May 1st, 2012

twelfth night in colour

Graphic designer Konstantinos Mouzakis has created a representation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in coloured liquid. An Arduino processor operates a series of syringes containing coloured, emulsified water representing each character in the play.

Each character has a unique color that is poured in a tank according to the act, scene and time spent on speaking. The relations of the colors in the tanks represent the relations of the characters in the play. The 5 acts are demonstrated simultaneously in order to offer an overview of the play. The spread, the amount and the speed of every color is based on the emotional axis and the whole process can be controlled by the liquids’ chemical composition.

Regarding the technical part of the installation, there is a system of motorized syringes, controlled by a processor, so colors can be released with high precision. The transparent liquid in the tanks is consisted of water, alcohol and emulsifiers. Colors are a combination of acrylics, water and gelatine.

From MyShakespeare

April 29th, 2012

smart sand

Imagine that you have a big box of sand in which you bury a tiny model of a footstool. A few seconds later, you reach into the box and pull out a full-size footstool: The sand has assembled itself into a large-scale replica of the model.

That may sound like a scene from a Harry Potter novel, but it’s the vision animating a research project at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May DRL researchers will present a paper describing algorithms that could enable such “smart sand.” They also describe experiments in which they tested the algorithms on somewhat larger particles — cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets on four of their sides.

Unlike many other approaches to reconfigurable robots, smart sand uses a subtractive method, akin to stone carving, rather than an additive method, akin to snapping LEGO blocks together. A heap of smart sand would be analogous to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with. The individual grains would pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object; the grains not necessary to build that object would simply fall away. When the object had served its purpose, it would be returned to the heap. Its constituent grains would detach from each other, becoming free to participate in the formation of a new shape.

Read more at Science Daily

April 25th, 2012

descriptive camera

The Descriptive Camera works a lot like a regular camera—point it at subject and press the shutter button to capture the scene. However, instead of producing an image, this prototype outputs a text description of the scene.

See Mr. Richardson’s page to learn how he achieves this. Wish I had made this, not least because I want one.

Thanks to Aengus for the heads up.

April 5th, 2012

Der Mensch als Industriepalast (in Bewegung)

I just found Frtiz Kahn’s fantastic 1927 poster, Man as Industrial Palace, on my old harddrive and wanted to post it. Looking up the history of the poster online, I discovered that a certain Henning M. Lederer has brought the poster to life with an animated short film. See it on vimeo, full screen.

April 3rd, 2012

garbage collection by ants and other demonstrations

I’m very impressed by the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. All manner of interactive scientific experiments and calculations. Gives fascinating insights into physics, biology, chemistry and and more. I could browse the site all day. So far I have enjoyed the demonstrations of the doppler effect and of garbage collection by ants the most. The accompanying text of the latter…

Assume there are many tiny pieces of garbage scattered on a 2D square space, where many ants are wandering to forage randomly. Each ant individual behaves according to the following very simple rules when it comes to a place where there is some garbage.
1. If the ant is holding a piece of garbage, it drops it off there.
2. If the ant isn’t holding any garbage, it picks up a piece of garbage there.
What would result from these rules? Are the garbage pieces going to be scattered more and more due to these brainless insects? Interestingly, these very simple behavioral rules let the ants spontaneously collect and pile up garbage and clear up the space in the long run. This model tells us how such emergent behavior of the collective is often inconsistent with our usual intuition.
This Demonstration simulates this model using a real-time agent-based modeling technique. Black dots represent ants. Yellow dots represent pieces of garbage. When more pieces of garbage are piled up at the same location, the color becomes darker.

March 27th, 2012

drawing apparatus

Drawing Apparatus from Robert Howsare on Vimeo.

Thanks Esther for indirectly bringing this to my attention

January 8th, 2012

the impracticality of infinite information

I discovered the pictured device — a note-taking machine invented by one Vincentius Placcius — via a nice opinion piece on the BBC website about how we have dealt with information overload up until today.

In 1689 a professor at the University of Hamburg with a passion for new technologies, unveiled a device for managing information overload – a purpose-built mahogany cabinet designed to hold and organise several thousand hand-written notes taken by an individual reader from the books they were reading.

Along the back of the cabinet were narrow vertical posts, each headed by a letter of the alphabet. Running the length of each post was a sequence of brass plates engraved with alphabetised headings designed to capture topics of particular interest to the reader, each heading furnished with a metal hook, to which slips of paper containing information extracted from the owner’s reading were to be attached, ready to be retrieved for re-use at a moment’s notice.

It is not clear whether this rather cumbersome piece of equipment caught on (though apparently the philosopher Leibniz owned one) but the impetus behind it is obvious.

Sounds like a glorious object, no matter how impractical… I want one.

The danger today is rather that we are reluctant to let go of any information garnered from however recondite a source. Every historian knows that no narrative will be intelligible to a reader if it includes all the detail the author amassed in the course of their research. A clear thread has to be teased from the mass of available evidence, to focus, direct and ultimately give meaning to what has been assembled for analysis. Daring to discard is as crucial as safe-guarding, for effective knowledge management and transmission today.

