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  • Posts Tagged ‘my soapbox’

    A SETI Infographic


    2011 - 04.30

    UPDATE: At the behest of team SETI, a sequel to this infographic has been produced, showing how we can all pitch in a small amount of money, and DO something to restart the ATA.  SETIstars.org, get at it!

    So it looks like the Allen Telescope Array (which I mentioned previously on here) is falling onto the chopping block in this era of fiscal “emergency.”   To me, this sounds a lot like the recent battle to defund NPR or PBS, in that the money they need to continue is just . . . chump change in the grand scheme of finances.  They’re $2.5 million short, and for that, they’ll need to stop taking data and shut down the telescope array.  It deeply bums me out to think that such a low value is placed on the quest to find other intelligence in our universe.  When compared with so many other things that gladly get millions or billions of dollars, it’s maddening to see SETI so marginalized.  Do we really just not care??  Seriously??

    There’s an awesome article over at Wired Science, interviewing Jill Tarter about the whole deal.  Go check it.

    And to put things into perspective, I’ve whipped up this handy infographic, comparing how $2.5 million compares to so many other things that we absolutely must have, and will not hesitate to pay for:

    When I created this, I deliberately chose things that weren’t the most supreme.  For example, I priced a Predator drone @ $4.5M, instead of a Stealth Bomber, which is a cool billion.  The iPad sales dollars are probably much higher than I showed.  And I showed the Citigroup portion of the bailout, instead of the full bailout ($300B).  I also swapped the second and third to last entries in order to put the NASA budget immediately next to the DOD budget.  Imagine what we would know about the universe if those two were swapped.  (And maybe we could still lead the world by sheer power of inspiration.)  It’s the stuff of pipe dreams!

    Since the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, wondered what was out there.  Now that we have the technology to actually look, and even a good idea where to look, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, it’s all the more maddening that it should fall under the axe, deemed unimportant, unworthy of those precious dollars.  Sure, it’s true that there are innumerable causes out there which pull at our emotions and demand the attentions of our pragmatic sides.  But what outcome has higher stakes than finding out we’re not alone in the cosmos?  When that happens, human history will be split into two neat periods: before we knew about them, and after.  BC will stand for before contact, and AD will be replaced by AC; after contact.  Nothing else would transform our cultures, our politics, our religions, our folklores like knowing we’re not just a lone voice, but part of a galactic chorus.  The most recent findings tell us that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets, and there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone.  The glorious Milky Way, with its wealth of diversity and abundance of worlds  is right there waiting for us, if we could but pick up the receiver and listen.

    Progenitor of Jams, Beats, Vibes… the Birth of EMOTIONS, Dawg.


    2011 - 03.22

    This weekend I spent a lot of time working on a project I’m excited about: new speakers. These speakers are not for myself, they’ll be a birthday gift for my little brother, but still! Building loudspeakers is something I’m definitely passionate about, although this is the first time I’m mentioning it on the site. So let’s get into it!

    First of all, why is this cool? Well, a ton of reasons. Building speakers is an art of trade-offs. There is, and never will be such thing as ‘perfect’ speakers. Every system is a compromise in some sense, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. For example, the two main strengths in the ones I’m making right now are a high efficiency rating of 91dB (pretty good! This means that given less power, these speakers play louder than most), and a very smooth frequency response. The smooth frequency response was my main goal; important because my brother is going to recording school. If he’s going to be using these to audition recordings and potentially do mastering, it’s critically important that they don’t add their own ‘color’ to the sound. Speakers with choppy response curves can still sound great, but they add their own personality to the tone, which does not copy over to any other stereo setup. So it would be a terrible idea to master a recording on a system with a response curve that has lots of peaks and valleys. The weaknesses would be that I maybe didn’t get as deep of a bass response as I would’ve wished, and the price went a little higher because I insisted on drivers with good responses. In order to try to keep the costs down but still use good components, I omitted a midrange and used only two drivers per channel. For the enclosure, I chose to use a port to get what bass I could. I’d prefer a sealed box, but again, these are the compromises that you get forced into making. It’s part of what keeps it interesting.

