Desktop Engineering on sculpture

Desktop Engineering is a trade magazine that deals mainly with CAD software and rapid prototyping. It’s rare to find an article in it about an artist. But since Bathsheba Grossman is sculptor who uses rapid prototyping tools, she gets some nice coverage in this article: The Marriage of Math and Art in 3D Printing. I was glad to see her getting some good press; I own one of her works. Admittedly, it’s a very small 3d metal “print” of one of her sculptures (I wrote about it here), but it sits on my desk and reminds me of the promise of solid thought.

Genetic intellectual property

One of the great sticking points in international trade negotiations has been over intellectual property rights. The rich “northern” countries complain that their expensive movies, music, and software are insufficiently protected in poorer “southern” countries like Brazil and India. What’s less well known is that these same southern countries have intellectual property concerns of their own, only the intellectual property in question is genetic. Under the name of bioprospecting, biologists collect tropical botanical specimens in the hopes that there might be some therapeutic benefit to the chemicals contained therein. Governments in tropical countries thus worry that plant material leaving the country may be developed into blockbuster drugs at no compensation to them… software piracy goes in one direction, biopiracy goes in the other. Unfortunately this anxiety causes all visiting biologists to be treated with great suspicion. Craig Venter, on a genome-collecting sail around the world, was placed under temporary arrest in French Polynesia for the unauthorized theft of genetic material.

This problem of genomic intellectual property is going to get much worse. For example, Monsanto will sue you if they find some of their patented genes in your potatoes. The problem is that Mother Nature likes to move genes around. Maybe you don’t want trouble with Monsanto’s legal department, but your promiscuous plants might bring it in the form of an illicit cross-fence liaison with your neighbor’s potatoes. We may end up with a Mann Act for tubers.

In Rob Calson’s biotech blog, I came across this throw-away line in an article about biofuel synthesis:

I wonder how thoroughly they are scrubbing the waste stream?  Dumpster diving for competitive intelligence takes on a new meaning here.

I hadn’t considered this before. You may spend ten years perfecting a biomass-composting superbug, only to have your competitor slurp it out of your sewage.

It’s become a standard line among software CEOs to say your chief assets walk out the door every night. In the biotech business you literally pour those assets down the drain. It’s a strange business when the smartest guy in the building sleeps in a picoliter pup tent. And it’s hard to enforce that employee non-compete agreement when he or any of his five billion children feel like walking the day after tomorrow.

Space-bound chimp “thrilled” about launch

Google reached some kind of agreement with the old Life magazine image archive. When I thought about Life, I remembered the coverage they used to give to the space program. I searched for “Mercury” and found our first seven astronauts in their magnificent and somewhat ridiculous silvery suits. Look at those boots! Honest to God, it looks like they’re about to go trick-or-treating. Either that or they’re headed to a fetish-themed club.

The search I did also turned up pictures of our REAL first astronaut: Ham the Astro-Chimp. They might call him Ham the Ham… check out this picture. LIFE: “Ham” mugging after Mercury space flight.. That’s an astronaut who’s not taking himself too seriously. Here’s a little more of the scene. I love the old-school NASA van in the background. It makes me want to put on some Juan García Esquivel music.

Election maps

The recent election, in a good example of counter-causal temporal wind, now seems far, far behind us. In fact, it might be called a hurricane-force temporal gust, blowing the effects of the election far back into last year. This “Hillary 2008” sign was found wedged deep in a palm tree from June 2007.

Now, in the still of the post-election calm, we’re starting to see some fascinating election maps analyzing what just happened. There is, of course, the familiar blue state/red state map in which, as of this writing, Missouri is still listed as undecided (according to the Wikipedia). You Show Me but I won’t show you?

Far more interesting are Mark Newman’s nifty election map equal area cartograms. These go a long way to explaining how those vast tracts of red territory don’t add up to a Republican majority.

Also enlightening is the county-by-county map, not of the voting in 2008, but of the voting differential between 2004 and 2008. I first learned of this from Ben Fry’s blog, but the map is on the NY Times site. What you see is an almost entirely blue map except for a region that is comprised of nearly the entire states of Tennessee and Arkansas, with a good chunk of Oklahoma. That’s the only part of the country that voted substantially more Republican than in the last election. What’s going on here?

Now look at this. On Pin the Tail I first came across this map. It was written up in much better detail by Strange Maps. It’s an overlay of 1860 cotton production and 2008 voting patterns. The alignment is uncanny.

This got me curious about Tennessee and Arkansas again. I went to the U.S. Census Fact Finder and looked up a map of the percent of people who give their race only as white. What you find is that Tennessee and Arkansas, in addition to being relatively poor, represent the southernmost boundary of the 90% contour line of people who describe themselves as strictly white. Which is to say, the whitest part of the Confederacy.

