Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Looking on the Bright side...

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Student Scientist Stumbles Across Catnip as Bug Repellent

Cassie Wagner is a 13-year-old middle school student.

From the article:

Something else to worry about...

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Cluttered desks make workers ill

From the article:Of course, if a cluttered desk can cause illness, I should have been dead years ago.

Hard to believe but true...

[See Previous] - 'Scooby-Doo 2' coasts to No. 1

From the article:What is this telling us?

Something else to worry about...

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Fire Ant Attacks Up in Nursing Homes

From the article:

Something else to worry about...

[See Previous]

U.N. Warns About Ocean 'Dead Zones'

From the article:

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Three gadgets, for a price

There is a page in this month's Wired magazine that contains three fascinating gadgets. They are pricey but interesting. They are:It's interesting how much less expensive things can be if you are willing to improvise a little.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The big construction project

The weekend project here at the Brain household was the construction of a swing set for the kids. If you are a parent, then you have probably been through at least one large construction project like this and can completely sympathize.

When we bought the thing (which came in four huge boxes and weighed at least 500 pounds), the person who helped us load it into the truck said, "Oh, it's easy -- my neighbor put their's together in less than two hours!" He certainly made it sound simple.

We started the project by laying all the parts out in the backyard:

Saturday morning...

That alone took about an hour. After 15 hours of actual construction time, I stopped counting...

One of the more interesting things we did on this project was that we videotaped the whole thing. The video camera has one of these "time lapse" modes, so the 15+ hour construction process got compressed into just a half hour or so of tape. Click here to see a little snippet. (this snippet actually was not shot with the camera's time lapse mode, as will be explained in a moment...)

There are three things I noticed as I was building this swing set:
  1. It is time to create gadgets that talk to you. I've mentioned this once before. Here's why. To use the time lapse mode on the video camera, you have to go into a menu and play with some settings, and then turn the time lapse feature on. If you turn the camera off (because you are eating lunch, say) then, when you turn the camera back on, it forgets all about time lapse recording and goes back to its "normal mode". Wouldn't it be nice if, when you turn the camera back on, it said, "Hey, an hour ago you were doing time lapse mode -- would you like me to keep doing that or go back to my normal mode?" Then you could answer yes or no and the camera would set itself appropriately. Or it could ask the question in the viewfinder and then you could push a button to answer yes or no. A gadget like a video camera has 150 settings, and it would be nice if the camera helped out with them.

  2. There has been a transformation in the construction field brought on by the advent of the electric-screwdriver/battery-powered-drill. In assembling this wooden playset, there was not a single nail. Instead, you screw and ratchet the entire thing together. There must have been at least 250,000 screws in this kit. It would have driven you absolutely insane to do all those screws by hand. That is why people once used nails. You could hammer in nails quickly. Now, because of the electric screwdriver, it is actually quicker to screw everything together. The nice side-benefit of screws is that it is easier to take things apart when you make a mistake.

  3. Is it possible to have "future gadget envy?" You may have experienced "gadget envy" -- you see a friend using some new gadget and you decide that you have to get one yourself. Gadget Envy drives the sale of everything from big plasma screens to camera phones. "Future Gadget Envy" occurs when you know that there is going to be a new gadget available in the near future, but you want it to be here today. In my case, future gadget envy occurs because I have been writing so much about robots. I can imagine having a robot that accesses the Internet wirelessly, downloads the instructions and then builds the whole playset for me in 25 minutes. I get that same feeling now whenever I peel a potato, load the dishwasher or pick up the playroom. Only about 15 years to go...
It did finally get done:

Sunday evening

And the kids love it!

Something else to worry about...

[See Previous]

Pushing the Buy

You've probably see the images of the human brain that show how different parts of the brain "light up" when thinking about certain kinds of things. The headline that normally accompanies something like that is, "Scientists discover portion of the brain associated with love," or "scientists discover that seizures start in the habeus corpus," or whatever.

