Wednesday, December 19, 2012

End of the calendar or end of the world?

By now I'm sure you've all heard about the Mayan calendar and how it predicts that the world will end in a few days.

We here at Digital Diner have decided to take a stand.  Regardless of what the Mayans say, we are coming down strongly on the side of the world continuing to exist well into next week.  That's right.  The world won't end.  No wishiwashiness here.  With all due respect to our ancient friends, we've thought this through and decided that we must come down hard on the side of the world NOT ending in a few days.  Here's the logic behind this bold move:  If the world does end, nobody who would be around to tell us we were wrong?  

Oh and there is absolutely no scientific evidence that the world will end either... I guess that might have something to do with it too.  Look guys, our calendar ends every year, yet all we do is make a bunch of resolutions that we never keep.  It isn't the end of the world.  Why should the end of the Mayan calendar mark the end of the world?  We made it through Y2k, we'll probably make it through this too.  NASA is sounding pretty confident too.  They released this video to be watched on Dec 22, the day AFTER the world ends.  It's fine with us if you decide to watch it today.  It's only a few days early.  

Still, it's OK with us if you use the possibility of the end of the world as an excuse to call up some old friends.

Oooh swirlflakes!

As with all Vi Hart videos, the fun is in actually trying it for yourself.  Go ahead and make your own hexagonal snowflake.  I don't have a clue about how to fold a paper in fifths, but you can bet I'm going to try.  And the swirlflakes look pretty interesting too.  Holiday craft time!

Liquid pythagorus

A2 + B2 = C2.. see?  I told you.
OK, OK... so this isn't a proof and the liquid takes up a volume (ie it is three dimensional, not two), so this really shouldn't be all that compelling... still it is somehow awesomely appealing isn't it?

From Chart Porn

Monday, December 17, 2012

Is there poop on the Moon?

OK, so we crash spacecraft into the moon.  What other kinds of crap have we left up there?  Is there any poop?  As with all deep and thoughtful questions these days, we turn to the internet for answers.  The video below combines two of our favorites, Smarter Everyday and Minute Physics to get to the bottom of this hard hitting issue.

Ok, maybe some of the stuff they left behind was useful (as described in the video below).

I once hear of someone who was thinking of using those reflectors to store data.  Imagine this.  You pulse a laser pointed at the moon according to the data you want to save.  A little less than three seconds later, it comes back to you.  This means that you could save as much data as you can jam into a laser signal in <3 seconds.  If you take what you receive and resend it, then you don't have to save the data here on Earth.  You will get those photons (bits) back in less than three seconds.  You could have a loop of data that you continually send between here and the moon, thus storing the info as light in space.  It is not very practical, but still its a cool idea.

Watch Ebb and Flow crash into the moon

Ebb and Flow are two satellites that have been orbiting the Moon for some time mapping out lunar gravity with incredible detail.  They are part of NASA's GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) mission.  Now they have completed their mission and NASA is going to let them slam into the Moon.  The space craft will crash intentionally near the moon's north pole at 2:28 p.m. PT (2228 GMT) today.  As if that weren't enough, they are going to live stream it, so you can watch as it happens.  The event will be broadcast on live on NASA TV and the website, beginning at 2 p.m. PT (2200 GMT).  Watch it live here.

Crazy Prestidigitation

This is some amazing slight of hand.  No trick photography here... just mad skills by magician Yann Frisch at the 2012 Beijing International Magic Convention.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Happy Festival of Photons!

Bix in St Lucia garb lighting up this dark morning
Today, here at Digital Diner, we celebrate a tradition that plays out in homes all over Scandinavia.  It is St Lucia Day, or the festival of lights.  In this tradition, on one of the days of the year with the least amount of daylight, the oldest gril of the family wakes up early, dresses all in white with a red sash and a wreath of candles in her hair.  She brings her parents some saffron buns and coffee in bed while singing (or at least playing a recorded version of) the St Lucia song.  It is quite a sight for a dark winter morning to see Bix bringing us yummy homemade baked goods by candle light.
Saffron buns fresh out of the oven.  Yum!
Of course, because of our geek/scientific influence,  rather than the festival of lights, I like to think of it as the festival of photons.  You see, at this time of year, there are fewer photons than ever hitting our hemisphere of this big blue marble that we live on, so each photon is precious.  What better time to honor our little friend who brings us light, than now when it is so rare.  We need to celebrate this quanta of wave-particle goodness that literally brightens our day.  So on this dark winter day, I salute you and thank you dear photon.

