How unique is our solar system?

Brian Koberlein, on Medium:

The simple division of our solar system into rocky and gassy worlds is the result of a complex planetary dance that in many ways defies the odds, and lies on the outskirts of what’s “normal” or, at least, average. But the galaxy is a very large place, with somewhere around 300 billion stars, and therefore, 300 billion chances at life, and of having rocky, Earth-like planets in their habitable zones. While there are likely many other planetary systems similar to ours, the vast majority will be devoid of anything like our home world. As we seek out new worlds with life — and potentially, new civilizations — on them, our best chance for an Earth-like planet might not be a planet like ours, but rather on a world that’s right out of Star Trek: the twin moons Remus and Romulus, orbiting a gas giant which in turn orbits its parent star.

For a long time I’ve loved the idea of a habitable moon orbiting a “hot jovian.” But it’s interesting that the particular configuration of our solar system (with its cold jovians) may not be all that common. Fortunately, as far as getting life started, I believe there’s more than one way to get the job done.

Hollywood Foley artist Gregg Barbanell

Zachary Crockett, for Priceonomics:

Barbanell is a Hollywood “Foley” artist, a member of a small, highly-skilled group of experts who add custom sounds into television and film scenes in post-production, using a bevy of makeshift props. Named after one of film’s earliest sound pioneers, Foley is an antiquated craft — and in a digitized era of cinema, it is one of the last of the industry’s “low-tech” jobs.

These folks are responsible for recording nearly every footstep and prop sound in the movies — the things that you never really notice, yet bring a scene to life. It’s at once one of the most important elements in film, and the most overlooked. Unlike sound effects editors, Foley artists don’t rely on libraries of pre-recorded sounds: they perform them “live,” using creativity, intuition, and a small dose of physics.

In his 35 years in the trade, Barbanell has over 500 credits, including huge hits like Breaking BadThe Walking Dead and Little Miss Sunshine — though you’ve probably never recognized his work: the best Foley blends so seamlessly with the scene, that it is lost to the viewer.

I remember seeing a short feature about Foley work when I was a kid, and it enthralled me. Ever since, I’ve paid attention to sounds in TV shows and movies, and knowing that the sounds were added later — and usually created in unexpected ways — has never taken me out of the story. I relish sound design.

“I Followed My Stolen iPhone Across The World, Became A Celebrity In China, And Found A Friend For Life”

As great as that title is, it only scratches the surface of this entirely silly, sweet story.

Matt Stopera, for BuzzFeed:

I’m sitting on my couch with some friends going through my photo stream on my new phone. That’s when I see a ton of pictures I didn’t take, most memorably about 20 selfies of some dude and an orange tree. Hilarious and scary.

I obviously freak out, show everyone the pictures, and for an hour we all speculate about what the fuck is going on with my phone. We come up with a bunch of theories that basically revolve around crossing iCloud photo streams, North Korea hackings, and hauntings. My phone is possessed.

For a month, this orange man’s pictures keep on showing up on my phone. I start to get used to the daily photo updates, and it becomes fun for me to check my phone and see this guy’s pictures. It’s mysterious.

Check out the full story for a real modern day odyssey, kicked off by modern technology.

John Cleese interview

Say no more. Actually, I’ll say that this is a pleasantly wide-ranging interview that dips into some unexpected areas.

Christoph Scheuermann and Barbara Supp, for Der Spiegel:

Cleese: When I was young, I felt that if you made fun of a certain kind of behavior, people would realize it was ridiculous. And then it would slowly disappear. It didn’t. Of course not. The comedian Peter Cook made that funny joke about these wonderful Berlin cabarets in the 1930s that did so much to hold back Adolf Hitler. Well, you know what happened.

SPIEGEL: Do you have to be left-wing as a comedian?

Cleese: The good ones are on the left, yes. There are some decent right-wing ones, but they’re few and far between. Anyone who is rather fundamentally critical of society and the way it works is much more likely to be on the left.

Mark Landis, most generous art forger

Jason Caffrey, for BBC World Service:

For decades, Mark Landis donated art to museums and galleries across the US. He was feted as a wealthy collector but the pictures were fakes that he had created himself. He was never prosecuted though – he didn’t take payment so hadn’t broken any law.

“It obviously isn’t a crime to give a picture to a museum, and they treated me like royalty. One thing led to another, and I kept doing it for 30 years,” says Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forgers in US history.