There is all too little danger of the knowledge currently accumulating in floods – multiply-owned, stored and captured – being lost. Rather, if we are going to make sense for posterity of today’s information-saturated present, one of the things we will have to learn to do is decide how to prune the evidence, and ultimately, what to forget.


Addendum: Here’s an interesting article about the Belgian intellectual of the early 20th century Paul Otlet, and his approach to the same problem. Thanks Arnaudt!

December 4th, 2011

pintle and gudgeon

There’s a name for this rudder’s type of hinge. Part 2 is a pintle and part 3 is a gudgeon. Gee thanks, wikipedia.

November 13th, 2011

the joy of spigots

I saw a distasteful facebook page and thought “bigot, bigot, bigot”, which evolved into “spigots spigots spigots”. A happy learning opportunity:

Water spigot; also known as a valve, hose hydrant, hose bibb, or sillcock.

A tap (also called spigot and faucet in the U.S.) is a valve controlling release of liquids or gas. In the British Isles and most of the Commonwealth, the word is used for any everyday type of valve, particularly the fittings that control water supply to bathtubs and sinks. In the U.S., the term “tap” is more often used for beer taps, cut-in connections, or wiretapping. “Spigot” or “faucet” are more often used to refer to water valves, although this sense of “tap” is not uncommon, and the term “tap water” is the standard name for water from the faucet.

And the joy of tap mechanics:

Ecstasy courtesy of wikipedia.

November 6th, 2011

glass and steam

via 3dq

September 10th, 2011

how transistors work

I’m trying to improve my knowledge of electronics but most books tell you either too much or too little and leave you frustrated. This video filled in the missing gaps for me, regarding transistors.

The most beautiful thing about it is how elegant these electronic components are. They each contain very few materials and mechanisms, but demonstrate a tremendous understanding of the physical world.

October 24th, 2010

you’re doing it wrong, Panamarenko

Bernouilli by Panamarenko. Photo by Dirk Pauwels.

Panamarenko is a contemporary Belgian artist whose work is often aeronautical or mechanical in theme. His work had quite a large presence at the recent Xanadu! exhibition at Ghent’s museum of contemporary art this summer. That’s where I saw his Bernouilli (pictured above).

Most of all I like his humour and the idea behind his methodology. From the Xanadu! guidebook:

What Panamarenko does in fact in all his works is not to try to make something work that will never work. What he does is to ask himself how something might work even if it’s approached in a wrong manner. When he makes a flying rucksack with a Suzuki engine like Hazerug (1992-1998), he turns the Suzuki engine upside down because it looks better that way. It doesn’t function because the spark plug is flooded. Then he searches for ten years for ways to make the engine run after all, even though it’s used upside down. Anyone that knows anything about engines sees right away that the engine’s hanging upside down. It’s a joke. Yet from that joke flows an in-depth study from which Panamarenko learns an awful lot. After ten years study and testing he knows why the Suzuki engine can never work upside down. He is constantly acquiring fresh knowledge by saying that for aesthetic reasons something should be able to function even if it’s approached in a wrong way — that’s the funny side of it, because it always starts from aesthetic reasons that interfere with the usual approach of a mechanism and then begins a period of amazing research that can last a long time and that can lead to very many formal and technical results.

The idea of starting with an apparently unworkable concept is appealing to me because it aligns with a recent revelation of mine. Often I am prone to a perfectionism in my own creative work, to the extent that it actually debilitates me or prevents me from starting work in the first place. Recently I’ve discovered that the key is not to set standards of perfection towards which to work, but rather to be constantly aware of the process and to make unexpected or contrary developments work in your favour. To always be open to improvisation, even when you had the “perfect” outcome in mind already. This way there is no point of failure — there is only a rising gradient of difficulty, the end of the process being marked by a gut feeling of arrival.

To start out with perfection in mind is crippling to any creative process. When your initial expectations are (inevitably) disappointed, you can either become frustrated or try to re-evaluate the project. If you become frustrated and upset, you are no longer in the frame of mind necessary to be creative, i.e., open, resourceful, confident, interested.

Perhaps you could see the difference in practice as not seeing the artwork as yours until you have arrived at the end point. If you are attached to a project or artwork from the start, it becomes already an extension of you. And when you see something you don’t like developing in the project — something worrying because unexpected — the initial reaction is to disown the project. To cast it off as a failure, and to either restart or quit at that point. This is like when something unplanned and apparently unresolvable happens to us, or in us, in everyday life; there’s a tendency to be taken by self-pity, which is a way of disowning the self. Of saying “this is no longer my responsibility, I give up”. Just like in life, the solution is a combination of persistence, flexible thinking and a sense of humour.

October 15th, 2010


Platypuses can detect their prey using electrodetectors located in their bills:

The Platypus can determine the direction of an electric source, perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors. This would explain the characteristic side-to-side motion of the animal’s head while hunting. The cortical convergence of electrosensory and tactile inputs suggests a mechanism for determining the distance of prey items which, when they move, emit both electrical signals and mechanical pressure pulses: the difference between the times of arrival of the two signals would allow computation of distance.

