Liquid Sculpture

High speed photography has become increasingly commonplace. Even so, every now and then you see pictures that remind you how much your slow eyes miss, especially when the pictures are artfully made. Here’s a site called Liquid Sculpture that specializes in beautiful art prints of splashes frozen in time. The artist’s name is Martin Waugh, and his pictures capture nifty umbrella and crown splash shapes. As long as you’re browsing, don’t miss the dainty drop-water globe and the unmistakable juggling nipple (honestly).

Here’s a page I came across a few days ago that is not so artful but plenty nifty: Between the Seconds on

When I see images like this, I like to imagine taking a complex pattern of water flow with all its swirling eddies and dimpled standing waves, and freezing one instant of it into a solid image, a sculpture that you could look at from any angle, something like a bullet time effect. These days it should be possible to do something like that, with laser scanners and 3-D printing, but I have yet to see anyone try it.

Next up for H. sapiens: Building the big bug

I recently finished Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade, a book about the evolution of the human race which I happily recommend.

Studying the history of human development has typically drawn on things buried in the dirt: paleontological/biological artifacts like the fossilized bones in Olduvai Gorge for one example, and archaeological/cultural artifacts like the ruins of Nineveh and Route 66 for another. The problem is that stuff comes out of the dirt… very… slowly, putting a real damper on our ability to learn quickly. Wade’s book focuses on a new kind of ore, which is the living information buried in our genes and in our languages. Genetic data in particular is a fabulous gold mine for those trying to work out our past.

Surprisingly, it’s not just human DNA that’s useful. It’s possible, for instance, to work out approximately when humans started wearing clothes by genetically dating when human lice split into head-dwelling species and clothes-dwelling species. Clever! And we’re starting to get a remarkably accurate story of how humans migrated out of Africa and populated the world.

Happily, Wade is not the least bit gun-shy in talking about evidence of evolution currently under way in humans. There is good evidence that our behavior is pacifying with remarkable speed owing to the powerful adaptive advantages of law-abiding socialization. But just as evolution selects for the important, so it forgets the unimportant. Sadly, we’re shedding our sense of smell with alarming speed. A good nose makes your dinner taste good, but it’s not especially selected for. Rats can synthesize their own vitamin C, but humans lost that ability long ago. As long as you take your Flintstones vitamins, who needs to synthesize the stuff?

Obviously this all leads to the big question: what’s next? Wade doesn’t speculate much, but I will. It seems clear that modern medicine is going to allow our onboard health maintenance to get weaker and weaker. Just to pick one example: accurate, timely vaccines mean our native robustness won’t be put to the test, and that which isn’t selected for drops away. This may appear disturbing, but really what we’re doing is evolving an outboard immune system. We are offloading many heretofore intrinsic biological tasks to the next level of abstraction: the community.

This includes the outboard brain. Networks are the nervous systems for the big bug, the communal organism that we are becoming. Just as individual cells had to make some dramatic accommodations in order to form multicellular organisms, our native behaviors will be ever more conducive to hive action. We’ll sure have to get rid of all the errant terrorism genes before we can manage long term space colonies. It only takes one crazy person to wipe out a space village.

Forvo, the pronunciation wiki

There was a time, years ago, when even clever, well-informed programmers pronounced name of the operating system “Linux” much like the name of Charlie Brown’s friend Linus. Lye-nix. One of the things that eventually set people straight on this (it was certainly the thing that set me straight) was a little audio recording of Linux author Linus Torvalds himself pronouncing it. It was an argument stopper: don’t argue with Linus. As this video shows, he doesn’t much care how you say his name, but there is only one way to say Linux.

That’s good news, so far as it goes, but we can’t run to Linus Torvalds and ask him to pronounce everything for us. For instance, suppose you want to know how to say São Paulo. What is up with that little twiddle thingy? I’m not even sure that Linus speaks Portuguese.

Via (which, in turn, I learned about from St. Frank) I learned about Forvo, which is a kind of wikipedia of pronunciation. Want to know how to say São Paulo? They’ll tell you.