    There’s also the brand name aspect too. Just like having your favorite sports team or buying new shoes from your favorite brand, getting speakers from a particular maker is sort of exciting in and of itself. This time around I picked a tweeter from a Danish brand I’ve always wished I could afford, Scan Speak. Scan Speak is very highly regarded in the industry, and with that awesome pedigree comes an accompanying price tag. I’m guessing the recent economic downturn led them to eschew their typical snobiness and produce a series of drivers ‘for the people’ called their “discovery” series. Maybe it’s called that because it’s my opportunity to “discover” what it’s like to listen to Scan Speak (on the cheap)? This I look forward to.

    Something else very neat about speaker building is how long lasting it is. I built myself a pair in high school, and with one driver replacement (right midrange went bad) they’ve been serving me faithfully ever since. That’s well over a decade of listening. GOOD listening! I built another set for my buddy Luke, probably over a decade ago as well. Not long ago he told me he’s still lovin’ them and they continue to serve as his main listening system. That’s so rad! It brings me joy to think about this; the construction that I’m setting in motion in my garage today will last for decades. These are long term actions right now.

    And more than that–these things will be making MUSIC! There will be huge moments of rocking out, when you’re getting ready to go do something great and you put on some tracks to pump yourself up! There will be mellow times late in the night when you come home and put on some chill vibes before you wind down for bed. Sad songs for when you just need to wallow in despair for a while, or daily anthems to get you into the groove of doing what you need to get done. These things are mood machines. Life enhancers. Tone establishers. Music colors our lives, it shapes our feelings. All those emotions will be flowing forth from these paper cones and cloth domes. I love that idea. LOVE IT!

    In the morning, I cook myself an omelet with red onion, cheddar, and spinach. Filled up and ready for action, I head out to the garage. The sun is searingly bright and as I step out, I hear a crescendoing rumble in the sky. Before I can even step out onto the driveway, I say to myself aloud, “what the hell IS that?!” As I pass under the garage door I look up and see one of the biggest propeller planes I’ve ever seen flying very, very low overhead. It’s a 4-engine passenger plane, like one of those vintage prop-airliners from the 60s or something. Very unusual, and a pitch-perfect start to the day. It’s like a good omen. I watch it lumbering slowly across the sky in a wide arc as it turns toward the nearby municipal airport, slipping away behind the treeline.

    Making speakers is something I love doing so much that if I could choose one thing to do for the rest of my days, building speakers would be near the top of the list. While I was out in the garage, I thought back to Geoff Marcy and his story of picking what he wanted to do with his life. Things weren’t going good and he knew he had to make a decision to go in a new direction. He thought, well, what I really want to do is find planets even though it seems like a crazy idea. There’s really no money, glory, or fame in it, but I just want to do this because that’s what makes me happy. I could say the same thing about speakers.

    So here I am, out in the garage, doing one of the things I love best! It is literally an ideal spring day, with temperatures in the high 70s and a nice cool breeze. I’m out with my measuring tape, drawing lines and slicing wood panels with my circular saw. There’s brown aviator sunglasses on my nose, to protect against wood chips and the blinding Texas sun. A few mistakes here, a curse word there, and a course correction gets me back on track. By the day’s end I will begin to see the cabinets take shape, and there are very nice looking flush-mount circles cut with my new router for the drivers. This is a new skill I have learned today, seen in the lead picture at the top. A neat speaker cutting jig helped me get just the right cut. Using these new tools is gratifying.

    Mid afternoon I uncap my water bottle and take a huge swig of the cool refreshment inside. Stopping to assess my progress, it’s uncanny how quiet and peaceful things are between the rounds of power tools. Birds chirp somewhere in the trees and the streets are empty. No one else is here, no one super into this the way I am. It feels like this instant is a triumphant moment, but without anyone else around who ‘gets it’ enough to chime in and say “oh man, what’s happening right now is so sweeeet!!” The absence of conversation feels both ironically strange yet somehow appropriate in an inexplicable way. Here I am, by myself in the garage, making it happen, “blowing it up” so to speak. I guess this sums up what it’s like being into niche hobbies, hey?

