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Maker Faire Highlights: Mechanical Mathematics

Probably the most complex mechanical contraption at Maker Faire was the Computer History Museum's model of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2. Babbage began working on the idea for a mechanical calculator based on the method of finite differences in 1846, but he never actually built the device. The museum showed off a scaled down, table-top model at Maker Faire and demonstrated how it works.

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If you're interested in the history of Charles Babbage and his work (both on the Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, which preceded modern programmable computers), check out James Essinger's book Jacquard's Web. Spectrum editor Tekla Perry will have more coverage when the museum puts the full-size Difference Engine No. 2 on display on May 10th. The machine is 11 feet long and 7 feet high with more than 8000 bronze, cast iron, and steel parts.

Desertification Studies Cut Both Ways in Climate Debate

For feelings of timelessness, unboundedness, and permanence, nothing beats the Sahara Desert. Yet as recently as 14,800 years ago, vast reaches of it were green, as a stronger summer monsoon enabled lakes, wetlands, grass and shrubland to expand upwards from the Sahel. Then around 6,000 years ago, with increased incoming sunlight and a weakening monsoon, desertification set it. But was that process fast or slow? Is it a case in point for those sounding alarms about â''abrupt climate changeâ''â''change that takes place too fast for humans and ecosystems to adapt?

Research appearing tomorrow (May 9) in Science magazine, with an accompanying commentary by Jonathan A. Holmes of the Environmental Change Research Centre at Londonâ''s University College, finds that the change in fact was gradual. S. Kröpelin of the University of Cologne (Köln) and colleagues studied sediments in Lake Yoa to extract information about pollens, salinity, and dustiness. â''The continuous and well-dated pollen record for this site shows no abrupt change in vegetation in the mid-Holocene,â'' comments Holmes. â''The rise in Lak Yoaâ''s salinity was rapid, but this was almost certainly a response to a local threshold being crossed as the lake changed from hydrologically open to hydrologically closed, rather than to abrupt climatic drying.â''

Last weekâ''s Science (May 2) contained a report by Kiel Universityâ''s Lothar Stramma and colleagues reporting a different kind of desertification. Studying intermediate-depth waters in selected tropical ocean regions, they constructed a 50-year history of oxygen concentrations. What they found was that huge underwater oxygen-starved deserts are rapidly expanding.

In Obama-McCain World, Is Carbon Regulation Inevitable?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain cosponsored the first major U.S. bill to establish a carbon trading system, and the likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama is cosponsoring a lineal descendant of that bill. So itâ''s a foregone conclusion that weâ''ll have legislation next year regulating and cutting carbon emissions, right? Not necessarily, to judge from the degree to which criticism is rising, not just on the political right but on the left as well, of the mainstream approach to reducing climate change risks.

In March this blogger reported on a conference in New York where climate skeptics showed force. Many of them were sponsored by small research organizations of neoliberal complexion (to use the European lingo; in the United States, at least as far as economic theory and policy is concerned, weâ''d say neoclassical). In those circles, the idea of mandating carbon trading is seen as statist and almost communistic.

Ironically, the carbon trading concept has come under considerable attack on the political left as well, to judge from a conference that took place a month later in New York, the Left Forum. Many socialists, it was apparent, viscerally dislike the idea of handing out emissions permits to big corporations that the companies can then trade, possibly for illicit profit. In one session, Karen Charman, the managing editor of a journal called Capitalism, Nature, Socialism argued that the Kyoto Protocolâ''s Clean Development Mechanismâ''the rules that allow emitters in first-world countries to obtain permits to pollute by funding emissions-reduction projects in third-world countriesâ''involves conjuring with imagined futures that corporations can shamelessly manipulate. When it was pointed out to her that her arguments were similar to those offered up by libertarians and climate skeptics, she said, irrefutably, â''That doesnâ''t mean theyâ''re wrong.

For a sampling of left critical opinion about carbon trading, find the December 2007 issue of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, which contains a long scholarly article drawing attention to a huge dump in Durban, South Africa, which local anti-pollution activists sought to close but which now is getting a new lease on life under the CDM, with plans to capture and burn methane to generate electricity. The February 2008 issue of Z Magazine contained an article by Anne Petermann detailing attempts by organizations representing indigenous peoples to get their voices heard at the Bali climate conference last fall: â''Carbon finance mechanisms [like CDM] result in forests being transferred or sold off to large companies who aim to acquire profitable â''carbon creditsâ'' at some point in the future,â'' a petition by the organizations complained.

