June 8, 2011

I Spy With My Little Eye…Something Smaller?

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , , , — Brian Triber @ 9:24 pm
 Image by By Julo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons How big is small?

Planck length. Never heard of it? It’s the smallest theoretically measurable distance in the universe. It’s equal to 1.616252 x 10-35 meters. To put that into perspective, that 10-20 times the diameter of a proton. Or, imagine 1.61625 with a decimal and 35 zeros in front of it. Wicked small.

So, why can’t smaller distances be measured? Good question. There’s the practical reason and the theoretical reason. The theoretical reason is that, due to some pretty trippy effects of quantum physics, space kind of gets loopy when you get smaller than a Planck length, and so any individual effect of an object less than a Planck length becomes impossible to tell apart from the spot next to it. Like I said, trippy.

The practical reason has something to do with the diameter of particles. Essentially, particles can only be used to measure objects larger than themselves with any kind of accuracy. One way to explain this is imagine yourself in a dark room with a statue on the other side. You have an endless supply of glow-in-the-dark basketballs to lob at it. Well, you can’t see the statue directly, but its position and basic shape can be extrapolated by the way in which the basketballs bounce off. For a little more accuracy, ping-pong balls can be used, but you’re still not going to get minutiae of the statue’s surface, like how may fingers it exactly has. Although it will be possible to tell that it’s arm is pointing to the right.

Ultimately the best spheres to lob at the statue are photons. This happens all the time — just flip on the light switch, and there’s the statue in the gallery, five fingers, reaching heavenward. And it’s made of marble to boot. A scanning electron microscope works the same way, only using electrons instead of photons.

But, even electrons and photons are too big to lob at something smaller than a Planck constant. It would be the equivalent of lobbing wrecking balls at our statue, and by the time we’ve discovered its position, there’s nothing left to describe.

So, how small can we go? A Planck length. But not quite yet.

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June 1, 2011

The Future of Science, or Why the US has Lost the Space Race

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , , , , — Brian Triber @ 3:28 pm
 Image ©2007 by Rubashkyn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons What experimentation is left for space exploration?

With NASA shutting down the Space Shuttle program (a decision that I strongly disagree with for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the US giving up a technological advantage it has over other developed nations), the big question that springs to mind is, what role does NASA and space exploration have in the future for the US?

Putting aside such notions as Star Trek, and Fantastic Four universes, the reality is that space exploration of the Apollo variety will never again have the same impact on humanity as that 1969 moon landing did. Unless, somehow, intelligent alien species are involved.

The impact of science on humanity can’t be denied. The somewhat apocryphal epigram “I spent \$25.4 billion and all I got was this Velcro,” echoes the current fiscal attitude in the US. But, truth be told, it wasn’t only Velcro that came from the program. Apollo resulted in the invention, development, and improvement of flight computers, integrated circuits, fuel cells, computer-controlled manufacturing, extended shelf-life (freeze-dried) foods, athletic shoes, home insulation, water purification, CAT scans, MRIs, cordless tools and appliances, and about 1400 other inventions.

The impact of the Apollo program, however, shouldn’t be measured by any of the benefits it provided, the technology that sprang from it, the medical advances and understanding of the human body, not even the bragging rights to John Glenn’s footprint. The fact is that the space race in the 1960’s was a part of the Cold War, and even if neither side made it to the moon, the money would have been spent.

The problem is that there will never be any equivalent influx of investment in science until that day comes when we are forced to interact with extraterrestrial species. Unless private corporations have something to gain from it.

Currently, there is a single glimmer of hope, and that’s the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS has experimental racks called EXPRESS Racks. These are modular equipment racks that are designed with interfaces for experimental modules that can weigh up to 64 pounds, and can connect to 500 watts of 28vDC power, RS422, ethernet, discrete, and video data connectors, air and water cooling, and nitrogen supply and waste gas vent. What this means is that any company can pay an organization with the capability to deliver a standardized payload to the ISS to conduct zero-gravity experiments in what amounts to the most sophisticated cleanroom ever invented.

But the ISS is the International Space Station. So what does this have to do with NASA? Only that due to the US’s short-sightedness, we have removed our own access to the most important laboratory in our history, and instead of being able to provide delivery services to other countries, for a fee, we will now have to pay them to run our own experiments.

It’s true that NASA will continue to design and perform unmanned missions. However, unless the equipment and interfaces are standardized (requirements that may need to be ignored for specialized experimental equipment), costs will remain high every time redundant technology needs to be developed anew. Does that really serve this nation’s technological and fiscal interests?

