Thursday, May 30, 2013

Super Awesome Sylvia hearts you

The latest from the ever-effervescent Super Awesome Sylvia has you building a necklace that displays your heartbeat.  I think it could do with some more elegant packaging if you wanted to wear it on a regular basis, but I really like the idea of biometric jewelry.

If you haven't experienced Super Awesome Sylvia, it is worth your while to check out her site.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I've never seen a flying car like this before

This is a rather unique model flying car.  It is both a wheeled vehicle and a quadcopter.  Some of the design ideas are really interesting.  For example, this is the first time I've seen anyone use the space inside a hubless wheel effectively (in this case to hold the quadcopter propellors).  The wheels and props are flexible and nearly impossible to break.  It may not be the best car or quadcopter I've ever seen, but it is certainly the best combination of the two I've ever seen.

See the Kickstarter here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This is an impressive analog device

Sometimes when people get caught up in all the maker hype these, they forget that back in the day, people with real mad skills made awesome stuff.  While it's always great to make stuff, before the days of Arduinos and PWM controlled of servos, people used to create mechanical masterpieces.  More intricate than the geekiest algorithm is the design of a spring loaded, hidden compartment.  This cabinet is one of the finest examples I've seen in a while.

The Berlin Secretary Cabinet was built in the 1700s in Germany and was owned by King Frederick William II.  It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Extravagant Inventions exhibition.  It was built by Abraham Roentgen (1711–1793) and his son David (1743–1807).  Nicely done gents!

Thanks Opa!

A chocolate zoetrope seems like a really good idea until you realize you can't eat it...

The Philip Island Chocolate Factory near Melborne, Australia has a pretty interesting attraction.  It is a zoetrope made of chocolate.  The delicious sculptures rotate on a disk synchronized with a strobe light to create an animation effect that is quite impressive.  Because video frame rates don't synchronize exactly with the strobe, there is an ugly line in the video while it is flashing that you would not see if you were watching this in person in Australia.  Still, it looks very impressive.  I do, however, question the use of perfectly good chocolate on a non-edible artwork.

via This is Colossal

Riding in style

OK, I want this for my bike.  I've seen these around and they seemed kind of fun, but somehow the cartoon dog chasing a cat brings it to a whole new level.  Its not like I ride my bike at night that often... but, this looks fun.
The idea is to combine 4 LED bars on your spokes with an accelerometer and some software to create persistence of vision tricks for the amusement of those around you.  The Monkey Light folks have a Kickstarter to get off the ground.  The only problem is that it's a more than a little bit pricey at $500/wheel to outfit your bike.  Still, it ranks high on the awesomeness scale.

Using the sensors to control what is displayed looks pretty cool too, although it is usually the people in front of and behind you that really need to know your intensions.

Still, nicely done Monkey Light Pro.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Congratulations Team Awesome!

Congratulations to the "Awesome Is What We Totally Are" Team for meeting their fund raising goal.  For those of you who have not been following along, Team Awesome, is a group of kids who are on a quest to help people find their inner awesomeness by "making what matters."  They have been raising money through Piggybackr (a fund raising site for kids) to help offset the costs associated with teaching their classes on aeroponics.

Among other things, the kids promised to run some laps for people who donated enough money.  The video below is their proof to the donors that they actually ran.  Looks like fun to me!

Team Awesome on Piggybackr

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Can numbers be illegal? Should they be?

Can numbers be illegal?  We, as a society, are still figuring out the implications of the digitization of the world.  The video above shows a seemingly silly example of how bizarre the information age is becoming, but the issues are real and complex.

Many of the technologies we create reach far beyond their intended scope.  As sorcerer's apprentice, we find ourselves scrambling to keep our own creations under control.  More and more of the value that we create is intellectual property rather than physical goods.  Keeping control of these intangible creations is rather complex.   Because much of what we create is virtual, it can be represented as bits that ultimately can be represented as numbers.  When many things can be reduced to numbers, we are likely to start running into unintended collisions where unrelated things may reduce to the same number and cause conflict.  The basic issue here is our inability to separate intent, source and use of information from its representation.  It is a difficult problem.  After all what is the intent of a number?  How can we determine a number's genealogy?

I remember some time ago a group tried to test this out in a peculiar way.  Certain encryption algorithms are treated as munitions (weapons) and can not be exported from the country except in very controlled situations.  This group of people decided to attempt to organize themselves on a beach in Santa Cruz in a way that they represented the bits of an encryption algorithm just as a Russian spy satellite went over head.  Theoretically, they would be illegally exporting a weapon.  (In fact at the time of this exercise, the Russians had the same or similar encryption techniques, so it wasn't actually very significant)  They were never successful in gathering enough people to actually carry this out as far as I know, but if they did, would they be breaking the law?  On the one hand, they would be potentially illegally transferring information out of the country.  On the other hand, they were just a bunch of geeks on the beach.  Are we going to make specific configurations of people on the beach illegal?  How about orientations of cars on the road or plants in a field?  What if you accidentally created one of these patterns in your back yard?  It seems silly to expect that we can keep such things under control.

