Parkour, the art of not crashing into walls

St. Frank recently posted about parkour, the zany and dangerous sport that mixes gymnastics with testosterone and brick walls. When it works, as it usually does in the dozens of parkour videos you can find on YouTube, it’s impressive.

The New Yorker recently did a piece on parkour, and they even put some videos on their web site. But they were careful to include a video of a failed jump. It doesn’t always work.

Still, when it works, it’s something to behold. Here it is working.

I keep thinking that this is exactly how superhero comics start out: “Young Davie Dawson was a brilliant but tortured youth who trained himself to be… Parkour Man.” The colored tights might work out okay, but if you tried some of these moves with a cape, you’d just be asking for trouble.

Power plants in the basement

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the heat they generate at the power plant? They burn tons and tons of coal to make steam, the steam spins the turbine, the turbine makes electricity, which they distribute and sell. Everything else is just managing the consequences, because now you’ve got a lot of excess smoke, ash, and heat to deal with. Smoke and ash aren’t so useful, but you should be able to do something with all that heat, right? But like the natural gas that they’re constantly flaring on oil rigs, while it’s true that they CAN do something useful with it, economically it’s not worth their while. Just send it up the stack and be done with it.

So here’s an appealing story: if you install your own electric power plant in your basement, you’re in a good position to benefit from the heat. Even though your economies of scale are nothing like what they have at the power plant, you gain a lot of efficiency by cutting your heating bill and avoiding losses associated with long-distance power distribution. If you live in a place that requires a fair amount of winter heating, it actually makes sense to generate your own electricity. The technology is called micro-combined heat and power (Micro CHP) and if you live in the Northeast, you can get it now: ‘Power plants’ in the basement heat up.

In a related story, if you produce a sitcom in your own house, it is guaranteed to be funnier and have a lower carbon footprint than a typical Hollywood sitcom. Losses due to long-distance humor transport are horrendous.

Ha ha.

Bill Moyers interviews Jon Stewart

Bill Moyers recently interviewed Jon Stewart for his show Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. If you have the time to watch it, I recommend it. I sat in front of my computer and watched the whole thing, something I didn’t expect to do when pressed the “play” button.

Jon Stewart likes to say “I’m just a comedian,” and it’s fun to watch Bill Moyers needling him, essentially saying, “Oh no you’re not” and Stewart says “Oh yes I am.” But in the ensuing interview, it’s obvious that years of spoofing the news have given him some lucid insights into the political process in America.

Here he is talking about Alberto Gonzales.

For instance, Alberto Gonzales … is either a perjurer, or a low-functioning pinhead. And he allowed himself to be portrayed in those hearings as a low-functioning pinhead, rather than give the Congressional Committee charged with oversight, any information as to his decision-making process at the Department of Justice.

And here he is talking about the tightrope the president has to walk between stirring up fear about Iraq but not stirring up fear of his administration.

You know, one of the things that I do think government counts on is that people are busy. It’s very difficult to mobilize a busy and relatively affluent country. … I’ve always had this problem with the rationality of it, that the President says, “We are in the fight for a way of life. This is the greatest battle of our generation, and of the generations to come. Iraq has to be won, or our way of life ends, and our children and our children’s children all suffer. So, what I’m gonna do is … send 10,000 more troops to Baghdad.”

So, there’s a disconnect there between — you’re telling me this is fight of our generation, and you’re going to increase troops by 10 percent? And that’s gonna do it? I’m sure what he would like to do is send 400,000 more troops there, but he can’t, because he doesn’t have them. And the way to get that would be to institute a draft. And the minute you do that, suddenly the country’s not so damn busy anymore.

Even if you don’t have time to watch the show, Moyers’ site was good enough to post the whole transcript.

Magnetic brain stimulation: the new drug

I just came across this Wired item on a magnetic brain stimulator that’s being discussed at the latest American Psychiatric Association meeting as a new therapeutic tool for treating depression.