The Carbon Connection, a short documentary film produced by Fenceline Films in partnership with TNI Environmental Justice Project and Carbon Trade Watch, juxtaposes two communities, one in Scotland, one in tropical Brazil. Though utterly lacking in â''production values,â'' not to mention context, narrative or analysis, the film vividly captures the essence of the left critique. In the Scottish town, a huge BP refinery continues to pollute, in part because it is able to obtain carbon emissions permits by funding reforestation in Brazil. But in a Brazilian community near where forest plantations are being expanded, water is diverted to feed the trees, leaving people who have depended on it for generations high and dry.

Power of Small: Tedious and Largely Irrelevant

I finally stumbled upon the website for â''Power of Small: Nanotechnologyâ'', the PBS program intended to enlighten us about nanotechnologyâ''s promisesâ'¿and threats. Needless to say I wasnâ''t breathlessly looking for it. So after having forewarned of it two months ago, I actually watched some of it.

Based on the early PR, I was expecting a documentary, but instead it follows the Fred Friendly model of a panel discussion. I waded in undeterred, but my interest quickly waned.

By and large based on what I did watch, I agree with David Berube of Nanohype, who clearly has far more patience than me as he watched all the clips.

The clips are organized around three topics of discussion: Privacy, Health and Environment.

For the privacy section, Berube notes, â''There is little distinction about how nanoscience will sufficiently increase the privacy concerns given microchips are already available.â'' Weâ''re in agreement there.

On the health part, the discussion quickly descends into 150-year life spansâ'¿sigh. Again, how you pin this problem of extended life on nanotechnology is unclear as Berube argues â''Then we move to genetic switches that affect aging. We donâ''t need nano to engage in genetic engineering.â'' Exactly.

The third portion on the environment engages mainly in hypotheticals. While Berube finds this section worth watching, he does complain that is based on the counterfactual argument.

To me it just gets all a little silly with continual references to the hypothetical â''Admiral Chickenâ''. But what is disturbing is that a representative of the Mercury News maintains that even if Admiral Chickenâ''s anti-salmonella packaging is approved by the FDA, and the company argues that its properties are proprietary, she would go investigating if she suspected that there were â''nanotechnologyâ'' involved.

Has â''nanotechnologyâ'' become the latest item to uncover in probing investigative journalism? I suppose that the Mercury News wouldnâ''t concern itself if a food manufacturer was using petroleum products in its packaging, but didnâ''t reveal the specifics of how they made the packaging.

As Berube argues this panel format is not the proper way to approach the subject of nanotechnology. What you get is strange hypothetical questions posed by a moderator and getting off-the-top-of-their-head responses from the panelists. Additionally, none of it is edited, so meaningless comments are given the same weight as the important ones.

Someone needs to sit down and try to do this right, not just gather together some panelists in a TV studio for an afternoon and asking some fairly strange questions.

Maker Faire Highlights: My Favorite Robots

If there's one thing you can count on at Maker Faire, it's the presence of robots. They're everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Sure, it was impossible to miss the giant electric giraffe, but size isn't everything.

Take Herbie the Mousebot (a robot kit from Solarbotics) - if you judged just by the number of delighted smiles and giggles coming from children's faces, this had to be the winner. The little robot has a light sensor that it uses to follow around a beam of light from a flashlight. It also has whisker and tail sensors that make it turn around when it hits your foot or starts to go under the couch. Brilliant! It's smart, cute, and simple. Made solely of discrete components, it looked fun both to build and to play with:

As cute as Herbie was, how could he possibly compete with one of the world's most loved androids? That's right, I'm talking about R2-D2. The R2-D2 Builder's Club were also a big hit at the Faire, showing off their handcrafted, chrome-domed creations. In some ways, they're even better than George Lucas's original (for one thing, they don't require a tiny man inside). Check out the video to see the droids in action and find out what makes them tick:

And I always have room for the just plain weird. Voxhead is a robot with a neck, head, and one arm. He sits on a table making bizzare sounds (even after you know that he's supposed to be singing Radiohead's "Creep," it still takes a lot of imagination). While it's easy to just slap a speaker on a robot to make it talk, Voxhead sings the hard way, by replicating the human vocal cavity (complete with artificial tongue). Its creator, Mike Brady, wants to use Voxhead to probe the ways we learn to communicate - the robot itself learns by listening to its own attempts to mimic sound and trying to improve. Voxhead's the android equivalent of a babbling baby. Take a listen yourself:

Maker Faire Highlights: What's Old is New Again

Maybe it's due to the rapid pace of technological development, but for some reason, nothing seems to bring a smile to a geek's face quite like antiquated electronics. If you have a soft spot for such relics, Maker Faire was a good place to be. Faire-goers constantly stopped by our booth to marvel at Keith Bayern's transistor clock, the winner of IEEE Spectrum's digital clock contest. Completely devoid of integrated circuits, Bayern's clock uses nearly 200 transistors and took him nearly two years to design and build. The finished product, in addition to keeping time, is a beautiful piece of technological art. (If you're interested in building one of your own, Bayern sells kits at http://www.transistor-clock.com) Keith explains his project below:

Like one of our runner-up clocks in the contest, nixie tubes are also a popular blast from the past. In Eric Schlaepfer's booth, he had a variety of clocks utilizing both nixie and cathode ray tubes. He also showed off his collection of vintage oscillograph machines. Check out the old-school paper capacitors:

Linking Nanotechnology to Every Fear about Technology and Science

Just about every bad thing that has happened over the last century in terms of a technology being introduced to society is now linked to nanotechnology.

The common culprits that nanotechnology is typically linked to are:

Asbestos

Genetically modified crops

Technology stripping us of our privacy

The last item always has me scratching my head see here and here and the latest discussion of the subject by Dr. Paula Hammond of MITâ''s Institute for Soldiers Technology did not enlighten me any further.

Hammond discusses how by combining nanotechnology in the shape of smart materials with smart information systems the safety of soldiers in the battlefield can be improved. She specifically cites how at her lab they are working on thin film technology that will be able to detect a poisonous gas and then be able to change the permeability of the uniform the soldier is wearing to make it impossible for the gas to go through the material.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, she raises the specter of this technology getting into the wrong hands leading to questions of how this technology can minutely detect every move we make and by doing so compromise our privacy.

Hold on a minute. First off, all this privacy everyone is clamoring about was long gone before nanotechnology came along. The combination of information technology and basic telecommunication technology, along with a video camera at every street corner in cities like London dismissed any sense of privacy we used to have.

But letâ''s pretend that we still have some expectation of privacy and nanotechnology is about to threaten it. Say a nanoscale sensing device was placed into every piece of published material (highly unlikely given the cost, but for arguments sake letâ''s say it will happen). And this sensor was somehow able to detect who you were (another pretty tough one to do, but letâ''s just say it could) and reported back to some databank on all the material you were reading and for how long. Pretty spectacularâ'¿oh yes, and frightening too, of course.

But how is this much different from what is already possible by just basic information technology and buying your reading material with a credit card instead of cash?

If people want to start railing against how we have lost our privacy due to technology, fine, let me join you. But making nanotechnology another culprit because of capabilities that it does not yet possess, and when most guarantees of that privacy have long since vanished due to other technologies, seems a bit like flogging a dead horse, or in this case a phantom horse.

Cheap wine, and lilacs in the springtime - where's Google when you need it?

Can a $10 bottle of champagne be better than a $150 bottle of Dom Pérignon?

Itâ''s easy to say why one car is better than another; itâ''s not so easy with books or movies. Thatâ''s one reason we value the recommendations made by Amazon and Netflix. Now what about wine preferences? Is there anything harder to articulate?

An article in todayâ''s New York Times considers a study that had â''500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle. The results are described in a new book, The Wine Trials, to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media.â''

The book wraps the results in a discussion of marketing manipulations and statistical validity, but a brief article in the April 7 issue of Newsweek magazine, naturally, seized on the bookâ''s populist triumphs: a $10 bottle of bubbly from Washington state outscored Dom Pérignon, which sells for $150 a bottle, while Two-Buck Chuck, the cheap Charles Shaw California cabernet sauvignon, topped a $55 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet.

The Newsweek article notes that â''100 wines under $15 consistently outperformed their upscale cousins.â'' But that says less about wine than about Newsweekâ''s notion of what it is for one wine to â''outperformâ'' another. As the Times notes,

Two caveats are in order here. First, it turns out that the results of the tastings are more nuanced than the Newsweek article let on. In fact, the book shows that what appeals to novice wine drinkers is significantly different from what appeals to wine experts, which the book defines as those who have had some sort of training or professional experience with wine. The experts, by the way, preferred the Dom Pérignon.

In other words, when it comes to wine, some people not only tolerate mediocre wine, they prefer it. I remember when I first learned that lesson, because it was the occasion of meeting the woman who would become my wife. No, my wife doesnâ''t prefer mediocre wine, but her friends, S and K, who introduced us, do.