There is also big money in these numbers.  In the case of music and film, once it is digitized, all the value of these artistic creations (potentially many millions of dollars) is tied up in something that can be represented as a single, really large number.  In order to encourage the creation of more books and music and films, we need to provide the creators with some control over their works and some way for them to be fairly compensated for their use.  This has gotten us into a complicated mess of Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Oy!

We here at Digital Diner love 3D printers and are very excited about the possibilities they create.  Of course many other people are interested in the same thing, including a fellow named Cody Wilson, who wants to distribute the information required for you to print your own weapons.  He has created a computer model that can be fed into a 3D printer to create a working gun.  See the video below for more information.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Technology and opportunities often come at a cost.  It is hard to understand the implications of our creations before we create them,

I'm fairly certain that there could exist an encoding scheme whereby the position of the hairs on your arm could represent the exact text of a top secret memo or the plans to a nuclear missile.  The scheme I'm envisioning would be a very complex piece of software, but combined with a picture of your arm, or a map of the location of the hairs on your arm, it cold reconstruct particular secrets messages.  Obviously, much of the complexity would be in the software and one could argue that it contains the secrets.  But just consider the complexity of the satellite system that the Russians would have had to use to decode the encryption algorithm of geeks on the beach.  One could argue that they already had much of this secret and just needed these few bits represented by the location of the people on the beach to fill in the holes just as my computer program just needs the hairs on your arm to fill in a few blanks.

As I said at the beginning, this is a complex issue.  On the one hand we have seemingly ridiculous things like illegal colors companies patenting genes.  On the other hand we have complex issues of proliferating secrets and the protection of intellectual property.  It will likely take us some time to sort all this out.  I know it gives me a headache.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A true Space Oddity. Very nice job Commander Hadfield!

You've been onboard the International Space Station for months and now its time to come home.  What do you do?  If you are Commanded Chris Hadfield, you record an awesome version of David Bowie's song Space Oddity while you are still in space.  Whoa!  That's a whole lot of awesome right there.

Safe trip home Commander Hadfield!  I expect to hear a version of Homeward Bound during the re-entry.

BTW, If you like this video you may be interested in Command Hadfield's top ten videos from the ISS

Happy Mother's Day

Here's one for mom (which is wow upside down)!

Love you Mom!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Scratch 2.0 gives everyone a chance to have fun while learning to program.

Scratch from MIT has been a favorite around Digital Diner for years.  It is an engaging interactive programming environment that both of our kids had fun playing with and learning the programming skills that have allowed them to move on to more advanced projects.  It is attractive to kids because it is so fun that you don't even know may not even realize that you are learning to program.  Any of you adults who have been interested in how to program computers might want to give this a look as well.  It doesn't take much to get started.

The folks from MIT have just announced Scratch 2.0.  It allows anyone to start playing with Scratch from their web browser.  There is no software to install.  Just head over to their web page and follow the instructions to get started.

Scratch 2.0 also includes some new features that allow users to take their skills further and make it even easier to share your work with the community to show off all that you are learning.  They have even included an interface to a webcam that lets you interact with your program by waving your arms around.  Pretty fun!

It is a great way to learn and play.  If you have any interest at all, I encourage you to head over and check it out.

Quick hint for Beaglebone Black user

A little while ago we announced the arrival of the BeagleBone Black development board.  It's the Arduino-like board that gives you a full Linux computer for $45.  I've been playing with one in my spare time for the last few days and I have discovered a neat trick.  I hope to have a full review at a later date.

The BeagleBone Black and Raspberry Pi and other such development platforms are very powerful, and it is amazing that they are essentially stand alone computers for under $50.  However, they suffer from being so gosh darn small that just the cables required to connect them up can be overwhelming.  With the BeagleBone  you need to connect power, Ethernet, HDMI for the display, keyboard and mouse (usually via a USB hub) if you want to see the full glory of the graphical user interface on the BeagleBone.  All these wires detract a bit from the beauty of a device that can fit inside an Altoids mint container.  Meanwhile, my much less powerful Arduino just hangs off a single USB connection, beautifully simple in its single umbilical configuration.  Why do these more powerful boards have to come with so much complexity?  There must be a better way.

Too many cables!