What’s the result of this? Without a reusable delivery vehicle, the United States will lose its technological edge, resulting in increased technology imports and liscencing from the EU, Japan, and China. The end result for NASA, is that the Agency becomes a boat without a paddle.

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January 12, 2011

Life as Art, or Catch a Shooting Star

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:13 am
 Image from Wikipedia. Art, or garbage? Image from Taglialatella Galleries. Also, you can paint your own Marilyn at WebExhibits. Art, or mass production? Image from ObeyGiant.com. Art, or graffiti? Image from Microscopesblog.com. Art, or life?

What is Art? Is it true that art is better defined by what it is not than what it is?

We believe that garbage is not art, but Marcel Duchamp proved that wasn’t true when he displayed a urinal as found art with his piece, Fountain, back in 1917. Andy Warhol went about proving that mass produced items can be art with 100 Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych in 1962. Shepard Fairey has echoed the same theme in a new way begining in 1989 with his André the GIant Has a Posse street art sticker campaign, and more recently with his Urban Renewal Kit, which makes people part of the performance aspect of the art by allowing individuals to download, print and paste up copies of his André Obey images.

Usually, one can label things like urinals, mass produced paintings, and graphics as “design.” But the fact that Duchamp’s urinal, the Marilyn paintings, and the André graphics are considered art, points to a more subtle idea: the definition of what is art changes over time. Art is actually a moving object, defined by what has come before. Anyone else, at this point, simply displaying a urinal is a plumber, anyone making block prints is a factory worker, anyone posting an André sticker is a defacer of property.

(The exception to this seems to be when a work is a commentary on a previous work of art, but even then, isn’t it in fact further defining the previous work rather than defining itself? Examples of this are Stieglitz’s photo of Duchamp’s fountain, and Fairey’s self referential Giant Star. But this is a digression…)

The same might also be said of “Life.” Is it easier to define life by what is not life, honing in on the true definition (as science has over the ages), the definition adapting and evolving like life itself? In fact, can’t life be defined more by the questions surrounding its negative space than the answers that fill its matter?

Scanning electron microscopy works similarly, by measuring the angles of bounced electrons to discover what is not under the lens, just as photons bounce off objects to reveal what is not being viewed. And isn’t Duchamp doing the same with his urinal, by allowing it to define negative space, just as Warhol defines what isn’t mass produced, just as Fairey defines what isn’t street art, just as life defines what isn’t inanimate?

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January 4, 2011

Fastener Fascination

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 8:26 pm
 Swingline stapler image from ACCO. How did offices manage before the desk stapler? Image from Wikipedia. One of the oldest staplers invented in 1879 by McGill. Image from ThinkGeek. And one of the newest, an oxymoron called the “staple-free stapler”, that punches a tab through the paper and tucks it through a slot. Strangely enough, this particular model is not available through Staples.
• In the 18th century, King Louis XV of France used the first stapler as a royal seal for his documents.
• 1866 saw the manufacture and sale of the first modern stapler, mass-produced by Henry R. Heyl.
• The first staple remover was not invented until 1936, which makes one question how documents were unfastened in the intervening 70 years, as brute force would shred the document. Thankfully it wasn’t necessary to retain originals in pristine condition for photocopying until 1959.
• Other office fasteners include the rubber band (created in 1845), paper clips (1899), the binder clip (1910), Scotch tape (1930), the bulldog clip (1944), screw posts, brass split-pin fasteners, loose-leaf binder rings, and the OIC prong fastener (dates unknown).
• Staples actually date back as far as the 6th Century BCE, when large metal dovetail staples were used to fasten together stone construction in ancient Persia. Staples, usually applied with pneumatic or electric guns, are still used in construction for holding things like vapor barriers in place on housing exteriors prior to finishing.
• Not to be outdone (or undone) the surgical stapler was invented in 1908. Surgical staplers weren’t, however, mass-manufactured and widely available until 1964.
• Surgical steel staples are also used in the BME subculture in trans-dermal and staple piercings, both with pins terminated in screw-on balls to retain the piercing (as in eye-brow piercings), and in a skin-pocketing technique referred to as flesh stapling.

Back in high school, I used to help out in the Education Director’s office during lunch. One student who hung out during lunch with me was so fascinated by the office stapler that she intentionally drove a staple into her finger. (It was 1983, so staples in fingers were unusual, but much tamer than what some of the other kids were doing.)