Now there is a new group that is funding the research. According to the article:The part that is worrying about this is: Who knows what they will discover? For example, what if they discover some combination of words and phrases that, when delivered in the proper sequence, causes your brain to NEED a Ronco Vegamatic? Or a Pontiac Aztek?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Living in Virtual Space

You may recall last week's article entitled A Revolutionary Mission to Mars. This article proposed that NASA send only the disembodied brains of astronauts -- rather than their entire bodies -- to Mars. This approach offers many advantages, so many in fact that body-free space travel is inevitable. It is likely to be far too expensive and dangerous to ever send humans to Mars if their bodies have to go along for the ride. See the article for details.

One of the big benefits of the moon missions of the 20th century was all of the new technology that NASA spun off. The big spin-off from the Mars missions will be the technology for supporting and interfacing to disembodied brains.

The article generated a lot of feedback, most of it claiming that: A) the idea is disgusting, so B) no one would ever let their brain and body be separated, and thus C) it will never happen.

I'm not so sure. Here's why: There are millions people today who would immediately separate their brains from their bodies if they had the chance.

The most obvious group who would willingly choose this option are people with terminal diseases such as inoperable cancer. A person in this situation is trapped by a body that no longer serves its purpose. Many people with terminal illnesses would push the eject button and go body-free the instant they had the opportunity. Another obvious group are people whose bodies are aging very badly while their minds remain sharp. Here too the body is a trap, and releasing the brain from the body solves the problem.

Lots of other people would go this route. Think about the emphasis that humans place on physical beauty. This article points out that 8.7 million Americans opted for plastic surgery in 2003. And this post points out that we are now seeing so many images of artificial, "perfect" people in the media that it is becoming impossible for "real" people to live up to their standards. In addition, many people are born with genes that prevent them from ever being truly "physically beautiful", no matter how hard a plastic surgeon tries.

All of this emphasis on appearance would make disembodied brains a natural path for those seeking permanent beauty. A disembodied brain would live almost exclusively in virtual space, and would therefore be able to choose any body and face he/she wants, with the option to change appearance at a moment's notice (see Manna for some ideas on where this leads).

What will therefore happen is that we will have the virtual, computer-generated space where all of these disembodied brains "live". Everyone in this virtual space will be able to look any way he or she chooses. In addition, virtual space is infinite, and infinitely moldable. It will grow and improve daily. Just look at the virtual worlds being created for gaming today. Now imagine how rich and varied those environments will be in 20 or 30 years.

One possible scenario that is easy to imagine looks like this: the virtual space inhabited by body-free people will be getting bigger and better every day. Inhabitants will be able to swim under virtual oceans, float weightless in virtual space ships, fly freely in virtual skies, run through beautiful virtual meadows free of pollen, ski on virtual mountain ranges without feeling cold, etc. The possibilities for virtual dating and porn in this virtual universe boggle the mind. And everyone will be beautiful. People living outside this virtual realm will feel left out, and will therefore opt in to a body-free life because virtual space will be better than real space. It will be analogous to the process that drove people off the farms and into the cities.

Eventually, the majority of people will live as disembodied brains, at least in the latter parts of their lives as their bodies fail them. This transition strikes me as inevitable, as soon as the technology is available to live the body-free lifestyle.

NASA should therefore begin research on disembodied brain technology immediately.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Looking on the bright side...

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I don't know why this is so exciting to me, but there is now such a thing as transparent concrete! It is made by mixing fiber optics in with the concrete when it is poured.

Can transparent aluminum be that far away?

Hard to believe but true...

[See Previous]

Do you ever get that feeling that you may be living in a parallel universe? That the world around you is one manifestation of earth, and there may be other manifestations that co-exist without your knowledge of them? Two articles this week left me with that feeling...

