“How To Fly a Spaceship To the Space Station” (video)

Destin Sandlin, producer of the educational video series Smarter Every Day, interviews astronaut Scott Kelly inside the Soyuz mockup. They discuss everything from how to reach buttons under the strain of multiple g-forces, to how the vehicle finally positions itself perfectly for docking with the space station. It’s a pretty fascinating explanation.

Virtual noses keep real-world VR sickness at bay

Kyle Orland, for Ars Technica:

Offering a fixed object that doesn’t shift as you move around a virtual world has been shown to help anchor many VR users, reducing the apparent difference between visual and sensorimotor stimuli that can lead to simulation sickness. That’s useful for VR experiences that can insert a virtual cockpit or vehicular frame around the user. A virtual nose, though, has the potential to be much more generalizable to any VR experience that takes place from a first-person perspective.

The Purdue study divided 43 undergraduate volunteers into two groups. The first group went through two unmodified virtual reality demos on Oculus Rift development kits, while the other went through the same demos with the virtual nose placed where a real nose would appear in front of the environmental view. The “nasum virtualis” group lasted an average of 94.2 seconds longer in a simulated walk-around on a Tuscan villa before feeling sick and lasted 2.2 seconds longer on average in a roller coaster simulation.

Makes sense that throwing a little “dashboard” into the field of view would provide some reassuring context, given the deprivation of (or latency among) some of the other senses. Having said that, now I have to stop seeing my nose everywhere I look!

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk discuss the future

This hour long podcast also features Bill Nye the Science Guy. What’s not to like?

From the description:

Join us as Neil and Elon talk about NASA funding, getting humans excited for the colonization of Mars, and why Elon feels it’s important to not be stuck here on Earth. You’ll also find out why sustainable production and consumption of energy is critically important, but flying cars may not be such a good idea. Meanwhile, back in the studio, guest engineer Bill Nye schools Neil and Chuck Nice about SpaceX’s major innovations and how they’ve improved efficiency and lowered the cost of commercial space flight. They discuss the value of human exploration of space, life on Mars, and Bill’s next book about climate change, Unbounded. Finally, you’ll discover why Elon, who was programming computers at the age of 9, is afraid of the consequences for mankind of developing an artificial super intelligence.

Why are you still reading?!

Harvard scientists insert wooly mammoth DNA into elephant DNA

Sarah Knapton, for The Telegraph:

Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA, said: “If we really want to bring mammoths back to life, then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes.

“Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.

“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together, but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

I have to say, I see no ethical problems with scientists pursuing this. Presenting this research as an either-or proposition that directly takes away from our efforts to preserve the life that exists on this planet is a false dichotomy. And I don’t think poachers are looking for scientific excuses to justify their immoral behavior. So bring on the mammoths! Also, I just want another excuse to use the word chimera.

Nine Weird Implications of the Many Worlds Interpretation

George Dvorsky, for io9:

Quantum physicists have used the [Many Worlds Interpretation] to reconcile an uncomfortable shortcoming of the Copenhagen Interpretation, namely the assertion that unobserved phenomenon can exist in dual states. So instead of saying that Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead, Many Worlders would say the cat has simply “branched” off into two different worlds: one in which it is alive and one in which it is dead.

Some 60 years after its introduction, the MWI remains a highly controversial subject. In a 2013 poll of quantum physicists, only a fifth said they subscribe to the MWI (as compared to the 42% who fall into the Copenhagen camp). That said, the list of thinkers who describe themselves as Many Worlders is an impressive one, and includes such eminent thinkers as quantum physicist David Deutsch, theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson, and physicist Sean Carroll.

Regardless of where one stands on the theory, it’s certainly interesting to think about the implications. Here are nine that are particularly weird.

This is a fun article that visits several of the most thought provoking destinations along this multiple world odyssey.

Robots with their minds in the clouds

Sean Gallagher, for Ars Technica:

We’re already seeing some companies offloading an autonomous “brain” to the cloud. And it may not be too long before the same sorts of services used to build mobile digital assistants like Siri, Google’s Voice Search, and Cortana are helping physical robots understand the world around them. The result could be a sort of “hive mind,” where relatively inexpensive machines with some autonomous systems share a common set of cloud services that act as a group consciousness. Such a setup would allow a group of machines to constantly improve, adjusting operations as more experience is added to the collective memory. Theoretically, bots like this could not only interact with more complex environments, but they could engage people around them in a way that resembles a co-worker more than a calculator.

