Friday, June 26, 2015

If everybody's somebody then no one's anybody

One day in the early 1970s, a band of boardroom execs decided it was wise and prudent to telegraph a message to tv-bound dudes:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Time Keepers

If you were to ask me to recollect the meaning of a "long dash following ten seconds of silence," I would be forced to admit to at least two phrasal connotations:

(i) An uncomfortable memory of a narrow escape from a third-grade spelling bee; and
(ii) The NRC's time signal, which is 75 years young today.

Heard every day on CBC radio, that annoying beeeeeep at end of ten seconds of dead air is the official signal that lunch is over in Toronto, lunch is just beginning in Winnipeg, and it's time to get to yoga in Vancouver. In more technical terms, it denotes exactly on-the-hour time across Canada.

Three-quarters of a century is a long time to be dashing it out every day, but hey, that 45-second program has become Canada's longest-running radio broadcast. And that's a far longer run than my own schoolroom breakaway from the horrors of spelling interrogation. To this day I wonder, is it ukulele or ukelele?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Be careful what you say around the chips

This is such a cool development in acoustics... A team of researchers have developed a visual microphone algorithm that picks up audio by looking for microscopic vibrations in video footage. The technique allowed researchers to recover speech by analyzing the tiny vibrations of a potato chip bag from 15 feet away — with a video camera watching through soundproof glass. It's good enough to capture singing from a bag of potato chips, and musical tones from a potted plant.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Almost, at times, the Fool

It’s hoax day and I can’t stop the marvel at fab fakes in science. Here are a few famous hoaxes for your April Fools reading pleasure:

Zero-gravity day: Anyone planning on taking a leap April 4 to test the zero-gravity proposition? Don’t forget: Gravity is mutual.

Alabama redefining pi: To keep it closer to the biblical value.

Blondes as an endangered species: World Health Organization study predicting that blonde gene would be extinct by 2202.

Piltdown Man: Skull fragments discovered in the U.K. in 1911. The *missing link between human and ape*.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Smart Luggage

A team of four University of Waterloo engineering students have recently invented a suitcase with sensors that can be tracked with a smartphone.

They call it 'casesensitive'. Not only can you know the location of your luggage at any given time, but if somebody has opened it, it will tell you when and where that happened.

Time of sunrise today: May thru August

The Venusian day is longer than its year. Which means that, on Venus, you can avoid seasonal affective disorder by simply sleeping in one day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Once upon a time the universe had this crazy growth spurt

I can’t imagine a finer greeting than: “Hello. I bring tidings of affirmation and great joy. Your lifetime of work has led to this. We found the proof.”

Watch the joy of Andrei Linde as he is informed of a discovery that confirms his inflationary universe theory. Years from now, you may not remember what is said here, or even what is done, but I bet you will never forget the look on his face and how it made you feel.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Dark chocolate is good for your heart. You're welcome.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has published a paper that seems too good to be true: dark chocolate is good for you. No really, science says so. Dark chocolate helps restore arterial flexibility while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels. Both of these are significant factors that contribute atherosclerosis. What's more, increasing the flavanol content of dark chocolate does not change this effect.

I find it gloriously hopeful that these recent results were obtained after only eight weeks. Imagine the benefits gained from a lifetime of chocolate indulgence.…/140227092149.htm

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thank heavens for blue-sky dreamers

Here's a cool little listicle of the five strangest contraptions ever designed in Toronto. Where would we be without people willing to experiment? These are some crazy contraptions, but my heart is with the iconoclasts. I'm still hoping for an Avro-dream revival.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Diversity is the spice of life

Word to the wise: If you’re making decisions today (especially *those* kinds of decisions), you should choose the most far-out option. Do it to mix things up a little. Do it for the surprise element. Do it for posterity.

And happy Valentine's Day.

