So a few months back I bought a turntable and now I’ve technologically regressed even deeper–Cassette tapes!
Okay, okay, there’s an explanation for this. I’ve been really digging on the finds I’ve been picking up in the local $0.97 record bins (seriously, 97 cents!) and accordingly looking for a way to share them with some fellow funk and soul addict friends of mine. My buddy Bill has recently acquired a boat. I’ll be heading back home to Wisconsin for a week in mid-August and we’re gonna go out for a day on the lake. I asked him, what kind of musical playback formats does your nautical stereo accept? The answer – cassette tapes, dogg.
Jeez, cassette, wow. I’m not sure I remember the last time I used a cassette tape, or recorded one. I think it’s been since like junior high. Well over a decade, whatever it was. So I needed to dig up a cassette recording device to bring along some hot jams I excavated from dusty 1970s vinyl obscurity. Enter craigslist! Some dude was unloading this NAD 6130 tape recorder which belonged to his father-in-law who recently passed on. Like a lot of good transactions on CL, the vibe I got from him was pretty much, ‘whatever man, I don’t care what this is, just get it out of here’. That’s the attitude I’m looking for! Twenty bucks, yeah that sounds cool.
Kind of a funny thing about reading up on the Dolby NRs; I learned that there are a lot of variations in cassette tape technology! There’s Dolby A and B types of noise reduction, and then there’s Dolby C, which actually sounds WORSE if you play it back on a deck that doesn’t support Dolby C. There’s different types of cassettes too, metal ones, ferric oxide ones, Type II, etc. Whoa. This is all way more complicated than I expected. Fortunately, thanks to it’s utter obsolecence, I was able to pick up a Cadillac of a cassette recorder that should handle all of the above for dirt cheap! Yay antiquated technology! Check out the green reel to reel style cassette loaded in :D
So recently I was contacted by the SETI team regarding a sequel to the infographic I had produced a couple months back. As many of you may know already, they’re trying a new way of keeping the Allen Telescope Array running: crowdsourcing. There’s a new website over at SETIstars.org where anyone can go and give funds specifically for the restarting of the ATA. It’s a savvy move in the age of kickstarter, microloans, and grassroots funding. And it’s pretty awesome to think that, well, if the people who should be paying for this won’t pay for it, fine, we’ll do it ourselves!
I hope the venture is a big success. It’d be reaffirming to see the citizenship of planet Earth as forward-thinking enough to collectively grok the profound implications that discovery of other intelligences would have. It would be invigorating to know that we realize this meaningfully enough that we, as single individuals, would band together to sustain this important work.
In the large scope of things, it’s not all that expensive either. Just for perspective: the 1st infographic so far has seen over 40,000 views (just the flickr version, nevermind the ones I cannot track). See the bottom of this new infographic to see how much 40,000 people would need to spend apiece to keep the ATA in action…
So a couple weeks ago, I acquired something I’ve wanted for years, and have been waiting a long time to purchase: a turntable! It’s a Pro-Ject Debut III USB. This puppy is decidedly unassuming in appearance, but instead has got all the pizzaz where it counts: fidelity.
There’s something great about playing records. Maybe it’s the nostalgia associated with the format that you used to play on your parents stereo as a little kid. Or the enjoyment of physically moving your music around, touching it, and having to place the tone arm on the vinyl, instead of clicking a mouse, or pressing a button. Vinyl is the most tactile medium of music playback, moreso even than it’s analog brethren the cassette tape. For these reasons I think it has an emotional appeal to it that makes other mediums seem… sterile by comparison.
There’s something intellectually appealing about it as well; the waveforms reproduced by the speakers essentially come from a physical drawing on the record. There’s no sampling rate, there’s no digital to analog converter trying to smooth out a bar-graph of 1’s and 0’s to reproduce the original signal. Sure, you could make a successful arguement that with the sampling rates of common digital formats, the difference is imperceptible between a signal that is pure analog versus a signal that has been converted from A to D to A again. But still. It’s neat to know that the song you’re hearing is (at least for analog-recorded source material) EXACTLY the original waves.
Another intellectual appeal to the format is that it requires your interaction. You can’t set up an eight-hour long playlist and then go do something else while the music plays. Often when an LP reaches the end of a side, I remember my friend Craig Bauman yelling from the kitchen to the partiers in the living room “GO TEAM VINYL!” to express his displeasure that no one had jumped up to flip the record yet.
Vinyl also makes it tedious to skip tracks, or to jump around on an album. You put on a record, and you listen to it straight through. In this way it forces you to check out songs that might not have grabbed you on the first or even tenth listen. I’ve had an interesting experience with this idea on Orgone’s double LP “Killion Vaults” which I listened to for months in mp3 format, before this turntable arrived and I was able to play the vinyl copy. Now that I am forced to listen to the tracks in the intended order without skipping any, there’s totally several cuts that I had skipped over before that are starting to grow on me now!