There’s no reason that a central nervous system has to be entirely local. As the article states, one of the greatest challenges for the human brain is simply perception. In fact, Gill Pratt, Program Manager of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, says “It’s very difficult to fit a computer with the size, weight, and power that you need to achieve really good perception onto a robot.” the article also mentions the matter of onboard power requirements, which a cloud brain would certainly alleviate.

On the other hand, we’re already familiar with some of the challenges the cloud presents, latency being a big one. It’s one thing to outsource a brain, but having to wait for it would be a great way to simulate senior moments.

Generating fractals on a 50 year old IBM 1401 mainframe

When tech tinkerer Ken Shirriff came across a working IBM 1401 computer at his local Computer History Museum (in Mountain View, CA), he decided to write a fractal program for it in assembly language. Because of course he did!


To run the program, first you hit the “Power On” button on the IBM 1401 console. Relays clunk for a moment to power up the system and then the computer is ready to go (unlike modern computers that take so long to boot). You put the cards into the card reader and hit the “Load” button. The cards fly through the reader at the remarkable speed of 800 cards per minute so the Mandelbrot program loads in just over a second. The console starts flickering as the program runs, and every few seconds the line printer hammers out another line of the fractal. After 12 minutes of execution, the fractal is done. (Interestingly enough, the very first picture of a Mandelbrot set was printed on a line printer in 1978.)

It’s pure, delicious geekery, and the excuse “because it’s there” fully applies.

The inside story of how Apple’s new medical research platform was born

Daniela Hernandez, for Fusion:

Last week, Apple unveiled ResearchKit, an open-source platform that will make it easier for scientists to build apps that collect health data for research studies from volunteers, along with five iPhone apps aimed at some of the most costly medical conditions in the world. A day later, thousands of people had already downloaded these apps. The sheer number of participants was so huge that many are already calling ResearchKit and its companion apps a revolution in how medical science will be done.

The idea behind ResearchKit was to use the iPhone’s ubiquity to give scientists unprecedented amounts of clinical data. By using the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer, microphone, camera, and pressure sensors—as well as a bevy of personal trackers that can be connected to the iPhone, like the FitBit, glucose monitors, or AliveCor’s portable electrocardiogram recorder—scientists would be able to gather activity and biometric data on people who opted in to be part of research studies. A typical clinical study might include hundreds or thousands of subjects; a ResearchKit study could easily include hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions.

Only Apple could leverage an existing installed base to deploy a new medical platform in such unprecedented numbers. As Apple says, “You’re already carrying a powerful medical research tool.” And the fact that they’ve open-sourced the health data shows that it’s not about the profits. I’m impressed.

Pixar team reminisces about the early days of computer animation

At SXSW, Pixar writer-director Pete Docter, et al., spoke on stage about some of the studio’s earliest days. Bryan Bishop, for The Verge:

While Pixar had been making commercials and shorts for years, producer Galyn Susman said that the young studio drastically underestimated the resources needed to pull off a full-length feature. “We thought that we would be able to animate the entire film with eight animators,” she said. “That didn’t happen. We ended up with 33.” The same went with staffing across the board, from editorial to those working on lighting and the computer models — but the most dramatic gap was in raw computing power.

According to Susman, the Pixar team initially thought they could render the film over 20 months using 53 processors. Each of the machines in the render farm was named after an animal, and when it completed a frame it would play the corresponding animal’s sound. The number of machines eventually grew to 300, but even that pales in comparison to the computing power Pixar wields today. Susman said that the company now has 23,000 processors at its disposal — enough to render the original Toy Story in real time.

I love the behind the scenes looks at how this pioneering work was done.

The soft materials science behind artificial muscles and active-camouflage

Katia Moskvitch, for BBC News:

To mimic these natural mechanisms, the team used “smart” electro-active polymeric materials, connected to an electric circuit.

When a voltage was applied, the materials contracted; they returned to their original shape when they were short-circuited.

“These artificial muscles can replicate the [natural] muscular action… and can have strong visual effects,” said Dr Rossiter.

“These materials, and this approach, is ideal for making smart colour-changing skins or soft devices in which fluid is pumped from one place to another.

“This could help us create a whole host of new technologies, ranging from active-camouflage and clothes that change colour and pattern, to a smart second-skin that can cool you when you are hot and keep you warm when you are cold.”