It works like this: much of your brain activity is electrical. You can drive electrical activity by changing nearby magnetic fields. Thus, with cleverly designed electromagnets, you can push and pull the electrical activity deep in your brain through the process known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This technique has been around for a while, but like all things technological, it’s gotten much better in the last few years. An article in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago made a splash by describing how an Australian researcher could turn anybody into a creative savant (temporarily) with TMS. These claims, it turns out, may have been overstated, but still, the news about TMS was starting to spread.

At the same MIT conference I mentioned here (H2.0 at the Media Lab) there was a brief presentation by neurological research wunderkind Ed Boyden. He’s doing all kinds of fascinating research, including using lasers to suppress and excite neuron activity in rats. But all anybody wanted to ask him about was his TMS research. Does it work? Does it hurt? Is it fun? It was obvious that there’s a fascination with this device that’s going to catapult it into the street when it becomes cheap. The whole thing vaguely reminded me of the period in the early 1960s when LSD escaped from the Stanford Psychology department. Not to suggest that this has the hitting power of LSD, but I know that anything that promises to give people a cheap thrill or even a dull buzz will be appropriated and abused in short order. The first thing that occurred to me was that researchers in this area should make sure they’re in a position to learn from the crazy shit people will do in their basements because nobody can stop them. I mentioned this to Ed Boyden, and I was impressed that he had already considered this. He’s created a wiki site called OpenStim that’s dedicated to letting people report on their research. Or their “research” as the case may be.

Seed: Science In Silico

I used to work in aeronautics at NASA Ames Research Center. I worked in a big wind tunnel building, and the people I worked with were either wind tunnel engineers or CFD engineers. CFD stands for Computational Fluid Dynamics. They’re the people who write programs to simulate the flow of air around an airplane. They always had the prettiest pictures to show management. It didn’t matter if the simulations were inaccurate, they were beautiful and convincing. This drove the wind tunnel guys crazy. Their wind tunnels were ugly, loud, and incredibly expensive to run, but often they were the only way to get an answer you could trust. They were the Rodney Dangerfields of the center.

But simulation has come a long way in the last decade. People sometimes speak of three pillars supporting scientific progress as being experiment, theory, and simulation. Simulation, once the weak sibling of the three, has seen fantastic growth in power and scope. In molecular biology, like aeronautics, experiments are difficult, slow, and expensive. You do as many as you can afford, but sometimes simulation is the only way to get the information you need.

Seed magazine has produced a nice video describing the nature of science in silico, which is to say, science as simulated on a silicon computer chip. Follow the link to get to the video: Science In Silico

Product idea: The ConferenceCaster

This one is worth a million bucks, but I’m giving it to you for free.

I was at a conference last week, and I noticed how commonplace it has become for people in the audience to use their digital cameras to take pictures of all the slides. Digital pictures are essentially free, so why not? At the same time, I noticed other people were holding up little digital audio recorders. Why not, it occurred to clever me, combine these two things into one convenient device? I’m picturing a small camera with a built-in microphone. Start the audio recorder going, then snap pictures as needed. At the end, you get to mix and match the desired results: a bunch of pictures, a high-quality audio recording, or a complete synchronized audio/image podcast of the talk ready to upload to an offshore server.

I have learned from listening to podcasts that: A) I really enjoy hearing talks from interesting conferences on technical topics and B) the slides mostly don’t matter, but occasionally you really want to see the one where everyone laughed for no discernible reason. Video of a distant talking head is pointless, but slides synchronized with the audio, that’s worth real money.

Okay, maybe it’s not worth a million bucks. But it’s better, as JMike has been known to say, than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And if a quick Google search reveals that five versions are already on the market, I’d rather live in the ignorant bliss of the optimistic faux inventor.

