What’s Old Is New


It was twenty years ago today, April 16, 1996, when the lights first came on at starchamber.com. Initially there were four of us. We took turns by weeks writing something and posting it on the site. The web was young and the word “blog” hadn’t been invented yet, but there we were. As I remember, we were inspired by hipster proto-blogs like Suck.com. Out tag-team approach lasted for a year or so, and then I took over the site as a personal blog. I kept it up for a good long time, but my writing lapsed over the last couple of years.

By the time I stopped blogging, I had become convinced that blogging was dying. I assumed that all such discourse would move to social networks. Which is to say Facebook, with a little Twitter and a smattering of Google+. I’ve never been much of a Facebook person, so I threw my lot in with Google+. People like to make fun of it, but I liked it well enough. I still do. But it wasn’t the lack of crowds on Google+ that made me want to return to my old blog. I realized that I wanted to have my own place again. I wanted the words that I write to live on my own site. Somehow that makes it easier for me to speak my mind.

I can also see that my little prediction failed to come true. Facebook claims a lot of the crowd, but blogs are still here. And so am I. It’s good to be back.

Pencil and Paper

This is a review of the Pencil from Studio 53 designed for use with the Paper app. I sprang for the walnut version. It looks nice, and it feels nice. That’s the best thing I can say about it.


I’ll get straight to the punchline. You should not buy this cute little doggy of a product.

I’ve been thinking for some time that I want a stylus for my iPad, and I thought this was going to be the one that would make me happy. After all, it’s gotten loving reviews. But no.

First of all, it has a fussy interaction with Bluetooth. You have to connect it to the iPad via BlueTooth. When you do, the functionality of the pencil changes. Before the pencil has been connected, it’s just like using your finger on the screen. But once you mate the pencil to the app, the app understands the pencil has two ends, one end for drawing the other for erasing. Your finger can now be used as a third tool for smearing. In addition, the app is designed to give you palm rejection so that you can rest your hand on the screen and draw more naturally.

All this is great, so far as it goes, but the pencil-point tip switch doesn’t always work. This means that your palm is not always rejected. It also means that the so-called eraser is occasionally mistaken for a stylus, leaving you with marks where you wanted to erase. In addition, the pencil tip is sometimes mistaken for your finger, leaving an unwanted smear. It seems unforgivable to me that the business end of a pencil should occasionally forget what it is and leave a big smeary mess exactly where you were attempting delicate line work. It’s like a fire hose occasionally switching from water to gasoline. It’s frustrating, and it leaves you using Paper’s awkward two finger undo mechanism frequently.

The tip of the stylus is extremely fat, making it difficult for me to see where I’m going to be leaving a mark. The rubber top is a big floppy condom that keeps you from locating the true apex of the instrument. This makes it almost impossible for me to write text at any size smaller than headline. The fact that the Paper app doesn’t let me zoom in (in truth it has an awkward localized zoom feature that I dislike) means that I’m stuck with an extremely small page to write on.

Beyond this, I’ve been unimpressed with battery life. And although they gave me two stylus tips in case one of them wore out, I needed to replace the first tip almost right away. I dislike the fact that I have to push pretty hard to make the little switch activate so that I can draw.

Avoid this product.

License plate scanners and public privacy

Here’s a story from last month about the Boston police and the use of license plate scanners. The scanners in question are just video cameras with some clever software designed to read plate numbers as they drive by. That may seem high tech now, but you’ll be doing it with your phone by Labor Day. Google recently demonstrated similar software that can read street address signs from Street View imagery.

So this Boston story is being presented as violation of privacy. Is it? What it really points to the slippery boundary between public and private these days. The technology required to build a plate scanner these days is not expensive. And it can’t be illegal to write down the license plate of a vehicle parked in a public place. What’s new is that you and your friends, just in the process of driving around with plate scanners, can assemble detailed information about the comings and goings of all your neighbors. The information is all public. I don’t see a way to stop it. This public-as-private pattern is showing up all over the place. The human form of the plate scanner problem is unsolicited face recognition. It’s not illegal for me to capture you in photo, and if the giant cloud brain is big enough to spot you in an incriminating position, that’s going to cause some discomfort.

This is already happening. The NameTag facial recognition app uses publicly available data to match your face with your name. This is what might be called a privacy invasion, only it’s powered by people’s natural desire to post labeled images of themselves on the web. The NameTag people are just aggregating that information. Did they sin?

One redeeming part of the story is that humans evolved in a world without privacy. We have no “biological expectation” of privacy. Google’s Vint Cerf went so far as to call privacy “an anomaly”. For almost the entire history of the human race, people have lived in small communities in which every action was accountable, every deed was scrutinized and judged by neighbors. We come from a small town, and to that small town we return. Welcome home.

The Feast of Crepusculus Winter-Rise

Okay, one more post about this solstice business, and then we’ll put it to bed for another six months or so.