One really nice feature of the BeagleBone Black is that when you plug it in to your computer via USB, in addition to getting power from your computer, it also connects as a disk drive and a network connection so that you can load required software from it and communicate with it for control.  That started me thinking.  I use other Linux computers remotely via a protocol called Virtual Networked Computing (VNC).  It allows me to open a remote desktop on the Linux box in a window on my laptop.  Why can't I do the same thing with the BeagleBone so that I don't need all those wires?   It would allow me to get rid HDMI display connector (since I would use my computer's display) as well as the USB keyboard and mouse (for the same reason).   It even frees up the USB port so that I can connect a USB WiFi dongle to get a network connection.  I've certainly used VNC on BeagleBone and Raspberry Pi before over WiFi or Ethernet, but what is different here is using the virtual network connection of the BeagleBone power/USB connection so that I can get rid of wires.  If I can get that working, I'm back to a single cable connecting the BeagleBone to the laptop and I'm good to go with all the graphical power of this beast..  Well, it turns out you can do this and here's how.

First, you'll need to install the VNC server on your BeagleBone Black.  Get all your cables connected so that you can boot it up with a good network connection and type these commands to the terminal:

opkg update
opkg install x11vnc

It should go through a few steps and then eventually tell you that the software has been installed.  Next you'll want to start up the VNC server.  This is the tricky bit because of the way the X Window system works, if you don't open it from within a window session, you need special authorization to connect.  The following line figures that authorization out for the default Ã…ngstrom Linux version that ships with the BeagleBone Black.  Other versions may have a slightly different command.  In Angstrom, type this to the command line:

x11vnc -bg -o %HOME/.x11vnc.log.%VNCDISPLAY -auth /var/run/gdm/auth-for-gdm*/database -display :0  -forever

Now all that is left is to go to your computer (that the USB cable is connected to) and run your favorite VNC client.  I use the old standby Chicken of the VNC on the Mac, but there are plenty of others.  Connect to and you should be able to see and control your BeagleBone GUI from your computer.... without all the wires.

The BeagleBone screen shows up in a window on my Mac screen
This is a pretty simple little trick but it can make development much more convenient.  You just need the BeagleBone Black and one cable.  I haven't tried this with other operations systems, the original BeagleBone, but with appropriate drivers, it could be possible there as well.  I don't think this is possible on the Raspberry Pi because their is no USB device side connection.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Knock Knock. Who's there? 42.

I love it when somebody takes a concept as simple as a calculator and rethinks it.  Rather than considering it something that manipulates numeric symbols, this box turns math into a haptic/audio experience.  I can imagine some kids finding this much more engaging than manipulating symbols on a display.  For example, I bet kids who are dyslexic would find this more interesting than a regular calculator.  Check out the video.
It looks like a great maker project to me.  Now, how do you figure out where the user is knocking?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Life aboard an ice breaker

I've never really wondered what it would be like to live onboard an ice breaker before.  I assume it would be cold, but it turns out to be sort of cool too (you saw that coming didn't you).  This time lapse video shows two months of life abord an icebreaker doing scientific research.  The different types of scenery and  ice are quite beautiful.  I think it looks especially nice from here in my nice warm home.

How can we preserve our digital history?

Several years ago, I was asked to sign a purchase order while my boss was out of town.  When I looked at it, it turned out to be a mobile data center to give to the Internet Archive.  Brewster Kahle had recently come to visit us and spoken quite eloquently about his work creating the Internet Archive.  It is a great idea/cause/resource.  I was happy to help support it then and I still believe in the vision of the Internet Archive.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Internet Archive, it is a repository of the web.  More and more of our records of events are being put online.  The problem is that, in this digital age, web sites come and go and content changes regularly.  There is no trail of paper documents.  There are no paper photographs.  There are only bits, and bits are volatile.   So what is the library for the internet?  Where do we find the equivalent of rare books?  How do we make sure that our history isn't erase over time as we update the web?  How do we make sure that we can still access old information as data formats change?  Paper has an advantage that it can be read by the human eye, but electronic media often doesn't have this quality.  If you have any old VHS tapes or even 8mm films lying around, you know what I'm talking about.  Who is making sure that we don't lose our history?  ...especially the latent events that may not seem important at the time, but later prove to be critical.

The Internet Archive takes snapshots of as many websites as it can and makes them accessible so that we can look back in time.  It stores all the data it can grab in a vast array of disk drives that you can access through the Wayback Machine.  You can type in a URL for your favorite website and it will let you see what it looked like in the past.  The Internet is growing so fast that it is impossible to store everything, but they are getting as much as they possibly can.  I know they have a personal website of mine going back to 1996.  Pretty impressive.

The video below gives you some idea what is at stake, some of the challenges and what the Internet Archive is doing about it.  It is also very impressive how much data they can fit in such a small space.

Do yourself a favor, go explore the Internet Archive for a little while today.  It is worthwhile.  Take a look at what Google looked like in 1996, or how has changed over the years.  It will give you some idea of just how difficult this undertaking is.