Falling in love with robots

Last week I went to the Media Lab’s h2.0 conference at MIT. “h2.0” stands for human 2.0; the conference centered on the surprisingly close relationship between using technology to cope with human disabilities and using technology to augment human capabilities. That is to say, people with disabilities are leading the way on human augmentation of any kind. The bionic man is already here, and he asks that you not pity him. He finds it tiresome, and it makes you look naive. This makes plenty of sense, but still it catches you by surprise to hear a double amputee say “Why would I want my old human knees back? I get to keep upgrading mine for the rest of my life.” As Aimee Mullins, a double-amputee sprinter, said during her talk “If I want to run fast, I don’t want prosthetic legs modeled after a human. I want legs like a cheetah.”

Anyway, one of the things that came up during the talks was the investment that the Media Lab is making in robots. This by itself is not surprising, but the next part is: The Media Lab is investing in robots for the purpose of connecting emotionally with humans. I met a guy who is making robotic diet coaches. The main purpose of the robot is to stare at you soulfully, blink blink, and ask that you truthfully relate your daily eating habits. And apparently this works. People trust robots and respond to robots much much more than they would to a screen-bound animation. These robots don’t need fancy arms and legs, because once you fall in love with them, you will do the legwork for them.

I was particularly reminded of all this when I came across Clive Thompson’s recent link to an article in the Washington Post: Bots on The Ground is about the growing emotional bond between soldiers and the machines that serve them. It’s a great article.

BASE Jumping: playing chicken with the Earth

These days everything gets extreme-a-fied rapidly, which I suppose suits the extremophiles out there.

Let’s say you jump off a building and live to tell about it. You talk to your friends. They all think you’re crazy and you get a reputation as a head-case, but that’s as far as it goes. Now suppose you do a nice video documentary of your jump. You post it to YouTube where millions of people will see it. Somebody sets it to some hard-driving electronica music. Now hundreds of susceptible extremophiles around the world will be infected. They’ll want to do you one better.

I came across this Ultimate BASE Jumping on, and it really took my breath away. The acronyn BASE in BASE Jumping stands for Building Antenna Span Earth. In other words, you get a parachute, but no airplane. In other words, if no one in their right mind would consider jumping off of it, parachute or no parachute, it’s a BASE jump. In this video, you see people “flying” extraordinarily close to the cliff face. At the same time I’m thinking “this can’t possibly be done,” I’m also thinking “so that’s what it looks like to plummet three thousand feet straight down next to a jagged cliff.” Nothing violent happens in this video, but as you can imagine people do occasionally die doing this.

A lot of these clips were taken from a peak in Norway called Kjerag, which is near the scenic hamlet of Lysebotn. Look for the dark glacial gash of a fjord to get an idea where the jumping is happening. Check out the official Kjerag photo gallery.

Rank your photos on HOT or NOT

Here’s some news you can use from the front lines of the modern dating scene: remember HOT or NOT, the tawdry-but-popular website dedicated to letting strangers rate your sexual allure? Here’s how it works: upload a picture of you (although of course you can’t be stopped from uploading a picture of someone else). Almost instantly, thousands of people around the world will rate your picture on a scale of one to ten. I first saw this site way back in 2000, so it’s a great-granddaddy of today’s Web 2.0 sites, and it has remarkable staying power. Even so, it’s a pretty tacky premise: grind people into numbers through the fickle calculus of aggregate sex appeal.

On the other hand, Hot or Not doesn’t rate people, it rates pictures of people. Reframe the site and it becomes a valuable service: “Hot or Not ranks photos quantitatively.” I have a friend who uses online dating services. He needs to know which of his pictures he should put on his “all about me” profile page. That is, which of, let’s say, twenty pictures is most likely to appeal to the opposite sex? Hot or Not can answer this question accurately and quickly. Suddenly a cheap-thrills voyeur/exhibitionist site is transmuted into a valuable (free!) web service that uncovers information that would be expensive to discover any other way. My friend submitted many pictures to Hot or Not, selected the one that rated highest for his eligible bachelor résumé, and immediately his traffic picked up. It’s easy to see how that’s worth real money.