On a somewhat related note, I also have a friend whose pain threshold is so high that he used to drive Swingline staples, five at a time, into his forearm and pluck them off like burrs. I still wonder that he never contracted tetanus.

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December 28, 2010

Automats

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 6:26 pm
 Image from the Automat.net. The wonder of impersonal food service.
• Automats almost experienced a brief revival in NYC, where Bamn!, located on 8th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues offered a modern American comfort food menu. They opened in 2006 and sadly closed in 2009.
• The interiors of automat restaurants were generally in the Art Deco style.
• The first automat restaurant was opened in 1902 by Horn & Hardart, and remained popular until the 1950’s. See the Smithsonian’s online article for more details.
• The last original automat closed in NYC in 1991.
• By all accounts, the automat was done in by fast food restaurants.

I have no personal memories of automats, as the last one in the Boston area went defunct in my childhood. I imagine the experience was similar to picking from a Woolworth’s lunch menu, being served by vending machines, and eating in the atmosphere of a Johnny Rocket’s. Does anyone remember eating at an automat?

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December 21, 2010

Philosophical Thoughts

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:53 am
 Image from the Sydney Morning Herald. This is your brain on blogs. Any questions?

From Wikipedia (for whatever that’s worth):

• Sentience: the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences.
• Consciousness: variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience feeling, wakefulness, the understanding of the concept self, or the executive control system of the mind.
• Creativity: defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to create”, which, according to the threshold hypothesis, has a correlation to intelligence. (Note that experiments to prove this hypothesis has ended in mixed results.) Wikipedia actually requires, by their definition, that something of value be produced! I would make a strong argument that as long as something is being produced, wether of value or not, creativity is occurring. My initial reasoning is that the value of a created valuable is biased by wether the observer considers it to have value, and that is actually a measure of economics, not of philosophy or psychology.
• Intelligence: defined in Wikipedia as “…an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, learning from past experiences, planning, and problem solving.” Of course this doesn’t really get a grip around the topic, as there are at least seven theories of intelligence listed, and two additional scientific definitions, including one published in Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, a 1996 report published by an APA task force, that itself references at least 5 theories. So, in toto, there’s been an awful lot of intelligence expended in defining what exactly intelligence is.
• Intentionality: the Wikipedia article defines this in a roundabout way to identify wether an act is intentional or not — essentially circular logic as far as definitions go. Further along, the article references Franz Brentano’s definition, stating that intentionality is a characteristic of “acts of consciousness”, which once again avoids providing a proper definition since acts of consciousness have many characteristics besides intentionality, although this definition does begin to hone in on it.
• Sapience: the ability to act with judgement. The Wikipedia article goes on to state that the terms sentience, self-awareness, and consciousness are used interchangeably with sapience in Sci-Fi. Hence the initial thrust of this research into what makes us human.
• Artificial Intelligence: “the study and design of intelligent agents”, or a machine that observes its environment, acquires knowledge from those observations, acts to ensure its success, and learns from those acts. This is a little different from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. For a little chuckle, check out Asimov’s 30 Laws of Robotics. (I especially like #11.)
• Self-Awareness: In a bit of art imitating life imitating art, ad infinitum, ad imitatum, the self-referential definition for self-awareness appears to be awareness of oneself. As an individual.
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December 14, 2010

Soups On! And a Side of Fries…

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 1:31 pm
 Image from D & S Vending. The RMI 8050.

Back when I was in high school, attending the High School Studies Program on Saturdays at MIT, there were a series of ancient vending machines, including this one (or one similar enough to it that it may as well have been this one), in the basement of Building 7 near the elevator. As a kid who essentially ate school lunches, I thought that the machine was alright. It dispensed chicken soup that was occasionally a little darker than normal, but on a cold winter day, salty soup was good.

I guess the tip off that the machine wasn’t well maintained was when I went to purchase a cup of tea that tasted like it had coffee in it. And again when my hot chocolate had a couple of noodles floating in it that I had convinced myself were actually malformed marshmallows extruded from some sort of tube that needed cleaning inside the device — after all, if MIT could make extruded french fries in their cafeteria, why not extruded marshmallows for the hot chocolate?