"Mixed genes: Interactive world map of human genetic history reveals likely genetic impacts of historical events"…/140213142305.htm

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Rogue of X-Frogs

Took a trip today to the Canadian Museum of Nature and was fascinated by the frog exhibit they currently have on. So many beautiful creatures, some of them deadly. This little guy is the Blue Poison Dart Frog, mostly found in South and Central America and Hawaii. One of the poisoniest creatures on earth, its glands contain batrachotoxin, a toxin that blocks nerve signals to muscles, causing paralysis and death. It's the Rogue of x-frogs.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Like the Earth slowly reclaiming its swag

I've been really kind of mesmerized by this minute of creeping suspense. Watch a lava flow fully envelop a can of Coke -- twice: First shot with a Nikon D800 and then an old GoPro Hero 2. It's like the 2000-degree molten rock is taking back the precious metals that were borrowed from the Earth.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An elegant medium, for a civilized age

Last summer, Science published a study from researchers at Harvard who had successfully encoded bits of digital information in strands of DNA. A few days ago, another paper was published demonstrating that researchers had done it again, this time having improved the accuracy, capacity and efficiency of the technique. This recent experiment successfully converted 739 kilobytes of digital data into genetic code, which was then retrieved without a single error. Among the information translated was the entire collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Anyway, it got me thinking about the sonnets and inspired me to revisit several of them. And I am so glad I did because golly they’re good. Four hundred years of distance and they're still relevant. One of them, Sonnet 55, especially stands out to me in light of all of the current public discussions about The Information. It recalls another way of preserving and imparting information... an age-old method, both accessible and powerful. And unlike other media used for recording information, it is not static. In fact, I would say that it is persistent precisely because of its mutability. It is adaptable and interpretive and imperfect. It can't be buried or owned or pinned down. And because of this, it can link people through time and space. What I'm talking about is language.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents 
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

- William Shakespeare

Monday, December 12, 2011

That Elusive Higgs Boson

Tomorrow at CERN, researchers will announce their latest findings in the search for the last undiscovered particle in the current model of subatomic particles – the Higgs boson. Canadian researchers have a big role in one of the two experiments involved. Perimeter Institute is holding a webinar to discuss the results tomorrow at 12:30 ET Also, in Vancouver, TRIUMF will host a public seminar in its auditorium at 2:30 p.m. PT [].

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why the head should know how the tail is behaving

The next issue of Science News has a good article on predicting financial risk. It covers how traditional models of estimating risk are missing a lot by discounting rare, freak events in their calculations. Gaussian distribution models fail to account for the outliers (the long tail of a probability distribution) that can drastically alter market behaviour. Although a normal distribution model does account for a lot of economic activity, it ignores the rare large freak events, so it doesn’t fully capture reality. Which is where power law models come in.
“Long tails are a mathematical clue that a different kind of behavior may be at play, one that physicists have long been fascinated by. When data follow what is called a power law distribution, the outlandish data points that generate the tail aren’t aberrant freaks; they fit right in.”
Gaussian distribution and power law regimes will predict fairly similar outcomes for unlikely but possible events, such as an event with a one-in-a-hundred likelihood of occurring. But for highly unlikely events, such as a one-in-ten-thousand event, the two models deliver hugely different predictions. The differences can’t be ignored. The article points out that most economists think that current models are too simplistic, but the challenge remains how to reconcile freak occurrences with traditional models based on stability.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

La vie est ailleurs

If you haven't yet discovered the most awesome World Science Festival website, I highly recommend you put your evening plans on hold and spend a good few hours checking it out. One of the more recent videos is a three-minute explanation of the Holographic Principle -- the idea that a volume of space, or maybe even the entire universe, can be described as a holographic projection of information encoded elsewhere in a two-dimensional surrounding boundary. Kind of puts a new spin on the old adage, "Life is elsewhere."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Work-Life Fusion

Doing some research on 20th century art and artists this weekend, I came across some cool photos of Ray and Charles Eames, the great 20th century designers. The couple did some pretty extraordinary work together, even beyond architecture and design, and I was delighted to find their short documentary Powers of Ten (1968) available online.