Happy Festival of Photons!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Imagine the scope of celestial events

Sometimes science gives you an understanding of things that help you to appreciate the context of events that you observe.  In this case, understanding what is happening during an eclipse gives an appreciation of the massive cloud of darkness that passed over the sky in Australia last month.  The video above clearly shows the shadow moving across the sky as the celestial objects do their dance.  We've seen our share of astronomically significant events here at Digital Diner this year, but I really like how this video captures this event on a large scale.  You can almost feel the massiveness of the objects involved in this dramatic deflection of photons occurring at great distances.  We're talking about planets and stars here...

These sorts of events help to put things in perspective and make you realize just how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of the universe.  The video below uses animation and Carl Sagan's words to put things in context.

So, just remember, next time that you look up into the night sky, Steve Jobs, Hitler and the Beatles are all completely unknown just one solar system over.  If you want to do something really important... if you want to think really big... try to impress the universe.  Go ahead, cast a shadow onto another planet!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Build your own Awesome Aeroponic Garden

A few weeks ago, Digital Diner's own Bix and Widdakay (half of the Awesome Is What We Totally Are team) taught a class on Aeroponics at Workshop Weekend (see their presentation here).  It was a smashing success.  In case you missed that, now, thanks to the magic of the web, you can build your own Awesome Aeroponics Garden in your own home.  More on that in a minute.

First, on a personal note, let me say that I am a convert.  When the kids started out on these hydroculture projects I thought it was interesting and I was curious to learn about it, but that was the end of it.  As I've learned more and more about it, it has convinced me this is very important technology and a key to our future on this planet and beyond.  The benefits and efficiencies are really compelling and I encourage anyone with even the slightest interest to learn more.  I'm sold.

Aeroponics (or fogponics in this case) is a form of Hydroculture (growing plants without soil), but rather than delivering nutrients to the plant roots via flowing water, in aeroponics, the nutrients are delivered in the form of a mist.  The process was developed by NASA who hopes to use it to grow plants in space.  Small (5-10 micron) aerosolized droplets of water enriched with nutrients float around in a root chamber where the plant roots dangle freely.  The roots can efficiently absorb the droplets and grow quite quickly producing up to 13 crop turns per year rather than about 5 using traditional techniques.

We have seen this in practice when we planted some lettuce in our traditional garden (geoponics) at the same time as we planted it in one of our hydroponic systems.  The picture below shows two leaves that were harvested at the same time a few weeks later; one from the traditional, geoponic garden and the other from the hydroponic garden.  The results really impressed us.
Geoponic lettuce on the left vs hydroponic lettuce on the right
The hydroponic lettuce is dramatically larger
Hydroponic methods recycle water very efficiently, so it is estimated use up to 98% less water than traditional methods.  These systems generally need no pesticides or herbicides.  They offer incredible control over the environment the plants live in, allowing one to tune it to particular needs of the plants.  For example, we have some strawberries growing in one of our Awesome Aeroponic systems.  We would like them to start producing strawberries, so we have moved the system inside where it is warmer and varied the nutrients in just that system to encourage the production of fruit.  We would never have that kind of control using traditional means.


These systems are really engaging and interesting to watch grow.  We have been experimenting with several different types of systems here at Digital Diner and I'm happy to say that it has turned us into hyperlocavores.  While locavores eat food that is produced locally in order to get seasonal, fresh, produce that is grow to be eaten rather than transported, we have taken that to the extreme of growing our own food.  In a very small bit of space, we are growing enough lettuce to provide our family of four a salad almost every night.  The food we grow at home never has pesticides, spends time on a truck or in a grocery store, was grown in a water efficient way and is always fresh and tasty.

