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  • Posts Tagged ‘transitions between epochs’

    Camera Lust: the Pentax K-01 and the Fuji X-Pro1


    2012 - 02.04

    Pentax is blowing up the interwebs this week with news of their newest sweet photo machine, the K-01. New sweet photo machines are a dime-a-dozen, but what makes this one interesting is that it’s the first mirrorless interchangable lens camera (we’re going to stick with the acronym MILC here) that actually shares a lens mount with their normal SLRs, meaning you can attach any of your existing K-mount lenses right on to this baby. Now that’s progress! No need to repurchase thousands of dollars in precious glass to be totally outfitted.

    You’ll also notice it’s offered with a shockingly thin (read: skimpy?) 40 f/2.8 prime. That’s an odd novelty, but with glass that tiny, does it actually take decent images? Anyway, I don’t care much about that, back to the body–It’s cool to finally see someone make a mirrorless camera that doesn’t demand a whole new army of lenses. It’s about time!

    And still no MILC from Canon… I’m waiting fellas!

    Runner up for interesting new camera in the mirrorless world would be that Fujifilm X-Pro1. It’s predecessor, the X100, was featured on here a while back and remains on the short list of extreeeemely lust-worthy photo gear that I would totally buy if it were only a little more affordable. The X-Pro1 would probably get a whole post devoted solely to it as well, if it weren’t even further into the netherworld of unaffordability. At $1700 for the BODY ONLY, I wonder how many units of this thing Fuji is going to be pushing. For that price, you could get a rock solid Canon or Nikon DSLR AND a lot of great glass too. Unfortunate. But it does have enough unique features that I want to blab about it for a minute. Let’s start with some choice blurbs from the official press release:

    blurb #1:
    The new color filter array paves the way for an ideal sensor that does not need an optical low-pass filter. While the optical low-pass filter is indispensable for the reduction of moiré and false color generated by conventional sensors, it also degrades resolution. Fujifilm has developed a new color filter array that is inspired by the random arrangement of fine film grain, removing the need for an optical low-pass filter to solve moiré and false color issues. In the array, RGB pixels are arranged in 6×6 pixel sets with high aperiodicity (randomness). Increasing the degree of randomness eliminates the fundamental cause of moiré and false colors – a problem that occurs in conventional arrays when shooting stripes and other repeating patterns. The presence of an R, G and B pixel in every vertical and horizontal pixel series minimizes the generation of false colors and delivers higher color reproduction.
     
    blurb #2:
    Extending Fujifilm’s photo film legacy
    In film cameras, capturing multiple exposures is the unique photographic technique of superimposing one image on another by double exposing a single frame of film. Through advanced digital processing the X-Pro1 can simulate this technique by simply selecting the Multiple Exposure mode and taking the first shot. By viewing the image via the Hybrid Multi Viewfinder or on the LCD screen, you can see how the finished multiple exposure will look and then precisely frame the second shot.  
     
    Further enhancements have been made to the Film Simulation modes with the new Professional Color Negative Film Modes (Pro Neg. Std and Pro Neg. Hi) designed for X-Pro1 users working in the studio. The X-Pro1 also offers Film Simulation bracketing, along with AE, Dynamic and ISO bracketing; plus the ability to capture the colors and tonal qualities of popular FUJIFILM emulsions through the vibrant colors of Velvia, the softer skin tones of ASTIA and the natural look of PROVIA.

    That multiple exposure thing is pretty rad. Every camera should have that, using preview on the LCD. That’s science. The coolest thing about this camera is definitely the color filter array though. Okay kids, put on your nerd caps, cuz shiz is about to get hardcore up in here:

    Every digital camera uses an image sensor to collect the photons (light) that make up the picture. Since the sensor itself cannot discriminate colors, filters are used to split the light into RGB (red, blue, & green) components. By combining RGB in different combinations, you can then spell out any color imaginable. Old school photographic color film accomplished the same idea by having (at least) 3 seperate layers of silver halide salts which were dyed differently. Since film was a chemical/analog process, those salt crystals weren’t arranged in any sort of perfectly aligned matrix, they were just scattered all over, however they happened to fall. The characteristics of any given film (contrast, sensitivity, resolution) were determined by the crystal sizes and the amounts of the silver halide for each different color layer. Fancier films had up to 12 different layers used to reproduce colors! So it wasn’t just RGB, it was a whole lot of different colors being combined, and each “pixel” in the film was of variable size.  Click the image of those Kodak T-grain silver halide crystals to see more Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of different films.