It’s an amazing story. But it’s even better to see Landis in action, in Art and Craft (2014), a documentary about this unique individual.

The BBC’s Jo Fidgen interviewed Landis in early March.

Do you ever have trouble telling right from left?

Gerard Gormley, for The Conversation:

Left-right discrimination is a complex neuro-psychological process involving several higher neurological functions such as the ability to integrate sensory and visual information, language function and memory. For some it is second nature but for others a considerable challenge. You can take a test here to see how well you do.

One further problem facing the health profession is that when a doctor or nurse faces a patient, their right-side is on the patient’s left-side. So correctly distinguishing right from left in a patient also involves the visuo-spatial function of mentally rotating images.

My technique: I can catch my middle finger’s metacarpophalangeal joint on my right hand — only my right hand. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. If you say “right” or “left,” watch my hand flick. That’s how I know which side is which.

SpaceX teams up with research institutions to improve rocket engine development

Timothy Prickett Morgan, for The Platform:

The computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, software that is used to simulate the movement of fluids and gases and their ignition inside of all kinds of engines is particularly bad at assisting in rocket engine design.

“Methane is a fairly simple hydrocarbon that is perfectly good as a fuel,” Lichtl said. “The challenge here is to design an engine that works efficiently with such a compound. But rocket engine CFD is hard. Really hard.”

And so, SpaceX is working with various academic research institutions and Sandia National Laboratories to come up with its very own CFD software, which will be used to create future – and beefier – versions of the company’s Merlin rocket engines suitable for the trip to Mars and able to burn methane as a fuel.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at SpaceX, and the broader application of these advancements is a great unknown.

I love getting a peek behind the scenes of Elon Musk’s operations, but, in my opinion, he and his team (and the institutions they’re partnered with) have positioned themselves to contribute as much to human advancement as any of history’s great innovators. It sounds like hyperbole, until you read about each new advancement in the news.

Festo’s Ants and Butterflies

David Conrad, for I Programmer:

Why does Festo spend so much time creating impressive robots?

Simple — all of the techniques can be used in factory automation and that’s what Festo specializes in. Wouldn’t you want the company that can build ants and beautiful butterfly robots to automate your factory?

It’s always made sense to me that early robots should emulate insects, which are essentially nature’s own robots. But if you watch the butterflies demonstration in particular, you may be impressed by the grace with which they perform.

The other thing I like is how they “home” to recharge themselves. It’s not just functional, the mechanism is expressed in their very form.

Definitely check out Festo’s other projects inspired by nature.

What Plants Talk About

Su Avasthi, for Modern Farmer:

They don’t have mouths, ears or even a brain, but according to some scientists, plants are talking all the time. We just need to understand their language.

Once we do, we may discover that plants routinely exhibit animal-like behavior. What if, as some research indicates, they communicate with each other and their environment? Perhaps plants hunt, scream, share and nurture their young, just like members of the animal kingdom.

That’s the fascinating premise behind the 53-minute documentary Nature: What Plants Talk About, an episode of the acclaimed PBS series now streaming on Netflix.

I’m definitely going to check that one out.

Physicists perform machine learning on a photonic quantum computer

Lisa Zyga, for

For the first time, physicists have performed machine learning on a photonic quantum computer, demonstrating that quantum computers may be able to exponentially speed up the rate at which certain machine learning tasks are performed—in some cases, reducing the time from hundreds of thousands of years to mere seconds. The new method takes advantage of quantum entanglement, in which two or more objects are so strongly related that paradoxical effects often arise since a measurement on one object instantaneously affects the other. Here, quantum entanglement provides a very fast way to classify vectors into one of two categories, a task that is at the core of machine learning.

I like that we’re learning to use quantum computing to provide predictable results, even though we haven’t fully explained the weirdness of quantum computing itself.

Should We Keep a Low Profile in Space?

Seth Shostak, for the NYTimes:

The aliens could very well be out there. And that realization has spurred a call by some for broadcasts intended to elicit a communication from at least the nearest other star systems. But we know nothing of the aliens’ possible motives or behavior. Therefore, it’s conceivable that betraying our existence might prompt aggressive action from space.

Broadcasting is likened to “shouting in the jungle” — not a good idea when you don’t know what’s out there. The British physicist Stephen Hawking alluded to this danger by noting that on Earth, when less advanced societies drew the attention of those more advanced, the consequences for the former were seldom agreeable.

