In the past I have gone so far as to buy a backup drive, and then place it, unused, next to my computer, as if some osmotic process might take care of the backup for me. That is why I have been hoping for a dead easy web-based service that would take care of my backup problem for me. Web backup has been available for a few years now, but it hasn’t been cheap. That’s changing now, and the best thing I’ve seen so far is Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk is a free client that plugs straight into Amazon’s industrial-strength dirt-cheap S3 storage network. I don’t know how they make their money, but they seem like the real thing. Here’s an Amazon marketing piece about them. Anyway, the price has finally reached the point where even I can be induced to be responsible. Here is my bill for January. Admittedly, I was only backing up a few dozen megabytes as a test, but the storage cost me exactly one cent for the month.


Even if Jungle Disk doesn’t work out, there will be other S3-based services that jump in to take up the slack. Here’s a list from Jeremy Zawodny on Amazon S3 Backup Tools.

UC Berkeley molecular biology webcast

In the fall of 2002, MIT proudly announced its OpenCourseWare initiative. They were rightly praised at the time for putting course materials directly online and making them freely available to anyone with access to the web. I was interested in biology classes and poked around the site and came away a little disappointed. Not all the lectures were available as audio, the sound quality wasn’t good, and the lecture notes had images ripped out of every other slide along with some legal boilerplate about how copyrighted material had to be removed. In other words, wherever the lecture snipped a picture out of a textbook (which was often), they couldn’t distribute that slide to the internet masses. Taken all together, I was impressed with the notion of OpenCourseWare but not with the reality.

I forgot about open course ware for a long time, but recently found a page linking to podcast lectures from UC Berkeley. This time it was the real deal. I’m still interested in biology, so I’m watching the lectures for MCB 110: General Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. There’s audio, video, and PowerPoint slides, and the quality is very high. The slides are complete and unexpurgated. It’s a phenomenal resource. There’s just no doubt that free course material like this is going to transform lives.

I’ve since gone back and looked at MIT’s latest OpenCourseWare biology classes. I’m happy to report that now there’s plenty of good stuff there too, including video lectures in which Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and one of the more famous geneticists in the world, explains genetics to you. To get that delivered, at no cost, to the privacy and comfort of your sitting room, well… that’s remarkable.

Construction, models, and pre-fab houses

Modeling is the word for the new millennium. I don’t think people realize how powerful it is to have an accurate computer model of whatever it is you want to build. It frees you to simulate, iterate, and optimize your design in entirely new ways. Back ten or so years, aerospace geeks (that’s me) were excited about the fact that the Boeing 777 was being “built” entirely inside a CAD (computer-aided design) package. People are used to seeing blueprints, schematics, and design plans, but this was something else again. Not only was the aluminum skin being modeled, but also the wiring, the plumbing, the seats, the carpet, all of the thousands and thousands of parts large and small. This let the Boeing engineers make sure that everything would actually fit before it was assembled. The project was a great success, and every plane since then has been assembled in a computer long before any metal gets cut.

pipe-collision.gifA process that works with airplanes ought to work with buildings too, and so it does. The big difference is that the construction industry moves much more slowly than the aerospace industry. There’s less pressure to go high tech. But once contractors get used to working with CAD systems, the payoff will be huge. Here’s an article from Computerworld about this phenomenon: GM builds on 3-D model. The author follows the story of a factory that General Motors built, and it’s very much like the Boeing story above. Instead of printing out thousands of 2-D blueprints, they worked straight from the computer model. The computer tells you when two pipes are colliding. As a result, they were able to eliminate the costly delays that are endemic to the culture of construction.

Because collisions in 2-D projects are unavoidable, tradespeople try to get their work done first, Lemley says. When a collision occurs, everything stops while the drawings are reviewed. “You go through hundreds of drawings, and you call the architect, and they have to come down and bring a mechanical [drawing] down,” he says. That puts everyone else behind and results in expensive change orders. Building to the model eliminated the problem.

The GM project came in 5% under budget and 25% ahead of schedule. That adds up to real money on a $1.5 billion factory.

A process that works on big buildings ought to work on small ones too, and so it does. In the latest issue of Metropolis, I came across this article on bolt-together pre-fab housing: Bursting Out. Pre-fab housing conjures up images of shoddy workmanship, cheap materials, and bad taste. But in the future it will mean customized pre-cut panels delivered in an Ikea-like flat pack and quickly assembled on site. From the article:

The process borrowed heavily from industrial-design mass manufacturing. After hollowing out the solid model and developing a structural diagram based on the ribs, the architects ran commands to unfold the computer model, break up the surfaces into production-size triangles, label each piece and rib, and then organize them onto sheets for the laser cutter. This information was then run through String IT, a program used in furniture design, which “nests” it—calculating an optimum layout of the various shapes on the given dimensions of the plywood sheets to minimize waste—reducing the amount of plywood required by about 20 percent. At the laser cutter this file was run to produce 1,100 nonidentical plywood pieces, each cut, drilled, and etched to determine its location in the house. In January 2005 these arrived flat-packed in North Haven, where a team of 12 students from the architecture program at nearby Newcastle University was prepped for a fast-build process that the architects likened to a barn raising.

This technique is already proving useful in places, like post-Katrina New Orleans, where old-school house construction is too expensive and slow, too medieval to serve the needs of the community.

The first fruits of modeling are in narrow and specialized domains, but the real value comes when you start to integrate the efforts of multiple teams across multiple domains. It takes a long time to get everybody in the game, but the results can be stunning.

I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!

Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America

Morgan Spurlock, the hefty man behind the fast food fright flick Super Size Me, has also written a companion book called Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. Spurlock takes a dim view not only of corporate fast food purveyors but also of the American public’s ability to make sound dietary decisions when confronted with fancy advertising.

This drives Matt Angiulo crazy. Angiulo is an aerospace engineer who takes quite literally the old adage of Sir Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Angiulo is also a natural contrarian. Whereas he would no doubt leave Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book safely on the shelf, a book commanding him not to eat it is as good as a double-dog dare to do exactly that. Thus: I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!, a web site dedicated to the slow consumption of Spurlock’s book.

My friend Rob (one of the original Star Chamber gang) knows Matt’s brother and sent me the news about this fascinating site. To the email he added this

My review of his site would be: “Angiulo brings new meaning to consumerism as he literally digests the smarmy, self-righteous words of Morgan Spurlock in his postmodernist attack on Spurlock’s popular tome on so-called healthy eating.”

Every day he eats another page after reading and summarizing it for the site. No word on whether he uses liberal amounts of Miracle Whip. I’m afraid he is not a charitable reviewer. While he does swallow the arguments initially, what he does with them a few hours later is not fit reading for a family-oriented blog.