    There’s a tiny bit of red sunburn on my neck and a mix of sawdust and sweat on my brow. I am in an odd mode of excitedly rushing to get to the next step yet leisurely configuring the power tools for my next operations. Occasionally a dog-walker goes by, curiously eyeing the piles of wood, my setup of sawhorses, and various power tools strewn about. Sporadic flocks of kids fill up the air with sound as they pass down the block. Now and then I hear the distant roar of a power saw from someone else’s garage. It’s a great day to get some work done. Maybe once an hour I stop and look around, conscious that I’m doing something I love, which I only get to do once every few years. Building loudspeakers is expensive. And time intensive. A whole lot of planning goes into picking the drivers, crossover points, cabinet design; this is sort of a sacred moment, The Moment Of Genesis when ideas begin to take physical form.

    There may be no money, glory, or fame in it, but I have a lot of love for the speaker building art. I don’t think I could ever make a living off of it, even if I decided I was willing to risk it all to try. But I hope to build many more sets over the years, to share my love of high-fidelity sound, and help give to other people the experiences that their own DJing can give to themselves, with crisp detail in the playback.

    nerd rage: tablets are stupid!


    2011 - 02.24

    I’ve been reading a few interesting articles lately using this awesome RSS reader called Pulse, for the android.  Two of them struck me as interesting: tech bloggers who are naysaying about the latest, greatest gadget fad: tablets.  Essentially, a lot of the talk revolves around the idea ‘ what can a tablet actually do better than anything else?’

    Over at Ars Technica, there is a rant I found pretty amusing called Why I Don’t Care About Tablets Anymore.  Jon Stokes opines:

    “the tablet isn’t really the best gadget that I have for any of the [things I commonly do on it]—at least in terms of the overall experience (cost and convenience aside). For watching video, my TV wins. I prefer to read books and papers on either the Kindle or as dead-tree color printouts and books. Surfing the Web is easier on a computer, especially if you leave a lot of tabs open. I’ve yet to have a tablet gaming experience that really surpasses a good console or PC game. And so on.”

    He makes a cuttingly perceptive observation toward the end as well: “Some of the really savvy new media efforts like Flipboard are exciting, but after the initial “wow” factor wears off, these apps mainly serve to remind me that there’s already too much good stuff to read out there, and that my life is slipping away from me in an infinite stream of interesting bits about smart animals, dumb criminals, outrageous celebs, shiny objects, funny memes, scientific discoveries, economic developments, etc.. I invariably end up closing the app in a fit of guilt, and picking up one of the truly fantastic dead tree or Kindle books that I’m working my way through at the moment, so that I can actually exercise my brain (as opposed to simply wearing it out).”

    Hmph!  Indeed.   That last sentence is going to stick with me for a long time.

    Article two is “I Hate My iPad” over at Slate, with a few quotable gems on the iPad:

    “There’s no question that it makes browsing the Web while sitting on the couch easier. Though I have a relatively svelte laptop, it’s kind of a pain to tote around the apartment. But am I the kind of person who pays $600 to save the effort of detaching some USB cables from time to time? I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

    “I think it’s amazing that Apple has convinced so many people to pay $600 for what seem like such marginal improvements in their lifestyles—$600 to be able to check my e-mail in bed in a slightly more comfortable fashion than I can on my laptop seems sort of crazy when I stop and think about it.” His friend replies, “That’s your problem–stopping to think about it.”

    Incidentally, it also spawned this discussion, with this humorously sarcastic quote:

    “I like to sit on my couch and watch Netflix on it even though there’s a 46″ LCD right in front of me. I like to use the word processing software even though it takes ten times longer than using a real keyboard because my desktop computer is all the way in the next room. I like to use the shiny back as mirror to check myself out. I like to look at the pretty colors on the screen. It also makes a really futuristic looking paperweight. It’s so cute and shiny.”

    Nerrrd RAAAAAAAGEE!!!

    All Your Aliens Are LAME.


    2011 - 01.03

    My biggest beef with almost all the science fiction out there: the unimaginative portrayal of alien life.  And I’ll be especially harsh on Star Trek here–for being the series that is lauded as one of the more “realistic” (ie. it tries to obey physics), all the aliens (Klingons, Vulcans, borg, etc) all look an awful lot like Homo Sapiens.  I think the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars comes a lot closer to imagining what breadth of life must be out there.