Forvo is very cool, but it’s also got the upside and downside of all wikis. Anybody can improve it, but then again anybody can damage it too. It seems to be working pretty well, but who knows? I could be learning joke pronunciations for all I know.

Another problem stems from the very international flavor of the site. If you don’t know how to read the script, then there’s not much you can do to find the pronunciation. I have heard that the country name Qatar happens to combine in one small package the three most difficult Arabic sounds for an English speaker to reproduce. Qatar, Gutter, Cutter, Khattr, Flickr, none of the transliterations comes close to the right sound. So how do you say it? Take a look at this list and pick the right one.

It’s a trick question. It’s not on there (as of this writing, anyway).

But Forvo can tell you that you’ve been mispronouncing Lech Walesa all these years. So it goes. The web can settle all arguments, and here is one more way for tedious know-it-alls with WiFi access to correct you.

Me being interviewed in EE Times

You may have seen my recent interview in the Times.

Okay, it wasn’t actually the NY Times. It was the EE Times. EE is a big city right next to NY. It’s even bigger than NY.

Right: EE Times stands for Electrical Engineering Times, and I was interviewed by chief editor Junko Yoshida as part of an article about our web community, MATLAB Central. It came out pretty well, I think: – Social engineers get caught in the Web. The pitch that set the story in motion was the idea that engineers aren’t social, so why are they getting social on the web? Engineers, as everyone knows, prefer to eat lunch in their cubicles and keep company with their slide rules, Boba Fett action figures, and twenty-sided dice.

Of course this idea is flawed: even the gangliest geek knows it’s no fun to play Dungeons & Dragons alone. Still, it was enough of a hook to hang a story on, which is a good thing, because we got to talk about our site. Something significant really is happening with the traffic growth we’re seeing on our community site, but I associate it with the same trends that we see everywhere else. The bottom line is that social computing works. If you can find ways to aggregate individual effort for the common good, a lot of good stuff happens. You see that in the consumer space with things like camera reviews and Netflix recommendations, and you see it in every engineering discipline. It all adds up to a lot more traffic to our File Exchange and Newsreader sites. For instance, suppose you needed to generate time-varying Rayleigh fading channels based on autoregressive models to support your fading channel simulation. Well, what would you do? I’ll tell you what you’d do. You’d end up here.

Taxes and togetherness

I am a procrastinator. You might guess this means I was up last night doing my taxes. I was. I don’t mind admitting it, because mostly I have come to terms with my eleventh-hour tendencies. And anyway, coming clean about it is a win-win situation. Suppose you finished your taxes weeks ago: I’ve just given you the chance to do some self-congratulatory tut tutting. If instead you, like me, were toiling away late last night, then we can share the warm camaraderie of sinners. Like huddling outdoor smokers, we can savor the fraternal bond of our dangerous habit.

There’s something to this togetherness business.

I was once interviewed while waiting in line to hand over my tax return just before midnight on April 15th. How, the newspaper man wanted to know, did it make me feel? Stupid? Disorganized? No, I said, surveying the mass of humanity around me, all of us bent on the same object. I found it exhilarating. Look at all of us, all here doing exactly the same thing. Doing something important together. I remembered feeling the same way the first time I went grocery shopping for a Thanksgiving dinner that I had to prepare. Sure, Safeway was crowded, but here we all are, doing the Thanksgiving dance.

I don’t enjoy paying taxes, but it’s fun to watch how everyone responds differently to the same call, myself included. Paying taxes online takes the crowd away from us, but Twitter can give it back. Here’s a snapshot of Tweetscan last night. I was looking for anyone who mentioned taxes on Twitter at midnight on April 14th.

We have few enough shared rituals anymore. But after all, deep down we’re still grunion that merge in the surf at the bidding of the moon.

Print your landscape

Three-dimensional printing is a wonderful thing, and it keeps getting better. A few years ago, I bought a beautiful model of a transfer RNA molecule. All you had to do was tell them the Protein Data Bank ID, and your favorite molecule can be yours.