    To obtain digital color images, almost all sensors use the standard 2×2 “bayer” color filter, named after a clever Kodak engineer who came up with the scheme during the 70s. (If you’re wondering, Bryce Bayer chose to use an extra green pixel to emulate the human eye’s sensitivity to green light, which is kinda neat!) So nearly every digital camera uses this method of light collection, and even those rare cameras which deviate from the standard color filter configuration still have some kind of repeating, contant pattern. Although it’s not completely clear from the Fuji PR-speak, if their color filters really are randomized across the whole sensor area, woah, that is a major difference in the way light is gathered… and a pretty ingenius mimicry of analog. As a giant in the tradition of film and therefore owner of masterful knowledge upon the characteristics of it, seeing Fuji bring the lessons learned over decades of experience in color reproduction using silver halide emulsions to bear in the new digital era is… way cool. If anyone can do it, it’s them (or Kodak?).

    The story of the transition between the analog epoch and the digital epoch is a tale chock full of “back to the future”-isms. In the sense that as digital technology gets better and better, the goal seems to be emulating the way analog things used to be. We see this is audio mastering (see TRacks-tube/tape emulation mastering software), audio reproduction (vacuum tube pre-amp stereos, and progressively higher sample rates to recreate a more ‘analog’ waveform), musical instruments (amps and effects pedals that strive to recreate the analog ‘warmth’, synthesizers that model their vintage predecessors), and even video games with roms and emulators built to resurrect the early days of gaming. To me, it makes perfect sense that photography, when the technology gets good enough, will undergo this same trend of digital modeling to recreate an analog era gone by.

    Right along those lines, Fuji’s film simulation modes are an ultra-sweet concept that I have seriously been wishing someone would do for many years now. I wonder how those work, exactly… searching for information doesn’t turn up any explanation; I’d be willing to bet that the only difference between the three film simulation modes are simple tweaks to contrast and saturation. The example images shown on this excellent webpage would seem to support that theory. Although it’s complex to compare film ‘resolution’ to an equivalent digital resolution, analog film has somewhere between 15-25 megapixels of ‘resolution’ depending on who you ask. My 18MP Canon t3i starts to inch into this territory. As sensor design pushes even further into the higher megapixels, it’d be really cool to see the characteristics of old school film emulsions replicated not just at the post-processing (software) stage, but at the light-acquisition (sensor/color-filter) stage. Software enhancements are never going to beat photoshop at its own game… but hardware that captures color in a new way? That would be an innovation.

    What would it take to truly create an honest digital carbon-copy of film emulsion? You’d need a variable color filter and as many megapixels as you could throw at it. As in, a color filter where you could actively switch which pixels recieve which color, and do it on the fly. We’d be aiming to mimic the salt crystals as you see in the SEM image, with variable sizes and variable locations for each individual exposure. You’d have some kind of randomization that would rearrange the configuration every time a new photo is taken, within a given set of parameters for each different film emulsion. To really nail it, you’d also want to not just use RGB in your color filter, but a larger variety of color shades to mimic the dyes from many-layered emulsions.

    I lazily mocked up the idea here with a grid over an SEM image of Kodak Portra 160VC  Professional portrait negative film. Average grain size: 1μm.  I only colored in some film grains because it would take forever to do the whole thing and I got tired of clicking.  I did RGB and CYM(K) with a lot of K, I guess.  But you could use many combinations of colors in your color filter, both echoing classic film emulsions, or even getting creative with more funky configurations.

    That kind of light capturing would offer something you could never do in photoshop, due to the fact that it would change the way the actual sensor is classifying colors of photons which make an image *as they come in*. I have no idea how one could create a variable or “active” color-filter, but man, if you could do that, it would open up incredible possibilities in the way light is captured. Think ultraviolet and infrared too. It’s all conjecture, but I find this stuff awesome to daydream about.

