March 27, 2011

Frank Jacobs: Publisher of Strange Maps

As told to Sarah Duguid:

always thought that mapophilia was a lonely affliction until I started my blog, Strange Maps, in 2006. I remember the first map I posted - it was a map of the location of asylums for the insane in Pennsylvania. It provided a bizarre geography of insanity, and it interested me because it was not the kind of map that would have a place in mainstream cartography. Equally, the map didn't tell us much about mental health. I loved it because it was such an interesting juxtaposition of a condition that is so difficult to define with something as cool, rational and delineated as cartography.

I'd find strange maps online - I don't draw my own - and then categorise them, describe them and link them to other maps. I have more obvious categories such as history, science and tech, and politics, as well as unusual ones: love, sex and happiness, life and death, truth and justice. One type is the allegorical map. In the 19th century, symbolic maps were very popular, especially during prohibition in America. Prohibitionists would draw moral maps. They'd describe the country of drunkenness and how to travel from it to the continent of sobriety. The road to success was drawn across chasms of despondency and mountains of procrastination.

Posted by jez at 9:56 PM

January 4, 2011

The AI Revolution Is On

Stephen Levy: warehouses are a bit of a jumble. Boxes of pacifiers sit above crates of onesies, which rest next to cartons of baby food. In a seeming abdication of logic, similar items are placed across the room from one another. A person trying to figure out how the products were shelved could well conclude that no form of intelligence--except maybe a random number generator--had a hand in determining what went where.

But the warehouses aren't meant to be understood by humans; they were built for bots. Every day, hundreds of robots course nimbly through the aisles, instantly identifying items and delivering them to flesh-and-blood packers on the periphery. Instead of organizing the warehouse as a human might--by placing like products next to one another, for's robots stick the items in various aisles throughout the facility. Then, to fill an order, the first available robot simply finds the closest requested item. The storeroom is an ever-shifting mass that adjusts to constantly changing data, like the size and popularity of merchandise, the geography of the warehouse, and the location of each robot. Set up by Kiva Systems, which has outfitted similar facilities for Gap, Staples, and Office Depot, the system can deliver items to packers at the rate of one every six seconds.

Posted by jez at 8:08 AM

December 23, 2010

2011: And Still No Energy Policy

Ed Wallace:

"First generation [corn] ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small."

- Al Gore, speaking at a Green Energy Conference on November 22, 2010

"Ethanol is not an ideal transportation fuel. The future of transportation fuels shouldn't involve ethanol."

- Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, November 29, 2010

No one knows what brought on the blast of political honesty in the last eight days of November. Having been a rabid ethanol booster for most of his political career, there was former Vice President Al Gore reversing course and apologizing for supporting ethanol. Of course Gore's reason for taking that position was perfectly understandable -- for a politician. As he told the Athens energy conference attendees, "One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers of Iowa because I was about to run for President."

Translated from politics-speak into English, pandering to farmers gets votes. But if your claimed position is to plan some sort of energy policy for everyone else, then getting farmers' votes shouldn't determine what's the right thing to do for the nation's fuel supplies.

Posted by jez at 5:55 AM

March 26, 2010

Hiroshima, Nagasaki: You Are There. A talk by Seymour Abrahamson

Seymour Abrahamson spoke at a recent meeting of the Madison Literary Club.

17.9MB PDF Handout
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:06 PM

January 22, 2010

Time Lapse Power Plant Video

Jeff Crewe:
"I am not making a political statement with this video,” writes the photographer Grewe, a tree-climbing arborist by day. “My intentions are purely artistic. The imagery is intense and I found audio to compliment it.”
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:54 PM

December 6, 2009

Will Big Business Save the Earth?

Jared Diamond:
THERE is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.

But today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business executives.