January 3rd was the day, at my latitude, with the latest sunrise. Having safely passed that date, we are now well and truly growing the day at both ends. Despite cold days ahead, we can nevertheless look forward to rapidly expanding sunlight hours. That counts for a lot in my book. Anyway, as you can quickly deduce, there are four crepuscular extremes during the year: earliest and latest sunrise, and earliest and latest sunset. If we are to recognize the special nature of any of these days, we should be prepared to recognize all of them. With that in mind, I dub them Crepusculus Winter-Set, Crepusculus Winter-Rise, Crepusculus Summer-Rise, Crepusculus Summer-Set. Bit of a mouthful, I know, but it’s all in the name of thoroughness.

As part of pondering sunrises late and early, I asked myself this question: who shares the instant of that latest sunrise with me? It’s not hard to work it out on a map, but doing the calculations was fun. Here it is on a globe view.


And here we are zoomed in to the east coast of the U.S. As you can see, dawn’s rose-red fingers tickle almost the entire eastern seaboard at the same instant. I share that moment of daybreak with people from the western tip of Cuba to the north shore of Iceland.


If you’re curious about how I created the plot, I talk about it more in a MATLAB-related post over here: Crepuscular Isochrons: Sunrise Here and There.

Happy Crepusculus!

Today is the special day that I celebrate each year. At my latitude (42 degrees North), the earliest sunset of the year is December 9th. At my exact location, that sunset time is 4:12:06 PM, Eastern Standard Time. More or less. And behold, my Sunset Clock is showing all the sunsets for the next two weeks occurring later than today! This is the sort of thing that makes me happy.


If you are puzzled about the earliest sunset happening a few weeks before the shortest day, I agree with you that it is a little puzzling. My best effort explaining can be found here: The Earliest Sunset.

Now onto the important part: names. A special day deserves a special name. As a late riser, today has more significance than the solstice itself. When the sun rises is a matter of extreme indifference to me.

Last year I proposed to calling the day Seculus, following a recommendation that I came across on the web. But that idea didn’t gain much ground. So let’s try another one: Crepusculus, after the Latin for twilight. So? Will it sell? What do you think? What name would you prefer? These things matter. Hallmark will pay you big bucks if you can cook up another cardable day.

Old MacDonald had a ‘bot

When the robots come, how will they come? Here’s one answer: the robot sheepdog. Researchers in Australia have built a robot that does an admirable job herding cattle, as you can see in the video below.

The researchers cite some advantages that robots have over people and animals. They don’t get tired and they don’t mind long hours or night shifts, so long as they get to charge up every now and again. They can gather data continuously, monitoring the health of individual animals or recording when intruders appear.

In watching the video, I was reminded of something I read in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan spends much of the book profiling the Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. One of Salatin’s innovative farming techniques is to use movable electrified fences to create small pastures that can be moved to a different location every day. These “walking pastures” allow Salatin to slowly cycle the cows around, preventing overgrazing and distributing the manure around the property. A second fenced area moves chickens around in the wake ot the cows, But the mobile fence operation is labor intensive. A robot dog would give a farmer the dynamic and programmable ability to move a virtual fence around at will. Even more effectilvely than Salatin’s electric fence, a robo-dog-fence could calmly guide cows to wherever their mouths and manure are needed.

Will robot-tipping be a fraternity sport in the future?

Traffic waves, cars peak

Have you ever had that experience of waiting through a traffic jam only to find that there was no accident, no construction, no constriction, no cop by the side of the road. Just a giant vehicular bolus that came and then went. I used to think that the jam-causing blockage had been cleared up by the time I got to the front, but it turns out the real answer is more insidious. When traffic is dense enough, standing waves of car-particles can build up quickly and with very little initial disturbance. In the extreme, one injudicious tap on the breaks can ruin everyone’s commute. Don’t believe me? Here’s a little interactive graphic to show how it works.

What Are Traffic Waves and Why Do They Happen So Much?

Scroll down to the circular highway diagram and press the “Hit the Brakes” button.


Still skeptical? Here is an experiment with real cars that demonstrates the same idea.

But there’s good news too. Traffic waves are an emergent property of a dense particle flow. But that flow is becoming less dense. Believe it or not, there are fewer and fewer cars on American roads every year. Listen to this trifecta.

1. We own fewer cars.
2. The cars that we own are being driven less.
3. The driving that we’re doing is more fuel efficient.

This is not to pretend that cars will be gone anytime soon, but those trends are all moving in the right direction, if you believe this (PDF) report from Michael Sivak at the Univeristy of Michigan: Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?. Or you can just read the summary on Greentech Media: More Evidence That America May Have Reached ‘Peak Car’. Nobody knows for sure if these changes are permanent or if we’re still experiencing a post-recession hangover. But it warms the heart in a world of bad news. Then again, I don’t sell cars for a living.