The first is a recent article from Wired called Dogging Craze Has Brits in Heat. The opening paragraph pretty much says it all: "Giving new meaning to the term 'flash mob,' the British have invented a new sex craze called 'dogging' that mixes sex, exhibitionism, mobs and the Internet. Dogging combines technology with swinging, cruising and voyeurism. To wit: Crowds big and small watch exhibitionist couples who've met on the Net have sex in cars, and sometimes join in." There's really not that much more to say -- this apparently is a growing "trend", and the article is full of details.

The second article is just as easy to understand right from the title: teens swap nude photos of themselves on Web. It's pretty easy to do:
  1. Take the family's digital camera
  2. Snap a nude picture of yourself
  3. Mail it to your friends
What this trend needs is a good, catchy name. Perhaps, "Personal Porn." Or, "My Porn." The merge of this trend and the previous trend with video phones would be... Well, it's pretty easy to imagine.

Today's enterprising teenager would simply archive the nude photos that arrive via email and wait for any of his/her classmates to become moderately successful in the years to come. "Remember that nude photo you sent me back in middle school?"

Of course by then, maybe it won't matter...

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Something else to worry about...

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Why Britain's disappearing butterflies may be early victims of the sixth mass extinction

From the article:

Friday, March 19, 2004

Something else to worry about...

[See previous]

This is actually a breaking news story today: New, more dangerous Net viruses unleashed

From the article:The article recommends that you make sure the operating system has all current patches and that your virus-checking code is up to date.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

A body-free mission to Mars

There is tremendous excitement about a manned mission to Mars right now, but tremendous concerns about costs and safety.

This article proposes a very different way to think about a manned mission that will greatly reduce cost -- the proposal sounds far-fetched until you read the article.

See A Revolutionary Mission Plan for Mars for details.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Looking on the bright side...

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BYU Professor Trying to Make Office a Quieter Place

This BYU professor noticed how noisy the fans for his computer were in his office, so he is working on noise-cancelling technology to make them silent. According to the article:Once it's perfected, the fan should be completely silent.

The thought of a completely silent microwave oven is intriguing.

Now we need the same thing for vacuum cleaners, circular saws and blenders...

Something else to worry about...

[See Previous]

Your car is watching you:

From the article:Now you have to worry about your car tattling on you...

Understanding Google and other search engines.

First, a side note. I had originally read this article here:

Search Beyond Google

However, it is no longer available there -- you have to pay for a subscription if you want to read it now. The same article is still available here:

Search Beyond Google (minus the illustrations)

How does that help anything?

The thing that is interesting about the article is its look "behind the scenes" at how search engines perform some of their tricks, and how the idea of "search" will be changing in the very near future. For example: It's an interesting article.

I'm still looking for a way to solve this simple search problem: "How Many _____ Are There." These are really simple questions, like, "How many teenagers are there in the United States?" or "How many cars did Ford make last year?" If you type either of those questions into Google, you get gibberish back. So you end up trying to find obtuse ways to ferret out the answer. "Number teens million" might be a typical attempt. And forget it if you want to know the answer for 1982. "How much" questions can be just as bad. Easy solutions for simple questions like that would be great.

Making a Ton of money on returns

Man nets $800,000 through returned merchandise scheme

From the article:This means that the "price spread" must be wide enough between discounters and department stores that Hlinak could make that much money -- $800,000 is a lot of money to make.

If Hlinak had been doing this with foreign currencies or stocks, it would be called arbitrage, defined in the dictionary as, "The purchase of securities on one market for immediate resale on another market in order to profit from a price discrepancy." It's completely legal there. Apparently arbitrage with consumer products is not appreciated in the same way it is in the financial markets.

Of course, if the Wholesale price of every item was visible, most of this price spread would evaporate. Consumers would be able to pick up an item and see the wholesale price of it right on the label. Then they could see the spread between the wholesale and retail price instantly, and avoid items where the retail price is a rip off. It is amazing to me that, in this day and age, we as consumers allow the wholesale price to remain hidden. Why not expose it for all to see?