This technology is at the very earliest stages now. While the rigid, hard-shelled robots of today are somewhat crab-like, soft robots of the near future may have more in common with our cephalopod friends. (Hopefully they’ll have beaks, too.)

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Here’s a fun one. According to its author, John Koenig:

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.

Great idea, and the entries are even better. An example:

n. the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you’ll never get to see before you die—and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.

Billions of stars have one to three planets in the habitable zone

A news piece from the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen:

Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy, the Milky Way, using the Kepler satellite and many of them have multiple planets orbiting the host star. By analysing these planetary systems, researchers from the Australian National University and the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen have calculated the probability for the number of stars in the Milky Way that might have planets in the habitable zone. The calculations show that billions of the stars in the Milky Way will have one to three planets in the habitable zone, where there is the potential for liquid water and where life could exist.

I like those numbers. Of course it doesn’t get us any closer to the alien swimmers (or swingers, or gliders) themselves. But if there’s a chance we’re not alone, it’s good to know how remote the odds are.

The Mercedes-Benz F 015 and the future of transportation

Chris Ziegler, writing for Ars Technica, spent a day with the research car:

Everything about the F 015 is automated, or at least gives the appearance of being automated — the car is summoned by a smartphone app, opens and closes its doors automatically, and gently urges nearby pedestrians (like me) to “please, go ahead.” In reality, the car was continually being attended to by a substantial fleet of Mercedes engineers brought in from Germany and Silicon Valley, babying it as if it was made of papier mâché. Currently, the F 015 isn’t even fully autonomous — it needs arrays of beacons on the surrounding pavement to define its path.

And after each group of four went on the short, closed-course trip, there was a full inspection and a reset of the car’s internals. Several emphasized to me that the car is “sensitive,” reacting poorly to rain and extreme heat. They made it sound, ironically, almost human.

Right now the vehicle is, as Zeigler puts it, “a hodgepodge of ideas that are fleshed out just enough to test.” But sometimes the best way to learn is to leave the lab — even if the lab came to the car in this case. And wrapping the whole thing up in a pretty package definitely doesn’t hurt.

Another nail in the “loudness war” coffin?

With YouTube’s use of loudness normalization on their music videos, Production Advice has proclaimed an end to the so-called “loudness war.” Says Ian Shepherd:

It’s now irrelevant how high the mastering levels of your music are – as I’ve shown before, on iTunes Radio, on Spotify and now on YouTube, we have no control about how loud people hear it – just as it’s always been on FM radio.

In fact, heavily crushed, distorted “loudness war casualties” will often sound worse than more dynamic releases.

And if you ever wanted proof that the extra dynamics in “Uptown Funk” are a crucial part of it’s success, press Play above and see which song it it that gets your head nodding and foot tapping first…

This is the final nail in the coffin. The loudness war really is over – the only remaining question is, how long will it take for people take to notice?

Good points all, and I sincerely hope he’s correct. The industry practice of maximizing every track is similar to festooning your car with all kinds of aftermarket parts to make it look faster… thereby adding weight and making it slower.

Al “Leisure Suit Larry” Lowe reminisces about classic gaming, and the rise of the industry

Al Lowe:

I think one problem was that in the early days games — you know what an auteur is in the movie business, right? It’s a director who has the vision and maybe writes the script or certainly oversees the script and the entire project from beginning to end. It’s his vision. It’s his statement. The film is his vision. I think there’s a problem with that now because games no longer have that.

If you look at my games and you look at Roberta games, there’s obviously two quite different things there. You look at Tim Schafer’s games. It’s a different set. But it feels like those people. If you’ve played Larry, you know me. You can’t hide that much. There’s not that much left of me that I haven’t shared with you already if you’ve gone through all those games. That’s the kinda guy I am. I’m not pornographic. I’m not sick. I’m not a lot of different things. But I’ve got a streak of naughtiness in me and I like to laugh a lot, and that comes through in my games. I think that’s true of Roberta. She has a sense of fantasy. All that game out in the King’s Quest games. That was one of the things that I thought was part of Ken’s brilliance, that he recognized that talent in people and allowed them to pursue it. He allowed them to develop the game without much interference.

A fascinating retrospective, with a generous dollop of grousing about the suits who signaled the end of a golden age.

