My Wired Hovercraft Piece

I have a new piece on, entitled: “Fifty Years of Hovercraft: The Tech That Barely Takes Off.” The title pretty much tells you what you need to know. Here’s an excerpt:

Post-Apocalyptic Crowd Control
If ever there was a craft that looked like it had slipped through a time portal, from some steel-hearted, robot-dominated future into our all-too-fragile, meat-based present, it’s SRL’s Pulse-Jet Hovercraft. The sound this thing makes, like millions of angry robotic bees gearing up to swarm, is indescribably creepy … and awe-inspiring. The all-aluminum construction weighs about 350 pounds, with four 4-foot long pulse-jet engines providing 70 pounds of thrust. At 150 decibels, it’s billed as “the loudest robot in the world.”

Read the full piece here.


New MS Long-Term Thinker a Cure for Insomnia?

Microsoft astounds me, or confounds me, might be the better verb. Certain companies have corporate instincts that seem utterly off the mark to me. Microsoft is chief among these. I just did some tech support this weekend for a friend, working on a new Sony Vaio I’d helped him buy. It was my first experience working with Vista. I expected Vista to be much better looking, easier to understand and operate, etc. than XP. I hated nearly everything about it. And the numerous security messages and dialog boxes that popped up as we attempted to get an external HD and a scanner to talk to the machine were as befuddling and muddling as any in previous MS OSes. This is a company that just don’t seem to get user functionality for normal humans.

I took this weekend experience with me (and all attendant prejudices) to a video the Wall Street Journal sent me this morning, a sit-down with MS’s new chief research-and-strategy officer, Craig Mundie. This is the guy who’s supposed to be looking into the future, getting MS and the rest of us excited about technologies in the pipeline. I was bored senseless watching this video. Maybe there’s a lot more here than meets the eye, but Mundie seems like he has all of the charisma and innovation mojo of an ’80s mid-level executive at Big Blue. He makes Bill look like a party animal.

Here’s the WSJ video.


Spherical Solar Cells

From TreeHugger:

Japan’s Clean Venture 21 has developed a new spin on solar with their Spherical Silicon Solar Array. Texas Instruments evidently first made them in the ’80s but efficiency was only about 10% and the costs were high; Clean Ventures puts each little 1mm ball into a little reflector. It still is only 12% efficient, but they claim that it has only one fifth the amount of silicon and should only cost one fifth as much to make, using half as much energy as conventional solar cell manufacture. Evidently silicon balls are made by dripping rather than cutting, so little raw material is needed, there is no cutting, and the optical properties are good.

::Diginfo movie here; Japanese ::Clean Venture 21


Celebrating Half a Century of “Multiverse” Theory

chinmay7 writes on Slashdot:

There is an excellent selection of articles (and quite a few related scientific papers) in a special edition of Nature magazine on interpretations of the multiverse theory. ‘Fifty years ago this month Hugh Everett III published his paper proposing a “relative-state formulation of quantum mechanics” — the idea subsequently described as the ‘many worlds’ or ‘multiverse’ interpretation. Its impact on science and culture continues. In celebration, a science fiction special edition of Nature on 5 July 2007 explores the symbiosis of science and sf, as exemplified by Everett’s hypothesis, its birth, evolution, champions and opponents, in biology, physics, literature and beyond.’

FYI: Hugh Everett III is also the father of Mark Oliver Everett, a.k.a. “The Man Called E,” leader of the grossly under-appreciated (IMNERHO) band Eels. Eels’s 1998 album, “Electro-Shock Blues,” deals with suicide, death and loss, after Hugh Everett III died of a heart attack, his schizophrenic daughter committed suicide, and his wife died of cancer, leaving Mark Everett as the only surviving family member. And, I just discovered on Wikipedia, that E’s cousin was a flight attendant on the plane that was flown into the Pentagon on 9/11. Man, I guess this explains why so many Eels records are so sad, cynical, and dark.

The utterly bizarre thing is that, in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, put forth by Mark’s father, none of these things have happened (and every possible variation on them has also occurred), in infinite “universes next door,” as Robert Anton Wilson dubbed them. No wonder the dude’s so strange. I’m feeling messed up just trying to ponder all of this weirdness in the same posting!

BTW: A paid sub is required to read most of the articles in Nature, but this one, Many lives in many worlds, by Max Tegmark, is free.