    </nerdery>

    (Partial) Camera Lust: The Nikon J1


    2011 - 09.30

    The Nikon J1 is the company’s first mirrorless interchangable lens camera (MILC). That in itself is pretty exciting. What with digital viewfinders, live view, and the new emphasis on movie modes in high end cameras, it’s cool to see the elimination of the mirror and pentaprism format of SLRs. Just extra weight and bulk really. I am ALL for chopping out any of these obsolete bits. Pop Photo gives a great rundown of test shots they captured with the J1, check it out.

    Olympus and Pentax have been barking up the mirrorless interchangable lens format tree for a while now, and the retro-rangerfinder-esque stylings of their Micro 4/3rds format have major sex appeal for photography geeks. It’s super cool to see Nikon finally stepping into the ring (because that means now Canon has to as well, and I own Canon lenses!) But like the micro 4/3rds cameras, big-boy Nikon’s first offering in this vein comes with some whopping caveats:

    1. You can use your existing F mount lenses, but only with an adapter. It’s disappointing that this camera isn’t F-native.
    2. It’s got a crop factor of 2.7. Ouch. That means that your 28mm lens is now equivalent to a shocking 75mm. BOOM, your wide angle is insta-telephotoized! What?!? Jeez!
    3. That crop factor is, of course, due to a smaller than APS-C sized sensor. Hrmmmm. Small sensors are a drag. They mean poor light gathering ability at equivalent apertures, reduced bokeh affect at equivalent apertures, poor high ISO performance and by extension noisy, grainy, fuzzy images, when compared to their APS-C brethren.

    The second point here may really be the killer, as it essentially means you need to buy new lenses for this camera. Good luck getting a true wide angle below a full frame equivalent of 27mm. Nikon’s got a pancake 10mm that comes out in conjunction with the J1, but how long will it be before you can get something like my canon 10-24mm offers me? (16-38mm in full-frame equivalence) Probably never. No superwide. That’s sad.

    It’s a sign that the winds of change are blowing when Nikon makes their first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. MILCs are lighter, smaller, and a logical step in the evolution of cameras. Unfortunately it seems like it’s still going to be a long time before a guy like me would ever want to take the plunge with one of these, mostly due to that staggering list of compromises above. I’ll check back in when Canon makes a MILC with (at least) an APS-C sized sensor. Now THAT would be a camera I’d get truly excited for!

    SETIstars Infographic


    2011 - 06.26

    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…

    There is a slightly-higher quality version available at flickr, as well as a whopping 11,749 pixels-long monstrosity of this new graphic combined with the original.  Anyone is welcome to use or repost this to their heart’s content.  All I request is a link.  And that you can chip in at least a fiver to SETIstars! Anyone can swing that.

    Also, I got a lot more creative with the background this time around.  Check out the remnants of Kepler’s supernova, comet NEAT, and the Andromeda galaxy!

    Special thanks to Phil Plait, Jill Tarter, & John Girard.

    Lastly, if you’re really into this sort of thing check out some other space-musings on the site

    Kepler Space Telescope Exoplanets visualized (great video comparing sizes and orbits) – video

    “oh, by the way” (a reminder of just how large the universe really is)

    Putting Things In Perspective: NEAT!

    When I’m Feeling Down, These Are Some Things That Bring Me Back Up (a roundup of inspiring projects)

    the microcosmologist frontpage

    Talking Trash About Priorities in Space


    2011 - 05.17

    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.

     

    Putting things in perspective: Neat!


    2011 - 01.24

    So I was flipping through the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book tonight and decided to stop on the comets page while I ate my dinner.  I read over the text and checked out the photos, saving the captions for last.  There’s a large (read: 17″x14″) full page image of a comet that is quite a nice shot, which I admired it for a while as I finished up my sandwich.  I read over the captions for the other 5 comets pictured, which had orbital periods ranging from 5.5 years (Comet Tempel, the target of the Deep Impact Spacecraft) up to 76 years (Halley’s Comet).  Cool.  Then moved over to read the caption for the full page image.  It’s name (awesomely) is Comet “Neat”! Hah!  Here is the photo:

    Then I read the caption.  Orbital period for this comet?  THIRTY-SEVEN-THOUSAND YEARS.  I had to double check the number–did that really say 37,000 years?… oh.  I guess that’s right.