That morning, I had picked something nice at the wine shop and, not knowing how many other people might be there, bought two lesser wines as well. I opened up the vintage bottle first, and both S and the mutual friend didnâ''t think much of it at all. I opened one of the others, which they liked a lot better. So I quietly sipped the $26 Lytton Springs cabernet, while S and K eagerly imbibed, if I remember correctly, a $6 bottle of Bogle merlot.

Thereâ''s nothing wrong with enjoying cheap wine (my retirement fund would look a little better if I did), and the main lesson here is that if you want guidance from the opinions of others, youâ''d be well-advised to find people who have the same tastes as you. Thatâ''s what makes recommendation systems, like those at Amazon and Netflix, so powerful. They not only collect the opinions of others, they filter out those of people like S, who donâ''t share our preferences.

We all have friends who have the same tastes as ourselves in movies or books or wine, and we treasure them, because they provide something hard to findâ''reliable guidance when it comes to unfamiliar things that we hope to enjoy. Whatâ''s important is the recommendations they make, not the friendship, and recommendation systems institutionalize that and give us access to total strangers who can serve us in the same way.

As our social networks evolve, weâ''re going to get more and more recommendations, and, frankly, we canâ''t have enough of them. Though my wife and I agree, by and large, on wine, we donâ''t on some other things, such the best driving route between any two locations. She avoids the Interstate, will patiently sit at busy intersections, and has been known to drive 10 miles out of the way to see her favorite lilac bushes in bloom.

Already, Google offers recommendations of news articles based on the likes and dislikes of readers it thinks have the same interests we have. Someday, Google Maps will give, in addition to a â''bestâ'' route, routes recommended by people who, like ourselves, prefer highways to county roads, or go out of their way to avoid left turns, or or detour over to the state park in the springtime. In driving, as in movies and wine, thereâ''s no accounting for taste. Except now there is.

Maker Faire Highlights: Making Music the Hard Way

I just got back from Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, a two-day event where hackers, modders, makers, and inventors (I could go on) converged to show off their homemade projects. Inside the main expo hall, DIY synthesizers filled the air with sound - all sorts of blips, bleeps, and buzzes. But of all the musical projects, there were two that really caught my eye (and ear).

The Guitar Zeros are just what they sound like: a real band with zero guitars. Instead, they play using modified controllers from the video game Guitar Hero. The game itself is beyond popular (it raked in more than a billion dollars in sales last year) with wannabe rockstars (like me and my roommates) frantically mashing fret-buttons in living rooms and bars around the country. But tapping along to scrolling dots is different than actually creating music in a band.

The Guitar Zeros are not exactly the first to modify a toy guitar- check out Gizmodo's gallery of "circuit bending" videos- but they manage to turn the plastic axes into usable instruments that can create listenable music. Check out the video below for some of their performance and explanation of how the system works.

My other favorite musical-mod was Andrew Turley's MIDI microfiche reader. It's a great example of a simple but unique idea. Turley uses a photodiode to map dark and light areas of a microfiche to high and low notes. He even added some additional controls allow him to select the key and range of the device. Check it out:

Green Car Designers Ditch Big Companies for Startups

Not only are there a lot of startup companies developing and building innovative fuel-efficient vehicles, but top designers and engineers are leaving the big auto companies to manage those efforts. Thatâ''s the main message of an article about new green car companies, appearing in the The Wall Street Journal today, May 6.

Among those who have left the mainstream for the vehicular counter-culture: Henrik Fisker, a former design director at Ford, who now heads a California company, Fisker Automotive, which is developing a plug-in hybrid sports car; Gordon Murray, former technical director at McLaren, has a new company, Gordon Murray Design, which is using skills honed on racing and sports cars to make a new little city car. Murat Guenak, former head of design for Volkswagen, has joined Mindset AG in Swizterland, to work on hybrids.

Speaking of hybrids, a Journal article that appeared last Friday discusses the problems electric utilities face if plug-in hybrids really take off. Basically executives are brooding about whether owners will charge their cars at night, when electricity is cheap and plentiful, or whether it will be during the day. Smart metering will help, which puts California ahead of this game. The stateâ''s three big electricity distributors expect virtually all customers to have meters within a few years that will enable them, in effect, to tell their suppliers when theyâ''re using electricity and what theyâ''re using it for. San Diego Power & Light already has set up a rate plan that enables customers to charge their cars at half the daytime electricity price.

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