Friday, May 3, 2013

IllumiRoom: A projector and Kinect bring your living room into the action

Long ago, a colleague of mine, Michael Naimark (you may recall other projects of his that we've mentioned before) created a cool art piece where he put a camera in the middle of a room on a turntable and recorded some film (yes, it was that long ago - originally in the 19802 then recreated in 2005).  Then he physically painted the entire room white, put a projector in the middle of the room on that same turntable and projected the previous colors back onto the room.  The cool part was that when he filmed, there were people in the room.  These people weren't there when the filmed projected back, so they ended up looking like ghostly figures moving around.  There is a short video available here.  Please take a look.

I bring up Michael's project because it was the first time that I saw projection augment objects in the real world in an interesting way.  Now the the folks at Microsoft are taking this concept to the next level using a projector and a Kinect.  With this combination, they are able to scan your living room and calculate some fancy graphics to make the experience on your TV move outside the bounds of the screen.  In fact they can create effects that make it seem as if your whole room is shaking or changing colors.  The whole thing is rather clever.  Take a look at the video below to see what they have done.

A research paper is available here.
More info here

Thanks Joydip!

Bon voyage Solar Impulse! Track it live

Solar Impulse is leaving the Bay Area this morning on the beginning of its trip across America without using any fuel.  The first stop will be Pheonix.  My rough estimate (totally fabricated) is that it will take them between 13 and 18 hours to make the trip, depending on winds and the exact route they take.  The fun part is that you can monitor the flight live at and see exactly where they are.

This is the path they are planning to take over the course of about a month:
  • Moffett Airfield (Mountain View, CA)
  • Sky Harbor International Airport (Phoenix, AZ) 
  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (Dallas, TX) 
  • Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (St. Louis, MO)
  • Dulles International Airport (Washington D.C.) 
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York City)

We will be sorry to see them go.  We had a memorable visit of Solar Impulse and were able to see the plane fly over our house on its way up to San Francisco last week.  It was right up there with some of the other amazing things that we've seen from right here at Digital Diner.

Best of luck Bertrand and André.  Safe journey.  We're all up there with you.  Just remember, don't fly too close to the sun, and whatever else happens, you'll be fine as long as you stick the landing.

More info at Solar Impulse

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How the atomic movie was made

Yesterday we brought you the cool movie of individual atoms made by the folks at IBM .  After looking into it a little bit more, we found this video on how the movie was made.  It is pretty interesting to see people moving atoms around individually.
One of the interesting implications of this work is that we will soon see the end of Moore's Law.    Once our memory devices are moving individual atoms around, we are going to have to go to some completely new, non-atomic method of storage in order to see any increased density in our computers.

As I watch this I have some completely naive quetsions:
I get that we know how to move an atom through this magic, super small/sharp tip that we can use to interact with the atoms, but how do we build a machine that physically move with the resolution required to place an atom exactly.  To move an atom and atom's diameter over, we would need a robot arm with a one atom resolution stepper motor, wouldn't we?   Yikes.  I know its all done with smoke and mirrors magnets, but it is really impressive, and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The smallest, but highest DPI movie ever created.

IBM has simultaneously created the world's smallest movie and the world's highest resolution (in terms of number of dots per inch) movie.  What you see in the video above is actually magnified by more than 1 million times.  The entire film is made with just 130 atoms (a whopping 45 by 25 nanometers) and filmed using a scanning tunneling electron microscope (STM).  It took about two weeks of 18 hour days to make the movie.  Very cool.

Andreas Heinrich, a principle investigator at IBM Research say this video isn't just about showing off IBM's capabilities.  It is about inspiring kids.  "If I can get 1,000 kids to join science rather than go into law school, I would be happy."  Love it!

More info here and here

Thanks Blake!

Brace yourself for comet ISON

The Hubble telescope caught this image of ISON a couple weeks ago
Sometime in November of this year, comet ISON, the so-called "comet of the century," will be heading past the Sun, giving us a spectacular show.  It is likely to be very big and bright.  The video below gives you some idea of the orbit.

Comets are icy balls of stuff surrounded by a 'coma' or a thin, fuzzy, temporary atmosphere.  As they approach the sun (or any other star), the solar radiation and solar wind tend to blow away from the comet body.  This is what produces the signature tail of a comet.  When they are far away from sources of solar radiation and solar wind, they lose their dramatic tail.  
Comet C/2012 S1, also known as comet ISON, was discovered last September.  According to prediction it will zoom in toward the center of our solar system this fall, graze the Sun and then shoot back out into outer space.  It should be bright enough to be seen by the naked eye from November of this year until January of next year.

image by NASA via Wikipedia
Of course my concern is that this may be yet another situation where Mother Nature is trying to misdirect us.  Remember last time when we were busy focusing all our telescopes on a meteor that was passing by on one side of the earth, we got whacked on the other side by one that actually did hit us.  All I'm saying is keep your telescopes scanning the whole sky, ok guys?