    Given a completely different set of circumstances, the process of evolution will take a completely different path.  This recent NASA study which, essentially through forced evolution, bred a bacteria that eats arsenic and uses it in place of phosphorus as the backbone of its DNA structure, is a breakthrough.  It changes the parameter of where we should be searching for life.  And more importantly, it expands the boundaries of where life might arise.  That’s huge.

    I would also posit that this discovery is only one of many discoveries to come that will expand our narrow thinking on the possibilities of life.  I would bet anything that there are chemistries which proliferate life with far more exotic elements than the replacement of a single building block using the Earth-life formula.  The study of extremophiles here on Earth is important work to understand life.  Earth, after all, is just one set of pressure, temperature, gravity, atmosphere, and soil that’s out there.

    It really bothers me how human-centric alien life is always portrayed.  If an organism grew on a completely different world, with a different set of parameters as listed above, it would probably be absolutely nothing like us.  Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth?  Probably not.  This is how our evolutionary tree began, millennia ago, and because of those early parameters, nearly all the life around us follows the formula.  Who’s to say that on different planets, starting from scratch, life wouldn’t evolve with ears on the back of their knees? Or eyes that perceived with radio waves, or infrared.  Their “eyes” probably wouldn’t even look like what we call “eyes”.  Maybe these creatures would evolve to be able to emit and manipulate electromagnetic waves–that ability would have many advantages…

    Other structures that we completely take for granted might not be present whatsoever.  A leg, for example.  Of course, legs are a good solution to the problem of how to get around, but why not rolling wheels or something similar to treads, or why not glide around on a layer of slippery goo like a snail?  Maybe alien life would hop from place to place like on pogo sticks?  In low gravity environments, that would be a very efficient way to travel.  Why walk and get bogged down in all that expenditure of energy with friction against the ground when you can just bounce gracefully across it all?  Boom, you just got beaten in the evolutionary contest, alien with legs! As much as I strain my mind to come up with oddities which might arise, I feel limited by my Earthbound bias.  What if alien life is REEEEEEALY different?  There must be creatures and civilizations out there that have endured for billions of years.  Their evolution probably started like ours as a chemical process driven by the right building blocks and the infusion of electromagnetism.  These creatures evolved to intelligence, built a society, discovered science and technology, began to guide their own evolution.

    They eliminated genetic flaws, squashed weaknesses to disease, augmented their intelligence and information storage.  At a certain point, their technology and their physical beings became indistinguishable.  They learned how to preserve their minds indefinitely and how to network them for instantaneous telepathy.  For some, physical existence became more like an afterthought.  For others, connection with the collective muted the possibility of discovery out in the wilds of the cosmos.

    They developed means to travel the galaxy, cataloging other life in the pursuit of advancing their own.  The optimum way to do this probably involved zero interference with these other, less advanced lifeforms.  Studying their natural growth patterns was more fruitful than attempting to conquer, plunder, or exploit–irrelevant, pointless ideas when much larger questions and goals awaited.  Perhaps these creatures developed ways to transport their consciousness via electromagnetic waves, reconstituting physical forms at will, only for sporadic observation where things got interesting.  By this point, a physical appearance would be whatever manifestation would best suit the situation.

    What would such a highly developed species choose to look like?  I find it fascinating to think about.  What would their goals become?

    What would their leisure pursuits be? In the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book I read the fact that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.  This is an astounding, stupefying fact that I will probably repeat later, for the sheer difficultly of being able to wrap one’s head around it.

    To me, the most thought-provoking aspect of it is that where the probability of life is simply anything other than zero, the vastness of this universe implies an explosively bountiful cornucopia of every imaginable tree-branch of life, including the existence of such ancient and advanced races as we theorized about above.

    The awesome tablet no one is getting this holiday


    2010 - 12.21

    The book. It’s the oldest form factor for information. How much have you learned in your lifetime from reading pages in a textbook? How many hours have you spent leisurely flipping pages in your free time? Laughter, history, enlightenment, escape, understanding, introspection–we look to books for all these things. They will be revered in history as likely the most important invention we ever made.