    That’s wild.   The last time this thing plunged into the inner solar system, mankind had just migrated to Australia and Europe for the first time.  And we were at the Cro-Magnon stage in our evolution.  The next time this comet will return to our inner solar system?  Humans will have long ago evolved into something new.  Thirty Seven Thousand is such a bafflingly large timescale.

    How many historical figures can you name from over a thousand years ago?   Three thousand?  Five?  Fifteen?  In 37,000 years, us, and everyone we ever met will be completely forgotten about, and the particles which made up our bodies will long ago have decayed and been recycled into Earth, possibly even having been incorporated into several new organisms by then.  If there are some descendants of today’s homo sapiens that have survived, they wont’ call it the year 39,xxx AD–today’s popular mythologies will all have died out long ago.  Just like today’s date is not measured in years related to Zeus, Odin, or Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god.  I wonder what gods the Cro-Magnons worshiped?

    Check out NASA’s site with this cool interactive ‘orbit diagram’ that shows the positions all the planets and the comet as it traveled through space.  If you line up the solar system on it’s axis and hit play to watch the comet slide by, you’ll notice that it doesn’t even pass through the orbits of any planet.  In it’s moment closest to the sun it picks up a lot of speed for a brief moment too.  We should’ve gone all ‘deep-impact’ and launched a satellite to travel to the comet… it could have landed and rode along for the ride out to the oort cloud.  What a journey?!

    Wave goodbye kids!

    Riffin on the Ice Cube / Space books


    2011 - 01.02

    I was at half price books about a month ago and I found this eye-popping hardcover book called “Superstructures In Space” for just $10.  It’s chock full of gorgeous photos taken by spacecraft and of spacecraft, detailing all the major human forays into space.  I’ve learned a lot reading it.  Chiefly that there are way more space missions going on than I realized.  There’s a probe on it’s way to Pluto (it’ll get there in 2015!), and another one inserting into orbit around Mercury in March of next year.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an ongoing mission that has returned 3 times more data than the last 5 missions to mars COMBINED.  It’s mapped mars with a greater resolution than available on Google Earth.  The Deep Impact spacecraft was a super sweet mission in which they shot this projectile into an asteroid to observe what kinds of elements would be present in the resulting debris.  There’s just a ton of amazing things going on in space that I wasn’t even aware of.

    Just as I thought my interest/obsession was plateauing, for Christmas my girl gave me an even more gigantic book (see comparison below; literally GIGANTIC at 17×14 inches!) by called “Cosmos: A Field Guide”.  It’s not related to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” in the literal sense (although they do invoke “star stuff”, a well-worn Saganism), but it goes through everything we’ve observed in the universe, from satellites looking at Earth, all the other planets, the outer solar system, Oort Cloud and Kupier Belt, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and the boundaries of what we can see in our universe.  The book is pure space porn, filled with breathtaking pictures of every type of celestial body imaginable.  The one shown here is the remnants of a supernova.  There aren’t really words that convey the size or the grandeur of what’s been discovered out beyond our planet.  I’m totally enraptured by these ideas at this moment in life…

    So against that backdrop I was reading about the neutrino observatory at the South Pole.  As silly as it may sound, the fact that we got a dude down there at the coldest place on the planet, measuring and counting neutrinos hoping to figure out some piece of our universe–it gives me hope that humans might be able to make it.  These are the biggest questions for us to answer: what is the universe made of, how did it form, can we trace its lineage?  In the words of Carl:

    What he’s getting at is the fact that these questions go beyond nations, races, generations, or any other divisions among us.  And our quest to answer them is tied inseparably to technology that will allow human civilization to make an ultimately essential leap–spreading to other worlds.  The universe is unfathomably vast and we humans, despite all our progress, are still at a most infantile age.  Whether we end up destroyed by nuclear weapons, avian flu, asteroids, or the greenhouse effect, one way or another Earth isn’t going to be safe forever.  Our ability to get out there (and get out there fast!), I believe is going to be THE pivot point on whether the genus “homo” ends with “sapiens”, or lives on to continue further.