Narrated by Philip Morrison, the film is a neat examination of perspective, showing the relative scale of the cosmos by factors of ten, from the view of our human world, to the expanse of the observable universe, to up close and personal with a proton.

And for those of you who prefer a more tactile approach to scaling the universe, there's also the Powers of Ten flipbook, which has the special advantage of allowing you to set your own transition pace. Of course it's very easy nowadays to access cool NASA videos of outer space phenomena, but in 1968, when the Eames' film was released, depictions of the universe weren't so prevalent. Nor were extraordinary designing couples like Ray and Charles. So -- today -- as I was reading about this most innovative couple, I was surprised to discover this in their biographical info: They died ten years apart to the day. That day was today, August 21.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I, for one, welcome our new cartographer overlords

So an article was published yesterday in a few journals profiling recent findings by Australian researchers that have developed lingodroids — robots designed to explore, map out, and name places in their environment. The mobile robots were equipped with surveillance apparel (camera, laser, sonar), a syllabary, and technology that enables them 'speak' their invented words to each other. What the researchers found is that they took to socializing — sharing their made-up words and confirming their linguistic agreement by playing several hundred games to demonstrate their mutual understanding.

Amazing as this all is, I do think the suggestion that the robots have invented a language is questionable; a better description is that they are developing a lexicon. Whether that grows into a language with verbs (expressing descriptions of time, which is more than just nominal descriptions of space) is another question. If so, just wait until they develop syntax and inflection. Despite the hype about the language, though, the "spoken words" documented in this study do seem like a byproduct of the robots' spatial calculations, facilitated by the technology that enables them to make sound, and then reinforced by trial and error identification. What is really cool about this experiment, though, is that the robots invented names (and several of them) for places that they couldn’t explore. For some reason, the article includes this as parenthetical information, but it seems to me that that is mindblowingly sophisticated. The robots' capacity to create and corroborate identities for locations other than where they are physically situated — mapping the elsewhere, so to speak — suggests that they have some 'awareness' not only of each other, but of each other's abilities to detect the world beyond their immediate physical environment.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Walk softly and carry a big stick

We’re just over a week into the federal election campaign here in Canada and that means candidates are doing a lot of traveling across the country hoping for great photo ops. Check out this chart comparing the carbon footprints to date of five party leaders on the campaign trail.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This is how a revolution is tweeted

This is a very cool data visualization of how many people were communicating about Egypt on February 11, the day autocratic President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office. It tracks the usage of the hashtag #jan25. Nodes are Twitter users and links between nodes indicate retweets..

All of these tweets represent a sample of only 10 percent of the actual activity and were collected in a single hour. Read the creator's piece on how it was done here.

There has been an ongoing debate about the viability of social media to effect real societal change. The discussion was amplified in the public sphere following the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's now-famous New Yorker article, which I previously posted about.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Principle Interest

A StatsCan study released yesterday found that the number of people making principled purchasing decisions is on the rise. In 2008, the proportion of people who had purchased or boycotted a product for ethical reasons rose to 27%, compared to 20% in 2003.

"Levels of education and income had an effect on the probability of having chosen or boycotted a product for ethical reasons. For example, in 2008, 41% of people with a university degree had purchased or boycotted a product for ethical reasons, compared with 22% of those whose highest level of education was a high school diploma. Also, people with the highest income were much more likely to have consumed or boycotted a product for ethical reasons than those with a lower income.

"The other factors associated with greater participation in ethical consumption were being born in Canada; living common-law or being single; living in a metropolitan area; having little confidence in major corporations; not having any religious affiliation; having a greater sense of personal control; and actively participating in several organized groups.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Long Take

It took only took five seconds into this new decade before a new world record was set: On January 1, at 12:00:04 a.m., 6,939 tweets were sent within the space of one second in Japan.