It seems appropriate to quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”

Time-Lapse Clouds

Matt Simoneau sits around the corner from me at work, and he made this nifty time-lapse video. He calls it Clouds Outside My Office Window. Well, Matt’s view is my view, so these are also clouds outside my office. Like he owns the clouds! Those are my damn clouds.

Click on through to see the animation. As you can see, life at a software company is pretty dynamic. It gets crazy some days. For example, did you see those cars go flying through?

The story of how Matt got his camera to take these pictures is a good illustration of how communities can put open source code to work. The Canon camera that he used to do this didn’t originally have the time-lapse feature. But amateur code sleuths figured out how to hack into the camera’s firmware and give it new features. If you have a Canon camera, you get to benefit for free. This ends up being very handy for people like kite aerial photographers. Not to mention amateur intervalometric photojournalists like Matt.

The healing power of Slack

Today I happened to watch Randy Pausch’s lecture on time management. It’s in the same breathless spirit as David Allen’s Getting Things Done work. And both of these, after all, are just the newest forms of time management techniques that have been around since Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies. At their heart, these techniques boil down to something like this: always have a goal, always be doing, always measure your progress against your goal. Waste not.

Inefficiency, or slack, is the sworn enemy of Taylorism and modern scientific management. And we have banished slack so completely that unexpected new problems arise. One example of this is traffic. If you look at the space between cars on a typical highway, you might conclude that it is inefficient. May we not, in the name of maximizing throughput, squeeze out that space? But even if you discount the safety issues associated with tailgating, researchers have discovered that crowding between cars contributes to flow-choking traffic jams. At a critical car density and speed, a simple tap on the brakes can initiate a backward traveling wave that ultimately locks up traffic somewhere upstream.

Here’s a video showing what these waves look like in practice.

How do you calm a traffic jam? Feed it space. Add more slack in the form of restrained acceleration, lower speed limits, and more space between cars.

That’s old news. Here’s something more relevant to our Recent (and Ongoing) Financial Unpleasantness.

Paul Kedrosky writes about where false efficiencies get in the way of market stability. Automatic rebalancing is a financial tool that guarantees a certain balance to a financial portfolio. When it gets out of balance by, say, 3%, automatic buy and sell orders are placed to rebalance things. This works fine when the weather is calm, but when the markets are in turmoil, and when everybody is using the same automatic rebalancing robots, destructive waves can result. What to do? Feed those robots a dose of slack. Turn down the rebalance margins to 6%.

Slack doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “Nothing” isn’t nothing. Emptiness is solid and alive.

And when times get lean, don’t fret. Help yourself to fat slice of empty pie. It helps. Just ask Bob.

A town called Tambo

My niece Julia is in Tambo. Tambo is a small town in western Queensland, Australia. How small is it? Well, by my count, 12 or 14 city blocks just about accounts for the whole thing.

Tambo, Queensland

Wikipedia puts the population at 350, so maybe with Julia it’s 351. It is situated on the banks of the Barcoo River, which, as Mark Twain said of the Arno, would be a “very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.” Tourism has replaced the sheep business as a primary source of income. According to About Australia, one of things to admire in Tambo is the Tambo Teddies Workshop where you can “see the sheep skin teddy bears.” An impressive, if sordid, task for sheep to undertake. I don’t wonder that it brings in the crowds.

But there’s nothing wrong with being small, and Tambo looks like a very well-kept place. I know this because I drove around it courtesy of Google Maps Street View, which, astonishingly, has been there and will show you around. Here, for example, is the establishment where Julia works.

If you want to know more about Tambo, read all about it on Julia’s blog.

Helicopter strobing

If you only visited Aspen during ski season, you might be forgiven for thinking the place is snowy all year round. Similarly, a third grader might well imagine his teacher lives at school, since that’s the only place he ever sees her. Any time a periodic observation is synchronized with the event it measures, things get screwy. This movie makes the problem clear.

No matter how surreal it looks, this helicopter isn’t doing anything strange. The rotor turns at a certain rate, and the camera happens to be snapping frames for the movie at exactly the same rate (or a multiple of the same rate, but that complicates the explanation). So the camera is catching the rotor blades at exactly the point as they whirl around. As a result they look like they’re motionless. But if you were on the ground watching, nothing would look amiss.

Here’s another instructive video of a more prosaic system: the wheel of a bike.

A notable application of this kind of synchronization was the Red Baron’s machine gun. In World War I, if you mounted the guns where they were most conveniently operated by the pilot (just over the nose of the plane), you had the unfortunate side effect of shooting off your propeller. The first solution to this problem, introduced in 1914 by Saulmier, was to use armored blades, so bullets did minimal damage when, inevitably, they struck the prop. But the cleverer solution by far was strobing: use an interrupter gear that only lets the machine gun operate when the prop is safely out of the way. Just as with the helicopter video, from the gun’s point of view, the propeller is motionless.