    A thought that keeps running through my mind is “we live in a primitive time”.  I imagine a far away age where our distant descendants roam the galaxy in search of resources to mine, lifeforms to chronicle and trade with, picturesque worlds to settle upon, and maybe sightseeing by watching stars being born in nearby nebula.  These are the actions of an advanced civilization.  By comparison, we are living in far more primitive times than the stone age!  We still use rockets to launch spacecraft.  Rockets!  How un-elegant.  The knowledge that there are other galaxies besides our own is less than a century old.  That fact astounds me.  What utter ignorance we have begun to climb from.  The idea of an earth-centric universe seems embarrassingly laughable.  Like a little kid who thinks he knows how babies are made; “when the man pees inside the woman”.  Hahahaha, how naïve and clueless we were!

    I suspect that even such ideas as popular today as “dark matter” will one day be as antiquated as the concepts of ether or the crystalline spheres of the geocentric model.  Our galaxy-traversing descendants will look back through the history books and chuckle about what ideas once passed as science.  But that is the beauty of science–it is always refining itself, self-correcting, and disowning the baggage that no longer applies.  The neutrino observatory is an awesome step in refining our search for matter, understanding cosmic ray sources, and general surveying of the universe.  No doubt it will place us one step closer to the answers to those ‘big questions’.  How big of a step, only time can tell!

    Cicadas in the forest of the universe


    2010 - 12.23

    I remember as a child someone once telling me about a type of cicada that sleeps underground for years.  There are a great number of them hibernating in the dirt, and somehow, on a special day, all of them emerge at once. They climb out of the soil and up the trees, where they shed their exoskeleton and take flight to find their mate.  Once they’ve reproduced, the eggs are laid and the cicadas die.  These eggs hatch on tree branches and the larva fall to the ground, where they dig into the dirt and the cycle begins anew.  They too will spend years asleep underground, and emerge for a few frantic hours to proliferate themselves.  Depending on how quick it all goes down, they may live as a flying insect for a few days at most, and just a single night at the least.

    A recollection returned to me of digging in the sandbox and finding the empty shell of a cicada.  It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t help but study it, scooped up in my orange plastic shovel.  Suddenly that empty shell had taken on a new meaning.  It was the spectre of a creature who had lived, maybe only a few short hours.  Even to the perspective of a human child, probably six or seven years old, only having a few hours to live your whole life seemed like something of a sad story.  One night only.  Just a single sunset in the breadth of your whole being.

    Our existences are brief.  There is an expression, “we are not long for this world.”  How true it is.

    If you could live a thousand years, would life get boring?  What if you could live a hundred thousand years?  What would the meaning of life be, to someone who lived for so long?  Would it be different than a human who lived a normal 80 years?  What would the highlight be?

    Given a different set of parameters, ambitions change.  If a doctor told you tomorrow that you had one day left to live, you’d probably do something relaxing and introspective.  If he told you three months, you’d probably book some flights, see the MVPs of your life, and maybe check out the Mediterranean like you always wished you had.  If the doctor said you had 50 years left, well, you’d probably say, “thank you captain obvious,” and keep going in to work every Monday.  But what if you had 500 years?  You might start making some different plans.

    “What is the meaning of life?” is a question somewhat like “what is your favorite color?” in that everyone will have their own answer, and there are certainly popular replies.  “Blue” for instance, would be a lot more common than, say, “chartreuse”.  Of course there’s no wrong answer, but I wonder what it says about our priorities when we compare what our objectives might look like, given a much longer time span to execute.  I’ve been wondering to myself what my own ambitions would look like if I thought I had an extra century to get there.  What does it say about the merits of my current goals?