In my opinion, living in fear — acting under the assumption that the very worst possibility is probable — is a waste of our time as galactic citizens. Even if malevolent forces do exist, as the article says, mincing words is unlikely to lessen our risk. Were it up to me, we’d be broadcasting night and day, to all points.

Forgetting old memories to form new ones

Roheeni Saxena, for Ars Technica:

Focusing on the process itself, the researchers found that the selective retrieval of the second association caused forgetting of the first association. When subjects were asked to recall the second associations, the competing first associations were no longer recognized at the same levels. This effect remained true for faces, objects, and scenes, indicating it is not specific to certain stimuli.

The data also showed that the competing memories were progressively more repressed. This gradual suppression of competing patterns was expected based on past studies.

It’s interesting to map the limits of our neural circuitry — to see just how limited we are, and to be able to predict how we’ll fail. Of course, the strength of any design is the result of the prioritization of one set of values over others.

I do love when minds contemplate themselves.

Science, and the confusing of unknowable value with no value

Kevin Ashton, on Medium:

Science begets technology, which begets goods, which beget value. Science is the principal source of value in modern economies. Second, because economies are chaotic, most of the consequences of any particular technology are unpredictable. An example: The watermill led to the automatic loom, which led to general literacy.

Add in the fact that the point of basic science is to know what’s unknown, and we see that the dumbest question requests the unknowable value of the unknowable consequences of an unknown thing. Note that only two of these are “unknowable.” The third, the “thing,” is only “unknown.” And the unknown, not the unknowable, is what should guide basic science.

When the only things you have are beans, the only thing you can do is count them.

Learning to spot the light signature of relativistic spacecraft

As the article says, this one’s food for thought for potential cosmonauts.

MIT Technology Review:

The movement of a relativistic spacecraft will have another effect. It should scatter the cosmic microwave background in a way that produces a unique signature. “As a baryonic spacecraft travels at relativistic speeds it will interact with the CMB through scattering to cause a frequency shift that could be detectable on Earth with current technology,” say Yurtsever and Wilkinson.

They go on to calculate the properties of this signature. They say the scattering should generate radiation in the terahertz to infrared regions of the spectrum and that this signal should move relative to the background. “The salient features of the signal are a rapid drop in temperature accompanied by a rapid rise in intensity, along with the motion of the source with respect to a reference frame fixed to distant quasars, which should be observable,” say Yurtsever and Wilkinson.

In other words, if relativistic spacecraft are zipping across interstellar space, this kind of signature should be visible using the current generation of astrophysical observatories.

But then there’s this:

Indeed, should some advanced civilization make this kind of jump into the cosmos, the interaction with the cosmic photons is likely to be the least of their problems since a collision with matter would be much more damaging.

It occurs to me that this would only be a problem if we’re talking about a linear traversal from point A to point B. While we’re feeding our thoughts though, we might also assume that a civilization sufficiently advanced to ford interstellar distances may have discovered how to fold space, thus obviating the need to dodge matter at all.

Jason Shiga’s ambitious “comics” bend the page and the mind

Laura Hudson, for Boing Boing:

The first time [Jason] Shiga blew my mind was with an interactive graphic novel called Hello World. The story is simple enough: You’re a little boy sent to the store by his mother with a grocery list of items and a suitcase to carry them home. But the moment you open the cover, it’s obvious this is unlike any comic you’ve ever seen before.

Every page is sliced in half, separating the comic into two parts. The top half is where the story unfolds, while the bottom half displays the contents of your suitcase. The two sides are connected by an intricate system of page-turning: When you see a number inside a square, you flip to a page in the top half of the comic, advancing the story; when you see a number inside a circle, you flip to a page on the bottom, adding and removing items from your suitcase.

I love this, at least in concept — I’d be far too conscious of the creative process to lose myself in the piece. It strikes me that his process is more like that of a puzzle-maker (or even sculptor) than a comic artist. The result is a branching narrative that really bends the mind if you think about it too hard.

As a kid, I attempted to write an adventure game with a simple inventory system. I quickly realized how difficult it was, given that you not only have to account for a long string of items, but how each one individually (or in combination!) changes the available variables in each node. Working in a static medium, Shiga has to “hardwire” much of this, but his solution is pretty ingenious:

Rather than just starting over from scratch each time the story ends, Shiga also wanted the reader to be able to build on their experiences in Meanwhile—to do new things with the knowledge and experience they acquire.”It’s really difficult to have save states in a book, whereas in a computer game you can have a character pick up objects or have inventory or change something about the environment,” says Shiga.

