Technology

A Spaceborne Time Capsule

You can write a message to future generations at the KEO project. It’ll be launched on a satellite that won’t return to Earth for 50,000 years.

Even more ambitious is the LAGEOS satellite, which will re-enter our atmosphere in 8.4 million years bearing a plaque that shows the arrangement of the continents. Let’s hope our descendants still have catcher’s mitts.

High PageRanks

Web sites with a Google PageRank of 10:

And, of course, Google itself.

Luddite by Degrees

Douglas Adams’ “rules that describe our reactions to technologies”:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Watch Your Step

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duck_of_Vaucanson.jpg

Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.

When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”

Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.

Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.

Why Is a Manhole Cover Round?

Actual questions asked in Microsoft job interviews:

  • How are M&Ms made?
  • Suppose you had eight billiard balls, and one of them was slightly heavier, but the only way to tell was by putting it on a scale against another. What’s the fewest number of times you’d have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
  • Why do you want to work at Microsoft?
  • One train leaves Los Angeles at 15 mph heading for New York. Another train leaves from New York at 20 mph heading for Los Angeles on the same track. If a bird, flying at 25 mph, leaves from Los Angeles at the same time as the train and flies back and forth between the two trains until they collide, how far will the bird have traveled?
  • How many gas stations are there in the USA?
  • You’ve got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?
  • The interviewer hands you a black pen and says nothing but “This pen is red.”
  • Pairs of primes separated by a single number are called prime pairs. Examples are 17 and 19. Prove that the number between a prime pair is always divisible by 6 (assuming both numbers in the pair are greater than 6). Now prove that there are no “prime triples.”

At the end they ask, “What was the hardest question asked of you today?” My answer: “Why do you want to work at Microsoft?”

Oldest Domains

The 10 oldest currently registered dot-com domains:

  1. symbolics.com (registered 3/15/85)
  2. bbn.com (4/24/85)
  3. think.com (5/24/85)
  4. mcc.com (7/11/85)
  5. dec.com (9/30/85 )
  6. northrop.com (11/7/85)
  7. xerox.com (1/9/86)
  8. sri.com (1/17/86)
  9. hp.com (3/3/86)
  10. bellcore.com (3/5/86)

Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness

From the Hall of Technical Documentation Weirdness:

http://www.darrenbarefoot.com/hall/

“Wear a bad sweater dress, suffer the consequences.”

Dear Prudence

At Future Me you can send e-mail to your future self — and read what others have sent:

I hope you’re happy now. I hope you have a Valentine this year. I know you didn’t last year. I hope you’ve done something positive with your life, but that’s unlikely. You’re ugly. Everyone hates ugly people. You’ll never get laid. You’ll never have another girlfriend. Girls hate ugly people. (written Sun Feb 13, 2005, to be delivered Tue Feb 14, 2006)

165 University Avenue

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:165_University_Ave.%2C_Palo_Alto%2C_California.JPG

It’s just an ordinary office in Palo Alto, but it’s going to need some extra space for plaques. This one building, 165 University Avenue, has served as the incubator for Logitech, Google, PayPal, and Danger Research, makers of the Danger Hiptop handheld device.

That’s even more surprising given the building’s small size. The first floor is occupied by storefronts, and the upper story is only 5,000 square feet, usually divided among three companies. The tenants are almost stepping on each other: Google left behind a sign with its logo, which Paypal then left in place for the next tenant, Danger.

What accounts for so many huge successes in such a small space? It’s probably mostly due to the proximity to Stanford, but don’t rule out owner Rahim Amidi, who runs a small company that provides early funding to tech companies. Apparently Amidi has a good eye: Of the 20 companies in which he’s invested, two have gone public and only two have failed. “If you know someone who is the next Danger or Google or PayPal,” he says, “let me know.”

Auguries

In 1900 the Ladies Home Journal made 29 predictions about the year 2000. Sample:

There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.

These prophecies reveal as much about the nature of science fiction as about the nature of science. They’re often utopian, or naive extrapolations of existing knowledge. And change is accelerating. I’m sure the world of 2100 is literally unimaginable to us today. It’s not even worth trying.

Thank You for Not Littering

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

Even the pristine hinterlands aren’t pristine anymore. In the early 1990s, British zoologist Tim Benton took a walk along a mile of shoreline on Ducie Island, a speck of land 4,970 miles east of Australia. Here’s what he found:

  • 268 unidentifiable pieces of plastic
  • 171 glass bottles
  • 74 bottle tops
  • 71 plastic bottles
  • 67 small buoys
  • 66 buoy fragments
  • 46 large buoys
  • 44 pieces of rope
  • 29 segments of plastic pipe
  • 25 shoes
  • 18 jars
  • 14 crates
  • 8 pieces of copper sheeting
  • 7 aerosol cans
  • 7 food and drink cans
  • 6 fluorescent tubes
  • 6 light bulbs
  • 4 jerry cans
  • 3 cigarette lighters
  • 2 pen tops
  • 2 dolls’ heads
  • 2 gloves (a pair)
  • 1 asthma inhaler
  • 1 construction worker’s hat
  • 1 football (punctured)
  • 1 glue syringe
  • 1 truck tire
  • 1 plastic coat hanger
  • 1 plastic foot mat
  • 1 plastic skittle
  • 1 small gas cylinder
  • 1 tea strainer
  • 1 tinned meat pie
  • 1 toy soldier

And “0.5 toy airplane.” That’s 953 items of debris altogether, on an island of 2.5 square miles, in the least populous country in the world.