    At half-price books a few weekends ago I picked up a ten dollar hardcover entitled “Superstructures in Space” which contains boatloads of pictures illustrating the various craft we’ve sent out into the sky.  Everything from the Hubble Telescope to Voyager to the Deep Impact spacecraft.  A full-page image, taken by the Hubble, caught my attention.  This photo shows a nebulous stellar nursery, where stars are born.  A stunning sight, which explodes the boundaries of the mind.

    What amazements could possibly await those who will someday voyage there?  We think of our own planet as endless, and our lives as eternities, but compared to merely this one section of the cosmos, as captured by Hubble, they pale in size.  More than tiny.  Beyond minuscule.  Like cicadas in the vast forest of space, our minds cannot grasp the richness, complexity, and subtle beauty of our surroundings.  We are filled up with preoccupations of digging out of the dirt, and finding a partner, just in the nick of time before we all expire.  We may be lucky enough to soar over the treetops for our own brief instant, but a towering pine in the distance, a mountain upon the horizon, and that great unknown beyond it remains hidden to us.  Our time is too short to visit there.  Our time is too short to even figure out what may lie there.  Nevermind the world beyond that, and the world beyond that.

    “What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm?
    What is a thought, compared to the mind?
    Our unity is full of wonder which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.”
    -System Shock, 1994

    In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan discusses the composition of Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in layers of frozen nitrogen snow.  He says, “In some places the surface is as bright and white as freshly fallen Antarctic snows (and may offer a skiing experience unrivaled in all the Solar System).”  Skiing on a moon of Neptune.  Think about that one for a minute.

    Then consider the fact that as wildly fantastical as skiing on Triton may sound, winter sports in our outer solar system is only one adventure, out of the innumerable adventures offered by our universe, on innumerable worlds, most of which are, in all likelihood, unimaginably different than Earth.  By the time we get to Triton, the sport of skiing may be as ancient as games once played by the Mayan tribes, or the Incas.  Humans will have since moved on to other snow sports, probably using technology not even conceived of yet.  Something even more outlandish than Marty McFly’s hoverboard.  By the time we make it to the stars captured in the Hubble image, homo sapiens will have long ago have evolved into creatures different than we now know ourselves.  Maybe some elegant, drastically improved humanoid who evolved through cosmic radiation and scientific enhancement, devoid of the flaws of tissue degeneration, memory loss, and tendencies toward aggression, thoughtlessness.

    These intrepid adventurers will set foot upon worlds we visited only in the ships of our imaginations, confined to the ground as we were.  We may smile, thinking of our own yearning to travel to such exotic places fulfilled vicariously by our descendants, a way of reaching past the limits of our own single evening as a cicada in the forest of our universe, and fulfilling a goal too vast for the blips of our lifetimes; to see, to know the universe.  To permeate it, populate it, celebrate it, to play a long, graceful part in it.

    Recycling–now you can be OCD about it too!


    2010 - 12.22

    Mindfulness– it’s half the battle

    I’d like to take a minute to articulate something my inner monologue spends a lot of time debating.  Recycling.  Today I was walking toward the garbage can with a small piece of plastic in my hand, about to toss it out.  Unfailingly, every time I find myself in this situation, there are two thoughts that go through my mind.  The first one is something along the lines of, “well, this piece of plastic is pretty small.  In the end, how significant is it?  I mean, the trash bag itself is made out of plastic, right?”  And then the second thought kicks in, often in a harsh, reprimanding tone; “man, what the fuck are you thinking?  You know that plastic is going to sit in a landfill for at least 500 years before it even STARTS decomposing.  Is that the legacy you want to leave behind?”

    Some sources say it takes 1,000 years before the decomposition of plastic begins.  There’s tons of other things in our lives that take long timescales to recede into the natural environment as well.  Disposable diapers take 550 years, aluminum cans 200-500 years, cigarette butts probably one to five years, and newspapers just two to four weeks.  Styrofoam, that notorious offender, seems to vary wildly in the estimated lifespans I find online.  Anything from a decade to 5,000 years. (Or more!)