So he added a twist: secret codes. For example, in order to travel back in time further than seven minutes, you need to learn the correct series of shapes that will unlock the time machine. Once you find the path that teaches you the code, you have to remember it; that’s the key that opens up not just the time machine but far more exciting adventures that lead both forwards and backwards in time.

In all, a great in-depth writeup here. Definitely worth reading even if you’re not into gaming.

William Gibson After Trying VR: “They Did It!”

And then he said, “My birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison!” Just kidding, that’s from Lawnmower Man. But with all this talk of “the father of cyberpunk” and other cyber-things, it’s hard to keep those early forays into virtual worlds at bay.

Mario Aguilar, for Gizmodo:

He showed Gibson a couple of live action VR pieces, including a 360 immersive video his company made for Dos Equis. In the video, you’re transported to a Masquerade at The Most Interesting Man In the World’s mansion. You sit there for a few minutes as the room fills up with exotically costumed people.

It wasn’t all advertisements, thankfully. Gibson also saw a piece called Strangers by Felix and Paul Studios. The five-minute VR short takes you to an intimate moment at the studio loft of musician Patrick Watson. I haven’t seen it, but it was selected for Sundance, and critics loved it.

I remember seeing a Virtuality rig back at Macworld ’94 (or thereabouts), though I didn’t get to try it out. We haven’t come as far as we have to go, but I can’t wait to try it, maybe in the privacy of my own home.

Simon Pegg to infuse ‘Star Trek 3′ with the spirit of the TV show

Scott Huver interviews Pegg for Spinoff Online:

What got you excited about the opportunity to write the next “Star Trek” movie, and can you talk about the sensibility you want to bring to it?

It just came out of conversations I was having with J.J. [Abrams] and Bryan Burk, and they decided to kind of like restart the process. Because I’d been on the set with Burk-y on “Mission: Impossible,” he said, “Maybe you should come on and write it with Doug and Justin and him and Lindsey Weber. And I was a bit, “No. I don’t want to – it’s too much pressure!”

But I think we just want to take it forward with the spirit of the TV show. And it’s a story about frontierism and adventure and optimism and fun, and that’s where we want to take it, you know.

Pegg is a geek hero, of course, and I can’t wait to see where he takes the story.

Comb jellies’ ancestors may have evolved their own unique neural system

Convergent evolution isn’t a new thing, of course — the retina being the usual example. But neurons are a different story.

Emily Singer, for Quanta Magazine:

Moroz’s primary evidence for an independent origin of neurons in comb jellies comes from their unusual nervous systems. “The ctenophore’s nervous system is dramatically different from any other nervous system,” said Andrea Kohn, a molecular biologist who works with Moroz. Comb jellies appear to lack the commonly used chemical messengers that other animals have, such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. (They do use glutamate, a simple molecule that plays a major role in neuronal signaling in animals.) Instead, they have genes that are predicted to produce a slew of neural peptides, small proteins that can also act as chemical messengers. “No other animal except in this phylum has anything like that,” Kohn said.

But critics question this assertion as well. Perhaps comb jellies really do have the genes for serotonin and other neural signaling molecules, but those genes have evolved beyond recognition, Arendt said. “It could just mean [that comb jellies] are highly specialized,” he said.

They’re fascinating creatures, regardless of whether they’re merely exotic, or outright space aliens.

NASA “Asteroid Initiative” to place a boulder into a stable orbit around the moon

John Timmer, for Ars Technica:

A robotic probe will pluck a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and return that, testing our ability to redirect similar rocks if they threaten Earth.

In fact, the entire mission is generally focused on technology development. Once the asteroid is placed in a cis-lunar orbit (orbiting Earth and closer than the Moon), it will be visited by a crewed Orion capsule that will allow detailed study and a return of samples to Earth. But the focus of this mission will be testing technology that will allow extended manned missions in space.

It’s a training exercise with a lot of moving parts. What’s exciting is that NASA scientists have bigger things in mind:

It’s expected that the rock will be in place by late 2025, after which the manned mission will follow using NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

The manned mission will be “in support of advancing the nation’s journey to Mars,” according to NASA. The manipulations of the asteroid’s orbit, in contrast, “will help NASA develop options to move an asteroid off an Earth-impacting course, if and when that becomes necessary.”