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Do-it-yourself digital picture frame

[See previous]

PopSci is running an interesting article this month that describes how to make your own LCD picture frame to display your digital photos. Basically you take an off-the-shelf LCD monitor, add an inexpensive motherboard/power supply/hard drive, load Linux on the HD, copy all your digital photos to the HD and let it display a slide show continuously. In other words, you build a complete Linux PC for about $500 or $600 and use it to display pictures. A little pricey, but interesting.

The part that is most intriguing to me is the level of the project. It used to be that a do-it-yourself project in PopSci or PopMech involved building a lamp, or making a side table. Now it involves building an entire PC...

On Slashdot it was pointed out that has a very similar article using a mini ITX motherboard. Another article shows how to cannibalize an old laptop (more details). Several people suggested simply buying an older, used laptop on eBay and dedicating it to the task -- no frame, no mat, just fold back the display and hang it on the wall. That way you get the display, processor, hard disk and OS all in one ready-to-go package, and you probably only have to pay about $100 for it if you shop carefully.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Hard to believe but true...

[See previous]

The article is entitled Virginity pledgers' STDs not reduced. The basic message is that we have a group of teens in America who have publicly pledged to remain virgins until marriage. Yet they get sexually transmitted diseases at the same rate as teens who don't make the pledge. The reason? The teens who pledge to abstain fail to bring condoms when they go on a date, so they get lots of STDs when they end up having sex anyway.

That's not the unbelievable part, however. That actually makes sense once you think about it. The unbelievable part is this:If that is true, then this whole "abstinence" thing we are trying to drive into schools has a very long, uphill battle. Can you think of ANY other activity (besides breathing) that has a participation rate of 99 percent?

Something else to worry about...

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An article in Time magazine entitled Trains in Vain talks about a new form of terrorism -- blackmail terrorism. From the article: The basic message is: "Pay us $5 million or we will blow up your train system."

This kind of stuff from terrorists is one reason why there is so much pressure to develop robotic police and security systems as quickly as possible. If there can be robotic sentries gaurding remote rail lines, pipelines, powerlines, bridges, etc., many terrorist opportunities will be eliminated.

Something else to worry about...

[See Previous]

Keyboards, phones 'dirtier than toilets'

From the article:

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Seeds of Darkness

A friend of mine sent me this web video after seeing this post:It is a Star Wars take-off. Several of the space battle scenes are absolutely amazing.

More films like it are available here. This one, like Pink Five, is pretty humorous.

Robots building houses

One of the more interesting developments in the world of robotics this week is a new way of thinking about house construction. It is a complete paradigm shift. Instead of assembling the house out of bits and pieces (dimensional lumber, siding and sheetrock, for example), the house is "printed" using fast-setting concrete and a giant robotic arm. You can see some very nice animations that show how the process would work on this page, and comments are available here.

Robotic Nation

There are a number of good posts in Robotic Nation this week, covering things like small humanoid robots, exoskeletons, robotic baths (washing machines for humans), robotic security, robotic armies, etc.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The motion of money in Hollywood

This is a very interesting article that explains how money flows in Hollywood:

After 'Passion,' no need for Gibson to work again

400 GB hard disks are here

Hitachi Pushes Hard Drive to 400GB

Here are the specs:If that is not big enough and fast enough, how about a 2.5 terabyte RAM disk for $4.7 million? The idea is that you load the disk up with large databases so you can search them very quickly. From the article:

Hard to believe but true...

The article is entitled Cell Phone Vendors Ring Up Record Year. It says:There are roughly 6 billion people on the planet -- this means that 1 out of every 11 people worldwide got a new cell phone handset last year. That's a lot of handsets...

Since half the people on the planet are subsisting on less than $1,000 per year, we can probably imagine that they aren't buying cell phones at the moment. So it is more like 1 out of every 5 people with any disposable income bought all those new handset last year. Imagine what the market for cell phones would look like if we could figure out a way to raise the standard of living of the poorest 3 billion people.

Speaking of animations...

After seeing the engine animations from the previous post, a friend sent me a link to a big collection of flash animations. This one on earthquakes is particularly nice.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Animated Engines

This is a nice page if you like engines: Animated Engines. Clean, simple animations.