    Yet there are other substances with even longer lives than my dreaded tiny plastic wrapper.  Trying to find an answer for how long glass takes to biodegrade is difficult.  Some people place the number at around a million years.  A million years!  That’s just… stupefying.  Suddenly the pressure is really on to enjoy this bottle of Snapple.  Made from the best stuff on Earth–silica and oxygen.  Sand grains.  How long does it take for a beach to biodegrade?

    I remember back home when I was a child, digging in the backyard and finding plenty of pieces of glass in the dirt.  Our house was built way back in the time when people used to bury their own trash in their backyards.  What a crazy idea that seems like today.  There’s so many ways it wouldn’t work–you’d run out of space in no time flat, you’d be worried about polluting the water table from the esoteric materials commonly used today, and it would just be a lot of work!  All that digging.  You’d need to be making some serious holes to dispose of just your kitchen trash alone.  Think of what you’d be doing differently.

    Of course there’d be a flip side: I don’t know about you, but my house is already cluttered with purposeless knick-knacks, and nostalgic mementos that really are just a waste of space.  At some point, I’ll wade through the junk and in a fit of cleansing say, ugh, just throw all this away.  And thusly some antique glass milk bottle that I had been saving for who knows why ends up in the landfill, sandwiched and smooshed under piles of other people’s stuff.  Maybe with the right items surrounding it, the milk bottle lives for a thousand, thousand years.  It’s a sobering thought.  Epochs away and eons from now, when the legacy of anything I ever did, and everyone I ever knew has been long since forgotten, this milk bottle will probably have outlasted it all, preserved underground for millenia, now an ancient artifact for future archeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists to scrutinize and ponder, now why do you think its owner had thrown this away?

    Here’s a nice handy list of items to be neurotic about throwing away:

    * Aluminum Can  200-500 years
    * Batteries – 100 years
    * Cardboard Box- 4 weeks
    * Cigarette Butt up to 10 years
    * Cotton Rag- 1-5 months
    * Disposable Diapers- 500-600 years
    * Glass Bottle  1 Million years
    * Leather- up to 50 years
    * Lumber- 10-15 years
    * Monofilament Fishing Line- 800 years
    * Milk Cartons (plastic coated) 5 years
    * Nylon Fabric- 30-40 years
    * Orange Peel- 2-5 weeks
    * Paper-2-5 months
    * Plastic Film Container- 20-30 years
    * Painted Wooden Stake- 13 years
    * Plastic 6 pack cover- 450 years
    * Plastic Bag- up to 500 years
    * Plastic Coated Paper- 5 years
    * Plastic Soda Bottles- Forever
    * Rope- 3-14 months
    * Rubber Boot sole- 50-80 years
    * Sanitary Pads- 500-800 years
    * Styrofoam- More than 5,000 years
    * Tin Cans- 50-100 years
    * Wool Clothing- 1-5 years

    source links:
    http://www.greenecoservices.com/how-long-does-it-take-for-trash-to-biodegrade/
    http://www.ehow.com/how-does_4928812_does-plastic-container-start-decomposing.html

    shifting sands


    2010 - 12.04

    Two events have happened within the last couple months that I want to ruminate upon; two events which I think say something subtle but strong about how our world is changing.

    The first event is the news that Technics is ceasing production of the widely, widely celebrated 1200 turntable.

    Now, if you’ve ever listened to the radio, or heard live music, I guarantee that you’ve heard music played back on a Technics 1200. Matter of fact, I’d be willing to make a bet that everyone who reads this, at one point or another in their life, has gotten their ass *rocked* by music coming from a 1200. For a very long period of time–and we’re talking decades here–the Technics 1200 has had not just a significant role in the turntable market; it has utterly dominated it. If you’re gonna be playing a lot of records, and you’re serious about buying a deck that was bulletproof, reliable, and sounded top notch, this turntable was THE choice. I can’t really think of an analoguous product that’s held such reverence. When you’re done playing with all those kids toys, step up to the real deal and get yourself a set of 1200s, junior.