No doubt a huge number of those messages were seasonal greetings to ring in the new year, but I'm old enough to remember a time when at the stroke of midnight on NYE, people would open their front doors and shout their good wishes to their neighbours from their porches. Who knew, in 1980, that in thirty years we would be able to reach people around the world with the same messages without leaving our sofas.

It is this great benefit of accessibility that gets obscured by those who criticize social media tools, like Twitter, for disseminating misinformation and degenerating the level of public discourse. (Of course, these phenomena are not the fault of the technology.)

In a short article published recently in Wired, Clive Thompson proposes that in fact what we're seeing is not a degeneration of discourse, but a new way of organizing it. He argues that tools such as Twitter and Facebook are being used to share headlines, make brief statements of fact or spread short bits of gossip and the like, but that blogs are being used to publish in-depth analyses and reports. He calls this publishing style the long take (a nod to the long tail concept popularized by Chris Anderson.) The long take blog post has several benefits over traditional print media: it can reach a wider audience, its shelf-life is way longer than what magazines and newspapers could ever offer, and you don't have to be employed by a media outlet to make your voice heard. Anyone can publish. Oh, and it's generally free.

I'm not sure I totally agree that the 'middle take' is going the way of the dodo, but my experience of social media is in complete accord with his schema: headlines that are tweeted and texted point me in the direction of where I'd like to pursue further in-depth reading.

The point is that social media technologies are for sharing information. It's unlikely, for example, that a wikipedia entry would ever be used to substantiate a claim in a fact-based argumentative paper, but that's not what wikipedia is for. Its content is user-generated, so it's merely a starting point. It can give you an idea of what's already being talked about on a given topic. Verifying the information is up to the reader. Hasn't that always been the case?

Friday, December 31, 2010

The other 2010

If by some disquieted remembrance I carry with me the tokens of this year into the next, I will not be burdened by the actions I haven’t taken.

I began this year resolute in my quest for aesthetic newness: scrap the old standards and proceed as a tabula rasa, anything goes. Mix it up a little, and see what magic happens. It has been a fun ride, but I can’t resist spending a little time revisiting some of the records that occupied space in my cultural inventory this past year. I'm sure on some level its an evaluative exercise, a necessary step in synthesizing the old conflicts and revising my discourse. Whatever the reason, I find myself embracing this seasonal closure with a return to one of my favourite recordings this year.

This evening’s party has the Hidden Names in heavy rotation. It's an apt choice for a gathering that will inevitably become a toast to alterity. (Are we really celebrating newness in the dead of winter?). Because this holiday, more than any other, is a culturally sanctioned conversation about possibility. It is a time to talk about things other than the here and now. It is a time to talk about novelty, and change, and dissolution and resolution that aren’t really apparent but that will certainly come. The Hidden Names -- so wholly an accolade to otherness that the question of 'where else could I be?' is less relevant than the responsive: Everywhere. And the implications are rendered all the more fantastic in the album's title: there are things outside the here and now, hidden things, and revealing them requires a change of perspective. It’s a subtle suggestion that if you're searching for answers, looking around is only half as good as looking beyond.

The album's opening tune is a kind of if-you-cross-this-threshold overture to a suite of songs about the contingency of existence and finding your place among life’s random turns and enigmatic offerings. “As the World Turned Out,” is itself a trope (etymologists: geddit?) on the paradoxes and ambiguities of our human efforts: with every gesture we make, we are at once in the process (as the world turns) of devising our own narratives, and at the same time perfecting those actions to completion, fait accompli (how every moment turns out); on to the next.

In the room where the guests are arriving, the step-into-my-parlour imperative commands a familiar response. Conversations revolve around the album’s thematic gravity, ambiguity. It is a condition very well established in the band’s repertoire, and more than a couple of guests are playfully taking stock of its post-postmodern vitality. They speak a dialect I know well. Take ambiguity and perhapses and contingency and doubt and turn them into wonder. Look back on the year that has just passed. This is how it turns out.