Chlorophyll analog grants humans night vision

Tell me that image doesn’t evoke some emotion, or make you think of X-Men.

Max Plenke, for Mic:

In “people becoming superhuman” news, a small independent research group has figured out how to give humans night vision, allowing them to see over 50 meters in the dark for a short time.

Science for the Masses, a group of biohackers based a couple hours north of Los Angeles in Tehachapi, California, theorized they could enhance healthy eyesight enough that it would induce night vision. To do this, the group used a kind of chlorophyll analog called Chlorin e6 (or Ce6), which is found in some deep-sea fish and is used as an occasional method to treat night blindness.

“Going off that research, we thought this would be something to move ahead with,” the lab’s medical officer, Jeffrey Tibbetts, told Mic. “There are a fair amount of papers talking about having it injected in models like rats, and it’s been used intravenously since the ’60s as a treatment for different cancers. After doing the research, you have to take the next step.”

Seriously cool, if unsettling. My first concern would be about side-effects (long term or otherwise). Otherwise, this seems like something that would quickly move beyond the realm of biohackery.

The Shut-In Economy

Lauren Smiley, for Medium:

Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear: Lady, this is not that kind of building.

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk, one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for: Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. A woman hauling two Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her smartphone, along with the resident’s directions: “Please deliver to my door.”

It’s a fascinating account of the lifestyles of comfortable workaholics, with selective hikikomori tendencies. (If I sound critical, realize that yours truly exhibits many of the same tendencies.) I think it’s a fascinating social experiment, and some of these behaviors (and services) will endure, in some form. The others are either fads, or transitional.

Through it all, keep in mind that there are many areas of the country where this would read as dystopian sci-fi. Inside the tech bubble, this is a familiar story. But it is still just a bubble, for now.

TIE Fighter – short film (video)

If you were to combine Heavy Metal with Star Wars, this might be the result.

Animator Paul Johnson:

What if there was an Empire-focussed (sic) short Star Wars animation, drawn with the crazy detail and shading of classic 80s anime that’s all but vanished from Japan nowadays?


Drawn and animated by yours truly over 4 years’ worth of weekends, with music by the living guitar solo Zak Rahman and sound design by up and coming audio technician Joseph Leyva.

The result is quite a thrill!

‘The X-Files’ Returns As Fox Event Series with Creator Chris Carter and Stars David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson

It’s hard to beat a headline like that. Sign me up!

Nellie Andreeva, for Deadline:

Thirteen years after The X-Files ended its nine-season run on Fox and months after talks about a new TV installment started, the sci-fi hit is returning as a six-episode event series from series creator/executive producer Chris Carter, with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson set to reprise their roles as FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Production on the event series, whose plot is not being revealed, is set to begin this summer.

That’s really all I need to know. And it looks like Gillian Anderson is nearly as giddy as the X-Files fanbase:

Gillian Anderson's tweet

Curiosity rover’s nitrogen discovery paints ancient Martian environment as being habitable

Phrased very delicately, the JPL news brief clarifies:

There is no evidence to suggest that the fixed nitrogen molecules found by the team were created by life. The surface of Mars is inhospitable for known forms of life. Instead, the team thinks the nitrates are ancient, and likely came from non-biological processes like meteorite impacts and lightning in Mars’ distant past.

Features resembling dry riverbeds and the discovery of minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water suggest that Mars was more hospitable in the remote past. The Curiosity team has found evidence that other ingredients needed for life, such as liquid water and organic matter, were present on Mars at the Curiosity site in Gale Crater billions of years ago.

“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

It’s interesting to contemplate the idea of two planets in a single system having once supporting life. I’m more curious about when that may be the case again.

Artist Draws Detailed Portraits With Only His Eyes

Liz Stinson, for Wired:

In the recent exhibition Drawing With My Eyes, artist Graham Fink drew portraits using only his eyes, some software and enviable amounts of concentration.

Fink worked with a programmer to develop software for an eye-tracker that would allow him to draw simply by looking at the screen. Much like the EyeWriter, a piece of open-source software that lets disabled graffiti artists draw with their eyes, Fink’s setup is based on two infrared lights that shine into each eye. The reflection of this movement is recorded with a camera and passed through algorithms that slow the natural oscillation of Fink’s eye, turning what otherwise would be a shaky line into something much smoother.

The result is pretty nifty, as if he were channeling faces through his subconscious. As a kid, I stared into the static of non-TV channels several time, just because of strange images that seemed to emerge, faces among them.