Of course not everybody gets excited by molecules. But other markets are opening up. Let’s suppose you’re really into World of Warcraft. For 20 hours or more every week, you are Sturmdrang the Pitiless. Now you can get a 3-D print of your online character from That has to be a deep market. It’s brilliant!

And if Warcraft isn’t your thing, now you can get a nice 3-D topographical map of your favorite terrain from LandPrint, as described here: Creates New Market for 3D Printing with 3D Physical Landscapes. I might have to get one of those. I’ve been thinking about a nice relief model of western Kansas.

X-36 pictures

The other day when I was trying to track down an old friend from my previous job, I ended up on a Beach Volleyball photography site. Because that’s what I used to do in my old job: pro beach volleyball. Yep. I was quite the pro beach volleyballer back in the day. You can probably find me in these action shots.


Actually, I worked with a guy who later went on to be a professional photographer of professional beach volleyballers. My real previous job was at NASA where I worked on a plane called the X-36. In the airplane business, you can spend years working on an airplane that never gets built. The good news is that they actually built and flew the X-36. Sadly for me this happened six years after I left the job. You can see from this picture that it was just a little guy, a 1/3 scale unmanned technology demonstrator. Because it was so small, it was often roughed up by the meaner planes at Edwards Air Force Base. Here it is being menaced by a gang led by the SR-71. That SR-71 thinks he’s so great.

Lots of other good pictures here.

But those are all the official NASA pictures. When did the X-36 take up beach volleyball? Here is a shot taken by VolleyShots photographer John Geldermann at the Induction Ceremony for the X-36 into the USAF Air Museum in Dayton, Ohio (July 2003). And those are the people I used to work with long, long ago.

Managing the tide of delicious information

When I was in grad school I asked a mathematician friend of mine how the real math insiders stay current. It was just inconceivable to me that they would sit at home and plow through giant stacks of the latest journals. He told me the secret: it was all done with preprints and word-of-mouth recommendations from a small network of trusted friends. Nobody read anything that hadn’t already been vetted by a buddy.

That’s all well and good, but how do you find those high-quality recommendations? That’s exactly the problem that web technologies can solve, first with blogs and feed readers, and more recently with Twitter.

I am an avid feed reader. I spend a significant chunk of time every day with Google Reader. It’s my preferred way to kill time. It’s hard to believe this now, but there was a time when the big problem with surfing the net was “where do you start?” Now if you’re not finding really interesting stuff within minutes of sitting down at the computer, you’re just not trying.

In fact, as everyone now knows, the problem is just the opposite. Too much informational richness all the time. Sturgeon’s Law says ninety percent of everything is crud. The Feedreader’s Corollary is that you never have to see any of it… unless that’s your idea of a good time. You can eat quality information 24 hours a day. Sometimes I worry that there must be some kind of psychic gout that corresponds to the ills of gluttony on rich food.

By way of managing with this embarrassment of riches, it has become popular to write about how you cope. Recently my friend Dan forwarded a useful note on how to manage inbound information: Feed Reader Down, Reading Up. The author, Connie Reece, describes how she has run up against the curve of diminishing returns with feeds. Now she relies more on Twitter and a tightly bound community of like-minded people. She also likes to use Instapaper, a nifty little application that was news to me.

I still like reading my feeds, but I’m trying out Instapaper and Twitter. Here’s my Twitter page. I’ve heard it said that Twitter is an acquired taste. It’s taken me some time to come around, but it’s starting to win me over.

Sight-seeing on Mars

Yowza! Check out this panoramic landscape from Mars.


It’s from a place called Hebes Chasma. What you’re looking at is a plateau in the middle of a canyon 8000 meters deep. That is to say, this thing would make a dandy bathtub for Mount Everest (8848 m). Mind you, that mountain could use a good scrubbing, what with all the tramping and the digging and all those filthy climbers.

It’s too bad we don’t have Google Maps to show us the neighborhood on Mars. Oh, I almost forgot that we live in the future! Of course we have automatic mechanical Mars Maps!

The ESA site that describes these pictures is also worth a visit. I really like living in the future.

(via Riding with Robots)