Stephen King’s upcoming collection to include insights into the craft of writing

Alison Flood, for The Guardian:

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, due to be published on 3 November, will bring together 20 short stories by King, a mix of new writing and work already collected in magazines. But it will also include an introduction to each story by the writer, in which he will provide “autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it,” as well as “the origins and motivation of each story.” His editor at Hodder & Stoughton, Philippa Pride, predicted the inclusion would “delight all his readers including those who love his insight into the craft of writing.” A mix of biography and tips on writing, On Writing was published 15 years ago, in 2000.

Count me in. I’ve been an ardent King fan for a long time, and his memoir On Writing was packed with useful morsels. But I especially love the idea of including special features along with the fiction, and I wish more writers would do that, for the benefit of other (struggling) writers.

3D printer concept by Carbon3D grows objects from resin bath

Drew Prindle, for Digital Trends:

The company has developed a radical new technique called Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) that is anywhere from 25 to 100 times faster than most 3D printers. Instead of depositing plastic layer by layer onto a substrate, CLIP uses a light projection system to “grow” objects out of a pool of UV-curable resin.

The key to the whole process is carefully balancing the interaction of light and oxygen. UV light triggers photo polymerization (hardening) in the resin, while oxygen inhibits it. CLIP is essentially a chemical process that leverages this interaction in order to eliminate the mechanical steps and layering of traditional printers. It works by projecting light through an oxygen-permeable window into a reservoir of UV curable resin. As a continuous sequence of UV images are projected through the bottom of the reservoir, the object hardens in certain spots, and the object is slowly drawn from the resin bath.

It’s an oddly satisfying process to watch, as an object of some depth is drawn from a relatively shallow pool. At the moment, the process is fairly slow — the video is sped up 7x — but this is a glimpse into the future. It’s easier than ever to imagine replicators and matter compilers that science fiction has been promising us.

Elon Musk on the self-driving cars of the future

Josh Lowensohn, in The Verge:

Tesla has already added some self-driving features to its cars, but is working on technology that will let the car drive itself completely. An “autopilot” mode introduced for the Model S will do things like change speed, brake, and keep you in the correct lanes using on-board sensors. The next logical step is combining that with highway driving and navigation features to let the car drive the driver. In an interview last October, Musk said models the company was working on for this year would be “90 percent capable of autopilot.”

Today, Musk noted that the hardest part of helping cars drive themselves is what happens when vehicles are traveling between 15 and 50 miles per hour. “That’s where you get a lot of unexpected things,” Musk said. That list includes road closures, open manhole covers, children playing, and bicyclists. Lots of things that your robot car could run into without human remorse.

This feels like a transitional time, but it’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds either way. I can see urban centers locking down, effectively taxing “off-grid” cars out of existence. But maybe it’ll just be commercial vehicles — taxis, long haul trucking, airlines — that become robotic. I will say that I wouldn’t mind living in Minority Report’s vision of the future on the road.

Synesthesia could be shaped by associations made in childhood

Cathleen O’Grady, in Ars Technica:

A recent paper in PLOS ONE suggests that the letter-color pairings of many GC synesthetes might have been conditioned by objects in their environment as children, such as colorful alphabet fridge magnets. The researchers are clear that they’re not suggesting that synesthesia can be learned, or that colorful letter toys lead to synesthesia. Rather, their results simply show that the associations can be influenced by their environments. Knowing this can shed light on some of the mysteries about the condition.

The data came from the Synesthesia Battery, a site where people who suspect they have synesthesia can explore their condition in exchange for providing research data. The tests on the site verify that participants are synesthetic by checking whether their letter-color matches are consistent, and whether they take longer to process letters that aren’t in the “correct” color.

Using data from 6,588 people, the researchers worked out which colors were most commonly associated with which letters. They found that their results were consistent with previous experiments showing that English speakers often have possible spelling-based associations. For example, “G” is commonly green, while “Y” is commonly yellow—tendencies that can be found in the trends present in large collections of synesthetes.

I’ve long suspected that fridge magnets may have contributed to my strong color association with letters and numbers. But there are different kinds of synesthesia, and there may be no explanation, other than wiring, why letters also have sexes, and numbers and months have spatial positions.

ISS Crew Discusses Life in Space (video)


Aboard the International Space Station, the new Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) discussed the progress of their mission and key activities in the weeks ahead in a pair of in-flight interviews March 13 with WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C,. and Euronews. Virts took over command of the station March 10 from NASA’s Barry Wilmore, who returned to Earth March 12 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with two Russian cosmonaut crewmates.