Last, vinyl is hip because it has its own sound. The tone-arm, the cartridge, the different masterings of vinyl recordings versus their compact disc brethren… all these things impart a unique flavor that isn’t present in the digital-only version.
Going immediately off of my last writing, why do we spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators and millions of dollars on antartic neutrino detectors? Answer: the quest to understand what we are made from, and how that matter is affected by the universe around us.
It’s the story of where we came from, and how we’re connected–all of us–to events billions of years ago and as many light years away.
In that spirit, I’m excited that the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour contained the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02. It’s an outer-space particle physics experiment that will study cosmic rays, antimatter, and search for dark matter. In short, it’s tackling the big questions. It makes me happy to think that if this is the second to last shuttle mission, at least it brought up a gigantic, heavy, badass physics experiment that’s going to be probing the secrets of the cosmos for the next decade. This thing is the silver lining in those opaque clouds that hovered over Endeavour’s launch.
The AMS-02 is a particle detector, the most sophisticated ever sent into space. It was developed by a team of over 500 scientists and tested at CERN in Switzerland where they shot the particle accelerator beam at it. Let me just repeat that: they hit it with the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and now it’s going into outer space to listen to cosmic rays, those invisible beams of radiation that are literally shooting through the entire earth this very moment, emitted from the deaths of distant stars and playing some role in our evolution by causing random mutations. I think the awesomeness-detection circuitry in my mind is fried now. If you’d like to learn more, hit the wikipedia link, it’s utterly fascinating stuff.
Check out this video to see them install it in time-lapse. This slow-motion space ballet is the launching of a masterpiece. So uplifting.
It’s also a nice bit of irony that this big hunk of metal is up there in the sky, out towards the vast infinity of space; it was put there in order to study the tiniest sub-particles hidden deep in the infinity of the very small. There it is, up above the Earth, reaching for infinity in both directions…
A thought that keeps going through my mind is that galaxies collide all the time, but collisions between stars or planets are rare. I remember watching a captivating animation of this at my local planetarium, where all the stars merged like a cloud of bees, flying in a small area but somehow not crashing. Galaxies, as giant as they may be, are made up chiefly of empty space!
You could say a smiliar thing about the objects right in front of you on your desk: the spacebar on your keyboard is made up of lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, jammed in tightly to make a solid piece of plastic. Those atoms are bumped up right next to each other, yet their electrons and nuclei are never colliding. By comparison, the electrons in their shells around the nucleii are just like tiny little planets in far away orbits around the atomic core, where literally >99.9% of the mass is concentrated. Those hydrocarbon molecules are made up cheifly of NOTHING.
Atoms are made mostly of empty space, and galaxies are made mostly of empty space. Sort of takes me back to the Buddhist idea of emptiness; nothing has a unique identity (ie it’s empty) because it’s completely full of everything else. In this way, a tree is empty because it is filled to the brim with nitrogren from the soil, photons from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and maybe even the intention of someone who planted it. Our galaxies and our molecules may be made mostly of nothing, but they are in another sense quite full. Let’s explore!
This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
I’ll keep things rolling on the space tip with this incredible compilation of slow-motion footage of the space shuttle. Some of you may have seen this already; it made the rounds sometime around christmas last year. And it’s LONG! If you want to skip right to the money shot, go to 34 minutes, on the dot. Don’t forget to hit the 720p! Simply breathtaking.
You can listen with the commentary on if you really want. I recommend putting on your own tunes while watching this gorgeous explosion of rocketry. This is what I liked the best. It’s good for reflecting on the ends of things. The conclusion of something glorious. On one hand, it makes me feel like I just got handed a copy of this:
On the other hand, I suppose all things, both good and bad, must come to an end; phases of life, our favorite restaurants, our favorite thursday night routines… and our lives, our planet, our sun, and the space shuttle program. A clichéd expression that does give me some optimism is “don’t be sad that it’s over; be glad that it happened.” That is true. It’s been an excellent 30 year run.
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??
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.
Check out this badass picture of the shuttle Discovery, launching on its final mission.
It’s so very sad that the shuttle program is ending, particularly so from the lack of any replacement waiting in the wings. True that NASA can still accomplish mind-exploding feats with only robotic spacecraft, and true that those robotic missions may be more valuable at our current stage in the space exploration game. But still. Sending humans up is just… so important. For our growth as a species technologically, for our survival in a chaotic universe, for the inspiring of new generations, for so very many reasons. It’s a great thing that companies like Space X will now have a role to step into, and an impetus to grow, but I question whether cosmic expansion should be undergone for the profit, rather than the glory. I suppose the glory will always be there, no matter what.
