Doodoo data mining: drug testing for cities

By way of Clive Thompson’s collision detection blog, I came across this great article on citywide drug-testing using… wait for it… raw sewage. It only takes a teaspoon to find out the poop on metropolitan pill-popping. They can get good quantitative results on fifteen kinds of drugs. So for instance, they observe that “cocaine and ecstasy tended to peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, … while methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week.”

This is simultaneously funny and brilliant. It will be much more widely exploited in the future. It’s a perfect example of mining valuable data from otherwise unappreciated information flows. How does a cop know when a particular drug has become a problem for his jurisdiction? Arrests and drugs busts are sure to be trailing indicators, whereas community urinalysis is an infallible leading indicator (or rather an indicator that trails by no more than a few beers and a trip to the john).

Furthermore, the extensions are obvious and sure to be pursued. Sample your city by district, by neighborhood, by building. If I was a cop, I’d want to know where trouble was brewing. I can envision a whole new kind of heat map. Imagine the possibilities… test for capsaicin and you could probably use it to find the locations of good Mexican restaurants. Of course, you wouldn’t even need a fancy test to tell if it’s asparagus season.

It’s only a matter of time until suspicious employers are dipping into the used coffee stream at work. And what better way to see what your teenager’s been up to? I can see a darn good business in combination sewage trap tappers and drug test kits. Call it the Poop ‘n’ Snoop: “Once they go, you’re in the know.”

The litter box attachment would verify your cat has licked his blow problem.

Anybody want to invest?

Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan

Today I’m happy to present another contribution from the classroom of Alan Kennedy, our correspondent from the front lines of teaching English as a Second Language. This time he’s talking about the surprisingly complicated dangly bits of English: articles and prepositions. You never notice them until they’re out of place.

One of the odd things about learning a language is that it’s easy when you’re young and hard when you’re old. We feel bad about having to teach our children the strange rules of language, but they aren’t really troubled by it. In a sense, they’re the ones who made the problem in the first place. Kids are the ones who cook simple pidgins into rich creoles. There is a time when our brain can effortlessly spin and juggle complex new grammars. In some cases, it seems to border on the extravagant flourish of a peacock display. The Luganda language of Africa, for example, has at least ten different noun classes (not counting the plural forms), essentially genders like masculine, feminine, neuter, large things, skinny things, wet things, and so on. Each one has a different associated affix to memorize. What on Earth were they thinking? Who made this up? You can bet it wasn’t some Luganda government subcommittee. It had to be the kids. You can’t learn this stuff as an adult. You can’t even make it up as an adult.

It seems baffling that difficult and exceptional constructions aren’t eroded from the language by use, as a tumbling stone is smoothed by a watercourse. But there you have it.

Alan teaches English to adults. That puts him in the hot seat when the language gets weird. Here’s what he has to say.

Continue reading “Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan”

Hydroptère, the boat with wings

Hydrofoils have been around since the time of Alexander Graham Bell. The prolific inventor is credited with making one of the first practical boats based on this idea. But what exactly is a hydrofoil? It’s nothing more than a wing that operates underwater rather than the air. A tiny water wing moving at sufficient speed can support enormous loads. But it’s tricky to make them work well. Nevertheless, if you want to make a boat go fast, you need to minimize your contact with the fat grabby fingers of the water. You want a hydrofoil.

If you want to set the world record for sailing speed, it follows that you need a hydrofoil sailboat. Check out this video of the French Hydroptère, a boat that sails above the waves like something out of a story book. They’re hoping to break the 50 knot mark this winter.

I think this video is the male equivalent of the Dutch horses video I showed here a while back. Just as with the Dutch horses, not much happens for a good chunk of the video. It’s just a close shot of sailors in foul weather gear shouting at each other in French: “Quarente-deux! Quarente-trois!” (42! 43!) I find it thrilling. Watch the foil strut slicing through waves that would be smacking the crap out of any boat from an earlier century. I think my favorite shot is actually the interior view of crew member hanging on to the ceiling supports for dear life. It’s got to be an extreme adrenaline rush. You can bet if that boat were to pitch forward suddenly and snag its bow, it would be an explosive high-speed train wreck of a crash.

Once you start looking for hydrofoils, you see them everywhere. Here is a hydrofoil surfboard of all things. And the world speed record for human-powered locomotion over water was set by Mark Drela of MIT with a hydrofoil pedal boat called the Decavitator.

Wave propagation in a Japanese medium

The summer is winding down, and it’s time for a nice relaxing visit to an uncrowded pool before the September stress sets in. Of course, if you live in Tokyo, it might be a little difficult to find an uncrowded swimming pool. You might end up at a place like this.

As it says on the Trends in Japan site that first posted this video, “If you get motion sickness easily, please do not watch this video.” Watching this video makes me queasy and claustrophobic. Imagine being in the middle of that.