As part of my board work, I have been asked to assess the environments in oil fields, and have had frank discussions with oil company employees at all levels. I’ve also worked with executives of mining, retail, logging and financial services companies. I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.
Much more on Jared Diamond here.
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:02 PM

October 11, 2009

Loma Prieta Plus 20 Years

Carl Nolte:
An earthquake that began beneath an obscure mountain in Santa Cruz County called Loma Prieta struck terror into Northern California 20 years ago this week on a beautiful fall afternoon, just as a World Series game was about to begin in San Francisco.

The quake lasted only 15 seconds, but it killed 67 people, smashed downtown Santa Cruz, wrecked San Francisco's Marina district, broke the Bay Bridge - and changed much of the Bay Area.

Loma Prieta was one of those watershed events; in some ways, the disaster was a blessing in disguise. Out of it came a brand new San Francisco waterfront, the revival of a rundown neighborhood in Hayes Valley, major upgrades of classic buildings in downtown Oakland, and new laws on unreinforced old buildings. One of these years, a new eastern half of the Bay Bridge will open.
More notes and links on Loma Prieta, including my recollection(s) and that of Brian Zimdars.
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:02 AM

May 15, 2009


Thierry Lagault:
Only image ever taken of a transit of a space shuttle (Atlantis) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in front of the Sun, during the last repair mission of Hubble, obtained from Florida at 100 km south of the Kennedy Space Center on May 13th 2009 12:17 local time, several minutes before grapple of Hubble by Atlantis.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:57 AM

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in a Time of Fear & Uncertainty

Terry Heaton:
The brilliant mind of Kevin Kelly wrote about the origins of science a few weeks ago (The Origins of Progress, Anachronistic Science). If you want to expand your mind, read Kevin Kelly, for his is one of the most significant voices of contemporary culture. But Kelly uses science to try and answer a question about science that perplexes him: Why was science “discovered” in Western Civilization and not before? It’s a fascinating question, and one that is terribly important for us today, because we’re at the beginning of the post-modern, post-colonial era in the West.

I’ve been studying and writing about postmodernism for over ten years, and I see the conflicts of a culture in change everywhere. I actually prefer the term “postcolonial,” because, from a practical perspective, it fits better. Colonialism is a top-down, “teach a man to fish” philosophy ideally suited to the application of logic, reason and science. Where it runs into problems is when the top wants to maintain its position on top, but I digress.

The thing that Kelly refuses to acknowledge — as do most people of science — is the role of faith in the origins of science, and that brings me back to Thanksgiving 2008.

We’re in the midst of a second Gutenberg moment, in which knowledge (The Jewel of the Elites) is spreading throughout the globe like a giant mushroom cloud, and I would argue that this significantly will alter any future projections, just as the first Gutenberg moment did centuries ago.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:29 PM

December 18, 2007

Cyberwar Comes of Age

Adam Elkus:

The digitized specter of cyberwar is haunting the boardrooms, barracks, and law offices of America. China’s audacious September 2007 infiltration of secure Pentagon networks and government servers in several other nations has powerfully demonstrated that cyberwar’s moment has arrived. Cybersecurity analysts have estimated that 120 different nations are working to evolve cyberwar capabilities. Most of today’s current cyberwar operations involve hackers probing civilian and military networks for vulnerabilities and restricted information, operations that focus less on disruption than recon and surveillance.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

December 8, 2007

Everyone's Poop

Nate Blakeslee:

“Down the drain, off the brain” is how most people think about it, but human waste—or effluent, as the professionals call it—has a lot to tell us about how we live, what we eat, and who we are.

They say that shit runs downhill. This is commonly understood to mean that the world is an unfair place, except among those few people who actually work with the substance, for whom it is considered something of an article of faith. This is because municipal sewerage systems are powered almost entirely by gravity, which means that when working properly, they move millions of gallons of sewage a day across considerable distances with only a minimum expenditure of energy, a feat of efficiency virtually unparalleled in the annals of engineering. When sewage stops running downhill, as it inevitably does from time to time, very bad things indeed can happen, as they did on Pecan Springs Road, in the Austin neighborhood known as Windsor Park, one morning last September.