Alterity is the shibboleth of our tribe, and tonight we are all of us dreamers of our unrealized selves in impossible contexts. We talk of what could have been yesterday and what may be tomorrow. Talk of what should be here and now. If I resolve to state my case with conviction, I would fail to solecism. We are delinquents of otherness, the music reminds us. We are sentenced to this time and place. Here, the quest for individuality, for solitude, is always already thwarted by the noise of human activity, the cacophony of the streets outside the window, the clamour and the clutter of modern life.

"Convinced we are completed / We surround ourselves with junkpiles / We’re so far from naked / We’ve got walls all around us."

In the end if you're looking for your place in the world, what matters is not so much preserving your individuality, but overwriting it, redescribing it. Our stories are written through perpetual chains of self-deconstruction and rebuilding. Meshing our fragmented egos with something other means finding truths about ourselves in new contexts.

“If I fall to little pieces / you can fall to little pieces / we can mingle our debris.”

After all, none of us has complete agency over our existence, each of us living, rather, in “borrowed time and rented space.” Contending with the possibility that you’ve been initiated into the wrong tribe is as exciting as it is heartbreaking, but it is at the very least a way of ensuring continuity. It means your lexicon can never be final. Keep asking questions, keep opening doors, to keep moving.

Our festivities will continue into the night. There will be revelry, conversation, warm embraces and shared stories. The music will play on until the last clink of glasses has escaped into the night air and our voices have waned to a whisper. And then our last song. Motion, and gesture toward the new. Move, because dancing is ecstatic. Keep moving because dancing is ex-static. In this new year. Everything will be new. In this new year everything will be new. I will be new. This is our satori.

“Keep this fire in your heart / Keep this fire to their feet / In the day that we find us”

It's not going to make any sense, the song tells us. The answer is the question. But what matters is persistence, because everything is transitory. Our ideas get displaced; our egos become fragmented. So we rebuild, and we remember, and we go on.

If truth exists, then it is fleeting. Like beauty and pain and happiness and love, and everything else worth living for, truth is always contextualized. Its very impermanence is elusive. I am humbled by an infinity of possibilities that were never realized. So many would-be realities that arise and are lost in an instant… every instant. My thoughts now concern not only the astonishing luck that my life choices were ever made, but that they were exactly right.

You see, this is how the world turned out. So far so good.

Happy new year to you.

The lyrics cited in this post are transcribed, to the best of my auditory interpretation, from the following songs. The band’s name is, of course, hidden.

As the World Turned Out
Little Pieces
Soft Lies
Mad Mad Day

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quantifying the walkability of communities

I've got a birthday vacation to take in the coming months, and being someone who prefers walkable cosmopolitan areas, I found this cool site to be an invaluable resource for my planning. You can check out how your neighbourhood ranks in its walkability, and you can choose, as I did, your next holiday city from the list of walker's paradises in the U.S. Not surprisingly, New York neighbourhoods dominate the top ten.

My own neighbourhood gets a respectable score of 77 on the index. I have no argument with that, but one factor that the ranking system doesn't account for is climate. My city, for example, tends to get a lot of snow in the winter. And, as a very experienced pedestrian, I would say that although snow on its own is usually quite manageable, slippery sidewalks resulting from compressed snow and ice can make an area completely unwalkable. Where I live, sidewalk snow and ice removal is sporadic and rarely timely. Roads and vehicles are very much the priority and proponents of car culture are still the dominant voices in my community.

Of course, I'm hoping that will change. With statistics beginning to emerge about all of the peripheral problems related to driving, it would be nice to see more people getting out of their vehicles and onto the bike paths or walkways. Until then, my travel destinations will be cities that allow me to experience them with all of my senses, in the open air, unhindered, moving through their spaces wholly on my own volition.