Posted 04.03.2007 at 12:06 pm 0 Comments
Hey, kids, Mike here (one of the How 2.0 editors). I'm going to be working from PopSci's little-used Paris office for the next month—OK, it's just an apartment I got by swapping mine with a nice Dutch film editor I found on Craigslist. But I've brought along a tech arsenal to test just how connected one can stay from across the pond and will be posting occasional dispatches on how it's going, along with any cool DIY stuff I come across here (like this odd three-seater bike). Any PopSci fans in the area, shoot me an e-mail at h20 at time4 dot com. See what's in my gadget bag after the jump. —Mike Haney
By Jonathan CoultonPosted 03.26.2007 at 2:02 pm7 Comments
I personally have never been in a fight, so I can't say for sure what my fighting style would look like. But I can speculate. It would probably involve me taking a single girly swing at my opponent, jamming up a knuckle, and then starting to cry. The good news is that it might not be my fault I'm such a sissy. According to Harvard neuroscientist Edward Kravitz, there may be a genetic explanation. Or at least there would be if I were a fruit fly. Male and female fruit flies use very different fighting techniques, and Kravitz has discovered that by manipulating a single gene, he can transfer these gender-specific moves into the opposite sex.
I never know whether or not these scientists and I are going to agree on what's funny about their research. I certainly wouldn't blame them if they didn't find it funny at all—I mean, it is their job and everything. But let's face it, a fruit-fly Thunderdome is pretty hilarious, especially when you think about those poor little male fruit flies head-butting each other like a bunch of girls. Luckily, Edward Kravitz was very tolerant of my slightly goofy interview
approach. I could tell even before we got to the story about
accidental head-crushing. —Jonathan
If you live in the New York City area, come to our first meeting of the DIY minds at the Etsy Labs space in Brooklyn, Thursday, March 22 (that's tomorrow!). Phil Torrone of Make fame will be demonstrating and selling some of the Make kits, and Eric Singer, founder and director of LEMUR: League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, will show of some wacky electronic musical instruments, including something called the Sonic Banana. Get more detail here. Hope to see you there!
In honor of our new How 2.0 group on Instructables—the place to be for the coolest step-by-step DIY guides on the Web—we're launching what will likely be the first of many contests. And we're definitely kicking things off right—the winner will bag a new Canon 8-megapixel digital SLR and have their project featured in the How 2.0 section of an upcoming issue of PopSci!!
What kind of projects? you may be asking. It's simple. If you're like us, you're probably surrounded by all kinds of sci-tech detritus. Stuff that may be broken, outdated, random, whatever—it's all too cool to throw out but too weird to have any particular use on its own. Now the time has come to breathe new life into your old tech toys. Take any tech junk you've got around the house, bolt it together, and come up with something new and useful again (preferably while bellowing "It's alive! It's alive!" at your hunchbacked assistant).
If you've seen the "Repurposed Tech" feature in the pages of How 2.0, you know what we're talking about. More info is available over at Instructables, including the official rules and regulations for entering and examples of projects that would work. You've got until April 1, so get hacking! —John Mahoney
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 03.07.2007 at 5:45 pm 2 Comments
Remember when electric cars only went 20 mph and ran out of juice after ten minutes of uphill driving? Those were the days. Steve Schneider is the CEO of a California company called ZAP that sells electric vehicles - not hybrids mind you, real honest-to-goodness electric cars - and it sounds like they might actually be useful for say, driving from one place to another. Even the tiny weird-looking ones are kind of sexy, and the prototype electric SUV he describes may be the perfect vehicle for both road-rage crazed soccer moms and tree-hugging hippies.
Hopefully this is another one of those cases where the environmentally
friendly option doubles as the smart business decision. A few days after I interviewed Steve I actually saw a striped Xebra electric in the wild, so I know he's sold at least one. Fingers crossed—Jonathan Coulton
A father and his two teenage children drowned when this cavernous pit swallowed up several buildings in the Guatemala City barrio of San Antonio. The hole, which appeared on February 22, is approximately 100 feet wide and 200 feet deep.
Reeking water, still swirling in the bowels of the hole, offers a telltale clue to what happened: Sewage flowing from an eight-foot-wide ruptured sewer main at the bottom of the hole eroded ash and pumice layers deposited by ancient volcanic eruptions. The leaking liquid created a shaft that grew upward through the soft ash by a process called “piping.”