Drew Endy’s Synthetic Biology (and My Adventures Therein)

On the way home from the location I dare no longer speak about, I was “suitcase raped,” as my son dubbed it. TSA officials took an uncommon interest in me and my baggage. As I looked on in horror, they paraded the entire contents of my luggage in front of everyone, including my dirty underwear, painstakingly swabbing each and every item, right down to my toothbrush handle, looking for… what? Explosives residue, I assume. Anyway, it was seriously NOT fun, surprisingly humiliating, and really did feel like a personal violation which took me days to get over. (And yes, I understand that the word “rape” is an over-statement and probably ill-advised in this instance.)

As part of this ordeal, they went through my journal, notebooks, papers, etc., sometimes snickering at what they found there. They took particular interest in a COMIC BOOK called “Adventures in Synthetic Biology,” by Drew Endy, something I picked up at said unspeakable location.

Drew is a Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and one of the people behind The BioBricks Foundation, a not-for-profit org of engineers and scientists from MIT, Harvard, UCSF, and elsewhere, “encouraging the development and responsible use of technologies based on the BioBrick standard of DNA parts that encode basic biological functions. You can read more about Drew’s work here, and more about BioBricks here. And if you want to see the comic book that entertained my new best pals at the TSA, an online version can be found here.


Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel

Yeah, I know. At this point you’re probably thinking Foo Camp/Schmoo Camp. I’ll stop with the Foo Camp postings soon. But not just yet…

I love when you’re at a conference, or otherwise meet someone, and then you go home, google them, and the true import of who you were talking to becomes apparent. Such was the case with Jeff Han. He and I got a lift from Camp to SF/SFO with Erin McKean (thanks for the lift, Erin!). We chatted about this and that over burgers and double-frieds at In-N-Out Burger. He said he was a multi-touch interface designer. He talked a little bit about the finer points of finer points (e.g. how multi-touch can also read degrees of pressure as an input variable). Nice guy, cool job, great lunch. And he was off. I got home and wanted to find out more. I ended up at this mesmerizing video and had my mind suitably blown. Yes, you’ve already seen this in Minority Report, but this is real-world tech (and there’s no need for the Michael Jackson glitter gloves). Coming soon to a Pre-Crime Sector Station near you (or hopefully some less ominous, more human-beneficial application). Also, check out Jeff’s TED presentation for a more nuts and bolts look at the tech involved.


Bill Gurstelle, In Search of Thrills, At Foo Camp

Bill Gurstelle is someone associated with Make and the Maker community to whom, through various circumstances, I’m drawn ever-closer. Bill is the author of Backyard Ballistics and Whoosh, Boom, Splat. He is a mad genius, a scholar, and a gentleman (at least he’s gentlemanly enough to warn you that he’s about to tell you something dirty or disgusting before he proceeds to do so). I spent a bunch of time with him at Foo Camp and had a blast (and no, that’s not an attempt at bad pyro punnage).

Bill, seen above in a Brian Jepson photo, gave a talk on “Living Dangerously in a Risk-Obsessed World.” It was a fun, sort of think-out-loud session for his next book, which looks at risk and thrill-seeking and its role in human evolution.

Here, Eric Wilhelm (foreground), of Instructables, tells us about the time he boxed a kangaroo. No, seriously. Also in the photo (L to R): Charles Platt, moi, Mark Atwood (standing), Mark Frauenfelder (behind Eric), and Avi Geiger (by a nose).

Brian has a few other photos of Foo in his Flickr sets.


Asshole Driven Development

One of my favorite sessions at Foo Camp was run by Scott Berkun, author of Myths of Innovation (which is what his Foo Camp talk was about). On his blog, he’s composed a short, hysterical (and spot-on) glossary of real-world software development methodologies. Take “Asshole Driven Development:”

Asshole Driven Development (ADD) – Any team where the biggest jerk makes all the big decisions. All wisdom, logic or process goes out the window when Mr. Asshole is in the room, doing whatever idiotic, selfish thing he thinks is best. There may be rules and processes, but Mr. A breaks them and people follow anyway.

Or, what’s found in most corporate structures, regardless of what they do:

Cover Your Ass Engineering (CYAE) – The driving force behind most individual efforts is to make sure than when the shit hits the fan, they are not to blame.

If you want to see a video clip of Scott’s “Myths of Innovation” talk (not from Foo Camp), here ya go.


I Got Ya Da Vinci Code, Right Here…

The Leonardian Library in Vinci, Tuscany has released to the Web Leonardo’s Madrid Codices and the Codex Atlanticus, two of his meatiest collections of scientific and technical drawings. The collections are called e-Leo and contain hi-res scans of some 3,000 pages. The goal is to eventually scan 12,000 pages worth of Da Vinci goodness, all searchable, all free. This’ll clearly be a boon to both amateur inventor-types and scholars alike.

[Via Wired]