The system that team Awesome Is What We Totally Are has designed is small and portable and capable of growing herbs, lettuce, strawberries and all sorts of great stuff.  Go build one for yourself and try it out.  It isn't very expensive (~$40),  doesn't take up much space, and yet can produce some delicious food for you and your family.

Build your own Awesome Aeroponic Garden here!
Learn more about hydroculture from the Awesome Team here!

Team Awesome Is What We Totally Are
"Make What Matters"

Friday, December 7, 2012

These are some fun Internet of Things projects

The "Internet of Things" is the notion that now the internet is made up mostly of computers, but soon there will be many more gadgets than computers.  You see currently, each of us uses a computer or mobile device to connect to the internet, so there is roughly one device per person.  There are also servers who serve many people, so there are fewer of those than there are people.  As more and more other types of devices are connected to the internet - cars, dishwashers, clothing, keychains - the Internet of Things will emerge.  The number of these devices will swamp the numer of things currently connected to the internet because each of us will have many of these devices.  I've been working in related areas for some time from wireless sensor networks to connected Maker projects.

The folks at Postscapes have announced the nominees for their second annual Internet of Things awards to recognize projects that are moving us closer to the Internet of Things.  In particular, I'm interested in the DIY category.  It is the place where the hobbyists, Makers and Do It Yourselfers get recognized for creating projects that you or I could should have done.  I don't know how much these predict our future world full of connected gadgets, but I find them inspirational.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Tworse Key

The Tworse Key is a morsecode key that lets you send messages to Twitter by tapping out dits and dahs.  The combination of old and new technology is appealing somehow.  This one reminds me very much of a project that I did some time ago... I may have to pull that one out to make a blog post about it some time.

Descriptive Camera

Another is the Descriptive Camera which allows you to take a picture like a normal camera, but instead of getting an image out of the camera you get a text description of the scene.  The way it works is rather ingenious.  The camera takes a picture and submits it to Amazon's Mechanical Turk API.  This system provides a mechanism for Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) where people from around the world can submit answers to problems posed to them... in this case describing a scene.  Essentially, in 3-6 minutes of "developing" time the image will get transcribed by a human being somewhere on the internet and the result will be sent back to the system and printed out.


Tempescope is an ambient weather display.  It tells you tomorrows weather forecast by actually reproducing the conditions in a clear container for you to see.  It can reproduce rain, clouds, lightning and several other conditions.  Through an interface, you can ask it to step you through the weather for a remote location as well.  Watch the video and see it in action.

Personal Energy Orb

The Personal Energy Orb charges up as you ride your bike.  Once charged, you connect it to your computer.  As you use your computer, the orb runs out of energy (as shown by the color of the orb) and starts to slow down your mouse movements and generally make your computer more sluggish.  If you want it to speed up again, you need to go out for a bike ride to charge it up again.  It is there to remind you not to spend all your time parked at the keyboard.

There are several other great projects, including an aquaponics system, an umbrella stand that reminds you that it is raining outside, an energy monitoring system and several more.  You can read about all of them at the Postscapes site.

Thanks for the pointer Pete!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Macro snowflakes are gorgeous

Photographer Andrew Osokin has taken some spectacular macro photos of snowflakes. They really show the crystal structure of the flakes in all their geometric beauty.  I think that these photos illustrate the symmetry and balance of the laws of nature/physics.

Most snowflakes have six-way radial symmetry because of the six sided structure of ice molecules.  When one forms there are six convenient places for the next molecules to attach.  While this is occurring the little proto-flake is moving through air of different temperatures and humidities that will encourage new water molecules to freeze to or melt away from the snowflake.  The six arms grow independently, so they usually aren't exactly alike, but since they are all exposed to very similar environmental effects, they usually develop in very similar ways and end up similar enough to produce the appearance of six-way symmetry.  Still, the conditions vary enough that it is highly unlikely that you will ever see two snowflakes that are exactly the same.
Crystal structure of an ice molecule

Another thing that these pictures show is that snowflakes tend to be flat.  Thanks to the structure of the ice molecule, their arms generally develop in a plane.  
Also, although water and ice are clear, the very small facets of the snow crystals tend to cause a diffuse reflection of all colors of light and thus we perceive them as white.