    Modern computer technology is a very recent invention when compared to the book. Its own form factors are still being debated, switched, refined. For a long time the desktop model of computing has ruled. There are voices who say that it is dying, due for replacement. I’d disagree. Especially in the business world, nothing else can touch the desktop in terms of speed, flexibility, and widespread acceptance. And as long as it remains entrenched in business, it will retain at least a modest foothold in the consumer world. But there are other form factors which will definitely grow in popularity to offer some desktop functionality in a more couch-friendly format.

    Tablets are all the rage these days. I’m not particularly won over. When the iPad came out, I was very disappointed in it. There are a lot of reasons to dislike it, but maybe the worst aspect of it is that Apple tends to set the trend. So if they release a product whose form factor is a slab with exposed screen on one side and brushed metal on the other, you’re going to get 500 other companies making essentially the same device. And that’s what we’ve seen. The Blackberry Playbook, the uncountable Android tablets, the color Nook, the upcoming Motorola tablet; these are all the same form factor. One that leaves the screen wide open to scratches. Some people say it is tedious to hold for an extended period. I have only used one for a few minutes at a time, so I can’t say.

    It seems ironic to me that a laptop computer is often referred to as a “notebook”. How often does anyone use an actual notebook with the pages oriented vertically?

    There are a few different products out there now which blend a tablet, a book, and a smartphone. To me, this is the form factor that I want to see. Give me a leather-bound computer that looks like an old-fashioned ledger, just like the one above.  This type of design is referred to as a “booklet PC”. Toshiba’s Libretto W105 was probably the first commercial product to go down this avenue. However this product was more of an experiment or publicity stunt rather than a serious attempt at a booklet PC. The operating system was windows 7 and it ran on laptop hardware. That in itself tells a lot. Cramming desktop OS and laptop hardware into a tablet is a recipie for lousy battery life and poor UI. The software must be lightweight, and designed explicitly for touch/stylus. The hardware must be completely low-power-centric.

    Just this week, another device became available that intrigues me a lot. It’s called the Kno, and it’s intended for students, as a replacement for notebooks and textbooks both. It comes in dual and single screen versions (of course the former is what interests me) and it accepts input from a stylus, running on custom Linux software with webkit browsing. Now this is an eyebrow raising product. You can doodle on it, take notes, or surf the web, read books, play music, and watch video. Nice!

    It would appear that demand is high. On their website, you’ll be greeted by a notification saying that you need a special invite to be eligible to recieve one. The ultimate success of the Kno will probably hinge upon how widely it is accepted by textbook publishers and students. It is also surprisingly large. Those displays are 14″ each! I’m not sure if that’s huge to the point of unweildy or not. I’d love to get my hands on one and try it out!!

    As sweet as it is, the Kno is, in my mind, a shadow of the most incredible booklet PC that never was. The Microsoft Courier. When videos of the software interface first surfaced, it was shocking that a company as lumbering and overweight as Microsoft could have been the origin of something so fresh and ahead of the curve. Alas, Microsoft didn’t find the project worthy of pursuit, and it was cancelled. The very talented man who was Microsoft’s “Chief Experience Officer”, J Allard, resigned shortly after these events. Coincidence?

    J Allard sheparded the design of the Zune player, which, despite the impossibility of ever catching Apple in the PMP space, was an excellently-designed product. The interface of the Zune HD went on to form the basis of Microsoft’s nascent phone OS, Windows Phone 7. Allard also worked extensively on the XBOX 360, and presumably the earlier stages of their recently released Kinect system. Allard had been spearheading Courier.

    So what was so cool about Courier? Watch this:

    and this:

    In essence, it was a sketchbook. True, it also did the stuff that Kno does (doodling, handwriting, web surfing, music, video, books), but the Courier was centered around what they called the Infinite Journal. This was a space to paste clippings from webpages, jot ideas, scribble in the margins, and draw, using pencil, marker, or paint. There was no soft keyboard. Stylus only. The key concept of what made Courier exciting was that it was all about writing down ideas and making drawings. The interface pictured, conceptual as it may have been, was a brilliant structure revolving around your journaled ideas. There were lots of neat little touches too, like the 2 buttons on the stylus: one for undo, another to switch between marker and pen. Flipping the stylus 180 degrees turned it into an eraser. A device like this is an artist’s pipe dream.

    Wake me up when it’s real, tablet makers.