Something else to worry about...

[See previous]

Insurer warns of global warming catastrophe

From the article:And:What would really help move this debate along is something like a massive flood in NYC or Washington DC caused by rising ocean levels, or something like that. That might be enough to get everyone's attention...

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Understanding "Open Spectrum"

This article on Open Spectrum is fascinating and really changes your perspective on how radio spectrum works. From the article:The article is 5 pages long and well worth reading.

Finally - Proof of the Afterlife!

Scientist Claims Proof Of Afterlife is interesting. According to the article, "What happens after we die -- do we continue on or is this life the end? Many of us hope there is an afterlife, and now some Arizona scientists say they have proof through their afterlife experiments." The article goes on with statements like this, "Almost anyone who sees the data says there's something real here," and "When you look at the totality of the data from our laboratory, the simplest explanation is actually that survival of consciousness is real."

The article describes one experiment. A Medium (someone who can communicate with dead people) comes into the lab and does a reading on a typical person. Within seconds the medium is talking to dead relatives of that typical person. In particular, the dead mother is able to tell the medium that there is carrot cake and some peanuts in the house of the subject.

As I read this, I was left with three questions:It will be interesting to watch this story develop...

Looking on the bright side...

[See Previous]

Scientist says new treatments could let humans live for centuries

From the article:

Latest Job Numbers

The White House had predicted that 320,000 new jobs would be created in February. Instead, we got 21,000. What does it mean, and what should we do? Click here.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Something else to worry about...

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So you've just emailed a copy of your Microsoft Word document out to a hundred people who need to see it. The document contained some confidential material in an early draft, but you deleted it. Now it turns out that the confidential material may still be in the document. This article describes one scenario:

Document shows SCO prepped lawsuit against BofA

According to the article:It's a fascinating article, and something to think about before you release an actual Word document via email.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Microsoft Gadget Keeps Record of Your Life

Microsoft Gadget Keeps Record of Your Life

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Interesting links

Here is a set of links sent in by friends over the last several weeks:

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Choose your state

This article is interesting because it is unusual: Killington Residents Endorse Plan To Join New Hampshire. Killington is a ski town in Vermont (I went skiing there several times in college). The town is 25 miles from New Hampshire, and it wants to become a New Hampshire town because that will reduce its taxes significantly.

This brings up a question. What if we made the concept of statehood virtual for everyone? In the same way that you can now choose any long distance carrier or power company, what if you could choose your state arbitrarily? For example, I physically live in North Carolina. But what if I would rather be a citizen of the state of Florida because it has low income taxes? Or perhaps I want to be a citizen of the state of Hawaii because it has better health care laws. Whatever. Each person would choose their state to best fit their lifestyle.

This is not as unusual as it might sound. Corporations, for example, can do exactly this. Many corporations from around the country are incorporated in the state of Delaware because they like the laws in Delaware.

If corporations can do it, why not individuals?

It is very interesting to think about the ramifications of this simple change in thinking. If people could randomly choose to be a citizen of any state regardless of their physical location, it would have vast effects on everything from education to taxation to property ownership. It would change congress and the senate. It would, in theory, allow completely new virtual states to arise. And so on. It's funny how big an effect such an ephemeral and largely arbitrary concept like statehood can have.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Two interesting DIY projects

The first project is actually a series of remarkably small R/C helicopters hand-crafted by Alexander Van de Rostyne:

The other is an auxiliary battery pack for an iPod that extends its life by 10 hours. It is hand-crafted by Drew Perry:

Presumably you could apply the same approach to all sorts of other devices. (Although I'd be interested to see what airport security would make of a device like this...)

If you've ever considered taking up welding for some of your own DIY projects, here's a very nice introduction.

Fascinating page about wealth

A friend of mine sent me a link to this page: Facts about Wealth that every American should know. It contains some fascinating stuff. For example:For more examples, Click here.

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