I was spending the day with an Austin Water Utility emergency-response crew when dispatch got a call from a woman reporting that two rooms of her house were flooded with sewage. Our crew consisted of a TV truck, piloted by a twenty-year line-maintenance veteran named David Eller, and a flusher truck, driven by another longtime utility employee, named Dale Crocker. At the house, Eller, who wears wraparound sunglasses and looks a little like the country singer Dwight Yoakam, unspooled a thick red cable from the back of his truck. On the end of the cable was a camera about the size of a roll of quarters, which Crocker shoved down into a PVC clean-out pipe near the curb in the front yard. The woman leaned on a walker in her driveway, looking worried.

Excellent Article.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:35 PM

October 8, 2007

Nikon's Small World Gallery

Mark Anderson:

Since 1974, Nikon has sponsored a yearly photo competition for images that delve into the worlds beyond the reach of the unaided human eye. The camera maker feted the photographers who made the top 20 "photomicrographs" in Nikon's annual Small World competition at New York's Explorer's Club. The winners were drawn from a pool of 1,709 submissions.

The dozen images collected here (the top 10 images, plus two Wired News picks) capture facets of living organisms that have a technical meaning to the trained specialist, but appear to be pure art to the layperson. The striking images convey something both strange and alien that could almost be sold as the first glimpses of extraterrestrial life. Yet, many of the objects presented here could not be more mundane or down-to-earth: A piece of ivory, a typical aquarium fish, a drop of sea water.

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:07 AM

October 4, 2007

Sputnik 50: A talk with the BBC's Reg Turnhill

Rob Coppinger:

Reg Turnill was working for the BBC in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the World's first orbiting artifical satellite.

Turnill went on to cover the space race and travelled to the Soviet Union for the press conference following cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight and eventually was based in the US to cover NASA's Moon programme.

He got to know the German rocket engineer Werner von Braun, who had developed the Nazi V-2 weapon, and also came to know many of the US astronauts.


Posted by James Zellmer at 8:12 AM

September 4, 2007

Your DNA, Please

The Economist:
Rapid advances in genetic testing promise to transform medicine, but they may up-end the insurance business in the process “IF YOU can make a good soufflé, you can sequence DNA.” That assertion sounds preposterous, but Hugh Rienhoff should know. When his daughter was born about three years ago, she suffered from a mysterious disability that stunted her muscle development. After many frustrated visits to specialists, Dr Rienhoff, a clinical geneticist and former venture capitalist, decided to sequence a specific part of her genome himself. He discovered that her condition, which most resembled a rare genetic disorder known as Beals's syndrome, was probably due to a new genetic mutation. “Without a lab and for just a few hundred dollars, you can contract or outsource almost all the steps,” he explains. What a well-connected and highly motivated scientist in California can do today the rest of the world will be able to do tomorrow. Indeed, a number of firms are already offering tests for specific ailments (or predispositions to ailments) directly to the public, cutting out the medical middle-man. Dr Rienhoff, for his part, will soon launch, a not-for-profit venture intended to help others to unravel the mysteries of their family's genes in the way that he unravelled those of his own.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:21 PM

April 24, 2007

Author of nation's toughest global warming law to speak April 25

The author of the nation's strongest global warming law tells us how California is responding to climate change and how she gained the political support to get it done ...

"Leading the Way on Climate Change"
a free public lecture by Fran Pavley

3:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25
Memorial Union (see "Today in the Union" for room)
800 Langdon Street
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fran Pavley has served three terms in the California State Assembly, where she is known as one of the most effective legislators in Sacramento. The former Mayor of Agoura Hills and long-time public school teacher is the author of landmark legislation (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) on global warming that has become a model for other states and countries. She is also author of the first regulations on vehicle carbon dioxide emissions. Eleven other states and Canada have modeled their laws after Pavley's Clean Car Regulations. She has been selected as one of Scientific American's Top Technology Leaders in Transportation and received the 2006 California League of Conservation Voters' Global Warming Leadership Award along with former Vice President Al Gore.