Eventually the shaft became so large that it could no longer support the upper layers of earth, which abruptly collapsed into the empty space. Recent rains in Guatemala City probably contributed to the collapse by weakening the surface soil and adding storm-water runoff to the percolating sewage. Ric Finch, a retired Tennessee Technical University geology professor who has done field studies in northern Central America, has not visited the site but has examined photos of the collapsed shaft. He says the shaft’s walls contain easily eroded volcanic materials, which are found throughout the valley where Guatemala City is located. The shaft may have developed very rapidly, Finch says.
Where did the eroded materials go? Mostly likely, they were washed downstream through the partly blocked sewer main, which is more than eight feet in diameter. The bodies of the two drowned teenagers were found in a nearby canyon where the sewer system discharges.
Many news accounts have referred to the collapsed shaft as a “sinkhole,” but that is not the correct term here. Sinkholes form in places where the underlying layer consists of limestone or other soluble rock, which dissolves in water rather than simply washing away like ash. Geologic maps for Guatemala City indicate that any limestone in the area of the cave-in would be located well underneath the volcanic deposits.
Limestone-associated sinkholes are common in other regions of Guatemala (and in Florida). It’s uncommon, however, for a sinkhole to be as large and deep as the Guatemala City pit. Holes in the ground sometimes open up without warning, but not in this case. Neighbors reportedly heard noises and felt tremors for weeks before the collapse.
Some 200 residents have been evacuated from the San Antonio neighborhood, and officials have cordoned off the area around the shaft. Tom Miller, a geologist at the University of Puerto Rico who has visited the hole, says that it is slowly enlarging. Officials have used a remotely controlled camera to examine the damage, and are currently attempting to re-route the sewage. “The neighborhood does not smell pleasant,” Miller says.—Dawn Stover
You've reached the new online blog companion to How 2.0, Popular Science's award-winning section that each month is chock-full of tips, tricks, hacks and do-it-yourself projects. We know it's a wild world out there in tech land, but never fear, for our crack How 2.0 staff will be here to keep you stocked with all the latest DIY goodness, including weekly projects by our resident hacker Dave Prochnow, handy how-to guides to help you use your tech gear better, and the best DIY tips from around the Web.
We've also partnered with Instructables—the Web's premier community for step-by-step illustrated guides to anything from cooking and cleaning a Dungeness crab to fitting a working PC into the shell of an old Nintendo. We'll be bringing you our favorite projects direct from our Instructables group, along with regular contests and special features. Watch for details of our kickoff contest in the coming days—you're not going to want to miss it.
Oh, and one more thing. This blog will have another very important feature: you. Know of a better way to tweak one of our projects? Jump in on the comments section found on each post. Or submit an Instructables project to our group—we'll be featuring our favorites here regularly. We look forward to seeing what you guys can cook up. Happy hacking! —John Mahoney
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 02.27.2007 at 12:07 pm 5 Comments
Spore. Spore, I said! Ever since that video of Will Wright's demo of this game appeared on the internet, I've been camping on the sidewalk in front of my local Best Buy waiting for its release date. As I lie here at night shivering in my sleeping bag, I can almost taste that succulent, procedurally-generated content, which is good because I am all out of food.
As you must know by now, Will Wright is the super genius behind a whole bucketload of games like The Sims, Sim City, and of course Sim [Insert Any Word Here]. He's currently working on Spore, a game he describes as "Sim Everything," in which you control the destiny of a species as it evolves from a single-celled organism into a race of interstellar travelers. One of the game's most exciting design elements is the use of procedurally generated content - you use the in-game editors to modify your species, and the game determines how it behaves based on your design. I spoke to Chaim Gingold, the game designer who created these editors, about the challenge of creating tools that are flexible enough to be powerful and still somehow smart enough to be fun—Jonathan Coulton
See also our extended interview with the man himself, Will Wright
Subscribe and listen:
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 02.16.2007 at 2:45 pm 5 Comments
Of course you hope it never happens, but if you're going to escape from an exploding rocket just in time, you might as well have a good time doing it. NASA is looking at a few different options for how to get astronauts out of future spacecraft in an emergency, from roller coasters to slippery tubes, and most of them seem like pretty enjoyable rides.
The whole time I read this article in the magazine I was thinking space shuttle - boring! But I totally forgot about Project Constellation, the post-shuttle program to create a fleet of next-generation space craft for all sorts of crazy space missions. I spoke with Kelly Humphries at the Johnson Space Center about NASA's plans for the "Emergency Egress System," and he gave me the lowdown on some of the other features of the Constellation program. I was particularly jazzed about his description of the new and improved moon mission strategy. Believe me, when you actually live on the moon it's easy to get a little jaded about this stuff. But multiple space modules docking in Earth's orbit and then blasting out to the moon? Now I'm all excited about space again. Go space!