I get a severe case of envy whenever I see these broadcasts.

James Dyson on portable energy, and the future of his company

The world has changed since batteries were only for flashlights and radios, and Dyson is more than just a vacuum cleaner company. The evolution of James Dyson’s eponymous company has been interesting to watch.

Cliff Kuang, for Wired:

Dyson isn’t intent on building more vacuums. He wants to build a full-blown technology company, one that reaches into our houses in ways you can only guess.

The first piece of that plan was investing in digital motors, which Dyson has hinted will be the basis of new product categories. And now the piece is falling into place: Today, Dyson announced a $15 million investment in Sakti3, a solid-state battery company. That is in addition to $50 million Sakti3 already has raised from Kholsa Ventures, General Motors, and others. “I saw this for decades as a company that would invest in fundamental technologies,” Sir James says. “This is a transition into being a technology company.”

And batteries are essential to that transition. “Solid-state batteries are a bit of a holy grail,” says Mark Taylor, Dyson’s R&D chief. He calls Sakti3’s technology “world-beating.”

Some marketing bluster, maybe — we’ve heard similar noises coming from Tesla lately, you’ll recall. But, as the saying goes, there is no Moore’s Law for batteries, so any breakthrough in portable energy has the potential, as the article puts it, “to reset entire industries.”

Voyager 1 & 2 team still dedicated to the project

Jonathan Margolis, for The Guardian:

Space exploration tends to be more inward looking today than in the so-called Space Age. The famous Curiosity rover is of course still working wonders on Mars, but almost all the US’s coming spacecraft will be restricted to studying our own planet, with special attention to environmental issues. The Voyagers and the people like Howard who still work on them full-time – having, in many cases, done so their entire adult life – are from a different era, when budgets were unrestrained, audaciousness (and showing off to the Soviets) was in vogue and the environment was a concern only for hippies.

Voyager’s spindly limbed, Transit-van-sized machines have been travelling at around 37,000mph for almost 38 years. When they were launched, wooden-framed Morris 1000 Traveller cars had only recently stopped being produced by British Leyland in Oxford. The Voyagers’ on-board computers are early 1970s models that were advanced then but are puny now – an iPhone’s computer is some 200,000 times faster and has about 250,000 times more memory than Voyager’s hardware.

It’s difficult to fathom how there can be regular communication — a 17 hour trip at the speed of light — with devices so far away. It’s estimated that the nuclear batteries aboard Voyager I will last until around 2025.

Quarantine center in rural England guards against cocoa blight

Ari Shapiro, reporting on NPR:

Cocoa is unusually susceptible to disease. Every year, a third of the crop is destroyed by fungi and pests with names like “Witches’ Broom,” “Frosty Pod Rot,” and “Vascular-streak dieback.”

A few years ago, one of these cocoa diseases hit Brazil. At the time, “Brazil was one of the world’s largest cocoa-producing countries,” says Laurent Pipitone of the International Cocoa Organization in London. “When this new disease came, it reduced their production by about half.”

For a while, it looked like there might not be enough cocoa to feed the world’s hunger for chocolate.

Today, global demand is growing fast, says Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation in Washington, D.C. “There’s a concern in the future that we may not have enough supply if we don’t improve productivity on the existing farms,” he says. Europeans and Americans keep eating piles of chocolate, while people in China and India have a growing appetite for it, too.

As a heavy connoisseur of chocolate, it gives me some peace of mind that there are cocoa guardians dedicated to protecting this most precious plant!

Artistic depiction of forward motion shows left-to-right bias

It’s a preference that may be independent of cultural norms, according to Psychologist Dr. Peter Walker of Lancaster University:

“What artistic conventions are used to convey the motion of animate and inanimate items in still images, such as drawings and photographs? One graphic convention involves depicting items leaning forward into their movement, with greater leaning conveying greater speed. Another convention, revealed in the present study, involves depicting items moving from left to right.”


“It was the inspection of the availability of italic fonts in Hebrew that suggested an additional artistic convention for conveying motion, based on a fundamental bias, confirmed in the present study, for people to expect to see, or prefer to see, lateral movement (real or implied) in a left to right direction, rather than a right to left direction.”

This bias may also account for eastward travels in side-scrolling video games — keeping in mind that Mario hails from Japan, where pages are flipped from right to left.