Extruded french fries, I hear you ask? Well, that’s another story. At the time — and now I’m dating myself — in 1984 the MIT cafeteria used to sell extruded french fries. My best friend Max and I would go to the corner vendor for a cup of chili with cheese and onions, and then go into the student center cafeteria for the french fries. This part of the experience was kind of a ritual. The cook would place a wire deep fry basket under the receptacle of a big machine attached to a water pipe. Occasionally, the cook emptied a bag of powder — ostensibly potato flour of some sort but it might also have been plaster dust — into a hopper at the top of the machine. He pressed a button on the front, which was inordinately large despite being the only button on the machine. After a compressor kicked on, french fries extruded into the fry basket. Within seconds, the basket was removed from the machine and plunged into oil the color of a raven’s wing at midnight. If the cook wasn’t fast enough, the potato sludge would congeal back into a single mass and have to be discarded.

Those are my memories of the food machines at MIT. Does anyone have other stories of vending machines they’d like to share?

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December 10, 2010

The Eyes Have It

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 9:52 pm
 Image from www.makezine.com. Big Brother Is Watching

Wired Science online announced the results of a Newcastle University psychology study today where posters asking restaurant customers to pick up after themselves were displayed with two different designs. The message was the same on both posters, but one had a picture of flowers while the other had a staring eye. The result? People were twice as likely to clean up their messes when the staring eye was used.

The article claims that the study was testing the theory of “nudge psychology”, which posits that people behave “better” (whatever that means) when the “better” option is pointed out to them. I think in this case the experimental assumptions might be flawed. Isn’t it possible that, in a society where we have been bombarded all our lives with the understanding that someone is always watching us (God, the government, whoever’s on the other side of my web camera, the camera on the traffic light on the corner), being stared at, even subliminally by the image of an eye, might do something to keep us reflexively honest?

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The Antikythera Mechanism – a Mechanical Computer

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , — Brian Triber @ 10:25 am
 Image from Nikon Metrology. The Antikythera Mechanism, which may look familiar to some, was created around 80 BC, and found in a shipwreck in Greece in 1900. Image from Nikon Metrology. This photo shows an X-Ray image of the device.

These images are from the Nikon Metrology website. It has been theorized that the device was used for predicting eclipses.

A video of a virtual reconstruction of the device by Wright and Vicentini is on YouTube.

According to a story by Lester Haines from the online tech news site The Register, a working version of the mechanism has been duplicated in Legos by an engineer from Apple computer named Andrew Carol. Here is the video of the working model.

November 24, 2010

The Name a Character Contest

Filed under: Mark Ix,Writing — Brian Triber @ 11:11 am

I’ve been ruminating on the next book for a while, and delaying drafting it. The plot is essentially complete, although I know from experience that there’s no such thing as “complete” until the final edit, and even then it might not be.

The new book is a bit of a cross between The Matrix meets The Office. I don’t want to give too much away, but the working title is “Mark Ix”, after the main character who finds himself the target of bizarre attacks by the office’s mail-delivery robots, and an invisible protagonist named “Smike”, who would like nothing more than for Mark to be sacrificed to the gods of computing. Mark’s department has been moved so often that his boss now occupies Mark’s outer office, and the staplers keep disappearing from everyone’s desks. Mark’s been falling for the girl in the next office, Lillian, a passive-aggressive software engineer who refuses to talk to anyone except her plants. Most alarming of all, however, are Mark’s frequent blackouts, leaving him with missing memories and a door tag with a new last name every time.

So that’s the basic gist of it. Now, I have a few minor characters I’m developing who need good clever names. So, as a kind of contest, I’m putting this out there for whoever wants to join in. Help me name one of these characters!

1: He works as the company archivist. I picture him as reserved, gaunt, and so introverted and high strung that if he snapped, there’d be nothing left to bury.

2: The maintenance worker, lethargic, and resistant to any kind of interaction with anyone, except to complain about how much work he has, and how much the conversation is setting him behind.

3: The secretary, who is always backtalking, even to her boss. Her primary goal is to offload as much of her work onto others as she can. She is also a passive-aggressive type, and knows how to use office equipment as weapons in order to defend herself.

4: A security officer. This character is stoic to a fault, like the crack running across his/her jaw from being wound up so tight. He/she isn’t very smart about much, but those areas that he/she knows he/she is an expert in, in fact hyperintelligent.

So, there are the four characters up for naming. Anyone who would like to help name these characters can submit a name by responding to this post. The best name will be used in the manuscript, and I’ll thank the winning contributor by name in the acknowledgments. Good luck!

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