You may be asking yourself, "How in the world did this woman balance on a Y-shaped rod and shoot an arrow with her toes, while bent like a pretzel?" and "Why is David Hasselhoff still on television?" Contemplating the latter question gives me the shivers, frankly, so let’s focus our attention on the Spandex-clad archer, Lilia Stepanova. There are a number of factors at work in this stunt but Lilia’s Gumby-like maneuvers basically boil down to genetics. On the extreme and improbable end, Lilia may have been born with a rare genetic defect, such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, that prevents her body from building adequate amounts of collagen—the tough, stringy fibers that strengthen cartilage, tendons and other kinds of connective tissue, such as bone.
Collagen is essentially the glue that holds us together. While having less of it may be handy for shooting arrows with your feet, it’s undesirable for maintaining bone, muscle and joint health. Symptoms range in severity but typically include hyper-mobile joints, thin, stretchy skin, easy bruising and scoliosis. Lilia obviously exhibits extra rubbery joints and tendons, as evidenced by the leg that bend backs at 180 degrees, the foot that rests comfortably beneath her chin and the spine that bends like a microwaved Twizzler.
Aside from that, though, our 19-year-old Moldavian (she’s Eastern European but lives in L.A., in case you were wondering) appears to be in exceptional shape. According to her MySpace page, Lilia enjoys a fulltime career as a contortionist and dancer, which suggests that she is endowed with a milder, less harmful genetic quirk that gives her soft, pliable muscles (notice the lack of bulk or tone) yet spares her the nastier side effects associated with more severe forms of hypermobility, such as chronic pain.
Beyond the bendiness displayed by Ms. Stepanova, there are also two other factors at play: balance and coordination. The former requires both skill and a trick of physics called “center of mass” (discussed here, in a prior "Breakdown" post). By engaging a series of muscles in her arms, abdomen, back and thighs, she is able to stack her body weight neatly over the point of the rod she’s balancing on. From there, proprioception takes over to allow her to maintain balance and shoot a perfect bullseye.
Proprio-huh? The word “proprioception” refers to a cluster of nervous-system functions that help the body to understand spatial relationships and coordinate the movements of muscles accordingly, whether—in this case— for imperceptibly shifting to maintain her crazy handstand, or for zeroing in on an archery target. Some people are gifted with better proprioception than others (Tiger Woods’s must be fine-tuned to allow him to play golf so well), but it’s possible to sharpen your proprioceptive sense with exercises like juggling, balancing on a wobble board, or practicing yoga.
If you’re looking to impress David Hasselhoff with a stunt like Lilia’s, don’t lose hope: she wasn’t born an expert foot archer. Genetic advantages or no, developing her levels of flexibility, balance and aim no doubt required intense practice. And a fishnet half-shirt. —Nicole Dyer
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 02.06.2007 at 4:40 pm 25 Comments
I read this piece in the magazine a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing anything before I made the call. Let me get this straight: you put garbage into the machine—any kind of garbage, it doesn't matter—and this thing breaks it down to its component elements, generating only steam, a few harmless byproducts, and a synthetic gas that can be further refined into useful fuels like hydrogen, natural gas and ethanol? And the whole process generates enough energy to keep itself running plus a little extra that you can sell back to the grid? Come on! It sounds way too good to be true—also I'd like one in my kitchen, please. (I have a really big, garbagey kitchen.)
Joseph Longo, whose company, Startech, makes the device, appears to be yet another charming, humble supergenius who's changing the world. What's with these guys? I keep waiting to talk to someone who's doing great things but has a really bad attitude. But no evil genius here. Longo immediately won me over with his story about furry olives, and kept the hits coming with various philosophical musings about the nature of technological change.
Another detail you won't want to miss: the plasma conversion process uses manmade lightning three times hotter than the surface of the sun. Awesome!
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 01.30.2007 at 2:36 pm 7 Comments
Inventor Damian Renzello has been making portable skating rinks and related accessories for years, so it's not surprising that it's come to this: a homemade super zamboni that blows snow, shaves ice, and looks totally awesome. I love projects like this - the false starts, the dangerous accidents, the madness - I think those are the three ingredients that make up what they call "Yankee Ingenuity." I was a little disappointed to find out this wasn't a meaningless, self-destructive quest for a personal homemade zamboni, and instead the latest invention from a genuine entrepreneur. I should have known from the photo—it's far too well built to have been cobbled together by a crazy person.