This event is co-sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison. For more information, please contact Steve Pomplun at the Nelson Institute or call Steve at 263-3063.

Posted by Ed Blume at 10:57 AM

April 4, 2007

State ready for energy research lab

This column by Tom Stills, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, ran in the Stevens Point Journal:

A joint proposal was filed Feb. 1 by the UW System, UW-Madison and Michigan State University to open a federal energy research lab in Madison. Molly Jahn, dean of the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has described the proposal as a strong fit with faculty, staff and student projects related to bio-energy. Those projects are taking place in disciplines that encompass biology, agriculture, engineering, natural resources and the social sciences. . . .

It will be months before the next phase of the federal selection process begins, but the collaborative effort should merit a hard look in Washington. If Wisconsin is successful, it could mean several hundred jobs and tens of millions of dollars within five years.

Posted by Ed Blume at 12:03 PM

January 22, 2007

Requiem for Magic Bullets

Steve Silberman:
The golden age of antibiotics began in 1944 with the widespread use of penicillin in Europe, which saved many thousands of lives during World War II. But the first sign that this new era of easily treatable bacterial infections would not last appeared just a couple of years later, with the emergence of penicillin-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium responsible for a wide variety of ailments, from skin infections to fatal pneumonia.

By 1950, 40 percent of the staph strains in hospitals had already become immune to the drug. Now a form of staph known as methicillin-resistant Staph aureus, or MRSA, which is resistant to nearly every known antibiotic, is responsible for the majority of tens of thousands of deaths a year from infections picked up in U.S. hospitals alone.

Bacteria develop immunity to antibiotics by rapidly evolving genetic defenses against the drugs or by acquiring pieces of DNA and RNA from organisms that are already resistant -- even from other bacterial species. Bacterial pathogens that have learned how to survive in hospitals have an evolutionary advantage, because there are plenty of other resistant organisms in the environment from which they can borrow resistance factors.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:55 AM

December 12, 2006

NASA Live Video Stream

Copy and Paste this link into either QuickTime or Real Player:
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:34 PM

April 23, 2006

Amazing NASA Earth Images

Check out these gorgeous earth images from NASA: via Tufte
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:52 PM

August 11, 2005

$100 Million Tourist Trip Around the Moon

John Schwartz:

NASA brought the shuttle Discovery back from low Earth orbit, now a private company plans to announce a more audacious venture, a tourist trip around the Moon.

Space Adventures, a company based in Arlington, Va., has already sent two tourists into orbit. Today, it is to unveil an agreement with Russian space officials to send two passengers on a voyage lasting 10 to 21 days, depending partly on its itinerary and whether it includes the International Space Station.

A roundtrip ticket will cost $100 million.

Christopher C. Kraft, a former director of the Johnson Space Center, said his feelings about the enterprise were mixed. "I think it would be a fantastic journey," he said. "I could see why, if I had the price of the ticket and could use the money that way, that it would be tempting to go."

But Mr. Kraft added that the flight would be cramped and probably extremely unpleasant. With three people in a small Soyuz craft for an extended trip, he said, "I imagine that you could endure that, but, man, it would be tough."

Posted by Erika Frederick at 8:45 AM

August 5, 2005

New Vaccine Could Prevent Flu for Life

UK Daily Mail:

A revolutionary vaccine developed by British scientists could give lifetime protection against all types of flu.

British biotech Firm Acambis is trialling the vaccine. If successful, just one jab would offer permanent protection against all strains of flu.

Posted by Erika Frederick at 10:16 AM

November 13, 2004

Mars Express phones home - with images

The ESA's Mars Express has sent some gorgeous images home. Via The Register.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

October 24, 2004

Science of Changing Leaves

Scott Simon talks with color scout Ed Hepborn in Lisle, Ill., about what causes leaves to change colors and what is significant about this fall.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:03 AM