Cool stuff (well cold actually).

Next time you are out in the snow, take a minute to look ate these little guys up close.  You might like what you see!

via buzzfeed

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reason #572 why I want a high speed camera

You know how awesome high-speed, super slow-motion cameras are?  They are so awesome that even failure is entertaining when you crank up the frames per second enough.  Yep... that awesome.

via Gizmodo

Sometimes art is about balance

Here at Digital Diner, we are big fans of spontaneous public art forms.  Creating art out of what is available locally in a public place for all to see can be quite cool.  A fellow by the name of Michael Grab has been going around the Boulder, Colorado area balancing rocks in precarious ways to make sculptures.  I've seen similar things around here, but his look quite impressive.  He combines a little geometry and physics and the constant pull of gravity to create these amazing looking sculptures.  They seem to be placed in impossible angles, yet, any time you can get the center of gravity directly over the point of contact, it will balance.  Intellectually, I get that, but still, these particular configurations look quite impossible.
The large sphere of rocks seems particularly difficult because it needs all the pieces together in order to balance.  I see how the end result balances, but I just can't figure out the process to get there.  I think I'll have to give it a try.

Of course, around here in California, the slight variations in gravity known as earthquakes might make such sculptures very temporary.

You can see more pictures here.

via This Is Colossal

Monday, December 3, 2012

Would you want to have neighbors like this?

I've been intrigued by this style of music called dubstep and it's associated slow motion dancing.  I also like to see all the lights of this fine holiday season.  The folks in the video above have combined the two into an amazing light show.  Things really get exciting about 1:45 into the video where the dubstep music starts.  It is an impressive show, and it looks pretty fine on video, but I'm pretty sure that I'd fell differently if that house was across the street from mine, and I had to experience the dubstep Christmas 30 times a day.

As a geek, I'd really like to know how all those lights are controlled and how the system is programmed.  It seems like a lot of work, and a kind of abstract exercise until you get to see it actually play out with the lights on the house.  I presume it uses some sort of sequencer and bunch of light controllers.  It seems like all the lights can be dimmed and there must be about 30 channels of control.

I know my techo-curiosity is somewhat misguided.  It reminds me of a brief conversation I had with the extremely awesome performance artist Laurie Anderson back in the 1980s.  She always uses interesting technology in her performances and I asked her what tools she used to conceive of and to preview her work.  As a technologist, I thought this was a perfectly reasonable question.  However, she was a little confused by it and said that the projects usually started with a vision of something that she wanted the audience experience and that she would use whatever tools and technology would get her closest to that vision.  It was an iterative  improvisational process.  So maybe, just maybe, there is a perfect vision of a "dubstep Christmas" and these lights are merely the best way to express it with today's technology.  Still, I want to know about the technology.  Sorry, that's just me.

...and by the way, since Laurie Anderson believes that conversation is a form performance art, and I spoke with her, so I maintain that I jammed with Laurie Anderson... That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Here is yet another reason that I want a slow motion camera for Xmas

I just love super slow motion video... in this case, combustion of different gasses.  It's cool how the 10% mix of hydrogen makes a mini mushroom cloud that looks almost alive as it crawls up the screen.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Frazil Ice

It's that season again where the weather turns cold and, in many parts of the northern hemisphere, snow and ice begin to show themselves.  Of course here at Digital Diner, we believe in Discretionary Winter, so winter doesn't come to us, rather we go it it.  One of the places where we go to experience winter is Yosemite.  It turns out that they have a very interesting form of ice called Frazil Ice.  Frazil Ice is a unique slushy mixture of not quite solid, not quite liquid water that shows the physical characteristics of lava when it flows.  Cool stuff.  Literally.