Speaking of crazy people, I was surprised to learn from Damian that the zamboni was actually invented by a guy named Zamboni. I think I always thought that zamboni was an Italian word for "ice shaver" or something like that (you know, those Italians: crazy for hockey!). You learn something new every day—or in my case, once a week.
If you'd like your own Bambini Revolution, or if you want to set up a portable backyard skating rink (I know I do), you can find Damian's products at www.portarinxandbambini.com.
Good thing the cars in this video are all moving slowly. Add a little more speed, and the scene would be a driver’s worst nightmare. Imagine a car pileup in front of you on a snowy day, your own skidding wheels and, seconds later, the inevitable crash…
Consider—the reason people can control their cars is that it’s very hard to slide a tire across pavement. Technically speaking, this is because tires are built to have a high coefficient of friction when pressed on a paved road. The coefficient of friction is essentially a ratio of the force it takes to slide two surfaces across each other to the force they’re being pressed together with. A high coefficient of friction means the two surfaces don’t like to slide; a low coefficient of friction means it’s easy. For example, let’s say you’re speeding down the highway and you see a police officer, so you step on your brakes. The amount of force it would take for your car to skid is the weight of your car (the force pressing the car to the road) multiplied by the coefficient of friction. When the pavement is dry, the coefficient of friction is high, so you can apply a lot of braking force without skidding.
On the fateful snowy day in our video, things worked a little differently. When these people pressed the brakes, the heat generated by the tire-on-ice friction created a thin film of water over the frozen surface. The coefficient of friction for tires on ice with a thin film of water between them is pretty much zip, resulting in—you guessed it—auto Ice Capades. It took almost no braking force for the cars to skid and, once skidding, they continued in a uniform motion, on a decline, until they found something that could apply enough force to stop them. The most convenient thing, as it all too often is, was another car.
There’s not a whole lot you can do in a situation like this besides try to steer out of the line of other cars and gently brake in the hopes that your antilock system helps the wheels grip again. What didn’t seem to work was when one guy jumped out of his car, grabbed the door, and tried to stop it himself. Maybe he can bench-press a few, but it’s doubtful he could have competed against the villainous combination of ice, rubber and a low coefficient of friction. —Katherine Ryder
By Jonathan Coulton
Posted 01.23.2007 at 5:56 pm 2 Comments
Deep brain stimulation is like a pacemaker for your brain: it can stop tremors, wake you from a coma, and maybe even make you smarter. All these miraculous results, but nobody knows exactly how it works. Maybe I'm crazy, but I always find it reassuring when I talk to a scientist and find out that they don't know what's going on either.
For this episode I spoke with Dr. Michele Tagliati, a neurologist at Mt. Sinai, and a leader in the field of DBS. He's approaching the question from a clinician's perspective: tweaking parameters and discovering which techniques work best for patients suffering from Parkinsons and other movement disorders. I didn't have enough time to include it in the podcast, but we also talked about the researchers who are coming from the other direction, using computer models of brain circuitry to try and predict how certain kinds of electrical stimulation will affect actual brains. The idea is that these two lines of research will eventually meet somewhere in the middle: if we can understand enough about how it works, we may be able to apply this technique to all sorts of neurological disorders. I might even be able to do the Sunday Times Crossword without making up words.
He didn't ask, but my theory is that it has something to do with electricity. In your brain.
Shortly before our crazy biker pulls the reverse-Knievel—jumping far past the landing area instead of far short—we hear one of his compatriots shout, “You can go twice as fast!” This is a faulty hypothesis, as it turns out, but to the layman it would seem to make sense. After all, our biker had previously executed a graceful flop straight into the giant pit o’ foam. Doubling the takeoff speed intuitively should double the distance he flies, putting him a little farther into the pit but still within its bounds. Right?
Not exactly. Though it’s impossible to tell from the video exactly how much faster the biker was going on the second attempt, any increase in speed would be liable to have unforeseen consequences. That’s because the best way to understand how the bike flies is not with the concept of speed, but with energy. Why? Energy, as the lab coats like to say, is always conserved—and it’s gotta go somewhere. In this case, all the energy the bike carries into the jump is used to lift the bike however many dozen feet into the air before gravity puts it back into the speed of the freefall.
The funny thing about energy, though, is that it increases with the square of speed. That means that an object going twice as fast has four times as much energy, one going three times as fast has nine times as much energy, and so on. And practically speaking, four times as much energy means our biker is going to fly four times as high and sail four times as far. Exponents, like landing distances, tend to increase quickly. It’s important to make sure your foam can accommodate them. —Michael Moyer
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.