And I can’t help but wonder about the physics of wave propagation through this flesh-and-floaties coagulation. It looks like some kind of slow motion earthquake on Coney Island. One question for you physicists: are Japanese swimmers an isotropic or anisotropic medium?

[seen on BoingBoing]

Python-Lehrer Tourette syndrome

Earlier this summer I attended my twentieth college reunion. I had a good time. I always have a good time at reunions. Earlier in my reunion-attending career, I had some misgivings, but over time it’s gotten much easier to simply visit with friends and remember the good times. The people I remember as jerks, they keep coming to reunions too, but they get fatter and fainter and more forgettable with each year. Eventually I expect them to disappear altogether.

With age comes perspective. One thing I finally came to terms with at this reunion was my longtime affliction with a social disease. The disease, Python-Lehrer Tourette syndrome, is common among a certain male-dominated geek population. It involves having quasi-appropriate phrases from various Monty Python skits and movies spring to mind throughout the day. During quiescent phases, these phrases can be suppressed. But when surrounded by those sharing the diagnosis (as at my recent reunion), the urge to utter all manner of Pythonesque non sequiturs can be overwhelming. Python-Lehrer sufferers, incidentally, are differentiated from their Python Tourette cousins by their interstitial allusions to the Tom Lehrer musical canon. There is also a notable subset of this malady (as yet without official diagnostic designation) known as Grailolalia, in which the victim specializes only in phrases from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Grailians are fine people, but not terribly nuanced.

I don’t worry much about this problem, and I’ve long since given up apologizing for it. But it is impressive to consider the degree to which this particular comedy troupe dominates the brain space of people like me. I’ve known a few people with Firesign Theater disease, but it’s nothing like the vast spawn of Python-quoters. Why is that? I believe there is a Shakespearean completeness to the Python repertoire. All the comical-tragical-historical varieties of silliness are there. They were around for so long, and they brought such disciplined seriousness to their absurdity, that there truly is something quotable for almost every situation. Furthermore, their absurdity sometimes touches on the profound. To my mind, King Arthur’s argument with a peasant about the origins of Excalibur is the last word on confusing mythology with journalism and the sacred with the profane: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” Petty literalism contending with religious mania. That, in a nutshell, is the drama of our age.

Of course, none of this stops Python-Lehrer Tourette syndrome from being intensely irritating to friends and family.

To which I say: Nih!

Desktop Factory: the latest word in 3-D printing

I like Desktop Engineering magazine because it covers the rapid prototyping and 3-D printing business. Printing in 3-D is every bit as magical as it sounds: you tell the machine what you want to make, and it comes out as a brand new three-dimensional solid object.

It sounds like some kind of Forbidden Planet science fiction, but there are still some significant limitations. For instance, you print using a single material (typically plastic or metal), so there’s no possibility of xeroxing your iPod. And whatever you print can be no larger than the print volume of the machine, which rules out printing yourself a new house. And until recently, the price was prohibitive. At just less than $40,000, ZCorp’s ZPrinter 450 was a relatively cheap new entrant. Nifty, but not the kind of thing to drop your spare change on.

But now along comes the Desktop Factory. They claim to be able to sell you a 3-D printer for $5000. That’s not lunch money, but it’s astonishingly cheap. The quality is predictably low, but it’s amazing the thing works at all at that price point. This is the laser printer of our age. What happens when it becomes easy and cheap to print novel 3-D objects?

Good stuff. I bet.

Biofuels are coming your way

When people hear about biofuels, they typically think of ethanol brewed from corn. That’s a reasonable association: this year the American corn crop is up nearly 20% from last year for this very reason. On the other hand, you might have also seen articles about the problems with the corn-to-ethanol process. Growing corn is, for example, so energy-intensive that it’s not clear you’re saving any greenhouse gas emissions or money by the time you’re done. It’s easy enough to see how the tractors and trucks required to harvest and transport corn use a lot of fuel, but many people don’t realize that the nitrogen-based fertilizer that gets dumped on cornfields by the ton is itself the product of a hot, expensive industrial process.

If that were where the story ended, it would all be quite sad. But there’s good news too. Life gets a lot better if you can make fuel out of stuff that we don’t eat, stuff like cornstalks, corncobs, cut grass, and wood chips. Life gets better still if the fuel you make isn’t ethanol, but something an awful lot like kerosene. This is exactly what a company called LS9 is doing. In fact there are several companies in this space: Amyris, Codon Devices, and Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics are all in the game.

As you can guess by the names, they’re not just using brewer’s yeast to do this. They’re doing serious microbial genetic manipulation. The results are very promising, and this will no doubt lead to some fascinating Green on Green violence. Quick: which is worse? Global warming or the widespread use of genetically modified organisms? Weeee’ll seeeee…

My source for this information is Rob Carlson’s excellent synthetic biology blog Synthesis. Here’s his latest post on LS9: LS9 – “The Renewable Petroleum Company”. Here’s a general one about synthetic biofuels: The Need for Fuels Produced Using Synthetic Biology.