    The fact that demand has fallen so much–to the point where it’s no longer financially sensible to continue with the manufacture of this ledgendary means of music playback–it says something about how technology is changing. Even in the face of of what I’d call a vinyl revival, this is happening. There are still legions of people out there who believe in the superior fidelity of analogue records, and plenty of people, like myself, who have built CD collections but have started to feel like, hmm, maybe digital music formats are kind of lacking in something… call it “warmth.” Or maybe that tactile interaction of dropping a needle into the groove. Or just the simplicity that the sound waves you hear are literally etched into the record–no binary ones and zeros, no D/A converters, no sampling rates, no lasers or fancy tricks whatsoever. Just analog waveforms, straight from microphones far away to your platter, right here.

    That the 1200 is soon to be an out-of-production commodity, is a bit shocking. How long before the last film camera rolls off a closing assembly line? Or how long before you cannot buy a panavision movie camera that isn’t digital? How long before books cease to be ink on paper, and exist only as ones and zeros? Maybe these events will never transpire. Even so, it’s a watershed moment, to watch this veritable giant come tumbling to its knees.

    And speaking of transportation, the second event which recently happened that, to me, says a lot about the changing nature of our world is the completion of a project in which a series of driverless vans, equipped with cameras and various sensors, but no GPS, have autonomously navigated from Italy to China. That’s a real milemarker (ugh)  for human technology.

    Roadways are very complex. They have uneven surfaces, various colors, lines, painted symbols, signs and markers bearing all manner of information. All intended to be interpreted and reacted to in conjunction with the processing power of a human mind. Add in the fact that these vans navigated through several different nations, each with their own convention of roadway signage and languages. And then add in the fact that all these roads were populated with other cars driven by human drivers, with all of their random, inattentive, unpredicatble, and sometimes downright dangerous or malicious posturing to get their ahead of the next guy, and this is kind of a mind-boggling achievement. All with no GPS–something human drivers regularly use to find their way.

    I’d say one big difference between these two events is that while the future that will result from the first one makes me sad on several levels, this second one has exciting ramnifications. Yes, it’s gonna be a long, long time before anyone sells a car that’s intended to automatically drive you home from work while you read the New York Times or take a nap, but the fact that this technology now exists is a fleeting glimpse of what’s to come. Flying cars, for example, are going to need this technology. If we ever have large scale local air travel, it’s going to have to be automated. Human beings can barely handle the coordination it takes to drive their cars in 2 dimensions without getting into crashes. Almost every day on my commute home I see someone pulled over from a fender-bender. Driving in 3D? Never, ever going to happen for the proletariat.

    To tie it all together though, what these two things share in common is that they were made possible by the power of the microprocessor. They call this era that we live in the Information Age. But it’s not the acquisition of more information that has allowed the rapid advance of technology in the last several decades. Some people will call it the Digital Age. But it’s not the digitization of analog data that has changed our world. It’s processing power. Flops. Teraflops. Petaflops. Cycles per second. Megahertz. Gigahertz. Terahertz.

    CD players weren’t possible until digital processing ability reached a certain threshold. And they weren’t economical enough for mass dissemination until economies of scale and drastic advances in processing power made the modest requirements necessary to decode CDs dirt cheap. These forces, grinding away for a while now, have finally resulted in the demise of the analog champion. For most people, the indistinguishable difference between a sufficently high, finite bitrate and true analog reproduction has led them to invest in the lower-cost system. Compact Disc.

    The processing power required to visually decode roadmarkings, conduct defensive driving, and navigate to a destination without access to global positing satellites is a newly attained high water mark. When you compare it to other recent events, like the sucessful containment of antimatter at CERN, or the discovery of graphene, it may seem inconsequential in comparison. But I see these two matters, seeming disparate events, as poingant indicators of the same trend–our ever-expanding ability to decode our world and to master the complexity of analog systems by letting the processing horsepower we’ve invented do the heavy lifting for us.

    In the end, perhaps this will free up our minds to focus on other, more complex tasks. Imagine what more you would accomplish if all the time you spent driving was replaced by free time. You could write a novel, you could paint a masterpiece, or learn a new language. Or maybe just space out in front of some mindless TV. Afterall, a little relaxation is good for the soul too.