Alright here comes one I’ve been holding out on for a few weeks now: The Wakemate!
What the heck is it? : It’s a wristband you wear to bed. Inside there is an accelerometer, which measures when and how much your wrist is moving during the night. This is a method of sleep analysis called Actigraphy. There are many smartphone apps that use the built-in accelerometers in your phone to measure the same thing when placed on the mattress next to you. The downside of this is that you’ll need to put the phone quite close to your body to get accurate results, and even then it’s not going to be as sensitive to small movements that a wristband like this will pick up.
I’ve been using it for about two weeks now and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. It connects to the phone (either Android, iOS, or Blackberry) via bluetooth, communicating once when you go to sleep and then again in the moring when it’s time to wake up. You set an alarm for the latest time you want to wake up, then the wakemate will watch your sleep patterns and wake you, up to 20 minutes before your designated alarm time. The idea is that if you are awakened during a period of light sleep, you won’t feel as groggy as you would if you were in deep sleep and jolted awake.
While the alarm aspect is certainly a cool idea, and I’m sure some people will be all about it, myself, I’m much more interested in simply looking at the data of how well I slept last night and how much deep sleep I got. Deep sleep, where your brain switches over to delta waves, is the restful kind of sleep that will make you feel more well rested in the morning.
Corresponding to how much deep sleep you get, the wakemate website gives you a “sleep score” which you can view on their website, along with all the other data on how well you’ve been sleeping. Just last night I got my highest sleep score yet, an 89. Interestingly, last night I slept 5:02, where the previous night, where I slept for 7:14 and got a score of 69. The difference? Last night I got much more deep sleep, and I never woke up during the night, which is something else that can lower your sleep score.
They don’t give much explanation on exactly how the sleep score is derived, but as you get more data on yourself and the variables start to rearrange themselves, you can make an educated guess as to how they tally it. One other really helpful thing is that they allow you to tag your nights with different labels. Some of mine are “vino,” “late supper,” or “swam”. Tracking these variables over time might allow me to see what effect they have on my alertness the next day.
Their website also shows you a plot of the raw movement data taken from the wristband for each night. To me, this is the coolest thing to look at, because that’s really the data behind all their calculations.
Why would you want all this data? Probably the same reason a lot of people enjoy having bike computers. It’s just cool to know stats about yourself and try to measure ways that you could be improving things, or figure out what you’re doing wrong.
I’m guessing some of you already knew the basic facts, so onto some detailed impressions: the wristband itself is a little snug. It’s make of elastic on one side and what feels like flannel for about 3/4ths of the rest. I figured out that you need to insert the electronics so that the flat side faces your arm, and the curved side faces out. That frees up a small but important amount of stretching so that the wristband isn’t quite so tight. It also helps to insert it on the side that is under the “wake” instead of the “mate” and wear the band so that the elastic area is closer to your body. Hard to describe, so see the picture:
Knowing these facts, the wristband is very wearable. I don’t wake up dying to take it off, nor does it distract me at all going to sleep or in the night. I suspect for some people with large wrists though, you might be finding or making your own wristband to stick the electronics inside of.
The app (I have a Motorola Droid X, so these comments pertain to the Android version) is, how should I put it… finicky. Given, this is the first version, and it says on their website that improvements are soon to come. But I have had it crash on me at least 4 times now, and sadly if the app crashes, you can kiss that nights data goodbye. There is no way to restart the app and tell it, “hey I just woke up and there is data you need to get!” Nor is there a way to take your wristband to the computer and plug it in to upload. If the app crashes (and it does!) you’ll lose that night. That’s definitely a bummer. But I expect this will be remedied with future updates.
On the whole, the app could use a lot of improvement, with a persistent volume setting for the alarm, a built-in viewer for your stats, a bigger ‘stop the alarm button’ (it’s tiny!), more features, and less crashing! I’d say the current implementation is spartan, but functional >70% of the time. Suffice it to say, really looking forward to the updates!!
But all criticisms aside, this puppy is awesome. It was worth the $60. I don’t know how long the battery lifespan is supposed to be, but I intend to use the wakemate every night until I’ve run it straight into the ground. Seeing a graph the next morning of how well you slept last night is just fascinating. I can tell you that, but until you see it yourself, based on your own actual sleep last night, you won’t quite appreciate how cool it truly is. (It is very cool.)
I’ll update this review after I’ve had a month or two more with it, and I also might blog about using the wakemate and dreaming, which is something I’ve been looking forward to since I signed up for the preorder, over a year ago!