Ransom Is As Ransom Does

http://contactsheet.org/junk/ransom.html

Contact Sheet takes the drudgery out of ransom notes.

QWERTYUIOP

The longest word you can type with your left hand is STEWARDESSES.

With the right, it’s a tie: LOLLIPOP and MONOPOLY.

Heady

http://www.doctormacro.com/index.htmlDoctor Macro has high-quality images of classic films and their stars, mostly from the 1940s and earlier. This one is a publicity still of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-born star of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah.

Lamarr is an object lesson in the price of beauty. She had quite a good technical education, and actually patented a device that made radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect. But the world saw only her face: She had to drug her obsessive husband to escape to London, and then Hollywood saddled her with demeaning epithets like “the most beautiful girl in films” and “the Laurence Olivier of orgasm.” When she tried to join the National Inventors Council, she was told she could better help the war effort by selling war bonds.

In the end she went through five more husbands before she passed away in 2000; if she was bitter at her fame, it was certainly understandable. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Language!

One downside of open-source software is the amount of profanity in the programmers’ comments. Vidar Holen tracks the number of swear words in the Linux kernel: At last count there were 139 craps, 101 shits, 61 fucks, 16 bastards … and 110 penguins.

DIY

http://www.mrpicassohead.com/create.htmlSteven Wright used to say, “I’ve been doing a lot of abstract painting lately, extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas. I just think about it.”

With Mr. Picassohead you can make a Cubist portrait in about 60 seconds. I spent a little longer on this one, pretending to get the composition right, but it’s hard to go wrong with drag-and-drop noses.

Even simpler is the Mondrian Machine — even a dead guy could produce a neoplasticist masterwork if you clicked the mouse for him.

I suppose the masters wouldn’t approve of these pushbutton knockoffs; Picasso seemed to take a dim view of technology in general. “Computers are useless,” he once said. “They can only give you answers.”

Of course, if you have real talent, machines can be a useful tool, too. Art.com’s artPad is a lot easier to use than real brushes and paints, and the gallery has some decent abstracts.

The Experts Speak

“The bow is a simple weapon, firearms are very complicated things which get out of order in many ways … a very heavy weapon and tires out soldiers on the march. Whereas also a bowman can let off six aimed shots a minute, a musketeer can discharge but one in two minutes.”

That’s Colonel Sir John Smyth in 1591, advising the British Privy Council to skip muskets and stick with bows.

InfoToday collected a lot of similarly farsighted advice into an online feature, appropriately called OOPS!

It’ll Never Work

The Museum of Unworkable Devices debunks a whole fleet of perpetual-motion machines.

Topsy-Turvy

http://ambigram.matic.com/ambigram.htm

Ambigrams are word renderings that can be read both right-side up and upside down (or, sometimes, in a mirror). They’re hard to do convincingly, though some designers are pretty good at it. The one above was actually generated by a computer: Word.Net’s Ambigram.Matic. It’s not as elegant as the others, but I’m surprised that a machine can do this at all.

Harrison Ford, Call Your Agent

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Air_Force_One_over_Mt._Rushmore.jpgThe exact layout of Air Force One has always been classified, but How Stuff Works has figured it out and rather recklessly published it online.

When they retire the plane in 2010, I’m hoping they put it up on eBay. At 4,000 square feet, it’s twice the size of my house, and my house doesn’t have a pharmacy, an operating table, 85 telephones, 19 televisions, radar jammers, hand-crafted wooden furniture, and flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles.

Also, Air Force One holds 2,000 meals and feeds 100 people at a time, and it can carry 70 passengers halfway around the world without refueling. I think that would be handy on vacations. I can probably fit 10 people in my dining room if we set up an extra card table, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Blackboard Jumble

http://www.milinkito.com/swf/bart.php

Assign your own Bart Simpson chalk message.

City Lights

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg

Earth’s city lights, seen by satellite. You can make out major transportation networks: the American interstate highway system, the trans-Siberian railroad, the Nile. 100 years after the invention of electric light, only Antarctica is entirely dark.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur is a series of Java-based puzzles in which you have to escape a maze without getting mashed by a computerized monster that moves predictably. There are 14 levels, and I can’t get past level 4.

The interesting thing is that the puzzles were designed by a computer, and they’re now being used in AI experiments at the National University of Ireland. So computers are now solving puzzles designed by other computers.

What?

The Library of Vanished Sounds includes steam engines and teletypes, telephone rings and LP records.