The Platypus feeds by neither sight nor smell, closing its eyes, ears, and nose each time it dives. Rather, when it digs in the bottom of streams with its bill, its electroreceptors detect tiny electrical currents generated by muscular contractions of its prey, so enabling it to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, which continuously stimulate its mechanoreceptors. Experiments have shown that the Platypus will even react to an “artificial shrimp” if a small electrical current is passed through it.


See also: Magnetoception.

September 21st, 2010

neato magneto

The European Robin doesn’t need a map. Photo: Ernst Vickne


Magnetoception (or magnetoreception) is the ability to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location.

Wikipedia notes that biological stores of the magnetic mineral Magnetite are present in many animals. This mineral is what enables, through various different mechanisms, an organic ability to use Earth’s magnetic field for the purposes of navigation.

One of several fascinating examples:

In 2008, a research team led by Hynek Burda using Google Earth accidentally discovered that magnetic fields affect the body orientation of cows and deer during grazing or resting. In a followup study in 2009, Burda and Sabine Begall observed that magnetic fields generated by power lines disrupted the orientation of cows from the Earth’s magnetic field.

According to the same article, there are even vestigial amounts of Magnetite in we humans, which might suggest that we once relied on this system. Maybe there came a time when our increased intelligence made the ingenious mechanism of megnetoception obsolete.

Based on my experience negotiating large metropolitan areas, I estimate that my stores of Magnetite are very vestigial indeed.

Magnetoception @ wikipedia

March 9th, 2010

watching between the lines

A six-spoke Geneva mechanism, wikipedia.

Film projectors (as well as film cameras, processing equipment, etc.) use a special mechanism called a Geneva drive to ensure one whole frame is advanced at a time, instead of simply spooling a film continuously. Wikipedia:

The name derives from the device’s earliest application in mechanical watches, Switzerland and Geneva being an important center of watchmaking. The geneva drive is also commonly called a Maltese cross mechanism due to the visual resemblance.

In the most common arrangement, the driven wheel has four slots and thus advances for each rotation of the drive wheel by one step of 90°. If the driven wheel has n slots, it advances by 360°/n per full rotation of the drive wheel.

The device itself is beautiful in its simplicity. There are two variations on the drive (external and internal). More at wikipedia.

February 7th, 2010

dimethyltryptamine or: how I learnt to stop worrying and love dreaming

If one hypothesis holds true, consciousness can be viewed as a sort of stabilized psychedelic trip.

Several speculative and yet untested hypotheses suggest that endogenous DMT, produced in the human brain, is involved in certain psychological and neurological states. DMT is naturally produced in small amounts in the brain and other tissues of humans and other mammals. Some believe it plays a role in mediating the visual effects of natural dreaming, and also near-death experiences, religious visions and other mystical states. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena, where brain DMT levels are periodically elevated to induce visual dreaming and possibly other natural states of mind. A new hypothesis proposed is that in addition to being involved in altered states of consciousness, endogenous DMT may be involved in the creation of normal waking states of consciousness. It is proposed that DMT and other endogenous hallucinogens mediate their neurological abilities by acting as neurotransmitters at a sub class of the trace amine receptors; a group of receptors found in the CNS where DMT and other hallucinogens have been shown to have activity. Wallach further proposes that in this way waking consciousness can be thought of as a controlled psychedelic experience. It is when the control of these systems becomes loosened and their behavior no longer correlates with the external world that the altered states arise.

Dr. Rick Strassman, while conducting DMT research in the 1990s at the University of New Mexico, advanced the theory that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death or near death was the cause of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon. Several of his test subjects reported NDE-like audio or visual hallucinations. His explanation for this was the possible lack of panic involved in the clinical setting and possible dosage differences between those administered and those encountered in actual NDE cases. Several subjects also reported contact with ‘other beings’, alien like, insectoid or reptilian in nature, in highly advanced technological environments where the subjects were ‘carried’, ‘probed’, ‘tested’, ‘manipulated’, ‘dismembered’, ‘taught’, ‘loved’ and even ‘raped’ by these ‘beings’. This is most likely due to the setting of where the experiments took place. Many people who use DMT outside of a laboratory never report any of these types of experiences.

Waah! More at wikipedia.

January 5th, 2010

why do plants make caffeine?

What role does caffeine play in the life of a plant? According to “the naked scientists”, it plays a part in their defence mechanisms.

So it seems that caffeinated plants are lucky to have this compound as part of their natural defences, but it doesn’t deter all attackers. For instance, caffeine doesn’t poison humans in the doses that we typically ingest (even a Monday morning dose), but it does cause addiction. It works by stopping the enzyme phosphodiesterase from breaking down a signalling substance called cyclic AMP (cAMP for short) and its close relatives. One of the actions of the stress hormone adrenaline is to increase the levels of cAMP in cells, so by preventing cells from breaking down cAMP, caffeine potentiates the action of adrenaline, and gives us a buzz. In even higher doses, and with prolonged use, it can trigger anxiety, muscle tremors, palpitations and fast heart rates, and profound withdrawal effects
including headaches, inability to think clearly, and bad moods whenever you mistakenly switch to decaff !

From why plants make caffeine

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